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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Shin Splints – what are they?

With so many people taking up running since lockdown, the number of physio-related questions I receive over on my Instagram has increased exponentially. One of the most common questions I’m asked (at least once a day at the moment) is how to cope with shin splints, an issue common with runners, especially those increasing the amount of running they are doing too quickly.

As someone who isn’t a physio, I never feel comfortable answering these questions (aside from giving personal advice and opinions on injuries I’ve personally experienced), so instead have asked my physio Zoe from Physio Motion to write something to help you all out. I understand that not everyone can afford/has access to a physio, so I hope this helps! That being said, if you continue to struggle with injury even after rest and rehab, I would really recommend getting in touch with a physio to ensure you’re treating the right issue, and that the problem isn’t something bigger.

Without further ado, onto Zoe! If you enjoyed this post, please do share and tag @physiomotionlimited and @foodfitnessflora so we can see 🙂

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Zoe and me on a run in Hyde park

What are shin splints?

Shin splints is a generic term that describes any disorder that causes shin pain.  This historically would be called medial tibial stress syndrome.

It is typically found as pain along the shin bone (anterior tibia), which will settle with rest but will reappear when you start running again and at worse when walking.

With all of these conditions that cause shin pain, it is typically due to repetitive strain injury that is common in runners when they are starting to run or suddenly increase their amount of running.

The characteristics of shin splints can also be an identification of different conditions.

 

What other conditions can have shin splint characteristics?

It is important to know that it could also be due to tibial stress fracture (break within the bone that doesn’t move) or compartment syndrome (high pressure within the muscle caused by swelling).

 

How can I distinguish between these conditions?

If it is true shin splints, the pain will subside with rest and slowly build up again if not managed adequately. Also, people that have just started running will notice that the pain improves over time as your legs get used to the new loads being put upon them.

With stress fractures and compartment syndrome, however, the pain is persistent or can get progressively worse.  If your pain does get progressively worse, it is a good idea to seek medical advice and investigations in order to rule out a stress fracture or compartment syndrome.

 

Why have I got shin splints?

The main cause for shin pain is the load that you are putting through the lower half of your leg when running, and that you do not have the capacity to manage these loads.  This could be due to increasing your training too quickly; increasing the running speed; or inadequate rest periods between your runs and other training.

There is no evidence that a certain type of running footwear will stop you getting shin splints, but if you have been using the same trainers for many years and they are hanging off your feet it might be an idea to treat yourself to a new pair.

 

Do I need to stop running?

For most people you can continue running, but you need to return to running a distance, speed and frequency that previously did not cause you problems. 

If you are new to running then it might be better to start with slow interval running (run walk, or run stop run) and build up the duration that you are running in each interval before continuously running. 

If you are still getting pain then it maybe necessary to stop running for a short period and swim or cycle instead for this period in order to maintain cardiovascular capacity. 

 

What can I do to help with my shin splints?

As shin pain is due to overloading the legs, you need to make sure that the legs are strong enough to absorb running forces.  Therefore, you need to have a strengthening regime to ensure adequate strength in your calf complex, but it is also important to increase the strength in your gluteals and thigh muscles.

We would recommend exercises such as calf raises, slow step ups and bridges, athough we always assess our patients for areas of weakness in the lower limb and tailor a programme to their needs.

Due to the shin pain you can get a secondary response of tightness in the calf.  You can stretch this out, but it will only provide you with temporary short term relief until you start walking and/or running again.  It is more important that you make sure you find out what is causing your shin pain in the first place. Failure to do so could result in a stress fracture or compartment syndrome.

 

What can I do to prevent reoccurrence of shin splints?

When the pain has completely disappeared at the running mileage that is comfortable or after a period of rest, you need to think about how you progress your running programme. Typically coaches recommend 10% increases, but something to remember is that this doesn’t have to be every week and also every run doesn’t have to be to your maximal capacity.

It is also important to have strength and conditioning days, and recovery days in your training regime.

As shin splints are now categorised as a bone stress response, it maybe worthwhile looking at whether your vitamin D and calcium intake is adequate for bone recovery, especially when you start running during the winter or at the start of the spring, when it is shown that vitamin D especially is low for us Brits!

 

How long will it take me to recover from shin splints?

It can take between 6 weeks and 6 months to make a full recovery from shin splints depending on the severity of the condition.  So it is important to be patient and consistent with your treatment and advice given.

 

If you’re currently experiencing injuries, you may find this Q&A vlog with Zoe interesting, as well as this chat with my coach, where we cover running injuries and the importance of recovery, especially in such a stressful time. 

 

References:

 1. Heiderscheit, B. C.; Chumanov, E. S.; Michalski, M. P.; Wille, C. M.; Ryan, M. B., Effects of Step Rate Manipulation on Joint Mechanics during Running. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 2011, 43 (2), 296-302.

2. Bennell, K. L.; Malcolm, S. S.; Thomas, S. A.; Reid, S. J.; Brukner, P.; Ebeling, P. R.; Wark, J. D., Risk factors for stress fracture in track and field athletes: a twelve-month prospective study. American Journal of Sports Medicine24 1996, 6 (810-818).

3. Madeley, L. T.; Munteanu, S. E.; Bonanno, D. R., Endurance of the ankle joint plantar flexor muscles in athletes with medial tibial stress syndrome: A case-control study. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 2007, 10 (6), 356-362.

4.. Lappe, J.; Cullen, D.; Haynatzki, G.; Recker, R.; Ahlf, R.; Thompson, K., Calcium and vitamin d supplementation decreases incidence of stress fractures in female navy recruits. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research 2008, 23 (5), 741-749.

 

Eco friendly workout mats

As all of us are working out at home more and more, home equipment has become a bit of a hot commodity, with shops selling out of all their weights, resistance bands, treadmills etc. Whether you’re doing more HIIT, yoga or simple stretches after a run, a yoga mat is key for making the whole experience more comfortable. Standard PVC mats are practical and cheap, but often not great quality, and use non-renewable resources to make. When they break, there is no way of disposing of them in an eco-friendly way, with the vast majority making their way to landfill, or being incinerated instead, releasing dangerous toxins when they are.

Thankfully, many brands are taking more care to use natural materials that can decompose, or are made of recycled materials, reducing the need for virgin plastics. Here are some of my favourite!

At the time of writing, all of these are in stock!! 

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Liforme – £95

A well known brand, Liforme offers really grippy mats, etched with lined to help you align your poses in yoga, or know where you are on the mat. The brand supports numerous charities too, including Friends of the Earth (environmental conservation), the RSPCA (animal welfare) and Yoga Gives Back (fighting poverty in India). Currently they are also raising money for the COVID 19 Solidarity Response Fund. Their mats are fully biodegradable and have recyclable plastic-free packaging. Their travel mat is more affordable and transportable than their full-sizes mats.

Form – £79/£50

This UK based, carbon-negative brand produces a plethora of beautiful mats made from recycled tree rubber and recycled plastic bottles. At the end of their life, the mats are fully biodegradable, except parts of some of the mats, which are recyclable. Their circular mats are extremely popular, and you can preorder these for the 18th May. However, their Marble travel mat is both in stock, and gives back – £10 from every sale goes to The Ocean Cleanup

Cork Yogi – £85

This rubber mat topped with cork is both incredibly padded and good for the environment. The cork is sustainably sourced, and its natural properties mean it is anti-microbial and becomes grippier with sweat, perfect for intense workouts and hot yoga. A portion of the profits of CorkYogis goes back to Destiny Reflection Foundation allowing them to train and give work to survivors of human trafficking and slavery. You can buy their Premium Yogi mat here.

Yogi Bare – £68

Yogi Bare produced sustainable rubber mats that are 100% vegan and cruelty free, with 100% recyclable packaging. Although they are created in Hong Kong, they freight by ship rather than air, reducing emissions. You can buy their extreme grip mat here.

 

Manduka – €75

Manduka is a well known brand in the yoga community, but works well for workouts too. Their eKO mats use sustainably sourced rubber and only non-toxic chemicals in the manufacturing process. They have multiple thicknesses, but their 4mm Lite mat gets the best of all worlds. They also have an Almost Perfect collection of reduced mats that were produced with slight imperfections.

EcoYoga – £45

This ecofriedly mat is made of jute and natural rubber, making is biodegradable, compostable and grippy. They’re also designed and handmade in the UK, so you won’t be getting any air-miles if you order this. They’re out of stock in many places but I found one here.

 

Planet Warrior – £50

This natural rubber yoga mat is perfect if you’re looking for a pattered addition to your yoga flow or workout. It’s beautifully painted with water based inks and perfectly grippy thanks to the rubber base. The top is lined with microfibre to make it as soft as possible. When delivered, it comes in recycled and recyclable cardboard and paper, with no plastic tags. You can buy it here.

Daway – £47.90

PVC and made using only non-toxic methods, this mat is perfect if you’re looking for a bargain. Some of the reviews however say that it gets a little slippery in hot weather, and you can expect some curling at the end if left rolled for extended periods of time. However, if you’re looking for a less-expensive thick mat, this one comes in at 6mm, far thicker than the standard 3-4mm you would usually get. You can buy it here.

Good luck with your training or practice, I hope it brings you a lot of happiness in this strange time!

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Struggling with your runs? Here’s why you shouldn’t worry

One of the most common questions I get asked on social media nowadays is ‘does it get easier?!’ – usually in reference to running. Running is difficult for the vast majority of people. It requires not only physical strength, but also huge amounts of mental strength, never more so than when you’re just starting out.

Evidence suggests that self control and self motivation may be limited resources, and that forcing yourself to do something – whether that’s doing the washing up, sitting at your desk all day or sending yourself out on a run – takes energy (i.e. ego depletion). This is one of the reasons why forming a new habit, such as running, can be so difficult. Not only is the running itself hard, but doing something that takes some level of self control everyday can take its toll energetically.

However, we are currently uniquely placed to start forming new habits. Fitting in ‘extra exercise’ around your usual workload, home and social lives can be extremely difficult. Currently, though, without the need for commuting, socialising, workplace politics or much else, our pot of energy is only being used on work, home life and exercise. This isn’t to say that everything is fine and dandy at the moment, simply that forming a new habit when there aren’t all the usual distractions and displacement activities may be easier. If you’re thinking of starting running now, don’t forget to give this article a read.

Just remember – not every run is going to feel great, even if the general trend is up. As with everything, some days are good days and other days aren’t – we don’t always feel happy, so why should it be any different for running? I frequently go weeks without feeling like I’ve had a good run, where every step feels like my legs are made from lead and I wonder why I do it. In these times, however, I always think of myself building mental resilience. I may not be at my fastest, but getting out when you feel like you really don’t want to means that getting out on the good days is a hell of a lot easier. I think of it as the running equivalent of ‘character building’.

So here are my top experiences of how it really does get easier:

  1. You start to form a habit.

Making the decision to get out everyday takes energy, but the more you do it, the less of a ‘mental battle’ you have to have each time. Yes, the initial 2 weeks or month or 2 months can be difficult. Hell, I still struggle to get myself out the door sometimes, but exercise is not a question for me – it’s a habit, so whether I go to the gym (obviously not now), get out for a run or simply a long walk, the question is not whether I get out, it’s when. If you’re new to running, form a habit by getting a running plan and do your best to stick to it. Don’t want to go out? Tell yourself that you can stop whenever you like, as long as you get out the door and to the end of the road. Chances are, once you’re up and out, you’ll be fine to keep going.

2. You get fitter

This sounds so obvious, but I think it’s easy to overlook your progress when you have a goal in mind that you haven’t hit yet. Try tracking your progress loosely, so that when you get the feeling you’re not progressing at all, you can look back and see how far you’ve come. Don’t forget – every time you go out for a run, you’re making mental and physical improvements, even if you can’t see them yet. One day they’ll all come together and you’ll feel on top of the world.

3. Running becomes more natural

When I take a few weeks off running for whatever reason, or forget to do speed sessions, my runs sometimes feel like my legs have forgotten what they’re supposed to do! The more you run (up to a point), the more natural running will become to you. It would be useful if we could all work with running coaches to get cadence and form right, but even without this, your body will naturally move towards a more efficient way of running. You probably won’t notice this all at once, but over time you’ll feel it happening!

4. A sense of achievement will motivate you

As you start to improve, especially if you’re following a plan, you’ll be motivated by the improvement itself. Being able to run a distance or time you couldn’t have run 2 or 3 weeks ago feels pretty great, and will motivate you to get out the door again and again. Just don’t expect constant improvements – limit your expectations and try to enjoy the process, not just the outcome.

5. Find your ‘why’

Without spring or summer races to motivate you, it can be hard to think of reasons to keep up with all the running. Why should you, when there’s no official PB time or medal at the end? Well, although it may be tough, this time is perfect to remember why you started running in the first place. Write down your reasons and think on them. Have they changed? What drives you? Remembering this can help you get out the door, and make future training sessions that extra bit enjoyable.

6. You can switch off

One of the positives of not having races to aim for at the moment is that training sessions don’t have to be so rigid. Instead of X minute miles or weekly fartlek sessions, you can run for the sheer joy of it. Remember point number 5, take off your GPS watch and just get out there. Our level of effort is almost always measured against what we feel we ‘should’ be doing. That’s why runs on days we’re really not feeling it can seem so hard – we’re expecting a certain level of effort to be expended to get a certain pace, and if we don’t hit that, it’s easy to feel down. By taking off your watch and abandoning all perceptions of ‘should’, it’s possible to have some of the best runs of your life.

 

This time is difficult for all of us for numerous reasons, but don’t make running one of them. Running is an escape and can lead to a sense of achievement nothing else can right now. There is no ‘should’ when it comes to training at the moment. Do what feels right, what feels good and what will make you happy in the long run. Running gets easier the more you do it, but it also makes other things easier, so get out there if you can and enjoy it!