How I got fitter without running

7 ways I’ve become fitter that have nothing to do with the gym

Posted by for Wellbeing

Think you’ve got to go to the gym every day to get fitter? Think again. Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi says that she feels fitter than ever, despite having cut back on gym time. Here’s why.

I’m convinced that I’m the fittest I’ve ever been. Maybe that’s what you’d expect from a fitness editor – after all, we should have access to the best gyms and studios, right? Thanks to the pandemic, however, many of us haven’t stepped foot in a gym or returned with the same regularity that we once used to think necessary. And yet here I am, running longer, feeling fitter and generally more healthy than ever.

The other week, I ran an 18km trail race up in Sheffield. The Round Sheffield Run is 18km of hills, mud, downhills, uphills and climbs (you get the picture!). It was knackering but even towards the end, I was able to push on while chatting to a CrossFit friend. This was my second go at the route, having run the same race two years ago when I was significantly leaner. Back then, I went to the gym six days a week, often running 8km a day to work. The past 18 months forced me to significantly dial down my fitness regime and, as such, I was convinced that I’d run the event a lot slower. On finishing, however, I realised that I’d run this year about 10 minutes faster without noticing.

While I’m a massive fan of Blok Strength classes and treadmill sessions at places like Barry’s and Victus Soul, I genuinely believe that running that race faster had very little to do with my time spent at the gym (which I now go to for pleasure). With that in mind, here are all the things that have made me fitter this year.

Going on short daily walks

Who hasn’t taken up walking since the pandemic took over? It seems crazy to think that it took the whole world being brought to its knees for many of us to discover the many health benefits of walking. I’ve spent the past year starting the day with a very gentle, short walk around the local park and houses. Sometimes it lasts for 30 minutes, sometimes it’s only 10 minutes. At lunchtime, I go out for another stroll and after work, if we’re both at home and it’s a rest day, my boyfriend and I go back out.

In a report that included findings from multiple studies, researchers found that walking reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 31% and cut the risk of dying by 32%. These benefits were equally prevalent in men and women and were apparent by covering just 5.5 miles a week at a speed of two miles per hour.

All that steady walking adds to the day’s step count, helps to shake off any stiffness from working at a desk and builds a little endurance without putting any pressure on the joints. It’s also a great opportunity to calm the mind; plenty of studies have found that going for a 30-minute brisk walk can help to reduce anxiety and depression, lift mood and boost self-esteem.

Cycling rather than using public transport

The day that I chucked away my Oyster card marked a massive change in my life. I’d been cycling in London for about a year before I decided to make a firm decision to prioritise my bike over public transport for good.

Since then, I’ve cycled for my groceries, to work, to meet friends, to my parents’ house. I’ve cycled from east London to Brighton and Cambridge. I cycle everywhere. Not only does it save me money but it’s had a massive impact on my mental health because I’m able to move at my own speed through lots of green spaces (a finding confirmed by a Cycling UK survey which found that 91% of the 11,000 people interviewed said that cycling was very important to their mental health).

And, of course, clocking up an hour of low-intensity steady state cardio (LISS) has worked wonders for my overall endurance without increasing inflammation. Compared to the daily HIIT classes I used go to (via the Tube), I’m less bloated, fatigued and more cardiovascular fitness. I chatted all the way through that Sheffield race, right up to the last 2km. That, I’m sure, is down to cycling

cycling fitness
Cycling has made me fitter and less stressed.

Prioritising sleep

All that cycling has had a knock-on effect on my sleep. When I was a daily-gym goer, my sleeping patterns were atrocious; I’d feel tired and wired at the same time, all the time. In recent months, however, I’ve been able to drift off the sleep quickly and stay that way - sometimes waking up past 7am.

A study of over 8,000 people from the University of Georgia found that low-intensity cardio workouts like cycling improved sleep patterns. 

For the past few months, I’ve made it a rule not to have any form of technology in the bedroom (snore, I know that’s boring!) and vitally, to close my curtains. For 29 years, I went to bed with the curtains wide open and only realised recently how much of an impact that was having on my ability to actually go into a deep sleep. Light pollution can play a massive role in insomnia and sleep disturbances so if you can see your hand clearly with the light off in your room, it might be time to take action to make it darker and more conducive to sleep.

Eating more carbs

Hands up if you’ve ever given up or significantly reduced your carb intake in a bid to get ‘healthier’. I was that person — going for gluten-free crackers and rice cakes over real rice and quinoa — for years. Aside from being downright miserable, going carb-free makes it so much more difficult to exert energy and power when you need it. According to the NHS’ Eatwell guide, complex carbs like beans and brown rice should make up around a third of your diet.

Eating more carbs — bread, pasta, rice, tonnes of veg — has improved my mood, given me a lot more energy and again, improved my endurance while running. You don’t need to carb-load ahead of a long run if you eat a decent amount of carbohydrate on a daily basis.

Taking proper rest days

Rest days are so important but they can be difficult to schedule in if exercise is part of your self-care regime. Contrary to popular belief, however, you don’t have to be totally static on your rest days; I try to walk and/or do a little mobility or yoga session on the days when I’m not exercising just to keep the body ticking over. The result is feeling calm and relaxed, and not having unbearable DOMS.

The other thing I swear by is using a massage gun to reduce stiffness and DOMS on the days in between workouts. You want to have at least two rest days a week, and perhaps more if you’re doing really intense classes or runs. Remember, it’s during those periods of rest that your muscles are able to repair and grow; that’s how you get stronger. Keep working out every day and you’re actually stopping your body from meeting its strongest and fittest potential.

Stretching more

Like most very tall people, my boyfriend has a bad back and, as such, always seems to be stiff. Over lockdown, I plonked him in front of my FIIT app in ad bid to quell the moaning. The pilates classes have worked wonders, so much so that when he’s not running, his days now seem to revolve around Gede’s 25 minute pilates sessions.

Through seeing how much good it’s done him, I’ve started joining in with the odd class — whether that’s for an in-person reformer pilates class at a studio near me, doing a FIIT session or spending time really stretching out after a long run. It does make a difference and as we get older, stretching becomes more important. It has to take precedent over running off and getting stiff.

Running less

It’s really easy to set yourself a goal and to work towards it every day by running the same distance. What you really want to do, however, is to have a variety of runs in your weekly schedule and that’s probably going to mean running less but going harder.

I’ve gone from running 10km daily to changing up my distances and speeds, kicking off the week with an easy, slow 8km on Monday, a fast tempo 5km on Wednesday and a long, steady run (13-30km) on a Saturday. You’re much better off  reducing the intensity on a steady run so you can put your all into a shorter distance mid-week. 

For more fitness tips, healthy recipes and training plans, visit the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Miranda Larbi/Getty

Share this article

Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.

Recommended by Miranda Larbi