With all the (expensive) wellness trends floating around, it’s easy to forget just how far your own two feet can take you. I was curious to learn more about running as a wellness habit (2 hours a week is said to lead to a longer life!) and a community activity after I caught wind of a running collective called Girls Run NYC.
The founder, Jessie Zapo, is a force to be reckoned with. A runner (we exchanged emails while she was en route to the Boston Marathon), a coach (level I USATF), and a creative arts therapist, her accomplishments are impressive (to say the least).
When we met up with Jessie and her core Girls Run NYC team at McCarren Park, two things were immediately apparent: these women really love running and they really love running together. Their energy and camaraderie was infectious. The kind of infectious that makes you want to join them on the track every Wednesday at dusk.
How long have you been running? How much do you run per week?
I ran track and field from age 13 to 18. Then I would jog for health in my college years, but got into distance running around age 25, 13 years ago. I currently run about 5, sometimes 6 days a week.
If you had to summarize your journey as a runner into a few sentences – what would you say?
Running has been an integral part of my life since childhood, but has evolved over time, and will continue to evolve as I do. I see running as fluid, and it does not have to be one dimensional—just like we are always shifting and changing.
Can you talk about the specific health benefits of regular running?
Long distance running is a great way to build endurance physically and mentally, and should be applied gradually and with care to form and running mechanics. While running long distance can be challenging, it can be equally challenging running short distance. Running mechanics are essential for endurance running and short distance because they make you more efficient, and the best way to improve mechanics is through proper training in sprint drills and hill running. We do these things in Girls Run NYC to help women learn to apply mechanics to their regular run routine, which will make them stronger overall and help avoid injury.
I know from personal experience that running can be a powerful anti-depressant and mood stabilizer. Running makes you feel strong, powerful and capable, which in turn reflects in your physical appearance and demeanor. It’s an incredible tool for self-empowerment.
How do you warm up and recover from long distance runs?
I use the first mile as a warmup, running slower than my average pace. Stretching dynamically and doing some form drills are also good to start with. Static stretching (with longer stretches that you hold) should come after running. Runners should eat something with protein and carbs immediately after running long distance even if you’re not hungry. Depending on the distance, you should also consider fueling during the run and drinking water with electrolyte replacement. It’s great to do some form of foam rolling and myofascial release after runs and it’s also great to get more rest at night after running long. I like to practice yoga and get acupressure massages regularly to keep my entire body balanced.
What about some of the concerns people have of long term, long distance running? What kind of caution should individuals take as they start running?
I suggest people start out small and do other health care practices along with running. Often people think running is supposed to hurt, because it has that perception of being incredibly hard on your body. I think running should not hurt, if you’re building yourself up holistically and starting small. Run / walk methods can be a great way to train—and no, walking is NOT cheating. It’s smart. If you have concerns about specific pre-existing health issues that you think may be affected by running, it does not hurt to go to a physical therapist who can provide you with a functional movement assessment before you start a running practice.
What are the best practices to avoid injury from running?
Listen to your body. It can be hard to learn the difference between pain from injury and pain from the “work” of exercise, so learning what that is takes time if you are new to running and/or sports. It’s important to know when to go to a physical therapist versus when you just need some stretching, rest and sleep. I always recommend people going to a PT when they recognize pain that is not “normal.” If you are pro-active immediately when you feel an abnormal pain, you may actually be able to change something that your body is doing functionally and be able to avoid real injury that will take you away from the love of your sport/movement. Rest days, proper nutrition, sleep, cross-training, and strength training are excellent ways of improving your chances of staying healthy as well.
What are some of the most prominent physical differences you’ve seen in your body as you (or your runners) have developed over the years?
Along with a gluten-free and largely plant-forward diet, I have pretty nice abs for the first time since high school (haha!). I am in better physical shape now than ever. Track work really helps with strengthening hips and we do a lot of work around squatting and hip strengthening that helps make your glutes and thighs strong. My mood is way more stable having a regular running practice, and it helps me to combat anxiety and depressed feelings—which overall makes me happier, and it shows!
What about the mental aspect of running? Not only the effect it has mentally, but the mentality that is required to run long distance?
I’ve heard that running is 5 percent physical and 95 percent mental…or something like that. It is true that the mental aspect of getting yourself to go out for a run can often be the most challenging part, even for people who love running. I think that running long distance helps you to develop a new kind of relationship with yourself. I like to run without music, and so when I run with others I connect with them. When I run alone, I connect with the environment and become present with my body and my mind. We often do things where our mind and body seem to be operating separately, and running helps you to bring those two back together. It can be an incredible mindful practice if you are aware of it.
Can you tell me about Girls Run NYC? How long have you been doing it, what was the catalyst and what are the main goals?
Girls run started 2.5 years ago after many years of leading co-ed run groups. I always had a nagging voice that told me to do a gender specific group, and I finally built up the courage to do it. It started with pop-up runs asking women across the city to come and run with me…and it evolved into me getting my USATF coaching certification and creating a track based workout that was open to any women who wanted to work out. The main goal is to give women of any age and ability tools for healthy and sustainable running. We also hope to promote running as part of a wellness lifestyle.
Girls Run NYC is inclusive – but what are some of your non-negotiables that runners need to have (or develop)?
Anyone who wants to join Girls Run NYC is welcome, but the unspoken rule is that you have to bring good energy and not be competitive or “mean girl” with other girls in the community. The point of building a community around Girls Run NYC was to bring women together to build each other up and create sustainability in running. It’s also a great place for sharing information and networking. People have made great friendships and have been inspired by one another. I asked our core members in 2017 to “BE BOLD” and to take that for whatever it meant to them into the year in life and in running.
Someone wants to start running – what’s your biggest piece of advice?
Don’t wait til you’re ready. Start today and start small. Run/walk is always an option. Always. Be kind to yourself, running doesn’t have to feel terrible, and if it does you might be working too hard. Give yourself a calendar and try to get out every day for 12 minutes. Make it a date with a friend to hold yourself accountable.