I think that, even in Britain, it’s now fair to say that it’s summer! And with the summer comes my usually busiest and best training and exercise period, not just because of the weather but also because I spend less time on commuting and being in the classroom. There are four main types of exercise that dominate my sporting life: road cycling, trail running, walking, and free-weights training at the gym. I’ve already talked about the general benefits of exercise to my mental health and to my work-life balance and productivity, but as my training volume increases and my activities diversity, I thought it might be worth reflecting on the less obvious differences between these sports, and what their benefits and drawbacks are. I’m rather aware that this post – like the one on Maya & Me – will have a rather limited readership, as you probably wouldn’t be reading this if you are one of those people who never considered putting on running or walking shoes, getting on your bike, or making the trip to the gym.
With that in mind, I’d love to know from you, dear readers, what kinds of sports you do, and what you feel their benefits are for you beyond the physical impact. How does your sport fit with your researcher life, for example? How do you keep it up during the semester, when teaching, meetings, and marking take up a large chunk of our time? Please share your own experiences and thoughts in the comments section!
So, let’s start with the least strenuous of activities that I do on a daily basis: walking. I walk every day because my one-year-old collie cross needs plenty of exercise, and I’ve outlined elsewhere what the benefits of this enforced outdoor exercise are. Sometimes we simply walk up and down the trail, or to the nearby field to throw the ball, while other times we go on two-hour hikes up Shining Tor, the highest point in Cheshire. No matter what we do, this time is precious and restorative because my full attention is with Maya, and I can usually relax and take things slowly. Of course, this sometimes changes in the autumn and winter months, when you may find me stomping round the block like a trooper with Maya in tow, just so I can get back home on time to catch the train. I try to avoid this as it’s neither fun for me nor the dog, and a very fast walk can easily set my mental pace and stress level for the day. Overall, though, walking with Maya is usually a way to switch off, to play in the mud and the water, to enjoy wonderful views and spend time with my beloved canine companion.
The fitness benefits are more significant that I would have thought. When I was coming back to running from an injury, it turned out that after walking so many miles with Maya, taking the next step and breaking into a slow jog really wasn’t an issue at all, neither for my legs nor for my heart and lungs. Our walks may not be strenuous exercise (although they can be when we go up on the hills), but they help keep me moving and do the type of low-level activity that helps your heart and mildly stimulates your metabolism while not making you collapse on the couch afterwards. Rather, after a walk I usually feel compelled to keep moving once we’re home – not in a rushed sense, but in a productive, plodding on kind of way.
Free weight training at the gym is a very solitary activity, on the other hand. If the gym isn’t busy, it’s just me, the mirror and the weights; if it is busy, I try hard to pretend that it is just me, the mirror and the weights so that I can be as ignorant as possible of the rather annoying, dramatic and unnecessary noises made (usually) by the males around me. The gym leaves me little room to reflect or think. Working with free weights means there’s an intense focus on technique and an acute awareness of what any part of your body is or should be doing. These sessions usually leave me calm, and depending on the intensity of what I do, a little tired, and I normally build them into the end of my day, so that I don’t have to return to mental work afterwards. A gym session usually lasts around an hour for me, so it’s a nice thing to fit in even late in the evening, if I haven’t managed to anything else that day. The gym is only a ten minute trail walk away, so there’s very few excuses not to go there after Maya’s evening walk and before I get ready for bed.
It acts as a kind of add-on to my running and cycling, too, not only for leg strength but also for core stability and to avoid injury or back problems (though there are some things you only really get from running, like the strength in your ankles to go over rough and slippy terrain). I’ve often found that a couple of months of dedicated leg work at the gym acted as a great way to get back on the bike and into the hills, especially when it comes to the steeper climbs that Derbyshire has to offer.
As someone whose main sport has always been cycling, it’s not an understatement to say that running was a real revelation. I’ve never been good at it. Even at my fittest and lightest I’m not one of the weedy fell runners, and my short legs and long upper body aren’t exactly a great prerequisite for this sport. But if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s finding my pace and sticking with it, and plodding on, plodding on, plodding on. I used to go for 2-3hr off-road runs on weekends, and they were some of the best times of my life. Getting to the top of a big hill by 6AM, when most other people are still in bed, the air is clear, and witnessing the local wildlife and the spectacular views of the Peak District is simply bliss, especially when it’s taken you a good effort to get up there in the first place. You also don’t “bonk” as you do in cycling, for some reason, at least not over comparatively short distances (I’m sure runners bonk in triathlons and marathons, of course, but over 2-3hrs, you can always keep going; if you bonk on the bike, your legs turn to jelly and without a dose of sugar and caffeine you probably won’t make it home).
Off-road running is by far my favourite type. I don’t have much time to think: if you’re running down a steep rocky path or sketchy muddy fields, a split second of dreaming can mean you’ll land flat on your face, and I enjoy the challenge of staying mentally alert for something other than work, while at the same time physically exerting myself.
As with walking the dog, there’s also the playing in the mud aspect. As a child, I was never allowed to roam in the countryside or even get a little dirty outside, so there’s a very simple pleasure when, as a grown up, you splash through bog and water and come home with calves that are quite a different colour than when you set out. Now that I’m slowly picking up running again, I’m also hoping that I can end the summer with a race or two. The best thing about running events is that there’s no faking it. It makes, in the grand scheme of things, very little difference if you’re wearing £50 or £200 worth of trainers and kit (providing you’re running shoes that suit your running style, of course). Fell races, for example, are the most unpretentious and most supportive events I’ve ever been to. Everyone runs at their limit, no matter how fast or slow, and even the leaders say “well done” on their way down when you’re still crawling up the hill. And they mean it, as do the spectators, because it’s hard work, and you’re doing it, no matter how slowly.
When it comes to work, running is by far the easiest sport to build into a busy schedule. Just a quick 30min run can give you not just a good start into your morning but also serious health and fitness benefits, and a one-hour run is a good workout The weather is also not much of a factor, at least not for me. Wind doesn’t matter much, and neither does rain, so there’s always time to get out, and every step counts.
Cycling is a little different in all these respects. An hour of intervals on rollers in the garage is a great way to get a ride in if you’ve had a busy day (especially since you can watch films while you do it), but depending on what kind of road cyclist you are, less than one hour really doesn’t do much in the grand scheme of things. As a woman, if I wanted to race again, I probably wouldn’t do rides longer than ca 100km, simply because races for women at a local and national level are rarely longer than that (unless you’re a pro, of course). Riding for 3-4hrs isn’t unusual at all, especially on weekends, and isn’t actually particularly long. Now that I’m training for an 168km event in the Alps, I have been out for 5-7hrs on many Sundays, and if you’re dedicated to cycling and racing you’ll usually easily spend 12hrs+ on the bike per week. And even if I’ve been going at steady pace on Sunday, once I’ve been out for 5-7hrs, it takes me a good while, and some nice food, to get back into a state where I can do any kind of meaningful, intellectual work.
It also takes more time to get ready. When I run, I put on one of two sets of clothes and shoes and go. When I ride, I pack my bars – depending on how long I’m out for – my spare tubes, my pump, check tyre pressure, check the gears and brakes briefly, plan my route if I want to keep it fresh and am doing a fair ride, and I have to assess what combination of clothes to wear (long sleeves, short sleeves, arm warmers, knee warmers, leg warmers, gilet, overshoes, waterproof jacket, etc.).
Wind and rain are much bigger factors when you’re riding. You get a wet bum (and sooner or later an achy one, too) and drenched legs, the wind makes riding much harder, and especially when the weather is appalling for weeks at end, it can be really dispiriting and frustrating to go out in the grey, blustery outdoors again and again and again. And the one thing that never ceases to amaze me in comparison to running is that you are just so much more knackered after a cold, wet ride than you are after a cold, wet run, even if they’re short. So, for me, cycling isn’t necessarily the most time-effective or easiest activity to combine with a busy work schedule and a dog (I don’t have a mountainbike, by the way, but should probably get one and teach Maya to run alongside me off-road).
There are differences when it comes to my experiences of continental and UK cycling scenes. Riding as part of a club in Germany was some of the best fun I’ve ever had. The club culture there is very different than here, and I admit I miss it. We also did technical training, for racing for example, from “leaning into” someone coming into your line in a bend, to picking up a bottle from the ground while riding to practice your bike handling and control; I’ve not seen this happening on a club level in the UK. Racing, here, has really come on massively in the past five years or so, especially for women. The cost is still a shame, however. On the continent I’d pay £15 for my annual license, and up to 10€ at the most for race entries. Here, as students my partner and I had to pay for racing (and to get there) from our food budget and hitch lifts from kind souls whenever we could, and weekly racing was virtually impossible to afford as a student. This isn’t conducive to a healthy racing and cycling culture, unfortunately. Even if you don’t race it isn’t a very cheap sport to participate in, here or abroad. A decent (and potential racing) bike costs you ca. £1,500 upwards, and then there’s upkeep. New tyres, brake pads, chain, other bits and pieces that wear out annually or more frequently all cost money. Then there’s shoes, shorts, jerseys, various kinds of layers for all the various kinds of weathers (which I’ve never felt I’ve needed for running). During my PhD, I couldn’t afford the time or the maintenance that cycling demands (despite the fact that my partner is a very capable bike mechanic), which is why I became a runner back then.
So why am I doing it and why have I been in love with road cycling since my late teenage years? Cycling, for me, gives me a lot of head space (when I’m not negotiating a fast or twisty descent), and it also gives me the opportunity to take in much bigger chunks of the countryside, simply because – of course – you cover more miles in a shorter amount of time. The views, as with running, are a big reward for me when you come to the top of a difficult, or long, climb. And while I can be knackered after longer rides, they’re also an opportunity to think about everything and anything, and I generally feel mentally “cleared” afterwards, even after short outings. Physically, one of the things that has always motivated me is not the climbing (surprise!), but the descending. I love going round bends fast, and I love the technical side of riding and of riding fast. Riding in groups is also brilliant and makes time and miles fly past much faster. Racing bikes is fun, too, though once you’ve been shelled out the back, it’s just an individual time trial, and so running races are much more motivational if you’re not at the top of your game (plus cycle racing at the lower levels is littered with people who actually train very little, but have a lot of money to spend on expensive kit, so they *look* like they know what they’re doing; that’s almost impossible to do in running, I’d say).
Yet, there are few things better for me than a good day on the bike; like running, there’s a sense of adventure, a sense of going places (literally), and exploring. It’s a sport I’ve always found difficult to maintain for long periods of time (I usually have six months on, six months off, and so on), but I could never quit it forever, not even after I sold my bike during my PhD.
So, that’s my (long) bit on what these kinds of exercise do for me, and as I said above, I’d love to know if you feel the same or if you’ve had quite different experiences with the sports you do. Let’s talk sport and academia, how you combine the two, and why. Ready, set, go!