[A quick break from the Heavy Metal Timeline series. We’ll get right back to that after this announcement.]
I am no kind of athlete. Even as a kid, I was a slow runner. I loved football, but I was never a good player. Humiliatingly, I could never think quickly on the pitch, to spot the pass others miss — the one thing I might legitimately have expected to be good at.
And now I’m 46 years old, I weigh 104 kg, I have a BMI of 31.3 which makes me clinically obese, and my job is the most sedentary imaginable: I walk the five meters from my bed to my desk every morning and spend all day sitting in front of a computer.
That means that if I can run 5 km, so can you!
And I do run 5k, every Monday and Friday (plus a faster 2k run on Wednesdays). And my times (while still very slow) are improving every time.
If you, like me, know you ought to get more exercise but just can’t seem to get yourself into a habit of running, then I’m here to help you. “But Mike”, you say, “You just admitted you’re a terrible runner. Why should we listen to you?” For that very reason, my friend. I’m a terrible runner, but for decades I wasn’t a runner at all. I’ve just recently made the transition from non-runner to runner, which means I’m perfectly placed to help others across that chasm.
And then there’s this: actual runners are so darned intimidating. You look up “running for beginners” there are shedloads of articles about how first you need to spend £150 on a pair of quality running shoes, and how you need the right balance of carbs and proteins in your diet, and what the best rehydration regimen is, and how you need an app that tells you when to alternate between fast run, slow run and walk. I used to look at all that and just think, pfft. I don’t have the time or energy to invest.
Badgers to all that. I’m going to tell you how I went from Not Running to Running, and how you can, too. The secret is simple: lower the activation energy. Everything else follows from that.
Activation energy is a concept from chemistry: it’s the energy that has to be put into a chemical system before a reaction occurs. Once the reaction begins, it can be self-sustaining: for example, you have to have to put heat into a system to start a fire, but once it’s going it will keep burning until it runs out of fuel. By analogy, we have to put energy into going for a run — mental and emotional as well as physical energy. And for people as unmotivated as me, it doesn’t take much to stop me running at all.
It’s raining outside? Nah, I don’t fancy that. Cold? Ugh, forget it. Too hot? I’ll run another day. It takes very, very little to make me not bother.
Or how about this: “You mean I have to put on special shoes just to run? Count me out!”
Seriously, I am sensationally lazy when it comes to physical exercise. Almost any excuse suffices to get me out of doing it. If I run regularly, it can only be because I’ve made it as easy on myself as humanly possible.
The secret to my success, such as it is, is that we bought a second-hand treadmill. We didn’t get it for me — our youngest son wanted one for Christmas last year. Turns out that they’re surprisingly cheap second-hand, probably because they’re so big and heavy and hard to move. If you’re prepared to pick it up in person in your car, you can probably get one for about £50-100 on eBay (that’s what we paid).
This is great for activation energy:
- I don’t care how cold it is outside
- I know I’m not going to get run over
- I can easily run a set distance (it’s on the display)
- I don’t even bother putting shoes on, I just run barefoot
There are two other big advantages, too.
I know some people actively enjoy it, but for me, running is incredibly boring. The only thing that keeps me sane as I put one foot in front of another for 30 or 40 minutes is brain-food, which usually means complex music (usually prog). That’s easier to arrange at home than when running on roads, especially as you need to be able to hear traffic on roads. (One day I might even get around to sorting out how to listen to podcasts.)
Finally, using a treadmill at home gives you more control over how far and how fast you run. Again, this probably isn’t an issue for proper runners, but for someone as unmotivated as me it’s crucial. I can force myself to run a bit faster by adding 0.1 km/h to my speed each time. I can see the distance accumulate in front of me, and do endless mental arithmetic to figure out what fraction of the distance I’ve covered and what my projected final time is. Because I don’t like actual running, I need all that.
And the thing is, it’s working. The first few times I ran on the treadmill, I felt like I was going to die. The first time I successfully pushed myself to do the full 5k, I could hardly breathe at all by the end. Now, only just over a month since my first 5k, I’m doing it four minutes faster and breathing easily at the end.
I’m still not enjoying it, but I’m not hating it.
And that’s enough to stop me getting progressively fatter and more unfit as I make my way into middle age. I recommend it.
[Historical note: I wrote this back in February; but just as I was readying it for posting, the treadmill crumbled under my mighty mass and I stopped running. It’s only now that I am once more running 5k on the repaired treadmill that I feel I can post this with integrity.]