Sonia O’Sullivan: The pleasure of learning to run all over again

Cycling and swimming are satisfying but they don’t quite reach that runners’ ‘high’

Most people involved in sport will tell you that sometimes it’s the small victories that count more than the significant ones, which is how I felt after crossing the finishing line at the Emer Casey 5km Fun Run in Melbourne last Sunday.

This is a charity event I help to organise, set up in aid of the Emer Casey Foundation, named after the young Cork woman who died of ovarian cancer in June 2006, aged 28. As well as taking place in her home town of Youghal, fund-raising fun runs are now staged around the world, including London and Melbourne.

For me crossing that finish line on Sunday was a victory of sorts because, strange as it might sound, I feel like I’m learning to run all over again. I’ve pointed towards a lot of similarities between running and cycling and even swimming recently, although now I’m not so sure.

Because whatever about never forgetting how to ride a bike or how to swim, there are certain things about running that you do need to learn all over again. Especially if you haven’t run properly in a long time.


The Emer Casey Fun Run was actually over two distances, 5km and 10km, although for me the shorter distance was far enough. What I also learnt all over again is that there is no greater feeling than the one you get when you return home after a run.

Anyone that’s been there will know it, and when you haven’t run for a while, you appreciate again the simplicity of being able to get out there and run once again.

It’s not something I ever thought about as an elite athlete. Back then, there was always a target with each run and a sense of purpose to each training session, all part of the overall plan.

As much as I enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes with swimming and cycling, a visit to the gym and even walking the dog, there is really no comparison to that calmness and serenity, that feeling of being at peace with yourself, that one gets after a run.

It also took a while to leave the fast pace and long miles behind, and rediscover that simple running pleasure I first found as a young girl. Once I found it then I also found myself not wanting to let go. Injury would sometimes force me to take a break, which inevitably results in trying to find a way back again. And whenever I do run these days, which is not very often, I’m learning again what it feels like to hit that soft spot along the way.

Comeback trail

So once again I’m on the comeback trail. Only this time there are no lofty targets, no marathons, and no major races. Just the simple, pure pleasure of running, feeling the ground move quickly beneath my feet.

I also feel like I have finally found a place for running in my life that is not all -consuming, just a reminder of what it feels like to glide across the ground, get warm quickly and escape for a short time.

The problem is these past few years have presented a series of road blocks along the road that kept stopping me in my tracks. I’d get to the point when I would wonder is it worth trying again, as I put the running shoes aside once more, all the time maintaining fitness through other means. Cycling shoes and flippers on my feet do serve a purpose, but still left me missing some of the unique energy you get from running.

I often wonder do cyclists or swimmers or even rowers get the same buzz, when it’s the sport that comes most naturally to them. Every sport has its own way of releasing those ambiguous endorphins that runners love to refer to when explaining why they run. While there is a definite satisfaction after a hard bike ride or a long swim, I’m don’t think they quite reach that same runners’ ‘high’.

Maybe it’s the company that helps, like when you run with a friend or two, there is a freedom to talk and express yourself that you just don’t get when out for a coffee or talking in the street. One of things I’ve always enjoyed most about running was meeting a friend and sharing the miles, usually chatting non-stop along the way. There isn’t much time for the chats like that between reps in the pool or even when stopped at the traffic lights out on the bike.

I’ve been coaching at a local club in Melbourne, Mentone Athletics Club, for a few years now, and when I set a training program for people new to running I’m often asked to explain an ‘easy run’. The simplest explanation is talking pace, so you can run along and chat. If you are gasping for air then you need to slow down.

There is always time for the hard runs and sessions, but easy runs should be just that.

I drive down to the track every Tuesday night. When I first started coaching I was also training for the Dublin Marathon, so I was running most days, and always did a session on Tuesday morning with my friend, Niamh. It was like a test run for the session that I would then watch over at Mentone Athletics Club later in the day.

Great system

It was a great system because as well as planning the training session, I got to try it out and tweak things: like whether the recovery was a too short or the overall session was a bit too long. Then I realised some of the runners were checking my Strava uploads from the morning trying to work out what type of session would be on for that evening.

I haven’t been able to employ the same methodology recently, because with all the stopping and starting, running has been at a minimum. It’s taken a while but I’ve finally found a local physiotherapist and fitness guru that are helping to regain my confidence so that I can get back to a reasonable level of running.

I started out with some walking and jogging, one minute on, one minute off, twice a week. It wasn’t exactly running but it was a start.

Then I moved on to two minutes, three minutes, always keeping the walking at one minute. In a short time I was surprised to have that feeling that I could run again. Not jogging or plodding, but real running.

It’s actually been something of a revelation, focusing on short bursts of running, concentrating on form and technique and good posture like you do when starting a race or striding out to the finish line. The problem is when you go for a 5km or 10km run, you slow down and you lose the bounce and energy in your stride.

When I started out it was taking more than 30 minutes for 5km, then as running sections increased, the time was dropping. I soon realised that relearning to run at a running pace rather than at jogging pace requires totally different energies and composure.

I’ve taken the jogging route before, as the tendency is to build up gradually increasing the distance and pace. I’m now starting to believe it’s better to start with the pace you want to maintain, initially over small time increments with the aim of eventually increasing the running while keeping the one minute walk breaks. This allows you to continually reset your form and technique, starting over and over throughout the run, never allowing yourself to plod along.

The next date in the diary is the annual Great Pink Run 10km, 100 days from now, which gives me at least 30 runs to prepare, even on my conservative plan. Another small victory to aim for.