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Why do we run?


UP AND RUNNING  Many regular runners say that running clears their head and lifts their mood.

Andrew O'Brien

This coming weekend will see at least 40 runners from Westport taking part in the Ballina Half Marathon. I know this because several of them have been in the clinic over the last few weeks getting niggles attended to.
I’m certain the same thing has been happening in physiotherapy clinics across the country as the summer racing season approaches, and the numbers will keep building until the Dublin Marathon in October.
If I were one for sweeping generalisations, I would suggest that the majority of these folks are relatively new runners and possibly aren’t in their first flush of youth. And I’m sure plenty of them, if they haven’t already done so, will at some stage soon, think to themselves, ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’.
It’s an interesting question; why do we run?
If the statistics are to be believed, up to 80 percent of runners are injured every year, with less-experienced runners far more likely to suffer. So why bother? And why do people who once struggled to run 5k feel the need to push on to 10k, marathons and even ultramarathons?
For many, the starting point seems to be the physical benefits; to get fitter and lose weight. But as people get into it, the benefits of running tend to become less physical and more mental.
There’s a pattern; Mary joins a beginners’ group and it isn’t as awful as she expected; she gets fitter and loses a bit of weight, but she also finds a new social network. Once the initial physical difficulties ease, Mary finds she enjoys running; sometimes for the challenge of racing times and distances, sometimes just to get out of the house and clear her head.
In his book ‘The Way of the Runner’, Adharanand Finn examines the Japanese obsession with long-distance running. He writes: “We run to connect with something in ourselves, something buried deep down beneath all the worldly layers of identity and responsibility. Running, in its simplicity, its pure brutality, peels away these layers revealing the raw human underneath.” Finn believes that we use talk of races and times simply as a way to justify what could easily be considered time-wasting behaviour.
For me personally, there is a state of meditative freedom in running that I can’t reproduce elsewhere. Other sports do provide a release, but they are really a series of events; an attacking move in football, a point in tennis, a hole of golf. Running is different; the experience lasts throughout.
While it’s nicer to run outdoors on a fine day, I have no difficulty running for an hour on a treadmill staring at nothing but a blank wall, allowing my mind to wander aimlessly. Some go for mindfulness, I’m happy with mindlessness.
The first seed of an idea for this piece came when I was out running on a Sunday. I could see carloads of people headed to Mass, but knew that my own religious experience was more likely to happen outside. Perhaps it’s the ‘runner’s high’, a phenomenon that has been shown to be due to the release of endogenous cannabinoids that seems to be linked mainly to endurance running.  Perhaps it’s the tap-tap-tap of my feet creating a trance-inducing soundtrack. Who knows?
All I know is that the easiest way to cheer me up when I’m a grumpy bear is to get out for a run. The duration doesn’t matter and it’s the lack of thought that counts.
It’s even more obvious with children. They can run all day, laughing the whole time. I love watching our son at a beach, running never-ending loops into the water and across the sand, chasing his mother and I, laughing hysterically and never seeming to tire. Running to a six year old is the very essence of freedom and happiness.
What’s your point? I hear you ask. In the manner of Socrates, I’m going to ask a question in return; what’s yours?
If you are running this weekend, or next, or any other day for that matter and find the going tough, just remember, you’re doing this because you wanted to, not because you have to. Smile and try to enjoy it.

Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.