Monthly Archives: July 2013

Run rabbit run

Unleash your inner animal


 A good friend of mine, had been proselytizing about the benefits of a fitness holiday she had done, called Wild Fitness, which looked at the whole philosophy of living a healthier life, so I decided to give it a try.

A long way from the High Peak

Brilliant sunlight, waving palm trees through an Arabic arch and the bright blue of the Indian Ocean met me as I walked up to the house at the Wild Fitness centre in Watamu in Kenya. There could not be a more beautiful setting for my nine days of “Kick Start”.

Wild Fitness looks at three things: wild eating, wild moving and wild living and gives those to you as a blue print for living a healthier life. Everything is filtered through nature and evolution and the central message is that we are basically animals who have moved too far away from our life in the wild and got way too comfortable in the zoos of our own making.

There we were, the twelve protagonists – so tempting to write victims – all ages, shapes and sizes and from all over the world. Very different as we were, we all shared one goal which was to get fitter and to learn more about how to live a healthier life. Then our coaches arrived. A very impressive bunch including pro-athletes, experienced trainers and Gareth who would give Tarzan a serious run for his money.

Before we were let loose on any physical activity, we were assessed. For the 9 day kick start course there is no weighing, fat callipers or measuring tape. There is a postural chart which you get photographed against in your swimsuit and some movement exercises including boxing, lifting and jumping . These all get videoed.

I wanna walk like you, talk like you…

Running like a bear – how difficult could it be? The answer to this, is pretty difficult but not nearly as bad as hauling yourself along like a mudfish. One of our very first sessions took wild movement to a whole new level for me. In the shade of the Dojo, with monkeys looking on and no doubt jeering or maybe cheering, we ran back and forth on all fours or on our bellies. Chimpanzee – two arms in front then pull your back legs through. Angry Chimpanzee – the same but slap your hands and make lots of noise. Bear – one hand in front of the other with legs flicking up behind. Leopard: make like a marine under fire in Afghanistan. After an hour of this, I was absolutely exhausted and totally exhilirated. It felt like the equivalent of a half marathon or 100 mile bike ride but using my whole body. Then it was on to the beach for some games and a dip in the sea which was heaven. The next day my quads and abs were screaming for mercy. I have honestly never felt such pain, but proof that the workouts are a real challenge.

Each day was different but here is a typical schedule.

  • 6.45 am Boxing Fundamentals
  • 8.30 am Breakfast
  • 10.00 am Running Efficiency and Barefoot Fundamentals
  • 12.00 am Wild Eating Workshop
  • 1.00 pm Lunch
  • 4.15 Hanging and Climbing Skills Combo
  • 7.15 Dinner

As you can see, it is not a full-on, non-stop boot camp approach. But each fitness session we did was extremely intense and the rest periods meant we were fit to tackle the next one that came along. We settled into a rythmn of a really intense pre-breakfast session, a good skills session after breakfast, and then the well-named sweat session after 4pm.


Cult or conditioning?

Philosophy is a word which makes me instantly suspicious as I fear indoctrination but it is a good way to describe the whole Wild Fitness approach which looks at different aspects of life. Tara Wood, the founder, says, “Our evolutionary environment, our natural instincts and the nature that surrounds us whisper wisdom of how we should live. ” That living has to cover diet and exercise but also life and dealing with its stresses, and most importantly, rest and recovery.

Wild Living

Unusually, for a fitness-based experience, they put Wild Living at the top of the triangle for good health. If, like me, you spend a lot of time at a desk and in a car and in front of a screen and have no intention of leaving it all for a stint in the jungle, this is a bit of a thought but actually it is pretty simple and sensible.

Essentially, it is about arousal(work/exercise) versus rest and digest. In our modern lives we have too much of the first and we need to strike a balance. The idea is to move and to eat and to rest proportionately. Stress helps us get fat and sick, and we all have some level of it, but by taking some time out every day to move and to exercise, we can help alleviate it. Simply, we should balance arousal with downtime, spend time in nature because essentially we are animals, sleep 7-9 hours a night, breathe properly and address sources of stress instead of just trying to ignore them.

Wild Eating

Never, ever have I eaten food as good as we were fed at Baraka House in Watamu. All of it healthy and all of it delicious. On our first night we had a feast, starting off with tiny, sweet wild oysters from the nearby Creek and smoked sailfish, moving through delicious curried meat and seven different combinations of vegetables and salad, each with a delicate seasoning and finishing up with chocolate mousse made of avocado and pure cocoa.

Lectures, discussions and a cooking lesson were all designed to help us work out how we could adapt this to back home. The ideas are beautifully simple; we should eat real food from a healthy ecosystem, with plants as a mainstay and a good amount of animal protein and fat. Don’t go crazy on the dairy, avoid too much grain  and regard sugar as the devil’s tool, apparently it is more addictive than cocaine. As Jess, our Head Coach, kept saying, “If your Grannie wouldn’t recognise it, don’t eat it.” So no more porridge and rice milk for me for breakfast,  from now on it is eggs and fruit.

Enjoy life is the mantra. There are no prohibitions or diets or denials. In fact, there can be frustration that they don’t lay down a set of rules to follow.But since we all know that rules are made to be broken, giving us the basic principles and tools instead makes us more responsible and more likely to follow the regime. And the golden rule is 80/20 – so I feel I can have that ice cream/beer/toast and butter, just not all the time.

Wild Movement

Cycling, preferably slowly for a long way, is one of the things I enjoy, so I was a bit dismayed when I arrived to find that cycling was considered bad because it gives you postural problems and is not as “upstream as using natural movement” and endurance training  doesn’t burn more fat.

From the very first session, it became obvious why the coaches favour short, sharp, intense training.  In just 6 minutes of sprinting intervals I had used up more energy than a 5km run. : And after the first full day, which held three sessions of activity, I could no longer walk down steps straight because my legs had had such a heavy work out. The good news is, it did wear off and I felt stronger and fitter.

Movement, then, is based on what our hunter gatherer ancestor did: walking, running, moving on all fours, jumping, throwing, catching, lifting, balancing, climbing, carrying, defending and swimming. The theory is that in terms of evolution, we have spent much, much longer as hunter gatherers than as agrarians and now computer slaves, so our bodies are still naturally more  attuned to that way of living.  We are not made to be sitting down all day – in fact the seated posture has become our enemy. We need to be upright more and move more in a natural way.   Head Coach, Jess, puts it like this, “We use evolution as a filter. This helps ground us as all the new ideas come in. It stops us from going mad for every new fad or gadget … rushing out to buy the power plate.”

Zoo rehab is one way the team describe the course and that takes on a whole new meaning when you are hanging precariously from monkey bars. What they focused on was three key areas:

  • Wild running (barefoot) where you land on your toes and ball of your foot rather than your heels. Running is the most basic human movement pattern and helps elasticity and rythmn, posture and good digestion, as well as being absolutely knackering.
  • Boxing which helps you to defend yourself but also builds strength, elasticity and rythmn
  • Lifting which adds to our body weight and needs skill and elasticity. It also strengthens your back.

Jack of all trades in this context is a very good thing. Variety and fun made even the most intense and painful sessions go quickly and brought the whole body into the workout. The other key advice to take home was get outside and get creative – but don’t get arrested!

Did it work?

Yes, it did for me and for my 11 compadres on the course. In fact I liked it so much I decided to extend and do the longer course. After just nine days, my posture had improved beyond recognition and my back was no longer achy. One of the rolls of fat had gone and I felt full of energy and stretch. It had also felt like a real holiday with lots of pampering from the staff, who looked after us brilliantly, great food and fun company.

More importantly, I believe I have got something really valuable to take home with me. It isn’t complicated, it isn’t difficult, it doesn’t make you feel guilty if you want to have a slice of cake in Rosie’s Tea Rooms.  The dynamic movements we have been taught feel natural and good for the body.  And the whole essence of it makes sense. Jess said, “We just want you to look at life in a slightly different way when you go home and we hope that is what you will be doing.” I will be and I will be doing the two things we were told throughout the nine days – enjoying life and having fun.

Velcro your trainers

A bad week for training. In fact a very bad week because I didn’t do any. I had a deliciously septic throat infection from my endeavours and when I tried to go out on Saturday was slightly hampered by the fact that I couldn’t breathe.

I did have time to brood though. And I am not so sure that is a good thing! I also met up with John Whittaker Jnr who ran it in 2011 and he had some brilliant advice which in no particular order was:

1. Train Train Train but not too fast
2. Take a luxury
3. You won’t sleep, too noisy and your legs will hurt too much
4.Velcro your gaiters to your trainers – and use the official MdS ones, the silk ones tear.. (silk gaiters??? Lordy!)
5. Time your drinking and your eating
6. Blisters are the difference between finishing and failing
7. Do some multi-day events in preparation
8. Dried fruit is good nutrition
9. Go to Likeys in Wales for your kit
10. Fill your back pack with kilos of sugar to practice carrying the weight

So, I am now armed with knowledge but still not dangerous. This week? Running!

Extreme Suffering

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Endurance training this week – four days hiking in the High AtlasOver Mountains with the indomitable Noureddine Bachar of Epic Morocco . If I had done this trip before I had signed up for the Marathon Des Sables (MdS), I may not have signed up! It has brought home just how brutal this challenge is going to be.
The distances don’t look too horrific but add in altitude, rocks, rivers, ascent and strong sun and I was a broken woman at the end of it.
DAY 1 – 22 km. Ouarzazt to the Yagour Plateau. Began at 1,680 m and ended at 2,400 m. The terrain was very typical Morocco – rocky with some steep ups and downs and a strong push up to the Plateau. Wild flowers everywhere and lush grasslands at the top.
Grazing on the plateau is shared by the villages in the area who all have their own patch and who agree a date every year that they will take their herds there for the summer. We were to pass several migrating herds, making a noisy, smelly progress.The newborn kids are carried either by the shepherds or in a big basket on a mule with a mother goat in a basket on the other side to keep them from getting nervous.
By the end of the day my tendons were screaming from keeping my feet stabilised on the rocky ground and the ups and downs.
We arrived at Hussein and Rqiyya’s house unannounced early in the evening. Nouri had not seen them for 7 years but they welcomed us as long lost friends and put us up for the night with typical Berber generosity, giving us the guest room and preparing a big celebratory couscous. Rqiyya’s kitchen quickly filled up with the extended family as we sat and chatted and she cooked. Nouri beguiled the children with his magic tricks and I was beguiled by the warmth, humour and openheartedness of the family.
DAY 2 – 34 km. Over the Tizi N’Outfi Pass at 2,600 m then on to Taghouzirt in the Zat Valley. After a glorious morning send off, we quickly got up over the pass and then a long, steep down to the valley. The sun was at its hottest as we went up a dirt road for several kms. Nouri marched ahead and I panted along as fast as I could, thinking, “good training, good training.”
The rest of the day was through the Zat river which is sparkling and beautiful. Halfway up we detoured to some waterfalls and couldn’t resist a swim – the boots were wet anyway. But then I started to get really tired and feel all the various pains in my feet and legs from walking through a rocky river. My neck was also groaning from the weight of my pack – 10 kg, what it will be for the Marathon Des Sables. I was feeling pretty rough by the time we got to the Gite, and kept thinking, “If this was the MdS, I would have another 8km to go and it would be 13 degrees hotter.” Not a happy concept.
DAY 3 – 28 km. Along the Zat River then up 800 near-vertical metres over the Tizi N’Tilst Pass at 3,000 m and down to Tourcht. 800 metres just doesnt’ sound that bad and so I was hoping for a relatively easy day. How wrong I was. We were out for 12 hours and by about 8 hours in, my legs had stiffened up so much I couldn’t actually bend them so was walking like a zombie. This was not useful on a near vertical descent down scree.
The hike up to the pass was very, very steep. I was walking ten steps and then resting, it reminded me a little of Kilimanjaro. But it was the down that did it for me. I am tentative on scree and rocks anyway but this was unlike anything I have encountered. I had to hang on to Nouri for dear life and at one point was obsessively chanting, “Okay, okay, okay,” to try and persuade myself that it was. But at last it ended and we were on the last 5 km up to the village. The joy when the suffering stops!
We slept on Idar’s roof after another hospitable family meal and searched the Milky Way for shooting stars. The idyll was only marred by a cacophony of cockerels at about 3 am vying for the prize of “loudest crow in the village”. They all shut up when the Muezzin sounded the call to prayer, though. Either they are religious birds or they know when they are beaten.
DAY 4 – 10 km. Easy walk to Sitti Fatma and plenty of time to think about the challenge to come. I need to ramp up the training. I always think my endurance is good but this has made me think again. I really suffered and I wasn’t covering nearly the distances I will be doing or in the heat I’ll be facing come next April.

It’s grim up North London


This week my training mainly took place in North London thanks to a very groovy sixties party held by the fabulous Martin Stone to celebrate his half century.

I had to do a 4 mile, 3 mile, 5 mile set. Fortunately Martin and Gary back on to the woodland way that runs from Finsbury Park up to Muswell Hill so I had  a beautiful green, shady and traffic-free start. And the weather was amazing.

I found there is one big difference between running in the Peak District and running in North London – apart from the hills. I had progressed as I would usually when passing fellow runners with a panting but cheerful “hello”, “nice day for it”. Nothing, no response, nada, tumbleweed rolling through a deserted cowboy town. “Ok,” I thought, “I am being too full on and I am a red, sweaty mess. I’ll ease up”. I downgraded to a wave, a semi-smile and a “hi”. Still nothing.

Discouraged, I came back to Martin to check out whether it was because I had the wrong haircut, clothes, trainers or what. He is a marathon runner so trains on this route all the time. ” Saying hello?! Talking of the weather?! Waving?! No, No and again No,” he said, “You have to master the North London Nod.”

The North London Nod goes something like this. You dip your head, purse your lips and raise your eyebrows to convey the general sentiment of, “Isn’t it ironic to be running in this sweaty fashion.”

Armed with my local info, I sallied out the next day to try it. My first couple of tries were a failure. I looked a bit like Benny Hill with his teeth out. By my third effort, I was starting to get results. Not a 100% success rate, but at least 50% reaction. Sometimes a nod back, sometimes just  a raised eyebrow, and from one lovely couple who were eating their sarnies on a bench a whole wave and a “hello”. I felt that I had arrived!

And one massive bonus of the route, I worked out my five miler to end at the Crouch End Lido for a swim. Bliss!

Training this week: 3 miles, 3 miles, 4 miles, 5 miles.


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