Q&A: How do you manage to fit in triathlon training on top of your work as a PT and spin instructor?

I was recently asked how I manage the physical demands of training for triathlon alongside being a personal trainer and indoor cycling instructor. It’s a really good question because it’s not easy and it’s something that I’ve struggled with in the last couple of years since I’ve been doing this. The answer is twofold, because I haven’t been following a structured training plan for endurance sport for 24+ months straight! As regular readers will know, I’ve had to take some time out for health reasons, so I have a different approach when I am focussing on triathlon training and when I’m not.

When I’m following a triathlon training plan and I have multiple swim, bike and run sessions to complete each week, I’ve had to either limit my energy expenditure during work commitments or count the work commitments as training and substitute it for a quality session where the focus is on me. The former is generally better for the people I work with anyway, as I can spend more time observing them and feeding back.

An example of this is in my Bootcamp classes, I will demonstrate exercises where needed for a couple of repetitions and then watch the group as they follow. For spinning classes, there is an expectation that the instructor will be on the bike leading the group through the session, so I would count these towards my bike training for the week. Yes, it’s a compromise as I’m focused on the group and the session plan rather than on my own intensity, and in an ideal world I would not choose to train on a spin bike, but when you’re not a professional athlete you have to make compromises and I’m grateful to be paid to do a job I enjoy.

I operate a mobile personal training service and travel to appointments on my bike, so I limit journeys to no more than about 15 minutes, although I will still clock up a number of hours on the bike each week in these short journeys.

I have at times cramped while trying to deliver a class after already having finished a swim and a weights session and an instructor with cramp is not cool, so you learn to avoid things that might trigger this (ahem, high knees!) and avoid doing them.

The great thing about having a flexible schedule when you’re training is being able to get in the pool when there’s hardly anyone there! I have no shame in saying I’m disappointed to share a lane in the olympic pool with more than 1 or 2 other swimmers – it’s my reward for the 6am starts!

Next, thinking about when I’ve not been training for triathlons, like at the moment. I did a middle-distance triathlon in May and loved getting back into my training routine in the months leading up to the race, but I felt like my health was still taking a bit of a hit from the (‘cautious’) volume, so after that, I decided to take some time to just exercise and keep fit without a race to train for. I also found out I have low bone density, so I’ve shifted the type of exercise I do so there’s more focus on things that stimulate bone growth and that means less swimming and cycling.

At the moment I’m doing a mix of yoga, weight training, running and occasionally boxing / kickboxing outside of my work commitments. I’m currently teaching about 1-2 spinning classes a week at Lee Valley Velopark which is my main high-intensity cardio exercise and I’m also less strict about not getting more physically involved in my classes and PT sessions, so if numbers are low and if it looks like the participants will get more out of the session if they have someone to burpee with, then I’m in! It might still sound like quite a lot of activity, but a few of these things are less energy-demanding than endurance sport training and because I’m not working to a schedule with time-limited goals to hit; if work or personal commitments mean one less workout, that’s ok and I’ll embrace the extra rest day.

So I hope this helps to demonstrate that I’m not superhuman (in the unlikely case that anyone was in any doubt!) and the sum of my activity is not that of a triathlete plus a fitness instructor, it’s a manageable meshing of the two. Secondly, and I think this is a good thing but up for discussion(!), it shows that it is possible to be a personal trainer and not actually do much very much exercise (see point 1 in this article from Telegraph online)! The caveat is that obviously you need to know what it feels like to do the work you prescribe to others in order to empathise, encourage and give effective coaching points, but that experience doesn’t need to be in real-time.

I would also add that, as a result of my past health issues, I’m pretty cautious about not overdoing it and I could argue that, by not overdoing it you can avoid the health issues that for me, led to having to take so much time off and consequently changing the type of exercise I do as well as erring on the side of caution so much these days. My advice to other trainers would be, to be smart, use work as training if it works for you and your clients but remember it’s your compromise not theirs. Put your health and sanity first and keep it real – I’ve tried to be honest about the ups-and-downs on my social media profiles and never wanted to give the impression of being superhuman, but now more than ever I believe we have an obligation to avoid this. Given I was asked the question, perhaps I still need to work on showing more ‘real life’ so that mine is less of a ‘highlights reel’ too.

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The invisible legacy of missing periods

Low bone density is well known as the major risk in exercise-induced amenorrhea. But not everyone who has had hypothalamic amenorrhea will get osteopenia or osteoporosis, so what other causes might contribute to the condition? And how far can it be reversed?

After going on the record recently about overcoming hypothalamic amenorrhea on my blog, a renewed desire to search for answers and move forward led me to reflect on the long-term health consequences that might affect me now that most of the temporary symptoms of hypothalamic amenorrhea had subsided. I learned a couple of months ago that a recent blood test was on the low-side of normal for calcium, and given that a paper on the subject published in the BJSM in 20141 recommends that women who have had fewer than 6 menstrual cycles in 12 months have a DEXA bone-density scan carried out (regardless of any other risk factors), I decided I couldn’t settle for just hoping it was all okay and set about finding out if I could pay to have one done, since my request to my GP for one six months prior had been refused. It turned out I couldn’t even book an appointment at the private clinic without a referral from a doctor, so I went back to my GP surgery to ask them to kindly refer me to the private clinic for a scan. Even that request was met with doubt and scepticism, but after conferring with the other practice doctors, it was decided that a referral letter would be written so that I could arrange my appointment.

I had the test last week and preliminary results show I have osteopenia. To quote Wikipedia:

“Osteopenia is a condition in which bone mineral density is lower than normal. It is considered by many doctors to be a precursor to osteoporosis. However, not every person diagnosed with osteopenia will develop osteoporosis. More specifically, osteopenia is defined as a bone mineral density T-score between −1.0 and −2.5.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osteopenia

I won’t go so far as to include my score here, for one it is so far provisional, but also I don’t think comparing numbers generally is that helpful, the story is enough.

The diagnosis came as a bit of shock, particularly as my doctor had been so doubtful that I would have any issues. But it’s better to know and to be able to do something about it, knowing that you are making changes for a reason and knowing that you can improve things than to just forget about it and hope for the best. It also means I’ll be doing a lot of reading and one of the best things about this whole experience is providing a channel for my information-hungry mind! Here are some quick facts about the skeleton to whet your appetite:

Bone facts

  • The bones are made of living tissue which completely regenerates every 7 years. The two main cells responsible for this regeneration are osteoblasts, which create new bone cells, and osteoclasts, which break down old bone cells.
  • Weight for weight, bone is five times stronger than steel, but it is very light. The skeleton makes up only one-sixth of an adult’s weight
  • The hard matrix of bone is made of crystals of calcium phosphate and other minerals, and fibres of protein called collagen. The minerals make bone hard, while the collagen fibres are arranged lengthwise to make bone flexible. Both are produced by cells called osteocytes, found throughout the matrix.
  • Not everyone who has had prolonged hypothalamic amenorrhea will get osteopenia, dietary intake of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin K and the type of exercise undertaken are key factors to consider, as is family history of osteoporosis.

Causes and factors in osteopenia

There are many factors that can lead to osteopenia, but I’ll keep it to the factors that have probably contributed to my low bone density.

  • Low calcium intake
    • I developed an intolerance to dairy products when I was twenty-one years old and although I discovered a few years later that I was only sensitive to cow’s and ewe’s milk products and I could consume dairy products made from goat’s milk, I don’t consume the recommended 2-3 portions of dairy per day. I supplemented for a few years but eventually decided I must be able to get sufficient from a good diet. As well goat’s milk, I also use soy milk and I always check it is supplemented with Calcium and Vitamin B12 and look for calcium triphosphate over calcium carbonate, but supplemented nutrients are generally absorbed less well. There is calcium in lots of other foods I eat, such as dark green vegetables, sesame seeds and tahini, tofu, almonds, chickpeas, but probably not enough. This is supported by the blood test I had in March that showed my calcium levels were on the low side. And there’s a good chance it’s been like this for around fifteen years.
  • Hypothalamic amenorrhea / low energy availability
    • This is two-fold. If you saw my blog post you will have read about overcoming hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA) recently. I brought about a state of prolonged energy-availability as a result of a lot of exercise and not compensating properly with the food I ate to support my training. This led to my hypothalamus shutting down the reproductive hormones which cause the ovaries to produce oestrogen but also meant that my body had too little energy coming in to make use of nutrients I was consuming to repair or build new tissue. Oestrogen is one of the most important mechanisms for building bone density in women and the rates of osteoporosis in post-menopausal women demonstrate that low oestrogen alone can lead to bone density. Add to this the low-energy state where the body has little energy to build new bone tissue and you start to understand how HA plays a major role in osteopenia and osteoporosis.
  • The contraceptive pill
    • I was on the contraceptive pill on and off, but mostly on, from the age of around 16 or 17 to control my bad skin and regulate my painful periods. This is a very common scenario here in the UK. For some time, doctors thought that taking the contraceptive pill would have a protective effect on bone density in women with HA on the assumption that the synthetic oestrogen would have similar effects to natural oestrogens. Unfortunately, research published in 20132 showed that was not the case. Additionally, new research published in 2015 and 20163 shows that in fact, when the pill is prescribed to healthy teenager girls, they will build less bone than their counterparts who were not on the pill – this is in their most important years for building strong bones.
  • Low vitamin D
    • Vitamin D is well known to play an important role in building bones; growing rates of vitamin D deficiency amongst the UK population as a result of more time spent indoors by children is blamed for the unexpected uptick in Ricketts. Vitamin D can be produced by the body from sunlight and is also present in a small number of foods. I probably spent an average amount of time outdoors as a child as we had two dogs to take for walks and play with in the garden, however my main hobbies (dancing and playing the violin) were indoors. Once I started in the world of work, I routinely spent 10 hour days in an office and during winter would only see daylight briefly for part of my morning commute and for my 10-minute dashes to shops and cafes to buy lunch at midday. The Department of Health issued new advice to GPs in 2012 identifying at-risk groups who should supplement with vitamin D and the NHS states that in the UK between October and early March we cannot generate enough vitamin D from sunlight. So as a vegetarian the options are limited and it’s unlikely I can get enough from my diet and I haven’t spent as much time outside as people with other hobbies or jobs might have.
  • Low impact exercise
    • Since giving up dancing when I left school, most of my exercise has comprised yoga, running, swimming and cycling – with a year or so of weight training before I got into triathlon and I have picked this up again over the last three years. Yoga and running are both good for bone density, but they’re not necessarily the best activity for stimulating the production of new bone cells. There are masses of different studies looking at different forms of activity on bone density in different populations and my research has only scratched the surface, but it seems that the higher the impact, the better, frequency makes quite a difference and stress on the bones via tension in tendons when muscles contract and lengthen is also beneficial. For example, the best form of running for bone density would be short, fast, sprints with lots of power. This is the opposite to the type of running I have occupied myself with. Yoga has some benefits and is recommended to people with low-bone density, however it is almost always low-impact. Some of the advice on exercise to help people with low bone density can seem different from the advice given to healthy people to build good bone density, because high-impact, high-force exercise and weight training is high-risk for weak bones.

What am I going to do about it?

  1. Get medical help! This is number one and I’m waiting for speak to my GP to review the results and make an action plan or get referred to someone who can.
  2. Nourish my body, maintain the weight I’ve gained and keep the hormones flowing – if my cycle starts to lengthen or the signs I get about my cycle through the month begin to diminish, either take a step back on the activity levels, increase food intake or both. Despite the bleak outlook given by a study from 19974, more recent papers5,6 support the theory that bone density can be improved by restoring cycles and gaining/maintaining weight so these are key.
  3. Go back to strength training twice a week, with a view to gradually progressing to three times per week.
  4. Incorporate regular plyometric activity – maybe take up a new sport like netball, volleyball or parkour? Or keep working on my skipping skills and box jumps.
  5. Maybe try out vibration training? I always saw this as a fad and I have stood on one of these machines at the gym once, but a scientific literature review published in the Journal of Osteoporosis and Physical Activity in 20157 cited studies that had observed increases in bone density ranging from 1.5%-6.2%, which was largely dependent on the frequency and magnitude of vibrations (some very small magnitude vibrations were in fact too little to counteract the underlying bone loss that happened over the duration of the study).
  6. Supplement with calcium and vitamin D. I started taking vitamin D last winter but stopped once the clocks go forward. Given the low bone density diagnosis I am now taking it all year round. I know magnesium and vitamin K are also both important in bone health but most of the main sources of these nutrients both feature prominently in my diet already and they did not show up in a recent blood test as being low.
  7. Get more sleep! The body repairs and builds tissue when we are sleeping. I frequently get less than 8 hours and I’m not giving myself the best chance to build solid bones, new muscle tissue or to just repair damaged tissue such as a sprained ankle or bruises.

So, I’m very concerned but hopeful that I will be able to restore my bone density to a healthy level. It looks like sacrifices will probably have to be made but at this point there is no compelling reason not to make my long-term health a priority. Fingers crossed the doctor will be equally optimistic!

References:

  1. De Souza MJ, Nattiv A, Joy E, et al, 2014 Female Athlete Triad Coalition Consensus Statement on Treatment and Return to Play of the Female Athlete Triad: 1st International Conference held in San Francisco, California, May 2012 and 2nd International Conference held in Indianapolis, Indiana, May 2013. Br J Sports Med 2014;48:289. http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/48/4/289
  2. Bergström I, Crisby M, Engström AM, Hölcke M, Fored M, Jakobsson Kruse P, Of Sandberg AM. Women with anorexia nervosa should not be treated with estrogen or birth control pills in a bone-sparing effect. Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand. 2013 Aug;92(8):877-80. doi: 10.1111/aogs.12178. Epub 2013 Jun 15. PubMed PMID: 23682675. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23682675
  3. Update on Birth Control Pills / Oral Contraceptive Pills and Bone Density http://www.noperiodnowwhat.com/research/birth-control-pills
  4. Keen AD, Drinkwater BL. Irreversible bone loss in former amenorrheic athletes. Osteoporosis Int 1997;7:311–15. https://www.nds.ox.ac.uk/publications/400582
  5. Fredericson M, Kent K. Normalization of bone density in a previously amenorrheic runner with osteoporosis. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005 Sep;37(9):1481-6. PubMed PMID: 16177598. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16177598
  6. Vescovi JD, Jamal SA, De Souza MJ. Strategies to reverse bone loss in women with functional hypothalamic amenorrhea: a systematic review of the literature. Osteoporos Int. 2008 Apr;19(4):465-78. doi: 10.1007/s00198-007-0518-6. Epub 2008 Jan 8. Review. PubMed PMID: 18180975. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00198-007-0518-6
  7. Abazovic E, Paušic J, Kovacevic E (2015) Whole Body Vibration Training Effects on Bone Mineral Density in Postmenopausal Osteoporosis: A Review. J Osteopor Phys Act 3:150. doi:10.4172/2329-9509.1000150 https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/whole-body-vibration-training-effects-on-bone-mineral-density-inpostmenopausal-osteoporosis-a-review-2329-9509-1000150.php

Dreaming of speeding about in a state of zen like Buddha on two wheels

This weekend saw the 2017 XTerra Switzerland cross-triathlon take place in Vallee des Joux, near Lausanne. I had hoped to have another stab at cross triathlon this year after recovering from RED-S / HA, but unfortunately UK races are few and far between. There are virtually none in the South of England except a few very short, low-key races; the flagship XTerra UK race this year was cancelled; Human Race have cancelled their series of off-road winter duathlons. One of the few UK races that looks promising is the Aviemore Triathlon on 6th August, but I’m not sure I want the pressure of training for another one of these right now, and the stress, time and expense of a whole day’s travelling each way.

I don’t know if or when the last time that British Triathlon designated an official Cross Triathlon championships, but it looks clear that they will also not be holding a Cross Duathlon championships next year either, due to low participation. Having spoken to a few people in the sport, there were a few different reasons for the cancellation of the last two scheduled XTerra UK races (planned to be held at UWC Atlantic College in South Wales in 2017 and at Vachery Estate in Surrey in 2016), the level of participation seems to be a major issue across the board for these events.

Since I first heard about the Xterra races and found out about the cross-triathlon niche, I’ve wondered why it struggles with numbers so much here in the UK. The format seems to be burgeoning with participation in other parts of the world, particularly North America and Europe and there are races all over South-East Asia too. There has been some enthusiastic coverage of the sport in 220Triathlon, the most widely-read triathlon magazine in the UK. Everyone knows the UK is a bit of a powerhouse on international triathlon scene – the Brownlee brothers are beloved by all regular BBC viewers, Chrissie Wellington is not infrequently referred to as one of the greatest female athletes of all time, not to mention the Olympians, World Champions and top-ranked UK athletes in the sport. In addition to this, triathlon participation is growing rapidly at the grass-roots level. But the UK also prides itself on it standard of mountain-bike riding, largely on account of its provision of some great trail centres (2500km of trails are maintained by the Forestry Commission alone, excluding fire-road paths) and reliably wet weather which combine to make tough-all-weather riding accessible via well-maintained, signposted graded trails. Statistics for people disappearing into the forests on two-wheels is understandably hard to come by, but it’s estimated that around 5.5 million people in the UK ride off-road at least once per year. You’d think there would be a good amount of crossover between the two.

Image by XTERRA, sourced from dirttri.com

Speaking from personal experience, very few club-level triathletes have ever heard of cross-triathlon and when they hear the name ‘Xterra’, they think of swim-run events like SwimRun Norway. They often have some mountain bike experience, but understandably (especially in densely populated places like London) don’t usually have a mountain bike alongside the bike(s) they use for triathlon. The mountain-bikers, on the other hand, sometimes dabble in running or swimming, but rarely both, and not many seem to have an interest in combining the three. So logistics are a big factor – I’ve made sacrifices in my domestic life to own a road and mountain bike (hello, scuffed walls!), but I think there’s also a difference in mindset.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last few weeks, after writing my last blog post about my reasons for trying to change my attitude towards training and then Facebook’s uninvited reminders of what I was doing over these last few days in 2016 of my trip to Switzerland a year ago for the 2016 ETU Cross Triathlon European Championships (also detailed at length in a past blog post). People say mountain bikers are super laid-back, fun-loving people. I’ve watched people in their peak condition at races and I can tell you that some of them take it as seriously as any roadie, but their results depend a lot more on chance and skill than a road cyclist and skills are at once harder to quantify and also less reversible than the fitness measures that are a major factor in road cycling performance (I use the term ‘road cycling’ loosely as I appreciate that crit and road races involve a lot of skill, tactics and luck, but for time-trialling, it’s certainly true that results are dependent mostly on fitness and this is the case for most non-professional triathlons).

Photo © Walter Baxter

I think the mountain-bike rider’s mindset and motivations for riding are very different from that of a road-cyclist, in part because of how important a role bike-handling skills are alongside fitness, but also because of the fear-factor of throwing yourself down a technical descent (or up a steep ascent for that matter!). You need a certain level of calm and confidence to deal cope with the flood of adrenaline that happens when you’re riding technical terrain. Based on my sample of one, I propose a theory that the constant physiological stress, combined with the mental performance anxiety that are common in triathletes, can make mountain biking in the middle of a triathlon too much to bear. There’s a lot of chance and a lot more risk. A few of my triathlon friends have also had a go at Xterra but haven’t been converted. Cross-triathlon folk say it’s a more laid-back and friendly vibe than conventional triathlon racing (I think normal tris are pretty friendly though!) and I liked the idea of a more low-key affair. However, when it came down to my own races, I didn’t feel especially laid back as I brought my control-freak mindset from road triathlon with me. I put myself under a huge amount of pressure to do well and my body was making-do with too little energy and a seriously out-of-balance endocrine system. When I finished the bike leg of Xterra Switzerland last year, I felt like my lack of mental strength was my undoing. I was in the peak fitness of my life and I knew I could handle a bike in a lot of mud, but in spite of this my confidence was as fragile as a pair of glass cranks.

I feel like I still have unfinished business with off-road triathlon. I’ve still never finished one so that’s an understatement really! But thinking about the last year, I wonder if maybe this will be the niche for me if and when I make a proper multi-sport comeback. I’ve only been mountain-biking a handful of times in the last year, but each time I finish grinning from ear-to-ear and my speed seems to have hardly blunted since last year when I was going off-road every week or so because it’s largely skill-dependent – how many other endurance sports can you say that about? It’s also easier to be mindful and present when you’re immersed in the forest or wilderness (or a manicured trail centre!) so the focus is less on yourself and more about the experience and surroundings. This isn’t to say that cross-triathletes and mountain-bikers are all speeding about in a state of zen like Buddha on two wheels, but if I can recover my mindset to the point of being able to deal with the thrill of unexpected rocky descents or sticky yet slippery quagmires without a mental breakdown, I’ll consider that a win. I just hope there are more opportunities to do off-road racing in the coming years without having to board a plane.

Update 29/06/17: I realised it doesn’t make sense to bemoan the lack of cross-triathlon events and frequent race cancellations without doing my bit to promote the events that are happening. Below are some races that I was thinking of as potential options for 2017 – the less exciting ones are near-ish to London then the ones further away look potentially worth a weekend trip. I’ve search high and low to find these and a number of events on my list at the start of the year have since been cancelled, so I’ve taken these off. There’s not many remaining so please comment below if there are any I’ve yet to discover and I’ll add them on. Give one of these a go to keep the sport going in the UK!

The taboo of the middle ground? My new take on health and exercise

You know how hard it can be to explain personal problems to your dad sometimes? Well it turns out it’s even harder to explain it in a public setting. Especially in the written form online, because we all know, anything that gets posted online never really disappears! Having been working through some health issues, which have gradually transformed or been revealed to be part of much more general issues of my relationship with myself, I have been unsure of where I’m at, where I’m going and how I got here. That sounds a lot like being lost. But perhaps it’s more about exploring – maybe even an adventure? A great conversation with a relative of mine recently introduced the idea that a series of events could be put together to tell a number of different stories – it’s a simple concept but not one that’s always obvious when we’re dealing with the subjective nature of our own experiences.

I’ve also been thinking about the nature of sharing and blogging. It’s actually really difficult to share your life publicly in real time, it introduces risk. I’ve been told I am a perfectionist – in the past I thought this was a positive attribute but now I understand it as being more unhelpful than helpful. Shaking off perfectionist thinking is a work in progress and one things that is certain is that perfectionists do not like risks. So in the world of real-time blogging and social media updates, how many bloggers actually take risks and open themselves up to failure, versus waiting for whatever project or event they’re engaged in to conclude successfully before sharing it with the world? I feel like I’ve occasionally taken risks and shared life and work in-progress, but I’ll admit, it was uncomfortable and I don’t do it very often.

But my health issues have led to me thinking about all of this in a completely different way. I feel like I have a moral obligation to take risks and share things that could go wrong, go nowhere or that are even already going wrong! And this feels like a much stronger motivator than the fear of people seeing things go wrong. I listened to the Fearless Rebelle Radio podcast last week which interviewed Kelly Diels. Kelly describes herself as a ‘feminist marketing consultant’; I spent about a decade working in marketing and thought, ‘those are two words you don’t often hear in the same sentence,’ so I sat up and listened. And once I’d listened to the podcast once through, I pulled out my notebook and pen (old school!) and listened again. It was that pithy and important to me! I have been influenced by lots of great books, podcasts and YouTube videos over the last year (more details below), but listening to Kelly speak and reading some of her articles has made sense of some problems that I have been grappling over the last few months with when it comes to being a fitness professional in an industry that (mostly) trades on making people feel bad about themselves.

How do you even talk about fitness and healthy eating without inadvertently supporting the general idea that everyone look and behave a certain way and sounding, at best, like someone who is appropriating messages of empowerment and a positive body image and, at worst, like you are preying on (and adding to) people’s insecurities? Part of me wants to delete a lot of my previous blog articles in an act of cleansing and purifying. But perhaps they serve to make the change of emphasis more powerful – after all, perfectionism and censorship is out, right? In any case, I’m going to strive to not conform to the archetype of the ‘female lifestyle empowerment brand’ that Kelly describes, by trying to share the s***t along with the successes, perhaps by judging things in a less dichotomous success-or-failure sort of way and call out the systems that are responsible for taking our self-confidence and selling it back to us (usually without actually delivering).

So what personal problem did I share with my dad and how did it bring me to a radical change of direction? As I’ve shared this with more people from different parts of my life and got to know many other people who have suffered with it, it seems most silly to make a big deal out of it, but telling my dad about it seemed like a real milestone. And you know what, he was patient, supportive and non-judgemental. He was actually sort of impressed by the way I’d recognised it and dealt with it, largely under my own steam. He also intuitively understood I should share it with others and is the last person I told. So here it is.

I had a problem known variously as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), the Female Athlete Triad (with the ironic acronym, FAT), hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA), over-exercise and disordered eating. The most obvious symptom was missing periods, but that’s only a small part of the problem. I’ll stop short at calling it an eating disorder – over-exercise can be a type of bulimia, although I’m not entirely sure I fit into that category and would hate to make light what people with a true eating disorder go through. I operated with a significant calorie deficit for years while cycling an hour each day to-and-from work along with additional swim, bike or run workouts most days and struggled to consume enough calories on my vegetarian, gluten and dairy-free diet. I don’t believe I consciously tried to restrict my energy intake (most of the time anyway), but after following some fairly extreme diets in my early twenties (guided by qualified healthcare professionals I might add) to try to overcome serious gut symptoms and other issues, it was hard not to have some residual ‘food phobia’. I was aware for a while that I found it difficult to eat enough energy to maintain my weight and constantly felt hungry. I admit that I became obsessed with my weight – not with making it as low as possible, I knew I needed to stop it from dropping ‘too low’ to say ‘healthy’, but I didn’t really want it to go up either.

Getting fit and taking part in endurance sport made me feel great in so many ways, but the signs that something was wrong started at least 5 years ago. However, those signs seemed unconnected from my eating and exercise habits and none bothered me enough to pay much attention so I carried on pursuing what I enjoyed doing and what felt rewarding. It wasn’t until I stopped taking the pill that I suspected there might be a problem. I waited 3 months, no period. I went to the doctor, no problem they said, it’s normal after stopping the pill, have a blood test and come back after 6 months. 6 months passed, I went back. It’s not uncommon for it to take 6 months I was told, have another blood test and come back after 12 months. All this time I felt so embarrassed I breathed a word to almost no-one and on the rare occasions that the subject of periods came up when I was with other women, I felt so awkward not feeling like I could relate to them but couldn’t say why.

For the most part, however, nothing was really happening and it was easy to put missing periods to the back of my mind and get on with life. Changes to my work schedule meant that I was no longer able to take part in group training sessions with my triathlon club and I knew I’d need to start doing most of my training alone. I had a goal of racing Xterra and knew precious little about off-road triathlon so I sought a coach to help me who did. When I first started working with Louise, I told her about my amenorrhea and progress (or lack thereof) with my doctor, and she insisted on me providing a letter from my doctor to say it was okay to pursue triathlon training. My doctor, seemingly completely in denial (or ignorance) that my training had anything to do with it, willingly obliged and so Louise started designing me a gradual programme to build base fitness and establish a new routine and regularly checked-in on my health as things progressed. She also encouraged me to gain a bit of weight, which I did, although it wasn’t that much and it was hard to hang on to as the training volume ramped up.

After over a year without a period, I went back to the doctor who sent me for yet more blood tests and an ultrasound scan. All seemed normal, according to my GP, but they agreed to send me to an Endocrinologist. While waiting for the appointment to come through (I had a 3 month wait), I came across a new book called ‘No Period Now What?’ (referred to below as NPNW). I was intrigued, bought a downloadable copy and devoured the first half of the book in one sitting. I went back to my GP and obtained my blood test results and compared with the figures in the book. I had heard of secondary amenorrhea as a result of low energy-availability at a British Triathlon (BTF) coaches nutrition seminar that introduced the RED-S framework a year before, but I didn’t think (or want to believe) that it applied to me. When I read NPNW and saw the list of other symptoms and side-effects, combined with comparing my hormone counts from my blood tests with the typical figures listed in the book, I realised I had a full-blown case of Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. I knew from the BTF seminar that allowing it to go on risked osteopenia and increased the likelihood of osteoporosis but I also discovered that because HA is similar to the menopause, it is very likely that, like the menopause it also increases the likelihood of neurodegenerative disease and cardiac disease. But unlike the menopause I would be exposing myself to these risks 10-20 years early. And of course there is the temporary and potentially permanent infertility alongside all the other side effects that I had been ignoring for so long.

I knew I had to do something about it, so I followed the instructions in the book; simple enough, but of course I tried to find ways to complicate it. Exercise as little as possible, do not restrict food in any way, eat at least 3000 calories a day and make sure there are lots of carbs. Exercise as little as possible – I asked my coach, does that mean I can run just 5 times per week as long as I keep it to half an hour? Knowing about RED-S and that I had been referred to an endocrinologist, she sagely declined to reply. I realised my question was from a slightly exercise-obsessed mindset and I needed to let go. I didn’t sit totally still while I was recovering, there was the occasional bike ride, I coached indoor-cycling classes keeping my heart-rate low and I occasionally ran for less than half an hour or went for easy swims focussed on technique. And I also kept my personal training appointments and Our Parks classes going, which involved cycling to the appointments and exercise demonstrations. But it was drastically less than I had been doing, and there was absolutely no hint of ‘progressive overload’ that is normally associated with training.

My period came back within 2 months and I was so excited I felt like I could hardly stop myself from telling everyone I saw! I continued the protocol of minimal exercise and plenty of eating for 3 cycles and just after the 4th I cautiously went back to more structured training, under the guidance of my coach. I tried to listen carefully for signs of my body regressing, I started measuring my heart-rate variability (a new tech trend in endurance sports – I’m not sure how much I learned from it other than life stress seems to affect me way more than exercise), my basal body temperature and just generally tried to take note of anything that diverged from feeling good. I had lots of moments of doubt and took an ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ approach to training, so it felt like I was skipping stuff left-right-and-centre. I was desperate to believe I could still take part in endurance sports and be healthy, if I did it right and there was a race coming up right on my doorstep with discounted entry. Not on my home doorstep, admittedly, but just a stone’s throw from the hotel we’d booked for the triathlon club training camp in Italy.

There was a choice of sprint or middle-distance races. I didn’t think the sprint represented much of a test of my abilities (so arrogant!) so I tentatively entered the middle distance race. I’ve done the distance a few times before, and figured I could follow a low-volume training approach and just take the race steady on the day, no pressure for a fast time. I don’t want to make this a race report, but suffice to say it went okay. The result was actually pretty amazing, all things considered, and on a par with past results when I was at my lowest weight and height of HA. But I’d felt compelled to spend a lot of the triathlon training camp ‘on the bench’ so to speak, doing relatively minimal amount of swim, bike and run. I was having a lie-in when my wonderful yet slightly hyperactive group of friends were diving into the sea in their wetsuits just after the sun had come up and I tried to be cheerful waving them off as they set off to explore the hills of Emilia Romagna on two wheels. I knew that packing in over 500km of swimming, cycling and running during a week was probably going to be bad for me, although at the same time I realised I’d somehow managed to substitute the fun, carefree, social side of the sport for the serious business of race tapering and saving myself for a self-designated ‘day of reckoning’.

That was about a month ago now. I’m coming to the conclusion that my body didn’t cope all that well with the training, even though it was meant to be minimal. Things didn’t go drastically wrong, but my weight fluctuated a bit (I have only a vague sense of this as I’m trying to weigh myself once a month at most) and there were changes to my cycle so I know my hypothalamus didn’t approve. I know that I didn’t do as well with the fuelling as I would have liked, as when I was in some of the highest-volume training weeks and busy juggling work and training I definitely become a ‘chaotic unconscious eater’ (one of the eating personalities described in Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch’s ‘Intuitive Eating’), focused on packing in calories and nutritious foods but in a really unstructured way. Would a more structured eating pattern with more time for meals solve the problem? Possibly. But I think it’s a relatively slim chance and I’d need to hardly take on any work to find out. Perhaps my body just needs more time. There’s only one of me and it’s quite an individual thing, so it will always be hard to know for sure. I’m not sure what my participation in endurance sports will look like going forwards, it’s really a process of trial and error and it’s going to take a long time to work out the ideal balance, if such a thing exists.

That brings me to pulling all this together and putting the new philosophy into practise. Now I’ve got this stuff on the table and there is some context to it all, I’m going to start doing things differently. I pledge to:

  • Call out b***s*** about diet and exercise! I don’t want to be a troll and there is too much crap out there to police it all, but I’m going to try to call the paradigm into question, hopefully in a constructive way (*I reserve the right to occasionally substitute “constructive” with “really angry”).
  • Put myself on the line, show that I’m not perfect (in case there was ever any illusion!), be prepared to let others see me ‘fail’ and take risks – I’ll start this right now by revealing that I’ve started writing a book. I’ve already got about 7,000 words which came out in a couple of days. When I was putting together this post, it felt like I could put it in the centre of a spider diagram as there were so many off-shoots, sub-stories and concepts to explore and share and it feels like this piece begs lots of questions which will take long answers. Unexpectedly, the words I’ve put down so far contain a lot of teenage angst and I’m not sure if anyone really wants to read that! I guess I’ll just keep it flowing for now and then evaluate what I’ve got when it’s all come out (that sounds like being really ill!)
  • Participate in and acknowledge the wider community of people with similar stories and shared beliefs. I will start by acknowledging and thanking all the people that have done or said things that changed the path of this story. This seems like some kind of overly dramatic Oscar speech thank you list, but I am genuinely so grateful to all of these people so I’m including them all anyway, in rough chronological order:
    • Triathlon England and GSK Human Performance Lab: Jon Train and Audrey Livingston who organise the coaching education programme at for putting on the great nutrition seminars at Triathlon England: London Region, for arranging the nutrition seminar at GSK Human Performance lab where I first learned about the FAT and RED-S; Dame Kelly Holmes and Ana Anton at GSK HPL for their detailed and frank presentations on the subject
    • Nicola Rinaldi for her book No Period Now What? which was pivotal to me properly understanding what was happening and how to recover, as well as for starting and regularly contributing to the recovery support groups on facebook which have been a big help mentally.
    • My coach, Louise Hanley, for making me finally take the leap, stop training and focus on recovering. And for taking me back and encouraging me after I had!
    • Sophie Kay (thefitologyway.com) for reassuring me that other personal trainers have their doubts about the fitness industry and taking time out of her schedule to listen to me sob about it!
    • Jill Puleo (acaseofthejills.com) for bravely undertaking her own journey through HA, telling her story on YouTube, tackling the sometimes controversial question of how and when to go back to exercise and for the long and supportive emails back and forth – you are so inspirational!
    • All the coaches at London Fields Triathlon Club – who are mostly men – for being some of the first to hear about my dysfunctional ovaries. I was, and still am, concerned about other athletes in my club unknowingly suffering from the same problem that making the coaching team aware of the issue was one of my first priorities. They took it very seriously and I’m so grateful as it wasn’t my easiest speaking gig, even though I know them all really well! A special mention goes to Karl Grainger for helping me to kick off a research project looking at the issue, which involved explaining it to nineteen-year old male BSc Sports Science students at London Met (poor them)! Excited to see how the project goes…
    • My favourite anti-diet and pro body-positivity (or neutrality) podcasters, Meret Boxler of Life. Unrestricted and Summer Innanen of Fearless Rebelle Radio. I can’t tell you how much the interviews I’ve listened to have educated me on the wider issues and positively influenced my mindset.
    • My sister for being so understanding and supportive since telling her about the problem and for proofreading this and telling me I should give my dad another shoutout. He’s stealing all the limelight lately!

I’m aware that some of the concepts I’ve put forward here will be hard for some people to accept – after all, we live in a world where 26% of adults take less than than 30 minutes physical activity a week, only 61% of adults manage the recommended 150 minutes or more a week and 74% of adults eat less than 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day*. The idea that too much exercise can be bad for you is taboo. But it also means that the message of moderation is not being heard loudly enough amidst the din of the official health recommendations, the fitness and fashion industries (yep, just google ‘athleisure sector’), traditional and social media. I have no intention of becoming a couch potato, I’m just going to spend a bit more time contentedly occupying the middle ground and defending my place there with a truckload of research and personal insight.

If you have been affected by any of the issues I’ve touched on here, please comment (you can do so anonymously!), send me an email, speak to your doctor, your coach or someone you trust. I’d also encourage you to make use of the links and resources I’ve signposted.

With love and respect, Abby x

 

*Data from the report “The Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet – England 2017” published by NHS Digital.

 

 

 

Energy metabolism basics: 5 conditions that your body needs to burn fat

What if you could look at the ‘latest’ diet and immediately understand why and how it works, as well as some advantages and disadvantages? Wouldn’t it be great not to feel you have to stick to an artificially rigid plan, because you understand the principles that underpin it and you can make your own decisions?

I’m not professing to cover the entire subject in this post (I have plans for New Year’s Eve too!). As with anything, the more your learn, the more you realise there is to learn! But these basic principles will get you a long way.

If you want to start the New Year on the right foot, make a note of these 5 points – stick them on your fridge or noticeboard and empower yourself to make healthy decisions regardless of what your body composition goals are.

Energy metabolism basics

Blood sugar is the basic fuel the body needs for most functions and there are two hormones that work to remove sugar from the blood when there is too much, or add sugar to the blood when there is too little:

  • Insulin removes excess sugar from the bloodstream and converts it to fat.
  • Glucagon releases stored glycogen (carbohydrates) and fats from around the body to be converted to energy.

So how is fat used for energy?

The process of converting fat to energy requires glucose (normally as released from stored glycogen) and plenty of oxygen. It requires a sequence of reactions in the body and as such is comparatively slow. It also requires the body to be in a relaxed state – the body usually wants to conserve energy stores, particularly if there is a sense of impending danger! In a stressed state when cortisol levels (the body’s main stress hormone) are high, the body is more prone to storing fat and using other fuel sources wherever possible.

Taking this information into account, fat burning happens when:

  1. Blood sugar is low
  2. Stored glycogen is available
  3. Oxygen is available
  4. The intensity of activity is sufficiently low that converting fat to energy will provide enough energy in time
  5. The body and mind is generally in a balanced, relaxed state

How do I tap into my fat burning potential by bringing these conditions about?

  1. Maintain low blood sugar as much as possible by consuming a diet that is low-glycaemic, i.e. low in foods that are quickly converted to blood sugar (find out more about the Glycaemic Index from Diabetes UK here.) As we know from how insulin and glucagon work, high blood sugar not only prevents fat from being used as a fuel, but also triggers insulin to remove the excess sugar and store it as fat.
    1. Low-glycaemic foods are generally those that are either low in simple carbohydrates and/or contain a lot of fibre or fat which slows down the absorption of the carbohydrates into the bloodstream. It’s worth pointing out, therefore, that not all low-glycaemic is especially healthy as high-fat and high-sugar foods would get a lower-glycaemic index score than low-fat, high-sugar even though both contain a lot of sugar and calories.
    2. High glycaemic foods include refined foods such as sugar (listed in ingredients as sugar, sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose or as various syrups to name a few) as well as low-fibre starchy foods such as white rice, white bread, white pasta, peeled potatoes. The glycaemic index of fruits vary depending on their sugar and fibre content but the highest glycaemic-index fruits are melons, very sweet tropical fruits, grapes and ripe bananas, although the water content of these means that the quantity of sugars per serving is not as high as similar GI foods might be.
    3. You can balance the effect of these foods on your bloodstream by having small amounts of higher glycaemic-index foods with more high-fibre, low-glycaemic foods e.g. vegetables.
    4. Aim to stick to the latest government guidelines on refined sugar intake. This was revised in 2015 following an overwhelming body of research showing the risks posed by a high-sugar diet. Free or added sugars shouldn’t make up more than 5% of the energy (calories) you get from food and drink each day.
      1. That’s a maximum of 30g of added sugar a day for adults, which is roughly seven sugar cubes.
        1. In UK food packaging, sugar content is not distinguished as ‘free sugars’ and those naturally occurring so it can be hard to gauge precisely how much is in pre-prepared foods, but consume products where sugar (or a form of sugar) is high up on the ingredients list or and the grams of sugar per 100g of product is over 5g per 100g in moderation.
        2. It may be wise to avoid high-sugar foods with 22.5g or more sugar per 100g.
  2. Conversely, ensure your diet includes sufficient low-glycaemic-index starchy foods to keep glycogen stores topped up. Don’t totally exclude all starchy foods in the quest to keep blood-sugar levels low – your body can cope with low-glycaemic starchy foods in moderation and you need some stored glycogen in order to metabolise fat. What’s more, a diet that is too low in carbohydrates triggers a warning signal and stimulates cortisol (particularly in women), the stress hormone that leads the body to store fat and burn other types of fuel.
  3. Make rest and relaxation a necessity and not a luxury. Think about what strategies you can use to make the body feel less stressed and plan how you will implement them. The bonus is this will help with fat loss but often have a positive effect on other aspects of your life too!
  4. Exercise and move frequently, but understand that this only uses fat if the intensity is low enough that you can absorb enough oxygen for it to be aerobic (less than 7/10 effort, no burning sensations in the muscles, and feeling like you could maintain the effort for longer than 20 minutes continuously).
    1. A brisk (but not your fastest) walk burns about 5 times more energy than watching television and about 3.3 times more energy than sitting or standing activities like writing or working at the desk and is at the intensity that the body can use fat as a fuel source.
    2. The average UK woman burns around 86 calories per hour while doing sitting or standing activities, but an hour’s brisk walk, active gardening, cycling or tennis would require 295 calories – a little movement goes a long way!
  5. Understand that when you’re working out at 8/10 intensity or higher, you are burning almost completely blood glucose or stored glycogen without fat. This still has advantages for fat loss, but it’s worth understanding how they work:
    1. This will improve your cardiovascular fitness by increasing your lung capacity and making your heart muscle stronger, leading to better aerobic capacity (and thus more potential for fat burning) in future, even though it doesn’t burn much fat at the time.
    2. It will have the effect of using up current blood sugar, so that when you cool-down and go back to normal activity, the body will turn to fat stores for fuel until more energy is absorbed from food. This is effective for shorter workouts if you don’t take on carbohydrates for a while afterwards as there is still some glycogen in reserve to burn in conjunction with fat.
    3. Be aware that if you worked out at this sort of intensity for the best part of an hour or more (e.g. a football match or 10K running race), you would use up almost all of the stored glycogen so you wouldn’t be able to burn fat as a fuel afterwards. Instead you’d burn protein (liver or muscle tissue) for energy (this is almost never desirable and can carry health risks) which is why it’s important to refuel after a hard workout of 1-hour or longer duration.

Ethical business, activewear and endurance sport: Q&A with Dan Puddick

In the days before my clothes shopping revolved mainly around how well it moved sweat away from my body, protected me from the elements or how likely it was to chafe my skin,  when I needed a new piece of clothing, I had resolved to make an effort to choose something ethically produced before turning to the commercial giants on the high street. But when it came to sports kit, aside from a few natural bamboo and merino offerings it seemed like this part of the clothing industry was immune or blind to the demand for more ethically produced products. So when I connected with Dan Puddick on LinkedIn and found out about the new business he was starting up to deliver exactly that, I was keen to keep in touch.

Daniel Puddick

Sundried Managing Director Dan Puddick taking on some of Europe’s biggest climbs in this year’s Etape du Tour

Fast forward 18 months and Sundried launched its website and was seeking out triathletes, personal trainers and coaches who shared the brands values and were interested in telling their clients and contacts about the brand. Jess Tonking, Sundried’s Marketing Manager got in touch and I agreed to be an ambassador for the brand. When Jess asked me to answer some questions for my ambassador profile on it’s website I thought it would be interesting to turn the tables and ask Dan about what shaped the brand and to find out what makes him tick. Here’s what he said:

AB: Tell us about Sundried – what’s the brand’s mission?

DP: Sundried is a responsible brand organically grown by people who care. We are all athletes ranging from surfers through to triathletes. We have a shared passion of the outdoors and aim to bring ethical production to stylish, technically advanced activewear.

AB: What bug-bears about did you have about sports clothing before starting the brand? How does Sundried fix them?

DP: I wanted activewear that was produced ethically, rather than in mass production factories with overworked and underpaid staff. Sundried have fixed this by creating our clothing in clean, safe factories where our staff are respected and paid fairly.

AB: Why was it important to you to involve trainers and coaches as a key part of your business plan?

DP: Yes, Personal Trainers know what the body is capable of and what activewear needs to be prepared to go through. Being qualified trainers has helped us to have a deeper understanding of what our clients need and means we can provide qualified advice.

AB: What unexpected things have you learned since starting Sundried?

DP: Never leave your trolley out of sight at an expo…. [AB: oops! I won’t ask!!]

AB: What made you take up the sport of triathlon?

DP: I’m quite a competitive person and as triathlon is meant to be one of the toughest sports you can try, obviously it was going to be the sport for me, and of course, just one triathlon was never going to be enough. I’m looking forward to racing in 2017.

AB: Can you name the top three things you most value about taking part in endurance sports?

DP:

  1. Mental focus – The freedom to just think, uninterrupted.
  2. Increased fitness – Fitness influences every area of our lives without us even noticing it and as I age (fingers crossed) it will help keep me young.
  3. A better night’s sleep – With two kids and a business to run, a healthy burst of exercise helps send me to sleep at night.

AB: They say not to make your passion your work, what’s your take?

DP: Nonsense. Being passionate about what you do is what makes Sundried good at what we do. They say ‘you’ve got to walk the walk to talk the talk’ too remember!

AB: What’s your favourite post-race treat?

DP: I keep it simple with a banana.

AB: What’s your best piece of advice for anyone embarking on their first endurance event?

DP: Don’t focus on anyone else, make the event all about you and just do your best.

AB: What’s your best piece of advice for starting a business in the sport or fitness sector?

DP: Get up before the world, I get up at 5am and those extra hours are key for me to keep on top of everything. Plus a morning run as the sun comes up is a great way to set up the day.

Clients and followers of Abby Boswell Fitness can get 20% off at sundried.com using the code ABBYBFITNESS.

Why female endurance athletes need protein after workouts (maybe more than men)

I’m a big advocate of eating foods that you can recognise! A colourful plate with a variety of shapes and textures is pleasing on the eye and usually means its covers a lot of bases when it comes to essential nutrients. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, especially when you are pushing your body to it limits. Repeatedly taking yourself to your limits and carefully nudging a little beyond, paired with time to recover and adapt is basically the definition of training so it’s important to recognise that some exceptions are helpful in supporting the recovery and adaptation process.

It’s well known that people who are training strength or endurance benefit from higher protein intake than is needed on average. For endurance athletes in particular, consuming protein after a long or hard session helps to prevent the body from breaking down muscle tissue for energy and recovery. But what is less well known is that there are differences for men and women. The way men and women generate energy from carbohydrates, fats and protein is different and so is the way our bodies repair and refuel our bodies following a workout.

Female hormones are geared towards making the body more conservative in its use and storage of energy. This has a big advantage for endurance athletes as estrogen slows down the rate that stored carbohydrates can be accessed and burned for energy, meaning that women burn more fat during exercising and are less likely to ‘bonk’ or ‘hit the wall’. However, it also slows muscle tissue growth, while progesterone encourages the use of protein as a fuel, both of which make it harder to maintain or indeed increase muscle tissue. As hormone levels fluctuate through the month, it means the type of training and what you eat can either work with or against your training goals.

Progesterone levels increase in the second half of the menstrual cycle, so this is when consuming protein directly after a workout is really beneficial to counteract the effects of breaking down protein for fuel. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), in particular, are used to rebuild muscle tissue so consuming a protein with plenty of these helps. Branched-chain is a way to describe some of the amino acids that are present in most proteins – the levels of different amino acids vary from one source to the next. Whey protein from milk is a good source of these but I keep a note of amino acid profiles from a few different sources to get an idea of how they compare. You can mix and match to get a balanced profile. Here are a few others for anyone who, like me, has trouble digesting milk products or other sources:

protein-sources-for-vegetarians-and-vegans

These are the essential amino acids – think of them as primary colours for mixing paint. The body can make any amino acid it needs if it has these essential ones coming in through the diet. The three starred amino acids are the BCAAs which are particularly important for stimulating muscle repair and growth. You can see that whey protein is richest in leucine and isoleucine, but the egg has proportionately more valine (this is a percentage of all the amino acids, including the non-essential ones). After whey, the rice protein scores pretty well in BCAAs especially considering it a plant-source.

But apart from getting a good amino acid profile, you also need to get enough of the protein within a short window after your workout, so you may need to find a balance of nutrition and convenience that works best for you. I’ve been making recovery smoothies with pea protein and a dollop of tahini with whatever other flavours I fancy at the time (I can recommend banana and nutmeg!) but the pea protein does lend a lentil-like taste and since looking again at the BCAA content I’m going to go for rice protein this time which has a more neutral taste, which hopefully will add to the convenience factor as I won’t need to mask the taste with other ingredients making it easier to prepare.

I have contributed some blog articles to Pulsin’ and in return they have given me a discount code for 10% off for my clients and followers – get in touch if you’d like me to send it to you!

References

  1. Details about how women differ from men in their energy metabolism and response to exercise are from ROAR, by Stacy T. Sims, PhD and co-authored by Selene Yeager, published by Rodale, July 2016.
  2. Amino acid chart: the boiled chicken egg values were sourced from the Department of Health Nutrient Analysis and are presented since a boiled chicken egg is often used as a benchmark against which to compare other sources. For the other four protein sources, I have used the breakdown from Pulsin’ product labels. Pulsin’s protein powders are pure with no flavours or other ingredients so these are a fair representation of the profile for those generic ingredients.

Disclosure

The link above to ROAR is an Amazon affiliate link, but you can purchase the book elsewhere. I am not paid or sponsored by Pulsin’ nor do I receive any commission, I have simply provided content for their blog which they have promoted to their customers and followers.

Guest post: Getting exercise back into my life – Giles

I recently asked Giles for some feedback to find out how he found training with me and what impact it had since ‘graduating’ to train independently. His comments tell a great story about how he rebuilt his confidence and found ways to fit working out into his busy life and he has agreed to share this as a blog post to give an insight into what it’s like having a personal trainer. Here’s what he said…

I approached Abby with a goal of getting exercise back into my life and daily routine and to become healthy again. I was at a very busy time in my life so I was worried that, despite the best of intentions, I might not get anything out of the sessions and that personal training is expensive, but I believe my sessions with Abby were worth every penny.

Before I started the sessions, I was apprehensive that as a personal fitness instructor Abby would be like one of those shouty British Military Fitness trainers, but I found that she is always patient on workout sessions, while at the same time is just the right amount of pushy to keep me on track. Critically, there’s lots of fun and laughter too!

My training sessions with Abby were so important to me. Yes, they kept me physically fit – but more than this, they inherently fuelled a new sense of drive and purpose in both my work and personal life which I really appreciated.

With her help, I was able to:

  • vastly improve my middle distance running times
  • Improve my diet on the back of dietary analysis
  • Improve my cardio-vascular performance

But most importantly, Abby re-introduced exercise into my life, finding ways to make training fun, effective and achievable, even when things get super busy. Abby brought technique and structure to my workouts. Now, when I train at a gym or go out for a run, I have a catalogue of different exercises I can use. I’m more confident that I’m making the most out of any time I have to exercise and have a host of workouts at my fingertips to keep things interesting. This confidence has lead to me signing up to run my first half-marathon in years and I’m looking forward to putting my new-found know-how of running technique and training methods into practice!

Race Report: Thorpe Olympic Distance Triathlon

After the bumpy ride that was Xterra Switzerland, I’m actually quite pleased to say this race report is characterised by it’s brevity! Thorpe Olympic Distance Triathlon last Sunday was the opposite to my previous race in many ways. While Xterra was off-road, wet, muddy, hilly hundreds of miles from home and I didn’t know anyone there, Thorpe was on-road, dry, sunny, flat, within the M25 and full of friendly faces. After my disappointing experience in my previous race, my expectations weren’t very high but I was determined to make the best of it.

As it turned out, I had a great race, getting near-enough personal-best times in the swim, bike and run (depending on how you measure it as the courses aren’t always identical in length). I was particularly pleased with my run time as it was a decent 4-5 minutes off my PB for 10K in a triathlon and after an injury from a bike crash at the end of May I hadn’t run that much.  You can read my more detailed write-up of the race on the London Fields Triathlon Club blog.

 

 

Race Report: who cares about the icing on the cake anyway?

Writing about my preparation to take on the ETU Cross Triathlon European Championships made it clear how important the journey is to a particular goal, the race or event in itself lacks meaning in isolation. The race in question was last Saturday so I now have the benefit of hindsight and a good few days letting the dust settle (or rather, for the last traces of mud to be washed away) to review and take stock.

I arrived in the mountains just North of Lac Leman on the Swiss-French border a couple of days before the race to orientate myself, get used to the terrain and to take the opportunity to practise the swim, bike and run courses. The two days ahead of the race were extremely hot and humid – the Alps were experiencing the hottest weather in the whole of France with temperatures as high as 34 degrees C so I tried to do my recces late in the day to avoid the worst of the heat. The lake was warm (ish – for a mountain-fed lake at 1000m altitude) and clear and the bike and run courses were moderate – there were a few short sections of the bike course that were quite steep or technical but most of it was rideable with plenty of gentle cross-country and only a few muddy sections.

A bit of rain can really change the nature of a mountain bike trail. A lot of rain and a lot of tyres and footprints turn an unremarkable woodland path or alpine meadow into a sticky yet slippery obstacle that traps your tyres one moment and unexpectedly throws them sideways the next. An obstacle that goes on for miles. I’ve ridden a lot of mud like that before and I know that actually, against the odds, it isn’t always impossible to pass across it. But it slows you down a lot and adds a lot of unpredictability. Maybe I haven’t ridden it enough yet to love it, but based on my experience to date, I have to say, I’m not a fan.

The hot weather in the days prior to the race came to an ominous end as the race briefing the evening before was promptly followed by claps of thunder and torrential rain. That night we were woken by the most extreme lightening storm I have ever seen, with lightening bolts so frequent it was almost like the valley was being lit by a strobe. The road outside our chalet turned into a stream and the rain hammered down onto its corrugated metal shell.

Transition set-up and ready to go

Transition set-up and ready to go

I was grateful for the cooler air on race day morning, it had stopped raining and the sky was the kind of low-contrast grey that improves the visibility going in and out of the woods. The race start wasn’t until 2pm as the juniors and Xterra Light entrants had raced a single-lap version of the course earlier in the day but this meant the inevitable emulsifying of mud and water under hundreds of tyres began before we even started our swim.

After being prepared for changes to the start time due to forecast thunder and lightening, we were pleased to begin at the 2pm as planned under the grey but dry sky. The elite men and women set off a minute apart from each other and then the vast swathes of age-groupers waded into the milky-churned up water to the start line waiting for the gun a few minutes later. Spotting the pros dolphin-diving their way to water deep enough to begin swimming, I decided to put this skill learned in the familiar waters of London Fields Lido into action until I was about waist-deep and I started turning over my arms. I don’t know if it saved me any precious effort or time but it was fun and was good to be able to use the same techniques as the elite field when people around me were attempting to run in water up to their thighs.

The swim course was s single 1500m lap, about 750m in a straight line to the first buoy, then back in a narrow triangle shape via another buoy closer to the lake shoreline. It was a fairly large bunch start so there was the usual chaos of clashing arms, ankles being grabbed and seeing other goggled-faces turning to breathe a few inches from your own. I seemed to be swimming up the group slightly so I was a little annoyed at myself for not starting slightly further forward, but before I got to the first buoy I found myself swimming with similarly paced athletes and having a choice of feet to follow. I started to notice a sweet smell and wondered if it was the residue of swimmers sun cream or perfume leaching into the water, but it became smokey and I realised it reminded me of the rose- or cedarwood campfires that London house-boaters sometimes burn along the canals where I run in Hackney.

As we approached the two buoys I noticed the water was full of white-capped heads bobbing above the water; and wide, rib-threatening breaststroke-kicking legs  just beneath and I reassured myself that I must have done more triathlons or had more open water practise than the people around me as I desperately tried to maintain my speed without breaking my stroke as I corkscrew turned around the buoys. Spotting the second buoy was difficult and I noticed the splashing around me was now not only caused by the other swimmers but also the rain that had made everything seem very misty. Shortly the scent of smokey rosewood again served as a marker that I was on the way back and before I knew it the swim exit was in sight.

DCIM100GOPRO

I pulled my wetsuit down to my waist as I stumbled out of the water and ran across the grass to transition. Lots of puddles had formed that weren’t there before but they felt warm as my bare feet splashed through them. Transition wasn’t especially boggy as expected, although I realised my shoes, towel and helmet were all soaked. Having just been in lake though, I wasn’t too bothered and went through the drill; wetsuit legs off, bike shoes on (off road triathlon and mountain bike shoes dictated that this step would happen in the transition zone), race belt on, helmet on, grab bike, go! And off I went on the bike course.

I soon realised the brutal climb I’d practised two days before was actually the return route and the ‘out’ route only took in about half the first hill, so I was grateful that the first part was a lot less lung-bursting than I had prepared for. This was the point, though, that I started to understand the frowns of the other competitors when discussing the extensive cow fields in the first part of the course. On a dry day, this would have made a fairly easy, if slightly grassy and slow, warm up but it became the part of the course I most dreaded. Several kilometres of slow, slippery, rutted gunge. Everyone around me seemed to be struggling and I put in some good efforts on the first few hills, changing to an easy gear, getting my weight low over the front of the bike and trying to maintain traction as far up as I could before losing the back wheel or people in front of me stopping. On the worst part of a wide, off-camber thick mud-field my back wheel made a sudden left exit from underneath me and I was flipped onto the ground and my front wheel twisted sideways so my handlebars  landed square on my kneecap. Ouch. Another rider passing shouted to check I was okay, “oui, il y a pas de problème” I shouted back cheerfully before realising my knee was quite sore. A few native-language expletives to overcome the initial pain and I tried to assess the best way to cross the quagmire, determined not to lose too much time. The ‘cow field’ section went on for another few kilometres before a short section of tarmac gave way to the more technical trails in the woods.

DCIM100GOPRO

The forest trails were also treacherously slippery with thick mud, but there were odd interludes of rock and tree rooty-sections to provide some respite, and the fact that you can only see the trail for a short way ahead helps to break the challenge down into more manageable chunks. I was feeling a bit less confident about my ability to stay upright after my fall in the meadow and surrounded by some quite cautious other riders found doubts creeping in so tried to focus on some positive mantras that I’d gathered ahead of the race. I’d decided I needed to own the mud! I don’t know where the ownership angle went but my mantras seemed to be on the back foot and arguing back instead of owning the debate. Against the silenced thought that I really didn’t like the mud, I countered out loud “I love the mud,” over and over, and probably much to the bemusement of other competitors (“you don’t fool me” I guessed they’d be thinking). “I love when the tree roots are hidden just under it! I love the mud!”.

Despite my efforts at self-reassurance, the belief in my ability to keep the bike upright slowly chipped away with every skid and slip. As I approached the knarliest descent, a steep and narrow tree-flanked muddy descent with a stream at the bottom crossed via some wobbly boulders that were barely above the waterline I saw a stretcher at the bottom, apparently with a casualty awaiting rescue. As I picked my way down the slope with my bike beside me I discovered that sliding as if on a pair of skis or skates was the best way down. Up the other side was so steep it felt safer to carry my bike than to try to balance it pushing it up the hill. More thick slippery stuff at the top of this hill and then thankfully a path of well maintained hairpin bends down and up to slowly start the return loop.

Eventually I neared the turnaround point – the idea of doing the whole thing again was almost unthinkable but the encouragement and enthusiasm from supporters, my other half and the team of giant-cowbell ringers kept me smiling until I was into the first section of cow field again. “All you have to do is the same again” I told myself. I’d gone past caring about my time by this point and just wanted to finish. In one piece. I got slower and slower and less bold with my choice of lines. I cursed myself for becoming so risk-averse that tedium and frustration were starting to take over from adventure and felt angry for losing some of my mental fighting spirit.

DCIM100GOPRO

Eventually I rolled into transition at the end of the bike course and was told “that’s it, the race has finished”. “Why?” I asked, “is it the time, or have there been too many accidents?” “Both” came the response. I realised later that the cut-off time had already been extended by about an hour due to the conditions, but after having a lot of accidents on both the bike and run course the organisers couldn’t continue to send people out onto the run course. It was past 7pm. A helicopter ambulance was landing just next to transition. People were stumbling around in foil blankets, their eyeballs looking bright white against their mud-covered faces. I felt relieved to be able to call it a day, but devastated to have not finished the race.  I felt sure I could have stumbled around a 10 km loop that was at least half flat (you can imagine what the other half was like!), but it wasn’t to be. I racked my bike in transition, and with my bike shoes and helmet still on, waded into the lake where I’d swam 3 and a half hours before and submerged myself to try and dislodge the thick coating of mud that covered me from head to toe. I didn’t notice the cold. I didn’t feel especially hungry. I’ve never been close to missing a cut-off time in a race before and I didn’t know what to think or do.

Speaking to some of the other competitors, I started to realise that although it felt like a very personal and solitary battle, the experience was very much a collective one. From elites to age-group winners, people were talking about wanting to pull out and how the conditions were some of the worst they had seen. “Don’t make any decisions about future Xterra races based on this”, they urged me.

The next day I decided I didn’t want to look at my bike, let alone go for a gentle spin to help the legs recover. I felt I’d done so little continuous riding that it was not my body that needed to recover at all. For the first time in months I had what is really and truly a rest day. I finished a book that I’ve been reading in dribs and drabs for nearly a year and went for an evening stroll along the river Doubs before dinner. I decided Doubs was a cool name for a river. I tried to respond to my coach and close family who, seeing the reports and race results emerging had been trying to contact me since the race to find out what had happened.

Then, almost as if prompted by some supernatural messenger, I read an email from a friend and fellow triathlon coach recommending a podcast featuring sports psychologist David Galbraith. David sounded like he was analysing my race, from the initial plan, through to training and race day and said a lot of things that really resonated. We can choose what our goals are and provided we choose appropriately, we can succeed and find all the satisfaction and fulfilment that we need. He uses cake as a metaphor that is simple yet easy to lose sight of – when you eat a piece of cake, the appearance and taste of the icing are pretty inconsequential. Most people don’t eat cake because they like icing, they like  the cake itself – it makes up a much bigger part of the end result and reflects the skill of the baker and quality of ingredients. You can even have really good cakes with no icing at all.

Staking all your chips on a single day, moment or race leaves a lot of your success to chance. When bike racing goes off road, there is so much unpredictability that the chances of getting the result you hope for are far from certain. With sport, the training is the challenge and the race or competition is the reward, or the icing on the cake. I’ve put a lot of work into my cake, I’ve learned new things and enjoyed watching the mixture come together over time. My attempt to ice it didn’t work so well this time but never mind. I’m looking forward to baking another one and who knows, the icing might come out really well next time. I’ll still have a cake at the end though and I’ll be grateful for every bite!