The 365-Day Challenge
Everyone likes a goal, right? Unfortunately, some people just have to take it one step too far. Here are some of the (painful) lessons learned in the course of completing the 365-Day Challenge - exercising every single day for an entire year.
10,000km in the saddle is my perennial Strava goal. I usually go all Vicky Pollard in January and February and pretend like I’m not bovvered if I make it or not. Yet come November and December, the figure takes on a life-or-death importance, hovering in the back of my mind like a pesky fruit fly round a pint glass.
But last year, I took it up a notch. I blame Strava, or more specifically the #youryearonstrava email I received in early January last year, for an insane (and frankly, inadvisable) personal challenge.
It played to both my insecurities and my mild OCD (my missus may not describe it as ‘mild’). Opening up the email I read, much to my horror, that I’d had 55 rest days in 2018?! More than a day a week! What had I been doing? The seed was planted and began to germinate: could I exercise every day for a whole year?
The shoots were just beginning to show by March; by June the idea was budding, and by September it had blossomed. I’d gone nine months exercising every day and I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to finish it off. My mind was set and the daily countdown started.
There were three strict, self-imposed rules: 1) It had to be measurable in terms of time and distance, and cardio-based, so lifting weights or stretching didn't count. 2) Nothing that would result in me being labelled a #stravawanker was permissible. No ‘Walk to the shops’ or ‘Getting out of bed’ would be appearing on my Strava feed. 3) I had to reach the landmarks of 10,000km cycling and 1,000km running.
I had hoped to sprint over the finish line, fit as a fiddle. Instead, on December 31, 2019, I literally limped the last 2km needed to complete the 1,000km of running (I’d achieved the 10,000km cycling goal on Christmas Eve), feeling rubbish and looking only marginally better. I expected to feel exuberant upon completing my 365-day challenge, but all I had was an overwhelming sense of relief it was over. I won’t be going for two years in a row, that’s for sure.
Looking back now, there's a little smugness and a lot of pride that I achieved my goals. Not wanting to sound too much like a Tony Robbins seminar, I learned a few things along the way, both about myself and exercise. Some I already knew and chose to ignore; others were a bit of a surprise.
So if you’re thinking of trying something similar, first off, welcome to the asylum. Secondly, here are a few pointers to help you on your way. Good luck!
Diet is just as important as exercise
Cycling or running every day for a year, I expected the excess timber to fall off. I’d be a Chris Froome-like skeletal figure, with friends and family shocked by, but also in awe of, my incredible weight loss.
Except it didn’t quite work out that way. It’s not exactly rocket science but it turns out if you trough like a pig at feeding time and drink booze like a sailor on shore leave, daily cardio won’t make that much difference to your weight. The only time I lost a significant amount was before the Quebrantahuesos, when I gave up beer for a month, drank gallons of water daily and, lo and behold, shed more than a stone.
After that my beer gut increased millimetre by centimetre, to the point where, come December, it was like I was looking in a fun house mirror. Except I wasn’t laughing. Get your diet right and the rest will follow.
Get family and friends on board
Once you’ve said it out loud there’s no turning back. You’re less likely to duck out of a day if you feel you’d be letting the side down (even though in all likelihood they couldn’t care less).
My other half has the patience of a saint at times (not if I load the dishwasher wrongly, mind you) and the challenge did, rightly, piss her off on several occasions, especially with a demanding five-year-old to look after (that’s my kid rather than me). But I found that by including her, I got a lot more leeway when it came to sodding off for an hour to exercise.
Mind over matter
I’m pretty sure it’s not medically advisable to do cardio every day, so you’ll have to develop a stubborn streak. It’s as much a mental fight as a physical one. Everyone has days where they just can’t be arsed or where they feel too sore.
Then again, if it was easy, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge. So every time you feel like quitting, suck it up buttercup and get going.
Enter the hurt locker
There is a grand total of four steps in my London flat from the bedroom to the kitchen and every morning for about six months I descended them like an arthritic octogenarian. Eventually, I quit listening to my body screaming for a rest day and it gave up the fight like a neutered dog.
Factor in that there may also be inadvertent injuries and how to work around them. I had to deal with a hairline fracture after I rolled my ankle (as it didn’t hurt on the bike unless unclipping, that meant a lot of Zwift) and a busted face after I walked into a wall in a holiday home in Cornwall (I just went running every day until the swelling on my gigantic conk - that's c.o.n.k. - went down).
Get credit in the bank
The summer months are easy-peasy. The sun’s on your back, you don’t have to fret about frostbitten toes and there seems to be a sportive every weekend to rack up some big rides. But it’s the winter months that separate the wheat from the chaff. You don’t want to find yourself having to play catch-up come October onwards, so getting off to a flying start is crucial. If in doubt, remember: winter miles = summer smiles.
Do the maths
From around September time, after every ride or run, I’d calculate exactly what I needed to average daily to reach the 10,000km and 1,000km goals. Then the next day, I’d try to do more than that total. It’s not a Good Will Hunting equation to solve, you’ll just have the satisfaction that the graph is pointing in the right direction.
The worst days I had were when I set out with no clear idea of where I wanted to go, what I wanted to accomplish and with no target. Inevitably, I’d get bored and call it a day after an hour. Empty miles that didn’t make much of an impression on either my totals or my mood. I’d recommend working out when you can work out in advance and set yourself either a target distance or a target hill to do.
Every cyclist knows the ‘urgh’ feeling when they open the curtains to see ice encrusted on the car or hear rain hammering at the windows. But that’s what the gym or Zwift or TrainerRoad are for. I also understand that we all lead busy lives, with work taking up so much time and energy, family commitments and that washing-up isn’t going to clean itself, you know... But I also think if you look at your day, is there really not a single half-hour you could take to exercise rather than farting around on your phone?
Differences make all the difference
I’m not much of a runner (it could legitimately be argued I’m not much of a cyclist either). But the one day a week I’d try to set aside for running really recharged the batteries. I managed to do my first half-marathon in seven years - and I’d have done a second one if I hadn’t injured my ankle. The mini-breaks made me appreciate cycling more, as running is so hard on the body. Similarly, switching between cycling on the road and on Zwift broke up the monotony.
Pick a fight
Not a real one, obviously. Besides, I couldn’t punch my way out of a wet paper bag. But there’s a lot to be said for singling out a rival. And it can be for the most random, petty reasons. Don’t like their socks? Good, hold on to that hatred. Didn’t say hello? What an arsehole. Wearing a bandana? Well, that should be a criminal offence. The best part is you don’t even have to let them know they’re locked in a duel. I found I rode or ran faster and farther if I did make it personal.
The other brother
Brothers always have each other's backs, right?
Andy certainly keeps his part of the fraternal bargain. On the rare occasions we ride apart, I still can't shake him off. On the Haute Route he was up before dawn dotwatching my progress through the Dolomites. He offered up his free journalist pass so I could make a second, solo attempt at RideLondon then turned out, complete with daughter and freshly painted sign, to cheer me over Wimbledon hill. He even talked me up three sides of Mont Ventoux over Race.Radio, keeping up the chatter hours after my immediate family had given up the ghost.
Initially I could be forgiven for not being more supportive of his endeavours - I had no idea what he was up to. He's always trained regularly so the lengthening Strava streak wasn't immediately apparent. When he first announced his intent, it felt odd to be encouraging his compulsive behaviour: "YEAH, you should definitely switch that light on and off 13 times every single time you leave the room, go for it!". Months later, as he was Zwifting on a cracked ankle, or "running" the final few Ks with chronic leg pain, voicing support would have felt like coaxing a concussed boxer up off the canvas so they could take another pounding.
Day-by-day-by-day-after-day, my initial mild bemusement turned to utter bewilderment before settling on still slightly baffled admiration. I can't claim to have been fully behind him every pigheaded pedalstroke and stubborn step of the way. But then I never, not for one nanomicromillisecond, doubted he'd do it.