The last few weeks (I know it’s been a little longer than normal since my last post) have seen the start of new challenges, as well as continuing with the old. It seems like a long time coming, but I’ve finally started my PhD. If you asked me ten years ago whether I had thought about becoming a doctoral candidate I would have thought you were joking. Ten years ago I was building up for the interview process for becoming an Army Officer – (then called) the Regular Commissions Board (RCB). At that point, assuming I passed, I had my career mapped out at least until December 2016. I was fortunate enough to be offered a place on the Army’s Undergraduate Army Placement (UGAP) scheme which meant I joined the Army for a full year and this formed the third out of four years of my Bachelor’s degree. In my head I would do this work placement, finish my studies, take a few months out, rejoin the Army and serve for 8 full years. So far, so good! I passed my RCB in August 2005 and moved onto the UGAP just a few weeks later.
As per the plan, I served a full year, then went off to finish my studies fully in the knowledge that I would be rejoining the military shortly after graduation. Again, so far, so good! I graduated and had secured a place for the full commissioning course to start the next January (2008). When I was injured in Afghanistan in 2011, the 8 year plan began to seriously unravel! When I thought about prosthetic legs, before I lost mine, I thought they were essentially a robotic replacement of the biological ones. When I first put them on, I realised just how wrong I was. The engineer in me got to thinking that there must be a better way of doing it and, so, the career plan changed. I went back to university in 2013 to do a Masters degree in Biomedical Engineering with the aim of learning all about how the body can interact with machines. I carried out a whole load of background research for my thesis into how implants could be used for someone with my amputations to make the (post-rehabilitation) functional outcome better. Even during my Masters I hadn’t thought about doing a PhD, and it was really only towards the end of the degree, when I was really getting into my thesis, that I knew I had more work to do in this area. Initially the plan had been to go into industry to continue my professional development, but I realised that I would have less freedom for innovation than I would do in an academic setting, hence the application for the PhD.
So I finally started it! I have been so lucky with my department (Bioengineering) at Imperial College. They are so supportive of my athletics commitments and have allowed me to take the PhD on part time so that I can get all the training in that I need to, as well as being flexible with the time I need away for competitions and consolidation training. I’m now just getting to grips with my research plan and figuring out how I’m going to go about getting my results over the next few years. I’ll update every now and then about the PhD, and hopefully some readers at least will find the work interesting. It’s all about improving prosthetic design and delivery, from grass roots up.
Starting the PhD does now mean that days off are now a rarity. It also means I’ve had to adjust my training schedule to cater for my two days a week in London. Over the last few weeks that I’ve been running this schedule, I feel like it’s actually benefiting me having the mental distraction to take away from the challenges of the athletics – and the reverse will no doubt prove to be true over time. Now, all of my training comes in a five day period split roughly as follows:
Day 1 – Session 1: Technical, Session 2: Starts and speed, Session 3: Strength
Day 2 – Session 1: Acceleration and Endurance, Session 2: Strength. Session 3: CV
Day 3 – Session 1: Technical, Session 2: Explosive strength
Day 4 – Session 1: Technical, Session 2: Starts and speed, Session 3: Speed (strength)
Day 5 – Session 1: Endurance, Session 2: Upper body, Session 3: CV
I also add in another CV session on one of my study days if time allows. For my CV sessions I just go out on the hand-bike for between 40 and 60 minutes, and I use the bike (rather than jogging) simply to take some of the exercise burden away from my legs which helps with preventing sores and skin problems without reducing the exercise load. This is vital, especially now as we start to enter into race season, as the slightest pain will affect the way that I load the blades, and ultimately hinder my performance. Aside from the increased care and attention to my legs, and the distinct change in training session composition to prepare for racing, I’m also now psychologically adjusting to the mindset needed for my forthcoming races. Last week was the second module of my Front Line to Start Line elite learning package, and the whole of the second day was led by EIS Sports Psychologist Sarah Cecil. This exposure to her expertise really gave me a clarity for my training that I’ve not had for a long time. As we enter into this race season I’ve really felt a lot of pressure to perform well, as if people were watching and expecting great things. As a result I was really trying to force my training through, almost using brute force to run quicker, quicker, quicker. As an inexperienced sprinter, it didn’t really make sense to me as to why, when I was really working to get my muscles moving faster, I simply wasn’t. This all came to a head in Loughborough during one of the training sessions after the classroom activities when it almost felt like I’d forgotten how to run. No matter what I did, I just couldn’t seem to generate any speed. Roger and I took some time out, as we do after every rep, and talked about what was going on. It came down to this – I was trying to hard. In sprinting, you have to allow your body to relax and go with it. What I was trying to do was accelerate too quickly and as a result was completely off rhythm. We took some time out and went back to technical sprints to take the speed down and just used the session as a reminder of what I needed to be doing.
We then spent a lot of time talking with Sarah about how to go about implementing this change and how to make it stick, to not worry about what else is going on and just be in the moment. Roger talked me through his own experiences of competition and how he helped run his races – as if you are in a tunnel – not worrying about anything other than your own 1.22m. The day after the module was an enforced day away from the track so I used it as a freebie and did some exercises I particularly enjoy in the gym before going out and enjoying the sunshine on the bike. The track session the next morning was the best I’d felt in ages and was definitely the quickest I’d run at my track in Portsmouth and really made me look forward to the start of the season – sport is all about enjoyment and I’d lost a little bit of this through self-imposed pressure.
Now, I’ve got my first races of the season coming up and I absolutely can’t wait! I’ve had a fantastic team around me this year, especially my two coaches, Roger and Tom, and my wife, daughter and my family are always awesome. The exposure to new people and programmes – Jayne and Sarah with the FL2SL programme, Shelley and Job from Parallel Success, Siu Anne from 11th Hour and the support from Katie at British Athletics have all got me to a position now where I feel so privileged, so excited for what’s to come. It’s going to be a great season, and I’m going to enjoy it, whatever the results!