I did 50 press ups every day for a month and here’s what happened to my running

Why? Because someone on the RW team asked me to do some kind of challenge and write about it. So I thought: press-ups. No, crunches. No, plank. Why not all three? Why not get a grip? So I decided on press-ups because I had not been going to the gym much and felt I needed some upper body strength to balance my running. I also knew that good press-up form would require me to engage my core.

On a preventive note, I am keen to maintain overall muscle mass, as I know the decline that begins slowly after the age of 30 really picks up pace after 50. I’m not there yet, but I can see it, if I wear my glasses.

I was slightly concerned that building muscle (as I hoped would happen) would not be of any use on the run, but at the same time I was not kidding myself that 50 press-ups every day for a month was going to turn me into a shirt-straining brute. Besides, any exercise that works the deltoids, triceps and pectorals, as well as the core, can’t be bad for my posture and running form. And the challenge gave me a goal, which became important as the days passed.

It begins

On day one, I began by rolling out of bed, rolling my shoulders and rolling onto the floor before my body had a chance to wake up. This may have been a bad idea, but I felt that if I had the chance to think about what I was about to do, I’d find a reason not to do it. I knew my form would not be perfect for one very good reason: I have pins in my right wrist, the result of a long-ago basketball injury. It means I can’t achieve a 90-degree angle between hand and arm, and putting too much weight on the hand can be painful. I also have to place my arms slightly further apart than good form demands. I suppose I could have opted for squats….

Anyway, I straightened my arms, set my body in a straight line from head to heel and began, working at a reasonable pace – to get it over with as quickly as possible. The first 20 came fairly easily and then my muscles began to protest. At 30 I had to pause, but I remained in the raised position, arms straight. I was breathing hard, which is not surprising, given that I asked a body stumbling into consciousness to engage in explosive exercise. I did 10 more and had to pause again, arms shaking. They continued to shudder for the final 10 but I got there. I was under no illusions: they were not perfect, in terms of form, but I felt that would come. I was breathing deeply and fast, but I felt good. Awake. I was not looking forward to tomorrow’s set but I was not dreading it, either.

And it continues

The following morning I did 35, followed by 15, with the final five making me feel like I was the epicentre of a minor earthquake. In the office I mentioned my challenge to Ben, a colleague, and he called me an idiot (in the nicest possible way). I will not be chastised by a man who revels in day-glo Lycra.

By day four I was up to 40 + 10. When I was younger I did press-ups regularly and so had reasonable upper body strength. It seemed to be standing me in good stead.

(Related: How strong is your upper body?)

By the end of the first week the 50 had become part of my morning ritual. I got up, dropped to the floor and did them. If I waited until after breakfast I felt heavy, slow and ready to dribble food onto the floor. (I did that only once.) I was reaching 40 with relative ease, but the final few were still a chore. Then, one morning, I finished with 12 rather than 10: a total of 52.

Halfway there

And so it went. Two weeks in, I did the 50 without stopping, and after that I was determined to not let myself go backwards. I failed only once. Just after I had begun, my dog delicately nudged the bedroom door with his great white head. For a moment he looked at what I was doing; then he came all the way in, brushed by me, like a shark cruising past a surfer before attacking – and began licking my feet. I defy anyone to continue doing press-ups when a dog is licking their feet. Other than that, I did not miss a day, not even during a boozy family get-together one weekend in Ireland.

As the days went by the psychological aspect took on greater importance. I was getting up every morning and doing something that was difficult, but I was doing it, and I was improving. That knowledge is a great motivator. On the final day, I did 60.

The result

So how did it affect my running? Not much, as far as the run itself was concerned. On my regular afternoon run I found my arms moving in more of a businesslike fashion, though there was a tightness in my shoulders and I felt I was not bringing my arms as far back as I should have been. However, I no longer felt the ache in my lower back I have sometimes noticed a few hours after a run. My stronger core was keeping my upper body straight without becoming fatigued and this is a marked improvement. I’m not faster and I’m not aerobically fitter but I do feel my body is better prepared to cope with the rigours of running and so if I do not have to work hard to maintain form, I can use that energy to keep going. And that will do for me. Next: squats. No, lunges…