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When I talk to people about physical activity – in both work and personal capacities – lots of them tell me they either don’t have time to exercise or can’t afford to. So when I was asked by Decathlon to review some of their sportswear and blog about how to exercise at home, it seemed like a great chance to offer a few tips for busy and/or cash-strapped people who’d like to get a bit fitter.

It may come as a surprise to hear that – wait for it – I have never been to a gym! The main reason is probably that I’m just not organised enough. But I also think it can be quite expensive and time-consuming. There’s the membership fee for a start; and by the time you’ve got in the car, driven there, done a session and driven back that’s probably about two hours of your day taken care of. One of the many reasons I love running is that it’s a very simple sport and you don’t need to go anywhere special to do it – you just get changed and go! So it’s the ideal cardio exercise to do from home. I often run past a gym where I live, and on beautiful, sunny days I see people running indoors on treadmills. I wonder why they pay to do that when they could be outside in the fresh air! Of course if the weather is bad it’s a tempting option, but if you’re properly kitted out with a decent running jacket and hat there isn’t much weather that can stop you. And it’s free!

“Aha!” you may say, “but running isn’t free – you need expensive shoes and clothes”. Not so! Obviously it’s possible to spend a fortune on fancy sports kit, but you certainly don’t have to. I’ve been really surprised at the quality of Decathlon’s Kalenji running range, and the prices represent amazing value. I have a couple of French running friends who’ve been using Decathlon stuff for years and rate it very highly. So don’t feel you have to go top end to buy gear that does the job! The jacket I’m wearing in these pics is really cool; a fab, bright colour, with some great features like a ventilation flap across the top of the back. The tights are a nice snug fit, made of very soft, breathable material with ventilation panels down the side and have a handy key pocket on the leg.

This base layer is super-warm. With its thumb holes and high neck it’s perfect for winter trail running. It would also be great for winter cycling or walking. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of use out of it!

Sometimes I run to work, which is a great way to build exercise into your day if you’re short of time. It’s only a couple of miles, so I often take a longer route home to fit in a few more. I realise I’m very lucky to have showers and a drying room where I work, but it’s also amazing what you can achieve with a few wet wipes, some deodorant and a pony tail! Cycling or walking can be less sweaty options. If your workplace is far away, try taking the bus or train instead of driving, getting off a few stops early and running or walking the rest of the way. Every little helps, and you might save some bus/train fare too. Active commuting does require a bit of organisation – ensuring you’ve got things like work clothes and shoes where you need them – but it’s an easy way to make exercise part of your regular routine. When you exercise early in the morning you can also feel smug for the rest of the day!

But what if you find it hard to leave the house to exercise? For example, if you have young children and no childcare? It can be difficult to get outside if that’s the case. I know a couple of mums who swap childcare sessions so they can go running – one looks after the kids while the other goes out and vice versa. Or you could consider getting a treadmill. Yes, they can be expensive, but there are often second hand bargains available from people who bought them with good intentions but then gave up – that’s how I got mine, although I only use it as a last resort! Or why not go halves with a nearby friend? If that’s not an option, there are lots of fitness sessions available online that you can take part in at home. Just Google ‘exercise at home’ and loads of options pop up! The NHS and BBC Get Inspired websites both have great short workouts that are the perfect introduction to exercising at home, and you don’t need any special equipment to do them; just a bit of space and some comfy clothes. Why not get a couple of friends round, do it together and have a coffee or healthy juice and a chat afterwards? Or you could simply go for a brisk group walk – with babies in pushchairs if needs be! Much cheaper and more sociable than the gym.

I love going to yoga as a complement to running, but if I can’t get to my favourite vinyasa flow class at York Yoga Studio I try to do a training session at home; usually a combination of some yoga, strength work and stretching. I’m not very good at yoga, but I do love it!

Decathlon also sent me some of their Domyos yoga wear to try. It’s really comfortable and colourful – perfect for this kind of activity – and much of the range is made from super-soft organic cotton. I was very impressed by these breathable yoga leggings, which have clearly been well thought through in the design. The material is really soft and doesn’t go see though when you bend over. There’s a nice high waistband (essential for yoga) with a tiny key pocket, plus a seamless crotch. I love the colour too. Best of all, they only cost £19.99! You’d usually pay much more for this level of quality. The vest is really light and airy – great for a dynamic flow practice – and the t-shirt is so soft and stylish I’d happily use it as normal leisure wear.

I’m not saying nobody should ever go to the gym – far from it! I’m sure there are lots of people who attend regularly and get good value from their membership. But for anyone with little time or money, it’s good to know that you can go a long way to keeping yourself fit without leaving home or spending lots of cash.

Do you have any top fitness tips for saving time and money? I’d love to know.

 

 

Ooh, there’s less than a month to go now til the London Marathon. Are you excited? Nervous? Terrified? Any (or indeed all) of those three are acceptable and quite understandable. I ran London for the first time last year. It was my ninth marathon and, although never terrified, I did alternate between excited and nervous in the run-up. After several unsuccessful ballot applications I’d worked really hard to get my Good For Age place, and I think I was worried I wouldn’t do it justice on the day. I really wanted to get another sub 4, but in the end I didn’t quite make it; you can read how it went here. I thought I’d only do London once, but when I realised my Good For Age was still valid for 2018 I couldn’t resist coming back on unfinished business!

To be honest, running the actual marathon was the least of my concerns as the big day approached last year. I was more worried about transport and logistics. Being a simple northern lass I am unused to the ways of the Big Smoke, so had to plan everything to the nth degree. I find I feel less nervous if I’m well organised. So here are my top tips for the VLM if you’re running it for the first time, and especially if you aren’t a local.

If you need to book transport and accommodation and haven’t done it yet, DO IT NOW! Otherwise there probably won’t be any hotel rooms left. And be prepared to pay upward of £150 for a Travelodge/Premier Inn room that would normally cost about a third of that. That’s just how it is I’m afraid. I must say, when I ran Paris and Berlin accommodation wasn’t the massive rip-off at marathon time that it seems to be in London. If you’re wondering whether to stay near the start or the finish, there’s no perfect solution. My advice would be to stay near a tube or railway station that makes your journey to the start as stress-free as possible. Last year I stayed at a Premier Inn near Cannon Street station, which was perfect. This year I’m going straight back up north afterwards, so I’m staying near Kings Cross, then I can pick up my bags and make a swift getaway when I’ve finished. And, of course, train tickets cost more the closer to travel time you buy them.

You might also want to consider booking somewhere to eat on Saturday evening in advance. Obviously there are no end of restaurants in London, but if you want Italian (for carb loading purposes) near your hotel at a particular time, I say you might as well find one and book it. One less thing to worry about.

You’ll need to pick up your bib number at the race expo at ExCeL before Sunday. This may sound obvious, but someone I know who’s running London for the first time this year recently asked me “When do they post out the numbers?”. They then had to change their train ticket to allow time to get to the expo before it closes on Saturday! So I’m just putting it out there to be on the safe side, because under no circumstances will you be able to pick it up on the day. The earlier in the week you visit, the less busy it will be. And while we’re on the subject of the expo, think very carefully about whether you really need to spend loads of time there looking at stuff, especially if you’re visiting on Saturday. It’s a fair schlep out there to start with, and you really need to be resting your legs as much as possible the day before. It’s great to browse all the lovely, shiny running kit, but think about why you’re there. Same with sightseeing; it’s tempting to do loads of walking around town, especially if you’re there with non-running family/friends, but you really shouldn’t if you want to be at your best on Sunday. Something to consider.

Make sure you know which start area you’re on and plan your journey there before the day itself. Trains and the Tube are free for runners, so it’s the obvious (and quickest) way to travel. And allow plenty of time to get there, as trains can get very crowded and it’s a bit of a walk from the stations to the start areas. When you get there, if you’re dropping a bag do that before you get in the toilet queue. I encountered several people last year who were in the loo queue with their bags when the final baggage call came; it’s quite a while before the start time. They then had to abandon the queue to drop their bags, then get back in it again! Bring an old fleece or jumper that you don’t mind throwing away to keep you warm before the start, then you can drop your bag straight away.

Don’t set off too fast! The whole atmosphere is really exciting, including seeing the elite start on the big screen, so the temptation to go for it like a greyhound is huge. Follow a pacer to keep you on track if it helps. If you don’t rein it in, you’ll really regret it later on. You should get to at least halfway feeling comfortable with your pace.

Don’t drink too much. It’s tempting to keep sipping at a drink when you’re hanging around in the start area just for something to do. From mile three there is a water point at every mile along the course, so there’s no need to overdo it before you set off. Unless it’s a really warm day you might not even need to drink at every station. Otherwise you’ll be slowed down by toilet stops!

People often say at races that ‘the crowd will get you round’. Nowhere is this more true than London! The crowds are huge, noisy and amazing, so there’s a wall of noise all along the course. Some people actually find this a bit oppressive, but I loved it. For this reason, don’t assume you’ll be able to see or hear your supporters en route. Last year my husband said I just ran straight past him at two separate points, even though he was shouting my name, simply because I couldn’t make him out amidst all the stuff going on! But at least there’s plenty to look at when you start to flag.

No matter how tired you are, enjoy that final stretch when you turn right at Buckingham Palace and run towards the finish line along the Mall. I deliberately slowed down last year to try and take it all in. Also: I was knackered! The crowds, the music, the commentary, the flags… it’s a unique experience that you might only have once in a lifetime. Don’t rush it, you’ve earned that big finish!

If you’re meeting people at the end, arrange a specific point to do that. There will be thousands of people milling about in the finish area, so it could take a while to find each other if you’re just randomly seeking each other out. You can’t totally rely on phone contact, as the network often gets overloaded with calls. There is an official meeting point, so make sure in advance you know where you’re going to be. Otherwise you might be like me and the OH the first time I did the Great North Run – wandering round for an hour and a half before you finally find each other!

Do you have any top tips for London? I’d love to hear them. Whatever you do, have a brilliant day!

Well, the great day is nearly here – Great North Run day that is! I had my last long run (12 miles) yesterday and I don’t mind admitting my legs are pretty tired from training right now, so I’m glad to be finally tapering! I did the GNR (my first half marathon) for the first time two years ago. I’d never run that far before, so it was a bit of an unknown quantity and a massive learning curve for me. I did quite a few things wrong… like writing my mile split times on my arm in biro; unfortunately they sweated off after about two miles because it was a warm day (I didn’t have a Garmin back then!). I over-hydrated before the start, so had to stop for a pee behind a hedge after about a mile (but I wasn’t the only one!). At one point I lost the plot and couldn’t remember whether or not I’d passed the eight mile marker (I hadn’t – what a disappointment!). When I passed through the Bupa Boost Zone at mile ten I dropped all the Jelly Babies someone kindly handed to me because I didn’t want to stop running – which was a shame because at about 11½ miles I hit a bit of a wall and had to walk for a little while. At the end I was just pleased to be still standing! Even though my husband forgot where we were supposed to meet up and it took us ages to find each other I still loved the whole experience. But I loved it more last year when I knew what I was in for!

So here are a few tips that I hope might help other first-timers and non-elites like me. I learned most of them the hard way so you don’t have to! Feel free to let me know if you have any other good tips to share.

If you haven’t done any training it’s too late to start now. You can’t make up for lost time at the last minute. In fact, you’ll be doing yourself more harm than good if you try to, because you need to be rested on race day. Panicking is pointless, so just enjoy the experience and do what you can.

Take it easy during the week before the event – just have a couple of short, gentle runs to keep your legs turning. This is not the time to do lots of walking/cycling, have a big night out or tackle the gardening/decorating.

Consider having a pre-race sports massage. You don’t have to be an elite athlete to benefit from this. Even if you aren’t Mo Farah your body has still done lots of hard work! I had one a few days before last year’s event and I think it really helped.

Eat good, nutritious food in the week before the race – lean protein, good carbs, fruits and veggies. Just like a car, your body will perform much better on high grade fuel. Try to avoid alcohol – it will make a bigger difference than you think.

Get some early nights in – you want to be as refreshed as possible. Nerves may keep you awake the night before the race, and you’ll probably have an early start too, especially if (like me) you’re travelling to Newcastle on the day.

A couple of days before the event start to fuel yourself up on good carbohydrates such as wholemeal pasta and bread, beans, pulses and brown or basmati rice. There’s no need to eat loads more than usual, just adjust the proportions of your meals to include more carbs and less protein. These carbs will provide your muscles with most of the energy they’ll be using as you run. The night before the event have a meal made with ordinary pasta, as you may not have enough time to properly digest wholemeal stuff at this point.

On the morning you’ll need a breakfast that will provide you with some good energy but not take too long to digest. Different things work better for different bodies, so experiment in training. Many people favour white toast or porridge with something sweet on top like honey or jam. My personal favourite is porridge with maple syrup. Have breakfast at least two hours before the race so that it has time to leave your stomach before the start. About an hour before kick-off have a light snack such as a small banana or an energy bar if you feel hungry.

Consider carrying an energy gel or two with you to take during the race. This will prevent you ‘bonking’ (running out of steam) by giving you a temporary high-energy hit. On my recent long runs I’ve been carrying a Clif Shot Blok with me and taking half after 7 miles and the other half at around mile 10. They really do make a difference. Or of course you can stop for Jelly Babies at mile 10 and just not drop them! If you are going to use gels for the first time make sure you test them out before race day just in case they don’t agree with you.

Hydration is very important, especially if the weather is going to be warm. In the week before the race make sure you drink plenty of water. There is no set correct amount, as everyone’s body is different, but try to keep it at a level where your wee is a very pale straw colour, almost clear. Don’t overdo it on the morning of the race like I did! Water and energy drinks are available at various points along the course, so you shouldn’t need to carry a drink round with you.

Plan your travel arrangements well ahead to avoid stress spoiling your enjoyment of the big day. Think about things like where you’re going to park, how you’ll get to the start/finish and where you’ll meet up with people. There’s lots of helpful info in the GNR magazine, including how to buy bus/metro tickets online in advance. Allow plenty of time to get to the start, especially if you’re going to use the baggage buses. Bear in mind that with around 50,000 runners plus supporters and spectators all milling around at the finish the mobile phone networks get really overloaded and it’s sometimes impossible to make calls. Decide on a meeting point before the race; the best place is under the big alphabet letter signs in the finishing area. This is really important, especially if your supporters have your post-race clothes/food/drink with them and the weather isn’t good – or happen to be my husband!

Most importantly, enjoy the day – after all the training and organisation it’s taken to get there you deserve it. You won’t believe how good you’ll feel when you cross the line. I’m running for Martin House Children’s Hospice. If anyone would like to make donation you can do so on my Just Giving page.

Good luck everyone!

So, your autumn half marathon is getting closer and closer. Exciting – but maybe a bit scary for some? Perhaps you’re worried that you haven’t done enough training… or even started yet? Well don’t panic! There’s still time to improve your performance quite a bit before the big day. I’m sure we’ve all been inspired recently by the fantastic athletes at the Olympics, so here are some tips to help you out. I wrote them for the Martin House Hospice Great North Run team but hopefully they can help others too. They’re not aimed at elite athletes, but ordinary people (like me) who just want to do their best and maybe raise some cash too!

  •  Get Good Shoes

The most important thing you can do to help your training is to kit yourself out with the right shoes if you haven’t done so already. Running long distances in shoes that are badly-fitting and/or don’t suit your style will hold you back and could even cause injury. Rather than popping into your nearest discount sportswear store and choosing shoes that are a cool colour or on special offer, pay a visit to a specialist running shop such as Up and Running in York and have your gait analysed. Yes, it’s a bit embarrassing running on the in-store treadmill, but the guys there are experts at matching shoes to people and can also dish out great advice on all aspects of running. Go during the week when it’s a bit less busy if you feel self-conscious! 

  • Have a Goal

Think about why you signed up for the run. Is your aim just to have fun and raise some money or to get the best time you possibly can? Your own personal goals will dictate how much training you want to do. If you’re going to wear fancy dress and walk round with a collecting bucket, putting in lots of miles and sprinting up hills won’t need to play a huge part in your training! But if you want to push yourself and/or achieve a particular time you’ll need to put some effort in to do yourself justice. 

  • Stick to a Schedule

If you’re up for some proper training it’s good to have some structure to it. If you only have a vague idea of when you might run a couple of times in the week it’s more likely to get pushed into the background than if you have a schedule. I tend to use the Bupa one recommended by the GNR, but there’s also a good one at Runner’s World or on many other websites. Pick one that you can personalise to suit your ability and that suits your lifestyle and the amount of time you have to devote to training. I find that it helps to write training sessions in my diary in red, then they’re harder to ignore! 

  • Mix It Up

Training isn’t all about running as many miles as possible. As well as one run where you gradually increase your distance each week, it’s also good to do a couple of shorter, faster sessions where you can do work such as tempo (incorporating periods of running faster than your comfortable pace), sprints and hills. The long runs build up your stamina and the shorter ones make you stronger. Hopefully on race day the two come together! I’d really recommend doing some hills as there’s a hill in the GNR at about mile 11 that came as a bit of an unwelcome surprise to my tired legs the first time I did it! 

  • Rest and Recover

Training well will improve your running, but don’t overdo it, as being injured will only set you back. If you do pick up an injury don’t be tempted to carry on regardless – rest for a couple of days, then see how you feel. If it’s gone, carry on; if not, you may wish to consider seeing a sports therapist. Stretching really helps to avoid injury especially if (like me) you aren’t exactly a spring chicken! It’s good to do dynamic stretching before you run and static stretching afterwards – you can Google to find examples of these. If you feel unwell, don’t force yourself to train; your body can’t fight germs and recover from training at the same time, so you’ll only prolong your illness. Rest as much as possible until you feel better. If you train too hard you’re actually more likely to get ill because your immune system is temporarily lowered when your body is concentrating on recovery. 

  • Look After Yourself

You’ll find that you perform much better if you eat and sleep well. Think of your body as a performance car – you wouldn’t put diesel in a Ferrari would you?! The better you feed it, the more efficiently it works. If you’re a bit overweight it’s a good opportunity to lose a few pounds so you’ll have a bit less to carry around the course! When you get to the hardest weeks of your training (probably weeks 8-10) try to get as much sleep as you can too, as this is when your body recovers best. If you drink quite a bit of alcohol you’ll find it helps to reduce this, as its after-effects linger in your body long after you’ve stopped feeling hung over. I’m not going to be a spoilsport and say never have a drink, just be moderate or time it around your running schedule – so that’s a glass of wine on a Wednesday, Friday or Sunday for me! And drink plenty of water too, as dehydration can have a dramatic effect on physical performance; your wee should be a pale straw colour. 

  • Move To The Music

Research has claimed that listening to music can improve your sporting performance by as much as 20%. I’m not sure if that’s true for me, but it certainly helps, and if one of your favourite tunes comes on just as the going gets tough it certainly does give you a boost! So if you haven’t tried it before, give it a go. 

I’m now on week seven of my twelve week Great North Run schedule and it seems to be going OK, fingers crossed. I’d love to link up on Twitter with other GNR Tweeps, so do give me a shout if you’re out there! If you’d like to sponsor me and help out a great cause please visit my Just Giving page. Have a great weekend, especially if you’re running!

Several people I’ve met recently tell me they don’t sleep very well. It seems to be a growing problem, with many of us getting by on less sleep than we need and feeling continually exhausted. It’s more important to get a good night’s sleep than you might realise; sleep deprivation doesn’t just make you feel rubbish – it leads to poor mental and physical performance, disrupts your hormones and can even make you put on weight! Of course there are times when disturbed sleep just can’t be helped – like when you’re coping with a new baby or, for some women, going through the menopause – but generally everyone should try to get some quality shut-eye every night. If you find this difficult, here are some tips that might help.

Eat your main meal early in the evening so your body isn’t still digesting food when you go to bed.

Avoid caffeine after lunchtime – it can linger in your system for up to ten hours!

Avoid excess alcohol; drinking a lot in the evening can cause a big dip in your blood sugar during the night which could wake you up. Wine is not a good aid to sleep!

Don’t go straight to bed straight after finishing work. Take some time to let your mind relax before you settle down to sleep.

Exercising late at night can also make you too alert to go to sleep.

Try to develop a regular sleep routine, getting up and going to bed at about the same time every day, even at the weekend.

Go to bed earlier – don’t just veg out in front of the TV or computer until late at night!

If you have trouble dropping off to sleep have some hot milk before you go to bed (yes, it really does help) and sprinkle some lavender oil onto your pillow.

If you wake up in the night, don’t lie in bed tossing and turning – that will just make things worse. The best thing is to get up and do something really boring. I know people who’ve had success with ironing or reading instruction manuals! After a while you should start to feel sleepy and can go back to bed.

Hope this helps a bit. Sleep well! xx