Forget any cliches about the loneliness of the long distance athlete, running is now appealing to a significantly wider group of people taking to roads and trails for fitness, health, social interaction – and mental wellbeing
If there’s one or two things Emma Holmes wants you to consider when thinking about running they crucially include the fact anyone can take it up and – far from being a solitary pursuit – it can be incredibly sociable.
The Sevenoaks mother-of-two first donned her trainers seriously five years ago after husband Mark competed in the London Marathon.
She hasn’t looked back, completing a half marathon a year later and her first full 26 miles in 2014. Emma has now completed nine marathons and four ultra marathons (anything over the full distance) and is a member of Mojo Running and Fitness, a Sevenoaks-based women’s group offering a range of runs for fitness and fun in a non-competitive, encouraging environment.
“I was fed up hearing about minute miles, pace and tempo without understanding what they meant so I joined a ‘back to running’ group where I ran for a bit and walked a bit until I was up to the 10k mark,” she says.
“As with any fitness pursuit, the key is to start small as it’s easy to become demotivated if you set yourself unrealistic goals. There are so many informal and fun ways to get into running such as ‘Couch to 5k groups’ and park runs, some of which you can do with the dog or even in fancy dress for special occasions.”
At Mojo, activities are aimed at the steady and intermediate runner varying in age from 20s to late 60s. “There is no membership or joining fee with participants paying for the runs they do or signing-up for a course,” adds Emma, who has now become a qualified leader, enabling her to pass on knowledge, inspire others and give them the confidence to enter half or full marathons.
“I really do want to stress how sociable running is – I hardly ever run on my own these days. In fact, I much prefer the camaraderie, support and the laughs you get running with others and we are so lucky to have such wonderful locations around Sevenoaks.”
A sport for all
Lucille Joannes, Secretary of Tunbridge Wells Harriers, agrees that although the appeal of running was forged with the boom of the early 80s, today it attracts a much broader set of participants.
“Our main activities are road running and cross country with a few forays into track. Routes are devised by our members, who number around 200, and although we have more men, running is fast growing in appeal amongst women. We have runners from those in their late teens to our oldest member, Graham Brooks who, at 85, is the most fantastic inspiration to us all.
“The age profile of the club is such that we’re impressively represented in the veteran categories and our chairman, Andy Howey, has placed well in the British Masters Championships in road and cross country.
“We also try very hard to appeal to all standards but we are a formal running club so new joiners are expected to meet a minimum standard of being able to run comfortably for at least six miles at a 10-minute-mile pace,” explains Lucille.
“In winter we keep to the streets but in summer we go off-road on footpaths and trails around Tunbridge Wells. To make things interesting we sometimes organise hashes. With these, runners follow a flour trail, often with false leads to add to the fun and give slower runners a chance to catch up.”
Fun & friends
Like Emma Holmes, Lucille is keen to emphasise the social side of running.
“Many of our runs, such as the hashes, ad-hoc training and longer Sunday events usually end with beers and sandwiches in a local pub and the club is a generally close knit ‘community’ with plenty of social events and members all supportive of each other.
“But we also encourage people to push themselves by helping them take part in races in the Kent Grand Prix Series (KGP) and the Kent Cross Country League. The men have done particularly well in the KGP, winning it seven times in the past 10 years.”
Much has been written about the toll running can take on joints and limbs with many runners having to prematurely hang-up their trainers. It doesn’t have to be that way, says Emma Holmes.
“This is one of the most important reasons to join a running group. Not only will you get support, you’ll be introduced to a variety of runs that are kinder to the body than endlessly pounding the pavement. And, as I said, you’ll make good friends and have fun while getting or staying fit.”
Up and Running for mental health
It’s long been acknowledged exercise can be a valuable weapon in the battle against depression. It led Shona Campbell to co-found a group making an important difference.
Most of us know we need to do a certain amount of regular exercise but doctors are increasingly convinced it’s just as important for keeping us well mentally.
Mind and body are connected and what affects one can impact the other. If you feel low or anxious, you often want to stay at home – but that’s the very time physical activity may be beneficial.
There are a few different theories as to why this should be the case and it’s probably a combination of factors – physical, mental and social. Shona established Up and Running in Sevenoaks with clinical psychologist Harriet Heal.
“Running in a group helps not just because there’s someone to chat to but also because you’re out in fresh air and getting the support and friendship of others,” says Harriet. “We know social interaction is one of the key factors in mental wellbeing. That combination of exercise and being outside in green space in a sociable setting is what we aim to offer.”
Research shows exercise can help alleviate long-term depression and there’s also evidence to suggest vigorous exercise like running can help anxious people cope with symptoms and reduce panic.
“I’ve struggled with depression most of my adult life and when I took up running in my 40s I wasn’t prepared for the difference it’s made to me,” says Shona, who also runs a small group catering for women who are complete beginners.
“I can’t imagine my life without it now and I definitely don’t get anything like as depressed. If you’re wondering whether it might help, I’d really urge you to give it a go. We want you to come away from our group feeling good about yourself and we’ll do whatever we can to make sure that happens.”
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Image: Up and Running