Thursday, 20 January 2011

I'm rubbish at executive exercise

I am hurting this week. Not the usual sore thighs, tight calves or wretched ankles which come with the territory of high-mileage running. Nope, this week I have pain in my abdominals, my chest muscles, my backside and my shoulders. And my thighs and my calves. What is to blame? A mysterious contraption called a PowerPlate.

I’ve been meaning to integrate other sports into my running for some time now. I love running, and if I could get away with it I’d do it all day, everyday, but the body needs time for recovery and also needs the chance to use different muscles now and then (also, I have a job to go to, and a social life to occasionally attend to). The best athletes, in any discipline, are the ones who can ‘cross-train’ effectively, supplementing their main sport’s exercise with other sports to strengthen muscles, reduce the chance of overuse injuries and generally add a bit of variety to their workouts. In pursuit of some of these cross-training benefits, I bought a bike last year, attend the odd spinning class, and go swimming now and then.  

Then PowerPlate enters my life. Linds and I had been offered a free trial session at a PowerPlate ‘studio’ in Edinburgh, and then a discount on our first five classes. It seemed madness not to give it a go, which we did on Tuesday after work. The idea is relatively simple – you do a series of exercises whilst standing, lying, leaning on or generally associating your extremities with a vibrating plate, which purportedly multiplies your muscles’ workload by a factor of 30-50, depending on which of the scary buttons have been pressed on your machine. ‘The technology comes from space!’ says the instructor rather grandly. I envision Martians coming to Earth and handing over a vibrating plate. ‘NASA invented it so astronauts could exercise effectively when sitting down’. It comes from Texas, then, I think.

The beast in question
The session starts out well. I lay out my ‘fitness goals’ for the instructor (sub 3:45 marathon, sub 1:35 half marathon – I want to be clear that I am a runner and not a gym bunny) and we run through the basic operation of the contraption. I am assured that the studio’s clients include ‘loads of runners’ and that this will ‘definitely help with my core strength, overall fitness, CV threshold and muscle mass' - he stops short of adding 'it will also do anything else you want in the whole world’. We copy the instructor as he starts a few warm-up exercises. The first few are not too arduous: some squats, stretches, leg lifts and the like, and I think that this will progress well. There is a good level of resistance created by the machine and I feel virtuous for actually working out in a gym, if a little ridiculous in the giant mirrors all over the room. Every exercise lasts exactly one minute, timed by the PowerPlate and usefully counted down on a digital display. I completely abstain from any competitive behaviour whatsoever, though I note that Linds does seem to be giggling more than exercising...

Then we move on to some more challenging exercises, and it becomes clear that the PowerPlate is an instrument of gravest torture. One example should be enough; on flat ground I can do 47 press-ups in a minute (I know this for sure, I literally just did them to double check). On the PowerPlate, with my hands on the unit and feet on the floor, creating an incline that should make press-ups easier, I managed just 26 before faceplanting and looking sheepishly at the unimpressed instructor. He reminds me that the machine is on its lowest setting. More hideous work follows, using footballs and weights and that strange stretchy material that physios often use. They are the longest minutes of my life.

The main selling point, repeated every 15 seconds, is that you get the equivalent of over an hour in the gym in just 25 minutes of PowerPlating. Linds and I go along with the delusion that we are high-flying City execs who only have 25 minutes to spare in our weeks for exercise. Clearly this is executive exercise. I try to resist calculating how long I spend running in a serious week (5 hours? more?) and think how much running I could do in that extra 25 minutes, plus the necessary time to get to and from the studio. I usually make a point of running to and/or from any athletic activity, even if it’s only a slow jog, but I could barely lift my arms to drive after this taster session - let alone use what was left of my legs to run home.

The session finishes with a ‘massage’. I lie with first my calves, later my thighs on the plate, now whirring away on its highest setting, while the instructor puts his entire body weight into pushing my muscles against the plate. It feels rather good, and restorative, until my knee clicks loudly and painfully, a sound usefully covered up by the industrial washing machine-like hum of the blasted PowerPlate. Then the session is over, and we drag our weary carcasses off the floor and back to the reception area.

Confused and oddly energised, a slightly self-destructive crazy-athlete mentality convinces me that I should hand over my credit card immediately and book a thousand sessions. Linds’s calm distrust of the whole concept curtails any booking of anything, usefully postponing such a decision until we’ve ‘checked our diaries’, and we shuffle our confused muscles out of the door. I discover later that the standard pricing is £190 for ten sessions, and they recommend a minimum of two sessions a week. Nearly two hundred quid for five weeks’ exercise? Very difficult to justify, and very definitely executive.

Then we reach today, where as discussed I still hurt in places that I am not used to hurting. I’ve run 10 miles in the last two days, arguably, but I am quite certain that this pain isn’t running related.  So once again my attempts to find an enjoyable, affordable and effective source of cross-training glory have been thwarted. If I’m honest, I don’t really want to find one. I run because I'm rubbish at executive exercise.

Happy running


P.S. Annoyingly, my 6 mile run on Wednesday night, 24 hours after using the PowerPlate, was the fastest I’ve done in ages. Hmm.

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