Nearly 10 million women raced last year. But our relationship with running is far more personal than any number could reveal, race or not. We run toward goals and we run away from problems. We run to be alone and we run to feel like one with the world. We run to lose weight, to stay fit, to slay stress, to hit PRs. We run because we can't imagine not moving forward.
Running, unlike any other exercise or sport out there, is highly personal and inclusive. "Time and distance are only relative to you, and you're winning if you're pursuing goals that matter to you," says Mary Wittenberg, CEO of Virgin Sport and former president and CEO of New York Road Runners. "We determine the time we run. That element of control is incredibly appealing."
We like control. Beyond that, we spoke to scores of women about the reasons that drew them to the asphalt, and how you (even if you're new to this thing) can milk more benefits from every km. Read their stories, make a plan, chart your own course.
WE RUN TO SLIM DOWN
More than half of runners say one of their biggest motivations is keeping their weight in check, according to a national Running USA survey. Part of the appeal: You don't have to drag your butt to the gym or awkwardly use equipment while other exercisers check you out; you can just slip on your sneakers and, ta-da, ready to roll. That drive to drop pounds was a huge incentive for Bonnie Wilson, 36, the Portland, Oregon, social media director of Mud Run Guide. It worked: She lost 90 of them—and has kept them off for eight years. "I still feel self-conscious when working out in the gym, but running has taught me how strong I really am and how much I can truly handle," says Wilson.
Make it work for you: If you're a newbie, ease into a routine, says Michael Meliniotis, a coach at Mile High Run Club in New York City. Walk or jog at a moderate pace for 20 to 30 minutes, three or four times a week. Then aim to add one interval workout per week (no more than that, to reduce risk for injury). Not only will you blast more calories in less time, but a recent study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that doing a HIIT workout may help tame your appetite afterward—meaning you could eat less and shed pounds faster.
WE RUN TO SHUT DOWN STRESS
Alisha Perkins, 33, felt so uneasy when her husband (Minnesota Twins pitcher Glen Perkins) travelled for games that her mom had to come sleep in the bed with her. When a therapist could only lessen the anxiety—not stop it from happening in the first place—Perkins found relief in her regular run. She bumped up her typical three-km to eight, and something clicked. "I just instantly felt like a better, calmer person," says Perkins, author of the new book Running Home. She's far from alone: In that same Running USA survey, 70.6 percent of respondents say they run to relieve stress.
Make it work for you: Since running is best as a preventive measure for stress, schedule consistent runs. "It's important to manage stress as it happens and not wait until you're too overwhelmed to run," says Dr Greg Privitera, research chair of the Center for Behavioral Health Research at the University of Phoenix School of Advanced Studies. Perkins runs five days a week to level her emotions and sidestep spikes in anxiety.
WE RUN TO GET THAT FANTASTIC HIGH
Runner's high—that euphoric feeling that makes you want to run forever—may seem like a myth, or just elusive. But it's a real by-product of pounding the pavement. And it isn't caused only by endorphins. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it could be endocannabinoids (eCBs), chemicals your body releases that promote relaxation. (Yeah, the same stuff in pot.) "Runners at all levels have the opportunity to experience this superneurological phenomenon," says Dr Jeff Brown, chief psychologist for the Boston Marathon. There's no secret formula, but to up your odds, run at least 30 minutes (previous research showed that's when eCBs typically start kicking in). Brown also suggests pushing your pace and mixing up your running route. "Novelty prevents boredom and feeds your brain unique stimuli, which promotes less distraction and more positive thoughts."
WE RUN TO CROSS A FINISH LINE
There are now over 30,000 races held around the U.S. "Race fields have not only grown but gotten more inclusive too," says Ariane Machin, Ph.D., a sport psychologist in Raleigh, North Carolina, and a runner herself. "When I was younger, only 'good' runners raced. Now races aren't just about performance but about the whole experience, and having fun." Cue everything from marathon relays and colour runs to obstacle races and zombie runs. There's sumthin' for everyone.
Make it work for you: Keep tabs on your training. Recording your distance covered, pace, heart rate, and how you felt—in a notebook or app like TrainingPeaks or MapMyRun—is "a great way to gauge your progress and build confidence before a race," says Meliniotis. Looking back at your performance can help you dial into a goal pace, he says (if runs have consistently felt easy or too tough, you know to adjust). This tactic lowers your injury risk: Sessions that have gotten slower or felt unusually hard can be a sign of overtraining, so take rest days.
WE RUN TO SEE THE WORLD
We usually don't love made-up words, but run-cations? That we can get behind. More women are building their vacations around races in beautiful (or just cool) locations, says Rich Harshbarger, CEO of Running USA. Case in point: 42 percent of runners in this year's Paris Marathon travelled from another country to race. Other race directors are taking note. After the perennial success of the Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend in Orlando, the race series is expanding internationally (to Paris!) for the first time ever this fall.
Make it work for you: These runs are all about the experience. When Marijana Gucunski, 31, a publicist in New York City—who has run in far-flung locales like the streets of Istanbul, the beaches in Panama, and along the coast of Croatia—finds herself in a new spot, she likes to scout out courses that others have trailed (find them on apps like RunKeeper or Strava). "We're all chasing beautiful routes, so I tend to trust my fellow runners to guide me in the best direction," she says. In fact, nearly half of runners say one of the reasons they jog is to appreciate the scenery around them.
WE RUN TO BUILD RELATIONSHIPS
As individual as the sport is, "there is this amazing energy when you are running in a group," says Alexandra Weissner, 30, the Denver cofounder of bRUNch Running (the group meets for runs followed by, you got it, brunch). A run club can help hold you accountable to show up and motivate you to log more miles or sign up for a race. Bonus of being a (single) social runner: You just might make a love connection. When Sara Haas, 37, a consultant dietitian and chef in Chicago, met her now-husband, they were both training for the Chicago Marathon. They started logging their miles together soon after they began dating. "It was a great way to build our relationship and a fantastic way to share our day and vent our frustrations," she says. "We've worked out a lot of problems on the city's lakefront path!"
Make it work for you: Ask a local running store for listings of groups near you, or use the app DASHR to find a running buddy with a similar training goal or pace. Want to start your own group? Weissner recommends finishing the runs where they start, so it's easier to keep everyone together even at different paces. We'll also leave you with this inspiring quote from Wittenberg: "There is a relationship that develops on a run that is canyons deeper than results from a cocktail party conversation. When we run we are real, we are raw, we need each other, and pretense is roadkill. We don't have to pretend to be someone we are not. Who has time for that when we are sweat-soaked and trying to survive the hills of San Francisco or Seattle or Central Park?" Amen.
Need something to work towards? Sign up for the Men's Health Women's Health Night Run by AIA Vitality here!