Need to know
If your body allows for it, there are few activities more liberating than going for a run. The experience can be meditative, even hypnotic, as you bound along rhythmically. Scenery passes by at a clip – quicker and more exciting than when walking, but not so fast that you can’t take it all in. And it’s a gift you can take with you anywhere. From central London to the Austrian Alps, whether on a work trip or a family holiday, I’ve donned my trainers, enjoying the wind in my hair and that satisfying, sweaty, endorphin-laced buzz at the end.
‘I never regret a run,’ says Mariska van Sprundel, a running instructor and the author of the book Running Smart (2021). ‘Sometimes you don’t feel like going for a run because the weather is bad or because you’re just tired from work. But I never come home thinking: “Oh, man, I wish I hadn’t gone.” It’s always refreshing, and it always helps me put my worries in perspective.’
You probably already know that running offers a shopping list of benefits. It’s good for your physical health, with runners living an extra three years on average compared with non-runners. It’s good for your mental health, too – running can boost cognitive functioning, improve the regulation of emotions and the ability to cope with stress. With the rise of jogging clubs and organised activities such as Parkrun, it’s also a great way to make friends.
And yet, if you’ve never tried running, it can be daunting to start and uncomfortable at first. These days, van Sprundel runs five times a week, but looking back to when she first tried running with a friend at college, it wasn’t so easy: ‘After 10 minutes of running, we had a side stitch and couldn’t breathe.’ Not only was the first run hard, but also the second and the third. ‘But you progress pretty quickly when you’re talking about stamina,’ she says. ‘I think in less than one year we were able to run a 10K within the hour, and that was really motivating.’
Perhaps you used to run, but you haven’t for ages and now you’re struggling to restart. I know the feeling. I’ve been a casual runner on and off my whole adult life – once you’re out of practice, especially as you get older, the prospect of getting back into it can be unappealing and demoralising. But, in my experience, you’ll soon reap the rewards once you’re back in the groove.
Whether you’re a newbie or trying to resurrect your old running habit, it can help to understand that the physiological discomfort is completely normal. Noel Brick, a sports psychologist and lecturer at Ulster University, explains that we each have a ‘ventilatory threshold’. This threshold is the point at which your breathing rate increases significantly to sustain your degree of exertion. As a basic rule of thumb, beyond this point you’re likely to find the exertion at least somewhat unpleasant. As you get fitter, of course, this threshold will increase – but when you’re first starting out as a runner, your threshold will likely be lower and the discomfort will arrive more quickly.
The good news is that psychologists have developed several techniques and approaches that can help to make running a little less arduous and progressively more fun and enjoyable. Alongside talking to van Sprundel and Brick, I approached several other experts and I’m going to share their tips to help you.
Recently, I stayed with my family in a cottage in the heart of the New Forest in southern England. On the second day, I downloaded a map and charted a circular running route, to the nearest village and back, of around 5 km (3.1 miles, or 5K in runner’s parlance). It might not be trekking in the Arctic or hiking the Himalayas, but I felt a tingle of adventure – I would soon be out running in beautiful unfamiliar territory.
I thought of this Guide as I set off, as I ran among the wild ponies, through ancient woods, along a field’s edge thick with butterflies, down quiet country lanes, and as I passed an old horse-and-trap. I waved at the driver who tipped his hat and, as the clippety-clop of hooves faded into the distance, I experienced an exhilarating, embodied sense of freedom. Thirty minutes or so later, I was back – hot, happy and high after my mini adventure. I hope the following techniques will help you discover similar magical moments for yourself.
What to do
Challenge your self-limiting beliefs
Psychologists say that your own limiting beliefs are one of the first and biggest obstacles to getting out and enjoying running. You might have thoughts such as ‘I’ll never be a runner’, ‘I’m too old for running’ or similar. If you believe that running isn’t for you, that you are incapable of being a runner, or that running is worthwhile only if you can reach some arbitrary goal, you’re going to find it very difficult to build the motivation to start running.
Of course, some people do face real physical limitations in being able to run, but many people do not – so put your beliefs to the test.
Justin Kompf is a researcher focused on health behaviour change at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and he’s identified two types of beliefs that are especially unhelpful when it comes to exercise: first, when you compare what you can do now with what you could do in the past and, second, when you believe that the activity is worthwhile only if you can achieve an unrealistic performance goal.
Kompf recommends the concept of ‘workability’ (central to acceptance and commitment therapy) as a helpful tool for challenging such beliefs. The workability of an idea is not whether it’s factually true or false, but whether it’s helping you live the life you want. If it isn’t, Kompf explains, then you can challenge it, or indeed gently drop it and nurture alternatives.
As an example, says Kompf, imagine you believe ‘If I can’t do a 5K, there’s no point bothering with running.’ Using workability, you would ask yourself whether that belief is likely to help or hinder you in your goals. If you decide it’s unhelpful, try challenging it. For instance, you could ask yourself: ‘Why do I need to use a 5K as a benchmark?’ and ‘Why do I believe this to be true?’
To help you along, you could read about people like Kathrine Switzer – the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967, and who has been running marathons ever since – or consider how your body will adapt to exercise. ‘The more you do, the more you can eventually do,’ says Kompf.
Set yourself realistic goals
Goals can be incredibly motivating – they give you something to aim for. But if you set overly ambitious goals, they can backfire and leave you demoralised. So it’s important to set goals that are tailored to your own situation, capabilities and reasons for running.
Van Sprundel recommends that beginners set themselves some longterm goals, such as being able to complete a 5K run, but also give themselves some relatively easy shorter-term goals, such as trying to run around the block or run 1K for the first time without stopping. ‘Choose something that’s achievable,’ she says. ‘You succeed. So that’s good for your self-efficacy. And then your self-esteem will grow. Then next time, maybe aim for 2K… you need those small victories in trying to get to your longterm goals.’
Kompf makes a further helpful distinction between ‘outcome goals’ and ‘behavioural goals’. Outcome goals would be something like aiming to complete a 5K run in six months’ time. A behavioural goal is ongoing and could be something like going for a run once a week. ‘Always set yourself up for success,’ says Kompf, ‘and strip away performance as a barrier to starting. Maybe you run half a mile the first time you run. That is great. Do something that you feel confident and comfortable with.’
Once you’ve decided on your goals, to help you stick to them, Kompf again emphasises that it’s important to find what works for you, such as:
- Tell friends and family about your goals.
- Make a note of what you need to stay on track – such as someone to go running with; a decent pair of shoes; rewarding yourself after each run.
- When you have lapses, ask yourself why, and put measures in place to prevent future lapses (for instance, perhaps you keep feeling too tired after work – if so, find a better time in the week to go running).
- Consider making a ‘commitment’ – whereas a goal is something you’re aiming for, a commitment is something that you will do ‘no matter what’, such as a five-minute jog once a week. This will work ‘wonders to keep the routine going’, says Kompf, ‘whereas missing a planned workout makes it easier and easier to get derailed.’
Reflecting on this advice myself, I’ve set a commitment to go running at least once a fortnight (any distance will do). My short-term goal is always the same – if I’m in the mood, I’ll try to set a new personal best, using the popular exercise app Strava. Longer-term, my goal is to run 10K and to enjoy runs in new locations.
With your beliefs and goals all set, the next step is to make the actual running experience more pleasant (or less terrible, depending on your baseline!), so that eventually you can start to enjoy the kind of joyful, liberating moments that running can offer.
Brick says deliberately distracting yourself ‘can take your mind off sensations of physical discomfort, like feeling out of breath, or aching in your muscles’. Distraction can also slow down your pace, which is exactly what novices often need to do to stop themselves flaking out too early in a run (more on this in a moment).
Distraction is especially important to help you manage the discomfort of pushing up to and beyond the ventilatory threshold. Up to a point, the higher you go above your ventilatory threshold, the more you’re going to begin training your cardiovascular fitness, which will pay off over the longer term, but the more unpleasant you’ll find the run in the here-and-now – and the more important distraction techniques can be.
‘A good way to identify this point [the ventilatory threshold] is the talk test,’ Brick says. ‘If you can speak in complete sentences, you are below this threshold. If you can only speak single words, you are well above this threshold. If you can speak a few words, before taking a breath and then completing a sentence, you are pretty close to the ventilatory threshold.’
Distraction techniques can be simple:
- chat with a running partner;
- listen to music or a podcast;
- look at the views;
- immerse yourself deep in thought; or
- do mental puzzles.
Personally, I find it almost impossible to run without music. I keep an ear out for tracks that make me want to move or fire me up, and I’ll put them on a playlist – often this will be fast and aggressive techno, hip hop or rap music that I wouldn’t enjoy in other contexts, but which powers me along when I’m running. Other embarrassingly vain techniques I use include imagining myself as a boxer doing road running before a fight or as a character in one of those cheesy training montages in a movie. Other times I’ll remind myself why I want to be fit (for instance, so I can play active games with my young kids, or for my self-esteem). Sometimes I’ll think about the research that suggests humans evolved to be long-distance runners – and can even beat horses at marathons. As you bound along, it’s encouraging to think that, at a deep level, it’s what you were born to do.
Manage your pace
When you set out on your first few runs, you’re bound to get out of breath quickly. But once you’ve built up a little fitness, Brick says it’s important to tune in to your body so that you don’t burn up your energy too quickly. ‘One of the mistakes a novice runner will often make,’ he warns, ‘is running too fast at the beginning of an activity, ultimately meaning that they experience a high level of effort, unpleasant physical sensations, negative thoughts (such as, “I hate running!”) and an urge to slow down or stop before reaching the end-point.’
‘Actually, for a beginner, my tip would be that walking is just fine,’ says van Sprundel. ‘If you feel your heart pounding and you’re breathing heavily – to keep it fun for yourself, I would suggest to slow down. We tell beginners you should hold the pace so you can have a conversation with someone next to you. If you can talk and discuss life while you’re running, then you’re at the right pace.’
‘Remember, you don’t have to run for 15 minutes straight without walking if you’re just starting,’ she adds. ‘You know, if you have to catch your breath, just walk for one minute and then pick up the pace again.’
While it’s important that you don’t become overly reliant on technology rather than listening to your body, Brick says using a smart watch to track your runs can be a great way for novices to get the hang of pacing and it can even add an extra fun element to your running hobby:
- Go for a run and record it on your smart watch.
- Look at your pacing profile afterwards (running apps will typically show your average pace for each segment of your run, such as each kilometre or mile).
- Brick says to look and see if you went too fast earlier in the run and had to slow down later.
- If so, consider how your breathing felt at the start of the run – were you breathing very hard? If so, consider modifying your starting pace next time and monitoring your breathing to see if it is calmer.
‘By engaging in this exercise over a number of runs,’ says Brick, ‘you will learn more about how to pace an activity, and what your body feels like at different paces.’
When you get a little more experienced, you’ll also develop a good sense of whether you’re going fast or slow based on your own usual standards. I use Strava for this too – if you download it to your smartwatch, and your headphones are connected to your watch through Bluetooth, you can choose a setting that announces at the end of each kilometre (or mile) what your pace was for that previous stretch. If I ran the previous stretch relatively slowly by my standards, this will often give me the impetus to inject more effort into my run.
Talk to yourself
Unless you have a very loyal running partner, a lot of the time when you go out running you will be on your own. You can use this as a chance to take deliberate control of your inner voice to boost your motivation and improve your running experience – including coaching yourself to manage pacing and distraction as I’ve described above.
When it comes to making running more enjoyable, Alister McCormick – a sports psychologist at Plymouth Marjon University in the UK, where he researches endurance sports – says there’s evidence that motivational self-talk in particular (such as ‘You’ve got this!’, ‘Push harder’, ‘Keep going’) can make the experience feel less effortful or strenuous. ‘I’d recommend using plenty of motivational self-talk,’ he says, ‘but also instructional talk relating to pace, breathing, and running form (eg, “Let’s start slow – you can pick up the pace later”).’
When it comes to knowing what to say, he advises thinking about the purpose: ‘Are you trying to motivate, self-coach, control your nerves, or pace yourself? Pick simple, short statements (eg “Come on, dig deep!”, ‘Watch your breathing”, “You can do it!”) that are purposeful for what you want to achieve. Self-talk statements should “feel right” for you personally. Try them in training, reflect on what helps and what doesn’t, and refine!’
I find self-talk especially useful at the start of the run when my body often feels disconcertingly sluggish (especially if I’ve been sitting at a desk a long while). I might think ‘Age is catching up with me’ or ‘I obviously didn’t sleep well last night – maybe I should head back and give this a miss today.’ So I’ll use self-talk to counter these thoughts – I’ll remind myself that these sluggish feelings are quite typical for me; tell myself that I’ll enjoy it once I get going; get myself to focus on my technique. Sometimes, I’ll also describe my physical sensations to myself dispassionately, as if I’m a scientist studying a specimen (this is a kind of reappraisal technique that gets you ‘out of your body’ and creates distance from the uncomfortable sensations).
Try this focusing technique for the end of your runs
Sports scientists are increasingly coming to realise that our experience of physical effort is largely in the mind, rather than in the body. If you perceive that you’ve got the energy to keep going, then you can, whereas if you believe you’re too tired or there is too far left to run, then you will experience fatigue and will struggle. This is where ‘goal gradient theory’ comes in, and it could help you to better enjoy and manage the end of your runs.
‘First tested on mice and rats, the idea is that when we get closer to a finish – when a mouse gets closer to a treat at the end of a maze – we work harder to push us over the finish line,’ explains Emily Balcetis, a psychologist at New York University and the author of the book Clearer, Closer, Better (2020). ‘My lab thought, if actually being in proximity to a goal increases the efforts to get to that goal, then maybe the mere illusion of proximity could do the same.’
In subsequent work, Balcetis and her colleagues surveyed people about their natural tendency to focus their attention when they are outside – and they used GPS tracking to see whether this narrow focus has any apparent consequences. The research team found that participants who said they tended to pick out ‘stop signs, buildings, or corners as goals’ and/or who ‘focus their visual attention on them, like a spotlight shining just on that spot, until they reach them’ also tended to walk and run more often and more efficiently, as compared with the participants who did not have this attentional habit. What’s more, her team has found it’s possible to train your attentional focus in this way. In another study, the people they taught to narrow their attentional focus ran faster and found it less painful than a control group.
‘As if they are wearing blinders, they focused on a selected target until they passed it, and then reset a new target,’ Balcetis explains. ‘This is especially effective when you’re nearing the end of a run or walk, when energy is in short supply and is less effective if used early on.’
Once you’re out on a run – congratulate yourself. You’ve overcome what is often the hardest part, the temptation to give in to inertia and procrastination. You’re doing it. You’re running. You’re a runner. You’re building your fitness and you’re already conditioning your muscles and joints. Soak up the passing views, the variety of sights and sounds. Even if you’re running slowly, the world will move by more quickly than if you’re walking – you’ll probably be surprised by how much ground you can cover. Everything is always changing around you. Feel the air in your face, in your hair, on your skin. You’re free.
Key points – How to enjoy running
- Running offers a shopping list of benefits. From increasing your longevity to helping you cope with stress, there are many good reasons to take up running – and runners will tell you they nearly always feel better after a run than before.
- Understand the ventilatory threshold. Whether you’re new to running or coming back to it after a layoff, it’s normal to experience physical discomfort when you reach a certain level of exertion that makes you breathe harder.
- Challenge your self-limiting beliefs. Ask yourself whether your beliefs about running (eg, ‘I’m too old to start’) are ‘workable’ (ie, whether they support your aims in life) and, if not, drop them.
- Set yourself realistic goals. It helps to distinguish between outcome goals (such as how far you’ll be able to run in a year) and behavioural goals, which is how often you want to go running. Also consider making a commitment to a bare minimum (you set the amount) of running.
- Use distraction. As you push yourself close to and beyond the ventilatory threshold, distraction can help to reduce your discomfort and keep going – try music, podcasts, looking at the views or even mental puzzles.
- Manage your pace. Novices often go too fast too early. Use a smartwatch to help you learn your ideal pace to sustain the length of run you’re aiming for.
- Talk to yourself. You can use various forms of self-talk to boost your motivation and give yourself helpful instructions.
- Use goal gradient theory to get you to the end of a run. Fatigue is in the brain as much as the body, and there’s a simple visual focusing technique you can use to trick your brain into thinking you’re getting close to the end of the run, so that you have enough energy to keep going.
- Enjoy it. Once you’re out on a run – congratulate yourself for getting started, you’ve overcome the hardest part, which is inertia.
The social side of running
Running is something I choose to do alone for the escapism, but for many people it’s a fun social activity. There are countless jogging clubs around the world, and it’s likely there’s one near you – for inspiration, check out the Midnight Runners club which is active in 15 cities around the world or the London-based Run Dem Crew. Joining is a great way to make friends of all ages and keep up your new running hobby – you’re bound to learn tips and tricks from the other members and get an added high from the camaraderie. Tentative research has hinted at similar benefits for online running groups too, so find out what’s going on in your neighbourhood.
If you’re feeling more competitive and sociable than me, there’s a worldwide movement called Parkrun that’s worth checking out. It operates in 22 countries and provides a welcoming way to take part in a run of up to 5K at your local park – a barcode system lets you compare your performance against other runners by age and sex. There’s some preliminary research that taking part could even give you an added wellbeing boost – a study of recreational runners found that their self-esteem, mood and life satisfaction was higher during weeks in which they’d taken part in an organised run, likely because of the sense of achievement involved. Running with others is also likely to improve your performance via the well-established ‘social facilitation’ effect in sport.
Even if you’re not in an organised group, when you become a runner, you become part of an unofficial club. Wherever I am in the world, if I’m in a town or city and pass another runner, they usually nod or wave in acknowledgement – there’s a mutual sense that we’re co-members sharing in the same liberating and rewarding activity. Even when I’m out running alone in the countryside, I can feel a strong connection with the wildlife – if I’m lucky, I’ll find myself moving at speed beneath a kite or falcon in flight or alongside a darting deer, provoking an elemental experience of my own animal nature.
If you prefer the idea of lone running, thanks to modern technology there are other ways to feel socially connected, even as a solo runner. The most well-known is to use Strava – a kind of social network for runners and cyclists, which will allow you to share your run and offer mutual encouragement to your friends and followers. It also has a handy ‘beacon’ safety feature that allows your loved ones to track where you are. Just be careful – as intelligence agents around the world have discovered, you’ll need to use the privacy features to ensure you don’t advertise to the world that your house is empty (or give away that you’re abroad on a spy mission).
For yet another form of social company, you could consider the ‘guided runs’ offered by apps from Nike Run Club, Peloton and others – you can listen along as an instructor gives you advice on form, dictates the pace and shares their favourite running music or mindfulness techniques. I took great comfort from these during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, and they’re worth trying if you need a little extra encouragement but don’t want to (or are unable to) join a local club.
Links & books
The app Zombies, Run! offers a zany source of motivation when you’re running, by turning your jog into a kind of real-life video game.
The riveting TED talk ‘Are We Born to Run?’ (2013) from Christopher McDougall, the bestselling author of Born to Run (2009), will inspire you next time you go running. In the talk, he speculates about the role of human stamina and running ability in the survival successes of our ancestors.
In episode 17 (2019) of the PsychCrunch podcast, I chatted to a few different experts about whether psychology can help make running more enjoyable – including the authors of the paper that showed the apparent wellbeing benefits of organised races.
In her book Reborn on the Run (2018), the ultra runner Catra Corbett describes how running saved her from a life of drug addiction – and it all started with a run around the block.
In the feature article ‘Psychology of Stamina’ (2011) for Outdoor Fitness magazine, I delved into the science showing that fatigue is largely in the brain rather than the body – and spoke to endurance athletes to hear their tips for building stamina.
Unfortunately, injury is an almost inevitable part of being a runner. But there is plenty of useful advice about this online, including the piece ‘The Mental Side of Coping with Injury’ (2021) by Addie Bracy in Trail Runner magazine.