I’ve been making a real effort lately to step back from my time goals and just enjoy running. When running is your day job as well as the thing you do for fun, it’s easy to get too wrapped up in it, and I found I was getting a little obsessed over speed, and when I needed a break from that, I started running longer and longer distances, because I thought if I didn’t want to go faster, I had to go further. Turns out I’m an adult and I can do as I please, so I stopped working to a training plan for a while, harnessed my dogs up, and just started running again for the fun of it.

Today, as I was running through one of our local country parks, putting the world to right with my friend Nic, we passed an elderly gentleman who said to us, “You look like you’re having too much fun and doing too much chatting there; running should be painful.” I was gobsmacked, and burst out laughing, because to me, the idea of spending my free time doing something painful is bizarre. I make a point of running for fun. It’s my escape into the countryside, for fresh air and peace and quiet, and beauty. Why would I want to make it painful?

I can kind of see his point of view. If you want to improve your running times then speedwork and tempo runs are naturally a part of this process of improvement, but they have never been painful to me. Tough, yes, but still fun. Sometimes the last rep when you’re working hard at your lactate threshold really burns, but it’s never painful. If they’re painful, it’s a warning sign I’m doing them too fast. The tempo runs will get you a bit out of breath as you build your ventilatory threshold, but they’re certainly never painful. Sometimes, at that crucial 20-23 miles point of a marathon, you may feel like you’re in pain, but you have your eye on the finish line edging ever closer so the reward is greater than the fatigue you’re feeling, and our brain can play tricks on us like that, telling us we want to stop when we don’t need to. Sometimes, 15 hours into an ultramarathon, the brain might tell you your body is in pain, but really your body can keep going and going. Real pain is a warning sign to stop, though, not something to be expected during a run. The same goes with joint or muscle pain – if something hurt, I would stop. I wouldn’t keep going. Perhaps I’m just getting a little worked up about his choice of word here: painful. Maybe he meant we should be feeling that burn as we train our lactate threshold. Even so, I would advise training at that intensity once, maybe twice, a week in a proper training cycle, depending on your running experience, so if a runner was doing every run at that intensity I would be advising caution to get off that fast road to injury or illness. Most runs should definitely be fun and easy.

It got me thinking about people’s perceptions of running. Do non runners in general think running should be painful? An exercise to endure, in order to lose weight? This is worrying if this is the case, and if it’s a widespread perception, could be a real barrier to starting something that is so rewarding for so many people.

For me, running is something I definitely reward myself with. I am so grateful that I can run (particularly every time I see my brother who can no longer walk due to a degenerative illness) and running is a celebration of my health and fitness. Even when I’m in a training cycle for a goal race and I’m doing speed work and tempo runs, the majority of my runs are still easy and fun. When I’m running with friends, the goal is to enjoy my run, to chat, to admire the beautiful scenery, to find new paths. I never have to force myself to run. Why would I? It’s fun.

I’m interested to hear other people’s perceptions of what running is, or should be?

2 thoughts on “Why running should never be painful

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