Running is something I’ve picked up and put down on and off since I was about 18, but I’ve never really stuck at it for long enough to see much improvement.
However, when I got made redundant in July last year, I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands and so I took it up again. And now, in September 2020, I’ve managed to keep it up for over a year, running 2-3 times a week every week since that first day of redundancy.
Before now, I’d never kept at it for longer than six months or so, usually because winter came around and it got too cold or summer came along and it got too hot or I got a job and wasn’t prepared to get up at 5am in order to fit a run in before work. However, a mixture of redundancy followed quickly by a pandemic has meant that this time round, it’s stuck.
I don’t know if I’ll stick at it for another year or even another six months, but what I do know is what I’ve learnt from a solid year of running. And I know how daunting a prospect running can be for the uninitiated, so I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learnt from the past year.
1. Progress is different for everyone
This has probably been my hardest but most important lesson to learn. I got back up to being able to run 5K within a couple months, and a couple months after that it was faster 5Ks and even a couple miraculous 7Ks that came out of nowhere. But beyond that, I can’t really say I’ve progressed all that much. My standard run is still between 3.5-5K depending on how I feel (and how much time I have) and my pace is pretty much the same as it was 6-8 months ago.
I beat myself up about this fact for ages and I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t progressing. Now, I’m no professional nor have I actually bothered to seek professional help beyond Google, so maybe there is something fundamental I’m doing wrong, but as far as I can see, if I want to actually enjoy my runs, I need to put the idea of achieving a PB every single time out of my head.
2. A lot of it is in your head
Sometimes there will be a physical reason as to why you’re not running at your best, such as an injury or your current level of health or fitness, but a lot of the time it’s in your head. For example, I went through a phase recently of fixating on how heavy my legs felt while running. It was just a thought that popped into my head once and then all of a sudden my legs felt ‘heavy’ every time I ran - spoiler: it was all in my head.
Another thing that would get in my head, or perhaps more correctly my ear, is my tracker app. Some people love trackers, others hate them. I like to see my stats at the end of a run and I used to think I liked having a voice in my ear notifying me each time I’d completed another kilometre, but one day I decided to turn her off and all of a sudden I enjoyed running again. I realised that, because my pace was not getting any better (if anything I was in a bit of a funk and getting slower), having some tinny American lady in my ear telling me how slow the previous kilometre was was seriously harshing my buzz. As soon as I shut her up and focussed more on how I felt, I started to improve.
3. If you injure yourself, rest
And let’s say it louder again for the people in the back: IF YOU INJURE YOURSELF, REST. We’ve all been guilty of it, but running on a pulled muscle is never going to help it heal. Yes, you might regress a bit by not running for a couple weeks, but the thought of avoiding a long-term injury should be enough to keep you off the pavements for a bit.
4. Everything’s an excuse if you let it be
It’s too hot. It’s too cold. It looks like it might rain. My favourite leggings are in the wash. My headphones are out of charge. I didn’t sleep well. I slept too well. Everything can be an excuse if you let it. Don’t beat yourself up if you give in to the excuse-making monster once in a while, but do try to listen to that tiny voice behind it saying, ‘but won’t it be good for you?’
It’s a cliché, but this really does work: tell yourself you’ll only do a short run around the block and chances are once you’re out you’ll end up going for longer. And if not, then you take pride in the fact that one lap around the block is better than zero laps around the block.
5. Mixing things up can do wonders for your performance
Pounding the same old route every time can get boring and therefore affect your performance, so try to find a variety of routes to keep you interested. The same goes for headphones - sometimes I run with them in and sometimes I don’t. The difference of listening to the birds versus listening to Lizzo versus listening to a podcast is enough to keep my runs from getting too samey.
6. Every run will not be better than the last
While it’s nice to see improvement - and pretty much the only way to do that is to compare yourself to your previous runs - it is most definitely not a hard and fast rule that every run is going to be better, faster and longer than the last. Due to so many factors (weather, mood, time of day, how well-rested you are, what you’ve eaten, your mental headspace, where you are in your cycle if you have periods), the circumstances of each run are fairly unique, meaning sometimes you will have terrible runs and you won’t always know why. It can be frustrating so it’s better to look at the bigger picture - if you want to compare, compare yourself to 3 or 6 months ago.
I now know that I run best on sunny but brisk days, first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, having only drunk a few sips of water and having fully stretched my calves. Only after a year of running have I managed to nail down these specifics and as you can see, some of those factors are completely out of my control. On the other hand, sometimes those things don’t align and I have a miraculously spectacular run and have no clue why. Running, it’s fickle like that.
But also, going faster or further is not the only way to measure a run. No one ever stuck at running because they didn’t enjoy it, so I think one of the best ways you can measure a run is how much pleasure you got from it - and the key to that is different for everyone. Find that sweet spot and the rest may just follow.