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.
This article was featured in the latest "Travel Play Live" magazine:
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’.
Just some last words of encouragement & advice for your next race day:
A recap of the World Orienteering Championships, Scotland
Elite athletes are constantly asked to focus on routines in the lead up to competitions. These include when to arrive, how much to train, when to sleep, what to eat, how to execute your race strategies and what to do for recovery. However, I have come to learn that routines cannot and should not dictate how you approach orienteering races. This year’s World Orienteering Championships once again reiterated that for me.
This was my seventh World Championships and I felt somewhat like Nanny Hanny of the team. Through previous years I had established a routine of approximately a 2-3 week preparation in the relevant terrain. During this phase I would base in the country I would be competing in and switch from physical preparation to striving for a comprehensive understanding of the regions forests and how these are represented on the maps.
Due to the tight schedule of coaching and racing, this year I only had 3 days in Scotland. When the races began rolling around I could feel the doubt creeping in, ‘was this long enough?’
The significance of routines
Given I only visited two Scottish forest maps and one local sprint map in the lead up to this championships, I knew that I could not approach the races in the same way. Normally I have felt relatively confident in the competition’s terrains and try to attack the courses both physically and technically. With understanding of the terrain comes a readiness to take more risks. That is, understanding a terrain can help de-risk the more risky racing decisions. Examples of such decisions are selecting a faster but more difficult route choice or starting the race with more speed.
New routines require new racing strategies
The limited technical preparation for Scotland left me feeling shaky. The few days prior to the races starting rolled around in a frenzy of visiting maps, washing clothes, shopping for food, preparing meals, team meetings and then collapsing into bed at the end of the day. This does sound exhausting doesn’t it? Despite best intentions, there was little time for reviewing old maps and studying potential courses. I did my best but I never felt it was enough.
Then suddenly the races were on me and I found myself standing on the start line of the Sprint Qualification. The race was shaky. Decisions were rushed, an alleyway missed. A few lapses of concentration but I found the finish.
Driving home from the event the lights went off, ‘What had just happened?’… Then they came back on again. In a moment of revelation I realized that my racing routines had to change. I was not as well prepared as I usually am. The focus on physical routines had to switch. I turned off the attack button and hit the caution one instead. My new approach of arriving just in time to race required a new routine for racing.
Sprinting with caution
I stole a glance at the back of my hand. Only minutes earlier I had written two words - cautious underdog. These words symbolized my new strategy and cautiouswas at the foundation of my new routine.
I picked up my map with reservations. How tough would this course be? The qualification and sprint relay had been filled with surprises. New fences and barricades; unexpected spectator passages and hidden fence crossings. The traps had been numerous and I had fallen for quite a few already.
So I started slow. I didn’t race to the start triangle nor attack the first control. I paused frequently to check my directions and ensure that no traps had been set. The atmosphere was amazing and spectators seemed to appreciate the novelty of Australians racing in their hometown. But their cheers were also distractions so I took the next couple of controls equally safe, aiming for the larger features and avoiding the narrow, twisting and more intricate alleyways. I used multiple features as attack points and avoided running at a speed that made reading the map difficult.
Before long it felt like I had survived the first section of buildings and I found myself reading ahead towards some areas of the course that spanned parks and small lakes. I changed gear and lifted my speed by a notch as linear features had become more abundant.
Through this section I was solely focused on taking time to plan my route choices and executing a perfect exit from the controls. Once I was heading in the right direction I lifted the speed, but never to a point where I felt out of control. I was determined not to let my alarm bells ring. But on reentering the buildings I was reminded of the dangers and cut my speed back to cruise mode.
Again I looked for the safe lines. Where there were none, I just trotted my way through the narrow spaces, ensuring that at every intersection I knew what direction I was taking next. I felt safe, calm and like an underdog. I saw spectators but they no longer took any of my concentration.
Leaping over a fence I refolded my map and was surprised to see that the entire remainder of the course was now in flat parkland. It felt somewhat reminiscent of the last part of the 2006 Sprint Final in Denmark. I knew what I had to do. Stay strong and use the excellent visibility to pick straight lines. Exit directions became my focus. I found that once I exited cleanly from the control and looked up, I could almost see the next control in front of me. Here I began to feel like I was finally tapping into some of my fitness and speed.
New routines required
Crossing the line I had absolutely no idea of how I had gone. But in my heart I knew that was the best I could have done and it was the most magical feeling. Only later did I find out that I had achieved a podium finish and fifth position.
Driving home from this event I knew I had found my new routine and one that suited a limited preparation in the terrain. Whilst not ideal to arrive so soon before the competition started, it was suddenly ok to not know everything about the terrain so long as I recognized that my old routines needed to be put aside. My new routine of cautiousness and calmness felt appropriate and with every race I ran with this new understanding.
I am sure this is why the week unfolded in the way it did. The transition from sprint racing to the forest was hard and my first race in the middle distance started shakily. But you learn from mistakes and each day I tried to execute my routines with 5% more perfection. I’d say to myself, ‘just 5% better today Han… just 5%’. On the finish line it often felt like 20%.
Recovery routines change too
The recovery from this World Championships will be new and different too. The immense focus and concentration has taken a different toll on my body. My head feels like someone has blown into my ears and filled it up with air. The body feels lethargic and dragging my suitcase through the airport concourse is enough training for the day.
Over the last 8 days I have completed 6 races. I put more focus into how I raced each of these events than ever before. The new approach of 100% concentration from start to finish resulted in a body that holistically feels exhausted. And given that this is the same amount of races I have done in the past 5 months I shouldn’t be surprised.
Therefore, I am setting no expectations on how long it will take me to recover. If I bounce back in a couple of day’s time then great. But if it takes a week or two then I am content with that. After all, it is critical to recover optimally so that the mind, body and spirit all have a chance to become even stronger for next time… whatever that will be. As always, lessons will be learnt.
The Scottish experience
I have amazing memories of Scotland. I loved the landscape and the beautiful people. Amidst lochs and tales of the Lochness Monster, you can live like a princess. In the eyes of the locals, from orienteering volunteers to the petrol pump man, my name is ‘Love’ (sounded more like Luv). Furthermore, up there in the far north there was an overall sense of tranquility and remoteness. The week was busy and I didn’t get a chance to experience much of the Scottish traditions. I never ventured beyond laughing at the Aussie’s wariness of their deep-fried haggis, driving the small laneways to events, and my first experience of wearing a midgiehead-net.
Despite my advancing age and being the Nana on the Australian Team, this year I feel like I opened new doors. I learnt that flexible routines and recognizing weak links in your preparation could become your greatest strengths. Whilst I am proud of running for Australia and the results I achieved, I am more proud of how I got there. I am now excited to share this revelation with others so they too can enjoy that amazing feeling that comes with the perfect run. After all, as runners and orienteers, isn’t that what we all strive for?
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:
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.
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.
No, this is not a piece about schmoozy Italian men or Romeo and Juliet, but rather a summary of the harsh lessons of orienteering racing at the international senior level. I am writing this blog following the conclusion of six races in eight days. During this period, I have raced 38km through the streets of Venice or the hills of the Dolomites, and clocked up a total mileage on my Suunto Ambit of 125km. And whilst each of my results in isolation appeared strong enough, together they tell a story. The story of optimising your performance arousal.
The week opened with the sprint races around the islands of Burano and Venice. A photographers dream... a nervous orienteer's nightmare. Prior to a World Championships, each terrain or map area is embargoed. No athlete or their support crew are allowed to visit the area for 4 years prior to the World Championships. However, unlike the good old days where we 'ran blind', technological advances have created opportunities for orienteers to study the competition areas using Google Earth, Street View, Running Wild and other softwares. Even my Australian colleagues schemed, plotted and studied until right before the race, reminding me of that dreaded university cramming that I joyously left behind long ago.
I am not saying that these preparations are in vain. If one can control their nerves and help create a positive energy for the races then a huge congratulations for all the hard work. However, for me, this extra study lead to over-arousal. Nervous nights, waking weary, scattered thoughts and the jitters in quarantines meant that by the time I disembarked the boats for the sprint races, I was teetering on the lip of the bucket of nerves. Whilst this energy was exhilarating, out on the qualification course my actions felt mechanical, I struggled to absorb the information on the map, and I skittered around the course. Not an ideal start to my WOC campaign. This fitful start continued into the final where I felt tired from using up so much anxious energy. Under a hot sun, my thoughts and legs had to work hard to finish 24th. Not a bad result but the means to the end was disappointing.
My second race was a mixed sprint relay held in the town of Trento in the middle of the Dolomites. A new race to the WOC competitions, it was one which Australia had targetted. A team affair, once again I was also part of the plotting and scheming. I am sure my over-anxious state in the previous days had eliminated some of my nervous energy but I still rested fitfully in the hours into the evening race. An amazingly emotional pep-talk from our coach Tom & starting in the middle of a huge thunderstorm amongst the world's best orienteers saw a return of partial jitters. Once again, whilst my run was solid, I felt on the edge and often out of control. I also felt like my training could not escape from me leaving a lot of my running power trapped inside my body. Finishing 10th overall as a team we were delighted but individually, I knew I had more to give.
Thankfully I recognised how my nerves affected my mind and legs . Rather than stress myself further with more study and plotting, I decided to take the relaxed approach into my pet event, the Long Distance Race. I spent hours reading teenage novels on my IPad, enjoying Italian chocolate, and heading out on carefree walk-jogs. By race day, I was more calm although still somewhat stressed by my lack of apparent form when training in this hugely technical terrain.
After experiencing a pre-start with no toilet for the nervous starters and a 1.5km seriously uphill run to the start, I finally entered the forest. Amongst the dampness and relative stormy darkness I somehow found mental clarity and my running form. The remaining nerves subsided and despite a poor route choice judgment mid-course, I finished a strong 13th place. Not quite the result that I was aiming for but a step in the right direction.
Knowing that calmness appeared the easiest way towards optimal performance I was taking a relaxed approach to the few days leading into our relay. After a quick look at the terrain I was planning to spend two relaxing days spectating the technical middle distance race, catching up with the Aussie supporters and eating gelati. However, a last minute call-up following the illness of one of my teammates left me re-tying my sodden shoes and lining up in the Middle Distance race. I have a history of struggling with the navigation in this discipline which is renowned for being most technical. So here I was, standing on a World Championships start line having done no preparation for the race. I had one option - head out to have fun and run as close to the limits of my navigation. Nerves didn't even have a chance to kick in.
Out on the slippery slopes of these alpine meadows I experienced cows & brumbies on steroids, total piece of mind and mental acuity in the middle of yet another mountain thunderstorm. Yes, I still made some small errors but even when doing so, I felt sharp and able to adapt. My legs felt powerful despite many kilometres raced and thoughts of results never entered my mind. I ran with power, purpose and pure joy. Bliss. 15th was my reward in a red hot women's' field. I experienced similar calmness and exhilaration in our relay the following day.
So what is the lesson in all this? The weather in the Dolomites is diabolical at times and the cows there are certainly on steroids? Maybe. No, the true lesson in all of this is that if you wish to maximise your performance then begin to tune into your emotional and mental state leading into races. Optimal performance arousal varies for everyone. Some people need to pep themselves up and feel nervous to pull together their perfect run. Others need to feel overly calm to the point of sleepy. For me, I just need to be relaxed and having fun. Hours stressing over food, sleep, maps, Google Earth, course profiles and Street View will only detract from my true potential on race day. Nerves leave my legs heavy and my mind foggy.
In summary, the World Orienteering Championships have been a valuable progression in my elite athletics career. I have had to learn to be adaptable under intriguing race setups in Venice, tolerant of the temperamental weather in the mountains, capable of dealing with altitude in the races, and find a way of enjoying the feeling of 'the hangries' when dinner is not served until 8:00pm after a day of racing. I have tuned into my emotions and found my optimal racing state and when all has been completed, found pride in my results that do not quite reflect what I believe to be my true potential. Maybe next year?
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.
These articles are a collection of my writing. If you have feedback or questions, would love to hear from you!