11 March 2020
Let's Talk More: Meet the Woman Redefining Running Groups
In the midst of her own mental health struggle, Jess Robson set up a running group aimed at getting people to talk about their mental health. Two years on, it's blossomed into a network that spans the globe.
When I manage to catch up with Jess Robson, she’s on the top deck of a bus to Hammersmith. It’s only 9am, but already this morning she’s done a shoot for a new range of RTR merch (it was outdoors, and it rained) and is now zipping over to another meeting. After that, she’ll be heading to work. When I double check that Jess is comfortable talking in such as public setting, the response is clear: “Let them listen! To be honest, I’ll talk about my mental health to anyone anyway, I think it’s good to get it out there.”
It’s exactly this kind of endearing openness and drive that’s made Jess an inspiration to so many in the two years since she set up Run Talk Run, a running club aimed at getting people to talk about their mental health. Founded at a time when Jess was herself struggling with anxiety, depression and bulimia, the concept is simple: a free 5k run, at the same time every week, always at the pace of the slowest runner. Led by volunteers – I actually co-lead the Camden group – it’s not therapy, but about friendly faces and having a reliable opportunity to simply get outside and have a chat, whether that’s about what’s on your mind or just what you’re up to that weekend. It doesn’t matter if you’re a seasoned runner or have never put on a pair of trainers in your life, if you’re a 40-year old parent of three or a super-fit 20-year-old with time to spare.
At first, attendance was sporadic, but with word spreading through social media, in the past year or so its profile has skyrocketed, with over 50 runs now taking place, as far afield as Oxford, Dubai and Brisbane. For her part, Jess has been interviewed on BBC News and featured in Runner’s World, and has now given up her 9-5 and taken a part-time role in order to have more time to focus on the project: “It’s all a bit surreal, but changing jobs was definitely the best thing for me. I have more energy to put into it.” The turning point came, she says, when one woman decided that the concept could be replicated outside of London, creating her own Run Talk Run group in Peterborough: “I think it gave people the confidence to establish theirs and started to create a sense of community around it.”
To say it’s created a community would be an understatement: “The thing I’m most proud of is the way the runners support each other, even outside of their runs. They’re able to talk freely about things they so often don’t do with their peers. I think that’s great to have and it’s really rewarding to be involved in that and to be able to watch it happen.” For Jess, who still leads weekly run and attends others each week, this sense of realism is important: “It doesn’t matter if I turn up and I’ve had a shit day and I'm teary, or my hands are shaking while I’m reading the run route. No one judges and everyone is supportive. I know I can be myself; I don’t have to turn up for show.”
Although the positive effects of exercise in managing mental health issues have been well-documented for some time now, the importance combining outdoor fitness with this sense of community cannot be underestimated. A 2017 study by scientists from the University of Cumbria into impact of ‘green exercise’ – in this case outdoor movement including horticultural activities – on volunteers’ mental health and wellbeing concluded that: “Volunteers recognized the restorative effects of the natural environment […] combined with the social support, as major factors in delivering positive health outcomes,” (1) adding that “the clear sense of purpose and meaning underpinning activity choice participation, and the feeling of togetherness this fostered” were major factors in this.
So, what’s next for Run Talk Run? Ever expanding, there are new runs being set up left, right and centre. Having recently partnered with MyCrew app and More Yoga in order to promote the runs, Jess is now turning her attention towards introducing RTR into the corporate world: “There’s things in the works for partnerships with firms in the City. That’s really exciting, because I think there’s a real gap for supportive conversations in those kinds of high-pressure environments, there’s lots of boundaries to be crossed.” She's also joined forces #HappyToTalk, a campaign to get people ditch earphones in favour of human interaction on public transport through the use of badges, £2 from the sale of which will go straight into funding Run Talk Run.
To maintain her own balance, Jess says she mixes running with strength training and journaling: “I always say that running is my social life and strength training is for slowing down. It’s a time that I don’t have to share – my gym doesn’t even get phone signal and it’s absolute bliss. Journaling is something I’ve done since I was about 13, and I really notice if I miss out on it. I find being consistent is key.” As for her own hero? Jess says that there’s really only one answer to that: her mum. “It sounds cliché, but she really is. She’s always used running to look after her own mental health, setting goals and reaching for her ambitions. It’s what got me into it, and she’s amazing inspiration.”
Find more about Run Talk Run over on the RTR Instagram
Main image: fordtography
- Christie, Mark and Cole, Fiona (2017) The impact of green exercise on volunteers’ mental health and well being: findings from a community project in a woodland setting. Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, 27 (1). pp. 17-33.