Mother runner

When I entered the ballot for the 2019 London Marathon I don’t think I really expected to get in. I’ve entered now for a number of years and I assumed that this year, as in previous ones, I’d receive the ‘sorry not this time’ email and, with feelings of disappointment and relief in equal measures, I’d shrug it off and plan to enter again next time around. I suppose at the back of my mind was the thought/fear that the year I gave birth would be the year I also finally made the cut, and of course, that’s what happened.

So I now have a dilemma: on the one hand this is a race I’ve wanted to take part in since becoming a “runner” (of sorts). As a Londoner there is something totally iconic and wonderful about the London Marathon and the atmosphere on the day is incredible. On the other hand I have a sea of doubts and questions over whether I’ll have the time, energy and support to train for a marathon? Do I risk doing damage to my body by running so soon after undergoing major abdominal surgery and while pumped full of relaxin from breastfeeding? Is it fair on my husband for me to spend hours at the weekend out on long runs while he looks after our baby? And am I prepared to take that time away from my daughter who, at the moment, I can barely leave for half an hour at a time?


I am also aware that I’m not running the same engine as I was pre-pregnancy. I’m heavier now, with a squishy tummy, some abdominal separation and milk-filled breasts! Nor am I getting the same quantity or quality of sleep that I was. 


Yet while I know I could defer my place for a year, something inside me is reluctant to take this ‘out’. Having a target is such good motivation to get me on the road, and the London Marathon is certainly a good target! Moreover, running makes me happy and I love the sense of satisfaction after a Sunday long run, particularly as I watch my mileage creep up into double figures. At the moment, running is also one of the only times when I’m on my own. I love my daughter more than words can express, but when you can’t go to bed, take a shower or even go to the toilet (sorry for the overshare!) without a set of beady eyes watching you, the value of having some alone time is not to be underestimated! 

My husband is also infinitely supportive. He knows how happy going for a run makes me and how, in turn, that happiness makes me a better wife and mother. 


So for now I’ve paid my entry fee and have a place guaranteed. My plan is to rebuild my strength and fitness over the next couple of months, gradually increasing my weekly mileage and continuing with a range of activities from swimming and yoga to the Warrior Mums repair and Buggy Belles cardio classes (which I can do together with my daughter), and then reviewing the situation again in December. My target is to be comfortably running 10 miles by the end of the year so I am in a good place to start formal training come January. 

I will keep you updated on my progress and would love to hear your thoughts and advice on postpartum marathon training, running as a mum and managing multiple priorities. Also if you have a place for the 2019 London Marathon do get in touch – if I make it that far it would be great to have some friendly faces on the start line on the day! 


Marathon mums

(image from

With marathon training season in full swing, I’ve been enviously looking on as my friends on Strava and Instagram crank up their weekly mileage. While on the one hand the talk of their long runs makes me want to sign up for a marathon immediately, on the other, the reality of my running form at the moment makes such a challenge seem further away than ever. Although it’s pretty tricky running through pregnancy, both my husband and I are very aware of the additional challenge that will come (we hope!) from trying to train with a baby. While we have heard horror stories of babies who have screamed for the entirety of a run from the comfort of an incredibly expensive running buggy (which was never used again), we also have lots of inspiring fit friends who seem to manage to combine being model parents with having model bodies.

One such friend, Jess, recently became a mum herself, and less than a year since giving birth she is now in the midst of training for the Paris marathon (a race we ran together back in 2015). Seeing her posts on Instagram and reading her blog really inspired me and made me want to absorb some of her knowledge and motivation in the hope that it might see me running marathons again in the future.

I wanted to write a post about a female powerhouse for International Women’s Day and this interview with Jess – doctor, runner, blogger and mum – seemed the perfect fit. She kindly agreed to answer a few questions on training during pregnancy, being a running mum and Paris marathon prep. I hope you find her as inspiring as I do. 2019 marathon anyone?!

What did your weekly exercise routine look like pre-pregnancy?

Before pregnancy I was training for the Santa Rosa Marathon (I found out I was pregnant the day after I ran it) so I was running 4 times a week, including speed/hill sessions and long runs of up to 20 miles. I‘d also started barre classes and was going about twice a week.


How did you adapt your workouts during pregnancy?

I made sure I listened to my body and did what felt right. I hardly moved in the first trimester as I was so exhausted and just needed to rest. The idea of going for a run was horrific! Fortunately, the exhaustion settled and I started running again at 11 weeks. The runs were short and slow – 4 miles was my limit, I think.  I eventually stopped running at 26 weeks as it was uncomfortable (I always felt a lot of pressure on my pelvic floor and constantly needed to wee!) and stopped me from enjoying my runs. From then on I did lots of walking and pregnancy barre DVDs.

How did you feel about the changes to your body and fitness during pregnancy?

I was surprisingly OK with all the changes. Pre-pregnancy I thought I’d find it hard, but I just tried to focus on what I could do, rather than dwelling on what I couldn’t.


At what stage and how did you start to rebuild your fitness after giving birth?

I had an emergency C-section so knew I had to give my body time to heal before starting to run and workout again. I started by walking daily. I felt very weak initially and walking a few miles was a real challenge. I gradually got stronger and went for my first run at 7 weeks. It felt great, however, after a few runs I noticed a pulling sensation around my scar. It wasn’t painful but also didn’t feel normal. I booked in with a women’s health physio for an assessment. She told me I was running too soon and needed to hold off for longer. I was really disappointed but deep down knew she was right. I started running regularly again at about 4 months post-partum. About the same time I started going to a CrossFit class called ‘Strong as a Mother’, which has been amazing. It focuses on core stability, mobility and strength for mothers and has definitely helped me get stronger.

When did you decide to set yourself the challenge of running another marathon after pregnancy?

All through pregnancy I knew I wanted to run a marathon in the first year postpartum. Pregnancy and motherhood is life changing and it can be easy to lose your sense of self amongst it all. Marathon running has been a passion of mine for almost a decade and I knew that training for a marathon would keep the ‘old Jess’ alive. I think I was scared that motherhood would mean no more marathons (at least for a long time) so setting myself the challenge of doing one in the first year was a good way to keep me running!

Why did this challenge appeal?

I love running marathons and I wanted to prove to myself motherhood didn’t need to stop me running them!

How do find fitting in your training around childcare?

I’m lucky because my husband works from home a lot so I run early in the morning or during nap times. I have to be ready to go as soon as the time is right, there’s no time to faff around! It can be tricky when my husband is travelling for work (sometimes for up to 4 nights at a time) but I just try to re-jig my schedule, call in some favours, or run with my heavy, non-running pram! I recently joined the local gym which has a crèche for babies over 6 months. I’m hoping that this will be a game changer when my husband travels as I can use the treadmill while Leo’s in the crèche.

So you haven’t been tempted by a running buggy?

So far I haven’t needed one as I’ve managed to schedule my runs without taking Leo. It would offer more flexibility so I’m tempted to get one, but they also take up loads of space in house which is probably why I’m holding off. It’s also nice to run on my own and have a break.

How does running feel now compared to pre-pregnancy?

It feels exactly the same, although I’m sure it helps that I had a C-section. The main difference is that I’m still slower than I used to be. I had to start from scratch and it’s only in the last few weeks that I feel like everything is coming together and I’m hitting the paces that I used to. I’ve got my endurance back, now I need to focus on speed!

How do you motivate yourself to get out for a run after a bad night’s sleep or a busy day of looking after Leo?

I’m not going to lie, if I’ve been up all night it’s tempting to press snooze and forget about running, but I try my best not to! I love the mantra ‘I get to run’, as it flips my mind set and reminds me that running is something I love, that I chose to do. I remind myself of how much I missed running when I was pregnant and how good I’ll feel after I’ve been. I also know that if I miss my run slot I probably won’t get another one that day which is usually enough to get me out of bed…

What does your current training plan look like?

I’m marathon training and run 4 times a week, including a long run at the weekend. I’ve just started to add in some speed work but I’m mainly focusing on getting my endurance back. I’m aware that a marathon is a big challenge this soon after having a baby so my focus is on enjoying the experience; speed can come later!



What will be your next challenge after Paris?

Now I’ve got my endurance back, I want to improve my speed. I’m hoping to do an Autumn marathon (maybe Richmond) where I’ll be aiming for a PB!

Who are your fitspirations?

Charlie from The Runner Beans. She is so dedicated to her training and somehow manages to fit it around a crazy schedule. It’s really inspiring to see her smash her goals and it helps me believe I could do the same.

What would your top tips be for me as a pregnant runner and mum-to-be?

Enjoy a fit pregnancy but listen to your body and change your goals and expectations accordingly.

Remember that every pregnancy is different so there’s no point comparing yourself to other pregnant women, especially pregnant runners. Some can run up to their due date, while others have to stop much earlier. Everyone is different!

When the baby comes, get outside for some fresh air and movement every day. Even if it’s just a walk around the park, it will make you feel much better.


November running

With the clocks going back last week and the cold, dark evenings drawing in it could be tempting to bed in for the winter months and let your running routine lapse. While I have been struggling to get back into training post-honeymoon, with a hectic social schedule combined with a case of the cold weather sniffles conspiring against me hitting my weekly mileage targets, I honestly think that early November is the best time to run and thus get back into the running groove.

In London the air has developed that sharp, crisp edge, reminding you that winter is on its way, and while it’s certainly chilly enough to warrant an extra layer on leaving the house, by the end of mile one you know you will be stripping down to a vest or t-shirt. A run in November leaves you with lovely rosy, pinched cheeks and a healthy glow, without the salty dryness that follows a run in the September sun. Early in the morning you can jog under cover of darkness, returning home to sunrise and a well-earned cup of tea. A midday jaunt gets you outside on those days too chilly to just sit in the park with a picnic and while it may be harder to get out on a dark evening, that only makes the return to the cosy warmth of home all the lovelier, and a hot post-run shower all the more indulgent.

What is more, the world just looks that bit more beautiful in the autumn sun. The trees are all in varying states of undress, some still clinging to green leaves, while others are in reds, yellows, oranges and browns. The air smells like a mixture of wet leaves, bark, smoked wood and fires, and as the sun sets every building you pass looks so warm and inviting.

So while you may have been writing off a run this weekend, just remember that post-run glow and how rewarded you will feel afterwards. I’m very much looking forward to the inaugural Derby 10 with my pals Katie and Ant this Sunday and I hope you have lovely Sundayrunday plans too.

Until my next, happy running.

‘Black hole’ training and unexpected acupuncture: How to build endurance and avoid injury

Hip pain female runnerNever has the term ‘a blessing in disguise’ seemed so pertinent to me as this week, when I finally conceded that the pain in my hip and lower back was severe enough to take a break from running and get some professional advice.

Okay, so maybe ‘a blessing’ is a slight exaggeration, but sometimes it takes an injury, or a similar setback, to realise that there is something awry in your training regime, bio-mechanics, running form, or in my case, all of the above, and to give you the incentive to get on and do something about it.

A year on from my last big injury (and hopefully a year wiser), I’m being a lot more pragmatic about what I should and shouldn’t do in terms of training while in pain. Yes, I want to make sure I’m fit for the marathon in April, but I also want to be able to walk, sleep and swim pain free, and, most pressingly right now, I want to be in good shape to go on my skiing holiday, which is less than two weeks away.

Unexpected acupuncture

So this weekend I went to see a physiotherapist and, after being diagnosed with hip bursitis on my left side (that is, the inflammation and swelling of the fluid-filled sac that acts as a cushion between the tendons and bones of my hip), and a very tight ITB on my right (read more about ITB issues and treatments here), I’ve agreed to take a week off from running.

AcupunctureAfter working through the range of movements in both of my legs and studying my gait, the physio concluded that, despite all of the work I’ve been doing to strengthen my core and glutes, when I get fatigued during training they are still not firing as they should, and as a result my back and hips are taking the strain. I’ve been given a series of exercises that work deep into my stomach muscles, as well as those in my bottom, to begin to redress the balance and try to undo some of the bad habits I’ve formed. To help with the immediate pain, I also had my first ever session of acupuncture.

I hadn’t gone to the therapist expecting to undergo this treatment and I have to admit to being quite in the dark about the science behind it, so I was keen to grill him with questions as he put the needles along my ITB and into my feet.

Although the narrative for how acupuncture works differs depending on whether you are coming from an eastern or western medical tradition, the general process is that the needles act to stimulate the nerves and muscles tissue and, depending on your view, either lead to the release of pain-relieving substances, such as endorphins, or restore the free flow of Qi through the body’s meridians, in both cases reducing pain.

Some further reading suggests that although the exact mechanics of how the process works are still not fully understood from a western perspective, there is enough evidence that it is sufficiently efficacious when it comes to pain relief to be offered as a complimentary treatment on the NHS as well as in private practice.

From my personal experience the acupuncture had two primary outcomes: the first was psychological in that I felt that someone was actively doing something to help relieve the pain I was feeling, and this alone left me feeling more positive about situation. Secondly, where my muscles were particularly sore or tight, I could feel them spasm and fill with a dull ache as the needles entered my legs and hips, but this then lessened as I lay on the bed and although my hip was still sore after the treatment, the other muscles in my legs felt less tender post-treatment.

I was sufficiently curious about the process to book in for a second session this week and in the meantime I’m keen to learn more. I am also on a course of ibuprofen and icing, alongside my rest period, so it will be difficult to tell what ultimately brings the inflammation down, but providing the final outcome means that I can run the Finchley 20 next week I’m happy to try out being a human pincushion for now.

Black hole training

As it happened, this recent injury also coincided with my discovery (via the Ben Greenfield podcast) of the concept of ‘black hole training’ (also known as running ‘junk miles’), that is performing all of your training sessions at a single intensity – hard enough that you feel that you’ve done something worthwhile, but not really hard enough that you are going beyond your lactate threshold or elicit any significant training response. This type of training is characterised by 3-5 sessions a week, normally for between 45 and 60 minutes, running the same routes, at the same pace, pretty confident you know how you will feel at the end of the session.

Sound familiar? It did to me, and I was horrified to discover that this is in fact the absolute worst kind of training for improving performance and maximising fat loss. Moreover, it is the kind of training most associated with injuries.

On top of this, studies have shown that this kind of training may also lead to hormonal disruptions including testosterone deficiency and low libido in males, oestrogen deficiency and low bone density in females and a disruption in your appetite.

Now, had I not been suffering with an injury at the time of hearing all of this, my interest in this critique of single tempo training may have stopped there. But as I listened to Greenfield explain the mechanics of how and why this type of training is essentially bad for you, the pain shooting through my hip and up into my back (I happened to be listening while on a run), forced me to take note.

And the thing is, I’m not alone in being lost in this black hole. Many recreational exercisers, particularly those who don’t have coaches, tend to gravitate towards this comfortable middle ground, not going anywhere near slow enough on their easy days to allow for recovery and to avoid over-training, and certainly not going hard enough on their tough days to stimulate the necessary response to get significantly fitter or faster.

Rather than sitting on the exercising fence, Ben Greenfield recommends an 80/20 ‘polarised training’ approach. In a number of studies where two groups of athletes were put on programmes with the same volume of training but where one group polarised their sessions, working at a very high intensity for approximately 20% of the time and at a low intensity for approximately 80% of the time, and the other group gravitated towards a majority of moderate intensity sessions, it was seen time and time again that the athletes who polarised their training showed a more significant augmentation in overall performance, be that in running, cycling or swimming.

As Greenfield observes:

Despite the fact that it feels very rewarding to roll up your sleeves and head out to the door to hammer at or near your threshold for a morning or lunchtime run, or ride at a steady “race pace” intensity for a few hours on the weekend, or swim lap-after-lap in the pool at your perceived Ironman intensity, it’s simply the wrong way to train.

HIIT Training

So, how do we optimise the 20% high intensity training sessions without devoting our whole lives to exercising? That is where HIIT comes in.

High intensity interval training (or HIIT) has been shown to increase your V02 max, mitochondrial density and oxidative enzyme volume and efficiency, increasing your capacity to train harder for longer. This increase in oxidative enzymes can also change your metabolism, increasing the rate at which your body oxidises fat during exercise, resulting in more efficient fat burning (as opposed to burning of carbohydrates) during exercise.

What is more, HIIT can also increase your post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) (the mythical ‘after-burn’ effect) meaning that after a HIIT session your oxygen consumption, and thus the total amount of calories you burn after the  actual workout, remains elevated as your working muscle cells restore physiological and metabolic factors in your cells to their pre-exercise levels.

So why not just train at a high intensity and skip the long slog cardio? It seems that what HIIT doesn’t improve, unlike long bouts of easier, aerobic training, is you maximal cardiac output – that is the measurement of the largest amount of blood your heart can pump in a given amount of time. This is why, to optimise your training – ‘maximizing your much blood your muscles can utilize (with HIIT) but also by maximizing how much blood your heart can send to your muscles (with aerobic training)’ – you need to combine long and steady workouts with your higher intensity sessions.

As Greenfield writes:

HIIT works more effectively on your peripheral muscle fitness while endurance training works more effectively on your central, cardiovascular fitness.

The good news for me is that while I can’t run at the moment, I can cycle, swim and perform a series of weight baring and body-weight exercises without pain, all of which can be combined to form a pretty efficacious HIIT session.

So what does a good HIIT session look like? I’ll save that for another post.

Eat less, move more: How public nudity and Ben Greenfield have changed my views on diet and exercise

There is something more than a little unnerving about standing in nothing but your knickers and a pair of high heels, surrounded by mirrors and faced by a total stranger. It is a scenario that forces you to take a serious look at your body. Seeing yourself practically naked from every angle is rather a revealing experience, in more ways than one.

So how was it that I found myself in this position, on more than one occasion, last week? The answer is far less salacious than you may imagine: I was in fact wedding dress shopping.

This was an experience that I’d been both looking forward to and dreading in equal measures. There is a certain amount of pressure in trying on a dress that is ten times more expensive than anything that you’ve previously even contemplated taking off the hanger, and which you hope will make the man of your dreams fall even more madly in love with you, while simultaneously wowing all other onlookers.

I’ve joked here before about ‘shredding for the wedding’ but suddenly, stood there, naked but for a thong and some killer heels, and faced by some truly beautiful dresses, I really wanted my body to be the absolute best version of itself when I put them on.

For me this ideal version doesn’t mean skeletal or skinny, but strong and toned. A body with powerful glutes and legs that can run marathons, with toned arms that can climb walls and power me through the pool and with a solid core that can carry me through my asanas and hold me in an array of yoga poses.

So, how to get this mythical body in just six months?

shredding for the weddingFortunately marathon training means that I’m getting plenty of cardio exercise in. Less fortunate is that fact that a lot of my sessions are long and slow – moderate and low intensity training, which has been shown to be linked to an increase in appetite and in compensatory eating after training (curses). So to supplement my long runs I’m putting in a couple of high intensity session each week, combining a Kayla Itsines workout with speed intervals on the bike.

In a recent episode of the Ben Greenfield fitness podcast (my new podcasting addiction) Greenfield cited a study that suggested short-term high intensity, intermittent training could assist in increased fat loss, when compared to moderate intensity, continuous exercise. The test subjects undertook 15 x 60 second bouts of cycling followed by 30 seconds of recovery three times a week for a six week period. The result was a significant decrease in fat mass (up to 12lb), while their diet remained constant.

What Greenfield also noted was that with high intensity training you don’t get the same increase in appetite as with the low intensity alternative. One of the proposed mechanisms for this is that with high intensity training you produce a lot of lactic acid and this can not only shut down your appetite but it can also be converted into glucose, via a process called the Cori cycle, which then provides more energy for your body, preventing a spike in appetite. So more HIIT for me.

In the same podcast Greenfield gave a run down of his top five tips for diet and nutrition, which I found incredibly useful and which really made me reflect on my current diet.

The first thing to note is that calories in and calories out are not independent variables, i.e. the amount and type of calories you eat can impact on the amount of calories you expend and different foods have different metabolic effects on your body, even if they contain approximately the same number of calories.

The example given in the podcast is of a test with two sandwiches – one ‘whole food’ sandwich of multigrain bread and cheese and one ‘processed food’ sandwich, made with white bread and a cheese spread – both with a similar micro-nutrient content (i.e. the same amount of carbs, protein and calories). The results showed that the postprandial metabolic rate of the people who ate the ‘whole food’ sandwich was almost twice that of those who ate the ‘processed food’ sandwich, with 137 calories being expended in digestion in the first instance and only 73 calories in the second. This is in part due to the high fibre content of the first sandwich,which requires more energy to process. Protein is also a good example of a foodstuff which takes a lot of energy to digest. In fact it uses more energy than either fats and carbohydrates, making it a potentially good source of calories.

It is also important to note that not everyone responds to calories equally. For example, insulin resistant individuals tend to respond better to a lower carbohydrate and higher fat diet, while insulin sensitive people can thrive on a higher carb diet. Your body fat and muscle percentage can also impact on how your body stores carbohydrates. The more muscle you have the more likely the carbohydrates will be stored as glycogen, whereas the less muscle you have the more likely it is that the carbohydrates you eat will be processed by the liver and stored as fat – a good reason to get into the gym and start pumping iron!

Moreover, that there is no ‘one size fits all’ method of dieting and your genetics and ancestry may have a role to play in how your body responds to food. For example, the gene that code for salivary amylase production, the AMY1A gene, can vary from person to person. The more salivary amylase you produce in response to carbohydrates the less likely those carbohydrates are to spike your blood glucose and the better your body is able to deal with them. The result may be that you are able to eat carbohydrates without excess weight gain versus someone without this genetic variation, who would be better suited to a lower carbohydrate diet. Similarly, there is something called the lactase persistence gene, which is an adaptation resulting in lactase being continued to be produced into adulthood, allowing you to continue to process milk even as an adult. This would mean that you would be able to better metabolise dairy products without digestive irritation. Having the MTHFR mutation means that you are someone who would need to take in a lot of folate into your diet. This is found in a lot of green leafy vegetables, lentils, and beans and so you might find that you are naturally drawn to a plant-based diet. The list goes on but you get the picture – just because a particular diet worked really well for a friend or colleague doesn’t mean that it will work in the same way for you.

Greenfield also flagged the importance of recognising the roles of both digestibility and nutrient density of foods. Nutrient dense foods may not always be easy to process by the body and may require fermenting, soaking, or cooking before eating to ensure that you are able to absorb all of the goodness found within them. Quinoa, for example, requires soaking, rinsing and cooking before it can be eaten, soy products are better eaten once fermented, and sourdough bread is more easily digested than unfermented alternatives. On the flip-side, some foods are very digestible but have minimal nutrient density, for example, sugars can be broken down easily by the body but offers little in the way of a nutritional reward.

Another interesting insight, and one that I suspect I am guilty of, is that in general we are eating too much and too often. Greenfield suggests that you should aim to eat two to three meals a day – breakfast sometimes, lunch and dinner. He noted that grazing, even on healthy snacks – nuts, seeds, energy bars, trail mix, dark chocolate etc. – results in the calories mounting up.

There is actually very little evidence that grazing or snacking plays a role in elevating your metabolism, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that restrictive eating and intermittent fasting can increase fat oxidation. So a few less handfuls of nuts between meals for me then!

Overall I know that I’m lucky that I have a healthy body, that I love exercise and that I’m drawn to healthier food choices. I think it is so important to be compassionate to yourself (a trait that I’ve perhaps lacked in in the past), and I have no plans to punish my body into shape. But I know with a little bit more mindfulness around my eating, and variety of exercises I can drop a few pounds, gain a bit of muscle definition and hopefully look (almost) as good as the wedding dress I bought!

Brain Pickings: On thinking fast and running slow

Last week I struggled with my long run. The issue was not so much physical as mental. I found myself counting down every kilometre, my mind jumping from fatigue, to boredom, to hunger (I’m still running fasted, although with my distances mounting I think I’m reaching the tipping point at which I can do this) and, although my splits were no different than usual, each kilometre seemed to go on for twice as long. I pushed through 25 kilometres, as I’d planned, and while it wasn’t a bad run, it was just that little bit tougher than I would have liked. I chalked it up as good marathon day practice – a reminder of what a run with my head in the wrong place could feel like – and resolved that this week I would work as hard on my mind as on my limbs to prepare me for my long run.

In the week I listened to an interview with the Runners Connect coach Jamie Dodge, in which she had placed emphasis on enjoying the journey while running, both during training and in races. She noted that many runners, when they cross the finish line, are more keen to tell the stories of the various things that happened during the race – the people they met, the spectators cheering them on, the scenery, the route – than to obsess over their final times, and I count myself within this group. Listening to her made me realise that the journey really is the important part for me; I love being able to go out and just run. I like being able to escape on a run, listening to podcasts or music as I go or to run and chat with friends as we pound the pavements together.

It was with this idea of just enjoying the journey in mind that I set out on my long run this Sunday. I was slightly anxious about keeping my mind on course, but as it was I needn’t have worried. I had downloaded a series of podcasts and within seconds I was totally engrossed in the first: an episode of Radio Headspace featuring an interview with Maria Popova.


You know the feeling when you hear, read or watch something and you suddenly feel like you want to share that thing with everyone? That was how I felt listening to Maria Popova speak. She is the creator of Brain Pickings, a website which began as an email newsletter to seven friends and which now has over seven million visitors each month. As Georgie Okell, presenter of Radio Headspace described it, Brain Pickings is an ‘online archive of interestingness, inspiration and meaning’.

The idea originated out of, on the one hand, Popova’s idealism of what learning could be and, on the other, a dissatisfaction with her college liberal arts education, which wasn’t the edifying experience she had hoped for. In search of something more, she supplemented her classes with long visits to the library, reading and reading some more, dipping into different disciplines from neuroscience to philosophy, and allowing the cross-pollination of ideas from one subject area to the next. In this way, Brain Pickings became a permanent online record of her own thinking and personal development, while at the same time becoming a source of inspiration for her readers.

I would urge readers here to explore the site and to listen to the interview, but before you do I wanted to touch on some of the points that really resonated with me.

On communication 

Popova’s comments on communication really struck a chord as they outlined behaviours that I often find myself guilty of. To read and write and truly engage with the material that goes into Brain Pickings, Popova noted that she has to close her inbox and cut herself off from the constant beeping of emails, text messages and social media updates. She observed that communication today has a sense of immediacy which creates a false sense of urgency, and while we know that this sense of urgency is a fictional product of the technological environment we live in, we all still find ourselves buying into it. We live in a world of reactivity, where people are so quick to form judgements and to act on those judgements, reacting rather than reflecting and responding. It is important to recognise this and to take a step back when we can, to allow our mind to explore our thoughts and ideas properly, and to observe and listen to the world without the need to trigger a response.

On writing

This sense of immediacy of information and the urgency to react extends beyond emails and text messages to much of the content we encounter online. The list-like content and catchy headlines of many articles and blog posts demand our attention, promising instant information requiring only minimal engagement. We are attracted by so-called ‘click-bait’; short-form material engineered to catch our eye rather than to generate appreciation or understanding. The result is that many people ‘mistake attention for appreciation’.

Popova aims to move away from this approach to writing and her site includes more and more long-form pieces where, as she explains, ‘there is an opportunity to explore nuance, clarity and context’.

On meditation 

One means of extracting ourselves from this culture of urgency and immediacy is through meditation. Popova observes that ‘the beautiful thing about meditation is that it’s a reminder of how to be in yourself and in the world without this compulsive reactivity.’ It is important to give yourself the space to take a step back and make an internal investment to be more reflective.

On reading

By reading and engaging with the experiences of others we are able to feel a resonance between our own experiences and emotions and those of others, across different times and spaces. Reading about emotions of love and doubt, hope and fear experiences by those around us, we may discover deeper meaning and a greater understanding of ourselves, and in doing so may feel less alone in our experiences.

On finding your path

Sometimes, when we encounter particular philosophical teachings, or learn from historical narratives, read about science and linguistics, literature and mathematics, something in our minds just click and we find ourselves exploring new paths or taking our lives in different directions. Sometimes it can be something as small as having a particular conversation with a person, or going on a retreat, or even listening to a podcast or radio show.

For some readers, Brain Pickings has acted as this apparent catalyst for change, of which Popova observes:

‘I’d be a fool to believe that I had catalysed whatever change someone has gone on. People are on their own path, and there are things that may help them to clarify that path, but I think they would have arrived anyway. But there is some reassurance in seeing things playing out in other people’s lives to act as a point of reference – in the lives of people that we as a society see as successful…People step into what they already are, they just find a context which makes it easier to access what is already in them.’

On purpose

One of the most profound comments from the piece was on finding your purpose in life. On this, Popova affirmed that you find your purpose by doing. She quoted the book Conversations with Picasso, in which Picasso observes that  ‘in order to know what you’re painting you have to begin to paint’. A lot of people are misled by the ‘fetish of finding their true purpose’ and it makes them afraid of going down the wrong path. The result is that instead of doing everything, people end up doing nothing.

Allowing yourself to accept that your life may not have one sole purpose, and that the one thing you deemed so important at 21 may not be the thing that matters to you as much at 31 or 41 frees you to ‘just live, with attentiveness and awareness of the world’, and discern from that what it is that gives you a sense of purpose.

‘If you come at everything with too much of a fixed plan you could cheat yourself out of so many things because you can’t envisage you future self’s values and how you will develop…Keep checking in with yourself, what brings you happiness and nourishes you.’


As you have probably gathered from this post, my mind was so active going over all of Papova’s words that my long run flew by; I will certainly be downloading some more Radio Headspace for my run on Sunday.

Happy running.

Embrace your bad runs, listen to your body and other wise words from the Runners Connect Podcast

Runners Connect - Run to the Top Podcast
Runners Connect – Run to the Top Podcast

This weekend, while I was searching for an audiobook to get me through my long Sunday run, I stumbled upon the Runners Connect Run to the Top podcast. Curious, I downloaded a couple of episodes while I had my pre-run cup of tea. Tea consumed, I pulled on an extra running top, laced up and headed out into a very chilly day, pressing play as I began my 12 miler.

The first episode was entitled Why it’s important to welcome bad runs. Like all runners, I’m all too familiar with bad running days; days when my legs won’t cooperate and when, despite feeling like I’m putting in my usual effort, my splits remain embarrassingly snail-like. In fact, I had had one such day that Saturday, and I was hoping above hope that my Sunday run would progress with the pleasant ease of that the previous week, rather than the huffing mess of the previous day.

As it was, I found myself so utterly distracted by the podcast that I didn’t notice the first few miles go past. While the audio quality wasn’t the greatest and the production was by no means as sleek as an episode of This American Life or Serial (my usual long-run podcasts of choice), the content was rich, interesting and engaging, and the presenter, the British elite runner Tina Muir, was endearing and instantly likable. After a slightly long and nervous introduction, the interview really got going. She was interviewing the CNN journalist, runner and author of My year of running dangerously Tom Foreman, who was one of the most inspiring speakers about running that I’ve heard, and I think may be one of my new running gurus!

'My Year of Running  Dangerously', Tom Foreman
‘My Year of Running Dangerously’, Tom Foreman

Back in 2010, while in his 50s, he got back into running in a big way, agreeing to join his 18-year-old daughter to train for, and run, a marathon. From marathon success, he continued his running journey, racing in multiple half-marathons, marathons and eventually ultramarathons.

Throughout the course of the interview he reflected on various aspect of running, from injury, to combining being a good runner with being a good family member, work colleague and friend. I don’t want to give away everything he said – rather I would compel you to please go and listen to the interview for yourself – but there were some particular titbits that have stayed with me which I wanted to include here.

On injury:

Having covered so many miles, what was surprising was how little injury Foreman had incurred. However he said that he ‘took very seriously the idea of incremental increases’, only gradually upping his distance to let his body adapt. His mantra was ‘the run that counts is tomorrow’s run’, meaning that you should never run so hard one day that you are either unable or unwilling to run the next, (race days are of course an exception to this rule!). He urged listeners to take every hint of a problem seriously; to be aware of twinges, to look after your joints and muscles, to be attentive to the possibility of getting injured and to reflect on the difference between discomfort – fatigue or a build-up of lactic acid – and injury.

He vaunted the importance of listening to your body; even when you think you should push through, the most sensible and valiant thing to do is to pull up slightly, keeping in mind that the aim is to get from a to b, and if that means going slightly sideways for a little while that is better than being forced to stop completely due to injury. And if you feel a twinge or a problem weeks before a race, you have to seriously ask yourself ‘how valuable this race to me?’ Because it may be that pushing on for that race will write you off for the next six months, so it is important to be realistic and think, is it worth it?

On bad runs:

In the interview, Foreman recalls a conversation he had with the Bugs Bunny animator Chuck Jones, who, on his first day at art school was told by his art instructor ‘each of you has 10,000 bad drawings in you, so let’s start drawings and get them out now’. Foreman observed that similarly, we all have an awful lot of bad running days in us and while some days you may feel exceptional and running feels like the best thing in the world, other days you may feel truly awful. On those awful days, however, it’s important to remember that as a rule of probability the next run you do is likely to be better, and rather than worrying about feeling heavy or tired, what you need to think is ‘thank goodness I’ve got that out of the way’.

It’s important to remember that the best athletes out there still have painful, awful days, but what makes them the best is that they accept that such days do not define their ability, they are just painful, awful days which they put behind them and move on to the next run to see if it’s any better.

On running a marathon:

Wisely, Foreman observed that a marathon is too long a race to do for anyone but yourself. You have to really want to do it, and to commit to it for more than just the time, or the medals. While those things are important to some extent, the essence of your drive should be the thought that ‘I’m out here to deliver the best I can, to engage the physics of this race as a human animal and deliver the best I can…the real goal is to reach that state that I’ve just run a beautiful race and expressed my human athleticism in the best way I could.’ And remember, in a big city marathon, like New York or London, there are over 50,000 people running and only one person gets to win, the rest of us have to run for something else.

On getting outside:

A man after my own heart, Foreman stressed that time outdoors matters. He observed that it is easy to look back on you days and realise you were never effectively outside. Running, however, gets you outside of the house and outside of your comfort zone. There is something very invigorating and freeing about being in a situation where it’s not the perfect temperature all of the time, or when that cup of tea or biscuit isn’t arm length away. Rather, running, in a range of weather conditions, allows you to engage with the bigger human experience.

On skipping training runs:

This little nugget was one which really resonated with me: on skipping runs, Foreman used the following rule of thumb: ‘If you are really busy or you have a family commitment and you really want to run but there just isn’t time, then it’s ok to skip that run. The run you can’t skip is the one you just don’t want to do, that’s when you have to go. You can’t give into that part of you. You are always better off for going for a run. Sometimes it takes a mile, sometimes it takes five miles before you feel better, but invariably, by the end, you will feel better.’

On balancing your running with the rest of your life:

Foreman advises, don’t worry about what people think of your running ability, if you are going to worry about anything worry about how your running impacts on you as a friend, colleague or family member. Foreman insists that ‘you have to make sure work as hard at your life as you do at your running’, and that’s not always easy. As his daughter observed in the book, ‘the challenge is not running a marathon, the challenge is running a marathon and not letting your life fall apart’. You need to strive for balance and make sure your workplace sees your running as something that makes you a better employee and that your family sees it as something that makes you a better family member.

This advice really struck a chord with me, as I know sometimes, when I’m deep into my marathon training programme, I can get slightly cagey about weekend activities, or protective of my evenings, and I just have to remember to try and make up for this when I’m training for shorter races and not to be too uptight if I have to tweak my schedule to fit a shorter run before work or over lunch.

While I’ve written more here than I had intended, as you can see, I was particularly inspired by this episode and will now be buying Tom Foreman’s book, My Year of Running Dangerously! Since I heard this episode of the Runners Connect podcast on Sunday, I have listened to 5 or 6 further episodes and would particularly recommend the episode with motivational speaker and marathon runner Dick Beardsley as well as the one with sleep expert Dr James Maas. Do check out the podcast as there is lots of really great content there and lots to keep you inspired on all of your runs.

Tina Muir also writes a blog about her running which can be found here.

Enjoy these and happy listening, reading and running!