Friday, 26 July 2019

National Three Peaks Challenge - Tick

Over the weekend of June 29 and 30 2019, together with three personal training clients (Emma, Raimo and Will) I took on the National Three Peak Challenge, raising money on behalf of British wildlife charity, The Marine Conservation Society.
The National Three Peaks is 24 hour challenge consisting of climbing Scotland’s Ben Nevis, England’s Scafell Pike and Wales’ Mount Snowdon - each the tallest mountain in their respective country!
The three peaks have been a dream of mine for many years now. I never feel more simultaneously relaxed and exhilarated than when surrounded and humbled by nature. This is something I share with members of my family. My dad completed the challenge many years ago and my Uncle has always been an avid hiker - I guess their influence rubbed off on me!
After multiple meetings, finalising team members, dates and sorting out general logistics, we could turn our attention to training for the event. One issue was quickly highlighted within the group. - Training in Norfolk, the countries flattest county, for a mountain climbing event was going to be problematic! Frustratingly, with our conflicting busy schedules any significant practice group hikes were out of the question.
Individually, we all upped our running and in my training and my team mates PT sessions I focused on strength, stability and balance. This undoubtedly helped but in the gym you simply can’t replicate the physical and psychological demands you experience on an exposed and hostile mountainside! 
Preparations weren’t smooth sailing; Emma severely sprained her ankle six weeks before the event and together we worked carefully to rehabilitate her. I must admit, I thought it would be a bit touch and go, whether Emma would recover in time evidently she is both determined and a quick healer. Luckily we did enough to make her mountain fit!
The four of us drove to Birmingham (a 3 and a half hour drive) and boarded a flight to Glasgow. This was to be Emma’s first flight so along with being frisked at security it was a day of firsts for her! At Glasgow we rented a hire car and set off for Fort William.
The scenery along the locks, between mountains was something to behold. Our excitement was growing, as seemingly were the mountains and our conversations were free flowing and easy. As per the nature of personal training, I know my clients very well but of course they didn’t know each other. I always find it thrilling, throwing different people together and seeing friendships build. Minus a quick stop for dinner and supplies the drive took 2 hours 30 minutes and we were all grateful to stretch our legs as we reached our hostel at the foot of Ben Nevis, our first climb. I must briefly note how clean and friendly the hostel was. Definitely superb value for money.
After quick showers the team met downstairs to check over the routes on the map and chill out for an hour. Unfortunately that night the weather was so stiflingly humid none of us got any more than 3 hours rest - not ideal when about to embark on a 24 hour challenge! At 3m as I looked out the dorm window I saw several headlights slowly descending the mountain side! It was shortly to be our turn!

We met downstairs at 6am Saturday morning, ate breakfast, prepared kit and set off at 7am. The weather was still extremely muggy but as we climbed it gradually eased and became more bearable. As with the other two mountains we encountered over the weekend Ben Nevis begins to get increasingly cold and windy as you reach roughly 3000 ft. There was snow at the peak, despite being the end of June. It was defiantly hat and coat conditions! Sadly when your head is quite literally in the clouds there is not much of a view! The feeling of euphoria and achievement, shared with friends as we made the summit was a magical moment. Arguably, coming down the mountains was equally as challenging as going up. Your quadriceps and knees work extremely hard to control your body momentum as gravity attempts to throw you down the mountainside. The paths are very uneven and in many places, constructed on loose pieces of granite / slate causing a massive amount of slippage. I would like to say great care was taken on the descents but in reality we pushed on as quickly as possible surviving numerous near accidents on the way!!!
Some of the many memories that spring to mind from this first peak are:
The ongoing picturesque rolling mountainside landscape.
A fresh sprung waterfall at around the half way point. (I did not risk drinking the mineral water but enjoyed a good head soaking!)
Leaving the main path to “short cut” past a lake by scrambling up the side of one particularly steep section of rocky grass, only to emerge directly in front of two ladies who were the equal distance behind us prior to our detour! On the plus side It was a fun 15 minutes and variety is the spice of life! We walked around the lake on the decent!
Seeing several individuals sitting on the side of the path, grey faced and sweaty clutching their chests! I asked if they were okay and we heard no reports of any deaths on the mountain that weekend!
As we got closer to the summit , other trekkers on their way down like to offer encouragement. The only problem with that is when one person says “only 40 minutes to go, your doing great” and then 15-20 minutes late someone else says exactly the same thing, it can become a little demoralising. I’m not sure if people don’t have a good concept of time or they are just trying to help you psychologically but it made us laugh…. and offer precise timings to other hikers on our way down!

Image may contain: one or more people, outdoor, nature and water
Minus a couple of food / comfort breaks and having our rental car driven into while waiting at a junction (by a white van) just outside Glen Co (yes what are the chances?) our six hour drive down to Scafell Pike in the Lake district was relatively clear sailing and straight forward.
Driving into the Lake district (home of Scafell Pike) we entered rural farming community. The roads became tighter and we had to deal with hazards such as sheep in the road and passing oncoming vehicles on single lanes. The scenery again was beautiful.
Having arrived at the car park at 19:00 we had a quick stretch, and were ready to set off up our second mountain by 19:30. We took our first steps and immediately the heavens opened and I got my first opportunity to test the waterproofing properties of my brand new Mountain Warehouse jacket (brought for the challenge!) This was a relief having spent quite some cash on new clothing. - It worked great. I have to say I didn’t mind the rain and Emma positively loved it. It was refreshing, atmospheric and kept us cool on our hike.
One thing on Scafell Pike that struck me was how picturesque it was down the bottom. There was a wide variety of different colourful flowers and a stream adjacent to the path. The rain was pretty much on - off for 90 minutes and it made the busy paths very slippery underfoot.

Again, heading towards the latter third of the accent, the temperature dropped which when you are already damp, isn't ideal.  Another factor facing us was the imminent sunset. We had head torches but didn’t want to push our luck climbing in the dark. As a team we all felt there was a necessity to push on up to the top and get back down to base quickly. Once we summited, hugged, called loved ones and took photos we set of down the mountain at quite a rate!  As the darkness slowly began to creep in we began running down the mountainside where possible. At times this was whether we wanted to or not. Raimo is an avid runner and would often suddenly take off with us left to chase after him! This also served to change our stride and provide relief to our muscles with a nice stretch. I will never forget how many people were still struggling up as it was getting darker and colder. One particular group of lads we had seen on Ben Nevis walked past us at about the half way point. They had no lights, they weren't wearing waterproof jackets and they wore only basic trainers. - You need decent walking boots for the three peak challenge. I could hear them all giggling away like a group of school kids as they walked past us. Just as I was thinking that was odd it hit me. The unmistakable sweet, rich smell of marijuana! As amusing and unexpected as the scene was, it does beg the question how people can be so stupid. Climb England’s tallest mountain at night, in the rain, with no lights, boots or appropriate clothing whilst toking on the old wacky backy bifter! As the chap in front of us said “That wont help their performance” I laughed.
As we came to the end of our descent it was  virtually black with only the slightest lingering light left to see where we were going. We sprinted the final 500 meters in what remaining light there was, somehow avoiding any roots or rocks. We completed the Skafell Pike in 3 hours, a very quick time. Next it was off to Wales. 

During this dive the adrenaline of the event as a whole was wearing off and the first signs of mental fatigue were creeping in. As we drove out of the Lake District and toward Wales the chatter became muted. The radio was playing live from the Glastonbury festival and we all seemed to zone out. At around 01.30 we made a quick coffee and fuel stop (we were on empty on both counts) and also changed drivers. Forty minutes in to this leg of the journey and current driver Will drifted across the white line into adjacent lanes on the motorway. Luckily at that time of night there were very few other cars on the road.s Over and over again this happened until both the car itself advised him to pull over and we decided to change driver at a truck stop. I took to the wheel and with both Raimo and Will unable to drive I was hoping I would be safe to do so. Luck would have it that somehow, although feeling severely jet lagged I managed to drive the remaining two hours fairly comfortably and we arrived at the Snowdon car park at 04:00. It was just getting light.

Thirty minutes later, our internal clocks totally askew,  having been awake for over 24 hours, we set off up Snowdon. I had heard it was by far the easiest path and as the sun rose upon our glorious surroundings we began making excellent time. I do believe the phrase “this is almost cheating” in reference to the ease of the path was uttered at one point. That was to change!
An hour or so into our third and final hike, having enjoyed a kind gradient, rolling mountainsides and crystal clear lakes we hit a bit of a dead end! Not what we were expecting. After consulting our map we backtracked 100 or so meters and were still left scratching our collective heads. Luckily there was another party of hikers close by and they informed us that we had to climb up a very steep face of rock. 

Image may contain: people standing, sky, mountain, plant, tree, grass, outdoor, nature and waterFatigued, hungry and tired this was probably, physically speaking, the toughest and most technical part of the weekend for me personally. There was very little room for error and at times we all felt the need to grip onto the rock with our hands as we climbed. Will, usually so bubbly and laid back, appeared to be struggling. After what seemed like a tricky eternity we finally reached the top of the section of rock. Looking over at Will I noticed he wasn’t looking great. He was quite pale, looked out of breath and seemed very tense. A complete contrast to his usual self. I asked if he was okay to which he replied. “I just bottled it” It was at that moment my brain kicked in and it hit me. I remembered Will is afraid of heights. While he settled his nerves we all took the opportunity to take a quick drinks break. Considering how uncomfortable and scared Will  must have been feeling it is quite a remarkable feat that he managed to climb that section of rock. Talk about overcoming your fears!
The remainder of the assent was, although not far, very arduous. We were both physically and mentally tired and bad weather was coming in fast. That is to say it was bitterly cold, wet and windy. Still we struggled on against the wind up to the summit and eventually stood atop the grey stone monument. We all hugged, took some pictures and discussed how best to descend. Will was adamant he couldn’t go back the way we came. We asked a tour guide from another party if the alternative route would be okay to get back to our car park. He said “once you get to the bottom there will be a 3 hour walk round to your car park. Its Sunday so you might struggle to find a bus”. I think all our hearts sank in unison. We looked at each other and I think Raimo asked Will if he could make it. We briefly contemplated one of us (me) going back the way we came and bringing the car around but I wanted to keep the team together. I personally wanted to go back the way we came but didn’t want to pressurise Will into doing something he was uncomfortable with doing… twice!
We decided to walk down the alternative route. Sore legs aside it was relatively easy going and the way we were supposed to come up Snowdon if we hadn't started at the wrong car park! Schoolboy error! One memory that we all share from this decent was how long it lasted. Having completed the vast majority of the challenge, this last phase seemed to go on and on! What made it worse was you could see both the path and mountain train track for as far as the eye could see, yet no matter how far we walked it just kept winding on and on in front.
Eventually, at 09.30 we did reach the bottom. We had completed the Three Peak Challenge. Hurrah! We were exhausted but thrilled!
There was a small restaurant at the foot of Snowdon and the owner gave us the number of a local taxi cab to take us back to the correct car park. That journey was easily 20 minutes of steep undulations and twisty roads so we all agreed we were happy with the decision not to walk!
The trip back was tiring with constant driver swaps as we struggled to keep our sleep deprived eyes open in the blistering sunshine. We took the car back to Birmingham airport and Raimo drove the remaining 3.5 hours back to Sunny Norfolk.  
All of us agree this is not a challenge to be taken lightly. We missed out on the 24 hour goal but considering it wasn’t the smoothest of rides (with being crashed into and a couple of navigational hiccups) we were quite satisfied. Our walking times on the mountains were very quick and above all, we enjoyed each others company, some spectacular scenery and we raised good money for The Marine Conservation society.
We are already planning our next potential adventure, The Yorkshire Three Peaks in 2020!

Friday, 30 November 2018

Fitness for Motorsport

When I was 10 years old I wanted to become a Formula One driver. I was besotted with the sport. I quickly understood that such an ambition, for me, was unrealistic. I only went karting a handful of times with my dad and struggled to grasp the correct racing lines. I certainly wasn’t particularly quick. Being heavily into Kung fu I had a keen interest in the body and fitness / exercise so naturally I decided one day I would be personal trainer an F1 driver. Sadly these job opportunities are rather limited. There are currently only 20 F1 drivers on the grid and most drivers have known or been friends with their trainers for many years.

Fortunately after extensively researching and studying the physical and mental requirements to become a competitive driver in modern day motor racing I have had the opportunity to work with several drivers and teams at various different levels on the Motorsport ladder. I’ve worked with karters, drivers in different formula drivers and indeed F1 test drivers. Alongside gym based training I have also provided event support internationally for teams / drivers at the circuit in sports car competition and British super bikes. So despite not making F1 I have led a very fulfilling, enjoyable and challenging career in Motorsport to date.  When I take on new drivers, aside from their personal considerations here are the areas I predominately concentrate on.  For the purpose of this blog regard all examples as F1 drivers.

It is paramount that Formula One drivers are extremely aerobically fit. Their heart rate will sit between 170 and 180 beats per minute during a 90 - 120 minute race. Considerably higher when waiting for the lights to go out, nerves and adrenaline are coursing through the body. This means there is a huge cardio vascular demand on the heart and lungs, which need to transport oxygenated blood around the body to the muscles. The physical nature of driving flat out in predominantly hot climates means it is all too easy for a driver to become fatigued or physically uncomfortable and lose concentration. As hot and humid as ambient conditions might be it is multiplied in the cockpit.  At racing car speeds things happen in the blink of an eye. The slightest loss of focus can and often does mean a trip into the gravel, or worse still, into the wall. By vigorous cardio vascular training modern day super fit drivers greatly reduce the risk of fatigue and lapses in concentration. In other words a fit driver will withstand the demands of the cockpit much better than one who is less fit.

Well documented now is the necessity for a driver to cope with G forces, especially in a single seater car. The cockpit is a very hostile place. Divers are bumped around and pulled quite literally left right and center whilst wrestling their nibble but ridiculously powerful beast of a car around a circuit. Driving on the edge, centimeters away from catastrophe whilst being bashed around at 185 mph is no mean feat and physical adaptation is crucial. The neck needs to withstand the unrelenting G forces pulling it from side to side and backwards and forward whilst cornering, accelerating and breaking. At 5 G's the head becomes 5 x heavier. Imagine that! Any fit but unconditioned human would scarcely manage 6 laps flat out around a circuit in a Formula one car before their head felt like it wanted to detach itself and role of their neck!

In addition to strong necks it is imperative for racing drivers to have conditioned shoulders, chest, back and arms with excellent muscular endurance. In the past and currently to a degree, despite the strength requirements drivers needed to be slight and light weight.  This equates to a superb weight to strength ratio. With the increasing total driver / car weight allowance today’s drivers can afford a fraction more muscle mass which some are exploiting to help aid their physical performance.  

The core (center of the body) is another key area for racing drivers. Sitting in the cockpit, drivers are in an almost horizontal, laid back position with their feet raised to waist height. This means the core is their center of gravity, takes the brunt of energy continuously travelling through the body and needs to support the lower back for up to two hours at a time. The core muscles help support the skeletal system and in turn keep the internal organs in place as they’re being thrown around inside the body.  They also connect the upper and lower body and stabilise the torso with each and every movement throughout the body. Without a highly trained core, drivers wouldn’t be able to hold their body posture firm whilst driving and they would suffer chronic back injuries.

An often underestimated and overlooked but fundamentally important requirement is having strong leg and hip muscles. Firstly, under breaking for a slow corner a driver must exert upward of 100 kg pressure, dependent on the nature of the  bend. Tracks like Monza and Montreal have enormous braking zones with big stops from high speed. Here the breaking leg force required will be considerably higher. Have you ever tried a single leg, leg press in the gym? See how tough 100 kg is. Then imagine repeating it over and over again. Additionally, having strong hip, bum and leg muscles, along with the core will help a driver keep their legs in alignment and avoid constant hitting of the side of the cockpit causing bruising and pain.

Balance, coordination and reaction work contribute another vital part of the training method. The better the brain is at connecting quickly and efficiently with the muscular skeletal and nervous systems the greater feel and sensitivity to the car a driver will have. Weighted balance exercises force the brain to connect and create new neuro-muscular pathways to the body (including the core) which in turn improves proprioception. In other words drivers have more nerve endings and muscle fibers to call upon at their disposal. The body and specifically the core will react to the slightest or most violent physical demand without delay.   

In conclusion the fitter the driver the more comfortable and more focused they will be in the cockpit. The heat, physicality and fatigue will affect them less and they will also maintain a psychological edge. Knowing you’re physically prepared for competition has huge psychological benefits such as confidence. All that said, despite the undeniable importance of being super fit and conditioned to race, the other best thing a driver can do is to drive! 

As with any top athletes, nutrition is vital for drivers. Ensuring they are fueled adequately for training, travel and competition is paramount. To supplement training and prepare for a race weekend their food intake should consist of natural, varied, whole foods which are rich in macro and micro nutrients. Taking into account exercise scheduling, competition and the relentless travel, the timing of food consumption is also very important. Drivers need to peak on the Saturday and Sunday afternoon. At the circuit simply loading up on carbohydrates is not enough.  Drivers need to recover from muscle fatigue and restore energy levels. Equally vital is ensuring drivers are hydrated before during and after a race. Personally I avoid sports supplements where possible in favor of a natural food sources. However racing in hot climates combined with the physical exertion of driving a race car regularly results in a huge fluid loss and therefore electrolyte deficit. Alternating regular high quality isotonic drinks with plain water helps keep drivers hydrated and therefore focused. Being even slightly dehydrated will have a disproportionately negative effect on concentration and performance. It is common for drivers to lose 3-5 kg in sweat during a particularly grueling race such as Sepang in Malaysia.

As well as working in the gym environment I have traveled with teams around the UK and abroad providing event support to ensure the drivers and team in general are in the best possible physical, mental and emotional condition to go racing.

At the circuit my personal job is pretty varied.

I provide drivers with driving specific warm ups before they get into the car. Weekends involve a lot of massage and stretching work. Also I monitor the driver’s food and water intake to ensure they are consuming the correct foods at the right times to ensure peak performance. As previously stated, this includes providing specialised hydration and energy drinks designed to keep the drivers brains and bodies working at optimum levels and replacing lost salts. Something I try to slip under the radar but goes a long way is I continuously monitor and if need be, act upon the drivers psychology. This is to ensure they are all in the optimum frame of mind / zone to go racing. Another aspect of my job as driver therapist at the circuit is I effectively work as a personal assistant to the drivers, resolving any issues that inevitably occur and generally keeping them on schedule for their media / sponsor / event commitments.  This also helps take that stress away from team managers. I also find it useful on test days to conduct fitness and health screening tests to monitor their heart rate, blood pressure, body fat and flexibility thus ensuring I am happy with their physical 

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Kung fu - My Story

I can still remember the moment back in what must have been 1990 or 1991. I was playing at my grandparents’ house in New Malden. I was up in their bedroom and my mum walked in asking “Would you like to learn Kung Fu?” I vividly remember replying “What’s Kung fu?” to which mum answered “It’s like Karate” Like many six year old's I was a boisterous, enthusiastic and brimming with energy. I recall hearing my mum say it would help “channel some energy” and “wear him out”. In hindsight I’m not sure it worked! 

I was hugely excited and the following weekend I went along to my first ever lesson. The style of Kung Fu was Lau Gar and it clicked with me from the offset and I instantly fell in love with my 09:00 – 11:00 Sunday morning classes. They were held in an rundown, poorly insulated secondary school gymnasium which doubled up as a basket ball court. The floor was extremely hard and especially cold under bare feet in Winter. The hall had an unmissable aging gym smell. It wast a mixture of sweat, dirt and hard work combined with old mats and lots of wooden equipment. Another feature was the high ceiling. This caused my legs to turn to jelly whenever I walked in or gazed upward due to my phobia of looking up at tall buildings. Despite this, even at such a young age I felt comfortable in this environment. I had a huge respect for my first teacher Asim Agri, (I called him Mr Agri) and would hang on his every word. To this day I think it’s so important for young children to have role models outside family and school life.

I quickly asked my friend to join up with me to which he instantly obliged. I would turn up each week and get stuck in giving the sessions my all, I was having a great time. I enjoyed the exercise and sparring side of things but found the technical aspects difficult to remember and master although that has changed now. Sparring would always involve dragging these huge long, blue school gym mats over to make a matted area in which to fight. I distinctly remember setting those up. As much as I enjoyed sparring I would get extremely nervous each time I was up on the mat.

Through my participation in Kung fu I became fascinated in… no besotted with Bruce Lee. The problem for me was as a child I was never allowed to watch his films due to the violence and nudity! All I knew was I wanted to fight like him! I would imagine how many men he could defeat at a petrol station fracas and wonder if one day I could!  

Four weeks into my study my parents brought me my very first Kung fu kit and sparring pads. I was so proud and cherished my kit more than anything. The uniform was similar to a traditional Karate gi only in black which made me feel special relative to my friends who wore white at their Karate or Judo clubs. I’ve always taken great pride in my identity and belonging.

After probably 3- 6 months (forgive my lack of specificity, it was a long time ago) I graded with my friend and the rest of the class beginners for my white belt. My memory of the occasion was one of being both excited and scared. Our senior instructor Mr Neville Wray visited our club to conduct the grading’s in a separate room. This was the first time I had met him in person although leading up to the grading’s I heard other students in the class talking about him in reverent tones. Upon meeting Neville I was instantly in awe of him and what he had and still was achieving on an international level. What I remember of him from our first encounter was that he was very formal, although not scary or intimidating (even to a six year old). Oh and big…he was very big!  - Having met him several times since over the years I would add humble and friendly to that. He is another man I have enormous respect for and to this day he is doing a great job as one of the head coaches to the British WAKO Kickboxing squad. Happily I passed my examination for white grade, as did my friend and on hearing the news the following week and receiving a certificate and white sash, I recall jumping into my mums arms with pure exhilaration and joy. I was now a white sash!
When I was 7 or 8 I entered the national championships in Southampton. I genuinely believed I could win. That Autumn Sunday was a reality check. Having sat in a minivan for 90 minutes or so I got myself massively worked up and nervous and by the time we walked into this huge old sports hall I could barely function. Somehow I managed to control my nervous (despite visibly shaking) enough to put in a fair account for myself but still lost my first round match. I was simultaneously devastated, embarrassed and ashamed. I can’t remember my instructor Asim being at that tournament although I’m sure he would have been. It was a very long and lonely trip back to Surrey. I still remember my mum frying multi-coloured pasta swirls in butter and dropping grated cheese on top. With some ketchup that cheered me up no end. To this day I believe losing is a necessary process in achieving success.
As the years past people naturally came and went. My friend dropped out when we were 8 and my teacher Asim retired due to health reasons. Sadly I never found out what became of him but I like to think he is still around and comfortable. Sent to replace Asim was a man who is now one of my best friends and a kindred spirit. Russel must have only been 17, 18, 19 at the time and he still wasn’t a black sash. It’s funny, I can’t remember much of these early sessions but I still loved the lessons and after a year or two the club moved location and became a bit more geared towards adults.  There were children but not many. I would guess I was now around 10 years old.

Being the youngest in a class primarily made up of adults was always going to bring the best out in me. I used to be extremely competitive with other students trying to do more exercises, or execute techniques faster than they could. I continued to move up the grades and got bigger and stronger and more confident in what I was doing. The class had a core of students Russell our instructor, Steve who was his second and would take the class when Russell wasn’t there, Karl (with a K), Harvey, Chris and myself with many other memorable individuals coming for a year or two before inevitably disappearing. All these guys I became close friends with. Steve and Russell in particular (and later Harvey).

Steve was a character. Stocky with a shaven head, a big fiery ginger goatee (to protect his chin apparently) with tattoos on his arms, legs and back of his neck. To look at you definitely would not mess with Steve but to know him he was one of the easiest most laid back and friendly guys you could ever meet. He looked after me and when sparring, showed me a lot of respect, giving me the time and confidence to try different techniques without fear of being flattened yet he would always keep me honest. Its fair to say, Steve took me under his wing. I would also relish fighting Russell but his speed meant you had to be extremely careful and maintain a healthy respect when coming forward. One mistake and bam! I remember two occasions he gave me lock jaw with a hook out of nowhere! Nothing heavy or dangerous, just enough to make me think. You knew when you got to Russell you had deserved it. Over the years we all had some great ding dongs, but always controlled with a level of mutual respect.

When I was 13 Russell encouraged me to compete in the national championships. I told him I wasn’t interested as I knew I’d get too nervous and worked up about it. Even thinking about it used to send butterflies straight to my stomach. Russell still advised I enter reasoning that if I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t have to do it again. He also said I should give it a go so whatever happened I would always know that I competed. With hindsight I do believe to a degree that he wanted me tested and thought I might do well. That it was something that I should experience after all the years training I had done. I also think he knew that as a martial artist and as a person I would regret not challenging myself, out of my comfort zone and experience tournament fighting as he had.  I didn’t want to disappoint him so I decided to compete. I’m glad I did.
It was sheer luck that one round of the CIMAC Super league national championships tournament was being held just a 15 minute cycle from my house. In fact it was staged at the very same location as the original club had started out. I saw it as a personal homecoming of sorts. I arrived, met up with Steve who was helping out with the set up and he booked me in for the peewee light continuous draw. Unfortunately Russell couldn’t make the tournament and my parents, as far as I can remember weren’t able to attend. It was just Steve and I. Up to this point we had always done point fighting and light continuous at our club, but with the smaller, more precise dipped foam pads on our hands and feet. For the light continuous category however I needed proper full size boxing gloves. By chance Steve knew a woman who had a pair of 16 oz gloves. I had never worn boxing gloves before and they were large, cumbersome and heavy. Alongside the extra weight they felt foreign to me they seemed to engulf half my arm! As a short thirteen year old boy (as an adult I’m only 5’7) being placed into the under 18 peewee category I was at a pretty substantial disadvantage. Something happened to me in that hall, on that day. My back was to the proverbial wall. Standing in the center of the matted fighting area, intimidated and surrounded by a couple of dozen fighters and supporters representing my opponents much larger clubs, all shouting inaudibly fast, exasperated exclamations in expectation of perceived points due to be awarded, aimed at influencing the referee, putting me off and encouraging my opponent. Slapping the floor with their hands as they shouted and generally getting behind anything and everything my opponents did, I was in a hostile environment and I dug deep. I fought with every morsel of strength and will power I could muster against much older, taller kids who were every bit my technical equal or better. Near adults who were experienced national level fighters. Fighters who weren’t afraid of high ceilings!                                                              I have a clear recollection of being absolutely exhausted but only halfway through fights. I was barely able to breathe, gasping for air, totally depleted of energy and at one point desperately gesticulating the universal sign for a timeout that would never come. What I hadn’t realised was this being continuous fighting there were no stoppages. You stopped after 3 minutes when the bout was over. (I actually remember the referee laughing as he said I couldn’t have one) Despite the heavy gloves, and perceived disadvantages I came away with a third place trophy. I was so proud and remember the other coaches and their fighters coming up and shaking Steve’s and then my hands. They congratulated Steve on my performance and specifically how much heart I displayed. He was if anything prouder than I was and said I had fought like a lion. At that point I believe Steve stopped seeing me as the 9 / 10 year old boy he had met almost half a decade previously and started seeing me as an adult and a good martial artist by any measure.
Later that same year I entered the South East Championships in Maidenhead. With no disrespect to my competitors, (there were some excellent fighters) naturally the standard was not as high as at the nationals. For starters it was a more localised tournament and this time I was in fact one the older more senior grades in the category. I won that tournament to which I had and still have an enormous satisfaction. Nothing however will beat my 3rd place at the National Championships early that year.

The following year, now 14 I entered the national championships again, this time in Windsor.  As always I was ridiculously nervous and found it hard to focus. I arrived with my mum, signed in and waited for my category to be allocated fighting areas. When after two hours of tortuous hanging around the area was announced on the PA system I made my way to the appropriate area. The other competitors where enormous and half of them looked like men. Men who could kick you in the head before you saw their foot move. It would appear that everyone had grown over the winter except me! The speed of these athletes was unbelievable. My name was called up and I stepped onto the mat and was immensely relieved to see my first opponent appeared to be only one grade (sash) above than me, a similar age and only a couple of inches taller. He was also a better point’s fighter and went on to progress to the second and maybe even the third round, I’m not sure.
For me I had given it a fair crack as Russell had asked and I have no regrets whatsoever. To continue it simply wasn’t worth the tension, and overriding anxiety I would experience weeks before and leading up to tournaments. Besides, these guys I was competing against were fighting fortnightly around the country, training three times a week with clubs who were geared up towards tournament fighting. Genetically many were superior to me. Bigger, faster, stronger and more flexible and the top guys were in the British squad. I was and am still a good fighter but to use a football analogy I was a mid-table championship fighter not premier league! Luckily for me there are many aspect to Kung fu that I love and I gain a lot more than just being able to fight. 

Later that year I had my one and only significant Kung fu injury. I was sparring with Karl who was an awkward man to fight. He was about 6ft and all arms and legs. One week I would have a clear upper hand, the next week he would. On this occasion he threw a powerful but controlled roundhouse kick (the top of the foot / ankle swings across the opponent to hit the side of their body / head). In this instance I shuffled forward at precisely the wrong moment and wham! He caught me straight across the nose. I remember a wave of denseness filling my head and everything fell silent, except for an internal ringing. That’s when I heard Karl say “your nose is bleeding”  As my nose preceded to run with blood I remember wishing it hadn’t happened and thinking what an inconvenience it was to everyone and wondering how bad it would be. Poor Karl was mortified and couldn’t stop apologising. He even offered to take me “up the casualty”. At the hospital that evening they said I could have plastic surgery if I wished but I decided to leave it. Luckily the incident didn’t spoil my good looks! I didn’t even get much of a black eye(s) which I remember being disappointed about at school the next day! There is a tiny lump towards the top on the bridge of my nose but otherwise unscathed. Ironically 10 years later I unwittingly repaid the favour to Karl with a spinning kick of my own. As with me it was the only time he had ever really been hurt at the club. Even then, I blame both incidents on unlucky timing. After all the years training, even with the control we exhibited I think we got off quite lightly.
As the years past I became closer friends with Russell in particular but also with Steve and Harvey too. We started a tradition where the whole club would go out every Christmas for a meal and get together. That’s where I experienced my first taste of curry and drunkenness. I loved those evenings out with adults and club mates. I won’t go into detail!                                                                                                              
When I turned 16 Russell asked if I wanted to help him and Steve with his children’s lesson that preceded our adult class. Naturally I jumped at the chance. As the weeks and months went by they would give me more and more responsibility and after two years teaching with them, they supported me fully in opening my first very own club children’s class one month to the day after my 18th birthday. Unbelievably looking back I had that club for over 10 years and grew it to a point where I had 15 regular students. It was the maximum I could manage on my own but I loved teaching that class and continued to teach at both Russell’s children’s class and on the rare occasion the adult one when both he and Steve couldn’t make it. 
Into my mid-twenties I begun appreciating the more traditional aspects of Kung fu. Aspects such as the sets (a set of continuous movements done with tension and fluidity) and Tai Chi energy techniques, breathing and even meditation. Many people have no time for semi contact martial arts and the traditional aspects and I do see if they are only interested in the fighting side of things they will feel a percentage of Kung fu is not for them. For me though, there are so many internal benefits I gain from being a martial artist. Yes I do still love hitting the pads or putting on the gloves for a sparring session but I find an inner peace with the fluidity, grace and focus needed for tai chi and even apply that to weaponry work, sticking hands and if I’m with someone I trust, sparring.
Having moved to Norfolk I have kept teaching but now I’m looking to expand upon that and reach out to more people. I remain close friends with Russell and we will always share a mutual love for Kung fu and everything it umbrellas as well as Bruce Lee, Kung fu films, music and TV, cinema.
I feel that I am a complete martial artist albeit one with a long way to go and much to learn. It’s a never ending journey and once it’s in you, REALLY in you there’s no escaping it.  I enjoy all the facets Kung fu has to offer in equal measure and through my spirit and desire it embodies me to some degree. I will never be an elite world class fighter but I know through my teaching I have helped many, many people. That’s good enough for me.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Childhood Health

I am lucky enough to have two gorgeous little boys. One is seven, the other four. They are brimming with life, exuberance and 100% in your face! Naturally, I wouldn’t have it any other way! One of their favorite pastimes is wrestling (and beating up) daddy and they love walks and cycle rides around our little village. Like most children they adore the park and of course, soft play areas! Hopefully this rings true to most other parents.

In this blog my aim is not to come across arrogant, judgmental or like I believe I am the world’s best father. What I am is a dedicated dad who happens to be a personal trainer. Like most other parents I experience the day to day struggles associated with trying to do the best for my children. I have written this article to highlight some scary facts but also offer hope with some potential alternative choices when it comes to ensuring your child is fit, healthy and happy. 
Childhood obesity is an ongoing hot topic in the media and rightly so. I believe it is a worrying and fundamental problem that is clearly obvious to my eyes when I’m out and about. Across the board children are becoming more sedentary and eating cheaper, more convenient and ultimately poorer quality, processed foods. Foods which are less dense in nutritious content but filled with nasties such as salt, sugar, fat and additives.

I am not claiming for one second that my boys don’t have lazy days were they watch TV or play on their IPads and they certainly enjoy foods which I would rather they didn’t. (To be fair so do I!)  What I can say is that I will always ensure they get out of the house and do some physical activity to stimulate their brains and bodies for an hour or two. The majority of time at home they are cooked healthy, nutrient rich foods. I personally love cooking from scratch and I enjoy getting my boys involved in the cooking process where I can. Involving the children means we all own the process and they clearly appreciate eating something they helped create. What’s more, it’s a great way to spend quality time with them. Satisfaction all round. Disclaimer… be prepared for mess!

Some facts and stats on childhood obesity in the UK:

On average across the UK, almost one quarter of children are overweight or obese by the time they start school. – This to my mind is staggering.

Typically, it is the poorest children who are most likely to be overweight or obese and to have a poor diet. They’re the least likely to eat enough fruit and vegetables and the most likely to eat foods high in fat, sugar and salt every day.

Obese children are at greater risk of conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, and of heart disease and stroke as they get older.

Obesity in childhood can contribute to behavioral and emotional difficulties like depression, and reduce educational attainment. Obese children are more likely to need medical care and days off school as a result of illness. - From my own experiences owning gyms and personal training businesses I have come to realise so many people suffer and have suffered since childhood with depression.

Excess consumption of sugar is damaging children’s teeth, with extractions the most common reason for 5-9 year-olds in England to be admitted to hospital. This blows my mind.

Currently my wife and I are looking into various after school clubs for our children as we both believe in offering them further physical and mental stimulation outside of their school and home environments. They both swim once a week and I’m sure it’s a given my eldest will try out my Little Dragons Martial Arts Classes.  They already swim once a week and we are looking at enrolling one into a modern dance class and the other, a local Beaver group (Beavers are similar to scouts but for younger children) 

Unfortunately it appears in the UK and across the Western world millions of children aren’t getting these opportunities. This can be for a number of reasons such as:

Too little emphasis or interest from parents or guardians to help get their children active. - I would like to think most children have a teacher or adult in their life that would encourage and take the time to help them take part in some physical activity.

Parents are too busy to cook from scratch or take their children to classes – This for me is a simple work life balance issue.

Clubs and hobbies can be very expensive and create a financial burden.

Advertising of junk food is rife on TV and try saying no all the time to your child!

Eating healthily can be extortionate. - Have you ever been at the super market and compared the prices in the junk food Isles to those of the fruit and veg and organic sections? - I personally would love to see the government doing more to promote healthy eating. For me it is essentially a sickness industry. One option is narrowing the price discrepancy between health and junk food!

Admittedly if your funds are tight it can be difficult to pay for clubs or to buy good healthy foods but I do have some simple suggestions.

          Buy less junk food snacks and use the money you save to upgrade and purchase better quality meal foods

          If you and your children eat too much, reduce portion size in meals and avoid creating food waste. This will result in smaller food shops leaving money in your pocket!

          Consider how much you spend on your children’s electronic devices such as computer games and small toys that get played with once and then thrown away. Place a spending cap on those items and use the surplus cash to go swimming or enroll your child in a club. 

If money is still tight, organise walks, cycles, and play dates with your children’s friends. Take them to the woods to make forts and bases, climb trees, kick a football round, or go out looking for wildlife. These are all fantastic activities which build experiences and make happy memories.

I am all for choice but many children, including my own at times, would rather pick their electronic devices over going out to play or taking part in their sports / activity club. What I guarantee though is 9/10 times your children will have a better time burning off energy, socialising outside and blowing of steam than they would cooped up in front of a screen eating sweets.

Happy, healthy children. That’s all we really want.