Saturday, 30 October 2010

Learning to juggle

Just another quick post this week - I've made no progress with my winter training plan or adventure plans for next year as I've been so busy with work.  I'm now juggling a part-time job (that always spills over into my free time), studying, setting up a business and writing.  I'm slowly getting there with my new website, which should be live in the next couple of weeks.  I'm planning to move my posts about nutrition and fitness over there and am keeping this blog just to write race reports and random ramblings about my own training.  If I can ever find time to actually write myself a training plan or sign up for any races!  But this week I did manage to squeeze in a kettlebell class, a Wattbike session, a run, a circuit and lots of dog walks.  Fingers crossed, if I keep it up, I'll end the winter feeling strong.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Caving in

The cave girl has left the building.  Well, for now anyway.  Inspired by my recent reading into all things 'paleo', I've been avoiding sugar and grains for six weeks or so now, trying to find out whether it makes me feel better.  It doesn't.  Okay, I may have had a few lapses during that time.  The race weekend was a big one.  But on the whole I've done well to stay off bread, pasta and sugary things (even cake).  It has been hard work!  I'd planned to stick it out through October, but I feel even more tired than I did before, and I think it's now time to agree it's not for me. 

I can't call it a true 'paleo' experiment because I've slipped up so many times.  The tiredness has probably been caused by the sheer exhaustion of looking for something I'm allowed to eat.  I've always disagreed with the idea of cutting out whole food groups unnecessarily, but I wanted to give this a chance. It turns out that 'Paleo' and vegetarianism really don't mix.  It's been almost impossible to find things to eat, and I've ended up eating far too much cheese, potatoes and nuts.  I tried eating more fish but the truth is, I don't like it.  I think the only way to do 'paleo' and stay healthy is to eat lean meat and fish.  But I'm not ready to give up being vegetarian, even for a short while. 

Brian did do really well in the couple of races he took part in soon after we altered our eating pattern.  So there are certain elements that I think we will keep up.  Gone is the never-ending supply of supermarket bread.  And the evening snacks of chocolate and cereal.  But I still believe there isn't anything wrong with the occasional cake.  So I think the way forward is to think less about what not to eat and more about what to eat.  The extra veggies, soups, eggs, nuts and, oh okay, a little bit of fish will stay. 

I love nutrition. The more you read into any nutrition topic, the more you learn that nothing is black and white.  Paleo diet advocates will tell you that grains are bad for you and should be eliminated.  Carb-lovers will tell you that saturated fat is the work of the devil.  I think there's good and bad in most things.  Take quinoa as an example.  If I believed everything in 'The Paleo Solution' I'd never touch it again, on account of the fact that it contains saponins, which apparently punch holes in your gut.  Nice.  Just reading about it made me feel like I'd been punched in the stomach.  But these aren't just found in quinoa, they're also present in onions, spinach, peppers, tomato seed and asparagus, all of which are okay in the 'paleo' world.  A review in the British Journal of Nutrition explains that saponins have a range of positive and negative effects.  Although, in test tube conditions, they have been shown to increase the permeability of gut mucosal cells, they also boost the immune system (not necessarily a good thing if you have an autoimmune condition), lower cholesterol and inhibit the growth of cancer cells.  Food is supposed to be pleasurable, and I don't want to spend my life miserable, eating things I hate and obsessing over what harm one food may do to me.  A varied diet should balance out the pros and cons of individual foods.

I'm not saying that 'paleo' isn't the perfect way to eat.  It may well be for many people, and I would support anyone who wanted to give it a try.  But the perfect diet is only the perfect diet if it's something you can stick to.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Autumn leaves

It's well and truly autumn - my down jacket is out from the back of the wardrobe, the fire has been on and the leaves are starting to fall from the trees.  Maybe it's just the change of seasons but I'm feeling a little bit unsettled at the moment.  This often happens to me when I no longer have a challenge or race to look forward to.  I've been looking into events for next year, and had my heart set on the new Ironman Wales, but going part-time/self-employed means I really can't justify any steep entry fees.  I'm shocked that it costs £350 to enter!  I know these events are really expensive to run and, for me anyway, Ironman may be a once-in-a-lifetime (i.e. so painful I'll never want to repeat it) experience.  It would take a huge amount of training to get ready for, but I've always loved a challenge.  One day definitely, but for now I'll have to look for a slightly cheaper alternative, and keep training just for the fun of it.

I'm going to need all my spare pennies to pay for the latest course I've signed up for.  I just heard today that I've been offered a last-minute place on another Postgraduate Certificate, this time in Sport & Exercise Nutrition.  I start this Friday, and I'm really excited.  Sports nutrition is a field I've always been really interested in, and it willl be great to have a formal qualification.  I'm especially interested in exploring carbohydrate requirements in a lot more detail.  I'm still experimenting with avoiding refined grains and sugar, and am constantly coming across new articles that question existing public health recommendations. For example, an article published this week in Nutrition questions the evidence behind the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) Report.  I strongly believe that carbohydrate is essential for fuelling exercise, but am open to the idea that it might not be as important for everyday living as previously thought.

Through the autumn and winter, I'll be writing about what I learn on my course, reflecting on my own nutrition experiments and trying to keep myself motivated to train for next year's still-to-be-decided-on challenges.


Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Primal scream. Or... are nutritionists stupid?

I consider myself to be a very open-minded person. I base my views on what I read, what I see, and my general experiences of the world around me.  And I’m always happy to be proved wrong. 

In my role as a public health nutritionist, I’m bound by a professional code of ethics that essentially requires me to base what I do on up-to-date scientific evidence and prevents me from giving unsubstantiated advice.  That doesn’t stop me from reading up on some of the more ‘out-there’ dietary theories.  In fact, I really enjoy leaning things that challenge my own views and those of ‘conventional wisdom’.  I always want to delve deeper, learn what the theories are based on, and what people’s experiences of following them are.

As mentioned in previous posts, at the moment I’m really interested in Paleo/Primal diets and have been experimenting with unleashing my inner cave-girl.  I wouldn’t describe these diets as a fad, and think that there’s a lot of merit in following a simpler, more natural way of eating than the processed-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life stuff we tend to find all around us these days.

I’ve been really enjoying reading Robb Wolf’s new book, The Paleo Solution.  Wolf is a former research biochemist, so the book is well-referenced, but it’s also funny, to-the-point and easy to read.  So I was a bit disappointed when I discovered that Wolf, along with, it appears, many of his Primal/Paleo friends, is so vehemently anti-nutritionist.  I’m aware that people who follow the Paleo lifestyle are often evangelical about it.  But surely that doesn’t necessitate intolerance of others who may not share their views.

For example, Wolf states (p. 34) that: “we are being held hostage by an Orwellian nutrition and health research community” while, in response to a recent report on obesity levels around the world, Dr Michael Eades recently tweeted: “Does speaking English make one fat? Or are English-speaking nutritionists just ignorant (or stupid)?” I got back to Dr Eades, asking him how nutritionists were suddenly to blame.  He replied: “Nutritionists make nutritional recommendations. People follow them and get fat. Ergo, figure it out.”  Sounds like a nice man!

A large proportion of the population does not base their diets on the recommendations of nutritionists.  My experience working with low-income families shows me that cost, convenience and taste are often higher on their list of priorities when it comes to food choice.  And cheap, processed food is all around us.  It takes effort to follow a healthy diet.  Recent dietary surveys show us that, while people may have followed government advice to cut down on saturated fat, they still eat too much sugar, and not enough fruit, vegetables and oily fish.  In order to help people eat better, I believe that good quality, healthy food needs to be the easy choice.  And what about the impact of sedentary behaviour on obesity levels?  Certainly in Scotland, most of us are not active enough for health.  Are nutritionists to blame for that too?

A recent article in the British Journal of Nutrition models how East African Paleolithic diets were made up; typically they contained more protein, a similar amount of saturated fat, and proportionately more omega-3 fats (e.g. fish oils) than omega-6 (e.g. vegetable oils), compared to how we eat today.  Plant to animal food ratios varied considerably.  The researchers call for intervention studies to be set up to investigate the effects of Paleolithic diets.  I’d love to see these set up; the potential results really excite me (yes, I am a geek).

Diets in East Africa have changed considerably since the Paleolithic era.  For example, research on elite Kenyan runners has shown that they excel on a diet that is very high in carbohydrate (including simple sugars) and low in fat.  Overall, my opinion is that different people thrive on different diets, and nutritionists can play an important role in helping people to find out what works for them and their health.  There’s no one magic menu plan that will unlock the key to everlasting health.  No matter what the book cover tries to tell you. 

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Coast to Coast adventure

Now that my legs are on the road to recovery and the pain of 109 miles across Scotland in the driving rain is starting to fade, I’m ready to report on the weekend’s experiences. First and foremost, I’m proud to say that my husband, Brian, won the Challenger event. Everyone in our wee group of friends did really well. I was just pleased to cross the finish line (4.5 hours after Brian) in one piece. And I wasn’t last!

About the Nokia Coast to Coast
This was the inaugural year of the Nokia Coast to Coast, an adventure race from Nairn on the North Sea coast of Scotland to Glencoe in the west. It was set up by Rat Race Events, who run the popular Rat Race series and the Mighty Deerstalker. Having taken part in the Mighty Deerstalker the past two years, I knew we were in for a tough weekend. For most of our group (including Brian) it was our first adventure race, so we chose to enter the Challenger category, which took place over two days, rather than the one-day Racer event.

Day 1
The race started in Nairn at 7am on Saturday. We spent Friday night in a campsite, sleeping a little too soundly on Thermarests in the van (which is more tent-on-wheels than luxury camper) and missing our alarm. That meant I didn’t have time for breakfast - I just can’t run with any food in my stomach. Not a good start to the day.

The rain was already lashing down when we got up, and along with the safety briefing (along the lines of: “there are no closed roads or trails on this race, so watch out for walkers and don’t get run over”), the event started with the announcement: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes!” Hmm, maybe a Helly Hansen and a windproof bike jacket weren’t going to be enough. But by then it was too late to re-think my attire.

The 7 mile trail run wasn’t too muddy, and I actually quite enjoyed it. Taking my time in the first transition, I had my first Gu gel and was just tucking into a giant handful of nuts and raisins when I got snapped by an event photographer. Apparently my face, looking like a hamster who’d just filled up its cheeks, was up on the big screen at the campground later that night. I’m glad I didn’t get the chance to see it.

Next up was a 48 mile road cycle. We weren’t allowed to change bikes over the weekend, so I’d brought my mountain bike in preparation for the next day’s off-road cycle. Some people were using cyclo-cross bikes and others had changed their tyres to semi-slicks, but I just went for it on my trusty Rocky Mountain hard-tail. By 10 miles in all my layers were soaked through and the relentless rain and howling wind had me thinking “did I really actually pay to put myself through this torture?” The last third or so of the cycle was where it got really hilly. By then, I couldn’t feel my fingers or feet, and was finding it difficult to change gears, let alone open an energy bar. So when a tea room came into view, like a mirage, I had to give in and stop for a while to refuel and warm up. Buoyed by the tea and an encouraging chat with the ladies in the shop, I bravely soldiered on. But by the time I reached Fort Augustus, I would have been happy to never see my bike again.

Saturday ended with a short run and a quick splash in Loch Ness in a kayak. Crossing the finish line I was delighted to learn that Brian was comfortably in the lead. Not so pleased when I realised I had no dry clothes except a jacket. I’d left everything in the van in Nairn and our lovely support crew hadn’t yet set off to shuttle the vehicles over to Fort Augustus. I promptly burst into tears and begged Brian to give me his spare trousers and hat, then walked around the campsite looking like sporty Spice until the van arrived.

Later on, showered and refreshed and in warm dry clothes, I was able to satisfy my huge macaroni cheese craving. We all resisted the temptation to have a few celebratory drinks and settled into the campsite for an early night. The only casualty of the day was my ipod, which sadly didn’t survive the rain.

Day 2

Waking up at 6am, I heard the now familiar patter of heavy rain on the van roof. Start time on day 2 was flexible, any time between 7am and 9am, so I held off for a bit and got the chance to enjoy a big bowl of porridge with honey and raisins. There was no requirement to bring a support crew, but two of our group were injured so they agreed to look after us for the weekend; making breakfast, setting up camp and shuttling cars. I couldn’t have been more appreciative. I was the last in our group to set off; the rain was showing no signs of easing, so I just had to wrap up in a borrowed waterproof and go for it.

Day 2 began with a 17 mile off-road cycle – a mixture of canal towpath, wide tracks and muddy trails. I enjoyed this section much more than I expected, and was pleased to be able to overtake some of the people who’d set off earlier than me. But I couldn’t see anyone else in our group for dust (or mud). This was followed by another tortuous 16 miles on the road, where I could at least feel my fingers enough to keep taking half-hourly bites of Pack Tunch bar, protein bar or nuts and raisins, washed down by the Nuun in my hydration pack.

Reaching the transition in Fort William, when the rain was finally beginning to clear, I ditched my muddy shorts and waterproof and set off on the penultimate section, a 14 mile hike. Having studied the course profile in advance and realising that this involved a section of Ben Nevis and part of the West Highland Way, I knew there would be little running involved. I tried to jog when I could, on flat sections and some of the downhill, but my legs were getting more and more tired and most of it was just too slippy. I’d estimated I would take 4 hours, and finished this section in 4 hours 19 minutes. On a dry day, I think it could be done much more quickly. Even stopping in the one village we passed for a water top-up, I still ran out of fluid half way through. And my Garmin had run out of battery on the bike section, so I had no idea what the time was. That meant I had both my Gu gels too early, and was really hungry and thirsty by the end of the hike. The crowd had really spread out and there were points when I couldn’t see anyone in front of or behind me. With no music to keep my brain occupied, I entertained myself by counting the number of people I passed (+1 point) and those who passed me (-1 point). Initially, this really helped to propel me forwards, but by the end I was at minus 11 and was again feeling a little demoralised.

Fortunately there was water at the kayak transition, and from there the end was in sight. The final section was a 1 mile kayak across Loch Leven to Ballachulish. This was probably the hardest part, because my hips seized up so I just had to stretch my legs out and let my arms (and my lovely kayak partner Gavin) do all the work. But 17 minutes later I was crossing the finish line – never so happy to see my husband and a welcoming bowl of soup. Brian had held his lead, and came in first in 9 hours 32 minutes. I came in 185th out of 455 finishers, in 14 hours 10 minutes, which I was really happy with.

Without doubt, this was the hardest event I’ve ever done. It probably wasn’t helped by the fact that I’ve done so little training this year. But all of us really enjoyed the experience, and most of us reckon we’ll be back next year. Perhaps with Brian in the Racer category, covering the whole distance in a day, next time. I just hope that it’s sunny! In the meantime, I’ve got a serious winter training plan to put together.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

What to eat during a 2-day race

Setting aside the small issue of lack of training, the thing I'm most worried about for next week's Nokia Coast to Coast is what I'm going to eat.  I've been doing well over the past couple of weeks on my mini cave girl experiment, avoiding sugar and refined grains and trying to stick to Primal Fitness workouts.  In retrospect, a month with two races isn't the best month to have decided to experiment with a different nutrition and fitness programme, and I'm lifting the sugar ban for the race weekends.  I also found it difficult to fit in my sprints and resistance training this week, on account of my legs being so stiff and tired from the half marathon last week.  I'm still committed to giving primal living a go, so plan to get properly into it after next weekend's race.  Speaking of which...

What do you eat during a multi-day adventure race?  Despite my love of sugary things, I'm really not a fan of energy drinks and gels.  I tend to stick to water on most of my runs because they're rarely longer than an hour, and eating or drinking anything else makes me feel queasy.  Even on longer mountain bike rides, I find it a struggle to eat.  That's clearly not going to work on a 2-day event, where maintaining a steady supply of glucose to my muscles and brain will be crucial.  I was hoping to avoid the refined stuff by stocking up on natural Honey Stinger gels, but discovered they're no longer available in the U.K. because of import restrictions on honey.  So during last week's Glasgow Half Marathon I took the opportunity to practise fuelling up on Gu gel.  They tasted okay and didn't seem to affect my digestive system as badly as energy drinks usually do.  So I'm planning to stock my backpack with a mixture of Gu gels, Pack Tunch bars, bananas, oatcakes, dried fruit and nuts, all washed down with plain water.  Luckily the run is first on day one, so I should be able to get through that on gel alone and fuel up on the solid stuff on the bike leg, where I'm less likely to feel sick.  In the evening, I'll eat and eat and eat, then eat some more in the morning and during the first couple of hours of the second day's bike leg.  The second day ends with a 14-mile run, which is the scariest bit.  It's going to be really important to refuel as much as possible before I hit that, then I'll go back to the gels and water and hope my poor tummy can cope. 

Monday, 6 September 2010

How not to prepare for a half marathon

There are a few key things to bear in mind when preparing for a half marathon.  Firstly, you need to train.  I knew I'd failed on that one when I logged my miles for August and realised I'd clocked up a grand total of 40.  I considered pulling out of the Glasgow Half Marathon but decided that, with the scarier challenge of the Nokia Coast to Coast just around the corner, it might be a good idea to fit in another 13.1 miles in preparation.

This blog is littered with the mistakes I've made in my own training - as I've said before, I know what to do but sometimes find it difficult to put into practice.  And I'm no natural athlete.  Here are a few of the principles I follow when constructing a training plan, and where I went wrong:
  • Specificity - whatever event you're planning for, the training needs to be specific to the demands of your chosen sport.  Cross training is brilliant for building general fitness and preventing injury, but if you don't run in your training, you're unlikely to fare well in a race.  Your body gets stronger through repeated overload followed by periods of adequate recovery and appropriate nutrition.  This leads to 'adaptation', i.e. your body gets used to working harder. I had hoped my regular 2 hour+ bike rides would see me through a similar length of run. But while cycling works your heart and lungs in a similar way to running, the strain it places on your leg muscles is different.  Not to mention the fact that I didn't prepare to run on the road at all.  I spent almost all of those 40 miles running on trail, which didn't get my poor legs ready for the mean streets of Glasgow at all. No wonder I can't walk down the stairs today!
  • Volume - the frequency and duration of your training also need to be appropriate.  Obviously if you're running a marathon, you'll need to log more miles than if you're training for a 5k.  Most marathon and half-marathon plans involve 5 days running each week.  However, I really like the 3-day plans from FIRST, which are easier to fit into a busy schedule and allow a bit more variety if you have time to train on another couple of days.  But less than 3 runs a week really isn't enough to prepare for a race above 10k, and an average of 10 miles a week certainly isn't far enough, no matter how much other activity you do.
  • Intensity and progression - to avoid putting too much stress on your body, which will hinder your recovery and thus your adaptation, it's important that most of your training is at at an easy pace, slower than you plan to run the race.  But a couple of times a week, harder efforts will really help you to get stronger and faster. During rest periods, your body repairs itself and gets stronger, so hard days should be followed by an easy day or day off.  A weekly tempo run, at around your half marathon pace, is important to prepare your body for the pace you'll be running at in the race.  And another session of short, intense intervals will help you to get progressively faster.  If you increase the intensity and/or volume a little bit every week, you'll see results in no time.  Well, maybe not no time, but over a 12-week period, you'll have plenty of time to get ready to run your best half.  I didn't give myself 12 weeks to train properly, and what I did do was sporadic - a long run here, a tempo session there - so I had to stick to easy run pace to get myself through the race.  
The main event, an adventure race from Nairn to Glencoe, is only two weeks away now. I'm glad that I did the half marathon, even though I finished 18 minutes slower than my personal best, because it will have helped to get my body ready for another race.  It's too late now to ramp up my training for the Coast to Coast, so I'm just going to take it easy and enjoy the scenery.  But this sorry episode has really reminded me of the importance of planning and training consistently.  My focus for the winter is being kind to my body and building general strength but, if I decide to chase any PBs next year, sticking to a proper plan will be my number one priority.