Category Archives: Exercise & Fitness

The Simple Pursuit of Cycling

On the face of it, cycling is a simple pursuit; man and machine in harmony.  Technology has enhanced the experience, providing us with feedback every inch of the way, but in doing so it’s introduced complexity.  Have we lost the connection by staying connected?

“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike.”
John F Kennedy

Cycling outside…

When I ride I use a Garmin Cycling Computer to capture some basic information; GPS tracks my journey, recording undulations and forward motion.  It also records each turn of the wheel, and every turn of the pedals; a magnet on the rear wheel beats out a rhythm reflecting distance and speed, while a similar magnet on the pedal indicates cadence.  A monitor on the frame “listens” for movement, broadcasting every action.

I also wear a Heart Rate Monitor to make sure I exercise within reasonable limits.  This, too, broadcasts to the Garmin, allowing it to record my exertion.

Of course, when I’m on the road I take my smartphone with me, “just in case”, but it’s generally double-bagged to keep it dry and kept safely tucked away.

When I finish a ride I connect my Garmin to my laptop to upload details of the ride to Strava, where I record all my activity and share what I’ve been up to with the outside world.

You would think that riding in the garage, protected from the elements, without any physical movement would simplify things, but instead things have got a lot more complicated…

In the garage…

The Turbo Trainer introduces another set of gadgets.  It is controlled by a display unit that sits neatly on the handlebars.  It provides me with feedback on my ride, cadence, speed, heart rate, etc. but I only really use it to control resistance.

In order to give my rides some structure and make them a bit more interesting I have subscribed to Zwift.  It provides a virtual cycling environment, as well as lots of fellow cyclists to “ride” with.  As well as tracking my ride, it also provides me with feedback on my performance.  An Ant+ dongle connects the Garmin to my laptop, transferring all the details, so I can view speed, cadence, heart rate and estimated power on the screen.

Zwift uses an App to turn my smartphone into a control unit so I can control elements of my ride, choose when to turn and interact with other riders (not that I generally do either as I find it a huge distraction when I’m trying to focus on riding).

When I finish my rides Zwift automatically syncs with Strava, safely recording my efforts.

Cycling Connections

My Cycling Connections

Just in case I don’t have enough feedback, I was given a FitBit for Christmas.  This records all sorts of interesting information about me throughout the day; physical activity, sleep, heart rate, etc.  Handy!

So, this simple pursuit is now supported by a spaghetti of cables, 5 display units, and an array of recording devices.  A failed connection, or the briefest of power outages can result in chaos… and often does.

Perhaps it’s time to de-clutter and get back to basics?

Learning to ride again… an introduction to rollers

When I re-discovered cycling in the summer of 2013 my journey started in the garage on a Turbo Trainer.  Given my low level of fitness and the number of years it’d been since I’d been on a bike, the Turbo Trainer seemed like a safe way to get back into the saddle.

(Here’s a link to the original post:  http://wp.me/p3EYll-6F)

It’s easy to forget, but another major reason I started on the Turbo Trainer was because we live at the top of a relatively steep hill – I just wasn’t able to safely make it home safely.  Even today the hill is a sting in the tail for every ride but it’s become part of the “fun”.

Having “put my feet up” after Ride the North 2014 and spent months trying to regain my fitness, I was keen to keep fit throughout the winter this year.  Recognising the Turbo Trainer offers a limited cycling experience I decided to mix things up a bit by introducing a set of Rollers into the regime…

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As soon as you’re able to ride a bike I guess you must forget the feelings of insecurity and fear that accompany learning to ride a bike.  As far as I can tell, getting on a bike on a set of Rollers for the first time opens a wormhole back to those long repressed feelings!  It really is like learning to ride again!  The guy in the following video looks how I felt… decidedly wobbly!

Fortunately it didn’t take too long to get rolling, but I’ve still got a long way to go.  To start with, changing hand positions was a big deal, and it’s taken me about a month to get “comfortable” removing a hand to take a drink.

Standing up is still beyond me.  My first attempt, which in retrospect was attempted way too soon, resulted in a “video moment” and a slightly tweaked hamstring.  It still seems to make the front wheel bounce wildly out of control, with disastrous consequences.

My inability to stand creates the biggest limitation of the Rollers as I’m unable to adopt a position that gives my “seat” a rest… I currently reach my discomfort threshold after about 60 minutes, resulting in enforced (literal) comfort breaks.

One of the reasons for introducing the Rollers into the routine was to make the indoor cycling experience a bit more realistic, and better preparation for returning to the great outdoors.  As well as working my legs, it gives my core a better work-out than on the Turbo Trainer.  In theory my form should also improve on the Rollers, but I’ve got no idea how I’d know whether it is or not!

Having had a look around, there is some evidence that spending some time on the Rollers can increase one’s repertoire of skills.  Take a look at this…

But it’ll be a little while before I try this…

Overall, I’d say the introduction of the Rollers has been positive move.  Sometimes it’s nice just to go for a spin and to feel like you’re moving.  They certainly offer some variety from the Turbo Trainer and, like cycling outside, there’s always an element of danger, particularly if you lose concentration. That said, there’s plenty of advice out there on how to minimise the risk.  Personally, I’d suggest you look at the following video to see how not to do it!

Happy Rolling!

Starfish on a beach

Although postings to the Blog might suggest otherwise, Ride the North 2014 didn’t finish me off.  It wasn’t even the end of a blossoming cycling career   However, in retrospect, it did mark the end of a phase of my life. 

The year after my Heart Attack was one of significant change.  Fortunately it concluded with everything in much better shape than when it started.  Although I tried to look forward and “fight”, I think there was a considerable amount of “flight” in the mix.

I think I proved something to myself by successfully concluding my first summer of cycling.  The fear slowly dissipated over time.

… and so I gave myself a break.

Despite taking things a little easier, I have continued to be active and keep fit   I have also managed to maintain some of the better habits I developed.  I’ve started 2016 in better shape than I was a year ago, and I’m excited about taking on some more physical challenges (some familiar and some new).

Occasionally I receive emails from people who have stumbled across the Blog, have recognised some similarities or warning signs, and decided to do something about it.  I’m really happy to be able to make a difference, even a small one.  As a result, I’ve decided to start posting a bit more regularly, even if it’s just to let people know that I’m still here.

Training with Major Tim

It isn’t only Britain’s schoolchildren that have been inspired by Major Tim Peake’s Space Mission (Principia). The publicity around his recent launch caught the imagination of thousands of older boys and girls around the world too… including me.

Unfortunately space travel is another activity that is on my “not going to happen for medical reasons” list (together with bungee jumping and scuba diving). There are a number of factors that would rule me out, but in particular a history of heart problems wouldn’t look good on the European Space Agency application form.

Despite this, Major Tim and I have a number of things in common:

Firstly, we’re both British men in our forties who have jobs that require us to work away from home from time to time.

We’re also both working towards a physical challenge on 24th April 2016. I’ve selected the Loch Ness Etape (http://www.etapelochness.com/) as my first challenge of 2016 (a 66 mile cycle around Loch Ness), Major Tim will be participating in the London Marathon on the same day, and we’re both looking to complete our challenges in under 4 hours.

Despite Major Tim being in orbit our training conditions are more similar than you’d think… Our exterior environments are similarly inhospitable – the intimidating blackness of “space” is matched only by the monotonous greyness of a Scottish winter.  As a result we’ll both be spending a lot of time training inside on our own. Major Tim will be harnessed to his treadmill, I’ll be on my Turbo Trainer.

In order to succeed we’ll both need to battle gravity; Major Tim will be training to stay fit and healthy, overcoming the effects of microgravity on his body through physical exertion. I’ll be working hard to ensure I can overcome gravity too… Scotland isn’t flat!

So, I’ve decided to adopt Major Tim as my imaginary training partner.

I’ve found that space is a good place to let your mind drift to, to ward off the tedium of training.  Major Tim doesn’t have anywhere to go, so he’s generally a willing companion. Together we’ll work our way through the winter, spurring each other on to our goals.

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The view from Tim Peake’s window (Copyright Tim Peake)

flic.kr/p/BYXxSw

 

A message for Major Tim Peake:

Major Tim, if a little virtual companionship helps you on your way as you put in the hours of training on the International Space Station, I’ll be right alongside you… and I’m sure thousands of others will be too #TrainingwithMajorTim

 

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The view from my Turbo Trainer

Life is an endurance sport

Endurance events look easy when you watch them on from the comfort of your Living Room.  We get used to watching professional athletes performing amazing feats, it becomes the norm.  We tend to overlook the hours of training that go into the preparation and the effort of the event itself.  They make it all look too easy.

Last weekend I watched my first “real” triathlon.  It was a bit different to watching the Brownlee brothers!  It looked much more like the kind of activity I might be able to participate in!

Historically there were lots of reasons why doing a triathlon was a crazy idea, not least the fact that I was a physical wreck.  Having got myself into some sort of shape it seems a lot less crazy now, and given my exercise regime includes both swimming and cycling, I’m almost there as far as the training is concerned.  My most compelling arguments for not doing one would largely come down to my ignorance, so I decided to educate myself.

It all looks a bit brutal to me!

It all looks a bit brutal to me!

The swim held the biggest fear for me (and still does to be honest).  I have never been much of a swimmer.  When I’m in the pool, much of my effort is invested in the avoidance of drowning; little energy is left over for propulsion.  The thought of having to battle with hundreds of other participants for space was a scary one (although this was perhaps naïve, and based on watching too many open water events on TV).

As it turned out, it all seemed rather civilised, down to the staggered start, the coloured hats (to tell the athletes apart), and the polite overtaking (requested by a tap on the foot and offered willingly). I found the range of swimming strokes, techniques and speeds reassuring too. You don’t have to be an ex-Olympian to participate (although I’m sure it would help if you were!).

I was particularly heartened by the over-exuberance of some of the participants that resulted in them going out a bit too quickly on the swim. Some were even kind enough to give us a running commentary on their level of fatigue at the end of each length as they struggled to catch their breath and summon the energy for the next 25 metres. I’m sure some people were caught out by false confidence gained from watching too much TV!

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Having selected a triathlon as the target “goal” for this winter’s training, I plan to balance armchair reconnaissance with some solid physical effort, building on the base I’ve built over the past year or so.

With just 10 days to go until the final big event of the summer, Ride the North, it’s exciting to look to the future again and identify some challenging goals. However, first things first…

Warning: Hills ahead

The summer has brought a change of routine for me. My established routine was rudely interrupted by a couple of weeks rest and relaxation. Since I’ve been back I have fallen into a new, arguably more balanced routine.

Fortunately I’ve been exercising more regularly than I’ve been updating my blog. Although I’ve not been training at the same level of intensity as I was earlier in the year, I have managed to maintain my level of general fitness and my weight.

Perspective and positive thinking!
My exercise regime has become more rounded again. I have returned to the pool and I‘m combining regular swims with cycling. Unfortunately I’m still a sinker rather than a floater; my break from the pool has not magically resulted in a step change in my buoyancy. I can’t swim any further but I do feel more comfortable; the minor drowning panics have become more occasional. I’m really enjoying the variety and I think it’s better for my body.

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Work has become more demanding, but in a good way. I am travelling more frequently, but not excessively and I’ve been testing the leisure facilities at a variety of hotels.  The days of Club Sandwiches and Fries washed down by a beer seem like a lifetime ago!

Generally I guess I’m just more aware of the various different aspects of my life, and work hard to make sure the “good” ones significantly outweigh the “bad” ones. It’s taken over a year to get to this point, but I feel more relaxed and in control of things.

***

Ride the North

I’m really glad that I’ve signed up to the “Ride the North”. The two-day, 170 mile cycle from Inverness to Aberdeen is only three weeks away now. It’s been a target for me since I finished the Euro City Cycle back in May. It’s removed any slight temptation to kick back and take things easy.

Day 1 of the event is 88 miles (further than I’ve ever cycled in a day) and it starts with a challenging climb out of Inverness. I’m a little anxious about the climb. I’d like to take the whole ride in my stride, and I know the only chance of doing that is to keep fit and keep up the miles.

The Suie 1

It’s going to be another exciting few weeks. It’s not quite the Commonwealth games, but Inverness here I come!

Kick into the bend

Many years ago, when I was training seriously for the Long Jump, I used to travel into London each Sunday for training sessions. During the winter these trips featured a Monthly Test designed to monitor our progress.

I was part of a large “jumps” group used to congregate from a number of different clubs. There were exponents of Long Jump, Triple Jump and High Jump; both Male and Female; representing a range Age Groups (of which I always felt I was at the bottom end).

Most weeks we met at the glamorous setting of Wormwood Scrubs (at what is now known as the Linford Christie Sports Centre) but on special occasions, we met at Crystal Palace, the centre of UK Athletics at the time.

Wormwood Scrubs

Wormwood Scrubs… a great day out!

The monthly tests focused on strength and endurance. Each set of tests culminated with the dreaded 300 metre run: To be a good jumper you need to be able to run quickly and in a controlled fashion for about 30 metres. 300 metres was therefore way over distance, and a real test of stamina. It was quite different from a straight sprint both physically and mentally. If done properly, it hurt… a lot!

My strategy for the 300m tended to be to go out fast (down the back straight), to cruise around the bend, and then to use what I had left in the home straight. It was conservative, but guaranteed that I’d have strength to finish in one piece.

On one particularly memorable Sunday we had met at Crystal Palace for a technique session with a specialist Jumps Coach. After the technique session we prepared for a 300m test to round the afternoon off. I was in a small group of athletes from my home club which included a couple of junior internationals and my coach. We were highly competitive, but we all knew our place in the pecking order. I was comfortable being at the bottom end, the youngest and weakest.

The pain and exhaustion of a typical 300 metre race!

As we made our way to the starting line, my Coach had a quiet word in my ear:

Coach: “Lead them out fast and then kick into the bend.”

Me: “But…” (The idea was scary!)

Coach: “See what happens. Kick into the bend.”

So, that’s what I did. I led the group out, running hard down the back straight to hold my position, to stay ahead. As I hit the 200 metre mark I kicked again, accelerating as I entered the bend. I drove my arms hard to keep my legs turning over. As the bend unwound I remained in the lead, wondering when people would start to come past me.

As I approached the home straight I felt great. My confidence grew with every stride I stayed in the lead. As we straightened up I stood tall, feeling strong and relaxed, striding out smoothly. Rather than tying up and dropping back, I stretched my lead, crossing the line in first place.

***

We didn’t talk much afterwards. The usual banter was missing as we all tried to recover. From my perspective not much needed to be said. In the great scheme of things the race didn’t matter, it was just a monthly test, one of many, but for me it was significant. The time wasn’t important either, it was all about how I felt, and I felt like I’d arrived, I felt great!

I think it felt significant because I had put myself in the position to succeed through hard work (training up to 5 days a week) and because I had taken a risk that had paid off. The fact that I had performed well while in the spotlight was a bonus!

It’s a feeling I remember to this day, and one that has rarely been repeated since.

***

accomplishment

As we get older, it gets increasingly easy to “cruise around the bend”, to take things a little bit too easy and fall into bad habits. Unfortunately there are few people that will take us to one side and have a quiet word, to instil confidence in us, to encourage us to push ourselves, to “kick into the bend”.

Try it occasionally… you might just surprise yourself!