All change

I’ve been running seriously for just over 16 years. When I say seriously, I mean following a training plan – for most of the time anyway. Until a relatively short time ago, I felt my training had served me well; in my road running days it enabled me to run some decent times, and as a triathlete and a trail runner, allowed me to successfully finish some pretty tough events. But over the past 18 months or so, I’ve felt that the training I was doing was increasingly not working for me – at least not as well as I’d have liked it to. In my running, I've felt I was having to work harder and harder to achieve the same results, and in life generally I've been struggling with my body composition, brain fog, and quite often, mid-afternoon slumps, amongst other things. With a 32-mile, 10,000-feet-of-ascent mountainous ultra lined up for next year, I was very aware that something needed to change.

In great shape at the Midsummer Munro half marathon in 2005

Having first read Dr Stacy Sims’ book on female physiology and training, ‘Roar’, a couple of years ago, I knew that taking on board just a couple of her suggestions had not been enough. I needed to finally accept being a menopausal woman and start to tailor my training and eating accordingly. I signed up to Dr Sims’ new online course for coaches and athletes, and made a commitment to myself to not only improve how I train myself, but to help all of you menopausal women become better runners too.

In the gym - wearing Inov8 of course!

So, over the past 5-6 weeks I’ve started to change what I do. There are still other adjustments to come, but what have I done so far?

  1. I’m running less – yes, that’s right, shock, horror, I’m not running as often each week. I’m still doing my guided runs and any runs where I’m coaching, of course, but otherwise, I’m focusing on one or two long, ultra-specific runs (or power walks) – I need these to complete my target event. I’m also doing one short, sharp speed or hill session each week.
  2. I’m doing a lot more strength and resistance work, including plenty of plyometric, power and high intensity activities. Currently this involves one HIIT circuits session in the gym each week, and another where I’m doing running-specific strength work. I’m keeping up with my Pilates too.
  3. I’m eating as soon as I get up every morning, even before I’ve had my cup of tea! This is perhaps the biggest change of all! I’m making my breakfasts much more varied too – I was very much a porridge everyday person.
  4. I’m eating a lot more protein, a lot more. I’m trying to make sure it’s really good quality, and I’m eating some of it within 30 minutes of any training that feels hard.

Jumping - a key part of developing strength and power

I’ll go into the thinking and science behind these changes at another time, but in the 5-6 weeks since I first made them, I’ve had some really positive results. I’ve seen and felt them, and others have too!

  • My clothes are feeling a lot looser
  • I’ve discovered (and can see!) muscles in my upper body and arms that I didn’t even know I had
  • I feel so much stronger
  • I feel so much better in myself – more alert and those mid- afternoon slumps have completely gone. I’m generally sleeping better too.

Feeling fit and strong at Whinlatter parkrun in 2019

It’s early days but from the changes I’ve made so far, I’m happy I’m on the right path. Come next June, I’ll be eating those Lake District mountains for my breakfast!

Listening to your body

 

As runners, we all have days when we are feeling great, our run goes to plan, and we can’t wait to get back out for the next one. We also have days where things don’t go as we’d hoped, days when we can feel that something isn’t quite right. Sometimes the reason that our run didn’t go to plan is obvious, for example heading out when we know that we’re not feeling very well, but at other times, it can take a little more unpicking to find out what’s going on.

If something doesn’t feel right during a run, it’s a pretty good indication that you are asking your body to do more than it is capable of at that point in time. It’s a warning sign. Whether it’s a specific muscle complaining, your digestive system playing up or your whole body feeling sluggish, listening to what your body is saying is crucial; it’s trying to tell you something.

In order to spot those warning signs, though, you need to know what’s normal for you. Not what’s normal for the friend that you run with or that fast group in your club; what’s normal for you. The better you know your own body, the sooner you’ll pick up when it flashes those warning signs, and the sooner you’ll be able to do something about it. You need to know what your body feels like when it is running well, and also what it feels like afterwards. How quickly your body returns to normal after running is a key measure too.

It's not just about how your legs feel...

So what ‘normal’ should you become familiar with, and how?

  • How your muscles and joints feel when you are running easily and running hard, and how soon they feel normal again afterwards
  • How your breathing feels when you are running at an easy effort, a hard effort, and uphill, and how quickly it returns to normal when you stop
  • What your heart rate feels like when you are moving along easily and working as hard as you can, and how soon it feels normal when you’ve finished. If you’ve got a heart rate monitor, learn the numbers that match how you feel, including your heart rate first thing in the morning too – if it’s higher than normal, something is up

Learn how your heart feels when you are working really hard

  • Whether you have any specific body parts that typically react when you run, for example do your fingers always swell up when you run for over an hour, or does your face go bright red regardless of how hot it is?
  • What your urine typically looks like, including during a run and afterwards; this is a good indicator of your hydration levels. Do you normally need to stop for a pee during a run? Perhaps you find it hard to pee for hours afterwards? Note it all
  • What do you typically eat before a run (including the day before) and how much energy do you normally have for running? When, if at all, do you need to eat on a longer run? If you do eat during the run, what can you normally digest? And how long is it before you feel like eating again afterwards?

Your typical post-run craving? Bacon butty - or cake?

  • If you’re a woman, how does having your period (or menopause symptoms) affect your run? Does it normally make no difference or is your run usually impacted in some way? (You can monitor this via Garmin Connect or the FitrWoman app)
  • How well do you typically sleep after a run, and does it vary between a shorter, easier run and a really long run?
  • What is your mood normally like before a run? Are you usually raring to go? And during the run? How is it afterwards? Is your normal to be in a great mood or does it take you some time to feel human again?

Keep an eye on changes in your mood...

Whatever is normal for you, make note of it and pay attention when something falls outside of your norm. Stop and think about what’s happening to your body. It may be easy to identify and rectify yourself, but if occurs again, seek help; it’s a warning sign.Your body is not happy with what you are asking it to do.

6 things I wish I’d known before my first marathon

Training for my first marathon, run many years ago, felt pretty straightforward. I had a goal and a plan to meet it. Running it on the day was a different matter. Whilst I enjoyed the experience overall, it didn't go to plan and my recovery was painful and slow. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and looking back it was easy to see where I'd made some classic mistakes right from the start. Read what I did and learn from the things I should have done differently.

I thought:

  • That a 16-week training plan would be enough: For an April race, I was certain that starting in January (having previously run a few 10Ks) would give me plenty of time to prepare; after all, the plan showed that I'd be able to build up my distance by then. When I look back, I was really not adequately prepared. I should have started much earlier and spent  a few months getting myself strong enough to cope with the demands of marathon training.

 

  • That my training needed to focus solely on just running: I chose a training plan that was focused on running, so running is all I did. It was only when I became injured in the weeks before the main event that I realised my body was nowhere near strong enough to cope with the demands I had been placing on it. I should have included strength work in my training each week, and done some form of stretching to keep my body in good shape.

  • That completing every single session on my training plan was essential, regardless of how I was feeling: if my plan said to run 10K and I felt tired or off-colour, I still did it. I was terrified that if I missed a session, I’d never make it to the finish line. It was only in the latter stages of training that I realised the aim of marathon training is to get you to start line as fit as possible and uninjured. I should have listened to my body and missed or adjusted sessions when feeling tired or sore.

 

  • That having a really precise time goal to meet was key: based on my experience of running mostly 10Ks, I set my heart on completing my first marathon in under 4 hours. When my time from a half marathon (my first) partway through training confirmed this might be possible if everything went my way, I became more determined than ever. It was my only goal. When, on the day, things did not go to plan and I knew by halfway that finishing in 3-something was highly unlikely, I was mentally unprepared. I lost all focus and motivation and struggled to the finish. I wish I had set myself 3 goals – a dream goal, a very realistic one and one that was simply to finish. I’d have been happy with my performance then.

  • That I would be able to run the whole way: it never occurred to me that walking might be involved. Yes, I'd walked a little in training  but assumed that on the day, with the benefit of the taper and the adrenaline from the crowd, I'd be able to run the whole way. After all, everyone ‘runs’ a marathon don't they? I wish I’d known that I would need to walk a bit – then I would have practised it in a more structured way in training and it would have been a lot easier to get running again. I wish I had prepared my mind for having to walk as well as my body.

 

  • That trying out one or two gels on training runs would be enough: I tried out the brand that would be offered on the day in training, but never had more than a couple on a run. It wasn’t much fun to find out at about 16 or 17 miles on race day that my stomach simply couldn’t digest any more sugar, leaving me bloated, uncomfortable and struggling for energy for the rest of the run. I should have practised using race nutrition much more carefully.

If you're planning your first marathon for next year, by all means plan the running you will do, but make sure it only a part of the wider preparation you do. Come race day, you'll thank yourself for thinking of the bigger picture.

What to do when your mojo has gone

We all have those days, even those of us making running our livelihood as well as a hobby. Days when, for whatever reason, and sometimes for no reason at all, we just don’t want to run. The pull of the duvet or the sofa is greater than the pull out of the door. Now and again it’s fine to accept that; if you really, really, really don’t feel like putting your running shoes on and heading onto the trails, you could be heading for burnout. A day, or even longer, doing something else entirely could do you the world of good and result in you coming back stronger and raring to go.

 

On the other hand, lack of motivation is often a more temporary occurrence. Perhaps you’ve got home late from work and the thought of your favourite TV programme is calling; perhaps it’s dark and cold outside and you just can’t be bothered to wrap up. Your head and heart say ‘Run’ but your inner chimp is tempting you not to. What little things can you do to make sure that in the battle between you and your chimp, you win?

Sometimes we all feel like hanging up our running shoes

Here are some strategies that help me – I hope they will help you too.

Have a goal that you really, REALLY want to achieve. It could be something as simple as being able to get back into your favourite jeans or beating your own parkrun time. For me, a having a more major goal such as completing an iconic race, is the key. Whatever it is, it needs to be something you want so badly that you’ll get out of that door and run, no matter what your chimp says.

Make your goal something you really, really. really want to achieve

 

Make a change. If you normally go for a longer, slower run, try running short and fast; if you like to head out in the evening, try an early morning session. It doesn’t matter what you swap; just try it! They say a change is as good as a rest and that applies just as much in running too.

For a hardened trail runner, a road race can make a nice change!

 

Set a date, a date and time to run with someone else that is. It could be a friend who you meet before work; you wouldn’t let your friend down, now would you? Going along to a running club or group session works too; just remember to put it in your diary just like you would any other appointment. If you can, tell someone you’re going; it’s often easier to go along than to explain why you didn’t!

Joining a group run can be a great motivator

 

Find yourself a nemesis. Unless your name is Usain Bolt, there is someone out there who runs just a bit faster than you. Not so fast that you have no hope of ever catching them, but someone who is just far enough ahead that catching and passing them is something you could realistically do. They might be in your running group or at your parkrun, or maybe they are just someone you see running along your street. If you get out there and train you are increasing your chance of catching them, especially if their chimp has persuaded them to stay at home on the sofa. When you do catch and pass them, find a new nemesis to add to your list. Even better, have two or three on your list at the same time for double or triple motivation to train!

 

Plan a reward for yourself, something healthy that won’t undo all of your good work of course! It could be £1 in a jar at the end of every run, saved towards those dream running shoes you have seen, or an hour in a hot bubble bath to warm up after that cold wintery run. It could be a can of ice-cold coke at the end of a very long run (OK, that’s not very healthy but it works for me after a long, hot 22 run!) or a day out at the seaside with the family. What the reward is does not matter, as long as it works for you.

Give yourself something to look forward to after the run - or during it!

 

Set yourself a limit. Tell yourself that you will go out but you are only allowed to run for 10 minutes and then you must stop and go home. Do it and the chances are you’ll want to carry on. Some of my best runs have been on days when I nearly didn’t go out at all but allowed myself 10 minutes and then kept on going because I just did not want to stop.

 

Motivation is a strange thing; it ebbs and flows and sometimes we just don’t know why. But with a few tricks up our running top sleeves, it’s much easier to head out of the door when our chimp says ‘No!’

 

8 things I wish I’d known when I started running

We all make mistakes when we first start running. Whether it's running in unsuitable shoes that give us blisters, or doing too much, too soon and injuring ourselves, we all go wrong somewhere along the way. At some point, maybe when sidelined by injury or frustration that we aren't getting any faster, we look back and wish we'd done things differently.

 

Here are 8 things I wish I'd known when I started running consistently 15 years ago...

  1. You don’t need to run as fast as you can all of the time. You’ll make much better progress if you run up to 80% of your mileage at an easy effort and save the hard effort running for speed and hill sessions only.

Easy-effort running (so you can chat!) will condition your body ready for occasional harder efforts

2. Rest and recovery are vital, especially after hard sessions and races. Without them your body will never be able to take on board all the training you have done.

Balance complete rest with active recovery, such as gentle swimming

3. Sleep aids recovery so get more of it, and make it better quality sleep too. If you can't sleep well because of other stresses in your life, it will affect your running.

4. Running should only form a percentage of your overall training, not all of it. Well thought-out cross-training will enhance your running, not detract from it.

Hill-walking provides great cross-training for trail runners

5. Strength and conditioning work is vital, especially if you are female and beyond your twenties. Without it, your risk of injury is higher.

Single-leg balancing - key to improving leg strength

6. There is technique to running, technique which most of us had when we were children but have lost as we’ve aged. Relearning it and practising it can help you run further, faster and with less risk of injury.

 

Working on technique - essential for running further and faster

7. You don’t have to enter every race that you hear about or that your running friends are doing. It’s easy to become jaded and burnt out by putting yourself under too much pressure to perform. Be picky!

8. Running on trails lessens the impact on your legs and makes you stronger overall, so do more of it, even if you are a hardened road runner.

Trail running leads to stronger running all-round

How to choose the right headtorch for you

Whether you’re heading out for your first run in the dark, or an old hand looking to upgrade, choosing the right headtorch for you can be a real headache. There are so many models out there, so many options. Here are 5 things to think about that will help you make the right choice.

So many headtorches, so much choice...

1. Do you want to see or be seen? If your main reason for buying a torch is to make sure that others can see where you are, for example if you run along quiet country roads, then pretty much any headtorch (or even a chest-torch*) will do the job. If you want to be seen from front and back, look for a torch that has a red flashing light at the rear of the head-strap.

2. How long are you likely to be running for? For occasional runs of an hour or less, a headtorch that takes regular disposable batteries will be fine. If you are likely to be running for longer, a torch that takes rechargeable batteries (or both) may well work better for you. Look for a headtorch that has battery-saving features such as a dimmer switch, and be aware that using the torch on the brightest setting will drain the battery quickest.

Rechargeable battery, disposable or both?

3. Where will you be running? In a nutshell, the more technical/difficult the terrain you will be running on, the brighter the light you’ll need. The light strength of a torch is measured in lumens. For running on smooth, flat trails a basic torch with between 30-100 lumens of light would suffice. On a technical mountain path, a much stronger light would be needed – at least 300 lumens (top of the range headtorches are now in the region of 750 lumens). Whilst thinking about how bright you need the light to be, consider how far ahead and how wide you need your path ahead to be lit up. Some of the brightest lights have one LED, giving a very bright but narrow beam of light ahead.

A narrow, bright beam

A headtorch with 2 or 3 LEDs may not be quite as bright but will give a wider beam of light, which can be more useful on technical terrain. The best of both worlds can be found by choosing a torch that has an adjustable beam, so you can have bright and narrow when you need it, and a slightly dimmer but wider beam when you don’t.

A wider, less bright beam

4. When will you be using it? If you are going to be using your headtorch during cold weather, look at the features it has with that in mind. Will it fit comfortably over your hat? Are the buttons easy to use with gloves on? And if it rains, will the torch and battery pack fit under your hood if needed? For warm-weather use, consider if the strap is secure enough to stay on your head without some kind of headwear underneath, or will sweat cause it to slip?

Buttons and dimming mechanisms - how easy to use with gloves on?

5. What is your budget? The price range for headtorches is vast. At the cheapest end of the range (often around the £5 mark) they may not have been designed specifically for running so may not be suited to being used on the move. At the top end, with prices of £150 plus, the number of features may be quite overwhelming, and, for many runners, unnecessary. Good quality brands to look for include Alpkit, Silva, Petzl, LEDLenser and Black Diamond – you really can’t go wrong with one of these.

*whilst a chest-torch is great for being seen on the roads, it's really not suitable for running off-road. The light points straight ahead rather than down, so the ground ahead is not lit up enough. You need a torch on your head!

 

How to choose new trail running shoes

Are you in need of some new trail running shoes but baffled by the wide range of choice available? These tips will help you choose the right shoes for you!