NOVEMBER 2020: I’m delighted that Mary Henderson of Arena 80 has agreed to come back to RunBrighton as an ambassador this winter.
We’re chuffed to have Mary’s support, not only because of her running experience; she has also been providing our members with advice on nutrition.
Mary, firstly, where did your running begin? Have you always been sporty?
I was really shy at school and, from the age of 5, at breaktimes, I found it much easier and more fun to play football with the boys. I was a complete tomboy, growing up. I lived in sports clothes, and was always on at least two teams at any one time. Not much has changed!
I hated running as a kid and found it boring. At uni, I played with the basketball team, in three leagues.
I only really took up running when I began to travel abroad. It was a flexible way to keep fit and a unique way to sightsee. But I don’t consider that real running.
I watched the inaugural Brighton Marathon. There were all sorts of individuals running, and I was in awe of them, performing this incredible feat. That day, I dared to sign up for the second Brighton Marathon, in 2011. I trained with RunBrighton, became a ‘real’ runner, and I joined Arena 80. I found I was naturally comfortable with long distances, and I’ve never looked back since.
What would you say is your favourite kind of running event or favourite race distance?
It’s got to be half or full marathons. I find those distances easy, whereas 5ks and 10ks are hard for me; although, just before Covid came along, I had been working on my bringing down my parkrun times.
I find it easier to achieve a work-life balance, training for a half marathon. And if you have a bad race, it’s easier to bounce back and enter another, which is not necessarily the case with full marathons.
Also, I like being able to run far enough to take in fantastic views of the countryside or coastline. It’s as close as I get to meditation. And I’m a chatterbox, so those long training runs tend to be at the ideal pace to have a good old natter.
Do you have any particularly memorable moments in your training or racing?
So many… but particularly my attempt at the double – Brighton Marathon, then London, a week later. Like a lot of new runners, I had the running bug. And I had it bad. I had a good-for-age place for London, but also wanted to train and be part of my local marathon event. Inevitably, I didn’t listen to experienced runners, didn’t know how to adapt my pre-running exercise habits, and I overtrained. I had a bad ITB injury, but managed to ‘foam roll’ my way through the two marathons, knocking 10 minutes off my Brighton time, in London.
It was nuts. I was totally obsessed with it. But it was a blast. Definitely something to do, at least once, if you can.
After that, it has to be the South Downs 100-mile Relay. Something totally unthinkable and terrifying turned out to be the greatest experience of camaraderie, exploration and overcoming self-imposed limits.
I understand you had a career in Law. What made you decide to leave that and become a nutritionist, and how long have you been practising?
I wanted to do science at uni, but I didn’t find the Physics departments welcoming to females, especially after enduring two years of A levels, as one of three girls in a class of 18, where two male teachers were complicit in filling every lesson with innuendos. Not much fun if you’re a teenage girl – and a painfully shy one at that.
So, I did Law and languages, like my older sister, who was my role model.
The best thing that came out of that, was I got to go on a placement year to Mexico City. Otherwise, like my boss at the Mexican law firm said: “Being a lawyer is a way of life.” And I certainly didn’t like the idea of living my life as a lawyer.
My fascination with the role of nutrition in health and illness was really ignited when I witnessed friends and family becoming seriously ill from chronic lifestyle diseases. In particular, I sat for a week with my mum in the critical care unit at the County hospital, hoping that she wouldn’t die from heart failure.
I’d just got into running. I didn’t feel there was anything special about my success at running, but thought that with basic good nutrition and fitness, most of us could be spared this fate and enjoy a long healthy life.
I was wary of all the pseudoscientific nutrition nonsense out there, and found it did more harm than good. Not feeling equipped to read nutrition and physiology journal articles, ten years later I went back to do that science degree, but this time in Nutrition and Health.
I’ve been giving nutrition advice, as a PT, since 2013, and I qualified as a registered associate nutritionist, in 2017, with Association for Nutrition.
And you’re currently doing a PhD in Nutrition and Energetics? What does that involve and what made you choose that subject?
Despite being a hard slog, my PhD is very exciting and varied. I love learning all the elements involved in research, and contributing new knowledge about nutrition and physiology. One day, I can be growing muscle cells in the lab; on another, I can be measuring someone’s metabolic rate and analysing their food diaries; or analysing data, or writing up my experiments.
I also love the fact that I’m surrounded by people who are at the cutting edge of their own scientific research fields. My first research projects were on the gut microbiome, and technologies to make gluten safe for individuals with coeliac disease. By the way, gluten is healthy and plays an important role in most people’s diet, so gluten-free isn’t necessarily the healthier option. Through this research, I learned loads about the gut-brain axis, the gut as the second brain and the gut microbiota with which we coexist. Our bodies couldn’t function properly without these little critters; they even influence our mood, so eat your fruit and veg!
I’m currently developing experiments to understand other aspects in relation to the mind-body connection – particularly, how physical activity influences eating behaviours. I look at how well our bodies and brains can sense our external and internal environments, such as high temperatures and low blood sugar.
In my final study, I’ll be recruiting volunteers to see if the extent to which a person’s body and brain regulates low blood sugar, is influenced by how active they are… and lots of other cool and very helpful stuff. Anyone is welcome to get in touch if they’d like to find out more.
RunBrighton has many members who are either beginners or who have relatively recently taken up distance running. What sort of things would you focus on, when advising such runners?
Stick to a routine, be consistent and follow a plan, albeit do at least one other run in the week – not just the Sunday run.
Remember to be patient; trust that, with each run, you’re getting fitter, and next time it will feel easier.
Build up slowly, and incorporate strength and conditioning. Running requires lots of muscles, like core muscles, which are easily neglected, but suddenly pounding the streets puts pressure on the main running muscles in the legs, so by addressing tight and weak muscle groups, with strengthening and stretching the right areas, you can avoid common, new-runner injuries. Don’t wait for injury to strike before you take this seriously.
And note that how you respond to food will change – your body will become more efficient at using glucose and water, so do what’s right for you at your stage of running. Pay attention to pre-run and recovery nutrition, and timing.
For distance running, what would you say are the key benefits of making a nutrition strategy an integral part of training?
Put simply, you can’t train properly for long distances without it.
Not only do you need to fuel your body correctly for the increased training load, nutrient timing is also very important. Not eating at the right times can blunt or negate the training effect, leading to poor performance, injury and illness. For example, taking in too few calories for the amount you’re burning, can lead to something called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S).
Plus, long runs take a lot out of you; you’re causing tiny tears in the muscles, which is why endurance runners have protein requirements, not far off what weightlifters are recommended.
Your body also needs extra support, by way of vitamins and minerals, but opt for real food over supplements.
And finally, dehydration is frequently the cause of poor performance and poor recovery, and can affect brain function. Eat and drink well, to perform well, both inside and outside of your running programme.
Some of our winter training group don’t plan on running a half or full marathon. They might be targeting a 10k, or maybe they have no race target at all and they’ve signed up simply to enjoy the camaraderie of group running. How might your advice be different for those runners?
Although you need to fuel well for a 10k, nutrition is not so complicated, because such runs are typically under 60-90 minutes, and we have plenty of energy reserves (glycogen) stored in our muscles for these distances. But you can still get up to 60-90-minutes-plus runs, during training, which puts strain on the body and requires more recovery, so you need to fuel and recover from your runs properly.
Running without a target in mind is bliss, but since you’re taking it ‘less seriously’, you might inadvertently overlook the importance of eating well, so the advice still applies, in order to stay healthy and fit enough to enjoy the runs!
And if anyone would like a one-to-one consultation with you, or to volunteer for your research study, what’s the best way to contact you?
They can drop me an email at email@example.com.
And I’ll be a regular, this RunBrighton training season, so any of the members can come and say hello on a Sunday morning.
Away from running and nutrition, how do you spend any spare time?
I love listening to music, going to gigs and singing. I’ve been in a fair few bands and choirs over the years.
I imagine you’ve had some great times, performing? Any particularly memorable experiences, and is music something you’ve been into from an early age?
Glastonbury was amazing! We got to play on the Leftfield stage when it was there, but I think I preferred more intimate gigs, like Small World or at after-parties, where we would jam and mingle with the crowd.
I grew up in a family where there was always music playing and people singing – and there still is now. I was one of the youngest in a large family, so had lots of musical influences.
I’ve always had an ear for music, evident from the age of 5, when I used to work out violin pieces by ear. I took it up after listening to a violin teacher perform for us in assembly at primary school. I was so moved that I started sobbing, in amongst all the other kids sitting in the hall. After school, that day, I begged to be allowed to attend violin lessons. I guess music was my way of expressing myself to make up for my shyness.
Mary, it’s been great to chat. Thanks very much for all your invaluable nutrition advice and thanks again for agreeing to be part of the RunBrighton ambassador team for our winter training.
By Mike Bannister