I am a British Triathlon Level 3 Triathlon Coach and am in training to become a Biomechanics Coach.
I participated in triathlon for 10 years, starting with sprint through to Ironman distance. I had to retire from the sport due to arthritis in my hip but I still, swim, bike, mountain bike and climb! I now enjoy helping other athletes achieve their goals through my coaching.
As you start your fitness journey from a complete beginner, you will see lots of improvements happen quite quickly as there will be lots of improvements to make. But as time goes on, the improvements start to get smaller or even harder to make. The journey to improved fitness is not linear, there will be setbacks, ups and downs, and good and bad days and this is all the normal process of improving fitness.
When starting your triathlon journey, it might start as doing a triathlon to have a go, or for a charity, but the bug soon hits and it becomes your hobby and your goals start to change, you want to get better, make big improvements, maybe even go for GB age group qualification or qualify for long course world championships or Kona! These goals for some can take YEARS to prepare for, to build the fitness to hit those target times, and to improve the technique of certain disciplines! Changing your technique and making it your new default is not a quick process and can take anything from 6 weeks to years to change and this depends on how well you focus on it, if you are not constantly focusing on it every time you do that discipline then it will take longer to change. Think swimming, you focus on improving your recovery arm, then after say 2-4 weeks you move onto working on your catch, your focus has changed and your recovery arm has defaulted back to the old ways because you hadn’t done the new way long enough for it to become your new default! Improvements take longer because we don’t give them enough time in the first place!
To really improve your fitness for this new lifestyle you have adopted, you need to be training consistently. I’m not saying you don’t have a break at all. Take a couple of weeks off at the end of the season, then have a post-season of reduced volume with some cross-training, paying particular attention to your strength & conditioning and improving joint mobility as this will really help your technique for swimming, biking and running! Then start building your volume to improve fitness but REMEMBER you only ever increase the load by 5-10% a week! As you get closer to your A race, you start your race-specific training, where you fine-tune your race fitness, and practice everything needed to race well.
Basically being fit all year round and not taking big chunks of time off, will enable you to achieve greater fitness, greater improvements and greater results. It also will put you in a better position if an injury does strike its ugly head because you will be rehabbing back from a much stronger position fitness-wise!
I have devised a specific structured group coaching plan to help athletes stay fit all year round with all the specific blocks I have mentioned above. It is good for athletes that don’t need full 1:1 support or for athletes wanting a slightly cheaper coaching option. These are very detailed generic yearly plans, ranging from complete beginners to those more experienced, with the race-specific blocks specific to each race distance. It will include a monthly group video call where we can talk about a specific subject or a Q&A session. There is also a WhatsApp group that you will be a part of where you can interact with other athletes, arrange meet-ups, whether virtual or in-person and ask for advice from the group. It can be a good option when coming off a 1:1 plan but wanting to keep up the structured sessions and have that group community with other athletes and access to a coach, all be it less communication than 1:1 but communication is there via WhatsApp group or monthly group video calls.
How aligned are you with your organisation’s culture & values?
If you are not really living by your values, you will probably not feel truly whole/happy/fulfilled!
When I did my British Triathlon Level 3 High Performance Coaching Course & they asked me to think about what my values were, and I was stumped! I had no idea what values were never mind what mine were! I climbed a mountain to try to figure out what my values were (not literally). It was only when I read a book mentioning them as morals that it clicked! I wrote down all my morals/values but then I also asked friends & family what they thought my values were & this was very interesting, most were the same but there were some that I had never thought of, but asking others shows what you are portraying to the outside world, & will make you think, am I portraying my true self…….
Remember values are not goals or rules, they are not something you achieve, they are what you live by to your core & truly believe in & they are personal to YOU! You need to think carefully when determining your values as upbringing, environment, and work (think army who install their values on soldiers), other people can influence your values BUT they need to be YOUR OWN CORE VALUES!
Values guide us in everything we do, decision-making, actions & purpose. They give our lives direction & meaning, they guide us to who we truly are & this is why it is important to know your values.
By living by your values, you can live a more meaningful life!
You may be asking, what has this got to do with triathlon coaching or any sports coaching?
By understanding an athlete’s values:
Will determine if you will work together well as a coach & athlete & I don’t mean your values have to be completely aligned, more like, will your values work well with each other?
The coach will understand the athlete better knowing what is important to them.
How will the athlete knowing their own values help them with their training?
Think of what kind of athlete you want to be & write it down, below are just some examples, of things that would help your training. Now see if what you have written down aligns with your values!
Keeping an optimistic attitude
Accepting mistakes is a great way to learn & improve.
Look more positively at things.
Being positive about yourself – self-belief.
Being grateful you can train.
Prepared for hard work.
Athletic values involve how you want to think, feel & behave as an athlete but they need to align with your core values!
When you know your values, you gain more self-awareness and self-control, a better way of evaluating/reflecting on your training, and a strategy to improve focus.
Write your values down & read over them every day to engrain them in your mind to instil these values in how you want to be as an athlete.
Then you need to focus on these values during your training, the more you aim to align with your values the more control & awareness you will have & the easier it will be to live your values & be the athlete you want to be.
Depending on your personality type will depend on which goal works best for you, and then the question also is, does it really work best for you?
SMART goals or Specific goals can work more extrinsically, striving for the end result & the gratification of achieving the end result. What these kinds of goals can lead to if youfall off the wagon or don’t achieve them :
A feeling of failure
Becoming a slave to the achievement of goals for achievement’s sake
Returning to bad habits once goal achieved
I’m not saying this happens for everyone, SMART goals can work really well for those personalities that strive under pressure OR if done in combination with the 2nd type of goal – process goals!
PROCESS goals as the title suggest, focus on the process rather than the end goal, achieving the end goal is not the main focus, how you get there is. What these types of goals lead to are:
Continuous accomplishment as you follow the process
More intrinsic accomplishment every dayrather than just an end result “a love of doing the work involved” and “ relishing in the process of getting better”
No judgement on whether you achieve the goal, you are learning & creating new habits by focusing on the journey
Long-termperformance well-being & fulfilment.
These 2 types of goals seeing can be combined though.
Set your SMART goals
Set the steps to achieving your goal that is within your control – this is the process.
Forget about the goal & focus on the process & nailing it!
Process goals take back control, turning your focus on something you can achieve!
Things to remember when on your journey:
Forget failure!! Move on! It’s done, it’s history! No point dwelling on it, LEARN FROM IT, and do better next time/tomorrow!
Focus on the process!
Don’t lose sight of the inner reason you set the goal
Big Hairy Audacious Goals!! Break them down, make micro goals, set the steps to each of them (the process), and make sure the process fits into your life & not the other way round (life fitting around the process) forget about the BGAG, the process will get you there!
Don’t drop the good habits you have gained once you achieve your goals.
Don’t judge yourself on whether you accomplish a goal, look at what you have learnt/achieved on that journey!
Judge yourself on how well you execute the process.
Develop a process mindset.
So as we go into a new year & you think about new year resolutions, make your SMART goals BUT more importantly put the steps in place – THE PROCESS!!
Things to think about when building the steps:
Work out your time for work (also travel time there & back).
Time for family & social.
Preparing food/cooking/eating/clearing away.
Sleeping (don’t cut this short 7-9hrs)
Anything else I’ve missed.
Then what is left of your day is your training time. Working this way will make the process more achievable & more enjoyable & more likely to become a habit & a new lifestyle!
A common mistake is to either take an unstructured break after the last race and then ramp back up to specific training or carry-on training as hard as too scared to lose fitness.
What should happen is to take 2-3 bridging weeks after your last race. This means that after your last race, the first 2 days keep moving, with either light walking, yoga or a VERY EASY bike ride to get the blood moving to aid recovery and less stiffness. Then you can take the rest of the week off! This will help get the adaptations from the race and give you a break mentally. Now some of you might need a couple of weeks off, maybe even 3 or 4 just to get a mental and physical break from a long season. Others might need or want less. Remember we are all individuals and different methods suit different athletes BUT don’t leave it too long as you will lose fitness (even though we are not chasing fitness during this time, we don’t want to lose all your fitness) and miss the opportunity of what I am about to explain later.
For most of you the first week you start back will be some light maybe social training giving yourself a break from the Garmin (if you can)! But nothing massively structured, maybe some different sports (climbing, gravel biking, MTB, yoga, hiking etc). Then we will start bringing in a little bit more structure but low pressure, this is a good week to start thinking and discussing with your coach next season’s goals and some micro goals. Then after that, it’s back into post-season structured training which will continue through to late January when the build phase starts. After the build comes Race Specific (this is the wording I use, other coaches might use a base 3 and then build 1, build 2 is their race-specific then Peak/Taper).
Now to discuss what POST-SEASON entails. THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO BE CHASING FITNESS GAINS! It is about building the foundations! It creates a base from which to see increased fitness gains when the race season prep work begins.
Post-Season is a REALLY important phase of your training because it is the time we build resilience! This is the time we focus on STRENGTH & CONDITIONING, MOBILITY, COORDINATION & STABILITY. To get all your joints moving in a full range and build strength around the joints as well as the assisting muscles that tend to be weaker, as well as build your balance and coordination as all this will prepare your body for the extra load/volume that will come during the build phase onwards and help prevent injuries!
Post-Season is also the time we will work on TECHNIQUE AND SKILLS DEVELOPMENT, all of the disciplines have techniques and skills and improving these areas will improve your performance and the off-season is the time to focus on them. Swimming is the most technical of all the 3 disciplines but biking and running also have a technique that we need to improve, and cycling has a lot of skills involved if you want to take it to another level.
This is also the time we will develop your ability to train in those low training zones (Z2 & below) & some sessions in the high training zones with short intervals (Z5) as I know athletes struggle running slow and some also pushing themselves hard. What tends to happen is there is a lot of training in the grey zone (Z3) which doesn’t give much fitness benefits as it is too easy to be hard and too hard to be easy so you just end up training fatigued. So, the post-season is the time to work on nailing that Z2 training where you will improve your aerobic endurance and end up running faster at a lower heart rate! The short sprint interval sessions will blow some cobwebs away as well as improve neurological conditioning, increase the ceiling of your physiological performance, and test your technique. Because these types of sessions are intense your overall weekly load will be lower than when you are in the build/race-specific phase. This also gives you more free time to fit extra social time in.
This is an overview of what I put in my athlete’s post-season:
Technique and Skill development.
Building resilience in your muscles, tendons, and ligaments to help reduce injury when training load ramps up during the build phase.
A bigger focus on strength, conditioning, mobility, stability & coordination.
An option to introduce other related sports (ie cycle cross, gravel biking, MTB, trail running etc)
Lower training load so more free time
Some High-Intensity Sessions
Remember post-season training is essential if you want to achieve your performance goals and get to your races physically stronger with a reduced risk of injury along the way. But it is also a time to get some emotional & physical rejuvenation.
It promotes muscle growth and strength – estrogen or estradiol to be exact, is an anabolic hormone which means it builds muscle mass. So this is why your strength declines quicker during the menopause.
It supports your Mitochondria function, remember these, the batteries within your muscles that turn all the glycogen into energy. So without estrogen we need to find another way to produce this same stimulus and that is where exercise comes into play.
It regulates inflammation – estradiol is anti-inflammatory, estrone (which is another form of estrogen found in your fat cells) is inflammatory. Inflammation is good if you get an injury or cut etc but not so good when systemic inflammation (which means within the body, bloodstream). It’s estradiol that we lose during menopause not estrone and so we end up with more risk of systemic inflammation when our hormones decline, like sore joints, fluid retention, puffiness, gut issues. This can again be controlled through nutrition, exercise and lifestyle.
It manages blood sugar – estradiol promotes insulin sensitivity, insulin is the hormone that opens the door to your cells to allow blood sugar to enter and be stored as energy and estradiol helps with this. As estradiol fluctuates and flatlines we become more insulin resistant and therefore harder to get the glucose/blood sugar into the cells to be stored as energy and so the blood sugar ends up being drawn into your fat cells to get it out of your blood stream and this is how we get the sudden weight gain without changing anything. By changing your nutrition, which you have all been doing over the weeks, can help balance your blood sugar and help obtain a better body composition.
It regulates appetite – estradiol regulates your hormones that control hunger and satiety (Ghrelin & Leptin) and like leptin helps blunt your appetite. We have managed to control this by eating more protein in your diets.
It controls body temperature – estradiol helps maintain a consistent core temperature so you all know what happens when it starts to fluctuate, yes hot flushes!! I did a post on Adaptogens and there were some listed on there that can help with hot flushes. I always sleep with a fan on and that seemed to help with not getting the night sweats, I also have a little hand held chargeable fan I used which worked really well and avoiding hot drinks as they can bring on hot flushes. I also use a cooling towel, you wet it, rinse out the excess water & drape that round your neck & it works really well, especially during exercise. They sell them in packs on Amazon.
It controls blood pressure – nitric oxide is a compound in your body that helps expand your blood vessels so better blood flow and enables more oxygen to be taken on. By breathing through your nose you produce nitric oxide (but not if you mouth breathe). When we lose estradiol our blood vessels don’t widen and constrict as easily and so can cause your blood pressure to increase. Exercise can also be harder if your arteries can not dilate as well and therefore your heart will have to work harder to push the blood through, and then a higher heart rate than the actual effort perceived. Maintaining your health through nutrition and exercise is important.
It builds bone – estradiol increases absorption of calcium and is involved in maintaining bone density. So when we start losing estradiol it becomes really important to incorporate weight bearing exercise to stop this decline into osteoporosis (brittle bones)
It keeps your vagina healthy – estradiol keeps the vagina moist and helps maintain the thickness of the lining. As estradiol declines the vagina walls become thin and dry and sex can become very painful. I have had this, burning and like using sandpaper and not amount of lube works. Only thing that does is estrogen gel that you insert or HRT (well that is my experience, normal lube might work for you). But pain can also occur during cycling and running too due to this thinning and dryness so the gel or HRT might help that too.
It counterbalances estrogen. During peri-menopause the number of eggs in your ovaries declines and they stop being released like clockwork every month. In the month where there is no egg there is no progesterone so there will be high amounts of estrogen and no progesterone to balance it out, during this month you will not have a period. Then the next month might be normal and could end up with a really heavy period lasting longer due to the lining of the womb not shedding the month before because if the egg is not fertilized, progesterone stimulates the lining to shed as our period. So when these hormones start fluctuating it can cause irregular and heavier periods.
It increases connective tissue stability – so estrogen loosens our tendons and ligaments which creates instability but progesterone counterbalances it by stabilsing them by increasing the tension. So during menopause, we lose this counterbalance and so stability in our joints become vulnerable. This is why stability and balance become more important during menopause and onwards.
It protects our brain – it produces a calming, anti-anxiety effect in the brain and may enhance memory function. As progesterone declines, we lose these, and symptoms like mood swings, memory loss, and brain fog can be experienced. These symptoms are more pronounced during early peri-menopause and early post-menopause and brain fog dissipate over time (I hope so as I am post-menopause and still waiting for it to dissipate!!!!) Nutrition can help though, omega 3 has really helped my brain fog and there are lots of other foods that help (I still need to read The XX Brain book – female brain, as I know there are some other foods listed in there so I will let you know more when I’ve read it) but being hydrated will also help as water increases blood flow to the brain.
It provides pain relief – when progesterone is high we have a greater pain tolerance and this is due to progesterone’s effects on the brain. So everything can seem to hurt more when this hormone declines. There are ways to help pain tolerance through breath work, there have been studies done showing a group who suffered from chronic back pain, those who regularly practice breathwork felt less pain than those who didn’t and that the Thalamus (part of the brain that deals with sensations) was larger and more active in the non-breathwork group compared to the breathwork group.
It helps build bone – along with estrogen, it builds and maintains bone density. So again, it is really important to adjust diet, exercise and stress during this time.
It affects heart rate variability – I’m not going to go into heart rate variability too much, but for the guys that do triathlons, I will explain it a little bit. Your heart rate does not beat at a set rhythm, it is more a variable beat and your HRV is the amount of time between heartbeats. Your HRV is a measure of your autonomic nervous system and can tell you how much you are in your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), and parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest) so the higher your HRV the more you are in your parasympathetic nervous system and the lower your HRV the more you are in your sympathetic nervous system. So, for athletes it can be a measure of how recovered you are along with resting heart rate etc. So, during menopause with the decline of progesterone we have less stress resilience and so end up in a more sympathetic nervous system and therefore increased stress and anxiety. To increase your HRV you need to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and breathwork, mindfulness and meditation can help with this.
It maintains body temperature – it increases your core temperature. During fluctuating hormones, your hypothalamus (the thermostat of your brain) gets mixed signals from the environment and what your hormones are telling you which can trigger hot flushes, sweating, or chills.
It is anti-inflammatory – it inhibits the inflammatory responses so as this declines joint issues, metabolic disorders, and heart disease are more of a risk.
It breaks down muscle tissue – so estrogen builds muscle tissue, progesterone breaks it down. Its main goal is to make sure an implanted embryo survives so it breaks down carbohydrates to provide energy and breaks down protein to use for building the lining of the womb.
We produce less than men but it works with estrogen and progesterone to support maintaining healthy bones and muscles. It fires up your sex drive and protects your brain. Our ovaries and adrenal glands do still keep producing testosterone even when our other hormones are declining as testosterone gradually declines with age rather than flatlines but building and maintaining muscle is still difficult during this time.
Muscle tissue starts to be marbled with fat tissue during this time too, which is why you may notice your muscle tone changing without changing your exercise. This is another reason why your training and nutrition need to change to maintain muscle and power.
Hopefully, now you know what these hormones do, will make more sense why we needed to make a nutrition overhaul and either add exercise or change up your exercise to counteract the effects of losing these hormones on your body.
There are two types of mindset, a Fixed Mindset and a Growth Mindset.
FIXED MINDSET – you believe you are either born with talent or not. Your either naturally good at something or not. You believe intelligence is a fixed trait and inborn talent determines success.
GROWTH MINDSET – you believe talent comes through effort. Anyone can be good at anything. Your abilities can be developed through dedication, perseverance and the right strategy.
Here is an example of a fixed mindset against a growth mindset:
In a fixed mindset, you are putting in the handwork but you are not seeing instant results, you have a bad weekend and feel like a failure, so you give up because it is just too hard and you think it won’t work for you anyway. In a growth mindset, you have setbacks but you learn from them and keep following the process without worrying about the results, you don’t even think about the results you trust in the process and enjoy it because you are learning new things.
The brain is not hard-wired, it is actually very plastic. Neuroplasticity can be defined as the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout your life. Connections in the brain are constantly becoming stronger or weaker, with every repetition of a thought or emotion you reinforce with specific neural pathways and if frequently repeated these small changes end up changing the way your brain works, this is how new habits are formed. So there is nothing preventing you from learning something new, tackling a new challenge, or getting out of your comfort zone and this is what having a growth mindset is.
FIXED MINDSET TRIGGERS
A fixed mindset trigger is something that shifts your mindset away from thinking that you can improve. If you can’t pinpoint your triggers you might have a false growth mindset – everyone has a fixed mindset at one time or another about one thing or another, we do not permanently have either a fixed or growth mindset. You might have a growth mindset regarding say your career, where you push to improve but a fixed mindset regarding your nutrition, where you give up as soon as you get a setback.
So, what are the triggers:
HAVING TO WORK HARD – if hard work is one of your triggers you may get overwhelmed by tasks that require sustained effort and be more likely to give up. Another sign is if you tend to compare yourself to others, and you feel discouraged when it seems like it requires less effort for them to achieve the same goals. It doesn’t mean you are lazy, it just means you have a self-limiting belief.
FACING SETBACKS – things go wrong in life, and we have setbacks. Here is an example: You decide to go on a diet but on the first day it’s a colleague’s birthday and you feel you have to accept a piece of their birthday cake. With a growth mindset, this wouldn’t be a big deal, you’d just get back on track the next day. But if this is a trigger for you, you may stop the diet altogether because you feel like you have failed!
GETTING NEGATIVE FEEDBACK – Feedback can be very useful, it can be a way to learn, look at professional athletes, they get a ton of feedback and it can be harsh feedback too, but they listen, they learn and they apply the feedback. But if this is your trigger you might feel like if you didn’t do well then you are not good enough and take it personally.
BEING CHALLENGED – being out of your comfort zone is one of the best signs you are learning and growing. Unless you are getting stretched, you are simply repeating stuff you already know. If your mindset trigger is being challenged, it means that when you try to work on something and the solution you try doesn’t work, you believe the goal is too hard and you may quit altogether.
SEEING SUCCESS IN OTHERS – comparing yourself to someone who you think is more senior or has more experience and what your brain does not get is that these people have been working at it for longer than you and there is no reason you wouldn’t get similar results if you put the effort in too. It can be intimidating to hang out with people who are more advanced than you in their journey.
HOW TO DEVELOP A GROWTH MINDSET
By changing your thinking of effort and failure, you can design a whole new approach to your life. Developing Self-Awareness, if you don’t give much thought to your role in your success or failure, it is going to be difficult for you to strategize and improve.
NEUROPLASTICITY – your brain structure is not fixed and your mind should not be fixed either.
PROCESS OVER RESULTS – it’s all about the learning process, don’t worry about the results just make sure you learn as much as possible.
ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR WEAKNESSES – ignoring your weaknesses means you will never improve.
PURPOSE – people with a growth mindset have a greater sense of purpose. Keeping asking “WHY”
STOP SAYING FAILURE, SAY LEARNING – always learn from your mistakes or failures – what can you learn from it to make it better next time?
EFFORT OVER TALENT – if you put the work in you will achieve the talent.
CHALLENGES ARE OPPORTUNITIES – challenges are an opportunity for self-improvement.
GROWTH BEFORE SPEED – it takes time to learn. Think realistically about the time and effort it will require to acquire a new skill or habit. Don’t expect to master everything or get results in one session.
DON’T CHASE APPROVAL – when you prioritise approval over learning, you sacrifice your own potential for growth. If you do something well also ask yourself what you can try to do better next time.
CRITICISM – see it as useful , don’t let it destroy you.
REFLECT – use journaling to reflect on your personal growth, either once a day, week or month.
PERSEVERANCE – grit and determination will help you overcome challenges and when you do it once remember you can do it again.
“NOT YET” – use the “not yet” to any fixed mindset statement, remind yourself that you haven’t mastered it YET!
Here are some questions you could use each week to start building a more growth mindset, think about answering them every Sunday, ready for the week ahead:
What am I struggling with right now?
What do I want to learn/achieve by the end of this week?
What can I try that will get me out of my comfort zone?
Who can I reach out to for help this week? (do not do this alone, it’s what I set this group up for)
Now do daily reflections as well, as this will really help you foster a growth mindset and look at failure as learning, answer these questions each evening:
What did I do today that made me proud and what else could I do to improve?
What new strategies did I try to achieve my goals today?
What mistakes did I make that taught me something?
Remember, this is not going to happen overnight, don’t try to change everything at once from the above list, start with one thing and practice that first then once you feel you have mastered that move on to the next one. Enjoy the process……..
Do you find you are either struggling to get off to sleep or waking up at 3 am with racing thoughts or hot sweats? Then just feeling unmotivated and tired for the rest of the day!
Inadequate sleep is stressful for your body. The levels of the stress hormone cortisol remain elevated into the evening when they should decline. This not only messes with your moods but also wrecks your recovery by impairing tissue repair and growth. It also can cause insulin resistance, increased abdominal fat storage, injury, and overtraining. You are more prone to overeating when you are tired due to higher levels of the appetite stimulator ghrelin and lower levels of the appetite suppressor leptin (these were mentioned in previous posts). That’s why you find yourself craving more sugary snacks when you have a bad night’s sleep. Prolonged sleep deprivation blunts your insulin response (remember insulin is the key to your cells to let the glucose in for muscle energy storage).
How do our hormones affect sleep?
Progesterone helps control stress, lets you relax and chill, and has a direct sedative effect. As levels drop during menopause, it is harder to fall and stay asleep. Estrogen increases REM (dream sleep), assists serotonin metabolism, so you can relax, and helps to shorten how long it takes you to fall asleep. It also decreases the number of times you wake up in the night and increases total sleep time and quality. It helps regulate your internal thermostat and body temperature. So the decline in estrogen can lead to hot flushes and disruptive night sweats and make you more susceptible to night-time cortisol spikes. We also start producing less melatonin which is the key hormone for regulating sleep.
What can we do to help get better sleep?
We want to improve our sleep hygiene! First of all, let me explain, what is called our sleep architecture.
There are 4 stages to our sleep architecture:
Stage 1: the brain starts to drift out of conscious thought and into sleep.
Stage 2: Light Sleep
Stage 3: Deep, restorative sleep (NREM)
Stage 4: REM Sleep, where your muscle tone goes limp and you enter dream sleep.
We cycle through these stages throughout the night, waking up after the last stage briefly. We tend to get more deep sleep during the first half of the night going into more REM sleep during the second half of the night. So if you go to bed too late at night or wake up too early, you’ll cut into this REM-rich last sleep cycle.
What do the sleep cycles do?
Your NREM sleep (deep sleep) is when your body repairs, so this is when you produce the majority of your body’s greatest performance enhancers like human growth hormone, which helps you burn fat and stimulates tissue growth to build muscle and allow you to recover faster. During deep sleep is also the time you convert short-term memory to long-term memory.
During REM sleep, your body is completely paralyzed, this is so we do not actually act out our dreams! The primary role of REM sleep is when the brain goes through all the countless things we were exposed to throughout the day and decides what is worth storing in memory, so if you have been reading or learning some really useful stuff, you want to be getting enough of this type of sleep to remember it. It also figures out where in our web of knowledge to store these things. REM sleep is also crucial for developing emotional intelligence.
There isn’t enough space in the brain to keep all the information, so sleep is the time to consolidate and organize all the meaningful data.
How can we help improve our chances of a good night’s sleep?
CORK THE BOTTLE BEFORE BEDTIME many of us (well I don’t really drink, so maybe not me) use alcohol to wind down at the end of the day, and it works temporarily. But it reduces sleep quality and increases restlessness toward the early morning hours, especially if you are drinking right before bed. Drinking within an hour of bedtime lengthens your NREM sleep and shortens your REM sleep during the first half of the night, as a result, you don’t get into deep restorative sleep for very long. During the second half of the night, your liver starts sopping up the ethanol from your bloodstream which causes your body to go into a bit of a withdrawal causing you to toss and turn. So the advice is to have your glass with dinner but then switch to tart cherry juice before bedtime. This naturally increases the production of melatonin.
AN EARLIER DINNERTIME: making your body work on its digestion can interfere with your ability to go into your parasympathetic (rest & digest) nervous system during sleep. Having a large meal close to bedtime can prevent you from falling into the deep restorative sleep stages. Give at least 2-3 hours from your last meal and bedtime.
TURN OFF SCREENS: shut down the electronics 30mins before you want to sleep. Blue light has been shown to suppress the production of melatonin and this is already dwindling with age. Your body temperature won’t fall as it should and you won’t get the signal that it’s time for sleep.
KEEP COOL: the best temperature for good sleep is 65 degrees. This is more important for menopausal women who are prone to hot flushes and night sweats. Keep your bedroom cool, like you are sleeping in a cave. Things you can do are a cool shower before bedtime to help bring your temperature down.
BLOCK OUT LIGHT AND NOISE: light and noise can keep you from drifting into deep sleep. Blackout curtains are good and can use a white noise machine (I have a fan on every night as 1. It keeps me cool and 2. It blocks out any outside noise or snoring/breathing). But sleep masks and earplugs can also help. Also, dim the lights as the evening draws in so it can help the melatonin to build up.
JOURNALLING: if you have a busy mind before you go to bed, try writing a journal and getting all your thoughts out and onto paper, this has been shown to really help get to sleep. Also, if you wake up with a busy mind, keep the journal close so you can jot down any new thoughts as this will help you get back off to sleep. Then in the morning, you will have a much clearer head to deal with everything you wrote down.
FLIP YOUR EXERCISE TIME: exercise in the evening is not an automatic sleep-wrecker, it can be better than dragging yourself out of bed at 5 am after a restless night. It has been shown that it can improve sleep as long as the session is wrapped up at least an hour before bedtime, top it off with a cool shower to bring your body temperature down.
CAFFEINE: try to cut your caffeine intake after 12 pm. Adenosine hormone builds up throughout the day to make you feel drowsy in the evening. Caffeine is an adenosine decoy that floats through your bloodstream and binds to the adenosine receptors. So now, instead of slowing down, your pituitary gland senses something is up and that you need energy and gives you a shot of adrenaline. That’s fine early in the day but the half-life of caffeine is about 6hrs, so if you have a coffee at 3 pm you still have a shot of expresso effect kicking around at 9 pm and for some, it can be longer. So, try avoiding caffeine at the latest 2 pm.
MEDITATION: this covers mindfulness and breathwork. This all helps your body go into a parasympathetic nervous system by activating your vagus nerve to move you out of the sympathetic nervous system into the parasympathetic nervous system. One breathwork routine I like which is to help sleep is the 4-7-8 method, you inhale for 4s (a big belly breath, so expand your belly), hold for 7s, then a long slow exhale for 8s – do this for about 4mins before bed.
Have a go at some of these sleep hygiene ideas and see if it helps improve your sleep quality.
Estrogen is an anabolic hormone, anabolic means muscle building, basically like Testosterone in men but it does not create as much muscle mass. Without Estrogen, your body isn’t as good at building muscle.
Estrogen is very important for your muscles to contract and generate power and force – so think press ups, the force is pushing your body weight up from the floor. Think of the power involved when doing a burpee, jumping back into the press up position then jumping legs in & jumping up – all of that needs power and estrogen is involved in making that happen. When Estrogen flatlines the stimulus for those muscle contractions is gone.
Estrogen supports Mitochondria Function – So talking about muscles only for this, the mitochondria are like little batteries inside the cells of your muscle and these take the carbohydrate (glycogen) that is stored in your muscle along with oxygen, that gets transported to the muscles in your bloodstream when we start to workout, and by chemical reaction turns the glycogen & oxygen into energy. When we do cardio type workouts like running, biking etc it boosts the function of these powerhouses, because the more oxygen the mitochondria receives the more, they adapt to perform faster and better to produce the energy. BUT when we use oxygen to burn fat and produce energy (carbohydrates do not work on their own to produce energy, we need to use fat as well) you get, what we call “free radicals” which is a waste type molecule that can damage your healthy cells. But luckily your body does produce antioxidants that help get rid of these free radicals so you can recover fitter and stronger. BUT guess what……. Estrogen is instrumental in that process, as it helps the mitochondria sweep out those free radicals. So, when we lose Estrogen during menopause, we need to add nutritional support to help get rid of these free radicals! You might of heard of antioxidant rich food like Vitamin A, C and E (Dark Chocolate, Blueberries, Strawberries, Raspberries, Kale, Red Cabbage, Beans, Beets, Spinach) – there are more if you google it, but these foods will do what estrogen use to do.
WHY EXERCISE AND THE TYPE OF EXERCISE IS IMPORTANT ONCE YOU ARE IN YOUR MENOPAUSE YEARS AND ONWARDS.
The fact is, everyone, Men and Women, naturally loses muscle and strength with age. The years around menopause can make this worse, as estrogen is essential for muscle building. Women lose strength quicker due to menopause because our hormones decline rapidly, whereas men’s decline at a much slower rate.
BUT it doesn’t have to be this way, we can definitely put muscle back on and retain more of it through properly performed resistance training and the most effective is STRENGTH – HEAVY LIFTING!
The reason we need heavy lifting rather than lighter with lots of reps is because lighter is not enough of a stimulus in the muscle to stimulate what estrogen used to do in building muscle.
Heavy lifting creates:
INCREASED METABOLIC RATE: (because you are waking up more muscle fibres). Muscle requires a lot of energy to exist, so when you increase your metabolic rate, you increase the number of calories you’re using at rest, because remember, the body is still burning calories to keep it alive. So, this is good news and a good reason to lift heavy eh! And it uses more fat as fuel to burn those calories.
IMPROVED POSTURE AND STABILITY: joint strength and mobility become an issue with age, and especially with the onset of menopause because these hormones had a role in keeping your joints stable. By lifting heavy you are stimulating your tendons (these are what connect your muscles to your bones) to increase their tension, which will give you better overall stability in your joints and increase the ability of your muscles to support those joints when doing hard work. The muscles that stabilise and support your spine, degrade with age but all your posture muscles within your trunk are put to work when you lift heavy weights to stabilise otherwise you would just collapse in a heap!
You need to think about both these in everyday life too, carrying shopping, lifting boxes, getting out the bath, getting out of bed, getting out of the car! The list can go on and on if you really think about it. And all of these will get harder and harder as you age if you don’t do something about it now!
STRONGER BONES: lifting heavy is very good for remodelling your bones and improving bone density. Because the harder the muscle’s tendons pull on your bones the bigger the stimulation for your bones to remodel stronger. Your body is always adapting to the stress you put it under. Think Osteoporosis, this is the biggest cause of hip fractures in older age and due to the lack of balance and stability which initially causes the fall.
BETTER BLOOD PRESSURE CONTROL: lifting heavy improves cardiovascular health. It increases the ability for your veins/arteries to dilate & restrict more readily, giving you better blood flow to and from your muscles and your skin. (Think this dilate/restrict is like muscle contractions that push the blood through the veins/arteries.)
MAINTENANCE OF HEALTHY BODY COMPOSITION: lifting heavy helps with maintaining/improving lean muscle and reduces fat gain. Remember, as estrogen declines, so does our anabolic (muscle-building) stimulus and we start storing fat more easily, especially in our abdominal area. By lifting heavy, you send your muscles an anabolic signal (muscle building signal), telling them that they need to be strong to overcome this stress, which stimulates your body to build more muscle and decrease fat storage. Heavy lifting is much more effective for changing body composition than endurance base lifting (10+ reps) or cardiovascular exercise (running, biking, etc) especially during menopause and after.
WHAT IF I’M TAKING HRT?
Now some of you might be thinking, well I’m ok, because I’m on HRT. Well, I’m sorry to tell you, HRT is not good for body composition, strength, stability, balance etc, it is fantastic for menopause symptoms like hot flushes, anxiety, joint pain, etc and preventing osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease and brain health but not for body composition, and here is why:
All of your cells and tissues have receptors which are proteins attached to the cells and tissues (now think of these as little ears or antennae’s), and your hormones are the messengers for the cells and tissues to be able to respond (basically if you want them to produce energy, the hormone gets produced to tell the muscle cell’s mitochondria to do it’s stuff to create energy). These receptors dimmish with age and the Estrogen Receptor Alpha which controls metabolism of sugar, insulin intolerance, muscle function, mitochondria power and fat tissue is one of the first to decline. So, it doesn’t matter how much estrogen (HRT) you throw at it, to get the receptor to listen so the muscle cell can work because the receptor is not there in the same strength or concentration as it was, it can’t hear the message and therefore can not let that message into the cell or tissue. But all this extra hormone upsets the rest of the body and so a side effects occur, which is weight gain.
The reason HRT works for symptoms is because there are some estrogen receptors still there (as we have 12 types altogether) so that’s why it works well for treating some symptoms and preventing bone loss. But turning our physiology back to PRE menopause it doesn’t do, unfortunately, we can not turn the clocks back to our 30 year old selves body. The symptoms it helps with will also depend on your genetics too.
WHAT YOU NEED TO DO
You will need to build you up slowly if you are new to exercise, and especially new to resistance/weight training. So firstly, start with stability, mobility, and core, because these are the building blocks that need to be in place before any type of load or jumping can be added. When you have good stability, you can move quickly and powerfully, with greater ease and less risk of injury. Having good mobility enables you to move the way you want without being restricted by too much stiffness or by imbalances. It makes your more stable because you can adjust and catch yourself when knocked off balance. Also, Yoga because it not only helps with all the above, but it also helps control breathing, improve your breathing, and bring you into a more parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest).
The next stage would be adding in a little bit of cardiovascular low impact work like stair climbing as we still need to be cardiovascular fit. If you have been doing triathlons or running etc this will not be new for you and this area will not need to be developed from scratch.
The next staGe would be brinGing in a small amount of plyometric work (jumping) as this helps with insulin sensitivity (Insulin is a hormone and what it does is act like a key to open up the cell to let glucose in, so if you are insulin sensitive the cell will not be able to take on the glucose and so the fat cells will take it on instead). It will also improve bone density (while running helps build bones, it is far less effective than jumping, because running is one-directional stress and too similar to the stress your bones get when walking/daily tasks and your body adapts to the stress you generally put on it. So, if you want your bones to adapt to be stronger, they need more multidirectional stimulus).
The strength can progress by adding bands, weights (which can be items around the house, or filled up water bottles if you don’t have any), and kettlebells or dumbbells etc.
HIIT/Sprint training provides the stimulus to trigger body composition changes that our hormones helped us achieve on our premenopausal years. So, the biggest benefit from HIIT training will be improvement in body composition (reduction in fat storage), as it increases muscle and reduces fat in a relatively short period of time. It coaxes your body into burning more fat for energy when you’re NOT exercising. The type of work involved is hard exercise followed by relatively short recovery periods, for example you might do intervals like 20s max effort, 10s rest, or other ratios like 30:30, 40:40 but the ratios are usually all under 1min. BUT before this happens, if you are new to exercise, you should build up through the RPE scale (Rate of Perceived Exertion) starting at level 6 which means fairly uncomfortable, RPE 7 becoming uncomfortable, RPE 8 Hard, RPE 9 very hard, RPE 10 extremely hard! Building through this scale so your fitness builds gradually so by the time you arescheduled to work at RPE 10, you are fit enough to handle that type of intensity.
This journey should not just about losing weight but about going into older age stronger and fitter and ABLE. Not puffing and panting when you have to walk up a small flight of stairs or struggling to get out of the car or bath or up off the floor. To be stable and have balance to not be at such a big risk of falling and breaking a hip. To have good posture and not end up with rounded shoulders, head forwards and hips bent. To have the energy to play with grandchildren and be their Super Gran 😂👵
We are all from the era of Low Fat, fats were demonised for causing obesity, increased cholesterol and health problems and I’m sure all those years have left a lasting effect on your mind about eating fats. Many of you thought and probably still think a low-fat diet is the answer for managing weight loss! The fact is, over or under eating is a cause of weight gain, not exercising, and eating a diet heavy in processed food (manmade). So, be careful when you see low fat as this usually means all the good natural vitamins have been taken out (because they are in the fat) and sugar has been put in to flavour!
The purpose of fat in the body is for growth development, vitamin absorption, protection of organs, maintaining cell membranes, healthy brain function to name a few.
So, what are the benefits of fats?
Improves body composition – yes! I bet you didn’t expect to hear that!! By reducing cravings, speeding up metabolism and their hormone interaction, they can help your composition and appearance.
They balance the hormonal system and responsible for hormone production.
By eating the healthy fats, they lower the ratio of good and bad cholesterol, so LDL (bad) will be decreased and HDL (good) will be increased leading to a healthier cardiovascular system.
Vitamin digestion and absorption. Fat-soluble vitamins like A,D,E,K can only be absorbed with the help of fat.
They are an important source of energy during workouts. Women’s bodies are primed to using fat as fuel more so than men, but we still need carbohydrates to kickstart fat burning!
Fats also contain active molecules that control inflammation and enable a better response of insulin (insulin opens up the cell to allow nutrients in) and is affected by inflammation as well as our hormonal decline, making us more insulin resistance, so we need all the help we can get for a better insulin response.
The brain is very rich in fat (60%), you might of heard of DHA, this is the major brain fatty acid.
They maintain the membrane integrity of every cell in your body! The structures of your cells are made up of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, and so are the foods we eat every single day.
This is not a coincidence. The foods you eat have a major influence on your cellular function because they ultimately become your cells. Trans Fats & Saturated Fats cause membranes to be much more rigid than is optimal, potentially limiting the functionality of the cells. Whereas Unsaturated fats are necessary for strong cell membranes and keeps them semi-permeable. Nutritionists recommend eating all types of fats so that one type doesn’t predominate in the diet and end up altering the optimal functioning of those cells. In general, diets high in unsaturated fats will promote healthy cell membranes.
WHAT TYPE OF FAT SHOULD YOU BE EATING?
Are known as “good fats” they lower blood cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation and stabilise heart rhythms.
There are 2 types of Unsaturated Fats (Omega 6 and Omega 3):
MONOUNSATURATED FAT: These are the Omega 6 fatty acids and are in foods like walnuts, almonds, and various types of vegetable oils, including corn, soybean, safflower, cottonseed, sunflower seed, and peanut oil. These are all types of oils that are in the majority of any processed, boxed, pre-packaged foods that you probably have in your kitchen pantry. Olive Oil & Olives contains both Omega 3 & 6.
POLYUNSATURATED FAT: these are Omega 3 fatty acids which provide heart health benefits as well as brain health and muscle repair. Food sources are fatty fish like salmon, trout, catfish and mackerel but also flaxseeds and walnuts. It is better to get your Omega 3 from food sources but if you don’t eat fish then a supplement is then important. If you do eat fish, aim for at least two servings of fatty fish each week.
Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are essential for good health! But they play very different roles. Omega-3s have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body; whereas, the omega-6s have a pro-inflammatory effect. This may sound bad but some inflammation is actually necessary. Inflammation can help protect the body from infection and from injury. For example, if you roll your ankle, inflammation sets in to immobilize your ankle so you can begin to heal. If you get a cut, the inflammation is an immune response to help fight off any infections getting in. But, too much inflammation can lead to other things like heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and many types of cancer. Omega-3s are known to lower the risk of these diseases by decreasing the amount of inflammation within the body.
SATURATED FATS: these can bring particular benefits such as increased liver health and improved bone structure strength. But high cholesterol levels will be generated by numerous LDL’s being produced. So more sparingly with these types of fats (they don’t need to be totally avoided just consumed in moderation). Food sources are: Dairy sources (milk, cheese, butter), red meats, poultry skin.
TRANS FATS: this type of saturated fat is made by heating liquid vegetable oils in a process called HYDROGENATOIN! You might see hydrogenated fats on food labels. This process extends the shelf life of food products. Hydrogenation turns a liquid into a solid food like margarine. Trans fats are used widely for frying, baked goods, pastries, processed snack food and margarine.
The risk of consuming excess trans fats include lowering good cholesterol and increasing bad cholesterol and promoting a higher chance of cardiovascular diseases. I’m not saying you can’t eat them but acknowledge the risks of excess amounts and consume in moderation.
The easiest way to get all of the nutrients you need into your diet is to consume foods like lean meats, eggs, dairy, colourful vegetables, whole grains, and fruits.
SNACKING ON FATS
Whilst you should snack on fat sources in moderation due to the caloric density they contain, they are the preferred snack in comparison to carbohydrates which are best timed pre/intra/post workouts for energy stores and preventing glycogen depletion. By selecting fats or proteins over carbohydrates as a snack will reduce exercise inflammation and insulin sensitivity. So, snack sources: nuts, nut butter (peanut, almond). Just remember DON’T OVERDO IT! As I mentioned in the carbohydrate post, combine them with fruit, then you get the vitamins, mineral, and fibre benefit of the front with the glucose response blunted from the fat/protein.
Hopefully this post has increased your understanding of the importance of fats and taken away some of those old demons. Everything in moderation is key!
Carbohydrates have started to be demonised like fats use to be, but they are really important for our bodies to work properly, your brain uses carbohydrates for energy and so do your red blood cells and many more functions in the human body. It is also the bodies preferred source of energy and fats can not be converted into energy without carbohydrates! They should not be demonised as they are very important!
WHAT ARE CARBOHYDRATES?
Did you know that fruit and vegetables are carbohydrates, I think a lot of people do not realise this, well they are. Other sources are starchy carbs like bread, pasta, rice, oats, crisps etc, Sugary carbs like sweets, chocolate, cakes, honey, fruit, sugary drinks, etc. And all these things can have a place in your diet if eaten at the right time, here is an example, a coke is great during a long bike ride when your energy reserves are low because sugar absorbs quickly for energy, even a chocolate bar or cake works the same too. Starchy carbs are ok as well as long as you don’t get any GI stress from them (bloating etc) as that is causing inflammation and we don’t want more of that going on in our bodies, so foods that cause any adverse effect should be avoided. The key to all of this is portion size and moderation. Not having too big portions and eating too much of the same all the time, a BALANCED diet is key and making sure your plate has protein, carbs & good fats (as discussed last week) on it. Think a wide range of coloured vegetables to be your go to sources but there is nothing wrong with the other sources listed above in moderation. If you start trying to ban foods, you will just crave them more!! Don’t ban them and if you are eating enough protein, you probably won’t crave them.
CARBOHYDRATES AND EXERCISE
Everyone focuses on the actual training part of training, which is great, however you are not getting fitter, stronger and faster during those sessions, that’s the damage phase, when you are breaking your body down and the harder and longer you work, the more you’re breaking your body down. You get fitter, faster and stronger after those sessions during the adaptation phase. That’s when you body is saying I need to strengthen the muscles, so I am ready when she wants to do that again!! Now how you eat around these sessions directly impacts how you recover and how you adapt. As a woman and especially menopausal woman you do not want to go into your workouts under-fuelled. Doing that creates more stress and undermines your exercise progress. You want the nutrients onboard, so you are not increasing your stress or eating into your muscle stores. Pre workout snacks don’t have to be a lot, you just want something that contains protein and carbohydrate (banana & peanut butter or wholegrain toast & nut butter etc). Then what you eat afterwards is especially important because of our 30min recovery window, which is the time your body is most receptive to restoring your glycogen stores and repairing the muscle damage done so stronger. Remember, I talked about this last week, how we finish workouts with high levels of cortisol hormone. So, we need to get out of that state asap. If you skip this part your body ends up in a highly stressed state, with high blood sugar and is more prone to storing body fat and slow down metabolism. Proper recovery nutrition prevents you from getting into a low energy availability and supports gut microbiome health because the gut takes a beating during hard exercise so providing good nutrition when you’re done so blood is moving from your muscles back into your gut (to digest the food) can help your gut heal and maintain good bacterial diversity.
So, please do not be scared of carbohydrates, they are not bad for you, they give us energy! Just think portion size, food combinations, variation and balance!