Does the idea of running in public fill you with abject horror? Or do you simply need some advice to get you started? Here, author of Jog On Journal Bella Mackie debunks the biggest running myths, to put your mind at ease about giving it a go.
When I started running, I used to stick to one dark alleyway, worried about what people might think if they saw me sweating and puffing. I was worried about more established runners – would they laugh and think I was doing it all wrong? I was scared that men might catcall me, that someone might point or nudge their mate, convinced that I looked absurd as I jogged slowly and painfully.
Six years on and I run in hot pants when it’s sunny. I run holding shopping bags so as to cut short a trip to the supermarket. I’ve run in zigzags down pavements to see if it helps my pace, and I’ve sped around wearing earmuffs in the snow. All of this is to say, nobody bats an eyelid either way, and even if they did, I wouldn’t care at all.
But it took me a good while to realise this. A fear of mockery definitely played a part in my 20s, when I did no exercise and remained completely inert. And it’s the same for many people. Since Jog On, my memoir about running and mental health came out, thousands of readers (mainly women) have been in touch with me to tell me that they want to run, but feel intimidated, scared, foolish.
It drives me round the bend that so many of us don’t use our bodies because we’re afraid of the reaction we might face if we do. Because when you start to run, you slowly come to see how little anyone else cares.
Passers by are too engrossed in their phones, intent on getting home and feeling tired from a long day, to notice you. And those that do look at you are most likely feeling some mix of admiration and envy. I used to feel those things when I saw runners whoosh past me. I never found it ridiculous. Instead, I wondered why I wasn’t able to do the same.
These misconceptions can hold us back from running or working out, and I’ve been asked hundreds of running questions from people over the past year.
Looking for some more immediate advice? Here are my top five running myths (now we’ve accepted that nobody will judge you). Hopefully they might help you see that the reservations you have about trying it out are baseless. If running isn’t for you, that’s totally fine, but don’t avoid it because you’re daunted. I promise that the benefits are worth a few moments of apprehension.
Running myth one: slow running doesn’t count
This is complete and utter nonsense. It’s most likely spread by the same dudes in the gym (back in the days when we could go to the gym) who would try and tell you that you’re not using the equipment properly. So many people tell me with shy pride that they’ve just done their first 5k run, and then quickly add the caveat that ‘they were so, so slow’. Who cares? Unless you’re Usain Bolt and have an intense need for speed, you can set your own pace.
I don’t go any faster than I did when I completed my first 5k six years ago. I’ve found my rhythm, and enjoy running because I’m not breaking my back trying to beat my own records. It’s great if you want to get faster, or go for longer, but if it adds unwanted pressure, then forget timers and try and listen to what your body feels comfortable doing.
So many people tell me that they’ve given up because it felt too hard – the simple solution is to SLOW DOWN. Take in the view, lift your head up to the sun. Most importantly, enjoy it.
Running myth two: you must have a certain body shape to run
This reason is such a common one when women get in touch with me to ask about running. They worry that they’re too heavy, too short, too busty. If you’re lucky enough to be able bodied, then it doesn’t matter what shape you are – you can run. Not all runners look like Paula Radcliffe, despite what adverts and social media might have you believe. Invest in a great sports bra (my favourite is from Maaree), and follow Instagram accounts like @diversewerun to show you that there’s no one way to look as a runner.
Running myth three: a quick lap of the park doesn’t count
So many people ask me when I’m going to run a marathon. The answer is… I am never going to run a marathon. I’ll probably never even run a half marathon. I like slow, medium length runs, preferably completed alone, and that’s what works for me.
There seems to be an expectation that the moment you can do a 5k, you’ll be signing up to races and striving to run further and further. But you are not Forrest Gump, and you probably have a job, a social life and many other things going on which make running long distances a challenge.
More importantly, you might not want to run too far. A quick 20 minutes twice a week might be enough to boost your mood and give you more energy. That’s perfect! Find the time that works for you, and block out any calls to run marathons - unless you want to. But if like me you never do, then fear not: you’re still a runner.
Running myth four: you must run first thing, eat carbs, and drink pints of water
It can be daunting when you start out – should you eat three eggs and drink a protein shake before a jog? Can you run on an empty stomach? Are you stretching too much, or not enough? The best thing to do is not to get bogged down in this stuff when you begin. It’ll be trial and error for the most part. I’ve found that I run best on an empty stomach first thing, whereas others love an evening run. Some people need to drink a lot of water, whereas some don’t. I chug coffee and head out. Listen to your body and figure out what it needs to make running easier and more enjoyable.
Running myth five: you must always seek to improve
Sure, if you want to. You can get faster every year, run longer, do hill sprints and race over difficult terrain. You can combine it all with strength training and get really knowledgeable about healthy eating and high tech trainers. Or you can run three times a week, drink wine and accept that you don’t really understand what protein bars do. Honestly either is fine.
The problem is that the first option is the daunting one that beginners often think they MUST aspire to. Running has to work for you - whether it’s because you want to slough off some anxiety or have half an hour to yourself. You must never feel like you’re fitting your whole life around it. If you try and push yourself to limits which feel uncomfortable, you’ll end up stopping. And that would be a crying shame, because running can make you feel like a superhero. It can give you confidence, energy, a rush of joy. It can make you feel proud of yourself.
And finally: one running truth to offset the myths
You never regret a run. I have lingered in my warm hallway many times, putting it off. I have almost taken off my trainers and sat back down on the couch. But I always go in the end, because I know that I will come back feeling clearer, bouncier, better about myself and more able to deal with stress or sadness. It’s the one assertion I feel most confident about making when someone asks me why they should run. Try it for yourself. I promise nobody will laugh.
This piece was originally published in November 2019
Jog On Journal: A Practical Guide to Getting Up and Running by Bella Mackie is published by William Collins, £14.99
Images: Getty, Unsplash