Good run? Well that depends on your definition of good…and run.

Good run?

It’s amazing how two seemingly innocuous words can stir up such a array of emotions. I know when my husband poses this question he is just taking a casual interest in my daily activities, and yet when he asks, for some reason so many feelings – embarrassment, anger, upset and irritation – well up inside me. In my mind I’m shouting, ‘imagine rapidly gaining 2 stone, being constantly hot and breathless, feeling nauseous with acid reflux and needing to pee almost as soon as you’ve been to the toilet, and then try having a good run’, but I usually just smile and say ‘yeah ok’.

Having had two pregnancies in relatively quick succession, and with the toll that this has taken had on my body, I’m struggling to recall the last time I enjoyed a truly good run. There were some relatively decent 10 milers in the autumn last year, when I was starting to feel something like myself again, but that was before the first trimester sickness of the latest pregnancy took hold. At the moment, nine out of every ten runs feels like a struggle for one reason or another – reflux, fatigue, abdominal pain, sore hamstrings, upset stomach, breathlessness, the list goes on – and I can barely run a mile before I need to walk a little. So why persist, you may reasonably ask? The answers are many and various, but it was only while listening to the Running For Real podcast interview with Colin McCourt this week that I really started to deconstruct what exactly it is I’m feeling now when I run, and why it is that I’m continuing in this endeavour.

For those of you unfamiliar with McCourt, he was a GB runner who, after failing to make to Olympic squad in 2012, decided to give up being a professional athlete. He subsequently buried himself in a career in finance, put on quite a lot of weight and gave up running completely. Years later, a bet with friends saw him lacing up his trainers once more, shedding the weight he had gained and going on to run an impressive sub 16 minute 5k.

McCourt’s ethos now is to be transparent about his running and the struggles he has had with his training since returning to the sport, and he is open and honest about the internal conflicts he has had managing his ego during this period. A lot of what he said in the interview really resonated with me. It’s hard to admit to yourself that you’re now pretty rubbish at something that you were once ok at, and even harder to let other people see how far you have fallen. One of the most powerful things that McCourt said in the interview was that while you may be worried about a slow run or a bad race performance, the reality is, no one else really cares. I think this important to remember this when massaging a bruised ego after a sub-optimal run.

Although I am still slightly ashamed of my Strava stats at the moment, and while I may need to temporarily change my definition of a ‘good run’, there are still reasons within me that mean that I keep going.

I keep going for that one run out of the ten when I feel something like myself again; for the run that reminds me why I love the sport. It’s never obvious when this ‘good run’ will strike: I could feel great in the morning when I get up but then fade after a few metres on the road, or feel awful on setting out and then find I can keep going for longer than I’d anticipated. So I have to keep going on the off chance I hit that running sweet spot.

I’m also aware that giving birth will be the toughest mental and physical challenge that I’ll ever have to face and I need to prove to myself that I’ve still got the grit to get through something I’m finding difficult. If I can keep my body fit and healthy and force myself out of my comfort zone then this has to set me up, to some degree, to manage the trauma of birth, or at least put me in a better place than if I let myself get overweight and unfit, right?!

I keep running for my general health and the health of my baby. Despite the old school rumours that expectant mothers should basically be bedridden, the NHS, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the National Childbirth Trust and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence all recommend moderate exercise during pregnancy. This helps to alleviate or reduce the risk of gestational diabetes, pregnancy-induced hypertension, high gestational weight gain, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

I run because exercise is good for Suze, because the babies of prenatal exercisers tend to have more efficient hearts than those of non-exercisers, and this higher cardio fitness level seems to last into the childhood years.

I keep running because I’m terrified of becoming horribly overweight. I’m ashamed to admit this, but as I pick up weight so easily and I’m acutely aware that I’m eating more and moving less at the moment, I’m nervous about becoming enormous and not being able to lose the weight post-pregnancy. I know I shouldn’t be so vain as to be worrying about this right now, but I can’t help it, and with more women than ever making the hot pregnant and postpartum body look like the norm, I don’t want to be the one fatty who let themselves go in pregnancy.

I also keep running because right now I can, whereas in a few months time it’s going to get a whole lot harder.

And I keep running because next week I’ve got a Race For Life 5km raising money for Cancer Research and I need to know that I can get round the course and earn my sponsorship money!

Advertisements

Tri, tri and tri again: The reality behind triathlon training, kit and racing

With my love of running and swimming it’s amazing how often people have asked if I’d be tempted to do a triathlon. The honest answer is yes, but (and there is always a but). The crux of the matter is that I’m not the most confident cyclist, and although I’m trying to build up some cycling strength through spinning, arguably pregnancy isn’t the ideal time to take on a new discipline and seriously entertain ideas of triathlon glory.

Yet while I regularly put my triathlon aspirations to bed, they are periodically reawakened, most often by the Strava stats and pictures posted on Instagram by my friend, and amazing athlete, Nicola Kaye.

image1

Whether it’s during her training weeks in Lanzarote, on tours across Europe and South America, or even just her workouts in London, seeing and hearing about Nicola’s training and race schedule really makes me want to brave my first race. However, rather than taking all of the pictures at face value (which make triathlon training look like a very sunny and jolly swim, bike, run in the park), I decided to dig a little deeper into the reality of triathlon training to find out how Nicola entered the world of triathlon and to discover the kind of dedication it really requires.

When did you start competing in triathlon events and what motivated you to start?

I’d always been quite a keen runner before moving to London in 2006, and when I made the move to the big smoke I took an instant dislike to tube travel. A flatmate at the time suggested I look at the ‘bike to work’ scheme, whereby some companies offer employees the opportunity to buy a bike tax free through the company. I was delighted to see that it was something my employer offered and pretty soon I was covering my daily commute by bike.

London can be pretty intimidating to a new cyclist but I soon came to love my daily bike commute – wind rain or shine! My morning commute is still a favourite part of my day over 10 years later.

It wasn’t until 2010 that a colleague at work posed the idea of a few of us entering the London Triathlon. As a runner, I’d had a pretty frustrating few years with a number of injuries (including both knee and foot surgery) so I was a little apprehensive about entering a race. My first response was ‘but I can’t swim!’ and then when I thought about it a little more rationally, I realised that technically, I could swim, just not front crawl, which is the typically chosen swim stroke of triathlon, being the quickest and most energy efficient. Furthermore, when other responses such as ‘I’ve not been on a bike since I was 10’ followed, I realised that I would be in good (or rather, similarly inexperienced) company for my first triathlon. It was a great bonding exercise with my colleagues, as we trained for our first triathlon together and we all managed to complete it, but it was a very tough first outing!

image3

So you were you a runner before you started competing in triathlon? 

I’ve always loved running and having my knee and foot surgery a few years ago taught me to never take it for granted. I’m always grateful to be able to get out and run but these days I tend to limit it to about three times a week since I’m still quite susceptible to injury. I love the freedom running allows you and I love that wherever you are in the world, you can just lace up your trainers and get out there.

What’s your favourite of the three disciplines, or does this vary? 

Cycling is my strongest discipline by far, and I love the sport. It’s very sociable and a great way to be able to see places, so I often do a lot of cycling while I’m travelling. I was fortunate to be able to take a year out of work and I took the opportunity to cycle in South America, Australia and New Zealand. Cycling over the Andes from Bogota to Cartagena is probably one of the toughest things I’ve done to date but the experience was incredible and everyone we met, so warm and welcoming.

Swimming continues to be my nemesis, but on a good day, I love it. Unless you were a competitive swimmer at an early age, it’s quite tough learning and indeed become good at swimming as an adult. You need to put in a lot of work for very little reward! I’m determined to get better at it though so I keep chipping away.

What does a typical week of training look like a) in the lead up to a race b) between races?

A standard week is normally 3, 3 and 3 i.e. 3 sessions of each sport, although I’m trying to improve my swimming at the moment so sometimes there’s 4 or even 5 of those sessions in a week. The weekend is reserved for the longer sessions so I’ll normally do a long bike on one of the days and a long run on the other. Around each of these core sessions, I’ll then try to fit in a couple of mobility and strength sessions and stretching/foam rolling is key! The more the better really.

image1 (1)

I have a coach who helps to write my programme and this has really helped to structure my training. The week before a race, sessions tend to be shorter and sharper with longer recoveries to ensure you are in the best possible shape on race day. After a race, it’s very much about listening to your body. Every race affects you differently but you need to make sure you don’t do any high intensity work too soon or you risk injury.

And what does your typical diet look like? 

I eat a lot! My colleagues at work think I eat constantly, but then I think they sometimes forget that when I show up at work in the morning, I’ve usually swum for nearly an hour and cycled 30 mins to get there, while they’ve largely rolled out of bed and onto the train.

I’m lucky in that I love good, healthy nutritious food, so there’s definitely plenty of veg, salad and lean meat and fish in my diet. To be clear though, I love cake too and that very much features every week as well!

I try to keep my diet pretty varied, but breakfast is almost always porridge. Otherwise, it’s about maintaining a good balance of fat, carbs and protein and making sure you eat at the right times around training. Easier sessions can be done fasted but you need to make sure you’re well-fuelled for any of the high-intensity work, or you render the session ineffective.

How do you manage to fit in training around work and socialising?

I’d love to tell you that I’m super organised and that I manage it perfectly. In all honesty though, it’s a struggle. It’s become a bit easier since I changed jobs last year and I now have a much better work / life balance. Prior to that, my sleep almost always suffered. The problem is, the more you train, the more sleep you need, so making sure you factor that in is incredibly important. I’ve come to realise that sometimes, a bit more time in bed will benefit me more than getting to the pool for 6.30am.

image3 (2)

I try to fit in my training before work and at lunchtime wherever possible, but inevitably, it doesn’t always work out. Ultimately, I’ve learnt to be flexible and accept that on some weeks, I won’t get all of my planned training sessions done. It’s not the end of the world. In the lead up to a race however, I will often prioritise training over socialising. It means missing out on stuff, but it’s a choice I make and given the time and effort that goes into my training, I want to make sure that I do myself justice in each race.

Are you training for anything at the moment?

Absolutely. It’s how I stay motivated. I’d always get out for the odd run or bike ride if I didn’t have races in the calendar but my training wouldn’t be so structured as it is currently. My 3 big races this year are 3 half-ironmans in April, August and September respectively. September’s the big race  as it’s the 70.3 World Championships in South Africa, which is a race I qualified for in Estonia last summer. I also mix the bigger races with a number of smaller events too, to take the pressure off a bit, and to ensure I retain the fun element. I’ve a few local running events planned and a couple of bike sportive both in the UK and in Europe.

Have you ever had any equipment disasters during a race?

Oh yes, several! You have to take it on the chin and make sure you learn from the mistakes where you can. It’s also why it’s good to put a few races in the diary so that if one doesn’t go to plan, you’ll have other opportunities to make up for it.

I’ve had one DNF (did not finish) due to a double puncture (I tend to carry one spare inner tube but certainly no more than that). I also forgot to put on my ankle chip timer at one race and missed the start altogether. These days, it’s one of the first things I put on!

Do you have a favourite race and race distance? 

I started triathlon racing sprint and Olympic distance (750m / 20k / 5k for sprint and 1,500m / 40k / 10k for Olympic). I think I’m more of a diesel though and better suited to the slightly longer distance. Half-Ironman (70.3) is my favourite distance which involves a 1.9km swim, a 90k bike and a 21.1k run. The swim isn’t much longer than the Olympic, which goes in my favour as a weaker swimmer, and then I can get stuck into the bike and hopefully pick off a few of the swimmers who beat me out of the water. The run is then about trying to hold my position.

image6

I’ve done the London Triathlon four times. It’s not a particularly scenic course, but the great thing about doing a race close to home is that it makes it easy for friends and family to support and it’s great having support out on the course.

I’ve also done the Mallorca Half-Ironman twice and it’s a race I love with a really challenging bike course.

These days, however, what makes a good race for me is doing it with friends and family. Travelling together and being able to share the experience with others makes it really memorable.

What is your greatest sporting achievement?
Representing my country as an amateur at both the European (ETU) and World (ITU) Championships in 2015 and 2016 was pretty special, particularly my first outing in Geneva where my parents came to support me.
image5 (1)
I think, however, that finishing my first Ironman race (a 3.8k swim, 180k bike and a 42.2k run) in 2016 is what I’m most proud of, because I know how hard I worked to get there. The last half of the marathon was a real struggle and at that point, it very much becomes a test of mental strength. Crossing the finish line is still so fresh in my mind and still brings tears to my eyes nearly 2 years later!
All of the equipment can often be intimidating to athletes thinking of going into the sport of triathlon, what advice would you offer to them?

Triathlon is still a very new sport, relative to most other sports, which means that there have been some huge technological developments over a relatively short space of time. Triathletes love kit and love spending money on new kit that they very definitely don’t need and I’m no different to that. It’s very easy to convince yourself of a ‘need’ for something new to the market.

That said, because of the rapid developments in equipment, it means you can pick up the stuff you need without spending a fortune. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there, so definitely take advantage of it.

Wherever possible, you should try before you buy. If you’re going to be doing races that have an open-water swim, for example, then you’ll need a wetsuit. It’s possible to rent wetsuits for a race or even a whole season and there’s a number of outdoor lakes which will let you test out different models so you can see what works best for you.

In terms of a bike, the best advice I was given is to buy the best frame you can afford. All of the components (gears, wheels, etc.) can be upgraded at a later date as and when you can afford to spend a bit more money on it.

The internet is also a great source of information. It can be a little intimidating at first because there are many (often contrasting) opinions flying around, but it can be helpful to see what works for others and may just work for you too.

What kit do you use? 

For swimming I have a HUUB wetsuit and I swear by Zoggs Predator Flex goggles which I find comfortable, don’t steam up and are available Polarised for outdoor sunny swims. Real swimmers all use those tiny little eye-socket goggles that I find unbearably uncomfortable!

I have 2 sets of running shoes that I currently use – the Saucony Kinvara for my longer runs, which are lightweight but also really cushioned. For racing I use the Adidas Adizero. For shorter distance races, most people don’t wear socks and then you want to look for a tri-specific run shoe which tend to be seamless and ensure you don’t finish the run with feet covered in blisters. It’s also important to use elastic laces, which save a lot of time and energy in transition.

As for the bikes, there’s currently 3 in the family! I have a beautiful steel road bike from Condor on which I commute each day and do a fair number of miles on in the Winter. My second bike is a Felt aero-road bike which I love. The geometry of the bike is somewhere between a normal road bike and a time-trial (TT) bike making it a decent choice for both road cycling and triathlon. I also put aero bars on it during triathlon to get myself in a more aerodynamic position. The bike is nearly 10 years old; I bought it second hand from a friend about 5 years ago for an absolute steal! I’m not sure how many kilometres have been ridden on that bike, but I did 10,000km on it just last year!

This year I welcomed bike number 3 into the fold; I finally bit the bullet and bought myself a TT bike. Over longer distances, it can save you quite a bit of time due to the aerodynamic position it allows you to adopt. It’s a Cervelo P3 with Di2 (electronic) gearing and cost me a small fortune. I may not own my own house, but I do have a very pretty new bike!
Who are your fitspirations? 

I’m surrounded by inspirational people. I run with Serpentine Running Club which is full of talented individuals and seeing the successes of members within the club, week after week, inspires me to get out there and keep pushing myself.

I think that 2012 really inspired a nation of cyclists and I too was probably caught up in that. It’s great that as a country we’re doing so well in the sport of cycling and it’s fantastic that we have so many strong women at the top of the sport.

In triathlon, boundaries are being pushed every day and records are continually being broken. There’s so many strong women in the sport, leading the way, and what is particularly nice to see is those that are taking time out to have kids and then returning to the sport as strong as ever.

image4
If I need to name one person though, it’s probably my Mum. At 65, she swims with a Masters Swim Squad 3 or 4 times a week, and on a Saturday morning, heads straight to Parkrun after. She’s also a regular on the triathlon circuit and regularly wins her age-group. She often plays it down by saying she was the only one in her age group, but she always beats me out of the water so I don’t buy that! I hope I’m still going strong in 25 years!

Tri, tri and tri again

Last weekend was an impressive one in terms of sporting achievements. You may have seen the Brownlee brothers swim, cycle and run to a one, two finish in the elite men’s race at the world triathlon series in Leeds on Sunday, or looked on as team GB triathlete Vicky Holland claimed a bronze in the elite women’s race (Holland and fellow triathlete Non Stanford are now definitely my new sporting girl crushes!), but I’m also incredibly proud to say that, earlier in the day, two of my close family friends – Matt and Chris – raced in the open entry men’s event. For both of them this was in their first Olympic distance triathlon and they both totally smashed it.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, I can’t tell you how proud I am of my friend and running pal Katie, who faced her first half Iron Man this Sunday, completing a 1.2 mile (1.9 km) swim, 56 mile (90 km) bike ride, and a 13.1 mile (21.1 km) run in and around the grounds of Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire. While I knew she would nail it (that girl’s got grit) that doesn’t detract from how incredibly in awe I am of her for doing it. (And I’d be fibbing if I didn’t admit that it’s started to sew seeds of a triathlon in my mind too…)

After all of that it seems rather anticlimactic to add that this weekend I also ran in the 2016 Potters ‘Arf Marathon.

The 13.1 miles around the towns of Stoke-on-Trent are possibly some of the hilliest I’ve run under race conditions. Still, being a natural born Potter and having never previously run the race I decided that this year was the year to face ‘heartbreak hill’ (the killer climb between miles 11 and 12) alongside my brother-in-law and Potters ‘Arf veteran, Georg.

Knowing the reputation of the course with it’s multiple hills I had no expectations of a PB and as such went in to the run with a relaxed attitude. My parents, sister and two nephews came along to watch, which was so nice, and they all waited with us at the start despite the torrential downpour that arrived just before the race began.

Despite the rain, supporters had turned up in their masses and the atmosphere wasn’t dampened at all (although we were all pretty soggy by the time we were called to line up on the start line). Luckily by the time we began to run the rain has stopped and it held off pretty much the whole way round.

I don’t think I’ve ever run in such a well-supported race. Every mile of the course had people on the sidelines cheering us on and many of the supporters were offering water, jelly babies, orange segments and cold sponges to us as we went. It made me so proud to be from Stoke and I found myself grinning like a loon most of the way round as a result.

I ran the first couple of miles with Georg but lost him in the crowds (surprising as he is a 6ft something barefoot giant with an enormous red beard any Viking would be proud of!). Still I soon settled into my own pace and the initial miles ticked over quite quickly. I had been warned about the hill between miles 4 and 5 and kept my head down as I ploughed up it.

I was flagging slightly at mile 8 but hearing our friends and neighbours Andy, Lisa, Morgan and Spencer on the sideline cheering me on gave me the extra push I needed.

The other notable hills came at around miles 9 and 10 and on the second I heard a runner behind me say ‘is this “the one”‘ to which someone else answered ‘no, that’s still to come’. It was lucky that I heard this exchange as I knew the worst was still waiting for me!

Heartbreak hill was signposted, although the signage wasn’t necessary. Usually when running up hills I look at the ground to protect myself from the sight of the gradient, but even looking down couldn’t conceal how steep the drag was. I was determined to keep my legs turning over but did have to walk a few steps before pushing on. Still, once at the top it was all down hill to the finish and I ran into Hanley with the biggest smile on my face. Mum, dad, Jo and the boys were all cheering at the finish and I was surprised to see that I’d comfortably come in under the two hour mark, which, given the hills, I hadn’t expected.

I saw an old friend at the finish line too, and despite having never run a half before he crossed the line not far behind me, impressive stuff! It was lovely enjoy the end of race euphoria together. I soon found Georg too and we celebrated together.

So a successful weekend all round and another ‘run not race’ under my belt.

Happy running.

IMG_3455

A good influence?

Like many health and wellness bloggers I try to surround myself with positive and inspirational people and media, not only to stay abreast of the latest fitness and diet trends to report back on here, but also to keep me motivated, optimistic and to try to help mould me into the best version of myself (or a slightly better version at least!).

Occasionally I find that something I read, hear in a podcast, or glimpse on social media resonates with me in a much more profound way than the usual interesting, but less effecting, information. While so often the latter type of nuggets will have an instant impact, their effects are, more often than not, only short-lived – a magazine article that pushes me out of the door do a workout, or an Instagram picture that drives me to make a healthier meal choice. However, on the occasions that I read or hear something which has a deeper influence, I find it seeps into my subconscious in a way that goes on to shape the way I think, behave and interact with others well beyond the initial point of impact.

This was of course the case when I switched from a vegetarian to a vegan lifestyle some ten years ago now after learning more about the dairy industry and realising the effects that dairy products had on my body. Once I was equipped with this knowledge the fact of veganism seemed an obvious conclusion.

In recent weeks I had my eyes opened again in this regard as I listened to an interview with Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn, makers of the documentary film Cowspiracy. While this documentary had been on my radar, I hadn’t prioritised watching it as I had thought it would just be a case of preaching to the converted. However, what the interview revealed was how little I actually knew about the detrimental effects of animal agriculture on the environment and why grass-fed meat is not the often vaunted ‘sustainable’ solution that many meat eaters claim. Again, equipped with the knowledge that the animal agriculture industry is responsible for more of the ‘human-produced’ greenhouse gasses than all means of transport combined, or that whole ecosystems are disrupted by the land requirements for grazing cattle, and that this is the leading cause of species extinction, habitat destruction and wildlife culling, reaffirmed in my mind my lifestyle choices and made me want to share the message with others (with almost evangelical zeal!).

My attitude to exercise has also taken a positive turn in recent months and this was further solidified by a excerpt in Adharanand Finn’s new book,The Way of the Runner, which I read this week.

After a series of hip issues and my decision not to run the marathon this year I had felt my relationship with running sour somewhat. However, once the pressure of training for an event was removed, and I was able to let my body recover without the anxiety of missed training sessions, I found that I was able to reconnect with the real reason I go out running: just because.

Finn voiced these sentiments perfectly in his book:

I know some people run to loose weight, to get fit, or maybe they’re running to raise money for a charity. But for me…these are just by-products. Running itself has its own raison d’être…[W]e run to connect with something in ourselves, something buried deep down beneath all the worldly layers of identity and responsibility. Running, in its simplicity, its pure brutality, peels away these layers, revealing the raw human underneath…[I]f we push on, running harder, further deeper into the wildness of it all, away from the world and the structure of our lives…we begin to float…Our minds begin to clear and we begin to feel strangely detached, and yet at the same time connected, connected to ourselves…

In this modern world we need excuses…The world is set up to cater for the rational, logical mind, which needs to see tangible reasons and benefits behind any effort. We need to dangle the carrot of marathons and best times in front of ourselves to justify this strange habit of getting up, running around outside, coming back having not actually gone anywhere…And this, on some superficial level motivates me to run. But really, deep down, I know it’s just a front. What I really want to do is get away from all of the structure, the complexity and chaos of my constructed life, and to connect with the simple human that lies buried under everything else.

I don’t doubt that this is a message that will resonate with many other runners.

Finally, with my daily practice of yoga and discovery of the wider mindfulness and meditation movement, I can feel another shift taking place. Partly responsible for this greater sense of connectedness and peace with myself is my recent discovery of Rich Roll. Roll’s podcast is full of interviews with inspirational ‘paradigm breakers’ in different fields from business, music, fitness, meditation, sleep and nutrition, and his unapologetic approach to health, wellness and veganism (the tagline to his bio is ‘a life transformed by plants’), have all served to motivate me to feel more at peace and proud of my lifestyle choices, while also compelling me to strive for more in work, exercise, wellness and diet.

You need only to listen to his interviews with Ariana Huffington, John Joseph, Light Watkins, Jedidiah Jenkins, Mishka Shubaly, or indeed any of the other motivational interviewees he has had on the show to realise what an incredible resource this is.

There are some really powerful lessons to be learned: Roll is a recovering alcoholic turned ultra-athlete and he is pretty frank that to make a change in any element of your life you already know what to do:

There is no secret bullet or life-hack that is going to help you to accomplish what you want to do, it’s simply a case of stopping what you doing and switching to take the actions that will move you closer to your goal. It’s tough to hear because people want to hear that there is an easier, softer way. The short-cut is to make that goal your absolute one priority and do anything you can to achieve it.

The podcast makes me think about life in a holistic sense: in an interview with Jason Garner, Garner highlighted the problem of compartmentalising different aspects of our lives and how ‘we talk about work life balance as if work isn’t part of our life’, something which really struck a chord with me. In another episode our engagement with social media was brought into question and the focus was placed on the importance of ‘being’ rather than ‘appearing to be’, a shift that would serve many of us.

At it’s essence is the message that life, success and happiness is all about perspective – two people can have the same experience and perceive it totally differently, so what you have to ask is how much responsibility are you prepared to take for your mindset and approach to life?

I will finish with a Viktor Frankl quote that I particularly like, which Roll cited in an episode I was listening to this week:

Between stillness and response there is a space and in that space is our power to choose our response and in our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Happy inspiring.

 

 

Train your mind, fuel your body and start getting stronger

Last week the flu epidemic that seems to have been sweeping our office finally caught up with me. From feeling unusually achy and slightly sub-par while doing my yoga on Wednesday morning, I found myself a shivering, sweating, aching, snotty mess by Wednesday evening.

While my training dwindled into non-existence and I had to miss a race on Sunday, what I lacked in movement I made up for in sleep. Unable to get out of bed for a couple of days I also had plenty of time to listen to lots of health and fitness podcasts and I used the time to listen, learn and be inspired.

Rich Roll PodcastI began with a good dose of the Ben Greenfield Fitness podcast and it was through him that I discovered the Rich Roll podcast, a new revelation in my wellness listening (Greenfield’s interview with Rich Roll can be found here and is well worth a listen).

Roll is a vegan ultra-endurance athlete and health and wellness advocate, and his wife, Julie Piatt, is a vegan chef and a mindfulness and meditation guru. Roll leads on the podcast, but he and Julie have written a book together – The Plantpower Way – a cookbook-come-lifestyle guide, and in the initial edition of the podcast I listened to, they discussed the book together.

This episode also looked at the emotional drivers behind diet and behaviour. In particular it focused on the importance of taking a holistic approach to your health and well being, as well as on the value of meditation in nurturing your emotional and spiritual sides. Roll described it as ‘going beyond the kale‘, emphasising the point that diet alone is not enough for complete wellness. While you may choose to adopt a plant-based diet, rather than simply letting that be an end it itself, you should go beyond the green juices and lentils and take the increased vitality afforded by your diet to fuel other elements of your life.

9781583335871_The-Plantpower-Way-1024x943Similarly, while exercise has its place and values, alone is not enough for total health. As Roll points out, you can be out running, which is ostensibly a positive act, but in that space you might also find that you are being very hard on yourself and running becomes ‘its own repression machine’. Of course running can also be incredibly liberating, it all comes down to the perspective that you bring to it, but if you are using running as an escape or ‘if you’re stuck in running and you get super compulsive about it, ask yourself, is that any better than any other addictive behaviour pattern?’

I found this perspective particularly helpful, as I know from my own experience that while sometimes I find running very calming and restorative, at others, (particularly at the moment when pain and injury are combining with the feeling that I need oomph up my fitness), running becomes its own source of stress and anxiety. Having someone else verbalise this has helped me to think about the role that running plays in my life and has allowed me to take a step back to reflect on where it is bringing me positive energy and where it is becoming an emotional and energy drain.

Piatt also stressed that running does not offer enough of a meditative space to allow you to fully enjoy all of the positive benefits of meditation. While it can offer a transformative and very positive space, it is no substitute for seated meditation, which provides a more complete opportunity for self-enquiry and self-discovery. It allows you to quieten the mind and create a reflective space between the goings on of the world and your responses to them. It also opens up a healing space for you to reflect on your character and priorities, as well as to re-balance the energetic mind and body.

HeadspaceWhile Piatt directed listeners to a guided meditation on her website, Roll promoted the Headspace meditation app. I have to admit to having the app but, at the time of listening to this podcast, to only being a few sessions in to the Take 10 series. So, with all of this positive talk of meditation, I used my bed-bound time to re-engage with the app and feel like I’ve really started to make some progress.

I have been trying to get into meditation since the yoga retreat in January, and have toyed with sessions on and off, but I know that to really ‘crack it’ I need to make meditating as much of a habit as my morning yoga sessions or lunchtime runs.

In a later podcast episode, but still on the theme of meditation, Roll interviewed meditation guru Light Watkins. Here the discussion touched on this idea of making meditation a habit. Watkins noted that the difficult thing is to break your bad habits, in this case, the habit of not meditating, rather than to adopt positive new ones. He used the example of a man who had re-engineered his bike so that the handlebars were backwards, meaning that when he turned left he would go right and when he turned right he would go left. It took him eight months of practising for five minutes every morning before he finally cracked being able to ride the bike down his drive. In this instance, as with meditating, it is not about the knowledge of how something is done or why it works, or even the processes that you need to go through to get the desired end result, rather it is about consistent behaviour and being consistent enough that your body eventually habituates towards meditating (or riding a backwards bicycle).

In Roll’s conversation with Light, again there was an emphasis on holistic health, giving the example of a Rubik’s cube, where every side of the cube has to be balanced. In this example meditation offers the tool to unlock the problem of the Rubik’s cube and restore overall balance.

I found this a really useful way of thinking about meditation and the body as a whole and it certainly gave me food for thought with regard to how I treat my mind and body.

My other valuable takeaway from Watkins and Piatt was the idea that we shouldn’t regard events or circumstances as wholly good or bad. Rather than polarising our experiences we should try to see the nuances and reflect on what can be learned from them. Piatt noted that ‘there is no human life that does not have any darkness in it…in order to be a fully integrated human being you have to have embraced both the light and the dark, it is what has made you what you are today. You can’t cut off a part of your existence and pretend it never happened’.

While this is a sentiment we may have heard many times before, I found it incredibly comforting and reassuring, particularly during a week of illness, which I had been regarding as entirely negative.

As this post has perhaps shown, taking time out, even when unable to get out of bed, can be positive and constructive. For me, it was a chance to listen to podcasts and to my body, to encounter new inspirational speakers, to meditate (unhampered by the feeling I should be doing something more ‘active’) and to reflect on the health of my body as a whole unit.

Here is where we start getting stronger.

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.

brainpickings

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.

January Blues?

So it’s colder than it was in December, even though you were hoping that Spring might be on its way, and it’s still dark when you wake up in the mornings and when you leave the office at night. The joie de vivre of the New Year and all of it’s resolutions seems an awfully long time ago, and, if you’re anything like me, you’re totally broke. With all of this stacked against it, it’s little wonder that January is associated with the blues.

In the dying moments of January, I wanted to write a post to give readers a little lift; to give you that spark of motivation to keep on top of your training and to maintain the post-Christmas clean eating and regular workout habits that you entered into with so much energy just 31 days ago.

So what keeps me going when the January blues are lurking?

  • Let someone else talk you into the right head space
Listen to Radio Headspace or check out the free Headspace app
Listen to Radio Headspace or check out the free Headspace app

I’ve mentioned previously how much I love the Runners Connect Run to the Top podcast, but it bares repeating. I find listening to other runners talk about their training, fuelling, form, races and the hurdles that they’ve had to overcome to get to where they are today incredibly motivating. Listening to these interviews and insights during my long runs helps to distract my mind from how many more miles I have to go and listening on my train commute only makes me want to go out and run all the more. If you want an episode to motivate you to run, listen to this interview with Fernando Cabada, or if you are more interested in running form, try this interview about the TrueForm Runner. There are heaps more that I could recommend, but I’d suggest you check it out for yourself – download an episode and then head out on a run.

I have also started listening to the Healthynomics podcast, which I discovered as a result of Run to the Top. It has some really interesting interviews and a great no-nonsense approach to running and fuelling for runners and while I’ve only listened to a couple of episodes, I can tell that I’m going to be tuning in regularly. My other recent discovery is the the Radio Headspace podcast, which was recommended to me by my friend Sophie and which is motivating in a very different way. With subjects ranging from mind and body, to careers, innovative inventions, relationships, life and death, it’s a great all-round informative and inspiring listen and particularly great if you’ve got a curiosity about mindfulness and meditation.

  • Make plans and stick to them
Schedule your runs
Schedule your runs

One of the best things about following a marathon training programme is that it doesn’t require any thinking in terms of what workout you are going to do. You have a week-by-week list of runs and cross-training sessions and you have to complete them. This removes that moment of doubt when you wonder if you really want to go on that run after work, when its cold and dark outside, or whether you might just be better off going straight home and having a nice hot bath. As soon as you start to question if you will make a workout, the chances are you will end up skipping it.

Schedule your workouts like you would meetings or supper dates and don’t flake. Once you have your plan, don’t question it and if you have a particular run or session that you think might be difficult to do, enlist a friend to come with you. I don’t know what I’d do without my pal Louise accompanying me on my mid-week evening runs. And this week I also organised a trip to the pool followed by supper with my friend Rosie. On a chilly, dark evening I could easily have bypassed my swim and skipped straight to supper, but having someone with me helped me make it into the pool and made the post-swim meal taste all the nicer as a result.

  • Change it up

Try a new route, run your usual route backwards (not actually backwards, but you know what I mean!), swap a swim for a weights session, or yoga for dancing. Changing up your workouts helps to keep you motivated, prevents exercise complacency -when you just allow yourself to go through the motions without really pushing yourself – and also helps to keep all of your muscles active.

I’ve been cross-training with swimming and trying out new pools to add more variety and I’ve been using the techniques I learned at the yoga retreat to lead some of my own yoga practices, rather than just going on autopilot and not really engaging properly with my body and breath as I let someone else talk me through a workout.

  • Read yourself fitter
'The Way of the Runner', Adharanand Finn
‘The Way of the Runner’, Adharanand Finn

As with listening to fitness podcasts, I find reading books, blogs and magazines on health and fitness also keep me motivated. Buying a copy of Women’s Health to read on my lunch break or picking up a free copy of Coach Magazine on my commute to work can make the difference between fitting in a workout that day or not. Similarly, reading about other people’s fitness exploits in books or on blogs also makes me want to go out and succeed in my own sporting challenges. Recent blog discoveries include Healthynomics and Underground Wellness, while on on my ‘to read’ list I now have My Year of Running DangerouslyThe Way of the Runner and The Dark Side of Fat Loss. There are more reading recommendations on the Read page of my blog if you are in need of further inspiration.

Surrounding yourself with people who normalise being fit, healthy and mindful of their diets really helps to keep you on course when others suggest that your vegan diet, lunchtime runs and early morning workouts are just crazy.

  • Dress to sweat 
osprey backpack
A good running rucksack allows you to run your commute – definitely a worthwhile investment!

When in doubt I love treating myself to a new piece of running kit to help motivate me to get out and run (this is probably why I am broke!). At the moment I love any excuse to wear my pink and navy Nike leggings and at the risk of becoming an ‘Active Wear’ stereotype, that means working out!

Treating yourself to new gym kit obviously isn’t a sustainable motivating factor but sometimes it’s ok to splash out on a new headband or some brightly coloured leggings if it means you feel you are investing in your health and you do then go out and use them for sports.