After taking on an all-out fitness regimen, Pat Fitzpatrick returns to the hills that once left him breathless to see if he can glide instead of slog to the summit
Sometimes it’s better to get the hard work done straight away.
The Coumduala Loop walk in the Comeraghs takes you 540 metres straight up the side of the mountain, as you hike up and away from the Nire Valley car park. There are four of us, four friends in our early 50s walking around a barren, mountainous landscape. It feels a bit too much like Last Of the Summer Wine (if you are too young to get the reference, then lucky you).
This is the first test of the fitness regimen designed by the Happy Fitness Guy, Ray Lally, that I’d been trying to follow for the previous three weeks. As I wrote here last month, I went to Ray for help because I nearly passed out from fatigue the last time we did a hike in the Comeraghs. It wasn’t like I had poor levels of fitness — it was more like I didn’t have any fitness at all.
Ray gave me a routine that involved things like running upstairs, tucks, squats, and lunges, a lot of them using a balance ball to make them more effective and fun. I tried to do 20 minutes of it every day, spurred on by the odd email and Instagram mention from Ray, to make sure I didn’t go AWOL. Ray also measured things like my metabolic age, weight, and body fat so we could see if there was an improvement after four weeks.
Now it’s time to see if I’m really fitter. The walk up away from the car park is steep without being vertical. In fairness, it’s not as steep as the climb up Coumshingaun that had me panned out the last time I was in the Comeraghs; but we did this Coumduala Loop the time before that, and I remember stopping four or five times on the way up to ‘take in the view’. That’s out-of-shape-hiking-speak for ‘I hope the lads don’t spot that I’m shagged’.
This time is definitely better. There are a few short pauses, but no shortage of breath or feeling that I’m in over my head. Now, let’s be clear here — this isn’t Iron Man, Extreme Triathlon, Four Marathons a Weekend territory — I’m not that much in denial about my age. This is about me being able to go up a medium-grade hill for the next 15 or 20 years.
But, more than that, it’s about time with my friends. We’ve known each other for 25 or 30 years at this stage — this isn’t a passing thing, we’re lifers now in the friendship stakes, just like those guys in the
Last of the Summer Wine.
We see each other a few times a year, and it’s never enough. These five hours in the Comeraghs, followed by another five hours eating and drinking our way around Dungarvan, are like a spa break for my mind.
There was a time when this bi-annual get-together happened in Dublin and involved a boozy lunch that ran until 2am. Those were the days when I could drink for hours on a Friday and not get a hangover that would have me on the verge of tears all the way to Thursday week. Those were also the days before I had kids. Those days are never coming back.
Now I need five hours of exercise if I’m going to try five hours of booze. This boozy socialising matters — I know people say men need to be on the move to open up, that we only talk shoulder-to-shoulder. Those people have obviously never seen us sitting across from each other in a pub.
We head southeast along a lofty ridge, Coumduala Lough and Co Waterford to our left, and then down the mountain again. I feel like I can soak up the freedom and changing light and chill in the air, and then release it in good-vibe bursts in the coming weeks. We catch up as we go, chatting about Brexit, passing 50 and a guy we know who has given up work to write haikus. The whole thing is incredibly soothing.
You probably know that walking down a hill can be harder than walking up. My 50-year-old knees and calf muscles have suffered on past descents — I could barely hobble back to the car after a day out on the Three Sisters outside Dingle two years ago, something I mentioned to Ray Lally when he was coming up with a workout programme.
He noticed that I always favour my left leg, that it does most of the work, leaving my right leg weak and next to useless. So he got me to work harder on my right side in a leg workout routine that included step downs, reverse lunges, clams, and single-leg squats. (You’ll find details of these on Ray’s own Instagram account, TheHappyFitnessguy.)
These exercises obviously did the trick. Usually, after these hikes, I have a bunch of asymmetrical pains that include a sore left ankle, stretched right calf and discomfort in my lower right back. Not this time.
Better still, I was able to keep going for longer. Having made it down to the Nire Valley floor, we took a spur off the main loop, up towards the ice-cold Sgilloge Lakes and picked our way over the stones for a very short swim. Apologies to the three women who had their lunch spoiled by our man-child shrieks and pasty bodies — nobody should have to witness that by a lake in the middle of nowhere.
Five hours after we set off, we’re back to the Nire Valley car park and the end of the hike. I’m tired, but not wrecked. There are aches, but I’m not sore. I could go for another bit if I had to, but I’m glad I don’t. We’ve got dinner booked for 8pm and we’ve earned a few drinks either side of that.
As it turned out, I got carried away with the post-hike endorphins and kept drinking long after I should have stopped. Two of us even paid to go into a late-bar called Minnies.
I know I should be trying to keep these hikes booze-free, please drink responsibly and all that. But these getaways let me act young and foolish again, and there’s nothing more foolish than two 50-somethings in a nightclub.
The following Tuesday I’m back in with Ray to see if my three-week stint had any effect on my metabolic age (an advanced way of measuring fitness).
When he measured this before I started exercising, it came in at 53, which isn’t great, given that I’m 52. He runs the test again, and this time I’m 48. My body fat is also down (24.7% to 23.3%), as is my waist (98.5 cm to 95cm), while my weight is the same at 84.4kg. If I had a Tinder account, I’d be updating my profile.
These small improvements came after four weeks doing the workout, spurred on by the hike and partially undone by our wipe-out in Dungarvan. This is good news. I have a routine I can fit into my life, that will allow me to carry on hiking for another bit.
We’re not in Last of the Summer Wine territory quite yet.
It’s good for your health: There is evidence that regular exercise such as walking can lower the risk of heart disease, dementia, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, according to the British NHS website.
You’ll burn more calories: According to the Harvard University Calorie Burning Guide, a 70kg person hiking cross country for 30 minutes burns 223 calories, while the same person walking on the flat only burns 149 calories.
You engage more muscles: If muscle tone is your thing, going uphill works on your glutes and hamstrings, downhill works on your quads. Both of them are good for your core, which is working hard to keep you stable over the ground.
It boosts happiness levels: It’s not just your instincts telling you that a walk in nature is good for your mood. A Stanford University study found “participants in a 90-minute walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment”. So, get yourself out to the country.
Uphill vs downhill: A recent study in Austria found that uphill is better for removing triglycerides (unhealthy fat found in the blood), while downhill is more effective at reducing the risk of type-2 diabetes. The same study found both activities can reduce cholesterol by about 10%. Obviously, you have to go up to go down, but you could always go up the lift and down the stairs in a carpark if you want to get the right exercise for you. Fitness trainer Ray Lally had me running up the stairs, and walking down, five times as part of my routine, and it was a great quick way to get the heart going