Why you should resolve to set better New Year resolutions. In February…

In the Guardian last week, Harriet Harman MP confessed that she fully expected to fail to stick to her New Year’s resolutions of drinking less, eating more healthily and doing more exercise. The plus side, she said, was that she could set the exact same resolutions next year: ‘as I won’t have achieved any of them’.

I can scarcely think of a more defeatist way to start the New Year. But statistics back her up – an oft-quoted study from 2008 found that 24 per cent of resolution makers say they fail every year. And while most of us are still going strong at this point in the calendar, almost half of us have fallen by the wayside within six months.

There are many reasons resolutions fail. Sometimes, the resolutions themselves are simply unrealistic (I’m going to knock 15 minutes off my 10k PB) or too woolly (I need to get fit). Other times, as with Harman, it’s more a case of self sabotage, because we’ve already – consciously or subconsciously – decided we won’t succeed. Why? Because we have never succeeded in the past, so we expect to repeat that pattern.

So what were my resolutions? I didn’t make any. Not one! It’s a fallacy to believe that change is only possible at this one time of year. And believing so means that if you fail in the early days, you’ve got a whole year before you can try again. In my opinion, beginning a new regime just off the back of one of the most excessive and indulgent periods of the year is heavily weighted towards failure. You’ve sat around watching TV and eating chocolates and having port for breakfast for a fortnight, and now you’re going to join the gym, give up booze and go on a diet? Good luck with that!

I prefer to use January as a preparation month. If I want to start eating more healthily, I can begin to eat more fruit and veg and clear out all the cupboards and fridge of unhealthy options and start to research some good recipes to use when I start my new eating plan. Similarly, if I want to get fit, I could use January to research what’s on offer locally – I could undergo a few tests (from a body fat assessment to a 12 minute Cooper Test) to see where I am now, and set realistic goals about where I want to get to. Planning is everything – it not only increases your chances of success but it also gives you time to adjust your thinking before the change begins.

For me, January is plan-uary. It’s not until February when I’ll be ringing the changes. And when I do, I’ll be looking back through my training journals to reflect on what went right and wrong last year. A new study from Loughborough University, presented at the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology last week, found that a) keeping a diary of your progress and b) reflecting on what you’ve written, helped maximize the chances of achieving goals successfully. The researchers also found that having a support network – whether it be a running buddy, an online community or your friends and family – aided adherence.

So, Harriet: no more resigning yourself to failure. Get that diary out, set some realistic lifestyle goals and get Andy Burnham – Labour’s best hope for turning the tide on physical inactivity and poor health in the UK – to be your training partner…



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Eat, drink and be active!

mince pies 2There is nothing worse than articles at this time of year telling you to stick to ‘just one glass of wine’ or to forgo brandy butter on your Christmas pudding. Bah, humbug or what?! But research published this week suggests that as long as you stay active, you can eat, drink and be merry over the festive period without dire consequences to your health.

In the study, from the University of Bath, all the volunteer subjects overate for a week.  The first group increased their calorie intake by 50 per cent and remained completely inactive, while the second group consumed 75 per cent more calories, but ran on a treadmill for 45 minutes each day.

By the end of the week, the inactive group showed an unhealthy decline in their blood sugar control and activation of genes within their fat cells associated with metabolic disturbances. Meanwhile, the calorie-cramming exercise group displayed stable blood sugar levels and no alterations in the expression of these fat cell genes.

Both groups gained weight as a result of the vastly-increased energy intake – but the study shows that maintaining some physical activity during this period of excess can help protect you from the detrimental effects of overeating on your long-term health.  And, of course, from the detrimental effects of watching too many old and boring re-runs on TV or murdering recalcitrant relatives!

Merry Christmas

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Inactivity, not obesity, is the UK’s shameful public health problem

Here is something to consider, as you settle down for another evening in front of the TV: a sedentary lifestyle – one without sufficient physical activity – is now the fourth biggest cause of premature death in the UK. Levels of physical activity have declined by 20 per cent in the last 20 years – and are projected to drop by a further 15 per cent by 2030 if nothing is done to turn the tide of inactivity in the UK.

If we followed the national guidelines (and most of us do not), 37,000 deaths in the UK could be prevented every year. Apply these stark statistics to almost anything else, say, recreational drugs or alcohol, and people would be up in arms. But the simple fact that people are dying too young because they don’t get off their bottoms often enough does not seem to have captured the imaginations of politicians or public alike.

But that might be about to change. Fred Turok, chairman of UK Active, believes that the inactivity problem has always been overshadowed by undue focus on obesity. ‘There’s no doubt that obesity must be confronted, but it’s distracting us from the chronic problem of inactivity,’ he said at a recent UKA Summit in London. ‘Physical inactivity is a public health problem in its own right, on a par with smoking, drinking and obesity and it needs to be put at the core of our public health strategy.’

Sir Keith Mills, former deputy chairman of LOCOG and founder of Sported, agrees. ‘The evidence that physical activity is ‘good’ has been there for years, but that’s slightly different from evidence that a lack of physical acidity is ‘bad.’ Physical activity is not seen as a priority in public health terms – it’s not taken seriously.’ Mills points out that when the health link to smoking was confirmed, it galvanized action. ‘It took legislation, taxation, education, joined-up government – why can’t we do the same thing with inactivity?’

One of the problems is the environment we live in. It just isn’t conducive to being active. Out-of-town shopping centres and superstores have replaced high street shopping, reducing opportunities for walking. Pollution and crowded, hazardous roads make cycling unattractive and stations and office buildings put lifts and escalators at the forefront, with dingy, hard-to-find stairwells only used by the already-converted.

You’re probably familiar with the national guidelines for physical activity – 150 minutes or more of moderate intensity activity per week. But there is also an independent recommendation in the same report to break up sedentary time. Research from Penn State University found that spending too many hours sitting down had a detrimental effects on blood pressure and and glucose levels regardless of how active you are outside of those eight hours at your desk. ‘We need improved walking and cycling infrastructure,’ says Deputy Chief Medic al Officer Dr David Walker. We also need an attitude shift: one that sees going out for an hour at lunchtime as a normal, no, necessary and beneficial practice and not one for losers and shirkers. One that encourages face-to-face interaction in buildings rather than internal phonecalls and emails. One that promotes walking or standing meeting instead of stuffy gatherings in the boardroom, complete with sugary biscuits. There are some good initiatives afoot.

For example, a new government-funded scheme, StepJockey, will see the installation of ‘smart signs’ on stairwells in public buildings in the UK, giving information on calorie expenditure to users who scan them with a smartphone app. In trials at three buildings, stair usage increased by 29 per cent as a result.  Good, but not quite as innovative as a new machine installed at a Russian subway station that accepts 30 squats as payment for a train ticket. You have to do them properly and in under two minutes to claim your free pass.

Incentivizing exercise may be the way forward. Subtle nudges don’t seem to have worked – people still view exercise as a lifestyle ‘choice’, like a hobby, and not as a way of safeguarding health and wellbeing. It will be interesting to see what steps government takes over the next few years in tackling the inactivity problem. At the UK Active summit, Fred Turok announced an aim to reduce inactivity by a modest one per cent a year over the next five years. Andy Burnham MP, Shadow Health Secretary, laid out a more ambitious target: to get 50 per cent of the population active by 2025. ‘This will be a cornerstone of Labour’s public health policy,’ he pledged. It certainly gets my vote.


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Marathon Training starts here!

Signed up for your first marathon? Or looking to beat your previous best marathon time? This workshop will give you the tools you need to maximise your training time, minimise the risk of injury and prepare you for your 26.2 mile journey in the best possible way.

Master the Marathon Workshop, Sunday 24th November, 2013 – Eastbourne Sports Park, East Sussex

In a mix of classroom and outdoor sessions we will cover the following:

  • Establishing your marathon goal
  • Structuring and planning your training programme. What sessions need to be included? When, how and why?
  • Making your long runs count
  • Injury prevention and recovery practices – and how to deal with niggles
  • The taper – winding down to race day
  • Nutrition in training and racing
  • Race day preparation and strategy

There are two running sessions – one in the morning (built around your projected marathon pace) and a marathon-specific speed session in the afternoon – with plenty of time for recovery in between.  DO NOT WORRY if you aren’t a fast runner – everyone will work at their own level and there’ll be plenty of support from the coaches.

The workshop will take place at Eastbourne Sports Park in East Sussex – a purpose-built venue equipped with an athletics track and seminar room, shower and changing facilities and surrounded by green space. There is free parking on-site, and the venue is within easy walking distance of Hampden Park railway station.

The cost of the day workshop is £65 and it runs from 10.30am to 4.30pm – 15 participants max. If you’d like a booking form, or have any questions, please contact me at info@sam-murphy.co.uk or on 07817 687241.


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All night long: the 24 Hour Ultra Trail Race

It’s dawn, and I am sitting on a fold-up chair in a field, eating a bowl of porridge. At this moment in time, it is the best porridge I’ve ever tasted, warming my insides and replenishing my much-depleted energy stores like five-star fuel. I savour every mouthful as I watch the mist rise above the lake. Beyond it, brightly-clad runners dart in and out of the trees. There goes my teammate John, smooth and steady. Earlier, you could only make out the trail by following the bobbing beams of head torches, so coming full circle, back to daylight, feels heartening. What’s more, after a non-stop night of clocking up the miles, we’re still only a couple of minutes behind the lead team.

I’d had no real sense of what a 24-hour race would be like when I signed up for the inaugural 24-hr Ultra Trail Race as part of the Rye Runners 7-strong team. I figured it would be a bit of fun, a lot of running and very little sleep. But I had no idea what a thrilling – and bonding – experience it would be. There was to be mud sweat and tears before the finish line.

Ben reappears after a snooze in his tent, walking gingerly. His legs are so stiff he appears to have planks of wood down his tights. ‘I don’t think I can run,’ he announces. We all tried to look sympathetic. ‘You’ll be alright,’ someone says, reassuringly. ‘See how you feel after a warm-up.’ He goes on to blast out another blistering lap. It is amazing how the adrenaline kicks in as soon as you don the timing chip – and after a few steps, you throw off the stiffness and pains.

Initially, I’d been less than enamoured by the size of the lap – 2.1 miles. How tedious to run in endless circles, I’d thought. But, at least from a team perspective, it wasn’t the least bit dull. We ran it in the afternoon sunshine, the still dusk, the dead of night and the pallid dawn – and it looked and felt a little different each time. Sometimes, the hill seemed endless – other times, its crest appeared surprisingly soon out of the mist or darkness and you’d be careening down the other side before barely getting your breath back.

We got to know the gnarled tree roots underfoot, the curve of a sharp bend, the lakeside bench as intimately as our well-trodden routes close to home. We talked about our ‘favourite bits’ and the bits we dreaded, as we sat under the gazebo, scoffing energy gels, applying Compeeds, drinking sweet coffee and taking turns on the foam roller.

The small lap also lends itself well to tactics. In larger-lapped events, like Thunder Run, there’s not much leeway to do anything other than run 10km-laps, but we were able to create a rota that suited all of us and made the most of the time of day. Fresh and raring to go on Saturday afternoon, we started with 3-lap (6 mile) stints, then moved to 2-lap stints as darkness drew in and single laps come Sunday morning, when we were all tired and needed to stay engaged and able to prise ourselves out of those fold-up chairs. Ryan brought hangers on which to air and dry our t-shirts between rounds – a surprisingly ingenious idea diminished only somewhat by his habit of changing into his dressing gown when he wasn’t running. Gratifyingly, this put him in a weak position when it came to ridiculing me in my full-leg compression stockings in gleaming white – like a pervy pair of hold-ups.

Lissa and Kate have flown around their respective laps and it’s my turn again. My warm-up routine has now been reduced to a stiff-legged shuffle over to the portaloos and a jog back. But I’m holding up OK, all things considered. Everyone has been through their own personal hell at some point or other. A blister, a stomach cramp, seized muscles or sheer fatigue. But we have buoyed each other up and urged each other on.

When we had entered the event, the main attraction was that it was local and a good opportunity to get Rye Runners involved as a team. But ever since a couple of hours in, when the ‘live’ progress screen at the changeover tent showed that we were in close second place to Seaford Striders, it’s been a game of cat and mouse, with each team intermittently edging ahead. With the possibility of victory, the burden of responsibility has hung heavy on all of us – each determined not to let the team down with a lackluster performance. For Ryan, whose own inner struggle has been taking place mostly in the portaloos, this has proved a frustrating experience. But it is a good reminder that you can only do what you can do – your best, at any given moment, isn’t a fixed thing but an expression of your capabilities at that time. I believe that each of us went out and ran as hard as we could each time we wore the timing chip, regardless of whether it was our fastest lap or our slowest. And that’s why I am so proud of our team’s performance.

As the final hour approached, Ryan was back on form, running to his true potential. We had sent Jeff out for a last-ditch 2-lapper to see if we could make any headway on the Seaford Striders’ still-small lead but as the minutes slid by, it was clear that we couldn’t catch up. No matter – when Ryan took the final lap, the rest of the team spread ourselves around the route to cheer, no, ROAR him home. Then we jogged, limped and shuffled to the finish line for tearful hugs and photos.

We finished level in terms of lap numbers – 89 – or 178 miles in total – but the Striders were ahead on the clock, earning them the trophy. We may not have conquered the competition, but we still felt like winners.

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