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.
A female runner utilising my training planners recently asked me my thoughts about training around the monthly female hormonal cycle. She wanted advice on how to adapt the wave training principles to her menstrual cycle. Here is my reply:
Thank you so much for taking the time to email me! You asked, 'How can I adapt your wave training principles around my menstural cycle?' and also, 'Should I try to avoid training or racing when I have my period?'
In response to your great questions:
The female monthly cycle is something that I am fascinated by and have been doing a lot more research into. The interesting thing about the cycle is that it slightly differs in length for many women, and it isn’t quite as you would expect. Interestingly, we are actually at our strongest and most ‘male-like’ as soon as our menstrual cycle begins (ie. during the week of our bleed'. Therefore, racing or playing hard when we first get our menstrual cycle is actually a blessing! Therefore, I would never try to avoid races or hard training just because you have your cycle, unless you experience uncomfortable cramping that really holds you back. Training hard in the first two weeks of you cycle (the bleeding and then the week immediately after) can be a great thing. However, the weeks when recovery if less optimal is the final week, and even the one before that (week 4 and week 3). That is, the lead up to your bleeding week. This is when estrogen and progesterone levels are less favourable to recovery and when we experience more fluid retention.
So, in answer to your first question, I am still wrapping my head around wave training around our cycle. It is where I will take my coaching next. However, my initial suggestion would be to train something like this;
Week 1 (menstruation): Recovery then 'Mission' or 'Race'
Week 2: Moderate training
Week 3: Hard training
Week 4 (week before menstruation): Easier in intensity but with some volume (reduce any heavy strength training you are doing too)
These are my preliminary thoughts. There is a fabulous book out there by a lady called Dr Stacy Sims called Roar. I would highly recommend a read and following her on social media too. It also has some great ideas for strength training in it that are very applicable to women.
I hope that this helps.
Today I received an email from a reader with an important question - 'What do I eat before race?'. She had read in my The Trail Running Guidebook where I recommend to simplify our diet in the last few days before a race, focussing on lower fat, lower protein meals. In the book I suggest - WHITE, FLUFFY, STARCHY. So her question was, 'What are some examples of white, fluffy and starchy foods that I should eat in the days leading up to a race?' Here is my reply:
I have been vegetarian and more recently, plant based, for almost my entire life. So, keeping this in mind, my suggestions would be:
On race morning I would aim for:
I hope these suggestions help fire you up for some great adventures ahead!
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 blog contains information that I recently shared with the 809 athletes who are utilising my Ultra Trail Australia Training Planners & The Trail Running Guidebook for the upcoming 2019 UTA100, 50 & 22km events. The advice is relating to how to conduct your longest training missions which for the 100km athletes is up to 8hrs in duration. I hope you also find it useful!
During mission tips that will carry beautifully over into race day too:
• Begin with an athlete’s mindset. I call this ‘athlete’ mode – check in with your body and ensure you listen to what it is telling you. How do you feel mentally, physically and emotionally?
• Then try to conjure up your inner wilder child. Try to play, explore, laugh and learn how to immerse yourself in the experience. Enjoy leaving ‘race’ thoughts behind and instead ask yourself, ‘right now, where else would I want to be?’ Hopefully, you find excitement and positivity in the answer to this question!
• As the hours' pass, think about shifting into the meditation zone. I find this is my ‘warrior mode’. Turn inwards and feel the rhythm of your running, your breath and the dancing nature of trail running.
• Don’t forget to also practice your hiking skills and long sustained uphills where possible. I suggest walking anywhere from 20-40% during this long mission as you will likely find yourself walking at times on race day and it is important to prepare mentally and physically for this.
• Throughout this whole period remember to refuel frequently. I strongly encourage you to keep a constant supply of jelly beans and glucose tablets on hand, as well as your race day nutrition. Practice, practice, practice and learn!
• Towards the end of the mission, check back in with the athlete’s mindset. How am I feeling now – mentally, physically, emotionally? If you still feel confident and strong then play for the remainder of the Mission’s duration. If you know that you might be at risk of digging a big hole that may be difficult to recover from then please call-it-a-day. Learn from the experience, work out what you did really well and what you could improve on for next time. You will have one more mission to practice in before event day.
• After the mission, your focus needs to be on recovery, recovery, recovery. I write at lengths about this in my Trail Running Guidebook. I would strongly recommend booking a massage for yourself as a reward for your hard work in training to date and your long mission. Then, take your time returning to training. Take as long as you need to recover before you jump back into my planner. We don’t want to take any risks!
In preparation for the upcoming challenges, now is a good time to gather the rest of your mandatory gear together. Whilst we are all crossing our fingers and toes for fine weather in May, consider how you can prepare for either wet or hot conditions.
However, despite all of the above excitement and as we move into April, it is a brilliant opportunity to remove some of the pressure you may be feeling about race day. I believe that Autumn is a time for ‘letting go’. Let go of some of the fear and nerves you may be carrying. I highly recommend listening to my podcast with Dr Clive Stack – Listening to your emotions. A good way to unwind is to carve out an hour a day for you. Use this time to do whatever makes your heart sing or reenergizes you. Then, add some more time with friends, try different activities or new running routes. Keep it fresh & playful!
This piece is for all the individuals out there who can feel like a zebra - like your stripes are telling you apart from the crowd. It is also for all the individuals who feel a pull to shed their old identities and begin again, and to those who aren't quite sure where to start. It is packed with honesty in the knowledge that you will not judge me for the humanness of these experiences.
A zebra. That is what I kept likening myself to as I wandered in and out of various presentations at the Australian Institute of Company Directors Annual Governance Summit. What a mouthful! As I sat there, surrounded by 1500 other delegates, each in their grey suits, with the occasional blue pop on a male, or a fling of red or white from the women, I honestly felt my stripes yelling to the room. I don’t own a suit jacket, or corporate skirt, or black shiny heels. In fact, I don’t own anything that would help me fit into that room. Add to this my short spicy white pixie cut, youthful looks, my white slacks and turtleneck jumper, yes, I really was the zebra here. Many individuals bravely stated, ‘You don’t look old enough to have done all that!’ when I shared dribs and drabs of my story and how I came to be attending the conference. So, for me, the two-day summit and AICD councillor’s meeting prior to it, has not only provided insights into the principles of good governance in Australia, but also raised one question, should I be trying harder to fit in?
My mentor & transformational coach, Alice, has always said that you can find all the answers to our questions in nature. When I sat back to deliberate on my question, this is precisely what I have subconsciously done. Why was it that I picked the zebra as my way to describe my discomfort in this environment? And if I was the zebra, what did this make everyone else? Assume for a moment that they were horses, gorgeous stallions and wild brumbies. Yes, let’s consider this scenario for a second. If you were to put a zebra in the midst of these horses, to give it the same food source, water, love and attention, it will remain a zebra. The horses may try to teach it to trot, canter and follow their lead, but it will still have the traits and qualities of a wild Africa animal, one with white stripes and black. It can act like a horse, but it will undeniably still be a zebra. We could trim its main, shod it, and make it look more ‘horse-like’, but it will retain its stripes… it will still be the zebra.
So is that the answer here? If I know that I am a zebra, and this is a room full of horses, each of various breeds and beauties, I cannot change the essence of who I am by changing what I wear and trying to fit in. No, I don’t believe that I can. I must be proud of those traits and qualities that make me different. Proud of my age, my experiences, skills & my story. In truth, I must be proud of my identities, formed from my values, beliefs, actions and environment. If there are horses in that room who see me and accept me for these stripes, then I am willing to canter alongside them and enjoy the rush of the wind in my face and the new lessons I learn from them as we roam the lessons of great governance. However, to those who turn away, confused by the wild creature before them, then I respect them too. Zebras are not for everyone.
The second part to this story is that whilst happily a zebra for now, I too am still trying to understand my complete identity. Even a year ago if someone had asked me, ‘How do you see yourself?’ I would have responded with, ‘As an athlete and a businesswoman, as well as a daughter, a sister, a partner’. And if pressed, I might add, ‘World Champion and young businesswoman’. However, in truth, I am coming to realise that these identities are changing and I am still wrestling and trying to reconcile with this. This begs another question for me - What do you do with a beloved, love-worn jacket that you now know you need to retire? Should you keep on wearing it because it seems a waste to cast it aside, especially given how much you have trusted & loved it for protecting you from the elements? Now dismiss it after it has shared many wilder journeys with you? Or should you take it off, hang it in the closet, or pass it forward to someone who needs it more than you, someone who can grow into it? Just like this well-loved jacket, taking off an old identity can be terrifying. You can suddenly feel naked, feel the loss of its warmth and protection, forcing you to wrap your arms tighter around you. As you do, you will undoubtedly wonder, ‘How on earth you I find another jacket that is as good a fit as that one?’ Now imagine that you gifted your jacket to the local Vinnies shop, and a few weeks later, as you pop into the supermarket and feel the chill of the refrigeration section hit you, you suddenly see someone else wearing your jacket. This vision brings on a sudden pang of jealousy, a sudden desire to tug it back on and revel in its comfort. Yet deep down, you know this jacket no longer belongs to you. Now you feel sadness as you try to fill your basket with your groceries. You look down at the basket, and the items that you always enjoyed now no longer seem as appealing. For a short moment, you feel cold, alone and a little saddened without your jacket. Your old identity.
For me, this is exactly what has been happening, With the love and support of Alice, we have torn down barrier after barrier, peeling off the old jacket to help me uncover what my new identities are, and how my values feed into these. Most of these barriers come in the form of unresolved emotional traumas, and an incongruence with my actions, emotions, thoughts and identities. Unresolved anger, grief and sadness were hidden in the depths of each and every one of my cells. These stemmed from incidences that I had forgotten, dismissed or thought I had already overcome. Often the blocked emotions were not to do with an incident itself, but how I responded to the situation, or how someone close to me responded. It was about the choices that I made, or didn’t make in those moments, with the lessons not yet realised, the growth not yet experienced. So, as the barriers were torn down and reflected upon, at first I grieved, ached from the bruises of experiencing once again, and then rapidly felt myself coming back together, stronger than ever with clarity fuelling the flames of new desires and enhanced purpose.
For as long as I can remember I have lived by the identities of athlete, daughter, sister, protecter, hard-worker, talented, achiever, Tasmanian. Proudly so. Fiercely so. They have served me well, and taken me to the heights of sport and business accolades. Yet, despite the successes, lumps, bumps and dips in this road, somewhere along the way these identities had become shaken up - my environment had changed, my beliefs, actions and relationships too. In fact, my values had shifted and until working with Alice and trusting her to take me down deep into my subconscious, I didn’t release just how far I had moved beyond these old identities and how some of them have never actually served me. I had accepted them as a given and never thought to pause and ask the simple question, ‘Is this jacket for me?’
Sitting in the huge theatre in Sydney, the distant voices of the presenters floating towards me, I couldn’t help but find my mind drifting. Why? Because I have suddenly realised that there is no part of my identity that is a businesswoman. No, not at all. Despite having won two business awards, business is not a part of my identity… not at all. However, what is, is learning about the people who interact with the business. What motivates them, their dreams, aspirations and how they lead themselves there, or lead themselves away for that matter. It is the why and the how that fascinates me in business, not the what or the outcomes. During the conversations that erupted during the tea and lunch breaks at the conference, I found that my brain couldn’t attach to the stories that people were sharing with me unless we reached the human element at the bottom of their story - once again, their why and how, not their what - the accolades, successes & business outcomes. Similarly, earlier that morning, I had taken myself off to the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre to spin my arms and feel my body move silently through the quiet waters of an awakening swimming pool. As I began to ease into the movements, I couldn’t help but feel that athlete is no longer a part of my identity either. I no longer feel like I am competing against myself or others, that I am no longer driven by accolades or results. No. Instead, I feel like with every stroke that I take I am eager to see if I can make it my best stroke, to feel the water catch more firmly on my hand, to feel myself rise out of the water and how the resulting glide can feel more effortless. I can recognise now that this is not the mind of the athlete, but rather the mind of a learner, an explorer… an artist.
With guidance from Alice, I realise too that I now need to move beyond my identity of ‘young Hanny’ - the daughter, sister, and timid, young girl growing up in the big, wide world. At thirty-three years of age it is finally time to embrace my womanhood. I want to now look in the mirror and embrace the curvaceous breasts that greet me, the slight curve on my hips and the skin maturing from exposure to life, sunshine and the elements. I want to move beyond purely the practical underwear and sometimes pull on my big woman panties, the ones that make me feel a little more sensual and feminine. At night I want to go to bed and enjoy the feeling of sleeping in sleepwear that makes me feel beautiful and capable of mature intimacy with my husband. I want to see his eyes light up with ‘that look’, to know that whilst our relationship is absolutely 100% grounded in friendship and indefinite love & respect for one another, that there will always be a romance alive there too. I want to walk into a room and hold my head up high, rather than letting my gaze drift to the shoes of the adults. Then to sit across the table from them and feel empowered to share my thoughts. I also want to sit across the table from my brother and speak as equals, and to take the advice and wisdom that he shares with me as adult-to-adult, rather than simply as his little sister. Further to this, I want to visit my mother as Hanny, and yes, whilst still her daughter, I also want to know in my heart that I am an adult creating my own life and with a plethora of choices in front of me. More importantly, I want to share a meal with her knowing that she feels the same freedom and ability to make choices too. When I speak to my father on the phone I want to know that I can open myself up to vulnerability, sharing the joys, highs and lows of our lives lived, sometimes together but more frequently apart. And finally, to know that within each of my special relationships there is no judgement.
Therefore, in the recent months I have learnt that identities evolve. When it becomes apparent that we need to, we must peel off the layers - the athlete, the daughter, the sister, the youth, the businesswoman - and try on some new ones. The laciness of womanhood. The stillness of the writer. The creativity of the explorer. The colours of the artist. The compassion of the healer. The voice of the coach. From this place of strength & understanding, my ‘be wilder’ state, can come the exploration of values, beliefs and actions.
I am sure that many of the things I have discussed here today will change by tomorrow. However, this is absolutely okay and please do not judge me if I do profoundly state tomorrow that I am once again an athlete! Change and evolution, confusion and then clarity, this is all a part of the human experience. We must wrestle with the known and the unknown, with the feelings & experiences that we can put words to, and those that we cannot yet. We must be willing to be brave in our vulnerabilities so that we can turn these into our vitalities.
Like Alice has done for me, today I write to give you the permission to also turn inwards and identify the identities that you are wearing, those that serve you, and those that no longer do. For if we all go on this journey, not only will it be less intimidating and lonely, but we will be helping to make the world a better place. The world needs more zebras. But it also needs more lions, buffalo, hippos and tigers. It needs more cats, dogs, ponies and goats. It needs more plants, grasses, and towering trees. It needs more diversity and individuals living a conscious life.
This blog stemmed from a client's email query: 'I live in the UK where it is super cold at the moment. How do I prepare for your relatively hot Australian conditions?'
When you live in a cold environment, acclimatising for an event in hot conditions is incredibly difficult. In 2005 I was heading to the peak of Japan's summer for the World Orienteering Titles. It was expected to be >37 degrees celcius with humidity of over 90%. As I began preparing for the races, snow lay in a thin blanket across the lumpy paddocks of our family's farm in Tasmania. Without too much experience or guidance, I dusted off my bike, set it up on a friend's spin trainer by the hearth, stoked up the fire, shut all the doors, decked myself out in all my thermals & tracksuits, and began one incredibly uncomfortable 10-day streak of training.
Yes, if you do not have the luxury of arriving well in advance of your race, acclimitisation is pretty tough. Here are my tips:
For Sports Nutrition that will assist, visit Find Your Feet's Nutrition & Hydration Collection.
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.
The following blog post is a recent interview I did with James Kuegler on my experiences with the Six Foot Track Marathon.
I do have a Training Planner available for this event if you are interested in taking on the challenge of the Six Foot Track Marathon Race and would like a guide for a sustainable training method that I use.
As a coach, I value all my athlete interactions, as they are all meaningful. It is edifying to engage with people who are trying to create a new normal and put themselves through something that, regardless or the outcome, will be ultimately transformative. Taking that view, all my athlete’s successes are meaningful to me, however I feel comfortable saying that sometimes a performance will stick. One such performance is Hobart resident and former orienteering world champion Hanny Allston’s 3:34:50 course record setting run at the 2015 Six Foot Track Marathon.
The Six Foot Track Marathon is one of the oldest and most storied races in the Australian trail running Calendar. Taking place every year in Katoomba in New South Wales. The 45 kilometre event, which some consider the toughest trail marathon in Australia, was first run in 1984 to mark the centenary of the Six Foot Track- which gives the race it’s name. As with most of the best races out there, the SFTM (as we will now call it) raises money for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service and the Six Foot Track restoration trust and is a proudly grassroots event.
Continuing with the proudly grassroots feel of the event there is a classically detailed long form course description at the SFTM website which details the race turn by turn. In short, however the SFTM course descends for roughly the first third of the race, to the lowest point at Cox’s river, before a massive sustained climb with undulations before dropping down into the finish at Jenolan caves . The race has a mix of fast trail, fire road, meadow, and narrow, more technical terrain at the start. The key challenges that you face are the difference in terrain, the sustained descending and climbing and the temperature, which can get to over 30 degrees at this time of year in Katoomba.
I would suggest that to become an able runner you have to learn the discipline and craft of running, that is, training frequently with good form, a solid aerobic base, with periods of time spent training at an increased effort. We’ve been doing that forever because, well, it works. I would consider however that applying cross training principles to a race like the SFTM is especially important due to the makeup of the course. You will need a strong core and posterior chain to cope with the initial long sustained downhill sections (where it is all too easy to get carried away when you feel like you’re flying) and then maintain excellent form and high leg turnover as you grind up some brutal sustained climbs in the second half of the race. Even though SFTM is considered a descending course, with an overall net descent of 260m (1528m total elevation and 1788m descent) one should not be fooled. You will pay for any early excesses in the latter part of the race.
Why I am talking about cross training specifically is that yes, core strength is vital, and we should all incorporate some aspects of core work into our weekly routines, but what we need for an event such as SFTM is plyometric strength. Plyometric strength comes into play with someone like Kilian Jornet, who is able to bound up hills, thanks not only to his aerobic capability, but to his ability for his muscles to contract explosively. Plyometric strength is important as it is what gives us that “running bounce”. If we think back to earlier articles, high leg turnover should mean that each leg is spending less time in contact with the ground, ergo our footfalls should be lighter, our muscles don’t load up and we run in a more energy efficient manner. To do this, we need plyometric strength. A varied training plan, with a focus on cross training, can be helpful to develop this strength.
As I’ve described in the sample week’s training, Hanny’s workouts leading up to the SFTM were a mixture of speed work, strength work, water running (to maintain physical integrity) and hiking. There was comparatively little ‘straight’ running in the training load. Leading up the the SFTM this mix of time on feet, recovery, strength, and some speed work gave Hanny all the elements she needed to set a blistering course record that still stands. You could take my word for all of this, or you could hear it from the source herself, As I spoke to Hanny via email about her recollection of the event.
What do you believe are the key training requirements for someone planning to take on the SFTM?
Base fitness. You need to really be able to run consistently as under foot, the terrain is very fast. That is, major trails, fire trails and even some almost road sections. Then it comes down to great running form on the hills. You need to learn how to get into granny gear and grind up a hill for a very long period of time. Finally, it is strength and conditioning the legs for prolonged downhills. If you are not used to running downhill, often at a high intensity, for a long duration then I can guarantee you will struggle to walk for the next week after the event! So, in this order my training focus would be:
My memory of you running SFTM in 2015 was about not getting caught up in the excitement and energy at the start, and running your own race hunting the guys down towards the end. How did you manage to temper the excitement of the race with sticking to your processes around intensity and strategy?
Yes, this was absolutely my plan. I had a lot of pressure on me to break records and be a front runner, but I knew that my performance would only be as strong as my ability to execute what I wanted to in the race. So I have created this ability to get in ‘my bubble’. This is my place where I go to focus on my running technique, keeping myself fuelled and hydrated, feeling the rhythm of the run and observing the day around me. I know that if I am running in my bubble I am conserving energy. And that if I do all of this right, then the result will take care of itself.
Psychologically and physiologically what are the constituent sections of the event?
Physiologically, the aim should be not to burn too many bridges over the first very long downhill and runnable sections to Cox’s River. You should be focussing on feeling light and fast, without pushing too far. This is a period for really keeping on top of your energy levels so that you have lots left for later. Then you hit the big climb out of Cox’s River. Here you need to get in granny gear. My motto on this is, ‘how slow can I go?’ It wasn’t so much about slowness, but about remaining comfy and really finding my rhythm. Then, when you get to the ‘top’, there is this undulating 10km or more of running. This is definitely where the race is won. You need to be able to really hammer this section at full throttle, because after this it is all downhill to the end. I saw so many people coming unstuck here because they hadn’t kept enough in the tank. This section should be your absolute focus in this race. Then the last 10km or so to the finish is about trying not to get too caught up in your head and your own pain. By now, everyone is hurting. You just need to focus on staying fuelled and hydrated, trying to get out of your head, and let the legs roll beneath you to the finish. It is definitely tough because by now your legs feel a bit like pulp, but hopefully you have trained for this.
Anything else you think worthy of mentioning?
Fuelling and hydration is everything. You can be the fittest athlete in the world, and give everything to your training, but if you muck up your nutrition and hydration on the day then you can wave goodbye to a great result.
Cross training is beneficial because it helps us to be a better animal. Cross training uses different muscle groups, it is psychologically refreshing, and can aid in limiting stress on the muscles that we are using regularly in our consistent training. Cross training can be done within running, rather than say doing plyometric exercises or swimming, experiment with different shoes, terrain, carry a backpack sometimes if you don’t normally. This will change up the load on your body and be beneficial. Plyometric exercises, ones that have our muscles contracting and expanding quickly, are especially useful for runners. Box jumps are an ideal form of Plyometric exercise
Hanny Allston Sample Week leading up to SFTM
Monday. 1:00 Strength workout. 0:45 Water Run
Tuesday, 3:00 Hike
Wednesday. 0:45 Water Run. 1:00 Tempo Run
Thursday. 3:00 Hike
Friday. 1:00 Strength workout.
Saturday 1:00 Aerobic Run
Sunday 1:30 Off-Road Run
Lee walks softly through the sliding doors into my living room, a converted 1960s garage which we rent from generous friends who live above. For three years we lived humbly since we sold our home in Canberra and thrown everything into our Find Your Feet adventure business here in Tasmania. Lee meets my outstretched hand with a quiet confidence and yet boyish nervousness. I feel like I am looking in a mirror. ‘Well this should be interesting!’ he remarks with a husky smoothness laced with an accent I cannot place.
I flick on the microphone and watch the sound bars jump up and down as we begin to reminisce about adventures along Tasmania’s remote wilderness trails, the escapades which have profoundly shaped us. Frenchman’s Cap with its landmark Lorax cliff face plummeting into Lake Tahune hundreds of metres below. Federation Peak with its wallowing hippo-friendly mud. And our local icon, Mt Wellington with is plethora of rabbit-warren trails etching a runner’s paradise across her north-eastern flanks.
For fifteen years Tasmania has been my home to a wicked combination of adventurous runs, heavy-legged recovery days and interval repetitions up brutal climbs. It shaped me as a person, elite runner and ultimately, a World Champion. The mountain’s beauty has always helped to spark a belief in my dreams during times of adversity and has become a place for celebration after moments of accomplishment. As stories unfold during my conversation with Lee, I realise that we are sharing a deeply profound moment of, ‘me too!’
Today Lee is a sixty-nine-year old recreational athlete whose greatest claim to fame, aside from the significant accomplishments in cycling to triathlon, running to trail running, is the fact that he has never been injured. How is this possible? A celebrated ecologist with an inquisitive mind that allows him to ask the deepest questions of humanity, Lee has adopted a belief in a theory called Punctuated Equilibrium. Tasmania is his Petri dish. I am rivetted.
“It is not the external world that needs to change. Transformational shifts happen from upgrading the internal world – your patterns of both thoughts and actions. These pattern shifts might just begin with moving beyond the drive for high performance; beyond the search for peak experiences; beyond being able to do more in your life. While the peaks are important and wonderful, the transformation of living more fully daily begins with a fundamental commitment to organize your life to be you at your best more often; to be more present, more grounded, more joyful, more playful, more focused — more “switched-on”. That way of living requires an investment in recovery: proper sleep, proper hydration and food intake, plenty of movement and an optimal way of thinking.”
This year, Federation Peak formed a huge punctuation mark in my life. Over eleven hours of wading through mud and scrambling through a maze of horizontal scrub I overcome fear after nervous fear, driven by the knowledge from an early podcast guest, Dr Clive Stack, that fear serves the purpose of highlighting what is of greatest importance to us. Being out there on that back-jarring trail, running and wading my way to the summit, was vitally meaningful to me. And in the depths of one mud-hole, at a moment of ‘what am I doing!?’, I found a heightened realisation that we can only reach our greatest performances, our wildest ambitions, when we are grounded by a strong sense of self and what we love. Yes, discomforts aside, I love this side of Tasmania, and it helps me to uncover my truest self.
As a performance coach and consultant, time and time again I have observed the phenomena that when individuals have a profound understanding of their values and an ability to empower themselves; when they are then willing to play wilder and find the child within; only then do they reach their greatest levels of mastery and to strive for performance. Be wilder, play wilder, perform wilder. Stability. Fun. Perform… a constant cycle of self-exploration, playfulness and striving after which it is critical to return to our inner foundations and to ensure that they are still serving us.
“Regardless of what you are aspiring towards, you do need elements of stability”
As Lee explains, we grow in waves, with internal and external forces pushing us to rapidly adapt. And if you are aware of how we as a species grow like this, then you can self-inflict the punctuation marks. From his steady home-base, this is how Lee has come to grow as an athlete.
“We have to be careful of not all heading for the middle ground. I think we need to pick up on our strengths and at times, create the punctuation marks.”
In summary, it is vitally important to learn to be more to do more. For me, I know that the old way of do more to be morehas passed and now been replaced with a desire to be wilder, play wilder and perform wilder. In doing so, I slowly believe that I am finding the pathway to finding my feet.
Listen to the full Find Your Feet Podcast episode with Lee Belbin.
In the last weeks of my twenties, I can honesty testify that I thought nothing needed to change. I was a happy Tomboy, chasing dreams and living life as I had always done – a car cruising along the highway on automatic pilot. However, as I turned the corner into my thirties, I suddenly felt like I was confronted with an enormous junction, a confusion of dead-ends, back roads, and stop signs. It was overwhelming and I was afraid to look back to where I had come from for fear of what I may see. At the end of 2016, I wrote a reflection of this experience titled Planting My Feet. This piece was a very personal account of the journey I went on after I turned 30 and how I navigated this crossroads, discussing how I began working on ‘self’ to find greater purpose in my relationships, sport and career.
As I moved into 2017, my greatest intention, call it a new year’s resolution if you must, was to consolidate the positive experiences and hard work of 2016. I think I can honestly say that I have done so, and here is what I have learnt from this wild ride of the year just gone:
What has helped me to overcome this fear of failure has been to rewrite my definition of success, which has slowly become to ‘seek craftsmanship and strive for beauty’. And my modality for achieving this is, ‘be wilder, to play wilder, to perform wilder’. Gone are my days of butchering onwards, thinking more is better and rushing for outcomes. I now strive to find ways to feel more beautiful in my intentions, so that I experience more joy in my actions, so that I can, in turn, strive for mastery in the outcomes I aspire for. I believe that this has to be the order of priorities… Be, Play, Perform.
2. Ego is the elephant in my room:
After turning thirty, I spent twelve-months working with a performance psychologist. After a few sessions, he suggested that there was an elephant in the room with us. I knew he was right. I could feel the beast lurking in the corner, poking me occasionally with his trunk and occasionally stomping on my toes. This year I have finally come to identify him by name and to bring him out of the shadows. Everyone, meet Ego! For the most part, Ego likes to take long naps and doesn’t bother me. However, when the high-pitched, feminine Fear squeals, ‘Don’t fail!’, the dominating, male presence of Ego the Elephant heffalumps to my rescue. ‘Just do more. Train more. Work harder. Try more. Say yes! Don’t say no!’ And so the tug-of-war starts, feminine Fear on one side and Ego the elephant on the other. Until we all get so damn tired that we put down the rope, call truce, and make a cup of tea.
3. Honest ends the tug-of-war
Honesty is, and has always been, one of my strongest values but I actually didn’t realize its quieter, positive influence in how I live my daily life. Whilst I find it easy to be honest with others, this year I have come to truly understand that I am the best version of Me when I am truthful with Hanny. This is because it halts the tug-of-war between Ego the Elephant and my feminine Fear.
It is definitely easy to drift from the truth, sometimes slightly and other times wildly. This usually happens when Ego is winning the war and I find myself saying to myself, ‘She’ll be right…’ The most frequent example of this is when my body is pleading with me to be kind to it and instead Ego encourages me to battle on through. This has resulted in a few injuries, such as currently with my Achilles. Sometimes I find that the truth feels shameful, like realizing you are not as strong as you thought you were. And it can be uncomfortable, like admitting you were wrong in your judgment. Other times I find the truth confusing, especially in relationships. And sometimes, like when you stand alone on a remote peak, it is wildly exciting. What I have discovered, using wilder adventures and business as a method of discovery, is that to live truthfully is to live in the NOW. When I am in the moment, not thinking about my past or future, I am being honest with myself and finding positive outcomes. When I am in the NOW, there is little room for Ego who is forced to return to his corner, trunk between his legs. And amazingly, as he does, fear abates too.
2017 was beautiful, albeit busy. The highlights have definitely been:
With the new year now upon us, my intentions for 2018 are to:
I hope that you are also looking forward to a wholehearted year ahead! May it be the ride that you wish for.
I really appreciate all your continued support. If you haven't already done so, please check out:
Written by: Joonas Pääkkönen.
Reading Osho’s When the Shoe Fits, while having breakfast felt like a nice way to start my day off at a hotel in Tampere, Finland last July. It was time for the Junior World Orienteering Championships (JWOC), a busy week filled with competitions. Later that day, though, I only had one meeting scheduled on my calendar: an interview with Australian JWOC team manager Hanny Allston.
I have been fascinated by the mental aspects of endurance sports all my life, alongside with the Eastern traditions of inner work, including various forms of meditation. Interestingly, my conversation with Hanny turned out to cover many such topics.
At the lobby of a hotel located in a picturesque Finnish landscape, Allston, known to be the only non-European to ever medal at the World Orienteering Championships, sat down for a chat.
“Can I offer you a cup of coffee?”, asks Allston with a friendly Aussie intonation when I enter the lobby where we were to meet. She seems more than ready and happy to talk about her various endeavors.
I was all ears. I kept nodding while listening to her talk. It was obvious that running was not just a pastime for her. Neither was it just a competitive sport. She definitely had a deeper connection with running, with competing, with confronting herself, and with being alone in the wild. Alone in the wild for hours. Where nobody can find you.
She is now, among other things, a successful business woman. With her company Find Your Feet, a multi-faceted company specializing in tours as well as education and outdoor retail, she goes running with people like me and you, to some of the most spectacular places on the planet.
"...it’s lovely to win a gold medal but at the end of the day, I want be able to do this forever. Again, when we were talking about “Do I want to support this system in Australia in orienteering?”, my heart struggles with that question because my husband doesn’t orienteer, my life is in a state which is not an orienteering location and I have these opportunities to use my skills for both myself and for other people in other ways..."
... Read more by downloading the file below.
Joonas' is a freelance writer, an orienteering and running coach, a Taoist qigong instructor, and a Ph.D. student in telecommunications.
Joonas is available for contact via email:
How much of an endurance challenge is mental or physical? I have always been at a lost for an appropriate response and grabbing at random numbers. Seventy percent physical? Forty percent mental? Or should this be fifty-fifty? Or… Just days away from the my first 100km trail running event I can now respond with more conviction. Breaking down any endurance challenge into only mental and physical components is over simplified. Right now I can testify that there is a huge emotional element to endurance performance too and I believe that we often overlook the incredible power that our emotions hold over us. This begs the question - are we putting enough emphasis on emotional intelligence as we strive to succeed in endurance challenges?
But what is success when it comes to endurance? For me now, success defines my willingness to sit on the edge, to lean in to the discomfort that is inevitable and to accept whatever the outcome is. Conversely, to fail is not a failure to reach the summit, but to shy away from this discomfort and seek an easier way out. Therefore, success is not a result that I find on the finish line but rather an experience I undertake during the journey to the summit.
So what stops us from perching on the edge of our comfort zone? I see this ‘edge’ as the point at which success and failure merge and where some of our greatest self-growth occurs? As I prepare for tomorrow’s daunting 100km run, undeniably what has me begging to step back from this edge is fear. For me, fear normally kicks in during the last few weeks as the big day approaches. It replaces my sense of control and focus, leaving me filled with self-doubt and the inevitable question, ‘why on earth am I doing this??!’
During a recent Find Your Feet Podcast episode with Dr Clive Stack, we found ourselves discussing the concept of fear, especially in relation to my impending run at Ultra Trail Australia. Dr Stack has devoted his expertise to researching human emotions and the purposes these serve. He has come to believe that fear highlights a moment when things are about to change for the better and that instead of running from fear we should lean into these moments, finding courage to strive for another week, day, hour or even minute until we finally break through to the other side where empowerment, personal growth and success lie. So, when intimidation has us withdrawing into ourselves and self-doubt wakes us at 5am in the morning… that is when we must disregard our fear and crawl to the edge. In this moment of self-doubt we need to have faith to lean in.
I think too often we set a goal and then focus on our physical and occasionally our mental preparedness. But I firmly believe we need uncomfortable experiences to foster emotional resilience. Emotional preparedness comes from experiences that hold us in a space beyond our comfort zone. I find my greatest strength when I am active outdoors in a foreign location or immersed in the elements. During the depths of my 100km, when the sun sets and I am alone on the course, I know that I will not be relying so much on my physical fitness, but rather I will be drawing strength from past adventures and the tougher moments in life that I have experienced.
As we strive for new summits, I implore us all to begin acknowledging the presence of our emotions and the role they play as we near ‘the edge’. If we are able to accept their involvement then we will be less surprised as emotions emerge, especially during those critical last weeks or when we are digging deep on ‘summit day’. If you are experiencing fear, hold tight for another day, hour or even minute. For things are about to change for the better. Back yourself. Trust yourself. Take faith in your preparation but especially in the moments when you have been physically, mentally & emotionally challenged.
In summary, I truly believe that fear and emotional turmoil will be intricately involved in any preparation when we strive towards new summits. After all, we seek these hefty challenges as an opportunity to grow, learn and frighten ourselves a little. I know that my 100km run through the Blue Mountains tomorrow will be an intricate blend of physical, mental and emotional resilience. And if that fails me, then perhaps it will become a spiritual experience as I pray to the gods for the finish line!
Listen to Dr Clive Stack on the Find Your Feet Podcast:
Sometimes you reach a point where you know some things need to change. In February 2016 I realised that it was time to audit my life after experiencing the devastation of raging fires in northern Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area, a back injury and turning 30 years old. I started journalling my thoughts and actions, quickly realising that I felt completely unharmonious between my intentions and actions. Furthermore, I knew that my body wasn’t healthy. I looked fit and was running strongly on paper, but underneath this there were old habits that were holding me back. Crunch point.
Today I want to share the 11 steps that I have taken so far to re-find my feet:
1. Beginning the ‘Internal Work’When I visited a new doctor at the start of the year she looked me up & down and said, ‘Hanny, you need to find your femininity’. I had not a clue what she meant but when I was handed the name of a performance psychologist in town I new she must be serious. For sure, I was experiencing a nasty back injury & was feeling a little directionless but by no means did I really feel I needed to ‘chat’. However, when I began to audit my life I realised there were (and always will be) a number of areas for self-improvement. At this time these included: a lack of feminine hormones; a constant need to be busy; quick to react to stress; physical niggles; adapting to a growing leadership role in my business; increasingly large sporting goals; and a concern about nourishing nutrition (or lack thereof).
This year, I have worked with Jeremy, a performance psychologist, on my ‘internal self’. It has been one of the more difficult and yet rewarding experiences I have ever had. It has opened my eyes to the extraordinary power of our minds, emotions and actions stemming from deeper, mindful intentions & values. I have found greater purpose in my relationships, running, and business, as well as an understanding of femininity & self-compassion. And this journey is just beginning…
2. Loving the ‘External Self’As I started the ‘internal work’, I realised that I was often neglecting my ‘external self’. In fact, I almost felt disassociated from my body. One day, Jeremy asked me what I did for self-compassion. I racked my brains before proudly jumping to the notion of massage. “I get massages!’ He looked me squarely in the eyes and replied, ‘for self-compassion or for recovery from training & sport?’ I had never realised there was a difference.
Though self-exploration and monitoring my actions I am slowly developing an awareness that self-compassion starts with accepting who I am and how I look & feel. I started by exploring small ways to nurture myself. Here are some of the actions I have taken, although I know there are many more to foster:
3. Learning through listeningI love to learn but was becoming frustrated that I wasn’t investing in formal learning. Through the encouragement of my friends I began exploring the beautiful world of podcasts. I was hooked! And because I loved listening to podcasts so much I began exploring ways to have more time to listen to podcasts. This lead to getting back on the bike, running more on my own and using rare times in the car to unwind with a great episode playing. Learning doesn’t need to be formal and what I am learning through other peoples’ stories has not only increased my motivation but also made me feel more connected to society. I am now in the process of launching my own podcast through which I hope to share my community’s stories. I honestly believe stories are the gold through which we can learn to enrich our own lives. Here are my current favourite podcast series:
4. Understanding through writingI wish I could find more time for writing but journaling has become the key to unlocking my understanding. When my head is full or I feel like I am becoming stale, I pick up a pen and start writing. I am always amazed at what my mind has stored up that I was unaware of, and the insights that I shed when I write without judgment. Don’t get me wrong, there is also a lot of garbage that gets written too! Writing allows your mind to let go of the unnecessary thoughts, release subconscious mulling, and then act on the ideas that spark your imagination, creativity & passion.
5. Acceptance through meditationWow, never thought I would admit that I love to meditate! I started in this world with a need to relax. Using free YouTube videos & the encouragement from Jeremy, I started practicing whole-body relaxation before I went to sleep. This certainly enhanced the quality of my sleep but I also found that I had a clearer mind the next morning. From here I began to explore more and more YouTube videos: Guided meditation; Chakra Meditation; Hypnosis etc. It really is an interesting world. I try to put thoughts of religious association aside and just observe what happens when you willingly have a go. I have also begun practicing self-guided meditation, especially when I am lying quietly in bed at night.
6. Plant-Powered NutritionI also never thought that I would admit to exploring a 100% plant-based diet. I have been a vegetarian for 17 years now with the occasional salt & pepper calamari in there, but I honestly have never enjoyed any form of animal meat or fish. When I audited my life I realised that I had some shockingly unbalanced habits when it came to diet and I know these have stemmed from struggles with disordered & restrictive eating in my blacker past. These included an absolute love affair with cheese. Whilst I was eating enough in an energy sense, I didn’t feel good. I felt heavy after lunch and the skin on the back of my arms and legs were covered in Keratosis, a dry skin condition that looked like a constant bout of goose bumps caused by excessive keratin build up. The more I researched, the more I was pointed to the ill-effects of dairy and how it can cause Keratosis. Furthermore, I knew that my mother is lactose intolerant.
Removing dairy from my diet has changed everything! Not only has the Keratosis almost completely disappeared but my mind is clearer, my moods are more constant, my hormonal cycle is regular for the first time ever and I feel energised beyond measure. It has also opened up a whole new plethora of amazing foods that I have barely experienced and a need to be more creative with preparing meals. None of it has been hard, but rather it has just required a willingness to shift my thinking and crack some old habits.
7. Simplifying StuffThe flow on of changing my diet and removing toxins from my lifestyle lead to a realisation that I have a lot of ‘stuff’. I am just beginning to think about how I can master the art of living simpler. I would love to set a radical goal of spending at least one night a week in our van for the entire summer (and maybe winter too!). I am also about to embark on a big ‘culling’ session around home. When I do need to buy something, I will be looking for lasting quality and where & how it was made, rather than the price. Buy once.
8. Intention & Values not GoalsI no longer have strict goals and for now I am not planning any races. When I started feeling richer in other areas of my life I found that the drive to set goals had diminished. I am not saying the need for goals is gone completely, but perhaps setting goals had been a way to plug holes in a leaky lifestyle? I now feel filled with purpose and a motivation to just live & be wilder. I am driven by intentions that bubble up from a deeper place within me. And because of this I am playing… hard! I don’t think I have every felt so fit and I have big dreams that I am working towards. That is far more exciting for now than any goal I could set myself.
9. Learning the Art of PresenceI am a shocker for trying to plan, plan, plan. But isn’t there a saying, ‘life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans’? That was me in a nutshell. I am now trying to not get too far ahead of myself because I also think my planning brain kicked in when I was fearful, nervous or struggling to slow down. I also read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Whilst heavy and often a little too ‘out there’ for me, I found the concept of intentionally trying to be present in what I am doing highly invigorating. When I am on a run I am on a run. When I am listening to a podcast I am listening to a podcast. When I am making a cup of tea I am focusing on this task. When it is time to go to bed I am literally going to bed to rest. Being more present has reduced stress and increased space in my life for creativity & enjoyment.
10. Recognising the importance of PatienceNot my greatest strength! It was Jeremy who said to me, ‘Han, I think you need to learn the art of patience’. With all this energy and enthusiasm I am constantly looking for how I can give back more and more. But Rome was not built in a day, nor are dreams, or health, or lives. Patience may end up being my most difficult obstacle. Lucky I like a challenge!
11. Measuring health by the health of my hormonesThis is a personal note to end on but a lack of regular menstrual cycles has been my biggest fear in life. I had seen so many specialists and been put on so many supplements and drugs over the years to solve this issue. However, the deep internal work, the decluttering, the planting my feet in nutrition that nurtures… this has been what has allowed my body to embrace its femininity. I have learnt that the greatest measure of my body’s own health is the health of my hormones. So, over medals, business, records and more, I think finding health in my hormones is the accomplishment I am most proud of in 2016.
For 2017 I am setting my intention to consolidate 2016. I want to learn more and find routines in what I embarked on this year. Underlying this is a desire to ‘Be Wilder’ - in my actions, intentions and thoughts. Getting uncomfortable every now and then will be at the heart of this too.
It is with great excitement that I wish you all a wonderful start to 2017 and I hope that this coming year can provide an opportunity for you to find health, vitality & wild adventures too.
This article was featured in the latest edition of Travel Play Live
Dawn was breaching through the darkness as I pulled on my running tights, thermal, beanie and gloves. From my lounge room window I could see Mt Wellington and my beloved trails covered in a thick blanket of snow. Winter has arrived!
Winter training poses many challenges to all of us. Increased darkness and cooler temperatures disturb our homeostasis and require alterations to our exercising habits. Developing an understanding of the physiological changes your body goes through during winter will assist you to maintain healthy, safe & sustainable exercise routines this year.
Physiological changes during winter
Add more carbohydratesThrough the door… kick off the running shoes… flick on the kettle then head to the pantry. This increased hunger and search for nourishment is partly caused by an increased baseline metabolic rate as your body uses more energy for warmth. Furthermore, research shows that genetic changes sparked by the onset of winter are also responsible. During winter, genetic up-regulation causes your body to naturally store more adipose tissue (fat cells) and switch to greater carbohydrate dependence. No wonder I crave a big bowl of steaming porridge after a cold morning run in winter! For endurance athletes, this research suggests that our ability to efficiently burn fat for energy during winter exercise is slightly reduced. We lean towards a higher carbohydrate dependence for driving the muscles and consume greater quantities of oxygen. This can create increased lactic acid production during intense bouts of training at this time of year. To avoid carbohydrate depletion during sessions longer than 60-90 minutes, take a source of glucose-based energy, such as a sports gel. Ensure adequate cool downs and replace your carbohydrate stores afterwards. Add quality carbohydrate to all your meals, such as whole grains, pumpkin and sweet potatoes.
Be flexibleYour circadian rhythm is a hormone driven process that determines your sleep & wake cycles. The average individual has an internal circadian clock that ticks on a 24hr11min cycle. That’s right, for most of us our circadian rhythm would actually extend beyond one day if it wasn’t for light. The presence of light resets our circadian rhythm so our body remains in sync with the time of day. However, in winter the shorter days and longer nights create changes to our sleep & awakening cycles, and lead to that 2pm slump hitting you a little earlier in the afternoon. Altered circadian rhythms can make clambering out of bed in the morning even more difficult and could be the reason behind lethargy on your morning run. If possible, in winter try to have days where you can allow your body to awaken naturally and shuffle some of your runs to periods of the day when you feel most energised. This will help to keep your stress levels reduced and enhance recovery from exercise. So, turn off that alarm!
Get your restMany of us could relate to the sensation of entering winter hibernation. This is likely influenced by the increased production of the hormone Melatonin, otherwise known as the hormone of darkness. Melatonin has a strong influence on the length and quality of our sleep, and is often used as an alternative to sleep medications. In individuals who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Melatonin is shown to be elevated. The moral of this story? When Melatonin-induced hibernation kicks in, have your daily dose of exercise then get your ZZZs! As the body does most of our physical recovery during the earlier stages of the sleep cycle, enhancing the quality and duration of your sleep will ensure that you recuperate faster between exercise sessions.
‘Listen when the body whispers’
A study published by British and German researchers showed that over one quarter of the genes in our body become more or less active during different seasons. This impacts on our mood, sexual behaviour, metabolism and now it appears, our immune defences. Their research also suggests that genes responsible for promoting inflammation also become more active during the coldest, winter months and are particularly elevated in Australia’s southern-most states. Whilst inflammation has an important role in healing, excessive inflammation can generate discomforts and diseases, such as the common winter ailments of arthritis and cardiovascular disease. With increased inflammation involved, perhaps niggles in our active bodies whisper louder during winter? It is critical to moderate exercise routines to avoid unnecessary injuries and sickness. One option is to see Winter as an ideal time for gentle base training, building up to races in Spring or Summer. Furthermore, winter is the ideal time to focus energy on strength weaknesses in the body. Therefore, preempt the danger months by switching to aerobic base training, pre-habilitation exercises and cross training. Protect the immune system with quality nutrition, sleep and self-nurturing.
Don’t become chilled
Physiological changes become more dramatic when your core temperature drops. To avoid this, layer thin thermal clothing ‘like an onion’. This traps warm air closer to the body and layers can be removed to help effectively regulate your temperature. However, also be aware of exposed regions of skin. When skin is exposed to cold air, vasoconstriction of blood vessels prevents excessive heat loss and helps to maintain a warm core temperature. If vasoconstriction occurs during exercise, blood flow and nerve impulses to muscle fibres in these regions is reduced. This will lead to reduced exercise performance and unnecessary discomfort. On very cold days where the ambient air temperature has plummeted, keep the entire body warm with layers of clothing and full length garments. And wear gloves or beware the hot shower after a cold run in winter! Cold fingers that have turned numb and a pasty shade of grey will yell at you as they begin to defrost.
Be prepared to pee!
There appears to be a urination goblin around whenever the cold sets in. This goblin is actually a result of the vasoconstriction processes just mentioned. Vasoconstriction limits the available blood vessel space for our blood, raising our blood pressure. The increase in blood pressure then triggers the perfusion of kidney nephrons, triggering a faster released of urine into the bladder. Whilst urinating is a natural process, the combination of the increased fluid loss through urination and sweating from exercise can lead to a sneaky build up of dehydration. Therefore, during winter aim to drink more, especially electrolytes to replace your exercise & urinary losses.
In summary, the onset of winter should not lead to your trail running shoes being relocated to the closet and the bike being banished to the garage. Understanding the physiological changes that occur during winter and cold weather training can assist in making smart decisions that will keep you exercising throughout the coldest, darkest months. So layer up, listen to the whispers of your body and play hard this winter!
Quick Fact Sheet Physiological changes:
The Sweat Rate TestIt is important to develop an understanding of your sweat rate so that you can develop a thorough understanding of your sweat losses during an event.
The easiest way to measure your sweat rate is to weigh yourself without clothes on before and after exercising for one hour, taking note of the climatic conditions you were exercising in.
Assuming you did not use the toilet or consume any fluids during exercise, your weight loss is your sweat rate.
1kg of weight lost = 1L of fluid lost
If you drank any fluids or used the rest room between the two weight samples, you will need to include both of these estimated weights in your calculations.
Weather and climatic conditions strongly influence sweat rates. For example, on a cooler overcast morning you will loose less sweat volume than on a hot, humid morning. Therefore, be sure to record the heat, humidity and weather conditions in your sweat test and repeat the test in cool, humid, windy and hot conditions.
Sweat rate also changes with pace and effort increases. For example, if you monitored your sweat rate for a shorter ½ marathon race pace and then want to step up to a 50 or 100km race that requires a lower effort over a prolonged period of time, you will need to conduct the above tests again to highlight the new effort zone.
Now that you know your sweat rates, you now need to develop an understanding of how much fluid replacement your stomach can tolerate. For more information on how to rehydrate during events, you may like to read the article Hydration for Endurance Performance
For a comprehensive understanding on sports nutrition & hydration read: Sweat. Think. Go Faster by Darryl Griffiths
See our comprehensive Sports Nutrition range for Trail Runners HERE
We have all heard that our bodies are comprised of mostly water. A 60kg individual is composed of around 48kg of water in which all their body’s biochemistry will take place. Water has a number of other functions in the body - evaporative cooling, glycogen storage and maintaining electrolyte balances. The loss of even a small proportion of this fluid (ie. 2% of body weight) can significantly reduce body functions and for athletes, performance. It can also be life threatening. When we consider that this is only 1.2L in our 60kg athlete, we begin to realize how significant the process of optimal hydration is.
A 60kg adult at rest will consume around 0.2L of oxygen per minute, generating 70 watts of heat output. However, when running at threshold, oxygen consumption can increase 16 times and heat output rises to 1100 watts. The only way that this heat can be lost rapidly is through evaporative cooling, otherwise known as sweating. Sweating involves the loss of large amounts of fluid from the skins surface, which is then wicked away by air resulting in body cooling. In hot conditions it would take our 60kg individual around 1.5-2L of sweat to remove this excess heat.
Replacing fluid lost through sweat and urine is not the only justification for the importance of hydration. Glycogen or stored muscle carbohydrate is the body’s main source of energy. However, fixing 1g of carbohydrate into the muscles in the form of glycogen requires 3g of water ie. a 3:1 ratio of water to carbohydrate. This is one reason why you can often feel thirsty following a carbohydrate-rich meal. With this in mind, fluid is critical during times of recovery and taper. If you are focusing on carbo-loading but not drinking adequate amounts you can actually risk pulling extra water from the blood stream into the GI Tract. This can result in dehydration. Therefore, fluid is critical for replacing sweat and urine losses, but also for glycogen storage before and after exercise.
Are there other reasons important to remain hydrated?As you heat up, the body begins to enter survival mode. Rather than shunting blood to the working muscles, your blood stream prioritizes blood flow to the skin and vital organs. The reduced blood flow to the GI Tract makes the digestion of complex drinks and nutrition difficult, and as a result people often begin to experience stomach upsets and nausea. During such periods of stress, your breathing and heart rates will increase, and your general efficiency takes a dramatic nose-dive. Under these additional stressors, your body temperature will start to rise, resulting in stress to the brain. Clarity of thinking will decrease, your ability to assess you body state becomes compromised (runner’s often complain of feeling cold when they overheat) and you may begin to feel disorientated. All sound like great things to avoid when racing!
So should I just guzzle water?
When we sweat and excrete urine, we don’t just loose fluids but also vital minerals. The main ingredient in sweat is sodium that is lost at a rate of 1-2g per liter. Other minerals that are lost are calcium, magnesium, potassium and chloride, although these are generally lost in much, much smaller quantities. Therefore, to replace fluid losses an electrolyte drink is far better than drinking pure water and the focus should turn to sodium.
Why not water?
Are you putting the energy gels in but not receiving the ‘kick’? Over prolonged periods of heavy sweating, an individual can lose significant amounts of sodium. The combination of drinking pure water and sweating can cause a dilution of the concentration of sodium in the blood. This can begin to impair many of our normal physiological processes, including the transport of fluid and glucose across cellular membranes. That’s right, a lack of sodium can inhibit the transport of glucose into the working muscles cells.
Another good reason for opting for an electrolyte drink is that the use of sodium is known to promote thirst. This is often the reason why pubs serve salty, greasy food as it will generate greater drinks sales. And finally, when electrolytes, particularly sodium, are present in appropriate concentrations, the rate of fluid absorption from the small intestine into the rest of the body is enhanced. This is particularly important to consider when we are racing at intense levels with few possibilities to drink.
Are electrolyte drinks made equal?
The simple answer is NO! Many sports drinks market themselves as the best on the market, and yet are made by soft drink companies such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi. Beverages such as Gatorade are literally pumped full of simple sugars that are very foreign to the small intestine under stress. In fact, the presence of the sugar that remains dormant in the GI Tract can create a net movement of fluid from the blood stream back into the gut, resulting in stomach distress and dehydration. Therefore, sports drinks based around the medical principles for oral rehydration are perfect. Complexes such as Shotz Electrolyte that are tablets dissolved in adequate water are proven to initiate rehydration even under the most stressful environments. These beverages contain a high concentration of sodium and minimal traces of the other elements. This is important because often sports drinks are pumped full of magnesium which also happens to be the first ingredient in all laxatives! Watch out for the heavily marketed brands, as these tend to be the worst for tummy-disrupting ingredients.
How much should I drink?
How much fluid you need to consume is dependent on your fitness level, size, sweat rate and the weather conditions. Hot, sticky conditions will cause greater fluid losses due to the necessity to lose greater amounts of heat from the skin’s surfaces. Conversely, a cool, damp day will require lower fluid quantities to be consumed. The best way to determine how much you should drink is to monitor your body weight before and after training runs under a range of different weather conditions. For example, on a 20-degree day you may find that in 1 hour of exercise you loose 1kg. This then equates to 1L/hour of exercise under such conditions. On a hot, humid 30-degree day this may increase to 2kg during the hour. Therefore, you would be loosing 2L/hour. The most important rule of hydration is to drink what your stomach can tolerate and the best way to find this out is to know your losses then practice, practice, practice!
The good news about running in hot weather is that you can teach your body to adapt. Learning about how much sweat you loose during training and beginning to replace these with an advanced electrolyte formula will make a world of difference to your training & racing performances. Recently I conducted a sweat test for Shotz at the Australian Institute of Sport. I had been complaining about taking on energy and water without feeling like I was getting anything back. When I did my sweat test they found I was loosing over 1.5L of fluid each hour on a 20-degree day! Further to this, in each liter of my sweat I was loosing 1.8g of sodium. As you can imagine, this knowledge has significantly impacted the way I approach rehydration. In fact, sitting here writing this article after my morning run, I have a cup of tea on one side of me and a bottle of electrolyte on the other. In summary, all I can say is that if you get hydration right, it is like putting rocket fuel into your system.
Is running really as simple as we make it out to be. Of course the motion of pulling on your shoes and stepping out a door anywhere makes it appear simple. Once out the door we take one step forward, push strongly, move our other leg forward... and away we go. As we warm up we begin to exert a little more effort and our speed gets faster and faster. Simple! But is it really the case? Research shows that the answer is a loud NO.
As I open my eyes more and more to the world of running I am continually amazed by how complicated the sport is. The actual act of running and how each individual sequence of limb movements come together to carry us smoothly forwards is more attuned to ballet dancing than it is to anything else. Where we place our feet, the landing point, the subtle shifting of our weight and the counterbalances we put in place are all unconscious things that keep us in a state of running harmony. Further to this, the ground isn’t always flat nor the surface we are running on smooth. And what happens if you need to accelerate or decelerate? Go uphill or downhill? Or even crash through the bush with a map in our hand? Imagine that!
In this article I will explore the science behind running propulsion and discuss some amazing research recently released on flat, uphill and downhill running. During the article I will also try to highlight some important running technique tips that might help to make you faster and more efficient.
To run across flat terrain we need to utilize energy to move us forward. There are two types of energy at our disposal: the energy that we hold within our bodies, stored as glycogen or fat (protein can be used but is the least preferred source of fuel); or gravity, our free energy source. When we run on flat surfaces, the energy that we need to put in is directly proportional to the amount of forces opposing us.
Propulsive Force = Braking Force
The greatest opposing force that we have is the breaking forces we generate when our foot hits the ground. There are other opposing forces such as wind resistance and how much lateral movement we get from our running style, but where are foot strikes makes a considerable difference.
Studies have shown that if our foot lands directly under our center of mass, then we have a lower breaking force than if it lands out in front of us. Further to this, if our torso is gently pressing forward and giving us the appearance of a lean then we are more likely to have our feet landing under our center of gravity. In this position we are also tapping into the energy of gravity that will help us to move forward, thus reducing the amount of energy we have to put in.
Interestingly, the metabolic energy we have to put into running on the flat falls into three different categories:
Therefore, to run fast on the flat we want to:
Sadly, the ground isn’t always flat and on almost every run you will encounter a hill. So what happens now?
When we run uphill it becomes much harder to get our feet under our body. We also tend to want to slouch which makes us feel heavy. Despite this and contrary to what we might think, our braking forces actually reduce by approximately 40%. This is due to the fact that our foot strikes the ground with less force than when we run on the flat. In fact, by the time we are running on a nine percent gradient, the impact forces are almost negligible. However, the reason hill running is so tough is that the parallel propulsion we have to apply has to increase so dramatically to overcome gravity. For example, on a nine percent gradient, parallel forces have to increase by almost 75%. That is a lot of energy!
Therefore, to run faster up hill we need to:
We are always grateful when we get to the top of a hill and begin the descent. However, often by the time we are half way down the hill our quads are burning and our knees complaining. Sometimes we can even be surprised by how much energy we feel like we are using up.
When we run downhill our braking forces are dramatically greater than our propulsive forces.
Braking Force > Propulsive Force
In fact, by the time we hurtle down a nine percent gradient, our braking forces have increased by a whopping 108%! Therefore, even though we have gravity and momentum in our favour, our bodies still have to absorb a huge amount of shock from the impact of downhill running and at the same time apply some energy to overcome these forces.
Further to this, in downhill running our muscles are eccentrically contracting to brake us (ie. while under tension the muscles are lengthening) and yet we still have to provide some concentric contraction to create propulsion (ie. the muscles shorten whilst generating a force). This strange mix of muscle contractions to overcome the huge braking forces guarantees that downhill running is actually quite energy intensive. Research also shows that landing on stiff legs when running down hill also causes the braking forces to increase further.
Therefore, to run fast downhill we need to:
As you can see, behind every step that we take when we hit the trails or brave the bush lands is an intricate series of energy ‘ins & outs’. The alterations in surfaces and slopes change the way our muscles need to respond. Sometimes they will be contracting strongly to propel us forward and other times they will be eccentrically contracting to slow us down. Sometimes gravity will be working in our favour, and sometimes completely against us. Therefore, it is important to begin thinking about the way you catch, create and utilize the energy that you have available to you. When you are orienteering, this might be the difference between having enough energy to think clearly to the end of the race, and running out during those last few critical controls.
These articles are a collection of my writing. If you have feedback or questions, would love to hear from you!