National Day of Suffering

Just like trains, after months of waiting for a blog on Sufferfest two come along in the space of a week, as although I could have tucked this in at the end last time, I thought this was something worth mentioning separately.

Having been around for nearly half a year, Sufferfest does not seem to have taken off quite as well as our gym bosses might have hoped, with many of the classes appearing fairly (if not totally) empty. Fortunately the company behind Sufferfest had a great initiative to help shake things up a bit, by introducing the Sufferlandrian National Day: The Day of Suffering. Obviously this was too good an idea to be missed.

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My gym (David Lloyd) is actually pretty good at putting on special events, often to coincide with the quarterly launches of new Les Mills classes, which tend to have a theme – the last one in early September was ‘Back to School’, which saw us battling our way through back-to-back Grit, Step, Attack & Combat Classes whilst dressed in our finest shirts and ties – whilst the next one due will be a Halloween themed version in October half-term.

This one was to follow a similar format (although sadly without the fancy dress – next year perhaps?!) in that we would complete 3 consecutive Sufferfest classes in 2 hours, although to add a bit of variety the Sports Manager Kevin would be joining us, and (sort of) leading the class with a few words of encouragement and motivation. To top it off, we could also do a regular RPM class with him afterwards, taking it up to a 3 hour ride. Oh yeah, and it all kicked off at 7.15 am on a Saturday (I time when I am normally trying to stay asleep) so I had to be up at the crack of dawn to get ready.

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The Starting Line (I am on the right in the blue t-shirt)

Sufferfest 1 – Igniter: Described as a 20 minute warm up, inspired by British Cycling (who obviously took most of the Golds at both the Olympics and Paralympics – just saying!) we were apparently the first people in the club to try this. Some nice scenery and gradually increasing difficulty, although to be honest it was a little bit vanilla, but a good intro for anyone who had not tried Sufferfest before, and more of a companion to another session than one you would do on its own. Still, it got the legs spinning and was probably a good idea given the circumstances and time of day.

Sufferfest 2 – The Wretched: This is where things kicked off properly with a session best described by their website as “like a a 35 minute fall from the tallest ugly tree and your legs hit every ugly branch on the way down. Except you’re falling up. Did we mention the ugly tree is on fire and your legs are on fire and everything’s on fire?”.  In fact the whole Sufferfest blog is awesome (I can only dream) and I highly recommend a read: https://thesufferfest.com/blogs/the-sufferfest-blog/111999110-taking-a-closer-look-at-the-wretched

Anyway, the set up is you are a washed up former hero Sufferlandrian, who has left your glory days behind, but managed to make it to the final stage of the Tour de France, and need to finish well to earn enough for your bus fare home. What follows is a 6 hour Tour leg crammed into 45 minutes, which includes 2 King of the Mountain sprints and a huge race for the finish line at the end (spoiler –  you win the race). Sounds simple enough, but it is a real killer, with huge climbs accompanied by stunning French mountains (I have a feeling you might end up in Paris, but geography is not important here).

There is plenty of humour along the way (one of my favourite features of Sufferfest) which is mainly at your expense, and you do actually find yourself getting into the storyline as you pass bystanders lining the race who express their surprise at how well ‘the Sufferlandrian’ is doing when they thought you were old news. Painful yes, but I am sure I will be doing this one again before too long.

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Sufferfest 3 – The Nine Hammers: The last of the video sessions was a climber’s paradise (which for most sane people means a nightmare). Again, this one had something of a back story, with you attempting to complete a legendary series of mountain climbs in Sufferlandria (banned by the United Nations!) 6 of which were VO2 max, and 3 threshold climbs. If that last sentence makes no sense apologies, but it is a bit much to explain here: suffice to say it was tough, especially after the two earlier runs. The hills seemed to go on forever, but by this time we had been joined by a few more riders, and we managed to get to the end with a great atmosphere.

In all around ten of us managed to complete all three sessions and earned a coveted Sufferfest T-shirt (both unexpected and surprisingly good quality!) At that point any normal person would leave the room to relax / vomit, but at that point Kevin announced he was about to run a normal RPM class, and full expected all of us to stay for it. Of course we could not say no, so the morning turned out to be a bit longer than planned…

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The hardy finishers

Les Mills RPM – To be honest I can’t remember any of the tracks we did in this class, as by now I was pretty gone. It was nice to get a bit of different variety for my legs, as whilst the Sufferfest element was almost entirely based on endurance, with average speeds from 80-100 RPM, this brought in some more top speed 140 RPM sprints mixed in with high gear hill climbs at closer to 60 RPM. Anyway, I made it through, and that was the main thing!

One thing that really interested me at the end was the data I managed to get from my TomTom Heart Rate Monitor, which if I am honest I don’t usually spend much time on. Having kept it going for the whole morning rather than each individual element, it actually creates a great visual representation of how the sessions panned out. As a starting point, my resting heart rate is around 50 BPM, and my max heart rate (220 minus age 34) is 186 BPM.

The first peak from 0-25 minutes is clearly Igniter, taking my pulse up to around 160 and then calming down as would be expected from a warm up, although note it does not drop below 100 BPM for the rest of the morning! The next hour or so to 1.20 is The Wretched, with another steadily increasing climb, with a couple of massive peaks at 187 BPM for the two hill climbs at the end. Up next to 1.20 is Nine Hammers, which perfectly displays the 9 peaks (you can actually count each of them) and shows what a textbook interval session this is, with peaks and troughs for maximum exertion and recovery. After a short recovery gap to get the RPM class started the last session from around 2.35-3.10 minutes has a slightly lower average heart rate, although by that time I was concentrating more on getting the pedals around than working too hard!

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Day of Suffering Heart Rate Chart

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Official Nine Hammers heart rate chart: pretty similar if I don’t say so myself!

I have to say, when I first saw my gym was going to be offering virtual training, my first concern was that it could ultimately see a reduction in instructor led classes (as part of a drive to reduce costs I guess), which would be a real shame given the loss of experience, adaptability, motivation and other factors this would mean. Fortunately six months on this does not seem to have happened too much (although our old Sunday evening class has been replaced by a video one), although time will tell.

So the aim of the day was obviously to kindle some more interest in Sufferfest, and did it work on me? Well I will definitely be going again, although as someone who loves spin classes and tends to have a bit of extra time in the week from working from home (my own virtual commute!) this would be ‘as well as’ rather than ‘instead of’ my usual times. It also firmly ingrained on my brain Sufferfest’s catchphrase ‘IWBMATTKYT’ which is translated below:

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Sadly all that extra mileage and sweat we put in over the weekend must have caused a few issues for the machinery, as the AV equipment has apparently gone on the blink and there have been no virtual classes for the last few weeks whilst it is being fixed. So I guess those real instructors are safe in their jobs and I will have to take a break from suffering… at least for now…

 

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Welcome to Sufferlandria

After months of promising and distraction by other events it is finally time to talk about Sufferfest!

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I will start off today with a bit of a Meet Cute, as I first came across Sufferfest a few years ago in a magazine (Men’s Fitness  I think), where one of the reviewers was talking about an insane new program, where people rode stationary bikes whilst watching a torturous video of cyclists riding Le Tour or something similar, and trying to keep up like some sort of computer game. At the time I was doing Olympic Triathlons and whilst I had a turbo trainer, I had never even done a spin class, but was looking to try to find ways to motivate myself to go longer, so looked into buying one of the DVDs. Sadly they were a bit out of my price range, so I thought better not to not take the risk and forgot all about it, and kept trundling along on my bike in the lounge, watching endless repeats of the training montage from Rocky IV to spur me on.

Fast forward a couple of years, and thanks to Les Mills RPM and some great instructors I have turned into a spin class addict, ensuring I do at least one session per week (preferably more),  even down to the part where I have special clipless cycling shoes especially for indoor spinning (in addition to my regular tri bike shoes) and do most of my solo bike training whilst listening to bike specific RPM tracks.

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So I was pretty excited when I got back from an Easter holiday to discover my gym’s spin studio was being refurbed, and a new AV system being put in place which would allow ‘virtual’ spin classes, and specifically they had purchased a licence to run Sufferfest sessions, so obviously I had to give it a go so booked myself onto one of the launch classes. But what it is all about?

It turns out that there is more to it than just watching Bradley Wiggins on a big screen and pedalling as furiously as possible to keep up (although there are plenty of famous riders in the films); there is a whole back story / history within Sufferfest. Originating in the fantastically named fictional Kingdom of Sufferlandria, where riding is religion, suffering is a must if you want to achieve mastery. Only those who work the hardest, ride the fastest and climb the steepest hills are considered worthy. This is all made clear to you during the introductory video, which explains how the on screen instructions work, and gives you a scale of how hard you need to work. Having done a few different classes now, these are always different, and usually raise a few laughs, involving phrases such as’Ride like you are being chased by angry Sufferlandrian wilderbeasts’.

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Those involved in the videos who support you in becoming a hero cyclist are classed as Minions, whilst non riders are given the ultimate insult of eating donuts in the rival region of Couchlandria, where hard work is shirked. There are a lot of nice little touches to add some humour to what could otherwise be a pretty painful and serious experience, such as at one point during one of the films where people might otherwise be slacking off, a door appears onscreen, and a large gentleman enters the room like a door to door salesman asking if you are from Couchlandria as you are not working hard enough!

The classes being with a fantastically overblown, James Bond style title / credits sequence, where details of what you are going to be down are interspaced with animated shapes morphing across the screen, accompanied by classical music to build up some atmosphere. Whilst this is totally irrelevant to the remainder of the class, as a massive Bond fan myself, I personally enjoy this bit, plus there is the bonus that it is the few minutes of the class where you are not in pain.

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The format it actually very straightforward, with one countdown bar to show you how long you have left until the next section, one to give your cadence (pedalling speed), and one to say how hard your gear should be. This also tends to be well mapped to what you see on-screen, so when the riders start going uphill you gear up and slow down, and when they come down you can open the gas and start pushing faster. And really that is the main thing you need to go. There are other elements, such as notices to get out of the saddle for hills, and warnings that an increase is coming up (by way of an engine revving sound) but otherwise they stick to the Keep it Simple Stupid formula.

The videos / classes range from shorter 20 minute blasts, to full hour and a half marathons, and have at least a dozen different varieties, each with its own theme depending on the workout target. Examples of ones I have tried include ‘Do As You’re Told’ which involves a race where you are followed by a support vehicle who tells you to speed up or slow down during certain parts of the event depending on team tactics to practice your endurance and sprint skills, ‘Climbing Angels’, where you complete sections of the Giro d’Italia, which unsurprisingly involves a lot of hill climbs, and others with names like ‘The Wretched’, ‘Long Scream’ and ‘A Very Dark Place’ which I will leave to your imagination.

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One moment I particularly enjoyed during Do As You’re Told was when the guys in the car following received a text (from Dr von Agony) saying it did not look like you were working hard enough (with a cat meme and everything !). It was also quite a nice moment when at one point you got a virtual puncture and a few minutes rest!

As you would expect, there is music throughout the films, which all seems to be either custom-made for the videos, or at least non-mainstream, as I have not recognised any of the bands or tracks so far. This is actually good, as it means the music does not distract you too much as the tracks change every couple of minutes, so you don’t find yourself singing along. The tunes tend to be on the heavy side, either hard rock or hip hop, and whilst they do not match the pace perfectly as they do in say an RPM class where you could track your speed even with your eyes closed, they do at least fit the mood of whatever you are following on-screen, such as sprinting or powerclimbing.

There are also some interesting and even unexpected extras in the classes. Th first one I did for example had a whole separate five minute docu-film at the end, as a warmdown of sorts, about a young lad in the Lake District who was trying to ride fast enough to set off a speed camera on a quiet country road. It showed various clips of him riding and making improvements to his bike, clothing, helmet and so on, each time getting slightly faster and more aerodynamic to try to beat the camera. Totally irrelevant to the 45 minutes that preceded it, but actually fascinating as a study of speed, which most cyclists find themselves interested in at some point.

So is it any good? Well as with everything there are positives and negatives. Because it is automated it makes great use of the cycle studio at my gym, taking the number of classes from around 20 per week, to nearly 100, meaning you can get in and do some extra training almost whenever you want. Because it is all pre-programmed in and automated, the classes will also always start and finish bang on time, which is even better if you are in a rush, although it has meant that on occasions the projection screen suddenly drops down during the cooldown in my regular spin class, much to our instructor’s annoyance.

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The videos on screen are really high quality, and make the most of he fantastic locations they feature, most notably the Tour, Giro and Vuelta (in France, Italy & Spain respectively), with stunning views of mountain tops, alpine forests and seaside cliffs to motivate you. This is countered by the fact that you lose the element of imagination you can get in a spin class when imagining climbing a volcano or riding through a desert landscape (or is that just me?!) Obviously there are those who are against all indoor cycling and say ‘why not just go ride outside’ but this really does make it feel like you are taking part in these glamorous and famous races, that in reality would never actually happen to most people. On that note, when you do it in a fairly full studio it feels even more like you are in a peloton as you hear others whirring around you, although it does still work well when you are on your own and want a bit of (virtual) company for your ride.

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Although it is available to riders of all abilities, the fact it is not directly ‘coached’ does mean it is more suitable for experienced riders, who know what they are doing with gears and bike set ups, particularly as there is no stretching at the end. Also whilst the jokes and other motivation (or beating with a stick!) does encourage you along, it can’t compete with having an experienced instructor in the room who can offer advice, tailor the class to your targets, or even slow down if you are struggling (and of course speed up if you are slacking). For those who have not done any indoor riding before, I would recommend going to some normal spin classes before, to learn how to properly set up your bike to avoid injuries and ensure maximum effort, before going into something like this, but of course it is open to anyone.

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Having done most of these now, I would say if the opening few paragraphs of this piece sound like your idea of fun, you would love this kind of thing, but if Couchlandria sounds more your thing then that is understandable!

Next time, Sufferfest goes big, with the ‘National Day of Suffering’…