How you can learn to love running
Burning lungs, short breath and humiliation – jogging used to be hell for Lycra-phobic Alice-Azania Jarvis. Now she's doing the London marathon. What's her secret?
Tuesday 13 April 2010
At this exact moment I can't say I'm especially enamoured of running. I've just completed my training for the London Marathon and, to be honest, my feet could do with a rest. That, however, will pass: in truth, I'm far from fed-up with running. Once the daunting 26-mile track is out the way, and I've taken a week off to rest, I know I'll be keen to be back in my leggings and pounding the pavements.
It wasn't ever thus. Once upon a time, you would be hard-pressed to find an activity I disliked with greater intensity than running. I'd been forced to do cross-country at school and, in times of drastic weight penitence, had dabbled with the 20-minute loop around the local park. Running to me meant burning lungs, short breath and humiliation at the hands of my feeble stamina. Even worse, running meant Runners: evangelical, lycra-loving, outdoorsy types. Give me the calm calorie consumption of the gym any day.
Circumstances changed my mind when, on moving flats, I no longer lived around the corner from my local gym. So – about a year and a half ago – I took myself out for my first jog, motivated purely by vanity. It was horrible, of course:I made all the predictable mistakes. I tried to run too far and – worse – too fast. I got a stitch in minutes, and eventually gave up, weighed down by my heavy hoodie and tripped up my flimsy plimsolls. Things didn't get much better (in fact, as my motivation waned they got far worse). Until, that is, I signed up for the London Marathon.
Goodness knows why: it sounded like my idea of hell. But for some reason I did. I signed up, and – more binding still – I promised Save The Rhino that I'd raise a couple of thousand pounds. So I had to start running – and my goodness, I'm glad.
Once I'd learned a few training basics, it wasn't long before I began to love running. Really love it. Love it so much that I now use it as a means of transport to and from work, and get antsy if I don't get in a satisfactory number of jogs per week.
And now, here I am: 12 months on, a dedicated running enthusiast about to spend five hours hauling myself around London for fun (and fund-raising). What's more, I've yet to develop an unhealthy interest in lycra. In fact, the only one of those dreaded runners' traits I've developed is a slight evangelicalism. Because learning to love running is really not hard. It's actually very easy indeed.
1. GET THE RIGHT MINDSET
Before anything - before the fancy gear, thought-out schedule and correctly stocked fridge – becoming a "runner" is about mental commitment. When your fitness levels are zero, those first few miles aren't going to be enormously enjoyable, but if you stick with them for a couple of weeks, they soon will be. Finding the motivation to do so is key. If you think self-discipline could be a problem it doesn't hurt to sign up to a race. There are plenty of relaxed, middle-distance events on all year round, and having the commitment involved in registering can be a helpful spur to start training.
Even better than signing up for a race is signing up for a sponsored one. Getting involved in a charity doubles the feel-good factor of running, and introduces a new element of commitment.
Laura Adams is co-ordinating this year's London Marathon team for Save The Rhino International, and has witnessed countless novices become regular runners after getting involved with the cause. "Running for charity is a great incentive to keep up with a busy training schedule. It gives runners an opportunity to give something back, to a cause they really believe in, and we certainly appreciate the dedication and commitment of all the runners taking part."
The most important factor of all, though, is avoiding making it a chore. If you're not feeling well, or you're tired, you won't enjoy your run. So don't force yourself when you aren't feeling up to it. Try and find a way to think of running as a pleasure rather than a pain. If you see running as a chance to relax and spend time with yourself, focus on that. If you run with a friend, try thinking of your jog as a social occasion.
2. TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY
For runners, whether they are just starting out or have been pounding out an annual marathon for years, their body is their key instrument. Looking after it is crucial. It can be tempting, as a novice runner, to attempt too much too soon; if you don't achieve want you hope, it can be very dispiriting.
Christina Neal, editor in chief of Women's Running magazine, recommends short runs, of only a few miles, three to four times a week.
"Sessions of 20 minutes each time are better than longer sessions once or twice a week," she reasons. "The 'small and often' approach will boost your stamina gradually. It doesn't matter if you jog slowly, or even if you have to mix walking with jogging. As soon as you start feeling better, your motivation will improve and you'll soon become hooked."
Just as important is that ensuring your body is properly fuelled. "If you don't have energy, you won't run effectively," explains John Brewer, professor of sport at the University of Bedfordshire (and 12-time London Marathon entrant). "Carbohydrates should become the main part of the diet. Even beginners, who won't be doing the same mileage, will use carbohydrate as their main fuel. Doing an Atkins-style diet and running is a big no-no. If you are running to lose weight, you can still do it by shifting away from fats."
Ensuring you are well hydrated is also key – and, while not entirely necessary, many runners swear by the benefits of their specially designed sports drinks. "The reputable commercial products all contain electrolytes, carbs and fluids for maximum hydration," says Professor Brewer. "But if you are doing a race, stick to what you know, whether that's water or Lucozade sport, and don't try anything new."
Finally, several key elements of good athletic practice are essential, even for beginners. Recent studies have called into question the importance of warming up and stretching pre-run; but while your pre-run ritual may not be entirely crucial your post-run one is. Stretching after running means you won't spend the rest of the week aching, and reduces the risk of injury (there are few things more discouraging than having to take weeks off when you've only just started).
3. AVOID BOREDOM
One of the most often heard reasons for a reluctance to start running is boredom. Understandably so, as pounding the pavements with nothing to occupy your thoughts is boring – but it is also something that is easily avoidable. Running with friends is one way to solve the problem, though it's not for everyone. Carrying a well-stocked MP3 player is another; given the pace of day-to-day working life, the opportunity to spend half an hour listening to a new album or an unheard audiobook is not unappealing.
Even without these options, with a bit of persistence, your brain will train itself to overcome the boredom conundrum; many a dedicated runner looks on his or her regular jog as a chance to quietly meditate. Just as helpful is ensuring you have sufficient scenic variety. Running doesn't have to be limited to the local park, it can be a great way to get to know a new neighbourhood, to survey shop windows, or discover new outdoor treasures lurking a few miles away.
And it's important not to forget the role of the gym. As national fitness manager for Virgin Active, Nick Hudson frequently comes across runners working on their fitness using the gym's machines: "I would recommend treadmill for interval training – whereby you alternate between fast and slow speed settings – and other training models, such as the cross trainer, that keep the heart rate up, strengthen the body and keep you fit in a different way to running." Even classes such as Yoga, Pilates and Body Balance can help; balance and flexibility are important skills in running.
4. KIT YOURSELF CORRECTLY
Although running requires little financial outlay, buying a few essentials is a crucial long-term investment. Christina Neal recommends visiting a specialist running store, rather than a high-street sports shop, for trainers. Nike recently began offering its customers personalised gait analysis, which can be great for ensuring the correct fit.
And, once you become a bit more serious about your regime, it can be worth buying a few other professionally designed items: pocketed leggings, waterproofs and breathable shirts all improve the running experience. In colder months having the right top to wear – lightweight but sturdy enough to keep you warm – is crucial.
5. ASK FOR HELP
One of the biggest surprises that comes with starting out as a runner is the amount of support that's readily available – particularly online. Runners World (Runnersworld.co.uk) is one of the most comprehensive resources, with details of races all over the world, and forums for runners to debate the merits of different diets, training techniques and equipment. For female runners, the Women's Running website (Womensrunninguk.co.uk) can be a haven for chatting with like-minded runners, setting up running groups and finding advice.
And, of course, it's worth considering the support of sports therapists, trainers and physiotherapists. Many serious runners swear by their monthly massage and, if injured, a visit to the physio is a definite must.
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