My last post was all a bit doom and gloom, wasn’t it? Not even any pictures. Sorry about that.
It spent a long time in the drafts folder, to be fair – a long time waiting for me to tie all the strands together, even though it did turn out to be like a loosely made pom pom: one weak central point and fluff scattered everywhere. But as I mentioned, it wasn’t easy to write. Time to look forward.
This one should be easier for both you and me – as I type I’m at the end of a week off from work with no particular agenda other than to rest, write and run. It came about after a gentle but firm reminder from HR to everyone who had ten or more days of annual leave: take it or lose it. As odd as it sounds taking holiday right after Christmas, the festive season isn’t exactly restful or relaxing and the first two weeks of January turned out not to be that busy, so it made perfect sense to take the time off. Andy’s already used his holiday days waiting for Thames Water to fix our sewer and we’ve neither the money nor the inclination to go abroad, so I treated myself to a staycation on my own. A whole week of wearing yoga pants and not talking to people.
The plan – because even on my day off there’s always a plan – was to use the mornings for running and the afternoons for writing and life admin; the longer game was to try and reset my routine altogether, hopefully making a few good habits that I could carry forward. Although a bit of rest (otherwise known as binge watching Fortitude on the sofa) would also be key, there wouldn’t be much point in getting used to a life of leisure only to suffer a massive culture shock on Monday. I didn’t just want to recuperate, I wanted a fresh start for a fresh new year.
So after moaning for eighteen solid months about never having time, what exactly have I been doing with my precious time off?
Obviously. Getting into a training pattern of any kind is often an exercise in creating a good habit more than it is about the training itself. In my experience, a good habit can help in two key ways: normalising an activity, making its absence more notable than its presence, removes the conscious decision whether or not to do something out of my comfort zone and the risk that I’ll avoid it; and establishing a routine provides a reassuring constant which strengthens my defence against anxiety and doubt. It’s not just helpful for those who suffer with anxiety though; a good habit is crucial for succeeding at any new challenge. When it’s a one off, or if it doesn’t have a place in your schedule, there’ll always be more reasons not to do a new activity than there will be to go for it. It’s sort of why I get so into streaks, I suppose. And, to me at least, there’s something very comforting about having milestones to look out for in my day.
This week’s target on my training plan is 42 miles, mostly at a general aerobic effort or recovery pace, meaning that my effort shouldn’t ever really exceed the ability to hold a conversation. I’m used to that being somewhere in the 8:30 – 9:30 minute mile bracket but my fitness and my health are so far below where they used to be I’m barely going faster than 10:00mm, even when I bust a gut. It’s a fairly depressing place to start, but the only way to improve it is to persevere. So I found a neat little way to fit the miles in without doing circles around my house all the time; driving Andy to work and following up with a run around Richmond Park, with the added bonus of parakeets to play with. It’s been slow, but utterly joyful.
Word of the day, biophilia, has often popped up in my discussions with trail runners about motivation: a hypothesis that being surrounded by nature and living systems can help reduce stress and promote well-being. Spending time in woodland and on open hills, soft ground underfoot and fresh air in my lungs, never fails to improve my state of mind. And another effect of going off-road is a drastic reduction in the perception of effort; I can tootle along the North Downs Way for hours and barely feel it. But when I haven’t got time to play tombola with the Southern trains timetable (“Will the 8:30 to Epsom Downs turn up? Roll the barrel and take your chances!”) there are still plenty of green spaces for me to explore in the city within reach of a tube or my bike: besides Richmond Park, Wimbledon, Tooting and Clapham Common are all regular haunts, as is the Vanguard Way.
Having done my run I’ve been getting back home mid morning full of pep, usually around the time I’d be getting into a meeting if I was at work and resigning myself to no achievements. That pep has been put to good use giving the house a bit of a spruce – cleaning is loads easier when you don’t leave it for weeks at a time – which means a much nicer space to work in. Having done that I’ve been trying to get in at least 20 or 30 minutes of yoga, again something I’ve neglected horribly. Once I’ve unfolded myself out of “corkscrew” and popped my joints back in place the rest of the morning is reserved for correspondence (that sounds more romantic and Jane Austen-y than “checking emails”) or any other odd errands.
There needs to be some rest in there, I am a lady of leisure after all. I got through both series of Fortitude in four days – now of course anxiety dreams are replaced by nightmares about rabid polar bears – while balancing lunch on my belly. It’s Friday as I write this, and time for a change of mood, so I’m watching Dinnerladies from the start. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how brilliant Dinnerladies was. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how brilliant Victoria Wood was. Victoria Wood taught me about humanity and about comedy, which are always the same thing, and had a massive influence on my sense of humour (when I have one). It seems appropriate to take inspiration from her when retraining myself to be human.
Then from three o’clock onwards I’ve been taking my laptop and a cup of coffee down to the summer house to write. I was lucky enough to get on the shortlist of Penguin’s WriteNow project, a scheme offering mentorship to unpublished authors from under-represented backgrounds, but my third of a novel with no discernible narrative written in a tense that made the editor wince didn’t make the final ten, surprisingly. However the WriteNow team gave us so much valuable support and advice that I’ve decided to finish the damn thing and try my luck the old fashioned way. I’m still not changing the tense though.
The novel is a folly for which the optimistically named “summer house” is a perfect setting. The summer house is really just a cabin at the bottom of the garden which seemed to have been used for storing catkins and spiderwebs when we first moved in, but we’ve since furnished it as a bedsit for when my brother stays and now it’s basically the biggest and nicest room in the house. My aim was to try and get around 1000 words down a day, and the cabin is just far enough away from the house that the wi-fi is useless without a booster, which is handy for avoiding distractions. With the help of a new carpet and insulation, an electric heater and a hand knitted draught excluder, it’s actually super cosy down there now. In fact it’s almost as well equipped as Roald Dahl’s hut – all I’m missing is the Thermos flask. I manage a couple of hours without fresh coffee then it’s suppertime.
As we do every January Andy and I have committed to cut down on stodge and make healthier suppers – not that we’re ready meal addicts, but anything requiring more imagination than a diced onion doesn’t get a look in on worknights. Since I’ve been home this week we’ve treated ourselves to square meals that have multiple vegetables and more than one colour in them, and again I find myself surprised (perhaps naively) at the effect proper food can have on mood. I know it’s pretty obvious, but it’s hard to be hangry when you’ve had your five a day. As with all these good habits, it tends to feed itself – you just have to get going in the first place. Or rather, you have to want to get it going. That, I think, is the biggest shift for me – after just one week of R&R I’ve started to care enough about my body to want to feed it decent things, not just to pay lip service to better living.
So I have to admit our HR department were on to something by insisting that people actually take their annual leave. This is usually where someone throws around the term “work-life balance” but as someone whose work patterns have traditionally been of the feast or famine model I’ve never been able to define what that means at all, let alone for me. Now I know what it doesn’t mean: pushing through fourteen months without a proper break, piling exhaustion upon sleep deficit, burning out and going mad. All feast and no famine. I could keep up that kind of pressure in my previous job because I knew there would be fallow months, but it’s taken me some time to adjust to this new, consistently busy schedule, one which requires me to take responsibility for my own health and rest even when we’re busy. It’s going to take time for me not to feel guilty about that.
Although I can’t keep up this lady of leisure act beyond Sunday it’s been just enough to taste what a properly structured life could look like. Work shouldn’t stop me from fitting in an hour of running and an hour of writing a day, or allow for the occasional lazy evening doing nothing of worth except rest – and to be fair it doesn’t, I do. In exposing myself to a routine I’d like to live by, in defining that for myself, I’ve given myself something to look forward to. I haven’t looked forward to anything for over a year now – I’ve been too tired to appreciate it or too afraid of making myself that vulnerable.
If you find yourself in this position, try to find time to take stock – OK you might not have a whole week going spare, but even one day or an hour every morning for a week is better than putting off your recovery over and over until it’s too late. It’s a bit like cleaning your house: if you do twenty minutes every day nothing gets too far out of hand. If you ignore it for months, you’re eventually going to have to call in the professionals.
So, I did that thing. I did the thing all struggling, plateau-bound mojo-less athletes do which is read a Christopher McDougall book and then go out and try to do the book. I once gave my mum Born To Run thinking she’d appreciate the story of cameraderie, the life-affirming joy of friendly competition and the history of the human form, and she immediately went out and bought Vibram FiveFingers.
He has an amazing way of writing one story from five different perspectives and allowing the reader to latch onto whichever one they best identify with, sometimes to the exclusion of all the others. This is why I came away from the book thinking it was all about the anthropology, and many others (Wendimum included) thought it was an advert for barefoot running. I was justifiably wary then of not bringing any bias to Natural Born Heroes, and the first time I read it I came away with so many parables to digest I lost track of all of them. So on the second reading I decided to take it completely at face value, and ended up taking away something buried within a couple of lines in one chapter on a tangential thread about halfway through. Something about a guy called Maffetone.
Some backstory – I have been, a regular readers will know and probably be sick of hearing by now, fatigued to the point of delirium. I read back some of my recent posts, along with my 2017 running diary so far, and I bored myself. Whinging about tiredness is OK to a point; that point was passed long ago. My lifestyle isn’t changing: I haven’t won the lottery, sold my bestseller or been picked up for sponsorship by Altra (although hope springs eternal). There’s really nothing to lose by trying a different way of managing what I have. I had tried a similar approach a few years ago, cutting out gluten to resolve a similar dip in energy and abdominal pains, and was surprised to find that it made an immediate, drastic and exclusively positive difference. Was it that simple? was I really just intolerant to all my favourite foods? At the time I gradually reintroduced bread, cake and pasta to my diet, not because of any special plan but because I reasoned that I’d rather be in pain occasionally than miserable always; besides, a little of what you fancy, etc. Now a few years on I found myself wondering if I had simply let the scales unbalance again.
After battling through the unnecessary Amazon packaging I opened my crisp copy of The Maffetone Method, devoured the Foreword, Preface AND Introduction, and got started on the questionnaire. It’s the usual format of questions, to which the more you answer yes the more likely you are to find the book’s advice applicable. Do you tire quickly, have you gained weight, do you get dizzy, do you have trouble sleeping, do you feel frequently thirsty? Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound.
Naturally, the book offers a total lifestyle plan including advice on training, nutrition and conditioning; in fact its full title is “The Maffetone Method – The Holistic, Low-Stress, No-Pain Way To Exceptional Fitness”. Less naturally, Dr Phil Maffetone himself isn’t selling a branded protein bar or set of meals that are “all you’ll ever need”, or an off the shelf training plan to follow to the letter. Actually, there is literally nothing convenient or fomulaic about this book. Which I sort of like.
One thing it does suggest however – and I really must stress that a) this isn’t the primary lesson and b) it goes hand in hand with heart-rate training, a plan for rest and a number of other lifestyle factors to reduce stress and promote using fat stores over sugar – is to follow a two week plan eliminating carbohydrates, then reintroducing them gradually and one at a time, to identify which if any you are intolerant to. This sounded familiar, so I figured it had to be worth a try. Literally anything that will help me feel more alive than your average zombie had to be worth a try.
So, this post will cover the first week of the test. Next week I’ll explain a little more of the principles that go hand in hand with it and almost none of the science – if you’re curious, go and do your own damn research – and together we can find out if I learned anything useful or if I’ll just end up swimming in a bath full of Nutella toast and tears.
Monday 17th July:
Did MAF test – maximum aerobic function – to measure base levels of fitness. This involves running for a set distance over a set course (I chose my usual 3.5 mile loop around my house starting and finishing on an uphill, but the book recommends 5 miles with as little obstruction as possible) at a set heart rate, and measuring the time it takes to complete. My maximum aerobic heartrate – the max HR before I start depleting my sugar stores instead of using fat – is 180 minus my age, so 147. Average pace ended up at 9:10 minutes per mile. We’ll see how this changes over the next couple of weeks.
Weight: 139.8 lbs
Waist 70 cm
Hips 92 cm
Food: Raw nuts for breakfast, black coffee throughout the day (I pepped up boring instant with a dash of ground ginger – surprisingly good, like eating ginger nuts with your brew!)
Roast turkey, feta cheese and salad for lunch.
Stir fry beef with Chinese five spice and chilli, green veg and eggs for dinner, including a miso soup starter and a glass of Malbec.
Not once did I feel peckish. Not once did I feel the need to snack. Ended up well within my calorie count, which I never manage to do. Didn’t even feel the post work dip which often means me needing a snack for the tube journey home. This is ridiculous. Is it really that easy?
Tuesday 18th July
Today I purposely had an easier running day – gentle couple of miles run to the tube, which doubles up as the cheapest and quickest way to get there.
Breakfast and lunch same as the day before – working through the batch of food prepared at the weekend. I don’t like eating the same thing twice in a day but I have no problems with the same meal two or three days running. Faddy eater, creature of habit, if it works it works!
Dinner was a particularly pleasing and simple creation I stumbled upon last week (I had started to limit the carbs I was eating but didn’t want to start the test proper until after the Chilterns 50k) combining two of my favourite foods, eggs and halloumi cheese. Wanna hear the recipe? Get your notepad:
Whisk 4 eggs and heat olive oil in 20cm frying pan
Start making omelette
Throw in a huge handful of grated halloumi (and if you’re feeling adventurous, some fresh mint) and fold over
Cook low and slow until the cheese melts
Dump a load of salad on top
STAND ASIDE NIGELLA, I’LL MAKE MILLIONS
Of course, I didn’t manage to avoid the commuter hour energy crash this time, so had to pick up something snacky and proteiny on the way home, and in my addled state of mind picked up… two hard boiled eggs. Bit of egg overload, if I’m brutally honest. Rest of day’s snacks consisted of half a jar of Meridian cashew nut butter, for balance.
Meanwhile, at bedtime, my muscles ached so badly I could barely relax enough for sleep. I’m not sure if this is connected with the test – previous users have noted that headaches are common while your body switches from carbs to fat fuelling – or if it’s just because I still haven’t foam rolled after last Saturday’s race.
Wednesday 19th July
Early start for work – I mean, the alarm clock had a 4 in it early. My stomach wasn’t happy with the early wake up so I couldn’t manage breakfast in the recommended timeframe of within an hour of waking. Once the first batch of work was out of the way (around 9am) I tucked into carrot sticks and half a jar of Meridian peanut butter (for variety) and immediately stopped attacking people.
Still using up the turkey for lunch, adding a bit of halloumi this time instead of feta. I really should vary what I’m eating a little more, despite the limitations – tomorrow probably won’t be a turkey day. Dinner today, however, will be. We found some surprisingly cheap, lean turkey mince to make meatballs and courgetti with for dinner. Andy has been a bit of a trooper, happily going along with the test-friendly recipes and not complaining about the lack of starch. Let’s see how that goes after a week in. The addition of a glass of red helps.
My leg muscles are still very grumbly – leaden and stiff rather than painful. I really need a proper sports massage but unlikely to get a chance for a couple of weeks. Am seriously considering taking a rolling pin to them.
Thursday 20th July
Late finish for work today, so I had to pack breakfast and dinner and make sure I got a decent lunch. Breakfast would be half a pot of coconut and almond butter with carrot sticks (snack was the other half of the pot). Dinner was meant to be roast chicken breast on top of cauliflower couscous stir fried with green vegetables – as it turned out I didn’t get dinner, just picked at the chicken on top during the show and a handful of Brazil nuts. But I got a good hearty lunch of Nando’s extra hot chicken and macho peas, so didn’t really need it. And no, there’s no such thing as too much chicken.
Work went smoothly – surprisingly smoothly – but it’s still a highly pressured fifteen hour day with not a lot of down time. The early morning run (still an easy mile as it’s technically a non-running week while I recover as best I can) set me up for the day, but I really really miss rambling, long slow treks, just me and some podcasts and a handheld full of squash. Patience will be the key I think.
Friday 21st July
Didn’t get to bed until half past one and my sleep was fitful at best, so wasn’t really in the right frame of mind for a site visit with work the following morning. For the first time I woke up craving something sweet for breakfast. Not necessarily cereal or toast or anything like that; actually the thing I’ve missed most is fruit and yoghurt. I could have murdered a huge pile of strawberries, cherries and blueberries on top of one of those Muller whipped yoghurt things. OK, leave me be for a bit. I need a moment.
When I came back to earth I made do with Meridian peanut butter and carrot sticks (the sweetest thing on the Maffetone friendly foods list). The site visit went on longer than expected so I didn’t get a chance for lunch – once again the other half of the jar of peanut butter had to do. I can’t spend the next two weeks living on nut butters though.
Dinner was a takeaway Chinese at a friend’s house while we stayed with Andy’s mum in Basingstoke. My first takeaway Maffetone challenge. I didn’t want to risk vegetables as they’d be smothered in sugary sauce, so I went for a good old fashioned omelette and picked at some roast pork. A pot of olives and feta and some lunchbox sticks of cheddar tided me over for the drive to Basey.
OK, real test today. Firstly, I had agreed long ago to a parkrun challenge with Barrie from Basingstoke, and having beaten him twice on London turf I desperately wanted not to lose the away fixture. The whole point of the Maffetone system is removing both the supply of fast burning fuel and the demand for it, which is why you never exceed your maximum aerobic heartrate; this I obviously did, for 24 agonising minutes. Luckily I had a handsome man on hand to make me bacon and eggs for breakfast afterward.
Next item on the agenda that day would be a wedding in Winchester, and like most weddings it involved waiting a long time to eat. Usually I’m a prowling twitchy mess by the time the rings are on so I packed myself a little bag of nuts to keep me going, but I found that I didn’t need them – just as I started to feel hungry again (around 5pm) is when dinner was served anyway. It was an incredible vegetarian Mediterranean buffet spread, easily some of the most amazing food I’ve eaten in a while… but it was, of course, carb city. I just couldn’t avoid carbs altogether otherwise my dinner would have consisted of broccoli and salad leaves. Upsetting as it was to do so I passed on the spanakopita and stuck to dolma (vine leaves stuffed with rice) and a small piece of macaroni cheese, and something that I think was nut roast. Spent the rest of the evening staring at the slices of frosting covered red velvet cake and drooling.
As soon as the cool people started dancing I drove back to Basingstoke to pick up Andy from a poker game that was supposed to be done by 10pm, and wagons home. An hour passed, then two, then three. Around midnight I had to snaffle some Dominos chicken strips (not carb free either) to keep going, and eventually Andy had to go all in with something like a two and Mrs Bun the Baker’s Wife just so he could bust out. By half past 2 we were finally home.
Sunday 23rd July
Tired didn’t describe me the following morning. Paralysed. Cajoled out of bed by the promise of a greasy fry up at the Chelsea cafe round the corner. Bacon, sausage, eggs, grilled tomatoes. Screwed up the test again by giving in to half a slice of buttered toast.
Now, it’s hard to tell if the two mouthfuls of rice and the half a slice of toast really contributed to how crap I felt, especially when two five hour sleeps, a hard-fought 5k and a gutful of adrenalin are in the equation, but I certainly felt them in my stomach. This week has been the first in a while that I’ve neither gone to bed feeling sick nor woken feeling bloated, but Sunday morning kicked me in the arse.
I eventually felt human enough to clean the house and that in itself made me feel a bit more like a human. Lunch was half a pot of almond butter and carrot sticks – I don’t know if I can live on this forever but it works for now – and dinner was a slow cooked curried lamb leg with my custom garam masala (no rice). I took myself off for a nice disciplined low heart-rate trot to loosen up and recover slightly, and once again felt so satiated that I ended up well within my calories again (not for want of trying) without once feeling hunger pangs. Back on track, even if Phil himself would probably call my test null and void.
So that’s week one of the test over – only one more week of people asking me how on earth I’m coping and marvelling at the quantity of food I can inhale. I’m already so surprised at how quickly my blood sugar dips have disappeared, and how easy it has been to keep up as long as I’m in control of finding my food. I’m really, honestly, not craving snacks. I’m not hungry in the middle of the night. I’ve barely worn my glasses all week – I can actually read the computer screen.
But I might take it easy on the nut butters from now on.