What a beginners’ running course showed me about the value of not going it alone, the unhelpful stories I tell myself, and the importance of imperfection.
I’ve had a hazy goal of becoming a ‘runner’ for a few years now. The main reason is to be able to exercise anywhere. There’s also that niggling feeling that I should be able to run long distances in preparation for the inevitable post-apocalyptic zombie-ridden world we will all soon find ourselves in. It was either more running, or less TV. And I love TV too much.
I’ve tried various things including the couch to 5K app but they never stuck. Then I read the book Born to Run – the one about running, not the Bruce Springsteen memoir (but that is also excellent) – and it was the most inspirational book ever. By the end of it, I felt like I was an ultramarathon runner who just hadn’t started running yet. Not only did it make it seem like I could be a runner, but that it would be easy. But there seemed to be a lot of technique stuff going on, so I decided to sign up to a running class for beginners.
Ten weeks on, last weekend I ran five kilometres without stopping – for the first time in my life.
So, what have I learnt?
It helps to have a proper coach and program
- People think you should be able to do it without a coach. I’ve had people laugh at me saying ‘why would you need to learn how to run?’ They think it’s silly that I drag myself to Melbourne’s Tan twice a week just to run, when I could just walk out my front door and do it. But I’d tried that and it hadn’t worked, and my running didn’t feel light and natural as the book said it should feel.
- There’s a bunch of technique to learn. I’ve had people teach me to swim and row and ride a bike but never to run properly. At the classes, we talked technique and got individual corrections. One correction for me suddenly unlocked something and I could run like I do in dreams (right before I start flying).
- There’s a planned program to get you to 5k. We rarely just ran the way they make you do on couch to 5K, which basically just adds more time to intervals each run. We did all different things – different speeds, different distances, intervals, fartlek, tabata – and this mixed things up enough that I didn’t even realise the gains I was making. The weekday runs were more varied, and we’d do a long run on the weekends.
- The program made it easier than I expected. I was reasonably fit to start with, but nonetheless, every attempt at running to date was tough. Before the course I don’t think I ever got over five minutes non-stop. But the individual sessions were achievable – sometimes easy – and within five weeks I was running ten minutes non-stop, and within nine weeks it was thirty minutes. It was especially gratifying when I reached the milestone where I ran for a tram and wasn’t puffing embarrassingly on the tram.
- They made us start way slower than I expected. Basically the whole first class our instructor just yelled ‘go slower’. Well, that’s not true – she was fixing our technique and stuff. But mostly yelling ‘go slower’. I thought running meant running fast, but that has been making it so much harder for me. It was a breakthrough to realise how slow you can start. We did some ‘speed work’ (FYI for language dorks: there’s a whole new set of jargon to learn, and it is joyful to throw it about recklessly) at some sessions, but the longer runs are still slower than I expected.
I’ve been captive to an ‘I’m not a runner’ story
- For years, I’ve thought I could never be a runner. In school I was good in the sprints but nothing over 200 metres, and no one ever taught me how to run longer distances. Over the years, I built this up into a belief that I would never be a longer-distance runner. This was encouraged by various things, including a strange myth that rowers aren’t good runners because it required your muscles to be shorter and bigger. Then I had a minor knee injury at 18 that I spent my twenties being terrified of (even though I did heaps of high-impact exercise during this time).
- People actively discouraged me from running. People regularly told me reasons to not run, and I happily accepted them. I had a Pilates instructor who was excellent and I loved her, but who nonetheless told me out of nowhere that I didn’t need to run. I wasn’t saying ‘I don’t want to run’, she just told me I didn’t need to. And someone else told me if you didn’t run when you were younger then you probably couldn’t when you were older.
- I thought running – and runners – were super boring. I thought runners must be unimaginative and generally boring. It was always something I looked on with suspicion. Even after being in a relationship for several years with a dedicated runner, I still looked on it as a strange, inexplicable difference between the two of us. I was surprised to discover I didn’t find it boring at all. It helped that I had people to run with, and a trainer to vary it up. And it is exciting to turn up to each session not knowing what you’re going to get.
- I don’t feel like a ‘runner’ yet but I’m on my way. One running buddy was told it takes a twelve months to develop a proper running habit, and I think that could be right. While I’ve run 5ks, I’m only three months in and it hasn’t become a must-have in my life yet. But I’m enthusiastic to keep going and pretty committed. I have even run on holidays! I’ve now run in Sydney and Phillip Island. The Phillip Island run was especially exciting because I saw some of the best cows and sheep I have ever seen which I wouldn’t have seen if it wasn’t for the run. The cows were brown and shaggy and had horns! The sheep were adorable and had babies! I was running without stopping!
The mental impact is massive
- It can cure a bad day. Turning up to running some days was hard, and there were times I had had an AWFUL day. Running got that out of my head, and I regularly came home on a bit of a high. I also just had to be social, pick myself up and not wallow, so that helped too.
- It improved my belief in myself and self-esteem. Having something where I am achieving things that can’t be taken away from me is really great. Knowing that I can say I can run 5ks non-stop is something I’m very proud of. Most of the things I do in my life are subjective, or qualitatively judged – improv, singing, whatever it is I do at work. But the answer to ‘did I run 5ks?’ can’t be debated, and I’ve realised that that is a really nice element to have in your life, in amongst other stuff.
Doing it took serious anti-perfectionism work
- As a perfectionist, it was very hard to sign up in the first place – what if I didn’t choose the best running class? I can spend a lot of time researching something and letting it go when it’s not perfect. For example, I’ve been trying to buy an alarm clock for two years. But I’m learning that starting at all is infinitely better than starting perfectly so I just googled ‘learn to run Melbourne’ and signed up to the beginners course… Well, it wasn’t that easy. I agonised for days whether to sign up to beginners or general because I didn’t want to make the wrong decision. But I signed up in the end.
- Still from the perspective of a perfectionist, this was a new opportunity to be perfect. This is how I see the world. I still feel bad on their behalf (but also humanity’s) about Don Bradman’s 99.94 batting average, and Ian Thorpe’s silver medals. I knew I’d make it to the end of the eleven weeks because there were no other options – I had committed to doing a thing, and I was gonna do it. That doesn’t come from a super healthy place though, it comes from a massive fear of failure, and a belief that things have to be perfect to be worthy.
- But I’m getting better at not being perfect. I missed two runs – one class, one weekend run – and I had to leave two sessions early because of blisters. It was very hard to do these things, especially missing the runs entirely (I still ticked them off on my fridge schedule because I couldn’t bear having missing ticks – classic perfectionist) but the fact I did is really good for me. Not only am I building up my resilience to not being perfect, but I’m also building up examples of where not being perfect didn’t matter. Missing those sessions didn’t destroy my whole program, it barely made a dint. It put the individual runs into perspective – consistency and persistence mattered more than perfection.
Running with other people is the BEST
- I never understood running groups before. I thought in running groups you all run non-stop together, which made me scared I’d have to keep up, which would make me hate it because I couldn’t back off if other people were running too fast for me. But the different training activities we did meant that wasn’t the case at all, we ran on 400m loops so that we all stayed in the same area.
- Running together is better than running alone. Running alone sucks. It is so boring. Well, maybe it’s not that bad, but I definitely struggled more on my solo weekend runs than at the classes with others. My year off last year made me realise how much better it made things to do them with people, so just having people to show up for was motivation for me. Plus they helped with the actual running. There was one person in my group who always established a really good pace that was perfect to get me started, otherwise I’d shoot off and then struggle. When things got challenging, we often kept each other going with a bit of pride or competition. There were several sessions where having someone else to keep up with or catch up to kept me going, and I know I kept others going too.
- Having a group of people who care about your running really helps. In this little aspect of my life, I have several people really caring about how I’m doing. My running friends know about my blisters, and I know about their ankles or shin splints. No one else cares – and rightly so – but having that little group who are barracking for you, who know how you’re feeling, and how shitty it is that you have blisters that are NOT GOING AWAY, is awesome.
- I have made new friends who share my values. I didn’t go into this expecting to make friends, but I did. The people are really nice, and we share a lot of the same values around health, mindfulness, well-being and happiness. Many of our conversations revolve around this kind of stuff. We went to dinner together at the end and we are signing up for next term together.