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Spartathlon race review 2015

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This is my Spartathlon race review 2015. I want to caveat it by saying I am not looking for any sympathy by including my post-race feelings first, rather than the race itself.

What I will say is that I wrote those words yesterday while feeling on the low side. Today, I ache less, feel as though I am getting back to normal and I even thought about running (with the emphasis on thought!).

I’ve said my thank you’s to my friends family and the British team and crew elsewhere, so apologies for not repeating them again but I wanted to focus on the race itself.

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Spartathlon +7 days `from the start
I can’t get you out of my head

It’s been a week now since the start of the Spartathlon as the first rays of sun peaked through the pines that surround the Acropolis last Friday morning.

That’s a week to reflect on finishing the race. A race we finished but finished badly in my opinion. I don’t like skin-of-teeth finishes. I think we’re better than that.

A week where, after the initial 24 hours of post-race euphoria, I’ve felt myself slipping slowly downhill… My ripped quads have just about healed. The saucer-like blisters under my feet are only part-way there. Walking is still difficult.

I’ve felt listless. I can’t seem to regulate my body temperature and swing from using hot water bottles to eating ice lollies with my top off. Work has been a half-assed joke. My appetite is shot: I fancy something, go to eat it and it tastes like sawdust. But I have massive cravings for orange pop. Orange pop and ice lollies – two things I seldom eat have been my staple diet. Oh, and I am SO irritable.
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Aside from the fact I fall asleep randomly through the day, my dreams are mad, sprawling and immersive. They all involve a chase. That pressure of the cut offs for 36 hours in the race is unreal – so much so I can still feel the effects a week later. Last night I watched Fear of the Living Dead before bed. The zombies joined me in my dreams: fellow Spartan runners. Chase. Chase. Chase.

I’ve looked at my mashed feet often. Swollen, blue, toe nails hanging off; cankles where there were ankles. I see my dad’s feet before he died – a twisted mess. That scares me.

Laura rightly tells me I am being too hard on myself. That I overanalyse things and that I achieved my aim of a finish. But I didn’t achieve my aim of a good finish – pre-34 or pre-35 hours. I always said 35.59 would do in this most brutal of races. But secretly I longed for a 33-hour finish. I’m used to aiming at the lower end and surprising myself by doing better.

Normally, I’d be chomping at the bit to go again. Normally it would make me more determined to re-enter and do it faster. But the training I did this year alone bordered on obsessive. I don’t know I could find the time again. And, if I’m being honest, I don’t know that I dare.

I look at the pictures at the end of the race. I have no colour. There’s no energy. A vacant look in my eyes. Little wonder I was led away and collapsed. Med tent, 4 different IVs (I wasn’t alone).

The truth is. I should probably, for safety’s sake, have quit at some point. My quads were shot from 50 miles. My blisters creating a stabbing in my feet with every step from 60. That’s 100 miles running in abject pain, little wonder I feinted.

I pushed myself to finish but feel although I might not have killed myself, I may have killed my love of running. I’ve certainly, at least temporarily, lost my lack of running fear.

They say Spartathlon chews you up and eats away at you if you don’t make it. I think it can still do those things, even when you kiss the feet of Leonidas at the finish….

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Spartathlon – the start
Baby I’m ready to go

It felt good to be under the Acropolis. Very good… all the runners had been bussed up from the suburb of Glyfada with shuttles starting at 6am, and the more people arrived, the buzzier things got, the air crackling with expectation and lycra sparks.

The phoney war was over… I was ready to go. Jittery as a horse being led to the starting box, I couldn’t keep still. Bouncing, jogging on the spot, high-fiving, hugging family and fellow British Sparthathlon Team members.

I took a look around at my fellow runners. Ultra racers are a varied bunch: strapping Adonises with pumped muscles to shorter, older men. Stubble, short beards, hipster-style long beards… and that was just the women (sorry girls, I jest you all looked gorgeous).

Lots of women, especially in the Japanese team – a bigger women-to-men ratio I think than I’ve seen in any other race. Well, they do say that a woman’s psyche and pain threshold make her more suited to bridging the gender gap the longer the distance gets.

The previous two days in Athens had been a whirlwind. My running buddy Jamie and I picking up our crew David and Andy (who were joined later by Darren) from the airport at different times, visiting my sister and mum, getting massages and generally trying to avoid too much pre-race hype.

We’d met with the rest of the British team at the team meetings and done the obligatory pre-race pics. The support and encouragement of them all was immense and we made some great friendships that will last a long time.

A few minutes before 7am, just as first light was peeping through at the ruined (but magnificent) Herodus Atticus theatre, we gathered behind the start line ready to go, counting down to the gun and suddenly we were off. Racing at last… after months and months of slogging it out on training runs. (I don’t like to do too many races in training, so I tend to do lots of solo running). Down the cobbles we clip-clopped and into the early-morning commute and out to suburban Athens…

Spartathlon – the first marathon (1/6)
Slow down, you move too fast

When I say clip-clop, I should say Jamie and I bolted. We’d always planned to get the first marathon out of the way quickly, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures of the early morning… but this was quick considering we were joking after three miles we only had 150 miles to go.

One thing I love about the Greeks is it’s never hard to find out what they are thinking. And despite the snarled traffic being stopped to let 390 or so runners past, slowing their daily progress to work, I didn’t hear one unkind word. There was the odd horn blown but in encouragement, not in sustained rage.

As the road opened up, we went through suburbs where it seemed the schools had given every kid the morning off to come and watch us race. High five, high five, high five…

At Elefsina, we turned a corner and there was the glistening Aegean – probably my favourite part of the route and iconic Spartathlon scenes of runners by the water. At one point, there was an immense sunken tanker right by the shore, rust gleaming in the sunlight.

Checkpoint 11 came – the marathon mark and the first time we saw our crew (and that of others). Fergie (crewing for Isobel Wykes) and Nick Papageorge (crewing for Rob Pinnington) told us we were well fast (I think we were on about 3 hours 45 mins at this point) and in the top 20 per cent.

In honesty, from a crew perspective, we made a clusterflip of it. The boys weren’t quite ready, we were grasping at our drop bags and fighting through a congestion of runners. Instead of respite, it was just a stressy mess. We ploughed on and Jamie and I had a quick chat as to how best to handle things going forward.

When the guys pulled alongside us, they felt the same and so we quickly chatted through how best to do it next time…

Spartathlon – 26-50 miles (or about marathon 2)
Shake it off

 Too fast, getting hotter, bad crew meet… Jamie made a right call: “It’s about time we started running this like an ultramarathon, not a road race.” That chilled us out for a while.

Conventional ultra thinking is to walk as many of the hills as possible, saving your legs for flats and downhills where you can pick the pace back up. And I’d say we were doing well for another 10 miles or so until we had our first major wobbles.

At Spartathlon, there are 75 checkpoints along the way. You have to hit each one before a cut off, otherwise you are pulled from the race.

The CP staff are amazing and, in my opinion unheralded. They sit for hours on end, manually taking runners’ numbers as they enter and leave, offering advice, comfort, encouragement.

They also have some basic provisions at each one: biscuits, yoghurt, water, coke… ice if you are really lucky.

At as many as you wish, you can leave drop bags with your own supplies: isotonic gels, sports drinks etc and pick these up at the CPs, but that’s it when it comes to sustenance. Your crew is only allowed to help you at certain ones and they are allowed to offer you not so much as a glass of water if not at an official crew CP.

So where did things go wrong? Given those narrow confines, Jamie and I had wanted Darren, Andy and David to be involved as much as possible in the race, so we left our drop bags at points where we could get crew assistance. Nice idea right?

Except we put exactly the same things foodwise in EVERY one of our drop bags. When you take into account we only saw our crew twice in the first third of the race – at CP 11 (26 miles) and CP 22 (50 miles), you might see the problem…. We ran out of fuel between those two CPs, at the very hottest time of the day (31C+).

This had a pretty devastating toll as we battled to stay in the race sharing one gel between us for the last 10 miles to the CP, and battling cramp and exhaustion while running on empty.

I was obviously getting dehydrated as I stopped sweating, a cake of salt drying on my kit. I also couldn’t stomach the dry biscuits on offer at the CPs as they clogged my mouth making it harder to breathe. I took to pouring pure salt into glasses of water at each CP to get me through….

 

Spartathlon – 50-80 miles (yay, past half way)
Let the good times roll

 We’d got a message to the boys that we needed a big feed at CP22 (one of the major ones) and to their credit, they ran their race from here on in like seasoned pros. Darren had by now arrived (he only flew in that morning) which gave an extra pair of hands.

Both mine and Jamie’s families were also following us around and I could see they looked on the worried side as we came in, all the cockiness of that first marathon knocked from us. But we downed a lot of food here – albeit mainly a liquid called Tailwind – got a quick rub down from the boys and off we went again.

Mercifully, the temperature started to drop now. Don’t get me wrong, it was still super hot but we could stop sticking ice cubes in the daft (but essential) dessert hats we’d been wearing for the last five hours or so. The good news was were were still 50 minutes ahead of the cut offs.

There followed a nice stretch where it felt good to be running properly again. We caught up with Tremayne from the British Team who was obviously struggling with his quads.

Many ultra runners in Britain do more trail running rather than road and I always thought this would be to my advantage. Running on asphalt is hard on the legs but almost all my training was on roads, so I was less worried than some about its impact.

I think I’m right though that Greek roads use more aggregate to stop them melting in the sun and this makes them even harder on the legs and soon my quads were starting to burn.

Nonetheless, we knocked out some quick miles here and by the time we saw the guys as we ran into Ancient Corinth, we were back on track, 1 hour 20 ahead of the cut offs, running quickly and offering a respite to the worried looks on our families’ faces.

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Spartathlon – 80-101 miles (2/3 down)
Walking on broken glass 

We passed through Nemea – another major checkpoint and managed to eat a proper bowl of spaghetti and cheese, before another massage and moving on. By now, we were using head torches, it was dark and getting cold, so we also donned jackets. We were still a good hour and a bit ahead of the cut offs and feeling relatively good.

At some point – I’m thinking just over 80 miles – we were directed up a dirt track and were told, the mountain starts here at one of the CPs.

Now the mountain is legendary is Spartathlon – and I don’t think anything other than doing it gives you an idea of just how important a stage it is. As first timers, we had no idea how it would pan out – slow gradual climb or short but very steep?

What we did know was that at the Mountain base CP (100 miles) we would have to go off-road to scale the 1,200m summit, so it seemed strange that with 20 miles to go, we were told this was the start of the mountain section.

Nonetheless, it was an incline, so we moved back to a fast march, ploughing on up the hill and were walking so fast, when a guy running it approached us he said: “That is awesome walking pace. I’ve been trying to catch your headlights for the last hour and you made it almost impossible.”

We were, at this point, still a good hour and ten ahead of any CP cut offs and were indeed walking so fast we were actually passing people who were running – and then the real incline started.

The road suddenly felt as though it went straight up. By now we both had huge blisters and each step felt like I was being stabbed. My quads, meanwhile, were totally mashed from the relentless uphill climb.

When we arrived at mountain base – run by a team of mad Brits – it was freezing, we were aching, our feet were in shreds and we’d lost 15 minutes (in just two miles) and were back below the hour mark on cut offs. The death bus, as the coach that picks up runners who are pulled from the race is called, was revving up the mountain below us.

This was my lowest point of the race.

To know that we’d put what seemed like Herculean effort in and despite all that were slipping rapidly acted like a drain on my resolve. To compound it all, it started to chuck it down.

The guys pushed me toward the off-road section. A narrow path, now wet, no protection other than a strip of ‘safety tape’ to stop us from falling off. There were some race photographers, as I rounded a bend they fired off ten or 15 flashes in a row. I lost sight, lost footing, went hand over foot and swore.

When I pulled myself up, I called to Jamie: “Crack on”…

To his credit, he called me up to him and gave me a talking to. I think it amounted to: “Get in front of me, get your arse in gear and go ahead.” He saved my race at that point, when all I was thinking of was a dry back seat, a cup of hot soup and a sleep.

Again to his credit, he was right. Although your mind plays tricks on you when you see the torches of those runners ahead (or overhead), the journey to the summit was not as long as I expected and soon we were heading back down on the other side, albeit not as quick as we’d like. The rain meant we had to take care lest we suffered a fall and went out that way.

I’ve spoken before about the need for mantras and visualisation when completing a mammoth task. And I adopted a couple of them throughout the night to dig deep.

The things that stuck in my mind:

  1. Someone saying, don’t quit unless they pull you.
  2. Rob Pinnington writing ‘don’t be a c*nt’ on his arm before the race
  3. The thought of the finish line

You tend to get close to failure as soon as you start having the ‘here’s how I failed’ conversation in your head, thinking how you’ll justify it to other people, family and friends. Whenever that started to crop up, I pulled myself back mentally to those three points (mainly 2 I think!)

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Spartathlon – 101-150 miles
To the end…

 Back on road at the bottom, we felt much safer and could run/walk again for a bit until we realised we could fast-hike at 4 miles an hour and still finish in time. It meant the CP cut offs became just a tiny bit less frightening, without saying the pressure of them being there was ever removed.

I can’t remember too much about this bit of the race to be honest. I was on auto pilot, exchanging only the odd word with Jamie here and there, so as not to slow us down. We power walked through checkpoints and, mercifully, the temperatures stayed low as rain drizzled down for most of the day (although the rain did our blisters no good at all).

For the most, it was flat but I seemed to be hanging onto every race report I’d ever read saying it was all downhill from 25 miles or so on. I kept waiting for that downhill to come but it never seemed to, especially when we had a particularly horrible three-mile climb up a busy motorway with humming traffic coming in the opposite direction that saw us reach an altitude almost as high as the mountain.

We were losing maybe a minute or two a checkpoint but we knew it was still in the bag as long as we did nothing silly. I had nothing to occupy my mind, so I started humming Do You Know The Muffin Man for mile, upon mile, upon mile….

Spartathlon – the finish
Celebration time

 I’d heard about the Spartathlon finish… I had no idea it was as good as it is. As we came into town, more and more people came out to see us. Handing us olive branches, slapping us on the back and cheering us on… At the penultimate checkpoint, with 1.2 miles to go, David came to meet us and walk us in.

We’d got the guys to connect a British and Greek flag together and wrapped ourselves in it as we turned the corner into the high street…. And chaos! Kids on bikes rode besides us, the noise was deafening, and friends, family, team members, other runners and random strangers all came and hugged us as we marched on to the statue of King Leonidas, the notional finish line. You’d think we’d won the race, never mind propping up the bottom 10 per cent of the rankings.

At the statue, we both gave Leonidas’ toes a polish and a kiss, drank water from the Evrotas river and were crowned with olive garlands.

We were led away to have our feet washed. And that’s when I faded to black…

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Changes to Insanity Live!

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So there are some changes to Insanity Live! coming in round 14 that will be with us from Monday, September 21.

Don’t worry, the core of your favourite workout remains the same… it’s still based on blocks of max interval training but you will notice some subtle changes to the format.

For those who are newbies or who have never done Insanity Live! before, there are also more modifications and more of a build up to a session’s intensity, meaning it’s more open to more people than ever – if you’ve never been to a class, come and see what the fuss is all about. Don’t forget, you’ve got nothing to lose, as the first class in Bramhope is always free.

Take a look at this video to see what I mean

For those who come and love Insanity Live! in its current format, here’s what is going to change:

The warm-up – this still consists of six exercises, but we will now be doing two sets rather than three. The warm-up also has more mobility moves in it, which means we can lose the dynamic stretch that followed. Instead there is a…
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Focus section – this 60 second break is designed for you to get a quick drink and come straight back in for a jog on the spot where we’ll talk a little about the blocks to come. You’ve got to keep moving though, to stay warm for…

Block 1 Plyometrics and speed – this takes on exactly the same format as before: 3 sets of 4x30sec moves, followed by a power move, 30 seconds of rest and…

Block 2 Strength and stability – this takes on exactly the same format as before: 3 sets of 4x30sec moves, followed by a power move, 30 seconds of rest and…

Block 3 Agility and co-ordination – this takes on exactly the same format as before: 3 sets of 4x30sec moves, followed by a power move, 30 seconds of rest and…

Block 4 Abs and core – this replaces the old 8 mins of ab work we had to do previously. It brings abs and core into the main session and follows the same rules as the other blocks: 3 sets of 4x30sec moves, followed by a power move, 30 seconds of rest and…

Focus section – another 60 second ‘break’ (notice, I put inverted commas around it this time) is designed for you to get a quick drink and come straight back in for a jog on the spot where we’ll talk a little about the next bit which is…

Dig deeper – 3 of the moves already done… but 60 seconds of each. Here we’ll split the class, team up, go against each other and generally end the session on a HIGH before…

Cool down and stretch – All your favourite stretch moves here, designed to get the heart rate back to normal and prepare the muscles for post-session recovery.

I’ve tried round 14 already, and I know you’ll love it.

Train Insane

James

 

 

The do’s and don’ts of running

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Fancy taking up the easiest form of exercise to get fit quick and ramp up your metabolism? Here are my do’s and don’ts of running. Even if you hate the thought of running, don’t switch off, you too might learn to love to run.

Do… find it easy

People ask me why I like running so much, and the answer is that it’s the ultimate low-maintenance exercise. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard, but it’s probably the easiest form of exercise to do. For most people, going to the gym or an exercise class requires some effort – you’ve got to get dressed, pack some gear, drive to the place, maybe shower, drive home.

While that’s all good and I encourage everyone to do some form of weight-bearing training, running is the total opposite – strap on some shoes, open the door and off you go. Likewise, if you’re on holiday, you don’t need a hotel with a gym – throw some trainers in your case and there’s an instant work-out waiting for you as soon as you get to a destination.

Don’t… go too far too fast

“Running efficiently demands good technique, and running efficiently for 100 miles demands great technique. But the wonderful paradox of running is that getting started requires no technique. None at all. If you want to become a runner, get onto a trail, into the woods, or on a sidewalk or street and run. Go 50 yards if that’s all you can handle. Tomorrow, you can go farther.”

I spend a lot of time wishing I’d written the above quote, but ultra-running God Scott Jurek beat me to it, but I agree with every word. I didn’t just start running and suddenly find I could do 100 miles in one go – it took me about three years to get to that kind of distance and another two to where I am today. But six years ago, I couldn’t run for sh*t.

I’m not advocating everyone should go to those kind of lengths – but running offers the simplest way to gauge your improvement: did you go further today than yesterday?

As a rule, if you’re training for a race, you should try and up your total distance by no more than 10 per cent per week. And every five or six weeks, dial the distance back down by 20-30 per cent to give your body time to recover.

Do … follow the first rule of running club

Okay, I’m going to take the conversation down a notch here. The first rule of running club is to go for a number two before you set off. The second rule of running club is to go again! This mainly applies for people like me who like to get up and get their run for the day out of the way, but its advice worth taking, whatever time of day you set out.

Running for any length of time creates a lot of pressure on the gut. Each step will compact its contents downwards – and believe me, there’s nothing worse than being caught short and needing the toilet when you’re out running. Just in case, carry a pocket packet of tissues with you.

Don’t … be ashamed

I’m now going to assume you are stubborn and totally ignored the first and second rules of running club. It’s likely you are a distance from home and cannot wait any longer. You just have to lose your shame. If you’re in an urban area, find a shop, a restaurant, a fast-food place or a garage. Most of them are quite open and amenable to you using the facilities if you ask nicely – of course, if you storm in and just go, you’re likely to give the rest of us a bad name. At a race a couple of weeks ago, I was running alongside a female competitor who told me on a previous run, she simply went up and knocked on someone’s door and asked if she could use their loo. I kind of think this works better if you’re a pretty young girl, rather than a 14-stone sweaty bloke, but you never know.

If you’re in a rural location, you have no choice but to make like a bear – hey presto, you did listen to rule one and are carrying tissues with you. Now, yes, I know it’s not your first choice as place to answer a call of nature… but human pooh is every bit as biodegradable as the animal stuff. And fine paper like tissues and toilet roll will degrade in no time at all. BUT – for the love of God, make sure you get off the path and go and do it somewhere where it will fade away in peace, rather than somewhere that people are likely to walk on a regular basis.

Do… get a decent pair of trainers

While running is low-maintenance, that doesn’t mean you should try and do it in cheap plimsoles. Go to a decent running shop and get a pair of good trainers. They’ll likely stick you on a treadmill to see what kind of runner you are and offer you several appropriate types to try so you can make a decision. Expect to pay around £60 to £100 for a pair that should last you some 500 miles before they structurally lose the support.

Don’t … listen to the people who tell you you’ll wreck your knees

Can you injure yourself running? Yes of course you can, but you can injure yourself absolutely anywhere – former Chelsea goalkeeper Dave Beasant once famously missed several matches after dropping a jar of mayo on his toe!

Runners do get injuries – they usually come from trying to do too much too quickly. The foot is a wonderful piece of natural engineering: 26 bones, 33 joints, more than 100 muscles or tendons. The thing is, if you have not run for a while, you won’t have been using many of those muscles and they won’t be used to exercise, so you have to build up slowly.

Do… learn good technique

Many injuries can also come from bad form. If you decide to start long-distance running, it’s likely that at the end of long runs, your form will go through tiredness. But up until then, you should try and run as efficiently as possible.

There are conflicting theories when it comes to what you wear on your feet. The first advocates that people who naturally overpronate (roll their ankles when running), should wear trainers will special support to keep their feet on the straight and narrow. You may be recommended these if you go for the ‘gait analysis’ I mentioned above.

The other is to wear what are called minimalist trainers with little support that encourage you to run in a ‘bare foot’ style. The argument is that the more support you have, the less your small muscles will get a workout and that ultimately, you are not strengthening your feet enough in a natural way.

I’ve seen evidence that both work – and most people who get the running bug tend to start with a more structured shoe and over the years ‘dial down’ to a less structured one. Either way, your technique should be the same and follow these rules.

  1. Don’t overstride. By taking long strides you are likely to heel strike on the pavement as you land. This sends huge shock waves up the legs and can cause shin splints and other injuries.
  2. Take smaller steps allowing your feet to fall under your body. This reduces those pressures under the foot and encourages you to land on your forefoot or midstep.
  3. Take quick steps. Good runners have very fast cadence – they turn their legs over quickly. The best run at 180 beats per minute – that’s pretty fast but not hard to achieve. Get a free metronome app for your phone and run with headphones for a while. Start at 140 bpm and try and hit a footstep every beat… then increase the beats by 10 a week.
  4. Keep your head up and your arms relaxed and by your side. I see so many runners – even pros – pull their arms outwards as they swing. It loses tonnes of energy for no reason at all.

Finally: Do… sign up for a race

You don’t have to race to be a runner – but it acts as a great incentive. Sign up to a 5km race about 10-12 weeks after you start running. It gives you something to aim for – remember you should always set yourself fitness goals to continue improving – and offers a good way to gauge progress. Also, the incentive of a commemorative medal gives motivation, and getting it put around your neck marks your achievement. Do one, and I can almost guarantee you’ll be back for more.

Glutathione – the must-have antioxidant

You’ve probably heard all about free radicals and antioxidants… but let me introduce you to the one must-have anti-oxidant, glutathione.

I’m about to embark on a part-time MSc in Nutrition Therapy – and while I’ve only been on a foundation course in biochemistry over the summer as a pre-requisite, I thought I’d share some of the things I’m learning that will better inform you about your own diet and lifestyle.

The first one of these is about the key antioxidant – glutathione.

For some background, free radicals are ‘rogue’ chemicals that enter our bodies and can cause our body stress. Chemically, they occur when atoms or molecules try and steal electrons from other atoms or molecules, hence destabilising them. They also cause a cascade affect where the molecule that had it’s electron pinched then steals from one from the next molecule and so on. In simple terms,  you could say they result when electrons behave badly.

Free radicals can enter our body via a number of channels – chemicals in the air, cigarette smoke, via the processing of alcohol in our bodies (though booze alone does not contain so many), burnt toast… the list goes on an on.

Free radicals are not always so bad. Our body produce them itself, especially in response to exercise – but it finds ways to deal with them and that body production/defence of produced free radicals helps strengthen our bodies’ defence mechanisms.

Where problems do occur is when you get an excess of free radicals – and this can lead to oxidative stress on the body. An excess of free radicals is thought to be a factor in ageing prematurely, but also a pre-cursor to some diseases such as cancer.

As such, keeping the body’s oxidative stress levels low is key – and this is done by the intake of antioxidants, molecules that donate electrons to those cheeky, thieving molecules to stop them from nicking electrons from elsewhere.

The ones that get all the publicity are things like vitamins C, E and D – and you should certainly ensure a high intake of those from both foods and supplements if necessary.

But glutathione is one few of us will have heard about – and yet it is probably the most important one.

Glutathione is produced naturally in the body – and thanks to the presence of sulphur, it acts like sticky flypaper, attracting all the toxins and helping expel them. But it also keeps those other vitamins like C and E clear of impurities and helps them get on with their jobs.

Scientists think it may benefit it us by:

  1. helping beat chronic fatigue syndrome
  2. boosting the immune system
  3. fighting diseases such as HIV/AIDS and cancer
  4. helping the body detoxify
  5. helping combat the aging process

and much more…

While your body produces glutathione, levels can drop when the body is subject to oxidative stress, so you MUST ensure you keep your levels high.

Here are some ways you can do this:

  1. Consumer sulphur-rich foods such as onions, garlic, brocolli and kale.
  2. Exercise more – exercising boosts glutathione levels.
  3. Supplement your diet: Alpha lipoic acid, selenium, milk thistle and vitamins B, C and E all help. I use Patrick Holford’s Optimum Nutrition formula, available at most health food shops.
  4. You can also supplement it direct, but some of it will be lost in the digestion process and it will not be as good as the ‘homemade’ stuff.

There’s a great video on how important glutathione is by Mark Hyman, one of the best forward thinkers on nutrition. You can see it below.

Why group training works

group training

Group training or classes such as Insanity Live! can help spur you to achieve better results in your fitness regime. 

Take a look at the two watches above. They’re photos of the screens of my Garmin watch that help me measure my training performance.

It records tonnes of details: how far and fast I’ve ran, swim or biked, at what elevation and what my heart rate was throughout. The one you’re probably interested in though is on the bottom right – the amount of calories I burn in a training session.

As you’ll see from the above, the session on the right saw me burn 156 calories more than the one on the left… yet it was exactly the same workout, but done on different days.

The reading on the left was while testing Insanity Live! Round 13 at home in my garage gym, the one on the right is from the first time I taught it live in a class.

Theoretically, you might expect the workout on the left to have burnt more calories. When testing the session before taking it live, I do it first as though being taught by another instructor, plus when I teach live, I often break to check people’s form and offer corrections while the rest of the class is still working.

So why did I burn so many more calories in the group class? It’s mostly down to the fact that when we exercise with other people, like it or not, they act as an inspiration to us, making us work harder, putting more effort in and, ultimately, burning more calories.

It’s a phenomenon you can see in almost every form of exercise. Train for a running race, a 5k, 10k or a marathon – and your pace on race day, when surrounded by tens, hundreds or thousands of other runners, will be much faster than your training pace.

There’s no doubt that having a dedicated trainer, who will tailor an exercise and nutrition program to your goals is the best option when it comes to achieving your fitness goals… but I appreciate not everyone can afford a one-to-one service.

If not, exercising with a partner or partners (I offer group PT sessions for up to 4 people with similar goals) or group exercise classes such as Insanity Live! are an excellent way to motivate yourself to do more.

There’s an excellent article on group exercise and its benefits by the American College of Sports Medicine here if you want to find out more.

Food labelling and what to look out for

Food-labelling

All food in the UK will soon have to display its nutritional content. So what should you look out for when it comes to food labelling?

I was teaching a client yesterday who was disappointed with an eating choice she’d made. She’s swapped out a bar of chocolate for some cashew nuts – but it was only after she’d finished the 100g bag that she realised she’d just taken on 600 calories – probably 400 more than if she’d stuck to chocolate! “If only I’d read the label,” she bemoaned.

Does that mean that chocolate’s better for you than cashews? Of course not, it just means that cashew nuts are more calorie-dense than chocolate is. (The pack in question was salted – but that’s another story!)

Whether you’re pro or for the EU is another thing – but certainly one of the best pieces of legislation passed recently in Brussels was the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation which means that from 2016, food labelling in this country and across the continent becomes mandatory. Basically, everything you buy will tell you what it’s made of… and that’s a good thing.

We’re quite good in the UK at adapting early to this kind of thing, and so much of what you buy in supermarkets is already labelled. Much of it contains a detailed label on the back and a traffic light symbol on the front to enable consumers to make quick decisions: green is good, yellow is borderline, red is bad. It doesn’t take a genius to know that avoiding labels that glow redder than a Liverpool shirt is a good idea.

Calories

The number of calories we see is obviously one of things many of us are concerned with.

In simple terms, if you cut your average calorie consumption by 500 calories a day and everything else remains equal, you will loose 0.5kg of weight.

This simple calculation is one of the reasons that calorie counting remains a useful tool when it comes to weight loss – but of course other considerations come into play too.

If your recommended calorific intake is 2000 a day and you eat 1,500 worth of chocolate and nothing else… then yes, you might lose weight but other things will come into play: a lack of vitamins and nutrients, high levels of saturated fat are just two. So obviously, we need to look deeper.

Proteins, carbohydrates and fat 

The three main food groups -Protein, carbs and fat – are the next thing to check. (By comparison and for information, a gram of protein or carbohydrate has 4 calories, a gram of fat 9 and a gram of alcohol 7).

I tend to advise clients to aim for an overall diet balance of 30-40 per cent protein, 20 per cent good fats (olive oil, nuts, avocado etc) and 40-50 per cent carbs, depending on their fitness goals – and it’s worth bearing these in mind when it comes to your buying choices and meal combinations.

Knowing if something is high in fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. 

Most food labels offer a breakdown in content based on values per 100g and values per portion. Bear in mind what you think a portion is and what the  manufacturer thinks a portion is are two different things – as an experiment, pour yourself a bowl of cereal. Then weigh out the manufacturer’s portion size and compare the two – you might be shocked.

As such, using the 100g values give a better comparison. Here are some recommended NHS guidelines:

Total fat
High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g

Saturated fat
High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g
Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g

Sugars
High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g

Salt
High: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
Low: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)

If you have any questions on diet and exercise, don’t hesitate to contact me via the contact page.

Does exercise get any easier?

harder exercise
Does exercise get any easier

One of the ladies who attends my Insanity Live! classes came to me after we’d finished the other day… “Does exercise get any easier?” she asked me. 

She’s not the first person to wonder if that’s the case … and I very much doubt she’ll be the last. The answer is actually a yes and a no at the same time! If that doesn’t help, let me try and explain – by turning the question around: “Why would you want exercise to get any easier?”

Putting glibness to one side, let’s look at what the body does when we exercise. Exercise is work: your heart beats faster, you get breathless, your muscles tire… sometimes you could end a session exhausted.

So why do we do it? Well the human body is incredibly adaptable. Exercise causes the body stress – and the body’s response is to adapt to that stress. Our heart, respiratory system and muscles all get stronger as a result of exercise… so in theory, the next time you exercise it will be easier.

But what happens next if we don’t increase that stress? If we don’t progress the level of exercise, the distance we run, or the weights we lift? Or if we don’t try something else to change things up?(Insanity Live! classes for instance introduce a new set of exercises every 8-10 weeks, just for when the body has adapted to the stress of the previous routine.)

Well the body is so clever, it ends up adapting to the routine. And when its adapted to that specific stress, it becomes lazy and stops making progress.

So ideally, you want exercise to keep getting harder. When it comes to the lady in question, she might feel as though routines aren’t getting easier – and they aren’t.

But that’s not because she’s not progressing – I make sure I challenge her more in sessions now than I did before – and I can see the results: she’s hotter and more tired at the end of a session than what she used to be… and that’s exactly what we want to happen.

You have to keep progressing to feel the benefit.

As an aside, for anyone wondering about how the fitter they become, the more they sweat – that’s the body adapting again. The body is excellent at thermoregulating – controlling it’s own temperature. And the main way is does this is through sweating.

The more we work out, the more efficient that thermoregulation becomes and the more we sweat. It costs me a small fortune in kitchen roll at classes – but it’s worth it to know people are progressing.

Protein-packed smoked salmon breakfast idea

Protein-packed smoked salmon breakfast idea

Looking for a quick, easy breakfast? This protein-packed smoked salmon breakfast idea is so simple, any klutz could make it.

Like most people, I get a bit fed up with typically healthy breakfasts: porridge, yoghurt, fruit … and this smoked salmon option makes a nice change.

Smoked salmon is quite rich, so it’s not for every day, but it’s a delicious dish that requires zero serious cooking.

Nutritionally, it packs 16g of protein, good fats, and contains the latest superfood: bee pollen – supposedly packed with amino acids and trace minerals.

A portion is just 190 calories too.

Ingredients

2 cups spinach
120g good quality smoked salmon
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 raw beetroot
juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp bee pollen (optional)

Method

Shred the spinach and divide between two bowls.
Cut up the salmon into strips and lay on top.
Peel and grate the beet and split between the dishes.
Drizzle with olive oil (1/2 tbsp each) and a squeeze of lemon.
Sprinkle with bee pollen.

And that’s it!

If you want to link to the recipe on MyFitnessPal (you need to be logged in) you can do so here

Fitness motivation tips: Success starts at 5am

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Looking for fitness motivation tips? It could well be that success starts at 5am…

I’ve really ramped up by training this week for the Spartathlon race in September. At 153 miles long and with a 36-hour cut off, it will probably be the toughest thing I’ll ever attempt – the culmination of four long years of hard work and thousands of miles of running.

I’d started to fall back a bit on my weekly mileage, so with a big push I managed to run 65 miles this week – 12 miles more than I did last week and my biggest weekly total of the year.

Part of what prompted me to up things was seeing the trailer for a new movie that comes out in September. The Road to Sparta follows the stories of four ultramarathon runners in last year’s race – and some of the footage is nothing less than brutal.

The Road to Sparta: Trailer from Barney Spender on Vimeo

In one scene from the video, this year’s Team GB manager Rob Pinnington is wearing a T-shirt. It says simply: 5:00am.

It’s a motivation motto many ultramarathon runners use: “success starts at 5am in the morning”.

Now I’m not expecting to turn anyone into an ultramarathon runner – it’s a daft sport after all – but I get a lot of people asking me how they can get fit, but don’t want to put in the hours or effort needed to do so.

The truth is, there are no short cuts – and I suspect most people know that. Getting and staying fit is hard work, but it’s work that pays off in spades. Fitter people feel better about themselves, generally live longer and are psychologically happier.

We all have lots of commitments to deal with. From personal experience, we have a pair of five-year-old daughters, I have two businesses to run and a mortgage to pay off, as well as trying to fit leisure time, extended family and friend commitments, and my own personal fitness goals into a loaded week. And the people I know who don’t have similar commitments I can count on one hand.

My answer to fitting more in is to simply sleep less. I get up at 4.45, am out of the house for 5am and can run 10 miles and be back for the girls getting up at 6.30am.

I understand such commitment doesn’t come naturally to anyone – and on most days even I find it hard to do. So how can you stay committed to a fitness regime? Here are some fitness motivation tips to keep you on track.

Tell yourself you’ll feel better afterwards

I often have to do this when the alarm goes off and I’m tempted to hit snooze. Forcing yourself up or forcing yourself out at other times of the day can be difficult. But post-exercise, your body will be flooded with feel-good hormones that will give you a boost.

Picture this

I shocked myself to getting fit again around 10 years ago when I saw a picture of myself at my step brother’s wedding. It simply didn’t look like me anymore. I suspect many other people might have done the same – so use that picture as a motivation tool. Print a copy off and stick it somewhere where you’ll see it regularly – tell yourself you are going to work hard to change that image.

Set a goal and visualise the future

I’ve written about goal-setting before but here’s a simple example of how it works.

Set out from your house now and go for a walk with no other thought in your head. It’s likely you’ll wander around aimlessly because you have no idea where you’re going. You might end up somewhere…  but it will be by chance, not by choice.

On another day, set our from your house and go for a walk to the shops. It’s likely you’ll get there because you know where they are. You know the direction you need to walk in – you’ve set a destination. Even if you don’t get there, you can try again the next day and and go a bit further than last time.

The same thing works with fitness. Set yourself a specific challenge: run a 5k race or a marathon, lose 2 per cent of body fat, or drop a dress size.

Make sure all your goals are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely – then you’ve got a yardstick to aim for.

Write your goal on a piece of paper and keep it somewhere you’ll see it all the time – your wallet or purse – and read it regularly to embed it.

Adopt a mantra

Once you start exercising, keeping going in a tough session can be tough, so adopt a mantra – a phrase you can say or repeat that will gee you on. It can be something as simple as ‘come on’ or ‘you can do this’ or it can be specific to the task or personal. My current one is the Greek phrase “Yia tin Sparti re gamoto” – roughly translated it means “eff it, I’m doing this for Sparta”… but in the past I’ve spent the last 60 miles of a 100-mile race humming “do you know the muffin man” when it was the girls’ favourite song.

Reward yourself

Here’s another secret… part of the reason I wanted to get fit was because I like to eat and drink! My problem has always been that I’m a real ‘moment on the lips, lifetime on the hips’ body type – and unless I watch what I eat and exercise regularly, I balloon. So what I do is allow myself the odd ‘cheat meal’ (note NOT a cheat day). Once every month, I’ll have an extra beer or a take-away as a little well done to myself and then stick to eating well the rest of the time.