Listening to your running body

If you listen to your body, what do you do when you hear a red flag flapping in the breeze between your ears?

‘Listen to your body.’ You’ve heard it a million times if you’re a runner, and you know that it means you have to pay attention to those warning signs of forthcoming doom in the guise of injury, pain, illness or temporary burnout.

But it’s not always that easy to tell exactly where these warning signs are coming from. Are they kosher? Have they been issued by the central governor in your brain (who I like to think of as my inbuilt hard-hat-wearing health and safety officer)? Or are they from a different place in your mind – perhaps a region of the brain concerned with motivation or emotions?

The reason it matters is that it might affect what you do when you ‘listen in’ and hear a red flag of some kind flapping in the breeze between your ears. Is it the rational, if somewhat over-zealous governor speaking? Or is the ancient reptilian part of your brain trying to protect you from attempting something that might cause you discomfort or that you might not succeed at – like an 18-mile long run with the last four miles at goal marathon pace?

Yesterday, my plan was exactly that run. But I woke up under a dark cloud and the idea of surmounting such a session felt almost impossible. My muscles ached as if I’d already done the bloody thing, and I was devoid of bounce. Aah, I thought. Better listen to my body. It’s definitely saying ‘no thanks.’

Decision made, my mood brightened and I got on with other things. Physical stuff, like digging in the garden and chopping wood. By late afternoon I was so energised I felt inclined to do the run – but knew there wasn’t enough daylight left to fit it in.  Tomorrow, then.

That is, today. It loomed large in my mind from the moment I woke up. My calf felt tight. My stomach felt a bit funny. My socks didn’t seem to fit right when I put them on, making me worry about chafing and blisters. But this time, I acknowledged the alerts and carried on with my run preparation regardless. This, I decided, is not physical, it’s mental.

The run started off feeling harder than it should. ‘WE FEEL TERRIBLE!’ my body told my central governor in a panic (it’s always shouting). ‘HOW WILL WE MANAGE 18 MILES? WE’VE ONLY DONE TWO AND WE’RE EXHAUSTED!’ ‘We’ll be OK,’ replied the guvnor. ‘We’ve got plenty of water and energy gels and it’s a beautiful day. Only seven more miles till we turn for home…’

I shaped my face into a smile (making sure to include my eyes in this forced expression of joy) and carried on. I took in the vivid blues of the sea, lakes and sky, and the yellows and greens of the fields. I listened to the birds singing, ate my energy gels, turned at 9 miles and sped up at 14. And I made it home without my calf (or indeed, anything else) hurting, my stomach exploding or my socks chafing.

Listening to your body is good advice, but knowing whether it’s got something worthwhile to say can be a tricky business.

 

In praise of Jim Fixx – pioneer of running for the masses

One Sunday morning in the late 1970s, my dad suddenly appeared in the kitchen donning a tracksuit and towelling headband and announced he was going jogging. He returned, 20 minutes later, red-faced and sweat soaked, but by the time he’d come down from his shower even a Beano-reading nine-year old could see that he had a new spring in his step.

Unfortunately, Dad’s enthusiasm for running shrank faster than his polyester tracksters – most likely as a result of him attempting to practise his new hobby every morning and failing to allow enough time for his 40-something body to adapt to this new rigour. But his brief foray into the sport did give me a glimpse of the running boom that swept our nation in that era, a boom that – according to a survey conducted at the time – saw two million Brits donning their trainers at least once a week.

‘The purposes of this book are first to introduce you to the extraordinary world of running, and second, to change your life.’

And many, if not most, of them have one man to thank. Jim Fixx. Heard of him? His seminal work, The Complete Book of Running was released in 1977 and sold over a million copies, topping the New York Times bestseller list for months. Yet ten years earlier, Fixx was a non-runner who weighed in at over 15 stone, drank and smoked two packets of cigarettes a day. Running transformed not just his body – he lost more than four stone and went from last place in his debut 5-mile race to winning a state championship in his age group two years later – but his whole life. It was with the zeal of the newly converted that he set about writing The Complete Book of Running, which states in its introduction ‘the purposes of this book are first to introduce you to the extraordinary world of running, and second, to change your life.’

No wonder middle-aged men and women worldwide – especially those who had never dared to believe they could be runners – were lacing up their trainers in their droves. The only trouble is, seven years later, Fixx – the man who gave running to the masses – dropped dead while he was out running. He was 52 and had suffering a heart attack resulting from two blocked coronary arteries, forever proving to the lazy, the reluctant and the sceptical that running was a bad idea.

We are in the midst of another running boom, albeit a very different one from the first. And since its now forty years since Fixx’s book came out I opened it expecting to be amused, bemused, irritated and horrified by the advice and information it contained. And while it’s easy to snicker at statements like ‘the cure for an inflamed Achilles tendon is to run only on hard surfaces’ or ‘if you want to run well, try not to be satisfied with staying at a normal weight’ much of the book’s content remains valid – as well as interesting, insightful and witty. We like to believe that our sport has undergone nothing short of emancipation in the last forty years. You no longer have to be skinny, fast, male and competitive to be a runner – anyone can wear the label proudly, even if they have no intention of ever pinning on a race number. But on the yellowing pages of Fixx’s book many of the running converts he quotes talk not about race times or pounds lost but about a sense of independence or freedom gained, a lifting of anxiety or depression, relief from tension and improvements in self worth.

Running IS different this time round. Nowadays, it is as much a social activity as a form of exercise, a way to connect, not compete, a road to self-expression, not self-improvement.

Thanks to technology, social media, initiatives like Race for Life and Parkrun, its many benefits have filtered through to more people, different people. And this time, we’ve taken all the alarmist ‘Too much running bad for the heart! Headlines in our stride. But Jim Fixx and all those he inspired to run 40 years ago were the pioneers – who were stared at, mocked, imitated and warned off – they opened the doors for us. Thank you Jim.

This is an extended version of a Murphy’s Lore column, published in Runner’s World magazine.

Splendid isolation

I’m bundled up in my sleeping bag, listening to the river tumbling along its rocky bed. The sound of running water has become my nightly lullaby on this trip – it shushes, tinkles, burbles and roars. Beneath its music, I occasionally catch another sound so like the faint murmur of voices that it makes me understand why brooks are said to babble.

 

It’s been a long day – eleven hours of walking – and, despite wall-to-wall sunshine, the hardest yet. We’ve toiled across miles of pathless territory, first traversing the slopes of lofty Beinn Dronaig and later, (after some respite along a clear, if soulless, forestry track) picking our way through disorientating boulder fields. Lucky I married a former British Orienteering champion who, with map and compass in hand, took it all in his stride.

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We stopped to cook dinner in a sheltered spot among the boulders while the last of the sun lingered, realising that by the time we made our descent to the river where we planned to camp it would be getting dark. We were starving, as usual, so Brownie points to me for not throwing a huge tantrum when Jeff KNOCKED THE PAN OFF THE STOVE, and our Mexican chilli ended up on the ground (Morris quickly moving in to hoover up).

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You’d have done the same…

We salvaged what we could, and after we’d negotiated the horrible stony descent and pitched the tent in fading light, compensated for the calorie deficit with huge mugs of hot chocolate.

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As I lie on my now-mended sleeping mat, enjoying the feeling of being horizontal – and straining my ears to make out those watery voices – I reflect on how stripped back and simple (simple, not easy) life is on the trail. Our entire focus each day is to get from A to B successfully, to be fed and watered and to get shelter and rest. We have no connection – virtual or actual – with the outside world and therefore no distraction. It’s remarkably liberating – and, I reckon, good for your mental health; like having a holiday from your usual self. The craving for news, the fomo, that habitual drive to share everything on social media – it all fades into the background when the big issues of the day concern dry socks, hot drinks and whether you’ve got any Pepperami left. Luckily for Jeff, I have…