Nearly there…

I can’t believe that I’ve actually made it through a training block and am tapering for a goal race, uninjured and feeling relatively fit. It has been a long time since I’ve made it to the start line of an important race. This coming weekend I’ll line up at the start of one of the Skyrunning World Series races: the Ring of Steall Skyrace in Scotland. I’ve been looking forward to this one for a long time. It’s relatively short in distance, around 30k, but really tough, and if I get under 5hrs 30 I’ll be very happy indeed. Actually, if I finish I’ll be happy. 

I am still nursing pain and scar tissue in both Achilles’ tendons and they can be very sore when I start running but once warmed up they feel ok. I’ve taken the pressure off myself with the training and been much more organic than before, not chasing a certain distance goal each week. I peaked at around 80 miles two weeks out, and then started a fairly aggressive taper. But I’ve adveraged around 80 kilometres per week, far less than usual, although my climbing has been fairly consistent week on week. I’ve also slowed right down and waited for the speed to feel easy instead of forcing it. Suddenly it was there and I ran a 10 mile tempo last week at under 7 mins per mile, a decent pace for me. 

On the road, I’m wearing Altra Escalante shoes, hands down the best road shoes I’ve ever had. Altra have totally nailed it with these shoes.  They are light, super responsive, flexible and soft around the foot, while being just cushioned enough for long runs (24 miles on concrete paths in France!). They are like the holy grail of running shoes. So impressed. Trail shoes are a bit of a problem. My Altra Lone Peaks are not grippy enough for a very technical skyrace, so I’ve gone for Salomon Speedcross 4s, but they are so narrow. They do make my feet ache, but I think it’s because I’ve been exclusively wearing the Altras. So for the next few days I’m doing everything in the Speedcross to try to get my feet used to them before the weekend. I did wear them training in the mountains for around four hours and they were ok, and the grip they give on the descents makes it worth it. 

Taper madness is a thing, I’ve got a cold and feel rotten. Wish I could fast forward the next few days and just start the race! 
Planned gear: Salomon advanced skin pack; Montane minimums jacket; North Face waterproof trousers; Salomon s-lab skirt; Lornah sports top; merino wool base layer. Salomon Speedcross 4 shoes, Sunnto ambit peak 3 watch, pezl head torch. 


Training in Ireland #2: ascent of Carrauntoohil 

My dodgy experience the day before on Knockboy taught me a few lessons, and when I headed off to Kerry the next day, I was far better prepared. This time, the weather and conditions were perfect. I was very lucky: the mountains put on a fabulous show and were at their most beautiful.

I planned to do a horseshoe traverse taking in Caher, Carrauntoohil (Irelands two highest peaks), and some notoriously technical ridge scrambling, starting and finished from the “Hydro road”. From the carpark to the top of the first peak was exactly 1,000m of ascent over around 5 kilometres – not a bad bit of training over steep terrain, boggy in places, rocky and technical in others.

I felt great on the ascent and enjoyed the brilliant, dazzling views. From Caher, it is a short traverse over the ridge line to the top of Ireland, where a number of hikers had assembled, having come up the less technical side from the east. I pushed on, heading onto the rocky scramble known as “the Bones”.

The first rule of mountains is to know when to bail. I was completely alone on the ridge, it was very damp on the rocks, and I was struggling to keep three points of contact. I knew I could have got over, but I also knew that it was dangerous, and my heart wasn’t in it. I’d get a better training response from running the steep descent the way I came up. So I bailed, climbed back up over Carrauntoohil, back over Caher, and tried to run down the 1000m as efficiently as I could. I’m glad I made that decision-it was sensible, and I’ll do the full horseshoe another time, when I’m not completely alone on the ridge.

It was a beautiful, almost perfect day in one of the most incredible mountain ranges in the world. They might be small, but they are perfectly formed and on a day when the sun shines, the views are breathtaking. It it easy to get a bit blasé about mountains like this as they aren’t huge, but they can be dangerous and they can have a sting in the tail.

Training in Ireland – a scary half hour on Knockboy. 

I spent a week home in Cork, and got two decent days in the mountains done. The first was an ascent of Knockboy, the highest point in Cork, in a very wild and beautiful part of the country just on the border with Kerry. Like most Irish mountains apart from the most well known, there is no marked path and the going is extremely boggy. It seemed to be a bright day, and I had great views down to Glengarrif by the sea on one side, and over the Kerry mountains on the other. I didn’t have a compass with me, but didn’t think much of it as I headed up the road and turned off over a stile to start up the mountain. 

I was moving quite well over the bog, and could see the trig point at the top where I was headed, I knew it was at about 800m, and I chose to run along a fence line as it skirted the worst of the bog. It started to get cold, but I had a jacket in my pack. Suddenly, within a few minutes, the clouds closed in. I was extremely lucky I had decided to stay on the fenceline as I could no longer see anything more than 5m around me. The world had shrunk into whiteness and it was now very cold. I stuck to the fence and using the navigation app on my phone (ViewRanger), I got to the trig point at the summit. 

Now it was time to go back. I followed the fenceline back down the way I came, then got to a lake, which I could identify on the map. At this point I decided to try to navigate back to the road, but as soon as the lake was out of sight, all landmarks simply vanished. I had no idea which direction I was moving, my phone wasn’t much use, and the compass on my watch told me where north was, but not how to get through the maze of bog I now found myself in. The whiteness was disorienting and eerie, and I was moving so slowly it was hard to stay warm. I decided to climb up a hillock to try to get onto firmer ground. Suddenly, as quickly as it came in, the clouds cleared. I could see the road! I could also see that I had been headed in exactly the wrong direction. 

Lesson learned. Mountains, even small ones, are very dangerous. If I hadn’t had my jacket with me, and the mist hadn’t cleared when it did, this could have been a very scary experience. It had been warm and bright at sea level, a good 21 degrees and clear sunshine. It was probably 15 degrees colder on the hill, windy, and all landmarks completely invisible. Always bring a proper compass and map. Don’t rely on technology. Bring warm clothing, gloves and extra food. You just never know. 

Training in the Brecon Beacons national park

A last minute decision to go to the Brecon Beacons for two days training found me, alone, in my tent, in a farmers field at the base of Cribyn. My facilities for the stay included….some ferns for my "toilet area", a camping stove balanced on a log, six bottles of water, and an aeropress coffee maker (crucial).

Actually, it was lovely. I did a shorter run straight up the steep side of Cribyn and back down the Roman road on the Saturday evening before retiring to my tent.

On the Sunday I did a longer loop taking in three summits: Pen y Fan, Cribyn and Fan y Big, pushing the pace as much as I could. I met up with some other runners coming off the second peak, and they made me realise two important things: my descending is terrible. Since being injured I've got a mental block for running downhill. I need to work on this. Also, I'm pretty good at climbing up. I was flying past the others on the climbs only to look like bambi going downhill. This needs work!

It felt wonderful to be back in the mountains, especially after my long injury and wondering if I'd even be able to run again. It is frustrating that I'm so far away from where I was pre-injury but at least I'm able to move in the mountains and I'm aware that I am lucky to be in the position to be able to do this.

Camping alone takes a certain type of personality too. I love it, but am aware of my vulnerability alone on a hillside at night. I make a conscious decision not to allow this to stop me doing what I love.
I am very fortunate to be able to do this, knowing that I have my home and comfortable life waiting for my return.

The problem always comes when I get home. I am sore from the runs, my quads are very stiff. The demons are now clamouring at me, telling me that I'm useless, too slow on the downhills, that it is pathetic to be stiff and tired. I always struggle with life after a training trip like this one. I know that in a few days I'll be training again and will feel better. Perhaps it is easier to just let the negative thoughts wash over me and pass away like waves.

How I got back to training again

After developing Achilles tendonitis in both legs, I’m finally back training again. I think that I managed my rehab quite well, and have managed to get back to running around 60k per week at the moment, feeling easy. I’ve also started open water swimming once a week, and have increased the time I spend on the bike to make up for the decreased time spent running.

I have had some help with my gait and have made some tweaks to my form, and it seems to be working. Why did end up with both Achilles strained? It seems to have some connection to the way I flick my toe up behind me when I run, and I’ve been concentrating on trying to keep my ankle in dorsiflexion in the flight phase to help keep the contraction of the tendon to a minimum. The tendons on both legs are thickened and scarred, and they do get stiff in the mornings, but with careful warmups and stretching I am able to run without pain.

This is me on the treadmill during my gait analysis test. The good news is that I don’t overstride, and I do keep my landing leg well under my centre of gravity. I have a good incline forwards and my hips are neutral and not rotated. However, the rear view shows that I have a lot of upwards oscillation, which leads to a lack of efficiency. Most significantly, when my foot comes behind me (as can be seen in the side view), my foot goes into plantarflexion and I point my toe. This means that as I then come back to land on that foot, I have to over exert the calf muscle and, by extension, the achilles tendon.  This movement pattern may have been caused by the injuries I have been dealing with, specifically my shin issue and foot problems, and the theory is that if I can change this one thing, the rest of my running form is good, and hopefully I will be able to increase my mileage again without risking injury. So long as I am careful.

I am being careful. I am running six days a week, but four out of these six runs are done at a capped heartrate of 148bpm. Which for me is a pace just above 8 min miles on a flat surface. This feels very easy and I can work on my form without getting fatigued. The other runs are either a speed session or a hill session, and a long run done at a steady pace but at a higher heartrate and over hills and technical terrain. I’m training specifically for the Ring of Steal Skyrace in Glencoe in September, which is short (under 30k), but with a lot of altitude gain and quite technical. I have a friendly hill, which is exactly 1km in length and climbs 50m, so not a huge climb but a good stead rise. I can do repeats on this hill, going up as hard as I can, and down as hard as I can. This seems to be a core session for me at the moment and right now I’m up to 4 repeats: I’ll increase the reps gradually as the time goes on.

I am not entered for anything else apart from the Skyrace at the moment, although I will do a sprint triathlon in a few weeks, mainly because I’m enjoying swimming at the moment and think, why not! I’m enjoying feeling fit again, and trying to keep it sensible. While I’m running less, I’m actually training more as I am cycling and swimming, but I feel less broken down. The easy running is interesting for me as I will admit to finding it boring, but it is also vital to my training and health and I will learn to embrace it.

It is really difficult 

A photo popped up on my Facebook “on this day” feed a few days ago. It was taken a few days after I had run the Edinburgh marathon. I looked like this: 

Today, after three months of curtailed running due to injury, I look different. My stomach has rounded and my hip bones don’t stick out, my arms are more muscular. I’ve tried to keep up my physique through cycling and strength training but it isn’t the same as running consistent high mileage weeks. I am no heavier on the scales but don’t look as tight and it is hard to accept. But I have to learn that I can’t keep my body at that point (11% body fat) indefinitely. I need to give myself the chance to heal and get stronger. Maybe I’ll achieve that level of fitness again, but I hope that if I do it will be with a better understanding of the costs that come with it. 

Eat your carbs, women athletes!

Since the podcast episode I did with Chris Sandel of Seven Health  came out, I’ve had so many lovely messages of support, and questions from people who recognise their own issues in my experiences. It is touching to hear so many positive comments, and amazing to realise that what I went through is not uncommon, if not much discussed. I’ve written before about the sanitised Instagram life that becomes the veil for people’s true struggles, and bringing it into the open in such a public way seems to have encouraged others to interrogate their relationship with exercise, body image and food.

Out of the various messages I received, there has been one common  thread: “should I eat more carbs?”. It is astonishing how many athletic women have become subsumed in the rhetoric of low carbohydrate/ketogenic eating that was never designed for female athletes. Women who, like me, are training multiple hours a day, and are restricting their carbohydrate intake, and are not recovering, not adapting, and on top of all that, are feeling guilty for not being able to sustain their restrictive diet. It is crazy.

Low carbohydrate diets are not designed for people who are currently in training for endurance sport. They work very well for sedentary, overweight people who need to shed excess body fat. They work brilliantly to help with metabolic disorders and certain other illnesses. They work well for someone who runs a 5k a few times a week and does a few sessions in the gym. Athletes have different nutritional requirements. There are some athletes who can perform on this sort of regime: they tend to be male, they have a very very good relationship to food, meaning they are able to respond appropriately to their hunger cues and eat sufficiently to sustain their bodies, and they are able to be flexible. They have stable hormonal balance, and are able and willing to eat what is required. Basically, for this way of eating to work for an athlete in any way, it is necessary to be a) male, and b) not othorexic in any way at all.

Sadly, a lot of the athletes who gravitate towards this way of eating do so because they are already inclined towards disordered eating and are looking for a “fix” to their eating issues. If they are also female, this can lead to disaster.

Eat food. Real food, that is nourishing, filling, fueling, and in sufficient quantities to sustain your energy throughout the day. It isn’t black and white. Quality, good tasting food, balanced into carbohydrates, protein, vegetables and fats. Don’t eat stuff that isn’t recognisable as food. If it is real food, eat it.

My interview with Chris Sandel of Seven Health


I did this interview with the fantastic Chris Sandel of Seven Health a few weeks ago. I’m very open and honest about my struggles and the sort of things I’ve been going through over the last year. I hope that it helps someone out there to hear about it. It isn’t easy to talk about such things but I do appreciate the opportunity I was given. If you haven’t come across Chris before, I highly recommend his podcast Real Health Radio. It is fantastic.





Solipsism, magical thinking and the “health” industry 

“Quantified self”; “naturopathic medicine”; “nootropics”; supplementation and diet manipulation. There’s a lot of it around. In the world of lifestyle fitness (as opposed to performance fitness), the idea of the perfectibility of the self, achievable through certain regimes, foods, and ideologies, is prevalent. I think that a lot of the discourse around these ideas is dangerous and distasteful, for a variety of reasons. 
Qui bono? Who is profiting? The best way to sell a product is to create a need for it. If you are in the business of selling “health”, the first step is to create a market by inventing a theory of illness. If your customers are generally healthy people by standard measures (athletic, active, not ill in medical terms), by finding ways of measuring things that will convince them that they could be more well, and that they are negligent by not pursing that end, you have a ready made market. Actually, this is the least malignant aspect if this sphere.  So long as harm is not done, businesses are making money and people think they are healthier. If it is placebo, does it really matter? Perhaps it keeps healthy but worried people out of the congested standard healthcare sphere, which is a positive byproduct. 

However, it does create people who become reliant on the approval of their chosen practitioner or guru for their “health”. They only think they are ok if they are told they are. And those whom they are paying have a vested interest in finding more areas where they fall below an arbitrary standard of purity. More money must be spent on more testing, more expensive nootropics, supplements, dietary changes. Suddenly, those who can’t afford or choose not to engage are deemed not as healthy. The tribal mindset is established, which perpetuates the idea that those who don’t follow the accepted way of thinking are the “other”: dangerous, ignorant, and diseased. This is the by product of the magical thinking that lies at the heart of most of this sort of practice: I took x product, or y diet, or z supplement and I’m HEALTHY. You are sick because you didn’t take x,y, or z. Nothing else matters, context is irrelevant. 

I think many practioners genuinely believe in what they are doing, and are not deliberately setting out to deceive. They are taking advantage of a healthcare system which is very poor at preventative medicine, and of an affluent, individualistic society in which a healthy body has become both a status symbol and an instrument of self expression.  If the body is the ultimate expression of ones individuality, the thing that bestows worth on its owner, it must be curated and perfected as far as possible. This is where things get malignant. Both the individual and the practitioners they are paying engage in the illusion of the body as a separate entity, to be manipulated to the benefit of its owner.  This splits the body off from the person, as though it is something outside, something that can be bought, traded, and controlled. But it can’t be controlled. And it isn’t separate. Just as the individual is not separate from the societal context in which they exist. You get ill or injured. You have an accident, bereavement, loss. Suddenly the perfectability model is irrelevant. The person who has gone deep into this way of thinking searches for what they did wrong, what thing did they miss that led this thing to occur. It becomes their own personal failure. They didn’t try hard enough, do it right, spend enough money on the programme. 

The other area of concern is the power of suggestibility and anecdote. We want to believe so our critical faculties get suspended as we hear the heavily framed story of someone who has “got it right”. Again, context is ignored. Blame is shifted back onto the individual who is made to feel inadequate for not “getting it right”. And so the cycle continues. 

General dietary advice and athletic performance, why the two don’t mix.

We live in a society that is getting incrementally fatter.  Statistically, more people are obese than ever before. The general population is sedentary or does a minimal amount of movement every day.

To counter this, there is a dizzying amount of diet advice around. In popular outlets this is mostly targeting the general reader – a person who can be assumed to be relatively sedentary. The current craze for counting steps taken in a day illustrates this. Somehow it has entered popular consciousness that if you take 10,000 steps per day (as measured by an often inaccurate pedometer or fitness tracker), you are “active”. But this is a meaningless measure. 10,000 steps per day is a baseline minimum, especially if these steps are simple walking. Anyway, I digress.

Dietary advice in the general media is aimed at people for whom 10,000 steps per day is an achievement. It is aimed at people whose energy output is minimal. All diets or “lifestyle” changes work by cutting the number of calories consumed. For people who are generally inactive, or whose activity is limited, calorie restriction is the only thing that does work for weight control.

For athletes, the story is rather different. It is vital that an energy balance is established that a) fuels the performance goals of the athlete, and b) maintains a body composition that enhances the athlete’s ability to fulfill those goals. As such, most general dietary advice is hopeless. But it is so difficult to avoid, as there is a constant hum of noise around food, diets, weight loss and misinformation around, especially on social media. The trend for people to share photos of their food is a good example. A small plate of fish and vegetables might be perfect for a sedentary 5’6 woman. An athlete of the same height and gender, who might have expended an additional 1,500 calories over their TDEE, could easily see that and jump to the conclusion that such a portion is correct for them also. Or they might then berate themselves for not being able to survive on a similar portion of food.

In general, most sedentary people probably could do with eating less over the course of a week. In comparison, most athletic people probably could eat smarter than they do, and this could mean eating a total of more calories than they currently do, especially if their performances are suffering or if they often report feeling under fueled or lethargic. Being caught in the swirl of diet talk does not help athletes, as their needs are completely different from those of the modern general population. The sedentary lives and obesity that cause so much suffering among the general population have become a default position when discussing food and diets, and it is hard for an athlete to learn what is normal for them, when their way of life is increasingly abnormal in society. It is a problem.