There are many resources for aspiring runners like myself to access in that never-ending quest to squeeze the last ounce of energy and effort from our bodies as we chase our individual running goals and personal bests. The quest is never-ending in the same way that the finishing line in Madeira Drive seemed to recede with every painful step I took in this year’s Brighton marathon. There, it didn’t take me long to inform you or remind you that I have completed a marathon! I am a graduate of the University of Running, tutored and fine-tuned to be a shining example of elite athleticism. The term “Madeira Drive” has entered my lexicon, it is totemic of all that is difficult but promises joy and fulfillment if one perseveres. I understand that it probably occupies a fairly narrow niche.
The resources cover topics such as strength-building exercises for runners; how to develop your core strength and stability if you want to be a runner; how to stretch various muscles in various directions if you want to be a runner; what to eat before, during and after running if you want to be a runner; how to be psychologically sound if you want to be a runner; what sounds to listen to when you are running if you want to be a runner; what kind of shoes, socks, underwear, tops and hats to wear if you want to be a runner (but don’t want to look too ridiculous as you gasp for breath and drip sweat in public places); what fluorescent things to wear if you need to be conspicuous when running at night if you want to be a (nocturnal) runner; what words and phrases to use about running and training when talking to other runners if you want to be a runner; how to tell if the person you are talking to is a runner or someone who wants to be a runner if you want to be (or appear to be) a runner; how to move your arms backwards and forwards in the special way runners do if you want to be a runner; and how to take bigger steps and/or quicker steps (reduce that ground contact time!) if you want to be a runner who runs faster.
Much of the advice is of course very helpful, as advice is generally intended to be. However, it is not uncommon to read contradictory advice. Sports science is a rapidly growing specialist field of study, and as such new things are being discovered all the time about human physiology and psychology. Today’s good advice could be tomorrow’s bad advice. For example, I’m advising myself to go for a run tomorrow morning, but I’m quite prepared to wake up to the news that it is actually bad advice, and I’ll get a bit longer in bed. We elite athletes have to be emotionally, psychologically and physically flexible.
Is there a way through this maze of advice? I want to advocate compassionate running and training. Many runners are compassionate in the sense that they run to raise money for a whole range of charitable organisations (did I mention I run to raise money for MIND, the UK mental health charity?!), but in this context I am referring to self-compassion. At its simplest level, this involves being kind to ourselves. Maybe it begs the question of how running 26.2 miles is being kind to ourselves on any level, but we’ll let that one pass for now.
I practise self-compassion by not expecting too much of myself. I will set running and training goals (and sub-goals – those small steps along the way to the main goal are vitally important. After all, you cover 26.2 miles by placing one foot in front of the other, regardless of stride length or ground contact time), but I do not beat myself up if some days I fall short of achieving what I set out to do. The exercise and stretching instructions often talk about number of repetitions – I don’t worry if I don’t complete what they say. I’m a running maverick, living on the edge! I do what feels right for me.
One of the biggest challenges is around nutrition for runners (and for life in general, I guess). I have read articles about the 10 foods runners must eat, the 10 foods they must avoid, the 10 foods our iron-age ancestors (long before there were iron man challenges!) ate so they could hunt and chase, the 10 foods Roman emperors could eat without moving from their sofas…ok, so I’m stretching it a bit. The main message is, be guided by what is right for you. I don’t feel guilty because I swerve away from most vegetables. In my lexicon, PB is about Personal Bests, not Purple Broccoli.
You become a runner by running. Everything else is secondary. So just enjoy, keep safe from injury, and serve up plenty of self-compassion – with or without salad, as is your wont.