Portfolio of written work for publications. Please contact me for commissions based work and ideas.
'I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers done.'
Ironman SA Magazine 70.3 2013
Ace The Swim
Ace the Swim
When I plan to race a 70.3 I only ever dread the last 5km of the run. The race is of course exciting, possibly ominous but in truth it is a day at work for me. I am astonished that people think that the swim is the hardest part of a triathlon when it makes up just one tenth of race time. It is incredible the amount of people I hear in East London every year worrying, stressing,-even crying as they envisage the swim and what horrors it holds!
You are going to have to put in work but I hope by reading a little advice that a large amount of anxiety can be dissipated and you can float through the shortest, most predictable and most pleasant of the disciplines.
People assume that ironman swims are easy for me;-That I was gifted with some talent that makes me swim faster than other people.
I’ll always remember the words of my swim coach in a documentary made for a children’s award I won at 16.
‘Jodie is not talented, she is not as big as some girls and she is not as skillful but she has a higher work discipline’ (Mike Drew, 1997)
If you log the number of hours I have swum in my life it is going to average out about 90 minutes a day. If you look at it that way I ain’t that good!
There is no getting away from the fact that in order to be confident in the East London swim you are going to have had to log some hours, in order to be fast you will need to have logged more time and in order to beat me you have some catching up to do.
There are short(er) routes than others though. Many of the aspects of open water swimming come naturally to kids who grew up swimming.
Draft swimming is one of these: - quietly sitting a second behind the leader in order to make the silly fast turnarounds- a prerequisite when you are a foot shorter than everyone else.
Likewise, is manic swimming - swimming with purpose. The exact type of swimming you attempt to do in a race, but haven’t practiced.
Packed lanes, flaying arms and splashy kicks are abundant in junior squads but adults like their own space, their own lane! You need to revive children's swim training where swimming twenty in a lane is the norm.
Touch each other, bug each other and to hell with manners. It’s the difference between ball room dancing and drunken disco dancing. If you stuck a ballet dancer in 'Buckenneers' she is going to feel uncomfortable– the same with a pool swimmer who is unfamiliar with the ocean. They will just want to get out of there!
Distinctive Aspects of the Swim in East London
• East London swim course begins with a run – starting on the sand and continue into the shallows for about 200m. Pro women go off with the men -I have to kill myself to sprint as fast as them on the sand and dolphin dive until we finally get to swim.
Running in is best demonstrated by watching playing kids on the beach. We adults, especially when restricted by a wetsuit, have the limited hip flexibility required to fall arse over tit pretty easily.
The best methodology I have found is to run until knee depth.. then two more strides… then duck dive – last year this ended in me head butting the sand and stopping stone dead in the shallows. You don’t need to take this risk so I would advise three more steps and then a push off shallow dive… feet down… and another… and then get into the swimming.
• Whilst run-ins cut the actual swim time, (celebrated by some), they hold their own problems. Leaping over waves has little (if any) correlation to swimming well, and there will therefore be good swimmers stuck behind bad ones. Battles will begin and I’d put my money on the swimmers to do the better bashing.
The best tactic to deal with the rush is to remain moving straight forward, swimming purposefully and be prepared to take a few hits. Don’t get angry if you are bashed, it is very unlikely to have been on purpose. Likewise, if you hit somebody, continue regardless. It is part of open water swimming and not a reflection on your character.
• The outgoing part of the course is choppy, because of the break, but once you reach the left turn it is a long, simple stretch to the back buoy. I stretch my stroke out here aiming to work with the current, allowing me the energy to kick hard off the last buoy and into the cross chop back to the beach. This is where time can be made up by a fast, adaptable cadence. Long gliding strokes are great for pool swimming and riding waves but often rely on body balance and hip roll which is uprooted in the sea. Arm turnover based strokes are hardly affected by undulation and therefore maintain their pace in all conditions, it is also easier to lengthen a short stroke than to speed up a long one.
• Exiting the water in East London is best dealt with using a maximum of two dolphin dives and then knees up sprint onto the beach. I wait until I can feel the sand on my fingers before I get up. Then it is about hitting the run up at full pelt and using the good swim you have had to your advantage. Elbows out, wetsuit to the waist, lean forward up the hill and small steps.
Race Day Prep
I haven’t been in the water in East London before the race in either year I have won. There is a practice swim but with the varying currents and winds in East London the conditions change daily. I prefer to take no risk of infection in open water and savor the painted fish in a swimming pool rather than the potentially more scary ones in the sea.
If you are really nervous a pre-race swim may be well judged to reassure you of the course and of your ability.
I would encourage participants to join a swim group out in the open water in their hometown rather than rush specific preparation to excel in East London. It just doesn’t work like that. Consistent, progressive, planned swim sessions are the real weapon in conquering the East London swim and in fact any triathlon swim section.
I hope I have been of some help in helping you plan for a great race in East London. Reading my message back it all seems quite hard and I’m sorry that there are no quick fixes but talk no bullshit, tell no lies and you go to heaven ;)
The essence of my message is there is nothing special about the swim course in East London- if you are prepared. I would urge you to participate in the plenty of ocean swim series available in south Africa they will give you the taste of sea swimming that will benefit you greatly on race day. Being nervous about your performance on race day is good if you are scared about things external factors then you are handicapped before you begin.
Finally and most importantly I wish you the best of luck out there on race day. I will see you on the course.
Elite Females and Eating Disorder Discussion
Most triathletes will know of my friend Hollie Avil’s retirement and recent revolutions about an eating disorder she struggled with throughout her short but splendid career. I had the pleasure of listening to Hollie’s interview on Radio Five Live yesterday. She may not be a triathlete anymore but boy, she is a wonderful women.
I first met Hollie properly in 2007. Having kept the sport at a distance for a few years I was in a positive state and beginning to open my arms out to triathlon again. I had recently won battles with depression, injury and bulimia, long standing issues triggered again under the stress of the 2004 Athens debacle. It is not the right time for me to go into that experience now but it was bad and it destroyed a good few years of my life.
At the time, I was off the British Triathlon programme and training solo. I had been taken under the wing of legend and friend Daley Thompson who had come up to Loughborough to help me with some strength, conditioning and mentoring. Daley was a huge part of my rehabilitation as a triathlete and person that year. He was able to see the ‘old’ potential in me without the Olympic injury issues and selection baggage. Daley is a man with knowledge, faith….a legend. Finding someone I could trust at this time was no mean feat.
We happened to be training up at some grass pitches behind the university at the same time as the triathlon development program decided to bring its junior squad up to do a run session. Hollie was there, amongst a few others, she obviously caught Daley’s eye as the higher potential and he asked the national coaches about her.
Coach: - ‘Yes she is good, needs to lose a bit of weight but she could be really good’
Daley: - ‘Really? She looks pretty fast right now, but whatever you think mate’
We were both a little shocked at this kind of attitude towards such a talent. Let me be clear, there are only a couple of girls in triathlon who could ever run around the 16 mins for a 5 km and Hollie and I were two of them. Hollie was clearly in great run shape and for her to be classified as a ‘big’ triathlete was ridiculous. I think both Daley and I thought that there may be trouble brewing in the future.
The following years saw Hollie develop an eating disorder, win races with that illness, but then whirlwind into an evitable downward spiral of injury and confusion. Hollie has described this place very tamely in recent interviews; I know it to be utter, desolate misery. She ultimately quit at the age of 21.
My experience in eating disorders and in triathlon is broad. I am very good at seeing the signs that athletes demonstrate when developing disordered eating patterns. Frustratingly, success in developing an eating disorder commonly seems to correlate into success in Olympic distance triathlon. This is confusing to me (with all my experience) - to fresh, aspiring; young talent is a potential landmine. Additionally it is also a problem easy to ignore when success is abundant. Low self-esteem is easy to disguise when you cross the finish line first and your health and looks are praised and adored by the world and his brother.
Professional lady triathletes live in a small, very populated pond and I fear that world for a few of our talented, beautiful youngsters. Social media was not around in my day and is an additional influence in a potentially difficult situation. We live in such times that instant gratification and seemingly ‘short’ health cuts seem to add up to success and happiness. In reality it is slow, measured, and logical planning that aids longevity in athletic development.
I am not certain of the way forward in the eating disorder problem that exists in elite sports. I worry that successful athletes discussing eating problems simply helps to reinforce the idea that thin is fast. I have huge sympathy towards coaches that must tread the thin line between diplomacy, morality and performance in coaching young athletes. Even when a coach is experienced in dealing with female athletes then potential situations will arise outside of training, at school or in the media.
If there were any story I could tell talented athletic girls -it is one of forfeited years in the sport I love. I have missed championships and been plagued by injury, I have little doubt this is a consequence of the eating disorder I developed in the early years. If you strip your body of minerals and electrolytes it can simply not function at high levels for very long and it will break down, it may take a few months, a few years- if you’re are lucky, but it will happen. A professional sports career spanning multiple decades could be reduced to two years. That is pretty devastating.
I want to inform girls of the immediate risk they are taking with their bodies and the probability of not being able to run in the very near future. It is the love of sport that initially drives girls to succeed and the love of success that ironically leads to extreme weight control methods. Reflection and understanding the real effects of missing that meal or purging should cause a girl to stop and evaluate. Sacrificing training scares elite athletes.
Lastly, I want to relay my own struggle with race weight having spent ten years messing with my body’s metabolic pathways. I have to concentrate incredibly hard every day in order to remain at my performance weight as what I can only explain as a consequence of metabolic shift. During starvation the energy needs of the body are not met and thus an efficient body will calculate ways to conserve energy in its cells. It becomes efficient at holding resources and making them last longer. I site no papers in this assertion, but I know it to be true through my own experience. Extreme weight coercion jeopardizes the elite body’s ability to burn fuel as quickly. If you are limited in feeding because of weight worries then you forfeit advantage in repairing from training. You are giving your competitors a chance. Take the time to lose weight slowly and sensibly and you can sustain your metabolic balance and lay the foundations for repair and recovery from training quickly and easily.
As my weight alters through diet I am complimented for looking great and ‘fit’, I like it and that frankly worries me. Am I not over this obsession with thinness or am I simply enjoying a compliment as an athlete, or as a woman? – it is difficult to judge. I am led to plagiarize the lyrics of Chris Martin
‘Am I part of the cure or am I part of the disease’ (Clocks)
Weight is a part of elite performance, there is no getting away from that fact. Eating and fuelling is part of sport. The difference between controlled nutritional strategy and a problem is small. How can we help stop a healthy performance issue from triggering an unhealthy psychological one?
‘Thin is fast’ (anon)
Thin can be fast, but so can strong, so can lean, so can healthy. Thin is not fit - strong is fit, lean is fit and healthy is fit. I could not eat for a month, I would look incredibly ‘thin’, my times would be pretty lousy; I shouldn’t be classified as looking ‘fit’. Let’s use positive constructive language when considering performance sport. It would be a start.
Denise Lewis had it right in the interview with the assertion ‘Confidence is the key’. I would urge coaches, managers and federations to acknowledge this phrase and understand that it is an athlete’s attitude to herself that will result in longevity of high performance. Install an ability in females to control their own destiny sensibly and you limit the control that drive or emotion has. Overriding the emotional factor of women, food and sport with reason, before habits and incorrect belief cycles are established, could help to override the problem of eating disorders for a lifetime.
This is no simple problem but I hope my writing has helped to show that it is indeed a problem. Acknowledgment, intervention and protection have to be the leads in this issue. We cannot protect girls from life and its lessons but we can armor them and give them a chance to defend themselves against risks with confidence and assertion.
Life and sport is about happiness. I destroyed years of smiling by trying to manipulate a simple physical law: Calories in = Calories out. I succeeded, but I changed the laws of physics in totally the wrong direction. Bodies are clever, respect their knowledge. I wish I had.
Race Weight - Tri Plus 0012 - Training Zone - February 2010
Weight is an inevitable factor in performance sport. Commentators talk of athletes ‘being in great shape’. In real terms, they mean that the athlete looks lighter and will therefore, in probability, move faster.
Elite athletes refer to the term ‘race weight’; this is the weight (actually fat percentage) that each individual believes they should be at to perform at their best. For most professional athletes there is a thin line between being race weight and being too heavy or too light.
Age groupers should adopt a more conservative approach to getting to performance weight. Professionals know and read their bodies like a book, adopting high-risk measures in pursuit of glory. A kilogram can make a difference to us; it won’t to an age grouper.
Here are some controversial methods used by top professionals as race season approaches:-
• In university I was taught that long, steady aerobic training increases the body’s ability to use fat as fuel. In reality, intense threshold work kicks me into shape. The sheer volume of work burns a lot of fuel and kills appetite.
• On waking, drink concentrated coffee then do a pre- breakfast, aerobic run.
• Eating protein immediately after training to suppress hunger but maintain muscle repair.
• Limit carbohydrate intake very carefully during a taper. This is a dangerous game as carbohydrate levels need to be restored prior to racing; it relies on experience and good judgement.
• Drink ‘no sugar cordial’. It is good for hydration but also fills you up.
• Fill up on low calorie, no fat foods at mealtimes -big meals revolve around salad and vegetables and protein.
Beginning The Journey - Tri Plus - January 2010
Triathlon is the fastest growing participation sport in Britain with new people from other sports switching allegiances every month. Most of you bring knowledge
and experience from other areas of fitness; some may even be experts in your field with advanced training in running or swimming.
If you are generally fit you are already on a front footing on the triathlon conversion path. Even so, it’s a little overwhelming moving from single sport training or going ‘down the gym’ to embarking on training, entering and completing a triathlon race.
Where do you begin?
Follow the ideas below to quickly complete the transition and become a tri-athlete...enjoy and savour because once you’re here its blooming hard work!
Step 1: Get Healthy
• Triathlon is an endurance sport. A healthy, strong, cardiovascular system is the key in all three disciplines. This is what allows elite runners like Andrea Whitcombe or junior’s like me to switch across with such ease. Look at the impressive performance of sports professionals like Jenson Button and James Cracknell :-being good at endurance sports requires you to be ‘fit’ and this will develop exponentially as any sports program progresses. Eat correctly and sleep well - training will be a lot easier.
Step 2: Beginning Swimming
• If swimming is completely new then the first step to take is to book an adult course of swim lessons at your local pool. Don’t fork out for expensive technical advice to start with. You need to be capable of completing the race distance first.
• I would strongly recommend that all beginners swim with a club. Swimming alone is hard enough for a professional, let alone a beginner- who will need more stroke guidance and technical advice. Joining a triathlon club, or a masters’ swim club, challenges your perceptions of swimming training and demonstrates how swimmers use sets and clocks to monitor and break up their meters.
• Too many age group athletes simply get in and swim ‘40 lengths’. In 22 years of competitive swimming I have NEVER done this. I ALWAYS follow a warm-up, a main set and a warm down structure. Setting these sets is down to experience and if you do not have a personal coach then a club is the best way to get this.
• Swim clinics can address technical issues and suggest drills that can be translated into your weekly sessions.
• Beginner’s Essential Equipment :-kick board, goggles, swimsuit
Second Season Essentials:-pull buoy, fins, paddles, band
Step 3:‘Get on ya bike’
• Cycling is proportionally the largest sector of triathlon and as such leaves opportunity for large time improvements to be made with simple practices.
• Begin with 60min rides. An hour will seem fairly hard work to begin with as getting to grips with traffic, negotiating corners and skill work adds stress. Spin the pedals around as fast as possible whilst flicking through your gears and establishing a relationship between power and cadence.
• Wearing the correct gear and riding at the correct times will help your cycling confidence. Cycling in heavy traffic is not a lot of fun and being cold even less fun. I would suggest you get hold of some cycling cleats as soon as you begin cycling. Practice with these before you join a cycle group because clipping in and out can cause a bit of trouble in a group. It’s also good to get to know the local surroundings and so if you ever have a problem on a group ride you can get home.
• Beginners Essential Equipment :-healthy bike, helmet, cleats and cycle shoes
Second Season Essentials:-glasses, overshoes, gloves, expensive tri-geek equipment!
Step 4: ‘Run, fat boy, run’
• Running is the more simple discipline to undertake. We all have running experience and most of us have run at school or in the gym. The most effective way to get into running is to run for short periods every day and build 10min each week. Once you have reached an hour, (after 6 weeks on the premise of beginning with 10mins), then it is time to start to build in intervals into your running and begin to look at your technique more specifically.
• Delay technical advice until the end of this period because your running technique will alter with changing fitness levels and weight levels.
• Seek technical advice from a run specialist that uses drills and strength work to combat biomechanical issues and maximise run efficiency. As a new runner it is invaluable to limit any injury risks before heavier mileage is embarked upon.
• Beginner’s Essential Equipment:-good trainers, watch
Second Season Essentials:-glasses, pulse rate monitor-many other tri-geek gadgets!!
Step 5: Join a triathlon/cycle club
• Joining a triathlon club has many benefits. Apart from the obvious organised sessions for swimming, cycling and running- a good club will offer social, sport and family support. Partners and children can become more involved with this ‘weird, addictive, obsessive’ world that Mummy or Daddy has got themselves into!
Triathlon clubs are little havens of knowledge for beginners and everyone from experienced age groupers to elites willing to help a fellow member. Triathlon is a very accessible world and the best way to learn is to question and participate.
Step 6: Constructing a program
• Balancing swim, cycle and run programmes is bewildering even for accomplished athletes. Training ‘properly’ for three sports is a full time commitment but with a balanced perspective and good time investment maximum gains can be made with minimum time commitment.
• All three sports do not need equal coverage. In initial construction of a program, it is good to work on the principal of majority gain. The construction needs to be a focused on developing the ‘weak’ area. If you are new to (for example)-swimming- a lot of time needs to be dedicated to the technical aspects of swimming and this will in turn have large benefits to triathlon performance for you.
When an activity is new, neural pathways are weak and regular participation will trigger their development. You need to be re-establishing these pathways at least three times per week. Less time needs to be devoted to running or biking during this period. Once technical competence has been established the progression in swimming will plateau and time spent on swimming can be cut and utilised on one or both running and/or cycling.
Step 7: Enter your first race
• Most triathlon clubs hold aquathlons or mini-triathlons for their members and these are excellent starting blocks for you to combine the hard training you have been putting in. Look around locally for a full distance race and just go for it. Keep an eye on an experienced club member who can help you out with the orientation and procedures specific to that race.
Don’t see you first triathlon as a test but as an experiment:-Split up the disciplines, concentrate on each stage separately and you will be surprised just how self explanatory triathlon really is.
Step 8: Get a coach
• When you have decided you are a ‘tri-athlete’ then consider getting yourself a triathlon coach. In order to select the right kind of coach with compatible philosophies you need to understand your own talents, motivations and goals. Take time in learning the basics of the sport and investment in a chosen coach will pay higher dividends.
(Box out)- to be N.B to the section on constructing a program
Many runners worry that they are not spending enough time running in their triathlon program because the run mileage seems relatively low. Believe me; if you once ran 34 mins for 10km you will almost definitely always be able to run 38 mins, in good physical shape. Have faith in this ability and allow strong disciplines to tick over as you establish a stronger background in weaker ones. Strengths will improve back to maximum very quickly.
Off Season - 220 Magazine - November 2009
We call winter the ‘off season’ ,we all like a little indulgence and rest in these dark months and it’s sometimes difficult to face getting up, let alone beating the pavement in the torrid weather. Everybody can be a champion trainer in the summer but to train hard in winter takes a bit more hardiness. It’s not always easy or particularly pleasant but without racing, large blocks of training are possible and the fitness gains you can achieve are much accelerated.
Winter is where the work for next season begins. It forms the foundations to build on for successful high intensity spring work. If a building’s foundations are not sturdy and strong -that building will collapse. Likewise, if an athlete’s base fitness is inadequate -their body will not be able to cope with high intensity racing and will break.
Base phase training aims to make the cardiovascular system strong. Threshold work, along with high volume work, is rudimentary in most endurance athlete’s winter programs and although these sessions are tough and painful their value is unequivocally the basis of fitness for a triathlete. Volume tends to limit intensity in the base phase because of the sheer amount of training, however, as an athlete becomes fitter the intensity should (and must) increase, to compliment the improvement in ability to cope with the workload.
Pre- Christmas is about preparation.
It is not only the organs that need to be fit and strong for training but also the muscles, tendons and ligaments. Pilates, weights, circuits ......absolutely any form of hard work that encourages a strong core, is ideal for early winter work and a great antidote to a hard summer’s triathlon. This is your ‘rocky’ phase of the year and ‘the harder, the better’. The hardest circuit I have ever done involved a ten minute flat out leg circuit including lunges, squats, burpees and tuck jumps. I had to run straight out onto a mile run rep – timed- in the snow. It was truly and madly ‘rocky-esque’. There were tears and tantrums EVERY week but the improvement in strength endurance I eventually felt was remarkable.
After Christmas it’s about triathlon miles.
Double runs and long rides should make up the majority of the program but sandwiched between them should be a few ‘key’ sessions involving harder and faster intensities. These sessions will have to be done tired but this accumulation of fatigue is the basis of the overall training effect.
With that in mind here are a few sample jaw dropping, body smashing workouts for the winter warriors! Respect to us all!
This is a challenging main set to be incorporated into a 5km session. Although the threshold times are manageable in the first set , the increase to race pace, intermittently, begins to drag on the lungs in the second set. Try to maintain your times but expect and enjoy the drop off when it comes!
2 (13 x 100 as: - 3 on 1.20-Threshold – hitting 73 (less than 10 seconds rest)
2 on 1.45 – Race pace – Hitting 69 (around 30 secs rest)
3 on 1.20-Threshold
2 on 1.45-RP
3 on 1.20-Threshold)
Rest 2 minutes between sets
Although winter should consist mainly of long, technical road biking sometimes it is simply too dark or too cold. Use hard turbo sessions to increase you strength endurance base. This session aims to tire out the legs before forcing them to sprint in the final three minutes.
A 90 minute turbo including a main set of:-
4 x (4 mins race gear (Cadence 90), 4 mins over gear (cadence 60) then 3 mins with ten sprint pedals every 30 secs)
Rest 5 minutes spin between sets
Winter running is about volume; however, it is very important to maintain an element of pace judgement and heart rate elevation to prepare for Vo2 max sessions in spring.
Run 5 mins (easy)then 4 mins(steady) then 3 mins(race pace) then 2mins(hard) then 1 min(flat out). Move up a gear each rep during the 15 minutes of continuous running.
Then run 4 mins then 3 mins then 2 mins then 1 min. Moving up the gears at the same speeds as the first block. This adds up to 25 minutes of continuous running
Then run 3 mins then 2 mins then 1min. Moving up the gears at the same speeds as the other two blocks. The total is 31 minutes of continuous running.
You can adapt this session to the time you have to run – double it for a killer long run or do it twice in one day for a double run day!
Essential winter kit
Despite being a brave winter warrior, I rely on my turbo trainer a lot in winter kit. It is essential to get out on the road whenever you can but when it is impossible, dangerous, or dark, then a hard turbo session will add value to any athlete’s strength endurance program