“I ran every day for an entire year – here's why it was so transformational”
When a friend suggested that she run every day last January, Sarah Whiteleythought they were joking. Thirteen months on, she’s still running…
Slowing to a stop, my breath steaming in front of me, I reached into my pocket to save my run. As I looked at the date – 14 December 2022 – I couldn’t quite believe that I had run 348 days in a row.
Eleven months earlier, just attempting to run every day in January had seemed like an unattainable goal, so realising I was only days off completing the whole year seemed completely surreal.
It was my best friend, Caroline, who suggested I try Run Every Day (RED) January, an initiative that encourages people to get out every day in the most miserable month of the year and walk, jog or run to improve their physical and mental health.
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And back then, both were in desperate need of improvement.
In May 2021, I relocated from London, where I’d lived with my husband and two children, back up to my hometown of Newcastle, a move that proved to be incredibly stressful. Our house fell through at the last minute and we had to move into a temporary Airbnb while we struggled to find somewhere else to live. Even when we did eventually complete on a new house, my mental health remained low.
Despite being surrounded by friends and family, I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of my funk. Rather than being excited about making this new house our own, everything seemed to be a real chore. I had no energy, and I’d lost my usual spark of enthusiasm.
And it was admitting these feelings to Caroline that prompted her suggestion of RED January. She had done it for a number of years and always found it helpful.
At first, I laughed at the suggestion. Pre-motherhood, I’d enjoyed swimming and my trice-weekly gym visits, but after having two children, my exercise levels dipped dramatically. Since moving up north, well, they were non-existent. And there was a reason for that: I worked full-time, I had a house to look after and two children to take care of. There was no way I could work out regularly.
And, if I’m honest, I was scared of setting myself a challenge. I hadn’t done anything like that for years and, my confidence having nose-dived, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stick to the plan.
That was when Caroline got stern: “If you can’t set aside 10 minutes out of your day just for yourself, you really need to look at your day.”
She was right, of course. So, we roped in another friend, and I forced my husband, Tom, to sign up too. We set up a WhatsApp group, downloaded Strava and, on 1 January 2022, I was off.
Physically, that first run was tough, but mentally, I felt good. Good that I’d run for the first time in years, and good that I’d taken the first steps, literally, for myself.
It forced me to start taking a lunch break regularly at work – getting outside to breathe in some fresh air. I live right next to a large park, and seeing the swans and geese squabbling over breadcrumbs by the lake quickly became a highlight of my day.
It sounds like a cliché, but it didn’t matter how far or how fast I ran, just that I was outside moving my body. Sometimes, I’d pause on a park bench to catch my breath or stop to say hello to a friend I’d bumped into. It really didn’t matter, because this was my challenge and I was doing it my way.
When the end of January arrived, we decided to stretch the challenge into February – why would we give up something that was clearly doing us so much good? That run, on 1 February, was a real killer. I think I’d prepared my body to keep going until the end of January and now it was ready to relax. But, slow and steady, I completed the month.
And after that, Caroline and I just… carried on. More often than not, it would just be a mile or so: five minutes out of my front door, looping the lake, then back again. But on weekends, or during a particularly stressful day at work, I’d go a bit further. As my fitness – and confidence – grew, 4k seemed to be my most comfortable distance, but I even managed a 10k with a group of friends.
I ran in the snow and sludge, the ice and the rain. I got up at 6am during last summer’s heatwave to avoid the midday sun and even circled my garden for a mile when my husband was away at work and I had to look after the kids alone for the day.
Can you run too much?
It’s been a total game-changer for me, but it is worth saying that running every day does come with its risks.
Running coach Ania Gabb tells Stylist: “Running has so many benefits for your physical wellbeing and mental health. But, as a personal trainer and running coach, I’m constantly witnessing people doing too many runs, which can do more harm than good.
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“Whatever type of training you partake in, during that session, you create microscopic tears within your muscles. The tears create the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) that you feel a few days after your workout. The body needs solid rest to repair this damage. If you don’t give time for the muscles to recover and repair, then you’re at risk of injury and long-term damage.”
She says, therefore, that “rest days are as important as training days and should always be included as a vital part of any training plan”.
Katie Knapton, founder of PhysioFast Online, agrees: “Running should only form part of your training programme. It is important to cross-train to build your strength and stamina, to reduce the possibility of overload.
“Running every day (as a repetitive loading pattern) will tend to make you more prone to injuries – most commonly tendon, muscles and also the potential of bony injury leading to a possible stress fracture.”
How to reduce injury risk if running every day
To combat that risk – if you do want to give RED a go – you need to include strength training and mobility work. Not only does that make you less likely to hobble away with tendon trouble, but it might actually make you a better runner.
Knapton says she normally advises people to do three runs a week, combined with three strengthening and stretching sessions. Rest days are sprinkled in between to “reduce the tendency for injuries and pain, and allow the body to recover from activities”.
Thankfully, I haven’t received any injuries during my year of running – apart from the two black eyes I gave myself when tripping up a curb and cutting that particular run extremely short. But, I have to say that after 13 months of continual running, I am definitely ready to hang up my trainers and have a well-earned and long-overdue rest day.
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