Thursday, 29 August 2013

Exercise Addiction: Silent Killer and Tragic Taboo

There’s a girl at the gym who’s impossibly thin.
When she rows, I see every tendon in her shoulders protruding through translucent skin. Her kneecaps stick out like small plates of armour and when she runs she has to hoist up the waistband of her extra small jogging pants every few steps to stop them from riding down.
Her eyes are set deep in her pale face, a face that always looks troubled and pained but that also reflects a steely determination to compulsively keep running. Keep exercising. Keep burning calories.
I’ve seen her in the changing rooms where she keeps herself to herself, seeking out the locker furthest away from everyone else, carefully draping a towel around her skeletal frame when getting changed, fearsome that some critical eye might catch a glimpse of her naked body – often but not always – covered in scars and wounds.
She’s petrified but while she thinks she might be alone, she’s not.
Millions of girls all around the world, but predominately in affluent developed areas, are addicted to exercise. I’ve pointed this out to people before who fail to understand the graveness of this affliction. 
“I wish I were addicted to exercise,” they say. “Imagine genuinely wanting to go to the gym or on an early morning run.”
But anyone who thinks that, simply has no clue.
Imagine not allowing your body a day of rest, instead battling through exercise after exercise only permitting some respite when the lactic acid burn is bordering on unbearable and your stomach feels like it’s about to eat itself.
Image trying to mask hunger by guzzling gallons of water and numbing the pain with ice baths. Imagine feeling the urge to punish yourself every time a morsel of fat or sugar crosses your lips. The guilt, the anxiety, the restlessness, the sorrow.
Unfortunately it’s all too common.


Hundred of thousands of girls in the UK alone are currently thought to be suffering from exercise addiction which often goes hand in hand with anorexia or bulimia.
The common denominator is unblemished discipline, sky high determination and an unquenchable thirst to adhere to the beauty ideal portrayed in today's society.
Everything - from TV to magazines, films, photos, paintings and even advertisements - convinces us that women should have svelte waists, toned stomach, firm buttocks and shapely calves that taper into dainty ankles.
And yes, perhaps men do prefer women to look like that than like a 5 foot 4 mere mortal who wears a size 12, bites her nails and occasionally eats Nutella from the jar with a spoon. But is that really a good enough excuse to make us sick?
I'm a firm believer that personal trainers and fitness professionals need to do more to educate about the risks of addiction. Too often we're told that we don't work out enough, eat too much meat, sugar and fat, but how often are we told about the dozens of girls who have suffered fatal heart attacks or other vital organ failure as a result of malnourishment and excess physical and psychological stress?
At risk of sounding like a recorded message at the end of an episode of Jeremy Kyle - don't suffer in silence.



The root of exercise addiction is often deeply buried and while it usually superficially stems from a low sense of self-worth, it's more often the case that women - and occasionally men - who suffer, are battling a deeper depression.  
I've come to believe that eating disorders and exercise addiction are merely a symptom - a cry for help if you like - and that treatment has to centre on the origin and genesis.
There are dozens of charities that try to reach out to sufferers of mental illnesses but one that I have found particularly effective is MIND.
MIND provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem, and campaigns to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding. To date I've raised almost a thousand pounds for MIND by seeking sponsorship for the runs I've done and I intend to raise more.
Running for a charity gives you the satisfaction of knowing that you're making a change to people's lives, but you also benefit from the support they offer you in return.
MIND is excellent at sending out e-mails with training tips and putting you in touch with other runners who are raising money for the same cause. Cheesy, I know, but maybe the old adage that “TEAM” stands for “together everyone achieves more”, really is true?



Unfortunately though, beyond raising awareness, campaigning and seeking sponsorship, there is little most of us can do to break the vicious cycle that exercise addicts find themselves in.
Because it’s a disease borne out of discipline, there's a good chance that sufferers will brush off comments of concern from training partners, friends and loved ones as mere hurdles to overcome.
It's only when the sufferer truly admits to being in trouble, really sees that he or she has pushed things too far that the process of recovery can begin.
Depending on how severe the addiction is, recovery can take years and require the help of trained physicians, therapists and counselors.

And all the while, the sufferer is still likely to be confronted with billboards, advertisements and other media telling her she eats too much and doesn't exercise enough.Telling her she needs to detox, needs to slim, needs to diet and cleanse. Telling her that resting is weak and relaxing is lazy - that without those slim hips, toned abs, dainty ankles and bony shoulders, she is nothing.


In the face of this irony of our society, our hands are actually pretty much tied, leaving us with only one option: to counteract unrealistic beauty ideals by being good role models.

Let’s show those striving for what is perceived to be perfection that health – in fact – looks different. Let’s wear our shorts, trainers and t-shirts in a way that shows we’re proud of our sturdy calves and thighs, because without them we’d never get up that hill.

When we run on the treadmill, there are parts of us that wobble, but that’s because if they didn’t, we mightn’t be able to run as much as we want to.

They keep up insulated when we hit the ski slopes, tie us over when we’re hungry and - on a much more basic level – make us females, women, and eventually maybe even child bearers and  mothers.

When I say that we should lead by example, I mean that we should train hard, but rest well and indulge too. Buy a chocolate bar if you fancy one. Buy three if you fancy three.

And if you happen to see the impossibly thin girl in the gym, perhaps just give her a smile. You might not be able to cure her, but let’s at least remind her that she’s not alone and that if she wants to get help, it is out there.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Power of Music and Gift of Silence

Your knees are leaden, toes raw, hips screaming and mouth as dry as cotton wool when suddenly - out of those unsuspecting headphones - something so much sweeter than Lucozade and power bars starts to resonate.

Risin' up back on the street, did my time, took my chances…

Your body feels lighter, step quickens, breath eases, heartbeat strengthens, shoulders relax, stride lengthens…

Went the distance now I'm back on my feet, just a man and his will to survive…

Before long, your hurtling – nay flying – towards the finishing line. You’re an athlete, you’re a hero, an idol, a superstar, hell - you’re Rocky!

Perhaps you think I’m crazy but I have a sly suspicion that I’m not the only person who’s relied on music to propel them through a long and arduous run on a rainy autumn evening.

Music has the uncanny ability to take our mind off anguish and pain, to trigger long lost memories and reduce us to tears in seconds. But its ability to enhance athletic performance is the subject of a long-standing debate.

Professor Costas Karageorghis is an expert on the effects of music on exercise at Brunel University and he argues that music can indeed help runners increase their performance due to its beat.

He reasons that the rhythm of a track can act as a pacemaker, helping runners to maintain a tempo – a bit like a metronome for a musician. UK website Run Britain echoes this, highlighting that the vibe of music can put us in an emotional state that is advantageous to performance.  Pop may push us, while rock could promote positive aggression and trance may focus our minds during a longer run, the website says.

Just think of LeBron James, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt – headphones and music are an integral part of all of their warm-up regimes.


On the flipside though, there is still a whole swathe of athletes and physiology professionals who swear that the sound of your own footfall is the best workout soundtrack.

Last week, I spoke to an amateur triathlete and regular runner who said that he never listened to music on his long runs, preferring instead to meditate silently on his own wellbeing.

This got me thinking.

I’ve heard of other runners who claim that music can actually be a hindrance if you’re trying to find a rhythm. A fast rock tune during the early part of your run may encourage you to speed up and utilize more energy than you can afford to, leaving you drained during the latter part.

Some say that by drowning out the sound of your own body, heartbeat, pulse and breathing, you are disconnecting from yourself and not focusing on your own comfort, well-being and needs.

“I watch athletes all the time running on the treadmill and outside,” Jim Denison, a sports sociologist and coach, told Runner’s World in an interview.

“Regardless of where they are, it's always the case that when they listen to music, they're almost robotic. They put on the music just to get through their workouts. If you see people working with no music, you see a much different approach. There's better focus.”


Over the years, dozens of journals have tried to understand better the interplay between music and physiology, attempting desperately to figure out whether there is any science behind the stories.  

To analyze the impact of music on performance, though, you would have consider physiology, biomechanics, neurology, psychology and other fields of specialized medicine, taking dozens of variables into account. There’s just too much scope, meaning that for most of us, anecdotal evidence will have to do for now.

And considering how much of that is around, why wouldn’t it?

Since it was first hosted in 2008, the number of runners taking part in London’s Run to the Beat - a half marathon where dozens of musicians perform along the route - has almost tripled.

According to surveys cited by Runner’s World, music reduces your perception of how hard you are running by about 10% which helps us all understand the widespread outrage when in 2007 USATF - the governing body of distance races in the US - banned the use of portable music devices in its sanctioned events.

People were outraged, many running with their iPods despite the ban and subsequently suffering disqualification.


I’ve been firmly in the music-for-running camp, relying on songs like Eye of the Tiger Born to Run and We Didn’t Start the Fire, but recently I found myself stranded halfway through a 10k with an iPod that had decided to give up the ghost.

I swore, thought briefly about stopping but then decided to slog on.

It was a Saturday morning in early July and most of the City seemed to be sleeping off a hangover. It was misty and dewy and as I crossed the river I saw seagulls swooping low, a few bleary-eyed tourists gazing up at the Shard and eager salesmen bustling like clockwork around Borough Market, in anticipation of the encroaching crowds.

The most remarkable thing, though, was that unlike during the week, the streets were not filled with the revs of angry cabbies and bus drivers, the clink of bicycle bells and shouts of frustrated commuters. It was almost silent. Central London and - except the sound of my worn out trainers and steady breath - nearly total quietness! I could even hear the church bells in the distance.

Coming home and collapsing on the couch I knew that I was unlikely to intentionally leave my iPod behind again but witnessing the silent City of London - stressless, trafficless and bankerless - was really rather magical. A bit like having a whole fairground to yourself. Just without the candyfloss and clowns.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Myth of Getting High

What do Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, sex and a two-hour run all have in common? You might say they’re simply enjoyable, but on a more scientific note, they've all proven to activate the so-called limbic and pre-frontal areas of the brain, eliciting a flood of endorphins that make us happy and - in the case of the latter - can lead to the infamous Runner’s High. Or can it?

For years athletes – professional and amateur alike – have spoken of that euphoric state of mind which often follows an intense workout. Some of my running friends have described feeling intensely emotional and tearful; others have reported a dramatically heightened pain threshold, while others still swear that they become more affectionate after an intense workout.

They all say it’s "obviously" the legendary Runner’s High, that has kept dozens running through shin splints, ACL injuries and even heart attacks, but recent research has shown that this new-age buzz phrase is likely to be nothing more than an urban myth.

The argument for the existence of the Runner’s High is based on the theory that when we exercise, our body experiences stress and tries to counterbalance this by producing a protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor ( BDNF). BDNF has a protective and reparative element to memory neurons and acts as a reset switch.

At the same time, endorphins which also fight stress, are released in your brain to protect your body from discomfort by blocking pain-receptors.

That all sounds very logical but research cited in Runner’s World some years ago highlights that the argument is flawed in many ways. First of all, the magazine argues, endorphins are too large to pass through the blood-brain barrier that patrols your gray matter. And if something can't get into your brain, it can't make you high.

The magazine goes on to cite several experts, none of whom buy into the Runner's High theory.

"I believe this endorphin in runners is a total fantasy in the pop culture," says psycho biologist Huda Akil from the University of Michigan.

So scientists are telling us that running will never get us to a state of utter euphoric bliss, but what about all this anecdotal evidence, not to mention my own experiences?

Dozens of people I know swear that running is addictive and I can't say I disagree.
One friend swore that running helped them survive a crisis induced by being made redundant and several others have turned to running as a coping technique after a particularly difficult break-up.

Just think of those scores of runners who slip in their sneakers

come rain or shine, pounding the streets like clockwork even when all the elements seem to be wanting to stop them. Think of those who set their alarms bitterly early, just to be able to clock up some mileage on the cross trainer, despite being hungover exhausted and feeling a cold coming on.


I recently went on holiday to Spain and even though I packed my trainers and shorts, the searing heat of the Andalusian August put me off lacing up. By day five I was craving that heart-thumping, foot-pounding, forehead-sweating sensation, but thankfully - through years of running - I've learned to master the art of recovery and rest. See my post from earlier this month. Ice cream and a bracing swim in the sea kept my mind off running, but the niggling desire to run never did completely disappear.

I got back late the following Saturday and I can promise you that running on Sunday morning was not dissimilar to eating your first piece of chocolate after lent.
Despite the mercury comfortably passing the 20 Celsius mark, it still felt refreshingly cool after a week of hunting for shade and the constant having to endure the hum of the ventilator.

As I trotted through Hyde Park and the residential backstreets of Notting Hill, cutting into Holland Park and picturesque Kensington, I felt newborn.
My joints felt oiled, my knees solid and mobile at once and my lungs like two giant balloons with unlimited capacity.

I ran my fastest 10k as well as my fastest 5k in well over a year, and topped it off by clocking up a solid 16k - the furthest I had run in over six months.
Afterwards, stretching out my calves, sun and sweat drenched, with a smile plastered across my face safe in the knowledge that a big breakfast was about to hit my belly, I felt nothing short of bliss.

So dear science, you might be right and you might be the unshakeable voice of reason. But if you're planning on telling me that what I felt was not a High, then please think again. 
(Image of Shard courtesy

Monday, 19 August 2013

Training: Mastering The Long Run

However many short, sharp runs you master, however many hills you tackle, however many hours you spend cross training, your marathon preparation will be incomplete without the infamous Long Run element.  Here’s a quick guide to taking on this monster. 

What is it?

During the weeks and month leading up to race day, you should schedule a long run once a week. If you’re relatively new to marathon training and have at least 16 weeks before the big day, your first long runs should be around 10km in distance. From experience, I’ve found that increasing this by 0.5-1km per week is the most effective way of allowing your body to adapt while not exerting too much pressure on it. You’ll complete your final long run, of around 20 miles or 30km, approximately three to four weeks before race day, allowing your body enough time to recuperate fully and give it it’s all.

Why is it important?

The long run won’t necessarily be the most physically challenging element to your training but it will be the most psychologically challenging. Running for multiple hours at a time can be lonely at times and even very boring at worst. The long run will give you the opportunity to practice concentrating and finding a rhythm that carries you through. It will give you a chance to experiment with endurance techniques, refuelling and recovering and simulate some of the emotions and sensations you will likely be exposed to on race day.  

How to plan it

It sounds obvious, but make sure that you set aside enough time to complete your long run. This is not the time to do speed work and you will likely be running much slower than during your other training sessions, so make sure you’re not under pressure to finish fast.

It might be an idea to block out a couple of hours in your calendar at the same time every week. Most people like to do it on Sundays, to avoid having to work before or after, but I find that a weekday evening can be just as suitable, especially during the early weeks of training when you’re long run will last around 2 hours at most.

You can complete your long run on a treadmill, especially if the weather is poor, but personally I think that it is more effective if you can get outside.  There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, it will be a more accurate simulation of the real thing, and secondly, you are less likely to get bored. Listen to music or an audio book if you fancy, but make sure that you are still able to hear traffic and pedestrians around you, to avoid collision and injury.

If you run outside, make sure you plan a relatively flat route. A few undulations are fine, but the sheer duration of the run will already be so physiologically taxing that you don’t want to exert too much additional pressure with steep hills or lots of steps.

Some experts also recommend completing your long run at the same time of day as you’ll be running the marathon. That way you’re giving your metabolism and digestive system the chance to prepare and practice. While I think this is sensible, especially during the latter stages of training, I know it’s not always possible. My advice would therefore be to simply schedule the long run for a time that is convenient for you, when you are least likely to be stressed and aren’t under pressure to finish at a specific time.

How to master it

During the long run, especially when you’re surpassing the 10-mile mark, you will need to refuel at least a couple of times.  Plan on carrying at some food and fluids with you, using a Fuel Belt or Camelback for example. If you’re not comfortable with this, plan to pass a water fountain or corner shop around the one-hour mark so that you can pick something up.

I still find water to be the most effective hydration liquid for anything up to 10-miles, but it’s a personal thing. The secret to finding your perfect refueling snack or liquid is trial-and-error.

Guidelines recommend that you practice drinking a few sips at least every mile split so you'll be accustomed to drinking at the intervals provided on the marathon course. It is also recommended that you take in some form of calories (gels, bars, sports drink) during your run. Timing for your fueling can range from 45 to 60-minute intervals but again, experimenting with this should be part of your training.

I know its common sense, but make sure you know your route well before setting off and consider telling a friend, housemate or relative exactly where you are going. If you regularly head out alone, you should get used to carrying a phone with you and it might also be worth downloading some kind of tracker app so that someone knows where you are in an emergency. Chances are you will never have to rely on it, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry. More on this later.

How to recover

As I have stressed in other posts, nothing is more important than recovery. There are several different techniques and every athlete will have his or her own preferences, but one thing you should never neglect is refuelling.

Directly after your long run, make sure you get out of your sweaty clothes immediately. Your immune system will be weakened by intense exercise so you want to keep the risk of you catching a chill to the minimum. If you’re not immediately able to have a shower, at least wash your hands and face to rinse of some of the salt and grime.

The best post-long run snack is something that is both liquid and calorific. Try energy drinks, protein shakes or smoothies. Some people find it hard to stomach milky drinks after an intense workout, but do make sure that whatever you choose contains both carbohydrates and protein as your stores of both are likely to be severely depleted.

Also think about getting some salt in your system.  The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that anyone exercising for more than one hour should consume 500 to 700 mg of sodium for each liter of water they consume. I’ve found salted nuts to be a great source of energy, protein and sodium.

Once you’ve consumed a snack and before you eat a proper meal, spend a short amount of time lying on the floor with your feet up. During the run, blood will have rushed to the muscles pumping away in your legs and it’s also likely that a lot of lactic acid will have built up in the lower part of your body.  Lifting, or elevating, your legs higher than your heart after exercise will recreate a balance and above all, will simply feel really good.

 Some experts recommend keeping your legs elevated for as long as one minute per 15 minutes of running, but my advice would be to do it as long as feels good.

As soon as you’re back on your feet, get a proper meal in your system with plenty of protein. Eat slowly and enjoy it and consider taking a nap if you have time. Make sure to keep snacking regularly throughout the rest of the day. You’re body will continue to burn at a faster rate than if you had not exercised, so now is not the time to fast.

 Allow yourself to indulge in sweet treats too if you like, just make sure that it’s nothing too heavy or rich as your digestive system might protest after such an intense physical effort.

Finally, congratulate yourself on a great effort and don’t dwell on having to do it all again next week. Chances are that by the time the next run comes around, you will feel 100% rested and ready to take on the challenge anew. It might seem unlikely, but trust me on this one!

Friday, 16 August 2013

Catwalk Treadmills: The downside of the gym

Nothing beats running in the great outdoors but if it’s roasting hot, freezing cold or lashing down with rain, the gym is your next best bet.

Great things about the gym include TVs to keep your mind off the lactic burn, water fountains usually within spitting distance, and a highly reduced chance of encountering vicious dogs, commuter congestion or torrential rain. Disadvantages? Here’s my biggest.

Just last night, following a light cardio work out, I was sitting on the mat in the stretching area when what can only be described as a bulldog in a onesie joined me. On the floor to stretch out my glutes I diverted my gaze to my knees, turned my music up a little and wedged my headphones in further.
But as I raised my head 30 second later to do the other side, I caught sight of Mr. Onesie perched on the mat beside me doing nothing but staring at his not-so lean mean physique in the floor-to-ceiling mirror, shoulders hunched forward, feral expression painted on his face as if about to whisper to his own sweaty reflection: “bring it on.”

Mirror, mirror

As a regular gym-goer it’s understandable that you like to keep track of your own appearance. No one should be shunned for being proud of a trimmed waistline or tight abdominals, but lately I’ve noticed that the gym is temporarily turning into a veritable catwalk for self-loving machos.

Girls in the changing rooms apply make-up pre-spinning class, plenty show off toned tummies in tiny tops and micro-shorts, and gym-bling is becoming an acceptable norm.

Guys, meanwhile, stride onto the weights floor with perfectly coiffed, just-gelled hair in crisp white wife beaters. They regularly spend several minutes staring at their studio-bronzed skin in the mirror after each lift, flexing an arm to check it’s still their or surreptitiously lifting a corner of their shirt to count the ridges in their belly.

At peak times - around 7pm on Mondays for example, when people are trying to undo their weekend vices - gyms in the city morph into strange social clubs in which it becomes acceptable to talk to complete strangers.

I once made the crucial mistake of entering the sauna during such a period and was almost immediately approached by a fifty-something “actor” looking for “someone to take for dinner”.  That was the keenest I’ve ever been to get to the ice showers.  

Dress to impress

I can’t remember when dressing to impress became normal for the gym but I blame the rise of designer gear. A quick Google search shows that if you really wanted to, you could spend no less than US$218,000 on a pair of Nike trainers, but on a more realistic note, even the high street has plenty of budget busting apparel on offer.

Californian designer Alexander Wang, who happens to be the creative director of Balenciaga, sells a simple small gym sack – the kind you get free when you buy something at SportsDirect – for a staggering US$675.

Sales of women's running gear grew from $275 million in 2008 to $350 million in 2010, according to SportsONESource, a research and analysis firm focused on the sporting-goods industry, and the figure has continued to rocket since.

Going to the gym has become about flaunting latest trends and styles and less about endorphins, performance and potential. It’s about attracting and interacting and undeniably, about a whole different kind of competition.

You do find elements of this in the parks and on the tracks outside, but unlike within the confines of the gym, you can escape it there. You might see someone eyeing their perfectly made-up reflection as they run past a shop window, but the faster you run the faster you pass them.

So if the gym machos and princesses really get too much, perhaps it’s worth considering how bad the dogs, commuters and rain storms really are.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Why you’ll always run like a girl

From parking cars to making bonfires – one battle that is unlikely ever to witness ceasefire is that of the sexes. 

But while both driving and pyrotechnics are improvable and seemingly gender-agnostic, it’s an inconvenient truth that no matter how hard women train, unless they’re remarkably gifted, they are unlikely ever to be able to physically outperform men that train just as hard.

A few decades ago, scientists and athletes speculated that women may actually be physiologically better suited to running long distances because they have higher body fat ratios and are therefore able to store more energy to fuel their bodies.

The theory actually appears very logical. Women, especially if they haven’t eaten recently, are able to burn fat more efficiently.

Most are able to burn simple sugars contained in sports drinks, bars and gels better than their male counter parts too, and statistics on marathon finishing times support this.  Just look at Paula Radcliff – her fastest time over 26 miles is less than 10% slower than the fastest time scored by a man. That's a huge imporvement on the differential seen when women first started running marathons. So where’s the glitch? 

Blame Science

As competitive women, there are two things to point our fingers at: glycogen and testosterone. The first is a so-called polysaccharide that is used in the human body to store energy. When we eat carbohydrates, like bread, pasta and rice, they can be stored as glycogen which means that they can quickly and efficiently be turned into energy to fuel our bodies.

As women though, we naturally store fat more easily than we store glycogen and - due to simply science - we therefore have a significantly lower maximum aerobic capacity, on average, than men.

Testosterone, meanwhile, is a steroid hormone which is found much more abundantly in men than it is in women. That's why men can more easily build bigger muscles than women, helping to power them through sprints and longer runs alike.

An article published by Runner’s World a few years ago does point out that a woman could use other physiological strengths to beat a man, of course. She could have more muscle to move her legs faster, or more hemoglobin to give the muscles a richer supply of oxygen, or even a better running economy. But at the end of the day, truth is that men will always have more testosterone and hemoglobin than women, and running economy studies have shown no difference between the genders.


Suck it up


Even at ultra distances, science is not in our favour ladies. Studies have actually shown that the gender gap gets greater as distances increase. Runner’s World points out that the male record for the 3,100-mile Sri Chinmoy Transcendence run is 42 days, 13 hours, 24 minutes, and 3 seconds. The female record is 49 days, plus 14:30:54. That's a difference of 16.5%.

So what can we do? Suck it up and deal with it.

There’s no such thing as perfect equality. Men will always be stronger and faster than us so let’s not beat ourselves up trying to beat our male colleagues.

Running was once only recognised as a male sport and it took until 1984 for the Women’s marathon to be included in the Olympics. Less than 30 years later women all over the world can compete at whatever distance they choose and take however long they want on the track, road or trail.

Having achieved so much in such a short period of time, why would you want to waste your time chasing men anyway? Chase your potential instead.