I want to begin with the disclaimer that for many, coping with mental health is not as easy as stepping out the door. Moreover, exercise is not easily accessible to everyone, particularly with the restrictions currently in place. I am enormously privileged in having a body that allows me to run and in feeling safe to do so.
I made peace with the fact that I have never and would never be a ‘runner’ a long time ago. Admittedly, there have been a handful of times when I’ve suddenly fancied myself as a budding Paula Radcliffe. Out of nowhere I might decide to burst out the door and down the road full speed ahead at some ungodly hour, and subsequently double over in a gasping shiny red mess following the longest seven minutes of my life. This was my problem – I was all or nothing. I would turn around and resign myself back to my briefly forgotten fate for another six months until that short burst of inspiration (read: delusion) returned.
Then the country locked down. I’m not quite sure how the topic of running was raised but after a week or two into isolation, when the restlessness had well and truly kicked in, my friend and I agreed to take on Couch to 5k together (but separately, obviously). It became clear only a week later that for most, this apparently was not much of a challenge. Whilst we were hyping each other up for running for a whole ninety seconds straight and actually not completely hating it, the rest of the UK seemed to be breezing through 5k in twenty five minutes or less in the name of the Instagram Run, Donate, Nominate challenge for the NHS.
Even the friends who always appeared to share your aversion to cardio-vascular activity were sharing their impressive time alongside selfies with one humble bead of sweat situated neatly on their face. They had been training for this behind our backs, surely? We couldn’t be in a minority for whom such a distance in such a time seemed so inextricably out of reach? When the dreaded nomination came my way, I donated £5 in the promise that I would eventually, at some point, hopefully, be able to run 5 kilometres in one go.
So, we kept running. Three times a week, we reported back to each other with our frustrations and our revelations. Two months later – briefly interrupted by an impressive broken toe flaunting every shade of purple – we had been pleasantly surprised by our consistent weekly progress. Even more to my surprise, the runs had become an essential part of my staying sane. I had got over the notion that for a run to be successful it had to be fast. I stopped going out with the self-consciousness with which I had previously associated running. I became comfortable with my slow and steady pace, even if it meant lagging behind a particularly determined walker on the opposite pavement. With those insecurities aside, I was pushing myself in a healthy and sustainable way. I now have thirty minutes of the day that are completely mine. Thirty minutes of respite from the claustrophobia that inevitably bubbles up in the months of sharing a space with the same three people, however much I love them.
Amongst many other things, one aspect of running that had always put me off was the idea of being alone with only the monotonous sound of feet against ground and a hyper awareness of your heavy inhales and exhales. Podcasts have become a good remedy for this. They also help to avoid the boredom that can come with the longer, uninterrupted runs later in the plan. In particular The High Low, Desert Island Discs and Louis Theroux’s Grounded have all become trusted running companions, making for entertaining and thoughtful listening without adding to the influx of overwhelming news.
With the 5K target in sight, my distant running partner and I are finding ourselves echoing the classic statements that had always induced intense eye-rolls from our pre-Couch to 5K selves (for which I sincerely apologise to my seasoned runner friends). We all know that running can work wonders for mental health but there is a bitter reluctance to actually acknowledge it when it can feel like others are only using the fact to preach about their exercise regime. It is only through a steady pace, patience, and mutual encouragement that I have been able to relish this unexpected coping mechanism. As someone who formerly scoffed at the prospect of willingly running on a frequent basis, it is now often the highlight of my day. If you are considering easing into 5K or further during lockdown, be warned – it won’t be long before you also start shouting about it with new-found enthusiasm, as if you never had any doubts in the first place.
Image: Annie Joubran