At the time of writing this I have just over a week until I find myself standing amongst a large crowd of vest-wearing strangers at Swansea Bay Half Marathon’s starting line.
Am I ready? Let’s put it this way. Remember when you were in school and had a major assignment to do over the long summer holidays, only to look at it the night before going back? That’s me in terms of my preparation.
I swear I had every intention of being better prepared than a NASA mission to Mars – I’ve still got charts and training schedules on my wall - but things just didn’t take off for me.
As previously mentioned in this blog, my body just couldn’t handle running more than once a week so I have only managed ticking over mode these past three months. As a result I will approach Sunday, 11 June, like I did Christmas aged 13 - when I asked for a date with Olivia Newton-John – that’s to say more in fantastical hope than expectation!
Desperate for any nugget of advice to help me cross the finish line before it gets dark I decided to speak to an expert.
By day Helen-Marie Davies is a 47-year-old mother of three and primary school head teacher. She is also a phenomenal athlete who has represented her country and completed the London Marathon in a time I’d fail to beat on a bike! The most amazing thing about Helen is she only took up running properly 10 years ago.
She said: “I had always done a little bit of running here and there but then I moved to Blackpill and was on the doorstep of Swansea Harriers athletics club. I thought I’d give it a go and joined.
“At first I wasn’t very good but I loved it. Then I started to win a few little races and got the bug – the endorphins started kicking in! I’ve never looked back.
“I’ve represented Wales, over different distances, in Welsh masters around 12 times and my personal best for the London Marathon 3 hours 4 minutes.”
Whether you are a natural or not doesn’t matter – the key is to give running a go.
Helen said: “We’re all so busy with work and families and life, the biggest thing is finding the time to suit and giving it a go. To get out and clear your head. There are obviously fitness benefits but for your own well-being it’s brilliant.
“It’s more than that, it’s the social side as well when you get into a good running group or group of friends who you meet up with regularly.
“There’s loads of different clubs. From beginners – couch to 5k – around, which you should find on Facebook parkruns are another good avenue. They are free and not a race – just running for fun and getting fitter each week with a coffee and cake after.”
Turning to tips for yours truly she shattered my plan of bingeing on pizza the night before.
She said: “Don’t overeat the night before. Eat regular meals during the day rather than a massive meal in the evening. People think you can have a massive bowl of pasta but if you do, you will struggle the next day.
“And don’t eat anything that you haven’t eaten before on race day morning. You should practice what you’re going to eat as part of your training.
“I tend to have a porridge and a banana an hour and a half before the race.”
Helen then asked me if I used gel? After I pointed to my bare head she explained she meant the energy gel which a lot of serious athletes reach for during races.
She said: “They should have them on the course – if you do feel a bit flagging take one they have on offer.
“If you are going to take a gel during the run try them out before hand – you don’t want to be running to the loo halfway around realising the gel doesn’t agree with you.
“I don’t do gel – I do flapjacks – as I can’t stomach them.”
It is also important to take on water during the run.
She said: “Have your biggest drink (she didn’t mean alcohol unfortunately) maybe two hours before the race and then just sip water throughout the race. Don’t go glugging a whole bottle when you come to a water stop otherwise you may have a stitch.
“Little and often and just drink to thirst – if you’re thirsty drink if not don’t worry about it.”
In terms of tactics – to be honest mine is get around in under two and a half hours – she said: “What I will say is don’t go off too fast otherwise you will suffer. It will be really painful at the end. If anything, go off a little bit slower because you can always pick it up near the end.
“If you go off too fast you are not going to enjoy the whole experience. It’s better to go off slower – don’t get caught up with the pace of all the people around you – and try and enjoy it.
“And smile – apparently it helps!”
I admitted to being addicted to looking at my fit watch on my training runs but Helen advised I put it to one side.
She said: “You can’t really suggest a pace as everyone is different. Pace really is down to the individual with no hard and fast rue around age and fitness.
“I wouldn’t be glued to my fit watch – I would literally just go and enjoy it. Whatever time you do you have run a half marathon. It doesn’t matter of it’s an hour and a half or three and a half hours – you have run a half marathon. Just be content with that.
“It’s a challenge, Its 13.2 miles. It’s massive. So does it really matter how fast you do it?
“It’s the money that you’re raising and the experience.”
Amen to that. I will be thinking about our amazing team in Morriston Hospital’s Cardiac Unit who I have chosen to raise money for as a thank you for the times they have saved my father’s life.
I know times are tough but if you do have a fiver to spare please sponsor me on my fundraising page here.
When I was weighing up (forgive the delayed pun) the pros and cons of signing up for the Swansea Bay Half Marathon, one of the biggest benefits was being able to eat without any guilt as clocking up all those training miles would surely burn off any fat.
And true enough, although my training hasn’t gone to plan (* more of that later), people have asked if I have lost weight to which I reply, ‘No. I just started buying bigger clothes.’
In truth I have lost a few pounds but don’t really weigh myself regularly so can’t tell you how much other than I can now tighten my belt by another notch without causing any damage to internal organs.
My weight this past year has been around 93Kg fully clothed – someone said it was better to weigh yourself without clothes on but when I tried that I got banned from Tesco.
As I have mentioned previously, losing weight means eating less and exercising more – if you had a car with a flexible petrol tank and filled it up every day, without ever driving it, then it would eventually burst.
And by my reasoning the reverse is also true to some extent – in order to exercise more you need more fuel! So I’ve spent the last couple of months reconnecting with my previous vices – the owner of my local tandoori takeaway greeted me like a long lost brother having feared I’d ‘crossed over to the other side’.**
I was fortunate enough to have a chat with Swansea Bay dietitian Andrea Miller – and she confirmed that you can eat more when in training!
She said: “If you are light training, eating less and doing more can help you lose weight. But if you're training more than an hour a day, 2-3 times a week, then you need to have a regular intake of carbohydrates because you keep burning it off and need to keep refuelling.
“Every time you're exercising, you're burning up your stored fuel, which is the stored carbohydrate. You can't keep exercising if you've got no fuel left.
“You need to keep replenishing your stores for the exercise, to store all that glucose again, ready for the next training, so you've got a continuous source of carbohydrate coming in.
“Good sources of carbohydrate are bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, cereals, fruit, and milk. Sweet foods such as cakes, chocolates, biscuits contain carbohydrate but may also be full of fat, sugar and salt which is not good for you.”
Protein is the other really important nutrient for exercise.
She said: “Good proteins are foods like your dairies. Milk in particular is a very good source of high quality protein. It has got lots of goodness in it that helps to rebuild your muscle after you've broken it down when you've been doing your exercise.
“If you've been exercising for more than an hour, then having a glass of milk at the end of training is really helpful. Rather than all these protein shakes, a glass of milk can do just as good a job. It helps to give you a bit of carbohydrate to put some fuel back in, and it also helps give you the protein to help rebuild your muscle that you've just broken down during the training.
“Eggs, meat, fish and yoghurts are other rather good, wholesome sources of protein. Pulses are another good one.
“Having a snack as soon as possible after exercise, certainly within the hour, such as milk, or a cheese and ham sandwich, is helpful to provide you with carbohydrate and protein to give you energy and help to repair your muscles.”
Fatty food is still part of a healthy intake, in moderation though.
She said: “Fatty food such as takeaways, burgers, fried food, biscuits, cakes etc generally tend to contain more calories, and more salt and sugar which are not good for your general health.”
Andrea also dispelled a myth – one that I was looking forward to unfortunately – that it was ok to binge on pizza and pasta the night before the event.
She said: “It is better to load up gradually in the days and weeks leading up to the event, rather than just the night before as you are still training and burning off the carbohydrate.”
You also need to be careful if snacking between meals.
She said: “If you are trying to lose weight, snacking is not always great because people tend to snack on chocolates, biscuits and crisps - it's those sorts of foods you want to try and cut back on. If you're going to have a snack, try a piece of fruit or a small cracker.
“For exercise, small snacks to build carbohydrate intake can be helpful such as fruit and crackers.”
What about taking water on board?
“Fluid is very important for performance. It is always important to begin exercise well hydrated and replace fluid between training sessions.
“You don't want to be overdoing it because you can't stop to go to the toilet all the time.
“Making sure that you're just having sips of fluid before, during and after, depending on how long the event is, is really great.
“If you're exercising for less than an hour, water is fine to replenish the fluid, you don’t need all the isotonic drinks. But if you're exercising for a number of hours, you need to think about fluid and the isotonic drinks will back up on the salts that you will lose.”
* With around 5 weeks to go until the big day my training plan is off the wall – literally. I’ve torn it down.
I have come to accept that my aging body is not up to the rigours of pounding the streets five times a week and have adopted my own approach – namely going for a ‘long run’ once a week and trying to walk a couple of miles on the other days.
I usually manage 10 miles and my thinking is it’s only a further three on the day. I can manage that. After all, I just want to finish the course. I don’t want to embarrass others with a record time.
** He meant he feared I was going to the kebab shop opposite.
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If you would like to sponsor me visit my fundraising page here.
Sport used to be a massive part of my life. I played first class rugby for Bridgend and Aberavon back in the 1990s and didn’t hang up my boots until I was 39. But then I rebelled against any form of exercise and took up a new hobby – eating. I became overweight.
I realised I needed to do something after a group of concerned looking people tried to manoeuvre me into the sea whilst I was sunbathing down Caswell!
Fortunately, I got back into the habit of regular exercise at the start of the pandemic. My motivation, besides wanting to give myself a better chance of being able to claim a bus pass one day, was to boost my mental health.
It really does work. I used to think endorphins were members of the dolphin family but they are even better than that! Now, if I haven’t done some form of exercise for a few days I really feel the need to do so.
I started my journey back to fitness by following a Couch to 5K – or in my case a Fridge to 5K – programme but followed it on a treadmill as it gave the illusion of not running that far. There are pros and cons around using a treadmill. With a treadmill you don’t have to worry about the weather and accessibility (if you’re lucky enough to have your own) is never a problem but it can be boring as you do miss the scenery - at my pace I can take it all in!
From what I see losing weight means eating less and exercising more – if you had a car with a flexible fuel tank and filled it up with petrol three times a day, without ever driving it, then it would eventually burst. You need to burn off that fuel/food.
Since mastering the 5K I have tried to do some exercise – whether it be running, swimming, cycling or climbing on my rowing machine – at least three times a week but I realised that I would need to train properly for the half marathon.
I decided to follow a 20 week training plan, which I have labelled the Good Cop Bad Cop plan as it starts off gently, with three runs a week, all under 4 miles, before turning nasty and hitting me with five runs a week that clock up the kind of mileage a migrating swallow would complain of.
As I write this I’m on week 7 and to be honest I’m finding it hard to stick to the plan purely because of the aches and pains – if I was a race horse I would be put out to pasture or turned into a pot of glue!
One hack that I employ is the dreaded post-run ice bath. The only good thing about this is it doesn’t impinge on my cost of living as there is absolutely no hot water involved whatsoever. The physiology behind it is the cold is helpful in reducing swelling after running because the cold water lowers metabolic activity and constricts blood vessels, thus preventing tissue damage.
My tip is wear a woollen hat!
I spoke to Lewis Bradley, Fundraising Support Manager for our Health Charity, and asked him for some advice around training.
Lewis also happens to be an Iron Man, which doesn’t mean he is likely to rust when it rains, it means he has completed a full marathon – after a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile cycle!
Basically his advice was to listen to your body – mine just creaks.
“If you have to cut back on the training then so be it,” he advised. “And don’t try to make up the mileage if you miss a few runs.”
I have taken this advice to heart!
Personally, I would also suggest, if you do find regularly pounding the streets is taking its toll, is to vary your type of training. If you are after a personal best this may not be perfect but if your aim is merely complete the 13.1 miles, and collect the sponsorship money for your chosen cause, then it’s perfect.
Talking of which, to sponsor me – the money goes to Morriston Hospital’s cardiac centre – then please visit me JustGiving page here.
I’m sat here writing my second blog in an attempt to postpone my training run for another hour or so. I’m already into week three of a 20 week programme, which is designed to allow me to canter along the foreshore of Swansea Bay and back in a time that would have Brendan Foster * turn green with envy.
I will dedicate a future blog to training programmes as they are an integral piece of the half marathon jigsaw – and believe me I am in pieces at the moment. It’s safe to say my body is still adjusting to running regularly and often complains in the form of stiff legs. I was told your muscles have a memory, and they would soon grow accustomed to running again, but at this juncture all mine seem to remember is how to hurt.
My other bugbear is the arctic weather we’re currently ‘enjoying’. While out running I’m so cold I feel like Leonardo DiCaprio at the end of Titanic – absolutely freezing - but without the compensation of looking into Kate Winslet’s eyes. And I have more vapour trails than the Red Arrows!
Now for the serious part.
The first step for anyone embarking on any form of new exercise regime, whether returning after a period of prolonged inactivity or starting from scratch in a bid to improve general health, is to seek some expert advice.
I was fortunate enough to persuade Dr Iestyn Davies, a GP partner at Cwmtawe Medical Group in the Lower Swansea Valley, and former head of the medical department for Swansea City’s Football Academy, to give me the benefit of his wisdom.
He said: “If you’re someone who has exercised regularly over the years, but maybe had lapsed into inactivity, it’s a matter of retraining the body and gradually getting back into it. You need to take it slowly and build the intensity and duration of exercise up gradually.
“If you do have any symptoms at all, such as breathing problems, chest pain, or joint pain, then seek advice because you don’t want to aggravate any condition.”
The advice is the same whether you are hoping to run a half marathon or just become more active.
Dr Davies said: “You could be someone starting from scratch, who has never had interest in sports and exercising, but realise you have to start for health reasons.
“Maybe you want to lose weight, or get fitter because you are asthmatic, or you have lung or heart issues. You may be diabetic and know that losing weight will help you manage the condition – there’s a multitude of reasons why someone may want to start exercising.”
Dr Davies said that exercise is increasingly being prescribed as an effective form of treatment for a range of conditions.
He said: “Lifestyle is a big thing we promote when it comes to chronic disease clinics. The most important thing, when starting out, is to know where you’re at in terms of the severity of your condition, and seek advice if you have any concerns.
“You essentially want to make sure that your symptoms are stable. You also need to think about when you had your last review, and what you were told.
“If you haven’t got a clue whatsoever, and you have a medical condition, your doctor can refer you to the national exercise programme that is freely available through the NHS.”
If you do not have a chronic medical condition the advice doesn’t necessarily have to come from a doctor.
Dr Davies said: “I would suggest to those who are starting out to get in touch with a local personal trainer or a physical therapist so that they can guide you through it and do a graduated plan. But if you have concerns about your health in general, and need some guidance, then obviously a doctor can advise accordingly.
“Gym classes can also be good. Quite often you will find people joining group sessions and they will do an assessment beforehand of your weight, height and body fat, so that they can measure progress.”
Taking advantage of being sat opposite an expert, I asked Dr Davies what he thought of the challenge I had set myself.
He said: “There’s nothing foolish about training for a half marathon in your mid-50s, as you get people much older completing them – so it literally depends upon the individual.
“If you are an occasional runner over shorter distances, then it’s just a matter of conditioning the body for longer distances.
“However, if at any point the longer distances or intensity start to trigger any symptoms, then they should seek medical advice.”
I thanked Dr Davies for his time and for giving me a get out clause should I need one!
* I don’t mean Brendan Foster, the former gold medal winning Olympian, but a mate of the same name who I was in college with that hasn’t run since 1987 – and then it was only to get to the bar before last orders.
Ever sent an email and immediately regretted it? I was almost at that point in the seconds after signing up for this year’s Swansea half marathon. After all, 13.1 miles is not exactly a stroll in the park for your average middle aged guy who looks forward to going for a run as much as receiving his latest gas bill. Heck, I’d usually shy away from cycling that far.
However, I have no regrets as I entered for two very good reasons.
The first is to take care of someone I truly care about… me.
The event (I refuse to see it as a race and it certainly won’t be no fun run) takes place on Sunday (ironically the day of rest) 11th June. And I am hoping that over the course of the next five months I will get into the habit of running regularly and enjoy the undoubted health benefits of putting my body through pain.
In all seriousness, regular exercise is good for you, if done correctly, and will help keep the doctor away far better than the proverbial apple. As Mark Hackett, the chief executive officer of Swansea Bay University Health Board, recently stated, people can help an under-pressure NHS by eating nutritious food, exercising regularly and moderating their alcohol intake – three steps I will need to surmount if I am to complete the course before it gets dark and they pack everything away.
The second very good reason for making this commitment is I will be running to raise money for Swansea Bay Health Charity, which is the health board’s official charity. Its aim is to improve patient care by providing equipment, staff training, funding research and completing special projects which go above and beyond what the NHS is able to provide. This also includes the Southwest Wales Cancer Centre Fund.
You are able to specify which department you would like the money to go to and I have chosen Morriston Hospital’s cardiac centre for the amazing care they have provided my father over the years – he’s needed their help on so many occasions they put a zip in instead of stitches.
In order to tempt others to become more active, I will write a series of blogs over the coming months in which I will speak to health care professionals and proper athletes in order to share interviews, tips and advice on getting into shape.
Please wish me luck.
If you would like to sponsor me visit my fundraising page here.