Lifestyle16 Sep 2020

The Athletic Life: every run has a purpose


Targeting a purpose for your run (© Christel Saneh)


Kate CarterDo you think you're running 'junk miles'? Think again.

Kate Carter (@katehelencarter)


Junk miles, say those who believe in such things, are those miles with no specific training purpose, which therefore serve only to add to your fatigue. The name, of course, implies far worse - miles that, like the brightly coloured wrappers at the supermarket checkout, should be avoided at all costs for the good of your health. I had always assumed that junk miles were the slow, ploddy ones, but looking online, it seems definitions vary - many saying they are the miles that are actually too fast to be recovery, but too slow to develop speed.

But actually, the jury is out on whether - even purely on scientific merits - that’s actually true. The border between what lab tests or online calculators may decree as your “threshold” pace or your “easy pace” are blurred constantly - you might be tired, you might be dealing with a lot of life stress. Those things could make “easy” feel “less easy than it should” and your pace slower, even if the actual effort is the same. Equally, you might set out on what is planned as a relaxed, slow run and just feel unaccountably good, and push a little harder than you originally intended. Are either of those things bad? How can they be, if they make you feel good?

And that, for me, is the argument against the notion of junk miles: that every run has a purpose. What do we run for? On any given day it might be something different. We might want to get faster, we might want to build endurance. We might drag ourselves out into a windy grey drizzle because there is a goal approaching. We might suffer through a seemingly interminable long run for the sake of building “time on feet”. But that's just the runs that you might put in the limited Venn diagram circle of "training runs". And there's any number of overlapping, interlocking - and much bigger - circles beyond.

I'm just an amateur runner, and for me, most (if certainly not all) of my runs serve a purpose that has nothing to do with speed, even if they have the happy by-product of making me faster or fitter. Recently, I’ve tried to stick to a habit of explicitly asking myself before each run, “What’s this for? What is the point of this, specific, run?”. If it’s training, then sure, there are technical questions you can ask involving words like lactate and threshold, but most of the time it's got nothing to do with this serious-sounding notion of "training" and far more what I want to feel like at the end of the run. My goal might be “Finish feeling fresher than I started”. Or “Feel less stressed” or “Get enough fresh air to sleep better tonight”. Or it might be “Run slowly enough to love every minute of this beautiful landscape”.

Last Sunday I ran a trail half marathon - the Farnham Pilgrim - after a very difficult week. My only goal was “have fun”. Easier said than done, of course. It’s hard to genuinely enjoy the full course of any 13.1 mile race - surely everyone has a little dip now and then, when the blood sugar gets lower and the hills get higher? But I can truthfully say in the entire beautiful race in the rolling green-gold Surrey Hills, I only had one of these moments, and that lasted about 15 seconds until I remembered I had a gel in my race vest and it was probably a good idea to take it. One sugar hit later and I was merrily on my way again, beaming alarmingly over-enthusiastically to the rare walkers on the winding forest paths, or thanking the lovely marshals, who in turn were wishing runners cheerily on their way.

After the week I’d had - which, normal life aside, had included three further races and a lot of miles - some would say that those 13.1 miles probably were junk ones. But to me, they were balm for the soul. I’ve had runs where I have experienced moments of exhilaration or joy out of nowhere - the fabled Runners High. But there’s no accounting for those transient moments - they might happen on a route I’ve run a thousand times again, prompted by some mystery cocktail of endorphins and dopamine working its unfathomable magic. You can’t force that, and anyway, such moments are sometimes just the peak of a rollercoaster, and you hover at the top for a few wonderful moments before rolling your way down again into normality.

This was something different - a solid, continuous blast of joy, of my head up, drinking in the landscape, feeling so lucky to be out and part of it. To travel through unrolling scenery, ground changing underfoot, at a pace that would trouble no records but that took in miles and miles more than any more sedate walk could. This, I kept thinking, is why we run. And it was sheer joy, and if I believed in junk miles, I’d never have experienced it.