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The first symptoms appreared as I lay in bed last night, wide awake and twitching. My mind was racing, my heart was thumping and every few minutes my stomach lurched. Thump-lurch, thump-lurch, thump-lurch. I could feel the adrenalin coursing around my body. Exactly a week before my first regatta of the season, I had my first bout of regatta nerves, and it’s not going to get any better until the siren sounds and the first race is over (at approximately 3.21 p.m. next Sunday).

I’m a little shame-faced about the depth and intensity of my fear. I am, for goodness’ sake, a grown woman who’s had her fair share of life experiences and prides herself on being fearless and feisty. Heck, I’ve even given birth twice so it’s not like I can’t handle pain.

But there it is. Thump-lurch, thump-lurch. Thump-lurch.

The fears crowd in.

What if I mess up the start? Thump-lurch.

What if I come off my seat? Thump-lurch.

What if I … oh, dear God… catch a crab? THUMP-LURCH!!

If it were just me on my own, I could probably cope with the potential for disaster and humiliation, but the thought of messing it up for eight other people… thump-lurch-thump-lurch-thump-lurch.

So be gentle with me this week. And someone please tell me I’m not alone in my suffering. Think you’re immune to the fear? Here’s a handy little test to see how you’re doing…

ATTENTION!!!

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It all started, as these things do, with some idle Twitter chat with Matthew Pinsent about masters rowing categories.

“Went rowing with duffers this morning”, announced Pinsent.

“Define duffers,” demanded Girl on the River (extra coxing duties this week having brought out my bossy side).

“Ah”, said the Great Man. “C is seasoned, D duffer, E endangered”.

“I daren’t ask what you’d think of F”, spluttered David Biddulph.

The answer, as I might have expected, came from the Monmouth RC ladies’ rowing squad – from one of our Fabulous, Fierce and Feisty Masters F women.

“Matthew Pinsent hasn’t met the Monmouth Women’s Squad – yet!” she said.

“C is for ‘Cool, Collected & Competitive; D is for ‘Determined & Deadly; E is for ‘Energetic, Elegant & Explosive’ & F is just ‘F…ing Fantastic’. ”

So if you ever find yourself tempted to dismiss masters rowers as, well, duffers, know this. The, ahem, senior rowers may have the odd wrinkle, but we’re not ready to hang up our rigger jiggers yet. After all, we’re not called Masters for nothing.

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It’s been a while since I’ve recommended any rowing blogs, but there’s a new kid on the block that I simply can’t ignore. Rowing Journal, the brain child of photographer Iain Weir, aka Shutteritch, is a truly democratic rowing blog, set up “to give you a platform to voice your opinions, experiences, observations or simply to pose a question to the rest of the rowing community.” Anyone, it seems, can join and post on it, and my goodness, they have done.

Now this was a pretty risky strategy. It could, let’s face it, have been dreadful. Let the world at large say what they want, unfettered by the rules of the river or even the rules of grammar, and the results could be grim. But here’s the thing. Rowing Journal has turned out to be a really classy read. Funny, controversial, at times infuriating – everything, in short, that a blog should be. I don’t know how it’s moderated – perhaps it’s self-selecting, the rowing community being made up of mostly excellent people. Either way, it works.

Posts range from totally recognisable rowing stereotypes to thinly disguised rants, with even the occasional motivational love-in. My personal favourite to date: “I just need to move my footplate, hang on” – a lament that had me laughing, as they say, out loud.

All of which is pretty annoying for a fellow rowing blogger. I would have loved to tell you that as rowing blogs go, it wasn’t nearly as good as Girl on the River, but sadly I can’t. It really is worth a read. Just promise me one thing. Now that I’ve introduced you to the younger model, you won’t go and leave me for her, will you?

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It’s M.E. Awareness Week and I don’t want to let it go by without at least a nod in its direction. As Girl on the River fans will know, I fell prey to this tricky and pernicious condition around the turn of the millennium and it wiped out a good deal of my thirties; it also brought a fairly promising legal career to a feeble end.

My road back to health was travelled in baby steps – a bit of gentle walking was all I could do for a long time – and if you’d told me, when I was at my lowest ebb, that I would end up rowing competitively I simply would not have believed you.

Rowing, if you think about it, is a preposterous sport for a diminutive, featherweight 40-something with a tendency to feebleness. I’m fairly certain my doctor – had I asked him – wouldn’t have recommended it. And there are times after a hard outing or a killer of a race when I question the wisdom of a sport that demands so much.

But what can I do? The river has me in its thrall. And there is something about the extreme nature of rowing that keeps me coming back for more. If I can row I know that I’m better.

And here’s the thing. If I hadn’t had M.E. I would never have made the changes in my life that enabled me to start rowing. I’d have been Girl on the Underground rather than Girl on the River. That has to be a trade worth making.

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It’s raining. Really, properly raining – none of this half-hearted sunshine-and-showers business. No, in keeping with the economic mood of the country, it’s just steady, wet stuff teeming relentlessly down – enough to have me checking periodically that the house isn’t leaking. Of course we need it – water levels are a bit alarming – but frankly I’m more interested in what it’ll be doing to the river.

Will our lovely, glassy Wye have turned into a muddy torrent by my next outing tomorrow? And, more importantly, what will be floating down in it? Usually a downpour just brings a few branches and the odd tree, but we have been known to see the occasional dead cow or sheep float past (sob). Last time I was in Bristol I even saw a guitar floating down the river: so rock’n’roll.

One last thing:  a plea to the people who make splash tops. Is there any chance that you could make them, like, actually waterproof? It would make British rowing so much nicer.

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London 2012 Olympic Games: The Official Book, published by Carlton, £12.99, available from all good book shops and online

You may recall that a few weeks ago I told you that to celebrate the launch of the Official Book of the London 2012 Olympic Games, rowing legend and all round nice guy Sir Matthew Pinsent had (perhaps rashly) agreed to submit himself for questioning, and that members of the public (and that included you) were invited to send in their questions for him.

Now, with fewer than 100 days to go, the results are in. The best questions were put to Sir Matthew and I’m excited to say that one of mine was included; it’s the third question in, so listen out for it.

If you want to know whether the great man wears his medals around the house or fancies himself in another Olympic sport, you need to get watching. Here it is:

The book – as I reported before – is a good read, too, so don’t forget to order your copy online or look out for it in the shops.

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Until recently I’d always taken the view that sports supplements were really for Other People. Bodybuilders who needed to build muscle fast; teenage boys working on their biceps; oh, and proper sportsmen and women whose achievements justified spending money on extra products. I’d also assumed that they tasted as good as a 1970s meal replacement drink – a bit like sawdust mixed with saccharine. Over the last year, though, I’ve undergone a bit of a conversion. When Son on the Run started using energy drinks and protein recovery drinks, I dipped into his stash from time to time and couldn’t help but be impressed both by the effect and by the taste. So when Optimum Nutrition offered to send me some of their products to try out, I was all ears.

Optimum Nutrition (ON) are big on matching the diet to the sport and have a section specifically devoted to rowing on their website. They’re also happy to give individual advice, so when I told them I was training for regatta season, but with a 15k head race just a few weeks beforehand to complicate matters, they came up with a set of products to meet my needs. This is what they said:

“I would suggest that you try something that will give you a burst of energy and help you train longer / harder, and also something that will speed up muscle recovery / lessen aches and pains for you post row.

Essential Amino Energy is the first product of its kind in the UK market and supports recovery before, during and after exercise. It would be a great product for you as it combines:

  • Natural energisers in the form of green tea and green coffee extracts
  • Essential amino acids for muscle repair and rebuilding
  • Arginine and citrulline for nitric oxide (N.O.) synthesis
  • Beta-alanine to support longer, harder training

I’d also suggest you take a Gold Standard Whey protein shake a few hours before and immediately after rowing to help speed up muscle recovery and help the rebuilding process.

You should also be upping your protein levels with extra protein if you’re training in the gym regularly. Maybe a small shake in the a.m. and post workout. If you don’t like the shakes you could always try the rice crispy-esque bars [Whey Crisp Bars] which do the same thing.”

I made a beeline right away for the Whey Crisp Bars. They had sent me the double rich chocolate one, which is right up my street as a bit of a chocolate-lover (the alternative is marshmallow flavour, which sounds a bit too sweet for my liking). It’s a bit like a chocolate rice krispy biscuit – chewy, dark, chocolatey and disappearing so fast that I’ve had to hide the box from my kids who keep pinching them. I can’t say for sure whether they’ve improved my recovery (though the one I took during a light-headed wobble after the Head of the Dart certainly helped to revive me). Frankly, since they taste this good I’m prepared to be convinced. I have one sitting on my desk right now and it’s all I can do to resist it (I’ve already had a protein snack this morning). A box of 12 bars currently costs £22.99, which is mid-range compared with protein bars from other companies.

Next up was the Gold Standard Whey. This comes in a host of flavours (ice cream lovers will be tempted by the Rocky Road and Cookies’n’Cream options; I was sent the plainer French Vanilla Creme and Delicious Strawberry – again they seemed to understand that I don’t tend to go for the temple-achingly sweet). The powder mixes in very easily with water (unlike some other brands I’ve tried) – a gentle shake was enough. As far as taste was concerned, they got a definite thumbs up; neither grainy nor sickly, they definitely won in the taste stakes. I drank one of these shakes immediately after the longest run I’ve done to date and suffered no muscle pain at all, so I’m prepared to believe that it helped, too.

The powder costs £32.99 for 908g – not the cheapest by any means, though at the time of writing it’s on special offer, reduced to £19.79. The price does, I think, reflect the quality of the product, though, and I’d be inclined to say it was worth the extra money.

Of all the products that I tried, though, the stand out one was the Essential Amino Energy. I was sent the orange flavour powder which you mix with water; it tastes like orange squash but with a bit of a kick. I liked the fact that it’s low calorie – sometimes I prefer to make up the calories I use up with actual food! A two scoop serving carries only 10 calories.

It’s not for those sensitive to caffeine, but I really, really liked it. It is great for pre-workout and I’ve been taking some in the boat with me as well for normal outings; it definitely gives me a boost of energy. ON suggested that if I want to give it some extra oomph, I should mix it with an energy powder and that’s what I did for last weekend’s 15k race. I felt really strong for the entire race (56mins, 58 secs, for anyone who cares!).

Man on the Run and Son on the Run have also discovered this product and are converts, too. Man on the Run achieved a PB at a recent race fuelled by this, and his running mates are now trying to find out what his secret was (oops – the cat’s out of the bag now). My only problem is my dwindling supplies now that they keep dipping into the pot.

Again, it’s not cheap – a 30-serving pot costs £29.99 (currently reduced to £17.99) but I personally think it’s worth every penny. It turns an energy drink into something more and helps with recovery too. That, to me, is a winning formula.

I would tell you more, but everything you could wish to know is on the ON website and frankly I can no longer resist the lure of the whey crisp bar. I’m off for a snack break.

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So the newsfest that is the 2012 Boat Race continues, and now it appears that we know who the rogue swimmer is: a 35-year-old man named Trenton Oldfield (with a name like that he should have been a rocker, not a protester) wishing to complain about elitism. In an extended rant he set out his grievances and explained why he’d picked the Boat Race for his protest:

“The boat race itself, with its pseudo competition, assembled around similar principles of fastest, strongest, selected …etc, is an inconsequential backdrop for these elite educational institutions to demonstrate themselves, reboot their shared culture together in the public realm.”

Now, there’s no denying that at school level, rowing is – with a few very notable exceptions – a sport practised mostly at fee-paying schools. But at club level, rowing simply cannot be accused of elitism. Rowing clubs are spectacularly good value for money – far cheaper than most gyms and health clubs, and offering so much more for your money. Membership is by no means confined to those with plums in their mouths; if it were, the clubs simply wouldn’t be able to keep going.

Rowing is the best leveller I know. You might have a good education, a first class degree and a cut glass accent, but let me assure you that none of these make the boat go faster. None of these will make you win. I should know: I’ve got all of the above and have yet to win a race. Thankfully there are plenty of people in my club who have none of these advantages but are blessed with what really matters in rowing: strength, technique and courage. That’s what wins races.

But elitism aside, what really amused me about Trenton Oldfield’s blog was his description of the Boat Race as a “pseudo competition”. I wonder if, when he saw the boats powering towards him at a terrifying speed and saw at close quarters what went into the race, he still thought that. Whatever you can say about rowing, there’s nothing pseudo about it.

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I blame Jürgen Grobler. Or possibly Team GB. Or whoever had the frankly inspired idea to announce the GB Olympic crews by means of a row-past (genius – the drama!) Anyway, whoever is to blame, the point is that I was excited and distracted and not in my right mind around 11 a.m. today. Which was precisely the moment that one of the girls in my rowing club emailed everyone to find out if we were interested in entering the Cardiff Half Marathon in October. That’s a running half marathon: 13 long miles of RUNNING. Not rowing: running.

So taken with the blow-by-blow team updates on Twitter was I that, without giving it due and sober consideration, I sent back an immediate reply. “I’m in!!” With that one email I sealed my fate and agreed to run in public for a distance far beyond my wildest imaginings (or nightmares).

What remains to be seen is how I will train for this monstrous event around my existing weekly commitments of three outings on the river and one bootcamp session which, given my tendency to fatigue, will leave me one running day to play with every week. And how I’ll cope with running on tarmac when I’m used to forgiving, mossy forest trails.

However daunted the new Olympic rowing squad are feeling about the prospect of the Olympics and the pressure to win, it’s nothing compared with the apprehension that has overcome me with the thought of all those miles between me and the finish. “New chapter”, tweeted Pete Reed this afternoon. I know what he means.

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Picture this in an all-in-one

Today is the Spring equinox, and we all know what that means. The start of summer rowing (hurrah) but also (cue scary music) the start of all-in-one season (boo). Much as I’d like to deny it, a winter of eating what I please has resulted in several extra pounds of lard strategically hidden under multiple jumpers. The thought of just one thin layer of lycra separating them from the outside world is frankly terrifying. Something must be done. But here’s the problem. Training makes you hungry, and hunger is not compatible with eating light. So what is a girl to do?

I thought I’d start with asking the people who really know: the lightweight rowers, who have to combine hard training with light eating. Here’s what they have to say.

Paul Mattick, Double World Rowing Champion and Olympian

“As an international athlete who is in a weight defined sport (lightweight rowing), I am well acquainted with the constraints of training, losing weight at the same time and then effectively racing at the elite level. For every ounce of fat I carry, I have an ounce less muscle, hence power and this is closely related to boat speed and success!

“I do find however, that a high volume cardiovascular training program and a large conventional diet, takes care of making me as lean as possible. This same training program results in my alcohol consumption being minimal, which the occasional exception, and these social sacrifices are ones that I choose to make in achieving my sporting goals.

“But how do I feel during my weight lose coming into my racing events where I have to be 70kg? A little bit hungry, I reduce my food consumption by ~10% (so still a substantial diet), I tend to eat early (evening meal around 5pm) and have larger breakfast(s) than meals later in the day and do not eat/drink anything in the evening. But different approaches work for different people, but make sure however the weight loss is achieved, make sure it is done safely and enjoy the training.”

Ben Rodford, Lightweight 1x British Champion 2011

“As you probably know, in competitive lightweight rowing you have a maximum weight you can be on race day (‘race weight’). To be fastest you want as much muscle mass a possible at that weight, so you drop fat and also (as late as possible) your level of hydration. The idea is to drop just to race weight for the weigh-in, then rehydrate for the race.

“Most lightweights will sit above race weight throughout the winter (typically 75kg for men; race weight is 70kg) and drop their weight to about 72kg coming into the racing season. So the relevant bits are probably how we maintain weight  through the winter and how we drop in the mid-term coming into the season. For me it’s all about planning & monitoring, both of which develop through experience. I need some sort of routine. During the winter I’ll check my weight once  every couple of days, increasing to at least once a day coming into the season and at least twice a day during the competitive season. This lets me know where I’m heading and how far I have still to go. Some people make charts & graphs; I’m content with noting my numbers in my training diary. Keeping track of body weight means I can tailor my diet according to your progress.

“In terms of food I also need a plan. Some people count calories. For me it’s just about eating the right things for fuel and health (vitamins etc). I tend to plan my meals for a few days ahead. If you think of food as fuel for training then it makes sense to plan your diet (within reason) just as you plan your training. It also lets me know what’s coming up so I can look forward to favourite meals after a particularly tough session. Fresh, tasty food is key. Obviously avoiding excess fat is important but if you’re training enough it’s not critical. It also helps to know what fills you up.

“Hunger isn’t something to worry about. You have to put up with a little bit of hunger but also realise that if you’re hungry you probably don’t have enough fuel for a good training session. It’s all a balancing act between under-fuelling and over-eating; hunger is your feedback. ‘Front-loading’ or ‘pre-fuelling’ your day is important. Fuel your body before exercise as afterwards you’ll tend to overcompensate and eat what makes you feel good instantly. Breakfast is critical. I tend to have two smaller lunches during the day if I’m at work and I have an evening training session. Eating a small amount of carbohydrate and protein (cereal bar, toast, yoghurt) within 20mins of your workout will tide you over until the next meal as well as being great for recovery.

“Snacks are good as long as that’s all they are (not replacement meals) and they’re planned and reasonably healthy. I have a snacks with me for times of need, but am disciplined about quantity. I don’t often see my diet as sacrifice (only the last week before a race usually feels that way). I make sure I eat good tasting food as well as keeping it healthy. I love cooking, and flavour is really important to me, so I seek out recipes which taste great and are healthy.

“In summary: ‘plan ahead’, ‘eat a balanced diet’, ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’; the old ones are the best.”

Nick English, formerly GB LM4-

“Food right after training, going to bed hungry (enough training and you can sleep any time!) and generally cutting out and cutting back. Take a sports drink on the water so you have energy when you need it. Also never let yourself get too hungry and don’t eat too little.”

So that’s how the pros do it and I must say I’m in awe of what they do.

But what about the rest of us? As one club rower said to me this week, “It’s easier if you’re a full-time rower. Club rowers on the other hand… I’ve spent the last fortnight trying to adopt a suitable diet and have actually gained weight. I sit at a desk for 10+ hours a day and have client entertaining to do, so the 4-6 kg I need to lose is looking near impossible. I do two ergs a week, four water sessions and cycle to work most days, and I am CONSTANTLY HUNGRY!”

I think most of us can relate to that, so tomorrow I’ll be bringing you the stories of ordinary rowers (and a runner and a bodybuilder, for a bit of variety) and how they managed to combine exercising with weight loss. Can you lose weight and still train hard? Find out tomorrow.

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