Hanny on caffeine...
As a performance coach specializing in trail and ultra-distance running, I am frequently asked about the use of caffeine a supplement to performance. With almost every sports nutrition brand providing caffeinated options, from gels to chews to beverages, I believe it is important to address the question – to caffeine or not to caffeine? Sadly, as you will soon find out, whilst there are some good rules to abide by, everyone is different. Using caffeine requires you to understand the science, your own body’s response to this common stimulant, and then to deliberately practice and observe its effects during exercise.
Caffeine is a stimulant
Let us begin with the most important concept. Caffeine is a stimulant. It acts to give you a false sense of energy, helping to heighten alertness and enhance wakefulness. In trail running, these effects can help someone to feel more responsive to the challenges of the trail, overcome fatigue (both physical and mental), and to also mask pain (more on this soon). However, herein lies the caution. If caffeine is a stimulant and can help someone to feel like a relative of Superman, then it is likely that this individual is working at a heightened level of physical and mental exertion. Underlying this is still the same body requiring the same amount of energy, if not more, to maintain its level of performance. If you are someone who uses caffeine, then it is highly likely that you are chewing into energy reserves faster than you would in a non-caffeinated state. Unless you are ruthless about putting this energy back in whilst on your caffeine-high, then you can be digging your own energy hole that may be difficult, or near impossible, to return from.
Caffeine is a diuretic
The same concept holds true for the effect that caffeine has on our hydration. As caffeine is a mild diuretic, it can give an athlete the sensation of needing to stop behind a tree, all the while thinking,‘great, I must be hydrated’. If you are zinging along the trail on your caffeine high, it is also imperative to keep on top of your fluids, preferably using an electrolyte higher in sodium.
Caffeine has different effects on different people
I am a tea drinker and even a small influx of caffeine will hit me hard, so hard in fact that my mind begins to race and I begin to feel a little bit jittery. My husband on the other hand loves a coffee, or two, or three. Whilst I opt for the tea leaves, he will grind, filter and create an espresso with negligible effects on his physiology or psyche. Out on the trail, the enormous difference of caffeine’s effects on our bodies continues to be evident. For me, even a portion of a caffeinated gel is like putting a firecracker in a tin can. The nearly instantaneous pulse of caffeine resonates throughout my body, causing me to feel zingy, jittery and uncomfortable. However, for my husband, he will really, really notice the lack of caffeine in his system if we begin early in the morning or are running for extensively prolonged periods of time. For example, if he skips his morning coffee, or those later in the day, the lack of caffeine leaves his normally caffeinated body feeling lethargic and stagnant. Utilising a caffeinated gel during these lower periods makes a lot of sense, albeit carefully ensuring that enough energy is also replaced to combat its stimulating effects. This is imperative to avoid crashing and burning later.
Caffeine and women
Fascinatingly, studies are now coming to light about the role of caffeine on a woman’s body, and how the effect varies depending on her hormonal status. For example, information is coming to light to show that the metabolism of caffeine during the first two weeks of a woman’s cycle is similar to that of men, but then in the second two weeks women show higher peak levels following ingestion, meaning that the caffeine will stay in her body for longer. This is also true for many women using certain forms of birth control. I would recommend that if you are a woman and are sensitive to caffeine, begin to notice and document its effects on your body at different times of your menstrual cycle. You may observe that your sensitivity to this stimulant may go up and down with the changes in your hormonal levels, thus requiring you to adapt your approach during exercise.
Caffeine and stress
Some athletes are highly susceptible to pre-race exercise stress or anxiety. For these athletes, I would strongly recommend steering clear of caffeine prior-to, or in the early phases of a race as it has the potential to enhance the cortisol stress response. Too much stress too early on can lead to burning more calories than desired, leading to a potential deficit later in the event.
Caffeine for pain
Interestingly, one of the greatest benefits of caffeine during exercise is that is becomes a potent masker of pain. That is, during exercise, it can have an effect of similar proportions to that of taking two Panadol tablets. There have certainly been occasions when I have had to tap into this during the depths of a long, difficult ultra-distance run. For example, on one such adventure I had a sudden, sharp onset of ITB syndrome with symptoms of jabbing pain in the front of my patellar. No amount of hobbling helped and deep down I knew that this compensation would only make the problem worse. Within 10 minutes of consuming a caffeinated gel, I had not just climbed out of this hobbling hole, but the pain had completely disappeared! I believe that this was also due to my heightened ability to improve my motor patterning, once again tapping into the strength of my gluteal muscles that had become lazy and non-responsive due to mental and physical fatigue. Amazingly, I experienced no more knee pain for the remaining 6 hours of this long mission.
In summary, caffeine certainly does have a role during exercise. It can help us to feel alert, agile and responsive to the demands of the challenges we have set ourselves, and not to forget its effects on pain. However, it is imperative to remember that it is a stimulant. For these reasons, I would urge all athletes to develop insight into how it affects them on an individual level, and also to consider keeping it up your sleeve as a trump card for later in the race. This will help you to experience that sensation of finishing with fire, whilst also helping to prevent digging energy deficits due to overexertion too early in an event.
Lee walks softly through the sliding doors into my living room, a converted 1960s garage which we rent from generous friends who live above. For three years we lived humbly since we sold our home in Canberra and thrown everything into our Find Your Feet adventure business here in Tasmania. Lee meets my outstretched hand with a quiet confidence and yet boyish nervousness. I feel like I am looking in a mirror. ‘Well this should be interesting!’ he remarks with a husky smoothness laced with an accent I cannot place.
I flick on the microphone and watch the sound bars jump up and down as we begin to reminisce about adventures along Tasmania’s remote wilderness trails, the escapades which have profoundly shaped us. Frenchman’s Cap with its landmark Lorax cliff face plummeting into Lake Tahune hundreds of metres below. Federation Peak with its wallowing hippo-friendly mud. And our local icon, Mt Wellington with is plethora of rabbit-warren trails etching a runner’s paradise across her north-eastern flanks.
For fifteen years Tasmania has been my home to a wicked combination of adventurous runs, heavy-legged recovery days and interval repetitions up brutal climbs. It shaped me as a person, elite runner and ultimately, a World Champion. The mountain’s beauty has always helped to spark a belief in my dreams during times of adversity and has become a place for celebration after moments of accomplishment. As stories unfold during my conversation with Lee, I realise that we are sharing a deeply profound moment of, ‘me too!’
Today Lee is a sixty-nine-year old recreational athlete whose greatest claim to fame, aside from the significant accomplishments in cycling to triathlon, running to trail running, is the fact that he has never been injured. How is this possible? A celebrated ecologist with an inquisitive mind that allows him to ask the deepest questions of humanity, Lee has adopted a belief in a theory called Punctuated Equilibrium. Tasmania is his Petri dish. I am rivetted.
“It is not the external world that needs to change. Transformational shifts happen from upgrading the internal world – your patterns of both thoughts and actions. These pattern shifts might just begin with moving beyond the drive for high performance; beyond the search for peak experiences; beyond being able to do more in your life. While the peaks are important and wonderful, the transformation of living more fully daily begins with a fundamental commitment to organize your life to be you at your best more often; to be more present, more grounded, more joyful, more playful, more focused — more “switched-on”. That way of living requires an investment in recovery: proper sleep, proper hydration and food intake, plenty of movement and an optimal way of thinking.”
This year, Federation Peak formed a huge punctuation mark in my life. Over eleven hours of wading through mud and scrambling through a maze of horizontal scrub I overcome fear after nervous fear, driven by the knowledge from an early podcast guest, Dr Clive Stack, that fear serves the purpose of highlighting what is of greatest importance to us. Being out there on that back-jarring trail, running and wading my way to the summit, was vitally meaningful to me. And in the depths of one mud-hole, at a moment of ‘what am I doing!?’, I found a heightened realisation that we can only reach our greatest performances, our wildest ambitions, when we are grounded by a strong sense of self and what we love. Yes, discomforts aside, I love this side of Tasmania, and it helps me to uncover my truest self.
As a performance coach and consultant, time and time again I have observed the phenomena that when individuals have a profound understanding of their values and an ability to empower themselves; when they are then willing to play wilder and find the child within; only then do they reach their greatest levels of mastery and to strive for performance. Be wilder, play wilder, perform wilder. Stability. Fun. Perform… a constant cycle of self-exploration, playfulness and striving after which it is critical to return to our inner foundations and to ensure that they are still serving us.
“Regardless of what you are aspiring towards, you do need elements of stability”
As Lee explains, we grow in waves, with internal and external forces pushing us to rapidly adapt. And if you are aware of how we as a species grow like this, then you can self-inflict the punctuation marks. From his steady home-base, this is how Lee has come to grow as an athlete.
“We have to be careful of not all heading for the middle ground. I think we need to pick up on our strengths and at times, create the punctuation marks.”
In summary, it is vitally important to learn to be more to do more. For me, I know that the old way of do more to be morehas passed and now been replaced with a desire to be wilder, play wilder and perform wilder. In doing so, I slowly believe that I am finding the pathway to finding my feet.
Listen to the full Find Your Feet Podcast episode with Lee Belbin here:
As featured in Travel. Play. Live Magazine, Autumn 2018
Mud between my toes. Mud etched into the lines of my hands. Mud spots on my cheeks, both facial and I am sure, other. Mud masking the scratches across my legs, the downside of this dense south-west Tasmanian scrub. I have pain in my lower back, jarred from all the ducking beneath and leaping over the maze of toppled trees, their lifespan shortened by the roaring forties that rip through here. If I am not buried in this confusion of fallen limbs, I am vaulting from button grass to mud bank, trying to avoid the deepest holes. I can hear Dale behind me. Deep breaths expired, the squelch of his shoes and the occasional humorous remark at our predicament as he flings himself across, and sometimes into, each muddy void.
Just four hours earlier I had lain, clean and cosy beside my husband listening to the rain beating onto the metal roof of our van. Surrounded by absolute darkness, the only indication of our remote location was the sounds of wind in the ancient Gondwanen forests and the swollen, rushing river. Into this dark night I had uttered, ‘I am scared’. Despite the knot of anxiety in my stomach, I had clambered out of the down parlor, the beam from my head torch highlighting the breadth of the growing puddles. As I had tugged on long scrub socks, shoes and raincoat, set a match to my stove and prepared my tea pot, I went through a mental checklist:
As I poured the boiling water onto the tea leaves and finished preparing my vest pack, I knew that the only failure in this adventure would be not leaving the comfort of this van. Fear should never be the barrier to our dreams.
In May 2017, I had taken a giant step back from competitive sport. Ready for a change in attention, I was forced to address the questions, ‘Who is Hanny and what does success really mean for her going forward?’ My new normal became playfulness and it was on the silly adventures, most notably in the wilder environments of Tasmania, that I slowly came to a very important realization - success is not about reaching summits, winning medals or hitting business targets. Rather, it is a willingness to walk to, and then along, the edge of discomfort. To be willing to be uncomfortable in the pursuit of the meaningful.
By the time I had hugged my husband one last time, rain beating down and my watch reading 4:30am, I was completely committed. I followed Dale into the dense, saturated undergrowth, our torches dancing together. Whilst the summit of Federation Peak was our aim, twenty-two kilometers along this overgrown hiking route, I knew that I had already succeeded by being 120% engaged in this adventure. That is, success had been emotionally checking in for today despite the adverse weather conditions.
Now, four hours into the mission, I feel nervous. Dale and I are ‘running’ towards the base of Moss Ridge, the notorious 1000m climb onto the plateau that marks the start of the final precarious ascent to the summit of Federation Peak. We can see the clouds boiling above us, the summit’s sheer beauty obscured by their wet contents. I have noticed the temperature has dropped again and I find myself needing to stop to pull on more layers. I am wet to my skin, my shoes filled with the fine silt from the mud and every time I bend over my back is jarring. Deep down I can distinguish that my emotion is not so much fear, but rather vulnerability in the face of the challenge ahead.
To help remain positive, Dale and I begin to break the adventure down into smaller moments. We encourage one another to keep fueled, warm, and to continue for another short period of time before we decide on the feasibility of a summit attempt. We cut through the tension with laughter for what else can you do when you are soaked to your undies, muddier than a hippo and running like a wombat? As it happened, this was the exact moment in this adventure where success occurred. Our willingness to persevere and laugh in the face of our discomfort created a positive spiral that soon after had us whooping and huffing, puffing and clambering all the way to the plateau. From there we had gingerly scuttled up and then down steep scree-filled gullies, teetered our way around narrower ledges and then, with frozen fingers, pulled our way up the final rock faces towards the summit where cold and dangerous conditions had us hightailing downwards before even a happy-snap could be taken. Not once, in those uphill endeavors, did we consider turning back. Success at the base of the mountain had helped us to realise our dream of summiting.
It was a long, muddy waddle home. However, high on the adrenalin of accomplishment, we giggled, found tranquil silence, experienced peacefulness in our deepest selves and then finally bumped into my husband Graham. After 11.5hours and 43km, we popped back out of the undergrowth to the welcome sight of the van. The sun was shining.
Every element of that adventure to Federation Peak should have been miserable and yet, when I reflect on it, all I can find is joy. I am so proud that we overcame the temptation of comfort to embrace the conditions, that we found delight in the discomforts, and that we didn’t turn around in the face of fear or vulnerability. It just makes me even more empowered to share what I know about success – that it is not the outcome. It is about your willingness to walk to the edge of discomfort, and then remain there.
Adventure can truly be your avenue to self-development. It can strengthen you in moments of weakness and showcase what you truly love. Adventure can highlight where you have room to grow, and where you have already grown. It requires patience and perseverance, preparation and planning, humility and humour. And if the stars align, you will walk away many memories richer.
In the last weeks of my twenties, I can honesty testify that I thought nothing needed to change. I was a happy Tomboy, chasing dreams and living life as I had always done – a car cruising along the highway on automatic pilot. However, as I turned the corner into my thirties, I suddenly felt like I was confronted with an enormous junction, a confusion of dead-ends, back roads, and stop signs. It was overwhelming and I was afraid to look back to where I had come from for fear of what I may see. At the end of 2016, I wrote a reflection of this experience titled Planting My Feet. This piece was a very personal account of the journey I went on after I turned 30 and how I navigated this crossroads, discussing how I began working on ‘self’ to find greater purpose in my relationships, sport and career.
As I moved into 2017, my greatest intention, call it a new year’s resolution if you must, was to consolidate the positive experiences and hard work of 2016. I think I can honestly say that I have done so, and here is what I have learnt from this wild ride of the year just gone:
What has helped me to overcome this fear of failure has been to rewrite my definition of success, which has slowly become to ‘seek craftsmanship and strive for beauty’. And my modality for achieving this is, ‘be wilder, to play wilder, to perform wilder’. Gone are my days of butchering onwards, thinking more is better and rushing for outcomes. I now strive to find ways to feel more beautiful in my intentions, so that I experience more joy in my actions, so that I can, in turn, strive for mastery in the outcomes I aspire for. I believe that this has to be the order of priorities… Be, Play, Perform.
It is definitely easy to drift from the truth, sometimes slightly and other times wildly. This usually happens when Ego is winning the war and I find myself saying to myself, ‘She’ll be right…’ The most frequent example of this is when my body is pleading with me to be kind to it and instead Ego encourages me to battle on through. This has resulted in a few injuries, such as currently with my Achilles. Sometimes I find that the truth feels shameful, like realizing you are not as strong as you thought you were. And it can be uncomfortable, like admitting you were wrong in your judgment. Other times I find the truth confusing, especially in relationships. And sometimes, like when you stand alone on a remote peak, it is wildly exciting. What I have discovered, using wilder adventures and business as a method of discovery, is that to live truthfully is to live in the NOW. When I am in the moment, not thinking about my past or future, I am being honest with myself and finding positive outcomes. When I am in the NOW, there is little room for Ego who is forced to return to his corner, trunk between his legs. And amazingly, as he does, fear abates too.
2017 was beautiful, albeit busy. The highlights have definitely been:
With the new year now upon us, my intentions for 2018 are to:
I hope that you are also looking forward to a wholehearted year ahead! May it be the ride that you wish for.
I really appreciate all your continued support. If you haven't already done so, please check out:
How much of an endurance challenge is mental or physical? I have always been at a lost for an appropriate response and grabbing at random numbers. Seventy percent physical? Forty percent mental? Or should this be fifty-fifty? Or… Just days away from the my first 100km trail running event I can now respond with more conviction. Breaking down any endurance challenge into only mental and physical components is over simplified. Right now I can testify that there is a huge emotional element to endurance performance too and I believe that we often overlook the incredible power that our emotions hold over us. This begs the question - are we putting enough emphasis on emotional intelligence as we strive to succeed in endurance challenges?
But what is success when it comes to endurance? For me now, success defines my willingness to sit on the edge, to lean in to the discomfort that is inevitable and to accept whatever the outcome is. Conversely, to fail is not a failure to reach the summit, but to shy away from this discomfort and seek an easier way out. Therefore, success is not a result that I find on the finish line but rather an experience I undertake during the journey to the summit.
So what stops us from perching on the edge of our comfort zone? I see this ‘edge’ as the point at which success and failure merge and where some of our greatest self-growth occurs? As I prepare for tomorrow’s daunting 100km run, undeniably what has me begging to step back from this edge is fear. For me, fear normally kicks in during the last few weeks as the big day approaches. It replaces my sense of control and focus, leaving me filled with self-doubt and the inevitable question, ‘why on earth am I doing this??!’
During a recent Find Your Feet Podcast episode with Dr Clive Stack, we found ourselves discussing the concept of fear, especially in relation to my impending run at Ultra Trail Australia. Dr Stack has devoted his expertise to researching human emotions and the purposes these serve. He has come to believe that fear highlights a moment when things are about to change for the better and that instead of running from fear we should lean into these moments, finding courage to strive for another week, day, hour or even minute until we finally break through to the other side where empowerment, personal growth and success lie. So, when intimidation has us withdrawing into ourselves and self-doubt wakes us at 5am in the morning… that is when we must disregard our fear and crawl to the edge. In this moment of self-doubt we need to have faith to lean in.
I think too often we set a goal and then focus on our physical and occasionally our mental preparedness. But I firmly believe we need uncomfortable experiences to foster emotional resilience. Emotional preparedness comes from experiences that hold us in a space beyond our comfort zone. I find my greatest strength when I am active outdoors in a foreign location or immersed in the elements. During the depths of my 100km, when the sun sets and I am alone on the course, I know that I will not be relying so much on my physical fitness, but rather I will be drawing strength from past adventures and the tougher moments in life that I have experienced.
As we strive for new summits, I implore us all to begin acknowledging the presence of our emotions and the role they play as we near ‘the edge’. If we are able to accept their involvement then we will be less surprised as emotions emerge, especially during those critical last weeks or when we are digging deep on ‘summit day’. If you are experiencing fear, hold tight for another day, hour or even minute. For things are about to change for the better. Back yourself. Trust yourself. Take faith in your preparation but especially in the moments when you have been physically, mentally & emotionally challenged.
In summary, I truly believe that fear and emotional turmoil will be intricately involved in any preparation when we strive towards new summits. After all, we seek these hefty challenges as an opportunity to grow, learn and frighten ourselves a little. I know that my 100km run through the Blue Mountains tomorrow will be an intricate blend of physical, mental and emotional resilience. And if that fails me, then perhaps it will become a spiritual experience as I pray to the gods for the finish line!
Listen to Dr Clive Stack on the Find Your Feet Podcast:
This year I hit the big 30. I had really been looking forward to this milestone in my life. On the day I turned thirty, I stood atop the final summit of my ‘30 peaks in the year before I turn 30’ challenge. Whilst it had come down to the wire, I felt wind-chapped & glowing from the inside out. That was until injury hit and I took a visit to my GP.
I walked into her sparsely furnished consulting room in urban Hobart with a few concerns. Mainly girl stuff. I expected a stethoscope, perhaps a poke and a prod and in the worst case a jab to steal some blood. What I didn’t expect was for her to quietly look me up and down, tuck back her hair and say earnestly, ‘Hanny, I think you need to embrace your femininity’.
Ninety dollars poorer and none-the-wiser, I sat in front of Dr Google. What is femininity and what relevance could this possibly have for this 30-year-old tomboy with a phobia for dresses and lipstick?
For a few days, Dr Google became my morning reading and I studied the topic religiously. I learnt that we are all a unique blend of masculine and feminine traits. Our masculine traits are related to strength, independence, stability, focus, competition and self-confidence. Our feminine traits are related to empathy, compassion, sensuality, nurturing, patience, loving and living with ‘flow’. Males can display greater feminine traits and women may express more masculine traits, neither or which are right or wrong.
The more I learnt, the more pressured I felt. I must become more feminine! The harder I tried to be feminine, the more I resented the skirt I was wearing.
I never found what I was looking for from Dr Google but I have through honest self reflection and inner work found some answers. Nothing can prepare you for the discomforts of looking deep inside yourself and pulling apart your personal assumptions, barriers, rules and truths. I enlisted the support of a performance psychologist to ask the difficult questions you are never really prepared to ask yourself. After a few sessions I was still grappling with the concept of finding femininity. I had somehow evaded the most difficult questions until one day we journeyed into foreign territory.
‘What do you do for self-compassion?’ he enquired with that intense focus that makes you squirm. ‘I had a massage last night,’ I mumbled in reply, grateful for this worthy evidence of my self-com- passion practice. After a few minutes silence he replied, ‘For self-compassion or physical recovery?’
That was my possum-stuck-in-car headlight’s moment. My wake up call not to sit on the road and play chicken with the truck roaring towards you. A truck carrying a whole load of.......femininity.
As I was paying the bill for this perplexing session, he quietly drove the nail into my understanding, ‘Hanny, femininity is not just about wearing dresses’.
It was days later on my frosty Mt Wellington, solo run and scrunching my thermal around my frozen fingers that I found enlightenment. The lone burrawong’s chorus cut through the sharp cries of the yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos. Light was dancing off the water as it gushed through healthy streams. Whilst fatigue had plagued me when I laced my running shoes, I eased back the effort and became acutely aware that my stunning surroundings were leading me into a state of flow. I felt like I could run forever! And therein lay my first true awareness of femininity – self compassion, sensuality and living with flow. Femininity felt amazing!
Through a lifetime of athletic & academic practice and a hobby farm upbringing, the tomboy has lived strong inside me. The masculine traits of goal setting, competitiveness, independence and pushing through when ‘the going gets tough’ have strongly dominated my persona. These traits were reflected in my daily routines, exercise habits, nutrition and meal preparation, business, athletic racing style and even the way I showed Iove as a fiancée, daughter, sister and friend.
But I have breasts. And when a family member hurts, I want to wrap them in a bundle of compassion. I love to listen and believe empathy is one of my stronger virtues. I find peacefulness when I am in nature and my greatest creativity when I don’t force it. These are some of my many feminine qualities.
My GP sent me away to ‘embrace my femininity’, not ‘be more feminine’. I don’t have to wear a dress or apply lipstick. I just need to love being me, a unique mix of ferocious tomboy, compassionate sister, fun loving fiancée, empathetic friend and loving daughter. I am a young woman just learning about self-compassion and embarking on a long pilgrimage towards womanhood.
If you too are struggling with femininity and if this notion also feels foreign to you, here are my words of advice. Stop trying and start with self-compassion. I have found the easiest place to find my femininity is outdoors on a mountain trail, with the wind in my face. Where will your femininity take you?
Sometimes you reach a point where you know some things need to change. In February 2016 I realised that it was time to audit my life after experiencing the devastation of raging fires in northern Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area, a back injury and turning 30 years old. I started journalling my thoughts and actions, quickly realising that I felt completely unharmonious between my intentions and actions. Furthermore, I knew that my body wasn’t healthy. I looked fit and was running strongly on paper, but underneath this there were old habits that were holding me back. Crunch point.
Today I want to share the 11 steps that I have taken so far to re-find my feet:
1. Beginning the ‘Internal Work’When I visited a new doctor at the start of the year she looked me up & down and said, ‘Hanny, you need to find your femininity’. I had not a clue what she meant but when I was handed the name of a performance psychologist in town I new she must be serious. For sure, I was experiencing a nasty back injury & was feeling a little directionless but by no means did I really feel I needed to ‘chat’. However, when I began to audit my life I realised there were (and always will be) a number of areas for self-improvement. At this time these included: a lack of feminine hormones; a constant need to be busy; quick to react to stress; physical niggles; adapting to a growing leadership role in my business; increasingly large sporting goals; and a concern about nourishing nutrition (or lack thereof).
This year, I have worked with Jeremy, a performance psychologist, on my ‘internal self’. It has been one of the more difficult and yet rewarding experiences I have ever had. It has opened my eyes to the extraordinary power of our minds, emotions and actions stemming from deeper, mindful intentions & values. I have found greater purpose in my relationships, running, and business, as well as an understanding of femininity & self-compassion. And this journey is just beginning…
2. Loving the ‘External Self’As I started the ‘internal work’, I realised that I was often neglecting my ‘external self’. In fact, I almost felt disassociated from my body. One day, Jeremy asked me what I did for self-compassion. I racked my brains before proudly jumping to the notion of massage. “I get massages!’ He looked me squarely in the eyes and replied, ‘for self-compassion or for recovery from training & sport?’ I had never realised there was a difference.
Though self-exploration and monitoring my actions I am slowly developing an awareness that self-compassion starts with accepting who I am and how I look & feel. I started by exploring small ways to nurture myself. Here are some of the actions I have taken, although I know there are many more to foster:
3. Learning through listeningI love to learn but was becoming frustrated that I wasn’t investing in formal learning. Through the encouragement of my friends I began exploring the beautiful world of podcasts. I was hooked! And because I loved listening to podcasts so much I began exploring ways to have more time to listen to podcasts. This lead to getting back on the bike, running more on my own and using rare times in the car to unwind with a great episode playing. Learning doesn’t need to be formal and what I am learning through other peoples’ stories has not only increased my motivation but also made me feel more connected to society. I am now in the process of launching my own podcast through which I hope to share my community’s stories. I honestly believe stories are the gold through which we can learn to enrich our own lives. Here are my current favourite podcast series:
4. Understanding through writingI wish I could find more time for writing but journaling has become the key to unlocking my understanding. When my head is full or I feel like I am becoming stale, I pick up a pen and start writing. I am always amazed at what my mind has stored up that I was unaware of, and the insights that I shed when I write without judgment. Don’t get me wrong, there is also a lot of garbage that gets written too! Writing allows your mind to let go of the unnecessary thoughts, release subconscious mulling, and then act on the ideas that spark your imagination, creativity & passion.
5. Acceptance through meditationWow, never thought I would admit that I love to meditate! I started in this world with a need to relax. Using free YouTube videos & the encouragement from Jeremy, I started practicing whole-body relaxation before I went to sleep. This certainly enhanced the quality of my sleep but I also found that I had a clearer mind the next morning. From here I began to explore more and more YouTube videos: Guided meditation; Chakra Meditation; Hypnosis etc. It really is an interesting world. I try to put thoughts of religious association aside and just observe what happens when you willingly have a go. I have also begun practicing self-guided meditation, especially when I am lying quietly in bed at night.
6. Plant-Powered NutritionI also never thought that I would admit to exploring a 100% plant-based diet. I have been a vegetarian for 17 years now with the occasional salt & pepper calamari in there, but I honestly have never enjoyed any form of animal meat or fish. When I audited my life I realised that I had some shockingly unbalanced habits when it came to diet and I know these have stemmed from struggles with disordered & restrictive eating in my blacker past. These included an absolute love affair with cheese. Whilst I was eating enough in an energy sense, I didn’t feel good. I felt heavy after lunch and the skin on the back of my arms and legs were covered in Keratosis, a dry skin condition that looked like a constant bout of goose bumps caused by excessive keratin build up. The more I researched, the more I was pointed to the ill-effects of dairy and how it can cause Keratosis. Furthermore, I knew that my mother is lactose intolerant.
Removing dairy from my diet has changed everything! Not only has the Keratosis almost completely disappeared but my mind is clearer, my moods are more constant, my hormonal cycle is regular for the first time ever and I feel energised beyond measure. It has also opened up a whole new plethora of amazing foods that I have barely experienced and a need to be more creative with preparing meals. None of it has been hard, but rather it has just required a willingness to shift my thinking and crack some old habits.
7. Simplifying StuffThe flow on of changing my diet and removing toxins from my lifestyle lead to a realisation that I have a lot of ‘stuff’. I am just beginning to think about how I can master the art of living simpler. I would love to set a radical goal of spending at least one night a week in our van for the entire summer (and maybe winter too!). I am also about to embark on a big ‘culling’ session around home. When I do need to buy something, I will be looking for lasting quality and where & how it was made, rather than the price. Buy once.
8. Intention & Values not GoalsI no longer have strict goals and for now I am not planning any races. When I started feeling richer in other areas of my life I found that the drive to set goals had diminished. I am not saying the need for goals is gone completely, but perhaps setting goals had been a way to plug holes in a leaky lifestyle? I now feel filled with purpose and a motivation to just live & be wilder. I am driven by intentions that bubble up from a deeper place within me. And because of this I am playing… hard! I don’t think I have every felt so fit and I have big dreams that I am working towards. That is far more exciting for now than any goal I could set myself.
9. Learning the Art of PresenceI am a shocker for trying to plan, plan, plan. But isn’t there a saying, ‘life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans’? That was me in a nutshell. I am now trying to not get too far ahead of myself because I also think my planning brain kicked in when I was fearful, nervous or struggling to slow down. I also read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Whilst heavy and often a little too ‘out there’ for me, I found the concept of intentionally trying to be present in what I am doing highly invigorating. When I am on a run I am on a run. When I am listening to a podcast I am listening to a podcast. When I am making a cup of tea I am focusing on this task. When it is time to go to bed I am literally going to bed to rest. Being more present has reduced stress and increased space in my life for creativity & enjoyment.
10. Recognising the importance of PatienceNot my greatest strength! It was Jeremy who said to me, ‘Han, I think you need to learn the art of patience’. With all this energy and enthusiasm I am constantly looking for how I can give back more and more. But Rome was not built in a day, nor are dreams, or health, or lives. Patience may end up being my most difficult obstacle. Lucky I like a challenge!
11. Measuring health by the health of my hormonesThis is a personal note to end on but a lack of regular menstrual cycles has been my biggest fear in life. I had seen so many specialists and been put on so many supplements and drugs over the years to solve this issue. However, the deep internal work, the decluttering, the planting my feet in nutrition that nurtures… this has been what has allowed my body to embrace its femininity. I have learnt that the greatest measure of my body’s own health is the health of my hormones. So, over medals, business, records and more, I think finding health in my hormones is the accomplishment I am most proud of in 2016.
For 2017 I am setting my intention to consolidate 2016. I want to learn more and find routines in what I embarked on this year. Underlying this is a desire to ‘Be Wilder’ - in my actions, intentions and thoughts. Getting uncomfortable every now and then will be at the heart of this too.
It is with great excitement that I wish you all a wonderful start to 2017 and I hope that this coming year can provide an opportunity for you to find health, vitality & wild adventures too.
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I am doubled over. With hands on hips, I gasp air into my lungs. My head feels heavy and achy… a dull throb enhanced by the altitude. This Italian mountain is a beast! I look up to where the trail squiggles near vertically above me and try to make out where the track crests the pass. It is somewhere up there where the bare rocks merge into the mist. I look down. My hotel where everyone else is still sleeping is just a mere 100m below me. I have barely started and I am feeling… vulnerable.
Until this awakening I had used exercise, nutrition and perfectionism to combat emotional discomforts, especially fear and what I now recognise as vulnerability. When I was faced with career ending injuries, a fracturing family and that famous question, ‘who am I?’, vulnerability and shame screamed in my face. There was no hiding from these moments and I found myself tugging on my vulnerability armour and kicking into self-protective overdrive. Whilst I achieved successes during these years, the accomplishments were like eating Weetbix for breakfast in Italy - a little dry and leaving me wondering why I didn’t just eat the cake. And so I strived for a tastier goal, one that would surely say ‘you are enough’ when it was accomplished.
On and on I ran.
At the age of 30 I have finally stopped running. Not literally. I still love a trail, especially one with a mountain finish. But 10 years and a Brene Brown TED Talk later, I have finally realised that on my current pathway to destination Enough there will never be enough. And no matter how fast I run, vulnerability will always accompany me.
So doubled over near the base of my Italian mountain I decided to confront vulnerability. I stopped, acknowledged my fear and looked outside of myself. Shear mountains rose up into the mist and the sun was painting small highlights onto the contrasted green meadows. Marmots cheeped. In this moment I realised that despite my fear & vulnerability, there was no where else on earth I would rather be, especially not indoors. I turned towards the trail and told myself to take just one step. Then another. Soon my hands were pumping my thighs, turning my legs into pistons that powered from my greater sense of purpose. As I headed up and up with increasing courage I realised that at last I really understood the power of vulnerability. This is what I learnt.
After sliding and whooping my way back down the peak with scree slopes shifting beneath my feet, I pulled up somewhat breathless at the doorway to my hotel. Here I was greeted with a cheery grin from a local mountain guide. Through a smooth Italian accent he asked, ‘Where did you venture this morning?’ I pointed to up there. After following my gesture he looked straight back at my sweaty face. With a slight rise of his eyebrows, he claimed, ‘I can see it in your eyes - you really like to run!’
I ate cake for breakfast that day. And Nutella. I was highly satisfied.
And so here I urge you to never settle for Weetbix when there is delicious cake on offer! Get to know and accept your vulnerability. Befriend it and listen to what it is indicating. Then take a deep breath and step in any direction that shifts you from comfortable to uncomfortable, onto the pathways less travelled. Because from here you can dare greatly. And afterwards you can remind yourself, “I am enough’.
This article was featured in the latest edition of Travel Play Live
Dawn was breaching through the darkness as I pulled on my running tights, thermal, beanie and gloves. From my lounge room window I could see Mt Wellington and my beloved trails covered in a thick blanket of snow. Winter has arrived!
Winter training poses many challenges to all of us. Increased darkness and cooler temperatures disturb our homeostasis and require alterations to our exercising habits. Developing an understanding of the physiological changes your body goes through during winter will assist you to maintain healthy, safe & sustainable exercise routines this year.
Physiological changes during winter
Add more carbohydratesThrough the door… kick off the running shoes… flick on the kettle then head to the pantry. This increased hunger and search for nourishment is partly caused by an increased baseline metabolic rate as your body uses more energy for warmth. Furthermore, research shows that genetic changes sparked by the onset of winter are also responsible. During winter, genetic up-regulation causes your body to naturally store more adipose tissue (fat cells) and switch to greater carbohydrate dependence. No wonder I crave a big bowl of steaming porridge after a cold morning run in winter! For endurance athletes, this research suggests that our ability to efficiently burn fat for energy during winter exercise is slightly reduced. We lean towards a higher carbohydrate dependence for driving the muscles and consume greater quantities of oxygen. This can create increased lactic acid production during intense bouts of training at this time of year. To avoid carbohydrate depletion during sessions longer than 60-90 minutes, take a source of glucose-based energy, such as a sports gel. Ensure adequate cool downs and replace your carbohydrate stores afterwards. Add quality carbohydrate to all your meals, such as whole grains, pumpkin and sweet potatoes.
Be flexibleYour circadian rhythm is a hormone driven process that determines your sleep & wake cycles. The average individual has an internal circadian clock that ticks on a 24hr11min cycle. That’s right, for most of us our circadian rhythm would actually extend beyond one day if it wasn’t for light. The presence of light resets our circadian rhythm so our body remains in sync with the time of day. However, in winter the shorter days and longer nights create changes to our sleep & awakening cycles, and lead to that 2pm slump hitting you a little earlier in the afternoon. Altered circadian rhythms can make clambering out of bed in the morning even more difficult and could be the reason behind lethargy on your morning run. If possible, in winter try to have days where you can allow your body to awaken naturally and shuffle some of your runs to periods of the day when you feel most energised. This will help to keep your stress levels reduced and enhance recovery from exercise. So, turn off that alarm!
Get your restMany of us could relate to the sensation of entering winter hibernation. This is likely influenced by the increased production of the hormone Melatonin, otherwise known as the hormone of darkness. Melatonin has a strong influence on the length and quality of our sleep, and is often used as an alternative to sleep medications. In individuals who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Melatonin is shown to be elevated. The moral of this story? When Melatonin-induced hibernation kicks in, have your daily dose of exercise then get your ZZZs! As the body does most of our physical recovery during the earlier stages of the sleep cycle, enhancing the quality and duration of your sleep will ensure that you recuperate faster between exercise sessions.
‘Listen when the body whispers’
A study published by British and German researchers showed that over one quarter of the genes in our body become more or less active during different seasons. This impacts on our mood, sexual behaviour, metabolism and now it appears, our immune defences. Their research also suggests that genes responsible for promoting inflammation also become more active during the coldest, winter months and are particularly elevated in Australia’s southern-most states. Whilst inflammation has an important role in healing, excessive inflammation can generate discomforts and diseases, such as the common winter ailments of arthritis and cardiovascular disease. With increased inflammation involved, perhaps niggles in our active bodies whisper louder during winter? It is critical to moderate exercise routines to avoid unnecessary injuries and sickness. One option is to see Winter as an ideal time for gentle base training, building up to races in Spring or Summer. Furthermore, winter is the ideal time to focus energy on strength weaknesses in the body. Therefore, preempt the danger months by switching to aerobic base training, pre-habilitation exercises and cross training. Protect the immune system with quality nutrition, sleep and self-nurturing.
Don’t become chilled
Physiological changes become more dramatic when your core temperature drops. To avoid this, layer thin thermal clothing ‘like an onion’. This traps warm air closer to the body and layers can be removed to help effectively regulate your temperature. However, also be aware of exposed regions of skin. When skin is exposed to cold air, vasoconstriction of blood vessels prevents excessive heat loss and helps to maintain a warm core temperature. If vasoconstriction occurs during exercise, blood flow and nerve impulses to muscle fibres in these regions is reduced. This will lead to reduced exercise performance and unnecessary discomfort. On very cold days where the ambient air temperature has plummeted, keep the entire body warm with layers of clothing and full length garments. And wear gloves or beware the hot shower after a cold run in winter! Cold fingers that have turned numb and a pasty shade of grey will yell at you as they begin to defrost.
Be prepared to pee!
There appears to be a urination goblin around whenever the cold sets in. This goblin is actually a result of the vasoconstriction processes just mentioned. Vasoconstriction limits the available blood vessel space for our blood, raising our blood pressure. The increase in blood pressure then triggers the perfusion of kidney nephrons, triggering a faster released of urine into the bladder. Whilst urinating is a natural process, the combination of the increased fluid loss through urination and sweating from exercise can lead to a sneaky build up of dehydration. Therefore, during winter aim to drink more, especially electrolytes to replace your exercise & urinary losses.
In summary, the onset of winter should not lead to your trail running shoes being relocated to the closet and the bike being banished to the garage. Understanding the physiological changes that occur during winter and cold weather training can assist in making smart decisions that will keep you exercising throughout the coldest, darkest months. So layer up, listen to the whispers of your body and play hard this winter!
Quick Fact Sheet Physiological changes:
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We have all heard that our bodies are comprised of mostly water. A 60kg individual is composed of around 48kg of water in which all their body’s biochemistry will take place. Water has a number of other functions in the body - evaporative cooling, glycogen storage and maintaining electrolyte balances. The loss of even a small proportion of this fluid (ie. 2% of body weight) can significantly reduce body functions and for athletes, performance. It can also be life threatening. When we consider that this is only 1.2L in our 60kg athlete, we begin to realize how significant the process of optimal hydration is.
Evaporative CoolingA 60kg adult at rest will consume around 0.2L of oxygen per minute, generating 70 watts of heat output. However, when running at threshold, oxygen consumption can increase 16 times and heat output rises to 1100 watts. The only way that this heat can be lost rapidly is through evaporative cooling, otherwise known as sweating. Sweating involves the loss of large amounts of fluid from the skins surface, which is then wicked away by air resulting in body cooling. In hot conditions it would take our 60kg individual around 1.5-2L of sweat to remove this excess heat.
Glycogen StorageReplacing fluid lost through sweat and urine is not the only justification for the importance of hydration. Glycogen or stored muscle carbohydrate is the body’s main source of energy. However, fixing 1g of carbohydrate into the muscles in the form of glycogen requires 3g of water ie. a 3:1 ratio of water to carbohydrate. This is one reason why you can often feel thirsty following a carbohydrate-rich meal. With this in mind, fluid is critical during times of recovery and taper. If you are focusing on carbo-loading but not drinking adequate amounts you can actually risk pulling extra water from the blood stream into the GI Tract. This can result in dehydration. Therefore, fluid is critical for replacing sweat and urine losses, but also for glycogen storage before and after exercise.
Are there other reasons important to remain hydrated?As you heat up, the body begins to enter survival mode. Rather than shunting blood to the working muscles, your blood stream prioritizes blood flow to the skin and vital organs. The reduced blood flow to the GI Tract makes the digestion of complex drinks and nutrition difficult, and as a result people often begin to experience stomach upsets and nausea. During such periods of stress, your breathing and heart rates will increase, and your general efficiency takes a dramatic nose-dive. Under these additional stressors, your body temperature will start to rise, resulting in stress to the brain. Clarity of thinking will decrease, your ability to assess you body state becomes compromised (runner’s often complain of feeling cold when they overheat) and you may begin to feel disorientated. All sound like great things to avoid when racing!
So should I just guzzle water?When we sweat and excrete urine, we don’t just loose fluids but also vital minerals. The main ingredient in sweat is sodium that is lost at a rate of 1-2g per liter. Other minerals that are lost are calcium, magnesium, potassium and chloride, although these are generally lost in much, much smaller quantities. Therefore, to replace fluid losses an electrolyte drink is far better than drinking pure water and the focus should turn to sodium.
Why not water?Are you putting the energy gels in but not receiving the ‘kick’? Over prolonged periods of heavy sweating, an individual can lose significant amounts of sodium. The combination of drinking pure water and sweating can cause a dilution of the concentration of sodium in the blood. This can begin to impair many of our normal physiological processes, including the transport of fluid and glucose across cellular membranes. That’s right, a lack of sodium can inhibit the transport of glucose into the working muscles cells.
Another good reason for opting for an electrolyte drink is that the use of sodium is known to promote thirst. This is often the reason why pubs serve salty, greasy food as it will generate greater drinks sales. And finally, when electrolytes, particularly sodium, are present in appropriate concentrations, the rate of fluid absorption from the small intestine into the rest of the body is enhanced. This is particularly important to consider when we are racing at intense levels with few possibilities to drink.
Are electrolyte drinks made equal?The simple answer is NO! Many sports drinks market themselves as the best on the market, and yet are made by soft drink companies such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi. Beverages such as Gatorade are literally pumped full of simple sugars that are very foreign to the small intestine under stress. In fact, the presence of the sugar that remains dormant in the GI Tract can create a net movement of fluid from the blood stream back into the gut, resulting in stomach distress and dehydration. Therefore, sports drinks based around the medical principles for oral rehydration are perfect. Complexes such as Shotz Electrolyte that are tablets dissolved in adequate water are proven to initiate rehydration even under the most stressful environments. These beverages contain a high concentration of sodium and minimal traces of the other elements. This is important because often sports drinks are pumped full of magnesium which also happens to be the first ingredient in all laxatives! Watch out for the heavily marketed brands, as these tend to be the worst for tummy-disrupting ingredients.
How much should I drink?How much fluid you need to consume is dependent on your fitness level, size, sweat rate and the weather conditions. Hot, sticky conditions will cause greater fluid losses due to the necessity to lose greater amounts of heat from the skin’s surfaces. Conversely, a cool, damp day will require lower fluid quantities to be consumed. The best way to determine how much you should drink is to monitor your body weight before and after training runs under a range of different weather conditions. For example, on a 20-degree day you may find that in 1 hour of exercise you loose 1kg. This then equates to 1L/hour of exercise under such conditions. On a hot, humid 30-degree day this may increase to 2kg during the hour. Therefore, you would be loosing 2L/hour. The most important rule of hydration is to drink what your stomach can tolerate and the best way to find this out is to know your losses then practice, practice, practice!
ConclusionThe good news about running in hot weather is that you can teach your body to adapt. Learning about how much sweat you loose during training and beginning to replace these with an advanced electrolyte formula will make a world of difference to your training & racing performances. Recently I conducted a sweat test for Shotz at the Australian Institute of Sport. I had been complaining about taking on energy and water without feeling like I was getting anything back. When I did my sweat test they found I was loosing over 1.5L of fluid each hour on a 20-degree day! Further to this, in each liter of my sweat I was loosing 1.8g of sodium. As you can imagine, this knowledge has significantly impacted the way I approach rehydration. In fact, sitting here writing this article after my morning run, I have a cup of tea on one side of me and a bottle of electrolyte on the other. In summary, all I can say is that if you get hydration right, it is like putting rocket fuel into your system.
Day 4-14: Lost-Your-Mojo Syndrome
The weather feels colder. Your sick of the colour of your running shoes. Work should be for the under 30’s. Where did all this traffic come from? You think you will just start training again in Spring or Summer.
If any of these thought processes have crossed your mind, you are likely suffering from Lost-Your-Mojo Syndrome. Here are some suggestions for getting it back:
Are you currently basking in the beautiful aftermath of ultra-running euphoria? On returning to your hotel did your saturate your day of running in the shower then crawl under the white hotel duvet to twitch yourself to wakeful sleep? At dawn, did you utter a groan when your feet hit the carpet and cringe as you lowered yourself onto the breakfast chair? Did you quietly revel in the ‘you-are-mad’ stares from hotel guests?
If so, you will be experiencing Euphoric Ultra Runner Syndrome. Enjoy it whilst it lasts because sadly, this is often replaced with Lost-Your-Mojo Runner Syndrome for which you must orchestrate your own recovery.
Here are my recovery suggestions:
Day 1-3: Euphoric Ultra Runner Syndrome and the DOoMs Days - Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness Days
These are the days of craving Mum’s apple crumble with more ice-cream than apple. During these days you might be lucky enough for someone to take pity and play the violin for you. Revel in the attention. For soon the novelty of mopey runner will wear off and you will be left to make your own cuppa again.
This is Part Two of my article series -Diet Patterns of an Injured Athlete. What a can of worms I have opened for as you will soon find out, there will be a Part Three!
In Part One, I wrote about my battles with inflammation and Achilles Tendonitis, describing how I had tried just about every form of treatment for my stubborn injury. After 9 months I began to query my overall health, eventually reaching a point where I realized there must be more at play than just my running, training and biomechanics. What I now believe was occurring in my body was an accumulation of stressors that were inhibiting my body’s ability to recover from my chronic injuries and training loads.
The Stress Response
A stressor is anything that places a load on the body and generates a flight or fight response. During such a response, the stress hormone Cortisol is pumped into the body generating physical changes that help us to remove the stressful situation. The interesting thing about the human stress response is that it is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mechanism. That is, the body cannot distinguish between different stressors, whether they derive from your workplace, family life, pain, other discomforts, environmental inputs or even your diet. And it is the accumulation of these individual stressors that can lead to a chronic stress response in which the body remains in a heightened state of stress-induced arousal.
Last year, this was me in a nutshell. I was accumulating stressors from training, Find Your Feet, emotional ‘female’ occasions, my general environment. Further to this, without realizing it, my diet had evolved to be rich in inflammatory foods, particularly sweet substances such as sugar, fructose and natural sweeteners. As I began to awake to these circumstances, I began delving into the literature. Everything I read alerted me to the fact that my body was struggling to stay in homeostasis (a balanced physical state). I was constantly pumping out cortisol to the detriment of my hormonal, physical & psychological health. It was this disruption to my hormones that was likely leading to my injury woes.
Hormones and Stress: A tight link
The body derives almost all of its hormones from one master hormone, Pregnalone. It is produced in the adrenal glands and is the precursor to many hormones including cortisol, DHEA, aldosterone, testosterone, estrogens and progesterone.
When we are in balance, there should be ample Pregnalone for the body to make adequate amounts of our sex hormones and cortisol. However, if we enter a chronic state of stress (such as through poor diet, inadequate exercise, insufficient sleep, lack of relaxation, and internalizing our emotional stress) we can fatigue our adrenal glands. This begins an occurrence of ‘Pregalone Steal’. That is, we override our need to produce the sex hormones for the sake of creating more Cortisol.
For optimal health we need our sex hormones. They help to keep us: in balance; feeling masculine or feminine; generating empathy towards others; rested at night; alert during the day; balanced in our emotions; healthy in our musculoskeletal system; and most importantly for the athlete, physically recovered. One of the two most important hormones here are Testosterone and Growth Hormone, both of which are produced by males and females (although to a much lessor extent in females). Without testosterone, the body’s ability to repair musculoskeletal tissue is hindered. I believe now that this was one of my main issues throughout 2014 – increased Cortisol levels and inadequate sex hormone levels.
Making Changes: A big mountain to climb
I believe that one of the biggest challenges to any athlete is identifying and acknowledging one’s chronic state of stress and with it, an unbalanced hormonal state. What many of us struggle to appreciate, myself included, is that stress doesn’t mean stressed. After all, in 2014 I was Happy Hanny. I didn’t snap at everyone and I wasn’t hiding in a hole feeling depressed or stressed. However, I was often on overdrive and if I add into this my poor diet, huge amounts of travel, elite level racing and fluctuating sleep patterns, my body had quietly accumulated stressors. This had crept up on me over a longer period of time and my hormonal health was now compromised.
Challenging myself to trawl through the research on overcoming Pregnalone steal and naturally boosting my hormones, I came across one very common suggestion: fix what you can fix. That is, whilst we can often point the finger to a large area of our life that feels stressful, it might not be the easiest one to initially change. For me it was Find Your Feet and my training. I couldn’t easily stop working otherwise this would add financial strains into the mix. I couldn’t reduce my travel as this was what I did for work. I couldn’t alter my training any more as I was already doing far less due to my injury. But two changes that I could make easily were to my diet and sleep routines. Thus I embarked on the journey of fixing what I could fix.
Change: Fixing what I could fix
Injury frustrations and research triggered me into radical change. Increasing my sleep was easy but in November I embarked on the overwhelming process of removing all forms of sugar for a two-month period. I chose this as my starting point because it seemed to be the most well documented and successful area of research into hormonal health. I knew I had a serious sweet tooth and that I found it hard to avoid the overwhelming need for more, especially mid-afternoon and after dinner. Therefore, the changes that I made included:
Be it chicken or eggs, my Achilles improved 100%.
Sugar: The bad and the ugly
There are many problems with sugar. In order to understand them one needs to understand what sugar is actually composed of and its impact on the body.
Sugar (the white stuff) is just pure energy and contains no nutrient value at all. It is composed of 50% glucose and 50% fructose. The glucose component of the sugar is readily acted upon by body cells in the presence of insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas. The fructose component must be processed into glycogen by the liver.
If our diet is too high in sugar and its various forms, many problems can occur. Some of these problems include:
In other words, consuming high amounts of sugar doesn’t really do anything for you. Simply put, sugar is empty calories.
Removing the White Stuff: The results
You might be asking why I decided to cut out all sugar for eight weeks, including fruit and natural sugars? My reasoning comes back to my addiction to sweet things. As I inferred in Part One of this article series, I was loading up on sugar and refined foods to the detriment of good nutrients, fatty acids and protein intake. Without these vital nutritional components, my body was pushed into a greater state of stress and inflammation whilst being denied the very things that would help it to recover. I needed to go cold turkey and break my sweet tooth!
The first two weeks was a nightmare. I was terribly lethargic and fighting constant headaches and moodiness. My partner, Graham, had also jumped on the challenge of two months without sugar. On one occasion we were out on a gentle ride and literally both bonked about 55 minutes into our gentle ride, crawling and pushing our bicycles home again. What likely had happened was that our bodies were so used to burning glucose that once our glycogen stores dried up we were left incapable of efficiently resorting to fatty acid metabolism for energy production. This is not the state that an endurance athlete should find himself or herself as fatty acid metabolism is what drives energy production during long events.
The biggest change that occurred in my diet wasn’t just the removal of sweet foods, but also the fact that I had to replace this energy with something else… fats and proteins. Till then, I had been educated from all fronts that fats were bad! Sports scientists, nutritionists, the AIS, coaches… everyone pointed the finger at fats being bad for you. To turn this around and be snacking on avocados, nuts, full-fat butter and cheese… it was hard but rewarding. During this period Graham and I saw no increases in weight and if anything, we leaned & toned up. Further to this, over the two months our energy levels began to sore. The cravings subsided and my own general emotional wellbeing strengthened. I began to feel like I was in a constant state of calmness, no longer seeking sugar inputs for the mid-morning and mid-afternoon cravings. Better still, I began to see signs that my hormones were balancing, my endurance was enhancing, recovery from strength training had quickened, and my Achilles was getting better! At last I was winning.
Since this experience I have not been a princess when it comes to sugar intake and there have been setbacks. The festive season threw me off course a little, as did an increase in travel and competitions, which lead to a loss of routines. But I have realized that reducing stressors and remaining in nutritional health is all about balance and being aware of what certain tasks, thoughts and food groups do to your own body. For me, I have realized that as soon as I overindulge in sugary foods, I become more susceptible to inflammation. This is also true if I work too much without enough rest. For example, despite no dramatic changes to my training, in the post-festive season I saw a slight return of my Achilles as well as a grizzly knee. This less balanced diet and lifestyle also saw more of my raw emotions and my ability to cope with stressors diminish. As I became aware of the fact that I felt I was travelling backwards, I cleaned up my diet and work schedule again, noticing rapid improvements in the inflammatory responses in my body. In short, I started winning again!
Way Forward: More research!
Since experiencing such dramatic changes for myself I am beginning to cautiously suggest similar changes to clients who are experiencing chronic injury issues. Without fail, I am seeing similar results. I have seen a client who had not menstruated for two years return to healthy cycles. I have had another who felt she was unable to cope with workplace stressors thrive again. Similarly, I have had two clients overcome tendinopathies and another a chronic knee inflammatory issue. Things certainly look positive from a coaching perspective.
But the story doesn’t just stop at sugar and stress. What I have now become aware of through my continued research into the modern literature is that there is a plethora of studies currently being conducted on holistic health, diet and lifestyle, with plausible links to chronic inflammation. Evidence suggests that chronic inflammation could be strongly linked to lifestyle diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, arthritis, diabetes and even neurological diseases. Whilst such studies appear to be embraced by the medical and alternative health world, it fascinates me that it doesn’t appear to be filtering into the sports industry. I see a strong need to find current, accurate research on diet, stress and chronic inflammation’s link to the world of sports injuries and recovery.
Therefore, in later blog posts, I hope to be able to share my studies on other aspects of nutrition and lifestyle, and how this may begin to point the finger towards causation for poor recovery from training and injury. Areas of interest to me are now:
Until then, I urge you to reflect on your own holistic health and to take note of how small decisions in diet, sleep, exercise and work manifest in your body’s ability to recover. Should you feel the need to experiment with your holistic health, I believe that the perseverance and hard work will likely pay off in your health, recovery and performance. Play hard!
Since the start of 2014 I have been battling return from an Achilles injury. I do not use the word battling loosely as this is what it has been. A battle. I have tried just about every quick remedy I can. In this order I have tried and mostly failed:
However, not completely naïve I did start to think about nutrition and recovery earlier this year when I sat with AIS dieticians, a leading sport nutritionist. I had reservations of my ability to recover from hard sessions, and constant tendency to iron deficiency and hormonal imbalance. I had noticed that my resilience from stressor loads was not where I wanted nor expected it to be, and that it was something I needed to address. In other words, I needed to stop patching and start fixing underlying causes. I made some changes to nutrition then:
The results? A slight improvement but I was still noticing the niggles and my Achilles still showed inflammation. So I faced the reality and plucked up the courage to fight the biggest battle of all – removing all sugar from my diet. As the ultimate fruit bat, this is like putting a possum on a fruit-free diet. Yikes!?
Nutrition guru, Darryl Griffiths of the Australian company Shotz Sports Nutrition in Melbourne, first highlighted the evils of sugar to me. Built sturdier and more mean than an Audi sports car, Darryl was horrified at my tendency… no dependency… on sugar. At the time I shrugged it off as bulls$@t – ‘Yeah, yeah, but endurance athletes need the carbs!’ I was merely frightened. If I wrote my current dietary pattern for a day down it looked something like this:
So there you had it, a day of highs, lows and one huge amount of sugar… mostly in the form of fructose. My moods swung, energy pitched and plummeted and stress levels were hard to control. I struggled to sit down, felt restless at my desk, and thoughts could even feel cloudy. If something got difficult I found myself reaching for the dried fruit jar. It sometimes helped a bit. However, underneath this is no way to live life. It was time to make a change.
We are lead to believe that overtraining is a ‘syndrome’ reserved for the elite or the silly. After all, elite athletes can easily complete hours of solid training. And the silly? They just do a lot. However, in this article I wish to highlight an important paradox about overtraining.
I recently had a client who came to me following difficulty completing a trail race. He was a forty-year old, single parent of three children and running his own business. He was also chairman of a school board and heavily involved in his eldest son’s sporting ambitions. Amongst this schedule, he was fitting in four sessions of training a week. Two of these were intervals with a local squad. The remaining sessions were run early in the morning before the children got up. On his best weeks he may complete about five to six hours of training, plus a little stretching before bed.
Following discussions with my client, it became evident that he was suffering from overtraining: sleep constantly disturbed; heart rate suppressed whilst training hard; elevated heart rate in the morning; daily fatigue, especially in his legs; depressed mood with decreased tolerance to stressors at work and home; moodiness with the children; and a failure to athletically perform in races. He was neither elite nor silly, just a guy who works hard for the benefit of everyone.
This leads to the question, how could my client be over trained? After all, the text-book definition suggests overtraining as: ‘a physical, behavioral, and emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual's exercise exceeds their recovery capacity.’
When I raised this notion of overtraining my client’s response was, ‘but I only train up to four sessions per week!’ If you experienced a similar reaction to the word exercise, now consider this:
Overtraining = Working Out + Daily Stressors > Rest + Recovery
Many athletes do not take into account their daily stressors, which may actually be a far greater load than that of the workouts they complete. Note that I am not talking about stresses. You may enjoy these activities but cumulatively, they place a load on the body. Busy adults can find that the cumulative load of training and daily stressors can exceed their rest and recovery. My client loves many aspects of what he does but the cumulative load has led to emotional, mental and physical fatigue to a point where he risks injury, sickness or underperformance.
This now leads to the next question, how do you bring a busy adult back from overtraining? Too often we divert straight to the exercise. And whilst yes, this may need work and adjustment; it is not always the underlying problem. What I like to suggest to my clients is - modify what you can modify.
For many individuals it would be hard to create more time in the day for rest and recovery whilst also doing everything else that you do. We can’t change the number of hours in a day or the fact that we must work in order to pay the bills. For an adult, exercise is often a necessary unwind, a chance to personal endeavor, or socialize with like-minded people. Simply cutting back training may not be the answer.
However, often we can change small things, small routines, behaviors or personal rules that have become so ingrained that we barely recognize them. Not only do they take time, but also valuable emotional and physical energy. Do any of these ring a bell?
These are just a few arguments that I have heard over the last few months and a case of very black and white thinking. I have found that most athletes I work with are Type A personalities and like myself, we struggle to see the shades of grey. Reducing unnecessary rules, tasks and routines may be a positive start in allowing your body more rest and recovery. For example:
Secondly, everyone can change his or her diet. It doesn’t need to be going on a diet, but everyone can modify what they choose to eat to reduce or eliminate refined carbohydrates, unhealthy vegetable oils, caffeine and sugar. Dietary changes can have a huge impact on a person’s life, especially the quality of their sleep and balance of their moods. A balanced diet rich in protein will assist the body’s ability to recover from training sessions whilst healthy fats will support the neural and endocrine systems.
Rest and recovery also needs your attention. Rest certainly suggests sleep but other passive and active recovery methods are also important to consider. Tasks that are creative or mindful will nourish your body as they help to alleviate some of the stress response. Tasks such as cooking, art, reading, mindful walking and yoga are great places to start. Further to this, socialization in moderation will help to support the hormonal system, especially the regeneration of our masculinity and femininity.
Finally, allow the body to sleep. It is during sleep that the true physical and mental recovery can happen. During the night, the earlier sleep cycles are important for the body’s physical recovery then in the latter dreaming cycles the body is mentally and emotionally repairing. Dealing with daily stress, including dietary stress, will lead to better sleep quality, and greater mental and physical performance the next day.
In summary, one of the most common misconceptions in sport and exercise is that training is just completing a workout. On the contrary, training is the workout PLUS the recovery that follows. As our body deals with all stressors in the same way, the harder we push in training (volume, strength or intensity) and life (work, family, volunteer, social) the greater the recovery required. In essence, if you wish to optimize your performance and avoid overtraining, consider everything that you are doing. The less stress we are under in our daily life, the more capable we will be of training to capacity.
‘Lydiard holds all the Keys to running success’ – Barry Magee
Over the years I have had my fair share of niggles and big learning curves. As a younger athlete I always thought more was better and that my body was tough enough to cope with a mess of speed, volume and strength all thrown in together. Thankfully none of these niggles have progressed to true injuries and I believe that I can truthfully track this back to a series of outstanding coaches who put me on the safe track over the years. These were Max Cherry, Barry Magee and Dick Telford. Over the last 18 months, I have become increasingly aware of their influence on my running and coaching, particularly when it comes to injury prevention. In this article, I am going to explore the importance of buffering injuries through periodization and the value of investing in an aerobic base by exploring the methods of my coaching mentors. To do this, I begin with Arthur Lydiard.
Potentially the Father of formalized base training, New Zealand’s Arthur Lydiard (1917 – 2004) rose to fame through his coaching of marathon legends, Peter Snell, Murray Halberg, Lorraine Moller and Barry Magee. Lydiard’s coaching foundations have become an integral part of many coaches’ current approaches to endurance training. In recent years, the likes of Nic Bideau, Dick Telford and Barry Magee have endorsed Lydiard’s ideas. His theories are also an evident part of the Kenyan Way.
It was Barry Magee whom I trained under during my year of study in Auckland and who introduced me to principles of Lydiard. I remember sitting in his lounge room watching him draw Lydiard’s Pyramid of Performance. For most of the year, Magee would send us off tempo running around the grassy volcanic cones of Auckland. Every weekend we would head to the Waitakere Ranges to run the famous Lydiard 22 mile hilly loop. It was only immediately prior to our key races that Magee embarked us on the higher intensity, shorter duration training sessions.
Following the Lydiard Way, Magee determined that all athletes, irrespective of their age or distance specializations, required a substantial aerobic base to protect them from injury and to sustain their maximal performance ability. Without this aerobic foundation and as running speeds and intensity increased closer to races, a myriad of yo-yo performances, injuries and disrupted training could occur. In my latter years, and without the direction of a coach, I fell into the trap of increasing my anaerobic training to the detriment of my aerobic base. Niggles and underperformance ensued.
As Magee reiterated with us, Lydiard believed that injury prevention and performance lay in the development of a long aerobic training base otherwise known as cardio or base training. That is, running should be conducted frequently and at intensities low enough for the oxygen intact to adequately meet the energy demands of the working muscles. In practical terms, in a fit athlete this type of running can be maintained for many minutes or hours and focuses on lower heart rates (generally between 60 & 80% of your maximal heart rate).
Following long base periods, Lydiard and Magee required their athletes to move into a transition phase characterized by hill resistance and leg-speed training. The purpose of this phase was to continue to maintain the aerobic base but to strengthen the leg muscles in preparation for the anaerobic training that was soon to follow. Lydiard’s hills were not classed as intervals like we often carry out here in Australia, but rather bounding, springing and bouncing up the hills to define the muscles and running technique required to run fast. Lydiard’s alternative was to conduct this training in a gym setting with a focus on leg strength and plyometrics.
Prior to my move to Auckland, a highly influential Tasmanian distance coach, Max Cherry, coached me. Cherry came from Percy Cerutty’s running school at Portsea. The Percy Cerutty approach was to train like a Spartan throughout a season and an integral part of Cherry’s coaching were large training volumes interspersed with plenty of bounding, springing and intervals. Cherry emphasized that these sessions would prime our legs for the demands of track running which were carried out on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The key difference between Cherry and Magee’s training was that Magee isolated the hills to a specific block whilst Cherry would intersperse them constantly through the season. However, both coaches would always ensure their athletes had the cardiovascular base behind them before participating in this type of hill training.
Lydiard believed that only after his athletes had completed their aerobic and resistance training phases were they ready to move onto true anaerobic or speed work. He determined that without the earlier two training phases, the athlete was at risk of systemic acidosis, a body state in which the cellular mechanisms that allow for balanced chemistry and recovery within the muscles are compromised. In simpler terms, Lydiard used to refer to anaerobic training as ‘tiring, exacting work’ that degraded the body (as apposed to aerobic training that upgraded the body). The anaerobic training was carefully interspersed with recovery training and rest days to ensure that the repair process generated a stronger body & mind. His athletes would perform numerous bouts of high speed work with just enough recovery to get through the workout holding good form, but in doing so create the desired training effect of an increased ability of the body to chemically ‘buffer’ the lactic acid. This training has also become known as VO2 max training and would lead an athlete into the taper period before his or her main race.
I currently train under the influence of the renowned Canberra distance coach, Dick Telford. Dick is another who buys into the Lydiard Way. Telford’s training is strongly influenced by the environment of Canberra, utilizing the hills and bushlands to develop our aerobic base before approaching speed training on the track during specific parts of the summer. Hills are Telford’s greatest friend and some of his sessions have been a key feature in my training partner’s programs since they were 14 years old. Telford keeps the most intense training to the end of the season when our bodies are fully primed for it. Very few of his athletes appear to ever be injured.
However, from where I sit as a coach, the modern ‘Australian Way’ of training for distance events is a bit of a jumble for most runners. There is often a mish-mash of long runs, jogging, cross training, very high-speed intervals and occasionally strength training all in the same week and all year round. There often appears to be no thought to periodization and the supplementation of running with strength-building training. This is particularly true of my adult runners who seem to fall into three categories. The first are those who just duck out the door in their moment of spare time for a run, moving by feel and training hard or easy, depending on the amount of time they have available. Their training often one-hit-wonder’ish with large or fast bouts followed by numerous rest days until the next session can be squeezed in. The second are those who love to run but prefer to plod out the door and just continue on plodding until an event pops up that they wish to enter. The third are those individuals that want to get fast faster. Every session they do is conducted at high intensities or large volumes, with little thought given to rest or recovery. Gym sessions are tough, swims are tough, and runs are long and tough. Eventually their body or mind snaps.
Perhaps this ‘Australian Way’ comes back to our ability to train all year round. Unlike the Europeans who have snow forcing them to take a bit of downtime, we can continue to run and run and run all year. Add to this the overly full calendar of running events and we seen to just move from one race to another without thought given to periodization. In other words, we love to run and thus even when our bodies are screaming out for a rest we simply say, ‘but one more dawn run can’t hurt?!’ The result of all this is that in 2013, more than 80% of runners in Australia experienced an injury.
Despite wisdom and experience, last year I fell into this trap. I returned from racing at the World Orienteering Championships in Finland knowing that I needed to develop more speed and endurance. I jumped straight into strength training, track running, hill intervals, fartlek, Parkruns and a streak of races. More speed, more speed! What I failed to remember at the time was that my body was run down from the races and that before I should begin my speed preparations I needed to slowly rebuild my aerobic base and strength to a point where my body was strong enough to handle the degrading anaerobic work. A niggling Achilles and hamstring ensued.
Wiser now, my training has returned to the Lydiard Way and the coaching principles of Magee, Cherry and Telford. Currently my training is focused around building my aerobic base via: long slow runs over the Canberra hills; increasing my jogging miles in the mornings; replacing speed training with tempo runs of around 10-16km conducted at marathon pace; and working on overall body strength in the gym. This phase will last for around 12 weeks in total.
In April I will initiate a hill specific phase that will be focused on hill intervals, leg speed running and plyometric training in the gym. During this time I will still aim to maintain my long runs and easy jogging miles to ensure that the aerobic system remains strong. Finally, when the body feels fully prepared, I will reenter my last phase of training that will include race specific and speed training. This will be interspersed with lots of jogging, long runs and additional recovery days to counterbalance the intensity.
In conclusion, in order for us to achieve our greatest levels of performance and avoid injuries, we need to be prepared to take our time. Rushing the development of our aerobic base or failing altogether to periodise our training can lead to a mash of training that can ultimately lead to underperforming on race day or degrading the body to a point of injury. For a lasting experience in the sport, I believe we need to run in the steps of our coaching fathers, that of Lydiard, Magee, Cherry and Telford. As they have influenced on me, training hard but smart can be your ultimate weapon.
Paula Radcliffe. Marathon world record holder. Greatest British athlete of all time. Failure?
This year was the second time Paula Radcliffe failed to complete the Olympic Marathon. In Athens she stopped at the 36km mark in floods of tears. This time she failed to even make it to the start of her home Olympics in London. But does this make her a failure? I think we would all agree that Paula Radcliffe could never be called this!
Radcliffe had goals and dreams. As she stated to the press following the announcement of her withdrawal from the London Olympic competition,
"No one tells us in advance where the limits of our own bodies lie and pushing these limits is the only way we can ever achieve our highest goals and dreams."
There appears to be this inherent link between running and goals. In fact, it is hard not to start a conversation with a runner without finding yourself asking what their next goal is. It is almost the first step in the running lifestyle, the New Year resolution of the runner, and the way of interpreting ourselves as an athlete. Like Radcliffe does, we set goals, strive hard towards them, and then depending on the outcome we either tick or cross them off. In Radcliffe’s situation, there was one almighty cross that made it to the news headlines on the far corners of the globe.
There is an increasing body of literature and research about the validity of goal setting. Radcliffe’s situation is one of many in a diverse range of fields. Every day, individuals and organisations set goals but for one reason or another, fail. Australian athletes who didn’t quite make the cut-offs for London, individuals trawling the weight loss industry, industries such as General Motors that set business goals and yet end up requiring government bailouts to survive… None are failures and yet all failed to achieve their goals.
While conventional wisdom has it that goal setting is critical to performance outcomes, there is amounting evidence to suggest the contrary. Recent research in the field of neuroscience suggests that the brain protects us by resisting change. Why do we dislike getting up 30 minutes earlier than normal to head outside for a run? Because we naturally avoid pain and seek immediate rewards by staying in bed to sleep. Part of the problem with goal setting is that it requires substantial behavioural or thinking changes that will be inherently associated with a fear of discomfort… failure. I am sure we can all associate with that feeling of initial excitement when choosing our next big race and then soon after that feeling of impending dread of the hard work and lifestyle changes that now have to be carried out whilst fear lurks in the background.
As Ray Williams of Psychology Today writes, ‘When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter it commences a de-motivator with a desire to return to known, comfortable behavior and thought patterns.’ Aubrey Daniels, in his book Oops! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money, argues that continually setting large goals is an ineffective practice as research shows that when individuals repeatedly fall short their performance declines. A report written by Adam Galinsky at the Harvard Business School argues that goal setting can focus too much attention on the wrong things and can lead people to participate in extreme behaviours to achieve their goals.
This leads us back to Paula Radcliffe. As she herself admits, she pushed the limits with her body and sometimes stepped that bit too far. Stress fractures. Bone grafts on 18 year-old injuries. Osteoarthritis. Hospitalizing stomach injuries. London. One-step too far?
Another problem with goal setting is that goals are hard to measure objectively. They come with a pass or fail connotation – ‘I either achieved it or I didn’t’. We never hear of athletes saying, ‘I was only two seconds off qualifying and so I achieved 96% of my goal’.
As a life and performance coach, I look for a focus not a goal. Identifying a focus requires recognizing the endeavours that you have naturally carried and that will only slightly implicate the self when they start to emerge. That is, one must find a focus that has sat inside you like a seed waiting to germinate. For example, I recently had a client who recognized their love of running but who wants to experience the art of trail running. This is their focus, their over-arching support. From this we set a series of targets that would provide a range of flexible and creative approaches that would lead to trail running experiences whilst cultivating their intrinsic motivation for the sport of running. We schemed events, training sessions, physical development objectives, lifestyle adjustments… all of which were planned but had no connotation of failure associated with them. My client experienced trail running at an elite level and didn’t have to live in fear of failure. It became a win-win situation.
If you have some goals already set and are working hard towards them, take a moment to step back and identify what is your overall focus. Why do you want to achieve this goal? What is it about this goal that makes you tingle? This will likely be your focus. For example, you may want to see what your body is capable of, feel fitter and more confident, or want to show your children the importance of physical activity. What you will find is that although your goal still holds relevance, it takes the stress of its accomplishment. It becomes a target in a bigger picture that has a greater meaning. Identifying your focus will foster greater intrinsic motivation that will assist you to become less reliant on extrinsic motivations to keep you on track and still running when you are ninety.
In summary, there are psychological implications of not achieving goals that can be more detrimental than not having goals at all. When Paula Radcliffe retired from racing the London Marathon, she admitted to crying more tears of pain than ever. The narrow emphasis and pass or fail outcomes make goals hard to measure objectively. Identifying the greater focus behind your goals will provide a supporting structure for your daily lifestyles and training that will help you to feel intrinsically motivated and positive about your running. Identifying your focus may not be easy and may require you to dig deep beneath your layers. Persist and it will be worth it.
My recent Irun article discussing the importance of recovery in training sparked remarkable interest amongst readers. I loved reading through all the feedback. One reader asked a very thought-provoking question: to what extent does the recovery process and necessity of rest change in an older runner? My correspondent was a remarkable 65-year-old athlete who recently ran the Boston marathon. Following the event, he pulled up stiff and sore, especially in his hamstring muscles. He explained that even with plenty of therapeutic treatment and stretching, it had still taken him ten weeks to recover. For me, his story raises two questions, does age alter the degree of damage that occurs to the body during intensive exercise and is the recovery rate significantly delayed?
The 2005 World Masters Games attracted over 21,000 competitors, highlighting the flourishing interest in maintaining a high level of physical performance throughout the lifespan (Fell & Williams, 2008). Bringing this closer to home, you only have to look around at a fun run to realize that most of the athletes participating are ‘older’. For this article, I will rely on the work of Pimentel et al. (2003) who suggests that ‘older’ refers to greater than 50-years-old, an age at which he noted rapid decline in physical athletic capacities.
Ageing is accompanied by significant declines in physical functioning capacity. Although regular exercise helps to protect against age-related illnesses, our older runners will notice a decrease in performance and, like my correspondent, often a delay in their recovery following higher intensity efforts. So, why does performance decrease with age and what causes the delay in recovery in older athletes?
Unfortunately a number of physical changes occur as we age that will affect our performance. These include (but are not limited to) changes to skeletal and heart muscle, and glycogen uptake and re-synthesis (Du et al. 2005).
Skeletal muscle is the muscle that generates movement and power as we run and an older runner will undergo greater exercise induced skeletal muscle damage. With advancing age, the muscle’s ability to repair and adapt is diminished. This could be caused by a decrease in muscle capillarization and mitochondrial activity (the power generators in the muscle) (Du et al. 2005); Fell & Williams, 2008). However, the good news is that training in older age can impart a protective effect on skeletal muscle, thus delaying these effects.
This leads us to a discussion about running training in older athletes. The main purpose of training is to unbalance the homeostasis of an individual’s functional systems, and the natural consequence of this is some degree of fatigue (Fell & Williams 2008; Smith & Norris 2002). If the body is allowed to recover with effective rest and nutrition, this should lead to adaptations that will prepare the individual for future physical demands and preferably, increased performance. However, does this process of insult and enhancement differ with age?
Below is a diagram taken from a paper by Fell & Williams, 2008, who adapted the model from Smith & Norris, 2002. In the diagram they propose that following an equal training stimulus, older athletes will experience greater damage and fatigue which delays the recovery response. That is, an older runner is likely to feel more sore, more tired and take longer to recover.
(Fell & Williams, 2008)
Below is another diagram presented by Fell & Williams. Figure 2 proposes that if a younger athlete and a veteran athlete move through the exact same training cycle involving regular training stimulus’ followed by a period of recovery, the younger athlete will enhance their performance whilst the older athlete will begin to show a decrease in performance. As we discussed earlier, the veteran athlete requires a longer recovery period than the younger athlete, and this should be accounted for in the training program. Of concern is that continued training without adequate rest actually results in progressive overreaching.
Here I will refer to my dear old coach Max Cherry who passed away in 2008. Max always used to say that for every 10km we race, we must allow one week to recover. This meant that following a marathon, I would allow myself four weeks to return to full strength before I began hard training again. I was just 20-years-old at the time. This theory has never failed me and is thoroughly supported in the scientific literature (Smith & Norris 2002). If we take into account the two diagrams above, an older runner might be looking for at least five to six weeks gentle recovery before jumping back into a higher intensity program.
A discussion on recovery would not be complete without mentioning nutrition. The literature shows that older adults should consume adequate carbohydrates during endurance training (6-8g/kg/day) and may benefit from the provision of carbohydrate and protein in the early recovery phase following endurance exercise to maximize glycogen re-synthesis in the muscles. There is no suggestion in the literature that fluid intake needs to differ with increasing age (Tarnopolsky 2008).
This has been a long article that has raised many valid points for consideration when conceptualizing training programs for veteran runners. The most important concept that I have ascertained from my research is that runners greater than 50-years should allow for an increased quantity of recovery following high-intensity efforts due to the increased muscle damage. Nutrition should focus on protein to assist in the muscle repair process and carbohydrates to increase glycogen re-synthesis. Finally, if in doubt, err on the side of safety and have an extra rest or recovery day - any training that you are doing is imparting a protective effect on your muscle and heart, and warding off age-related problems.
Du, N, Bai, S, Oguri, K, Kato, Y, Matsumoto, I, Kawase, H & Matsuoka, T 2005, 'Heart rate recovery after exercise and neural regulation of heart rate variability in 30-40 year old female marathon runners', Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, vol. 4, pp. 9-17.
Fell, J & Williams, AD 2008, 'The effect of aging on skeletal muscle recovery from exercise: possible implications for the aging athlete', Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 97-115.
Pimentel, AE, Gentile, CL, Tanaka, H, Seals, DR & Gates, PE 2003, 'Greater rate of decline in maximal aerobic capacity with age in endurance-trained than in sedentary men', Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 94, no. 6, pp. 2406-13.
Smith, D & Norris, S 2002, 'Training load and monitoring an athlete’s tolerance for endurance training', Enhancing recovery, preventing underperformance in athletes. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics, pp. 81-101.
Tarnopolsky, MA 2008, 'Nutritional consideration in the aging athlete', Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, vol. 18, no. 6, p. 531.
I am sure many of us have had to stop running for a period of time. In desperation to maintain our fitness we find ourselves delving into the garage to pull out that old rusty bike. Perhaps the novelty of running training everyday has begun to waiver and in a moment of weakness you are walking away from the bike shop with a shiny new machine? Or are you like myself who sometimes migrates into the gym when the temperatures plunge and the thought of another day with cold, wooden fingers is just too unappealing? The purpose of this article was to broach the difficult topic of cross-training for athletic performance and to review the literature to determine if cycle training impedes or supports our running.
Despite strong attempts to uncover the most recent research on the crossover between cycling and running, very little appears to have been conducted in this area. The most significant information discusses the need to balance swimming, cycling and running for optimal triathlon performance. For example, Millet et. al. (2002) tried to determine the extent of specificity between disciplinary training in triathletes. They concluded that swimming appears to be a highly specific activity, which does not gain nor provide benefits from, or to, the other disciplines. This is also supported by Tanaka (1994) who suggested that swimming training may result in minimum transfer of training effects, especially on the cardiovascular system. However, Millet et. al. did determine that cross-training effects do occur between cycle training and running performance in the elite triathletes.
In a later study, Millet et. al. (2009) conducted a synopsis of the literature to determine what the physiological differences are between cycling and running. They compared physiological variables such as maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max) and heart rate variances in triathletes, cyclists and runners. At the conclusion of their comparisons they determined that runners and cyclists can achieve similar VO2max results in their specialized disciples but not if they attempt to conduct the test in their non-targeted sport. A triathlete who specializes in both disciplines may achieve equal results on a treadmill and a cycle ergometer. Within the literature they also found an increased rate and level of fatigue in runners than in cyclists that caused a decrease in maximal strength. Perhaps due to this, there were significant differences in heart rate training zones for runners and cyclists. Therefore, they concluded that running places the body under greater demands and that there is more physiological training transfer from running to cycling than visa versa. Tanaka et. al. (1994) supports this be stating, ‘the nonspecific training effects seem to be more noticeable when running is performed as a cross-training mode’.
Foster et. al. (1995) suggested that cycle cross-training can create positive muscular changes to aid running performance but not to the same degree as increasing one’s specific training. More recently, Smith (2012) conducted a study of cross-training benefits on the cardiovascular system of thirteen athletics athletes over six weeks. He concluded that his subjects displayed no significant differences in their running economy or VO2max results post cycle training. ‘Cross-training effects never exceed those induced by the sport-specific training mode… the principles of specificity of training tend to have greatest significance in the highly trained athlete.’ (Foster et. al., 1995)
White et. al. (2003) conducted a study to examine whether substituting 50% of run training volume with cycle cross-training would maintain the competitiveness of female distance runners over a five week recuperation phases. They noted that although there was a slight decrease in their 3000m times, there was no actual loss of aerobic performance.
Therefore, for the elite runners, this discussion of the most relevant literature suggests that nothing beats the specificity of running to run. During the height of the season and in the lead up to major races, it would be preferable that cycle cross-training is not used as a substitute to running training. The most positive effects of cycle training could be during the off-peak time or following injury. During these periods, cycle training may maintain previous aerobic performance up to around six weeks. Following this, a decrease in running function may occur.
So far we have focussed on the training effects in the elite athlete but what significance does this hold for us mere mortals? After all, cross-training is a widely used approach for structuring a training programme. For the general population, evidence suggests that cross-training may be highly beneficial in improving overall fitness. Similarly, cross-training may be an appropriate supplement when beginning running and during periods of overtraining or psychological fatigue, such as during periods of high intensity employment (Tanaka, 1994). Finding the right balance of cross-training to running is a matter of working through your goals and determining the importance of running outcomes. A good coach should be able to assist you with this.
Finally, if cycling is your main sport, the nature of the increased physical demands of running may actually lead to a positive effect on cycle performance.
Foster, C., Hector, L.L., Welsh, R., Schrager, M., Green, M.A., & Snyder, A.C. (1995). Effect of specific versus cross-training on running performance. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology. 70(4), 367-372, DOI: 10.1007/BF00865035
Millet, G.P., Candau, R.B., Barbier, B., Busson, T., Rouillon, J.D., & Chatard, J.C. (2002). Modelling the transfers of training effects on performance in elite triathletes. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 23(1), 55-63. DOI: 10.1055/2-2002-19276
Millet, G.P., Vleck, V.E. & Bentley, D.J. 2009. Physiological differences between cycling and running: Lessons from triathletes. Sports Medicine; 39(3), 179-206
Smith, A. 2012. Effect of independent crank cycling training on running economy in collegiate distance runners (unpublished work).
Tanaka, H. (1994). Effects of cross-training. Transfer of training effects on VO2max between cycling, running and swimming. Sports Medicine 18(5), 330-339.
White, L.J., Dressendorfer, R.H., Muller, S.M., & Ferguson, M.A. 2003. Effectiveness of cycle cross-training between competitive seasons in female distance runners. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 17(2)
These articles are a collection of my writing. If you have feedback or questions, would love to hear from you!