How the lockdown forced me to take up running and finally learn to do it right

By | May 18, 2020

Before lockdown, as travel restrictions were just beginning to be imposed and social distancing measures were being hesitantly introduced, I professed to a friend that I expected my life to carry on more or less unchanged, so long as my local remained open and I could still go to the gym. Days later, the government ordered bars and restaurants to close, and later that day my neighborhood gym voluntarily followed. I haven’t been to either in two months now. Some of the most reliable fixtures of my life abruptly vanished. I never imagined it possible.

For the last two years I have held a membership at Academy of Lions, a gym in downtown Toronto that specializes in personal training and group fitness. Six, sometimes seven times a week, I would make the 15-minute walk to the gym from my apartment to do an hour or two of CrossFit, Olympic weightlifting, or what’s referred to as MetCon — “metabolic conditioning,” an intensive calorie-burning workout involving many simple but fast-paced movements. I’d lift heavy barbells over my head, or jump onto boxes, or do push-ups in a handstand: showy, perhaps, but serious, with an emphasis on proper form and exacting technique. Two weeks before the gym closed, I finally mastered the muscle-up, a skill I’d spent six months training to acquire. 

On a cool Saturday morning I strode out for the first run, and barely made it through, returning home after half an hour in a dreadful fit of panting and wheezing.

Not being able to go to the gym has been one of the most difficult things about life under lockdown. I have felt my fitness eroding, my body softening, hard-won achievements wrested away. Physically, I feel weaker, sluggish, frequently tired,  as though some latent reserve of energy I once depended on for alertness and strength has been depleted. The effect of the gym’s closure on my mental health has been even more pronounced. In the absence of that outlet, I’ve been overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and stress that would have otherwise been safely discharged. Add to this the pressure of enduring a world-historic global health crisis, and the disruption of my routine has been almost too much to bear. 

A jogger spends the morning on the Riverwalk path in Calgary, Alberta, on April 23, 2020. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

My friend Matt, a restaurateur and former amateur boxer, converted to running almost as soon as he was confined to his house. We have a gently competitive relationship, as athletic dilettantes, and often push one another to give a little more than we feel we can in CrossFit class or on the rock-climbing wall, where we’d been learning to boulder since the new year. At the beginning of April, two weeks into quarantine, he put me up to a friendly challenge: run five kilometres every day, for five consecutive days. On a cool Saturday morning I strode out for the first run, and barely made it through, returning home after half an hour in a dreadful fit of panting and wheezing. I didn’t bother with run number two.

Instead, I resolved to attempt CrossFit at home. An Instagram page for CrossFit enthusiasts had begun to share high-intensity interval exercises that could be completed at home without equipment. These “living room mashes,” as they were called, comprised simple body-weight movements in enormous volumes, such as a thousand sit-ups.. These workouts were challenging enough to seem a gratifying substitute, at least in the beginning. But there are only so many ways to move your body in the living room without weights or bars or medicine balls. After a few weeks cycling between variations on the push-up and the burpee, my passion started to flag. 

For a CrossFit athlete, indifference is fatal. You need a certain ardour, almost a fanaticism, to do it right. It wasn’t simply the repetitiveness of the exercise that was undermining my enthusiasm. It was the solitude. I missed the classes: the instruction and encouragement of the coaches, the camaraderie of a group collectively suffering. Classes inspired me, held me accountable. Without them, I was flailing by rote. 

Every half-kilometre or so, I found myself gasping for breath and needing to slow almost to a complete halt before I could continue. The muscles and joints in my legs and feet were in agony.

Academy of Lions began to offer online classes in mid-April. I eagerly joined the first one. Held over Zoom, it was rife with the usual technical problems: the stuttering frames, the occasional loss of sound. Sometime toward the end, the coach’s microphone stopped working entirely. But more than any glitch, what bothered me was the distance — the unbridgeable gulf that still separated me from the people I was ostensibly working out with. Many of my friends from the Academy have continued to do the Zoom classes, and they seem to enjoy it. For me, the experience made apparent that another indispensable virtue of the gym is that it gets me out of the apartment. What’s important, evidently, isn’t only what I do at the gym. It’s that I do it there, among friends.

So, I resigned myself to the inevitable. If I hoped to stay in any kind of shape, I’d have to learn to run. As a show of commitment I ordered an expensive pair of running shoes and some leggings and shorts online. Duly equipped, I made yet another first attempt in earnest: five arduous kilometres on another cool Saturday afternoon. It was even more difficult than I remembered. Every half-kilometre or so, I found myself gasping for breath and needing to slow almost to a complete halt before I could continue. The muscles and joints in my legs and feet were in agony. When I eventually made it back to my apartment I collapsed on the floor the moment I walked through the door, my new clothes drenched in sweat, my heart pounding like a heavy-metal kick drum. 

A woman jogs past shuttered businesses on Toronto’s Yonge Street during ongoing concerns of COVID-19 on March 19, 2020. Peter J Thompson/Postmedia

One of the greatest impediments to getting good at something is being bad at it to begin with. Those initial runs were extremely humbling: striding down the sidewalks, simply trying to put one foot in front of the other at what seemed like a reasonable pace, was exhausting. As I watched seasoned runners share their routine efforts on social media, I could hardly believe the chasm between our times and distances. Matt, still at it, was turning out ten-kilometre dashes in under an hour, multiple times per week. Sarah, a friend who’d taken up running under lockdown, seemed to be having a wonderful time. I understood that I had room for improvement. But the first attempts were so taxing, so strenuous, that I struggled to see how I would even begin to improve.

It was after my fourth or fifth dismal run, I think, that Lola, an avid runner lately recovering from a knee injury, messaged me to say that I was “doing it wrong.” This was news to me. “You go too fast too soon,” she wrote. “People are seemingly incapable of not doing a fast run, especially outside, to the point that it’s not doing them any good.” I was skeptical, but she was adamant: run more slowly, build muscle, develop better lung capacity. It was the only way, she insisted, if I ever hoped to run without hating myself afterward. 

The next day I ran again, more slowly than seemed intuitive — more like a brisk trot, my breathing steady, heart rate under control. Something happened that I would say was surprising, only it would surprise no runner. I had my best run yet. I ran the same five kilometres without stopping to rest once, and what’s more, I did it in less time than usual, according to the Nike Run Club app I’ve been using to track my runs. I came home tired, but not obliterated; my legs were sore, but not in pain. Lola was right. Clearly, I had been running too fast. I could see at last how this might be sustainable. 

Heartened by the advice and its immediate effect, I consulted with Dr. Brittany Moran, a chiropractor and Nike Run Club coach. Dr. Moran is the kind of runner of a seriousness and virtuosity you wouldn’t even dream of aspiring toward — a runner who can do five kilometres in under 17 minutes and a marathon in a little over two and a half hours. She explained to me that the number one error she sees new runners make is doing too much too soon — trying too hard, running too fast. That overzealous ambition leads to injury or discouragement. It’s about finding a way to run safely and sensibly long-term.

On Dr. Moran’s guidance, I scaled back my training even further, reducing my schedule from five runs of five kilometres weekly, to four runs of varying speed and distance. My goal now is to do one run every week in which I gradually add kilometres to my personal best, building up endurance without — the hope is — burning out. On Monday I ran seven kilometres at the same consistent pace of about five minutes and 50 seconds per kilometre. It was difficult but felt good; I am optimistic that I’ll be running 10k an outing by summer. Of course, I couldn’t resist asking Dr. Moran how many kilometers she tends to run every week. The answer? More than a hundred. “Do not do that,” she laughed.

Some weeks into my new routine, the strangest thing transpired. I was running along when a man bolted past me, running at least twice as fast. Ten minutes later I came upon him again, leaning against a traffic light and breathing heavily, trying to catch his breath. I nodded as I passed, privately amused at what seemed like the perfect demonstration of my own former folly. Would he be moved to reconsider his strategy, I wondered as he tried to recompose himself? It was almost absurdly pointed. “If only there were some parable to explain this,” I joked to Lola later, delighted that slow and steady had indeed won the race. “I didn’t want to say it,” she replied. That’s all it took for me to get into running in lockdown. Showing humility. Taking it easy. Slowing down. 

Health – National Post

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