Written by Sophie Scott

Health

High strides

Two years ago, Sophie Scott started Advent running and has run pretty much every day since. Why? Because she is totally loving feeling like a tiger.

Sophie on her 50th birthday run.

Sophie on her 50th birthday run.

I just turned 50, and it’s been a strange old time (I’M NOT EVEN KIDDING – HOW IS THIS REMOTELY POSSIBLE?). But I am fairly sure that I’m hitting 50 feeling better that I did when I turned 40, and definitely much, much fitter.

This is entirely because a couple of years ago I read an article about running, every day, for the duration of Advent. I thought it might kickstart my relationship with running: I had no idea that one year later I would still be running daily. I had even less idea that two years later I would still be going. I can honestly say it’s changed my life for the better.

First, I just don’t care what anyone thinks. I don’t care that I’m older and fatter than most other runners I meet, and I care even less what men who are sitting down in cars and vans think (I only mention them because they seem to be the ones who want to shout at runners). They can win at sitting down and being rude to women: I am winning at running around and feeling like a TIGER.

And sometimes people say nice things (I say people; I mean women and a chap who runs near where I live and high fives everyone). I don’t care because it doesn’t matter, and also because for years this would have stopped me, and I feel like I’m winning solely by letting that care go.

Compared with when I used to run a lot in the 90s, there are many more women out there running than there used to be (based on my observations, not science), so I’m probably not the only person who’s made this decision.

Second, running is outstanding for women, especially as we get older. Weight bearing exercise (anything where you exercise on your feet) is really important for preventing osteoporosis as the forces generated promote bone density and also muscle development – and muscle mass decreases with age. It’s goddam political, girlfriends: you deserve your health as you get older.

“Oh man, am I blissed out! I have never, ever felt worse after going for a run. I always feel better. And the effects have started to last – my mood day to day is definitely better.”

And though people will tell you that running is bad for your knees, this is what scientists call ‘balls’: studies show that people who run have fewer knee problems. There is also some evidence that exercise can help with the symptoms of menopause, with women who exercise more having fewer hot flushes.

Third, there is something very pleasing about the challenge of running daily – to make the commitment and carve the time out of your day. The normal approach to running, where you take rest days, is obviously fine, but there is something very rewarding about making yourself go every day. It’s a battle with yourself, and one that you can win.

I try to get up really early to run. If I can run three miles first thing in the morning, I feel amazing for the entire rest of the day. It also feels like I have achieved a tremendous level of self-discipline, and this is not, shall we say, a common feeling for me.

It’s also very restful for my mind: Bruce Chatwin said, “a walk is like a prayer,” and I’m starting to feel that way about running. It’s a very peaceful time in my day. I now save things up to think about when I am running.

I can’t check my mail, go on Twitter or talk to anyone, so it becomes a de facto ‘silent’ time in the day, when I don’t do anything other than listen to music, run and think. The only time I tried relaxation after yoga sessions, it gave me a migraine. Running seems to let me clear my head and sort things out.

Oh man, am I blissed out! I have never, ever felt worse after going for a run. I always feel better. And the effects have started to last – my mood day to day is definitely better. Not sure if this is just the running, the endorphins or the headspace, or (most likely a little bit of all three), but over the days, the months, the years this has definitely felt like a better way to be.

I only realised how much running improves my mood when I missed three days in a row due to solo parenting duties this summer. After three days, my mood crashed and I shouted at someone on a bus. This is literally the most angry I have been in two years. Incredible scenes.

“People will tell you that running is bad for your knees. This is what scientists call ‘balls’: studies show that people who run have fewer knee problems.”

Finally, the beauty of running is that every step counts. This is why running and walking intervals work. If you start by running five steps, then walking for a minute and running another five steps and walking again, you will start to notice a difference, and you will be able to increase the amount you run until you are finally running the whole time.

I mean, ideally repeat the whole cycle more than twice but you’ll be astounded at how quickly it all becomes much easier. Even a really short run (the minimum I run is a mile) will count. It all helps. And my grand total is now 1,429 miles, which is stupendous and which I try to work into all conversations, including now. If I make it to 1,500 miles by Christmas I’ll probably start calling the newspapers.

Some last tips:

• There is such a thing as warming up. I often find that the first mile or so is a bit hard, but then I get all up to speed or warmed up or something, and it starts to feel like much less hard work.

• Marks and Spencer make excellent running gear, really robust and lightweight, and they make them in a realistic range of sizes. The online shop is best.

• Shoes really do make a difference. I do best with extremely cushioned shoes, the kind that feel ridiculously soft when you walk in them. If I run in motion control shoes, I start to get knee problems. To save money, I buy previous seasons’ shoes from an outlet (or Decathlon is good) and try to find a style that works for me. I also try to not always run in the same shoes – I rotate between a couple or three pairs.

• It really helps to be part of a virtual running group. I joined the Advent Running Facebook group, but I think any will do. Just having a place where you can go and ask for help or advice or motivation, or tell them what you’ve been up to really helps. And one morning in the summer I saw a whole bunch of people go tearing past me in Advent Running T-shirts. I was so excited I nearly fell into the nearby canal.

@sophiescott

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Written by Sophie Scott

I am a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, and I study brains, voices, speaking and laughing. In my spare time I try to turn theory into practice with science based stand up comedy. @sophiescott