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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Deja Vu

21 February 2016, 14:55

…and not in a good way. 2016 is starting off way too much like 2013 for my liking – that year I got ill in mid January with a horrific case of shingles which left me in constant pain, on an almost incomprehensible amount of painkillers, and pretty much screwed up my entire Spring and Summer of training. Having run Cophenhagen marathon in May 2013 on 6 weeks of training, it’s not something I’d really care to repeat if I can help it!

Without going into too many details, I’ve been ill for over a month now, with no sign of when I might be able to resume training. So at the most basic level it means I’m using up all my energy just to get to work (via my new cycle commute), function at work, ride home, and eat something before falling into bed at 21:30. That’s if I’m lucky – if it’s not a good day, I literally have to spend it entirely in bed, which drives me absolutely crazy because it’s just so much wasted time I should be spending doing things, arrgh!

My race schedule for the first half of 2016 was supposed to be: Cardiff half marathon (26 March), London marathon (24 April), Hackney Half (8 May) and the Transylvania Bear Race marathon (4 June).

I was hoping to train hard and try to go sub-1:30 at Cardiff, and go for a PB at London (sub 3:30), then do Hackney and Transylvania at party pace for the experience. But with missing a month+ in the heart of marathon training, there is now no way I can run London marathon this year, which I’m quite bummed about. Since mine is a GFA entry, I am able to defer it to 2017 at least. So, if I’m able to run at all by the end of March, I’ll now do Cardiff at party pace, cheer at Mile 21 of London marathon instead of running, and train towards a sub-1:30 at Hackney instead. Transylvania is a hilly trail marathon, so there’s no hope of a PB there, but I’d like to focus my training more on hills and getting my distances up again, which should be doable even if I can’t start proper training til April (see above, I have no idea when I’ll be well enough to run again).

And in the meantime, the topics I’d like to blog about keep piling up in my head, without enough energy at the end of the day (or even the beginning) to actually write about them. But you can look forward to the following posts when I’m back in the land of the living:


  • Cycle commuting in London as a complete newbie who would very much not like to die

  • Foam roller smackdown: traditional vs the new travel stick

  • Cycling accessories & gadgets that are actually worth buying

  • Minimalist vs Barefoot running shoes (yes, there is a big difference!)

  • Book reviews (about 5 different running-related novels)

  • How to use your resting heart rate to prevent overtraining


If there’s any of these you’d like to hear about first, leave a comment!

Bike and panniers

Until then, I’ll leave you with a shot of the only way I can actually get to work (so thank god cycling is a lot less effort than running!), my trusty hand-me-down 15 year old heavy-ass bike!

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Live Beyond podcast interview

11 December 2015, 20:29

Last year my friend and sometimes-running-partner Viv went off and ran across Europe. Like, from Poland to the tip of Spain.

Seriously!

She’s recently started a podcast where she interviews people who’ve done some extraordinary things and I was supremely flattered that she wanted to interview me! We talked about my recent successes in Argentina, my bone marrow transplant and recovery, as well as how my journey has changed my outlook about fitness and keeping things in perspective.

You can listen to the full episode above, but please do also visit LiveBeyond.co to listen to the other episodes, too, as I frankly think Emily, Sorrell, and Viv are more inspiring than I am!

And yes, I’m pretty sure my mother will agree that there isn’t an athletic gene in our family, but the stubbornness one is very strong!

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The art of running slowly

3 November 2015, 14:23

I promised at the end of my last post about the Maffetone Two Week Test that I’d fill you in on the other side of my recovery/rehabilitation/experimentation with the Maffetone Method, and with a full month under my belt I finally feel experienced enough to comment.

Alongside limiting carbohydrates, the Maffetone Method encourages you to run slowly, with a low heart rate, in order to retrain your body to burn fat as fuel. The short explanation is that glycogen (“stored carbs”) is the much easier fuel for your body to use, so if you’ve got it, that’s what you’ll burn when you exercise, until there’s nothing left, and then you switch to burning fat – otherwise known as The Wall. The better adapted you are at burning fat, the less you’ll need to top up with sugar during a race or long workout, and you’ll probably not even encounter The Wall at all, as you more easily switch from one to the other. It also means you can run pretty much indefinitely (as we’ve all got plenty of fat stores), like the Tarahumara, Cretans, and pretty much every marathon runner prior to the 1980s.

In order to force your body to burn fat, you need to train at a low, “aerobic” heart rate – exclusively for a few months, and then 80% of the time going forward. To work out your own aerobic threshold, Phil Maffetone has an equation on his website, which is roughly 180 minus your age, and then -5 or +5 depending on how broken you already are. My magic number works out to be 140, so I’ve been running exclusively with my heart rate under 140BPM.

I did my first few runs solo along my normal Thames route so I already knew the distances, and could compare them to past times. My first 10km keeping my heart rate under 140 took me 1hr22. My PB is 43min. To a generally quite speedy runner, this feels excruciatingly slow.

It’s also quite a character-building experience. I didn’t think I had much ego around being passed by other runners, but it’s another level entirely to be passed by absolutely everyone along the riverside. But on a more personal level, it also requires a lot of concentration to keep myself going more slowly than even my “comfortable” pace – for the first few runs, the second my mind would wander, I’d hear a screech to reduce my heart rate. I’ve found a few coping mechanisms, though – the first was to ditch my absolute POS Garmin FR15 (good riddance to an expensive, crappy, huge watch than could never find the freaking satellite in any weather condition, and a special “up yours” to the Garmin support who didn’t even read my emails before copy/pasting token replies. Never buying another one of your crappy products ever again!) and go back to using my phone, my beloved Runmeter app, and a £20 Bluetooth HRM off Amazon (I was skeptical that the Chinese-made “CooSpo” would work, but it seems pretty good so far). Stress levels have gone down significantly since I’ve dropped the Garmin and its frustrating ineptitude.

Garmin HRM
Good riddance to the most frustrating component to my runs!

The second thing that helps is listening to podcasts. Music revs me up, but spoken word content keeps me from getting too bored, but doesn’t encourage any particular pace. It also means that, since my headphones are in to hear the podcasts, my “Reduce heart rate!” prompts are only audible to me, rather than to everyone around me.

The third is harder to achieve, but run with other people. Find friends who are just starting Couch to 5k, find friends who are tapering or recovering, find friends who are bouncing back from injury or are in just need of some mojo – run with them and talk the whole time. It’s more fun, and you can still feel like you’re part of a community and give something back to those in need of a boost, too. I’ve been running with Run dem Crew for 4 years now, and I’d gradually worked my way up the pace groups to regularly run with the second-fastest group (and on occasion, the fastest). But the slowest regular pace group is still faster than I can go and maintain my sub-140HR, so I’ve been leading the “Party Pace” group each Tuesday, bringing along the very people who are in need of a boost, shorter, or slower run. And it’s been fabulous catching up with old friends and meeting loads of new people besides. When you run fast, it’s hard to gasp out the hazards, let alone have any meaningful conversations.

Riverside wharves
A more zen view of the neighbourhood…

The whole theory with the aerobic running is that, over time, you should see your speeds gradually increase while your heart rate remains the same. Already I’ve seen my 10km time drop from 1hr22 to 1hr17 – still nowhere near race pace (not even my marathon pace!), but enough that I feel encouraged that I’m seeing progress. The idea is that on race day, you run 10-15BPM above your aerobic threshold, plus add in a few light carbs, and suddenly you’re supercharged.

It also feels like it’s a good thing to be doing while my foot and knee are still dodgy from all the track training over the summer. This is allowing me to still run (my major stress release as well as weight maintenance), but also recover at the same time. For pretty much my entire run, I breathe through my nose – I don’t know if you’ve ever paid attention to whether you breathe through your mouth or nose when you run, but chances are, you’re a mouth breather. Try closing your mouth on a run and see how much you’ve got to slow down to do that. I’m running even slower. Again, it’s not about whether 1hr22 is a “slow” time or not – it’s about the relative speed and exertion for each person. It’s also not about how “fit” you are, or how low your resting HR is, but more on how well your body already is to burning fat and what sort of cardio base you’ve already got to work with.

My plan is to carry on with only running under 140BPM through to the end of November and see how much progress I can make in 2-odd months. In December I start London marathon training again with my coach, so I’ll get her view on whether she thinks it’s beneficial for me to carry on long-term or not. But I also know that any time spent running slow now is going to help me in the future – I can feel my body adapting to crave fats instead of sugar, and I don’t feel dazed at the end of a long run, even considering the time spent on my feet.

And if nothing else, it’s given me a much-needed wakeup call on the importance of humility and patience in training.

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Stop - Start Again

30 July 2014, 11:37

Even though I’ve been training again properly since the end of May, I feel like the last 6-8 weeks have been really stop/start, mostly for health reasons. You see, in amongst my training, I’ve had three separate instances where I’d had to take a full week off with no running at all, so I don’t feel like I’ve really been in a proper training routine.

The first interruption was somewhat planned, and entirely by my choosing – I got laser eye surgery! I’ve worn glasses since the age of 10 and contact lenses since the age of 15, and frankly, I’d been sick of the hassle, expense, inconvenience, and tired eyes and wanting this for a long time. So when my redundancy money finally came through from my old job, I booked a consultation the very next day!

The end result was totally worth it – I went from being 20/200 with astigmatism to being “better than 20/20” (I can read two lines smaller than the 20/20 line) literally overnight, and I still can’t quite get over how effortlessly perfect my vision is now, with no achey tired eyes by 9pm.

The process did, however, require that I not wear my lenses for a week beforehand, and no running whatsoever for the week after (to prevent sweat getting in my eyes). The last run I did before the surgery in early June was a long run, and in absolutely torrential downpours. It was quite possibly the worst run ever to do in glasses that steamed & were almost opaque with rain drops, but since it was the last I’d ever have to wear them, I didn’t mind it too much.

Raindropped glasses

If you’re interested in all the details of laser eye surgery, read Becca’s account – I went to the same place as her and my experience was very similar.

The second interruption came the day after the Hackney Half, when I had to have some minor lady surgery, but one that also came with a strict “no exercise for one week afterwards” clause. Just like with my eyes, I felt absolutely fine by the next day, so it was frustrating to still have to sit out all my normal runs.

I finally got to have a month or so of proper training after that, though, where I started to focus more on speed in preparation for the British Transplant Games, where I’ll be running (deep breath…) the 3km “mini marathon”, 1500m, 800m, 400m, 200m, and the mixed relay. After a year of endurance training, the speed is hurting, and despite running with the RDC Elites every week now, I still feel sluggish and slow.

So cue the third interruption, which occurred last week when I finally succumb to the cold that all of London had already had (including my husband). I thought I’d escaped it, actually not getting it off him, only to catch it from some random instead. So there went another week without being able to run, drowning under waves of tissues on a sea of Netflix. As an aside, I did manage to watch Town of Runners while I was ill, so that was a high point!

I was listing all the above to my friend Claire at RDC last night, though, and she pointed out that it without all my health problems, I wouldn’t be competing in the British Transplant Games at all, so surely everyone else there is in the same situation? Sometimes it takes a friend to point out the obvious, and that comment put all my training issues into perspective and made me feel a bit less nervous about the Games next weekend.

It also didn’t hurt that I then went out to run ~3:30min/km with the Elites last night, after thinking for weeks that I couldn’t sustain 4min/km! So maybe I’m fitter than I thought…

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Know Your Weakness

20 January 2014, 17:58

A bit of self-evaluation is never a bad thing, but when you’re training for a big race, it’s almost essential.

On one side, it’s helpful to know your strengths so you can use them to your best advantage. For instance, I’m great at pacing – I can usually get my legs to lock into a pace and stay there for an indeterminate amount of time (provided it’s not too fast, of course), so I make sure that a few of my runs just before my race are at target race pace, so I can will my legs to “remember” that pace on race day.

But it’s equally useful to know your weaknesses, both mental and physical. I know a lot of friends have trouble with positive thinking and mentally pushing through discomfort, but my various medical traumas over the years have given me a pretty strong mental will (yes, mom, I finally found something where my stubbornness is an asset!).

My two main weaknesses are physical – my left knee (a teenaged skiing accident left it without most of its cartilage), and my immune system. It’s not my immune system’s fault it got booted out and replaced by a newer model 4.5 years ago, but it means that I tend to pick up everything that’s going round, but catch it harder and for longer than everyone else. Most athletes are concerned with injury prevention, but for me, Illness Prevention is my absolute number one priority.

Over the years I’ve become a little better at noticing the illness “niggles”, but it was only until very recently that I’d have any warning to try and do anything about it (the wonders of a newborn immune system meant I’d go from that first scratchy throat to fever literally within hours). Regular exercise, of course, is help in itself, and taking daily vitamin C and zinc has also made a noticeable difference for me (as well as being the only scientifically proven defense against colds and flu). Keeping stress to a minimum is something I strive for anyway, but I hadn’t appreciated quite how big a factor it was until I looked back over a particularly stressful time at work and noticed it coincided with a period where I was pretty much continuously ill, too.

The reason I’m pondering all this recently is because last Friday I didn’t feel well – I’d gone out and done my morning recovery run and stretching feeling fine, but by lunchtime I had a headache that Nuun wouldn’t shift (and therefore not dehydration) plus some distinctly feverish feelings. In short, I did not feel “right” at all, so I resolved to stay in bed all afternoon, cancelled my Saturday hill run, and Rest The Shit out of this proto-illness in the vain hope that I could stop it before I became full-blown ill.

To my surprise and delight, I do believe my dedicated Rest Weekend worked – by Saturday night I felt tired, but otherwise okay, and my Sunday night I felt utterly normal. I was able to run this morning’s Longish Easy Run at a normal pace, too, so I’ll carry on with this week’s training plan as per usual.

I’m just as guilty as everyone else of wanting to get out there and Go Go Go, but sometimes the best way to achieve a long term goal is to make an Adult Decision and dial things back a bit. I know had I gone out and done my Saturday hill run anyway (my favourite of the week!), I’d probably be sat in bed sniffling and coughing right now, looking at a good fortnight disruption to my marathon training.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is – know your own personal weaknesses, and never fear the Adult Decision.

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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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My running story

20 August 2013, 16:21

Like a lot of people, my first introduction to running as an adult was on a gym treadmill. I started when I joined a gym in 2003, running for five minutes before jumping onto other machines and a few weights before my self imposed half hour was up. Around 2006, I started to get serious (and scientific) about weight loss, and I asked a personal trainer at the gym about the best way to use my half hour. His reply? “A half hour running on the treadmill.”

I gradually built up the amount of time I could run on the treadmill over the next nine months, eventually losing over 20kg and becoming much, more more fit as I dropped dress sizes. Those nine months of weight loss and fitness really helped shape my outlook on nutrition, portion size, and exercise ever since, and it was during this time that I had the realisation that running could actually be enjoyable at times!

Shortly after, my husband (then boyfriend) and I bought a large Dutch barge, and we were incredibly fortunate to find a beautiful, welcome mooring on the Thames near Tower Bridge. Over time, I found myself using the gym treadmill less and less, and running along the river ever more, until I eventually let my gym membership lapse altogether.

The wonderful thing about running along the Thames in central London is that you’ve got any number of circular routes with very little traffic and wonderful views. My usual formula is to run along the south bank of the river, cross over a bridge, and return back along the north side to Tower Bridge and home. This means that my running routes end up being named for the bridge I cross over midway through, and these are inextricably linked with their loop distance in my mind – Millenium Bridge is approximately 5km, Westminster 10km, Battersea 20km, and (in the throes of marathon training), Putney is just over 30km!

But for years, I’d only ever run the Westminster Bridge 10km loop, and I’d run this faithfully, three times a week, at the same pace. It was during this phase that I noticed in October 2008 that I was feeling more sluggish than I should, and I had bleeding in the whites of my eyes, which I got checked out by my optician, and then my GP. The short version of this is that my bone marrow was failing, I had incredibly low blood counts, and within the space of a few months, I needed four transfusions every week just to stay alive. The Anthony Nolan Trust sent out a worldwide call and found my anonymous bone marrow donor who saved my life with an emergency transplant in July 2009.

A bone marrow transplant involves an entire week of high dose chemotherapy, but unlike most people, I wasn’t overly concerned about losing my hair – that would grow back in time without any input on my part. But the body I’d worked so hard for over the past several years, and which had deteriorated along with the rest of my health, well, losing that hurt more. I had been the fittest I’d ever been in my life, and I couldn’t see how I could ever get to that place again.

My transplant had been a fairly easy one – no complications, everything went as planned, I successfully fought off boredom in my bubble room, and I didn’t even feel sick from the chemo. I was released early, but the first six months post transplant were just about the worst anyone could have – I was readmitted for blood pressure headaches, then meningitis, a severe liver infection which may have spread to my lungs, and culminated finally in my having to travel to hospital every day for four months to have an IV antifungal.

Eventually, though, at the six month mark things started to brighten – I finally had enough hair to get a pixie cut and ditch the wigs, I started back to work, and I even started running again. Once you’re a runner, it’s painful to watch others out there enjoying what you’re not able to do, and my first run after my transplant was a big, big step for me. I surprised even myself that I was able to run 5km without much trouble, even after 18 months off running and a completely new immune system!

I knew I wanted to mark my first anniversary with something big, so I signed up to run a 10km race within days of my first “rebirthday”. I didn’t come close to my pre-illness PB, but I wasn’t far off, and the memory of my transplant friends who died helped push me to run the whole race. For the next few years, this anniversary 10km run was the only racing I’d do, even though I returned back to running several times a week.

If my transplant was the first major milestone in my running journey, then discovering Run dem Crew was definitely my second. When I started running with the crew in July 2011, the transplant was still very much a defining part of Who I Was, but gradually, as I became a stronger, faster, and more confident runner, I began to see how resilient my body was and that I could move on from it both physically and mentally. Soon I was running comfortably at a pace I couldn’t have sprinted even before I was ill, and I got to know other runners who overcame equally enormous obstacles in life to end up where they were. We were all there to find friendship, comfort, camaraderie, and just have a good time and positive space on Tuesday nights, and I found myself signing up to more races, and eventually, even a marathon.

I can now say, ten years into my running journey, that I’ve experienced highs and lows, been fat and slim, been healthy and sick, and my love of running has endured it all. I am without a doubt, the strongest and fastest I have ever been in my life, and yet still I continue to push myself, and to find new challenges, just to see what I’m capable of achieving. It’s not always easy, but I know I’ve been through worse.

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