I have a friend who went on a silent retreat recently: a whole weekend of no talking, no distractions and lots of meditation.

This sounds simultaneously wonderful and horrendous to me: wonderful because I can’t imagine many things as blissful right now as having no distractions, and some time for myself; horrendous because I would find switching off for that long so challenging.

I don’t know about you, but I find it quite hard to meditate. It’s incredibly difficult to stop thinking. I know the theory- recognise the thought or distraction and then let it go, but it’s quite frustrating to do!

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 I know, I know, practice makes perfect.

And I will keep at it. But I actually find exercise to be a form of meditation, and I find it easier to lose myself and focus on the moment when training than when trying to meditate.

When running I focus on the way my foot strikes the ground, the way my body moves onto it and how my foot then propels me forward again. I feel how smooth the movement is; am I wasting energy bouncing up and down or can I maintain an efficient forward propulsion? And my breath, the rhythm of it.

I used to throw on my headphones and plod away, enjoying the rush of exercise, the challenge of beating my times, but not always the process itself. Since switching to a forefoot strike and becoming aware of technique, running has become much more meditative for me.

I had a similar experience with swimming, where slowing down and trying to achieve a more efficient,smoother stroke has kept my mind on what I’m doing in the water, rather than just singing in my head while I notch up the lengths.

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But what are the benefits of mindful exercise?

Sure, I feel calmer, more relaxed and more clear headed after training like this. And I feel like my movement is more efficient. But what’s the science behind it?

Increased skill.

 Have you seen the video where you have to count the number of ball passes between the players? If you haven’t here it is:

It beautifully demonstrates how we can only really be aware of some of the sensory information our body is receiving. And when we focus on how something feels, that we weren’t fully aware of before, we excite neural activity. This is why, according to Todd Hargrove in A Guide To Better Movement, “focussed attention is one of the key requirements for practise that maximises neuroplasticity and associated motor learning.”

 So to gain the most from practising any skill, you need to be fully focussed on it. This kind of tunnel vision is something top athletes tend to excel at.

Decreased risk of injury.

When we focus on particular sensations in our body we can also improve the sensory information our bodies send our brain. This is kind of important!

Our brain has a sort of ‘map’ of our body, and our nervous system sends it information. Poor proprioreception means the information being sent to the brain is poor, often as a result of poorly facilitated muscles. Think of the difference between someone who closes their eyes and wobbles all over the place and a gymnast who does the same and remains still.

If the brain isn’t confident that a joint is stable, it can restrict range of motion in an attempt to protect it. And if the ‘body map’ in the brain is poor then movement control will suffer. Which means an increased risk of injury!

So to improve your proprioreception, regular mindful movements are best, and ideally they should be complex and novel, as these result in a stronger neural response. Do this by consciously trying to squeeze the muscles you know should be working. Over time it will become more subconscious.

A stronger muscular contraction.

The other advantage to focusing on the muscle being worked is it actually works a lot harder!

This article examines this by conducting a study into the effect of the mind-muscle connection on resistance training. If you’re interested then follow the link for more information, but it shows just how large an effect mindful focus can have.

It’s something I’ve been taught is especially important when coaching kegels, as many women can actually contract the wrong muscles, say the glutes, and not train the pelvic floor effectively. Many Women’s Health Physiotherapists will show their patient a model of the pelvis to aid this with visualisation, and I like to encourage clients to imagine drawing the pubis and coccyx (where the pelvic floor attaches) together.

In this blog physiotherapist and pelvic floor expert Sue Croft describes how effective using the model is, as she can “confirm that I can often feel a stronger contraction on palpation, when the patient views the model compared to not looking at it.”

So there you have it, whether meditation isn’t your thing, or if you’re just not that great at it yet like me, you can still reap some of the benefits by applying mindfulness to you workout!

The final video in my core series for Mums of Steel. Here I talk about alignment and how it can affect the healing of your diastasis recti.

If you haven’t already seen them, here is part 1 and part 2.

For an assessment and programme to help establish optimal alignment for diastasis repair, contact me for your free personal training consultation.

The second in my video series for Mums of Steel, looking at how our breathing technique affects the core. An important part of core training that is often overlooked!

If you haven’t watched Part 1, click here to watch it first.

To make sure your post natal training is on the right track book onto a class here.

To watch the final part in this series, go to Part 3 here, about how your alignment can affect your post natal recovery.

This is the first of 3 videos I did for Mums of Steel about the post natal core, looking at why the core doesn’t mean the abs, and what muscles we should be focusing on.

To watch the next video, explaining the importance of the ‘core breath’ and it’s role in stabilisation, watch part 2 here.

For a bespoke core restore programme find out more about personal training with me.

I’ve called this chicken stock, but that’s purely because that’s how I tend to use it. But broth, soup, stock; it’s all the same really.

I’ve written about the benefits to healing diastasis recti here, but this stuff really is packed with of all kinds of goodness. It’s full of gelatin, which is a digestive aid, and the collagen in it is the building block of tendons, ligaments, and cartilage, and it promotes healthy skin and hair. Although be aware- some of the benefits of collagen are a bit over-sold: you can’t absorb it whole, but the protein from the amino acids it breaks down into is crucial for any form of healing.

They don’t call it Jewish penicillin for nothing! Chinese Medicine practitioners use it to treat illness, the Victorians’ drank ‘beef tea’, and don’t forget Russian borscht! And it’s not just tradition: this study by Dr Stephen Rennard at the Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Section of the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, found it has anti-inflammatory properties which help to ease symptoms of upper respitory tract infections and colds.

I’ve been making my own chicken stock for a while though, purely as a way to use leftover bones after having a roast chicken, and because it’s an easy way to make stock for other recipes, instead of using store-bought stock cubes.

Here’s how I make it.

  • I put the leftover chicken bones in the slow cooker (you can use a saucepan if it’s easier. I just like the slow cooker and often cook my whole chicken in there anyway.)
  • I add a selection of veg. Usually a celery stalk or 2, a few onions, carrots, garlic, make leek, then salt, and I quite like thyme.
  • Cover with water.

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  • Put the slow cooker on low overnight, so it looks like this:

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  • In the morning strain the liquid. The longer the better when it comes to cooking time, as it gives the bone more time to break down.

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  • When it has chilled I scrape the fat off the top, then store in the fridge for 3 days, or in the freezer for a month or 2. I usually have 1-1.5 litres worth which I divide in to containers.

I have also shared a recipe for beef broth here.

I don’t think it’s news to anyone that diet plays a vital role in overall health. There’s advice everywhere: what to eat to boost the immune system, boost energy, get healthier looking skin and hair…. I could go on.

Problem is, even though we know a nutrient-rich diet will help our recovery after giving birth, it’s easier said than done!

Yes we want to eat plenty of protein, fruit and veg, and home-made meals. But when I had my first and was exhausted, struggling to breastfeed, and generally overwhelmed, I found it very easy to reach for the biscuits! I had a lazy feeder who kept falling asleep on the boob and got told I had to pump to boost my milk supply. After every feed. In hindsight I’m not convinced this was necessary, or the fenugreek. Did anyone else take that? Seriously, I’ve never been so aware of my own stench before, the stuff oozes out of your pores. And just when your baby is learning to recognise mummy’s smell!

Anyway, up at 2am, feed for 30 minutes each side (as he was such a slow sucker) then pump. So back in bed at 4am, if I’m lucky, to get up again at 5 for a repeat… You’re damn right I had a packet of Cadbury’s Fingers next to me during those night time marathons!

Second time round I was better prepared with healthier snacks on hand, and if I did it again if be even more organised by filling my freezer with ready made bags like these.

But what specific diet tip would I give to new mums?

Bone broth.

Or just broth/ soup. Bone broth is trendier at the moment though (or at least calling it that seems to mean it costs more)!

Most women will get Diastasis Recti (DR) during their pregnancy, and while Mother Nature is fantastic, and it can heal on its own, poor sleep, nutrition, alignment and a lack of muscle tone beforehand can make it harder. For those who haven’t healed by 8 weeks post partum, it won’t heal without specific exercise/physiotherapy  intervention to help (Coldron et al 2008). But to get the best results possible you need to look at stress, sleep and nutrition too. And when I get a client who needs to work on repairing DR, my number 1 nutrition tip is bone broth.

The midline (called the linea alba), which has become stretched as the abdominal muscles have moved apart, is made of collagen. So you need to eat foods that encourage this collagen to repair. (As a bonus this will also let the pelvic floor recover, and let’s face it that’s taken some punishment too!)

The most efficient way to do this is from animal protein, specifically the skin, cartilage and bones, which is rich in gelatin, which is derived from collagen. Broth is the best source of this. It’s not as straight forward as eat collagen and your body will use it as collagen; we don’t absorb collagen whole. Your body will break it down and use it as it needs to. Bone broth has a different amino acid (the building blocks of protein) profile than muscle meat though, and is easily digested and anti-inflammatory. For any vegetarians- yes you can rebuild from plant sources, but the key word is‘efficient’.

The other benefit is that it hydrates you. Water is also an essential part of your recovery and tissue repair, and so many mums end up not drinking enough.

And remember, if you don’t like broth you can use it as a base for another soup, like tomato, or as stock, which is what I usually do, cooking rice in it or adding it to casseroles. Click here for my chicken stock/ soup recipe.

I’m sure you’ve all been told before how great squats are for the glutes, and while the humble squat is an awesome exerise, when it comes to getting buns of steel there’s more than one way to skin a cat, as they say. Here we’re going to show you a few alternatives to throw some variety into your workouts.

But first, a quick look at why the glutes are important.

Yes, there’s the aesthetics. But there’s more to the glutes than that. They help maintain posture, play an important role in reducing the risk of injury (underactive or weak glutes mean more strain on the back, hips and knees), and they help to balance the pelvic floor by keeping the pelvis in alignment. So extra relevent to the post natal woman!

There are actually 3 glute muscles.

Gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. Gluteus maximus works to extend the hip, which is when your thigh moves behind your body, and rotate it outwards.

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Gluteus medius and minimus work together to abduct the thigh (pull it out to the side), and rotate it in. Gluteus minimus (2nd picture) sits underneath gluteus medius (side view in the top picture).

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Here are 3 great exercises that really hit these muscles!

The Glute Bridge:

Lateral Step:

Glute Bridge with Leg Extension:

The offers mentioned in the videos are valid until 30th April 2015. Terms and conditions apply, please contact me for more information or visit the personal training page.

 

I love love love my slow cooker, and this is one of my go-to recipes for it. My day always feels a bit happier when I know I have a yummy dinner already cooking, partly because I’m looking forward to it, and partly because I feel a bit smug for being organised.

It also means I don’t have the ‘witching hour’ hanging over me, when I announce I need to go and cook and they need me to play with them right now and hang off my leg pleading ‘stop cooking mummy’ (I try not to take that too personally). And if I do play and postpone dinner it only gets worse as their hunger builds.

So, the burning question: DID MY CHILDREN EAT IT? One ate the chicken. The other refused, and then his gran gave him some bounty bar, so any hope of later success was dashed.

In the past they have enjoyed this dish though (with the offensive olives removed), but it seems to be more popular with mash, despite the fact that these potatoes were all buttery and crispy and yummy.

As with most slow cooker recipes, I do either 8 hours on low or 4 on high, and this all went in after breakfast.

Ingredients (enough for 3 adults and 2 small children):

  • 6 Chicken thighs.
  • 1 onion, sliced.
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed.
  • Small bottle white wine.
  • 80ml chicken stock.
  • 80ml passata.
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste.
  • 1 teaspoon caster sugar.
  • Dried parsley.
  • Couple handfuls of sliced black olives.
  • Green beans as desired. Or peas.

(I only had dried parsley, I would have used fresh or dried basil or fresh parsley otherwise.)

Heat some oil in a frying pan (I use coconut oil) and brown the chicken. Put in the slow cooker.

Fry the onion and garlic for a few minutes, then pour in the wine and reduce by half. Add the herbs, sugar and paste.

Transfer to the slow cooker and stir in the stock (I used homemade this time, from the freezer, so I’ve no idea if I actually used 80ml, but it looked about right) and passata (again homemade).

Add the olives and green beans (or peas. I think the kids prefer peas) about 10 minutes before you serve. Season to taste.

I usually serve with mash, but I fancied crispy potatoes, so I sliced and boiled them before tossing in flour and frying them in butter.

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I have fussy little eaters as children. It could be worse: they’re not always bad. The youngest started out as an eat-anything-and-everything kind of baby. And the oldest is getting better. But they will both regularly greet the food I prepare with a “yuk” (yes, they are well raised and polite little cherubs, aren’t they?)

They also like to work as a tag team: if one does deign to eat my lovingly prepared food, even enjoy it, you can guarantee the other won’t.

Except for these Fishcakes. Ah, Annabel Karmel, for this alone I love you.

As a personal trainer I should probably talk about the benefits of oily fish for a bit, yada yada. But I’m not going to. The fact that these are healthy is great, but I would make them anyway BECAUSE MY CHILDREN LOVE THEM!

Here’s the recipe. I have tried other fishcake recipes, but none come close.

Look, they even come out looking like hers!

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I’m so proud, I didn’t even have to use Instagram to make this look attractive.

Here are a couple of tips:

  • The recipe requires you make the mixture and leave it in the fridge for 4 hours. It can be left longer, so I tend to make it before going out in the morning, as I’m often too busy at lunchtime. You could just as easily do the prep the night before.
  • Presentation is key. Here I have deviated from Annabel’s recipe and used sweet potato and parsnip chips for the smile, fins and coral. I have also used sugar snaps. I put everything in individual bowls on the table and they can decorate as they like.

As a bonus they keep well (although they lose their crunch) and are great for picnics. My youngest even ate one for breakfast once.

If only I could make burgers shaped like cows, then I might be able to replicate my culinary success with another dish. As it is I anticipate another ‘yuk’ this evening.

I don’t think any mum has ever looked back at the first year of her child’s life and thought, “I wish I’d done more cleaning. Those dusty skirting boards still haunt me”.

What you do look back at and cherish are those moments when you are in a place of absolute peace; your baby is smiling at you as you lie next to him on the bed, reaching out for your finger, or sleeping on your chest, completely content in the safest place they know. Or when you were just gazing at him in wonder, still amazed that you could produce something so perfect.

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And he needs you.

He needs you at your best. You may not feel your best; you’re sleep deprived and hormonal. But you are everything that baby needs, you are perfect for him. He doesn’t care about what your tummy looks like.

What does matter is that you don’t feel exhausted from a too-long workout.

That your energy doesn’t suffer any more than necessary because you’re restricting your calories. That instead of looking in the mirror and finding faults with yourself, you can recognise that your body has just grown another human being and deserves to be treated with love and care so that it recovers as effectively as possible.

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Note that I said effectively, not quickly. For some women it may be quick: maybe they’ve followed an ante natal conditioning programme, maybe they’ve just got good genes. They don’t matter: you matter.

Your stomach muscles have stretched and most likely pulled apart. They have to repair and restore function before you can start building strength. If you do too much too quickly, you run the risk of making it worse and pushing outward on the abdominal wall.

And what about your pelvic floor muscles? 50% of women who have had children have some degree of pelvic organ prolapse (Hagen & Stark 2011). Rushing back into impact exercise, or even doing exercises that increase the pressure in your abdomen (crunches for example) put pressure on your pelvic floor muscles.  Trust me, prevention is better than cure, and you want to look after your pelvic floor.

Of course, there’s a reason so many mums overdo it.

They want to ‘get their body back’, lose the extra weight and tone their tummy. And that’s understandable. But the great thing is, the sensible gentle approach is also the most effective- if you rush and don’t allow your core to repair, you’ll be left with a poochy tummy.  And the exercises that are best at aiding this repair are gentle and can be done in as little as 10 minutes a day.

Make sure your exercise is a form of self-care, not a punishment.

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Just because you’re working to lose weight or your tummy does NOT mean you can’t embrace your body now. It has achieved something amazing, and deserves to be cared for, not forced through grueling unsuitable workouts (like a friend of mine did after her first, which she describes here), despite the fact you feel exhausted already. You are not being lazy- you’re sleep deprived!

Remember, your recovery is a process that takes months, not just the weeks leading up to your 6 week check. 100% you should exercise: regular movement is so important and will aid your recovery. But that exercise needs to be safe and effective, post-natal specific, and it doesn’t need to be anywhere near as much as some mums do. You should leave a workout feeling better than when you started it.

So enjoy your baby, and be kind to your body. There’s plenty of time for tougher workouts when you’re fully recovered and getting a good night’s sleep.

I’m going to leave you with a poem by Ruth Hulbert Hamilton that I’m sure you’ve read before, but if this doesn’t remind you to slow down and relax at this precious time, then I’ve got no chance!

BABIES DON’T KEEP

Mother, O Mother, come shake out your cloth,
Empty the dustpan, poison the moth,
Hang out the washing, make up the bed,
Sew on a button and butter the bread.

Where is the mother whose house is so shocking?
She’s up in the nursery, blissfully rocking.

Oh, I’ve grown as shiftless as Little Boy Blue,
Lullabye, rockabye, lullabye loo.
Dishes are waiting and bills are past due,
Pat-a-cake, darling, and peek, peekaboo.

The shopping’s not done and there’s nothing for stew
And out in the yard there’s a hullabaloo.
But I’m playing Kanga and this is my Roo,
Look! Aren’t his eyes the most wonderful hue?
Lullabye, rockaby lullabye loo.

The cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow
But children grow up as I’ve learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down cobwebs; Dust go to sleep!
I’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep.

For information on post natal classes designed with all this in mind learn about my Restore My Core course here.

To find out about personal training, and get a personalised programme to follow at home along with advice on nutrition to aid recovery, click here.