A runner’s journey

13 July, 2020

I remember first taking up running just after my first child was born 11 years ago. I had always believed that I couldn’t be a runner, but I was a new mum, short on time and on spare cash for gym subs, and in need of some exercise. When first learning how to work up to continuous running, my friend had offered me some invaluable advice: ‘Run as slowly as you possibly can. You have to resist the doomed urge to run unsustainably fast.’ It worked a treat. I ran for ages and never looked back.

Lately, in my area, there has been an explosion of new runners, often guided by the advice and coaching of their apps. Whilst I was out running this morning on a long, straight, flat Roman road, another runner’s figure appeared in the distance ahead. As I drew a little closer, I noticed she would stop to walk from time to time, and that when she ran, her gait was a little awkward; her leg seemed to be troubling her. I watched her ahead of me, staying ahead in fact for what I found to be a surprisingly long time, despite her walking interludes.

Eventually, I drew up running alongside her, and offered her a friendly share of my experience: ‘Blimey, you’re walking occasionally and you’re still faster than me!’ I smiled, hinting at what I thought to be her mistake of going too fast and so needing to stop. ‘Yes’ she smiled back ‘I’m Jeffing it. 45 seconds run. 45 seconds walk. It’s so much easier mentally.’. I’d never heard of ‘Jeffing’* but suddenly, I remembered a magazine article I’d read about interval training being so much more efficient in building fitness than continual slogging exercise. ‘Does it make you much fitter?’ I asked the woman. ‘Yes’ she replied ‘but more importantly, it keeps me injury free.’ She glanced down at her leg.

By then we had reached a junction and we went our separate ways. As I jogged on my journey I reflected; I’d made the mistake of thinking that the friendly advice which had so helped me to run would be the help that everyone needed. In fact, my fellow runner this morning needed nothing from me. It was me who had the lesson.

I had let my desire to be helpful take over, when help was not useful, not even needed in fact. Systemic psychotherapists point to the importance of being useful rather than helpful. Helping is one valid form of being useful, and in some circumstances, the very best kind of being useful. However, there are so many other circumstances in which helping is useless, or even worse than useless. No matter how well intended, helping can inadvertently imply that ‘the helper’ is somehow above ‘the helped’; further on, wiser and better. In this way, helping can implicitly undermine the other person.  Helping can also deny the other person the process of discovering their own truth, a process of discovery which may be invaluable to them. Worse still, helping can be applied to those who are just different to ourselves. Sometimes, people don’t require our help, they require us to open our minds a little and remember that being human is a very wide playing field of rich diversity. People who are different to us may be simply being themselves. No help required thank you.

Now maybe it’s just me that makes this mistake, but I’m guessing it might not be. If we in the ‘helping professions’ shifted instead to act as the ‘useful professions’ we’d probably pause before piling in with our help to find out more from the other person about what they would find useful in their particular circumstances. It might be being given a space to think, being believed in, being put back in touch with their own expertise. Who knows, the ‘useful professions’ might just save a lot of wasted blood, sweat and tears.

Jen & Jael

*’Jeffing’ refers to the running technique founded by Olympian Jeff Galloway which uses intervals of walking and running.

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