Proud of my muscles

When I look at photos of me from just a few years ago, when I was first getting into running and racing, I can’t believe how much I’ve changed.

Mentally I’ve changed in a big way. I view running and exercise completely differently. I no longer just run. Several injuries have taught me my body is not the hardy type and I need to work on my weaknesses regularly to keep me running healthy and strong. But not just that, I found a great love of lifting weights. I no longer feel that running is my one and only (though if I had to choose, it would always be running. I am a runner first and foremost).img_6036For the past few weeks I’ve just been going to the gym and lifting and it’s been a great break from running. Though I’m itching to get back to it now, I haven’t been going out of my mind because “omg I haven’t been running”. I’m happy to take a break and refresh my system to get the mojo juices flowing again (nice). This is is different to the old me!

I thought I’d share this comparison pic I created because it kind of blew me away. The photo on the left is from around three years ago. I look like an entirely different person. I feel like an entirely different person.Transformation photoThe lack of self-confidence is obvious but also lack of muscle. This is why I love lifting. It’s given me a body I’m proud of. I’ve never hated my body or thought I looked bad, but seeing my body now in comparison to how it was has just validated my love for the gym. I feel better in myself and think I look better after gaining some muscle to my frame. And with that I’ve also gained confidence.Girls with muscleI stride into the gym knowing exactly what I’m going to do that morning. I feel confident going into the weights area, setting up the squat rack and doing my thing. And this has trickled into my life in general. At work I’m more confident, I stand taller, and with running I run stronger and feel like I can kick out that 7min/min at mile 26 of a marathon.img_6051There is also something so satisfying and fun about lifting weights. You can focus on so many different areas. Becoming a stronger runner with form drills and increasing my strength endurance, or focusing on aesthetic goals such as sculpting my shoulders and getting a perkier bum. Or just generally increasing my overall strength – can I smash my personal best when squatting or deadlifting? There’s so much you can do. I’m never bored at the gym.

I’m not saying everyone must lift, and everyone must have muscles. Absolutely not. What I think is important is finding that thing that you love and enjoy. Exercise shouldn’t always be a grind and it certainly shouldn’t be a punishment.

lucysewellIt has to be something that, first and foremost, is enjoyable. If it’s not you won’t stick to it.

It also has to make you feel GOOD. Both running and weight lifting make me feel fantastic. Realistically not every gym session or run is a “punch in the air” scenario, but overwhelming most of the time I enjoy it and look forward to doing it again. So choose something that makes you happy, whether it’s weight lifting, cross-fitting, running, swimming or walking, it’s all good stuff. And most importantly, don’t compare yourself to anyone else out there! No exercise is superior to another and everyone is in a chapter of their own story after all.

What is your favourite exercise?

Do you compare yourself to others?

How has exercise changed you?

Glute exercises and Oppo ice cream review

So many running-related injuries can happen due to weak or inactive glutes. One of the main reasons I go to the gym is injury prevention. Glutes are so important to our running form that you really do need to get them going if you want to avoid things like runner’s knee, IT band issues, hamstring problems and even shin splints.

You can always spot the runners at the gyms because when they’re not on the treadmill (or looking sad and dejected doing cross training on a bike) they’re doing all manner of glute exercises, lunges and squats while looking like they’d rather be anywhere but at the gym. I was definitely one of those back in the day! Luckily I now quite enjoy the gym, and not just for injury prevention workouts, but for general strength training. Though I would indeed look rather miserable on a cardio machine!

Every week I’ll do one session (45mins – 1 hour long) doing glute-focused exercises. Here are some that I try to do regularly:

Lunges

A very simple exercise that I’m sure you’re familiar with. I either do it static, putting one foot forward, lowering my back knee, then bringing the leg back and switching legs. Or I do walking lunges. The important part is pushing through your glutes as you’re coming back up and not leaning too far forward. You can use a barbell, like below, or dumbbells held at your side.lunges

Single leg Deadlifts

This is a great exercise because it focuses on just one side of the body at a time so you can really focus on any imbalances or weaknesses. I know my left side is far weaker than my right so I can do a few more reps on it to try and increase its strength. It’s also a great exercise at improving your balance and strengthening your ankles.

Standing on one leg you lower the weight (or your hand) to the floor while sticking your other leg out behind you. As you come back up focus on using your glutes to stabilise and balance yourself, then raise your knee to really get that glute firing. Don’t go too quickly: the slower the better as you need more control that way. You don’t have to use a weight but I’ve been doing this exercise for a while now and needed more of a challenge.single-leg-deadlifts

Curtsy Squats

This is a good move to add a new angle into your usual squats. Put your right leg behind yourself then bend your knee to the ground, keeping your toes pointing forward. Again, you don’t need to use weights and similar to before, use your glutes to push your leg up to then swap your legs over.curtsy-squats

Cable Pull Through

Like many glute exercises, this one is one not to catch anyone’s eye while performing it 😉 It’s a bit awkward but it’s really good. Though you do need a cable machine to do it, so it’s not one you can do at home. You stand in with your back in front of a cable machine with a rope as the handle, pull the cable through your legs and have your feet wide apart. Reach through your legs, bending at the hips with your knees slightly bent and then pull the cable through using the motion of getting your hips straight. It’s important that you’re not using your arms or shoulders to pull the cable. You want to feel this in your glutes – squeeze as you come to the standing position (where your hands are now rather embarrassingly around your nether region holding a bit of rope…#awkward). glute-cable-pulls

Cable Kickbacks

Again, another one for the cable machine, but you can do this with ankle weights or even a resistance band attached to a solid frame. You want to attach an ankle strap/heel cup to your foot and then kick out from the machine. Do not go heavy on the weight as your targeting very small glute muscles here and adding heavier weight will likely cause your back to help out. You do not want this.

What I find that helps is actually feeling your glute with your hand while you do this workout so you can get that muscle-mind connection so the right muscles are being used. If it’s too hard, lower the weight or take the weight away completely.  You can kick backwards, to the side, to an angle… just go for different varieties to hit the glutes at different places. Ideally your rep ranges will be fairly high for these (15-20).glute-kickbacks

Oppo Ice Cream

Now moving on from exercise to… ice cream! Ice cream is such a crowd pleaser but it’s not a food you can really eat a huge amount of on a regular basis due to it’s high sugar and fat content. However, there is an ice cream out there that you can incorporate into your diet without accumulating big calories. And the best part? It’s not chemical ladened with artificial nasties.oppo-ice-cream-mintOppo Ice Cream isn’t full of sugar and fat. It uses ingredients like virgin coconut oil and stevia leaf instead. Stevia is naturally sweet but contains zero calories and zero sugars. Therefore the ice cream contains between 50-60% fewer calories and sugars than regular ice cream.oppo-ice-cream-comparison

Source

One of the founders also did a TED talk on how the ice cream came about which I found really interesting. I just love the whole ethos behind the company and what they’re trying to achieve.

There are three flavours Mint Choc Swirl, Salted Caramel and Madagascan Vanilla. I’ve tried the salted Caramel and mint. I like how within each of those flavours different natural ingredients have been used which also boost the nutrition of the product. In the vanilla, the baobab fruit is used which is rich in Vitamin C, potassium and anti-oxidants but also contributes to the creaminess and texture of the ice cream. For the salted caramel, the lacuma fruit is used which contains beta carotene, iron, zinc, vitamin B3, calcium and protein but also helps get the sweet flavour of the caramel. For the mint, spirulina is used to help get the green colouring. It’s 65% protein and a rich source of vitamin B, iron and manganese.oppo-ice-cream-salted-caramelThoughts? I love them. Both the mint and the salted caramel flavours rocked my world. I’m a big mint choc chip ice cream fan and I found it very minty and sweet, but not overly so. It was creamy and delicious and did feel naughty.oppo-ice-cream Though the salted caramel was my favourite. What I will say though is that you know you’re not eating Ben and Jerry’s. It’s not as thick and dense. It’s more airy and quick to melt. But it does hit the spot when you fancy a sweet treat but don’t want to be as indulgent as eating higher calorie ice creams.

My friends, Kate and Jamie, tried the mint with me and they enjoyed it too. But Jay did say that it wasn’t quite as good as the really naughty stuff but it was good for a mid-week treat without having a blow-out. It’s also a lot easier to eat an entire tub because it’s not as dense! But at around 400 calories, it’s not that bad (compared to the 1,000s in other tubs!). Thumbs up from me!

Do you ever buy lower calorie versions of treats?

What’s your favourite ice cream brand?

What exercises do you do to try and prevent injuries?

**Full Disclaimer: I was sent a voucher for one tub of ice cream in exchange for a review. I bought the other tub because I enjoyed it so much. All opinions are my own.**

What I’m Loving Lately

I started out writing this post as a Rants and Raves post…until I realised I actually didn’t have anything to rant about. This is obviously a good thing! So instead, here’s what I’m loving lately.

The Olympics: I’m quite sad that the Olympics is over. I must admit I was a bit late on jumping on the band wagon. It didn’t help that some of the stuff I would have watched (Mo’s races, Usain Bolt and the heptathlon) were in the middle of the night. It’s really not my thing to set an alarm and stay up to watch things. I like my sleep too much!

I did, however, watch both triathlons. Is it wrong to say I find them more interesting than regular running races because a bit more happens (oh the drama of the transitions and the different strengths involved)? The Brownlee brothers were amazing but the women’s race was quite tense! I watched the men’s marathon as well and thought it was hilarious when Meb Keflezighi fell over right on the finish line and then started doing press-ups! What a great save of face.

Rave: Finding new podcasts. I love my current favourite podcasts but I’ve been zipping through them really quickly on dog walks, driving to and from work and while cooking/cleaning. My two new additions are TED Radio Hour and Stuff You Should Know. Again, so late in the game with Ted Talks (I’m like a lost sheep… I will eventually follow the flock but only after they’ve left and headed way up the hill).

I love the TED Radio Hour because it has an overriding theme. It discusses several different talks that relate to the theme the host interviews the different TED talkers so we hear a bit more detail. It’s very good. One I listened to the other day was called Brand Over Brain and it was so interesting. I’m trying to pace myself through them but it’s tough.

The Stuff You Should Know is great for more focused information on one specific subject. For example, I listened to a podcast all about caffeine the other day which was cool. The two guys also have very soothing, smooth American voices which are very calming!

To be honest, I could listen to them discuss anything. Case and point: I listened to them discuss the differences between jelly fish and octopi. Honestly, my brain is going to explode with information

Books: On a similar knowledge-seeking vein, I’ve just finished The Calorie Myth by Jonathan Bailor (as an audio book). It started off really interesting and I was fully on board with what he was saying… Things like going really low in calories isn’t the best way to lose weight and how eating more food of better quality actually regulates your metabolism, set-point and hormones and losing weight becomes easier. Obviously I’m not looking to lose weight but I find books like this very interesting. I get so annoyed when I read about diets touting 1,200 calories as the “golden number” and this book gave more insight into why those diets don’t work in the long-term. There was lots of science and clinical studies to back things up which made it very compelling.

However, I struggled a bit with the overall guidelines and mandates of the book. He dismissed “jogging” in a big way and claimed only 20 minutes of resistance exercise each week was enough. OK, I fully agree that exercise isn’t essential for weight loss. It’s a tool and can help speed up the process. And our body’s aren’t stupid, we adapt. That three mile run you did last week will have less of an effect this week because your body is adapting and finding sneaky ways of making it easier (biologically speaking). And anyone who’s trained for a marathon knows that it’s not the way to lose weight. If anything, you put on weight. More miles does not mean more weight loss. But to dismiss it outright… hmm. OK it won’t make you lose weight but there are so many more health benefits (physical, social and mental) that are given. But it was an interesting read.

The book I’m currently reading I actually heard about through the Marathon Talk podcast. Tom Williams, one of the presenters, mentioned it in passing. It’s called Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The tagline is “The Surprising Truth About Success”. I’m not one for self-help books but it didn’t seem like that kind of spiel. And it isn’t. The title refers to the black boxes found in planes and how when a plane crashes or has a problem, the reasons behind it can be fully examined afterwards and we can learn from those mistakes.

This is not the case in other industries however. For example, in healthcare mistakes are not examined as thoroughly. An accident in surgery can be swept under the carpet as a “something that happens” or “an unfortunate complication”. Not because doctors and healthcare workers are dishonest or stupid, but because of culture and psychology. It’s a fascinating book and I fully recommend it. It also makes me never want to go to hospital again!

Workouts: Asides from running (see my last post), I’m still going to the gym and working on my strength. I do three strength sessions a week. One session is focused on glutes and legs, one on shoulders, arms and chest, and the third on my back with running-specific exercises and core work thrown in here and there. I’m also going to spin on Fridays when I can. This was originally because a cute guy started to do it (yes, I’m that sad and clearly I’m at my most attractive covered in sweat, ha!) but I’m now going because I enjoy it.

With running I’m not really doing any intense speed sessions because marathon training is hard enough coming back from injury and not having enough time. I’ve dabbled a bit with some harder effort parkruns and a fartlek session but otherwise it’s just getting the miles in to sort my endurance out. I’m not expecting a fast time for Chester after coping with that hamstring thing for so long it sort of shot down those hopes. So to just get through this training and the race itself without injury is good enough for me!

So spinning. It’s a great way for me to get that quick leg turnover and fast speed workout in without the impact and injury-risk that a hard running speed session could pose for me. It was also nice to see the friend face of fellow Southampton runner, Ruth, as well.

She used to write a blog (not sure she does anymore) and that’s how we connected. Interestingly enough was suffering from a similar hamstring issue to me. It was lovely to have company while spinning (though she’s a spinning extraordinaire and put me to shame).

What workouts do you do in a week?

What podcasts do you listen to?

What books have you enjoyed recently?

Squat Routine Variations for Fun and Muscle

Today I have a guest post for you today regarding one of my favourite gym exercises: the squat.

A fast trip to the gym can still yield great results if you’re doing squats. You may have heard that they’re the ultimate all-in-one exercise, and they are, but if you want to get even more out of them, mix up the form and add some free weights to build muscle in all the major groups at once. For more dynamism in the workout, do weighted lunges. If you travel a lot or have an uneven amount of time to work out, a flexible gym membership and a squat-based routine can keep you in good form.

Two fitness women doing squat exercise workout outdoor. Female coach correcting knee position for legs exercising.

First, perfect your squat

Before adding weights, be sure you have the following details down in your basic move:

  1. Lower yourself slowly to keep both the balls of your feet and your heels firmly on the floor for the entirety of the movement.
  2. For the exercise to be effective and not injurious to your knees, you need to go down to at least the point where your thighs are parallel to the floor, if not a little beyond.
  3. Don’t tuck your tailbone or arch your back.

In the free weight variations, go as slowly as you need to in order to keep good form.

Add some cardio

Working in 30-second intervals for a total of 5 minutes or more, do as many squats as you can in each interval. Don’t lose your form, but try to work up a little speed and increase your reps in 30 seconds. Rest for just a few seconds between sets. Do some sets with your hands behind your head, elbows out to the side, and some with your arms raised and palms facing outward.

To turn up the cardio, jump as you come up out of the squat. Try to start with two sets of 10. Your heart will really get pumping here.

Add a weight plate

Grip a barbell weight on either side and hold it out in front of you, keeping your arms straight, as you lower into a squat. You’re developing static strength in your shoulders, deltoids, and arms, and this variation really forces you to keep your core stable.

Hold ‘the chalice’

Hold a weight with your arms bent, close to your chest, and perform your squat. Your upper arms will love this one!

With just a few variations in your squat routine, you will find yourself getting stronger and your balance improving. And you’ll free yourself from the treadmill.

If you’d like to benefit from a flexible gym membership, you’ll find gyms offering this kind of accessibility throughout the country, with some notable locations including Lewes Leisure Centre, The Rapids Romsey, Pemberton Centre Rushden and Clifton College Sports Centre.

Do you go to the gym?

What’s your favourite strength exercise?

What’s your favourite squat variation?

BTN Fitness Retreat–part 2

In part 1 I had just finished recapping the second and, in my opinion, physically hardest day. The run and insane obstacle course circuits almost ruined me (in a good way I think!). It meant that the next day I wasn’t feeling as fresh as I’d hoped for the actual obstacle course.

But I was going to give it my best shot. We’d planned to do it just before lunch but after popular demand it was brought forward to 7am before breakfast when it was cooler. We were organised into waves so the course wouldn’t get crowded. I kind of wish I’d have gotten to go in a wave with the boys (it was about 3-4 people per wave) but ended up in a bigger group with all the girls. This annoyed me a tiny bit (though to be fair I could have easily spoken up and voiced my opinion) because it meant a fair bit of waiting around for the obstacles as there were usually only one or two female-specific weights/versions of the obstacle. It also had the feel of “we’re just going to survive” rather than being competitive and really going for it, which I wanted to do. Also being in a group of six girls meant I couldn’t go as fast as I wanted. OK I’m not saying I was significantly held back or that the other girls were slow but I know I could have gone faster if I hadn’t had to have waited – this is purely my competitive personality coming out now.

Anyway, it is what it is. The obstacle course was ridiculously fun. A couple of things I didn’t do (and had to do 50 burpees instead – yes 50) like the hang tough purely because of where they came in the course. You were already knackered and your hands almost destroyed by ropes and holding heavy things. I didn’t fancy falling great heights because I couldn’t maintain a good grip.

I finished the course in about one hour and ten minutes and was happy with that (if not slightly disgruntled at having to wait for different obstacles…OK I’ll stop moaning about that now!).

Obstacle Course victory

We survived and felt amazing at the end. And incredibly I only sustained one injury.

Shot put injury

I managed to drop a 12kg stone shot put on myself. I thought I had it balanced ready to throw over the net (you had to throw it over eight times each side) but it rolled back off my hand and onto my lower back. Ouch.

After breakfast we then had a nutrition session with Ben Coomber himself. He gave a very thorough and good talk about general health (including the mind, sleep and recovery) and a detailed chat about nutrition. It was very informative!

Ben Coomber

At this point I was fully shattered and had to keep my eyes open. I didn’t want to fall asleep though obviously because a) it would be rude and b) I wanted to hear the talk!

Ben Coomber 2

Ben was really knowledgeable and answered all our questions. He has a very down to earth approach with a “take no rubbish” attitude. One of his points I remember was “if you don’t succeed at your goals, they’re not your goals”. Harsh I suppose but realistic. Don’t aim for something that you don’t fully believe in or want to commit to. Success isn’t handed to you; it’s hard work, sacrifice and realism. He also stressed that you should have your own goals rather than see something on social media and think that’s what you should be wanting/looking like/eating like/etc.

I really respect Ben, on many levels, but mainly because you know he’s not trying to simply sell you an idea. He was a great guy as well in general, exactly like his is on the podcast. Such a cool guy to spend time with.

After the nutrition chat, the majority of us headed off to a water park for a bit of fun.

Aqualand, Marbella

I actually didn’t realise how scared I can get on water slides. I don’t think I’ve been to a water park in a good while and some of the rides really frightened me. There was one ridiculously tall one and I freaked out. We had to walk up all these rickety stairs and I wasn’t sure I could do it. It’s different to a rollercoaster where you’re strapped in and have no control over the situation. With a water slide you literally have to push yourself off and then it’s free falling (well, going down a slide). Ben was such a nice guy and waited for the others to go and stayed with me to encourage me. I really appreciated it as no one else seemed to struggle!

The rest of our time at the retreat was doing some really good workshops like learning some boxing.

BTN workshop - boxingI didn’t realise you had to wrap your hands before putting them in gloves!

Which I found out I’m rubbish at! There’s a lot of footwork and coordination involved which really isn’t my strong point. At the end we did get one minute in the ring to fully pummel Simon (who’s a very adept kick-boxer) to pieces (well, attempt to) which was good fun. Especially watching one of the guys who is a trained boxer!BTN workshop - boxing 2

Simon and him had a proper fight rather than let him beat him to a pulp. It was amazing to watch them move!

The next day we had the morning free and everyone was planning what they were going to do as we had free reign of the gym. The girls had decided they were going to do a “Victoria’s Secret workout” (aka legs, bums and tums). This is really not my thing. No offence to anyone who loves that sort of thing but it’s just not something I’d be keen to do. Don’t get me wrong, I love me a good glute workout but it’s rather more running-specific. Anyway I found out that some of the guys were going down to the obstacle course to do some circuits on the combat zone and they invited me to join them. Now THIS was far more my thing.

Combat zone - Hang tough

So the next morning at 7am we headed down to the combat zone and basically just did whatever we fancied using the different obstacles. I had fun on the hang tough section (see above photo), the sledge hammer…

Combat zone - Sledge hammer

Lifting tyres…

Combat zone - tires

This looks a lot smaller than it was in reality! Though there were actually three sizes, I could only just about manage the medium size – the large one I had no chance.

Combat zone 2

This was pulling a rope down that was attached to a set of weights (the tyre and wood stacked in the photo). Basically we spent a good hour down there doing crazy things that didn’t feel like exercise. This has really opened my eyes to trying out an obstacle race at some point. It was really good fun and felt like proper functional strength training – actually lifting and moving things for a purpose.

Combat zone 3

The rest of the day we did some more workshops looking at pull ups, hypertrophy (which is essentially using lighter weights for more reps in order to big builder muscles – bodybuilding basically. But the exercises are usually accessory exercises rather than big compound moves like squats and deadlifts).

The food in the retreat was really good. We had a buffet style breakfast (everything from porridge and cereal to eggs, ham and cheese – and lots of gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian options as there was a vegan and people with certain intolerances). For lunch and dinner we had a good sized carb and protein balanced meal.

BTN Retreat mealsL-R: sausages in a lentil casserole-style dish; chicken with chickpeas and couscous

There was always lots of salad to add to your meal too. The funny thing was that most people left a good portion of their carbs. For example, there was a pasta meal one night and most people left the majority of the pasta and loaded up on salad instead. The meals were big enough that this didn’t mean you were hungry but it was an interesting trend. When I went to the running camp earlier in the year, all the runners loaded up on garlic bread, potatoes AND rice. They were like “give me ALL the carbs”. Whereas here it was a completely different story. It was like carbs were the devil.

BTN retreat group 2The kitchen and dining area

I will say that the one thing that did make me a little sad was when we went out for dinner on the last night (and then out clubbing – urghhh I did not enjoy this – a post for another time). You know I like my food and will often have something rather extravagant or ‘naughty’ over the weekend while eating generally quite healthily during the week (#balance Winking smile).

So I was looking forward to splashing out on something non-healthy and possibly pudding depending on what others were thinking. We had worked hard after all! But we got there and people started making comments like “I bet that has cream in it” or “’I might just order two small starters rather than a main”. I felt quite inhibited by the vibe of everyone else. I had spotted ribs on the menu and after hearing everyone else I immediately shrunk away from them and chose a salad instead. Looking back I’m annoyed at myself for not allowing myself to be “Anna the girl who enjoys her food” and instead just going with the crowd. The salad was good but I felt a bit deflated. And of course no one had pudding. God forbid they allow those macros into their bodies…

Anyway, aside from this minor blip the whole week was fantastic. I learnt so so much and realised I’m stronger than I think. My body can do amazing things when it wants to! It made me grateful for all the time I’d spent in the gym and I could kind of show off (to myself) what I could do. I’d definitely look to do something similar again. Huge thanks to the Body Type Nutrition guys and to Ben Coomber!

Have you ever done an obstacle course?

What’s your ideal workout?

What kind of fitness retreat, if you were to ever go on one, would you like to do?