Monthly Archives: April 2015

Always Ready

This week there has been a lot of talk on social media regarding the Protein World advert featuring the model Renee Somerfield. The executives seems to be patting themselves on the back a bit, having seen their sales rocket in the last few days. After all there’s no such thing as bad publicity eh? I have seen the Beach Body Ready advert and I actually found it predictable and boring. It’s not like women aren’t seeing similar images in health and fitness magazines so why the umbrage with this particular advert? I was very interested however in something that Protein World came up with in their defense of the advert: apparently that’s what us women want in a fitness campaign.

No doubt that Protein World had some marketing research performed for them to get an idea about what women responded to. I remember getting annoyed with the number of ‘fat blast’ and ‘tummy flattening’ headlines on the cover of Women’s Running magazine, but the lovely Rhalou, a journalist, told me that in surveys this is what women participating were actively requesting. Somewhere along the line as women we have asked in a weird, roundabout way to be routinely shamed for our appearance and presented with an often unrealistic image of who we should be. When this thought struck me I actually felt a little bit sad that as women we might feel this way. I wondered if the vandalism of the adverts and the petition set up to get the adverts pulled were a larger message from women sick of always being fed the same shame-inducing crap.

I have no issue with beautiful models. Renee Somerfield is a stunning woman and she obviously works for her physique. It is after all her job as a fitness model to look, err, fit. But to tell me that her body is attainable to me is like telling me I can have a figure like the exquisite Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan in Mad Men. She also has a beautiful figure, very different to Renee Somerfield’s, but again I could in no way attain her ratio of curves. It is just not true to tell me that I can look like either of these women.

I am 5 foot tall. I have no boobs, the ones I did have fed two babies. My stomach is a wreck from two caesareans. I have a very short torso and even shorter legs. I do think I have a pretty nice butt. I am under no illusion that I could remotely look like Renee on the beach or Christina after pouring her curves into vintage couture. But what I do know is what I am capable of and what my own body is ‘ready’ to do after training and exercising. I can run marathons. I can ride mileage on my bike that I never thought possible. I can swim fifty lengths in a swimming pool. I have lifted weights and tried to do handstands. I may not be confident in a bikini on the beach (I prefer fifties style swim suits) but I’m confident in what my body can achieve. The aesthetics are of no interest to me but I am always ready to try and be a better version of myself and reach new goals.

Protein World claim that they are only interested in improving the health and fitness of the nation. I would believe them a little more if they weren’t selling their products, some of which take the form of meal replacement shakes, at £32 a kilo (Hang on, is that not just Slim Fast but in different packaging?) They have a vested interest in selling lots of their food substitute drinks (pass me the steak) but I don’t think their message is going to be meaningful to the vast majority of men and women.  Health and fitness for a lot of people means encouragement, taking things at their pace, surprising people with the things they thought they could never do and setting individual goals. Others should not impose their ‘ideal’ of health on to them. We may not all like running, CrossFit, rugby or football and we are not all built with the same phenotype. It would be so boring if we were.

Fair play to Protein World for making lots of money and being able to pay their team huge bonuses. I can’t say I’ll be trying their shakes any time soon and I’m sure they don’t need my money. Instead I would urge them to watch the This Girl Can campaign ad so they can see that women of all shapes and sizes are capable of being fit and participating in sport. I would also urge them to look up the great Valerie Adams, the world’s greatest female shot putter, who works hard in training but would probably never be seen by Protein World as a ‘model’ for their campaigns. But I’m sure the all-conquering Olympic champion would be okay with that.

My overall message I think would be this. Let’s start voting with our feet. Don’t buy that magazine with the unrealistic, photo shopped model on the front.  When we’re asked for our opinions lets request more realistic pictures of women of all shapes and sizes accomplishing great things. Lets support men and women starting out in sport and fitness but encourage them to do it in a healthy, sustainable way. And remember that whatever anyone tells you, YOU are always ready.

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Passion: Obsession or Harmony

As part of my Sports Physiotherapy studies I recently had to write an assignment on the factors that contributed to injury within a given sport. These factors could be bio mechanical, physiological and psychological. What I love about life long learning is the chance to read and discover new ways of looking at things. As I researched my assignment, which I decided to do on running (obviously) I found myself drawn into the psychology of injury and how certain personality traits and behaviours can make an individual more susceptible. I also became aware that after a few years of experiencing overuse injuries I started to recognize my own behaviours in the literature. But first I want to talk about passion.

An author called Vallerand and his colleagues described passion as a strong inclination for an activity that you like or love, find important and that you invest time and energy. Your passion for that activity might even mean that you internalize it into your identity. So right there, when you say loud and proud that you are a runner, you are demonstrating your passion for running. Turns out though passion can be split into two types: harmonious and obsessive.

Harmonious passion is where the individual internalizes the activity but in a really positive way. When they engage in the activity it is totally voluntary, there is no compulsion to do it. The activity, such as running, is in harmony with the rest of that person’s life. Running doesn’t take up unnecessary space in their life or in their identity. Didn’t run? That’s okay I’ll run tomorrow. Missed a training session? Can’t do anything about it now, I’ll be at the next one. Injured or unwell? It’s safer not to run. Bit slower today? Not to worry, it still felt great! The over riding effects of having harmonious passion are positive.

Then there’s obsessive passion. This is where I started to recognise myself and some of my traits, which I still think are linked into the stress and anxiety I was experiencing for a long time. Running had become internalized as part of my identity, but in a controlling way. This had come about because of internal pressures I had put on myself and on my self worth. Running was a thing to do for my self esteem. If I ran well then I got a buzz and a sense of excitement. If I didn’t run well then the whole world was about to come crashing down around me. Everything was about times on a watch or how I did in a race or at Parkrun. I love running but I was also compelled and had felt internal pressure to run, even when I knew I shouldn’t. If I ran and I had pain I would feel guilty and stupid. If I didn’t run I would also feel guilty. It was a constant spiral of guilt perpetuated by my obsessive passion which was probably in hindsight driven by anxiety. But because running had become so internalised as part of my identity I persisted in a ridiculously rigid way. Kept running and became more injured, became more frustrated and guilty and kept running. I was a hamster on a wheel.

Last year after I went through my mindfulness training and counselling for anxiety I made a conscious decision to stop running. At the time I told myself it was because I needed to rehab my Achilles tendon. But at the same time I think I just wanted to stop the ride and get off. I needed to reset myself again, break the grip that running had over me. It had become a weird imaginary, abusive relationship where I was the only one getting hurt.

Since December I have been running more again but I’m doing it tentatively. And I’m doing it for fun. I look for new routes and places where I can see things. I no longer run continuously all the time. If I see a lovely view or something pretty I will stop and take a picture. That would never have happened last year, I would never ever have stopped. The guilt would have been over powering. On Saturday I made the effort to run on a pretty beach. And today I drove from work to Penarth Barrage so I could experience the views of Cardiff across the water as I ran in freezing wind to the Bay. I had no watch, I had no idea of distance. I just know that I felt contentment.

I have booked some challenges in over the next few months which I will be blogging about, like Velothon Wales and the London Triathlon with Team Tricurious. But they are things that I have chosen to do. I do not feel compelled to do them. I feel like I have broken the obsessive hold running had over me and I am ready for a more harmonious, symbiotic relationship. I am by no means implying that the psychology of sport or even running is as simple as this. I just recognised myself and in a way it was nice to have an explanation for my bizarre, ‘running myself into the ground’ behaviour. Today and on Saturday I enjoyed running again and it was blissful to feel like that again. I felt running and I were in harmony, with my feet hitting the ground and the beautiful world all around for me to see.

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Beach Running

I think beach running is one of my favourite things to do. I had my first experience of beach running when I was a teenager, running along the Traigh Mor which was located near my grandmother’s house on the Isle of Lewis. Since then I’ve just had this urge to run along beautiful beaches. For me, it is a great way to experience the coast other than laying on a towel getting bored. I just find something incredibly soothing about beach running. The noise of the wind whistling around you, the sea air in your face and the crashing of the waves all make me feel closer to nature and helps me put so many things in perspective.

This weekend we were in Tenby and I took the opportunity to run from the caravan park and onto the trail that would take me to the beach. We were lucky that on Saturday the gloom had lifted and the sun had made an appearance. I was starting to need a running fix away from the mayhem of the under 7’s rugby tour weekend. I don’t think I could have picked a better beach to run on.

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The wind wasn’t too strong and I found damp sand to run on which meant I didn’t sink down and fight for footing. I had no watch on me and I had no idea what distance I would end up running, I just let the run wash over me like the waves were washing over the sand and pebbles. It was utterly blissful and at one point during the run I realised that I had been thinking about absolutely nothing. Instead I had been gazing out towards the horizon, adjusting myself now and again for the inevitable misstep in the sand.

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I arrived back at my caravan, feeling slightly smug that despite a wine hangover I had made the effort to get off the site and do something. The sun and breeze had refreshed me and I was now ready for what the rest of the day had in store. Which turned out to be more time on the beach for a BBQ and tag rugby games with the kids and parents of our rugby team. Perfect.

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(Running shoes in picture above were sent to me as part of Salomon Insider’s Project. To be reviewed soon!)

The New Bike: Part Two

For well over a year we’ve been trying to get my youngest son interested in riding his bike. Since he was three he would quite happily jump on a scooter and dash up and down our street with confidence. But with the bike there’s been a bit of a block. I think he assumed he would just hop on, like he’d seen his brother do so many times, and be away. What he didn’t seem to realise was that big brother had been through the same difficulties in learning but the key was to practice, practice, practice……. and to get right back on if you fell off.

On Easter Monday of this year’s Easter break he did it. It had taken a lot of cajoling. There had been a lot of good cop/bad cop. There had been tantrums and tears. I had threatened to throw the bike Santa had brought in the bin. I had been soothing and encouraging and yet still nothing.

And then suddenly on that Easter Monday, when it was just the two of us,  that new motor pathway in his brain caused new synapses to open up and his nerves and muscles produced all the components he needed to ride a bike without stabilisers. But then he fell off. He cried and cried and his elbow was bleeding. I thought he would throw the bike down and give up, but he didn’t. The discovery of something as fantastic as riding a bike was far more important than a stinging elbow and hurt pride. The tears slowed, I wiped them away and he rode away squealing with glee at his new found ability.

Fast forward to Monday of this week and I found myself lying in a hedge having fallen off my new bike.

I was taking a much needed break from writing an essay and it had been all I could do to focus on that instead of taking the new bike for a ride. I was biting the bullet and going out clipped in for the first time. I managed to clip in no problems and I cycled my familiar route. As I came up the lane to a different village the road started to narrow. Then almost too late I realised that the cars in front were reversing towards me to let a big truck through. I panicked, unclipped my right foot and for some reason tried to put my left foot, which was still clipped in, down to the floor. Sideways I went into the hedge.

I threw my arms up in exasperation, feeling a bit silly. The truck driver slowed down, looking a bit startled.

‘Are you okay love? I saw you fall and it looked like it was a heavy one. Are you sure you’re okay?’

‘Yes thank you’, I replied ‘Just didn’t, couldn’t *mumble mumble nervous laugh*.

Relieved that I obviously wasn’t injured the truck driver gave me a thumbs up and drove off.

As I got myself up I contemplated going home. I was a little bit shaken. I was concerned that being on my own I might fall again and if I really hurt myself what would I do? And then I realised I was being ridiculous, especially after all my youngest had been through to learn to ride. Every time he had fallen or wobbled I encouraged him to get back on and carry on and yet here was I, the adult, quite prepared to wimp out at the first opportunity. I wasn’t even hurt apart from a bruised ego. So after a few stern words with myself and deciding to be a bit more mindful about unclipping and deciding which foot I was actually going to put down, I continued on my first ride on the brand new bike.

I can’t quite believe the difference a new, lighter bike and being clipped in actually made. I had been told by a friend that I would be able to push and pull which meant more power, speed and better control. I have to admit he was right. The local hills felt far easier to climb and my bike actually picked up speed on the down hill. I was interested to see if Strava had picked up the difference, and it had. I was riding 2 km faster than I would have on old Paula and I completed the ride 5 minutes faster than the last time I had cycled that route. Plus it was a joy to cycle rather than the awkward, rattling, laborious chore it had become. The clipped in aspect seemed to work itself out as my own brain eventually forged new motor pathways the same way my son’s brain had developed new pathways to ride his own bike.

As I cycled from village to village I ruminated over new names for the bike. I still fancied calling her Dibaba after Tirunesh Dibaba ‘the Baby Faced Destroyer’, although my husband said it was daft to name a bike after a runner. I also wondered how big my Thunder Thighs would get riding my awesome new wheels. Then I decided Thunder Thighs would be an awesome name for a cycling super hero or even the title of a comic: The Adventures of Thunder Thighs and The Baby Faced Destroyer. Next adventure, hopefully attempting a ride over forty miles while being clipped in on The New Bike. Will I have fall number 2? Stay tuned!

The New Bike: Part One

On Saturday I headed out on Paula, my old faithful eBay bike, for my second group ride. I call her old but I’ve only had her for about seven months. She was my starter bike last year when I was injured, unable to run and desperately looking for some way to train. Saturday was my 35th birthday and I wanted to get out and do something epic in activity terms to mark my becoming almost middle aged. What better way than to be a Middle Aged Woman In Lycra? Just before 9am on a crisp spring April morning I found myself at a roundabout waiting for my cycling buddies, wondering again if I was wearing enough clothes for the ride.

I had always been pretty much convinced that I didn’t need a fancy bike to get me round. I had a road bike. I had legs to pedal. It would surely do the job? Well maybe my eBay special purchase was up to one long ride. She wasn’t really up to a second.

We had picked one of the windiest days to go out on Saturday. The ride to Llantwit Major via Cowbridge wasn’t too bad. Hills plus wind are always going to make things difficult but thoughts of warming tea and a slice of cake at Cafe Velo kept me going. After stopping for far too long we started out on our way out to St Bride’s Major. My bike rattled as I changed gear and groaned on all the down hills. ‘I’m hearing things’ I thought to myself but my mind wandered back to the conversation I had had at my local bike shop, Ride Bike Wales, the day before.

I had gone in to look into cycling shoes and just so happened to have Paula with me. She was a good starter bike, I was told as I was advised on various shoes, pedals and cleats. I must have had a totally blank look at one point because I’m sure the first chap I spoke to started speaking to me slower and louder to try to get me to understand, a bit like a Brit abroad shouting in English to try and order more beers. It’s not that I’m a complete idiot, it’s just that at that point I couldn’t understand why it all needed to be so technical. The most technical I had been with a bike to this point was putting on and taking off stabilizers. My son’s stabilizers I should add, not mine.

While at the shop Stuart who runs Ride Bike Wales eyed up Paula and then lifted her. Heaviest road bike he had ever lifted he commented. Probably a good bike for getting about town, but not ideal for longer distances if that’s what you’re hoping to do. No doubt a bit heavy and slow on the downhills too. Oh and it was definitely too big for me. No way? I was sure I had measured myself up correctly. But then Stuart appeared with a model of bike he had sold to a woman the same height as me. This bike was a fair bit smaller, too small I thought, but then I have been getting neck, shoulder and back pain after riding Paula……..

As I tried to make my way around the Vale of Glamorgan I suddenly felt very aware of how Paula really wasn’t handling things very well. I kept losing my cycling group on every downhill. Everyone else free wheeled away from me while I failed to make up any significant ground. My friends kept making suggestions around my gears but any changes made little difference to ease or effort. My neck hurt, my wrists hurt and shoulders hurt. I was fed up.

By the time we hit Southerndown and Ogmore on the coast (stunning by the way) I was ready to go home. I had been lapped by a man in Ironman brand shorts, presumably doing hundreds of miles, about three times. I was despondent. The wind was churning the sea beneath the road I was travelling on and I’m sure at one point I was going backwards on an uphill or at the very least came to a complete stop. I was on the verge of phoning my husband and asking him to pick me up and take me home.

But I didn’t. Paula and I carried on and rattled and creaked all the way home. I was glad I had completed another 37 miles on my second long ride out but they were not enjoyable. And I was looking at Paula with new eyes. She was all well and good on relatively flat terrain up to about 10 miles but I was getting the feeling that regular 30 plus mile rides were probably a bit of an ask for my eBay bargain.

And so on Saturday, my birthday, I ended up with a brand new Cannondale bike. She’s a bottom of the range model which might make a difference to bike experts but what I do know is that I can lift her with one hand while Paula takes both hands and a bit of effort to lift off the ground. It dawned on me that I have probably been doing some bizarre kind of resistance training on Paula, dragging her heavy frame up Welsh hills. Surely for fitness that can’t be a bad thing?

The new bike just felt like it came at the right time with Velothon Wales coming up in June. I don’t think my current bike would be able to manage any more long rides. I have a picture in my mind of bits and pieces falling off in a comedic way as I would eventually find myself mid air holding just the handlebars. Plus the new bike has been fitted to me by someone who knows what they are doing. Fingers crossed no more odd aches and pains as I try to make myself fit something that is not sized up for me. I’m grateful to Paula for introducing me to road cycling but it’s time for a new era of bike. Now what to name her……

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A New Box

Tomorrow I enter a new category. When I fill in a form I will be ticking a new box. I will be classed in sports terms as a Master or a Veteran. I turn 35 years old. And instead of feeling down or depressed about turning a year older and getting closer to 40 I’m actually pretty indifferent. I don’t think I’ve really taken it in that I am older and maybe it’s because I don’t know how ‘older’ is supposed to feel.

The other day my mother told me that I was more fun now, with my own children than I was as a child. I’m not sure if that was to imply that I wasn’t behaving in a ‘motherly’ manner but I actually took this as a compliment. I have two very energetic boys and their energy is infectious. Being with them makes me want to run around, roll all over the floor and cackle with laughter until I should probably run to the bathroom. I want to be a good mother but I don’t see why I can’t enjoy playing their games too.

As I age I also see no reason why I should give up trying to do scary things. In June I am taking on the Wales Velothon which is a 140km route, although depending on how training goes I may dip down to the 67km distance. But even then, 67km is a heck of a distance and the prospect of taking on this new ‘out of my comfort zone’ challenge fills me with equal parts terror and excitement. Just because I’m in a new box does not mean I intend to take a back seat on all the exciting things that can be achieved through the feats of my own, still very healthy, body. Just because I have had a couple of kids doesn’t mean I need to lay down and accept the fate handed down by mothers and grandmothers before me. I actually believe that being active makes me a better person and a better mother.

Blogging has taken a back seat for me lately because I don’t really see where I fit. The media and the web is so full of the idea that an active woman should be in her early twenties, buxom yet slim, ready to go hard or go home and speak in weird hashtags (#boom). For a woman now entering a different phase it doesn’t reach out to me and it actually turns me off from a lot of health and fitness related media. With the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign I really hope that more women over the thirty bracket can break that mould and give inspiration to more women in my age range. Obviously Jo Pavey has been a great source of inspiration but I would like to see more women in my ‘new box’ represented in health and fitness who aren’t necessarily elite athletes.

And so I will tick the new box with my head held high tomorrow but probably not very much dignity. I plan to make it an active birthday weekend with lots of cycling, laughing and eating and drinking lots of delicious things with all my favourite people. I even have half a mind to drag the family up Pen Y Fan to breath in the sight from the top or maybe even a surfing lesson at beautiful Rest Bay. I’m back off outside now to take part in yet another bike race with the kids and show them they can’t count their mother out just yet.

‘We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing’

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37 Miles

Nearly two weeks ago I ventured on my first long cycle ride with other people. I faced it with great trepidation. There were so many questions: Would I manage after the first eleven miles? The longest ride I had managed to date was only just over eleven miles. Would my £175 Ebay bike be up to the job? I’m still under the impression that more money equals better cycling. Would I keep up with the group? Would they leave me behind? Would I make it home?

I’m amazed that I did go out with all these questions speeding through my head. But after a dad from the school kindly offered to take me out with a couple of other people I couldn’t flake out. I was about to do something that quite frankly terrified me.

I am an incredibly nervous cyclist. I squeal to myself if I feel like a car is too close. I yelp every time I hit a rough bit of road or go over a cattle grid. And if I go down a really big hill I almost feel like closing my eyes until it’s over (I don’t, I’m not completely stupid). This is how stressful cycling had been for me up until that point. The longest I had been out on the road had been just over an hour and now I was going to be out for well over 3 or maybe even 4 hours. As I cycled over to the rugby club to meet my fellow Sunday cyclists I trembled with anticipation and a tiny bit of fear.

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I can honestly say now that I had one of the best sporting experiences of my life on that windy Sunday afternoon. I met two other nice people who are also training for the Velothon. No one intimidated me or made me feel uneasy. The school dad made sure I wasn’t left behind. I discovered that even though I’m slow and steady on the flat and nervous on the downhills I actually take a perverse pleasure in going uphill. My good old running thunder thighs took me past my new found cycling friends and at the top of a couple of hills I would find myself waiting for them.

We cycled through some beautiful villages in South Wales: Pontyclun, Cowbridge and over to Llantwit Major by the sea. We stopped for a hot chocolate and a chat and then got on our way again back through St Bride’s Major and the back of Bridgend. As the sun started to become a bit lower in the sky I realised that Spring in South Wales isn’t particularly warm on a bike by the coast. I found myself wishing for home for a while but decided that was futile as I still had a fair way to go. I focused on the scenery, making a mental list of all the lovely houses that I fancied moving into when I win the lottery.

The ride reminded me what a beautiful part of the world I live in. In the car I wouldn’t have taken any notice of the undulations and the way I could see ships bobbing just off the coast. I wouldn’t have taken notice of the horses and cows in the fields. Running also wouldn’t have enabled me to get near the roads I was on and I was thrilled that I now had another way to experience my local area. The ride was breathtaking and I felt proud of myself for taking on something that I had been so scared of.

The end of the ride was tough for me and I had to finish it on my own after the other three riders turned off towards their homes. But I took my time and almost used the last few miles as a cool down. When I walked into the house I could hardly feel my legs, I was shivering and my lips were blue. But these things were overshadowed by the sense of achievement I felt and by the fact that I had enjoyed every minute of my ride.

The only regret I have from that Sunday is that I didn’t take more pictures of the sea from the road but I fully intend to go out on more rides to explore the stunning countryside around the place where I live. 37 miles is a huge distance just off the back of hardly any cycling for me but I hope that over the next few months I can clock up even more miles because I think this runner finally ‘gets’ what this cycling lark is all about.

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