Virtual Insanity

I first started writing this blog two and a half years ago to document my progress whilst undertaking a 4000 km virtual triathlon across Chile. The idea was that I could record all my swim, bike & run training miles throughout the year to accumulate enough distance to cover the world’s longest country, without the time and cost expense of actually spending a year there (although I did manage 3 weeks which was great!).

Prior to the Chile Challenge I had completed a few triathlons, although I never really had a proper training strategy, but came across the concept of virtual racing the year before whilst on a fitness website called Fitocracy: a kind of social media game which involved logging your workouts and being  awarded ‘points’ which seemed to be based loosely on numbers of calories burned with which you could compete against others. For various reasons I ended up getting bored with the site, but one thing I did take away was the virtual races, where you could challenge other members to see who could cover the most distance in a week or month, which of course helped me get the idea for my own event.

It was also towards the end of the Chile Challenge that I tried my first spin class, which I quickly became addicted to and has probably been my main training method ever since. I mentioned on here a few weeks ago that the cycle studio in my gym has recently had an upgrade, and we now have a shiny new projector and speaker system, meaning they have been able to introduce a whole new range of classes based on video coaching and on-screen racing, the kind of thing futuristic thing that would not have seemed out-of-place in the 2017 of Back to the Future Part II. Obviously being a keen rider I have had to try a few classes to see what it was like.

les mills virtual

The first class I tried was Les Mills Virtual, which is quite simply a recorded RPM class, with a number of master instructors teaching a session that you can join in with. The tracks and choreography are by the book, exactly the same as you would get in a live class for say RPM 70. Being the top instructors they do look like they have just walked off the set of Zoolander, with white teeth, big arms, and the obligatory Kiwi accents (Les Mills is an NZ company). One of the guys looks like he could play Hugh Jackman’s double in the next Wolverine film. It was fun, in that of course I like any RPM class so I have no complaints about the video itself, but I did come out with mixed feelings.

virtual RPM

The most apparent benefit to both the club and members is we can have a lot more classes than ever before. We have been lucky enough to have a purpose-built cycle studio for a few years now, with a few different bike based classes including Les Mills RPM, Sprint and normal Group Cycling, but no more than around 20 sessions per week, with a fair few taking place during the daytime which those of us with jobs do not really count, and I know for example we had been asking for ages for the Sunday evening class to be reinstated, after it was taken off during the (traditionally quieter) summer period last year.

Cycle studip timetable

They have of course been able to sort this now, as well as significantly increasing the volume of classes so there is something on nearly every hour, pushing to well over 80 classes in the same timeframe (see above), meaning it is a lot easier to have some sort of coached session at just about any time of day. They are also going to rotate the timetable, so you don’t get stuck with the same class each time if you can only go at say 6pm on a Monday.

Talking of timings, it is a little strange as the system is fully pre-programmed, so with German railway-like timing, the projector screen will automatically start dropping down at 5.58pm for the class, the video will start and play through regardless of who is in the room (I assume some actually play to empty rooms) and it will then disappear at the end until the next time. This is useful as you know it will always be on time, but can be a bit disconcerting when you are having a conversation with an instructor at the end of a session and a screen starts plummeting from the ceiling towards your heads for the next class!

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Another problem with the ending is they seem to have dispensed with any sort of warm down. The last track ends and bang, the screen is immediately starting to retract. Now this is not a huge problem for experienced riders, as we can take care of ourselves, but for anyone new to the classes they could end up with an injury or slower recovery if they just get straight off the bike and walk out. Again, it may just be the classes I have been to, but having tried both the short 30 minute, and full 45 minute versions, neither has any kind of cool down or stretches after the last track, which is usually a big hill climb.

Clearly a big aspect of this is the significant cost saving for the club. I am not sure what our spin instructors charge – although in terms of the classes I frequent I am of the opinion that they earn every penny – but it means there is next to no additional cost to hold all these extra classes, other than the licenses they have to buy for the videos. I am sure they will say this will be passed onto us as members – not by reduced fees I would assume, but perhaps investment in new equipment and tech.

There is however a bit of a downside in having so many classes, in that it seems to spread people a bit more thinly. Because there is now so much choice, the 30 odd people who might have fancied a mid-week ride might now be split into up to half a dozen classes rather than just one, so instead of having a really full class with a lot of atmosphere (and sweat!) you end up with quite an empty room. Now it may just be coincidence, but the few virtual classes I have done have never had more than single figures present and in one I was absolutely on my Jack Jones. Now I am used to training solo so don’t actually mind this, but it could put others off. To make it worse though, they have squeezed an extra 7 bikes into the studio as part of the refit, making it a little cramped and seeming even more like a the Marie Celeste when it is not busy. It should help a lot next New Year, but I dread to think what it will be like in the summer.

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One final moan about the class is that on a couple of occasions during my sessions people actually wandered into the room mid-class to either set up their bikes for a subsequent session or even just have a gawk – possibly this is just the novelty as it is something they would not dare do if it was an instructor-led class, so hopefully will wear off before too long.

My main fear really is that this technology might end up replacing some of the existing instructor led classes and we will end up with something like the hologram tennis instructor Sharon Stone has in Total Recall, but for now at least we seem to be safe. As mentioned this is not because of the quality of the production, as ultimately the tracks are the same and the trainers are perfect, but it is down to the interaction. In a real class, a decent instructor will be able to tell when to talk, when to motivate the group, when to help struggling individuals or challenge you to the next level. They will be able to mix up the tracks and take requests, start and stop when needed, and generally be trained to hold the thing together. Basically, you can’t replace them with a pre-recorded video!

virtual tennis

So overall what do I think of the classes? Well if I gave the impression I did not enjoy them that was not my intention – I love RPM and an opportunity to do a few extra classes per week is a good thing – I just have a few concerns over how things could turn out in the longer term. But for now at least they are a great compliment to an existing training plan, giving extra variety and making excellent use of a studio that might otherwise have been empty. Those of you with eagle eyes may have noticed from the timetable earlier that the new range of classes does not end with Les Mills though. There is another big name on the scene which I am going to talk about next time… Sufferfest!

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Rough Runner 2016

Although I have been taking part in triathlons for a while now, I will freely admit that (along with many people) until a few years ago I had no idea obstacle races even existed. I am not sure of the exact moment when they became mega-popular, but at some point they seem to have exploded! Now every weekend there seems to be tons of events all over the UK where you can run around fields, wade through mud, climb ropes, crawl under barbed wire and even brave electrocution, all in the name of challenging yourself and your body to the limit.

How people imagine obstacle races

How people imagine obstacle races

Events such as Tough Mudder, Wolf Run and Survival of the Fittest have become arguably as big brands as Ironman, and are a lot more accessible to boot, avoiding the significant cost and training requirements of triathlons. And that is not to mention the social aspect of the races, given they tend to work really well as team events, where you can run as a pack and help each other navigate those tricky obstacles (as demonstrated in the above halfpipe). Most importantly, they have a real emphasis on the fun side of things, and while I personally enjoy some of the pain and suffering you go through in a long distance race – each to their own! – obstacle races seem to involve a lot more laughing, either at some of the ludicrous obstacles or just at each other.

The reality

The reality

As much as I fancied trying out one of these events, I had never actually got around to it, with the closest being the Colour Obstacle Rush last year, which was a bit like Park Run crossed with Fun House: a fun day but not particularly tough, the main difficulty being getting all that pain out of your hair afterwards. So things worked out really well when my wife and a few of her work colleagues invited me to join their team in ‘Rough Runner’, a 10km race in Oxfordshire, with obstacles based on Saturday night TV shows such as Gladiators, Takeshi’s Castle, Total Wipeout and Ninja Warrior: How could I say no?!

 

gladiators takeshi

wipeout ninja warrior

Fast forward a few months and my team of seven found ourselves on a huge country estate in the Cotswolds, watching one of the funniest briefing videos I have ever seen, with lines like “If you fall over don’t cry about it princess, the ambulances will only come if you have lost a limb”. We were in the second wave of about 100 competitors (we were supposed to be in the first wave but got carried away taking team photos!), which was partly planned so we could reach the obstacles before they became too caked in mud… After a brief group warm up involving lots of shouting and burpies we were off, galloping down the hill full of energy like Black Beauty.

We quickly realised there was no messing around when we came across the first obstacle after about 500 yards. They had done well to hide it around a corner – something that became a theme as we negotiated the rest of the course – and it was obviously there especially for those who had been planning on avoiding the mud! This was effectively a tyre car wash, where you had to lie down and squeeze between them, all but guaranteeing you ended up face first in the muddy water on the other side. Looking back it was actually a good idea as it got the fear out the way early, and a few moments later we were back on our way with nice squelching trainers.

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Over the next few kilometres we encountered a whole host of nostalgia inducing stumbling blocks, ranging from classic monkey bars and spider webs to a Wipeout style Punch Wall and some sort of insane version of the Gauntlet from Gladiators… but with pigeons! The one I was most pleased with personally was Hang Tough, a classic Gladiators event where you need to swing from ring to ring. I had never tried this before and to be honest didn’t think I had the upper body strength, but it turned out I smashed it just like Jet, and I have to say I still feel pretty chuffed to have made it. The same goes for my wife who managed a huge jump to get up the half pipe and clamber to the top. The highlight for everyone though was a huge waterslide about halfway round – a nice reward after a gruelling series of hill climbs – which although it only lasted about five seconds was a massive rush and the release we all needed.

Monkey Bars newtons cradle Pigeons punch wall

It was not all easy going though: we should have known there were going to be some toughies when we were warned to wear gloves for the race, and one particular one that seemed to knacker everyone was ‘Newton’s Cradle’, where you basically had to traverse a number a number of swinging space hoppers / buoys, using a combination of momentum and pure chance to clamber from one side to another. I managed to get away with relatively minor rope burn, but some others looked like they had been in a rope fight with an octopus.

Aside from the obstacles, the course itself was pretty challenging. Although the event was not timed (I know I keep calling it a race, but that was not really the point) the 10 km course was littered with rabbit holes, nettles, and generally uneven ground just waiting to trip people up or sprain some ankles. By about kilometre 8 our team was looking a bit like the walking dead, with two people half-limping from achilles related issues, others displaying an array of bruises on any uncovered limbs, and all of us dripping wet from our latest immersion.

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Still, this was where the team spirit really kicked in, as we approached what we knew would be the final – and one of the toughest obstacles – the Travelator! Yes, this really was every 90’s child’s fantasy, and just like in Gladiators you felt like you had gone through the mill in the Eliminator by the time you reached it. This one had four lanes: Fast, Medium, Slower, and finally a reverse one for those who had literally nothing left. Obviously I can’t say no to a challenge like this, so had to take on the fast one, and it was tricker than it looked. The pace is not an issue, it is the sudden change of pace combined with the angle, that really makes it hard. That said, after a momentary stumble where I convinced myself I was going to lose it, I managed to recover and power through to the top victorious!

Moments later the rest of the team was up with me, having completed various levels of Travelator-induced difficulties depending how much they could still walk, and we had a last wave for the cameras, before a final water slide to the finish line. First ever obstacle race completed! Looking forward to more next year!!

Finish

Deja Vu

I feel like I have done a lot of things in the last month or so that I could write about here, but the thing is, I have already blogged about much of it in my other 120 or so posts: Hotel based training – Check. Aqua Cycling – Check Check. Outdoor swimming… you get the picture. So I thought today I would focus on a few of my main events from April:

Football

The end of the most interesting UK football season in years and a team of underdogs from the Midlands pulling off a highly unlikely victory… I don’t think anyone would believe me if I tried to say our bi-annual work football tournament (in its stunning car park rooftop location) produced quite such a shocking result, but with teams from Birmingham, Manchester and for the first time ever Leicester, there was a reasonable chance it could have happened.

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In adding a third team to the format we were able to tear up the rule book somehow for our match, so rather than two teams of five gradually slowing down over the course of an hour, to the point (about 15 minutes in actually) where local kids would look over the fence in curiosity to see what was happening in our ‘veterans’ game as we laid on the floor exhausted / injured – the last match resulted in no less than two hospitalisations and a few other days off work the following day – we could pace ourselves a bit more.

A good thing too as we had not substitutes (in fact we only had 14 players in total), but we managed to have 3x 20 minute matches on a round robin basis, with a final match made up of those still left standing. In the end our own Red Devils from Manchester / Liverpool managed to claim overall victory having won both their matches, but all of the games were a lot closer than usual, averaging 5-4 scorelines.

As usual I had hoped I would have an element of superior fitness, given the fact I go to the gym 5 times a week and have a half-ironman coming up shortly, but there is something about the impact football places on your joints that meant I still ached for days after. Or perhaps it was more down to the body tackles seen from some of our senior management, who knows!

Cuba

As I mentioned, the theme this month is things I have done before, so I thought it was worth a few words to brag talk about the training I did out there, which included some sublime scuba diving in nice warm water (making a change from freezing UK quarries), slightly misguided attempts at tennis, relaxing yoga next to the beach and some aqua aerobics surrounded by Canadians in the sea. I won’t say any more here, just a few photos.

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Les Mills Launches

Ahh, a new quarter, a new set of Les Mills releases: Body Combat 67, Body Pump 97, Body Attack 92 & RPM 70. This time around we had a bit of a head start as these were tracks we had already tried out at the Live event in London a few months ago, and given we were hitting Launch weekend less than 24 hours after returning from Cuba it was probably for the best!

To be honest it is such a blur I can’t actually remember what order we did the launches in, nor much about them at the time, other than the theme (there is always a theme on launch weekends) was ‘Pink & Pigtails’, sadly neither of which I owned anything appropriate to wear. Having spent the last month doing these releases I feel I know them a bit better so am able to pass at least a brief judgement as follows:

Combat – Not a million miles away from the last few releases, with some of the more recent themes such as floor work and HIIT training featuring again. Whilst none of the music is quite as cheesy / awesome as the Black Pearl track last time, there is a pretty cool remix of ‘Fight for your Right’ , a proper 90’s classic in ‘Set You Free’ and following on from Firestarter a few years ago, we now have the Prodigy’s ‘Breathe’ as a Muay Thai track.

body combat 67

Pump – After years of cardio training I am starting to like pump more and more, and it is easy to see how people get hooked on the endorphin rush you get from so much lifting. That said, this is a killer release, and I am fairly sure the ‘How Deep is your Love’ leg track has only been put in so instructors can yell ‘How Deep is your Squat’ as your thighs start to buckle after a seemingly never-ending set of reps.Our coach claims Les Mills always do this for Q2 to make sure you can get your ass in shape for the summer! Interestingly I managed to obtain the below chart which someone has agonisingly (metaphorically and probably literally) put together on how the number of reps seem to increase with each Body Pump release, now averaging well over 1000 per class. Ouch…

Body Pump Reps

Attack – Kicking off with the same ‘How Deep is your Love’ as Pump, and some more old school with ‘Rhythm of the Night’, this is another pretty decent release. As with Combat, I am not yet convinced I like the music quite as much as the last release, but still not one to complain about.

RPM – Arriving back I discovered a massive change in my gym’s cycle studio, with a brand new projection screen and sound system. It turns out they are going to be offering virtual cycling sessions in the future, as well as third party classes such as Sufferfest – but more on these in a future blog. As for the new release – taught (for now at least) by a human – things start well, with ‘I Don’t Like It, I Love It’ and finish strongly with a couple of great tracks in ‘Zero Gravity’ & ‘Sparks After the Sunset’ but I am not quite as keen on the middle few which are either a bit too heavy or too ‘jungle’ for me!

I think I could sum up my thoughts on all four releases with the same thing: some good tracks and great moves, but overall I am not quite as keen on the music as for the last set of releases, or maybe that is just early nostalgia.

So there you go, another month, another three activities to write about. For those of you who got the joke in the opening thanks for noticing, and until next time, hasta luego.