NO matter where you live in Ireland, you are now liable to see large groups of people dressed in high-visibility gear forming a fast-moving, bobbing peloton; red-faced and sweating their way along our suburban byways, packing into cycle lanes and country roads.
Many swear by running, saying it’s great for the health, as they push their (sometimes middle-aged) bodies to new limits of endurance, entering marathons and 10k races here and there.
I’m not sure just what it is that’s compelling so many people to run. Is it just a new fad that will burn itself out? Are all these people running away from something or are they all running towards a bright new future for Ireland?
Paul McDermott of the Irish Sports Council points out that the precise level of the new-found popularity of running is difficult to quantify as there are so many individuals and groups that simply take to the road without any official head count being possible. Sports psychologist Brendan Hackett puts the number of recreational runners in Ireland between 50,000 and 60,000 — and still rising, from numbers that would have been closer to 10,000 five years ago. The evidence is clearly visible in the larger numbers attending races where recreational runners now outnumber club runners by multiples of two or three.
“All the sporting organisations are saying the same thing,” says McDermott. “All running events are being oversubscribed and you have people out running and jogging in large numbers. There’s no question but that there is a boom in running.
“In the last three to four years, we would have noticed an upsurge in the numbers of people. As for the reasons why, there is a heightened awareness around health and the benefits of physical activity.”
McDermott would encourage people to join clubs and associations because, he says, the social aspect of joining a group helps runners to encourage one another. The ISC has a network of Local Sports Partnerships throughout the country, which are actively encouraging people to get involved in an organised manner.
The ongoing recession is another possible reason why there are so many people taking to running. With rising unemployment and shorter working weeks, many people have a lot more time on their hands and are keen to put that time to the best possible use.
“At the start of the downturn, there was a dip in sports participation,” says McDermott. “A lot of people cancelled gym memberships and so on, but then we noticed that it bounced back very strongly in the form of [low-cost] activities like running.”
Matt McKerrow of Triathlon Ireland is seeing a huge increase in the numbers taking on the challenge of the triathlon. He sees it as a natural progression from the increase in popularity of running.
“The typical progression or evolution would be that they might do a 5k or a 10k run and then branch into a triathlon… Many of the participants are saying that they are looking for something to do that isn’t costly and a pair of runners and a bit of running kit aren’t expensive when you look at what time and benefit you’re going to get. If you just want to do running, then once you have a pair of runners, the world is your oyster.
“I think that the unemployment situation is definitely a factor. I’ve heard anecdotally that a lot of people who are made redundant are looking for something that will make them feel a bit better about themselves and improve themselves while they have the time to do so.”
Paul Fallon is a well-known campaigner and runner who heads fund-raising running initiative On the Road Again for the homeless. He has, he says, talked to some people about running as a way of coping with unemployment.
“The benefits of exercise and running in general have been very well documented. With that particular sector of the population, they have a lot of free time and running is of particular benefit — it gives a lot of structure to their lives, it gives them a healthy body and a healthy mind.
One of the main conduits for what he refers to as a “running boom”, is the advent of the Fit 4 Life clubs that have sprung up in various parts of the country. This, he says, has encouraged a lot of people to get running who would have ordinarily passed over the activity in the belief that they wouldn’t be fit enough for traditional running clubs.
Gearóid McDonnell is someone whose life has been turned around in the last year. He sees running as a crucial catalyst to a process that has accelerated this process.
“Running has improved my fitness but it has also given me great confidence in myself,” says McDonnell. “When I first heard about it, I just thought that there would be no way I could do it – I wouldn’t run a mile before,” says the 30-year-old Galway man.
He took up running just 12 months ago under the On the Road Again programme, a time when he was doing “painting here and there” and receiving social welfare support.
Today, he’s back in college, has recently completed his first half-marathon, has got his sights on the Dublin City Marathon and is now a team leader, motivating and training five more participants in the same scheme. He has also recently managed to stop smoking — a habit he has had since the age of 14.
Running has, he says, “changed everything for me.”
The physical benefits of regular running include improved fitness levels generally, maintenance of weight or weight loss (in the cases of those who have excess weight), lower blood pressure and a stronger heart leading to improved cardio-vascular functioning.
Wearing good footwear and not going too fast as a beginner are the basic rules to avoiding injury, advise to the experts.
“Bad foot balance can be a problem,” says sports massager therapist Rob McGuinness of the Munster Treatment Rooms.
“Orthotics and physical therapy can usually remedy that. Otherwise, ill-fitting footwear and things such as callouses, welts, corns, heel spurs and (believe it or not) long toenails can all cause problems.
“Equally as common is not warming up and warming down correctly. It’s amazing how many people don’t know how to stretch and stress fractures can happen without people even knowing that they have them. Beginners should always seek advice from an experienced runner.”
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