Wednesday, 26 February 2014

How To Be A Bad Runner

It's February. How are those new year's resolutions doing? Apparently, back on January 1st, 51% of people decided to do more exercise. Unhappily for us, such resolutions are all too often destined to crash, burn, and undergo conceptual pillory in the national press. 'We have an exquisite ability to imagine a fitter, smarter, more virtuous version of ourselves and can see the path we ought to take to become that person,' wrote Hannah Devlin in The Times last month. 'But we struggle with the execution.'

She's dead right. Especially when it comes to serious exercise for normal people (I'm not talking about natural athletes, I'm talking about those of us who found ourselves on the wrong side of PE teachers at school). Running, for example, is deeply uncomfortable and unpleasant for beginners. 'I hated every single one of those early runs,' writes Ruth Field, author of the best-selling, not-exactly-cuddly Run Fat B!tch Run. 'I was shocked at how hard it was.' Serious exercise is hard because our lives and activity levels are dictated by labour-saving devices, and we ain't used to it - it's as simple as that. Welcome to the shuffle-jog...


I got a head-start by taking up my new year's resolution in August last year. August was a much better month than January to start running. August was warm and sunny and light in the evenings; January was about flu, flooding, lethargy, depression about 2013's achievements, and eating. If February finds you flagging in the face of meteorological vileness, this is how to power through the next few months until the sun weakly starts to glimmer again in, I don't know, May.

1) Just Do It

Sounds simple, doesn't it? But this is where it usually starts to go wrong. The actual doing it. The actual throwing of oneself through damp cold air down a dingy grey street or in a miserable leafless puddly park, for minute after torturous minute, through exquisitely varied levels of boredom and mind-squeezingly hideous permutations of discomfort. The idea of 'going for a run' rapidly assumes gargantuan proportions. It's an unwieldy ugly giant of an edifice which you simply don't feel like climbing today, right now, at this moment at which it's demanded of you.

So instead, do this: put on your running clothes. Put on your trainers. Unhook the door-key from your keychain. Open the door. Shut it behind you. Start putting one foot in front of the other. Carry on putting one foot in front of the other. Pick up the pace a bit. Carry on doing that for a while. And a while longer. And just a bit longer than that. And now stretch out a bit. There. Ta-da! You have Done A Run.

2) Embrace Technology

If you are capable of performing the above behavioural heroics, read no further. If you weren't exactly born to run, bring in the technological cavalry. Technology helps us do the things that we want and simultaneously don't want to do. It's supposed to give us the edge we need when, at run-o'clock, we typically hover near the front door with the facial expressions of a dog in a thunderstorm, pre-emptively hunched over our protesting bodies as we vacillate between braving the frost and going back to bed. Just me? Ok.

a) Use a running app. Nothing like quantifying the results of your efforts, week-in, week-out, to lift the spirits. Map My Run is free, simple, and does the job.

b) Use playlists. Make a couple, experiment with their contents, and chop and change them regularly to avoid boredom. For all of the Eye of the Tiger testosterone-blazing, marathon-training, 0% body-fat runners, there are plenty more trotting along peacefully to Norah Jones after a day's work. 'Elf an' safety often advises one not to listen to music while running - to which I say, pick a sensible and safe route, stay alert, don't do daft things like wandering diagonally across the towpath without checking behind you for bikes (ouch), and you'll be fine.

c) Wear decent kit. After years of trainers, tank tops, cotton jogging pants and hoodies in winter, in 2013 I discovered running shoes, baselayers, water-belts, sweat-wicking fabrics, and wind-breakers with reflective edges. This stuff is the business. Ladies, be warned, it will mostly be pink. But a few sessions kicking up mud will age it nicely.

3) Run With Someone Who Knows What They're Doing

A running buddy provides two main opportunities:

a) Knowledge filching. I started training with someone who used to run cross-country for his university. He had me running every other day, no more than two days off at a time, increasing my mileage by 10% per week, and doing a 'long run' - about twice the length of the week-day runs - once a week. The long run is the key for boosting cardiovascular fitness. It should be fairly knackering, and followed by inappropriate levels of sugar-intake and a couple of catatonic hours on the couch.

b) Motivation/verbal punchbag. It's easier to let ourselves down than other people. If you're slacking one week, your running buddy will make you feel guilty. Moreover, as you hit that excruciating last kilometre on your muddy Sunday afternoon run, you will each need someone to swear at.

Have fun, stick at it, and leave the noise-cancelling headphones at home!