Want to get started in running? Here are Sonia O’Sullivan and Jessie Barr’s top tips for beginners
There weren’t many bright spots coming out of the pandemic, but one was the increase in the number of people exercising, especially during the first lockdown. According to the Irish Sports Monitor report, carried out on behalf of Sport Ireland, activities such as walking, cycling and running increased significantly between March and May 2020. However, as restrictions have eased and as society reopened, people began to lose their healthy habits.
While running is one of the easiest sports to play, it’s also one of the most difficult when it comes to maintaining motivation. If anyone knows the dedication and commitment it takes to keep running, it’s legendary Irish athlete Sonia O’Sullivan. The Cobh woman has joined the Irish Life Runuary initiative to encourage runners to put on their sneakers again in January. After decades of top-level training, the Olympic silver medalist is now used to running for fun and fitness.
âI appreciate it more now than ever before, probably because I appreciate it a lot more for the benefits it gives me. You feel great after you get out and go for a run. You feel energized. Mentally and physically, if you can go out in the morning, it sets you up for the day.
She says all runners, from beginners to advanced, should plan ahead.
âYou have to consider where your fitness is when you start out. It’s very easy to get excited about signing up to do something and then you go out and do too much too soon, get hurt and it’s all over. It’s really important to plan what you’re going to do, and with the Runuary program there is a lot of expert advice available, âshe says.
O’Sullivan is in Ireland when we speak but will be spending Christmas at her home in Australia. She has also helped coach athletes in Portland, Oregon, and will be returning to the United States ahead of the world championships next year.
âFor me, coaching has been a learning experience. It’s a way for me to share some of my experiences with some of the emerging athletes and help them so that they don’t make the same mistakes that I made. The key to high performance training is to be consistent, and avoiding injury is one of the most important things an athlete should do. To help in this way, by sharing some of my experiences, you get great satisfaction when you see the athlete getting results.
O’Sullivan is still feeling the aftermath of some of his own injuries.
âI would still have some lingering pain. I always try to deal with them – I try not to overdo it, I will have to stop running if I get injured and enough for it to be satisfactory.
O’Sullivan has two daughters, Ciara and Sophie, with her husband Nic Bideau. Sophie has a sports scholarship at the University of Washington in the United States and has also competed for Ireland. When it comes to giving advice, however, O’Sullivan says she’s careful not to blur the lines between professional athlete and mom.
âIt’s always good to keep the channels of communication open, not always to rehash things, just to talk about things in general. I try to separate the roles of mother and runner because I want to maintain this good family relationship. The race is still here, but there are a lot of people out there who can help with advice on this.
It is evident that the determination that underpins O’Sullivan’s successful career is stronger than ever. I ask her if she ever has times when she would rather sit and watch Netflix than go for a run?
âNo, I prefer to go for a run first. I try not to get caught up in this. Sometimes I can be involved in a show and I just feel too comfortable and it’s hard to get up and go.
When it comes to her goals for the New Year, she only has one.
âJust to keep running and enjoy it. I will do all I can to run as long as possible.
Jessie Barr, a performance sports psychologist with Team Ireland and a former Olympic hurdler, understood the motivation to keep running. She’s part of the Runuary program’s team of expert advisors and says it’s only natural that many people have trouble getting back to exercise.
âAt the start of the pandemic, there was this feeling that we were all in the same boat, we were doing everything we could to find new ways to occupy ourselves. But now we’ve come back to a more ‘normal’ pace of life with work, or people have fallen into a routine with working from home, and new things have been pushed back first.
Barr’s main piece of advice is not to wait for motivation to strike before resuming racing.
âIf we all had to wait until we were motivated to start something, we would never do anything. Sometimes the motivation comes after the act, not before. Having extrinsic motivation like the Runuary program takes away the thinking. Also, if you have someone else who is going to do it with you, having this responsibility to another person can be very important. Have a goal – the feeling of accomplishing something “for me”. This is something that a lot of people lose as they get older.
Also, buying new equipment can help – so maybe buy new runners or a nice jacket. Go find a nice place to run, rather than just walk around your area. Find a trail or a park. Have a good coffee at the end, try to create these little rewards, and hopefully the motivation to go faster, to do it more often, will follow.
Barr also has tips to help banish negative thoughts that can make running difficult.
âMake sure there is variety. Doing the same 5km route three times a week can get monotonous. Change it up, maybe do 3K but do it faster, maybe the The next day, go slower and longer on a new route Not always knowing what to expect can be a good thing from a motivation standpoint.
For those who don’t have the flexibility to change their route, especially women who only feel safe in well-lit areas at night, Barr says breaking the run can help avoid boredom.
“Don’t think of it as a 5K, pick a particular point and see how long you can do there, maybe do intervals, a quick 1K and go slower for 500m, there are ways to change it, rather than to feel, âOh, I’m only a mile away and I’m already feeling terrible.â Focus on what you can do for the next 500 meters.
“Distractions also help – having a great playlist, audiobook, or podcast to listen to. Plus, having someone with you is no better distraction than chatting.” It’s also important not to get discouraged if you injure yourself, says Barr.
âIf you have a goal and an injury is preventing you from reaching it, it’s really frustrating. Make sure you build muscles slowly, do a good warm-up so that your body is prepared and injuries are less likely. But no matter how well prepared you are, injuries always happen, you can just roll your ankle on a sidewalk. Seek professional advice, go to a physiotherapist, get the support you need to keep going and not hurt yourself again.
âFind out other things you can do when you’re injured – maybe core work, strength work, yoga or Pilates that will then benefit your run when you return. Go on a static bike in the gym or go for a swim, that’s fine. You’re still heading towards your fitness goal, just taking a different route. â
Ultimately, Barr says the positive impact of running cannot be underestimated.
âThere is so much research now to show the benefits to your mental health – it also prevents the cognitive decline which is important as we age. From a mood boosting standpoint, it releases endorphins and there is a huge stress release. There’s also research showing that the benefits for improving mood are even greater if you can do your exercise in a green or blue space – somewhere in nature, basically.
âPlus, your self-confidence and self-esteem grows as you get faster, stronger, or feel better physically. The benefits are endless, but that’s not always the case on the job. At the moment, it can be uncomfortable, hard and painful, but there are very few people who do not feel better after exercising, even if it is only for ten minutes.
Irish Life Health has partnered with Athletics Ireland to help runners get back to their running routine.
Starting January 1, Runuary is encouraging runners, from beginners to the more experienced, to embark on a challenging yet realistic running program, with a target distance of 5 km, five miles or 10 miles to go on January 31.
Runners can select a âFirst Timerâ or âRun a Fasterâ program over any distance. Entry is free and runners can register at irishlifehealth.ie/runuary. A team of specialists including a physiotherapist, a nutritionist and a running coach will accompany the runners during their registration.