Why I Haven’t Been Around + Goals Update

Yorkshire Dales walk

Well, hello there! If you keep an eye on my blog, then you may have noticed that I’ve been posting less recently. For this, I apologise, but I wanted to give an explanation. You see, the last year has been pretty busy. I know, I know, everyone is busy all of the time. But sometimes, when you’re so busy that you struggle to see how you can to get through the next day let alone the next week, and you’re constantly falling behind on your ever-extending to-do list, it’s hard to prioritise what’s really important in life.

In the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of clients writing on some fascinating topics. I’ve also been working hard at growing the author side of my business: I’ve published one full-length novel (with a second coming soon in June), two novelettes and two novellas. I’ve also organised a wedding and started co-hosting a podcast.

When I look back on it, I’ve achieved a lot. But it has come at a price, and that has been my outdoor time. It’s ironic that, by writing about outdoor activities and adventure, I’ve actually ended up spending less time doing them myself. I suspect I’m not the only writer and entrepreneur to have fallen into this trap…

So, I decided on some changes. I will be continuing with my client work – no change there. (If you need a hand with copywriting or content marketing, get in touch!) And I’ll still be blogging, but not every week. I’ll post something as and when I have something I really want to write about and share with you. This will still probably be once or twice a month – I’m not disappearing completely!

I’m also going to be consolidating my social media channels in an effort to rationalise my social media addiction. I currently have two Twitter accounts, one for the author side of my business, and one for the outdoor copywriting side. Moving forward, I’m only going to be using this one, but I’ll be chatting about everything. The outdoors and writing about the outdoors is as much a part of me as writing novels or podcasting, so why should I try and tear myself in two?

Update on my goals for 2018

At the beginning of the year, I posted my outdoor goals for 2018. Whenever you’re setting goals, I always think it’s worth reviewing them every couple of months. Life changes, what we are able to do changes and, perhaps most importantly, what we want to do sometimes changes.

Ironically, given everything I’ve talked about above, my main aim for 2018 was to spend more time outdoors. I’m pretty sure I’ve achieved this, though based on the end of last year, I was working from a pretty low benchmark!

The main thing that’s forced me to spend more time outside is the Isle of Wight Challenge. In a week and a half, I’ll be walking 104 km around the Isle of Wight (over two days). I’m pretty sure this is the toughest challenge I’ve set myself, and I’ve been training hard for it. Many of my weekends over the past few months have been spent walking, come rain or shine. And until recently, there has been very little shine and rather a lot of rain, hail and snow.

I’m feeling reasonably well prepared for the walk. Or at least, as prepared as I can feel. (I don’t think you ever really feel ready for challenges like this.) I’m raising money for Mind, a mental health charity here in the UK, which is been a huge motivator to get out and train even when the weather has been, quite frankly, miserable. If you’d like to sponsor me, you can do so here.

My second goal of the year was to hike the John Muir Trail. My husband and I had planned to do this for our honeymoon. We may have underestimated the logistical challenge this presented… I also discovered while doing all these long walks, that while I LOVE walking, I don’t really love having to go out walking for 8 hours in the rain. We’ve also both found that we’ve missed climbing. Really missed it. With work commitments and busy lives, there’s just not the time to do everything and because I’ve been spending every weekend training for the Isle of Wight Challenge, this has meant we’ve done next to no climbing.

So, we changed our plan! We’re still planning on going out to the States, but we’re hoping to do a month long climbing trip later in the year. We haven’t been on a climbing holiday for ages so I’m really looking forward to this. 😀 I’m also looking forward to getting some strength back and exploring more of the crags around where we live.

This will also finally force me to face head-on my incapacitating fear of falling. I haven’t quite figured out how best to do this yet, but I’m working on it. More on that another time…

I would love to be a superwoman who is able to do it all, but I’m gradually coming to realise that I’m not. We all have different pressures on our lives and time and have to prioritise what’s most important to us. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that being outdoors is important to me.

Why Spending Time Outdoors Can Help You Sleep

Sleep

Of all the things I enjoy doing, sometimes I think I love sleeping the most. Which is strange, because it’s also one of the things that I most resent doing. I constantly wish that I didn’t need to sleep quite so much, so I’d have more hours in the day to do more “productive” pursuits.

It seems I’m not alone. Many of us wish that we could get by on less sleep. But then there’s the other side of the coin: the insomniacs who would LOVE to be able to get eight straight hours a night. And, on occasion, I’ve experienced that side of sleep too, usually when feeling anxious and stressed about something. There’s nothing more frustrating than being desperately tired and exhausted, but unable to sleep.

And make no bones about it, sleep is essential to life. If we don’t get enough sleep, there are many potential side effects, all of them bad. Our bodies need time to recover and our brains need time to rest. There is a long history of the use of sleep deprivation as a form of torture and tests on animals have led scientists to believe that prolonged sleep deprivation could be fatal.

On a less macabre note, the amount of sleep you get affects your productivity and relationships. If I don’t get enough sleep then I can be grumpy, irritable and generally not very fun to be around. Compare that to the morning after I get a full night’s sleep and I’m a different person.

But it’s not just the amount of sleep you get, but the quality. I’ve noticed a couple of common factors in my own sleep patterns that determine whether or not I get a great night’s sleep. For example, I’ll usually sleep well if:

  • I’m sleeping in our campervan.
  • I’m camping (usually but not always).
  • I’ve spent the day outdoors, particularly if I’ve done a long walk or run. But an evening’s run in the fresh air can often have the same effect.
  • I’ve been reading for a while before bed (unless it’s a really exciting book!).

Conversely, there are a number of triggers which pretty much guarantee me a poor night’s sleep, which include:

  • Too much sugar before bed.
  • Working on the computer late at night.
  • Watching scary movies or thrillers in the evening. Basically, anything that gets your pulse racing or makes you think too much. (Yes, this does make me a very frustrating person to watch Netflix with.)
  • Checking my phone religiously before bed.

These revelations are nothing new and simply corroborate what many studies have demonstrated about good quality sleep. But do I always follow these guidelines? Of course, I don’t. I’m human. My life isn’t just one ballgame where I can go hiking each day, get to bed early every night and never worry about anything. I have work to do, deadlines to meet and occasional bouts of anxiety to deal with. I am even writing this late in the evening (though I promise I’m going to stop soon).

Perhaps it’s a classic case of knowing exactly what I need to do to fix something but struggling to have the disciple to implement it. Probably something to do with my Obliger tendencies

Why Being Outdoors Helps Us Sleep

So, anecdotal evidence aside, what is it about being outdoors that helps us sleep well? There’s been a fair bit of research done on this topic. Here’s a summary of the main points and some of my own thoughts:

  1. Exercising outdoors first thing in the morning boosts our body’s natural sleep rhythm. The daylight activates the light-sensitive tissue in our eyes, encouraging the brain to produce melatonin (the hormone that makes us sleepy) earlier in the evening. If you struggle to sleep, then experts recommend exercising in the morning rather than the evening, particularly just before bedtime.
  2. Sleeping outdoors for a week (without smartphones!) has been shown to reset our biological clock to a more natural wake and sleep cycle, meaning we go to bed earlier and sleep for longer. When it’s cold and dark, our bodies naturally tell us to sleep, and when the sun comes up and it starts getting warmer, our brain tells us to get up. It takes us back to the days before central heating, electric lighting and Netflix, when our lives were much more affected by changing seasons. But if you don’t have a week, even a weekend spent camping can have a positive benefit. As if we needed an excuse…
  3. Sleep is often the first casualty of too much time spent in front of a screen. Presuming you don’t go hiking with your head buried in your phone, this makes time spent outdoors a form of digital detox. Which, most people agree, is a good thing to do every now and then.
  4. Another trigger for a poor night’s sleep is stress and worry. Spending time outdoors has been proven to lower stress levels and help reduce depression and anxiety, leaving us more relaxed and better able to sleep.
  5. Finally, there’s the simple fact that if you’ve been active outdoors all day, you’ll be pretty knackered, physically and mentally, and ready for a good rest. Plus, if you’re sleeping outdoors, there isn’t much else to do once it gets dark!

How To Sleep Better at Night

That’s all very well, but realistically, most of us can’t spend all day every day outdoors. So for those of us with busy lives, how can we help ourselves sleep better at night?

Firstly, you don’t have to spend long outdoors to reap the benefits. I find that even a half hour or forty-five-minute run can be enough to tire me out and get me ready for bed. Rather than going to the gym in the evening, try going for a run or a boot camp session outdoors instead. And if you find that exercising in the evening wakes you up rather than sending you to sleep, see if you can switch your training sessions to the morning.

Switch off in the evening. Don’t go for your evening run, only to come home and spend two hours in front of your computer or mobile phone. You’ll undo all the good work you’ve put into helping you sleep. (And yes, this is the guilty voice of experience talking…) Try and schedule your day so that all you need do after exercising is have some dinner and relax, perhaps by reading a book or spending time with your family.

If you always have a hundred thoughts jostling for attention in your head, then try meditation or yoga before bed. It can take a bit of discipline (particularly with meditation!) but switching off your mind before bed will certainly help you drop off to sleep quickly. I often use the Down Dog app on my phone to do a short, gentle yoga session in the evening. It helps me relax, stretch out my muscles after a day’s work and wind down from the day,

There are lots of different views out there on whether there’s a link between sugar and sleep. Some people say sugar before bed will keep you awake, others say it’s a myth. Chances are, like many things, it’s down to the individual. What I do know is, if I have a lot of sugar in the evening it will almost always stop me sleeping or leave me feeling groggy the next day. I love puddings, so this makes me pretty sad. But I think on balance, I love my sleep more. So while I may sometimes give in on the rare occasion I eat out, generally I’ll try and limits my portion size on puddings, have home-made puddings that contain less sugar or (shock horror!) have no pudding at all.

You don’t need to camp out for a weekend or a week to adjust your body clock to be more in tune with nature. It just takes a bit more of that dreaded word, discipline! At home, there are many distractions that can stop you going to bed early: household chores, television, socialising or even work. But there’s a reason why we tend to feel more awake in the summer when evenings are longer, and sleepier in the winter when evenings are short and dark. Rather than beating yourself up about wanting to go to bed early in the winter, why not listen to your body and let it tell you when to go to bed, and when to get up? (Though that doesn’t give you an excuse to be late for work just because it doesn’t get light until 8 o’clock in the morning!)

I think I’ll always slightly resent needing a good eight or nine hours sleep a night to be able to function properly when other people seem to do just fine with six or seven hours sleep. But I also feel grateful that most of the time I can have that much sleep. I have a warm house, a cosy duvet to snuggle up in and a husband to warm my feet on. I’m in a much better position than many people out there.

We all have different requirements and different struggles with sleep. But we owe it to ourselves to give our bodies and brains the rest and recovery time they deserve.

Why I Love the British Coast in Winter

Bamburgh castle

This weekend, I decided that I love being by the sea in winter, and being in the mountains in summer. You’re probably thinking that sounds quite strange. Don’t I want to be in both places in summer and tucked up in a blanket with a hot chocolate and a book in winter? Well yes… and no*. You see, despite it being rather wintery outside (for once there is actually a scattering of snow to accompany the doomsday headlines of a Siberian arctic blast hitting the UK), I still want to be outside.

But don’t most people want to go to the seaside in summer? You know, when it’s actually warm enough to bathe in the sea and sit around in a t-shirt building sand castles? Well, yes. Which is one of the reasons I’d rather go to the beach in winter. The same beaches that are full of people in summer are barren, windswept places to be in winter.

I’ve just come back from a long weekend in Northumberland. I walked for miles and miles along stunning sandy beaches and rocky coastline and saw only a handful of people. The wind blew me along, hail occasionally battered my face and it was bitterly cold. Dark clouds hung ominously low in the sky, the sea crashed against the rocks and sunlight fought its way through the chinks in the clouds to shine spotlights on the landscape. It was so beautiful it almost hurt.

And, though the British weather is notoriously fickle, you don’t get the same experience of the coastline on a balmy summer’s day. That feeling of being bound up with the elements, of bearing witness to the force and power of nature as the waves smash into the coastline and the wind whips the sand into a hissing snake that winds its way around your shoes. It’s the way the sky and sea change their mood within hours or even minutes. It’s the exhilaration of not just witnessing nature but being part of it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had some wonderful days out in the hills in winter. When crisp snow blankets the ground and the sun shines down from a blue, calm sky, it can be amazing. But I’ve also frozen my butt off on a number of occasions and had the odd winter climbing experience where I’ve been very grateful to get down to a hot shower. Because when the weather turns, it’s not so fun. The mountains in winter are beautiful, but they’re also a dangerous place.

Of course, anywhere can be dangerous if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nature is a wild and unpredictable beast and that’s part of what makes it so magical. I rarely venture into the sea and have a very healthy respect for the ocean. And while I’m more at home in the mountains, this means I’m better able to judge when it’s going to be an enjoyable day to head to the heights and when it makes more sense to stay at home.

But what if you could put the best bits of both worlds together? If you could stand with a beautiful coastline on one side and towering mountains on the other. Do such places exist? (Is that a rhetorical question?)

Yes, they do. (And yes, it was.) Places such as the northwest coast of Scotland, the Isle of Skye and parts of north Wales. And these are some of my favourite places in the world.

Red Point Beach

*Just for reference, curled up with a hot chocolate and a good book is one of my absolute favourite places to be in winter. After I’ve exhausted myself on a good run outside of course. 😉

The 7 Podcasts That’ll Make You Love Long Runs

Running-and-headphones

Your choice of listening material when running is a very personal thing. Some people prefer to leave the headphones at home and embrace the sounds of nature during their runs. Others need a good fast beat to help them keep their pace up. And some people look to podcasts to provide a distraction from the pain and hard work of running.

I fall somewhere between the first and third camps. On some days, particularly when it’s sunny outside and the birds are singing, I just feel like running in silence. But when the weather is a bit grim and I’ve got a long run ahead, I generally turn to podcasts to help keep my spirits up and make the miles go past faster.

I’ve got a half marathon coming up this weekend (the Northumberland Endurancelife if anyone’s interested) and my husband is already prepping his podcast list for his ultra run. If you’re looking for some new inspiration, here are some of my favourite podcasts to help make long runs fun. But a word of warning: you may find some of them so addictive that you won’t want to stop…

If You’ve Got an Ultra Coming Up: Limetown

I was struggling to find a podcast that was as gripping, well-produced and addictive as Serial. Then I found Limetown. Although it’s a fictional story, the investigative journalism style makes it feel more like a true-crime podcast.

The story itself – the disappearance of 300 people from a model town in Tennessee – is intriguing and each plot twist pulls you deeper into the story. Once you’ve started, you won’t want to stop listening so download all the episodes and plan a three-hour run.

For Binge Listening: Serial

If you haven’t listened to the award-winning podcast, Serial, then you’ve probably been hiding under a rock for the past few years. But if that’s the case then great! You’ve got all the fun to look forward to.

Serial is a non-fiction podcast that investigates the murder of Hae Min Lee in 1999 and the subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. It’s easy to forget when you listen to the serialised narrative that this is a real story, with real people involved, and that there may not be a happy ending.

It’s a gripping show and the best news is, once you finished season one you can move onto season two which is a whole different story. Hours of entertainment to keep your legs moving.

To Get You Through Long Runs: The Tim Ferris Show

Tim Ferris interviews the great and good from all walks of life in a show that was seemingly devised for long runs. Episodes frequently exceed two hours in length making it a great choice for long workouts. Although it’s branded as a business podcast, the interviews are wide-ranging and cover many aspects of lifestyle, productivity and work.

For Inspiration: The Tough Girl Podcast

If your legs need some inspiration to keep running, then the Tough Girl Podcast will provide. Host Sarah Williams interviews women who are pushing the boundaries in their outdoor adventure challenges. From epic adventurers to Olympic athletes, this show will make you realise how many endurance challenges there are in the world and what it takes to complete them.

Be warned: if you listen to too many episodes then you may find yourself dreaming up your own challenge to escape the regularity of day-to-day life.

To Learn Something New: Crypto News Podcast

Okay, this is a bit of a cheeky entry as I co-host the podcast! (But hey, it’s my blog, so I can give it a shout-out, right?) If you’re bamboozled by bitcoin and confused about cryptocurrency, but feel like it’s something you should know more about, then join two crypto newbies as we navigate our way through the world of cryptocurrency.

Each week we talk through some of the top crypto news stories to find out what’s hot (or not) in the crypto world. Download the 12 boot camp episodes to get a simple overview of what Bitcoin, cryptocurrency and the blockchain are all about and finish your run better informed than when you started.

For a Quick Fix: The Other Stories

If you’re looking for a short fiction podcast with a nod to the dark side, then check out this podcast from the team at Hawk and Cleaver. The stories cover the genres of horror, sci-fi and thrillers, and will leave you with a definite chill down your spine. The episodes are generally between 10 and 20 minutes long so enjoy them on a quick lunchtime run or stack up a few for a longer session.

If You Enjoyed Limetown: Rabbits

Like Limetown, Rabbits is a fictional podcast presented in a true-crime style. And if you thought the events narrated in Limetown were weird, then Rabbits takes things to a whole new level.

Rabbits is the story of the search by the podcast host, Carly, for her missing friend, Yumiko, who she believes disappeared because of her participation in a mysterious alternate reality game known only as “Rabbits”.

The first couple of episodes are a little slow going, with a lot of backstory and information on video game culture and alternate reality. But after that, the story quickly picks up pace and the plot twists come thick and fast as the suspense builds. The ending is as weird as weird can be, and personally, I found it not quite satisfying, but don’t let me put you off. Rabbits will make you forget your tired legs and burning lungs while you listen to find out what happens next.

What are your favourite podcasts? Let me know in the comments below or get in touch on Twitter – I’m looking for some new shows to listen to!

Cycle Torch Shark 500 Bike Light Review

Cycle Torch Shark 500

Last week I reviewed the Cycle Torch Night Owl, an affordable, bright light designed for bike commuting. This week I’m taking a look at its big brother: the Shark 500.

I’ve been really impressed with this light and both myself and my husband have been using it on our bikes. In fact, my husband loves it so much that he’s come up with a way of attaching it to the headband he normally uses for his heavier, battery-pack torch so he can use it for night orienteering.

Cycle Torch Shark 500: Vital Stats

Weight:
Lumens: 500
Modes: 4 (3 levels of brightness + flash)
Run-time: 1.5-30 hours
Where to buy: In the UK, it’s available from Amazon.

First Impressions

Shark box 1The Shark comes in a simple but stylish box. Open it up and you get a thank you note from the company, underneath which is the torch, neatly packaged in foam casing. In fact, you actually get two torches – Cycling Torch throw in a rear light to give you a bit more for your money. Also in the box are three attachment straps of different lengths and two USB charging cables. There’s no instruction manual, but you can download one online.

Shark box 2For a low-cost bike light, the Shark is pretty stylish, if a little on the large size. The front end is unusual for a bike light in that the plastic casing extends over the light itself. More on this later.

The Shark 500 has an IP65 water resistance rating. This is defined as “dust tight” and protected against water projected from a nozzle. The weak point in terms of water resistance – the USB charging point – has a thin rubber cap to seal it from the elements. Which I somehow managed to pull straight out of the torch body. (Tip: don’t do this, it’s a complete pain to fiddle back in.) It works but is a bit awkward – the thicker plug on the rear light is much easier to secure.

Shark frontBoth the main torch and the rear light are charged via USB. They charge quickly, the main light back to full power in around four hours. The power button on the Shark glows red when charging and switches to blue when fully charged. The rear light glows green when fully juiced.

If you read the manual (or this post) you’ll discover that by pressing and holding the power button, you can find out how much charge the torch has left. 10 flashes indicate 100 percent charge, 9 flashes indicate 90 percent charge, and so on.

Setup and Bike Attachment Points

Both the front and rear lights attach using the rubber straps provided. The rear light is super easy to get on and off, the front light slightly less so. Both feel secure once on, even when riding on bumpy paths. I haven’t had them long enough to test the longevity of the bands but they seem pretty rugged.

Testing in the Dark

Right, now we’ve got the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get on to how it does in action. I took the Shark 500 out on a ride on local, averagely-lit roads (I don’t live in the city) and down the local canal to test it in an unlit environment.

Shark rear lightThe Shark 500 has four modes: high (500 lumens), medium (250 lumens), low (50 lumens) and flash. Both the high and medium settings are bright enough to light your way on roads in partially lit areas. The 500 lumens setting was also great for off-road riding. It’s not bright enough for fast downhill or really rough mountain biking but it’s definitely a step up on the Night Owl.

With most bike lights you get a circular light but the Shark is different. The plastic casing cuts off the beam at the top and bottom creating a rectangular beam of light. The cut off at the top helps focus the beam and prevents you dazzling oncoming cyclists or drivers. Having been dazzled myself plenty of times in the past, I appreciate this! However, the plastic casing on the bottom is not so helpful. It limits the field of light so you can either focus on the ground around your front wheel or further ahead. Logically, you have to go for looking ahead, which on the road is fine, but for off-road biking, I’d have liked to have a wider field of vision.

According to the manual, you get 1.5 hours of light on the top power setting. I actually got a lot longer this – about 2 hours and 40 minutes. The torch flashes and the power button turns red to warn you you’re low on charge twenty minutes before it gives out. On the medium setting, you get three hours of light, and for most bike commuters the 200 lumens will be bright enough.

The rear light isn’t bad, but you’ll probably want a dedicated rear light if you spend a lot of time biking in the dark. The battery life on this was disappointing. It’s supposed to last two hours on the brightest setting, but after an hour and forty minutes the beam faded and pulsed. It stayed on for another hour but not really at a usable level.

Summary

For the price point, the Shark 500 gives you a lot for your money. It’s much brighter than the Night Owl and definitely a better option if you cycle on unlit roads or off-road tracks. For technical mountain biking at night you may need a brighter (and more expensive) light but as far as value for money goes, the Shark 500 gets top marks.

Full disclosure: Cycle Torch provided me with the Night Owl light to test. This review is my honest, unbiased experience of using the bike light.