THIS ADVENTURE NEEDS AN INITIAL EXPLANATION:
Dense cloud, loitering over and around me, hanging grey and heavy. Darkness has just departed through the door to this steep-sided valley, creating space for dawn to enter. I move methodically and powerfully up the mountain slopes where alpine rhododendrons cling to the rocks, bravely holding out against Summer and her brother, Winter. I am alone out here and the silence is so silent that I can hear every deep breath and footstep that I take, and every crease and rustle of my movements as I climb higher and higher. Rounding a bend, I am confronted with the world spilling away from me, a trail marked by steep cliffs on the upper-side and deep cliffs below. The track meanders forwards along the precipice and as I run, stepping up, over and around each small obstacle along its course, I know that there is absolutely nowhere else that I want to be. That I need to be. Most importantly, there is no one else that I must be. I am a runner, an athlete, a woman, a wife, and an adventurous spirit who needs wild time to thrive. In its simplest form, I am Hanny… and finally, unapologetically so.
I hatched the dream to run the length of the French Pyrenees Mountains some twelve-months prior, and despite my broken foot over summer and the fears and setbacks this brought with it, at one point believing that the dream was over, spontaneously, with 2 days of planning, I have found myself back out here on a very long trail to somewhere. I have only 70km behind me and some 700km still in front. I have only climbed a few smaller mountains and I have literally a whole mountain range still to come. My new shoes feel foreign, I purchased them 4 days ago during a flight layover in Portugal. My vest pack is also a spontaneous purchase as our initial plans of slowly fastpacking the trail with a larger pack also changed. My beloved one, along with most of my gear, is stored at Milan Airport in Italy. Oops! I don’t own a copy of the GR10 Trail Handbook and the map is on my phone – but I’ve never really used this technology before and am still learning how to navigate by it! I am chewing lollies because I probably don’t have enough sports nutrition to last me the full 19-days, and I am eating dinner with a teaspoon because I couldn’t bring my titanium spork on the airplane as carry-on luggage. Here in France I only have one change of running clothes, two pairs of socks, my bathers and spare shorts plus singlet to sleep in. Oh, and it is stinking hot as yet another European heat wave has just hit.
Yep, I am so underprepared and I have no real idea of what is in store for me over the next twenty or so days… but somehow I feel more ready than ever to be out here.
It is now day 4 of this wild adventure and I am hidden by fog as I traverse beyond the cliffs and deeper into the real mountains. The aching physical discomfort that arose in the first few days has begun to leave me and I feel stronger, steadier and more present. Even the mental chatter – the fears, anxiety, and even the guilt of being out here without my husband and leaving my work commitments behind for three whole weeks – has now calmed. I feel so utterly present and peaceful as I feel myself living the dream one day, one step at a time. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, over 19-days I am attempting to traverse this mountain range. I may not have been organized, and I am definitely not up-to-speed with the experiences I am in for. I may not be the fastest or joining the dots on the map with absolute perfection, but I am out here because there is absolutely no place else that I want to be, completing a journey that I created, where I get to make up the rules, and all the while marveling at the majesty of the Pyrenees in all her moods. Yep, I’m here because I just couldn’t put out the flame of this dream and it burned so strongly in me, and for so long, until finally I just accepted that running the Pyrenees was inevitable.
What has allowed me to step up to this huge, huge goal is that I have taken the time to empower myself every day for the last few years, to learn to ‘be wilder’ and unapologetically me, so that when the time came I was really ready to ‘perform wilder’. Out here, playing wild, I am my best self. So here I am. In fog. On a mountain trail. On my way to the Mediterranean Sea.
Total number of days: 19
Shortest Day: 24km with 2400m vertical
Longest Day: 47km with 2800m vertical
Total kilometers: approx. 700km
Total ascent: approx. 42,000m
Does any of this really matter? Nup!!
What I used to navigate the Pyrenees Traverse:
Phone App software called ‘Maps.me’ & trail markers
My husband and best mate – Graham. We hired Hertz’ smallest hatchback car. He would drop me off at the beginning of the trail each day and then navigate himself to the pickup point before running in to meet me, exploring the rich trails and mountain diversity too.
Accommodation during the Traverse:
Small ‘Gites’ (bed & breakfast), local hotels or self-catered apartments.
Most comical fact:
I ate every meal with a teaspoon purchased for just 0.5 Euro at the supermarket. This became a symbol of the joy that comes from spontaneity and playing wilder.
Overcoming the guilt of taking the time out for me to chase this huge dream. After this it was having my phone die in a torrential thunderstorm, thereby loosing my safety connection with Graham and also my maps. So, for the last 6 days I had to really step up my confidence, to rely on the trail markers and my evening homework memorizing maps, and to trust myself. In some ways, this created the richest memories for me because I think I was just so present and engaged in the landscapes and task at hand.
We had some pretty hilarious French accommodation experiences. But I think it really was feeling how strong the body can become as it lifted day after day after day into the challenge. In many ways the challenge shifted from the physical to the mental, then to the emotional and finally to this very quiet, almost spiritual place. It was just so surreal to experience such a peaceful mental state, and to feel your body feeling so strong after 700km! So when I reached the finish at the Mediterranean Sea, I actually wasn’t feeling or thinking anything. It was like my mind and body were quiet. It was a pretty awesome feeling!
Highlight of the Traverse:
I cannot pick one! However, detouring to climb Pic du Ani with Graham, traversing her bare rocky slopes, would have to be right up there. Then it was just the dawn starts, the silence, and the forests. And of course, the excitement of seeing the Atlantic Ocean at Hendeye at the beginning and then finally seeing the waters of the Mediterranean Sea appear from the heights of Pic du Canigou (2900m) on the third last day of the run.
What I used on the Pyrenees Traverse:*
The North Face BTN Shorts
The North Face BTN T-shirt
The North Face BTN visor
The North Face Stow’n’Go Sports Bra
Patagonia Active Briefs
2x pairs merino socks (worn together for extra padding)
Salomon S-Lab Sense SG Trail Running Shoes
Salomon S-Lab Sense 5 Vest Pack
Petzl Bindi Headtorch
*I literally had one set of running clothes and 1 set of non-running clothes. Boarding my flight to the start of the trail my total baggage weight was 7kg and this included the remnants of my sports nutrition.
What I carried with me:
The North Face Light Thermal Top
The North Face Hyperair Rain Jacket
2x500ml Soft Flasks
Small first aid kit
Nutrition including spare electrolytes
‘Ibis’ – a stuffed goat who acted as my co-pilot
What I fueled myself during the runs:
Koda Sports Gels (mostly non-caffeinated but with the occasional caffeine included)
Peach Ice Tea
Occasional muesli bars
What I fueled myself on before runs:
Dry crunchy muesli
Soymilk & Tea
What I fueled myself on after runs:
Fruit & Veggies
Soymilk & Tea
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!
Today I received an email from a reader with an important question - 'What do I eat before race?'. She had read in my The Trail Running Guidebook where I recommend to simplify our diet in the last few days before a race, focussing on lower fat, lower protein meals. In the book I suggest - WHITE, FLUFFY, STARCHY. So her question was, 'What are some examples of white, fluffy and starchy foods that I should eat in the days leading up to a race?' Here is my reply:
I have been vegetarian and more recently, plant based, for almost my entire life. So, keeping this in mind, my suggestions would be:
On race morning I would aim for:
I hope these suggestions help fire you up for some great adventures ahead!
This piece is for all the individuals out there who can feel like a zebra - like your stripes are telling you apart from the crowd. It is also for all the individuals who feel a pull to shed their old identities and begin again, and to those who aren't quite sure where to start. It is packed with honesty in the knowledge that you will not judge me for the humanness of these experiences.
A zebra. That is what I kept likening myself to as I wandered in and out of various presentations at the Australian Institute of Company Directors Annual Governance Summit. What a mouthful! As I sat there, surrounded by 1500 other delegates, each in their grey suits, with the occasional blue pop on a male, or a fling of red or white from the women, I honestly felt my stripes yelling to the room. I don’t own a suit jacket, or corporate skirt, or black shiny heels. In fact, I don’t own anything that would help me fit into that room. Add to this my short spicy white pixie cut, youthful looks, my white slacks and turtleneck jumper, yes, I really was the zebra here. Many individuals bravely stated, ‘You don’t look old enough to have done all that!’ when I shared dribs and drabs of my story and how I came to be attending the conference. So, for me, the two-day summit and AICD councillor’s meeting prior to it, has not only provided insights into the principles of good governance in Australia, but also raised one question, should I be trying harder to fit in?
My mentor & transformational coach, Alice, has always said that you can find all the answers to our questions in nature. When I sat back to deliberate on my question, this is precisely what I have subconsciously done. Why was it that I picked the zebra as my way to describe my discomfort in this environment? And if I was the zebra, what did this make everyone else? Assume for a moment that they were horses, gorgeous stallions and wild brumbies. Yes, let’s consider this scenario for a second. If you were to put a zebra in the midst of these horses, to give it the same food source, water, love and attention, it will remain a zebra. The horses may try to teach it to trot, canter and follow their lead, but it will still have the traits and qualities of a wild Africa animal, one with white stripes and black. It can act like a horse, but it will undeniably still be a zebra. We could trim its main, shod it, and make it look more ‘horse-like’, but it will retain its stripes… it will still be the zebra.
So is that the answer here? If I know that I am a zebra, and this is a room full of horses, each of various breeds and beauties, I cannot change the essence of who I am by changing what I wear and trying to fit in. No, I don’t believe that I can. I must be proud of those traits and qualities that make me different. Proud of my age, my experiences, skills & my story. In truth, I must be proud of my identities, formed from my values, beliefs, actions and environment. If there are horses in that room who see me and accept me for these stripes, then I am willing to canter alongside them and enjoy the rush of the wind in my face and the new lessons I learn from them as we roam the lessons of great governance. However, to those who turn away, confused by the wild creature before them, then I respect them too. Zebras are not for everyone.
The second part to this story is that whilst happily a zebra for now, I too am still trying to understand my complete identity. Even a year ago if someone had asked me, ‘How do you see yourself?’ I would have responded with, ‘As an athlete and a businesswoman, as well as a daughter, a sister, a partner’. And if pressed, I might add, ‘World Champion and young businesswoman’. However, in truth, I am coming to realise that these identities are changing and I am still wrestling and trying to reconcile with this. This begs another question for me - What do you do with a beloved, love-worn jacket that you now know you need to retire? Should you keep on wearing it because it seems a waste to cast it aside, especially given how much you have trusted & loved it for protecting you from the elements? Now dismiss it after it has shared many wilder journeys with you? Or should you take it off, hang it in the closet, or pass it forward to someone who needs it more than you, someone who can grow into it? Just like this well-loved jacket, taking off an old identity can be terrifying. You can suddenly feel naked, feel the loss of its warmth and protection, forcing you to wrap your arms tighter around you. As you do, you will undoubtedly wonder, ‘How on earth you I find another jacket that is as good a fit as that one?’ Now imagine that you gifted your jacket to the local Vinnies shop, and a few weeks later, as you pop into the supermarket and feel the chill of the refrigeration section hit you, you suddenly see someone else wearing your jacket. This vision brings on a sudden pang of jealousy, a sudden desire to tug it back on and revel in its comfort. Yet deep down, you know this jacket no longer belongs to you. Now you feel sadness as you try to fill your basket with your groceries. You look down at the basket, and the items that you always enjoyed now no longer seem as appealing. For a short moment, you feel cold, alone and a little saddened without your jacket. Your old identity.
For me, this is exactly what has been happening, With the love and support of Alice, we have torn down barrier after barrier, peeling off the old jacket to help me uncover what my new identities are, and how my values feed into these. Most of these barriers come in the form of unresolved emotional traumas, and an incongruence with my actions, emotions, thoughts and identities. Unresolved anger, grief and sadness were hidden in the depths of each and every one of my cells. These stemmed from incidences that I had forgotten, dismissed or thought I had already overcome. Often the blocked emotions were not to do with an incident itself, but how I responded to the situation, or how someone close to me responded. It was about the choices that I made, or didn’t make in those moments, with the lessons not yet realised, the growth not yet experienced. So, as the barriers were torn down and reflected upon, at first I grieved, ached from the bruises of experiencing once again, and then rapidly felt myself coming back together, stronger than ever with clarity fuelling the flames of new desires and enhanced purpose.
For as long as I can remember I have lived by the identities of athlete, daughter, sister, protecter, hard-worker, talented, achiever, Tasmanian. Proudly so. Fiercely so. They have served me well, and taken me to the heights of sport and business accolades. Yet, despite the successes, lumps, bumps and dips in this road, somewhere along the way these identities had become shaken up - my environment had changed, my beliefs, actions and relationships too. In fact, my values had shifted and until working with Alice and trusting her to take me down deep into my subconscious, I didn’t release just how far I had moved beyond these old identities and how some of them have never actually served me. I had accepted them as a given and never thought to pause and ask the simple question, ‘Is this jacket for me?’
Sitting in the huge theatre in Sydney, the distant voices of the presenters floating towards me, I couldn’t help but find my mind drifting. Why? Because I have suddenly realised that there is no part of my identity that is a businesswoman. No, not at all. Despite having won two business awards, business is not a part of my identity… not at all. However, what is, is learning about the people who interact with the business. What motivates them, their dreams, aspirations and how they lead themselves there, or lead themselves away for that matter. It is the why and the how that fascinates me in business, not the what or the outcomes. During the conversations that erupted during the tea and lunch breaks at the conference, I found that my brain couldn’t attach to the stories that people were sharing with me unless we reached the human element at the bottom of their story - once again, their why and how, not their what - the accolades, successes & business outcomes. Similarly, earlier that morning, I had taken myself off to the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre to spin my arms and feel my body move silently through the quiet waters of an awakening swimming pool. As I began to ease into the movements, I couldn’t help but feel that athlete is no longer a part of my identity either. I no longer feel like I am competing against myself or others, that I am no longer driven by accolades or results. No. Instead, I feel like with every stroke that I take I am eager to see if I can make it my best stroke, to feel the water catch more firmly on my hand, to feel myself rise out of the water and how the resulting glide can feel more effortless. I can recognise now that this is not the mind of the athlete, but rather the mind of a learner, an explorer… an artist.
With guidance from Alice, I realise too that I now need to move beyond my identity of ‘young Hanny’ - the daughter, sister, and timid, young girl growing up in the big, wide world. At thirty-three years of age it is finally time to embrace my womanhood. I want to now look in the mirror and embrace the curvaceous breasts that greet me, the slight curve on my hips and the skin maturing from exposure to life, sunshine and the elements. I want to move beyond purely the practical underwear and sometimes pull on my big woman panties, the ones that make me feel a little more sensual and feminine. At night I want to go to bed and enjoy the feeling of sleeping in sleepwear that makes me feel beautiful and capable of mature intimacy with my husband. I want to see his eyes light up with ‘that look’, to know that whilst our relationship is absolutely 100% grounded in friendship and indefinite love & respect for one another, that there will always be a romance alive there too. I want to walk into a room and hold my head up high, rather than letting my gaze drift to the shoes of the adults. Then to sit across the table from them and feel empowered to share my thoughts. I also want to sit across the table from my brother and speak as equals, and to take the advice and wisdom that he shares with me as adult-to-adult, rather than simply as his little sister. Further to this, I want to visit my mother as Hanny, and yes, whilst still her daughter, I also want to know in my heart that I am an adult creating my own life and with a plethora of choices in front of me. More importantly, I want to share a meal with her knowing that she feels the same freedom and ability to make choices too. When I speak to my father on the phone I want to know that I can open myself up to vulnerability, sharing the joys, highs and lows of our lives lived, sometimes together but more frequently apart. And finally, to know that within each of my special relationships there is no judgement.
Therefore, in the recent months I have learnt that identities evolve. When it becomes apparent that we need to, we must peel off the layers - the athlete, the daughter, the sister, the youth, the businesswoman - and try on some new ones. The laciness of womanhood. The stillness of the writer. The creativity of the explorer. The colours of the artist. The compassion of the healer. The voice of the coach. From this place of strength & understanding, my ‘be wilder’ state, can come the exploration of values, beliefs and actions.
I am sure that many of the things I have discussed here today will change by tomorrow. However, this is absolutely okay and please do not judge me if I do profoundly state tomorrow that I am once again an athlete! Change and evolution, confusion and then clarity, this is all a part of the human experience. We must wrestle with the known and the unknown, with the feelings & experiences that we can put words to, and those that we cannot yet. We must be willing to be brave in our vulnerabilities so that we can turn these into our vitalities.
Like Alice has done for me, today I write to give you the permission to also turn inwards and identify the identities that you are wearing, those that serve you, and those that no longer do. For if we all go on this journey, not only will it be less intimidating and lonely, but we will be helping to make the world a better place. The world needs more zebras. But it also needs more lions, buffalo, hippos and tigers. It needs more cats, dogs, ponies and goats. It needs more plants, grasses, and towering trees. It needs more diversity and individuals living a conscious life.
This blog stemmed from a client's email query: 'I live in the UK where it is super cold at the moment. How do I prepare for your relatively hot Australian conditions?'
When you live in a cold environment, acclimatising for an event in hot conditions is incredibly difficult. In 2005 I was heading to the peak of Japan's summer for the World Orienteering Titles. It was expected to be >37 degrees celcius with humidity of over 90%. As I began preparing for the races, snow lay in a thin blanket across the lumpy paddocks of our family's farm in Tasmania. Without too much experience or guidance, I dusted off my bike, set it up on a friend's spin trainer by the hearth, stoked up the fire, shut all the doors, decked myself out in all my thermals & tracksuits, and began one incredibly uncomfortable 10-day streak of training.
Yes, if you do not have the luxury of arriving well in advance of your race, acclimitisation is pretty tough. Here are my tips:
For Sports Nutrition that will assist, visit Find Your Feet's Nutrition & Hydration Collection.
An interview with Find Your Feet Australia.
In 2013 you broke the women’s record by around 75mins that year and finished 4th overall. Describe the run that you had – was it more mental, physical, strategical or all of the above?
To be honest, this was a hard year for me. In the leadup to the event, and even during it I had this real knowing discomfort in my knee. A month or so earlier I had been racing in China and tripped, knocking my knee on a rock. I found out weeks after the Overland event that I actually had a hairline fracture in my patellar. So, I guess I explain this because I don’t think my best races come from physical. The UTA100km in 2017 was a classic example of this. In that circumstance, I was super physically prepared, but not there mentally or emotionally at all. It made it a very, very long day out. In the 2013 Overland Track event I was just so eager to be at the event and running down the trail which transects my favourite regions of Tasmania. I had been living in Canberra for years and really missed this pristine landscape. It is where I feel most at home. Where I feel my love of mountains and the intimacy of all the natural elements combines with the rhythm of running. So, toeing that start line I was filled with eagerness, albeit a little apprehension. I had no strategical plan other than to run by the feel of my body, to monitor it carefully and listening to it, just as I was listening to the landscape and its own rhythms as the day unfolded. As it turned out, I ended up continuing to bump into Matt Cooper who was one of Australia’s top male ultra-runners at the time. He was having a tough day in the office but there was this quiet companionship and admiration at play. I didn’t ever run with him for long, but it was like a yo-yo, his coming and going as he found energy and then lost it again. I found that emotionally keeping an eye out for him and wanting to help him gave me strength too, and I ended up feeling on cloud nine all day. I certainly didn’t know anywhere near as much as I know now, such as about nutrition, hydration, equipment and strategical racing. I just ran with heart, spirit and tingling toes. I am so stoked still with that result. It was just a wonderful, long day outside.
(NB. Hanny finished 4th overall that year in a time of 8hrs13mins. In the last three years, no woman has come within fifty-five minutes of this time.
How did you focus your preparations in the last week before the event?
In the week before the event I was conscious of not overloading my body nor mind. I was doing a lot of coaching at the time so that made it quite tricky. I was also living in Canberra where it was really hot. Therefore, I did a little more swimming, early morning gentle jogs, tried to focus on consuming more electrolytes and simple foods, and generally just enjoying the excited nervousness that comes before a race. Sleep is critical and that should always be your number one priority pre-race. After travel, I like to also lie with my feet up a wall as it takes away a lot of my lethargy and is proven to help reduce cortisol levels.
What do you think is the optimal mindset for long distance races?
You need to be able to tune into your emotions, hear what they are saying, and then utilize this knowledge to your advantage. The importance of this is to be able to stay strong but still be human. I find that when I am too ‘switched off’ to what I am feeling when I am out there, it leads to not enjoying myself. I become robotic and unable to appreciate why I am out there and what I am seeing. On the other hand, when I am too vulnerable and ruled by my emotions I can find it hard to stay strong and lean into the discomforts. So, it is a very fine balance. I personally work a huge amount on understanding ‘self’ and ‘my story’. I want to know what sits below the surface of me and to feel the vulnerability & strength that comes from this knowledge. I then find I am really able to tap into the adventures and missions that really are making my toes tingle… easily able to answer the question, ‘Why am I doing this?’ This is so important. Knowing you are out there for the right reasons will definitely give you the strength to lean into the discomforting moments, which are always prevalent when you are walking towards the edge! The other thing that is important is to understand what your definition of success is. And be warned, in Tasmania, this cannot be about time or places, or otherwise the raw wildness of the landscape will chew you up and spit you back out again!
What is different about racing & ultra-running in Tasmania?
I know we always use the word, but Tassie is definitely wilder. The trails are more remote, with many points of no return. The tracks are usually rougher too, with more roots, rocks, mud and sometimes, exposure. Therefore, I think you have to approach running in Tasmania with a slightly different mindset. You can’t easily say, ‘well, I’ll start and see how it goes’. You have to be far more prepared for that. To know that when you toe the start of a trail you are 100% ready for that. I think this is why I became one of those athletes who never raced half-baked. I always needed to be 100% confident in all my process – from my training leading into the event or mission, to my nutrition, recovery, equipment and psychology. I guess this is where Find Your Feet has grown from – a really willingness to highlight the importance of preparation and preparedness with our community of eager trail enthusiasts.
What final tips or tricks would you have for anyone preparing for this year’s Overland Track Ultra or another upcoming event?
I have come to learn that the half-way mark of an ultra-distance event is definitely not the half-way mark! I find that the game really begins sometime after the 2/3rds point of the event. Therefore, I like to determine a point that for me heralds this ‘true ½ way mark’. In the Overland Track race, I had the half-way mark as when I reached the northern shores of Lake St Clair which comes at around 62km into the event. Even though I had run the event previously and really enjoyed this section, I knew that most participants mentally & physically struggle in this section. So I knew it was important to pace my race so that my energy tank was still more than ½ full for this remaining 20km of the race.
The following blog post is a recent interview I did with James Kuegler on my experiences with the Six Foot Track Marathon.
I do have a Training Planner available for this event if you are interested in taking on the challenge of the Six Foot Track Marathon Race and would like a guide for a sustainable training method that I use.
As a coach, I value all my athlete interactions, as they are all meaningful. It is edifying to engage with people who are trying to create a new normal and put themselves through something that, regardless or the outcome, will be ultimately transformative. Taking that view, all my athlete’s successes are meaningful to me, however I feel comfortable saying that sometimes a performance will stick. One such performance is Hobart resident and former orienteering world champion Hanny Allston’s 3:34:50 course record setting run at the 2015 Six Foot Track Marathon.
The Six Foot Track Marathon is one of the oldest and most storied races in the Australian trail running Calendar. Taking place every year in Katoomba in New South Wales. The 45 kilometre event, which some consider the toughest trail marathon in Australia, was first run in 1984 to mark the centenary of the Six Foot Track- which gives the race it’s name. As with most of the best races out there, the SFTM (as we will now call it) raises money for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service and the Six Foot Track restoration trust and is a proudly grassroots event.
Continuing with the proudly grassroots feel of the event there is a classically detailed long form course description at the SFTM website which details the race turn by turn. In short, however the SFTM course descends for roughly the first third of the race, to the lowest point at Cox’s river, before a massive sustained climb with undulations before dropping down into the finish at Jenolan caves . The race has a mix of fast trail, fire road, meadow, and narrow, more technical terrain at the start. The key challenges that you face are the difference in terrain, the sustained descending and climbing and the temperature, which can get to over 30 degrees at this time of year in Katoomba.
I would suggest that to become an able runner you have to learn the discipline and craft of running, that is, training frequently with good form, a solid aerobic base, with periods of time spent training at an increased effort. We’ve been doing that forever because, well, it works. I would consider however that applying cross training principles to a race like the SFTM is especially important due to the makeup of the course. You will need a strong core and posterior chain to cope with the initial long sustained downhill sections (where it is all too easy to get carried away when you feel like you’re flying) and then maintain excellent form and high leg turnover as you grind up some brutal sustained climbs in the second half of the race. Even though SFTM is considered a descending course, with an overall net descent of 260m (1528m total elevation and 1788m descent) one should not be fooled. You will pay for any early excesses in the latter part of the race.
Why I am talking about cross training specifically is that yes, core strength is vital, and we should all incorporate some aspects of core work into our weekly routines, but what we need for an event such as SFTM is plyometric strength. Plyometric strength comes into play with someone like Kilian Jornet, who is able to bound up hills, thanks not only to his aerobic capability, but to his ability for his muscles to contract explosively. Plyometric strength is important as it is what gives us that “running bounce”. If we think back to earlier articles, high leg turnover should mean that each leg is spending less time in contact with the ground, ergo our footfalls should be lighter, our muscles don’t load up and we run in a more energy efficient manner. To do this, we need plyometric strength. A varied training plan, with a focus on cross training, can be helpful to develop this strength.
As I’ve described in the sample week’s training, Hanny’s workouts leading up to the SFTM were a mixture of speed work, strength work, water running (to maintain physical integrity) and hiking. There was comparatively little ‘straight’ running in the training load. Leading up the the SFTM this mix of time on feet, recovery, strength, and some speed work gave Hanny all the elements she needed to set a blistering course record that still stands. You could take my word for all of this, or you could hear it from the source herself, As I spoke to Hanny via email about her recollection of the event.
What do you believe are the key training requirements for someone planning to take on the SFTM?
Base fitness. You need to really be able to run consistently as under foot, the terrain is very fast. That is, major trails, fire trails and even some almost road sections. Then it comes down to great running form on the hills. You need to learn how to get into granny gear and grind up a hill for a very long period of time. Finally, it is strength and conditioning the legs for prolonged downhills. If you are not used to running downhill, often at a high intensity, for a long duration then I can guarantee you will struggle to walk for the next week after the event! So, in this order my training focus would be:
My memory of you running SFTM in 2015 was about not getting caught up in the excitement and energy at the start, and running your own race hunting the guys down towards the end. How did you manage to temper the excitement of the race with sticking to your processes around intensity and strategy?
Yes, this was absolutely my plan. I had a lot of pressure on me to break records and be a front runner, but I knew that my performance would only be as strong as my ability to execute what I wanted to in the race. So I have created this ability to get in ‘my bubble’. This is my place where I go to focus on my running technique, keeping myself fuelled and hydrated, feeling the rhythm of the run and observing the day around me. I know that if I am running in my bubble I am conserving energy. And that if I do all of this right, then the result will take care of itself.
Psychologically and physiologically what are the constituent sections of the event?
Physiologically, the aim should be not to burn too many bridges over the first very long downhill and runnable sections to Cox’s River. You should be focussing on feeling light and fast, without pushing too far. This is a period for really keeping on top of your energy levels so that you have lots left for later. Then you hit the big climb out of Cox’s River. Here you need to get in granny gear. My motto on this is, ‘how slow can I go?’ It wasn’t so much about slowness, but about remaining comfy and really finding my rhythm. Then, when you get to the ‘top’, there is this undulating 10km or more of running. This is definitely where the race is won. You need to be able to really hammer this section at full throttle, because after this it is all downhill to the end. I saw so many people coming unstuck here because they hadn’t kept enough in the tank. This section should be your absolute focus in this race. Then the last 10km or so to the finish is about trying not to get too caught up in your head and your own pain. By now, everyone is hurting. You just need to focus on staying fuelled and hydrated, trying to get out of your head, and let the legs roll beneath you to the finish. It is definitely tough because by now your legs feel a bit like pulp, but hopefully you have trained for this.
Anything else you think worthy of mentioning?
Fuelling and hydration is everything. You can be the fittest athlete in the world, and give everything to your training, but if you muck up your nutrition and hydration on the day then you can wave goodbye to a great result.
Cross training is beneficial because it helps us to be a better animal. Cross training uses different muscle groups, it is psychologically refreshing, and can aid in limiting stress on the muscles that we are using regularly in our consistent training. Cross training can be done within running, rather than say doing plyometric exercises or swimming, experiment with different shoes, terrain, carry a backpack sometimes if you don’t normally. This will change up the load on your body and be beneficial. Plyometric exercises, ones that have our muscles contracting and expanding quickly, are especially useful for runners. Box jumps are an ideal form of Plyometric exercise
Hanny Allston Sample Week leading up to SFTM
Monday. 1:00 Strength workout. 0:45 Water Run
Tuesday, 3:00 Hike
Wednesday. 0:45 Water Run. 1:00 Tempo Run
Thursday. 3:00 Hike
Friday. 1:00 Strength workout.
Saturday 1:00 Aerobic Run
Sunday 1:30 Off-Road Run
As a performance coach specializing in trail and ultra-distance running, I am frequently asked about the use of caffeine a supplement to performance. With almost every sports nutrition brand providing caffeinated options, from gels to chews to beverages, I believe it is important to address the question – to caffeine or not to caffeine? Sadly, as you will soon find out, whilst there are some good rules to abide by, everyone is different. Using caffeine requires you to understand the science, your own body’s response to this common stimulant, and then to deliberately practice and observe its effects during exercise.
Caffeine is a stimulant
Let us begin with the most important concept. Caffeine is a stimulant. It acts to give you a false sense of energy, helping to heighten alertness and enhance wakefulness. In trail running, these effects can help someone to feel more responsive to the challenges of the trail, overcome fatigue (both physical and mental), and to also mask pain (more on this soon). However, herein lies the caution. If caffeine is a stimulant and can help someone to feel like a relative of Superman, then it is likely that this individual is working at a heightened level of physical and mental exertion. Underlying this is still the same body requiring the same amount of energy, if not more, to maintain its level of performance. If you are someone who uses caffeine, then it is highly likely that you are chewing into energy reserves faster than you would in a non-caffeinated state. Unless you are ruthless about putting this energy back in whilst on your caffeine-high, then you can be digging your own energy hole that may be difficult, or near impossible, to return from.
Caffeine is a diuretic
The same concept holds true for the effect that caffeine has on our hydration. As caffeine is a mild diuretic, it can give an athlete the sensation of needing to stop behind a tree, all the while thinking,‘great, I must be hydrated’. If you are zinging along the trail on your caffeine high, it is also imperative to keep on top of your fluids, preferably using an electrolyte higher in sodium.
Caffeine has different effects on different people
I am a tea drinker and even a small influx of caffeine will hit me hard, so hard in fact that my mind begins to race and I begin to feel a little bit jittery. My husband on the other hand loves a coffee, or two, or three. Whilst I opt for the tea leaves, he will grind, filter and create an espresso with negligible effects on his physiology or psyche. Out on the trail, the enormous difference of caffeine’s effects on our bodies continues to be evident. For me, even a portion of a caffeinated gel is like putting a firecracker in a tin can. The nearly instantaneous pulse of caffeine resonates throughout my body, causing me to feel zingy, jittery and uncomfortable. However, for my husband, he will really, really notice the lack of caffeine in his system if we begin early in the morning or are running for extensively prolonged periods of time. For example, if he skips his morning coffee, or those later in the day, the lack of caffeine leaves his normally caffeinated body feeling lethargic and stagnant. Utilising a caffeinated gel during these lower periods makes a lot of sense, albeit carefully ensuring that enough energy is also replaced to combat its stimulating effects. This is imperative to avoid crashing and burning later.
Caffeine and women
Fascinatingly, studies are now coming to light about the role of caffeine on a woman’s body, and how the effect varies depending on her hormonal status. For example, information is coming to light to show that the metabolism of caffeine during the first two weeks of a woman’s cycle is similar to that of men, but then in the second two weeks women show higher peak levels following ingestion, meaning that the caffeine will stay in her body for longer. This is also true for many women using certain forms of birth control. I would recommend that if you are a woman and are sensitive to caffeine, begin to notice and document its effects on your body at different times of your menstrual cycle. You may observe that your sensitivity to this stimulant may go up and down with the changes in your hormonal levels, thus requiring you to adapt your approach during exercise.
Caffeine and stress
Some athletes are highly susceptible to pre-race exercise stress or anxiety. For these athletes, I would strongly recommend steering clear of caffeine prior-to, or in the early phases of a race as it has the potential to enhance the cortisol stress response. Too much stress too early on can lead to burning more calories than desired, leading to a potential deficit later in the event.
Caffeine for pain
Interestingly, one of the greatest benefits of caffeine during exercise is that is becomes a potent masker of pain. That is, during exercise, it can have an effect of similar proportions to that of taking two Panadol tablets. There have certainly been occasions when I have had to tap into this during the depths of a long, difficult ultra-distance run. For example, on one such adventure I had a sudden, sharp onset of ITB syndrome with symptoms of jabbing pain in the front of my patellar. No amount of hobbling helped and deep down I knew that this compensation would only make the problem worse. Within 10 minutes of consuming a caffeinated gel, I had not just climbed out of this hobbling hole, but the pain had completely disappeared! I believe that this was also due to my heightened ability to improve my motor patterning, once again tapping into the strength of my gluteal muscles that had become lazy and non-responsive due to mental and physical fatigue. Amazingly, I experienced no more knee pain for the remaining 6 hours of this long mission.
In summary, caffeine certainly does have a role during exercise. It can help us to feel alert, agile and responsive to the demands of the challenges we have set ourselves, and not to forget its effects on pain. However, it is imperative to remember that it is a stimulant. For these reasons, I would urge all athletes to develop insight into how it affects them on an individual level, and also to consider keeping it up your sleeve as a trump card for later in the race. This will help you to experience that sensation of finishing with fire, whilst also helping to prevent digging energy deficits due to overexertion too early in an event.
In the last weeks of my twenties, I can honesty testify that I thought nothing needed to change. I was a happy Tomboy, chasing dreams and living life as I had always done – a car cruising along the highway on automatic pilot. However, as I turned the corner into my thirties, I suddenly felt like I was confronted with an enormous junction, a confusion of dead-ends, back roads, and stop signs. It was overwhelming and I was afraid to look back to where I had come from for fear of what I may see. At the end of 2016, I wrote a reflection of this experience titled Planting My Feet. This piece was a very personal account of the journey I went on after I turned 30 and how I navigated this crossroads, discussing how I began working on ‘self’ to find greater purpose in my relationships, sport and career.
As I moved into 2017, my greatest intention, call it a new year’s resolution if you must, was to consolidate the positive experiences and hard work of 2016. I think I can honestly say that I have done so, and here is what I have learnt from this wild ride of the year just gone:
What has helped me to overcome this fear of failure has been to rewrite my definition of success, which has slowly become to ‘seek craftsmanship and strive for beauty’. And my modality for achieving this is, ‘be wilder, to play wilder, to perform wilder’. Gone are my days of butchering onwards, thinking more is better and rushing for outcomes. I now strive to find ways to feel more beautiful in my intentions, so that I experience more joy in my actions, so that I can, in turn, strive for mastery in the outcomes I aspire for. I believe that this has to be the order of priorities… Be, Play, Perform.
2. Ego is the elephant in my room:
After turning thirty, I spent twelve-months working with a performance psychologist. After a few sessions, he suggested that there was an elephant in the room with us. I knew he was right. I could feel the beast lurking in the corner, poking me occasionally with his trunk and occasionally stomping on my toes. This year I have finally come to identify him by name and to bring him out of the shadows. Everyone, meet Ego! For the most part, Ego likes to take long naps and doesn’t bother me. However, when the high-pitched, feminine Fear squeals, ‘Don’t fail!’, the dominating, male presence of Ego the Elephant heffalumps to my rescue. ‘Just do more. Train more. Work harder. Try more. Say yes! Don’t say no!’ And so the tug-of-war starts, feminine Fear on one side and Ego the elephant on the other. Until we all get so damn tired that we put down the rope, call truce, and make a cup of tea.
3. Honest ends the tug-of-war
Honesty is, and has always been, one of my strongest values but I actually didn’t realize its quieter, positive influence in how I live my daily life. Whilst I find it easy to be honest with others, this year I have come to truly understand that I am the best version of Me when I am truthful with Hanny. This is because it halts the tug-of-war between Ego the Elephant and my feminine Fear.
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:
As featured in Travel, Play, Live.
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.
The Sweat Rate TestIt is important to develop an understanding of your sweat rate so that you can develop a thorough understanding of your sweat losses during an event.
The easiest way to measure your sweat rate is to weigh yourself without clothes on before and after exercising for one hour, taking note of the climatic conditions you were exercising in.
Assuming you did not use the toilet or consume any fluids during exercise, your weight loss is your sweat rate.
1kg of weight lost = 1L of fluid lost
If you drank any fluids or used the rest room between the two weight samples, you will need to include both of these estimated weights in your calculations.
Weather and climatic conditions strongly influence sweat rates. For example, on a cooler overcast morning you will loose less sweat volume than on a hot, humid morning. Therefore, be sure to record the heat, humidity and weather conditions in your sweat test and repeat the test in cool, humid, windy and hot conditions.
Sweat rate also changes with pace and effort increases. For example, if you monitored your sweat rate for a shorter ½ marathon race pace and then want to step up to a 50 or 100km race that requires a lower effort over a prolonged period of time, you will need to conduct the above tests again to highlight the new effort zone.
Now that you know your sweat rates, you now need to develop an understanding of how much fluid replacement your stomach can tolerate. For more information on how to rehydrate during events, you may like to read the article Hydration for Endurance Performance
For a comprehensive understanding on sports nutrition & hydration read: Sweat. Think. Go Faster by Darryl Griffiths
See our comprehensive Sports Nutrition range for Trail Runners HERE
We have all heard that our bodies are comprised of mostly water. A 60kg individual is composed of around 48kg of water in which all their body’s biochemistry will take place. Water has a number of other functions in the body - evaporative cooling, glycogen storage and maintaining electrolyte balances. The loss of even a small proportion of this fluid (ie. 2% of body weight) can significantly reduce body functions and for athletes, performance. It can also be life threatening. When we consider that this is only 1.2L in our 60kg athlete, we begin to realize how significant the process of optimal hydration is.
A 60kg adult at rest will consume around 0.2L of oxygen per minute, generating 70 watts of heat output. However, when running at threshold, oxygen consumption can increase 16 times and heat output rises to 1100 watts. The only way that this heat can be lost rapidly is through evaporative cooling, otherwise known as sweating. Sweating involves the loss of large amounts of fluid from the skins surface, which is then wicked away by air resulting in body cooling. In hot conditions it would take our 60kg individual around 1.5-2L of sweat to remove this excess heat.
Replacing fluid lost through sweat and urine is not the only justification for the importance of hydration. Glycogen or stored muscle carbohydrate is the body’s main source of energy. However, fixing 1g of carbohydrate into the muscles in the form of glycogen requires 3g of water ie. a 3:1 ratio of water to carbohydrate. This is one reason why you can often feel thirsty following a carbohydrate-rich meal. With this in mind, fluid is critical during times of recovery and taper. If you are focusing on carbo-loading but not drinking adequate amounts you can actually risk pulling extra water from the blood stream into the GI Tract. This can result in dehydration. Therefore, fluid is critical for replacing sweat and urine losses, but also for glycogen storage before and after exercise.
Are there other reasons important to remain hydrated?As you heat up, the body begins to enter survival mode. Rather than shunting blood to the working muscles, your blood stream prioritizes blood flow to the skin and vital organs. The reduced blood flow to the GI Tract makes the digestion of complex drinks and nutrition difficult, and as a result people often begin to experience stomach upsets and nausea. During such periods of stress, your breathing and heart rates will increase, and your general efficiency takes a dramatic nose-dive. Under these additional stressors, your body temperature will start to rise, resulting in stress to the brain. Clarity of thinking will decrease, your ability to assess you body state becomes compromised (runner’s often complain of feeling cold when they overheat) and you may begin to feel disorientated. All sound like great things to avoid when racing!
So should I just guzzle water?
When we sweat and excrete urine, we don’t just loose fluids but also vital minerals. The main ingredient in sweat is sodium that is lost at a rate of 1-2g per liter. Other minerals that are lost are calcium, magnesium, potassium and chloride, although these are generally lost in much, much smaller quantities. Therefore, to replace fluid losses an electrolyte drink is far better than drinking pure water and the focus should turn to sodium.
Why not water?
Are you putting the energy gels in but not receiving the ‘kick’? Over prolonged periods of heavy sweating, an individual can lose significant amounts of sodium. The combination of drinking pure water and sweating can cause a dilution of the concentration of sodium in the blood. This can begin to impair many of our normal physiological processes, including the transport of fluid and glucose across cellular membranes. That’s right, a lack of sodium can inhibit the transport of glucose into the working muscles cells.
Another good reason for opting for an electrolyte drink is that the use of sodium is known to promote thirst. This is often the reason why pubs serve salty, greasy food as it will generate greater drinks sales. And finally, when electrolytes, particularly sodium, are present in appropriate concentrations, the rate of fluid absorption from the small intestine into the rest of the body is enhanced. This is particularly important to consider when we are racing at intense levels with few possibilities to drink.
Are electrolyte drinks made equal?
The simple answer is NO! Many sports drinks market themselves as the best on the market, and yet are made by soft drink companies such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi. Beverages such as Gatorade are literally pumped full of simple sugars that are very foreign to the small intestine under stress. In fact, the presence of the sugar that remains dormant in the GI Tract can create a net movement of fluid from the blood stream back into the gut, resulting in stomach distress and dehydration. Therefore, sports drinks based around the medical principles for oral rehydration are perfect. Complexes such as Shotz Electrolyte that are tablets dissolved in adequate water are proven to initiate rehydration even under the most stressful environments. These beverages contain a high concentration of sodium and minimal traces of the other elements. This is important because often sports drinks are pumped full of magnesium which also happens to be the first ingredient in all laxatives! Watch out for the heavily marketed brands, as these tend to be the worst for tummy-disrupting ingredients.
How much should I drink?
How much fluid you need to consume is dependent on your fitness level, size, sweat rate and the weather conditions. Hot, sticky conditions will cause greater fluid losses due to the necessity to lose greater amounts of heat from the skin’s surfaces. Conversely, a cool, damp day will require lower fluid quantities to be consumed. The best way to determine how much you should drink is to monitor your body weight before and after training runs under a range of different weather conditions. For example, on a 20-degree day you may find that in 1 hour of exercise you loose 1kg. This then equates to 1L/hour of exercise under such conditions. On a hot, humid 30-degree day this may increase to 2kg during the hour. Therefore, you would be loosing 2L/hour. The most important rule of hydration is to drink what your stomach can tolerate and the best way to find this out is to know your losses then practice, practice, practice!
The good news about running in hot weather is that you can teach your body to adapt. Learning about how much sweat you loose during training and beginning to replace these with an advanced electrolyte formula will make a world of difference to your training & racing performances. Recently I conducted a sweat test for Shotz at the Australian Institute of Sport. I had been complaining about taking on energy and water without feeling like I was getting anything back. When I did my sweat test they found I was loosing over 1.5L of fluid each hour on a 20-degree day! Further to this, in each liter of my sweat I was loosing 1.8g of sodium. As you can imagine, this knowledge has significantly impacted the way I approach rehydration. In fact, sitting here writing this article after my morning run, I have a cup of tea on one side of me and a bottle of electrolyte on the other. In summary, all I can say is that if you get hydration right, it is like putting rocket fuel into your system.
Thousands of runners recently attended the Ultra Trail Australia 100 and 50km races in the Blue Mountains. Sometimes it is hard not to be amongst the racing. However, sitting on the other side of the fence whilst the action gallops past gives a wholesome insight into the nutrition & hydration strategies of athletes.
Three Classifications of Athletes
In the race, we observed three types of athletes:
1. The Blank Stare Runner
The scenery of the Blue Mountains is stunning. Jagged tracks clutch to the side of overhanging cliffs. Damp forests hold tumbling waterfalls. However, the Blank Stare Runner will see little of this handsomeness. They also appear not to hear much until they stumble across your wildly clapping hands and goofy grin. They pull a tight smile and march onwards. From close up, they appear to have the ‘lights off’ - the I’m-on-a-mission facade with eyes glazed-over. From afar, there is an element of a plod, a trip, a stumble. One guesses behind it all is a negative mindset.
2. The Weary but Starry Eyed Runner
Fifty or one-hundred kilometers is never going to feel easy. There will always be an association with pain and a little suffering. But no matter how physically fatigued, the Weary but Starry Eyed Runner can maintain a smile. Their eyes sparkle with the challenge and even from a distance they easily acknowledge your excited cheers. They mutter a thanks, give a gentle high-five and then scuffle off around the corner.
3. The Prancer and Dancer Runner
This runner has the ability to make you forget about how much pain everyone else seems to be in. You find yourself pulling out your phone and googling entry dates for the next race. Before you see them, they have seen you. Their iPhone is out and they are happily snapping pictures to capture the memories. They are dancing across the rocks and prancing past the course marshals giving praise and a hearty, ‘thank you’. Their eyes are alight with anticipation. They might be fatigued but they are holding those negative thoughts at bay.
Which type of athlete are you?
You may fall somewhere in the middle and may shift from one to another at different points of a race. However, I am sure that looking back at race photos or your race debrief will help you identify with some of the above analogies?
Athlete Classifications: Symptomatic of Your Nutrition & Hydration
1. Race fuelling is about fuelling your brain not your body
Even for the slimmest athletes, the body has enough adipose tissue (fatty acids) stored to carry you a very, very long way. In endurance activities where the intensity is lower, a reasonably trained athlete should adequately utilize stored fatty acids for locomotive energy. However, there is one organ in the body that cannot use fatty acids for energy, and that is the brain.
The brain’s functional tissues is surrounded by the blood brain barrier. This is a physical block to protect the organ from harmful intruders and substances. When fatty acid is transported in the body, it is attached to a protein called albumin. This creates a molecule too large to pass through the barriers of the brain. Thus, the brain’s fuel source is glucose, the simplest molecular form of carbohydrate.
In races, we require the central nervous system and brain input to keep every other tissue of our body functioning. It drives our breathing, our heart, our working limb muscles. With an inadequate supply of glucose to the brain, this system starts to slow and will eventually grind to a complete halt.
2. Feed your brain glucose
If the brain holds everything together, then we must ensure that it receives an adequate supply of energy in the form of glucose. It is true that we can utilize stored muscle and liver glycogen for conversion into glucose and energy, but these stores are dramatically limited. Therefore, a fueling strategy for endurance race day must included simple forms of glucose, the best of which is a maltodextrin (pure glucose) gel.
3. Glucose absorption requires sodium
The absorption of glucose across cellular membranes requires a transporter protein that sits lodged in the cellular membranes. The functioning of this glucose transporter is often spared as the digestive tract starts to slow (the functioning of the digestive system will be overridden by the blood flow demands of the working muscles). That is, the body will prioritize the functioning of this glucose transporter over the digestion of fats, proteins and more complex carbohydrates, such as fructose.
4. Sweating causes a loss of sodium
Sweating causes large losses of sodium, especially over prolonged periods of time such as during endurance races. The amount of sodium varies from person to person and day-to-day, but can be in the vicinity of 1500-2000mg per 1L of sweat. No other electrolyte loss comes anywhere near the losses of sodium. This is because most other electrolytes, such as magnesium, are found within body cells. That is, sodium is an extracellular molecule floating freely in the bloodstream so it incurs the largest electrolyte losses during exercise.
5. Failing to replace sodium disrupts glucose absorption
If you fail to replace the sodium you are loosing, chances are you will not be absorbing the glucose you are trying to ingest. Without sodium present, the functioning of the transporter proteins slow. Therefore, the cellular membranes of the digestive tract, working muscles and mitochondria (power houses where energy is produced) become impermeable to glucose.
6. Low sodium and glucose intake affect the brain and central nervous system
If you are trying to rehydrate during races on water alone, you will likely be disrupting the body’s ability to absorb nutrition. Further more, if you are using a sports drink or electrolyte with inadequate sodium to meet your losses, you may also be disrupting your nutrition intake. Begin to become aware of your sweat losses both in volume and in the salt crusting that can appear on your clothes if you are a heavier sodium sweater. This can be a great guide to judging your losses.
Your Athlete Classification Explained:
The Blank Stare Runner
Your central nervous system is seriously affected. In essence, you have become similar to a diabetic with low blood glucose levels. Whatever you are drinking and eating is inadequate to supply sodium and glucose to the transporter pumps in your cellular membranes and thus, energy to your brain. Try to learn to listen to your central nervous system. Negative thought processes, clumsy feet, feeling cold, dizziness, vertigo, numb feet or hands, or even nausea can all be symptomatic of low glucose levels in the brain. If you observe someone like this or their eyes have a glazed-over appearance, feed them instant glucose along with a higher sodium concentration electrolyte. If they are nauseous, you can rinse their mouth with glucose as the oral mucosa has a direct glucose absorption pathway to the brain. If this helps, you can then start to slowly feed them glucose via gels, chemist jelly beans and glucose tablets.
The Weary but Starry Eyed Runner
Your nutrition and training strategies are strong but likely the quantities need adjusting. Sparkling eyes and alertness suggest that the central nervous system is coping. The physical weariness can be a symptom of further training required, or it may also be that you need to increase the quantity of glucose and electrolyte replacement. You should also be paying close attention to changes in your central nervous system as the race progresses. If negative thoughts, anxiety, clumsiness or any of the other symptoms above settle in, make sure you increase your glucose and sodium intake. This is especially true if you start to experience cramping.
The Prancer and Dancer Runner
You are nailing it! To run like this, your central nervous system must be functioning fully and you are alert enough to absorb your surroundings. Further to this, it appears that your training has prepared you optimally for the challenge you have embarked upon. However, keep an eye on climatic changes throughout the race as increases in temperature, humidity or wind will alter your evaporative sweat losses. Monitor your thoughts and alertness, with any small changes requiring a top-up of energy.
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:
It was eight months and all this, before I finally twigged… ‘Something else must be at play!’ More importantly, I stopped looking for the quick fix and started to face up to my insecurities, fears and bad habits. Underlying all this work was knowledge that I had a lot of habits that were fueling the inflammatory enemy of my Achilles battles. For me, it all boils down to nutrition, hormonal health and recovery.
However, not completely naïve I did start to think about nutrition and recovery earlier this year when I sat with AIS dieticians, a leading sport nutritionist. I had reservations of my ability to recover from hard sessions, and constant tendency to iron deficiency and hormonal imbalance. I had noticed that my resilience from stressor loads was not where I wanted nor expected it to be, and that it was something I needed to address. In other words, I needed to stop patching and start fixing underlying causes. I made some changes to nutrition then:
The results? A slight improvement but I was still noticing the niggles and my Achilles still showed inflammation. So I faced the reality and plucked up the courage to fight the biggest battle of all – removing all sugar from my diet. As the ultimate fruit bat, this is like putting a possum on a fruit-free diet. Yikes!?
Nutrition guru, Darryl Griffiths of the Australian company Shotz Sports Nutrition in Melbourne, first highlighted the evils of sugar to me. Built sturdier and more mean than an Audi sports car, Darryl was horrified at my tendency… no dependency… on sugar. At the time I shrugged it off as bulls$@t – ‘Yeah, yeah, but endurance athletes need the carbs!’ I was merely frightened. If I wrote my current dietary pattern for a day down it looked something like this:
So there you had it, a day of highs, lows and one huge amount of sugar… mostly in the form of fructose. My moods swung, energy pitched and plummeted and stress levels were hard to control. I struggled to sit down, felt restless at my desk, and thoughts could even feel cloudy. If something got difficult I found myself reaching for the dried fruit jar. It sometimes helped a bit. However, underneath this is no way to live life. It was time to make a change.
These articles are a collection of my writing. If you have feedback or questions, would love to hear from you!
keep in touch!