First run in three weeks

I have been very lazy lately. It started out with putting running on hold to focus on getting a lot of other things done but then as one week off became two weeks off, I developed the habit of not getting out there. 

I think this is very easily done. I have heard it said over and over from self-improvement type people that habit is more important than motivation. Habit is reliable; it keeps the wheels turning long after fickle motivation has moved on, or burnt itself out. 

So I’m trying not to be too harsh on myself. (If you could peek  inside my head, you would know that this isn’t an easy thing for me. My internal voice tends to come out with stuff like: “What’s your excuse today? You’re so lazy, you make me sick. You’ll put all the weight you lost back on at this rate. You’ll lose fitness etc. etc.”) 

Thoughts like this won’t change the fact that I’ve had three weeks if inactivity. 

On top of that, who’s to say a rest is actually a bad thing, especially after non-stop training for events throughout the whole year to date? A lot of professional runners have a few weeks off at the end of the season. It is highly beneficial as it gives the body a chance to rest and repair. 

Of course, I’m not a professional and I didn’t plan to have a break. But let’s just sweep that inconvenient consideration under this rug for a minute shall we? 

I may have inadvertently done myself a favour, even if I am full of it. 

And none of the above analysis does anything to change the period of inactivity. In fact the only thing that can amend it is to get back on it again, like I did this morning. 

If you ever find yourself experiencing a slump like mine, whether it’s been three weeks, three months or even three years, don’t let negative thoughts stop you from sorting yourself out. Accept what you can’t change, lace up those shoes and be glad about it! 

Thoughts on running nutrition and weight loss

This post was inspired by The Story of my Treadmill on the Yuvi’s Buzz blog. It is a really good account of the emotional ups and downs of dieting. I recommend that you read it first and then (hopefully) return and read the rest of this post. You can read it here.

I hope she won’t mind me saying this but I fundamentally disagree with the idea of dieting. (Yes, I said it. I don’t follow diet plans.)  Instead, I think the way forward is to embrace long-term, sustainable changes. This embraces a number of ideas, such as healthy food swaps, portion control by stealth, and small adjustments.

Let me explain further…

Healthy food swaps

This is stuff like replacing beef mince with turkey mince in your cooking, replacing refined sugar with honey (sugar is still sugar, but honey hasn’t been stripped of it’s natural, fibre-containing, context), replacing soft drinks with sparkling water, and so on. These might not seem like too much of a big deal but could add up to a lot less fat and sugar in your diet. The jury’s still out on fat consumption but reducing sugar intake should contribute to weight loss.

Portion control

This one is dead simple: buy smaller plates, preferably attractive looking ones that will complement your food presentation.

My partner and I used to eat portions that were really far too big. For instance, those microwaveable rice packets that you get that they recommended to serve two people, well, we used to have one each. As rice is a carbohydrate, I decided to use only one pack for the two of us. I then upped the amount of vegetables on the plate so we didn’t feel that we were on a diet. (I always put butter on our vegetables by the way because a nutritionist at the gym told me that butter is not a problem. In fact, news stories have come out lately saying that margarine may be more harmful than butter. Seriously, search that one in your browser. And it makes a huge pile of vegetables much more palatable.) I try to have at least two different colours of vegetable if I can; it makes the meal look more attractive and gets more micronutrients onto the plate.

Cutting down the plate size is a well-known trick and really is portion control by stealth. A larger plate that’s half-empty always looks a lot sadder than a full smaller plate, even though there may be the same amount of food on each.

Below, you can see a picture of our old plates and our new plates, which are black and make the food you serve look more fancy!

IMAG0453

Small adjustments

Do you take sugar in tea or coffee? Could you cut the number of teaspoons/sugar cubes you take by one?

I challenge you!

It may take you a while to get used to the new taste but in the long run it will reduce those sweet-tooth cravings and reduce your teaspoons of sugar per day by the number of hot beverages you have everyday. That means if you’re like me, and drink three to four coffees a day, you will reduce your sugar intake by three to four teaspoons per day, everyday, FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. No diet plan. No calorie counting. Just one simple change. What’s more, if you try going back, you will find that your taste has adjusted and having your previous number of sugars now makes you feel a bit sick. (A sweet-tooth really is more of a habit than a pre-set disposition.)

Upgrade your nutrition

There is a lot of emphasis out there about eating less. It seems to me that a lot of people think the way forward is to just keep reducing their calories. In the short term, this may work, but you inevitably cannot sustain eating fewer calories than you need. It has been shown that a staggeringly high percentage of yo-yo dieters not only re-gain the weight a few years later, but they normally put more on as well.

I think a lot of people need to eat more: more fruits and vegetables, more protein (not if you’re already on protein supplements), more healthy fats. So instead of thinking in terms of cutting back, it may help to think in terms of cramming as much nutrition into a dish as you possibly can.

Porridge made with milk and honey is good. It’s got oats, it’s got protein in the milk, and it avoids empty-calorie refined sugar.

Porridge made with milk and honey, and added flaxseed, is even better though. Now you’ve added omega 3!

And porridge made with milk, honey, added flaxseed and added blueberries, is even better still!

This is a breakfast that will really set you up for the day, and should satisfy your appetite so that you aren’t craving a bag of crisps or a chocolate bar later on. (If you buy fruit and can’t manage to eat it all before it goes off, a cheaper option is to buy frozen blueberries and take out a small portion to defrost overnight. I know this is starting to sound like hard work but it’s really not.)

Food really isn’t something to be scared of.

In fact, it’s essential for your life, energy and wellbeing.

Eat well, enjoy your food and give yourself the fuel you need for an awesome run!

 

 

 

 

 

Finishing Race to the Stones – the 100k Ultra Marathon

In some of my posts I have referred to “my running buddy”. We often do long distance training runs together, and sign up for many of the same races. In this post, I interview him about what it was like to compete in the 100k (62 mile) Race to the Stones, if only to prove that he really does exist, and isn’t some Tyler Durden style hallucination, although when it comes to running he is equally as bad-arse as the founder of fight club. (And yes, he has the same T-shirt as me but that doesn’t mean he is me – I’m far too lazy to run 100k.)

IMAG0476

Why do you hate your feet so much?

Most runners have a love-hate relationship with their feet. They love what they can do for them, but they treat them with abuse. But not looking after your feet is like having a car you never bother to service. It will catch-up with you in the end.

(As background to this question, Running Buddy’s feet are covered in blisters and one is the size of two fifty pence pieces. He has also just informed me that he lost two of his toenails. We thought we would spare you the photos.)

Part of the reason that you have such large blisters was the rainfall early on in the race? We have now raced in extreme (for the UK anyway) heat and pouring rain? Which do you prefer?

The rain is better if you’re prepared for it but the heat just drains you! If you’re running a long way and there’s even the slightest chance of rain, you need to have a spare pair of dry socks with you. I think this is one of the areas in which our lack of ultra-running experience showed.

I ran the 50k version of Race to the Stones as this was my first attempt at such a long distance and I thought I would see how I handled that, but what you did could technically be described as running two ultra-marathons, back-to-back. What’s wrong with you?

How do I answer a question like that?

It’s like that part in the Barkley Marathon documentary when the guy says it’s not really a challenge unless there’s some chance that you might not finish, that you might, in fact, fail. You’ve got to test yourself in a way that’s relative to whatever level you’re at.

How did you feel when you left me at Basecamp*?

*Basecamp was at 51k and marked the finish of my run, but only the halfway point for Mr Buddy.

I felt good actually – ready to get some more miles in and not dwell on the fact that it was only halfway.

You keep saying you slowed me down but the split was actually eight hours for the first 50k and nine hours for the second.

IMAG0489.jpg

 

What would be your advice to someone contemplating their first ultra?

Bring clean, spare socks and stuff your face continuously! Eat whatever you can get your hands on and in your stomach at each and every pit stop. And don’t leave eating until later on: after the ninth pit-stop, I saw a woman trying to eat and then just throwing up in a bush afterwards.

So you were trying to replenish all those calories so you wouldn’t hit a wall. How many calories did you burn overall?

According to my Garmin, it was well over 9000, nearer to 10,000.

The Race to the Stones follows an ancient English path. What were you favourite parts of the course?

All of it, the general scenery – I didn’t end up seeing many of the landmarks. The field of gold was good; everyone was fresh and enjoying it.

How many days do you think it will take you to get back to normal?

Actually, I’m contemplating going for a run tomorrow. (This was the Tuesday after the Saturday event.) The only restriction is the state of my feet at the moment.

Do you want to do the Ring O’ Fire in September?

For the last two days, I’ve been thinking, “I’ll never do another ultra again”, but now I’m thinking that 100 miles has to be the next target.

I will need to work out a way not to get horrible blisters though.

Do you have anything else to add?

Yeah, Race to the Stones was a great event, really well-organised, and the pit stops were amazing.

The atmosphere was great too. There was a real sense of camaraderie and no-one judging anyone else.

Ultra-marathon completed – what next?

Race to the Stones was the biggest event I had booked this year, and now it’s over.

Apart from breathing a huge sigh of relief (for the first time this year I am not coming out of one event and straight into the training plan for another) I feel that my recovery period is an excellent time to start considering where I want to take things next.

The swelling in my ankles tells me that I need to pay more attention to warm-ups, stretching out and general conditioning exercises – basically all the stuff that should help to prevent injuries. I have said in another post that I feel as if I’m living on borrowed time with regard to not having suffered a serious injury yet. It is luck, not competence, that has kept me injury free so far!

Aside from that, I want my fitness to go beyond running. But that means learning more stuff: routines, methods, that sort of thing. It’s so much easier just to pull on the trainers and head out the door for a quick 5k. Not to mention being overwhelmed with choice. Do I do weight training, cycling, swimming, yoga, HIIT classes?

In the wider world of exercise, I am not only half-arsed, but a complete novice, someone who has occasionally followed gym routines in the past.

Oh well, it’s time to take a deep breath and launch operation “all-round fitness”.

I hope I can learn some useful insights and share them with you along the way.

(A post on Race to the Stones is coming soon, and will cover the race from the perspective of doing it as a 50k and a 100k event.)

Two more things I like…

Fat, The Fight Of My Life

Yes, this is a reality TV show, but it’s pretty low-key and non-sensationalist. The trainer, who the programme is built around, seems genuine and likeable.

And the members of the public who go on there…WOW! I have so much respect for these people. I have never really been more than a couple of stone overweight and I know how lethargic that made me, so to go through the journey of losing eleven stone when your starting point is twenty nine stone is something I cannot even hope to understand.

My takeaway from the programme is this: if they can pull it off from such a difficult starting point, then what’s my excuse for being lazy?

(I watch this on Sky Living but I’m sure it’s available elsewhere too.)

Mind Over Marathon

This is a two-part BBC documentary that has sadly been taken off iplayer, although clips are still available.

It does a really good job of introducing the link between physical exercise and improved mental health. As with many things, this has been known anecdotally for years, but I think the science is catching up more and more.

I am not a neuroscientist but I have a strong belief that physical wellbeing and emotional wellbeing are inextricably linked.

One theme that seems to come through again and again on these shows is the sheer joy of moving around, of being able to engage in a basic level of activity and the improvement in quality of life that it brings.

Three things I like…

The Barkley Marathons: The race that eats its young

(We watched this on Netflix but it is also available elsewhere.)

This is the documentary of one of the craziest races in the world. The “official” race is five loops of a twenty mile trail (competitors often quote a very different mileage). The entry fee is less than $2 and when you are successful in your application (having passed an entry exam), you receive a letter of condolence. Seriously, it is really entertaining and inspirational. You should watch it!

Haruki Murakami – What I talk about when I talk about running

This is a gentle, understated book that offers real insight into a lifetime of discipline as a long distance runner. I love both running and writing, and fully understand Murakami’s view that they somehow go hand in hand as complementary activities.

The Guardian Long Reads – The Sugar Conspiracy

I listened to this as a podcast on Spotify but it is also available as an article on The Guardian’s website.

This is not only about nutrition, but also the dogma and entrenched cronyism that can sometimes hold back the scientific community and put the brakes on human understanding. You will probably be quite shocked.

I would recommend the Guardian Long Reads podcast in general. These are really in-depth looks at several topics relevant to the modern world.

 

(I didn’t want to fall foul of Copyright law, which I know absolutely NOTHING about, so I have included an irrelevant, but hopefully not altogether unpleasant, picture of one of my runs to accompany this post.)

 

 

 

Anyone can play guitar…or run

When I was in secondary school (that’s high school to most of the English speaking world), my physical education teacher used to be well-known for being a complete cop-out when it came to giving end of term grades. Basically, everyone, unless they were really exceptional, got a B+. I suppose he figured that if he gave everyone an A he would start to be scrutinised to see how much thought he was actually putting into his grading system. On the other hand, a B+ was not the kind of grade anyone could complain about.

Fortunately, I was really exceptional and managed to escape his extraordinary capacity for sitting on the fence. That’s why he gave me a C.

Fast forward fifteen years or so and I am well on my way to becoming a halfway decent, middle of the pack runner.

But my experience in school has made me well aware that starting to exercise can be very daunting when it is not something you feel confident about doing, or when you don’t have any experience (or worse still, when you had a bad experience with sports at school).

I have seen a lot of articles online about how to start running, but too many of them seem to involve some kind of commodification of what is essentially a free activity…

So let me state this clearly: running does not need to be an expensive hobby. Although it might help, it is not necessary to have a fitness tracking watch, and running gels and electrolyte drinks only become more important once you get up to longer distances.

Even getting a good pair of trainers can wait until later. The most important thing when starting out is simply to leave your house and get out into the world.

So here is my special secret formula for how to start running.

Are you ready?

Here it comes…

Just. Start. Running…

…rummage through your drawers, find any old T-shirt you have that you feel you can wear in public, get your most comfortable pair of trainers, pull on a neglected pair of shorts or trackie bottoms, and leave your house (remembering to take your door key with you of course). Walk to the end of the road, and then start power walking. Up the pace until you naturally can’t walk any faster without breaking into a gentle jog. Ignore your paranoid inner-voice…

…those people are looking at me, they’re judging me because I’m running and they can see that I have a gut!

Actually, they probably don’t care about you. At all.

Either that, or they’re jealous that you’re getting out there and doing it.

Maintain the gentle jog for as long as you feel you are able to without having a heart attack. Listen to your body.

Then walk again until you get your breath back. (This is called active recovery.)

Then repeat as many times as you feel able to do so.

It really doesn’t matter if your first attempt is less than a kilometre. You may not even enjoy the feeling that it gives you straightaway. You might, in fact, hate being out of breath, lightheaded and sweating. But I guarantee that once you have come home, showered and rewarded yourself with a drink and a cheeky little snack, you will be positively glowing.

A word about the photo: I took this on holiday in Cornwall. I went for an early morning run along the coastal path to seek out the lighthouse. (You can just about see it in the distance.) All of the scenery photos on this blog were taking using a simple point-and-shoot smart phone camera during runs. This is one of the many joys of getting out there.

 

The three things I take on a run

For runs of an hour or less, I don’t take water. Yes, hydration is important, but it can become something of a neurosis, and most people should be able to easily be out for this length of time without needing a drink. Plus, carrying a water bottle is a pain in the arse!

I normally have a glass of water when I get back though, and either a chocolate milkshake (this is always being recommended as a recovery drink in Runner’s World) or a home-made smoothie. (I have a frozen smoothie mix from the supermarket, which I blend with apple juice. It has kale, spinach, mango and kiwi fruits in it. I like it because it has fruits but the kale and the spinach balance it out so that it produces less of a whopping sugar spike!)

So coming back to my three items, number one is my door key, handily detached from the other keys so that it doesn’t jangle with every step.

The second is a five pound note; this is my emergency money. I like this because it is the new plastic style note, and is therefore more sweat resistant than the older notes. (Yes, I really do sweat so much that even the stuff in my pockets isn’t safe!) I know that this won’t help anyone who is not from the UK, but having a contactless card will also help to avoid carrying coins, which, again, will jangle incessantly as you run, attracting all sorts of unwanted attention from people in the park. I prefer the note though because you can spend it in shops that haven’t yet joined the contactless revolution.

(Funnily enough, the only thing I have ever had to buy with my emergency fiver was a drink.)

And that brings me to my third item, which is a bit of a cheat because it’s my mobile (+headphones). This is for emergencies and music, and Zombies, Run!

The Zombies running app tracks my stats, just like any other running app, but it also immerses you in a post-apocalyptic story, set to your own music, as you run. I turn on “chasers”, which means that occasionally I get a warning that zombies are closing in on me, and unless I temporarily increase my speed by a given percentage (adjustable in the settings), they will catch me. This is good for HIIT training, but a bit of a pain when I am waiting at the traffic lights.

(It even has a groaning zombie sound effect which is very disturbing on a deserted early morning run.)

For runs that are longer than an hour, I do need to take my mobile hydration system! This is a running pack with a “bladder” and a tube (ok, a straw) so you can sip little and often. My bladder has a one litre capacity, which is good for about a two hour distance.

It looks really cool.*

The little backpack it comes with can also carry a few extra items, including a light rain jacket (a must on long runs, because in England, the weather will switch from pleasant to chucking it down in twenty minutes or so), and you can use the side pockets for energy gels and hand wipes (the salt content of your sweat really starts to build up at this distance).

Apart from that it’s just a hyper-awareness of how silly I look, a nagging sense of self-doubt and a general awareness of my own inadequacy as a human being. (Whoops, I meant a positive attitude, and a sense of wonder at the ever-changing landscape around me.)

*It really, really doesn’t look cool.

(This post was written in response to the word prompt, “jangle”.)

The ups and downs of preparing for an ultra

So, Race to the Stones is in just over a week’s time and I am wonderfully under-prepared as always. Of course now there’s nothing I can do about it. There isn’t enough time to cram in any serious training. I may do some shorter distance runs over the weekend but basically the taper needs to start early next week; any later than that would be an act of self-sabotage.

I am only going to do 50k of course. Let’s keep it real. I’m not one of those nutters doing the whole 100k. Then I’ve opted to camp over because I’m hoping it’s going to be epic. (I have an image of the atmosphere of a music festival campsite in my head.)

I haven’t planned my lift home, I’ve probably not read two or three important emails that have gone out from the organisers, and that’s before we even get into my approach to the official training plan.

The line I’m telling myself is that I’ve done a marathon distance now and the longest run on the training plan is only a half marathon distance. But I’ve only done it once, and then there are all those smaller runs and cross training sessions I conveniently forgot about.

I think the bottom line is that training for a marathon or an ultra takes an awful lot of time. That’s what people don’t seem to tell you. There’s a lot of talk about the commitment required but it doesn’t really get the point across. So let me set the record straight: training for an ultra will take up half of every weekend, and most of your evenings, for months on end. If, like me, you faff about a bit on a Saturday morning before getting out of the house, then you won’t start your run until mid to late morning. Then, if the run is taking you four hours plus, you won’t finish until mid to late afternoon, and that’s before you’ve even showered or eaten, something you might not do straight away because you will have monged out on the sofa for an hour or so once you get through the door.

Then you’ll be too knackered to do anything for the rest of the day, and you will ache the next day, meaning you’ll probably do less than you would have done on the Sunday as well.

And that is why I’ve found myself not quite so crazy about doing every single one of the evening runs as well. Did you know that the official training plan for Race to the Stones recommends six days of exercise a week?

How many times can you answer co-workers’ question about your plan for the evening or weekend with “I’m going for a run” before you turn into a running bore?

The truth is, I’m looking forward to breathing a sigh of relief once the event is over. I then hope to re-assess my approach to running. Am I really a distance person? My best times have been on 5ks, 10ks and the Reading half marathon.

Is this what they talk about when they say don’t burn yourself out with over-training? But how can I be burnt out if I haven’t bothered following half the training plan?

It reminds me of a detail from a book I’ve been reading lately, Running with the Kenyans. The author points out that they basically live the “eat, run, sleep, repeat” mantra, and that’s why they’re so damn good, whereas Westerners tend to pigeon-hole running into a slot on an already packed schedule.

We have so much shit to do every single day of the week: eat breakfast, turn up to work, hoover the house, renew your driving licence, go to the pub, discover whatever show someone has told you is the new, most epic, must-see show ever made since Game of Thrones…

Running is supposed to be a break from all of that, not another item on the to-do list.

And I’m sure that if all goes well on the day, as soon as the buzz starts kicking in, I’ll remember why I do this and start loving it all over again. Then I’ll come home all excited and sign up to another one.

(I’ll keep you posted.)

Dropping out of my first marathon (Part two)

Well, first off, that South Downs medal you can see in the picture was begged for me out of pity by my lovely fiancé. My misery at having dropped out of the race was compounded when I saw my running buddy with a fresh looking new technical shirt:

“Why did this have to be a race pack with a running shirt? I love running shirts. It’s not fair.”

Such was the extent of my feeling sorry for myself and wanting a race pack I hadn’t earned.

I wanted it.

I didn’t want it.

In the end, the decision was taken for me, possibly just to shut me up*.

So now that we’ve cleared that up, the other medal is for the Littledown marathon, which I did complete. It wasn’t pretty, and I walked up to 40% of it by my estimation but this is my first marathon medal I can wear without feeling like a fraud.

The Littledown marathon is an excellent event, 26 laps of a flat one mile course, plus a little 0.2 add-on at the start. This is one to go for if you’re attempting a PB, and the support of the running community there is amazing.

That said, to start with I thought they were going to be mega-serious, and I mean MEGA-serious. When we arrived and registered, we were all given two timing chips, one for each shoe. We’d never seen this before so we asked why there were two. With a completely straight face, we were told that when there is only a chip on one shoe, it could skew the timing if the foot without the chip were to cross the finish line first. Wow! If that kind of split second timing made a difference to my runs, I certainly wouldn’t be writing a blog called “the half arsed runner”.

Settling into the realisation that I would almost be the last finisher in a race of about 60 people, I hung back, trying to pace myself as the pack bolted. My running buddy was aiming for a marathon PB of 4h45m and my plan was to try and keep pace with him for as long as I could. I blasted my most upbeat tunes and tried to stay positive as another hot day suppressed my energy. (The last three races I have done have been sweltering.) There was no way I was dropping out of this one unless I collapsed.

It was around mile fifteen that I started walking a good third of each lap, a ratio that increased right up to nineteen or twenty, when it was pretty much walking laps with little bouts of jogging when I felt up to it. (Ok, let’s be honest, it was when I was too embarrassed to walk past the spectators.)

Around mile nineteen something else happened. I started chatting to another runner (walker). Disaster! Now my walking was legitimised. If she was walking, then it was okay for me to walk. (I probably should have sussed that she wasn’t taking it too seriously when she stopped to do a little dance for her supporters each lap; she was the very spirit of half arsed running – not caring too much about your time but loving getting out there.)

By mile 22 I had made peace with the fact that I wasn’t actually running anymore, and I saw yet more competitors walking, defeated by the heat.

And so it was that I came in at 5h28m, a time I only achieved by laying a fast fifteen mile foundation with my running buddy (who lapped me twice later in the race).

The dancing runner fell short of the six-hour cut-off point but they kept it open for her, and for two other ladies who were really struggling with the distance. In the end, they stayed on for an extra hour and were very gracious about it. (It really was a good event.)

Two full days on and I’m still aching. I have no money for a massage and I didn’t get any food in, so I’ve been eating crap and seizing up behind my office desk.

But the marathon remains the benchmark of distance running, the completion of which serves as an entry point, a way of being taken seriously and of being accepted into the community. And if someone whose idea of a recovery meal is a Maccy Ds drive-through can do it, then pretty much anyone who puts in the training should be able to shuffle their way to the finish line.

 

*(Yes, I have realised that the wording at the bottom of the medal means I could legitimately wear it as a half-marathon medal, but how low would that be?)