Three days before Christmas I ran my first race—a 10k in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was exactly a year after I began running along the white sandy beaches of Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Back then I could barely run for more than five minutes at a time; a year later I ran continuously for 55 minutes. I loved it. I felt strong, confident and happy during the race and I was buzzing for the rest of the day. I realised that I could do this; that I was a runner.
I’ve now set myself the goal of running a half marathon in 2014. A year ago I wouldn’t have contemplated such a thing.
Why Run While Travelling
“Racing teaches us to challenge ourselves. It teaches us to push beyond where we thought we could go. It helps us to find out what we are made of.”
PattiSue Plumer, US Olympian
For the first three years of our travels I didn’t pay much attention to fitness. I swam when we had a pool, I occasionally did push ups and crunches, and we walked a lot while exploring new places, but that was it. When I started running I realised that it’s the perfect way for travellers to keep fit. You don’t need any special equipment and it’s something you can do anywhere.
The obvious benefit of running is increased fitness and I definitely feel more capable of tackling physical activities on our travels, like hikes in Yosemite or up the Stromboli volcano. But running has brought me benefits beyond fitness—it’s good for my mind as much as my body. Starting my day with a run clears my head and leaves me happier, more confident, and more positive. I’m able to battle my demons and meet the challenges of the day.
There’s a satisfaction that comes from resisting the lure of a comfortable bed and achieving something before breakfast. Heading out the door is about overcoming a mental obstacle and it leaves me with an exuberance that makes everything seem possible.
For travellers there’s a very practical benefit of running—a run the day after a long flight is often the last thing I feel like doing but it helps me get over jet lag quickly and I always feel better afterwards.
Then there’s the sense of discovery. Running out in the world is nothing like the drudgery of a treadmill; it’s a way to explore and see places from a new perspective. In the last year I’ve run on the beaches of Mexico, splashing my feet in the turquoise Caribbean sea; along San Francisco’s Embarcadero with views of the Bay Bridge, feeling like a local; beside tree-lined canals in England and the Mekong River in Laos; through silvery olive groves in Puglia; and along Sicily’s dramatic coastline.
My morning runs have led to experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise. On a beach run in San Pancho I spotted a dolphin splashing and playing in the sea. Lake Bled was at its most magical in the misty light on a drizzly morning. In Chiang Mai I pass barefooted monks in saffron robes receiving alms from locals who fill their collection bowls with food and kneel on the pavement as the monks chant a blessing. Everywhere I’ve witnessed the sky turning pink and places coming to life, glowing in the soft golden light.
What has surprised me most is the joy that running can bring me. It isn’t like that every day of course—it is often a struggle—but there are times when everything clicks into place and I can run faster effortlessly and feel an exhilarating sense of freedom.
Stop Making Excuses
“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”
The biggest factor in one’s ability to run is not fitness level but mindset. Travelling is an easy reason for not running—I don’t have the right gear, it’s too hot, the roads are too busy, I don’t have time.
These are all excuses that I’ve used but have managed to overcome.
Gear – I started running with what I had—bare feet, board shorts, and a cotton vest top on the beach in Mexico.
Heat – I spend most of my time in the tropics so to avoid the heat and humidity I get up at dawn and accept that I’m not going to run as fast as I do in cooler climates.
Chaotic Roads – I prefer running away from busy roads but sometimes there are no beaches or parks to run in and I’m forced onto the chaotic traffic-clogged roads of SE Asia where pavements are non-existent or an obstacle course of cracks, street food stalls, and billboards. I’ve included some tips on finding a good running route below but if the roads are the only option then getting up early is the answer to this too—preferably as early as possible (even 6.30am is quite busy here in Chiang Mai)—and run at the edge of the road with the flow of traffic.
No Time – Our days are often packed with a busy schedule of sightseeing or work and it felt like I had no time to run. Getting up early is the solution yet again. I’m usually back from my runs before Simon is even up so there’s still the whole day ahead of me.
Embarrassment – I felt self conscious and worried about running in cities at first but I’ve realised that no one cares, and that I’m usually not the only one out running. Runners being heckled is quite common in the UK but I haven’t had one comment in the seven countries I’ve run in this last year. The only way to get over self-consciousness is to get out and run.
Lack of Routine – When we’re only staying somewhere for a few nights it’s more difficult to run than when we stay long enough to establish a routine. I’ve struggled with this and I’ve found it helps to plan a run ahead of time and create rituals that you can recreate everywhere (more on that below). It’s also a good reason for slow travel which makes running easier.
I’m Unfit – Running is a personal challenge. Even in races runners are often competing against themselves not against others. I try not to compare myself to other runners and just do the best that I can, even when I had to walk more than run when starting out.
No Running Partner – Simon isn’t interested in running and although I’d love for him to join me it’s probably best that he doesn’t as it would be too easy to miss a run just because he does. Running alone means I’m the only one responsible for whether I run or not, and I embrace it as “me time”, a chance to think and reflect, or just clear my mind of everything.
Different Environments – My location is always changing so I have to face new challenges. In San Pancho the beach wasn’t as flat and firm for running as it was in Playa del Carmen and at first I was annoyed and frustrated that I was sinking down in the soft sand and running really slowly. I realised my attitude wasn’t helping so I stopped fighting the sand and accepted the situation and it made the run a lot easier. My best runs are when I stay positive and don’t let these new problems defeat me.
I have found that the best solution is to simply stop making excuses and head out the door.
“The obsession with running is really an obsession with the potential for more and more life.”
Start Slow – My goal when I started was to be able to run 5k regularly. I couldn’t do that to begin with and had to mix jogging with walking for quite a while. I felt bad when I wasn’t able to run continuously but I’ve since found that alternating walking and running is the method that’s recommended for beginners. I ran when I could and walked when I had to but if you’d like something more structured then look into couch to 5k programmes—there are plenty of apps and running plans online like this one from Cool Running.
It wasn’t easy to begin with. I struggled to get up early, my lungs burned during runs, and for the first week my body ached terribly. It gets easier though and now running 5k is no problem for me. Keep at it.
Create a Routine – The most important factor to keep me running consistently has been developing a routine. This is more difficult when you are travelling but there are still things you can do. In The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg talks about the importance of a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behaviour unfold. My cue is getting up. All I have to do is get up in the morning, get dressed and head out the door. It’s the first thing I do and there’s no time to doubt it or put it off. Running in the morning works best for me but you should find a time and cue that works for you and then make it a routine.
I find it helps to be prepared the night before. I have my running clothes laid out, my running app, playlist and alarm are set up on the iPhone next to my bed, and there’s a bottle of water in the fridge for after my run. It means I don’t have to think about anything when I get up. I also go to bed earlier now as I want to be refreshed and ready for my run.
If you struggle with making running a habit then try setting a micro goal such as running (or run/walking) one mile a day or for just five minutes.
Warm Up and Stretch – My warm up is just walking briskly or jogging gently at the beginning of a run and afterwards I do a series of stretches (including some of these) which help prevent muscle soreness and injury.
Plan Your Route
“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard…is what makes it great!”
Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own
Planning my route ahead of time is important to make me feel more confident and prevent not knowing where to run being an excuse for not going at all. My favourite places to run are beaches (at the water’s edge where the sand is firmer), in parks, along seafronts, canals, and around lakes. Sometimes I’ll do circular routes (lakes are ideal for this) but mostly I’ll run to a certain point and back so I don’t have to worry about getting lost and I can just run a bit further to increase my mileage.
Here are some methods I use to find running routes before and when we arrive at a new destination:
- Google “running routes” + place name
- Search on Map My Run
- Look at Google Maps around the area we are staying in
- Walk around the neighbourhood when I arrive
- Ask at our hotel for recommendations of quiet places to run
- I’ll even sometimes choose accommodation based on its proximity to a good place to run
“Life is complicated. Running is simple. Is it any wonder that people like to run?”
Despite what running magazines tell us, you don’t need technical gear to run in—just wear whatever you have that’s comfortable. Sure it would be nice to have pockets in my shorts and a quick drying top would be most practical for running while travelling, but I don’t want to use lack of gear as an excuse not to head out.
Here’s my current set up:
- Board shorts and cotton vest top – I mostly run in warm weather so shorts work best. On foggy San Francisco mornings in July I also wore my fleece. I recently bought a pair of capri leggings for yoga and liked running in them when Chiang Mai had a cold spell. Leggings would be a lightweight option for running in colder countries.
- Sports bra – After nearly a year running without one I finally picked one up.
- Hiking shoes and socks – I spent the first six months running barefoot on the beach and then switched to the only shoes I had. My Merrell shoes are similar to trail runners so although they aren’t ideal for running they have worked just fine for the last six months (including my 10k race). I’ll probably change them for something lighter when we next get to the UK or US but as I pack light it’s important that the shoes I have work for hiking and running. I’ve actually even had some great runs in my sports sandals. The more I read about barefoot running the more I’m convinced that the shoes you wear aren’t that important and that padded running shoes can even cause more injury as they encourage bad technique (landing on your heels).
- Money belt – I don’t have pockets in my shorts so I use my travel money belt worn behind me to carry my iPhone, tissues, keys and money (just in case).
- Sunglasses – If I’ll be running into the sun.
- iPhone 5 – To listen to music and podcasts, and track the distance and speed of my run. Having a map with me is also useful if I get lost, and the camera took most of the photos in this post.
- iSmoothRun app – You don’t need an app to run with but I’ve found tracking my progress keeps me motivated. I started using the free version of the Map My Run app which was fine but when I started taking running more seriously I bought iSmoothRun. It was a huge improvement and well worth $4.99 for custom workouts, audio coaching, and many more features (see our best apps for digital nomads post). You don’t need a data plan to use a running app but you do need GPS so an iPhone works but an iPod Touch doesn’t (update: an iPod Touch does work if there are WiFi hotspots around even if you aren’t connected). I also think you need WiFi to save the workout when you get back from your run.
- Forecast app – To check sunrise times and the coolest time of the day (or just google it).
- Plastic bag – To store sweaty running clothes in my backpack if I run on travel days.
“Mental will is a muscle that needs exercise, just like the muscles of the body.”
There are some downsides to running, and not just the struggle to get out of bed. I’ve discovered a few things I think you should know before you embark on your running journey.
Runner’s Diarrhoea – I never even knew such a thing existed and it came as an unpleasant, embarrassing surprise that has ruined a number of runs. It turns out that the trots are very common and there’s not much you can do about it other than trying to go before your run, carrying toilet paper, and trying to plan your route around a toilet (read more tips here). If you are forced to dash into a bush just remember that Paula Radcliffe had to go by the side of the road in front of thousands of spectators before going on to win the 2005 London Marathon.
Injuries – Injuries can happen. I’ve had two very minor injuries in the last year. One was a slightly swollen ankle which I think was caused by running on an angle on a sloping beach, and the other was a sore top of my foot when I first started running in shoes, probably from tying my laces too tight. It’s important to stop running and rest any injuries to prevent them getting worse.
Dogs – Semi-wild dogs are very common in SE Asia and I’m often barked at and chased. One time I ran down a narrow side street where five territorial dogs surrounded me and I was scratched and had to get rabies jabs (it’s not worth taking chances with rabies). It’s best to avoid running past stray dogs if you can or if you see one pick up a stick or rock to threaten them with (and try shouting). It’s usually only a problem in backstreets and most of them are more bark than bite.
Messy Feet – It’s not a problem for short runs but when you get serious about running pretty feet are a thing of the past. I’ve had blisters, callouses, and two damaged toenails that turned black, one of which has grown back weirdly thick. Getting a pedicure isn’t a good idea either as those calluses act as blister protection.
“If you run, you are a runner. It doesn’t matter how fast or how far. It doesn’t matter if today is your first day or if you’ve been running for twenty years. There is no test to pass, no license to earn, no membership card to get. You just run.”
Be Gentle – Some runs are harder than others. It can be frustrating when on certain runs you feel like you aren’t progressing or are even going backwards. The only thing to do is to keep going, stay positive, and remember that the good days will return and even a bad run is good for you. Some of the best advice in Running with the Mind of Meditation is to be gentle with yourself—don’t give yourself a hard time but encourage yourself and remember your motivation for running.
Strength Training – To become a better, stronger runner and decrease the risk of injury strength training is recommended. There are lots of exercises for runners online but I keep things simple with a short routine of squats, push ups, the plank, and crunches after some runs, along with my usual stretches. In the last few months I’ve started doing yoga as well which I really enjoy and is great for strength and flexibility.
Sign up for a Race – Once you are comfortable running 5k on a regular basis then consider signing up for a 10k race. When I knew we’d be in Chiang Mai during the Christmas Marathon (six weeks before) I committed to running the 10k and it really helped push myself to run further and faster, and to motivate me to run on days when I didn’t feel like it.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
These books aren’t running manuals but they offer inspiration to get you out and running—when reading about people running 100 miles it makes your 10k seem a lot more manageable.
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall – The book that started the barefoot running craze. If you read one running book make it this one. It’s a fascinating story of the author’s journey to discover the secrets of some of the greatest runners in the world, the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico’s Copper Canyon.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami – A memoir about running, writing and Murakami’s insights on life.
Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness by Scott Jurek and Steve Friedman – Scott Jurek was one of the ultra runners that featured in Born to Run. This is an insight into life as an ultra runner (a crazy world!) as well as practical tips that can be applied to running all distances, especially about how important your mental attitude and willpower is. Scott is vegan and includes his favourite recipes in the book.
Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind by Sakyong Mipham – Written by a Tibetan lama about how to run more mindfully and combine meditation with running. I’m not really into meditation but this has convinced me to give it a go and I can definitely see the benefits for running, especially on difficult runs. I also enjoyed the anecdotes of his runs around the world and how he fits running into his busy travel schedule.
Running with the Kenyans: Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth by Adharanand Finn – Finn spent six months living and running in Kenya trying to discover why Kenyans dominate long distance running.
“Getting healthy on the road is different, but not harder, than getting healthy any other way.”
Jessica Ainlay, GlobetrotterGirls.com
- Audrey shares her journey from being firmly “not a runner” to running in the snow in Berlin with tips on how to get started at anything in 9 Steps From Doubt to Doing.
- Kim is a marathon runner who is now travelling the world and sometimes takes us along on her morning runs in exotic locales like Phu Quoc island in Vietnam.
- Jess shares her story of getting fit, losing lots of weight, and becoming a more confident person. It’s not specifically about running, but her story of improving her fitness while travelling is incredibly inspiring.
- Shannon has written a beautiful post about the challenge of running in her first marathon (at Disney!).
- For general running tips there is a huge amount of information on Runner’s World.
If you’re interested in running then I hope you’ll give it a try. Running not only makes you stronger physically and mentally, but it’s a way to enhance your travels rather than burden them. Running has led to more positive changes than I ever imagined and I’m looking forward to exploring more of the world on my morning runs.
Update: I ran my first half marathon! Read all about it here.
Are you looking for Christmas gift ideas? See our guide to the 50 Best Gifts for Travelers. They are ideal for travel lovers who want to pack light and include something for every budget.