general ramblings from a wannabe triathlete, confirmed foodie, and nutrition nerd

Attack of the tapir! Or is that taper..?

Something strange is happening.

My husband has been unpacking.

So? You may ask. What’s the problem with that?

The problem, I’ll tell you, is that it is completely out of the norm. We moved house five months ago and other than the kitchen the house is still full of boxes. Even the few that have been emptied are still littered about the place, devoid of contents.

My husband does not do unpacking (this is quite possibly an unfair comment. He does do unpacking. Just in a leisurely, slightly chaotic empty-the-contents-of-the-box-onto-the-floor-job-done! kind of way). Unless he’s routing through a box for a family-sized tub of Vaseline (if you’re a runner or cyclist, you’ll know…) or an elusive tri-belt (which are so frequently purchased and forgotten that we now have enough to supply the entire  field of Olympic triathletes with their very own) then the boxes remain as they were on the day we moved in. A decorative addition to the general ambience of can’t-be-arsedness.

So finding him knee deep in rubber swim caps, Asics goody-bags and spare inner-tubes was a little disconcerting.

And when he voluntarily started putting books onto the bookcase, well… I knew it had started.

The taper.

For the uninitiated, the taper – not to be confused with the tapir* – is an abomination. It turns reasonably sane (well, as sane as you can ever be if you’re in training for something that requires tapering) into twitchy, quivering wrecks.

Healthy people, full of vitality and determination, at the peak of their training, are suddenly forced to break away from their training schedule.

No more twenty mile runs at 5am, or hundred mile bike rides on Sunday afternoon. They must resist the urge to squeeze themselves into the wetsuit and go for a dip in the local canal (or safe open water swimming venue – for more details, see my previous rants posts), or sit for hours on the turbo, staring blankly into space as the monotony slowly crushes their soul.

The taper is an essential component of endurance training. Whilst it may seem counter-intuitive to ease back from a full on schedule of training, be it for a marathon (open the link to see the number one on my marathon to-do list 🙂 ) or an Ironman (or indeed any other sporting endeavour that has demanded hours, and hours of training), the taper actually allows your body to recover and improves your condition for race day.

The physical strain of training takes its toll. So easing back and allowing your body to rest and recover makes perfect sense.

Those microscopic muscle tears and depleted glycogen stores – even if you can’t feel it – will benefit from a bit of a rest. Taking the time to chill out, eat well and catch up on some sleep will make the world of difference when it comes to Race Day.


It does do strange things to a person’s head.

Have they done enough training? Have they got the right kit? What if it rains/is sunny? How many times should they clean their bike? Should they shave their legs? What about chest hair? Is it worth practising getting the wetsuit on/off just one more time? How many grams of carbohydrates should they eat the night before? Etc. etc.

Have you ever seen a goose?

Not hanging in a butchers window or the resplendent centrepiece of a Dickensian Christmas feast – a real, live goose?

The look innocent enough. Going about their business, ruffling their feathers and and lazily pecking at the ground.

But be warned – if you ever have the misfortune to piss off a goose, or even look at it the wrong way – be prepared to run.

People waste their time and money on Alsatians and German Shepherds – if you want an animal to protect your home and property, all you need is a goose.

They’re dangerous. Don’t ever make eye contact with a goose – in that split second it will see into the depths of your soul and know your weakness, and it will attack.

Why am I talking about geese?

Because they are the perfect analogy to the twitchy, irritable, ever-so-slightly volatile athlete during a taper.

So if your husband/wife/room mate happens to start doing strange things, just nod, smile (but not too much – you don’t want to set them off) and back away as slowly as you can.

You know it makes sense.

* The tapir is a mammal, not dissimilar to a pig (but more closely related to horses and rhinos), and come from South America and Southeast Asia. They have nothing to do with tapering, but here’s a couple of pictures of them anyway.

What you lookin’ at fool?!

Attack of the tapir!!!

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The 30 Day Shred

The 30 Day Shred, if you’ve not heard about it, is a home workout craze currently (or less currently, I don’t know. It’s only recently come to my attention, so therefore – for me – it’s current) sweeping the nation.

If you don’t know what it is, where have you been?!

Probably the same place as me until about ten days ago, when shredding was something you did to confidential paperwork or perhaps lettuce.


The 30 Day Shred is a workout DVD, master-minded by one of the trainers from the American tv show The Biggest Loser. She’s an ‘expert’ – the DVD cover says so.

The 30 Day Shred

Jillian Michaels is known for being a tough, no-nonsense, do-what-I-say kind of personal trainer. No softly-softly approach for her! She’ll yell in your sweaty face and make you keep going until you vomit. I know this because I’ve seen it on tv, and therefore it must be true.

The online reviews – often accompanied by before and after photos – are actually (no sarcasm here) inspiring. Side-on views of bulging bellies are replaced with flatter tums, and face-on photos of the delightfully name ‘muffin-top’ are followed by after-shots of nipped in waists. And all, apparently, in 30 days.

The scientist in me wants to dig deeper into what the reviewers actually did. Just this DVD in addition to their normal diet and activity? Or did they make other changes that contributed toward the weight/inch loss?

The premise is this: three levels of workout, each lasting approximately 20 minutes. Just 20 minutes a day? Easy! Everyone has time for that! The trade-off in time however is an increase in intensity. You want results in just 20 minutes? Then be prepared for an intense workout. No rest breaks, no time to catch your breath – this is a non-stop, high intensity mix of cardio, resistance and mat work. Three minutes of cardio (jumping jacks, butt kicks, punching – the air, not Jillian), two minutes of resistance (hand weights are a must) and one minute down on the mat doing sit-ups, push ups and other such delights. That’s it. A five-minute circuit repeated for the duration of the workout, top and tailed with a very brief warm-up and cool down/stretch.

I’m always up for a bit of self-experimentation, and I wanted to see if the claims were true. So I bought the DVD.

Yesterday was Day One.

I started enthusiastically. Rolled out of bed and into sports kit (high intensity jiggling about dictates that those boobies be kept under control unless you want premature sagging. Fact.) and I was ready to roll.

The DVD started and Jillian introduced us (or me, you weren’t actually there) to her two ‘helpers’. One would demonstrate the full range of motion, the second would show the slightly easier option for those not quite up to Olympic standards.

Now I’m fairly fit. I’m never going to win gold in anything (unless there’s a chocolate eating championship I’m unaware of?) but I’ve got decent strength and stamina, and have been regularly active for years. So I decided to go with the full-on version of the exercises. Deeper squats and lunges, higher jumps – that sort of thing.

The next twenty minutes went something like this.

Jumping jack, butt kick, skip. Squats and bicep curls, lunge and punch. Sit up, press up. Repeat.

Is that sweat on my brow?

Jumping jacks, punch. Squat and lunge…

Blimey, it’s a bit hot in here!

Punch, butt kick, press up…

Urgh, I should have used lighter weights!

And then it was over. Only 20 minutes. Just long enough to be sweating like a pig (do pigs really sweat enough for that to be a distinguishing characteristic?) but not so long that you can’t push through the burn of lactic acid in your muscles.

Not bad, I thought. Not bad at all.

My legs ached far more yesterday than they do after a sixty-minute steady-state workout. But I felt good. Good enough to go to the gym for an hour yesterday evening.

This morning however.


And that’ s not something I say lightly. In fact, it’s probably the first time I’ve ever said it. At least in that format.

My thighs. Either that workout was tougher than it had felt, or I’d been abducted by aliens in the night – aliens with the sole aim of  replacing my quads with cement. Cement and pain.

Needless to say, day two has been postponed. I can barely walk, let alone manage repeated circuits of jumping jacks. Stairs are my nemesis.

Now I have to say that I am slightly puzzled by the state of my legs. I’m not new to high intensity interval training (or HIIT), so why this level of soreness?

My conclusion is this – the warm up is insufficient. Two minutes of hip rotation and wind-milling arms does not a warm up make. Especially if you do the DVD immediately upon clambering out of bed.  So mutual blame for me and Jillian there. The warm up is too short, but I should have known better than to think my muscles were in optimal condition for an interval session after eight hours nestled under a duvet.

Next time – and there will be a next time: maybe not today (definitely not today!) and maybe not tomorrow (quite possibly tomorrow, but this is a thigh-dependent decision), but soon… I will precede  the 30 Day Shred DVD with a proper warm-up. And I’ll do a more thorough cool down.

I can say one thing at this early stage though – like limp lettuce, I do feel shredded. Now where’s that ibuprofen?

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Open water swimming: there’s something in the water…

Well of course there’s something in the water! There’s you, the swimmer, for a start. And usually several other people unless you’re daft enough to go for a dip on your own.

Which is a Bad Idea. A very Bad Idea.

Solo open water swimming is a big no-no – don’t do it folks! Open water can be unpredictable – currents, weather, tides, weeds, boats – if you get into trouble David Hasselhoff isn’t going to don his speedos and come to your rescue. Always swim with others – you know it makes sense 🙂

So anyway, other than the neoprene-clad swimmers and the odd trout, do you really know what’s in the water?

I’m talking about pathogens. Those microscopic little critters (to use the correct scientific terminology) that bob about under the surface like teeny-weeny sharks, ready to lock onto their target (i.e. you) and attack at the first opportunity. Mouth, eyes, that paper cut on your left pinky finger – given half the change they’ll be in like a shot.

To be fair, water-borne infections aren’t all that common in the UK. At least not the serious, death-by-diarrhoea epidemics that are seen elsewhere in the world. Unless you go for a dip in raw sewage (like a certain Mr. Walliams did in the Thames), it’s not actually that likely that you’ll pick up anything serious. Typhoid and dysentery do crop up, but not often. And when was the last time you heard of someone contracting schistosomiasis or dracunculiasis?

Whilst people new to swimming in open water  may find that they experience a little bit of tummy trouble thanks to novel pathogens in the water, their immune system soon kicks in and beats the blighters into submission, and the next swim is plain sailing.

Others aren’t so fortunate, and, alas, I was one of those unlucky few who managed to pick up something a tad more serious.


Also known as Weil’s disease, although technically, that refers to a specific presentation of symptoms which I didn’t have.

Technicality aside, lepto (as those of us who know it intimately sometimes call it), is rather unpleasant.

I’m not entirely sure where I caught it – I’d been swimming in two places – Salford Quays and Lake Ullswater – in the few days leading up to the onset of symptoms, so it could have been either.

Salford seems the more likely suspect. Although monitored regularly, it isn’t actually classified as bathing water.

Ullswater is a place of natural beauty. The lake is huge and stunning. Or it is usually .

The day I swam in it – for the Day in the Lakes half Ironman – it was frigid and turbulent. You could have been mistaken for thinking it was the ocean, the waves were so high. A fair few people (the sensible ones) turned back from the water, but as I was part of a relay team – who were relying on me completing the swim – I forged ahead. Quite honestly, I’d have to say it was one of the worst experiences of my life. I hated every minute of it. I got through it though, and the race went on whilst I staggered back to my tent to try and warm up.

It was a few days before the symptoms started – fever, chills, headaches, vomiting and pain. Oh my, the pain. I felt like my insides were being ripped apart. A good course of antibiotics and a reasonably robust immune system (it’s had enough practice over the years!) and I was soon on the road to recovery. But I’m afraid my liking for open water swimming was somewhat diminished.

So anyway, to summarise: water has things in it. Things you can’t see that can cause all sorts of problems, but truth be told it’s not likely. Think of all of those open water swimmers, rowers, yachtsmen, divers, etc. who in their thousands enjoy outdoor water activities with no problem. Major problems are rare, and quite frankly you’re more likely to get into trouble whilst on the motorway or walking down the road.

And now for a brief lesson in parasitology! Keep reading – there’s some interesting trivia here that might one day win you a pub quiz 🙂

Dracunculiasis – also known as Guinea worm disease – is a nasty infection. Not than any infections are nice, but I’m sure you know what I mean. It’s a parasitic disease caused by Dracunculus medinensis, a nematode worm which finds its way into the body when the host drinks water contaminated with its larvae. The larvae mature, a bit of parasitic nookie goes down, and the mature female worm (the poor boys die after mating) migrates, typically down one leg, and year or so after infection, in a blaze of burning agony, it emerges through a blister on the host’s foot ready to release the next generation of spawn onto other unsuspecting victims.


Now here’s the interesting trivia. Once the worm emerges from the blisters, it’s common practice (or at least it was – the World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control (an American spelling for an American institution) is making fantastic progress in eradicating the disease) to wrap the worm around a stick to remove it from the body. Dracunculiasis is an ancient disease, and it’s thought that this practice of removal inspired the Rod of Asclepius  (the Greek god of medicine and healing), which today is used as an international symbol of medicine.

The Rod of Asclepius
or Guinea worm removal?

Now how about that 🙂

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Open water swimming: wetsuits and wobbly bits

I should start off by saying that I like swimming. I like it quite a lot.

I’ve swum (swam? swimmed?) regularly since childhood, and – even though I say it myself – I’m not bad at it.

That doesn’t mean I’m good either though. Whilst I have a pretty strong stroke and can happily swim for hours, I also have a swimming style that has been likened to that of penguin – all in the flippers, with zero action in the leg department. I just can’t kick. Or rather, I can kick, but my ankles end up aching and I lose all upper-body co-ordination.

Unlike a penguin though, I can’t do this.

Seriously though, how cool would that be?! After a few lengths down at the local swimming pool – boing!

I digress. Back to the swimming.

Swimming is fun! I can swim for hours – literally!

But pool swimming being what it is – rather mundane (not that mundane is a bad thing. I quite like munande 🙂 ) last year I decided to spice things up a little and take to open water.

Open water swimming is a very different beast to pool swimming. For a start, you’re out in the open. Which means that, unlike the nice temperature controlled environment of a swimming pool, there’s weather. Rain, wind, sun – whatever it is, there’s no hiding from it when you’re in a lake.

Which brings me to the next point, and sticking with the theme of environmental conditions – water temperature.

The temperature of a lake/reservoir/river/sea is never going to be as balmy as your local swimming baths. There’s no thermostat you see. You can’t dip your toe in, think ‘Ooh, that’s a bit nippy’ and turn the heat up.  Swimming pools are typically kept in the region of ~27-28C. Open water swimming season in my neck of the woods starts as soon as the water temperature reaches 14C. Just a slight difference there… And so there’s the wetsuit.

Ah, the wetsuit. How I loathe you.

Some people like swimming in a wetsuit. You’re far less likely to drown whilst wearing one as it gives you extra buoyancy in the water. Unfortunately, I have my own flotation aid, also known as my bum. Or, to be scientific and anatomical – I have a female pattern of fat deposition. So whilst men, with their non-existent derrières, benefit from the buoyancy, I find that the wetsuit has a habit of raising my backside aloft  and attempting to fold me in half in an uncanny semblance of this torturous looking yoga position.

Yoga or torture?

Not being a Yogi of even the lowest order, any attempt at the above results in something akin to pain. A lot of pain. But being a big girl’s blouse (answers on a postcard if you find the definitive origins of that phrase!) I don’t dare get in a lake without a wetsuit and the addition of several swim hats to keep my bonce warm.

Next up – sighting. This isn’t a problem in a pool. You get it, get your head down in the water, and there are conveniently placed lines for you to follow to maintain a straight line. No such thing in open water – more often than not you can’t even see the bottom. It’s dark, murky and seeing your hands in front of your face is an achievement. If you’re really lucky, it might not be that deep. In which case you’re usually treated to the sight of various aquatic plants. Or rubbish. Crisp packets, lager cans, carrier bags – decaying slowly in a watery grave. If you’re really, really lucky, you might even manage to brush yourself up in said weed/rubbish (and every so often fish!) whilst swimming. The feel of something brushing against you in the dark water – there’s nothing like it to generate a sudden burst of speed.

Back to sighting.

So you’re in the water, head down and swimming away. You decide to take a peek, just to make sure you’re heading towards the pink buoy that marks out the swim course. Your eyes break the water level and there’s no pink buoy in sight. There is, however, a boat. Or a jetty. Or sometimes a yellow buoy. Whatever it is, it’s not what you were expecting. And that’s the problem with swimming in open water – you tend to zigzag a bit. So the 500 metre course suddenly becomes 700 metres with all of the back-tracking you end up having to do to stay on track.

Open water swimming isn’t really the ugly sister of pool swimming. It’s just different. It’s invigorating and exciting – there’s an element of madness about it that seems to generate a rush of endorphins you never get in a swimming pool. Why would anyone in their right mind want to squeeze themselves into a wetsuit (that’s another thing about wetsuits – all that rubber clinging to every bulge and wobbly bit – they’re just so flattering) and jump into a cold lake and swim with various detritus and fish? There’s something about it that just feels wrong – naughty almost – and dammit, it’s a good feeling.