The Dirty Thirty does Tough Mudder

4 08 2014

I’m not a natural born runner and I’m sure not one of the hundreds of thousands of people signing up by choice to do a mud obstacle race. I am, however, dating one of those fanatics and when he decided his 30th birthday party was going to be running a Tough Mudder… I gritted my teeth and signed up too.

hug me

Gritted my teeth REALLY hard. As you can see.

As a fitness instructor I can work out for a good 3-4 hours at a time if needed but at 12 miles, Tough Mudder is a half marathon, largely on the inevitably eponymously muddy terrain, with what feels like the odd obstacle thrown in. There are in fact around 23 of the things, but they can feel a god-awful long way apart over that distance. The obstacles are all based on British Special Forces obstacle training and are therefore designed to test people against typical fears (fire, ice, electricity, heights, water) as well as strength, agility and skill.

Ras and Ian last did the London Tough Mudder and admitted the Midlands Kettering course had considerably more mud. Not only that, but apparently feature mud: cow shit mud. Sheep shit mud. Sewerage mud. People-piss warm muddy water? Really doesn’t bear thinking about.

Did I mention mud?

Did I mention mud?

That all said: Tough Mudder is one of the more accessible of the endurance mud races around. It is not even technically a race, in that, unusually, it is untimed, and the key focus is on getting around as a team rather than getting the fastest time. Most people do turn up as a team, with shirts and costumes (between cakings of mud, The Dirty Thirty were intermittently visible in our bright yellow shirts) and treat it as a rather extreme day’s entertainment.

The Dirty Thirty (those who made it to the team start...) - Phyo, Ian, me, birthday boy, April, Jess, Chanice

The Dirty Thirty (those who made it to the team start…) while still clean – Phaye, Ian, me (yes I am an air bender), birthday boy, April, Jess and Shanice

To my shame, my ‘training’ mainly consisted of 10-15 minute post-class runs, two to three times a week, for about…oooo…two weeks. My Trilogy bootcampers probably run 10-15 minutes a morning three times a week and could frankly run my socks off (running not being a main feature of the indoor studio and cycling classes I get my exercise through!) and indeed, it was in the running that The Dirty Thirty discovered Tough Mudder to be perhaps a little tougher than we were. Running on mud is particularly challenging for the hip flexors because of all the extra stabilisation required compared to, for instance, running on a dry safe path.

Again with the MUD!

Again with the MUD…

So…there was some walking. Later, quite a lot of walking. But there were also dollops of camaraderie, silliness and the odd drama (falling from 12 foot walls is not recommended but thankfully Jess remained unbroken).

4 miles, quite cheerful

4 miles, quite cheerful

The first obstacle on our Kettering Midlands course was a pair of giant walls – which the boys in the team hung around at to leg a bunch of other people over, probably knackering themselves a bit early in the day, but it was Very Chivalrous and absolutely in the spirit of the event.

9 miles - still running, also apparently still smiling!

9 mile selfie – still running, still smiling…

The third obstacle was my nemesis: the Artic Enema, aka A Freaking Ice Bath. I jumped in and out of the Copenhagen harbor a few times over Christmas but there wasn’t any actual ice in it.

Now I won’t lie – I’d been threatening to skip the Enema, but at the time, as I suspected, it seemed the teamly thing to do to just jump in, go under the stupid tyres and hope not to go into shock.

Was it awful?




It was exactly as awful as… jumping into a full immersion ice bath. And not just any ice bath, but a manky, muddy, full immersion ice bath full of screaming people.

I thought putting the Enema so early in the race was poor sportsmanship from the event organisers, but actually, we arrived hot from the early running, and shot out ready to run again so shook the goosebumps off surprisingly quickly. I was a lot colder later in the event when we were too tired to run but had to keep going back into water and out into an unforgiving wind.

So. Much. Water.

So. Much. Water.

So: I survived my greatest fear and was all woooohoooo for a time – until I started fretting about the Electric Eel. I’ve bounced off more than my fair share of electric fences in my time and just didn’t see the appeal of being voluntarily electrocuted. So: hands up, I boycotted that one on the grounds of ‘I’m not paying £100 for this sort of shit.’

The rest of the Dirty Thirty were much more macho than me about it – and then in a cruel twist to them, I think I was the only one who didn’t get electrocuted in the final Electro Shock Therapy run for the finish line (MWAHAHAHAHAHAHA).

Don't ask, just run.

Don’t ask. Just run.

The rest of the obstacles blur. I made it through everything except the monkey rings, where I grabbed one, just grabbed the second one, didn’t commit and was left hanging until, squealing and cursing, I had to drop into the water and get wet again. Jessica and Shanice swung straight through that one like gymnasts while I waded my way across feeling the Sads.


April doing it exactly the way I didn’t: well.

The Island Hopping was actually surprisingly fun (I leapt like a frog from one to the next, feet wide and hands down – highly inelegant but effective). I really did freak out a bit on Walk the Plank, a sheer drop that looked too high by far. Ras and I were up together and while he gamely jumped on the required countdown, I dithered precious seconds and could frankly have benefitted from a shove. The water impact burst my bum bag, which was the end of our gels (potentially a blessing, to our taste buds at least). Making something of a comeback, I scaled Everest (a steep quarter pipe) on the first try – thanks to some helping hands at the top who caught and pulled me over.

11 miles...says it all really...

11 miles…says it all really…

In the weeks before the event, I was not-so-quietly anxious about getting an injury which would then prevent – or greatly handicap – my teaching for a period afterwards. No teaching, no income, no eating. Now I’ve been pain free from plantar fasciitis since October and am very keen to stay that way, and the week before Tough Mudder I limped into my physio with a dodgy left ankle, stiff back and locked right shoulder. I started the race still with the ankle still under par.

And yet…

…I can only assume it was the ice bath, frequent dips into cold water and last hour and a half of chattering teeth that stripped every bit of lingering inflammation from my body, because I came out of Tough Mudder in better shape than I went in.

I’d long before booked a pre-emptive massage for two days after and sheepishly walked into Cherie’s treatment room in basically the best shape I’ve been in for years.

The word meaning exactly what I think it does.

I know, right Vizzini?!

The rest of the team are already talking about the next event, and Ras and Ian are going as far as to consider doing a Double Tough Mudder (running it both the Saturday and Sunday). I am… not so enthusiastic for a return visit.


Yeah, okay, we did have fun…

On the long list of very fun awesome things I get to do in my life, four hours of muddy, teeth chattering, electricity and ice-ridden running/walking isn’t particularly high up there. It was certainly a tick off the old bucket list though and I’m glad I was roped into joining the Dirty Thirty – and am thoroughly enjoying the new lease of life my body has experienced in the weeks since. Not sure I’m game to risk it as annual physical therapy mind you…

I was strangling him at the time for bringing me, but then I saw the camera...

I was strangling him at the time for bringing me, but then I saw the camera…

…oh, and of course it was Ras’ birthday party, which I womanned up enough to share with him. We took him out for drinks the next day, limping around London (and I mean holding the stair handrail limping), just to be a bit more civilised as well.

And, you know… it was little romantic.

I mean an eeentsy weeency bit.


Still with the whole WHAT HAPPENED TO MY LIFE?? thing



Being Human, not Batman

14 02 2014

So I have a reputation of sorts. 


Ok. More than one. Of all sorts. But.

One of my reputations is was for being indefuckingstructible. It’s a relatively recent reputation and has absolutely nothing to do with the appearance of pictures like this over the last few years:


Me? Fictionally obsessed? Surely not… (photos: David Long, Rob Gallop, Sean O’Malley)

Then I got a bit crippled last year, which was awkward, but generally speaking, I would bend but I would not break. I would always give myself too much to do and would try to see it through, and usually mess enough of it up to be annoyed at myself but not enough to cause anyone else catastrophe. And I went to work – which is to say I taught physically expensive fitness classes – sick and injured because…well…

go hard or go home, baby.

Right…? Because, like, that’s what Bruce Wayne would do.

Ok, if Bruce Wayne dedicated his life to inflicting acts of exercise on people while being a wannabe writer…




. that by me one more time...?

…run that by me one more time…?

So, ok. I cannot deny it: I am not Batman. I could not be Batman. If I got hit, I would stay hit, and with a definite lack of heroic stoicism. If I stayed up all night cleaning up London’s criminal element, ran a company during the day and all the while being the world’s greatest detective, then really, not many crimes would be solved, criminals captured only by accident and KirbyCorp would have even worse finances than my own.

Another obvious reason I surely could not be Batman is my inherently sunny disposition. I grin my way through life with almost offensively relentless cheer. Most of the time, this is completely genuine – though I have a dangerously decreasing tolerance for well-intentioned people trying to find the deep inner sadness which I am clearly covering with my usual sunny disposition. I mean seriously, I am too undamaged to even be a ‘proper’ writer, much less a vengeful superhero.

But the real reason I really cannot possibly be Batman is that it took Bane breaking his back to put Bruce out of action…


…whereas three weeks ago I just… burnt out.

Not trying to save the world, not being a mother with a family and full-time job, not staying up all night determinedly writing my novel by any means (it therefore remains, alas, unfinished). Just by trying to keep up with my jobs, to be a good friend to my nearest and a good girlfriend to my dearest, by holding up the development my new business and and getting frustrated over that and failing to work enough on my book and hating myself for that.

Just by trying to cut the margins of sleep and reaping the rewards of crappier recovery and decreasing physical and mental performance, and let’s not even start on what happened to my emotional ‘resilience’. How the hell does Bruce Wayne do it?

With anger. He's an angry man. Maybe I need more AAARGH.

It’s the anger, right? He’s one angry man. Maybe I need to get me some of that.

And ok, I know what you’re thinking.

NEWS FLASH ADELE: Bruce Wayne ain’t real.
Neither is Zorro, Buffy has super powers, and Optimus Prime is a goddamn machine.

...but WHAT a machine...

…but WHAT a machine…

So, yeah, ok, I’m easily influenced. No-one, to my knowledge, has ever looked and me and said ‘Now there’s a girl with a strong grip on reality.’ I mean hell, I spend hours of my life at this very keyboard, creating such inspirational stories of such inspirational people.

Not of super heroes though – of Bruce Waynes, just without the fortune and often still with parents. Of ‘normal’ people who, through (naturally unfortunate) circumstances, are forced to find the strength of will and morality to become exceptional. People who live by the motto of No surrender, no retreat. 

They may not live very long, mind… but let me tell you, that’s some hard shit to live up to in the real world.

BUT. Even if I accept that Bruce Wayne isn’t real and I am not and cannot be Batman, the books I read, the films I see, the TV I enjoy, and – somewhat less fictonally – my Facebook feed, inundate me with motivational tales of people pushing themselves to the limit, or worse, living lives apparently without limits. Bastards. 

Of people who never give up, and always have a hidden reserve to give. Who will do anything in aide of another. And really, the lesson life seems to be smacking me around the head with these last four months or so is that regardless of my preferred opinion on the matter, I have limits.

And. Then there’s the small matter of my other occupation. You know, the one where it’s my job to take a group of people and motivate them to work out harder than they would on their own.

Not arguing: my job is AWESOME.

Not arguing: my job is AWESOME (photo: Agnieszka Zuk)

Inspiration is a large chunk of effective motivation. It’s my job to lead by example (except in bootcamp. I started teaching bootcamp because leading by go hard or go home example for 20+ hours a week was killing me. In bootcamp, it’s my job to be obscenely cheerful to make people feel getting up at 6am to run around the park in the dark three times a week is an awesome idea), and I take that quite seriously.

I don’t have a ‘fitness persona’. In the fitness studio I’m the same crack pot I am anywhere else, just with a swanky madonna mic to make me even louder. My teaching is based an authenticity, as are all things I do.

The Les Mills classes I teach are based on performance and I find it very hard to genuinely coach people to meet their limits and increase their fitness by pushing ‘the wall’ further away – to prove to themselves that they are stronger than they think – if I’m not right there with them. The latter is my email signature line and business slogo, for goodness sake. It’s even the tag line of this website. 

I still agree with the general principle...

I still agree with the general principle, of course…though it’s awkward now.

I’ll wager there’s a very strong argument to say that this struggle to coach without elite performance is a professional if not personal flaw. The most obvious responses are ‘teach less’ or ‘fake it more’ and both are solutions fraught with problems. And frankly that’s another topic altogether.

So the things I read, watch, write and say… they sink in. And I try to pay them forward. This is pretty safe to people who come into contact with me for one, maybe two or four hours a week. But for me, it comes at a hefty price when teaching up to six classes a day.

Now this isn’t a poor me pity party. There are people who work harder than I do and cope, although I’ll bet they are bloody tired doing it.

Even Batman needs a lie down from time to time.

Even Batman needs a lie down from time to time.

My burn out just became unexpectedly public, so I feel there’s an opening for me to talk about it. Also lot of people chose off their own steam to contact me about it, and their experience of ‘hitting the wall’, and it’s consequences. There are lessons here. Lessons I have been very slow and reluctant to learn.

Every fitness instructor, performer and athlete who reads this will know exactly what I’m talking about. Folk whose job demands pushing to both mental and physical exhaustion, let’s agree here, share a special and physiologically expensive masochistic streak.

But also it’s not just us fitness nutters I’m talking to and about, and comparisons of what one person can cope with vs another are useless and even destructive. Take me – I never look at my friends and think ‘shit Kirby, look at what you do compared to what they do – no wonder you’re dying.’ I look at my friends who do more than me and use that as a stick to beat myself with: ‘shit Kirby, look at what they put themselves though. Come on girl, Batman up!’


‘Look tired! And like you’re about to kill someone!’ says Lorenzo – easiest shot of the shoot… (photo: Lorenzo Guerrieri)

I imagine other people look at my Facebook activity and think the same thing – but you don’t have to be doing extreme hours of exercise a week to burn out or break down.

Mental stress can accumulate to burn out. Emotional stress can accumulate to burn out. Probably the biggest mental stress of my life is trying, daily, to deal with the gap between what I think I should be able to achieve, and what I actually do. That applies to the quality of the classes I teach as equally as the amount of words I write and whether I have time to interact with my friends and see Ras for more than ‘hey you! I have ten things to do before bed, which is in forty minute time – wanna go play with Tigger?’

...which is why so many of these photos turn up on Facebook...

…which is why so many of these photos turn up on Facebook…

And once I’m exhausted, everything is ten times harder.

So what might a burn out look like? In my case, it looked something like

– requiring significant amounts of obscenity-ridden self-abuse to get out of bed

– leaving leaving for all engagements until adrenalised terror kicks in hard enough to get you going, and deposits you safely wired enough to get through the hours ahead

– dreading work, when you’re usually one of those people who offensively love their job even on Mondays

– having three people ask you over two days if you are depressed and laughing the first time, thinking about it the second and breaking down in tears the third when you realise it’s true

– stripping down to your lacy underwear, reclining suggestively on the bed and falling dead asleep in the time it takes your boyfriend to use the loo and brush his teeth

– being found slumped in studios or changerooms up to thirty minutes after classes, too exhausted to pack and up and get through the showers, much less home

– being able to fall asleep in cafes and gyms all over west London during the day, but lying awake while catastrophically tired at night

– having an alarming number of cyber friends query whether you are ok, based on utterly unconscious changes to your Facebook behaviour

– covering a couple of classes a week, despite the stinging loss of income and face, because god help you, you cannot face teaching them

– sending what you think are intermittent cover requests and having fellow instructors reply with ‘oh are you still ill?’ or ‘babe, you ill again?‘- and realising that other people think you’re in more trouble than you do

realising that when exchanging casual greetings, you’ve started admitted you don’t feel so good, because you’re too tired to pretend otherwise and feel you need to apologise for lacking your usual sunny disposition

– realising that your classes weekly greet you with a concerned ‘so how are you today?’, and that you’re telling them how you really are

– realising that your friends and class members are actually really worried about you

– realising that no-one wants this version of you. That no-one else wants you exhausted. They want you awesome. 

You may have noticed that there’s a lot of realising going on there – because exhaustion is sneaky by nature. It creeps up on you, altering your outlook, your body, your emotions, your behaviour, your very personality, day by day. There are better days and worse days, but the latter become more frequent.

YOU adapt quickly – struggling through each day becomes the status quo – but if you’re really lucky, the people around you will adapt not, and will provide resistance. I began to really ‘see’ what was happening to me by realising other people’s behaviour was changing in response to my decline. And particularly that other people were more concerned about my health than I was. I mean when your bootcampers offer to train themselves so you can catch some clearly necessary Z’s, there’s a bloody big white elephant in the room that only you won’t talk about.

So. I declined. I felt worse and worse, and performed increasingly poorly, and I kept struggling onwards through it. The week before I ended up in tears before an A&E doctor, who told me I was burned out and needed a month off work, so many people – I realised in hindsight – had expressed concern for my wellbeing. I shrugged it all off. I had a weekend off coming up. I bend but I don’t break. I would be ok. I’m goddamn Batman.

Or at least the next best thing... (photo: Sean O'Malley)

Or at least the next best thing… (photo: Sean O’Malley)

Fast forward two weeks – my negotiated minimum time off. I’ve been in bed for up to 12 hours a day. I’ve had unexpected and overwhelming support from all directions. I have dozens of ‘mothers’ wagging strict fingers at me. I’ve cried and slept though layers of physical and mental decompression.

And I’ve started going back to work. A week earlier, I physically shook at the idea of walking into a gym studio. I haven’t wanted to exercise once in the two weeks off and exercise is to me like goddamn cigarettes or alcohol to an addict.

Day one was shakey. My bootcampers were delighted to see me, but my first class disapproved of my return and ordered me back onto R&R.

Day two was amazing.

Day three was joyful.

Day four put me back in bed for hours, but was totally worth it.

Day seven I crashed, and that was two days ago. I got a bit panicked. I had come so far from where I had been, I was mortified at the idea of falling back there again.

Yesterday I really, really need a nap but was doing good.

Because every day of my first week back, people have been genuinely, hugely, humblingly pleased to see me back to my old self. They hadn’t just missed me for two weeks, they’d been missing me for months, while I was still actually present and accounted for. And I loved the fact that when asked concernedly ‘how are you doing today?’ I could once again beam back and with all my heart, say that I was pretty damn awesome actually.

And this is what I’ve spent some 2,000 words trying to say: none of us are Batman. We’re all human, we have limits. I am a big believer in pushing limits in general, but it seems I also need to learn a bit of respect for some of them. It’s not easy to pull back when you need to earn your income and life is full of shiny and you feel like you can never keep up; but no-one wants you burned out.

You don’t have to feel like that. Hitting the wall and smacking your head against it until you feel consistently wretched and run down is a strange but compellingly acceptable way of living, but it is a choice. Feeling awesome is another. Rather: making the necessary steps to enable your own natural awesome to assert itself on the world is a choice. It’s the choice everyone else wants you to make; but more importantly, it feels so damn good for you.

Yesterday I took a voluntary £220 cut in my monthly income to drop enough classes to give me two more solid blocks of writing time per week. I clearly cannot keep up with my teaching, so while standing close enough to graze my nose against the bloody wall, I took a glance to the left. And I saw a door. A door opening to a much needed creative space. It’s been there or years but this time, I did not say ‘actually, I can’t afford that.’ Actually, I really can’t afford to fall apart and exist in the constant shadow of exhaustion.

What I have to learn is that when I’m hitting a wall, I need to turn left or right and look for a side door. That I can’t be all the things I want to be – at least, not at once – and that I can’t do all the things I want to do – at least, not right now. And that I can’t be Bruce Wayne. Or Xena or Wonder Woman or Red Sonja or anyone else I dress up as for kicks. None of them wear enough clothing anyway and it’s freezing at the moment.

But perhaps I can be a different kind awesome, the kind that gets seven hours sleep and therefore wakes up looking forwards to a day of spreading of maniacal cheer, instead of wanting to be dead.  The kind of awesome that has to watch the credit card spend more carefully but has bought an extra six hours a week happily writing over a bucket of coffee, living the creative life that somehow got lost along the way.

And you know I’ll be sitting there writing characters who learn to push some limits, while crashing with human frailty up against others. Characters more in the vein of Buffy than Bruce Wayne.

More like me than Batman.

Meditation through Movement

10 06 2013

I am not what you would consider a person naturally predisposed to meditation.

It requires being still. It requires being calm. It requires being clear-minded.

Most difficult of all, it requires the application of some serious mono-tasking – a nightmare to someone who has just been doing therapy stretches while eating lunch while listening to a podcast on swordsmanship and spirituality while also having a conversation on Facebook, all while running through the idea of this blog in my head.


And so, despite my zen-guru Hollie’s many attempts to help me employ mindfulness techniques into daily life, apply focus and practice meditation, for better or for worse, I remain as ballistic as ever.

In the newly immortal words of Jackie Chan as Mr Miyagi, my focus needs more focus.

And then I have this amazing riding experience on the weekend with my new equestrian Jedi Master, Dylan Jones of Dolbadran Film Horses, where he pretty much Mr Miyagi’s me. I’m pretty sure he mentioned focus more than once. I’d know for sure, if I only had more of it.

So that’s on my mind, and both getting-and-staying asleep is a drag, and then Mike Fitch, creator of Equinox’s Animal Flow program, and of whom I am an avid disciple, posts this video last night: slow flow.

And I’m in bed way past bedtime but watching it anyway – while having two Facebook PM conversations at the same time – and I’m thinking: that looks like meditation to me.

Mediation through movement.

I have a feeling, like I’m on the cusp of something. In his feedback on my last video, Mike told me ‘your body will know where to go.’ If that’s the case, then I don’t give it anywhere enough credit because I’m always doing the telling and I ain’t ever doing the listening.

So after teaching this afternoon, I put on some of my favourite music from Body Balance – the tai chi and yoga tracks, all emotive and expressive and slow – and I start to…listen. I start to flow.


Say what?!

I was thinking 30 mins max – I’m busy! I’ve just flogged myself in cycle and combat, I’m tired! My To Do List is a thing of terror and this blog isn’t even on it!

But this hour just goes by and I’m all calm and focussed and stuff. I’m listening to my body, and it’s talking back. It’s a bit lost, but it’s loving not being thrashed by all the high impact, cardio and resistance training I assault it with daily.

I have, in fact, just been in the closest thing I’ve probably ever experienced to a willingly meditative state.

This is sort of where I got up to – I handstand all the time, in fairly average fashion. It’s a lot harder from here, and this is what my body wanted to go – into a sort of animal flow/hand balancing fusion. I am, in this film, surreally relaxed and focussed.

This will get better. But this is a new – and thoroughly enjoyable – place to be. I may not be ready for meditation sitting still with my eyes closed, but I am right up for meditative practice through movement.

If there’s some kind of movement you like to do, I suggest trying it without your head in the driver’s seat. Find a space, find some music that you connect to, and just…flow. Listen. Be. I’m a big fan of Nike’s Just Do It, but now I’m starting to think there should be a new slogan: Just Feel It.

…to be continued…

Animal Flow

19 05 2013

It’s mid 2012, and I get a link to US gym chain Equinox’s signature group exercise class range, asking what I’d like to teach in their first UK club. My reply was pretty much:


This wasn’t simply because of its incredibly sexy marketing video starring program designer Mike Fitch –

– although obviously, that helped.

It wasn’t just because I regularly crawl around on all fours anyway (it’s a fitness instructor thing – this is a job than can leave you too knackered to even get up your own stairs, people).

It wasn’t even because it had that imaginative element* that hooked me into classes like Body  Balance** and Body Combat*** in the first place.

* Animal Flow = pretending be an animal. Totally easier than pretending to be an adult.

AF Promo

** Body Balance = pretending to be zen and graceful. Winning.


*** Body Combat = pretending to beat the crap out of bad dudes, like a super hero. Won.


It was because animal flow – whether Mike Fitch’s program or any freestyle version – is a movement concept – which is so much more interesting for me than a ‘how many sets/reps can you do of X/Y/Z to time’ class format.

These are effective classes, but they don’t engage intellect and imagination and so for me, they fail on the essential exercise Fun Factor. No word of lie: I simply don’t have the masochistic streak a lot of fitness fanatics have (though my classes, one expects, would argue that I have the pre-requisite fitness instructors sadistic streak refined to an art form). If it isn’t fun, I have many, many better – and less painful – things to be doing.

^ this, however, ranks competitively on my Fun Things To Be Doing list ^

Let me pass on a piece of wisdom I recently heard:

Saying you haven’t found a form of exercise you enjoy is like being a desperate single who doesn’t go on many dates.

Exercise comes in as many variations as members of your dateable gender, and while you might be lucky and find something you like straight away, chances are you’ll have to look around a while to find your perfect match.

And to be fair, the ‘need’ to exercise is a fairly recent phenomenon. Historically, the life of man was a protracted and practical workout, one where falling behind was a terminal condition. In today’s sedentary world, people can exist with as little exercise as walking around their house and place of work, while eating food which is essentially toxic.

Today, the term ‘exercise’ refers to an optional vocation which is largely equated with running or hitting the gym. When you think about how many forms exercise can come in, it seems statistically reasonably likely you will tolerate one of these but love neither.

Exercise has also become equated with weight management, blindsiding the many other mental, emotional, physical and social benefits it brings, and this is a real shame. People only want to know how many calories they will burn, rather than being interested in how it could improve their wellbeing. Many kinds of exercise will help manage your chocolate addiction, but a few will bring you joy as well, whether it’s a sport or running or dancing or particular fitness classes.

Now me: I’m fitter than average. I’m pretty strong. I’m lean and toned. But I can still give Matt Smith a run for the title of Moving Most Like A Drunken Giraffe. My hips are belligerent buggers which won’t go where they’re told, ensuring that I have as much aptitude for alluring styles of dancing as a rhinoceros.

And so movement fascinates me. ‘Good’ movement eludes, taunts me. At my ninjastics school, I.C. Movement’s Skilltown, I bring sunny enthusiasm and frustration to the tutors in (hopefully more or less) equal measure. Animal Flow challenges me. It’s a game. It’s play. It’s hard but rewarding and at the end of a session I haven’t any status-worthy workout statistics, but I’ve moved differently and hopefully better (and generally have an interesting/entertaining photo to update Facebook with).

This kind of movement patterning encourages my body to co-ordinate as a unit. My shoulders feel looser and after the next day’s inevitable you made us do WHAT? protests, they’ll be stronger too. I’m standing straighter. My hips are stretched. Therapeutic clicks run down my spine during the first few scorpion switches. Pushups are far easier in all my other classes. I’ve had to add weight to my overhead press. Handstands start to hold themselves.

Not falling over = massive win

Not falling over = massive win

Exercise like Animal Flow does not destroy people the way a cycle or circuits class can. You’ll know you’ve worked out straight after, and you’ll certainly know the next day, but you’ll make it down the stairs to the changerooms on legs that can still bear your own bodyweight. You’ll attempt movements you cannot yet achieve, and most people will have moments of acute self consciousness as they crawl, leap and climb the room, but it’s a social class where you experience, confront and overcome these challenges together.

The UK Equinox instructor team in training with Lisa Wheeler

The UK Equinox instructor team in training with Lisa Wheeler

Equinox will only allow teachers with the best form to launch Animal Flow FX in their London club, and I’m training to damn well be one of those teachers. I have until July to impress Mike Fitch on his return with outstanding form and I’m  looking forwards to seeing what changes occur in my own body and strength over the next six weeks.

Exercise can be looked upon as a frustrating foe, but is best considered an adventure, one undertaken one step at a time – whether on your feet, your hands, your knees or in this case, a combination of all three…

Guest Blog: Exercise for Cancer Patients

6 04 2013

Today’s guest blog is from Melanie Bowen, a Masters student with a passion for combatting cancer that stems from her grandmother’s diagnosis. She often highlights the great benefits of alternative nutritional, emotional, and physical treatments on those diagnosed with cancer or other serious illness. You can follow her work from a number of links found here.

Anytime a person is diagnosed with cancer, whether it be anything from breast cancer to mesothelioma, learning to create a moderate fitness schedule can make a tremendous difference in how well a person feels while going through cancer treatments.  Common treatments for cancer often include a change in diet, many months of chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and even surgeries.  It often requires a combination of all treatment options in order for a person with cancer to be able to beat the disease.  Because treatments are exhausting and take a heavy physical toll on the body, developing an exercise plan to remain fit and to have adequate energy levels is extremely important.

Establish a Proper Nutritious Menu to Gain Energy for Workout Routines

Changing a diet to include a healthy mixture of fruits and vegetables will be beneficial to boosting energy levels.  Nutrition is important when a person is going through cancer treatments because it can stimulate the body and give it healthy proteins and antioxidants that are helpful in fighting many types of cancer.  In addition to this benefit, excellent sources of nutrition also ward off feelings of exhaustion and weakness.  When a person is able to increase energy levels through eating healthy foods, more energy is available to participate in fitness routines.

Begin an Enjoyable and Moderate Fitness Schedule

A cancer patient has enough bad things to worry about without creating a fitness plan that the person dreads.  Developing an enjoyable and stimulating fitness plan will do wonders to boost motivation levels and to inspire the person to get active as often as possible.  Human Kinetics released a professional, informative publication that details how beneficial exercise is to the cancer patient.  In the article, exercise is regarded as a form of rehabilitation that effectively improves quality of life and often is successful at reducing major signs of fatigue and exhaustion.

Beginner Level Exercises for Cancer Patients to Consider

Even if a person was a regular fitness buff before entering into cancer treatments, it may be necessary to begin physical activities that are very mild while a person is going through rounds of chemotherapy or surgery.  Mild exercises that are helpful include mall walking, yoga, and bicycling.  Switching up routines every week will help to keep a cancer patient motivated and inspired. So talk to your doctor today to develop a fun and beneficial physical plan!

>> Read more posts by Melanie about managing cancer

Amazing Monday

24 01 2013

It started with an email from one of my gym chains, warning us instructor folk of the impending arrival of ‘Blue Monday’, a day which has been (scientifically dubiously) ‘scientifically proven’ to be the most depressing of year. I suspect the third Monday of January has excellent grounds for calling slander, and Dean Burnett has written what is probably its most entertaining defence over in the Guardian (his comparable ‘scientific equations’ are glorious for a giggle).

So. We were being asked to combat the effect of the Blue Monday phenomenon with… enhanced enthusiasm. The wearing of bright colours. To more cheerfully inflict acts of exercise on those brave souls who still made it to the gym. That sort of thing.

To be fair, instructors get quite a few emails from clubs asking us to dress up for this, help fund raise for that, encourage members to participate in whatever new initiative is going around. But every now and again you find an instructor who not only reads such emails but also runs with them, and then you end up with something like this turning up on your Facebook feed at a goddawful hour of the morning:

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Cheerful Thursday! And why not? And check that girl’s waist! I used to dress for work like that. Then I got told to eat all the cake to put on weight and now it’s full length for me. Go Caitlin!

Now, offensively enthusiastic posts and pictures are normally my area of specialty, so I felt like I was behind in the game. Naturally, I had to respond in kind. Cheerful Thursday? I think YES.

photo 4

This thing needed some momentum.

With tongue firmly in cheek, I warned my classes of the perils of Blue Monday, ordering them to turn up on Monday armed with joy, gratitude and an enthusiastic two fingered salute to the January blues*.

* If you’re reading this from the southern hemisphere, you’re probably wondering what this ‘January Blues’ is of which I speak. Well, you and your glorious summer can just stay smug while I take five minutes to pull on several layers of clothing and waterproofs every time I go outside…

Cheerful Thursday was quickly followed by call to arms to have a Fantastic Friday:

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To my great surprise, two members at Hammertime caught me after class to assure me that if they did not turn up on Monday, I was not to worry. They would not have committed suicide under the weight of the January blues, all was well but there were places to be etc.

Interesting. My plan to defy Blue Monday seemed to be working. Certainly I was fulfilling the club’s request to raise people’s awareness of it – even if I was only perpetuating the urban myth with a healthy degree of cynicism. I began to wonder if the question was not so much whether people would turn up to class Monday, but would dare not to.

Blue Monday, as it turned out, actually dawned a White Monday, at least in London and much of England. Personally I think it’s damn hard to have a bad start to a day which begins by running about and snowballing your fellow bootcampers in the park – right?

At 7am on Blue Monday, Ravenscourt Park was not dark, but instead the surreal light that comes from lamp, star and ambient light reflected from snow.


That’s my guys to the left of the trees, practicing out their snow galloping. Proud. Also amused:


Glorious way to start the day, and with double combat and spin to come, there was no force in the universe that could ruin my day. The first combat admittedly slightly cripples me (currently lame, but not acting enough like it) but I manned up, donned my brightest blue and officially dubbed the day Amazing Monday**:

photo 2

** NB in the interests of fair disclosure: taking these photos is MUCH harder than you might think, especially on an old iPhone without the reversal function. I won’t pretend these were the first I took, and that I didn’t look like a total knob doing it…

I scooted down to Hammertime, no more cheerful than normal (otherwise Beth might not be the only one wanting to punch me out) but certainly on a fair 11 from a scale of 1-10. And what did I find?

Two full classes. Rammed.

Blue Monday, you LOSE. We WON.

We worked hard. We committed lactic acid to our muscles,    sweat to the studio floor, fought through fatigue and I almost committed an act of violence against the stereo when it skipped during key moments of both Death is the Road To Awe and Turbulence.

And we had a sensational time doing it.

No-one took the easy way out.
No-one gave any less than they had to give.
No-one let themselves down.

It was an Amazing Monday.

Which got me to thinking. About Blue Monday, and about life, about swings and roundabouts and peaks and plateaus. About how we can have these incredible highs in a day/week/year/life and still lose them in the lows.

I’m not saying a gym class is the biggest high around – for all that I love my job and what I can give to people, I sincerely hope it is not the absolute pinnacle of anyone’s week – but whatever it is that lifts you up, that sets your heart literally or metaphorically racing, sometimes it’s not enough. Or you find yourself addictively chasing those highs, because something else is missing.

…So I’m pondering. And then I found an answer, of sorts. Unless you’ve already had the pleasure, allow me to introduce you to Dax Moy. He’s a Personal Trainer, but he’s got the holistic approach in the bag and a lot of what he’s training is the brain. He is well worth stalking on Facebook and once of his recent rambles really rang true with a lot of people: this little (well, it’s Dax, he trumps even me on the rambling front, but what rambling!) video about self esteem, and how we so readily sabotage ourselves. See me here? Guilty as charged. Worth a listen.

So in the video, Dax explains that every time we make and break a promise to ourselves, we betray our self confidence. I make a lot of promises to myself and to my shame, I break far, far too many of them. I listened to that video going ‘Oh. OH. Oh shit. Oh. Oh ok. Right. Um.’

In the 3 days since I saw it, I’ve watched myself lie repeatedly. Never with ill intent. I just betray myself, continually, with breathtakingly unrealistic expectations. And the subconscious cynicism this kind of behaviour breeds is the noose around my neck.

So. With all that on my mind, and I spent the rest of Amazing Monday with Greg. I met him at SFX Weekender last year, dressed as Leia, he as Captain Hammer.


I still call him Captain Hammer (he is more polite and does not call me Hot Leia – at least, not to my face), but he’s more of a Doctor Who meets Superman hybrid, and ninja to boot. He is also is trying to get into space (you can vote for him here, and I’d love you to because that would also make him Captain Kirk).

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We ran around the Science Museum in a state of child-like enthusiasm, and I learned a lot from the hours in his company. He’s one of the smartest people I know,  and he doesn’t have a smart phone (the same goes for Iain, another genius over-achieving friend who lectures in theoretically physics at Oxford while being significantly younger than me.  I’m starting to think there might be a connection between this and their terrifying productivity).

Amongst other things, Greg is an elite athlete competing for a place in the Commonwealth Games for cycling. The more we talked, the more I thought: this is someone who doesn’t lie to himself. He simply couldn’t do all the things he does, as well as he does, if he didn’t fully trust his capacity to carry them out. He might disagree with that, but I was seriously impressed.

So in the end, I learned three things this week. I think Dax perfectly revealed the foundation of the Blue Monday phenomenon – that day when the rush and hope of the holiday season is over, when you’ve made promises/resolutions to yourself which you realise you haven’t kept, and all the lies you have told yourself take their toll.

I realised why bootcamps and PT and exercise classes can be so empowering: because they are an hour of your day in which you’ve turned up to fulfil a promise you have made, and though you can still betray yourself by compromising your effort, you also have the chance to impress yourself with your commitment. You have a chance to fortify your self esteem against the toll of smaller, daily erosions.

Finally, I was inspired by Greg to be less of a liar to myself. He’s more ambitious than I, and achieving ten times what I manage. I believe that’s the armour that will stave off Blue Mondays in any week of any month of any year. Be realistic. Be true. Be awesome.

So, dear Blue Monday, I thank you. You have been an education. Let’s do it all again same time next year.

Not Ninja (yet)

31 10 2012

A blog post for everyone who would quite like to be, but quite frankly is not fit (yet) or is not fit (enough).

Those brackets are the key: what you are now is no limitation against what you can become. You’re here thanks to your ancestors extraordinary capacity for adaptability and change, so don’t piss on their parade by thinking youself into self-limiting mind games.

Autumn owns England now, and with the turning of the leaves – always more noticeable here than my native Australia – I am reminded that the natural world exists in a state of perpetual change, within which, ironically enough, only humans choose to remain still.

Mankind emerged the winner of brutal eons of evolution by adapting to given environments but also by adapting the environment itself. In our modern environment, we mould the world to our own convenience, often producing a very physically static existence.  And this, alas, is not always to our advantage.

Kensington Gardens

Nature: beautiful AND educational

But what IS ‘fit’?

For many given definitions of the word, I can safely raise my hand. I have good strength, reasonable power and endurance to burn. I can move correctly, safely and efficiently in several planes of movement. I am rarely (touch wood) injured, despite dealing massive punishment to my body on a weekly basis.

Do you need to be as fit as me? God no, unless you also happen to be a fitness instructor who needs to be able to handle over 20 hours of exercise a week, week after week, year after year. What are you, mental?

For you see, ‘fit’ is a relative concept, unique to each of us, and dependent on two factors:

  1. the type and amount of energetic output you physically require of your body to fulfil the demands of your daily life, and
  2. the type and amount of energetic output you aspire to be capable of, without necessity but for the sheer hell of achieving it

The first is entirely practical. If your body is stopping you from doing things you need to be able to do – walk up stairs, run for a bus, turn around to look over your shoulder, bend over without back/knee pain – then you are not fit (enough) for the daily demands of your life.

The second is where sports, dreams and ambitions come into play. Not everyone wants to be able to lift their own body weight on a bar, perform clapping pushups, do a cartwheel with two/one/no hands, or to run a 5km or marathon. But if you do have fitness aspirations which are not yet amongst your current achievements, then you are not fit (yet) for those activities.

As a fitness instructor and personal trainer, my job is to help people close the gap between what currently can do, and either need or want to be able to do. Or feel. Or look. And sometimes that gap looks bloody enormous, and this post is to tell you that I get that, now more than ever.

Why now?

Because although I have 1) above in the bag, I’m currently man-ing up to 2), where I have discovered a bloody enormous gap between what I can currently do and what I aspire to be able to do. Because – and don’t tell anyone – it turns out that for all my talk, cosplay and fantastical photoshoots… I AM NOT NINJA.

Wonder Woman - Adele Kirby + Sean O'Malley

Ok, ok, I’m not even Wonder Woman, really… 😦   –   (Photo: Sean O’Malley)

Not for any given definition of the term.

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