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?

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?

How I Lost 30kg

If you look at me in the street, you’ll see a 30-something year old blonde who’s around 163 centimetres tall (5′ 3″) and average build. I don’t look athletic, I’m not slim and my skin doesn’t glow despite regular exercise and a good diet. 

What most people don’t know is that in my 20s, I lost one-third of my body weight or about 30 kilograms (66 pounds). I was a chubby baby who grew into a healthy but chubby child, so it was little surprise I became an overweight teenager. It’s not that I ate badly – my mum always cooked healthy dinners for my sisters and I, and we only had junk food or take away on special occasions like birthdays. I just had a good appetite and I didn’t like exercise.

When I was in high school, I tried skipping lunch to lose weight. I became so hungry I felt nauseous, and the sense of guilt at throwing away my sandwiches was terrible. Another time I tried to make myself vomit like I’d read in magazines but it didn’t work. I was outgoing and had lots of friends, but I was self-conscious anytime there was a swimming carnival or pool party. I loved shopping, but I only wore dresses or skirts because regular jeans didn’t fit me. The boys at school didn’t talk to me either.

my heaviest weight

 2007: I'd lost some weight but still loved partying.
2007: I’d lost some weight but still loved partying.

I went backpacking for a year when I was 18 and the lifestyle of drinking beer, eating pasta and fast food exacerbated my weight. By the time I was 20, I weighed 93kg (205 lbs) and wore size 20 jeans. I had stretch marks on my stomach, sides and thighs and my skin was terrible too. I knew I was overweight but it was the sight of my ankles in the mirror one day that prompted a change. It was 2006 but I still vividly recall the moment I decided to take charge of my health.

Here’s my weight loss journey: 

increase activity

The first thing I did was to start walking. I didn’t have any sneakers so I just walked in casual pants and skate shoes. I was so self-conscious, I would walk around the block at night so less people would see me. But it was a start. I only walked for 30 minutes or so and used the time to call family or friends. It was an easy change to incorporate into my day and I always felt good afterwards.

limiting alcohol

I realised my backpacking habit of drinking beer almost daily wasn’t the best for my health. I liked having a drink while cooking dinner and I often had a second one with my meal. A beer felt like a good reward after a busy day at university, work or doing assignments. I decided to replace my drink with a diet, non-alcoholic ginger beer that came in a similar shaped bottle. I realised my habit had little to do with beer itself, but more about having something cold to drink while cooking. Over time, I phased out my weeknight dinnertime drink routine. Just by walking and reducing alcohol, my clothes got a little baggy and people started commenting that I’d lost weight.

regular exercise

I’d made some small lifestyle changes and felt an improvement, but the most profound change was joining a gym. A franchise gym had a stall at a university Open Day and I approached a staff member for some information. They didn’t take me very seriously, probably assuming an overweight person wasn’t serious about their health. But they took my phone number and arranged for someone to call me. 

I toured the gym a few weeks later and took a complimentary class. The workout I tried was BodyBalance, which is a mix of tai chi, yoga and Pilates. I immediately loved it, except for the sun salutation routines which were very challenging. I told a friend I almost felt high after the class! I was still reluctant to sign a contract as it was for 12 months, around $30 a fortnight and I was on a tight student budget. I asked my mum for her advice and she told me you can’t put a price on your health. 

I joined the gym and never looked back. I kept doing BodyBalance before exploring other classes like the weights focused BodyPump, and boxing class BodyCombat. I stayed in the back row and was terribly unfit, but determined. The group fitness format worked for me as there were regular, scheduled classes and you could have the expertise of a qualified professional without the personal trainer price tag. I also realised I didn’t hate exercise, I just disliked team sports. A big milestone was buying my first pair of sneakers.

vegetarian

After a year of regular exercise, I’d lost around 8kg or nearly 10% of my body weight. My clothes were looser and I loved the feeling of buying new ones in smaller sizes. Friends and family were so supportive and positive about my weight loss, it was a huge confidence boost. I still partied and drank a lot, but exercising a couple of times a week made a noticeable difference. 

I decided to go vegetarian, not to lose weight but for taste preferences. I already disliked chicken and pork, and when travelling I often went vegetarian to avoid mistakingly eating them. A vegetarian diet alone isn’t the answer to weight loss, however it can make you lose weight if you cut out convenience foods like burgers and pastries and instead increase your fruit and vegetable intake. For me, switching to a vegetarian diet sparked the beginning of my interest in health and nutrition. 

professional advice

After two years, my fitness levels had drastically improved. I was going to the gym three times a week and doing a mix of cardio, weights and flexibility training. My skin had less breakouts, and I felt stronger and much more confident. I hadn’t seen a doctor since a compulsory medical check up for travelling a few years earlier, so I decided to visit a naturopath a friend had recommended.

I was still overweight so I was nervous about seeing a health professional. However, my naturopath at Essential Health was welcoming, positive and provided lots of helpful nutrition tips. He suggested switching my regular breakfast of toast or a bagel to rolled oats, eating a square of 85% dark chocolate each day for iron and antioxidants, and gave me recipes for healthy snacks like zucchini fritters. I’d been raised in the low-fat diet era where nuts were forbidden, but my naturopath told me about the health benefits of nuts and seeds. He did some tests, including body composition analysis and a blood test. I got a print out of all the data and was fascinated by the numbers. I could track my progress! 

improving diet

Visiting a naturopath changed how I thought about food. It was 2008, and trends like #cleaneating and #rawdesserts weren’t around (neither was Instagram, in fact the first iPhone had only been released a year earlier). I was studying and working a few jobs, often finishing at midnight or later. I occasionally grabbed cheap takeaway when I finished late, but this became less and less as I discovered more meals on the go that didn’t need a refrigerator. I baked healthy banana muffins, often carried a small tin of baked beans and sometimes I just made a peanut butter sandwich. I made my own budget trail mix with sunflower seeds and raisins too. Eventually fast food was gone from my diet. I also cut out the teaspoon of sugar I’d been putting in tea each morning. I didn’t miss it.

running

By now, it was 2009 and I’d lost around 20kg (44 lbs) to weigh 72kg (158 lbs). The difference was extraordinary. I could buy regular sized clothes, and I’d often try something on to realise I could wear the next size down. At one point, I took a pile of my old clothes to a local alterations store and asked them to take everything in. They did the whole lot for $100. I finally felt normal, and it felt so good – especially when I went out to bars and clubs. But I wasn’t done yet. 

The more exercise I did, the more energy it gave me. I could lift heavier weights, kick higher and jog for longer. I tried some new classes to keep challenging myself. I tried a dance class and hated it. But I tried BodyAttack and loved it! Jumping jacks, sprints, grapevines, lunges and burpees – it was extremely difficult but I liked the new challenge. Around this time I started running too. You can read more in my post Learn to Run, but essentially I began by walking and jogging for small intervals before working up to a 3.5km (2.17mi) run. I now do 10K (6mi) weekly. 

 2006 to 2014: the difference between more than 90kg and approaching 60kg. 
2006 to 2014: the difference between more than 90kg and approaching 60kg. 

living in the USA

By the time I moved to the USA to study in 2010, exercise was a non-negotiable part of my life. I weighed just under 70kg (154 lbs) and was incredibly proud of what I’d achieved. My college had a mandatory meal plan for international students and I was determined not to sabotage my weight loss. The dining hall was surprisingly healthy, with plenty of salads, fruit and vegetables and a dedicated vegan section, and all foods had nutrition information next to them. I still loved bagels, but limited them to twice a week. 

I joined the college gym and made friends through the group fitness classes. I even signed up to do a 5K run for Thanksgiving, the longest distance I’d ever attempted! The school also had a dietician who I visited each month to track my progress. Incredibly, I lost weight while living in the USA despite eating pumpkin pie, a lot of Mexican food and partying hard. 

returning home

I returned to Australia in 2011 weighing 66kg (145 lbs). The fact I can remember this number six years on shows how seriously I was taking my weight loss. I should have been proud but I was determined to get below 65kg. What followed in was injury, isolation and illness. You can read the next post here: The Dangers of Overtraining

 2015: Loving cycling through New York City's Central Park.
2015: Loving cycling through New York City’s Central Park.

me today

For now, I’m a self-confessed gym junkie. Exercise is a crucial part of my life and I run, cycle, do weights, BodyAttack or yoga six days a week. I don’t have a car so I also walk at least 3km (1.8mi) daily. I love that I can run for the bus without losing my breath. 

My weight hovers around 60kg but it quickly creeps up if I don’t watch what I eat. I still love food, but I have wholegrains like rolled oats for breakfast, big salads or soups for lunch and my dinner is usually a stir fry, curry or healthy Mexican. I love making lasagne with layers of roasted eggplant and zucchini. It’s all about the vegetables! Take away and dining out is usually Japanese, Thai or Indian, and on the rare occasion I feel like sweets – it’s homemade healthy cookies, apple pie, chocolate pudding or luscious fresh fruit like berries or pineapple. I’m still a peanut butter addict and I continue to eat a square of dark chocolate every day. 

There are no shortcuts in losing weight. You don’t need to spend a lot of money or make drastic changes, but it does take discipline, commitment and a lot of work. For me, losing weight has given me the freedom to go to the beach or a pool party without feeling self-conscious. Everything from walking uphill to carrying groceries is so much easier. I didn’t realise what a burden my excess weight was until it was gone.

My weight loss journey isn’t over as I want to get leaner, but that means losing body fat and increasing muscle mass rather than reducing overall body weight. I also want to start trail running, do a half marathon and I’m tempted to try a triathlon too, although I haven’t swum laps since school! Good health doesn’t have an age limit and I’m proud to enter my 30s knowing I’m doing all I can for a healthy lifetime ahead.

QUESTION: What health or fitness achievement are you most proud of?

7 Post-Workout Rewards (That Aren’t Food)

What’s the first thing you do after a big workout? I usually exercise in the morning on an empty stomach so my first priority is breakfast. I love a big bowl of oatmeal and a cup of Earl Grey. After a weekend sweat session, I upgrade to avocado, wholegrain toast and beans. Better yet, I’ll go to one of my favourite cafes and have a long, leisurely brunch. A shower is second on the list. 

While I absolutely believe in refuelling after exercise, I’m trying to broaden my post-workout rewards beyond breakfast. Don’t get me wrong – I’ll run 10K for a bagel and demolish an Acai bowl after BodyAttack. But I wanted to find more ways to nourish my body, without in turn hurting my wallet.

Here’s what I’ve discovered: 

1. Treat Your Feet

 Foot soak: budget-friendly and effective! 
Foot soak: budget-friendly and effective! 

Taking your sneakers off after a workout is a great feeling. Looking at your feet may not be so great. Every few weeks, I’ll soak my feet for an hour while I work on my blog or read a magazine. It helps relieve tension, soothes dry skin and best of all, it’s relaxing! My favourite product is The Body Shop’s Peppermint Foot Fizzies*, which is made from effervescent salts and has a gorgeous cooling effect.

Here are some other ideas, depending on your budget: 

  • Save: Soak your feet in hot water. Add epsom salts, essential oils or a bath bomb.
  • Spend: Sephora’s Foot Masque ($6) comes in single-use socks you wear for 20 minutes. The Almond (Comforting & Repairing) formula is softening and has a nice, nutty smell. 
  • Splurge: My favourite treat for my feet – get a pedicure! 

*Unfortunately when researching this post, I discovered The Body Shop has discontinued its Foot Fizzies. They were $2.95 for a two-pack, so I used to buy in bulk.

2. Hit the Beach

Whether you’re covered in sweat or want a relaxing afternoon, hitting the beach is always a treat. I live 10 kilometres from the coast and conveniently, that’s my current running distance. The route has some serious hills but I’m re-energised when I get my first glimpse of the ocean. A post-workout swim is super refreshing, but you could also cool down with a barefoot stroll in the sand. If you’ve been at the gym, why not grab a towel and stretch by the beach on the way home?

Best of all, the beach doesn’t cost a thing (except maybe parking). 

 The beach: perfect for a post-workout swim, stroll or stretch.
The beach: perfect for a post-workout swim, stroll or stretch.

3. restorative/yin yoga

 Yoga: thank your body by moving slowly & stretching.
Yoga: thank your body by moving slowly & stretching.

Taking a yoga class might sound like more exercise but hear me out. I used to treat yoga like a workout, pushing my body to the limits to try build strength and burn as many calories as I could. But then, guided by various teachers, I realised yoga was a chance to listen to my body. What’s tight? Where are the aches? How can I release that tension?

Changing my approach from cardio to kindness helped me identify problem areas and most of all, learn to slow down. I do an hour class straight after my workouts a few times a week. It really helps with recovery and feels like a luxury in today’s busy world. Read my post on Your First Yoga Class if you need. 

  • Save: Do yoga at home. My favourite app is Pocket Yoga, where you can choose from three styles and 30, 45 or 60 minute sessions.
  • Spend: Head to a dedicated yoga studio. I love MindBody to search and book nearby classes.
  • Splurge: Go to a yoga workshop or a weekend retreat. 

 Coconut water: one of my favourite post-workout rewards.
Coconut water: one of my favourite post-workout rewards.

4. Coconut water

Technically this is a drink, not food, so I’m putting it on the list. Coconut water is my favourite way to hydrate after a long run and perhaps because it’s so lusciously tropical, it totally feels like a treat. Bonus: a 250ml (8.5 oz.) carton only has around 60 calories!

  • Save: Grab a one litre carton from the supermarket ($4-6) and enjoy all week.
  • Splurge: Buy a fresh coconut from the supermarket or Asian grocery store. Put in a fancy straw and savour the electrolytes. 

5. Massage

This is my ultimate post-workout reward. I recently had a massage booked for a Thursday night and all week, I trained SO hard. It felt amazing! But you don’t need a masseuse or lots of cash to enjoy a massage. A good friend or partner and essential oils will do the trick. Other ideas include: 

  • Save: Give yourself a massage. Try Lush Cosmetics Wiccy Magic Muscles ($14.95) which heats up the area you apply it to.
  • Spend: Get a remedial or sports massage. If you have private health cover, you may be able to claim a rebate. I got a 30 minute massage this week and only paid $10.
  • Splurge: Hit a day spa. If you’re in Perth, I’ve had excellent massages at Keturah Day Spa (multiple locations) and Crown Spa (Burswood).

     Lush Cosmetics massage bars: affordable, natural and they smell amazing!
    Lush Cosmetics massage bars: affordable, natural and they smell amazing!

    6. fresh flowers

     Fresh flowers: they make me smile all week!
    Fresh flowers: they make me smile all week!

    This won’t directly benefit your aching quads or hamstrings. But occasionally I go to a gym which is close to several florists. I love buying a fresh bunch of flowers on the way home! Maybe you prefer magazines, visiting a farmer’s market or heading to a craft store. Pick up something after your workout that will make you smile later in the week. 

    and finally…

    7. sleep

    It’s a sad reflection of modern life, but sleep and rest are a precious commodity. After five days of alarms going off to hit the gym at dawn, knowing I can sleep in the next day is one of the best rewards I can get.  

    QUESTION: What’s your favourite post-workout reward? 

    Perth Running Routes

    Runners in Perth are spoilt for choice and climate. With 300 days of sunshine each year and endless paths along the Swan River and coast, there’s little stopping you from grabbing your sneakers and getting sweaty. I run 10K once a week and pick from one of three routes, depending on my mood and energy levels. Having variety in my running ensures I strengthen different muscles so my body can handle hills, grass and pavement but it also reduces the risk of injury through repetition.

    My favourite Perth running spots are all easily accessible from the CBD (and not surprisingly, my apartment). Each of these routes has its perks along with a potential drawback or two. If you’re not a runner, you can walk all of these options or check out my post on Learning to Run

    Here are my top Perth running spots: 

    1.     Kings Park

     Kings Park: you'll get stunning views of the city and Swan River
    Kings Park: you’ll get stunning views of the city and Swan River

    Where’s better to work up a sweat than Perth’s premier park? Located 10 minutes walk (up a very steep hill) from the CBD, Kings Park is a West Australian treasure. Watch the city wake up as you run along Fraser Avenue, or power past picnics at sunset. I’m certain my sweaty face has featured in a few hundred tourists’ photos! The trick with Kings Park is knowing where to run because you want to crush goals, not wildflowers. I love that I can divert to the Kokoda Trail or Jacob’s Ladder for an extra challenge or variety. Download a map if you’re not familiar with the park. 

    • Distance: You can run for as little or as long as you like here. I have routes ranging from 4K-9K, depending on how much time and energy I have. All of them start and end at the city entrance, going along Fraser Avenue and past the State War Memorial. Different landmarks signal where to turn around. 
      • 4K: City entrance to Rotunda 2 and back. An easy run for the time-poor. 
      • 7K: As above, but continue on the Law Walk and turn around at the Dryandra Lookout. Stunning views. 
      • 9K: As above, but continue beyond the Law Walk until you reach May Drive. Endurance required! 
    • Terrain: Don’t be fooled. There are hills in this park, most notably what I’ve dubbed “the butt blaster” after Rotunda 2. My 7K and 9K loops include three hills but whatever goes up, must come down right? Therefore you’ll get some occasional relief. 

     Kings Park: View of Fraser Avenue from city entrance
    Kings Park: View of Fraser Avenue from city entrance

    • Interest: The Swan River views as you run on the Law Walk (parallel to Mounts Bay Road) are simply gorgeous. The path itself is surrounded by trees, shrubs and flowers and once I even saw a bobtail on the trail. 
    • Amenities: There are restrooms and parking at the city entrance near Frasers Restaurant and the Kings Park Café area. There’s a water fountain at Rotunda 2 and all three of my routes are partly shaded, depending on the time of day. I’d still bring a hat!  
    • After your run? Refuel at Mount Street Breakfast Bar or Health Freak Café.

     

    2.     Lake Monger reserve

     Lake Monger: you're guaranteed to spot some wildlife! 
    Lake Monger: you’re guaranteed to spot some wildlife! 

    This spot is an absolute jewel just 10 minutes walk from the heart of Leederville, or a 10 minute drive from Perth’s CBD. The main feature of Lake Monger is, not surprisingly, the huge lake. Back in the day, it used to be an important camping and hunting ground for Aboriginal people. Thanks to land reclamation in the early 1900s, the lake now has water year round and is popular with people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. 

     Lake Monger: lookouts are the perfect place for a warm up, rest or post-run stretch
    Lake Monger: lookouts are the perfect place for a warm up, rest or post-run stretch

    • Distance: The paved loop is exactly 3.5 kilometres with every 500 metres marked in blue paint. If you’re new to running, try running one lap and walking the next. It’s perfect for building distance.
    • Terrain: The route is completely flat, which is ideal for focusing on technique but can become repetitive for your mind or body.
    • Interest: The lake is stunning and seeing swans and other birdlife is a highlight. There’s a one kilometre stretch along the Mitchell Freeway where you can’t see the water which can get tedious, especially if you’re fatiguing. 

     Lake Monger: a mostly shaded, one kilometre strech alongside the Mitchell Freeway
    Lake Monger: a mostly shaded, one kilometre strech alongside the Mitchell Freeway

    • Amenities: There’s a toilet block on the Lake Monger Drive side, and at least three water fountains. Parking is available at two entrances (Powis Street & Lake Monger Drive) and there’s plenty of shade on the one kilometre freeway stretch. Slather on the sunscreen though – you can cook on the rest of the loop.
    • Refuel: at any of Leederville’s sensational eateries! My favourite is NOOD for the ultimate in health foods or Sayers for breakfast classics done beautifully.

     

    3.     Freeway South (perth to canning bridge)

     Freeway South: you'll run across the Narrows Bridge (as viewed from Kings Park)
    Freeway South: you’ll run across the Narrows Bridge (as viewed from Kings Park)

    The name for this route isn’t glamourous, but it’s accurate. The stretch between Perth’s CBD and Canning Bridge is a one I do mostly out of convenience – I want to squeeze in a workout and I need to be at the other location. It’s also my preferred route for night running as unlike Kings Park, it’s well lit. The hoards of bikers and commuters also make it a busy and bustling route – definitely a place to feel the city buzz. This point-to-point run works from either direction and if needed, you can catch the train or bus back to your starting point.

    • Distance: I start at State Parliament and it’s a nice 7K to Canning Bridge.
    • Terrain: The route is mostly flat but there are some inclines at the city end. Starting at Parliament offers some gentle downhill for your first five minutes, but if you’re starting at Canning Bridge you’ll endure some slight hills at the end. 
    • Interest: A loud, fast freeway on one side and stunning river views on the other. It can be idyllic if you block out the traffic. If you start at Parliament, the 3-4K section (after Mill Point Road and before South Terrace) can be pretty dull as you can’t see the water (that’s 4-5K in the reverse direction).

     Freeway South: restrooms and water at Como Jetty
    Freeway South: restrooms and water at Como Jetty

    • Amenities: Mill Point Road jet ski area has plenty of facilities include restrooms, parking, shade and water. There are also newer facilities around the Como Jetty – no parking but restrooms, water and even a playground (in case you run with kids).
    • Refuel: If you finish at Canning Bridge, head over the bridge to the 24-hour IGA for fresh fruits or deli items. If you finish in the city, Mount Street Breakfast Bar or Gordon Street Garage both beckon!

     

    QUESTION: Where’s your favourite Perth running spot?

    Learn to Run

    Exercise was, once upon a time, my most hated thing in the world. Being an overweight and underskilled teenager, sport was downright difficult and embarrassing. Hitting a ball with a bat, kicking towards goal posts or even handballing, it was always a disaster. I still remember trying to run to a base during softball and instead sliding knee first into a huge patch of mud.  My classmates had a great laugh. I walked around with two damp, smelly stains on my sweatpants for the rest of the day.  

    It’s no wonder I began adulthood fearing exercise. It was physically taxing and likely to result in ridicule. I was okay with walking, as long as there were no hills and the pace didn’t raise my heart rate. Shopping and clubbing were literally my only cardio. A woman who told me running gave her more energy was obviously crazy, I remember thinking, as I put another piece of chocolate in my mouth.  

    But then, I tested her theory. It may have been a week later, it may have been months later, but I deliberately went for a long, fast walk. And… I SURVIVED. And I did it again. And again. I’d ring friends or family while out walking, chat for 20 minutes and feel twice as good when I came home. 

    Slowly, I kept building distance…

    I started running when a daily walk around a lake just didn’t feel like enough. I would jog a bit, walk, jog a bit more and that was it. Running on the beach always looked good in movies, so I gave that a shot on a quiet bit of coast in Maine, USA. I was overweight and my beach run lasted about 10 minutes, but it was exhilarating. When I returned to Australia, I persevered and was running 3.5 kilometres once a week. My housemate was an avid runner and I recall her coming home one evening, beaming after her first 10K. It inspired me to go further too. I hit 5K, 7K, 10K and then did the 12K City to Surf in about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Dignified!

    I suffered an injury in the following months (more on that another time) and was forced to give up all exercise. It took a couple of weeks to stop limping, then I started going for long walks again. It was months before I resumed running, and it’s taken four years to return to a weekly 10K. But I feel stronger and smarter than ever.

    Here’s the thing: I didn’t read any books. I didn’t follow a running plan or join a clinic. I just gradually added distance or challenged myself to hit a certain time in a very organic, ad hoc kind of way. And IT WORKED.

    Before you get started, I really recommend downloading an app such as RunKeeper – it’s free and will help you track your activity. The app also gives you custom audio cues during your run, such as current speed, distance covered and total time. The stats are really motivating! Or depressing, depending on how your legs are faring.

    Want to start running? Here’s my guide:

    1.     Start walking regularly – a few times a week.

    2.     Gradually add some short bursts of jogging/running during each walk:

    a. Try five minutes of walking, one minute of running. Repeat throughout your walk. Do this as many weeks as you want.

    b. When you’re comfortable with that, reduce the walking time and increase your running time. Try one minute of each, or build up to five minutes running and one minute of walking (and repeat). 

    TIP: You can set intervals on Runkeeper, so it’ll beep when you need to run/walk/rest etc.

    3.     Run for 3K without stopping – speed is not an issue!

    4.     Repeat the following week. And the week after that.

    HIGH FIVE! YOU’RE A RUNNER!

    If you’re feeling good, add 500 metres and see how you go. Add on another 500m the next week. Hit 5K, and maintain that for a few weeks. Your next goals are 7K and 10K. And then you have surpassed this blog. Congratulations!

    Keep these in mind as you progress

    1.     Vary your routes: Whether you prefer pavement or grass, flat ground or hills, mix things up when you can so you use different muscles. Repetition = injury.

    2.     STRETCH. You wouldn’t drive a car for years without a service, and the same should apply to your body! Try yoga or BodyBalance once a week to loosen your muscles and relax the mind. Alternatively, invest in a foam roller (about $30 from sports stores) for a pain unlike anything else you’ve experienced. It’s really effective though. 

    3.     Do other exercise. Weight training helps my quads power up hills, and I feel the benefits of core exercises (a.k.a crunches and planks) even when I run on flat ground. 

    4.     TREAT YOUR FEET! Sneakers are like toothbrushes. You don’t realise how worn they were until you replace them. And man, it feels good when you do. Same goes for socks.

    5.   How about a charity run? Use your new found running skills to raise funds for a cause! There are often 5Ks in bigger races. Or join a running group. 

    Sadly, running (like anything physical) can cause occasional aches and pains. If you’re feeling anything more than a little muscle fatigue, get help. A physiotherapist might be an option and they can often teach you stretches or strengthening exercises to address the issue. A podiatrist may be able to assist if your feet are giving your woes, and let’s not forget my most prized but expensive footwear… customised orthotics. Also known as the best shoe inserts $800 can buy.

    QUESTION: What’s your best advice to new runners?