This blog stemmed from a client's email query: 'I live in the UK where it is super cold at the moment. How do I prepare for your relatively hot Australian conditions?'
When you live in a cold environment, acclimatising for an event in hot conditions is incredibly difficult. In 2005 I was heading to the peak of Japan's summer for the World Orienteering Titles. It was expected to be >37 degrees celcius with humidity of over 90%. As I began preparing for the races, snow lay in a thin blanket across the lumpy paddocks of our family's farm in Tasmania. Without too much experience or guidance, I dusted off my bike, set it up on a friend's spin trainer by the hearth, stoked up the fire, shut all the doors, decked myself out in all my thermals & tracksuits, and began one incredibly uncomfortable 10-day streak of training.
Yes, if you do not have the luxury of arriving well in advance of your race, acclimitisation is pretty tough. Here are my tips:
For Sports Nutrition that will assist, visit Find Your Feet's Nutrition & Hydration Collection.
An interview with Find Your Feet Australia.
In 2013 you broke the women’s record by around 75mins that year and finished 4thoverall. Describe the run that you had – was it more mental, physical, strategical or all of the above?
To be honest, this was a hard year for me. In the leadup to the event, and even during it I had this real knowing discomfort in my knee. A month or so earlier I had been racing in China and tripped, knocking my knee on a rock. I found out weeks after the Overland event that I actually had a hairline fracture in my patellar. So, I guess I explain this because I don’t think my best races come from physical. The UTA100km in 2017 was a classic example of this. In that circumstance, I was super physically prepared, but not there mentally or emotionally at all. It made it a very, very long day out. In the 2013 Overland Track event I was just so eager to be at the event and running down the trail which transects my favourite regions of Tasmania. I had been living in Canberra for years and really missed this pristine landscape. It is where I feel most at home. Where I feel my love of mountains and the intimacy of all the natural elements combines with the rhythm of running. So, toeing that start line I was filled with eagerness, albeit a little apprehension. I had no strategical plan other than to run by the feel of my body, to monitor it carefully and listening to it, just as I was listening to the landscape and its own rhythms as the day unfolded. As it turned out, I ended up continuing to bump into Matt Cooper who was one of Australia’s top male ultra-runners at the time. He was having a tough day in the office but there was this quiet companionship and admiration at play. I didn’t ever run with him for long, but it was like a yo-yo, his coming and going as he found energy and then lost it again. I found that emotionally keeping an eye out for him and wanting to help him gave me strength too, and I ended up feeling on cloud nine all day. I certainly didn’t know anywhere near as much as I know now, such as about nutrition, hydration, equipment and strategical racing. I just ran with heart, spirit and tingling toes. I am so stoked still with that result. It was just a wonderful, long day outside.
(NB. Hanny finished 4thoverall that year in a time of 8hrs13mins. In the last three years, no woman has come within fifty-five minutes of this time.
How did you focus your preparations in the last week before the event?
In the week before the event I was conscious of not overloading my body nor mind. I was doing a lot of coaching at the time so that made it quite tricky. I was also living in Canberra where it was really hot. Therefore, I did a little more swimming, early morning gentle jogs, tried to focus on consuming more electrolytes and simple foods, and generally just enjoying the excited nervousness that comes before a race. Sleep is critical and that should always be your number one priority pre-race. After travel, I like to also lie with my feet up a wall as it takes away a lot of my lethargy and is proven to help reduce cortisol levels.
What do you think is the optimal mindset for long distance races?
You need to be able to tune into your emotions, hear what they are saying, and then utilize this knowledge to your advantage. The importance of this is to be able to stay strong but still be human. I find that when I am too ‘switched off’ to what I am feeling when I am out there, it leads to not enjoying myself. I become robotic and unable to appreciate why I am out there and what I am seeing. On the other hand, when I am too vulnerable and ruled by my emotions I can find it hard to stay strong and lean into the discomforts. So, it is a very fine balance. I personally work a huge amount on understanding ‘self’ and ‘my story’. I want to know what sits below the surface of me and to feel the vulnerability & strength that comes from this knowledge. I then find I am really able to tap into the adventures and missions that really are making my toes tingle… easily able to answer the question, ‘Why am I doing this?’ This is so important. Knowing you are out there for the right reasons will definitely give you the strength to lean into the discomforting moments, which are always prevalent when you are walking towards the edge! The other thing that is important is to understand what your definition of success is. And be warned, in Tasmania, this cannot be about time or places, or otherwise the raw wildness of the landscape will chew you up and spit you back out again!
What is different about racing & ultra-running in Tasmania?
I know we always use the word, but Tassie is definitely wilder. The trails are more remote, with many points of no return. The tracks are usually rougher too, with more roots, rocks, mud and sometimes, exposure. Therefore, I think you have to approach running in Tasmania with a slightly different mindset. You can’t easily say, ‘well, I’ll start and see how it goes’. You have to be far more prepared for that. To know that when you toe the start of a trail you are 100% ready for that. I think this is why I became one of those athletes who never raced half-baked. I always needed to be 100% confident in all my process – from my training leading into the event or mission, to my nutrition, recovery, equipment and psychology. I guess this is where Find Your Feet has grown from – a really willingness to highlight the importance of preparation and preparedness with our community of eager trail enthusiasts.
What final tips or tricks would you have for anyone preparing for this year’s Overland Track Ultra or another upcoming event?
I have come to learn that the half-way mark of an ultra-distance event is definitely not the half-way mark! I find that the game really begins sometime after the 2/3rds point of the event. Therefore, I like to determine a point that for me heralds this ‘true ½ way mark’. In the Overland Track race, I had the half-way mark as when I reached the northern shores of Lake St Clair which comes at around 62km into the event. Even though I had run the event previously and really enjoyed this section, I knew that most participants mentally & physically struggle in this section. So I knew it was important to pace my race so that my energy tank was still more than ½ full for this remaining 20km of the race.
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.
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:
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.
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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The Sweat Rate TestIt is important to develop an understanding of your sweat rate so that you can develop a thorough understanding of your sweat losses during an event.
The easiest way to measure your sweat rate is to weigh yourself without clothes on before and after exercising for one hour, taking note of the climatic conditions you were exercising in.
ResultsAssuming you did not use the toilet or consume any fluids during exercise, your weight loss is your sweat rate.
1kg of weight lost = 1L of fluid lost
If you drank any fluids or used the rest room between the two weight samples, you will need to include both of these estimated weights in your calculations.
Important ConsiderationsWeather and climatic conditions strongly influence sweat rates. For example, on a cooler overcast morning you will loose less sweat volume than on a hot, humid morning. Therefore, be sure to record the heat, humidity and weather conditions in your sweat test and repeat the test in cool, humid, windy and hot conditions.
Sweat rate also changes with pace and effort increases. For example, if you monitored your sweat rate for a shorter ½ marathon race pace and then want to step up to a 50 or 100km race that requires a lower effort over a prolonged period of time, you will need to conduct the above tests again to highlight the new effort zone.
ConclusionNow that you know your sweat rates, you now need to develop an understanding of how much fluid replacement your stomach can tolerate. For more information on how to rehydrate during events, you may like to read the article Hydration for Endurance Performance
For a comprehensive understanding on sports nutrition & hydration read: Sweat. Think. Go Faster by Darryl Griffiths
See our comprehensive Sports Nutrition range for Trail Runners HERE
Just some last words of encouragement & advice for your next race day:
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.
Thousands of runners recently attended the Ultra Trail Australia 100 and 50km races in the Blue Mountains. Sometimes it is hard not to be amongst the racing. However, sitting on the other side of the fence whilst the action gallops past gives a wholesome insight into the nutrition & hydration strategies of athletes.
Three Classifications of Athletes
In the race, we observed three types of athletes:
1. The Blank Stare Runner
The scenery of the Blue Mountains is stunning. Jagged tracks clutch to the side of overhanging cliffs. Damp forests hold tumbling waterfalls. However, the Blank Stare Runner will see little of this handsomeness. They also appear not to hear much until they stumble across your wildly clapping hands and goofy grin. They pull a tight smile and march onwards. From close up, they appear to have the ‘lights off’ - the I’m-on-a-mission facade with eyes glazed-over. From afar, there is an element of a plod, a trip, a stumble. One guesses behind it all is a negative mindset.
2. The Weary but Starry Eyed Runner
Fifty or one-hundred kilometers is never going to feel easy. There will always be an association with pain and a little suffering. But no matter how physically fatigued, the Weary but Starry Eyed Runner can maintain a smile. Their eyes sparkle with the challenge and even from a distance they easily acknowledge your excited cheers. They mutter a thanks, give a gentle high-five and then scuffle off around the corner.
3. The Prancer and Dancer Runner
This runner has the ability to make you forget about how much pain everyone else seems to be in. You find yourself pulling out your phone and googling entry dates for the next race. Before you see them, they have seen you. Their iPhone is out and they are happily snapping pictures to capture the memories. They are dancing across the rocks and prancing past the course marshals giving praise and a hearty, ‘thank you’. Their eyes are alight with anticipation. They might be fatigued but they are holding those negative thoughts at bay.
Which type of athlete are you?
You may fall somewhere in the middle and may shift from one to another at different points of a race. However, I am sure that looking back at race photos or your race debrief will help you identify with some of the above analogies?
Athlete Classifications: Symptomatic of Your Nutrition & Hydration
1. Race fuelling is about fuelling your brain not your body
Even for the slimmest athletes, the body has enough adipose tissue (fatty acids) stored to carry you a very, very long way. In endurance activities where the intensity is lower, a reasonably trained athlete should adequately utilize stored fatty acids for locomotive energy. However, there is one organ in the body that cannot use fatty acids for energy, and that is the brain.
The brain’s functional tissues is surrounded by the blood brain barrier. This is a physical block to protect the organ from harmful intruders and substances. When fatty acid is transported in the body, it is attached to a protein called albumin. This creates a molecule too large to pass through the barriers of the brain. Thus, the brain’s fuel source is glucose, the simplest molecular form of carbohydrate.
In races, we require the central nervous system and brain input to keep every other tissue of our body functioning. It drives our breathing, our heart, our working limb muscles. With an inadequate supply of glucose to the brain, this system starts to slow and will eventually grind to a complete halt.
2. Feed your brain glucose
If the brain holds everything together, then we must ensure that it receives an adequate supply of energy in the form of glucose. It is true that we can utilize stored muscle and liver glycogen for conversion into glucose and energy, but these stores are dramatically limited. Therefore, a fueling strategy for endurance race day must included simple forms of glucose, the best of which is a maltodextrin (pure glucose) gel.
3. Glucose absorption requires sodium
The absorption of glucose across cellular membranes requires a transporter protein that sits lodged in the cellular membranes. The functioning of this glucose transporter is often spared as the digestive tract starts to slow (the functioning of the digestive system will be overridden by the blood flow demands of the working muscles). That is, the body will prioritize the functioning of this glucose transporter over the digestion of fats, proteins and more complex carbohydrates, such as fructose.
4. Sweating causes a loss of sodium
Sweating causes large losses of sodium, especially over prolonged periods of time such as during endurance races. The amount of sodium varies from person to person and day-to-day, but can be in the vicinity of 1500-2000mg per 1L of sweat. No other electrolyte loss comes anywhere near the losses of sodium. This is because most other electrolytes, such as magnesium, are found within body cells. That is, sodium is an extracellular molecule floating freely in the bloodstream so it incurs the largest electrolyte losses during exercise.
5. Failing to replace sodium disrupts glucose absorption
If you fail to replace the sodium you are loosing, chances are you will not be absorbing the glucose you are trying to ingest. Without sodium present, the functioning of the transporter proteins slow. Therefore, the cellular membranes of the digestive tract, working muscles and mitochondria (power houses where energy is produced) become impermeable to glucose.
6. Low sodium and glucose intake affect the brain and central nervous system
If you are trying to rehydrate during races on water alone, you will likely be disrupting the body’s ability to absorb nutrition. Further more, if you are using a sports drink or electrolyte with inadequate sodium to meet your losses, you may also be disrupting your nutrition intake. Begin to become aware of your sweat losses both in volume and in the salt crusting that can appear on your clothes if you are a heavier sodium sweater. This can be a great guide to judging your losses.
Your Athlete Classification Explained:
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 your opportunity to revive and thrive. The work is done. All that is left to do is to try to find a sense of peace and tranquility in your busy lifestyle. Here are some quick tips to help you out:
Science shows that most children perform optimally on 9 1/4 hours of sleep per night. I believe we are very similar to children - running around, using our minds, shedding emotions etc. Therefore, try to get to bed 30-60mins earlier each night to try and catch up a little. If you can’t sleep then just lie peacefully as this will still be assisting.
With less training, use this extra time to have a little ‘out’. Go for a 5min walk in your lunch break or a 15min wander before breakfast. Try to watch a movie and stretch a little. Sit on the couch and enjoy your family’s company. This your time to give a little back to yourself. My trick is to have an extra long bath mid-week and a few extra minutes over my cuppa in the morning. Don’t see this week as an opportunity to hammer work. That can wait till after this weekend.
It’s time to start the refuelling… big time! Slowly switch across from a nutrition packed start of the week to a slightly greater focus on carbs. Cut back the fibre in the last 48hrs and the protein in the last 24hrs. Lots of sweet potatoes, pumpkins and whiter starchier foods. Avoid too much refined sugar and opt for things like honey instead.
Start the rehydration soon. This involves sipping electrolyte during the day and then adding in other tasty beverages such as green teas, soda waters, etc. etc. Avoid excessive caffeine so that you don’t trigger a greater stress response. Remember, the body is trying to heal itself so excess stress won’t help this. Don’t drink too much before bedtime so that you don’t disrupt quality sleep.
We all suffer anxiety pre-race. But it won’t help if it runs away with you. Be mindful of when anxious or unhelpful thoughts stick. Acknowledge the thought and then imagine hanging it up on a coat hook in your head. Tell yourself you will come back to it later. You won’t, but somehow it settles the mind. If you are anxious try and distract yourself with something soothing - take time to make a cup of tea really mindfully - smell, taste, feel and listen to the art of making a good pot of tea. Read books. Watch uplifting movies. Learn a language… after all we only run for our sport.
Prepare 2 days out
Earlier than this and you are being too anxious. Less than this and you are rushing the process. Prepare on Thursday, chill out and travel on Friday.
Run after you travel
It doesn’t need to be more than 20mins but definitely try to get out for a jog post-travel. I would also suggest lying with your feet up the wall to drain fluids from your lower legs. I do this for 20mins when I first arrive at my hotel and again before bed. The jog should be super light and refreshing. Don’t worry about running on the course or anything like that, just head out the door from the hotel.
In the race have fun
Even if it isn’t always fun, smile. It is amazing how a smile can take hold. Focus on one tiny section at a time, each meal time or hydration opportunity can be used to break up the run. Smile in checkpoints and let this be your time to fill with joy from your support crews and the crowds out there. If there is suffering - feed yourself. Before you get cold, put layers on to get warm. If your feet are a tad sore, fix them before they are very sore. Don’t let negative thoughts out. If they do slip past you, then chase them down and then replace them with nutrition and happy thoughts. Focus on how good that finish will be. If you were healthy enough to start then you are more than healthy enough to finish (within reason).
Believe in me
I believe in you so now it is your turn to believe in me. We are ready. We are healthy. We are capable of finishing with a smile on our face. Trust me. Now just get out there and run with joy and a fire in your heart. Start the race with humility, build through the run with confidence, and finish the race with fire. I know you can do it.
I was anxious for the race on Saturday. Excited, but anxious. I wasn’t scared about breaking records or standing amongst a cohort of amazing elite runners. No, I was scared for the same reason as any other athlete there – will I finish? How much will it hurt? And most importantly, can I run well enough to feel content with myself afterwards? After all, can there be any greater emotion than contentedness?
In the week leading in to the race I allowed myself to feel scared. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow explained – ‘For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.’ And through my life experiences I have come to realize that some of the things that rightly scare us can also become our greatest strengths.
I find change scary and it was the plethora of change that had occurred in my life in the last six months that was making me anxious. In October we sold our first ever home and left all our friends to move back to Tasmania. In November I started working with my new coach, James Kuegler, and started an extensive fit out of our new retail store. In December we opened the first Find Your Feet store and with that all the challenges of employing staff, paying bills from thin air and generally chasing our tails. January heralded my first international orienteering race in my home country and a further three weeks overcoming knee niggles incurred on the last day of racing. February welcomed Gus, my new strength coach, and the last year in my twenties. And March? March was 6 Foot Track and the start of my year of trail racing. So, yes, I was anxious because my benchmarks and parameters for performance had shifted. But Einstein said, ‘ Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. As the changes had all been positive I now just had to trust in my coach, the overall process and myself.
I ran this race learning from yesterday, living for today and hoping for tomorrow. I started faster than last year to find space on Nellie’s Glen. I didn’t want the risk of not being able to watch my footing as I had new shoes on and decided not to strap my ankle after the tape fell off last year. The fast start got me into a better rhythm through the first section of the course to Megalong Road. This was where I hit my maximum heart rate of 192 beats. Despite my fast pace of sub 3:40min/km pace through this section, I later saw that Emma Murray was still faster than me through this section and down to the Cox’s River.
The descent to Cox’s River is beautiful and I tried to forget about the race for a while. I was comfortably tucked behind a cluster of boys for this section and just tried to relax as much as possible, saving energy for the large climb to come. This is a great section to refuel and I started my routine of Shotz Gels and a very concentrated sodium electrolyte solution in my 250ml hand flask that I carried for the entire race.
Conversations about pace and time began amongst our group as we neared the river. I tried not to buy into it. I knew that focusing on record pace and times was only going to burn the energy that I desperately needed to conserve for the latter part of the race. I purposefully had no idea what time I needed to be at certain points of the race because I know that my strengths can never match another athletes’. Instead, I focused on running very wide through the cleaner flowing water of the river to avoid getting gravel in my shoes like last year. This worked a treat and I cleared the running waters with purpose.
Maybe I am a sucker for punishment but I love ascending big hills. However, this year I felt a little out of sorts when I first hit the hill. My legs felt a little nervous and jittery, and felt like I couldn’t apply power through my quadriceps. Instead of letting the negative thoughts overcome me I tried to focus on activating my glute muscles and unloading my quads. I also kept the energy intake happening and sipping my electrolyte. This worked and by the end of the first descent on Pluvi I felt light and fast again.
Climbing towards the top of this long hill was when I started to notice some of the other athletes struggling. The sun was coming out and I could see the beads of sweat on their shoulders. It was also dripping off the brim of my cap. I knew I needed to keep drinking and made the decision to drink water at every aid station I came to whilst constantly sipping my Shotz electrolyte.
Unlike last year, I hit the Black Range alone. Whilst this was hard from a pacing perspective, I felt comfortable running like this. Back home I have done many long hours hiking and running on the slopes of Mt Wellington on my own. Through training and overcoming some fears of wild places, I have learnt to love this sensation of isolation. I tried to run strongly but conservatively along the range, focusing on a short arm action and purposeful steps. I tried to avoid the plod and kept reminding myself that each step serves me a purpose of one step closer to the finish. I also tried to engage with the volunteers at the aide stations to ensure that the race didn’t become too serious and ‘all about me’. I kept expecting the boys to come racing past but as time went on, I realized I was probably alone for the long run.
As I came off the range someone yelled that I only had 10km to go. I was shocked and it was the first time I allowed my bubble to burst to look at my watch. I saw I had around 45 minutes to cover the last 10km. This was when the negatives started – ‘no way?!’ Then I remembered my coach saying to me just before the race, ‘Never let the negative words out if you can’t catch them’. I now had to catch my words! I went back to my strategies, taking on some energy to ward off the negative thoughts and giving my brain the glucose it was asking me for.
The last part of the race had been really tough for me in 2014 when I had found myself walking on many of the smaller pinches. This time I set myself a challenge of running more than last year and except for one purposeful walk, I ran everything. I kept reminding myself that I had been doing more than this duration in training and that I was stronger than I knew. With thirty minutes to go I took my last gel as a sign of ‘now the hard work really starts’.
My strides were starting to shorten as I ran past an official looking sign saying that I had 5km to go. My bubble burst for the last time and I looked at my watch. By my fuzzy calculations I had 20 minutes to reach the finish and this was the first time I began to really focus on the race record. But how could I do it? I had to run sub 4 minute kilometers to the finish line and although it was almost all downhill, I was beginning to experience a lot of discomfort. My new The North Face running shoes were a size too small due to availability in Australia and my big toe nail was ripping at the tips of them. All I could feel was a searing in my sock and stiffening quads from trying to run with my toes bunched up. I started talking out loud to myself. ‘Come on Hanny! This is not pain, just discomfort!’ I tried not to look at my watch for fear of what I might see. I just ran. My legs were stumps and my crunched up toes where disrupting my balance. Because of this my arms flailed wildly as I careered down the last rough hill. As I crested the arch I looked one last time at my watch and hoped I had done enough. All I could think about was not letting down the people that had believed in me so much.
The first time I realized I had done it was when I careered off the steps. Emotion exploded out of me in a flurry of excited bounds before I sank to the ground and shed a tear. People were taking my shoes off but I couldn’t concentrate. So much had led to this moment and so much relief was pouring out of me. I was niggle free for the first time in a very, very long time and it was the first opportunity I had had to race at full strength for a long while. Whilst you run alone you don’t succeed alone. So many people and circumstances gave me my armor out there on Saturday - Jackie Fairweather, James Kuegler, Darryl Griffiths, Canberra, Hobart, Find Your Feet and of course Graham... just to name a few. For all involved, I am entirely grateful.
Through running Six Foot this year I have learnt a huge amount:
Congratulations to everyone who completed the Six Foot Track in 2015. There were so many amazing results and none more than others. Be proud of what you achieved. Learn from your successes and your weaknesses. And most importantly, be content.
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.
These articles are a collection of my writing. If you have feedback or questions, would love to hear from you!