Signing up to train for a 10K with Nike was a crazy idea for me, mostly because I had never run long distance before. Like, ever. The extent of my running experience comes from high school volleyball warm-ups.
But another major obstacle to becoming a runner was keeping up with my thick, curly natural hair. I do exercise to try to stay healthy and somewhat in shape, but my workouts typically consist of 25-30 minutes on the elliptical — which barely breaks a sweat — or choosing to do a class like SoulCycle on a day when I already know I’m going to be washing my hair. Since I went natural eight years ago, my biggest challenge has been that the process of washing, detangling, semi-airdrying, then styling and diffusing all of my hair. The process can take up to two hours.
Running brings two problems: The excessive sweat makes my edges super frizzy. And when I put my hair up in a ponytail or bun so it’s out of my face, that flattens my curls, which means after that run, I’ll have to wear my hair in a not-so-cute bun until the next time I wash my hair and apply my usual Ouidad products. So running regularly meant I would either have to a) somehow squeeze an extra two-hour hair-washing window into my day every time I went running, or b) figure out how to maintain the shape of my natural curls while running for over an hour.
Safe to say, I knew from the beginning that training both my body and my hair to get used to running was going to be no small feat. Here’s how Operation Run With Curls went over six weeks.
I typically wash my hair about once a week, making my curls last as long as possible with the help of tons of product and by sleeping with them up on my pillow so I don’t mess up the shape. My big curls have become my signature, especially as an on-camera personality at Refinery29, and admittedly, I feel less put together, pretty, and “professional” when I have my hair in a bun.
For the first week of training at Nike’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan, I wore my hair up in a loose bun to see if maybe when I took the bun down, my curls wouldn’t be completely destroyed. Spoiler alert: It didn’t work. After just an hour in the “loose” bun, my curls were flat, frizzy, and limp. Not to mention my edges were completely sweated out and in disarray despite the cute yellow headband I wore both to save my edges (and, full disclosure, to complement my colorful Nike React sneakers.)
By the time I got home from the first night of training (a casual three miles — I almost died, I promise you), I was exhausted both physically and emotionally. And it was nearly 11 p.m., so washing my hair was definitely not happening. You can probably guess what went down: My hair ended up in that bun for the next five days. I had to run again on Thursday and Saturday, so there was no point in going through the process until Sunday, when I finally had some downtime to wash it. This, my friends, was my new life.
After our second Tuesday night training with Nike, I didn’t get home until around 9:30 p.m. I knew I needed to get in the shower as soon as possible to begin The Curl Process, because I had a big panel I was moderating for Netflix the following day — that hot-mess bun was not an option. Only one problem: I was starving. So I made myself a super quick dinner, then got in the shower by 10:30 p.m. While I let my hair air-dry for before I diffused it (the key to less frizz), I prepared for the panel. I finally got to bed around 1 a.m., which was not ideal for a 6:30 a.m. wake-up time. I was beat the next day and found myself asking: Why was I doing this running thing again?!
At this point, the burnout of staying up late multiple times a week to do my hair washing process was wearing me down. So I turned — where else? — to the internet for help. I found a tip from Ada Rojas, a curly hair beauty blogger, on Instagram: She suggested using a silk scarf to push the curls up and forward in front of the face. The only problem is that my hair is too long, so when I did it, my curls were literally in my face. I tried my own spin on it, doing a loose high bun, but keeping the ends of my curls out of the elastic and turned forward so they wouldn’t get completely flattened. Then I did a headband instead of a scarf, so I wouldn’t be hot.
This ended up being a decent solution. After running, I had a dent in my hair, so I couldn’t wear my hair completely out the next day, but I could at least wear it back in a pony so I wasn’t just bun-ing it for another week straight. Compromise!
By this week, I pretty much had a routine: I’d wear my hair down and out at the beginning of the week, then after the first night of running on Tuesday, I’d do a ponytail the following day. And by the end of the week and a few sessions of sweating out my edges and curls, I had no choice but to do a slicked-back bun. And let me tell you, laying down those edges after all that exercise was no joke. Both my morning and nighttime routine included a baby hair brush, edge control gel, and a scarf just to get it in a semi-presentable bun.
This was a tough week for me, because I developed runner’s knee, which slowed down my progress majorly. So I decided to take a week off to rest and prepare for a trip with friends to Coachella. (I couldn’t risk being sidelined during Beyoncé, obviously.) The one upside to the minor injury was that it felt nice to be able to wear my hair out for a few days straight without worrying about the effect exercise would have. But after just a couple of days, I was surprised to find that I actually missed running. I know, right?! I couldn’t believe it either. As hard as it was to upkeep my hair throughout the process, I was beginning to wonder if the way my body felt after a good run was worth all the hair trouble that came with it.
Right before I left for the final 6.3-mile Nike Choose Go race, a co-worker commented that she liked the way my hair looked when it was slicked back in a bun. That validation made me feel less self-conscious — and less like a failure — that I hadn’t quite mastered my personal workout-while-hair-slaying routine.
In the end, my hair was not at all my focus. I was more worried about actually running 6.3 miles and surviving, which was no easy feat for this beginner runner. After the race, I felt so proud of myself that I cried. Six weeks of training with several start-and-stops — including the runner’s knee — didn’t stop me. And neither did my hair. So even though I may not feel like my cutest, most professional self in a constant post-run bun, I do feel my best when I’m challenging myself. And that is worth sacrificing a few good hair days.
Travel, accommodations, and training were provided to the author by Nike for the purpose of writing this story.