Saturday, 25 June 2016

Lessons from three years of running

I don't know exactly when I started running, probably because it took three attempts of Couch to 5K before it finally stuck, but I know it was around this time in 2013.
Three years is a strange length of time to have been doing something. In a lot of ways, you're still quite new. But it's also a significant amount of time - it's strange, for example, to think that I started running before I even met Phil. And I've done a lot in those three years - two half marathons, a full marathon, seven 10Ks and over 60 parkruns. 

When I posted the picture above on Instagram this week, I had a follower tell me she loved reading about my journey because I've always been honest about my struggles, and that is definitely true! Sometimes running is the actual worst. This journey hasn't been straightforward - there have been ups and downs, injuries, frustrations, triumphs, and tears. But I'm always learning. I've learned so much. So, so much. Some stuff seems laughable now - why did I think I needed a lucozade for a 5 mile run? - and some lessons I'm learning - for example how to not go insane when injured.

So while I have a long way to go, and a lot more to learn, here's what I've learned so far...

It doesn't matter what you look like
Seriously. It doesn't matter if you have cellulite, or haven't shaved your legs, or if your hair is a mess or if you're unrecognisable without makeup. This has been a wonderful lesson for me - the girl who wouldn't even walk to the shops without makeup on. This realisation has been so freeing. Do you want to be the girl (or boy!) who is worried about her hair while she's running, or the one who is sprinting those last 20 metres with only the finish on her mind?

Runners probably don't look like how you expect, and you probably won't lose weight
There's a stereotype that runners are all tall and lean and long-limbed but this really isn't true! I've sprinted past my fair share of these long-limbed beauties just as often as I've been overtaken by people who "don't look like runners." Also, running won't necessarily mean you'll lose weight. Sorry. I roll my eyes when I hear people tell me how they "can see the muscles growing in their legs more" or "my stomach is already flatter!" after a few weeks of running. If this is the case, can you tell my body cause mine has barely changed at all after 3 years! 

When you first start, you'll have no idea how anyone could run for a whole mile
I can't emphasise enough that when I first started running I could barely run for the 2 minutes Couch to 5K wanted me to do in week 1. Seriously. When you first start you'll have no idea how running for 5 minutes will be possible. But trust the process. You'll get there, I promise.

Distance is more important than time
When you first start running, you'll probably be disappointed that you're slower than you thought you might be (I'll talk about the myth of the 10 minute mile later, and maybe in another post), but that's okay! I remember when I did my first 20 minute run, I was running so slowly I felt I could have walked more quickly! But when you're attempting a new distance you have to run slowly. I found this so hard during marathon training, but a new distance is hard for your body, and you have to give it time.

You will get faster, eventually
But you will get faster. Eventually. I think it took me about a year to regularly run faster than a 12 minute mile. I almost feel like there was a barrier to push through that first year (I don't think it helped that I started training for a half marathon only a few weeks after I started running) and since then I've been getting faster, bit by bit, week by week. It's also worth testing yourself to see how fast you can really run - I consider my weekly parkrun to be my "fit test" and always try to push my hardest.

Training runs need to be slower
In the same vein, you don't need to bust a gut every time you go out for a run. This is another thing I learned throughout marathon training. Your goal time can feel a million years away when you're running 90 seconds slower than your goal pace, but your body needs those long slow runs (look, science!).

Sometimes you really won't want to
I cannot emphasis this enough. I probably have a run I JUST REALLY DON'T WANT TO GO ON at least once a fortnight. This never goes away.

The first 10 minutes always suck
I cannot explain my relief when I found out this is an actual thing. There are few things worse than going out on a 14+ mile run and finding that you want to die after half a mile. But don't worry, it's normal.  Sometimes I find it takes me three of four miles to hit my stride, and that's okay.

Your next goal will never be enough
For the first year or two of my running life, I had three goals - to run a half marathon, to run a 5K in under 30 minutes and to run a 10K in under 60 minutes. I hadn't even considered life after these goals, especially because for the first nearly two years, they seemed so far away (I have a post swirling around my head about the "myth" of the 10 minute mile being a reasonable pace for a beginner running). I honestly, naively, thought that once I hit those goals I'd be satisfied. Of course I wasn't! After I ran my first 5K in under 30 minutes, my first thought was, how can I beat that? After my first 10K in under an hour I thought, well, I've achieve that, what on earth could I do now? And, well, I'll be honest it took me a long time after my first half marathon to want to do it again, but a year later I was chomping at the bit to run another, and then to run a marathon. And yep, even after a marathon I'm thinking about my next one and how much faster I could do it.

Carbs are not the devil, and you have to eat enough
Carbs are fuel. Eat them. They're awesome. And I'm not a nutritionist, but unless you're trying to lose weight, try to eat back those running calories. Running on empty is not ideal.

Injuries happen and they are the worst
You will get injured. And it will be the worst. And then you'll get through it. And you'll get injured again. This will happen. It sucks and I'm sorry but it never, ever gets better. Try to never take a run for granted.

You get used to being told how bad running is for you
*eye roll*

We tend to be obsessive types
Okay, this isn't true of all runners - I know plenty of people who are happy to just "go for a run" (I mean, they don't even take their GPS watch. How do they know how far they ran? How do they know their pace? If they don't record their run did it even happen?!) but a lot of runners are not like this. If you have any kind of obsessive tendency, and you start running, prepare to become a running bore.

You'll become a running bore (maybe)
I know, I know, talking about running is great. But to non-runners it's like when my Mum talks me through every single shot she played at golf (snoooooore). Your ears will prick up when you hear someone else talking about running and you'll find there is an infinite amount of things to say about running. But save it for your fellow runners!

You'll feel camaraderie with strangers
I can't explain the swelling in my heart every Saturday morning at 9am when I find myself part of the parkrun community. You just know you'll all in it together. Running brings people together. Oh and always say "hi" to fellow runners, or at least give them a nod. I hate it when fellow runners don't say hello to me!

Running will make you mentally stronger
As I mentioned before, running is hard sometimes. There will be times when you really won't want to go, times when you want to stop. You have to get through this, and you will. Running is about commitment. And that dedication makes you stronger.

Your priorities will change
Okay, some of this might be to do with the fact that I'm 26 now and it's finally acceptable for me to be the boring homebody I know I've always been, but if you end up being one of those obsessive types, your priorities will change. You'll swap your Friday night drinks after work for an early night for parkrun, and swap your Sunday lie-ins for a weekly long run. And you'll be okay with that.

Race day will always feel different
This morning I ran parkrun at a respectable 9:03 minute mile pace, and I was absolutely bloody knackered (I did get a course PB though!). At the end I thought to myself, how the bloody hell did I run 10K a month ago at an 8:44 pace?! When you're training for a race, especially one when you've got a challenging time goal, you'll often wonder how you'll ever be able to maintain your goal pace on the day. But race day is always different. There's the tapering, the adrenaline, the fuelling. Of course, not every race is going to be a personal best, but if you've trained hard, trust the plan.

You will never not be nervous at the start line
I've run about a dozen races now, and even though I've ran a marathon and two half marathons, I still get nervous at the start line of a 10K. This is good! That's the adrenaline that gets you through.

Listen to your body, and be true to yourself
Tired? Take a rest day. Starting with a cold? Take a rest day. Got a lot going on at work? Take a rest day. If you're committed and you don't take days off willy-nilly, you have to have the strength and intuitiveness to take time off if you need to. This takes time and practice, and there will be a hell of of a lot of guilt, but you'll learn when you're just being lazy and when you actually need a break. Edited to add: You will get this wrong sometimes. I ran parkrun a fews weeks ago with the start of a cold and ended up being ill afterwards for a week. So, you know, I'm still learning...

Try to ignore other people
Everyone has a friend who never trains and always beats you. Everyone knows someone who got the same medal as you but walked the whole thing. Try to focus on you. You are only ever in competition with yourself.

People won't believe you when you tell them you used to hate running too
I used to always say "I only run when I'm being chased" and I cannot express how much I used to hate running. I never, ever thought I'd be where I am now. But with a bit of commitment and dedication, I think anyone can run. So I always just smile and nod when people tell me they "could never be a runner".

Sometimes you won't believe how far you've come
Sometimes I can't believe the sentences that have come out of my mouth. "Ooh only 14 miles this weekend", or "an easy 8 miles before work" or "the first 19 miles were absolutely fine, but the last 7 were pretty hard." I sometimes can't believe that I ran 26.2 miles. Sometimes I can't believe I ran 13.1 miles! You have to give yourself credit for all those victories, big and small.

If you're new to running, just go
It doesn't matter when your start. I didn't even have proper running shoes when I started. I ran with a bottle of water and held my phone in my hand. I wore a cotton tshirt and warm black leggings. But I ran. Don't dive in with a GPS watch and two pairs of trainers and a hydration belt and a pocket full of gels. Don't wait until you're thinner/stronger/fitter, or until it's warmer/drier/colder. Just go, just run, just do it.


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