“To change one’s life, start immediately, do it flamboyantly, no exceptions.” — William James
I spent my life being a sickly child, then a sickly teenager, and then an adult so relieved to be somewhat less sickly that I preferred spending my days eating, drinking and partying instead of being remotely sensible or looking after myself. I was never, ever sporty and I hated working out.
Over the last few years, I finally learnt to swim, stepped into a gym at long last, and began an on-off relationship with kettlebells. None of these overlapped – it was one or another. And for the past year I became somewhat interested in interval running. This is where you mostly walk and periodically break into a run for about 20 seconds at a time. I was haphazard about it; speeding up when my music did, and then slowing down when I got tired. Sometimes I sprinted four times during a walk, sometimes only once.
Then this past August, the Observer did a special issue on running. Sprinting sporadically while essentially walking was one thing. But running running had never appealed to me. I vaguely thought it would damage my knees. I didn’t want what I called “an over-aerobicised face” – drawn and haggard from bouncing pointlessly on your feet for ages. And don’t get me started on how running can affect those of us who wear big bra sizes.
However, unlike other sports which often require some skill, running seems innate. Because I’m a nerd, I read half a dozen books on the subject (I don’t recommend this route – running is as simple as it gets; I was simply stalling on the pretext of swotting up). I read that women especially become good at endurance sports as they get older, which was bolstering.
I was in Croatia, unhappy, and not writing; I figured I might as well try something different. I downloaded the NHS podcast Couch to 5k which promises to take you from the sofa to running 5km in nine weeks.
I start the walk-run programme on the promenade with the Adriatic alongside me. A voice in my ear tells me when to run, when to slow down to a walk, when to run again. On my first session, I run a total of eight minutes over a 20-minute period. This is more than I’ve ever done and I swoon with triumph.
So much so that after a week of following the podcast, I brazenly sign up for a 10k run two and a half months down the line. Sure, the end goal is less important than the process, but it helps give shape and incentive to the training. Then I become a bit panicky – doing a 10k means running for about an hour. In my walk-run-walk, my “running” (really a very slow jog) lasts, oh, maximum a minute at a time.
I then read George Anderson’s book Beginner’s Luck (see below) and decide to switch from the NHS programme to his one, as it will get me running for an hour in just 10 weeks, which is how long I have.
I commit to the programme whole-heartedly and make it non-negotiable. I stop drinking so I won’t have the excuse of a hangover to skip a session.
I want to start with all guns blazing. But I learn that though we may not feel any immediate pain, it actually takes months for our ligaments, tendons and joints to get used to the pounding stress of running, and so a day’s rest in between is imperative when starting out. Any physiological benefit to running is actually gained on the rest day, when the body repairs itself.
This means that each week of the programme constitutes three days of actual activity. Each day’s programme is a combination of walking and running, such as: jog 1 minute, walk 2 minutes, etc. Other exercise – yoga, swimming, only walking, weights, anything really – is fine to do on the off days. But I do only the walk-run of the programme and remain mostly sloth-like for the rest of the time.
Research shows that in order to get fast at running, we actually have to slow right down. First you get used to the distance, and then focus on the speed. The ideal way to train is to run so slowly that if you move any slower, you’re walking. Running too fast too early is the way to injuries and creaky bodies, which then means stopping running altogether. (I think it’s legit to label anything faster than a walk as a “run”, even if it’s really a jog, so I alternate the terms here.)
Okay, all noted. I am raring to go.
Week one: I run a maximum of 12 minutes per session, and pat myself on the back. I’m still in Croatia, where it’s so hot I can only run after it gets dark. I run the morning I’m leaving the country, setting my alarm early to get to the promenade as the sun comes up. It feels good to be doing it at the start of the day.
Week two: I jog up to 17 minutes per session. I’m in Prague for a few days and find a beautiful park that has views over the city. I don’t think I’d have made it up here otherwise so I credit the running with helping me explore a new place.
Week three: I run up to 24 minutes per session. I can feel my arms (of all places) becoming stronger. I’m back in my Safe Place and the only way to run in the heat/rains is on a treadmill in my dank gym.
Despite all advice to only move slowly, I can’t resist adding one 20-second all-out sprint right at the end of each session. Doing this rather keeps me going because that’s the part that makes me feel elated.
Week four: I read up on running some more, and tweak my movements. I keep reminding myself to not let my arms cross my body. This prevents unnecessary twisting in the torso, rounding in of the shoulders, and muscle/joint stress. In contrast, when I keep my arms perpendicular to my torso and my knuckles facing forward, I can feel my shoulders and back straighten, helping me move more effectively. I run up to 30 minutes per session, including one non-stop ten-minute stretch.
Week five: While experimenting with eating different foods before/after working out, I try to run some hours after a meal and feel sick. I decide to stick to running fasted. That is, I run before breakfast, having fasted since dinner some 12 hours earlier.
Because I’m getting a day’s rest/recovery before the next session, what I eat after working out is less important. I usually alternate between eggs with a green salad, and a homemade granola with nut milk. Some days I skip breakfast altogether and eat a bigger lunch a few hours later. I can’t spot any major difference in the quality of my running or my energy/mood by switching routines around except I notice my appetite has increased, especially on run days.
For one session, I run 25 minutes without stopping and feel jubilant. I’m sweating so much that the thin leather of my headphones is starting to wear off. I look in the mirror one day post-workout, expecting to see the glow of accomplishment. Instead I see my face flushed to a shade of beetroot purple and I have flakes of dark green leather dotted over my ears and cheeks. Lovely.
I’m so drenched with sweat after every session that I can no longer stop to run errands on the way home. Due to the dank gym not owning acceptable washing facilities, I have to spare others my wonderful aroma by dashing home, peeling off soaked clothing and taking a shower first. I buy more tank tops and capris so I don’t wear out my few pairs of each by washing them so frequently.
Week six: The programme crosses the 30-minute training mark. My sleep surprisingly hasn’t benefited by all this activity and I still at times wake up middle of the night, and toss and turn. I start taking magnesium supplements (after doing another round of nerdy reading, this time on gut health) and start sleeping like a baby and wake up rested.
My friend Akshat, who runs regularly, describes how it feels when his arms and legs move in rhythm with his breathing. For that, he says, silence works best. This is inspiring but I’m addicted to my workout playlist and crank it up as high as it can go. I also use it to drown out the appalling music thumping out of the gym’s speakers.
But I hear what he says, and because I usually run after meditating, I begin to see running as an extension of the meditation. Instead of constantly checking how many minutes I have left to go before I can walk or stop, I start getting into the body sensation of the movements. I haven’t yet experienced that elusive “runner’s high” but I achieve runner’s zen (I just made that up).
The first 10-15 minutes though, no matter what, is always a bit of a trial. I usually start to breathe easy after that, though a few times it feels a bit tough throughout.
Towards the end of each session, my legs become somewhat numb. I still add the 20-second sprint burst and it feels a bit like I’m having an out-of-body experience. I keep at it, running – as I once read on Pinterest – with my heart.
Week seven: I’m running up to 45 minutes per session, with a five-minute walking break in the middle. I look back at how I had started at eight split minutes of running only seven weeks ago and feel ridiculously thrilled. I can’t remember doing anything like this before and being able to chart my progress quite so clearly.
Less scientifically: when I’d do a 20-second sprint before starting this programme, I could feel the fat on my body jiggling. That is, I could feel the separation of my bones from my flesh. Now, when I run as fast as I can, it’s one mass moving in motion; I can’t feel any obvious separation. This I think means I have slightly less fat and slightly more muscle, though my clothes are not any looser.
Unexpectedly, my skin starts breaking out, which it hasn’t done for years. Is it related to the running (maybe the sweating?)? To my new (and at last healthier) diet? What is it? What, what? Nevertheless, friends start asking if I’m in love because they say I’m glowing.
Week eight: I run for 45 minutes without stopping. I finally try to decipher the treadmill’s digital display. I note that it’s an American machine which must mean it’s clocking miles. I check the total miles run one day – 6.2. I convert that to kilometres on my phone and am amazed to see that I’ve just covered my first 10k.
From here on, I’m covering 10k (or more) three times a week – though not necessarily running for that whole distance, as the programme is still adding minutes and splitting up the running time. My speed is still slow, barring the 20-second sprint at the end.
Passing the 45-minute mark regularly is when I begin to notice a discernible difference in myself. I used to often feel spent, needing a nap on run days. I’m surprised that now I’m more energised. I feel as if I’m utilising my body, waking it up from its dormant state. However, when I eat crappy/stodgy/outside food, I go back to feeling drained.
Week nine: I’m preparing to travel for a spell, and don’t want to skip a session of my beloved programme in the upheaval of crossing continents and time zones. As I’ll be away from a treadmill and unable to track distances, I buy a fitbit just before I leave.
I meet my sister in Lisbon. We stay in the old part of the city with its charming crumbling façades and the steepest streets I’ve seen since Istanbul. My sister and I both love exploring on foot and we end up walking so much that my feet are sore at the end of each day and I get a blister on my toe. What with the steep and potentially slippery cobblestones, I skip a day of running for the first time since I started the programme. My sister has the same fitbit, yet despite walking side by side all day, mine registers more activity. Hmm.
For my last day in Lisbon, we move to a spiffy hotel where my sister has her work meetings. The receptionist there tells me of a good running park nearby that’s flat. Clearly, she’s a local because what she considers flat is still steep to me as it turns out. I end up walking up and jogging down, and repeating this as often as I can. It feels strange to be running outside again. It’s midday, not ideal in terms of sun and heat. The workout feels inadequate and I start to worrying about veering so off my training schedule.
Week ten: I go to London, expecting to stay for only a few days. The 10k run is next weekend and I’m down to my final week of training. Despite my toe injury, I manage to run once in St James’s Park and love it. I had heard that in the UK joggers acknowledge each other, so I smile at every runner I pass, only for them to blank me. Oh well.
My toe gets worse, and I go to a shop called Run & Become to get new trainers. The staff are excellent, and they make me run outside to test every pair, and we both agree when one pair seems to fit better, giving my poor toe more room.
Week 11… The weather gets very cold and rainy just as I get unexpectedly delayed in London – and have to miss the scheduled 10k run. I’m gutted, and feel helpless. After all these months of training! I sign up for another 10k the following weekend, and keep my fingers crossed that I can make it.
I am going to be running the 10k with my cousin Rubaiya, who lives in Dhaka. I have been sharing all my learning and resources with her throughout and we have both been following the same George Anderson programme. Over our training period, I’ve accrued numerous tools (see the photo at the top of this post: running belt, bluetooth headphones, fitbit, double-layered socks, expertly-selected trainers) and Rubaiya has been nobly practising in a field battling monsoons, flooding and scorching heat. It’s been several decades since I watched Rocky IV but if I remember correctly, it’s where Rocky is going to fight Dolph Lundgren and Dolph is training in sterile labs with hi-tech gizmos, while Rocky gets rugged and real by carrying logs on his back up snow mountains. In our scenario, Rubaiya is definitely Rocky.
Despite our being in different countries right up until the (rescheduled) 10k, we have been keeping each other posted and motivated by sharing our trials and triumphs on Whatsapp. She arrives in the city in my absence, as I’m still not sure I can get back in time to make the run.
At last, things fall into place and I manage to get back two days before the big run. I now haven’t run properly for three weeks. My toe injury has only just healed. Two days before the run, I am on a plane for the whole day, wedged between a seriously obese man who can’t help spilling over into my seat on one side, and a farting old gentleman on the other; my shoulders are up to my ears with stress. I’m jet lagged. I have barely slept for 3 nights, getting a cumulative three hours a night if I’m lucky. But I have nothing to lose and decide to still go for it.
Rubaiya had collected both our bibs before my arrival. We are given neon orange t-shirts made of static polyester, and bibs with RFID tags so our run can be timed. We begin to get ready at 4.30am in order to be at the venue an hour later.
We mill around for half an hour, relieved we have each other for this novel experience. We agree to each run our own race, and meet at the finish line. We estimate it will take us an hour to complete.
We start at 6am and I instantly lose her in the sea of neon orange. It’s still dark outside and there’s a band playing to celebrate our start. I have my music plugged into my ears and I set off on my slow, steady pace.
If I can’t finish, I tell myself, it’s okay. I showed up. The training – at least the eight weeks I completed – was the reward. A steep learning curve is always very gratifying.
I stop to walk about five times, and each time my feet feel like jelly. I don’t think I can start jogging again but I do, and it feels fine. I get a cramp on my side but as I’m moving so slowly, I don’t think it’s anything worrying and, sure enough, it passes. My (non-injured-toe) foot starts to hurt and I tell myself to keep going.
The route takes place partly on the streets. We jog up and over a small bridge, past a stinky sewer, against early morning traffic of trucks spewing black exhaust fumes in their wake. The sun rises and the day breaks. I watch various runners as they pass me, admiring the lean, compact and defined muscles of those for whom this is clearly not their first race. They run with elegance and power.
There’s no doubt that running outside is a different experience than on a treadmill. The uneven terrain combined with nature’s elements (like the wind) means I’m moving much slower. However, when I check my fitbit after 45 minutes, it says I’ve run nearly 8km so I think, wow, somehow I’m still on track.
Until a few moments later I pass a sign declaring we’ve just crossed 6km. Whaaaaaaat?
I can’t imagine that the distances haven’t been carefully measured and mapped, so clearly my fitbit has been overshooting my distance. I don’t know what to do except keep running. My playlist finishes playing all the upbeat songs I keep for running and it’s now playing the cool down music. Then it moves onto other music altogether, and still the road stretches ahead of me.
I pass a sign that says 8km completed. Two to go – still. I can’t tell if this means that I actually hadn’t run 6 miles/10km on my treadmill all the times I thought I had, which would mean the numerous treadmills – like my fitbit – were all inaccurate. Or perhaps the American treadmill was reprogrammed to track kilometres instead of miles and all this time I’d only run 6km each time. Or running outside is so different that I am comparing apples and oranges. Or I’ve just become stupidly slow with my recent non-training, injuries, jet lag and no sleep.
I pass several water stations but don’t stop to get a bottle until I almost finish. Also dotted throughout the route are organisers clapping and cheering us on as we pass. I am ridiculously moved and motivated by this, and get a bit teary towards the end.
Finally I pass a sign saying there’s 500m to go. I can hear the drum beat of the band playing ahead and this gets me moving faster. There are jugglers and clowns on stilts to welcome us, and the crowd thickens ahead of me. At last, an hour and 29 minutes after I started, I run past the finish line.
The next morning, I wake up and start looking at more upcoming races.
“I believe great people do things before they are ready.” — Amy Poehler
There are many Couch to 5K (C25K) programmes and apps. This NHS podcast of their nine-week programme is hugely popular and super easy to use. Download all the episodes and listen as a trainer gives you instructions when to jog and when to walk, with plenty of words of encouragement throughout.
Because I wanted a C210K programme and only had 10 weeks to do it, I was super grateful that I found Beginner’s Luck Guide for Non-Runners by George Anderson. It’s free on Kindle Unlimited (as were all the running books I read…). The whole book is worth reading, but you can also subscribe to his website and download the 10-week programme that way. I swear by this programme. Unlike the NHS one which repeats sessions three times before switching up, Anderson’s one has a different programme every session, which meant that each and every time I ran, I accomplished more than I had the previous time. I loved that.
I had my Urbanears Plattan headphones for about 10 years until two months of intense sweating while running made them literally fall apart. Sob. I loved these headphones. How great to not worry about sound leaking while blasting music at the gym, or to not get sore ears by wearing in-ear buds. I finally bought another pair of Urbanears, this time the Hellas model. These are sweat-friendly as you can remove and wash the ear cushions and headband. They’re also wireless, connecting to your phone via bluetooth.
I first heard about the free app GymBoss from George Anderson’s book. It allows you to programme and title your own workouts. It uses vibration, visual display cues and/or sound effects to alert you for each interval. And, best of all, you can use your own music to play with it. I found it indispensable, especially for the first half of the programme when the intervals were frequent, short and repetitive.
Sports bras for the small-chested are kinda cute. They’re often light and stretchy so you can pull it on and off over your head. They may even be the kind you can show off when you remove your t-shirt somewhere public. For the rest of us, a sports bra feels more like a heavy-duty bulletproof vest. One of the reasons I never even considered running before was because I actually thought I’d do bodily harm to myself. Sports bras have come a long way (listen to this brilliant episode of 99% Invisible that discusses the surprisingly recent history of “The Athletic Brassiere”). The one I love and wear is from Panache. If you don’t have access to a decent sports bra in your size, then do what my former trainer recommended and wear two bras at a time.
Run with me!