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Y7 Yoga – New York’s hottest new fitness craze

Y7 Yoga

When Laura booked me in for a Y7 Yoga class while in New York, I had no idea what to expect…

I’ve never been much into yoga… while I might exercise five or six times a week, I tend to like my work outs to be more vigorous and steamy than slow and stretchy.

Then of course, there are the yoga zealots. We all know one or two, impossibly skinny people with long, sinewy arms who bang on about how good it is for you and how they’ve never been more flexible. And don’t get me started on the fake Asian mysticism that seems to follow it around. How can you take a fitness class that ends with someone bowing their head, clasping their hands together and saying “namaste” seriously?

I have tried to like it… really. Laura is definitely a convert and organises a monthly three-hour session in Leeds – yes, that’s three hours of yoga. One after the other. On a Sunday morning. I could almost run a marathon in the same time.

Nonetheless, being the good husband, I wanted to give her my support so when she told me she’d booked an instructor to run their first gig at Leeds’ Yoga Space earlier this summer, I was keen to give it a go.

I actually didn’t mind the first hour’s vinyasa flow, and the second biy of ‘yin yoga’ wasn’t too bad for a slower, more controlled version… But when it got to the ‘yogic sleep’ bit at the end and I was being told to relax my tongue bit by bit, I just had visions in my mind of opening my eyes and seeing the instructor filing her nails and stifling a bored yawn as she read from a script – a little like my cousin who used to do the ironing while talking dirty to blokes on a sex chat line to make a bit of extra cash while doing the housework…

Y7 Yoga

Fast forward to a week ago and we were on a New York-bound plane for a child-free short break and got chatting to a young American girl next to us who happened to be a yoga instructor in New Jersey.

Laura, having come back from LA last year raving about Soul Cycle – the big-beat spinning class – was keen to know what was new on the New York fitness scene and our new pal Taylor began to rave about Y7 and how great it was.

The classes were around two years old, she told us, adding that it had gone from strength to strength and quickly rising from a single studio to five dedicated spaces in NYC and another in Hollywood.

So what made it so different?

“Well, first it’s done in the dark, well candlelight, so people can’t really see you screw up. Second, it’s like super-hot, so you’ll be drenched at the end. Third, it’s done to hip-hop, so it’s faster than normal yoga. It’s the Soul Cycle of yoga,” Taylor promised.

Those last four words had Laura sold – but at $25 a class, I needed a little more convincing.

 

Yes, savour that for a minute…. $25 a class, thanks to the pound’s post-referendum slump,  that’s about £20 for an hour-long fitness session.

 

I mean, I know it’s New York, but even when I worked in London, I couldn’t command more than a tenner for a group exercise class, so double that seemed super expensive. (Those of you who come to my Leeds Insanity Live! classes, please note what a bargain you’re getting!).

Y7 Yoga

The website looked pretty cool though – all slick black and white images and funky phrasing, and how can you resist this recommendation from 50 Cent?

It was hot, and they had like the candles and sh*t, the heat and sh*t. I must have thought I was just gonna do a couple stretches!

And so, the next day we were walking through the Flatiron District, arriving to a door emblazoned with the logo and some impossibly steep steps up three stories emblazoned at the top with the legend

Started from the bottom, now you’re here

In the reception are, we were greeted and kitted out with mats, hand towels and ‘anti-slip towels’.  “You’ll need these to keep your grip and mop up the sweat.” the receptionist warned as she checked us in.

Now it was cold outside, freezing and rainy in fact, and I’d dressed in running tights, shorts, long sleeve T-shirt, T-shirt and running jacket. Laura was similarly done up with a couple of extras: namely my British Spartathlon Team buffs to keep her neck warm.

From the studio, around 25 people from the previous class came out – mostly women looking like they’d walked off the set of the TV series Girls (but without Lena Dunham in tow) alongside a couple of token blokes. All were absolutely piss wet, dripping with sweat and steam.

Laura and I looked at each other and went to bathroom, stripping down our kits to the mere basics.

Inside the studio, it took a while to adjust to the darkness. All the windows were blacked out and in the candlelight, I could just make out another stencilled slogan on the wall: “A tribe called sweat”. Judging by the state of the previous class, they weren’t joking.

We found one of the back corners to hide away in. We were both carrying colds, stinking red wine hangovers and a roll of loo paper nicked from our hotel room. In seconds we were leaking from almost every pore and orifice… and that was before the class even started.

Instructor Danielle Kipnis came in and made a start on the ‘warm up’ – and there was me thinking just entering the room provided that.

The yoga is really, I suppose,  just a slightly faster version of the vinyasa flow I’d tried before, and although I’d been hoping the hip hop would be more NWA-style rage than the laidback R&B of the like of The Weeknd, it was bloody hard work trying to keep up.

I won’t pretend to be able to describe all the moves involved – although I know some of the basics like child’s pose, downward dog and warrior pose – and these were put together in ever increasing combos of difficulty. Danielle really wasn’t demoing many of the moves – I guess they expect people to have a smattering of knowledge. I just looked at the nearest extra from Girls and tried to follow suit.

A massive plus for me was that as long as you were there or thereabouts, Danielle wasn’t being prissy on form, trying to turn your hand this way or that just to make you feel as though you are being corrected.

 

Y7 Yoga

Within seconds, we looked more like dripping dog than downward ones, and our towels were in constant use to try and mop up the increasingly large amounts of sweat gathering everywhere – as well as using it as an excuse to sneak in the odd breather here and there (see I do learn something from you guys who come to Insanity too).

The moves and combinations got progressively more complex the longer the class went on and while copying the class works for large chunks of the 60 minutes, there were sections where Danielle encouraged us to ‘find our own vinyasas’ from the moves offered and practice them… Given I didn’t even know I had a vinyasa to lose, this left us both a little confused. The regulars could remember the combos but Laura and I were largely making it up as we went along. Lord knows what they all felt.

It’s hard to judge a fitness class in just one session – I always try and encourage people to come back to my classes for a second or third time, just because familiarity with the moves breeds confidence. But on the whole, I really enjoyed it: the atmosphere was great, the heat certainly did it’s job and the music was a welcome change from those bleeding Andean/Tibetan pan pipes that seem to get dragged out at every yoga class in the world.

What sealed it for me as a great workout though was seeing the skinny chick to my left balance on two hands with both feet perfectly placed about six inches off the ground and hold that pose for a good 30 seconds without a millimetre of wobble.

If that’s where Y7 can get you, I want to go back.

Namaste.

See http://www.y7-studio.com/

Y7 Yoga

Spartathlon 2016 race report

Spartathlon 2016
Some people have been here before

Here my race report from Spartathlon 2016 – the 153-mile race from Athens to Sparta, widely considered one of the most gruelling running races on earth.

Check point 70, Spartathlon 2016, Saturday, October 1

Never, ever take Spartathlon for granted…

I was 231.4 km into this year’s race with just 15 km left to go… less than 10 miles from a dream-like second consecutive finish in front of the statue of King Leonidas in Sparta.

It was hot. Super hot. In Greece sometimes it feels like there’s a heat storm. Everything stops. Even the cicadas give up their chirruping. Not a whisp of wind, just radiating heat bouncing off the surrounding clay cliffs and asphalt roads. I was beyond running, past even shuffling, power walking it in. Just. Keep. Going. You. Can. Do. This.

As I pulled into checkpoint (CP) 70, I glanced at the board. At 16.40 they’d be wrapping up this station and the Death Bus would be revving up to take any runners that didn’t make the strict time cut-offs to Sparta.

I’d handed my Garmin watch that I’d been using to check progress to Laura and Jamie at the last crew checkpoint to charge it up, conscious that this year I wanted the full race recorded – even if some of the data would be skewed as they powered it up in the car. Ultra-runner in-joke alert: So far, so Rob Young.

“What time is it?” I asked one of the checkpoint guys in Greek as I came in. He glanced at his watch. “24 minutes past four” came the reply.

spartathlon-2016-cp72
Hot and bothered: CP 72

If he’d picked up my slowly melting body and dragged me screaming to hell with Hades he couldn’t have done more damage.

“What? You close in 16 minutes?” He shrugged, apologetically.

I hurried out, breaking into a painful trot for the first time in an hour or so, omitting to fill my water bottle in what I’m going to call a rush but you might imagine more as a pained stumble.

My mind was scrambling for some sense of the numbers as the 31C heat beamed down from the sun and radiated up from the road.

Nothing made sense. Overnight, I’d been pushing on one hour and 40 minutes ahead of the cut-offs and though I’d slowed to a run/walk for most of the day when a simple shuffle could have seen me dent a 33-hour finish, I’d managed to keep it somewhere between 1hr 15mins and 1hr 20mins for the last few hours. I’d thought I was safe…

A minute or two down the road, I rationalised everything. I couldn’t have lost an hour… It just wasn’t possible. How slow had I been over the last three or four checkpoints since I last looked? Had I just been complacent and slowed right down in the heat.

A lady photographer from the wonderful Sparta Photography Club who document the race was snapping from the side of the road. “What time is it please?” I asked again. “3.35pm,” she said. “You have almost three and a half hours to get to Sparta.” Some people should learn to tell the time better.

Mentally, I relaxed but physically I couldn’t. I’d taken on no water at CP 70; neither in my bottle, nor over my head to cool down my overheating body. The next checkpoint and aid stop was still 2 km away – in the heat may as well have been 20.

When it finally appeared, mirage-like around a corner, I filled up my bottle, doused the hat and ploughed on, looking forward to seeing Jamie and Laura at the last crew help point at CP 72, 3 km away. I obviously didn’t do enough cooling down, because by the time I reached them, I could see worry etched in Laura’s face. “This is the worst you’ve looked in the race,” she said sponging cold water over my shoulders, “you’re struggling.”

The guys took me to one side and sat me down. Jamie found a salt cap from somewhere for electrolytes and Laura tried to get me to eat a piece of banana. I had no idea when I’d last taken some salt. Four hours? Four minutes?

They steadied me and eventually sent me on my way with a cheery: “See you in Sparta”, obviously content that the deal had been done. They’d kept their side of the bargain, now it was up to me to keep mine.

As I rounded the corner, my mouth got that awful watery taste, my head swam. Did I mention the heat? I’m never sick in races. Never. Never Ever.

I promptly put my hands on my knees, bent over and hurled, spraying the tarmac in clear watery goo that evaporated as soon as it hit the road.

Was this how it ended – an acid stench raising from the sick on the floor, unable to go on with just 8 km to go?

The Acropolis, 7am Spartathlon 2016, Friday September 30

Spartathlon 2016
Under the Acropolis

There are lots of amazing things about this race.

The team camaraderie. The testing of your limits. The crazy conversations you have in your head. The unspoken bonds with people who don’t understand you nor you them thanks to the language barriers. The running by the sea. The signing autographs for kids who mistakenly think we’re a bunch of celebrities. The CP staff…

The two very best, for me at least, are the start under the Acropolis and the end in Sparta. You can find many of those other elements in other races around the world. The Acropolis and reaching King Leonidas’ statue are unique to Spartathlon – and lets face it, their magnificent history and symbolism bookend somewhere between 24 and 36 hours of putting your body through hell.

So I was excited when we pulled up in our crew car, despite it being a challenging last 12 months on the running front.

I’d been pleased to finish last year, but it didn’t feel like a good finish. End-of-race drip and subsequent mini-depression aside, loads of other stuff nagged at me.

My Garmin had ran out of battery in the medical tent, shutting down and losing the run for my records, my pictures by Leonidas at the end were blocked by other people, and even the TV feed in the full video cut away to another scene as I came up the main road in Sparta. I couldn’t even buy a good memory from it all and have it sent to me on a memory stick.

It took me fully until December to run again. The whole experience making me decide to can ultrarunning for a while and try and concentrate on a sub three-hour marathon.

But slowly things started to nag away.

What if I controlled the blisters? What if I strengthened the quads? What if I could just go a few seconds a mile faster? How much could I shave off with a second attempt?

Crucially, could I at least finish with a sense of achievement rather than disappointment at ending up on a drip? Spartathlon 2016 seeds were being sewn… and by Christmas I was starting to think I might just apply and see what happened in the ballot.

First there was a conversation to be had.

Jamie and I had made a pact with our running buddies Darren Strachan and David Bone who’d crewed our 2015 effort: Get us through and we’ll return the favour in 2016. David had already said he wasn’t interested in coming back, but Darren was toying with the idea of a having a shot.

I rang him and asked if he fancied doing it together, saying I’d still crew if he’d rather me do that. Graciously, he was happy for us both to submit an entry and see where it took us.

When the draw came and both our names were inevitably pulled out of the hat and into the team, I put on a good face but I still wasn’t sure.

I had a low-key start to the year, unable to convince myself to get going, despite that idea of attempting that sub-three marathon in April. A succession of colds, flus and niggling injuries were bothering me – not enough to lay me low, but convenient enough to make me turn over and silence the alarm on cold winter mornings.

Some time around the end of February, I decided to get my arse in gear and put a month of decent training in before the Brighton Marathon – there was no sub-three but a PB of 3.18 seemed decent reward for little effort. The running bug was starting to kick in and I drew up a plan for Spartathlon that would culminate with the Leeds-Liverpool Canal race in August before tapering.

Three weeks later (while admittedly a little on the squiffy side at a house party) I kicked a bed as I walked past it and cracked a metatarsal that stripped four training weeks away.

Just as I started to build distance again, Darren came up for a long weekend and a couple of back-to-back long runs in the middle of summer. On the first day, I turned my ankle in a pot hole 15 miles in. By the end of day two and another 53 miles later, if they’d used said ankle to kick off at Elland Road, you wouldn’t have noticed.

So now I was trying to nurse my way through a programme. Running, icing and strapping to degrees of varying success. I pulled out of the Leeds-Liverpool race knowing I was massively undercooked but at least the ankle was starting to settle.

Instead I tried a 47-mile run alone and came through it. The first time I thought I was going to actually make the start in Athens. It felt good. Even if I was woefully underprepared for a real go at a decent time, I felt with decent foot management I could do better than last year.

Laura was finally convinced to come and crew, and Darren and I finalised plans, ready for the off.

Spartathlon 2016
Big Team GB
Spartathlon 2016
Small Team Ellis-Strachan

The rest of the race, Spartathlon 2016, Friday September 30 – Saturday October 1

I remember taking lots of pics and chatting away with Russ Bestley about punk rock in the early light under the Acropolis, to the point where when Kostis Papadimitriou, President of the International Spartathlon Association, came to the fore and counted down the start, I was taken a little by surprise.

The morning was cool, the traffic in Athens stopped and I settled into a nice plod that felt comfortable.

It always takes me a good four or five miles to warm up, so I wanted to get through those with not too much chat, Darren was a few yards behind me and all felt grand. His trotting pace is probably a couple of strides slower than mine though, so we continued on, me opening up a gap and waiting for him for a minute or so at every fourth or fifth aid station.

I wasn’t too worried about hanging about – I know I set off too fast in 2015 and paid the price, so I figured it would give the legs some respite and reign me in a bit from attacking too much. Somewhere we went past team GB captain Rob Pinnington who was obviously battling with himself – we tried to gee him up a bit and for a while it seemed to work and he looked back on track as we pulled ahead.

Spartathlon 2016
Just 5 marathons to go: CP11

The marathon came and went in around 4.10 – bang on target as we knew time could be made up later in the race. Spartathlon forces you to run the first 80 km (or 50 miles) pretty quickly in 9.5 hours given the heat and those that try and smash that often find they come a cropper later on.

Laura and Jamie (crewing for me) and Jeff and Garry (for Darren) had learned the lessons from last year, pulled us to one side and went to work like an F1 pit team. One sponging us down with cold water, another handing drinks, another giving a rub down…. Excellent planning, even better execution.

After that first marathon (CP 11), comes what I think is the toughest but also the most beautiful part of the race.

The suburbs of Athens, the shipyards of Piraeus and the refineries of Elefsina give way to gorgeous views over the Saronic Gulf, the sparkling Aegean melting slowly into the bluest of skies… the flip side is you’ve ran a relatively fast marathon, it’s your first encounter with the heat, there’s little shade and you have some five marathons to go.

I started to feel a few tummy rumblings here… too many gels, too much salt and the heat were causing a bit of a jumble so I stripped things back. Salt tablets were pushed back to one every 90 minutes, Tailwind was dropped from my handheld in favour of water, and gels ditched in favour of fruit and biscuits at the CPs. It seemed to work.

Spartathlon 2016
50 miles in at Hellas Can

By the time we got to the next major crew aid stop at CP22 we were 35 minutes ahead of the cut-offs. Time pressures slow down a little here as the sun begins to set, and the next section allows you to put a significant dent into the closing times. At each subsequent CP we were knocking a good five minutes off – it all felt very comfortable and doable. Keep on like this, get over the mountain, avoid wilting in the heat on day two and we’d do it.

CPs came and went through the evening. I loved the run into Ancient Corinth, there’s a great atmosphere there and coming through Zevgolato, I even felt confident to stop and sign a pile of autographs for the kids.

Spartathlon 2016
Autographs signed, job still to do

As it grew darker, I came into Nemea, the half-way point, about five minutes ahead of Darren, even finding time to use a portaloo for a call of nature before we headed out, stomping up the hilly exit from town as the sky filled with magnificent stars above our heads.

Somewhere here, the course goes off road and uphill on a gravel path. I waited for Darren at the CP at the bottom… and we began to walk together at a pace. But after a few minutes, I turned to look behind me and he’d gone. With no street lights and just head torches to light the way, it was impossible to pick him out from the bobbing lanterns behind me, so I carried on, thinking we’d hook back up at the next crew aid stop at CP 40 in Malandreni.

Spartathlon 2016
Darker and harder

There’s a nice long set of switch-backs here heading down into the village and I decided to let gravity take over, pushing down thes hill to gain a few more minutes.

At the CP, I had the first inklings of blisters, so we did some work on those with Laura and Jamie, lancing them and covering them with moleskin, while also changing my socks. Five minutes perhaps passed and there was still no sign of Darren.

Paul Rowlinson came over and said: “James, too many people have DNFed waiting for pals. You need to go.” I knew he was right. I looked at Laura and Jamie, Garry and Jeff. They all nodded. “Set off at a walk and see if he catches you,” said Jamie, but I think we all knew, it was time to go solo.

From here, the road seems to rise steeply for mile upon mile to the Mountain Base CP 47 run by Adrian Kouyoufas’s Anglo-Greek team. On the way up, I passed Nick and Terrence from the British team – we exchanged a bit of chat but they were both feeling the pace, so I carried on alone, conscious of the time.

At CP 47, runners always get a cheery greeting, especially the British ones – and Adrian’s team diligently records us all coming in with a picture. Laura and Jamie checked I was okay and sent me off – it was now 3.50am and I wanted to be down the other side of the mountain as quickly as possible.

The path up to the summit of Mount Parthenio can freak you out if you pay too much attention to it. It’s a steep start up a dirt road lined with scree before a series of switchbacks. I’d advised Nick and Terrance to not look up as I’d passed them, I remembered feeling despondent last year when I’d seen a steady stream of torches seemingly stretching to the heavens.

Instead, I allowed myself to pause for water about half way up and look down. The CP seemed miles away, the sky was lined with thousands of stars and a couple even shot across the inky blue for effect…

CP 48 at the summit seems to come quicker than you expect, heralding the start of what you’d think is a blessed relief of a downhill stretch. Instead, there’s more scree and you need to be a seasoned off-roader to tackle it quickly without giving Jack and Jill a run for their money. Given I’m most certainly NOT a seasoned off-roader and run almost exclusively on roads, I took it gingerly – faster than a walk, slower than a trot, until hitting tarmac on the other side.

There now follows part of the course where you can take more time off the checkpoints – providing you can still run. It’s long and flat, but the coldest time of the day as mist starts to form with the first rays of light. The other key thing is to keep awake. It’s dark and your body is crying out for some sleep, and there were several times when I found myself running as my eyes closed, jerking quickly back awake.

Somewhere here, I hooked up with another British runner, Duncan, and we chatted for a while but he was feeling the cold and starting to seize up.

Nestani the next major crew stop at CP52 was up next. For those of us who are mortals and can’t make the auto-qualifying times for Spartathlon, getting here without timing out is important as it renews your entry to Spartathlon ballots for a further three years. With 172 of the 248 km down, I was 90 minutes ahead of the cut-offs – 13 hours to cover 76 km or around 48 miles… Super doable.

spartathlon-2016-cp52
Ready to go leaving Nestani

I can’t remember much of day two but everything felt pretty smooth, if not a little painful, especially the route up the second long rise back up to 900m at Ardamis. Temperatures were steadily rising back to the early 30s but keeping things steady now was key.

The long descent into Sparta was eventually upon me. Like last year, I was unable to run most of it – a legacy of not getting a couple of 100-miles races under my belt in training I suspect – but my death march is a quick one allowing me to cover around 6.5 km or four miles an hour.

With 10 miles to go, I was passed by Andrei Nana of the American team who could still manage a jog. He finished one hour 15 minutes ahead of me as an indication of how much time you can gain here if you can still run.

Spartathlon 2016
It’s downhill from here

The finish in Sparta, Spartathlon 2016, Saturday October 1

You’ve probably guessed by now that after CP 72 and the bout of sickness, I pulled myself together and made it to the grand finish at the feet of Leonidas. A magical moment for a second year running – this time alone (Darren pulled out with a marathon to go but lives another day and, I suspect, will come back and smash this race). I came up the high street with a Greek flag held aloft to pay respect to this amazing country, the amazing race and the little bit of Greece in my hear from living here.

Spartathlon 2016
Coming into Sparta

Followed like a pied piper by a gaggle of kids cheering me on, there was no drip at the end and I even managed a couple of beers. I was maybe an hour or two slower than I could have been with a few tweaks, but I have no complaints at all.

What the bout of sickness shows is that at no time at all can you take a Spartathlon finish for granted. I know amazing runners who have been pulled from the field with 10 miles to go, I met one German chap this year who told me he once had nine hours to do 19 km but was shivering so uncontrollably in 30 degree heat and he was pulled out for a DNF.

Spartathlon can chew you up and spit you out if you’re not careful.

If the heat doesn’t get you, your stomach might. Otherwise your legs might seize up or blisters the size of saucers can hamper your progress. There are temperature extremes that leave your body confused, a mountain pass at relatively high altitude and the pressures of the cut offs to deal with. Then there’s pacing, refuelling, bad planning and, sometimes, even complacency.

But it’s that unique set of circumstances and variables, tied in with the historical legacy and the amazing people surrounding Spartathlon that make this one of the world’s truly great endurance races.

Spartathlon 2016
Kissing the foot
Spartathlon 2016
Laura takes on WAG duties at the finish

Thank you…

There are far too many to mention to everyone in name but I couldn’t have done this without Laura and Jamie expertly crewing me throughout. They really were the biz.

Darren for spurring me on during training, letting me renege on a promise and being the most gracious person when it came to seeing me post race about me leaving him behind. His team, Garry and Jeff, were part of my team too. Superb organisation, help and encouragement.

Rob Pinnington for getting the British team together and getting us to look and feel unified. And to the team itself, all the guys and girls, runners and crew – a superb effort. If you didn’t make a medal, come back.

Sarah Dryden for taking all the pics on behalf of the British team, and the Sparta Photography Club for all their great efforts too.

Kostis Papadimitriou and the team at International Spartathlon Association who put on this incredible festival, along with all the checkpoint staff, volunteers and places that offer us hospitality before and after the race.

Everyone in England watching and sending good vibes – how humbling to know a load of you tuned in to see me finish. WOW!

My business partner Lyndsey who held the fort in my absence.

My daughters Martha and Gracie for being front of mind all the way around. Whenever I felt low, I asked myself how I’d tell them if I pulled out… it was a conversation I did not want to have…

For more, see the official Spartathlon and British Team webpages

The latest on Vitamin D

You’ve probably seen in the news over the past week that vitamin D has been hitting the headlines.

Scientists, it seems, have worked out that we aren’t getting enough of this super-essential vitamin that is needed by the body to help build and maintain healthy bones and teeth. It’s a special concern for growing children and ladies as they get older as they have an increase risk of osteoporosis – brittle bone disease.

Vitamin D deficiency is now also being tied to a number of other conditions, with research showing potential links with many different cancers, autoimmune diseases and cardiovascular conditions.

Vitamin D is created naturally by the body in sunlight – and here in the UK, we just aren’t getting enough of it, particularly as we tend to cover up with suncream at the first rays of light – and many of them block out the vitamin D-forming rays.

Healthy people in the UK, should produce just enough over the summer to get them through the winter months. But the effect of sun block and the fact we tend to spend a lot of time indoors working, means we probably aren’t producing enough at all. It’s also a particular concern for people with dark skin (the melanin pigment will block out the sun’s rays) and anyone who covers up for cultural reasons.

Eating some foods can help boost stores: look for oily fish, cheese, liver and egg yolks, as well as fortified cereals – but it’s still likely you’re not getting enough, in which case supplementing is likely to be essential.

While the weather is good, it obviously makes sense to get as much as possible. Get in the sun for 15 minutes or so three times a week (between 11am and 3pm is best) and make sure you have some bare skin showing: face, arms, legs, hands.

A few minutes without sunscreen is fine, but also remember if you’re in the sun for a prolonged period of time, it’s time to slap on some factor 50.

If you’re especially concerned about your levels, you can ask your doctor for a vitamin D test to check your levels.

Here are the new NHS guidelines. If you want a recommendation on supplements, drop me a line here 

Raw-food steak and mash

FullSizeRender

Here’s a recipe you don’t have to be a good cook to prepare, simply because it needs no cooking: Raw-food steak and mash….

We’ve been doing some experimenting over the last few months in our house – largely as a result of my MSc course in Nutrition Therapy.

One of the recipes we’ve tried that stood out more than any other was this for raw food steak and mash – where the steak is actually from mushrooms and the mash from cauliflower… and not one bit of it is actually cooked!

It’s borrowed and adapated from the website rawmazing.com that is dedicated to the growing movement for eating food in as raw a state as possible. Try it, it just might change your mind on eating uncooked food!

Ingredients

For the ‘steak’:

2 portobello mushroom cups
1 pack oyster mushrooms
1/3 cup Shoyu sauce
1/3 cup Shoyu ginger sauce
2/3 cup olive oil
2 tbsp agave nectar

For the mash:
1 head cauliflower
1/3 cup pine nuts
1 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp filtered water
1 tsp chopped rosemary
salt and pepper to taste

Garnish:
Sprouted seed mix

Method

Thinly slice the mushrooms and create two marinades, each with 1/3 cup olive oil, 1 tbsp agave and 1/3 cup of either the shoyu or shoyu ginger sauces.

Place the mushrooms into two sealable bags and cover the Portobello slices with the shoyu recipe, the oysters with the ginger shoyu. Leave to marinade for at least four hours, preferably overnight.

Thinly slice the cauliflower head and place in a dehydrator or oven for two hours at 70C.

Add the cauliflower and other mash ingredients to a blender or Nutribullet and blast until smooth.

Divide the mash on to two plates and place the mushrooms on top. Use a teaspoon of marinade as ‘gravy’. Top with sprouted seeds for decoration.

The mysterious monks of Mount Athos

Mount Athos
The terrace at Mylopotamos. Pic: All About The Story
There are many secrets surrounding the monks of Mount Athos – one of them seems to be longevity thanks to a macrobiotic diet and a life without stress.

Monk Epihanios strokes his beard and takes a sip of Greek coffee, strong and black as molasses. We’re sitting on the terrace of his Mylopotamos monastery – a small two-man ‘cell’ on the Mount Athos peninsula in Halkidiki.

But if this is a cell, the surroundings might want you to serve a long stretch. Epiphanios and his co-habitee, Monk Joachim, have a boutique winery, and long rows of vines stretch ahead of us planted in rows to take advantage of sea breezes channeled by a small bay. In the distance is 2,000m Athos, its peak kissed by light clouds.

Mount Athos
Mylopotamos monastery. Pic: All About The Story

“How can we not live a long life?” he says eventually. “We eat well and don’t have the same stresses as normal people.”

Mount Athos is one of the most revered sites in the Orthodox religion. A semi-autonomous state, it’s been shut off to the world for more than 1,000 years and is home to some 2,000 monks living in 20 monasteries and 200 hermitages like Mylopotamos. The odd mobile phone and car aside, a visit here is like taking a trip back in time.

Mount Athos
Monks Joachim (l) and Epiphanios (r). Pic: All About The Story

The church – and the monks – like to keep Athos pure. No women are allowed and access, by boat only despite there being a land border, is granted only to 100 pilgrims a day; just 10 of them non-Orthodox.

A 10-year study of their life and eating habits astonished researchers looking into why many of the monks live beyond 100 years old. It revealed they had some of the lowest incidences of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer in Europe.

Mount Athos
Cooking at Mylopotamos. Pic: All About The Story

Some of the success of that diet is down to Epiphanios – the Marco Pierre White of monks. Like all the monks, he was assigned a job when he first arrived here to take the cloth in 1973 and ended up working in the kitchens before moving up the ranks of monastic cuisine.

“My father had a farm and I was always interested in food,” he says. “So I gladly worked in the kitchens as a help, picking up the secrets along the way.”

Those secrets include a diet where no meat is allowed. The monks live on fish, seasonal vegetables, home-grown olive oil and the odd glass of home-produced wine; meals are simple yet tasty. They eat twice a day – at around 11am and 7pm and both meals are sit-down affairs. On some days they fast, eating on others – if you’re looking for the origins of the purest Mediterranean and the 5:2 diets, they are both here on these holy lands.

Mount Athos
Mylopotamos meditation. Pic: All About The Story

One of the things they do have on Mount Athos is time… lots of it. That can be used for meditation, study or prayer. Epiphanios used some of his to learn, finding ancient recipes from monastic texts, preparing meals from antiquity and testing them on his brothers at the Megali Lavra  monastery, the oldest on Athos and which is responsible for overseeing Mylopotamos.

Around five years ago, those recipes were compiled into a book, The Cuisine of the Holy Mountain Athos. To promote the monastic culture, Epiphanios gives the odd cooking demonstration for free to guests at Eagles Palace, a luxury hotel in Ouranouolis (the “city of heaven”), the last town before the Athos border and where visiting permits are issued.

Those lessons offer a unique insight into how the monks live for people without the time, inclination or bodily appendages to visit Athos, but nothing comes close to staying in the monasteries themselves.

Access is granted by a church office in Ouranopolis. Permits can take weeks to come through and, once issued, are for very specific days. ‘Pilgrims’ (for you’re never a ‘tourist’ when visiting) then ring around the monasteries to ask for spare beds. As long as one is available, it has to be offered – the monks have a long tradition of hospitality, and there’s no charge for a stay.

Mount Athos
Pilgrms at the Iviron monastery. Pic: All About The Story

It can be a complicated process and there are no agencies that help cut through the red tape for non-Greek speakers – although the concierge staff at Eagles Palace will take over and smooth the process for their guests.

We spend our day on Athos, hiking its undulating lands. Rolling hills covered with cypress, olives and grape vines, using the mountain as an anchor point to visit other monasteries such as the impressive Iviron, a huge castle-like structure by the shore where the Virgin Mary is said to have landed and blessed Mount Athos.

Its churches are full of incredible 15th-century icons surrounded by carved gold leaf, the air is redolent with livani – the evocative Greek church incense – and we hear familiar accents from British and Australian monks who have chosen to live here.

Picture: All About The Story
Epiphanios cooking class at Eagles Palace. Pic: All About The Story

In the evening back at Mylopotamos, Ephiphanios opens up his small kitchen and his extensive winery to us. He cooks over an open fire, a huge pan bubbling away with massive grouper fillets, baby courgettes and fresh celery.

It’s on the fire for about an hour as we chat and sip the wine. You’d think the dish would have boiled into a mush – but the fish stays together, tender as you like and infused with the flavours of the broth. With a plate of olives, some salty feta cheese and homemade bread, it’s delicious.

“Someone once asked me what I’d be if I were not a chef, I said thin,” he tells us rubbing his not inconsiderable belly and chuckling away. Super model skinny, he may never be… but I wouldn’t bet against him outliving all of us.

Monk Epiphanios’ book is available on Amazon. Details of the excellent Eagles Palace hotel can be found here

Grouper with baby courgettes

1.5 kg of fillet grouper (skin on) or other white fish
4 large onions
5 cloves of garlic
5 lemons
black pepper
350g of olive oil
cumin
one bunch of parsley
700g baby courgettes

Method

Prepare an onion paste by boiling the onions for an hour, pureeing and then cooling.

Wash the grouper fillets, salt and leave in a colander to drain.

Place the fish skin up in a wide, deep frying pan and just cover with the onion puree and cold water.

Bring to the boil, skimming off any foam.

Add the courgettes topped and tailed, the oil, garlic and pepper corns. Reduce the heat and cook for around 45 minutes.

Do not stir but gently shake the pan to avoid the fish sticking.

Once the broth starts to thicken and the courgettes are tender, remove the pan from the heat, add the juice of the lemons and leave to infuse for five minutes before serving.

 

Walnuts: the king of nuts

Walnuts with leaf.

It’s the Queen’s 90th birthday this week… so let’s celebrate another kind of royalty, the walnut – the King of Nuts. 

The humble walnut gets its fancy moniker from its latin name juglans regia, but also because they are packed with health-giving properties – clinical tests have shown they can help alleviate symptoms of or protect against a number of illnesses, including Parkinson’s Disease, cardiovascular problems and cancer.

The reason walnuts can do this is because they are packed with antioxidants that can help prevent disease and slow down aging – some studies show that a handful of walnuts can have more antioxidant power than your five a day.

That same handful is high in good fats, with up to 60 per  cent of an adult’s consumption of mono and polyunsaturated fats coming in that same handful.

Recent studies into walnut consumption show the benefits of eating them, with one in Spain even demonstrating that those who eat a diet rich in a-linolenic acid (a constituent of walnuts) had a reduced risk of death from any cause by a huge 28 per cent.

All those food fats mean walnuts are energy dense – that handful also contains around 230 calories but studies have also shown that as part of a controlled diets, people have not only lost weight but also have better levels of LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol levels.

 Walnuts are also contain high levels of vitamin E which is great for healthy skin, eyes and strengthening the immune system – this is great for most of us, but vitamin E acts a blood thinner and anyone taking warfarin should seek medical advice before eating too many.

I’m not a fan of the term superfood, but if one food deserves it, it’s the walnut.

Chocolate can be good for you

Dark chocolate

If you’re tempted to stray from good eating habits  this coming Easter weekend… fear not, chocolate isn’t necessarily all that bad for you, as long as you opt for something with a high cocoa content.

A 100-gram bar with 70-85 per cent cocoa for instance comes with 11 grams of fibre and high levels of iron, magnesium, copper and manganese, and is said to be packed with antioxidants.

A recent Swedish study published in the British Medical Journal even showed it can help lower the risks of heart attacks and heart disease. It looked at the diets of some 67,000 people too – so that’s a decent sample size.

Another looked at chocolate and brain capacity and found it can be a smart choice: habitual chocolate intake was linked with increased cognitive function over a wide range of tests.

As ever there are some downsides: that 100g bar can pack in around 600 calories, so if you’re watching your weight, cocoa is a no-no.

There are also suggested links between eating chocolate and acne, while a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found links between chocolate and reduced bone density in older women, a portion of the population already with increased osteoporosis risk.

My take: enjoy some as a treat this weekend and on occasion, but don’t make a habit of it and stick to dark chocolate, high in levels of organic cocoa.

If you’re looking for a nice homemade chocolate kick, check out his recipe

Sprout your own seeds

growing-sprouting-seeds-organic-alfalfa-seeds-sprouting

If you care about your diet, you should start to sprout your own seeds.

Go back to primary school where you’d get a saucer, some wet blotting paper and cress or mustard seeds and watch them grow, but substitute them for some more ‘exotic’ seeds and you’ll get the idea.

Back then – at my school at least – we used to put the results of our kitchen garden between a couple of pieces of white bread, lathered in marge (hello 1970s)… but these days seed sprouts are causing quite a stir in nutrition circles.

They add a flavour and crunch to salads but studies suggest sprouts contain anti-cancer substances such as sulforaphane, beta- carotene and vitamin C. They’re also packed with chromium which helps regulate blood sugar levels.

The best thing is, you don’t even need a garden to harvest your own crop.

The easiest way is buy a sprouter from the internet – a three-tier one costs around £15. Sprinkle a layer of seeds on each, water and wait for the results. They’re ready in less than a week.

I tend to do a different set of seeds per layer – but if you’re feeling more adventurous and find some sprouts you really like, you could stagger the crops, starting different layers on different days to give you a constant supply.

You can pretty much sprout any kind of edible seed, from broccoli to alfalfa – and even quinoa, but buy the best quality organic seeds you can. They might seem expensive at around £8 for a 500g bag, but you only need a tablespoon for each crop, so they’ll last for ages.

If you’ve got kids, they’ll love seeing them grow… our two can’t wait to help water or try them when done.

I bought my sprouter and seeds from the people at Sky Sprouts and can recommend their service.

sprout your own seeds

Is coffee good for you?

coffeebeans

Is coffee good for you?

Most of us will have seen the research this week that store-bought coffees can contain a whopping 25 spoonfuls of sugar. Obviously that amount of sugar is not going to boost your but if you take the syrup out, is coffee good for you?

For those who missed the report, it was done by Action on Sugar, the pressure group trying to get the government to reduce the amount of sugar in our food.

It’s easy to say they have a vested interest in showing the drinks to have a lot of sugar, but it’s still obviously shocking to find that some coffee shop coffees have more sugar than three cans of Coke – and I’ve discussed the dangers of too much sugar in the past.

It wasn’t a week full of bad news for coffee drinkers though. Although it gained fewer headlines, another coffee-related report made the papers on Friday. It showed drinking two cups of coffee a day can help reduce the health risks associated with drinking too much alcohol (1)

It looked at nine previous studies with more than 430,000 participants and revealed that risk was reduced by 22 per cent with one cup of coffee and 43 per cent with two cups, compared to drinking no coffee at all.

Obviously drinking coffee to alleviate the symptoms of a bad lifestyle seems rather counterproductive, not going in for the alcohol abuse in the first place would seem a better option.

The benefits of moderate coffee consumption stretch further than helping those with alcohol-induced liver disease though. Coffee is now recognised as a good source of antioxidants (2,3) – the chemicals that can help slow down ageing and prevent certain diseases.

Recent studies have shown that it can help with conditions such as skin cancer, cataracts and bone health (4–6). One even suggests moderate consumption is not a risk factor for high blood pressure (7), while another showed it can be beneficial for those involved in resistance (weight) training (8).

If you’re rushing to the Nespresso machine as you read, you might want to hold on. Coffee remains a diuretic, meaning it makes you go to the toilet more affecting your hydration levels.

Another study has linked high levels of consumption with gastric cancer (9) while it can be a predictor of future cardiovascular events (read strokes and heart attacks) in younger people who are already suffering from high blood pressure (10).

It also stimulates the adrenal glands and is thought to increase the amount of cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body (11) which can link to increased agitation.

If you’re thinking by now that even the scientists can’t agree whether it is good for you or not, you’re probably right.

If you do drink coffee, follow these tips

  • Drink in moderation, no more than three cups per day,
  • Drink the best quality of coffee you can afford,
  • Avoid over-processed coffees such as instant where possible,
  • Drink the freshest ground coffee you can with beans from a sustainable, free-trade source,
  • Reduce sugar in coffee over time to none,
  • Don’t add sugary syrups, whipped creams etc to coffee shop coffee,
  • Increase your water consumption with coffee. In the Mediterranean, it is almost exclusively served with a glass of water on the side, you should follow suit,
  • Reduce your coffee intake if you suffer from high blood pressure.

References

  1. Kennedy OJ, Roderick P, Buchanan R, Fallowfield JA, Hayes PC, Parkes J. Systematic review with meta-analysis: coffee consumption and the risk of cirrhosis. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2016 Jan 25;43(5):562–74.
  2. Troup GJ, Navarini L, Suggi Liverani F, Drew SC. Stable radical content and anti-radical activity of roasted Arabica coffee: from in-tact bean to coffee brew. PLoS One. Public Library of Science; 2015 Jan 9;10(4):e0122834.
  3. Agudelo-Ochoa GM, Pulgarín-Zapata IC, Velásquez-Rodriguez CM, Duque-Ramírez M, Naranjo-Cano M, Quintero-Ortiz MM, et al. Coffee Consumption Increases the Antioxidant Capacity of Plasma and Has No Effect on the Lipid Profile or Vascular Function in Healthy Adults in a Randomized Controlled Trial. J Nutr. 2016 Feb 3;
  4. Liu J, Shen B, Shi M, Cai J. Higher Caffeinated Coffee Intake Is Associated with Reduced Malignant Melanoma Risk: A Meta-Analysis Study. PLoS One. 2016 Jan;11(1):e0147056.
  5. Varma SD. Effect of coffee (caffeine) against human cataract blindness. Clin Ophthalmol. 2016 Jan;10:213–20.
  6. Choi E, Choi K-H, Park SM, Shin D, Joh H-K, Cho E. The Benefit of Bone Health by Drinking Coffee among Korean Postmenopausal Women: A Cross-Sectional Analysis of the Fourth & Fifth Korea National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. PLoS One. 2016 Jan;11(1):e0147762.
  7. Rhee JJ, Qin F, Hedlin HK, Chang TI, Bird CE, Zaslavsky O, et al. Coffee and caffeine consumption and the risk of hypertension in postmenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Dec 9;103(1):210–7.
  8. Richardson DL, Clarke ND. Effect Of Coffee And Caffeine Ingestion On Resistance Exercise Performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Feb 12;
  9. Deng W, Yang H, Wang J, Cai J, Bai Z, Song J, et al. Coffee consumption and the risk of incident gastric cancer-A meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Nutr Cancer. 2016 Jan;68(1):40–7.
  10. Mos L, Fania C, Benetti E, Bratti P, Maraglino G, Mazzer A, et al. 1C.04: COFFEE CONSUMPTION IS A PREDICTOR OF CARDIOVASCULAR EVENTS IN YOUNG AND MIDDLE AGED HYPERTENSIVE SUBJECTS. J Hypertens. 2015 Jun;33 Suppl 1:e10.
  11. Gavrieli A, Yannakoulia M, Fragopoulou E, Margaritopoulos D, Chamberland JP, Kaisari P, et al. Caffeinated coffee does not acutely affect energy intake, appetite, or inflammation but prevents serum cortisol concentrations from falling in healthy men. J Nutr. 2011 Apr 1;141(4):703–7.

 

Can you get better at fat burning by eating fat?

running

New research shows that endurance athletes who eat a low-carb/high fat diet are better at fat burning.

We’ve long been taught that people who take part in endurance sports – anything from a 10k upwards in running, say – should have a high carbohydrate diet. The theory being that our body uses glucose as a fuel and carbohydrates can readily be broken down into glucose by the digestive system to provide that fuel.

Back in the 1970s though, some healthcare professionals, led by the ‘pesky’ Dr Atkins postulated that cutting carbs and eating more fat was a good way to loose weight. Their theory being that from an evolution perspective, fat was stored by the body to be used as a secondary fuel source when times were hard. Cut the carbs and the body will burn fat as fuel instead they argued.

Atkins and similar diets were demonised at the time by the health authorities who were bent prescribing low-fat diets and by the media who went for the easy ‘lose weight by eating fry ups’ headline (something never really advocated in the Atkins books).

Over the past few years, the thinking in healthcare has started to change… fats are no longer demonised, and healthy fats (think those avocado, nut butters, olive oil and coconut oil) are considered essential for healthy hearts and bodily functions.

And this new research by Ohio State University has gone one further and shown that decades of thinking in sports nutrition could be about to be turned on its head.

In the study of 20 ultramarathon runners, they found that those on a high-fat diet burned twice as much fat in exercise than those on a high-carb one.

The 10 low-carb runners  ate a diet with 10 percent carbs, 19 percent protein and 70 percent fat. High-carb runners ate a diet with 59 percent carbs, 14 percent protein and 25 percent fat.

If you want to find out more, there’s an excellent article in Science Daily here.

For those who are not runners, switching to a low-carb diet may help… Studies have shown that Atkins-style diets do lead to weight loss, although some have theorised that sticking to such a rigid regime can be challenging.

If you do want to try this kind of thing to see if it works for you, there’s a couple of things to be aware of.

One study has shown that the make up of Atkins-style diets can see reduce levels of vitamins such as thiamine, folic acid, vitamin C and iron. And they can cause constipation due to a lack of dietary fibre.

As such, supplementation with a good multivitamin is essential… and even the latest Atkins books encourage the use of psyllium husks, flaxseed and increased water consumption to reduce the possibility of constipation.