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.
I’m going to talk about mental health. It’s not an easy thing to talk about; partly because of the stigma, although that tide is on the way out. Mostly because, for many people, it can be hard to define. Good or bad, mental health is a vague, shapeless thing, often recognisable only in the negative spaces. I think you know when something’s wrong but do you know when something’s right? Do you know how to articulate what’s wrong?
I found myself in this position recently, having finally decided to talk to our company’s welfare counsellor. It took a while to build up the courage and make the appointment – what finally made the decision for me was the need to do something about my mental health not for me, but for the effect it is having on my partner and my friends. I can be as self-indulgent and -destructive as I please, but I have no right to take anyone else down with me. So she asked me what I wanted to talk about, and I said that I was struggling. I couldn’t think of another, less euphemistic way to describe it than that. Just that I was struggling, and I knew that the way I respond to things wasn’t normal, and I needed to do something about it.
I described being so stressed that I vacillated between insomnia and fatigue; actually, tiredness so profound it was paralysing. I described getting home from work one day and slumping to the floor in front of the sofa, unable to get up on to it to be more comfortable, unable to move at all, frozen there until Andy came home an hour later and helped me up. I described being in chronic pain quite a lot of the time for no specific reason and in no specific area, alleviated only by a good long run. I said that I suffered panic attacks. She stopped me there.
“What do you mean by panic attacks?”
As soon as I said it I realised it was a daft thing to say. I had grasped for a phrase to explain what I normally – again, euphemistically – call ‘episodes’, where terror grips my heart for no apparent reason and I burst into hysterics, hyperventilate, become numb, become paralysed, all at once. But of course it’s not panic and it isn’t an attack. I hate that phrase anyway – it infers that a panic attack is something that happens to you: a passive activity thrust upon you, an external influence. It isn’t, of course. It comes from within, it is created in my head and there is an unconscious decision to unleash it. It is, perhaps more appropriately, a stress response, and I am – to some extent – responsible for it.
If what I’ve described there is the tip of the dagger, then what comes next is the wound, which bleeds out if left unchecked. The emotional effort of an “episode” has a very physiological effect on me, quite similar to the effort of a marathon but without the endorphins. Or the sense of achievement. Or the permission to eat tons of cake. The most noticeable effect is that it wears me out, which is probably my body forcing me to rest by simply rendering me immobile for a day or two, but the flipside is that if I have to stay awake for any reason (you know, like gainful employment) I end up behaving like an overtired toddler at a New Year’s Eve party. Only now am I waking up naturally after less than ten hours of sleep; for the best part of 2017 I’ve been going to bed before half 8 (when I am able), and either being wrenched awake at half 7 the following morning feeling like the living dead, or staying awake until the small hours panicking about utter bollocks and seeing a liquid three hours of tearful, fearful sleep. I don’t think either of those make me a fun person to work with.
In fact I have a little sleep app which I set when I go to bed, which measures REM cycles and quality of sleep and on which I record notes relating to my day, such as whether I drank tea, coffee or alcohol, whether I worked out, whether it was a stressful day. Using that information it can tell me how those parameters affect my sleeping habits; it is not surprising that a stressful day generally correlates with poor quality sleep but working out and a solid 8 hours tends to give a higher score. It did, however, turn out to be a surprise one day when I noticed that for the first time since starting to use the app regularly I didn’t tick the box for “drank coffee”. I went one day without coffee. In over two years. Which makes the coffee parameter somewhat irrelevant and the whole enterprise less than scientific.
I say “less than scientific”: it’s just an iPhone app, a product designed to meet the current trend for simulated empiricism (among other things), so that people have the illusion of control over their lives because a fitness or lifestyle or health app is helping them track their every move. Scientifically speaking this kind of data analysis is at best valueless and irrelevant; or at least, it’s about as relevant as those Facebook quizzes that list your character attributes (they’re never really negative are they?) based on the third letter of your name or the date you were born. My point is that this very unscientific thing, this cynical tool of consumerist juzsh, has become a crutch in my daily life simply because I’m afraid of losing control, and this app makes me feel as though I have it. Copy and paste for MyFitnessPal.
Which brings me to what I believe is the contributing factor to these episodes: a fear of loss of control. My family, god love them, will tell you this is nothing new; I’ve been called a control freak many times before and not usually in the context of a compliment. The mistake I think they make – perhaps I should stop putting words in their mouths if I don’t want to be called a control freak – is that they think what I desire is control over everything, when in truth all I need is control over a fraction of myself. Control over everything? I’m not that ambitious. And I don’t like other people enough to care about controlling them. I just want to feel the tips of my own fingers.
Because that’s literally where every episode takes me. To the feeling that every molecule in my body becomes loose and starts to float away, that the bonds between them disintegrate and I become nothing. This is a waking nightmare I have suffered almost all my life, or at least since I was about ten years old; it’s also a recurring dream that plagues the few hours I do sleep at the height of my anxiety episodes. It can approach by degrees, perhaps at a professional or social occasion that I’m not entirely comfortable with, where I try to hold back the tide of anxiety for as long as possible and jump on a train home when I’m about to succumb; or it can hit me like a tsunami, where I’m coping one minute and the next I’m dissociating first from my surroundings, then from my peripheral senses, almost from my sense of self altogether: stranded. When I talk about losing control, I’m not talking about frustration that other people won’t bend to my will. I’m literally talking about losing the link between my physical body and my sense of self.
At one point or another this has manifested itself in the form of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia (it’s possible, look it up), as an eating disorder, as compulsions, and not at all. The common factor to all these self-prescribed treatments is the same thing: a misguided belief that activity X equals outcome Y, and I will regain control of all my molecules. But that fear of disintegration still tortures me. If I stand on a bridge I panic that my belongings will jump out of my pockets into the water, or that I’ll fall in even if I’m nowhere near the edge. If I drop something on the floor, I briefly imagine that it will fall into a black hole and be gone forever. If I stand still for long enough, I feel as though I will turn to dust.
This is what I wanted to tell the counsellor, and didn’t. I said a lot of things but I couldn’t articulate this. Six months on, and only now have I got the building blocks of the language I need to describe it to you – even then these words are to actual building blocks what Lego is to bricks and mortar.
It was far from a waste of time though – those two short sessions were enough to start the process of recovery, even if all they did was make me confront and find a way to define the immediate problem. We discussed the importance of running to my mental health, acknowledging that that one very simple treatment has never failed to alleviate my symptoms and working out how to make the most of it. I half expected her to tell me that actually there is no provable link between exercise and good mental health and that it’s all a placebo sold by Runner’s World – but then I thought, what does it matter if it is? As long as it works, and the worst side effects are boring your friends and never having clean hair, then I’ll take a placebo over losing hope that I’ll ever feel human again. It’s either that or knitting.
To anyone reading this who can relate to what I’ve written, or who recognises even a scrap of themselves in the chaotic fragments of my story, I say this: I know how lucky I am to have this resource available, and how stupid I am for not taking advantage of it sooner. Many people don’t have the luxury of a welfare counsellor at work or even know if they come on the NHS. If you have such a resource, use it. Not because a counsellor will fix you like a plaster on a papercut, but because they will start to teach you how to heal yourself. They might sow the seeds of recovery, or show you how to sow the seeds, or they might even start by explaining to you what seeds are.
If you don’t have access to a counsellor directly, be reassured that help is closer than you think. The Mind website is a great source of information on mental health, as are SANE and Rethink. And be reassured that mental ill-health is commoner than you think too, especially in this age of enlightenment. With the privilege of more and more instant access information comes the responsibility to evaluate it all, at an increasingly faster pace and with less and less tolerance for error. It’s like working on a factory assembly line, where the machine churns out parts at the same pace for years and years, and all the line workers have to do is put them together. Suddenly one day the machine doubles in speed and your boss docks your pay for every incorrect assembly. The effort of trying to keep up compounded by the fear of failure is a disaster waiting to happen, and yet we have to treat this situation as if it’s perfectly normal. Eventually, it is normal. But normal still isn’t the same as right.
If me and my molecules have been of any help to you then maybe it’s a step towards us all keeping up with the machine. And if they haven’t, then please know that you’ve been invaluable to me.
So, this is my account of week two of Dr Phil Maffetone’s Two Week test. The purpose of the test, which I touched on briefly in part one of this blog, is to eliminate carbohydrates from my diet for two weeks and to exercise only within my maximum aerobic heart rate limit, a two-pronged attack to both remove the supply of fast-burning fuel from my body and the demand for using it, thereby re-training my body to use its natural fat stores. Why, exactly, am I going to all this trouble?
The Maffetone method – so called because it is a holistic lifestyle method and not just a diet and exercise plan – focuses on identifying the causes of and contributors to stress, promoting the body’s natural resources to defend itself. It has been used (and recommended) by many endurance athletes, including Ironman Mark Allen, as well as average Joes looking for a solution to perpetual fatigue – although less so by sprinters, rowers, athletes relying on short bursts of high intensity effort. According to the good doctor, a potential stressor on the human body is an undiagnosed but common occurrence of carbohydrate intolerance – to be clear, this isn’t a “all carbs = bad” blanket statement, it’s simply questions the ability to digest the quantity of carbohydrates found in a standard western diet. If you find it hard to believe that too much carbs could be a thing, think about how crazy you thought I was for taking this plan on in the first place, consider if the thought flashed through your mind “what the hell is she going to eat then?” If you did think that, try to imagine what your diet might look like if you avoided carbs for two weeks. In Britain especially we commonly eat bread or cereal for breakfast, sandwiches and crisps for lunch, rice, pasta or potatoes with dinner. It’s not much of a stretch to ask if we really need that much starch in our diet. It’s only a step further to ask if we can more efficiently burn our fat stores and forever avoid the dreaded bonk.
Hand in hand with this principle goes a re-education of exercise limits; understanding the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise, which the book summarises thus:
Aerobic: The ability to obtain more energy through increased fat burning
Anaerobic: The increased use of sugar for energy and decreased fat burning
If you’ve ever told yourself “no pain, no gain” during a workout, the chances are you’ve been working above your aerobic threshold – in other words, anaerobically – and are burning sugar for fuel. We can store a limited supply of this, as anyone who has hit the wall at mile 20 despite mainlining Lucozade can attest. By simply working within our aerobic capacity we are using aerobic muscle fibers – more resistant to injury than their anaerobic counterparts – and burning our fat stores, stores which are significantly more prevalent and provide far more energy pound for pound than sugar can do. But, and here’s another factor that flies in the face of common practice, it means doing a lot of slow running in order to get faster and build endurance. I mean, all my running is slow running so yet again it seemed like a much more intuitive plan for me than it might do for a lot of people. In fact I remember hearing about the Maffetone method for the first time not via Chris McDougall, but in a podcast interview with Larisa Dannis who described her workouts as being limited by her max heartrate, where the improvement comes from increasing speed against a fixed effort rather than increasing effort to improve overall speed. At the time I thought that it sounded like a much less painful and much more sustainable way to get results, and so far the practice seems to be bearing fruit. To know for certain though I will need to retake the MAF test (described in part 1) at monthly intervals and measure the improvements. Watch this space.
A lot of the measures he suggests do make sense when taken in isolation and within context, even though the programme as a whole can sound extreme at the outset. So I was careful not to lose sight of the reason I was attracted to it in the first place: namely that I am feeling as unwell as I’ve ever felt, due to a known combination of work and life stresses I can’t do much about, overtraining in my running (which I am tempering with a month and a half off from racing), and other stressors which I need to identify before I can resolve. With that in mind, anything seemed worth trying. The idea that excess carbohydrate could be a stressor seemed worth exploring, offering a seemingly win-win outcome. If reducing my carbohydrate intake relieves some of that pressure, yay. If it doesn’t and I can still eat cake sandwiches and pasta without fear that it’s poisoning me, yay.
Monday 24th July
Back to the working week. I felt a little sluggish after the weekend but part of that had to be attributed to the fact I was still recovering from a busy race schedule. And perhaps a whisper of a hangover. Breakfast was Brazil nuts, which turns out to be a great way to start the day if you’re not used to eating much early.
Andy has graciously allowed me to take control of lunches for the week and took a Tupperware full of Turkish salad, macaroni and tinned mackerel – and as far as I know, didn’t hate it. Had to be an improvement on Wetherspoons, anyway. I topped my own portion of salad with pepperoni (bending the processed meats rule) and huge chunks of halloumi. I can’t think of a single meal that halloumi doesn’t improve.
Dinner was the remainder of our curry. Andy bulked his up with rice, which can’t be the worst carbohydrate going, and I with roasted cauliflower. This turned out to be a delicious and surprisingly filling side, and went well with the curry (once I’d dumped a load of cumin and chilli on it). I tried to up my fat intake with some pork crackling snacks, after spending all last week thinking protein is the key. While the cauliflower roasted I took myself for a couple of miles around the local area, keeping as rigidly as possible within my maximum aerobic heart rate – 147. It’s probably a good measure of just how fatigued I am that some days I can barely move my legs fast enough to reach that maximum, as low as it is – I’m scratching around the mid thirties. I don’t think that’s a good sign.
Tuesday 25th July
I had a proper breakfast today – sausage, eggs and bacon in the work canteen. Who knew, it set me up well for the day and I didn’t need a single snack. In fact I barely drank any coffee. I can’t tell you how many years it’s been since I got to 4pm without six cups of coffee.
I did my run at lunchtime, taking the rare opportunity to leave the office for half an hour and came back feeling so much better for having the luxury to enjoy more than a hurried ten minutes around the block. When I got back I had a roast chicken salad waiting for me, which I have to admit I wasn’t really hungry enough for, but I knew dinner would be late as I promised to wait for Andy to get home from football. I won’t get this kind of structured day again for a while, and creature of habit that I am, I could easily make this a daily routine. Evening runs just aren’t doing anything for me at the moment; by the time I get home my muscles are worn to gummy threads like overstretched Blu-tac. The afternoon flies by.
Dinner is a huge mound of stir fried green veg with two fillets of sea bass pan-fried in butter. It. Is. Delicious. Even Andy agrees, although after a vigorous session of 5-a-side it’s not really enough for him and he has a chaser of chicken dippers. I realise I have had a glass of wine almost every day since starting this plan, which is probably not the point. I may have to examine just how much I’m drinking at the moment.
I had my little tub of almonds and Brazil nuts while waiting for Andy to get home, and the ubiquitous almond butter later in the evening while Big Little Bro and I chatted into the small hours about all the degrees we’re going to do when we’re rich. His plan is basically to stay in academia for as long as humanly possible. He makes a very compelling argument. I go to sleep dreaming of being a student again.
Wednesday 26th July
I overslept, unsurprisingly, so didn’t have time to make myself a lunchbox. Drat. At least I managed another cooked breakfast at work – which is amazing value and relatively clean eating. To be fair, I hadn’t felt the need for lunch or snack yesterday and I can always pick up a bag of almonds from the corner shop, so I wasn’t too worried.
It being a pretty active day at work I did have to stop for a proper lunch – the canteen had roast half chicken on which I supplemented with salad. I did a lot of hurrying back and forth between another theatre down the road, not to mention a few miles on foot around the building, and for the first time since starting this test my endurance failed me.
We had planned to make stroganoff for dinner but I ended up staying so late with work to finish off there was not time to make it. I ran from work to the tube sation and from the tube station home, but it was a slow and painful run. Halloumi omelette gave me just enough energy to get to sleep.
Thursday 27th July
Broadcast day today again – which means another late finish, a lot of stress and another load of running around with irregular breaks. I managed a breakfast of carrot batons and peanut butter but that wasn’t until 12pm, swiftly followed by Nando’s chicken and peas for lunch.
Scrolling back through the macronutrients log on MyFitnessPal, I suddenly realised that sausages do of course have carbs in them (depending on what is mixed with the sausagemeat). Damn bugger balls. I mean I’m not exactly the most discliplined dieter but I thought I wasn’t doing too badly. A little research into the principles of the keto diet, which is a longer term and more sustainable but less flexible option for this principle of eating, shows that between 20 and 50 grams of carbs a day is the recommended maximum limit. Comparing my intake over the last two weeks with that at least I can see I’ve not been exceeding 25 grams a day, and most of those come from vegetables still on the yes list, so they must be OK. I am looking forward to bolstering some of those allowable grams with yoghurt and fruit though.
I get home at half 2 in the morning. Dinner was more nuts. As far as fuel goes it did just about get me through the day, but it is getting a bit miserable if I don’t plan my lunches ahead of time.
Friday 28th July
Ahhhh… day off. It’s our ninth anniversary today. We had plans to spend the day together doing middle aged things like shop for a new bathroom, but Andy had to go into work in the morning so I took the opportunity to sleep and continue Project Clearout. I treat myself to a breakfast of bacon, eggs and halloumi fried in butter which is THE BOMB. I didn’t need lunch as such but we had decided to go out to Boxpark for dinner anyway so I left good and early for dinner.
This is where things got messy. Boxpark had some amazing street food outlets to try – not many of them test-friendly though, so I started with a plate of grilled chorizo and a malbec. Thinking I wouldn’t find anything else to eat I have to confess to stealing a slice of Andy’s sourdough toast and hummus. It tasted good, but I immediately felt plate-pickers remorse.
And then we found Feed Me Primal, a paleo food stall. Holy crap why did we not find this first? An incredible plate of carb free noms, starting with a cauliflower rice base, topped with grilled veg, steak and chicken, then spinach and almond flatbread. I cannot even describe how good it was – even ANDY actively enjoyed it. As in, find this recipe and replicate it. No persuasion needed.
From there however, it all went downhill (or uphill, depending on your perspective). I can’t pretend rum punches, increasingly bitter wine and eventually two shots of tequila feature on the Two-Week Test “yes” list, even if they don’t specifically appear on the “no” one. All I remember after that is screwing up Andy’s Uber rating by making the driver stop so I could throw up, and wailing “I’M GONNA DIE” into our mop bucket.
Saturday 29th July
Fry up at George’s Café. All I could manage to stay alive.
Missed parkrun. Missed day out with friends. Had to have two naps before going to sleep.
Lunch was half a jar of peanut butter and tears. Dinner was an entire pot of Onken yoghurt that I made my little brother go out for.
I cannot find the chapter in the book about how to survive a hangover.
Sunday 30th July
The final day of the no-carbs low-HR two-week test, if I can still call it that after the myriad infractions. It would be the biggest test of all, going for a social trail run with the Chasers combined with a bit of Prudential Ride 100 sightseeing. We had planned to start at Box Hill, run to the top to cheer on the cyclists there, then run back down and west along the North Downs to Guildford to round off the day. Nut butter for breakfast, and not a single hint of the hangries to start with.
Although we weren’t going at any kind of pace, starting off on a climb sent my heartrate through the roof straightaway, and probably knocked me out for the rest of the run. It was lovely to be out on the trails and enormous fun shouting at cyclists, but my leg muscles were threadbare before we even got to Denbies and by the top of that hill I was already shuffling. Counting back through the races and work projects I’ve done this year, it’s not surprise I can barely move my legs any more, but it’s still demoralising to realise I’m back to square one until I can recover.
I snaffled a Chia Charge bar and a nutty 9Bar, neither of which were totally carb-free but the closest thing I could find in the morning. I didn’t feel any sugar crash or energy slump symptoms – I just wanted to go to sleep. I wanted to stop moving, just for a day. Cat cajoled me through the last five miles, through me grumbling and whining and stopping for a stretch and looking for nearby train stations to bail out to. It was one of the hardest runs I’ve ever done. I felt like a ball of negativity gathering volume and ferocity and I rolled down a hill of despair. I was not good company.
But finally, despite my best efforts, we made it to Guildford Station, stopped off at Marks for the biggest bag of nuts you’ve ever seen, and were homeward bound. I soaked myself in a hot bath as soon as I got home and lay flat on the sofa while Andy ordered curry for dinner. Half a roast chicken (good), a sneaky bit of tarka dhal (not good, but GOOD), Bombay peas (probably good). Bed: excellent.
Monday 31st July and beyond
So, what next? Well, the next step is to gradually reintroduce various different carbs to my diet – although never in two meals in a row – and evaluate which ones still affect me, while continuing to train within my maximum aeriobic heartrate of 147bpm. I might have been a bit lax on the final couple of days but to be fair I think I’d already found myself pretty certain that bread, pasta and potatoes have to be handled with caution, whereas pulses, vegetable and yoghurt are very manageable. The proof would of course be in the low-carb pudding – weighing and measuring myself to compare with the results before I started.
For two, frankly undisciplined and completely unscientific weeks’ worth of food experimentation, I was rewarded with three and half pounds in weight lost, and two centimetres lost from both my waist and hips. Some of this has to be attributed to water loss (despite my efforts to stay topped up), but I do at least feel slightly less wobbly around the edges. More importantly than that however is the fact that I’ve got through two broadcast weeks without feeling sluggish, bloated or dizzy, and without needing my reading glasses or near-lethal doses of caffeine. I can barely manage a day, usually. This, above all else, is a win for me.
With moderation, I’m not missing carbohydrates as much as I thought – in fact, it was the easiest thing in the world to decide to continue limiting my carb intake beyond the two weeks, and avoiding processed sugar indefinitely. Rice, beans, fruit and yoghurt are the first things back on the menu, provided I don’t go overboard, and the odd slice of bread won’t kill me – although that and beer are probably my biggest weaknesses. I’ve been gleefully embracing “fatty” foods, having learned what good fat tastes like, and chucking out anything bearing the legend low-fat, low-calorie or “light”. I am satisfied so much more than I used to be. I no longer need to snack, or suffer light-headedness and sugar crashes in the middle of the afternoon. I, a runner who could be sponsored by Haribo and Nutella, have honestly not craved a single bite of sugar.
But how valid, exactly, was the test? The occasional slip-ups aside – and I should clarify here that the book’s advice is to restart the test every time you do, which I obviously did not follow – it’s worth reviewing it in the context of its overall purpose, which wasn’t exclusively about weight loss for me. It was about a holistic lifestyle reboot, retraining my body to use its resources for fuel, for recovery and for reducing its susceptibility to stress. My lifestyle is stressful; either I change my lifestyle (not happening) or I change the way I handle it. The alternative would be to carry on freewheeling down this slope of negativity, taking everyone I love with me. It also held a mirror to a burgeoning problem which, if I’m honest, shocked me a little. I’ve tracked my food and drinks on MyFitnessPal every day for the last couple of years and obsessively reviewed every morsel and every calorie, but only in these last two weeks noticed just how heavy a drinker I’ve become. I’m not proud to admit that it took counting grams of carbohydrate to finally notice that I automatically reach for a beer or a wine at the end of every day, reasoning that it’ll help me sleep better or digest my food or just because I deserve it. Still, even if the test itself is bogus, at least I’m more conscious of what I’m putting in my body. Until football season starts, of course.
So, reducing one potential stressor – nutritional imbalance – has to help contribute to the whole, and I believe it has. Reducing another – the effects of overtraining, by running to effort and limiting anaerobic activity – was an easy win as well, especially for a midpacker endurance athlete. Eliminating the main stressor in my life – work – may not be an option until I win the lottery, but by managing the other stressors I am giving myself a bigger capacity to cope with it. There’s no silver bullet there; I won’t get over that particular hurdle without a protracted period of rest, and as it happens I do have a week off work coming up. In the interest of empiricism, I’m very tempted to try the test again after my break, to be sure of the validity of it. Then again, it’s already served a purpose of sorts, retraining my cravings and confirming some suspicions. There are not many things I can be 100% sure of, but if there’s one it’s that the occasional puppy-eyed stare at someone else’s buttered toast comes from missing the taste, the pleasure of the treat, not because my body is telling me I need it. Those stares are reserved for Meridian nut butters these days.
If this resonates with you in any way, the first thing I would say is do your research. What’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander. The nutritional aspect of the Maffetone Method may sound as if its not a million miles from the ketogenic diet, the paleo diet, Atkins, LCHF, all with slight variations on very similar principles; but unlike the diets listed it promotes flexibility and adaptation informaed by regular monitoring of results, rather than a rigid plan. As always, it’s worth learning about what the plan involves and even consulting a nutritionist before undertaking any significant lifestyle changes. Not a blog.
Here’s the disclaimer bit. To be clear, I’m not an expert; neither am I on commission nor holding shares in the book or in Meridian. I just wanted to share my average Joe experience in the hope that someone else asking themselves the same questions I did can perhaps find some answers of their own. If you only take one thing away from my post, take this: when you begin to feel like a passive force in your own life, when you feel that your training has hit a plateau or your nutrition needs a reboot, read. Learn. Observe, examine, analyse. The clues are all there, if you take the time to find them. Anyone can make a change: just make sure you’re making the right one for you.
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.