Great Birmingham Run 2016

It was about 24 hours before this year’s Great Birmingham Run that I started to think I should probably have done some more running. In fact, despite having already done one half-marathon back in July (courtesy of the Isoman Triathlon) I have barely run at all this year, with at best half a dozen sessions of 10 km or longer.

Don’t get me wrong, I had no worries about finishing the race as I feel fitter now than at any point in my life, including when I was playing regular rugby at 18. But as I have made clear a few times on here, running is my least favourite discipline of the Swim/Bike/Run trinity, and in general I will always look for alternative training sessions.

This was particularly relevant in the build up to this race, as for a start it was not part of my plans at the beginning of the year. Having previously done the race twice in 2013 & 2014, I gave it a miss last year due to the fact I had wanted to focus on Ironman, and also that because of major roadworks in Birmingham centre the course was going to be changing. I had expected to leave it out again this year, but then something came up which changed all that, which I will come back to later.

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So anyway, rather than signing up nice and early and planning ahead, I did not get around to entering until September, giving me a fairly narrow window to train. As I mentioned finishing was not a concern, given it would be my sixth half, three of which as part of long distance triathlons, so knowing my legs would finish up in one piece before the start gave me some advantage. The problem was more the two races before, where I had clocked in times of 2.12 and 2.08 respectively, and being a competitive blogger I knew it would be shameful to come in slower, and thus had to ensure I beat my previous times to achieve something worthwhile. No pressure then.

The other problem was that rather than go by the book / training plan, with 3 or 4 nice runs per week (including a long one on Sunday) blah blah, I just did my normal training – Body Combat, Attack, RPM and so on. This at least ensured my fitness stayed high, but probably did not get my legs into the shape they should have been.

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To make things worse / better (depending how you look at it) two weeks before the race I had a Les Mills Live day in Manchester. I won’t go into huge detail here, as it was fairly similar to last year (https://chilechallenge.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/one-live-manchester/) but safe to say it was another fantastic day involving 6 different classes, 5 hours of training, and nearly 4,000 calories blitzed. Ouch & yes! But probably not for my legs, as it took most of the rest of that week to recover.

What about the weekend one week before the race I hear you ask? Well, that was of course the time my gym decided to launch the new quarterly Les Mills releases themselves, necessitating another morning of 3 back-to-back Combat, Pump and Attack classes (in Halloween fancy dress natch!) and another few days of Doms in my legs.

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Mid-week tapering with 4 days to go? How about getting asked to play football for your work team in your bi-annual 5-aside tournament in Leicester, with guaranteed ice-hockey style tackles on the pitch and ideal-training-food-curry afterwards. Yep, that happened too.

Hopefully that all gives you a bit of an idea why I felt slightly under-prepared for the race when I was sitting looking at my kit 24 hours beforehand. But still, I was confident enough I had the fitness, all that could get in my way now was the weather…

… so it was with some irony that I woke up on Sunday to the sound of a monsoon outside, as the rain decided to lash it down with the remains of some storm or other doing its rounds through the Midlands. The best laid plans, eh? But I had a new plan, stealing an idea I had found on the race information website.

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So quite what any observers would have made of me an hour or so later, crouching in the front seat of my car in an underground parking lot, trying to wriggle into my race shorts and rubbing Vaseline into my chest to avoid chafing, I will never know, but I think the fact that none of the bypassers batted an eyelid must speak volumes about what goes on in Birmingham car parks. If that did not get them, the sight of me stepping out wearing a full black bin bag and striding down Broad Street to shelter from the rain, looking like a cross between Clint Eastwood and Derek Zoolander doing Derelicte in my homemade poncho. Regardless, it did the job, and by the time I reached the new start line – which was some 4 km from where I had parked (20% of the race distance!) – I was still reasonably dry.

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At that point, having survived the monsoon and with a forecast of more to come, if a someone had offered me a bet that it would end up nice weather for the race I would have laughed in their face. But they would have been right, as inconceivably, just as we got to the starting area for the group warm up, the sun came out and it started to warm up. Throwing off my old tracksuit (another tip I picked up this year: if I ever spot someone on one of the Birmingham underpasses in a knock-off Rugby World Cup top I will feel I have done my bit!) I lined up in the holding pen alongside 20,000 others and waited for one of my heroes, Commonwealth Gold Medallist and local triathlete Jodie Stimpson to kick us off.

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It does not get more Birmingham than the Bullring!

As those who have entered big runs like this before will know, the start can be a bit of an anti-climax, with everyone pumped up & ready, a massive klaxon going off, and then rather than the mass brawl you get in say a triathlon swim, you have a 5 or 10 minute wait whilst you are shuffle down a funnel of barriers  towards the line (in a typically polite British fashion of course) before eventually getting to the front, looking down to make sure you start your GPS watch the moment you cross, and actually getting going!

Needless to say, by then all that adrenaline you have had is starting to wear a bit low, so rather than the measured start you have been planning before the race, you hare off at almost twice your cruising speed along with everyone else, before you realise a few minutes later there is no way you can keep it up, and forcing the breaks to conserve some energy. It never fails to amaze me how many people I see walking and looking knackered about 5 minutes into the race, who have already blown their load and are going to have a hell of a next few hours doing the other 95% of the distance. Not that I would ever do that…

Despite this, for the first half of the race, I really was motoring (by my standards anyway). My first kilometre was over in a shade over 5 minutes, and the first 5 kms were 27.11, not far off my best Parkrun time. I even managed to fly up the first mini hill as you veer off the main road just after the 6 km mark (the little kink on the map) which I remember absolutely killing me the first time I did this race, and certainly having to walk a bit the second time around, but this time around I barely slowed and could enjoy the immediate downhill on the other side.

The route through the halfway was much the same, as I focused on keeping my pace below 6 min/km on my TomTom, with a view to trying to achieve a magic 2 hour Finnish. Things were looking up as I hit the 10 km mark at 55.29, another fantastic time for me, well ahead of what I would normally do in training. Perhaps I should have known then it would be too good to be true, but I used it to keep my legs pumping as I looped around Cadbury World and started retracing my steps down Pershore Road.

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It is worth mentioning at this point the support you get in this race, which is absolutely fantastic and part of the reason I am happy to do it again and again. This is a road race, and other than a small section early on where you run around some of the less salubrious areas and warehouses of Birmingham, you are going right past people’s houses, sometimes just yards from their front doors (meaning it must be a strange experience for those who fancied a lie in that Sunday). Obviously a bit of good weather helps, but the fact is literally thousands of people turn up to watch, many giving out sweets or drinks to help us crazy runners, and most of the kids offering hi-fives for a bit of extra pace, which I can never turn down.

The second half of the course it where it starts to hurt a bit, as you begin to get a sense of deja vu going past some of the same landmarks the other way. I do like the fact it is a single lap course, having done plenty of triathlons involving multiple loops which really test your patience (although there are rumours this will change to multiple loops next year) and the other fun part of this section of the race is you can spot those from later waves going the other way.  At around 12 km I passed my Body Combat instructor going the other way at around the 5 km mark for her, although she did not look happy to see me (not sure if it was more to do with her carrying an injury or the fact I was closer to the finish line…!)

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The next part was the only new addition to the race this year, a bonus loop around Edgbaston Cricket Ground, location of my first temp job after finishing uni. This time however I was not serving drinks, and Freddy Flintoff was not smashing a mighty 167 runs, as there was obviously no match on. Now I am sure this sounded a very good idea on paper, but I have to be honest in that the rear section of an empty sports stadium is not actually the prettiest part, so as I ran past the empty bars and bare concrete walls I had to rely on my memory to think about the lovely green pitch and the roar of the crowd. Still, at that point I managed to pass a guy running in full firefighter gear &  O2 cylinder (a real one) and Mr Potato Head (not the real one) at that point, and hey, an overtake is an overtake.

In fact that is another thing I like about this race, as whereas in triathlons I am usually the guy who turns up for fun, comes out in the top half of the swim before getting smashed by everyone on the bike and run, in a mass participation race I actually do alright and actually manage to overtake people on foot. This might seem strange as it is of course a fun run, but overtaking is a real motivator (when you are doing the taking at least!) and definitely helps with a bit of an extra speed boost.

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Pretty consistent Heart Rate throughout the race. Unfortunately it was in zone 5 (sprint) rather than endurance, so probably a bit higher than it should have, but still…

Next up on the course is the park, which involves a small hill, but more importantly the radio stand, where you get some loud music and importantly some carb drink. Whilst I am not a qualified sports nutritionist, it is one of my interests, and I like to use myself as a bit of a human guinea pig to test out different combinations during training to come out with something to at least get me through longer distance races. Here my fuelling strategy for the race had been to have an energy gel at the start, then three more spread out over 30 mins or so, with just water at the fuel stations, which had worked alright for a bit, but been based on the assumption that it would be a cold and wet race. Of course that was not to be, and with the sun out and wearing a black long-sleeved top, I was loosing fluids much faster than usual, so found myself gulping back blue Gatorade (or whatever was sponsoring the race this year, I cared not) knowing I needed all I could get for what was coming up.

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Yes, the final stage of the race could mean only one thing, looming in at kilometre 16 like an active volcano: The Hill. Perhaps the most famous part of the Great Birmingham Run, and described in the Channel 5 commentary by long distance legend Dave Moorcroft as ‘one of the most savage in UK athletics’, this kicks in around three-quarters of the way through the race (i.e. when you are most tired and need a bit of a hand) and goes on for pretty much the rest of the course. Observe my elevation profile above for a graphic illustration. Before I first did this race I used to wonder what all the fuss was about, having driven along the road in question many times without noticing any particular steepness, but on foot it is a whole different ball game, as I found out to my cost the first time I did the race. And the second. And indeed this time as well, as despite being fit enough to tackle the first kilometre section under the bridge (and are handed an orange segment by supporters for your troubles), it just went on and on.

Despite the pain of the hill, I do have mixed emotions to hear they are going to scrap it next year in favour of a different route, as it is the run’s USP and gives those of us who conqueror it something in the way of bragging rights, so it will be interesting to see what happens next time.

Still I can proudly say that for the first time ever, I did not walk at all. Sure I did that strange sort of shuffling run athletes do when they look like they have just done a Paula Radcliffe where you barely seem to be going forwards, but as far as I am concerned it was still running, and I am pretty proud of it. Needless to say the worst and hardest section of the whole race was the exact moment you go past my work office by Five Ways, at the summit of the hill where you have absolutely no energy left to even give it a wave. Or at least some sort of gesture.

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Not my best race photo… ouch!

By this point I knew my hopes of a 2 hour finish were gone, having been over the 7 min/km mark towards the end of the ascent, but with the pressure now off I could at least enjoy the end, so after being given the largest ever handful of jelly babies (to the point that they overfilled my mouth and I couldn’t actually breathe) by the kind cheerleaders at the boost section for the final km, I switched to a power song on my headphones and put on the afterburners onto Broad Street and into the finish chute with a trademark final sprint over the line.

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My final time was 2.03 hours, agonisingly close to beating that two hour mark, but I guess still leaving something for me to aim at in future with a bit more training. On the positive side, my previous times were 2.08 in 2014 & 2.12 in 2013, so I managed to knock off a huge 5 minutes from my PB, and I could technically extrapolate my time to around 1.58 if I was to do this again next year.

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But I won’t be doing this race again next year, at least not this distance anyway. That reason I mentioned earlier about why I signed up for this race in the first place? Well I am a firm believer in facing my fears, and could not turn down the opportunity to enter the first Birmingham Marathon, which is going to take place next October at the same time as the half-marathon, although parts of it will be on a brand new course. It is going to be a huge personal challenge for me, but in the end that is what this is all about, and I have to say I am pretty damn excited about running further than I ever have in my life. Better get training!

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:

iwbmattkyt

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…

 

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’.

sufferscale

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’…

Maximising The Old Gym Membership

As I have mentioned numerous times, the first few of months in every year can be a nightmare for us regular gym goers, as overnight the average class attendance doubles or even trebles with well-intentioned part timers making their annual appearances. Unfortunately it has been exacerbated this year by the new online booking system my gym in Bromsgrove, which seems to have allowed folks to book onto all manner of sessions the minute they become available and then not bother to turn up, meaning classes I have been going to every week for the last 12 months suddenly tell me they are full, whilst others I have squeezed into often turned out to have loads of spaces on arrival.

maximise membershio

For some reason, this barrage of bookings only seems to have taken place at my particular gym, so as a result the wife & I decided we would take the opportunity to try out the others in our local area. Now there are five David Lloyd gyms around Birmingham , all within about 30 minutes of where we live, and although our membership gives us full access I had only tried out a couple of them before. So following last month’s investigative journalism report, I decided to make it my mission to  explore the others in the first few months of 2016.

jules & vincent

First thing I have to say is that they are all pretty similar. And that is a good thing: DL is one of the top gym brands in the UK and you would hope they are all of a good standard. But the more time I spent in each, the more it reminded me of the conversation between Jules & Vincent in Pulp Fiction when discussing Europe. So just like my gym, they have he same shit over there that we have over here, it is just… the little differences. Example… well here you go:

First on the list to visit was Worcester, a relatively new place which opened a couple of years ago. The location is great for access, straight off the motorway and next to the Warriors rugby club, although a little out the way for me to visit regularly. Now one of the first things I do when using a new gym is check out the equipment on offer, and this inevitably results in one of two feelings – jealousy or superiority. On this basis the fact that Worcester is a few years old now actually work against it, as most of the other clubs have since been through a refurb, so some of their kit now seems a little dated, although it is a great looking gym overall.

old equipment

We got onto a Body Attack class which was taken by one of the instructors we had trained with occasionally back home, and quickly discovered another of the aspects of our place had followed us: the cliques. I suppose all places will have these, and being a regular in Bromsgrove probably means I notice ours more than others, but this had a classic group of ‘regulars’ bunched together at the front, with their own special moves, shouts, in-jokes and so on. Not that this was an issue though as everyone still gets on with the class, but I know that it can be a bit annoying to others in the class when you go regularly.

Next on the list was Solihull. For some time I had been confused, as although I had been there before, when I looked online there seemed to be two addresses provided. I subsequently learned that there are actually two clubs in town, and more confusingly they are pretty much next door to each other!

The first of these, known as Cranmore, is clearly the posher of the two, with a really smart gym area on a sort of mezzanine floor surrounding the pool. You can also tell it is a fancy place by how smart it looks, particularly as there seems cleaners working there than there are members of staff in other places, and as a result the  studio floor seemed to have been polished to within an inch of its life! During our Body Combat class I nearly broke my neck numerous times during the kick tracks, and actually had to change to my reserve trainers the second time we visited to avoid a Bambi on ice situation.

bambi

Despite this obviously huge budget, I still had to smile to myself when one of the most common problems at our place arose: the air con. Now this is hugely important in a gym, where you have 20 or 30 people working hard and giving off a lot of heat. It turns out that wherever you go it always seems to either break, or have a remote control more complicated than something you would find at NASA, and as a result the room will be either freezing cold, or hotter than the sun. In one of our classes the other week it got so bad that the mirrors started to gradually fog up, starting in one corner and visibly creeping along the walls like that bit in Jurassic park where the raptors breathe on the glass, giving the impression we were in the steam room, which is ironic as I later found out the actual steam room downstairs was out of order. Now I know why… To be fair, there always seems to be something broken at our gym, be it the audio equipment, microphone, batteries, air con or fan. But being British we don’t get annoyed -in fact much like the weather it is something of an expected conversation and ice breaker.

raptor

I mentioned earlier about gym cliques, and had I been carrying my DL bingo card I would have easilly achieved a full house here. All the clichés were present and correct: gangs of hulked up guys hanging out by the mirrors, cheering each other on to grunt out one more rep. Check. Overly made-up girls, walking on the treadmill whilst gossiping on their phones to their mates to tell them how hard they are working out. Check Check. And of course my favourite, the competitive Solihull Dad, pushing his kid (who was around 5 or 6, although I am guessing as all kids look pretty similar at that age) into length after length whilst he prowled the side of the pool. The poor fella was only around 4 feet tall and at points looked like he was barely above the water, but fair play to him as he kept going. Maybe a future Olympian in training?

One way DL seems to like to try and justify our huge membership fees is by having TVs in the changing rooms, which basically show Sky Sports News on a loop. Now this is reasonable enough to give you something distracting whilst changing, but I would add a special message for Cranmore, that it does not make it a place to congregate especially to watch the results, particularly when I am trying to change next to it!

After checking out one of the clubs in town, it seemed only right to try out the other, known as Solihull Fitness, so we booked onto an Attack class one evening. From the outset it is clear this is the poorer relation, as for a start the gym area seemed to be furnished with the cast-offs that were replaced last year in our gym – I wondered where all that Technogym stuff had gone! As a mitigating factor I did notice that they had a Corby trouser press in the changing area, although I am not convinced anyone had ever used it (for any overseas readers, a Corby trouser press is one of our proudest British inventions, which does what it says on the tin). They were also the only place I had been where you could hire (for £50 per year!) your own locker. £50, seriously… just to have the same locker each time?! I have never experienced a shortage at any other gym, but who knows, maybe they had to sell some of theirs to the other place…

enter dragon

The class itself was good fun, although notably the studio was lined on all four sides by mirrors, which was a little distracting. It was probably for the best we were not doing a Combat class as I had all I could think about was the hall of mirrors in Mr Han’s lair from Enter the Dragon, and any minute I was about to be attacked by a dude wearing a claw!

The last place on our list was DL Dudley, which was a bit of a trip into the unknown being on the other side of Birmingham. The only thing I knew about it was from one of our instructors who teaches in both clubs, who loves to use an interesting motivational tactic to spur us on by  regularly telling us we are being quieter than her other class in Dudley, seemingly alluding to some sort of hitherto unspoken ancient rivalry between us and our Black Country cousins, in the belief that will make us shout ‘Kiai’ a bit louder. I assume it works both ways, so if some sort of civil war breaks out between our two towns we will know who to blame… Still, it seems to work, well for me anyway, although as I am often one of the only guys in the class I do feel I have a bit of a duty sometimes!

civil war

The club itself seems to be huge, with loads more facilities including what seemed to be a built in hotel. Funnily enough we did not actually go to a class there, but wanted to visit the shop having had a voucher for Christmas, and it did have a decent range of gym kit (as a regular gym goer you can never have too much merch!). We took the chance to have a wander around afterwards, and it was big inside too, but seemed a bit lifeless. Despite it being a Saturday afternoon there did not seem to be many people there, and it lacked some of the atmosphere of our gym, although saying that, they seemed to be advertising all manner of events on site, from comedy nights to tribute singers, so perhaps the locals don’t venture in until after dark.

So there you go, all five David Lloyd clubs in the my part of the West Midlands visited. Having been a member of mine for nearly 10 years now it has been interesting to see some of the others, as well as quite reassuring that not only is mine one of the smartest, with the best equipment, but all of the niggles and problems that come up are the same everywhere else. Now we are approaching the end of February and booking system seems to have eased off, so I can actually book onto classes without having to plan 10 days in advance each time, I guess I will spend a bit more time closer to home, but it is nice to know there are other options available,  and I am sure it won’t be the last time I visit some of these clubs in the near future.

New Year New Launches

It has been a pretty busy start to this year with my Dryathlon (3rd year running), a new job (starting tomorrow) and of course plenty of training, which of course is not a resolution being that it is nothing new, and will not come to an end on 31st January!).

I have really gone in at the deep end this week with Monday Combat, a Run on Tuesday, Wednesday Attack, Thursday Combat and Friday Spin ‘n Swim. Then a bit like Craig David I chilled at the weekend. Well on Saturday anyway, so maybe more like Walter on the Big Lebowski.

Walter shabbos

But in reality this was all just a build up to the new Les Mills class launches today, some of which featured in the One Live event in Manchester last November, which feels like ages ago now.

First up was RPM on Friday evening, one of the ones I did manage to do in Manchester, although perhaps as it had been first up on the day my brain seemed to have forgotten / blocked out most of it. After 4 days in a row of fairly leg intensive workouts this was not an easy ride, but as mentioned there was a great line up of music got me through it, particularly the energetic Runaway (You & I) track by Galantis near the end, which seemed very suitable for a spin class.

The class was packed – obviously given it was January – and I always feel a bit guilty watching the pain on the faces of of those who have made it their resolution to try some new classes and have no idea what they are getting into! It can be a bit annoying though as I have found out the hard way, in as well as there being no spaces left in the car park, my regular spin class that I have barely missed for the last 18 months is already full next week so I can’t even go myself, although as our coach pointed out it will calm down pretty soon as people start dropping out.

New Year resolution

But the main event of the week was all about today, with back-to-back launches of Body Combat, Pump and Attack!

First up was Combat, which is basically a mixed martial arts workout to music, with everything from Karate to Kickboxing, and Capoeira to Kung Fu. This is the class I have done for longer than any other in the last few years so I can generally pick it up fairly easilly and the punches and kicks are the same, just in different orders and timings to match the music. As with RPM it was another one we had done in One Live, although again I seemed to have forgotten most of the choreography. Overall it was a good release, with particularly strong capoeira / esquiva / lunge tracks, and a genius Muay Thai track to the Pirates of the Caribbean song at the end: whoever designed that track is a hero! By this point I was starting to stagger around like Jack Sparrow anyway…

pirates

The meat in the morning sandwich was Body Pump, an equipment heavy, weights based class with barbells and other pieces of kit to mix things up. Now this is not a class I do as often, particularly given the focus I have had on Cardio rather than Lifting in the last half-decade or so, but it is good fun, and the soundtrack to this release was even better than Combat. The main problem with doing it less often though is knowing how much weight to use, and a few times during one or other of the tracks I found my biceps or shoulders screaming with pain as the reps just piled up – over 1000 in all across the session. At one point after around 50 barbell lunges during Galantis’ Peanut Butter Jelly track both my calves could not take it any more and literally turned to jelly, bringing back painful memories of trying (and failing miserably) to un-clip from my bike after the ride leg of Ironman Staffs. That’s going to hurt tomorrow…

training legs pain

So two hours in we launched straight into the third class, Body Attack, which was a blast, helped a lot by our fantastic trainer Short Shorts (I will leave that one to your imagination) who ensured it was both knackering and camper than a row of tents. Most of the tracks here are based on circuit training / plyometrics, and from the outside may look like a strange sort of line dancing, but taught well it can be one of the most fun of all LM classes as well as great all around fitness. There was even more great music here, with a welcome return of the Runaway track (they must have had some sort of bulk deal from Galantis to feature that often) which again worked really well in the ‘run around the room in circles’ track.

body attack

I forgot to mention earlier that as with all of our club launches we had a theme for the weekend, and this time around it was luminous – very appropriate at this time of year. This meant everyone had glow sticks, although I managed to take it one further with my luminescent yellow under armour top. I thought it looked great, although during attack they turned the main lights off and had the disco beams going, and the lasers suddenly made me glow like Ross’s teeth in that episode of Friends with the black light!

Ross Teeth Friends

All in all it was just under 3 hours training, and (according to my wife’s Fitbit) around 2000 calories. We were pretty much the only ones to make all three classes which was also a great personal achievement, and I think a decent enough excuse for a bacon & egg brunch and snooze on the sofa this afternoon to write up this blog!

House of Pain

spin class

I was originally going to tack this onto the end of my football post, but as a special treat for my dozen or so readers this is now a whole extra post! Lucky you…

We pick things up the day after the match, with a fairly civilised breakfast – no Fear & Loathing style hotel room behaviour here. At this point it was mainly flesh wounds – cuts, scrapes, lost limbs, etc – rather than the deeper muscle aches which usually takes 24 hours to kick in. Easy street.

Having endured a morning’s light abuse whilst working from our Manchester office, and getting through a fairly knackering three hour drive home down the M6, I thought I would relax by heading to the gym with my wife for a nice gentle session on the stationary bike, with a bit of time for stretching and warming down in the pool. Or that was the plan…

Realising I had not been on the regular indoor bikes since before the summer, things just did not quite feel right and I could not get the settings I liked or comfortable with the pedals. The next thing I knew I was being tractor-beamed into an RPM Cycle class next door, like some sort of unsuspecting fly sleepwalking into a spider’s web, my brain far to tired to tell my dumb-ass body to get out. This was a new class for me, but having been to plenty of others this year how much tougher could it be?

Turns out a lot. The trainer turned out to have been sent from the planet Mean, to punish us all for our previous life sins: her first words into the microphone were along the lines of “You guys are going to pay for this so much tomorrow” followed by a maniacal laugh like Ozzy’s at the beginning of Crazy Train. Bearing in mind this was the first thing I had ever heard this woman utter I assumed it was just banter, but the rest of the blokes in the room looked slightly terrified, and it turned out she really was crazy.

As there were new releases due for the class this weekend, she put on what she described as a selection of her ‘favourite’ (read: painful) tracks. One involved an eight minute ‘endurance interval sprint’, a phrase which seemed to be something of a dichotomy given that sprints are supposed to involve short intense bursts and the other long steady pedals. It turned out you could do this, any yes, I did pay for it the next day…

During the sprints and steeper climbs the instructor kept doing these intense stares, fixing eye contact in a way that meant you did not dare turn away or slow down in case she came over and gave you an ass kicking. And these stretches seemed to last far longer than normal songs. By the time the hour was up I literally had to hobble away from the bike.

By the way, from the way I have written this you might assume it was awful. Au contraire mon frere: As someone spending most of this year doing a 4000 km virtual race across half a continent I absolutely loved it, and despite the pain I will undoubtedly feel tomorrow morning, I am sure I will be back again for more punishment next week!