Racing as an Athena Triathlete

In the USA, triathletes can race in Athena or Clydesdale divisions based on weight. Should there be weight categories in triathlon?

In triathlon, it’s common practice for your race results to be categorised according to your age group. For example, currently I am automatically ranked against other females aged between 30 and 34. Awards are usually given to the top three finishers in each age group, as well as the overall race winners.

However in the USA, there are additional race divisions known as Athena and Clydesdale which are based on the weight of the athlete. USAT rules define an Athena as a female weighing at least 165lbs and a Clydesdale as a male who weighs at least 220lbs. Race organisers determine whether their triathlon will include these categories and an athlete can choose to compete as an Athena/Clydesdale when registering.

As I have never raced in the United States, these divisions have never been something I’ve considered. I would however fall into the 165lb+ category by a few pounds, so it got me thinking about the idea of competing as an Athena if the opportunity ever arose. Typically, I tend to finish around the middle of the pack in my age group- I stand very little chance of getting a podium place. However I wonder if I would be more competitive against women of a similar weight?

In the USA, triathletes can race in Athena or Clydesdale divisions based on weight. Should there be weight categories in triathlon?

Understandably, these weight divisions do cause some controversy amongst athletes. At first glance, it can appear that these categories exist to stigmatise fat athletes. However, the divisions were developed to ‘level the playing field’ so that those of a larger body size can compete amongst themselves. It’s comparable to weight classes in boxing or martial arts. The Athena and Clydesdale categories encompass tall, muscular athletes and anyone who falls outside of the typical petite triathlete build.  Someone who weighs 165lbs is technically working harder than someone who weighs 125lbs- it’s more weight to carry up the hills!

I would certainly choose to race as an Athena if the option was given. I love the idea that the category is named after the goddess of wisdom and victory!

I’m proud of my body and my achievements. Triathlon has taught me to focus less on what my body looks like and more on what it can do. Over the years, I’ve lost weight and I’ve gained weight, but I’m now in a place where I’m comfortable in my body. The longer I’ve been involved with this sport, the more I notice how inclusive triathlon really is. I’ve seen all shapes and sizes finish a race, proving the point that fitness and ability have very little to do with the number on the scale. We are all built differently and different body shapes have their own strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, success in triathlon comes down to mental strength, dedication and determination.

Should there be Athena/Clydesdale categories in the UK? Would you race in a weight category if given the option?

What makes a great spin class?

What makes a great spin class? An energetic, motivated instructor with an awesome playlist and high-spec bikes

For the past three years, indoor cycling aka spinning has been a huge part of my life. My job at Cycle Rhythm involves recruiting, evaluating and assessing our instructors as well as maintaining our studio equipment. I’ve got high standards and I’ve learned a great deal about what separates an average class from an amazing class.

Indoor cycling has experienced tremendous growth in recent years, both in boutique fitness studios and big box gyms. There seems to be a new studio opening in London on an almost monthly basis. I try to keep up with changes in the industry and ensure Cycle Rhythm is ahead of the game, by checking out what our competitors are offering. Last week, I was invited down to the newly renovated Fitness First at Fenchurch Street to take part in one of their spin classes.

What makes a great spin class?

Bikes

The average member of the public might not have an opinion of the choice of bikes, however I’m an indoor cycling geek so I was curious to see what Fitness First had chosen to equip their new studio with. It turned out to be Star Trac Spinner Blade cycles, which I must admit I’m not a huge fan of. The resistance is controlled by a dial and there is no console to display data making them feel outdated in today’s market. Chain-driven bikes can also feel clunky if not properly maintained.

Bike Set-Up

Proper bike set-up is essential to maximise your experience of the class and avoid injury. Too often I see people riding with their saddles too low or without the handles securely tightened. It’s part of the instructors role to ensure that both beginners and experienced riders are set up correctly before the class starts. Instructors should also run through the main hand positions and body positions which they will use during class.

Studio sound and lighting

The sound system and lighting concept in a fitness studio really work together to create the whole experience. At Fitness First, they’ve gone for a pared-down approach with coloured light bars along one wall. The opposite wall is lined with mirrors to reflect the light around the room. The sound quality was great and music volume was appropriate.

What makes a great spin class? An energetic, motivated instructor with an awesome playlist and high-spec bikes

Technology

Part of the Cycle Rhythm experience is about monitoring and tracking performance metrics, which are displayed on a screen at the front of the room. The approach at Fitness First is much more low-tech, with no use of data either on the bikes or on screen. Personally, I find that the use of technology really enhances a cycling class in terms of motivating me to ride harder.

Instructor- Appearance

Does the instructor look the part? Are they wearing appropriate clothing and cycling shoes? Are they clean and presentable? I found it strange that the instructor at Fitness First wore a long-sleeved top throughout the ride. It gave the impression that she was cold and therefore not working up a sweat, which in turn makes an impression on the class participants.

What makes a great spin class? An energetic, motivated instructor with an awesome playlist and high-spec bikes

Instructor- Motivation and Personality

An engaging and energetic personality really goes a long way when leading a spin class. Being an instructor is about coaching and motivating the class- their enthusiasm effects the overall atmosphere of the room. There is nothing worse than being taught by an instructor who is simply ‘going through the motions’ without any passion.

Class Structure

Every spin class should begin with an introduction. The workout should have a clear structure and purpose which is communicated to the participants at the beginning. Will the focus be on sprints or hill climbing? How long will each interval last? There should always be a defined warm-up, main workout and cool-down. I notice that a lot of instructors tend to launch straight into a sprint without properly warming up the participants, which can lead to injury.

What makes a great spin class? An energetic, motivated instructor with an awesome playlist and high-spec bikes

Music

The beat of the music sets the mood for the class and playlists should reflect the profile of the workout. Music is obviously a very subjective choice and it’s impossible to please everyone’s tastes. No matter the choice of genre, it’s important to ride in time to the beat of the music, adjusting your speed and body position accordingly.

Stretching

One of my personal bugbears is when an instructor stands on the pedals to stretch calves and hamstrings. It damages the pedals as they were not designed to be used in that way. Always dismount the bike before stretching. Stretches should target the main muscle groups used during the class.

Upper body workouts

Edited to add… One of my biggest no-no’s is movements like press-ups or the use of hand-weights whilst cycling. These exercises are ineffective and potentially dangerous. Upper body workouts have no place in the cycle studio. Thankfully, Fitness First opted not to include these in their classes, and it’s something you’ll never see at Cycle Rhythm.

All photos credit: Ben Kapur

What makes a spin class great for you? Anything you like to see (or not see) in a class?

Training with Heart Rate Zones

How I set up and train with heart rate zones to improve triathlon performance

Monitoring and understanding your heart rate can be an effective way of improving your triathlon performance. It ensures that you are training at the correct intensity for each workout and taking appropriate recovery.

This method of training is fairly new to me. Previously my training has always been done on ‘feel’, but this year I’ve invested in a heart rate strap and I’m working within specific target zones.

Setting up your heart rate zones

The first step in this training method is to set up your heart rate zones. There are several ways of doing this, but my coach uses a treadmill running test to determine your lactate threshold. The test is set up so that the speed of the treadmill increases every 3 minutes until the point of failure, whilst a heart rate reading is taken every 30 seconds.

During the test, I wore a device on my calf which uses LED light to monitor the amount of lactate in your bloodstream. Lactate is a byproduct of aerobic metabolism in the muscles- it accumulates rapidly as we exercise and needs to be cleared. When the amount of lactate in the blood reaches it’s highest sustainable level, this is considered to be the individual’s lactate threshold. It’s not unusual to feel slightly sick and very fatigued at this point!

The results of the test determine your maximum heart rate, training zones and corresponding running paces. It’s recommended that the test is repeated every 4-6 weeks, as training zones will change as your fitness progresses.

How I set up and train with heart rate zones to improve triathlon performance

Zone 1- Active Recovery
This zone is used for low intensity and active recovery. Blood flow to the muscles is increased to flush out waste products. You should be able to hold a conversation and feel comfortable.
For me this zone is less than 149BPM and a running pace of less than 7.51 min/km.

Zone 2- Endurance
This zone increases your overall endurance and improves your bodies ability to burn fat. Training in this zone feels very light and you should be able to hold the pace for a long period of time.
For me this zone is 150-167BPM and a running pace of 6.55-7.50 min/km.

Zone 3- Tempo
This zone improves blood circulation and improves aerobic capacity. Lactate begins to build up in the bloodstream in this zone. Training in this zone is challenging but sustainable. Running or cycling intervals are usually done within this zone.
For me this zone is 168-186BPM and a running pace of 6.22-6.54 min/km.

Zone 4- Lactate Threshold
This zone improves your speed endurance and develops the lactate threshold. In this zone, our bodies are primarily using carbohydrates as a source of fuel. Training in this zone should feel very intense and you should only be able to mutter a few words at a time.
For me this zone is 187-197BPM and a running pace of 5.53-6.21 min/km.

Zone 5- Anaerobic
In this zone, your heart and respiratory system will be working at their maximal capacity, with the source of fuel being 100% carbohydrate. Training efforts within this zone stimulate increased activity of glycogen within the muscles. Training in this zone should leave you gasping for air and should only be sustainable for 10-20 seconds.
For me this zone is over 198BPM and a running pace of over 5.52 min/km.

Training in heart rate zones

Putting this into practice, I’ve set up my Garmin according to my heart rate and my coach structures my training plan based on the zones. Heart rate zone training ensures that my easy sessions are actually easy, and my hard sessions are actually hard. Much of my running and cycling is now done in Zone 2 which initially felt incredibly slow and slightly counter-productive. It’s a common mistake with many runners to run too fast and too hard without developing a strong aerobic base. I’m trusting in the process and persevering with the Zone 2 sessions as it will help me to become more efficient and lower my overall heart rate.

How I set up and train with heart rate zones to improve triathlon performance

The Zone 2 sessions also enable me to recover from my harder sessions at the track and on the Wattbike. Now that I’m running at a more controlled pace, I’m noticing that I’m not suffering from any niggles which might develop into injuries. I focus on form and technique whilst I’m working in the lower heart rate zones.

At the other end of the spectrum, when I see Zone 5 on my training plan, I know it’s going to be a tough session. I’ve been doing some interval sessions on the Wattbike where I’m aiming to get into Zone 5 for just 8 seconds at a time. I haven’t quite manage to hit the top zone yet, but I’m working hard on pushing my heart rate up.

Do you train according to heart rate zones? Have you ever taken a lactate threshold test?

Walking the Essex Way

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

One of my favourite sources of motivation is the Tough Girl podcast which features interviews with inspirational women overcoming great challenges. As a offshoot to the podcast, the host Sarah Williams created the Tough Girl Tribe, a closed Facebook group for listeners. This tribe is full of amazingly supportive women who are preparing for a huge variety of challenges all over the world. I got talking to one of these women who turned out to be local and was planning her own challenge in our home county.

Juliet was aiming to hike the entire length of the Essex Way in four days. The Essex Way is a 82 mile long trail leading from Epping Station to Harwich Old Lighthouse. It crosses the entire county from the borders of London to the coastline. The route takes you through woodland, villages, country lanes and farmlands. I must admit I hadn’t heard of the Essex Way before speaking to Juliet, but I knew it was definitely something I wanted to get involved with.

Like myself, Juliet is proud of being born and raised in Essex and keen to remove the stereotypes. She is involved with the Essex Women’s Advisory Group or EWAG. This is a group set up to support the wellbeing of women and girls living in Essex. The group aims to challenge negative stereotypes by promoting the confidence and achievements of Essex Women and Girls, and supporting those in need. Their fundraising efforts have benefited local women’s refuges as well as supporting confidence-building projects for female school students and Girl Guides.

Fittingly, Juliet began her walk on Wednesday 8th March which is International Women’s Day. I followed her progress on Instagram as I prepared to join her for the final 21 mile section on Saturday.

Wearing my This Girl Can Essex T-shirt, I arrived at mile 63 to meet Juliet where she had left off the previous evening. She was looking very fresh for someone who had walked 63 miles! We were also joined by Tina who is involved with the Girls Guides of North East Essex and we set off along the trail.

I immediately noticed how clearly the path is waymarked, it was fairly easy to spot the red poppies on white discs which guided us along the route. After getting our legs warmed up for the first mile, we stopped briefly to stretch at the beautiful medieval church in Dedham. This area is known as ‘Constable County’ as the painter John Constable favoured Dedham for much of his landscape work.

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

Moving on, I got to know more about Juliet and Tina and their work supporting teenagers in the local community. We were keeping a good pace, but were wary of starting too quickly and burning out towards the end of the walk.

Manningtree was the next notable point on our walk, it’s known as the smallest town in England. We admired the Georgian buildings and brightly painted houses, before walking into Mistley the next village on the route. These places seem a world away from the busy urban towns in the part of Essex where I am from.

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

From here, the route took us through mostly rural areas across wide open fields and enclosed woodland. We would often have to hop over stiles or through gates and recheck the route map. The mud was thick and slippery in some areas, I was glad of my new walking boots which were holding up nicely.

We met up with the River Stour again and followed the path into the saltmarshes and mudflats of the Wrabness Nature Reserve. The area is full of wildlife, particularly birds. We stopped for a lunch break on a large log in a bay looking out across the incredibly still water. The cranes of Harwich, our final destination could be seen in the distance and I joked that I might swim the rest of the way.

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

After passing through the tiny village of Wrabness, we decided to make a very slight detour in order to see something quite special. A House for Essex was commissioned by the artist Grayson Perry and stands as a homage to “the single mums in Dagenham, hairdressers in Colchester and the landscape and history of Essex”. It’s golden roof was visible from way in the distance and as we got closer we could see the green and white tiles embossed with motifs. It really is an awesome building and it’s bizarre how it’s placed in a cabbage field in rural North Essex. Unfortunately, it wasn’t open as I would have loved to see the interior. As the theme of Juliet’s walk was to support women and girls from Essex, it seemed fitting that we spent some time admiring Grayson Perry’s tribute to local females.

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

Joining us at this point was the current Miss Essex, Emily Evans. Another local woman who is smashing the stereotypes, Emily told us about the intelligence tests she passed to be crowned winner of the beauty pageant. Since earning her title, Emily has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and volunteered with the Brownies.

From here the trail veers away from the River Stour, seemingly taking you further away from the finish line. Essex lived up to it’s reputation for being very flat as there had barely been an incline throughout the walk. We stood and watched a group of horses who were being moved from one field to the next. It was lovely to see the sense of freedom and excitement as these horses stampeded into their new pasture.

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

Stopping for a quick toilet break and drink at a pub in the village of Ramsey, we rested and prepared for the final push into Harwich. We realised we would be arriving at the finish line almost an hour sooner than expected. Juliet was keeping a great pace despite having been on her feet for 75 miles at this point.

Brightly coloured huts and a pebble beach signalled our arrival into Harwich. Huge tankers were delivering their cargo into the port. Looking at the sea, I thought of my upcoming Solent Swim and felt the nerves bubbling up. We followed the promenade searching for the lighthouse which indicates the end of the Essex Way. We saw several smaller lighthouses, but they were not the correct one! The finish seemed so near, yet so far!

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

Finally, the Old Lighthouse rose up from behind a playground. We sped over to the plaque on the wall and hugged each other. Juliet had finished her epic 82 mile walk! It was a great feeling to share this moment with these women I’d met only hours earlier. We climbed up the flight of steps for some photos as Juliet’s husband appeared. The day was rounded off with some food from a nearby fish and chip shop, the ladies serving us couldn’t believe Juliet had walked 82 miles for chips!

Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

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Walking the final section of the Essex Way, an 82 mile long trail from Epping to Harwich. Getting outdoors and supporting local females for International Women's Day.

Supporting another woman’s personal challenge as well as experiencing the great outdoors in beautiful Essex is what made this day really special for me. Despite living in this county all my life, I’ve never really ventured to the rural parts North Essex. Juliet has raised almost £1800 for EWAG to date, I’d love to see her reach £2000- you can donate here.

Have you ever done a point-to-point trail walk? Did you do anything for International Women’s Day?