Running Clears The Mind – From Couch to Half Marathon in a Pandemic

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

March 2020. This new Coronavirus Covid-19 is beginning to ramp up in the UK. Cases are on the rise, as are deaths. Boris Johnson appears on the screen and announces a national lockdown. This includes gyms. The gym had been a place where I managed to keep my mental health in order while improving my fitness, health and most importantly my mental wellbeing.


What now? Well I had a feeling a lockdown was on the way, so a few weeks previous to the announcement I’d begun Couch to 5K. The end goal; to run 5K in about 30 minutes. Little did I know where this journey would take me.


A regular spot on the trail that ran by my home

But let’s talk about the bigger picture. Since the pandemic began suicide rates are up and mental health issues, depression and anxiety is on the rise. People are dealing with unexpected isolation, bereavement and of course financial worries. Alcohol and drug use, as well as insomnia, is more common. WHO reports there has been almost 2/3 of disruption to counselling and psychotherapy and 3/4 have reported disruptions to work-based mental health support. The most vulnerable have become more vulnerable and those that felt okay are being severely tested for the first time. At the end of this article I’ll talk about DRT – Dynamic Running Therapy. Not something I consciously did but upon researching for this blog I realised I do this in every single run I do.


We’ve got to start doing everything we can to help ourselves. Our Surfing Clears The Mind Article was based on studies and a little anecdotal whereas this is almost a completely anecdotal take on things.


I needed something replace the hole left by losing the gym. I had started Couch to 5K so I began thinking beyond 5K and got to that point long before the scheduled 12 weeks because I was running 4-5 times per week. I wasn’t unfit but I didn’t have “running fitness” per se.


The weather was fantastic for long periods of lockdown, and I lived next to a trail. I did my research, bought some trail shoes and really got into it and began to push past 5K, with a new 10K target in mind. Ben talked about the connection with battling waves being good therapy in his article, in running as you battle hills, you battle lactic acid and most importantly you battle yourself. All metaphors for the waves we have to ride in real life.


Stumbling across a lake between work and home that i never knew about

While doing all this, you can run anywhere. For me, the neighbouring trail with its horses, cows, grass, Cornish ruins and the backdrop of the coast and sea was my regular run. I eventually realised – I need to head to that coast and the coast became a place I would run to.


5K to 10K was actually an okay transition, I was enjoying myself! I wanted to run. It was the one place I could listen to music and be alone with my thoughts and find peace of mind.


Something worth noting here – I was regularly using the Nike Run Club app. It’s completely free and has a number of guided runs. There’s a particularly great set called the Mindful Running Pack where Nike Head Coach Bennett helps with some mindful meters including guided runs where he sits with people from Headspace in a collaboration that was made to be mentioned in this article!


As we graduated out of lockdown and gyms eventually opened, something strange happened, I didn’t go back. I guess I was now becoming a runner. Setting goals, trying to beat my times, beat my distances and noticing I was running with a smile on my face. I hit my first 10K on July 3. It was a slow one but I’ve shaved 20 minutes of that first time in five months of running.


A good spot for hill runs; Porthowan to Chapel Porth

I was doing hill runs, sprints, running in new places, strange places. Then in September the unthinkable happened and I signed up for a Half Marathon on December 20. Kilometers were becoming miles and the new target was 13.1 miles. I began a 12-week plan I found on Runner’s World.


Then Winter began. And I became that weird running guy. Running in the rain, running in the wind and running when it was just disgusting out there. It feels great.


Injuries and aches began to hit and I had to learn how to deal with them. Compression socks, ankle supports, better trainers. What’s my gait? Oh I over-pronate. How do I solve that?


Essential items; Brooks running shoes and compression socks

What started as an idea to get through what I thought would be a short lockdown became a positive focus for me. I was able to research, learning how to train, plan runs, what to eat before a run and it was just putting my mind in a good place.


Fast forward to the end of November and a semi-disaster strikes. A pain in my calf and I hope to overcome it but I just can’t run, I then get a winter cold complete with Covid-19 symptoms and I need to isolate until I test. These two combined equated to two weeks off and my two longest planned runs in my schedule missed. I’m feeling a little unprepared. My longest run going into the half marathon was nine miles.


Anyways, I follow the plan and taper my training down leading to race day. 2020 was an absolute shitter of a year. On December 20th me and almost 300 other runners are all gathered together to finish the year with something massively positive that in all likelihood we all needed.


Once I got into the unknown zone of 10-13.1 miles I really began to struggle. I had to keep going though, but it really bought my time down. I low-key wanted to be under 2 hours and 15 minutes. I came in at 2 hours 13 minutes and 57 seconds. I beat my target by just over a minute. Those painful moments of pushing on through were worth it.



At the finish line there were strangers cheering strangers on, runners wearing medals, t-shirts, a smile and a sense of accomplishment. The feeling was fantastic and felt like a silver lining to a year that has been a grey cloud.


Running helped me learn how to overcome adversity, how to be more patient, to learn more about myself, to be mindful, enjoy the outdoors, have quiet time, be disciplined and release endorphins and hit that runner’s high.


DRT; Dynamic Running Therapy. There are three steps to this. Grounding, Moving and Journalling.


Grounding


This is effectively scanning three things – your body, environment and state of mind followed by priming yourself for your run. It’s meditation. You concentrate on your body, moving from your head to your toes, notice how your body feels against whatever surface it is on, how the air feels around you and thinking about every part of your body as you work your way down, noticing how you feel. Scan your environment; the sounds, the smells, what is in front of you, around you. Then scan your emotions; how do you feel right now? Then prime yourself – what would you like to question and solve today?


I would advise doing the body scan at various points through your run too.


Moving


We spoke about mindful meters and that’s what this is. Move mindfully. Is it to combat depression or anxiety? Is it personal problems? Is it to lose weight? Is it simply to be fit and healthy? Set yourself questions to solve these things, or at least get closer to solving them, throughout your run.


Run a run that suits your reasons too. If you’re dealing with anger issues – perhaps interval sprints or hills where you can push yourself physically. If it’s anxiety – slow and long in a picturesque environment. You get the idea.


Journal


Log your run. What worries did you want to face and how did that go? What answers did you get to your questions? How did the actual run go? Most importantly – do you feel better?


William Pullen – Run For Your Life, Mindful Running For A Happy Life for more reading on this.


As we go into another Lockdown in the UK, if you’re thinking about Couch to 5K – do it. If you want to run further – do it. Make your meters on foot mindful. Use running apps if you like, I do. Just give yourself a reason and a target.


One last thing, Half Marathon 2 is booked. I don’t know what’s happened to me!


Read about how Surfing Clears The Mind right here.