Cold Weather Training

A year ago, during one of the very short periods of proper cold weather in Berlin, I was out doing my laps in it and thinking. I do a lot of thinking when I’m riding. Quite a bit is of looping through a rhythm as I breathe in and out to the circling of my legs, feet locked into pedals. It’s usually a 4/4, but cuts to a 2/4 when things get dire. Sometimes I go for a 5/4 so I don’t get too obsessive about it all. Another part is saying, “Please stop. Please stop. This feels awful.” That’s one of the voices in my head, probably mine, yapping. In turn, my thighs go through waves of wanting to vomit, like peristalsis moving from gut to legs; my lower back finds various positions to complain in, as do arms, shoulders, toes, hands. My saddle is up in my business, stabbing me in my junk. All skin on the windward side is inexorably being chilled to numbness, along with much of the leeward side of my arse.

My nose is keeping up a consistent drip, a rivulet of watery snot coating my upper lip. Eyes get in on the game too, and my mouth is pulled into what would be described as a “horrible rictus”. I try and remember to make it a smiley one. Apparently that makes suffering easier. “Oh God, I’m going to die. I can’t bear anymore.” goes me, as I keep going, round and round, soaking up aches and enduring the road hammering up into me, heaving cold air in and out of lungs.

So I was riding like that, pretty typical, and it was one of the truly cold days of January, there’s been a light dusting of fine, very dry snow, which ran along the ground beside me in the tailwind. The sun was low and doing that sublime winter thing where the air is iridescent, like it could almost be the arctic. This was around Tempelhofer Feld, the old airport in central Berlin, now a vast parkland. It was empty. I’d seen a couple of runners, and that was it. A 6.6km loop in almost 3 square kilometres in the middle of a city, empty. And I thought, “I should write about cold weather training and suffering and endurance.” Then it warmed up and we didn’t have much of a winter until this last week.

Winter in Berlin is broken compared to when I first arrived, almost a decade ago.

Below -5° extra layers offer diminishing comfort, especially if there’s wind raking the numbers even lower. Air feels like cold liquid. Effort doesn’t generate heat that makes it to the surface or extremities. During 90 minutes of riding, once the initial warm-up buffers against the cold, it’s a slow leeching of heat, sense, motors skills, thinking. My legs feel naked, my cheeks raw. The airport field empties somewhere around -5° also. A handful of runners, some uncomfortable commuters grinding towards heat death, if it’s sunny, one or two huddled out of the wind, sucking in what little warmth can be felt. The sun hangs low and weak above the horizon, far away. The air soaks up all its heat, passes none on.

I can feel my body locking into position, I try and shift more, get on the drops, get a little more aerodynamic, more forward and back on the saddle, occasionally stand up to shake some fatigue from my legs. All the while, nose goes drip, drip, drip. It’s a race between hypothermia and getting the laps in. Pretty bloody stupid.

Today, -6° and 25km/h wind flowing Finland and the Baltic, I tried to think into words the experience of getting through a session of this. Already I forget what it’s like. I remember arriving home, fingers and thoughts slushy and slow, getting into the shower to recover, after-care, kind of like a BDSM session, the very not pleasant ache of blood returning to the surface, and how cold, like cuts of meat from a butcher’s coldstore, my thighs and arse were.

There’s a training measurement called Functional Threshold Power, which you find by hammering as utterly hard as you can for a full hour. There’s a shorter, 20 minute version which gives a more-or-less similar number, but somehow doesn’t conjure the grotesque horror of laying yourself out for 60 minutes. Even backing off for 10 seconds is enough for some recovery, and it becomes not so much a physical limit, as a mental one of meeting “Please stop!” with “Just one more.” for each pedal stroke and each breath, each inhale and exhale, and doing that for each minute and all those seconds. And that’s not to diminish the physical wretchedness, gasping like a walrus, feeling blood draining through legs, everything going jelly. I’ve never done the FTP test, mainly because it terrifies me, mentally I’m not sure I could remain so utterly consistent for a full hour. I might like suffering, but I only play in the shallows.

Back to the cold, then. Probably also playing. Like the heat, you can’t really train for cold. You can understand how one’s body and person responds to and behaves in decreasing temperature, build a familiarity, but actually train for it like training for hill climbing or cobblestone riding or riding muddy off-cambers? It’s like the death zone in mountaineering, over around 8000 metres where there’s insufficient oxygen to keep you alive. Once you’re in there, you’re dying, it’s just physiology and the day that determines how quick. Too hot or too cold, same thing, your body is shutting down.

I want to veer off into pleasure here. Thinking about where I scrape out grains of pleasure and ecstasy in my life. This suffering is pleasure. During and after. Each pedal stroke, one after the other, I find a way with enduring, persevering with discomfort. It becomes only me, my breathing, the cold and wet. I become untouchable. When I was a dance student, and in the years immediately after, I was trained in the ceaseless analysis of self dancing, like picking a scab. Climbing was an escape from this. I never asked questions too close to the ones dance worries incessantly: Why do I do this? How do I do this? Perhaps now I’m stronger in myself resisting questions like these. Not all acts must be subject to dissection and justification — but having maybe a certitude or confidence in doing these things without converting to language why or how — or even considering these questions relevant, I can think about what happens when I subject myself to discomfort.

Finding language then, for things I don’t contemplate or consider in words. Finding a language of pleasure, of which ecstasy is part of the terrain, when as a life lived, there is little in the way of conventional pleasure.

[edit] I started thinking about writing cold weather training a year ago, February 2nd, 2017. A year later, February 25th and 26th, just before I went to Australia, when winter turned on some proper brutal weeks, I wrote most of this. I’d planned to write more, edit it a bit, something, things which didn’t happen. Now it’s July 21st, the middle of one of the hottest and driest summers in Europe on record, Berlin has been having weeks on and off of 30°+ days, I find it strange to think of and remember that particular day in February in this heat. I’ve been training a lot since the start of May, it’s become, or becoming something of an artwork (like my blog is a life project), one of the solo endurance performances I’ve been thinking around. I wanted to write about those, so it makes sense to start with this, if for no other reason than keeping my notes in order.


Scienceworks Bluestone Wall Panorama

This is my commitment to perseverance, endurance, and suffering. In panorama. 120 metres of finger-ripping bluestone, of which I’ve worked out maybe 10 metres. I had a quick climb yesterday before going to Williamstown Beach, and again today before seeing beautiful Paea, and later most excellent Emile. Some moves became a small sequence. It’s a delight. Thin edges, feet smearing on nubs, a right-hand pincher that swaps to a gaston via a vertical crack between two blocks where the mortar fell out, just enough to get the edge of middle and tip of index finger of my other hand into, then another tiny edge to get my left hand to a side pull on the same pincher after I’ve reached wide right with my foot to a rather good edge and going for an invisible single-fingertip pocket where a sea shell fell out, all stretched out and pulling myself into the rock. When it came together, along with the moves leading into that … this is where I belong.


Balaclava: The Bluestone Railway Bridges

Those two railway bridges: Grosvenor St and Nightingale St. I would start on the south bluestone wall of Grosvenor, do six laps, right-to-left and left-to-right, then move onto the north side, slightly harder in the last half. Then if my fingers had any skin left, I’d go up to Nightingale St and work on the north side from the left — the south side had all this hardware clogging it, street signs and other rubbish. That north side was always the hardest thing I’d climbed, not sure if even out on real rock, in the Grampians or Guangdong, I climbed anything harder. The repetition appealed to me, same thing over and over, having a relationship with the rock. I’d tape my fingertips to get through the last laps, but in the end it was attrition, my skin would give out first. In winter, the first lap or two would be agony as the cold rock cut in, harder to climb but something proper in enduring it. There’s more graffiti now, about the same amount of dirt and clag, a few marks of chalk, unlikely to be my leftovers, even though they mark my route. Emile walked with me as I traced my moves, memory in physicality, movement, emotion.


Balaclava: Edge of Doom Revisited

April 12, 2004. I took a photo of my fingers crimping a small, diagonal edge in the sunlight. I blogged it as Edge of Doom. It was the start of the last tough string of moves before finishing the right-to-left traverse, a deeply satisfying hold and one reliably likely to spit me off the wall. March 27, 2018, I’m standing there with Emile, walking alongside the wall remembering all the holds and moves. I haven’t seen or touched these trio of walls in more than ten years, but the memory — physical, mental, emotional — feels like those ten years were snipped out and time on either side stitched together. With a pair of climbing shoes it would have been an immediate return to that familiar rock. It’s also easier than the Scienceworks wall. The hardest parts of Nightingale St, the horrible slopers and awkward combination of edges, gastons, and that very weird thumb-push from underneath keeping me attached just long enough to slap through — a wall I never completed even though I strung together individual sections — are around the average of Scienceworks wall. I’d love to come back and spend some weeks just doing laps on all these.


Westgate Bridge from Stony Creek Park

The bridge is an endless, low serpent stepping across the marshland. I took Onyx’ bike and rode back to Scienceworks, to the long bluestone wall on the side of the Yarra. I haven’t climbed bluestone in ten years. Fingers and body remember but cannot. I walk from one end to the other and back, more than 100 metres of hard climbing in both directions, feeling the rock with fingertips and toes. I remember when I first started climbing the railway bridges in Balaclava, East St. Kilda, it took me months to be able to string together one traverse, months more to reverse it, months again to do the other side of the road. This is the same, but harder.

Climbing walls to get at science. Climbing walls around the back when there’s a locked gate up the front side. Climbing walls “like, it’s literally a metaphor, lol.” In the end, I find the first several moves. Still more than 100 metres to go.

A Year Of My Heart

A year ago, I decided to get all analytic on my training. Mainly I just like tech and pretty representations of data. So I bought a heart rate sensor. And now it’s been a year of me using it almost every time I train. Which means I can look at a year in the life of Frances training, with all the … whatever that reveals.

What does it reveal, Frances?

Well, other Frances. I trained 156 times — that I recorded, let’s say 170 because I pretty much did not train without it unless I forgot either sensor or phone. For a total of 190 hours — there’d be a few more in that for the times my phone battery died. For a measly distance of 1481 kilometres — of actual training rides, not including cross-town, Kreuzberg-Wedding type stuff, so maybe double that at least, no wonder I spend so much on my bike and it feels like it’s constantly in need of repair. Hey, just like me! (Wow, there’s a realisation, right there.) About 1/3 of that was ballet, another third cycling (mostly road at the moment, but some cyclocross), 1/6 bouldering, and the remaining 1/6th a mix of yoga and core training.

Oh, and supposedly I burned around 121,000 calories, which is about 60 days of eating 2000 calories a day. I’m not really convinced about this. I think it’s more of an imaginary number, and not the mathematical kind.

What else? Speed, both average and top are derived from iPhone GPS. I’m not sure how much dispersion there is in this, but I suspect it can easily be 5km/h or more in either direction. My next gear purchase (after … umm … new brakes and probably new rear derailleur pulley wheels) is a speed/cadence sensor — which probably means also a proper cycling head unit instead of phone …

I seem to unintentionally train in 9-10 week blocks, then give up in despair for a couple of weeks, then, like a goldfish circling its bowl, forget all that and get right back into it. Knowing that this might be my natural rhythm though, it could make sense to train in 9 week blocks with a week off, if for nothing else than keeping my enthusiasm. Also I doubt I’ve been training like that this year, my rhythm’s all over the place.

My maximum heart rate seems to be constant around 190 (excluding the huge jumps into the 200s that were either the battery going flat, the sensor getting jostled, or actual random heart weirdness from having stupid fun training in -10º weather). I dunno, I have no context or expertise for reading anything into these figures, other than I seem to like training if it involves a degree of discomfort and some suffering — which I didn’t need a heart rate sensor to tell me.

So, a year of data. What to do with it? No idea! Will I keep using it? For now, yes. It’s become automatic to put it on. I don’t really use it during training, though I’d use it for cycling if I could find an iPhone mount that could hold my ancient 4S. But mostly I do it on feel, and that corresponds pretty closely to the various heart rate zones. I do do regular post-training gawks, to compare how I felt with actual data — and knowing that data across sessions gives me a bit of a feeling for where I’m at on a particular day or week. And one other thing: I train a lot less than I think.

Worth it for seeing a year of training all pretty like that? Yup!

Polar Flow and H7 Heart Rate Sensor — One Year Weekly Training Report
Polar Flow and H7 Heart Rate Sensor — One Year Weekly Training Report
Polar Flow and H7 Heart Rate Sensor — One Year Daily Training Report
Polar Flow and H7 Heart Rate Sensor — One Year Daily Training Report

Ballet & Tech (A First Attempt)

Me (on and off for the last couple of years): “It would be awesome to have a power meter or something so I can go all data on my training…”


Has any dancer ever measured a performance with a fitbit or pedometer? How many steps? How far do they dance? PLEASE will someone do this?

Me (in Jo Siska’s ballet class on Wednesday): “OMG Jo! Look! Data!”

Inaccurate data. But that’s what this is, a test of how to get meaningful and accurate(-ish) data on what goes on when I’m dancing.

When I was living in Wedding, part of my training routine was morning cyclocross rides in the forest around Flughafen Tegel. Last year when I inherited an (old, 4s) iPhone and stuck Trails app on it, I started to see what the intangible feeling of each ride represented. A couple of things were missing though, one of which I finally prodded myself to buy this week – a Polar H7 heart rate sensor (yeah, I got the pink strap). The other is one of those crazy expenses I’m unlikely to throw euros at unless I have around four thousand of them spare for a new bike: a power meter.

Power meters tend to be the province of bike crank arms, pedals, or hubs and cost about double what normal people spend on a whole bike. And none of them are objects you can take into a dance studio. Slightly getting there is the rpm2 shoe insert power meter, still no good for dance though. Which leaves the very new Stryd – and very cheap, not much more than a Fitbit (which I’ll get to later), and about the same size as the H7 – a power meter for runners.

Before all that, Wednesday. In the studio with my heart sensor on and my iPhone beside the barre, cos it uses Bluetooth to sync. That’s several problems right there. First, doing ballet (or generally dance) training with an iPhone lodged somewhere is not so practical, which means a pedometer is going to count exactly zero steps. Second, Bluetooth is possessive, it likes quasi-line-of-sight and proximity. Bouncing around ten meters down the studio with heart monitor facing away from it is going to generate some highly improvised heart rate info. If, for the sake of science, I slip my iPhone into my trackie pocket, I’ll get pedometer info, but any GPS-based data capture (speed, distance, location) is comically useless, having an accuracy of greater than 4 meters. I was dumping my heart info into Trails, which is a fine app for cycling training, and much of the time it had my location not even in the same building, plus my altitude changed by 24 metres.

Thursday on my morning training ride around Tempelhoferfeld, I used both Trails and Polar’s Polar Beat. The data resolution of both is pretty good, Polar Beat is more fine-grained, and neither had a problem with my phone being in the back pocket of my jersey. I’ve been doing enough cycling with data recording to know what looks right.

Which leads me to Fitbit, cos my flatmate has one. It stores the data locally so no need for a live Bluetooth connection. It does heart rate, pedometer, a bunch of other useful garbage, makes pretty data, syncs to phone, laptop, or to, and looks like a dainty watch strap.

So, Friday, ballet again. This time with a Fitbit and my H7 going to Polar Beat.

I’m siding with Fitbit when they say their data accuracy decreases outside fairly limited activities: both heart monitor and step counter are dependant on arms not windmilling for acquisition of useful data. Perhaps it requires repeated use to find the best spot on my wrist, but compared to the H7, Fitbit reported my average heart rate at ~20bpm less – I stuck fingers to neck and what the H7 shows is a good match. As for steps – and ignoring the first 18 minutes or so where I have no idea who it thought I was – it gave around 250 for the entire 40 minutes of barre, and 2200 for the class; obviously not counting a pas de bourée as three steps.

The H7 doesn’t do step counting – unless you pair it with their walnut-sized Stride Sensor somehow affixed to your foot. Its heart data though is magical. You can see every exercise through the class mirrored in my increased heart rate, and check out the centre adage starting at 40 minutes, where the curve is almost identical for both times, and the arc through the entire class, building intensity in small stages at the barre until peaking through the centre into longer and longer periods of maximum effort, before révérance-ing out. I can also look at sections, so if I select just the centre, then my average heart rate goes up to 167 and only once drops below 120. Lots of good data you can do stuff with. (And I can even assign training to Ballet, with a fancy Olympic-looking arabesque!)

But what about power? Or other stuff? Stryd for the power (and heart rate), and RunScribe for everything else? Would they even handle dancing? RunScribe would be awesome for visualising the mechanics of dancing, g-force, velocity, ground contact time, pronation – if it could handle the foot chaos. And then what to do with all this information? If it’s all just for a bit of woohoo! then Fitbit and its social network gamification of sleeping is fine. But if it’s for the purpose of improving performance, technique, being more diligent in how you train, that’s a whole other thing.

Ballet training with Polar H7 Heart Rate Sensor
Ballet training with Polar H7 Heart Rate Sensor
Ballet training with Fitbit Charge HR
Ballet training with Fitbit Charge HR

On Training (Ballet Barre & Bars)

I’m gripping Louis XIV’s pole like I’m trying to strangle it. I’m not sure it’s Louis XIV’s. I’m not sure I even know what’s going on. It’s a length of wood. Hurhur. That we grip. Double hur. Not too tightly though. We let our fingers and hand glide back and forth along its length—Ok, So we’re just done with “phrasing,” right?

We use the barre to: keep our balance for, while we work our legs for, as we warm up through various exercises to prepare us for … something something. I don’t think we know why we’re using it, except out of habit. We use it because we’ve always used it, because ballet uses it, because it’s the ballet barre part of a ballet class, because it’s ballet. So we grip it and strangle it and caress it and our eyes glaze over whenever we get near the question of why we use it because that original answer is lost.

I think it’s in lieu, of a hand, of another’s hand, of another person. It’s in lieu of our partner, with whom we dance. But we no longer dance with a hand and arm and partner who moves and dances with us; we hold onto a fixed wooden pole. I’m only presuming this because I thought the question of when the barre was codified was a straightforward one, but what I found was a complete absence. Nothing in Louis XIV’s time. An early mention seems most of a century later with Gennaro Magri in the late-1700s, or Carlo Blasis or Giovanni-Léopold Adice in the early-1800s, where a chair was used for support, subsequently to be replaced by our barre.

Whatever, the barre serves another purpose now, for another kind of ballet.

Michel Serres in Genesis talks about ballet, the barre, the body thinking—one of the only philosophers to seriously and genuinely engage with dance. I may disagree with him and others now somewhat in that I do not think that ballet is unnatural, a torture. It is a poor habit to regard that which oneself is not capable of, which one does not understand, as monstrous. On the other hand, he writes that the dancer is the possible: “Dance is to the body proper what exercise of thought is to the subject known as I.” I would go further, and say there is no subject which thinks, outside of the body. Thinking is the domain of the body and dancing is as much thinking as thoughts which form themselves in words around a thing we think of as I.

What thoughts come when a body exercises while gripping a barre?

I had one teacher who encouraged us to hang onto the barre, use it because it’s there. This in lascivious opposition to the statements of the majority that the hand must lie delicately on the upper surface, thumb next to index finger, and not wrapped around, to slip forwards and backwards with each change of weight. I’m sure I’ve done both, and I’m not sure there’s fundamentally much of a difference. The illusion of choice, to use or not use the barre, is just that. We use it, have used it, before we even recognise we need it. At this speed, our body preempts our thinking, and the fine detail of caring for balance within a body is overthrown by the hand always getting there first. Using the barre depends on an artificiality that has nothing to do with a body standing on one or two feet.

Early last week I’d been watching Ballet Company Reality TV. Horribly awful and impossible to look away. I’d followed that with one of the most frustrating classes in a long time, and as usual when frustration and desperation meet, crazy, wild, revolutionary things happen: I took my hand off the barre. Faaark. Radical shit right there.

Seriously. I felt like a menace to society.

I’ve done it before too, recidivist that I am. When I first started dancing I experimented with it as a fast-track, quick-fix. It’s neither. And occasionally teachers mention in passing the benefits of not using the barre. Though not in a serious way, not in a, “Let’s fuck shit up right now! Take your hands off, youse!” More of a proposition no one was actually expected to commit to. Or if they do, then the barre itself, the class is changed, it’s a special “Barre without the barre” barre, and not simply doing the barre without holding onto it. If you get what I mean.

So I let go of the barre, what happened? Craaaazy shit! One of my life-long bad habits is holding superhero levels of tension in my shoulders. And I’ve had years of “Shoulders down, Frances!” blahdiblah only to work out it’s not the shoulders which are up, but my head which is down, retracted all turtle-like. Yanking on the barre only exacerbates this. The amount of tension you can put into your shoulders is only limited by how securely the barre is bolted down. You have two of the most opposite ends of your body, a hand and a foot holding on and wedge in for dear life while you wave the rest of your body around in the mad panic called ballet, and hell yes will your shoulder and neck do the job of battening the hatches.

And then you get into the centre, the bit of the class without the barre and first thing expected of your body is to do dead slow shit on one leg. Shoulder and neck are all, “We live for this shit!” But they don’t. Cos there’s nothing for them to hold on to. You’ve spent 45 minutes diligently training yourself out of your body, out of coordination, out of balance and all the rest, and now you’re gonna turn it all on? Nope. A whole body’s worth of uselessness, and simply “not doing” that isn’t going to magically transport you into the necessary physical state. And what kind of caricature is all roid-raged in their neck and shoulders? The scary, uptight type. It’s a two-way street. Just as much as stress builds up in this location, so does tension there set off all kinds of emotional and mental bollocks. It’s exhausting stuff.

Last night I watched the Royal Ballet taking company class, and the barre was mentioned, as a device that enables the dancers to concentrate on the accuracy of their feet and legwork. They’re all fucking amazing so probably all isn’t really applicable to dancing at that level, but it occurred to me that the barre exercises in themselves—and not the aid of the barre—prepare that physical accuracy, the balance, control, coordination, strength, mental and emotional states, so when you get to the centre you’ve already done the basic work and you’ve already been dancing for 45 minutes with yourself, so things like that first adagio make sense as a coherent, logical progression, and not a bizarre leap from one physiological state to another.

This is just my experience of not using the barre: I have to rely on myself, through the pliés, tendus, all those little steps, my body has to discover how it balances and stands, where to hold and where to release, how my weight shifts forward and back, side to side, where my ribs are, how my spine assembles and rights itself. Without the noise of tension in shoulders and neck that comes from the deceptive security of holding onto something, there’s far more to hear within. My body sways far more, probably excessively right now as it adapts to this new regime, seems to work harder, or have more demanded of it, yet remains calmer and recovers from exertion quicker. Ballet forms itself more easily from this state, things like turnout result from this, or are more understandable within the physical logic of the system, rather than being something we—or I—do. Movement that often thwarts me in the centre comes together, patchily for sure at the moment, but inevitably also. Speed is sometimes not possible; at other times almost too easy. Things, by which I mean chronic injuries I’m still getting over, nag less, I think because the barre aids in going too far in movement, and not far enough in maintaining balance, causing overloading or counterbalance compensation stress and tension. It becomes a constant, personal experience of balance and movement. Tough also, definitely the toughest thing I’m doing right now, harder than climbing and cyclocross. Sort of a meditation, maybe because without the barre ballet is easier for me to see as a mental discipline.

An addendum: All this is part of a question of why do I keep dancing, for which I think the only real answer is: because I love it. It’s a question for which that answer is insufficient, particularly while getting older. It’s tied up in that word, ‘keep.’ Keep dancing. Keep doing ballet, when most professional ballet dancers have retired by my age and most professional dancers don’t really commit to the regularity and discipline of class either. Keep putting myself into a physiological state far from the everyday. Why? For what? Again an insufficient answer: for the thing itself. For whatever other reason, I continue doing ballet because it’s not finished with me yet.