Health and fitness, News

That happened – Goodbye 2017, Hello 2018


Like many people I won’t be sad to see the back of 2017.  As well as the misery of the daily news headlines, I’ve personally had to cope with more than my fair share of problems this year. Poor  health and injuries have taken their toll on almost all aspects of my life and decimated my attempts at achieving the modest goals I set myself at the start of the year.

It’s not all been bad. My daughter Chloe has been a thing of wonder and joy as she grows into a bossy wee toddler. All being well I hope she’ll also grow into a caring and patient sister next year.

We had some fantastic times as a family, from holidays in the Lake District and  weddings in Fife, to just spending time at home in our own company.

I changed job, moving back to a role I’m familiar with in an effort to regain some lost confidence. A move which seems to be paying off as I feel happy going to work for the first time in years.

Creatively, I had some really productive spells which saw me get two poems published and I also had some real barren spells when I barely wrote a word or played a note of music. It was simply consistent with the stop/start nature of the year really.

2017 was a year that happened. I think it’s best we just move on and start fresh in 2018. In that spirit I’m going to try something different this year for my 2018 goals/resolutions. Normally I set a short list of goals for myself like getting poems published (only one I achieved last year) or running a race to a certain time. I usually hit a few and miss a few and the whole year of goals feels a bit of a non-event.

This year I’m not going to set goals. I’m going to set values. These are the values I’m going to try and stick to for 2018. They will guide my year and how I choose to live. Hopefully they will guide me to be productive and happy at the end of the year, but that remains to be seen.  I wanted to keep the list short and in return each one would need to cover a broad range. I think what I’ve settled on covers most of the big things I want to concentrate on over the year and by setting them as values, rather than specific goals, I don’t feel like I’m tying myself down to something that could blow up in the first month due to some unforeseen problem like I had in 2017.

Here goes then, my values for 2018:

Be Healthy – Prioritise good health in body and mind
Be Kind – To myself and to others
Create – Write, play, make
Learn –
Try new things, read, listen
Finish –
See things through to completion

These five basic values remind myself how I want to change my behaviours and how I want to push myself in the year ahead. I need to put my health first and also remember to give myself a break if I can’t do everything I want to. In this era of twitter insta-rage and the horrible daily news headlines I want to also remember to be kind to others and show empathy first before jumping to judgement. The first two are also a reminder to make sure I’m happy and healthy, not preoccupied with things I have no control over and can’t change myself.

Then rather than committing myself to doing specific goals for the year I just want to remind myself to be creative in my spare time, to increase my knowledge and finish projects that I start. I have so many half written pieces, scraps of music and bits of projects I’ve started then never gone back to. I need to get things over the finish line occasionally.

So that’s my values for 2018. It’s set to be a busy year personally and it’s difficult to know how much traditional goals I would have a hope of achieving at the moment. Hopefully approaching things in this way still gives me that push to go in the direction I want to without adding the specific pressures that goals provide.

Happy New Year!

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Health and fitness

Goals change, that’s OK


At the start of the year I set some goals. I liked those goals. They were sensible, achievable and meant I could throw myself at 2017 with some enthusiasm. Sadly my body had other plans for the year ahead.

Shortly after setting these humble targets – run a half marathon, record some of my music, publish a poem, and lose some weight – I had an episode. I got home from work and felt short of breath and a bit dizzy. My heart was having palpitations and was beating ridiculously fast. It got worse and lasted a few hours. Typically though, it had stopped by the time I was worried enough to contact NHS 24 and arrange to speak to a doctor at the local community hospital.

I’d experienced my first episode of Paroxysmal Atrial Fibrillation. A heart rhythm disorder which manifests as attacks of up to a few hours in length (for some people it can be days), where the heart suddenly starts beating with a very fast, irregular rhythm. It’s not life threatening, but during an episode I could barely go for a walk without feeling extreme fatigue and afterwards I was left feeling very tired.

Eventually after months of experiencing up to four episodes a day, I was able to get everything under control with medication by the middle of the summer. Now I feel pretty much back to normal.

Sadly by that point I was now also dealing with a recurring back injury, which at the time of writing (early September) I’m still having issues with.

My two main forms of exercise are running and cycling. I’ve hardly been able to do either for most of the year. Now when I do get out I usually pay for it the next day with back pain and restricted movement. Lots of fun this injury business.

Having lost my ability to exercise that meant my half marathon goal was toast. Even more annoying, without regular exercise I started putting on weight. Instead of losing a stone I gained one. Whoops. Another goal down.

Over the course of summer I changed job, went on holiday, had some other personal stuff going on and then I looked back and I hadn’t played or recorded any music for months and it looks like the EP goal is going to be missed as well.

You know what though? It’s OK. I’m not too down about missing these goals. Stuff happens. I’ve been pretty lucky and avoided any serious health issues or injuries over the years so to lose one year to some problems isn’t a big deal. I’m disappointed I didn’t get to take part in the first Great Run to happen in Aberdeen and obviously I’m annoyed at putting on weight but the layoff has given me opportunities as well.

I’ve hunted for advice on how I can fix my back problems which are apparently muscular issues, so I’ve looked at how I can increase my range of movement and the strength in my core. Both are issues I’ve meant to address for a long time but while I’ve concentrated on running and cycling it never seemed too urgent.

For the last couple of months I’ve used a two prong approach of body weight strength exercises and yoga. Both give a flexible program of movements which can be done with very little equipment and can easily fit into a life at home with a two year old toddler. I’ve even tried to get her involved a couple of times but she’s not quite got the hang of handstands or pull-ups yet (who am I kidding, I haven’t got the hang of them either!).

The body weight exercises I’ve grabbed from the amazingly helpful and supportive community at r/bodyweightfitness who, as well as publishing a recommended routine complete with detailed progressions and prerequisites, also publish regular technique features, videos and maintain an app for the exercises all for the princely sum of nothing at all.

Another superb resource of inspiration and tips has been the excellent folk at Gold Medal Bodies who offer premium paid for content of training programs, but also publish some fantastic blogs and video content for free on their website and Facebook page.

Then there’s the yoga. There’s a lot of nonsense which surrounds yoga. To be honest a lot of it I can do without, especially after buying a reference book for the movements and flicking through a load of pseudo-scientific rubbish in the surrounding chapters. However, the physical and mental benefits of spending a bit of time going through a yoga flow and then the reward of the Savasana meditative pose at the end are immense.

I wanted yoga to be something I can do at home in a quiet corner of the living room to unwind. Not a communal class I had to drive to and commit to an hour or so of discomfort in the presence of others every time I wanted to do some movements. To that end I installed the Down Dog app. It’s available for free with a premium version which offers extra ways to customise your practice, but to be honest the cheaper one gives you plenty to get going with.

Neither the bodyweight routine or the yoga practice are easy, even for someone who is relatively fit and flexible. The variety of movements and the range of progression means I’m always being pushed but even after the few short weeks I’ve been doing them I can see a big improvement in strength and most importantly my back!

Just the act of maintaining some kind of exercise routine (even if it’s not the exercise I want to be doing) has improved my mood considerably. It’s also made it a lot easier to motivate myself to get my diet back in shape using some calorie tracking to pinpoint exactly where I’m doing the damage to my waistline and tweak it as necessary.

So while I may have failed some of my initial goals for the year, I’m not down about it. I’ve embraced the opportunity to be flexible and try some new challenges. If I can strengthen my back and get back to running then this years goals will still be there, waiting for me, in 2018. In the meantime just getting back to health is a big enough goal by itself.

Oh, I didn’t mention the goal I set about publishing some poetry. Issue #5 of The Poet’s Republic, released in September 2017, features one of my poems. As does The Federation of Writers (Scotland) New Writers Scotland anthology to be released in Autumn 2017. Hooray! One goal complete!

Health and fitness, Thoughts

On mental health and the importance of talking


Today is World Mental Health Day. These events are designed to encourage people to talk about mental health and reduce the stigma around mental illness. But for all the publicity and the increase in celebrities talking openly about their issues, there is still a stigma around depression, anxiety and other disorders.

Last year that stigma prevented me from going to a doctor and talking about my own problems with anxiety and depression until it had reached a chronic state. This was despite dealing with close family members and colleagues who experienced similar issues in the recent past and understanding how important it is to talk about these problems.

The fact is that I was, and still am, embarrassed to  talk about it. I’m a very logical person and I find it hard to come to terms with the fact that I can be crippled with anxiety and depressed (one usually follows the other with me) for seemingly illogical and mundane reasons. So to turn around and talk about those problems is very difficult. It feels like a weakness, a failing, like I’m screwing up by not being able to cope with problems at work or the little stresses of daily family life.

Yet the logical part of my brain keeps reminding me that it’s normal, it’s an illness, lots of people go through this and it’s all just a physical chemical response to various external pressures over the last 3 years. It’s really infuriating. I understand what is happening to me and I believe I know what the causes are and how I need to improve things. But my body doesn’t seem to listen.

I’ve been taking Sertraline for about a year now. It’s a fairly common anti-depressant which, despite some wacky side effects like incredibly vivid dreams, appears to have levelled out my anxiety to a much more manageable level. So much so that I tried coming off it for a couple of months over the summer, but sadly the symptoms of uncontrolled fear returned after a few weeks and I made the decision to go back on the pills for a bit longer.

Despite the medication I still find that some days I will have a feeling of general anxiety rising in the pit of my stomach. Or I’ll feel a bit down for a day or two. Often this will be followed by a cold or some other physical illness. Almost like my body gets distracted dealing with the early symptoms of a virus and forgets to deal with the long term mental illness for a few days.

I’ve also noticed that despite the improvement in my general mood the illness has robbed me of a lot of my confidence. I’ve always been a bit of an introvert but could blag my way through social situations, presentations at work and even stand on stage with a guitar in front of not very many people (the bands I’ve played in were always under appreciated by local audiences). Now I find myself feeling scared to approach new situations or even attend events like large family gatherings, friend’s parties or music gigs. I manage to force myself to get along to most things and once there I think I bluff my way through well enough, but it’s tiring. Hopefully over time I can recover some of that self-confidence I’d grown over the years.

So things are OK in general, thanks to the medication, some changes in circumstance (moving job helped a lot), an increase in exercise and of course the initial decision to talk to my family and a GP about my problems rather than try to fix things myself and hope it would pass.

If you’re suffering from any kind of mental health issue, no matter how severe, it really does help to talk about it. Even just talking anonymously to other sufferers on the internet can be the first step you need to recovering from the illness. Sites like No More Panic and the depression and anxiety subs on Reddit offer lots of sympathetic ears if your own support network is lacking, or you just don’t want to talk face to face yet.

I guess I just want to say for World Mental Health Day and every day remember, it gets better, it can affect any of us and please try to talk about it.

Health and fitness

Looking after yourself


I haven’t written a piece for the blog for what seems like months. Probably because it has been months. The truth is I don’t know what to write here anymore. I’ve started a few pieces only to delete them after they’ve sat unfinished for weeks. It’s not that I haven’t been doing anything to write about; I’m still cooking (although much less since my daughter was born), still playing music (although much less since my daughter was born) and still running and cycling (although… well… you get the idea). I’m also writing poetry and fiction and have managed to pick up a few more small interests which could make for interesting blog topics.

My problem is that there’s a whopping big elephant in the room. Before I can get back to writing about the hobbies that really interest and excite me, I feel like I should write about the big issue I’ve been trying to overcome for the last year. Since the middle of 2015 I’ve been treated for anxiety and depression.

But you know what? I’m not going to. I’ve been feeling like I owe it myself and others to go into a detailed post writing about my journey through this illness. The truth is I don’t. I don’t owe it to anyone to make myself ill again by going over the ground that got me here in detail.

Instead I’m going to say this. If you feel under pressure. If you feel stressed. If your little ball of occasional anxiety is growing every day until you dread going to work, seeing friends or doing the things in life you enjoy. If you feel down and don’t know why. If you feel down and you do know why! Talk to someone. Do what you can to get help and take it when it’s offered.

Talk to those closest to you and don’t just assume they know what’s going on and understand. It can take some explaining, but it’s absolutely worth doing so they can support you through this.

The best advice I can give anyone though is to look after yourself. Find a sport or hobby that you want to do, anything that keeps you fit and gets you active a couple of times a week. If you don’t already do something, try something. Don’t assume you can’t do something because you have to be a certain level of fitness. Everyone has to start somewhere and you’ll be amazed at the improvement in your personal fitness you can see in the first few months of trying a new hobby.

Take time out and relax. Get outside and sit in the sun or walk along a beach. Read a book in your garden with a glass of wine.

Eat well and eat balanced. Treat yourself only occasionally (but do treat yourself) and cut down on booze. All these things, exercise, diet, physical fitness and mental health are intrinsically linked. While it can be hard to juggle everything, if you find that you’re completely ignoring aspects of your health it will end up impacting your overall welfare.

Look after yourselves. Don’t keep problems bottled up. Get help if you need it.

Health and fitness

Ride The North 2015


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I’ve done a few stupid things over the years. Thinking I was ready to try a Scottish Hill Running Championship race on a snowy Clachnaben a few years ago was memorably painful. But when I saw the announced route for Ride The North 2015 was going to finish in Stonehaven, the town I’d recently moved back to, I made possibly my most stupid decision for a long time.

Thankfully I managed to rope in an equally stupid friend and we were able to cajole each other through our (sporadic) training until we dropped our bikes off at Pittodrie (where they were being transferred from) on a cool Thursday before taking our seats on the bus to Inverness for the event start. What followed was one of the hardest but most rewarding two days I’ve had for years.

The event, in it’s fifth year, wound it’s way from Inverness to Elgin on day 1 (via the very scenic route) before leaving Elgin on day 2 and taking a more direct route towards the finish line at Stonehaven. A total distance of some 175 miles. Our last big training ride was just 65 miles, mostly in the pissing rain. For the two weeks after that ride I was gripped by fear that the whole event would be a soggy hell, which eight hundred miserable cyclists would endure solely because they’d forked out over £100 for the privilege and they didn’t want to see it go to waste.

Despite some grey clouds lingering with intent on the first day, there was little sign of rain for the duration and in fact the worst thing we had to deal with was a bit of blustery wind on some of the more exposed sections of the route. Hardly worth complaining about really. With the weather doing it’s bit it was up to those of us clipped into the pedals to get on with things, so we set off from Inverness raring to go only to immediately get off our bikes 100 yards from the start to walk over a pedestrian bridge.  But then we were off! At least until we hit some temporary traffic lights on the road out to Dores. And then another set of lights. And another.

Such is life. Eventually we left the main road and it’s roadworks and hit the first climb of the day. The large group of cyclists which had formed at the succession of traffic lights soon spread out as we climbed high above Loch Ness and spent the morning pedalling towards Slochd.  Climbing was a constant feature of the first morning and although it was slow and painful going we were rewarded with some absolutely stunning views from the mostly unclassified roads and tracks which we were following.

After lunch we had a steady climb from Carrbridge before an afternoon of ecstatic downhill as we hurtled towards Forres and Elgin. By the time we were picking our way through the streets of Forres I was starting to feel very uncomfortable on the bike, having surpassed my one day mileage record set in the rain a few weeks earlier. My hands were throwing flashes of pins and needles up my arms and every time I went over a bump my feet exploded in pain where the cleats were pushing against the balls of my feet. The relief a short while later when we swung into the Glen Moray distillery in Elgin was immense. Shortly followed by worry as the pain in my feet grew worse, then despair as we found there was no whisky left! Thankfully both problems eased after ten minutes.

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A bus ride to Lossiemouth and a night’s fitful rest saw everyone gather the next morning back at the distillery to breathe in the wonderful fumes and hope it might have a medicinal effect on our weary bums and my aching feet. Sadly it seems fermenting yeast fumes aren’t analgesic.  The first twenty miles were uncomfortable for many. I found it impossible to get a relaxed position on the bike and spent most of the first hour dancing around my seat instead of sitting on it, while my hands and feet continued their protests from the night before.

Pulling into the first break stop of the day I decided to do something about my situation rather than complain all day, so paid my first visit to the mechanic station. A five minute check of my bike followed by a relaxed seat on the grass while I moved the cleats in my shoes saw me pull smoothly away from the feed station with pain free feet, newly inflated tired and silent gears. Brilliant. I was ready to face the climbs over the Cabrach.

Day two had promised more miles, more hills and more pain than day one. It duly delivered. At times the hills seemed relentlesss and unforgiving. Every time I thought I’d escaped their clutches we turned a corner to find yet another incline facing us with the sounds of chains clunking down the gears and swearing riders following quickly on. Despite this everyone was proceeding in relatively high spirits. Tired, uncomfortable but enjoying the challenge.

Unlike the first day we knew that the afternoon wasn’t going to reward us with an easy freewheel through Deeside and instead, as we continued to hit hill after hill (including a truly despicable 17% incline immediately after the best bit of downhill all day), we took heart from each little sign of our progress. I cheered the big blue Welcome to Aberdeenshire sign, screamed as I spotted Durris mast in the distance and grinned like  a mad fool before setting a new personal best for a Strava segment after cresting Cheyne Hill and seeing Stonehaven laid before me.

Before that I almost crumbled, broken at the final (advertised) feed station in Torphins when the two days of riding finally caught up with me and I hit the wall hard. Feeling light headed, as a brass band played 500 Miles (hah!), I was forced to sit down and gulp energy gels and water until I felt I could carry on. Later my friends told me I was speaking gibberish as I told them I wanted to press on while I still felt able and would see them at the finish.

Shortly after that I felt a lot better as the sugar from the gel and the energy drink I was downing on the bike started to take effect. A final surprise cake stop at the top of the hill over Knockburn Loch gave me enough energy for the final blast over Durris before we were greeted by what seemed like thousands of people lining the beach promenade at Stonehaven to welcome the cyclists home.

I quickly found my wife, baby and my mum who’d came down to support me before joining my small group of friends who I’d spent the two days cycling with as we supported each other, spurred each other up the hills and gleefully raced down the other sides.  It was painful, mad at times, seemingly impossible some other times and it was now over. I couldn’t have been more proud of myself and the rest of us for finishing. It was brilliant.

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All through the two days we were spurred on by people at the side of the street, outside their houses, in their cars and most of all at the feed stations and lunch stops along the route. Huge thanks to those who organised and helped with what is without a doubt one of the best organised mass events I’ve ever taken part in. Without those people I doubt half of us would have had the will to keep going to the finish.

Also special mention to all the other riders. The sense of camaraderie and shared achievement was palpable throughout the ride, with everyone sharing encouragement and being respectful to the rest of the riders. Was great to see all the red Stonehaven CC jerseys too. Will need to try and get a hold of one of them!

Some people are already talking about next year. I don’t think I can see myself at the start again so soon. For me 2016 will probably be a return to running and the goal of a sub-2 hour half marathon but Ride The North has definitely given me the cycling bug. I’ll be looking for some good one day sportives or similar to try dragging my trusty steed around. Though I can’t imagine anything will come close to the feeling I got at the finish line in Stonehaven last weekend.

At the time of writing I’ve raised £355 for Home Start UK for doing Ride The North, which is superb. My sincere thanks to everyone who’s sponsored me!