Whether we like to admit it or not, many of us cling onto the idea of the perfect runner — and she’s probably dressed in Sweaty Betty or Lululemon. But what happens if you can’t afford fancy athleisure? Writer Eleanor Noyce has spent the past year learning how to run strong and challenging elitist barriers to success.

What do you wear to run in? Maybe you’re an old-pair-of-shorts-and-a-free-T-shirt kind of runner. Perhaps you’re more like the kinds of runners we see in magazines and on Instagram, dressed in the latest luxury leggings and technical trainers. If you’ve been running some time, what you or other runners wear comes second to performance. But for those of us who are still new to the sport, image matters.

Like so many others, I took up running during the first lockdown of 2020. Downloading the NHS Couch to 5K app, I timidly set out to run up and down the private lane outside my mum’s house to the soundtrack of Jo Wiley’s encouraging voice. 

It took a few weeks before I ventured outside of this safe little haven I’d built for myself: as a size 14, I was worried that I’d be stared at for being mid-size. I didn’t own any elite fitness brands like Sweaty Betty, Lululemon or Gymshark; to begin with, I ran in M&S leggings and an old T-shirt. I’ve since acquired myself some proper gear from Decathlon, but in searching for the ‘right’ clothes, I wondered where the idea of needing to wear trendy brands to run in has come from. With running in particular, shouldn’t kit choice be about function over fashion?  

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Activewear consumption is certainly on the increase, accounting for 40% of all online sales in 2020. Covid-induced lockdowns have overwhelmingly improved society’s relationship with exercise, encouraging those who were previously sedentary to indulge in daily government-mandated walks, or even to take up running. In July 2020, NHS England reported around one million extra downloads of its Couch to 5K app, marking a 92% increase from 2019.  

Despite this positivity, however, it seems (at least from where I’m jogging) that running has become increasingly gentrified in recent years. There is certainly an argument to be made that running is more readily accessible than many sports since it doesn’t require membership fees or equipment, but the rise in elite athleisure brands has facilitated a certain perception of the ‘ideal runner’. 

Athleisure is a double-edged sword: brands such as Lululemon market smart clothes designed for maximum performance, but often, these same brands are advertised as being for both leisure and exercise, hence the term ‘athleisure’. This alters the branding, pushing prices up: Sweaty Betty shops adorn middle-class high streets, with the average pair of leggings costing anywhere from £50 to £90. This certainly isn’t accessible, and creates a perception that to be a runner, or indeed any kind of athlete, you need to have money. 

Wear what makes you feel comfortable and confident — whether that’s an old t-shirt, a mid-range pair of leggings or a really fancy kit.

In 2020, the Women and Equalities Committee conducted a survey into body image. It overwhelmingly found that lockdown had made people feel worse about their body image, that people don’t feel reflected in the images they see in media and advertising, and that six in every 10 women feel negatively about their bodies. 

Exercising can expose all kinds of insecurities, and young women in particular are more likely to feel self-conscious while exercising — whether that’s related to the clothes they’re wearing or the body they’re built in. 23-year-old Bethany told Stylist: “I was always too nervous to start running because I didn’t have ‘branded leggings’ or ‘branded tops’. I also felt like I wasn’t thin enough to run… I still think people will be judging me.” 

She’s not the only one. I spoke to another runner, Jacqs, who is a size 14 like me. They also did the Couch to 5k last year but struggled with the thought that other runners were judging them for not being as fast or advanced. 

How to feel confident while running

Wear what makes you feel good

So, is it possible to build yourself a wall of confidence to fight those inner demons when exercising outside? PT Millie Bevan believes so: “I think for a lot of women, it comes down to how safe they feel while out running. To stay safe, speak to your family, housemates or friends to let them know the route you are planning to go. Wearing something that you feel happy in helps massively. If it means putting on a bit of make-up because that’s when you feel most confident, then do that.”  

Look at the bigger picture

Sara King, health and mindset coach, says that “exercise builds better relationships, including with yourself.” Living healthily “plants an internal value seed”. By stepping outside your comfort zone and pushing your limits physically through exercise, King explains, you can set a “daily reminder that the same effort and dedication will result in the same type of progress in other parts of life.”  

See running as an act of self-care

What you wear to run couldn’t matter less — so long as what you have on supports your body to move and makes you feel good. Confidence coach Lisa Phillips tells Stylist that “confidence comes from the inside, so use lots of encouraging words to start your outside exercise routine.”

“Remind yourself that every runner started somewhere – often in an old pair of tracksuit bottoms! Focus on feeling good rather than looking good. Taking any sort of exercise is good for your overall wellbeing and it is an act of self-care.”

Try saying affirmations

Finally, affirmations can play a big role in boosting your mental health and confidence to canter. Yoga teacher Michelle Taylor uses affirmations herself and with clients every day. She explains that they are “positive statements that you wish to be true for yourself and which help to rewire your brain and beliefs.”

“Try writing in a journal daily or placing post-it notes where you will see them and repeat them in your head regularly. For example: ‘I am healthy and vibrant’; ‘I feel strong and confident when I run’; or ‘I love the way I feel when I run.’”

How I finally learnt to love running

Almost a year into my running journey, I now recognise first-hand the benefits it offers. For years, I was discouraged because I felt that running was the reserve of thin people adorned in the latest high-street brands. The initial goal that I set for myself was to feel less stressed and more energised: I can safely say that I feel I’ve achieved that now. Retrospectively, I now wonder how I made it through GCSEs, A-Levels, and university without running: where did all that noise go that was inside my head? How did I expend any energy?

If you’re worried about external judgment, take Bella Mackie’s advice from her book, Jog On: “Have you ever remembered the face of a runner? No.” So, to any young women wanting to take the plunge: do it. You won’t regret it.  

Boost your confidence by joining the Strong Women Training Club and having a go at our four-week Strength Training for Runners programme. You’ll run stronger, longer and faster in no time!

Images: Getty

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