If Mo Farah and Big Ben can do it, so can a lazy couch potato
With a zippy running app, you'll be creaking and whooping your way through a half-marathon in no time
Heavy rain clouds hang in the sky, I’m being pummeled by gale-force winds, there’s a herd of rhinos right behind me, and I just had to dodge a flying Big Ben.
Half an hour earlier I was standing outside the Tower Of London in a bin bag, feeling about as nervous as I’ve ever felt in my life. I was about to begin the Vitality Big Half marathon, alongside 13,300 more seasoned runners, including one Mo Farah.
Had you told me this would be how I’d be spending my Sunday a few weeks earlier, I’d have laughed in your face.
How did I get here? The answer goes back to a phone call I received in January. “We’ve got an app which can train you to do a half-marathon in eight weeks,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “Do you want to try it and compete in one?”
My answer, of course, was “no”. I’ve never enjoyed exercise. From PE classes at school to several aborted attempts to join a gym, I’ve proved myself immune to the fitness bug. I barely know what arch support is, let alone own a pair of trainers with it.
Thankfully, the person on the other end of the phone was persistent enough to keep me talking. In a fit of “new year, new me” madness, I threw caution to the wind and decided to do it. Either the app was as good as was claimed, or I'd give up after a couple of weeks at least having burned off some Christmas turkey.
The app is question was Zwift – a reasonably well-known cycling subscription service that is trying to find its feet in the running world. You run on a treadmill with a screen in front of you – a big TV if you’re lucky, your smartphone if not – and via a Bluetooth link-up, the app projects an avatar of you legging it through a virtual world in front of you. When you go faster, he or she goes faster. It’s a bit like a computer game, only instead of a controller you have your own feet.
And video game thinking provides the added motivation too. The more you run, the more outfits and upgrades you unlock for your avatar. It’s a little thing but you’d be surprised how much the idea of unlocking a pair of virtual purple shorts does for your motivation.
Meanwhile, you’re immersed in a virtual world, surrounded by the avatars of other real-life runners and cyclists around the globe, who hurtle past you, occasionally giving you a thumbs up as they go.
If that all sounds heady and confusing, then Zwift makes the act of running to get fit easier by including a series of training programmes. I used “3 Run 13.1”, which involved three runs per week for eight weeks, gradually getting more difficult until I was ready for my half-marathon.
The very first session saw me do a 5km run in about 40 minutes – no small achievement, given that it was probably the first time I’d run since school – 5km is just under a quarter of a half-marathon. If I could do this, I told myself, I could do that.
From that point on I was in the gym three days per week (first time I’d ever seen the inside of one, actually), each day offering a slightly different way of working out. I’d start with interval running designed to improve my overall fitness, then a few days later I’d do some pace training to get me ready to run consistently, and I’d end with a long run on Sunday mornings to get used to the distance.
Zwift works simply enough. You get on the treadmill, sync your phone to it if it has Bluetooth capabilities (or a RunPod gadget attached to your trainers if it doesn’t), and then run. The app tells you exactly what to do at all times so you barely even need to think. “Set the treadmill to 8.7km now”, “take a sip of water now”, “you’re halfway now”, “only 200m left”, etc. For an exercise newbie like me it takes a lot of stress out of the whole thing.
Unfortunately, thanks to some foot-dragging in the first few weeks, I ended up with not eight but five weeks to prepare myself. By this point the longest run I’d completed was 17km, and I’d only ever run on a treadmill. I felt a little unprepared as race day came around.
On the big day, I was in the last wave (Mo Farah was only about 5km from the finish line when I started), surrounded on the start line by a group of Save the Rhino activists in full costume. Who would finish first: me or the rhinos?
The first thing I’d note is that, compared with the treadmill, road running is super easy. Freed from the constraints of staring down at my phone to check on my little running avatar, I flew through the first few kilometres.
The first real challenge came around the 6km mark. A gust of wind nearly knocked me clean off my feet as a man wearing a Big Ben costume fought to keep the whole thing from crashing down on top of me. I dodged the clock tower and kept running, reasoning that while it’d be disappointing to die of exhaustion before the end of the course, it’d probably be more humiliating to be beaten by a man in a novelty costume.
Things didn’t get really tricky until the 17km marker. It was at this point that I discovered the perils of road running: it’s a killer on your knees. As I drew in line with the two-and-a-half-hour pacers, the desire to slow down for a walk began to intensify. But Big Ben was right on my tail and if he could keep running in his costume, I could too.
Joints creaking, I persisted, all the way to a final sprint for the finish where I came in about 30 seconds ahead of my horological rival.
Two hours and 10 minutes. Just over twice as long as it took an actual Olympic gold medallist, but to be fair, Mr Farah has done a few more of these than me.
Either way, it worked. An app really can take you from couch potato to half-marathon runner in just eight weeks. In fact, it can do so in five. And, much as I’d love to wax lyrical about how arduous and trying it was, I’d be lying.
Zwift’s programme is incredibly easy to follow, well-balanced, and crucially, required nothing more than a commitment to turning up and doing what it said. So get off the couch and get training, folks, it’s a lot easier than you might think.
– © The Daily Telegraph