It transforms the body and the mind, anyone can do it, and it starts with just one step. Andrea Childs reports on the power of running - and why now is as good a time to take it up as any...
Words by Andrea Childs
My running was a history of highs and lows (‘Yay, I did a marathon!’; ‘Nooo, I can’t run to the corner without stopping’). Then I joined a women-only running group two years ago and hit my stride.
From 5k fun runs to ultra marathons (typically 50k-100k), running is the universal workout for women, overtaking Pilates and CrossFit. In the US, women outnumber men in races, and make up 57 per cent of all race finishers. According to Danish research, we’re better at pacing, with more consistent mileage. ‘It’s because women think ten miles ahead, not just the mile they’re in,’ says Gemma Hockett, 31, who in five years has gone from weekend runner to aiming for a sub-three-hour marathon. ‘We might be slower than men, but we don’t blow up at mile 16 and pull out of the race!’
‘Men are greater risk takers, so often start faster, risking burnout, while women make better decisions during races,’ agrees Dr Rhonda Cohen, a sports psychologist at Middlesex University. ‘Female runners are also more likely to prepare better, and only run if they feel confident about finishing.’ It’s not just our minds, but our morphology – body shape and composition – that helps women run longer distances. ‘Being lighter with less muscle mass can assist with endurance,’ says ultra runner and coach Max Willcocks (@maxwilko). ‘Women have more fat stores to fuel longer runs,’ adds John Dent, a sports scientist. ‘Being smaller also helps, as a shorter stride and higher cadence [the number of steps we take per minute] make running more efficient, causing less wear and tear on the joints and a longer running career.’
Like most high-intensity workouts, the physical benefits of running include muscle strengthening and fat burning. There are fewer exercises better than jogging for maintaining a healthy weight, with one long-term study between runners and walkers finding that calories burned from a run led to 90 per cent more weight loss compared to walking. Providing you take care of your joints by avoiding hard, cambered surfaces, running helps build strong bones, too.
For blogger Charlie Watson, 28 (therunnerbeans.com), it was running that pulled her out of crippling grief. ‘My friend Vic committed suicide at university and I struggled afterwards, drinking and partying. Vic loved sport, so I decided to do something constructive with my sadness, and the marathon was it.’ Charlie has since completed five marathons, but it’s the everyday runs – the jogs to the river near her home, runs with her dog – that make a difference to her well-being. ‘I suffer from anxiety, so running helps me to relax.’
Charlie tops up her outdoor training with running on a treadmill, especially during winter when it’s cold and dark. ‘There’s less impact on your joints,’ says Willcocks. ‘The track helps to push your foot forward on each step, making it slightly easier.’ Women should be careful not to overdo it, though. ‘They are more dominant in their quads – the muscles in the front of the thighs – and treadmill running can increase this imbalance, risking injury,’ says Dent.
‘Jogging outdoors challenges the body because of the terrain and weather,’ says Rachael Woolston, founder of all-female running group Girls Run the World. ‘If you’re doing it in the cold, your body burns more calories to keep you warm, while jogging up and down hills activates more muscle fibres, so you see greater improvements in strength and speed. But, most of all, it boosts mental health.’
Research by the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry found that outdoor exercise increases energy and decreases anger, depression and tension, compared to exercising indoors. Another study from the University of Essex found that working out surrounded by nature improves our self-esteem. ‘I’m shocked that running isn’t prescribed for people with depression,’ says Tanya Taylor from Hove. ‘Since I began running eight years ago, I’m calmer, I don’t lose my temper and it’s helped with my PMT. The rhythm of your footfall when running can be very meditative.’
In 2016, Tanya set herself a challenge to run every day – any distance, alone or as part of a race. ‘I’ve watched the sun rise, and run around Paris when the streets have been empty. I’ve learned about resilience and it’s given me the confidence to take on other challenges. As a full-time mum, I’d lost my mojo. Now I’m doing a writing course and working on a film script.’
‘A lot of beginners shy away from running with a group, as they’re worried about holding people back,’ says Woolston. ‘But I’ve seen women transform because they’ve created a bond with the people they run with.’ That’s certainly true for me. When I’m planning my runs for the week, I WhatsApp my running group to find out who’s free. Because of them, I run in the evenings, which I’d be nervous of doing alone. It was one of my club friends who paced me around my fastest Parkrun 5k, cheering me on. I love solo runs, but knowing I can tap into my network of running friends keeps me pulling on my trainers time and time again. We’ve been through everything from weddings and divorces, to house moves and job changes when we’ve been running side by side.
That sense of community is just as strong in the digital world. When Gemma Hockett began fundraising for her second marathon, she started posting her runs on social media. Now she has her own blog. ‘I started running because I’d put on weight. I didn’t know anything and felt other runners were cagey about sharing information, so I followed accounts like The Running Bug on Facebook and @UKRunChat on Twitter for inspiration. Completing my first 10k gave me such a high. Two years later I did my first marathon. There’s room for us all in running; whether you’re doing 5k or 50k, you feel the same sense of achievement when you cross that finish line.’
5 steps to completing your first 5k
Rachael Woolston, founder of free global running community Girls Run the World, reveals how to get to 5k
Set your goal
Make it tangible by registering for a free, local 5k Parkrun and fix a date for a race five weeks ahead – a short, tight deadline is more achievable than a long one.
Running regularly (three to four times per week) is more important than doing one long-distance run. Jog to the shops, run in your lunch hour – turn it into a habit.
Congratulate yourself for every run that you do. If you miss a training session, let yourself off the hook, then get back to the plan.
Use mind games
Learn distraction techniques for when you feel like stopping, such as counting backwards from 100, or focusing on techniques like swinging your arms as you run (watch Jessica Ennis-Hill).