Sport and Simulation – running towards reality

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.”

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

I was in the gym last weekend running on a treadmill, with another 10 people alongside me also running on treadmills and I got the giggles.

We were all running absolutely flat-out on a road to nowhere together while watching, of all things, Jeremy Kyle on the gym TV screens. It struck me that there was something surreal and faintly ridiculous about it.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a paid up, certified member of a gym and I like it. But I also still have a strong desire to get out too and I need to train outdoors, sometimes even in the worst our British weather has to offer.

But why? I’m not a sadist, I can see the merits of both indoor and outdoor workouts. I enjoy both. What drives me into the hills in the pouring rain or out on my bike when the sidewinds might throw me off?

The postmodern French philosopher Jean Baudrillard said the modern human living in the digital world is now so exposed to so many simulated experiences that we live in a state of hyperreality.

In the postmodern media obsessed age, he said we are experiencing ‘the death of the real’, that is to say we connect more and more deeply to things like you tube personalities, games and characters in a film, ie things that merely simulate reality, rather than engaging with the actual reality around us.

He says we have become stuck in a ‘desert of the real,’ a cultural space where simulated digital images are more ‘alive’ to us than the physical reality that surrounds us.

But what’s French philosophy got to do with sport and keeping fit?

When you think about it, we are surrounded in sport by simulations. Why climb a mountain when you can stay indoors and clamber up a giant artificial wall in a lofty warehouse? Why row down the river and take a soaking when I can stay in the gym and be the admiral of my own canoe to nowhere (and watch more Jeremy Kyle)?

Why bike up that massive hill when I can spin indoors watching my simulated self, my computer ‘me’ razzing up and down hills in California to a natty soundtrack of ‘fist pumping choons’?

I guess the answer to why we train in simulated modes is unfortunately, largely not a philosophical one. It’s really simple… British weather is fundamentally quite shit.

But despite ‘simulation me’ being perfectly happy in the gym most of the time, I remain fixated on going outdoors and I still feel like a cooped up child on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Why?

Because, ultimately nothing can compete with real experiences. Not treadmill running, not charging up a fibre glass wall, not even fake fighting in boxercise.

The problem with engaging solely in simulated sports experiences is that it is too easy not to put the effort in that we are truly capable of. When the risk and challenge element goes up, so does our performance and this just doesn’t happen in the gym in the same way as when you train outside, it’s too easy to back off.

For example, in a spin class, no amount of increased resistance on a spin bike can replicate the sheer difficulty of cycling uphill and not hitting the deck when every fibre of your muscles is on fire and you are pushing the pedals down desperately in a bid to keep travelling forwards and not fall off.

You push or you fall and hit the tarmac. You push because you have to not because the instructor tells you to. Essentially, the stakes are higher.

Ditto for running, there’s nothing like a black cloud looming in the distance to make you pick up the pace and get back home.

But even more importantly than that. In a modern life, surrounded by simulations and stimulants, machinery and madness, I need to let go of that ‘hyperreality’ and step out into the real world.

Sometimes, I need a wind that hits me so hard it makes my teeth grind and my eyes water. I need the burning in my nostrils as I breathe in and I’m exhilarated by the desperate push for air through my lungs as I’m climbing and trying to keep moving. There just seems to be something so beautifully human about the struggle.

I need these ‘real’ sensations to help me remember that among all the simulated experiences in so many areas of my life, that I am a human being. I remember that I am capable of just feeling, whether that feeling is good or bad.

I have to remind myself that I can step out of my hypperreality and experience and connect with something genuinely real, even if it’s only for a few hours before I return back through the front door and back into the modern, digital world.

Activity Monitors: Finally a gadget that works for all groups, from dieters to fitness enthusiasts

I’m a sucker for a gadget so I’m a fairly easy sell but I don’t like being ripped off and when I decided to jump on the activity monitor bandwagon, I really wasn’t sure if I was succumbing to a fitness industry fad.

I purchased an activity monitor in February but I delayed blogging about it until now as I wanted to use it for a few months so I could really work out what I would use it for and whether it was any good or not.

I have some fantastic gadgets at home that have regular and sustained use like my heart rate monitor but I also have bought some duffers over the years and I was concerned that I would rave about a product after two days of use and then after the shine wore off it would be consigned to the dusty confines of the Julsey gadget graveyard, otherwise known as the back bedroom.

My fitness equipment wall of shame includes items such as an old school Garmin Etrex with its rubbish signal, unfathomable menus and terrible scrolling capacity. A Pilates block which is just, well… a foam block. A spiky, weird plastic yoga mat called a Yantra mat, which is supposedly designed to improve your circulation or happiness or brain capacity or whatever – purchased in a moment of post-work, excess tiredness from a dodgy Holland and Barratt. All pretty much total rubbish.

So in the interests of getting it right and writing a useful piece, I’ve used it for a few months now. I’m not here to review, sponsor or endorse a particular brand of activity monitor. I personally use a Jawbone UP24 but I know people who are using other brands like Garmin Vevofit and seem just as pleased with them. This isn’t what this piece is about. This is to explore what is the point of activity monitors atall?

Are they for people who just want to look like they are active or are they actually of any practical use?

I have worn mine pretty religiously for the last few months with some surprising and slightly unexpected results.

So what do they do?

Essentially, they measure steps but they are much more sophisticated than that – they are a bit like a pedometer on anabolic steroids. They measure algorithms and so are more accurate. I looked it up and I still don’t really understand what an algorithm is, but it sounds impressive so I went with it!

The Activity Monitor translates the steps I’ve taken into a measure of distance travelled and calories burned and so the device lets me know how many calories I have burned during the day depending on how active I have been. The more active I am, of course the more calories I will burn.

For increased accuracy it also asks me to input all my physical data such as height, weight, age etc and comes up with a recommended daily, average calorie intake. For me as a shorter woman, unfortunately my ‘average’ figure per day is a fair bit less than the much touted women’s figure of 2000 kcals a day. With my stats it works out at more like 1,700 for weight maintenance.

Also, just a note that if you’re reading this and thinking of cheating 😉 , I tried to cheat the system and test the accuracy by waving my arms around like we used to playing Wii Fit on the Nintendo Wii to see if it registered the arm movement as steps, but the monitor remained stubbornly accurate.

How to use it for weight tracking:

The simple rule of weight maintenance or weight loss is don’t put more fuel in your body than you burn off.

That’s it.

That’s the terrible truth. It comes down to simple Maths but the activity monitor is a very, very handy way of keeping track of how many calories I have burned and so how many calories worth of food I can, or need to consume.

My activity monitor syncs with the ubiquitous dieting app ‘My Fitness Pal’ where you scan all the supermarket bar codes known to man and work out precisely and exactly how many calories you have eaten. So if I want to be even more accurate, I can log all my food intake into My Fitness Pal and it will ‘talk’ to Jawbone. As I log food, the amount of ‘available’ calories for the day I have left starts to decrease on the activity monitor and I have to say that having done this for a few months it’s really easy to see how you can get yourself in difficulty with overeating as those calories can pile up quickly.

The NHS estimate that *‘the average person eats around 10% more calories than they need every day’. This might not sound much, but over time the NHS say it will cause significant weight gain. This is only 200 calories a day for a woman – a glass of wine or a chocolate bar extra so monitoring your intake and activity levels could help stop the cycle.

Using the monitor really helps me keep track of this and has made me more aware of how much I am eating and whether I am active enough to eat as much as I do. And if I’m consuming more than I burn, well I can use the monitor to track and reduce my calorie intake or I can use it to set ‘step’ challenges for myself to up my activity levels instead so I burn more calories to match my increased food intake.

Is it any use for people who are already have moderate or high activity levels?

I count myself in this bracket and surprisingly I can say a firm yes.

One of its perceived limitations is that activity monitors can’t track activity levels while you’re exercising as it only measures steps, so if I am cycling or running it doesn’t realize what I am doing. If I am running, it’ll understand the step element but not the exertion involved.

But certainly Jawbone have got around this problem by ensuring that they have connectivity with other apps. My activity monitor syncs with Strava and so when I cycle or run using Strava it talks to the Jawbone App and Jawbone calculates the workout as extra steps and recalibrates my ‘burned’ calories and distance travelled.

Strava sends my fitness data and Jawbone recalibrates the calories I have burned making it more accurate as an 'activity' monitor rather than just a step counter.
Strava sends my fitness data and Jawbone recalibrates the calories I have burned making it more accurate as an ‘activity’ monitor rather than just a step counter.

The connectivity with other apps is a massive bonus and a really handy feature as one of my main concerns about it being worth purchasing one atall was the accuracy of its readings when it came to including some exercise.

The monitor is also really useful for ‘down’ days when I do no specific fitness activities and perhaps if I’m going through a busy period in work and so can’t exercise or am suffering from an injury and can’t train properly then an activity monitor is really handy for making sure I’m still aware of how active I am.

I also plan to make sure I am wearing it on holiday as that’s one of the prime times when I may exercise less and eat more – what can I say I’m of Mediterranean heritage and we like our food and particularly our carbs, but it can get out of hand during a visit to the Motherland…

A brief word about sleep tracking…

As a sleep tracker I feel a little ‘meh’ about the whole thing. Personally, I find it the monitor uncomfortable to wear overnight and after a few weeks of tracking my sleep I realised, and just came to terms with the fact I’m a bad sleeper so now I don’t wear it overnight anymore.

Also being the competitive little blighter I am, I began competing with myself to try and get more sleep every night, but the more I thought about how I would achieve this, the more awake I was with all the thinking and planning. It’s more me being hopeless than the fault of the device.

Overall, I’m absolutely still wearing it and it’s been a helpful little purchase. While nothing beats my heart rate monitor for accuracy, as a day to day wearable device it’s really useful.

And what I really like is that I can recommend it to both my friends who just want to lose weight and be a bit healthier but I can also say it would be useful for my friends who I do more intense exercise with too.

**http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/eat-less.aspx

Fitting Exercise Around Work – My top tips for the Guardian UK

Below is the link to an article in the Guardian where I shared some of my tips for fitting exercise in around work. Busy jobs present a challenge but we can’t let it stop us!

Five ways teachers can fit exercise around work

blog exercsie

This weekend I will be blogging about Activity Monitors and how they can be an unexpectedly useful little device.

Watch this space…

Why does it take me so long to get ready to ride? Confessions of a dawdling road diva.

In the 1990s I was the proud owner of a race bike just like I am today. It was painted in a shiny white and neon pink with pristine white drop handles and made by the quintessential, British bike company Raleigh. I was a total bad ass on that bike.

I used to take off for a ride in whatever I had on. No phone, only a vague idea of where I was going and usually a bag on my back filled with a grand total of one sandwich. The sandwich was crucial and not to be forgotten – I was a cheese and cucumber kind of girl. Maybe a bag of crisps too for longer journeys. We were quite snazzy with food in my house so it was Roast Chicken Walkers for me.

I can’t really remember what I wore but I had no specialist cycling kit, just normal sports kit. My Air Jordan tracksuit bottoms were super cool for cycling and on a casual Sunday ride – dungarees and a Joe Bloggs hoodie were the kit of choice.

But fast forward to 2015 and I can’t seem to get out of the door and out on my bike without it taking forever.

Over the years I appear to have been afflicted by the Great British disease of ‘Arsing Around’, firstly with kit and now more recently, just to add to my misery – with apps.

I am not an appy bunny (sorry).

I am deeply suspicious that I may have become a total cycling neurotic. I think I need help. Perhaps I could join a support group for those who cannot stop ‘Arsing Around’, we’ll call it the AAA or ‘Arse Arounders Anonymous’.

To help you understand. A Sunday ride will begin as such…

I sit up and stretch in bed. It’s 8.30am. Something perks my interest. I see a rare spring phenomena – a slither of blue sky pokes through a gap in the curtains.

As any Welsh hill cyclist knows this marks the start of what, in all likelihood, will be a narrow window of opportunity. But this unfortunately is also the bit where the ‘Arsing Around’ really goes into overdrive.

It is now an epic battle of me against me. The first phase of ‘Arsing Around’ is:

#ARSINGAROUNDATBREAKFAST

I race to the kitchen and get a good riders breakfast as I can’t cycle on an empty tank. It is always two Weetabix – eating any other cereal takes too much chewing time and places me in grave danger of getting cereal rage. And a banana if I have one. Oh and a hydration drink.

After the breakfasting ceremony, another good look is taken out of the window for any lurking cloud. This will determine how long I am…

#ARSINGAROUNDWITHTHEOUTFIT

Selection of the outfit is painful in this country in Spring. It’s not hot, it’s not cold. It is, as my dad often remarks, endlessly inclement. So, summer jersey? Winter jersey? Summer jersey with arm warmers? Suits you sir.

I stick my head out of the window for confirmation, yes this is the Welsh hills and it is cold. So it’s merino base layer first, then jersey, then windproof cycling jacket and possibly waterproof.

Next the bottom half – bib short? Tights over shorts? Will it cause chafing? Shorts over tights? Worse chafing? How long will I be riding? What is the percentage chance of chafing over 30 miles? There must be an app for that…

I drank the hydration drink at breakfast so bib shorts are a perilous option for the lady cyclist who may at any given moment need to leap over a wall and go ‘au naturel’.

Gloves? Shall I wear my short finger or long finger gloves? I shout down the stairs, ‘I can’t find my short-fingered gloves?’

The patient voice answers back, ‘Short finger? Er…your fingerless gloves are in the pot where you left them last time’.

Fingerless gloves, of course yes. All the ‘Arsing Around’ is interfering with the brainwaves.

Where the hell is my lid? Found my helmet. Yes!

And thus begins the next phase of the ‘Arse Around’ Sunday Special.

Preparing #THEAPPS

I put on my heart rate monitor strap, shoving it unceremoniously up my sports bra so it won’t move and then I set up: my route on Memory Map (even though I’m cycling where I always cycle) and my settings on Strava. I might ‘Map my Ride’ too (if I ever get round to going on one).

Did I tweet I was going out? Oh my God, I am actually drowning…….

But hooray! I can now track everything: my calories, my speed, my elevation gain, my distance, the slow descent of my sanity into the abyss…

Now it’s time for #BIKECHECKS

Better check the tyres. 60 PSI when they should be 100. Pump those babies up with the Joe Blow, except I can’t press the thing down when it gets past 80 PSI so I have to lean over it for the last few pushes and press down with my full body weight in a ridiculous manner.

Can I actually go out now?

Frickin YES!

Get in!

I’m done!

Except I’m not… overshoes? Snacks? Get the snacks Julsey. 90s me would never have left the house without snacks. Lights? Tools? Puncture kit? Snow chains, just in case? Will they fit in my saddle pack? You never know what you might need – this is Wales.

Right that’s it. I’m ready. 20 layers of clothing. 10 apps. 50 bits of equipment and I’m there.

I wheel my bike to the door.

The phone rings. I’m not answering. Definitely not answering. Godmotherfrickindammit.

I’m answering.

‘Hi mum’.

Shit.

‘I’m in a rush, I’m off cycling mum’.

‘Oh that’s lovely, I’ll get your dad to give you a weather report from his new weather station, see how it’ll go for you. He’s just like Carol on the BBC you know, we don’t need the BBC anymore. We’ve been to church, didn’t see you there? Back row were you? Just hang on… Have you heard from your brother? He’s not called for a few days, I’m assuming he must be ill…’

Another 15 minutes gone.

The desperation has set in, yet still I cannot leave. I am trapped in a perpetual cycle of ‘Arsing Around’.

A grand total of 75 minutes of procrastination later. I have been crowned the AA queen but at last I’m going.

#ANDWEAREOFF

It may be practically midday but I’m off. I’m clipped in. Go me! I’ve pressed go on the million apps and off I ride into that beautiful sunshine! I can feel it on my face and it feels lovely. I won. Ha ha to you God! It’s still dry.

I hear a beep from the blasted phone. I’m cool, I’m nonchalant. I’ll leave it. I want to leave it.

But my poor modern, enslaved, phone-addicted being means I can’t not check it. I pull over and check it.

The little green, bubbly text message glows happily and bears its news: ‘Your mum says you wanted a weather report. My weather station says you better pedal like Mario bloodie Cippolini, it’s going to rain and it’s been pretty accurate so far. Love this thing. It’s just like having the BBC and Carol in my garden isn’t it. Enjoy your ride. Dad x’.

I close my eyes momentarily and then look up and feel the delicate warmth of the sun fade. The grey clouds obscure my vision and as I pedal forward the fat, round unmistakably solid droplets of British mountain rain begin their steady drive straight into my face.

Crushing Calories in the Clwydians. Julia Kelly investigates walking vs running – which activity wins the battle of the burn?

There is so much information out there on so many different fitness activities that the internet can be an overwhelming place to be for someone seeking to lose weight or become fitter.

I decided to keep it simple this week and do my own straightforward and (not very) scientific experiment to work out what might be the most effective form of exercise I could do in an hour.

Since I have a dog that loves walking and this has to be done everyday anyway, I tracked the difference between walking 5k and running 5k in terms of the rate of calorie burn. 5 kilometres works as a distance as it usually takes around an hour to complete.

I planned a challenging route and then walked and ran the same 5k route over two days and monitored the findings. I deliberately planned a challenging route to try and get the maximum burn out of an hour. And as it turned out, my little experiment threw up some really big surprises…

The Route:

Route map on OS 1:50,000 map. Clwydian Range.
Route map on OS 1:50,000 map. Clwydian Range.   

The route is hilly to maximise the burn you could get from one hour’s exercise.

You can park in Maeshafn and then the route goes through the village following a path about one mile downhill past the edge of Colomendy to the river Alyn at the bottom, looping through the forest or ‘fairy glen’ as it’s known locally. The initial downhill is great for a brisk warmup.

It then follows the Llanferres/Maeshafn Road all the way up back through Maeshafn and straight up to the top of Moel Findeg. This is about a mile straight up an average 11% incline which shows no mercy nearly all the way up. This is steep as hills go and definitely gets you out of breath whether you walk or run it. It’s the moment to initiate your power tracks on the iPod!

However, the views at the top of Moel Findeg when you get there really are an excellent reward for your efforts even if you feel a bit of a sweaty mess when you get there. You get a panoramic view of Liverpool, the Wirral and Cheshire on one side and Moel Famau and Snowdonia from the other (on a clear day).

The path off the top loops back down from the ridge line at the top of Moel Findeg through a pleasant forest track and then back to Maeshafn village where you can jump in your car and get back home for a well earned rest. The last mile is variable terrain involving a mix of trail based ups, downs and flats to finish.

The Result:

Walking the Route
Walking the Route

I followed the route in the morning both times and in similar weather conditions.

I walked it as assertively and quickly as I felt comfortable with at an average pace of around 5 kilometres an hour. I ran it under the same conditions the day after at a pace of just over 7 kilometres an hour. I tracked it as carefully as I could.

Here are the stats:

Category 5.4K route Walk Run
Time taken 59.03 39.27
Average pace 5.5 kph 7.24kph
Initial calorie burn 639 676
1 hour after – calorie burn total 911 946

I was amazed that overall the difference between running and walking the exact same route was only 37 calories when I finished. And even more surprising was the tiny 2 calorie difference between running and walking calorie afterburn. In the hour after the exercise ended I burnt 272 calories after the run and 270 calories after the walk, meaning walking has a really impressive rate of afterburn.

Walking vs running? Who wins?

Doing either walking or running for an hour is a win-win situation in my opinion but…. essentially it depends what your goal is. If it’s just weight loss with a bit of toning then walking really appears to be a great way to burn calories. You feel minimal pain and pressure on joints and get a fantastic reward in terms of burn.

But if you’re trying to improve sporting performance then the run is better as my heart rate spent longer in the higher heart rate zones meaning my aerobic performance will get better, faster. You also save time if you run the route so that’s another advantage if you are trying to squeeze your exercise into busy days.

The calorie burn for both running and walking was high but it is a steep, challenging route. What this experiment has proven to me is that both activities are almost as good as eachother for just simply burning off some energy.

It’s heartening that if you put significant effort into a walk you can reap the rewards and if you are injury prone, want to take it easier on your joints or like your exercise a little more relaxing then walking really is a fantastic activity and you can maximise your burn by including inclines or walking at a decent pace.

When the nights are light and the weather is good, I would recommend ditching the gym while the sunshine lasts and getting out there.

Tracking apps used: Strava, MyZone Moves, Memory Map UK

From couch to 5k and back to the couch again

Moel Famau is one of the most walked hills in North East Wales. At 555m above sea level it’s a little hill but it punches above its weight for beautiful views and scenery.

It’s also a perfect distance for a walk to kick off a programme of 5 kilometre fitness walks that I am undertaking as part of my weekly activities.

I enjoy hill walking and my dog loves walking too. We both have hearty appetites so it seems a good way to help both him and me to stay fit, active and keep the weight off. However, in terms of making it count, I want the 5k walks we do to have some challenge. We don’t just want to walk, we want to feel the burn too.

People constantly underestimate the physical challenge of walking so I’m treating these 5k walks as ‘proper’ exercise to see what happens. This means including a bit of speed and inclines to get the heart rate up.

So for this walk, yes that meant I was planning on being brisk.

No that doesn’t mean either of us were wearing colour co-ordinated tracksuits and headbands, carrying little pink dumbbells in each hand. And most definitely, it’s only the dog that walks with a cute little waddle.

The route planned was to walk from the top car park or ‘Bwlch Pen Barras’ to give it the correct name. We went straight up the trail to the right of the car park which forms part of the well-marked, Clwydian way stretch of the Offa’s Dyke path. We followed the path all the way to the top at Jubilee Tower, round the tower and straight back down again.

Flags indicate the start and the end. OS 1:50,000
Flags indicate the start and the end. OS 1:50,000

The decent facilities, cheap parking and clear, well trodden paths make Moel Famau a really popular destination for both visitors to the area and locals.

But this was a rare day. Considering it was school holidays, it was was quiet. The car park was unusually empty and there were no families with baby-slinging mums and dads in sight.

This may have had something to do with the wild wind, driving rain and showers of hail stones.

It was absolutely not a day for hanging around, but howlingly-bad weather does give you excellent impetus to get the hell on with it where fitness activities are concerned.

I pushed open the car door with some difficulty which promptly gusted back, smacked me in the shin and caused a lot of swearing and hopping but undeterred I hauled open the passenger door too and out leapt the dog, sticking his beard straight into the wind.

Without further ado: hood up, ipod turned up loud, tracking apps initiated, we simply got on with it.

The ascent up Moel Famau is fairly steady and only becomes a challenge of significance in the final stage up to Jubilee Tower. On this day, it was made slightly more difficult admittedly by the hail giving me a free microdermabrasion treatment. The hood of my waterproof was glued firmly to the right side of my face going up and round the side of Jubilee Tower and the left cheek all the way back.

In bad weather, that little Schnauzer can shift, so we headed back down. Quickly.

Very quick selfie at the top!
Very quick selfie at the top! 

I’m not sure if our time would stand in ‘World Record’ terms as although we were fighting a mighty headwind on the way up, we were wind assisted on the return journey, benefitting from a turbo-powered tailwind that swept me off my feet twice on the way back to the car park.

But actually, despite the weather it was fun and quick and I felt as fatigued as I do after running.

When we got back home the dog returned straight to his couch and slept for hours and I have to confess after all the exertion, I joined him.

IMG_8482

The stats are in…

I tracked the walk with Strava for distance, elevation and speed and also used MyZone Moves, heart rate monitoring system to track how many calories I would burn.

The walk was 5.5 kilometres, 199m of elevation gain and we moved at an average speed of 6.2k/ph which is reasonably quick. It took 53 minutes from car door to car door with mini photoshoot at the top!

Strava stats
Strava stats

Calorie burn was over a whopping 700 which is a fantastic rate of return for one hour’s exertion compared to the sweat and joint pounding involved in running that same distance.

Next week I will be walking and running a 5k route to test the difference between the calorie burn of both activities so watch this space…

A Purposeless Pursuit – Strava and the problem of KOMs

Cycling for me is a leisure pursuit and a way to keep fit. It gives you the freedom to go somewhere. It’s about going on an awesome journey.

It’s part of my weekly exercise when our British weather permits and I really enjoy it. It’s also some reflective time for me to find a little corner of peace in my busy life.

In this spirit, today I went riding. Just a short one. The birds were tweeting, the hills were looking majestic in the distance. I was contemplating life, mulling over some work issues and, as always, thinking about what I would have for lunch. I was pushing relatively hard when my tranquility was disturbed by a screech down my ear of, ‘moooooooove….STRAAAAAAAAVA!’

I was already cycling next to the pavement, I had nowhere to go. My bike wobbled as a fully logoed and lycra’d rider came whooshing past me, unnecessarily close and I came very close to eating concrete. As bike etiquette goes, it was pretty bad.

By the time I recovered my composure he was well gone. I had been done over by a member of the Stravaratti. The section-chasing obsessives that can be found the world over mowing other cyclists down, belting it along sections of road chasing KOM times (King of the Mountain) or QOMs (Queen of the Mountain times) if you’re a woman.

Muttering to myself, as I continued my ride I kept thinking about this guy, eventually coming to the conclusion that rather than get mad, I should just feel sorry for him even though his attempt at Strava regicide had nearly resulted in me hitting the tarmac on my backside.

He probably wakes up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night desperately checking his app to see if anyone has overtaken his KOM. I sleep just fine knowing I’m a Strava mid-tabler. If I want to stop mid-section and take photos of the scenery then I will.

I am a happy user of the ubiquitous cycling app and as a tracker of how far I’ve been and how long I was out for, I think it’s great.

But I’m not and never have been a chaser of section times. I wouldn’t get them even if I wanted to, I’m not fast enough. I’m too light on the flats and cycling is one of a range of sports I take part in so I’m not a die-hard. I have very little technique but I have fun.

I wear a heart monitor and that way I know when I’m pushing myself into my burn zone so I know how hard I’m working. And I work hard so what does the section time matter?

What does amuse me is how there are so many people for whom the incentive of being crowned King or Queen of a 20 second section of country lane in the middle of absolutely nowhere, is such a massive deal.

For starters, it ruins the adventure of cycling. Cycling should feel adventurous. As a youngster, belting round with my sister on our Raleigh Chloe race bikes was an awesome experience. Even getting rained on or lost could be truly exciting. There was no GPS and no mobile phones atall and it was about the journey. We were no less happy for not having ‘tracked’ and uploaded our rides. My dad would always ask where had we been, what had we seen, not how fast did we do it.

Adopting an attitude of ‘if it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen?’ surely is missing the point of cycling entirely?

As an adult, it’s useful to have training aids but KOM chasing potentially encourages laziness in cyclists who go super-fast for short Strava sections but then ease off on the ‘non-Strava’ sections.

In actuality, I think it’s impossible to compete with anyone but yourself unless you’re in a proper, organised timed event. Everyone cycles different sections at different stages of their ride and so fatigue and local weather conditions at the time of your ride can have a huge impact on your section time.

Serious chasing of KOMs is a futile exercise anyway as the world of Strava is being plagued by some naughty, little EPO cheats out there.

Yes, there’s a pile of unscrupulous riders logging on and getting off their faces on ‘digital EPO’. We now have virtual cheats who can simply download digital EPO, hit the ‘juice my ride’ button and send their time stratospheric in the Strava ratings.

Strava as a company understands that KOM cheating is a big enough problem that you can ‘flag’ someone else’s ride. This is the Strava equivalent of declaring shenanigans on a rider’s time.

Strava get in touch with that rider to ask them to clarify their time or withdraw it as genuine ‘accidents’ can and do happen like leaving the app running while you drive home!

My philosophy is cycling is a journey. Ditch the Strava-based, KOM chasing lunacy. Forget the bragging rights. Get on the damn bike and pedal hard…all the way round.

Upside-down and al fresco

Taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather and an upturn in the fortunes of my ankle injury this week, I decided to take a tentative off-road run to flex the foot and see how much progress I have made.

About 2K in on the route I took, I arrived at one of my favourite places. It’s one of the best, elevated viewpoints looking across at ‘the mighty 555’, also known as Moel Famau in North Wales.

I love this spot. It’s so quiet as most people do not find a viewpoint of Moel Famau on a Sunday. They generally just march up and down this popular hill with reluctant kids and excitable dogs in tow, and what a shame this is because seeing it with a bit of distance and a bit of contemplation makes me feel all the more affectionate about this mighty little mountain.

I’m not usually seeking some sort of Damascene revelation in these moments, but I just like to pause and reflect. Perhaps on life? Maybe love? But more often than not, I’m ashamed to admit, my reflections are limited to what I’m having for dinner later that day.

As I stood there to rest my ankle, I started to have a play around being unable to stand still for long and it rapidly turned into an impromptu yoga session on the hill. I tried out some different headstands which is known as inversion yoga.

I started off with the traditional yoga ‘bound’ headstand called Sirasana which is raised up on the elbows, hands ‘bound’ behind the head. But the wild winds of Wales and uneven ground meant I was slightly more unstable than I felt comfortable with so after a while I went with the traditional ‘tripod’ hand positioning to provide increased stability.

Sirasana, full headstand
Sirasana. Full headstand.
Tripod style headstand. Tucked intially for increased stability
Tripod style headstand. Tucked initially for increased stability.

If you want to work on hip or hamstring flexibility, then being upside down in the headstand makes it slightly easier and also more gentle as it’s just your own body weight and gravity pushing the limbs down a little further rather than being upright and doing a lunge style of stretch where you are forcing your body weight on top of the stretch and exerting more force onto the hips and hamstrings.

Use gravity to increase the stretch. Splitting the legs can help balance too as your legs counterbalance each other
Use gravity to increase the stretch. Splitting the legs is quite stable as the legs counterbalance each other.

What’s great about headstands is you can work on your core stability and arm and core strength for longer as balance is easier to control than in the handstands that I was doing last week.

Combined with the beautiful views, doing some headstands here felt exhilarating and exposed. It felt free and perhaps a little childish, but overarchingly it felt great.

Full, straight headstand
Full, straight headstand.

So yoga Sirasanas done, in the blustery British weather it’s always nice to finish any outdoor exercise session with a bit of whimsical cartwheeling before continuing on with my run, leaving some confused sheep staring at me before I plunged back into the depths of the Welsh forests to find my way home.

Cartwheeling!
Cartwheeling!

Need a hand with your handstand?

Still injured and as a chronic sufferer of ‘change addiction’, which is what I call my inability to sit still and stick to one thing, I have been scouring cyberspace looking for ankle-friendly activities to try to maintain some of my fitness and alleviate the boredom that comes with the injury I’m carrying right now.

After a few hours of searching I came across the bearded wonder and Tumblr phenomenon that is yoga instructor, Patrick Beach.

Armed with my trusty Mac and my bargain, six quid iTunes download I let Beach take me through his personal take on a good yoga session. This is handstand yoga.

Beach took me through a 40 minute, briskly paced session which was essentially a whistle-stop tour of sun salutations but with handstand combinations built into it.

In terms of calories, it’s not a big burner. For 40 minutes of upside-down graft, I burned 138 kcals but it was way better than sitting and becoming all maudlin in an injury induced, TV-watching coma.

The session was really interesting. For the handstand newbie, he encourages you to take little ‘bunny hops’ to get yourself up there and ‘float to the top’ (he floats up, I had to push with a little more force and a little less grace to get to the top).

IMG_6373
‘Floating’ to the top
IMG_0482
Hitting the handstand

He also has a really unusual way of saying ‘downward dog’ and he says it a lot. I found his pronunciation pretty cutesy and I found myself repeating it while upside down like he does.

You try many different types of handstand and he encourages you to try different leg positions to find your balance best. For an ex-gymnast like myself, the flexed foot in the handstand is a bit of an alien concept and in some ways I think pointing toes is also a method of retaining balance up there but this guy is way more stable than I am nowadays so I gave his method a try and was pleasantly surprised.

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Finding your balance point

Handstand yoga is perhaps not one for the yoga beginner, or one to do on a full stomach, but as he says, you only need to try the handstand if you wish to. You can just stay in your ‘downward dog’ if you want to.

If you are fairly comfortable and feel like you can float, push or heave yourself to the top then I would recommend trying to do the handstand part of the activity near a wall so if your balance begins to tip over you can just touch the wall with your toes and lift back off rather than collapsing in a heap and doing yourself some damage.

Being a handstand aficionado, what I did find particularly challenging was going from ‘Warrior 3’, which is a flat-backed arabesque position into the handstand as you are pushing off one leg only.

People have a dominant leg and in Beach’s download you have to push off each leg in turn and so pushing up to handstand off your non-dominant leg feels really weird and it is quite a challenge to maintain the same kind of balance in the handstand.

Of course there are lots of the normal yoga poses too including the usual suspects like bakasana and sphinx pose and it definitely was fun.

Bakasana
Bakasana
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Forward fold

It felt truly liberating to spend some quality time upside-down again, my body definitely thanked me for it and I’ll certainly be doing it again. Handstand yoga, I say yes!

The dog, however, said it's not for him...
The dog, however, said it’s not for him…

Stats of the week:

Because injury blogging is slightly different from normal life blogging and because I still feel a little sorry for myself, I have ranked the three areas of my life this week instead of posting kcal stats.

Ankle progress?

Good

Work progress?

Fair to middling

Personal/Social life?

Hopeful…. I have a week out of the office next week!

Coping with injury and the merits of being upside-down

Blogging about exercise is a little difficult when you’re not doing any and I’m not a fraudulent person.

I have found myself sinking slowly into the mires of an exercise-starved depression since I suffered an injury two weeks ago on a Scottish hillside during a mountain expedition.

Not that I wish pain or a near-death experience on myself, I really don’t. But there are some people who get a really good story to tell when they sustain an injury in the mountains.

Tumbling down a precipice, breaking your leg and struggling back to base camp a la Joe Simpson in Touching the Void? Sawing your own arm off with a pen knife like in 127 hours?

No. Not for me. I didn’t get the drama of a delicious tale to tell people of brave heroism and sporting disaster upon my return from the expedition.

Essentially, I just fell over in the dark going to the loo.

An ultra-powerful Petzl headtorch proved no match for my innate clumsiness. While making my way through a field in an effort to find a suitable spot to have a bit of private ‘wild camping’ bathroom time, I stumbled over a fence post and fell, totally inverting my ankle. It couldn’t have been less dramatic.

I knelt on the floor in the pitch black while pain seared straight up my leg. It then went slowly numb while I tried to pretend that what had just happened, hadn’t really happened atall. Oh yes… and I was still desperately busting for the bathroom…

Don’t laugh. It’s not funny.

Well, maybe it is a bit but…

It has been a long time since I’ve carried an injury of any significance but here I find myself two weeks later, x-rays done with an annoyingly stubborn leg injury and a bruised sense of mental wellbeing.

I am not someone who is used to being inactive. My body doesn’t like it, it’s struggling to know what to do with this situation. All the activities I normally do can’t be done. My brain doesn’t like it either.

Couple this with an unexpectedly intense time in my working life, which is a situation that normally would have absorbed and rationalised through doing some exercise, I have found myself stumbling down a dark alley into a dark new world.

This is a world where the nights are drawing in and I spend my evenings watching terrible movies on the Syfy channel, surf bad medical advice on the internet, forlornly check my Strava feed to see what my active friends are up to, do lots more work for my day job and peer repeatedly at the stubborn swelling on my ankle with a renewed sense of injustice.

I find myself spying on people flying around the roads on their bikes from the sanctity of my car and scowl at their arrogance. How dare they pelt along the tarmac with their normal ankles? Whipping along without a care. Don’t they know what I’m going through!

Even my poor old dog, who is usually battering at the door with his little furry paws for a good leg stretch in the hills, is also out of action and on doggy anti-inflammatories. He is carrying a leg injury of his own.

We make a melancholy pair me and him. Plonked on the couch with elevated limbs and feeling very sorry for ourselves. To use a canine-based cliché, we have been licking our wounds.

But the wallowing phase has to come to an end. I have been a good girl. I have sat. I have rested. I have eaten digestive biscuits with aplomb and have drunk countless cups of tea for no apparent reason; but goddammit I’m British and this is what we do in times of personal crisis.

It has been two weeks. The offending limb is still pretty sore with suspected ligament damage but it is improving and I can rest no longer.

So what does a girl do when we can’t do what we want? Find a new hobby? A new activity? My doctor told me swimming would be good and I will take the advice and swim, but I’m no fish and I feel like it’s time to get a little more creative with my recovery phase…

First step. I have downloaded Patrick Beach’s handstand yoga from iTunes. I was scouting around the virtual world for some yoga type activity and quite simply it would take the pressure of my ankle, the guy has a fantastic beard and I enjoy a good handstand.

It was a suspiciously cheap purchase but as a lovely friend of mine pointed out, perhaps it’s well priced because handstand yoga has a rather limited audience. I will try Mr Beach’s activities but I’m not sure that’s going to be an effective solution in its entirety.

I’ll report back on the merits of upside down yoga shortly but all suggestions for any ankle-friendly fitness activities are welcome…

The fightback begins.