Thursday, 30 January 2014

You Don't Have To Run


Running, dear reader, is something that we do to unwind, to rest our souls, disentangle our thoughts, indulge and meditate. It's a means of oxygenating our cells, stretching our limbs, cleansing our minds and flooding our systems with blissful hormones.

We do it because we enjoy it, because it’s wellness, pleasure, a treat, and not - by any measure - because we have to.

It’s a simple truism but one that’s easily forgotten: you don’t have to run. Even if you’ve signed up for a race, committed to a training programme, told friends, family and colleagues about your targeted feat, bought the kit, set aside the time and collaborated with a charity, it’s never too late to change your mind. Take a step back, breath, rest and reconsider.

However tough a challenge might be, you should never emerge from it mentally or physically weaker than when you embarked. Your body is your only assets that no one can take away from you so treat it kindly, use it wisely, listen to its signals and don’t let it go to waste.

Unless you’re a professional athlete, it’s unlikely that running is an integral part of your profession, and while all of us sit at our desks, wishing we could spend the morning running rather than navigating spreadsheets or fending off emails, there is something beautiful about it being a treat.

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING

When I was a young girl I read a story about a man who wished every day were Christmas. He dreamed of waking up each morning to piles of gifts, a beautiful tree, family, friends, excessive amounts of food, wine and sweets and the luxury of lounging around and playing games all day long.

When his wish came true, he initially couldn’t believe his luck, embracing each day as if it were his last, but as days turned into weeks and weeks into months, he grew tired of all the commotion. He became bored of all the gifts, tired of his friends and family always being there, sick of all of food and drink and started craving his former mundane life.

If we were experience fabulous long runs every day, they too would become banal. Running should never become monotonous and never ever become a chore.

Being able to look forward to a weekend run, anticipate a gym session after a tough day at the office, thrive off the post-workout high and revel in that cloud of pride, is a wonderful thing but should remain a treat.

Think of that first good run after a tedious stint of injury, of lacing up after a taxing business trip, that deep sense of satisfaction of having spent time with your own body and own thoughts.

Let’s try to savour each run, accept the way it unfolds and embrace it with all its challenges and rewards. If running feels like a mandatory task, perhaps it’s time to take a break.

Absence, as the well known saying goes, is one sure fire way of making your legs grow stronger ;-) 

(Image courtesy mfg.regionaldirectory.us)

Friday, 24 January 2014

Guilt: The January Syndrome

The tiniest comment, gesture or emotion can create a small unintimidating spark but if the conditions are just right, then in a flash it can become a smouldering fire that might even erupt into a great big damning explosion of vicious, conniving guilt.

Never mind a blog post, I could write a book – nay, a series of encyclopaedias – about guilt.

From romance to friendships, over home life and work ethic, to diet and fitness, everywhere is a potential minefield - a forest with dozens of trees behind each of which a great big green monster could be hiding, ready to pounce, clamber tight and not let go.  

The worst thing is that often guilt lurks in the pit of your belly without you even noticing it’s there.

Something will cause it – a missed gym session, a chocolate bar gobbled, a friend fobbed off – and rather than making itself known, it will trigger a dull headache, deep grumpiness and unpredictable irritability.

You’ll snap or cry or sulk or just lose it, and it’s not until you’re lying in bed at night, tucked up under the covers, mulling over your thoughts in that insomnious way, that you realise the true cause of all this discomfort.

More often than not, guilt has this ugly habit of becoming way too big for its own boots, mushrooming out of control and consuming way more of your energy than it deserves.

Missed a gym session?  You’ll probably miss the next one too, guilt says, a sly smile plastered across his face. Then you’ll become fat, unfit, antisocial and lazy and you’ll probably take up smoking, lose all your friends, disappoint your parents, perhaps get fired. And your boyfriend? Well he’ll be shacked up with his stick insect secretary before you can even say “new year’s resolution”. You’re basically screwed. 

WASTE OF TIME

January, I’ve noticed, is a particularly fertile month for guilt. That weighty Christmas credit card statement represents an ode to overindulgence, just like the two extra pounds on your hips.

You resolve not to drink as much coffee and alcohol, add less salt to your food, train harder and skip desserts, but while you’ve managed to an extent, you still feel like you’re failing when you eat just half of that luscious brownie.

And quite honestly, you didn’t really enjoy it, did you? You were too busy worrying about the fact that you really shouldn’t be and will feel horrendously guilty afterwards, weren’t you?

So here’s my plea: Stop it. It’s a waste of time.

If you decide to skip your training session, chances are you have good reason too. You’re sluggish, tired or overworked and your body needs a rest. If you’re going to beat yourself up about that, you’ll never give yourself a chance to recover and regain strengths in the first place, giving you the drive for your next session.

Want that coffee? You’re probably tired and lacking concentration. Think you’ll be able to focus better if you give it a miss and then spend the rest of the morning battling distraction as you crave caffeine? Not a good idea.

I’m generally of the opinion that more often than not, we’re quite harsh on ourselves. Truth is that January is a tough month. It’s a period of post-party season lulls, of rubbish weather, anaemic bank balances and - anecdotally - of more break-ups than any other month. The last thing we need is a big ball of guilt loitering in our brains and wasting what little energy we have.

Your only resolution is not to feel guilty this year. Even for writing blog posts while at work? Yes, even for that.

Just don’t tell my boss.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Acupuncture: Needling My Way To The Start Line

When your muscles are burning and pulling, joints aching and throbbing, and legs creaky and slow, having multiple needles jabbed into your flesh might sound about as appealing as suffering a hole in the head.

But much to my surprise, a course of acupuncture, combined with rehabilitative exercises and plenty rest, have proven to be my ticket out of injury land. And at that, hopefully, a one way one.

Acupuncture is a treatment procedure whereby hair-thin needles are used to puncture the skin and to simulate what medical professionals describe as energy points. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the penetration corrects imbalances in the flow of qi, or energy, through channels known as meridians.

The history of acupuncture is contested but one school of thought argues that it dates back to Neolithic or even the Stone Ages, when soldiers wounded in battle by arrows were cured of other chronic afflictions.

These days, acupuncture can be used to treat a whole array of conditions from muscular tension, to neurological problems, depression and anxiety.

LAST OPTION

I most recently stumbled upon acupuncture after enduring numerous sessions of physiotherapy and massage doing little to remedy a stubborn case of sciatica pain.

The pain first occurred after a brisk 16k run at the start of December.

A few hours later I boarded a plane to New York. Within minutes of takeoff, a dull pain started radiating from my buttock all the way down my hip and thigh and envoleoped my knee cap. I even felt an ache into my sheen and calf.

Needless to say, I spent the flight awkwardly trying to stretch within the confines of my economy class seat, occassionally pacing up and down the aisle, much to the annoyance of the sleepy stranger to my right and my confused boyfriend to the left.

Nothing helped after that. I stretched compulsively, massaged until my thumbs went numb and rolled a tennis ball up and down my leg until a beautiful collage of purple bruises started adorned my skin. The pain, however, lingered stubornly.

Even the physiotherapist seemed at loose ends. His stretches and twist helped in the short term, but as soon as I laced up and started running, the dull ache would tighten its grip ruthlessly.

BITTER SWEET RELIEF

It was only after stumbling across a conversation on Twitter about acupuncture that I regained hope that this  would not be the death knell of my Spring marathon dream. 

During my next session I discussed the prospect of acupuncture with the physio who spoke of mixed results but agreed that it was worth giving it a try. The following week, I had my first session.

I'd had acupuncture before but for something totally unrelated to running so was surprised at how blase the therapist was when she asked me a few questions, got me to sign a  consent form and then promptly inserted needles all along my sciatic nerve, from the crease below my buttock to the back of my knee.

I must say, I was sceptical. The needles went in relatively smoothly, but contrary to what I had expected and remembered from my last experience with so-called dry needling, I was in quite a lot of pain. Each time the therapist touched one of the needles, I could feel shockwaves dashing up and down my nerves. It clenched my fists and jaw and counted down the seconds until I could leave.

The needles stayed in for 20 awkward minutes and admittedly the first session didn't yield any notable results.

After the second session, however, my sciatic nerve was undeniably looser, so much so that I did my first pain-free 5k in months the following day. Two days later, I clocked my fastest 7km in almost half a year.

I'm going back later this week for my third session and while I'm not looking forward to the sting, the twitching and the idea that seven needles will be protruding from my flesh for a discomforting half an hour, it all now seems a small price to pay for a clear road to the starting line of my 26 and a bit mile challenge.

(Image courtesy http://www.flowingwithlife.co.uk) 

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

New York Times: What Ultra-Marathons Do to Our Bodies

The ultra marathon: for some a dream, for others a goal and for others still a purely terrifying prospect. Either way, most runners’ fascination with it is undeniable. An excellent article published in the New York Times today examines just what running mammoth distances can do to your body:

Ultra-runners are different from you and me in one simple way: They run more. But a new study of these racers, who compete in events longer than marathons, joins other recent science in finding that they also tend to be older and have some different health concerns than most of us might expect, suggesting that some beliefs about how much activity the human body can manage, especially in middle age, may be too narrow.

In recent years, the health effects of increasing inactivity have received plenty of scientific and media scrutiny . But the potential health effects of relatively gargantuan levels of physical activity have received less attention, and much of the science that does exist focuses on the potential dangers of over-exercise for the heart. Few studies have examined the more general health implications — the benefits as well as the risks — of training for and running more miles in a day than many of us complete in a month.

Hoping to better understand what happens to an ultra-endurance athlete's body, researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Davis recently contacted more than 1,200 experienced ultra-marathon runners and asked them probing and almost impolite questions about the past and current states of their bones, hearts, blood pressures, prostates, breasts, skin, lungs, moods, bowels, eyes, waistlines, livers and many other body parts and systems. They also asked about their race histories, times, training regimens and any recent injuries and illnesses.

Then they compared the ultra-runners' aggregate answers with comparable health statistics for average, more sedentary adults, while also comparing the training and injury-related data with similar information about recreational runners, like myself, who are not running 50- or 100-mile races on the weekend.

The results, which were published last week in PLoS One, were telling. The ultra-runners had a low, although not nonexistent, incidence of high blood pressure and irregular heartbeats, with about 7.5 percent of the runners reporting one of those problems. But less than 1 percent had been diagnosed with heart disease or had a past stroke, and few had experienced cancer, with basal cell skin carcinoma being the most common malignancy, occurring in 1.6 percent of the runners. Those percentages are generally lower than among age-matched American adults, especially considering that a majority of the ultra-runners were aged 40 or older.

On a less salutary note, the runners did report a high incidence of breathing problems, with almost a third of the group telling researchers that they experienced either allergies or asthma, often after running. That finding, while worrying, makes sense, the researchers note, since ultra-long-distance runners spend many hours outside, striding along trails strewn with pollen-slinging trees and flowers, priming their respiratory systems for allergies and asthma.

They also tend to get hurt, as runners at all mileage levels do. More than half said that they had experienced a running-related injury in the past year that had been severe enough to keep them from training for at least a few days, about the same percentage as often is reported by recreational runners. Many of the injuries were knee problems or stress fractures, along with a few, unexpected concussions. (I once slipped during a trail run and thwacked my head into a tree trunk, so it can happen.)

Interestingly, injuries were most common among younger, inexperienced ultra-runners, and in particular among men not yet aged 40 who trained fast and intensely. Ultra-runners past age 40 whose training pace was more plodding were far less likely to be sidelined with injuries.

That finding jibes with other, rather beguiling recent data about ultra-runners , which finds that, on average, their per-mile race and training paces are much slower than for marathon runners, perhaps explaining why the fastest-growing age groups in most ultra-marathon fields are those for racers aged between 45 and 65, who, as many of us would admit, are no longer as fast as we once were, but can, it seems, just keep going.

And there can be substantial, accruing benefits to covering those miles, says Dr. Eswar Krishnan, an assistant professor at Stanford and co-author of the new study. Over all, the ultra-runners in the study were absent from work less often than other American adults because of illness or injury, he said, and rarely felt compelled to see a physician, with almost half visiting a doctor only once in the past year, usually because of a running injury.

Of course, the ultra-competitors may have "developed stoicism" from their many hours of training, Dr. Krishnan said, and ignored niggling ills that would keep the rest of us from work or send us >>hurrying to the doctor. But they also displayed a substantially reduced risk of developing many of the common diseases of modern life.

Which does not mean that the rest of us should abruptly revise our exercise resolutions upward and start training for a 100-miler, said Dr. Krishnan, who himself runs five-kilometer races and has no plans, he said, to go longer. The real lesson is to "stay the course" with exercise, he said, whatever that means for you, and even as you>> age and slow.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Very Bearable Lightness Of Running Or The Tale Of The Bus That Never Came


I'm waiting for a bus that's never going to come. And unlike many first lines of blog posts that I write, that's not a metaphor.

It's Sunday evening and I've just landed from the most invigorating ski weekend in Austria, spent swooshing down the slopes with one of my best friends, who I only see a handful of times each year.

But in stark contrast to the glorious sunshine, heavenly powder and crisp fresh alpine air of just six hours earlier, I'm now standing in a car park in Gatwick, being rained on as toxic fumes creep into my lungs, the sound of airplane engines burns in my ears, and an alleged replacement bus service remains nowhere to be see.

 I've been standing here for an hour, picking up my heavy bag - jam packed with ski kit - occasionally, and then dropping it again when the strap threatens to draw blood or cut off my circulation completely. Behind me, a French girl is swearing into her mobile phone while in front of me a young Russian family is doing their utmost to keep a screaming toddler content.

I'm hungry, thirsty, tired and angry. My phone is running out of battery power and I'm fighting back the urge to scream at the traffic warden. Purely because no one else seems more appropriate.

Most of all though - as I feel the toe of my ski boot press into my thigh, as a dull headache starts to blossom behind my eyes and as my feet turn numb - I think about what I'm missing; what I could be doing right this second.

BOUNDING ALONG

After a near three-week injury-induced training hiatus, I was going to treat myself to a short, gentle run tonight: Just a couple of miles, to put my recovering sciatica to the test.

I'd put on my new compression running tights, clip a small light to the waistband - safety first on a drizzly evening in Central London - and trot up to the park.

In the hue of the street lamps, I'd pad along the equestrian track, paying close attention to the strained tendons, muscles and nerves and whether they're coping or complaining. I'd focus on my stride, keep my gait measured and balanced, raise my heels as I kick back, conscious of my toe strike.

I’d consider it a therapeutic outing, prolong the wonderful weekend my letting the memories linger, and as I head back, I would use my rhythmic stride to brace for the week to come. I’d make a to-do list in my head, prepare for meetings, calls and appointments, cleave the next five days into manageable chunks – bite sized and contained.

Later I'd head back to the flat, run a bath, stretch, eat and enjoy the glorious and wonderful lightness brought about by running.

Because isn’t that one of the nicest things about our chosen sport? The fact that we don’t have to depend on equipment or a team to practice it? The fact that we can get up and go at the drop of a hat, day or night, any season, any day?

We don’t need a court, a pool or a field, a racket, a bat or a ball or even an opponent.

It’s just us and our shoes, putting the world to right one measured step at a time.

OR NOT


The rain has become heavier putting an abrupt half to my day dream.

The idea of lightness, of buoyant steps along the street, of streamline and agility vanishes instantly and the strap is digging into my shoulder again, toes are getting soggy and back achy.

Almost to mock my inability to do so, my nose starts to run. Thanks, I think, thanks a lot, and my tummy rumbles in accord.

And then out of nowhere, a bus comes. I glance at my watch. I could still make it back in time if we're quick - even if it's just a mile, to breath the evening air, get my blood flowing, heart pumping.

I think I'll wear my New Balance trainers, the Asics are fine but for short runs they almost offer too much support.

I smile inside, pick up my bag one more time, give the French girl an encouraging wide-eyed "looks like we’ve made it through the wilderness" smile, and almost skip towards the curb and up the bus' steps.

"To Dorking Miss?" the driver chirps, stopping me in my tracks.

Even on a Sunday night, in a fumy, rainy, car park in Gatwick, there are something's that are simply far too good to be true.

I suppose now I have at least one thing to look forward to on Monday. 

(Image courtesy http://venturegalleries.com) 

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

I Quit

2014 has barely reached the tender age of 150 hours and already I've conquered my most important new year's resolution: I've handed in my notice. Thrown in the towel. Resigned. Quit.

It wasn't easy.

Over the weekend, I had dreams of my manager crying, shouting, even beating me and holding me hostage as I break the news, or perhaps (even more terrifyingly) giving me the I'm-not-angry-just-very-disappointed treatment. But in reality it was all rather subdued.

I told her in a gentle voice that I had received an offer which I intended to accept. She nodded sincerely and enquired about the details, then congratulated me with genuine warmth.

I'd prepared to have to explain myself, to justify my decision, I'd made lists of complaints and reasons I couldn't stay, but that all faded into insignificance.  Should she even bother trying to change my mind? No, I said firmly, because sometimes it's just right to let go, make a change and embrace the future.

AS WE MEAN TO GO ON

I've always professed that we should all begin new years as we mean to go on, and if the first week is anything to go by, then I'm in for a big one.

Next week I'll be taking my first ever trip to Austria and on a ever so marginally more momentous note, I'm moving house, running my first marathon and leaving my "early twenties" behind. That only takes us up to mid-May.  The second half of the year could feature anything from flying to the moon, running with wolves and swimming with sharks. At the moment - and in the immortal words of one of our favourite sports outfitters - impossible really is nothing.

Depending on how battered and bruised my debut marathon leaves me, I'd like to comit to my next sporting challenge. Perhaps an autumn triathlon or an adventure on two wheels - suggestions, as always, are welcome.

Later on, and financially permitting, I'd like to visit Canada and ski Whistler. If it really is as magical as it sounds, I might never come back - a prospect that actually seems more realistic than some far more mundane things: Watch a Star Wars movie, eat an avocado,  buy a Miley Cyrus album. No thanks.

REAL RESOLUTIONS

When I left my parents' house after Christmas - fed, rested and mollycoddled - my mum gave me a hug gripped my shoulder, told me not to loose weight and to look after myself. Whatever adventures, challenges and feats I accept in 2014,  I've decided that her words will be my true new year's resolutions. Especially now that the big one is out of the way.

It's a big hectic world out there, but sometimes its worth shrugging off habits - as comfortingly familiar as they are - and putting the most important person in the world first. I'm sure that's what my mum meant when she hugged me fairwell.

A little over a year ago, I read a poem, pinned to the back of the door of a toilet cubicle in a cafe in Brighton.

The first line read: "This is your life. Do what you want and do it often. If you don't like something, change it."

I took it to heart, ended a relationship, started a new one, moved house, prepared to move a second time, made friends, broke ties, quit my job and emerged a happier person.

I'd strongly recommend that this year, you do the same. I certainly will. Life's too short not to.

Happy New Year.

Monday, 6 January 2014

There doesn't have to be a moo in "Smoothie"

In the foodie jungle of pre-and post-run drinks, it’s often tricky to select one that is nutritious, tasty and affordable, with a list of ingredients that doesn’t require an encyclopaedia to decipher.

Meet Karen, Lisa and Louis, the enigmatic brain boxes behind Everything But The Cow – an intriguingly-named brand of fruit and soya shakes launched in 2011 and available in shops throughout the UK from July 2013.

"It all started when the rainy season arrived a month early in Thailand,” the ladies write on their website

“Fed up with the usual choice of soft drinks, we noticed a soya and banana drink - it was light, refreshing and tasted wonderful. When back home we started to mix lots of different fruit with soya and a little honey until we had found the perfect shake and Everything But The Cow was born."

The portion-sized cartons have three common characteristics: Each averages a fruit content of 20%, each is fat free thanks to containing plant based protein, and each is made and packaged in Somerset, keeping carbon footprints to a minimum.

Soya is excellent for muscular repair and bone health, so therefore ideal for runners and other athletes. Flavours include Mango & Orange, Strawberry & Raspberry and Banana & Kiwi.

As well as fuelling post-workout recovery, they’re great on cereal too, as a mid-afternoon snack or put your mixology skills to the test by combining them with each other or other juices.

And what’s behind the name?

“We honestly don’t have anything against cows….,” say Karen, Lisa and Louise. “We just think they deserve a day off every now and then and so do the people who milk them!”

Well that certainly gets my stamp of approval!

For more information or to enquire about stocking Everything But The Cow, email everything@everythingbutthecow.co.uk

Stockists include Ocado, Harrods, Wholefoods Market, Patridges, As Nature Intended, The Natural Kitchen and many other independent shops, delis and cafes.