How to Start Running and Actually Enjoy It
Most running advice focuses on performance or fitness goals. Why not run for the sheer joy of it instead?
I feel like I am in a position to offer the advice in this article, given that I have run nearly every day for the past ten years of my life and have enjoyed doing so.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that I’ve Usain-Bolt-ed my way around the streets of England for ten years straight; far from it. I am what running aficionados would refer to as a “hobby-jogger”. I don’t run in order to achieve an external goal — to train for a race or to get quicker — I run simply because I enjoy it. However, I haven’t always run for this one simple reason.
During my school days, I almost reached the national level of middle-distance running for my age group. Back then I ran purely with the intention of trying to get quicker and win races. But, those days are long gone, and I’m glad they are because I didn’t enjoy running back then. I enjoyed winning, but you don’t always win when you’re a runner (unless you’re Usain Bolt). And what then, when you’re not winning? Running loses its magic; it becomes a chore. But running isn’t like that for me now. Now I get a real sense of euphoria from this humble act, a joy that I was blind to in my younger years.
I have developed a strong belief over these past ten years that there is a happiness that can be attained through running that comes from the act of running itself — nothing more, nothing less. There is no need for you to have any running “goals” (e.g. to run a certain time or achieve a certain physique) for running to be enjoyable. I would like to give someone else the opportunity to experience this joy, which is why I am writing this article.
How Not to Approach Running
A lot of what is written in praise of running is based around the physical health benefits of it. This isn’t going to be one of those articles, and I’ll tell you why.
If you run because you want to achieve a physical benefit from it, how you feel about running will become dependent on whether or not you achieve these physical benefits. If you’re running because you want to lose weight. you will only be happy with your running when it’s causing you to lose weight. Your running becomes all about weight, and not about running.
This kind of approach to running will at the very least make it an arduous and unenjoyable means to an end. Running will become a burden when it should and can be a real joy.
To help you to avoid this kind of mindset that will make you loathe running, I begin this article with some tips about the kind of things that you should avoid doing if you want to enjoy your running. I will then move on to an explanation of what running for enjoyment actually looks like in my daily life, and lastly, I will give you some tips on how you can run for fun.
Tips: What Not to Do When You Start Running
Don’t pay attention to changes in your appearance (for better or worse).
As I have already said, you can enjoy running for what it is in itself; this enjoyment isn’t reliant on what it can do to change your appearance.
Don’t monitor your body weight.
Don’t let your body weight affect how much you enjoy running. You could put on weight if you are new to running, possibly because you have gained some muscle mass. You might lose weight, too. Maybe you’ll swing between these two states because you’re a normal human being that eats varying amounts on varying days. Takeaway: don’t let an arbitrary number on the scale affect your enjoyment of running.
Don’t monitor your pace/distance covered.
I recommend using time as a measure of how long you should run. You can’t run thirty minutes any faster today than you did yesterday if you are only using duration to gauge the length of your run.
If you start monitoring the length of your runs, or the pace you run at, you’re at risk of turning your running into a perpetual competition between yourself and the clock. Each day you will want to run farther and faster — what happens when you don’t run so fast one day? Suddenly running isn’t as fun, and that shouldn’t be the case.
Running is running, it has nothing to do with pace and distance unless you make it so.
Don’t look desperately for the “running high” that everyone goes on about.
I would wager that at least ninety percent of articles written about the benefits of running will tell you that the pinnacle of running enjoyment comes when you experience the scientifically verifiable phenomena known as “runner’s high”.
Forget about all that stuff and focus on your running. As the saying goes; the more you look for something, the harder it is to find. You don’t want to be spending your whole run second-guessing whether you are experiencing a “runner’s high”. And if you haven’t experienced it, you don’t want to be wondering what you have done wrong.
Trust me, the sense of enjoyment will come. It will creep up on you subtly until it’s impossible to ignore. But it won’t do that if you allow yourself to get lost in obsessive thoughts about your brain chemistry producing a runner’s high.
Don’t think of running as exercise.
It’s amazing how much your opinion of something can change just from referring to it with different words.
The word exercise tends to hold connotations of something that’s hard and also something that is done purely for bodily benefit — neither of which applies to the kind of running that I am trying to describe here.
I call running my thirty minutes of “me-time” — I just happen to be moving in a way that people would describe as “running” during this time.
My Experience of Running for Enjoyment
Most mornings when I wake up, I think of the events that I have planned for the day. I have thoughts about these events that I could group into one of two categories:
- Optimistic thoughts
- Pessimistic thoughts
These two different types of thoughts are waging a quiet war against one another in my head, trying to decide how I should feel about what I plan on doing that day.
While these thoughts are swirling around in the washing machine of my indecisive mind, I make the decision to go for a run.
Every morning I make this simple decision — go for a run.
This decision surprises the thoughts inside my head. They don’t know what to make of it. The pessimistic thoughts particularly take notice of this choice that I’ve made to go for a run since they would love nothing more than for me to spend a day drowning in self-loathing and inactivity.
These nasty, negative thoughts really kick into gear at this point. They don’t want me to do something that would move me away from their grasp, so they dig their heels in and start firing me with a volley of negativity:
‘What’s the point in running? What are you going to achieve? Running requires too much effort, an effort that has no reward. No one will notice or care if you don’t run…so don’t!’
I ignore these thoughts, despite the venom with which they berate me. I remind myself that they can’t stop me from doing something as simple as putting one foot in front of the other at a pace just faster than walking.
I say it out loud, I tell myself that these negative thoughts can’t stop me from running and I set off on my run.
As I’m running, something profound begins to happen. With every minute that passes, as my feet shuffle along the pavement and sweat drips down my forehead, the negative thoughts become quieter and less frequent. The positive thoughts, on the other hand, become more frequent and intense.
As I plod along the streets of my local area I start to see things going on around me: people going to work, birds singing on branches, kids on their way to school. There’s a beauty in these things that I would have just walked past and ignored if I were not running. It brings a real smile to my face and sometimes a passerby will smile back at me. That small moment, which seems so inconsequential, gives my heart a lift and I plod on.
I sit on a bench outside my house after my thirty-minute run is finished. I am in a state of sweaty euphoria. My mind is calm.
I think about all the events that I have planned for that day, just like I did when I first woke up, but now I can’t put them into two categories, there is only one: positive thoughts.
I sit on that bench post-run each morning and still, after doing this for ten years, I am amazed at the monumental difference in my state of mind after around thirty minutes of running. It’s like I’m a different person.
To illustrate this difference I recorded two videos this morning comparing how I felt before and after my run (please excuse the toothpaste on my face pre-run!):
Hopefully, it comes across in these two videos how much my disposition changes before and after my run, I could certainly feel the change inside me, like I do every morning after my run. I’m definitely smiling more in the post-run video and I think my whole demeanor is more relaxed.
Tips: How to Enjoy Your Running
Set a time goal.
From my experience, I have found that at least fifteen minutes of running is needed to banish the last of my negative thoughts. I run for thirty minutes most morning; that is a sweet spot I have found. Feel free to find your own sweet spot. Try not to go overboard. You don’t want to turn your running into a daily attempt to cover more distance than you did the day before.
Plus, you are not trying to run yourself to exhaustion. If you overexert yourself, the post-run tiredness and muscle pain (D.O.M.S) will inhibit the enjoyment you gain from it.
Have something that you want to think about/plan when you set off on your run.
Have some things in mind that you know you would like to reflect on — events that you have planned for the day, goals at work, personal events you are coming to terms with. You might not be able to think through them clearly at the beginning of the run, because the pessimistic thoughts will still have a foothold in your mind, but once those start to wain, you will be able to explore other thoughts with remarkable ease.
I have made some of the best decisions in my life (decisions relating to both my personal life and work-life) while I have been out on a run. It’s a great time for thinking through writing ideas that you have as well. Go out on your run with the seed of an idea for your writing and watch it grow into a flower as your run progresses.
Persevere through the first few minutes of your run.
The first few minutes of a run can be the hardest. The pessimistic thoughts are still clawing away at you, they’re trying to stop you from escaping their grasp. Don’t let them win.
At such times, I have found it useful to focus on the thoughts that I had planned before the run. If this fails, it helps to simply look down at your feet moving, listen to the sound they make on the pavement, try to get lost in this rhythm. Listen to your breaths, try to match them with your steps.
By reducing what you are doing to the constituent parts that it is composed of — moving your legs, breathing — it simplifies what you are doing. There’s no great complexity to running. You will, hopefully, start to realize that no amount of noise in your head can stop you from doing these simple things.
Lift your head up as you run, look around you. Take in what you see. Become emotionally aware of how it makes you feel.
As I highlighted in the account of my own running experience, there are many small joys that you can experience while you are running, but you have to lift your head up and look at the world around you for you to see them and feel them.
Don’t always run the same route.
It’s refreshing to see different settings, people and events each time you run. You will expose yourself to different joys. Each run will feel special in its own unique way.
Also, if you perpetually run the same route you might become overly focused on the distance that you are covering. You will start to become impatient that you aren’t at the next landmark on this familiar route and the different parts of your run may start to become stages relative to your finishing point, causing thoughts like: “Once I get to McDonald's on the high-street I’m almost finished!”. This will slowly turn your running into a daily burden, which it shouldn’t be.
Allow yourself to walk if you need to.
If you are new to running, it will be hard to run for prolonged periods; your body just isn’t used to it. This is normal, so be kind to yourself and remember that you aren’t running to reach an arbitrary time or distance goal. You’re running for enjoyment.
If you’re struggling to keep up with a run, just break into a fast walk, catch your breath and then set off again when you are ready.
Without even thinking about it these breaks will become fewer and farther between the more often that you run.
Similar to the above point, even though I have said that a minimum of fifteen minutes (in my experience) is required to attain the psychological benefits of the run, don’t get hung up on this number or any other, especially if you are new to running.
The goal isn't to exhaust yourself so that you end up being good for nothing for the rest of the day. Be kind to yourself. You already proved the pessimistic thoughts wrong by getting out the door and setting off on your running journey.
Listen to a podcast (try not to listen to music).
I have found that listening to podcasts while I am running helps to get me over that initial struggle to keep going in the first few minutes of a run. You can always turn it off half-way into the run so that you are more present with your surroundings.
Also, if you can’t think of any particular theme to reflect upon while you are running, a podcast that is relevant to your life goals can help orientate your thoughts in a positive direction. I have had some great ideas for articles to write about through being inspired by a podcast while I was out running.
I don’t personally advise listening to music. This is slightly controversial because for quite a lot of people music is their crutch while they are running, but that’s exactly the problem with it — it’s a crutch. You become overly dependent on its ability to let you enjoy your run. You will never come to realize that running can be considered enjoyable in itself, no crutches needed.
I have also noticed that music does weird things to my emotions; it can send them on a roller coaster, forcing me to feel things that aren't appropriate to the situation I’m in. This isn’t helpful if I’m trying to be emotionally present with my surroundings while I am running.
The pumped-up motivation of a rap-listening-runner is not the kind of enjoyment that has longevity. You finish your rap-fuelled run all hyped up, and then you crash when you return to the normality of everyday life. This doesn’t happen when you appreciate the run in itself, or if you were to use a more calm form of distraction, such as a podcast. That’s just my experience, anyway.
Keep It Simple
In its essence running is simple, so despite my long list of suggestions, try not to overcomplicate things. If you have a pair of trainers, you could go for a run tomorrow morning when you get up, just like that. No gym pass is needed, no skills-based training is required, and it requires very little (if any) financial outlay.
Maybe some people who already run will read this article and re-evaluate their relationship with it. As I have said repeatedly, running doesn’t have to be a chore; we make it that way through how we think about it. If your relationship with running has turned sour, give some of my tips a go and see if it makes a difference.
If this article does help you in some small way be sure to share your experiences with someone else, tell them about the unbridled joy that is available to them if they choose to put one foot in front of the other at a pace just faster than walking. A joy that is so readily and freely available should be shared!
Above all else, remember: Running is a simple act that can have a big impact if you let it.
Thanks for reading and happy running,