Q&A: Why I run with Natalie Hawkins

Natalie Hawkins is a keen runner and host of the Not Another Runner podcast series – check it out! In our latest Q&A, we chat with Natalie about why she loves running, how she got started, her top tips for building strength and endurance, and her Not Another Runner podcast.

The interview

Hi Natalie, please introduce yourself.

So, I’m Natalie, or better known as @notanotherrunner to some. I am from Pembrokeshire, West Wales, a runner, and host of the Not Another Runner podcast. I juggle this alongside my full-time job. 

Photography by Glyn Rainer

When did your love for running begin? 

I started running officially in March 2017 – I had only run a handful of times prior to this. In March 2017 I had just given up smoking, I’d decided to go ‘cold turkey’ for Lent.

Prior to this, having been a major anti-smoker for most of my life I, unfortunately, took the bad habit up whilst living in Valencia on my year abroad. I was in a deep depression and struggling to quit emotional and binge eating. I have had my ups and downs with mental health over the years, and sadly I struggled for a long while. The dark times left me stricken to my bed, room/flat during, and even struggling to leave my home for essentials. I was unable to socialise, and unable to see a future at times. So, two years after taking up the bad habit, and again faced with another low, I decided enough was enough and I needed to call it quits. 

I gave it up and 2 weeks into this attempt I was finding it difficult. I decided to go for a run as I knew this would motivate me to refrain from smoking as I would see just how essential being healthy was in order to feel good. 

I ran a 5k that day and fell in love with it. It kept me from smoking and has since enabled me to come off medication. I’ve remained medication-free for the longest time since I started taking meds when I was 18. 

And why?

I have so many reasons why I fell in love with running and why I run. And I always ask every guest on my podcast for their reason – their #WhyIRun and what motivates them…

For me, there is no simple answer. The major reasons why I run are a little difficult to understand because it is honestly a crazy mix of reasons. I think my reasons are something which I feel I can never truly explain in words. But I will try and explain briefly.

Running has taught me an incredible amount. It has supported me in giving up smoking, it has enabled me to wean off medication and remain medication-free, and it has improved my mental health and wellbeing more than any other form of medication, therapy, support or community I have ever sought help from. 

It has transformed me into a stronger, fitter, healthier and better person. I am a funner aunt and friend because it has given me so much energy. 

It has encouraged me to acquire a more resilient self; because you really do have to have some resilience to be an endurance runner. Running, and the resilience needed to run long has taught me that I can continue to put one foot in front of the other in all other aspects of my life, despite any adversities or challenges I face. I am, nowadays, a much happier and patient person because running has reminded me of what it feels like to live again. I can admit that I lost this for a very long period of my life, and without running I struggle. Without running, my anxieties and negative behaviours creep in, so running allows me to manage all of these. 

Running has shown me that you can feel free and feel alive, and you can overcome your darkest days.

What do you think are the biggest benefits of running, and exercise in general?

I think running is a brilliant form of exercise with many benefits; it strengthens our cardiovascular system, strengthens our muscles and encourages the strengthening of our bones. It releases endorphins and serotonin, which can help improve your mood and lift depression. It can encourage a mindfulness, or even in some cases a meditative practice. 

Exercise and running can help reduce and improve stress levels, and can encourage better sleep. 

Do you do any other type of exercise apart from running? 

When I am fit and well, I normally practise yoga at home – this tends to be on rest or quieter days. It allows me to gain similar benefits as I would from running. I also enjoy Pilates classes and go to the gym to do some strength training exercises. Yoga, as well as being mindful and looking after my body (such as my stretch routine & foam rolling) was really important for me whilst I trained for the London Marathon 2019. 

Nowadays, I am doing lots of walking as I have had a bad neck/shoulder issue, which has been ongoing for over six months, two of which I was unable to exercise at all. I’m really thankful that I can now walk with minimal pain. I have even enjoyed several short bursts of jog intervals recently, though I am not always able to do this. It is definitely a work-in-progress, but I am just so glad I am able to walk and get outside. I don’t do well when I can’t exercise because I rely upon it so heavily for my health and wellbeing. It is what keeps me happy and enables me to be a better person, without a doubt!

What are your tips for building strength and endurance?

Building endurance and/or fitness is not to be taken lightly in my opinion. I think it’s important to be mindful, and ensure that a healthy and sensible approach is taken. It is no good to increase weekly mileage instantly, and add in a new strength routine at the same time, or increasing speed and mileage in the same week. It is a fine art of balancing, and checking in on yourself and your health. And what works for one person may not necessarily work for the next. 

For me, endurance was built up in blocks. I took pride in researching – reading all the books, magazines and listening to podcasts. I would consume so much information using different resources, as I wanted to be able to learn as much as I possibly could as a new runner. Endurance will come with a slow and gradual increase of mileage, but it is important not to increase this too soon, and for me, I would build up mileage in a lower heart rate zone, before then moving onto building speed, which would enable me to increase endurance again. 

Strength training exercises were key in building endurance, and remaining healthy as the mileage increased. Running long is hard on the body and it is to be approached sensibly.  You will know your body best, and you will know when you are bordering on the the thin line of danger and when you need to reel things in, and if you don’t know this line, then you need to respect your body and let it teach you. 

Do you have any specific fitness goals and targets for 2020?

To be honest, I never thought I’d have been 6 + months out, ever. I thought it would be a couple of weeks only. Because of this reason I have very few goals. I have had to welcome a more flexible and ‘go with the flow’ approach. Otherwise, I think I would have succumbed to a negative mindset. 

For me, my main goal would be to be able to run a 5k continuously… and then it would be great to be able to build back up to Half Marathon distance. Will I get there by the end of 2020? 

I have a lot of faith, and I am very hopeful. I had booked to do the Cardiff Half Marathon at the start of October, (if the event goes ahead due to COVID-19) and if I was able to run this fully,  then I would be incredibly emotional!! And I will have hit above and beyond my goals. 

You started the Not Another Runner Podcast, tell us about it.

I started the Not Another Runner (NAR) podcast back in June 2019. Have you ever had something that you ‘just fell into’, but it was so meant for you? That is exactly how I feel with NAR Podcast. I had been a massive podcast geek even before I started, and was a listener of many running podcasts. 

I was asked to be a guest on the Easy Thrills podcast (Endurance Sports), following on from my crazy London Marathon experience, and I am so thankful I crossed paths with Tom Bell (host of Easy Thrills). If it was not for his words of encouragement and his shared experiences I don’t think I would have started the podcast by now. Which is a crazy thought. 

I also never imagined the podcast would do so well so quickly. The podcast was even shortlisted this year in the Running Awards 2020 in the “Vlog, Pod & Microblog” category, and it was up against some long-standing and well-established podcasts, some of which I have spent the last few years listening to, as a fan! It is just a very surreal feeling all of this, and I am just so grateful to all the listeners who support me and the podcast, and for all the support I receive from the incredible running community.

I set the podcast up initially with the aim to connect like-minded people and help increase the every day runner’s community through the art of podcast. I hope to encourage kindness and support within this brilliant running community.

My main hopes are to motivate and inspire others to get up and get going, despite ability or experience. I want others to feel like they can get up and they can do it, whatever goals they aspire to. I am a firm believer that “you never regret going, but you always regret not going” and this is something I really hope to encourage others to believe. 

It is important to understand that any form of movement – as little or as much as possible – is better than no movement. 

The guests on the podcast are primarily fellow runners and tend to be your everyday runner. They are inspiring but relatable. If I am able to motivate and inspire others through my commitment to the Not Another Runner podcast by showcasing relatable and inspiring stories, then I have achieved what I set out to do. 

We love an inspiring story and you must have heard a fair few, but what inspires you when the going gets tough?

There are so many things that motivate and inspire me. I think what inspires me most, has to be someone’s passion – someone’s reason – their WHY. What makes them determined; What makes them get up and get going; What keeps them showing up despite their challenges or adversities. When someone has something they are utterly passionate about and driven by, it is a seriously positive and infectious thing. 

I think when someone is determined and motivated to strive for their goal, it makes you want to get up and strive for your passions too. I also think, when the going gets tough for me, what inspires me is my own ability to strive for better, and to be strong and resilient. So, even when I am struggling, if I am still able to try, to continue and put one foot in front of the other, then that keeps me going. 

What would you say to anyone reading this who wants to get into running but doesn’t know where to start?

I would honestly say, START! However able or however far you can, I can almost promise you (as I always say on the podcast) “you will never regret going, but you will always regret not going”. Who cares if you only run down the road, or you run for just 5 minutes and then you walk. I bet you still enjoy being out in the fresh air, and I can guarantee that you will return home smiling, even if you do encounter some pain. 

My other practical advice to get started in running would be to listen to music. This is what motivates me to get out the door in the first place, being able to be outside in the fresh air and lost within my music, there is no better feeling than movement & music. 

Another brilliant tip, and something I found beneficial for so many reasons, is to join a running club. You will be immersed within the community, and before you know it you have made life-long friends and you are learning lots from more experienced runners. You’ll soon have company on some of your runs, which will make you more accountable, and the run a more enjoyable experience. 

My other tip that should not be overlooked is to have good quality trainers when increasing the distances. 

Do you have any standout running experiences?

I have to say, it has got to be my first Marathon experience at the London Marathon. The training had gone incredibly, and I felt was on target for around 3:50 – 4:00 hours. However, despite waking up and feeling more than ready, and relatively calm, I had an unusual stomach ache, which meant I was unable to take on any water, or any fuel. I got to mile 14 and started to feel very bad, I had to pull myself off the side as I knew I was going to be sick. Two lovely ladies helped me, they gave me some of their sugary tea and a jaffa cake, which I struggled to eat a mouthful of. At this point I felt so nauseous I knew things weren’t good. 

After this, I went on to endure the rest of the marathon in utter pain. I was sick on copious occasions and had to walk/jog/spew my way around the course. I tried not to cry but the idea of crossing the finish line was almost an impossible thought. I was escorted off the course by a Marshal, then later a Police Lady, who’s boots I was then sick on. I made three stops with St Johns, including a half an hour medical stop the second time with a foil blanket trying to rehydrate myself. I then made my way back onto the course with the foil blanket, starting with a walk, and then a jog, but had to stop soon after as I was having pins and needles in my left hand and arm, and had already been told to stop if I felt any of these symptoms. I was then monitored on an ECG and as soon as my stats came back okay, and I had managed to rehydrate a bit more, I went back out on the course to finish the last 3.5 miles. I finally crossed the finish line a little while after in 6 hours and 20 minutes! 

It is honestly a race experience that showed me just how resilient I can be when I apply a ‘Mind over Matter’ principle. 

Quite the marathon experience there! Lastly, what is a ‘healthy lifestyle’ to you? 

To me, a healthy lifestyle is about balance. I always say moderation is key, but moderation in moderation too! Because it is all good and well being cautious in what we eat and drink but it’s important not to be a slave to a “diet”, we must remember to live and to enjoy too. 

This has taken me years to adopt such a relaxed but mindful and positive approach. Previously, I was so rigid and restrictive with my diet and exercise, and it would consume my thoughts; It was an unhealthy place to be. 

I think what is essential in a healthy lifestyle is exercise, a balanced diet, and a positive practice of wellbeing – the latter of which will vary from person to person. So long as each individual is able to benefit from something that enables them to relax, enjoy and be happy – then this is brilliant. 

I sometimes feel like we encourage the practice of physical exercise, but fail to encourage the practice of exercising our mind to stay well and healthy and I think it ought to become more commonplace. 

Photography by Glyn Rainer

Thank you so much Nat! You can follow her on Insta here, Facebook here, or see all her links (including the podcast) here.

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