Sport and my mental health

I have suffered from anxiety for years. It’s the kind of anxiety that I can usually keep at


Feeling happy and relaxed after a day out on the bike.

bay. Most people won’t realize I have it because I hide it relatively well. Instead of thinking: Oh, she’s anxious; people probably just think: Huh. She’s a bit of an odd one.

Sport has played a huge role in helping me manage my anxiety. No matter how bad I’m feeling, if I can just get myself out that door and go on a run, for example, I know that my anxiety or stress will almost immediately dissipate.

I have found that the rhythm of sport—of running, of cycling, of hiking, of swimming—puts my mind almost magically at ease. Sport and my daily prayers are my form of meditation. They are how I cut myself off from the daily grind and tear myself away from one screen or the other, if even for a few minutes, to clear my head and start anew.

There’s a “but” coming up.

But, recently, as I’ve felt myself less and less able to manage my stress and anxiety as successfully as I have at times in the past, I’ve been reviewing my lifestyle choices to try to find ways to improve things. (more…)


Training: Turning off the stubbornness

I have never been able to understand people who are all lovey-dovey about their


I like to think my stubbornness gene has been active since childhood.

training. You know; the people who are on a constant high because they live a life of “activity”. The ones who wake up cheerfully at 5:30AM in the morning because they are about to go out for a 5km run in the freezing cold. The people who talk incessantly about how great their four-hour bike rides make them feel. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for them. But those feelings they have are something I have never experienced and I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to have them.

I am the kind of person who wakes up at 5:30AM and thinks: But I just want to go back to sleep! I am the kind of person who never really learned to enjoy pain, and I find running in particular quite painful and thus not enjoyable. I am the kind of person who hates the cold, so jumping in an 18C lake for open water swim training is simply a miserable experience. I am the kind of person who can sometimes enjoy a bike ride, as long as I’m going at my own comfortable pace, I’m not expected to push myself, and I don’t have to ascend or descend too many hills, or to keep going for too long.

When I explained all this in a blog post once while I was training for my Ironman, and then shared said blog post in a Facebook group for people training for an Ironman for the first time, I got a lecture from an Ironman coach in that group saying something along the lines of: Well if you don’t enjoy it, maybe this isn’t for you. You shouldn’t do things just because other people do them.

That woman made me very very upset that day.

We are not all alike. We don’t all get lovey-dovey about training. Some of us find training extremely difficult both mentally and physically. But we do it because we recognize the value in keeping fit. And we book ourselves into events because they give us goal posts to aim for in our mission to keep ourselves fit. We are the people who hate the training, but love the benefits we reap from doing it. We are the people who have learned that we can do things that we really don’t want to do because we know they are good for us in the long run and that they will get us to our ultimate goals. We are the people who take these lessons from our training and are able to extrapolate them into other aspects of our lives.

Because I find training so challenging and not enjoyable, I have to turn my stubbornness gene on to full volume, especially when I need to train hard for an upcoming event. (more…)

Learning I don’t always need to be super-Nadia

Oh, those mood swings. Up and down, up and down. I wish there was a “straightforward” way around them.

Back in my Ironman-training days—now long gone, I promise you—I started seeing the race as such a scary monster that I needed to do something about it. So I booked another event for myself three months after the Ironman. It would be something I could look forward to and it would mean that no matter what happened in the race itself, whether I finished it or not, all that training would not have gone to waste. For the last two months before the race, I could tell myself that I was training to keep fit for everything that was to come. I wasn’t “just” training for a race.

Post-Ironman, however, my body was really in need of a break. My MIND was in need of a break. I hadn’t realized while I was training just how much pressure I was putting on myself to do every single training session exactly the way my triathlon coach had prescribed, AND to keep up with work without anyone thinking that I was falling behind because I was doing a crazy race. I made sure never to mention my Ironman training to the people I worked with (well, hardly ever). It was not going to be used as an excuse for falling behind. So I just never fell behind.

Once the race was over, I took that break I so desperately needed. It was HEAVEN. When it was time to start training again, I was ready. But it’s been a bit of a roller coaster since then. Sometimes my motivation levels are sky-high, other times they are almost non-existent. That was never a real problem when I was Ironman training. Or, at least, I had it under control because my mind was stubbornly set on doing everything possible to get to that race.

That roller coaster of motivation has meant that I haven’t always felt like I was “properly” preparing for my next adventure, now under two weeks away. But you know what I caught myself thinking today? I’ve actually been doing quite well! I’m being too hard on myself. I’ve been listening to my body and that’s important. I’m also unwittingly comparing my training now with the training I’ve been doing for most of the year, and that is such an unfair comparison. If, instead of comparing my current training with Ironman training, I compared it with how I trained for something similar a few years ago, I’m bloody smashing it!

While away for two weeks in Egypt for a family visit, I really struggled to keep up with work and training. The stress of feeling like I HAD to do both was too much for me and the result was that I was feeling very down about it all. I ended up neither keeping up with work OR training. And I had decided that booking that December event was probably the most stupid thing I had ever done.

But this morning I got up, went to the gym, and did an interval session on the treadmill. I then went for a relaxing Jacuzzi and came home to eat a huge breakfast. Do you know how good that felt? It felt GREAT. I’m back into my routine. I’m on top of work. And I have an adventure to look forward to very soon. As I was eating my breakfast I was thinking, “How boring would life be right now if I didn’t have that adventure coming up?” So now I’m starting to think that this upcoming adventure might actually have been one of my most inspired ideas yet! No matter what happens during this next event, I’m really really looking forward to it. I am so glad I am back to feeling that way.

So what is that next adventure I keep alluding to? I’m not ready to tell you yet! I just needed to publicly reflect on those mood and motivation changes of mine. It’s good to be back to a “good” place. And I’m learning that I don’t always have to be doing super-human training. Normal human training, which sometimes involves just not doing that workout today, is fine too.




Reflections Ten Days Post-Ironman

This past year, I have been a member of a Facebook group that was set up by the


I spent one of my recovery days just walking around Girona, Italy. If you ask me, THAT is what living life is all about.

Ironman brand organizers for people who registered to do an Ironman for the first time. Can you believe that about 70% of the participants in Ironman Barcelona 2017 had done an Ironman before? The more I have spoken with people, the more I have discovered that lots of people get hooked on the race. Some people do more than one Ironman race in a single year!

The Facebook group was really helpful. Being a complete novice, it was helpful for me to see how other people trained, what their plans were for what to wear during the race (one piece vs two piece), how they planned to go to the toilet (stop at a port-a-potty vs peeing on oneself while cycling/running…yes, that seems to actually be quite common), what their nutrition plans were for the race, etc. Once people in the group participated in the various Ironman races around the world, many posted reports on how their races went, most of them successful but some not. It was as inspiring to hear the stories of those who crossed the finish line as it was to hear the stories of those who did not. In both cases, a tremendous effort was had, sacrifices were made, and strength and determination shone brightly. There was so much to learn from every story.

As my race day neared, my nerves began to fall apart. During the major part of my training I was able to keep my mind focused on getting through one session at a time. I didn’t need to think about “the race”. I just needed to get through a training session. I could do that. Tapering began three weeks before the race. I started feeling fatigued. The race was also suddenly becoming so much more of a reality, which frightened the heck out of me.

It was around this time that someone in the Ironman beginners’ Facebook group wrote that he finished his race, but he wasn’t feeling, like others had expressed, that he had done something absolutely amazing. I think lots of people took that in a negative way. But when I read his post my immediate thought was, “I want that! That’s how I want to feel about this race!”  (more…)

I’ve always been an ironman

People who do Ironman races are not iron men. They are normal people just like you and me, but with an ironclad determination that can move mountains. Find that determination within you and you will move mountains too.

It was the most difficult part of the race by far. I had already done the 3.8 kilometer swim


Walking on air in those final steps on the red carpet across the finish line of Ironman Barcelona 2017.

and the 180 kilometer bike ride. Now, “all” I had left was a 42 kilometer run. I was tired. I was sweating in the Spanish humidity like a pig. I really wanted to get out of my tri-suit, which I had been wearing now for more than ten hours, and jump into a shower. My quads were cramping in a way that made me think they might soon snap off of my knee bones. Even so, I found myself thinking, “This really isn’t all that hard!”

I realize how ridiculous that sounds. But what it really meant at the time was that I felt that the training I had done during the months before the race had prepared me well. I didn’t feel anything I didn’t expect to. Most importantly, I was able to keep going.

The real Ironman experience, I believe, is in the months before the actual race. So much is learned during that process about oneself and about the sport. I feel so privileged to have found a professional triathlon coach, Louise Hanley of The Triathlon Coach, who gave me a customized training program suited to my abilities and goals, while being able to adjust it as needed due to my shin splints that just never seem to go away completely. I now understand how fortunate professional athletes are to have support teams. It makes such a difference to be trained by people who know their stuff.

I don’t remember exactly when the idea of doing an Ironman entered my head. Probably soon after I started doing triathlons three years ago. My husband Colin had told me so many stories about the half Ironman he did in Florida many years ago. It sounded like a great challenge and lots of fun. I wanted to have that kind of experience.

But as I was in the process of trying to figure out how or when to do an Ironman, I fell from my bike and dislocated my shoulder while my husband and I were touring in Belgium. This eventually led to a very painful frozen shoulder and an operation. While still groggy from the anesthesia, a physiotherapist was already working on my shoulder to make sure it had full mobility. “Is my shoulder going to be all right?” I asked her. “I really want to do an Ironman.” As it turns out, this particular physiotherapist had done four Ironman races. She told me my shoulder would be fine and that I absolutely could do an Ironman. “Are you sure? I’ve only just started doing triathlons. Do you really think I can do an Ironman?” I asked her. I’ll never forget her words. They have been ringing in my ears ever since. “Do it. Do it!”

Nine months later, in October 2016, I registered to do Ironman Barcelona the following year.

My training with Louise began in January. The nine months of training were in some ways similar to a pregnancy. You get up in the morning feeling nauseated because you know you’ll have to go out and run in the dark and cold. All you want to do is go back to sleep, but if you don’t do the run now, you won’t have enough time for your job, which you need to pay your bills. Your whole day and months revolve around your training. It becomes the priority and everything else is there to support it. And you have one date in mind: the day you hope to deliver at that finish line.

The training is every bit mental as it is physical. It is not easy getting your self to do things it really doesn’t want to do. I eventually taught my self not to look too far ahead. Every morning, I’d look at the program and see what Louise had in store for me. Louise’s word became almost Godly. If a swim was scheduled for that day, a swim was going to get done. When I was feeling lazy, I would tell myself to go out and do the training session but that I didn’t have to push myself too hard. But then, during the session, I’d tell myself that as long as I was out, I might as well do the session properly the way Louise has asked me to do it. And so it was.

I was able to keep it all together until the taper. On September 1, Louise sent me my final monthly training program before the race. When I saw it, I realized the worst of the training was now behind me and I got tremendously excited. But by September 7, I was feeling fatigued and panicky. I began to have serious doubts that I would ever be able to beat the cut-off times on the bike course. To avoid being removed from the course because I was too slow, I would have to cycle at an average pace for a distance of 180km that I never managed to reach over smaller distances during training.

The panic stuck with me until the second I dived into the Mediterranean when the race


I was so anxious just before the race I might as well have been shitting myself.

started on the morning of Saturday, September 30. As soon as my body hit that water and my arms started to move, something clicked in my head: “Hey! I know this! This is familiar. I know how to do this.” All those months of training suddenly kicked in. I was so accustomed to jumping into a cold, dark, murky, weedy northern England lake, that getting into the gently rocking, warm Mediterranean seemed like heaven. That 3.8km swim was so enjoyable (ENJOYABLE!!) that I could have just removed myself from the race and kept swimming forever and ever.

Getting out of the water, I just automatically did what I always did during transitions in other races. Then I got on my bike and pumped those legs. It was all so strangely and comfortably familiar, even though I was doing it all in a completely new location. I made sure I followed my nutrition plan. I ate solid foods, took in gels, drank lots of water, and drank some energy drink. I made sure I was hydrated, replaced the


Ask me if I enjoyed the bike portion of the race that had me panicking for a whole three weeks before it. Go ahead. Ask me!

salts I lost in my sweat, and had enough energy to get me through the bike ride and through part of my upcoming run. I put myself in the aero position on my tri bars for the majority of the ride. And by the middle point of the first of the bike course’s 2.5 laps, I realized that I was going to nail this. When I passed my husband Colin at the end of the first lap, I yelled out to him, “I’ve got this, Colin!! I’ve got this!!” During the whole ride I had two mantras: “Make Colin proud.” And “Anything is possible,” something Becki, one of my triathlon club’s swimming coaches, stopped to tell me the evening before I left for Spain. If Becki says it, then it must be true, I was convinced.

That part of the race that I was most worried about was the part I most surprised myself in. My bike time was better than anything I could have possibly imagined for myself.

During transition two, I thought I’d reward myself for such a great bike time by taking a tiny bit of extra time in transition to change out of my sweaty socks and into nice dry ones. Little did I know that minutes later I would be pouring water over my sweaty body, only to soak everything, including those socks. (Lesson learned).

The run was the most difficult part of the race. No matter what, you are bound to be


I included this picture because it looks like I’m passing this incredibly fit-looking man. Let’s just ignore the fact that the run was comprised of three laps and he could have been on any of the three. I just want people to think this is the kind of guy I can beat during a run. The reality isn’t important.

exhausted after the swim and the bike. But again, running after a long bike ride was familiar. Louise had me do it many times in training. I was in familiar territory. So I just ran. I walked through every single feed station, drinking water, pouring it over my head, sometimes taking a gel and most times drinking energy drink. I had to stop a few times to stretch out my quads. I really did think they were going to snap. The pain was almost unbearable at times. But the stretches worked. And I just kept going till the next aid station or until the next unbearable quad cramp. I broke the run down into bits. Just run the next 2.5km until the next aid station. Just do the first half of this 13km lap. If you need to walk the rest, you can walk the rest. When I managed to run the first 16 km, I told myself to try to run the next 7.5km. When I finished the second 13km loop, I told myself I might as well just run the last 13 km loop. My pace didn’t matter as long as my legs kept moving forward in a slow jog. I knew that if I kept that up, I wouldn’t be disappointed in myself.

I had kept my eye on the time throughout the whole of the long bike ride. I needed to make sure I was going to beat the cut-off times for the bike loops. But during the run, I knew I had enough time to finish the race before the final cut-off time even if I walked the whole course. So I decided not to look at my watch at all. I didn’t want to be demotivated by finding out that I was going very slowly. I also needed to listen to my body and my body alone. I needed to do a pace that wasn’t dependent on time but was dependent instead on my body’s ability.

So, when I saw that I had one final kilometer to run and decided it was all right to check my watch, I was completely taken aback by the number I saw.

I had had no real sense of time during the 42 km run. I figured that it was more than possible that I was nearing the 15-hour mark since the start of the race. But my watch was telling me I had been out for just over 13 hours. I saw that number and said (out loud), “No no no no. Something is definitely wrong with this watch.”

You see, in the weeks leading up to the race, I had serious doubts about my ability to even finish it within the allocated cut-off times. I wasn’t being silly. I had never reached the overall average speeds during training that I would need to maintain in order to beat the cut-off times for the bike course’s loops. Even so, I thought that if I was really lucky and did manage to get through the bike course without being removed by the marshals, the best possible time I could ever dream for would be in the 14 hour 20 minute range. Even that, I believed, was pushing it.

So, when I realized that it looked like I was going to have a sub 13 hour 30 minute time, I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t understand it. The tears, of course, welled up in my eyes. As I turned the corner and was about to step onto the red carpet, a British couple cheered me on. I told them, “I think I’m going to cry!” The guy said, “Cry! Let it all out! You deserve it!”

I was so ecstatic though that I couldn’t even cry. And that’s saying a lot because I’m a huge crybaby. I stepped onto the red carpet and started yelling, “Woooooooohooooooooooooooooo!” saying it over and over again. I found Colin in the crowd. He grabbed my arm, gave me a huge kiss, looked me in the eye and told me how proud he was of me. I nodded my head and said, “I know!” Then I continued down that red carpet and my name was called out, “Nadia. You. Are. An. Ironman!” And I screamed down the rest of that red carpet, holding my arms out wide, taking it all in. It really was a wonderful moment to experience. The race I was hoping to finish within 15 hours 40 minutes, the cut-off for Ironman Barcelona, was completed in 13 hours, 16 minutes, and 57 seconds. Never would I have imagined that time in my wildest of wild dreams.

I need to emphasize that despite this being a great personal achievement for me, in the grand scheme of things this was just another race. You don’t need to be superman to finish an Ironman race. You don’t need to have superhuman abilities to achieve your academic, professional, or adventure dreams. You just need to have the courage to dream, a structured plan to get you there, and headstrong determination to follow that plan no matter what it takes.

People who do Ironman races aren’t iron men. They are normal human beings just like you and me. All they did was they believed in themselves. And that is all you need to do to achieve whatever you want in life.

Dream. Believe. Get a plan. Be determined. Achieve.


I have so many people I need to thank.

My husband, Colin, for his constant support of my crazy ideas. Thank you for always


I found this on my bed when I got back to the hotel room after the race. I have the sweetest husband in the world. Evil eye, stay away!

telling me how amazing I am. Not that I don’t already know it, of course. But I like hearing it from you. :-p You are my rock.

My kids, who are only aware of these things I do because I keep reminding them, for keeping me grounded and realizing what’s really important in life.

Louise Hanley, my triathlon coach, for giving me structure, advice and support. Your training program became akin to the word of God to me for months. And whatever it is that you put into it, it made magic happen.

Tom Waite, my personal trainer, for making me strong and never doubting that I’d do this.

All the Leeds Bradford Triathlon Club coaches and members who have given training, guidance and support.

Carl Akeroyd, you crazy man, for being so damned inspiring.

Philippe Evans, a twelve-time Ironman who is about to take part in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, for humbling himself and taking me out on those last three long rides when I needed the company the most. Smash it at Kona!

Becki Maud, for those last three words, “Anything is possible”, that became one of my two mantras on the bike ride.

Amany Khalil, an Egyptian woman who did Ironman Barcelona last year, for showing the rest of us Egyptian women that culture, age, and motherhood are no deterrent to achieving your wildest dreams. Thank you so much for standing in that horribly dark corner at the end of the running loop to cheer us on this year. It kept me going, knowing you would be there.

My best friend Arwa, for putting up with my crying, complaining, and having nothing to talk about except for my training for months on end. I love you to the end of the earth and back.

Stu Hart, for telling me all those months ago that I CAN.

The Ironman coach who, on a Facebook group for people registered to do an Ironman for the first time, told me that maybe doing an Ironman was not for me. This was because of a blog post I wrote, and posted in that group, about how difficult I was finding the training. I was saying that I never understood people who constantly talked about the “joy” that training brought them. The stuff is fucking exhausting! I find my “joy” in the sense of achievement afterwards. But I have always struggled mentally to get myself out of bed and out into the cold. Why do I thank her? Because she got me so mad that I was determined to prove her wrong. These sorts of events are MADE for people like me, lady.

The physio, who may or may not exist in real life, whose words have been echoing in my ears ever since my shoulder operation, “Do it. Do it!”


Overcoming yet another fear

I have spent the past few months disciplining myself to do things I find very difficult

bib IM

My Ironman race bib number.

and/or unpleasant. “Mind over matter” has been one of my many mantras. “I can do this” has been another, and “Just a few more minutes”, “Just a few more laps”, and “Just a few more kilometres” have been others.

I have been teaching myself not to fear the water, not to fear pain, not to fear exhaustion. And I have been telling myself I should not fear failure.

It is that fear of failure that has prompted me to write today. While I was doing a 50-minute intense treadmill session this morning, and doing it well, my mind was in complete self-defeat mode. Something inside of me was telling me that no matter what I did, I still wasn’t good enough.

The other Nadia inside of me has decided enough is enough.

On September 30, in less than three weeks from today, I will be standing on the start line of Ironman Barcelona.

For those of you who don’t know, an Ironman race involves a 3.8km swim followed by a 180km cycle followed by a 42km run, all within a specified period of time.  (more…)

The real satisfaction in training

Man, can perspectives change in a relatively short period of time!

How I look is exactly how I feel here. This is just after finishing what was probably my first triathlon-involving a pool swim. This shit is HARD.

Yesterday evening I was feeling very tired. I’ve had weeks of hard training. Yesterday wasn’t any different. I did my morning gym session, came home to get some work done, then went back out for a very long bike fitting session to try to solve some of my on-going leg pain issues. I REALLY didn’t want to have to go to the lake for a swim. I was tired. I was cranky. It was dark and cloudy outside. But I’ve told myself that I was going to do everything possible to do all my training as best I could for the event that I am due to take part in in about five weeks time. My husband saw that I was tired and told me not to push too hard. I responded, “I’ve decided that I’ll only do four laps of the lake if I’m not feeling up to it.”

I’ll only do just four laps. That’s 1.8km. ONLY. My husband let out a “Ha! Times have changed!”

In May 2016, just over a year ago, we were driving towards another lake where I was going to participate in a triathlon for the first time that involved an open water swim. The few triathlons I had done before that involved pool swims. I cried the whole way there from anxiety. (more…)

Training: losing sight of the big picture

It’s very easy to get so caught up in one’s training for an event that one loses sight of the


It’s not about the event. But crossing that finish line sure does feel great when it happens! (This picture is from a past event).

big picture.

That “one” being moi.

I’ve been training for an event for months. Like so many others, I’ve put in a significant amount of time, effort and money to get myself to this event. The waking up early to do a training session before you start the workday. The going out in the evenings for a run or a swim in a freezing cold lake when all you want to do is sink into a couch to relax after a hard day of work. The visits to doctors and physiotherapists – and all the moolah that involves – in order to try to figure out what the heck is wrong with your foot and shin. The new gear – and all the money that involves – because it’s better than your old gear and might give you just a bit of a chance to finish your event. We invest A LOT in order to get ourselves to that start line.

But things intervene. Life intervenes. Family intervenes. Illness intervenes. Injuries intervene. And sometimes all we can think is: But this can’t happen! I need to train! I’ve already invested so much!

Just thinking that the event is the priority and everything else is an “intervention” or a hindrance is twisted. It’s TWISTED. (more…)

The Ramadan Workout Final Report

For all intents and purposes, my Ramadan this year is over. That means I can sit back


Because this is how I THINK I look while swimming in open water.

and reflect on what was a relatively intense training schedule while fasting this year.

Ramadan officially ends near the end of this coming week. But women don’t fast when they get their periods. There are other exceptions as well: those who are too ill don’t fast, and travelers don’t have to either. I feel fortunate to be a pre-menopausal woman. Sadly, that can’t last for much longer.

I’ve been exercising during Ramadan for a few years now. Every year I’ve pushed it just a little bit more than the previous year. The gradual progression has helped me understand my limits; or rather figure out just how far I can actually go.

This year was a particularly challenging year because I have a couple of important (to me) long distance events that require lots of training. I just couldn’t afford to pull back on the training too much for a significant amount of time. But I did need to pull it back enough to make sure I didn’t hurt or deplete myself. (more…)

Adventures and races: embracing the dread

I find it very difficult (impossible, actually) to understand people who say they really enjoy

I think this was after my first triathlon. I wasn’t even happy AFTERWARDS here.

training. I also find it very difficult (impossible, really) to understand people who get all giddy about and at races they are participating in.

Mind you, I can completely understand that going to a gym class three times a week and meeting up with the gals afterwards for coffee is a truly enjoyable experience. I also can completely understand how going to a running club twice a week and running with people at a pace you can hold a conversation at is really fun.

Those levels of effort are not the ones I’m talking about.

I’m talking about people who train for marathons, triathlons, ultramarathons, ironman races, or arduous adventures (like kayaking across the ocean or climbing really high mountains) and who are constantly going on about how enjoyable their training is. Or you go to the event and they are all bouncy and smiley just before. What the f#$@ are they all happy about? I ask myself incredulously. We’re about to put ourselves through hell! How the heck is that exciting? (more…)