This is a transcript from Find Your Feet Podcast Episode #48: Running the French Pyrenees. This podcast was a quiet ramble with myself, reflecting on this huge adventure that unfolded in July 2019. I hope you have the opportunity to listen to this podcast too.
I recently posted a social media post on the topic of stress and its impact on our ability to optimally recover from training loads. Given the flurry of interest, ongoing questions and requests for support I received afterwards, I wanted to provide an excerpt on the topic of stress from my Trail Running Guidebook. I feel that stress and its impact on our hormones is poorly understood, so I hope you find this article helpful.
I have found more and more frequently that many well-documented training theories are hard to implement with adults without triggering an overtraining complex, leading to unnecessary injury niggles, sick- ness, suppressed mood and more.
Stress: The fight-or-flight response
Stress is the body’s reaction to a physical, mental or emotional change in our normal, balanced state. In an ideal world, our body would deal with all stressors one at a time via the fight-or-flight response. Our body’s fight-or-flight response activates the nervous and hormonal systems when the stressor (the ‘tiger’) pounds towards us. The nervous and hormonal systems ensure that the heart and breathing rates accelerate; blood is relocated to the heart, lungs and muscles for movement; functioning of the gastro-intestinal tract is inhibited; and mobilisation of energy sources occurs. Then, once the danger is dealt with, we return to our steady state.
However, there are two interesting things about the human stress response:
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.
Preparation for our athletic dreams requires a harmony of focused recovery combined with enough strain to see gain. Baby steps.
However, in the face of injury we need to respond quickly. Baby steps don’t suffice. When injury strikes, there is no such thing as ‘meeting in the middle’. We either want to listen to our body or we don’t. We either want to get better or we won’t. We must acknowledge the weaknesses that led to the injury. We must take responsibility for the road back.
Whilst it is imperative to hear the wisdom of the gurus around us, at the end of the day we are the ones who knows what is at stake. We are the ones who knows what our body wants to say to us… We set the dream. We take the steps. We reap the rewards.
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.
A place where growth is not limited to garden beds and trimmed hedges. The known, the kept, the manicured. It is a union of sun, rain, wind and soils home to the vegetation that lives there, stretching, seeking growth. A place where we bask in the rays of our mentors, water ourselves with self-compassion, lean into the headwinds, and strive upwards… forever growing.
A state where pruning occurs only to allow us to walk a faint trail to somewhere even more remote, scenic and worthy of our spent energy. A state where we lean into the head winds, get buffeted by the horizontal blasts, and pushed forwards by a gust from behind. A state where we teeter bravely through the challenges, bound forwards when the terrain evens out, then finally stand atop a mountain, sunburnt and grinning with a pulsing heartbeat. Toes tingling.
When we strive each day to make ourselves proud, willingly leaving the known trails to carve our own pathway. When the smallest individual actions add together until one day you realise you are running towards your best self.
When you feel so self-empowered that you no longer look behind or to the actions of others.
When your steps surmount until you are standing near the edge, marvelling at just how far you have come, and realising that YOU were the one who got yourself there. For me, that is the art of ‘Being Wilder’
Sometimes you reach a point where you know some things need to change. In February 2016 I realised that it was time to audit my life after experiencing the devastation of raging fires in northern Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area, a back injury and turning 30 years old. I started journalling my thoughts and actions, quickly realising that I felt completely unharmonious between my intentions and actions. Furthermore, I knew that my body wasn’t healthy. I looked fit and was running strongly on paper, but underneath this there were old habits that were holding me back. Crunch point.
Today I want to share the 11 steps that I have taken so far to re-find my feet:
1. Beginning the ‘Internal Work’When I visited a new doctor at the start of the year she looked me up & down and said, ‘Hanny, you need to find your femininity’. I had not a clue what she meant but when I was handed the name of a performance psychologist in town I new she must be serious. For sure, I was experiencing a nasty back injury & was feeling a little directionless but by no means did I really feel I needed to ‘chat’. However, when I began to audit my life I realised there were (and always will be) a number of areas for self-improvement. At this time these included: a lack of feminine hormones; a constant need to be busy; quick to react to stress; physical niggles; adapting to a growing leadership role in my business; increasingly large sporting goals; and a concern about nourishing nutrition (or lack thereof).
This year, I have worked with Jeremy, a performance psychologist, on my ‘internal self’. It has been one of the more difficult and yet rewarding experiences I have ever had. It has opened my eyes to the extraordinary power of our minds, emotions and actions stemming from deeper, mindful intentions & values. I have found greater purpose in my relationships, running, and business, as well as an understanding of femininity & self-compassion. And this journey is just beginning…
2. Loving the ‘External Self’As I started the ‘internal work’, I realised that I was often neglecting my ‘external self’. In fact, I almost felt disassociated from my body. One day, Jeremy asked me what I did for self-compassion. I racked my brains before proudly jumping to the notion of massage. “I get massages!’ He looked me squarely in the eyes and replied, ‘for self-compassion or for recovery from training & sport?’ I had never realised there was a difference.
Though self-exploration and monitoring my actions I am slowly developing an awareness that self-compassion starts with accepting who I am and how I look & feel. I started by exploring small ways to nurture myself. Here are some of the actions I have taken, although I know there are many more to foster:
3. Learning through listeningI love to learn but was becoming frustrated that I wasn’t investing in formal learning. Through the encouragement of my friends I began exploring the beautiful world of podcasts. I was hooked! And because I loved listening to podcasts so much I began exploring ways to have more time to listen to podcasts. This lead to getting back on the bike, running more on my own and using rare times in the car to unwind with a great episode playing. Learning doesn’t need to be formal and what I am learning through other peoples’ stories has not only increased my motivation but also made me feel more connected to society. I am now in the process of launching my own podcast through which I hope to share my community’s stories. I honestly believe stories are the gold through which we can learn to enrich our own lives. Here are my current favourite podcast series:
4. Understanding through writingI wish I could find more time for writing but journaling has become the key to unlocking my understanding. When my head is full or I feel like I am becoming stale, I pick up a pen and start writing. I am always amazed at what my mind has stored up that I was unaware of, and the insights that I shed when I write without judgment. Don’t get me wrong, there is also a lot of garbage that gets written too! Writing allows your mind to let go of the unnecessary thoughts, release subconscious mulling, and then act on the ideas that spark your imagination, creativity & passion.
5. Acceptance through meditationWow, never thought I would admit that I love to meditate! I started in this world with a need to relax. Using free YouTube videos & the encouragement from Jeremy, I started practicing whole-body relaxation before I went to sleep. This certainly enhanced the quality of my sleep but I also found that I had a clearer mind the next morning. From here I began to explore more and more YouTube videos: Guided meditation; Chakra Meditation; Hypnosis etc. It really is an interesting world. I try to put thoughts of religious association aside and just observe what happens when you willingly have a go. I have also begun practicing self-guided meditation, especially when I am lying quietly in bed at night.
6. Plant-Powered NutritionI also never thought that I would admit to exploring a 100% plant-based diet. I have been a vegetarian for 17 years now with the occasional salt & pepper calamari in there, but I honestly have never enjoyed any form of animal meat or fish. When I audited my life I realised that I had some shockingly unbalanced habits when it came to diet and I know these have stemmed from struggles with disordered & restrictive eating in my blacker past. These included an absolute love affair with cheese. Whilst I was eating enough in an energy sense, I didn’t feel good. I felt heavy after lunch and the skin on the back of my arms and legs were covered in Keratosis, a dry skin condition that looked like a constant bout of goose bumps caused by excessive keratin build up. The more I researched, the more I was pointed to the ill-effects of dairy and how it can cause Keratosis. Furthermore, I knew that my mother is lactose intolerant.
Removing dairy from my diet has changed everything! Not only has the Keratosis almost completely disappeared but my mind is clearer, my moods are more constant, my hormonal cycle is regular for the first time ever and I feel energised beyond measure. It has also opened up a whole new plethora of amazing foods that I have barely experienced and a need to be more creative with preparing meals. None of it has been hard, but rather it has just required a willingness to shift my thinking and crack some old habits.
7. Simplifying StuffThe flow on of changing my diet and removing toxins from my lifestyle lead to a realisation that I have a lot of ‘stuff’. I am just beginning to think about how I can master the art of living simpler. I would love to set a radical goal of spending at least one night a week in our van for the entire summer (and maybe winter too!). I am also about to embark on a big ‘culling’ session around home. When I do need to buy something, I will be looking for lasting quality and where & how it was made, rather than the price. Buy once.
8. Intention & Values not GoalsI no longer have strict goals and for now I am not planning any races. When I started feeling richer in other areas of my life I found that the drive to set goals had diminished. I am not saying the need for goals is gone completely, but perhaps setting goals had been a way to plug holes in a leaky lifestyle? I now feel filled with purpose and a motivation to just live & be wilder. I am driven by intentions that bubble up from a deeper place within me. And because of this I am playing… hard! I don’t think I have every felt so fit and I have big dreams that I am working towards. That is far more exciting for now than any goal I could set myself.
9. Learning the Art of PresenceI am a shocker for trying to plan, plan, plan. But isn’t there a saying, ‘life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans’? That was me in a nutshell. I am now trying to not get too far ahead of myself because I also think my planning brain kicked in when I was fearful, nervous or struggling to slow down. I also read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Whilst heavy and often a little too ‘out there’ for me, I found the concept of intentionally trying to be present in what I am doing highly invigorating. When I am on a run I am on a run. When I am listening to a podcast I am listening to a podcast. When I am making a cup of tea I am focusing on this task. When it is time to go to bed I am literally going to bed to rest. Being more present has reduced stress and increased space in my life for creativity & enjoyment.
10. Recognising the importance of PatienceNot my greatest strength! It was Jeremy who said to me, ‘Han, I think you need to learn the art of patience’. With all this energy and enthusiasm I am constantly looking for how I can give back more and more. But Rome was not built in a day, nor are dreams, or health, or lives. Patience may end up being my most difficult obstacle. Lucky I like a challenge!
11. Measuring health by the health of my hormonesThis is a personal note to end on but a lack of regular menstrual cycles has been my biggest fear in life. I had seen so many specialists and been put on so many supplements and drugs over the years to solve this issue. However, the deep internal work, the decluttering, the planting my feet in nutrition that nurtures… this has been what has allowed my body to embrace its femininity. I have learnt that the greatest measure of my body’s own health is the health of my hormones. So, over medals, business, records and more, I think finding health in my hormones is the accomplishment I am most proud of in 2016.
For 2017 I am setting my intention to consolidate 2016. I want to learn more and find routines in what I embarked on this year. Underlying this is a desire to ‘Be Wilder’ - in my actions, intentions and thoughts. Getting uncomfortable every now and then will be at the heart of this too.
It is with great excitement that I wish you all a wonderful start to 2017 and I hope that this coming year can provide an opportunity for you to find health, vitality & wild adventures too.
This article was featured in the latest "Travel Play Live" magazine:
I am doubled over. With hands on hips, I gasp air into my lungs. My head feels heavy and achy… a dull throb enhanced by the altitude. This Italian mountain is a beast! I look up to where the trail squiggles near vertically above me and try to make out where the track crests the pass. It is somewhere up there where the bare rocks merge into the mist. I look down. My hotel where everyone else is still sleeping is just a mere 100m below me. I have barely started and I am feeling… vulnerable.
The TED Talk by world-renowned vulnerability researcher, Brene Brown is one of the most watched TED talks of all time. Her books are a New York Times bestseller. So when I first stumbled across Brene’s teachings and realised almost everyone was listening to her, I realised in turn that EVERYONE must struggle with vulnerability… even me.
Until this awakening I had used exercise, nutrition and perfectionism to combat emotional discomforts, especially fear and what I now recognise as vulnerability. When I was faced with career ending injuries, a fracturing family and that famous question, ‘who am I?’, vulnerability and shame screamed in my face. There was no hiding from these moments and I found myself tugging on my vulnerability armour and kicking into self-protective overdrive. Whilst I achieved successes during these years, the accomplishments were like eating Weetbix for breakfast in Italy - a little dry and leaving me wondering why I didn’t just eat the cake. And so I strived for a tastier goal, one that would surely say ‘you are enough’ when it was accomplished.
On and on I ran.
At the age of 30 I have finally stopped running. Not literally. I still love a trail, especially one with a mountain finish. But 10 years and a Brene Brown TED Talk later, I have finally realised that on my current pathway to destination Enough there will never be enough. And no matter how fast I run, vulnerability will always accompany me.
So doubled over near the base of my Italian mountain I decided to confront vulnerability. I stopped, acknowledged my fear and looked outside of myself. Shear mountains rose up into the mist and the sun was painting small highlights onto the contrasted green meadows. Marmots cheeped. In this moment I realised that despite my fear & vulnerability, there was no where else on earth I would rather be, especially not indoors. I turned towards the trail and told myself to take just one step. Then another. Soon my hands were pumping my thighs, turning my legs into pistons that powered from my greater sense of purpose. As I headed up and up with increasing courage I realised that at last I really understood the power of vulnerability. This is what I learnt.
An hour later I stood at 3052m on the summit of Piz Boe. There was no audience. No medals. No photo evidence. Just a few struggles, sweeping views from sheer cliffs, sweat, a goofy grin and a long descent back home. Up there I found my new definition of success, one that is so much more fulfilling. It didn’t require a race entry, a medal or money. It just required the courage to be vulnerable and to say ‘maybe…yes?’ when my body language was screaming ‘NO!’. On top of my mountain I realised that success requires: the acceptance of vulnerability, daring greatly and being content with the result. Success is simply saying, ‘I am enough’.
After sliding and whooping my way back down the peak with scree slopes shifting beneath my feet, I pulled up somewhat breathless at the doorway to my hotel. Here I was greeted with a cheery grin from a local mountain guide. Through a smooth Italian accent he asked, ‘Where did you venture this morning?’ I pointed to up there. After following my gesture he looked straight back at my sweaty face. With a slight rise of his eyebrows, he claimed, ‘I can see it in your eyes - you really like to run!’
I ate cake for breakfast that day. And Nutella. I was highly satisfied.
And so here I urge you to never settle for Weetbix when there is delicious cake on offer! Get to know and accept your vulnerability. Befriend it and listen to what it is indicating. Then take a deep breath and step in any direction that shifts you from comfortable to uncomfortable, onto the pathways less travelled. Because from here you can dare greatly. And afterwards you can remind yourself, “I am enough’.
Are you currently basking in the beautiful aftermath of ultra-running euphoria? On returning to your hotel did your saturate your day of running in the shower then crawl under the white hotel duvet to twitch yourself to wakeful sleep? At dawn, did you utter a groan when your feet hit the carpet and cringe as you lowered yourself onto the breakfast chair? Did you quietly revel in the ‘you-are-mad’ stares from hotel guests?
If so, you will be experiencing Euphoric Ultra Runner Syndrome. Enjoy it whilst it lasts because sadly, this is often replaced with Lost-Your-Mojo Runner Syndrome for which you must orchestrate your own recovery.
Here are my recovery suggestions:
Day 1-3: Euphoric Ultra Runner Syndrome and the DOoMs Days - Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness Days
These are the days of craving Mum’s apple crumble with more ice-cream than apple. During these days you might be lucky enough for someone to take pity and play the violin for you. Revel in the attention. For soon the novelty of mopey runner will wear off and you will be left to make your own cuppa again.
Day 4-14: Lost-Your-Mojo Syndrome
The weather feels colder. Your sick of the colour of your running shoes. Work should be for the under 30’s. Where did all this traffic come from? You think you will just start training again in Spring or Summer.
If any of these thought processes have crossed your mind, you are likely suffering from Lost-Your-Mojo Syndrome. Here are some suggestions for getting it back:
CLIMB A MOUNTAIN. Whether it be literal or symbolic, make it your mission to achieve a highpoint. This might be walking to a peak, learning a new skill or finishing the spare room renovations. We are addicted to achievement so pick up your camera or a hammer and do something noteworthy.
EMPOWER OTHERS. I recently took a Gone Running Tour to my favourite part of Tasmania. Showing them my playground and helping them summit mountain peaks was like taking a holiday - refreshing and up-lifting.
INVEST. A massage. A physio appointment. A tweak from the chiropractor. Each modality has its place and will only speed up your recovery. Furthermore, investing in yourself will remind you that bliss doesn’t just come from crossing finish lines.
MOVE. It shouldn’t be training but it should be simple movements. Go for a short swim. Walk barefoot on the beach. Jog slowly on grass. Trot a trail or two. Go wherever and however the heart desires.
SOCIALISE. We need to hibernate for our recovery but chances are you feel like remaining in your warm cave all winter until the daffodils come out. Short social outings involving running shoes, tea pots and laughter will help you regain the balanced lifestyle that probably got put on hold during the previous training phase.
SLEEP. Sleeping, especially in the hours before midnight, is when our body heals. If I am having trouble with healthy sleep routines, I try relaxation and a small dose of Melatonin at bedtime. Melatonin is produced naturally by our body and plays an important role in maintaining our sleep cycle. You can often purchase it from health stores and natural pharmacies.
EARTH. My father has a theory that we absorb the busyness of life, much like the generation of static electricity. His way of teaching me to release this energy was to earth - pitching the tent in nature and sleeping long hours in our sleeping bags. When I need to unwind you won’t find me at home anymore.
STRESS. Stress causes a boost in the catabolic hormone called Cortisol, our fight or flight generator. Your body won’t want to heal when you are running away from a tiger. Therefore, avoid stressful situations when possible and if you find yourself in an unavoidable situation, focus on taming the tiger rather than fighting it.
GO ON A DIET. Not training and starting to feel frumpy? I can empathise but now is definitely not the time to pick up the latest Women’s Weekly magazine. Instead, focus on upping the veggie, healthy fats and protein intakes. Include plenty of water and some whole-grains.
JOIN THE GYM. Unless you need a warm winter haven or some social inclusion, avoid ‘gym training’. Heavy weight training, boxing classes and any other activities that make washing your hair a painful activity should be avoided. Acute muscle damage will only slow the repairing of the more chronic tissue degradation still lingering from race day.
WATCH TOO MUCH TV. It is easy to slip into sedentary mode. Sitting down for long periods will cause a shortening of the repairing muscle fibers, especially those around the hip joint. If that chosen tv series is too all-absorbing, opt for lying on the floor over curled-up on the couch.
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.
We are lead to believe that overtraining is a ‘syndrome’ reserved for the elite or the silly. After all, elite athletes can easily complete hours of solid training. And the silly? They just do a lot. However, in this article I wish to highlight an important paradox about overtraining.
I recently had a client who came to me following difficulty completing a trail race. He was a forty-year old, single parent of three children and running his own business. He was also chairman of a school board and heavily involved in his eldest son’s sporting ambitions. Amongst this schedule, he was fitting in four sessions of training a week. Two of these were intervals with a local squad. The remaining sessions were run early in the morning before the children got up. On his best weeks he may complete about five to six hours of training, plus a little stretching before bed.
Following discussions with my client, it became evident that he was suffering from overtraining: sleep constantly disturbed; heart rate suppressed whilst training hard; elevated heart rate in the morning; daily fatigue, especially in his legs; depressed mood with decreased tolerance to stressors at work and home; moodiness with the children; and a failure to athletically perform in races. He was neither elite nor silly, just a guy who works hard for the benefit of everyone.
This leads to the question, how could my client be over trained? After all, the text-book definition suggests overtraining as: ‘a physical, behavioral, and emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual's exercise exceeds their recovery capacity.’
When I raised this notion of overtraining my client’s response was, ‘but I only train up to four sessions per week!’ If you experienced a similar reaction to the word exercise, now consider this:
Overtraining = Working Out + Daily Stressors > Rest + Recovery
Many athletes do not take into account their daily stressors, which may actually be a far greater load than that of the workouts they complete. Note that I am not talking about stresses. You may enjoy these activities but cumulatively, they place a load on the body. Busy adults can find that the cumulative load of training and daily stressors can exceed their rest and recovery. My client loves many aspects of what he does but the cumulative load has led to emotional, mental and physical fatigue to a point where he risks injury, sickness or underperformance.
This now leads to the next question, how do you bring a busy adult back from overtraining? Too often we divert straight to the exercise. And whilst yes, this may need work and adjustment; it is not always the underlying problem. What I like to suggest to my clients is - modify what you can modify.
For many individuals it would be hard to create more time in the day for rest and recovery whilst also doing everything else that you do. We can’t change the number of hours in a day or the fact that we must work in order to pay the bills. For an adult, exercise is often a necessary unwind, a chance to personal endeavor, or socialize with like-minded people. Simply cutting back training may not be the answer.
However, often we can change small things, small routines, behaviors or personal rules that have become so ingrained that we barely recognize them. Not only do they take time, but also valuable emotional and physical energy. Do any of these ring a bell?
These are just a few arguments that I have heard over the last few months and a case of very black and white thinking. I have found that most athletes I work with are Type A personalities and like myself, we struggle to see the shades of grey. Reducing unnecessary rules, tasks and routines may be a positive start in allowing your body more rest and recovery. For example:
Secondly, everyone can change his or her diet. It doesn’t need to be going on a diet, but everyone can modify what they choose to eat to reduce or eliminate refined carbohydrates, unhealthy vegetable oils, caffeine and sugar. Dietary changes can have a huge impact on a person’s life, especially the quality of their sleep and balance of their moods. A balanced diet rich in protein will assist the body’s ability to recover from training sessions whilst healthy fats will support the neural and endocrine systems.
Rest and recovery also needs your attention. Rest certainly suggests sleep but other passive and active recovery methods are also important to consider. Tasks that are creative or mindful will nourish your body as they help to alleviate some of the stress response. Tasks such as cooking, art, reading, mindful walking and yoga are great places to start. Further to this, socialization in moderation will help to support the hormonal system, especially the regeneration of our masculinity and femininity.
Finally, allow the body to sleep. It is during sleep that the true physical and mental recovery can happen. During the night, the earlier sleep cycles are important for the body’s physical recovery then in the latter dreaming cycles the body is mentally and emotionally repairing. Dealing with daily stress, including dietary stress, will lead to better sleep quality, and greater mental and physical performance the next day.
In summary, one of the most common misconceptions in sport and exercise is that training is just completing a workout. On the contrary, training is the workout PLUS the recovery that follows. As our body deals with all stressors in the same way, the harder we push in training (volume, strength or intensity) and life (work, family, volunteer, social) the greater the recovery required. In essence, if you wish to optimize your performance and avoid overtraining, consider everything that you are doing. The less stress we are under in our daily life, the more capable we will be of training to capacity.
Since the start of 2012 I have been working behind the scenes with a number of our young athletes. They all bounced into our first meeting with large ambitions, boundless energy but slightly ‘broken’. Injuries, sickness and fatigue!
Here I would like to share a story. In 2010, during Find Your Feet’s early days I had a lovely young guy, Josh, who approached me for some advice. Having grown up on King Island and only recently moved to Hobart, Josh was keen to develop his running. His initial goal was to complete the Flinders Island 30km race that was in about four months time. However, Josh was broken.
‘I find that I have all this energy at the beginning of the week and go hard on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and sometimes Thursday but then have to have the rest of the week off because I am too tired at the end of the weeks.’
I am sure we can all see the error in Josh’s ways. Going hard for four days straight and expect to be able to keep this going? Some slight alterations to Josh’s training has seen him recently become one of Tasmania’s most elite senior runners.
At some stage we all fall into the trap of thinking more is better. More training, more regimented nutrition, more competition, more work, more study, more friends… our personal list of ‘mores’ is almost as long as our list of ‘shoulds’. Like everything, there is a plausible balance where one has to do more to get more out of oneself. But past this fuzzy threshold lies a grey world of potential fatigue, injury, sickness and winter-blues. Not only this, but like Josh, we seem to stop thinking straight, get in a rat-race cycle, and not be able to work out why things start to fall apart.
So how can we avoid falling into this trap? How can we define that perfect balance where optimal enjoyment, health and performance lie? I believe the answer to this lies in excellent planning and preferably, with the assistance of a great coach.
When a new athlete starts with me, it almost always seems to be at a point in their lives when they have dozens of balls in the air or are faced with a tough decision. What to do at university next year? How to come back from injury? How to balance training when I begin my new job? Then add in family, friends, training, competition, first time on a national team… it quickly becomes overwhelming. I call this the Much Syndrome. Although I know for certain that I am the greatest sucker for ‘doing more’, when I step back and reflect I realize that there is a serious equation at play: when things near the level of too much, we begin to feel we have to do more. Therefore, my first coaching advice I give is to have a rest. This means one to three weeks of catching up – sleep, gentle exercise, time at home and work or study. This remedy is amazing!
Following a rest period, the clarity of the mind is amazing. Suddenly my athletes have a renewed sense of purpose and their energy is infectious. We may even begin to see huge jumps in their level of performance without any changes to their training. I attribute this to improved concentration, logical thinking and physical adaptation following their previous training.
The second stage of overcoming the Much Syndrome is creating a good plan. Very few of my athletes seemed to plan ahead. Not any more! In order to create a plan we use a spreadsheet that covers every week of the year. This is how our plan evolves:
As I have seen with Josh and many of my other runners, big improvements can be made by having a bit of rest, planning life’s commitments into your training, and not being afraid to make some changes. Enlisting the help of a coach who can help you with planning your weeks and reigning you back when you begin to look fatigued will help you stay on track to achieving everything that you are capable of becoming. Remember, coaching is not just a privilege of the elite. Having a coach to help you balance life is often even more important for those amazing senior athletes defying age!
My recent Irun article discussing the importance of recovery in training sparked remarkable interest amongst readers. I loved reading through all the feedback. One reader asked a very thought-provoking question: to what extent does the recovery process and necessity of rest change in an older runner? My correspondent was a remarkable 65-year-old athlete who recently ran the Boston marathon. Following the event, he pulled up stiff and sore, especially in his hamstring muscles. He explained that even with plenty of therapeutic treatment and stretching, it had still taken him ten weeks to recover. For me, his story raises two questions, does age alter the degree of damage that occurs to the body during intensive exercise and is the recovery rate significantly delayed?
The 2005 World Masters Games attracted over 21,000 competitors, highlighting the flourishing interest in maintaining a high level of physical performance throughout the lifespan (Fell & Williams, 2008). Bringing this closer to home, you only have to look around at a fun run to realize that most of the athletes participating are ‘older’. For this article, I will rely on the work of Pimentel et al. (2003) who suggests that ‘older’ refers to greater than 50-years-old, an age at which he noted rapid decline in physical athletic capacities.
Ageing is accompanied by significant declines in physical functioning capacity. Although regular exercise helps to protect against age-related illnesses, our older runners will notice a decrease in performance and, like my correspondent, often a delay in their recovery following higher intensity efforts. So, why does performance decrease with age and what causes the delay in recovery in older athletes?
Unfortunately a number of physical changes occur as we age that will affect our performance. These include (but are not limited to) changes to skeletal and heart muscle, and glycogen uptake and re-synthesis (Du et al. 2005).
Skeletal muscle is the muscle that generates movement and power as we run and an older runner will undergo greater exercise induced skeletal muscle damage. With advancing age, the muscle’s ability to repair and adapt is diminished. This could be caused by a decrease in muscle capillarization and mitochondrial activity (the power generators in the muscle) (Du et al. 2005); Fell & Williams, 2008). However, the good news is that training in older age can impart a protective effect on skeletal muscle, thus delaying these effects.
This leads us to a discussion about running training in older athletes. The main purpose of training is to unbalance the homeostasis of an individual’s functional systems, and the natural consequence of this is some degree of fatigue (Fell & Williams 2008; Smith & Norris 2002). If the body is allowed to recover with effective rest and nutrition, this should lead to adaptations that will prepare the individual for future physical demands and preferably, increased performance. However, does this process of insult and enhancement differ with age?
Below is a diagram taken from a paper by Fell & Williams, 2008, who adapted the model from Smith & Norris, 2002. In the diagram they propose that following an equal training stimulus, older athletes will experience greater damage and fatigue which delays the recovery response. That is, an older runner is likely to feel more sore, more tired and take longer to recover.
(Fell & Williams, 2008)
Below is another diagram presented by Fell & Williams. Figure 2 proposes that if a younger athlete and a veteran athlete move through the exact same training cycle involving regular training stimulus’ followed by a period of recovery, the younger athlete will enhance their performance whilst the older athlete will begin to show a decrease in performance. As we discussed earlier, the veteran athlete requires a longer recovery period than the younger athlete, and this should be accounted for in the training program. Of concern is that continued training without adequate rest actually results in progressive overreaching.
Here I will refer to my dear old coach Max Cherry who passed away in 2008. Max always used to say that for every 10km we race, we must allow one week to recover. This meant that following a marathon, I would allow myself four weeks to return to full strength before I began hard training again. I was just 20-years-old at the time. This theory has never failed me and is thoroughly supported in the scientific literature (Smith & Norris 2002). If we take into account the two diagrams above, an older runner might be looking for at least five to six weeks gentle recovery before jumping back into a higher intensity program.
A discussion on recovery would not be complete without mentioning nutrition. The literature shows that older adults should consume adequate carbohydrates during endurance training (6-8g/kg/day) and may benefit from the provision of carbohydrate and protein in the early recovery phase following endurance exercise to maximize glycogen re-synthesis in the muscles. There is no suggestion in the literature that fluid intake needs to differ with increasing age (Tarnopolsky 2008).
This has been a long article that has raised many valid points for consideration when conceptualizing training programs for veteran runners. The most important concept that I have ascertained from my research is that runners greater than 50-years should allow for an increased quantity of recovery following high-intensity efforts due to the increased muscle damage. Nutrition should focus on protein to assist in the muscle repair process and carbohydrates to increase glycogen re-synthesis. Finally, if in doubt, err on the side of safety and have an extra rest or recovery day - any training that you are doing is imparting a protective effect on your muscle and heart, and warding off age-related problems.
Du, N, Bai, S, Oguri, K, Kato, Y, Matsumoto, I, Kawase, H & Matsuoka, T 2005, 'Heart rate recovery after exercise and neural regulation of heart rate variability in 30-40 year old female marathon runners', Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, vol. 4, pp. 9-17.
Fell, J & Williams, AD 2008, 'The effect of aging on skeletal muscle recovery from exercise: possible implications for the aging athlete', Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 97-115.
Pimentel, AE, Gentile, CL, Tanaka, H, Seals, DR & Gates, PE 2003, 'Greater rate of decline in maximal aerobic capacity with age in endurance-trained than in sedentary men', Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 94, no. 6, pp. 2406-13.
Smith, D & Norris, S 2002, 'Training load and monitoring an athlete’s tolerance for endurance training', Enhancing recovery, preventing underperformance in athletes. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics, pp. 81-101.
Tarnopolsky, MA 2008, 'Nutritional consideration in the aging athlete', Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, vol. 18, no. 6, p. 531.
These articles are a collection of my writing. If you have feedback or questions, would love to hear from you!