At the end of 2020, I wrote a blog post entitled “Making the Most of 2020” in which I detailed my diet and fitness regime. This post goes into significantly more detail, revisiting some of what I wrote before, and expanding on it.
I should also make clear that I am not a medical practitioner and anyone considering significant weight loss would probably be well advised to seek medical advice before they embark on the process.
I know exactly when I decided I needed to do something about my weight. It was on the 8th of August 2020.
That was the day that I stepped onto my scales to discover how heavy I was, and to work to get that weight down.
In truth, I’d known a long time previously that I needed to do something about my weight. But it was on the 8th of August 2020 was the day I actually began to do something truly proactively.
2020 and the Pandemic
2020 had obviously been a tough year. Like millions of others, I’d been sent home as “working from home” became the norm – assuming you weren’t a key worker who still needed to come in, been placed on furlough, or indeed still had a job at all.
As August came around, UK citizens had been in various states of lockdown for coming on for five months. Living alone, I’d tried to keep my spirits up by getting out as much as we were allowed to, spending many hours walking, or cycling to keep my mind busy.
Readers to this blog will know that I have a fairly endless supply of hobbies and interests to keep me going. I have a stack of unread books that only ever seems to get taller, and a pile of DVDs and Blu Rays that I have “yet to watch.”
But I could feel my belt tightening – and not in a metaphorical sense. In between failing to get supermarket delivery slots (I don’t own a car), I was eating lots of junk food, primarily from local convenience stores. Crisp packets get ever bigger – “grab bags” – and while packets of sweets are advertised as “share sized” they don’t truly mean that.
What’s more, in smaller supermarkets like Tesco Express, the level of food that would be described as ultra-processed is exceedingly high.
Meanwhile, there was a pandemic that was killing people. The phrase “underlying health conditions” had been used about a lot of those who were dying, and while I hadn’t necessarily hard proof that obesity was a significant risk factor for Covid-19, it seemed pretty likely to me.
So I dug out the set of Withings connected scales that I’d bought earlier at other times when I’d wanted to lose some weight, and weighed myself.
I was 138.3 kg. Put another way, 21 stone 11 pounds. For someone of my height – 6’ 2” – I had a BMI of 39, making me obese using the NHS BMI calculator, a website I would visit frequently over the coming months.
And so began a year of near daily weigh-ins. More to the point, my new life started now.
Lose A Stone in 21 Days with Michael Mosley
I’ve been an avid reader of Private Eye, and in particular, I love reading the media gossip pages. Also on those pages is a usually scathing TV review written by the anonymous “Remote Controller.” He or she (but probably “he” if the author is the person I think they are) was reviewing the latest of Dr Michael Mosley’s dieting programmes. A regular presenter in the space, he seemed to flip between BBC2 and Channel 4 presenting different series where he’d investigate different diet fads and conduct small scale experiments.
“Remote Controller” wasn’t too impressed with the latest of these, which very much reflected our lockdown times, as he tried to help a group of socially distanced volunteers through a swift dieting regime. Our reviewer noted that Mosley does have a number of private interests in this area that did feature to some extent on the show, including a series of best-selling “Fast” books, some accompanying shakes and that he favoured the use of ketosis test strips.
Yet oddly, despite the negativity, I went and sought the programme out on All 4 and watched every episode. Yes – it was diet TV by the numbers, but it was what I needed, at the time I needed it.
That show was essentially me reaching a tipping point, and doing something. I wasn’t going to try to replicate in enormous detail what the programme’s volunteers would be doing, but it gave me just enough to set to me on my way.[A brief aside to say that I did enjoy Michael Mosley’s Just One Thing podcast that came out earlier this year. Each episode is only 15 minutes and suggests something relatively simple that we could all adopt in our lives to improve our health and well-being. They’re not always the obvious things either!]
I began with my diet.
Out went lots of the rubbish I was eating in large quantities alone with my self-pity. I needed to be firm with myself.
I’ve always found this very hard, not least because I’m quite a fussy eater. There are lots of food stuffs that I’m not especially fond of. I’ve bought dieting books in the past and then flicked through the recipes in despair as I realised that they were based around things that I really didn’t like very much.
So, I worked to keep things simple. I tried hard with portion control. When you’re cooking for one, that can be hard as you invariably cook more than a single portion – recipes nearly never allow for that – and I was particularly bad at meal planning or doing things like freezing second portions.
However, I persevered with this, and while I didn’t actually follow any particular diet book, I used general good sense to ditch unhealthy things (chips!) and eat more healthy things (broccoli!).
I should note that I didn’t skip meals either. In fact, I was far more regimented in making sure that I did always have breakfast, thus making it much less likely that I’d feel the need to start getting snacks mid-morning. My lunchtime meals might be light, but there always was one. I didn’t skip lunch either.
Even with the advantage of having more time on my hands at home, I was never going to feel like cooking from scratch at every meal. On the other hand, I had neither fallen into the trap of using Uber Eats and Deliveroo on high rotation. Indeed, I think I may have ordered in a grand total of two meals over the course of a year.
One strangely helpful thing – although it was annoying at the time – was that my fridge broke down last autumn. Deep in the freezer of that refridgerator were some very unhealthy food stuffs. Delays in delivering a new fridge meant that much of my existing food spoiled and had to be discarded. Well, that’s one way to ensure that I don’t get tempted by a tub of Häagen-Dazs!
My better-than-nothing solution was to rely on “healthy” ready meals. I’m well aware that they’re probably not all that healthy, and that they often fall into the ultra-processed category. But the calorie count on them was low, and while I can’t say that I was actively counting my calorific intake, I was doing whatever I could to reduce it.
It was clear to me that I was going to need to run a calorie deficit; consuming fewer calories than I was eating in combination with burning calories through activity and exercise.
A healthy adult man needs around 2,500 calories (strictly “kcals”) a day to maintain a healthy weight. That’s according to the NHS, although some place even this as being a bit high. To lose weight I was going to need to consume fewer calories than this, or at least burn more than I would naturally get through in a day.
I’d been walking a lot and getting out on my bike too. But walking is a slow way to burn calories. I could do my 10,000 steps and not truly get through that many calories. Cycling will burn more, but it really depends on how hard you’re cycling. You can just pootle along for many hours at a lower level, and you won’t burn that many.
I did get hold of some of those ketostix strips. The idea is that you dip them in your urine to determine whether you are burning fat. They come with a colour matcher that allows you tell whether you’re metabolising your fat reserves, which is obviously what you need to do to lose that stored weight. To be honest, after a few weeks I stopped using them because it was clear that as my weight came off, this was indeed happening.
For a long time, I minimised carbohydrates an awful lot. I stopped buying bread and would have perhaps just occasional rolls. I reduced the amount of pasta I ate, and I didn’t eat vast quantities of potatoes. But I didn’t excise it altogether – you do need some carbohydrates after all. And in fact, I gradually reintroduced them into my diet over time. I was just a lot stricter in how much I would eat.
In fact, in early 2021, I got that quintessential lockdown kitchen gadget – the bread maker (they’d been impossible to get hold of for much of 2020). Not only could I make my own fresh bread, but I could also make nice and small loaves that I didn’t feel duty bound to polish off before the bread went stale.
Snacking was another issue I had to face up to. A simple solution was to simply eat more fruit, and I did do that. But you can’t just gorge yourself on endless fruit all day – there’s a lot of sugar in there for a start. Indeed, I’d forced myself to pour significantly smaller portions of orange juice at breakfast instead of the beakers I’d sometimes drank previously.
My main solution was to turn to nuts. Specifically nuts like hazelnuts, walnuts, and almonds. Unsalted nuts which are high in protein. I’m not going to say that I never ate cashews – the salted kind. I love salted cashews – they’re easily my favourite nut. But I also know that once the packet is open, they’re incredibly moreish.
Desserts disappeared to a large extent, although I allowed myself yoghurts and the occasional rice pudding. I also started eating more flapjacks, although I tried to limit myself to smaller and healthier kinds. These also became go-to snacks for when I’d be out on longer bike rides. And I started making my own to try to ensure that they were healthier, although you do actually need some kind of reasonable calorific content when you’re out on a ride.
I’m not going to claim that I’ve cracked dieting, because I haven’t. I still like things that are intrinsically unhealthy, and I’ve found that the willpower required with dieting is far harder than getting out and doing exercise. And that is certainly exacerbated by being stuck at home, just a few metres from your kitchen.
Another podcast recommendation at this point is A Thorough Examination with Drs Chris and Xand. The eponymous twin doctors are well known from their various TV appearances, but this podcast tackles the fact that Xand is 20kg heavier than his twin brother. It dives into all the issues surrounding ultra-processed food and the addictive qualities of it as well as the health implications of eating too much of it. To be clear, these are the foodstuffs that we’re all eating on a daily basis.
I also began drinking a lot of tea.
OK, that’s a poor joke. But really, when we think about drink, we think about alcohol. Beer is not short of calories and nor wine for that matter. If you drink lots of alcohol, you’ll probably put on weight. That’s before we get to any other side-effects of alcohol.
I suppose that I was “fortunate” that I was carrying out this weight loss programme during a pandemic. I had few social interactions where alcohol is commonly consumed, and I rarely drink at home alone anyway. So, cutting out alcohol near enough completely was eminently achievable.
I did have the odd glass or wine, or a gin and tonic, but I ended up throwing away some perfectly good beer that I just never got around to drinking before it reached its sell-by date.
On the other hand, I did start drinking a lot more water. When you spend a long time at a keyboard day in and day out, and snacking isn’t really on the agenda, you need drinks instead. My tea intake grew immensely. I don’t drink coffee, but previously my tea drinking was largely an excuse to get up and leave my desk at work to break the day up. I didn’t hate the drink, but I didn’t love it either. I suspect that the caffeine helped, although having a cup of tea in the morning was more of a habit than a desperate need.
I also developed something of a liking for Coke Zero, and I do find that I drink a lot of that. If there’s one habit that is probably unhealthier than it was before, it’s my Coke Zero habit. There are no calories which is a good thing, but there is caffeine.
Daily Weigh-Ins and Spreadsheets
I would say that the number one thing that drove me to achieve what I was trying to do, was keeping a very basic Excel chart of my daily weight.
My scales are a “connected” set made by Withings – which means that when you stand on them, they take a measure and then send that result, via Wi-Fi to the Withings cloud service.
Those scales were actually bought back in 2015, when I’d first planned on using them to help me lose some weight. That gives you an idea of how long it really had taken me to “get around” to doing things properly.
That weight is then passed on to a whole list of other places, where it’s useful. The key places for me are Garmin Connect, Strava and Zwift. I’ll get to some of those later. But perhaps most useful was the use of IFTTT which allowed me to send each day’s weight to Google Sheet (i.e., Google’s version of Excel) and from there I copied and pasted the numbers into Excel which has better charting options – but I could have just used Google Sheets.
And then there was the chart.
This was a very simple chart. Along the x-axis were the dates, while the y-axis contained my weight each day.
I did my weigh-in first thing every morning to try to be consistent, weighing myself without clothes to be as accurate as possible. I use kilogrammes as my key weight because anything else is madness.
Importantly, I set myself some early goals, and adjusted the y-axis of the chart so that it started at those lower goals. So, when I was 138kg, I might have set the “floor” of the chart to be at 125kg. That would mean that as the weight came off, the line chart would drop precipitously, which I found to be a very good morale booster. You could see the line move slowly, day by day, week by week, to the bottom of the chart.
Then, when I reached that first target, I’d set the next – perhaps 110kg – recalibrating the y-axis to that new number. And then I’d watch the line continue to fall.
Of course, it’s never that straightforward. Sometimes you’d eat more than you should, and the weight would go up. Other times, you thought you were being good, but the weight would still go up!
At yet other times, you’d be shocked to discover you’d somehow lost a lot of weight in the previous 24 hours without realising it. But you’d know in your heart of hearts that this wasn’t a true picture, and the weight would bounce back the next day.
But because I stuck with my diet and exercise regime, the direction of travel remained good.
That’s not just my ability to discipline myself – something I actually didn’t know I could do as well as I managed. I’m aware that because I don’t have others in the same home, who don’t need to be dieting as strictly, then there’s not the issue of having food in the house that could tempt me. I just didn’t have any biscuits to break out when I felt week – something that’s going to be harder in homes where there are kids who like biscuits!
I used my spreadsheet to monitor a few other things. I could calculate my BMI, although I was mostly using the NHS website for that. I knew that as I reached certain weights, my BMI would drop a category, so that by the time I eventually reached 88kg, I was in the “healthy” for my height range. Quite a step when I’d started as “obese.”
But I could also keep an eye on how fast I was losing weight. The NHS website doesn’t recommend losing weight too fast. It can be unhealthy and very much unsustainable. You read of far too many people who end up putting all that weight back on and then believing that sustained weight loss is impossible for them.
I was very much determined that my weight loss would be a long-term objective. I certainly didn’t have a beach holiday planned for a few weeks’ time and for which I wanted to lose an unlikely amount of weight. Books and magazine articles that sell some of those things are pretty misleading in my view. I just don’t think you can sustainably or healthily lose weight in such a short period of time.
The other thing I used the chart to do was convert my weight into the various measures people use.
I very much prefer kilogrammes because it’s a metric measure that’s universally understood, if not always adopted. Also, losing 1kg is much easier than losing 1 stone! So, you get numerical dividends much earlier. (Yes – pounds are smaller still, but they bounce around a bit too much. Kilogrammes are a nice middle ground. It’s a psychological thing.)
But I definitely converted those decreases into stones, and also pounds (for our American cousins). That way you end up with lots of “targets” to hit which means you reach the milestone that much quicker.
“I’ve lost 5kg!”
“I’ve lost a stone!”
“I’ve lost 15lbs!”
I also measured a 7-day rolling weight loss, which hides some of the daily variances and gives you a more rounded picture.
Finally, I also kept a note of what percentage of my starting weight I’d lost. By the end I’d reached over 40% of body mass gone! That puts an awful lot into perspective.
And 56kg is an entire light person!
There are probably some good reasons and some bad reasons for weighing yourself as frequently as I was.
Some people dread the “weigh in.” I know that it forms part of many weight loss programmes as group activities like Weightwatchers. But it can mean fear of the scales. And I’m not going to say here that some mornings I dreaded stepping onto the scales. Perhaps I’d do second measure, somehow kidding myself that the scales must be “broken” in some way. Surely, I hadn’t gained weight in the last 24 hours? Not after what I’d just put myself through?
But I learned to cope with it. It was just part of the routine. And of course, I was fortunate that over the long term, the numbers were continuing to go down.
I’d readjusted my chart to a floor of 100kg – a target I’d long had in mind. It was an arbitrary number, but it felt like something I could achieve; a goal I could reach.
And then when that was reached it’d continue shifting down.
There’d be times that I’d be convinced that I’d “plateaued” in my weight loss; I just couldn’t get the chart to carry on falling.
And then it would.
In the end, I do seem to have reached a natural weight of around 82 kg. Sometimes it goes up a little, and sometimes a little lower. I still have a “stretch” goal of 80 kg, mainly because it’s a nice round number. But 82 kg is firmly in the healthy weight category on the NHS BMI chart. That chart actually thinks I could be as low as 68 kg, but I’m not sure that would actually be a good weight for someone of my physique. As it is, some friends and family have suggested that I’m underweight now, but that’s mostly because they’ve mostly never seen me this light, so they’re not used to discovering that I do actually possess cheek bones!
It’s got to be said that it’s not just diet that has got me to this place.
Exercise has been crucial.
Couch to 5K and Running
In late August, I decided to embark on the thing that so many others had taken up during lockdown – Couch to 5K.
This is essentially a beginner’s guide to running. Over nine weeks, you’re given a programme which is usually delivered via a mobile app on your phone. It starts you very slowly and then build you up over the weeks until, by the end, you should be able to run for five kilometres non-stop.
There are lots of similar apps in app stores, but I used the NHS app, co-developed by the BBC and Public Health England. It’s free and there are a variety of “coaches” in the app who you can choose to give you audio assistance over the duration of the course.
The app works very cleverly on your phone. You choose the music you want to listen to in whichever app you listen to music (e.g., Spotify), and then the app dips the music at certain points as you’re given instructions as to what you should be doing.
There are three runs a week, and in the first week, you’ll be doing more walking than running, as you slowly build your strength.
I was reasonably confident that I could get there, because once upon a time – in 1999 to be precise – I ran the London Marathon. I say I ran it, but in truth I half-walked it. My then employer, Virgin Radio, got a number of members of staff media entries into the marathon. Furthermore, we were to get training from breakfast presenter Chris Evans’ own trainer. It didn’t matter that prior to then, the last running I’d done was at school for cross-country.
We got our plans in January, and by mid-April the same year, we were doing the marathon! It was a very intense time, and a good number of group fell to wayside through injury.
My best run back in 1999 actually came a few weeks before the marathon itself when I ran 18 miles one Sunday morning in one of our final training runs.
Ironically, at the time we both worked at that original incarnation of Virgin Radio, Evans wasn’t perhaps living the healthiest lifestyle. But he has certainly kept up his running – this year publishing a book designed to get you to complete your first marathon!
But that had been more than twenty years earlier, so I was now that much older and less fit.
Nevertheless, I stuck to the Couch to 5K plan rigidly, completing my three runs a week. As we got closer to the end, I was aware than I could “do” the 5K distance a bit sooner than the app was pushing me to do, but I stuck to the plan as best I could, actually completing my first 5K at the start of week 9.
Once that was done, my running moved on through the gears. While I didn’t have a specific plan as such, I started doing longer runs, until I was getting comfortable with 10K rather than 5K runs.
I live at the top of a hill, and annoyingly that does mean that when I go out for a run (or bike ride), I’m always going to find myself returning home uphill. The downside of this was that I wasn’t setting any records. The upside of this was that my fitness came on in leaps and bounds. Small hills that had killed me at the start became much easier, and in tandem with my cycling (see below), things like my VO2 Max grew massively. But more on this in a minute too.
I found that I’d run 2-3 times a week on average, tending to alternate going for runs with going for bike rides. In time the runs became a lot easier, and as I ran further, it was mostly about allowing enough time for them.
I’m lucky that I live on the edge of London’s Green Belt, and so have a variety of large parks and farmland that I can get to easily. Even before I started running, I had discovered pretty much every footpath locally that I hadn’t previously known about. Now I was running a lot of them.
Sometimes you’d get so into the zone, that you did feel that lovely elation – the so-called “runners’ high” – that makes you feel that you’re just floating. You can’t help but smile at other people. Even as I write this, I’ve just been out for a run in the rain, and although I was a bit tired today, I still didn’t really care that it was horrible weather and just beamed at others who were out, maybe going for runs themselves, or having to be out as their dog needed walking.
I tend to run to music as it definitely makes me go faster. While I love listening to podcasts, and do sometimes switch to them, I find that I don’t run as fast. A good up-tempo track pushes me when I might otherwise slow up a bit naturally. There’s a certain beauty that comes when you reach an uphill segment and a song with a thumping bassline comes on, seemingly urging you to power up that hill.
That said, I’m constantly in search of the perfect running playlist. For a while I was listening to a playlist on my app named “Cardio Workout”, which was mostly full of unfamiliar songs. However, at Christmas, when I was visiting my niece and she was playing “Just Dance 2021” on the Nintendo Switch, I was surprised to learn that I basically knew all the songs, even though I’ve not followed the charts or listened to chart radio stations for years!
I find that you can get very easily pigeon-holed by the apps into specific eras, so the quest for that perfect running playlist continues.
I use a Garmin Forerunner 245 watch to record my runs on, having upgraded from a more basic model last Christmas. I love the fact that the Garmin app allows a voice to come in over the music and let you know what your pace is for the last km. To begin with, it was mostly about just telling me that I’d covered another kilometre and was therefore that much closer to my distance goal. But in due course, the times for the last kilometre became more useful as I also upped my pace more, and realised that I could run faster than I had been.
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve fully adopted the complete world of running “intervals”, but I do aim to get faster.
There will be days when I find I have a bounce in my step when I leave the front door, and then when the first kilometre is quick, I decide I’m going to try to get close to my personal best (PB) for a given distance.
Just prior to me starting running, my brother, two years younger than me, also got into it, finding friends locally that he’d go running with. He’d post his runs on Strava and that would certainly drive me to keep up with my brother. Fraternal competitiveness never stops.
His runs were getting longer and longer, and he started talking about doing a marathon. I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to get to that level necessarily. I know that it involves an awful lot of training, and a lot of time to reach those distances. I also had cycling.
But I do know that throughout I was lucky, and to date haven’t had any kinds of injuries to stop me running. For a brief period at the start, I did feel some twinges in my ankles – I bought a cheap foot spa to help. But it was short lived, and I’ve kept going without any physical reason to slow me down.
While a marathon wasn’t necessarily on the cards, one day in April I mapped out a half marathon run locally, just to “see if I could.”
It turned out that I could. A hilly course, but I did the run in a little over two hours.
Then in early July, I entered an actual real-life run, the Vitality London 10,000 which was being held in Hatfield Park not too far from me. It was being used in part as a test event to see if it was possible to safely hold a mass participation event.
When you register, they ask you what time you think you’ll complete the run in. I wasn’t sure.
My best 10K to date had been around 55 minutes, which is based on a route I run which is partly on sometimes quite muddy trails, and is also relatively hilly. The organisers of the Vitality event noted that the Hatfield House course would also be relatively hilly and so we shouldn’t expect record times. I entered 55 minutes as my finishing time, and found myself in the 4th “pen” for my start time.
As the run started, it became clear that, firstly I was on a “good” day, and secondly, that I had been a little bit too conservative with my time. While this course was certainly by no means flat, it was less hilly than the route I tend to train on. So, I found myself in the early part of the run spending a lot of time attempting to get around people in front of me.
There was also the fact that I was running with other people – something I’m not used to – and that unquestionably makes you go faster. Theoretically I know that I should have run with someone else at around the same pace, but I didn’t actually find anyone running at the pace I wanted to go at as I was slightly too far back.
In the end I completed the 10K with a new PB of 48:31, knocking more than six minutes off my previous best. I was pretty pleased with myself – I’d also managed a 21:49 5K PB in training earlier in the week.
A couple of weeks ago, I did another self-routed “half”, and knocked a couple of minutes off my PB for that, and as I type, I’m on the verge of entering the “Big Half” in a few weeks in London to see what I can do on perhaps slightly flatter terrain.
I’m quite getting into this running lark.
Cycling and Zwift
If there’s one thing I’ve always done, it’s cycling. I can’t remember a time when I’ve not owned a bike. I’ve always owned bikes. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve even made a bike starting with building the frame!
I’m also fortunate that I have indoor turbo trainer – a machine that allows you to use your bike as an indoor training device. Mine is quite a high-end model that requires you to remove your rear wheel and hook the rest of the bike into its big fly wheel. The trainer is then computer controlled meaning you can use an app like Zwift or Trainer Road to control the ride. When you’re riding “uphill” in the app, the resistance on the turbo trainer increases, and it feels like you’re riding uphill.
I already had a subscription to Zwift although in fairness, I had not been getting good value from it, sometimes going months between sessions, the archetypal digital equivalent to the little used gym membership.
But once we got into lockdown it became much more important. Turbo trainers, like bread machines and toilet rolls, became very hard to find, and I was fortunate that I already had one. However, like many tools, it’s not so much having one, as using it.
I was “Zwifting” throughout the early part of lockdown – sometimes going for virtual rides with friends, chatting with them using Discord. But if you don’t push yourself – essentially raise your heartrate and work up a sweat, you’re not necessarily doing as much exercise as you think you are. And to begin with, I hadn’t really been doing that.
Once you get into the world of cycle training, there are lots of metrics you can start to measure – heart rates and power zones; functional threshold power and watts per kilogramme. I did start to embrace some of those things, since I had the tools to measure them. But I can’t claim that I fully understand all of them. After all, I’m not actually a pro athlete.
But now I was on a weight loss regime, I was working harder on my bike, pushing myself more on it. When I went for rides outside, I’d look at the work effort I was doing. I had a power meter fitted on one bike, and got another one for a second of my bikes, one that I more commonly use in the winter. These allowed me to more accurately measure my work effort on rides.
Meanwhile on Zwift, I was beginning to attempt harder rides. I joined some of their group rides, completing events to win virtual goodies like badges and limited edition jerseys (Zwift shares a lot with games like Fortnite in that respect).
More than that, in time I decided that I needed to hit the big mountains in Zwift.
In the real world, in my part of southeast England, there are not many big mountains. In fact, there are precisely none. The longest climb I have locally is perhaps a couple of kilometres long, so if I wanted to build up to be able to ride “proper” hills, I’d need to do it virtually.
There are a number of major climbs in Zwift, but the two biggest ones are digital versions of two real mountains, Alpe du Zwift is the game’s version of Alpe d’Huez, the classic Alpine cycling mountain with its 21 hair pin bends over more than 12 km and an average gradient of 8.5% that is never constant. It’s frequently ridden in the Tour de France, and the switchbacks give it an iconic appearance.
The first time I attempted to ride Zwift’s version of the mountain, I didn’t manage it, having to climb off my static bike. I also hadn’t started with enough drinks to complete the ride! Even going from my small spare bedroom where I have my trainer set up, to the kitchen for more water, was beyond me.
But later, I would try again, and this time get all the way up.
And then I became a little bit addicted to it, enjoying the fact that I could give myself an hour or so of “hurt” getting up the mountain and giving myself a proper workout at the same time. I’d get out of the saddle for periods, and push myself on. I liked over-taking other people, although you’d still get overtaken yourself.
I managed to beat an hour which is a respectable time, and as I write this, my PB is just over 54 minutes.
It’s probably worth noting as this point, that indoor cycle training does have some drawbacks. For the most part, you have no airflow, and opening a window in the room probably isn’t enough. I have two separate fans on me when I do a session. They’re nothing special fans – bought from Sainsburys and Toolstation – but I do have them plugged into a smart plug which means I can turn them on or off using voice commands via smart speaker.
I run Zwift on an iPad, but I’ll often use a second older iPad to show some kind of live televised sport while I’m doing a session. It just gives me something else to concentrate on while I’m riding. Ironically, I’m probably listening to music from phone – a third device. I never said that I didn’t use a lot of kit when I go for a ride!
There’s a bigger mountain in Zwift, beyond even their virtual Alpe. And that’s Ven-Top, the game’s version of Mont Ventoux, another seminal mountain, and not just for cycling. Ventoux was first recorded as being climbed in the 14th century, perhaps instigating mountaineering as a pastime. In the cycling world it’s iconic for many reasons – including tragedy striking when Tommy Simpson died climbing it 1967, and it being the mountain that Chris Froome was seen running up in 2016. In the 2021 Tour de France just gone, it was climbed twice on the same day for the first time, and the classic route up is nearly 22 km with an average gradient of 7.4%.
To climb this in the game took me at least, more than 90 minutes to complete. Nearly every pedal stroke is uphill. It’s quite an undertaking, and yet so satisfying.
Having conquered these mountains on my turbo trainer, I really want to see what they’re like in real life. In the past, I’d always avoided the biggest climbs, even when I was on a cycling holiday in the Pyrenees. I’d see the sign to the Tourmalet and studiously avoid going in that direction. I just didn’t know if I could possibly get up the mountain. In 2015, I rode up the final third category climb of a stage to watch the finish. That had been a 6.4 km climb with a gradient of 5% but it had nearly killed me. While I don’t think I’d ever find any of these easy, I think I could do them now.
Meanwhile, on the roads of Hertfordshire and Essex, I was finding my legs too. As my weight fell, so my speed climbed. And that is most noticeable on climbs. As I came back from rides, I would discover that I was getting new PBs on regular parts of my ride. It was a virtuous circle that would drive me on to do better.
I was cycling more and cycling further.
To date, I have done at least one 100 km ride each month of 2021. The way to get better at cycling is to get the kilometres (or miles) into your legs. And those longer distances were looming less heavily in front of me.
In April I took part in my first sportive in well over a year. Sportives are basically organised rides, not necessarily on closed roads, but you’re riding with other cyclists, and the organisers time you and provide you with refreshment stops. I chose the longest of the three versions of the ride on offer, and by the time I’d factored in my ride to the start and back from the finish, it was more than 165 kilometres (i.e., more than 100 miles) that day.
What’s more, I found myself “flying” up some of the hills. The climbing on Zwift had really come into its own in the real world. I’d get out of the saddle and really push through if I could.
I must admit that I had a certain amount of satisfaction passing people with much fancier and lighter bikes than mine as I powered over a long drag somewhere under the Luton Airport flightpath.
Now I wanted to achieve something that I had not done before: ride from London to the North Norfolk coast where my parents live. I had plotted a route that was about 200 km long. This was a distance that I’d never cycled before, but having by now recently done a couple of rides of 160-180 km in length I felt it was very achievable.
In fact, it would prove to be a lovely ride on some very quiet roads. I use a combination of Strava and Komoot to plan routes like this, relying on their respective communities for help in planning which roads to use and which should be avoided.
My next cycling challenge was a slightly different one – and one that I will write up separately in more detail. I wanted to ride the King Alfred’s Way. This is a 350 km circular route that starts and finishes in Winchester taking in Salisbury, Reading, the Ridgeway, the North Downs and the South Downs. It’s mostly off-road too which means the riding is harder.
I ended up completing it in three days, with one night camping and one night in a hotel. I had good, but by no means perfect conditions, and two of the three days were long ones with lots of climbing, and sometimes lots of mud to make the going very hard. Bu it’s a lovely ride that I thoroughly recommend. There’s a real sense of achievement in completing it.
And then I thought of another challenge. The annual Dunwich Dynamo was coming up, having been cancelled last year. This is a social ride that leaves London Fields in Hackney on the Saturday evening in July that is closest to that month’s full moon. Riders then head out over night to the small coastal Suffolk village of Dunwich – around 180 km away.
I had previously completed the ride with a friend back in 2016 when both of us found it to be a decent challenge. While I wouldn’t describe it as hilly, it’s fair to say that there are hills on the route, and so depending on your fitness level, you will find it easier or harder.
The really fun thing about the ride is that along the route there are, at first, pubs welcoming you, and later other types of hospitality. For example, in the village of Fyfield, the local scout group set up their “pitstop” to serve burgers and cakes to hungry riders, all raising money for charity.
If it’s a nice summer’s evening, some of the locals along the route sit outside their homes and applaud the riders coming through!
In previous years, Southwark Cycles had organised coaches and removal lorries to transport those riders and their bikes who needed it, a lift back to London. But Covid meant that this wasn’t possible this year. And that meant that getting away from Dunwich was going to be a challenge.
Some people have helpful friends or family members willing to drive out to pick them up. Others just turn around and ride the 180 km back again. The train used to be an option, but the latest modern trains along the East Anglian mainline route don’t have a baggage car, leaving room for just a handful of bikes on each service. The prospect of potentially thousands of cyclists all wanting to get the train back means that they actually ban bikes from using the train that day. (There’s a whole book to be written about the state of our public transport infrastructure in encouraging sustainable transport, and not pushing people to use cars. But that’s not for right now.)
I didn’t really fancy the 180 km all the way back home, but I did reckon I could manage another 100 km to the next county over – Norfolk – and say hi to my parents again.
So that’s what I did.
The ride to Dunwich went very well, and I rode in some small groups to keep my speed up. If the last time I’d ridden the route I’d noticed some nasty little climbs, this time it felt like the route might as well be flat.
I arrived in Dunwich at around 3.30am.
That was earlier than anticipated, and it meant that I had a wrinkle in my onwards plan which included a river ferry crossing. The problem was that the ferry didn’t operate until 8am on Sundays, and I didn’t fancy sitting around in the somewhat chilly early morning. So I replanned my route taking me through Norwich, and headed on.
I’ve got to admit that the extra 100 km or so felt hard. When I found a 24-hour petrol station at around 5am, I thanked my lucky stars, guzzling full-fat Coke and Haribo to power me on. I was also by now severely sleep-deprived. My original plan had been to get a nap in during Saturday, but I had ended up watching far too much of the Olympics which had just started. The men’s cycling road race had taken place that morning . So now I had 200+ km in my legs, and I’d been up for more than 24 hours.
I pushed on through, arriving at the coast for the second time at around 9.30am. I had now ridden just over 300 km in one go – taking around 14 hours to do it.
At this point I don’t have any more “epic” rides planned, although my local route planning is certainly getting more ambitious!
I can’t claim to be an expert in all the metrics you can get with technology in sport, but I am an absolute sucker for them, and “quantifying” myself was a key part to my weight loss regime.
I have already mentioned some of the cycling statistics I’ve been looking at, and there were plenty more.
As already mentioned, I use a Garmin Forerunner watch to measure my runs, and it also keeps a log of things like my step counts, my heartrate and even my blood oxygen level with its built-in pulse oximeter (Interestingly, this is a measure worth keeping an eye for Covid purposes, although the oximeters built into watches like these are not medical grade and do have some shortcomings).
I also use a Garmin cycling computer, and although I send both running and cycling data to Strava, it is Garmin’s “Connect” platform that has the most complete picture of my health and exercise regime since they know about every step I take and what my heart rate is doing throughout the day.
One thing I do like is that if I open the app on a given day, it can take account of the steps I have walked, and runs or bike rides I’ve been on, and estimate how many “additional” calories I have burnt today, and therefore in effect have available to me.
Using either the heart rate monitor in my watch, or the one in the strap I used for cycling, it also can estimate my VO2 Max level. This is essentially a measure of my cardiorespiratory fitness. I believe that ordinarily, it would be measured by doing something like a treadmill session whilst wearing a special kind of mask to measure oxygen levels. Garmin does some sort of estimation based on the data that it has available, and what’s been great to see is my VO2 Max numbers for both cycling and running rise over time.
There are lots of things that determine your VO2 Max numbers, not least your age, but when the app tells me – as it does – that my level is in the top 5% for my age and gender and that my “Fitness Age” is 20, I will very much take it!
The other part of my love of quantification is using Strava, the online fitness/social platform.
For those who don’t know, Strava is a platform that allows you to record your exercise sessions – including runs and bike rides – sharing them with friends and followers, and comparing your results with theirs. They also divide popular sections of rides and runs into “segments” crowning those who have the best times over those segments King or Queen of the Mountain (KOM/QOM).
Each time you complete some exercise, Strava will look at your stats and see if you have any Achievements to note – perhaps one of your best times on a segment, if not one of the best times overall.
I tend to follow friends, acquaintances, and a number of professional cyclists on Strava. The equivalent of Facebook or Twitter “Like” is giving “Kudos” and those who achieve a lot tend to get lots of Kudos from the community.
There’s definitely some competitiveness there, but I also find it very supportive. When I was dutifully completing my Couch to 5k runs, which were not going to break anybody’s records anywhere, it was nice to get encouraging comments from people who could see how I was going.
My watch and bike computer upload my runs and rides to Garmin automatically, and from there they are passed seamlessly to Strava behind the scenes, so everything is in the system within seconds. I just about always add a bit more detail to my sessions, and enjoy seeing what others are doing.
When I post a big ride or a PB for 10K, the general backslapping from others is enormously gratifying and I have definitely found it useful to drive me forward.
“Think of the kudos I’ll get when I post this ride!”
I mentioned KOMs and QOMs, but to be clear, I’m never likely to get one.
Some years ago, I did find myself briefly the “KOM” of a short segment of a local London street. I had seemingly broken this record one day on my commute to work on my Brompton. The email telling me this made clear that I must have been travelling at more than 75 kph. Bear in mind that this would have been in work clothes, with a bag, and on a folding bicycle.
The segment was just a couple of hundred metres long, and it would have been impossible to get to those speeds on the sleekest of racing bikes, because even if you got up to speed somehow in Central London traffic, you’d have scrubbed much of that off turning the tight corner to start the segment.
I laughed at the discrepancy, and put it down almost certainly to a dubious GPS measurement. In cities, large buildings can block signals, and you can get sometimes very wild variances between where you are and where GPS units thinks you are.
Even then, my KOM was short-lived. A couple of weeks later, an automatic email from Strava alerted me to the fact that someone else had shaved several seconds off my time, reaching speeds in excess of 80kph!
Hmm. People can, and do, set fake results with motorbikes and cars.
There are also dodgy areas for GPS reception.
As I say, I’ve not troubled the KOM scorers.
Until the day I did.
Locally, there’s a hill that I think of something of a “kicker” – short enough that you can attack it almost fully for its entire length of perhaps just 800m at around 5% gradient. It’s a hill that’s I tend to use on many of my rides, and I’ve seen improvements on it over time.
I used to have to get into the small ring to get up it – i.e., the easiest set of gears on my bike. But these days I’m out of the saddle pushing hard in the big ring.
On this one day, as I came down the road leading to the climb, I saw someone on their time-trial bike just ahead of me, going pretty fast. I rode hard to catch him and slide into his slipstream thinking it would give me a good push into the hill. But he wasn’t going fast enough! I went around him and used the speed I’d picked up to let rip.
I flew up that hill, and knew I’d done decent time.
When I got back I explored Strava and saw that I was now 9th fastest on the segment. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s phenomenal for me. Of more than 9,100 people who have ridden that hill (and recorded it on Strava), I’m the 9th fastest.
I suspect that at 82 kg, on my aluminium (i.e., not carbon) bike, with pretty heavy wheels, I’m nowhere near as light as some of the others on that climb.
At time of writing, I am still the fastest person this year, and I managed an unassisted climb up it the other day just a small handful of seconds slower. So, if a group want to give me a good lead out, I reckon I can get even better on the climb, since that distance is now one that I can really kick out the watts for over about 80 seconds or so!
The Miracle Pill
Earlier this year a new book was published by The Guardian’s political journalist Peter Walker. The Miracle Pillis a fantastic book that examines our relationship with exercise, and the fact that increasingly we lead sedentary lives.
The fact that we think of exercise as something we have to add to our existing lives means that something has gone badly wrong with the way we lead them. Should we really have to head to the gym to balance out the fact that we’re eating unhealthy ultra-processed foods? And why is exercise becoming ever more of a luxury?
We drive ridiculously short distances to drop kids off at school or pick up groceries, telling ourselves that we’re time poor and that’s the only way we can get around. Our office existences – pre-pandemic anyway – mean that we spend large parts of the day sitting down.
The book considers everything from the way we design our cities to the impact of inactivity and obesity on our countries’ economies. There is a real cost beyond the personal one.
I was already many months into my weight loss programme when I read this book, and it resonated enormously with me. In a time of the pandemic, and even with an activity programme like mine, I was aware that I still spent far too many hours a week sitting at a desk and not even standing up. One specific change I made, then, was to get myself a standing desk.
More specifically, I bought some standing desk legs from Amazon and attached the top of the cheap IKEA desk I was using to these fancy legs. I bought a no-name Chinese set of electric legs, and spent a while working out the wiring of my computer so that when the desk rises, the wires stay intact. My solution involved fitting a multi-plug system to the underside of the desk, thus minimising leads that needed to stretch.
I’ve ended up with two basic positions – a seated position and a standing position, with the idea being that I can spend at least some of each day doing some of my work, or perhaps the odd Zoom meeting, while I’m standing up.
And yes, it’s now relatively commonly known that the “10,000 steps a day” thing comes from a random Japanese marketing campaign from an early pedometer in the mid-60s. But in fact, it’s still not a bad thing to aim at.
While I do still use online ordering for large and heavy groceries, I also walk to nearby – and sometimes not-so-nearby – supermarkets to do at least some of my shopping. The local town centre is about 20 minutes from where I live if you walk swiftly, so I can use my lunch hour to dart into town and back again if I need to pick something up.
It worries me that the food delivery companies like Uber Eats and Deliveroo have evolved into adding general groceries to their offerings. While it makes a certain sense late at night, and for those who are unable to get to the shops, for the rest of us, it simply makes us more sedentary.
In city centre right now, there’s an explosive growth in companies who specialise in delivering groceries within the hour straight to your door. Perfect for a pandemic you might think? But surely most of those people are only relatively short distances from at least mid-sized supermarkets like Tesco Express or Sainsburys Local.
I can only see things getting worse in this respect and not better.
Walker’s book is actually pretty encouraging in that there are practical things that you can do at the end of each chapter, and all is definitely not lost. But we do need to make active choices ourselves, and we need our governments to truly appreciate the importance of some of the things they perhaps don’t fully appreciate right now.
For example, look at the case Parkrun, the weekly free-to-enter 5k runs/walks that take place up and down the country. Or at least they did do until the pandemic forced them to stop. As the country opened up, we were somehow able to go back to pubs and restaurants before only in the last week or so, did Parkruns open up again, because local authorities and landowners didn’t feel that they had the cover to allow mass gatherings. That despite the fact that the health risks – both physical and mental – surely outweigh precautions over Covid?
I’ve certainly ended up walking an awful lot more than I used to do. Every day, no matter what the weather, I will walk somewhere for an hour or so. If nothing else, it acts as that “buffer” we used to get via our commutes. I spend most of my walks listening to podcasts for example, something I’d have done on the train.
I realise that I’m lucky in that I have had time freed up to allow me to do this. Others have been going to their place of work throughout the pandemic, or have long since returned to work while I’m still at home and currently have a future where I’m likely to be in the office at most two days a week.
I also appreciate that I’m fortunate in where I live. If nothing else, for those who live in towns and cities, the importance of parkland has never been higher. And the importance of Britain’s extensive public rights of way beyond that has perhaps never been stronger (There’s the whole issue of a lack of the right to roam in England and Wales, but we’ll leave that for another day).
Anyway, I do recommend The Miracle Pill, and perhaps it’ll help too change your lifestyle in some slightly less sedentary way.
The Challenge of Clothing
In the scheme of things, there are relatively few downsides to going on a weight loss programme. You absolutely will be healthier, and if you embark on a fitness regime and care about such things, you’ll find that you run faster, get up hills more easily and generally have an easier time of things.
Given that you’re not carrying as much weight around, even relatively straightforward activities will become easier. It may be a while off yet, but I’m not going to dread long haul flights quite as much as I did in the past, since I won’t be squeezed into economy seats quite as much.
There is one item in the “cost” column though – and that is your clothes bill.
Put simply, none of my clothes now fit me.
I am going to come clear here – my default size was XXL before I started losing weight. And sometimes, if the cut was tight, even that might not be enough (If you’re into cycling and have ever bought Italian-made cycle clothing, you’ll understand that their sizing is quite unlike anyone else’s).
As I shed the kilogrammes, so my clothes size began to fall.
At first, I didn’t really notice it. The belt of my jeans might have needed going one notch further in, and my t-shirts might have been a little looser. But then I always had the odd t-shirt kicking around that had been a little tighter than I’d have liked when I’d bought them. And being a man, I had certainly not gone to the effort of returning said garments, instead relegating to the rear of cupboards in the hope that I’d get into them one day. Now that day had arrived!
But then I found myself over-shooting even these slightly smaller garments, and I had to buy a new belt having run out of notches. I would pull out something that had been a little tight on me previously, and that I’d just remembered I still owned. I’d put it on, and now it was far too loose!
Then I needed new trousers – or specifically, new jeans.
The pandemic did save me some money because I have basically been living in t-shirts, jeans, and shorts for the last 18 months. So, when I needed new basic clothes, it was just a question of getting more t-shirts, jeans, and shorts. I tend to favour black Levi 501s as my go-to jeans (I’ve read Pattern Recognition a few too many times), but at £80 a pair, I realised that if I carried on losing weight at this pace, I would be replacing them a bit too fast. So, while I was losing weight, supermarket brand jeans would do. They are being worn at home after all.
I also needed new sports clothing for both running and cycling. And I am now in possession of “new” clothing that today is much too large, even if it was right a few months ago.
The cost of losing weight is real!
I’ve yet to face the full reckoning of basically getting rid of all my old clothes. I have several bags of larger cycling kit ready to go now, and there are more t-shirts and polo shirts sitting ready to find a good new home too. One downside of not having a car is that I can’t just drop them off at a charity shop easily.
Rest assured, I will find a home for them, and not just put them in the recycling – unless it’s a clothing recycling bin anyway.
Today, for most clothing I’m now a medium – a long way from that XXL. (Obviously, if I choose to buy “race fit” Italian-made cycling clothing, that probably bounces back to being XXL!)
My jeans size has dropped down to 32” coming from 42”. That is the size I was at when I went to university! According to health sites, it does seem that waist size is almost as good as anything at telling you your health.
Another benefit is that it’s now actually possible for me to walk into a high street shop and buy clothes there and then. It was becoming quite regular for many shops to only offer their plus-sized ranges via their online outlets, which makes trying on very hard.
I am just a bit gutted that I have a few quite expensive jackets made of Gore-Tex and similar that I’m going to need to get rid of. Essentially, only my socks and shoes have stayed the same size.
Do You Feel Better?
One of the curious things about the timing of my weight loss, allied as it is with the pandemic, is that I have seen many of my friends and colleagues only very intermittently in the last year or so, and often then from the chest up on video chat.
When you do meet up in person, there is often surprise – shock even. And the really common question I get after explaining that I have actively been losing weight, is, “Do you feel better?”
The thing is, it is really hard to definitively answer that.
In truth, yes, I absolutely am an awful lot better.
I suspect that I’m now as healthy and probably healthier than at any time since I was a teenager. Even as a student at university, I wasn’t doing anything like the amount of exercise I do today. And I was definitely drinking more alcohol and eating less healthily then.
But at the same time, I have got to confess that I didn’t feel unhealthy to begin with.
While I absolutely was obese, I still managed to get around. Indeed, right before the pandemic struck, I was in the north-west of Scotland doing some hillwalking.
Taking part in 100 mile or more cycle rides like Ride London was the kind of thing I’d do anyway. I rode a bike at least part of the way to work on a daily basis, and in summer months, I would ride the 20 km or so each way between my home and workplace.
I was not unfit, but I was overweight.
And yet, I almost certainly do feel better. There’s more of a spring in my step, literally, when I get off the sofa; I’m not heaving myself up anymore. I obviously didn’t run previously, and now I can run for hours at a time. My weight almost certainly contributed to occasional back issues that I suffered, issues that haven’t raised themselves more recently.
A couple of years ago the doctor took my blood pressure and noted that it was a little high. Being the kind of person I am, I bought a blood pressure monitor to keep an eye on it. My weight loss has certainly eased that – which stands to reason since there is significantly less of me for my body to heave around, so my heart is probably having an easier time.
As an aside, my weight loss did reveal that I have quite a protruding xiphoid process bone in my sternum. I think my weight covered this up, and I was slightly concerned when it revealed itself to me that I had a strange lump in my chest. One x-ray later at the hospital, and I’m relieved to discover that all is well there.
When I do have those health conversations with friends and colleagues, I am also aware that I’m perhaps at odds with the population as whole, many of whom have put on weight in the last year or so. Food is comforting at worrying times when there are new waves of a killer virus hitting us, and we may be worrying about our own health, or that of friends and family. We might also have money concerns, with so many being out of work, even allowing for the various government support mechanisms.
I’d never want to rub salt in the wounds of someone who’s found things much harder than I have and has gained weight at the same time as I’ve lost it. I realise that my situation is unusual.
As I’ve tried to eat more healthily, or perhaps eat less unhealthily, I’ve seen just how hard it is to do so. If you look in the average convenience store, it’s piled high with junk food and ultra-processed food items. The ends of aisles are always full of special offers for invariably poorer quality foods. I know that if you have less money available, then that becomes ever harder to manage, particularly if you have a family to feed.
I know that my health and my weight is an ongoing process, and I’m basically one year into it.
Many people lose some weight, only to later put it back on. As society opens up more, I know that it will be easier to make bad choices, and unhealthy decisions. A few too many drinks at the pub followed by a late-night takeaway or food delivery.
I am going to have to try to keep on top of things.
A major part of that, and something I have not properly addressed yet, is building up my muscles some more. I have not done a great deal in strength exercises, and it is likely that some of my weight loss has come from muscles. The good news is that muscles burn through calories very fast, which means that as you have more of them, you can eat more without putting on weight.
Well, that’s the theory. So, my next step is to start a regime using free weights and resistance bands. I am in part hoping that writing this down here will push me into doing it.
I have also found that I am more goal oriented than I had perhaps previously realised. That means setting myself some personal targets. That could be a half-marathon here, or a full marathon somewhere else! In 1999, the day after I completed my slow London Marathon (driven in part by the knowledge that an old school friend of mine had managed it, when he was far less physically fit than I had been at school!), I told myself that marathons are too far to run, and that this would be the last one I’d ever do.
I’m not 100% sure that’s true now. But let’s do a few more half-marathons before I make any decisions about that!
What I would really like to do now is travel to France or Spain and test myself on some big mountains – get over some of those peaks I’ve seen so often on television coverage of cycle races, but which I’d never dared attempt before.
One of the beautiful things about cycling is that the roads are open to all. You can cycle the same course that the professionals have cycled before you. Indeed, encouraging cycle tourism is major part of many of these communities that had previously mostly relied on winter sports tourism.
And maybe I will enter something like L’Etape du Tour, a cycling sportive that covers a full stage of the Tour de France just before, or just after the race itself. This invariably includes several mountain climbs on a single day. It would be a great test!
Part of me also wants to get into swimming a bit more. I think it would help with my upper body strength quite a lot, and then I could even look at some basic triathlon events. But let’s not run before I can walk.
This last year has been a life-changing one in so many ways, but for me personally, it has been incredibly significant.
I have visions of myself, standing in my bathroom, looking at myself in the mirror and telling myself off about my weight.
“You must do something.”
And then, I would do nothing.
Until, finally, I did do something.
And honestly, if I can, then I reckon you can too.