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A Re-Born, Naked Runner

Rachel Ann Cullen, author of Running For My Life, writes… For the last six months, I have run entirely without a watch. No Strava; no HR monitor; no mile splits; no intermittent beeping or less-than-encouraging messages from an electronic device on my wrist informing me that I am ‘underperforming’. I am a re-born, naked runner.

Why Naked?

Why? It’s a good question. It came about following last summer which was an endless cycle of chronic pain and frustration during which time I was unable to run at all (I was diagnosed with a bulging disc in my lumbar spine in June 2021) whilst I was busy writing a book called “Running For Our Lives” about all the ways in which running has helped people to overcome adversity. Ironic? Just a bit.

There was a stark contrast between what running had become to me in recent years and the way in which running was being used as a tool to help people heal through unimaginable personal turmoil. In fact, the contrast was so great that it smacked me right between the eyes. Questions whirred through my mind. How have I got this so wrong? What has running become to me? How did running change and become something so far away from the inspiring stories I am writing about?Rachel Ann Cullen Running For Our Lives

Committing to Change

The answer was startlingly clear: I was no longer running for joy. I wasn’t ‘enjoying the process’ or even asking myself where I was running, and why. In becoming a slave to the technological God of Strava I lost the essence of running completely. I had become consumed with the outcome and blinded to the concept of enjoying the journey.

When my back pain subsided enough for me to commence running again, I decided that things would be different. They had to be. I couldn’t go back to how it was before; and I didn’t even want to. So, I decided to commit to four things:

  • I would only run on trails
  • I would run without wearing a watch
  • I would run without listening to music
  • I would only run when it made me happyRachel Cullen

Searching for Joy

Inspired by the stories I was hearing and writing about, it felt like something had shifted in my mind. I wanted to discover for myself the very thing these people were talking about; the thing that I had myself experienced many years earlier in the ‘wonder years’ of my own running journey. A time before Strava and mile reps killed the joy I felt from running to the point where I almost lost it entirely. And I began to remember that time vividly. I recalled the many joyful runs; the marathons I ran with ease and the training runs which weren’t a means to an end; they were an end in themselves. I ran because it made me feel free and alive like nothing else had. All of this came rushing back as I took my first tentative steps back to running in a completely new way.

Place > Data

It didn’t take long for the magic to happen. I’d always told myself that I was a ‘road runner’ – that I’m no good at running on trails. And just like the early days of my running journey, I began to feel this self-propagated myth being dispelled right in front of my eyes. Not only can I run on trails, but I can also ENJOY running on trails! Sure – it’s a different kind of running to the mile reps and years of training for road marathons, but it was something I could still be a part of, even when my head told me that wasn’t the case. I began to realise that where and how I run is just as important to me – in fact, it’s more important – than what any data could possibly tell me.

Rachel Cullen on Trails

Choosing to run along beautiful trails made me more able to relate to Maria’s story of healing following the death of her young daughter; hearing the gentle sounds of nature enabled me to understand how – in the depth of her grief – the silence and the birdsong soothed her soul. I began to enjoy taking photographs of the many views of sunrises and hillside shadows. It mattered to me that I was running and being part of nature. So much so, that I soon forgot that I wasn’t wearing a running watch at all.

The Treadmill’s Part to Play

So, where does treadmill running fit into this? If I’m now out running on trails and I’m all about freedom in nature, then isn’t running on a treadmill the exact opposite of that? In short, NO! And here’s why.

Rachel Cullen Noble Pro Now that I’m completely over my injury and I’m back running – and enjoying it again – running on the treadmill will be a significant part of my return. There are three ways this will happen

1. Technique

Firstly, running on the treadmill is a way for me to focus on my running technique in a controlled environment. Having been through the mill with physical ailments over the last year, I want to make sure that my body is running as efficiently as possible and in a way that avoids any further injury. For that reason, I’m interested in learning about my posture and technique whilst I’m running, and the treadmill is the perfect place to practice running with great form which I can then replicate out on the trails.

2. Control

Secondly, treadmill running is a fantastic way of getting some easy miles in where I can build up my running economy without training too hard, too often. One of the things I’ve learned from my own running journey is that you can’t just keep pushing harder and harder, training and racing at threshold and beyond. Many of the mistakes I made were because of my “do more; try harder” philosophy which resulted in burnout. By controlling my pace and effort level on the treadmill, I can build up my engine without causing undue stress on my body, and I can leave the threshold training to when I’m out on the trails and hills when my body will have no choice but to work harder. So, along with the focus on technique, I will also be banking some miles on the treadmill over the coming months.

3. Enjoyment

And finally, the treadmill is an important part of this new phase in my running because… I enjoy it! Yes, it’s true. I love running on the treadmill. I don’t find it a chore or get bored. It’s the time when I can listen to music or a podcast (which I don’t when I’m out on the trails) and lose myself in the movement rather than focusing on not falling over the next tree root.

My own healing has taken place thanks to hearing the stories of others and following in their footsteps – learning to see running as a journey through life rather than simply a place to get to which never arrives. And my Noble Pro treadmill will be back in action. It has an important place in my new phase of running and the training I will be undertaking over the coming months. I’m excited to see where that takes me, and what my future running as a re-born, naked runner will look like.

running for mental health

Running for Our Lives

Read more on the benefits of running for mental health here

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