Making Running Alright

This spring I got bored of training. When I first started going to the gym, I’d decided on some particular bodyweight-related amounts that I wanted to be able to deadlift, squat and bench press. Reaching those milestones felt fantastic and I’d assumed that I’d then just try to maintain that level of strength for the rest of my life and that would be that. The problem is that even maintenance of strength takes quite a bit of time, and I noticed myself feeling less interested in doing this because it all felt a bit vague and incomprehensible. I had a sort of existential crisis of, “oh, well this is it now FOREVER”. I know that resistance training is good for me and worth making a life-long habit of but I wasn’t finding it very exciting anymore.

I went to France for a week and a half and, with a bit of distance from my routine, tried to think about what I wanted to be training for, besides the benefits to my health. How do I enjoy moving? What do I want my body to be? I realised that I wanted a feeling of sort of “super-competence” – to be able to do all sorts of things without much fuss or injury. My urban life requires very little physical activity and I think that makes me feel useless sometimes – like I’m bad at being an animal, or something like that. I can lift heavy-ish things okay nowadays but a glaring gap in my competence is my ability to run far. Of course this is silly – realistically, if I want to get somewhere I can probably always cycle or use public transport or drive, and getting into doomery “but what if… zombie apocalypse” thoughts (which I actually love) is not very helpful – but that feeling of wanting to be competent was motivating enough for me to want to change this.

I have never enjoyed running. At school Sports Days I used to spend races watching my shadow rather than concentrating on where I was going. As an adult, it always felt like I was falling down a flight of stairs. More recently though, I’ve actually started to enjoy it. So I wanted to write a post about some of the things I’ve done to make my running more bearable. Yes dear reader, it’s a listicle.

  1. Getting stronger. Since deadlifting and squatting more, I notice that my hips and knees feel more stable and I’m less likely to adopt a hunched over position while running. I feel more “springy” and I’m definitely faster. It’s generally accepted now that it’s a good idea to mix running with strength training to improve performance and prevent injuries, from novices to elite athletes.
  2. Running slower. I got a heart rate monitor and found out that the running pace I would usually adopt was putting my heart rate pretty high. I would get out of breath and this would cause me to tire more quickly and feel rubbish. Putting these runs in between days of weights training with constantly heavy weights (also not necessarily the best approach to that either) meant I’d feel burnt out very quickly, both when I was running and in the gym. I set my watch to tell me when I got out of 60-80% of my maximum heart rate. Initially, this meant I’d go too fast and then have to walk to recover, but eventually I found a pace that was sustainable. The first time I did this I ran for an hour non-stop, which felt unimaginable before. You can read a guide for using heart rate zones here (there are problems with heart rate training – be adaptable and go by feel too). If you don’t want to get into heart rate faff, just run at a pace where you could hold a conversation. Running slowly on its own isn’t the best approach to running training, but it should form the bulk of what you’re doing, especially if you’re balancing it with weight training.
  3. Running in nicer environments. I live in glorious Easton. It’s a beautiful place but this beauty is hidden deep deep deep down underneath a lot of overflowing communal bins and fly-tipped white goods… There really isn’t anywhere nice to run if I just set off from my doorstep, and I’m bored of most of the routes from there anyway. It feels sad and excessive but I started cycling and driving to other places in order to run. Inspired by Christopher Bloor’s books, I made a spreadsheet of nearby walking routes and sorted them by distance. I set myself the challenge of trying to run these routes as a way of getting to know Bristol a bit better. Running in places that are less urban feels so much better, I’m learning about where I live, the terrain is more varied, and there are less people looking at you too.
  4. Wearing what I want. I don’t like the way “running clothes” look, and that used to be just another obstacle between me and getting on with it, so I gave up on wearing fancy “wicking” (?!) fabrics with reflective bits and gel holders and just wore my favourite t-shirts. I still wear ridiculous shorts but that’s because I find them more comfortable and they’re black so, you know, at least they’re black. Maybe it sounds vain but if I am going to look like a tomato anyway, I might as well be a tomato in a cool band t-shirt. The downside to this is that wearing cotton means you end up smelling like a bog-man.
  5. Not competing. A lot of the most accessible information about running is about running faster, and encourages running against each other, rather than with one another. I am not a member of a running club but it definitely seems like some have cultures of competition and others (like the Hash House Harriers, or Town and Country Harriers) are more about finding a group of friends to run with.
  6. Maybe competing. At the same time, enjoying running more has made me feel more positive about the idea of testing my speed and competence with other runners. I am not driven by winning, but running in groups does seem to make me try harder and run faster for longer. Of course, the result doesn’t matter, but there is a particular experience in sometimes being so exhausted afterwards – you’ve really done something, and that feeling is quite rare in my not-very-physical life.
  7. Running at weird times. In the past, a day with a run in it would look like this – I’d wake up early and put my running gear on, congratulate myself and think “oh, I’ll just quickly check my e-mails before I go”, get into an internet k-hole and eventually emerge on the doorstep hours later, blinking in the midday sun, full of regret and no breakfast, feeling rushed and, in the summer, boiling hot. Nowadays I just don’t trust my brain. I try to run with other people so that I have a bit of accountability about setting off on time. I’ve actually ended up getting up earlier as I realised I love running through the city as everyone’s going to work. I also realised I love running at dusk – basically any time that the sun is low and there are less people around. This is time that’s easy to waste, so it feels good to be doing something with it.
  8. Varying what I listen to. I suppose I wish I was someone who could be content with just running, alone with their thoughts. There is some back-to-nature appeal to this in the same way that there is about running barefoot, or running full-stop, but I often find I just get bored. Sometimes I want to listen to the birds but it seems like mostly I’d rather listen to Noothgrush. Rather than try to force myself, I thought it better to go with whatever approach means I run more, since that’s what I’m trying to do. Sometimes that involves listening to nothing or chatting with a friend, but for longer runs on my own I’d often rather get lost in an album or an audiobook, and I reckon that’s fine.
  9. Eating more carbs. I’ve been doing a bit of fiddling about with what I eat recently. There’s a bit of a trend of low carb-high fat chat in certain fitness circles and I thought I’d try adjusting my diet to give this a go. On this diet, I found running more than 20 minutes to be a real chore. Even if I did do it, it wasn’t enjoyable. Once I switched back to eating more carbohydrates, I tried a 45 minute run and ended up going for 60 because I was enjoying it (?!). Obviously every body is different and everyone metabolises things differently but for most people, unless you’re doing very long distances at a very low pace, it seems like carbs just work better.
  10. Hearing runners talk about running. I have a friend on Facebook who is very into running. Once after a Parkrun we were chatting and she casually invited me to do the Guernsey ultra-marathon next year. Having struggled through the 5K we’d just completed, I politely declined the hilly 36-miles, but I did find it massively inspiring to hear the way she spoke about it, and to feel like someone could consider me even worthy of invitation. But that’s what’s so amazing – she’s only been running for four years and now seems to be running a marathon pretty much every other weekend, and that’s not even all she does! I assumed that being able to run that far would require massive commitment at the expense of everything else, but she also writes books and puts on rad comedy events and just generally smashes it. In a Facebook message she told me, “I don’t like running where it’s busy, so long runs mean I can go further away and escape all the idiots. My whole life is spent trying to get as far away from idiots as possible.” Hearing other people talk about their reasons for running inspired me with my own running. I read ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running‘, ‘Feet in the Clouds‘ and, of course, ‘Born to Run‘, and each gave me a different perspective on this fundamental activity. I read geology textbooks and psychogeographical books like ‘A Land‘, ‘The Peregrine‘, and pretty much everything else that the omnipotent Robert MacFarlane has written the foreword to, and that got me more excited about being in places. It all combined to make running a richer experience.

I suppose that the common theme between these points is of finding your own relationship with running, and this is true of things other than running too, of course. In the past I made the mistake of trying to adhere to one-size-fits-all running programmes I’d find online or in books, and try to progress in ways that weren’t necessarily best for me. These plans focus on achieving particular outcomes rather than enjoying the process itself, and this often led to burnout or injury.

The problem is that so many things affect the run – what you’ve been eating, how much you’ve been sleeping, your relationship with the people you love, your work, the time of day, the time of year, what you’re wearing, what you’re listening to, what happened yesterday, what’s happening later, if you’re alone or with friends, if the route is new or familiar, busy or quiet, beautiful or not… The same route at the same pace can feel completely different from day to day, and all of this affects your relationship with running, which must remain the priority if we want to carry on doing it. The ideas above have helped me with this, and I hope they can be useful to you too.