Today is the 23rd of March. It has never before been a significant date for me, but on the 23rd of March 2020 the announcement was made that the UK would enter a period of lockdown to help slow the spread of Covid-19. That was when everything changed.
Under the rules of the time there were very limited reasons to leave our homes: essential shopping, medical care or exercise (once a day). At that time the schools had already closed so I knew I would be teaching remotely for the foreseeable future and as we headed into that period of working from home I knew that I would need to get out for some fresh air every day in order to stop the cabin fever setting in, making me feel sluggish and disrupting my sleep patterns. Even as I listened to the speeches from our political leaders outlining the measures being introduced, my plan was to continue to run on my usual days (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday) and to take a walk on the other days so that I would get outside. But as the country awoke in lockdown on the morning of Tuesday 24th March and I headed out for my run, I began to think differently.
I enjoyed that run. I had been feeling very anxious for a few weeks as I followed the news of how Covid was spreading, fearful of what that might mean. But with firm measures in place I felt much safer as there was a new clarity around what to do. Yes, there would be lots to learn when it came to how to continue teaching without the traditional face to face model; yes, going to get my weekly food shopping would cause some anxiety; yes, I would miss social interactions, but I vividly remember thinking that so long as I could run, I would feel ok. And as that particular run came to an end, I began to wonder what would happen if rather than walking, I ran again the next day, and the next, and the next…
What would happen if I tried a run streak?
What happened is I ran for 365 consecutive days and have no plans to stop. Today, as I mark one year of my #accidentalrunstreak I want to reflect on some of my main takeaways from the experience.
- Running every day actually IS for me
I’ve always considered myself an injury-prone runner and the number of injuries/niggles I picked up through the first decade of my running are testament to that. For this reason, I’ve always shied away from run steaks. I thought running every day would be a one-way ticket to injury and when I observed others taking part in streaks such as Marcothon, RED January and other similar initiatives, I saw broken people dragging exhausted bodies through their daily runs and wishing for the month they committed to to be over. Why would I want to put myself through that? But as I began my streak I made the decision that I would stop if it became apparent that running every day was causing me issues or I felt an injury brewing. By listening to my body, building up gradually and backing off the distance/intensity when I needed to, I soon adapted and found that I was craving my daily run rather than resenting it ike those I had observed. Even today, one year on, that hasn’t changed.
- The human body is amazing
Observing the adaptations in my body in the first weeks of the streak was fascinating. It took until about day 5 or 6 before I began to feel the effects of running every day, but actually that manifested as a tired heaviness in my legs rather than anything untoward. I kept the distance short and the pace slow for a few days to allow my body a chance to recover, and as I came out the other side of that initial weariness I felt stronger, better adapted to running every day. It was like my legs caught up to my brain in realising that this was what they were doing each morning and got on board with the plan. I had run several marathons before and my legs had carried me through weeks of focused training and increasingly lengthy runs, but this was something different to adapt to and I remember thinking how amazing it was that rather than continuing to feel weary, my legs found a new energy and settled into this new routine.
- If I want to do something badly enough I will find a way
As my streak continued I began to make some decisions. I had set myself clear “streak rules” (minimum of 30 minutes – the length of time I need to get my points on my Vitality Fitness Rewards policy – or 5k per day) but built in an “exceptional circumstances” fallback position of just 1 mile to keep the streak alive. Out of 365 days, I only used this fallback twice, on two consecutive days when I travelled (unheard of these days!) to Disneyland Paris in August, that moment in time when the world was a little more open. Knowing that I had a super early start on the day I travelled, but unwilling to let my streak end over one tricky day, I ran laps around the block to complete one VERY early mile before heading off (the following day was also one mile as I was conscious of having had a long day on not much sleep, with another busy day ahead). Similarly, when we returned to school in August I didn’t want to end the streak, in fact I thought I would find it mentally helpful, so committed to getting up early, as I had been doing previously on my running days, to fit my run in before work. I still knew that I would stop if it was becoming untenable, but by this point I knew that I wasn’t going to make a decision to stop the streak, rather it would be stopped by outside forces such as illness, injury or a change in restrictions that would mean I was no longer able to get out to run. Stopping would have to be taken out of my hands – I even worked out what I would do if I was told I would have to self-isolate but was actually well (up and down the garden path!). In the same way that I wouldn’t want to skip a meal or skip sleep, I didn’t want to skip a run. That’s how much a part of my life it had become.
- I feel better for the whole day when I start with a run
I think the main reason I have no desire to stop the streak is how it makes me feel. Before Covid there were two days in the week when I was getting up a bit earlier to run. This meant different alarm times for different days – running days, non-running days and weekends. Looking back, I don’t think that was really a good idea. Far better to have a regular alarm, at least on work days, and running before work every single day helped to even that out. Even when working from home, I was still tied to the bounds of the school day so my time felt very structured. The same is true when I am travelling to school for a more “normal” day, I just have to get up a little earlier than when I have worked from home. At the beginning of the school year in August there were actually two days when I was unable to run before work because of the weather – really stormy with significant flooding and on one of the days there was still thunder and lightning around so it would actually have been dangerous to run. On both occasions the forecast was much better later in the day so I delayed my run until after school and I really noticed the difference in how I felt all day. It was like I didn’t wake up properly: my mind was less alert, my body felt sluggish and I just had this sense of being “off” all day. Starting the day with a run wakes me up, gives me a chance to reflect on things I need to do and the endorphins to send me into the day feeling positive, with a bit of oomph to get things done. It may be a bit of a shock to the system to get up on a dark winter morning, but by the time I get back from my run I feel ready for anything!
- Pace really doesn’t matter
It’s easy to get bogged down in numbers and stats, to compare ourselves to past triumphs and feel down when a run feels hard even though we are actually moving more slowly. But when you get out there every day, you can’t expect to be running fast all the time. I learned quite quickly that my best runs come later in the week, especially on Saturday mornings, when my legs will have had more time to recover from a longer Sunday run and, certainly in the case of a Saturday, I’m better rested so there’s more of a spring in my step. I’ve learned to be more appreciative of the time out there in the fresh air and forget about pace. Ok. so I’m probably running a bit slower right now than I was this time last year, but I also have no specific event to target and I know that at any time I could tweak my training to include specific speed work and get a bit of pace back if I wanted to. I have to ask myself why I am running: is it to be faster, or is it because I actually just enjoy running? The past year has overwhelmingly been about the joy of the run, with little regard to pace.
- Even when you run every day you can still cycle your training
Related to that is the idea of how I approach each run. A traditional running week would have a mixture of easy runs, hill runs, speed sessions and long runs. A training cycle, especially in preparation for a marathon, would go through a period of building mileage and intensity, followed by a period of cutting that back to allow for adaptation – this is where the body reaps the benefits of that hard training. But how do you do that when there are no days off? From the earliest days of the streak when I consciously kept the pace and intensity down while my body adapted to the demands of running every day, I realised that there would have to be some light and shade in my running. Heading out the door every morning to run the same route at the same pace might tick the box of running every day, but it’s not very exciting and offers no real scope to stretch distance or pace. My running would stagnate. Instead, I began to create a pattern in my week which developed into a rolling cycle of training. Monday remains a recovery run since I have my longest run on a Sunday. Tuesday-Friday are still at a fairly easy pace, but with the option of including some form drills, fartlek work or hill training on a Thursday to mix things up if I want to. Saturday is my faster run as I like to record a 5k (not)parkrun and then the cycle comes back around to my Sunday long run (anything from 8-14 miles, but mostly 10 miles – it’s a good distance). The work week actually looks like a bit of a “pyramid” in terms of distance, something like 3.5 miles – 4.5 miles – 5 miles – 4.5 miles – 4 miles. This lets me build a little distance up to the middle of the week then pull back ahead of the speed and longer distance of the weekend. Across a series of weeks I will build in the same way I would for marathon training: 3 weeks of gradually increasing long run distance followed by a cutback week where I drop mileage and keep the pace easy all week. I’m not a coach, nor am I qualified to tell you how to structure your training, but I AM qualified to know what works for me and after 365 days I think we can safely say that this does. Of course I can play around with things a bit, run a shorter distance if I’m feeling tired or otherwise not at my best or stretch things out if I’m feeling good and I don’t have to be anywhere any time soon, but having this pattern has really helped me as even though I might stick to similar routes, I’m not always doing the exact same thing.
- There are a surprising number of new routes and challenges to try
I’ve never particularly minded covering the same route over and over again. There can be something quite comforting in knowing where you are, what the terrain/elevation ahead looks like and the precise distance to complete the route. But that’s not to say I don’t also enjoy finding new places to run. When we moved into our house 5 years ago one of the great joys at first was having a different starting point for my runs, so even familiar loops would feel a little different as they would start and end at a different point. These days I often stick to familiar routes; I like to have a distance in mind and know precisely where to head to cover it. Yet when you’re out there every day, sometimes it can be fun to have something different to do in order to mix things up. Whether that’s a new route (something I did at the weekend), running a familiar loop in reverse (that one can feel a bit odd) or a fun challenge, it’s surprising how many different ways you can find to add a little interest to a run. Over the past 365 days I have taken part in virtual events, themed my running tops, hit new mileage goals, played “postbox bingo”, spelled words using the first letter of street names, taken part in scavenger hunts, created homemade running events and am currently ticking off a daily bingo card. Wearing a particular colour of top or taking a photo of a random object may not show up in the stats, but these have been the things that have made my running fun, provided a focus when the world has felt like Groundhog Day and connected me to a community even though I’m running solo. They are the things that add depth and colour, create stories and form memories. I can recommend it!
- I can run in (nearly) every kind of weather
When you run for a full year you will inevitably encounter all sorts of different weather – sometimes in the same day since this is Scotland! Having considered myself a runner for over a decade, encountering various weather conditions is nothing new, but in the past I might have shifted my running schedule around if the weather wasn’t looking too great. This past year I didn’t give myself the choice. Other than those stormy days in August where heading out would have been reckless, I have run in sunshine, rain, high winds, fog, snow, ice, very hot weather, freezing weather and many combinations of the above. As it turns out, the old adage “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing” is true. And as a side note, if you plan to run every day it’s a good idea to have enough kit to see you through a week in a variety of weather conditions. It really takes the pressure off on laundry! Oh, and laying it out the night before really reduces the mental fatigue of figuring out your kit in the morning – I leave mine in the bathroom to make things even easier when I roll out of bed.
- I’m much happier in shorts!
But with all those weather conditions, it turns out that my happy place is when I can run in shorts. I remember the days when I would spend chunks of the year in full length leggings or capris, afraid that I would be far too cold in shorts, but these days I much prefer my running shorts. People often think I’m mad and assume I must be freezing (I’m not), but my arms are far more likely to feel cold than my legs, so it’s not unusual to see me in shorts and a thermal top! So long as the temperature is above freezing, I’m probably out in my shorts. Thinking about it, I’m not sure why that’s become my preference. Maybe I feel more free. Maybe I can more easily fool myself that the weather is good. Maybe I’ve just become one of “those people” who switch to shorts at the earliest possible opportunity and refuse to go back – like switching the heating off and leaving it off until winter rolls around again. Whatever it might be, that month or two in winter when it gets far too cold for shorts is probably my least favourite of all since it takes so much kit to get me out the door – nothing beats shorts and a T-shirt for ease of planning!
- Sometimes the journey really is more important than the destination
Perhaps most important of all is the fact that there doesn’t need to be a goal race or other arbitrary target for a run to be worthwhile. This wasn’t entirely new to me as I had already cut back on the amount of racing I did as just wasn’t feeling a need to be in a constant train-race-recover-repeat cycle. I was picking events based on what I felt they might add to my life, such as Run Disney events, or because they offered an interesting experience. Of course it has been a year now since racing was even a possibility and while I know I WILL go to in-person races again, that really isn’t what’s motivating me right now. As I hope I’ve made clear throughout this post, my motivation is coming from the fact that I enjoy pulling on my shorts, lacing up my shoes and getting out in the fresh air. The next time I choose to race it will be a fun bonus rather than the reason I run, and that’s an important distinction.
And there we have it. 365 days and 1938 miles later, I find myself feeling a range of emotions: proud of what I have achieved, shocked that my body has held up to running every day, disheartened that the world around me has not changed that much in all that time and excited to see how the streak continues to unfold.
Here’s to the next 365 days…!