Slowly goes the Maffetone



Image via Island Midwife

I always thought the best way to train was to push the heart beyond its comfort zone on a regular basis because only that way would it get larger and more efficient. So my previous training plans looked largely like this:

Mon: rest day
Tues: easy run
Weds: fartlek
Thurs: hills / strength session
Fri: rest day
Sat: easy run
Sun: long run

And in reality, this kind of system worked for me. I got fitter, I ran faster, and I could fit it in around my daily working life. The short-fast ones on work days, the longer ones at the weekend. And I was really happy with my marathon time. BUT I was still in a lot of pain at the end of the race last year (especially lower back pain… grrr….) and now I’m thinking of stretching myself, I’m wondering how I will ever manage an ultra.

However, I’ve been reading Primal Endurance by Mark Sisson, (prizes for the most off-putting subtitle. It reads: “how to be a fat burning beast”). So I’m experimenting with the 80/20 rule – 80% slow and long, 20% fast, which is almost the inverse of every training rule I’ve followed so far.  I’m running with a heart rate monitor. And I’m not allowing my heart rate to get above 180 MINUS my age. According to Mark, who is influenced by ultra runner coach Phil Maffetone, I need to be running at a speed that pushes my heart rate no higher than 151 beats per minute.

Initially, I thought this sounded decent. Given my low resting heart rate of sub-50 bpm, I thought, “Oh yeah, I’ll be able to run and stay in that general region”. But oh no. Keeping my heartbeat that low makes me sloooooooooow. 11-minute-mile slow. So slow that I have to walk up all stairs I encounter on my run and sometimes even gentle inclines. Like road bridges, famed for their gentle slopes. The other night I ran home along the southbank and there was a race for testicular cancer going on, and I was literally lapped by everyone.

In essence, the Maffetone method is intended to help you build a really strong aerobic base to burn all your body fat, rather than consistently stressing your anaerobic system, which should be reserved for all-out sessions. It’s in line with a lot of the ‘primal’ thinking out there, where humans should only eat meat, fish, fruit, veg, nuts and seeds, and follow imaginative training regimes that suggest you could race your friend to a ‘mammoth leg’ (read a heavy log lying in the field) and then have a game of tag while one of you runs around with the log.

Now I do like the primal way of eating. One summer I took the Whole 30 challenge, which was pretty tough but most certainly worth it, and it changed my eating habits for good. And usually I don’t mind looking stupid when I run. But this slow running? It’s almost boring, and I never thought I’d say that about long distance running. So we shall see what benefits it brings, though I’m aware that with August only 3 months away, speed running is right around the corner. I think I might have to go back to Maffetone in the autumn in preparation for the ultras next year.

What do you think? Could you take the Maffetone test? For 2-3 months, you can test your progress every four weeks by running 5 miles at the heart rate of 180 bpm minus your age. (You can add 5 if you’ve been training regularly for 2 years without injury). Each time you do the test you should see your times (slow though they may be) drop gradually. Crucially you are not supposed to do any training above this heart rate during this period. This, apparently, will build your aerobic base, which will ensure you are, ahem, a fat burning beast. (Or a lazybones. I’m not sure 🙂




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Into the Stacks at the London Library

Shhhh. The London Library, that secret and impregnable hermitage of knowledge in St James’ Square, offers free tours.

Rosanna from No Fixed Abode Club wrote about our visit here. The Library is just about to embark on a new phase of building works to expand their collection of 1 million books (or 70 miles of shelving). While the collection is strongest in the humanities and the arts, there are books about cartography, biography and almost every edition of the Times newspaper can be browsed in vast broadsheet folios.

The building itself was one of the first steel-framed buildings in London. In fact, the bookshelves themselves are the load-bearing elements for the building, a clever way of utilising the weight of books to keep the building upright. When they move the books out of the stacks for the buildings works to take place, the library is expected to rise by a couple of feet.

We also heard about the library’s own literature festival, Words in the Square, which will debut this May. Expect speakers such as Sara Wheeler, Ian Hislop, Nick Hornby, Simon Russell Beale, Harriet Walter, Deborah Levy and Simon Schama.



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Mendelssohn’s Lunch Break

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2016-02-25 14.19.332016-02-25 14.12.072016-02-25 14.12.19So…. Mendelssohn liked to get out at lunchtimes too. In fact, he is alleged to have been inspired by the outdoor world whilst composing his wondrous and uplifting incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream under a tree that is now displayed on the pedestrian level of the Barbican. Amazing what you can find if you go for a stroll at lunch.

Lunchwalks: good for the body and the brain.

Where to find Mendelssohn’s tree: head up the stairs by the Barbican tube station on Farringdon Road. Cross the bridge, head towards the Barbican Centre, and the tree is straight ahead of you. There have been some recent renovations to the brickwork paving, so the area hasn’t been so easy to explore.

Looking for more secrets nearby? You could leave a penny on Blake’s grave in nearby Bunhill Fields. Or if you dream of living in Barbican utopia and you can’t get enough of the concrete, you could visit the Barbican library (among other things, it has a fantastic art, photography and design section) or have a drink in the Wood Street Bar, overlooking the easterly pools of the Barbican.

Other pictures in this post feature a flying yellow skip and an orange square. Delight in colour!


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1Rebel: pretentious but effective

Okay, I’m in love. It’s thrilling, it’s energetic and it’s killing my bank balance. It’s making me develop ABS and CALVES and BICEPS for the first time in my life. No it isn’t what you think… it’s 1Rebel.  

In case you’ve been living under a fitness rock (or perhaps you don’t live in London, which is totally acceptable), then you’ve probably heard of 1Rebel, notorious for being the most pretentious gym around with its oh-so-beautiful Lyrca-clad attendees, its smoothies named for the instructors, and its dark nightclub-esque interior. It’s got all that, sure, but the workouts truly deliver on the promises they makes.

So what makes 1Rebel so good?

– The instructors who steer a fine line between personal shaming and group motivation. This really works for me, but being singled out for burpee technique is not everybody’s favourite way to work out. Different instructors have different styles, and you will always see who is leading the session before you book.

The workouts: these are challenging, full stop. You’ll work with big weights, fast speeds and tough inclines. These routines will leave you so sweaty, but there will be muscles, promise.

– The changing rooms: shiny copper lockers, exposed piping, subway-tiled showers, heated benches, yum yum yum…

– The showers: enough that you rarely have to wait longer than a couple of minutes (at least at St Mary Axe). Occasionally they have problems with the hot water. Very occasionally. 

– The smoothies. Basically a meal-in-a-bottle for when you emerge pink-faced and pulsing with blood from the darkened training room of flashing lights.

– The darkness. I loathe white shiny gyms where it’s really hard to focus. Not 1Rebel. It’s like being in a nightclub in the 90s but the music is faster. (And it’s 7am).

1Rebel offer 3 types of class (and a few combinations of these three) – Reshape, which is HIIT strength/cardio class, Rumble, which is a boxing/cardio class, and Ride, which is spinning with weights. I’ve only tried Reshape as I don’t get on too well with spinning, and I’ve not found a good slot for the boxing yet.  

The catch: it’s probably the most expensive workout experience you’ll find. Yes the towels are included, yes the changing rooms are filled with lovely products (body and face moisturizer, toner, free kirby grips, hair straighteners and dryers etc.), but classes range from £14 to £20 depending on what package you buy.

And how does it fit with the marathon running? Well seeing as Reshape is intense cardio and weights it’s like doing a sprint/hills session and a strength session together. It is fantastic for kickstarting your fitness if you’ve had a few months off, or for topping up once a week or fortnight to complement your other runs. For example, after only four sessions in January, I went for a 4 miler intending to run a slow steady pace and ended up doing incredibly fast bursts of speed from lamp post to lamp post and sustained sprints up Clissold Park hill, running 7.30min/miles for the first time in months. My legs felt stronger, my heart and breathing were working in sync, and I had barely run since last September. 1Rebel paid off.

Verdict: 1Rebel isn’t for the frugal or the faint-hearted, but it’s addictive and the results far exceed expectations.

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Reykjavik Marathon 2016


Happy faces before the race.

Seeing as my last-but-one post was about entering the Edinburgh Marathon, it’s good timing to say that I just entered my second marathon in Reykjavik, Iceland. Yes, it was so much fun the first time around I couldn’t wait to do it again. Let me rephrase: it was so much fun BUT I needed to recover for about 8 months before I could even consider signing up for another one.

It helped that Edinburgh went really well. I made a time that I really wasn’t expecting for my first marathon – 3hrs 49mins – and I didn’t get injured during training. I also had a lot of support from colleagues and friends both during training and financially. Even better, I ran the race with my brother for the British Heart Foundation, and he ran it with a PACEMAKER. Not one of those people who keep the pace. I mean a battery-powered heart. My brother is in his twenties now; he was 12 when he had the pacemaker fitted, so this was a major achievement by anyone’s standards, and he even completed in the absurdly fast time of 3hrs 22mins.

My favourite bit of the marathon (apart from the end, of course)? There’s a bit when the course double backs and the outgoing runners (me) overlap with the returning runners (everyone faster than me) and literally just at that moment, my brother and I saw each other and gave each other a massive high-five. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see him, all the endorphins came together at once to give me a crazy high.  

I was so excited I signed up immediately for the Oxford half marathon in October: easy, I thought. But this was not so. Work and life conspired against me, and I just kept putting things in my diary in place of running, so I pulled out (annoying: no refund, and no deferral to the following year). Since then I’ve been ticking over with short runs here and there, but it’s been known that whole weeks have gone by without me getting my trainers off the shelf and onto the pavements.

2016 marks a big birthday for me, and in order to help celebrate, I hatched this crazy plan to run the Berlin Marathon, which falls directly on the day. What luck, I thought! But a politely-worded German email received back in October informed me that I didn’t make the ballot. Seeing as I suck at asking people for money when it comes to personal things, I didn’t want to enter as a charity runner, and the hotel-affiliated options were just on the other side of comfortable in terms of my comprehension. Do they guarantee entry or not? WHY DOES IT NOT SAY THIS CLEARLY ANYWHERE? (Can anyone help me out here?)

So after scouring Europe for marathons on 25th September (Moscow marathon anyone?), I decided that more than running on my actual birthday, I wanted to do a lovely race and have some friends come and cheer me on. And then I realised I wanted to go back to Iceland, maybe walk the Laugavegur trail again, and (best of all) soak my aching legs and back in the amaaaaazing hot springs. So I entered the Reykjavik marathon this week and I am excited.

[Update: actually, just discovered the Loch Ness Marathon. Affordable, reasonably close, beautiful, on my birthday… Wonders – could I seriously manage two marathons this year with a gap of five weeks? Hmmm.]

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Running (and) Museums

No, sadly not “running museums”, though I hope so one day.

Basically, I took a bit of time away from Mediatrixy and in that time I worked out that the two things I really like talking about are: running and museums.

By which I mean…

Running – all forms of exercise are encompassed here – high intensity training, body weights, sprints and hill work, occasional emotional yoga sessions, etc. But crucially they are all done in the pursuit of running harder, faster, stronger.

Museums – again, all sorts of culture – concerts, installations, interesting parts of my city, browsing the Internet (ahhh), reading, etc. But crucially, all in pursuit of making better exhibitions and experiences for people who visit them.

So with these passions clearly stated, I’m going to start to write here a little bit more about these topics, hopefully connecting with other likeminded people. Because that sounds fun, doesn’t it? 🙂

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How to run 26.2 miles (when you’re not an elite athlete)

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Ok, so I don’t actually have an answer to this yet. But I know one thing for sure: signing up to enter a marathon is really the first step to running one.

All the advice says: “start small”. Entering an email address and a credit card? That’s pretty tiny given the enormous amount of training coming my way over the next nine months. So the first step to convincing yourself that you’re going to do it is to part with hard-earned cash. Then tell some people. Tell some more people. Then shut up about it and run (because no one likes a marathon bore… You’re still reading this? Then you might be one too…)

I’ve never run anything like this in my life, and quite frankly I’m terrified. Exercise and me have not always been friends. I was the bespectacled geek, picked last for teams, with no hand-eye coordination and a scraping of cardiovascular fitness. I might have read books at marathon speed, but my body remained unmoved. But then mid-way through university, something changed. I started to enjoy running. I ran longer distances than I had ever dreamed I could manage. And a month after graduating, I ran my first half marathon: the Royal Parks Half Marathon in London.

A year later I entered Windsor Half on my birthday, and struggled round this hillier-than-average course wishing I’d tied balloons to my bum so that I would benefit from all the cheers. And a year after that, I ran the Bath Half, firmly of the belief that spring races are far better than autumn ones, because all the training happens in the cold. (I know some runners prefer warmth, but I’m much more excited about jogging through snow than sun. Anyone else?)

But crossing those finish lines? Well after the elation, I felt knackered, my legs searing with lactic acid, my lungs erupting into an enormous coughing fit as I limped towards the massage tent or nearest hot food source. If there’s one thing you know when you’ve just finished running thirteen miles, it is that you do NOT want to run another thirteen. And as I write these words… it’s just beginning to sink in. That small, first step of entering my credit card number was exactly that: just the beginning.

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Walking the Făgăraș Ridge, Romania


Snow fields that give way, damp scrambling conditions, rusty chain work, unexpected rockfalls, vast and terrifying sheepdogs, standing in the eye of a thunderstorm, and very, very long days on your feet… this is what you take on when hiking the Făgăraș Mountains, the central ridge of mountains that cut east-west across the centre of Romania, and  the highest peaks of the Southern Carpathians. Walking and climbing this ridge is the most challenging hiking I’ve ever done to date. There are so many pictures, I’ll leave the planning and events details of this trip for another post…

Some highlights from the trip:

– Virtually uninterrupted views from the top of Romania’s highest peak: Moldevanu

– The coldest night indoors I’ve ever spent, shivering inside Podragu cabana 

– Singing and talking Marxist politics to ward off impending bear attacks

– Taking on (and completing!) the chained descent of the Strunga Dracului – the Devil’s Stair (or “crack” as it’s sometimes known), despite a recent rockfall that had taken out big sections of the chain

– Scoffing pig fat and onions at the top of the Transfagarasan Highway, accompanied by a cluster of orthodox monks purchasing bells

– Stumbling on a film festival at the end of 13 hours of walking which had completely transformed the tiny village of Victoria into an outpost of Bucharest’s most creative industries. Consequently we were swept away by friendly young Romanian film makers who led us to free beds, vast plates of cheap food and a stunning outdoor pool to rest our sore limbs

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North Circular: walking the Arran Coastal Way

2014-05-23 15.07.20-1 2014-05-23 16.15.08 2014-05-23 18.07.04 2014-05-24 13.41.45 2014-05-25 18.40.02 2014-05-25 18.40.16 2014-05-25 19.06.43 2014-05-27 09.28.16 2014-05-27 09.56.49 2014-05-27 10.07.20 2014-05-27 10.07.34 2014-05-27 11.19.48-1 2014-05-27 19.25.46-1 2014-05-28 21.28.22 2014-05-30 08.11.49 2014-05-30 08.22.22-2Early one Friday, the Virgin express pulls out of Euston and takes me whizzing up to Glasgow. A swift train to Ardrossan and an easy hop-skip-jump onto the ferry to Arran makes this one of the easiest Scottish commutes I’ve ever done. The ferry is packed with young climbers, kids on their way to adventure weeks, and ageing men slung about with golf clubs. (Arran boasts 11 golf courses, of varying sizes). A mere 55 minutes later and we are pulling into Brodick in the early evening. Brodick, from Broad Vik, meaning ‘broad bay’ in Old Norse, has very little to connect it to its Viking past, but the Coop does a good line in cheap beer and we load up for the first part of our walk. Our first wild camp is on an iron age fort, uninterrupted by anything other than bird calls. Not a ripple on the sea. Dinner is rehydrated wolfish casserole and a Cobra. The view is of Holy Isle, once a place for monks, now a buddhist retreat.

The south of the island is characterised by what would generously be described as a path and in reality is more like a field of boulders. Without a 15kg pack, these would have been a joyful doddle. At least the sun kept beating down as we picked our way across, core muscles clenched and legs extended with semi-balletic grace. An Arran blonde beer greeted us at the end of nearly every day. At Blackwaterfoot, we took a breather in the Kinloch Hotel, washed some socks and enjoyed fat chaffinches and gin and tonics on the terrace. The final three days were much longer and harder, taking us clockwise to Lochranza past a glassy sea, royal caves, an ancient burial ground and pretty little almshouses. As we breasted the northern coast, a very boggy part took us past the cock of Arran (somewhat unimpressive), deserted Scottish cottages and the most perfect wild camp spot I’d ever seen. But we pushed on past it, with an idea that we might make a 20 miler back to Brodick – something we didn’t achieve. With the pub closed, my foot in pain, and no bus for an hour and a half, the penultimate day was a bit of a drag. However, the Glen Rosa campsite, about 2 miles outside Brodick, was a beautiful place to bed down one last time before heading up to Goat Fell the following morning. For this part, we left our packs back in the camp and as a result practically ran up the “mountain”. I later discovered that I had made this journey before, aged four.

In total (and we took our time) the journey lasted 6 days. Our longest day (Blackwaterfoot to Lochranza) was nearly 18 miles. Our shortest, on a particularly sultry afternoon, was 3 miles… Though we had intended to wild camp all the way round, we did slightly break our resolve with a night or two in a hotel. At this point, I’m going to mention how epic the Lochranza hotel really is. First, it was simply there, after 18 miles of slog, with a hot bath, one remaining room and a decent bed. Second, its whisky list is about four times the length of the food menu. The bar is simply covered in whisky bottles. It was impossible to photograph them all, but, well, you get an idea from the picture below.


Scotland in June always seems to be spectacular. Few crowds, long days, bright light and sparkling sea. As we walked round the island, the only rain we had was during the night when we were tucked up in our tent – as soon as we wanted to wake up, the rain stopped! There’s little for the real wild seekers here, Arran being fairly populous and popular with day tourists and gold enthusiasts alike. However the Arran Coastal Way seemed to be unheard of among most of the locals we talked to, and the idea of walking it also struck them as odd. Which makes it a very achievable, reasonably affordable microadventure that balances comfort (in the form of readily available beer and hotels if you need ’em) with challenge (in the form of Goat Fell, boulder fields and long days on your feet).


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Circumnavigating Arran

So in three weeks I’ll be taking the sleeper train north, crossing the Firth of Clyde to Arran, and setting off with the sea on my right. Or left. I’m not sure which. Should I go clockwise or anticlockwise? Does it matter? Toss a coin when I get there? Go with the prevailing wind?

These are the kinds of choices you’re faced with when you’re planning a backpacking holiday– that’s to say, NOT very important ones. With a tent on your back and a stack of Kendal mint cake, there’s really nothing stopping you. So much so that you almost have to impose rules. In previous trips, I’ve used volunteering opportunities and literature to plan my path. This time, it’s the rugged coast of Arran that will guide my steps. Whichever way round I’ll be walking…

(Note: if you’ve ever tried to cycle the Hebrides from top down instead of bottom up, let me tell you: that’s a bad idea.)

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