Why you need to kick the running habit

Life’s short. Everybody says it, so it must be true. You’re told to sort your bucket list and crack on because before you know it, you’re out of time. Before they nail me into my box, I’d like to wear out lots more running shoes, but I’ve absolutely no intention of letting my running become a habit. 

Sometimes habits make sense – brushing your teeth and checking the traffic before crossing the road are always good moves – but when they keep us fixed in patterns of behaviour that don’t serve our needs, habits are scary. We become dependent upon the habit and before we know it, we’ve done the same darn thing every week for the last fifty years even though we’ve long since stopped getting any pleasure from the activity. Habits can be the start of the routines, resentments, tics and addictions that bind our lives and stop us living.

Experts on running will tell you that to improve your performance you need to work at it. Whatever your goal, there’s a training plan on the internet and someone to prod you with a pointy stick to get you out of the door. The long slow run, the recovery jog, the hill session, the tempo run – do them each week and you’ve cracked it. It’s why you should establish the habit of running. They tell you to lay your kit out the night before, so you’ll be more likely to run first thing. They say run as soon as you get in from work before the lure of the sofa and the soap becomes too strong. The message they’re sending is that running will help you reach a goal but having a lie in or watching the box is more fun. 

Whoa! Life’s short, isn’t it? Why would you want to get into the habit of doing something that you don’t find fun? Frankly, that blows my brain. I do understand it, however, because I’ve done it. Habits are comfortable. Boring, but comfortable. And yes, there is something reassuring about knowing you can do a steady 20km run, out and back along the canal, and be home in time for The Archers Omnibus and a well-earned fry-up. Switch off, headphones in, plod, plod, plod, back home and done. Same again next Sunday. And that’s where your life goes. Routine. Habit. Done. 

How many runs do you have where you stop and say “wow”? Where the view is so breath-taking that you can scarcely believe you’re allowed it? That’s what my run was like this weekend. Surprising, stunning and testing. Standing by a trig point, at the top of the first ascent, the next part of the route was pointed out, across the valley along the side of another Lakeland fell. Too far, I thought. They were having a laugh. But no, we got there, no problem, and could just see the pinprick of that trig point. That view wasn’t just remarkable, it was empowering. I have the strength and ability to run in this terrain and that’s something I would never have had had I stuck to my old running habits. I would have shaken my head and said no, I’ll stick the road, and then struggled to find the motivation to put in the miles. 

I want to tell you where we went on this brilliant run, I want to shout about it, and I’ll encourage you to look at the images, but there’s an awkward part of me that thinks you should get out there and experience a run like this yourself. Words can’t convey – or mine can’t – how special it was. It was simply magical to see, from our perch on Gowbarrow, Ullswater, with the sun shining off it and the steamer heading up the lake. We sat on the sun-warmed rocks of Airy Crag, eating fig rolls and spotting peaks in the distance. Even the challenge of a steep, technical descent towards Dockray was good. I let the fleet of foot go at their pace and pottered down at mine, picking up speed only when I felt confident doing so. It’s a misconception that you need to be a mountain goat to enjoy an LTR run. I’m not and I love them. You’re always given the support you need when the terrain gets interesting.

From the valley, of course, the only way up the next hill, Common Hill, was up, and it didn’t half look a long way. But topped up with a few fruit pastilles (these runs are all about enjoyment) dry conditions underfoot and a nice easy pace, it was fine. And so what if every so often we stopped to admire the view? It was getting better all the time and it needed looking at. I thought about runs I’d done in the past, great long flogs up the side of A-roads with traffic flying by, checking my pace constantly, and I felt blessed that I’d found a better way. 

We went out as far as Brown Hills and then started a long descent, slipping into the jungle of bracken and calling out guidance to those behind. There were hidden rocks and branches, tiny gullies, almost dry and the odd stinging nettle. As we reached the lower slopes, the trees began to get bigger, broad trunks and ancient branches stretching across our route. Sunlight filtered through the canopy and glinted off the surface of the lake below. 

We finished the run with a visit to the waterfall, climbing up through the trees, crossing the bridges that spanned the falls and pausing to peer into the water. Having been dry for weeks, the flow wasn’t spectacular, but the woodland location was fabulous. I imagine that with autumn colours it would be a real treat and I made a mental note to think about coming back. 

Will I come back?  I don’t know. There’s a lot more to see. I want to wear out those running shoes, not repeating my routes, but going to new places, because there’s something special about discovery. For me, it’s often the smallest detail that makes a run memorable – seeing a butterfly at our highest point, hearing grasshoppers or finding acid-pink foxgloves grown to head height – and of course, all these things are transient. I don’t need a podcast or soundtrack to keep me going and I don’t want to slip into the habit of switching off from this wonderful world. 

If you need new gear or tricks to motivate you to get out and run, think about that.  You’re in a rut. Getting out of it isn’t difficult and it won’t compromise your fitness. You just need to try a different type of running.  

Kate Woodward