We caught up with Fiona Eagle, one of the lead community trainers for A Mile in Her Shoes – a volunteer-led, UK based charity and one of our Women's Sport Beneficiaries. Working with homeless organisations and refugee centres, the group aims to get women back on their feet through running and a range of other activities.
Could you give us a brief overview of what A Mile in Her Shoes is and how you're involved?
We're a small charity that helps women find their feet through exercise. Historically we were more running-focused, but these days we offer a wider range of activities depending on the needs and individual requirements such as Boxercise, circuit training, and yoga.
I joined initially as a volunteer back in 2017 and then became a more permanent Community Coach at the beginning of 2019. Last year was the first time they had any paid roles within the organisation as it's always been volunteer-led. Now we have three community coaches on the team; however, we're still hugely reliant on a large number of kind of volunteers that we recruit in different areas around London.
How did A Mile in Her Shoes start?
The charity was founded by Nicola Miller, who started A Mile in Her Shoes in 2013. The idea was to bring together two things that she believed in passionately; one was the health benefits of running, and the other was to improve social inclusion and opportunities for women affected by homelessness. The main activity was predominantly running in the beginning, but it's evolved somewhat over the last sort of 7 seven years or so to cover more types of exercise.
The groups provide so many benefits for these women, including mental and emotional support. A lot of the women we work with come from very troubled backgrounds and the sports group helps develop self-esteem and self-worth, and that does have a much wider remit than just about being fast or strong.
How many members do you have in the group?
Class sizes to be relatively small because trust and personal rapport are particularly important with our members, and this element is harder to achieve with a large group. Obviously this year we have been governed by COVID guidance rules, so in the middle of the year we have had to practice in groups of 6 (including the coach), but now we've increased our numbers per session as measures have been gradually relaxed.
I think in total over the past year we've had more than 50 women join.
If you look back further in time over the past few years, the charity has reached a lot of women. While we're currently operating on a small basis, if you include all of the various groups around the city and the time we've been running, it adds up.
How has the pandemic affected you, and have you been able to keep in touch with members?
We have found various ways to stay in touch with members despite restrictions. We've offered some classes online, but not all of our members have internet access, so in that regard, it's been tricky. Trust is also such an essential aspect of what we deliver, so the face to face element is important, and that's hard to replicate with video calls.
Where members do have access to an internet connection and can access online workouts, we've shared YouTube videos and exercise routines, and we've been recommending either our own content or content we can endorse like PE with Joe (especially for any women with kids).
So what would a typical training session or exercise class look like at A Mile in Her Shoes?
I guess running is a slight red herring as we cover so many types of exercise, and the emphasis is really to help women leave all their day-to-day worries at the door and help rebuild their self-esteem and confidence. The training is much more focused around having fun, and lots of our classes have a game element.
We do a lot of sharing between coaches and volunteers of which activities get the best responses from members, so if someone ran a class which got everyone engaged then we'd share it between trainers. It's about finding a way to get people to exercise without even realising that they've done it.
The classes do have to be tailored to each group a little too; we've had some groups where the women have latent running talents, or they were running when they were a kid and they really keen to get that out again. You'll have others that I've never really exercised in their lives and are starting as a beginner. But I think it's so important to keep quite an open mind as you just don't know who's going to arrive on any given day. We do have a registration process, but you might not know the details of someone's history until they turn up, so it's about tailoring to the different levels and making sure everyone gets something from the class. With some members, they're happy to be pushed, but with others they're more interested in just getting outdoors and getting their body moving somehow. Keeping the class numbers relatively small makes it easy to tailor the groups to each person's needs.
How do you go about getting your message out to potential new members?
We work closely with various women's organisations, as all lot of our trustees have contacts in some of these organisations such as Solace Women's Aid, so we may contact through them or advertise in refuges and drop-in centres. Typically, we might go in the beginning just to meet the women to discuss their fitness needs and talk about setting up a class, to see what sort of appetite there is to do exercise. From there, we will then work out what type of exercise is suitable and then set a timetable for activities that's convenient to them, our coaches and volunteers. After the class is running, we might also put up posters and leaflets to promote the group, but that would only be within the women's shelters, so not accessible to the general public.
What would your advice be to somebody who would like to start running?
Firstly I think if they are a beginner and if they are digitally minded, download the Couch to 5K app. Secondly, find a friend of a similar level to buddy up with. I think it's always good to arrange a time to meet someone outdoors – not outside your front door but somewhere that makes it harder to back out! Thirdly, make sure you've got proper trainers and a decent sports bra!
Finally, expect it to be hard in the beginning as it takes a while to build up running stamina. I think some people sometimes expect to get out, start running and assume it will be easy in their first session. It takes time. Some people do get endorphin rush and want to keep going, but I think it's often a few weeks before you start to see benefits and really enjoy running.
What are your successes for the club?
I suppose this answer depends on how you measure success. We've had one very regular member get really into her running, and she ended up completing a half marathon last year, and that was an excellent result for her. Still, we don't necessarily always measure success like that.
I think for me I'd say seeing people be consistent in their attendance, coming back again and again, and seeing the transformation in their characters. Some of the women can be relatively quiet when we first meet them, you know they've been through a massive amount in their lives but seeing them grow in confidence over time is really rewarding. You can see how hard it is for them just to get out the door, but they keep doing it and overtime seeing improvement and their self-assurance changes. I'm not saying it's just us as a running group that's done that, but you can really see the exercise changing their self-esteem, and these women coming out of their shell and growing. I think that's a great success.
What is the hardest challenge that you've had to overcome?
COVID has certainly presented unique challenges for us because face-to-face is so important, so that has been one of the trickiest things we've had to deal with.
Prior to that, from my perspective, I'd say that stock storage is an issue. We're only small, so storing stock and getting it to the right people at the right time is challenging, we have new members all the time and so posting it around various groups, getting it to the right place in the right sizes can get quite complicated. We don't have a central storage so most of the time it's kept in people's houses. We'll message each other asking "who's got those sports bras that someone donated?" Managing that when you're not a big organisation and don't have sophisticated processes in place is difficult but that's something we're looking to change.
We'll be working in collaboration with you for the next few months and will be donating 5% of our sales to your cause. What will the donation help your project achieve?
Stock storage is certainly a challenge, as I mention. Having one central place we can keep all of the kit and store it more efficiently, this would help us to send it to out to our members quickly so that they can get going.
We rent spaces for indoor classes; currently, that's up in the air, but after COVID we are hoping to return to some indoor sessions. We want to continue things like Boxercise, so having those spaces enables us to operate those kinds of classes.
We would use the funding to buy kit where we can't get donations. We try to give all of our members new activewear when they join us, and largely rely on donations of clothing and shoes, however we don't always have every size available and so will buy kit where it's not possible to source it.
Finally, we would use the donation to help pay our community coaches and to set up more classes.
What's your long term ambition for a mile in her shoes?
I can only speak for myself, not our founder Nicola, but I would say it's reaching as many women as possible, reaching more vulnerable women, and getting them to come to the group again and again. We would love to continue to build a strong platform to help these women feel healthy and fit, and in the best place possible to help rebuild their lives.
Find out more about A Mile in Her Shoes through the links below:
A Mile in Her Shoes also partners with Women's Running UK.