Q&A: Autism and running with Chloe Bedford

Chloe Bedford, a keen runner with Autism, joins us to share her journey. We chat about the impact of health and fitness on handling Autism, finding a love for running, making the move to a vegan diet, and more. Read her story below.

The interview

Hey Chloe. Please introduce yourself.

I’m Chloe, a life-long fitness lover from the UK. I’ve been quite active from the very beginning really, taking my first steps at 8 months old. I was a gymnast from the age of around 7-11 which was when I really started to find a passion for pushing my body physically and mentally. Since then I’ve also taken part in competitive cheerleading, Track & Field athletics, and now road running. 

How and when did your love for running begin? And why?

Throughout school, I was always very sporty. In my early teens, I joined my local T&F club, which a couple of friends were already at. After a few seasons of sprinting and field events, I decided to hang up the spikes to focus on my A-Levels, which I then ended up dropping out of anyway. Then at the start of last year, I decided to get back into running, this time road running. I definitely think that I enjoy road running more than T&F because I like that I have more freedom to run where I want, when I want, race if I want to, not race if I don’t want to and I don’t have to go to arranged training (which I used to find quite socially challenging). 

You were fairly recently diagnosed with Autism, how has your running journey changed since? 

I was diagnosed at the end of last year. Since then, my awareness of how the neurodevelopmental condition affects me has been constantly evolving. I soon realised a lot of anxieties, difficulties and rules I have around running can actually be linked very closely to Autism. I’m now aware of certain situations I find distressing, such as rain due to finding it very sensory challenging, and plan my runs more mindfully around any stressors to make running more enjoyable.

A lot of my runs now are mostly the same routes because I feel more comfortable within the safety of familiarity and so my training feels more productive as I’m less anxious. Once I received the diagnosis, I also made the decision to change my Instagram name to @running_with_autism and started to use the account as a platform to raise awareness of Autism and mental health alongside running/fitness.

How linked do you think exercise and mental health are?

There’s a lot of scientific evidence that shows exercise stimulates the release of endorphins such as Dopamine which make us feel better. I’m sure a high percentage of runners can identify that ‘runners high’ feeling. That feeling is very much a biochemical response and the chemicals that are released during exercise can help to regulate mood. Due to its mood-regulating effects, regular exercise is a great way to help improve your mental health and also maintain it. It’s unlikely that exercise alone will be enough to completely improve your mental health but don’t underestimate its power!

What do you think are the biggest general health benefits of exercise?

Along with the mental benefits, exercise has many social and physical benefits. Exercise can be a great way to meet new people and connect with old friends. It also has a number of proven physical benefits. For me personally, a major physical health benefit that I’ve gained from road running and general fitness is re-finding a healthy relationship with exercise after years of over-exercising and going through bulimia nervosa. For others, exercise can be a very effective way to reduce cholesterol, healthily lose weight, build muscle, lower blood pressure, strengthen your bones and joints etc. All of these benefits reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes and other health problems. Overall I think the positive long-term effects of exercise on an individuals physical, mental and social health are very attractive. 

You are vegan fuelled, what sparked that nutrition change?

I have been vegetarian since the start of 2017. I’m not sure why I decided to stop eating meat to be completely honest, it was just a random decision I have done a pretty good job of sticking to. From 2018 I have had issues tolerating dairy products, but like a lot of others I know who have dairy sensitivities, I ignored this and continued to eat my body weight in ice cream (it was worth the effects sometimes). Due to my challenging relationship with food over the last 5 or so years, I spent a while feeling a little confused if my desire to transition from vegetarian to vegan was fuelled by restrictive thoughts or if I genuinely wanted to be vegan, but after a lot of pros and cons lists, I decided to make the change in January this year. It has definitely been a positive decision I’ve made. 

What would you say to anyone reading this, particularly going through a similar journey you have, who wants to get into running but doesn’t know where to start?

A mantra I thought of during my first ever long run, that now sits in my bio, is something I would definitely encourage: Eat well, stay focussed and find the positives. Those three things are what I perceive to be the necessities of happy running and life in general really. To anyone not knowing where to start, particularly anyone similar to me, I would suggest starting with walking. Running takes a lot of will power and determination and I would definitely suggest getting into a routine of going out for a walk and gradually building up to a run. You might like to find a particular route you enjoy, or time of day etc. Knowing some of these things before you start running can help you to continue long term rather than stopping after a few weeks lacking confidence and/or enjoyment. 

Do you have any standout running experiences?

My first ever race was definitely a standout for me. It was a 10k race and it was my first road running event; I hadn’t even done a parkrun at this point. A few weeks beforehand I ran a ‘fake race’ to give myself a target time and also for confidence that I could actually run 6.2 miles without collapsing in a sweaty heap. I ran that fake race in 52 minutes 46 seconds and felt extremely sore afterwards. I set myself the challenge of sub-52 for the race day and absolutely smashed that time, finishing the race in 49 minutes 05 seconds. This 10k was also the start of my BHF MyMarathon which I completed in 5 days and raised funds for the British Heart Foundation. 

Lastly, what is a ‘healthy lifestyle’ to you?

A healthy lifestyle to me is one where you are aware of your body and mind in a balanced manner. I personally feel that the word ‘unhealthy’ is more of a social construct and that everything is healthy, in moderation. There are no doubts that some foods contain higher amounts of fats and carbs but they are still macronutrients that every human body needs in order to function. It is also important to remember to keep your mental health in check too. If you find that you’re forcing yourself to do something that you really do not enjoy, you should consider having a break from it to allow yourself some headspace.

Thank you so much for sharing your journey, Chloe. For anyone else who wants to follow Chloe, check out her Instagram here.