After eight weeks cooped up in your home, you probably left your house on Monday like a greyhound out of the blocks. Then again, maybe you haven’t mustered up the courage to dust off your running shoes. Or perhaps you didn’t run before the pandemic struck, and so have no idea why swarms of joggers flood the Paseo Marítimo at 8pm. Whichever is the case, now is the time to go for a run. Perhaps you don’t run because things that can be done at any time never get done at all. Well, all that’s changed. Coronavirus infections could spike again and tomorrow we could receive word from Pedro Sánchez that one of our basic human rights has again been revoked.
The last thing our health needs is another two months lounging on sofas, beds and armchairs. The adverse effects of immobilisation are wide-ranging. They include musculoskeletal complications- like loss of muscle strength and endurance, osteoporosis, and degenerative joint disease- and cardiovascular complications- such as increased heart rate and venous thromboembolism. Not to mention the illnesses associated with weight gain.
Running, on the other hand, helps you lose weight. It also strengthens your muscles and bones (and if done properly, it doesn’t damage your knees, contrary to popular opinion). It floods your brain with endorphins, serotonin and the bliss molecule, anandamide, boosting your mood.
According to a study published by JAMA Psychiatry, running for 15 minutes a day reduces the risk of depression. And according to the Department of Kinesiology at Iowa State University, runners have a 25%-40% reduced risk of premature mortality and live approximately 3 years longer than non-runners. And yet, despite that you can literally outrun depression, and that running adds years to your life, I’m not a seasoned runner. My habit comes in waves (hopefully unlike this coronavirus); I jog whenever I move to a new city or am preparing for a specific endurance event. As neither is currently the case, I’ve
sourced some professional advice...
Nathalie Houdek, Triathlete (@nathoudek)
The first time I met Nathalie Houdek was last October. She’d been suffering from a severe stomach bug and had barely eaten in the previous 24hrs. To my amazement, that wasn’t going to stop her diving into the ocean in an hour’s time to compete in the Challenge Mallorca ‘half-ironman’ triathlon in Peguera.
My palms were sweating at the prospect of competing in the most challenging endurance feat of my life. Nat was just disappointed that, being ill, she probably wouldn’t better her previous time. ‘Are you sure racing is a good idea?’ I asked her, a little concerned. “It’s only a half” she replied and shrugged her shoulders.
A passionate German/Czech triathlete, Nat was training for the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt this summer. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all races have been postponed or cancelled. That hasn’t stopped Nat from staying active.
Part of her training was to compete in the ‘Mallorca 312’ cycling race three weeks ago. That race was also cancelled. Undeterred, Nat cycled the 225km in just under 8 hours alone in her living room on an indoor trainer (albeit in a virtual world, supported by friends, who either cycled with her or did their own workout, all connected through video calls.)
Nat’s tenacity reminds me that in every sport there are levels. And in disciplines so contested as running and cycling, the gulf between the fit amateurs and the elite is like the distance between Earth and Pluto. In addition to her athletic career, Nat also teaches PE at my old school, the Baleares International College (BIC) (which, since my heyday has relocated to La Porrassa, Calvia). When it comes to exercise, Nat knows what she’s talking about.
Take it easy
Like Nat, many of us have diligently managed to stay active during quarantine, with core workouts, social media challenges and online classes. But despite how fit we might feel, running again should be approached with caution. As Nat warns, “after such a long time the body needs to get used to sport-specific movements step-by-step and build up gradually.”
Before being let loose, Nat said that she was “thinking about my first run without setting high standards regarding pace or distance. After a running break of nearly two months, it would be reckless to start at the same level as I finished.” She says that the sensible approach is to “alternate between running and walking during the first run to prevent injuries.”
Nat jokes that “the last thing I want now is an injury that knocks me out, which might take even longer to recover from than the confinement itself.” When getting back into exercise after any prolonged layoff, we really have to put our ego to one side. We can’t expect our bodies to perform the way they used to. Even Nat says that she “finds it frustrating to think about my past running accomplishments.” And she would know, her last casual run before the government announced the State of Alarm on March 14 th was a half-marathon. In fitness as in life, the best approach is to compare ourselves to who we were yesterday, and yesterday we were locked indoors.
Nat is a seasoned runner, yet she also spent the last few days before leaving the house “planning and thinking about her route”. As I’ve said before in this feature, a key tool for being active is guidance. This is true for beginners and seasoned athletes alike. When it takes all of our motivation to lace up our running shoes, just the friction of figuring out where we’re going to run can see us retreat to the sofa. Regular joggers might know where they’ll run, but studies have shown that planning a route before leaving the house makes it more likely they’ll leave the house in the first place.
Guidance can be about the specific route, but also regarding distance and tempo. For beginners, the NHS’s ‘Couch to 5K’ program is extremely effective for adopting a running habit. I’d recommend this app to any age group. Download it from the NHS website and have it ready on your smartphone or smartwatch. The structure of the NHS’s ‘Couch to 5K’ app reflects Nat’s advice: “When getting back into running,” she says, “it is essential to focus on consistency first and not to worry about the pace or distance, simply to set small goals to run regularly. The speed and fitness will follow.”
Mix it up
Despite the benefits of running, and our eagerness to get outdoors, running shouldn’t become our only form of exercise. Nat advises that we “take an active rest day or cross train between runs [with] cycling, walking, strength training or yoga” as these exercises “increase endurance and build strength without overstressing joints and reduce risk of injury.”
So whether you are running to the next Ironman European Championship or just towards a longer, healthier life, then Nat assures that we will get there provided that we heed some sage Majorquin advice and take thing ‘poc a poc’. Besides, as Nat says, “the emphasis shouldn’t be on fitness, but instead on fun and appreciation of the movement itself in the open air.”
In an uncertain future, staying active is what matters most. For Nat “it is essential to stay active even if we are not allowed to workout outside.” Like any of us, she needs sport “not just for my fitness, but also to clear my mind and to stay mentally healthy” as “mental strength is the key during this period.” Nat, I couldn’t agree more.