Some of us have spent more time on the couch than we’d like to admit in the last year – while others rose to the challenge and laced up their trainers.
Nearly one million downloads have been recorded for the NHS Couch to 5K app, with hundreds of thousands seeking new ways to stay fit and active during the pandemic.
The app designs a running plan for beginners by helping those who are unfit or don’t regularly take exercise to take positive steps for their health and fitness.
It has been created with people who have done little or no running in mind and provides guided training sessions from coaches to help users track their progress by running three times per week.
The aim of completing the programme is to be able to run 5km (3.1 miles) non-stop at the end of the nine weeks.
David Scott, founder of Aberdeen running group Fit Like Joggers, runs a Couch to 5K programme for beginners who are interested in giving it a try.
He said, while lockdown had proven particularly difficult for many to stay motivated, others took a real shine to it thanks to the extra time and need for routine in their lives.
‘Some just stopped altogether’
David spoke about the importance of the social aspect of the group, and said: “When we first hit the pandemic in March last year, we had just finished the Couch to 5K programme.
“One of our last events was our graduation ceremony for our runners.
“We would have all been going to Balmoral to run at the Balmoral races last April, but that was cancelled so nobody got to do their victory 5K.
“We were then unable to run together as a group, I suppose, from March of last year until we resumed in October.
“So, we had a long period where we didn’t have any organised events and we couldn’t organise anything.
“Although, people did try to keep running. What we did was have a weekly programme, or a suggested run that people could go on.”
David said members tried to keep others engaged by creating treasure hunts, or putting together a running route based on a historical map, such as Duthie Park, where one could learn while out on their run.
But it proved difficult for many who joined the club and relied on its social nature.
“So, some people would continue running by themselves, but others, in the absence of having a date and a time and a group of people to go with, just stopped altogether,” David added.
“We did find that some people really picked it up and took to it, and especially people that had more time on their hands.
“But others, just without the community, did manage to drift away a little bit.
“We got to October and I think by that point – five or six months in – a lot of people had drifted from running even if they’d had an initial surge of enthusiasm in March and April.”
With the restrictions easing into the winter, they adapted to the new normal and used specialised running apps to get groups exercising together again.
“We divided the groups into fixed sizes. And that worked really well, getting everybody back again from October – and people were really keen to get back in again,” David said.
It was almost like it was the group that made it possible to get back running again for a lot of people.”
“In December we managed to put on a Santa run event. Everybody was dressed up in Christmas outfits and did a 5K.
“Effectively, it was a virtual race, but we held it as a proper event, just around the streets. That was really great to get everybody back together again for that.”
Mental health benefits
In addition to the physical health benefits of running, David says there is an equally important mental health aspect.
“When people feel locked up, they need that escape,” he added.
“Running gives you that chance to be outside. The chance to get some fresh air, which is important, but even a chance to see people.
“When you’re locked up in your houses, you’re likely to see other faces when you’re out on the streets.
“Running also gives you the time to process and evaluate, and be outside.
“There are so many people, I find, felt stuck inside and the government advice was to stay indoors – but of course, it was always alright to go out for exercise.
“We really tried to encourage people to take that chance up
“And if you are exercising, then you’re permitted. You shouldn’t feel pressured to stay at home – it’s more important to work for your exercise.
“The opportunity to even get out on your own, with a friend, or a group I think even more important.”
‘Being part of a group encourages me to keep going’
Now, with most of mainland Scotland in Level 1, a new group of runners have enlisted to start their fitness journey – and the first Couch to 5K class of 2021 took the streets earlier this month.
Alix Reid, 32, and Sarah Mylie, 36, joined as a way of supporting each other.
“Sarah convinced me, really,” Alix said.
“I had run periodically and picked it up again during lockdown.
“And then again a little bit into the new year, then it sort of fell by the wayside.
“I thought it would be good to be part of a group, and it would encourage me to come along and do it – so that was the motivation.”
Alix hopes joining the Couch to 5k group will help her “keep motivated” and “keep up a regular routine”.
When she tried the programme during lockdown, Alix said the app helped structure her day.
She added: “When you weren’t able to do what you would normally be doing, going out to run three times a week, it was a way to break up the week.
“It became sort of a trigger to get outside – and break up the monotony of it also.”
Sarah attempted to run her first marathon in 2013 and hasn’t laced up her trainers since, preferring other types of gym-related activities.
“I did it with very little, very little training,” she said.
“I just put on a pair of trainers and thought I could run a marathon.
“I prefer other forms of fitness over running, but I like the social aspect of getting outside, I think we’ve all been stuck inside so long, I just want to be outdoors.”
‘Even if the last time you ran was at school – give it a try’
Mary Agnew, 51, was part of one of the first Couch to 5k running groups when David first started Fit Like Joggers in 2015.
Since then, she has come on leaps and bounds with her training, and found that during lockdown she can run in all sorts of dreary weather that would keep many others indoors.
“My running life was non-existent before I joined FLJ,” she said.
“I built up from not being able to run at all to do being able to do a 5k.
“I have come and gone, depending on my commitments, and children commitments, and I came back again probably over a year and a half ago.
“During lockdown I probably ran further, because I had my certain window of how long I could be out for – and I would just take full advantage of that.
“Originally, I only came out if the weather was good but because I was having to do it every day I discovered I could run in the rain, in the snow, in gales.
“I would run in whatever – just get out there, get it done. And, to be honest, you feel so much better for it.”
Mary became a fan of the quiet lockdown roads as it would allow her the freedom and space to run.
She added: “It was just lovely to run in the streets where there was no traffic.
“If you went out early in the morning or late at night, it was just lovely.
“Also I used the Couch to 5K NHS app, and they have apps that can help you with your speed and your stamina.
“It’s like your stress just disappears because you’re focusing on your breathing.”
Mary said: “I would encourage anybody to try it, even if you haven’t done it before, even if the last time we run was at school – like me.”
‘There’s no talent required in running’
Clare Tierney, 49, started running six years ago as a form of “escapism” and is now a self-proclaimed “fanatic”.
“I thought let’s just give it a go, and since then my running has come on leaps and bounds,” she said.
“I have goals. I like to set myself challenges. I like collecting all the medals and David makes it fun.”
Clare was busy training for the Manchester Marathon before lockdown was announced.
With it being rescheduled for October, Clare wanted to keep up her training and is now ready for the mammoth run that awaits her.
“I’ve kept going with my running to help with my mental health and to keep the distance up.”
Encouraging new runners to the group, Clare said to “come along for a bit of fun”.
“All my life I have never done any sport, I have never been fit, or athletic, despite coming from a very sporty family,” she added.
“And surely, anyone can do it. If do your Couch to 5K with a group, nobody can not manage to run 5K – it’s just a wonderful system to work your way up.
“Everyone can run, there’s no talent required whatsoever and it’s just so good for the soul.”
It’s hard making the first step
David added: “I like doing the club. I think it’s great to see people’s journey starting off.
“I always thought that there are lots of ways that if you’re already a runner, you can go and join a running club to become better, but it’s very hard just to make the initial step – to say, ‘I want to see if I can become a runner’.
“And most people go for a run, and decide they don’t like it. They hurt or they stop and say ‘I’m not a runner’.
“Whereas you need a little bit of structure. Let’s run a bit, walk a bit, run a bit, walk a bit – don’t push it too far. Then come back next week and do it again.
“That seems to be the technique that works to get people into running who have never run before.”
Want to give running a go?
If you’re wanting to try giving running a go, but you’re not sure where to start – we’ve mapped out some recommended routes for beginners across Aberdeen and Inverness.