Let’s do lunch . . . and we’ll go for a run while we’re at it
Fitness schemes in the workplace can be a win-win, with health and morale both benefiting significantly
The Irish Dairy Board mile in aid of Goal at Irishtown stadium just before last Christmas. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
The Irish Milers Club is pretty niche stuff, with a small group of coaches working to improve the standard of middle-distance running among a relatively small group of athletes over maybe half a dozen fairly sparsely attended meets each year.
It is hugely worthwhile but from a potential sponsor’s point of view, well, it’s no All Ireland Championship. So when the Irish Dairy Board was approached for support by one of its employees, running coach and Irish Milers Club official Michael McGovern, it decided to see how it might get a little more out of the deal.
The result was Couch to Fitness, an initiative that involved an eight-week programme of coaching for all staff wanting to get running or walking. It culminated just before Christmas in the first Dairygold Mile at Irishtown stadium.
After roughly a quarter of the company’s staff successfully completed the training and race, it has been pencilled in to be an annual event, thus ensuring that a minor sports sponsorship produces a major return.
McGovern, like most runners, was more than happy to play a part in spreading the word. The company, says communications manager Jeanne Kelly, was delighted with the number of its staff keen to listen. In fact, the whole enterprise underlined how employer-backed fitness schemes can be a win-win in the workplace, with health and morale both benefiting significantly from fairly modest levels of investment and organisation.
At the Irish Dairy Board, things kicked off with a well attended pep talk by Eamonn Coghlan, who mixed tales of his own glory days with practical advice and some inspirational one-liners.
When he recalled his elation at winning the world 5,000 metre title in 1983 and assured those listening that they would “feel exactly the same when you achieve your goals, no matter what they are”, it was hard not to find the thought enticing.
Advice on nutrition and getting the right running gear was provided by others, but Coghlan’s words still resonated. Some 44 of roughly 140 staff, about 100 of them based at head office on Mount Street in Dublin, completed the challenge in Irishtown and then headed off for a celebratory lunch.
“They go out about lunchtime, they come back, shower and have [a specially laid-on healthy] lunch,” Kelly says of the rather straightforward three-day-a-week training regime. “We’ve a really good canteen culture here, but a lot of people went to the canteen and then maybe for a little walk around the block, but then they’d be back at their desk.
“So we were thinking that we could build things for those people and also get the large group of people who do nothing really involved. By teaming up with Michael, we get to support his group and they get to support what we’re doing with the staff.
“It’s been a great success,” Kelly continues. “On the allotted days there was a running and walking group leaving reception at half 12.
“Guys who wanted to jog did that while the others started by walking and hopefully went from there. Three months on, there are still groups heading out most days.
“There’s a social aspect too . . . there are a lot of new people in the company and from the point of view of helping them to get to know each other we can say, ‘it’s better if you come out and have a walk’.
“We intend to do something in the summer now but we’ll definitely run this programme again later in the year.”
Karen Butler, receptionist: “I used to go out for 20 minutes or so once or twice a week and think I was a runner but I’d be stopping at every opportunity. What we did here was a revelation.
“It was tough but I slowly built up my pace and stamina over the eight weeks. At first, I was coming into work dreading 12.30 and I’m not sure at what point things changed, but gradually I became completely addicted to the programme.
“Michael [McGovern] was great, providing a lot of help and advice and I couldn’t imagine ever stopping now. I’m not very competitive but it’s got me going. I want to get faster and I’m looking at races with a view to doing one.”
Diarmuid McKenna, IT business analyst: “It was absolutely fantastic, a new world for me. I’m not a sporty type of person, I didn’t even own a pair of runners, so it was a glimpse into what I regarded as other people’s lives, but I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed it all.
“I was in a beginners’ running group and I felt great pretty much from the first time out, which was for about 20 minutes. We worked our way up to about 40 or 45 and the fitter you got, the more you felt that you wanted to push on.
“I haven’t kept it up in the way that I would have liked and I have no real excuse for that, but it’s there for me and I’ll definitely look to get back to it.”
Nora Palmer, accounts manager: “I would have walked a substantial amount beforehand [she estimates 40 miles a week] but I was shocked by the difference with this. We were doing pyramid sessions, pushing ourselves much harder and, while it was difficult, it was clearly much more beneficial.
“I didn’t realise until then that I hadn’t been pushing myself previously when I’d been out with the dog or walking to work, but when it came to the race at the end of the programme, you could really feel it when you were trying for a good pace. Now I find I’m actually pushing the dog and I’ve passed the programme on to friends.
“It was great for team-building in here too; there was a great buzz around the place while it was going on and there are still groups of people heading out together.”