If you’d asked me a year ago, perhaps two, whether I thought I could realistically run an ultramarathon, I would have laughed in your face and probably said something like ‘no, and I don’t really want to either’.
The root of this belief was:
1) That I found (and still find) running 15km very difficult so could never imagine how I was supposed to run over 3x that amount and not die…
2) If I believed I could, I knew that I would have to give it a go. ‘Giving something a go’ means months of hard training, anxiety, doubt and the possibility of ‘failure’, which many of us aren’t inclined to experience, let alone seek out.
Last month I ran my first ever ultramarathon, 50km across the gorgeous Peak District hills. I signed up 3 weeks in advance of the race with no expectations, no ‘goals’ per se, just a desire to race at least once in 2020 and spend time outside. The race went better than I ever could have expected, and I truly loved every minute.
4 weeks later I took part in my second ultra (depending on your definition) – 48km along the Jurassic Coast – simply because it was close to home and I know how beautiful the route is. I signed up one week before, and the whole experience was a delight.
From what I’ve seen of ultramarathons, they are friendlier, prettier and far more forgiving than your average road marathon. People rarely run the whole thing, you have support the entire route (in the form of checkpoints with water, foot, medical aid etc every 10k or so) and everyone is so friendly! Walking isn’t frowned upon and you see people of all shapes and sizes signing up – there is far less judgement than I think people expect from these events. Because it’s a small community too, you tend to get to know people pretty fast!
Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, people stop believing in trying out new experiences in favour of keeping to the known and the predictable. In short, people stop believing in themselves.
With this comes the knowledge that you’ll probably always be OK, but equally, probably never have the best time of your life, never find a new hobby and never experience all that life has to offer. Fear of the unknown, combined with mental images of elite athletes laughing at you for hobbling around a 50k course is enough to put anyone off… but I’m here to say that it shouldn’t!
Reasons to run an ultra:
Without pushing your body, you will never see what your body is capable of. It’s a lot more than you think.
Humans like to see progress. There is almost nothing more satisfying than seeing physical progress in running, whether that’s running to the end of your road, doing a faster 5k, or simply enjoying your run for the first time!
Trail ultras are far more forgiving on the joints than road marathons and similar, which means you’re less likely to experience running related injuries.
It’s essentially an eating competition – the longer the run, the more you need to eat. If eating is one of your favourite pastimes (I know it is for me), you’ll probably do pretty well in an ultra!
The views! Maybe you think running is boring. Ultra running is NEVER boring. Choose one in a place you want to explore and enjoy the views!
You can’t pressure yourself to get a particular time on an ultra. Unless you’re an international champ, there’s no ‘doing well’ or ‘not doing well’ on an ultra. You signed up and showed up – that’s pretty epic! If you finish, you get a medal. Everyone is a winner here.
Training is about time on feet rather than pace or even distance. One of the hardest things about an ultra is being out on your feet all day, but if you have a busy job and spend a lot of time standing up, or enjoy walking a lot, you’ll probably be really good in an ultra. Of course, running training is important, but you have a head start if you are used to spending hours on your feet, even if you’re just standing still!
You get space. You might enjoy running with thousands of people around you – in which case I’d suggest doing a road marathon or something like the Great North Run. For ultras the chances are you’ll meet plenty of people along the way, but will never be penned in or surrounded by people.
It’s an adventure. While many road races feel quite similar, ultras are all different. They’re a great excuse to travel and explore somewhere new.
It’s a life experience. Ultras, especially multi-day ultras, can take over your life for up to a year, but the chances are they’ll also become one of the best things you’ve ever done. I’d say that’s reason enough to sign up!
Mud splatters, soggy shoes, dirt EVERYWHERE. As we move into the wetter months, one of the inevitabilities of spending lots of time training outdoors is the need to wash your clothes all the time. However, washing clothes is energy and water intensive, and 40% of clothes that we throw into the wash could be worn again.
Here are some tips to make the most of your workout wardrobe and ensure your clothes last as long as possible, as sustainably as possible.
Only wash your clothes when dirty
You might be tempted to throw your kit in the wash after every trip outdoors, but there’s a chance they don’t actually need washing each time, especially items such as leggings and outer layers. Over washing clothes can shorten their lifespan and release microfibres into waterways, damaging aquatic ecosystems. For clothes somewhere between clean and dirty, consider using an antibacterial spray such as Day 2 to reduce odours and make your clothes last an extra day.
Use a guppy bag
The washing of synthetic fibres is assumed to be the primary source of microplastics in the oceans, with 640,000 – 1,500,000 released in each wash. Guppy bags trap microfibres released by synthetic fabrics, which activewear is full of!
Don’t use fabric softener or tumble dry
Fabric softener can ruin activewear and reduce their sweat-wicking ability. Tumble-dryers can also damage activewear and use large amounts of energy, so air dry your clothes where possible, or dry on a low-heat setting.
Pre-treat stains and wash cool
One of the main reasons that ‘hot washes’ (40 – 60 degrees) are recommended is to remove stains. By pre-treating your clothes (I have found this Ecover stain remover to work well), you reduce the temperature it needs to be washed at, and ensure the worst stains still get removed. Washing clothes in a 30 degree cycle rather than 40 degrees uses 40% less energy and is less likely to damage clothes or fade colours. This saves money in the long run, both in bills and also having to buy new clothes. Always use liquid detergent for cooler washes and don’t add more than the recommended amount, or it’ll build up. Liquid detergent cleans better than powder and goes further. Check out sustainable products you can use for your laundry.
If you’re worried about odours, add half a cup of white vinegar to the wash load and this will neutralise odours.
How to clean your trainers
Trainers and trail running shoes can generally take a pretty good battering, but avoid damage by removing excess mud when returning from a mucky run. I tent to wait until they’re dry and then hit them together outside to remove the worst of it.
To wash: If you have coloured trainers, remove white laces before putting them in the wash, or the colours may leach. Remove insoles and then place the trainers and insoles (if washable) into a pillowcase and into the wash. Wash on a cool wash with a towel or similar to stop them flying around the washing machine. Dry them in an airing cupboard or somewhere warm, but not on the radiator or tumble dryer – excessive heat will ruin them.
What are your top tips for taking care of your activewear sustainably? Any secret tricks? If you enjoy my posts regularly, please consider contributing so I can keep this page up and running (no pun intended).
As winter draws nearer for those of us in the northern hemisphere, the weather closes in, making sunny days a rarity and rainy days more and more common. For anyone who has recently taken up running, this might be a bit of a shock – after a glorious 7 months of sunshine, it’s the sort of time where hanging up your trainers, sticking on a cosy jumper and curling up in front of the fire seems far more appealing than the idea of heading out for a run.
There are loads of great reasons why running in the rain can be a good thing, not least because rain happens and if you want to progress, it’s something you’ll probably have to get used to as a runner. On top of that, rainy days are usually fairly empty out and about, meaning it’s one of the few times you won’t have to worry about crashing into people or sharing the trails with too many others.
SO, I thought I’d write this little piece with the aim of encouraging you all to get out. If you can get out in this weather, you can get out in anything and that makes you pretty badass. It’s also worth noting that by far the hardest part of many runs is getting out the door – once that’s achieved the rest is often plain sailing. Thanks to my Instagram followers and Tribe Run for Love crew for sharing their advice too!! Ps. If you’re looking for a 2021 challenge, their 250km ultramarathon may give you all the motivation you need. Sign up to be notified when it launches!
Meet up with people. Running in the rain doesn’t seem so pleasant until you pair it with another reason, such as a social one. Meeting with someone to run, whether you talk the whole way or run in silence, is one of my favourite things to do. Knowing you’ll be letting someone down if you don’t show up is good motivation to get out the door.
Don’t overdress. It’s currently Autumn, which means the temperature is actually perfect for training (apparently the optimal endurance training temp is 9-11 degrees). Don’t be overzealous with the layers, or you’ll be stripping down and carrying them around for the rest of the run, and sweating too much can actually cool you down further. Dress for 5-10 degrees warmer than it actually is. Be bold, start cold!
Men – use Vaseline on your nips or wear a bag to stop everything rubbing! Esp important for longer runs.
Wear a cap. These aren’t only useful for sunny runs – caps are great for preventing rain from getting in your eyes.
Cooler runs are easier on the body. Make the most of the cooler temperatures to get in some speedy runs!
Your skin is waterproof! Nothing bad is going to happen if you run in the rain and get a little wet.
BUT avoid the most stormy days. Running in a named storm may be possible, but it might not be sensible, especially if you’re running under tree cover, as branches are prone to snapping off in high winds. Plan your training days to avoid the worst weather.
Invest in good gear. Good wet weather gear can make the difference between being able to train comfortably all winter and avoiding running altogether. Invest in a good rain jacket (a light one and one with taped seams for the heaviest rain on cold days) and a base layer that’ll keep you warm when it’s cold, and cool when you warm up. If you’re into trial running, make sure to have good shoes that won’t rub when they get wet. Consider Goret-Tex or OutDry for waterproof trail shoes.
If you wear glasses, don’t. (Contacts work better).
Motivate yourself with what you’re going to do post run, be it a warm bath, hot shower, cuppa and/or cake. Everything feels better after a tough run.
Don’t forget to drink! When it’s wet and/or cold, it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re sweating. You still need water, even when it’s cold!
Put your phone somewhere waterproof (sandwich bags work well).
Braid your hair/avoid ponytails – the rain will matt it an it’ll be a nightmare to deal with when you get back.
If you get cold hands, invest in good running gloves. I find that if my hands are cold, the rest of me is cold, so I wear gloves all winter. This is esp important if you have Raynaud’s.
If you’re running far, tell someone where you’re going and/or share a tracking link (Strava has Beacon so family can follow your location). This is useful for dark runs and those in low visibility for ease of mind.
Most of all, have fun! Running in the rain really isn’t that bad once you’re out, and it’s the chance to let your inner child out! Splash in puddles and enjoy the empty streets.
Watch this vlog to see some of my favourite winter training gear. If you found this blog post helpful, please do share with anyone who might find it useful or share and tag me on Instagram!
On 19th September, I ran my first ever ultramarathon, a 50km, 1900m elevation gain jaunt in the Peak District, one of the UK’s National Parks. The race itself was different to any other I had done, not least because of social distancing measures put in place to ensure the competitors safety, and was superbly organised by Ultra X (the co-hosts of my other big adventure, the Tribe RFL).
I arrived in the Peaks on the Thursday afternoon, wanting to get a feel for the area and have the chance to explore a little – the issue with racing somewhere is that in the couple of days before the race you don’t want to do anything that might hinder your ability on the day, but then after the race you’re incapable of actually moving and doing anything fun. I’d always recommend arriving 3 days before a race if you want to be able to explore and get in a shakeout run!
We did just that – on Thursday we did a short walk, and on Friday a slightly longer one of about 12km, scouting out a small part of the course. Saturday was, of course, a total rest day (which I found myself very much needing after our walk the day before). It wasn’t a ‘carb-loading’ day per se, but the whole week previously had been filled with a slightly greater proportion of carbohydrates than usual to make sure muscle glycogen stores were as full as they could be.
On Saturday I set up camp with the runners completing the full 125km weekend, who were coming back from their first day (75km) as we set up my tent. The evening was spent eating our freeze-dried meals and snacks while listening to people recount their adventures from the day.
The next morning started with a big breakfast and some snacks at around 8am, followed by taping of my irritated tibialis posterior, a little niggle I’ve been having on and off since January. Better to preempt injuries than have to stop mid race! Coffee x2 in (I tend to save caffeine for race days), three loo breaks (nervous wees are a thing) and a little jumping around at the start line, we were off. COVID restrictions means that we set off in waves, so I started alone, but shortly caught up with a friend from the Azores Run for Love (these events are small, so you often see the same faces pop up again and again, which is part of what makes them lovely!).
Race kit (where I can’t find the exact kit I’ve put their newer versions, or left blank if there isn’t one):
The first 5km of the race were done at my usual long run pace, which may have been a bit fast but we made the most of the downhills and easier terrain to warm up quickly. We made it to the first checkpoint in less than 30 minutes, after which I took off my trousers and packed them away. I also took my in first nutrition around then.
Coca Cola (while I usually hate coke, it is one of THE BEST things to drink mid long run. I guess it’s the combo of sugar and caffeine that does it!).
I preempted one of the colder parts of the route by keeping on my warm weather gear for the first peak, as it was still early and cold and the wind was freezing up there! But after summiting the first peak, I took off my rain jacket and stored it away in my bag. This was the order of the day – run, drink, eat, strip a layer, repeat, until I was just wearing my shorts and a t-shirt (while I love to run in just a sports bra, for longer races I try to wear a t-shirt to avoid bag chafing and sun/wind burn). And that’s how I got round the race! Food, water and one foot in front of the other.
I finished the race in 6h49mins, which was over an hour quicker than I had anticipated! It also afforded me the place of 6th woman, which is better than I could ever have expected. I hope to do more soon – it really was SUCH a fun day. I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of the outdoors, and this was the perfect way to spend as much time in it as possible (and eat as much food as possible!). Watch this space for another race 😉 I’d love to hear if you have any plans for similar races coming up? What gear do you swear by? I’m always up for getting more recommendations! Comment down below!
You can see my vlog of the race below – don’t forget to like and subscribe if you enjoyed!
A topic I have spent some time (though probably not enough) discussing on my Instagram page, as well as on here, is overtraining and RED-s, or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. The condition has spent more time in the limelight recently, with high profile cases coming to the fore, and more people on social media opening up about their experiences too. However, unfortunately the topic is still shrouded in mystery and shame, meaning that every year more people are affected. Even worse, it’s often assumed that losing your period is a normal, even healthy side effect of training, and isn’t anything to be concerned about. This is a myth that needs to change.
Exercise is a stressor to the body. For the most-part, it is a good stressor, leading to adaptive changes to make us faster, stronger, fitter. There comes a point, however, where the demands of a particular sport go beyond the recovery that is given, and beyond what the body can handle. There are many ways that this can happen, and the outcome is a cascade of physiological responses with serious, even life-changing, consequences. RED-s refers to a state where there is insufficient energy intake for the amount of training being undertaken, leading to reduced bone density, low energy availability and, among other things, hypothalamic amenorrhoea, or stopped periods. In the general population, around 2% – 5% of women are affected. Within athletes, the prevalence is much higher, at 3.4% to 44%.
Somewhat problematically for diagnosis and recovery, there are many stories of athletes having their best seasons right before their body starts to shut down. This is because the effects of RED-s take time to come into play, and can be caused by the most innocuous-seeming deficiency in calories over a long period of time. However, this is an important issue as it is increasingly common even among for-fun athletes, even those of a ‘healthy’ BMI, and RED-s is quietly sidelining more and more people.
Periods are important. They show that your hormones are functioning as they should – it is impossible to function optimally as a human and athlete without the hormones your body needs.
Why do people lose their periods?
Secondary amenorrhea is when you have experienced regular periods before, but then stop menstruating for 3 months or longer after that point. Functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (FHA) is a type of secondary amenorrhea, caused by low energy intake, weight loss, stress or a combination of these factors. Note: you do NOT have to be underweight and be training loads and have a really low calorie intake for this to happen. All of these make it more likely, but FHA can happen to anyone. It is also important to rule out other causes of amenorrhea, in case it is caused by some other factor.
Losing your period as a side-effect of training should never be seen as acceptable. The idea that it’s a sign that you’re working hard is both harmful and wrong – you can train much better if you have a healthy cycle.
Evolutionarily speaking, FHA in times of stress may have been adaptive. If you can’t support your own body and health, there’s no way you could support another life (i.e. a baby), so it doesn’t make sense to ovulate, as this is energy consuming. The downregulation of the body’s natural functions protects the brain and vital organs. However, there’s no questioning that it is a red flag that something is up, and in this day and age we are lucky to have the knowledge to protect ourselves against such outcomes.
What happens when you lose your period?
FHA results from changes in the hormone GnRH, which in turn reduces luteinising hormone (LH) and eventually oestrogen availability. This has a number of negative consequences affecting the whole body, including bone density, cardiovascular health and mental health. The longer it continues, the greater the effects. Conditions such as osteoporosis, previously associated with post-menopausal women, also become more likely, due to the reduction in oestrogen’s protective effects on bone density. This in turn increases risk of injury such as fractures. Research suggests that athletes with menstrual irregularities are also likely to experience more injuriesandrecover slower from those injuries.
This is a question I get asked a lot, and I am reluctant to give prescriptive answers, as I am not a medical professional. Generally speaking, reducing stress on the body and increasing energy availability are good places to start. Often the causes of FHA are not entirely physical, and seeking professional mental health help can assist too.
These are some of the factors most important to optimising physical health:
Ensure you are allowing for adequate rest between training sessions.
Reduce the number of very intense sessions per week, and space them out.
Make sure you are eating enough carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
Avoid fasted training sessions.
Get enough sleep – it is vital to recovery!
Eat within 30 minutes of a training session.
Reduce stress in other areas of your life where possible.
If you are unable to get your period back by yourself, after reducing exercise intensity and improving recovery, it is recommended to seek professional help as soon as possible. A specialist sports dietician should be able to help if you’re concerned or not sure if you need pointing in the right direction.
With the increase in uptake of sports, and higher stakes especially in competitive sports, it is unlikely that conditions such as FHA and RED-s are going away any time soon, especially among young women. While we place pressure on men and women both to perform and look a certain way, regardless of actual health, it is vital to continue to educate athletes and coaches on the consequences of not treating our bodies well and with respect.
Unless you’re actively trying to get pregnant, it can be easy to push issues such as FHA to the back of your mind, especially if the perceived immediate benefits are greater the perceived long-term risks. Ironically, if your primary concern is performance rather than long-term health, it will be difficult to become healthy and thus perform optimally. I’m hoping that by talking about it more and improving public awareness, we can start to encourage people to seek help when they need it, and hopefully reduce stigma while we’re at it!
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, these podcasts were particularly helpful for me:
If you found this blog post helpful, please do share with anyone who might find it useful or share and tag me on Instagram! Many thanks to specialist Renee Mcgregor for talking me thorough these complex issues too. If you enjoy my posts regularly, please consider contributing so I can keep this page up and running (no pun intended).
Despite working in the realm of ‘women’s health’ for many years of my life, I recently realised that this wasn’t something I’d ever written, vlogged or even talked about much on my social media. As something that affects so many of us, I thought it would be a good idea to rectify this, and hopefully shine some light on how menstrual cycles can affect training, what it means to lose your period and how we can take care of our bodies the best we can, while achieving the fitness goals we set out to achieve.
To give a little background, I worked at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists as a press officer and social media manager for over a year after I left university. I then went on to run the social media accounts for Freda, a sustainable period products brand that helps reduce period poverty here in the UK with every purchase. So, I know a thing or two about periods and the taboos that surround them, but for some reason have never spoken about it openly. Many thanks to Renee Mcgregor, a sports dietician specialising in overtraining and athlete health, for her help talking me through the complexities of the human body. Give her a follow, and check out her ebook for more information on this topic.
Do periods affect training?
Historically, scientific research on women has been limited, thanks in no small part to the fact that periods are considered a ‘confounding factor’ when it comes to medical trials. In addition, the difficulty of finding a large enough cohort of people whose cycles match up adds an extra layer of complexity in organising scientific trials, limiting the number that have been carried out. However, more recently there have been several studies that show that changing hormones can affect both how we feel, as well as our performance. For years, scientists and coaches have worked on the assumption that biological females are essentially the same as males, just with different reproductive organs, but when it comes to training and the effect of hormones, we see that this isn’t true.
Anyone who has periods will know how moods, energy and motivation vary throughout their cycle, although you might not know why this is. FitrWoman, an app designed to assist training planning around the menstrual cycle, explains how training can be affected by fluctuating hormones throughout the four-phase cycle. It is important to remember that while the average length of a cycle is 28 days, for someone else it may be more or less – what is important is knowing what is normal for you.
“Starting with periods (phase 1), this is when women can experience a high amount of symptoms (e.g. back pain, cramps, fatigue) which can impact how you are feeling and therefore may impact exercise training/performance. Anecdotally, lots of the sportswomen we come across also cite that heavy bleeding has either caused them to change the way their train or miss training altogether, so this is definitely something key that we want to address. Things like moon cups can be game changers for some, and really heavy bleeders may want to be referred to a gynaecologist.
“After menstruation, levels of the sex hormones oestrogen start to increase (in Phase 2), and this can often be a good time to progress in training and just crack on. There is a little evidence to suggest that you can actually capitalise on strength training a bit more in this phase, likely due to the effect that oestrogen has on muscle anabolism/muscle protein synthesis.
“Oestrogen levels rise to a peak just before ovulation, and then progesterone levels start to increase (in Phase 3). Both of these hormones travel in the circulation and therefore can affect many physiological systems, not just the reproductive system. Progesterone often causes a small increase (by about 0.3-0.5 degrees C) in core body temperature and may cause an elevated heart rate, both which may affect exercise in the heat. Phase 3 can also be when sleep disturbances occur, and so without the right strategies in place, this can affect training.
“Towards the end of Phase 3, and in Phase 4, pre-menstrual symptoms are likely to occur, and this is where a lot of our work with our Female Athlete Programme is focused on. Whilst there is little evidence that exercise performance is affected by menstrual cycle phase, this is with a slight caveat of: ‘given that symptoms are managed’. Research has found that many active women say their menstrual cycle has negatively impacted their performance, and it is often during this phase. The sharp drop in oestrogen and progesterone concentrations could result in delayed recovery, increased cravings, increased fatigue, pain, mood swings and poor motivation through a multitude of mechanisms. However, it’s not all doom and gloom! It’s just about learning what your individual menstrual cycle means for you and being savvy about how to manage any symptoms you experience”.
Esther Goldsmith, sports scientist at FitrWoman
All this to say: where you are in your cycle really can affect how you feel during training, but provided it’s not too hot, and provided you are able to manage symptoms, there’s little reason why your overall performance would be affected by your cycle. Having said that, it is important to note that if you are struggling, it might be worth switching round your routine in order to capitalise on days that you feel stronger. Tracking your cycle might help explain days where effort felt higher, or days you really aced training. I generally think that if I can workout on a day where I feel very ‘meh’, I can workout any day, and it’ll feel so much easier! It is important not to beat yourself up for a ‘bad’ training session – every session serves a purpose – and while your cycle may not be an excuse for a bad session, it may well be a reason.
Should you exercise on your period?
We are all unique, and as with so many health-focussed topics, the answer to this depends on personal preference and how you feel, as mentioned above. For many people, exercising during their period alleviates symptoms such as cramps and low moods, meaning that training is a great way to manage these things. For others, however, training can feel impossible, or at least immensely unpleasant. Dr Vanessa Mackay, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, recommends attempting light exercise during your period.
“Women may not feel like exercising during a painful period, but keeping active can help relieve period pain and discomfort. Woman are encouraged to try low impact exercises such as swimming, walking or cycling.
“Exercise can also help to regulate menstruation. If women are stressed, their menstrual cycle can become longer or shorter, their periods may stop altogether, or they might become more painful. Regular exercise, such as running, swimming and yoga, can help women to relax.
“If women experience severe period pain, or their normal pattern of periods change, they should speak to their GP.”
What’s important to note is that while it may assumed to be ‘normal’, being bedbound during your period is not something you should just ‘have to live with’, and if you are experiencing extreme discomfort and pain, you should visit a gynaecologist or doctor. Sadly, understanding around these issues is still pretty poor – it takes on average 7.5 years for someone to be diagnosed with endometriosis, for example – but if you feel something is wrong, please insist on seeing your doctor and getting a diagnosis. Similarly, if your normal pattern changes, e.g. you experience very heavy bleeding suddenly or lots of pain, speak to your GP, or even better a gynaecologist or endocrinologist. You should not have to suffer in silence.
Fuelling also may need to change around your cycle, especially in endurance sports. As hormones fluctuate, the need for protein and carbohydrates varies, as well as micronutrients, such as iron. Iron is especially important during and after your period, as iron is lost when you bleed. During phase 1 and 2 (the first half of your cycle), more carbohydrates are required, as the body is burning more fat. This is especially important in endurance training, and long fasted sessions should be avoided, as they place unnecessary stress on the body. During the second half of the cycle (phases 3 and 4), progesterone levels are higher, as is the BMR (basal metabolic rate), meaning that cravings are higher, but also that the body really does need more food. Energy expenditure can increase by 2-11% during this half. Here you should consume more healthy fats and have a regular intake of protein. A general rule of thumb is to make sure you’re getting in enough carbohydrates, have a regular intake of protein and listen to your body – it may be telling you exactly what you need!
For what it’s worth, I do not consciously change my exercise routine around my period. However, I do experience very low energy at certain times of the month (not every month – I’m still trying to figure out when, exactly) and often change around my routine to allow for extra food and rest on these days. I would never head out for a long run on a day when I feel exhausted to the point of needing a midday nap, and might instead take a walk or fit in a stretching session (both of which are useful parts of training, just less intense). Having said that, I also find a short (5-8k) run helps with PMS symptoms more than anything else, including painkillers! They’re definitely not my best runs, but for cramps and low mood, nothing beats an easy run for me.
Your hormones may affect perceived effort in training depending at the point you are in your cycle, especially in endurance training and in the heat.
Every woman is different: while some may feel no change, others may experience severe symptoms that affect how they are able to train each month. If you feel unable to complete normal tasks, consider visiting an endocrinologist or gynaecologist.
Low intensity exercise may help reduce pre-menstrual symptoms and regular exercise is recommended to keep the body healthy.
Your hormones can be capitalised upon to make the most out of your training – it’s not all bad news! Some parts of the cycle may be better for muscle growth, and training when you don’t feel your best can make other training sessions and races feel that much easier.
Be kind to your body! Don’t beat yourself up about a bad training session. Ensure you are getting enough rest days and taking on enough fuel and you’ll be back on track in no time.
Don’t forget that carbs are a necessary part of training, and especially required in the first half of your cycle. Make sure you have a good intake of protein and healthy fats.
Periods and hormones are healthy. It is impossible to be optimal if these hormones are out of whack e.g. if you lose your period due to overtraining. More on this later!
I hope this helps you and answers some of your questions about training at different parts of the cycle. Many thanks to Fitr Women for explaining the different phases and how these may affect training. If you are not sure how your cycle affects you, it may be worth tracking it with an app or on your calendar. While it may not be an ‘excuse’, it can often be reassuring to know why a particular session felt so hard, and know the days you will be able to make the most out of your training.
What I’ve learned from this research is that everyone is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. However, it does seem to be the case that when everything is functioning well, the menstrual cycle can be beneficial for capitalising on training and optimising performance. It’s sad to see so many women experiencing debilitating symptoms every month and assuming this is normal. I hope this encourages more people to know what they are capable of, and others to seek help if they feel something is off.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, these podcasts were particularly helpful for me:
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As summer kicks into full force here in the UK, I see more and more comments about how heat is affecting training – both from others and myself! Running in the heat is hard, as is doing any form of exercise that raises your temperature. Our bodies work hard to maintain a stable internal environment and when that’s put under pressure, it has to work even harder to keep everything steady. If you learned about homeostasis at school you’ll know all about this!
The ideal temperature for endurance running is 9.5 – 11 degrees C (50F, with women preferring the upper end of this). For sprints, however, the optimum temperature is around 22 degrees C (72F), showing that the best temperature for training depends on what you’re doing, as well as personal preference. However, there are numerous benefits to training in the heat, not to mention it’s fun to get out on a sunny day! So long as certain precautions are taken, there’s no reason hot days shouldn’t be enjoyed just like any other.
What happens to your body when you train in the heat?
To compensate for the warming temperates created from exercise, your body sends more blood to the skin, allow heat to be lost via convection, radiation and evaporation. The warmer and more humid the external environment, the harder it is for heat to dissipate quickly, meaning you’ll cool down more slowly.
There are many physiological changes that occur to keep you cool, but after a point they may not be able to keep up. If your body gets too hot, it starts to rebel, telling you to slow down, drink, maybe even have a sit down. The first symptoms of heat exhaustion are dizziness, nausea, headache, extreme fatigue, cramps and mild confusion. Pushing through exhaustion can lead eventually to heat stroke, with the result being damage to vital organs as the body’s internal thermostat goes out of whack. It’s advisable to slow down long before this point, and planning your nutrition and hydration can stave off heat exhaustion for a long time.
How to train in the heat
It takes our bodies one to two weeks to adapt to training in the heat, which is why training can be especially hard at the start of summer – as soon as you get used to running at one temperature, it gets hotter again! In addition, beginner runners and people new to exercise will be less optimised to cool down quickly – the more you exercise, the more efficiently your body learns to cool. Hence very fit people may sweat more, and less fit people may need to take it easier on hot days! There are, however, certain things you can do to still make the most of hot days, and make sure you’re keeping safe when you train.
Avoid training in the hottest part of the day. Aim for early morning for the best temperatures (there’s also nothing nicer than a run at the start of a glorious summer’s day!).
Replace lost electrolytes (salts) with dietary salt or an electrolyte drink/rehydration salts.
Make sure you are hydrated well before heading out on a run or to the gym. This doesn’t necessarily mean glugging 2L of water before heading out, but make sure you’re hydrated the night before and morning of a big run or training session. If you’re working out for a long time, take water with you.
Wear sunglasses, a cap and light clothing to reduce the effect of the sun when outside. Always wear sweat-proof suncream.
Take it easy. As you acclimatise, your training sessions will get easier, but while you’re adapting, train by effort, not data. This means you may be running slower, shorter and lifting lighter with fewer reps, but that’s ok! The effort you expend is the same, and it’ll leave you a better athlete.
Avoid training on the hottest days if you’re concerned. It is possible to plan training days around the weather – I often do this to avoid rainy or extremely hot days, and train either side of those days.
The more you train in the heat, the more tolerant you will be to it. Stick it out, knowing that your runs/workouts may be compromised in the meantime, and within a week or two you’ll be amazed how normal it feels. Think of it as training adaptation – in the same way that training stresses out the body to make it more adapted, heat does the same. So long as you’re being sensible with hydration and your goals, there’s no reason not to train on hotter days. It’s just up to personal preference!
Thanks to the doubling (or even quadrupling!) of breathing rate during exercise, gyms were some of the first places to be closed at the start of the pandemic. Now, in the UK, gyms are exempt from face covering rules, but in the interest of safety as the gyms reopen, some people may decide to wear them. A similar situation arises when considering outdoor exercise, such as running, as the streets get busier. So what are the pros and cons of this?
Masks have been implemented in various locations as a method of ‘source control’, to prevent droplets from the mask wearer from spreading to surfaces or other people. While there has been much discussion around this topic, the evidence suggests that a reduction in transmission coincides with mask wearing in countries where this is observed.
This article by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) lists some of the considerations that should be taken into account when considering the wearing of a mask during exercise, namely:
Masks that work the best (FFRs, e..g N95) should be reserved for healthcare workers and not lay use.
Masks increase the rate of perceived exertion, creating an effect similar to minor altitude training.
Masks that have increased airflow to reduce discomfort are also less effective at source control, allowing more droplets to spread.
Cloths and masks are likely to become damp during exercise, reducing their breathability and increasing perceived exertion.
Masks may encourage less social distancing behaviour.
So, with the above considerations, are they recommended?
It depends. Masks are effective at reducing transmission, so long as compliance is high. However, many people will choose not to wear one during exercise due to the increase in perceived exertion. So long as everyone adheres to social distancing guidelines, increases hand washing and avoids touching their face during exercise, mask wearing in gyms and out running may be unnecessary. However, if you feel safer wearing a mask during exercise, please do so, so long as it is not at the expense of other guidelines designed to reduce transmission. This may be the case if you are exercising in a crowded space and can’t avoid people – although I would argue that in this case, exercising should be postponed to less busy times.
If you choose to exercise using a mask, remember to bring hand sanitiser and use it before and after touching the mask. Reduce the intensity of your workout to compensate for the increased perceived exertion. If you have an extended workout session, consider bringing a spare mask for when the first gets wet, as this could pose extra risks and increase discomfort. If you feel ill, do not go to the gym, and remember, always wash your hands.
I hope this helps! I’d love to know if you’ll be wearing a mask when you go back to the gym, or indeed whether you feel safe to go back to the gym at all? I have not yet, and will not feel safe for a while, unless it is nigh on empty! I don’t think I’ll wear a mask at the gym, but I also won’t go at all if there are lots of people in there. Let me know your thoughts below and feel free to share on Instagram!
I first learned about rewilding in depth at university, where we explored it as a means of conservation, in contrast to ex-situ conservation programmes, such as zoos. When we think about conservation, often we think about large mammals – tigers, elephants or pandas, perhaps – and not entire ecosystems, from fungi to ancient trees and everything in between. With 2021 – 2030 labelled the ‘decade of ecosystem restoration‘, now seems like as good a time as ever to talk about how rewilding could fit into our sustainability goals and increase biodiversity.
In Europe and North America (rewilding’s biggest proponents), rewilding often takes different forms, with the latter focusing on wildlife corridors for large mammals, and the former decentralising large mammals, focussing instead on habitats, not individual species. Either way, rewilding is essentially recreating habitats more similar to those that existed before human intervention, to the benefit of the natural ecosystem.
Helps nature recover
With 41% of UK species in decline and 15% threatened with extinction, it is evident that nature needs all the help it can get. Habitat loss and degradation have meant that the ecosystems in which many animals live are changing at a rate that they can’t adapt to. While woodland cover had actually increased, more unique habitats such as wetlands are vital for so many of the UK’s native species. Rewilding is not the only option for improving species outcomes, but it had the potential to significantly help, when done in the right way. More complex and robust ecosystems will be better able to withstand future environmental pressures.
Reintroduce missing species
Of 8,431 species assessed in the UK, 15% were classified as threatened with extinction from Great Britain, and 2% are already extinct. Rewilding habitats has helped with many conservation cases, both here in the UK and globally. Here is a great list of some of those success stories. Reintroduction of species cannot happen without significant amount of their native habitat being available, so rewilding could play a major part in global conservation efforts.
Revitalise communities and bring economic benefits
While an entirely anthropocentric view, ignoring the economic benefits of rewilding would be foolish, as often this is the key way of getting these projects funded and facilitated. In the UK National Parks and nature are seen as a national treasure, but even abroad, many governments are starting to see the economic benefits of protecting, rather than exploiting nature. E.g. North American countries favoring wilderness showed faster growth in their employment and income level than counties in which the economy is mainly based on resource extraction.
“From an analysis of turnover, employment and county-level productivity data, it is estimated that England’s National Parks generate £4.1 to 6.3 billion of Gross Value Added (GVA) in 2012″.
Ecosystem services and other environmental risk management
‘Ecosystem services‘ are the benefits humans gain from nature, including climate regulation, flood management, maintenance of nutrient cycles and, of course, improvement of quality of life. For example, trees lock water into the soil, preventing flooding after lots of rain. There are plenty of examples of how disrupting nature had led to far worse outcomes for humans too – this is just one example. Forest growth also promotes carbon sequestration (absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere), improving air quality. Natural regeneration allows soil recovery and nutrient availability and improved water quality, as forests regulate hydrological cycles too. Essentially, without nature and the services it provides as a byproduct of its existence, we’d really struggle.
Keep us healthy
I’ve spoken a lot about the mental health benefits of spending time in nature, and when you combine that with the benefits of exercise, walking, running or cycling through a rewilded forest is so good for you! Mind charity also released a report in 2018 on the benefits of nature for mental health. Nature is good for your physical health too, and the benefits of avoiding pollution where possible are multifold.
Restore for future generations
I believe that young people nowadays feel resentful at the way nature has been left, in a way that means they have to pick up the pieces. Rewilding is an opportunity to reverse that, and leave our ecosystems in a better position than when we inherited it. A legacy for future generations.
Rewilding and intersectionality – a note
I think it is important to note that the only reason we have to rewild, is because we have de-wilded. Europe did so so long ago that it is difficult to imagine how habitats looked before they were destroyed. North America, however, still maintains some indigenous lands, looked after by indigenous people, nature’s best custodians. It is important not to look at the rewilding movement as one of ‘saving’ habitats (that we destroyed), and instead look to learn from the indigenous philosophies, without marginalising these groups of people.
Historically, much of the (public) environmental movement has been vastly white, not taking into account both the viewpoints and vast experiences of indigenous people and those outside the white middle-class. This is counterproductive on so many levels, and, especially in the United States, where much land is still protected by its Native inhabitants, ignoring this threatens the strength of the environmental movement in its entirety. By its nature, the rewilding movement bases many of its principles on indigenous practises and beliefs, such as reconnecting to nature and respecting the Earth. It is important not to forget that we are late coming to this realisation, and we cannot afford to ignore local knowledge where it exists.
How can we help?
It is important to support charities and projects working to save and restore our natural ecosystems. This doesn’t have to always be monetarily – commenting, sharing and engaging on social media is also valuable. I have listed some great charities both in the UK and abroad below – please do support their work if you can!
Amazon Watch – Since 1996, Amazon Watch has protected the rainforest and advanced the rights of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin. They partner with Indigenous and environmental organisations in campaigns for human rights, corporate accountability, and the preservation of the Amazon’s ecological systems. DONATE.
Rios to Rivers – This organisation’s aim is “to inspire the protection of rivers through youth-focused experiential and educational cross-culture exchange programs, where underserved students are empowered to become informed stewards and ambassadors for their rivers and the communities who depend on them. DONATE.
National Parks Conservation Association – The NPCA works to protect and enhance the US’s national parks. The charity has been going for over 100 years, protecting both habitats and policy changes that would put the national parks and their inhabitants at risk. DONATE.
Woodland Trust – Specifically a charity for UK’s woodlands, this trust works to restore and protect ancient woodlands, and campaign for policy changes where they are needed. DONATE.
Rewilding Britain – Launched in 2015, Rewilding Britain seeks to tackle the climate emergency and species extinction by restoring ecosystems to their ‘natural’ state, providing jobs in the process. DONATE.
Heal Rewilding – A new nationwide charity which looks to buy up low-grade, non productive land and passively return it to its wild state. The sites will be in easy reach of cities for the most benefit. DONATE.
National Parks UK – There are 15 national parks in the UK, and this organisation works to manage the maintenance and restoration of these spaces, while also benefitting local communities.
London Wildlife Trust – London’s wildlife has been under threat for its whole history, but the LWT helps to manage and expand natural spaces through the work of volunteers and members. It has been particularly hard-hit by COVID. DONATE.
Educate yourself. Join charities, work with NGOs, volunteer, read. I am still learning so much everyday, because I choose to research and look up topics that are important to me.
Share articles, educational social media pages, new studies and more with friends and family. Until nature moves to the forefront of our minds, it’s easy to forget how vital it is, and how much we can help or harm it with our actions.
Remember intersectionality in your activism. I have been guilty of viewing environmentalism from a purely white, UK-centric viewpoint, but this ignores a huge number of people who are both fighting for, and impacted by nature and natural ecosystems.
There are a million things we could all be doing to decrease our footprint on the planet and increase the number of wild spaces, both here in the UK and all around the world. I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say I’m not doing enough, but I hope articles like these help you realise some of the many ways we can have an impact. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below or over on Instagram.
Microplastics, as the name implies, are tiny particles of plastics, created either for commercial use (primary microplastics, e.g. for use in cosmetics), from the breakdown of larger plastics (secondary microplastics), measuring 5mm or less in diameter. Over the last few years, there has been a lot of light shone on the prevalence and environmental and health impacts of microplastics, from their presence in drinking water, to their ubiquity in the ocean.
It has long been known that plastics never really break down – instead, they break up into ever smaller pieces, causing environmental damage at every stage of the process. Single use plastics are thought to be the foremost contributor to secondary microplastics, but many microplastics are created intentionally to be used in industry. Wastewater treatment cannot filter out all microplastics, so they end up everywhere – in our oceans, freshwater systems and even the air we breathe.
Understanding the leading causes and relative abundance of microplastic in our ecosystems is key to understanding the how this might affect us, our environment and how best to limit that damage. With the problems being multi-fold – impacting both the environment and out health – we need solutions sooner rather than later, before irreversible damage is done.
For a summary of this article, scroll to the bottom.
What are the major causes?
A 2017 study found microplastics in 81 per cent of tap water samples globally. In the past few years, in mountain ranges in the US and France, researchers even found microplastics in rain. They have recently been found in the Arctic, too, giving an indication of their ubiquity. So where are these microplastics coming from? Without knowing the key sources, it is impossible to begin to understand how to tackle the problem. Here are the two key ways microplastics get into the environment.
Wastewater overflow, including treated water, as treatments cannot always capture such small particles. The microplastics come from the washing of clothes (microfibres), cosmetic microbeads, flushed period products etc. Every time we wash our clothes in the washing machine, millions of microfibres are shed. It is estimated that one load of clothes in a washing machine releases about 700,000 fibres per wash. Washing machine filters are not currently able to filter out these microfibres, so they work their way into our water systems.
What are the environmental impacts?
Environmentalists will be no strangers to images of seabirds with plastics filling their stomach, but do microplastics cause the same harm? The science suggests that the environmental impacts can be severe and far-reaching, with microplastics being found in 47% of Fulmar guano samples (a good indicator of their presence in marine environments).
The potential issues are multifold. As plastics do not degrade, they accumulate both with ecosystems and up food chains. They can also absorb toxic chemicals and pathogens, providing another route of harm. Another issue is that for many organisms, ingested plastics can make them feel full, so they stop eating and eventually die of starvation.
“Microplastics have been found in a wide variety of species including zooplankton, mussels, oysters, shrimp, marine worms, fish, seals, and whales. Several of these species are of commercial importance. For example, a 2009 survey in the Clyde Sea found 83% of Norwegian lobster contained plastic, mainly in the form of fibres. Similarly, trawls in the English Channel found microplastics in 36.5% of fish caught” (DEFRA).
Further to their effect on animals, microplastics have the potential to carry around pathogens and invasive species. High levels of microplastics on beaches may even change the temperature of the sand, affecting animals such as turtles where offspring sex is temperature-determined.
Despite the complex science, a 2017 United Nations resolution discussed microplastics and the need for regulations to reduce this hazard to our ecosystems. The problem is so widespread it’s unlikely to not be seriously harmful over the years, and combined with the other pressures on our oceans, they need all the help they can get.
Are they causing us any harm?
There is a huge absence of science in this area, thanks in part due to the relative recency of interest in the subject, but also due to the difficulty of carrying out robust scientific studies on humans. It is estimated that the average person consumes up to 120,000 particles of microplastic each year, with that number increasing for those drinking mostly bottled water. However, whether or not this has had adverse effects in the decades we have been consuming them is not entirely clear.
As with many environmental issues, our exposure to microplastics is partially dependent on where we live. In the UK and other high-income countries, sewage treatments can effectively remove most microplastics from effluent, reducing the amount present in freshwater systems. In low and mid-income countries, however, only 33% of the population have sewer connections, meaning that for most of the population, water is poorly treated, leading to greater microplastic concentration in soils and water systems, and thus greater potential adverse health incomes.
For the most part in richer countries, drinking water is treated enough to prevent large quantities of microplastics working their way in. However, the smallest plastic particles can assimilate their way into our food, including seafood (primarily shellfish). While most plastics are inert (don’t readily react) and insoluble and therefore unlikely to be absorbed into our bodies, there are concerns about their absorption of toxic chemicals from the environment. However, with the relative paucity of scientific studies on the subject, there is not enough evidence to suggest a link between microplastics in drinking water and food and adverse health outcomes. This doesn’t mean that the link is not there, simply that more studies need to be done in this area.
What can we do?
Reduce littering and improve rubbish collection systems.
Move on from the idea that plastic is disposable. With the average single use cutlery being used for just 3 minutes, yet taking hundreds of years to break down (not disappear), this will never be a sustainable attitude.
Install and optimise wastewater treatments which reduce the amount of plastic pollution in waterways, and thus the amount being consumed in drinking water too. While the UK has extremely effective treatment facilities, this isn’t the case everywhere.
Limit the introduction of new plastic sources into the environment. A lot of microplastic pollution comes from single-use plastics in one form or another, so by reducing the amount of plastic we consume, we can reduce the amount that eventually ends up in our ecosystems.
Improve plastic recycling systems and use them. Of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic that has been produced (2018), 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste, and 91% of this has not been recycled. By reducing the amount of plastic sent to landfill we can reduce the amount of plastic breakdown there is globally. This includes dealing with our own plastic problem, and not shipping it elsewhere (just another form of environmental racism)
Introduce global bans where possible on unnecessary use of microbeads (already done in the UK), for example in cosmetics, while recognising that this is only a small part of the issue.
Improve sustainable plastic alternatives. While current ‘bioplastic’ alternatives are not always less harmful than conventional plastics, existing technologies have the potential to decrease the prevalence of harmful plastics in our ecosystems. It is vital to ensure that replacements to conventional plastic is not more damaging than the plastic itself.
Encourage brands to take responsibility for their plastic pollution at all stages of industry, from banning microbeads, to having consumers report litter (e.g. via the Plastic Patrol app).
Microplastics are everywhere, from rain to our drinking water, to the Arctic to the Mariana Trench.
Microplastics can break down into nano plastics, even smaller microscopic particles that can have differing impacts in lots of different ways.
There is not enough evidence to suggest that microplastics lead to negative health outcomes in people, but more research needs to be done in this area. Health impacts are likely to vary between countries depending on their treatment systems.
Improving sewage and water-treatment systems in LEDCs will likely have far-reaching positive effects, far beyond simply reducing microplastic exposure, and should be a priority where possible.
The real issues with microplastics lie in their effect on the environment, as they have been shown to be harmful to animal life at every stage of their degradation.
As with all environmental issues, behavioural change is all well and good, but what is really needed is system change that holds corporations accountable for their disastrous impact on the environment.
While the impacts are not fully understood, the ubiquity and prevalence of microplastics will likely already be causing issues to the environment and potentially our health too. We need more research to see where and how.
Thanks to Hattie for helping me research this huge topic! For more sustainability content, go and follow her on Instagram.