I wasn’t a sporty kid. I did cross-country, but I never took running seriously. At university I was a party person, totally unhealthy – drinking and smoking.
It was my dad who persuaded me to go running for my mental health. I was 24, ill with depression, living at home again. On the first few runs I felt worse and was ready to give it up. But I got past that point and realised it was making me mentally and physically healthier. Running was the single best thing I did.
It was particularly good for the very bad anxiety I used to suffer. One of the reasons is that running mimics the symptoms: heart racing, breathlessness, adrenaline pumping. It’s impossible to have a panic attack when you’re running.
My father has been a runner for as long as I can remember. It’s him I get my running genes from although he’s still a better distance runner than me now, in his late 60s. We run together when we meet up.
I always say I’m going to sign up for races or do a marathon. I never do.
I’m a solitary runner. I like to find a pace and stick to it, get into a rhythm. But I am competitive with myself and get quite obsessed about times. I’ve done a 5K in 19 minutes but generally I’ll do it in 20-21.
I don’t listen to music when I run. I like the peace – being away from my computer, reaching that zone when you’re not thinking about anything except for the run itself. Music would defeat the object.
Our lives are so static now. We don’t even have to leave the house to go shopping. We need running as a physical counterbalance to staring at screens, social media and all the information that bombards us.
Running features in my new novel [How To Stop Time] and in The Humans [Matt’s 2013 novel] it was a way of showing that he [the alien who inhabits the body of a maths professor] was slowly becoming a human being. I devoted a whole chapter to running in Reasons to Stay Alive [his bestselling memoir about depression]. At some point I’d like to write a non-fiction book about why running is so helpful.
My mental health dips if I don’t run. I almost see it as an antidepressant. I’ll never have more than two days off. If I feel I’m slipping into a depression, upping my kilometres is like upping the grams. I never used to like treadmill running but I’ve come to realise it is a good way of making sure I get my running in. I have a treadmill at home now.
I moved to Brighton a year ago. We’re blessed with variety here, although you can’t go for a run without encountering a few hills. I love running by the sea on a Sunday morning and seeing people who are still out from the night before.
Matt’s latest novel, How To Stop Time, (Canongate) is out now. Find out more at matthaig.com or follow Matt on Twitter: @matthaig1