Why is running good for the soul and just about everything else?
I couldn’t possibly write a blog called the ‘Running Mutty’ and not feature a post on running itself. I’d like to think I call myself the ‘Running Mutty’ for good reason. In recent times, I’ve become a keen and reasonably capable runner, hovering at about twenty minutes for a five kilometre run, generally good enough for a ‘Top 10’ finish in a ‘Parkrun’ (more on that later).
These results have all come as a pleasant surprise. Without having any real intention of being a bona fide ‘runner’, and without ever showing any glimpses of athletic prowess, running now forms a significant part of my life. I get antsy if I go a few days without managing to run at all. After completing a long-haul flight, one of my first thoughts is when I can go for a run in the new location. It’s become that important to me.
Given this website is about alternative thinking and ‘questioning the status quo’, you might think that running is a strange topic to put under the microscope. What is there possibly to say about running – a fundamental motion that humans have done since standing on two legs – that is ‘counter-cultural’ and worthy of closer attention?
Well quite a lot as it happens. I certainly wouldn’t be the first writer to draw parallels between the act of running and of life in general, how the setbacks and achievements of one often mirror the other. Just as think you’re making progress – in either running or life – something bites you on the bum and drags you back into the valley of hard knocks.
Each section below will focus upon a common question that comes up when people talk about running. Keeping it simple and uncomplicated seems appropriate given that running works for that exact reason: it is simple and uncomplicated.
A. ‘I don’t have any kit for running’
When I first started getting into running – in the late nineties – nobody ever thought about running ‘kit’. You just grabbed an old t-shirt, an old pair of shorts, a ragged pair of socks and any pair of trainers that happened to be lying about.
Nowadays you can’t walk into a sports clothing store without seeing a huge display of running apparel, from glossy ‘wicking’ shirts to fluorescent shoes to crazily tight pants that leave little to the imagination. This give the impression that running is a sport like cricket or tennis, needing a certain appearance or ‘costume’ to go along with participation in that sport. One will only consider you are a runner if you look like a runner.
Unless you’re an elite runner looking to shave a few seconds off a personal best time, there is no such thing as proper running apparel. Just wear whatever is comfortable. In any case, if you look at what the elite runners wear, it’s nothing like the running gear you find in the sports shops. Instead you’ll see a lot of bland singlet tops, baggy shorts and long socks pulled up to the knees. This, incidentally is done not for reasons of fashion, but because it helps to keep the blood flowing, similar to compression socks on a plane.
If you think having nice shiny shirt will motivate you to head outside and run, then by all means go ahead and purchase the $50 shirt. But it really isn’t necessary. You can definitely save money by digging out those old t-shirts at the back of the drawer.
B. ‘Which is better: indoors or outdoors?’
Although treadmills are available at just about every gym, it’s an acquired taste as to whether you decide to use them. I personally don’t like treadmills and only view them as a last resort. Apart from the fact that you’re indoors and staring at a wall (or a boring television screen), a treadmill is a test for those of us with dodgy balance. I’m always nervous I’ll stumble on the treadmill, meaning I never put the pace up as high as I’d like.
The great news for people like me is that anyone wishing to go for a run will rarely need to use a treadmill. Since running can be performed just about anywhere a piece of flattish land exists, you’ll hardly ever be stuck for a suitable course. And being an outdoors, nature-loving kind of person, I find there’s no such thing as a bad outdoors run.
Even if you do have available terrain around you, you may be hesitant to take advantage of it due to extreme weather or safety concerns. You may also be more interested in going somewhere that is specifically aimed at runners as opposed to traffic noise and fumes, somewhere that also puts you in touch with other people of similar abilities. Fortunately, a rather brilliant solution is available.
C. ‘I’m not sure where to start. I don’t have anywhere to run.’
I used to think that libraries were the best public service known to humankind: completely free, completely accessible to all, and containing a vast wealth of information. While I still think libraries are top of the tree when it comes to free public services, I’m starting to think that ‘Parkrun’ comes in a close second.
Every Saturday morning, in about twenty countries, you’ll find groups of runners heading to their nearest park or nature reserve to carry out a 5km walk or run. Although Parkrun started as a means of encouraging the hesitant first-timer to get into running – by trying to make the experience fun and accessible – the events also manage to attract a surprising number of high quality runners, many of whom treat Parkrun as a serious event. Some of the larger events even divide the starting pack into the ‘runners’ and the ‘walkers’.
The versatility of Parkrun is what makes it work for so many people. Apart from registering as a first-time runner, there is no need to book for any specific event. You just turn up on the day and run. You also don’t have to worry about times. The Parkrun volunteers do that for you, and you’ll get emailed your time a few hours after the event.
And just to emphasise, this is all completely free. The events are staffed by friendly volunteers, who are always on the look-out for new people to help out with future Parkrun events. There really is no better way to get your weekend off to a bright start.
D. ‘It all seems a bit too solitary and lonely.’
Yes, running can be solitary and lonely, especially if you’re doing a lot of solo long-distance runs. But rather than seeing this as a downside, I prefer to see it as one of the major benefits of running.
Why should you not looking forward to spending some extended time on your own, devoted to your own physical and mental wellbeing? It’s not exactly a task you can delegate to anyone else. When running, you have to accept that you are now in control of your destiny. It’s all about personal responsibility. No boss or parent figure is standing next to you, telling you what to do. Conversely, this also means you have nobody to hide behind, nobody to blame if things go wrong.
Team sports are undoubtedly great fun and help to boost interpersonal skills, but there’s always the feeling that ‘we would have won if only Dave hadn’t stuffed up at the last minute’. You will find no such solace in running. Sure, the weather might be bad and affect your time, but it also affected the time of every other single runner who happened to participate. The only person you are in competition with is yourself.
If however you really do struggle with motivation, there are a few options available. In addition to Parkrun, most cities have loads of running groups aimed at different levels of ability. To find about these groups, apart from the obvious place (Google), running stores usually carry details of all the local groups. More than likely, the stores also arrange weekly runs of their own. Even one of my local supermarkets used to organise a weekly running group, although sadly, the supermarket has now closed down.
Another option to help with motivation is getting yourself some form of wearable ‘tech’, such as a ‘Garmin’ or a similar GPS device. You could also register for a tracking service like ‘Strava’, helping you to compare your results with friends and the wider running community. Or, you could simply take your smartphone and listen to some music.
I’ll be honest and confess that I’m not so much into the tech. I believe that running is something you should be interested in for its own sake, without needing a gadget to sweeten the deal. Although I used to wear headphones a lot when running, I now prefer to listen to the natural outdoor sounds. In addition, I don’t have any form of ‘Strava’ account, preferring to rely on my ten year old Garmin whenever I feel the urge to run a specific distance or time. Running appeals to me because it so raw and primordial.
E. ‘I’m overwhelmed by all the running shoes. What should I buy?’
Even if you love shopping, buying a new pair of running shoes can be a daunting experience.
When you first approach a shop assistant in a running or shoe store, you might explain that you’re after a new pair of shoes. The assistant responds with the usual unhelpful comment of shop assistants: ‘well it depends on what you want’. Gee thanks. As you look over the back of the store – at the hundreds of shoes sitting on the wall – you suddenly realise you might not be leaving the shop for some time.
I’ve managed to find a simple way out of this dilemma… by deciding to no longer use normal running shoes. I’ve become very much a fan of ‘minimalist’ shoes. These look similar to standard running shoes, but strip out most of the padding and support of normal shoes, leaving you with a very thin sole. The ‘Vibram’ range are the most well-known of the minimalist shoes, perhaps due to their funky ‘five-finger’ appearance (check out the photo below for an example).
While I’ve recently bought myself a pair of Vibrams – and am slowly working them in – my main running shoes over the past six months have been a pair of Merrill ‘Trail Gloves’. These shoes act as a kind of half-way house between normal running shoes and running barefoot. It’s no co-incidence that I really started to enjoy running for its own sake when I first used the minimalist shoes. There is something highly gratifying and child-like about coming into such close contact with the ground, feeling your toes wrap around the terrain beneath your feet.
The minimalist shoes also have one other advantage. Because the market for minimalist shoes is not so extensive, your choice is more limited. In my book, this is actually a good thing. You don’t waste so much time in sifting through all the options.
Speaking more generally about this subject, there’s a whole debate in the running community as to whether standard running shoes are ideal for your feet. According to the argument, all that extra cushioning in modern running shoes stops your feet from working as nature intended, leading to more ‘heel strikes’ and painful injuries.
In the early 2010s, a bit of a ‘fad’ developed for barefoot running, largely driven by the very successful book ‘Born to Run’. For a time, minimalist shoes became quite popular. Most people however wanted a quick fix, somehow thinking that going barefoot or wearing the minimalist shoes would magically improve their running. On the contrary, these people ended up busting an ankle when taking their new minimalist shoes out for a 10km run.
The result is that minimalist shoes and barefoot running have grown out of favour in recent years, even seen as dangerous by some. This is a shame as the shoes are definitely worth the investment, provided you are prepared to put in the extra effort. It’s sad that products that are genuinely helpful – but require more commitment to use – are quickly shunted out of the commercial spaces. The words ‘instant gratification’ come to mind.
F. ‘I don’t have the time.’
This old chestnut of an excuse always comes up when people are looking to get out of doing anything a bit painful. ‘I don’t have the time’ is pretty much another way of saying ‘I don’t consider this option a high enough priority to warrant my attention’.
While this post isn’t intended to be a time management lesson, I will mention one thing in relation to running. The beauty of running is that you can vary your pace depending on how much time you have, and how far you’d like to run. This makes running an incredibly flexible activity, capable of being moulded into whatever timeframe you have available.
If you have more time, you can run at a slower pace for a longer amount of time. If you have less time, then quicken your pace and run shorter distances. Ten or fifteen minutes of ‘sprint work’ delivers great benefits. Or ten minutes of barefoot running to strengthen your feet. Another option is hill sprints. Ten minutes of these will have you thoroughly pooped.
What about those days when you simply can’t get outdoors due to work commitments, or when you’re in transit or when the sun goes down too early in the winter? In my case, I have a modest fall-back option of twenty or so bodyweight exercises that I can perform indoors, even in the tiniest of hotel rooms. It’s not running, but it’s better than nothing at all.
G. A Disclaimer
Before we wrap up, it’s worth stressing that I am no medical expert, so please see a doctor or other qualified person if you’re concerned that your body is not up to the task. In all cases, always start slowly and gradually build up over time. There is no rush, no ‘fast-track’ solution. Running is a way of life, not just a series of races on an events calendar.
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