The Applied Physiology MSc degrees, Applied Sport Physiology and Applied Exercise Physiology are designed around four pillars: practitioner-focused, physiology skill-centred, science in practice and personal and professional development. A priority throughout the degrees is to develop a blend of hard, technical skills alongside softer, interpersonal skills and the emotional intelligence essential to being an effective practitioner in the workplace. With elements of action, experiential, problem-based and kinaesthetic learning, practitioner-focused learning extends to recognise and harness these complex suite of skills, but goes further in helping students assume the persona necessary to enhance their craft knowledge. We have made a conscious effort to build a culture and impress a philosophy of students being practitioners as soon as they commence their degrees and give them opportunities throughout their studies to develop holistically. Evie Winterton, one of our current MSc Applied Sport Physiology students, with support from Sarah Pickering, a former MSc Applied Exercise Physiology student, worked with ultra athlete Paul Weeks, as he embarked upon preparing for the Ice Ultra Marathon. This blog post captures the support offered earlier in the academic year and the reflections from both Paul and Evie.
What is the Beyond the Ultimate Ice Ultra?
The Beyond the Ultimate (BTU) Ice Ultra is a 230km race split into 5 stages taking in Arctic tundra and frozen lakes all set against a backdrop of white topped mountains in Swedish Lapland. It is a self-sufficient race meaning that you are responsible for carrying your entire kit, including food, safety equipment and a minimum of 1.5 litres of water which can be re-filled at checkpoints along the stages. You’re also having to carry some specialist gear to take on the conditions the Arctic Circle can throw at you such as snowshoes, poles and layers of specialist clothing. Accommodation each night is provided by way of remote huts and tepee tents with open fires for warmth.
What was the training involved and were there any special preparations?
The training consisted of many miles of running and walking trails, much of which was done carrying a weighted backpack of up to 10kg. The longer the time on feet the better to replicate the long days of each stage. For Paul, time was far more important than speed. He would also spend most early Saturday mornings climbing the 270 steps up a hill located close to his home, again with a weight vest or weighted backpack on, to more quickly build strength and endurance in his legs. Finally, Monday to Friday evenings were spent religiously in the gym working on strength and conditioning and also mobility, both which he found to be invaluable for long endurance events such as this.
In terms of special preparations, two were included:
- A few times Paul visited Camber Sands to run up and down its main beach in the snowshoes that little did he know he would spend 95% of the event in. This included one session where one snowshoe broke early on which meant he had to run 10 miles with only the one snowshoe on! The looks and questions Paul said he got from the locals were priceless!
- Two visits to the Environmental Extreme Lab of the University of Brighton’s School of Sport and Health Sciences aimed to alert Paul to how he coped in the cold. Here Paul underwent two cold tolerance tests, one to assess how his metabolism and thermoregulation responded to decreasing ambient temperatures (17, -5, -10 and -15°C). The second at -20°C, was to assess the effect of three clothing combinations on his energetic cost and sweat response, since sweating in cold conditions increases the risk of accidental hypothermia.
“I had been lucky enough to work with Dr Neil Maxwell and his colleagues and students in the lead up to the Marathon des Sables (MDS) six months earlier. Those heat acclimation sessions and the information that I was given by Neil and his team proved to be absolutely invaluable. Without those sessions I am almost certain that I would not have managed to complete the MDS, as there was a heatwave which saw the highest average daily temperatures compared to any of the previous editions. Having completed the MDS I spoke to Neil too find out whether there was any support he could provide me with for this Ice Ultra challenge, which happily he confirmed there was. “
Unlike heat acclimation, it would take too long to acclimate Paul’s body to extremely low temperatures but putting Paul into a sub-zero environment to establish how his body reacted in terms of energy consumption, calories burned, and fluid lost, plus enabling him to test all the clothing he had, would help understand what worked and what did not work. The team spent the time with him in the chamber, suffering the extreme temperatures but without the exercise to keep themselves warm. Nevertheless, we were able to collect some interesting data (Figure 1 and 2) that helped inform Paul about how he would likely cope, but also what he could do to help himself. Education was a key part of this support and Evie and Sarah made sure Paul was familiar with symptoms of accidental hypothermia and other cold-related injuries and how to prevent them.
Figure 1 – Data from cold tolerance test 1 that examined the energetic cost of running (9km/h), determining Paul’s running economy in ambient and different cold conditions
Figure 2 – Data from cold tolerance test 2 that examined the energetic cost of running (9km/h) at -20°C, comparing energetic cost of different clothing combinations
“Neil, Evie and Sarah were amazing, hugely supportive and informative and they didn’t once complain about almost freezing to death! Well not that I heard anyway 😊”
Reflections from Paul
Before the Race
- I would have spent more time running and walking in the snowshoes had I realised quite how much of the time I would spend wearing these. It was only right towards the end of my training for the event that it came to light that any preconceptions we had that we would be running most of this event in trail shoes, were wrong.
- The few times I visited Camber Sands I trained in snowshoes which was invaluable. I realised how easy they were to break and therefore, made sure that I got better and stronger clips for them and also what these did to my running gait over time, which you could only find out by putting in a decent amount of time beforehand and properly testing them i.e. hours at a time not just one.
- As with the MdS, the hours of strength and conditioning work I put in paid massive dividends, especially as the event wore on and the strain was increasing on muscles that often don’t get used in the same way when you’re running on a trail without snowshoes and/or with a weighted pack.
- The visit to the University of Brighton’s Environmental Physiology Lab was hugely beneficial and gave me a massive confidence and general psychological boost, as it had with the MDS. With so many of these events it is worrying about the unknown, which can really sap your energy and confidence. It can also see you spend a lot of time early on working things out by experience, which by the time you do it can see you at best way behind where you want to be, and at worst out the race completely.
- I went into the event knowing exactly how -20°C felt, what my clothing strategy would be at temperatures ranging from 0 to -20°C, and confident in the knowledge that my kit would work for me. Also, I knew how much energy roughly I would use working in those temperatures and as such I could far better plan my nutrition strategy for the event. This is crucial not only to ensure that you have the energy in your body to burn for as long as you need to work, but also to ensure that you aren’t carrying more food than you need, as food already accounted for most of the weight in the backpack. In addition, I was aware of my sweat rate at those temperatures and wearing the kit, which meant I carried the correct amount of water thus avoiding any unnecessary excess weight. It also meant that I didn’t make the mistake of thinking that because its cold you’re not sweating. Finally, I started to understand what to look out for in terms of cold injury symptoms which was so important.
After the Race
It’s an amazing one by the way!
- The BTU race team and their medical counterparts were fantastic, so supportive to every individual, they almost made sure you got to the end one way or another.
- The local Sami’s were the friendliest (and toughest) people I think I’ve ever met. They couldn’t do enough to help, including getting on their hands and knees in the snow to claw ice away and out of your snowshoes with their bare fingers!
- The scenery was beyond spectacular. Words don’t do it justice so rather than try look at the slideshow.
- It’s incredibly tough, with very physically demanding stages early on, then mentally tough ones later. Its tough terrain, very slow going and obviously very cold, which can get worse so fast. You must remain very focused at all times as things can go dramatically wrong very quickly in those temperatures, but that’s all part of the challenge of it. It’s not supposed to be easy!
- I would recommend it to anyone. The BTU team desperately want you to get to the end. They won’t help you physically in any way, bar providing hot water at checkpoints and at the end, as should be the case, but they do everything else possible to ensure you achieve your goals.
- Final Position for me:
Primary Objective: Just finish
Secondary Objective: Finish in top half
Reflections from Evie
Due to one of my professional goals being deepening my understanding and knowledge of environmental physiology, I jumped at the opportunity to help support Paul as he embarked upon completing the Ice Ultra. This was a short placement, however was practical-heavy, which was what I loved. From standing in -20°C for data collection to talking to Paul and how he was preparing for the event and how we could help him further…it was brilliant! I feel this placement was incredibly educational and valuable to me, where I really felt like a physiology practitioner. It helped towards me achieving a professional goal, especially towards cold physiology as I had previously focused a lot of my time towards heat physiology. The placement also taught me how to get key data from an athlete over a short space of time, but still make a difference to their preparation. I have a better sense of where I am going as I come to the end of my degree. I know I am capable of being an effective practitioner and this placement and this degree have provided the platform to achieve that.
Practitioner-focused Learning brings several models of learning together as students develop their craft knowledge and is embedded across our MSc Applied Physiology degrees here at the University of Brighton. In working towards this goal, we have developed guiding principles to prioritise practitioner-focused learning in our degrees which has led to other universities in the UK and abroad adopting this approach. Seeing the value and benefits of it first-hand, as our students are able to deliver and work as an applied physiology practitioner, making a measurable difference to athletes like Paul who widely surpassed his own expectations in the BTU Ice Ultra , is what it is all about!
Neil, Evie and Sarah, I was absolutely made up with the above so thank you so much for all your invaluable help and support. I so appreciate it and will be forever grateful to you guy.