Saturday, February 15, 2014

Meet the Iron Maiden

We all get our inspiration from somewhere. Whether it is our family, friends, or the pinterest. Having fit and healthy people in your life definitely motivates you to stick to a healthier lifestyle. I am lucky enough to made a friend this year, who not only fits the description of "butt-crazy", but who is a huge inspiration to the people around her.

Today, I want you to meet Hannah. She is studying with me, and we got to know each other through our mutual passion for fitness. She has some incredibly helpful advice, tips and tricks, and will also tell you a little about her big plans for this year. I will let her speak for herself.

For anyone who knows what an Ironman is, I permit you to skip the next couple of sentences. An Ironman is an ultra-distance triathlon consisting of a 2.4mile swim/112mile cycle/26.2mile run all which has to be completed in under 17 hours. The first Ironman was held in Hawaii in 1978 and from there has spread into a global event, with new locations and races popping up every year as the popularity for the sport increases; yes believe it or not, Ironman places are, for the more popular locations at least, hard to come by, with some races selling out on preregistration alone. Fear not however, if you didn’t manage to get a place for your first choice there’s always the backup option of signing up for Ironman Wales. It’s notoriously hilly and regarded as one of the tougher events you can enter so generally takes a little longer to sell out than the flatter ones. Don’t judge, we are all human…an Ironman is still an Ironman after all, even if it’s on the flat and whilst we might be masochistic enough to want to complete an Ironman, some of us have the good sense to avoid excessive hills if at all possible. 
So in case it hasn’t been implied from my tone, I have signed up for an Ironman triathlon. So who am I? Well I am an economics student, I have a part time job working for a designer sportswear company and I am an exercise enthusiast, although some may replace enthusiast with addict. 
Saying that sport and exercise has always been a major part of my life would be an outright lie. I am not blessed with natural athleticism and during my early teenage years, boys and horses were my main focuses. If you had told the 16 year old version of me that one day I would sign up for an Ironman (you would have had to first explain to me what an Ironman was) I would have laughed at you. 
My first trips to the gym were purely for vanity reasons and until about 2 years ago I would count my cardio workouts in terms of calories burned rather than distance travelled or time done. I was a gym rat that watched the calorie counter on the cardio equipment tick over until I had burned the number I had come in to do. Now exercise is mainly done outdoors and for me I no longer think of it as going for a run to burn off that chocolate bar I ate or going for a cycle ride to tone up the thighs, I think of it as training. The thought process of ‘I need to work out today in order to not get fat’ has shifted to ‘I need to train today so I can be successful’. 
Obviously training as often as I do, the ‘not getting fat’ side of things sort of takes care of itself. My mind set has also shifted from wanting my body to look a certain way to understanding and appreciating that it’s not so much what it looks like but it’s what you can do with it that counts. Exercise is no longer about appearances, I appreciate the freedom that being incredibly physically fit and active gives you.    
Ironman is not only regarded as a monumental physical challenge but also as a massive mental challenge which is where my lack of natural athleticism comes in handy. It may sound odd but because it doesn’t come easily to me, it makes me want it more and when you are at that physical breaking point, where everything hurts and you just want to cry, that’s where mental strength comes in and at the end of the day that is what will take you over the finish line; the hunger and the desire to be successful, the need to prove yourself in a field that you nor anyone else would ever put you in. 
So why an Ironman you may ask? Well it is, as previously explained, tough and carries a level of prestige and awe that not many other events carry. I wanted to do something that scared me and excites me at the same time, that pushes me to breaking point and that at the end of it hopefully makes me realise that anything is possible if you just work your ass off. Signing up for it was fuelled more by my passion for cycling, running and my overly competitive ego than any sort of rational thought. Well there was some sort of rationality behind it, I had been thinking about signing up for well over a year, it was just I finally found my metaphorical balls and signed up. 
Whilst the desire to do an Ironman is neglecting all sort of rational thought, the training structure and nutrition plans more than make up for that. There is so much literature available on training for everything from a 10km to an Ironman that sometimes it can be hard to know what to do. My advice on this is either hire a coach (one recommended to you is better than one pulled off the internet) or ask someone who you know has competed in the event you are planning to do and who you feel confident would give you sound advice. 
Without getting too technical and talking about base, build and peak phases of Ironman training or without using words such as cadence, VO2 max, aerobic and anaerobic, my written down training plan (I say written down because sometimes life gets in the way and things need shuffled around a little) involves three runs, three swims, three cycles, one strength and conditioning session and one yoga session per week. Eleven sessions per week might seem like a lot, especially when some of them can be fairly long in duration, but the key is getting up early and getting it out the way. There is nothing worse than after a long day of work or university knowing that you still have to do a long run or go to the pool when all you want to do is go home and eat. 
This is actually where training partners come in handy. You are accountable to someone and if you are lucky enough to have one that you are competitive enough with, you are never going to be the one who pulls out of a training session or suggests shortening your run because you’re tired or you’re legs hurt, you simply suck it up and rebrand your grimace as a smile. 
My top tips for training is utilize your commute if you have one, look for the odd hour in your schedule and fit in what you can when you can, if you’re injured give yourself a day off or go swimming (unless it’s a swimming injury of course) but ultimately training just comes down to consistency, hard work, perseverance and listening to your body. 
It doesn’t matter if you are training to be a body builder or training for an Ironman, diet is hugely important. If you are not fuelling your body correctly or eating for the type of event you’re training for, you will struggle to succeed. 
People often say to me ‘with the amount of exercise you do, you must be able to eat whatever you want’. There’s an element of truth in that, I can consume more calories than the average person but simply because I am burning them off. I however cannot eat whatever I want. Firstly not all calories are equal and secondly if I eat crap then I feel crap. 
One thing that is not talked about a lot, mainly because it’s a little disgusting, is the fact that endurance based exercise does funny things to your digestive system. All that running around seems to churn up your intestines and the result is sometimes unpleasant; often called runner’s tummy (yes the runners’ part of that phrase could be taken one of two ways). The key to this is a balanced and consistent diet. Don’t introduce unfamiliar food to your diet before races or before long training sessions. I will not lie, my diet is fairly boring and repetitive because I know what I can eat and I know what will make me feel sick or bloated and for the most part I stay well clear of those food. 
Again without getting too technical about macros, the key thing I find when training is to eat healthy and if you can cook from scratch with one ingredient food. What do I mean by one ingredient foods? A food item that has no list of ingredients, it simply is what it is. For example a pepper is simply a pepper or a chicken breast is simply a chicken breast. If you can do this for 70% of diet, you would be doing quite well. 
Like with training, listening to your body with your food is massively important and over time you learn to know what your body needs. Odd indulgences are fine as they make you realise how good your strict diet make your body feel. 
I would definitely say that my attitudes to food has changed. I now no longer train to justify the food, I eat to justify the training. You cannot run your car on an empty tank of fuel so why anyone thinks they can run their body on an empty stomach is beyond me. 
So if you’ve made it to this point, then congratulations, I’m giving myself a mental hug that I haven’t completely bored you all. I guess you’re now thinking that training for an Ironman sounds like great fun and a bit of a walk in the park. I’m about to shatter that illusion. 
The hardest thing with training for an Ironman, or maybe I should say the hard things as there are multiple challenges, are no drinking (or only on very special occasions), the long training sessions even when you don’t want to do them, the caffeine addiction (don’t worry if you don’t have a caffeine addiction at the moment, it will come and soon you too can be one of the cyclists you see in artisan coffee shops with their Lycra and cycling shoes on), the sense guilt you get when you’re at work or at university when you feel you should be training, or the sense of guilt you get when you’re training that you should be at work or university, the wind and the rain and the dark cold nights, the getting up at the crack of dawn and wondering if you’re awake enough not to drown in the pool but most of all for me the absolute hardest thing is the fear of missing out (of FOMO as it’s now known as by the youth of today) on social events or simply just hanging out with your friends.
It’s the realisation that your time is somewhat limited and you can’t do it all. At the end of the day you have to choose what is most important to you and for me I associate far more with a quote by Muhammad Ali “Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion” than I do with the school of thought that you’re only young once so do what you want and think about the consequences later on. 
Hopefully, you’ve read this and thought that maybe you would like to sign up for an event of some description. Well there’s never the perfect time and there’s never the perfect race, it’s all about challenging yourself and pushing yourself to be better than you were before. So as Nike infamously said ‘Just Do It’, honestly what have you got to lose?

I don't know about you, but after reading this I am super keen to sign up for a Marathon! However, I should wait a couple of minutes, I am sure that feeling will go away just thinking about putting my running shoes on and jogging through the rain...

Nevertheless, signing up for a race is the perfect way to get in shape. It is a commitment you make, from which you cannot get out once you tell your friends and family about it. Start slow, and build up your strength and endurance over time. It will be very difficult at times, but in the end, the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment is more than worth it. We might not all look the same way, and we might not all feel the same way, but on the inside, there is an Iron Maiden in all of us.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Shiver off that back fat!

After almost a month of silence I am back on track. I really want to start making this a regular post, so that I can share some fitness and health information, recipes and workouts with you every weekend. So from now on, stay tuned, and check back in every weekend to see what exciting news I have to share with you!

As an economics student, I really should stay up to date with current events, no matter if its in regard to international politics, the economy or business. However, I am a very lazy reader (unfortunately), and I have to admit that I spend my mornings looking at tasty recipes on Pinterest, rather than scrolling through the news. Pinterest is my one addiction, so stop making that judgmental face. I am easily entertained, ok?! So, in order to stay in the know about what is going on in the world, I ask my boyfriend to read the news to me [usually I don't even have to ask, he tells me anyways]. The other day, he excitedly read an article to me, which confirmed his long-developed claim that cold showers might be beneficial for fat loss. After that, I did some research, and here is a small summary of what I found:

First off, check out the article on ABC News: "Cold Showers may be secret to burning fat, research suggests" A new study from the US claims, that 10-15 minutes of shivering can provide the same results as an hour of moderate exercise. Now, seeing that I am not the biggest fan of cardio, but still sweat my bottom off on the bike, this is outrageous to me! How can they claim that a cold shower might be just as beneficial as an hour floundering my heart out when it comes to burning calories?!

Here is the 'scientific' background [I put scientific in quotation marks, because I feel like my explanation is not going to sound very scientific...]: Generally speaking, there are two types of fat cells in your body. White fat cells store energy for later use. Brown fat cells burn energy to regulate your body temperature. Research suggests, that shivering and being cold can turn white fat into brown fat, thus burning more calories and energy. When you are cold, your brown fat gets activated, your metabolism increases, and you start burning more calories in order to stay warm. Furthermore, the production of two hormones [FGF21 and irisin] increased, which also happens during exercise. These two hormones act like a communication line between fat and muscle, and thus help converting white fat into brown fat.

So far so good. Seems reasonable. However, I didn't stop my research there, and found this helpful article online. It basically provides a good summary discussing whether cold showers can really help with weightloss:
- The effect of decreased temperature on fat burning rate is very small, and varies from person to person
- Research suggests that overweight persons have less brown fat
- Swimming in cold water increases calorie intake, as it makes you hungrier

From these findings I took that taking cold showers in the morning definitely is NOT the new weightloss secret. In fat, I am happy to claim that, if you are obese, it will not change a thing. Nutrition, portion control, and regular exercise are still your best bet if you want to get rid of that extra fat. However, to me, the scientific explanation makes sense. I feel like exposing yourself to the cold every now and then might help you increase your metabolic rate throughout the day, thus burning more calories. If you want to lose those last 10 pounds [and we all know that's the hardest part], why not give it a try? There are many more benefits you gain from taking a cold shower in the morning, apart from burning more fat:
- Improved circulation [redistribution of blood flow]
- Improved immune system [stress on the body increases number of white blood cells]
- Improved energy levels [what else is better to wake you up from your morning slumber?!]
- Healthier skin and hair [pores close and this keeps out dirt and bacteria]

I will definitely give it a try and let you know how I go with my cold showers. However, I refuse to jump right in and start my morning with a 30 second cold shower. I think I would just die of a heart-attack, as I usually put the water temperature on the hottest possible. So here is a good procedure to start adjusting to cold showers:
1. Start off with your normal temperature, and enjoy the pleasure whilst it lasts.
2. Adjust the temperature to the middle between your normal preference, and the coldest temperature.
3. Stay here for a couple of minutes and adjust.
4. Adjust the temperature again, taking the middle between the coldest and the one you are on now.
5. Stay here and adjust.
6. Finally, turn the hot water off completely and put your shower on the coldest temperature possible.
7. Stay here for at least 30 seconds.

I also read that the body contains the most brown fat in the neck and back area, so let the cold water run down your back to activate those fat cells. Easy, right?

I will start taking cold showers in the mornings from now on, a nice little self-experiment project, and let you know how I go. I wonder if it is worth it in the end, 30 seconds of suffering in the morning...maybe I will be able to get up to 10-15 minutes of shivering in the shower, and could then skip my cardio for the day? Definitely worth it!

What do you think? Cold shower yay or nay? It seems like there is some scientific evidence that suggests that taking a cold shower in the morning can aid weightloss. However, more research and detailed experiments are necessary to show individual effects and the extend to which fat burning ability is increased through the cold. If you are curious and super hardcore [like me], join me in this 'cold-shower-terrbile-morning' challenge and let me know your results! Maybe, together, we can shiver off that back fat!

PS: Here is a super tasty recipe that I wanted to share for you. I made these Baked Sweet Potatoes with creamy Tuna Dip last night, and they were delicious! It is super easy and quick, and provides you with a ton of nutrition. Here is the recipe:

Baked Potato (about 130g)
Greek Yogurt (50-100g)
Tuna in brine (one can, 130g)
Sweetcorn (80g)

Wash and cut the Sweet potato in half. Place on a baking tray and cover with foil. Bake at 200C for about 40 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the tuna, greek yogurt and sweetcorn in a bowl. Place all the ingredients on a plate. Mine looked a little like a bunny head.

Sweet potatoes and sweetcorn provide you with a healthy amount of good carbs, and help curb those sugar cravings. In general, sweet potato is labeled a 'super-food' which highlights its overall health benefits [and I read it might aid in fighting cancer?]. Tuna is the perfect weightloss food - it is high in protein which helps repair your muscle and tissue after a workout, and keeps you fill for longer. Greek yogurt also is a good source of protein, and provides you with healthy fats before bedtime. And mixed together, this comfort meal is just scrumptious and super filling [and if you stick to the measurements, only about 400 cal]. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Pump It Up!

Music has become a perfectly integrated part of our culture. We listen to music in the morning whilst we brush our teeth, we learn about it at school, many of us either sing or play an instrument, and for exercise, music can be a great motivational tool.

When it comes to the newest trends and the most popular songs, I am the wrong person to ask. My iPod still has the same songs as five years ago, and the only time I find out about new songs either when my friends talk about it, or if it comes up on the gym's music channel during my cardio workout. In the past, I always got my best friend in Germany to supply me with the newest music whenever I went back to Germany. The same happened this Christmas.

The result was one of the coolest Christmas presents your friend can give you. She made me a workout playlist of 50 songs, all packed onto a USB in the form of Darth Vader. Music on a Star Wars themed USB? How cool is that? He is even holding a little red lightsaber. Have a look for yourself:

Anyways, enough about Darth Vader. What I actually wanted to say is this: when it comes to working out, don't forget your music. No matter if you are sweating on a treadmill, or lifting heavy weights with all the other beasts, music that can help push you that last bit that makes all the difference. I would also recommend changing up your playlist every now and then, maybe you could combine it with changing up your workout routine, every 4-6 weeks.

My workout playlist now is a weird mix of artistic (and not so artistic) master pieces. The music on my iPod ranges from terrible German Rap (which I find hilariously entertaining) to the common pop songs. The best of all, however, are the instrumental pieces. Surprisingly enough, I find instrumental pieces the most motivating. I feel like music is not necessarily about what people say (even though from time to time there is a guy screaming "ONE MORE REP" throughout my favourite instrumental piece, but hey, can't hurt), but how it makes you feel. There is music out there that makes me feel like I can conquer the world (some parts of the soundtrack of Pirates of the Caribbean for example). My boyfriend and I went to the gym at night, when not many other people were training, and I got my daily dose of cardio in. This time, however, with my new playlist blasting in my ears, I could go faster than usual, and I even had fun torturing myself on those machines! The music made all the difference.

Scientific research regarding the effect of music on exercising performance shows mixed results. In their study The effects of music tempo and loudness level on treadmill exercise, Judy Edworthy and Hannah Waring (2006) confirm that "fast, loud music might be played to enhance optimal exercising." In contrast, Schwartz, Fernhall and Plowmann (1990) find no direct linear relationship between music and any of the measured physiological variables (such as heart rate or aerobic capacity). However, I think it is save to agree with the following statements, which are conclusions drawn from a literature review by Kravitz:

  1. Subjects often reported that they felt like they performed better when their workout was accompanied by music. Therefore, music may improve a person's enjoyment and fulfillment of physical exercises.
  2. Music appears to provide a motivational construct to exercise, positively affecting the mental attitude of students.
  3. Music may evoke pleasant associations, whilst masking unpleasant stimuli (rapid breathing). It may also serve as a distraction from internal feelings such as discomfort and frustration.

Another example where music helped me achieve my fitness goals was during my half marathon last April. Before the run I put together a 2.5 hour long playlist, and I swore to myself that: a). I wouldn't stop running until the music finishes (unless I reach the finish line before then) and b). I would finish the race before the music stopped. I accomplished my goal and ran my 13.1 miles in 2 hours and 14 minutes (it really should have been 2 hours, but I got lazy in between...maybe next time). The music helped me take my mind off my aching knees and also got me to focus on my goal.

You see, music is a workout companion. Today it was even an integrated part of my workout. I went to Zumba with my mum, because she wanted to show me what she gets up to. I have to admit - it was actually really fun. I tried Zumba once before at my gym, but I left the class without losing a drop of sweat, so it didn't seem worth it to me. Tonight, however, the class was conducted my a small, energetic Russian lady, who wouldn't/couldn't stop smiling throughout the whole training hour. Her energy and happiness was infectious. For one hour I made a total fool out of myself, trying to align my hands, arms, legs and feed. It was amazing fun, and I actually left the room feeling like I got a decent workout. The music during Zumba workouts is very motivational, as it pumps you up, and you are basically not able to stand still anyways. This makes it a really fun workout, where you don't constantly think about "am I burning off that piece of carrot cake yet?" or "how long do I still have to gooooooo?" You have to concentrate so hard on coordinating your limbs that there is not space or time for any other thought. If you are just starting your healthy lifestyle, and are looking for a great beginner's exercise routine that is fun and you can to in a group, I would definitely recommend Zumba. If you pair it with the targeted weight training option and a customized nutrition plan, you are definitely on the right track to transform your body into a health machine. Follow the link to Register for free at  

Right, I feel like I got a little bit distracted today, and told you everything that was on my mind regarding music and exercising. But I am sure you got the gist. Music and working out are inextricably linked. Music can serve as motivation to give you that final push that makes all the differences. So plug in your headphones, get a good tune playing, and Pump It Up!


Edworthy, J. and Waring, H., 2006, "The Effect of music tempo and loudness level on treadmill exercise", Ergonomics, Volume 49 (15), pp. 1597-1610

Kravitz, L., The Effects of Music on Exercise?, Selected Articles by Len Kravitz and Colleagues, accessed 11/01/2014,

Schwartz, S. E., Fernhall, B., and Plowman, S. A., 1990, "Effects of music on exercise performance." Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation, Volume 10, pp. 312-316

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Step by Step

Happy New Years to all my lovely readers out there! I hope you enjoyed your holidays and had some time to reflect on the past year. I certainly did, and I would like share some of the insights I gained from this thinking process.

A New Years' Resolution is a common tool for people to 'commit' to a healthier and fitter lifestyle. Every time I return to my gym after the holidays I get frustrated because it is so packed! All throughout January and February I can watch people trying to stick to their promise to go to the gym more often and get fit. However, mid-February, it is back to normal and I am able to finish my workout in the usual 1.5 hours. Not that I don't think committing to being a healthier and more sustainable you is bad, but I don't think that you should go cold turkey on yourself.

Getting healthy and fit is nothing you can change from one day to another. It is a long and tedious process of motivation, commitment and sacrifice. In order to prepare yourself and your body, you need to take the challenge step by step. If you don't know where to start, or if you would like a support network and personalized advice, please Register for free at

If you want to change your habits in the long run, you need to do so step by step. If you cut out all sugar, carbs, processed foods or soda drinks from one day to another, you will not only be incredibly unhappy, but it is unlikely that you will stick to your goals. Your body might be used to all those things, and not having them will trigger mood swings, cravings and unhappiness. Many people in today's society are addicted to certain foods, and I admit that I am definitely one of them. I tried to cut out all sugars and carbs over an extended period of time, and I cannot say that it made me a better person (you are lucky you didn't meet me during my trial of the low carb diet). If you want to have long lasting success, you need to change small things, and turn healthier decisions into habits. Here are my top 3 tips and tricks that I have collected throughout the past years.

  1. Watch what you are drinking. Many people increase their calorie intake immensely through their drinks. Sodas, sweet teas and sugar-packed coffee drinks all fall into this category. Take my mum for example: She used to drink a chocolate mocha drink (made from powder) every day at work. She first switched to black tea with two teaspoons of sugar, and now has cut it down to one teaspoon of sugar. Obviously that wasn't the only change she implemented, but she herself said that she felt like it made a huge difference. She now only enjoys her chocolate mocha once on the weekend. You see, cutting something out completely is not always necessary (unless it is actually straight up damaging your health). Try to swap for healthier options. If you love your artificially flavoured soda, try some naturally flavoured water. Put orange slices, lemon slices, some strawberries and cucumber into a jar of fresh water and let it rest for a little while. You end up with a refreshing drink that not only has zero calories and helps you detoxify your system, but also is hopefully able to satisfy your cravings to the point you don't need soda anymore.
  2. Don't avoid movement. People nowadays get lazier and lazier. I can feel it myself. I complain if I have to go downstairs to fill up my water bottle, even though my tongue feels like a fluffy carpet (which is not exactly pleasant in ones mouth). Maybe you could make your new goal to take the stairs instead of the elevator, to park at the far end of the parking lot or to take a walk every night instead of sitting in front of the TV. If you decide to join a gym, start out with two days per week, to get used to the increased exercise and to be able to definitely fit it into your time schedule. You will soon enjoy working out and thus automatically dedicate more time and effort towards working out.
  3. TV snacks. I know that is a sensitive topic. We all love our sour worms, potato crisps or chocolate during our favourite movie or TV show. A friend and I actually discussed this topic a couple of weeks ago. Before we came to uni, we never had the urge to eat food whilst watching something. But since we watched a lot of TV and movies with our friends together, it became a social event which always included snacks. When you are watching TV, you don't realise how much you are eating, and before you know it, you have emptied the whole bag (and then feel sick 20 minutes afterwards). If you don't want to miss out on your treats, introduce some portion control. Put a serving of chips into a bowl before you get comfortable in front of your TV (and no, more movement to get the rest of the bag is NOT required in this instance). If you are willing to avoid unhealthy snacks, swap them. Instead of potato chips, try raw veggies (cucumber, carrots, peppers) and dip - it is delicious, fills you up and gives you a similar crunch to chips. If you are craving something sweet, go for dried fruits and nuts or dried banana chips (however, here portion control, once again, is crucial). If you are looking for something more smooth, have a serving of Greek yogurt and walnuts (fats around bed time are actually recommended). 

It's the small things that make a difference :)

Getting healthy and fit in the New Year is an amazing goal, and I hope I will be helping to guide and support you in reaching that goal. However, you should keep your aims and the corresponding measures realistic. Don't go cold turkey and deprive yourself, or knock yourself out in the gym. Instead, change your habits step by step to make long term, sustainable changes. 

Face the challenge step by step, and you will be successful in the end.