How difficult is it to take up running in middle age? Join me as I pant around my local rec to find out
Why, suddenly, is everyone in the world running? Could I do it, too? How do I start? Am I too old? What if I try – and fail? The NHS Choices Couch to 5K and other apps claim anyone can do it. Perhaps, instead, I should be asking: what’s stopping me?
I have a past
It started badly, back at school. I disliked team sports as a teenager, as now. Here’s my sports lesson routine, aged 15: my friend and I walk the short distance to the playing field and back, stopping off at hers for a coffee and a Club biscuit.
As an adult, however, I’ve always been fairly active. But I’m bored of the gym, my walk to and from work isn’t enough, and being on the wrong side of 40 (and the rest…) I need options.
I’m missing the athletic gene
Chatting to a very encouraging work colleague recently about the benefits of running, it occurred to me why I’ve never been tempted. Runners just seem kind of competitive, comparing Personal Bests, entering marathons willy nilly and talking GPS trackers. My assumption therefore: I’m not athletic, I’m not out to prove anything, I get out of breath easily – so it’s not for me. Add to the mix my slightly dodgy knee and I have all the excuses I need for not giving it a try.
Rule no 1: don’t be put off by fitter friends
So why start now?
It was the word ‘couch’ in the NHS Choices Couch to 5K app that swung it. Perhaps I could do this at my own pace. That, as it turns out, is the beauty of the app. It takes 9 weeks to take you from zero running minutes to 30 minutes non stop (about 5K). I’m about to find out if I’ve left it too late for my joints to handle the shock.
So I downloaded the free app on my phone. So as not to jinx my efforts, I didn’t splash out on my nifty running top till week 3 but, as advised, I bought a decent pair of running shoes for day 1 (a revelation: once they’re on you can totally forget your feet and that feels like half the battle!).
TIME TO FIX THE GAIT
Kitting yourself out with a decent pair of running shoes is essential for avoiding injury – and it’s not just a question of finding a pair that feels comfortable in a shoe shop. If you go to a sports shop (preferably specialising in running), gait analysis is usually free if you’re buying your shoes there. They watch you run for a few seconds on a treadmill, then recommend the right type of shoe to suit the way your feet land on the ground, minimising trauma to joints, etc. That’s how I ended up with my fluorescent pair, which I probably wouldn’t have picked from a crowded shelf. They were the ones that stopped my knees meeting with every step.
Surprise! It makes you feel good
I feel so bouncy in my shoes I can’t wait to begin. Week 1 starts with a ridiculous-sounding 60 seconds (yes, seconds!) of running / 90 seconds of walking, alternated over 20 minutes. A voice called Laura assures me I’m going to be OK and offers a few tips (but knows when to shut up, too, so she never gets naggy).
One of my favourite tips is the assurance that your technique doesn’t matter – it will improve all by itself over time. She gives handy breathing tips, too. As running out of puff too soon is my biggest fear, she’s spot on. I don’t, though, and I finish each section of running feeling I could do more. And, as I walk to catch my breath, I realise this is what the fuss is about: you feel flipping great. Endorphins, perhaps. Or relief at being told to walk, not run.
I think I’ve got the bug
Weeks 2 and 3 continue in this vein – each week consists of 3 runs of the same walk/run combo before moving up a level, to give your body time to adjust. The important thing is not to push your body too far, too soon (even if you feel like it) and that way you avoid injury. Don’t, for instance, worry about keeping up with your husband, who is also fairly new to running but has decided to run as fast and far as he can each time until he feels like passing out. On week 3, he has to give up for a full week as his leg is hurting so much. I’m going to call him ‘the control experiment’.
Rule no 2: don’t do it like a dude
Oh no, I’ve got the bug
At week 4, I hit a problem. I’ve caught a stomach bug that lays me low for a week. I’m back at work but feeling exhausted. My doctor advises me not to run until I get my energy back, but what will happen to my training? Will my body forget it can run?
Rule no 3: don’t think too far ahead
Back on track
My body has coped just fine with the break. I did week 4 again without skipping a beat. I do worry what will happen when I have to run more than 8 minutes at a time, but rule no 3 keeps me going. What I like about this running thing is that it is, indeed, something most people can do – as long as you stick to your own pace. It’s free, tiring but exhilarating and available one step from your own front door. You can do it alone for some me-time (well, just me and Laura) or with a companion (so what if he sometimes has to run backwards to allow you to keep up?) and at a time to suit you.
One day, instead of my usual walk home from work, on impulse I don my trainers and do the walk/run/walk/run routine. I’m slightly self-conscious as I’m clearly not a real runner and people will think I’m slow. In fact, no one’s remotely interested.
Next week I’ve got to step it up a gear and do a 20 min non-stop run. Will that prove too much of a challenge? I’ll be back to fill you in – and I promise to tell the truth.
Rule no 4: it’s psychological
READ: part 2