I’m borrowing one of my favorite one-liners from the show Mythbusters to underscore a common mistake made when stretching:  going through your stretches only once after a run.

You might wonder why this is a mistake.  Shouldn’t one time through be enough?  Not usually, it turns out.  Remember, the goal of stretching is to either help your body become more flexible, or at the very least, to retain the flexibility you already have.  This presents a challenge any time of the day, whether first thing in the morning or during a lunchtime breather or after a long day of work.  But it becomes a particular hurdle (sorry, pun intended) for runners, as anyone who’s gone for a long run or speed session or even just an easy weekend jaunt can attest to the tightness often felt afterwards in the hamstrings, calves and hips.  The trick is, in order to stretch effectively, you now have to help those muscles relax their grip and extend back to their full range — maybe even improve upon it.  This rarely happens from one quick pass-through of a stretch.  Think of it:  If a workout of any kind was successful, in that it provided the stimulous to increase the strength and/or endurance of muscles, then it stands to reason that those muscles aren’t going to release and surrender to a stretch immediately.  And short-cutting your stretching isn’t just a long-term risk; it can often be felt immediately.  For example, how does your body feel in that initial hour following a run?  Refreshed and loose?  Or are you limping around with tightness or soreness, or worse, starting your next run still stiff from the previous one?

Bottom line:  If you’re a runner and you’re invested in staying so for the long haul, what you need is a step-down strategy that gradually helps your muscles safely retain their flexibility and recover fully from the demands of each run.  Luckily, the process to accomplish this is simple:  After your workout, you simply go through each of your stretches at least 4-5 times.  Let’s call them “rounds.”  Here’s how a good progression of Rounds 1-5 might look:

  • Round 1:  The Introduction.  Light stretch, not held for very long, about 5-10 seconds.  Consider this an opener of sorts, a chance for your muscles to get acquainted with the stretch.  If the stretch is unilateral (one side at a time), do both sides before going on to the next round.
  • Round 2:  Adding the Breath.  Slightly longer hold, about 10-15 seconds, adding deep breaths to help the muscle(s) start to relax.
  • Round 3:  Honing in on “That” Muscle. Longer hold, about 20 seconds, paying close attention to form, and tweaking it to really hone in on “that” muscle.  You know what I mean — the muscle that’s feeling the stretch enough that your body is trying to alter its form to avoid that stretch.  It’s a good bet that the muscle that feels the stretch the most…is the muscle that NEEDS it the most!  That said, stay tuned to your body’s comfort zone; back off if there’s pain.
  • Round 4:  Further Elongation and Muscle Relaxation.  Here is where the pedal hits the medal:  Hopefully you’re able to elongate your muscle notably further than in Round 1, but whether or not this is true, now is the longest hold yet, about 20-30 seconds.  As you hold, scan your body up and down, checking your form, letting your breath move in and out deeply yet easily, and concentrating on relaxing your muscles AND your mind, since your brain and muscles are in extricably linked by way of your nervous system.
  • Round 5:  Bonus Round.  If Rounds 1-4 weren’t enough to do the trick, you can either give it one more round OR perform a different, but related, stretch.  Sometimes this is all the body needs to “finish” the flexibility and recovery process.

Yes, this added measure will extend the time invested in your workouts, but so too does your post-run shower, your pre- and post-run sports nutrition, and logging your runs, and you wouldn’t think of skipping out on those, would you?  (I surely hope that especially holds true for the shower.)  Every component of training serves its own vital purpose; it’s been my experience that honoring the purpose of high-quality stretching is well worth the real estate it occupies in your busy schedule!

Note/reminder:  None of this should be attempted without consulting your doctor first, and you should stop if you feel any pain. 

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I’m always humbled when at last spring’s milder weather permits me to start taking my running workouts outside, for no matter how faithful I have been in maintaining a base of running on the treadmill on even the gloomiest of winter days, those initial street/sidewalk runs are a mighty shock to my legs and lungs.  Even when I feel as though I’m “running like the wind,” upon checking my pace, I’m dismayed to learn that on the contrary, I’m not even up to what has become my typical warm-up speed on the treadmill!  I suppose the only consolation is that I now have a starting point off of which I almost can’t fail to make improvements in the weeks and months ahead.  But darn it if it feels like for the 3 steps forward I took last year, I took 2.9 steps back over the winter!

Even so, the other notable change is that of my post-run stretch routine, and the need to stay vigilant to staying on top of my muscles’ recovery through proper stretching.  Nothing new here, except that the treadmill normally allows for many creative stretches I can conveniently perform immediately after the belt stops and I’m still swimming in the euphoria of my runner’s-high endorphins.  Not so with outdoor running, and it’s amazing how easy it is to simply “forget” to stretch when there isn’t that immediately easy way of doing so.  I find I really have to discipline myself to hit those brakes en route to the shower, and take time to run through at least the most important stretches, and I find a great way to do this is by using the stairs.  There, I can go through several rounds of stretches for the muscles most in need of TLC when making the transition back to pavement, and those muscles include my hamstrings, calves, and glutes.  It’s also important to release the low back, which often takes a beating due partly to the repeat pounding on a less-forgiving surface than the more resilient treadmill.  Yet, a few minutes of dropped-heel calf releases, gentle twists, foot-on-stair hamstring stretches and some hip openers, and it’s like someone hit the “refresh” button in my body; I can sashay to the shower with ease and look forward to a soreness-free morning the next day.  Amazing what happens when I work WITH my body, rather than ignore its signals!

So, if you’re dealing with “Post Treadmill Shock Syndrome” as I am, make sure you’re not shortchanging your stretches, at a time when those muscles need it more than ever!

Additional information on stretches and flexibility training can be found at my website, www.TheFlexibilityCoach.com

Posted by: thehungryrunner | February 28, 2011

Strawberry Banana Cocoa-Almond Dessert

Strawberries and bananasLately I’ve been on a major fruit kick.  Well, that’s not so notable — I’m always on a fruit kick, really.  But more than even my usual, I’ve been experimenting with different combinations and recipes involving fresh fruit.  Maybe it’s my body’s way of combating the winter blahs:  when I partake of my daily fruit, it’s like a little taste of warmer, sunnier weather for me.

Whatever the motivation, here is one of the recipes I’d evolved, one that’s made enough repeat appearances as dessert that I figured I ought to share it:

Strawberry Banana Cocoa-Almond Dessert (Also makes a great breakfast dish!)

  • 2 cups fresh ripe strawberries, trimmed, hulled and sliced
  • 1/4 cup cocoa roast almonds, coarsely crushed
  • 2 ripe bananas, peeled and sliced into bite-size chunks
  • 1 container Greek 2% yogurt
  • 1 Tablespoon honey (orange blossom is particularly good)
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar-free or low-sugar orange marmalade

In a small bowl, combine the Greek yogurt and honey; stir lightly (does not have to be completely combined/blended).  In a separate bowl, combine the strawberries and bananas and toss gently to combine.  Add yogurt mixture and mix lightly to evenly coat the strawberry-banana mixture.  Spoon up half the mixture on each of two dessert-size plates, top each with a Tablespoon of orange marmalade and sprinkle each with about 2 Tablespoons of the cocoa-roast almonds.  Serve immediately; makes 2 generous servings.

Good protein, antioxidants galore, bone-building calcium, low in calories, filling….and tasty on top of all of that.  My kind of dessert!

Posted by: thehungryrunner | February 15, 2011

Five Essential Post-Run Exercises and Stretches

As much as I’m looking forward to the weather — and road conditions — improving enough to allow me to break free of the treadmill (if ever there was a task that feels very “Groundhog Day” to it…), I must admit an appreciationg for one advantage of my indoor runs:  the ability to easily sprawl out and perform those post-run stretches and exercises that round out my workout.  By migrating seamlessly to the mat and tacking on just 10 minutes at the end of my run, I get the instant — and long-lasting — gratification of releasing those muscles that were used repeatedly, strengthening others that weren’t addressed in the run, and fully soaking in and enjoying the endorphins swirling inside my body.  If the moods of my day read like an EKG, for sure the apex of that graph would occur during that blissful post-run “decompression”!

But given that flexibility and fitness isn’t just a personal pursuit but also my profession, I’m often asked what constitutes a comprehensive post-run stretch and strengthening routine.  Truth be told, I often take more than the 10 minutes to cycle through an even larger variety of muscles and movements, but I were to boil it down to the bare essentials, these are the top five “ingredients” worthy of your attention:

  1. Calf Stretches:  These are a must, because each and every one of us are using our calves big-time when we run (or even walk).  By the end of a run, the cumulative effect of contracting the calves means they are now extremely tight and immobile.  You want to make sure you perform stretches that hit both the larger calf muscle (the one we all think of when we think calf muscle), and ESPECIALLY the deeper, smaller calf muscle located closer to the Achilles tendon, known as the soleus.  The soleus is heavily used when running and is often a major factor in ankle and foot problems.  Injury prevention definitely starts in keeping this muscle supple.
  2. Hamstring Stretches:  Duh.  But here’s the key:  Make sure you’re truly stretching your HAMSTRINGS — folks, that means a fully stretched knee and a neutral spine — and NOT your low back or gluteal muscles.  How do you know if you’re doing the latter instead of the former?  If your back is rounded, and/or your tailbone is tucked under, or your shoulders are hunched forward, or your knee (of the leg that you’re trying to stretch) is bent….chances are good you’re not addressing your hamstrings very effectively, if at all.  Stay within your comfort zone, but concentrate on elongating the back of the leg without contorting your back and shoulders in order to ensure a “clean” hamstring stretch.
  3. Core Strengtheners:  In this instance, I’m referring to exercises that specifically address the abdominal muscles.  But…
  4. Light (but deliberate) Low Back Exercises:  To continue from Item 3, you also want to include some movements that will stretch and activate your low back, such as a Prone Opposite Arm/Leg Reach and the Elbow Cobra stretch in yoga.
  5. Side Stretch and a Twist:  OK, so I’m technically citing two stretches instead of one.  But the reason is because these two categories of stretch represent the other two planes of movement.  When we run, we’re moving predominantly in the “sagittal” plane, meaning forward/backward motions.  But we have two other planes of movement, the “frontal” plane (side to side movements) and the “transverse” plane (twists).  By ending a workout — any workout, running or otherwise — on a note that focuses on complimenting the primary plane of movement with the other planes of movement, we’re promoting a more three-dimensional flexibility and mobility to our whole body.  This in turn paves the way for a more comfortable day and builds a foundation that will allow us to keep on expanding our fitness, safely and effectively.

So keep this in mind the next time you’ve finished your cool-down.  A few additional minutes of your time can make all the difference in achieving your goals and keeping your progress moving forward!

Posted by: thehungryrunner | January 18, 2011

Easy Roasted Carrots and Parsnips: Way to get back to your roots!

It’s funny how the palette just gravitates towards hearty, warm, more savory foods and tastes when winter is settling in.  In summer, I Roasted parsnips and carrotshad zero interest in carrots any other way but raw (or juiced, yum).  Ditto for zucchini, yellow squash, and sugar snap peas.  Now, my default mode is to seek all the various cooked versions of these foods; no desire for raw.  I’m definitely a creature influenced by weather!

Lately, I’ve been exploring not just baked, roasted, grilled, sauteed, etc. vegetables, but also, those vegetables that aren’t normally a part of my grocery shopping “radar.”  And one of my favorite recent “discoveries” (or is it “re-coveries,” given I’d eaten them a looooong time ago?) is the unexpected tastiness of roasted parsnips!  I don’t know what I was expecting; perhaps because they resemble “light yellow carrots” to my eye, I was expecting something akin to a paler, less flavorful carrot.  Instead, what came out of the oven was a satisfyingly dense, filling, flavorful chew, reminiscent of French Fries (for the lengthwise cuts I’d made) or thick potato chips  (for the disk-shaped slices I’d made).  I found myself instantly hooked, and had to chuckle when one day, I was driving home from work, eagerly craving my “fix” of roasted parsnips.  Parsnips!  And this, from a dyed-in-the-wool dessert addict!  And not much oil is needed, so the calories stay low.  Low calorie and filling, a win-win for me!

Then I got to thinking….If roasted parsnips are this good, and roasted carrots equally “roastable” albeit with a different taste and texture, why not incorporate the two in the same dish?  It offers more of everything — color, nutrients, crunchiness, flavors.  And I’m finding that the cook time is pretty much the same, though at times I’ve experimented with giving the parsnips about a 5-minute jumpstart.  The best of both worlds, my original favorite veggie with my latest fixation!

So…Here it is, an easy, low-calorie recipe for “getting back to one’s roots”:

Easy Roasted Carrots and Parsnips

  • 1-2 large carrots
  • 1-2 parsnips
  • 1-2 teaspoons olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste (I’m also having good luck with Moroccan spices, so you can experiment here)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Wash the carrots and parsnips, and peel the parsnips.  Cut the carrots lengthwise into strips — about 1/4 inch thick apiece.  For parsnips that have a “wide” part, cut that part width-wise, into 1/4-inch disk-shaped slices.  For the part of the parsnip that’s longer and thinner, cut into the same lenghwise shapes as the carrot.  Put the parsnips and carrots in a plastic storage container, along with the olive oil, salt and pepper, and/or whatever other seasoning you’d like to experiment with.  Close the lid and shake well to evenly coat the carrots and parsnips.  Lay out the pieces on a cookie sheet sprayed with cooking spray, and place uncovered in the oven.  Bake for about 20 minutes, but keep an eye on them, so that if either vegetable starts to overcook/burn, you’re ready to take them out right away.  There should be some browning on the edges, but not too much.

Remove from oven and enjoy while hot.  Makes 1-2 servings, depending on the size portion you’d like.

I hope you enjoy these roots as much as I am!

Posted by: thehungryrunner | January 4, 2011

The case of the gaiter-causing-fogged-sunglasses syndrome

Maybe my memory is doing its Swiss cheese impersonation, but I don’t recall ever having this particular problem on my winter runs.  Why now?  Your guess is as good as mine!

As was addressed in my last post, we haven’t had the most outdoor-run-friendly weather this winter, at least not the month of December.  But this past Sunday (1/2/11 — my mind wants to see a pattern in that) brought hooray! sun and hoorayhooray! 23 degrees — all at the same time!  Add to that roads and sidewalks that were now clear of snow and ice (courtesy of the meltdown caused by storms and temperatures in the 50’s on New Year’s Eve), and it seemed only right to take the opportunity to back away from the hamster wheel and squeeze in a morale-boosting outdoor run while I still could.  No problem, I have all the layering things and technical things and warmth-retaining things for just such an occasion.  So I suit up and shuffle out into the chill.

This is usually the point in which the story often goes, “Things were off on a good start,” or “It all started well,” but that’s not what happened here.  For I hadn’t gone 50 feet (thank you, Garmin, for letting me know) before my half face mask, which was snuggly tucked into my neck gaiter, caused every drop of exhale vapor to migrate to my sunglasses and do to them what happens to my husband’s glasses upon entering the indoors after a winter walk.  My sunglasses were completely fogged, which is definitely not good when you’re about to turn onto the main road traversing our immediate neighborhood.

I immediately pulled the face mask down and let the glasses clear.  Put the face mask back up.  Hey, you never know.  Same result — instant blindness.  I’m a slow learner, so it took another 10 minutes and numerous variations of that up-and-down testing to finally declare this wasn’t going to work.  If I was to hang out for the full intended 6 miles, I would have to grit it out with face exposed.  Which I did; although the wind was rather torturesome when confronted head on, as long as I had ample “skin warmth recovery” via running the other direction, I seemed to be OK.  Not comfortable, but OK.  Any colder or windier and this story would have ended differently.

But now I’m left with the perplexing mystery of why this is happening this year?  Without my sunglasses (yes, I tried that too), the effect of my mask was so strong it actually began to fog my *contact* lenses!  Yet, this is the same face mask I have used for years, both on ski outings and on winter runs.

A mystery to be solved, hopefully well before the spring thaw!

Posted by: thehungryrunner | December 27, 2010

Transitioning to treadmill runs: The good, the bad, and the cautions

How does the saying go, “If you want to test the Universe’s sense of humor, make plans,” something like that?  Having had a satisfyingly toasty summer and an exceptionally mild fall — and the abundance of outdoor runs that such weather permitted, I found myself feeling quite optimistic about the winter running season.  I had a new thermal running jacket, which tested extremely well in the couple of 45-degree days we’d flirted with, and a stockpile of socks, leggings, hats, face masks, gaiters, gloves, mittens, and layering garments from last year’s winter runs.  Oh yes, and the requisite accessories:  hand warmers, flashing arm band light, key holders, and the Garmin.  I was ready!  In my mind, I pictured a gentle, gradual slope down, with temperatures finally sinking to the 40’s for highs, then hovering in the 30’s for a while, then the 20’s sprinking in, with sure, the occasional single-digit and sub-zero anomalies, but only once in a while.

My first clue that I was just a bit askew in my winter running fantasy, came on a relatively mild fall Sunday, when I contemplated outloud whether I should grab a run outside, or whether I should head to the gym.  It was about 50 degrees, but cloudy and windy.  Funny how the same 50-degree day can go from uplifting and inspiring to gloomy and foreboding, just based on the presence or absence of the sun.  Anyway, to my question, my husband didn’t hesitate:  “Go for the outdoor run, it may be one of the last you can do for a while.”  I looked at him quizzically, prompting him to elaborate:  “Hello?  We have something called snow and ice?  You know your runs are toast once that happens.”  Oh yeah, I forgot about that little factor.  I went for my outdoor run and soaked it all in while I still could.

A week later and our temperatures plummeted into the teens and single digits, with a hefty coating of snow and ice.  So much for the new running jacket!

So….Plan B.  Whether you call it the treadmill or the “hamster wheel,” that’s where I’ve been since before Thanksgiving.  Not my first choice, but it’s actually working out OK.

If you’re considering the treadmill as your source for outdoor runs or run-walks, here are some positives, negatives, and precautions for you to keep in mind, fresh out of the oven since I’ve lived them all in these last 5 weeks:

The Good:

  • No worries of cold hands, feet, face or body (is there anything else?):  This is especially huge for me, as I have Raynaud’s disease and am constantly having to “strategize” my outdoor runs and skiing for fingers and toes that like to go white and circulation-less in cold weather.
  • Safe from cars and other traffic:  Being one who tends to “zone out” when I’m running, it’s probably good that at a healthy percentage of my runs take place where I can’t accidentally meander into a busy intersection during that moment that I’m really “feeling” the song that’s playing on my ipod.
  • Drinking water is a breeze:  Maybe not as much a concern for shorter runs, but for those times when I expect to be out for a long time, winter always brings a dilemma with how to carry water, and then how to use said water, when my hands are nestled deep inside high-tech mittens, and my water is nestled inside some snug waist thingy.  No problemo with the treadmill!
  • Light, summer clothing and not feeling COLD:  I must admit, it’s been quite nice, not having to wear the heavier winter gear, and nicer still to not have to psych myself up for feeling cold when I first begin my run (and, in my case, during those final 10-20 minutes).
  • Bathroom breaks, whenever you need them!  It’s bad enough when nature calls at a point that I’m at the furthest distance possible from my house during the summer, but in winter?  It just makes the entire rest of the run an awful experience.  With the treadmill, I can stop whenever I need, and resume my run a few minutes later, with a happy, empty bladder, yay!
  • No need to carry vital necessities:  I must say, it’s been nice not having to worry about making sure I have a way of carrying my keys, cell phone, an extra set of hand warmers, some cash, my ID, etc.  Something tells me there’s going to be an adjustment when I have to do so again.

The Bad:

  • Repetitive, potentially boring:  No doubt about it, it’s an adjustment, going from running in an environment that’s constantly changing, vs. having to run in the same spot the whole time.  Truly, it requires a whole different mindset.  The first is more a curious mind, looking foward to seeing all the different sights, whereas the second is more meditative, the mind heading more “into” itself.  But both have their benefits, it seems.
  • Complacency, stale workouts:  When you’re running outside, the course will naturally offer a variety of changes, even if subtle, in the terrain, the surface on which you’re running, the slope, the wind, the elements….and you in return are much more likely to just naturally fluctuate in your pace and intensity.  Given the fact that you can just select a speed and a grade on the treadmill and go, it can be easy to fall into a very monotonous pattern of running, one that will offer less in the way of fitness benefits, and more risk for repetitive injury.  The onus is on you to vary the variables to keep your body “fresh.”
  • Crowds:  Maybe not so much before the holidays, but for sure we’re poised on the brink of the season in which the surge of humanity at the gym can make for a difficult time accessing a treadmill.

The Cautions:

  • Be sure to warm up adequately:  I notice a huge difference both in the overall quality of my workout — my stamina, form, focus, etc., and in my body’s comfort the rest of the time, if I take the time to do a warm-up.  Lately, I define my warm up as, “I really wish I didn’t have to be walking/running this slowly right now, and I can’t wait to get through these few minutes so that my ‘real’ workout can begin.”  It is what it is, but that “is” works!
  • Use the treadmill to stretch afterward:  True, there’s an advantage to being The Flexibility Coach, as I have my own repertoire of stretches I can tap anytime, but I’m finding a tremendous asset in using the treadmill to do my stretches after the workout, sometimes even more so than when I move to a mat on the floor.  Hamstring stretches, calf stretches, hip/glute stretches, groin/inner thigh stretches, side stretches, twists, hip flexor/quad stretches, back stretches, chest stretches, neck stretches and shoulder stretches.  Now THAT’S the way to make the treadmill work FULLY for you!  (Side note:  I would never take up the treadmill to do this if all others were taken; I’ve been lucky thus far that my gym has many more treadmills than people on them during the times that I’m there).
  • Run with a 1 or 2% grade:  Since there is no wind resistence or need to actually pull your body forward — the moving belt changes this dynamic from when you’re running on a track or outside, you need to make up for that by keeping a small grade on the treadmill.  Otherwise, running on a flat belt is more akin to a light downhill run, which can be hard on the knees.

So if you haven’t yet had the chance to “hit the treadmill” this season, hopefully my account can give you a solid kick start!

It’s been said before in jest but it’s worth repeating:  It’s ironic that the one time of the year that you really use the benefits of running, good nutrition and yoga, is the one time of the year that makes it difficult to keep those activities intact!

Ah, difficult…but not impossible.  With some creativity, there are numerous ways you can take care of yourself and keep your fitness intact, even during the hectic holidays.  The following are 10 practical suggestions to help you survive the holidays AND set a positive momentum for the incoming New Year (in other words, no need to set a “I need to start a fitness program” resolution – you will already have that in place!):

  1. Adopt the philosophy that taking care of your fitness will make you a better host/parent/spouse/friend during this time:  Rather than allow your fitness and related self-care to take a back seat to other “more pressing” obligations, why not reframe it – appropriately, in the opinion of The Hungry Runner – as the means of ensuring you will be helping others around you by doing so?  That way, you need not feel selfish when you take time to exercise or give yourself a yoga break; rather, you will see it as a way to set the foundation for the most enjoyable and meaningful holidays possible.
  2. Retain your normal exercise schedule, even if it’s just a 5-minute “placeholder”:  Anyone who has enjoyed the benefits of adopting a regular fitness routine will say, it’s far easier to keep the habit going than it is to get back into it after even a short period of disruption.  To ensure this doesn’t happen to you, make an effort to hold sacred those days and times you normally allocate for yoga or other workouts.  Even if all you do is perform 5 minutes of some light movement — it can be as simple as changing into your running shoes and jogging in place — this “holding place” will help you keep the habit, and when your schedule opens up again, you can resume your full workout at that point.
  3. Take advantage of “media” classes – audio workouts, DVD’s, online instruction, etc.:   True, nothing beats live instruction, but this is the one time when these other technology tools can truly be a sanity-saver.  Whether it’s your favorite exercise DVD or Wii Fit or one of my audio workouts at TheFlexibilityCoach.com, consider this as your holiday back-up plan, so that actually have a shot at exiting the holidays MORE fit than you were before them!
  4. Explore new fruit and vegetable recipes:  Along with the truly decadent culinary creations, now is a great time to scope out new, interesting recipes that involve fruits and vegetables – recipes you can then use in the weeks and months after the holidays.  Maybe a whole new cooking style, or some spices you have never tried before.
  5. 10-minute workouts are terrific – but do them like you mean it!  The advice to consider short-duration workouts is not new, and indeed, a 10-minute workout can truly be an effective alternative when time is a-crunching.  But do yourself a favor, and use those 10 minutes wisely.  Even if all you do is 3-5 exercises and/or stretches, put all of your focus on the task at hand: observe good form, perform controlled, slow repetitions, and make it your goal to make each moment count.  Done this way, a 10-minute workout will leave you feeling refreshed AND bring actual results!
  6. Assemble your “outerwear kit for outdoor runs (and walks)”:  When chaos is swirling all around, there is no greater fitness sanctuary than to get outside and breath some fresh air, be it for a run or just a relaxing mid-day stroll.  But this time of the year can make doing so challenging, in light of dropping temperatures and bracing winds.  Make sure you find and collect the clothing that will keep you warm and comfortable in the chilly air, and assemble them in an easy-to-grab, central location so that you’re ready to head out whenever the opportunity hits.
  7. Don’t overlook the “little” pleasures to help you get through:  Sure, it’s important to tend to the “official” fitness activities, such as yoga, cardio, strength training, and healthy meal preparation.  But sometimes it’s those other, “support” actions that can make the difference in your ability to follow through with those activities.  Every day, give yourself at least one small pleasure, whether it’s setting the alarm 10 minutes early for some solitary reading at sunrise, an extra-long shower with some fragrant soap, listening to music you love, or concluding the evening with a cup of your favorite tea.
  8. Take deep breaths:  Such a simple, innocent act, yet one that can have a profound effect on turning your mood.  When you feel tension rising, or you’re in an exasperating situation (not that this EVER happens during the holidays!), take a moment to stop, sit or stand tall, take a few deep breaths, and use your exhales to relax your body, as though you’re blowing the stress out right along with your exhale.  Experiment with different breathing styles – abdominal breathing, pursed-lipped exhales, Ujjayi breathing, or just easy, deep breaths.
  9. Use the stairs – yours, that is:  No time to “officially” exercise today?  Take 2-3 breaks during the day, and walk up and down your stairs several times, finishing with a brief calf or hamstring stretch at the base of the stairs.  A fast and easyquick pick-me-up!
  10. If you’re going to make a New Year’s Resolution, now is the time to think about it:  While December 31st may not be the best time to overhaul your life with a major-league goal or change, sometimes it’s nice to use the incoming year as a chance to at least ponder where you’re at right now, and where you would like to go from here.  Rather than wait until the last minute to make some big-picture declaration – or go the full-blown opposite way and opt out of making a resolution completely, how about considering some small change that you can initiate come the first of the year, one that is meaningful to you at this moment?  You need not even express it overtly to others, just allow yourself the gift of possibilities for the year ahead.

Whatever your sport, whatever your holiday, there IS a way for the two to coexist in merry harmony!  Stay the course and keep renewing your commitment to yourself!

Posted by: thehungryrunner | November 15, 2010

Easy Recipe: Light Peanut Butter Apple Cheesecake Squares

One thing I have learned over the years is, I can’t cut out indulgences at the holidays.  Duh.  But I’m not talking about those Official Holiday Treats that are sure to hit my plate at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a few (OK, many) other occasions in between.  I’m talking about stepping outside of my normal menu, allowing some light but yummy delicacies on even “regular” eating days.  Not only does it help ward off any sense of deprivation — especially important when around every corner is an end-cap display of seasonal goodies at the store, it also helps me flex my creative muscle and shake up my meal and snack recipes, which keeps my menu fresh and that much more satisfying.

Enter, my latest recipe creation:  my Light Peanut Butter Apple Cheesecake Squares!  They have it all:  lighter on the calories, some good protein and fat, fiber and nutrients from the fruit, and low on the sugar.  And perfect for a quick and filling post-run snack.

Light Peanut Butter Apple Cheesecake Squares

  • 1/2 cup homemade applesauce (cut up a bunch of apple slices, leave the skin on, and simmer over a low stove with cinnamon until mushy — easy peasy!)
  • 1/2 cup natural crunchy peanut butter (you can also use roasted crunchy almond butter if you’d like!)
  • 1 T. honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnnamon
  • 4 oz. fat-free cream cheese, softened
  • 1 T. Splenda (or, if  you’d rather, just use regular sugar)
  • 1/4 t. vanilla extract
  • 8 graham cracker sheets (amounting to 16 graham cracker squares)

In a small bowl, combine the fat-free cream cheese, Splenda (or sugar), and vanilla extract and mix well; set aside.  In a separate bowl, mix together the applesauce, peanut butter, honey, and cinnamon.  If desired, microwave for 30 seconds to soften ingredients, then continue to mix.  Set aside.

Break the graham cracker sheets in half so that they are now graham cracker squares.  Spread 8 of the squares with a thin layer of the cream cheese mixture, then top with about 2 Tablespoons of the applesauce/peanut butter mixture.  Top the squares with the remaining 8 graham cracker squares to form sandwiches.  Serve immediately; or, make the mixtures ahead of time and refrigerate, then assemble however many sandwiches you want, when you’re ready.  Makes 8 squares.

Tip:  Cinnamon graham crackers make a great option, too!

Posted by: thehungryrunner | November 10, 2010

My “healthy eating while traveling” secret weapon: The $10 Hot Pot!

Having just spent two busy weekends traveling — first to Colorado Springs to compete in my first major fitness competition in a couple of years (more about that in another post), then to Portland to visit family, I find myself more Electric hot pothabituated around “healthy eating while traveling” mode at the moment, rather than “healthy eating at home” mode.  Strange, isn’t it usually the opposite?  Not being one who travels very regularly, I have to wonder if this is what happens with people who travel very routinely for their work.  I expect these next few days will bring a shift back to my normal food preparation routine.

In any event, I must pass along a tool I stumbled upon about a year and a half ago, which has been such a life-saver I’m actually surprised I don’t see it mentioned more often in articles that offer suggestions for “healthy hotel room cookery.”  That tool is the hot pot!  I learned of it when researching ways to prepare hot food and beverages safely, without a microwave or stove.  It literally cost me $9.99 at Walgreen’s (I think it might be up to $12.99 now).  But with what it’s given us, I’d gladly pay much more (shhhhh….don’t tell the manufacturer!).

Basically, it’s a plug-in electric kettle that boils water very quickly.  It’s actually plastic, with a metal heating plate inside, so very lightweight and portable — I’ve packed it in my luggage for the airport, and simply made sure soft clothing items surround it to prevent it from breaking.  Since we usually don’t have a kitchenette in our room, I typically simply use the bathroom sink counter for the unit, since there’s usually an outlet there for the hairdryer.  But beware!  The water heats very quickly, so you don’t want to leave the hot pot unattended.

So what reasonably healthy food can one prepare with this puppy?  Here’s a smattering of the warm, welcoming food that has nourished many a trip — and rather inexpensively, I might add:

  • HOT coffee, using those coffee “tea bags” (a much better option, in my opinion, than those God-only-knows-what-microorganisms-are-growing-in-it coffee makers you get in the room)
  • Instant cup of soup:  Yes, high sodium, but which would you take?  A hot mug of tomato soup or Sugar Fruit Chews from the vending machine?  Add a piece of fruit or a cup of no-sugar-added applesauce, and you have a quick and light meal that soothes and refreshes.
  • Instant mashed potatoes:  Again, a ton of sodium, but not much fat, relatively light on the calories, and very filling!
  • Couscous:  Here’s what I do:  I bring a large plastic storage bowl — the kind you buy with a lid, only I don’t bring the lid.  Dump the couscous, along with the flavor packet, into the bowl, boil the water, add about 2 cups or so of water to the couscous, stir well, then let sit for 5 minutes.  Fluff with a fork and you have dinner.  If possible, I will often stop at the grocery store en route to the hotel for a few carrots, green onion or tomato, then chop them up and add to the couscous.
  • Instant oatmeal or other hot cereal:  The “if all else fails” food!  If I happen to have some raisins or trail mix on hand, I will add these to the uncooked cereal, prior to adding the boiled water.  The hot water helps to “plump” the raisins (or other dried fruit), and the nuts in the trail mix add a satisfying crunch and protein.
  • Hot cocoa:  I’ll sometimes end my fine hotel room dining with a cup of instant hot cocoa, as my “dessert.”  Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!
  • Hot peppermint (or other tea):  Aside from escaping whatever microorganisms are hiding inside the hotel room coffee maker, what I like about the hot pot is just how much HOTTER the water is, vs. that of the coffee maker.  Makes for much more soothing, enjoyable cups of tea, anytime I want!

No, they’re not necessarily the meals you would gravitate to when at home and have all the other options, but if you’re looking to save some food expenses or you anticipate being room-bound much of the time or you just prefer to give yourself healthy meals you can prepare yourself instead of whatever happens to be available at or around the hotel, I highly recommend adding the hot pot to your travel pack list!

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