Keeping fit in a city can be tough. We tend to gravitate to the nearest gym, attend a windowless sweat-box of a yoga class or jog well-trodden routes around small green spaces. But it doesn't have to be this way. Here's how to maximise your training options (Hint: just think like Rocky)
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We all find our training spots and then stick with them. Before you know it, these are the only places you associate with exercise and if you can’t get to them, you don’t train. But break out of this rigid mindset and you’ll find London and other cities teeming with training potential.
The key to unlocking it is to think like Rocky
Because in Rocky IV our hero gives a standout masterclass in real world training. Dumped in the frozen snowbound Russian countryside without so much as a yoga mat, Rocky pummels himself into brutal fighting shape chopping down trees, running through snowdrifts, bench pressing horse carts and doing sit ups hanging from roof timbers. He doesn’t care there’s not a barbell in sight or a spin class for miles, he gets stuck into what’s available.
Rocky left familiar surroundings to immerse himself in Siberia
By contrast, his nemesis Ivan Drago trains in an underground bunker rammed with more technological wizardry than the space shuttle. It’s impressive stuff, but if Drago had a couple of kids or the odd late night at the office his training regime would crumble because he’d never make it to the bunker.
Rocky though would be fine, seamlessly fitting his training around whatever came up. If you need any more proof the Rocky approach works, watch the movie. Rocky wins. I rest my case. And if you adopt this approach in London, you’ll find the urban sprawl is packed with training opportunities.
Running in London – it’s not just about the marathon
Take running. The London marathon is king of the capital’s running calendar with over 30,000 people taking part every year. They train for months, lap their local parks until they’re dizzy, run the race, and then patiently wait another 12 months to do it all again.
London Marathon – the pre-eminent event of the running calendar
Which is madness because the course never closes. Just check the route online, grab a water bottle and away you go, anytime you like. All with the added benefit of not having to dodge giant chickens, queue for overflowing chemical toilets or listen to cheery spectators helpfully telling you it’s ‘not far now’ when you feel like coughing up a lung.
Avoid concrete when possible
If you are running big city miles, you’ll be working your joints hard so replace your trainers more often and be aware what you’re running on.
Concrete, especially paving slabs, is the worst for joint-damaging injury, while tarmac is more forgiving. Grass is the best so use it whenever possible. Sand is better still, and if you thought that was beaches only, think again – Hyde Park’s Rotten Row offers soft sand running in the centre of the city.
Cross training in the city
Away from running, London serves up a veritable smorgasbord of cross-training options.
Like hills, nature’s very own step machine. We may not live in a mountain paradise, but you don’t need Mont Blanc to toughen your legs – I guarantee an hour running up and down a climb as innocuous as Primrose Hill will leave you in pieces.
You’ll find even small hills and plenty of stairs in any city
Even if there are no hills, there will be stairs. Anything from a flyover bridge to the subway steps will do the trick, as long as it lets you run up and down constantly for at least 20 minutes. For variety, try hopping up with your feet together – a gem for working every muscle in your legs (though you do get some weird looks from passers-by).
The World’s Greatest Living Explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes is a huge stair fan and would maintain fitness during office-bound stretches between expeditions by simply running up and down the stairs in his office block at lunchtime carrying a heavy rucksack.
And if you live or work near the Monument, why not pop in for a dash up the 311 stairs to the top as you run by? It only costs three quid, and the view at the top’s a peach.
Make use of nature
Next stop is the park. You’ve probably been here before running laps but what about the rest of it? There’s a whole gym in there waiting to be unleashed.
Most cities have green spaces – perfect for conditioning the body and refreshing the mind
Take benches, for example. Truly superb for incline press ups (feet on the floor, hands on the bench, works the upper chest), decline press ups (feet on the bench, hands on the floor, works the lower chest) and reverse dips (hands on the bench, feet on the floor in front of you, works the triceps).
Or the grass. Perfect for lying on, this is also miraculously similar to the flat matted area in your local gym, but without the rubber-limbed yoga showoffs. All of which makes it perfect for planks – lie on your front facing the floor and lift yourself onto your elbows and toes. Now hold yourself ruler straight, and wait. England rugby players manage six minutes, any more than three is going some. This is one of the best exercises there is to strengthen every muscle in your core.
Even trees come in handy. Find a good straight one and simply ‘sit’ against it with your back straight, arms folded, and thighs parallel to the ground. Then hold, until your quads give way and you topple to the floor in agony.
A plank engages your core and develops great posture
Throw in a few squat thrusts, star jumps and burpees (ridiculous name, horrific exercise, this is a squat thrust with a star jump tacked onto the end of every repetition), and you’ve created a very handy muscle-building session. For maximum results, top each circuit off with two or three minutes skipping. This will help burn the lactic acid built up during the circuit, allowing you to work harder and better for the next one and maximising the fruits of your labours.
Take to two wheels
Finally, cycling. Lycra-clad road riding fiends can get their high-mile flat-out fixes by creating city laps of their preferred length using online maps and riding them as the city sleeps. Canary Wharf by night is a great one, as is the West End by sunrise on a weekend morning.
London even caters to mountain bikers, proving you don’t have to hit the sticks for your cross-country fix. For an example, try the Capital Ring. Far less suspicious than it sounds, this is a network of largely off-road paths encircling London. Not only does it cross some beautiful hidden gems of almost rural greenery in the heart of the capital, it’s 71-miles long. Enough for even the hardiest of cross-country cycling freaks, and a serious challenge for the more deranged runners too.
How to stay fit in the city - conclusion
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Scratch beneath the surface just a little and you’ll find that London, like many cities, offers a huge range of environments in which to keep fit. Ditch the gym and ludicrously expensive yoga classes and explore, get creative and challenge your body in myriad ways.
Remember, the city is your playground. Use it well.