Monday, 30 September 2013

The Beautiful Faces of Running


I’m back on the track. Well, mostly at least.

On Saturday, after much massaging, stretching, therapeutic prodding and resting, I embarked on a gentle 5km run through Kensington Garden and Hyde Park; my first in almost a full month.

It was a stunning morning, golden leaves delicately tumbling from the turning trees that flank Kensington Palace Gardens, a slight chill in the air but still plenty of sunshine, and that beautiful silence that ensues when London’s tourist season fades into October.

I tread lightly, consciously engaging my gluts, so as not to exert too much pressure on my still ailing knees and hips, and veer onto soft paths and grassy tracks wherever possible.

I feel like a small child learning to walk, each step measured and slightly wobbly, but becoming increasingly steady as I progress. And as I absorb my surroundings, I realise that one of the things I have missed most during my running hiatus, is the encounters with other runners, of all shapes sizes, colours, ages and abilities. All united by our love of running - or at the very least, our ability to motivate ourselves to lace up our trainers once in a while.

Just before I reach Notting Hill Gate, a trio of girls comes towards me, all clad in sports bras, their golden locks piled high on head and held back with fluorescent bands.

As they shuffle along, they gossip and giggle in high pitched voices, yoga toned bellies rising and falling rhythmically with each breath. They’re the kind who flock to the smoothie bar for wheatgrass shots following their stretches, and later discuss Pilates classes while sipping detoxifying nettle and liquorice root tea in an artisan cafe just off Westbourne Grove, clad in hip hugging sweatpants and oversized hoodies.

They have no interest in racing or personal bests, but love being able to say “I went for a run” and if they managed to lap up last night’s gossip while doing so, then that’s an added bonus.

As I head east along Notting Hill Gate towards Hyde Park, the next incarnation of runner dashes past.

This time, an early-thirties bachelor type - probably a banker, lawyer or insurance broker – pounding the streets to purge from his system the remnants of last night’s double vodkas and perhaps that blurry burger. It looked so good at the time.

His pectoral muscles trace through a tight white – and now sweat drenched - vest top and one calf is covered in a tribal tattoo: a gap year souvenir from saving children in Africa.

His shoes are luminous white – indicating that he’s a fine weather athlete – and frantic glances at a wrist-worn heart rate monitor indicate that he’s not along to enjoy the ride. He has calories to burn, pulse rates to adhere to and, eventually, protein drinks to consume, driven by the vision of a perfect Adonis physique – perhaps, just perhaps, the centre piece of next week’s big night out.

As I peel off Notting Hill Gate and enter Kensington Gardens, the crowds of joggers become denser. There’s a running club training and dozens of hobby athletes in bright yellow vests push past me.

We’re running in opposite directions so I get a chance to see all their faces bob towards me up the track. Some are contorted with pain after a fourth of fifth lap of the park, lactic acid burning and lungs threatening to burst, while others wear relaxed expressions, enjoying the rush of endorphins, the social buzz and the jovial sense of competition.

I pass gaggles of middle-aged women, on the cusp of obesity but laboriously battling the pounds; gangly teenagers hurtling down the track with very limited control of their limbs, and off duty personal trainers, their serious expressions disguised under visors and orange-tinted Oakley sports shades.

By the time I reach the Serpentine lake, I’ve passed steroid-pumped Barbie dolls and their respective Kens, B-list celebrities hidden behind Jackie-O glasses and almost drowning in oversized sweaters, natural runners with practiced gaits, first-time joggers with awkward hips and pretty much everything in between.

It makes me wonder what people might think of me. Crazy girl singing along to her iPod? Mad women with blindingly pink trainers?  Female in desperate need of a new pair of (not baggy, grey, unflattering) running shorts?

To finish off my comeback run, I head down to the Albert Memorial, and plod along the south side of Kensington Gardens. Just before I hit the 5km mark, I see an old man jogging towards me in the distance sporting red shorts and a yellow running club vest top. He must be nearing 90.

He’s frail - can’t be much taller than me – and barely moving faster than an average persons’ walking pace. I can see he’s probably got hundreds of thousands of miles in his knobbly knees, yet the smile on his face shows that every step still brings him a sense of deep, rich satisfaction.

The gap between us closes and, as we move within a few yards of each other, he raises one feeble arm and motions for me to high-five him. His grin is infectious and as my sweaty palm claps into his he yelps, “keep going girl!”

I smile to myself. Yes, if I can be even half as happy, healthy and vivacious as you are at that age, then I think I will follow your advice. Keep running, keep enjoying the beautiful and different faces of the sport, and hopefully, one day, pass a young woman on the south side of Kensington Gardens, clap my hand in to hers, share a beautiful face-splitting smile and encourage her to keep going. 

(Image: 100-year old marathon runner Fauja Singh, photographed for The Guardian) 

Friday, 27 September 2013

Suck It Up Princess: Banishing Autumnal Excuses


At the best of times, I’ve heard the lamest excuses for not running.

With October approaching, the days getting shorter, air cooler and weather more unpredictable though, people seem to becoming increasingly quick and creative with reasons not to don their sneakers. Truth is, however, that even if dark evenings and a bitter chill is forcing us to cut workouts short, they’re still worth doing. Get out there and brave the elements.  What doesn’t kill you...well, you know the mantra.

THE RUNNING BUG 

One of the most common myths is that running in the cold and rain will make you ill. Wrong.  Hanging around indoors and mingling with sniffly people is actually more likely to promote the spread of bacteria than getting chilly ears or wet feet now and then. 

In fact, the oxygen supply you get from the fresh winter air might even boost your immune system and stave off illness altogether. 

Just make sure that when you do head outdoors, you wrap up properly and warm up your muscles. Invest in some breathable gear and work with layers so that you can adjust during your workout cycle.  If you’re cold you’re more likely to be stiff and prone to injury. 

Make sure you keep toasty during your warm-up and cool down but don’t overheat during the main part of your workout. Sweating too much could make things very uncomfortable. Experiment with headbands and gloves too. Some people like them, others don’t. Nike does some excellent lightweight winter running gear.

Importantly, also make sure that you change into clean, dry clothes as soon as you finish your run. Have a warm shower, a hot drink, hydrate and get some protein and carbohydrates into your body. You know the drill. 


SHORT BUT SWEET


Admittedly, finishing work at 7pm in the winter is a bit like finishing work at 9pm in the summer. So yes, I agree that a two hour run is the last thing you want to do when you finally trudge out of the door into the pitch black city on a dreary November evening. But don’t let it put you off altogether.


 

Focus more on faster shorter runs during the week, and save the long runs for weekends before sundown. Or if you really can’t convince yourself to run outside, head to the gym for a treadmill workout.  Use the incline function to challenge yourself or cross train on the elliptical trainer, rowing machine or bike. Do some strength exercises, core work or attend a class. If you’re feeling congested, head to the steam room or sauna and follow up with a cool shower. Stimulating your circulation will also boost your immune system.


Even if all you can only manage is a 20 minute session, do it! Every little helps and you’ll feel great for it afterwards. 


SAFETY FIRST

At the risk of sounding like your mother, safety should be your prime consideration if you do decide to hit the roads for an evening run during the dark months.

 

It may be wise to change your route to remain in more populous and well-lit areas, especially if you’re running alone. You should also always carry a phone with you. Not only will it allow you to call for help if you get in trouble or injure yourself, but it can also be used as a handy tracking device for friends and family.

 

There are tracking apps available for most types of smartphones these days which you can download and use to allow certain people to see where you are at all times. They can easily be active and deactivate it when you get back and many are free for iPhones, Blackberrys & Co.

 

Needless to say – whether you have a tracking device or not - you should always tell at least someone when you head out, where you are going and when you intend to be back. Even if you know the area like the back of your hand, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

 

DOSE UP ON VITAMINS

 

One of the best ways of keeping bugs that may interrupt your training regime at bay is by stocking up on vitamins, minerals and nutrients.

 

I’m no doctor but from my own experience, I’ve found vitamin C supplements and Echinacea to be particularly affective in battling runny noses and sore throats.

 

To up your energy levels during the dark season, ensure you’re getting plenty of vitamin D. We naturally absorb vitamin D from sunlight, but overcast sky and short days means that we might not get the exposure we need between October and February.

 

And as always, make sure you get ample protein and carbohydrates pre- and post-run. You’re likely to burn even more calories in cold weather so opt for full-fat milk, plenty of seeds and nuts and why not swap that vin chaud for a hot chocolate?

 

No one like’s running with a hangover anyway.

(Image courtesy http://www.sergiovacondio.com) 

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Learning By Doing Or Why We Never Listen


The most important thing,” the physiotherapist enunciates, “is that you... - ” “ ...– wear the right shoes?” I interrupt. He nods.  “And make sure you use the foam...- ” I interject again “...– roller to loosen up my muscles?” He smiles.

Plenty of stretching,” he instructs and I bite my lip, resisting the temptation to finish his sentence for a third time. “You know the rules, so why are you here?” he asks mockingly.

I’ve been passionate about fitness and health for years now and since qualifying as a personal trainer, I am the first to warn someone of the perils of overtraining, of the importance of core strength, solid posture and rest days.

But just like a child, who needs to burn his hand on a stove before believing his mother that playing in the kitchen is a bad idea, like a cat that always walks to close to the fire until it singes its whiskers, it seems that runners’ are pigheaded creatures of habit who won’t respond to advice until they experience the side effects of poor form firsthand.

Until agonising shin splints immobilise us, hinder our training and force us to drop out of that race last minute, we tend to think that injury is just something that happens to the ruthless, like the skier who won’t wear a helmet until that bone rattling concussion, or the sky-diver who...well...thinks it’s a good idea to jump out of a plane.  

But why are we so distrusting even if we know all the facts?

SELECTIVE BELIEF

In a 2011 online article by Psychology Today, the author argues that humans are naturally distrusting by citing a study conducted by Stanford psychologists Charlie Lord, Lee Ross and Mark Lepper.

The three men presented a group of bright students with an extensive balance of scientific evidence for and against capital punishment.

According to their research, after hearing that evidence, the students who initially favoured the death penalty were even more convinced of their opinions, while the opponents were even more persuaded that they were right.

The students, the scientists found, selectively remembered weaknesses in the other side’s argument, and strengths of the evidence favouring their own side.

When it comes to runners, I think many fall into the same trap.

If we enjoy working out, we’re likely to forget the aches and niggles in our knee caps and overlook the delayed onset muscle soreness the following day. Instead, our mind focuses on the sense of satisfaction we feel, the rush of endorphins and the inner peace that sets in after a hilly, chilly 10k.

By the time we’re tying up our trainers again, we’ve forgotten the stiffness in the hip, the clicking of the knee, the aching of the shoulders; selectively wiped from the trusty hard drives in our brains until it all sets in again.

It’s not surprising therefore, that our body eventually starts complaining. Constantly putting oil over fire might temporarily stave off the flames, but extinguish them it will not.

OLDER AND WISER

Fortunately though, like in many of life’s situations, we become wiser with each new experience we garner.

When I look at my hands I see plenty of scars from cuts and burns: My battle wounds from not using oven gloves and pretending I’m Jamie Oliver when I chop onions. Each one is like a small reminder of how much hot oil can hurt and how sharp that knife really is.

Eventually, there will be enough to stop me from ever trying to take the pan off the heat glovelessly or convincing myself that I can cut a carrot with a meat cleaver or flip that salmon filet with my finger.

And with the running, I hope the hip injury I’m currently battling, is enough to keep me sensible – for a few years at least. I hope the memory of the ache and pain flashes up like a fluorescent sign whenever I feel a pull or a twinge: Wear the right shoes, use the foam roller and stretch thoroughly.

Inevitably, there will come a time when I forget what injury is like, push the boundaries and have the bear the consequences, but until then I will do my best to listen to my own advice, however hard it might be.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Twenty Days and Counting


It’s been 20 days since I last ran.

Well that’s not strictly true. I did try running about a week ago, at a tempo of 8km/h and 0% incline, but managed a feeble 400 meters before the shooting pain in my knee became so severe that I was forced to hit the big red button on the treadmill and limp over the stretching area.

The ache that started in my hip and groin has now extended to below my knee cap and into my shin. To make matters worse, the muscular discomfort has forced me to change my gait - even for walking - and placed an unnatural strain on the lower part of my back. It aches whenever I get up from sitting down and is even preventing me from doing the core strength exercised recommended to alleviate illiotibial pain.

A few days ago I clocked up 40 minutes on the elliptical trainer, but while I felt fine during the training, the aching kicked in just hours after cooling down. I had dinner at a restaurant that night and when I stood up shakily and teetered over the to the bathrooms before dessert, I once again felt like an arthritic octogenarian, learning to walk on her new prosthetics pins.

Swimming is ok, but I’m far from a natural in the water. I can manage a mile in a calm pool, but throw in 20 city workers aggressively competing for lane space and swimming even a few laps becomes an arduous task to say the least.

 I’ve booked an appointment to see a physiotherapist in four days’ time, but my plans to run a half marathon in 13 days look to be on very thin – if not already melted – ice.

It’s frustrating on a number of counts. First and foremost, I miss the buzz and rush of thudding along the streets and paths of London, mulling over my day or the week to come and realising that even the biggest issues weighing on my mind are conquerable. Of course I miss the aftermath; of sitting down to a plate of pasta, revelling in the sensation of having performed and being proud of my body.

There’s also an element of feeling like I’m letting people down. Realising that you might not be able to run makes you wish you had never told people you were doing it in the first place; never had asked for sponsorship.

Fortunately, all is not lost just yet. Miraculously, I may wake up tomorrow to find myself pain free and ready to squeeze in some last minute training. The physiotherapist may administer a magic potion that loosens up my joints and puts the proverbial spring back in my step.

And if none of that happens, then I might take my place at the starting line anyway.

A wise man once told me that a runner should never be too proud to walk – even for 21 kilometres.
(Image courtesy of www.pro-tecathletics.com )