Run Like A Mum
Bristol-based mum and founder of This Mum Runs, Mel Bound is helping women from all walks of life to get active by putting the joy back into running
By Alice Barraclough
Illustration by Iratxe Lopez de Munain
Speak to any runner and they will tell you the ways in which running has led to a fuller, happier life. Some will gloat about how lacing up their trainers offers discipline and structure to their day, while others will share stories of how running has boosted their confidence or helped their mental health in times of despair. But for members of This Mum Runs – one of the world’s largest running communities dedicated to mums – the benefits are even more tangible than that. In fact, the power of running and its community, the friendships forged and opportunities unlocked, show there’s so much more to it than simply a group of women running.
The story of This Mum Runs began in 2014 when Bristol-based Mel Bound, a new mum who had gone from being the sporty kid at school and someone who was incredibly active – she’d worked in the health and fitness industry and in sports marketing – to injuring her back and losing all her confidence.
“I was in quite an unusual space,” she says. “I had my daughter, who’s now 11, and I had a fall when I injured my back and needed quite major surgery. The two things combined – plus being a new mum with no spare time – so I went from super confident physically and exercising regularly to wondering whether I would ever run again. I was terrified that I would injure myself again so I just slumped into a ‘I can’t get off the sofa’ feeling.”
A personal trainer looking after Mel’s rehab gently started encouraging her to start thinking about running again. “She suggested that I find another mum who might feel similarly anxious and might have the same practical barriers around needing to run at weird times of the day,” she explains. It was this very conversation that sparked a Facebook post. “I was thinking, I’ll just see if someone fancies coming for a run with me, but it will have to be at 5am,” she says. “I was massively lacking in confidence and even a 10-minute run felt quite daunting. So I was overwhelmed by the response.”
From that online post, the following Wednesday night, 75 women turned up for a run. Yes, really – 75. “I remember standing outside the park and watching all these women walking towards me. I thought I’d missed a massive event or something. And then they stopped and said, ‘Are you Mel? We’re here for a run’. And I remember this feeling of ‘oh my god’. I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “It was a massive lightbulb moment for me – I realised there were loads of women feeling the same way as me. We ran ten minutes down the road and 10 minutes back again and we were all completely euphoric.
“It wasn’t even the running that made us feel that way – it was that we were out of the house with no kids with us. No buggies. No nappies. We didn’t talk about our kids for a whole 20 minutes. We could just be ourselves and connect with other women we’d never met before and that felt amazing. We went home and I set up a Facebook group so that we could arrange to meet every week. And that’s where it all started. That was the beginning of This Mum Runs”.
From that first run, word got out and the group started growing at an exponential rate. Within a few weeks, Mel realised she’d uncovered something quite special. Six months later she was offered redundancy from her job, so she decided to take on This Mum Runs full time. “I had no idea how I was going to do it, but I wanted to try to grow This Mum Runs into something meaningful,” she adds. But coping with the challenge of going viral was no easy feat. “It was very overwhelming. But I think because I’d been in a place of inactivity myself, I knew what it was like. It was only a couple of years of inactivity for me, but some of the women who were joining had never been active. And that was also quite overwhelming because I didn’t want to let those women down. If they plucked up the courage to share a story, I wanted to make sure I responded and they felt seen.”
Fast forward to 2021 and This Mum Runs now has a community of over 150,000 runners offering weekly runs in 70 different communities across 37 cities. Each run lasts for 30 minutes at ‘chatty pace’ – where you can comfortably hold a conversation – and no one is left behind. They’re completely free to join and led by a team of volunteers known as ‘Run Angels’. You just register on the app and turn up.
Of course, for some women, starting to run might be as easy as lacing up a pair of shoes and heading outside. But for most, it takes a bit more work and a lot more intention – so Mel put a lot of thought into the brand she wanted to create, and who she was doing it for. Leaning on her previous work expertise as a strategy director for a brand experience agency, she started talking to members of the community to really understand what their barriers to exercise were. “That piece of work underpins everything we do,” she explains. “We originally thought the issue was tied with motivation. But we quickly realised that actually, it wasn’t about motivation at all. Instead, it was a mixture of physical barriers, like finding the time, and also emotional ones, such as worrying about being the slowest.”
Mel identified three different types of running mothers: ‘Barrier Bev’, ‘Juggler Jess’ and ‘Kitbag Karen’. The first group – the ‘Barrier Bevs’ – were women who hadn’t exercised since school. “They’d had a terrible time in PE at school – to the point where it had been so scarring for them so, they never exercised again,” she says. “There were all these layers of emotional barriers that made them feel they couldn’t do it. They were kind of terrified and fearful of looking stupid, of getting it wrong or being last. These women didn’t have any reference of what it felt like to be active and actually enjoy it.”
The ‘Juggler Jess’ group was made up of women that had been active before they’d had children. So they knew the value and benefits of exercise – but time was a real issue. “These are the women that are juggling; a career, children, organising get-togethers for their friends, holidays, dentist appointments – everything. And they felt guilty at taking any time for themselves. They were very clear that they didn’t want us to create something that made them put even more pressure on them. So for those women, it was all about creating something that was about headspace. It wasn’t about going out and getting a PB or getting their pre-baby body back. It had to be pressure free.” The last group of women – the ‘Kitbag Karens’ – were women who were already quite active, but wanted to belong to something. “They wanted to pay forward the benefits that they got from being active and help support other women to move more.”
The sense of community Mel has created is beyond impressive. It’s clear that the language Mel uses and the campaigns she runs have all been carefully curated to make women feel welcome, safe and supported. And – accessible to everyone. “I started running in 2012, for completely the wrong reasons,” says 34-year-old mum of two, Jess Munday, from Southampton. “It was a weight loss thing – and I hated every second. It was just something I felt like I had to do.”
Jess, who has suffered from an eating disorder for the majority of her adult life, decided to join This Mum Runs last year after finishing treatment. “One of the goals I set myself was to be able to find joy in movement. I wanted to be able to exercise and celebrate what my body can do without getting caught up in weight loss and calories burnt,” she says. “And that’s when I stumbled across This Mum Runs. I liked that their whole ethos was about finding headspace and boosting your mental health.” Similar to Couch-to-5k, Jess started doing This Mum Runs’ Run30 programme, which she describes as a nurturing and encouraging training programme that doesn’t focus on speed or pace. “It just made me feel good,” she says. “How I looked became less of a barrier – instead it was about what my body could do and about feeling strong, happy and healthy. Everyone can run – irrespective of size, shape, pace or distance.”
This message that running is for everyone is something that not only This Mum Runs wants to shout from the rooftops; their sponsors do too. Vitality, the innovative health and life insurance and investment company, partnered with This Mum Runs last year to help inspire more women to get active and participate in sport, in line with their core purpose to make people healthier and enhance and protect their lives.
“Their mission is very similar to ours,” says Nick Read, Managing Director for Vitality. “This Mum Runs is about empowering women everywhere to enjoy the life-changing benefits of being active. It chimed with us in so many different ways – our visions are so aligned in terms of supporting women on their journey from inactivity to activity and closing that gender ‘play’ gap.”
Vitality, of course, are well known for partnering with leading sports figures, teams and events. From supporting parkrun and the Vitality Big Half to partnering with women’s football, cricket, rugby, netball and hockey teams – their background in sport highlights their commitment to supporting more women to get active. “What we want to do with This Mum Runs is exactly the same as what we’ve done with parkrun – we want to grow it naturally and authentically, but really place the emphasis on addressing the disparity between men and women in sport,” he says. “We’re releasing a series of short videos to inspire people to get more active, and we’re also supporting their network of volunteers called ‘Run Angels’, who are essentially heroes and champions within their community and lead the weekly runs.”
Lara Smith, a 36-year-old mum of one, is a Run Angel for This Mum Runs in Northampton. “Our job is to lead the group and make sure everyone stays together. We run for 30 minutes at the speed of chat, any mum can come along – and the group is capped at 15 people,” she explains. “All runs are paced by feel, not a GPS watch yelling splits at them. We’re all mums that just need a little bit of time out for ourselves – and we happen to be talking and moving at the same time. That’s what brings us together.” The best thing about running with a group of like-minded women? “Having a running family,” says Lara. “As someone who ran mainly on my own, having that support and a sense of community is the best. We’re each other’s biggest cheerleaders. If somebody has run their furthest or their fastest or just got out after a stressful day, we’re the first ones to get behind each other.” The beauty of having both a physical community and an online one meant that when Covid lockdown restrictions came into play, This Mum Runs members could still stay connected throughout the pandemic. Even when run clubs had to come to a halt, there was still a safe space where women could share and connect and inspire each other to stay active.
For avid trail and mountain runner and Bristol-based mum of one, Dr Seema Srivastava, This Mum Runs became even more important during the pandemic – as she used running as a mental escape from her stressful job in the NHS. “For me, running, being in nature, being offroad and getting lost, helped me take my mind off what was going on. I was supporting the vaccination programme at work during the early part of this year and a colleague of mine – also a doctor – convinced me to enter an ultra marathon with him. It was just a wonderful opportunity to spend time with my colleague and talk through some of the stuff that happened during the pandemic,” she says. “When I first started running with This Mum Runs I would be nervous about doing 5k – so to do 50k was such an achievement.”
Like all the women we’ve spoken to, Seema is passionate about encouraging other women to move their bodies, particularly those just starting out running. “You forget all the pain and aches, but the sense of joy and of achieving something remains. I’m from an Indian background, and there aren’t many black and brown trail runners – so to be a role model and show that outdoors and nature and running is for everybody, is really important to me,” she says, describing This Mum Runs as a chance to just be you – “not a doctor or a partner or a mother – just a runner connected with other women wanting to get outside to have a chat.”
Convincing a group of unfit midlifers, who haven’t exercised since school, that prolonged aerobic effort is fun may not seem like an easy feat, but Mel and her team are hugely ambitious. She wants there to be a This Mum Runs community in every city in the world, to recruit more run leaders and to develop their app to further scale their community.
“It really is transformative – I know it sounds twee, but for me, going running is literally about the joy of it. I don’t care how far I run, or how fast,” says Mel. “As the This Mum Runs ethos says – it’s about my time, my space, my pace.”