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Build your pyramid

With lots of Spring races approaching (my runners have been in training for marathons in Tokyo, Boston, London and Edinburgh, as well as lots of other less well-known races; we’re a real mixed bag of road, trail and fell runners, and we run everything from 5k to 200+ miles!) we have been educating ourselves on some of the easily forgotten basic things that contribute to our successful running and our general health. Over six sessions across the past few months on Zoom we’ve heard from a PT (strength and conditioning), a nutritionist (sleep, hydration and nutrition) and a sports psychologist (mental strategies for training and racing).


Some of these things form the base of what a lot of people think of as a performance ‘pyramid’. The idea is that our sporting performance is at the tip of a pyramid built on a range of different factors, and that sport-specific training (our running, for runners!) is only really the last block at the very top of the pyramid. At the foundation, on the bottom layer, are the things we can do to keep ourselves generally healthy and well: good nutrition, good hydration, good sleep and good levels of stress. If we don’t have the foundations correctly in place, we can train as hard as we want to but we won’t have optimal performance and we might even do ourselves harm.


Each of these areas of the pyramid could be an entire blog (or even book!) in its own right, and there are many sources of information on each, written by experts. I’m not an expert in any of the areas, so instead here are a selection of ‘tips and tricks’ that I found interesting in our Zoom sessions.


You may not read anything below that you find ground-breaking, or even new! But I hope there’s something here that prompts you to address a temporarily-forgotten piece of your pyramid.


Nutrition


  1. If your aim is to build a healthy diet, have a plentiful rather than a restrictive attitude. For example, rather than thinking ‘I can’t eat X food’, focus on trying to eat between five and eight portions of fruit or vegetables every day.

  2. Prepping food doesn’t need to be a hugely arduous, time-consuming task, but will help with making good choices. See what store cupboard and freezer options you can keep on hand if you’re really not into food prep (I’m not, but I spend an hour a week making a big salad or pilaf that lasts for four or five days). A couple of my favourites are frozen, cooked chicken (I defrost small portions at a time for a protein snack) and microwave rice or flavoured couscous pouches for a healthy carb option with a meal. I also have frozen raspberries and blueberries with yoghurt as a snack.

  3. If you are struggling to form a habit, try ‘habit stacking’, where you add the habit you are trying to build to an existing one. For example, if you want to start making overnight oats for your breakfast but tend to forget to do so, stack the habit with your evening meal so that you prep the breakfast e.g. while water is boiling for your pasta.

Hydration


  1. Don’t overthink it! Generally, if your wee is a pale, clear colour, you’re in a good place. Everyone’s hydration needs are different, so don’t get hung up on needing X number of litres of water per day.

  2. Keep a water bottle on your desk (yes, I know it’s an obvious one!). Apparently there is research to show that you’re more likely to drink from a brightly coloured bottle.

  3. Habit stack again! I keep a pint glass of squash on my kitchen worktop, and drink some whenever I’m waiting for the kettle to boil, or food to cook. Maybe you could habit stack the water with checking your phone! Put the phone under the bottle so that you have to have a few sips before you can get to the phone.

Sleep


  1. Buy an alarm clock. I don’t need to tell you that phone use near bedtime will affect your sleep, but it is very hard to avoid temptation if the phone is in the room – even more so since many of us get watch notifications of phone activity too. In order to leave it turned off in another room, you’ll need an alarm clock. I bought a Lumie light clock several years ago, which (really without exaggerating) changed my life. It lights up gradually in the morning, waking you slowly and naturally – I usually find I’m pretty much awake by the time the alarm actually goes off at the end of the light cycle.

  2. Avoid alcohol. I know this is another obvious one, but I was shocked when I realised the difference in my sleep patterns caused by even one glass of wine in the evening. Without any alcohol at all, I sleep more deeply and wake up feeling refreshed. I’m not advocating total abstinence if you do like a glass of wine or a beer, but I’ve noticed a big benefit since limiting myself to one or two nights a week, rather than having even one glass more often.

  3. Pre-bed routines. Our Zoom sessions reminded me that a warm shower or bath before bed can aid sleep, as can having a small carb-based snack.

Stress


A word on stress…everything we do in life carries some ‘stress’, and it’s not a negative thing. Moderate levels of stress keep us engaged, motivated and interested in life; if we have no challenge at all we usually become bored and frustrated. The problems come when excess levels of stress are causing us anxiety or distress. It’s worth remembering that running, particularly if we are following a challenging training plan, adds to our overall stress load, both physically and mentally. It’s therefore worth thinking about ways we can (even temporarily) reduce other stresses in our life, to avoid overload. The strategies below are sport-specific – things we could do if we’re finding training or racing stressful in a negative way.


  1. Focus on the process, not the outcome. One of the most common worries I hear from runners is that they’re not on target for their ‘goal time’. I usually try to have a discussion about how the goal time has been determined. Is it as a result of a clear-sighted look at recent training paces and races? Or is it a number that is desirable at some point in the future but isn’t achievable right now? I find that most people (me included!) relax and enjoy training much more when we let go of the idea of achieving our goal at a specific moment in time, and accept that we will progress towards our goal…but we might need to wait for the next race, or the next year, to build the fitness required. This approach allows us to focus on what is within our control, i.e. our training, and concentrate on executing it to our best ability, rather than worrying about whether it is going to produce a specific outcome. In short…trust the process, and be patient!

  2. Speaking of controllables – let go of things which are not within your control. Worrying about things you cannot change is not helpful, and will do nothing to change the outcome. Focus instead on factors which you can influence, and do your best to affect them as positively as possible.

  3. My last stress tip is one for those of us who can be hard on ourselves within a race, particularly if it’s not going to plan. I love Kristin Neff’s work on ‘self-compassion’ – which shows that we are more effective at motivating ourselves towards goals if we use kindness instead of fear, guilt or negative pressure. To apply this to our racing means using mantras and self-talk such as ‘you can do this’, ‘you are strong’ or ‘you have trained hard’ rather than telling ourselves to ‘run faster, you won’t make it’ or worrying ‘I can’t do this’. On our final group Zoom, sports psychologist Steve also told us that some research shows this self-talk is more effective if we use the second person (you can do this!) rather than first person (I can do this!).

If you like the idea of making some small, incremental changes to your pyramid base, why not choose one strategy from each of the groups above, and try implementing it for a couple of weeks? I’d be very interested to hear how you get on – feel free to be in touch or comment below.


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