Running with Anxiety

Running is a powerful tool for maintaining good mental health, but what happens when that mental health is hindering your training?

Because I’m really struggling with this right now.

I have strugged with anxiety since I was in my early twenties. Well, it was diagnosed and medicated in my twenties, when my hair started falling out and I finally asked for help. But I have always been an anxious person.

I haven’t been medicated for years, and I had gotten into a rhythm with my body, where I went about my life and it let me know when I needed to slow down a little, to concentrate on more physical activity, and to take time to re-anchor myself. You can probably map my mental health journey to a log of my gym visits.

With the global pandemic – unsurprisingly – I’ve been struggling with managing my anxiety. It’s one of the reasons I set myself this challenge of running a half-marathon. I’ve been doing my guided meditations, limiting caffeine, and making sure I head to bed at a good time to get my 8 hours of shut eye. Some of my bigger fears have come to pass, and while that has offered some relief, I still have not breathed properly in weeks. Probably 2-3 months, if I’m honest.

Shallow and tight.

And I didn’t realise quite how bad it was until I started running. The first few runs I was really out of breath – of course I was – I’m not a runner and my cardio fitness terrible (for now). But I’ve come to realise that it’s primarily by breathing holding me back on my runs.

While cardio exercise is usually medicine for my mental health woes, it’s not helping now. My anxiety is basically punching me in the stomach as I warm up at the starting line.

My worries aren’t about the run. I actually really enjoy it, when I’m filling my lungs with the air they’re crying out for.

But I’m breathing into my chest, not my abdomen, and I find I’m holding my breath when I’m not actively concentrating on it. Iiiiiiiinnnnnn… ooooouuuutttt…

Have you experienced anything similar?
Any tips?

Favourite Yet

Tonight’s run has been my favourite yet. I’m not sure why exactly, it could be a couple of things – but I was totally there for it.

30 minutes of run / walk intervals. Just under 4km, with a good mix of (slight) up-and-down-hill sections. And alllllllll of the endorphins.

… maybe it was the weather. Tonight was beautiful and clear. It was cool, but perfect with a jacket. I didn’t get too sweaty, though I know I worked hard.

… maybe it was the fact I hadn’t been on a run for a couple of days. Yesterday I did a bit of cross training at home, after my morning run plans fell through. And I had intended to run this morning before work, too, but dropped that hope when I was still wide awake at midnight.

… maybe it’s because I haven’t been sleeping or breathing particularly well lately. Yeah… that’s one for a different post.

… maybe I just prefer evening runs, where my body is fuelled by meals earlier in the day, and I can turn off my thoughts of work. Transitioning from work mode to relax mode, claiming this evening time as mine.

Whatever it was, I really enjoyed it and I can already feel the progress I’m making, even just in week 2.

I didn’t even stop my jog for tonight’s (wonderfully terrible) photo. One of those lines is a giant, red moon that was sitting low and bright tonight. Can you guess which one? Ha!

The Importance of a Plan

To quote an arrogant, but in this case correct, ex of mine; failure to plan is a plan to fail.

Uplifting, isn’t it?

But it’s true. Having a plan is important. That plan must remain flexible, and it may change, but it’s important to have one. And to follow it.

Not just in running, but in achieving any goal.
Structure is important. A goal without a plan is just a dream, right? The structure, the steps laid out, and followed are what make the goal attainable.

Think about it like the degree you did at uni. You likely started with a rough idea of the papers you wanted to do, the steps you’d take, to get your major(s). Those probably changed a little as you went, but if you kept with it, you graduated. You got that degree (even if it looked a little different to how you intended at the start).

So, I’ve searched the internet for a free training plan – there are so many out there, and this is my first half marathon. I don’t have a goal for time, and I don’t want too many options to choose from. In the absence of a personal recommendation, I’ve searched for beginners plans with a focus on completing a half marathon without injury.

Completing a half marathon without injury is my goal. While I’m hopeful that I will have the fitness that will enable me to run it well, with a good time, my primary focus is on finishing. And if I can do that in under 3 hours, I will be over the GD moon.

And with that in mind, I’ve settled on one.

I’m going to follow the ‘couch to half marathon’ plan by the Marathon Handbook.

It’s a 15 week plan, and I have 21 weeks until race day. I will follow this plan, but I can be flexible. My current expectation (note: not plan!) is to repeat some of the latter weeks at the 10km-ish stage, but I’m going to listen to my body and respect it – and the plan – as much as I can as I go.

And I start tomorrow.

Week One – Progress

What a week. Even with hiccups, it’s gone pretty well. I’ve been out for 4 runs; all varying levels of success.

It’s not about the numbers, but I’m keen to track my progress somewhere so I can look back at where I started, what changed, and (hopefully) just how much I’ve improved. Weekly summaries feel right.

It is, after all, a (half) marathon and not a sprint. Sorry, not sorry.

The Stats:

Sun 25 Oct 2020AMTreadmill2.2km9’47” pace
Tues 27 Oct 2020AMOutdoor2.7km8’22” pace
Thu 29 Oct 2020PMOutdoor3.3km8’48” pace
Sat 31 Oct 2020AMOutdoor5.1km7’23” pace
Total distance13.3km
All runs in the week were interval run / walks. No specific training plan followed.

Heart health –

  • Resting heart rate – 70 bpm (started at 71 bpm on Sun 25 Oct)
  • Fitbit ‘cardio fitness’ rating – 32 point something (average)

Observations:

There are a few things that haven’t been measured for me, so while they may not be wildly accurate, I think they’re still important to recognise and note.

  • Nutrition – I haven’t really done anything differently this week. I’ve limited my alcohol intake, but no food has been off limits. Based on Tuesday’s run, this is gonna need to change, but I’m only prepared to shock my body so much…
  • Weather – I’ve been lucky that the weather hasn’t really prevented me from getting out (though, it has made it harder to get out of bed…). As we head into November, I don’t expect the weather to cooperate much longer, so I’ve ordered more water-resistant clothing and a second pair of runners – heading off the excuses now while I’m still motivated!
  • TIme of day – this week was a mix of fasted morning runs and evening runs straight after work. I’m not sure which I prefer just yet, so I’m going to keep mixing it up. But I definitely do prepare running outdoors to inside on the treadmill.
  • Music – I’ve been plodding along to a random rock workout playlist on Spotify, then cooling down with an audiobook on the walk home. I do not recommend listening to ‘Know my Name’ by Chanel Miller when walking home in the dark (however, I do recommend it literally any other time of day, because it’s powerful and an important perspective to hear. Get uncomfortable.)

So yeah, it’s been… a week.
Here’s to the next one!

In Earnest

Sunday marked 6 months to my half marathon. I’ve had 2 runs since then. Though they have been very, very different, I can say I have started in earnest.

On Sunday, recovering from Saturday night, I hit the treadmill at the gym. I knew going into it that I wasn’t going to rock a casual 5km, or really do anything to ‘do the miles’. I was there to be there. To show up. To do what I’ve committed to. And I did that. With some run/walk intervals.

Today, though, was meant to be different.

The weather was clear, and I had a couple of hours until I needed to log on for work. Time was not an issue. Rain wasn’t going to hold me back. And – most importantly – I got up when the alarm went off.

There is a lot to love about getting up before everyone else. I love my bed more. But I don’t hate being up that early.

I walked for 15 min to get warmed up, but mostly to get to the big, wide (flat-ish) Blackheath – my favourite place for a no-pressure run around in South East London.

Once I got there, the running (read: run-walk, don’t worry, I’ll tell you when that’s no longer a thing) went easily. Until it didn’t.

I learned a lot this morning.

Lesson one: I need trousers that actually fit. I have so many leggings, but they were all pre-lockdown purchases. I need to be realistic and look after the body I have now. This body was a squished sausage with a wriggly belly dancing about as my waistband rolled down until it meet the savage resistance of The Hips.

Lesson two: what you eat the night before matters. We all know that our body needs to be appropriately fueled. I know I do well on an empty stomach, so I didn’t eat anything this morning. But last night’s pizza made itself known. So much so that I had to stop running half way through and power-walked myself right back home (at a not-much-slower-pace, sadly).

Lesson three: never trust the weather forecast. Actually, I already knew this, but I need to be reminded every once and a while. If I’m going to be training over the winter – which I know I will – I’m going to need some wet-weather running gear. I was warm enough while I was running, but when I had to switch to my power-walking, it started raining just a little and I really felt the chill. Really, preparing for rain in London heading into November is just common sense.

Taken with a grain of salt from now on…

So, yeah, this is probably going to get expensive.

Just Start

I have every intention of following a training plan in the lead up to this half marathon. I can make progress without one, but I’d really just be making it up as I go along. Not ideal.

The day I signed up, I got on the treadmill to see what I was working with. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I’m an intervals girl, so if I find a comfortable ‘jog’ pace, things should get a lot easier.

This weekend, I’m away and went for a run down along the beach. I wasn’t expecting brilliance, but I wasn’t expecting it to be as hard as it was.

I knew in my head that running on the treadmill is not the same as getting out and hitting the pavement. Now, I know it in my knees.

I kept to the concrete path between the cliff and the sand. I may be a rookie, but I know that running on sand is an entirely different experience.

It was a short run, but I got out there and did it. And I actually ran more than I thought I would.

Definitely a combination of running and walking, looking at my fitbit stats afterward – I ran more distance than I walked. It didn’t feel that way at the time, but it gives me hope!

I won’t be sharing my stats just yet – that will come with the training plan, I suspect.

It felt good today. But that’s just one day, and there are a lot more to come. One day at a time.

Context might help…

So, here we are. Right at the start of this journey (and it is a journey). Context as to why this is a mammoth undertaking is probably useful.

I know why this is one of the hardest challenges I’ve set for myself, but you’re not mind-readers, are you? To expect you to just know is unfair. So, dear lurker reader, let me paint you a picture.

I’m 32 next week. And this birthday has been my hardest one yet.
I was excited for 30. And 31 was a birthday of exploration and beauty.
32 is already… not what I expected.

We are in the middle of a global pandemic. For anyone reading this years from now, COVID-19 reared it’s ugly head at the start of the year, we went into lockdown from late March to May / June. Summer has been spent socially distanced (the most 2020 phrase that I look forward to never using again), and now we’re looking into the face of the ‘second wave’. It’s likely we’ll be in lockdown again – in some form or another – until Christmas.

Social contact is limited. We’ve been working from home. For much of the year, gyms were closed, and I didn’t rush back when they reopened.

I am unfit.
In fact, I don’t know if I would ever have described myself as fit.
At my fittest I’ve run 5km fun runs. I’ve lifted heavy things. I’ve preferred HIIT and ‘short and sweaty’ workouts.

I exercise for the endorphins, not because I particularly enjoy it.
Not for vanity. Not for skill.

For me, exercise and my mental health are those high school lovers who have been on-again-off-again since graduation. Decades of crossed paths, but never really sharing the same goals, and ultimately breaking away thinking they just weren’t good for each other, regardless of what fate says.

I am a person who starts things but does not finish them.
I own this. I see where it comes from, and accept that it’s a challenge I face. But that doesn’t make it right; it makes it something identifiable to manage. The fact that I can see it – recognise it – means I can work on it. It won’t define me, and I need to show myself as much.

I need a challenge.
And I need to commit to finishing that challenge.

Physically, I’m not fit enough. But I will be.
My diet is not healthy. I need to fuel my food, not feed the void.
Mentally, I don’t know if I can do this.

…but I owe it to myself to find out.

Well, shit.

What the fuck have I done?

I’m sitting here, in the middle of a work day, bored shitless.

… and I’ve signed up for a half marathon.

My first half marathon.

Which may not sound outrageous, but I promise you: it is.

Shit.