Food For Thought

Okay, before I begin, I want to make it abundantly clear I’m not known for my meticulous healthy eating regimes and whilst I think I’ve struck a pretty good balance between eating well and enjoying treats in moderation, I don’t exactly eat to perform…..

Anyone for bread?

Anyone for bread?

My 'snacks' for the Trailblaster 12 race....

My ‘snacks’ for the Trailblaster 12 race….

However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take a keen interest in nutrition and I do try to make at least 80 percent of my meals from scratch.  So when I was asked if I was interested in reviewing the new book ‘Fast Fuel’, I jumped at the chance.

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The author, Renee McGregor has years of experience and expertise in sports nutrition and advises athletes from amateur to Olympic levels.  In the book she translates her scientific knowledge into practical eating advice, aimed specifically at runners looking to achieve their goals.

The main focus of the book is stressing the importance of choosing nutrient-dense foods.  So for example, if I’m planning on a sixty minute run with some faster sprints towards the end, I know I’ll need some carbs to fuel me.  Rather than choosing a nutrient-poor carbohydrate such as an energy drink or white bread, I’d be better opting for a bowl of porridge or some fruit.  These options will still provide me with the carbs I’d need but in addition will provide my body with valuable vitamins, protein, minerals, fibre and antioxidants.  Of course it’s not always that easy and grabbing an energy drink would be better than having nothing at all – just so long as that isn’t a regular occurrence.

Of course that’s pretty straightforward advice but the book goes into much more detail and has some fascinating chapters that a science geek like me relished the chance to read, such as the effect of caffeine on performance; the gluten-free fad; racing weight and body composition; aerobic and anaerobic metabolism and the female hormone cycle.

As well as the science side of things there are hundreds of recipes in the book too.  There’s nothing too complicated but the recipes were far more interesting than the ‘chicken, broccoli and rice’ I was expecting! (I’m sure there’s a lesson in not judging a book by its cover in there somewhere…..).  The recipes are laid out simply with clear instructions and the nutrition facts per serving are displayed at the bottom of each page.  There aren’t any glossy photographs of the meals but to be honest I quite like that.  I mean, my meals never look like the photographs in cook books anyway!

It retails at £9:99 (which is a reasonable price for what you get) but I’ve seen it currently in the sale at WHSmith for £6:99 (which I think is a bit more like it and I’d be happy to pay that price for it).

ProWater

If you’re a regular reader (Hi, Dad!) you’ll know that over the past twelve months I’ve been trying my hand at CrossFit.  I love the variety it adds to my training and I’ve gone from paying pretty much zero attention to strength training (bar the occasional bootcamp session) to doing it about four times a week.  My bodyweight is surprisingly pretty much the same as it was last year – maybe an extra kilogram or so – but my body composition has changed quite dramatically.

Now I’m certainly no power lifter but I’m quite keen to retain the baby muscles I’ve built over the last year, and when I’m running a lot of miles this can be quite tricky.  I’ve been trying to add more protein to my diet and was thrilled when ProWater asked if I’d be interested in sampling some of their products.

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A lot of my harder strength training sessions are done at 5:45am, which is certainly not my most favourite time of day to do anything – let alone be expected to pick up heavy stuff or be good at gymnastics.  But it’s often the only time I’ve got to work out so there’s no point whinging about it.  The biggest drawback is nutrition – I do the workout fasted because, let’s face it, no one wants to get up at 4am to eat and allow that food to digest.  But this makes recovery even more important.

In an ideal world I’d eat a proper meal within twenty minutes of finishing my workout.  Again, it’s simply not possible so I look for the next best option – which for me has always been a protein shake.  I’ve tried various different whey proteins and I’ll normally mix it with whole milk to add a few more calories.  Most days it works just fine but sometimes, when you’re absolutely parched, you’re red hot and your throat is burning, the thought of a chalky, dusty shake doesn’t set my world on fire.  But an ice cold, fruity, refreshing juice? Now you’re talking!

In a nutshell, one 500ml bottle contains 20g of protein with zero sugars, carbs or fat.  I’ll admit I was a bit sceptical at first and thought that the ingredients list would be full of ‘nasties’ but they’re made with 100% natural flavours and colours and honestly, they taste really good!  Quite sweet, but certainly no sweeter than any other juice drink and a much more refreshing option than a powder.

I’d say the product is more geared towards the consumer that might be looking towards losing weight and wants the convenience of a protein shake but without the often hidden calories.  Personally, I’m looking at maintaining or perhaps even gaining weight so it’s not ideal for my needs, but I’d definitely consider it as an option for adding more protein in addition to my usual meals or snacks.

Price wise……honestly I was a bit taken aback at the expense.  You can currently buy a pack of 12 500ml bottles for £29:99.  So even buying in bulk works out at £2:50 per drink, which is definitely out of my price range.  However if I found them on offer somewhere I’d definitely buy some to keep handy in the fridge.

I certainly feel a lot stronger than I ever have and the weight that I’m able to lift is gradually sneaking up.  Most of that is due to the work I’m putting in but I can’t deny that good nutrition has some part to play.  As the saying goes, ‘Abs are made in the kitchen’, right?

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Disclosure:  I was sent a copy of ‘Fast Fuel’ and four bottles of prowater for free to review.  I did not receive any additional financial compensation and all opinions are my own, honest ones.

An Open Letter To The Man Who Is the Reason I’m Still Running

Together, as a club, our hearts are heavy.  We stand shoulder to shoulder as we grieve the passing of the founding father of our ‘little club’.

You can read a little more here about Gerry McCabe in this fitting tribute but I’d like to selfishly talk about the effect that he’s had on me as a person.  I wrote a private letter to him a couple of weeks ago and his family were gracious enough to read it to him during his short stay in the hospice.  With permission from his family I’d now like to make that letter an open one:

For Gerry

Up until 2012 I had barely run a step.  Of course there were the mandatory PE classes at school in which I failed miserably at all sports.  I was the stereotypical short, scrawny girl that couldn’t throw, catch or hit.  Always picked last for teams, I would dread PE.  Unless it was cross country – I actually enjoyed that (despite not being very good at it) and nobody else was relying on my (lack of) athletic prowess.  I could just run until I got to the finish.  Unfortunately in those days you had to be selected to take part in school cross country events, which of course I never was.  Because it wasn’t about the enjoyment of sport, it was all about winning and that was the end of running for me.

Fast forward twenty years and nothing much had changed.  I still had those dying embers of the previous fire inside of me that told me I wanted to be a runner but I had nothing to keep it burning bright.  I watched the London Marathon every year in awe, promising myself that one day, I’d be there.

In 2012, I decided I’d do something about it.  On a whim I entered the Great North Run – my only to target to make it round in one piece. I started jogging outside but I hated it. Barely half a mile in my lungs were burning, I was dripping with sweat and every step would hurt.  I’ll never forget those first early mornings, where I would try and run a mile before work – in the dark and alone.

I worked my way up to 5k and although I was making progress, the enjoyment just wasn’t there.  Come June, something called ‘parkrun’ had made its way to Burnley and I was there bright and early for the maiden event.  Whilst running, I noticed a lot of people in these funny black and white stripy vests. “Gosh”, I thought to myself. “These must be serious people.”  Yet their vest wasn’t the only thing they had in common – they were all wearing a smile.  And chatting.  And laughing.

The friendliest people I know

The friendliest people I know

There were of course other people wearing different vests that day, but between me and you, they all seemed rather grumpy! One ‘gentleman’ even almost knocked me over in his eagerness to get to the finish.  I plucked up the courage to wander over to the friendly bunch in black and white and struck up a conversation and before I knew it I had agreed to join them on Monday for a training session.

And that was that. They welcomed an enthusiastic – yet struggling – ‘wannabe’ runner with open arms.  They never once made me feel like I wasn’t good enough.  They never once put me down.  They never once made me feel like my Yr7 PE teacher did.  I was a runner, now.  So thank you, Gerry. It’s because of you that I’m the person I am today.  Not just because of my love of sport, but because I have gained the self-confidence that I was always lacking.  Even at a meagre 5ft nothing, I walk (and run!) with my head held high.  You’ve created a club not just of athletes, but of friends. Of supporters. Who hold each other up and celebrate everyone’s achievements, no matter how small.  Who make each other feel good about themselves. Who offer advice and encouragement. Who stand together.  Who have become a second family to me.

My first race for TAC! It was a huge struggle, but I was a runner now and I was loving it.

My first race for TAC! It was a huge struggle, but I was a runner now and I was loving it.

Whether I’m at the front end of the pack or right at the very back, whether I’m on a track or wading through mud, whether I’m slushing through snow or melting in a heatwave – that flame will never be put out. Thank you, Gerry.

P.S I did complete the Great North Run and I did fulfil my childhood dream of running the London Marathon – and because of you I did it from the Championship start.

An incredibly proud moment, standing with my brother.

An incredibly proud moment, standing with my brother.

My thoughts and prayers are with Gerry’s friends and family and as a club, I know we will continue to do him proud and ensure that the good nature and the ethos of our club remains as Gerry intended it.

Catching Up

This little blog has far from a wide-reaching audience but it would appear my recent online absence has been noted and commented upon (mostly by my boyfriend and my Dad but still, I’ve been missed!).

Half-way through the summer I took the decision to forget about racing for the forseeable future.  Life was becoming frantic and the local races were starting to creep up to twice a week and to be honest, it just became stressful (who knew that organising a wedding involving three different locations in less than eleven months would take up so much time?!).  And at the end of the day running is just my hobby and if it stops being enjoyable, well…..it’s time to find a new hobby.

One of my last races of the summer, celebrating a win along with my Dad and team mate, Nic.

One of my last races of the summer, celebrating a win along with my Dad and team mate, Nic.

I didn’t stop running completely though – I think I would become slightly unstable if I did that!  I’ve just really enjoyed running as and when I feel like it.  No targets, no races – simply running for the love of running.  Because it really doesn’t always have to be about chasing a time or moving up to a particular distance.  Yes, I’ve definitely lost a lot of speed and quite a bit of endurance but hey, everyone needs a break and I certainly feel better for it.  And anytime the questions about dresses/hair/jewellery/shoes/music/bands/venue got a little overwhelming, I just went out for a pootle or headed to the gym and returned clear-headed and care-free again.

So here’s a few highlights of my summer:

100 parkruns

I’ve mentioned my Dad a few times on the blog before.  At the end of June we both completed our 100th parkrun together (I may have waited for a few weeks for him to catch up!).  It was a brilliant day and we spent the whole run side by side, chatting about all of our previous runs together.

Smiling all the way! (Photo credit: David Belshaw)

Smiling all the way! (Photo credit: David Belshaw)

Nothing says "100 parkruns" like cake! (Photo credit: David Belshaw)

Nothing says “100 parkruns” like cake! (Photo credit: David Belshaw)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately I’m still waiting for the coveted ‘100’ t-shirt despite completing the run in June.  I’ve asked parkrun UK about it who were not willing to come forward with a reason.  They originally said they were hoping to place an order in October, although Wiggle have now stated they were hoping for November.  I won’t hold my breath!  It’s wonderful that they offer free milestone t-shirts, but personally I’d be very happy to pay for it than waiting for a free one and surely that would resolve the issue?

Time Out

We took a short break at the end of July to have a bit of fun in Southport and to tackle the highest mountain in England, Scafell Pike (after a very heavy night on the lash!)

#crossfitwankers

#crossfitwankers

It's impossible to be sad on a mountain!

It’s impossible to be sad on a mountain!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tough Mudder

I’ve never really been one for obstacle races but when my friend suggested doing one as a group for her 30th birthday, I couldn’t resist.  It was actually loads of fun and although expensive, we had a brilliant day and I wouldn’t hesitate to do another.

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Hen Do!

I had an amazing four-day weekend with friends and family in Penrith.  We had the perfect combination of outdoor activities, alcohol and hot tubs.

prosecco makes pull-ups easier!

prosecco makes pull-ups easier!

Segway time!

Segway time!

A comeback race

I had a rare free weekend and couldn’t resist a go at a local 10k trail race towards the end of September.  It was lovely and a massive confidence boost to come away with a win, but the number of entries was very low so I’m not really counting it.  Was a lovely little trophy though!

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And of course in between all that little lot, we’ve planned (what we’re really hoping will be) a cracking wedding and honeymoon.  Right now I’m just continuing to enjoy exercise and do it as and when I find the time.  I’m surprisingly looking forward to winter and just getting some steady base miles in.  Oh and of course the occasional parkrun.  Look out for a tiny runaway bride on Saturday morning at 9am!

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Welcome To The Gun Show?

When thinking of guns in terms of Crossfit, prior to this week the majority of people would have immediately conjured up the image of someone tensing their biceps.  See below for a cringeworthy case in point:

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Tickets to the gun show, anyone?

Unfortunately, as of Dave Castro’s recent announcement, the image that now comes to mind when hearing the words ‘crossfit’ and ‘guns’ will be firearms.  See below for a cringeworthy case in point:

Mat Fraser

Mat Fraser, a crossfit athlete showing his support for gun culture

Allow me to elaborate – every summer since 2007, the StubHub Center in Carson, California plays host to the Crossfit Games.  Think of it as the crossfit equivalent to the Olympic Games for athletics.  The Crossfit Games is a competition which is open to absolutely everybody right across the world.  Starting in February, a new workout is released each week for five weeks which every single crossfit athlete can attempt.  You submit your scores and if you do well enough you will be selected to represent your region in the next stage of the competition – Regionals (continuing the athletics analogy, think of this as the Olympic trials).

Only the select few at the top of their regions will advance to the next and final stage, the Crossfit Games (think Olympic finals).  These competitors are the best of the best at the sport and are rightly given the title of the Fittest on Earth.

The winners of the competition have always received a cash prize.  But this year, the director of the Games, Dave Castro, has announced that they will also receive a Glock handgun.  Yep, that’s right – a firearm.  Something that is illegal to possess in the majority of countries taking part in the Games outside of America.

There are so many things wrong with this that I’m not sure where to start.  On a personal level I’m completely against civilians possessing firearms and my thoughts can be summed up in nicely in 65 seconds courtesy of this clip from the magnificent, The West Wing:

But I’m adult enough to put my personal opinions to one side and respect that Americans have the right to purchase guns and bullets.  If people believe that the answer to reducing gun crime is to get more guns out there….then…well that’s their opinion and I can choose to respectfully disagree.

But politics aside, what the actual chuff have handguns got to do with Crossfit?  If it was a shooting competition only open to American citizens then the prize of a firearm would make absolute sense.  But crossfit is the sport of fitness.  It’s about being a well-rounded athlete that can run, jump, row, lift heavy and do gymnastics.  It’s about being healthy in all aspects of life; eating well, getting sufficient sleep and improving mobility.  It’s about being a better person.  Please, someone please tell me how a gun comes into that ethos?  Interestingly, Reebok (Crossfit’s main sponsor) who’s recent slogan is #bemorehuman, disagrees with the new prize.  It seems they don’t disagree enough to do anything about it though.

The fact that the competition is open to everyone is something that Crossfit prides itself on.  The sport places a huge emphasis on community; on getting everyone involved no matter what their level of fitness or physical limitations.  There are over 13,000 affiliates across the globe. So what happens if someone from Iceland wins the prize?  Someone from the UK?  Australia?  Are the organisers so short-sighted and self-engrossed in their own gun culture that they genuinely believe that athletes would love to win a firearm that’s illegal to own in the country that they have come to represent?

So for the first time since trying my hand at the sport, I’m genuinely ashamed of the hobby I’ve grown to love.  Don’t get me wrong, crossfit has many flaws – just like running does, just like athletics does, just like football does.  And I’m the first to take the mick out of myself and my new hobby (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve used the hashtag #crossfitwanker on twitter!).

Ultimately I’d recommend crossfit to anyone and everyone.  I’m stronger, faster, happier, healthier and more confident in my own skin than I have ever been.  But I’m gutted that Dave Castro et al. refuse to acknowledge the thousands of us that would like him to revoke the Glock sponsorship.  For a business that’s invested so much time, effort and money into tackling the big soda companies in a bid to make society that bit healthier, I simply cannot comprehend their reasoning for pushing their pro-gun culture on their international following.  To say nothing of what impression this gives to the thousands of children out there that attend the Crossfit Kids classes.

If you’d like to make your voice heard, please consider signing this petition.

For me, the only pistols I’m interested in are those of the squat variety –

pistol squat

The Silent Killer?

I’m genuinely confused as to why stress is often given the nickname of the ‘silent killer’.  Silent?!  Really?  Anyone within a three mile radius of me will know about it when I’m stressed.  I have a terrible potty mouth at the best of times but when I’m stressed or upset this bad habit can get out of control.  I’ll slam doors, I’ll throw things down and bang and clatter my way through the day.  I’ll curse loudly, growl noisily and I’m absolutely positive even my ‘eye rolls’ makes a sound when I’m stressed.  Sometimes I’ll just need a big ole cry but I can assure you I’m anything but silent.

One area where I miraculously have managed to stay rather silent, however, is this blog.  There’s no real drama to report – I’ve simply endured an incredibly hectic and stressful eight weeks and unfortunately things like writing and blogging had to take a backseat due to other priorities.

So presumably during this frantic couple of months I’ve not really been keeping up with fitness?  Actually, it’s been the one thing that’s kept me sane this entire time…..

I’d had a particularly bad week.  There had been tears (and I’m really not a ‘cryer’), little sleep, missed meals and a lot of worrying.  When it came to Saturday morning, surely the best thing I could have done was sleep in, put my feet up and watch some television?  Whilst that sounded like heaven, I made myself get up and go to parkrun.  And once that had finished, I made myself go to crossfit.  And it was absolutely the best thing I could have done.

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I didn’t run myself into the ground, nor did I give myself a hard time about weights that I couldn’t lift.  But I did let my friends rally round me.  I did slow down to chat to people at parkrun and say hello.  When I started failing lifts at a weight I knew I should be able to manage, I took a deep breath and let the coach give me a few pointers.  My ears pricked up as a few people shouted some encouragement my way.  And all of a sudden that bar flew up and I didn’t stop smiling for the rest of the session.

When stuff gets hard, often the easiest thing in the world is to curl up into a little ball until it all goes away.  I often hear the phrase “be kind to yourself”.  And it’s a sentiment I agree with.  But kind doesn’t have to mean lazy.  After a tough day I long to just get home, close the curtains and mooch in front of mindless tv.  I tell myself “I deserve this”.  But after a few hours of it I end up feeling worse.  That particular Saturday morning I left the house feeling drained, tearful and carrying the weight of the world upon my shoulders.  I came home a couple of hours later having push pressed that weight from my shoulders into another galaxy.

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For me it’s not just about those magical endorphins and the euphoric highs they can create.  It’s about getting outside in some green space and leaving your computer/phone/paperwork behind.  It’s about being amongst like-minded people.  It’s about setting an hour aside to forget your day job and focus on the task at hand…whether that be reaching the finish line or getting to the end of a workout.  And then congratulating one another when you’re done.  (Not to mention the fact that I’ll fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow).

Some wear stress as a badge of honour.

“You’ve worked fifty hours this week – is that all?!”

“You haven’t had a lunch break this month – what’s a lunch break? I’ve never had one of those!”

(Don’t you just hate those people?).  Personally I avoid stress as much as possible.  I know that I’m much more productive if I can take a thirty minute break to go for a walk to clear my head.  I can then come back to my desk refreshed and ready to crack on.  And on the days I’m genuinely unable to take a break then I make it a priority to take some exercise when I get home.

But my version of being kind to myself is to get out and enjoy a gentle run with friends, walk up a hill with family or pick up something heavy for a bit with some rowdy encouragement.  To surround myself with people who have all turned up for a variety of different reasons but we ultimately have the same goal – to become better.  Not necessarily to be the best, but just be a better version of what we were yesterday.  Whether that be running a little faster, lifting a little heavier or simply feeling better about ourselves and leaving more able to cope with whatever the day has to throw at us.

I’m thankfully at the end of my stressful period now and I’m looking forward to a much more relaxed summer.  But on the days that life might throw me a curveball, I’ll lace up my runners, chalk up my hands and remember my new life motto:

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N.B. This is a light-hearted post about my little struggles of late and how I’ve personally dealt with them and is by no means a serious post about mental health issues or advice.  That being said, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, please don’t keep quiet. Dealing with stress over a prolonged period of time can have serious effects on our mental and physical health.  Here’s a good place to start – http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/understanding-stress.aspx

When Fear Stops You In Your (muddy) Tracks

After a short struggle I was able to free my right leg from the gluttonous mud.  I checked my shoe was still firmly on my foot (it was) and trundled forward.  Much like my energy, my determination to finish the race was being sapped from me with every  step.

Six paces later and squelch.  This time it was my left leg; trapped up to the knee.  I needed to plant both hands on the ground – which were freezing cold thanks to being covered in my soaking wet gloves – in order to release my leg from the grip of the peat bog.  I cursed that Great Hameldon Hill was home to the terminator of bog monsters – they will not sleep until I am dead.

Anyone that has seen (or indeed, heard) me try to race on the fells will know that it’s not my most favoured running environment.  Whilst the thoughts in the paragraphs above about last Sunday’s race up and over Great Hameldon Hill may be a touch melodramatic, they were my honest feelings at the time.

It’s not the steep uphills that bother me.  I love running uphill, no matter what the terrain.  Obviously it’s tough going but I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of steep climbs.  The inclement weather didn’t bother me too much either.  Don’t get me wrong it would have been lovely to have some fine, warm weather as we assembled in the starting field, rather than resorting to jumping jacks in order to keep our toes from going numb.  But there’s something about facing high winds and torrential rain I find extremely satisfying……and that post-race soak in a hot bath feels all the more rewarding.

No, it’s none of the above.  For me, I hate what everybody else appears to love about fell running – the descent.  The part that everyone else calls the ‘fun’ bit is the bit that cripples me with fear.  Every divot I step in I believe will result in a sprained ankle.  Every bog I fall down I think will be the one where I’ll break my arm in the fall.  Every slippery rock I skate across brings with it the fear of a broken neck.

And everyone knows that no matter what your running ability, you’ll never do well in a fell race if you lack confidence.

Photo credit: David Belshaw

Photo credit: David Belshaw

As it turns out, I did finish Sunday’s race.  And I did it without breaking any bones or even falling over.  And despite my vocal protests on the way down I may have enjoyed it a teensy tiny bit.  But I still shudder with fear of the thought of the next fell race.  People ask me why I’m thinking about entering another one and my answer is always the same –

You don’t get better at things by avoiding them.

And I want to get better at fell running.  I love climbing hills.  I love being out in the elements.  And oh, the views!  It’s just the getting back down part I’m not a big fan of.  But if I want to get better at it then I need to put the effort in.  I need to do it more often and I need to just damn well stop whining about it.

There’s a phrase that’s used regularly amongst my crossfit coaches – work your weaknesses.  If you’ve booked on a class that you later find out has your most hated movements in it, then you show up anyway and give it all you’ve got.  If you don’t work at them, your weaknesses will always remain just that.

Photo credit: Toni Darcy

Photo credit: Toni Darcy

I just need to transfer this motto across to my running.  In my quest to get even the most marginal of gains I’ve found a brilliant article written by Tom Addison for Inov-8.  (I have a lot of love for tip number 8!).  I’m sure you’ll find it a useful read.

I’m looking forward to getting out on the fells and trails a little more often and hopefully diminishing my fears.  I’m really not looking forward to cleaning those damn fell shoes again.

My fell shoes now permanently live outside!

My fell shoes now permanently live outside!

Comparison is the thief of joy

Oh flippin’ heck Darren we’ve just been overtaken by a girl, this is well embarrassin’!

My heart broke a little bit as I ran past a couple of teenage lads at my local parkrun who were struggling on the first lap and were clearly not impressed that a lowly ‘girl’ had gone past them.  I stopped to chat with them a little bit and to encourage them on, explaining that I’ve done lots of parkruns and that they were most likely running much faster than I was when I first started out.  To be honest I don’t think they appreciated me engaging in conversation when they were struggling for breath and I probably came across as a right smug wanker so I left them to it.

But we all do it, don’t we?  Compare ourselves to others.  And it always ends up with the same sinking feeling of disappointment.  Of not being good enough.  Of not being fast enough.  Of not running far enough.  And it’s bullshit.

On Saturday I did something terrifying – I took part in a crossfit throwdown.  It was basically a competition where, in pairs, you took part in three different workouts throughout the day and your scores were added up.  To make it even more interesting, it was ‘hero’ fancy dress.  I didn’t want to go as your typical superhero so I chose someone who was a personal hero of mine….

Doing my best to impersonate Jessica Ennis!

Doing my best to impersonate Jessica Ennis!

Even though it was all for charity and a bit of fun I was still nervous.  I’ve only been going to crossfit for six months and my team mate only about three months so both of us agreed to just enjoy the day and do the best we could.  Mission accomplished!

Pain face!

We had a right laugh and worked really hard.  But the results table?  Trust me, we were far from a podium finish!  In fact we were almost dead last.  But why on earth would we compare ourselves to people who are quite frankly well out of our league?  To people who’ve been doing this for years?  To people who regularly lift significantly heavier than we could ever dream of?  Why would we rob ourselves of that feeling of pride after looking back at how much progress we’ve both made in the past few months?  I was really proud of what we both achieved and I won’t be ruining it by comparing myself to others.

I woke up on Sunday feeling like I’d been run over by a bus.  The best thing to do would be to have a relaxing rest day, maybe a bit of a walk and some gentle stretching.  Unfortunately I’d made plans to turn that ‘bit of a walk’ into run the Darwen Heritage half marathon.  Which is a bit hilly…..

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I had a feeling the race wasn’t going to go well when I went to collect my race number, dropped my t-shirt on the floor and couldn’t bend down to pick it back up.  Ah well.  It was a nice day for it, I knew it would be a gorgeous route and to be fair my legs were in a much better state than my shoulders!  Seriously though, I wasn’t injured, just very achey.  Don’t come crying to me if you’re also foolish enough to race when you can’t tie your own shoe laces!

I set off at what felt like a conservative pace and let my legs loosen up.  Surprisingly, as the first few uphill miles ticked by my legs felt better with every step.  I started to enjoy it.  Even though I’ve only run further than ten miles twice since October 2015 I was excited to see just what kind of time I might achieve (no – it’s not big or clever to be under trained for a race, but I’m being completely honest about my lack of mileage and making the point that you don’t always need to run yourself into the ground as long as you’re cross training and keeping your body strong).

hill

I loved the challenge of the hilly route and the support out on the course was incredible.  I found myself overtaking first lady at about half way and I genuinely couldn’t believe what was happening.  I started doing the old comparison trick.  Ooh I’m sure that lady’s faster than me.  She looks more comfortable.  Perhaps I should stay behind for a bit.  I bet I’ve gone off too fast.  I’m going to crash and burn at this rate.

And then I had a word with myself.  I listened to my body and it was telling me I had more to give.  I pushed on the gas a little and trundled on.  I won’t lie – once you’re in first place, no matter what pace you were aiming for that day, you’re probably not going to give it up without a fight!

From mile 11 it was all downhill to the finish and it was a wonderful feeling.  The aches and pains of the previous day were washed away with endorphins.  I grinned when I saw the finish line and they’d made a tape for me to break.  Best.  Feeling.  Ever. (Gun time – 1:32:46)

Moral of the story – be your own hero! (Thanks Khara).  Stop turning round and fretting about what others are doing.  Yes, support and encourage everyone and be happy for them when they achieve a big milestone.  But don’t let it discourage you.  Don’t let it take away from your own satisfaction.  No matter how small, your victories are just that – your victories.  Be proud.  Be your own hero.

Photo credit: Paul Brown

Photo credit: Paul Brown

All Aboard The PB Train!

I hinted in my last post that my recent change in diet has had a massively positive impact on my running, despite halving my usual mileage over the past six months.  I harped on about how good I was feeling (both in body and mind) but of course feelings are incredibly subjective.  I’m a data geek at heart so let’s back up the talking with some statistics…..

Podium 5k (5th March)

I just love this race – fast, flat loops with a speedy field of competitors and always a superb showing of cheerleaders.  I felt good but I hadn’t raced a 5k or pushed hard at a parkrun since last November so I genuinely wasn’t sure how I’d do.  I wrote down on my entry form that my anticipated time was 20 minutes (my best time on this course being 19:45).

I pushed hard from the off and aimed to stay at that pace.  The set up of 5 x 1k loops makes it easy to pace and I had the sole focus of just hanging on to that pace.  I knew I’d got it right when I was steadily overtaking people in the second half.  I’d been patient and my consistency was paying off.

Mile 1 – 6:05
Mile 2 – 6:05
Mile 3 – 6:04

I ran the last chunk with everything I had left (5:32 pace) and was rewarded with a shiny new PB of 19:16.  A definite confidence boost considering my low mileage of late (averaging 17 miles a week instead of the usual 30+).

Buoyed up by a surprise PB I was keen to keep the momentum going and after a couple of easy days had a go at a timed mile with my running club.  I’ve done some mile reps before (they are as awful as they sound!) but never an all-out single rep effort.  I’ve only ever ran a sub-6 mile before in downhill sections of a race but I was really hoping to try and break that barrier on the flat.  End result – 5:51!

I saw out the rest of the week with a tiny bit of easy running and some cross-training before it was time to lace up the racing flats yet again…..

Trafford 10k (13th March)

The Trafford 10k is a big deal in terms of the sheer quality of the field.  It’s a very well organised event on flat country roads and always pulls in a hell of a lot of talent (the winning time this year was 28:56 – well done Tom Lancashire!).  The conditions were great on the day and whilst I had not done any specific training for the 10k distance all year, I really wanted to break that sub40 barrier just one more time.  It may have been a bit greedy (after all, the one and only time I have run a sub40 I put months of focused training in).  But coming off the back of a 5k PB and feeling in good condition I knew I’d regret not having a bash.

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I set off fast (too fast!) and tried to settle in, but it was just impossible to find any space – with 850 runners on a narrow start it was never going to be easy.  There was a lot of pushing and shoving by people twice my size but I tried to use my small frame to my advantage and duck and weave where it was safe to do so.  The roads widened after about three quarters of a mile and everyone started to settle down.

I did my best not to focus on my watch and instead run comfortably hard.  Any time I did sneak a look at the garmin I gave myself palpitations!  I thought the pace was far too fast but yet I still trundled on with it.  You never know unless you have a go, right?

I got past half way and, barring a complete blow-up, I knew I had sub40 in the bag.  I stayed as focused as I could and was determined to see the second half out strong.  As I approached the final turn and the announcer shouted my name I couldn’t quite believe the number on the clock.  Not only was it a sub40 but it was also a massive PB – chip time – 39:00!

The Three PB Amigos!

The Three PB Amigos!

Burnley parkrun (19th March)

 Encouraged by the recent good form I wanted to have a good blast around parkrun.  Whilst the conditions under foot weren’t as good as they are in the summer months, it was significantly firmer than it had been pretty much all year and with good weather conditions too I set off with hopes of PB number three.

The first mile was predictably fast but the remaining two were a bit more of a slog.  It was touch and go all the way whether I’d beat my current course best of 19:51.  I yelped as I crossed the line – 19:49! What  a brilliant feeling!  But of course we all know it’s not official until you get the parkrun text….

*beep beep*

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Dammit!  Officially one second behind my best.  Ah well, two out of three ain’t bad.

I have no doubt that a big part of my recent good form is the change in my diet.  I’m not saying that eating well makes you run faster per se, but eating well has changed my body composition quite dramatically in a short space of time.  I’m roughly the same weight but I’ve gained some lean muscle and I’ve dropped 5% body fat.  That change in composition definitely makes running faster a lot easier!

I’ll stress though that there’s never a shortcut to a PB.  A change in body composition may improve your running if you put in the hard work too.  Every second I took off those personal bests were hard fought for….and the battle’s not over yet.

Gunning for the finish (photo credit: David Belshaw)

Gunning for the finish (photo credit: David Belshaw)

Six Week Challenge – The Results

Last month I wrote a post about the importance of diet and talked a bit about the challenge I was embarking on – for six weeks I would cut out all processed food.  (Well, mostly.  Life is too short to say no to the occasional piece of cake, bacon sandwich or slice of pizza).

A variety of measurements were taken before starting the challenge, at the half-way point and again at the end of the six weeks, including weight and body fat (the body fat was measured using calipers, which generally seem to be one of the most accurate ways of measuring body fat).

I’d like to add that I had no ambitions of weight or fat loss before starting this challenge.  I was intrigued as to how a better diet might improve my running (or not!) and see for myself if there were any other benefits to cutting out the processed crap.  I was already at a healthy weight and had no interest in reducing any numbers.

Typical Day

To give you an idea of the kinds of meals I was eating, an average weekday looked something like this –

  • breakfast – pancakes (made with coconut flour), with a banana, greek yoghurt, honey and home made granola or an omelette with plenty of mushrooms/bacon and vegetables
  • mid-morning snack – piece of fruit
  • dinner – chicken with rice and veg
  • afternoon snack – handful of nuts (soaked overnight) or some greek yoghurt and fruit. Maybe some 90% dark chocolate too.
  • tea – grass fed steak burger with mash and vegetables

I varied my meals to keep things interesting and I added/reduced snacks depending on the volume of training and generally how I felt.  On some days I train twice (crossfit in the morning and running in the evening) so I had to take care to ensure I got enough carbs – this really made me think about how much I used to rely on refined foods for carb intake.

Never went hungry!

Never went hungry! A typical evening meal

Stats before the challenge

weight – 48.2kg     waist – 65cm     hips – 74.5cm

body fat (mm) abs – 14, suprailiac – 13, tricep – 16, thigh – 29
body fat % – 21.4

Stats at week 3

weight – 47.6kg     waist – 64cm     hips – 72.5cm

body fat (mm) abs – 11, suprailiac – 12, tricep – 16, thigh – 25
body fat % – 19.5

Stats at week 6

weight – 47.1kg     waist – 62.5cm     hips – 68cm

body fat (mm) abs – 10, suprailiac – 9, tricep – 13, thigh – 20
body fat % – 16.6

To say I’d actually increased the amount of food I was eating, I was really surprised at the results.  Although I was disappointed to lose weight I was glad that it wasn’t a significant amount (one kilogram over the whole six weeks) and I can safely assume that I put on some lean muscle as my body fat dropped by a whopping 5%.  I really wasn’t expecting that and to be honest I’d like to put a % or two back on as I feel that 16% is quite low for a woman (just my personal opinion about my own body).

Was the challenge difficult?

At first, absolutely!  My typical day used to consist of toast for breakfast, a sandwich and crisps/biscuits for dinner and pasta for tea.  During the six weeks I couldn’t have any of my usual meals.  I had to spend a lot of money on new ingredients (coconut flour – I felt like a right wanker buying that) and I had to spend a lot of time planning meals and generally getting organised in that first week.  I was craving bread and honestly nearly jacked it all in after just a few days.

But after that, it got significantly easier and by the third or fourth week I barely had to give it any thought at all.  After the initial big spend on new ingredients, my food bill reduced and I was no longer visiting the local shop or bakery for that almost daily treat of a cake/sausage roll/bag of crisps.

 Were the any other benefits?

LOADS!  The numbers on a scale or a tape measure don’t really matter to me, the big difference was how I felt.  I had bags more energy and just generally felt less irritable.  My skin cleared up, as did my patchy eczema and I loved cooking different meals and trying new things.  My body shape changed quite a lot (even though I didn’t alter any aspect of my training) and *gasps* even my abs started peeking through.  No, don’t worry, I won’t be posting a picture of that!  After all, my core is not any stronger than it was six weeks ago, the layer of fat that insulates them is just a little smaller.

But what difference did it make to running performance, if any?

Now you’re talking!  But trust me when I say that topic deserves a post in it’s own right *spoiler alert* it made a BIG difference.  More in the next post.  I’m such a tease.

Now the six weeks is done and dusted I’m very happily continuing with the changes I’ve brought into my diet.  I definitely won’t be as strict with it as I was in the first six weeks (Easter is coming!) and I won’t hesitate to tuck into treats and take-aways every now and again.  But the next challenge for me is to try and maintain bodyweight (or even increase it a little) without eating crap.  It’s easy to pile on the pounds with junk food but putting on lean muscle is surprisingly difficult.  Shout up if you have any tips!

Why Did The Chickens Cross the Parkrun?

…..because they were being chased by a fox, obviously!

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Photo credit: David Belshaw

So this picture probably warrants some explanation.  It was my Dad’s 60th birthday and so the most obvious way to celebrate someone’s 60th is to dress up as chickens and run a 5k.  Isn’t it?  Well, it seemed logical to us.

Unfortunately it was a freezing cold day and despite the dry forecast, the moment we were released from our coop and embarked on our 5k chicken run, the heavens opened! We didn’t let the weather get us down though and we thoroughly enjoyed our time being free range.  There was a bit of fowl play when the fox kept nipping at our heels but we didn’t let him ruffle our feathers too much.

 My friend made my Dad the best cake ever….

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Rolling forwards onto the next weekend and I was determined to tackle the very muddy and hilly Pendle parkrun.  I’m lucky enough to live close to two different parkruns but more often than not I attend the Burnley one – whilst not completely flat and still containing tricky terrain, it’s a significantly faster course than Pendle (my best time at Burnley is sub-20 but at Pendle it’s 22:17).

Unfortunately if the course wasn’t tough enough the weather conditions ensured that we all had a really tough run!  Bitterly cold strong winds and incredibly muddy fields made for a difficult morning.  I really didn’t help myself by only wearing a t-shirt for a top layer – I was desperate to wear my new personalised parkrun t-shirt but I really should have put a baselayer on underneath!

I was desperate to get warm to set off at a decent pace.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep that up for the 3 miles but as long as it got me warm I didn’t care!  As predicted, the second and third mile become more of a slog with every step but I was just so desperate to get to that finish line.

Trying to get warm! (Photo credit: Jamie McIlvenny)

Trying to get warm! (Photo credit: Jamie McIlvenny)

Official time – 22:28.  Well pleased!  My course PB at 22:17 was run in the summer months in excellent conditions so I was more than happy to be just a little more than ten seconds slower.

The weekend after brought with it some perfect conditions.  The course was still very muddy but it was significantly dryer than previous weeks and the weather was just about as perfect as you could wish for – cold (but above freezing!), dry and perfectly still.  I was a bit concerned about the state of my legs though, having completed an hour’s personal training a little more than twelve hours earlier and improving my deadlift PB by more than 20kg!  But more on that in another post.

In any case, I wasn’t about to waste the perfect conditions.  Although a little heavy, my legs were holding up much better than I anticipated and so straight from the off I decided that this was my day for a new course PB.  No excuses.

My 'going for a PB' face. (Photo credit: Jamie McIlvenny)

My ‘going for a PB’ face. (Photo credit: Jamie McIlvenny)

 I tried not to get too obsessed with my pace and checking my watch and instead just run a constant hard effort.  This was made a hell of a lot easier when my garmin battery died by the second mile!  A couple of other chaps and I worked together, always trying to pull each other along.  I had no idea of my time but I really hoped I’d done enough to beat that 22:17.  As I wailed that my watch had died as I crossed the line, the run director yelled to me, “21:44!!” and the follow up text confirmed it.

Admittedly, I feel a bit of a fraud for getting PBs when my running training is at best, sporadic.  My focus has definitely been leaning towards crossfit over recent months and my mileage is pretty much half what it used to be.  I feel like my luck will run out soon enough but whilst the PBs are still coming, I’ll let the results do the talking.

Cruising to a new PB at Pendle (Photo credit: Jamie McIlvenny)

Cruising to a new PB at Pendle (Photo credit: Jamie McIlvenny)

Winter Warmer 10k

Despite enduring a not-so-enjoyable race just two weeks earlier, last Sunday everything felt different.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I was starting to feel some serious benefits to the overhaul in my diet.  As well as feeling stronger, I also felt lighter – a definite advantage when faced with a steep, two mile long hill at the start of a 10k race!

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Not the easiest of starts!

Not only that, but we’d been treated to some seriously motivating words from the one and only Ben Mounsey the previous evening (if you’re into running in any way, shape or form, you MUST read his blog).

He’s such a top bloke and it’s so refreshing to see someone who is at the top level of their sport to be so down to earth and personable.  I’ve always been of the stance that it’s hard graft that gets rewards.  Yes, genetics will play a part up to a certain point but nothing comes close to time and effort.  It was great to hear him reinforcing this and made for an incredibly inspiring night.

Photo credit: Jamie McIlvenny

Photo credit: Jamie McIlvenny

When I arrived at Witton Park on the Sunday I still had Ben’s words ringing in my ears.  “There is no talent here, this is hard work.”  This is why, some mornings, I’ll throw myself out of bed at 4:45am to do hill reps in the middle of a storm.  Why, at the end of some long days at work, I’ll throw a coffee down my neck, pull myself together and throw heavy shit above my head at crossfit (it’s a bit more sophisticated than that but you get the idea).  And it’s why, some evenings whilst everyone else appears to be settling down in front of the television, I’ll make myself do some yoga – and this is a big thing for me because I am really shit at yoga.

But that’s what it takes.  Your effort.  Your time.  Your energy.  And it’s all worth it as you pass runner after runner up Buncer Lane, climbing 500ft in the first two miles and loving every step.

Photo credit: Suzanne Schofield

Photo credit: Suzanne Schofield

I felt entirely different to how I felt in the race two weeks ago.  I felt light and agile.  I felt speedy.  I felt strong.  I stress that it could be entirely coincidental but I’m definitely continuing my bread and pasta free diet for the time being.

There was a strong headwind on the way back into the park but I was still making good ground, continuing to pass people.  I was really surprised on the descent – this is where I normally hold myself back as I just didn’t have the leg strength to push.  But crossfit seems to be making a difference and I found myself gaining a few more places where I’d normally lose them.  Back on to the track and it was just a case of the 400m to the finish.  I absolutely love a track finish and was sure to relish this one.  If anything, I should have given a bit more effort in the first half of the race, as my last .23 miles at 5:20 pace suggests I had a bit more juice left in the tank!

Photo credit: David Belshaw

Photo credit: David Belshaw

I’d never done the Winter Warmer 10k before but I’ll absolutely be returning.  It was so well-organised and there was an abundance of cheery volunteers out there on a very cold and windy morning.  Sincere thanks to the Blackburn Roadrunners.

After a quick refuel and wrapping up in some layers we hung around for the presentation where I was over the moon to receive a gift voucher for 2nd lady (although please know I was a long way behind the first!).  But most importantly I felt a different person in comparison to the previous race.  And that feeling of satisfaction and pride will see me get out the door at 5am and off running into the dark for at least another month or two.  Because there is no talent here, this is hard work.

prize

Diet – How Important Is It?

I’ve seen infographics, memes and ‘motivational’ posters plastered all over the internet about how ‘abs are made in the kitchen’, how you ‘can’t outrun a bad diet’ and how fitness is ‘20% exercise and 80%’ nutrition.  And I’ve always scoffed at them.

For one thing, I couldn’t give a crap about abs (having a six pack is not a symbol of good health and not having one is not a symbol of bad health).  I value my body much more for what it can do as oppose to how it looks.  And fitness is 20% exercise and 80% nutrition?  Bullshit.  I ran 50 miles off pork pies and crisps.  My regular diet consisted of bread, pizza, pasta, biscuits and crisps.  I still did a lot of home cooking with fresh ingredients but I can’t deny the sheer volume of beige coloured ‘food’ that went into my mouth.

But I could run.  And dare I say it, run pretty well.  I was fit.  I was a healthy weight for my height.  I was hardly the epitome for health and fitness but nor was I was the poster girl for ‘you are what you eat’.  (As far as I’m aware, nobody has called me kebab face, pasty arse or pie girl.  Not to my face, anyway).

But I’m about to eat my own words.  For the past three weeks I’ve been taking part in a nutrition challenge (run by a registered nutritionist) and I’m pretty shocked about my experience.  In short, the challenge is to cut out all processed foods.  I guess if you had to put a label on it, ‘paleo’ would be the closest.  I always thought that paleo was about meat, meat, meat and no carbs.  But rice (preferably wild rice), potatoes, sweet potatoes and fruit are encouraged – personally I’d stay clear of any type of diet that cut out whole food groups.  But any type of bread is out.  Pasta is gone.  Refined sugar out the window.  Fine, I thought.  I can do this.

Three days in and I realised just how poor my previous diet had been.  I was ready to kill for a piece of toast!  I wanted spaghetti and garlic bread.  I wanted pies.  I needed a sandwich.  I was just about ready to throw in the towel when a few of the other participants urged me to hold on.  I was assured the first bit was the worst and I’d soon start feeling the benefits if I could stick with it.

I did some food shopping and planned some meals.  I had a big cook off at the weekend and I also made ALL the snacks (unprocessed, of course).  If nothing else I was determined to go a full seven days without any type of bread, just to prove to myself that I could do it.  A week passed.  I noticed small differences in how I felt so I decided to keep going.

I wasn’t bloated anymore.

I had energy to rival the duracell bunny.

My ‘teenage’ skin was clearing.

My patchy eczema was completely gone.

Cravings for sweet things reduced dramatically and my need to snack greatly reduced.

I was happy all the time!

I genuinely couldn’t believe how good I felt.  More than that, I was really enjoying cooking with new ingredients and learning new recipes.  It was no longer about what I wasn’t allowed but more about learning what tasted delicious and was nutritionally superior than stuff that came out of a packet.

I’ve always avoided mackerel but I have discovered that it’s the tastiest thing ever when mashed up with Greek yoghurt, lemon, mustard and dill.  I’ve learned that prior to a race, I feel so much better eating a banana than I do eating a bagel.  I’ve learned that after a race I recover quicker by eating a baked potato with tuna than I do with a protein shake and a packet of crisps.

Good quality steak burger, coriander rice and fried peppers and onions with a cider vinegar dressing.

Good quality steak burger, coriander rice and fried peppers, courgettes and onions with a cider vinegar dressing.

Epic salad with chicken, cheese, avocado and toasted pine nuts.

Epic salad with chicken, cheese, avocado and toasted pine nuts.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that absolutely nothing processed has passed my lips over the past few weeks.  I’m a big believer in balance and a bit of what you fancy does you good.  I’ve had a bacon butty, some cakes and the odd biscuit.  I’ve got a pizza in the freezer that will be used at some point next week.  If I go to a friend or family member’s for tea, I’ll happily eat whatever is put in front of me with gratitude.  I think the moment you become obsessed with labelling foods as ‘bad’ you’re on a slippery slope.  But if I can get rid of the processed crap for the most part then I’m in a much better position that I was before.  (We’re also supposed to be cutting out cow’s milk on this challenge but I’ve made the decision to continue drinking it.  I have no qualifications in nutrition but I feel there’s a big benefit to whole milk and I’m happier sticking with it than cutting it out.)

After a shaky start, in just three weeks I feel infinitely better.  My body feels stronger and I do think that this has affected my performance.  I ran the East Lancs Hospice 10k when I had just started the challenge and was really struggling with the withdrawal from processed foods.  I didn’t feel great.  I finished in 43:13 and didn’t enjoy the run all that much (apart from the high 5s at the end!).

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Stuggling to keep up. (Photo credit: David Belshaw)

Fast forward two weeks and on an arguably tougher course in tougher conditions I ran a 41:29 (race report to come!).

Photo credit: David Belshaw

Feeling great! (Photo credit: David Belshaw)

Of course, this little challenge is far from scientific.  Three weeks is not a significant amount of time.  There could be dozens of other factors that affected my race performances and I’m not going to assume it’s all because I’m eating better.  For now, I’ll take it with a pinch of salt.

I’ll be honest though….it’s hard to ignore.  The challenge continues for another three weeks and I’ll be keeping an open mind but I’m pretty sure the relationship between me and supermarket bread is toast.

Fast Food – Pancakes

I hate the term ‘protein pancakes’ or ‘paleo pancakes’ and I feel uncomfortable replacing products containing gluten with gluten-free options when I am not allergic to gluten.  However, I must confess that is exactly what these pancakes are and they are so delicious, quick and easy to make that I’m going to forgive them.  It’s all natural ingredients and these tasty things are actually pretty damn good for you.  Winner!

Ingredients (makes 1 hearty pancake):

  • 2 free range eggs
  • 1 tbsp coconut flour
  • butter for frying (proper butter, no margarine rubbish)

That’s it! Plain pancakes are a bit boring though, so here’s some suggestions for toppings:

  • Greek yoghurt (not the low fat kind – avoid like the plague!)
  • honey (local, if you can get it)
  • bananas
  • fresh berries (or frozen, just allow plenty of time to defrost)
  • granola

Method:

  • Melt a knob of butter in a frying pan.  Meanwhile, whisk together your eggs and coconut flour.
  • Pour your batter mixture into the pan and let it cook for a few minutes on a low to medium heat.  Have a quick peek underneath to check the colour on the bottom.  When it’s lightly brown (or however you’d prefer it), turn it over.  I prefer the traditional pancake toss but it doesn’t always end well.
  • Give it a couple more minutes and when it’s nicely coloured on both sides, it’s done!
  • Top it with whatever you fancy

If you don’t have a lot of time in the mornings (I don’t) I find these are perfectly fine cooked the previous evening and put in a tupperware (keep your toppings separate).  I add my toppings at work and find them surprisingly tasty cold.

Running Form – How Important Is It?

I think if you asked this question to your running buddies you’d probably get a different answer from every person.  To some, it matters greatly.  Others, not so much.

If you’d have asked me this question six months ago I’d have probably taken the ‘not so much’ stance.  My form is far from perfect (when I get tired it can get very sloppy) but I’ve never felt like it’s done me any real harm.  Nothing hurts when I run, my form has never caused me an injury and most importantly, I’m happy and comfortable with the way I run and I sit very firmly in the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ camp.

But for the past few weeks I’ve been working with a running coach and I’ve started to understand the difference good form can make (I was lucky enough to win a free month’s coaching as a prize from winning a local race series).  My form from my hips downwards isn’t too bad but my tight shoulders and my flailing arms are far from graceful…..and just downright inefficient.

Looking back on race photos, I was shocked to see just how many showed me running with my elbows pointed out to the sides like I’m trying to do the funky chicken….

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Just minutes into my track assessment with the coach he brought up the issue.  He explained that I probably lost half an inch to an inch of distance with every single step as a result of the inefficiency of swinging my shoulders the way I was.  An inch doesn’t really seem worth worrying about, right?  But think about how many steps you might take over the course of a 10k race – maybe somewhere in the region of 9,000 – 11,000?  All of a sudden that inch starts to make a big difference.

Here are some tips that have helped me the most in the last few weeks in making my arm swing more efficient:

  • Pump your arms forward and backward in line with the direction of movement. The arms should not swing across the body and the elbows should point backwards, not outwards. (Every now again during a run, I’ll just repeat to myself elbows in, elbows in).  Also, if your arms cross over your chest, you’re more likely to slouch, which means you’re not breathing efficiently. Imagine a vertical line splitting your body in half — your hands should not cross it. (I imagine myself wearing a running jacket with a zip and I mustn’t let my fingers cross over to the other side of the zip).
  • Keep your hands at waist level about where they might lightly brush your hip. Some runners have a tendency to hold their hands way up by their chest, especially as they get tired (that’s me!). You may actually get even more tired by holding your arms that way and you’ll start to feel tightness and tension in your shoulders and neck.
  • Rotate arms from the shoulder, not the elbow. Keep the elbows bent and really try to focus on driving them backward.  Think of your arm as a pendulum, swinging back and forth at your shoulder.
  • Hold the elbows at about a 90-degree angle. Allow the elbow angle to fluctuate slightly during the arm swing, but don’t stray too far from 90 degrees (70 to 120 degrees is a good range.)
  • Swing the arms powerfully through a full range of motion. Your hands should move from your hip (or a bit further back) to your chest. When sprinting or running uphill, your hands should move from your back pocket (or a bit further back) to your chin.
  • Keep the shoulders and hands relaxed. The shoulders should be down, not tight, and the hands should be relaxed but stable, not clenched in a fist, hyper-extended, or flopping around.  (Try shaking out your arms every mile or so – this will help to relax your shoulders and release any tension).

This won’t be a quick fix by any means.  It will take a long time before these improvements to efficiency will become natural.  I have to constantly remind myself and do a ‘body check’ whilst I’m running – “what are my hands doing?”, “are my shoulders relaxed?”, “are my elbows in?”.  But if you keep putting the effort in you will start to notice a difference.  My running already feels much smoother – less shuffling and more gliding!

Smoother running at last weekend's trail 10k (Photo credit: Ann Osborne)

Smoother running at last weekend’s trail 10k (Photo credit: Ann Osborne)

I have to confess that the above picture was taken early on in the race when I was still feeling good and relatively fresh.  My form definitely deteriorated as the race went on and it didn’t take too many miles for the pointy elbows to make a return!

Photo credit: Ann Osborne

Photo credit: Ann Osborne

I’m determined to stick with it though and I’m hoping it will start to feel more natural in the months to come.  I still had a big grin on my face and mud on my legs so it can’t be all bad!

Of course, you should never feel pressured into altering the way you run.  If you’re pain-free and happy in your stride then that’s the most important thing.  Some of the best athletes in the world have ‘unusual’ form and it clearly doesn’t do them any harm.

There are some instances though in which all thoughts of efficiency and technique should be wildly abandoned – namely when you are blessed with a group of enthusiastic youngsters at the side of the road in the final section of a race.  Yes, you would probably shave 5-10 seconds off your time if you focused and sprinted for the line.  But when I look back on a race I rarely remember how many hours/minutes/seconds it took me to finish.  I always remember receiving exuberant high fives that make me feel like a rock star….

Photo credit: Adrienne Olszewska

Photo credit: Adrienne Olszewska

Fast Food – Baked Eggs

This is quickly becoming one of my favourite weekday post-run breakfasts and is ridiculously easy (and cheap!) to make.

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Ingredients (serves 1):

  • 1/2 tin chopped tomatoes
  • handful of spinach
  • 1 or 2 free range eggs
  • seasoning – salt, pepper, chilli flakes to taste

Method:

  • switch the oven on to 200C (180 fan oven)
  • pop your spinach in a colander and pour freshly boiled water over it from the kettle (why not make a cuppa at the same time?). This will nicely wilt the spinach. Squeeze out any excess water and put it in the bottom of an oven proof dish.
  • Season your tomatoes (anything goes but I really like chilli flakes in mine with a dash of salt and pepper) and give them a good stir.  Pour it into the dish on top of the spinach.
  • Make a small well (or two) and crack your egg(s) into them.  Place in the oven for about 15 minutes – just enough time to shower and change and your baked eggs will be ready!

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This dish is wonderfully versatile – try adding your favourite herbs, add some cooked veggies or chorizo to your tomatoes or maybe grating some cheese on top.

 

Review of 2015: Soar

You may remember (but probably not) that at the beginning of each year I like to pick a single word that will hopefully help carve out the year ahead.  2014 was ‘progress’ and this year it was ‘soar‘.  There’s been ups and downs but generally I do believe that I’ve managed to soar this year.

After working hard to gain myself a championship spot for the London marathon, I’ve finally achieved my childhood ambition of running the London Marathon.  I also managed to make it a double whammy by completing it in under 3hrs 15minutes, another ambition ticked off.

Pain, joy, fatigue, happiness, the emotion of seeing my family and the sweet relief of seeing the finish line. A moment I'll never forget.

Pain, joy, fatigue, happiness, the emotion of seeing my family and the sweet relief of seeing the finish line. A moment I’ll never forget.

After recovering from the marathon and taking a bit of time out I entered my first ultra marathon, completing 50 miles in one day.  I had so much fun, but to be honest I think I was more interested in all the snacks!  But after that I got my head down and really focused on speed.  I trained hard and I trained consistently for a couple of months.  The end result was smashing my target of a sub40 10k – what a day that was!  I also completed my 50th parkrun this year, grabbed my first sub20 pakrun time and even had a go at an obstacle race and managed a podium finish.

Photo credit: Martin Pearson

From September onwards I put running aside and joined crossfit.  It brought more fun and variety to my training and whilst I’m still very new to it, three months in I’m really starting to make some progress.  I’m gradually increasing the weight on the bar and my confidence is growing in the gymnastic movements.  I also gave myself a little challenge of mastering double unders by Christmas (a skipping movement in which you have to whip the rope around twice whilst only jumping once).  I just made it, completing thirty unbroken double unders on the 19th December.

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I’m just at the point now where I’m enjoying bringing the running back into my regular routine and so far managing to keep up the crossfit too.  Although let’s face it, I’ve had a lot more spare time with having two weeks off work over Christmas and it might be a bit more of a challenge come January 4th!

Fitness stuff aside it’s been a pretty great year.  I sold the first house that I bought alone at the age of 24, went on an incredible trip to Mexico, turned 30 without having so much as a minor meltdown and the chap that I want to grow old with asked if he could be my husband.  It’ll be a hard year to top but I’m pretty sure that 2016 is going to contain some very special moments indeed.

This just leaves to say a sincere thank you for reading this year and I hope you’ll stick with me into the next one.  I’ll be jumping into it feet first….

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The Turkey Trot 2015

‘Twas two weeks before Christmas, when all through the house…..it was total chaos as we were gearing up for the annual Turkey Trot!

This is, without doubt, the best race of the year.  It started off a few years ago with mostly fast club runners and the occasional santa hat and bit of tinsel.  More and more people of all abilities have got involved and with the majority opting to wear fancy dress it’s turned more into a social event rather than a race.

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Photo credit: Tony Kipax

This year I took part in a group outfit – the nativity scene.  As the only female in the group I got to play the part of Mary, although I may have said a few choice words when traversing the waist deep puddle that Mary definitely wouldn’t approve of.  I also lost baby Jesus for about half a mile but we’ll just quickly gloss over that one.

Photo credit: Darren Horner

Photo credit: Darren Horner

We splashed through puddles, fell over in mud, sang carols and generally had a merry old time.  It didn’t even feel like a run at all!  I think the highlight of my day was being over taken by a man wearing stilettos!  (I’ve no idea how you ran the whole way in those, Andy, but kudos to you sir).

As well as putting on an epic race with an amazing atmosphere, the organiser also raised a hefty sum for the Cumbria flood appeal.  So many of us runners flock to that area for some stunning fell races and it only felt right to try and do our bit.  Donations were taken, runners were allowed to enter on the day with the cash being put into the charity bucket (it’s normally pre-entry only with a strict limit) and there was even an auction for a week long stay in the Lake District to ensure that money is put back into the area.  The whole charity aspect of it just made the day even more special and left us all warm and fuzzy inside.  Although that could have been the post-race beer…..

The prize giving was the best yet, with winners encouraged to gamble their prizes for whatever may be inside a secret envelope, prizes for fancy dress as well as fast times and even spot prizes just being literally thrown at people.

Spot prize! A big pie and some mulled wine = a happy Mary! (Photo credit: Martin Pearson)

Spot prize! A big pie and some mulled wine = a happy Mary! (Photo credit: Martin Pearson)

There were so many fantastic outfits and I can’t mention all my favourites, but special credit has to go to Michael for his original costume….

Photo credit: David Belshaw

Photo credit: David Belshaw

Thank you, Chris and your merry band of marshals.  The pressure’s now on to think of new costumes for next year!

But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”

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N.B. Special thanks to Ann who tirelessly made all of our nativity costumes – you are an Angel!