The Happiness of Becoming a Runner at 40 (or Any Age)
It started with chest pains. Then I chose running for a very simple reason: zero barriers.
This year I started running in celebration of my 40th birthday. Up until this point, I Hated running. That capital H is on purpose. At school when the season for Cross Country Running came, I rarely finished the distance being told to head back early or I wouldn’t make it to the next class on time. Running for me was defined by bitter cold days outside, pain, and embarrassment. So you might wonder what would make someone want to relive such bad memories decades later.
It all started with chest pains. I had a very stressful job, inclusive of an aggressive bullying manager. With 40 creeping closer I noticed a shortness of breath and occasional sharp chest pains that interrupted my thoughts. I visited my doctor, had an ECG, some blood tests, and was given a clean bill of health. Next, I spoke to my HR department about this manager and asked for some changes.
If you have chest pains or any health concerns, do see your doctor. I don’t recommend you take up running and ignore your wider health. Your health incorporates your entire body and mind. They’re linked. Please look after both.
My motivation was created by a health crisis that wasn’t a crisis. But crisis or not, I was alerted to a solid fact: my cardiovascular fitness was getting worse. I’d always seen myself as fit and healthy but now I’d experienced signs to the contrary. But your reasons don’t have to be a matter of life and death. It just has to matter to you. Running comes with a range of health benefits backed by science such as:
- Running is an antidepressant.
- Running lengthens the average lifespan by three years versus non-runners.
- Exercise, of which running is one example, improves sleep.
- Moderate running boosts immunity.
You can pick one, and there are many more, including weight loss.
The bottom line is any type of exercise can help reverse some negative health trends—not just running. But I chose running for a very simple reason: zero barriers. I’m an able-bodied person and there was nothing to stop me from starting that day and changing my life for the better.
How Do You Start?
The hardest part is getting started. I don’t mean jogging on the spot. I mean deciding to go, standing up, putting on your kit, and leaving the house. Getting up and ignoring your objections is everything.
Now that I’m over 40, I feel I can give people advice—even if they’re over 40, too. So I’m going to give you three great pieces of over 40s advice to overcome the most common objections I had.
1. When you start as a hero, everything else is a bonus
Firstly, consider yourself a hero every time you step outside the door. If this sounds ridiculous, check yourself a moment.
I judge myself quite harshly on a professional level. I take responsibility for my errors and production. When someone compliments my work I’ve been known to point out the minor fault only I can see. So I don’t refer to myself as a hero of running lightly. But there’s a difference between what you produce from years of experience and what you produce when you’re starting out.
If you were teaching someone a skill where you have a lot of experience, would you tell them their first attempt is rubbish? Of course not. You’d offer encouragement.
If you beat yourself up and find fault in what you do you’ll soon lose heart. And this example is only for you. These are your own terms to improve your own life. If I told you a story about someone who achieved the impossible, what would you call that person? A hero. All we’re talking about is achieving something you previously didn’t think was possible for you.
I didn’t think it was possible for me to enjoy running to improve my fitness. Ever. Especially after 40. Yeah, you can say it… I’m a hero. But I didn’t do it for your admiration. I did it for me.
We’ve all passed an overweight person running. Sometimes we or someone we’re with comments on it. Many aren’t kind. What will you think now when you see that person? You’ll see a hero.
You’ll see someone with the courage to change their lives and not care what you think. You’re seeing people who want to improve their health, fit into that wedding dress, overcome depression, see their children grow up, and better themselves in some way. Just by stepping outside their door. Strip it all away and it’s that simple.
2. You have everything you need already
You didn’t need anything special to run as a child and you don’t need it as an adult. Don’t worry about the right gear.
On my first run, I ran in baggy jogging bottoms I’ve had for ten years, some old trainers, and a T-shirt I’ve used to paint the house.
If you wait until you look exactly how you think a runner should look, you won’t start running. If you’re thinking of running, do it today. Do it now. Just do it in whatever vaguely appropriate clothing you have and go to the end of your street and back. Collect your hero points en route.
You also don’t need a GarminAppleFitWatch, or any other type of gadget to start running. You don’t need expensive shoes, a personal coach, a running buddy, specialist clothing, a specific place to run, a playlist of running tracks, wireless headphones, sunglasses, a training plan, a nutritional plan, a special thing to hold a water bottle, a pouch for your phone around your arm (in fact leave your phone at home, it’s freeing), energy snacks, protein shakes, rehydration salts, or permission from anyone but yourself.
For this reason, my first run was planned to the end of my street. It felt strange. To my surprise, it didn’t kill me. I was prepared to turn around and claim victory. But I continued to the local park across the road and completed a very slow walking and jogging lap. All the time I was concerned I looked stupid and held an unrealistic fear I was going to collapse. About halfway around, I walked back. That was how it started and it felt amazing that I’d achieved my goal.
3. Remove every barrier
I understand you’re busy. And there will always be a reason not to go. I started running in winter, so I know all about it being too cold, wet, and dark to leave the house. I know there’s dinner to put on the table and jobs to do. This is why you need a bag of tricks to keep going at the start.
Remove every barrier to stepping outside so you can get those hero points. If you like presents, give yourself a point for every run and give yourself a reward for every five points.
There are days when it’s cold or raining and I don’t want to do it. I know I should, but if I’m cold inside, I’ll be colder outside. So I put on my running kit just to wear indoors and remove one more barrier. When I run after work, I change into my kit as soon as I get home.
I make sure the house is warm in winter. I tell myself it doesn’t mean I have to go for a run. I’ll put on my running shoes. It still doesn’t mean anything. I’ll decide to do some warm-ups to make myself warmer, and I’ll do it with fleece on, so before long I’m not just warm but getting too hot. I still don’t have to go. But by this point, I may as well get my hero points by stepping outside my front door and walking down the street. And you know that as soon as I’m outside that door I may as well start running.
And this is all about starting. By now I hope you’re tying your shoelaces while finishing this section of the article, ready to hit the pavement. Good on you. Do it. Seriously, if you’re wavering and thinking of doing it, stand up now. Put on some shoes. Go to the end of your street and back and call yourself a hero.
Bonus section — Read after your first run
Are you back yet? Good. Give yourself a high-five and a pat on the back. Whatever your run was today, that was the right run for you. Every day is different and if you go into this with an open mind that’s willing to discover something new about yourself and learn the benefits, you’ll come out smiling.
Be Kind to Yourself and Limit Your Expectations
Early on, I thought I should work towards a goal. The research on goal-setting is deep and plentiful and it works. My first goal was to work up to 30 minutes of exercise. Note I didn’t say “run for 30 minutes.” I chose this number because I’d often take a 30-minute walk to meet friends, so the number didn’t feel daunting. Also, I didn’t want to set a distance target like 5k because frankly, I didn’t have the experience to know if I could meet it. I felt it could get demoralizing.
I discovered I could exercise for 15 minutes without a problem, doing run/walk laps of the park. After 15 minutes it started to get uncomfortable, so I met mental resistance here and started giving myself excuses. But if I ran 15 minutes away from my house, I’d have a 15-minute return journey I could do nothing about, except face it.
I didn’t always run the entire way, but if I walked back I was out for longer than 30 minutes, which was an added bonus. And there’s no shame in walking, and running again when you feel able. You’re not competing against anyone and Mo Farah isn’t on your heels. Eventually, I was completing 5k in around 30 minutes and I didn’t have to worry about achieving distance once.
The Beauty of Walking
You don’t need to run for the entire duration of your exercise period. There’s no failure in it. In fact, it’s a proven strategy to increase your fitness.
I live on a hill. At the start, I used to run down the hill, and walk back up. Then I started running back up, stopping when I got tired. When I felt I could continue again I ran a little further until I needed to stop again.
In this way, I had to stop five times to complete the first uphill run. Then it went down to four times, then 3. It became a challenge for me. Eventually, I could run up the entire hill. After I became injured (see below), I started like this again, knowing I could overcome it.
Injuries and Their Benefits
About six months into running I started getting knee pain on my regular run. This coincided with spending longer hours working from home and moving less in the day.
I’m lucky that my partner is a physiotherapist and a quick assessment revealed that not having strong glutes (those are your butt muscles to the layman) was aggravating my knee. This led to me carrying out recommended squatting exercises and brought a very unexpected benefit.
Like me, you probably have childhood memories of running around, jumping off walls, playing hide and seek, and much more without thinking about it. Your body just responded to what your brain told it would be fun. But over time we lose that flexibility.
I had unconsciously started avoiding certain movements in the expectation it would cause me pain. My partner found my knee pain linked to weak glutes. But once I started really noticing these areas of my body, we linked this to back pain, linked to inflexible hips as well.
I’ve always suffered from poor flexibility apart from a brief period when I did weekly yoga. The desire to run reawakened this as well, and now a regular yoga practice supports my running, and yes the occasional game of hide-and-seek and jumping off walls as well. Because when you open one possibility in your life, it’s seldom that others don’t also appear. Whether you choose them or not is up to you.
Progression and Regular Running
Once you’ve opened the door there’s no closing it. You can find a lot of obsessive details to improve your running. You can buy specialist shoes that will support you and prevent injury. You can learn different breathing techniques and improve your posture.
As with everything, there’s a rabbit hole and the one for running is particularly deep. But mostly I avoid the rabbit hole. I stick to a 30-minute run once a week or longer if I feel like it. I don’t beat myself up if I don’t go or life gets in the way because I know this doesn’t mean I’ve stopped running. By now I can call myself a runner, whatever that means to me.
I hope this has inspired you to get outdoors and try running if you’ve been considering it. I hope you took your first run during the article. That would be amazing and you should be proud of yourself.
If you’re taking the first steps, remember you already know how to do it. You’ve done it before. Make this a gift to yourself for its own sake. Loved ones can and will share the benefits of your increased health, energy, and fitness. But do it for you, for who you are going to become along the journey, and be curious about that. Get out there and call yourself a hero.