Embrace the Off-Season

23 October 2017, 18:34

Over the past week, I’ve raised the concept of an “off-season” with three separate running friends, so I’ve decided it’s probably a topic worth discussing a little bit here, especially since many of us will have just finished up our big Fall races and are entering into that familiar post-race comedown…

…And that’s completely natural! If you’ve cared enough about a race to train for it, devote weeks or months of your life to thinking about your training and strategy, and worrying over every little aspect of it, then it makes sense that after it’s finished and the high fades away, you’re left with a bit of a “well what now?” feeling.

So I’m going to first tell you that you need to rest and recover, both physically and mentally. The length of this period will vary based on the length of your race, your age, running experience, and general physiology. In general, after a marathon I’ll take a full month off training before I go back into any serious speedwork or long runs, but equally it may well be less or more for you depending on what your heart rate is telling you (you do keep an eye on your resting heart rate, right??). So take lots of rest days, slob around at the weekends, go for long brunches, and go to bed early to top up on sleep. Take the extra time to do some cross-training if you like – yoga, pilates, and swimming are all good pursuits that you’ve probably neglected while focused on your race, so go and get yourself reacquainted now that you have the time and you feel like it.

But the length of physical recovery may be faster or slower than your mental recovery – the time it takes for you to not only get excited about running again, but actually crave the structure that a training schedule brings. So for me, this means that I’ll step down to a slower group at Run dem Crew and other group runs, both to preserve my legs a bit but also to give back to others and enjoy the process of chatting without struggling for breath. It’s nice to mix with a different set of people, but also to help encourage others who can’t really keep up their side of the conversation without difficulty!

Doggy footprints in the park

But even on my solo runs, I’ll run fewer sessions in the off-season, and frankly, if I get up in the morning and don’t fancy going for a run, I don’t go. It doesn’t happen often, but there’s no point in trying to force the mojo when there’s not even an end goal, and it’s probably my body’s way of telling me I should focus on other things for a while. Even when I do head out for a run, I try not to be too prescriptive with myself on how far or at what pace I’ll run. I like to keep most of my runs at a low heart rate (Maffetone style!), but instead of having the stress of the watch beeping when I go a beat over 140, I instead go for a less precise “mouth closed” approach and choose routes that allow me to vary the length depending on how I feel.

So if you find yourself a bit lacking in running motivation after a big event, learn to embrace the off-season. It’s not smart or advisable to train hard all year long – I can’t think of a better way to encourage injury and burnout. Having these periods of downtime are what allow us to train to our peak during the training phases, and you need both to become a well-balanced runner and person.

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Sportives are not like Running Races

19 May 2015, 12:46

I am a runner. Yoga bores me to tears, I can’t be bothered doing traditional gym classes, and I really only do strength and core work when my coach forces me to. I owned a bike when I was in school, and even rode it a few times back and forth to uni when it was cheaper than paying for parking. Since I moved to London, though, I really only cycled on holiday, because, well, cycling in London traffic feels like a death sentence and I don’t need that kind of stress.

My husband, however, is a cyclist. He detests running, so our only shared exercise tends to be those aforementioned holiday cycle rides. But he recently went and bought his third bike, and said I could use his old one (a 20+ year old, but very well loved Trek mountain bike). So we went out on a few rides around London to get me a bit more comfortable with light traffic and how the gears work (I highly recommend Southwark’s Healthy Rides if you’re new to cycling), and signed up to ride our first sportive together – a new experience for both of us as he’d never ridden in anything organised, either.

So with the Medway Ride It looming in our calendar, we squeezed in a few rides here and there around my marathon training, but with James’s commuting miles and years of experience, he was always going to be the more prepared of the two of us! This particular sportive was available three lengths – 31mi, 50mi, or 85 mi, or as a shorter, 13mi course on closed roads later that evening as part of the Medway Big Ride festival. We went with the 31 mile, expecting it to be fairly flat considering it’s in the Medway and only rated a 2 out of 5.

Kit layout
I finally got to wear my cycling Surf to Summit Top pattern out in an event!

But before I get into the ride itself, I’d like to start by listing all the differences between this cycling sportive and running races. I’ve run probably somewhere between 50-80 races in the last 13 years, and I (probably naively) expected a cycling sportive to be a pretty similar experience, albeit with more gear. It was not.

  • There’s no real start time. Instead of a massive scrum and a starting gun, with everyone pushing over the start line at once, this was really civilised. The starting time was any time within a 2hr period, and a genteel queue snaked back from the start. We got a safety debriefing, and then rode through the start gates one at a time to activate our timing chip. Very low stress!
  • Prepare to ride mostly alone. Because the start is spread out over a few hours and three different routes, once we got past the first few miles we were on our own. An hour could go by before we saw any other riders. If you cycle a sportive on your own, you have a lot of time to think. Even at the places in the beginning where a bunch of us were queuing together at the stop lights, no one spoke. It was kinda weird when you’re used to chatting to other runners in running races.
  • As a woman, you will be a curiosity (at best). Running races are getting closer to 50/50 these days, but even with this entry-level sportive, I’d say there were only 10% women or thereabouts. And cheers to the douchebag rider who shouted “oh great, now even the women are overtaking us!” as I sailed past.
  • Don’t expect any spectators, or even any way for most people to tell you’re part of an event. If you’re looking for kids to high five or spectators to cheer you on, you need to be doing Ride London or the Tour de France or something. Nobody had any idea that we weren’t just out for a Sunday ride.
  • There are very few (if any) marshals if something goes wrong. At this sportive, we were all given a sheet with a phone number to call if we got into trouble. Other than the feed stations, there were zero marshals along the way.
  • There are very few water/fuel stations Our short route only had one, just after halfway. But then again, you can carry a lot more on a bike than you can when you’re running.
  • A medal is not guaranteed. I expected one. d’oh. We just got a teeshirt at the end.
  • Photographers are not lining the course eager to sell you mementos of yourself looking pained. In fact, I don’t think there was a single photographer at all. Compare this to even a little, local running race, where you’d have photographers at at least 3-4 points along the route. They seem to be missing a marketing opportunity.
  • You may very well have to compete with cars, who have no idea you’re “racing”. This sportive was not on closed roads, so regular traffic was out and about. We had to stop at traffic lights, obey regular highway code rules, and put up with the same drivers you’d have anywhere.
  • No distance markers, so a personal GPS is a must. Unless you’re keeping track yourself, you’ll have zero idea how far you’ve come (or how far away the finish is). Though in this sportive, we were sent the GPX files ahead of time, so you could at least doublecheck against your GPS that you were on the right track.
  • The timing chip gets slapped on your helmet instead of your shoelaces. It’s nice that it was unobtrusive, but this was the only indication we were part of an event, and it was only the size of my pinky finger. No number on our bikes, jerseys, or anything, just a tiny sticker with a bar code. It’s nice in running races to wear a number so people at least know you’re part of an event.
  • Sportives are not races. This was made clear by the big “This is not a race” signs on display at the start, and the results at the end give you no indication of ranking or anything. Just your chip time.

Orderly sportive start queue
The genteel starting queue

Though we only chose the Short Route, at 31 miles this was still the farthest I’ve ever cycled (proper cyclists are forgiven for thinking “Awwwww!” right now), and this was just long enough for me. It was enough of a challenge – in terms of distance, climbs, and time in the saddle. By the end (ok, about 10 miles from the end!) I really was ready for it to be done, despite enjoying the overall experience!

As evidenced by the mammoth list above, I learned a lot from this sportive. I learned how to use all my gears, for starters, and after the 4th or 5th hill, how to actually use them properly instead of just brute-forcing my way up the hills and trashing my quads. Considering you don’t really get hills (or descents) in London, it’s not surprisingly that I’ve never had to learn this before, only needing about 4 of my bike’s 15 gears in my previous rides [Correction: James has informed me that the bike actually has 24 gears!].

I also learned that, like in running, I’m much better on the climbs than the descents. There was a particularly steep descent on this ride, which was terrifying (especially with a car on my tail!), plus sharp, blind switchbacks, and gravel on each turn. I hung onto the brake for dear life and prayed the car would just pass me already, though it never did (you can see all my speed & elevation details on Strava). I did not enjoy this massive descent whatsoever, though the others were better.

Medway sportive elevation
Elevation profiles of our Short route from the Evans Cycles blog

Halfway through (ie: about 90min in for us) there was a feed station with water, High 5 electrolyte (to fill up your own bottles, no cups provided), and a ton of crisps, brownies, flapjacks and coconut macaroons to munch on. We had already filled our pockets with Shot Bloks and gels (James now understands my obsession with the Gu salted caramel gels!), but it’d be rude not to, right?

Halfway at the sportive
At the feed station midway through

The worst part of the ride for me came just after halfway when we were directed off the road and onto a cycle path running alongside. This should’ve been preferable, except that the cycle path surface was so chewed up and bumpy that it was just hell to ride on. It may as well have been cobbles, to be honest! Despite being fitted for a cycle seat that minimises the saddle un-comfort, I still find cycling for anything more than an hour or two really not very pleasant to the bum. And (whisper it) I’m not quite coordinated enough to stand and pedal at the same time, so I can only lift my bum off if I’m coasting. On top of the rotton surface, there were also nettles overgrowing into the path, and James got stung on his legs as we rode through. To top it off, then some sort of insect flew up and stung me on the lip, which really threw me off my game for quite a while until the stinging eventually subsided.

Sportive finish line
Myself and James at the finish

James definitely could’ve gone faster, but he kept waiting for me to catch up, which was very good of him – I would’ve been entirely on my own for 90% of the ride if it wasn’t for him! But it was nice to ride together where we could actually get up some speed and momentum and not have to worry about maps and directions. I kinda feel like the navigation is ultimately what you’re paying for in a sportive – the ability to just turn up and go for a nice ride without worrying whether you’re going the wrong direction or about to head onto a motorway or something. The path for this particular sportive was really well marked, with pink arrows at all the turns and pointing straight ahead in between. The organisers had also thought about the route and chosen quiet roads where possible and some truly beautiful little avenues of trees and vibrant yellow fields of rapeseed. For someone who’d only really cycled in London, not having to stop/start every ten seconds and enjoying beautiful countryside views was a real treat.

James clearly didn’t enjoy it though – after a recovery shake, even-more-recovery-roast-dinner and a shower, he had already signed himself up for another in July, and both of us for one in September, too (thankfully of a similar distance). I’ve got my fingers crossed for beautiful weather again already!

Medway Ride It (31 miles). 17 May 2015. 2:30ish

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Running abroad - Bells Mill Park

12 November 2013, 15:13

I’m off in Virginia for a week visiting family, and after three days’ straight of sitting for 5+ hours (a drive up to Wales and back over the weekend, then a transatlantic flight) I was in sore need of a run.

It was quite fun sitting at my parents’ house last night plotting routes – they both walk a lot but really only stick to their back streets and prefer to loop that than go further afield. They’d also never seen Map My Run before, which I always use in conjunction with Google to plot out where to go (Protip: on the Google Maps app, load up your map then type “ok maps” to cache it for offline use!).

I’d seen that Bells Mill Park was just around the corner and featured a “2.5 mile circular running trail”, which seemed good enough for me, so I headed out there this morning. Apart from the few kilometers along a 4 lane highway to get to the park, the run was absolute bliss. I never mind having shorter distance loops when they’re well marked – you can always go round a few times when you want a longer run.

Bells Mill Park

Big, double thumbs up to Chesapeake for the maintenance of the trail! It was closely mown, wide, and incredibly clearly marked – there were spraypainted arrows literally every five feet, and a few distance markers as well. In fact, it looked to me like the park recently hosted a cross country meet, as there were even starting corrals and a finishing chute! There were only a few bits of soft ground – nothing like the English XC mudfests!

The only shame is that I was the only person in the entire park at 7:30am on a Tuesday. Maybe there were more runners or dog walkers a bit earlier, or on the weekends, but with such a nice facilities (plenty of parking, picnic tables, and portaloos, too) and scenery (right along the Elizabeth River marshes) it just didn’t seem right to have it all to myself on such a sunny, crisp Autumn morning.

I’ll have to go back a few more times this week to show them it’s being used!

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Cross-training in Mexico

17 October 2013, 10:56

No, I haven’t gone quiet or run out of things to say (hardly!) – I’ve been travelling through Mexico for the past three weeks! We started in Mexico City then ate our way through Puebla, Oaxaca, San Cristobal de las Casas, Palenque, Merida, culminating on the beach at Playa del Carmen.

I’d brought some running kit along, but I wasn’t really sure when I’d get an opportunity to run, and it didn’t seem like the wisest idea to head out on my own in unfamiliar cities with added altitude to deal with, too, and besides, I’m on a scheduled break, so I was more concerned about enjoying my holiday! As it turned out, I only got one run in on the very last morning, but having a stinking cold for most of the trip was a major factor, too!

So what kind of cross-training did I get up to while Not Running?

Well, I climbed a lot of pyramids (like these two at Teotihuacan)!
Pyramid climbing

I did more swimming than I have in the past five years combined, including one session at the most stunning natural infinity pool near Oaxaca (Hierve el Agua)!
Hierve el Agua swimming

I did a lot of resting! This was the most scenic of the rests – most of them were aboard coaches…
Resting in Mexico

In addition to the usual crazy amounts of walking you do as a tourist, we also had a guided jungle walk at Palenque that featured terrain that made me want to burst into a run and explore!
Jungle stairs

And finally, as part of my tried-and-tested eastbound jetlag prevention, I went out for a sweltering 5km run along the beach at Playa del Carmen the last morning. Even at 9am in October it was 30+ degrees and full sun and I had to strip down to my bra and shorts!
Playa del Carmen beach run

I’m pleased to report that the change of scenery, food, and training seems to have done me good, plus the added walking mileage in my new barefoot trainers has helped strengthen up my weak feet, too. I curiously stepped on the scale when I got home and to my shock and amazement, I actually lost 2kg! And I did not hold back on the gorgeous Mexican food, cakes, chocolate, mezal, pina colada, etc etc while I was there either… It’s a bit of a mystery.

And finally, I couldn’t resist buying a bottle of this “Runaway” microbrew beer when I saw it!
Runaway beer

Rather tasty served chilled from an ice-filled hotel sink, too (aka “ghetto fridge”)!

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Lunges & Lycra Summer Social

9 September 2013, 13:51

I’ve been following Lunges & Lycra on Twitter now for quite some time, so I was chuffed (and flattered!) when I received an invite to their Summer Social gathering last week, even though it was before I’d launched this site and therefore wasn’t even a “fitness blogger” (Spooky – how did they know??).

As you’d expect from girls who “like sweating, fitness and the odd nip of gin”, it was a lot of fun! We all came dressed ready for a workout (myself in FehrTrade gear I’d sewn myself, of course!) and after finally putting faces to quite a few online names (hi Becca and PT Mollie!), we were split up into teams ready to run all over Soho on a WhatsApp-based scavenger hunt compliments of the Fitness Playground guys.

Team Midas Touch
The nice shots are compliments of Lunges & Lycra’s pro photographer!

Even though it was technically my rest day, I reckon we easily clocked up 5km running everywhere from Charing Cross road down through Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, and even out to the Mall before returning to base, including a super-fast sprint through the curved tunnels in Charing Cross tube station in order to grab a tube map! There were also challenges along the way, like ping pong (where, despite my watching the Olympic ping pong last summer, I failed miserably!), photo ops, and even an egg & spoon race!

Team Midas Touch

It all ended with a set of racing lifts to get back to base first, and after tallying up the points, I’m proud to say that my team, Midas Touch, triumphed! It was all in good fun, though, and as we chatted over salads, smoothies, and fizz, it was clear that there’s definitely a competitive streak in fit ladies (yeah, who’d have thought, eh??). We then heard a great talk from ultra runner Rebecca Cox, who gave us some real-life advice about training that had me shaking my head vigorously in agreement (especially the bit about getting out and running in the worst, hungover, rainy condition in your rattiest kit so race day seems a breeze!).

Lunges & Lycra party

We also heard about A Mile In Her Shoes, a new charity that’s helping homeless women to start running (and they desperately need donations of ladies running shoes!), there were some competitions for door prizes, including a new Tom Tom running watch and Yurbuds, and I had a great chat with one of the founders of Honestly Healthy, who supplied the salads for the event.

Thumbing through their cookbook, I couldn’t believe how closely it aligned with the diet my trainer had put me on for the past few weeks (more on that another time) – mine didn’t really “have a name”, but I could certainly see similarities to the alkaline foods Honestly Healthy were advocating, and the book is mostly vegan and gluten-free, too (neither of which I am, but neither is a bad thing!). The cookbook is high on my wishlist, but the very next day I tried out their “Sticky Seed Flapjack” recipe since I had all the ingredients and it didn’t contain anything verboten in my diet plan, either. I’d really missed baking, but it’s hard to bake without flour or sugar, but these flapjacks were just dates, nuts, seeds, oats, and agave nectar!

Honestly Healthy flapjacks

The verdict – they’re really freaking tasty, and would make great on-the-go running fuel, too. My problem is only that it made a ton of flapjacks and I’m having a hard time not eating them all myself in the first day!

To end the evening (as indeed it did have to end eventually), we were all given a goody bag on our way out, and they seriously outdid themselves with the contents!

Lunges & Lycra goody bag

Included were lots of my favourites like Nakd, Sweaty Betty, and Nuun, but also some stuff I’ve been meaning to try for ages, like calf compression sleeves from RGA, nom bars (once I eat my way through my flapjack mountain!), and an interesting-looking pistachio protein shake from Puriton.

Team Midas Touch was Cat, Kathleen, Jane, Rachel and me!

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