What happens to your mind and body, mile by mile, as you run? Find out.

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These benefits apply to every runner, regardless of your age or ability, ready to find out what happens to you when you run? (And when you don’t).

At rest.

If you decide not to run today, not a lot will happen to your body. Your heart rate will continue at a rate of roughly 70 beats per minute and will spend about three calories of energy per minute. Your oxygen uptake will be around three mil litres of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight. Basically, you will remain in a restful state, that is until you have to climb the stairs or hoover around the house vigorously.

I don’t know why, I mean I’m guilty of it too, but we assume remaining in this sedentary, restful state is a bad thing. Rest days, or taking it easy days are not to be snuffed at, they’re just as important as your running days! Rest is where the magic happens – the restoration and repair of muscles and energy you’ve used up throughout the week with runs or stressful days at work.

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Long run, woman puts hair up and get going in the trails

However, if you decide to go for a run, let’s talk about an average five-miler, your mind and body slot into a completely different state to being at rest. Even mile to mile there are mental and physical changes and adaptations your body goes under. Let’s discuss, shall we?

Motivation to get ready

Straight off the bat, getting the motivation to dig out your running shoes is the first hurdle most stumble at. As you reach for your kit, you are already mentally preparing yourself for the run ahead – the duration, the route, and whether you need a jacket or not.

Physically getting ready

Physiologically your heart rate will start to increase, adrenaline will rise and so will the amount of blood flow to your soon-to-be working muscles. Basically, it is a much slower (and somewhat controlled) version of the fight or flight response. A sub-conscious preparation for action, y’know for when our ancestors used to run away from bears or hunt.

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Group warm up running

The first mile.

I don’t care how fit you are, the first mile is always the hardest, and that’s the same whether you choose to do a specific warm-up or not – your muscle temperature is still lower than ideal, and your body is working hard to shunt the blood to your legs and create energy. For the initial part of the first mile, this is done anaerobically (energy without oxygen) even if you start slowly and use the initial mile as your warm-up. Don’t worry your body is getting used to the activity you’re doing and it will get the oxygen (aerobic energy) to where you need it most – those legs.

What is happening physiologically?

Heart rate

Your heart rate will spike from around 70 BPM to about 150 BPM purely to get that blood and oxygen around the body quicker. At rest, around 5 litres of blood will be pumped through your vessels per minute, but during exercise that increases to 20-30 litres a minute – it’s working incredibly hard to keep you going. Without the subsequent oxygen, carried by your blood, then lactic acid fatigue will set in such as the side stitch. Your body will be asking you to stop, or at least slowdown, to give it time to catch up to your exercise demands.

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Oxygen intake

From rest to exercise, your breathing rate will also increase (how else is it going to get the oxygen in?) how effective your breathing is will invariably impact your body’s capability to keep up and get ready for the long run (pun intended). As a deep, belly breather, your lungs can take in a larger amount of oxygen per breath, whereas being a runner with shallow, short breaths from the chest will struggle. You can work on your breathing and notice a change in performance almost immediately!

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Happy runner, woman with thumbs up as she runs past

Anyway, about one-fifth of the air you breathe in will contain oxygen that will get pushed, pulled and delivered to your working muscles to help produce energy from the body’s fat, protein and carbohydrate stores. I mean it sounds simple, but honestly, it’s an intricate and complex process!

What is happening mentally?

When all that physical process starts within the first 10 minutes all too often, especially beginners, begin to mentally check out and question ‘what the heck are we doing?!’ ‘this is too difficult’ but it gets easier. Your physiology will find a rhythm sooner than you think (hey, no spoilers!) Trust your body and don’t judge that initial mile.

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Stressing within that first-mile releases cortisol, further increasing your heart rate, which demands more from breathing and naturally increases temperature – it’s a vicious circle that will end in tears. And it happens so often. To prevent it, maybe add a specific warm-up before running, listen to music or your favourite podcast, and heck use this time for active meditation.

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Female runner sat on the floor

There is a reason why the first mile is the hardest and it isn’t all due to the physiological side. Because being mentally motivated to run can be difficult, that’s why it is always good to try and run, at least 15 minutes will benefit your cardiovascular endurance and your mental state.

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Especially in the cold months, the wet weather, the dark nights or even darker early mornings. Your body temperature will rise, you will warm up, feel energised and earn that endorphin high, but it will require you to step out of the door and get going – and then keep going.

Because mile two is a whole new ball game…

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