The Squeaky Wheel Gets Fixed

I’ve always been very conflicted when it comes to writing about mental health and exercise. The reason for my conflict is that I never quite know how to broach the subject to a broader audience (I’m more than happy talking to my individual clients about it though).


In the past I’ve never thought that I exercised for my mental health. For those that know me or my running, you’ll know that I am competitive and that I enjoy training for events and doing the best I can in those races. I can also be my harshest critic when it comes to my own achievements. After all, my mantra for my PB in the 2019 London Marathon was “don’t be a glorious failure”. By that, I mean I was going for a big PB, had I got a small PB or just missed it, people would still have been congratulatory and told me how well I’d done, but I knew that I had a chance to achieve what I want.


This year I was training jointly for the London Marathon and a 40-mile race and was running around 70 miles per week. I don’t really think too much about the mental side of these training runs, I just generally go out and run and then rest when I am physically tired. However, now that all races have been cancelled for the foreseeable future, I was left in limbo. This limbo is the same as everyone else who runs, whether it is starting Couch25K with a friend, parkruns every Saturday or training for races; what now is the point?


I’ve suddenly realised just how much I love pressure free running and how much pressure I put on ‘training’ for events. As the weather has started to improve, I’ve found myself heading over the fields and towpaths near to my house. I’ve even stopped to take photos (something I’d never do when ‘training’). I’ve had all my most enjoyable runs of the year in the last week. No pressure, no training and just running.

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And this is something that we need to remind ourselves. Most of us take running and walking for granted. Then, when our lives suddenly change and we can no longer to go the gym, work or shopping when we want to, where do we get the endorphins that we are used to? This is why suddenly more people are seen out walking or running. They have nowhere else to go. They cannot run on a treadmill in a gym. They cannot go for a walk around town in their lunch break. They cannot walk around shops 2-3 times a week. And this is where the media is causing (in my opinion) problems and divisions in society.


Suddenly the, usually very supportive, running community are voicing concern that so many ‘non-runners’ and ‘new walkers’ are out on their favourite routes. Yes, they are, but why is that an issue? Ok, so it may not be as quiet as they are used to. They may have to stop sometimes to think about how to pass people and let people pass them. But at least we are all still allowed out to exercise. That has been taken away from other people in other countries. We are still lucky.


So, please do not be put off by what the media and others are saying. We are all entitled to go for our daily exercise. At present when I write this, there are no time limits on how long we can go out for. As long as we are not risking getting into trouble and using the resources of emergency services, you can go out for a longer walk than normal. The only restriction really, is that we stay local and use open spaces near to home where possible (taken from official government information https://www.gov.uk/government/news/coronavirus-guidance-on-access-to-green-spaces). But as we are lucky enough to be allowed out we should respect that and not take liberties. We would all suffer much more if we had to stay in 24/7.


So, in these times where some people need to be outdoors, running or walking, for their mental health and others are shouting loudly that everyone should stay at home, where do people go to find their safe place with like-minded people? It’s tough. I am part of Facebook running groups where some people are refusing to exercise as it’s not essential to them or they feel that it is wrong in the current climate, others have more time on their hands and are doing more than they usually would and others feel as though they have to stick rigidly to a certain time or distance. Arguments often ensue, people get publicly chastised or even ridiculed (half the time by people who last month had ‘#BeKind’ on their profiles) and then go in to their shell and either don’t want to go out or are scared to participate in online discussions.


However, there is a safe Facebook group. Head Runners was created by Paul Tebbutt as a place where people can talk openly about mental health and how running has helped them. Paul told me “the reason I started Head Runners really is quite simple. I have always used running over the years to help my state of mind as many of us do. I wanted to help raise awareness and create a safe space for people to talk openly about mental health and share their stories about how running has helped them”. Head Runners can be found on Facebook at www.facebook.com/groups/headrunners I would recommend checking it out.


Another idea to connect with friends who run or walk at this time of physical distancing (I dislike social distancing as currently we can connect online in numerous ways) is virtual walks. One of my clients ran at the weekend whilst on the phone to her friend (obviously be mindful of trip hazards and roads, etc). They really enjoyed being able to run ‘together’ while being apart and have a good catch up chat to pass the time as they would do normally when they run together. This can also be done via apps such as Facetime and WhatsApp among others and you could even share a video call to share your routes.


Finally, the reason for the title of this blog. I’d never heard the saying “it’s the squeaky wheel that gets fixed” until Monday. I listen to podcasts on my runs as I like to listen to and learn from people and as I run a lot, it gives me a lot of learning time. I also found that music often affected my mood, whereas podcasts just let me drift off and listen.


The podcast in question ‘Don’t Tell Me The Score’ is a BBC offering where (mainly) sports people are interviewed about their lives and what they have learnt through sport and life that has helped them improve themselves and help others. There are so many little nuggets of great information and helpful tips in each podcast and you don’t need to be a sports geek to really get benefit from them.


The episode I was listening to https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p080zy49 is an interview with former female cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent. They are talking about mental health issues among other things and the interviewer comes out with the statement “it’s the squeaky wheel that gets fixed”.


A lot of people who suffer with mental health problems will never talk about it and will never ask for help. Due to this they do not get help. People were posting after the sad suicide of Catherine Flack that they are there for people who want/need to talk. Unfortunately, most people won’t reach out for help and will tuck themselves away with their own thoughts. This is another reason to look at the Head Runners Facebook group, talk to friends, family, your coach or one of the many charitable organisations such as Head Runners, Mind, or Samaritans.


If you want help you have to be that ‘squeaky wheel’. You must make a noise and either ask for help or make it known to people that you are not in a good place. People will help if you ask for it. Despite what the media (and especially social media) portrays, the majority of people, family, friends and even random strangers are good people and will offer a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on or just an ear to listen to you.


Please make sure you are that squeaky wheel when you need help.


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Martin Hulbert
Personal Trainer & Running Coach Leicestershire