The Unpredictability of Movement and the Joy of Running

This afternoon, I decided to go for a run. It was raining. I didn’t really feel like it. And so, instead of just getting outside, I spent time wondering what happens when thinking about whether or not to go for a run and what may be the consequences of either decision.

This can’t be unfamiliar territory for many people, for whom the effort to get out and do something can be a huge barrier. So I wanted to examine this moment of indecision and spent time in that space.

A number of things went through my head while considering my options. I definitely wanted to experience the feeling of having run. To have exercised can bring a feeling of achievement, of having made good use of time. It can feel like one has re-energised oneself. Even if the actual physiological processes are of tiredness subsequent to the run, there is a subsequent energy boost, which I anticipate obtaining later on. My expectation of that feeling makes me feel good about what I have done. A warm feeling tiredness, born out of knowing that my body has done something difficult, which will promote its well-being.

But the psychological barrier to getting out for the run can be huge.

I wondered what I might be able to achieve — perhaps I could run a personal best. I even set myself a 5k limit and sought to see what I could do. I visualised the route I would take, which I knew to be relatively uncomplicated and about that distance. Visualising every element is increasingly important to breaking personal records for me and this is well documented in the science of sport. I have knowledge of feeling fit enough to obtain a personal best, with a couple of comparable runs in recent times.

And so, after 10 minutes of thinking it over — and then realising I could have done nearly half of my run by now — I decided to get out there, in the pouring rain.

The rain didn’t feel as heavy or as cold as it looked from inside; this was good. I stretched a little, pressed ‘record’ on Strava, and started running.

The first 20 metres were fine, but then, an inconveniently parked car meant I had to detour around it, slowing me momentarily. Once on the main road, I was into my stride, but already it felt slow.

And then, one of my socks was slipping down, below my heel, into my shoe, bringing discomfort and distraction. I felt the chance of the PB slipping.

The rain was heavier now. I didn’t feel fast. My stride felt short. I told myself it was all ok, nothing too different from the usual, but it didn’t feel like a PB. I wasn’t yet prepared to write off my chances, but then the announcement on my phone told me my first 1km was about 40 seconds of my PB pace.

What had happened?

I have no idea really and this is what leads me to write about it. I have thought this through many times before, but never really written it down. I wonder whether it is crucial to understand, in order to explain why so many people lose faith in exercise. It has something to do with the fundamentally unpredictable nature of movement.

I am a reasonably experienced runner. I ran over 1,000km last year, a good handful of races, a marathon distance or two. Certainly not elite, nor yet confident that I understand or appreciate running, but certainly I am somewhere down the road of being able to call myself a runner and I know this is already quite far from many people who have yet to even run 5km.

What I learned today is that the movement of our bodies is fundamentally unpredictable and, perhaps, becoming an elite athlete is a process by which you gradually reduce that unknowable quality to such a degree that then it is possible to control and determine. I am certainly nowhere near that yet and I can identify with what may lead people to simply give up. Your body will surprise you, disappoint you, and seem completely unfamiliar at times.

When setting out on a run — from the first step — anything can happen. It seems remarkable to me that this should be the case. After all, runners regularly go running and it seems like a largely repetitive activity.

But as soon as we start to move, a whole range of systems engage which, to me, is likely rolling a set of dices, not knowing how any of them will land. There are the things we might reasonably foresee, such as the effect of weather, or floor surfaces. But there is so much more that is unexpected.

Before I set out today, I had expected to run close to my PB. In the end, I was 2mins and 30 seconds slower. It doesn’t sound like much, but in a 5km run, it feels like a lot, especially when hearing the pace every km told by the robot voice in Strava and sound barely near my PB pace.

Now, I appreciate that to many people, this may be a respectable pace, but this essay isn’t really about my pace relative to others. It is about my capacity to be able to go out and achieve something and why it is that I often fail, when running. I know it isn’t really failing. Getting out at all to exercise is always the most important thing and everything we do to be physically active has benefits that exceed our knowledge or even awareness of them.

Indeed, my experience of physical exercise tells me that there is a cognitive dividend that is far greater than the physical impact. When exercising regularly, I feel mentally stronger, more capable of dealing with life’s challenges, more capable in my day to day professional life, and positive about hoping to have ensured I live a more active life for longer. I know none of these things is guaranteed by exercise, but that feeling that I may have increased the chances of it happening are tremendously valuable. And the unpredictability of movement is one of the most exciting things about it, even if it can be disappointing.

Chair in Science Communication & Future Media @SalfordUni / written 4 Washington Post, Wired + found on CNN, BBC Newsnight, TEDx #posthuman

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