Monday 21 December 2020


Appearances can be deceptive. I have, albeit superficially, the look of someone who might be a runner. In my own imagination, at least. This leads me to believe I'll find running relatively easy. After all, I enjoy a walk. The more I think about it, taking up running begins to makes sense to me, particularly when I factor in (a) a desire to improve my general fitness, given that I have a fairly sedentary job, (b) a desire to maximise my lifespan, given the unlikelihood of a second chance, and (c) a desire to stay awake in the evening but to stay asleep at night, rather than the reverse. 

I put on my new trainers, my new running trousers and an old t-shirt, then set off at what seems a sensible jogging pace. This is good. My joy lasts for two or three minutes before I run out of breath, at which point any pleasure is replaced by despair. I recover my breathing and try again. Run. Despair. Recover. Repeat. That's not a slogan anyone's going to put on moisture-wicking clothing. Most of my run becomes a walk, although I break into a jog at the end of my road in case the neighbours are watching.

Breathing, I'm later told, is not as instinctive as I'd thought. (Running tip #1: talk to someone about your challenges.) Concentrating on my breathing as I run - in for three or four paces, out for three or four paces - makes a dramatic difference. It also gives me something to focus on: I can't listen to podcasts because I can't concentrate on the stories, while my favourite music tends not to have the right number of beats per minute. Curating a playlist of perfectly-timed but otherwise uninspiring tunes doesn't help as much as I'd hoped.

Despite the disappointment, I'm getting faster and fitter. I don't notice the speed when I'm running - every run feels like potential failure, as I will myself not to walk home instead - but the fitness app on my phone offers regular congratulations on quicker times. It feels a bit like being back at school, having a teacher praise you for something you'd not wanted to do and didn't care about.

I'm still waking early, which means I can have an early run without a potentially embarrassing audience. I learn that interval training - sprinting and then walking - doesn't suit me. Feels like more failure. The first few seconds of running are okay, but then the despair sets in. Isn't this supposed to be packing me with euphoric endorphins? At least I'm partly distracted from the misery by counting my breaths. Back home, I still lack joy. There's usually a moment mid-morning when I feel energised, when I feel I could do it all again. That's when I enjoy a biscuit with my coffee.

This can't be right. Time for a consultation with Dr Google. 'Run slower', says the doc. Slow enough to have a conversation. Slow enough that you might be embarrassed if you meet a friend. This isn't because you can't run faster. It's because running slower helps you prepare for running faster. Apparently it's all about boosting the mitochondria in your cells. (This is the point when I admit to sometimes confusing mitochondria and midi-chlorians, which belong in the Star Wars universe. "More embarrassing than on a slow training run spotted", as Yoda might say.)

Turns out Dr Google was absolutely right on this occasion. My first slower run takes me up a hill I'd previously failed to finish and leaves me feeling pleased with myself. The next one is the furthest I've ever run. After that, I try a fast run. Grim but my quickest yet. Back to the slow ones and I'm not ecstatic but it's definitely a less unpleasant (or more pleasant, dare I suggest?) experience overall. There may even now be room in my head for a little audio entertainment, especially if I want to hit a specific pace. However, that's for the future. Right now, my phone tells me my biggest challenge is maintaining those slower speeds and not getting gradually faster - and that, it strikes me, is not a bad problem to have.

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