So, joyfully, I’m back running. Getting out at least once a week, no longer dreading a knee twinge every step. I’m currently in that sweet spot every Physiotherapist must relish: absolutely delighting in every glorious run, but sufficiently haunted by reinjury-fear to prevent me going too fast, far, or frequently.
One of the best things about being back out on the road is that I can drive safely again*. For seven months I could only stare at the bumper of the car ahead, fixedly avoiding noticing the dozens of perky runners bobbing along the pavements either side of me whenever I left the house. Closing the living room curtains in the middle of the day became tempting – one more pony tail swishing past, or the sweat from a serious looking Wolf Runner splashing up on our window might just push me over the edge.
If you’d asked me how many people would admit to running as a preferred leisure activity, before I started myself, I would have probably said either no-one, or a handful of ultra keen loons. I mean I just genuinely didn’t imagine that anybody who wasn’t a professional athlete or a total outlier would dream of doing such a thing voluntarily. (Maybe they all started when they spotted me doing it?)
On the the balance of probability, I think it may have more to do with my reticular activating system – the part of your brain which alerts you to relevant information, and creates heightened attention around certain inputs. We’ve all experienced that phenomena, such as when we decide the next car we’re going to buy is a Fiat Multipla, and suddenly it’s every second vehicle on the road. Or a friend tells you of a rare disorder in their family, and then you come across that same syndrome twice in the week on the news or in a book. Like Google Alerts for your mind, your RAS causes newly discovered interests to blip on your radar.
So the rash of runners thronging my street was always there, I just didn’t notice it before. People have increasingly taken up outdoor sporting activity over the last ten years, and currently about 9 million people in the UK participate at least once a week. In fact many more would like to, but haven’t yet managed to lace up their shoes and get out of the door.
According to the Active People Survey (conducted by Sport England, who continuously track the number of people playing sport) despite finding that more people want to be active than ever before, many feel increasingly anxious about exercising outdoors, particularly in urban environments:
The Fear Factor: Perceived increased nervousness some people feel towards using open space (fear of dogs, traffic safety, cultural barriers, stranger danger etc.) for themselves or their children. Research shows that 39% of women feel unsafe in the Capital’s green spaces. Over 80% of parents state that children get less exercise today because parents are afraid to let them go outside alone.
This anxiety, as well as cost, inaccessibility to the space, low self confidence or just generally not knowing where to start are all barriers facing you, in looking after your mind and body through regular exercise.
None of this is especially surprising. What is hard to credit is the recent decision by Little Stoke Parish Council in South Gloucestershire to impose a mandatory charge for parkrunners.
For every tenative jogger, cheerful ambler or beginner runner, parkrun has singlehandedly made available a community of encouraging, enthusiastic runners and volunteers all across the country. They remove every obstacle: it’s free, friendly, and truly all-ability.
Full disclosure – I tend to run alone, so I’m not a parkrun regular – but many of my friends are, and I wholeheartedly celebrate its democratic, inclusive and thoroughly goodnatured ethos. Even if you don’t parkrun, on behalf of everyone who hasn’t discovered running yet, please sign the petition for Little Stoke Council to reverse its decision, and keep all parkruns free, for everybody.
*this may be exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis. But the running envy struggle is real.