Couch to 5k

Today I entered week 9 of Couch to 5k. At the same time Storm Ciara battered the coastline I was running along. It’s been a long 9 weeks, mostly because it took me longer than 9 weeks, but I had to ignore the voice of Jo Whiley telling me I could do it because my body was definitely telling me I couldn’t.

I would recommend Couch to 5k to anyone medically able to run. Here’s my advice for starting and an explanation of why I started and why you should too.

  1. Don’t push yourself too hard

Yes, the cheery voice you choose will tell you that you can do it, but you know yourself better. When the amount of time set for running increased too much, I had to alter the programme to allow myself more breaks. Over time, you’ll know how to tell whether you physically can’t go on without hurting yourself or whether you’re just tired of putting the effort in. Pushing yourself too hard can result in injury or even a migraine. I now know that pushing myself too hard results in a migraine and 5 hours of intense pain and nausea. But somehow I didn’t let that time deter me and just gave myself a few days off.

2. Running outside is easier than running on a treadmill

I can’t explain this one. Running outside, you have to contend with hills and uneven terrain and, of course, Storm Ciara, but I’ve found it so much easier. It could be that running outside is more visually stimulating and varied. Running on a treadmill at the gym means you’re often either looking at a wall or a TV screen playing the same music videos and adverts over and over. However, I think running at the gym is a good way to ease yourself into running. When I decided to start running, I was too self-conscious to run in my local area because I didn’t want to be seen stumbling along, red faced and breathless by people I knew. The gym felt anonymous and, when I was ready, so did the great outdoors.

Beach sky

3. Safety is key

Safety was a huge concern when I decided to try running outside. I still wanted to avoid people so I preferred running early in the morning and late in the evening but I was worried that the lack of people at these times made me more vulnerable as a lone runner. In the end, I decided that I needed to find places I felt were safer. Here’s what worked for me:

  • Find a route close to home along a road you are familiar with and which is overlooked by lots of houses. Even better if you live in a close-knit community and can run in an area where you know a lot of people you could call in on if needed.
  • Get to a location which is open and frequented by dog walkers and runners. I would recommend the seafront.
  • Go to a location with someone who needs to do something else that will take the same amount of time as your run. For example, if they want to go shopping or pop into work or get their car washed. Then just get them to drop you off in a familiar place while they do what they need to do and get picked up when you’re finished. Even better if they agree to wait in the car while you do your run and then join them and do what they want to do before or after.
  • Choose places you know really well like an area you used to live in or where you used to go to school or university.
  • If you choose to use headphones, which will help to fight boredom, make sure the volume is fairly low so that you’re still aware of your surroundings. Consider only keeping one earphone in or using a set with one earphone that doesn’t work.
  • Be vigilant. If you see something strange like a car always stopping by you on the same road or you feel uncomfortable in a certain place, listen to yourself and change your route. Don’t be too embarrassed to look back to see if you’re being followed or to cross the road. Always tell someone that you’re going on a run and where you’ll be going. It may seem unlikely that you would be targeted but it’s always better to assume the worst and stay safe.

4. Let your mind wander

Whilst running, you don’t think about your problems. You don’t ruminate and beat yourself up. Put on a good audio book and you probably won’t even focus on that. When you’re running, you just allow yourself to exist. And it’s amazing.

‘Wow, that’s a nice house.’

‘That dog is looking at me. I should smile so it can see I’m friendly.’

‘Watch that puddle.’

Water

5. Finally, why am I doing this?

Now for some context. I was a very active child. I played a variety of sports but never liked learning the rules of various games and having my efforts mocked by those who were crazy about sports. I just liked running around. I was entered into a race but I was terrified and backed out at the last minute. Then came secondary school and I was introduced to the time when the majority of young girls stop exercising and playing sport. I still had to do P. E. or ‘games’ as it was called at my school but I didn’t participate unless I had to and mostly chatted or stood staring into space. But I wasn’t alone. There were the sporty girls but a lot of the girls were just like me.

From 2017-2019, Girls Active ran a survey into the exercise attitudes and practices of girls aged 7-16. They found that the biggest reduction in activity occurs during the transition from primary to secondary school when friendship groups are disrupted and body confidence declines. Only 8% of the girls surveyed did the recommended amount of exercise. Some of the barriers to exercise include:

  • Lack of support from parents (inc. parents focusing more on male children’s participation in sport, therefore leaving girls behind)
  • Body insecurities and lack of confidence which lead to a fear of trying
  • Perceived judgement from more ‘popular’ girls
  • Lack of variety in type of sport on offer, e.g. either competitive sport or high intensity gym exercise
  • Fear of sweating and therefore appearing less feminine and attractive
  • Feeling that menstruation means abstaining from exercise

These issues, when not resolved, merely continue into adult life and make girls unlikely to voluntarily participate in exercise at university and in adult life. The girls that do take up exercise again voluntarily tend to do so to look better as they hope to solve the body confidence issues that stopped them from exercising during their teenage years. If not, there is a danger that food will become the focus, leading to eating disorders. There are now several campaigns to encourage girls to see exercise as the key to a healthy life and to increase their confidence whilst still at school so that these issues don’t continue into later life.

For over a decade I did no proper exercise and convinced myself that I was just one of those people who wasn’t suited to it. I was just meant to sit in my room on my computer and stagnate. However, when I graduated from university, I realised that this had affected almost every part of my life. Let’s just say, I hit rock bottom and running was what pulled me back up and made me feel like a real person for the first time since my early teens. I honestly thought that it was normal for people in their teens and into their early twenties to feel tired all the time but now that I feel the way I remember feeling as a child, ready to break into a run at any time, I know that it’s not.

But I needed to hit rock bottom. I needed to experience a life without good health to fully appreciate a life with good health and happiness. I now know that being healthy isn’t about looking good or being able to eat pudding without feeling bad about it. Being healthy completely changes your mental state. Believe me, I’ve felt the exasperation when people say that you can cure your mental health with exercise. I wouldn’t call it a cure because I’m sure there are other factors at play that just happened to all work together at the same time for me. I’m not a doctor or a therapist so I won’t tell you that you need exercise to be happy but I am a person who has experienced the incredible effects of running and I will seriously recommend that if you feel like I did then the best thing you can do is start running and building up your fitness. Not to make yourself look better or to allow yourself to eat ‘bad’ foods but to become the best that you can be, physically and mentally, and most importantly to be happy.

Now get running.