Lifestyle20 Oct 2019

The Athletic Life: the universal language of running


The international language of running (© Christel Saneh)

Kate CarterMany people view running as a solitary sport, but it is also at the heart of many sociable experiences between family, friends and new acquaintances

Kate Carter (@katehelencarter)


I love watching children make friends – they do it so effortlessly. A couple of games in the playground, a few questions on holiday in the swimming pool and they rocket from complete strangers to best friends in minutes. They don’t even seem to need to share a language to find some common ground. Alas, I’m not sure there’s an adult equivalent to the language of play, but if there was a shortlist of suggestions, I’d put running right at the top.

I've only been a runner for a handful of years, and yet I can’t remember a time when running wasn’t just an important part of my identity, but crucial to my social life. Friends from my running club, real life friends whom I met on social media, friends made on the startline or even midway through a race, friends from work or the school run who turn out to be runners too.

When I discovered running – on maternity leave with my youngest – I did the 'Couch to 5k' programme and found an incredibly supportive virtual community online to share triumphs and setbacks. That was only seven years ago but I’ve gone on to run 13 marathons and countless other races, all supported by – and often with – friends.

" I once sat in a pub in Prague after a half marathon and met a Russian guy who turned out to be really good friends with a French runner I happened to know via a London parkrun. What are the odds? "

Put two runners together and they do indeed immediately share a common language, one of races or routes recommended, distances preferred, and niggles shared. Often even a friend in common, however unlikely: I once sat in a pub in Prague after a half marathon and met a Russian guy who turned out to be really good friends with a French runner I happened to know via a London parkrun. What are the odds? In the amateur running world, not as implausible as you’d think. 

It’s a wonderful paradox that running – so intensely solitary a sport at times – is so incredibly sociable. Of course runners can be competitive in groups – team events or relay races – but it’s rarely a team sport in the traditional sense. But for those of us with an amateur race habit, the very experience of being alone in your own thoughts, battling the mental demons for however-many-miles, is what makes it even more important to have a good old chat afterwards. A release from the self-imposed tension – and an opportunity to check if that hill at mile four really did morph into Everest halfway up, or if it was just you...

When it comes to training, running with friends makes the time and the miles tick by so much faster. For many, it may even be easier to talk while running than during daunting face-to-face communication. For the shy or underconfident, making eye contact can be difficult, and such situations often avoided – but chat while running and eye contact is virtually impossible anyway, so the pressure is removed.

There’s even a strain of therapy, Dynamic Running Therapy, that utilises this very phenomena. It’s amazing the things people tell you – friends or brand new acquaintances – when you are side by side matching stride, and when they are slightly too short of breath to bother with the usual conversational filler. A friend once quite casually told me about her disastrous first marriage on a run. I’d known her for years and she’d literally never mentioned it before.

Habitual runners will already know perfectly well how an easy run can lift their mood, but for the doubters, there’s plenty of evidence. Aerobic exercise increases levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine, making it stress-relieving. It boosts endorphins and endocannabinoids, both of which reduce anxiety and perception of pain – all of which leads to a happier, more relaxed, more friendly you.

Running with friends can also help you run longer, if that’s your goal. Studies show that people generally continue 20% longer when they run with someone else than when going it alone, and that the perception of effort is diminished. The distraction of chat, or knowledge that you aren’t suffering alone in those final hard miles, helps push you on. Hard short efforts – interval runs – are better in company too, even if you couldn’t spare the lung capacity for a gasp, let alone actual chat. There’s a very good reason elite athletes mostly train in groups, pushing each other on, and it’s something we can all learn from.

But if running with other people is great, then running to actively help friends achieve their goals is even better. Some of the best running experiences I’ve had have been pacing other people. Helping someone achieve a personal best is genuinely as satisfying as getting one yourself – and having myself been paced to one in a marathon, I can attest that it’s an intensely bonding experience, too.

But it doesn’t need to be a long distance. The other day, I paced my eldest daughter to her first ever 5km. It was just my club’s informal handicap series – no fancy prizes, no blingy medals, no goody bag – but it was one of the best runs I’ve had in years.

And if you don’t think running is sociable, try running 3.1 miles with a 10-year-old who chats non-stop. Lack of conversation is simply not an option.

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