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I am a self-proclaimed novice when it comes to exercise. My weekly fitness regimen is far more hibernating koala than gym bunny, and yet, as lockdown hit the UK last year, I found myself in desperate need of a distraction. I’m conscious of sounding clichéd (I’ve rolled my eyes many a time at the humblebragging of fitness influencers) but there really is no better thing for your soul than being active. Here, I want to share how running has been an integral part of my ongoing efforts to combat my anxious and intrusive thoughts, and some of my favourite routes to run in Leeds if you fancied doing something similar.
For me –and indeed the whole country— lockdown was extremely difficult. Things I had previously relied upon to keep my head above water became seriously limited and my days lacked structure. I brushed aside the concerns of my parents and friends; I truly believed that my withdrawal into endless scrolling would protect me from things becoming any worse. By January 2021, my mental health was at rock bottom and I was reluctant to leave my room to eat, much less to do anything that involved going outside. I knew I had to make a change, but the thought of being alone with my inner monologue (with no phone in hand) was more daunting than I could have ever expected.
The day of my first run around Hyde Park was pretty bleak by all accounts; it was mid- January and freezing. I am a very competitive person –mainly with myself— so in spite of my state of mind I was still keen to run a decent distance. Obviously, this approach was ridiculous: after months of little to no movement, I was hardly going to become Mo Farah overnight. I was aware that the task I’d set myself wasn’t easy, but the mental drain of the last few months had made me question if it was worth any commitment at all.
Slowly, I came to realise that my frustrations and fears over running were simply another product of my isolation, manifested by my low moods. I’m so guilty of comparing the progression of others online to my own goals and throwing in the towel. I had placed too much emphasis on ‘how good’ and ‘how quickly’ I was doing something as opposed to just ‘doing’ without the added pressures of nervousness and self-doubt. Running is great when you want to expel some anxious energy over a certain situation, but I found it most useful to think of very little. If you have a constantly whirring mind like mine, the simple observance of your surroundings as you run; the blood rushing in your ears; the sound of your feet on the ground; these are all small grounding exercises in their own right. It reminds me that I am alive, my body is strong, and that I am enough. (Sometimes I even repeated this mantra internally to encourage more positive self-talk.)
I am by no means a professional—the most I run is three times a week, if that— but I have come to appreciate how cathartic the sensations of your body moving can be. If only for twenty minutes, it drags me away from social media and into nature, which in itself is somewhat healing. I don’t think a run outside can solve all of life’s problems, but it can instil you with the clarity of mind to bring you back to yourself.
In case you were interested in planning your own routes, here are some of my favourites to do:
Around Hyde Park/ Woodhouse Moor (Really easy to reach from the student suburbs of Headingley and Hyde Park)
Hawksworth Wood (A bit further out but worth it, you can even drive there and run round the trail)
Actually running the famous Otley Run (I tended to reward myself at one of the coffee shops/ pubs along the road)