I’m the first to admit, that I’m a control freak in most areas of my life, including my running. I have to finish my runs on a whole number (because 4.89 miles is not the same as 5) and run at least 20 miles a week. Much to my boyfriend’s dismay, I have been known to jog up and down the street on a Sunday night to round my mileage up from 19.7 miles to 20, just to keep my Strava graph flat. At many times in my life, running has been a lifeline, but (if you haven’t guessed by now) I have a tendency to obsess over my runs, my splits, and my pace.
Last October, I PR’d at the London Marathon, but once the post-run elation had worn off and the post-marathon blues had settled, I realized how stressed I’d become in the final few weeks of my marathon plan. Sure, I’d moved to a new house, started a new job, and attempted to train an unruly six-month-old puppy at the same time, but I was burnt out, and structured training was no longer bringing me joy. My running had become something else I struggled to fit into a busy routine, rather than the respite from my day-to-day life.
The control freak in me needed a plan, needed those weekly catch-ups with my coach, and needed those sessions designed to push me harder. But my heart knew long-term, my relationship with running would suffer, and I needed to fall back in love with the sport that has transformed my mental health. I needed to love the feeling of putting my running shoes on and getting lost in a podcast again, (especially as testing the best running shoes and treadmills is part of my job), so I took a break, and the joy plan was born.
Running for joy
The joy plan is simple — I only do exercise that brings me joy. Of course, I’ve not gone full cold turkey. I still aim for around 20 miles per week, but if I don’t feel like going out for a long run, I don’t do it. Alternatively, if I fancy pushing myself and trying some mile repeats, I go for it. What started as an experiment to see how I coped without structured training has made me a happier runner than I’ve ever been — I’m no longer chasing PR’s, I’m running for my head, my lungs, and my heart.
Yet as romantic as that sounds, how would it translate to race day? Stood at the start line of the London Landmarks Half Marathon amongst friends, I felt unprepared. My longest run had been around 8 miles, and I’d not done a lot of speed sessions. Yet unlike other races, where I’d plug into my music, warm up alone and go over my pace strategy, I didn’t care. I was laughing, I was relaxed, and I was soaking up the joy of being back on a startline after a pandemic robbed runners of the chance to do this for so long. The race didn’t go as planned — I chatted to a friend as we ran the first 10 miles together, I took photos, I even celeb spotted along the route (AJ from Strictly Come Dancing, in case you were wondering), and in all the race photos, I’m laughing.
Like in most city races, my Garmin Fenix 6 went haywire, and I had no idea what pace I was running, so when I crossed the finish line with a PR, I was completely shocked. How had not caring made me faster?
After a week of googling, I found the science behind this revelation — being more relaxed can make you run faster. One study, published in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise has found that smiling makes running easier, by reducing tension in the body, and distracting runners from discomfort. Other research has found that by relaxing your body and mind, your form is better as you’re less tense, allowing you to run faster. If you watch Eliud Kipchoge run his sub-2 hour marathon, you see a stunning display of this — with a smile on his face, he glides across the line, waving at the crowds as he does so.
While I’d never recommend not training for a race, I would say that doing all you can to relax your mind at the start line has huge benefits. For me, running stress-free has been a game-changer, and six months later, I’m still running for joy.
How to take the stress out of running
Don’t compare yourself to other runners
I’ve spent far too much time delving into other runner’s splits on Strava, but comparison really is the thief of joy. Remember, everyone is running their own race, and what works for your friend might not work for you. My running coach once told me that unless you’re Kipchoge, there’s always going to be someone who can run faster than you, so stop stressing.
Have a mantra
England Marathon Coach Tom Craggs, once told me that the best thing to do in the final miles of a marathon is to dedicate each mile to someone you love. If this sounds too corny, just having a positive mantra that you repeat to yourself when the run gets tough can stop you from spiraling into self-doubt, and giving up. This could be as simple as “I’m running for joy,” or more complex. Find something that resonates with you.
Take breaks between training blocks
Remember that even athletes have a down season. Cycling from training block to training block can leave you feeling exhausted, so remember to rest and recover after a race, or period of intense training.
Control the controllable
Finally, remember that there will be days that you just won’t be able to run. You can’t control the weather, or the pandemic, or the fact that sometimes, you’ll get sick or injured. Control what you can control, and remember running will always be there.
Looking for more running advice? Here’s why we should all run like Phoebe from friends, and the benefits of running “naked”. We’ve also got advice on how many times a week you should run, and a beginner’s running plan that will get you started.