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Running – an uphill battle

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Running – An Uphill Battle by Nick Jenkins

Autumn 2014

Running faster and more strongly is simple, really. Work on your leg muscles, your breathing and your heart and that’s all there is to it.

At least, that’s what I used to think.

Because there’s one more element that comes into play in running, and in any other individual sport – and that’s the mind.

Most people who have ever tried running will be familiar with the processes of getting started: the horrendous puffing and panting the first time you go out, the feeling that you’re not really cut out for this, and that maybe it was a bit premature splashing out on those running shoes. But then, if you stick with it, the improvement gradually – or even not so gradually – becomes obvious. You can run further, you don’t get out of breath so easily and your legs don’t feel so stiff the day after. And if you decide to push on with it, maybe try a 5K or 10K race to test yourself, the chances are that the motivation that provides will give you the kick you need to get out there and train.

But at some stage, however good a runner you are, the going will get tough – and what happens then?

The mind works in interesting ways. I can remember, years ago, struggling through the last mile of a half-marathon and thinking I must remind myself of how I was feeling at that moment if I ever, ever even considered entering a marathon. Twice as far…ridiculous!

Of course, when you are running a marathon, as I went on to do, your mind is telling you something completely different. At 12 miles, it is not saying: “You’re knackered, you’ve run nearly 13 miles, stop now.” The chances are that it is now saying: “Brilliant, you’ve run nearly 13 miles – nearly halfway. Only another 13 to go…”

One of the big public exercise success stories of recent years has been Parkrun. If this is an unfamiliar concept, here’s what it’s about: every Saturday morning at 9am, in parks all over the UK, tens of thousands of people take part in a timed 5K (that’s about three miles) run. Some of them are elite runners, some are beginners, some push buggies or run with their dogs, and many are children. It’s a free event run by volunteers and it is growing fast. It began in Bushy Park in south west London and now takes place every week in dozens of parks across the UK, as well as in Australia, Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, South Africa and the USA.

So if you’ve ever wondered about those crowds of people running round your local park while you’ve been out walking the dog on a Saturday morning, now you know. And if you’d like to join them, just go to, get registered, print out the barcode they send you and you are ready to go – all free, and you can run anywhere in the world.

I run in Crystal Palace Park in south east London and if you are unfamiliar with the area, the one thing you need to know is that it is a hill. Two and a bit laps, starting at the bottom of the hill, running to the top and then down again. Like many people, I struggled with that hill – especially the second time round. Then I read a suggestion from Jane Ellsbury, who trained in cognitive hypnotherapy at the Quest Institute. She said: “I started running with the Couch to 5K download and felt my legs getting tired really fast on week one. I visualised a robotic bionic woman running just ahead of me and sometimes associated into her when I really felt fatigued. It did the trick and I was able to keep on running. “To increase my stamina I had imagined my legs as pistons pumping up and down. There was a soundtrack too of a rhythmic ‘whoosh donk’. Then I increased the speed of the ‘whoosh donk’ noise. It worked a treat.”

Interesting thought: imagine a bionic runner and then actually become that bionic runner. It works for Jane and it might work for you. If you’re struggling with your running, give it a go. But I wasn’t so sure it would work for me. We’re all different, after all, and we all respond differently to ideas like this. Then I read a suggestion from Gill Wood, a Quest cognitive hypnotherapist practising in Wimbledon, south west London. She said: “I was walking up a hill the other day and imagined that I was walking down it. It worked a treat… I felt I could (almost) run up/down it.”

Now this sounded like exactly the sort of thing I wanted to hear. Hills? I knew just the one to try it on. So one Saturday, I took a deep breath at the bottom of the hill, fixed my eyes on the point, about a quarter of the way up, at which my uphill was going to become “downhill”, and set off up it. When I reached the place I had decided was the top of my hill, I told myself it was all now downhill. At this point, perhaps it’s fair to admit that I had been ever so slightly sceptical about the whole idea, but I thought it was worth a go. So the weird thing was that this felt almost miraculous. This is what happened: I stopped looking at the top of the hill and instead looked down at the path. I felt my stride lengthen slightly (instead of shorten, as it tends to do naturally on an uphill run). And I started to overtake other runners. The next week I tried it again. Same thing. Because the point is that if you’re looking at the ground, whether you are an Olympic runner or a plodder, the path appears to be moving pretty fast under your feet. And even though your CONSCIOUS mind still knows that you are running uphill, your UNCONSCIOUS mind has been tricked into thinking you are going down – and it makes you run faster because of that.

I told a friend who is a pretty good runner about this and he laughed. But next time I saw him, he said: “I tried your idea on my last big run when I reached a steep hill near the end – and it really worked! Not only that, but I went for a run with my 12-year-old son the next day and told him about it…and he beat me to top of the next hill.”

And here’s another little trick I’ve developed. I was aware that towards the end of any run, my running style became heavier and heavier. My feet were hitting the ground with a thump, rather than a light skip. So I wondered if I could change that too. Obviously, this is a trick you could try towards the end of any run, but for me it works particularly well because my Parkrun begins with a gentle uphill stretch on a broad avenue – and we run it two more times.

So what I do now is this: on the second and third runs up that particular part of the course, I concentrate hard on remembering how I felt running up it the first time, when I was feeling fresh. Immediately, my running becomes lighter, and I find it easier to lift my legs and pick up my pace. Mind over muscle, mind and body working together…in many ways, that is what cognitive hypnotherapy is all about. There is so much we are able to change by working with our unconscious.

Another Quest Cognitive Hypnotherapist, Victoria Ward, who practises in Colchester, Essex, said: “I have developed a pair of bionic legs that I wear when I start to tire on a run. I don’t put them on until I really need them, then I just imagine the mechanics doing all the work for me and it gets me on a bit further each time. “They’re pretty cool bionic legs, they get fancier every time I think about them, and the distraction of designing them as I run carries me along.”

What would work for you? Maybe visualising helium balloons lifting you up that hill, or perhaps something towing you effortlessly along? The important thing is to find what is right for you, and maybe a Quest Cognitive Hypnotherapist could help your unconscious find out what that is.

But it’s not just about running, of course. There is so much in our lives that we can change, just by harnessing the power of the mind.

It’s all about how we perceive the world around us. If we believe something is going to be difficult, there’s a pretty good chance that it will be. If, however, we can convince ourselves that something is possible, or even easy, there is no limit to what we can achieve.

Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu once said that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. By an odd coincidence, he died the year after the birth of Pheidippides, the original marathon runner of ancient Greece.

Whether you want to run a marathon, try a 5K Parkrun, or just go for a long walk, using the power of your mind could give you the confidence to take that first step – and then help you to keep going to the end.