Do You Prefer to be a Lone Wolf or Part of the Pack?

I want to start this post by saying I am somewhat biased towards the virtues of running alone. As a bit of an introvert, part of what attracted me to running is that it is often thought of as a solo activity. However, over the past few years I have run with friends on numerous occasions and even spent a good few months running with a club twice a week. So with this in mind, I’m going to present some of the advantages of both running on your own and with others.

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In Defence of the Lone Wolf

As I’ve already alluded to in my introduction, running is often thought of as more of an individual activity and it is this aspect that often drives a lot of people to it in the first place. What you’ll hear from many runners if you ask them why they run, is that it gives them a chance to escape the busyness and stresses of their everyday life. Many people are in the situation where they are interacting with co-workers all day and then come home to their family, significant others, housemates, etc. Everyone needs a little “me time” now and then (some more than others) to give them a chance to clear their head and running is the perfect excuse for this.

For me, as I’ve already mentioned in a previous post, running is also a time when I get to listen to my audiobooks. Of course many people run with a partner or group with their earphones in, but I would feel incredibly rude for doing so, even if no one else cared!

Another advantage of running alone is that you don’t have to take anyone else’s schedule into account. It can be hard enough trying to fit running into your own schedule, let alone when you have to factor in another one!

You can also run at your own pace. Unless you’re lucky enough to know someone who runs at exactly the same pace as you, you’ll probably find yourself either having to slow down and not feel like you’re getting a proper workout in, or having to speed up and feel bad about holding the other person back.

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In Defence of the Pack

But not everyone enjoys the solidarity of running. I’ve known people who can’t stand to run alone and refuse to set foot onto the pavement unless they’ve got their running buddy at their side. Indeed, for those more extroverted among us, what might be holding them back from running is the assumed loneliness of it all. So what are some of the advantages of running with the pack?

First off, having a chat can really make the miles seem to go by quicker. Beware though: runners can only have a conversation for so long until it inevitably turns to the topic of bowel movements. Really.

While on the subject of chatting about bowel movements, joining a running club can also be a great way to make new friends.

Although I’ve just talked about how training with someone who doesn’t run at the same pace as you can be frustrating, it shouldn’t be overlooked that running with someone or a group that runs slightly faster than you can be a great way to really push yourself and improve your pace overall. I mean, you probably don’t want to be doing this for every run, but a couple of times a week can make for a great workout.

Another major concern that puts people off running is safety. It’s never been something that’s bothered me personally, but I know some people are worried about their personal safety when running alone, and running with a group or a friend is a great solution for this.

So, do you prefer to run as a lone wolf or as part of pack?

Running on a Shoestring Budget

Running often has the reputation of being one of the cheapest sports out there: “All you need is some trainers and you’re good to go!” (unless you’re one of those barefoot types, in which case you don’t even need those). However, I’m sure as many of us who wince at our bank statement when we realise this year’s race fees add up to more than the GDP of a small country would testify, this isn’t always the case.

Sure, you come to the sport thinking “all you need is a pair of trainers” but then you hear that they need to be the right pair of trainers, which the sales assistant in your local running shop insists are also the most expensive pair on the shelf. And as any member of Running Shoe Collectors Anonymous (RSCA) will tell you, that first pair is only the beginning.

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Then of course there are races. It starts out innocent enough. You enter a 5k fun run just to prove to yourself that you can run the distance, then before you know it you’re re-mortgaging the house to run a marathon on the other side of the world.

But do not fear! As a full-time student I’m usually pretty low on the disposable income front. Over the years this has led to me accumulating a few tips and tricks for running on a budget. Along with others who might not be able to devote a lot of their finances to their leisure activities, this might also prove useful for those just entering the world of running who are perhaps reluctant to sink too much money into a new hobby.

So lets tackle the main one first: Running Shoes

If like me you’re not really a stickler for keeping up with the latest trends, I recommend buying last season’s releases. My favourite shoe to run in is the Saucony Kinvara, but the £100 tag often leaves the latest model a little out of my price range. So instead I buy last year’s model online from discount stores such as SportsShoes for the modest sum of between £40 – £50. Much easier on the bank balance, I think you’ll agree.

Now onto Gear

I think knowing when to shop for gear is really key here. January is a particularly good time as there are usually sales on (in the UK, at least) and stores are often trying to flog running kit to New Years resolutioners who probably don’t want to spend too much money on a fitness routine that may not make it into February. Last year I managed to pick up two pairs of Nike Tempo shorts for only £5 each at the TK Maxx January sales. At that price it really would have been rude not to. And remember: sale shopping doesn’t always mean fighting through crowds, most online retailers will have their own which you can keep up to date with by signing up to their newsletters.

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And finally, Races

While the atmosphere of big city races may be amazing, you are going to be paying substantially more for them. The main reason for this is the cost of having the council close the roads and, of course, the high quality t-shirt and medal at the end those entering these events expect.

If you still want to race regularly but are not that bothered with all the pomp of big events, I’d recommend seeking out smaller races organised by local running clubs. Whereas a big city half marathon will often set you back around £45, smaller races usually offer places for as little as £12. I usually mix it up by doing one or two big races in a year then smaller, lower priced ones in between.

So those are my tips for running on a shoestring budget. If you have any of your own I’d love to hear them. Running might sometimes require a little more then “just a pair of trainers”, but that doesn’t always mean you have to break the bank to enjoy it!

How Running Got Me Out of a Fixed Mindset

Some of you may be familiar with the work of Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University. Her research around the notion of ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets has gained quite a bit of publicity since her book Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential was released in 2012.

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According to Dweck, the ‘growth’ mindset is characterised by seeing failures as opportunities for self-improvement. As such, those with a growth mindset thrive on challenges and setbacks. They believe that ability and skill can be developed and improved. Whereas those with a ‘fixed’ mindset see failure as an endpoint in itself. They believe that intelligence and ability are static and therefore cannot be changed in any meaningful way. Any success that those with a fixed mindset experience is seen as merely an affirmation of their inherent intelligence.

Reading Dweck’s work, I recognised a lot of the fixed mindset characteristics in myself. In school I always thought that it didn’t matter how hard I studied for a test, I would fail it anyway because I had below average intelligence. As a result of this belief, I didn’t study and therefore I often didn’t pass. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If I wasn’t good at something straight away I’d give up on it, assuming that it wasn’t “right for me”. I gave up on a lot of things. When I saw people excelling in something, whether it be academically or something recreational such as sport or art, I’d assume it was because they were naturally talented in this area, and I just had to find where my natural talents lay. This often led to the belief that I “just wasn’t good at anything”.

So how does all this relate to running, exactly?

When I started running I was under no false pretence that I would be able to run 5k right off the bat. I was a certified couch potato who could barely run for one minute let alone thirty. And that was fine. I understood that distance running was about training consistently and making improvements week-by-week, month-by-month. That’s what attracted me to it.

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As someone with a fixed mindset, using the couch to 5k training programme was a revolutionary experience. The idea that if I just kept at something I would actually see a noticeable improvement in my ability was groundbreaking for me. Sure I had my doubts now and then. I had a bad run and would walk home in defeat with thoughts of “well, I guess running just isn’t for me” stuck in my mind. But I’d just take a moment to reflect on how far I had come and the improvements that I had already made.

The growth mindset that I have developed through running is also changing the way I think about other aspects of my life too. Just like I didn’t expect myself to jump off the sofa and run a half marathon, I can’t expect myself to be adept at everything in my life straight away.

Running taught me to focus on the process, not just the results. A good performance in a race doesn’t happen because you are naturally great at running; it happens because of all the miles you logged prior to race day. That includes the good AND the bad training runs. If I consistently work hard at a task I know I will achieve good results. Obstacles and challenges along the way aren’t telling you “this isn’t right for you. Maybe try something else, eh?” they are there to make you better by working out how to overcome them.

Just like that steep hill you’re dreading running up at 6:30am on a Monday morning makes your legs stronger, facing that challenge that feels just too overwhelming for you to take on will make your mind stronger.

It’s Only Cold If You’re Standing Still

Ahh, winter. I spend most of the summer dreaming of the day the temperatures will finally drop down to a reasonable level, then by January I’m well and truly over the black ice in between days of non-stop rain.

First off, I’ll admit that yes, I do live in Britain. So I’m sure what we consider “extreme” weather is laughable to those who live in less temperate climates. After all, we’re the island that grinds to a halt when we get 2 cm of snow.

But because of this, we do face slightly different challenges when running in the winter. The most prevalent one is that we’re awfully unprepared for bad weather. Don’t expect any of the pavements to be gritted in the event of ice or snow. Councils will usually only have enough rock salt to grit the main roads, leaving pedestrians to take their chances with a potential trip to A&E. This can make running outside impossible for days at a time.

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It also rains a lot here. And while running in the rain in the summer can actually be quite refreshing, in the winter it’s just cold and depressing. Although I must admit, you do feel like a bit of a badass being the only person out on a usually busy running route. Just keep muttering “no such thing as bad weather, just soft people” under your breath and you’ll be fine.

But although winter in the UK is rainy and awful 90% of the time, it all seems worth it for those rare days when the clouds part and the wind stops to leave beautiful, crisp conditions that make you just want to run further and longer. Those are definitely my favourite kinds of runs.

So what sort of clothing do I rock on these chilly winter runs? Well, something that keeps my ears warm is a must for me. I absolutely hate my ears being cold! On a mildly chilly day I’ll just wear a buff as a headband, but anything below freezing I’ll go for a rather festive bobble hat I picked up for a few quid at Primark. Works like a charm.

Another essential is gloves. I have awful circulation in my hands and feet meaning that they’re nearly always cold, so a decent pair of gloves are are required as soon as it gets below around 5°C.

My next defence against the cold is a SKINS compression top I picked upScreen Shot 2014-11-28 at 19.11.58 last year on sale. I absolutely love SKINS gear, although I can only afford to get it when it’s on sale because they’re hella expensive! £80 for a top? Ouch. But if you happen to see any of their gear on sale I can’t recommend them enough in terms of providing brilliant temperature control. Then I’ll usually just throw a running t-shirt over the top to provide my body with a little more insulation.

Unfortunately I’m not as fearless as those people who go out in below freezing temperatures in their short shorts (as much as I aspire to be), so I complete the outfit with a pair of running tights. I have some lovely thick Asics ones that are just perfect for when the temperatures begin to substantially drop.

So that’s my usual plan of attack when it comes to combating the cold. And the very best thing about winter running? The hot shower afterwards. Bliss!

Leave Your Running Playlist at Home and Take a Book Instead

Some people find that music can be a great source of motivation and entertainment while running, whereas others are adamantly against any kind of auditory distraction, whether for safety reasons or because they just prefer to feel more immersed within their natural surroundings.

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When I first started running I fell firmly within the pro-music camp. This was partly for motivation reasons, and also because I like to have some kind of soundtrack going on while I go about my everyday activities; whether that be running, washing the dishes or commuting. For me, silence is reserved for when I’m doing something like writing and need to concentrate 100% on the task at hand.

However, once I started upping my weekly mileage I found my playlists getting increasingly repetitive. I have a pretty broad taste in music, but even that has limits and I was beginning to run out of songs I hadn’t played to death already.

That’s when I thought I’d switch it up a bit and listen to an audiobook on my next run. I hadn’t considered this before because I assumed that I would have trouble concentrating on the narrative while trying to do another activity at the same time. But this didn’t turn out to be the case. In fact, I found myself so engrossed in what I was listening to the miles seemed to fly by in no time.

I also find that audiobooks can be great motivation for getting up and getting out there. On those days that I really don’t feel like going out for a run I just change my thought process. I’m not going out for a run; I’m going out to listen to the next chapter of my book.

audiobooksAnd most importantly, it actually gives me a chance to “read” some fiction. Like many research students, I feel incredibly guilty when I spend time reading anything that isn’t academic in nature. I still love my paperback books, but it takes me forever to get through them, as I’ll usually just read a chapter or two before bed. Audiobooks give me a chance to listen to fiction guilt free because, after all, I am doing something productive at the same time!

I’m also a big fan of podcasts. My favourites are the BBC Radio 4 podcasts that cover a wide range of topics in philosophy, science and various areas of cultural studies. I used to listen to them in bed, but the problem with that is I often struggle to remember the next morning what I was listening to! I’m far better at retaining information when I listen to them on my run. And the best thing about these podcasts is that they’re free!

So if you’re getting bored of your usual running playlist perhaps try listening to an audiobook or podcast instead. You may also find that it’s a great way to add a bit more enjoyment to your run and motivate you to get out there!

I’m a Morning Runner (and you can be too!)

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I’ve not always been a morning person. A few years back I would have looked at you in disbelief if you were to suggest that there exists a 6:00 AM as well as PM (“what do you mean morning? That’s practically the middle of the night!“) I found that this mindset, however, really clashed with my running.

I know some people love getting home from work, lacing up their running shoes and heading out to smash some miles and clear their head from the stresses of the day, but that just isn’t me. My motivation in the evening is pretty much at its lowest point all day. All I want to do is sit on the sofa and watch telly. If I mention a marathon at any time after 5pm you can just assume I’m referring to the TV box set kind.

So the other option was to run first thing in the morning when I’m pretty much at my peak motivation wise. The only thing holding me back was the actual getting out of bed part. Not so hard in the summer, but in the winter when its cold and dark and you can hear the wind blowing the rain against your bedroom window at 100mph, the idea of emerging from your duvet cocoon and venturing outside becomes slightly less appealing.

But I’m pleased to say I’ve been getting out there and clocking those predawn miles consistently for over two years, so now I’d like to share with you my Top 5 Tips for anyone who wants to transform themselves into a morning runner too.

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1. Lay all your kit out the night before. It’s so much easier to get up and go when you don’t have to think about stumbling around in the dark trying to find those shorts that were sure you’d put away in a drawer, or maybe they’re somewhere in that pile of clean laundry on the kitchen table? Oh sod it, I’m going back to bed.

2. Go to bed earlier. C’mon, we all knew this one was coming. No more staying up until 1:00am reading obscure Wikipedia articles and scrolling through Tumblr, its time to get a decent nights rest. However, once you get into a pattern of getting up early this bit should be the easy. Before long you’ll find yourself glancing at the clock at 7:30pm and debating whether its too early to hit the hay.

3. Engage your body before your brain. Get out of bed before your brain even has time to properly wake up. Practice getting up as soon as you hear your alarm sound and after a while it will just become automatic. Before you’re even fully conscious you’re out of bed, half dressed and lacing up your shoes. (Warning: this technique may sometimes result in you leaving your house with your t-shirt on inside-out and your shorts on back-to-front).

4. Lie to yourself. Okay, so, your alarm has gone off but you haven’t managed to kick your body into gear before your brain. Your brain doesn’t want you to go for a run, your brain wants you to have an extra hour sleep. It starts going through all the excuses as to why you shouldn’t run this morning. So you lie to it. You’re not going for a run, you’re just putting on your kit. You can get straight back into bed afterwards and sleep after if you want. You won’t want to though, once you’ve got your kit on you’ll be ready to go. Not this time, brain!

5. Get a running buddy. If you know anyone as mad as you and actually willing to get up at such an ungodly hour, then organise to do your early morning runs together. The accountability of having a running buddy should stop you from reaching for that snooze button so often. After all, no one wants to break up a friendship by leaving poor Jeff stood waiting at the end of his street at 5:30am when it’s -5°C.

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So those are my top tips for dragging yourself out of bed when you least want to! I hope they help others as much as they have me in the past. And remember, some days nothing will work; your body and brain will just refuse to even put a toe out from the comfort of your bed, and that’s fine. It’s okay to take an impromptu rest day now and then. Just make sure you go out and smash it tomorrow morning!

Hitting the Trails

I’m primarily a road runner, although this fact is more a result of circumstance rather than choice. I’ve never really lived near any trails. When I lived out in the Leicestershire countryside I was just surrounded by acres and acres of farmland and here in Cardiff it takes miles of pounding the pavement to get anywhere with slightly less tarmac underfoot. I didn’t even own a pair of trail shoes until last week.

I’d seen a pair of Brooks PureGrits on sale and being as they were practically a steal I thought it would be rude not to. After all, what kind of runner passes on the chance to buy another pair of shoes?

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So now I had the shoes there was really no excuse for not making more of an effort in expanding my running horizons. You see, the few times that I have hit the trails over the past few years I’ve absolutely loved it. Earlier this year I spent a week in Ireland getting up at sunrise every morning to run along the miles of trails that snake through the Knockmealdown mountains.

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So this morning I decided to take a trip out to the woodland around Castell Coch to test out my shiny new shoes and remind myself just how great leaving the pavement behind can be.

Perhaps what I love the most about trail running is the real sense of freedom you get from being off-road. Being surrounded by nature as opposed to the man made structures of the city makes for a refreshing change every once in a while. I also tend to feel far more in touch with my surroundings on the trails. Road running can often feel very monotonous and it’s easy to just zone out when keeping a steady pace and cadence for miles on end. Whereas trail running forces you to be far more aware of what’s going on around you. You have to be constantly watching out for rogue tree roots and rocks and adjusting your cadence for the varying gradients you encounter.

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However, that’s not to say that trail running is always sunshine and rainbows (in fact, its frequently rain clouds and fog). As much as I do love nature and being out in the “great outdoors”, I do have limits in terms of just how in touch with nature I want to be at any given time. For instance, I’d prefer not to be in touch with an angry looking ram who shows no sign of budging out of my path as I was one foggy morning in the Knockmealdown mountains.  And whilst the isolation of the trails can be relaxing and tranquil, my over active imagination shaped by watching too many crime dramas can’t help but invent numerous scenarios in which an axe-wielding maniac is lurking behind every tree poised to attack.

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So whilst my current location means that I won’t be out on the trails for every training run, I’m certainly going to make more of an effort to try get out there whenever I can, regardless of potential axe murderers and killer sheep.