Running should be a pleasure but it can easily turn into a pressure – to go faster or further, raise money for charity or fulfil other people’s expectations. We sat down with four women to debate the best way to handle the stress.
MEET THE WOMEN
Nikki Bailey: Nikki, 43, is a mother of two girls, aged eight and five. She started running 18 months ago, after losing 19kg. She has raised over $12,000 for four charities and is currently campaigning against bullying.
Sarah Packer: Sarah, 25, is a part-time sales assistant, personal trainer and fitness blogger. She has been running for just over a year and is aiming to complete her first marathon this year.
Rebecca Hall: Rebecca, 24, is a health/fitness PR and has run for nine years.
Kelly Shirt: Kelly, 31, has a five-year-old son. She is a primary school play leader and nanny to two boys. She has just resumed running after a break following a miscarriage, and is steadily building up to her first half marathon.
Do you feel compelled to run more races or longer distances to justify yourself as a runner?
NIKKI: It’s a big pressure once you’ve done certain distances. I’ve completed three 10Ks, one half marathon and numerous 5Ks in the last year, so the expectation from others is that I must be doing a marathon next! But I’ll try not to feel the pressure. Otherwise, the fun of running becomes lost as you try to fulfil others’ expectations.
SARAH: As a personal trainer and runner, people assume I’m always training for something! But you lose the enjoyment of running if you feel compelled to run a certain number of miles in a certain time.
KELLY: People haven’t asked directly when I’m going to do a new distance or what my PB goal is, but I feel an unspoken pressure. You can just tell they’re thinking, ‘She’s a runner, so she should be running more.’
REBECCA: I’ve run for so long, mainly for pleasure, weight control and fitness, so running races or set distances has never been expected of me. I tend to run races to keep people company or encourage them, so racing a set distance or set time has not been part of it.
What races/distances do you run repeatedly?
NIKKI: The 10K is my most doable in terms of training around a young family. I used to run a lot of 5Ks, but that distance isn’t challenging to me any more.
SARAH: Half marathon: it’s long enough to give a sense of achievement but possible to train for if you’re busy. Once you’re going over 13 miles it takes up a lot of time, so half marathon is the distance I’ll run over and over again.
REBECCA: I really like the 10K distance as a weekly run and I have done plenty. Half marathon is my next challenge, as I’ve only done one. That may become the distance to repeat, but it’s early days!
Why do you run official races?
NIKKI: Races are dual positives for me – I lost 19kg recently and it keeps my weight off. And I raise a lot of money for charities. I aim for a PB each time, but the main reason is to raise money and you need an official race challenge before people recognise what you’re doing, and to give the charities a voice. If times are hard for people, they’re doubly hard for charities, so I’ve got to keep running!
SARAH: I really like to beat my own time at each race. Ideally, I’d race for charity, but so many people run for charity now that it’s really hard to get sponsorship.
KELLY: I haven’t done many races but the motivation is to have that goal and achieve it. Charity fundraising is a good motivation, but the pressure of meeting minimum requirements can be too much. I always try to get my own place and then raise what I can – even small amounts make a difference to a charity, especially the smaller ones.
REBECCA: I have always run for a PB. The first 10K I ran was the hardest thing I’d ever done; now I get PBs! My first half marathon was also really tough. And when I run the London Marathon this yeae I’m sure that’ll be the toughest thing I’ve ever done.
As a runner, do you feel pressure from other people to go faster or for longer?
NIKKI: Yes! Running is such a big part of my life, but I only started 18 months ago. For 41 years I never ran and now I run at least three times a week. Running is still quite new to me and my family and friends so, yes, the expectation is that I’ll do more and get faster. Still, I wouldn’t say it’s a pressure, as such.
SARAH: My family and close friends don’t put any pressure on me. It’s people on Facebook you have to watch! If I say I’ve done a race, they always want to know my time, if it was a PB and so on. Other runners don’t ask that – they know not to. But non-runners always ask. Apart from the fact that they wouldn’t understand why it’s not all about the PB, it’s none of their business.
KELLY: I agree, it’s no-one’s business except your own. I put the pressure on myself to run faster or further: I don’t need any more from anyone else. A race is a race and you’ve got to go for it!
REBECCA: I never used to feel pressure but at the moment I do feel it. I picked up an injury part of the way into marathon training and since everyone has put in so much effort to fundraise and organise events, I feel I have to do it. If I could defer my place I would, but I feel I have to run and not let my supporters down.
What sacrifices do you have to make to find time to train or run?
NIKKI: I have two girls, aged five and eight, so more time out running is less time with them. That’s my biggest sacrifice. I lose out on socialising with my friends and family too, especially closer to race days.
SARAH: I love running in the mornings and enjoy long runs on Sundays, so I sacrifice sleep to get out early. If I have a race or an important training run, I’ll be strict with my diet and sleep, so I’ll sacrifice some favourite foods or a glass of wine and be in bed by 10pm so that I can run well.
KELLY: I sacrifice time with my young son and husband, and that can be hard. I try to run in the evening, when my son is asleep – or early in the morning. My husband sometimes works night shifts, so our time is precious: it can be hard to go out when you feel you should be at home.
REBECCA: I work really long hours so I sacrifice any downtime you might expect in the evening. I start work too early to fit in a run first, so I’ll leave work, run or go to the gym early in the evening and have supper around 8pm or 9pm, but then pick up on more work, sometimes as late as midnight. So I sacrifice sleep too.
Have you ever pressurised yourself to the point of injury or illness?
NIKKI: The only time I’ve been really ill was when I pushed myself too hard on race day and had a sudden, horrific headache; I crossed the finish line retching and doubled over. I was giving it my all and pushed far too hard – it really scared me how awful I felt! I wouldn’t ever push that hard again. I now know my limit.
SARAH: This time last year I offered to train for a marathon with my friend. We got in the flow nicely and hit ten miles after four weeks. Then I had the chance to do a half marathon and I thought, ‘What’s another three miles?’. I injured my knee and couldn’t run for nearly five weeks after that. It was May before I ran again and I wasn’t there for my friend for her longer runs, which had been the whole point.
KELLY: I haven’t pushed myself that hard and would rather walk/run a race or training session than get injured.
REBECCA: I ran injury-free for nine years but then I hurt myself running a half marathon too slowly, as I was accompanying a slower friend. When she stopped to walk, I ran on the spot or slowed down to keep with her and I’m sure that’s what damaged me. I didn’t stretch properly at the end and didn’t take the distance seriously enough. I jumped up from the 10K distance, ran too far at the wrong pace and now I’m paying the price.
How do you keep your amount of training within safe limits?
NIKKI: I listen to my body. I clock up the miles gradually and train sensibly. I also cross train to keep my core strong, build strength in my legs and prevent overtraining.
SARAH: I teach a lot of classes and if I’m tired I can usually instruct without doing the entire class. But in January I did all my classes because there were beginners who wanted to follow all my moves. It was ridiculously hard and by the Friday I was exhausted. So I didn’t run that weekend. It doesn’t hurt to miss a run or two. You run better when rested: I did my fastest 5K after two weeks’ rest.
KELLY: I’ve learned that it’s counterproductive if I go out running when I’m tired or after a sleepless night. I’m exhausted and it’s the biggest waste of time. It also makes you feel worse! Now if I’m really tired, I won’t run. I used to run because I’d set myself a weekly target, but I just ended up not enjoying it. Now I run when I want to and I love it again!
REBECCA: It’s important to have a sensible expectation of yourself and it’s not the end of the world if you can’t do something. Do what you can and don’t beat yourself up over it. A sensible programme to avoid overtraining starts in your head.
What target distance would give you both pressure and pleasure to complete?
NIKKI: I think a half marathon, but perhaps I’m using that as a safety blanket, now that I know I can do it. I daren’t say a marathon – everyone will hold me to it! A half marathon is also my limit for the time I’d need for proper training.
SARAH: I’d say a marathon, but I’m surrounded by people who’ve done more than that. I have friends who do duathlon, Ironman and endurance challenges across the world. I did a 500K cycle across India in 2011 and have heard there’s a double marathon weekend in China that really interests me…
KELLY A half marathon is my limit to train for and complete. I’d love to do a marathon one day. I think I’d only ever do it once, though.
REBECCA: If I wasn’t injured I wouldn’t put a pressure limit on myself. But I know how painful setbacks can affect you, which would make me think more carefully. Then again, I would like to push myself to go further, to see where my fitness limit really lies.
The marathon is a popular “pressure for pleasure” distance, but is it still considered an achievement?
KELLY: I don’t think people see it as special any more: it feels like everyone is doing a marathon these days. But if I ever managed it, I’d consider it a massive achievement.
NIKKI: Running a marathon is a huge achievement: the dedication and commitment it takes should never be underestimated.
SARAH: If people trained for a marathon they’d soon realise how hard it is and what an achievement it would be to complete. A few years ago, people were hugely impressed if you ran a marathon. It’s still the same distance, so the sense of achievement should be just as great.
REBECCA If you’re a person who trains a lot, no-one’s impressed if you run a marathon. Until I did my half marathon I didn’t think the marathon was a big deal. But I’ve never been so humbled as I was when, as I finished my half, it hit me that marathon runners do twice that distance – 26.2 miles is such a long way to run. The achievement of running that distance is greatly underappreciated.
Words by Katherine Selby