Starting to run is simple. All you have to do is get out there and go. But actually sticking with the pain, the overtaking, the boredom – that requires a whole other level of dedication, as newbie Stephanie Conway has been finding out.
Given how bleak things have felt recently, I didn’t intend to make a resolution this year. As Omicron has surged, I’ve spent my dark days nestled inside with the heating on, binging on social media and Netflix, while my cardio has regressed to a walk to the shops.
So, when a DM popped up from an acquaintance who has recently become a life coach offering to help me “build a body that I will love” and “create an anti-fragile mind”, I reacted more extremely than perhaps I normally would have.
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I’d written about this guy’s coaching business in the local paper, and for some reason, he was now implying that I didn’t love my body or mind in order to convince me to become his new client. While baffled at his nerve, he wasn’t wrong. I did need to feel better about myself. So, I resolved to get back into cardio. New year, new activity.
After a quick search online, I learned that my local gym had closed, so I decided to try running. It’s free, outdoors, and socially distanced. How bad could it be? Maybe running could be my new ‘thing’. I threw on some leggings, located my headphones and headed for my nearest park, ready for an endorphin kick to shed the nagging thought in the back of my mind that this life coach might have been right about my body.
I arrived at the park, caffeine-fuelled and armed with an up-tempo Spotify workout playlist. Taking a deep breath, I put one foot in front of the other, setting the pace as the new running champion at the park. I was doing it! Until… I wasn’t. The glory of my running career quickly turned into a stabbing side stitch. My breath was replaced by wheezing. The bottom part of my body was on fire. Surely it wasn’t supposed to feel like this? I stopped after 15 minutes of torture, having been lapped by everyone in the park. It was shit.
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I try my best to be positive about exercise. But I couldn’t deny that running had made me feel even worse. I felt like a failure. Determined not to let the life coach win, I went home to figure out where I had gone wrong. After some research, here’s what I learned.
I hadn’t paid attention to what I ate before running, which could have caused my side stitch. A 2015 Sports Medicine study found that experts believe that side stitches are caused by friction in the abdominal lining. This can be caused by food taking up space in your gut, leading to pressure and subsequent friction in your abdominal wall.
I hadn’t warmed up before the run. Warming up allows your body the opportunity to loosen up, and your heart rate to gradually build so that it’s easier to sustain a run for longer. According to a study by the Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, researchers found that participants who warmed up with dynamic stretching routines achieved better results than those who hadn’t.
I hadn’t focused on my breathing. It seems obvious, but the more air that you inhale, the more oxygen is available to transfer through your circulatory system to get to your muscles. So diaphragmatic breathing (or belly breathing) will not only take in more of that much-needed oxygen, but an increased amount of studies show that it can be calming, focus-inducing and mentally strengthening.
I had thrown all of my energy into the start of my run and then couldn’t maintain the pace I had set for myself. It’s important to start at a slow, comfortable pace in the beginning, and then gradually build-up speed with experience. In 2015, Strava, a tracking app for runners and cyclists, reported that the average speed for women who ran recreationally was 10:21 minutes per mile. In pacing myself, I might be able to sustain my run for longer.
So, the following day, empowered with the remedies to my running problems, I tried again. Reluctantly throwing on my workout gear, I returned to the park. After a brief warm-up, I was ready to run. Putting one foot in front of the other, I focused on my breathing and set a slower pace. This time, it was marginally less painful. The pain in my side and the fire in my legs were slightly less torturous. My breathing sounded less like I was fighting to survive, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I still hated every second.
I lasted about 20 minutes this time, and again, was continually lapped by the more experienced runners at the park. I’ve read about the euphoric ‘runner’s high’, but my experience couldn’t be further from that. I’m still trying my best to overcome the bodily shock of moving faster than normal, ignoring the sharp pains in my body and trying not to hyperventilate. But I’ll keep trying to run until I get it right, or at least until the gym reopens.
It’s not easy starting something new. It’s also not easy to stay positive when you’re obviously not very good at what you’ve started. But there’s beauty in trying (and being terrible), because that’s when you learn what you’re made of. I’m proud that I haven’t just given up. Best of all, I’ve learned the importance of not letting someone else tell me who I am. Maybe that’s what it means to have an ‘anti-fragile mind’.
New to running? Check out our Strength Training for Runners series.