When was the last time you went for a run, without your running watch, without worrying about your pace, your time, or your next race? For me, it’s been years. Like many runners, I’ve been engulfed in the never-ending cycle of races, PRs, and Strava comparisons, and it’s sucked a lot of joy out of a sport I truly love.
In January, I made a New Year’s resolution. Unlike others, rather than qualifying for Boston, or running an ultramarathon, my goal was far more simple — to exercise for joy and nothing else. I wanted my runs to feel like they did in kindergarten; when you’d run as fast as your legs would carry you, or for as long as you could before being called back into class. I wanted to be able to head out without a plan, and just move because it feels good. Reader, I wanted to run like Phoebe from Friends, as up until now, I’ve been far more Rachel.
Born into a family of runners, I’d run with my dad as a kid — I’d never win races in the playground, or get picked first in PE, but I didn’t care. Throughout my teenage years, I struggled with an eating disorder that controlled my life, and my mind. Doctors warned I was too thin to run (the impact would have been too much on my joints), so as I recovered, swimming became my go-to. Underwater, nobody could see or judge me, and it became almost meditative.
Fast forward a few years, and the London Marathon acceptance magazine falls through my letterbox. I’d got into one of the biggest races in the world, and now I had to train for 26.2 miles. I decided to run for an eating disorder charity, I purchased a pair of running shoes (the Brooks Glycerin in case you’re wondering) and I started putting one foot in front of the other. It was hard, it made me cry, and I’d finish every run saying I can’t go any further next week. But I did it. As I sat on the ground in Horse Guards at the end of the marathon, I realized how much running had changed me — I’d proven to myself that my body and my mind were capable of far more than I ever thought.
Since then, I’ve run three more marathons and changed career paths to write about running and fitness as my day job. But that means I'm constantly testing out the best running shoes, best running watches, and other fitness equipment, which has led me to looking at my wrist continually to check my pace and speed.
Running makes me a calmer person; it’s my time away from the screens that run my world, it’s my time to think and escape and during the pandemic, it was a lifeline.
But how do you find joy against a backdrop of races, running watches, and social media posts? To find out more, I spoke to Hannah Rayner, a UK Athletics running coach, who used running to rebuild her confidence after having children. As a coach, she believes in helping runners discover the physical benefits and joy running can bring to their lives.
“I think people's definition of joy really varies,” Rayner tells me. “Some runners find it in the stats and pushing themselves to improve and others find it in more of a free-ing, creative, head-clearing way. Either is great — as long as you know what does it for you and to not go in search of the thing you think you should find joy in because other people do.”
How to find joy in running
So how can runners set out and find joy in their movement, if getting faster, or working towards a race isn’t motivating for them? Rayner shares five different ideas:
Go on adventure run: Pick somewhere on the map, drive somewhere new, and just head out for a run while discovering a new area.
Go plogging (a form of running where you stop and litter pick on route): Enjoy that warm fuzzy feeling of doing something good for you and for the environment all at the same time.
Go out in search of a breathtaking view: It doesn't matter if it means you have to walk up a hill (your heart rate will still be raised), enjoy the view at the top, and have lots of fun running down!
Run with friends: There is something super productive about getting in a run and catching up at the same time.
Run and wild dip: One for the summer maybe, but I love a run in the heat that finishes with a quick dip in the local river. It’s very exhilarating and you feel like a proper athlete having an ice bath post-run.
Another option for those who are tech-obsessed is to run naked; leave your watch or fitness tracker at home, and simply go out and run.
For me, finding joy in running has been about running without any pressure. If I don’t feel like doing a session, I just don’t do it. Instead, I return to it when I feel like I want to. I’ve also not put pressure on the races I’ve got planned — if I PR, fantastic; if I finish with a smile on my face, even better. I’m disciplined with the time I spend on Strava and on Instagram looking at other runners’ posts, as for me, comparison really is the thief of all running joy.
Whether I’ll ever get to a Phoebe-level of enjoyment on the run remains to be seen, but three months after that resolution, I feel like a weight has been lifted. I’ve fallen back in love with running, and perhaps that’s all that matters.
Looking for more running inspiration? We've found the best running shoes to train in, the best running apps to track your progress, and a beginner's running training plan to get you up to a continuous 30-minutes of running.