Going for a run is usually as simple as pulling on a pair of trainers and heading out of the door. Sometimes, however, it’s not so straightforward. Problems and issues frequently crop up that prevent us from running. These barriers can be physical or psychological, minor niggles or major medical problems. If you’re a beginner wanting to take your first running steps, then they might be enough to discourage you from even trying. Even if you’re an experienced runner, you can still get floored by the smallest thing. It’s easy to lose motivation if you stop running and really hard to get started again, especially if your problems recur.
As the resident GP for Women’s Running, I’ve been answering your questions on running-related topics for many years. I realised that lots of the problems we face are due to the fact that we’re women. Whether that be periods, pelvic floors or the menopause, it can be particularly hard to find good advice because these topics are rarely talked about. There has definitely been more discussion on some of these taboo subjects, such as tennis player Heather Watson blaming her loss in the Australian Open on “girl’s things” and Carol Smillie and Kate Winslet both talking on TV about wetting themselves on a trampoline. With the increased numbers of women taking part in sport, particularly running, there really was a need for somewhere for women to go to for sensible evidence-based advice. I’ve written a book, Sorted: The Active Women’s Guide to Health, to cover all of these areas of women’s health and many more too, including common injuries, digestion, tiredness and motivation. I really hope you find it to be a useful handbook to keep on the shelf and refer to when a problem crops up. There are tips you can try, guidance on when to see a heath professional and lots of stories from amazing women who have overcome their health barriers and kept on exercising.
Identify your barriers to running and address them rather than let them become excuses and reasons not to run. Let’s get these topics out in the open. The more they’re discussed, the more research will be done and the more options we’ll have available to help us. Let’s start now with a look at some of the most common barriers to running for women, and how we can overcome them.
Issue: Time is a major barrier for most of us. Daily life can be so hectic with all the demands we place on ourselves and others place on us too. It’s easy for exercise to slip to the bottom of the priority list and never get ticked off. We all know, however, that if we can fit in a run we’ll be more efficient and effective at all the other tasks in the day.
Solution: It really helps to know that the health benefits of exercise come from as little as a 10-minute burst. If you look at your day, and if you’re pro-active and a bit clever, you’ll find 10-minute windows can be created. It might not seem like long, but it is enough to have a quick run, brisk walk or do some core exercises. Incorporating a run into your daily routine, whether it be to work or after the school run, means you’re more likely to stick to it. Try combining running with other tasks, too, so if you’re meeting a friend for coffee, plan to go for a run instead or get dropped off on a car journey home so you can run the last bit.
Issue: I don’t think there will be a single reader who doesn’t identify with this one! How many times have you simply felt too tired to run? The amazing thing is, if you can muster up the energy to do it, then it recharges you, you sleep better and your energy levels increase. Occasionally, though, unrelenting fatigue can be a sign of an underlying medical problem.
Solution: If you’re always exhausted at the end of the day, then run early; you’ll be amazed how many runners use the 6am slot. Not eating properly during a busy day will exhaust you too. If you want to run after work, for example, have a good lunch and eat something nourishing mid-afternoon – and I don’t mean biscuits! Don’t put too much pressure on yourself in terms of distance or time, just take it easy; often you’ll find that once you start you feel good and you can ramp it up. If your tiredness is continuous or you have other symptoms, such as breathlessness, a change in your bowel habit or changes in weight (loss or gain), then see your GP to rule out a medical cause for your fatigue.
Issue: Women vary hugely in how much their periods affect them. Some barely notice them while others are house-bound with flooding and clots. If it’s not the heavy blood loss limiting activity, then it can be the cramps or pre-menstrual symptoms of bloating and lethargy that stop you in your tracks. Be aware that periods are often irregular, unpredictable and sometimes heavier around the time of the menopause.
Solution: The current evidence doesn’t actually show that women perform any worse or any better at different times of their menstrual cycle. It’s perfectly OK to run during your period if you want to. Bleeding and cycles can be manipulated with hormonal medications (speak to your family planning nurse or GP) but the majority of these are contraceptives so aren’t suitable if you’re trying to get pregnant. Many women just don’t want to use hormones and that’s understandable. There are products out there to make life easier such as Diary Doll pants, which protect your clothes from leaks, and menstrual cups which mean you don’t have to carry pads or tampons in your running belt. It’s also fine to not run during your period! If you’re happier doing a Pilates class or exercises at home, then use that opportunity to work on your core muscles.
Issue: When you’re pregnant, it’s natural to not want to do anything that will harm your baby. You might immediately assume that you shouldn’t run and that putting your feet up is the best option. We know for certain that this is not the case. Exercising during pregnancy is good for you and your baby and will help you deal with the inevitable pregnancy niggles and the labour itself. If you are a regular runner, then there’s no need to stop (unless you have been advised to by a health professional).
Solution: The key to activity during pregnancy is that it’s about maintaining your fitness rather than improving it. Making sure you can comfortably talk while you’re exercising will ensure that you don’t over-exert yourself. If you’ve never exercised before then it’s a great time to start but do so gently, with frequent walking. Be aware that your ligaments are softer so it’s easier to get injured. You might find your balance and co-ordination are affected, too, as your bump grows. Listen to your body: slow down or stop running if you feel you need to. If you have concerns about exercising while pregnant, or you have had any complications with your pregnancy such as bleeding, then get advice from your midwife.
Issue: A sensitive bladder that wants to empty frequently can be a real pain when you’re running but the biggest problem is bladders that leak. If urine leaks out when you cough, sneeze or run, it’s called stress incontinence and millions of women of all ages are affected by it. It’s more common if you’ve had children, as you age and if you’re overweight and it’s a major reason for women not wanting to run.
Solution: Help is available so please, get over any embarrassment and seek it out. The main treatment involves learning to correctly exercise and strengthen your pelvic floor muscles. This can be harder than you think and often professional help is needed from a women’s health physiotherapist. Very weak muscles may need electrical stimulation and, if there’s no improvement, there are surgical options, too.
Issue: With hot flushes, sweats and irregular bleeding, running during the menopause has its problems! It is, however, the ideal time to be increasing your fitness and activity levels. Women’s weight naturally increases around this time of life and bone strength and muscle mass start to reduce. Running will help you control all of these issues, as well as giving your potentially volatile mood a boost of happy hormones.
Solution: Shake up your exercise regime when you’re menopausal. Add lots of strength work to maintain your declining muscle mass. Weights and resistance exercises are a perfect way to do this. Building muscle will increase your metabolic rate, which helps to keep your weight under control, and these types of exercise will help your bone strength too. Aim for two sessions a week on top of your normal running schedule. There are some promising studies suggesting that improving your fitness may reduce the number and intensity of hot flushes.