The Aces and Double Faults of My 2016

As we move into the last week of 2016 I have been reflecting on the highs (that would be the aces) and lows (you guessed it, the double faults) of this past year. Looking back I can happily say that the highs far outweighed the lows, and I have finally found the perfect work-life balance thanks to my discovery of tennis and blogging.

Aces

My partner and I bought our first apartment and moved in at the beginning of the year. After extensive refurbishment we were able to create a clean, bright, modern space that I enjoy both living and working in. After 11 months we still haven’t bought lampshades for the light bulbs on the walls, but that is because we were distracted by all the other highlights of this year…

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Midway through 2016 I discovered the world of tennis and found a sport that gave meaning to my workouts, above and beyond simply staying in shape. When I take tennis lessons or play a match I don’t think about the effort I am making, as I am having so much fun running around chasing after a ball. And when I am doing a HIIT session and struggling to dig deep and complete 1 minute of jump squats, or mountain climbers, or push-ups, I just remind myself that it is all going to help me perform better on the tennis court.

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A month or so after starting tennis, I set up an Instagram account and started sharing videos and photos of my tennis journey (both progress and fashion), which led me to make lots of new tennis-loving friends around the world. You gave me constructive feedback on my poor technique, congratulated me on my progress and complimented me on my sense of tennis fashion. Thank you, all of you, for sharing my passion for tennis, fashion and fitness!

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I enjoyed micro-blogging on Instagram so much I decided to set up this blog which helped me rediscover my creativity, which had been lying dormant since my school days (probably because I decided to become an engineer!). I enjoy the whole process of thinking of ideas for blog posts, writing, taking photos, and getting comments and emails from readers (including one who wanted some advice on a tennis outfit to buy his wife for Christmas – btw, I hope she likes the tennis skirt I suggested!). I am immensely grateful that I also got to guest post for three amazing websites/blogs (SportStylist, Tennis Identity and Women’s Tennis Blog) and received my first blogging gifts, including my Idawen bag, a Lucky in Love outfit and some cute vibration dampeners from Romp Supply.

And for some reason I won loads of competitions this year! Ok, so I do tend to enter every competition I see on Instagram, especially if it is tennis or fitness fashion related, but I was still surprised to win a tennis tank from Freshdeuce, an Ellesse tennis dress, AlienPros overgrip, a Courtgirl team racerback and a Lucky in Love outfit for both me and a friend, all in just 6 months!

Double Faults

I really don’t want to dwell too long on the lows, and I’m pleased to say that there really weren’t that many, but the things that have got me down over the past year include being the victim of credit card fraud and having my new car vandalized (the whole inboard computer was ripped out, causing thousands of Euros of damage!).

But after the double faults you learn to appreciate the aces so much more, and I am definitely finishing this year on a high and I can’t wait to see what 2017 brings!

Why I Prefer Running in the Winter

Have you ever gone for a run in winter? If not, why not – is it the cold that puts you off, or perhaps the dark mornings/evenings? Before I went for my first run in the winter, I was a bit apprehensive. I knew I hadn’t enjoyed doing sports at school during the winter and I couldn’t see why it would be any different now. But I wanted to go running, as it is so easy to put on a pair of trainers, step outside the door and run. From getting my kit on to stepping out of the shower after a run, it usually takes out no more than 1 hour from my day (that’s only about 4%!). Now, whilst research might indicate that it is more efficient to burn fat from body weight exercises and lifting weights, I still think that the challenges that running brings to your body and mind are worth it, regardless of whether you burn more or less calories. As I wrote in a previous blog post, I find running difficult, and that is exactly why I do it. Overcoming this difficulty is part of the strength I want to build in my body, even if it is more mental than physical.

Anyway, coming back to running in winter, before I went for my first run I made sure I was well equipped with the right gear. That is probably the biggest change to exercising in winter that has taken place since my schooldays. Not only do I now get to choose what I wear, today’s sportswear is typically made from high-performance fabrics that provide thermal insulation and moisture transfer. And there are some really stylish garments out there!

Running in the winter
Running in my trusty black Oysho leggings (with ankle zip detail) , Kipsta keepdry base layer and Oysho seamless sports jacket. (Despite taking hundreds of photos in burst mode, I still couldn’t find one without crazy hair…).

So once I had acquired the right kit and stepped out for my first run on a cold, winter evening last year, I discovered that I actually prefer running in the cold. In the summer, I find the sun and heat absorbs all my energy and I hate the way my head gets hotter, and hotter, and hotter, and I end up with a beetroot face that drives me crazy! Instead, when running in the cold, my body temperature is just right thanks to the right kit, and the cold air makes me feel like I have an air-conditioning unit directed at my face, regulating its temperature. And as a consequence I find it easier to keep going.

If you have never tried running in the winter, then I would definitely encourage you to invest in some warm running kit and give it a go. If you run during the dark mornings/evenings in winter, keep in mind the advice in the video below from This Girl Can Run on how to keep safe:

And here are a few final tips from personal experience:

  • I often wear wireless around-ear headphones to listen to music and keep my ears warm at the same time.
  • Even in winter, if I run during the day, I wear a high SPF sunscreen on my face to protect my skin (I usually wear the Avène SPF 50 tinted compact all year in place of traditional foundation).
  • I make sure I drink lots of water as even though I feel less thirsty compared to when I run in the summer, I do sweat a lot under my layers of running kit.

Do you like running in the winter? Share you experiences with me in the comments below.

MyFitnessPal: A Personal Review

Last Christmas I weighed about 5 kilos more than I do now. Before losing weight I had been training three to four times a week for about 6 months (running, skipping, body-weight exercises etc.). Although my body was more toned and I felt much fitter than I had for years, I hadn’t really lost any weight and I still wasn’t comfortable with my body, especially with my waist and legs. I decided that exercise wasn’t enough and I needed to overhaul my diet. That is when I came across the MyFitnessPal app and decided to install it on my iPhone and give it a go.

A Short Intro to MyFitnessPal (Based on My Understanding)

MyFitnessPal (by Under Armour) is an app for tracking the food you eat with the objective of reaching your target weight. You start by entering your current weight, your target weight, how quickly you want to lose weight (e.g. 0.2 kilos a week, 0.5 kilos a week, etc.), and your typical activity level, which are used to identify your daily calorie goal. You can also set macronutrient goals, which means you identify the proportion of your daily calories that you want to be made up of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. A typical starting point is 50% carbohydrates, 30% fat and 20% protein. Once you have set your goals you are ready to start using the app, and begin uploading the food you eat each day for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.

There is a large database of foods that you can make use of (many of which have been uploaded through crowdsourcing), or you can add your own products or recipes. When selecting a food from the existing database you want to make sure it has, as a minimum, nutritional information on calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fats, and if possible also data on sugar, fibre, vitamins and sodium. If you can’t find a good description of the food product you are looking for, you can also add it yourself, together with all its nutritional data.

Here is an example of one of my Saturday dinners, where of course I had to include all the wine I drank!

nutrition-diary

You can see that I have calories associated with Exercise in the screenshot above. This is because you can also track the calories you burn through walking or doing specific exercises or cardio. The app will link up with the Health app on the iPhone to get your daily steps and calculate the calories, or you can instead choose to pair it with an Apple Watch or other fitness bands. Alternatively you can add the exercise yourself and it will use typical values for the calories burned.

Once you have filled in the meals for the day, you can review a number of summary statistics related to the nutritional value of the food you ate, and how it compares with your daily goals, as shown in the screenshots below:

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My Personal Experiences with MyFitnessPal (Both Good and Bad)

  • I didn’t upgrade to Premium (which means they remove adverts and give you some additional information about the foods you are eating that are highest in calories, macronutrients etc.) as I felt that the free version of the app did everything that I needed.
  • This app led me to be much more mindful about what I was eating, in particular when it came to proteins, which I immediately found out I was significantly lacking in due to my Italian lunch and dinner pasta diet!
  • The fact that it makes you track what you are eating is undoubtedly what leads to its success, but I never wanted to skip tracking a meal and I would often be seen at the end of a meal with my head stuck in my iPhone, which didn’t make me very good company at the dinner table!
  • The app suggests that you weigh yourself once a week, but I actually did it more or less everyday which taught me a lot about how much my weight fluctuates as a function of my diet (in particular I would retain a lot of water after eating lots of carbs) and so I realised that when it goes up it doesn’t necessary mean I have ‘put on weight’.

weight

  • The app doesn’t distinguish between refined and unrefined carbohydrates (e.g. white or brown rice), which I believe it should as I was often too worried about how many carbs I had consumed when I should probably have just put more focus on eating the right type of carbs.
  • After about 6 months I stopped losing weight and I soon realised I was restricting myself to an unnecessarily low calorie diet and being obsessive about what I was eating when I wasn’t really seeing any ‘benefits’. Although I could have changed to a ‘maintain weight’ regime on the app, I decided that it was time to go it alone, listen to what I felt my body needed, and put into practice the good habits I had learned through using MyFitnessPal.

Since I have stopped using MyFitnessPal (about 2 months ago) I weigh about 2kg more than my lowest (which was just over 58kg), but still about 5kg less than when I started. I now know from experience that I could easily lose those 2 kilos by going on a high protein diet for a couple of weeks, but I don’t want to do that as now I play tennis and I know I need lots of (unrefined) carbohydrates for energy. If that means the scales say I weigh a couple of kilos more most of the time, then so be it, I want to be a good tennis player, not a bikini model! All in all I am very happy that I discovered MyFitnessPal and I would certainly recommend it to people who want to kick-start a weight loss diet or learn more about the nutritional value of what they are eating.

Have you ever used MyFitnessPal or other similar food tracking apps? Let me know how it went in the comments below.

Fitter at 40 than 14

As I get closer to 40 years old I am the fittest I have ever been in my life. If I were able go back and tell my 14-year-old self that I had it in me to run 5k (regularly!), do high intensity interval workouts and play tennis, I actually don’t think I would have changed my attitude towards sports at the time.

I am sure it didn’t help that in those days the PE teachers would make us run around the hockey pitch in all weathers wearing just a tiny skirt. But, to be honest, I think the reason is that I wasn’t mentally strong enough at that age to do well in sports. I was not naturally talented, my body was always more curvy than athletic, and I was not mature enough to put in the extra work that was needed to get over those physical hurdles. Instead, I am now a much stronger person, and I am able to fight those voices in my mind telling me to drop my knees to the floor during plank, or to stop and walk during my run. I have also discovered that doing exercise is much easier when you have a clear objective in mind. This extra motivation might be to lose 10 pounds, get back into those jeans you haven’t worn for 10 years, or just improve in a sport you really enjoy.

The main message I want to pass on to anyone reading this short post is whatever your age, don’t write yourself off, there is still so much you can achieve. Or in the words of Diana Nyad, who finally swam from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64 after having tried and failed 4 times since her first attempt in her twenties: “You can chase your dreams at any age; you’re never too old.”

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• "Good, good, good" • Don't worry, I'm not praising myself! Those of you who saw my last post and/or read my latest blog post (link to blog in bio) will have heard that my partner is very supportive in helping me improve my tennis 🎾👏🙌 And here is an example of him practicing with me and being super encouraging (not sure you can hear well, you need audio on max, but he says good after each shot!) and I even hit the balls he sends me that are out! Well, most of the time… 😊 #tennis #tennispractice #tennistraining #tennislesson #tennislessons #forehand #tennisgirl #tennispartner #tennislife #tennisaddict #tennisobsessed #instatennis #instatennisstar #tennislove #lovetennis Wearing: #oyshofitness #adidastennis

A post shared by Helen (tennis-health-fashion) (@40ish_love) on

Some evidence of my newfound sportiness!

Things I Have Learned About Running

I don’t particularly enjoy running, and that is the reason I do it. Let me try and explain myself better. I find running difficult, and this is what drives me to keep running, as I am convinced that the more I run the easier it will get. And to some extent that has worked out to be true, but not completely. Read on to find out the things I have learned about running.

pre-run
Just before starting a summer run along the River Ticino (note my selfie shadow!)

A year ago I began running fairly regularly, a couple of times a week, and I remember that all I was thinking about during those first times was how much I hated running, how much I wanted to stop, how my breathing seemed all wrong, how I could hardly lift my feet off the pavement. I set myself a goal of always running 5k and 95% of the time I managed to complete it, however much my mind was telling me to stop and walk. This consistency certainly helped me to improve (getting my time down from 35 minutes to about 28 minutes) and with time I found that I was no longer always thinking about what I was doing and was actually listening to the music on my running playlist. I am at the stage where I could really enjoy a medium-paced run, enjoy the landscape, the music in my headphones, think about my life, make plans for the weekend, but I don’t. The problem is that the more I improve, the more demanding I become on myself and the faster I wanted my 1 kilometre splits to become. And so I am always pushing myself and never really allowing myself to fully enjoy my runs. I think this is something I should work on, as I don’t want to become a really good runner (I want to focus my efforts on tennis!) and I have already reached the objective I set out to achieve. Perhaps now that I have competed in my first 5k run I can go back and start to really enjoy running.

My first 5k run

Today I ran my first 5k “race”. It wasn’t an official race, but was instead a “runday” initiative by Decathlon Italia to get people running together. When I registered for the runday a few weeks ago I was convinced that this would be an incentive to go running a bit more often and try and improve my pace. But funnily enough the exact opposite happened. From the moment I registered I did not go for one single run! Going for a run suddenly felt like revising for exams: something I didn’t want to do but had to. I did have good intentions to go running and I took my running kit on two recent trips, one to Ljubljana and another to London. I would have run in the gym in Ljubljana but the running machine was broken. And in London I just didn’t feel like it, especially after walking 15 kms a day for 3 days. So I turned up for the run today without any particular training, but in some ways that made me feel more relaxed.

I set off at a good pace and was pleased to be fairly close to the front. The fastest runners soon broke away, but I kept with the second group and my Apple Watch told me I was doing 1 km splits of about 5’15, which is faster than I usually manage. I liked the fact that I had other people around me but I will admit that I spent most of the race thinking about how fast I was going, whether I had already overtaken that person overtaking me, how much more there was to go, whether I would be able to keep up the pace etc. According to my watch I slowed down a bit during the 4th kilometre and then suddenly the race was over.

My watch says that it was only 4.23km and it took me 22.5 minutes. I don’t know whether my watch got the distance wrong, or it wasn’t really a 5km race. Either way, I was happy it was over and I hope that I have now got this internal competitiveness out of my system.

Things I have learned about running

So, apart from learning about how demanding I am on myself, there are a few things I have discovered during this past year about running:

  • I have to make sure I haven’t eaten in the two hours before a run, otherwise I get terrible stitch.
  • I get a beetroot red face regardless of how easy or difficult I found the run.
  • Strengthening my core and leg muscles through body weight exercises (plank, burpees, jump squats, lunges etc.) really improved my form. I didn’t realise how important the core muscles were until I had developed them and suddenly I felt more like I was gliding when running rather than stomping from side to side. My strengthened legs also meant that I was more springy and I left more air between my feet and the pavement.
  • What you are wearing can make a difference. I always ran in leggings, but I suffer the heat quite a lot and so when the hot Italian summer arrived I changed to shorts and I overheated a lot less. For the 5k run, I would have loved to have worn my new Nike gear but I knew that running in new shoes and clothes that I had never run in before was going to be a bad idea, so I stuck to my good old running leggings from Oysho and my Under Armour trainers.
  • Be careful when running alone. I have made the mistake of running in the woods by myself listening to music on my headphones,  and although thankfully nothing serious has happened to me, I have had some scary experiences which have made me realise that it is better to run in company or stick to the routes where there are plenty of other people and runners.

And finally, the last thing I have learned is that I should leave my Apple Watch at home next time I go for a run, and just try and enjoy running at the level that I have reached, as it really isn’t that bad considering where I started!

Why do you run? Let me know in the comments below.