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I speak to Dr Juliet McGrattan about women’s health and running; answer training questions I’ve been sent and my friend Josie reviews the CRUK Winter Run 10k.

Juliet is the a GP and the author of Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health.

Josie ran the CRUK Winter 10k and tells us what she thought of the race.

If you have a training question you’d like me to answer or you’ve done a race recently that you’d like to review – get either via email or via Twitter.

Listen to podcast

Download it | Listen online Get it via iTunes Podcast archive

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Returning to running post-pregnancy

I miss running. I’ve missed lots of things about it. I miss heading out for a six miles on the trail and getting lost in my thoughts. I miss pushing myself in a hard workout and the feeling of satisfied tiredness that follows. And I miss racing, running hard from the gun and the fine line between (self-defined) success and failure.

But I’m in no rush to return to these things.

I see plenty of women return to running after their six week post-birth check with varying degrees of success. Some are able to pick up where they left off and run a marathon nine months later or less. Some return to running only to be plagued by injuries and have to stop again.

There are so many factors that determine how you will respond to returning to exercise after pregnancy and birth that it’s imposdible to predict which camp you’ll be in. Just a few…

  • whether you had a vaginal delivery or C-section
  • other interventions during labour (forceps, episiotomy etc)
  • issues such as round ligament or pelvic girdle pain during pregnancy
  • how much exercise you were able to do during pregnancy
  • your mental health post birth
  • whether you’re breastfeeding

Most of the list above are beyond our control, it’s just the luck of the draw. And while it’s easy to say ‘everyone is different, do what’s right for you, listen to your body’, it has been my experience that many people don’t listen to their body until it starts shouting at them. Instead we look at other people doing great things a few weeks after labour and expect that our journey will be the same.

So if you were reading this post expecting to see a week-by-week roadmap laid out of how exactly I plan to get back to running over the coming months that you too could follow, I’m sorry to disappoint but I don’t know what to expect.

Instead of miles and dates on the calendar, I’ve thought about my return to running in several phases with no deadline as to how long each stage will take.

Stage One is recovery.

It’s easy to overlook this as a step on the road to running. But your body has been through a major ordeal, however well your pregnancy and labour went. Imagine the hardest race you’ve ever done and times it by a million.

Recovery can take longer than the six weeks we’d all love it to be. And it takes patience. The longer you spend honouring what you’ve been through and truly recovering, the smoother your return to health and fitness will be in the long run.

Stage Two is moving your body again and that’s where I am right now (though the recovery is still ongoing too). Nothing extravagant, walking and paying attention to the changes that have occurred. How long this stage will last, I’m not sure right now. I’ll keep you updated as I move through the stages before an eventual return to the things I miss: running hard and racing. It may take some time, but hopefully it will be worth it.

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Staying active during pregnancy

Last year I wrote about my experience of running and staying active during pregnancy. And as I move into a new phase and look forward to returning to running in the coming months, I’m keeping true to the core principles – doing what’s right for me, adapting to my changing body and not comparing myself to other people’s journeys.

I interviewed some great women last year who had some solid advice on returning to their various activities after pregnancy and birth. They’re all runners but have other interests too and you can find them all below.

I still have goals I want to achieve in running. There’s that 99 minute half marathon to run and I’m determined to make it to Boston Marathon (you may remember I qualified at Edinburgh Marathon in 2016 and then didn’t enter the 2017 race – yep, now you know the reason why). But I’m in no rush to make them happen.

Running is part of my job, so the first order of business is to make sure I can keep up with my runners once my running groups start again in the spring. So, although I’m in awe of women who can run marathons just months after giving birth, there’ll be no signing up for races for me for the immediate future. Just a gentle return to moving my body in ways that feel right and a lot of patience.

I wish you the best with whatever goals you have for the year ahead.

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What do you need to start running?

Running is a pretty simple activity and, despite what advertisers would have you believe, you really need very little in order to get started. Like starting anything new, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the array of equipment on offer and use this as an excuse to put off something we’re scared to start. I’m going to boil it down for you and show you how little you need.

Shoes

If you’re a complete beginner, I would have you starting with running just 1 minute at a time and repeating 10 times with a walk break in between. So, while it’s great to have a comfy pair of running shoes, your first week can easily be done with an old pair of trainers you have at the back of your cupboard.

Clothes

For women, I’d recommend a sports bra but this is just personal preference to make it more comfortable. There’s no reason you can’t run in a regular bra (or with no bra at all for that matter). Most women will feel more comfortable with some support though.

Other than that, just wear whatever you’re comfortable in: an old pair of leggings and a tshirt, some tracksuit bottoms you painted the house in, or a new high-tec wicking outfit that’s going to inspire you. I turned up to my first ever gym session in a Beastie Boys t-shirt and leggings. Anything goes this week.

Watch

At the start, you’ll measure your runs based on time. So a digital watch with a stopwatch function is handy. Alternatively you can use the timer on your phone or download an interval timer app. One of my beginner runners used to use her kitchen timer stuffed in her bra, there really is no need to spend hundreds of pounds at this stage.

Somewhere to run

Treadmill, park, round the block – it’s really up to you. Find somewhere flat for your first few runs, avoid routes that involve road crossings as much as possible and choose well-lit areas after dark. And, to answer a question I get a lot, YES treadmill running is still running and still counts.

A plan

I started running 10 years ago with no plan and no idea what I was doing. And I quickly picked up injuries. Just heading out and running as far as you can before stopping is not the way to progress safely or efficiently. You. An use the 0-5k plan I’ve developed over years of helping hundreds of beginner runners to their first 5k, or you can find a plan of your liking. But, have a plan and start ticking off those sessions.

And that’s all you really need! So there really is no excuse not to get started straight away. As you run more, you’ll probably want to upgrade those trainers to something more suitable, you’ll find out what clothing you prefer to run in and might treat yourself to a flashier watch. But for now, there should be nothing holding you back from taking those first steps.  Good luck!

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Step Out of Your Comfort Zone This Year

I love running marathons. It wasn’t always that way. For a long time I loved sitting on my sofa, watching TV. I still do to an extent, but I do it a lot less now. Now my spare time is filled with running, cycling and going to the gym. I don’t do it because anyone is making me do it, or because I think I should, I do it because I enjoy it and because I feel lucky to be able to.

My decision to spend less time on the sofa and more time moving my body happened 10 years ago. The decision to do it was easy to make, the doing it took a little while longer. Sitting on my sofa was where I was most comfortable (both literally and emotionally).

Nobody could see me sitting there night after night, nobody was going to judge me or look at what I was wearing. Stepping into a gym was a whole new territory for me. I didn’t know how the machines worked, what I should wear or what I should do once I was there, and I was too scared to ask anyone in case they realised that I didn’t belong there. I belonged back home, on my sofa, watching TV.

Looking back on those first few trips to the gym, the tentative experimenting with various gym equipment and the exhausting attempts at running on the treadmill, it feels as if that’s a whole different person to who I am now.

I’m a qualified run coach and personal trainer now, which means that as well as knowing how all those machines work, I know what they do to my body. But I also know that every person in any gym I walk into was new once. Every person has had that anxious feeling that everyone knows they’re out of place and that they’re about to be discovered as an unfit fraud who should just go home and sit on the sofa.

I’m glad I went to the gym that first day, and I’m glad I kept going back. That first visit has led me onto a different path. It took me away from my comfort zone on the sofa, and helped me keep running away from many others.

A couple of years ago I couldn’t swim. The idea of getting in a pool, putting my face in the water which would go up my nose and make it sting, and then pushing off from the side to where I couldn’t touch the bottom filled me with fear. It took a big leap of faith to turn up to my first swimming lesson. Just like that first trip to the gym, I had all the same anxious feelings. But I also knew that pushing out of where I felt comfortable would bring rewards, and it has.

I swam in a crystal clear lake in sardinia. I swam in a pond on Hampstead Heath, leaving the bustle of the city at the waters edge. I swam with 2,000 other thrashing bodies at the swim start of an Ironman. I swam non-stop in a reservoir for 3,800 metres.

When I find myself up against something that feels like a challenge, and I think about running away and retreating to where I feel comfortable, I remind myself that I did all those things. And that they all came from taking that first step away from what felt comfortable.

Take a step out of your comfort zone this year and train for your first 5k or a marathon. My training guides will show you how. 

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Train with me for your first 5k

I’m on maternity leave right now, which means that for the first time in several years, I’m not out in local parks coaching new runners to their first 5k.

So I’ve come up with a plan – I’m going to help those who’d like to start running this year by the power of the internet. And if you’d like to join me, I’ll be popping up each week with a little advice and motivation to keep you going over the next 10 weeks.

How it works
  • Starting next Monday, each I’ll be posting a video which you can view on my Facebook page and my Youtube channel.
  • To follow along with the training plan we’ll be using (and for tons more advice) get my ‘How to Run 5k‘ guide.
  • Feel free to use the Facebook comments to share how your training is going, ask questions and encourage other runners to keep on top of their training.
  • After 10 weeks, you’ll be ready to run 5k. How great does that sound?
  • Why next week? I firmly believe the second week in January is the best time to start training. Though, if you want to get a headstart, feel free to start now.

I hope you’ll join us to kickstart your training this year. However bad you think you’ll be at running, I’m confident that you can do it. And if you know someone who you think would benefit from this, send them my way.

See you next Monday!

GET THE 0-5k GUIDE HERE!

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10 Reasons to Start Running

After years of inactivity and hating exercise, I took up running and, to my surprise, found a sport that not only made me fitter and stronger, but that I actually started to enjoy. Here’s 10 reasons why you should give running a chance this year and learn to love it.

1 Skint after the excesses of Christmas? Don’t worry because running is essentially free: no gym fees, no minimum contracts, just hit the road. You might need a pair of trainers or a sports bra if you don’t already have these, but once you do, anything else is an added extra.

2 Runners are a friendly bunch. Joining a running group, a club, or regularly taking part in an event like the parkrun will introduce you to a whole community of runners who are always keen to share hints, tips and stories of their misadventures.

3 We’re all busy people, but a short run can be easily fitted into most days. Half an hour before work or on your lunch break a few days a week will make a real difference. Or run all or part of the way to or from work to save tube fair and stretch your legs instead.

4 It’s not just good for your body, running a few miles will help you destress and put you in a better mood.

5 You can do it on your own, when you want. You don’t need to get 9 other people together and hire a pitch or go to a class at a set time and place, just lace up your trainers and off you go.

6 As your runs get longer you’ll find yourself exploring your area like never before. Unlike cars and bikes, pedestrians can go anywhere (within reason), stop when they want and investigate where different paths go to.

7 Anyone of reasonable health can run. Start small with a minute of running followed by a minute of walking and repeat. Build up gradually and within 10 weeks you’ll be able to run for half an hour. From there it’s just a matter of how far you want to go.

8 Creative people run. Novelists Haruki Murakami and Neil Gaiman are big fans of running. But whether you’re working through the plot of your novel or trying to figure out problems of a more personal nature – running unplugs you from the distractions of phones, TVs, the internet or other people and focuses the mind.

9 It’s better than any gym. However fancy your gym might be – however soft their towels and however nice their free toiletries smell – it’s still a big room full of other sweaty people watching TV screens. It will never beat a run in the fresh air. Even when it’s raining.

10 Rediscover the pleasure of splashing through puddles and getting muddy in the park. Run through winter (it really isn’t that bad if you’re dressed sensibly) and you’ll appreciate more fully the first signs of spring appearing and enjoy watching the seasons change.

Need some help getting started? Try my ‘How to Run 5k’ beginners’ guide.

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Running and exercise during pregnancy: my experience

Early this year I asked four women to share their experience of exercise during pregnancy. Unbeknownst to them, I was pregnant at the time. So it’s only fair that I share my own…

I came into pregnancy with no expectations of how long I’d keep running for, but with a plan to keep active. Over the nine months, what exactly ‘active’ looked like changed as I evolved and adapted to my changing body.

I knew enough about running during pregnancy, from studying to be a pre- and post-natal trainer, and from speaking to many pregnant, active women, to know that once those two lines appeared on the stick, it wouldn’t be business as usual.

I was able to run through the first two trimesters, which I was pleased about, but right from day one this meant slowing down. I switched from my beloved Garmin to a watch with a wrist heart rate monitor so that I could keep within an easy to moderate zone.

I set the watch up to display the heart rate, distance and time on the home screen – no pace data because that wasn’t important to me. Letting go of the obsession with pace wasn’t easy, and part of that was about what other people would think of my increasingly slow runs popping up on Strava (especially coaching clients), so for some runs I would make them private immediately. I’m not proud of this, but it helped the early transition to not caring about speed.

Before becoming pregnant I’d been gradually building my mileage back up from injury and was running about 20 miles a week. So for the first few months I stuck to this level – it wasn’t the time to be building up and I had no races planned so there seemed little point in doing more.

I had no ‘running goals’ during pregnancy, because goals are something that are within your control, and my body was making known that someone else was in charge these days. Instead I had ‘hopes’ for my running. I hoped I could run a 10k for my friend Cathy’s Hen Weekend at 20 weeks pregnant and I hoped I could run a 5k fun run with my nieces at 31 weeks. But I accepted I might not be able to do either.

I ticked off both events, hanging up my running shoes after the 5k in October, not because running had gotten uncomfortable or difficult, but because it seemed a good point to draw a line in the sand and quit while I was ahead.

Throughout all of this I went to the gym twice a week for strength training and used the spin bike once or twice a week, again keeping an eye on my heart rate and adapting each week. As my bump got bigger I changed my position on the bike, raising the handle bars to a more upright position and lowering my weights as I, myself, got heavier.

One thing that often gets neglected in advice about exercise during pregnancy is the very physical nature of motherhood. Lifting a new baby many times each hour requires strong arms, shoulders and back. Why wouldn’t you condition your body to deal with that and make those early weeks a little easier?

At the same time as your stomach is growing and making certain exercises more difficult or inadvisable, less visible changes are taking place in your spine and pelvis. I definitely believe that a winter of being injured and focussing more on building a stronger, more stable core helped me avoid back ache and the signature pregnancy waddle as my centre of gravity changed.

Throughout the nine months I didn’t encounter any negative attitudes to me working out, save from the toilet attendant when I stopped midway through that 10k race who told me I shouldn’t be running. I had a couple of stares at the gym, but they didn’t feel negative, more curious, and I got a more enthusiastic cheer than most at the couple of parkruns I ran.

Most importantly, my obstetrician was keen for me to keep doing what I was doing. When I first met her at my 16 week appointment (I hardly saw a midwife and had consultant led care throughout) she asked what I did for a living. At the time, my coaching schedule meant I was training groups of runners five times a week on top of my own running. She was excited by this, declared me her fittest pregnant woman and told me she wished more of her patients were more active.

Attitudes to exercise during pregnancy have changed a lot. But this isn’t always a good thing. Scrolling through social media it’s always tempting, pregnant or not, to fall into the trap of thinking you should be doing more. But during pregnancy, more than ever, it’s important to do what’s right for you and not to blindly follow workouts posted by unqualified strangers on social media.

I made a conscious decision not to share my workouts during pregnancy because, despite being qualified to train pregnant women, that advise should always be tailored to individuals. It’s a cliche, but it’s true: everyone is different, listen to your own body. Motherhood is going to be full of guilt and feelings of failure, don’t start that early by feeling your workouts during pregnancy aren’t up to other people’s standards.

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Your Running Goals For 2018

Have you thought about what you want to achieve next year? Runners are used to having a goal and a plan for getting there, so it’s no surprise that as the calendar ticks over to another year, we might spend a little (or a lot of) time thinking about what we want to do next.

But have you thought about the motivation behind the goals you’re setting for yourself? What is it that has made you pick this particular goal? Is it something so strong that it’s going to sustain the motivation for the months ahead? Is it a realistic goal for you? Do you know what you’ll need to do to get there? Are you willing to make the sacrifices necessary?

Below is a downloadable sheet that will help you get clear on what your goals for 2018 are and answer the questions above.

Running is just one part of our lives, and sometimes our goals in other areas conflict with our running lives. For example, after a couple of years of training towards a Boston Qualifying time and achieving it in Edinburgh last year, I decided not to enter Boston Marathon when registration opened. My partner and I had decided now was a good time to start a family, and that wasn’t going to be compatible with running Boston this year.

Boston will always be there, but I realised that achieving that qualifying time was more important to me than running the race itself (after all you can buy your way into the race without qualifying). The race would have been a celebration of the time.

When I started coaching full-time, my running goals changed too. My main goal is to keep running injury free so that I can do my job, and sometimes that means that my own training takes a backseat so that I can do a couple of miles round the park with my beginners.

So, it’s OK to not have a goal race or a PB to chase down this year. And it’s OK not to choose goals because you think that’s what’s expected of you, or what everyone else is doing. I hope the sheet below helps you decide what it is that you really want this year. Here’s to a healthy and happy 2018!

>>> Goal Setting Worksheet <<<<

If you found this exercise useful, and your goal this year involves running a marathon, have a look at my How to Run a Marathon guide.

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3 ways to pace your training runs just right

I’ve written before about why it’s important to run your easy and long runs at the right pace – and how most runners are guilty of running these far too fast. And I’ll keep banging on about it because there’s huge benefits to be had by running in a truly easy zone.

I posted the picture below to social media to demonstrate my point. This is Shalane Flanagan’s training log in the run up to New York Marathon in November where she became the first American woman to win in 40 years. She won in 2 hours 26 minutes – an average pace of 5:36/mile.

But if we look at her training log, the week below shows two 11-mile runs of 88 mins each – a pace of 8:00/mile – or almost 2:30 min slower than her marathon pace. There’s also a 17 mile long run, which if 2:15 is the length of time it took (which I suspect it is) rather than the time of day she went out running, also works out to be 8:00/mile.

Now, 8:00/mile isn’t an easy pace for most runners. This might be as fast as you could run one mile or your goal 10k pace. Paces are relative to our fitness and our PBs. 8:00/mile isn’t slow for us, but it IS slow for Shalane as her marathon pace of 5:36/mile shows.

If you’re training for a marathon or half, I’ll bet that you’re not doing many of your miles 2:30 min/mile slower than your marathon goal pace. Runners panic if their pace is too slow. They worry that running slow in training isn’t doing them any good and think that the pace they run their long runs should be the same as their goal marathon pace.

But they also run too fast because judging the right pace (for all workouts – not just easy and long runs) can be difficult. So how do you know how slow to go?

There’s several methods you can use:

  • perceived effort
  • race times
  • heart rate
Perceived effort

Perceived effort has obvious limitations. If we were any good at judging our efforts correctly, there wouldn’t be so many runners tearing around on their ‘easy’ runs and I wouldn’t be writing this post.

If you can get it right, though, and learn to run in the right training zones on feel alone, this will pay dividends when it comes to pacing your races well. I’d suggest experimenting with the other two methods below and seeing how they compare to what you perceive each training zone to feel like.

Race times

I’ve traditionally used race times to pace my own runs. So, for example, my threshold runs might be at my 10k pace + 10 sec per mile. This is a rough calculation as finding your true threshold requires running on a treadmill in a lab, something that I’m not going to do.

The downside to using race times is that they’re often out of date and not a true reflection of our current fitness. This is one reason why it’s good to do a 5k or 10k at the start of a training cycle to get a benchmark and something to calculate training paces from.

This isn’t always feasible though, if you’re coming back from an injury or, say, pregnancy and childbirth, it’s not advisable to go out and run a flat-out 5k straightaway. But these are times when it’s vitally important to get your easy paces right and not get caught out trying to run at what was once your easy pace.

Heart rate

So this leaves us with heart rate. The first change I made to my training when I discovered I was pregnant was to switch my old faithful GPS for one with wrist heart rate monitoring. I started using heart rate to make sure I was running in a truly easy to moderate zone, knowing that the pace that this worked out at would change as the weeks went on.

To work out your easy pace via heart rate, the rough calculation is:

220 – your age = your max heart rate

Easy pace = 70% of maximum heart rate

Long run = 75-85% of max heart rate.

A lot of runners are surprised by how slow an easy pace, as determined by heart rate, works out. And they’re put off using it by the (sometimes frustratingly) slow pace. But disciples of heart rate training will tell you how running in the right zone can make a big difference to your pacing if you have enough patience and faith to stick with it. The limitation of this training is that the calculations used aren’t 100% accurate.

Using heart rate to determine my pacing was an interesting experience and I’m sure that I’ll continue to experiment with it as I return to running – this time using the upper training zones to dictate my threshold and VO2 Max pacing once I introduce speed workouts again.

Whichever method you use to judge your training zones – both your easy runs and your speedy intervals – the important point is to check in with them from time to time and to not be afraid to slow down if that’s what your training plan and watch tell you.

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