From fitness-phobe and insecure weirdo to running person with medals and stuff, I may still be an insecure weirdo at times, but at least I know I'll always have running to help me out. It took me ages to allow myself to entertain the idea of exercise, and appreciate how good it is for my mind, so if you're in need of a little pep talk to help fast-track you to positivity, et voila! I've written this especially for YOU.
Discovering exercise has changed my life - from how I see myself to how I approach my career to how I have relationships. Exercise has boosted my self-confidence, helped me like my body and respect it for what it can do. Factoring it into my life isn't about fitting into a certain clothes size or looking like a superstar - it's a way to feel strong and happy.
But having gone from an official non-sporty person running a total of zero miles to a born-again runner taking on two major marathons in six months (to then not running for ages to then starting up again to then losing my mojo, then regaining it and so on...), I know a few things about the highs and lows of running motivation. But the one thing I never, ever forget now is that I can run. Where once I thought it was a physical impossibility for me, like flying, turning invisible or just eating one Jaffa Cake instead of five, it turns out running is a thing I now know I can always do - even if it doesn't always feel easy. I often get people saying to me that running just isn't for them, and I always say... Ah, but it IS! If you want it to be. So let me ask you this - would you like to run?
If the answer is 'No', fair enough. If you're really, really sure, I won't try to convince you. But if you waver; answer in the affirmative; say, "I think I would, but I can't" or "I'm just not built for running", then read on, because here's where we unpick the myriad reasons that put off people - mostly women - from exercising. And I write this as someone who has thought of every single excuse not to get fit, yet somehow, eventually, managed to conquer that 26.2 mile beast - twice. While there are many, many reasons you might have for not running that will be totally unique to your situation, a lot of our fears and anxieties can be encompassed in this:
I am unfit and will look like an idiot. I won't be able to do it. I don't know how.
Ah yes, the idiot issue. I get it, no one wants to look like an idiot. And I say this as someone who has looked like an idiot a fair bit (not least that time actually I fell off a treadmill backwards... or that Christmas I dressed up as an elf in a cheap velvet costume and led a man dressed as a rabbit around a shopping centre for £50... or the time I asked a successful model if we'd gone to school together, because she looked familiar, before I realised I knew her from the cover of a magazine... Anyway, you get the point).
I understand why going for your first run might feel daunting - there's something about putting yourself out there, doing something you're not instantly good at, which makes you feel vulnerable and exposed. No one wants that feeling of humiliation that can accompany struggle, that imagined 'You've Been Framed' canned laughter ringing in your ears as you imagine the rest of the world is judging you. But here's the thing - most people won't think you're an idiot because most people are too busy trying to get through their own day to focus on you all that much. This might sound harsh, but actually, it's liberating.
Apart from our friends, family, colleagues and loved ones, we are mostly just bit parts in other people's lives. The people I pass on my run? I'm a cameo in their personal movie, just as they are in mine - in fact, cameo is too great a role - we're uncredited extras. And I know that sounds a bit depressing, but it's not meant to be. It's just to say that no one will scrutinise you the same way you do yourself. When we get worried about looking stupid, who are the people we are worried will think that? If it's your friends, give them a bit more credit - they love you! They won't think you're an idiot. Is it a stranger? Well who bloody cares what they think? Is it yourself? Well, that can take a bit more work to undo. But I promise, with exercise comes confidence, and then you won't care so much about how you look to others.
If you get to adulthood and are terrified by the idea of exercise, there's a strong possibility you are one of the many people traumatised by school sports. I remember playing rounders - I could neither catch or throw, and would try to stand as deep field as possible in the hope that everyone would forget I was there. When it came to my turn to bat, it was three misses every time and an awkward run to first base feeling like a disgrace to the team.
But perhaps it wasn't rounders for you - maybe you had to do the Bleep Test, running back and forth, having to drop out after just a few laps because you didn't have the endurance? Or what about the agony of gymnastics, with its mandatory leotards and coordination? Or perhaps you sweated too much or your legs wobbled in your shorts, perhaps you were the last to reach the finish line in cross-country running. Every. Single. Time. Perhaps no one picked you for their team. Perhaps you never made the netball squad. Perhaps no one ever passed you the ball in basketball because they knew you'd never catch it. Perhaps all you remember from PE lessons are ripe changing rooms and awkwardly manoeuvring into your T-shirt so the other girls couldn't see your boobs, which were, you felt, too big, too small, or the wrong shape. PE was hard.
And if you're anything like me, perhaps you forged on with your personality, factoring in sport as something 'not for you', placing it on the shelf labelled 'things for other people' and leaving it there to collect dust and be forgotten. For teenage me, someone who preferred art, reading, drama and writing, not to mention alcohol, partying, rock music and piercing things, sport wasn't even cool. Fuck that shit - being bad at sport because a badge of honour - proof that I really was a creative type, not a jock, not a team-player bore, not someone who cared about this physical stuff. I hid behind this attitude - that people like me weren't meant to be good at sports - and used that to buffer all those feelings of uselessness. My attitude (or 'attitude problem' according to many of my teachers), became a force-field to protect myself from feeling like a failure - not just in sport, but in any area I felt insecure. But of course, all the attitude in the world couldn't really cure the insidious self-loathing that was manifesting within me - growing like ivy, only ever temporary removed, leaving a trail of scars behind.
I don't think I wanted to be good at sports, particularly, but I do wonder in retrospect whether, if I'd found a way to explore fitness in a non-competitive way, I might have reaped the wealth of benefits exercise offers - how my teenage mental health would have leeched the runner's high to help soften some of the depression. But sadly, in my day, the mental benefits of exercise weren't really factored in. It was team sports or no sports. No one ever encouraged you to run just for the fun of it - it was run to win. No medal? No good. Give up.
So there's nothing like all those years of not rocking out the PE lessons to really put you off exercise and make you feel self-conscious about exposing your so-called physical ineptitude. But... and here's the 'but' - physical ineptitude doesn't always have to be a permanent state (nor does it have to be something you're ashamed of). Reason No1 not to exercise - 'I am unfit and will look like an idiot' - well guess what, you can become fit. You are the one who can change that. This is within your power, and once you realise you have control over the things that hold you back, you'll feel empowered.
And here's a secret - there's an amazing side effect to all this: once you start feeling in control of one aspect of your life, this empowerment glitter will start to sprinkle itself over other areas in your life, too, shining a light on your self-worth, helping you to see yourself with greater positivity and more value. It's a bit of a win-win really.
You only have to be 'unfit' for a time - with some work, your fitness with improve dramatically. And that's why I got hooked on running - because very quickly, I could see my progress. It was there in the extra minutes I found I could suddenly run, it was there in the sections of street I no longer had to walk, it was there in the way my breathing felt less laboured, how I went from no running to running for 30 seconds to running for a minute to five minutes, to 20, to my first 5K, to my first 10K, to a half marathon and then a marathon... and onwards. I started with nothing - not even much determination apart from to 'see if I could'. And suddenly, I found I could. Slowly I became a runner... And each step of the journey, I thought, 'Hang on, wasn't I meant to be crap at this? Wasn't I known by all my school friends as being really, really bad at this stuff?' Each time I've run a race, I've marvelled at how I got there. It surprises me still, but I have the medals to prove they all happened. And so, I genuinely believe that if I can do it, you can too. And the first step is just allowing yourself to try. It really is that simple.
And as I said earlier - as an adult, no one is really watching you any more. You're not part of a team that you worry you're going to let down. You only have to face yourself - and guess what? You make the rules. You can decide to run one minute every day and see where that takes you. You can sign up for the excellent Couch To 5K app (which I really do recommend) and try it that way. You can decide to run-walk for ten minutes once a week... whatever you do, it's all about you - you're in control - this is your life, and we can all make a choice not to let others make us feel ashamed.
I used to fear running outside because I knew people would see me and I worried what people would think about my body. Would they think, 'Wow, she's a terrible runner/what a huge bum/what a bloody idiot'? Well, let me ask you - what do you think about when you're in the car or on the bus and pass a runner? I used to think, 'I wish I could do that' or 'Good for them'. But if you've thought something negative about them - maybe 'wow, he's a bit chunky' or 'look at her boobs bouncing around' or 'they really look terrible', mine your thoughts a little bit deeper and question whether that negativity is in fact masking a quiet jealousy - a feeling that maybe they're doing something you're just a little bit afraid to try yourself...
Because if I'm honest, when I used to see sporty people and dismiss them, it was because I envied their abilities - it wasn't that I wanted to be the best athlete in the world, but more that I felt like I was deprived of something they'd been gifted with. And that didn't seem fair. I also used to presume it was 'easy' for them - whereas for me and my body, it was hard. But by running myself, I realised that whatever your level, you will still sometimes find it hard, you will still sometimes have to battle with your willpower, but that part of the pleasure of exercising is knowing that you worked hard. It sounds strange, but it's true. Hard work doesn't have to be something to fear. And while I'll never win the Olympics, what I am still is a runner. And you can be too. If you want to. The first step is just about believing that you can.
Whether you run 26 miles or 26 steps, you're still a runner. There's no secret handshake or exam to join this club - everyone is welcome, whatever their level. But the first step to joining is just to believe, even just a tiny bit, that you can. It's to go out there and try - remembering to be kind to yourself and not dismiss your attempt if it's hard or hurts. It is not always going to be easy - but we are all stronger than we think.
So let me ask you again, would you like to run? Yes? Then go on, maybe today is the day you give it a try... And if not, there is always, always tomorrow.
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