Running Tips for Beginners and enthusiastic old people alike!

Let me start by pointing out that in no way am I any kind of expert on running. So I’m not claiming that what I write about in this blog is any kind of guarantee of success. There is no way on Earth that reading this blog is going to make you some kind of Olympian! However, as someone who’s ran on and off – more on than off, but a little stop start now and again – for most of his 49 years, I can certainly say that I speak from experience.

Running is something I’ve always loved. It was something that I started at school and success at junior school sports days whetted my appetite. I discovered very early on that I was in possession of a good turn of pace and despite my size, was capable of beating more or less anyone I raced. For a while at least. A heart problem put pay to that and once I recovered I found that I wasn’t the ‘athlete’* I’d once been.

*The term athlete is being used with quite an amount of creative license here by the way. I was a quick kid but that was about the size of it!

With my childhood heart problem taken care of I started running again, albeit not as well as before. But I really wanted to raise money for the heart unit where I’d had my operation and so, to cut a long story short, I started running more regularly and more seriously. I started to do sponsored fun runs and from there graduated to doing the Great North Run, a half marathon, raising money as I went. After that, I just kept on running either for fun or more competitively for clubs. In my time I’ve completed a number of half marathons, but mostly just ran for fun. That said, that’s a lot of running! And in the last few years, following more heart problems, I’ve started running much more regularly. It’s amazing what a health scare can do for you! So you never know, there might just be a bit of common sense in the tips that I can offer! So here we go…

  1. Preparation, preparation, preparation! I can’t lie; there are far too many times that I go out having not prepared properly. If it’s an evening run I tend to make the excuse that I’ve been on my feet all day at work, so I’ll be fully warmed up anyway. But it’s never true and the proof is never more evident in those first couple of miles when I can’t get into my running or afterwards when everything seizes up! So, it’s a little bit of a case of doing what I say and not necessarily what I do here. Take time to warm up. Stretch thoroughly and perhaps even go as far as some running on the spot beforehand. Your body will thank you for it later! Stretching isn’t the only thing you can do though. I always make sure that I’ve had a blast on my inhaler – I’m asthmatic – as I don’t want to be too out of breath too soon. I’ve also started eating a handful of pine nuts and cashews before I head out, just in the hope of a bit of an energy burst. Pine nuts are good in terms of being heart healthy and contain things like iron and magnesium, which can boost energy. Don’t eat so many that you end up running with indigestion, but I always find they help me along the way. Cashew nuts contain healthy fats and again are heart healthy. I can’t claim to be an expert on all things dietary, but even if it’s as a placebo, I find that handfuls of things like this help me out.

The final thing that I make sure I do is to have a few jelly sweets in a pocket, ready for a quick sugar rush when I feel I might be flagging just a little bit too much. My personal choice are Mike and Ike’s, a nicely sugary coated import from America, available in B&Ms brilliant and strange American Confectionary section. Other jelly based confectionary, American or otherwise, is available. All over the place.

2. Clothing. Unless you’re into naked running, clothing is a vital part of your armour as a runner. Some would say it’s essential. From a personal point of view, having never tried naked running, I’d always go with clothing; no one repeat no one, needs to see me and my middle aged body charging down the road, in the nip as they say.

Silliness aside, good quality running gear is important. But there are levels here. I’m not someone who feels the need to splash ridiculous amounts of cash on what I’m sweating into, but I do want to feel comfortable and at least look the part without it being a case of ‘all the gear, no idea’.

The most important thing – in my humble opinion – is to get a good quality pair of trainers that you’re comfortable in. I used to run in Nike flats, but found that their very thin nature meant that they wore out relatively quickly. So eventually I went for a reasonably priced pair of New Balance 680 v6, which feature a nicely cushioned sole. Game changer! Suddenly I was running faster, going further and more importantly at my age, not suffering with aches and pains for days after. You could say that I’m a convert to cushioning. I’ve since bought a new pair of New Balance, but my 680s are hanging on in there and I’m out running in them regularly. I’ve found that some good quality running socks feel a lot better too.

In terms if what else I wear, I prefer 2in1 shorts, with an inner cycling short lining. I’m all for keeping those hamstrings warm! What I would also advise with running shorts is that you buy something with some kind of pocket. That way, anything light that you need to take can be stored away. My pockets always have a few jelly sweets and I find my door key handy for getting back into the house!

I’d also advise buying specialist running tops. I’m a t-shirt man myself. My build just doesn’t lend itself to vests and no one needs the sight of any more of my body! What I would say is that you should have something bright or even high viz, just for your own safety. It’s surprising how people many just don’t see you coming, so be as visible as possible, especially on more murky days or evenings. With this in mind, I was pleased when my wife bought me a couple of light up bands that I can wear around my upper arms in winter. If it gets too late and the light is cutting in, I just flick a switch and they light up, leaving me to focus on my running rather than whether or not I might get knocked over! They’re lightweight and comfortable too, which is ideal for people like me who hate running with anything annoying attached to me. You can see the kind of thing I mean below, although there are lots of variants on this particular accessory.

3. No excuses. Until the last 18 months or so I’ve always been brilliant at coming up with excuses as to why I shouldn’t go out for a run. And excuses as to why I should come in early from a run. Drizzle, too windy (weather, not me), a niggling and sometimes not real injury, not enough time, too close to lunch, not enough sleep, not in the right frame of mind, too windy (me this time), too sunny…I’ve gone through phases where anything I could tell myself would be enough to stay where I was and not head out for a run.

Don’t do it. Those endorphins won’t release themselves. However tired you think you feel, however bad your day at work was, get out for that run. Keep up the momentum. You’ll feel better for it. You’ll be pleased with yourself. You’ll have improved your fitness, just a little bit. But if you let that excuse keep you in then you’ll find another one the next time and even when you get back out again, you’ll excuse yourself some more, another time.

Once I stopped making excuses and just getting out there, I got fitter, stronger and faster. It’s taken me a long, long time, but nowadays the weather and the niggles don’t get in the way and I’m absolutely loving my running.

4. Plan a route (kind of). Personally, I don’t like to plan a very detailed route, but I like an idea of where I’m going, vaguely which set of streets I’ll be running along and more to the point, where I turn for home. I keep it vague for one reason: if I want to add a chunk of running in, I can and that means that I can feel good about myself once I get home. If I know that where I’m headed will take me say for 5km but I’m feeling good, then I might add a few extra streets in and before I know it I’ve covered an extra kilometre or two. And I can’t pretend that it doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better. Maybe it’s just a me thing, but I’d definitely recommend it. I suppose in a way it means I get to explore little bits of town, rather than just running another circuit of somewhere and I find my way a bit more interesting. Sometimes it’s good to keep my mind distracted from how my legs are doing and heading down a couple of new streets does just that!

5. Recovery. Over the last 18 months I’ve learnt that once I get back in after a run, my next hour or so is really important. I always used to make sure that I had a drink of water, but it was never anywhere near enough. And I’d never stretch.

Nowadays everything has changed. When I remember, I put a bottle of water into the freezer before I head out for my run. I’ll neck that as soon as I get in and then refill and drink slowly for a while. I might even refill again after that. I also make sure I eat a banana as soon as I get in. I might even have more cashews or pine nuts. If I have any pain I have a massage roller ball that I put in the freezer and then massage with when I get home and it works wonders! And I make sure I stretch again. This is usually done while lying or sitting down, touching my toes or painfully pulling my feet back behind my back. Before, I might well have just flopped down in a chair and watched television, then wondered why my muscles just stiffened up half an hour later. I’d wake up next morning and find it difficult to walk, such was the stiffness in my legs and back. And then lockdown happened.

During lockdown I read a lot of things about running and exercise. I also did online workouts and learnt the value of warming down and recovery from this. I can’t recommend it enough. The stretching helps to loosen and lengthen the muscles again and the fruit and snacking helps throw vitamins back into the body, which can only help. The water replaces fluid that you’ve lost while also refreshing you, obviously. It seems obvious now and why I totally ignored recovery for so many years is beyond me, but I would absolutely recommend that you take far better care of yourself after you’ve ran. You’ll feel so much better for it.

I hope these tips – some more obvious than others – will come in handy for you. Like I said before, I’m no expert, but I’ve found that these things have helped my running immeasurably. I’m faster and stronger, but more to the point, I enjoy my running much more than ever.

As usual, feel free to let me know what you think by leaving a comment. Oh, and happy running!

Poetry Blog: ‘I ran’

This is a poem that’s been sat in my notebook for a long time. Months, not years, but a long time all the same. In truth, it’s one that I was a bit unsure of. I didn’t know what to do with it and as such it got a bit lost. Every so often I’d flick through said notebook looking for something else, only to re-discover this forgotten poem. Finally though, after a closer inspection, I’ve decided to give it an airing.

I think the good weather has helped. The poem is about a time when I could exercise a great deal more because for almost the whole time the weather was glorious. Looking out of the window as I write, it’s another glorious evening, much like those of last April and May.

It’s a poem about the pandemic. I don’t know quite when I wrote it, but I know that I took the whole thing deadly seriously once I realised the extent of the devastation that seemed to be going on. I was adamant that I was definitely sticking to lockdown, but determined to take advantage of our daily exercise allowance. And so I did.

The poem is about lockdown in general, but also the fact that I took the opportunity that lockdown presented as a chance to make some changes. I’d have said that I was reasonably fit or even kidded myself about being ‘naturally fit’ when it all started. But as I read more and more reports about coronavirus and took into account my own vulnerability to it, I decided that I was going to have to get much fitter. After all, there was little excuse; I wasn’t at work and all I really had was time. So, as the poem says, I ran.

I ran...

When the danger struck, I ran.
Not away from it, but straight at it,
maybe heroically, possibly naively, 
feigning bravery because I didn't know what else to do.
Such is my way with everything.
Don't think, don't plan, act on instinct, 3 in the morning thinking
and possibly a dash of Dutch courage.

And so, when the unseen, yet definitely alien villain headed our way,
sounding dangerously, almost laughably familiar,
I ran.
Decked out like a skinny, pound shop part time superhero,
I somewhat limped into action, exercising evangelically
in an attempt to out-cardio this beefed up cold.

But while others stockpiled toilet rolls and 
took another paracetamol from their selfish stash,
I got fitter, leaner, stronger.
My thirst for the fight meant I doused my fear in fresh fruit, 
nuts, seeds and an ever present bottle of water,
and I ran.

Thousands perished. Some sought solace in illegal road trips
or standing on doorsteps hypocritically acclaiming those who chose the Hypocratic.
I doused my guilt with physical torture, pushing myself to limits I'd not explored in years,
enjoying the isolation, getting evermore prepared to face what felt inevitable
and hoping that this wasn't all in vain.
I ran.

The effects of lockdown – or lockdowns, plural – can’t be underestimated. I think, more than anything, I benefitted from it, but it was still an awful, scary time. Running got me through the fear. In fact, running quite often dealt with the early mornings, while writing steered me through the late, sleepless nights. So my poem is both about what I did as well as being a direct result of what I did.

I’ve tried to inject a dark humour into parts of this poem. At first, I didn’t really believe the hype about coronavirus. It was the flu, it was a ‘beefed up cold’ and I wasn’t going to lose too much sleep about that. I soon realised the truth though! I’ve attempted a little more dark humour later in the poem too. Although I was fit, I probably didn’t really look it; hence the ‘skinny…superhero’ reference. And let’s face it, not many tall skinny fellas look good in lycra!

The whole pandemic scared me and the best way that I could think of to deal with that fear was just to throw myself into something. Exercise, fitness and in particular, running was that thing. Initially, my thinking was simply that if I was fit, the virus would stand less of a chance against me, so I was exercising in different ways every day. At first the whole family joined in and then, as the world righted itself and people went back to school and work it left me largely on my own in terms of exercising. And this was when the running went into overdrive. I’m guessing that when I wrote the poem I was feeling particularly evangelical about it all!

That’s certainly why there’s the reference to people stockpiling certain products. I think lockdown saw a lot of people showing their true colours and it angered me that while I was doing my best to stay safe there were others just making sure that they didn’t run out of anything, that they weren’t inconvenienced. I’d see social media posts from people about how they’d joined in the ‘Clap for Carers’ knowing that they’d been visiting friends or family when it just wasn’t allowed. The hypocrisy of that support for the NHS really bothered me when all it seemed to be for some people was a chance to pat themselves on the back and look good. And I watched in horror as various high profile people in the UK were caught out visiting family hundreds of miles from their homes, while I couldn’t head out to visit friends and family myself. In fact, at the time of writing, I still haven’t seen my parents, my sister and some of my best friends and it’s been well over a year.

So there you have it. A poem that may take people back in time a little bit, despite the fact that large parts of the world are still in lockdown and that even here in the UK we’re only just beginning to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel. As ever, I’d love to hear what people think, so please feel free to leave a comment.

Poetry Blog – ‘Early Morning Run’

If you’ve read the blog before or are a regular reader (I don’t know if I actually have regular readers, but there you go…) you might already know that I’m a big fan of running. I’d been a sporadic runner for most of my life until the first period of lockdown when I found the time to really work on my fitness and found myself running on a far more regular basis.

In the past, I’ve dabbled with early morning runs. I’ve always thought they were a good idea and it doesn’t particularly bother me that I have to get out of bed early. I’ve never been one for having a lie in and although I wouldn’t call myself a morning person, I can just about function at that time of day. However, I’ve never taken early morning running this seriously before. In the past I think I’ve just been of the view that getting out of bed and doing a bit is enough. Nowadays – probably because I’ve got myself a lot fitter – I take things more seriously.

So since early November last year I’ve been getting up before 7am every Sunday and heading out for a run. My wife thinks I might be going mad or perhaps having some kind of mid-life crisis, but I’m definitely not! I’m just enjoying running. I don’t think I’ve ever ran this early before, but it’s enabled me to experience quite a lot of brilliant things. I’ve ran along long straight roads with barely a vehicle in sight and watched as the sun comes up. I’ve been able to start my day in absolute solitude, gathering my thoughts and just feeling completely and utterly relaxed. I’m calm while running, rather than panicking about how I’m feeling, whether I’d be able to finish, the pain in a muscle etc. And I’ve had time to think, which has helped me a lot with things that I want to write about. I’ll be taking a dictaphone out with me soon!

With all the solitude, the calm, the energised feelings I’ve had after running, it felt obvious to write a poem about my early morning runs. I’d even been taking photos to help me remember certain things. And so, I sat down and wrote some notes. Sometimes these turn into lines from a poem, other times they just stay as bullet points, until I get the urge to sit and write the actual poem. In the case of this poem, I wrote minimal notes and spent a chunk of one Sunday morning, post run, just writing the poem. There were a few bits scribbled out, I suppose as part of a drafting process, but in the main this was a poem that was written as a first draft. Maybe that says something about my enthusiasm for the subject matter…

Early Morning Run

Although a pre-7am alarm on a Sunday is very much the stuff of nightmares, it’s done now. There’s no going back. I roll from under the covers and stumble like a broken robot across the blackness of the bedroom to halt the alarm, then, after a brief flirtation with the cold tap to awaken my senses, I’m downstairs, my body protesting as I stretch. Finally, when there’s nothing left to delay me, I leave the relative warmth behind.

Outside, a pattering against nearby leaves alerts me to the drizzle. My heart sinks slightly, but I turn and run. As I climb the first hill, the early morning fog rolls down at me. I push on, my bare arms and legs slowly adjusting to the biting cold and by the top, although catching my breath, I’m into my stride.

The centre of town is a place for ghosts, only the gentle pad of my feet on concrete can be heard and there’s only me to be seen. The sun fights a losing battle with the fog as I plod on and the only light to be seen belongs to the occasional cars of shift workers heading for warmth. I afford myself a few quiet words of encouragement, tell myself it won’t be long before I’m in their shoes.

On the outskirts of town I run on the empty road, giving up my territory every so often as early morning haulage thunders past and shakes the pavement. I relax, the only soul for miles around, alone with my thoughts and the constant voice in my head offering platitudes, encouragement, advice. Shoulders back, straighten out, head up, lengthen your stride, keep going.

Further down the road, as I tire, a shiftworker emerges like a high viz beacon and we exchange nods, perhaps each wondering which of us has made the worse decision on this cold Sunday morning. And then, the long downward stretch that signals my way home claws its way from the grasp of the fog and I quicken my pace, as if acting on instinct.

A lone gull lands upon a lampost above my head, like some kind of vulture, but it’s too late. I’m gritting my teeth, summoning last reserves of strength and fighting fatigue; this scavenger will have to wait. I open up my stride as best I can and drive for my finishing line.

Finally, I’m home and fumbling for a key with which to silently open the door in order not to wake my sleeping loved ones. Inside, I move to the kitchen, gulp down water, gorge on fruit and then stretch, thankful to be back, my body aching, but my mind cleansed.

Just a brief explanation of a few things in the poem. The line about stumbling across our bedroom ‘like a broken robot’ is me trying to communicate just how tired I feel when I wake up. There are days when my legs just don’t seem to work and the stiffness means my steps are ragged to say the least. It fascinates me that within about twenty minutes, I’ll be running at pace up a hill! Later on in the stanza I mention that ‘my body protests’ at stretches. I know I should warm up, but I seriously don’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m some kind of ‘proper’ runner!

In the fourth stanza, I mention the voice in my head. that might not be wholly truthful. Often I’m actually talking to myself while out running. While there are times when I thoroughly enjoy it and feel totally strong, there are more when I can’t work out why I’m working out, so to speak. And so, often I’ll have a little chat to myself and tell myself that things aren’t that bad or try to kid myself on that it’s all in my head and that my legs are, in fact, strong.

In the fifth stanza I mention a long downward stretch. I’d like to point out that while it’s long, it is barely downward at all and that some of it means going back uphill. I almost changed the poem at the point as I couldn’t stand people thinking that a huge chunk of my run is down a big, steep hill. It’s not. But it’s downhill enough for me to pick up the pace!

The gull in the sixth stanza genuinely frightened me. At first, out of the corner of my eye, I genuinely believed that it was a bird of prey and that it might just take a swoop at me. Seeing it was a gull was a relief, but I still looked at its massive beak and felt a bit of trepidation!

Let me know what you think in the comments. I hope you enjoyed the poem as much as I frequently tell myself I like my early morning runs!

Heart ops, Strava groups and 7am starts – how I fell in love with running again.

Looking back, I’ve been a runner most of my life. From scratch races around our estate and school sports days, cross countries and a brief dalliance with a running club I’ve always done it. And I’ve always loved it.

I was born with several heart problems. The main one was a hole in the heart, but there were a few other things that when combined, put my life at risk. As a child, up until the age of about 6 or 7 I spent a lot of time in hospitals and had open heart surgery at a young age when such a thing was very much still in its infancy. I was weak, scrawny and described by my surgeon as “a very poorly little boy”.

I got through, but for a long time I stayed as very much that same scrawny little boy. I don’t know whether my illness contributed, but I took a long time to really grow and always found myself playing catch up with kids of my own age. I was forever skinnier and until I was about 16 years old, I was shorter too. Where any kind of sport was concerned it didn’t bother me a bit. I was always doing some kind of actvity, and while I may not have been the best, I was prepared to put in the hard work in order to improve.

In terms of running, I had a bit of an advantage from quite an early age. I seemed to have decent pace in sprints and about enough stamina to hold my own at longer distances. But I was never quite good enough to make me really happy. I still really enjoyed running though. However, always being not quite good enough began to get to me in the end and I would suffer mentally while running, whether it was a race or I was just out on a training run. Nothing terrible, just a bit of what I saw as a weakness. I’d drift off, losing focus on what I was doing and begin to hear my own voice often telling me I’d done enough, or that I was far too tired and that I should just stop and walk. As time went on I began to just lose interest. In the end on one of the final times that I entered the Great North Run (a famous UK half marathon) I had a bit of a shocker! I had trained sporadically and ended up just putting faith in the fact that I’d done the race enough times before to be able to know what I was doing. It didn’t turn out that way.

To compound my lack of fitness, it was a really sunny day and I got sunstroke. By the time I’d finished I found talking difficult and was slurring my words. I’d arranged to meet my then girlfriend – and now wife – along with, I think my mam and dad, at a certain point away from what would be a crowded finish area once I’d finished. However, by the time I arrived I think they were considering sending out a search party! I vaguely remember asking a man on the baggage bus where our meeting point was but really not understanding his explanation, such was the state I was in. In the end, I gathered my thoughts somewhat and just staggered in the general direction of where I felt it was and finally found my welcoming party. After that, I remember being forced to drink a lot of water and then falling asleep on the back seat of the car, draped across my girlfriend’s lap. I genuinely don’t remember much at all about the actual run.

Needless to say, the whole experience put me off running for quite a while and it was a long time before I found the motivation to start running seriously again. However, to cut a long story short, I got motivated enough to do one final Great North Run (my 6th) in order to exorcise those particular demons, ran it in a decent time, proved a point to myself and then more or less gave up running for a number of years.

Until my mid to late 40s I didn’t really run again much at all. And then – as has been documented in a few previous blogs – heart problems struck again and I decided that I needed to get fit. As far as I was concerned I’d had a gentle brush with death and wasn’t prepared to sit around and allow my body to go to seed any longer. So I ran for my life.

Even then my running was relatively sporadic. I’ve always been particularly prone to niggling injuries and sadly it’s always been something that I’ve allowed to put me off. I think as I’ve got older I’ve got mentally weaker in terms of levels of determination and used small injuries, colds etc. as a good enough excuse to duck out of a run or two. But then something else happened that completely changed my outlook and fortunately allowed me to make my body a great deal fitter and stronger.

When Coronavirus struck, I ran. Simple as that. Being told that I was particularly vulnerable to the virus and then watching how dangerous it could be, made me think. I needed to be as fit and as strong as possible. I had to be prepared to fight. So I fought. And this time I fought properly.

By March of this year I was in lockdown and unable to work. I genuinely didn’t know what I’d do to get through the initial four weeks that I was going to be away from work. So when schools closed and Joe Wicks decided that he’d run a live family fitness class every morning of lockdown, I jumped on it.

Initially it was our whole family. But when my four weeks turned into 6 months, things got busier for the rest of the family. My kids were being schooled remotely (until my then Year 6 son went back to actual school) and my wife was working from home. This left me, pig-headedly doing a Joe Wicks workout every morning at 9am and without realising it for a while, getting much fitter and stronger into the bargain. Suddenly one morning while having a shave I noticed the appearance of actual muscles on my arms, across my shoulders and chest and thought, well this is a bit different!

After a few weeks I felt fitter than I had in years and so started getting into the habit of finishing a workout and then heading out for a run on at least a couple of occasions in a week. And what a difference a bit of strength makes! A couple of weeks later and I was beating personal bests every time that I went out. If I ran 3km on the Tuesday, then I’d run 3.5km on the Thursday, until I was regularly running a 5k after a couple of workouts per week. Just over a year ago, I started to do Park Run and after a couple recorded a 5km personal best of 28 minutes and 56 seconds. That was enough to give me an excuse to stop again! Now, after a few months of going out running, that personal best has been broken several times and now stands at 24.48. Who knew that being actually, properly fit could make such a difference!

Clearly, taking fitness seriously has really worked for me. As someone who’s thought of himself as a runner for years, I’ve now realised that this is actually the fittest I’ve been in probably 25 years and at the same time, the best I’ve been at running! Other commitments mean that I have to limit my running to twice a week, but I find myself getting quite giddy in the lead up to a run. I can’t wait to leave work on a Thursday so that I can get home, stretch and then go for a run with my son. I wouldn’t say I was obsessed, but it’s definitely a mild addiction.

Recently, because of new lockdown rules, grassroots sport was cancelled and I usually coach an Under 12s football team. Armed with the knowledge of what the last lockdown did to my team, I was quick to put in a plan. And armed with a new fitness regime, it was always going to involve running!

The last lockdown meant that the only contact I had with many of my players was via a parents WhatsApp group and all that I could really do was check how they were. It also meant that by the time they returned to football, months later, many of them were really out of shape. So this time I had a plan.

We’ve set a 5km challenge, meaning that we’re trying to get every kid in a squad of 14 to run at least 5km per week. This will hopefully keep them fit. We’ve formed a club on the Strava app, meaning that we can all check each other’s progress, the kids are getting respect from each other and there’s a good level of challenge as they can see each other’s efforts in the app. As a coach I can keep an eye on who’s doing what and it’s definitely going to help me to pick a team when we’re all back together as, apart from anything else, I’ll know who should have the fitness to last an hour of playing time! While there are some who’ve avoided it, the majority have taken up the challenge and I know that they’ll be in better shape than last time when we finally play again. The whole thing seems to have kept spirits up within the team too and it’s been brilliant to see each of them trying to improve on their efforts. It’s also been a brilliant way for me to test myself and set a good example to my team too. We’ve even got one or two of the mums and dads joining in too, so running has been a bit of a saviour over the last month or so!

Yes, of course I chose my longest run to screenshot!

So where am I at with my running currently then? Well, given everything in my life – and I’ll be honest, my age – I’ve made sure that I only go out and run twice a week. I run on a Thursday evening with my son, simply because that’s when he should have his football training. I also get up ridiculously early on a Sunday morning and go out for a long solo run, while there’s hardly anyone around.

Fitness-wise, this is great. I’ve been out on the last four Sundays and starting with a 5 miler, have progressed up to my latest effort of 8 miles. This is the furthest I’ve probably run in at least 10 years! I have to say, I love it. There’s nothing quite like running through a foggy Yorkshire town at 7am, knowing that it’s more or less just you for streets and streets around! I’m alone with my thoughts, watching day break (sometimes I even see the sun come up, but this is northern England, so it’s a rarity) and just completely relaxed. It hurts, I must admit, but it doesn’t really matter. As I’ve previously explained, I’m much fitter and stronger and so feel that I can recover fairly quickly, where before it might have taken me days of walking like I’d had a blunt object inserted somewhere unpleasant before I was back to feeling even remotely normal. Like I say, it’s amazing what being properly fit will do for you!

The start of a beautiful sunrise during one of my early morning runs.
But sadly, it’s not always as lovely!

If the pandemic allows I plan to run at least one race for charity in 2021, partly to raise money for a heart fund, but also in memory of a couple of friends who we’ve lost this year. It’s been a tough time and I’d really like to be able to give a little bit back. And now I have a way of doing that again.

It feels like a bit of a success story. I’ve rediscovered something that I really loved and feel that I’ve become much, much better at it too. And for a man of my advancing years it’s been a real boost. Given the context of things with a global pandemic, lockdowns, normality being taken away and the fact that we’re unable to see family and friends, I think we all need a bit of a boost. Perhaps, if you feel like having one too, you might go out for a little run and see how it feels? I’d definitely recommend it!

Ten Things that Lockdown Exercise Has Taught Me

Photo by Philip Ackermann on Pexels.com

It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a remarkable year so far. Sure, its story can be summed up neatly with just two chapter headings – COVID-19 and Lockdown – but really that’s what has made it so remarkable.

Courtesy of a global pandemic lots of us have been given a time to reflect and learn. To slow down. I’ve written about the positive side of lockdown before and, as such acknowledged the tragedy of the losses suffered around the globe. While we’ve been locked down, people have fallen victim to a silent killer, while others have put their own lives on the line in order to help. We’ve been living through life-changing times, that’s for sure.

For me, despite finding the threat of the virus quite terrifying and finding the isolation from work both heart-breaking and mind numbingly dull, lockdown has been a positive process. The fear I’ve felt has made me spend more time in touch with my family – I have rung my elderly parents every few days, a great improvement on my usual shameful record of keeping in touch. I’ve been in regular touch with my sister and I’ve been forced to spend more quality time with my immediate family and in turn thoroughly enjoyed it. Furthermore, I’ve written more, connected with friends, relaxed more and frankly, transformed my garden!

By far my favourite pastime in lockdown has been exercising. From the off I’d decided that if there was a likelihood of contracting the virus, I was going to be as fit and strong as possible in order to fight it. A combination of asthma and a heart problem left me vulnerable to COVID and having spent time in hospital in the recent past frightened that this was it, I wasn’t going to go and die from what some were describing as the flu! So I began to exercise.

I’ve learnt a lot about myself over these lockdown months. Exercise has changed me. Don’t get me wrong, I was fit enough to begin with, especially for a man of my vintage, but now, I’m very much Middleagefanclub 2.0!

Here are ten things I’ve learnt about myself via lockdown exercise.

  1. I have abs, I want better abs and I finally understand the fuss about abs! That’s a lot of abs! I can’t help feeling enthusiastic about this though. I’ve spent my whole life learning to be comfortable with my slim build; perilously thin arms and pipe cleaner legs, not to mention my pot belly, developed over the last few years of my forties. And when my wife unearthed a picture of me in my twenties, emerging from a loch in Scotland a la a skinny, lanky Daniel Craig in just swimming shorts but sporting an actual six pack I realised that I’d been taking little or no care of my body for years. Now though, via a daily exercise workout with Joe Wicks on Youtube (70+ workouts and counting) and daily walks (sometimes more than one) I’ve found that, at the grand old age of 48, my body has changed. As well as the abs, I have muscles in my legs (visible ones), pecs (that’s a chest to the uninitiated) and discernable biceps! In short, I’ve learnt that with dedication and hard work my body is far, far stronger than ever before! Don’t get me wrong, I’m still slim, but I’m no longer a stick insect with a belly!
  2. I can exercise through the pain. I’ve always been injury prone. I think being tall and thin has made me fairly fragile, although I’ve never actually broken a bone, and so I’ve always picked up niggling muscle injuries quite easily. I’ve had a couple of serious ligament injuries to my knee and ankle along the way and they say that your body is never quite the same after that type of thing. So it was almost inevitable that when I began to exercise seriously, that something had to give. Needless to say that after a few weeks there was a ‘pop’ in my groin, followed by a bit of a tear in my thigh a week later and then about 5 weeks in my back went. However, I’ve never enjoyed exercising as much as I have during lockdown and so, I was determined to carry on. I was doing the #PEWithJoe workouts as provided every morning of lockdown by Joe Wicks and as such was just determined to carry on, such was my enthusiasm for being there and doing every workout, every morning. It’s meant applying a great deal of Voltarol to my back and mainlining Ibuprofen (other ailment treatments are available) but I’ve managed to just keep going. I’ve even found that whatever pain I’m in when I wake up, once I’m exercising and properly stretched it eases. I might not seem much, but after a lifetime of feeling like I should rest up because of injury, I’m now completely attuned to simply working through the pain.
  3. I have little shame and a lot less ago. For far too long in my life I’ve been too cool for school. When others have dived in and enjoyed themselves immensely, I’ve backed off for fear of losing face. Well, not any more…at least where exercise is concerned anyway. There’s still no chance of me doing dressing up, regardless of the charity or acting in any staff plays – work colleagues, Laura, Gemma, Emmas, et al take note! However, while exercising in lockdown I have found myself doing all sorts of ridiculous things in the name of fitness. I’ve walked like a duck to exercise my quads, done bunny hops, Pikachus and Joeys for cardio and frog jumps and bear crawls just because someone has told me it’ll do me good! And when Joe Wicks has told me to put my hands up like I’ve got bunny ears or to imagine I’m a kangaroo holding a joey in my pouch, I’ve done it and not worried a jot about who might be able to see. My neighbours and postman may well have seen a very different side to me at some point and I have to say that I don’t care!
  4. I still don’t like fancy dress. A man has limits! Friday is Fancy Dress day in my new exercise world and while thousands across the world have joined in, I haven’t budged. While Joe Wicks jumps around dressed as a panda or Spiderman, I’m keeping up my own good work in shorts and a t-shirt. I’m happy to run around the town I live with a face resembling a damp plum tomato, but there’s no chance that I’ll be dressing up like one. I even considered an alice band when my hair was particularly long, knowing full well that any number of friends could walk or drive past, but it’s a long stretch from that to running 5km dressed like a superhero! However evangelical I might get about exercise, there’s a very slim chance that I’ll ever resort to fancy dress. Fitness is important, but dignity more so!
  5. There’s no shame in running downhill! I’ve lived in my present home for over 20 years now and tried to go out running at times times during many of those years. However, where we live is quite hilly. Indeed at the end of my street there’s a main road up a big hill. For years I told myself that I always had to start my runs by heading up the hill. And for years I wondered why my first kilometre of those runs was invariably slow! I’d dread running up the hill, knowing that by the time I reached the top my legs would be like jelly and I’d only really be starting my run. That’s all changed during lockdown. I’ve taken to doing a workout and then heading out for a run a couple of times a week. But I decided to be fair to myself. Thus, on my first run, I ignored heading upwards and ran a little way down the hill, through a local park until I reached a nice flat stretch. It meant that by the time I’d reached my first climb I’d already ran a kilometre and was completely into my rhythm and feeling good. Lo and behold, it’s really helped! I’ve found that I’m steadily building up my distance and retaining some speed, while getting ever fitter and really enjoying my running. There really is no shame in running down the hill – even if it is for a few hundred yards. I only wish I hadn’t been so stubborn and learnt this twenty years ago!
  6. I really like order. In order to give a sense of variation to his workouts, Mr. Wicks has introduced a few gimmicks. The intention here is to add an element of chance or jeopardy if you like, to the workouts. Personally, I have all the jeopardy I need with the fact that my back might just ‘ping’ at any moment, but given that over 100,000 households are listening most days, I’m guessing any complaint would fall on deaf ears! So, rather than letting us know exactly what we’re going to be subjected to, he’s added in a sense of the unknown. The unknown has so far come in the form of a spinning wheel that contains the name of lots of exercises that we could do, two giant dice and also some over-sized playing cards that are used in a game of higher or lower. If I’m honest, I don’t mind the cards at all, simply because there’s always a visible list of the exercise options, so I sort of know what’s coming. There’s order. I despise the wheel. Hate it with a passion. It never seems to roll true and is forever landing on the same exercise, meaning that whatever part of my body is taking the strain will be a quivering wreck by the time the wheel has spun and landed on the same thing three times in succession. Without a doubt, I’m far, far happier when Joe just tells me what’s coming next!
  7. Daily family walks will inevitably be punctuated by arguments. On all but about five days since the start of lockdown, we’ve been out for a walk around our local area, as a family. We’ve walked for miles and miles, which to us adults seems like a thing of wonder. However, to our children, it’s the dullest thing ever. It’s guaranteed to sour at least one of their moods and, given that my children are very much of the opinion that we all need to hear what they’re feeling at any given time, their disapproval will be voiced. Cue arguments! I’ve often said that we provide a traveling soap opera for anyone within hearing distance when we’re out and about, but I daresay there are people in houses around where we live who have counted down the minutes until we pass again in the early evening. It seems to be a tailor-made opportunity for my children to have a good moan or offer an unwanted opinion. Me? I tend to just walk at the back, lips firmly shut, but even then there have been times when I can’t help but join in. Who knew a walk could be so eventful?
  8. I still prefer to exercise without a soundtrack. While I’ve experimented with running with my iPod on, I’ve never really found it adds anything to the way I feel. More than anything, I worry about not hearing traffic and crossing a road where I then get knocked over! While I’m out running I like my wits about me and I find I can concentrate and focus a great deal better without music in my ears. I wouldn’t say that there’s any kind of zen thing going on, but I find the silence helps me to think. And while I’m thinking – maybe weighing up a decision that’s got to be made – I’m not feeling the heaviness in my legs or the tightness in my chest. My thoughts don’t wander, so there’s no danger of worrying about anything asthma-related and more to the point, I’m no longer prone to the little voice in my head telling me I’ve gone far enough and should stop! I think even with music on I’d be telling myself just to get to the end of a particular song and then turn round and walk home! I’m definitely mentally stronger when it’s just me and the outdoors. I’ve found the same with working out. While using YouTube to exercise there are mornings where the instructor plays music and I’m never at my best when it’s being played. Just tell me what to do, let me watch the clock and I’ll be fine!
  9. I’ll get stuck in, whatever the weather. Just this morning, post-workout, I was out for the walk that serves as a warm down. It was fairly cold and the drizzle was relentless. But we were still out and about. And this has been the case throughout lockdown. While in the past I might not have gone out for a run because it was blowing a gale or raining, nowadays I don’t give it a second thought. Similarly, when it’s been very hot, I’ve made the effort to get out and run. It’s definitely the right approach and it’s definitely making me fitter, stronger, and healthier.
  10. I’m a terrible judge of people. I owe Joe Wicks an apology. For years he’s just been a bloke with silly hair and I mildly amusing voice. Then, when I joined in with his workouts I initially found myself judging him a bit more. Now, 15 weeks or so in, I’ve come to realise that he’s alright. He seems to have similar sense of humour to me – he’s a big fan of Alan Partridge – and like me he’s devoted to his family. I still can’t live his lack of taste in music, but I’ve learnt a valuable lesson. Just because you’re regularly clad in lycra, are unashamed about showing off your sculpted body and are vocal about your love of exercise and healthy eating, it doesn’t make you a bad person. Sorry Joe. And apologies to every runner or gym goer I’ve ever sneered at around where we live.

So there we go. Not only have I got fitter, but I’ve learnt a few things about myself. I’d love to know how others have filled their time during lockdown or maybe even what you feel you’ve learnt about yourself. Let me know in the comments.

Legs like jelly and lungs fit to burst, but crossing the line with a smile – my experience at Parkrun.

As some of you know, for the last 18 months or so I’ve been on a bit of a quest to stay fit. And for those of you who didn’t know, well…how to put this? For the last 18 months or so I’ve been on a bit of a quest to stay fit. So now you know.

The quest came as part of a reaction to a health scare. In April 2018 I was admitted to hospital with quite severe heart palpitations and about a month later had to have an operation called a boob job. Just kidding, it was a cardiac ablation. Basically they destroy the bit of your heart that’s causing the problem by inserting catheters through your blood vessels and blasting the affected area with radio waves to create scar tissue that doesn’t conduct the electricity that is reaching your heart and causing the problem. Basically.

My reaction to this was to be a little bit frightened. On the whole it wasn’t a pleasant experience and it left me feeling quite worried that I might be a lot closer to death than I’d ever imagined. And so, as part of a lifestyle change, I began to exercise again. I began to run. Because, baby, we were born to run.

For the most part this has been a very solitary activity. Apart from a few early runs when my son would come with me, I’ve been out running alone. Having discovered X-Box though, my son has decided that he no longer cares about his dad’s health and thus I have no running partner and a son that couldn’t care less whether I live or die. And of course, I jest there. Dark humour and all that. Of course he cares. The whole family does. I mean, who would put the bins out if I keeled over?

I don’t mind the solitary side of things. I like running alone. It leaves me free with my thoughts – I don’t tend to listen to music – and since the operation I feel like I’ve become mentally a lot stronger too. So while as a young man I’d readily give in to the little voice telling me to stop, nowadays I’m made of sterner stuff. I’ll battle on when I feel tired and I’ll run through the periods when I feel like I might be sick. That solitary half hour or hour is more like a break – no one to engage with, nothing to bother me, except tired legs and lungs.

Recently though, my daughter had begun her bronze award in the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. As part of it she has to volunteer for anything up to six months and so, when she was struggling to find somewhere to do this, my wife intervened and contacted the people at our local Parkrun. The organiser, Michelle, couldn’t have been more helpful and agreed instantly to take on my daughter and her friend as volunteers. And this is how I found myself on a narrow lane in Oakwell Hall, West Yorkshire stood in a crowd of people buzzing with anticipation.

In truth Parkrun has been on my radar for ages. It appealed as soon as I read about it, but there was always something stopping me doing it. There are several local to me so I wasn’t short of options and wouldn’t have to travel too far, but that final push to take myself along had always eluded me. But then, with my daughter needing a lift to Oakwell Hall and there being nothing to do but hang around when I got there, I decided to take the plunge. And so I found myself standing on the aforementioned narrow lane in a country park in West Yorkshire wondering what I’d let myself in for one Saturday morning in late August.

It had been a couple of weeks since I’d last run and so my head was full of doubts. And there seemed to be hundreds of others here too. Most were fellow runners – I optimistically classed myself as a runner, despite my feeling that the last bit of today’s run might well be crawled – and then there were quite a few others either volunteering in some capacity or spectating. For a few minutes I was convinced I’d made a big mistake and wondered if anyone would notice if I simply wandered off in the direction of my car. But then I looked over to where a group of volunteers were standing, getting ready to head off to their marshalling points, and spotted my daughter and her best friend. Both were here as part of their Duke of Edinburgh bronze award…I couldn’t let them down. I couldn’t face explaining why I’d done the wrong kind of runner. So I pushed the positives.

One of the moments that I was dreading was the guidance for new Parkrunners. I’d got it into my head that I was sure to be the only one and that while someone lectured me about running, a whole load of Saucony clad young folk would be standing around eyeing me up and tutting at my inexperience.

Unsurprisingly, it was nothing of the sort. Firstly, there were around a dozen of us new to the run, so I could hide in company. Secondly, the talk was enthusiastic and good humoured; it was clear that everyone wanted us to do well. And finally, a quick glance around told me that there was no difference between us newbies and the veterans that we stood amongst – everyone was just here for a run.

Following the briefing of the virgins, I decided to head down to the start of the run. Still suffering from nerves and a little bit of self-doubt I headed towards the back of the ever growing group. Looking around it didn’t take long for me to notice that everyone seemed happy. There was a selection of ages and body shapes, the weather was good and it was the very start of the weekend. Amazingly, it didn’t take long for this Parkrun ‘vibe’ to take hold of me. While normally I’m cynical and quite resistant to smiling, I found myself gradually relaxing. Positive thoughts seeped into my mind and it wasn’t long before I was telling myself that not only could I actually do this, but that I could enjoy it and perhaps even do it well. Such is the atmosphere at Parkrun.

It wasn’t long before I was joined in the starting area by a lot more runners. A check of my watch revealed that it was a few minutes to the 9am start time. And then, at the head of the pack, sans megaphone, appeared race director Michelle. At first I struggled to hear precisely what she was saying, such was the noise of dogs around me. Actual dogs…that’s not me turning all pirate on you. But occasionally people would clap, so dutiful as ever, I clapped along, not sure whether I was feeling positive or not. Slowly but surely though I got to hear what she was saying and basically Michelle was being a one-woman motivational/relaxation tool. She also seemed to be a dog whisperer too, as the more she shouted, the quieter the hounds became. By the time she began asking whether there were any tourists or first timers I was relaxed and ready to run. I secretly hoped that the dogs had fell asleep – surely even I couldn’t finish last if the saying about letting sleeping dogs lie was going to be adhered to. And then, before I knew it, we were off!

At the back of the field we shuffle awkwardly forward, occasionally breaking into a jog, before slowing again as the road narrows. Luckily, by the time I pass my daughter for the first time, I’m doing something that resembles running. Despite the uphill start and the fact that the lane narrows to a path within a couple of hundred yards, I’m feeling fine as we reach the first turn onto a track I know well from family walks around the park.

For a short while I jog steadily along, sort of stuck behind people, but also running on auto-pilot and not particularly interested in upping the pace. And then, as the track widens enough a couple of runners pass me and it snaps me into some sort of action. I kick on a few times and get round some of the runners around me, picking up a comfortable pace and stretching my legs a little.

Soon, we hit the first downhill stretch and I negotiate this fairly carefully, aware of the fact that if anyone’s going to take a tumble, it’s going to be me. Then the track narrows again and the pace is back to a crawl, but I’m feeling relatively good.

As the track opens out we face a short, energy sapping uphill climb over some cobbles – well we are in deepest Yorkshire – through the car park and we’re about halfway around our first lap of the park. I’m suddenly aware of clapping and some shouting and when I look up I’m greeted by the sight of several high-viz jackets adorning a group of volunteers who proceed to do a wonderful job of congratulating everyone that passes on their progress, however slow we may be, or in my case how much our face resembles a plum tomato. And this is one of the many great things about Parkrun; everyone is so supportive and positive. At various points around the 5 kilometre course they stand and congratulate you or tell you what a great job you’re doing. And in the spirit of the whole thing you find yourself thanking them right back. As a veteran of 6 Great North Runs I know that I react well to such encouragement and crowd participation and although it’s on a much smaller scale here, it’s no less welcome.

We crest the hill and across the road from me is my daughter and her friend. Again, despite my embarrassment, it’s a boost and I lengthen my stride ahead of another downhill section. Another bit of a kick and I’m feeling pretty good – *coughs* for a man of my age – and I manage to pass a few people on the way down the hill. Near the bottom though comes a bit of a test. Oakwell Hall features a path that zig-zags down towards the stream at quite a severe angle, so you’re going back on yourself and taking some rather sharp turns. My legs are tiring and by the time I’ve hit the bottom of the hill and crossed the bridge over the stream I’m blowing a bit. In what I’m rapidly finding out is true Parkrun fashion there’s another volunteer twist as a female marshall stands shouting encouragement while shaking maracas at us at the bottom of the hill. Strange, but brilliant and the kind of thing that takes my mind of my aching body and makes me laugh in spite of it.

But there’s no let-up as we hit another steep uphill section. I make the mistake of running up the stairs and have legs like jelly at the top. Within a few minutes there’s another steep uphill climb, but by the top we’re heading towards halfway and as the trail opens up I realise there’s more people to be passed. By the time we hit halfway I feel a strange mix of being full of running and absolutely knackered! I’m feeling OK though and more to the point, I’m enjoying myself. There are more marshalls encouraging us, more downhill sections and, sadly, more uphills too, but before I know it I’m heading along the final few hundred metres of trail and powering -sort of – for the finish line. I have no idea whatsoever of how I’m doing or of what my time might be, but I’m enjoying myself and I know that I need to open up my stride and try to have a big finish. Just before we turn right into the final straight I’m passed by a couple of runners. I tell myself that it’s OK, they’re both a lot younger than me, but I try to respond and catch them. There’s nothing left in my legs though. Still, I spot a woman in colourful leggings ahead of me running with a dog. I’ve enjoyed my run, but I can’t get beaten by a lass in fancy dress. I summon up one last kick and seem to be catching her up, but it’s too late. As much as my mind wants to sprint, my legs have had enough. I’m making no more ground up today, so with my time in mind, I keep up my middle-aged sprint and try to pass the finish line with a tiny bit of style and probably slightly less dignity.

Whatever I might look like though, I’m done. And I think I’ve done OK. Parkrun may not be a marathon or any kind of huge test, but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my morning. Everyone’s been welcoming and the runners come in all shapes, sizes and approaches, which is comforting when your legs are like pipe cleaners and as your body heats up it all goes to your face, making sure you look like the aforementioned tomato after about 500 yards.

It’s not really a race, but you’ll be informed of your position in the field and your time, so there’s always going to be that competitive edge. As it turns out, shortly after I get home I’m informed by email that I managed to drag myself around the 5km course in just over 31 minutes. It’s an automatic personal best too, due to the fact that I’ve never done Parkrun before!

As a result of the run I have to give myself a couple of weeks rest as my back reacts badly to the trail running. However, within a fortnight I’m back and this time I manage to take almost a minute off my personal best. Then, a week later when I’ve clearly caught the Parkrun bug I manage to get round in 29 minutes and 3 seconds. My third Parkrun and my third personal best!

I hope that I can go on and complete many more. For now I’ll stick to Oakwell Hall, but I have it in my mind to sample the atmosphere at others as well, because that amount of encouragement is strangely addictive. And maybe that’s the thing about Parkrun – a non-threatening, friendly, positive place where everyone – even your competitors – want you to do well. Who could ask for anything more while dragging their middle aged, lycra-clad body round a park?

My FitBit Revolution

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When it comes to trends and fads, I’m usually almost immune, especially when it comes to technology. I have a phone, a tablet, a laptop etc, but none of them are what you’d call cutting edge. They’ve certainly not been bought to keep up with fashion. I’d like to think that I’m old enough now to trust my judgement and make my own decisions, without relying on what a magazine or a website tells me I should be indulging in.

That’s not to say that my judgement is always right. Often, especially when it comes to clothes, I’ve opted for the less obvious choice and then been left wishing I’d bought the same as everyone else. One of the most notable instances was buying a pair of Adidas Gazelles and going for the bright green and yellow pair rather than the traditional blue and white that thousands of others plumped for. I spent years trying in vain to match my trainers to my clothes and regretting my choice, while everyone else went out looking cool. I still didn’t learn my lesson though.

As such, I’d resisted the idea of a smart watch or a Fitbit. They seemed more a fashion thing than anything to do with actual fitness and I wasn’t interested in knowing how many steps I’d done in a day or what my heart rate might be anyway. And the idea that I could have a watch that also informed me when I was about to get some kind of notification on my phone just seemed like information overload to me. Call me old-fashioned, but surely I’d just check my phone to see if my phone had anything to tell me?

‘It also meant I could set goals…’

However, as I attempted to get back to some sort of fitness following a heart operation, I started running again and in order to keep an eye on distances I downloaded a running app on to my phone. It became quite a comfort to hear the voice of an unidentified American woman telling me how far I’d run and what my average pace was. She’s now my 5th best friend, just behind Alexa in fact. It also meant that I could set goals and track my progress, as well as inevitably informing friends on Facebook that I’d been out running and was knackered, coupled with a picture of myself with a very red face. It’s important that everyone knows these things, especially as it’s not cool to post pictures of your food anymore.

Then I got ill. Nothing serious, just the usual seasonal stuff – heavy colds, a chest infection – and I also damaged my back, meaning that I had to stop running for a while. In fact, I’m yet to go out for my first run of 2019 and it’s now April. But when my son got a Fitbit for Christmas I must admit I was intrigued. He’d tell me on a half hourly basis about how many steps he’d done. He’d point out his heart rate and tell me his blood pressure, like a very, very junior doctor. In fact, when he started advising me to do the same I was convinced he was turning into Doc McStuffins or Doogie Howser. And that’s a niche joke if ever I heard one.

‘It set me a target of 7000 steps daily…’

So when it came to my birthday in February I was pleasantly surprised to receive a Fitbit. My wife saved me the agitation of setting it up and when it was ready I strapped it round my wrist and went to work. It set me a target of 7000 steps daily, which I’m sad to say, I don’t regularly achieve. However, at the very least I am now aware of exactly what I don’t do in a typical day. And I must admit, as a recently discharged heart patient, being able to check my heart rate at a moment’s notice is still genuinely comforting.

While my Fitbit – if I keep mentioning it surely someone will give me some money – hasn’t totally changed my life, it has made me much more aware of my own fitness. This is of course very important as a man of a certain age who is more than a little bit conscious of his grey hair and slowly growing belly. Certainly, just looking at them wasn’t solving anything – to paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘Whilst I threat, my belly lives: words to the heat of deeds a big fatty bum bum belly gives’. So the Fitbit, at the very least, let’s me track my good days and bad days. It represents the first steps in my battle to not give in to a belly, slacks and comfortable shoes. And when I’m not at work it stops me from sitting on my arse all day.

‘It doesn’t make up for the fact that I am my age…’

For years I’ve had the pleasant experience of being regularly told that I don’t look my age. No, really, I have. It doesn’t make up for the fact that I am my age, but it’s pleasant all the same. However, lately the age that people tell me I look has been creeping ever closer to my actual age. ‘You’re 47? Ooh, you only look 45’ isn’t the kind of flattery that gets you everywhere. And this makes me quite sad. So another reason to Fitbit myself into action then. Can it reverse the effects of ageing and will people start telling me I look like I’m ‘only’ in my late 30s? I doubt it, but it might make me feel a whole lot better about myself. I’ll know whether I’m making an effort or not. And at least, when people look at me and weigh up how old I am, they might not be able to spot my belly or any sign of a double chin. At the very least, by tracking my activity a bit more I might be able to somehow convince myself that I look good for my age.

And the battle against ageing is very real in a different way too. When I look at some of my peers – those who are as old as me or a similar age – sometimes it terrifies me. At a previous school my department insisted on sitting me down for a department dinner, where everyone brought snacks and stuff in order to celebrate my birthday. And if this wasn’t uncomfortable enough, my Head of Department invited our Deputy Head, a man I loathed but that he was desperate to impress. Anyway, we got chatting over dinner and someone asked how old I actually was. When I told them, it turned out that I was about a month older than the Deputy Head, who looked at least 10 years older than me. I think this may have been the exact moment that the struggle for fitness and perhaps some version of eternal youth, became very real!

When I was a kid adults used to tell me that ‘in their heads’ they only felt about 18 and I used to think that was utter rubbish. I’d look at their terrible clothes, grey hair and wrinkles and think, ‘I’ll never get like that’. And now I am those people. I feel like I’m only 18, but I clearly don’t look it. And while it doesn’t exactly terrify me, I know that I still want to look better and feel fitter. Hence the Fitbit revolution. And yes, I understand that it’s not magic and that I have to actually exercise more, rather than just glancing at a watch all day and fretting that I’m 4000 steps short of my target. This is undoubtedly and easier approach, but I don’t think it’s going to be all that successful.

The worry lies with where the revolution stops. For a while now I’ve had some of the gear. The base layers, skins or running tights; whatever you want to call them. My wife even bought me a top made from bamboo, so I’m eco-friendly (unless you’re a panda) but also, in some way that I can’t quite put my finger on, high performance as well.

‘But did you know of a product called Runderwear?’

But could my Fitbit become like some kind of gateway drug? Where does one stop? Counting steps is one thing, but I’m still keen to resume running. And if I get dissatisfied with my Fitbit, how much do I have to spend in order to make myself happy and achieve even better results? As I’ve mentioned, I’m not immune to wearing a base layer, even though on my bottom half I end up looking like someone’s put tights on two golf clubs. But did you know of a product called Runderwear? That’s right; underwear for running. It stops chafing and general discomfort while also sounding like the kind of idea you’d expect on Reeves and Mortimer’s Big Night Out or The Fast Show. But how far does my revolution have to go before I consider Runderwear? Do I really have to be that serious about things in order to cling on to a tiny bit of youth and get rid of what really is only a baby of a belly? I have to confess though that a heath scare a year ago coupled with the running APP and the Fitbit has had me genuinely considering Runderwear! It’ll be a bike or a treadmill next and all the gear to go with it. I must be strong.

Furthermore, with a Fitbit there’s the temptation to track things like your blood pressure or your sleep. But in my case this could be both futile and damaging. Firstly, I’ve never really understood what blood pressure actually is. I’ve had it measured on countless occasions but never bothered to ask what it’s all about. It always just feels like the doctor’s trying to hurt me with the machine. So why I need to be checking up on it from a watch, well who knows? With sleep, I know I don’t get enough. I’m not the night owl that I once was, but I’m more than happy staying up late. So to be told by my Fitbit that not only wasn’t I getting enough sleep, but that it wasn’t of the right quality might actually worry me closer to greyer hair and the kind of comfort eating that could only enhance those love handles. So I’ll stick to just religiously checking on my steps, I think.

‘Personally I found it soul destroyingly embarrassing…’

In a way, I’d like things to just go back to the standards of the 70s and 80s when it was clearly OK to just become a middle-aged man, with no pressure whatsoever. Certainly, it didn’t take my dad any effort at all to start wearing Farah slacks or badly fitting jeans. No one batted an eyelid, apart his kids. Personally I found it soul destroyingly embarrassing, but to others it was perfectly acceptable. Men got to a certain age and just stopped trying a bit. But as a teenager whose parents were older than those of most of my peers, I wasn’t keen on walking round with a bloke who could well have been mistaken for my granddad, with his jeans and slip-on shoes. Or a retired golf catalogue model in casual slacks. Nowadays though things have changed and there’s a definite pressure to stay young in any way you can. Sadly, I’m not immune to it, it seems and my Fitbit revolution is just more proof of it. I think having young children is part of it along with a little bit of vanity. Whatever I put it down to, I’m not the only one who’s checking their steps and wondering where I can walk to at work in order to get closer to that target. I might be on my own in pondering Runderwear though.

So this revolution may not be televised. But it will definitely continue at pace until that belly starts to recede.

 

 

 

 

 

Run for your life! (Dramatic, I know, but probably the first in an occasional series)

 

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Tights, camera, action. June last year, when I was healthy!

So Saturday 6th October turned out to be a big day. To the casual observer, nothing earth-shattering happened. In fact, to pretty much anyone but me, today was just an ordinary Saturday. To a point it was a very ordinary Saturday for me too. Asda shop, bit of dinner, bit of telly, put a wash in. Standard Saturday action in our house.

But on Saturday, I did something – and achieved something – because of a spur of the moment thought. Let me explain, with a bit of background.

If you’ve read any of my first few blogs or are a friend or colleague, you’ll know that April was true to T.S. Eliot’s words as ‘the cruellest month’ for me this year. In short, my health took quite a dramatic downturn and I found myself having a heart operation. Obviously this wasn’t in the plan. However, it was made all the more annoying by the fact that before it had all happened I’d felt fitter and stronger than I’d felt in years. I’d dragged myself back out running months earlier and, with the help of my kids, was going out regularly, losing my gut and generally enjoying the feeling of being fit. We’d got our own little running club – Team Crosby – and quite frankly it was absolutely brilliant.

And then, I started to feel rough. I really was having to drag myself out for runs and slowly but surely I stopped. I told myself it was just a succession of colds or bugs and that when Spring came, I’d be healthier and back out, feeling good. But it didn’t happen.

Immediately after my surgery, running was impossible. Apart from the obvious danger to my heart, I had huge black bruises from the surgery creeping from my groin down towards my knees. Walking hurt, and so I put any thoughts of running as far to the back of my mind as I could muster. And let me tell you, there’s a whole load of nonsense to get through once you’ve been parked at the back of my mind.

So for a while running and fitness in general was a no-go area. After all, I had an excuse to not feel guilty. But every time I opened my wardrobe my running gear seemed to be staring at me and so gradually the whole subject was cropping up again and again. I could feel myself getting a bit more of a tummy, but for a while, I was able to satisfy myself that there was no need to get my trainers on and no need to worry. After all, I was coaching my football team every Thursday and so jogging around a field while doing that was exercise enough. Running was slipping away from me and I was convincing myself that, at my age, I didn’t need to bother anymore. I was apathetic and, if I’m honest, I was a little bit scared. So I hid behind the fact that I’d been poorly and joked a lot about the fact that I could have died, you know.

If you don’t know, I’m a teacher, and this means that I have the pleasure and privilege of 6 weeks off work in summer. I won’t lie; it’s amazing to get up every day and know that I don’t have to pull on a shirt, suit, tie and shoes and go to work. What it does bring though is the time to think. And the time to get out and about and do things that I can excuse myself from while I’m at work because there’s never enough time. So I did a lot of thinking. And I started to take my son to the local football fields a couple of times a week for some football practice. And because of this, I did some tentative running. We’d warm up before playing by running around the fields and I managed to drag myself around and do just short of 2 kilometres a few times. It was never comfortable though. In fact, it was horrible and really quite embarrassing. I felt old, fat and unfit. So when summer ended and work started and I felt pretty much justified in quietly consigning running and Team Crosby to the back of my mind, once again. Perhaps forever.

So Saturday 6th October, with its Asda trip, telly, dinner and putting a wash in, was kind of momentous for me. Running hadn’t really entered my thoughts for anything other than fleeting moments since August. And then I read a friend’s post on Facebook – thanks Shaun – about Park Run. Something clicked. I have no idea why. I wanted to go for a run. We had some dinner and I mentioned that I might go out. My wife said we were going to watch some telly and have a coffee, so I decided I wouldn’t bother just yet. I’d go out later. I think my wife is quite frightened of me going out running again. She can’t see me. She doesn’t know I’m safe and despite the fact that I’m probably a right royal pain in the backside to live with, I know that my being ill had really shaken her. But I was determined to get out and run.

At just after 4.30 in the afternoon, I found myself stood by my front door looking ludicrous in running tights, shorts and a running top. If you’ve ever seen my legs, you’ll understand. But I felt calm and I felt ready. And at least if I get running the neighbours don’t have too much of me to laugh at. So off I went.

I live on quite a big hill so within 50 yards I was climbing. But I felt good. There were three people up ahead on my side of the road, so being the self-conscious, lanky, skinny bloke that I am, I crossed the road. I quickly caught and passed them. Someone might have commented – my tights are really quite snazzy – but I wasn’t going to give it much thought. Halfway up the hill and I was running well, travelling quickly. About ten yards further up the hill and I felt my legs turning to jelly! It had been a long time since I’d run up here! I focused, and reminded myself that the top of the hill wasn’t that far off and that once I got there it was a left turn, a stretch of flat and then, thankfully, a slight downhill stretch.

By the top of the hill I’d slowed a bit, my stride getting shorter. But I was still running. I turned left and ran around the bend. As I looked up I spotted another test. Two men were standing outside of a local pub. They were certain to comment on the deathly pale fella stumbling and wheezing past. I told myself to shut up, straightened myself up from being hunched over a little from the top of the hill, and ran on. As I passed there wasn’t even the slightest murmur. I concentrated on running again as the downhill stretch started. The paving stones here are a bit of a mess and the last thing I needed was to trip and fall flat on my face. Louise would never let me out again! On I ran.

At the bottom of the hill I turned right and tried to loosen my shoulders a little. I was tensing up, tiring. Suddenly the American lady that voices my running app told me that I’d run my first kilometre. I listened for the time and nearly fainted as she told my that I’d been running for just over 6 minutes. I was flying! This was just the boost I needed.

Another slight uphill section was followed by a second downhill, past a host of houses. I imagined people hurtling up to their windows as a man with a face the colour of a tomato stumbled past. I go a terrifying shade of scarlet when I’m running and it usually feels like my face is swelling up. Attractive, huh? It’s partly for this reason that I also run along on the far side of the road for this section. Partly that, partly because it’s slightly going the long way round and partly because for some reason running on the actual road makes me feel a bit like Rocky! I never do the shadow boxing, but I imagine a trail of children running behind me, smiling and trying grab at me.

At the bottom of this downhill section I’m faced with a dilemma. Do I go straight on and end my run early when I run out of flat or do I turn a sharp right where I can run a long flat section before being faced with a steady uphill climb that will inevitably end my run, having gone a little bit further? I’m still feeling reasonably fresh so I head right. I’m now on the bottom end of my estate, I know people who live down here, so I say a silent prayer – please don’t let me encounter anyone I know, not while I’m impersonating a tomato and pretty much head to toe in tight lycra. I run on, feeling strong, staying upright and trying to remember to relax. It’s quiet here and I can hear myself panting as I go. Maybe I should have had another blast on my inhaler before I left.

I’m just approaching the left turn that will see me head uphill and through a nice leafy part of our estate when I’m given a bit of a boost. In front of me, coming the other way are my wife and son, both out for an afternoon stroll having set off a few minutes before I did. I give them a wave – I know my wife will be worried, but I’m clearly still alive – smile and tell them I’ll see them somewhere at the top of the hill.

This section is all uphill and it lasts a few minutes. This is going to hurt! My app doesn’t seem to have told me how far I’ve gone and now I can see that there’s a couple of people walking dogs up ahead. Suddenly I’m not focused and I can feel my legs getting heavier as I begin to climb. Late last year, running on the same section, I’d been knocked off my feet by three dogs snapping at my ankles, leaving me caked in mud. I notice that, again, one of the dogs in front of me is off the lead. And it’s some kind of Spaniel – notorious mentalists those dogs. I quickly weigh up my options, but there’s not a lot of choice. I can turn left again and end up on one of the main roads going up a slightly steeper hill or I can keep going and get past this dog. I can’t face a steep climb, so there’s only one thing for it.

As I crest the hill I’m about twenty yards behind the woman walking the dog. The dog is off on the field to my right, sniffing at bushes, but the woman is right on my course in the middle of a narrow path. I get closer and closer, but she doesn’t seem to hear me. It feels like I’m wheezing and panting and my legs are heavy. Now I’m frightened that she’ll think she’s about to be set upon by some heavy breathing pervert. I leave the path and run on the field, risking alerting her crazy dog as well as slipping in the mud, but at the same time allowing her to feel safe from the lycra clad, tomato faced Geordie aerobics instructor that must be quite the most alarming sight she’s seen all day. As soon as I’m round her I veer back on to the safety of the concrete and compose myself. The dog hasn’t noticed me and I can’t hear her sniggering. I’m not caked in mud and everything is fine. The ground is flat and will be for a while. My legs have survived the climb uphill and on reflection, I don’t feel so bad.

I allow myself a glance at my app. It tells me I’ve done just over 2 kilometres. Now what? My path leads me directly to our football fields, but I don’t want to stop now. I’ll do a lap, see how I feel, despite the fact that I know running on a field will sap the energy out of my tired legs.

I’m flagging now. Clearly, my enforced rest has taken its toll. My lower back hurts, my left calf feels like it might cramp up and as I reach down to feel my pulse I can feel that my heart is racing. Reaching for my wrist to feel my pulse has become quite instinctive since being poorly and I’m slightly alarmed at how fast it seems to be going. In the past, I’ve often convinced myself I’ve ran far enough when these type of thoughts happen, but not today. I’m quick to snap myself out of anything negative. I can’t stop now. My back hurt beforehand and of course my heart rate’s up – I’m running. There’s nothing else for it but to press on. I’m settled – however much this hurts I’m going to run 3 kilometres, which will represent the furthest I’ve ran in a long, long time. Let’s get this over with!

I pick up the pace as I reach the path that goes halfway around the bottom football field. I’ll have to run halfway round on the grass, but I’m going to do it. I’ve just done my first lap and a half when my wife and son appear at the top of the path, across the field from me. I try to shout and tell them I’m keeping going, but I haven’t quite got the breath for it, so I just keep running on. My legs are wobbling a little and I’ve not got a lot left, but as I look at my app I realise that about another lap will get me up near my 3 kilometres. As I run down the far touchline I allow myself to think back a few months. I remember being disharged from a ward late at night and making my way tentatively through the hospital to meet my family who I know are outisde waiting in the car. I remember limping out through the automatic doors worrying that I’d cry the minute I saw them. I never did and much to my surprise, I still haven’t.

The detached voice of the running app snaps me out of my thoughts and back to today as it tells me I’ve covered 3 kilometres, averaging just over 6 minutes per kilometre. Wow, I’ve been flying. I’m bloody 46, you know. My son is up ahead, his hand out for a high five. I’m done. I slow up slightly, slap his hand and bring myself to a halt. My hands go to my knees and I double over, before I release myself, spin round and join my wife for the walk home. I want to punch the air. I won’t be able to stop talking about this for hours and she’ll get to hear about every step, poor woman.

It’s a small victory, baby steps, but I feel really, really good. Same again next week.