Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Water polo

On Wednesday evening I do a Yoga class in my local gym. Though not an Olympic discipline, or a sport for that matter, I find that yoga has helped improving many aspects of my fitness, my flexibility and my strength in ways beneficial to all the other disciplines I am trying for my Gold Challenge. As yoga goes, it's a pretty intense class. Afterwards, feeling a bit worn, I headed to the pool for a swim down session.

I had forgotten that on Wednesday nights the pool closes early to allow for the water polo club's training session. So I had to cut my swimming session short, but I got the chance to talk and introduce myself to the club. I wasn't intending to undertake water polo just yet, but the club's captain was very friendly and enthusiastic and asked me to try it out and join in the session.

Thinking about it, the same thing happened with the Triathlon club. Then as now, I had no idea what I was getting myself in to. After my first session, I can whole heartedly say that water polo is not a sport for the faint hearted. In fact, so far, it's been the most difficult, demanding and tiring sport I've undertaken.

Having spent months trying to learn how to swim for my triathlon (head in the water, long strides, good symmetrical body swing, steady state tempo and economy in the kicking of the legs) I had to do exactly the opposite for water polo. One swims with the head sticking out, pushing hard with the legs, in short quick bursts, with the ball between the arms while sticking the elbows out trying to keep the adversaries at bay.

I found passing the ball around (with one hand), striking at goal and treading water easier to learn, though the physicality of the sport (where all sorts of underwater kicking, pulling and pushing are allowed) did come as a big shock

After an hour and a half of splashing about, I was totally exhausted. This is a high energy sport: fiercely aggressive, played at breathtaking pace, requiring great amount of full-body movement. Good fun, nevertheless, particularly if you are competitively inclined. It will be a challenge to master.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011


Some sports were always going to be like old friends: you might not have seen them for years, since high school for instance, but the minute you are reunited you get along so well and you remember why you were such good friends in the first place. Volleyball is one such sport. A relatively unpopular sport in the UK, volleyball is a well establish team-sport in Italy, with a lively professional league and international success for the men's team in the 1990s. It is also one of the most popular sports practised at school level, favoured for its non-contact nature, it's focus on agility rather than strength, indoor practice and small field and ground needed.

The sport was also greatly popularised to my generation by two Japanese anime en vogue on Italian television in the 1980s. From its invention in Massachusetts in 1895 as a lesser strenuous sport than basketball, volleyball went on to gain popularity in the first part of the 20th century, especially in Asia. By the the time of its inclusion in the Olympic programme for Tokyo 1964 the sport was hugely popular in Japan. Japan's women team won the inaugural gold against the then dominant USSR in a final televised -unusually for the times- live which captured the imagination of the nation.

The antics of the gold's medal winning team, lead Chikako Urano in 1968 to created a manga, known in the West as "Attack No.1", focusing on a young school girl playing volleyball. The manga, and later the anime spin-off, where hugely popular and helped define the sport-shojo sub-genre. About a decade later, the TV series was bought by fledgeling commercial TV in Italy, dubbed and aired in the late afternoons. Together with a later anime (called "Attacker You!", this time focusing on the quest for gold at the Seul 1988 Olympics), it went on to inspire countless young Italian girls to pick up volleyball, despite the dodgy dubbing, the strange cultural references and the gravity-defying antics of the heroines.

And this is how, in the 1990, while in high school in Italy, I came to play volleyball with great enthusiasm during PE. I came close to playing in a proper team too, but a lack of time prevented it. But since leaving Italy in late 1996, I never had much opportunity to play it, save for the rare sparring of beach volley on some holiday beach. Hence I was very keen on trying my hand at it again as part of my Gold Challenge. The only obstacle was to find a team that would adopt someone very rusty on the fundamentals. For some reason I thought that taking part in team sports as a novice might be a big challenge, but Stowmarket Volleyball Team proved to be splendidly accommodating.

They were very welcoming and quickly refreshed my long forgotten skills, and filled in the vocabulary of the sport (remember I use to play it in Italian!). The session, last of the summer, was played outside on nice soft grass, a welcome changed from the hard indoor courts of my youth. After some rounds of practice on the basics (digs, blocks, sets, serves and spikes) we quickly moved on to play games.

I was amazed by how quickly the moves and techniques came back to me, even though age and a heavier figure meant I was not as good -or elegant- at jumping high as I remembered. Agility and prompt reflexes are the most important skills in order to master volleyball. Being tall and strong is also an advantage. However, being a team sport, strategy and tactics play a very important role. The games we played were totally enjoable, regardless of skill or result. As a sport it doesn't seem to be too complex to get in, and it's good fun and a great entertainment to play with friends.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable first session, I look forward to going back in two weeks time.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Sky Ride

Doing my Gold Challenge, I am discovering more and more that it's very easy to get involved in sports and exercising. And it doesn't have to be boring slogging away on your own at the gym either. There are lots of initiatives to get involved in your own community, with like-minded individuals, of all abilities, ages, fitness level and motivation. And it's fun too!

My latest discovery, which I came across via Boris Johnson's Twitter account is Sky Ride. This is a national campaign from Sky and British Cycling created to inspire and help everyone, whatever their age or ability, to get on their bikes and have fun.

Cycling is one of my sports in the Gold Challenge, both on its own right and as part of Triathlon. I have never been an enthusiastic cyclist, where I come from on the Alps you need lungs of steel to ride anywhere and I absolutely loath commuting on a bike in Cambridge where I live (despite it being a very bike friendly place, apparently), finding the experience of sharing the road with the morning traffic positively terryfing.

Yet, committed to have a proper go at my challenge, a while back I bought a third-hand Italian (of course!) road bike and set off on newly discovered cycle routes. It's been an absolute revelation. Out, on my own, in the countryside, I was mesmerised by the gently rolling hills, the wind-swept wheat fields, the sun kissed glory of a late summer sunset, the genteel sleepiness of villages and the pastoral hush of country parishes, the unhurried progression of wispy white clouds on the horizon.

But my solitary explorations of England's green and pleasant land brought their own concerns: unfamiliar with country roads I lost count of the number of times I got lost, I managed to have disastrous falls off my bike, helpless mechanical breakdowns in the middle of no-where and frightfully close encounters with fast-travelling cars on busy A roads. I needed to ride with other people for confidence and comfort.

But I am not fast or fit enough to join my fellow triathletes at the club's weekly outing. I needed something more recreational. Which is where Sky Ride came in. Among the activities promoted by the initiative, there are Sky Ride Local rides: fun, friendly and free community bike rides led by a British Cycling trained ride leader to help you get out and explore your local area. There are rides for all abilities and for all tastes: from city rides to countryside strolls. You sign up online, check out the route, show up on the day and away you go, for up to a couple of hours, sharing the ride with a group of people also out to enjoy themselves on their bikes.

I really liked the concept. The closest city to run the scheme is Ipswich, so this morning I set off to join the Sky Ride there, taking in a tour of Suffolk villages. I truly enjoyed cycling in a group. The pace was perhaps a bit slower than my usual, but I certainly enjoyed the chit-chat, and the feel of security and comfort of being led by experienced and friendly guides. I discovered a new corner of countryside without any concerns of getting lost for hours. The weather was benign, the scenery very pleasing, the company delightful. All in all a great success and a great idea. I would whole-heartedly recommend a Sky Ride to anyone. Give it a go!

I just can't imagine any nicer way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday morning. So, what are you waiting for, where will your bike take you?

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Second Parkrun: 28:35

The only good thing about being pretty unfit is that any amount of exercise is going to improve your fitness. Thus to begin with, you see lots of early improvement in your performance, which does wonders for your motivation. And so, as I try to go from couch potato to half-marathon, I've so far seen my 5k times get faster and faster.

Sadly not today. Compared with the same Parkrun I did two weeks ago, I was more than a minute slower. I must not get discouraged, though, as my aim in Gold Challenge is participation rather than victory, and there could be plenty of reasons for a temporary slow down (environmnetal factors, fatigue, complacency). Who knows. What's important is that I keep at it, keep running, keep training, keep competing.

Next week I am doing the last round of the Kevin Henry 5k Series for my club (we hope to win the overall title). After that I will be concentrating on longer distances, doing a 10k village fun run and potentially a 10mile cross-country run in October. Keep smiling, carry on.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

My VO2 max

Today I took part in an interesting research project at The Physiological Laboratory of the University of Cambridge. Dr Christof Schwiening is investigating the relationship between VO2max, body temperature and sweat production. For those not versed in human physiology, VO2 max it is the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual can take up per minute. It is one measure of the aerobic capacity of the cardiorespiratory system (the heart, lungs and blood vessels), and thus a pretty good indicator of an individual fitness level.

Hence VO2max is often of interest to endurance athletes, as it constitutes a physiological benchmark for one's fitness. Many things can affect VO2max: age, gender, fitness and training, changes in altitude, and action of the ventilatory muscles. Like all things in human physiology, there is probably a strong genetic component, with some lucky individuals being blessed with exceptional physiques (and very high VO2max) while most of us fit in the middle of a normal distribution.

But in most individuals aerobic exercise and training will improve one's VO2max, by triggering changes in the body's muscular, cardiovascular, and neurohumoral systems that lead to improvement in functional capacity and strength: the body becomes more efficient at carrying oxygen. In essence exercise and training will fine tune the amazing machinery that is the human body.

Dr Schwiening's project is concerned with testing the hypothesis that the amount of sweat produced for a given body temperature is a simple function of VO2max.While you exercise the extra energy released by the body slowly increases the internal body temperature. Sweating is the body's own natural cooling system. It is known that men sweat more than women [1], Dr Schwiening thinks that the difference in the two genders can be explained by VO2max alone (typically men enjoy a higher VO2max than us ladies). The idea is that fitter individuals sweat more efficiently: they sweat more at lower body temperature, thus preventing overheating. 

I was asked to perform two sets of exercise tests on a fixed exercise bike. The first was a conventional extrapolated VO2max test in which my oxygen uptake was measured with a spirometer while measuring the corresponding heart rate at fixed incremental stages (from 100bpm to 140bpm). The second test involved having my sweat collected and weighted during a set period of exercise (around 20 minutes at 140bpm) while measuring body temperature with a standard infra-red ear thermometer.

The  VO2max obtained by either method was then compared. And sure enough, the sweat/temperature method was pretty accurate at predicting my (very average) VO2max, only slightly overestimating the value of around 36 ml/kg/min. It was very interesting to see how well sweat production and body temperature correlated: in the first 10 minutes of exercise my body temperature steadily increased by about half a degree, in response my sweat production peaked and eventually the body temperature was restored to normal.
The other half of the experiment, strikingly illustrated the linear relationship between oxygen consumption and effort (as measured by heart rate), the graph was kindly provided by Dr Schwiening.

Hopefully as I get fitter doing my Gold challenge, my VO2max ought to improve, and the line should get steeper. However, slightly off-puttingly, it should also mean that I will sweat more and at lower exercise intensities!

Friday, 19 August 2011

Tennis: completed!

Today, I've completed my very first sport: Tennis. After 6 weeks my beginners course came to its conclusion with a fiercely fought game of doubles, which for its series of breaks and break backs was resembling a famous Wimbledon match.

It's been a lot of fun, and although I don't think I will be getting a wild card to Wimbledon any time soon, I learnt a lot and, most importantly, had a lot of fun trying. I'm very grateful to coach Dave and the other course participants for their precious advice, encouragement and friendly banter.

The coach has signed off my award certificate, I earn 20 points for undertaking 6 or more hours of coached activity and 3 bonus points based on specific skills acquired (sadly the slice still eluded me). I raised some sponsorship money, met a bunch of great ladies I hope to practice some more with, enticed a few colleagues to pick up a racket, and gained a everlasting sympathetic understanding for Andy Murrey's frustrations when misjudging a volley closing in on the net.
Next sport: volleyball!

Thursday, 18 August 2011


Back last November I started going to the swimming pool on doctor orders, as a way to manage the pain I've been getting from a repetitive strain injury in my right hand. The doctor was adamant that it would help: he's suggested it to scores of violinist and concert pianists, he said, and sure enough it worked for me too. Just to show how a little bit of exercise, here and there, not very arduous, can be both pleasurable and positive for your health.

I found swimming nice and relaxing, perhaps too relaxing. I was struggling to make my sessions in the water anything more than a wind-down after work, with a lengthy session in the sauna added on for good measure. Then one evening in March, I accidentally stumbled on the local Triathlon club swimming session. The pool was meant to be closed for non-members, but the club encouraged me to stay and try it out. And, oh my God, it was hard work!! A sea-change from my usually sedated gentle soaks.

Ever since then I've been going to their Monday night swimming sessions. I also joined the Triathlon Club with the view of doing an Olympic distance Triathlon in due time as part of my challenge. As with all the sports, I've soon found out that a lot of training is going to be needed to get me there!

To get up to speed with the rest of the (very athletic) club-members, I needed to improve my stamina and tempo, and a tool I've found very useful is a webpage set up by British Swimming in partnership with British Gas as part of the Big Splash initiative. It's called Swimfit, developed by swimming experts at the ASA, it's a FREE online and pool-side club that provides a gym style work-out programme for the pool. You get 32 expertly crafted pool sessions heaped with loads of extra tips and advice, geared at your level of swimming.

There are different levels catering for a wide range of expertise and motivation, from the casual swimmer to the competitive athlete. The website provides:
  • Free online coaching tools
  • Tailored swim training programmes
  • Plenty of support and advice
  • A series of distance challenges to set your goals and provide motivation
  • A personalised dashboard to track your effort
Once you sign up, you have to option to log your sessions, and I find this to be a great motivator. You can chose a distance challenge, like for instance "swim the length of the Thames" (wopping 215 miles) and keep track of your progress on a map. Here is how I am faring after 2 of the 32 sessions:

A long way to go, it seems...

Saturday, 13 August 2011


Needing tons of practice and copius amounts of motivation for my running challenge (half-marthon in november), I signed up for my local Park run.

Parkrun organise free, weekly, 5km timed runs around the country. They are open to everyone, free, and are safe and easy to take part in. Register online, show up on the day, and you are ready to go. These events take place in pleasant parkland surroundings and people of every ability are encouraged to take part; from those taking their first steps in running to Olympians.

After the event, a cute webpage has a host of statistics to track your progress and your results are emailed to you, you can even get your time sent to you by text.

So I showed up at 9am at Milton Country Park on a rainy Saturday morning, slightly grumpy for an early start. The event is run by very friendly volunteers and the field is a lot less intimidating than my usual 5k league. I run an un-hurried, steady state tempo, overtaking a few slower people (yeah!) and trying to push a little in the last half km.

I was thrilled when my results came through, a couple of hours later:

Cambridge results for event #79. Your time was 27:27
Congratulations on completing your 1st parkrun and your 1st at Cambridge today. You finished in 154th place and were the 31st lady out of a field of 252 parkrunners and you came 8th in your age category SW30-34. 
You achieved an age-graded score of 54.04%

Monday, 8 August 2011

Newmarket 5k results

Results from last Thursday's 5k race came through. Surprisingly it didn't do nearly as bad as I thought it might. 112th out of 118 might not sound like an impressive achievement, but the field was very competitive, made up mostly by experienced club runners who have been doing this for years and posses enviable physiques. While I am a slow, slightly podgy, well-meaning beginner who only started running in April.

Regardless, I am pretty chuffed: this is my PB on the distance! And I am slowly edging towards a running pace of 9 min per mile, which would be a very respectable half-marathon pace if I could keep it up, and a major improvement on the 13 min per mile pace of my very first run all those weeks ago.

Must keep training!

Friday, 5 August 2011


My first challenge is Tennis.Perhaps not a sport usually associated with the Olympics, tennis appeared at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 but was dropped from the programme after the Paris 1924 Games. It returned 64 years later at Seoul 1988. The Tennis competition at London 2012 will feature five medal events: men’s and women’s Singles, men’s and women’s Doubles, and for the first time since 1924 Mixed Doubles.

I have held a racket in my life, convinced as I am of having poor hand-eye coordination. Furthermore I seldom partook in the national obsession with Wimbledon and its long awaited British Singles winner. In summary, I have a rudimentary knowledge of the game and no practice whatsoever.

With the favourable auspices of the mild English summer, I duly enrolled into a 6 weeks Beginners course at my local gym together with 7 other brave apprentices, most of whom seemed to be far more advanced than me! Dave, the coach, who looks a bit like actor Bryan Brown, helps us along with plenty of encouragement and the occasional sardonic remark.

Today I had my 4th lessons. In the midsts of poorly controlled volleys and misdirected serves, I established unequivocally that Dave, the coach, can do a pretty good impersonation of Tom Jones, while I do a poor impersonation of Rafael Nadal (despite the near homonymity).

So far I have learnt, in no particular order that:
  • the serve is crucial, master that and you are half way there
  • the serve is challenging
  • my serve is deadly, but utterly inaccurate
  • my forehand is good but my backhand is dreadful
  • one must always keep the eyes on the ball
  • preparation is key
  • don't run to the ball, let it come to you
  • "five" can sometimes mean 15, and "love" doesn't mean affection but nought-ing at all

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Kevin Henry 5k Series - Newmarket

For the vast majority of my challenge, I will be learning a completely new sport. Fencing, weightlifting, judo and shooting, for instance. In some other cases I will try my hand at old favourites: rowing, football, volleyball, sports I practised at different levels at school or university. But in some cases, for endurance sports such as long distance running or triathlon, even though I might be a beginner, I will endeavour to enter into a competition/event.

For Athletics (distance) I decided to enter the St Neots Half-Marathon on the 21st of November. Running has never come easy to me. I seem to struggle more than most, I huff, I puff, I seem to progress at a snail pace. I don't think I ever run anything approaching a long distance, in the loosest possible sense of the word "long" and when I went for a trial run, I could barely cover 2 miles. In essence, no one is going to think I'm Paula Radcliff younger sister. Or even the older sister.

I concluded I needed a lot of training. Thus I invested in a pair of proper running shoes for injury prevention, started on a program of weekly runs, and joined a club for some advice and training. 

Since starting my Gold Challenge, I have clocked 95 miles. The club is part of a local league, the Kevin Henry Series, comprising five 5k runs. I missed the first race, but I've taken part in the remaining as a means of race training and preparation for my half-marathon challenge.

Tonight I did the third 5k in the series. It was held at Newmarket, in the world famous Newmarket racecourse. I couldn't help but think that the thoroughbred horses are far better engineered for running than me. The course was flat, but muddy and heavy going (in horse racing parlance) due to a late afternoon downpour. But I gave it my best. I won't know my time for a while, so far my best time in the series has been a not-so-zippy 28:30 on the 14th of July. Next race is on the 1st of September. I need all the help I can get if I am to survive my half-marathon attempt.