This guy maybe knew what he was doing...

This guy maybe knew what he was doing...

Today I was at the gym and I saw something which made my blood boil: two guys lifting weights that were obviously too heavy for them, and letting their form suffer as a consequence.

When I say form, what I mean is their posture and positioning, a crucial element of both gaining results and remaining injury free.

As I sat on the bike, watching with a morbid fascination I usually reserve for Discovery Channel documentaries,  I actually had to stop myself from going over and saying something to these berks. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have thanked me anyway.

But this prompted me to wonder where the members of staff were? On each machine in the gym there’s a notice advising you to ask floor staff if you are having any trouble. Putting aside the stubborn pride of most men, surely an instructor should always be on hand to dispense information and keep an eye out for dangerous use of equipment?

On the way out, I mentioned to one of the instructors what I had witnessed, “Ah those guys,” he remarked, “They’ve been coming here for years and we’ve given up trying to tell them what they are doing wrong – they just don’t listen.”

Maybe not quite the right attitude, but in all fairness he did then spend five minutes telling me the main principles of good form so I could write this blog post. Here’s what he had to say:

1. Engage your core muscles – very important for supporting your back, doing this will also help tone and flatten your stomach. And it’s not limited to weight lifting either, when doing cardio you should try to remember to keep your pelvic and abdominal muscles tight. In gym classes, good instructors will usually remind you – on average every other minute to, “Pull your belly-button towards your spine.”

2. Keep your knees soft – locking your legs straight puts a strain on the knees and lower back. If you are standing to lift weights, make sure to keep a slight bend in the knees. An alternative is to stand with one leg slightly behind the other to give better balance.

3. Do not use momentum to  lift the weight – for instance, if you are doing bicep curls, keep your elbows close to your sides and do not use your back to add extra swing. It is far more beneficial to lift a lighter weight using correct form than a heavier weight using other muscles to help you along. More importantly, your back won’t thank you if you keep treating it in this way.

4. Pace yourself – similarly, take your time to fulfil the whole range of movement. A good way of doing this is to count to two or three while on the way out and to at least three on the way back in. There’s no prizes for the fastest, and your muscles will respond better to a smooth, consistent technique.

I still think there should be someone around to look out for people not following these simple principles. The thing is, some people have probably never been told, or have forgotten the information given to them on their induction day, and could do with a refresher. I am fortunate enough to have had some great instructors in the past who ingrained the basics into my head, and I still have to make a conscious effort to “pull that tummy in”!

While we are on the topic of things that annoy us at the gym, I found this humorous article about gym etiquette. I’d be interested to hear what gets your goat when you’re trying to get a sweat on?



Alison sympathised and advised how to handle wood-burning stove

Alison sympathised and advised how to handle wood-burning stove



Day 5


Success! I don’t know why I wasn’t posting this first thing this morning… hang on, yes I do, I was snugly tucked up in my yurt and managed to sleep until 9.30am. Eat your hats cynics of mine.


So what did I do differently? Well, let’s be honest, none of it was rocket science, but it did take the sage advice of a year-round yurter to make my outdoor home more habitable. Enter Alison, who lives at the Cherry Wood Project in Bath and was kind enough to have a look at my humble abode yesterday afternoon.


Firstly, may I just say, I felt entirely vindicated by her astonishment that my yurt did not have insulation. “This is a summer camping yurt,” she exclaimed, “you’d be freezing at this time of year.”

“I was,” said I, “trust me I was.”

She also thought the fire rather small and the lack of ventilation a problem, “This is not good for you at all.” she tutted. Hallelujah, finally some sympathy and understanding.


So I asked her what I could do to make the best of a bad situation, obviously painting Nick as a Draconian boss in the process: she didn’t need to know that I had crawled into the house early Monday morning and refused to return to the yurt ever since.


Shockingly, her first piece of advice was to leave the door slightly ajar, “Are you mad?” I thought. But apparently not, the fire needs to draw oxygen in to keep it roaring and this also stops the yurt from becoming unbearably smokey.


Alison also suggested starting the fire much earlier in the day and keeping it burning throughout the evening. It seems I had not been tending my stove with the required dedication.


And I must admit, what a difference these small and seemingly innocuous measures made. While I would not say I was as comfortable as I would be indoors, and keeping in mind that I was wearing multiple layers again (although thankfully the hat and gloves were dropped), I did manage to sleep right through the night and upon waking at 7.20am thought it best to sleep for a couple more hours just to drive the point home to Nick and co. Late for work, my foot.


It makes me proud that I managed it but I don’t think I’ll be investing in a yurt (almost £3000 for a model like the one I’m staying in) any time soon.

It felt like I was somewhere like this!

It felt like I was somewhere like this!

Day 2


3.40am, I give up and practically sprint inside. I am so cold! It turns out the wood-burning stove is not sufficient to cope with the almost -2°c temperatures this morning.


I was wearing: jogging bottoms, thick wooly socks, t-shirt, cardigan, wooly gillet, thick wooly roll neck jumper, scarf, hat and gloves.


Nick had given me a 10tog duvet, a thick woolen blanket and a throw. But, in the bed was not a problem, it was actually quite warm in there, it was the cold air all around which by 3am was starting to permeate the cocoon I had fashioned for myself.


Luckily, Nick had left the house door open for me allowing for such an eventuality so as I dash across the (frost covered) lawn I know there will be a sofa waiting for me inside.


What I had forgotten was Treacle: the dog. Thankfully she just looked at me quizzically for a few seconds and, deciding against barking, let me get on with it. I must have looked too pathetic to be a burglar.


At least one thing came in handy – the earplugs I bought in anticipation of the noise in the yurt! This morning I didn’t even hear Nick’s family going about their day-to-day routine of getting ready for school and work. And I was so bundled up under my sleeping bag, no-one but the youngest (Sasha) realised I was there. All mutually entertaining once I did eventually wake up.


So I’m not sure what the game plan is tonight, I feel I owe it to the project to try again, plus I’m not a quitter! It could be warmer tonight and maybe if I am more diligent with my fire it will work more efficiently.


It’s good to know, however, that the option of a spare room is there if I need it.

A different take on a classic snack

A different take on a classic snack



Apricot and peanut butter flapjack

Two flavours you wouldn’t normally put togther, the sweet apricots complement the savoury peanut butter to create a chewy fruit and nut mixture with a twist.




100g porridge oats

100g cornflakes

8 tablespoons golden syrup

100g brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

6 tablespoons peanut butter

100g dried apricots


Preperation time: 15 minutes

Cooling time: 15 minutes




1. Heat the golden syrup and brown sugar in a pan over a medium heat until it just starts to boil.

2. Remove from the heat and mix the peanut butter and vanilla essence in until fully melted.

3. Put the porridge oats into a bowl.

4. Chop the dried apricots into small pieces and add to the bowl.

5. Crush the cornflakes roughly in your hands and add to the oats and apricots, mix well.

6. Pour the peanut butter and syrup mix over the dry ingredients, mix well.

7. Line a swiss roll tray with greaseproof paper and press the flapjack mixture into it with the palm of your hand.

8. Allow to cool and then cut into squares.


Top tip:

Be careful not to let the syrup and sugar mixture over-boil or it will burn.

To keep the flapjacks chewy wrap them in greaseproof paper and store in an air tight container.



If you want extra crunch use crunchy peanut butter.

Rice crispies can be used instead of cornflakes and raisins can be used in place of dried apricots.




All brawn and no brain?

All brawn and no brain?

This afternoon Daily Mail Rugby Correspondent, Peter Jackson, talked to us at Cardiff Journalism Scool about how reporting on rugby has become increasingly difficult. One of the reasons for this, he acknowledged, can effect your chances of getting a scoop in any type of journalism.

That’s right, our old friend the world wide web has made it harder for honest and hard-working print journalists to break the news. But I’m not a fan of playing broken records.

Far more interesting, I thought, was Jackson’s second point. He said it was difficult to take a fresh angle on rugby stories since the sport had become professional. In the past rugby players would have spent their week days with their hands up a cow’s nether regions (vet) or with their hands squeezing a cow’s udders (farmer) or dealing with a dispute on how said cow had trampled a prize winning petunia (lawyer).

Ok, I jest, and mean no offence to any of the above professions. My point is, when rugby was an amatuer sport, the lads came from varying walks of life and had a certain abandandon in the way they answered questions. With professionalism, as Jackson said, has come conformity.

Press officers and team psychologists are employed to fill players’ heads with psycho-babble and spin. Meaning original responses to a question like, “How did you feel the game went on Saturday,” are slim to none.

So, in the interest of experimentation, I decided to find the five most inane sport-speak sentences following the weekend’s action in the IRB six nations. Here’s what I came up with:

1. The British Lions website featured Welsh captain Ryan Jones on how the team pulled off victory against England, “We knew we would have to work hard but we’ve got heart and passion and been through a lot together.” Awww bless.

2. BBC sport ran an article with Brian O’Driscoll’s highly perceptive (cue ironic font) analysis of their triumph over Italy, “We were patient and knew we would have to wait to break them down before taking our opportunities.”

3. A Scotsman article on the Scottish team’s match-day attitude included this platitude from back-row Alasdair Strokosch, “I do feel better about the championship now. I don’t think anyone’s come to France and won easily and we pushed them well.” As far as I recall there are no extra points for effort boys. 

4. Former England player turned Manager, Martin Johnson, fobbed off the Telegraph with this trite one liner, “The Test match was there for either side to win but they are the team with a bit more self-belief at the moment.”

5. Finally, from Jackson’s paper the Daily Mail, in an article written by Paul Sackey the English winger, “If we can get it all right I honestly think we could cause any team problems.” I think the same could be said for every team Sackey.

I’ve heard footballers are even worse for giving token answers, so let me know if you come across any.

At times it feels like a hard slog (pic courtesy of ~ggvic~ flickr CC)

At times it feels like a hard slog (pic courtesy of ~ggvic~ flickr CC)

With January drawing to a close, many of you who had the best intentions to get fit and stay fit in 2009 will start to find motivation is dwindling. But this is the most important time to stick with it. Often, it takes six weeks before results start to show. So here are five boosts which got me through previous slumps.

1. Change your music

People often have a playlist or favourite album they like to listen to while working out. But do you remember the first time that certain song came on while you were pumpin’ those legs on the bike or cross trainer and it made you move a little faster or push a little harder? Well sooner or later it’s going to stop having that effect because you will become immune and instead of a positive association you will start to think, “Oh that’s the song I work out to.” Put your ipod on shuffle and you’ll be surprised. Some of the tunes you never would have picked have a great beat to work out to.

2. Use the programmes on the machines

It sounds simple enough but the amount of people I see who keep cardio machines on the same level for 20-30 minutes is mind-boggling. No wonder they are uninspired. First of all there’s no variety in their workout. Of course your body and mind are going to get bored if you ask them to do the same repetitive movement at roughly the same speed for 20 minutes or more. If you use the programmes, then the session is usually broken down into more manageable chunks. I particularly like interval training on the bike and cross-trainer. This alternates between periods of lower intensity but faster movement and periods of higher intensity and slightly slower movement. It is good if you challenge yourself to try and maintain your speed as the intensity increases. Chances are you won’t manage it but you will get your heart rate up in the attempt. Studies have shown that using interval training is good for the heart because it encourages it to use the less intense minutes to recover and then fires the heart rate right back up again. Using interval training can also be a good way of decreasing the time of your session because you will find it more tiring than maintaining one single speed so you increase your heart rate and burn more calories in a shorter time frame.

3. People watch

It’s interesting to observe other people when you are at the gym. Everyone has their own agenda. There are the types who pretend they are so focused on their targets they don’t notice anyone else; chances are they are using the mirrors to scope out fellow gym members while at the same time obsessing over how they look. There are those who are more than a little pervy; they try and catch your eye whilse they pump their guns or inadvertently flex a tricep. Next there are those who read a magazine or newspaper; usually they become so engrossed in what they are reading they forget what they are there for, with the result that they rarely break out in a sweat. Finally, there are my sort of people; those who observe others in a non-creepy way and make up little stories featuring them in their heads. It is even more fun if you can combine two athletes in the same story and pretend you are on to their sordid little secret.

4. Be competitive

With yourself, with the girl rowing next to you, with the machine. Whatever it takes to bring out the competitor in you, grab hold and let it take over. Don’t bother observing all those faux niceties and manners of gym etiquette. If someone is running beside you make sure you run faster, harder and for longer. Failing that, at least look better doing it than she does. Give yourself constant targets, “Next time I’ll work off 50 more calories.” But don’t focus on one measurement, if you usually go until you’ve reached a certain distance alter the challenge slightly. And don’t think you are the only one with this mentality, trust me, no matter how calm, cool and collected she appears to be, she is trying to beat you just as much.

5. Go to classes

This feeds off the same energy as point four. In most gym halls or dance studios there are mirrors, which mean you can see everyone else and can see how much effort they are putting in. Alter your effort/coordination/closeness to the instructor accordingly. Become a gym boffin. Make sure you get prime position behind the instructor and that you are hitting all those combinations in-sync, and with as much energy as she is. Use the group (or should I say pack) mentality to push yourself. You don’t want ‘Tanorexic’ to the right of you to think she has more stamina do you?


I hope these offer some inspiration. Let me know what you think or if you have any tips of your own: I’m always looking for ways to get through the workout grind.

Castle Arcade during what should have been the Christmas rush.

Castle Arcade during what should have been the Christmas rush.

Since the start of the year we have seen a gap left in many high streets with the closure of Woolworths, one of Britain’s oldest and best known chain stores. The Pier home furnishings is another casualty of the recession, along with MFI homestores and Whittard of Chelsea, the tea and coffee merchants.

The economic downturn gripping the country is certainly having an affect on many high street retailers. As we saw from the decision by Marks & Spencer to cut over one thousand jobs, no brand is immune.

Cardiff’s under-cover arcades have formed part of the city’s charm for over a century. Full of unique boutiques and specialist stores, the arcades provide visitors and residents with an enchanting alternative to the bland brands found all over Britain.

A shot of the arcade from the first floor balcony

A shot of the arcade from the first floor balcony.

Rented or owned by independent retailers, what you won’t see in these shop windows are perpetual sale signs. Unable to compete with the high street’s slashing of prices and brash declarations of discounts; shopkeepers in the arcades have to hope customer loyalty, and the fact they offer something a little different, will be enough.

Castle Arcade, so named because its entrance is directly opposite Cardiff Castle, is one of the most popular of these retail gems. Built in 1887, the Victorian arcade maintains many of its original features, producing an ambience of luxury.

On entering Castle Arcade the first thing to strike you is a conspicuous absence of chain stores. Pizza Express is the one blot on the copybook. But since it occupies a store stretching right back to St Mary Street, the front door is not within the arcade.

Instead of Starbucks there is Comfortably Numb coffee shop. Claire Grove Buttons offers something more than Claire’s Accessories and Troutmark Books has far more character than WHSmith.

Karen and her family make most of their menu from scratch. This leads to some early mornings!

Karen (Madame Fromage) and her family make most of their menu from scratch. This leads to some early mornings!

Madame Fromage is a family run delicatessen, which found its home in Castle Arcade over three years ago. Karen Cummington, 48, the shop owner, is aiming to give the business an online shopping facility, providing customers with a checkout much like the one at tesco.com.

In Karen’s line of trade it is these large supermarkets which pose the greatest threat: “They are killing people like me, I wish they’d stay away from the specialist areas. It’s unfair really, they should leave people like me to the niche market, they have got to be stopped.”

Unfortunately, in these purse-tightening times, customers are taking the price of goods into account far more. Karen has noticed a difference in the type of items regulars will plump to buy: “More expensive items just aren’t moving because people are not prepared to spend the money. Some people don’t come as often to us.”

She felt in the run up to Christmas, while the high street was buzzing, her arcade was strangely empty. In a time which would traditionally have been their busiest, shopkeepers were chatting daily about their worries and who was the latest to go under.

Two shops along Heidi Davies, 42, owns Funky Monkey Feet, a children’s shoe shop. She too has noticed a difference in consumer attitudes: “Everybody wants a discount, before it was only really cheeky people who would ask. They still want the product and have the urge to spend but they just haven’t got the money.”

Chain stores have played a big role in mindset changes. Since people see sales in all their high street favourites, they expect them to be everywhere. But independent retailers have their overheads to think about and often sell many different products of better quality, which they cannot afford to mark down.

Heidi gets a lot of her stock from Europe so the declining value of the pound has also had an affect on her margins. Energy bills are higher than last year and fewer leniencies from suppliers have led to a tightening of her belt: “As my bank manager told me, all you can do is work more in order to pay less.” Heidi works seven days a week.

Heidi from Funky Monkey Feet has felt the pressure to put on sales.

Heidi from Funky Monkey Feet has felt the pressure to put on sales.

City Surf has been open for 24 years. Darren Evans, 47, manager of the shop, thinks one way of combating sale-mania would be to follow France’s example and put laws in place to limit how often they can be held: “January sales used to be January sales, now they [large chain stores] do them whenever they want.”

In truth, as we slide head-long into recession, consumers are refusing to be drawn in by sales gimmicks. This week the British Retail Consortium released a report showing December 2008 had the sharpest falling sales figures on record.

In this climate independents are bound to suffer. But the arcades in Cardiff have passed the test of time thus far. Shopkeepers in touch with what their customers want, and who are willing to make changes, have every chance of weathering the storm.

The rest may not be so lucky.

Empty spaces, each of the retailers had stories of friends forced out of business.

Empty spaces: each of the retailers had stories of friends forced out of business.

Audio link

Slideshow link

Next Page »