After lockdown had forced writer Becky Freeth to start running with her husband, she weighed the pros and cons of running as a couple.
Eleven years ago, I vowed to never run with my husband again. Yet, the lockdown had put us all in situations we never expected to face and once gyms had closed, my determination to keep on top of my fitness goals saw me crawling back to my former running mate (and only quarantine companion) with the one question I thought I’d never ask: Will you come running with me?
Refusing to run with Lewis wasn’t about anything he did or said. It was about the time I found myself panting after him around the university campus while trying to keep up, that left my ego bruised. It was like losing on sports day - in front of the person you fancy. As unreasonable as this sounds, I declared that our first run together, aged 19, would also be our last. Excluding global pandemics.
Pre-lockdown, spin and yoga classes had kept me disciplined with the type of camaraderie you can only experience from group workouts. That’s why, when faced with lockdown in an upstairs flat (where home fitness would surely see me crash through the neighbours’ ceiling), I joined thousands of others in taking up running – but I wanted a workout buddy.
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“Running with a romantic partner can be powerfully cementing or potentially corrosive,” says clinical psychologist Dr Harriet Heal, who co-founded the social running group Up & Running to help women improve their mental wellbeing through training together. “It can challenge expectations or ideals about how we want to look in front of each other, be it strong or resilient. But that vulnerability can also help us build trust.”
I’m not the only one who feels conflicted. A quick consensus among coupled-up friends tells me that even though running with their spouse often improves their performance, it’s not everyone’s first choice. “The first time I ran with Sam, he sprinted off because I couldn’t keep up,” says one friend in a group chat. “Now, I’d only run with him if he was having a slower day.” Another adds, “I run faster on my own, but further with Jack because having company distracts me from stopping every five minutes.”
So, how do you make running work for both of you? “The power dynamics of how you run together are much the same as in bed,” says Dr Heal. “You have to be able to ask for what you want. If you’re both leaders, it can be great for pushing each other, but if all you want is gentle encouragement, you have to be clear from the outset.”
It was about five weeks into lockdown that Lewis and I had finally fallen into step. Maybe it’s because, at 30, I’m far more focussed on staying healthy than worrying what Lewis might think if I’m a little sweaty or out of breath. The truth is, I don’t think he ever cared.
My goal is to get stronger, and he supports that without judging where I’m at now. This time around, I was willing to swallow my pride and say, “Hey, I’m not particularly fast at, or even keen on, long-distance running, but I’ll do my best.” Since I let go of my ego, I’ve learned that couples running doesn’t have to be competitive or humiliating. It can be about solidarity and having someone there to moan to when you feel achy or are stuck in your own head.
My husband is the reason I roll out of bed and lace up my trainers at 6am. Without him, I might not even set the alarm. With his help, I’ve also steadily improved my pace. I can now manage a 30-minute jog every couple of days and feel much better physically and mentally for it.
So, before you start running together, here are the pros and cons to consider.
THE CONS OF COUPLES RUNNING
You might think that working up a sweat would be a real turn-off, but research by PureGym suggests otherwise. One-third of couples who worked out together were actually more physically attracted to each other after exercise, likely because the adrenaline rush stimulates arousal behaviours like elevated heart rate and breathlessness.
Appearances aside, striking the right balance between your fitness levels can present a challenge for some couples.
“Don’t be tempted to push your limits just to impress a partner,” suggests professional trainer James Stirling, aka London Fitness Guy. “Running too fast, too soon, can make long-distance running feel miserable and increase the risk of injury early on. After all, enjoyment is what turns exercise into a long-term habit.
Stirling suggests asking your running buddy to stick to a pace that you’re comfortable with. If it means periods of running and walking to help build up your fitness, a good training partner should support that.
If your partner slows you down, or isn’t trying hard enough, it’s easy to let resentment creep into workouts. “Running alongside someone can be a trigger for rivalry. Although, instead of having a destructive effect, it might be a positive release for pent-up tension or aggression while you’re out of the house. And you can revel in that together,” explains Dr Heal.
THE PROS OF COUPLES RUNNING
Studies show that the synchronicity and co-operation of running can help strengthen our emotional connections to one another, with 69% of couples saying it brought them closer together. “Mood-boosting activities like running increase your positive experiences together. From a practical perspective, sometimes it’s more comfortable to have difficult conversations side-by-side because research shows that it’s less confrontational,” says Dr Heal.
Couples who join gyms together also report significantly higher attendance and lower dropout rates than those who sign up alone, suggesting that spousal support is even more effective than self-motivation.
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Stirling, who has trained athletes, X Factor contestants and counts TV star Oliver Proudlock as a regular workout buddy, says it also plays an important part in getting fitter, faster.
“The key to achieving any fitness goal is consistency, so adding social accountability and encouragement is a great formula for success,” he explains. “Sharing in achievements, high fiving each other’s PBs, and trouble-shooting problems all promote greater improvement in the long run.”
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