‘I set myself a challenge to walk one million steps’

Sports groups want to capitalise on people’s increased fitness post-lockdown

Many people took to the roads to walk, run or cycle during lockdown. Being able to exercise outdoors – whether within a 2km, 5km and then a 20km and county limit – became a way to get out of the house, take a break from work or study and even “meet” people.

Although we weren't allowed to visit the homes of family and friends until June 8th, there were no rules against stopping for a short chat while exercising outdoors. For many people, these times outdoors became a lifeline – a way of coping with the confinement of being indoors the rest of the time. Some local authorities have since responded by putting in plans for more and better cycling and walking routes in towns and cities across Ireland.

However, many people did more than daily walks, runs or cycles, instead setting themselves arduous challenges during lockdown. For some, the incentive was to establish new routines when gyms and pools were closed but for others, exercise simply became a way to keep their spirits up as well as to keep physically fit.

Early in the pandemic, Greystones-based business analyst Lisa Howley decided to run "19km for 19 days for Covid-19. I usually swim 1½ hours three mornings a week in the pool and when the pool closed, I had to do other things," she explains.


Then, for the month of May, Howley set herself the challenge of doing one million steps. “I set myself the target of doing 32,500 steps a day which is about 27/28km – one-third of which I would run and the other two-thirds, I’d walk.”

Already a daily walker and runner, Howley reached her target – accompanied by her dog, Rio – without any injuries.

“I was missing my swims and meeting friends for coffee so I did it to keep a routine for sanity purposes. I work from home mostly anyway and I think it’s important to leave the house to do some exercise before you start your working day.”

Initially, Howley didn’t tell people about the challenge she set herself, so as not to make others feel they weren’t doing enough.

“Some people were impressed but thought I was mad. Those who know me well weren’t surprised. One of my friends swam a kilometre a day in the sea during May when the water was still quite cold.”

Howley says she believes it’s important not to make other people feel inadequate.

“You do what you can to keep your sanity within your own capability even if you push yourself a little outside your comfort zone,” she says.

She thinks a lot of people will be keen to have a blend of office and home-based work after the pandemic – so that they replace commuting time with exercise.

I decided that I needed some motivation to get me out of bed in the morning

Jean Murtagh was feeling low after her father died just before the Covid-19 pandemic. Her father-in-law had also died six months earlier in September 2019.

“There was a lot of stress and uncertainty in the house with myself, my husband and our adult children working from home [during the pandemic] after my dad died in March. And my mother is in a nursing home which is another stress. So, I decided that I needed some motivation to get me out of bed in the morning,” explains Murtagh.

Together with her husband, Vinny Murtagh, Jean opted to do daily two-hour walks along the canal near her home in Leixlip, Co Kildare, posting photos on Facebook of what she spotted along the way.

“I got great feedback from that and many people said it kept them going,” says Murtagh.

Then, one day when cycling just outside her home, she decided she would do a sponsored marathon on her road in memory of her father and her father-in-law.

"The road is 200 metres long so I worked out that I would have to go 105 times up and down the road to reach the 42.2km." She set up an idonate page for the Christina Noble Children's Foundation (open until June 30th) and told her neighbours her plan.

So, on Saturday, May 30th, Jean Murtagh completed the marathon by walking up and down her road from 7am to 3.53pm pushing a vintage pram.

“There was a great community spirit – the neighbours put up home-made bunting and people joined me at different stages of the walk in memory of loved ones who had passed away. There were people playing guitars on the finish line,” she explains.

Afterwards, Murtagh, who is a keen athlete and trainer, says she didn’t have any residual soreness or stiffness.

“Since then, I’m back walking on the canal, doing about 16km a day. I see so many people out walking. I think it has taken the Covid to make people realise what they have on their doorsteps.”

Increased levels of fitness

Sports partnerships across the country are keen to tap into the increased levels of fitness that many people gained during the lockdown. For example, the Limerick Sports Partnership is hosting weekly cycling challenges, encouraging people to cycle 50km a week throughout the month of June. The Offaly Sports Partnership encouraged families to run a marathon a day (by adding up each person’s daily efforts) until the longest day of the year, June 21th.

The national network of 29 local sports partnerships is encouraging everyone to join Sports Ireland Be Active Day on Sunday, June 28. "Research has shown that unprecedented numbers of people are out walking and cycling which is great to see," said John Treacy, chief excutive of Sport Ireland. "As we begin to come out of the restrictions, it's more important than ever that we continue to exercise and be physically active every day."

Other sports partnerships are encouraging people to continue to walk, run or cycle from their front door during the summer months. For example, Dún Laoghaire Rathdown Sports Partnership has engaged David Gillick (athletics), Stephanie Roche (soccer), Cian O'Callaghan and Paul Mannion (GAA), Chloe Watkins (hockey), Adam Griggs (rugby), David Nason (blind tennis) to urge people to take to the outdoors this summer.

The message from all is to keep up these new levels of exercise and, as lockdown restrictions lift, try to continue to walk, run, cycle – or swim locally when you can.

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!). 
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!