Category Archives: Diversions of a sandwich mum

Escaping the routine. These are the adventures I have when there is a break in the neverending routine of school runs, homework, deadlines and food preparation….

Open water debut

I appear to have lost the ability to breathe. My face is freezing cold, my heart is pumping fast and my chest feels restricted in my new and unforgiving wetsuit. Added to this, I can’t help not liking the murky green water.

I’m in a lesson at Shepperton Lake in Surrey, with four others who , like me, have an open water swimming goal this summer. My personal challenge is to swim around St Michael’s Mount on 18th July. If I carry on like this I’ve got no chance.

At around a mile and a half I know I can swim the distance in the pool, but open water swimming is a different sport. This is why I’ve done a 500-mile round trip to meet up with swimming instructor, Salim Ahmed, and dip my toe into Shepperton Lake in Surrey.

Back to the lesson, Salim’s talking, but I’m still in panic mode and not really listening. I can’t hear properly with my ear plugs in, or see him because my goggles have misted up. My hands and feet are cold. Basically my body is whingeing and I just need to man up.

We set off to the next buoy and I force myself to swim properly. I’m veering off course and the cold makes it hard to breathe bilaterally, but I’m finding some rhythm. As I start to relax, I notice the combination of the water and the wetsuit gives an amazing buoyancy and a more of a glide than in the pool. Also, I note with glee, you don’t have to use your legs as much.

Halfway round the 750m circuit and the murky water is no longer so threatening and the glimpse of bright blue sky on each breath is a treat. I feel invigourated to be swimming around a scenic tree-lined lake, among the ducks, when most people I know are still in bed. Salim tells us to lengthen and widen our stroke, slow it down, and make more of the glide and the roll. It’s exhilerating.

We arrive back at the first buoy and I feel like I’ve conquered my initial fears of open water swimming. I’m a convert. The next challenge is to translate this to the chilly sea, with its unpredictable waves and currents.


Purely for swimmers, Shepperton Lake offers a friendly and unintimdating initiation in open water swimming. It is open, during selected hours, when the water gets to 12 degrees (May until October). There are toilets, changing rooms and a place to buy a post-swim cuppa and flapjack.



Salim Ahmed will take you from whatever swimming standard you are to wherever you want to go. He has the rare ability of a teacher to inspire confidence and self belief, in order to unlock your potential. If you’re thinking about learning to swim, or improving your swimming, just do it.

It’s 9am on Saturday and I’m lined up at parkrun Lanhydrock, with 98 other people who weren’t put off by the hostile weather conditions.

Just as another wintry shower gets underway, we start the sprint downhill, through the park, towards The National Trust’s Lanhydrock House. This is the best bit. As we head up through the woods it gets slippery and runner after runner overtakes me as I go through my wheezy stage.

Lanhydrock is one of parkrunUK's most hilly courses

Lanhydrock is one of parkrunUK’s most hilly courses

This is my sixth parkrun since I started running last November (at the age of 43). I know that even though I might feel like I’m hyperventilating, the second wind will come and then it’s the exhilarating downhill wood dash, looking out for tree roots.

The last 2k are the worst: a steady uphill climb, penance for all the early downhill bits. I resort to a heavy-footed shuffle, which I suspect is slower than a walk. It’s still raining heavily and I’m soaked through. I’m almost regretting coming, but I remind myself how great I’ll feel when the massive surge of endorphins kick in at the end. I’ll ride that feeling for a couple of days. Better than a booze high.

At long last I get to the top of the hill and it’s a freewheel to the finish. This is the same bit as at the start, but my legs are tired now, so it’s harder. I run as fast as I can to try and keep ahead of the footsteps behind me (which turned out to be a kid: there’s a lot of sporty youngsters on this, as young as six) and do an unintentional, dramatic skid over the finish line.

Parkrun happens at 9am every Saturday, at 305 different locations in the UK. Free to enter, it’s run by volunteers, and they request that you do your fair share of volunteering to pay back. Before the race, register at You get your own bar code, which is scanned at the end of the race, so your results can be emailed to you, as well as some other stats like position overall and in your age group.

For those, like me, who find running hard, it is motivating to know you are being timed. Hearing someone coming up behind you, or seeing someone slow down in front that you think you could take, makes you push yourself that bit harder.

It’s a fantastic way to start the weekend and it has incentivised me to cut down on drinking on Friday nights, to see if I can improve my results the next day.


Some reasons to run

Potential safeguard against cancer: active people are less likely to develop colon cancer and running can help reduce the risk of breast cancer by up to 30 per cent.

Lose weight: a 160-lb person can burn more than 850 calories an hour. Better than a fasting day.

Healthy heart: running can bring blood pressure down and running for an hour a week can reduce the risk of heart disease by almost half, compared to non-runners.

Other health benefits: running can improve bone density, help with insomnia and reduce symptoms of both stress and dementia.

Mood and depression: runners are more optimistic and positive and those who run outside show improved self-esteem.

Trying the 5:2 diet

According to the NHS, 6 per cent of the UK adult population now have diabetes and an estimated 850,000 have it without knowing it. It’s growing all the time, but one way to prevent it is fasting.

The 5:2 diet developed by Michael Mosley, so called because you eat normally for five days and then fast (which means 500/600 calories a day) for two, apparently, has loads of health benefits. It can help put off diabetes, as the body goes into starvation mode and starts burning fat, in particular the dangerous visceral fat, stored around organs, which thin people can have without knowing.

Fasting can help the body not respond to a hormone called IGF-1 (Insulin Like Growth Factor 1) which has growth promoting effects on every cell in the body. Higher levels later in life appear to lead to accelerated ageing and cancer. Fasting makes your body reduce the levels of IGF-1.

So, can I push through my body’s rebellion and lose my fear of hunger?

The tiny apple which sustained me from breakfast to dinner

The tiny apple which sustained me all day

Day one, Thursday 27th Februrary

7.30 Was allowed a surprisingly large bowl of porridge and banana. Not a big fan of porridge and would have preferred to eat something I find more tasty, but went for the filling aspect and slow release.

10.45 Without rushing to the kettle all morning I’m getting more work done, so rewarded myself with a cup of liquorice herbal tea. This is quite a novelty and more than a match for a regular cup.

12pm Getting hungry and fantasising about the one apple I’m allowed to have before dinner. I’m not even that keen on apples. The day is passing slowly, but that’s good from a work point of view.

1.05 Hunger has subsided.

2.45pm. Ate a tiny apple as I needed some insurance against the school run (not a good idea on low blood sugar).

Took my blood pressure, which was really high. Wondering if that is part of the process? Stressing the body and then building up “immunity.” The “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” philosophy that Mosley expounds.

4pm. Just had to toast two hot cross buns for the kids, which was tough. Especially as one didn’t get eaten and was left tantalisingly on the table. This is undeniably the hardest part of the day. After feeling really sharp for most of it, I’m now feeling slightly spacey and my arms feel weak. Slight headache too. Encouragingly, the hunger isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

4.50pm My excitement about dinner was quickly extinguished when I realised what 300 calories looks like. The portion of salmon that I’m planning to use will account for more than my allowance.


Dinner was tastier than usual

Dinner was tastier than usual

Thankfully dinner was satisfying. Once I cut the skin off the salmon it came within my calorie budget, with enough left over for generous amounts of tomatoes, courgette and broccoli lightly roasted with a tiny bit of coconut oil. It was finished off with a soy sauce, ginger, chilli, lemon and lime sauce which seemed particularly delicious tonight. Rather than scoff the food without noticing, like I usually do, I focussed on savouring every mouthful and chewing lots of times.

One thing I’ve noticed is how dehydrated I am, it goes to show how much water you get from food. Although I’ve been imbibing fluids all day, I still feel dehydrated and headachey.

9.30. The tiredness is worse than the hunger. It’s like the tank is empty. Is this the feeling of my body starting to digest its own fat? Or has it still not quite worked out what to do? I’m in bed. Feels like I have flu. Expect to be asleep within seconds.

The day after

Was indeed asleep immediately and slept well. Woke up a couple of times but went straight back to sleep. Woke up this morning at 6.15, feeling fairly hungry, but not with the growly stomach I expected to have. However, really enjoyed my bowl of cereal at 7am, following by  cup of tea.

This morning I feel good: I think I have more energy than usual, feel pretty sharp and more optimistic than I have felt for a long time, considering that we’re in the midst of a stressful house build and fresh from being bereaved.

Rather excitingly, the scales show that I’ve lost 2lbs, even after breakfast! I’m not naïve enough to assume this will stay off, but at least it shows that it works. The 5:2 takes a long term approach, so the weight stays off.

Butt Bootcamp

Can a massage really reverse the effects of gravity? I headed to Fowey Hall Hotel to sample Mama Mio’s Butt Bootcamp…

Lift your butt in one hour is the claim made by Mama Mio regarding the Bootcamp for Butts. I was intrigued, but sceptical. Could one hour’s worth of non-surgical treatment really have any impact?

According to Leanne, my therapist, the more you have, the better the results. She said that she had seen one lady completely lose the line created by bum overhang.

The theory behind this exciting, but possibly too good to be true idea, is that the mix of products and massage will boost the lymph and stop the body from retaining water.

The front of my legs were cleansed, before Leanne set to work slapping my thighs – in a manner reminiscient of a Turkish hammam – with all kinds of potions and lotions.

Eight products were used altogether: cleansers, exfoliaters, toners, moisturisers, a seaweed wrap and a chemical peel which made me feel like I’d fallen into a patch of stinging nettles without trousers on. Like prickly heat, it was almost unbearably itchy and I had to lie on my hands to resist the temptation to scratch. It was only Leanne’s assurances that it was really effective which stopped me from screaming at her to take it off. Although she did do her best to distract me with a lovely calf massage.

Afterwards my thighs and bum felt smoother than I can ever remember them feeling. And, thanks to the last moisturiser, wonderfully zingy. An inspection the following day proved that the bum line was still in evidence, but there weren’t any dimples. The skin definitely looked smoother and tighter.

I was pleasantly surprised and might even be tempted to go for the boob job next.

Hand planing at Watergate Bay

Water is rushing above my head and the last thing I see, before scrunching my eyes shut against the saltwater, is a row of people holding their boogie boards like riot shields. Rather than being on the wave, as I should be, I’m in the wave, swept up like a piece of debris.

Accidentally, I wiggle the tiny surfboard strapped to my right hand and find myself spinning inelegantly in the water. I haven’t tried surfing for a good 10 years, but I remember this washing machine feeling very well. It’s surreal and seems to go on for an interminably long time. I hope that I’m not going to hit anyone on the head with the surfboard. Or that anyone is going to hit me.

Eventually the wave spits me out. I emerge, spluttering, hair plastered over my face, eyes blinded by seawater and feeling completely disorientated. Some teenage girls on boogie boards laugh at me. “Ha,” I think, “you’ll be trying this next year.” As nonchalantly as I can, I head back out to sea again.

Described by The Extreme Academy at Watergate Bay, as turbo-charged bodyboarding, hand planing is hailed as the next craze. It’s not brand new: I can remember people doing it about 15 years ago, fashioning their hand boards out of wood, but apparently it’s getting trendy across all the world’s hottest surf spots now.

When I was growing up we didn’t have surfboards or boogie boards, so body surfing is what we did. I thought it would be like that, but with more oomph, thanks to the board and fins. And it is: I even find myself catching waves unintentionally. Well maybe not catching, but being swept along by them.

“It’s all about timing,” says Josh, my instructor, who duck dives, seal-like, beneath the incoming waves and emerges a few seconds later, somewhere completely different. “When you are at the base of the wave, kick like mad and paddle with your free arm, Or push yourself off from the bottom. You need to stay in front of the wave.”

The surfboard-enhanced arm is stretched out in front and, if you’re any good, you can use it to steer across the wave. Once you’ve caught the wave, you tuck the free arm in next to your body and head for the beach, streamlined. Like a spear being thrown by the wave.

Hand planing feels like a cardio workout, because you’re always swimming around and you are in the mix with the waves, without a board as a barrier. Not to mention having to hold your breath for ages when you get it wrong.

Lots of adrenalin sports seem to require overcoming a few challenges and facing down some fears before you get the buzz. For me, hand planing was no exception. But for all the seawater I swallowed and the discomfort of having waves breaking on my head, the thrill of riding the wave in to the beach was worth it. There were several happy accidents when I managed to get the timing right and felt myself riding majestically atop the wave, the theme tune to Blur’s Song 2 in my head.

If you have some skill, I’m sure that hand planing is even better, but I liked the fact that even if you’re rubbish, it’s good fun and gets the endorphins going. Afterwards, I walked up the beach with smarting eyes and feeling slightly battle weary, but utterly exhilerated and ebullient.

Two hour lessons in hand planing cost £20 per person at the Extreme Academy.

Spa break at the Marriott St Pierre in Chepstow

Perfectly situated to enjoy the delightful scenery of the Wye Valley and the Forest of Dean, I went to Chepstow in Wales to sample the Marriott St Pierre Hotel for the hot tub blog.

Mark tried out the mountain bike track at the Forest of Dean, which he has been itching to get to. I spent most of my time in the spa. Here’s my review:

Stand-up Paddleboarding

I’ve been observing people stand-up paddleboarding, or paddlesurfing, at the beach for some time. It seems a very civilised activity: the closest you can get to having a stroll on the sea. Paddleboarders seem to be very nonchalant, just casually catching a wave and riding it into the beach. Everyone seems to be able to do it. In contrast to surfing, which hardly anyone can.

So when the opportunity came up for a sundowner session at Watergate Bay, I jumped at it. Firstly, it meant that I would get out of putting the kids to bed. Secondly, the conditions were absolutely perfect: the sun was still shining, the sea was glassy and we’d catch a sunset on the way home. Thirdly, after failing at surfing I had a feeling this could be my beach sport.


SUP: a cross between punting and surfing

There were four of us in the group and Carl, who teaches everything from surfing to cardio cycle at Watergate, was our instructor. After a quick run through on the beach, which made it all sound deceptively simple, we took to the sea.

Paddling out through the small breaking waves on our knees, I already liked it more than surfing, as it seemed relatively easy to get into the hallowed territory of outback. Although that might just have been because the waves were so small. Whatever, I managed it without getting my hair wet, which was a good start.

Once we were beyond the breaking waves, Carl told us just to hop to our feet. Mine was definitely more of a scramble than a hop, but the wide board was very forgiving. It might not have looked pretty, but it worked. Carl advised us to use the paddle to help with stability. I was sceptical about that idea working, but it was interesting how the resistance of the water did help with the balance.

Before long, bar a few splashes, we were all paddling down the coastline, enjoying the scenery. Well, the scenery which was directly in front of me, because if I looked around too much I inevitably fell off.

The action reminded me of punting. As long as you kept your knees soft it was fairly easy to cope with the slight swell. Although by the time we’d travelled half a mile, my legs were feeling slightly trembly from holding the squat.


On the way back we were all feeling confident and ready for the next challenge of catching some waves. Carl had instructed us on how to catch the wave: line up the board and paddle to catch the wave. As the wave lifts it up, quickly turn the feet from standing parallel and into surf stance, keeping the paddle in the water on the same side as the lead foot. Easy.

I lined myself up for the first wave, felt the board come up, didn’t move my feet quick enough (it’s definitely NOT as easy as Carl made it look) and made the classic beginner mistake of walking off the back of the board with my arms flailing.

The next mistake was keeping my mouth open as I went in. I emerged with the taste of salt water and my eyes stinging from the sunblock washed into them.

I tried again with the same result: was it me, or had the waves suddenly got bigger? The others weren’t having much more luck either and one of them had got into an argument with a fisherman.

Carl kindly came to help me: I could get in the surfing stance and he’d launch me onto the wave. All I had to do was keep my balance. Just like snowboarding, right? I fancied my chances.

The first time my weight was too far forward, I lasted about a second before diving into the sea. The second time the weight was too far back and I went arse first into the sea.

We had one last try. Surely I could do it. Did I? No. As I said to Carl I’ll just have to go back again.

Rocking a good look, with the endlessly patient Carl


If you fancy a go at paddleboarding, get yourself down to the Extreme Academy at Watergate Bay. This week they are also running the sundowner sessions at £30 for two hours. It’s fun!

Barefoot running

Barefoot running

This isn't me running. But maybe it could be soon....

“You have a pronounced heel strike, which creates a lot of movement for the body to control. Your foot has a long roll on the ground, which wastes energy. And it lands way in front of your centre of mass, which means there are lots of braking forces going on. You don’t extend from the hip, but only use your quads, and none of the big muscles at the back. You don’t use the trail leg to get any speed and have no forward momentum. You have a slow, heavy cadence.”

This was how running coach and physiotherapist, Louise Nicholettos, summed up my running style. You don’t have to know about running to get the gist that I am slow and heavy footed. I’ve always loved the idea of running, I’m just no good at it. However there are some advantages to all the disadvantages: I don’t have a comfort zone to retreat to, which makes me a suitable candidate to convert to barefoot running.

Lose the trainers

Barefoot running is a trend still in its infancy, but gathering momentum. Advocates say it feels euphoric, you can go faster and for longer and it’s more natural. If you watch children, they run with their mid-foot hitting the ground first, but shoes and trainers have converted us all into heel strikers. Which inevitably leads to injuries, eventually.

However, it’s not as easy as just kicking off your shoes. Unless you have training and build up slowly, you’re likely to get injured if you run barefoot. Lots of barefoot runners wear “minimalist” shoes, which offer the foot a modicum of protection against rough ground, while not interfering with the stride.

Barefoot running also has its opponents who say caucasians are not physiologically built to run barefoot and it leads to more injuries. The experts, even at the highest levels, are divided, so I guess it comes down to personal preference and responsibility. I find the idea rather appealing.

Taking off my trainers was surprisingly liberating in itself. Immediately I felt lighter. Going barefoot naturally shortens the stride, which alleviated lots of my faults. To speed me up, Louise made me jump up and down on the spot in rhythm with the ideal cadence – roughly twice as fast as I was previously “running”. Back on the treadmill, I had to focus on staying relaxed, running in time with the beat, staying vertical and letting my heels kiss the ground to give my calves a momentary break.

I did catch a glimpse of the euphoria. After half an hour she said I picked up the techniques quickly and she could make a runner out of me. This is incredibly heartening: running is a skill which can be learned. It’s interesting to think that if I invested in the training (around £300-£400), plus a pair of minimalist shoes (about £80) and put in the practise I could unleash my inner gazelle.


Getting started:

Louise Nicholettos: [email protected] is based in Cornwall and runs workshops for both barefoot and normal running.

Based in London, Rollo Mahon, is a fount of knowledge about barefoot running: [email protected]

Rollo is running an intensive running workshop at Cornwall’s Watergate Bay Hotel in October. Why not combine learning to run barefoot with a fabulous hotel break next to the beach?

For more contacts, expert opinion and the arguments for and against barefoot running, have a look at the feature I wrote for the July issue of Health Club Management magazine, page 38.







Cowboy riding lesson in Tuscany

“Ride into the fence,” the Italian cowboy shouted at me. Thinking this instruction must be lost in translation, I looked at him doubtfully before half-heartedly sliding to a stop at a 45 degree angle, turning the horse and lolloping off the other way. I thought I’d done quite well – my kids’ pony would never have been so nifty.

“NO!!” he roared again. “Ride into the fence!” After another unsuccessful attempt, and a demo, I understood that I really did have to gallop directly at the fence. At the last millisecond I had to lift my legs off and shout whoa, bringing the horse to an immediate sliding stop, then swing around 180 degrees and put my legs back on to gallop off. I have done similar before, but never intentionally: only when my horse was running away from a jump.


Cowboy riding in Tuscany

Channelling a bit of cowboy attitude, I finally cracked the rollback. A legitimate cowboy move. The Italian cowboy nodded his approval and pointed out my skidmarks. Admittedly I was little more than a passenger on a briliantly programmed horse, but I was still euphoric.

Tuscany hadn’t summoned up images of cowboys. When I booked the horse riding at the Castelfalfi estate, I envisioned myself cantering across the lush, undulating countryside, enjoying the big skies and views of vines. So it came as something of a surprise to turn up at Il Gelsomino and be greeted by an Italian dressed in jeans, cowboy hat, boots and spurs, presiding over a stable full of Quarter Horses and Western saddles. Hacking was an option, but learning to ride like a cowboy was just too tempting.



Performing a rollback

The Italian cowboy, like many horsey people, tells it like it is. I particularly liked the sign outside the toilet: “Scrape the shit off your shoes first.” Lessons are only part of what he does, he’s big on the cowboy circuit, taking part in demonstrations and competitions and is both the world reining and world cutting champion.

For someone used to riding English style, it was a great challenge to try the Western way. All levels can be catered for: even if you just want to walk you can learn to turn the horse in tiny circles.

The hour lesson was exhilarating and quite long enough: I ached for several days after. Such fun and highly recommended!