What does winter training look like for an academic athlete?

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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.

Charlie’s taxis: Loving the labour of driving the disco bus

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A slightly off the wall post this one on driving, even if it is something relatively mundane in the modern world and just seen as a mere accompaniment to what we do nearly every day. It’s often framed as an annoying and exhausting addition to a working day when we want to get home and put up our feet. It’s considered laborious, but not work per se and we supposedly get no payment, at least not in monetary form. However, I am not with the majority here and have never really understood it in that way. It’s a space closely connected with being an academic and an athlete and for me far more than time eaten up just travelling to work and training. It’s not uncommon for an academic to make long commutes at some stage and as experience is gained as a triathlete there is no choice but to travel to bigger races.

Wherever we are going, whatever the time of day or driving conditions, the type of roads, however tired I am or how far we will go, you’ll have to wrestle me for the keys. I only drive circa 19,000 miles a year at the moment (about ten hours a week), but it genuinely gives me the utmost pleasure, so much so that I am usually sad when I park the car after only 10 minutes driving. This is not an arduous form of labour in my life that might be expected. I can understand why many commuters think it’s a waste of their time and money, but I’ve never felt that way, perhaps surprising giving that I cram every minute into my working and training day and devote every bit of spare money to either bike parts or race fees. However, I never find it tiring, perhaps being quite fit helps. Similar to racing drivers who are exceptionality fit outside of driving and are often endurance athletes themselves, Jenson Button and Mark Webber two notable examples. On a tiny bit of caffeine chewing gum I can drive for hours on end.

Of course, we all know I adore riding and racing bikes and a cyclist as a driver is supposedly more proficient in reading the road, has quicker reactions, is more aware of other cyclists, is more adept at controlling and steering a vehicle etc., at least that’s what some insurance companies who give reduced premiums suggest. I certainly drive a car like I ride a bike but more on that analogy later. I adore racing and I can’t deny the similarity in occurrence when driving. I love the intuition with the car itself but also the memories of the regular journeys and things gone past. Precisely nailing every corner, roundabout, overtake, and gear change to perfection is my love and drug. It’s also a chance for me to enjoy music and I never ever drive without my iPod on shuffle. OK, I am destroying the environment and spending a fortune on fuel I won’t deny but it’s also a very effective means of sustaining some sanity, especially if I can’t get out to ride much. It thus remains a fundamental part of my lifestyle that I factor in every week and never feel guilty about it. It’s simply what I do.

Beyond the physical labour and enjoyment of driving the car, there is more concerning the labour on myself during the drive. Like most people, I tend to drive two types of journeys, either longer ones or shorter versions ten minutes to work, the shops or gym (yeah, I am lazy, an athlete never uses extra energy when they don’t want or have to). The shorter ones become more of a transition, usually from training to work in the office or work at home. Those shorter journeys enable me to enjoy myself for a few minutes before shifting to a work mind set in a different physical space. After ticking off my training tasks, I then put the academic ones to the forefront of my mind. Driving also gives me the greatest sense of calm and distraction, probably because I just love to control something moving, ten minutes in the car before an anxious appointment or meeting works wonders like you wouldn’t believe.

During the longer journeys, I love being away from my 3G/4G/Wifi, namely my iPhone and MacBook. No TouchId here, I am out of touch. One of my more frequent drives consists of the A6 and 55 junctions of the A14 and those miles happen automatically, on repeat without any thought. Even though I am not thinking about the drive, I don’t get bored or lonely either, I like that I have to have a lot of trust in the driver in front, but I also like that I don’t have to talk to them. Thinking time. Academically I conjure up my blog posts, lectures, seminar exercises, paper ideas and various other forms of writing. I try to store ten points and if I can remember them when I get home, then they are keepers (of course I can’t or don’t write them down in transit). I also think on a broader conceptual level about myself as an academic rather than my academic work, what’s my research identity? What are my one, three and five-year plans? In this sense both of these pursuits remind me of one of the great benefits of an academic job. I am not always welded to a desk, I think fora job, rather than solely just about my job. In my solitary journeys I find I can think far more easily and freely without the noise of emails, other worries or simply the noise of my own mind telling me I am thinking non-sense. Without the commitment of a screen or piece of paper I can also think far more liberally and give myself a chance to wander with impossible ideas. I don’t have to subject them to a premature death by writing them down until I am ready.

During those long journeys I don’t have a list of things I work through. I just let things pop into my head. So naturally I can’t help thinking about triathlon things given that it’s such a huge part of me. I plan races, strategies, I consider the order of next week’s training sessions, and I believe without restriction. I also use it as a form of recovery. I am sitting comfortably, pretty much resting my body from the week’s or day’s efforts and barely burning calories. I therefore use my drive as time to make sure I am up to scratch with the day’s eating and drinking and if it’s after a long race or ride I will usually be driving on recovery shake. I can’t obviously have a three-course set-down meal but you’d be amazed what can be made portable these days.

On that note re portability, I have recently moved to driving a ‘bus’ which is unavoidable given the amount of kit I shift each week. An athlete virtually lives out of their car. Never go anywhere without anything, just in case an opportunity for a few minutes training presents itself. It makes the labour of shifting to training before or after work much easier when you don’t have to prepare too much kit.

So there, as an academic and athlete, it’s safe to say driving is like my own version of an after-work or training feet up TV show.

Marbs 70.3: A brutally beautiful event, rest in peace fellow comrade

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Sunrise on race morning circa 6.15am

I’m back home and having recovered and dealt with the post race tidy up I am now able to reflect on just how much of a ball I had in Marbella racing Ironman’s inaugural 70.3. It was a special event and I was overcome with emotion on the start line particularly, but the buzz and Ironman unique atmosphere was there all weekend and even continued in the departures lounge as we left Malaga three days later. I’ve written a full race report here (scroll to the bottom of the page if you want to read my review) and so won’t go into too much detail but in short, apart from the shortened swim on race day, it was a perfect early season race. On an individual level it was also perfect in the race set up and post race taper as I am fortunate enough to live only 20 minutes from the race start and thus had full training apparatus at the ready, and a beach and sunshine too. I sincerely hope all athletes behaved themselves and the town and residents of Puerto Banus are happy for us to return in 2019.

Results wise I am also happy. I finished 24th in my age group overall and within that I was 5th amongst the GB contingent. The time was 6 hours 18 minutes which is almost an hour slower than my PB but I am more than happy with that as a brutal first race of the year. Next up for me is Outlaw Half in Nottingham on the 20th of May where I will be racing the lowest race number I ever had. Numero 9 and going off in the elite wave. I didn’t select myself in that wave but clearly I have myself a little promotion there.

Back to reality and I am very aware I have a lot of grinding to do. There’s heaps of work and writing to be done and equal loads of training to be achieved by August. As the going gets tough the hardest part will be maintaining some sense of balance, the danger comes when I try to push boundaries. I have my quota of work and training each week and I need to try and maintain that because once that breaks it becomes a vicious cycle.

I have kept my race report short because I wanted to leave space for something which is way more significant and important. We didn’t find out until the day after the race but a fellow athlete, Sharon Lang, had a cardiac arrest in the water which left her brain dead. It is suspected that she had a heart attack and very sadly she passed away on Monday in Marbella. Thank you to those who knew I was racing and checked in with me on Monday when the news hit the UK media. To Sharon’s family and friends, please know there is an army of fellow triathletes sending you considerable comradely love during such a difficult time.

I’ve seen very serious accidents (including head injuries and it being me calling 999 from a field in the middle of nowhere) whilst out riding before, but I think this is either the first or second time that a fellow competitor has lost their life. I’m no medical doctor or cardiologist but I would imagine that whatever defect the lady had then this would have been catastrophic whether it happened in the water or later in the race during the bike and run. The swim was indeed very rough but it was not especially cold by comparison to usual temperatures. One possibility is that the high waves caused her too much stress.

Sometimes the media like to suggest that endurance sports carry greater risks than any other sports. They also play on the branding of an “Ironman” that is supposedly the hardest one day event one can take on. However, their views are very much based on the warped sense of moderation that journalists have of the general public’s health and athleticism. When someone dies in a race, and usually it is the heart, to my mind there are two types of death and one is far more riskier than the other. The first is the Joe Bloggs who attempts to run a marathon in full fancy dress attire despite having no history of sport or fitness. They spend a few months on a health kick, pushing their body to limits that a more trained athlete has known for life. I don’t wish to sound demeaning, I admire anybody who takes on a new challenge and breaks their comfort zone, but, such an individual is always going to be at greater risk for losing their life than someone who has even a small history of exercise. The lady who died on Sunday was a known runner/triathlete and I would guess has fallen to a second type of death that is more common with athletes and is the result of an unknown defect, rather than a broken body put under too much self-inflicted duress.

In terms of how I see it personally, none of my spiel here will take away any of the enormous amounts of pain these athletes’ families are feeling right now. Whilst I maintain that marathons and ironmans are no more dangerous than other sports, these recent events (I include the Master Chef Matt Campbell who recently died in the London Marathon) have made me feel luckily than ever to cross a finish line, but they won’t stop me continuing to cross them in the future. When I race for GB it is mandatory to have a medical, which usually involves me taking an hour out of my day to go and have an ECG. In the past I would have complained at this inconvenience and the £25 fee I had to pay for it. I have vouched never to moan about this ever again. Whilst I sign a waiver at the beginning of every race and accept a huge amount of responsibility and agree to abide by the rules of the game and ensure my own safety, I think perhaps what is necessary is to make ECGs a more formal requirement. This could be attached to a race license that is renewed once a year for instance. Such medicals are often spoken about in the media for football players and the physical requirements of even an age-group triathlete are no different.

Adios, rest in peace comrades x

Building bricks: Being a ‘tri-athlete’ through transitions

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My brick session kit, complete with a drop of sweat

With the growing amount of people involved in the sport, being a triathlete will naturally mean different things for different people, for some it will be a one-off event, they are not even sure of the order they should do things, for others a lifelong pursuit or series of adventures. Yet, when I get asked, mostly in the gym, “What are you training for? What’s your sport?” I often stumble. I presume they ask this by the way because I have usually surpassed the average gym goers level of exertion and will be a conglomeration of sweat, vomit and escalating heavy breathing. It might seem a very obvious answer, a triathlete, someone who swims, cycles and runs in immediate succession over various distances. However, I think I hesitate because I have competed at many sports in my time but also because I almost never do all three sports in one training session, although I do more frequently cover all three sports over a couple of sessions in one day. As I move into race season I have been thinking a bit more about these onlookers’ queries and what being a triathlete means for me.

So, quite an existential question, but what am I? I race triathlons and I can do all three of those aspects pretty well, but does that make me a triathlete on a daily basis when someone asks? After all there is also some degree of normality and Average Joe at play here – doing an Ironman or a half Ironman has become a popular event on the bucket list of the reasonably fit looking to raise money for charity in recent years, dressed in a pink frilly tutu, or not. Thus, most of us can swim, bike and run to some degree if push comes to shove or if we are being chased by a growling dog. There’s also several varieties of physique on display at a triathlon that illustrate that it doesn’t have a standard or ‘ideal body type’ like with some other sports. For example, someone 7 feet tall is a candidate for a basketball player perhaps, oversized and built like a brick, maybe a powerlifter or rugby player, stick thin without an ounce of fat or muscle then they might be an endurance runner. When it comes to triathletes they come in three or more categories. If the athlete is predominantly a runner then they will have skinny calves, shoulders and triceps. If they are mostly a cyclist then their quads will be tree trunks and if a swimmer then broad shoulders, very strong lats and generally big legs will be present, somewhere between that of the skinny runner and powerhouse of a cyclist.

Indeed, some people are a mixture of all of these things and I certainly fit that bill. My game has always been built on power, earlier a cyclist and swimmer and thus I carry a significant amount of muscle on my quads and shoulders, back and arms. I also consider lifting weights my fourth sport which is unusual for a triathlete and therefore have a more muscular build for that reason too.

So, if I am saying a triathlete cannot be defined simply by its label or the apparent physique of the athlete, then what is the alternative? For me it is the general being of an athlete itself. Usually understood as someone who is proficient generally in sports and physical exercise, having physical strength, agility and stamina. It requires having a number of skills, managing three sports, but also the basic requirements of an athlete and the organization of their life that those combined sports bring.

In addition to managing a multitude of sport aspects (training, racing, recovery, physio, food) and a full-time job, physiologically and in a race situation, the notion of a triathlete resides with the transitions and the ability to transit the body and mind from one discipline to the next. This is where the saying that the transitions are the ‘fourth discipline’ comes into play, although most assume it is because this is where they need to be efficient in the process itself and not loose time. They don’t consider the underlying process of what it actually means beyond doing it as fast as possible. For me making the transitions are where many skills combine and are a key part of the general fitness of the triathlete. There’s two timed transitions in a race, T1 (swim to bike) and T2 (bike to run).

T1 goes like this – climb out of lake/sea (with or without the weeds), rip goggles and swimming hat off and simultaneously slide them into sleeve of the wetsuit (always my left), pull zip from back of wetsuit to start undoing it to waist level, then take left arm fully out, then right. By this point I should have run a few hundred feet, stood on several stones and located my bike amongst at least a thousand others. Next is helmet on as it’s a disqualification if I touch my bike without it. Once that furious fiddling is over its dancing to get the rest of the wetsuit off whilst also drying my feet on the towel I have left prearranged (note, not a bright colored towel because that is considered to give me an unfair advantage). Bike shoes and race belt on, gel in back pocket of tri suit. Run in bike shoes to mount line and I’m away cycling.

Despite being soaking wet and freezing cold, T1 is actually far easier on the body than T2. Above anything else, T2 is what makes and defines triathlons. By time exercising alone, it is now getting hard, on a full Iron distance triathlon I will have already swam 2.4 miles, cycled 112 miles and will be several thousand calories and sore muscles down. T2 goes like this: off the bike before the dismount line, run to my ‘station’ where my kit is in transition, rack bike on the rail before taking helmet off, get my bike shoes off if I haven’t already managed that whilst riding, socks on, running shoes on, press start on running watch and go.

During and directly after T2 is physiologically critical, but also dependent on athleticism requiring an efficient heart and lungs and well-trained muscles to make that transition possible immediately. As I run out this is when I have to manage the discomfort from shifting from biking to running before I can then assess how my body is really feeling during the race, as opposed to just dealing with the transition. If anyone wants to do a triathlon, then this is the bit that carries the greatest fear and requires the most work in my opinion. It is very important to begin running at a reasonable pace, at least until the first feed station (circa a mile), however much it hurts. This is also a place in the race that can warrant a strategic advantage, catching up those who haven’t made the transition so well or racing ahead if all is well. The shift itself involves quickly using different muscles and energy stores and feeling the blood in my legs moving to different places, as this happens it’s not uncommon to feel very sick and shaky. It’s getting through this and managing it that is key before I finalise my run plan. Psychologically the thought of running at all, without even sitting down, let alone 26.2 miles requires some resilience, stupidity and a general belief that you have a fit body.

Unsurprisingly then the most important session of my training week is a brick session – 75 minutes on the Wattbike immediately followed by a 20-40 minute run on the treadmill simulating race conditions and pace. Whilst I only run a short distance in these sessions, it’s where I visualize the run for race day. It doesn’t matter that its short, the important point is training to get past those first ten minutes that will happen in any race and once I’ve done that I know I will settle into the zone whether I need to run for 1, 2 or 5 hours. I also like this session because it’s a big training load that requires me to execute a good recovery with correct fuel in the ‘magic hour window’ after it. If I have got that wrong, those are the days I will be seen a little big groggy at work by 11am and looking to eat everything in sight followed by a nap. I like that I have to work extra hard at this to avoid it impeding my academic working day.

So, there you have it, I might be a triathlete, and that’s important, but for me it’s also about generally being a well-trained athlete who takes pride in managing all of the aspects required for success. The transitions are the places that execute and show general athleticism. I enjoy being versatile and physically fit enough to turn my body to most things, including having fitness for reading books and writing. Having several sports to choose from gives me a fair amount of freedom and also means I can fit my training in around work, including when I am away and engaged in different tasks.

Get building those bricks then!

Game face on, 2018 race schedule: “Race the race you have trained for”

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Wow. We are now just two weeks out from my first race of the season at Marbella 70.3 Ironman on the 29th of April. As I work my way through some race admin I thought I would share a few moments of reflection and my schedule. If you want to support or say hi just drop me a line. I have a lot of other blogs written but I am looking to upgrade the site in a few weeks so will save them for now. The quicker bit:

29th April – Marbella, 70.3

20th May – Outlaw Half, Nottingham, 70.3

3rd June – UCI Gran Fondo, Cambridge, World Championship qualifier

8th– 10th June – Tour of Wales

1st July –  Outlaw Half, Holkham, 70.3

8th July – Castle Hever, 70.3

29th July – Outlaw Full, Nottingham, 140.6

8th September – Vitruvian, Rutland Water, 70.3

23rd September – European Long Distance Championships, 140.6

So that is quite an ambitious race schedule and I always find the first race of the season a somewhat tricky one. On the one hand one is terribly excited to see what results winter has brought and simply to enjoy ‘racing’, it’s what I do after all, but on the other it is important to remember that my ‘A’ races will come later in the year. I can’t afford to totally flaw myself and spend weeks recovering. In short, I am in a hefty few months of full distance Ironman training until late June as the mileage and volume increases week on week. I heard a well-known Ironman commentator say the other day “Race the race you have trained for”. That is sound advice, indeed, do your thing. If you are not quite at your peak fitness make sure you avoid the temptation of chasing a faster athlete if your gut instinct is that you are not quite there. You will blow up and you will ruin your day. Likewise if you have had an injury or illness.

Tapering, when an athlete reduces training volume before a key race is often the cause of much grumpiness. It is unbelievably hard to significantly reduce your training when you are at your fittest. This is also hard for me when training is so closely connected to my writing and academic productivity. That’s going to hit very hard this year. It feels a bit like a self-inflicted injury. The grogginess is vile as is the few pounds gained. Meanwhile your legs start getting very edgy. In athlete’s terms, they feel like they want to “bite”. For bigger races tapering is an absolute must. However, I won’t be tapering much for Marbella because it’s not one of my bigger races and its early. I just want race time in my legs. In fact I will ride 200 miles the weekend before and then have a very short taper, just enough to feel fresh on race day.

I still obviously must “prepare to race” and I find this possibly one of the most pleasurable parts of racing and being a triathlete itself. How each individual approaches their race preparations are very individualised but there’s a few sessions that I do and take as signs to know I. Am. Good. To. Go. These include a sprint set on the Wattbike (20 secs on 40 off, numerous times), riding 30 miles in about 1 hour 20 mins, a fast 1.2 miles in the pool with sprinting every 4th length and the last a 20-30 minute “brick run” at full race pace after 30 miles on the Wattbike. After all those things I can assess just how much my legs are biting.

There’s also a reason it’s called “race week” – even though the race is only one day. That “week” requires lots of arduous and laborious working outside of training. The training is nothing really and just keeps you ticking over. The key is maximising recovery after training which is usually shorter faster efforts, eating at the correct time slots, timing the carb load, sleep, hydration, massaging and getting every bit of kit in the right place so any last-minute panics are avoided. And then, once you have racked your bike the day before the race you get out of the way of everyone as quickly as possible (never ever go to the pre-race pasta party it is a very evil thing) and hide/sleep. Being as precise and perfect as you can during that week inevitably produces results come race day. It is the difference between getting round and high end performances.

A little anecdote. Every year I have one song that I memorise every single word to so that I can rehearse it over and over in my head when I need to pick up the pace and volume during races. Headphones are not usually allowed racing so I have had to improvise. This year it is Ben McKelvey – Stronger.

The signs are that I am training well, although I don’t have as much long distance cycling in me as I would like. I’ve been bit of a lightweight with the British “spring”. However, by far the biggest victory for me this winter has been resolving my foot pain both running and cycling. I have trained more effectively and harder than ever, but, I have spent an awful lot of time with foot mobilisation therapy, getting new running and bike orthotics/shoes custom made, wearing in new orthotics, self-massaging my feet, treating blisters, etc etc. To be able to bike, run and bike and run together without pain is a sweet thing. If I finish Marbella without any repercussions of those pains I will be well happy.

Let’s pick up the pace and volume. I’ll be back soon!

An anecdote. Organized chaos: A few days in the life of Hurricane Charlie

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People often say they can’t do what I do, but they are usually referring to some form of exertion and the physical amount of training rather than the labour around being an academic athlete. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have even considered that part. After a few quite hectic days earlier this week here I am thinking about what I really do, how much goes on behind the scenes to be a working academic and race fit athlete Charlie.

It is so much more than those ghastly 5.15 am starts nearly every day. Getting the athlete into the right place, at the right time, with the right kit, support team and food is a military operation in itself, like you wouldn’t believe.

We are now entering pre-season for a triathlete and it will soon be play time. Play time is sweet but essentially the more I train and race, the more I sleep, the more I eat, the more washing that needs to be done. Whilst I have been on study leave I have a bit more freedom and so last weekend I worked two long days to ‘clear’ my desk for a few hours off Monday. Except, ‘clearing’ one’s desk in my world doesn’t actually mean that because all I do is take myself away from my Mac and transport myself to the perpetual train of triathlon organizing.

Sunday: drove in the evening from Leicester to Ipswich, where I am stationed less than 18 hours. 1000 miles in a week driving. As I fly through the door at 7pm, I am an hour earlier than normal, my Mum is as always delighted to see me, but is swallowing the last mouthfuls of her tea and I can see she is wondering about what she was doing before her meal and before any sense of calm was about to be disseminated by Hurricane Charlie.

Still Sunday night and so we get to work. Every second counts in this world. What is the urgency to drive over 300 miles in sub two days you might ask? Preparing a bike box ready for the airport on Wednesday and it has to be done in case I am not back again. Said bike box is destined for Spain, except I won’t board the plane with it. It’s all in preparation for when I arrive in three weeks time. Not now. I send everything I need to ride a bike with my parents who are boarding the plane, paying attention to every last detail, from the subscription to Trainer Road trainer software, through to the right pair of socks and energy gels.

Yep, still Sunday evening. No day of rest in this house. Next job. Never-mind, been going since 5.15am, a full days work, 30 mile ride and 125 mile drive. Next, sign all forms and deal with all post etc. that needs doing and do the all-important check to make sure my writing from the week is syncing to every single Mac in every location I work (5 in total). Whilst doing that I announce another gem for my dad. “We need to put the new airless tyres on the new bike before you leave to go on holiday because we won’t actually see each other when you get home, we will be handing Baggles (the cat) over virtually. I’m riding in the Midlands that weekend and wont drive to Ipswich first”.

He sighs. “What I have to do that before I leave for holiday?” I hear my mum do a little sigh too, perhaps a more sympathetic one more sided with Team Charlie. She asks him “What are you doing tomorrow afternoon?” There isn’t a clear answer. There shouldn’t be, he’s retired.

I can almost hear my Mum telepathically communicating to my Dad in husband and wife language. I think she goes something like this…“Honey, I know you don’t really want to do that (the airless tyres) after the gym and would rather read your book and enjoy lunch, but, if you don’t do it then, you won’t like the alternative. I promise. Boomerang (our daughter) will be back at a less than opportune moment and there will be very little patience involved. Plus, I have to go to Sainsburys after the gym to get food for the machine before I leave for my afternoon appointment and so you are definitely not alone”.

Time for my dinner, no effort required. There is one prepared meal left. It’s chicken and broccoli. It was cooked a week ago and left in Ipswich with enough carbohydrates in it for tomorrow’s planned training. Simultaneously I start food prep for the next week and think that there doesn’t seem much chicken left in the freezer as I get meat out for week. Silly me, delivered on Friday at the end of the week, pre-ordered, the date chosen to maximise time riding and writing at the weekend with less defrosting required. Seriously.

Monday: I finish preparing food for the week at 7am, I then pack the right amount of meals in the car based on the number of days I’ll be away for. I count out every supplement. I work out the order of every day’s training. Writing my own training programmes (just another of my laborious tasks away from training). After I deal with a tonne of triathlon admin. Booking events, appointments, races, rides, travel, bike boxes, insurance. Endless. I then head to the gym after the rest of cooking is done and the meat is cooling and prior to the rest of the additions in the 20 odd tubs. Yes, I just organised my training around meat cooling.

Back from the gym. Note to self, no dirty kit from Leicester, no dirty kit to Leicester. Remember. If you came with kit, make sure you go back with it. Otherwise, you will totally disrupt the balance of the right kit in the right place.

Guess what dad’s doing, the tyres!

I pause for a brief moment as I ferry around the kitchen and I notice Baggles sitting by his food bowl. He hasn’t had his breakfast, its 1pm. A gentle and calm soul of a cat. He’s not starving, you don’t need to call the RSPCA, he’s just patient and delightful. He offers me a little meow, not a screaming “do it now” (the kind I regularly deliver) but just a little reminder “hey! I’m here, I’m ready now, whenever you are”. He’s used to the madness around here.

Dad carries on in the kitchen with the tyres. He says it will take him another 45 mins to prep the second tyre before he needs my help finishing them off. So, I train a second time, next door on my Watt bike and come ready, dripping in sweat at my allotted time slot.

Monday afternoon progresses and I am all done here for now. A 13 minute shower. Back in the car. Drive to Leicester, via Norwich. Yes, you read that right. Foot treatment in preparation for racing season. All part of the deal. I make a note of how my feet are feeling and also set a reminder in my phone to check progress in 6 weeks. Performance and fitness monitoring all on my to-do list too. I arrive in Leicester where every single thing is ready for an interrupted day of work tomorrow before driving back to Ipswich. And of course, meal and clean kit included.

Tuesday: Back to Ipswich after work where I am then all installed for a week of heavy writing and training.

This all sounds like hell, I know, and it also sounds like I micro manage my life to within an inch of it, because I do.

However, these last few days epitomise organized chaos. I live in busy and chaotic moments now to ensure the day to day running later is totally organized and entirely not stressful. These give me the calm spaces to write and train, eat and sleep with very little effort required. I have as much space and time as I want for all of those things. It goes like: train 6am, write 4 hours offline, 30 minutes recovery sleep (very important), write another 4 hours offline, train 6pm, finish remaining odd bits of work. Sleep.

I work just as hard at all of the preparation to get the quality academic and training time as I do the training itself. And as you can probably see, I am very gratefully supported by my loving parents (who probably collapse the moment I hit the A14 out of Ipswich). I couldn’t do it without them.

Oh, and where’s Baggles? In the bath fast asleep. Thank God. Team, the fort is held for another little while.

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.