Back to nature: a modest proposal for a runners’ revolution

Recreational running is booming, and a huge industry is booming with it. But have the sport’s simple joys been lost in the race to make money? Richard Askwith challenges the tyranny of Big Running

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Indy Lifestyle Online

I’ll start by coming clean: I’m a sporting deviant. You might not suspect it, not if I told you merely that my favoured way of starting each day is with a vigorous run. At least 2 million other Britons share the label of recreational runner. Nothing strange about that.

But somewhere in the course of three decades bearing that label, I seem to have drifted away from my sport’s orthodoxies. For example...

When I go for a run, I don’t use hi-tech equipment. I don’t have a heart-rate monitor or a sat nav; I don’t upload the data of each workout via a smartband or other digital device; I don’t even wear a watch – or, for that matter, headphones. My clothes are just ordinary sports clothes, threadbare from endless washing. I don’t dress in injury-reducing compression-wear, or heat-sensitive fabrics, or muscle-supporting underwear, or purpose-made runners’ socks, sunglasses or headband. I don’t consume special sports drinks, unless I’m actually competing in an ultra-distance race; I don’t fuel myself with runners’ energy gels; and I don’t wash with special runners’ soap.

Oh yes, and I don’t wear trainers, let alone state-of-the-art techno-trainers with motion-control, forefoot cushioning, stability cradles and ex-Nasa shock absorption. A pair of those flimsy, five-toed Vibram foot-gloves – barely distinguishable from running barefoot – gives me all the comfort I need, and lets me enjoy the feel of the ground beneath. Talking of which, wherever possible I avoid smooth, hard surfaces (tarmac, pavement, man-made paths), preferring instead to take my chances with mud, puddles, roots, nettles, thistles, fences and livestock in my local fields.

Strangest of all, I enjoy it. In fact, I can’t remember the last time a month went by when I didn’t think: this is my favourite time of year.

I hardly need to spell out the many ways in which my habits offend against modern norms. They are, obviously, an affront to health and safety. They’re also an outrage against decent standards of personal hygiene (all that mud!) and comfort. What normal approach to sport leaves you with such cold feet at the end of each winter session that the only sensible way to clean up afterwards is under a cold shower?

Above all, they are an offence against the running industry, a retail sector currently in breathtakingly good health. You’ve probably noticed. Up and down Britain, in allegedly moribund high streets, specialist running stores keep sprouting, new and vigorous: Sweatshop, Runners Need, Up & Running – it’s hard to miss the branding.

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'There is no more need for a running industry than there is for a tree-climbing industry or a hide-and-seek industry' (Alamy)

They’re just the visible showcases. The products they and others sell are everywhere, in shops, online, on billboards, in glossy magazine ads: running shoes, running clothes, running books, running DVDs, specialist running kit, medications, drinks and foods. If you thought running was just a question of going outside and putting one foot in front of another, you are, like me, out of step. Big Running preaches another gospel, as simple as it is profitable: as a runner, you are what you spend.

Estimates and definitions vary, but a low-end calculation puts the 2012 value of the UK running market at £425m at retail alone. That’s just the physical stuff you buy. There’s also a vast invisible running economy. Think of the bright young things who work for bodies such as UK Athletics. Think of the gym workers and personal trainers; the go-getters who organise for-profit races; the people who sell race  T-shirts and race goodie bags; the people who put on running festivals and running holidays; the therapists who treat running-related injuries; the sponsorship brokers and superstar agents; the corporate ladder-climbers at the running-shoe multinationals.

It’s hard to put precise figures on it. How many of the 26,000 people who work in the British gym industry, for instance, should be counted as part of the running economy? But it’s clear that, even without its increasingly well-paid televised elite, running adds up to a big, big business. Globally, according to a 2013 report by Bloomberg, the running industry is worth nearly twice as much as the football industry; the consultants NPD Inc value the retail part of it at £16.5bn a year – and say that running is “definitely” the world’s fastest growing sports business. It’s a long-term boom, too. In the past 20 years, the running market has grown by 500 per cent.

It’s easy to see why. There are more runners: membership of running clubs in England alone has increased by 25 per cent in the past five years. More importantly, there are more products. Running shops and specialist running kit barely existed before the 1970s, when Bill Bowerman, founder of Nike, simultaneously launched a concept  – jogging – and a product – thick-heeled running-shoes – without which the jogger’s heel-striking action was prohibitively uncomfortable. Since then, barely a year has passed without a new, allegedly indispensable hi-tech product being launched (including innumerable products whose raison-d’être is to cure the injuries that the previous generation of hi-tech products mysteriously failed to prevent). None comes cheaply, and with each passing year the threshold of what it seems reasonable to ask an ordinary recreational runner to pay shifts subtly upwards. Of course the industry is booming.

Yet the boom is also perplexing – because how, when you think about it, can running be an industry at all? Can you think of any other human activity, apart from eating, drinking, sex and defecating, that is so utterly natural as running? It’s as simple, spontaneous and life-enhancing as singing. We’ve been doing it for tens of thousands of years, for necessity (hunting, fleeing, etc.) and, over countless generations, for pleasure. A child doesn’t need special training or equipment to discover the joy of running for fun, any more than a dog or a horse does. There’s no more need for a running industry than there is for a tree-climbing industry or a hide-and-seek industry.

The fact that we none the less have one tells us much about the forces that shape modern life. First, persuade people of a hitherto unnoticed need; then sell them a product that meets that need; and then, inexorably, keep cranking up the level of need and the price they must pay to have it met. Apple does it with its endlessly evolving iPhones and operating systems. Big Running does it by plundering the technologies of the Olympic elite and then persuading ordinary runners that they’d be fools to run without them. The fact that these hi-tech, high-price-tag products would have been unimaginable and unaffordable for most runners in history is irrelevant; as is the fact that, for all but the tiniest handful of us, the “marginal gains” they confer are irrelevant (since it makes not the blindest difference if our personal best for 10k is or isn’t a hundredth of a second faster). To quote from the blurb of one leading manufacturer: “As they put on their technologically advanced garments, athletes also put on a desire to perform beyond expectation and be greater than ever before…” In other words, buying this stuff makes us feel better.

Meanwhile, the kind of running I do – back to basics and close to nature – has almost died out. It hasn’t become any harder. Given the state of most people’s finances, it should be a more attractive approach than ever. Yet when I try to convey to my fellow runners the appeal of “natural” running, first reactions usually range from amused scepticism to mild alarm – as if I were some kind of crazed fitness survivalist. I tell them about the texture of my daily excursions in rural Northamptonshire, which on recent mornings have included wading through flooded meadows, leaping fallen trees, splashing through so much mud that I might as well have been playing rugby, squeezing through barbed wire and spiky hawthorn to avoid frightening some newborn lambs – and wondering at enough natural beauty to fill several volumes of poetry.

If my listeners haven’t edged away, I go on to enthuse about my preferred kinds of organised running challenge: not mass-participation road-races with £50 entry fees but obscure, uncommercial landscape-based events such as cheese-rolling, man-hunting (with or without hounds), ploughed-field-racing, and the kind of rough cross-country races, over moor or mountain, whose distances are given to the nearest mile – since no two people will take the same route.

Expensive running technology is irrelevant in such activities – it’s what you’re made of that counts, not what you’ve bought. Yet for many runners this very lack of expenditure seems to create anxiety. Never mind if those ever-more-sophisticated products give us anything worth having. Never mind if we can afford them or not. Buying products is what normal runners do – it says so in the advertisements.

This isn’t just a running issue; it’s true of many of life’s basic pleasures (food, holidays, music, clothing). It’s still theoretically possible to enjoy them without spending a fortune on equipment, ingredients, packaging and extras, but the 21st century’s agencies of persuasion encourage us to consider it weird to do so. Hence all those modern children who believe that a packaged sandwich is more desirable than a home-made one. It is, I suppose, a rational response to a lifetime of being carpet-bombed by advertising. The bought things in life are better – more desirable, more trustworthy, perhaps even more real – than those that you improvise for yourself.

Indeed, that may, sadly, turn out to have been the most enduring legacy of London 2012. Long after the athletes and volunteers and others who created the magic had gone home, the sponsors were still booming out the same deafening message from the billboards: if you want to amount to anything in your chosen sport – or, by implication, in life generally – then, obviously, you’ll need to buy the same state-of-the-art clothing, equipment, nutritional aid, shampoo or even junk food that your particular Olympic hero or heroine has been paid to endorse.

 The strange thing is, the more we spend on running, the less fit and more fat we collectively become. In the past 20 years (when, remember, expenditure on running has increased fivefold), the incidence of obesity in the UK has doubled.

Or perhaps it isn’t so strange. If even the simplest kind of outdoor exercise has been converted into a form of consumption, is it really surprising if those without money to burn opt to remain on the sofa? On the contrary: being a couch potato is the logical response.

“They took all the trees,” sang Joni Mitchell, “and put ’em in a tree museum,/ And charged the people a dollar-and-a-half just to see ’em.” It’s much the same with running, except that it will cost you a lot more than a dollar-and-a-half to get yourself kitted out as a proper modern runner; and more still to start running in the way that politicians and health professionals generally recommend – that is, on a treadmill in a members-only gym.

The joy of my outdoor, lo-tech alternative is not just that it costs nothing. It’s also free in another sense. The expensively packaged version of our sport that Big Running sells us herds us into a few easily managed channels: mass-participation road-running; marathons; gyms; the kind of running in which times and results are all that matter. Nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you really want; but there are other kinds of running, too.

“Running Free”, as I call it, is the kind of running that often involves getting wet, muddy or lost; the kind of running where you’ll be more concerned with the rhythms of the agricultural year and the ways of wild and domesticated animals than you will be with split times and recovery rates; the kind where you look outwards rather than in. You won’t need a stopwatch for it, or a heart-rate monitor, or any other special equipment (or, for that matter, skills), just a sense of wonder and a resolution to live in the moment, as nature intended. I think of it as Running Outside The Box (the box in my mind’s eye being one of those big shiny ones that expensive new trainers come in).

I can’t vouch for its likely effect on your fitness goals. But if it brings you joy it’s unlikely to reduce your enthusiasm for running; and that, in turn, is unlikely to make you slower.

The real point, though, is liberation. Runners are born free, and everywhere they run in chains – or, if you prefer, in chain stores. As spring approaches, what do we have to lose by breaking out and going back to nature?

Adapted from “Running Free: A Runner’s Journey Back to Nature”, by Richard Askwith (published on 6 March by Yellow Jersey, £16.99). To buy the book for £12.99 free P&P, call 08430 600030 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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