Sunday, 28 August 2016

Back on board

Having returned from holiday on a Saturday, I had to wait until the following Wednesday before finally getting on a horse again! The first session back was vaulting. I was worried I'd have lost my nerve a bit or at least got rusty but fortunately I got back into the swing of things quite quickly. Before going away I'd been figuring out a new routine, and it was good to be able to try that out on the horse.
We also spent some time working on canter compulsories. These are basic seat, bench (kneeling on the horse's back and holding onto the handles) and leg changes. Leg changes are still my nemesis! I'm confident in basic seat and bench but my leg changes are still a case of grim survival rather than effortless poise. As such we've decided not to do them in competition just yet, but to focus on getting a good freestyle routine in the walk. The first competition of all the ones coming up is just eight days away and although I'd hoped I might be able to canter in it I think that we have made the right decision, because I'd rather do a good job than hash it up in front of an important audience!
Last week we had a double session because we spent some time working towards horse care badges. I was glad that I wasn't the only 'big one' who wanted to do this! We worked together to take tack apart, clean it, put it back together, groom the horses (Izzy and I were given Boris and he was being a right grumpy sod), then went over the signs of health in the horse and feeding rules, mucked out a stable and tacked up. I wasn't able to do everything - I needed help with things like fiddly buckles on tack, using two brushes at a time when grooming, getting around the stable to muck out, and reaching up to put the bridle on - but it felt good to be involved even to a limited extent. In fact, I needed quite a bit of help with everything and when it came to tacking up all I could do to help was sit in front of the horse and tell the others whether the tack was straight or not! On the plus side, although I can't lift both arms above my head to put on a bridle, and although I can't do the fiddly straps, or shovel poo as vigorously as the others, or use a body brush in one hand and a curry comb in the other (etc.!) I did at least know the theory of what I was attempting to do and what I managed to do still felt helpful. It was also the first time I've mucked out a stable in many years and I'd forgotten how satisfying it is to go from multiple poos and lots of wet bedding to a thick layer and banks of clean dry straw!
Here's how the Household Cavalry do it!
Anyway, today we had a nice long session before our competition a week later. I've had a last minute change of music (possibly - depending on the format the music has to be in) as one of our coaches feels that the music I used at Hartpury would be better than the different song I had considered. I think she's right but I only have it on USB and I don't know if that's OK! The competition in a week's time is in Cambridge again (like the one I did in April), but like the last one it's going to have people there from across the country. It's a good practice run ahead of the English Championships (later in September) and the British Championships in October. Provided I stay fit and healthy I hope to be competing at all three!

Monday, 22 August 2016

Mind Games

The other day, whilst wheeling in my chair, I felt great. It was my third session back from being on holiday. The first one had been pretty dreadful; the second OK but not amazing; and the third suddenly just felt really, really good. My hands felt quick, my arms felt light, and the chair felt fast.
I'm on top of the world!
On Buster I have two main bits of kit that can tell me how fast I'm going. The first is my GPS watch, which I use every session (as long as I remember to set it tracking!). It's a very useful thing to have in terms of progressing my training, because when I plug my watch into my laptop after the session I can see a map of where I've been as well as graphs showing such useful details as speed (at every second), heart rate and elevation. By hovering over the graphs I can also see on the map which areas were harder or easier for me. I can check the time that all my sets took me by zooming in on the 'speed' or pace linegraph, then reading across metre by metre, or simply by looking at when I slow down and speed up. Whilst I'm actually in the chair, I use it partly to know the time (a watch with a normal function!) but also to see how long I've been going for, what my heart rate is, what my average speed is, how far I've gone, and so on.
Watch on right wrist.
Usually, I don't use the watch for all that when I'm in the chair. It's useful for knowing the time and it's useful for knowing heart rate because I can't measure them any other way, but in terms of things like speed, distance travelled and time elapsed it's much more useful for me to use my trip computer. This is in front of my eyes all the time, meaning that (unlike with the watch) I don't have to miss a stroke to find out how I'm doing.
View from head cam
I have a general idea of how fast I would expect to be travelling in a given situation. On the track, I can travel fairly consistently at 16-17km/h for some time before getting tired. In a wind this drops down; in the windy 1 mile race we did at St Ives in July, it dropped as low as 13km/h on the windy back straight (I haven't written about that one yet, because I went on holiday/it was really depressing, but for the sake of completeness I will do so at some point!). On the road, if it's a good surface, I would want to be quite a bit faster. Uphill stretches can take it out of you quite quickly but there is a gentle downhill slope on the West site which is long enough for me to use it to get up to 27km/h before my hands aren't quick enough to keep up!
Toot toot!
On Tuesday night last week, when I did one trip along the towpath, I averaged about 14km/h. This included the mile-long warm-up - which was really slow! - and quite a few pauses to allow cyclists to get past, or to go really slowly over bumpy ground. Not particularly quick, but I was looking to go out and treat it as a very light session, so I was happy. On Thursday, I went out again and did the same session. The conditions on the towpath and weather-wise were basically the same. It was slightly earlier in the day (which seemed to mean fewer people on the towpath, which was great). I felt a little bit perkier than I had on the Tuesday, when I was still quite tired and stiff. Other than that, it was identical. Same route, same chair, same me! The Thursday session was much, much better than the Tuesday one. I always find the first few minutes in Buster really uncomfortable, and I always start asking myself why I'm doing what I'm doing since I'm clearly so rubbish at it and I'm not enjoying it, but then my body wakes up and catches up to my stubborn head and between the two of them they shut up the sensible part of me that craves endless rest and relaxation.
On Thursday, I reached that comfortable state earlier than usual (on Tuesday it had been later than usual) and something just seemed to be going right. I had reset my trip computer to zero so I could have accurate timings all the way along. The speedo was registering some brilliant times and I felt that I was achieving some great speeds with very little effort. The towpath isn't perfectly flat - not only is it bumpy at times but it also goes up and down a bit in relation to the river. On some of the (VERY) gentle downhill inclines I was getting up to speeds of about 25km/h. It felt amazing! Seeing those numbers spurred me on - I couldn't believe how easy it felt. I thought that I must be a lot better than I thought I was if actually I could achieve these speeds whilst barely breaking a sweat.
From the Channel 4 Paralympics trailer, featuring me - but not in this shot! Quite a few Paralympians in shot here though, and I was just behind...
Buoyed up by the knowledge that I was back in some sort of form, I kept pushing myself. The first 3km felt easy. I knew the second 3km would be a bit slower as the path is a lot less friendly, but I pushed on regardless. I was watching the timer as well as the speedo. I was doing the mental arithmetic to try and work out how far ahead of my Tuesday time I would be. When I got to the halfway point at 6km I paused briefly, allowing myself a minute to turn the chair round, gather my thoughts and turn up my music before heading home. I wanted to try and race the last 6km as much as I could. The first 3km would be hard to race - the river is much twistier, and the towpath is much narrower so you can't see ahead as easily - but then I'd really let loose on the last 3km to come storming home. I was already planning the time I would hope to finish in. I should be able to beat the 10km I did in King's Lynn and travel an extra 2k!
"On fire"!
The 6km home did feel good. The last 3km in particular were tough and strong and feisty, and I enjoyed that section of the session a lot. Over the last 1km I really wound it up, until I was sprinting for the final 500m. I glimpsed the speedo (27.6km/h!) and felt invincible (28.2km/h!). I stormed up the last bit of the towpath and through to my finish line. Looking at my watch, I felt that something had gone wrong. Yeah, I was quicker than the other day, but at just under 48 minutes (4 minutes quicker than Tuesday) I felt confused that my time hadn't been closer to what I had calculated from the speeds. Although I'd been looking at the time a little bit on my trip computer, I hadn't really paid attention to it as I was concentrating on keeping the speed consistent. I hadn't looked at my watch once.
I turned around and headed back down the towpath for a bit of a cool down. I wondered what could have gone wrong. Maybe I just couldn't do maths under pressure? But then I'd always done some basic sums in my head during ergs to estimate my finishing score, and I'd never messed them up... I pushed a little further and watched the speed on the trip display. Somehow, 17km/h didn't seem reasonable for the (tiny) amount of effort I was putting in. I checked my watch - 10km/h. That sounded more like it. That was when the penny dropped...
When I had zeroed the computer earlier, at the beginning of the session, I had somehow managed to reach a number which had meant nothing to me, and in getting away from that number to one that made sense I unintentionally (and unthinkingly) changed some of the digits. That number was quite important, as it turns out - it was the circumference of my front wheel, which the computer has to use to calculate what speed I'm going at and how far I've gone. Oops! Still, at least it made sense now. I hadn't been going at those crazy speeds - it just thought that my wheel was a lot bigger than it actually was.
Another penny!
I felt like a bit of a numpty and I felt a bit disappointed that I hadn't turned into Wonder Woman overnight. After a few moments, though, I realised that what I had unwittingly done was a very interesting psychological experiment. For me, the session had felt good after I'd zeroed (and bamboozled!) the computer. Before that, in the warm-up, I felt pretty lousy. Seeing the big numbers on the screen made me feel much better. I didn't know they were wrong; I just thought I was really good. That belief gave me the courage to push myself far further than I would have done otherwise. It opened up something that I didn't know I had. By suggesting to me that I had more in me to give - even if the suggestion was itself a lie - I somehow dug deeper than I would have done otherwise. I've always thrived off criticism in the vein of 'I bet you can't do this', but this was a different kind. It wasn't even 'I bet you can do this', but 'you are doing this'. My performance improved dramatically because I believed I was better than I was.
It's a WonderWoman cape, obviously.
Sure, I wasn't as fast as the speedo made me believe initially. I didn't set a new land speed record. What I did do was improve my time from just two nights earlier (with no rest day in between) by 4 minutes. I can go further than a kilometre in four minutes. Four minutes is a big margin.
Nearly enough time for this!
I would usually say that if I'm going to have technology on board with me, it has to be accurate - because what's the point otherwise? I still want it to be accurate in a race as in training, I think. This experience has taught me a lot, though. It's not the kind of thing that works if you do it knowingly - you have to not know that you're tricking yourself! - but if it happens to you by accident, embrace it. I've learned that I can be less conservative and I can push myself more in long-distance races. I've learned how powerful self-belief is, and how much your mental strength can give you physical strength. For example, whilst I believed I was a better racer than I really was, I believed that my technique was better. Because I believed this, I put more conscious thought into it - as if offering a masterclass in technique to the ladies and gentleman of the River Cam! Because I put more thought in, my technique actually was better. The same goes for breathing, grit, hand speed, and so on. As long as you don't tip over into arrogance, having a belief that you know what you're doing and that you're doing a good job is incredibly valuable.
With self-belief you can be a good boy AND the Easter bunny.
I have always been very critical of myself in everything I do. As a musician, no performance was perfect. Something could always be neater, more technical, or more emotive. In sport, I've so rarely let myself enjoy the moment when I'm doing something I'm good at because I always have the hyper-critical gremlin on my shoulder pointing out the things that need improvement. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you can't accept criticism and if you can't criticise yourself then it's very hard to get better. However, this episode was the very first time in my life that I have experienced the other side of the coin - namely, that believing in yourself really does help. Criticism doesn't just have to be negative. I don't just mean 'constructive criticism', which is just a way of saying bad things in an encouraging way. Positive criticism - 'that was good', 'that's right', 'beautifully done', etc. - is a part of that feedback loop which makes you improve. I know this from coxing, so why has it taken so long for me to think about applying it to myself? The really remarkable thing that I have learned here is that the criticism you give doesn't even have to be accurate - if it's slightly exaggerated, it still helps you to improve, as if subconsciously you know to fill the gap.
The end of the 2016 Olympics (sad!) is a good time to share this (good job there's still the main event to look forward to!)
Praise breeds confidence. Praise breeds concentration. Praise breeds success. I'm going to try and do a lot more of this positive criticism from now on.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Stiff shoulders

I got back from holiday late on Saturday night, then Sunday was a bit of a dud day for me. John and I had stayed up late watching the Olympic athletics (definitely worth it though!), then I was sick during the night and spent half of it on the bathroom floor. During Sunday I felt really shaky and kept being boiling hot then freezing cold. It was really quite irritating but at least it came at a time where I could take my pick of brilliant live sport to watch!
On Monday I felt a bit better so I spent the morning doing a bit of drawing before going to wheelchair racing in the evening. The session we did was 4 x 1km, which is a very light session really but which felt horrendous! It was really windy - strong enough for the wind to move my compensator for me as I went around bends. The home straight felt even spongier than usual and my arms just felt as if they couldn't move: my shoulders were really stiff and I barely had any power in my muscles. My times for each 1km were OK but not great. I managed the second one a bit quicker than the first, but only because I threw everything at it without worrying about saving too much for the last two. Overall I was a bit disappointed that the session had felt as tough as it did. It felt as if I'd been massively overtraining - not just the kind of tiredness/stiffness you get from having time off. I didn't beat myself up too much over it, though, as I had to remember that the day before I'd been feeling pretty grim.
I love this!
On Tuesday I got a bit more rest in in the morning and then, because I couldn't book a riding lesson, I went wheeling again in the evening. This time I went for a 12k push along the towpath. It's one of my favourite sessions - you are next to the river the whole way along, so there's always plenty of wildlife and for half the route you're likely to see some rowers out too. I like the fact that it's broken up into broadly equal chunks too: from where I park my car until the first lock is 3km, then it's another 3km from that lock up to the point at which I have to turn around not long before the second lock. Four 3k chunks feels meaty and doable.
Baby moorhen! <3
At the moment my most pressing race to train for is the new Cambridge 10k at the beginning of September, and 12k training sessions feel like a nice way psychologically to train for this. The middle 6k of the run (beyond the first lock) is always slower, because the towpath is narrower and a lot bumpier. This is quite good for making me settle into a rhythm to take up until 9km, and then over the last 3km I can start to let it out a bit more and really go for it in the last 1km. It helps to know the distances between various posts, trees, buildings, bridges and other landmarks along the river - another example of rowing training helping wheeling!
You get to know the trees well...
After vaulting on Wednesday, I did another 12k session yesterday (Thursday) along the towpath. This was a good session - far better than Tuesday. I felt a lot looser and got into a good rhythm much earlier on. I also felt able to push a lot faster and my hands just felt quicker - I shaved a couple of minutes off Tuesday's time quite easily.
The route!
During my cool down on Tuesday I got chatting to a lovely couple who were really interested in Buster and disability sport. Apparently they're often going up and down the towpath on walks or runs so I've got to keep going to look out for them!

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Summer break

I've just come back from two weeks in the south of France. I don't like doing nothing but down there it's pretty tough to train properly so I like to think of it as some rest time with any swimming that I can manage being a bonus! Last year I really enjoyed swimming in the summer. I hadn't swum properly in ages and it was a revelation to discover that not using my legs stopped the awful back cramps I used to get. I got quite good at drifting around the pool just using my arms and when I got back into Buster my back was so much stronger and felt so much comfier.
Re-learning how to swim last year.
This year, I took the same equipment down (pull buoy float to go between legs and my hand paddle things). I also took some ear plugs for swimming in and some plugs designed to draw out any water that did make it in, having learned from last year when I got so much water in my ears all the time and it drove me potty! I swam nearly every day and did at least 40 lengths a day, with a combination of time spent with and without the float/paddles.
Paddles = big hands = big arm muscles = :D
I did quite a bit of work without any equipment at all, which is my favourite. I mostly do an approximation of front crawl and another of breaststroke. With breaststroke, because I don't use my legs at all it means I have to have a really high rate of strokes with the arms. It's a good workout but does rather create a lot of waves which aren't as nice for everyone around me! For the front crawl, I needed goggles and ear plugs. I can bring my right arm up and out of the water to take a normal front crawl stroke, but my left arm struggles to raise up that high, so I just do something between doggy paddle and front crawl with the left arm. Obviously this isn't as efficient as a proper front crawl with both arms but it's the best I can manage and it's still fairly speedy for me.
Speedy 'for me', of course, doesn't mean speedy!
I also spent some time working on breathing, as I thought it might help improve lung capacity if I keep at it! The front crawl was a good way to practise, as it requires me to have my face down quite a lot anyway. When I was working hard I found that breathing every three cycles (with right and left arm strokes being one cycle) worked best - any more than that and I just kept sinking, because without legs kicking you along it's easier to keep your head down. I also spent some time using my float and paddles, where I started at 6 strokes and then worked my way up and down the pool, increasing the number of strokes between each breath by one step at a time whilst also trying to keep the rate of strokes the same - getting faster means you're working harder but also means you don't have to hold your breath as long!
Something else I noticed (which I wouldn't really notice any other time) is that my eyesight has got a lot worse. Normally I'm either wearing contact lenses or glasses - the only times I don't have either are when I'm asleep, in the shower, or doing something close-up like reading a book. Other than that, I'm always wearing them so I never have moments where I look up and see what my eyesight is like over a long distance. It didn't help that it was often very bright by the pool (especially with reflections from the water) but I really did struggle to see, even to the extent that when one day my brother helped me into the pool I asked why he wasn't jumping in after me and he said he still needed to take his t-shirt off - which I hadn't noticed he'd been wearing! As well as having rubbish eyesight when in the pool I also had my ear plugs in a lot which were marketed as not affecting hearing - but they did... and even with them out I didn't seem to be hearing too well. I was quite happy swimming around in my own little world but I hope I didn't offend too many people by not acknowledging them or chatting! Anyway, I am now going to book myself another eye test (which, between the opthalmologist looking after my uveitis and opticians, will be my fourth or fifth one this year) to see if I can get a better prescription, and I'll try and chase up what's happening with the audiologists.
About as much self-awareness as Dory divided by Angler Fish.
I had some time to have fun in the pool too. I did a fair bit of hydrotherapy practice and developed a new move which I want to use to strengthen my core and lower back. I face the wall and hold it with arms oustretched at a point where I'm just out of my depth, and have the float between my thighs, with my legs straight out in front of me and toes touching the wall.
Then you move the legs back and then up again behind you from the hips/lower back until you're lying face-down on the surface of the water. Then you go back the other way, again aiming for that activity driving it from the lower back. Controlling the arms was really hard work, so I made it a bit easier by allowing some of the push from upright to lying flat to come from the arms. This still meant the exercise did what I wanted as my main concern was to introduce movement into the lower part of my back and to try and make it fight the buoyancy of the float on the way down again.
Finally in the pool I did some vaulting work (above and below). It feels so nice to be supported by the water, and not to worry about falling over because you're 'caught' instantly. I tried going through my new routine and although there were a few moments where people had no idea what I was doing and where I nearly drowned myself (doing a standard arabesque, for instance) it was useful for me.
As a second and far nicer 'finally' I also got to play with Ælfie, my niece, in the pool, which was lovely!

We don't share pictures of her online so here's a cute duckling instead.
I didn't do much more with my time than nap, read, play with the baby more, cuddle the dogs, eat, nap some more, do some puzzles, and sleep properly. It was warm but not baking hot which was good - and I had far fewer falls this year which was nice so although I was still pretty bruised by the end it wasn't as bad as last time!
Probably the worst bruise from last summer's crop!
Apart from that there wasn't much activity. Wheeling is really tough (even in a day chair) because it's so hilly, and because France is absolutely hopeless for disabled access (depending on how incensed I feel this may become the topic of a future post). In the old days I used to run up the hill (= Alp) into town and then back again. I'd love to be able to do that still! Riding is also tricky, not because there aren't horses but because our general experience of French horsey people is that they don't seem to be particularly desperate for customers and they aren't always the best at responding to phonecalls/emails/voicemails etc. I've pretty much come to peace with that now so my holiday can actually be a holiday rather than a foreign training camp.
Here's one of the only non-baby photos from the holiday - the two dogs watching every little mouthful!
The only problem with all this is that getting back into the swing of things isn't brilliantly easy! I had a wheeling session last night where I just felt really stiff and out-of-practice. I have no idea how I feel when I get back to vaulting tomorrow - probably as I do now, i.e. stiff and out-of-practice! At least this time I know to expect a bit of a wobble in confidence - last time I had a break I didn't expect that so it shook me a little when it happened. I'll be patient with myself and concentrate hard on technique.
As for wheeling... well, there's a 10k coming up soon, then a half-marathon, then who knows what? Time for me to go out and get training...