122 Days – The Storied Self


As part of the research for this project I was lucky to have the chance to work with 3 academics at Northumbria University – two sport scientists and a sports psychologist by the name of Dr Sarah Partington.

I asked her a series of questions about the psychology of endurance sport and her area of study, I was particularly interested in the limiting factor of psychology; how studies have shown that it is our psychological and neural processes that limit us much more than our cardio-vascular ones in endurance settings. I highly recommend listening to this Radiolab episode which set me along this thought path. The episode highlights the ‘central governor theory’ – that we have a fail-safe in our brain that can force the body to stop exerting itself, but that does so well before we have actually entered dangerous levels of exertion – that we can push ourselves much further than we think. Do listen to the episode if you have a moment.

This led me to investigate the performance modifying capability of the brain further. I discovered discussion around other ‘centrally acting performance modifiers’ beyond the combination of physiological factors; nutrition and hydration, training and genetics. This diagram here describes several of the types of psychological and circumstantial factors than can affect our physiological performance.

From “Fatigue is a Brain-Derived Emotion that Regulates the Exercise Behavior to Ensure the Protection of Whole Body Homeostasis” published in in Frontiers in Physiology 2012; 3: 82. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3323922/

And so I asked Dr Sarah Partington about the psychology of endurance sport – specifically how – and why – we carry on, psychologically speaking, how how we think, affects us.

Sarah explained that the central governor theory etc., was more linked to physiological studies, but that she could certainly answer from the point of view of her own specialism – the Storied Self. She explained that this was a theory amongst a context of complex behaviours and environments – it was a strong theory, but (ever the academic) wanted to stress it was one among many approaches to the psychology of sport.

She explained that we are creatures of narrative – that as self-aware animals we build our sense of self through storytelling – we communicate our sense of self through stories. We need our story of self to be ratified socially, and we build our identity out of the stories we tell of our past within our social contexts. For an example in sport, you can look to a paper she co-wrote called “Mid-life nuances and negotiations: narrative maps and the social construction of mid-life in sport and physical activity” (2005) and consider the storied self of mid-life athletes:

“The findings revealed a master narrative for mid-life in sport, which is that ‘age is a state of mind’. In addition two further narratives were apparent. One, ‘life begins at forty’ was a counter-narrative, which depicted mid-life as a time of rejuvenation and an opportunity to revisit the experiences of youth. The other was an antithesis narrative, which focused upon acceptance of the ageing process and the notion of ‘growing old gracefully’. Sportsmen and women linked their own stories to these idealised narrative types, but via a process of narrative slippage, created their own personal narratives of sporting mid-life.”
http://www.researchgate.net/publication/248975365 [accessed Mar 24, 2015].”

The day to day grind of training is part of building a narrative of self-who-does-sport. All well and good, but what about in the context of extreme feats of endurance?

I sent Sarah a video, before I spoke to her – it was one I found following that Radiolab episode. Two women, competing for fourth places at the 1997 Ironman world championship.

I asked her “what makes us do that, though? What makes someone put themselves through that, when their body is so clearly screaming ‘stop’.”

Sarah explained to me that when we set goals for ourself, we add to our story. We build them into our storied self. Stories extend into the future as well as build from the past. It might be that you need to be part of that Ironman ‘club’, it might be that you always finish, no matter what. It might be that you do the things you set out to do – these are stories about yourself that are integral to your identity, they build it.

Sarah said to me that not completing those goals – failing to complete your story – it can “shatter your identity”. She used those exact words a few times.


“Self-determination experts would talk about a sense of autonomy and agency and purpose: engaging in something that you have chosen to do for a purpose that is important to you. The other part of that theory would be about connectedness, maybe connected to a broader you know, social network outside of you or something bigger so I guess for you it would be about feeling like part of that Ironman fraternity […] there’s a social group and a social identity beyond your personal identity. This sort of self-actualisation, it’s very reinforcing. [But] it may backfire. You keep pushing and keep pushing and keep pushing and it becomes very difficult and if you’ve set your heart on these particular goals and that is part of you identity to then not complete the goal could actually shatter your identity. […] It may become autotelic it may have some elements of self-determination in there and it may be linked to an identity and if you aren’t able to maintain this goal or this competence that drives you, it’s really like your identity is going to be shattered. It becomes so important that you can’t fail, you have to keep going no matter what.”

This combines the theory of the stories self with ‘flow’ – which Sarah has also researched (in big wave surfers particularly [2009]). This is a theory of intrinsic pleasure and motivation (that you also hear about in game design, interestingly). Sarah explained that flow, autotelic, intrinsic motivation were all terms used sometimes interchangeably and sometimes to mean distinct things, but that generally all refer to the kind of activity that is its own reward.

“It’s really just when the activity becomes reinforcing in and of itself. So there’s no sort of external reward or anything that is triggering you to do that activity, it’s just the sheer activity itself that […] the easiest term for it to be would be to say that it’s an activity that is reinforcing in and of itself generally hough the joy, the pleasure and enjoyment that it brings from just actually doing the activity without having any external rewards associated with it”

It’s the pleasure of mastery you experience of progressing through levels in a video game, it’s the pleasure of improvement as you feel certain speeds or correct techniques become easier, it’s the feeling of crossing a finish line, or a personal best, or a great run in Spelunky. Intrinsic motivation, Sarah explained, can get you so engaged in activity you can lose awareness of self and environment.

Hannah_Nicklin___hannahnicklin__•_Instagram_photos_and_videos-2 3

Finally, we talked about psychological techniques for endurance sport – visualisation was heavily favoured by sport psychologists (it’s a form of telling yourself the story often enough that it becomes a more possible future), and also the difference between elite and amateur athlete’s thoughts when they compete: associative vs dissociative behaviours. Where amateur athletes will tend towards dissociative behaviours – distracting themselves from the pain, listening to music, thinking about other things, external motivations, elite athletes will tend to concentrate their thoughts around performance, associative behaviours – they will understand their pain, concentrate on their technique, pace, previous experience, hitting certain goals and distances within the larger race.

This made me think about the feeling of doing the Cotswold 113 last year. The middle distance ‘half ironman’. I did it in a much quicker time that I expected. And I remember… I remember really enjoying it. I remember the feeling of everything just settling, of just being wholly in the moment and concentrating on the very next, thinking about my pedalling, pushing a little harder, holding back so I had enough for the run, counting the laps, watching the distance markers.

hannahnicklin_on_Instagram 2

In 122 days when I do the Outlaw, I will not (by British Triathlon guidelines) be allowed to wear headphones. Every triathlon I do is done in only in the company of my own thoughts. Just me, and myself, for 12-16 hours.

There is not another point in my life where I am every quiet with myself like that. Not ever for that amount of time. Not in our world, with the way I live. Never.

All I can hope is that I will be kind to myself.

Before this project, before looking at videos like the one above,  it never occurred to me that I might not finish. It never occurred to me that I might fail. It is a plausible outcome, one I now need to consider because I’m making a show about it – I need to think about all the narrative possibilities. And yet, it just doesn’t come into my head.

I see myself cross the line, and I see my mother there, at the end, like she always is, red cheeked with pride. I see her arms wide, and the feel of the carpet under my feet. I do not crawl across it. Though I suspect if I had to, I would.

I hear her tell me “well done”.



123 Days – A Pool Swimmer


A week or so ago I went to the John Charles Centre for Sport in Leeds to take part in The Triathlon Coach swim analysis workshop. It involved a hour’s swim focussed on increasing speed, with each of us taking a couple of minutes to be filmed swimming, before then having a two hour session on technique, analysing our stroke, and suggestions for improvements.

Swimming is my thing. It’s my sport. In every triathlon I’ve done, the water is my home. I’m always so glad that they begin with the discipline I feel the safest with – time to relax, and settle in (when I know a lot of other people are mostly concentrating on not drowning), the opportunity to get used to breathing and the silence of being-alone-with-yourself of triathlon.

I grew up swimming for a club, to a county level. I even did a couple of international meets. I trained in 3 or 4 pools across Lincoln: NK, City, Christ Hospital, and Yarborough. Early mornings and late nights. At Yarborough they had a walk way between the girls and the boys changing areas, where an attendant would take your things in a basket, before lockers were installed there (although as part of the club, you’d just take your bag on poolside). NK was the site of the strongest memory I have of a swim meet – of a 50m backstroke win that felt like I was flying and also not moving. I looked up and suddenly it was over, and I was 5m ahead of everyone else. I gave up swimming not long after I was 12 following a severe break of both my arms. My mum said I used to swim in my sleep when I had the casts on. I joined a drama club with all my new spare time (the routes life finds for us) I didn’t stop being a swimmer. When I worked in a kitchen in the south of France for a year when I was 18 I would wallow in the cool water of the Ardêche Gorge. I learnt to canoe and picked it up at a rate that unnerved my instructor, but to me always just felt like using the paddle as a hand, when I swim my hand is a paddle.


When I went to university it was a sports university to do drama (no irony lost) with a beautiful 50m pool, in Wolverhampton the pool was less nice and times restricted but I worked my way up to a swimming fitness I’d lost for a while, with the help of a waterproof mp3 player. Back to Loughborough for a PhD and over those 4 years I watched British Swimming’s training sessions and tried to straighten my stroke out. I built up my distances, but I had no clue how to construct drills and rests and paces for actually progressing my technique. I did remember paddle and pull buoy work though, and kick, so I added some of that on, and was eventually swimming 5k sessions as a mix of crawl, breast, back, pull, kick with no rests. Then I moved to London. Ironmonger Row’s funny 33m pool had me doing complex maths, I used to cycle from Lewisham to Ironmonger Row for an hour’s swim before a 10am start at work. I observed that London lane discipline was worse, and that people here kick harder. Lewisham pool was nice enough – a great resource for the community – but lane times severely limited, and once someone told me that the likes of me shouldn’t be swimming there. Later I thought up the comeback I never said: “I’m in the fast lane, there’s no faster one, though there are several slower, why not avail yourself of one of them”. In Loughborough they actually had a ‘faster’ lane. Slow, medium, fast, faster.

Every Saturday since I moved to London I would cycle from Lewisham to Crystal Palace to swim in the 50m pool there. A pilgrimage.

Crystal Palace pool, image from the www.crystalpalacecampaign.org site

Crystal Palace National Sports Centre is tall, the architecture angular, the sun spills in from 3 sides of windows, set in the heart of Crystal Palace Park. You hear the diving boards ricochet, squash court squeaks, but thankfully they don’t play any music. The pool is old, but graceful with it. One half always set aside for lessons – local clubs, or sometimes synchronised swimmers and an instructor repeatedly tapping the middle steps with a cane for the beat. The lanes for public use are open as long as I’ve ever encountered 7am-7pm most days, 10am-5pm at the weekends. It’s bliss. I can fit swimming into my day rather than my day into swimming. I can get sleep, recover. I can run with a backpack and get 85 minutes around the park in before a 3500m training session. In October I moved to Penge, which is a 5 minute cycle and a 10 minute run from the pool. They have a stock of pull buoys and kickboards so I don’t need to carry those in my backpack. There are a couple of pigeons that fly around in the ceiling sometimes. The water is cool – a proper training temperature – flags for turns, proper lane ropes, 2 minute clocks, even with 6 people in a lane there’s room to feel like you’ve got space.

And this year I got a coach, the last bit, the training sessions, I now have someone setting the drills, the distances, the rests. And I’m getting better. Hitting personal bests.

My Friday swim, followed by a 45’ run, looks like this:

  • WARM UP 1 x 600 m front crawl , 6/10 effort: 300m EZ, 200m Build, 100m hard
    10 x 50m +20s rest – TORPEDO KICK + POLO Notes:Execute a GREAT push off from the wall. Keep your head down with your hands placed on on top of the other tucking the top thumb under the lower hand. Reach as tall and high as you can and if you are flexible then tuck your arms behind your head. After you have pushed off in the streamlined position kick as hard as you can until you run out of breath. When you surface do a head up “Water Polo” style stroke to 25m, then do easy freestyle for the end of the rep (50m)
    10 x 100m single arm drills +20s rest after each 100m. Notes:This drill is perfect for developing rotation, Early catch and balance between L & R arm strokes. To view a video of this drill please click here – 25L/25fs/25R/25fs – on 1 arm drills have 1 arm by side.
    5 x 200m PULL 8/10 effort + 20s rest. Work on cadence and good catch
    COOL DOWN 1 x 300m EZ backstroke

Swimming is all about being symmetrical and efficient. In a world of thickened dynamics (water moves like air does but with more force) the aim is to transfer as much energy into forward momentum as possible. Because you need to turn to breathe you need to carefully balance and counter balance your body in the water – any point of asymmetry and some of your energy propels you sideways, works against you and the water, not with it. Lots of splash means you’re moving air more than water, not enough and you might be too low in the water. Your body should be flat, if it dips, then your feet will drag. Movements should be smooth and aerodynamic. You train by concentrating on different things in each session, rather than trying to get each bit of technique right in one go. Ingrain it, add things in, find out what it feels like to do it right with a paddle that forces your stroke into the right position, then repeat it without. A different session each week will focus on: strength (upper body, and kick), technique, endurance.


This is me in the lake at Roundhay Park

I was taught to be a pool swimmer: power and sprinting. But I’m training for open water.

Unsurprisingly this is what the workshop stroke analysis showed me. I have a good pool stroke – my body is in a good position, I have a good kick, my elbows are high, but I have developed over-gliding, and am doing a series of things I learnt in the 90s which either aren’t thought to be best practice now, or that aren’t suited to open water swimming: explosive breathing, thumb entry, slow, powerful smooth stroke. I have a slow cadence (stroke rate) and a long stroke. Although I was about the same speed as others in the class, I had the lowest stroke rate – around 50 strokes per minute. Almost good for a pool stroke, but unideal for open water – where you need higher arms, a much faster turnover, where you need to breathe comfortably on both sides to avoid sun glare, waves, wind.

So, take a look at these three videos. The first is me, with my stroke rate of around 50. The second is a famously smooth pool swimmer, Jono Van Hazel, who starts out with a stroke rate of around 65, hitting 1:15 per 100m, and the final is the world’s best open water technique swimmer Jodie Swallow, who has a frankly astonishing ALL DAY stroke rate of around 90 (1:10 per 100m). She can keep that pace up for HOURS. Listen to the commentary there – it’s a swinging uncouth stroke in the air but she has immediate catch (the word for getting a purchase on the water with your hand), and still maintains high elbows (you might hear coaches talking about the importance of high elbows, but they don’t mean above the water, they mean under the water – it means you can use the big muscles of your back to pull on the water) and great technique all the way through.

This is me!

 — Jono Van Hazel (stroke rate of around 65. 1:15 per 100m)

— Jodie Swallow (stroke rate of around 90, 1:10 per 100m)

So, here’s what I need to work on

1) buy a pair of these: http://www.proswimwear.co.uk/finis-freestyler-hand-paddle.html paddles to help correct my entry position – experimenting with an entry point closer to my body, so that I cut down on the glide

2) improve my cadence (increase the stroke rate) – train at a higher cadence, by either straight-up counting strokes, or using something like this: http://www.proswimwear.co.uk/brands/finis/finis-tempo-trainer-pro-yellow.html which will beep for every stroke (and which can be used for pace keeping, you can use it sort of like a bleep test for swimming, knocking it down a second every 100m)

3) continuous breathing – unlearn the way I’ve been breathing for years. Relearn another. One is for sprinting, the other is for long distance efforts.

And keep up the strength and endurance training too.

I love swimming. It’s my home. It’s quiet and strong and every tiny alteration you make to your stroke makes you faster. It’s a field of never-perfect and of personal best. I’m excited to have new things to work on.

134 days – Nutrition

a picture of an empty plate

I was in Leeds today working with Simon on the details – strength and conditioning (more on that next) and nutrition. Nutrition can make a huge difference to your performance, and importantly, your recovery. Turns out training is as much about rest as it is about work. “And proper rest too, that means sleep, sleeping lots, and cutting out stress on rest days too”.

Phil Hayes at Northumbria University said this to me when I spoke to him about why we train:

“So there’s a really good quote from a guy called David Costill who was an exercise physiologist who was probably the most prominent person through the 1980s. And he did lots of stuff on running and then got into swimming in his later career. And he said ‘The purpose of training is to stimulate growth, growth only occurs with periods of rest and recovery’ …which I really like because it tells you everything about training you have to work hard to get the body to adapt and grow and you also need to have periods where you rest and recover to allow those changes to take place because…if you just work hard all the time eventually everything breaks down. So I like his quote because it gives you all of what the process is. We train to grow and adapt, and the things that grow and adapt are the structures in the body, so within the muscles, the muscle structures change, within the heart the heart structure changes, the blood vessel structure changes, and because of those structural changes we then get a change in the way our body functions”

Work, and recover, fuel and rebuild.

Food is fuel.

It’s also a bunch of other things; it’s a gift, it’s a comfort, it’s family and friends and loved ones, it’s an enemy, it’s a friend, it’s sinful, it’s beautiful, it’s ethical, it’s bad for the environment, it’s harmful, it’s good, it’s bad, it’s super, it’s….

It’s really hard to take control of. The right kind of control. The light touch life-long control. There are times when I’ve been too controlling of food. There are times when I’ve not and that was good for me in some ways but in others I’ve felt like I’ve been wearing a costume of myself for a body. There are allergies and intolerances and ethical choices I have made that means I’m vegetarian, I can’t have milk or cream, and I can’t eat peppers. There are unpredictable things to my lifestyle which mean I often have to eat on the run, or I’m cooking for friends and it’s one of my favourite things to do, to show love in that way.

I can’t separate food from these things. But I do need to find a balance of them.

So today I asked Simon about nutrition. And he explained that it was simple: “the difference between healthy eating and performance eating is just really when you eat, timing intake to training. He has a set of guidelines – not rules – which includes no calorie restriction, no ‘bad’ foods.

Roughly, this is what he recommended

  • Eat every 2-4 hours, around 5 meals a day.
  • Have complete lean protein in every meal (plant based protein is fine!). If you’re training hard you want 1.4-2g of protein for every kg of your body weight. If you weigh 70kg, that’s 100-140g per day.
  • Have veg with every meal. Eat 4:1 veg to fruit throughout the day.
  • Eat healthy fats daily. Eat non-veg simple carbs only after training.
  • Drink water, black coffee, peppermint tea.

and planplan plan plan plan.  Set time aside for it

  1. keep a food diary.
  2. take your measurements
  3. make a weekly food plan
  4. write your shopping list
  5. go shopping, and stick to the list
  6. prepare the food so it will fit into your life
  7. stick to the plan
  8. mark a X on meals you hit O on meals you miss and ? on meals that aren’t to plan. Work out your weekly adherence.
  9. reward yourself with 10% do-what-you-like meals for 90% lean eating
  10. track how your measurements change.

Now I’m not overweight. But I’ve been lighter. Moving to London 2 years ago stripped my lifestyle of a bunch of time and stability which killed my ability to plan and stick to plan. I want to lose weight. Which is a tough thing for a feminist to say – but it’s not about looking, you see. It’s not about being a thing looked at, it’s about building a body for doing. And if you are leaner, you are faster, you have less weight to drag up a hill, or lift off the ground with every running stroke. Power to weight ratio. I want to be faster. I want to be powerful.

So. Here goes. Here’s my plan for next week. Links go to my food blog, in case you’re interested!

Meal 1
Meal 2
Meal 3
Meal 4
Meal 5
eggs on toast
carrot soup and wholemeal bread
carrot and hummus
falafel or hummus wrap
mushroom cheese omelette with beans
granola + yoghurt
falafel or hummus wrap
carrot and hummus
Moroccan chickpeas with quinoa and avocado
porridge with berries yoghurt and seeds
avocado and tomato
carrot soup and wholemeal bread
apple and orange
courgette quinoa
porridge with berries yoghurt and seeds
avocado and tomato
carrot soup and wholemeal bread
hazelnut quinoa
mushroom cheese omelette with beans
granola + yoghurt
falafel or hummus wrap
courgette quinoa
mushroom cheese omelette with beans
granola + yoghurt
Sweet potato and halloumi falafel with salad
carrot and hummus
10% meal
porridge with berries yoghurt and seeds
Apple and orange
10% Meal
hazelnut quinoa


134 days – Faith

a print out of some strength and conditioning exercises and materials

“Training is about faith”

Simon said to me, sitting across a falafel salad in Horsforth.

He had just described to me the ultra run across the Sahara Desert that him and his partner Fiona were doing in 3 week’s time, laden with all of their food, water, and camping gear. It’s a race of between 150 and 156 miles, over 6 days.

I had just asked “do you think I’ll be ready in time?” And that’s when he told me that he had 3 weeks to go until the Marathon de Sables. “If you put a gun to my head tomorrow, I could do it” he said “but there are still bits, still bits of training to do, it’s not complete”.

Simon is a fan of metaphors, he’ll use one and then he’ll explain it. I think it’s a useful way to talk as a coach, because if he talks about the thing visually, and then about why the visual works, mostly what he’s doing is taking time to find the way the idea fits into your head. This time it’s cake.

“It’s like a cake, it’s not ready yet, it’s not done, it doesn’t have the candles, I haven’t iced it, sure it looks like a cake, it’s baked, it’s got the two bits and the filling, but there’s none of the bits that makes it complete.”

Training is like a cake, he tells me – later on when he’s telling me to have a rest day because of my cold, it’s a brick wall (one missed session, one missed brick, it’s ok, it’ll hold) – “if I put a gun to your head tomorrow, you could do it, you could do the Outlaw”.

I tell him it just had never entered my head that I wouldn’t be able to before now

“What changed?”

“Honestly”, I tell him, “I think it was deciding to make a piece of theatre about it. Before now I didn’t have to think about how to tell the story if I – if I failed”.

He echoes a sentiment I tell myself – that it’s about the journey, that’s the story I’m telling, “and that’s what training is, it’s the journey”

Some days I feel like I could do the race tomorrow. Some days I feel like I could at least get to the end of the ride. Some days I feel like the prospect of it is sat on my chest like my little brother did when we fought when we were little except that it’s now and it’s my 28 year old little brother who is 6’7” and can benchpress a whole lotta kg.

Simon tells me it’s about faith. Training is about faith – I might do all of the distance for the Outlaw separately, before attempting it – maybe not the marathon, but certainly the bike and the run, but I won’t put them together before. I won’t know that I can do it, not for certain. It would be foolish to try – training is not about doing the thing but preparing the thing – if I were to try before I could injure myself, exhaust myself leaving myself without enough time to recover and train, I would be trying to do the thing before I was ready; light the candles with only batter to stick them in.

Simon explains how there’s not really any way to train for the Sahara run, not really. That it’s about training and strength and conditioning. It’s about faith. And it’s about being strong, in your mind.

“I think I’m very strong”. I say this, and it feels… I’m used to apologising for that kind of sentiment. It’s a bald thing to say, like an invitation for the world to try and knock me down.

He says that like in real life there are bad days and good days, when I do the Outlaw, there will be moments when it feels like the best thing, and moments when it feels like the worst.

You know I still don’t believe that I might not do it. Some days I don’t know what to do with being that kind of person.

I scrat around for a piece of paper and a pen. I want to write down ‘training is about faith’. “It’s OK,” Simon says, “you’ll remember it”.

137 Days – Training update

Training Peaks Simon Ward

Argh life is hard to fit together at the moment. I have a bunch of things to write up – about the science I learnt in Newcastle, the feedback from the showings, the physio assessment I had last week. I’ll get up to speed soon. In the meantime, this is why I’m struggling to fit things in. The image on this post is my training for this week. SPORT. This week’s training looks like this, it’s in Training Peaks, a system which my coach updates every 3 weeks when I let him know where I am and how much I’m available/what I can access (am I away and therefore without a bike, e.g.). A slight step up every week so far. I’m really really enjoying having drills and intervals set for me. You should see how silly I look in the park doing running drills though. More on the drills in a later blog post.

I’ve got a day with Simon Ward (my coach! That’s still exciting to say) on Friday where he’s going to fit my new bike to me, teach me about aerobars, and go over some technique on the bike and in running. Then on the Saturday a chance to get in the pool with his Masters session, which is both exciting and terrifying. Exciting and terrifying are, I’ve always found, very similar feelings. I often try and re-configure terrifying into excitement. Sometimes it works. Sometimes.