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 know I’m going to totally regret trying to have this conversation after dropping my husband, Graham, off at the airport at 4 o’clock in the morning. I’ve had a very early start, and I’m probably going to slur all my words together, but in some ways, I find that the fatigue kind of brings a peacefulness, and maybe that’s a really lovely prelude into this conversation. Because today I really wanted to share with you the adventure that I just came back from in the French Pyrenees. I’ve just returned from running 700km from the Atlantic coastline to the Mediterranean coastline. A traverse that took me 19 days, and covered about 42,000 metres of vertical climb, and when I think about that, and I try to put that into perspective, all I can think of is holy moly, that’s like 40 times Mt Wellington, which is the mountain that sits behind Hobart and one that I live on the slopes of. When I think about it like that, even thinking about it now, I’m just like, “I don’t even know how I did that.”
Today’s conversation is really just sharing with you, and I haven’t got notes in front of me, so if I ramble I apologise, but sharing with you the true beauty of that adventure and all the lessons that kind of went in to reaching the Mediterranean where I stripped off to my underwear on a French beach and went for a dip in the ocean. So here we go.
This goal for me wasn’t really a goal, it was a dream. And it started when we were in the French Pyrenees over a year ago now with another tour. We had ten wonderful people (nine women, one male). I felt pretty sorry for the sole male in a group of giggling girls, but we had a really fabulous trip there. Part of the runs that we were doing with the group were on this trail called the GR10. I didn’t really know a lot about it. I mean, I have a girlfriend who has walked the full length of the Haute route, so the very high route that traverses all the different mountains across the Pyrenees, from the Atlantic (think England) down to the Mediterranean (think Morocco). The GR10, it stayed a bit lower on the French side, and it turns out it actually traverses the same length, so Atlantic to the Mediterranean, but hugging on the French side. Because it’s a bit lower, you go right up into the huge high mountains, but then every night you drop down again and back into the valleys. It sort of goes up and down through these glaciated valleys. The bits that we ran on were absolutely stunning and really beautiful under foot, and just lovely running. I sort of had this image, and naïvely my normal way is to never look into things; never to over-read and over-analyse, but I just had this picture of this trail just sort of meandering gently up, gently down, smooth under foot, green, grassy, think The Sound of Music, and that’s what the trail was going to be like. I sort of began to dream about this beautiful Sound of Music adventure through the Pyrenees, and could I do it? I was sort of really eager. I knew in my heart there was… in fact it wasn’t even in my heart, it was in my mind’s eye, this need to kind of chew on something. I had this vision of myself, and it wasn’t quite where I was in place or time. Towards the end of last year, I just, I felt like I’d gone a bit squishy. And I don’t mean that in a body image, necessarily, I just felt like I’d lost my edge – a bit like a knife that had blunted a little. So this goal, this dream, just kind of kept coming back to me, like maybe I should try and run the Pyrenees. Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe…
And then I broke my foot.
As soon as I broke my foot, or as soon as I ended up on crutches and in a moon boot hobbling around, I knew in my heart that I needed something that was going to keep my fuel alive, that was going to keep driving me forward. Because even though I’d talked about previously on the podcast how I used that time for this amazing self-growth phase, and self-discovery phase, I knew that I needed this little seed to kind of grow towards, or like the sun that I was growing up towards and giving the energy to kind of keep photosynthesising playfulness. So, the Pyrenees became it, and I decided that I would book my flights and I’d set three weeks aside for this adventure straight after two of our tours which we did and we just got back from that as well: Italy and Albania.
When my foot started to not get better, I realised that, well, I believed that this goal was too far beyond my reach. Like I was barely able to go for a 5km run without getting foot pain or a 10km run without foot pain. There seemed to only be one pair of shoes I could run in and one pair of shoes that I could wear around the house in and all the rest of the time I seemed to have this dull ache and discomfort in my foot and I thought, you know, there’s no way I could go and run 700km in a three week period, which is affectively nearly a marathon a day on average. I remember the exact moment that I had that realisation. Graham and I were chatting about what are we going to do when we’re going away? Are we going to do the Pyrenees? And I think without even uttering a word we looked at one another. He came towards me. He wrapped his arms around me, and I burst into tears. It was like this huge bubble; this big dream had been crushed and dissolved away.
I think because neither of us quite knew how to set another adventure in Europe for three weeks that would live up to the expectations of the Pyrenees, we had nothing planned. We had all sorts of weird and whacky ideas, like maybe we’ll cycle tour, maybe we’ll do this. And it wasn’t until the day before we were due to leave Tirana in Albania at the end of our tour there and embark on this three week holiday together, and which we hadn’t had for about seven years, we just have not had a holiday that hasn’t involved some kind of work, we still had no plan. But the thing was that this seed of the Pyrenees never left me – I could feel it always in my gut and even when I was trying to think up what it would be like to cycle through Italy, the Pyrenees would just kind of metamorphize into the back of my brain, and it would start sprouting, and I could feel it’s roots digging into me and into my heart, and so in the end we went, “You know what? Bugger it.” The foot had been pretty good. Not perfect, but pretty good. We didn’t bring enough gear or sports nutrition and my shoes were completely dead. I had no idea what I was going to wear for the next three weeks, and I didn’t really have any of the stuff that I probably had dreamt of using in the Pyrenees but we though bugger it – we’re going to go anyway. So, we booked a flight that went via Italy to Portugal and in Lysbon with an hour to spare towards Spain we did a James Bond taxi moment. We ran out of the airport and flagged down a taxi, jumped in it and a seven-minute taxi ride down to the local running store. Managed to find a pair of a shoes that was in my size, and we grabbed them, and back into the taxi and bundled back to the airport and with about 15 minutes to spare we caught our flight to Spain. So, I had brand new shoes, and then literally all we had with us was these tiny little vest packs that contained basically my bathers, a pair of shorts that I could sleep in and a singlet. We had a few leftover tubes of electrolyte from the trips and we’d scrounged a few off a couple of other guests. I had two pairs of socks, a phone, oh and we had a Jetboil, like a little camping stove, so that we could boil water and of which we still had to find gas. And that was pretty much it. So, it was pretty comical. I had a weird feeling getting on all of these international flights literally just dressed in your running clothes and running shoes and little vest packs, but anyway it was super cool because the dream had gone from me running the length of the Pyrenees to actually Graham and I both having a go and that we would lightweight run, hike, I guess you call if fastpack, as far as we could. But a couple of days into the experience, having a heatwave, another heatwave, yet another one, sweep through Europe, we both realised that we weren’t really being true to ourselves. And you could feel it because it felt mechanical, it felt a bit heavy. Like we were having fun, but you could feel yourself fighting the weight of the pack even though the pack wasn’t that big. It felt like if we were to keep doing this it would become a job. And we didn’t want to have a job. It wasn’t part of the plan. And so, on Day 2, Graham decided that he didn’t want to keep going. I remember the moment because we were standing up on this hill, looking down over this beautiful country of France, thinking, “What do I do?”. For me, probably, my greatest Achilles heel in all of my life has been the emotion of guilt. And as I’ve come to learn, guilt really stems from love. I don’t know why I’ve been so wrapped in a little silver foil of guilt for most of my life, and it’s never to do necessarily with ‘shoulds’ from other people, but it comes from me always wanting, or finding it really hard to put myself first, and I hope that other listeners will resonate with that, because I always felt guilty if I did something for myself that didn’t mean I could pay it forward, or include someone else. I don’t know. I just know it was coming from a place of absolute love and in this moment, the guilt was thinking, “This is the first holiday… this is kind of a honeymoon that Graham and I have had in six years,” and I’m out here thinking, “I actually just want to run the length of the Pyrenees,” which for every single day of that would be at least half a day, if not a full day, out on the trails. I’m dragging him out of bed at 4 in the morning on days that we want to start before the heat of the day. Him driving to meet me at random points beside cow barns and ponds and up the depths of valleys where he was thinking he was going to get mowed down by some little truck on a single-lane road to the middle of nowhere and to put all that on him and to not just spend this holiday next to him was hard for me to wrap my head around. In that exact moment, though, and bless him, and I love him unconditionally, not just for supporting me in this adventure, he agreed that he would love to support me, to continue the adventure, no matter whether it took me one more day, or five more days, or halfway, or to the finish; it really didn’t matter. It was more about not wanting to end in that moment, and knowing in the heart of my heart, that no matter how difficult it was and uncomfortable I was in that moment, I really wanted to be out there and to continue on. We back tracked and we went all the way back via a number of random local buses back to Beirut and we hired a little car. Which in itself was pretty comical! Normally when you’re setting out on a trip to somewhere and going to be in mountainous environments, you generally go fairly well-prepared with big suitcases or duffle bags, or roller wheels, or whatever you travel with, but in our scenario we literally just threw these two tiny vest packs in the back of this car and beelined back towards the mountains. We found a cardboard box a bit later in the trip and that became our suitcase of food. We stopped at a supermarket and bought two teaspoons and a sharp knife, all for the measly sum of about 5 Australian dollars, and that became our fork/knife/spoon. We never even bothered with plates in the end, we would just find a piece of paper, or the back of the bread bag! And we literally just travelled in this ridiculously lightweight scenario.
It was really interesting to end up back at the foot of these mountains and never having really been through most of it, not really knowing what the hell I was getting myself into, and really on the fringes of the big mountains, to find myself lying in bed thinking, “Just lean in, Han. Just lean in.” Because I think that’s pretty much it. You have the opportunity in life. I think every day should throw challenges at you, whether it’s some little challenge of remaining patient in a challenging moment, or you are really challenged by something that you’re working on, or something going on in your home life, or the little challenge that you experience out on a training run in the morning. I kind of believe now that you have the opportunity to lean in or lean out, and I lay there meditating in bed and I just heard my head saying, “Just lean in. Just lean in. Just lean in, Han.” And so, the challenge getting out the next day was that when I woke it was raining. It was one of the only days, actually there were two days of rain, but for now this was pretty rare to have seen rain in the whole time we’d been in Europe, and so I sort of rolled out of bed and onto these legs that were just screaming at me already. This was day three, so it was two days of marathon-length running in, and my legs felt so, so sore and so heavy from all these downhill especially. I just was thinking, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” It was raining and dark and we drove back to the start and there was this gushing waterfall coming down, and it was all misty and the track was just root-y and gnarly and rocky and we started walking up. I think Graham could sense… I’m sure it was an energy I was giving off of doubt. He just took my hand in the peace of the moment, and gave it a squeeze. He didn’t even say anything, and in that moment, I knew. I knew in that moment that I was ready, and that he was ready, and that we were going to give this thing a damngood crack. In fact, I reckon, if I’m completely honest with myself, in that moment I knewthat I would see the Mediterranean, and I was on Day 3.
So, it was a really interest experience, because as I read in a quote: “We fight to hold on, and we fight to let go.” And I think I did both, and then I let go. But the funny thing was, if I look at the first two days of the trip, it was completely about the physical. I felt like a little wooden soldier, marching through the Pyrenees on a journey, so excited, but physically, you know, I’m on a journey. And then on Day 3 it became very mental. It became very “Now that I’m here, how much am I going to eat, and when am I going to eat, and how much water should I take, and do I take my raincoat today, and what time do I think I’ll do this, and how far have I got to go in kilometres?” and it was very, very, very mental. I mean, it served me – I absolutely thrived out there. From Day 4 to Day 7 I felt very organised and very prepared for the trail. I was using my phone to navigate. There’s this awesome app called Maps.Me and we had the GPS of the track marked so I was able to use that to correct myself and at times I had to do that. But I think even through that time, I had a couple of really tough days where I thought that I’d be out there for six hours, and six hours became nine hours, and I sweat a lot as you probably all know already, and super-hot and just getting to the end of this day and just thinking, “I do not know how I’m going to get up again tomorrow”. Every day I got out of bed, like I could feel this body just getting stronger, and I don’t know where it was coming from, because like marathon after marathon, with thousands and thousands of vertical metres climbed, I was just like it’s just not going to be possible. But every day, sure enough, I’d get up and I’d take one ginger step towards the Jetboil to make my cup of tea and amazingly it just started to work. I think now, like what was it that allowed me to recover in such away that I’ve never experienced before? I think there were two reasons. No, actually I think there were three. The first one is that I think when you take away the stress of life, you know, because we’d gone so lightweight I’d had to leave my laptop back in Italy and I’d had to leave all of my work stuff, that I just turned off stress source. Even positive ones, even responsibilities to family. No one really knew where we were at alland there was something very liberating about that, and I think without the cortisol rushing through my body I was able to physically really recover. I think the second reason why I felt like I was recovering so, so well, was that I just damn well wanted to be there. And I had no pressure, I had no expectation. I didn’t even really care if I made it to the Mediterranean. In fact, I didn’t even care if I only had one or two more days on the trail in me, that for as long as I was loving it, that was where I wanted to be, and I think that positivity and kindness and compassion to myself, even in the way I moved on the trail, felt more compassionate than what I’d experienced when you just go on a one-day mission at home. I think that really helped.
And I think the other thing which was really eye-opening to me was that I did a lot of meditation. I would lie in bed at night after reading my book, and chatting with Graham, and sharing our highlights of the day, and having that last goodnight hug, but I would then lie there in the moment, and just try and bring myself to the absolute present, and find gratitude for the experiences that I’d had. To feel every muscle fibre just talking to me and then releasing. Telling me what it wanted me to listen to and the releasing, and then I’d fall into this super heavy sleep. Mind you with whacky dreams. Like, every night, whacky dreams. I don’t know where they were coming from. And then I’d wake up in the morning, and I’d just feel like, feeling so ready for the day, and that was super cool. So, something that we can all sort of have a go at is this concept of, you know, if you imagine when you go for a massage, you dig your fingers in and you try to release the muscle by telling it to release. Well I guess I was mentally massaging my muscles and telling them that I was hearing them and that I knew that they’d done so well and that they were talking to me, but now it was time to relax. I’d get up in the morning and I felt like I’d had a massage. It was very powerful.
I think I’d gone from a really physical state on the trail, to a very mental state on the trail, but after Week 1 passed it became a very emotional state on the trail. I started to feel… I don’t know… like one minute I’d be exuberantly happy, and like a little kid in a lolly shop moment and skinny dipping in the lake that I’d found, and whipping down a hill, and kicking up all the leaves from the deciduous trees, and then the next minute I’d feel really, really low, and contemplative and meditative. And then I’d feel fear, like real anxiety about this big section that was going to come up and I was going to be really alone and it was going to be really remote, and what would happen out there if something went wrong. And then suddenly I’d feel real strength in myself. So, the journey became more emotional for a period of time, and very thoughtful. But not from a mental place. And then it was bizarre, because that passed and the physical discomfort had passed and now in this really great space to suddenly finding this absolute peace in the last week. Like absolute, there is no other place on the planet I want to be. I guess, in some ways, I had reached that spiritual place, like I guess you’d transcended into this place that you can really only go if you’ve pushed through all the other, not obstacles, but other walls, other doors: the physical door, the mental door, the emotional door. And then I finally reached what I call for myself, the spiritual door. It was a time when my mind was very, very quiet when I was out there. I still had all the planning and the preparation, but it was so quiet.
I think one thing that really helped me to get through that last door was that at one point I remember even saying to Graham, “It’s looking a bit threatening today, and we haven’t really had a lot of rain, do you think that I should put my phone in a bag just in case it rains? Do you think I should take a thermal as well as my rain coat?” We were both, like, “Nah,”. We probably got really blasé because we just had so much warm weather. “Nah, nah, she’ll be right, she’ll be right.” So I set off, and I literally ended up in the most extreme thunderstorm I have ever been in my entire life, and I was crossing these totally barren mountain passes at 2,000m above sea level, and I am the tallest thing for a million miles and there is bolts of lightning and it’s misty and the thunder’s right overhead, and the rain is teeming down. And sure enough it killed my phone. So, from that moment on, I think I probably had about 6 or 7 days to go of the journey at that point, I didn’t have a phone, so I couldn’t reach anyone unless I met someone on the trail and could get help from them. My phone was also my map. So, I had no map. So I had to spend the evenings looking at the map and studying them, and memorising them, and then going out on the trail and just trusting my what had now become fairly intimate knowledge of the landscape and the way the trails were marked and relying on this memory of where I was going. I think that forced me to step up even more than I probably would have if my phone had still been alive, and it also forced me to forego emails. I couldn’t be contacted by anyone, no one knew where we were, and it just moved into this bubble of an experience. It was super cool. The thing about the Pyrenees that completely surprised me, was that my Sound of Music adventure that I had expected, this grassy, meandering, trail interspersed with little mountain villages, the quiet little backroads I’d been running on, it was bollocks. There were fleeting moments of beauty like that, and then the rest of the time was just gnarly, and rocky, and every day was at least once up Mt Wellington, if not twice up Mt Wellington, up to 2,500m of vertical climbing at any given climb, and then down the other side, and up the other side, and boulder-hopping, and scree. At one point there was not a blade of vegetation, and then the next minute you were pushing through bracken and gorse… Honestly it was nothing like what I expected. But I think that just kind of made it, because in some ways it just helped me traverse those doors because I’d be angry with it at one moment, and then I’d be scared of it the next moment, and then I’d feel sad because I think it would be defeating me, and I’d lean in again, and I’d rally, and I’d get this euphoric determination that I could do it and then I’d feel even more euphoria at the end of the day when I finished, and that would lift me into the next day. Eventually I think I got to that place of transcending all of that and reaching this place where I just let go and I stopped fighting it and just accepted the landscape for what it was. Every day of that trail was so uniquely different.
The final massive challenge was this mountain, Mt Canigou, which sits quite isolated, almost, from the rest of the Pyrenees, and it really is the last massive mountain before you pop down towards the Mediterranean coastline. It goes up to 2,900m. The day that I set out it was pitch black. It was the day after I broke my phone, so I was on my own out there, and we started really early in the day because this day was 47km I had to traverse because there were no other stops. There were no places that Graham could really get to me until at least the 40km mark. So, I had a 40km day, I had to get up to 2,900m. And when I got up there, not only was it really cold, but there was this extremelystrong wind blowing, I’d never been in wind like it, to the point when I was on this knife-like ridge. It was completely barren, so there’s not a blade of vegetation, and so this wind would whip off of the plains of France and then sweep up over this spur, and it would hit me. I had to crawl on my hands and knees for a portion of this ridgeline because it was so strong. I felt like I was literally going to get blown off this mountain. Which is completely bizarre, because by the time I got down and bumped into Graham who’d run up to meet me, it was thirty-something degrees, not a cloud in the sky, completely calm because we were down lower on the mountain slopes, protected by the trees and the valleys. It was kind of comical, but that day on paper just terrified the bajeezers out of me, and it ended up becoming pretty much one of the highlights of the trip. So, the final big mountain push, and I remember the emotion really hit me, actually, because when I crested that mountain was the first time I saw the Mediterranean ocean and it kind of looked so far, and yet so far away. But I knew in that moment I was going to get there.
When I got to the Mediterranean, and the very end, having not only had the most amazing days on the trail, but some incredible hospitality from the locals in the area. Each night we’d stay in little gites, and farm stays, and the occasional ski apartments, and then running down off the last mountain through the olive trees and the vineyards, and seeing the terracotta roofs of the towns. Every town changed because of the different rock types, but in the Mediterranean, everything is terracotta. It was so picture-perfect. It was a beautiful blue-sky day. I’d had in my mind this white, sandy beach, and really warm water, and I was just going to float around on my back, staring at the sky, and when I got there it was this rubbly, grey, rocky beach, and the water was freezing! Like Tasmanian cold! So, I certainly wasn’t floating on my back. I can’t even put words to what I felt, but I didn’t feel anything. I kind of felt like I should cry, or high-five or laugh… I don’t know, I just had this absolute peace in myself. I was euphoric, but I was so peaceful. And it stayed like that, and it has stayed like that. It actually hasn’t changed. I mean, I feel like a different person, and I don’t know why. I’m not saying that just because I ran 700km in 19 days and this through the Pyrenees that ‘wow, look at me’. It’s not that, it’s just… I just think that I let go of guilt. I breached limitations that I had put in my head about what I was capable of. I found a place to trust myself. I found a new level of love in my relationship that brings tears and goose bumps to me. I realise that I am my absolute best self when I listen to the calling that is coming from within me, to the yearnings, to the seeds of growth. Even just today I was working with a client who wants to set a big, meaty goal and had some ideas, and she said, “How do I know if this is the right goal?” and I’m like, “Because your soul will tell you. It will be that gnawing seed that never went away.” It will make your toes tingle and you’ll know. You will know. I think that so many of us don’t let go of our ‘shoulds’, and let go of our guilt, and let go of our fears and anxieties and our thoughts that we need to kind of live life by the text book, when sometimes the textbook just has a bloody error in it. Sometimes you just need to shut the textbook and make up the rules for a moment. Sometimes it’s when you make up the rules that you realise there aren’t any rules. I think that’s probably what I learned on this journey, that traversing these mountains kind of became traversing my own inner mountains and I reached the other side and I realised that I’m still the same Hanny. But I’d also found another side of Hanny, and that was pretty cool. I brought that person home, and I’m really proud of that person, and I love that person in my relationship and I love that person in my team at work. And I love that person when I’m just sitting quietly at home in my house and when I’m just rambling on a podcast with you. I’m not embarrassed to say that, and I don’t believe I have an ego in saying that, it’s just I’m cool with being me. So that’s the Pyrenees.
I guess the motto of the story is “Don’t be afraid to dream”. Don’t be afraid to be afraid, and don’t be afraid to lean in when you are, and when maybe it would be easier just to lean out, because sometimes when you lean in and you keep leaning in, and you keep leaning in, and you keep leaning in, you fall down an Alice in Wonderland hole and you find a whole other world waiting for you. And that is pretty cool. Yeah. I think that’s my ramble. And done.
I’d love to hear from you all. I’m curious to know who’s listening. I’m really genuinely asking you to reach out, whether it’s on social, or you can take the time to drop me an email. I’m curious to know who’s listening and what you really want to hear more of, because there are so many extraordinary people out there with amazing stories. And I’m kind of curious to know whom you want to listen to. So, let’s call that a day. I’m wishing you all the very best. I hope you’re out playing wilder and until next time, this is Hanny on the Find Your Feet Podcast.
AS PUBLISHED IN TRAIL RUN MAGAZINE AUS/NZ, AUGUST 2019 - GRAB YOUR COPY HERE TODAY!
Former world champion orienteer racer, elite trail runner, young businesswoman of the year, tour guide, podcaster and coach, Hanny Allston is one multi-talented, multi-layered, prolific and powerfully driven individual. So what fuels it all? We discuss her fearsome passion for playing wild in the outdoors.
INTERVIEW: Chris Ord
It’s been a long journey from your junior world champion title (in orienteering, 2006) to where you are today: a trail coach, guide, writer, podcaster, small business owner. Looking back, what have been the pivotal moments in your life that you believe had led you to being who and where you are today?
Thank you, Chris. Yes, it really has been quite a journey and one that I never really expected to take. To be honest, the pivotal moments, which I personally call bifurcation points, have either come from a place of feeling thrown off balance or when I realised I wasn’t being true to myself. Bifurcation points can sneak up on you, or they can hit you really hard, but no matter how they arise they really have two options – you can lean into the challenge, or you can lean out. That is, you can choose to grow by harnessing the challenge as a new strength, or you can shy away and continue on the same pathway whilst hoping that it will somehow lead somewhere new. The first option puts you in the driver’s seat, the other is leaving your future up to chance or relying on someone else to do the growth for you. For me, I have always leant into challenges, even on the occasions when I have felt so outside of my comfort zone. I really learnt this art in life, especially at the age of nineteen when my life was thrown into chaos by injury and family illness. I then began to apply this lesson to literally every challenge hence forth, to my athletic development, studies, coaching and more recently, business.
The other driver that has led me to where I am now is this huge sense of urgency to ‘pass it forward’. In all areas of my life I have been blessed to meet extraordinary people who have gifted me their knowledge – from Max and Jacqui, two pivotal running coaches who have since sadly passed away, to business mentors, allied health professionals, race directors and friends. I have always known that the life of an elite athlete can be lopsided as you lean on people to help you strive for those ultimate performances. But personally, I didn’t like the feeling of this so I have always wanted to give back to the community as much as I possibly can. Combining this with the richness of experiences I have had, especially out on a wild trail, has empowered me to share even more. I want others to experience the sensation of being, playing & performing wilder too – the wind sweeping over you as you run alone along a wild ridgeline, your comfort zone stretching until you realise you have moved beyond it. That is an extraordinary feeling and one that everyone should be able to experience.
Just as you reached the top of your game in terms of orienteering and the accolades and public exposure that came with your success, your family life was crumbling with your dad suffering mental health crises and your parents separating – it must have been a tumultuous yet formative time given your youth at 20 years of age. What lessons did you take from that period where professionally all was roses but personally you faced heavy burdens?
I cannot deny how big an impact this series of events have had on me, even until recently. I was only 19 years of age when I faced wheat I now call ‘the perfect storm’ - a full ankle reconstruction, the attempted suicide of my father and medical examinations at university. When I had first visited my father in the hospital I was only three weeks into the recovery process of my ankle reconstruction. Leaning on my crutches and looking him in the eye, I felt like I was literally in the depths of a large whole. I swore then and there to lean into this adversity and rise beyond it. Only 6 months later I became the only non-European athlete to win a World Orienteering Title, and the only junior-aged athlete to win both the junior & senior Titles in the same year. I was very much running towards opportunities and athletic desires through this time. I was also studying hard, a dutiful daughter and a runner progressing up the distance-running ranks. However, after my World Title and the subsequent dissipation of my family unit & home, I did really begin to struggle. It was really only in the last few years that I have actually paused to reflect on these struggles and how I carried myself through. For sure, I made a lot of errors as I leaned into surmounting challenges, and it became so much harder when I lost not one, but two coaches in relatively short succession. But what I have learned more recently is just how these events shaped me, and that they are nothing to be ashamed of – for they are part of the human experience. I now use these experiences to connect to and assist others to help them to find their feet. The only thing that I would change if I could relive these experiences is to allow a little more time for ‘Hanny’, the human at the heart of her playfulness and athletic pursuits. In my haste to move towards my goals and the opportunities I was gifted, I sometimes forget to give her the compassion and self-acceptance that she needed to fully flourish. This is now at the heart of my coaching and my motto in life has become – be wilder, to play wilder, to perform wilder.
You trained in health sciences, then as a teacher but neither medical research nor the classroom seemed to fulfil you – indeed it was this period of professional indecision that ended up seeding your current business name, Find Your Feet. What were the factors that led you to ‘find your own feet’?
Yes, that is correct. I started in medicine but in the aftermath of perfect storm I just wasn’t coping very well amongst the medical profession. All my support networks had dissolved and I just didn’t know how to keep all the balls in the air. I finished medical research and turned towards teaching in New Zealand but found myself at a crossroads here too. At this point I had been struggling with Anorexia, which had heightened after the loss of my beloved coach Max when I was living abroad. I had also reset my goals on qualifying for the Olympic Marathon and had got within 4-minutes of this, but I found turning up to road racing start-lines so vastly different from the orienteering scene I had grown accustomed to and the pressure of all that just so hard on my own. I started with a new coach shortly before coming back to Tasmania and this really began to feel so, so right. But she too attempted to take her life and was later successful. It was at this point that I relocated home to Tasmania and my friends would say, ‘Wow, you’re back! What are you doing now?’ In response, I kept finding my reply as, ‘I am just trying to find my feet’. I felt quite over the constant personal drive for performance and found myself wanting to give back, to help others and running was the language that I now spoke. So one day I just decided to pull adults together to play in the parks of Hobart, all the while teaching them some more skills in running. It really blossomed although I never saw it as a business nor something I would do long term. I just kept taking every opportunity to help people and well, look where it has landed me!
And in honesty, it is this single factor of wanting to help people that has helped me onto the pathway towards finding my feet and I can thank one of my earliest clients for this gift. He pulled me aside and looked me up and down. I know now that he could see how weary and underweight I was. “Hanny” he said, “It is no good trying to give us the beautiful gift of your compassion and energy if all we can see is someone who is not giving the gift back to herself”.It made me really sit up and realise that if I wanted to help others I also had to work on strengthening my own self – to really commit to finding my feet. I have been 100% committed ever since.
You once wrote “You empower others when you empower yourself.” Can you elaborate how this mantra has shaped your own journey and what you believe it can mean to others?
As I have just explained, this concept began when Find Your Feet began in 2009. However, as I have gone on this journey I have really grown in my understanding of what helps us to find our feet. And truly, I believe it begins with a super strong sense of self – I call this my ‘be wild’ state. It began by asking myself, who is Hanny? What does she need to thrive? What empowers her? What frightens her? What has she got to offer herself, her relationships and the world around her? I began to make small changes to the way I lived and I began to realise that I could live more consciously – to live a conscious life that made me feel more empowered, alive, and proud of who Hanny was becoming. This gave me more and more energy and purposefulness, like I was blooming out of a dormant bulb. Changes I made were to pursue the things that I loved the most, a more plant-based diet, electric transport, journaling, working on my relationships, reducing my use of plastics, buying organic & local, taking time for me when I needed it, and generally just trying to make conscious choices rather than responsive ones. Strangely, what I found was not only that I had more energy and excitement to share with others, but that individuals around me also become to change. As we did, we all became stronger in our endeavours and began to perform at higher and higher levels too. So subtle changes ultimately have made huge effects – be, play & perform wilder!
You have a brilliant podcast series that sees you interviewing not just runners but people from all walks of adventurous lives – what is the driving theme behind your choices of who to interview?
Thank you for saying that Chris. Look, I am no natural or talent when it comes to podcasting and there was so much fear when I started The Find Your Feet Podcast (…and in some ways still carry! It is scary to hear your own voice and with now hundreds of thousands of people listening!). However, launching the podcast again came back to wanting to share the words of wisdom I continually felt gifted to receive. Whether it was from the lessons of my past mentors or from new acquaintances I was meeting through my work, there were all these extraordinary voices and stories that I felt needed to be heard in my community. I think because I was now trying to broaden my thinking, I was beginning to realise that there were so, so many important things we all need to be hearing – from climate change and its impact on our natural environments, to nutrition, personal endeavour, the plight of bees, the Tasmanian Thylacine, self-acceptance or running for mental health… so many people with so much wisdom to share! Therefore, I really try to be open when it comes to selecting my guests. When I hear about someone or have an individual recommended to me I just try to ask myself, ‘What have we all got to gain here?’
Of all your interviewees, who has had the most impact on you and why?
In some ways, my very first guest in Paulo de Souza, a NASA & CSIRO scientist who has had a very lasting impact on me. Not only was his story amazing, (and even since I recorded it he has continued to grow as both a remarkable human being, scientist and ultra-runner!) but his drive to help save our food security and resolve the terrible plight of global bee populations is so empowering. Paulo was saying to me that within 10 years the price of apples could be as high as $100 per kilogram because bee populations are declining at such a rapid level. Preventing this has become his mission in life – to leave a healthy, sustainable, secure planet for his children, and their children. It just made me realise that had I not interviewed him I never would have understood the depths of this issue, and it made me feel so driven to deliver the podcast even if I didn’t have the schmickness and skills of other podcasters out there!
You were one of the world’s leading orienteering racers before you stepped across to make a significant mark at an elite level in trail running – what prompted the move across to trail and what were the challenges you encountered in the transition?
For me it was just a very natural, subconscious move into the scene of trail running. Growing up on a farm and later roaming Mt Wellington whilst I trained for my orienteering has meant that I have always loved the trails. Then, when I met my now husband, Graham, we shared this love and I wanted to spend more time out in wilder places with him. I continued orienteering for some time, once again reaching the podium in 2016, but I was doing more and more trail running as a way of exploring the world and our relationship. What I have also loved about orienteering is the sensation of running through landscapes. The navigation is something that I can do but it is not the element of the sport that drives me. So leaving this behind and beginning to run the trails felt like an effortless step. I have no regrets about this move.
You announced at Ultra Trail Australia in 2017 that you were done racing as an elite – what were the motivations behind your decisions?
This was a really hard decision and I don’t think it sat well with me afterwards. It came at a time when I was beginning to feel like I was juggling a lot of balls, perhaps too many. We were trying to get our feet on the ground at Find Your Feet, we were living in a friend’s converted garage with a lot of hefty bills, travelling a lot with the business and our tours, and I was just beginning to feel like it was super hard to maintain the love of racing with all this going on. Further to this, I honestly believed that at some point I needed to ‘not be an athlete’ and ‘be… well… an adult’? I really thought that we cannot be athletes forever! However, as I have come to realise more recently through working with a new mentor, I will always be an athlete. This will always be a partof my identity but it is also wrapped up with other identities too, such as a learner, explorer, woman and teacher. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have said the word ‘retirement’ at UTA 2017. No, I will never ‘retire’ as an athlete. Instead I should have just said that I wanted to see where my athletic journey continued to evolve to. However, all that said, at the time of UTA 2017 I definitely wanted to spend more time supporting Graham and our Find Your Feet Team, as well as using my trail running to explore wilder landscapes. I have definitely done this and it has been rewarding. But I now feel like I can take a bigger step back towards my athleticism and I am ready to let that part of my identity shine a little more again.
Your messaging throughout your channels – social media, promoting tours, coaching and retail business – seems to have a refreshingly heartfelt and personal bent. What is your approach when it comes to the story you want to tell?
Look, to be honest Chris, I just want to be real, authentic, honest, brave, vulnerable. I want to share my story, and others too, and what I learn along the way so that others can navigate the human experiences with greater ease, thus spending more time out doing what they love and with those that they love. For life is a giddy thing, and I am certainly not perfect in any sense of the word. I make mistakes, just as others do. Finding your feet can be damn right confusing! But if I can willingly lean into these challenges, all the while asking, ‘what have I got to gain here?’then perhaps I can help others in even a small way. Then I will be satisfied.
The environment is more than just a fun place to run for you – what is your connection to the land and environment, and what are the key issues you are moved to speak out about?
Absolutely. Nature has become my cathedral, my quiet place where I can celebrate, find gratitude, self-acceptance and deep honesty. It lifts me when I feel flat, and calms me when I am too excitable. It provides places to challenge and extend myself, and also places to rest and restore. When I see it being challenge and in trouble I feel unsettled and empowered to stand up for her. For she doesn’t have a voice – we do! I am so grateful to continue to be given opportunities to help protect our greatest asset, such as my role on the National Parks & Wildlife Advisory Council, a statutory body there to help protect our Wilderness World Heritage Area and National Parks of Tasmania.
You have a particular place in your heart for the trails and landscapes of Tasmania – why do you think the southern isle of Australia holds such a power of attraction for trail runners?
It is just so damn wild! And ‘wildness’, and at its rawest level, ‘wilderness’ is such a rare commodity these days. The guests who join us on our Find Your Feet Tours are always blown away by how rough and exposed to the elements Tasmania is. And yet they too are moved by her beauty and ancient magesticness. I have been to a lot of places on the planet, thirty-six in total, but when I stand isolated on a remote peak in the depths of the South-West Wilderness, there is no feeling quite like it, no place quite like it, no home that will ever be quite like it.
The Takayna campaign - a huge battle to fight for the protection of the Takayna / Tarkine region in western Tasmania - has been getting huge exposure. In that campaign, trail running and trail runners have come to the fore as key agents of change in shaping the issue. What is your take on our role as trail runners, stakeholders and potential champions for environmental issues?
Every human being, whether we run trails or not, really needs to begin to lead a conscious life and make changes that shift us faster towards where we need to be. Climate change is rea. Threats such as forestry and mining are real. A need for resources is real. The boom in tourism is real. As individuals who need trails and wilder spaces to be, play & perform, we all need to ask ourselves, ‘what choices do I have here?’Sometimes we can think that we don’t have a voice but really, we do. We can choose to not take that paper coffee cup, that plastic bag, to pick up that scrap of waste we find on the trail. We can choose to eat more plants, to support campaigns like Takayna, to start a ‘friends of the local trails’ community group. Every time you make one small, conscious change, you are helping us steer ourselves to where we need to be.
How do you personally get involved in shaping the arguments and issues surrounding conservation of our natural landscapes?
Through our business Find Your Feet we try to support absolutely everything that we can although within the limits of our limited resources. This included the recently Takayna Ultra. I am also frequently speaking at events and to schools, a member of the National Parks & Wildlife Advisory Council, and I am braver to speak up to things that don’t sit with me such as writing to local council requesting more signage on our trails or bike lanes for those commuting on the roads. I try to interview podcast guests who can help share their knowledge and tips on how we can live consciously. And then I just try to lead by example, to empower myself to empower others.
You have published a trail running guidebook – what was the seed of inspiration for that and how can might it help regular trail runners like me?
I am doing more and more consulting and performance coaching. Not only was I beginning to see patterns in our experiences and individual’s knowledge, but I kept saying to myself, ‘more people could benefit if they heard this.’I wasn’t thinking about elite athletes as I said this, but people like yourself, myself, my mother even… anyone who wanted to thrive on the trails, no matter how fast or experienced they were. I began writing the book as a small manual to supplement my resources, but as I began writing I just couldn’t stop until it was all out of my head. It became a book of its own accord! At its core, I wanted the everyday trail runners to be able to adopt and benefit from the methods that many elite athletes use, and to train & perform in a way that gives them lasting health, vitality and success. I have been overwhelmed with how the community has supported it, with over 3000 copies now out there in the hands of our trail running community.
As a coach, what are the most common mistakes you see being made by clients and runners –in a physical or training regime sense, but also in a psychological sense? How can we all approach our training and running better mentally?
Firstly, I would love to say what I see being done well, and that is seeing people just having a go! It is so inspiring to see so many new faces coming into the sport of trail running and willing to embrace the plethora of experiences that it can offer. The other thing I see being done well is the camaraderie. It is such a unique sport in that sense. However, I wish I saw even more people believing that they too are entitled to the methods of the elitist athletes – such as training for sustained health and success, mastering the art of recovery, and simple & effective nutrition strategies during trail runs. This requires adopting the mindset of an athlete, no matter where you are at on your journey, how fast you are, or what goals you may have. If you want to lean into the trails, you are an athlete. So, believe this and allow yourself the skills and lifestyle that assists you to flourish.
Secondly, I want to encourage people to look beyond racing. Whilst I love that it has an important place in our sport, it is not the only option. For some individuals, racing feels unnatural and they feel more at home when on a quite trail to somewhere they have personally aspired to. For now, this is me. This is where I find my best self and to be honest, some of my best performances. So, I encourage everyone to at least consider this when they are next asking the ‘what next?’question.
You once volunteered as the coach of the Australian Junior Orienteering team and at another stage crossed paths with Formula One ace Mark Webber who asked you to ‘pass it down the line’ when he helped you out. What role do you feel volunteering and doing things for others without expectation of reward plays in in growing adventure pursuits like trail running and, indeed, more broadly in terms of personal development?
I have maybe covered this above?
Personal development is a key theme throughout all your work. What are you main tenants for personal development?
Personal development begins with ‘being wilder’. What empowers you? Who are you when you take away all the things you ‘do’? What are your strengths? What would you love to work on? Are you completely accepting of yourself?
Then it requires you to ‘play wilder’ – What do you love? Do you unapologetically love what you love? Do you give yourself the time to allow your loves to flourish? Are you willing to lean in and pursue these loves?
Then it requires you to ‘perform wilder’ and to learn the art of mastering what you love – What knowledge do you need to perform? What skills can you acquire? Who can you learn this from? How can you learn this?
I believe we are at our best when we know who we are, play unapologetically, lean in and then strive to master this.
You once passed up a prestigious scholarship to study at the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland, in favour of staying in Tasmania – tough call?
Yes, but in my heart it wasn’t me. I looked at the pictures of people in suits and corporate attire, thought about how it would likely lead to jobs overseas in larger institutions, thought about all my Find Your Feet’ers whom I was loving assisting, my home in Tasmania, the wild landscapes I loved here… and in the end the decision was simple. It was merely a bifurcation point – to lean in or lean out. I chose to lean out and it was definitely the right decision.
You balance what is obviously a hectic work schedule, with marriage to husband Graham Hammond, who is not only your life partner but also your business partner and run partner – what lessons have you drawn from making that relationship work in terms of mixing business with pleasure and personal life?
We said right from the very beginning that we needed to build the business in a way that always allowed us time out to play. Playfulness is a part of our love language, as was recharging outdoors where we are at our best. It came back to recharging our own batteries before we could recharge others. Not wearing ourselves down and turning something that we love into a chore has been a conscious choice and practice. Then, we both consciously do this every day for ourselves. No matter how busy we are, we take the time to carve out the time that we individually need so that we can be there to support each other. For me this is being outside in my cathedral, journaling and solace. We also make sure that we turn off in the evening – we have the Hanny & Graham who at work are business partners and directors, then we have the Hanny & Graham who at home are wife and husband. We try not to mix the two together. Finally, I have really found value in having a mentor who can help me navigate through my own challenges, assist me with my own growth. Finally, I write and journal… a lot. I find it helpful to clarify my thinking and not bring ‘all my dirty laundry’ to our personal and professional relationship. So yes, in summary, the relationship is not something that just happens, you both have to consciously work on it and bring as much honesty & acceptance to it as you can. To be honest, I am so proud of how we have navigated what would be a challenging space.
As a once-was-racer, you seem to have turned your attention to more exploratory trail running – FKTs and missions to run in all sorts of wild areas. Tell us about what excites you about trail running these days and how your focus shifted through to less competitive, but ultimately perhaps more challenging runs?
Yes, for me, trail running has very much become about exploring wilder spaces and my own growth potential. I am not saying that I will never race again, but right now I absolutely love that sensation of running along a wild beach or mountain ridgeline, knowing I carried myself here and that only I can get myself home again. A small pack on my back, mud in places I shouldn’t have mud, scratched raw, but raw in spirit! By far and away the highlights of my athletic career was running Federation Peak in Tasmania’s South-West wilderness. We had the most epic weather out there and I honestly don’t know what happened, but I shifted into this gear I have never found before. I just felt so at home in the mud, the cold, the torrential rain and the sketchy upper sections. It was so hard and yet so easy. Thanks to all the knowledge I have gathered over all of the years I have been an athlete, I was able to play out there and to thrive. Once again, knowing this and feeling overwhelming gratitude for this is what continues to motivate me to assist others.
You’ve achieved a lot in a short space of time, and despite many challenges – what does the next ten years for Hanny hold?
To be honest, I don’t know Chris and I think I am actually at a place where I am completely okay with this. I used to think that I needed to have ‘life all sorted out’, whereas now I am content with having me, Hanny, more figured out and then allowing life to unfold as it will. I am currently upskilling my coaching in a large way and this involves NLP, hypnosis and relationship coaching. So I really hope that I can continue to help people on a personal, professional and aspirational athletic levels. I have also just completed writing my memoir so I hope to have this published sometime soon and no doubt this will add a new twist in my onwards journey. I also know that I need to continue exploring my own trail running potential. Whether this heads back towards racing or wilder and wackier adventures, I do not know. But I know it needs be strongly in the mix! Finally, I want to continue playing my part for the planet – to keep living a conscious life and finding greater ways to minimise my own personal footprint.
You once wrote a letter to your younger self. What is the abridged version of what you would tell your younger self?
Spend the time getting to know yourself and what you love the most. Do not feel pressured to pursue something because you ‘should’ or you have a fear of missing out. Our greatest gifts will come when we feel empowered, are unapologetically pursuing what we love the most, and continue to dedicate ourselves to mastering this journey… be, play & perform wilder…
And looking the other way – what do you want to say to your 80 year-old self?
‘I just lead a life that has made me jealous… I played my part, did my best and I have no regrets!’
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Hanny Allston CV
2009 Founding director of Find Your Feet, outdoor retailer
2015 Awarded the Tasmanian Telstra Young Businesswoman of the Year
2018 Telstra Small & Succeeding Business of the Year.
Council Member, National Parks & Wildlife Advisory Council
Tasmanian Councillor, Australian Institute of Company Directors
Tour Guide, Find Your Feet Running Tours
Podcaster, Find Your Feet Podcast
Author,Trail Running Guidebook
Coach & Performance Consultant
2006 Only non-European to win a World Orienteering Championships
2006 – 2015 represented Australia at various World Orienteering events
2006 Australian Mountain Running Champion
2007 Melbourne Marathon Champion
2008 Winner New Zealand Marathon & Half Marathon Championships
2009 World Games Orienteering Champion, Taiwan
2009 Australian Mountain Running Champion
2009 Winner Point to Pinnacle
2010 Winner Triple Tops, record holder
2013 Overland Track 82km, record holder (8 hours 10 mins)
2014 Winner Six Foot Track
2015 Winner Six Foot Track (record time 3hr 34min)
2015 Oceania Skyrunning Champion
2016 Winner Ultra Trail Australia 50km
2017 2ndUltra Trail Australia
2017 completed female FKT, South-Coast Track, Tasmania (12hr 15min)
2018 completed return summit and FKT of Federation Peak, Tasmania (11hr 20min)
2018 completed FKT, Frenchman's Cap, Tasmania (6hrs 20min)
2018 completed FKT, Hazards Traverse, Freycinet, Tasmania(2hr 25min)
Find Your Feet
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:
Hormones and stress: A tight link
The stress response is controlled by both the nervous and hormonal systems of our bodies. However, I have found that one of the most interesting impacts that stress has on us, especially as athletes, is how it affects our hormonal system. To understand the significance of stress on our hormones, we need to understand the incredible role our hormones are playing at every minute of the day. They help us to:
Healthy hormone function relies on pregnenolone, our ‘master hormone’. Pregnenolone is critical for the production of:
Each of these hormones is found in both females and males. However, oestrogen and progesterone are found in substantially higher amounts in women, while testosterone and growth hormone are found in significantly higher amounts in males.
Oestrogen has more than 400 functions in the body and is the main female hormone. It shapes the uniqueness of our female bodies and emotions, makes us feel sensual, brings a glow to our skin, moisture to our eyes, fullness to the breasts and clarity to the mind. Importantly, it gives us the feeling of female energy and sensuality.
Progesterone reduces anxiety and has a calming effect on our mood. It helps us to feel happy and calm, increases sleepiness, helps to build and maintain bones, slows the digestive process and prepares a female for pregnancy.
TESTOSTERONE & GROWTH HORMONE
Testosterone and growth hormone are produced by both males and females, although to a much lesser extent in females. Without testosterone, the body’s ability to repair musculoskeletal tissue is hindered. Testosterone is the main male hormone, and assists a male to feel masculine and energised, and creates muscle bulk and strength.
When we are in a calmer state of balance, there should be ample master hormone, pregnenolone. The body should be able to make adequate amounts of our sex hormones, as well as the key stress hormone, cortisol. However, if stressors compound, such as through poor diet, exercise, insufficient sleep, lack of relaxation, and internalisation of emotional stress, we can fatigue our adrenal glands. When this occurs we effectively are entering a chronic state of stress. The need to produce vast quantities of cortisol overrides the production of our sex hormones, an occurrence that has become known as pregnenolone steal.
Living with chronic stress
Up until this point, I have inferred that stress is a negative occurrence. However, sometimes it can include positive events, making it harder to recognise the build-up of stress, the onset of pregnenolone steal and the sneaky slippery-dip into chronic stress.
Positive stressors include:
Negative stressors include:
Accumulating stressors in the context of inadequate physical and mental rest can lead to a chronically activated fight-or-flight response and can disrupt hormonal balance. Degeneration will begin to occur to our body’s tissues, increasing our risk of injury and poor wellbeing. These changes include: alterations to sleep-awakening patterns; gut irritability; suppressed appetite; weight changes; agitation accompanied by poor concentration; restlessness; muscle loss; decreasing bone density leading to stress fractures or joint issues; immune suppression; and overall fatigue. Furthermore, if you are finding yourself required to cope with too much stress then you may be at risk of long-term changes to your mind, body and playful spirit.
I cover these effects in more detail later in The Trail Running Guidebook in a chapter on Overtraining Syndrome. Further to this, the book is filled with information on the training principles I believe can enhance performance through adequate recovery.
BUY THE BOOK:
If you haven’t already purchased a copy of The Trail Running Guidebook, paperback and eBook formats are available from my website. hannyallston.com.au/trailrunningguidebook
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.
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!
keep in touch!