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Crucial but overlooked insights for getting into running: Sweating, straining and surviving until the unfamiliar becomes pleasurable

John Day, lecturer in the School of Health and Social Care at Essex University, discusses his research on how runners interpret ambiguous bodily sensations and why enjoyment of running is so important.

I've had those two voices on my shoulder… “Why ya doin' this? Just stop. You don't need to run anymore.” And the other one's goin', “Come on! What ya doin'? Keep runnin'. Keep goin'… Get through it…”

You might expect that these are the thoughts of someone relatively new to running, struggling to motivate themselves to run as far as they had initially intended. In fact, this is the self-talk of an athlete during a training run while preparing to represent the Great Britain age-group duathlon team at the European Championships.

I interviewed him as part of my PhD study, the findings of which illustrate that the ambiguous bodily sensations we feel when we run are very similar whether you are a newcomer or someone who might describe yourself as "a runner". This is important to know for those just starting to get into running or returning after an extended break, as it highlights that there is a deeply human element to running that we all share, regardless of our natural ability or amount of experience.

This is not to claim that anyone can become a runner capable of competing on an international stage, but that newcomers to running are putting themselves through similar bodily encounters to those who have been runners for most of their lives. There are various reasons you might feel like an outsider when attending a running club for the first time, such as doubts about having the right trainers or what on earth "threshold pace" means, but sustaining the mindset to keep going while your body tells you otherwise is not one of them. As an experienced runner and couch to 5k coach who also spoke with me explained:

You've got people moaning that it hurts to run. I said, “Well, it will,” and they're like, “When does it get easier?” I went, “Never.” He replied, “Well, what do ya mean ‘never?’”

While running, the human body cares little about what your trainers look like or what threshold pace means; it is too busy sweating so you don’t overheat, and pumping blood so hard it sometimes feels like your heart might escape from your chest. You are only truly a "newcomer" to the bodily practice and physical activity of running the very first time you are confronted with these sensations.

My research argues that, from an experience perspective, the key difference between those who maintain regular participation in running and those who choose not to is a willingness to return themselves to such a scenario, where the awareness of the body is heightened to the extent of feeling physically unsettled.

Of course, these sensations are not always about pain and hurting, but can also be intense and euphoric feelings of pleasure. The peculiar pleasures of running were best described by a female in her twenties, who was in the process of returning to running following pregnancy when she spoke with me.

I feel like I'm going crazy, like I love it!… getting really hot and sweaty. And when I kind of start to feel the sweat going into my eyes, I'm like, “Yeah, I’ve worked really hard. I'm happy now.” [I] get a real kind of adrenaline buzz off sprinting up the hills, and just kind of generally pushing my body to, the max… I do feel like it can become a bit of an addiction… I suppose it's the hormones that's released when you're… pushing yourself… to those kind of extremes.

Although memorable, encounters with outright pain or pleasure while running are less frequent than the persistent awareness of the less extreme physical ambiguity of sweating and straining, which are distinct from, but connected to, the lack of physicality most of our daily lives contain outside of running.

The constant contrast of shifting between a physically mundane office job and the rhythmic whole-body demand of running is a routine that many people new to running struggle to maintain. Whereas those who self-identify as runners have become accustomed to taking great pride in surviving a weekly, or even daily, schedule of the sharp physical contrasts necessary to becoming a runner. This idea of becoming accustomed to how running makes your body feel is particularly important in the period of time following a run because the process of returning to the "ordinary world" of computers, phones and television is the point at which experienced runners evaluate the bodily sensations of running as pleasurable.

After the run you just feel really good about yourself. You feel really tired, but it's like a good kinda tired… even if you've pulled muscles. I don't know if it's the adrenaline... or what it is, but you do feel better.

—Grant (pseudonym)

When you have finished a run, whether you appraise it as something you physically "survived" or "conquered", what matters is that you got through it, and you can take pleasure from having done so. This ability to evaluate the intense physicality of running is what I refer to in my research as learning to become a connoisseur of your physically active body. Crucially, the physical connoisseurship of running seems to be a skill that can be learned, and across people's lives, this was the constant factor that kept them involved. This was pointed out by a participant who "hated" running and most forms of exercise during his childhood but is now part of a triathlon club.

I can remember the first time I did cross country, and just feeling physically sick. It was just horrible, which is bizarre… because for the past seven years I've been doing cross country with a triathlon club. There's a perverse enjoyment to that: it's hard, it's off-season, it's cold, it's muddy… you get up early on a Sunday morning, and it's freezing...

My research is not alone in finding that pleasure is the most decisive factor in whether most people choose to continue participating in physical activities such as running. However, this is not emphasised to the same degree as the health benefits in physical activity policies and guidelines, so its significance remains largely overlooked. While the health benefits are a common and meaningful motivation for taking up running, they seem to have a limited lifespan. It's finding the pleasure that will keep you hooked.

When I was training for Ironman… my parents were concerned that I was overdoing it… that is a concern for people who don't do regular sport… I've come back from a run absolutely sweating… I've really pushed myself and it's been great… even though I look a wreck, I feel great, and they say, “Why the hell do you do that to yourself… why are you killing yourself that way‽” I said, “Well, I'm not. I'm OK. I'm fine. Just give me ten minutes.”

—Evan (pseudonym)

You can find out more about John's research and work on his University of Essex profile page, and keep up with the latest by following him on Twitter.