In most aspects of my life, and running is no exception, I’m a control freak. Running at least 20 miles a week requires me to complete my runs on a full number (since 4.89 miles is not the same as 5). I’ve been known to jog up and down the street on a Sunday night only to keep my Strava graph flat, much to the chagrin of my partner. Many times, running was the only thing keeping me afloat. However, (as you may have guessed by now), I have a tendency to get caught up in the minutiae of my runs, including splits and speed.
It wasn’t until after the London Marathon in October that I understood how much stress I’d put myself under in the last weeks of my marathon training. The fact that I had just relocated, started a new job, and tried to teach an unruly six-month-old dog at the same time didn’t make me any happier. Running had morphed from a stress reliever to just another item I had to cram into my already jam-packed schedule.
The perfectionist in me demanded a strategy, weekly check-ins with my coach, and training sessions that were specifically tailored to make me work more. My heart, on the other hand, recognised that in the long run, my love for running would suffer, and that I needed to rediscover my passion for the activity that has been so essential in improving my mental health. I needed to rediscover the thrill of slipping on my running shoes and losing myself in a podcast, so I took a break and planned a strategy to help me rediscover that sensation.
In order to maintain the joy plan, I only engage in physical activity that offers me delight. Of course, I haven’t completely given up smoking. As long as I’m aiming to run at least 20 miles every week, if I don’t feel like it, I won’t. Alternatively, if I’m feeling very ambitious, I may attempt some mile repeats. When I began this journey as an experiment to explore how I would fare without organised training, it has turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Nonetheless, how would it transfer to the track on a race day? I was nervous as I lined up for the London Landmarks Half Marathon with pals. This was going to be the longest run I’d ever done, and I wasn’t used to doing speed work. The only thing that mattered to me was that I didn’t have to worry about any of the usual pre-race rituals. The exhilaration of being back on a starting line after a pandemic had prevented runners for so long washed over me as I laughed and relaxed. A buddy and I raced the first 10 miles together, taking photographs and even stumbling upon a celebrity (AJ from Strictly Come Dancing, in case you were wondering) along the way. I’m smiling in every race photo I’ve ever taken.
So as I reached the finish line, I was utterly surprised to see that my Garmin Fenix 6 had gone crazy, and that I had achieved a personal best. My lack of concern had made me more efficient.
It took me a week of searching to discover the scientific basis for this revelation: running faster when you’re calm. Running may be made simpler by smiling, according to a research published in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise. It’s been shown in several studies that a more relaxed body and mind results in better running form and a quicker time. This is evident in Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-2-hour marathon, when he glides past the finish line with a grin on his face and waves to the audience.
No matter how much preparation you put in, doing all you can to de-stress before a race has a significant advantage. Six months later, I’m still jogging for the love of it because running without stress has been a game changer for me.
In order to alleviate the tension of running, here are a few tips
Stay away from comparing your running abilities with those of others
I’ve spent a lot of time on Strava comparing myself to other runners, but it’s truly a thief of pleasure. Make sure to remember that everyone is running a different race, and what works for one person may not work for another. When I was a runner, my coach warned me that unless you’re Kipchoge, you’ll always be outpaced by someone else.
Have a guiding principle to live by.
Once, I was advised that dedicating each mile of a marathon to a loved one is the greatest way to finish the race. Just repeating a positive mantra to oneself when the going gets rough might keep you from succumbing to self-doubt and abandoning your goals. A simple expression like “I’m running for pleasure” might be used, or it could be more elaborate. Look for something that speaks to your heart.
Intersperse your workouts with short periods of rest.
Remember that even professional sportsmen go through a rough patch from time to time. Recovering after a race or a period of heavy training might be difficult if you’re constantly cycling between training blocks.
Control what you can control.
Finally, don’t forget that you’ll have days when you simply can’t run. You can’t control the weather, the epidemic, or the fact that you’ll be ill or wounded from time to time. Do what you can, and don’t forget to keep running in the back of your mind.