Special report with pictures: Runners put sustainability into their workout regimes

David Bocking finds out how moving railway sleepers and shifting rubble has become a fitness staple for a dedicated group of athletic environmentalists

“Why spend £15 a month to lift up something heavy and put it back down again?” asked Tom Mutton.

Good Gym run to the Reach Homes housing scheme: on the way to Heeley

Good Gym run to the Reach Homes housing scheme: on the way to Heeley

An alternative, demonstrated by GoodGym trainer Tom last Monday, was to run from the city centre to Heeley with 16 colleagues, spend 45 minutes lifting rocks and railway sleepers, then run back (with a quick circuit training session on the way).

GoodGym founder Ivo Gormley took a break from rock shifting to explain.

“Humans can do amazing things, so we’re saying why spend loads of money to waste your energy lifting things up that don’t need lifting, why not do something like this? Lifting these railway sleepers is good exercise and is actually useful.”

The ‘Group Run’ enabled Jon Johnson from the Reach Homes sustainable housing organisation to get a load of rubble and insulation moved and foundations for a path dug at the side of his show home at Heeley City Farm.

“It would have taken me two weeks to do what they’ve done in 45 minutes,” he said. “It’s inspirational what this group are trying to do.”

The idea of organised community running started in 2009 when Ivo, from Tower Hamlets, decided he needed to get fit. “But I couldn’t hack the idea of going to the gym, which seemed a massive waste of energy stuck in a sweaty basement somewhere.”

An elderly acquaintance, Terry, had moved away and was feeling isolated and lonely, so Ivo arranged to run a mile to visit him once a week. “He was a former member of the parachute regiment, and when I told him I was wanting to use the run to get fit again he told me I should be doing sit ups and push ups too. So he became my coach.”

The idea of ‘Coach Runs’ to visit an elderly or isolated person for half an hour a week caught on, and now the GoodGym charity has spread to 31 cities, with over 3,000 active members, visiting 700 elderly people around the UK. The Sheffield branch, launched last autumn with support and funding from the South Yorkshire Housing Association and Age Better Sheffield, was the first in the north of England and already has 52 members.

“It’s a community of runners, or people new to running, who want to get a bit fitter and use that time productively,” said Tom.

Members take on Coach Runs, regular weekly ‘Group Runs’ to help local organisations with tasks like painting, gardening or clearing rubbish, and one-off ‘Mission Run’ working visits to groups or individuals. Participants are often younger people, and running to community tasks reduces transport issues, and helps runners find out more about their local area, said Ivo.

Sheffield runners have so far cleared the Steel City Steps behind the station along with the Friends of Sheaf Valley Park, helped Abbeydale Picture House with renovations, and carried out gardening work for Heeley City Farm, Reach Homes and the Regather Cooperative.

“It’s nice to make a bit of a difference to the community,” said Sam Needham. “This gives me my helping people fix. It’s nice to feel you’re doing something useful and the world is a better place than the terrible situations you hear of in the news.”

The group runners meet every Monday at 6.30 pm at the Showroom on Paternoster Row, and new people are welcome to join, said Tom, but should check the website - www.goodgym.org/areas/sheffield - first.

Ivo’s original, simple idea has been designed to make growth easy: with national sponsorship from New Balance and start-up funding from a local agency, the plan is to open a group in every UK city by 2018, and Sheffield could set up more groups if demand continues to grow, said Tom.

“I think everyone actually wants to do this sort of thing,” said Ivo Gormley. “Lots of studies show that exercise makes you feel good, but doing stuff for someone else also makes you feel good. Shed loads of money and marketing goes into making it easy to do stuff that’s only good for you, we’re just aiming to make it a little bit easier to go and do stuff for someone else.”