Image by Jenny Hill on Unsplash.
Like a dark cloud, boredom and sedentary routines have been hanging over us since the March 2020 lockdown. To tackle both, many people have turned to running for the first time.
Inspired by extremely popular apps, Couch to 5k and Strava, running has boomed during the pandemic. As gyms have remained silent, pools empty and football pitches untouched, people have taken to pounding the pavements as their main form of exercise.
Research published by Macmillan Cancer Support last week, shows an estimated seven million people across the country have turned to running during the pandemic to improve their mental health. One in seven people in the UK said going running had helped them de-stress, with the activity proving more popular than yoga or meditation.
For Tim Gabbitas, 28, running went one step further. He said: “It became an addiction, to be honest, with the amount of time spent planning routes to avoid hills and looking at where other people had been.”
As an account manager for an engineering company, Mr Gabbitas could only attend a spin class and play football once a week prior to the pandemic. He is now following a half marathon training plan and has lost 15 kilograms. Mr Gabbitas found his motivation after feeling isolated during the first lockdown. He said: “It was an excuse not to be in the same four walls and it was permitted. My girlfriend works full time in the NHS, so I was getting a bit stir crazy.”
He began a year ago using an old pair of trainers he found in his wardrobe but has since got himself a Garmin running watch and brand-new kit. According to City AM, Sports Direct sold 218% more running trainers online during the first lockdown than in the same period the previous year, and 243% more running kits were bought.
Mr Gabbitas also became hooked on Strava, an exercise tracking app, at the recommendation of a work colleague, having not used any running apps previously. In fact, work has become a source of motivation with his employer giving him a lot of flexibility.
“Work have been very encouraging. HR has pushed us to get out and exercise. They’re allowing people to take 90-minute lunch breaks to go for a run and eat.”
Clare Jones, 57, has more concerns with how the easing of lockdown and a return to work may restrict her new, healthier habit. She said: “If I went back to an office I would worry about it because trying to fit running in before or after my day would be almost impossible.”
Mrs Jones began running using Public Health England’s Couch to 5k mobile app. According to The Guardian, the app was downloaded 858,000 times between March and June last year, a 92% increase compared with 2019. Couch to 5k uses celebrity voices to guide the user through a program of walking and running until they can run five kilometres non-stop.
After she was told by a doctor her blood sugar levels were too high and classed as pre-diabetic, Mrs Jones began using the app three times a week with great success. She said: “My blood sugar when I last had it tested had gone down significantly and mentally if I’ve had a difficult day at work it helps clear my mind and helps me solve problems.” Yet Mrs Jones remains sceptical about training for an event or becoming hooked by Strava.
“I still don’t really enjoy it, but I like the benefits of it. I just get a bit bored so running 5K is as much as I am going to do. I won’t be running marathons or anything.”
The boom in novice runners has seen some negative impact, with injuries increasing. Dr Stephen Hodgson, 60, a director at Hallamshire Physiotherapy, has seen an increase in issues related to running, walking, and DIY. He said: “If you’re a scaffolder you can go straight to running no problem but if you use your brain for a living you’re going to find yourself deconditioned. Then suddenly with the rate of change on your body, it might not be your heart and lungs that give in but your knees or ankles.”
Dr Hodgson recommends novice runners start doing strength exercises for two to three weeks before hitting the pavements. He suggests leaving weights by your work desk or walking upstairs as easy ways to build up strength and prevent injuries.
Physical injuries can also damage the mental health of novice runners. Dr Hodgson explained: “The problem is you find people start running, they love it so much and feel a lot happier. Then they get an injury and go into a meltdown because they had a release and suddenly it’s been pulled away.” Mr Gabbitas related to Dr Hodgson’s view. He said: “There have been times over the last year where I have been unable to run, when I pulled my groin. When I am locked up and cannot get out running, I can be quite grumpy.”
Running has become a powerful coping mechanism for many during lockdown. Susanne Marples, 40, lost her husband last year to cancer. Running has since helped her manage the grief. She said: “I can have really bad days, it is coming up to the anniversary of my husband’s death, so when I get out for a run and come back I do feel in a better place.”
Having only started running on January 2 this year, Mrs Marples ran every day in February for a total of 56 miles, according to Strava. Her achievement raised £535 for Cancer Research UK. The next aim is to complete a full marathon while raising funds for St Luke’s Hospice who helped with the care of her husband.
The boom in novice runners during the pandemic may have begun with goals of weight loss and alleviating boredom. However, for Mrs Marples and a growing number of people, it is now a coping strategy that has proved invaluable for their mental health.