"I started running in lockdown for my mental health - four years on, I'm one of the fastest female marathon runners in the UK"

Here's how Anya did it.

Anya Culling
(Image credit: lululemon)

If you’ve been on social media this weekend, you’ve likely seen a friend, colleague or family member posting about the London Marathon. The 45th iteration of the race will see around 48,000 runners take to the streets of London this morning and raise record amounts of money for charity while ticking off an enormous life achievement.

For runner and now elite marathon runner Anya Culling, the London Marathon was just the beginning of what's been a life-changing journey. While five years ago she was working full time and running for fun, she’s had one of the most spectacular career transformations I’ve ever seen, going from running London for charity in 4 hours and 34 minutes to a seriously impressive time of 2 hours 36 at the 2022 iteration. That’s not even her personal best, either - she managed to knock off two whole minutes at that year’s Copenhagen Marathon, qualifying her officially as an elite and setting her career trajectory on its course.

So how does a kid who used to walk during cross country who took up running as a lockdown hobby make it her career - and how on earth has she improved her fitness so much in such a short space of time? To me, she’s the ultimate inspiration, showing that seemingly “ordinary” people juggling nine-to-five jobs can do truly extraordinary things if they put in the hard graft.

Below, she shares her story. Feeling inspired to run a marathon (training tips for a marathon, at the ready) and considering entering the ballot for 2025? Scroll our top running tips for beginners, guide to mindful running, and find out how I learnt how to run faster and used speedwork training to run a sub 1:30 half marathon at the beginning of the month. 

"I'm proof that anything is possible - how I went from being a non-runner to a 2 hour 33 athlete"

"I grew up in a sleepy village in Norfolk and moved to London straight after school. As a kid, I always played hockey and cricket but I was never the child who won in sports day. I actually remember walking school cross country. Fast forward twenty years and I'm a lululemon sponsored elite marathon runner."

"While I've always been into my sport and fitness, I really caught the running bug during lockdown. It felt like the perfect opportunity to focus on my fitness. On the first day of lockdown, I downloaded Strava to be able to track my progress and went from there. Pounding the pavements boosted both my physical and mental health, so I made the most of the one hour of exercise we were allowed."

"I've always enjoyed the social side of sport, and so threw myself into several run clubs as lockdown restrictions eased. Things escalated from there - being honest, I never had a race booked or a target in mind, I was just enjoying running. I don’t think I was aware of the progress I was making because the times and PBs were secondary to my love for the sport."

"I signed up for that initial London marathon in 2019 because I like doing hard things. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. That said, it wasn’t until I learnt to appreciate the quietness and the simplicity of the sport that I really caught the bug. I have quite a busy brain and running silenced that. I learnt that running didn’t always have to be difficult and that there is a place for both easy runs and hard runs in training. An easy run, for me, is about mindlessness, losing myself and quietening my thoughts. For a hard run, it's different - focusing on keeping my mind on the paces and splits."

"I went from a 4 hour 34 minute marathon time in 2019 to a 2 hour 36 minute marathon in 2022, knocking off almost two hours. This then qualified me for an England vest, where I ran my PB of 2 hours 34 minutes at the Copenhagen Marathon. That race time also qualified me for an Elite vest at the London Marathon 2024."

"I think I progressed so quickly because being the fastest was never my intention. I never forced myself to train and it has never felt like a chore. My progression, although pretty quick, has all been down to consistency over time and putting the work in and my goal has always been to fit running into my life, rather than live my life around running meaning that getting faster has always been secondary."

"I am a big believer in how running makes me feel and the positive impact it has on mental wellbeing. Recently I started putting too much pressure on myself ahead of the London Marathon so I took a step back and re-found my love for the sport again. This will always be paramount for my longevity in the sport."

"My proudest achievement to date is either racing for England or completing The Speed Project - a 340-mile relay from Santa Monica to Las Vegas. I felt such immense pride in racing in an England vest. It really felt like a big milestone on the way to reaching my running potential and pushing my limits even more."

"The Speed Project was a totally different challenge, the running was the easier bit, and it was everything else that pushed me out of my comfort zone. lululemon sponsored our team for the challenge, a 340-mile self-supported race known as "the hardest relay race on earth." Our mission was to celebrate human possibility and demonstrate how far women can go in a world of existing sex and gender data gaps in endurance performance. We partnered with a sports data specialist to look into how our physiological, psychological and neurological states were affected during this challenge. We’re hoping this research will encourage further studies."

"If I could tell my younger self anything, I'd say to never limit yourself. I live by the phrase, what if it turned out better than you'd ever imagine?"

"That said, I have and always will struggle with huge imposter syndrome and feeling like I am not good enough. To counter it, I try and reflect on my journey and achievements - I'm always pushing forwards for myself and to make myself proud. No one in my family has ever run - I didn't run until my 20s! - and I never, ever thought I’d be here five years ago. I am still going through the same emotional ups and downs in training. I've found that although I used to take longer to finish a race, each mile ticked off is just as important. I've worked so hard and loved every minute of this journey."

"I often get asked why I run. I think it comes down to my pursuit of fearlessness. In life, you have to overcome so many hurdles - I'm in a constant battle with my brain telling me that I can’t do things. Running has taught me to find my inner strength and proves I am more capable than I ever thought. So why would I limit myself in everyday life? I am living a dream that I worked hard for. No more silly self-limiting beliefs, no more fearing what other people think. My biggest hope is that someone looks at me and thinks, "If she can do it, why can’t I’?".

"Today will mark my third time running the London Marathon. Each race comes with huge sentimental value for different reasons - I’m looking forward to seeing what this year brings."

7 running tips for beginners

1. Start small and set realistic goals

With running, it’s important to build up slowly, shares Culling. "This will help you stay consistent and injury-free," she explains. 

Top tip: Don’t throw yourself in the deep end and remember to enjoy the journey. "Aim for small goals each week or month, rather than just one big race goal that puts a lot of pressure on your training and seems unachievable at the beginning."

2. Join a running club

Most people will tell you this is one of the best decisions they ever made for their running. "Running with friends or a group is not only fun but helps keep you motivated and held accountable. Finding like-minded people makes you want to show up and go for that run," she recommends. 

3. Don’t worry too much

This one's important - "especially when it comes to pace, distance, and what everyone around you is doing," the athlete stresses. "It’s your journey, so focus on being consistent," she advises. 

Think of it this way: it’s better to run consistently well throughout the month than do one amazing run. "It's also important to condition your body with regular running - this helps you to become stronger and more resilient." Do give yourself time to make the habit stick, though - it's thought to take 21 days to form a habit, after all.

4. Learn to love the grind

And also, do find another workout that you do enjoy if running really isn't your jam. You'll only ever stick to a workout routine if you genuinely enjoy it, after all. 

Culling's advice? "I love listening to running podcasts to fully immerse myself in the world of running," she shares. "Following inspirational runners on social media or going to a race to support other runners is also brilliant - the energy is contagious."

5. Do what you can to make running enjoyable

On this front, Culling is a big fan of kit that makes you feel confident, supported and badass. "I recommend investing in running kit that makes you feel good," she shares.

Her personal favourites are the lululemon Hotty Hot High-Rise shorts featured in our edit of the best running shorts. "I have them in practically every colour because they look great and are, more importantly, comfortable."

6. Run your own pace

Another really key tip for newbie runners is to work out the pace that works for you, your body and your current fitness level and stick at it. "Additionally, I always recommend running at a time of day that works best for you, as well as following a route that you love," the athlete advises. "You might not feel that infamous runners high straight away, but trust it'll come and be worth all your hard work. 

Try this: If you're finding running a bit of a chore, try to shift your mindset to view your run as something you get to do, rather than have to do. "Remember it's your time to de-stress, listen to your favourite tunes or wear your favourite kit," she adds. 

7. Reward yourself

Last but by no means least, it’s important to reflect on your hard work and progression with running. "It’s easy to hit a goal and then immediately want to go further or faster, which ultimately means we never feel quite fulfilled," shares the athlete.

Try this: Celebrate the small wins. "That might be going out in the rain when you didn’t want to or finishing a run at a faster pace than you started," she highlights. "This will make you feel more accomplished and put into perspective how far you've come."

Shop MC UK's go-to running kit now:

Ally Head
Senior Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and is a stickler for a strong stat, too, seeing over nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.