Gym closed? Try this instead.

I’ve written about how I got fit through running before, but not in such unusual circumstances so bear with me. If you are a gym bunny who is devastated at the loss of your lifeline (because I know exercise is something that keeps many of us sane) or if you are feeling anxious about your health, circumstances, the global Corona virus crisis, etc. but haven’t exercised before, I’m going to try and talk you through how I use my own body weight to increase my strength and how I run short distances for cardio and anxiety management. I’ll be 55 next birthday and had a lifetime of bookish, sedentary behaviour, asthma and a weight problem when I started four years ago. If I can do this, most people can. I’ve never belonged to a gym but I am really fit for my age and I’ve never felt better.

I’ve learned all the below through research, experience, Pilates lessons and session with a personal trainer.

Some important things I’ve learned:

  1. Don’t run to train, train to run.
  2. No huffing and puffing.
  3. You don’t need to push yourself.
  4. Treadmill running is *much* harder than outdoors.

Okay, lets start with number 1. Don’t run to train, train to run. You need a strong core and strong knees to run, especially if you are overweight. You can do exercises for this in a space about as big as a door, laid out on your floor. I have a yoga mat but it will be fine on a rug, or even a duvet if you have wooden floors. 2. No huffing and puffing. This only applies to running and it’s a brilliant safety tip I got from a long forgotten blog by some American guy who trains people in their 60s, 70s and 80s to run marathons. If you find yourself huffing and puffing (try saying something out loud while you run) slow down or walk for a bit. Once you are *much* fitter (you’ve been running two years) you can huff and puff a little unless you have a heart condition or some such. 3. You don’t need to push yourself. You really don’t. Enjoy it. Take it easy. If you do it regularly you will get fitter and want to run further/faster. Listen to your body. 4. Treadmill running is harder. I thought this was odd at first, it seems counter intuitive, but when you are running outdoors you naturally slow your pace and speed up so it feels easier. I sometimes do a 5k on a treadmill and I’m *minutes* slower and the whole thing feels like a slog.

So, how did I get started? I was about a dress size 18 (I’m 5’3″). To warm up I put on some Kate Bush and did Kate Bush style dancing. I didn’t have any running shoes or gym wear but I did have some trainers and leggings. I made a playlist of what I thought might be good running songs (more on that later) and put my headphones on so I wouldn’t hear any catcalls or my own breath, which makes me anxious sometimes, I downloaded an app that would measure my distance and off I went. First time, I planned to run/walk round the block. I ran slowly, trying not to strike with my heel (bad for your knees) and walked as soon as I was out of breath. That’s it. It was a distance of 1.8km.

Next time, I did the same route but ran and walked between lampposts, one on, one off. After three attempts I found I could run most of the first downhill bit in one go, so I did that, then walked up the hill back home. This is when I realised hills might present a problem as I was so unfit. I worked out a flat(ish) route and managed about 2km.

Within 3 weeks I was running 2.5k with a few walking breaks. To celebrate, I ran to my friends house and she drove me home. This turned out to be quite a flat route so I did it again and soon found I wanted to run right past her house and on to Kirkstall Abbey beyond. What a wonderful feeling!

I challenged myself to run round a lake in a nearby park (2.7km) and found that on the flat I’m pretty fast for an old lady. I trained to run up a short steep hill near me by running it twice then heading straight home. I got better at hills. I got fitter. I ran round the lake twice, then three times. I found I could run 4km, then 5km, then 6 then 7.5 then a regular 8km and suddenly one day 11km. Wow! That’s the furthest I’ve been. I ran the Leeds 10k last year and will hopefully do it again this year if it’s not cancelled. As I’m not young it’s important to rest at least one day between runs to allow muscle recovery so I run every other day, more or less.

I invested in proper running shoes about three months in, when I was sure I wasn’t going to give up. They are worth every penny but don’t imagine that the thicker the sole the better the knee protection. This is not strictly true. I find if I can feel the ground better I can protect my knees better through my running gait. Search for barefoot running and read up on this before you spend money. Regarding other equipment, really the only crucial thing is shoes, and even they aren’t as important as your running gait and being sufficiently warmed up/cooled down, everything else can be improvised.

And so to music, well, all I can say is experiment and see what suits you but don’t assume it has to be techno, or even a certain beat per minute. I’ve found that soothing music works really well – think Sigur Ros or a similar vibe – because I can ignore the beat, run at my own speed and it helps me to tune out, which helps me run a lot further. If I lose myself in music I can jog along quite happily for ages.

Finally, bodyweight and resistance training can be done with no equipment (a yoga mat helps but not crucial). I do it in my hallway. I have loads of different moves, here are a few to get you started. Do 8-10 of each exercise, repeat three times, but with breaks, doing other movements between. Do them in whatever order feels right for you. I won’t bore you with loads of descriptions, it’s easy to find people on youtube demonstrating exercises

First, find your neutral. (This is a Pilates thing.) Stand straight with feet apart and arms by your side. Tilt your pelvis back and forth and imagine a bucket full of water. When is the water spilling over and when is it flat in the bucket? That flat space is your neutral. Now pull your stomach muscles in as far as you can, then let them go a bit, keeping a feeling of control. Try to remember this feeling when you are doing your exercise.

Press-ups/push ups: You don’t need to do a full press-up you can bend your knees, feet in the air, cross your ankles, push up from your knees.

Plank: Front plank and side planks. Count to ten slowly (or two, it doesn’t matter, you’ll get better). You must keep your body in a straight line, don’t let your hips sag towards the floor. Side plank is similar, lie on your side, push up on one elbow, but you will need to push up with one hand, then bring that arm up over your head, as if you were doing Scottish dancing. Really easy plank that’s good for your hips is lie on your back, knees bent and push your bum up so your body is in a straight line.

Core exercises: sit ups are bad for your back. Instead, lay on your back with one knee bent and one leg straight, pull your stomach towards the floor, bring the straight leg slowly up towards you bending your knee, to meet the other one. Lower it slowly, straightening it. Repeat other side.

Crunch: Lay on your back and push both legs up into the air so your bum comes up off the floor a bit. Repeat.

Calf raises: Stand on a step. Balls of your feet on the step, heels over the edge. Raise up onto your tip toes by tensing your front thigh muscles and pulling up, then lower yourself so your heels are below the level of the step. Repeat.

Knee exercises: Do all of these on the NHS website.

That’s it for now. Any questions please comment below. Stay safe, stay well, look after yourself and each other. See you on the other side.

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