It is a truth universally acknowledged that January is, well, always a bit shit. Grey and austere, after a month of twinkling lights and festive indulgence. A dark, cold, gloomy return to work and reality, after a week spent drinking hot chocolate and watching Christmas films in your pyjamas, unsure of which day of the week it is, and totally oblivious to any kind of real-life responsibility.
It’s usually around this time of year that I find myself casually daydreaming about running away. Last year it was a week on my own by the sea (albeit in Suffolk, not Sri Lanka) and we all know how well that worked out. This year I’ve been browsing Skyscanner for flights to visit my friend in New Zealand, but in reality I know I’m not going much further than sunny Stevenage any time soon.
Back in December though, I signed up for R.E.D (Run Every Day) January, for an alternative kind of running away. R.E.D’s a New Year fitness challenge, in association with mental health charity Mind, that harnesses the mental health benefits of running to help participants beat the January blues, while also fundraising to support Mind’s work around the UK.
Despite the on-off, love-hate relationship I’ve had with running over the years, I know it’s always made a massive difference to my mental health. I really resented not being able to put my trainers on and get out when both my back and my mind were at their worst last year. Plus, it felt like a good way to up my recovery training in the New Year, now that I’m actually starting to notice a difference from my weekly yoga and Pilates sessions.
Running as self-care
Then, a couple of weeks before Christmas, I had a bit of an epiphany about where I’ve always gone wrong with running in the past. I was interviewing the always-inspiring behavioural change specialist Shahroo Izadi for an article on binge eating and she said something that – although it didn’t make it into the article in its entirety – really stuck with me:
Usually Sunday evening was my hardest time not to overeat because I lived by myself and, especially in the winter, I’d get bored – but I didn’t want to go out and spend money. So one day I just decided to go to a karaoke booth by myself in Brick Lane. It was really cheap, like a fiver, they gave me a microphone, I got myself a coffee, and I sat and sang for one or two hours.
Since then, whenever I have a desire to binge, or I’m triggered by something – because it does still happen – what I tend to do is try and book a karaoke booth. I’ll tell myself: “Shahroo, you can do whatever you like, you can eat whatever you like, just first go and have a sing, and see if you still want to afterwards”, and to this day I’ve never wanted to afterwards. The craving passes, singing’s a really mindful activity in general. For me, mindfulness just means when I’m so engrossed in one thing that nothing else is coming in, and I’ve found that through singing.
By the way, I’m not a good singer – I’m not training for anything, it’s not to any end, and I think that’s the other really important point around self-care. It’s about reinforcing that you like yourself, and that’s why you’re doing this. The more I do things that are just purely for joy, with no outcome – I’m not recording an album, it’s just purely because I feel good about it – the more I’m reinforcing my self-worth. Tiny things I do each day just to acknowledge that I have a body worth taking care of, I have a brain worth taking care of, and that leaks into all your little habits.
So that’s the approach that I’ve taken into R.E.D January: not worrying about my time, or my distance, or how much of each run was actually spent walking and wheezing; just enjoying how it makes me feel.
Best laid plans
Of course, as often seems to happen with all of my best laid plans, my body had other ideas. I was struck down by that brutal Christmas cold that everyone’s had, just in time for New Year’s Ever. Thanks, crappy immune system! It’s meant missing a couple of days, which were spent in bed feeling totally wiped out and miserable, but otherwise I’ve quite impressed myself (so far!) with my ability to stick with it, and even to compensate for missed days by adding in extra activities – and then actually enjoying them!!
It doesn’t make the reality of January any less grim, but it does give me 10-60 minutes a day away from my racing thoughts and chaotic feelings, just to focus on my breathing, the thudding rhythm of my feet against the pavement, and the beauty of our new town – and that’s absolutely invaluable. If you’d like to help raise money for Mind by sponsoring me, you can do so at my JustGiving page: justgiving.com/fundraising/sarah-graham-red