A photo of Dr Gary Brickley

Podcast: Catching up with Dr Gary Brickley

With a week to go until the Brighton Marathon, we’ve been asking the senior lecturer in exercise physiology for some tips ahead of the event.

Gary, a renowned Paralympic cycling coach who used to work with 14-time Paralympic gold winner Dame Sarah Storey, also tells us about his career, his own endurance exploits in open water swimming and his work with Tokyo 2020 Paratriathlon contender Joe Townsend.​

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The majority of the podcast is transcribed below.

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​Lecturing is obviously my main role, teaching students, mainly third years and a lot of masters. In research I publish, and I have PhD students, looking into various areas of GPS in football, cardiology are recent ones that have recently finished their PhDs. I also do a lot of work in cycling. I am a coach in cycling and swimming.

We’ll start by talking about your work here at the university – you’ve been here a long time, taught exercise physiology for a while and as an expert in that field, new methods, research findings must have come along during that time – I imagine there have been a lot of changes?.

Yeah, so I’ve been here since some of the early days. From the navy, I joined the undergraduate degree in sports science between 1991 and 1994, and then did a PhD after that which I completed in 1999. I’ve been lecturing here since 2000 and things have changed quite a lot. Sports science has developed, the competition is vast with different courses throughout the country. The labs have changed, the location’s changed and research has moved on a lot.

And in Eastbourne we’ve got this hub of sports science. So many experts with backgrounds at an elite level, you’re no exception, which we’ll come back to shortly. But how beneficial is that for you as a lecturer and the students to be working around so many experts in their field and with the facilities that we have here?

Yeah, I think the students are really lucky. We’ve got some brilliant staff here. We’ve got expertise in environmental physiology. We’ve got experts in team sports. We’ve got experts in genetics and Paralympics. So we’ve got some brilliant staff that have been here for a long while because they like being here, and they will enjoy working with the students and the students get a lot out of it.

How would you describe your teaching style?

My teaching style is very student centered. I like to keep students on their feet. I like to challenge them. I like to make them curious. I want them to learn. I want them to turn up each time and gain something from every session. I’m not much of a template teacher. I’d rather do things that I can relate to and apply to physiology or apply to nutrition.

Coming back to the facilities that we have here in Eastbourne and the investment that’s been made. We’ve seen in Ward Hall the new strength and conditioning centre, I mean that is state of the art – so for students to be able to use that must be an incredible resource if they’re hoping to go into elite sport when they graduate…

Yeah. The whole strength and conditioning area has grown massively. Certainly in the last 15 years, courses have developed and our new master’s course, led by Flo (Pietzsch) and supported heavily by Rob Harley, is a great addition and it’s providing students with great application of their studies and the facilities – because it’s mainly going to be used for teaching – are excellent. It’s going to help students progress well.

What is it about the University of Brighton which you believe is most attractive for students? For those studying in the areas that you specialise in…

The environment is good – good open environment for the sea and for the Downs. The era that we work, in physiology, we’ve got really good labs, good equipment, so we can support the staff and support the students effectively in their learning process. I think what we can do well is give students access to the facilities rather than just purely use that for research, so students get good hands-on experience.

We’ll come back to your work at the university a little bit later on but let’s talk a bit about your life and work outside of it as well. It does sort of have an impact on your teaching. Most high profile, arguably, is your work with the Great Britain cycling team. Can you tell us about your involvement with British Cycling? Because you’re been involved in it for quite a while…

Yeah, so I first got involved in 1998, 99 – Peter Keen, who was one of my lecturers here, got a job as Head of British Cycling and we got on very well and I was studying in Australia and he invited me to apply for a position as physiologist. I took that role on and it was a big change going from Queensland to Manchester, which was a bit too much for me in terms of the environment changes and then working downstairs in a velodrome! But it was a fantastic opportunity that I couldn’t turn down for learning, working with some really top athletes, testing people like Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy but then really getting into work with Paralympians, which is my passion now.

Yeah, I mean you’ve coached some of the best para-cyclists that this country has ever seen – including Dame Sarah Storey…

Yeah, so Sarah is probably the more well known – David Stone, who I’ve worked with since he’s been about 18, he is a Brighton graduate and he’s still performing, still aiming for Tokyo and he’s got number of gold medals. Darren Kenny – four gold medals in Beijing, incredible athlete, and then Sarah Storey, that people know a lot about, I’ve worked with them since 2005 and all of those guys were a pleasure to work with and I’ve worked with lots of others as well.

As we are recording this, it’s just been the conclusion of the Para-Cycling Track World Championships. A hugely successful event for GB – 20 medals, greatest tally ever. You’ve been a man on the inside – what’s the reason for this success?

Athletes that are willing to train and work hard is a big part of it. That’s under-looked I think – it’s not just about the money – the athletes have to do the work. The money helps with the facilities and helps with the equipment and with the support staff. So we’ve got the edge, certainly in terms of financial support, but we have got some good athletes. It started off in 2000 when I worked with the squad – we weren’t getting any gold medals at all. And gradually over the years it’s multiplied and we get more and more each year. But there’s almost a threshold we’ve reached now. I think having good coaching, good sports science support, helps helps a lot.

What about Sarah Storey – a 14 time Paralympic champion. She’s 41. She’s had two breaks out from the sport to have children. What is it about her that makes her so special?

Sarah’s incredibly driven. She’s passionate about cycling. She was passionate about swimming but moved across to cycling. So that’s helped her career – switching to cycling. She’s got very good support from her family, who are excellent. She’s got the ability to push herself. She knows what her numbers mean. She knows where she needs to be to break a new world record. She knows what she needs to work on to improve herself, and she enjoys it. You know – she loves the sport and she loves what she gets out of it. She works bloomin’ hard at it.

Yeah, I mean the excitement ahead of next year’s Tokyo Paralympics is building and she’ll be aiming for that. How long can she go on for and how long can she dominate?

Yeah, she’ll carry on all the time she’s enjoying it. As you say, she’s had two children and she’s bounced back from them very quickly. I think she’ll carry on until her body says it can’t go on any longer, or other things crop up, but there’s no reason why as an athlete, you can’t carry on until you’re not hitting the times and not making the grade.

She’s Britain’s most decorated female Paralympian ever in two sports, as were saying, previously in swimming as well – that’s another one to your specialities, which we’re going to come back to. From your perspective as a coach and a specialist in exercise physiology, what is it about swimming, which may have helped her with that transition because we’ve often seen it – Jody Cundy did the same as well…

Yeah. So it’s not necessarily the body shape, but the training in swimming is normally very high intensity – lots of repetitions. It’s minimum rest. So the cardiovascular response from years and years of training from an early age is going to be good, as is the ability to tolerate hard efforts, different durations, different intensities is all there. Pushing yourself at different times of the day is ingrained into swimming. So the psychology of swimming hard, training hard, is useful when it comes across to cycling. And then, cycling is not simple. You’ve got to be tactical when you’ve got to be able to know how to cycle at the right cadence, at the right hill or the right speed, in the right aerodynamic position. But that can be trained. If you’re willing to train that, you’ll get the response.

What about your work with the British Triathlon Association?

Yeah, so I’ve helped a few athletes over the last few years. The main person I’ve worked with, Joe Townsend, is absolutely brilliant and he’s hoping to get on the podium at least for Tokyo. We’re just trying to get him a bit higher up on the podium. His work ethic is fantastic. Three sports, so it’s a little bit different – Joe’s swimming was not very good when I started working with him. But we worked on that tirelessly and will continue to drop the times on that. On a hand bike – some of the figures he comes out with are unbelievable, and he will still push on with that. And even in the chair on the run part of the triathlon, he could compete against any wheelchair marathon person I think – and push them to the line.

It’s marathon season. So there are plenty of people around the University of Brighton who might be preparing for the Brighton Marathon coming up.

You’ll be a perfect person to ask some quick advice about nutrition and a few tips in general, so some quick-fire questions…

Firstly, how important is the taper?

I think the taper can be overrated a bit. The training’s done and then you just go and perform on the day and it might be slightly faster, it might be slightly slower depending on how your training’s gone, but if you’re training has been poor you, you’re going to struggle a lot and you can’t play catch up and you can’t get away and you can’t hide without doing the right training, getting used to the right feeding and being prepared. So, it’s all about the training.

With the taper – is there a danger that you take your foot off the gas too much?

I think if people take the taper too literally, they can drop off way too much and eat too much, and then they’re going into the race in a completely different frame to what they’ve been training with. So they might be two kilograms heavier and they might have not trained properly for the last two or three weeks. So we always gradually drop down the load and we gradually, might slightly increase the energy intake. But I think people do take it to extremes and that’s dangerous.

What about the other side to that extreme – so if you’ve run a few marathons and then you’re targeting specific times, then the ‘maranoia’ comes in – you may not give yourself enough rest…

Rest is important, but if you’re regularly training, then you’re going to be used to every Saturday or Sunday doing a 15 or 20 mile run. I mean, it depends what type of marathoner you are. If you’re a, 2h30m runner, it’s very different to a five hour person in your training approach and in the way that you race every single mile. So recovery is important before.

When the gun goes and you’re underway, there’s often a tendency for even the most experienced runners to get overexcited – the adrenaline from the event, from crowd support – what are your tips to make sure that people hold back a bit and go with the race plan they’ve been working on for months?

Yeah – I always used to do something at the Beachy Head Marathon, I’ve done that a few times and always used to sprint up the hill just to get on the camera at the start – just bomb up the hill and pay the penalty as you went on. There is that excitement and that showing off factor. But also you don’t want to get dragged behind going at a slow shuffle, and I think that’s what some people do. So, I think you should have a race plan and you should know what your pacing is, what your heart rate’s going to be, or how you feel with your breathing rate and you should stick to that. Because it is very easy to think, ‘actually this is pretty good’ and in marathon running, the race doesn’t start until 23 miles. The first bit is a warm up really, the first 20 miles.

Nutrition, the idea of carb loading, again, if you’re not that experienced in marathon running – the idea of it can sound wonderful. But how much should a runner carb load? When should they start doing it? How many days before the race and what sort of foods should they be looking for and avoiding?

Yeah. So the carb-loading theory is very dated now and it’s very old school. The danger of it is that you will feel lethargic, you will feel heavy potentially, and it’s not good for your gut health in many ways. So a lot of the work now is about being good at burning fats and carb wise, it may be just taking it on the day and in gel format, and not loading up so much. So you should be pretty efficient at burning fats and limit your carbohydrate burning during the race. But we know from a lot of evidence that gradual carbohydrate intake during the marathon – in a gel form, or in a solid form, does work and does help to maintain blood glucose levels.

Runners should also have an idea about what their race nutrition is by now. They may be experimenting with gels or drinks or choose whatever works for them. The key thing really is trying to avoid stomach issues and not taking in too much sugar…

Yeah, the sugar side can huge impact on the gut and the gut will feel pretty rough and you may not be able to take the water in effectively and the water may be drawn from the gut and you may or may not have the optimal hydration. So, electrolyte balance is more important, probably, or equally important as carbohydrate intake. Taking lots and lots of gels and taking them at the wrong time is not the ideal thing to do. It’s plan it, and whether you’re going for one every five miles or you’re alternating between a carb gel and a caffeine carb gel…On my long swims I’ll always use gels because they worked fine for me in the water. But on long runs, the bouncing up and down can affect the how the gut feels. And once you’re focusing on the gut rather than just naturally running, then then your performance can decline.

Marathons are one of those rare occasions where it’s common to see runners take sweets from strangers – what does that do? Is it more for a mental boost?

Never take sweets from strangers! Jelly Babies as well, they’re not ideal, it’s generally full of gelatine. That’s not a great thing to be taking in – if you getting that desperate then something’s gone wrong. Hopefully the person has got a bit of a strategy, they’ve got a backup. They might have a mate on the course, particularly in that last six miles who might be able to pass a gel on if that is allowed in the race – or they’ll have some in a backpack. But keeping the hydration up is important – but not overdoing that early on because we know that people can dilute their sodium too much if you’re taking litres and litres of water in. And we know there’s been tragedy from that.

What about mentally dealing with fatigue and the conditions?

Brighton is very open to the conditions. So keeping positive thoughts is always going to work well and breaking the race down into small sections. So if you’re thinking of it as 26 miles, then you’ve kind of lost it from the start. You’ve got to think of it as each mile or each section, then keeping into a good rhythm with your breathing, with your, with your stride frequency is important. Keeping a good gait…if you are having to stop then getting back onto a rhythm is important. I think people start walking, it can be terrible if you’re not getting back into a decent level of low intensity running. So, yeah, once you’ve stopped it is quite hard.

How important is kit?

Very important. Lots of people will overdress, they’ll look at the weather and they’ll put a raincoat on or long trousers when really everyone’s going to get hot when they’re running a marathon and you want to stay pretty cool most of the time. I don’t think there’s that many cases where people have been hypothermic in marathons apart from if they’re in a real cold area and they’ve stopped going at any intensity. It’s more likely to be hyperthermic. You should wear a decent vest, have decent shorts on and not really worry what you look like. The fact that you’ve got good cooling and you’re not chafing and things aren’t too tight…people might think compression tights are ideal, but that might be not allowing your skin to breathe well.

Just finally, if you had a friend, family member or athlete about to start their marathon, what would be your final piece of advice?

Stick to your plan and what you’ve done in training. If you’ve done the right training, you’ll be absolutely fine. It’s too late if you haven’t!

I just want to talk to you about your own endurance achievements because they are extraordinary – swimming the (English) Channel – pretty incredible. Open water swimming is a big passion of yours?

Yeah- well, it’s what I get up for. I’m in the sea every day – long distance wise, a lot – I’ll always do one or two big events a year. The Channel was always a dream to do that. So I did that. And did it well!

What’s it like swimming across the Channel? Because a lot of people would sort of look at that, I think, and reckon it sounds pretty impossible.

Yeah, so I’d done a lot of crewing for other people before, and I’d done a relay before – a three man relay…

That time wasn’t much different to yours….

It wasn’t, no, it was pretty similar. We had good conditions that day as well. But yeah, swimming across is pretty daunting at first and quite nerve wracking because you’ve invested in it financially, you’ve invested in it in yourself. You probably haven’t told everyone how you’re feeling completely. Certainly when I went to do the Channel, a guy died the day before I was due to swim and that was all over Sky News and BBC News. And he was a little bit younger than me and I thought, ‘Blimey, this is serious’.

What is it you enjoy most about open water swimming? Because I think for a lot of runners and cyclists, you obviously get changing scenery – lots to look at – with swimming, it’s not like that…

What I like is…I like my own company. So I’m fine being on my own, I’m fine not being disturbed by anyone. I like to have an aim of where I’m going to get to. I know there’s the feeling of the water as well and the changing currency, always something’s a little bit different. There’s all the blue therapy side of things that you can just listen to your breathing and you can look for the next point or follow the boats the next point. So, I love all that.

Do you go to any sort of a dark places mentally?

I’ve been in pain, a lot of pain. I’ve had spasms in my arm and I’ve still got 5k to go on a long swim, swimming to Rottnest Island for example, one arm wasn’t working so you just go in with the other arm. That’s a battle because you don’t want to lose and you never want to give up. So, that’s probably the worst I get – and you just crack on.

Are you setting yourself any new challenges? Do you have a bucket list of events you want to do?

Oh loads – a lot I’d like to do, but I haven’t got enough money! I’d love to do some of the big ones. I’d love to go back and do some that I’ve done before. So I’ve Lake Zurich, Rottnest Island in Australia I’d like to do again. I would like to do Cook Strait, that will be good. I would like to do one across to Africa. Gibraltar Strait would be quite good, but it’s all logistics and money, unfortunately.

Going back to your work here, all this experience – I know it may be difficult for you to say yourself, but your students must really feed off it and I guess they are intrigued by some of the people you work with, someone of the work that you’ve done..

The ones that I like are the ones that are really curious. The ones that want to come along and watch me coaching Joe Townsend in the pool, or come in the lab and look at what the data is, when I’m working with an athlete, or come out to an event. They’re students that I’m really happy to help and there’s been a lot of them over the years and they’ve gone on to good jobs, which has been really good, you know, and thee people that are now head of science in sailing and people that are in different football clubs and in decent jobs because they’ve gone out their way to get a bit more experience.

We finish each podcast by asking four questions away from your work…So the first one is, can you pick your favourite place in Sussex?

Birling Gap, which is an area where I was brought up going prawning. It’s a beautiful spot – I go paddle boarding up there, I surf off there. I’ll have a coffee up there or might take the kids up there. Play with some seals.

What are you currently reading, watching and/or listening to?

I’m reading a couple of books. Boy in the Water, which is the little kid that swam the channel, I think got listed for a prize. I’ve got this one, The Salt Path – all kind of sea based. I read a bit of Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss, which is quite good, different stories in there. I listen to Gil Scott-Heron, bit of Loyle Carner, a mixture of stuff.

And could you describe your perfect weekend? I imagine swimming’s in there somewhere…

Yeah – it’s going to be because I’m a waterman. So it is going to be waking up, going for an early surf or an early swim. Maybe with my kids, watching the sunrise going paddle boarding. Coming back in, having a couple of poached eggs with Joe Townsend. I will probably then go back out, do a bit spear fishing with a few mates, cook the sea bass up on the beach. And then I’ll probably go back out in the in the water…I don’t know, go for another surf? Probably out in Byron Bay – that’s in the afternoon. And then I’d head across to Brazil and have a night out there.

Finally, if you could invite three people to dinner, past or present, who would they be and why?

I’m not great on the hero worship…but Sir Alex Ferguson would be pretty good. I think he’d tell a good story. I’d learn a bit from his coaching.

Captain Cook, probably be a good person to bring along. I think his tales in Tahiti and the South Pacific would be be amazing and being able to get sail places with him in the after party, that will be good.

Thirdly – maybe Michael Phelps or something, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him and again he’s he’s done a few parties, but he can swim fast. I would learn a lot from him and his performances, knowing how to get the best out of someone.

 

 

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