When I was a kid, I loved racing with my friends and running at school, even taking part in some CrossCountry meets when I was 10 or 11. For me, a youngest child, I always had to run, skip or jump just to keep up with the longer legs of my older brothers and sister, not to mention my parents. I was a dancer and that energy translated into every aspect of my little life. We were an active family, constantly going on bike rides in the countryside or along the canal, walks in the North of England and even hiking in the Pyrenees from when I was only 10.
For some reason though, that stopped. It stopped almost as soon as I hit middle school, when being active and running around was seen as a bit of a dorky thing to do – not down with the cool kids. I stopped running when I stopped being the fastest in my school and I stopped going out cycling with my parents because, as a teenager, why on earth would I have wanted to spend any more time with my family than strictly necessary? P.E. stopped being a fun afternoon off lessons, and I started to resent the time spent sweating doing exercise with my classmates. I stopped dancing, switching my focus instead to music, which took up all of my life and left little room or spare afternoons to just get out and be active.
Is this a normal teenage phenomenon? I think in the UK where sports are relegated to little more than window dressings, especially in girls schools, the effort needed to commit to a sport makes it “uncool”, unless it is a team sport like netball or hockey. There is no emphasis on being active more generally – you are told to pick a sport and to like it, and only it, for your entire school career.
This changed when I was 15, and decided that I was fat. I wasn’t, not at all, but decided that I wanted to change myself through diet and exercise. I’ll write more about this phase of my life in another blog post, but whether for good or bad intentions, this is when I started running again. And god, was I terrible. I only ran at the weekends, slowly and with lots of breaks, clocking up around 4 miles each time. But I was out there, and I was running, and I was slowly improving.
The Christmas when I was 17 I decided to take my fitness up another level, and to sign up for my very first half marathon. I was so excited, launched myself into training, ran 5 times a week, clocking up around 20 miles per week, and then… got shin splints. And ran through my shin splints. And got shin splints so badly that I had to take two months off running, returning to training only 6 weeks before my half marathon.
Despite this approach to training, I completed my first half marathon in a time of 2:13, and vowed to do another to improve on my time. This was then followed by a period of illness when I couldn’t run, then a 6-month backpacking trip where I made sure to run, but where my training goals slightly took a backseat amongst the excitement of new places to explore and faces to meet.
My first year of university brought a great deal of change into my life, including with my approach to fitness. The first term flew by but by Christmas, I realised that I had let my fitness go again and took a radical look at my life. I ate better, trained better, sticking to a workout schedule which had me running or cross-training 5 times a week. At the Easter of tlast year, I added weights into my training, following the 5×5 Stronglifts programme, which I found was amazing for introducing me into a section of the gym that I had always ignored and had even been slightly scared of.
It was during the May of 2016 when I trained for, and ran, my first marathon. I found it useful during my exam term to have something other than revision to think about, and I was happy with my progress during this time. Unfortunately for my fitness, although not in any other respect, my summer was spent in La Paz, Bolivia, at an altitude of 3600m (14 000 ft) and it was impossible to continue with the same intensity of training.
Winter is a very hard time for me to train, as I love getting up early and embracing the morning runs before my family or friends have even got out of bed, which is hard to motivate myself to do when the mornings are dark, damp and cold. I don’t think that there is a single winter where I have been able to continue my training as I have wished, either because of illness or because life has got in the way. Nevertheless, this always means that when January rolls around, I’m ready to dedicate myself back to fitness.
This January, I restarted my training for my latest half-marathon in March – the Cambridge Half. Despite being a cold, stormy and windy day, I completed the race in 1:52, a 21 minute PB! My goal was to get under 2 hours, and I smashed it! This has just given me the motivation to continue training as I have solid evidence that improvement is really possible.
And so, I have continued training through these last couple of months, although not for any particular race. I average 41 miles per week currently, but I am working to increase this to be in the 45-50 range consistently. I still run 5 days a week, with my long run on a Sunday, a speed workout, a hills workout and 2 easier paced shorter runs. My long runs fall between 15 and 20 miles, but I also fit in a shake-out run later in the evening to get extra miles in and to stretch out. I also sometimes double-up on runs some days if I have limited time. In addition to my running, I climb twice a week and do other strength workouts twice a week.
I’m aware that it sounds like I spend a lot of time on fitness, perhaps too much time for some people. It’s important that I point out that this sort of training schedule is something I’ve been fine-tuning for the past 5 years to suit my body, my way of exercising, my schedule. I love it, and it is only seldom that I feel like any of the activities, whether it’s running or gymming or climbing, is a drain on my time. I schedule them in as “me-time”, which I need for my mental, as well as my physical, wellbeing.
I will be posting on running nutrition specifically in an upcoming post, but it should seem pretty obvious by now that I need to eat a lot to sustain me through my intense weekly workouts. This, again, has taken fine-tuning and balancing, especially because of my Paleo preferences. It’s a constant source of worry for my parents, but I know that I am doing the right thing for me and for my body.
Fitness is a constant journey. Two years ago, I never would have thought that I would be consistently running 40+ mile weeks, having run a marathon, and with my next marathon (Barcelona 2018) in the calendar. I never pictured myself lifting weights or climbing and I never pictured fitness being as big of a part of my life as it has grown to be. Nonetheless, I am excited for what the future will bring in terms of my fitness journey – there will be ups, and I’m sure that there will also be downs, but for me it’s all about enjoying the little victories and appreciating the progress I am making now.
What has your fitness journey looked like? Are you just at the beginning, or are you a seasoned athlete? Do you have a rigid plan, or just grope blindly into the darkness? I’d love to hear how others have ended up in their own position! Just let me know in the comment section or drop me a follow or a DM on Instagram (@primallyimperfect).