What does winter training look like for an academic athlete?

pudding

I think it’s fair to say winter is here and since my return from Madrid, lots have asked me what I am up to. I think most hope I am going to say that I am vegetating on the sofa. I know quite a few triathletes who like to take it easy, to virtual standstill in winter. I think I understand that, let’s be honest, it can get pretty tough sometimes. However, training in winter is fundamental to my academic world and is also where I believe I earn the summer’s results. I also train because it’s my love my drug and I can. Here’s a short little update for those interested.

My recovery from Madrid was quite incredible, just 8 hours post-race finish line I was spinning my legs in the hotel gym! In the immediate week I enjoyed running and cycling relatively gently in and around my favourite part of Spain. By 7 days after the event I was able to ride and very much enjoy 106 miles in the glorious Autumn sun (without a horrid brick run after!). I carefully tracked my heart rate and its variation, and all was good. Don’t get me wrong, I understand my body and know when it’s OK for more effort or when it needs a rest.

I knew in those first few weeks post racing that I didn’t have long until the clocks changed in the UK and so switched to winter training and routine almost immediately. This means religiously being at the gym early doors to keep to routine and sleep patterns and by continuing to get up early I don’t tend to notice the shift to Greenwich Meantime too much. It also helps keep up writing routine (the drill stays the same, woken up by Lumie light from 5.35am, train 6.30-8.30am fasted, shower, coffee, breakfast at 10am post first block of writing). I also cut down some of the very long-distance riding like 6-hour death rides outside in the freezing cold. I find it pointless going out for several hours when I have to wear everything I own and still struggle to keep my heart rate up to a reasonable work load. I feel the cold quite badly and I have a borg like heart that requires substantial effort to get it to rise. I therefore train mostly indoors, cycling up to 150 miles a week on my Wattbike and running for circa 4 hours on the treadmill.

My weekly training load will stay the same now until probably the 1st of week February and is basically what Ironman would call week 12 of a 24-week full distance plan. The sessions are shorter but can produce a much higher training score stress. I love to race and train for long periods, but some of these shorter sessions give me the most amount of pleasure. There’s something about being on your Wattbike, drowning in sweat with Blink 182, riding at your threshold. Those are some of the hardest sessions I complete all year and because I don’t have to be ‘race fit’ it doesn’t matter if I take a few days to recover from a giant effort. The same can be said about brutal leg training.

With some slight variations a week normally looks like this:

30-mile ride (largely spent in the sweet spot)

50-mile ride (sometimes split into two)

30-mile ride plus 5K run just below race pace

60 minute all out ride (bucket often needed)

90-minute hill run on treadmill plus short abs workout

60-minute interval running session (800 metres beyond race pace /200 metres rest), upper body weights #1

30 minute cross training, leg weight training, 30 minute swim

10K fast run plus upper body weights #2

1 hour/ circa 2 mile swim

A bit of rest and then whatever else I fancy, which usually means chucking myself on my Wattbike.

I only make minor adjustments to my diet and keep to pretty much 90% on it, 10% a bit more relaxed, occasionally 80%/20%. One can relax a little more in winter nutritionally, but I am always mindful that what I put on now will have to be worked off come Spring. Admittedly I am vain and tend to like my abs! Training on a Wattbike also burns considerable energy and needs to be fuelled even more than riding outside sometimes. I therefore will use carbs mostly around training and in conjunction with the day’s effort levels. Cue the rice pudding above. If I start getting fatter, I’ll do a bit of ketosis but I don’t expect that to happen this year.

But winter isn’t just about training hard and protecting my academic sanity, it’s also the time a triathlete gets to make adjustments. Some of my aims this year include: perfecting my swim stroke and breathing, building a new aero bike to take more pressure off feet, running in a new pair of insoles, studying my Oura ring and sleep patterns, and lastly trying to increase my cycling cadence and pedal stroke. The latter is a big job but one I am confident will save me foot pain. In four weeks I have already increased 2 rpm.

At the moment my first planned race next year is Marbella 70.3 in April. I am heading to Tenerife for two weeks over the festive period and will put some long hours base training in then, almost certainly riding up and down Mt. Teide.

Time for hard graft.

UCI World Championship Qualifier: The dangers of gender inequality in cycling racing

Rosie-T

Some of you will know that I am currently working with a team on a European Commission project researching gender equality in national level sports boards (GESPORT, see here for a brief in interested). We will soon be at the 6-month stage of a 36-month project and from the UK side, that means I am knee deep in developing a database documenting every single sports board member across 58 National Governing Bodies. I have spoken already about the closeness of this project in relation to my athletic pursuits in that I have never researched something in which I am actually involved before and I am still working out myself how those notions interrelate. I suppose that is for two reasons. One is I suspect subconsciously trying to maintain some level of objectivity in my research and the second is that I am so heavily engaged in the being of an athlete, that I don’t often spend all that much time reflecting on what else goes around me in that sphere, or what it means to be said athlete.

Of course, I do not need to know much more than a layman about the UK sport governance code to understand that some parts of cycling and to an extent triathlon, has a tainted history and that traditionally both have taken on a very macho culture. Although I will say in their defence that times are definitely changing there, and especially in triathlon with the GoTri female programme initiative.

But, a few weeks ago I couldn’t help but think more about the gendered nature of cycling racing more prevalently given what I was part of and witnessed. For years I have been the only female standing at 5 feet 3 in a pack of 6 feet plus men looking down at me in their wetsuits at the start line of a triathlon. Definitely thinking as they barge past me “What’s she doing so near the front, surely she can’t swim as fast as us”. “Guess what, she can. And will. And will also definitely be out of the lake and into transition one before you”. Generally, we laugh at these photos as it all seems harmless enough banter.

However, this small notion inkles towards some much bigger problems. My point thus far in the project has always been that in addition to reaching equality on top level boards, there are additionally very significant grassroots levels problems that need addressing in sport equality. This is the gendered perceptions and attitudes of the public (nationally and internationally), and especially those regarding spectatorship (see Insure 4 sport, 2018). In summary, the older generations of men are far less believing that females have the potential to be better than any men at any sport. It would seem very sadly that as my story goes on to suggest, that it is not just the public and those self-labelled as “sports fans”, it is some of the largest sporting organisations in the world as well who hold such ideas precious.

On the morning of the 3rd of June, I travelled to Peterborough showground for the UCI Tour of Cambridge Gran Fondo. Apologies but I will need to just give a brief bit of detail about this kind of race as it’s quite unusual. It is the only chance in the UK to qualify to cycle for the Great Britain Age Group team at the World Championships in Varese in Autumn of this year. To qualify, you need to be within the top 25% of your age group (e.g. in my case F19-34). Up until this last year the majority of people who qualify have done so from a Race Pen and this is where I qualified last year. The difference with being in a Race Pen as opposed to a Sportive Pen is that you are solely within your age group, you need to have a full race license and generally obey the rules of any cycle race, the biggest namely, if you get dropped, you stay dropped. If you are in a Sportive Pen then you self-select your estimated speed. I selected the Sportive Pen this year and the top average speed (21mph). A lot of us were encouraged to go in the Sportive Pen and not the race one this year, although no reason was really given but you can still qualify from there.

Anyway, so I am heading to the start line of my 21mph gate (this takes a while, there are several thousand riders) and I notice some very angry looking ladies whose race number tells me they are female 19-34 racers who should be in the Race Pen and not the Sportive Pen. I hear one of them say “they are starting us behind the men’s over-60 race and 15 minutes after the fastest sportive riders” (i.e. my 21mph pen) and this has been confirmed elsewhere. I can see why they are mad. Year on year the females are getting faster in this race and quite frankly it is a demotion behind the men’s over 60 race who will ride slower than them.

The race gets going, I started out very fast, but all seems well. I then settled and road along nicely in a pack in the 21mph group for a couple of hours. Time wise I am looking at a pretty big personal best on last year at the 50-mile stage and well within a qualification chance. I’d originally thought that if I stayed in that group then I would end up with a qualification place provided they stuck to 21mph till the finish line. Whilst I was tight in the pack and getting the full benefit of all drafting and protection from the other riders, conserving energy nicely, at the 60 mile point I noticed the legs were wanting to go more and I couldn’t ignore them given there were only 78 miles to ride in total. Ignite the rocket, I broke away, by myself, from a pack of 40 mostly men (again, little me, more comical pictures were taken). I had nothing to lose, if they get me, they get me, and I am back in the big group.

What happens next, I did not expect! And definitely hadn’t thought through.

A couple of minutes after my break away which I was holding very fine (thank you very much), a moto marshal comes past and shouts “Lead female, go go go”. “Eh, how the hell can I be the lead female of the whole race of thousands? Let me work this out for a few seconds whilst I pedal at 22mph+ in baking sun, several thousand calories down after circa 65 miles”.

And then it dawned on me. I had managed to ride well enough to stay in front of the female Race Pen which were actually stupidly started 15 minutes behind my Sportive Pen. Not just speculation then. Right. This isn’t good.

When cycling, it is generally quiet around you, so much so that you would be shocked, until one thing happens. A pack of riders is approaching which just sounds like a mighty whirlwind of whoosh and whirring. I can handle a bike reasonably well and I would like to think I am pretty solid still. That is until 30 females in the Race Pen come at you at 23mph+ mixed in with the other group I had just left who they had swooped up en route.

This is dog eat dog amongst two genders and groups of competitors. I’m all for genders racing against each other but above anything else this is DANGEROUS because of the different agendas at stake.

Evidently the laws of speed don’t bode well here. We have 23mph females under race conditions trying to fight through 21mph riders not in a race situation, but wait for it, one rider in that second pack is the male over 60 race leader, evidently with a purpose of maintaining his lead.

What then follows is jostling everywhere, people riding up banks (on road bikes), people barging each other, dangerous riding trying to make passes, carving people up, accidents everywhere. This wasn’t a normal cycle race where we expect some jostling, this is dangerous because we have double the amount of bikes in the same space leaving no room for maneuver, moving at different speeds, all with different agendas. I was utterly shocked that this was allowed to happen. Other than gender discrimination, what is the reason for putting females behind the slower men? I certainly can’t see one. Safety definitely wasn’t on the agenda any more than equality. Carnage was however. I can’t help but wonder “what on earth is wrong with letting 40 years younger females finish first and faster”.

If sport is to be equal, it has to be equal on all accounts. And especially the doing of sport, not just the managing of it.

I haven’t said much about my own performance on that day but whilst I was moving fast enough to stay onto the female race pen pack, the rules wouldn’t have let me because I didn’t start with them. I therefore had to hold back a bit, which was probably safer anyway! I rode solidly, and far better than I have done recently anywhere else, but I came in 52nd and missed out on qualification by two places and 79 seconds. I will almost certainly be offered a GB roll-down place, but I won’t be taking it. Athlete stuff is generally not so good and happy at the moment (more later) and I only really raced because I wanted to see what I was capable of and to get some racing under my belt so to speak.

And a last anecdote which I think sums things up nicely. After I let the female race pack go ahead I pushed on as fast I could to the end whilst maintaining a few minutes gap. There was just enough left in my tank for a sprint down the finish line. Which I did. And when I crossed the line I heard: “Don’t ever do that to me again, you have totally embarrassed me. Stop smiling. You started the same time and have just beaten me over the line”. Those were the words of a man, perhaps 40 or so who I didn’t know and who I had just taken easily in the finishing straight.

Wow. From another rider. A male. Never had that before. It would seem gendered perceptions do have that far to go amongst fellow competitors too.

The hardy of you will remember my explicit moaning about the shortened nature of female cycle races and so in part two of this theme I will share another case of gender equality that is equally shocking and is currently becoming a more prevalent issue within the cycling world.

Please feel free to share this post where you might like. I am also very interested in building up a portfolio of these types of cases, so please get in touch if you have something or would like to talk more. I am happy for these to remain anonymous if that is preferred.

Until next time.

Pocket Rocket.

 

On journeying with my turbo trainer: Part One

One Wednesday night in December turned out to be sadder than I expected. That day I lost a friend. Except this wasn’t a human friend, it was a machine, my Tacx I-Magic Turbo Trainer, the crème de la crème in its prime ten years ago and the first “virtual” turbo trainer that meant riders could train to videos (more on that in part two). On that night, “Doctor Bike” (my Dad) had just texted me and said the motor was finished. The worst bit. The lifeblood and the point of no return. As I sat there, with a tear trickling down my face (you all think I’m nuts anyway so admitting that won’t change things), it was a tear not primarily consisting of sweat for a change but one imbued with sad emotions, I was overcome with a flood of memories.

It’s not unusual for an athlete to have their favorite piece of equipment perhaps a bike, racket, a pair of boots or trainers, type of golf ball, and that’s usually the case either because of functionality or some seductive commercialized appeal. However, to be honest this wasn’t about either of those aspects. As it aged, my Dad and I did everything we could to prolong both the mechanism and the bike that I rode on it. It had new tyres, it had updated speed sensors, I invested in different software, it had new pedals, new cogs, new cables, I ditched the headset display etc. It was quite frankly well past its sell and use-by-date years ago and we spent so much money on it that I could have easily have had a shiny new one a few years previously. I say “we” because the bank of Mum and Dad was always open and welcoming.

So why was I upset about this knackered bit of kit going to heaven?

That emotion arose from the journeys physically and metaphorically that I had travelled in and with its life. My tears were filled with the utmost of nostalgic pride. The Tacx trainer was housed in “The Sweat Box” – literally a box room portioned off from the conservatory that permanently reeks and is generally pretty damp and cold, particularly after I have sweated in it. But these few square metres represent one of the closest marriages of my two worlds: being an academic and an athlete.

Some big, important and significant things in my life happened in and around that box. It was my saving grace more times than I remember but some notable ones include: the morning of my PhD viva, the day before an interview for my first academic post, the days before virtually every half or full Ironman I’ve done, travelling to the World Champs to represent Team GB, when I had just put my 15 year old cat to sleep and had one last ride “for Harry”, when I had my first (and second and third) tattoo and didn’t want to bend or train my arms too much, when I put it on the highest climb mode to prepare for the Tour of Wales, when I had my wisdom teeth out and was told not to exercise, when I would leave for an early morning flight and have a quick ride in the middle of the night, when I had more anxiety than was physically possible to contain, when I needed endorphins, when I couldn’t sleep, when I couldn’t write, when I needed to burn calories for a treat for tea and even a decade of Christmas mornings preparing for gluttony. That’s the short version of a very long list.

The message is clear though: it was and still is up there with being one of the most fruitful spaces where I can believe in myself and my two worlds.

Beyond that, it was the place and bit of kit I used to learn to become a cyclist and endurance athlete. I’m too modest but I can at least recognize that it was a huge factor in training to ride for Team GB at the World Champs (2017) and becoming an All-World-Ironman Athlete in 2016.

It might have seemed liked a wussing out option when I didn’t want to face the British weather, indeed, I hate riding in anything below 10 degrees, but the idea of it being an easier option couldn’t have been further from the truth. It just wasn’t cold. That was all. For all other intents and purposes, I trained like a machine and more precisely and harder than I could do outside. It had every level of intensity from recovery ride to endurance training and sprint efforts requiring a bucket. I even won a Virtual Tour where I rode about 15 hours on it in one week in 2015.

It only ever got a bit boring when I was there over 3 hours but even then I liked that it tested my resolve. It taught me how to learn to handle pain, be patient, it taught me discipline, it taught me how to train in power zones, it taught me precision and consistent pedaling, to stay still etc. As the years went on, I also took great pleasure in learning to deal with its “surprises”, namely the gears jumping up and down circa 3 at a time, or its sporadic flat tyre or less than smooth riding.

By being easily accessible at home it also supported me in my disciplinary pursuit of consistency. If I wanted to train, I could. There were no places to look for excuses. If it’s the middle of the night and I didn’t want to be in the dark, put the light on, if I needed fuel, walk ten steps to the kitchen, fifteen more for a wee, if I needed a dry shirt, climb thirty steps upstairs (of course not with your cycling shoes on) etc.

The consistency it afforded me I believe was also fundamental in my improvement. The best athlete isn’t the one who trains exceptionally but not regularly enough, the best athletes in my view are the ones who train regularly, well enough to improve their fitness but more importantly within themselves enough to maintain regularity of sessions. The results come from consistency and navigating life’s challenges 365 days a year. If there’s not enough time, 45-60 minutes on a turbo trainer will do the job. That isn’t just something for a more performance minded athlete, to my mind its resonance travels to the average recreational gym user.

Of course, in replacement I have a new Wattbike Atom now. Spoiler alert: in part 2 I will surely tell you how much I love that. But I really hope I don’t forget how far I’ve come with my Tacx I-magic.

Never worry about having a favourite. Favourites are winners whether they are functional or are your comfort blanket.

Climbing Mt. Teide: Patience and precision

So yesterday I went on a “little adventure” on my bike. Uh eh, we all know what the kind of ilk of Charlie’s little adventures take on. So, I went up Europe’s longest climb, Mt Teide (+2000 metres), in actual sunshine and jersey and shorts. A most welcome break from the current UK weather where I usually go dressed for the Artic.

I was a little apprehensive to start with as many things could ruin a grand day out here. e.g. the weather could distort the view going up, the rental bike could disappoint or not fit correctly, the spd cleats I’d chosen to ride could have killed my feet (still don’t know why I decided that) and last but not definitely least, I’m not really a climber. Such is its length and altitude, the volcano has been one of Wiggo’s and Froome’s key factors in training for big tours.

I went as part of a group with a rental company who organise rides. In the early morning we were garnered from various parts of the island in a mini bus. En route to the shop to collect our bikes everyone seemed to be doing that endurance athlete initiation thing of testing out what the other riders might be like before they even got on their bike. What kind of body shape do they have, are they a triathlete, do they live in the hills, do they live in warmer climes and have actually ridden their bike outside in the past 6 weeks?

We collected our bikes from the shop which were then loaded on top of the minibus and clambered in our cleats ready to get to the bottom of Teide. As we drove I couldn’t help but think “the more we go up in the minibus, the less I am dragging up on my bike”. My fantasising was rudely disrupted by the mini bus stopping at what seemed to me pretty steep. “Uh oh, I’m riding up, from NOW?” Yep.

Then it began, we gently rolled out on undulating roads for 15km before a coffee stop. I say undulating, there was one very steep bit (the 2nd steepest bit of the whole route) where I prayed it wouldn’t be like that the whole way. Cycling in Europe means espresso only allowed. Thankfully that arrangement works for me. An Italian guy riding a time trial bike (!) paid for us all and then promptly headed off upwards. I didn’t see him again.

For the next few hours (no accurate data as didn’t have Garmin holder) I rode upwards only, in the granny gear. The gradient ranged from 6-11% the whole way. Relentless. The views were breathtaking but I don’t have many pictures because if I had stopped I would have dismounted onto a cliff edge. About a tenth of the way up the guide said to me “be patient”. These were words of wisdom, this guy rides this route every week and knew the beast.

And that was how I tackled it. With patience. The whole way. Just sit, suffer and enjoy. I only stopped once for a bar and some salts, otherwise I plodded it out. I’m not used to climbing of any sort really and so made the decision to try and avoid blowing up at any point because I was worried I wouldn’t make it to the top if I bonked. I’m not used to riding my bike with much patience, but it was so the right approach for this one.

I often joke as a cyclist/triathlete that rides, and certainly races, can be defined by a number of words beginning with ‘p’: pee, poo, puke and the worst, p-u-n-c-t-u-r-e (notice how I can’t write it in full?). Sorry for the less than savoury topic. Yesterday, however, I learnt to add a new positive swing to this vocabulary with “patience” and “precision”.

So whilst I had patiently sat it out to the top, feeling (and enjoying) the decrease in oxygen which would give my base miles for the year a big boost, I succeeded with patience and a little precision. The latter needed for handling the bike around the sometimes tight bends. On the way down, however, that duo was reversed: lots of precision and less patience.

Descending was a ball, and one I had waited for ages for. Hours in fact. Some of the group were a little worried, it is pretty high up! I didn’t suffer and enjoyed the thrills, riding down the Black Mountain during the Tour of Wales in very bleak conditions with much more technical sections has taught me well. It was poetry in motion, as I peddled occasionally but mainly just steered and the bike pretty much followed, humming on the tarmac and the mechanics whirring away. Whilst it had been 20 degrees most of the way up, it felt freezing on the way down and I’d forgotten arm warmers or a jacket. A kind lass lent me her arms, an example of cycling camaraderie that had been in full force all day as we adventured together.

As I sit here writing this post ride the morning after I can already feel my heart occasionally skipping a beat. Sounds strange but thats a good indicator of my fitness because that usually means my resting heart rate is somewhere around 41bpm. Usually I notice the beat skipping starting in April/May time as I start putting longer miles in but it seems Teide has served me and my pre-season very well.

If you are a cyclist of any guise, give it a go. It’s definitely one for the list. The views, alpine smells, clean air and descent all make the suffering well worth while. Oh and the rental bike, a Look 765 was the comfiest bike I have ever ridden. It’s not that expensive (relatively for a cyclist) and so this mornings coffee break may find me on Ebay.

Off for a steep hill run now around Los Gigantes. Ride and live well comrades.

 

Gifts for cyclists? Or rather, the gift of cycling?

bikes xmas

It’s that calendar month of the year that seems to offer a magical opportunity to don fairy wings and “let it all go”, “blow out”. A license for several thousand (extra) calories, an option to skip workouts, consume extra alcohol and freedom to reign and create a snowstorm of any of our existing routines. At the same time, there is also the myth “Oh, you are an athlete, you will burn it off very quickly”. Alas not. What I pile on my frame now wont contain the necessary macros for successful endeavors up hills in Spring. I’ll warn you now, the rest of this post will be full of cheese and scrooge.

I am a cyclist, in the right mood, I can give anyone a run for their money eating and on occasions (e.g. post Ironman) eat my body weight in cake. I have a very sweet tooth. I could eat at least half a Christmas pudding in one go, with a good load of trifle on the side, drowning in cream. That would also be after about 25 Celebration or Roses chocolates for breakfast, and a full Christmas lunch containing in the region of 5 yorkshire puddings. This off season thus far I have managed to continue bracing the cold much longer than I would normally and given my current fitness and body fat I am deserving of a little treat and rest. Perhaps sadly the somewhat less eccentric notion of moderation still needs to be applied. Getting myself into a food coma with a festive belly bloat helps no one in the Christmas survival exercise, because that is what it is for me. Like a lot of people, I genuinely struggle with the idea of Christmas, particularly because I am not religious. I struggle with its  commercialization, waste and equally with the forced happiness, there’s 364 other days of the year when I can be happy, no need for extra pressure for this one to work out.

Before you tarnish me with the scrooge hat, let me offer a little more festive cheer.

I have learnt to enjoy it in my own way and make some of my own fun whilst also spending time with those closest. We often hear of professional footballers training on Christmas day ready for their boxing day match, but I’m an amateur triathlete without such pressing needs for performance, and I still train on Christmas day. Every year. This is not some obsessive feat, but rather something I do out of love and it gives me the utmost of pleasure. It puts some grounding to the day as it’s my normal. Training is my pleasure all year round, so why should it be banished out of my life at a time when we are supposed to be enjoying ourselves?

Throughout the Christmas week (because let’s face it, that’s what it is these days), I train a bit harder and a bit more often. Not so much to cause lasting damage or injury, but enough to make a difference. Enough to know I may have knocked a few of the competition off the perch too. I also train more because it gives me the space to be exceptional within my normal routine and the routine in itself is my savior during otherwise unstructured days. I have a very managed approach to carbohydrates given my body shape and type and a few short sharp efforts are a good way to burn off any excess before it settles as fat, or before I ride sugar roller coasters from too many sweets.

And then there’s the gift giving. Buying for a triathlete/cyclist is pretty easy, they almost never have enough kit, on most websites there are gifts for under £10, under £50, under £100 over £2000. Basically, covering every price range possible from a pair of socks, to a box of gels, to a new set of carbon wheels and if you are very well behaved a new bike.

Of course, I find it hard not to buy cycling goodies when they are things I genuinely need all year round and are at a good price, but my best and most precious gift comes at Easter. When the clocks change and I’ve cracked the deal with the sunlight and I’ve sweated buckets indoors for months on end, pushed myself past boundaries I didn’t even know existed, increased my FTP significantly and I head outside with a new and better level of fitness. Boom. It’s perpetually hard during the winter and especially at Christmas, but for me, with a little bit of patience, that is true reward. Some Spring times I have raised a glass (non-alcoholic) in celebration of what is to come, knowing I am heading into racing season far better than I started the last and in the best fitness I could be. Providing no injuries, great things should come. This year the signs are good, by the time you read this on Christmas day I will have ridden my 6500th mile towards the end of my morning ride. The most I have ever done in a year but also with the highest wattage outed.

Festive best. Enjoy doing whatever you choose to do. Make at least a little bit of it your day if you can. If you are an athlete, you are an athlete 365 days of the year.

festive

Being Allegro: Riding the waves of being an academic athlete with music and tattoos

I already have tattoos, my first an M-Dot Ironman emblem on my left wrist, the second a self-designed initial of Bradley Wiggins on my right wrist. I got my third three weeks ago. Of course, I am proud of being an Ironman that has held a world ranking, and I’ll never stop admiring Wiggo. However, this latest piece of ink is more about me, being Charlie, day in day out. It represents the interdependencies and interconnections between being an academic and an athlete via the medium of music, a very large part of my life. Whilst the design took months to decide upon, the idea and what it resembles travels back to my teenage years: when I became academically minded and began to grow athletically.

You may know I operate on two categories of noise: deafening silence to work, or ear bleeding music when I am not. Whilst I train to music often (a separate story for another day), when I am not working I will have my headphones on. I own at least ten different pairs and I go everywhere with them, including the 6-minute walk from the car park to my desk in the mornings, to make a coffee, or to walk to a meeting two minutes away (I am not kidding). Sometimes I am trying to take myself to a different (probably happier!) place but often I am thinking and reflecting in the short and long term, finding my energy and rhythm. That energy then seeps into my academic work when I return to my desk and sit quietly. Perhaps I am thinking about something I wrote that I was pleased with, perhaps a perfectly nailed set of intervals performed cycling or running before work. I also look forward, sometimes a paper I am thinking of writing for instance, my listening therefore becomes the space where the dots are connected and the final part of the jigsaw falls into place producing a coherent argument. Perhaps I just feel ropey and want to be in someone else’s world.

Here it is:

tatt3

What do the various parts mean?

Primarily it is based on Blink 182 because they are my favourite band (since a teenager), for those not familiar, fast pop punk music. The roman numerals in the middle obviously (hopefully?!) total one hundred and eighty-two (a bit late now if not). The blue and pink colours have also been mixed to match the official colours of the band. The words “A new hope” represent the title to one of the oldest Blink songs that contains one of my favourite (albeit short) bits of guitar. But, the words in themselves are also significant, you’ll see why in a moment. It is located on my right bicep, directly opposite my heart, also not insignificant as the right side is where the heart pumps blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen and function.

The aspect that connects it all together is the wave on the left side with a music note at the bottom. To some extent, it reflects the ups and downs of my character, in Blink 182 terms: “I’m a little shy. A bit strange and a little bit manic”. I wouldn’t say I am manic in the medical and strictest sense of the word but I do live my life with many roller coasters, those are a bit fun, and the troughs and quieter bits create the energy for the ups. If we deconstruct a wave then, it is something we usually understand as form of disturbance, predominantly has a moving ridge, an urge and a rush of feeling. It can move more freely and gently, back and forth or it can move as more of a sudden occurrence.

In creating that rush of feeling, another important point of the wave is the Crescendo – the crest – akin to peak performance and the euphoric moments when riding my bike. One does not do the athletic things I do without being an endorphin junkie. I can get my fixes in many ways but some examples might include a personal best of some form or winning a race, for example. So, the crest is the peak, it gradually gets louder, creates excitement, and its petering or crashing out does not have to be bad. The point is that it is a cycle, it picks up again with its rhythm.  It’s “A New Hope” but that hope does not have to derive from something gone wrong.

wave

Moving on, if we think of the composition of music broadly, beyond the single note etched on my arm, there are several elements: rhythm, dynamics, melody, harmony, tone colour, texture and form.

Lyrics are often the part that touch most people in an emotive sense, but for me, the defining aspect is the rhythm – the element of “time” in music, when you tap your foot, you are keeping time, in time with the pulse of the music. In Greek, rhythm (rhythmos) means any regular recurring motion, some form of symmetry that is marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, but also of opposite or different conditions. Not too dissimilar to the peaks and troughs of the wave described above.

The rhythm is divided into two parts: how long the beat lasts, and the tempo: the speed of the beat. It is the tempo of the music that emotively affects my thinking and feeling, and I think about both academic and athletic things listening to the same tempo of music. Tempos are not specific and relative to each other but they do have some broad categories:

tempo

And they are described in the following ways:

  • Largo = Labored
  • Adagio = Slow
  • Andante = Steady walking
  • Moderato = moderate
  • Allegro = fast/happy
  • Presto = Very fast

So, how does this tempo play out in what I listen to?

I own around 700 full albums, which is a fair bit of music, but even with a few examples below and what I have explained already about Blink 182 whom predominantly sit around 125 beats per minute (BPM), there is a pattern emerging here. I nearly always listen to a specific speed of music, none of that slow and sad stuff, never, not on even the darkest of days. I’m into “Allegro”, music that is relatively “fast” and “happy”.

  • Blink 182: After midnight (167BPM)
  • Up all night (156BPM)
  • Always (158BPM)
  • Goo Goo Dolls: “Over and over” (123BPM)
  • Avicii: “Wake me up” (124BPM)
  • Train: “Working girl” (124BPM)
  • Ed Sheeran: “Castle on the hill” (135BPM)

It is also not insignificant that the BPM of the music I listen to are relatively close to the Revolutions Per Minute (RPM) riding my bike. For instance, a standard British Cycling warm up starts at 90RPM and progresses to 110+ RPM. When I am racing full pelt I’d expect to see 120RPM at least. For most of the time then when I am not training I will be listening to music at 120BPM which is not far away from an effort level of 8 out of 10 when doing my sport.

Adding these rhythms and waves together it represents a series of cycles and daily patterns that bring my worlds together and create moments of pure elation in my otherwise normal day. It is extremely telling that I listen primarily to music that is labelled “happy” and use and embrace it as a form of energising my worlds. I know our ups and downs can be caused by the chemicals in our brains, but I know for a fact that I can use music to fundamentally alter the way I think, feel and embrace the rhythms of my life. It is the space where I garner some confidence and above all else, believe. It’s also my medium of energy. Had a mediocre – ‘meh’ – day – spruce it up on the way home. Had some good news? Whack up the volume, celebrate and dream. Had a terrible day? Bad enough that you just can’t think of anything else? Put a song on repeat, lose yourself in the beat, let it carry you along.

There is so much more I can say on music in relation to both of my worlds, and if we add driving and travel to the mix it shows even more, but it’s beyond the scope of my ever-growing post here and my multiplying to-do list for a Monday night. I’ll save it for a chapter in the book. In case you are wondering, I have considered what the new ink will be like when I am 70 years old and it simply is no issue. This is me, this is it for the rest of my days, it’s my love, my drug and where I find authentic happiness. For now, I’ll sign off with my favourite race philosophy: “Let’s pick up the pace and the volume”.