The IIFYM Diet – My Review

I’d noticed a hashtag floating around on social media, and I was curious what it stood for. IIFYM is short for ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ (macronutrients), also known as flexible dieting. The concept is you have daily targets for fat, protein and carbohydrate intake based on your goal – whether it be weight loss, weight gain or muscle gain. There’s less focus on the actual food you eat (hence the flexible part) as long as you strictly adhere to those numbers, and an overall daily calorie intake. 

The diet was appealing for a few reasons. I’d been influenced by programs like Eat to Perform, which has a philosophy of ‘Athletes don’t starve themselves – neither should you.’ I’m not an athlete but I’m active, and in particular I wanted adequate fuel for my weekly 10K run. While I’d gotten great weight loss results with the 5:2 Diet (a form of intermittent fasting), it was a struggle to lift weights or run the next morning – essentially leaving me with indoor cycling. Combined with the busy Christmas period, it became near impossible to schedule a fast day that fit with my gym routine and end of year commitments.

In all honesty, the photos of athletic women talking about 1800 calorie a day diets were pretty influential too. Having largely restricted myself to 1200 cals/day for the past five years or so (a number I pulled from Michelle Bridges’ 12 Week Body Transformation, without ever doing the program), I was curious whether I too could eat that much and still lose weight. 

My guiding principles for any diet are you should be eating a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, quality protein, whole grains, nuts and seeds (unless allergy prevents you). I’m lactose intolerant but dairy is also good source of nutrients. In that sense, flexible eating seemed to tick a lot of boxes. I could eat whatever I wanted and enjoy a higher calorie intake, provided I balanced the carbohydrates, fats and protein in my foods. In mid-January this year, I decided to give IIFYM a go!

calculating my macros

Typically I’d see a professional before embarking on a new diet, but IIFYM was hardly drastic – I was just going to increase how much I ate and ramp up the protein. After spending some time researching macronutrient calculators, I decided on this one from HealthyEater because it factored in age, gender, height, weight and different goals with a good amount of detail. There are some scholarly references below it, but the website is essentially one guy.

My data of 31 years old, female, 162cm (5′ 3″), 63kg (138 pounds) in “lose” mode (20% calorie deficit) resulted in this:

  • Sedentary (basic day): 1250 cals, 124g carbs, 114g protein, 35g fat
  • Light Activity (200-400 calories female): 1450 cals, 158g C, 114g P, 40g F
  • Moderate Activity (400-650 cals): 1650 cals, 193g C, 114g P, 46g F
  • Very active (650 cals +): 1800 cals, 228g C, 114g P, 51g F

I typically burn 130 calories in a yoga class, 250 in BodyPump (weights class), 350 in RPM (indoor cycling), 400 in BodyAttack (cardio) and 650 cals on a 10K run. I burn an extra 200 daily walking to and from the gym. In essence, most days are ‘moderate activity’ but running or my Super Saturday of BodyAttack and BodyBalance were ‘very active.’ Explains why I was always ravenous on a Saturday evening! 

I was already tracking my calories using MyFitnessPal, so that was nothing knew although anyone trying this diet who hasn’t kept a food diary before might find the task onerous at first. Below are my notes from from day one to today, two months later.

week one

Day 1

I struggled to hit 100g of protein as my leftovers of stuffed capsicums only had 8g protein in total. I ate half a Clif Builder’s Bar (10g protein), four tablespoons of PB2 (10g), and a protein shake (22g). Made it to 105g for the day, when I rarely have more than 80g! I was very full. I couldn’t believe how much I was eating. Today’s exercise: BodyPump and yoga, plus walking (approx. 500 cals).

Day 2

I’d logged my food for the day the night before to ensure I’d hit my targets. Unfortunately, I woke up feeling constipated and I had a breakfast date to go to. It was a hot day too. I skipped my usual mushrooms on sourdough and matcha latte for the smoothie bowl. While I had to guess the calories and macros, ingredients included avocado and peanut butter which used almost my entire daily fat allowance. 

I changed my planned meals to stay on track and went to work. I felt really drowsy but it may have been the humidity than overdosing on protein. I got home, had dinner then before bed realised I hadn’t had my textured vegetable protein (TVP) snack or protein shake! I consumed 46g of protein  at 10pm, and my fat intake for the day was 55g, 20g over! I was missing chocolate, nuts and oatmeal. And it was only day two! I cooked lupin flakes to add to tomorrow’s lunch. I was starting to realise why body builders eat all the time. 

Day 3

My first day of IIFYM without any events or leftovers to use up, yay! I had a great night’s sleep and felt challenged but strong at my 6am gym class. I was still only eating when I was hungry, but my tummy was rumbling much less than I was used too. A side effect so far? A bit of unpleasant gas. 

Day 4

Today was going to be challenging. I had already booked into a beer event that night and would be likely having dinner out. I allowed for a burger and two pints, then built the rest of my day’s meals around that. Lupin oatmeal with apple and walnuts, Asian tofu salad, a protein shake – and I’m hitting 105g protein! My first estimate for fat came in 30g too, the first time it was below my goal. The beer event turned out to be a brilliant night, and while I consumed too many overall calories – I met my macros. I drank more than I’d planned for and couldn’t resist the beer nuts, but it was somewhat offset by an extra 20 minutes walking on top of that day’s workout (RPM and CXWorx), putting me into the ‘very active’ allowance of a bonus 200 calories! I could get used to this.

Day 6

My biggest challenge yet… a daytime house party. I definitely felt like drinking. I had sour beer and a bunch of snacks, but somehow I didn’t blow my macros too badly. I didn’t quite meet my protein goal and I was over my calories limit by 200 or so. But in the scheme of a day’s drinking – it was minimal damage! It helped the hostess had vegetable sticks and low calorie dips like salsa, and the crackers were healthy, wholegrain ones too. 

Day 7

This was the first day I couldn’t eat enough. I felt so full. I almost wished for a fast day, just to give my stomach a rest and feel empty for a while. I managed to eat 1400 cals when aiming for 1600 as I’d done BodyPump, yoga and 60 minutes of walking. I was drinking a lot of water but still felt thirsty all day. I drank more than three litres (100 fl. oz) plus tea that day. I was worried about what would happen when I stepped on the scales. 

Week 2

Day 8

It was rest day! This was definitely the most challenging day to hit my protein goal without blowing other macros, and stay under my 1250 calorie limit. It took careful calculations, but as long as I prepared in advance and all my favourite high protein, low carb foods, I could do it. I had to keep urinating today – I wondered if body was holding onto fluid yesterday for some reason? My stomach and body were feeling much better, I wasn’t as full as previous days. I decided I’d weigh myself the next morning, as try to avoid the scales when I’m feeling down. I’d almost gone through an entire bag of lupin flakes in a week! Being rest day, I finally had some time to do solid meal preparation too – I made a warm broccoli salad (there’s 5g of protein in half a broccoli head!) and a tempeh vegetable curry. I’ve been missing big, vegetable packed dishes. 

Day 9

I put my gym clothes on and prepared to weigh myself. My pants felt tight around the waistband and I wasn’t feeling optimistic. I’d been eating so much more than normal. I felt this had been a bad idea. I waited for the numbers to show… I’d dropped 0.5kg! I was 62.2kg! I couldn’t believe it! I was eating so much food, I was never hungry and I’d lost weight. Hallelujah, church of IIFYM!

That day, I even balanced my macros in anticipation of eating gnocchi at an Italian restaurant that night. Except the restaurant messed up my dish, telling me the white sauce was ‘definitely’ vegan. A few mouthfuls, and I knew it was cheese. I felt sick. I was worried about the effects. I didn’t feel like eating afterwards and for the first time in 10 days, I didn’t hit my protein goal (only 78g). I decided to persist with flexible dieting for two straight weeks.

Day 11

I’d been hungry on day 10, probably because I didn’t eat much after my dinner time dairy encounter. I was craving salads and I made a huge one – three quarters of a can of lentils contains 12g of protein for only 150 cals. Add some roast pumpkin, leafy greens and cherry tomatoes – it was huge! But my lunch made up only a fraction of my overall food intake.  Crisis struck when I forgot to take protein bar to work (Clif’s Builders Bar contains 22g!). Soy yogurt and peaches kept me full until dinner time but again, I had to eat 20g of protein before bed to reach my target. I’ve stopped waking up hungry. In fact, I’m rarely hungry in the truly empty way I’d felt during fasting or after a big morning workout. I still miss my daily handful of nuts, but it’s been impossible to include those without blowing my fat or overall calorie limit. Need to work on my macros better to incorporate them – they’re too healthy to exclude in your diet!

Day 13

I FELT SO STRONG! I thought I’d picked up the wrong weights in my Pump class, I was lifting them so easily! Don’t get me wrong, I was cooked by the end of it. But wow, I felt good! I was beginning to think this ‘eat to perform’ and ‘fuel your workout’ thing was a winner.

Day 14

I wanted chocolate. I wanted nuts! But a 1/4 cup serve of almonds contains 14g of fat when my daily allowance was about 40g. Even 1tbsp of flaxmeal contains 3g of fat! And who knew my nightly square of 90% Lindt dark chocolate had 6g? Sure, they were all healthy fats. But avocado, nuts and chocolate were not going to happen in the same day on this diet.

Week 3

Day 16

I blew my calorie limit at an function. I was having so much fun, I stuck around for an extra glass of wine… and when I found out the gelato was chocolate AND vegan, I wasn’t going to miss that chance! Again, I wasn’t drastically over my calories. It’s scary how gelato is only 90 cals or so, low-ish fat and then just pure sugar. 

Day 17

I was missing fats so much! I wanted a big avocado fix and a raw ball – I planned to have both in the morning (pre and post-workout) and have a low-fat, high-protein tofu quiche for lunch. I was lovely my afternoon tea of soy yogurt (with 2tbsp of lupin flakes!). Just 80 cals and 8g of protein, and lots of healthy bacteria. 

I had another event that night, but I was grateful for a vegetarian protein option of Indian chickpea curry. Between my RPM class, CX Worx (core work) and walking, I’d burnt more than 650 cals so I increased my daily calorie intake to 1800. Normally I would’ve freaked out at eating so much, but I felt reassured knowing I was on target. My weight had unfortunately gone back up to 62.6kg, making me think the precious half a kilo loss was a fluke. I considered returning to fasting, but I want to see what results I could get after a month. I was eating so much, it was impressive I hadn’t gained any weigh! 

Day 18

A day later, my weight back was back to 62.2kg. Thank goodness! I may have been imaging, but I thought my arms looks just ever so slightly more toned. My skin, however, had broken out. I made a note to eat more vegetables, even though my stomach was full from protein all the time!

week four

Day 21

I was still aiming for 114g protein each day and mostly reaching it, now that I’d figured out my rough daily eating plan (lots of tofu, legumes, greens, daily protein powder and lupin flakes). I figured my breakout must’ve been caused by the desserts (refined sugar) which I never normally have. However, I thought my stomach may be showing the slightest hint of definition, despite drinking on the weekend and a bit of late night snacking (thanks shift work) – but all within my macro and calorie limits.

Day 23

Maybe it was the previous day’s stand up paddle board yoga class, but I swore my abs were changing, very very slightly. I felt incredibly strong during my BodyPump class, and have sustained my heavier weights for triceps. I wasn’t being as strict with my macros as the first fortnight where I gave myself just 2-5g leeway. Today I was 20g over for carbs but still achieving about 110g protein daily. I decided to give IIFYM a full month.

one month in

After four weeks of trying IIFYM, I was largely enjoying it. I was hungry before meals but not constantly feeling underfed like I was with a 1200 calorie limit. I used to eat lunch then grab my afternoon snack 90 minutes later. Not so with IIFYM! I wasn’t sure if it was the protein or simply eating more. I’d had some slight weight loss (0.5kg/1 lb) but gained a little bit of definition on my quads, arms and abs. I took some photos but it’s so slight, I’ll keep them on my own camera reel. I figured I’d stick with IIFYM for another month, despite going through protein powder and protein bars like crazy. 

2nd month

The first two weeks were filled with birthday celebrations and visitors, and my macros largely went off the rail. I still exercised daily and hit my protein target, but I exceeded calorie and fat limits. The following two weeks were messy too – I worked long and irregular hours before taking a five day holiday interstate to Sydney and didn’t log my food at all (nor the cocktails). But I defaulted to my usual vacation strategy – be active, eat only when hungry and enjoy yourself – with minimal damage (I came back weighing 62.5kg). I returned to the gym and resumed eating my prescribed macros. And now, here I am after eights weeks of very flexible dieting. Here are my reflections: 

Pros 

  • I thought I’d have to give up bread and banish all other carbs from my diet. But the HealthyEater formula above was actually quite generous, and I realised I’d unknowingly been following a low carb diet for years already. I was relieved I could still enjoy oatmeal and my post-workout weekend brunch of avocado on toast! 
  • I was rarely hungry. As mentioned, I wouldn’t eat lunch or dinner until my tummy rumbled. But I felt satiated for hours and could often forgo my afternoon snack of fruit and yogurt, because I was still so full. I did often eat later at night though, which I didn’t like.
  • There were several workouts, weight training especially, where I felt stronger. I could push myself harder. Running wasn’t easy, but it was at times easier than I was used to. 
  • I never felt socially deprived, as I could attend dinners or events and not limit myself to salads or other low-carb options. 
  • I could still drink alcohol (this may be a con!). While I don’t drink often, the nights where I wanted a glass or two of wine or drank a few pints of cider at an event – it was no problem if I’d met the activity level! 
  • The changes to my diet weren’t drastic, in that I still bought the same foods at the grocery store and farmers market. However I did buy a lot more protein and protein products each week (see cons, below).
  • I lost a little bit of weight (0.5kg/1.1 lbs) and saw some very slight improvements in toning in my arms, abs and legs. Whether this can be attributed specifically to my macro formula, eating 50% more protein or simply eating more calories, I’m not sure. I certainly feel like a larger but stronger person overall, compared to the peak of my fasting days.  

Cons

  • You need to keep a meticulous food diary, and pre-planning my meals was essential on lower activity days. It was frustrating when I couldn’t balance my macros for the day, but for example I had high-carb leftovers that needed eating or a brunch date with limited options.
  • It was a daily struggle to get enough protein and keep my fats down. I had to eliminate my daily treat of dark chocolate in order to have a tablespoon of nuts or seeds, and my paper thin slices of avocado were depressing. I eventually managed to balance these better, but restricting such healthy foods didn’t feel right.
  • Similarly, I was determined to eat real, whole foods wherever possible but it was tough. My occasional Clif Builder’s Bar became an almost daily snack on top of a protein shake. I attempted to make a TVP porridge (it was vile) and if it wasn’t for lupin flakes, I would’ve struggled to meet the targets on a mostly vegan diet. This wouldn’t be an issue for anyone eating eggs or meat, as even a small can of tuna would get you 17g of protein for under 100 calories, with zero carbs and little fat too. 
  • I also felt my fruit and vegetable intake was lower because there simply wasn’t room in my stomach. On 1200 cals/day, I’d become skilled at eating high volume, low calorie foods (hello zucchini) to feel full. I just couldn’t fit an entire carrot, tomato and roast pumpkin as well as 200g of tofu or a can of beans – so the vegetables were cut back.
  • I ate all the time. I packed snacks and often realised I’d forgotten to have that protein shake or yogurt as I’d gotten busy and my tummy didn’t rumble. Not a bad thing, but at times I actually longed to feel that hollow, deep sense of hunger I got during fasting. 
  • What I really disliked what that this diet doesn’t provide any guidance on sugar (in fact, on any actual nutrition). I try to limit my sugar intake to naturally occurring ones such as fruit, and rarely use honey or maple syrup. But unfortunately, sugar is a low fat ingredient, and I found myself using it as a shortcut in some recipes (such as honey in my lupin mug cake) as it didn’t blow my fat content. Dried fruit too was an easy but risky way of meeting my carb intake – although it was usually limited to sprinkling raisins on my oatmeal (and I’d forgo them on a low activity days).
  • This diet also became quite expensive. I was eating more than double my usual amounts of yogurt and tofu, plus going through protein powder like crazy. Protein bars weren’t cheap either, but maybe I’d been previously underspending on groceries. 
  • Did I mention I had to restrict avocado, nuts and dark chocolate but wine and gelato weren’t macro-speaking a problem? 

What helped

As a vegetarian (and dairy-free), the biggest struggle was hitting my protein target without blowing my carb or fat limit. Here are a few things that helped me get over the line: 

  • Protein powder: For 100 calories, I get 22g of pure pea protein. My favourite brand is The Healthy Chef’s vanilla protein powder with nothing nasty or stomach upsetting. I had it in smoothies, added it to turmeric lattes and made the occasional late night protein mug cake.
  • Lupin flakes: Possibly my favourite health food discovery of 2017! Lupins, from the legume family, are high protein, low carb, low fat and packed with fibre! Four tablespoons contains 16g of protein for 130 calories. It’s affordable too! Read more in Five Ways with Lupin Flakes
  • PB2: I’ve been a fan of this low fat, low calorie peanut butter substitute for years. It’s great on toast or crackers, in a satay sauce or (confession) just off the spoon. A 2 tbsp serve contains 50 calories and 5g of protein. Read more in My Favourite Protein Products.
  • TVP: Textured vegetable protein may not sound attractive, but it’s a very affordable and easy meat substitute. It works well in any dish that uses mince meat, such as lasagna, burritos, spaghetti or meatballs. A 1/4 cup serve contains 80 calories, 12g of protein and almost zero fat or carbs. It’s only about $5/kg too from bulk food stores and still good value from iHerb
  • Nutritional yeast: The most unappealing name for a food item, but give your dishes a cheesy but vegan flavour with 1tbsp of this (20 calories, 2g protein and a host of vitamins, including 40% of your vitamin B12 intake). The small amounts of protein add up! 

will i continue?

There are some aspects of IIFYM I want to continue. It’s helped me to eat more so I have the energy to work harder at the gym, and therefore get better results. But I disliked my reliance on processed protein to hit my daily quota, and I longed to just have a rich pumpkin soup for lunch with (gasp) no added protein. If you read last week’s post 15 Ways to Measure Your Health, you’ll know I planned to have a body composition test to analyse my slightly heavier, tighter clothed self. And guess what? Since my last assessment at the naturopath about 15 months ago, I’ve gained 2.5kg (5.5lbs) of weight overall but wait for it – I’ve lost 2.8kg (5.2lbs) of body fat and gained 5.5kg (12lbs) of muscle! I’m going to be still hitting the gym at 90, hoorah! 

But the main reason I’m hitting pause on flexible dieting? My naturopath, who I’ve seen for years and is continually studying, cautioned me against a high protein diet. He said the latest evidence in tests of worms, rats and other animals is that while a high protein diet makes you leaner – it can cut your life expectancy by 30 per cent (which equates to 30 years for humans!). You may look better, but you won’t live as long. It’s the last thing I want my healthy, active life to achieve. So for now, avocado and nuts are back on the menu and I’ll stick with my daily protein shake. I’m even going to eat a bit more each day (1400 cals), and I’ll eat a lot more when I run 10K (1600 – 1800 cals). But the processed bars and late night lupin mug cakes can go. It’s timely, as I’m about to have surgery on my finger that will unfortunately keep me away from the gym for a few weeks. Rather than worry about weight gain, losing fitness or counting carbs – I’m simply going to give my mind and body the best recovery it can get. Sleep, vitamins and glorious walks by the beach!

QUESTION: Tell me about a diet strategy you tried – what was it, and what were the results? 

15 Ways To Measure Your Health

I’ve been beating myself up over my weight lately. I’m only 2.5 kilograms over what I feel my ‘ideal’ weight is (where I feel lean but strong) but damn, it’s like I’m carrying a layer of Jell-O around my stomach. A trip to China (hello noodles), Christmas and last month’s birthday celebrations have been a series of wonderful but unfortunate events for my waistline. I’m hoping (okay, praying) that the weight gain is actually muscle thanks to hill running, heavier weights and increased protein intake. I plan to book in for my annual body composition assessment in coming weeks, but in the interim I’ve been reflecting on other ways to measure my health. 

For example, I can recall a time when I was a few kilograms lighter but I was sleep deprived, my skin was inflamed and my nails were constantly breaking. I also remember a time when I had a smaller build but I was injured, almost anaemic and my emotions were all over the place. A friend of mine has bemoaned her apparent recent weight gain but her energy levels and vitality are the best I’ve seen in years. Her face no longer looks drained. 

Below are 15 ways to measure your health, both inside and outside. I’m not saying to keep a diary of each of them, but by scanning through old photos or reflecting on recent months you may remember a time you felt your strongest, prepped meals brimming with fresh produce or simply slept through the night. Regardless, this list may just make you realise you’re doing better health-wise now than you think.

1. Weight

I’m putting this at the top of the list to get it out the way. Weight is a big part of your health, although it’s by no means everything. Ideal weight ranges differ based on your gender, ethnicity and stage of life. However, occasionally standing on the scales (or trying on those old jeans or a particular dress) can indicate whether you’re losing, gaining or maintaining weight. Increasing your muscle mass will lead to weight gain (it’s heavier than fat), as will water retention (hello, flying) and some medications. Your weight is just one measure of health, but it’s an easy one to track.

2. Waist

A better indication than weight perhaps, but still not flawless, is your waistline. Measuring your waist (and wrists if you’re really keen) is an effortless way to check your risk of obesity-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. I use the tape measure from my sewing kit to keep an eye on my waistline (currently 67 centimetres/ 26 inches). The Australian government guidelines are:

  • For men, have a waistline below 94cm (37 inches)
  • For women, below 80cm (31.5 inches)

3. Blood pressure/cholesterol/blood glucose

Unless you or a relative is a nurse, it’s unlikely you can assess these in your own home. However you can head to a pharmacy or local doctor to get them tested! Similar to your waist measurements, these tests help identify your risk of developing certain diseases. I’m able to get a free test each year through my private health insurance, but some work places also offer free testing. Ideally, your assessor will make recommendations (such as diet or lifestyle changes) based on your results if needed. 

4. Diet

A sign that I’m having a hectic week? I’m eating baked beans on toast, buying sushi and drinking Diet Coke. When do I feel at my best? Giant salads, stir-fries, fresh fruit and wholesome dinners brimming with vegetables. Of course, diet is linked to time – getting to a grocery store then also preparation – but setting aside an hour each week to roast some vegetables or make a curry will save hours during the week! If I’m having two serves of fruit, a giant plate of vegetables and avoid processed foods each day, I’m happy. 

5. In the bathroom

If you’re regularly running to the bathroom or feeling backed up – it’s not a great sign for health. There are plenty of charts on the Internet indicating what your toilet business should look like (and checking the colour of your urine will show how hydrated you are). Normal will differ from person to person, but if your bathroom habits in line with medical guidelines – give yourself a healthy high five! 

6. Skin

I’m no dermatologist or beautician – but my skin will tell you whether I’m refreshed, sleep deprived or eating too many store granola bars. I can recall a particularly stressful time in my life where I was a few kilograms lighter than now, but my face was inflamed and infected. It took a lot of courage to walk five minutes down the road without make-up to visit a beautician, who was shocked when she saw me (I haven’t gone back). When I was seriously overweight, I had acne as well. My skin isn’t flawless now but reducing stress, eating of a variety of fresh foods and having flaxseed each day have done a lot more than that once-off facial. 

7. Nails

In recent months, I’ve noticed my nails are much stronger than they used to be. They used to flake and break almost daily but the only change I can think of is that I’m actively eating more protein and trying to reduce stress. I suspect my calorie restriction (which resulted in successful weight loss) had a side-effect of inadequate nutrient which manifested in poor skin and nails. You could probably include hair in this category too – is it strong and shiny or dull and breaking? My hairdresser has noticed an improvement in my hair too. 

8. Immunity

If you’ve ever been seriously ill or injured, you probably didn’t care about how your jeans were fitting. You wanted to recover, be pain-free, regain strength and mobility. On a lesser note, you may have had times where you were just plagued by cold, flu and infections or generally felt rundown. But perhaps a virus went through your office and you escaped it? Or you’ve been injury free for 12 months! Immunity and resilience are a sure sign your health’s on track.

9. Sleep

How much sleep are you getting and how good is it? My New Years’ resolution in 2017 was to get seven hours, seven days a week. It didn’t always happen (and sorry to any parents reading this) but I try to go to bed at least seven hours before my alarm. A good nights’ sleep changes everything and I’ve invested in good quality sheets, duvets and pillows to try make that happen. I’ve also promised myself ‘don’t fight the tired’ – if my eyelids are drooping, abandon the task and go to bed. Yes, that’s why this blog post is late and there are piles of laundry strewn across my apartment. 

10. Energy

Closely linked to sleep, but worthy of its own category. Do you feel charged up or lethargic? Alert or hazy? Another measure: how often do you grab chocolate at 3pm? Again, parents and shift workers are likely to have tough days. The time I crawled back into bed after a Spin class (sweaty shorts and all) and slept for two hours or nearly concussed myself on my office keyboard are not good indicators. But I feel most energised when I’m fuelled by adequate sleep, good nutrition and exercise. 

11. Strength

If you lift weights, strength is an easy measure of health to track. I’m definitely lifting the heaviest weights of my life (although nothing compared to CrossFitters). Maybe you’re doing push ups on your toes, lifting groceries more easily or carrying a child for longer? Can you squeeze harder or lift higher in Pilates? If you’re in any way stronger than you used to be, congratulate yourself! 

12. Endurance

For runners and cyclists, endurance is another aspect of health that’s easy to track. I’m running 10K weekly post-injury and am increasing the intensity by including more inclines. You may be a regular walker and noticed you’re less puffed or walking for longer than when you first started. Your dance class might leave you less exerted, or you’ve doubled your treadmill time. Your ability to do an activity has improved, and therefore so has your health! 

13. Flexibility

This is perhaps my most valued measure of health. One of the main reasons I hit the gym is to future-proof my body against ageing. I want not just strength and endurance now, but I want to be agile and mobile in my old age. I did yoga yesterday for the first time in two weeks and was shocked when I attempted a deep Hindi squat – my hips refused to lower or loosen at all. Whether you’re a yogi, do Tai Chi or just occasionally stretch, are you gliding or grimacing? 

14. Stress

I could dedicate an entire post or even a blog to stress, but I’m not qualified or overly passionate on the topic. We’ve all had times in our lives where we’re waking during the night, running on adrenaline or feel sick to the core. It could be a specific problem – money, relationships or health – or sometimes it’s simply a build up of being busy. No task is stressful on its own, but the quantity can seem overwhelming. My solution is having a ‘GSD’ (get sh*t done) day, where I power through every essential or irritating errand on my to-do list. Otherwise, I generally try to reduce stress by making time for things that I know calm me – getting my nails done, baking, spraying a scent or even just breathing while a cup of tea brews. There will be calm and chaotic flows in life – but you’re no doubt in better health during the more restorative times. 

15. Emotions

This is related to stress, but I think it’s worthy of its own category. You may not be stressed, but how often do you feel peaceful or joyous? Are you more confident, less anxious or feeling better connected to people or communities around you? Can you recall the last time your face hurt from laughing so hard? Are you proud of yourself? Sure, I want those extra kilos to leave my body. But I haven’t seen a counsellor for two years, my skin is no longer a horror movie and I hiked a mountain last year with the man I love. That sounds pretty healthy to me, although I’m still going to have my annual health check – because while I know my body, I don’t have a medical degree. It’s all about balance! 

QUESTION: How do you measure your health? 

The Great Wall of China – Jiankou to Mutianyu

When planning our three week trip to China last year, some sights were an absolute given. The Great Wall of China was a must-see for both my boyfriend and I, and as we were flying into Beijing, it was one of the first things we would do on our journey across five cities. 

We soon realised, however, that it wasn’t a case of just ‘seeing’ the wall. The UN World Heritage Listed site spans more than 20,000 kilometres (12,427 miles) and comprises walls, watch towers and shelters. There are different sections ranging from a 40 minute drive from Beijing to more than two hours away, and the type of wall differs from fully restored to completely inaccessible. 

Which Section?

So you’re going to visit the Great Wall, but which section is best? There are at least 10 options from Beijing, but here’s an overview of the most popular parts: 

  • Badaling: the most touristy, completely restored. Avoid if you can, according to locals.
  • Mutianyu: restored, but slightly less crowded than Badaling. You can walk a distance then turn around, or continue to Jiankou. 
  • Jiankou: wild, unrestored wall with challenging hiking. Going from Jiankou to Mutianyu is a popular (but not busy) route.
  • Jinshaling: minimally restored, less crowds but further away.
  • Simatai: a mix of restored and wild wall, night tour options.

*Note: The path between Jinshaling and Simatai was closed when we visited in September 2017 and it’s not clear if it’s reopened. 

The section you choose will depend on how much time you have, your fitness and personal preference. Badaling is the closest to Beijing so great if you’re pushed for time – it’s also the best option for anyone with limited mobility. Mutianyu is a bit less touristy and well restored, but not for those wanting to see original wall. Jiankou has been dubbed the most dangerous section, completely untamed and requiring a hike through a village. Some say Jinshaling is the most beautiful but it’s two to three hours from Beijing so you’ll need a full day. Others say Simatai is the most peaceful. Tour company China Highlights, with whom we booked unrelated train tickets, has a good overview of the different sections.

My boyfriend and I read various blogs and Chinese tour company websites to try decide which section to choose. We wanted to avoid crowds, hike a section, we had a full day available and we wanted to see unrestored wall. As the Jianshaling to Simatai section was closed, we chose Jiankou to Mutianyu. 

Tour group, guide or solo?

When it came to the Great Wall, my boyfriend wanted a guide while I wanted to do it solo. I figured with enough research, printed maps and allowing lots of time, we’d be fine. My boyfriend, on the other hand, said it was the first day of a three week trip in a country neither of us has been to before. We’d chosen a wild section of the wall that was reportedly the most dangerous and if we got lost or injured, it could set us back for the rest of the trip. He had a point. I reluctantly agreed to a guide, although I resented the extra cost and sharing the experience of seeing the wall with a stranger when we were both fit and seasoned travellers. 

On the plus side, we would had a private vehicle, could choose our departure time and didn’t have to use our brains on the first day of vacation. After reading some TripAdvisor reviews, we emailed a few companies for quotes and availability before booking Beijing Walking. It cost US$300 for two people, payable in cash on the day. 

Hiking Jiankou to Mutianyu

Here’s what to expect specifically on the Jiankou to Mutianyu route. You could hike in either direction, but as Jiankou is higher, it’s easier to start there and go downhill. The path is about 9km (5.5mi) and can be broken into three sections:

  • Xizhazi village to Jiankou Tower 
  • Jiankou Tower to start of Mutianyu
  • Mutianyu to cable car/exit 

1. Xizhazi village to Jiankou Tower 

Our guide Joe met us at our Beijing hotel precisely at 7.30am. It took nearly 2.5 hours to reach Xizhazi village thanks to traffic, but we weren’t on a deadline. The drive was mostly highway, but became mountainous and jungle-like in the latter half. Both my boyfriend and I fell asleep at times, still recovering from our red-eye flight.

Our vehicle stopped at Xizhazi village, but there was no obvious town centre. We used restrooms next to some old exercise equipment before driving for another few minutes. We arrived at a small car park, although the area looked more like small farms than the start of a hike. Choosing the Jiankou to Mutianyu route for the least tourists, I was disappointed when another car pulled up next to us. It was a young couple with a baby and they didn’t have a guide. They set off while we got our backpacks ready and put on sunscreen. As soon as I got out of car, I noticed it was harder to breathe. It was a warm day too.

 Xizhazi Village: the start of our one hour walk to reach Jiankou Tower.
Xizhazi Village: the start of our one hour walk to reach Jiankou Tower.

From memory, we took off about 9.45am. We began our walk at good speed, following our guide along the zig-zagging, uphill path. It wasn’t long before we caught up to the couple, who’d stopped at a fork in the path. Our guide pointed the way and they continued, while I paused so we’d get some distance between us. My legs were fine but I was puffing and panting, and felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. I was really surprised, as my fitness levels are good and I hardly felt like we were high up. But I was dripping with sweat within 20 minutes.

We saw the couple again, once more uncertain of the way. Their baby started wailing and they followed us for at least another 10 minutes. I was so mad! They’d saved a few hundred dollars by just hiring a taxi – then took advantage of the private guide we’d paid a premium for. Their child’s screams were destroying the serenity. My heart began to sink. 

 Hike from the village: the first glimpse of the wall feels incredible!
Hike from the village: the first glimpse of the wall feels incredible!
 Jiankou Tower: you'll need to pay a farmer to borrow a ladder.
Jiankou Tower: you’ll need to pay a farmer to borrow a ladder.

I was still stopping every 10 minutes or so to try catch my breathe. There were at least three times when the path forked with no signage about where the Great Wall was. It was getting increasingly humid in the trees and behind my knees was getting itchy. There were bugs too. But finally, we lost the couple and their screaming infant. And after 45 minutes, my boyfriend and I got our first glimpse of the wall! I was so excited! We wound our way up the steepest part yet, then we were suddenly at the base of tower. Exactly as we’d read in other blogs, there was a farmer with a ladder. We paid him 5¥ each and voila – we had reached the Great Wall! 

There is no way you could climb up the tower without the ladder, unless you maybe had a few people and could climb on each other’s shoulders. The farmer had a selection of beer, Red Bull and water for sale too. I was grateful to have a guide for this part of the hike only, as there really was little signage or clear paths to reach the tower. 

2. Jiankou Tower to start of Mutianyu

Standing on top of the tower was an extraordinary moment. After spending almost an hour hiking uphill in jungle, it was incredible to emerge in an open space and witness the Great Wall for the first time. I looked out in all directions, admiring the Chinese ingenuity and remarkable history before me. It became clear what an impressive defence structure the Great Wall once was. 

 Jiankou Tower: you'll have a 360-degree view on top.
Jiankou Tower: you’ll have a 360-degree view on top.

After a good amount of photographs, water and towelling down, we began hiking the Jiankou section. There’s only one direction you can go – towards Mutianyu – as the other way is completely inaccessible. The path, while overgrown and a bit uneven, is easy to follow. Trees and shrubs will brush you constantly. The wild section didn’t last long though. We weaved up and down but the wall was mostly downhill from Jiankou tower. That didn’t stop my legs quivering and turning jelly! There was no shade either, except in towers. For perhaps an hour, we had the wall largely to ourselves and I felt reassured we’d chosen the best route after all. 

 Jiankou: it's called 'wild' wall for a reason - it's unrestored and trees are unkept! 
Jiankou: it’s called ‘wild’ wall for a reason – it’s unrestored and trees are unkept! 

About halfway on the Jiankou section was the Ox Horn, a very steep part that goes up and down the side of a mountain. Our guide told us 10 people fall to their death each year, which I can only assume is fall and slip as there was no cliff face as such. Our guide took on a detour, saying the Ox Horn section was closed as the downhill part was too dangerous. We left the wall for the first time, heading slightly south then parallel to the wall through light forest. Again, there was no signage or paved path so this may be difficult if attempting to do the hike on your own. It was maybe 10 minutes before we resumed walking the wall. 

 Jiankou: the steep loop is called the Ox Horn - our guide took us on a detour slightly south and off the wall. 
Jiankou: the steep loop is called the Ox Horn – our guide took us on a detour slightly south and off the wall. 

3. Mutianyu to cable car/exit 

The end of the Jiankou section and the start of Mutianyu was marked by two men with umbrellas selling snacks and drinks. We’d hardly seen another soul for an hour but the crowds started here. Hilariously, tourists were posing with a sign that said ‘I Climbed the Peak of the Great Wall’ despite that spot not being the highest (Jiankou Tower is the highest point). From here, the walk was simply down a lot of steps. I felt for those who were travelling in the opposite direction to us, as the staircases were steep and still no shade. People were wearing fashion boots, sandals, jeans, and even summer dresses. I was still sweating just going down steps, and my legs shook whenever we stopped at a flat section. The last 10 minutes or so was particularly picturesque – it was every image of the Great Wall you’ve seen come alive! 

 Mutianyu: the restored path is much more even and clear than wild Jiankou. 
Mutianyu: the restored path is much more even and clear than wild Jiankou. 

Our party of three reached the Mutianyu cable car at 1pm, and I was surprised we’d gotten there so quickly.  We’d hiked quite fast, which I assumed was necessary to cover the distance but I didn’t expect our Great Wall experience to end so early. I would’ve rather have slowed down, and perhaps stopped for 10 minutes somewhere to have some water and take in the views. Our guide gave us the option to either take the cable car down down or walk another 40 minutes to the bottom. However he explained the local restaurant he intended for lunch wasn’t near the Wall and stopped cooking at 2pm. 

 Mutianyu: Our guide Joe said Chinese tourists were to blame for this trash, but I wasn't so sure. 
Mutianyu: Our guide Joe said Chinese tourists were to blame for this trash, but I wasn’t so sure. 
 Mutianyu: a restored section and the most popular with foreign tourists. This is near the cable car. 
Mutianyu: a restored section and the most popular with foreign tourists. This is near the cable car. 

Part of me was sweaty and thirsty, and my legs were stiffening whenever we went uphill. But I also hate taking shortcuts. My boyfriend felt the same. We decided to take the cable car down, given we’d covered a good distance, the rest of our holiday would be quite physical and also, we wanted to experience a good local restaurant on our first day! 

The cable car cost 100¥ and took three minutes. It was nothing special, convenience only. I was surprised to see how touristy the area was at the base was compared to the seemingly empty village where we’d started our journey. Here, there were restaurants, market stalls, even a Subway and Burger King. There were busloads of tourists, especially those who were older, likely retired, and had little desire to walk far. I cringed at the long line for the restrooms – only to realise the women were waiting for a Western toilet rather than use the squat toilets. I walked past all of them, shaking my head, used the bathroom, and remembered why I prefer independent travel. 

We took a shuttle bus down to the car park, met our driver, and then drove to our lunch venue for an incredible feast and a few beers. We arrived back in Beijing around 4pm, giving us enough time to shower before heading out in the hutongs that night! You can read more in My Must-Do in Beijing

It was absolutely surreal seeing the Great Wall in real life and the best thing is, I can do it all again with another section! While I don’t think a guide was necessary for the main Jiankou to Mutianyu route, there was no way we could’ve identified which paths to take from the village to the wall. The Ox Horn detour may have also been proved tricky, based on the lack of clear paths or signage. 

Was it Dangerous?

Not at all. The greatest dangers on the Jiankou to Mutianyu route were getting lost on the village trail, sunburn or chaffing. That said, we didn’t do the Ox Horn section and the September weather, although warm, was ideal as there was no wind or rain. If this was reportedly the most dangerous section, it’s a very tame wall indeed! 

 Jianko (immediately after the Tower): far from feeling like 'the most dangerous' section.
Jianko (immediately after the Tower): far from feeling like ‘the most dangerous’ section.

What to Bring

Bring sunscreen, water and a hat (I accidentally left mine in our vehicle). We visited in early September and it was 31°C (75°F). I’m not usually a big sweater and I’m from Western Australia, known for its hot climate, but I sweated! The only shade is in the towers and you’ll be walking steep hills, steps and/or long distances. I would also bring a small towel to wipe off sweat (a hotel hand towel would be perfect). By chance I had some baby wipes, and thank goodness because there was nothing else to soak up the sweat. 

What to Wear  

It was a warm day so we both wore active wear (okay, I wore a Lululemon runsie but it’s so comfortable!). Part of me wished I was in crops or a t-shirt to give better coverage from shrubs and branches but it was the trade-off to stay cool. If the forecast is cooler, bring layers. I had a light, long sleeve shirt but I left it in the car as it was obviously going to be a warm day.

 Mutianyu: you'll walk down this coming from Jiankou.
Mutianyu: you’ll walk down this coming from Jiankou.

While some blogs recommended hiking shoes, this was absolutely not necessary for Jiankou to Mutianyu . Given this was meant to be the most dangerous route, it’s safe to say you don’t need them anywhere on the wall. Sneakers were perfectly fine, although I’d avoid tennis shoes or Converse for example, as you want something that will absorb the impact of all those steps. 

Next Time? 

When I next visit China, I’d absolutely return to the wall! I would love to see some water or lake areas, see the wall at night or even camp there. I’m hoping the Jinshaling and Simatai sections will an option, as these are reportedly the most beautiful and peaceful parts (although I wasn’t at all disappointed with our views). It’s unlikely I’d do the Jiankou to Mutianyu route again, but only because I like to experience new things. However, as mentioned, I’d probably go slower and stop for water and snacks somewhere just to take in the views. 

QUESTION: If you’ve visited the Great Wall of China, please add your experience and tips below! 

Your First SUP Yoga Class

For the past few months I’ve been trying to simplify life. It started when I watched a Netflix documentary about minimalism and I later read the excellent book Goodbye Things by Japanese author Fumio Sasaki. I was inspired to reclaim time and space by living more simply, and while I won’t share my decluttering efforts on this blog, I wanted to make decisions quicker. Instead of weighing up pros and cons, researching for days or analysing a menu for 20 minutes, my mantra became ‘if you want it, get it’ and ‘if you’re interested, do it’. I’ve regained so much time by thinking less. It’s incredible. 

This ‘do what you’re drawn to’ mindset is how I found myself at a swimming pool at 7am on a Tuesday, about to do yoga in my bikini. I love the water and had been interested in trying stand up paddle (SUP) boarding for a while. When I saw Precious Breath were offering a three week SUP yoga course at a local aquatic centre, I knew I had to give it a go! I usually workout with my mum on a Tuesday morning so I asked if she wanted to join me. She loves a fitness challenge too so we paid our AU$120 course fee and a few weeks later, we were poolside.

Class Overview

As the name suggests, SUP yoga combines stand up paddle boarding and yoga. You’ll do a range of yoga poses while balancing on a paddle board, with the class duration typically 45 minutes to an hour. There’s no paddle! The sequence can vary but as a guide, most classes will have the standard yoga format of a gentle warm up, sun salutations, warrior poses and then perhaps some inversions or hip opening stretches followed by shavasana (meditation). If you’re confused, terminology is covered below. The challenge of SUP yoga is moving between poses while keeping your centre of gravity, or you’ll topple into the water! 

Before you leave home

As with a traditional yoga class, it’s best not to eat for at least an hour beforehand or you may get an upset stomach. If you must have something, keep it small and energy-dense such as half a banana, a handful of nuts or my favourite – a raw ball. Ladies, you’ll be in swimwear so make sure you’re happy with your hair removal situation. Put on suncream, bring a towel and a water bottle. Consider a hat but it’ll likely get wet. It’s best to leave valuables at home unless you know there are lockers available (unlikely at river or beach locations).

What to wear

I had no idea whether I should wear a swimsuit, yoga clothes or both but thankfully I got an email before our class. It said to wear swimwear underneath yoga clothes in case we got wet. As the pool was chlorinated, I wore my oldest gym shorts and tank rather than damage my latest Lululemon, with a bikini underneath. I’d regrettably tossed my old one-piece out in a recent clean-out, but thankfully my bikini top had a high neck. As for footwear, I wore sneakers for the 20 minute walk from my apartment to the pool but flip-flops are a better idea.

On arrival

Ideally you’ve been given a good description of the class location, whether it be a public pool, lake or at the beach. It shouldn’t be too hard to spot the boards and cluster of people. Find the instructor and if it’s not specifically a beginner class, let them know your experience with SUP or yoga so they can give guidance throughout. 

 SUP Yoga: the paddle board was much sturdier than I expected.
SUP Yoga: the paddle board was much sturdier than I expected.

Equipment

Your paddle board will probably be supplied, otherwise you may need to collect a hire board. Inquire beforehand! Yoga paddle boards are wider than regular boards, giving you more space and stability. Getting onto the board can be difficult but look for a handle (a deep groove) in the centre. Then you’re set! 

Terminology

Your instructor will guide you through a range of poses. If you’ve done yoga before, you’ll be familiar with them. If not, here are some basics:

  • Child’s pose: A resting pose with knees and toes on your mat, chest on your thighs and arms stretched in front. A great option to do anytime during the class. 
  • Downward dog: One of the foundation poses in yoga. Hands and feet on the mat at least one metre apart, with your bottom in the air like an upside down “V.” Over time, your heels will touch the ground. 
  • Shavasana or “corpse pose”: Meditation. Five minutes at the end where you lay down and relax your mind, letting your body absorb the work you’ve just done. 
  • Sun salutations: A flowing sequence involving downward dog, lunges, some planking, upward dog and mountain poses. Usually repeated at least four times (twice on each leg). 
  • Warrior poses: A set of strengthening poses, with Warrior 1 facing frontwards, Warrior 2 your chest and hips face the side, and Warrior 3 a bit like a one-legged aeroplane. 

During the class

I quickly realised I’d be doing the class in my bikini, as we needed to swim a short distance to reach our boards! It’d been years since I’d been to a public swimming pool and the water was mild and refreshing. I felt genuinely excited I’d made this experience happen. I got on the board without any grace, and our class began.

Your main focus will be staying on the board, but honestly, it was much sturdier than I expected. From the first minute, I felt my legs and core instantly engage as if I was balancing on a beam. But I moved through child’s pose, cat-cow pose and to downward dog without any problems. It was 20 minutes later during a Warrior 2 pose that I toppled into the water! It resulted in lots of laughter and others fell off later too. Apart from being a little cold when the sun went behind clouds, I felt peaceful and lucky to have such a unique experience in my hometown’s warm climate.

Our instructor Claudia was fantastic, guiding us through poses with a headset microphone as she stood on the edge of the pool. She had a great teaching style, moving around the pool so our class could still see her when we were facing the side and demonstrating moves where needed. Throughout the class she congratulated us on accepting a challenge, getting out of our comfort zone and choosing to start our day with yoga. As a regular yogi, I was comfortable with the poses but I did regret throwing out my one-piece when my stomach sagged while planking. I told myself it’s just a body – and any onlookers were probably more interested in our unusual activity rather than critiquing my lack of tone. 

The highlights were doing ‘wild thing’ pose and flipping into the pool – what a sense of freedom! I also enjoyed bridge pose and hope to make it to wheel pose by the end of the three week course. I’d earlier joked with my mum that I couldn’t possibly imagine doing ‘happy baby’ pose in a bikini. Well, I did it – until I realised the school group next to us probably didn’t need to see that view! 

The next day & beyond

Forget the next day, my quads were stiff when I stood up after breakfast that morning! I woke up with stiff quads the next day as well as well, and my mum text me she had the same feeling. We must’ve worked harder than we realised. If you’re not a regular yogi, you may also find your hamstrings a little tight. Go for a gentle walk or try repeat some of the poses to loosen your muscles. 

In subsequent classes, have fun exploring and developing your practice. Maybe you lunge deeper, twist further or challenge your balance by closing your eyes. While I was slightly hesitant SUP yoga may be a fad, it was actually a perfect union of two different workouts. The flow of yoga and the movement of the water was calming and they absolutely complimented each other. The feeling must be heightened in natural water! If you get the chance, take your practice outside the studio – and get on board SUP yoga! 

QUESTION: When did you last take your fitness out of your comfort zone? 

Overcoming an Injury

It’s been six years since I suffered a serious sports injury. It was completely self-inflicted – in my quest to lose weight, I was exercising 10 to 12 days straight without a break and doing minimal yoga or stretching. I was typically doing two gym classes a day, running 10 kilometres weekly and walking anywhere I could to burn extra calories. My body was constantly sore which I took as a sign I was working hard. 

It’s little surprise that after increasingly upping the intensity and frequency of my workouts, my body began to protest. I rolled my ankle in a boxing class, I was waking during the night with restless legs and eventually, my right knee buckled. You can read the full story in The Dangers of Overtraining, but essentially I was left limping, depressed and completely depleted. I finally accepted I needed help. 

The months that followed were painful, frustrating and expensive. I was in such denial about my injury, it took two attempts to address the problem as I rushed my recovery. The second time round however, I was determined to get stronger and rebuild my fitness. There were several things during my recovery that helped me progress and stay positive. Here’s how I overcame my injury: 

Initial assessment

The first step was booking a physiotherapist appointment. She identified my knee pain as coming from a tight ilitibiol band. The ‘IT band’ runs along the outside of the thigh, connecting your butt to your knee. IT Band Syndrome is a common injury among runners, especially from overuse. I was actually relieved to get a diagnosis. I had private health cover, so appointments only cost me around $40 or so after rebate. I got massages on my leg every few days and felt relief almost immediately. I also learnt to use a foam roller to loosen my IT band, and the physio even did some acupuncture. She told me to take it easy at the gym, so I kept going daily but just used lighter weights.

Changing footwear

I also saw a podiatrist based in the physiotherapy complex, who, identified I had flat feet and overpronated my foot – meaning it rolled inward when I walked and put additional stress on my knee when running. I got custom-made orthotics, which set me back around $400-500. Thankfully, I again got a part rebate through private health insurance. On the podiatrist’s recommendation, I also changed my sneakers to Asics’ Nimbus range, which is designed for runners and has a neutral sole (so would fit my orthotics). While orthotics felt strange at first, my feet quickly adapted to the new support and cushioning. I even started running again, although I did one minute of jogging and one minute of walking which I could sustain for 7km. Believing I was cured after new shoes and a few weeks of physiotherapy, I quickly increased intensity on everything. 

Don’t rush recovery

My symptoms rapidly returned. I tried running after work one day and couldn’t even do 2km before I limped home. The outside of my knee again felt like it had a burning gumball inside it. I was upset, angry and refused to do anything that involved eating or drink because I had no way to burn off the calories. Apart from my morning oatmeal, I wasn’t eating any carbs for fear of weight gain. I’d invested so much time and money in trying to fix the issue which made my failure all the more frustrating. At this point, I knew my injury was serious and needed more than massages. 

Second assessment

I saw a different physiotherapist, recommended by a friend of my boyfriend’s who’d also had knee problems. My new physio (Phil at Energise Physiotherapy) said if he couldn’t fix my knee after three appointments, he’d refer me to a specialist. I appreciated the honest and upfront approach. I had more massages, was given some stretches and exercises to try strengthen supporting muscles and felt optimistic but ultimately, I didn’t recover as much as either of us would’ve liked. True to his word, Phil referred me to a specialist sports doctor. 

Seeing a specialist

The sports doctor didn’t mess around. He did a quick assessment, poking my knee and asking how painful it was. He recommended I stop all exercise immediately apart from brisk walking – he was the first professional to ask how I felt about that. I was petrified. If I didn’t cry during that appointment, my eyes certainly filled up with tears. He then recommended I get a cortisone injection to help reduce the inflammation and kickstart recovery.

Cortisone injections

I was warned that cortisone is a semi-serious treatment, with injections limited to three per year. I did research online about the procedure – there was a lot of discussion about side effects, how effective the treatment was and the risks. But I trusted my doctor and having had little results with less invasive options, I went ahead. From memory, it cost around $300 which was almost as painful as the actual injection.

Getting a cortisone injection is like shooting adrenaline directly into your body. I hate needles and having one go into the side of my knee was awful. I was told to limit movement for 24 hours to maximise the drug’s effectiveness but I should otherwise feel an improvement within a few days. I went to work, I went to an end-of-year function, I went out for Chinese food after the function and then rested later that night. 

Guess what? The injection didn’t work. My knee was in agony (a cortisone ‘flare up’ I later learnt) and when that subsided, the same old pain remained. I had a follow-up appointment with the specialist who arranged for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to pinpoint the exact problem area.

MRI scan

If you haven’t had an MRI, it resembles something from a 1950s sci-fi movie. Think a tiled room with a tunnel-like machine in the middle of it. You’ll lay on a bed, be given headphones and the body part being scanned will be wedged into place with cushions or foam. You’ll be gently slid into the machine and then everyone leaves the room. For the next 30 minutes, you’ll hear loud, unsettling sounds akin to an electronic jackhammer, but with varying pitches. You absolutely cannot move or the scan will need to be redone. My experience was uncomfortable but overall, not too bad apart from the $700 price tag. I got about half back from Medicare. 

Just three weeks after my first cortisone injection, I had a second one. I began crying as soon as I walked into the room, knowing how vital it was this one worked. If not, would surgery help me? The man administering the injection saw how upset I was and asked if I had a competition or event coming up. “No,” I told him. “I just really want to exercise again.” He was puzzled. The injection was extremely painful and all I could do was wipe away tears. 

I was determined this second injection would be the last. I’d stocked my fridge, my sister drove me to and from the appointment, and for the next 48 hours I didn’t move. When I did get up from the couch to go to the bathroom or make some food, I winced. At the time, I described my knee as feeling like a burning hot chopstick had been driven into the side of it. Every time I moved, it burned. I discovered insomnia was a side effect of cortisone too. But eventually, the pain subsided and even better – my knee finally felt relief.  

Support & strengthen

I wasn’t going to mess up my recovery the second time. I followed everything the doctor recommended and returned to physio, diligently doing every exercise he’d prescribed to strengthen supporting muscles. I’d been so worried about gaining weight by not exercising – but I actually found I wasn’t constantly hungry like I was when training. I was surprised how little food my body needed when I was only going to the bus stop and my desk job. 

I’d already changed my footwear and gotten custom made orthotics which had made a huge difference. I bought a foam roller and used it almost daily to massage my IT band at home, which was extremely painful but effective. I hadn’t worn heels in months, but I bought some semi-wedge shoes I hoped to wear for special occasions. 

Gentle exercise

My permitted exercises were walking and light activities that didn’t involve my knee. That didn’t leave me with a lot of options, but I developed a newfound love for power-walking on flat ground. In my supportive sneakers, I’d walk as fast as I could around a lake for an hour. Just months before, I would’ve deemed the exercise wasn’t worth my time – burning a measly 200 calories. But now, it felt like liberation and victory. I was out of the house, I could wear my gym gear and I could get my heart rate up without pain. I was also doing basic exercises such as clam shells and squats against a wall to try strengthen my glutes. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. 

Personal trainer 

While I was grateful to be pain-free, my newfound passion for walking and at-home exercises quickly waned. I wanted to do more and felt my body could handle it – but I was too afraid to try anything else on my own. By chance, I met a personal trainer who’d had the same injury as me (although her’s wasn’t from overtraining). I had PT sessions with Sharon from Uplifting Wellness once a week, and I was surprised how much I could do at a gym without using my knee. She showed me low-impact options such as the cross-trainer (elliptical machine) and seated leg press machine, which would help strengthen my glutes. I did body weight exercises, used free weights and other equipment like kettlebells, fitballs and TRX suspension. 

I really encourage anyone with an injury to consider a personal trainer. On top of the physical benefits, having a positive, qualified professional guide my recovery was invaluable. Sharon helped me focus on what I could do, referring to my ‘stronger leg’ rather than my ‘injured’ leg. It was empowering to learn new things at the gym and while my lower body activity was limited, my upper body became the strongest it had ever been! Having a coach truly helped me develop and maintain a positive mindset. 

Slowly increase intensity 

It felt agonisingly slow, but in coming months I increased the intensity of my workouts. For example, I returned to BodyPump but did the squat and lunge tracks without any weights. I didn’t care I wasn’t working out as hard before – I was simply grateful to be back in group fitness classes. Around this time, I rediscovered my passion for the indoor cycling class RPM. I was able to get a cardio fix with far less impact than running. 

I started doing one of my all time favourite classes BodyAttack again, although initially I marched instead of jogging and I did slow, body-weight lunges instead of the plyometric kind. I even returned to running, but with extreme caution. I would alternate between jogging and walking, and slowly increased the distance I ran. My first non-stop, one-kilometre jog felt like a bigger achievement than the 12K City to Surf I’d done two years prior. My boyfriend was extremely patient and supportive throughout this time, and I recall how happy I was when we ran 4K non-stop together (of course, he could’ve run much further). Little by little, I slowly returned to where I’d been been when I was forced to stop exercising. It probably took me around 18 months to fully recover from my injury, whereby I could comfortably run 7K – although this probably would’ve been quicker if I could’ve afforded more coaching. 

Ongoing management

Six years on, I still see my physio every couple of months – not because I’m in pain, but to prevent it. I’ve fully returned to my fitness routine and feel even stronger than before. I lift heavier weights, incorporate functional training like CXWorx, and I do a lot more yoga to loosen my muscles – especially my hips. I force myself to rest one day a week (even though I still don’t usually want to). I still hate walking downstairs as this one of the main triggers of pain when I had my injury. This is still true of recent hiking trips in Italy and China, when despite the exertion, I preferred going upstairs! 

New mindset

I still push myself physically almost daily but the difference is I no longer work through pain. If I set off for a 10K run and feel a tinge in my knee at 6K, I’ll stretch, try again, but stop if the pain persists. Particularly if I’m tired, my form slackens and my IT band inevitably gets a little tight. I massage it, stretch it and most importantly – I don’t push it. I’ve accepted there’ll be times in my life where I won’t be in peak form (illness, holidays or shiftwork) and that’s okay.

The lessons learnt from my injury will be particularly relevant in about two months’ time when I have surgery on my little finger. I’m told recovery should only take two weeks – and while the prospect of a fortnight without the gym would’ve previously been petrifying, I now know to focus on the movements I can do and show my body some sympathy. My attitude now days? When I’m at my best, I’ll give my best – and when I’m not, I’ll give it what I’ve got.

QUESTION: What did you do to manage an injury?

Your 10 Favourite Posts of 2017

Whether you’re loving days at the beach or watching it snow outside, the holiday season has arrived! It’s the perfect time to reflect on the year gone by. What are you most proud of? What memory fills you with the most joy? I travelled to Europe in 2017 and had an extraordinary time visiting friends, hiking in Italy and cycling in France. My boyfriend and I also spent three weeks in China, which we agree was one of the best trips we’ve ever done. 

The past year has also been full of writing. Since launching this blog a year ago, I’ve shared more than 40 posts on food, travel and fitness. Destinations include Greece and Scotland, while food included Italian and immune boosting soups. Did you prefer fitness articles? Love the travel guides? Find out which posts were most popular below! 

Your 10 Favourite Posts of 2017

10. Your First BodyPump Class  

It’s the group fitness workout that changed everything! The 60 minute weight training class BodyPump from fitness giant Les Mills’ turned 100 in 2017. To celebrate, I shared my tips for Your First BodyPump Class. Read what to wear, what to bring to class and what to expect throughout the workout. 

Coming in 10th, people from across the world including Russia, France and Singapore have checked out this post. Here’s to a stronger, fitter planet! Click here for the full post.

9. Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam  

Once divided, the Vietnam of today is heaven for travellers seeking culture, history, beaches, buildings and food! My boyfriend and I spent five nights in its capital Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in 2013. The colonial architecture is stunning but you can also get immersed in Vietnam’s wartime history. 

My city guide covers where to stay, what to do and where to eat plus tips on currency and visas. I can’t wait to go back! Read the full post here

8. Travel-Friendly Foods

Organisation is my super power and snacks are no exception! Skip the plane Pringles or late night room service and discover a range of Travel-Friendly Foods that are also good for you. 

You’ll find ideas for breakfast, lunch and dinner at your hotel or in your plane seat (plus snacks for in between too!). It’s a must-read whether you’re looking to save cash, stay healthy or fight jetlag. Not travelling? These ideas are perfect for your workplace too! 

7. Bali for Beginners

I was long sceptical of this Indonesian island for being overrun with Australians seeking a cheap getaway. But a trip to Bali in 2012 changed my mind as I discovered a tropical climate, sensational food and unique experiences. I’ve since returned to Bali multiple times with friends, family and my boyfriend.

Bali for Beginners covers everything for a first time visit, such as which area to stay in, getting around and some must-have Indonesian foods. Click here for the full post. 

6. My Pre-Holiday Checklist

My boyfriend and I returned from Europe in May this year and by September, we were flying again to China! We found ourselves in a familiar pre-holiday pattern of ordering foreign currency, putting our mail on hold and buying travel size essentials.

I put our routine into My Pre-Holiday Checklist to ensure we have a stress-free departure every time, without the last minute rush! You can download the checklist as a free PDF too. Read more

5. Perth’s Healthiest Cafes

Entering the top five! Gone are the days where cafe breakfasts were eggs, toast or porridge. Being healthy has never been more in fashion and my hometown Perth is dishing up some seriously impressive brunch fare. From beetroot hummus toast to pumpkin protein pancakes, here are some of Perth’s Healthiest Cafes.

There’s a new wave of healthy cafes which I’ll be posting about in 2018. In the meantime, be sure to check these ones out! Read the full post here

4. 5:2 Diet – My Review

I don’t diet, rather I focus on eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables daily, along with adequate protein and nutritious grains. However, when my weight loss plateaued in 2015 I looked for ways to drop body fat in a healthy way.

Introducing the The 5:2 Diet, a type of intermittent fasting popularised in the United Kingdom. Twice a week, I ate just 500 calories. It wasn’t easy but the results were surprising. Read more.

3. The Dangers of Overtraining

Exercise is great for your body and mind, until it becomes an obsession. Spurred by successful weight loss in my early 20s, I kept increasing the frequency and duration of my workouts while eating less. The result? Illness, injury and isolation. 

In third place, The Dangers of Overtraining details how my healthy habits ultimately caused more harm than good, and hitting breaking point while on holidays in New York City. Click here for the full story. 

2. Essential Apps Before You Fly

When I first went backpacking in 2004, I carried a discman and a bulky Lonely Planet guide. More than a decade later, my smartphone is my lifeline that can find flights, take photos, manage money, help with language and even book a yoga class.

In Essential Apps Before You Fly, you’ll find my favourites for organising travel, keeping track of your bookings and even finding dumplings in a hurry. Best of all, every single app featured is free! 

1. How I Lost 30kg

Taking out first place in the most-loved posts of 2017, is my personal story How I Lost 30kg. I almost didn’t publish it because I was so embarrassed by the old photos. But the response was extraordinary, even though it was just my own story. 

I didn’t have a formula to lose weight, nor did I spend a lot of money or make any drastic changes. In How I Lost 30kg, I share how the small things added up and changed my life for the better. 

and for 2018…

I’ll be taking a break for the rest of December to spend time with friends and family, celebrating the achievements of the past year and welcoming in 2018. Early in the new year, I’ll be sharing more on travelling in China plus a new round of healthy Perth cafes! You can also look forward to more fitness posts, and I’ll share how I did eventually overcome that injury from overtraining. If you have any topic requests, please add them to the comments below! 

Thanks for reading over the past year. Wishing you all a wonderful holiday season and a happy, healthy 2018! Love Hayley xx

Your First CXWorx Class

When I first heard there was an intense 30 minute abs class coming to my gym, I was excited! I’m always looking for ways to work out more efficiently and who doesn’t aspire to have a six-pack? I took my first CXWorx class in 2012 and while it was extremely challenging, I loved it. Usually just called ‘CX,’ it was the latest offering from fitness juggernaut Les Mills promising increased core strength, a toned butt, legs and abs, and as a nice sweetener – better posture.

I kept going back and after just one month, I noticed how much stronger my core was. I could plank for longer, do bicycle crunches with confidence, and also built my lower abdominal strength. While I’m yet to get that six-pack, I have definition in my abs that I entirely credit to CXWorx (in conjunction with a good diet). Five years on – I still love CX! I usually do two classes a week, mostly after RPM or BodyPump. Nothing feels as good as strong abs. Bonus? You can do it on your lunch break! 

Class Overview

CXWorx involves six tracks, each about five minutes. As with all Les Mills classes, there are four new workouts each year called ‘releases.’ Instructors will typically do the new release for a month before mixing new and old tracks. You’ll find a mix of pop, hip hop and dance cover music including my favourites PNAU’s Chameleon, David Guetta’s Titanium and DJ Snack & Lil Jon’s Turn Down for What. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect in each track: 

  • Track 1: Warm up – crunches, bicycle crunches and some glute bridges.
  • Track 2: Abs – The hardest track! A combination of planks and crunches, alternating between the two for a few rounds. There are variations of each exercise such as walking planks, planking while tapping or raising one leg, C crunches, and leg drops. See terminology below. 
  • Track 3: Back/spine – you’ll be on your feet using the resistance band and/ or weights, likely doing regular or side lunges with arms raised, woodchoppers and squats. 
  • Track 4: Glutes – One of my favourite tracks because you’ll 100% feel your butt working! You’ll again likely use a resistance band to do lunges, squats, single-leg squats and even just walking/tapping your foot with the band. Expect some glute bridges too. 
  • Track 5: Obliques – in my opinion, the second hardest track. Moves include mountain climbers, oblique crunches, side hovers, rotating hovers and bicycle crunches.
  • Track 6: Posture/cool down – this track typically has a Pilates vibe: swimming on your stomach, back extensions and glute bridges, but also potentially some upper back and shoulder work with the resistance band such as lat pull downs or seated rows. A quick stretch at the end and you’re done! 

It’s worth noting CXWorx is not recommended if you’re pregnant, and you should also avoid doing weight training afterwards as your core will be fatigued. But cardio or yoga is fine! 

Before you leave home

CXWorx is great because you don’t have to prepare a thing. Put on your active gear, grab a water bottle and a towel and you’re set! Ladies, you’ll likely be planking for an extended period so skip low-cut tops and sport bras unless you want to blind your neighbour. I also try to avoid wearing shorts to CX as your groin area can feel exposed at times, for example, when crunching your top leg during a side hover. As for eating and drinking before class, remember it’s only 30 minutes. You’ll be using your ab muscles a lot but not jumping around – I can eat a raw ball or guzzle half a bottle of water before class if I need without any issues.

On arrival

As with every time you take a new class, get there 5-10 minutes early and introduce yourself to the instructor. They should point you to what equipment you need (more on that below) and also give tips for beginners during the class. You’ll be moving around a lot so keep your area clear by putting any belongings (apart from your towel and water) away in a locker or cubby, if provided. While it’s tempting to set up in the back row, aim for the middle so you can see the instructor and watch others around you if needed. If your gym has mirrors, even better! 

Equipment

The three main items you’ll need are a mat, resistance band and possibly weights. The resistance bands come in different levels (indicated by different colours), so it’s important to get the beginner band. If in doubt, just grab the colour most people in the class have. Weights are mostly used in CX to make crunches, squats, lunges and occasionally side planks more challenging. If you’re new to exercising or recovering from injury, you could skip them entirely. If you already do weight training, grab a few different ones. Instructors should say at the beginning of the class what weights they recommend.

Terminology

Here are some of the most common words you’ll hear in a CX class, although most will be familiar if you already exercise. You don’t need to memorise this list as the instructor will be demonstrating the moves as well. 

  • Bicycle crunch: alternating between left and right oblique crunches while simultaneously extending a single leg, similar to riding a bike. 
  • Crunch: the most basic ab move. YouTube if you need. 
  • C crunch: a basic crunch where you also raise your feet off the ground with knees bent, stopping directly above your hips – forming a “C” shape.
  • Glute bridge: lay on your back with your knees pointing up, but feet flat on the ground. Lift your butt off the ground by squeezing your glutes. 
  • Mountain climbers: like a plank, but with your arms extended under your shoulders. Bring one knee to the same elbow, return, and do the same with the other. Increase speed and repeat.
  • Plank/hover: with only your forearms and toes on the ground, brace your body like it’s a plank of wood. Your butt will try rise like a teepee as you fatigue, but keep it in line with your shoulders. You can plank with your knees down too for an easier option. 
  • Pulse: doing any exercise as a micro-move and faster. Common in crunches, glute raises and lunges. 

During the class

The warm up will give you a crash course in the basic moves, while track two is the hardest. I find track five quite challenging too, but I also really enjoy oblique workouts so look forward to it. Track six is a breeze in a Pilates kind of way. 

Remember to keep your core switched on at all times. When doing crunches, that means your lower back is pushing down on the ground. If it feels much harder exercising that way, you’re doing it right! Also watch for your butt sticking up when planking. I remind myself constantly to keep my shoulders and hips in line, and use mirrors to check if they’re available. 

The next day & beyond 

CX will make you hurt in the most weird and wonderful places! My lower abs and glutes usually feel it the most, and after a long break it can hurt to laugh the next day. Gentle stretching, yoga or a simple walk can help reduce some of the pain. But I guarantee after a month or so of classes, you’ll notice how much stronger your core is. You’ll plank for longer, use or increase weights and take the more advanced options. I particularly like CX for targetting glute muscles to support my running. At only 30 minutes, everyone has time to get a strong core!  

QUESTION: What’s your favourite part of the body to train? 

Five Beauty Essentials for Busy People

My daily goals are to eat well, work, exercise and get seven hours sleep. Sometimes it feels like mission impossible, and I’ll race from place to place leaving a tornado of clothing, kitchen utensils and gym gear in my wake. My boyfriend deserves a medal for all the times he’s cleaned our Vitamix after I’ve made a smoothie on the run. He’s also brought socks, hair ties and shirts to the gym when I’ve flown out the door without them. He’s amazing. 

Needless to say, I don’t spend a lot of time on beauty. I do the basics and cleanse, tone and moisturise each night. But I envy those women who always look glamorous, with styled hair, flawless makeup and manicured nails. I tell myself they probably don’t run 10K before work but if I’m honest, these creatures exist at the gym too. They’re catwalk ready at 6am while I’ve still got pillow creases on my face. I silently congratulate myself on at least brushing my teeth.

This post therefore isn’t about the latest beauty trends or techniques. Rather, it’s my lifesaving, time-saving beauty essentials that help me race from a workout to workplace or event and meet basic presentation standards. I’ve also included products that let you postpone beauty appointments or skip them entirely – saving you not only time, but money. Hooray! 

1. MAC Powder + Foundation

This two-in-one compact is unreal. The formula glides on smoothly, giving excellent matte coverage while being completely weightless and breathable. It takes just 30 seconds to apply a full face – ideal for getting ready at the gym or doing touch ups after a lunchtime or evening workout. I have dark pigmentation so I can’t wear this as my daily foundation, but it’s perfect for casual catch ups and travelling. M.A.C. Studio Fix would be adequate coverage for anyone with even tones. Bonus: it comes with a mirror and sponge, so it’s easy to apply on the go.

M.A.C. Studio Fix Powder + Foundation, AU $50 | website

 MAC: super portable powder & foundation formula
MAC: super portable powder & foundation formula

 MAC: A mirror and a sponge to easily apply on the run
MAC: A mirror and a sponge to easily apply on the run

2. OPI Nail Strengthener

I originally bought this product to strengthen my nails but I discovered it’s much more than that. OPI’s Nail Envy also acts as a clear polish that dries within seconds. Literally, your left hand will be dry before you’ve finished your right hand. With a quick file, this polish is glossy enough to instantly give your nails a groomed look. You’ll often find me doing an express manicure while waiting for my bus! Because it’s clear, it’s easy to apply in a rush and you won’t notice if any chips off – saving you maintenance time too. Yay!

OPI Nail Envy, AU $34.95 | website

3. Palmer’s bronze body lotion

Between the gym, my job and a blog, it’s a nightmare trying to book appointments. Skip the beautician and buy Palmer’s Natural Bronzer instead. It works in 6 to 8 hours, and while it’s designed for daily use it’s actually strong enough to use just once a week. I apply it before bed and wake up a shade or two darker. You can be a little more careless when applying this tanner too because the result isn’t as dramatic as others (although still wash your hands thoroughly afterwards!). The smell isn’t too strong either and the fornula feels really hydrating thanks to the cocoa butter. For special events, I apply three days in a row to get maximum glow. It’s so much cheaper and convenient than booking a spray tan. 

Palmer’s Natural Bronze Body Lotion, from AU $9.99 for 250ml | website

 Beauty essentials: basic but they'll save you time and possibly cash too
Beauty essentials: basic but they’ll save you time and possibly cash too

4. batiste Dry Shampoo

I was a few years late to the dry shampoo party but now I’m hooked. A few sprays, gently rub your scalp and you’ve scored another 12 hours of clean hair. It saves time on both washing your hair and drying and styling it. It’s perfect for a post-gym refresh or if you need to mask an oil slick before a class. I use Bastiste Dry Shampoo in Original scent and despite plenty of other brands on the market, I don’t see any need to switch. This is another product I swear by when travelling. 

Batiste Dry Shampoo, from AU $4.95 for 50ml | website

5. Dyson Supersonic 

 Dyson Supersonic: a daily time-saver, albeit at a cost 
Dyson Supersonic: a daily time-saver, albeit at a cost 

This is more of a beauty appliance than a product, but it’s a lifesaver. My old hairdryer blew up a year ago (sparks literally came out of the wall socket) so I invested in a Dyson. What appealed most was it being less noisy – I wanted to be able to blow dry my hair in the apartment without waking my boyfriend. It’s not exactly silent, but more akin to a fan with a low piercing noise like the Dyson vacuum cleaner. I can still talk to people while drying my hair and with the bathroom and bedroom door closed, you can barely hear it.

The Dyson hairdryer is also extremely efficient. I have short, fine hair and it’s completely dry within 3 to 5 minutes. I’d forgotten how fast it was until I used regular hairdryers while travelling earlier this year. The Dyson also avoids that burning hair smell, as it checks its air temperature 20 times a second. It’s not cheap, but this hairdryer saves me at least 10 minutes every day and in my books – that’s worth it. Especially with all the cash I’ve saved on spray tans!

Dyson Supersonic Hairdryer, AU $499 | website

QUESTION: What are your time-saving beauty tricks?

Your First RPM Class

My first indoor cycling experience was horrible. Lured by the promise of a toned butt and legs (and a 45 minute workout), I jumped on a bike in a dimly lit room and followed the teacher’s commands. The music boomed but I felt doomed. I was uncoordinated, even on a stationary machine, and I couldn’t keep up with anyone else in the class. It was years before I gave indoor cycling a second chance.

It was actually my boyfriend who motivated me to try cycling again. He occasionally did a class called RPM at our gym and couples who workout together, stay together right? This time the bike was much more comfortable and I found myself able to sprint and stand at the appropriate times. I did another class the following week and my endurance way much better. That was five years ago. Now, I do RPM once or twice a week depending on my schedule. I like the fact I can target my legs, the workout takes minimal coordination (great if you’re tired!) and it’s only 45 minutes.

Different gyms may offer similar cycling classes, such as Spin, Pace or “freestyle” riding where the instructor determines the workout. The general tips below still apply to these classes, although the format and fitness goals can differ. 

If you’re thinking of taking an RPM class, here are my tips for before, during and after your workout: 

Class Overview

RPM is part of the Les Mills group fitness offerings, which also includes BodyPump, BodyAttack and CXWorx. You’ll find the RPM format is similar around the world as the workout is pre-choreographed to music. You’ll be mostly listening to cover music, with anything from Fat Boy Slim, Rudimental and David Guetta to Justin Bieber. Different releases come out every quarter, but instructors will usually mix the tracks up after a month (and they usually take requests!).

The format is 45 minutes although you’ll find 30 minute RPM Express classes. Don’t assume they’re easier than the longer ones – the tracks are all high intensity with minimal recovery time. The track names below are unofficial, but used by most instructors I know: 

  • Track 1: Warm up
  • Track 2: Mixed terrain – you’ll be sitting and occasionally standing
  • Track 3: Hills – mostly standing, heavy resistance
  • Track 4: Sprint – (slight recovery first) mostly sitting, lower resistance but speed-focused
  • Track 5: HIIT (high intensity interval training) – bursts of energy, alternating between sitting and standing
  • Track 6: Sprint – (usually recovery first) mostly sitting, with sprints of up to 90 seconds
  • Track 7: Final track – often the most challenging, up to 7 minutes long with heavy resistance
  • Track 8: Cool down & stretch

Depending on whether you’re better at speed or strength, you’ll find different tracks more challenging. I push myself most in Tracks 5 and 7 as I love cranking the resistance up, while the sprint tracks are hard too but I find they’re more manageable because of the recovery time at the start. You can do a “smart start” and leave after Track 5 if you need – just tell the instructor.

Handlebars: you’ll put your hands in different positions for standing, sitting and tucking into “aero.”

Before you leave home

Try to have fresh legs for your first class, i.e. don’t attempt a personal best run beforehand or do squats. Because there’s minimal impact and jumping around, I find I can eat before class without feeling sick (unlike BodyAttack or a run). Don’t apply hand moisturiser, but you can do you legs if you need. 

What to wear

Fitted, stretchy pants that are at least knee-length are ideal. Long baggy shorts can restrict leg movement while short shorts might creep up when you stand up and sit down quickly. A shirt with some length at the back is good too, as you’ll be leaning over and may feel self-conscious if your lower back is exposed. Regular sneakers are fine too – you can upgrade to shoes with “cleats” (studs) later if you get hooked. 

Several gyms have UV lights in their cycle rooms, so anything white will glow while other gyms will just dim the lights. Occasionally, I’ve done a class with full lighting so make sure you check how sheer your pants are check before you leave home. As always, bring a towel and water bottle. Your towel will be over handlebars so bring a small one (rather than a bulky beach towel). 

On arrival

Aim to be at least five minutes early so the instructor can help you setup your bike. If you arrive late, you may find yourself setting up in the dark! Each gym will likely have different bikes so I allow extra time when I visit new venues too. 

If you have to set up your bike up yourself, start by adjusting the saddle to hip height. When you’re seated, spin your legs a few times. Your knees should be slightly bent when your feet are at the bottom. You can move the seat forward and back, along with the handlebars. If needed, you can adjust the bike between tracks throughout the class. 

Equipment

Obviously, there’s a bike. As mentioned, the models will differ between gyms but essentially you can adjust the following:

  • Seat height: aim for your hip
  • Handlebar height: personal preference, but lower will work your abs more
  • Handlebars horizontally: move closer or further from your body 
  • Seat horizontally: move closer or further from the handlebars
  • Resistance: a dial that dictates how hard or easy your legs spin
  • Brake: usually a push-style button, in case of emergency
  • Pedals: you may be able to secure your sneakers in the cage by tightening straps

 Stationary bike: use dials to adjust the seat and handlebars vertically and horizontally, along with the resistance.
Stationary bike: use dials to adjust the seat and handlebars vertically and horizontally, along with the resistance.

Terminology

Thankfully most of the lingo is self explanatory. Here are the the most common terms:

  • Aero: Short for aerodynamic position, simply lean down, move your hands to the “D” or upside down “V” shape in the middle the handlebars and bend your elbows so you’re “tucked” in.
  • Racing load: Instructors will refer to this a lot. It’s a resistance level you’ll find in the first or second track, where you can spin your legs with moderate pressure. It should be slightly challenging but manageable. 
  • Resistance (also load, gear): Make the workout easier or harder by adding or reducing resistance.
  • Ride easy: A time to catch your breath but don’t “free spin”. 
  • Seated climb: Sit in the seat with resistance cranked so it feels like you’re cycling uphill.
  • Sprint: Spin your legs as fast as you can with “racing load,” i.e. keep some pressure. 
  • Stand: Turn the resistance up and stand while keeping your hands on the handlebar. 

during the workout

Drink water. Adjust your seat or handlebar position between tracks if you’re uncomfortable or if your lower back hurts. Watch how fast or slow others are spinning their legs as a guide, and listen to cues about adding or reducing resistance. Be sure to sit up and stretch your upper body by putting your hands behind the saddle a few times too (one of my favourite stretches!). 

The next day & beyond

You’ll probably have jelly legs when you get off the bike, and you may feel stiff or wobbly as you walk out the gym. That’s normal. I guarantee you will have a sore crotch the next day, and you might even feel like it’s bruised. Rest assured, the pain will subside and over time your groin will get used to cycling. If you’re really struggling, you can buy padded pants for future class. Once, I was in such agony when returning from an extended holiday that I had to put a towel over the seat for cushioning. 

Like every workout, you’ll get more comfortable over time as you become familiar with the moves and learn to push your limits. I love seeing how heavy I can take the resistance in climbing tracks and challenging my legs to get stronger. It’s also given me the confidence to try a triathlon one day, although I’ll need to practise swimming first! Les Mills recommends doing two to three classes per week for best results. 

QUESTION: Do you prefer indoor or outdoor cycling? 

The Dangers of Overtraining

Whether you hit the gym, play sports, dance or run, exercise a good thing. But is it possible to do too much? Absolutely. I’m not talking about a spontaneous 10K charity run or being sore after an extra long bike ride. Rather, I’m focusing on continuously exercising too much over a long time period. While there’s no consensus on the exact definition of overtraining, it generally refers to increased exercise with inadequate rest. It can be with or without psychological symptoms. 

I shared last week How I Lost 30kg, essentially by moving more, drinking less alcohol and making healthier food choices. But after five years of progress, my weight loss had stalled at 66kg (145 lbs). I was determined to get below 65kg. I drew a table with the next six months on it and wrote my fortnightly weight loss targets next to each one so I could track my progress. I wanted to be 60kg by Christmas. Where did I get the numbers and timeline from? Just my head. But I was completely committed. 

Increased Exercise

Going to the gym had helped me lose weight up to this point, so I increased how much I was exercising. My weekly routine became:

  • Monday: Body Attack & BodyPump (60 mins cardio, 60 mins weights)
  • Tuesday: BodyCombat & BodyBalance (60 mins boxing, 60 mins stretching)
  • Wednesday: Run (up to 10km)
  • Thursday: Yoga (60 minutes – my “rest” day)
  • Friday: BodyAttack (60 mins cardio)
  • Saturday: BodyPump & BodyBalance (60 mins weights, 60 mins stretching)
  • Sunday: BodyCombat (60 mins boxing) or run (up to 10km)

I realise there are plenty of fitness enthusiasts who workout 10 hours or more each week. The difference was my attitude towards exercise. If I had an unavoidable commitment one night such as a birthday or a late meeting, I believed I “owed” myself a workout and had to make it up the next day. I had strict weekly quotas for each class (BodyAttack x2, Body Pump x2 and so on) and if I couldn’t reach my target because of events or bad weather, I felt like the week had been a failure. The irony is I wasn’t satisfied even when I did meet my goals – I told myself I could do more exercise, run further or lift heavier weights and so I adjusted my targets accordingly. I was never happy. 

Inadequate recovery

I knew it was important to rest, so I did yoga once a week. Honestly, I didn’t enjoy it much. I wanted to work my abs, sweat and feel like I’d had a workout. So I pushed myself, challenging my legs during warrior poses and focusing on upper body strength during sun salutations. While I did BodyBalance as well as yoga, I didn’t do any stretching specifically for running. This would haunt me later. 

Notably, the biggest problem with my exercise regime was I didn’t have a true rest day. I was occasionally hungover on a Sunday so I’d skip that class or drag myself to a later session. It was years before I learnt exercise causes micro-tears in your muscles, and they can’t repair and grow unless you rest. 

restricting food

What I recall most about this time was how hungry I was. I didn’t count calories but I did restrict my intake of carbohydrates like bread, rice and potatoes. I had oats for breakfast as my naturopath had recommended, a vegetable soup or salad for lunch and dinner was usually a stir-fry or curry (without rice). I snacked on fruit or plain crackers and I only ate bread on weekends, but eventually I cut that out too. Going low-carb wasn’t based on any science, but a false instinct gained from magazines, the media, and chatting with colleagues. 

The truth was I didn’t know much about nutrition. I assumed I got enough protein from soy milk, tofu, beans and nuts. In hindsight, I was probably getting less than 50 grams a day – far below the recommended protein intake for moderate intensity exercise. I ate lots of big salads that were full of vegetables, vitamins and nutrients, but they didn’t give me enough energy (calories) to fuel my workouts. 

limiting Social Activities

Working full-time and spending an hour or two at gym every day didn’t leave much time for socialising. I started to get angry when I received a last minute dinner or weekend brunch invitation, especially if it conflicted with a gym class. I’d often say no, turn up late, or reluctantly attend if it was a special occasion like a birthday. But I’d make up for my skipped workout by exercising twice as much the next day. 

I was in a relationship at this time too, and my boyfriend and I would often meet friends for drinks on a Sunday afternoon. I loved seeing everyone and chatting over a wine or beer, but over time these catch ups became a dilemma. I knew the alcohol was undoing my gym work (even just a glass or two) but I didn’t want to seem anti-social by ordering water or soft drinks. I also didn’t want to be the person in the group who skipped dinner, despite wanting a healthy meal at home over a pub meal. My weight loss goals had begun to seriously impact how much I enjoyed seeing friends.  

Skipping Rest Day

After a few months of increased exercise and restricting certain foods, I finally got my weight below 65kg. I was ecstatic. The weight loss assured me my methods were working, and that I’d lose even more weight if I intensified my workouts. I wanted to reach 60kg, telling myself that’d be “the perfect weight” and it’d be the “final goal” in my weight loss journey. I stopped doing yoga on Thursdays and replaced it with cardio. I further restricted what I ate, scrutinising everything that went into my body. 

Because I could weigh myself, count gym classes and tally up consecutive days of exercise, I kept trying to beat my previous records. I would see how many days in a row I could workout, each week trying to go longer without a rest day than the week before. My record was 13 days. Often, it was a party or special occasion that prompted a rest day, because I was hungover. Although I was drinking far less than I used to, alcohol seemed to be the exception in my strict food regime.

My body once hurt so much after eight days of straight workouts that I heeded the ‘listen to your body’ message. I slept in until 9am on a Sunday and it was glorious. But then I felt guilty. I could’ve gone to the gym. I didn’t really need the rest. I was going to gain weight. My sister called and invited me to brunch, but I told her “I hadn’t earnt it”. I sat in bed and cried until lunchtime. 

Restless Legs Syndrome

It’s one thing to have DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) but another to wince each time you sit down, raise your arm or simply walk. I was exercising so much, my body constantly ached. Sometimes it was my quads or glutes, other times it was my shoulders. My hips were extremely tight from running.

I also craved the ache in my muscles and took it as a positive sign I was pushing myself. But I became worried when I started waking up during the night with my legs shaking. It happened a few times and I knew, deep down, that something was wrong. I didn’t see a doctor as it wasn’t painful, but my symptoms most closely matched “restless legs syndrome.” My quality of sleep was significantly affected because of it. 

Illness

With inadequate nutrition and rest, it’s little surprise I got sick. I had a cold for a month, I started having naps on the weekend, and I developed a painful stomach virus where even tomatoes made my tummy turn to knots. I had to take time off work and I was in immense pain anytime I ate anything other than toast or tea. I lay on the couch in tears one afternoon with my stomach twisting and wringing. 

I didn’t see a doctor as by chance, I had an annual check up booked with my naturopath. He identified I had an iron deficiency. As a female in my late 20s, who was vegetarian and exercising vigorously, I was in three high-risk groups. An iron deficiency explained why I’d been so sick and so tired. I began taking iron supplements which also had Vitamin B12 (a vitamin your body can’t make, so it needs to be obtained through animal sources, like meat or eggs, or fortified foods). Deficiency in Vitamin B12 can also lead to mood swings, which I thought explained my frequent crying. Soon after taking supplements, I stopped napping and my cold and stomach illness passed. It was a temporary improvement.

Ignoring injury 

I’d had some minor injuries from exercising like a rolled ankle, but I’d managed to escape anything serious. However, running had started to get tough. The outside of my right leg (iliotibial or “IT band”) would get really tight, and I’d have to stop and stretch before continuing. The problem didn’t go away and within a few weeks, my right knee started to hurt as well. I refused to get medical help, despite suggestions from friends and family. I was too afraid a doctor would tell me to stop exercising. 

I had to modify how I ran to manage the pain and tightness, and eventually I reduced my distance. Soon, BodyAttack became too painful and I stopped doing BodyCombat as well. I replaced the classes with lower impact indoor cycling classes. My running distance dropped from 10K to 7K, then 5K. But the reduction in exercise over a few wasn’t enough to let my injury heal. I reluctantly reduced the intensity of all my workouts, but kept doing as many classes as I could. 

breaking point

It was 2012 and I weighed 63kg. I should’ve been overjoyed as I was just 3kg (6.5 lbs) from my target weight. But my right leg felt like there was a crank between my knee and hip, growing ever tighter. I was going to the gym everyday but doing the lowest impact option possible. On one Saturday morning during BodyBalance, pain surged through my right knee and my eyes watered. I knew I was in trouble. 

I was about to leave for a trip to New York, so I decided to get help when I returned. I spent three glorious weeks with friends in my favourite place on earth, relaxing, shopping, eating, and doing light weights and yoga. It was wonderful! On one of my last days in NYC, I attempted a run believing I’d given my body “a break.” I was staying in Gramercy, and I jogged through Stuyvesant Town and along FDR Drive. But I couldn’t even hit 3K before pain struck through my knee one more. I limped back. I was defeated. 

I returned to Australia and finally made an appointment with a physiotherapist. I was so upset, and petrified an enforced rest period would result in weight gain. But part of me was also relieved that I didn’t have to keep pushing myself anymore. The funny thing is, the pressure was only coming from myself.

In coming weeks, I’ll share how I overcame my injury and found balance between working out and living. Sign up to my weekly newsletter to get notified when it’s posted.

QUESTION: When have you had too much of a good thing?