New Year

How many times is it now we've said we're going to get fitter and eat healthier? Maybe even train smarter, do the stretches and remain injury free this year? It's good to have goals and to want to be better but how do we do it... and keep doing it. There's any amount of self-help books, quotes, images and jargon (e.g. SMART) out there, but let's keep it simple with five easy tips:



We don't need to be perfect right away, simply eating slightly better or doing a little more fitness is a good step. You aren't suddenly going to be the healthiest, fastest and fittest person overnight but you can do a 10 minute walk each day and try to eat less sweets. Gain perspective and take it one step at a time, one week at a time. Have I taken more steps this month than last month to get fitter? And if you make a mistake or a wee relapse that's ok at least overall you're going in the right direction.

When I take a beginner group, I always chat to them and say anyone can have good and bad days/sessions but generally you should see an improvement over 4 weeks. Once people get 4-5 weeks training they'd normally stay to the end of the course. So stick it out for at least a month and the best tip, start to walk or cycle to work. Do it at least once a week, most people realise that they are not any slower than commuting via bus/car and it is a lot more stress free. Even if you can't do it all the way, can you get out for a 15min walk once or twice a week or get off a bus-stop earlier. The best training improvements I have seen in people is when training becomes part of their day and they cycle, run or walk extra. Doing that each day, multiplied by 200-250 working days a year really adds up. Start this week, walk 10-15mins and build it up.



Start back slowly and steadily build up. Easy said but especially for people who've trained hard in the past they want to get back 'proper training'. They'll dig out the old session plans, remember the old times and say to themselves... ok this is where I need to be. So they'll dive straight in or ramp it up quickly and get injured or at the very least disheartened. There's a general rule of thumb, which says you increase training loads by 10% per week (mindful of injuries/recovery). So you need to start from a realistic base and build up gradually. The worst thing in the world is being injured through stupidity. For people who used to train, remember what it took to get to that level of fitness and note as you get older you can't train or recover as quick as when you were younger. A 40 year old and 25 year old will train differently. Be older and wiser. And finally, if it helps, give yourself a 'second life PB' at least temporarily. I may not hit my best ever PB, but start fresh and create a new PB, and then gradually seek to lower that. It will take a lot of pressure off and help you enjoy it more.



Getting fitter and healthier is something that should make you feel better. Maybe not right away and maybe not everyday but generally you should feel physically and mentally better off. If you're not then consider how you can make it more fun. Try running new routes, bring in some hills (at least for variation), run faster for some periods (e.g. 30sec pick-ups), add in reps, go off-road e.g. forests/parks, and try new races. If you're not sure of somewhere ask to tag along with people or walk/drive/cycle the route first to become more familiar. Also, try other sports and cross-training. Circuits, swimming, pilates, yoga, cycling are all great help for running. Enjoy being active and you can always learn from other sports.

Often the best way can be to run with other people, so consider a running group or club. Try a few to see which one is right for you, ask about training requirements and take the plunge - you'll be so glad you did. Most people don't train at their race pace, so you can often run with people who are faster than you (in fact it's better if you can). For the last 10 years or so, when able I have tried to train with my brother and/or a few from North Belfast. I am the slowest of the lot, at least a minute slower per mile on PB marathon times and 30sec-120sec slower in 5k terms. But most of our training isn't racing and I love to see new routes and on short reps (up to a mile) I can keep with them or not be too far behind in sessions. Many runners have different strengths, when fit I am faster on short hills (up to 3 mins) but over longer or very steep hills I am weak. The craic, competition, and friendship make it much more enjoyable than training on my own. Plus I've learned a lot about types of trainers, nutrition, training plans, races etc that different people are on from others during the long runs.



We are all human and for many that involves work, family, volunteer requirements that shape how tired and motivated we are and the time we have to train. Your training needs to take that into account. If you feel very tired from work/life/etc then don't do a hard session. The Connaught Rugby Team (the current Pro 12 champions) have to do a test each day and provide urine sample to check they are sufficiently rested and hydrated to train each day. The two leading Irish male marathon runners (Paul Pollock and Kevin Seaward) text their heart rate each morning to their coach so he can monitor their training levels and adjust accordingly. You will damage yourself more by over training than by taking appropriate recovery.

The biggest difference between many professional athletes is often the recovery. Paul O'Connell trained more as a youngster swimming than he did as professional rugby player but he ate differently, prepared differently and recovered/trained very differently. Don't blindly follow a training plan, swap days about if you need to. Training plans are guides not bibles. For busy people, often the best way to train is to go out first thing in the morning. Go out at 6:15am, there's little traffic and you're not tired from work, it's easier to plan nutrition wise too. Having breakfast with your session done for the day is the best feeling in the world. Most top athletes will train twice a day, so go out early and it opens up the possibility of getting it out later. If you're not a morning person, more a night owl... don't worry. After a week or two early morning sessions you get into the habit and will start sleeping earlier. Want to train like a professional then you need to recover like a professional and that means at least 7 hours a night sleep too - more if you're older. Get your sleeping, recovery and preparation right and you'll be well placed to start building up your training.



Everyone is different, and we'll look at training plans in later blog posts. I am more concerned about my fitness than my weight, but I have an idea of my 'fighting weight'. That's the weight when I'm feeling lean and able to do the best sessions. It's harder to keep that weight as you get older, the only way is eating more sensibly (especially when not doing as many sports). I'm about 3kgs (maybe more now after Christmas!) over the fighting weight, it has varied between 1-3kg over the last 3 months. It really struck me when we we're cooking Christmas dinner, with a 2kg ham and a 3kg turkey crown. As I was holding them it really shook me that this was the effective extra weight I was carrying around that wasn't doing me any good. I was basically carrying that turkey crown around with me all day, each hill, each rep, each session. 

After one of the first long runs, I remember one of the guys saying to me i'd need to lose a bit of weight. I was playing football at the time and while not at my fittest I was a little taken back. But when you look at the best runners, they're all thin. Not just thin but lean. You don't need to go that far but you can't train and eat independently. My best runs are when my stomach is settled. That influences my run/session more than any injury concern. Whilst there's a lot of conflicting diet advice out there - and i'm not a nutritionist - there are some agreed basic guidelines. 

  • Eat more fruit and especially vegetables (more veg the merrier)
  • Eat less sugar and sugar products (e.g. sweets)
  • Eat more natural foods and less processed foods
  • Take less portions
  • Create a more balanced diet
  • Drink more water and less alcohol

Most people eat enough protein (50% more than we need according to recent survey) and know what they should be doing. There's little evidence to prove the value in additional vitamins. On our coaching course, we touched on nutrition and the trainer just went eat sensibly and you don't need any additional stuff. The latest medical evidence is it's not simply 'calories in calories out' but the type of food you eat. Some foods are better than others. 

People will have allergies and medical conditions, but please use common sense. Most people know if they're taking too much sweets, biscuits and not enough vegetables. Breakfast cereals, yoghurts etc can all be full of refined grains or sugars. 'Fat free' isn't necessarily good for you, if it's full of sugar instead. So remember, just take simple steps, allow yourself a cheat day per week and don't worry about having the perfect diet... as per tip #1 it just needs to be a little bit better than before.