Learn to run

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Last week was World Mental Health Day, reminding us that we all have mental health and we should do what we can to recognise and safeguard our mental wellbeing.

Although not always easy, exercise can have a huge positive impact on our mental health. The Active Lives team in Sport & Exercise is here to help, and their latest offering, Learn to Run, can help even novices gain the confidence and know how to get moving.

Lucy Smith is an Active Lives Assistant in Sport & Exercise. She explains a bit more about the link between activity and mental health: “Physical activity participation can have many benefits for our mental health. Whether it’s taking part in a boot-camp or getting outside for a 15-minute walk, participating in physical activity can be an instant distraction from daily worries and offer headspace away from racing thoughts. It can boost our mood, increase our self-esteem and help us to make new friends and connections.”

Chiara Franzosi, Customer Service Advisor at Sport & Exercise Pleasance Gym, can also speak to the mental health benefits of running. A coach on the Learn to Run programme, Chiara found her passion for running six years ago when she started a couch to 5k programme.

“I just wanted be able to go for a jog in the morning and spend some time in nature before work,” she says. “I was in Italy back then and I found a couch-to-5k programme on a blog for new runners. The blog promised not only that at the end of the programme I’d be able to run for one hour continuously, but also that I would fall in love with running and the way it makes you feel. They were right! I was very soon hooked on running.”

Chiara found that there were more benefits to running than she originally thought. She elaborates: “Since I jogged and walked my very first session, I discovered the amazing benefit of the endorphins on my mind and body. I soon learned that I would never regret going out for a run.

“A run always makes my day better, it clears my head as I leave the everyday worries and anxieties behind me. Running makes me feel strong, powerful and free – even more so if I am outside in the early morning or when it’s bad weather.

“Over the past years, developing a runner’s mindset has given me skills that I can use in all other aspects of my life,” she continues. “For example, positive self-talk and adaptability have helped me deal with stressful times in a job or with a difficult relationship. Running has definitely made me a better person both in my mind and body, and taught me to enjoy journeys more than finish lines.”

Six years later and Chiara has never stopped running. She used it as a way to explore Scotland when she first moved here, and is now an ultramarathon runner. She explains how her running journey progressed: “I regularly did 5 to 10km runs for about a year before I decided to sign up for my first half marathon. This coincided with moving to Edinburgh so the Marathon Festival was the perfect opportunity for me to explore that distance. As I made friends in Edinburgh, I soon discovered how enthusiastic and inspiring the people in the local running community are.

“Some friends talked me into trail running, marathons and ultramarathons which sounded incredible but also the perfect way for me to explore Scotland on the run. I just loved going to new places and running! So the first time I visited Glencoe, Speyside, the Borders, Arran, Loch Lomond, Cape Wrath were all for running events which I completed with a smile on my face as I was completely in awe of Scotland’s stunning scenery.”

Last May, Chiara ran seven marathons in seven consecutive days, raising £6,000 for an eating disorder charity. But that is only one of her recent running highlights: “In 2019 I completed the West Highland Way race which is 96 miles in just over 24 hours. And my lockdown adventure was running a Royal Mile Marathon which was 26 times up and down Edinburgh’s iconic street.”

It’s safe to say that Chiara is a running pro, which makes her a brilliant coach for the Learn to Run programme. Her best piece of advice is to take your time and listen to your body: “You are learning to run and your body is still adjusting to how things work. So if you need to take an extra rest day during the programme, that’s absolutely fine. It’s good that you listen to how you feel during and after a run.”

The Learn to Run programme is an introduction to the world of running for those who have never run before. So what exactly does the course itself involve? Chiara elaborates: “The aim is to build up the 5k distance really gently and gradually, through a combination of jogging and walking to be repeated a number of times. We will meet up for an instructor-led run on a Monday in order to practice the session for the week; people will need to repeat the session twice more during the week, in their own time.

Although the thought of running might not appeal to everyone, Chiara is keen to stress that the sessions are designed to challenge, but won’t be too difficult: “We will keep the sessions at a very easy pace which is measured by the ability to have an easy conversation as you jog. You should feel comfortable and not tired at the end of a session.”

The Sport & Exercise staff will be there to support you throughout your running journey: “Our team of Run Leaders and Sport Therapists has a wealth of experience and advice to offer – we will share all the tips we have about injury prevention, stretching, winter running, kit. In addition to that, you will receive an invitation to join an online Learn to Run group on Teams – a place for people to exchange extra advice and support.”

Although running can feel like a daunting prospect if you’re unsure where to begin, it’s a great way to get outside and get some exercise, especially if you have others you can run with. “You will be sharing the journey with like-minded people which is fantastic for making new friends,” says Chiara. “The winter in Edinburgh can feel very long and dark, so we encourage people to get outside in the fresh air and make new connections during this time.”

You can find out more about the programme on the Sport & Exercise website: Learn to Run

Photography: Andrew Perry (Sport & Exercise) and GettyImages.