Sam knows running is not a cure-all, but what it can do is amazing
Better sex, a fitter body, more energy, a longer life, youthful looks, stronger muscles, a healthier heart, greater optimism, weight loss, a sharper brain, higher pain tolerance, less stress and depression, slower physical and cognitive decline, and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease and some cancers.
If you read that sentence without drawing breath, it’s because you have running-honed lungs – and these are just some of the benefits attributed to our sport. Reading the list, it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would choose not to start running. But while there is research to support each of these oft-cited benefits, there are no written guarantees. Runners feel pain. Runners get depressed. Runners have crap days, and even crap sex. Some have dodgy tickers, arthritic joints or they get cancer. Running – whisper it – is not a panacea.
As a runner, you probably know this. However, I worry occasionally that the fervour with which our sport is promoted risks promising what cannot be delivered – at least, not straight away. It is fantastic that running has become a mass-participation sport – taken up by more people, and for more reasons, than ever before. But it sometimes feels as if the benefits that used to be considered unexpected – but welcome – side effects of a running habit (‘since I started running I’ve coped with work stress a lot better/ reduced my medication for depression/felt more confident’) are now seen not just as a rite of passage but as a right. Place anything on a pedestal and it has a long way to fall – and, as writer Margaret Atwood noted: ‘ Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.’
I’ve worked with a lot of new runners over the past couple of years. A few weeks into one 10-week beginners’ programme, a woman confided that she wasn’t feeling any better yet. Was she doing something wrong, she asked me with an exasperated laugh. Was there something wrong with her? When could she expect to get the runner’s high? She never finished the course – running failed to meet her expectations.
Eighteen months earlier I’d had a participant who I’d have laid bets on dropping out. She struggled through each session, looking solemn and staying silent while others waxed lyrical about how running was changing their lives for the better. But she kept coming to the group and a year later, at the end of a run, she announced with a radiant smile, ‘That was the first time I’ve ever enjoyed it.’ ‘ What made you stick with it?’ I asked. ‘The encouragement and support from other runners,’ she told me. ‘I’d been through a dark period. It was a motivation for me to keep coming and make connections with people – otherwise, I’d just go home from work and watch telly. Being in my late 50s, it was also a determination to become physically fitter.’ Having patience, and realistic expectations paid off for this runner – she’s since done her first race and, I believe, would happily attest to many of the benefits outlined earlier. As do I.
However, when I first took up the sport, it was simply to stay fit and keep my weight in check while I was travelling around the world during a gap year. It worked a treat, but many of the minor miracles that running works happened later – years later, in some cases. It’s almost as if the running gods have some kind of reward-card system in operation. The more miles you accrue, the more benefits you unlock. But just like the points you earn on a real reward card, the add-on benefits aren’t the reason you run (or shop) – you were going to do it anyway – they’re a big, fat, beautiful bonus.