How To Conquer Triathlon

Blenheim Palace Triathlon is looming this weekend for myself and many others, so to help a few with some details, I have put together this post to try and calm friends and strangers alike. It certainly doesn’t cover everything – I could write a book on it, and several people have – but it covers the main points.

So, you’re having a meltdown because you have signed up for a triathlon and now it’s only a few days away! I am going to impart as much wisdom as my brain has, and hopefully it will help any budding triathletes, out of practice athletes, or anyone who has a brain like a sieve like I do and needs to check their kit bag 30 times before they leave for an event! This is based mostly on a shorter distance triathlon, but can be applied to longer distances if required.

If the race is coming this weekend, then I won’t need to give you any training advice – you should have done that part already! If you feel under-trained, then my advice would be to consider if you have done at least enough to get you round, otherwise you could be risking yourself and potentially risk others on the course. But, hopefully you have done some training and you’re good to go. If you are still worried, there is no point trying to cram training in this week – it should be a gentle week for training; just keep yourself ticking over.

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The beautiful transition area at Blenheim Palace

Next step: whether you have trained hard or not, I would recommend some time invested over the next few days in training your brain. A lot of things are controlled by your mental state, and I like to use some time in the run up to events telling myself that it is possible, I will make it round, and I can do this! It doesn’t always matter how quickly you do it, it’s all about finishing, and gaining experience. PB’s are a bonus!

I think it goes without saying to get plenty of rest and not to overdo it this week. Gentle exercise – certainly nothing at race pace, and a good amount of sleep. If you’re going a distance, a couple of days of carb-loading won’t go amiss! Don’t eat a huge mountain of carbs in one sitting, go for smaller portions in every meal. This will help load your muscles slowly with the energy they need to perform.

Now you’re loaded up, you’re probably going to start looking at your kit bag. Below is a list of essentials, and then I will follow it up with “luxury items” that you may want to include. Just remember, you don’t need to pack the kitchen sink – ask yourself, “do you really need this?”. The worst thing you can do is put too much in your transition area, and give yourself too many choices when you get there in the race. You will spend too long dithering and deciding: socks or no socks… these gloves or those, sun visor or cap? etc. Spend the time now making those decisions and pack ONE!

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Bare necessities:

  • Tri suit, or shorts and top – what you will wear for the whole race, and under your wetsuit
  • Sports bra (if you are a female)
  • Socks – if you have chosen to wear them for the bike/run sections
  • Wetsuit – unless you are brave enough to go in without?!
  • Goggles
  • Towel (for drying your feet off after the swim)
  • Trainers – for running, and cycling if you don’t clip in
  • Cycling shoes – if you do clip in
  • Helmet – a must for riding your bike!
  • Swimming cap (just in case, but generally you will be supplied one for the race)
  • Push bike
  • Fuel and hydration – I will come to that in a bit
  • The contents of your race pack – numbers, stickers, timing chip, safety pins…

That should be all you need to get round, with maybe a couple of extra bits if you are a minimalist! Another decision you should make now – what you are going to put it all in. I remember my first triathlon, where I was lucky enough to have my boyfriend carry my things from one end of Dorney Lake to the other with me, in about 3 different small bags. I saw loads of people wobbling about trying to balance big plastic boxes on their bikes walking along. It seemed to be the norm. I have always wondered if these people have ever heard of rucksacks, or bags, which you can put on your back and then have your hands free to steer your bike to transition. I was fortunate enough to be spoiled with the gift of a transition rucksack, which is a little large, but will be able to carry my wetsuit (with a special compartment of its own for when it’s wet), and everything else I need! I would recommend the rucksack approach.

Luxury items you may wish to bring – the basics, although certainly by no means limited to:

  • GPS watch (probably the most popular item)
  • Bike repair kit (inner tubes, pump – mine is always bolted to my bike, tyre levers, etc.)
  • Sun glasses
  • Sun visor or cap (remember, choose one and take one only with you!)
  • A pair of old flip flops to abandon lake side
  • Race belt – used by many to attach numbers to your body for the cycle and run. For the bike portion you will need a number on your back, and the run a number on your front. You can just spin it round and it saves either re-pinning a number if you are only given one, or wearing one front and back.
  • Lube! This will help your wetsuit slide off like Bruce Almighty’s clothing (if you have ever watched the film). Everyone has their favourite. I prefer a concoction of baby oil and Vaseline – I don’t believe the myths that Vaseline destroys your wetsuit; I have found no physical or scientific evidence of this – but there are other good products like Body Glide. I even read in an entertaining book I once, that there is a lady out there that swears by Durex Play!
  • Sun cream – the waterproof variety
  • Something comfortable to wear afterwards, if you are fortuitous to be racing somewhere stunning that you can look round post-race, such as Blenheim Palace, or you have a celebration after. Also, bear in mind whether there will be somewhere to change, although there is nothing wrong with getting changed in the loo, and wiping yourself down with baby wipes!
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Swim start lining up at Blenheim

Nutrition. My main point here would be the golden rule of all racing events: Never try anything new on race day! You might do it once, and then you will never do it again, after one bad experience. Use what you have been training with, and what your stomach and body is used to. If you can stomach gels and you have been using them, that’s what to go for. As a side note, if you want something similar to gels, but can’t get on with them, energy chews such as Clif Shot Bloks are a good alternative. Jelly babies, Haribo, fig rolls, dried fruit (I like apricots)… Whatever your poison is, that’s what you take. Be sensible – you don’t need enough to survive a week in the jungle – take enough, and a little bit extra in case you struggle, to get you round.

The great thing about a lot of tri gear is that it has places to put things. If you wear a tri suit, it may have pockets in the back, a bit like a cycling jersey. If you have a race belt, you might have purchased one with gel holders in, so you can fix them in before the race. Make it accessible to yourself. It’s easy to take on nutrition on the bike, and if it’s a short distance, you may get away with running without anything. Plan what you are going to eat and when, and stick to it.

Hydration wise, I tend to put a bottle on my bike for a short ride and load it with 2 for a longer one. You won’t be out on the bike for that long in a sprint triathlon, so carrying an extra bottle of water will just be more weight on the bike. You can leave another drink in the transition area if you are worried and drink it when you get off the bike. Water is fine, or you can pop hydration tablets in, if that’s your thing, or simply some squash for a bit of flavour.

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Aerial shot of the beautiful grounds

RACE DAY

  • Make sure you have had plenty of sleep the night before and you are well rested. Don’t fret going to sleep – everything will be fine and all that positive thinking you have been doing will pay off. Check your bag has everything in it before you go to bed, if that puts your mind at rest.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to eat breakfast, get to the event early enough to get parked, set up your transition area before it closes to competitors, and to absorb the atmosphere.
  • Breakfast should be nutritious, and something you are used to. I have inherited my favourite pre-race breakfast from a running buddy, which is porridge with blueberries. He says, “If it’s good enough for Bradley Wiggins, then it’s good enough for me.”. Then, around 30-40 minutes before the race, I will have a banana to top up my energy levels.
  • Practice the day before how you want your transition area laid out, and even practice transition, if you think that will help. Or just spend the time organising in the morning when you are there, making it easy for you to grab what you need fast, and continue your race. Learn from your mistakes. I used to put all my things on top of my towel, and then realised when I got out of the lake and wanted to dry my feet, everything was on top of it, which was no good! It will also make a difference how you lay things out depending on if you have a single transition area, or two separate areas, more commonly known as T1 and T2. Find out what is there on the day and plan around it.
  • Give yourself some extra time to get lubed up, into your wetsuit, and ready to swim.
  • You’re ready to race! Don’t forget all your race numbers, head down to the water, take some deep breaths and go for it!

Do your best, and most importantly, enjoy yourself. If you aren’t enjoying it, and it’s not down to bad luck, I always ask myself, “why am I doing this?”. Push yourself as hard  as you can, and achieve what you want to achieve. You have got this!

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Thanks for reading, and good luck to those of you racing this weekend!

Amanda x

I Should Have Run Alone

Before you form an opinion of this post, or dismiss it, purely because of the title, I would ask you to read a little further. Here are my disclaimers, if you will. What I am about to explain does not reflect on anyone I have run with, currently run with or might ever run with in the future – this is me and my brain, not any of you. I want to make that clear. Secondly, I need to explain something from a book I have read that I use a lot in my life to explain and control (if that is the right word?) my feelings and sometimes my actions. That book is The Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters.

My extremely brief explanation I need to give for you to understand the rest of the post, although I highly recommend you read the book anyway, is this. Your brain has 3 primary psychological areas: the parietal (the computer), the frontal (the human), and the limbic (the chimp). The computer stores and remembers information for you to use again, the human is you, and the chimp is your emotional part, who likes to be the first to react. He (or she) is the one I want to emphasise on at this point – he is your knee-jerk reaction, your first impression, and most predominantly for those of us who exercise, the one who puts those negative thoughts in our heads that make us want to stop.

Now I can rewind a little. I had been off work sick the day before, where I was run down with a cold. I hadn’t been able to run or attend a pilates session at the club. Still feeling the effects of the cold to an extent, I felt a little snotty and tired, but as I explained to everyone – I tried getting rid of it with a curry, so it must need a run to blast it out! I wanted to keep my legs ticking over, as it was now a week and a half until the marathon – eek! So, off I went, running a beautiful route through footpaths and down by the river.

That’s when it started. “I should have run alone.” It was The Chimp, he had climbed out of his box and was trying to get the better of me. I said to him, “No, I’m running a lovely route, enjoying nature, blasting the last of this cold out, and I’m tapering for the marathon.”. The Chimp went on to tell me that I was holding the others back, that I wasn’t good enough to be  running with them, and in an effort to make me grumpy, he screeched, “You should have run alone!”. Those words hit me hard.

I am sure – no, I know – that every runner, or any athlete for that matter, experiences at some point in their training that negative voice that says, “You can’t do this. You’re rubbish and you should just stop!”. I urge you all to ignore it. When the going gets tough, The Chimp gets scared and anxious, and thinks he is protecting you by letting you admit defeat. Don’t listen to him.

I have developed my own way of dealing with my chimp when I need to ignore what he says. Whether you are running, cycling, swimming, surfing, skiing, playing tennis…. whatever your sport is, this is relevant to you! I put him in his box, he can screech away all he likes, and I might hear him, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen to him and give in.

At first, you are required to look into the past. Use your computer in your brain and look at what you have achieved. More often that not, you will have completed the distance you are trying to achieve when you start to struggle, so there is no need to listen to that negativity. ‘But this is the first time I am running 10 miles’, I hear you say. ‘I have got to 9 miles and this is as far as I have gone before, and I’m struggling, so I should give up’. To which I would say, “Can you run a mile?”. The answer is yes. You can run a mile. Tell your body (and your chimp) that although you have run 9 miles, it is only one more, and you know you can do that. I deploy this technique when completing longer training runs too. When you need to squeeze a 20 mile run out, I find the best way for me is to get to halfway and try and tell my body that actually, I haven’t just run 10 miles, I’m just heading out on tired legs from the week – it’s almost like a little reset button.

You are also required to look into the future. Alright, I haven’t taken my crazy pills this morning – make all the jokes you like – but I know what I mean. In this instance, on that particular evening where The Chimp has said that I should have run alone, I know that I need to look into the future and see how I think I will feel after the run. Obviously the future is not definite, so there will always be several possibilities ahead. Here, we have the first option, which is where The Chimp wins, tells me to stop and I have to drag myself slowly back to the club alone, in the dark. This will be a miserable experience for me and one I would regret. Option two – I continue running with the people I set out with, pushing hard to keep up, but listening to the chimp moan that it’s too hard and it’s going to ruin the marathon (he loves to be a drama queen!). Or, I can choose the third option. This is my favourite and the one that I was lucky enough to know to select that night. I continued running at a pace I found more comfortable, allowed myself to drop back a little and let the others go on ahead a bit. We are all aware I am tapering, no one is offended or upset by it, and in fact, later on I would be of use on “poo watch” down the trails where it has got a bit darker!

The final part to silencing the negative voice is hindsight. Now you have completed the run, The Chimp has calmed down, realised no one has died, and has been returned to his box, you can reflect on the possibilities of how the evening could have unfolded. So maybe I didn’t run with the club and I had headed out by myself. The Chimp is still grumpy because of the cold that is blocking up my airways and instead of flipping out about running with other people, he now gets the hump about running altogether. I end up run-walking the distance I wanted to complete, possibly even cutting it short and I feel unsatisfied and disheartened by the whole experience. Those few moments of doubt in this case, were managed and pushed away, and I could complete my run comfortably and in good company.

So, my point to all of this, is that if you can apply this reasoning to the negative ideas that appear in your head during any training, then you will hopefully find things going a lot more smoothly on the mental side of things. Training with another person, or with more people, can give you the support that you need to reach an end goal. Yes, you may be able to achieve it alone, but I wonder whether it would be with the same mental stability as if you were training with a group or in a pair. When I train in the pool with my friend, The Chimp might screech to slow down because you’re blowing and it’s difficult, but having that other person there stops you from ‘wimping out’, and forces you to push on. There is a certain amount of bravado about soldiering on when you are suffering, because you don’t want to look weak, or let the others down. You can use that to your advantage – harness it and use it to silence your chimp.

Although  I was almost afraid to admit it the other week (until a friend pointed it out to me), I started to get tired 17 miles into a 20 mile training run. He said, “you get tired like normal people”, and he was right. It didn’t matter if I was tired, as long as I finished it. I knew I had to just keep going, not only because I needed the run for my training, but also because everyone around me was counting on it. I didn’t want to stop, but I went quiet because I was tired. I was looking forward to the end and a drink of water. I pushed on, I completed the mileage, and I didn’t die. Proof to the negative thoughts that they were wrong yet again. I took that one, and logged it in a little box in my brain for another day when I would need to fight the good fight again.

Just remember – everyone gets tired, everyone can get negative, but everyone can come out clean the other side. And do you know what? I shouldn’t have run alone.

Thank you for reading as always!

Amanda x

P.S. All rights to The Chimp idea are obviously to Steve Peters. I hope he doesn’t mind me explaining a bit and how I use it!

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

I realise that I have been off the grid for a little while now. Since the end of November, I have been suffering with a knee injury. I explained about it in a previous post a little, so I won’t go into too much detail over that side of it. You can read about it from last year here – you only need to read the first few paragraphs to get the idea.

At the start of the year, the pain got increasingly worse on the outside of my left knee, and I made the decision to see a chiropractor that a friend had seen in the Spring of 2016 and had recommended to me. My knee wasn’t getting any better by itself, so I booked in to see him less than a week later.

The first session was the longest, as we discussed everything you could think of about my health and training, and some more stuff too! I was told it was all relevant though, and that he would explain why once I had answered all the questions. When I had, I was told that things like stomach or period pain could be relevant, as your stomach can’t actually give you pain, so it is referred in muscles and tissue around it, which can. I already knew about fascia (the connective tissue covering all your muscles), so I could understand how this could happen.

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A diagram of fascia, to help with some understanding of it

Fascia, as I mentioned before, covers almost your whole body under your skin, in lots of layers that should be able to move over each other without causing you any problems. If you imagine it like a sheet of cling film; when the sheet is laid out, you can move any corner or piece of it any way you want, and it will go where you want it to. Now pin a part of it down with your finger – it won’t move as freely and may restrict or pull on other parts of the sheet. This is exactly the same as the fascia in your body. More of that later.

So, after a long discussion and a visual analysis of my body, i.e. were my shoulders and hips square, etc; it was down to business. He used physical tests to check for weak spots and referred pain – that is, when pushing, moving or stretching the body in one way, it may cause pain in another area (almost like a map that your body is giving out to try to help find the cause). He then performed several chiropractic moves (a lot of sudden movements and jolts, or as he called it, “adjustments”) on various parts of my body to try and help relieve the pain. It would be revealed at the end of the session that he had actually done a lot of adjustments – and a hell of a lot more than he would usually do in one session.

I was advised to book another appointment 4 days later on the Friday, and then one for the Monday after that – a week later. I did as I was asked. I saw no improvement over the next session, but continued on with the course of treatment – you can’t expect miracles instantly! I carried out the stretch I was given for my hip flexors as there is an imbalance in my hips and the surrounding area as instructed. The left hip flexor – the same side as the knee pain – is incredibly tight and the aim was to try and loosen it up a bit. I was to do the stretch twice a day, on both sides to keep things even, for 30 seconds per side.

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The most painful thing happened in the third session. I was to experience fascial treatment. As I explained before about the layers of connective tissue and how sometimes they could get stuck, I would soon find out how it felt when you tried to release the stuck points. Using what I could only describe as a normal touch on any other part of your body, he would find a point in my leg, ankle or foot, in this case, and then using a circular motion, move over it until it started to free off.

You’re probably thinking that it doesn’t sound too bad (unless you have been unfortunate enough to experience such treatment), however I can honestly say that I was trying not to leap off the bench in pain. It was like he was trying to separate the layers of my skin with a knife. I would to grin and bear it until it eventually it wasn’t too bad and we both agreed that it was freeing off. Then he would go off and find another spot to torture!

The next morning, I was in work (on a Saturday of all days!), and it was still really sore. It would be for a few more days, in fact. It was sore when I walked, in the points where it had been released, especially down the inside of my leg. I tried to jog a distance of probably 20m and the soreness was shooting up the inside of my leg. I took the wise decision to have the weekend off from running!

After about 2 and a half weeks of treatment, going back every few days, I reached my final meeting for the course of treatment. The sessions were getting a bit shorter each time and there was minor improvement. I was advised that the next time I should be expected back would be approximately 3 weeks time, if I needed to and that it would gradually improve over those weeks. It wouldn’t be an instant fix, where I woke up one morning and everything would be as right as rain – I wish it was that simple!

So I am currently 2 and a half weeks away from when I last went into physio. I have been exploring several possibilities in the time since then, and although there is a small amount of improvement, I am sad to say it is still not great!

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An apt Under Armour advert I found

I tried 2 weeks complete rest whilst I was undergoing physiotherapy – that made the pain worse! It is much better if I keep it moving, albeit at a slower pace than I am used to. Don’t get me wrong – I am glad that I can still move about and do some exercise, but I am definitely itching to get back up to speed. I just know that I have to be careful and rein it in when I need to. Taking extra days rest if I have done a longer run, or cutting pace and distance down can all help. I was very proud of myself this morning for not pushing on to do an extra 200m swimming and speeding through a few lengths just to make the total distance up to 2000m. I settled for a round 1800m, which I had taken at a steady pace and not aggravated my knee too much.

I went for an appointment at the doctors, as I was after a referral for an MRI scan, ideally, so that I could see, for my peace of mind, what was going on inside my leg. The doctor, despite being told that I had already seen a couple of physiotherapists, did a few tests on my legs just how the physio had, and recommended me for an x-ray. Not quite what I had wanted, but they wanted to rule out any bone issues. Fine, I thought, I will play your game! So I immediately went up the road to the hospital and got the x-ray done as a walk-in.

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Not my knee, unfortunately – I didn’t get to have a browse of that! Different x-ray views of the knee, though.

A week later, I still had not heard a word about my results, so I rang up. The best way I can describe the voice of the receptionist (without sounding insulting) is as a very overly cheerful-sounding, kind of air-head voiced lady. Imagine that as you read on. The conversation went as follows (almost verbatim).

Me: Hi, I had an x-ray last Friday and I still haven’t heard from anyone about my results.

Receptionist: Oh no, you have to ring up for those!

I would like to add here that the doctor confirmed my home address and telephone numbers and DID NOT tell me at any point to ring for my results. I was waiting for a letter or a phone call. I decided to let this one slide.

Receptionist: Okay, so I will just have a look for those results for you. So, there is nothing wrong with your knee, and there are no abnormalities! Okay then?

She genuinely sounded like she thought that was the end of the conversation and that I would be hanging up now….

Me: Uhm, should I book another appointment then…? Because my knee isn’t right still and….-

Receptionist: Oh no, the doctor has looked at your x-ray and has referred you onto a knee clinic!

I am still not sure if I was meant to have guessed this information, but she clearly thought that I was somehow privy to it already! I had to laugh, really.

Receptionist: So, they will be in touch with you to arrange an appointment soon, but I can’t tell you when that will be. Okay?

I had to leave the conversation there. So, if I haven’t heard anything back from them by Friday, which will be a week from when I spoke to the lady about my results, and two weeks since I had an x-ray, then I will be phoning up again to find out what is going on! Watch this space – I really hope I hear from them soon.

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Another thing I organised was a bike fitting. This may seem strange to some, as I have had my bike for at least a couple of years now, but I tried to ride it a week before the fitting and I had to stop after 7 minutes, because it was causing great discomfort and pain in my knee. I was worried that the physiotherapy had straightened my body out and got it functioning in a normal manner again exercise-wise, and that now it wasn’t compensating for itself on the bike, it was revealing where the cause of the pain was. I also didn’t feel like the ride on the bike had been the same since I had made the transition from a mountain bike style cleat/shoe to a road bike cleat/shoe towards the end of last year, and despite several attempts to adjust the bike to where it needed to be, I was convinced that it was someone else’s turn to have a go.

It was a very in-depth meeting that lasted almost 2 hours. I explained everything from my injury to my training, and the chap doing the fitting seemed genuinely interested and attentative (unlike, I must say, my doctor). He took in all the imformation I gave him and asked plenty of sensible questions about it all. I felt like I could be onto something here. He had all these different bits of kit to test and measure the way I was riding the bike – he had popped it onto a turbo trainer in the back room of the shop – and would make an adjustment to the saddle, pedals or my shoes according to what he found. It was fascinating!

Amongst several other things, there was a laser pointer which helped us both see when my knee was moving out to the side, and when it wasn’t after some adjustments and things. Also, a special toolwas used for measuring the angle that my leg was sitting at at the bottom of the pedal stroke. The laser was used for checking across my foot and leg as well. One thing would be checked, I would hop off the bike, an adjustment would be made and then I would pedal for a while to see what the difference was.

To cut a long story short, I have high arched feet. This causes them to roll in when I run, or participate in other sporting activities. I have a different design of running shoe to support the arch in my foot, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when I was told ths, actually. When your foot is locked into postion in your cycling shoes, which are in turn attached to the bike, they can’t move. This means that if the cleats, pedals, saddle, etc. aren’t set up in the correct position, that it could cause pain in your knee, for example, where it is moving to the side to compensate. I was offered up a wedge in the front of my shoes and also some insoles.

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The insoles in question!

We agreed that the insoles were the best option and pretty much eliminated any movement in both knees. The only drawback – they were custom ones, which would need to be moulded to my feet, so they would be mine and at a hefty price tag for a pair of insoles! I had them fitted there and then, as I could see the improvement they were making before they were a true fit to my feet, and it’s my knee, so I wanted it to be right. You would not believe the difference it makes to riding again for me! Time to rebuild my cycling training again. I am looking into using Zwift, possibly, which is a sort of online virtual training partner in a video game format for indoor cycling.

I have ordered some orthopedic insoles for high-arched feet for my work, running and everyday shoes in addition, to see if there is a difference in using them with more support throughout the day. I hope that this will be a simple solution to getting back on the track.

I have also been using kinesiology tape (or KT tape). The brand I went for was Rock Tape, purely because that was the brand that the shop next door to my workplace had in stock. I am aware that there are other good brands of tape you can get. It had come highly recommended from a lady at the running club, who had had a knee injury and pain in the almost the same point before. That was enough for me, and I rushed out to get some.

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Some examples of kinesiology tape in action. It can be applied to various parts of the body – not just knees!

The idea behind it, from what I can gather, is that the tape lifts the skin and creates a small space between the skin and the muscle, helping with better blood flow, reducing pressure from swelling or from injured muscles, and allowing smooth muscle movement. It is different from athletic ‘strapping tape’, and still lets you have a full range of movement.

I’ll be honest – I hardly notice that the tape is there, and I think it has been helping with a small amount of pain. I have to give testament to its durability, too. It stays on for probably 3-5 days (before the edges and corner start peeling up), and it gets some abuse on my body. I have sent it through the swimming pool, showers and a bath, for a run and a cycle, and it has still lasted for 4 days before it started to peel away. I will continue to use this unless ill-advised by the clinic (if I even get to hear from them soon!).

That’s about all I have to say for now. I am continuing with my stretch on my hip flexor, running at a slower pace and not as frequently to try and minimise impact, cycling with a corrective purpose now – my body will have to adapt to the changes made to the bike positioning – and using the kinesiology tape and insoles to try to improve everyday use and pain.

I will keep the site updated when I get some more (and hopefully better news).

For now though, thank you for reading and being patient! I hope to be posting on here soon with some better news! I have a couple of races (London Winter Run and Wokingham Half Marathon) that I will pop some posts on for when I get a chance, so there should be some more content soon.

Amanda x