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Scientist at heart Posts

How to get ready to cycle 500 miles

If you know me, you are aware that I’m really not the fittest person. I am very conscious of what I eat, but I often lack the motivation to work out. Apparently abs are made in the kitchen but strong legs are definitely not. Problem is, if I do make it to the gym I never manage to push myself hard enough. So it seemed rather surprising for me to take on such a challenge!

Cycling 500 miles around Scotland. With ultimately 10.000 m elevation. What?!

I would like to share with you my journey to have this crazy fun experience and show you that really anyone can do it. I wasn’t 24/7 in the gym or stuck to a hardcore regime. After all I am a PhD student and spend most of my time in the lab! Even with a busy lifestyle it can be possible to increase your fitness when you are working towards a specific goal. Could I have trained harder? Yes. Was it necessary? Certainly not.

Weekend cycling into nature

I started with pretty much no fitness and huffing and puffing up my first 250 m hill close to tears in February, wondering what I had committed to just 2 months before. The good news was I had time on my side to prepare for my trip starting at the end of May.

Most weekends we cycled 60-80 km until I felt comfortable cycling this distance. I then added 1-2h evening cycles either along the canals or in the gym once or twice a week, depending on the weather. I could feel I was getting stronger, but I still had a hard time getting up hills. My legs could do it but I couldn’t catch my breath, meaning I needed to improve my cardio-fitness. I then included small 3km runs to improve this and not long after this I surpassed my first fellow cyclist boosting it up a hill! I felt exhilarated, I was finally making progress.

Lastly we went on a ‘practice weekend cycle’. About 80-100 km each day and 800 m elevation to ensure I was ready for the distances we had to cover on our trip. And I was ready – we had a blast!

We are all motivated differently and truthfully I could have prepared more. The reason I barely worked out in the gym is because I just can’t be strict enough with myself to push myself if it is just as easy to get off the bike and walk away. This is why it was crucial for my prep to do most of the exercise outdoors. I had to cycle further or over the next hill if I wanted to get back home on the same day.

My mind was focused, because I only had the option of pressing forward. This ultimately made cycling the 500 miles so much fun! You see, I didn’t but huge amount of effort into training and still had a great time. Now I need to just find a way to motivate myself for indoor exercise to improve my overall fitness.  If you have any tips let me know!

Training timeline:
  • Feb-April: Weekend Cycling 70-80km a day
  • March-May: Additional 1-2 short fast cycles during the week
  • April-May: Short runs to build cardiovascular fitness
  • May: Hill climbing – training elevation gain
  • May: Long distance: consecutive 100 km days
Training for the north coats 500 - Perks include evening sunsets!
Evening cycling has its perks!

 

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Cycling the North Coast 500: Things to know before you go

The North Coast 500 are about 500 miles of road – a lot of it single track – with some of the most breathtaking landscapes in Britain. The circuit starts in Inverness to the west, winds itself along the west coast up north and then along the rugged north coast back down to Inverness full circle.

And besides the amazing views of mountains, coastlines and sunsets there’s countless waterfalls, castles, ruins and distilleries to discover.

As it is a road trip by design, many people choose to do this route by car. But because it is so remote – even in summer there aren’t too many people about. More often than not you will find yourself in the middle of nowhere with nothing far and wide to see but the outlandish raw rugged landscape of the highlands or green lush forests full of life. You are very likely to cross paths with deer, rabbits, otters and a wide range of bird species, including cute puffins around the north coast!

Cycling the North Coast 500 in 9 days

But these prospects seemed not enticing enough for us a few months ago and we wanted to truly immerse ourselves into the Scottish Highlands: having discovered that bikepacking or cycletouring had become a thing, we were eager to go on our very own first adventure! Needles to say at the time we hadn’t quite considered the scope of our endeavour…

So here goes my top tips if you would like to tackle this beautiful and exhilarating trip yourself!

Me – but not my bike

 

1# Book your accommodation in advance

Although we weren’t anywhere near fit enough yet to tackle the North Coast 500, accomodation that troubled us most. The infamous bad Scottish weather makes planning days out in advance a game of roulette. We had decided against camping on our very first trip. The plan was to take babysteps towards true bikepacking. The route seemed challenging and we wanted to do it in 9 days. That’s why we had to book B&B/Bunkhouses/Hotels very far in advance. From previous experience we knew that accommodation in the highlands is booked up REALLY fast. Even months in advance! We were reminded by this fact when I tried to book a bunkhouse instead of the nearby hotel and it had already been fully booked 6 months before! Needles to say this led to panic-booking all our accommodation in the same evening..

So be aware if you are planning this trip – by bike or by car make sure to book well in advance to have a choice in where you are going to stay!

Bonus: if you are arriving in Inverness by train make sure to book the tickets cheaply 8-12 weeks in advance when they become available including a bicycle reservation. The bicycle reservation is free but mandatory to bring your bike (Glasgow-Inverness).

 

2# Choose your travel time wisely

The issue with having to book your accomodation in advance is truly the Scottish weather. We strategically decided to go for the end of May, as May often has the best weather here. But who am I kidding both pooring rain or even snow could have been possible. We lucked out and the weather we had could have not been much better even considering the mini-hailstorm – but hey it all makes for a good adventure story! Another good time to visit Scotland is end of April and also September It may be a little cooler but perhaps less chance of rain compared to the middle of summer. And don’t forget the midges! Tiny little beasts that come out of the woodwork in the summer months to make life hellish.

The motto: Always cycle faster than a midge can fly.

3# Don’t use Google maps to check your daily elevation gain

Although google maps is an invaluable tool, I must say it vastly underestimated the elevation. I had pre-planned the route in detail so we knew what we had to cycle daily. Interestingly on route, using Strava and Maps we realised quickly that our daily elevation gain was higher that expected. In total we cycled up 10.500 m whereas Google maps had told me it was ‘only’ going to be just under 8000 m. This was a bit of a shock at first, but on the road all I focused on was tackling and conquering each hill and was filled with awe and satisfaction on breathtaking descents!

So when planning this trip use apps such as to decide on how much you want to cycle everyday to not be faced with more than you expect!

4# Pack as light as possible

Carefully consider what you really NEED on your trip. Every gram counts when you are cycling and it might be a toss up between more comfort and camera gear. Think about clothing, food, hydration, emergencies, electronics and hygiene, bike repairs. I will write a post on the specific details of what we took with us soon.

5# The roads are probably better than you think

This is something I was a little worried about. On few short cycling trips in the past the roads were pretty rough sometimes. 9 days on cracked roads did not sound like a whole lot of fun to me. Especially the single-track roads though seemed as they had been refurbished in just the last couple of years. Many of them were a delight to cycle on! There was just a few stretches of main roads that were quite rough. This includes a stretch just after Kylesku and a large part between Melvich and Wick. The rest was very much acceptable and it was a pleasant surprise to see signs that most of the refurbished single track roads had been built with help of the European Union. So fear not fellow traveler – your not in for a too bumpy ride!

6# Plan in time for sight-seeing

This depends on your own goals for the trip, but it is important to consider when planning your daily cycling routes. We were more focused on enjoying the natural beauty during our cycle rather than visiting off-road historic sites and waterfalls.

7# You will need to eat a lot

One thing I learnt fast on this trip was not to be a picky eater. We had to consume A LOT of food. Tearooms on route were a safe haven for the lunchtime slump in energy and the opulent breakfast set us up for the day. It was a little hard on the wallet having to order dinner and desert and then still eating left over snacks back in the room! You can save some money by picking up some food every time you cycle past a Spar supermarket.

8# Cycling the North Coast 500 will give you true grit

If there’s one thing this trip gave me is more grit. Imagine it being 3 pm in the afternoon you’ve cycled most of the day and you still have 3 major hills ahead of you before you reach your day’s destination. You have no choice but to press on! This may sound a little more like torture than a vacation but although it was harsh at times it was unbelievably fun. You start turning it into a competition with the hill your cycling up in your mind. An argument about who will win and you will succeed. Conquer the mountain! This type of perseverance can help you in other areas of life.

9# Don’t overthink before you set off enjoy the trip of a lifetime

All I have to say is: Prep a little with some exercise and just do it!!

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Plant-based fuel for 1-day hiking trips

It has been brilliant weather here – seems like we’re actually experiencing what one would call a summer! (In comparison to only 3-4 really nice days last year…) Great impact on the mood and definitely motivating to be active! Which is also why I am in quite a bit of pain now – although I have been hitting the gym – being outdoors really motivates me to push myself more. That’s why I’ve ended up hiking AND cycling this weekend. We climbed Ben Vane and had some fantastic views (and exercise).

Ben Vane lies west of Loch Lomond and the walk begins at the visitor centre of Inveruglas, just over an hour drive from Glasgow. From there it is easy to follow the way — however several walking routes start from here, including the 3 Lochs Way and the ascent up Ben Vane is not sign posted. We also don’t currently own a hiking map and were using screen shots captured from walkhighlands.co.uk – hard to see on the phone in broad day light (the youth these days..am I right?!). Ill prepared as we were, this called for losing direction! Nevertheless we made it to the first large bridge and turned to the left onto the still wide gravelled path. From here you can see a dam far to your right. Having managed to have found our first way point we were pretty excited and kept on following the path around Ben Vane, chatting merrily as we expected to see a clear point of ascent.

foot of ben vane
Ben Vane in sight! Trickier to get to that expected….

Further ~2km down the road and already quite far around Ben Vane the path now turned away from the Munro. Of course slightly confused to whether or not we had missed the point of ascent we checked the walk description and realized we must be well beyond as it stated ”Four hundred metres beyond the bridge, where the track crosses a burn, leave the track and follow an initially unclear path that soon ascends to reach a low shoulder at the foot of the ridge leading up to Ben Vane.” We didn’t really fancy retracing our steps and wondered if we could risk just walking up the hill from where we were. Luckily another friendly hiker (with a map!) let us know that it was indeed possible, although there was no marked way and may be steep at some points.

hiking ben vane
This looks like right out of Hobbit/Lord of the Rings movie! Finding our way…

hiking ben vane

So we started our ascent at the side of a waterfall and I must say – I’m glad we missed the ‘official’ point! Trying to find the best way up, was in an adventure in itself and the predicted 45 ascents became 70-80 at some short stretches! It felt like being in Middle Earth, trying to find our way through magical lands. It didn’t prove to difficult after all as the grassy, bumpy terrain made climbing a lot easier than expected. Having walking poles helped a lot! The scenery was beautiful with view of many more hills beyond. After a couple hours and a lunch break we managed to reach the top, stuck in the clouds. The descent was rather rocky, as the well used path consisted of gravel and stepping stones in between the grassy areas and boulders, often too far apart for my short legs and pretty slippy! On the way down I was double happy about involuntary choosing a different ascent, as we were able to do a loop and got to see more breathtaking views. I don’t know about you – but I often dread the descent if I have already made my way up the same way – I’d rather be kept in the unknown!

hiking ben vane
The ‘proper’ way up…oh well – at least we came down that way!


So why am I telling you about my awesome, partially unexpected hike? (Besides the need for you to visit our beautiful Scotland!). Because trips like these, although they are great for your mental and physical health – often end up poor nutritionally (at least that’s what it used to be like for me). I’m probably preaching to the choir saying, make sure you have enough water with you – better too much than too little, but food is the other side of the story. Because hiking or cycle days out are really fun I used to fall into the trap of also allowing myself to buy lots of snacks for these days out. Sweets were always my first stop because it seems like a reward for all the hard work right? They are an easy uncomplicated snack? And you burn lots of calories so you need to replenish to not lose your energy?

But sweets or other unhealthy snacks often made my body feel rubbish by the time I actually got back home and also weren’t very cheap! I often ate more than I should have – ‘because it’s so tasty’. Well, the last few times I made a point of it and did not bring any super processed sweets with me or fatty crackers.

Yes it is important, especially on a hot day out to make sure to have something salty with you to replenish your electrolytes, but some salted nuts of your choice should cover this. Otherwise try to eat wholesome foods on your trip as your will feel even better!

I quite like sandwiches on days out and the possibilities are endless. Here are some tried and tested options:

Vegan coronation ‘chicken‘ (chickpeas!)

Hummus & Cucumber (Jalapenos optional)

Avocado (mixed with some lemon juice first) & Chilli puree

Banana & Peanut butter (Good way to bring a banana – they’ll just get mushy in the bag otherwise)

Good old PB & Jelly

Besides this I always bring a few apples and/or clementines, as they are refreshing and hydrating, too!

To cover a quick ‘sugar boost’ I bring 2 natural nut bars – this time it was a multi-seed/nut bar and a bar entirely made from coconut flakes. Yummy.

I am also a fan of Huel bars – which are plant-based, highly nutritious and high in protein.

hiking avocado
Avocado & Chili puree sandwich – can’t get enough of it just now!

Further plant-based options include:

Pasta salad (here’s a delicious looking recipe)

Dried Fruit

Chopped Peppers & Carrots

Banana Bread

Roasted Chickpeas

If you have some time on your hands try these simple refried bean burritos

 

Enjoy your nutritious day out!

plant-based ideas for snacks and meals on your day out - bring on summer!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Building your plant based pantry – Part 2

So last week I showed you what my plant-based pantry looks like concerning foods & condiments. It really doesn’t have to be pricey! On that note I’d also like to add, if there are any of you thinking about adding more whole foods to your diet or changing to a plant-based lifestyle – this does not require throwing out any processed food or animal products you currently have in you kitchen! Although I promote a plant-based healthy lifestyle – I do not want to encourage being wasteful. This is what being frugal is all about. Since you have already bought it/ received it has a gift prior I believe you should still make use of these items – it is clearly wasted money otherwise.

How to build your plant-based pantry Part 2

 

So many people argue that plant-based meals aren’t very exciting – but in my opinion that’s because they don’t know how to cook them. Spices and Herbs are the secret!!! I think I probably overdo it most of the time (in a good way!) because I generally double/triple the amounts in recipes.

 

Sarah’s Spice drawer:

Herbs:

Basil
Oregano
Majoram
Bay leaf
Fennel
Parsley
Rosemary
Sage
Thyme
Savoury

Spices

Coriander
Cumin
Sweet paprika
Smoked paprika
Tumeric
mild Curry
Garam masala
Ginger
Lemongrass
Garlic powder
Chilli
Cayenne
Allspice
Cinammon
Nutmeg
Cloves
Cardamon

Spice drawer

This is it! My current storage system is not optimal – I have yet to find a nice organizing system that fits all the shapes and sizes. I don’t like the idea of buying the same size jars for all of them, because it’s a waste of money and then I still need an extra location for the overflow that doesn’t fit into the containers… I used to have them all neatly in a large box on the kitchen counter, but since we moved – counter top space has become precious as the kitchen is smaller. So instead I made room for them in a drawer and keep a small box for the spices that are in bags on the window sill. It is super convenient to have them all stashed away there right next to the hob without sacrificing counter space, but it does get messy quite often – if you have any ideas to better organize this, let me know – I’m open for suggestions!

This list may seem overwhelming – but all you need to do is by 1-2 herbs/spices each time a new recipe calls for it! And you will very quickly amass a huge variety without it burning a hole in your pocket. If you compare the list with the picture I also own a few spice mixes like cajun seasoning and paella spice mix – it’s nice to have them, but I rarely use them so nothing I’d consider essential!

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Building your plant-based pantry – Part 1

Before I went primarily plant based I wondered whether my grocery costs would actually increase – even if I saved money through not buying expensive meat, dairy and eggs! There were so many recipes using pricey or difficult to attain ingredients such as tempeh, amaranth and almond butter – just to name a few.  I was not hopeful in being able to cut my grocery budget. I felt pressured to include these into my diet and it took some time to figure out that these ingredients are not particularly necessary (though they definitely have dietary benefit) – I managed without them before hand so why not now!

Building your plant based pantry part 1

 

One of the main changes/additions to my shopping list was buying slightly sweetened soy milk instead of cow’s milk. If you are worried about soy – soy is actually not harmful to us, nor promotes cancer and may even be beneficial. 

I was still confused about this though when I changed my dietary habits so I originally made my own oat milk – also great for those who have soy allergy and don’t want to cash out for the pricey supermarket version or similarly expensive almond milk. We now stock pile almond milk for cooking purposes only when it’s on offer.

The other key change that happened is including LOTS of beans and pulses to my meals to replace the meat – previously I only ate chickpeas and kidney beans on a semi-regular basis and rarely lentils. Now my days are packed with all kinds of shapes and colours of beans & lentils!

Over time my list of staples in my pantry has evolved and I’d like to share it with you, to show that a plant-based diet does not have to be overly complicated and can be achieved on a budget. Fresh produce is of course added every week!

 Sarah’s Pantry

Freezer:

Spinach
Peas
Sweet corn
Edamame
Berries

Mango
Home-made hummus
Home-made baked beans
Chopped herbs
Veggie ‘fish fingers’ (marketed for children, but a life saver when we need a quick meal! Totally satisfy a fish finger craving, too.)

Dry goods

Whole wheat spaghetti
Whole wheat fusilli
Protein fusilli
Whole grain basmati rice
Short grain brown rice (recent substitute for risotto rice)
Millet
Barley

Farro

Pulses:

Pinto beans
Black turtle beans
Navy beans
Red lentils
Green lentils
Brown lentils
Kidney beans
Chickpeas
Yellow split peas

Other non-perishable items:

Chopped tomatoes
Passata
Tomato paste
Coconut milk

Fat:

Olive oil
Avocado oil
Dairy free sunflower/flaxseed margarine

These are the ‘fancyful’ (strange to me) items I thought were worth it and have adapted as staples:

Nutritional yeast
Miso Paste
Umami Paste
Dried mushrooms
Tahini

Other condiments I generally have at home:

Ketchup
Soy sauce
Lemon juice
Lime juice
Vegetable stock powder
Apple cider vinegar
Peanut butter
Maple syrup

Baking:

All purpose flour
Bread flour
Baking powder
White sugar
Brown sugar
Bird’s custard powder
Cocoa powder

I hope this shows that eating a plant-based diet does not have to be complicated or expensive. Having a stocked pantry does not only promote your healthy habits, but also prevents the temptation to order in or grab something unhealthy. Everything you need for a quick balanced meal is right there in your kitchen!

Plus I have now started to extend my pantry by buying excess of my staples whenever there is room in my weekly food budget so I don’t unexpectedly run out of an ingredient or can quickly whip up a freezer meal when there’s left over fresh produce without having to go shopping first.

In Part 2 we will look at what I have in my spice drawer – plant-based food does not have to be bland!

Do you feel there’s essential pantry staples missing from my list? Do you often ‘shop’ in your pantry to save money?

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How to start your journey to a plant-based diet right now

…Or how I cut out animal products

plant-based

When people hear I eat a primarily plant-based diet they are surprised. I hear things such as

‘I could never do it’                           ‘I like meat too much’

‘But cheese! I could never give that up!’                                 ‘How did you do it?’

I know of other people that went teetotal and that worked really well for them. However I think it is crucial – especially to address the ‘I could never give up …..’ issue – to go through the process of reducing animal products step-by-step.

I usually tell people I started cutting down on my meat intake about two years back and cut out most dairy such as milk and yoghurt. I ate less and less of it over time and introducing more beans and pulses until I also gradually cut out cheese.

But I will tell you now: I originally never had the intention to go entirely plant-based!

As a student meat is one of the more expensive items and in my early undergraduate years money was more importantly spent on my social life. So personally I had reduced my meat intake anyway in comparison to when I lived at home.

However, about two years back I met my boyfriend – he is from a Russian background so meat was pretty much his vegetable!! But joke aside, I was not prepared to adjust to such a high amounts of animal product in my diet. As I did most of the cooking we struck a compromise and only had meat a few times a week. I know I couldn’t force him to change his habits – nor did I want to! So instead, I gradually introduced a more plant-based diet without him noticing much! I can be sneaky that way.

Slowly transitioning can therefore be more effective in keeping a habit than abrupt change.

If you have been considering to change your eating habits, but are concerned that you might fail to follow through with these changes, why not start small by reducing your your meat, dairy and egg intake by half? And if it is cheese that you are dreading to give up why not save it for last? You may find once you get to that point of your journey you might not have an issue with eliminating it too. 

Yes there are radical vegans out there, but that doesn’t mean YOU have to be one of them. Plant-based eating is not about perfectionism, it is about changing your habits to positively contribute to your health and the environment.

Being on a plant-based diet does make you feel better in the long run, but years of eating a certain way will be strongly anchored into your mind. Here’s some adjustments I made to make the journey easier:

vegan

    • Reconsidered what a meal should look like. We are all too used to the image of meat being the star of the plate with carb and vegetable accompaniments. This is what sometimes led to distress during meal planning. But starting to consider one-pot meals as the norm, will quickly help to adjust, as they are also quick and easy to cook!

 

    • Finding substitutes for ‘savoury’ cravings. This is something I did struggle with every so often. The important thing is to realize that it is not a ‘meat craving’ but just a need for a more savoury meal. Yes, this can be more challenging on a plant based diet, but integrating condiments such as tomato paste, dried mushrooms, umami or miso paste go a long way. I love my sauce so I was especially wowed when I tried this vegan gravyadd some sage, rosemary and thyme and it’s delicious!

 

    • Try different non-dairy milks or make your own! If you’re someone that has cereal or porridge everyday, finding the right milk is essential. For me it’s currently soy milk in my breakfast, but I use almond milk for cooking. Who says we can’t have creamy nut free sauces too? I use almond milk,  dairy free margarine & flour to make a bechamel sauce and flavour it with nutritional yeast, tomato paste and spices depending on what I’m serving it with. I also used to make my own oat milk (great recipe here) as it is WAY cheaper than store bought and not too much effort either. It’s super tasty!

 

    • Try foods you haven’t eaten before! I would say I had a very varied diet already beforehand, but without the changes I made I would probably have never tried nutritional yeast! Other new foods I’ve been eating are artichokes, black beans (they used to not be common here) and kale.

 

    • Make yourself aware of the impact of a meat heavy diet. Sometimes you may feel like giving in and returning to old habits, but I recommend you watch documentaries such as Cowspiracy instead! Watching this film gave me the final push and motivation to consistently implement my life style changes. Having all that information thrown at you really gives you a different perspective! They have now released a second documentary available on Netflix called What the Health.

 

    • Give yourself grace and allow yourself not be perfect. This is probably the most important point. I am a perfectionist at times and can start obsessing over things. Healthy eating should be enjoyment and not haunting you. Just because you are not 100% plant-based (yet) doesn’t mean you are cheating yourself.

 

 

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