They always say never meet your heroes. Well, it’s February in Britain and one of my heroes is standing at the end of a baltic lido, throwing buckets of freezing water in my face. An ice cube bounces off my goggles. I wonder what I’m doing here. Then suddenly I realise that my screams have turned to laughter and I’m having a blast. Welcome to sports training, Ross Edgley-style.
It’s testament to the wonder that is Ross Edgley that even after a kind of extreme ice bucket challenge, I still really, really like the guy. He really is the nicest chap in sports, with a massive grin and cheer of encouragement at every step. We’ve known Ross for a while at 220 and followed him from crazy triathlon-based challenges (the ‘treeathlon’ is worth a google) to his recent mind-blowing, multiple world-record smashing, completion of the Great British Swim. A sports scientist by training, he’s managed to make physiology and training techniques accessible to all while using his body as the (very knowledgeable) guinea pig, gathering a legion of devoted fans in the process.
Taking on Neptune Steps
Today, we’re gathered at Parliament Hill Lido to complete a training session ahead of the Red Bull Neptune Steps event in a few weeks’ time. Ross has completed the Neptune Steps in previous years and it’s a race like no other, involving racing up the Maryhill Locks in Glasgow completing short swims in brutally cold water (last year was 3 degrees C), alternated with tackling vertical obstacles such as ropes and cargo nets, all while getting booted in the face by other competitors while waterfalls gush down on you from the next level. Sounds like fun? You betcha. Thinking of competing? Here’s what Ross taught us:
Lesson 1. Get comfortable with uncomfortable
At Neptune Steps there’s a 2-minute stretch of treading water before you start racing. Why? It’s so you can acclimatise to the water and so the medical crew can be assured nobody has gone into cold water shock. It’s all about getting your body used to the temperatures before you swim and letting the blood vessels start sending blood to your core. Psychologically, it helps you relax into the environment, too.
To simulate this, Ross simply has us get into the water and gradually dunk each part under until we’re submerged, then tread water. Last is the toughest part – the face – but once that’s all done and breathing is regulated, we’re ready to move onto the next step.
Lesson 2. Healthy hardship
Ross has experienced some tough times while taking on the Great British Swim, but he’s a big believer in the power of the mind – and a smile. You need to get used to the conditions you’re about to face if you’re going to conquer them though, so in order to get used to the alternate cold swims and tough climbs, he has us swimming 150m intervals in the pool, then at the end of each one we complete 20 pull-ups while Ross (and friends!) chuck buckets of ice-filled water in our faces.
The theory? It’s not just about strength when climbing the obstacles. “Many times you’ll grab a rope and start to ascend and a whole load of water will gush into your face, making it hard to breathe and throwing you off,” Ross tells me. Three 150m reps plus ice buckets with Ross running round the pool shouting words of encouragement and we’re done – the time cut-off for safety at Neptune Steps is 15 minutes and we’ve completed that time in the 6 degree water today, so I feel confident I can stand the challenge. I should also probably admit at this point that HUUB have loaned me one of their brand-new Aegis 3 thermal wetsuits, which probably helped a bit…
Lesson 3. Just. Hold. On.
Dried off and into the gym and it’s time to forget about the cold and start thinking about the strength and power needed to climb a load of wet, vertical cargo nets and rope ladders. First up Ross has us get into teams of three and while two hold a plank in a V-shape, the other planks in between and after each dip springs their hands up on to their team-mates backs. It’s all about explosive power and I am woefully bad at it. Ross kindly assists with a rubber band around my shoulders, but others who are probably going to do much better than me in the race have it nailed.
Second, we each adopt a simple plank position (toes or knees) and Ross has us alternating holding the position with completing plank-based moves such as knee lifts and dips. This is all about giving just that little bit more when you feel like your arms and shoulders are burning – being able to take that intensity – which could be the difference between staying on a rope and falling back into the water beneath!
Lesson 4. Strength in strange positions
Moving on from arms, it’s time to think about the kind of strength we might need to find in our legs. To do this, Ross has us head outside and complete reps of duck walks (a weird walk in a squat position with hands up by your ears). Each rep gets longer (from 10m to 40m) and as they do, the rest intervals (starting at 1 minute) get shorter. The idea is to get used to your legs burning in weird positions, which they are probably likely to find as you grip on to cargo nets and haul yourself over obstacles. Needless to say, my triathlete’s legs are far too used to running and cycling to find this comfortable and I realise if duck walks are to be my thing, I have a long way to go. Ross gives me a cheery hug though and it’s time for my post-training analysis!
So, is Neptune Steps for me and what can others learn from my training day? “You were amazing!” says Ross. “It isn’t necessarily the best swimmer that will win the Neptune Steps. Yes, you have to be a great swimmer, but it’s also your ability to climb over some of the obstacles, your ability to acclimatise. The winner will have gone through three races as well – the heats, the semis and the finals – so it’s about what they do in between heats around cold management too.
“I think as well it’s your ability to get comfortable being uncomfortable. You were the best example of that – at one point me and Jo both had a bucket of cold water over your head and ice was just pinging you in the face, but you just carried on and were able to do your tricep dips and as the water hit you in the face it went up your nose, your goggles filled up and you couldn’t breathe! It’s not easy and we’ve all been there in races! But you just still remained calm and were able to complete your reps.
“I think that’s what’s key in Neptune Steps, you see so many people who swim fast and make it to the docks and the ropes first, or the climbing wall, but then they need to compose themselves and don’t know how to attack it properly. It’s that stoic sports science approach that lets you make cold, calculated risks and keep your head. That’s where the marginal gains will come from. It’s not necessarily the best swimmer, it’s the person who can keep going no matter what the race throws at them and get up and over those obstacles.”
So there you have it. If you’re good at keeping going no matter what, are comfortable being uncomfortable and have the resilience to grit your teeth and hang on (while being very cold and wet) maybe the Neptune Steps are for you!
Interested in taking on the Neptune Steps? Then visit the website here. Places are still available in the women's heats for the 2019 event.
Read Ross Edgley's training tips for heavyweight triathletes here.