And now, relax

Even if you’d spent the last twenty years living off-grid, you’d probably still have an inkling that exercise is good for your mental health. GPs are prescribing Couch to 5K programmes instead of antidepressants, so why are some people managing to turn running into a new source of stress? 

Last week I saw a post on social media advising someone thinking of taking up running not to contemplate stepping out without having gait analysis and recommending a clinic who would do the assessment. The post was well meaning, of course, but a potential newcomer to running is now approaching the sport fearful of making a blunder and dreading injury. I’ve seen other posts from people obviously exhausted but pushing themselves to run day after day because “there’s no gain without pain.” 

Erm? I beg to differ. This morning, we’ve enjoyed a 10k-ish route from Chatburn. We set out mid-morning, so we’d finish just right for a nice spot of lunch, and we made sure we stopped in Downham, one of Lancashire’s most attractive villages, for mid-run Hob-Nobs and jelly babies. The pace was definitely designed to encourage conversation and our surroundings were varied throughout. We ran along riverbanks and over limestone outcrops, did a bit of fossil spotting and threw in some paddling. It was wonderfully relaxing, but it was still the kind of run that builds strength and endurance. Think no pain, but plenty of gain, and as it was a cheeky Monday run, the atmosphere was especially chilled. 

If we’d been stressing about our run, we could have timed the route, worked out whether our best pace was achieved on the gentle downhill slopes to the west of Chatburn or on the firm track from Barkerfield to Worsaw End. But the only result would have been pressure. We would have been going too fast or too slow against an arbitrary target, and instead of enjoying the views and trying to spot Pen-y-Ghent in the distance, we would have been looking at a watch. 

We could have challenged ourselves with hill reps on the way to Downham, but repeatedly tackling the same hill – where’s the fun in that? It’s as bad as being a hamster on a wheel. And again, there would have been no point. As we kept moving through the landscape, we found plenty of new hills – including some more than steep enough to raise the level of intensity. And instead of having to head back down the slope we’d just run up to recover, we wound our way down sunlit grassy banks and through sparkling pools left after the overnight rain. 

Yes, hill reps can be effective, but it’s rare runner who relishes doing them. Perhaps that’s because they don’t take you anywhere. We were taking in the best of Lancashire: a circuit of Chatburn, followed by a lovely trot along a splashy lane, and a climb up towards Downham. Then we headed south past Longlands Wood, added a loop around Rad Brook, and after crossing Worston Brook, headed over the fields and across the flanks of Worsaw Hill back to Chatburn. 

I’m willing to bet that the time and the miles flew by, and that’s the beauty of running trails. It’s not just exercise itself that’s therapeutic. It’s nature too. Green spaces are calming, and is there anything more inspiring than the sight of massed snowdrops clustered at the foot of a tree? 

Today, with no wind to speak of it, it felt like spring: blue skies and birds active in the hedgerows. There was warmth in the sun and with it, a sense of early year optimism. Forget all the political nonsense, park it for a few hours alongside every other worry, and run outdoors, off-road, across a field, through a copse, over a brook. You’ll feel better for it.  

When you’ve finished a relaxing run, the best thing to do is relax a little more and cement the effect with more chat over a leisurely lunch. We took ourselves along to the Greendale View Café and enjoyed watching their baker kneading a batch of dough. While some opted for coffee and cake, others tucked into bowls of soup and the café’s just baked crusty rolls. As we ate, two dozen granary loaves were sitting on the side, slowly proving. Good bread can’t be rushed and dough, just like people, needs time to rest if it’s to be at its very best.  

Kate Woodward