“Run then, for victory.”

How to Cultivate Running as a Habit?

Deepak Karunakaran
May 2, 2020 · 7 min read
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Photo by asoggetti on Unsplash

You can skip the backstory by scrolling down straight to the proposed strategies. Or skip down to summary if you are in a hurry :)

The coronavirus pandemic might probably be the most disruptive moment in our lifetime. The ramifications will unfold in a few months to years from now. One immediate (and hopefully a long-lasting one!) change it brought upon me is that I started seriously worrying about my health. This is how it began.

Since I am under lockdown and have more time at my disposal, I happened to go through my photos from a few years ago. The stark change in my features, thanks to a few layers of fat on my face and around my neck, broke my heart. Right around that time, I got a call from my GP (general practitioner).

Having recently enrolled in a new medical centre, I had a mandatory medical checkup. The GP had called to discuss my medical reports. Considering my genetics, I am required to keep in check a few of the medical parameters. To say the least, the GP revealed (after a relatively long conversation about my eating habits, etc.), that some of those numbers were not particularly favourable. Exercising was one crucial part of the advice.

Every new year or for that matter, during every holiday (long or short) when I ruminate over my life, I make a resolution that I should start running and exercising. It starts with a great plan which is hardly good enough to sustain even until the end of my holidays. But this time it was different. There was a fear factor. A medical practitioner had red-flagged me. I never like red flags. I hated it in school, in the university, and at my workplace.

With a lot of time saved from commuting due to the lockdown, I had some time away from the usual distractions of life. I started running. But my body was completely unprepared for any exercise. It had hardly seen any physical activity except scampering for a couple of minutes when I am late for the train every now and then. But I was quite motivated and asinine enough to start running every day. After seven consecutive days of running almost 3–4 km every day, I successfully injured my tibia.

After two weeks of rest and healing, I decided (being still under lockdown) that I must start running again, but this time using a smartphone app that can track each run. I chose Nike Run Club app, partly because it is free and partly because I had Nike shoes. The app has running plans which one can opt for and set goals for increasing your running gradually, thus reducing chances of injury. For anyone starting to run I really recommend such apps. Runkeeper is another such app. And then there is Zombies run! with an element of gamification in it.

I am an inherently lazy person. I have all the bad habits which a normal human being has, and probably some more. I hardly stay motivated, lack perseverance and lack sincerity to take to fruition most of my endeavours, except when it involves a third party like a teacher or a boss. With age, I am even getting desensitized to those ‘red-flags’ I had mentioned above and also to these annoying third parties.

As expected, following the plan on the Nike app (in which I had ambitiously chosen a goal of a half-marathon within 4 months), very shortly, became a burdensome task. After the few initial weeks, when the run was shorter and easier, the plan demanded not only sincerity in starting a run on schedule but also the will to complete a difficult run. Add to that, the constant fear of injuring myself again at the back of my mind.

And I, like a repeat of my earlier efforts, started missing on my runs. And when I did run, I took too many breaks, got tired easily, and hardly completed a scheduled run before giving up midway. Moreover, on another front, which again is usual, some of those nagging third parties were playing their usual role in demotivating me further.

I could have just given up and gone on with my day-to-day work life shenanigans. But this time, there was a genuine concern which grew in unusual prominence probably because I had more than usual time to think, again thanks to the lockdown.

So giving up was not an option. I had to control my mind, push myself. I started by trying inspiring music. But I hate sweaty headphones which keep continuously falling. Neither did any music help, when after a few laps, the app would announce triumphantly that I have reached the half-way point, the exact moment when my legs would suddenly ache, the heartbeat will increase and all the motivation and the will power I had conjured up until then, will suddenly disappear.

I even tried listening to audiobooks, news, and my favourite podcasts. Nothing worked. Athletes do it because they are motivated by the goal of winning in their field. Many others, in my species, with higher levels of perseverance and will power also push themselves. I am probably below the so-called ‘ordinary’ when it comes to pushing physical limits.

So I had to experiment with novel strategies.

I started with some minor changes. Every time I was scheduled for a long run, a few hours prior to that, I would ensure I had something to eat, preferably something easy to digest. I would also drink sufficient water to hydrate myself. Note that, doing it closer to the run might cause nausea while running. The stomach starts rejecting the food when your body demands all its energy to run rather than expending some of it to digest. I also did rigorous warm-ups before the run to avoid an injury scare. It really helps. By the way, buying a good pair of running shoes while adding extra pads also helps.

The biggest demotivator for me which forced me to ignore a scheduled run was some other event during the day which would usually upset me. It could be due to a colleague, an old friend, family, or some memory that just appeared at the wrong time, causing anger and reducing the importance of the hitherto quintessential run. I would instead start focussing on the distraction, like concentrating more on work or arguing with myself on the reasons behind the annoyance and how to go about it. To remedy this, I decided to use such events as a motivator to run rather than an excuse to not run.

I made a list of events and memories which make me angry or upset. I would start my run with the usual pint of pep-talk and some motivating music. After a couple of laps, the moment I start getting tired, I would suddenly present to my mind the annoying event or the memory. The said memory always accompanies with a dose of anger. Without going into the specifics of what chemical changes happen in the body, I would suddenly get a burst of energy, getting me to the finish line of this lap. Lap after lap, I would burn that latent anger in me to fuel my running.

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Warm-up before a run is essential

It is crucial though to have a pleasant run throughout. One might get tired but it should still be pleasant. It is of vital importance that while the anger gets burnt out, you do not burn yourself. It is necessary to create the correct habit and right mindset. Otherwise, it might be counter-productive. The confidence from a successful run would be useful in getting rid of much pent up anger and remorse and clearing up the mind. Repeating this regularly leads to a habit of positive running which is advantageous to both the mind and the body.

By the way, the above strategy to work properly does need some effort. Cultivating a habit takes time. It is probably a good idea to start on a day with an upswing in the mood rather than those really off days.

Furthermore, one must listen to his or her body continuously during a run. I find that running uses various muscles throughout the body mostly from your leg. Even in the leg, depending on how you run, different muscles experience varying levels of stress. Running slowly with long strides versus running faster with shorter strides impacts different regions of the leg. By listening to your body, you can constantly alternate between them and give enough time for each muscle to heal. This helps in prolonging your run and reducing the chances of stress injury.

I. Use a running app. Plan your day when you have a long run. Eat, drink, and sleep properly before that. Ensure your outfit and shoes are comfortable. And never forget to warm up before running.

II. Cultivate a habit of using your anger, negative emotions, and annoyance to actually fuel your run rather than putting you off from it. But do not get burnt out during the run.

III. Listen continuously to your body. Manage it while running. Optimize.

These are just my personal experiences and some of my strategies to motivate myself to start and complete a difficult run. I neither specialize in sports psychology nor am I a fitness expert. So the readers are expected to use common sense.

Moreover, during such times, when social distancing is a law, ensure you follow all protocols. Run within your bubble and follow the laws of your place. More importantly, when running or exercising, the COVID-19 social distancing protocols become more strict. For instance, the 1.5 metres of social distancing might be insufficient as mentioned in a recent (unpublished) study.

I wonder if I will continue running and nurturing this habit after the lockdown ends. And I may or may not successfully restore my youthful features, but at the moment, it sure lightens my mind from unwanted stress. I always believe that a youthful mind is more important than a youthful body. More on this (and other things) later.

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Deepak Karunakaran

Written by

computer scientist — cinephile — writer — runner

Runner's Life

Runner's Life is a publication for advice and stories from the intersection of running and life. By runners, for runners.

Deepak Karunakaran

Written by

computer scientist — cinephile — writer — runner

Runner's Life

Runner's Life is a publication for advice and stories from the intersection of running and life. By runners, for runners.

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