The Unhealthy Runner
Throwback to around 3 years ago. It was your average ‘Long Run Sunday’ and I’d just bagged 15 miles on a sunny morning which would wrap up my 60 mile week. As soon as I finished I’d whip out my iPhone to grab a selfie…perfectly positioned so the sun would be behind me creating an interesting lens flare. Awesome photo to represent my awesome run. Awesome day right? I hadn’t even walked into the house yet. In fact I hadn’t even warmed down because I was too excited to get those miles onto Strava so I could create myself a super motivational Instagram post about how great it feels to be able to cruise along at 6:30 min/mile pace. And that’s after 2 hard sessions that week and a race the day before. What a hero! All that hard work is paying off. I felt on top of the world, the endorphins were flowing and I couldn’t wait to watch all the Likes and Follows flood in throughout the day. I was unstoppable; an inspiration to others. Or was I?
Let’s go back to the start. When I was kid I was naturally good at running. I went through a phase of doing very well in Cross Country and after the last competitive race I did when I was around 12 years old I was asked to run for Milton Keynes AC. A great opportunity was quickly thrown in the trash by a naïve kid (me) who thought that running was “boring”. So I jacked it in and didn’t set foot out the door for a proper run again until 2010. That’s after my Mum had signed up for the Silverstone Half Marathon and she asked if I fancied giving it a go. Why not? 6 months later I ran 1hr 39 mins. Not bad! Blast forward another 2 years and by training alone I had managed to get myself up to running 5Ks in around 17 mins and 10ks in 37-38 mins. I was spotted by my soon-to-be Manager at the Cheltenham Harriers and within one session I was hooked. And that’s where the addiction started…the addiction to running. I went from an amateur runner to an elite athlete who ran 30:03 for 10K, 14:35 for 5K and was capable of a 65-66 min Half Marathon. My end goal? Good question…I didn’t have one. I just wanted to run faster, break all my PBs and see what my body was capable of. I was treating it like a second career.
Alongside this, I wasn’t where I wanted to be in my life. I was incredibly unhappy some of the times and at worst, suicidal. I won’t go into the detail of why this was because some of it was my fault, some of it wasn’t. But off the back of this, running had become addictive because it felt like it was the only thing I was in control of. All I knew was that if I work hard at this I will get tangible results. Every time I achieved a personal best, which was a lot of time as I was quickly progressing, I would get such a high from it that it would fuel me to go on and do more. The need to PB got stronger, the emotion attached to running became overpowering and the desire to ditch everything in my life just so I could run was…quite frankly…insane. The purpose of this post is not about teaching you how not to be, but for you to get an insight into the kind of person I became so that you can see for yourself how unhealthy I was. From this, if you spot anything you can relate to I strongly urge you to look at yourself objectively and decide whether your hobbies have taken a hold on you. This post is for anyone - whether you're considering becoming a runner, you're currently running for fun or you're an elite athlete like I was.
Doing too much
Runners are obsessed with miles. It’s a constant talking point and often used as an indicator of how fit you are. I’m sure many of you runners can relate to reaching home and seeing that your watch says ‘5.9 miles’, so you do a quick lap of the block just to bump it up to 6 miles. This has zero benefit but for some reason that extra .1 mile makes you feel like you achieved more. It also looks more impressive on social media, which is obviously very important (not). Doing too much was a regular occurrence for me. As an example, I’d hit the track on a Tuesday and do: 25 x 400m with a 45 second recovery at around 4:30min/mile and the next day I would be out running sub 6:30 min mile pace for an hour. And this was meant to be my recovery day. But fuck it. I felt fine! All my followers will love it. I’m sure I’ll get away with it. Then BAM! I’m 3-4 miles into my run and I can feel my Achilles going.
“Hmm, is this an injury or just a niggle? I’ll keep going.” 5 miles in: “Yeah this is definitely not feeling right. Please don’t be an injury!” 6 miles in: “Fuck!” And that’s when it hits you...instant depression. You go from the ultimate of highs to the ultimate of lows in an instant. Classic runner mentality. “If only I’d just gone a little slower or maybe planned more rest days. OK. Lets get through this injury and next time I’m going to make sure I listen to my body and see rest as ‘part of the process”. I’d post this kind of rubbish all over Instagram so that my fans could see I was 'looking at the positives' and 'being strong'. Little did they know I was hurting inside big time. Woe is Phil – The one thing I was good at in my life and it was all going to go down the toilet. “But I mean it; I’m going to be more sensible next time.” It’s funny because I’m pretty sure I said this to myself after the 5th long term injury too. Kenyan athletes are known for going at snail pace on their recovery days because that’s exactly what they are: RECOVERY RUNS. Your body can’t heal if it’s not given the chance and over time, without knowing, you’re getting closer and closer to the threshold where your body can’t recover quickly enough. So rather than the weasel it’s “Pop goes the tendon”. I’m going to be blunt. Slow The Fuck Down. Stop Lying To Yourself. Get Some Rest. If this still isn’t sinking in, you only have yourself to blame if you pick up an injury through overtraining or trying to do too much too soon. On top of this, my cortisol levels were no doubt through the roof. I became a miserable bastard. Sometimes, I would go out for a run at 5am followed by a 2 hr 30 drive to London, followed by an 8-10 hour working day where I’d be carrying a lot of video equipment, followed by a second run on my way home. It’s impossible to do all of that and not feel like shit. But I did it, I was too far in. “I have to go for a run if I’m going to get this PB”.
"I don't want to run but I have to!" You could argue I was incredibly devoted and motivated, but just like you wouldn’t praise a heroine addict for getting an extra shot in before lunch, you shouldn’t be praising my addiction. I needed help.
Losing Fitness Overnight
This is another of those irrational thoughts that would fly through my mind. As a 6-7 day a week runner, if I missed one session I would genuinely feel like I was going to lose fitness. If a job came in which meant I wasn’t going to be able to run for a few days I would be worried at the thought of missing out. So I used to deliberately plan my work around my running. Normally I could get away with not missing Tuesday and Thursday sessions with the club by booking in work on the other days but if I’m really honest...there’s been a number of times I turned work away because I may have had a big race that weekend and there was “no way I was going to miss this last session”. Even though I was armed with the knowledge that sessions like these take a good 7-10 days or more to take effect, it didn’t stop me acting irrationally. As someone who has yo-yo’d between fit and less fit, I can tell you that you don’t lose fitness overnight. Take a week off and you’ll be exactly who you were when you left. Take 2 weeks off and yep, you guessed it…you’ll be around the same as you were before. Any longer and, yeah sure, it will start dropping, but it’s a very slow process. If you want to have 2 weeks off for an extended Summer Holiday, go for it! Spend time with the family. Leave those running shoes at home. If you lose the tiniest amount of fitness it will be back in no time at all, so it’s not worth upsetting loved ones and causing tension for the sake of a speck of fitness you may lose. But what about all that guilt? The constant dialogue in your head that keeps reminding you you’re not running...This idea that running is your ‘go to’ for mental health. Well, I’m telling you now that if you’re saying this, your thoughts need an MOT. You should not be relying on external factors to bring happiness because it can lead to a dependence on others and a lack of ownership when you feel shit. It opens the door for excuses and the blaming of others and you may find you're not capable of proactively seeking out the problems and fixing them. If we choose to be a Runner, we must take all the responsibility that comes with it. We must remind ourselves that time off is part of the process. Just as a weightlifter takes a few days off between Bench Pressing to build muscle, we have to allow our body a chance to heal and improve after run sessions. A tip for you if you’re finding yourself feeling guilty for not running is to tell yourself that you could have gotten an injury today had you gone for a run, so good news…you’ve just saved yourself from 2 months of misery.
I’ve already touched on this in a previous post so I will be brief. Instagram contains a brilliant community of runners. The pros that come with this are:
We feel motivated by others
We want to motivate others
We get to meet like minded people
It’s full of positivity
However, it’s also got some drawbacks:
It’s an opportunity to attention seek
You can create a virtual alter ego surrounded by lies
Chasing follows and likes is addictive
Monitoring unfollows is unhealthy
I was wrapped up by all of the above. Although I was benefitting and enjoying all the positives, I was being damaged by the negatives. Fortunately, I’m now in a place where I seek to enjoy the best of social media. If I dabble in posting a posy selfie I don’t pretend to be someone I’m not and I accept that it’s probably coming from the part of me that likes attention. I mean, why would I be on there posting if I didn’t like a bit of attention? Mostly though, I love the idea that someone might feel inspired by my post. With this in mind, I truly believe social media can be incredibly powerful.
Should I run?
Look, this is not meant to put a downer on running as a sport or hobby. I've experienced both the extreme highs of running - smashing a PB in a well paced 10,000m race. And the extreme lows - wearing a space boot because I got a stress fracture. I still run today and that's not because I feel I have to, it's because I believe in it. It's one of the easiest ways to lose a few pounds, build fitness and feel better about yourself.
However, it’s so important to check in with yourself regularly to determine whether your training plan is realistic, manageable and safe. I can speak from experience and know how it feels to lose control. Don't let that be you. For example, if you’re falling out with your loved one because you’ve not been around much or you’re grouchy from overtraining perhaps you need to remind yourself why you got into running in the first place. You must ensure that you have a good balance of doing something for yourself vs devoting time to those important people round you.
If you’re falling out with yourself, it’s time to take a deeper look into what’s going on and figure out ways to fix it. If you can’t run today? It’s fine. Run tomorrow. Run next week. There’s a whole life time ahead of you to run. If your race gets cancelled. Chill out. There’s other races coming up and it’ll give you even more time to train hard. If you don’t get a Personal Best. That’s fine. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed, it means today wasn’t your day. Or, you may need to check whether you got the right amount of sleep, ate well or rested enough. We are an efficient animal with incredible endurance, but let’s not forget we also have emotional needs and are surrounded by a community we should care for. Get your priorities right and you’ll have bagged yourself a hobby which will provide great strength in your life.
If you you need advice on your training plan, please feel to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org