Monday, 28 October 2013

As If Quad Biking Wasn’t Enough...

“So how did it go?” I hear you ask. “Did you break any limbs falling off the quad bike? Fell any trees?” Much to the disappointment of some of you, the answer is no.

After a terror-inducing preamble from the instructor, featuring multiple warnings that quad bikes can kill and that (in the very best of cases) you might walk - or hobble - away with a broken limb, I rose to the challenge, prayed to all that is mighty, and proved - contrary to what those who know me might expect - to be quite an adept rider.

Even the sun made an unexpected appearance as we mounted our machines and turned the ignition, and after a first few wobbly feet, I quickly got the hang of the thumb-controlled accelerator, pneumatic brake and even the technique of using my body to enhance steering. Without falling off the bike, of course.

A little over an hour later, caked in mud, with slightly achy palms and thighs from hanging on for dear life, I felt content in the knowledge that I had done one thing today that scares me (click here for Friday’s blog).

Little did I know, however, that more was still to come.

WINE WORRIES

In an attempt to impress my better half I had organised a wine tasting for us and some close friends that same evening to mark his birthday

The glitch? Up until about six months ago I was completely tee-total and still have next to no understanding of how a wine can taste “mossy” or even “fruity”.

More than a little apprehensive, therefore, I headed to the bar and by the time we were all gathered around a first glass of what I was reliable informed to be “a light, fruity white with barely any legs” I was battling temptation to call it all off.

“What do you see?” the Scottish waitress standing in for the regular sommelier challenged us. “It’s quite pale” I noted in what I hoped was a convincing tone. Approving nods all around encouraged me to keep pensively eyeing the liquid while swirling it in mock fascination.

“And what do you taste?” she enquired. I took a stab at “fruity.” Again, mumbles of concurrence. And then, much to my surprise, I actually started tasting something beyond the overpowering aroma of just, well... wine. Pears perhaps? Or apples? Or maybe even citrus fruits?

“I think I’m starting to get the hang of this,” I mouthed across the table to my boyfriend, blissfully unaware that I was already getting quite giggly after just a few sips.

Later I tasted notes of cocoa, wood, berries and even fresh vine tomatoes. OK, that last one was predominatly met with confusing looks, but by that point I’d realised that there is no right or wrong in this business. Creativity knows no bounds. In fact, when others offered up “mould” and “toffee apples”, I started to think that this game should actually be called “the wackier the better” or even “name the most absurd flavour you can think of”.

STEP-BY-STEP

So what have I learned from this weekend?

Well as I mentioned before, a person’s limits can be as individual as their fingerprints. While someone might be petrified of heights, someone else might despise spiders, dogs or pigeons.

I for one, managed to overcome my fear of looking like an ignorant dingbat in front of wine-guzzling friends, as well as the apprehension I've hitherto expereinced towards motorised vehicles.

Perhaps next time I’ll graduate to whiskey tasting and hovercrafts, or I might even get around to passing my driving test and then celebrating with a road trip through the Napa Valley.  

First though, I’ll diligently be turning my attention back to running.

A speed session on the treadmill awaits: minute-long sprints followed by rest periods of ninety seconds. Ten repetitions before squats, leg presses, curls, core work and lots of stretches. The countdown continues and it's only five months until my marathon.

Afterwards I’ll reward myself with a hot shower, plenty of carbohydrates and protein and perhaps – just perhaps – a small glass of something “light and fruity with few legs”. What better way to reward my own tired ones?


(Image courtesy of www.bramptonwines.files.wordpress.com)

(I went quad biking at QuadNation in Didcot, Oxforshire: http://www.quadnation.co.uk/; and wine tasting at the Bibury Court Hotel in Cirencester, Gloucestershire: http://www.biburycourt.com/)

Friday, 25 October 2013

Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You


In 1999, Baz Luhrmann released a highly successful song, based on an article published two years earlier in the Chicago Tribune, entitled “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”.

Almost every line of the mostly spoken masterpiece is a small pearl of wisdom; a phrase you can imagine hung in a whitewashed frame, mounted on the wall of an independent coffee shop, where creative minds gather to pen the next American novel and spurt poetry: “Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth…Remember the compliments you receive ….Do not read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly”.

For me, the most memorably line in the song is the one in which Luhrmann urges us to “do one thing every day that scares you.” I remember hearing that for the first time and wondering whether ridding that spider from the shower basin counts. It does.

FULL THROTTLE

Tomorrow morning I’m going quad biking.

That’s right, as the London Autumn begins to turn ugly, the nights blustery and the phase between noon and dusk morphs into one inky and non-descript frame, I’ve chosen a vast barren field in deepest darkest Oxfordshire over a cozy couch, blazing fire and cup of tea. Not to mention that I’ll be accompanied by a motorized vehicle. I don’t have a driving license and I’m a little scared of cows.

Ok - I’d forgive you for calling me tame. Since blogging I’ve learned that for many modern adventurers a 100-kilometer walk, thousands of miles on camel back across Africa and ultra marathons are just another part of the day job, but please remember that limitations and fears are as personal as fingerprints.

Choose your battles with precision. Fear for you might mean navigating rush hour traffic on your bicycle, it might mean speaking to a stranger or cooking a curry. On the other hand, it might be jumping off a cliff, swimming with sharks or scaling K2.

Whatever it is, embrace it as a means to an end and a way of advancing beyond your comfort zone; a technique for growing as a person and visualising the next mountain – whether metaphoric or literal.

RUNNING WILD

As a runner I’ve also adopted Luhrmann’s wisdom too - as somewhat of a mantra.

Sprints on a treadmill scare me. And yet, upon my physiotherapist’s advice, I’ve started interval sprints three times a week: sixty seconds of full blast followed by ninety of recovery. Ten reps three times per week.
Starting my first session was daunting. It seemed everyone in the gym was scoffing at my arm-flailing, heavy-breathing, foot-thumping style, but as the ten reps waned to eight, and then six, four and two, I became increasingly comfortable with my workout. Inhaling deeply, sweating profusely and gasping, I started not caring about who or what I might resemble. The world is always going to judge you. Get over it.     

On a grander scale, the prospect of 26 (and a bit) miles petrifies me.

What I’m afraid of, is disappointment. What if, after months and months of training and preparation, injury recovery, phyiso and strength sessions, I’m caught out with flu on the day, bed-ridden with my nose being my only organ capable of running?

But back off? I don’t think so. If I never try, I’ll never succeed and if I opt not to run on the day, then making that decision will just be another thing I’ve done that has scared, but also helped me grow. I’ll have learned to keep expectations under control and temper frustration. I’ll have learned that the world keeps turning, one gentle rotation at a time.

So tomorrow morning when you wake up, spare a thought for me on my quad bike in
the rain and why not do one thing – however small – that scares you. A vanilla shot in your latte? Make a chocolate soufflĂ©? Ask that guy out for a drink? Rid that spider from the shower basin?

Or perhaps cross a continent on camel back. Brownie points for anyone who’s scared of camels. 

(Image courtesy of http://ryan.bigwoofs.com)

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Yolk Myth

It’s perfectly round, sunshine yellow, and no matter how grumpy you are in the morning, it will tirelessly smile up at you - even if the toast upon which it is perched is burned to within a cinder.

Coincidence or not, a growing number of my friends and colleagues have recently been raving about the egg white omelet: an allegedly low-cholesterol alternative to its humble whole-egg original, known and loved for generations the world over.

But halt! Before you raid the coop, break shells, ditch the yellow and then complain about ending up with a sticky tasteless mass with which you wouldn’t even clean the soles of your feet, let me tell you why we should spare some love for the yolk.

While it is commendable that you wish to improve your diet and limit the intake of bad fats and cholesterol, the number of nasties found in egg yolk is actually negligible compared to levels found in other foods that we regularly consume without even thinking. Take a spoonful of sugar in your tea, that slice of pizza, that caramel latte or that can of beer.

In fact, if you’re aiming for a nutrient-rich diet, yolk will actually give you a much better hit than its milky white neighbour. Like oily fish, yolk contains healthy fats that will facilitate vitamin absorption. Egg yolks are one of the richest dietary sources of the B-complex vitamin choline, which is associated with better neurological function and reduced inflammation. They also contain two carotenoids, namely lutein and zeaxanthin, which protect against vision loss, and a major dose of sulphur, necessary for the production of collagen and keratin –which will make your hair shiny, nails strong and skin glowing. Some scientist even argue that it could help combat dementia, so what’s not to like about that?

Assuming you’re not clinically obese (a fair assumption, I’d argue, considering that you’re reading this blog and therefore likely to be at least relatively health conscious), even several whole eggs a week will not adversely impact your cholesterol levels.

Finally - just like our old friends green tea, dark chocolate, mixed berries and leafy greens - egg yolks are a valuable source of antioxidants that slash the risk of diseases such as cancer and coronary heart disease and even cut the chances of your suffering from altitude sickness.

Whether scrambled, poached, fried or boiled, let's therefore spare a thought for the increasingly overlooked and often under-valued yolk. We all know that it’s what’s on the inside that really counts!

(image courtesy: http://www.leanitup.com)

Monday, 21 October 2013

Sleeping Beauty: How to Slumber Like a Pro


It’s 10pm. The dinner table is cleared, dishwasher filled, washing hung out and last e-mails of the day answered. 

But just as my better half settles down for a night cap and episode of [insert name of generic US drama here], an unstifleable sense of fatigue washes over me like a wave ruthlessly toppling a lopsided sandcastle.

Hugging a cup of tea, I’m persuaded to cower in the corner of the couch and join him, but even as the opening credits roll up, my eyelids become unbearably heavy, limbs loose and leaden.

My head tilts into the cushion and as I cocoon a little deeper into the blanket, I drift off into a broken slumber, peppered with chuckles and sporadic commentary from the far end of the sofa. “Did you see that?”

“Hmmmhmmm,” I respond as I drift into a happy cloud of cotton wool and candy floss.

SHAMELESS SHUT-EYE

I used to feel a little bit guilty about my dopey habit, but recent research shows just how important it is for us to clock up ample zeds – especially if we’re training hard. As the days get shorter and nights colder, it’s also in our nature to hit the sack earlier to safeguard physical and psychological health throughout the blustery winter months.

In the short term, sleep deprivation can impair our ability to function cognitively and concentrate properly - rendering us a bit dippy and the butt of the office joke - but in the longer term, a lack of sleep can lead to abnormal hormonal levels with more serious implications.

Beyond weight gain, bad skin and a substantial deterioration in athletic performance, too few hours of sleep can burden on our immune system and make us prone to infections and viruses. When we’re tired, our cells become damaged and training on empty can exacerbate that. A simple cold can quickly develop into an aggressive chest infection and before we know it we’re bed-bound, dosed up on antibiotics and battling a nasty case of bronchitis.

Sleeping gives our bodies the opportunity and time to repair, enabling us to become stronger, fitter and healthier and beat the bug before it beats us.

QUALITY AND QUANTITY

The American National Sleep Foundation has found that the average adult gets just six hours and 50 minutes of kip time per night, significantly less than the recommended seven and a half to eight and a half hours – and that’s a minimum for non-athletes.

If you’re training hard, cranking up the mileage and increasing the intensity of your workouts, you should be aiming for more than eight hours of high quality, uninterrupted sleep, which – granted – is often easier said than done.

Here, therefore, my guide getting the most out of your forty winks (or fifty…or sixty…seventy…):

1. Hormonal Havoc

As a woman, your hormones are likely to disrupt your sleep pattern at certain times of the month. To remedy this, adhere to a routine both in the evenings and the in the mornings. That should help your body become acclimatized to the ebb and flow of hormonal change and find rest when you need it most.

2. Active Adrenaline

Exercising late into the evening may make your physically tired, but the elevated levels of adrenaline in your brain could make it hard for you to tune out and find sleep. Schedule your workouts for the morning or early afternoon and stick to the number one rule of avoiding overtraining. Increase mileage and intensity gradually and never neglect rest days.

3. Killer Caffeine

A pre-gym espresso shot may give you an extra boost when you hit the treadmill, but unfortunately, the effects of the black broth often last a lot longer than desired. To prevent a restless body and mind after lights out, limit your intake of caffeinated drinks to two per day and preferably in the morning. Also beware of hidden sources of caffeine, like some chocolates, pain killers and vitamin supplements.

4. Troublesome Technology

Simple as it sounds, switching off is one of the best ways of switching off. Keep phones, laptops, blackberries and tablets out of the bedroom. As well as the artificial glow from the devices’ screens tricking your mind into thinking it’s still day time, you will be more tempted to check your e-mails one last time if your phone is sitting on your bedside table. Leave it in the living room, put it on silent or turn it off completely. And trust me, by the time you’re back on call the following morning, the world will still be turning.

5. Black It Out

Finally, I find that one of the worst sleep saboteurs is light. Invest in some good blinds or curtains to keep street light and traffic light outside – where they belong. Air your room before hitting the sack so that you don’t need to keep any windows ajar when you’re trying to capture zeds, and make sure that you have no electronic devices or alarm systems that flash in your line of vision.

And if all else fails, you can always resort to my tried-and-tested theory of US drama series. Not every insomniacs preferred remedy but I for one....

(Image courtesy of www.womenshealthmag.com)

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Muscle machos, cardio cowboys and why karma bites


You know that guy with the meaty pecs, hunched shoulders and John Wayne walk? The guy who “pumps steel” rather than lifts weights, “rips up the gym” rather than works out and particularly likes mentioning how much weight he can bench – or at least used to be able to when he was a young dashing stallion?

He’s first to offer his expert advice when it comes to supplements and regimes, and always manages to manoeuvre the conversation around to athletic performance, super-human achievement and blood-sweat-and-tears glory.  

I’m lucky enough to have a stud of this ilk in my office and trust me, when he’s stirring his high-protein L-caratine-infused porridge in the communal kitchen, you want to avoid popping in to top up your water bottle.

“How’s the running Josie?” he asked one day. I’ve seen him eyeing up the battered trainers beneath my desk. “What mileage are you clocking up these days?”

“Oh, you know...” I respond dismissively. “I get out when I can.” That’s all I want to offer him, because if I dared to feed him anything juicier - even the minisculest ion of information - he would pounce on and devour my self-confidence like a ravenous leopard ripping strips of flesh off an ailing zebra until all that remains is a vulture-encircled carcass.

“I did a 10k last night,” I once said. Rookie error never to be repeated, but there was no turning back.

“10k, hey? How long did that take you?” Eyebrows arched, chest puffed, arms slightly angled away from his not-quite chiselled torso.

And then, before even allowing me to utter the semblance of a mumbled response:

“I used to beast 10k in 30 minutes a few years ago. And that was after a five-kilometre swim upstream in the Nile - chased by crocodiles and piranhas – and before jumping on my bike and crossing sub-Saharan Africa with no water, carrying 26 tonnes of shelled peas and curing cancer while riding.”

Ok, I may have made up the last bit, but you know where I’m coming from. Poetic license.

Conversations about injuries are just as morale-exterminating. I once mentioned popping to the physiotherapist.

“ITB pain,” I explained.
In a flash, the all-around expert was on the case: “I had that once. I was in agony. Naturally, I ran through it, bearing the pain. And did I mention that I saved a baby from a burning house that same day?”

But then just today he got into work a few minutes later than usual, puffing and panting, expensive running pack strapped to his back. He loitered in the kitchen much longer than necessary, longing for people to ask him whether he’d run all the way to work.

Not knowing he was there, I popped in to fill up my water bottle, just in time to hear the secretary ask him: “Didn’t you see me wave to you on the bus today? You were sitting at the back, headphones in. You got off one stop early? What were you doing?”

I screwed the top back onto my water bottle, turned around looked him in the eye and tried desperately not to smile.

Good morning oh sweet sweet  karma.
(Image courtesy  www.alinkamalinka.com)

Monday, 14 October 2013

A Runner’s Ode to Chocolate

Deep down hidden in between all the coconut water, goji berries and matcha powder, nestled among the green tea, wheatgrass and omega supplements, the cranberry juice, L-caratine pills and  soya milk, there’s a little bar of irresistibly sweet luxury, that for me will always take the crown of best post-run recovery snack around: humble, delicious chocolate.

In the age of superfoods and supplements, it’s becoming increasingly easy for us to dismiss familiar, childhood foods as valueless calorie stores from an era when yoga was for hippies, Pilates a mispronunciation of a word for airline captain and “spinning” a term we associated with small wooden toys.

But chocolate, fellow runners, is not only an elixir for the soul, but packed full of antioxidants and nutrients that could boost your health faster than you can say detoxification.

To understand where I’m coming from, here’s a quick lesson in agriculture.

The cocoa beans that yield the treats we love are sourced primarily from Africa, Asia and Latin America

 It takes approximately four hundred cocoa beans to produce one pound of chocolate, through mixing a sticky paste called chocolate liquor – derived from the bean - with cocoa butter and powdered cocoa. That concoction is then combined with sugars, emulsifiers, and sometimes milk to create the perfect any-time treat.

Chocolate is about 30% fat, 5% protein, 61% carbohydrate and 3% moisture and minerals, but what matters most to our health, are the polyphenols, specifically the flavonols: plant compounds with potent antioxidant properties.

Other sources of flavanols include red wine, tea and cranberries but research has shown that those found in chocolate are perhaps the most capable of promoting healthy blood pressure, stimulating circulation and therefore maintaining a healthy heart.

SLOW THE FLOW

In the early 1900s, physicians and researchers at Harvard Medical School observed that the Kuna Indians, the indigenous residents of the San Bias Islands of Panama, almost never developed high blood pressure - even at an advanced age.
 
Studies indicated that neither their salt intake nor body weight were factors in this apparent immunity. What’s more, when the islanders moved to the mainland, incidences of hypertension in the community rose to more average levels for the global population, demonstrating that their low blood pressure was also not genetic.

The researchers did observe, however, that the Kuna people routinely drank about five cups of locally grown, minimally processed, high-flavonol cocoa a day, which later turned out to be the source of their cardiovascular superiority.

Nitric oxide found in cocoa, the research concluded, relaxes the blood vessels and improves circulation throughout the body thus preventing hypertension and ultimately putting less pressure on the heart

RUNNERS REWARD

While this is of course good news for anyone with a sweet tooth – and not just us runners – there are dozens of other reasons why we should allow ourselves to indulge in a small amount of dark chocolate when we’ve unlaced and rehydrated after a tough workout.

Chocolate contains enough sugar and fat to tie our depleted stores over until we have time to prepare a proper meal with plenty of protein and complex carbohydrates.  From personal experience, I know that finishing a hard run can leave you feeling a little weak at the knees. Chocolate will put some tiger back in your tank.

This divine food also contains valuable supplies of iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium – all required to support a healthy nervous system and aid the body’s absorption of key nutrients.

Though research is yet to be substantiated, the bioactive compounds found in my snack of choice are also thought to protect your skin against the sun’s aggressive UV rays.

And finally, I’m a devout proponent of establishing a reward system for hard work.

As simple a soul as I may be, the last kilometer of a run - through wet and windy London - always appears that bit easier when I think about the squares of deliciousness waiting at home.

And by the way, hot chocolate offers all the benefits of its solid peer too: Use high quality powder with at least 70% cocoa solids, add a drizzle of honey,  a pinch of cinnamon, nutmeg or vanilla, and even a tiny pinch of sea salt. Trust me on this one!

Close your eyes, relax, sip. And I challenge you to disagree with Peanut’s cartoonist Charles M. Schultz when he observed: “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt.”  

(Images sourced from: www.happyhealthylonglife.com, www.fanpop.com, www.strangehistory.net)