Struggling with your runs? Here’s why you shouldn’t worry

One of the most common questions I get asked on social media nowadays is ‘does it get easier?!’ – usually in reference to running. Running is difficult for the vast majority of people. It requires not only physical strength, but also huge amounts of mental strength, never more so than when you’re just starting out.

Evidence suggests that self control and self motivation may be limited resources, and that forcing yourself to do something – whether that’s doing the washing up, sitting at your desk all day or sending yourself out on a run – takes energy (i.e. ego depletion). This is one of the reasons why forming a new habit, such as running, can be so difficult. Not only is the running itself hard, but doing something that takes some level of self control everyday can take its toll energetically.

However, we are currently uniquely placed to start forming new habits. Fitting in ‘extra exercise’ around your usual workload, home and social lives can be extremely difficult. Currently, though, without the need for commuting, socialising, workplace politics or much else, our pot of energy is only being used on work, home life and exercise. This isn’t to say that everything is fine and dandy at the moment, simply that forming a new habit when there aren’t all the usual distractions and displacement activities may be easier. If you’re thinking of starting running now, don’t forget to give this article a read.

Just remember – not every run is going to feel great, even if the general trend is up. As with everything, some days are good days and other days aren’t – we don’t always feel happy, so why should it be any different for running? I frequently go weeks without feeling like I’ve had a good run, where every step feels like my legs are made from lead and I wonder why I do it. In these times, however, I always think of myself building mental resilience. I may not be at my fastest, but getting out when you feel like you really don’t want to means that getting out on the good days is a hell of a lot easier. I think of it as the running equivalent of ‘character building’.

So here are my top experiences of how it really does get easier:

  1. You start to form a habit.

Making the decision to get out everyday takes energy, but the more you do it, the less of a ‘mental battle’ you have to have each time. Yes, the initial 2 weeks or month or 2 months can be difficult. Hell, I still struggle to get myself out the door sometimes, but exercise is not a question for me – it’s a habit, so whether I go to the gym (obviously not now), get out for a run or simply a long walk, the question is not whether I get out, it’s when. If you’re new to running, form a habit by getting a running plan and do your best to stick to it. Don’t want to go out? Tell yourself that you can stop whenever you like, as long as you get out the door and to the end of the road. Chances are, once you’re up and out, you’ll be fine to keep going.

2. You get fitter

This sounds so obvious, but I think it’s easy to overlook your progress when you have a goal in mind that you haven’t hit yet. Try tracking your progress loosely, so that when you get the feeling you’re not progressing at all, you can look back and see how far you’ve come. Don’t forget – every time you go out for a run, you’re making mental and physical improvements, even if you can’t see them yet. One day they’ll all come together and you’ll feel on top of the world.

3. Running becomes more natural

When I take a few weeks off running for whatever reason, or forget to do speed sessions, my runs sometimes feel like my legs have forgotten what they’re supposed to do! The more you run (up to a point), the more natural running will become to you. It would be useful if we could all work with running coaches to get cadence and form right, but even without this, your body will naturally move towards a more efficient way of running. You probably won’t notice this all at once, but over time you’ll feel it happening!

4. A sense of achievement will motivate you

As you start to improve, especially if you’re following a plan, you’ll be motivated by the improvement itself. Being able to run a distance or time you couldn’t have run 2 or 3 weeks ago feels pretty great, and will motivate you to get out the door again and again. Just don’t expect constant improvements – limit your expectations and try to enjoy the process, not just the outcome.

5. Find your ‘why’

Without spring or summer races to motivate you, it can be hard to think of reasons to keep up with all the running. Why should you, when there’s no official PB time or medal at the end? Well, although it may be tough, this time is perfect to remember why you started running in the first place. Write down your reasons and think on them. Have they changed? What drives you? Remembering this can help you get out the door, and make future training sessions that extra bit enjoyable.

6. You can switch off

One of the positives of not having races to aim for at the moment is that training sessions don’t have to be so rigid. Instead of X minute miles or weekly fartlek sessions, you can run for the sheer joy of it. Remember point number 5, take off your GPS watch and just get out there. Our level of effort is almost always measured against what we feel we ‘should’ be doing. That’s why runs on days we’re really not feeling it can seem so hard – we’re expecting a certain level of effort to be expended to get a certain pace, and if we don’t hit that, it’s easy to feel down. By taking off your watch and abandoning all perceptions of ‘should’, it’s possible to have some of the best runs of your life.

 

This time is difficult for all of us for numerous reasons, but don’t make running one of them. Running is an escape and can lead to a sense of achievement nothing else can right now. There is no ‘should’ when it comes to training at the moment. Do what feels right, what feels good and what will make you happy in the long run. Running gets easier the more you do it, but it also makes other things easier, so get out there if you can and enjoy it!

 

Exhausted – The effect of air pollution on running

It might be just me, but it seems that air pollution has risen on the agenda of Things To Worry About in the last few months. Plastic pollution was one of the key phrases within eco-conscious circles in 2019, with laws coming into place this year in a bid to control the problem. The term pollution, however, refers not only to plastic, but also the introduction of any contaminant into the environment which may cause harm. This can take the form of noise, light, chemicals or even heat – most of which we cannot see.

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Pollution is an issue in cities (and even many rural areas) around the world

Air pollution has a devastating impact on those living in the cities. While the pollution usually cannot be seen, the impacts are felt by all, with it shortening lives and contributing to a number of health problems. In the UK, pollution is a bigger killer than smoking, and costs the UK economy over £20bn per year. The biggest culprits are Nitrogen dioxide, emitted mainly by diesel vehicles, and PM2.5, fine particulate matter linked to adverse health effects. In the EU the toxic air is causing more than 1000 premature deaths each day from PM2.5– a figure which is 10 times higher than the number of deaths from traffic accidents.

Because of this invisible nature, it has been easy for people (and thus governments) to ignore the issue, focussing instead on highly visible, highly publicised issues and ‘buzzwords’, such as banning straws (good, but of limited benefit to the plastic pollution problem). However, in October 2019, it was announced that the UK would introduce an Environment Bill to “help ensure that we maintain and improve our environmental protections as we leave the EU”, including focussing on air quality and PM2.5 in particular.

For runners and cyclists, an immediate concern, however, is how we can actively work to improve our health (and continue doing what we love) without inadvertently harming ourselves.

Unfortunately, running in heavily polluted air has been linked to inflamed lungs, increased risk of asthma (I experienced this firsthand at the age of 18, when I moved to Paris), and instances of heart attack, stroke, cancer and death. Needless to say, these risk factors are enough to put people off, and encourage them to run on a treadmill (boring), or worse still, avoid exercising outdoors entirely. But is this entirely justified?

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Live pollution meter of London (18/02/2020 10am)

Even the scientists admit the problem is complex. Andrew Grieve, Senior Air Quality Analyst at King’s College London, says “when you’re running, you’re breathing a lot more than you are just walking along the street and your inhalation rate is massive so you’re bringing in more pollution.” In fact, someone running a marathon will inhale the same amount of oxygen as a normal person would sitting down over two days. Most people also tend to breathe through their mouths, bypassing the nasal filters, which can work to reduce pollution intake. The carbon monoxide alone can inhibit the body’s ability to transport oxygen around the body, thus making running that little bit harder too.

On the plus side, running is really good for you. Although I couldn’t find any studies looking directly at the effect of running in polluted areas (other than this, for elite athletes over marathon distance), a study on people walking in polluted areas up to 16h a day or cycling up to 3.5h per day suggested that the benefits of activity outweighed any harm from pollution in all but the most extreme of cases.

Conclusions

The benefits from active travel generally outweigh health risks from air pollution and therefore should be further encouraged. When weighing long-term health benefits from PA (physical activity) against possible risks from increased exposure to air pollution, our calculations show that promoting cycling and walking is justified in the vast majority of settings, and only in a small number of cities with the highest PM2.5concentration in the world cycling could lead to increase in risk. (Tainio, Marko, et al. “Can air pollution negate the health benefits of cycling and walking?.” Preventive medicine 87 (2016): 233-236.)

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Photo by James Purvis

However, there are things we could be doing to both decrease our risk of being negatively affected by air pollution, and also improve the air quality where we live.

  1. Choose lesser polluted routes when walking, running or cycling around cities. Choosing to walk or cycle on a quiet road instead of a busy one can sharply reduce the amount of pollution you take in. Even using a parallel road one block over from a traffic-clogged one can reduce your exposure by 50%. If you’re looking to run or cycle around London, consider downloading Clean Air Run Club on your phone to score routes by air quality.
  2. Run in the morning. Pollution increases throughout the day, especially in summer.
  3. Aim to find green spaces, or roads lined with trees – these are havens from pollution, and even a small amount of greenery between you and the traffic can dramatically reduce pollution levels!
  4. Take note of particularly bad air days using a live air quality monitor. These will often be on hot and humid days. If you can, avoid running/cycling outside on these days, perhaps getting in some cross training indoors, or a run on the treadmill.
  5. Take public transport. Although particulate pollution in tube lines is up to 30 times higher than roadside, Prof Frank Kelly, chair of Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP), said people should continue to use the tube given the relatively short time spent underground and lack of evidence of harmful effects. Using public transport also reduces fumes expelled by cars, cleaning the air above ground that we breathe for the rest of the day.
  6. Eliminate wood burners and fireplace usage. Wood fires are sold as ‘eco’ or ‘clean’ alternatives to electric heaters or gas fires, but are far from it, and are a big contributor to wintertime pollution across Britain. Reducing wood burning reduces deaths and pollution-related ill-health.
  7. Switch to clean energy sources and aim to conserve energy at home and work. By switching to a renewable energy that is generated by natural sources such as solar, water and wind, you can help to fight harmful levels of air pollution.
  8. Lobby governments. For real change to be seen, governments need to prioritise pollution and other environmental issues (which go hand in hand), and now is the time to pressure them.
  9. Stop driving (especially around urban areas) unless absolutely necessary. Although you may believe driving a car protects you from the worst of the fumes, pollution levels inside cars are usually significantly higher than directly outside the car on the street, due to exhaust fumes being circulated around the enclosed space.

The good news is that we know the impact of pollution and we know what we can do to reduce it. We also know that even small improvements have substantial and immediate benefits for us all. What is needed now is for global governments to step up and reassess funding priorities. Pollution is the biggest environmental health risk in Europe, and it’s time something was done about it.

 

This article was adapted from a piece I wrote for EcoAge. For more of a deep dive into the issue of pollution, head on over. 

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