A Mile in Her Shoes: ‘Running can make you forget about your problems’

It can be easy to forget when you’ve got relentless stitch, but it is a privilege to be able to go running. What if you couldn’t afford trainers? What if you only owned one T-shirt, so if you ran in it you’d be stuck in it all day – perhaps all week? What if you didn’t have a warm shower to fantasise about, a mile from home?

It’s easy to think that if you were homeless – or vulnerable to becoming homeless – the last thing you would care about would be going for a jog around the block. But a new London-based charity, A Mile in Her Shoes, is proving otherwise. It offers free running fitness sessions for women who have been affected or threatened by homelessness – and the number of attendees is slowly but surely creeping up. I joined them for a session to find out what it was all about.

We meet in the reception of an employment centre in South London. Two people have turned up – Fathima, 32, and Mary, who’s incredible at 70. Nicola Miller, the charity’s founder, had explained that the turnout is unpredictable as naturally the women involved have complex circumstances. Plus they can face barriers to exercise that you or I might not even think about. “If you’re doing exercise, you’re burning more calories and have to spend more on food,” Nicola points out. “There’s one girl who comes almost every week. But she’s living in a squat and there will be times where she doesn’t because she hasn’t got enough to eat that week.” The women are provided with water and post-workout snacks but obviously that’s not always enough.

A lack of exercise clothing is also an issue, so the charity kits them all out with running gear, which is donated by the public. Nicola says the charity has been inundated with kit since it officially launched eight months ago. I clock shop tags hanging out of the back of Mary’s leggings and a pair of barely worn New Balance trainers on Fathima’s feet. The condition of the kit is important to Nicola. “If you wouldn’t wear it, neither would they,” she says. “If you’ve not got much in life, you’ve got your pride.” The quality kit also levels the playing field – it’s not obvious who’s homeless or who’s one of the charity’s volunteers. And as we head across to the park to get started there’s no sense of us and them.

In sessions such as this one, where there are big differences in age or ability, instead of going on a run, Nicola sets up a series of “games” that everyone can take at their own pace. After playing Follow the leader – which gets us all giggling – we crash out for a breather. And I take the opportunity to ask Fathima, who was homeless two years ago and is trying to get herself back on her feet, what she gets out of running. “It relaxes your mind. It makes you feel more positive,” she says.

It was this magical quality of running that first gave Nicola the idea for the charity. She wanted to do something to help women who were affected by homelessness after volunteering in a shelter over Christmas. At the same time she was getting into running herself. “I saw the difference it makes to people and how everybody can get something out of it,” she tells me. And when she approached a few charities that work with the homeless they got behind the idea. “They’re really supportive because what we’re offering isn’t really there at the moment. It’s especially helpful for people who are moving on from homelessness and integrating back into society. It gives them a chance to do something social, as well as being good for their physical and mental health.”

And for all the unique difficulties in the lives of the women that attend, many of them have the same reasons as anyone for wanting to exercise. “When we ask why they want to run, for the majority it’s about losing weight,” Nicola laughs. “We’ve all got the same issues!” And true enough Fathima says: “I really want to lose weight. I was wearing size 18, but now it’s too big. I think I’ve lost five and a half kilos.” She’s only been to four sessions, but those have given her the confidence – and kit that she couldn’t otherwise afford – to start running in a park with a friend. Nicola tells me that other attendees have got into Parkrun, and some have even entered small events.

It’s an exciting time for the charity, as it is on the cusp of growing. They’ve just trained 15 new volunteers to lead more groups around London and launch the first in Brighton. And they’re on the lookout for more volunteers to offer sessions in other locations.

As for Fathima and Mary? They finish the session beaming. And in that moment it’s obvious that – far from being frivolous – running really can make a difference. If you ask Nicola why she does it, she’ll tell you: “Because running can make you forget about your problems. It can make you feel better.” And sometimes – when life deals you a dud hand – feeling even a bit better can mean an awful lot.

If you’re interested in donating kit (especially larger sizes, 16-22), becoming a volunteer (you’ll need to complete a one-day Leadership in Running Fitness qualification from Run England, costing £150) or making a contribution, visit amileinhershoes.org.uk. Follow the charity at @InHerShoesHQ and facebook.com/InHerShoesHQ. All running leaders are female, but male volunteers are very welcome to work in a ‘behind the scenes” capacity.

Jessica Powell is features editor at leading health and fitness magazine Top Santé. Follow her on Twitter at @JPJourno. She also blogs about fitness at fitphernalia.com.

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