Fit enough for the Army?

My fitness levels have come on in leaps and bounds in the last 18 months – I’m without a doubt stronger, faster and more agile than I was. Workouts that I used to find challenging I can now complete with relative ease and the weights that I’m lifting are considerably more heavy.

But I haven’t really had an opportunity to benchmark my fitness levels against any particular standard. Until last week that was.

Army

I work with a number of men who used to be in the military. One of the first things that springs to mind when I think about people in the army is their fitness levels. I recently watched the Channel 4 series on Royal Marines Commando training which illustrated exactly the levels of fitness that are required. This programme showed one of the toughest basic military training programmes in the world, so it was a somewhat extreme example, but having chatted to the people I work with they recognised similarities to the training that they went through themselves.

So when one of them suggested that we start up a team challenge to see who was fit enough to meet the basic standards for the Army I was intrigued. The test sounded straightforward enough. As many push ups as possible in two minutes, then as many sit ups as possible in two minutes followed by a one and a half mile run as fast as possible. There are targets to meet which are adjusted for gender and age. In ice bucket challenge style the person who completes the challenge gets to nominate the next person to do it. So on Thursday morning this week I found myself jogging down to St James’ Park to start my Army Basic Fitness Test challenge.

I’d been given my targets to pass the test but also a more challenging set of numbers that would see me score maximum points. I could score a maximum of 100 points for each exercise but needed a minimum of 70 in each to pass. So I couldn’t make up for a slow run by doing extra sit ups – I needed to meet the minimum score for each.

As a 40 year old woman my targets were:

  • 13 Press Ups
  • 37 Sit Ups
  • 14:30 run

We started with press ups – I got to 20 without really breaking to much of a sweat and by the time I’d got to 30 I was being told ‘3 more and you’ve scored maximum marks’. 33 press ups it was! All those press ups I did on Extreme Inferno obviously paid off.

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Sit ups were more challenging. I do a lot of core work but hadn’t done military style sit ups for some time. I got to 40 in around 90 seconds and decided that I’d had enough. My lower abs were screaming, I’d met my minimum target and that would do me.

I though I was going to die on the run. Or be sick. Or expel my lungs through my mouth. It was awful, I felt terrible and kept having to stop to recover and get my breath back. Despite feeling slow and decidedly unfit, thanks to some ace Army style coaching from my colleague I kept going. “I’m going to be sick” I panted “you can do that once you’re finished” he replied as he kept one pace ahead of me pushing me to run as fast as I could. I finished the 1.5 miles and literally couldn’t speak for 5 minutes afterwards. He wouldn’t tell me my time and I assumed that I’d failed.

Back in the office the scores were revealed and it transpired that I’d completed the run in 13:58 – well under my target. It meant that I’d passed the test. When the scores were added up I was at the top of the leader board – well above a woman nearly 20 years my junior and also ahead of someone who actually used to be in the army! My performance on press ups was hailed as “one of the best I’ve ever seen from a woman”.

So I’m really quite pleased to have been deemed fit enough to join the Army. Not that I’m going to, but it’s fantastic to know that at the age of 40 I’ve passed test that I would have struggled with in my 20s!

 

National Fitness Day

cb975cd2d5b63edb7790e9a2f7fc3f6eFriday 26th September 2014 is National Fitness Day and I’m excited and proud to have been asked to be an official Ambassador!

You all know how much fitness has done for me and I imagine that many of you reading this will also have stories to tell about how fitness has changed your life for the better. But that’s not the case for everyone.

The largest celebration of physical activity in the UK, run by not-for-profit health body ukactive, National Fitness Day sees the health and active lifestyle community unite to raise awareness of the benefits of physical activity, inspire people to get active and make it easy and fun to try something new with free taster sessions.

The National Fitness Day ‘Power Half Hour’ is a great place to start. Venues across the country are hosting free ‘Power Half Hour’ events on National Fitness Day – just 30 minutes out of your day, and you don’t even have to be a member to take part.

With brands such as Better Gyms, British Military Fitness, Club Company, Energie, Everyone Active, Fitness First, Gym Group, Pure Gym and Spirit Health Clubs on board offering a variety of free sessions from indoor cycling and bootcamp to yoga and pilates – there’s bound to be something that appeals. Find an event local to you here.

And if you live in London, Birmingham or Bristol then you have the chance to get involved in National Fitness Day – live through mass participation exercise events to be held at 12:30pm in London’s Covent Garden, Birmingham’s Victoria Square and Centre Promenade, Bristol city centre.

Get updates from National Fitness Day on Twitter (@FitnessDayUK), tweet them using the hashtag #fitnessday and connect with them on Facebook (National Fitness Day).

I think it’s a fantastic initiative to encourage people to be more active, or to try something new. Leave me a comment to let me know if you’re going to get involved and what session you choose to take part in. And perhaps I’ll bump into some of you in Covent Garden?!

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Extreme Inferno – the results are in

The current round of Extreme Inferno finished yesterday – another 12 weeks of intense, fat busting exercises in the bag and I feel pretty good for it. The last time I posted I talked about the fact that I’d reached a bit of a fat loss plateau and had realised that I needed to take a good look at my diet. I’m pleased to report that a few weeks of back to basics clean eating has seen the fat start to shift again.

10606064_10152227749651012_5081924124179590766_nSo what have I achieved in 12 weeks? My measurements aren’t dramatically different to be honest. A few centimetres here and there. But my photos tell a slightly different story and one that I’m happy with.

Left – ‘before’ June 2014

Right – ‘after’ September 2014

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There’s definitely some shrinkage around my tummy area and I’m starting to get a bit of ab definition. The camera doesn’t show it that well but my arms and legs are much firmer than they were 3 months ago as well.

And as for the scales – well I’ve given up relying on them for my BF% – I’ll go back and have another BodPod analysis done at the end of the year for that. But in terms of weight? I’m 2lbs heavier in the photos on the right. Go figure (and throw away your scales at the same time…)

In some ways the changes that have been most remarkable for me during these 12 weeks are the mental ones rather than the physical. Admitting that my diet needed tightening up again, starting to prepare my own lunches rather than relying on shop bought food, finding ways to deal with social occasions so that I kept my alcohol consumption in check, keeping going with the exercise even when the fat seemed to be determined to stick to my body. I’ve proved to myself that I’m not only strong physically, but I’m also pretty strong and resilient mentally. The support from the fantastic EI community has also made a massive difference and for me is one of the best things about the programme.

And now that I’ve found a way to move past the plateau I’m really excited to see what the next round of EI will bring for me. Yep that’s right I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’m going to do it all over again. Julia’s going to be running the next programme, which starts on Monday 22nd September, from her brand new members website. Having worked with her for the last 18 months I’m really excited to see her transition onto her own website and I’m looking forward to reaching my 41st birthday in December in the best shape of my life.

If you want to find out more about Extreme Inferno and how to sign up then head over to Julia’s website here. There’s an early bird discount running until the end of today (September 15th) but even after that at £10 a week it’s fantastic value for money.

 

 

 

 

 

Back to basics

“You can’t out train a bad diet”.

You’ve probably heard that phrase before. I certainly have and know it to be true. There’s another saying that fat loss is 30% exercise 70% diet. I have no way of knowing whether those figures are accurate but it sounds in the right ball park to me.

Recently my fat loss feels like it’s stalled a bit. Especially around my middle which is my ‘problem’ area. I’m seeing some nice definition appearing in my shoulders, arms and legs, so changes are happening. But the fat that’s sitting around my tummy just doesn’t seem to want to move.

I know that it can’t be exercise. I am following Julia Buckley’s Extreme Inferno programme and working out 6 days out of 7 most weeks. The type of exercise I’m doing is designed for fat loss – so I think I can safely rule that out as an issue.

imagesI don’t think that my diet is all that bad. I eat clean most of the time – lots of protein, plenty of vegetables and fruit and I keep processed carbohydrate, dairy and alcohol to a minimum.

Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

The reality is more like this:

During the week I cook breakfast at home – eggs and veg, sometimes with a bit of meat. I grab a flat white on the way to work and buy lunch, which is usually a salad. Most days I have a spicy chicken salad – it’s got tortilla chips and a bit of cheese in it, but it’s only a small amount. Snacks are fruit or yoghurt topped with a bit of granola that I buy at the same place I get my lunch. Sometimes some dried fruit and nuts. Sometimes crisps if I’m desperate because they’re in the vending machine or even chocolate or cake because there’s always some in the office.

I am lucky to come home and have my dinner cooked for me at home. That’s almost always clean. Sometimes after dinner I’ll snack on some dark chocolate or have an apple and peanut butter. I might go to the pub after work once during the week and have a couple of glasses of wine. That might lead me to have a sneaky packet of crisps to tide me over until I get home for dinner. The weekends are usually a bit different, I cook breakfast usually bacon and eggs and we often eat out on a Saturday. I generally choose well but there’s usually alcohol involved, and it’s usually more than a couple of glasses of wine.

Hm. When I write it out like that it’s not quite as clean as I’d have myself believe.  I’ve been eating this way for around 18 months now and following the ‘mostly mostly’ approach that Julia advocates. I aim for something like 80/20 and if I’m honest I’ve probably been achieving perhaps 70/30 or at times 65/35.

The thing is when you’ve been doing something for a while it’s easy to become complacent. The chicken salad which has tortilla chips and cheese in it used to be a one a week ‘treat’. It’s now become a daily thing. Same with the flat white. Where once I was a master of avoiding cake and chocolate at work I’ve been having bits here and there more regularly than I used to. Alcohol has always been my biggest ‘risk area’ when it comes to fat loss. I do like a glass of wine, and there’s no reason why I can’t have a few drinks and still lose fat – I know this to be true! But a few glasses a week means just that and I’ve definitely got back into the habit of having a bit more than that.

Time for some changes!

This week Julia challenged us to a no alcohol week. I’ve done this on her programmes a couple of times before and always found it helpful. I decided to also use this week to kick my daily flat white habit and to take my food ‘back to basics’. I invested in some new storage containers and have been making my own lunches and taking in my own snacks all week. Big hearty salads for lunch with a good chunk of protein and then fresh fruit and a handful of nuts as snacks.

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I’ve actually quite enjoyed the variety in the lunches and the discipline of getting everything prepared the night before – all it takes is a bit of planning and I’ve probably saved some money too.

And in just a week of doing this my body has started to react. My stomach is noticeably flatter and I’ve lost a centimetre off my tummy. The fat is on the move again and I am happy :-)

Do you eat clean and make your own lunches for work? I’d love to hear about your favourite lunch box meals.

 

 

10 things I learned from spectating at Tough Mudder

Last weekend I travelled to Wiltshire to support Team Inferno, a group of Julia Buckley’s fat loss clients, as they took on Tough Mudder South West. Originally I was supposed to have been part of the team, but I reluctantly pulled out a couple of months ago when it became clear that my hip wasn’t going to be ready for the training or the event itself. I was pretty gutted but decided that if I couldn’t be with them out on the course then I’d be part of their support crew. There was no way I was going to miss out on being there.

Team Inferno ready to start

Team Inferno ready to start

Spectating at Tough Mudder was a great experience. Obviously very different to taking part, but also very different to spectating at a road race, which all my previous spectating experiences have been.

Here’s 10 things I learned from spectating at Tough Mudder.

1) There’s more involved than just cheering

When you go to support someone at a road race pretty much all you need to do is stand and cheer. Unless its a marathon or ultra, they’ll be carrying pretty much everything they need for the race with them. Not so at Tough Mudder. The chances of gels, snacks or personal belongings surviving the obstacles, mud and water are pretty much zero, so the role of the spectator becomes more one of ‘support crew’. We had bananas, haribo, sports drinks and inhalers stashed in our rucksacks. Making sure that we spotted the team became all the more important when you knew you were carrying fuel to help them around the course.

Part of Team Inferno support crew

Part of Team Inferno support crew

It’s also far more difficult to predict what time they’re going to be at certain points on the course. With a road race people’s mile splits are usually relatively predictable and you can work out where they are going to be when with reasonable accuracy. Not so with Tough Mudder – as a spectator you can only reach a small number of the obstacles and you really have no idea what the team have had to face since the last time you saw them. It’s a matter of sitting and waiting!

2) Tough Mudder is no longer the exclusive domain of the super fit

When I took part in Tough Mudder last year the number of women there was pretty small. I reckon the split of male:female was around 85:15 and most of the people there looked super super fit, almost intimidatingly so. This year the demographic had changed. Definitely more women and definitely more people in ‘average’ shape, and some not in particularly good shape at all.

Personally I think it’s great that events like these are becoming more mainstream and accessible and not just for the super fit. Training for something like Tough Mudder is a massive challenge, the running is only half of it. If people are being encouraged to incorporate some strength training into their lives in preparation for events like this then all the better I say!

3) But it’s still bloody tough!

Waiting to take on Everest

Waiting to take on Everest

The demographic might have changed, the toughness of the course definitely hadn’t. 12 foot walls to scale, skips full of ice with barriers half way so you have to completely submerge yourself, 12 miles of tough cross country running, 15ft leaps into cold, muddy water, 15ft half pipes to run up and a canopy of electrified wires to run through.

One of Team Inferno got injured during an obstacle called Mud Mile – sounds pretty innocuous right? She twisted her ankle so badly that it swelled up and she couldn’t continue.

It’s a tough tough course, definitely not for the fainthearted.

4) Tough Mudder monkey bars are super tough!

We spent quite a lot of time waiting at Funky Monkey for the team to arrive. Enough time to watch probably hundreds of people try to make their way across the bars. These are no ordinary set of monkey bars – they’re on an incline, they are slippery and apparently they were rotating.

Making your way across takes a super amount of strength, but there’s obviously also technique involved. We saw lots of incredibly fit looking men and women plunge into the water having made it only to the first or second bar. It made me feel slightly better about my complete inability to do them last year!

Those that made it, particularly the women were greeted with massive cheers. Two of Team Inferno made it across – total heroes!

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5) It’s better together

You could probably complete Tough Mudder on your own, if you were pretty strong and didn’t mind relying on strangers for some help. In fact that’s part of the ethos of the event. It’s not a race and as part of the pledge that you take at the start you promise to help out other Mudders on the way around the course.

Personally I can’t imagine doing an event like this without being part of a team. It’s gruelling, both mentally and physically and it was clear that Team Inferno had each other’s backs, arms, legs – whatever was necessary to help each other around that course.

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6) Being team photographer is ace

You get to catch moments like this

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7) But it might make you a bit emotional

Everest is one of the iconic Tough Mudder obstacles. It’s a 15ft half pipe that you have to run up, take a leap of faith and hope that someone at the top will catch you and help you over. It comes at the end of the course so you’re absolutely exhausted before you even think about taking it on and standing at the bottom of it feels incredibly daunting.

It got the better of me last year – I managed to leap into the arms of two lovely men who did their very best to haul me over the top but I just didn’t have the upper body strength to do it. I knew that some of Team Inferno were a bit concerned about this one and whether or not they’d be able to do it.

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I stood and watched as the first member of the team made their way up the ramp and over the top, helped in true Tough Mudder style by total strangers. Once at the top they then stayed and helped to haul the next member of the team over, and then the next. It was an awesome display of teamwork and amazing to watch as one by one they each conquered Everest.

Every member of the team made it to the top, not always on their first attempt. I manage to capture each of them on camera – it was actually quite emotional to watch. There might have been a little tear in my eye as the last member of the team made it over. Yeah, I’m super tough!

8) Orange headbands are the new medal

Don’t get me wrong, I love a medal. But I’ve got loads of them. It’s great to see an event make something out of a different race memento. Those orange headbands were worn with pride, some well into the evening and some I suspect the next day. And a pint of beer beats a goody bag with a random cereal bar and bag of dried cranberries any day, right?!

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9) I want to do it again!

Spectating and supporting was a great experience. So much better than not being there. But not nearly as good as taking part. I totally made the right decision to pull out this year – I’m sure I would have aggravated my hip and potentially put myself out of action for a long time. But my goodness I wanted to be out there with them!

Spectating has just confirmed to me that I absolutely want to do Tough Mudder again. So that’s going to be my goal event for next year. Sort out my niggly hip, get myself into the best shape possible and get back out there.

10) It’s all about the gun show

While post race drinks after a road race are filled with chat of PBs, mile splits and gel consumption, the Tough Mudder after party is all about the gun show. Support crew got to join in with this one – I’m quite happy with my entry!

 

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What’s in a number?

Yesterday I did something that I’ve been thinking about having done for a while. I went to the University of Westminster to have a BodPod analysis done. I first saw and heard about the BodPod at the GSK Human Performance Lab. It’s a highly accurate, non-intrusive, extremely rapid method of measuring body composition. It utilises a technique called air displacement plethysmography. Yeah, I can’t say that either, let alone understand what it means. But having done a bit of internet research it appears that it’s the ‘gold standard’ for accurate measurement of body composition.

For the last 18 months I’ve been measuring my body composition on a pair of Tanita41wGkKHG96L__SX425_ body fat analysers. For the first year or so they provided me with a really good picture of how I was progressing. I started off at 42% and at one point had got my measurement down to 29%. I know that it’s not a particularly accurate way to measure body composition but it’s allowed me to monitor trends very effectively.

But over the last six months or so I’ve noticed that the analyser is affected by all sorts of things. How hydrated I am, whether its warm or cold, the time of day etc and so I’ve started to lose faith a bit in the answers that it’s been giving me. I can measure myself at the same time of day two days in a row, under seemingly similar conditions and get results which are 2-3% apart – clearly not possible to lose or gain that much body fat in 24 hours.

So I started considering other ways to get an accurate measure of my body fat. It’s not that I really care too much about the actual number but I feel that I’ve lost my ‘marker’ of where I’m at and want to re-establish that to help me monitor progress.

The option that a lot of people consider to be very accurate is calipers. But they need to be used by someone that really knows what they’re doing, and the thought of a stranger squeezing my fat at several places over my body really didn’t appeal.

And then I came across the BodPod and found out that the University of Westminster had one. After umming and ahhing over the cost I decided that I was intrigued enough to pay to find out. So yesterday morning I went along to their clinic for my analysis.

20140815_100228The BodPod is a bit of a strange looking capsule. The door opens outwards and you sit inside on a platform. You have to wear tight fitting underwear or a swimsuit for the test and have your hair up in a swimming cap. I must have looked a treat.

After being weighed on a set of scales attached to the machine I was then asked to sit inside, keep still, breath normally and not talk. There were three sets of readings taken and in between each the door was opened to recalibrate the air inside.

It was actually pretty comfortable in the capsule, not as claustrophobic as it looks at all. There were a few beeps and I was aware of very small pressure changes but beyond that, and concentrating on sitting very still it wasn’t obvious that anything was going on.

After the third reading I got out of the pod for the moment of truth.

My body fat is 38%.

It was fair to say that I was gutted. I was expecting something in the low 30s. Jean Pierre the BodPod operator could see that I was a bit shocked and re-assured me that a lot of people who have been using body fat composition scales have higher readings on the BodPod. Even so I felt pretty deflated – 38% is excessive amounts of fat and there was me thinking that I was getting towards the ‘moderately lean’ category.

So I sulked for a bit and then posted about how I was feeling in the Extreme Inferno Facebook group. I had some absolutely lovely responses and it made me realise that although the number is higher than I’d hoped for that it really changes nothing.

It doesn’t take away from the progress that I’ve made over the last 18 months. It’s clear that I’ve lost a substantial amount of fat – I didn’t have a BodPod analysis done at the start, if I had done it would probably have been close to 50%.

It doesn’t change the fact that I’m not where I want to be yet. I knew that before I stepped into the machine. Knowing the actually number doesn’t change that at all.

What it does do is provide me with a baseline to measure against. One that I can trust to be accurate. Something that will provide me with re-newed focus and something to keep me totally motivated on losing that fat.

I am going to go back for another test in a few months time towards the end of the year. I intend for that number to have decreased significantly.

And to cheer me up I decided to focus not on my body fat number. But on a number that I’d achieved that morning. A new PB on a move called Arnold press – 10kg in each hand and I know I could do more.

10610638_10152170937861012_2023188936351421075_nI much prefer that kind of number!

 

 

 

 

Protein – are you getting enough?

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before but I’m a biochemist by training. I’ve got a BSc in Biochemistry and an MSc in Clinical Biochemistry with Molecular Biology. It’s a long time since I went to University and since I now work in a role which has absolutely nothing to do with biochemistry I’ve forgotten about 80% of what I was taught.

untitledThat doesn’t stop me from getting a bit science geeky every now and again. So when MaxiNutrition invited me to an evening at the GSK Human Performance Lab to find out about how the research they do is translated into MaxiNutrition products I jumped at the chance. That and the fact that I got to meet Dame Kelly Holmes – but I’ve already told you about that.

 

After a tour of the impressive facility that is used by Olympic athletes and top flight rugby players, we settled down to find our more about protein. Why is it so important for recovery and building strength and how much do we really need to eat. Rather than try and explain all the science myself I’m going to quote directly from the MaxiNutrition website as I think they sum it up quite nicely

Protein is one of the three macronutrients your body needs, along with fat and carbohydrate. It’s used by your body for a variety of essential functions, one the most important being the building of structural tissues like skin, bone and muscle. Protein is digested and broken down into chemicals that will help muscles recover, protect the growth and maintenance of muscle mass.

Protein is made up of 20 amino acids, which combine in unique ways to perform specific tasks. Some of these aminos can be synthesised by your body, but others – the ‘essential’ amino acids – can only be provided through your diet.

Although you can find high levels of protein in all kinds of food – such as dairy, meat and pulses – it can be difficult trying to achieve a complete balance of every amino acid in the correct combination.

Some essential amino acids, the Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), have been seen in studies to encourage the formation of muscle tissue. By taking in more of these, along with your balanced intake of protein, you can make sure your body has what it needs.

When your body is being pushed harder by training, sports or performance, it’s only natural that you will need more protein coming in. Studies have proven that active people can require up to 2g of protein per kilogram of body weight a day. Both the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the English Institute of Sport (EIS) use this figure. Consuming over this amount has not displayed a greater benefit, so it can be treated as a sensible maximum.

We need a higher amount of protein when we are active because protein is hard to store in the body. We are constantly using the protein that we eat, turning it over as we perform. To stop our body from using up the protein that we store in our muscles – and stop our muscle mass from reducing – we have to put in as much as we are taking out of our bodies. This is called achieving protein balance.

So you get the picture – protein is important and we need to make sure we get enough of it – especially when we’re training hard. I’ve got to admit to being a bit sceptical about a company that make protein products telling me how much protein I need to eat. But the information that was shared on the evening was all backed up with research – the papers were actually quoted through the presentations – so it felt less sales pitch and more science.

We were also told about some research that suggested that the most effective way to build muscle was to spread protein intake out over the course of the day. 4 evenly spaced ‘doses’ being better than two larger ones.

untitledOver the course of the evening it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea of how much protein I eat on a daily basis. For someone that exercises as much as me – intensely for 5-6 days out of 7 the recommended intake is somewhere between 1-1.2g of protein per kg of body mass. I make sure to base my meals around protein and add vegetables and I quite often take a protein supplement but I have never stopped to work out how much I’m consuming.

My interest heightened I decided to embark on a fact finding mission. For a week I tracked my food using My Fitness Pal to see how much protein I was getting. I haven’t tracked my food intake like that for a very long time and I was slightly concerned about getting fixated on calories, but it was actually quite an enlightening experience.

It turns out I’m eating enough protein on most days, which is good to know. In fact on Capturesome days I’m having more than the recommended intake and could drop it down a bit – I’ve realised that my typical breakfast has plenty of protein and I don’t need to supplement it with a whey shake.

For someone who is trying to shed fat, overall calorie intake is also important. I don’t count calories – that’s far too depressing, but knowing that I can cut a few things out of my diet easily and reduce my overall intake by a bit is also helpful.

But I also quite like protein shakes and the odd protein bar here and there – they add a bit of variety into my diet and feel like a sweet treat without being sugary. So based on what I’ve found from the tracking I’m just tweaking a few things here and there.

I had a fascinating evening with MaxiNutrition, it really made me think about my diet and I learned a lot. I must also say thanks to them for the protein bars and powder that they sent after the event. Chocolate flavour – yum!

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