At the same time all the Facebook updates appeared last month about winning or losing out on a space in the London marathon I was greeted with a Facebook memory about completing my Royal Parks Half Marathon. I never made it to running a marathon as the experience left me with a pair of knackered knees and some of other health issues that stopped me from running for a couple of years. I consider it a blessing now as I dread to think where I’d be if my body had allowed me to run a marathon, I often joke with Matt that I simply can’t be trusted once those trainers are on.
I have some fond memories of my first formal race, I had no idea what I’d be able to achieve and hoped to run it in under 2 hours so I was blooming ecstatic when I came in at 1hr 35 minutes. However, the feeling was short lived as the consequences of my excessive training soon kicked in. I thought I’d share five key things I wish I’d known before embarking on my race:
1. Life Is The Same Before And After
That might sound obvious but just hear me out. I’m making this point because runners take running seriously and easily lose perspective on its role in life, I certainly did. Very little changes once you cross that finish line, of course there’s a great sense of achievement and rush of pride but a quick text from my mum minutes after I finished telling me not to faff around and get back for a family lunch was a timely reminder of what really matters. Often you can end up taking these training events and races far too seriously at the expense of both enjoying and actually having a life.
It’s easy to place a huge amount of pressure on yourself as your training gains momentum. This often magnifies as you become a big bundle of adrenaline and stress hormones, always chasing your next dopamine high and fix of exercise endorphins, increasingly losing touch with other emotions.
The reality is achieving these feats of physical fitness, strength and endurance are impressive and fun but it’s also fine if you don’t. You should only pursue them as a goal in the context of optimal health. This means you take part because you genuinely enjoy the process, you’re injury free on that start line (and whilst training) and the experience supports your mental wellbeing without impacting upon essential functions like digestion and hormone health. Also please don’t enter a marathon or other intensive physical race in a bid to lose weight. It’s much safer, effective and sustainable to do this by working with your body and investing in some good nutrition (Fitter Food of course!) 2-3 structured gym sessions, lots of sleep and walking, if anything I gained body fat training for my half marathon as I developed a “Matt Sized” appetite.
2. Ignore That Niggle and You’ll Pay Later
I had a painful niggle in one knee as I trained for and ran my half marathon. During the race it became both knees, an MRI scan afterwards showed up nothing despite the fact I couldn’t sit down or walk upstairs without wincing. The outcome was a prescription of high strength pain killers (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDS) and physio to correct suspected patella tracking issues and tendonitis. Not really knowing any better I took the pain killers for weeks and before long found myself suffering from severe stomach cramps and some kidney issues. Turns out NSAIDS are highly aggressive on your gut and detox mechanisms in the body, I feel foolish looking back not to have considered the side effects more seriously but guess what… I just wanted to run again ASAP!
The pain got worse and soon I was lumped with a diagnosis of chronic tendonitis as I could no longer flex my knee without pain, this pretty much wrote off almost all the forms of exercise I loved. It took almost two years of physio, massage, orthotics, zero impact work and more trigger point therapy than I can bore you with, before I could finally walk pain free let alone run. The biggest challenge in all this was my mindset. I soon realised I had been relying on exercise, running especially, for a daily hit of feel good endorphins and without them I wasn’t much fun to be around, not to mention the depressive effect chronic pain has on you. I literally had no idea how to get through my day without those feel good chemicals that came with exercise and so I was a pretty miserable, not to mention angry, individual for quite some time. Whilst I’m fixed now part of the process involved acknowledging my addiction and need to support my mood health naturally (which I do now through nutrition, lifestyle and by looking after my gut). The experience also taught me to fully appreciate movement generally and always keep in mind the fact that I want to be pottering around right up to my final days.
My runs now are short, slow, few and far between. I’ve had some running coaching and I’m more aware of the biomechanics involved and how shockingly bad mine are so if I don’t invest in the strength training, mobility work and pre-hab/rehab I would be crazy to run. Perhaps more importantly I can also take or leave a run as nothing changes if I do it or not, I’ve detached from the outcome of training sessions generally, which is bliss by the way. If you love running or walking for that matter you need to take care of your joints and consider how long you wish to have this luxury because if you bust yourself now you might end up regretting it later.
3. Performance Nutrition Goes Way Beyond Carbs
I remember shovelling down three bowls of muesli the night before my race because as a runner you focus on one thing – carbs! Most articles on running nutrition that you happen to come across detail carb loading or carb timing and you soon believe that these and only these will make or break your energy and performance. I’d always suffered with digestive problems but they were much worse around the time of my race as nerves, adrenalin, caffeine and cereal make for really rough guts I can tell you 😉
Thankfully many professional athletes and sports nutritionists are highlighting the source of your carbohydrates is relevant for optimal performance and ideally these should be in gut friendly form which means minimal processing. The advice out there for runners is improving with increasingly acknowledgement of the importance of eating enough protein, consuming healthy fats and bumping up your intake of antioxidant rich foods and other anti-inflammatory nutrients to support immune health.
In fact many avid runners will dread this time of year as the season of snot begins. It might help you to know that many studies are revealing how food directly interacts with your immune system via the gut bacteria and cells that line the gut barrier. It’s cool stuff and exciting to fully understand how kale, broccoli, eggs, ginger, sardines, onions, sweet potatoes, bananas, turmeric, green tea, garlic and apples are quite possibly a runner’s best friend.
However, for these to really benefit, in fact for any nutritional changes to make an impact, you will need to ensure your digestive system functions. Intense training and endurance training both impact the lining of the gut and balance of bacteria which play a fundamental role in the absorption and production of nutrients, hormones and neurotransmitters.
Common nutrient deficiencies in runners include B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium and zinc, they often have impaired gut function and low levels of beneficial bacteria and short chain fatty acids (which help lower inflammation) possibly due to the intense physical nature of running. Mood issues are also likely especially if you over train (and have digestive issues) as your body becomes depleted of the raw ingredients needed to make feel good brain chemicals like serotonin. Performance may also decline as you lack the co-factors like vitamin C to convert dopamine into adrenaline.
There’s a reason we dedicated a lot of Fitter Food: Second Helping to explaining the importance of gut health and keeping the immune system in check, they’re a fundamental aspect of your training performance but more importantly your health and happiness. I’ve also crammed most of the vital info and recipes into this so you can even make this your marathon nutrition bible.
4. Sound Sleep Is Essential To Runners
I’m pretty sure along with a number of other factors the neglect of my sleep health played a huge part in my body not recovering well from the race and subsequent injuries. The harder you train the more sleep you need yet ironically people who love running or training often do so late at night or early doors at the expense of essential slumber time.
Training and eating late will also significantly impact the quality of your sleep by altering the output of hormones and convincing the body it’s daytime not sleep time. I would often struggle to switch off and feel wired with my mind chattering and training music buzzing around my head. I’d fall into a light sleep often waking several times and needing to pee as a result of the changes in my hormonal rhythm and also eating and drinking late at night after a run. After 3-4 nights of this I’d eventually fall into a sleep coma lol! Sleep is essential due to its tag team relationship with the output of your stress (and waking) hormone, cortisol, and also your blood sugar hormone, insulin. If you don’t sleep enough it’s likely you won’t be fuelling yourself effectively, also sugar cravings and energy crashes are a given, all of which indicate that you’re not performing to your full potential.
5. Running Requires Restorative Activities
Many runners joke about the lack of stretching and I was no different. If I was stretching I wasn’t running and the latter was always my priority. Despite good intentions most days I’d do a token gesture touch my toes for two minutes after a run and promise myself I’d stretch later (I never did!) At the time of training for my race this got a little worse as I was working a full time job and completing my personal training qualifications so my runs had to be squeezed into an overly ambitious day which usually meant they took place at 5am or I’d run home at 8pm. As a result warm ups, cool downs and aftercare just went out the window.
This brings me to my next point, if you take on the task of training for a race in amongst an already busy lifestyle something has to give and it’s generally essential components of health like sleep, days off relaxing and recovery activities. These are VITAL to restore and repair the body. Trigger point therapy, stretches, mobility drills, epsom salts baths, saunas and sports massage therapy may seem a little dull, expensive and of course they’re not running (which we love!) but if you neglect them you’re shortening the longevity of your running career as the outcome is often knackered joints, a beat up immune system, broken digestion and hormonal imbalances, none of which are fun, trust me. As long as you know what you’re signing up for you can keep heading in that direction but in doing so acknowledge the irony of the performance decline and poor quality of life when it’s likely you started out running to be fit, happy and healthy 😉
I appreciate all the above might sound like doom and gloom but actually I’m grateful for the experience, the fact I couldn’t run led me to study nutritional therapy, fix myself and then go on to help thousands of people. If you’re looking to upgrade your running performance and ensure your body is well fuelled I’ve selected my favourite running brekkies and put together a free eBook that you can get by signing up to our newsletter here.