‘Running is like a spring clean for the brain’

With ParkRun still on hold, The Running Charity's CEO Alex Eagle writes for The Big Issue about the positives of going at your own pace and offers tips on solo running

Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown has had a significant impact on us all, with reports showing that there have been dramatic increases in loneliness, anxiety, and depression. 

But one thing that gives me hope is the sight of new runners along my regular run route. I know that if they stick with it, they will have something that gives back more than they put in, which is a rare thing.

The Running Charity delivers running and personal development programmes to young people affected by homelessness. Since our first-ever programme in 2012 we have championed and gathered the evidence of the positive impact exercise can have on the mental wellbeing of our participants.

Now, I’ll be honest, running is not a silver bullet to all our mental health challenges. But time and again it has become a major tool that helps our young people understand, process and deal with the challenging situations they face.

We have a few mantras at The Running Charity, and one of them is “control the controllable”. And taking steps to improve your health is something most people can do.

But where to start?

Running can be a daunting exercise. When we started The Running Charity, my co-founder was the runner and I was the youth worker. I didn’t even like running. It was painful, it aggravated my old football injury, I found it boring and I could not understand how people could run, talk and not look a mess at the same time. I know I am not selling this well right now, but I share this as a convert who understands the struggle of putting one foot in front of the other faster than you normally would.

When I have finished a run, I am clear minded, relaxed, and more in control of the day-to-day pressures of life

And trust me, it is so worth it. After five years, I am not the fastest runner, I am not competitive, and I still cannot wear Lycra – but running has given me so much. One of my greatest joys in life is seeing the young people on our programme grow as human beings – becoming more confident, asserting their needs, and feeling in control of their lives. It is awe inspiring.

Running is like a spring clean for the brain. When I have finished a run, I am clear minded, relaxed, and more in control of the day-to-day pressures of life.

Best foot forward

If you don’t feel comfortable running with others or outside of your bubble yet, at The Running Charity we have a few tips for you to go solo running.

01 We are all still dealing with the impact of Covid-19 so keep a safe distance from others, be aware of your surroundings and be prepared for your run to be disrupted by other less conscientious people.

0Think about safety, especially if you are running at night. Make sure your route is well lit and public, bring a phone and let someone know you are going for a run.

0Find your ‘why’. If you’re running alone, sometimes the hardest thing is finding the motivation to get out there when you are tired or have other things to do. But you never regret a run when you have finished.

0Try not to feel self-conscious as we are all on a personal journey and every runner started where you are at now. If you are out running, regardless of speed you are a runner and you should be proud of the effort you’re making.

0Do not put pressure on yourself to be fast or to run for hours. Running is a personal thing and a good run is whatever you make of it – it could be being faster than last time, or it could be a view you see or a thought you have.

0Like life, running is a journey filled with ups and downs. There will be times where you want to give up and there will be times you think it’s the best thing ever… relax and enjoy the journey.

The Running Charity
the-running-charity
The Running Charity works with young people experiencing homelessness

During lockdown, we at The Running Charity did not stop; we delivered seven days a week, running mindfulness sessions, providing access to therapy, virtual group runs and workouts, and catch-up Zoom calls.

Our aim was to pull our community of young people together more than ever. Members from our programmes in Leeds, London, Brighton, and Manchester were interacting and exercising together for the first time.

In total we supported more than 260 young people, hosted 158 virtual group sessions, 325 key work sessions alongside 141 virtual runs, food parcel deliveries, hang-out sessions and more than 80 hours of counselling and mindfulness support to our most in-need young people.

We found that 93 per cent of young people reported back that the services significantly helped them with their mental health, 100 per cent agreed that it reduced their isolation and 87 per cent said it had helped improve their fitness during lockdown. Most importantly, 100 per cent of our young people felt supported and cared for.

This is a common thread when I speak with other runners. They know that members of their club, ParkRun or running crew are there for them and support them, and say how connected they feel with other runners, and how they value that sense of collective belonging.

Running, plodding or run-walking on your own or with people is amazing! It builds community and has a hugely positive impact on both physical and mental health.

There are currently moves towards the return of more organised running collectives – although ParkRun‘s return next month has been delayed. When it can be done safely that will be great.

Alex Eagle is co-founder and CEO of The Running Charity