Something strange happened to me a couple of years ago… I took up running. And I loved it.
I went from being a staunch non-runner throughout my twenties and thirties to a complete convert, almost overnight. Suddenly I found myself talking excitedly to sceptical friends about the benefits of running: what an effective form of exercise it is; the positive impact it can have on mental health; and how I’ve found it gives me a real energy boost.
As I raved about my new-found love of the sport, I could see the same look in their eyes that I used to have when somebody tried to convince me to give it a go.
“Trust me, if I can do it, anybody can,” they would say earnestly, while I nodded along politely, inwardly sure that running was not for me.
Perhaps owing to memories of being forced to take part in dreary cross country races at school, I was confident that it was an activity I was not built for. I much preferred taking part in more sociable types of exercise.
To my mind, running was a solitary affair and the perceived monotony of pounding the pavements did not appeal in the slightest.
The running effect
This all changed when I signed up to a 5K Race for Life event, as a gesture of support for a friend going through breast cancer.
I really wanted to run the whole five kilometres, so I joined my local running group, which happened to be starting a new Couch to 5K programme.
Despite being convinced I would only be participating in that one race, it didn’t take long for me to get hooked.
Talk to anyone who runs and they are almost evangelical in their praise of it, whatever their level of participation. I find this much more the case than when people are telling me about when they go cycling, or to the gym, or an exercise class.
So, what is it about running that has this effect?
I asked the people in my running group to give me their take on it.
Interestingly, there were many common threads in their responses: a strong sense of achievement; a feeling of freedom; a boost to mental health; a great way to get active for free.
Contrary to my preconception of running as a solitary sport, many people cited it as a great way to socialise and meet new people.
For one man, the physical benefits of running were initially most appealing but the biggest gain has been the impact it has had as a long term sufferer of anxiety and depression: "When the 'black dog' comes around there is nothing more helpful than getting out for a run, sometimes just to clear my head, or with friends for their support and encouragement."
He described it as “transformational”, something that often crops up when people talk about the sport.
There is a sense that this is about far more than simply exercise, which is perhaps why people seem to be so enthusiastic about it.
As one person commented: "I love the freedom of just leaving the house and seeing where I go and how far or fast.
There's a point in every run where my breathing and step synch and I just feel GREAT! I shrug off a rubbish day and return home a nicer person. It's headspace, freedom, fun, therapy..."
The benefits of running
There have been many studies over the years highlighting the various ways running can increase our physical health – so much so that GPs now prescribe regular exercise as part of patients’ treatment plans.
This is definitely backed up anecdotally by many people I know and from comments I read online.
Running for health does not simply mean focusing on fitness or losing weight, though. It actually helps many people manage chronic conditions and improve their quality of life, which is very compelling.
Equally as important are the positive effects running has on our mental well-being. The famous “runner’s high” is the release of powerful endorphins within the body, that can leave us feeling euphoric.
But the results are much longer lasting than this, with running attributed to lowering stress levels, improving sleep, boosting creativity and promoting a feeling of calm.
The physical and mental health benefits together are a potent blend. With running seemingly ticking so many boxes, it’s not hard to see why it inspires so much passion.
Going from “No, I can’t run” to five kilometres without stopping
My own experience bears this out. Doing Couch to 5K was a big deal for me at the time. I had been diagnosed with hypothyroidism six months earlier, which slows everything down in your body and had left me struggling with fatigue.
Pushing myself to get out and do a training run when it felt like I was wading through treacle and my energy levels were on the floor was hard work.
Those first couple of weeks were challenging, despite only running for a few minutes at a time; I couldn’t imagine getting to the point where I could run for even one kilometre, let alone five!
However, I soon found myself coming back from the sessions feeling great.
Having spent a while unknowingly under par with the hypothyroidism and then still struggling to feel ‘back to normal’ even once on medication, this was a revelation.
Running gave my not-working-quite-properly body the kick-start it needed.
Plus, going from “No, I can’t run” to doing five kilometres without stopping gave me a huge sense of achievement, and I actually had tears in my eyes the first time I realised I’d run that far!
There really is a kind of magic in running. A feel good factor that makes you want to spread the word and share the joy – which I suppose is why I found myself repeating the same lines to friends that I had had said to me over the years.
Trust me, if I can do it, you definitely can…