Site icon Dominic Irvine

Fat to Fit

The Russian Scientist Szent-Gyorgy is quoted as saying “Discovery consists of seeing what everyone has seen and thinking what no-one has thought.” When Richard and Lynn Bye and their partners at the time set up Fat Lad At The Back, they had seen the typical cyclist trussed up like a chicken in tight fitting lycra and realised the blindingly obvious that it would be helpful if cycling kit was designed to fit the average body shape rather than that of elite amateurs and professional riders.It was so obvious that no other manufacturer had seen it. More importantly, they knew, as any person does who has or is overweight, it comes with a feeling of self consciousness. There is no fun in wearing clothing that draws attention to all the extra bulges one has. Wetsuits are a case in point. They flatter only lithe surfing Gods. But by making clothing that suited all sizes, people who otherwise might not cycle have been able to venture out at least feeling like they look the part. How do I know all this, because all of these points applied to me. I made the shift from 110kg to around 80kg many years ago and along the way went from being an incredibly self conscious overweight unfit person to an elite ultra-distance record breaking cyclist.

I have a strong affinity with the FLAB brand. These days I describe myself as a fat person in a thin person’s body. From the outside, I am somewhat of a stocky build for a cyclist but its all power. It’s been good enough to help me set a world record (Land’s End to John O’Groats on a tandem, 45 hours and 11 minutes in case you are asking) and stand on the podium in a number of ultra distance races. Most people who know me have only ever known the lighter version of me. But it’s not been easy. These are five lessons I have learnt along the way.

What they don’t tell you about diets

For all the books on diets out there, the one thing they fail to tell you is that losing weight is incredibly hard work. Not only that, keeping the weight off is every bit as difficult. Every day is a battle with food. My brain seems unable to tell me when enough is enough. That’s hardly the basis for record breaking performances and so I rely on weighing everything I eat to calculate the energy value to make sure I am eating commensurate with my needs. I analyse the mix of protein to carbohydrate to fat. What this means in practice is at almost all meals at home I have a set of scales with which I weigh all the ingredients of what I eat and log them. When out and about I log the food I have consumed – sometimes it’s a best guess, other times various apps will tell you the calorific contents. The moment I stop doing this – I get fatter. It’s hard work – really hard work and even though I do this I am rarely completely on top of my weight. If it was easy, everyone would do it. It’s not and they don’t. A casual glance around the chambers of Westminster, or a walk around the staff room of most universities shows us that even the intelligent elite don’t manage it despite knowing how important weight management is for our health. We need less programmes about the food we eat and many more about how to manage the natural and overwhelming desire to eat plenty that most of us have. Why do I bother with all this effort? Well nothing tastes as good to me as winning feels. It’s worth the sacrifice for the fun of racing to win. If you are trying to lose weight. Be kind to yourself. If you’re anything like me you will have bad days where you lose the plot and eat way too much. Don’t give up, just pick yourself up, dust yourself down and start again, one day at a time, one meal at a time, one mouthful at a time.

The truth about training

Training to be good at cycling is actually rather dull. Most of it is done indoors on a turbo as it is possible to control the precise efforts. Most sessions are blocks of effort at specified powers, for example a warm up followed 5 minutes at 410w followed by 5 minutes at 185w repeated 6 times followed by 20 minutes at 270w. These sessions are both boring and often very, very hard. Sometimes all I can think about is how the hell I’m going to get through the next session. And there’s a lot of it. For a number of years I have averaged around 30 hours a week. This means getting up everyday at 4:30am with some days having two sessions, one in the morning and another in the evening. I work full time, so in order to fit this training in other things have had to go. I don’t watch any television for example. I try and be in bed for around 9:30 to 10:00. I avoid nights out because the following morning I find I cannot complete the sessions as set by my coach. If we’re going anywhere as a family, for journeys up to around 150 miles, I’ll ride and my wife will drive so I can fit in the training I need to do. It’s relentless and hard work. Sometimes when heading out for yet another long ride at the weekend it can all feel too much. Why do I bother with all this effort? Because I visualise the success it will bring in a race. I have learned from bitter experience I need a really good goal to give me the motivation to put the miles in. I’m afraid there is no substitute for training when it comes to getting fit. So if you are going to work hard, make it for an event or an occasion that really matters to you.

Goals matter

I realised a number of years ago that dieting for the sake of it did not work for me at all. I needed to diet for a purpose, and the focus I chose was cycle challenges. I also struggled to work hard enough in training without a clear goal. Goals work because when I am training I can visualise what it’s going to feel like to be at the pointy end of the field and it drives me to train harder. I can imagine myself, hunkered down, slowly reeling in the people in front of me. These days people post YouTube clips of riding in the races I have planned. I put those on with the sound turned down in the background so when I am training indoors I can imagine riding through the scenery and familiarise myself with what’s coming up. By the time I get to the race, I have lived and breathed every minute of the race in my mind. The pain I have pushed myself through in training becomes a source of strength when the going gets tough in the race. All of this means that the goal has to be something that has really captured my imagination. If I am going to push myself so hard, I need it to worthwhile. Events I have entered for the sake of it rarely cut the mustard when it comes to creating a sense of drive. I have found from experience that it is best not to rush into a goal but to spend time thinking about it, looking at all the opportunities and allowing my mind to dream a little about what it might be like. When I find the right goal I know it because I feel it in the pit of my stomach. It scares me a little. I can’t stop thinking about it. I am both anxious and excited all at the same time. As time goes on the drive gets stronger and stronger. The right goal is not always the goal best suited to my physiology or shape. But I have realised it is better to chase dreams that excite me than those where I might be the best. Motivation trumps genetics every time. I love racing, off-road, non-stop over ultra-distances 

Be comfortable with who you are

There’s no escaping I’m a  big chap (in cycle racing terms) and on the hills I get left behind by the whippets. No matter how good I get, I will always find myself at some point the Fat Lad At the Back. I’m ok with this. Yes, it probably means I might be better at traditional Time Trial events but they don’t interest me. Ultra-endurance does, and these days, even better if it is off-road. I’m also 51 years old, and with ageing there is a decline in strength and speed. The truth of it is, if I audit myself, I’m a solidly built middle aged cyclist with a predisposition to be overweight. I’m not fast up hills. I’m also very driven, happy to work very hard, very good in extreme weather conditions (hot or cold) and I cope well in a crisis. I’m blessed with lungs which have an extraordinary capacity and a heart that can’t be bothered to beat much. I’m good at descending and my bike handling skills are reasonable. And so rather than try and compete with the whippets by chasing them up the hills, I let them go. Generally speaking I can claw back most of the gains they make on the way up on the way down. The rest of the gap I can close by just keeping going and not stopping. If the weather turns nasty, that plays to my strengths. Years of winter training has equipped me with the knowledge and skills to keep going when others might stop to seek shelter. In fact this is how I won an unsupported ultra-distance race – a severe early winter storm hit the Dolomites and conditions turned from warm sunshine to a mix of driving rain and snow and some savage winds. Everyone in the race decided to pack it in and call it a day. To me, it felt just like another grim day of winter training in the depths of a UK winter and so I continued. At the end of the race, a handful of supported riders finished and I was the only unsupported finisher. Everyone bangs on about fitness, but fitness is just one part of the equation. By being good at all the rest, nutrition, hydration, navigation, bike handling, kit management, you can make up the deficit in speed and do surprisingly well. Just be comfortable about who you are and be good at what you can be really good at and aim to manage the rest.

Have the kit you want

I’ve ridden with people who point at some poor person carrying a few extra pounds riding a beautiful lightweight bike and comment “they should lose some weight before buying a bike like that” the implication being that the purchase of a superlight bike belongs only to those with single digit body fat. Stuff them I say. Ride the bike that excites you enough to want to ride. Just like having a nice car is not a necessity but is nonetheless enjoyable so too is having a great bike. In my experience there is a sweet spot for bike choice. I find I feel a bit self conscious on a top of the range bike because quite frankly I feel a bit of a target for every other rider on the road. I’m also in a constant state of anxiety about not damaging the parts as invariably they are so expensive to replace. Riding 20,000 miles a year as I do soon wears stuff out. Too cheap a bike feels awful to ride. They can be harsh, clunky and dull feeling. What I have done over the years is to work out what I really want from my bike(s) and get the bike built that way. For example, as a heavier rider I like a few more spokes to give me a strong wheel that will stand the punishment. I have a favourite saddle. I ride with tri-bars and prefer a certain shape to these. I have preferences for bar tape, bar shape, seat post design, bottle cage design etc etc. And because my bike has all these things, I love riding it. It’s just right for me. And of course I have several bikes. One for when the weather is bad – it has full mudguards, heavier duty tyres and dynamo lights. I have a bike for off-road racing and one I use for riding on mixed surface rides. Each bike has been built to suit my needs. Some are carbon. One is steel and one is titanium. However, it’s not about the bike for me it’s about what the bike makes possible. The hours of riding in beautiful places. The reliability when things get a bit rough. My view is not to worry about what anybody else thinks you should be riding – ride what you like to ride and enjoy it. 

The same applies to clothing. Where clothing that fits you and in which you feel comfortable. I like the FLAB shorts, I rode one pair for 2750 miles off road across the top of the rockies and they were comfortable and rugged enough to last the distance. I like the FLAB tops because i have quite broad shoulders and they seem to fit me really well. I like the merino socks because they don’t pong after days in the saddle. But rest assured, if I found better kit, I would switch to that, but so far, I keep coming back to FLAB because it works for me.

So what am I saying? Be yourself. Do it your way. If you want to push the bounds of your performance, it’s probably going to be hard work at times, so make it for a goal that really matters to you. Use the kit and wear the clothing that makes you feel good about yourself. And above all, do it because you want to. 

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