My return to peace and running

The tide is changing and starting to dump rocks back on the beach, making running barefoot on the beach more challenging. Before long this entire beach will be back to pebbles as the ocean turns another beach to sand. Appearances are always deceiving and the outward appearance doesn't change its essential essence of function. It just changes our reaction and use of it. Just like people. One person's sand is another person's pebbles...

I wasn’t planning on posting about running but this morning as I was running on the beach barefoot, noticing the marked increase of the number of pebbles on the shore and how it was making my morning runs more challenging, I felt a post blooming.

Running. Sigh. It’s something I’ve dabbled with for a couple of years but still never mastered.  I love the freedom of running, how portable it is, how you can use it to get deep out into nature and how it helps stamina, leg & core strength and general cardio fitness.  However, it’s not often I love the actual practice of running.

I thought it was just me, that I was just so chronically bad at running and everybody else was flying effortlessly through the air.  Then my dear friend Shelly gave me the book Running like a girl by Alexandra Heminsley and I realised I was not alone!!  It is hard. Not everybody is running like a gazelle! It’s a process and requires grit and perseverance.

Life Shift:

I started running in the depths of winter 2 years ago.  After repatriating myself back to the UK after several years of living in India & Brazil, I went back to an office job to help pay for things like a deposit for a flat, furniture etc.  This was a huge shock to my body.  From teaching a minimum of 3 yoga classes a day, taking buses all over São Paulo to get to them, I was suddenly confined to a desk for about 9 hours a day. I was walking 20 minutes each way from the office to the train station but it wasn’t enough, my body wanted to take off running, to get the body moving and get some of the physical energy out whilst my brain was drained.

As a yoga teacher I’d seen so many people have hamstring and back problems brought on by running, mostly due to not stretching, but still I saw the damage it did to people’s bodies.  I recommended students protect their joints and stop running and if they didn’t want to stop running to please, please, please stretch before and after running. Being so physical working for my daily bread meant that yoga was enough for me. This flip back to office Emma showed me that it’s not enough unless you’re doing it every day with, challenging your body’s limits with a variety of postures to build strength as well as flexibility.

Whilst I still believe running can be harmful to the joints and to the muscles if not done in conjunction with good stretching and ideally a regular yoga practice, I can see the benefits it brings and am sorry for being so vehemently against it previously.

Getting the balance right:

As a teenager I used to love cross country running at school. Then I developed problems with my knees, then diagnosed as ‘growing pains’, now probably down to ‘hypermobility’.  I spent my subsequent teenage years and twenties avoiding any sports involving impact on the knees, ruling out cross country, running, hockey etc. Instead I focused on swimming, aerobics, gym cardio like rowing machines and bicycles, with a little bit of badminton & netball thrown in for variety. Then I found yoga and I wanted to spend any free time I had doing that. I was dreadfully coordinated for aerobics, never liked boxercise and always got bored in the gym.  It was easy to turn my get fit gaze to yoga.

Fast forward 7 years and hundreds, somewhere in the early thousands of hours of yoga, undoing the years of sedentary and toxic living.  My hamstrings were stretched to the max and I could do ace forward bends. I did some hamstring strengthing postures within my regular practice, lots of standing & balancing postures but my gawd, the pain in my calves and hamstrings when I started running as the muscles learnt to contract and started shortening again.  It was agony! It took me a long time to get to a place where I didn’t feel my muscles screaming at me for stretching them so long.

Then when I started hitting a good grove, the rest of my body started unravelling.

My return to peace:

My strong daily yoga practice carried me through to about a year, 18 months into the office job and then the lack of permanent exercise started to show.  I use the word permanent instead of regular, because exercise can be regular if you’re doing it with regularity. I was managing about 4- 5 bouts a week – 1 external yoga practice, 2 personal practices and 1 – 2 runs per week. But it changed, constantly, the opposite of permanent. Everything had to fit around work. I rarely had a lunch hour or time to do anything other than grab something to eat. I was often working until 8/9pm at night and left exhausted and hungry. I was juggling a needy (now-ex) husband who spent all day everyday inside the apartment watching videos on YouTube and had to get back home to be his only source of company/entertainment outside of the virtual world. There was way too much inconsistency in my exercise and I couldn’t do anything about it but keep trying to grab those moments on my mat and get outside whenever I could.

I joined the gym to try to get in a pre-work workout, but then there were meetings I had to go to, nights out with colleagues and clients, work that needed to be done and the unravelling of my yoga teacher body continued. Fortunately my friends were also healthy bunnies and we enjoyed spending time together taking yoga workshops and going for runs. Yet still my body unravelled. I lost core strength which manifested in some hip flexor & abductor issues and lost time for physio, and later in a hamstring issue.  Each time coming back to running from the beginning again.

I was finally in a position to start moving my life back towards yoga and (now) massage as a profession, I handed in my notice and working out my notice I finally had time to go to the gym, it was great!!

Then I took a short-term contract, which was great fun, great experience and something I’m really glad I did, but poof, my ‘health and wellbeing’ free time took a nose dive again! Snatching 20 minutes on the treadmill is better than nothing, so I snatched what I could, picked up pilates which started later so I could generally get to the class on time and did what I could when I could.

Barefoot beach running:

That’s all starting to feel like a distant memory. Leaving the UK for a very extended vacation in El Salvador, I’ve spent the past 2 weeks getting my namaste back on with yoga every day, surf lessons, massaging, blogging & running on the beach.

It feels so good to set my feet free on the beach.  I tried running before sundown once and I almost spontaneously combusted. I’m trying to get out there by 6.30am ideally to beat the heat & the sun. Coming back at 8am the other day i’d already picked up a bit too much sun and the heat was really grinding me down.

Running on the more compact sand at lower tides means there isn’t quite so much ‘drag’ from the dry sand and the sand is a bit firmer. Even so it’s building different strength in the ankles, calves and glutes. Despite naturally pronating due to a weak arch in my feet, the hamstring & glute issues I was experiencing through running previously have all but dissapeared.  My calves are going through a really tight phase but it all feels so much better and more natural than running in shoes.

I did a running club with a friend who ran barefoot ‘shoes’ and recently read an article by Andrea Leber of Yoga & Joyful Living about them.  Definitely something to consider trying and see how the body make it’s own natural adjustments.  Obviously working with a physiotherapist if you are experiencing any challenges.

Running barefoot vs running in shoes. Thanks to Andrea Leber for posting.

Running barefoot vs running in shoes. Thanks to Andrea Leber for posting.

Running on the beach is a different experience, using muscles differently so start slowly and build up so as not to injure muscles and tendons not used to this type of terrain. Stretch, stretch, stretch! Try to balance out both sides of the body by going back on yourself, if there is an incline on the beach. Once you muscles are used to the new terrain and type of running, then build up to trying to run in different types of sand, different inclines and building in sprints.

I still don’t love it, it’s still a big effort, but I love the freedom and empowerment it gives me.  I’m completely in control of making those footsteps in the sand. I don’t need anybody or anything else to get me out there, into boundless nature.

As the tide turns and starts dumping the rocks back on what was pure sand two weeks ago, my days of running on this beach are starting to be numbered.  Just like life, we can pick our way through the obstacles, there will always be some. Although sometimes it makes more sense to pick a different path than keep going against the tide.


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