Katie Carew-Robinson, trainer for Portsmouth GoodGym, talks to Star and Crescent reporter Helen Salsbury about a charity and fitness club which allows Pompey residents to get fit while helping the local community. Edited by Beth Lewingdon.
What is GoodGym?
‘GoodGym is a charity but we like to describe ourselves as like a flash mob of volunteers.’
Katie leads a group of volunteers who run to locations to help with community projects. The runners usually provide physical help – such as moving books or furniture, or sorting out charity donations. Katie’s group meets regularly once a week – ‘rain or shine, every Wednesday in Portsmouth we are out doing our group runs.’
Additionally, the group’s members can sign up for coach runs. ‘That is essentially a befriending service,’ Katie explains. ‘A runner will be matched with an older person who is isolated in their home and that runner will run to visit the older person [and] have a little cup of tea and a chat’. The name comes from the older person ‘who we call our “coach”, because they make us go running every week.’
For those who can’t attend on Wednesdays, or who simply want to do more, the group also runs occasionally on weekends to help people complete physical tasks that they might no longer be able to do. ‘Small groups of runners will run to help people on a one-off basis – so that’s for older people as well.’
GoodGym began in London. ‘A guy called Ivo is the brains behind it,’ Katie tells us. ‘He doesn’t like to be called our boss – he likes it to be said that we work with him, not for him.’ The idea started when Ivo began running to buy the paper for one of his neighbours. He got his friends involved, and they began to think about scaling up. The organisation first got funding in September 2009. In 2016 GoodGym first expanded outside of London, and in May 2018 the Portsmouth group launched. Opportunities for expansion depend on local funding and councils. ‘So we were lucky that Portsmouth City Council saw that it was a good idea,’ Katie adds.
Who are the Portsmouth team?
Each area’s GoodGym group has one paid trainer to set up group runs and provide support. Katie is also qualified as a personal trainer, so she can provide further support for those wanting to improve their running. Additionally, the group has a Task Force, who work with Katie to run the group. ‘Once people have done ten runs, they are invited to be part of the Task Force,’ Katie explains. ‘They can now help set up community missions, the backmarking [where someone volunteers to run and chat with the runners at the back of group], and the walk leading.’ Task Force members can also take the register – which records each volunteer’s good deeds so they can earn badges and rewards on the website.
The Portsmouth group usually has around fifteen volunteers – called runners – attending each week’s run, although the total membership is over a hundred. ‘The nice thing about GoodGym is that you can come once every two months, if you want to, or you can come once every six months. There’s no “you have to come every week”.’ The biggest commitment is for coach running, where runners agree to visit once a week for six months. ‘Obviously, if you’re on holiday, or there’s shifts at work, there’s a bit of flexibility around that.’
GoodGym offers the option to join as a member, which includes a donation fee. ‘Like any charity, there are things that need to be done, so there’s money that goes in.’ Each area is expected to become self-sustaining from the membership donations they gather, so membership is important to the group. Volunteers can run with the group without becoming a member, however.
How good a runner do you have to be?
Since November, Katie’s group has offered the option to walk instead of run for distances under 2km. ‘You don’t have to be a good runner – you don’t even have to be a runner any more,’ Katie says. For anything further than 2km, runners should be able to run for 4-5km and keep running for about 15 mins before stopping – ‘but we always have a backmarker, so nobody gets left behind.’ Katie posts a listing beforehand for each week’s run, which advertises whether there’s a walking option.
How does the coach programme work?
Elderly people are recommended to GoodGym as coaches via social care. Runners looking to participate in coach runs complete online safety training and DBS checks – ‘just to make sure it’s all safe for everyone.’ Runners give an idea as to the time they have available, and the distance they are able to travel in order to be matched with an appropriate coach. Before being matched, runners talk to the coach team to review any concerns and discuss what they’re looking for from the programme. ‘The coach team in London [act] almost like a dating agency, in some ways’ explains Katie. ‘They try and make sure there’s some kind of common interest.
‘There’s lots of stuff on the website about how much the coach values having someone coming in who’s not there because they’re paid to be there.’ The runners also benefit from the relationship, and often coaches and runners form friendships – ‘[it’s] like you get a new grandparent, it’s quite good fun.’ More often than not the arrangement continues beyond the original six-month commitment. ‘One of my Task Force [was] the first person to coach run in Portsmouth, and [her coach] was in hospital for a few weeks, but she still went and saw him, in hospital, on a Thursday night, because it was her night with the coach, and she’d only been visiting him for maybe six or eight weeks, but they’d already built up that really nice [relationship].’
The Portsmouth GoodGym group has some coaches waiting to be matched in the area, and Katie looks forward to seeing new runners joining the programme.
What does it mean to you and your other volunteers/runners to be involved in this?
‘We had a quote from one of our runners, “I had such a rubbish day today until I came here, and now it’s made it a good day.” And that exactly sums up how everyone kind of feels, you’re getting fit and doing something good for yourself, at the same time as doing something good for your community. So, each time you go out on a group run with the GoodGym group, you’re kind of making Portsmouth a little bit of a nicer place to live in. There’s something quite special about that in a lot of ways.’
A lot of Katie’s runners have noticed improvement in their fitness levels. ‘So many of them have improved so much in a really relatively short period of time loads of them are smashing their parkrun times and getting fitter.’ Runners also get to visit areas of the city they’ve never been to before and meet volunteers and staff at other charities. ‘Some people have gone on to volunteer at places on a more permanent basis as well.’
‘[We’re] spreading happiness, I suppose. And it’s such a nice group of people, even if you’re knackered you just turn up there and it’s a positive energy. Forget all your troubles.’
What are your plans for the future?
‘I’d like my numbers to get a little bigger,’ says Katie. ‘Maybe try and do bits over the weekend a bit more. I know there are people who can’t come on Wednesday night who’d really like to get involved.’ As well as this, Katie hopes to bring the group to new places in Portsmouth. ‘I’d also like, if I can to do some starter sessions but if people want to come to the walking groups and walk forever that’s absolutely fine as well.’
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
‘It’s just brilliant, so that’s all people need to know. That’s your whole article: “GoodGym, it’s brilliant.” It’s more than good.’
For more information or to request a task:
Read more and get involved: Portsmouth GoodGym
This story is part of our ongoing series from our #ReclaimTheNews team, a group of local residents trained in investigative journalism in partnership with The Centre for Investigative Journalism. The group now forms S&C’s Community Reporting team. Check back regularly for more news from the team and help us to spread the word by sharing their articles with your friends and networks.