Why does running make you feel so good?

Ok, ok, not ALL the time, but the runner’s high is a real thing, and with over 858,000 people downloading the NHS couch to 5k app in lockdown 1, there must be something going for it! There are many elements that make running positive for your mental health, and it is increasingly being seen not only as great for the body, but for the mind too. So what is it about running that makes it so good for your brain and mood? Let’s look at the science.

The runner’s high is a real thing!
  1. brain imaging study on endurance athletes and healthy controls at rest showed an increase in coordinated activity in some brain regions involved in executive functions (decision making) and working memory. They also found a reduction in ‘default mode’ activity – what our brain does when distracted, i.e. nothing very useful. This part of the brain is also linked to clinical depression, showing one pathway by which consistently running may reduce depressive tendencies and improve brain health. Interestingly, these are similar results to those seen in meditation – while running you’re turned into your surroundings, and what your muscles and breath are doing, not worrying about work, family or other stressors. So, running could be seen as a form of ‘active/moving meditation’.
  2. Another study in mice showed that exercise breaks down a stress-inducing molecule Kyneurenine. The molecule itself builds up when you’re stressed, and can enter the brain, causing stress-induced depression and anxiety in some people. During exercise, there is a build up of an enzyme able to break down this molecule in the muscles, meaning it’s unable to enter the brain, protecting it against stress-induced depression. 
  3. Beta-endorphins are released in running, improving mood post-run. The hormone is generally used by the body to reduce stress, and, as an endogenous opioid, is also linked to reducing pain. This happens not just over the course of one run, but also over the space of several months, meaning that the effects can last long after you’ve ended a run. This is potentially the source of the elusive ‘runner’s high’, which usually starts to kick in after 30 minutes of running. It’s also one of the reasons that runs can feel very hard at the beginning but get easier throughout – pain relief and a reduction in anxiety are both side-effects of our body’s reaction to exercise. 
  4. While endorphins have long been credited for the runner’s high, it is likely that endocannabinoids play an even larger role. These are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier (unlike endorphins), and act on the same receptors and systems that THC (the active ingredient of cannabis) does. This triggers feelings of euphoria, a sense of calm and reduced anxiety. There’s still a lot of research in this area and the mechanisms in humans still aren’t quite ironed out, but it looks promising!
  5. Running (and exercise in general) also acts as a buffer to life’s stressors. In the same way that stressing out the body through exercise can lead to physical adaptations to cope, it can also lead to mental adaptations associated with resilience, which are then transferrable to other areas of life. Regular runners tend to be better able to cope with stress, thanks to the effects of
  6. In rats, high intensity aerobic exercise such as running has been shown to literally create new brain cells. Up to a limit, running stimulates an increase in grey matter in the brain (beyond that limit, grey matter temporarily decreases, e.g. in extreme multi-stage endurance events – not surprising if you’re running 4,487km like those in the study!).
  7. There are other endogenous benefits of running that may benefit the brain through indirect means, such as improved insulin response, improved immune function, improved circulation (including to the brain), increased energy levels, better sleep and improved focus (including the ability to multitask better!). 
  8. Tangential mental health benefits of running include having a feeling of community (the running community is like I’ve never experienced before), having quantifiable goals and the sense of accomplishment that comes with that, which is transferrable to other areas of your life. Running has been shown to improve your self-esteem – placing the focus on what your body can accomplish and how it feels rather than what it looks like is one of the best to move away from being sucked into diet culture and the constant drive to lose weight. 

Evolutionarily, this all makes sense. As hunter gatherers, we would have had to chase prey for any miles, and having adaptations to a) make that feel good and b) reduce pain on long runs would have meant we were able to run further. And enjoying the chase/run would have meant more food for everyone, so better survival.

It’s important to note that many of these studied were either done on animals, or in small numbers of volunteers. However, anecdotally the benefits of running for the brain are multi-fold and substantial, and it’s great to see this backed by multiple studies. Hopefully we’ll start to see more of this in the coming years as the link between physical and mental health becomes increasingly clear. 

While these benefits mainly pertain to running, it’s also possible to get many of the same benefits through other forms of aerobic and anaerobic exercise. The benefits may be to differing degrees, but the important thing is that you find a form of movement that is enjoyable and sustainable for you – there’s no point in overdoing it on a sport that you hate. Moving your body in whatever way feels best is a good place to start! And if you’re just starting your running journey, keep it up! It is always hard at first (and at second, and at third), but the benefits are SO worth it. If you enjoy this topic, check out the book Endure by Alex Hutchinson. It’s fascinating and delves into the science further without being hard to read. 

If you regularly read and enjoy my articles, please consider making a small contribution to the running of my blog. If you’re looking for a little challenge to focus on for your training, why not join in our 5k time trial challenge at the end of March?

March 5k time trial challenge

Hi everyone! Over the next eight weeks, I will be training for my first ever official 5k time trial. Other 5k efforts have all been as part of park runs (which I’ve dearly missed over lockdown), and after a year of steadily getting slower and slower (thanks to focussing on running further), I thought it about time to pick up the pace and get in a 5k PB. And I want you to join me!!

How can I join?

Whatever your ability, experience or goal, I’d love if you could join in both training for and racing this 5k. All you need to do is sign up to Strava (an app that records your runs) and join our virtual run club, March 5k timetrial.

Once you’ve joined, all your runs on Strava will upload automatically, you’ll be able to keep up with the other runners taking part. On 27th – 31st March, you’ll have the opportunity to race the 5k virtually alongside all the other runners.

What route should I race?

As a virtual event, there’ll be no official route you need to do the time trial on, although I would recommend you find a flat, relatively empty route for your effort. If that doesn’t exist (Dorset I’m looking at you), a hilly route will do just fine and be all the more impressive – good luck!

Is there a training programme?

If you’re looking for a training programme and not sure where to start, these are two that are great – one for those looking to get sub-20, and one for those looking to simply speed up their general running times.

Home training & faster 5k plan: https://www.rushbynature.com/shop/home-training-amp-a-faster-5-10k

Sub 20 5k plan: https://www.rushbynature.com/shop/strength-amp-a-sub-20-minute-parkrun

Is there a way of joining in if I don’t have Strava?

You’re more than welcome to join if you don’t have Strava, but there won’t be an official ‘page’ for your participation. However, I will be recording my training on my Instagram and YouTube, so you can follow and subscribe to keep up with everything! If you tag me in your training runs on Instagram I’ll be sharing them on my stories so we can all keep each other motivated. 🙂

Happy training!

Dealing with injuries as an athlete

At university, I undertook a short course on sports psychology, hoping to garner some insight into what makes pro athletes tick, and how the rest of us can improve our own psychology to improve our sport. The topic that stuck with me most, however, was talking about the effects of injuries on athletes, and not just professional ones. Since sports have strong mental as well as physical benefits, the stress and anxiety caused by injury can sometimes be almost incapacitating. Figuring out how to keep fears and potentially serious mental health problems at bay is both vital and complex.

While I’m no expert, I have an unfortunate amount of personal experience dealing with recurring injuries, namely IT band syndrome, caused by doing ‘too much, too soon’ in most athletes, but initiated and exacerbated almost solely by road running for me. My first physio told me to ‘stop running’, in favour of all other sports, which did nothing to help the actual problem, since I was always going to run, I just needed to know how. And so commenced 6 years or recurring injury.

After a huge flare-up during training for and running Tokyo marathon in early 2019, I worked with my second physio, Zoe, from Physio Motion (London based) to figure out the cause of my particular injury (weak glutes, poor running form to compensate) and work on those issues. Since then, I’ve been able to run two ultramarathons and 50+km weeks on trail (big for me – previously 5km would hurt) with no pain until recently, on a very tiring 10km road run around Bristol.

So, in my current mindset, I thought it might be helpful to share my top tips for dealing with injuries, both mentally and physically.

Get a diagnosis

For many people reading this, your injuries will be recurring, so you’ll have a good idea of what the pain is, and what it means. However, for many others, you’ll have a ‘lateral knee pain’ or ‘calf niggle’ and won’t know what’s gone wrong. Getting a diagnosis is vital to taking the right steps to recovery. Taking time off until it doesn’t hurt and then going straight back to what you were doing before doesn’t treat the root cause of the problem, so you might have the same issue again. Get a diagnosis and a plan to recover.

Know what’s gone wrong

This might be personal to me, but when things go wrong, I need to know why. Understanding the details of why something went wrong, what happened in the lead up and what I can do next time to avoid the same thing happening helps me feel in control of the issue. It also helps prevent it happening again. If I think about it, the recent cause of my flare up was: 2 weeks off followed by 3 very stiff road runs in quick succession, followed by a lack of stretching on top of 9 months without a regular or sufficient physiotherapy strengthening routine. Know your triggers and work to fix them.

Accept reality

If you are injured, the chances are that you felt a niggle before it turned into a full-blown injury. If you had taken a step back at ‘niggle’, it may never have turned to ‘injury’. So now you’re injured, it’s time to accept that reality. It may not be the reality forever, but for now, pushing through the pain doesn’t make you hardcore, it makes you stupid (speaking from experience). It also means your injury will likely take longer to heal and you’ll spend more time away from what you love. Accepting your current state means that it’ll likely last for less time.

Treat recovery like training

If you’re anything like me, you get pretty exciting when a new training plan comes your way, but groan at the idea of a physiotherapy/rehab plan. However, technically, a rehab plan is the same as any other training plan – it’s taking small steps to improve from the position you’re currently in, to the position you want to be in. Switching your mindset from ‘rehab is a chore’ to ‘rehab is training’ can help keep motivated. The more you stick to your rehab plan, the sooner you’ll be back to the training you love.

Enjoy the time off

When you know you can’t run/do the sport you love, it seems like all you want to do is that thing, but in reality how many times did you think ‘I wish I didn’t have to go on this run’ when you still could? Time off is a chance to take stock, recover both physically and mentally, and improve other skills too, be it in the gym or at work. You’ll be amazed how much free time you have all of a sudden! Again, this is about mindset – you can choose to resent the free time, or you can choose to do something productive with it (rest is also productive).

Speak to others

While being pragmatic is always best when it comes to injuries, sometimes speaking to someone else who can share your frustrations can make you feel less alone. Sharing tips and irritations can be helpful, and having a downright bitch about your injury every now and again can feel good. It’s unfair that I’m injured. I read my body well, I rest well, I eat well, I don’t do huge mileage, and yet here I am once again. It’s immensely frustrating. Once you’re done, pick yourself back up and get on with your rehab plan.

Go back slowly

At the end of your 6 weeks or 6 months, you’ll likely be trepidatious but excited to get back to running/whatever sport you love. However, these are the tentative first steps after months of recovery and work. Don’t go out all guns blazing, however fresh you feel. Work with your physio to plan your return to training. A 2km run is as valid as your previous 20km runs. Don’t let ego or excitement get in the way of a slow and sensible return to training – your body will thank you in the long run (so to speak)! And if anything, you should be finishing your sessions feeling like you want to do more.

This piece has been helpful to write for myself at least, so I hope it also helps a lot of you! Save it, share it, bookmark it on your laptop. 65% – 80% of runners get injured each year, so it’s likely that you’ll need this advice at some point, whether that’s now or in the future. Good luck with your recovery!

If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a small contribution to the running of my blog.

Why everyone should run an ultramarathon

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.

Image by Benedict Tufnell

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.

Image by Jake Baggaley

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.
  • People (women especially) tend to improve or maintain endurance long into their 40s, meaning it’s the sort of hobby that you can take with you through your life, or pick up late! Runners (contrary to popular belief) actually have better functioning joints in older age than the average person.
  • 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!

If this blog post makes you keen to sign up, check out my vlog ‘10 things I learned from my first ultramarathon‘ and vlog of the ultra itself – I hope it’ll inspire you to get out there and give it a go!

Image by Jake Baggaley

How to run in the rain

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!

Good wet weather gear is vital, but don’t overdress like I always do! You’ll regret it.
  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. Men – use Vaseline on your nips or wear a bag to stop everything rubbing! Esp important for longer runs.
  4. Wear a cap. These aren’t only useful for sunny runs – caps are great for preventing rain from getting in your eyes.
  5. Cooler runs are easier on the body. Make the most of the cooler temperatures to get in some speedy runs!
  6. Your skin is waterproof! Nothing bad is going to happen if you run in the rain and get a little wet.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. If you wear glasses, don’t. (Contacts work better).
  10. 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.
  11. 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!
  12. Put your phone somewhere waterproof (sandwich bags work well).
  13. Braid your hair/avoid ponytails – the rain will matt it an it’ll be a nightmare to deal with when you get back.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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!

My first ultramarathon – the lowdown

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!

Warmup hike around a gorgeous Mam Tor loop

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.

My tent setup!

Meals/snacks/beverages:

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!).

Simba and I running the old Mam Tor road down to checkpoint 1. Photo by Benedict Tufnell

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.

Race day nutrition:

  • Lucho Dillitos coffee and guava cubes
  • Fruit sticks (like YoYo)
  • Human Food
  • Boiled sweets
  • Phizz rehydration salts
  • Homemade ginger parkin cake
  • 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!

One of the more roady parts of the race (15km in or so)

You can see my vlog of the race below – don’t forget to like and subscribe if you enjoyed!

Huge shoutout to Simba (middle) for running back from the end to collect me 3km from the end and force me to run the whole last segment. I wouldn’t have otherwise!
Second massive shoutout to my dad and his girlfriend, Charlotte, who drove me to the Peaks, helped me set up camp and plied me with ginger parkin when necessary. I literally couldn’t have even got to the race without them!

How periods affect training

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
How hormones fluctuate during a standard 28 day cycle

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.

TL;DR

  • 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:

If you found this blog post useful, please do share with anyone who might find it useful. If you enjoy my posts regularly, please consider contributing so I can keep this page up and running (no pun intended).

How heat affects your training

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.

Make sure you plan long, hot runs and are kitted out appropriately! Check out this vlog for an introduction to trail running.

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.

Humid weather reduces the speed at which your body can cool down, meaning that even relatively cool temperatures can become exhausting.

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!

If you enjoyed this post, please consider contributing so I can create more. Feel free to suggest more topics while you’re at it!

How to get back to running after injury

We’ve all been there. With 65% – 80% of runners experiencing an injury each year, the chances are, you’ve spent some time injured in the time that you’ve been running. Getting back to training after time off can be daunting and confusing – what level of pain is acceptable to push through? How far should you run? What cross training should you do, if any?

Disclaimer: before we start I’d like to point out that I’m no expert, I’ve simply experienced my fair share of injuries , physiotherapy treatment and coaching. In 2016 I developed IT band syndrome, a common runner’s injury, which I proceeded to push through, after being told it ‘won’t cause any permanent damage’. Still now I am experiencing the effects of this recurring injury, although I have since developed many techniques to reduce the amount of flare ups I have, and haven’t felt pain since last year!

With so many people taking up running during lockdown, it’s no surprise that injury rates have gone through the roof, and with access to physios and doctors seemingly limited, people are more and more turing to the internet for help and advice. So, here are my top tips for returning to running following an injury. Remember though – if the pain doesn’t go away, or is recurring, please do visit a specialist, as they will be able to help far more than anyone on the internet.

  1. Prevention is better than cure

The best way to recover from an injury is not to get it in the first place. ‘Oh great’ you’re thinking, a bit too late for that. Well, yes and no. If you are injured at the moment, think about why you ended up in this place. Injuries are often a sign that you are trying too much, too soon. Most coaches recommend the ‘10% rule’, increasing weekly mileage by no more than 10% per week. More than this puts your body at greater risk of injury, meaning that you have to take more time off. Consider sticking to this rule to avoid future injuries. Another piece of advice would be to avoid trying too many new things at once. Want to try longer runs? Don’t do extra speedwork that same week. Giving hill sprints a go? Go easy on your longer run. Having a diversity of training is good, but don’t add everything at once. Are you doing strength and conditioning and mobility work? Is your footwear wrong? Working through all the possible causes of injury can reduce your risk of having the same issue in the future. Almost everyone gets injured, it’s just a part of running, but reducing triggers means that you can spend more of your time doing what you love, and less time rehabbing.

2. Slow and steady wins the race

There are many different kinds of injury, but for the most part, rushing recovery won’t help the situation. The temptation once most of the pain has gone, is to jump right back in where you left off, but this is inadvisable. Since most running injuries are caused by doing too much, too soon, the same logic applies for coming back after an injury. It might feel like your first few weeks back are boring, slow and monotonous, but these are your ‘testing’ weeks. You should be keeping in tune with your body, listening out for small niggles and trying to maintain good form throughout. This is hard to do if you’re going for killer miles or sprints, so just take it easy. A slow return to running will likely mean that you remain un-injured for longer, and get help quicker if you do get injured again. Slow and steady wins the race.

3. Don’t run through the pain

Generally, pain is there for a reason. Ignoring it ‘because you know better’ can backfire horribly, and unlike ITBS, many injuries can leave you with permanent damage if ignored. As you progress and become more experienced, it may be possible to tell what pain is OK to run through, and what pain is most definitely not, but for beginners, running through a new pain is ill-advised before getting it checked out. Recovery from common injuries such as shin splints can be further hindered by even walking on them, let alone running. Always ask your physio if you’re not sure what level of pain is acceptable.

4. Physiotherapy and strength & conditioning

The chances are, if you know what injury you have, you’ll have some sort of mobility/S&C/physio plan to strengthen the area and get yourself back on track. As stupid as it sounds, simply thinking about the physio session are not going to lead to the same improvements as actually doing them. Yes, they might be boring, and yes, they’re probably not why you started running, but they’re also the thing that will keep you healthy, balanced and less injury prone long into the future. If you do them. I would also recommend keeping up elements of your physio long past the point that your injury has healed, even incorporating them into your weekly strength sessions. If your injury was due to a weakness or imbalance, this will help rectify that, reducing risk of the injury recurring.

5. Cross train

Cross training (i.e. incorporating training sessions that aren’t running, e.g. weight lifting, cycling, yoga) has a plethora of benefits, from reducing boredom to making you a stronger runner. This is perfect if you’ve taken some time off running, as it will reduce the weekly load on your muscles and joints, while still increasing strength and endurance. Find something you enjoy so you can remain consistent. My cross-training days are at least as important as my run days!

6. Join a running group

Finding motivation and friends to chat to following some time off running, whether due to an injury or simply just taking some time away, can be difficult. Joining a run club means more people to chat to about training, niggles etc etc, and also means you’re likely to have some qualified advice regarding your return to training. Always let them know if you have a history of injuries, or a particular injury you’re coming back from.

7. Invest in the right kit

If you’re injured, there’s a chance it could be because the shoes you wear don’t complement your running style. Most people pronate one way or another (I overpronate, because for some reason I run like I’m on a catwalk – I blame the narrow Dorset trails!). Up to 4 in 5 runners run in shoes that don’t suit their running style, potentially increasing the risk of injury. Having a gait analysis, or investing in some gait analysing insoles, such as NURVV, means you can find the right shoes to correct your gait, and work on improving form to reduce exacerbating existing injuries, and reduce risk of getting more in future.

8. Stay positive!

After injuring yourself, it can be easy to feel let down by your body. After spending months or years looking after it by exercising, eating right, resting etc., it’s easy to feel despondent when you get injured. I got to the point a year after my injury where I felt like I was never going to be able to run more than 2km again, as every time I did, I couldn’t walk for days afterwards. However, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of the time, it won’t always be like this, and you have the rest of your life to hit PBs and get back into running. This year doesn’t have to be the year. Maybe this is the year you learn to love running again, or the year you hit your first 1km without pain, or the year when you find a running community. Your experience of running doesn’t have to be dictated by PBs, races and intense training sessions. Stay positive, focus on your recovery and you’ll be back in no time! After all, if you’re not having fun, what’s the point? Running should be enjoyable, not hell!

I hope these tips help you, whether you’re injured at the moment, or want to take stock for future potential injuries. I would also say that most of these tips are suitable at all times, not just when you’re struggling with an injury. Generally, injury recovery techniques work well as injury prevention techniques and vice versa. Unfortunately, running is a high-risk sport when it comes to injuries, but I think we can all say it’s worth it!

I’d love to hear your tips for getting back to training post-injury. Please comment down below and share on Instagram!

Should you workout twice a day?

A recent UK announcement clarified that people would be allowed to workout an ‘unlimited amount’ outdoors as part of the gradual easing process of lockdown. Whether you agree or not that this should be allowed or encouraged, it’s led to a spike in articles preaching the benefits of working out twice a day.

For the vast majority of the population, however, working out two times a week would be more than their usual. Is promoting double-days sensible, and is it a tactic that could work for many? Here are some of the pros and cons of working out twice a day.

Pros

  • Double workouts can allow you to fit in more ‘accessory’ workouts, strength and conditioning and physio sessions, reducing imbalances and weaknesses. Some people feel they don’t have time for these if they’re aiming to train 5 days a week and fit in sufficient rest days. Doubling up means you can do an intense session in the morning and a low intensity stretching or physio session in the afternoon.
  • Doubling up but doing the same number of workouts per week can mean that you allow yourself more rest days. Rather than working out 5h a week over 5 days, you can do 2 double days and a single day in just 3 days, thereby allowing yourself 4 rest days a week. You will need them!
  • Splitting a session in two and doing half in the morning and half in the afternoon means you’re able to do each part of the session with more intensity, as you’re better rested for the second half.
  • Splitting a session in two can also allow you to fit it in on a busy day. 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes after work in the afternoon is sometimes easier than an hour all at once.
  • Working out twice a day reduces your sedentary time. We know that sitting for long periods of the day can be incredibly detrimental to our health, so even fitting in a short workout morning and evening can mean moving more overall.

Cons

  • Even splitting the same workout in two can lead to injury or overtraining, as you’re working already fatigued muscles. If you’re not used to training a lot, working out twice a day will take its toll.
  • Overtraining compromises your immunity, leaving you more vulnerable to even small illnesses. 72 hours after a long run, your immunity is reduced. For obvious reasons, this is especially problematic now. Doubling up leads to a greater likelihood of overtraining, if not done correctly.
  • Workouts lead to micro tears in our muscles. Doubling up workouts can mean that these tears are not given sufficient time to repair, potentially leading to injury.
  • Running has such a high injury rate that all runners are advised to increase mileage and intensity slowly. Doubling up can mean that it is possible to do more mileage, quicker, leading to common injuries such as shin splints, ITBS, plantar fasciitis and tendonitis.
  • It can be hard enough to convince yourself to get out once a day. By trying to force yourself to head out twice a day you can take all the fun out of exercise.
  • Doubling up is unsustainable for many. Overdo it and you may need to take off significant amounts of time, reducing any benefits you get from your double days.

 

In my opinion, there are more downsides to working out twice a day than there are positives, for the vast majority of people. I have been receiving a record number of messages about people picking up injuries from suddenly increasing the amount they are running, or starting new training programmes without a strong baseline of fitness.

Of course, there will be people who thrive off doubling up workout sessions, especially those who do so with the help of a coach, or who are already experienced in their sport. With proper planning, double days can allow for longer periods of rest between workouts, aiding recovery. They may also help people fit in enough strength and conditioning sessions that they could not otherwise, whilst also fitting in rest days.

The best way to be able to gain all the benefits of working out, even getting fitter during lockdown is to work on one thing at once. If you’ve taken up running, don’t increase intensity and distance in the same week. Your mileage should increase by no more than 10% week on week to avoid injury, but if you do your longest run one week, don’t also start adding in sprints or intervals sessions in the same week, or even the week after. Most of the sessions we do should be at moderate intensity – we do not always need to be pushing the boundaries of our ability. Be kind to yourself – this is a tough time for all and putting your body under extra physical pressure may cause you to reach breaking point.

Perhaps you want to start taking advantage of double days because you’re lacking time or want more rest days. That’s absolutely fine – maybe just try one double day a week (thereby taking one extra rest day too) and see how you get on. Take it easy and remember that recovery (and food) is as important as the session itself!

TL;DR

  • While exercise can improve mood, fitness and your immune response, too much exercise can have exactly the opposite effect.
  • If you are not a professional athlete or highly experienced with a well thought-out training plan, double days are probably going to increase your risk of fatigue, injury and may dampen your immune system.
  • Provided you are not doing more workouts per week, double days can be effective when linking together a S&C session/physio session and a short run.
  • As ever, stick to the 10% rule. If you’re a runner, increase your weekly mileage by no more than 10% per week. Any more than this increases your risk of injury, even (or especially) when taking on double days.
  • Overtraining often takes several weeks to take its toll, so watch out for signs of it, and read this blog post to know when you may have pushed it too far.
  • Listen to your body! If your workout doesn’t perk you up and you feel constantly fatigued, take an extra rest day. Yes, we have a lot of time at the moment and exercising can feel like a welcome break, but the consequences of overdoing it can be serious and long-lasting. Be sensible!

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