Somewhat ironically for somebody with a job at a fitness magazine, I've never been a particularly active person. Prior to this year, I'd probably have described my physique as "skinny fat," and my version of cardio was exploring new cities on foot and dancing late into the night at a bar with friends. With both of those options off the table as an increasing set of restrictions came into effect early on in the coronavirus pandemic, my lifestyle swiftly went from social to sedentary.
© Philip Ellis
Starting running during the COVID pandemic helped me work on my personal fitness, but also setting goals and building a routine was good for my mental health.
Then, in March, a national lockdown was announced in the United Kingdom. While I've lived alone and worked from home for years, I didn't much fancy cutting off all human contact, and so I moved back in with my parents for what I thought would be a couple of weeks at the very most. I ended up living back in my childhood bedroom for several months.
At that time, public health guidelines only permitted you to leave your home once a day, for exercise, and so I started taking long walks. I hadn't even realized just how much quarantine-related anxiety I had internalized until I began to notice that, even after walking four or five miles, I would arrive home and still feel restless and irritable. I had more frustration to let out, and so one day, almost on a whim, while out on a walk, I picked up the pace and started jogging.
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I didn't last very long before I had to stop. I was gasping for breath, my lungs were on fire, and my feet were killing me because I was wearing the wrong kind of shoes. But it had felt good. So I, like many others during the first lockdown, ordered some workout clothes and a pair of running shoes online, and tried again.
I started with a lap around the block. Then around the entire neighborhood. Then I got adventurous, venturing further afield, out of the suburbs and along the woodland and river foot trails that I had ignored for the whole time I had lived there as a kid. On the advice of runner friends, I followed the run-walk-run pattern, which prevented me from winding myself before I'd cleared my first mile.
It wasn't long before I was running three or four times a week, only taking days off to allow my novice limbs time to recover. I found that those feelings of unease and agitation were lessened when I'd put everything I had into a run—and just as importantly, my parents remarked that I was a lot easier to be around. When the initial lockdown ended and I moved back into my flat in a city, the first thing I did was get on Google Maps and find places nearby where I could keep this newfound love of running going.
I'm not in the habit of weighing myself, and never really had a problem with my body or appearance, but I couldn't believe how different I looked after just a few months. And I'd be lying if I said that it didn't feel good to have to buy new jeans because my waist size had dropped by two inches. The most noticeable benefit though, and the factor that has kept me heading outside in lycra first thing in the morning as temperatures drop, is what running does for my mental health.
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In a year when it has felt impossible to truly disconnect from the seemingly endless carousel of news updates or the impulse to doomscroll, those morning runs feel precious. It's the closest to meditation or mindfulness I've ever gotten: I'm out in nature, not looking at a screen, and thinking about nothing except my own breathing, my pace, and my route. As my cardiovascular fitness has improved, I've been able to run for longer, with fewer breaks, and there is nothing quite as satisfying as watching my step count and distance travelled go up. Managing 5K for the first time felt great. Hitting 10K felt monumental.
Perhaps more surprising was the knock-on effect this change has had on other areas of my life. Being physically tired at night, having hit 10,000 steps either through running or walking, means that I have never slept better. This in turn means I have started waking up earlier in the mornings, feeling well-rested and eager to start my day (usually with another run).
Running has also made its way up my list of self-care tools, replacing "a bottle of wine" and "six hours of Netflix" as my go-to when I'm having a bad day. If I have a problem I'm trying to work through, or I'm feeling anxious, frustrated, or down, it's now my habit to put on my running shoes and hit the canal path outside my building. Even if it's only for 10 or 20 minutes, it helps to reset my mood.
Having this new hobby also helped me find a way of finding pleasure where I can, and reframing things in 2020. Sure, the influx of new releases by Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga, Jessie Ware, Rina Sawayama, and Carly Rae Jepsen has made me miss gay bars—but if I can't enjoy these uptempo bangers on a dance floor, at least I can let them keep me motivated on my first ever attempt at a 10K. Similarly, vacations are off the table, but in my on-going quest to find new running routes I have explored beautiful parks and lakes that I never previously knew were right on my doorstep.
And in a year without sex? Well, stretching out those sore leg muscles feels pretty damn good.
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