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Time flies when you’re having fun, but for a cyclist with back pain it can stretch out for what seems like forever. It’s now a year since Phil came to me for a bike fit to try to resolve his back and leg pain, and seven months since we started consistently working on corrective conditioning to get to the bottom of the problem. I know this sounds like a long time, but with chronic musculo-skeletal problems, it can be a long road to recovery, which is why I’m inviting you to follow Phil’s story in real time here. If you haven’t read the first installment, have a quick catch up: http://jomcrae.co.uk/just-an-ordinary-bloke-who-wants-to-ride-his-bike/
Being forced off the bike because of injury is every keen cyclists’ worst nightmare. Weeks can seem like months, and lack of progress can be depressing and feel terminal. Chronic and persistent back pain (as opposed to pain due to an isolated ‘incident’ of onset) has usually taken years to develop, and consequently may take months to fully resolve. For some, a serious back problem may seem to appear quite suddenly like the titanic iceberg on the horizon. But in truth, most cyclists who end up in trouble have ignored and normalized minor symptoms like stiffness and back ache, whilst progressive changes move their body towards a potentially bigger disaster. Let’s face it, for many cyclists as long as they can swing their leg over their bike, they will happily ignore everything else for as long as possible.
I’m used to working with and around chronic problems and often am called upon when therapists and bike fitters have no more to offer. While I enjoy the challenge of tackling long term issues, to be perfectly honest, at the outset even I do not relish the first six months of us working together.
People in pain can be difficult, and I understand why. They panic easily, are often depressed, and want to see progress as soon as possible, so I empathize with their frustration whilst brainstorming, reviewing and reworking to try to find our first steps forward. I have learnt from experience that the first 6-9 months is a process that requires close monitoring, dove-tailing with therapists who can help with acute pain, and adjusting the clients understanding and mind set to the issues they are tackling.
A pain diary is an essential tool in my arsenal of assessment with this type of client. Just as a training diary provides valuable feedback for any athlete, a pain diary can help to track and trace provocative and alleviating pain factors, raising our awareness about what the key lifestyle elements are in each person’s situation. My exercise programs in these cases are a prescription for movements that will help, but also guidelines as to what should be avoided. Even when a client is following an almost daily program from me, it’s hardly surprising that the stuff of life that happens for the other 15 hours a day needs to be managed and adjusted too.
Although I’m often quite explicit about what not to do, most clients accidentally provoke pain several times doing something habitual in their normal day before they realize how important it is that they avoid it. For me, the pain diary is what allows me to point out the pattern of provocation, as well as ensure there’s not something in my exercise program that is causing problems.
For Phil in the first few months there were several such incidents that set him back in the short term. The first came around Christmas when he bent over to lift a heavy reptile tank (for pet lizards). The second significant trauma came when he had to manually force a train door shut as part of his job as a train driver. Both movements required levels of strength and core control well above Phil’s current conditioning status which worsened his lower back and increased the nerve pain into his buttock and down his leg.
Unsurprisingly for a disc pathology the most provocative thing for Phil is sitting down for prolonged periods. Cars are often the worst because of their slumpy seats, but the theatre, the cinema, and the various seats on various trains all caused problems. From his diary Phil could even identify which of the trains he drives offers the kindest driving position for his back.
The most drastic news that Phil’s diary delivered was that even the small amount of cycling he was doing (commuting to and from work occasionally) made his back pain worse. It helps me a lot if a client can come to this realization themselves because of their diary, rather than by my suggestion. Proof if ever proof was needed that Velominati Rule #5 is not always the answer.
And so, for a period of about 6 weeks Phil didn’t turn a pedal, and for three months between February and April he didn’t get out on the road at all. At around this same time, I had my first chance to properly review the impact or otherwise of the exercises that were on my programs, and slightly change tack. One or two had been provocative and so we had made an adjustment, but there had also been some complications from medical interventions – including a steroid injection and several weeks taking the prescription anti-inflammatory Naproxen.
Since our change of program at the beginning of April, Phil’s back pain has stabilized to a daily 3/10 (with no pain killers) and normal life has become easier and more manageable. He continues to stretch every morning and complete two strengthening programs of about an hour each week. Pleasingly bike riding is back on the program, with some controlled 30 minute turbo sessions, and some 60-90 minute light road riding. Phil also enjoyed a few days of riding trouble free in sunny Spain during the half term holidays, which was a real landmark.
So for now, we are both happy with progress and proceeding with caution. Some stability is welcome, even if Phil is not yet completely pain free. Integration of more cycling will depend on the next few months, but at least during the summer Phil will be able get out for a bit of fresh air in the warmer weather. And the work away at exercise, the further away Phil moves from the surgeon’s knife.
The ‘flat back’ position sought after by cyclists has excited the interest of many commentators, fans and onlookers, and by most accounts has been the mark of a good rider. The beginner will give themselves away by their higher handlebar position and more upright upper body, while proper riders ‘slam’ their stem with a more notable ‘drop’ from saddle to bars, achieving a more aggressive, ‘racier’ position and a ‘flatter’ back. The flat back is to bike posture what souplesse is to the pedalling action; It is a sign of class. And while we all understand what the ‘flat back’ refers to in normal cycling parlance, the bio-mechanical factors that underpin it are not so easy to grasp. Aerodynamics plays a big part in the racing cyclists’ preference for a lower front end, but enhanced power output resulting from a lower cock pit and a more forward-tilted pelvis are important elements too.
In contrast to this racy style of position, there is an emerging group of riders who are now sold on the benefits of a more upright bike fit; riders with sensitive lower backs who actively seeking out ‘endurance’ frames with longer head tubes to protect them from injury, and to allow them the comfort to ride for longer and without pain. For the most part these two positions seem polarised, suggesting that a flatter back and a more aggressive position favours speed, power and improved aerodynamics, while an upright riding style is one of comfort and safety.
But is it really true that a straighter, more upright back is a safer position for cyclists with lower back problems? And aside from improved aerodynamics what is it about a flat back that makes it so effective and desirable?
One first important point to raise before discussing this further is that the flat back posture is a misnomer, so in this blog I’m going to discuss in terms of functional biomechanics the cyclists back shape and the factors influencing it. The desirable ‘flat back’ that we talk about amongst ourselves is actually a flexed back, bending forwards from a riders pelvis seated in the saddle to the handlebars. And it is the smoothness and height of this forward bending curve that facilitates the trade mark ‘flat back’ as we might describe it - a low curve that is more towards the horizontal than the vertical - a curve that allows the rider to drive hard with the legs but stay still and low at the front.
From my point of view, range of motion assessments for the spine and key muscles attaching to the pelvis form part of my arsenal in understanding a rider’s position and looking to improve it. There are the obvious things on the bike that can be changed, notably the contact points at the pedals, the saddle and the handlebars. But the factors that impact most on the scope and range of these adjustments are the bodily limiters that are going on in between. Of course things like height and limb length cannot be changed, but for many riders flexibility and mobility can, by consistent targeted stretching of stiff and tight areas, and by acclimatising to the cycling position by way of progressive time spent in the saddle.
Having been involved in a bike fitting service with Mal Pires at le beau velo from from 2012 -2016, and now offering a bio-mechanically minded bike fit of my own, I’ve have been lucky enough to measure, assess and analyse the issues across hundreds of bodies, with fittings for both bespoke and ‘off the peg’ examples too. On many occasions a rider coming in for a bike fit has already had several opinions and is looking for the holy grail, the solution that will make them faster, more comfortable, and sometimes pain free. Often you can guess where a client has had their previous fit by the set up of their machine, as each ‘school’ seems to come with its own philosophy. Some are known for their unusual frame geometry outside the standard off the peg possibilities, catering for the customer needing rehab/pre-hab, or ‘comfort’ when working around a known problem area. Often riders with back or neck problems have favoured a high and short front end and a longer than usual head tube, or lots of spacers. Others clearly favour power and performance, and go for the highest possible saddle set up, often with a slightly forwards position and a lower front end.
In bio-mechanical terms, it has become increasingly apparent to me that the body elements (flexibility in particular) impact significantly on the possible back shape any rider can achieve between the contact points of the seat and handlebars. Whilst many bike fits quantifiably measure limb angles and the relationship and alignment between body measures (such as the angle of the line from hip to shoulder), often it is simply the discerning eye of an experienced bike fitter who must observe the shape of the back in between, and makes a judgement on the position accordingly. Visually, the shape of the back of a rider in a well-balanced position should have close to the pleasing ‘flat back’, with a smooth flexed curve and no obvious crunch points or hinges. In spite of all the technology and algorithms offered by many modern fits, understanding what makes a good back shape and helping a rider achieve it can be key to finalising a working position.
Some riders have the capacity to explore all the options, and push the envelope at the performance end to see what they can tolerate. Others are very restricted in what they can achieve, resisting even small changes because it upsets the balance of their body and how it feels on the bike. Most obvious to any keen-eyed observer is that some people just look good on a bike, while others do not, and for the most part this is connected to the rider’s ability to mould their body to any bike and still make it work for them efficiently. In his book ‘Bikefit’, Phil Burt refers to these riders as ‘Macro absorbers’, whilst those riders who feel every minor change in their set up he calls ‘micro-adjusters’. The experiences he retells in his book reflect that even in the professional peloton both kinds of rider exist.
In my view, robust riders who are in good physical shape, with flexibility in their spine and hips, and a level of efficiency developed through hours in the saddle can drop into an effective and attractive position relatively easily. More sensitive riders with perhaps chronic tight areas, an injury history or an ongoing issue may have their own personal biomechanical limiters which amplify the need for fine tuning the contact points (saddle, pedals and bars). In the general population it is often the sensitive micro-adjusters who are looking for answers and solutions from multiple bike fits. From my point of view as an exercise professional, changing the bike will only get you so far with a micro-adjuster. Changing the body, though it may take more time and effort, will extend the potential positions that can be made possible further.
Key factors for me to take into account are range of motion of the spine, and the length-tension relationships of the muscles around the pelvis (the hamstrings, gluteals and hip flexors in particular). Measuring these elements off the bike first, and then finding a way to assess their impact on the bike second, has been key to developing my understanding of finding and developing a comfortable and powerful bio-mechanical position for any rider.
In particular, a measure of pelvic tilt (as measured from anterior superior iliac spine to posterior superior iliac spine), and its relationship with knee extension (reach to the pedal) has become an important element of my bike fit. I have written previous blogs about these individual elements as I began to understand them back in 2012. You can retrace them here:
The pelvis is of course the power centre for any cyclist, which is why saddle height is usually adjusted first. But the delicate balance between the driving muscles at the pelvis and the muscles pulling on the cockpit at the front needs to be negotiated to provide optimal handling and control of the bike as well as power production. The shape of the cyclists back is not only determined by the tension and pull of any muscles acting at either end of any given position, but also the resistance in the spine itself to stretch and move into an elongated shape. Segmental mobility of the spine is particularly important, meaning that each vertebra must be mobile enough to move and respond to the stretch being placed on it in the cycling position. Where the bones of the spine are stiff or ‘fixed’ through any area, it will resist the flat back position and show as an excessively hunched area unable to respond and change even as a position is adjusted around it. This should not be confused with a poor position which can create this shape because the spine is not being stretched adequately by the set up.
While there are aerodynamic advantages to being lower at the front (reducing frontal area), and biomechanical advantages too (greater anterior pelvic tilt – the rolling forward on the saddle that allows for the powerful gluteal muscles to get more involved), there is an important tension that must be created throughout the whole body that is perhaps sometimes overlooked, and avoided by riders with lower back problems in particular.
Adequate drop and reach tensions the connective tissues that connect the moving muscles of the legs and hips, with the skeletal structure of the spine, and the stabilising muscles of the upper body. Often, we think of tension as a negative thing, but if you imagine this tension as tethering, you have a better idea of how the curve of the spine in a good position works in practice, being stretched and tethered at both ends through the connective tissue that links them – the thoracolumbar fascia. Wikipedia won’t help you much in understanding the anatomy of this complex layered tissue (I’ve checked), so I’ll do my best here to help explain its importance here.
First let me recap my definition of fascia from my book “Ride Strong – Essential Conditioning for cyclists”:
"‘Fascia’ is the term given to a band of connective tissue that attaches, stabilises, encloses and connects muscles or organs of the body. Collectively these fascial layers form a complex layered web of tissue throughout the whole body. Maintaining the pliability of these tissues is as important as maintaining muscle length.”
As the name suggests the thoracolumbar fascia links the thorax (chest or upper body) with the lumbar region (the lower back and pelvis), and with three layers as well as fibres criss-crossing right to left (and vice versa), the layers act as an important and dynamic bridge between the upper and lower body. The thoracolumbar fascia is intimately linked with ‘core’ muscles you may have heard of as a cyclist, such as the hip flexors, the quadratus lumborum, and the erector spinae, and is indirectly linked to the muscles of the hips and legs via attachments at the pelvis. Moreover, layers and fibres of this tissue connect directly to the vertebrae of the spine, impacting on the tension created at each segment throughout.
The thoracolumbar fascia comes into its own in any forwards bending movement, when (with a functioning core) it works to decompress the lumbar spine and separate each vertebrae. This is particularly important in off-loading the lumbar discs when the spine is flexed under with light to moderate loads (I talk more about the importance of learning to lift heavier loads with a ‘neutral spine’ in my book, but that’s not what we’re talking about here).
Now consider this anatomy in light of the cyclists position bent forward seated on their bike, leg and hip muscles stretching and working as they reach with every pedal stroke, and arms reaching to steady the upper body at the handlebars. Ideally a balanced stretch coming from both ends of the position has a tethering effect at the lower back via the thoracolumbar fascia, making it feel more comfortable and allowing all the relevant muscles to work optimally. As a rider works harder, pushing more with the legs and pulling on the handlebars more tightly, the core becomes more active and this clever mechanism dissipates this force at the lower back by separating each lumbar segment, taking the strain off important structures like the lumbar discs and connecting the upper and lower body to transmit maximum power to the ground through the bike.
In a bike position where a rider sits with a more upright spine, with less weight held through the handlebars and more load centred around the lower back, this mechanism is somewhat impaired. As compared to the well-balanced bike position described above, a more upright back is less ‘active’ in the core, and represents a passive sitting position that can often lead to the sensation of ‘crunching’ or compression through the lower back.
Consider an ordinary cyclist with a typically stiff lower back, with poor posture and lumbar discs that are migrating steadily backwards. A position with a slight forward bend without a lot of weight or work through the arms is likely to be much more provocative than one where a balanced tension is created from the front to the back allowing the thoracolumbar fascia to do its job. The tensioning needs to be balanced between all three contact points to achieve the desired result, but having adequate drop and reach at the bars relative to a sensible saddle height is key to bio-mechanical and literal balance.
Naturally the extent of the drop and reach will depend on the riders height and limb proportions as well as their flexibility, any issues and goal events. However, I’ve come across many riders who have very little drop at all, or even a negative drop (the handlebars are higher than the saddle) which in my view negates some of the fundamental points of a drop handlebar road bike.* The interplay between drop and stem length or top tube length can make an important difference too, and some riders who can’t manage very much drop, may do well by lengthening further instead.
[The only exception I’ve come across where a handlebar higher than saddle position is more appropriate long-term is where arthritic changes in the neck become prohibitive, in which instance a more hybrid type set up could be recommended].
I have found that even for cyclists diagnosed with a disc bulge a properly balanced cycling position (with a moderate amount of drop and reach) is often less provocative that sitting for long periods in a chair. A well-adjusted cycling position is at least a dynamic flexed position, stretching the lumbar spine via the thoracolumbar fascia and opening up the posterior space where the discs might need room. Sitting in a chair for hours on end is much more problematic, compressing the lumbar discs and aggravating symptoms.
Naturally the amount and intensity of any riding for anyone with back pain needs to be carefully considered together with taking steps to change the underlying elements that caused the problem in the first place. But shooting for an upright position and a higher, shorter front end is not the solution. Most important for any rider with a sensitive back is their appreciation of the issues involved and a need for a patient process led approach to a bike fit, as well as a commitment to change the body through appropriate exercise.
Equally important for beginner to intermediate cyclists is an understanding that a full ‘racing’ position from the get-go might provoke problems and prevent the steady progression that makes for consistent training. There is no hard and fast right or wrong to a bike fit, but I believe the trend towards higher, shorter front ends (both for beginners and those with back problems) is often a mistake. Having said that, I also believe that a progressive move towards your optimal set up will be enhanced by off the bike exercise to increase the range of movement in restrictive areas. The body is dynamic, and so your bike fit should be too.
Phil is just an ordinary bloke. An ordinary bloke who likes to ride a bike. Phil and I know each other from Wednesday rides out with Bigfoot CC, but he first came to me in my professional capacity in May for a bike fit with former colleague Mal at Le Beau Velo. I was very aware when we fitted Phil that a bike fit might not be enough to resolve the back pain which was then starting to interfere with his riding. This has often been the case with bike fits, and its one of the reasons I now focus on the biomechanics of the body in a bike fit more than anything else. However, a look at the body on the bike first can certainly help to keep a keen cyclist riding as much as possible, and allows me to ensure that the riding position itself is not contributing to the problem.
Needless to say Mal and I were able to improve Phil’s position quite a bit which helped offload his lower back and make riding more comfortable. As well as changing Phils position at that time I provided a tailored stretching program, to make a start on some of the issues that came up with my assessment as possibly contributing to Phils pain.
People sometimes mistake me for a physiotherapist because I work with clients with injuries/pain issues using exercise. However, I’m not a therapist but a ‘corrective exercise specialist’, which means that instead I use ‘corrective’ exercise to change what I see with my physical assessment through personally tailored progressive exercises. Often clients who work with me in this way have got as far as they can with physiotherapy and treatment, and are trying to move forwards for the longer term, away from the acute problem towards or a more permanent long term resolution.
Many of my assessments overlap with those that physios use, including range of movement, core function, and in Phils case, an assessment of the neurological components to his back pain and sciatica. The overview above is a summary of my findings from May, and by the time I caught up with Phil in the Autumn he had reached a plateaux with physiotherapy and an MRI had been sought to help identify the specifics of Phils ongoing back problem and ‘referred’ pain and weakness down his left leg.
In the interim period since our first session, Phil had been having on going treatment and had only intermittently been following the exercise plan that I had given him. Like most people he was hopeful that someone would find THE ANSWER and be able to FIX THE PROBLEM for him. By the Autumn it was becoming apparent that treatment options were narrowing, which motivated Phil to have another go at my corrective approach in a more committed way.
For me as an exercise specialist, in difficult cases like this one, an MRI can be a really helpful diagnostic tool in confirming exactly what is going on in and around the spine. The images that came back from Phils MRI and the report that came with them identified a ‘left lateral prolapse at L5/S1 compressing the descending S1 nerve roots in the lateral recess'. I’m trained and qualified to assist in rehabilitating this kind of disc derangement, and at the heart of the holistic approach is to not only use exercises, but closely observe and adjust the way the client moves in their day to day life, educating them to avoid aggravating the problem, whilst getting to work on provided greater support with exercise.
This approach is by no means a quick fix, but with the next likely suggestion being back surgery I’ve caught Phil in a motivated mood and am keen to see what we can do before it comes to the knife. This is where you pick up the story with Phil. If you have the early signs of back pain and are not looking after your body, maybe Phils story will encourage you to get a bit more proactive sooner. Keep an eye on my twitter and Instagram feeds if you’re keen to follow Phils story with the hash tag #followphil. It will be like #followfabian but with an ordinary bloke.
For quite a while now I’ve been deliberately battering my naturally fairly feeble body. Over the last couple of years I have upped the anti with greater loads and higher impact exercise to test the boundaries of what my body can do, and see what I can learn in the process. This is a conscious choice you understand, and one that I’ve taken partly by accident in the first place, and then by further design. As a keen cyclist for many years (and a swimmer before that), the bulk of my exercise regime over the years can be bracketed in the ‘low-impact’ group favoured by the elderly or those with joint impairments. Whilst I fully intend to be one of the old ladies swimming morning lengths of the pool, and hope to swing my leg over my bike long into the future, I’m not quite ready to limit myself physically just yet. As an endurance cyclist first and a fitness professional second, I will always be playing catch up with my more athletic fitness colleagues who leap and bound up and down the gym, or pop a human flag from the nearest lamp post. But I do want to steadily expand my physical potential for as long as that is possible.
So, in the last couple of years I have been dabbling in some weightlifting, and trying tentatively to include a bit of running. To do both without problems ideally you need to have good posture, good stability, and for the Olympic lifting, good form in some of the grounding strength movements that form the foundations. But even with all of these elements in place if you are not used to the different loading you have to keep a careful eye on volume and intensity to avoid injuries or issues, or just debilitating soreness.
Some of you will have seen my weightlifting antics on twitter or Instagram and either been confused/impressed/unimpressed depending on where you are coming from. To clear up any question marks, I won’t ever be a ‘weightlifter’, nor is this my main sport or pursuit. I am a cyclist first and always will be. This is simply a personal endeavour that I am involved in for the fun of learning, for the effects that it has on my body and mind, and for what it might bring to my work as a coach/conditioning specialist.
As is always the case for me, I learn the most through experience and in the first eager six months in the weightlifting gym I was often there for an hour and a half at a time, enjoying the drills and practices and racking up sets and reps with pleasure. Not surprisingly it was the after effects of this momentary fun that started to become a hindrance to other activities and sometimes made me stiff and sore for days. Unlike most of the men and women in the gym, this type of exercise at the strength and power end of the spectrum could not be further from my biological norm, and as a result I had to learn to approach the discipline in a more measured way to make the most of the benefits without suffering from any of the pitfalls. I studiously started adding up the total reps in any workout and limiting the number I allowed in any one session.
My detour into running has been equally painstaking. Once or twice over the years when I’ve tried a bit of running before I’ve always found my joints really struggle to deal with the impact. Sometimes it has been my ankles and for a while an old crash injury to my knee was a limiter. A careful selection of footwear and then an introduction of short bursts of running drills began a patient journey of progression towards a full 20 minutes of running. And so after easily six months of preparation it was with great amusement that my flat mate watched as I staggered, no limped, up the stairs after my first parkrun. No joint injuries or problems as such, just the sheer shock to my body of all those impacts with the ground. It felt like I had run a marathon. Hundreds of NORMAL people do park run EVERY week, and yet for me this had been a fairly momentous achievement, and one that I am trying to consolidate before considering my next move.
This sort of challenge is of course what I am looking for all the time. I want to feel stronger, and maintain my bone and muscular health as I move towards middle age. I want to be able to run for a bus or a train easily and I want to make sure my body is as capable as it can be, so that my overall health and well-being as well as my cycling fitness is maintained long into the future.
In my recently published book ‘Ride Strong; Essential Conditioning For Cyclists’, I explain one of the key principles that I apply to my training and my work – The Success Formula.
The success formula dictates that the more deconditioned you are, the more you will need to focus towards the left of the equation, and then progressively move the emphasis towards the right. I do this with my clients, and I do it for myself too. Not only does this equation help you to know where to start with your conditioning, but it also allows you to know when to make a change in your conditioning plan to remind or recondition the body in some of the earlier phases.
In my early days in the fitness industry as I trained my almost exclusively cycling body to become a more robust all rounder, I spent an awful lot of time on restoring my flexibility, alignment and basic movement ability. I was shocked to learn I had poor posture, and a weak and imbalanced core, and I had difficulty with some of the basic strengthening movements that everyone should strive to perform easily and well. Patience and consistency in applying these principles to my training has brought me a long way, but I am happy to acknowledge the need for a return to some flexibility and stability work over the coming months, as I consolidate the improvements I have made.
Where do you think you sit on the success formula spectrum?
How can you move yourself further to the right to enhance your movement and power potential?
Emotions have been running high recently, both in the world of cycling and in the world of Jo. Many people raised their voice on the issues around bullying in women’s and para cycling, and I am listening in with interest. I haven’t felt the need to add my own opinion to the mix yet, not because I don’t care, but because I think its complicated, and that doesn’t make a great sound bite or add anything very useful to the arguments. Not only am I interested in the issues, but I’m keen to see what I can learn from the debates since one of my personal goals for 2016 is…
To speak clearly and be heard.
Communicating what you want or feel effectively is not always that easy, and so far the universe has not disappointed in delivering opportunities for me to practice.
Some people shy away from confrontation or disagreement, preferring to appease or agree rather than face the difficulty of accepting another person’s view point different from their own. Others pretend not to care, so that the pain of rejection is lessened by not having exposed that vulnerability in the first place. For the most part, my approach has been to intuitively feel strongly about many things, rant a rave a bit without really getting to the nub of the point, and then run away to avoid the fall out and ensuing embarrassment that results. I believe I can do better, so I’m looking for tools that will help me become more persuasive and less reactive.
When someone pushes your buttons and discomfort starts to build towards anger, the easiest thing to do is blame someone else. Something happened to me recently that made me respond with rage that derailed me for days. If you are a passionate person, when this happens you find that those closest to you mostly just want you to calm down. In sensing the depth of your emotion they feel uncomfortable and want you to move past or through those feelings as soon as possible. However, if you care enough to get that angry or upset in the first place, I believe you have to find a way to do something with that emotion rather than just move it to one side. Avoiding or assuaging will only bury that anger as resentment. Expressing yourself clearly so that you can be heard may change the opinion of someone else, or at the very least it will ensure that yours has been a part of the decision making process.
Fortunately, at this juncture (in a post rage exhaustion slump) I was reminded of an audio book I have by the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron called ‘Don’t bite the hook – Finding freedom from anger, resentment and other destructive emotions’. In it Chodron talks about the Buddhist concept of ‘Shenpa’ which she describes as the charge behind our opinions, the attachment that stops us from seeing the other point of view because we are angry or irritable or enraged. Shenpa is the ‘hook’ that leads us to escalate our own violence rather than patiently sit with the discomfort, holding our opinion with a lightness that keeps us open to the other point of view. She says:
“Patience is an austerity. Nothing takes more courage than to work with patience”
I must admit, patience is not my strong point. In Buddhist teachings anger is usually a response to fear, and in this situation I found myself in I was frightened that my opinion was not being listened to or properly heard. Somehow I had to move beyond the unhelpful ranting phase to a point where I could patiently look at the situation and find a way forwards. Shouting louder just wasn’t going to do the trick.
Chodron goes on to talk about fear as the vanguard of courage, saying that it gives you a choice to go in two directions:
“does it go in the direction of aggression? - striking out against yourself and others, or does it go in the direction of confidence? - gentleness, courage, and tender hearted bravery”
And so with this timely reminder, and dropping numerous F bombs along the way I patiently moved myself from a position of rage to a calmer place where I could express myself more rationally.
The Bully and the Coward
Feeling that you are being bullied is unpleasant to say the least, but for me feeling that I am a coward is even worse. If you’re challenged by a bully, or just confronted by someone who is pushing you around, the challenge is not to push and shove and bully back, but to simply stand up for yourself. As Carrie Ure mentions in her blog: (https://carrieure.org/2009/03/12/facing-fear-the-archetype-of-the-coward-part-i/)..
‘The Coward has his primary relationship with the Fear rather than the goal. He faces his fear and choosing to act or not, he learns about himself’
This idea really resonates with me, and on a few important occasions in my life I’ve felt the presence of the Coward archetype breathing down my neck and pushing me to confront the fear rather than run away from it. These moments have all come at significant choice points where I've had to stand my ground and fight for something that I felt was important. Reflecting on this most recent situation in the last couple of weeks, I have taken pride in the fact that I have done exactly that, and in doing so changed the course of action to move it in a more satisfactory direction for everyone.
In the Line of Duty
Someone asked me recently whether I was more afraid of a negative judgement made of me personally, than in my professional role as coach, and I had trouble answering the question. The difficulty I have is of separating the two as I feel like the one is an expression of the other (something I've mentioned before in this blog).
I know that there are many people who have a different set of rules in the workplace to those they would live by at home, and this is a luxury that professional sports men and women sometimes have to manage without. Calling the one world cold-hearted ‘business’ and the other more heart-felt and ‘personal’ seems to me to leave your integrity in a damaging state of schitzophrenia, but many people seem to manage it, and on a daily basis. ‘Professional sport’ occupies a grey area that for the professional ‘athlete’ often encompasses everything, so no wonder passions run high when there so much at stake.
So while I don’t understand all the issues involved in the recent British Cycling scandal, I do understand that it can be difficult for sports men and women to speak up without feeling crushed by the weight that a big organisation holds over their personal, heart felt aspirations, as well as their livelihood and personal economy.
Speaking for myself (and Jo McRae THE BRAND) I believe the challenge remains the same; to have the courage to say what you feel with confidence, so that you get to know yourself better, and do your best to move the future in the direction you would like it to go.
I’m self employed, self determined and for the most part, self motivated. Freedom is something close to my heart. Having the freedom to say what I want and to be who I am is central to ME. Its one of my core values and its also central to my work.
Having the freedom to MOVE pain free and with the greatest POTENTIAL is what I give my clients. Healthy children are unhindered by pain and can express themselves freely through play. Healthy, fit adults can play too, with competitive or non-competitive sport. With a lack of conditioning, and because of the impact of modern lifestyles, some adults cannot enjoy their bodies the way they should, and that’s something that I feel passionately about changing.
Discipline is not one of my strong points. Which might seem obvious, since at first glance freedom and discipline seem antithetical.
But perhaps not.
A month or so ago a client of mine made this link for me after having spent time with some friends. Debbie and I have been working together for about six months now to resolve back pain issues which were getting in the way of her enjoying an active lifestyle.
Her friends had commented on how easily she was moving, when previously her back was affecting her on a daily basis. Naturally, Debbie was pleased that all her hard work had resulted in visible progress and reflected this back to me in the context of a quote she had come across in the workplace:
Freedom takes discipline.
Working in the field of therapy as she does Debbie and I laughed at this. Often we pay no heed to these sometimes clichéd ‘inspirational’ quotes, but it HAS taken enormous discipline for her to get where she is now, six months after having the discipline to make time for DAILY exercise. What’s more, for people with pain problems in particular, that first six months of exercise is often not that much fun at all.
Re-learning how to move properly, or how to engage muscles correctly can in the early stages be a painstaking process. Allowing time for new neuromuscular pathways to develop, or to identify provocative and alleviating factors can be boring to say the least. If you’re injury free and moving well, its something you take for granted. Its only when that freedom is taken away from you that you realise what you are missing, and you have to find the discipline to get it back.
For sports people, training can often be monotonous too. No one really likes to work on their weaknesses and training sessions can become boring when you have to repeat them for long enough for your body to adapt.
Not the sexy stuff.
This was something that I discussed with a personal training colleague over the Christmas period too. How it’s hard to keep some clients engaged through these early stages before they can get to the sexy stuff that they might want to do – Olympic lifting, or handstands, or ski-fit or whatever. In the health and fitness industry, there’s a lot of shiny fun out there in the New Year, and lots of people will have launched in FULL TILT with a New Years resolution hoping for that freedom to move and feel the way I think we all want to. Come mid February some will find that a slightly longer view with a little more discipline might be what’s needed to reap the rewards of a truly healthy, fit body.
Debbie was making fun of me too over this discipline business because at the time I was in the midst of slogging out a deadline for my forthcoming book to be published later this year. Those of you who have been following me for some time will know that this project has been in the pipeline for what seems like forever, and I’m excited to say, the manuscript is now in.
My book - Ride Strong; Essential Conditioning for Cyclists, will be published by Bloomsbury in October this year.
To say that meeting the manuscript deadline has taken some discipline would be an understatement. I love to write, but I love to move too, and my normal day to day self-employment never requires me to sit down at a computer for more than a couple of hours at a time. Over the Christmas/New Year period I worked solidly at my laptop sometimes ALL DAY. Sometimes I didn’t get dressed. Sometimes I considered cleaning the bathroom as a leisure break. Not since University have I had the discipline to work that hard on a project with the pressure of a deadline looming.
But I’ve remembered that anything worth going after will take some discipline in the processes that will get you there. If you want to change your body, you have to stick to a plan. If you want to change the way you think or behave, you have to keep working at at it.
With the discipline needed for any worthwhile endevour you earn a new level of freedom. A freedom to move better, to think clearer, to be calmer.
This time next year, my book will be on the shelf for any cyclist to use as a reference. I will have the freedom to say, ‘Have a look at my book which explains more about stretching, strengthening and core training’. And readers will have the freedom to design their own conditioning program, so that they can ride their bikes pain free and performing at their best.
So I’m adding self-disciplined to my list of ‘selfs’. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it next, but I know its there when I need it. And I know it opens up many exciting opportunities.
Maybe I’m becoming middle aged, or maybe a little less MAD, but recently I seem to be valuing the middle an awful lot. Good Enough, rather than Really Good or Rubbish.
Right for now, instead of right Forever.
I’ve come to realise that really ‘going for it’ can result in a tiring and potentially exhausting cycle where you are repeatedly veering dramatically off course. In contrast, consistently shooting for above average can lead you along a pleasantly meandering route. And the places you find yourself along the way can feel good in that moment, without being couched in hopes for the future or nostalgia for the past.
Ultimately, in life, health and sport, I believe that for most people consistently aiming for ‘Good Enough’ can reinforce positive feelings, and a more linear progression towards improved performance for the long term. The resulting self-efficacy and improved self-esteem can make the journey itself a more fulfilling experience.
In connection with this understanding, with age and wisdom I’m also seeing the value of becoming less judgmental or dogmatic about what is Right and Wrong. And applying the same metaphor of Journeying, I’m learning not to run head long down one path because it seems like THE RIGHT WAY, just in case I change my mind and have to find the energy to go back in the opposite direction.
In health and fitness in particular, the 'right way' can only be right for so long, and the body adapts so fast that you have to keep a constant eye on what is happening for when Right flips back round to Wrong again.
Let me give you a couple of examples from my own life and work:
I became a vegetarian when I was 12, coming home after school one day to tell my mum the exciting news of what I HAD DECIDED. Then, for the next almost decade, I stuck to my guns. So determined and outspoken was I about my healthy choice that I failed to notice that my chosen diet was no longer working for me. That I had become tired, moody, constantly hungry and a bit fat. And so when finally I was no longer able to ignore the screams from my body, and the intellectual information that was creeping into my brain, I had to relent and acknowledge that perhaps this was no longer THE RIGHT WAY.
And so I did what many vegetarians eventually do – I had a bacon Sandwich. It was the year 2000 and I was at the ‘Fitpro’ (fitness professionals) conference in Loughborough. At the time I couldn’t have felt less ‘fit’ or ‘pro’, and something had to give.
Without boring you with the details of the dietary and digestive hoopla that followed, I have no doubt now that the determinism with which I MADE THE DECISION cost me dearly in terms of health, performance and well being. What I failed to account for was that THINGS CHANGE and that this is the only truth that you can really rely on.
Here's another exercise example to illustrate further the dangers of dogma:
I’m not a big fan of ‘crunchies’. You know, old school ‘sit ups’ off the floor. The main reasons for this are that they emphasize flexion (forwards bending) without extension (backwards bending). Most people I deal with already exist in a world of slumpage, where they are flexed over their desks, or they sit on their bikes and flex forward to the handlebars. ‘The crunch’ off the floor can often worsen the poor posture common to the modern world by working the abdominal muscles in a shortened range without any counter-balancing with backwards bending or rotation.
So there, that is my general preach on the matter. However, (and here’s the thing that life has taught me) no sooner had I decided that I AM RIGHT and CRUNCHIES ARE WRONG that the world/the universe/God sent me a client to test my decision. I was approached by a woman in her early 30’s for personal training. Lisa was fairly hypermobile and had back and neck pain having been referred to me by a chiropractor. Every weekend do you know what she liked to do for fun?
Yep, she liked to jump out of planes.
Try this position. Go on. Just laying on the floor and balancing on your hips. It’s pretty extended. In fact it’s a position of hyper-extension. If you’re a stiff desk worker or cyclist reading this you might struggle to get into it at all. Then imagine adding the repeated G forces generated by jumping from thousands of feet several times in an afternoon every weekend and you have a hint of the bio-mechanical stress that my client was putting her body through.
And do you know what makes for an excellent balancing, ‘corrective’ exercise for this kind of shit?
That’s right. A crunchie off the floor. Bollocks.
This case proved conclusively to me that if you push the extremes of exercise repeatedly in the same direction, you end up needing drastic evasive action in the opposite direction to bring you back in to balance. It also proved that you should never judge someone for what they are doing without understanding why they are doing it. RIGHT is only right for a particular person at a particular time.
And so I’ve learnt to qualify my right and wrong, because there will always be an exception. And I’ve realised that any decision or route plan should be qualified in terms of time too:
This is the right direction for me, for now. But I’ve got an eye on where I’ve come from, and where I’m going to.
It’s so bloody obvious really. Especially when dealing with the human body, that staying stuck with one idea is never going to last for long. Life is all about cycles or ‘biological oscillators’. And lets face it, the moment we are conceived we are on our way to death, and one way or another are going to be recycled. That’s what life’s about. That’s karma. That’s planet earth. And that’s what the Lion King teaches us.
But it’s also human nature to want to push the extremes, to feel the excitement of being on the edge and to not only choose our own adventure, but go as hard and fast in that direction as we can. And in sport and exercise in particular, we often celebrate this. But if you push yourself to the edge one way or another and stay there for too long, you may find yourself bouncing uncomfortably from the extremes, which takes the edge off the excitement or makes a drama of the suffering.
Lately, I have attracted a handful of clients who are fed up with the underachievement associated with ‘living life on the edge’ and bouncing back and forth off of those edges. Instead they are choosing the pleasure of progression that you can get from a more moderate plan of action that is more sustainable.
Overtraining is a simple example of where the adrenaline of pushing the boundaries can wear out pretty quick and leave you unable to train the way you want while you recover. Chronic fatigue is a more long-term example of the same problem. Crash dieting is another. The stress-recovery cycle that determines human performance demands that we stay within our biological range, perhaps push it at times, but acknowledge that in pushing it on one edge, we will have to spend time at the opposing edge in order to maximize progress.
Human health and performance is all about these biological oscillations. We sleep at night, we are awake in the day, and during both our hormones and biochemicals are switching from on to off to on again. We train, we break things down, we rest, we build them back up again. And we function in a series of constantly changing rhythms of stress of one sort and recovery of another.
Training (as well as life) is about change. Knowing when to push harder and knowing when to rest, but most of all its about listening to the signs that tell you which to do and when. That is what a coach is there to help you with. To help you read the signs that your body is giving you that can be hard to read when you’re too close to the information. To progress with any plan or program, you have to do just enough to create a positive change. Harder is not always better. After all, overestimating what is consistently possible is what derails most health and exercise programs.
The exercise programs that I design for clients can be pretty precise and people often worry that they won't be ‘DOING IT RIGHT’. I explain to them that I factor this human element into my design, that I’ve chosen exercises that they can do Well Enough to stimulate the changes we want. Perfection is not necessary to make good progress.
Good enough is good enough. Right for now is right for now. That is this middle way, and the middle way leads to good things.
I've done a few crazy things with my diet over the years. Made some big mistakes. Done some serious detoxes. And I feel confident that if a client comes to me who needs to look at their eating habits as part of their fitness program then I'm well equipped to help them make the necessary changes. My training through the CHEK institute covers the essentials, and my Nutritionalist colleague Caroline at The Red Apple Clinic supports me in coaching clients who need digestive or hormonal diagnostic testing.
I integrate dietary coaching into my work as and when needed, mostly if weight or poor diet is affecting health, performance, or rehabilitation.
- For example for a moderately fit cyclist who is several stone overweight but wants to climb mountains for fun there is little point in focusing on increasing power.
- For someone who is always tired through lack of sleep and hormonal disruption, establishing circadian rhythms, blood sugar control, and hormonal balance should be the priority.
- For someone with lower back pain whose ‘core’ is reflexively inhibited by inflammation in the digestive tract a rehabilitative exercise program will be ineffective unless they eliminate the irritants that are causing inflammation.
In all this examples, addressing diet is essential in making an exercise program worthwhile in terms of time, effort and money spent.
Diet diaries are a common tool for assessing what someone is eating and beginning to see trends and patterns in order to make positive change. Some traditional ‘food diaries’ list or even weight food in order to look at the balance of calories, or the amount of each of the food ‘groups’ a person is eating.
I am not really interested in calories very much at all. I am interested in how much ‘natural’ food vs. processed food my clients are eating and in the balance of animal:plant based foods that seems to work for them. I am interested in when they eat, how they feel and what hunger or other signals they are receiving as a result.
Interestingly when I ask someone to keep a food diary they often immediately change their diet, presuming that we have a common understanding of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods and that I am judging them accordingly. In my mind I am not judging at all, but assessing; assessing what they are eating and how it might relate to barriers to their progress in relation to their goals.
At the end of the summer I began this process with client James Higgs (aka Empty cyclist) who was looking for a long-term solution to a weight problem that was preventing him making the progress he deserved for some intelligent training on the bike. James needed diagnostic testing to look at digestive and hormonal barriers to weight loss. But he also needed an easy way to convey to me what he was eating on a daily basis.
This is where he came up with the idea of the twitter feed food diary, the subject of this blog, and a tool that I now use with all my clients who want to look at their diet.
The first best thing about the twitter diary is that it is so visual. It sounds obvious but whenever I’ve had to read through written diaries in the past I struggle to get a sense of portion size and proportions of protein, fat and carbohydrate within a meal. By taking a photo you can quickly and easily see these at a glance.
Also you can get a sense of the time scale between meals and snacks very easily, and so notice any patterns that emerge from eating certain foods and what the subsequent cascade of choices and eating behaviours looks like.
The immediacy of the diary allows me to give quick and easy feedback in a busy day when I am travelling from one work location to another, or between appointments. By quickly scanning my clients twitter feed I am able to keep up to speed with their eating habits and DM a quick message of encouragement or coaching to help them understand their choices and stay on track.
Significantly, it becomes pretty easy for the person keeping the diary to start to notice these patterns themselves too, making my job a lot easier and giving my clients a strong sense of self-efficacy. The accountability of taking a photo of EVERYTHING YOU EAT AND DRINK aside from water makes you incredibly aware of what you are eating on a very regular basis, and that is a very powerful habit forming tool. Keeping this visual diary makes clients more conscious of their eating habits and the whole process becomes a daily exercise in food (and mood) mindfulness.
Naturally, given that this has worked so well for my clients I thought I would have a go myself to raise my own awareness of my current diet and look to makes some improvements.
Here are the key things I noticed for myself:
- A lot of the food I eat goes straight to my mouth without landing on a plate.
- If I don’t stop to eat a proper meal at roughly the right time of day, I am very likely to eat frequently because I have never really had enough of the right foods to last for several hours.
- When you have to stop and take a photo of everything you are eating, you tend to want to make it look nice and fresh, and when it looks nice and fresh it usually is a lot more nutritious.
Because for me every work day is different, I can find myself with a changeable eating routine, grabbing food between clients and my own training, and not planning ahead for what I might eat for any given meal. These are aspects of my diet and lifestyle that I want to work on, and which the twitter feed will help me with. Like most aspects of fitness, planning and reassessment are the key to making steady progress, and so I will not only be continuing to use this simple idea with my clients in the future, but I intend to harness it to get healthier myself too.
In some ways I’m a confident person. I’ve always made my own choices in life, and I’m certainly not risk averse, in fact quite the opposite. I’ve always believed that if you feel something strongly, you just have to go for it. And even if it doesn’t work out the way you imagined, you are diverted down a path of discovery that makes you more authentically you than you were before, and that ultimately that is the whole point. If I may get a bit existential for a moment; that is why we are here.
Reflecting over the last year, there have been plenty of times when I have not felt confident about my choices, and at times, perhaps even about who I am and what I stand for. And what I’ve learnt is that it’s at times like these when you lack your own self-belief that you need people around you who can carry your confidence if your bridge of life is crossing troubled water. You need people close at hand not to give advice or tell you what to do, but just to believe in you and who you are. Friends may do this, partners may do this, and coaches may do this too.
Through our physical fitness we can explore and test our own personal boundaries and build our beliefs in what is possible, first in the physical sphere, but then more broadly into our lives as a whole, so that we feel more fulfilled, more in control, or more accepting of what life has to throw at us.
This is of course why so many people set fitness goals as New Years Resolutions. In creating some level of transformation in our physical bodies, metaphysically we feel a sort of soul-deep affirmation of who we are and what we can conceive for our future.
Some of you have followed my weightlifting progress over the last couple of months, and just before Christmas I accidentally captured a pure example of what I’m talking about whilst training.
Coach Keith is a man of few words but vast experience and knowledge. He is a coach of the old school who keeps things simple, and only says as much as needs to be said. In the video clip that follows we are working through three sets of 5 repetitions of the ‘clean and jerk.’ The weight I am lifting is the most I’d ever lifted for only one or two reps up to that point. By the end of the clip you will see that I successfully lift the weight 5 times with only a minutes’ rest between sets.
In reflecting on the workout afterwards I noticed that what Keith says to me is nothing special. But because Keith is saying it, and I believe in him as a coach I have the confidence to do what he tells me. I borrow the belief that he has in me and as the session progresses I find I believe in myself too.
Keith: “Right are you ready for this…?”
Me: “I’m not sure ….(laughing)”
Keith: “Right, lets go…”..
(After the first set of 5…)
Me: “I don’t know if I’ve ever done that much before”
Keith: “It can’t be that hard you’ve just done 5 of them”
Me: “I know”…(laughing)…”maybe I have…”
(Throughout the second and final set…)
Keith: “C’mon, really work hard…. Focus….You can do this Jo….”
(After completing the workout…off camera)
Keith: “That’s nowhere near the most you can lift…..no where near”
And there endeth Keiths input for another few weeks.
Very few people have the confidence to believe in themselves all the time. But if you surround yourself with those who do, they will fill in the gaps and you will come out stronger.
It’s a funny thing, but if you admit to training people with a Swiss Ball you are sniggered at, as if you don’t really know what ‘proper exercise’ is, and are resorting to this silly toy out of ignorance. I once attended a course run by a Strength and Conditioning organisation where the instructors openly mocked the use of the Swiss Balls for any exercise outside of ‘Rehab’. I had the gall to state quite openly that I used balls very effectively thank you very much, but would also like to learn more about how to properly and effectively use these bar bells too. Instantly this made me a pain in the arse. A pain in the arse who was going to ask questions and not just nod and grin and be in awe, which perhaps was the more expected response.
At lunchtime as we mingled one by one other participants gradually ‘came out’ to me. As it turned out some of them liked balls too, and used them often. They just didn’t feel able to say so in front of the slightly shouty instructor. (One of the two was very nice actually, and I respected him more for being less shouty. They just had a ‘good cop’/’bad cop’ thing going on).
Part of the problem with balls is that lots of people like to keep them in the rehab camp (if I may mix my metaphors, and I’m going to). They are bright and squidgy and sometimes soft and a little plyable. They are for the soft end of the exercise market. They are suitable for physios and therapists working with poor pallid injured people who need the kindness of their gentle curves.
Serious athletes on the other hand don’t need to f*** about with anything so ridiculous. No. Hard bodies need hard tools, preferably made of metal not plastic. Dumb bells, and even better bar bells, or Kettle bells. Some sort of bell that when you use it rings out “Look at me and my lump of metal”, “see how I move it, thrust it, swing it”, “I am strong, I am solid, I can break things”.
Well perhaps not surprisingly here is my first problem with this rather polarised approach to the use of the Swiss ball. I don’t believe REAL people belong in any one camp. However, I do find that a lot of REAL people start with at least one foot in the rehab/prehab camp, and need some tools that will transition them towards the more ‘hardened' end of the spectrum where some of them might like to be. What’s more some of them don’t even aspire to moving any kind of bell, but just want to be pain free, and energised and healthy going about their day to day life. I was most definitely was one of those people when I started to learn properly about exercise.
I am not naturally of a strong build, or what you might term ‘athletic’. I am not one of those trainers for whom part of their sales pitch is a chiselled, lean body that can perform epic feats of strength easily. But I am proud to say the body I have now at the age of 37 is probably functionally better than the body I had when I was 17. I am stronger, I have better posture, I am practically the same weight and I can do more with my body than I could then. I am very pleased about that. And a bright coloured plastic ball has had quite a lot to do with it.
One thing I say to clients in my coaching is that the people to watch are not those with the natural talent, but those who start out average and improve the most because of what they are doing. And most people I work with, to be honest, start out average. Here are some of the groups of people I mostly work who (with generosity of spirit) I put in this bracket:
• ‘Ordinary people’ for whom life just got busy and sometime in their 40’s or 50’s they realised that they have not consistently exercised since they were at school • ‘Ordinary people’ for whom a ‘wake up’ call comes in the form of an injury that forces them to look at this aspect of their lifestyle • Endurance athletes – usually cyclists/sometimes swimmers, who (aside from their sport) have not done any conditioning of any kind for many years. • Endurance athletes for whom a ‘wake up’ call comes in the form of an injury – usually incurred in some daily activity rather than during ‘training’– that forces them to look at the absence of conditioning.
Quite frankly, your average modern person is fairly out of shape in terms of what the human body is capable of. Most of the people in these groups above need to relearn how to move correctly. They need to learn how to breathe right and engage their core muscles. Sometimes they have to correct chronic shortness and tightness and poor posture at the same time. And often they need a re-introduction to exercise that makes them want to stay and learn more.
For me, this is where the soft colourful plastic ball comes in. I use balls as a handy stretching tool, to help people re-engage their core and learn to move better, and to build their confidence in that movement in order to introduce weighted exercise. Here are some reasons why a Swiss Ball is good for that.
• It moves in three dimensions, so that when used appropriately it stimulates the body's balance and reflexes, as well as stimulating metabolism, offering a BIG BANG of benefits • It encourages all the muscles of the body to work at once, helping to connect muscles in working ‘teams’ whilst avoiding overdevelopment of any muscles in isolation • It is very versatile in the right hands, and in conjunction with a fairly simple set of adjustable spinlock dumb bells can take a client from deconditioned to functionally effective in very little time, at home • It takes up very little space and can be used at home or outside, without the need for a gym • It is relatively unintimidating, but also fun to work with, helping to build confidence and develop positive feelings along with exercise.
Now, of course like any other fitness tool, Swiss balls or 'Stability balls' are sometimes misused and abused. They are not ideal for everyone, and they are not the only tool in the box. But they are definitely a friend of mine, and many others.
I’ve been thinking about chimps and bananas a lot the last few weeks. Not actual chimps but metaphorical ones. With all the sport on T.V. with the commonwealth games, and having watched a couple of good BBC documentaries I have been reflecting on what seems to be a confusing dichotomy in what in sports psychology is called ‘Flow’.
Sensing ‘flow’, or ‘getting in the zone’, is what athletes strive for in terms of executing the perfect performance. According to all the definitions I have found, in a state of 'flow' everything happens easily, decisions are made almost automatically, and attention is focussed purely on the task in hand. Distractions and negative thought processes and emotions do not interfere with the event. Time is not linear but instead action and awareness are immersed in the intense present.
I would say I have experienced what I would describe as ‘flow’ a handful of times both in and out of the sports environment, but in particular I’m interested in the role emotion has to play. I can see the benefit of learning to exclude negative emotions, but I am wondering if attending to positive emotions is part of the experience, and whether becoming more aware of these positive elements can allow you to access ‘flow’ more often.
‘Flow’ or ‘zone’ experiences are difficult to achieve for many, and often require some training and practice in ‘mindfulness’, an ability to observe your own thoughts and emotions as they happen in the moment. Mindfulness is practiced to increase self-awareness.
‘Flow’ in this sense does not only belong to the sports world but is a state of being sought through meditation and spiritual practice too, as a means of de-stressing and detaching from the mind clutter of modern life, or as a path to enlightenment. In the context of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for example this awareness of thought processes and the (often negative) emotional cascade that they can trigger is the essence of the work to change a persons’ mind set. You become aware of a pattern of recurring thought and you notice the emotion that is triggered. Then, by way of training and practice, you replace that unwanted, negative thought with a counter argument, thereby sending your emotions in a more positive direction.
In many forms of therapy developing a ‘watcher’ perspective of your own thoughts and emotions is the first step. The second step is learning to intervene early enough to change unwanted patterns, emotions and behaviours.
The ‘Chimp’ comes into this realm by way of the now widely known psychiatrist Steve Peters who revolutionised the psychological approach taken by British Cyclists in the run in to the Beijing Olympics and beyond. Peters was interviewed as part of one of the BBC documentaries that inspired this post called ‘Sir Chris Hoy – How to win Gold’.
Dr. Steve Peters has created and propagated a mind management model that has successfully been applied to sport as well as other fields. In the documentary Sir Chris Hoy references the benefits he gleaned from the approach in providing the edge he needed in his final few years as a professional cyclist, and in maintaining mental focus under enormous pressure.
In cycling circles at least the basic tenets of this model have infiltrated the vocabulary, and phrases like ‘caging the chimp’ are widely understood to be references to the chimp that Peters speaks of in his model; your ‘emotional brain’ that can derail you if you don’t learn to control it (cage it).
This most basic part of the model I really like as it is something we can all easily relate to. Peters talks about the importance of self-awareness too and getting to know your chimp as a first step to keeping it in the cage. And so I have been reflecting on my own chimp who I will introduce to you here:
My chimp is motivated by play and curiosity. He wants to have a laugh and mess about and can become a bit over excitable. My chimp needs to be let out of the cage to have fun and explore fairly often, but it's important that the environment in which I let him play is a safe one so things don't get out of hand and he doesn't get hurt. Sometimes he may overstep the mark and poke a big gorilla in the ribs and then wonder why he is being chased out of the jungle when all he wanted to do was have fun and make friends. Cage my chimp too long and he will get depressed or become self-destructive. My chimp is sensitive but may seem aggressive and lash out because of the frustration of containment. He has many positive qualities associated with his personality but he can certainly derail me if I don't keep an eye on him. My chimp is a lively little fella and I am trying to find a way to manage him.
You see, the chimp part of the model is quite easy to get a handle on, but there are elements of it which for me are conflicting and frankly turn me off. I have read most of the book; 'The chimp paradox', but got lost somewhere between the 'planet of shadows' and the 'asteroid belt'. This may be my lack of persistence, or ironically my chimps' limited attention span, but there is something about the mechanisation of the human brain that Peters describes in it that leaves me flat.
Dr. Peters describes getting into the ‘zone’ as ‘getting into 'computer mode’ by becoming calm, logical and rational. He states that athletes don’t report a high emotional state during the experience but only start to feel any emotions after the event, when the realisation of what they have achieved starts to sink in. While there seems to be a lot of agreement on some of the aspects of ‘flow’, it appears that the question of whether positive emotion has a part to play during the ‘flow’ experience is up for debate.
Contrast Peters’ model with Graham Obree’s description of the flow state in conversation with Chris Hoy in the documentary:
‘I had the best computer in the world. The world’s most powerful computer…my own cerebral cortex which is tuned into every bodily function in real time. Even to this day there is no computer to compare to the human cortex…You can plug all the probes into every orifice you want and you’re not even coming close. And if you can tune into that ….from the sub-conscious to the conscious…I can feel it…I’m tuned in’.
While he too uses the computer analogy, I believe that Obree describes a very different experience. It is certainly one of heightened awareness but he also describes it as being ‘like an Albatross flying’. He seems to go into his emotions and emmerse his whole body and mind in the experience. In contrast to the more clinical ‘chimp paradox’ model Obree speaks about an elusive holistic experience where he is ‘hyper- aware’ of sensation and feedback from his body, but also is trying to find an analogy for the intangible emotions running through him which are distinctly separate from sensory information and feedback. Perhaps there is still no easily describable emotion there to speak of but there is certainly plenty of feeling.
I came away from watching that documentary wanting some sort of Q & A show where Peters and Obree go head to head to discuss and debate chimps and albatrosses from their own seemingly different viewpoints. Part of what would make that discussion fascinating for me is the fact that Dr. Peters is a psychiatrist and Graham Obree is a man who has wrestled with mental illness. And when Obree speaks about his 'flow' experience I am transfixed, but when Peters speaks of it I am left disinterested. Maybe thats' because I am naturally a more emotional than rational person. Maybe it's because my chimp is not in the cage. Maybe it's because I'm a bit mental.
I understand that the chimp model is about recognising negative or unhelpful emotions and choosing not to attend to them, but what about choosing and learning to attend to positive emotions in the flow state? What about this amazing almost spiritual connection between body and mind that Obree alludes to?
Running parallel to the Hoy Documentary on the BBC was another called ‘100 Seconds to Beat the World: The David Rudesha story’, a beautiful yet slow paced tale about the special relationship between Kenyan 800m world record holder David Rudesha and his Irish catholic coach Brother Colm. In it brother Colm refers to his religion as being central to his role as coach, such that for him, for some Godly reason he has been called to channel God through his work with young athletes.
We could of course rationalise his success with Rudisha very easily. Davids’ father was an Olympian. David and the other athletes who have passed through Brother Colms’ school have great genetics and a natural diet both in terms of food and early (often barefoot) running experience. But in this story what comes through the most is the importance of faith which seems to be a sort of irrational ‘flow’ in itself; Brother Colms faith in God and his calling, and David Rhodeshas faith in brother Colm.
I am not religious myself but I know that athletes through the ages have cited this faith running through them as a kind of transcendent experience. Most famously in the film Chariots of Fire Eric Liddel is quoted as saying: ‘I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure’. If this isn’t a description of the positive feelings associated with ‘flow’ then I don’t know what is.
Naturally as with all the interesting subjects I doubt there is a right or wrong answer to the question 'Is there a place for any emotion in the flow experience?'
But for me I think I can draw something useful from both viewpoints as I figure out for myself how to best channel my own 'flow'. I'm certainly going to keep trying to manage my chimp, but equally I am going to keep half an eye open for an Albatross.
Last weekend I went on a little expedition. One of my goals this year is to get some ‘Wild Swimming’ under my belt. I love swimming, and I love being outdoors, so it’s no great leap of the imagination to realise that swimming somewhere beautiful outdoors is the perfect adventure. (Actually the perfect adventure might be to cycle to a Wild Swimming Spot, swim in it, and cycle home, but that’s another project) Wild Swimming
1. Swimming in natural waters such as rivers, lakes and waterfalls.
2. Dipping or plunging in secret or hidden places, sometimes in wilderness areas.
3. Action of Swimming wildy, such as jumping or diving from a height, using swings or riding the current of a river.
On this occasion, and with very little encouragement, I managed to rope my favourite aunt Kate into the project, thus providing photographic evidence that I did indeed do what I set out to do, and also providing me with base camp in Derbyshire.
The weather was glorious, and the scenery fantastic. We really couldn’t believe our luck. Approaching Blake Mere along the Morridge Road, the panoramic view was spectacular and worth a stop to take in its stunning beauty. I had researched the swim spots beforehand and seen photos of Blake Mere, but didn’t actually expect it to look quite as inviting in real life as it did when we came upon it.
Situated right next to a quiet, but windy stretch of road, with a small parking area at the top, the tarn is easily accessible. I was pretty excited at the sight of this shimmering blue mirror reflecting the sky, and hopped out of the car eager to get my swimsuit on and jump in.
In a slightly surreal moment as I prepared to slip into a thin layer of Lycra, two fellas emerged from another car dressed head to toe as airmen, complete with leather flying caps with ear flaps and goggles. Evidently, Blake Mere is also an ideal spot for flying model aircraft, and in order to withstand the elements on this hill top, even if you are not getting into your toy plane, you need to dress as though you might.
Fortunately, having layered up over the top of my swim suit, once we had walked down below the ridge there was a little less wind, but it was still going to take a bit of momentum and will power to get in that icy water, and it would be important to warm up quickly afterwards. With the preparedness that only an infant school head teacher can bring to a project, Kate was poised and ready with towels and thermos.
Looking at a patch of water and preparing to swim in it are two completely different things, and as a qualified swimming teacher myself, and as the daughter of another, I could not help but start to do a little health and safety check once at water level.
The swim was something I was at least fairly well prepared for. But it had not occurred to me that getting in, and even more important, getting out, might need some planning. The blackness of the water close up is due to the peat that lines the tarn, and at its edges are mats of squidgy, mobile moss. Poking at the water with a stick on the brink of the pool revealed that it drops away sharply, which would mean I was immediately out of my depth as soon as I entered the water.
At the edge of the tarn is bench inscribed:
In the summer at Mermaid Pool - As the grass grows all around - I think sometimes I hear her sing - For the Mermaids home I’ve found
The poem alludes to local folklore which claims that a woman rejected the advances of a man called Joshua at the local pub on the high road. Being a bit peeved he accused her of being a witch and threw her in the Mere. Cursing him as she drowned, she got her revenge three days later when poor old Joshuas’ body was found scratched and clawed by the side of the pool. It is said that no animals will drink from the water because it is cursed.
Dipping my toe in the murky waters I could see why, and with the cold air quickly cooling my fairly naked body I knew that cursed or not, I’d better bet my butt in and out of this water sharpish. There was only room for one mermaid here. And it was going to be me.
And so with some mind over matter, and with the encouragement that only someone who wouldn’t dream of swimming in a dark pool of death can give, I went for it.
After a bit of vigorous kicking and doggy paddle to become accustomed to the water temperature, the initial nerves settled and I found the experience of swimming in this strange little pond glorious. With the sun shining and the only ripples on the water being made by me, I emersed myself in the experience and explored the space by swimming about and floating on my back looking up at the sky. Anyone who has swum in open water will know that perhaps the most scary thing about it is what you can see (or can’t see) underwater. It took me a while to get my head in, but when I did put my face under, it was so dark that I couldn’t see an inch in front of me, and looking at my limbs as I floated near the surface the peaty water gave them an eary orangey brown glow.
It was tempting to stay in longer, but after about 15 mins of swimming in the cold water it was time to get out by way of a slightly inelegant mud crawling manoeuvre.
And so it was that after a hot drink and a bit of regrouping, we left Blake Mere for our second swim spot that afternoon. This was to be a small plunge pool, or series of pools and waterfalls called Panniers Pool, deep in the valley where the river Dane runs between cut-thorn hill and turn edge.
This location was much less accessible by car, with the nearest parking a couple of miles away, so with a closer look at the OS map and with bags packed we set off an a fairly challenging walk that would take us up and down a few hills and along the valley.
As it turns out there were a lot of people out hiking, not surprisingly given that it was such a beautiful day, and we came across several groups of teenagers doing their Duke of Edinburgh award en route.
Finally after nearly two hours leisurely walk we reached the spot where the river runsthrough a small bridge and into pools of varying depths than can be explored by paddling. Close to the bridge where we sat and ate our lunch was a rendezvous point for the Duke of Edinburgh youf which made for excellent people watching. It’s funny what being outside brings out in people, and a man who was sitting by one of the pools with his teenage daughter had just stripped to his pants to take a dip, finding the cool water on a hot day rather irresistible. Even more amusingly he then struck up a conversation with another woman who he didn’t seem to know at all, chatting happily with his hands on his hips in his wet underpants ankle deep in water. Out here, in the open air, this seemed a perfectly normal thing to do, and I liked that.
The pool that I wanted to plunge into was a little further down the valley where it was deeper and there was more of a waterfall, rather than rivulets of running water. So we clambered down and taking a similar approach to outdoor nakedness as the man in his pants, I slipped into my swimsuit.
With running water and a rocky bottom, Panniers Pool was quite a different swimming experience than swimming in Blake Mere that morning. The water was fresher, and the depth variable, making it easier to paddle about the edges and explore its rocky corners. The waterfall created a fairly strong current that made it difficult to approach, but not impossible if you grabbed hold of some of the mossy rocks to one side and hauled yourself in front of the torrent.
The waterfall was so powerful that to stand in it I had to push with my legs and lean back against it, before being thrown back into the pool beneath. The noise in a waterfall is extraordinary, and with icy water pummelling your body and the sound of water roaring around your ears, all of your senses are bombarded at once. Refreshing is too clichéd a word to use. And actually, I can’t think of one good enough, so I just recommend you try it yourself.
And so with reluctance and with outwardly shivering limbs I dragged myself out of the water once again and Kate and I regathered ourselves for the walk back to the car, admiring from a height the pool I had been swimming in only minutes before. The two swimming experiences had been very different. The first needed a little more courage but was ultimately calming. The second had been exhilarating. I loved both and when we finally got back to base camp at about 9pm that evening I had that happy exhaustion that you only get by being out in the fresh air (and even fresher water) all day.
Most thoughts and plans are in the future or sometimes thoughts can get stuck ruminating on the past. Often we don’t pay enough attention to the present. In my coaching I try to draw attention to what in ‘New age’ circles would be called ‘the Now’, where the ‘process’ which leads us to where we are going is taking place. Setting your self step by step S.M.A.R.T. goals is important of course, but keeping a more subjective present time awareness on things like feeling stronger or more relaxed can be important too and make this process where we spend most of our time more enjoyable and meaningful in itself. When ‘shit happens’ (as it often does) and we are forced to change or re-evaluate our objectives, having the ability to accept the present can enable us to feel less frustrated and more at peace with the process, forcing our attention into ‘the Now’. When something gets in the way of our well laid plans and progressions, if we are not open to change we are likely to experience a lot of ‘failure’ and all the negative associations that go with that. Keeping in mind the touchy feely-ness of the subjective in the sporting/athletic context reinforces the value of play too which is easy to lose sight of when we make our leisure pursuits all about ‘hard work’ towards future objectives.
Sometimes shit happens and this is just part of the process, forcing us to pay attention in the present. I recently experienced this in a very physical way when I suddenly and unexpectedly went over the handlebars of my bike on a routine ride.
Jo: ..This is just fine...the sun is shining...let's stop for coffee...'
Universe: ..'I'm not sure you're paying attention so I might just give you a little nudge, or a poke, or a great big SMACK IN THE FACE to check....'
Jo:...'What the hell just happened?! What am I doing here?...'
Making plans and goal setting can be motivating, moving you towards something you want (in the future), or away from something you don't want (either experienced in the past or anticipated in the future). Training and practice create change that moves you in a particular direction by maintaining a focus on your goals and acting in accordance with them. But effective practice and training requires a present centred focus and often this concentration on the present is the hardest part.
When you set yourself a health and fitness goal it's easy to become overly focussed on outcomes and before you know it you are an obsessive control freak. What's worse, sometimes the harder you try, the less likely you are to achieve what you are aiming for, and this is particularly true if there is a skill component to the learning.
When you tighten your grip on the objective goal, you can lose sight of the process. The paradox is that you can achieve the result you were looking for as if by accident through process itself. Chris swam his first full length by accident.
I've been teaching Chris to swim for around 2 years now. He has just had his 55th birthday and when we first met he was terrified of the water. Having never learnt to swim as a child it was a brave and determind decision to make to try and learn. I have taught adults from scratch before and I usually have some success, but with Chris it has been a little different.
From the start it was obvious he would not be happy to just get from A to B. He wanted to learn 'properly', and I was happy to take my time teaching him. Though I am a qualified swimming teacher, Chris is the only swimmer I am still working with, largely because I don't feel I will be finished until he is. We are both happily working on the process. Several times in the past few months Chris has come close to 'swimming properly' for a whole length with rhythmical breathing. Several times he has set himself a target deadline and on every occasion it has slipped from his grasp. He would tighten up, lose the sense of flow and relaxation essential in swimming, and the whole thing would fall apart.
Then, something amazing happened. As if by accident and without intending to, Chris swam a perfect length of breastroke. It was a pretty exciting moment. It was achievement of the objective by way of process.
I've been dipping in and out of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching recently (as you do) alongside a book which I really love by John Heider call 'The Tao of leadership'. In it the author loosly translates the meaning of the poetry in a leadership context. I love the original poems but also enjoy the interpretations as they remind me of the importance of letting go of needing to be in control, both as coach and for me personally.
Here is an example from Chapter 29:
..'Those who tamper with it, harm it,
Those that grab at it, lose it.
For among the creatures of the world some go in front, some follow;
Some blow hot when others would be blowing cold.
Some are feeling vigorous just when others are worn out.
Some are loading up just when others are tilting out.
Therefore the Sage discards the absolute, the all-inclusive, the extreme'
The paradox of pushing
Leaders who push think that they are facilitating the process, when in fact they are blocking process. They think that they are building a good group field when in fact they are destroying its coherence and creating factions. They think that their constant interventions are a measure of ability, when in fact such interventions are crude and inappropriate. They think that their leadership position gives them authority, when in fact their behaviour diminishes respect.
The wise leader stays centred and grounded and uses the least force required to act effectively. The leader avoids egocentricity and emphasizes being rather than doing.
Awareness of process can help us understand how shit happens. Sometimes its painful. Sometimes its a beautiful thing. Either way change happens.
Mountain road with your seductive bends, you draw me into a place of reflection,
but also of Expansion
Hollow sadness within is contrasted with
Vastness, Worldy worn,
Weary rock faces,
and I rhythmically am climbing in a trance
pedal stroke after pedal stroke
and with every metre earned
I am regathering, gathering,
consuming the ground metre by metre into
My Self, my Soul
I am not drawn in by others passing by,
I am alone on the road
in conversation with the Earth
All Elements are here with me
in communion, Wind gusting
Silver-green grass in gentle mounds,
Hair-like pulsing, earthy heart beat
Rock face, gnarling earth
Carved by Wind and Water
Resilient, Resolved, Resounding
'I am here, Solid, Unmoveable'
.....and then reaching a summit I begin to plummet and then...
Ocean and rock, deep and blue-green
and rippling with eternity
Shades of depth and beauty,
White horses where sea and rock meet
in negotiation, exchanging their energies
Air, now she is there
for she has taken my breath away
and all at once lifted me to the heavens,
Tears of pure joy well in my eyes
and I am one with the Universe
and what of Fire, I have been wondering about you,
and then there you appear
speckled light and shade in the valley
both here in nature
as in me,
Sunshine and Shadow
I wrote this poem after riding the road to Cap de Formentor in the Spring of 2008. I thought I would share it with you here. I hope to go back to Majorca this year, as well as exploring some other spectacular roads with RPM90 ultimate cycling tours in 2014.
My trip away the weekend before last with Rpm90 was not without its trials and tribulations. First, and rather critically, my bike bag (with bike and all my clothes) never made it onto the plane. I experienced one of those tragic lonely moments in arrivals at Pisa airport where all the other travellers disperse and there is only the scuffing whir of an empty luggage carousel to break the quiet. This was not how it was meant to start. “There was a message”, said the nice Italian lady with a heavy Italian accent. “Your bag. It is at Gatwick”. Oh dear.
BA emergency pack. There would have been more of an emergency if I had applied that comb to my hair.
A frantic few hours with Rpm90’s Nick followed where we went into ‘triage’ overdrive.
What do we need? What can we do without?
It was all about the shoes.
We must find some cycling shoes, and we must find them within the next couple of hours. A frantic tour of Pisa central followed. Well, not that frantic actually because once you turn into the streets around the student area you are not going anywhere fast. A fleeting glimpse of the leaning tower was included as we rounded one corner, but we experienced an epic fail on this first phase of our shoe hunting escapade.
Plan B followed whereupon picking up Alun (our last client to arrive) we did a *slight* detour to a ‘Decathlon’ we had located on the trustworthy phone nav. And at only our second attempt we found a store and bought the cheapest, only-one-size-too-big cycling shoes available, and headed at last to our destination, La Valais Luxury Hotel in Radda in Chianti.
The hotel for our stay in Tuscany is just fabulous. Stone built, ornately decorated and just, well - fabulous (and indeed this was the eloquent summary given by several Americans at reception on our arrival). The food at the hotel is spectacular too (running out of superlatives), and accompanied by plenty of the local wine (sucks on teeth in Anthony Hopkins style). It had been a pretty exhausting and emotionally draining start to the weekend, so it was good to sit down to dinner (albeit somewhat underdressed) and meet the clients we would be riding with over the next few days.
Fortunately for me, Rpm90’s James is somewhat vertically challenged and so with the saddle shoved up an inch or so, his bike fits me rather well. His cycling kit doesn’t fit me too badly either and we have known each other long enough to share a chamois (clean, obviously, and not at the same time). What James lacks in height he makes up for in shoulder width, so the 44cm handlebars were perhaps a touch on the wide side for me, but together with the dodgy new shoes I embraced the challenge and we hit the road.
Our first day of ‘orientation’ was pretty relaxed and allowed us to get to know the riders and for us to settle back onto our bikes (or someone else’s). Most of the roads around Radda are smooth and well maintained, an instant and welcome contrast for me from many of my regular roads in Kent. First impressions for clients who are new to Tuscany are of the unending nature of the hills, of which there are many. The terrain is constantly up and down, and even the valley roads have that relentless rolling aspect that make for great training. Not always steep, but rarely flat, for those who weren’t expecting it, the opening day, with its 7km ‘tester’ climb offered a nice little nibble at the main days activities for Saturday.
Demon descending buddy on day 1: Alun
The Rpm90 trip to Tuscany is all about experiencing this undulating terrain, but in particular taking in some of the Strada Bianchi (white roads) that make up the route for the classic L’Eroica’ ride (that took place the weekend before our trip), and the neo-classic race (also called Strada Bianchi) that is part of the UCI pro calendar in spring. Having had a little taste of the Strada on the Friday, our route for the Saturday was to take in some longer sections before lunch, and then we would split the group for the return journey, with the stronger riders smashing up more gravel and the rest of us opting for the more scenic but still fairly gruelling return.
When I did this same trip with in the spring of this year my memory is of the green rolling hillsides surrounding Siena, and the views of these afforded by way of being off the beaten track, or indeed on it, via the white gravel roads. This time, now in October, the views were no less spectacular, but this time the palate was made up of browns, greys and even purples, with the fields that were glowing green in spring having been thickly ploughed since.
Even the ‘white roads’ were a light brown, which mixture of mud and dust spattered us from head to toe as we munched our way along the gravel to our lunch stop on Saturday. The weather was wet, but warm, and I rather enjoy the combination and the added technical challenge it brought to the already somewhat tricky riding. Our riders were adapting well, and though challenged I hope were enjoying the experience too.
Either mass murder was about to take place, or the restaurant had heard that we might be a bit damp and muddy.
Our lunch stop was at Lucmpemsi at the end of our longest section of strada for the morning, by which time one or two cleats had become a bit clogged up and mud had crept into every orifice. Hot food on a wet day is always welcome, and the food here is particularly warming with my personal favourite cauliflour, eggy, omeletty thing on the menu once again.
Great wholesome food. Gluten free. Happy days :)
Having filled up on this hearty traditional Italian food, topped off with a quick espresso to avoid the post lunch slump we headed back in our two groups towards Radda. My group was taking in more tarmac on the way home, with just one or two short sections of Strada to break up the rythmn of the black stuff.
What I love the most about riding in Tuscany is the views. Obviously you get lovely views in lots of places you might ride your bike, but here you always seem to be summiting a hill, and at every summit you are rewarded with a 360 degree panoramic scene of hill top houses each serviced with a gravel road lined with cypress trees. For me this gives you a frequent sense of achievement, and the reward is never too far away from your effort. The weather was changeable on the return journey but for me the moody purple clouds, together with the fresh air that you only get between heavy showers made the scene all the more appealing. Largely we were riding on smooth, relatively ‘main’ roads, but there was little traffic, and this quiet luxury allowed my mind to happily wander.
As the day wore on, my legs were reminded that as well as being beautiful, the Tuscan terrain is what one of our riders called ‘fit-making’. The constant hills, including some short sharp, shoving ones on the Strada tests the legs and builds of progressive sort of fatigue. Coming into Pianella, only 20Km or so from our Hotel mostly along a valley, my little cohort of pedalling adventurers settled in line behind me and we tapped out the route at a very constant tempo. Feeling the fatigue in my legs and knowing that we were all suffering, I was careful to maintain a constant pressure on the pedals for my own sake as much as everyone else’s, and we fell into the sort of amicable silence you get when both the brain and legs are numbed by the physical challenge. Luckily, both groups ended up coming into Radda at the same time in the sunshine, so we were able to appreciate some smug group satisfaction and fight over the food in the local supermarket.
For the final day of riding I was at last reunited with my own bike that had arrived by courier from Pisa on Saturday afternoon. This allowed James to finally get on the road himself and we all rode steadily with tired but happy legs into Siena for coffee in the famous Piazza del campo on Sunday morning. The Autumn sun was a little warmer on the face and shoulders than in the spring, and just warm enough to make it comfortable to sit out in the fresh air without any chill at the edges.
Sitting back in the square I felt a sense of happy symmetry with these two trips that have book ended my summer season. In the spring it had been a bit colder, and I had been a bit less fit. The routes and roads had been new and challenging and working with the Rpm90 boys was still a relatively new experience. This time around I was in a more confident place, and in spite of the drama of the bike bag I felt content in the knowledge that the trip had gone well, and everyone including me had enjoyed a unique riding experience.
I hope to be back for more in Spring 2014. If you fancy a piece of the action check it out at http://www.rpm90.com/packages/tuscanycycling-2014/
One of my regular personal training clients is approaching his first ‘birthday’ training with me. When he came to me for our initial consultation last year he sat down (carefully) opposite me and I listened to the story that had got him to where he was. It was a story that had included a lot of long working hours, some bodily neglect, a busy family life, and then twice in the previous 18 months a bout of horrendous back pain. The second of which culminated in being nursed inch by inch down the stairs by paramedics, and spending the next several months living, working and closely following the cricket laid flat on his living room floor. When we met, he was back at work and on his feet, but had narrowly avoided spinal surgery for a significant disc injury. Though I make a point of trying to be non-judgemental, sat opposite me that day I saw an overweight man in a suit with a fairly broken body.
Rightly or wrongly, I told my client exactly that last week. I told him because I was struck by the fact that it’s not who I see anymore. Now I see a generally fit and healthy man with a young family. I see a man who is a stone and a half lighter than he was then, exercising regularly (both within our training sessions and independently) and enjoying life. He has not spent this summer on the floor but lifting and carrying logs and riding bikes with his young family in France. This pleases me enormously.
Pain and discomfort often send people in my direction. All motivation is fundamentally driving you towards something you want or away from something you don’t want. Sometimes it’s both.
Chronic pain and discomfort is not normal. This is something not always recognised by the general population, and especially amongst sports people for whom pain can become ‘normalised’. In my favoured sport of cycling generalised back ache is often considered ‘normal’. Really this just means that back ache is common, but it should not be expected, anticipated or accepted as a by-product of being a cyclist. Distinguishing what is normal ‘healthy’ discomfort associated with exercise and what is not seems just as difficult for a competitive sportsperson as for someone who has never engaged in physical training, but for different reasons. The glorification of suffering that is celebrated in sport is not always healthy and needs to be placed firmly in context. I believe that feeling happy, well, pain free and energised in general is what we should expect, even amidst the specific identifiable fatigue caused by training.
I had an interesting discussion recently with another personal training client of mine about the acute discomfort that is necessary to create the ‘overload’ required for adaptation. She reminded me that breathing and sweating heavily are not ‘normal’ experiences for some people. That the ‘pain’ of the final few repetitions of a strengthening exercise seems unnatural and avoidable in the logical mind of many. Surrounded by the ‘training’ environment as I grew up, the discomfort of training and the camaraderie of surviving it was celebrated. If you made it through ‘hell week’ in my swim squad you were rewarded with a swimming hat that said so. But without the obvious ‘carrot’ of improved sports performance it can sometimes be more difficult to reframe this discomfort as something positive.
All discomfort and pain can be meaningful and purposeful. To consciously inflict acute discomfort by way of training you have to be motivated by a belief and understanding of the long-term benefits. To sub-consciously find yourself in chronic pain and discomfort often forces you to self-reflect on why and how you have got there.
Interestingly, simply taking on board this basic training principle of ‘overload’ and trying it for a few weeks can be enough to keep the motivation train rolling. The benefits in the body and mind are normally enough to speak volumes. I suppose this is where the supportive relationship of a trainer is most helpful to the beginner, in reassuring them that in this context this short lived, acute discomfort is normal and safe, and that there will be a pay-off. Happily my client now understands that the level of discomfort we are talking about is reasonable and manageable, and leaves her feeling better long-term and looking forward to exercise and not dreading it.
Failure is important and should not be avoided. It sets a boundary that can be tested in the future to measure progress. Unless you are willing to fail, you will never know what you can achieve.
I have been checking my own boundaries in relation to training discomfort and ‘failure’ recently. Often in my gym training in particular I will stay in my comfort zone, or at the most will push the envelope at the edges of it. As an ‘endurance athlete’ I am not strictly built for strength, though I enjoy staying in overall physical condition and applying what I know to my own fitness training. On my bike, my leg strength rather than my cardio-vascular system is often a limiter. It has been a long time since I have really tested my strength by pushing the boundaries of what I can achieve in the gym, and I have rarely pushed myself to the point of failure. So my new autumn mission, in the gym at least, is to do exactly that….
Over and over again.
Practice without the strap first as follows:
Lay flat on your back with your left leg straight along the floor and your right leg bent and relaxed, grasping your right hand behind your knee and holding your thigh vertical (see below under ‘TESTING YOUR OWN HAMSTRINGS AND LEARNING HOW TO STRETCH THEM EFFECTIVELY)
Slide your left hand under your lower back and then slowly straighten your right leg upwards just to the point you feel your back start to press down on your hand. At this point focus on arching your lower back to maintain the space and you should feel the stretch shift into the area of your hamstrings behind your knee.
Hold this for a couple of seconds and then relax your leg back down, repeating on and off in time with your breathing, breathing out as you strighten your leg up, in as you lower your leg down.
Once you have got the hang of maintaining an arch under you lower back (this is essential), you can add the strap and increase the pressure or ‘pull’ on the stretch at the top of the movement by using your arms. Move into and out of the stretch as suggested above and always maintain a curve under your lower back.
Be careful not to pull on your calf by having the strap too high up your foot. Slightly more towards the heel is better.
To learn this and other stretches in my ‘stretching for cyclists’ workshop please get in touch to register your interest and I can keep you posted as to forthcoming workshops