Locked down running… Head space…Heart space

I’ve not blogged in what feels like forever – basically since April. I have an inbox full of blog ideas I’ve sent myself to work on and they sit there glaring at me – guilt seeping off the screen but, you know, lockdown.

But someone put a comment on the posts about training for Paris that it would be interesting to know what happened once Paris went out the window (currently scheduled for October 18th but I’m assuming it won’t happen) and it got me thinking that it is actually once we suffer a setback that the lessons really begin and we can get stronger – so here I am. Reflecting.

Compared to many others I’ve got away really lightly over lockdown. I’ve not been ill. In fact the three of us (I live with my husband and our 3 year old daughter) have been healthier than ever as we’ve not been run down or outside picking up our usual colds and viruses. My husband can easily work from home and I can still see the athletes I work with over Skype. Athlete work has reduced but writing work increased so it balances out well. But both of us working full time and looking after our daughter has not been easy. There has been far too much Ben and Holly (v v irritating cartoon), not enough ABC Mouse (which is an educational App) to learn her numbers and letters and while we tried to do lots of treasure hunts, bouncing (we gave in half way through and bought a trampoline) and den making it always felt rushed because we had emails piling up and constant guilt about not doing anything properly. On the lovely side though we have skipped together, learnt how to hula hoop and she has finally got brave enough on her balance bike to ask for a fast bike with pedals. In reflection it sounds pretty good. At the time not so good. So much stress from not knowing how long it would last and so spending the whole time feeling guilty about not doing enough of anything and failing at lockdown (not once did we make Sourdough or Banana Bread).

I gave myself 30 minutes a day to run and found one route that was fairly safe to run on (we are in a city – people everywhere and my usual run route banned runners and cyclists) and getting to listen to podcasts normalising that full time work and full time childcare and trying to stay somewhat healthy is really tough.

Most sports psychs I know well don’t have children yet so I was envying the time they would have to really focus on their own growth and development. What really helped was hearing a podcast (Locked Down Parenting – Loved it) with one of the comedians they interviewed being in a really similar situation saying: ‘This isn’t a writing retreat – it is a global pandemic’. Really gave a good kick up the bum to count my blessings.

So what happened to all those miles in the legs, the great habits developed and the mental skills honed in the build up to Paris. To be honest I let most of them go. I’m ok with that. It was great to know I could train properly if I want to but I definitely need a goal to do it. And when I don’t have a goal I’m not built to push myself too hard. I have run five times a week. I did 100 miles in May for Miles for Mind and liked the challenge and I have done a few of my coaches brick sessions but hard efforts don’t entice. I need a purpose to push myself and right now my purpose is just to stay fit and healthy.

Running had become my head space, my place to day dream, learn and come up with new ideas. And I love that. It doesn’t have to feel hard and full of effort. Ambling along with Josh Widdecome (Locked Down Parenting) or Annie Emmerson and Louise Minchin (Her Spirit podcast) in my ears is more than enough.

Our daughter is back at nursery now. The day before she went back she told me: ‘I love you and daddy but I really want to see my friends’ and my heart sang. She wanted normality back as much as we did. And she is absolutely thriving being back.

And yet the desire to race and get fast has stayed away. Instead I’m using running for a lunchtime catch up with my husband or a way to get to the park to see friends for a socially distanced coffee. It is no longer head space but heart space. Allowing me to spend time with people I love. A purpose I’ll hang onto for a while.

Why exercise is vital during lockdown

Running postIf you dare to look at your local Facebook group, or the rants on Next Door forums you would find there is a new ‘enemy of the people’. Not a politician, or someone failing to deliver PPE, but ‘joggers’. Who knew someone exercising could be so vilified? The walkers dislike anyone running near them, the runners get annoyed that people are ambling all over the place, the cyclists breeze on by. Frustratingly my usual run route has been completely closed off to runners and cyclists so walkers can use it. We are all in this together but somehow still find our tribe and our enemies. And can get very grumpy about it in the process (and as a runner get grumpier still when I’m labelled a jogger!)

We’ve got at least another 3 weeks of lockdown and increasingly confusing interpretations of what is and isn’t allowed with some wondering why anyone is exercising at all, suggesting it is downright dangerous. A comment on twitter from cyclist Julie Elliott really highlighted this…

Juliet Elliott tweet

So why is walking, running and cycling still allowed?

It is allowed because although it creates logistical challenges, it will maintain the nation’s physical health, improve mental wellbeing and also makes economic sense. In short it will keep people healthier for longer and that is just what the NHS needs right now.

We know what in many parts of the world over two thirds of adults are not active enough. This has led to insufficient physical activity being one of the leading risk factors of global mortality. World Health Organisation studies have found that those who are insufficiently active increase their risk of death by up to 30% and put massive pressures and additional costs onto health care systems. Even if we have a chronic health condition we can still find strong value in exercise, in fact, especially when we have a chronic health condition, there is a huge amount of benefit to exercising.

Physically, exercise improves muscular and cardio-respiratory fitness, improves bone and functional health, reduces the risk of hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and lowers the likelihood of falls and fractures.

Mentally, it reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression, boosts mood and quality of life and cuts down loneliness.

It is also thought exercise plays a large part in enhancing our cognitive functions (these are the different aspects of our mental functioning such as our thought processing, memory, attention, concentration and creativity), meaning we become better at controlling our behaviour and regulating our emotions. Pretty helpful when we are dealing with things we’ve never dealt with before.

Together this shows that exercise has tremendous powers which, when taken regularly and with the right intensity, can make a huge difference to our mental, cognitive and physical health. So, what counts as exercise.

It isn’t just physical activity. Exercise is purposeful, with the intention of improving fitness and with at least a slight elevation in your heart rate. Going for a very slow walk while eating an ice-cream or smoking a cigarette (which seems rather common on my local route) might be great for your feeling of wellbeing but isn’t going to do much to improve your fitness. Walking quite briskly, but still being able to chat is the minimum of what we need for both physical and mental benefit. I love this piece from New Scientist explaining it. When we are looking to improve cognitive function the studies suggest we need to be more active – into the vigorous activity level; running, cycling, circuit training, football or rowing types of sports.

And the message is clearly getting through. Sport England commissioned some research which ran at the beginning of April (3rd-6th) and found 63% of adults feel it is more important to be exercising now than they did before Coronavirus. Really interestingly it suggests that the mental health benefits described above aren’t just in research papers, they are being felt, with 67% saying the exercise they are doing is helping them with their mental health during the outbreak. Here is the full release.

So who is right? The walkers, the runners or those staying home?

My view is it is all of them. As long as there is about 30 minutes of purposeful exercise each day where your heart rate rises quite a bit and you get at least a little out of breath then you are doing a good thing for yourself and society. Carry on.