COVID Be Damned! This was my 2020 One-Year Challenge of Biohacking My Personal Fitness…

When I entered 2020, I had no idea that the COVID-19 pandemic would completely rip apart normality.

COVID changed everything.

It was (and still is) a cold and sobering slap in everyone’s face.

For me personally, the onset of COVID was hugely frustrating because it massively disrupted my original plans for 2020, not least the original conception of this One-Year Challenge.

I had already progressed three months into the original design of this challenge when COVID blew up in everyone’s faces and I am so glad that I decided to continue to do a revised version of this challenge throughout the rest of the year.

My One-Year Challenge of Biohacking My Personal Fitness is what kept me sane throughout the troublesome year that was 2020.

And now, as I promised in the original outline for my One-Year Challenge, I am here to reflect on how it went it, how it changed and how it changed me.

 

Pete Be Journaling, or how I learned how to stay focused on my health and fitness progression

How I went about journaling my One-Year Challenge is by far the most tedious and boring part of it, so I’ll get this one out of the way first.

 

Self-tracking my biometric data

I have been tracking my biometric data ever since I got a smartphone and smartwatch.

It’s not something I absolutely have to do.

Although seeing how many steps I have done in a day, keeping track of my runs and keeping a regular log of my current weight are all very useful and often motivating for achieving my fitness goals.

However, I do consider myself a biohacker and I am convinced that all this data I am collecting about myself will one day be of use, so I continue to collect it.

It’s not terribly hard to collect, my smartphone and smartwatch do it automatically most of the time and it all gets compiled together in the Google Fit app as part of my Google account data, so I’ve been pretty consistent with tracking all my workouts, my weight and my heart rate.

The only thing I dropped tracking were the calories I was consuming.

I used the Lifesum app for this (which is a really good food and drink tracking app by the way), but constantly entering in what you are eating and drinking is a real pain in the arse!

 

Keeping a log and detailed notes in my OneNote fitness journal

Keeping a OneNote fitness journal is something I started doing in the six-month period that led up to the initiation of my One-Year Challenge. My original notebook had been used to keep track of my weightlifting stats.

With my One-Year Challenge, I knew that I wanted to be very consistent with my weekly workouts and I how I was developing myself over the course of the year. I felt that keeping a daily log of any workouts I did (type, duration, any observations made), my fasting window for each day and any supplements I had taken would be a good way to keep me focused.

And it worked.

Every day I would enter in the relevant details and adjust my practice accordingly.

There were a few days and weeks I missed, not least in November and December when I was working non-stop, but I was pretty consistent with keeping up my log.

Certainly, I am going to keep up some form of OneNote fitness journal moving forwards, because it is an invaluable means of keeping me focused on my health and fitness goals.

 

Blogging about the progression of my one-year challenge

Didn’t happen.

Accept with this post now.

It was partly down to not making the time to do so.

But mainly down to the fact that my Instagram took over the role of blogging about and reflecting on my health and fitness journey.

 

Green Eating and Mindfulness Mastery, or how I learned to, well, I didn’t learn a lot actually

These two completely fell by the wayside!

It’s not that I wasn’t making an effort to eat green and do my mindfulness meditation, it’s just that I never kept up a consistent habit of doing both.

With my eating, I found that I was mostly eating healthy, but just never got round to developing a consistent weekly regime of eating clean and buying green.

This was partly down to the disruption caused by moving to a new house and the mass panic buying that occurred at the beginning of the first lockdown, then it was complacency throughout the spring and summer months and finally it was just lack of time and attention due to working so much throughout November and December.

However, I did manage to keep up my daily intermittent fasting AND I did also manage to do a 72-hour prolonged maintenance fast in September.

With my mindfulness meditation, throughout the spring and summer, I felt that I didn’t really need it because all the time I spent exercising outside in nature was a massive boost to my psychological wellbeing. Plus, I am usually very mindful when I am working out anyway.

I later regretted not keeping up the habit of daily mindfulness meditation throughout the autumn and winter months because that is when my seasonal affective disorder always hits me and the mass COVID anxiety received a massive boost during this time due to the worsening pandemic situation.

However, green eating and mindfulness mastery are still on my agenda.

Now that I have majorly developed my physical activity practice and made it a firmly established habit, I can make green eating and mindfulness mastery my projects for 2021.

 

Dynamic Physicality, or how I learned to abandon the gym and get back in touch with nature

By far, this is the one area of my One-Year Challenge that changed the most.

In my original outline, aside from a bit of outdoor running and cycling, all my physical activity development was based in the gym with a heavy reliance on gym equipment.

My physical activity regime was made up of two programs…

    • Mike Matthews’ Bigger Leaner Stronger: One Year Challenge for Men – A bodybuilding program with an exclusive reliance on free and barbell weights
    • Adam Frater’s The Shredded Academy 1.0 – A calisthenics functional fitness program with an exclusive reliance bodyweight exercises

As I had done a practice run of both programs in the six months leading up to 2020, I knew that, on their own, both programs were extremely effective at developing my physique, but they were also hugely exhausting!

Absolutely shattered at the gym

After trying out both programs combined together into the same week of training, i.e., doing bodyweight training AND weightlifting on the same days, I ultimately decided it was too time-consuming and too draining to keep up.

So, I came up with an alternating two-week training program instead.

On week 1 I did my weightlifting workouts and on week 2 I did my bodyweight workouts.

Simple!

And from January to April that system worked beautifully… until COVID got super serious and the UK was put into its first national lockdown… which meant no more gym.

Like everyone else, going into that first lockdown was hugely disorientating; even more so for me, because I moved into a new house when the first lockdown began!

Yeah, I was a bit lost for the few weeks of lockdown 1.

I was not going to gym anymore, but I was still getting some exercise in. I went for quite a few long walks, I did some running, I did a little bit of cycling and I started to teach myself how to do handstands in my room using a 4-week program I had purchased.

Mostly, because everything was so stressed out and I didn’t even know if I was going to have an income in a month’s time, because the job furlough scheme had still not been announced… I just let myself have a lot of downtime when I did lot of reading and streaming.

This transition period overlapped from the last two weeks I was in my old house to the first two weeks when I was in my new house.

I was just trying to figure out what I was doing with my life now that the country was in lockdown and what I was going to do with my One-Year Challenge now that I no longer had access to the gym.

 

Running was the first thing I adjusted

Originally, I had just planned on doing one dynamic run once a week or once every two weeks.

Once I entered lockdown 1, I realised now that I had considerably more free time and recovery time, due to work being furloughed, and the fact that I would have more energy due to the lack of my weightlifting regime; as well as the fact that I had entered the spring and summer months, it made sense to increase the amount of outdoor dynamic running I would be doing.

What I didn’t anticipate was just how much running I would ultimately end up doing!

My most common type of running are my dynamic running sessions, which I define as being any run that is shorter than a half marathon and includes more than one type of running and form of exercise. Usually, I average about 8 miles with these runs.

However, I had also been on a few long-distance runs, which employ one type of slow and steady jogging pace and have distances of a half marathon or more.

With the original conception of my One-Year Challenge, I had planned on phasing out my long distance runs because there is a growing evidence that long distance running is not actually good for your long-term heart health.

But it was during lockdown 1 that I discovered a new love for long distance running… and ended up running a considerable number of miles throughout the spring and summer.

The source of the River Frome, 18 miles away in the Cotswolds

The problem with being in lockdown and having to stay at home to stop the spread of COVID is that it does your head in.

I’ve never liked being boxed in and I love to move.

So, running long distances was just my way of keeping my mental health in good shape.

Clevedon, 20 miles away on the Severn Estuary

Combined with my dynamic runs, my long-distance runs greatly strengthened my stamina and, as a result, I was able to keep running further and further.

I have run out to many of the surrounding areas around the City of Bristol with my run down to Clevedon and also out to the source of the River Frome in the Cotswolds being two of my favourites.

Ultimately, I went from struggling to run a half marathon all the way up to running smoothly and confidently at ultramarathon status.

The longest run I have now done is 40 miles.

How do I feel about the long-term health effects of long-disctanc running now?

I’m still cautious.

But I figure the odd long-distance run can’t hurt all that much. It’s when it becomes an all-year-through religion that you may start to have problems later in life.

I still buy into the research that says shorter distances are better, which is why my predominant form of running is still my dynamic runs.

 

Calisthenics and Yoga were the next things I took another look at

The great thing about The Shredded Academy program I had incorporated into my One-Year Challenge is that the only equipment you need to do it is a chair, a wall, a pull-up bar and yourself.

Therefore, once I had invested in a pull-up bar, I was able to continue the program in the much bigger bedroom that came with my new house.

My at-home calisthenics also served as a natural progression from the handstand program I had been doing in the transition from my old house into the new one.

I got into a good routine where I took the weekly sessions in The Shredded Academy program and combined them together into two weekly intensive sessions.

Yoga also was any easy thing for me to do at home, because I already had a well-established habit of using the Daily Yoga app. Plus, I now had space in which to do it in my new room.

 

Primal fitness was the final major change I made to my One-Year Challenge

Primal fitness is physical activity that develops the body’s strength, mobility, balance, flexibility and coordination the natural way our hunter gatherer ancestors would have exercised.

My dynamic running already included elements of primal fitness, but it was during one of my dynamic runs that I discovered a location that was the perfect outdoor gym for my training needs.

I’ve started to refer to it as my river gym.

This location is a river gorge surrounding the River Frome, partly naturally formed by the river itself and partly cultivated by the quarries that were once located there.

This particular stretch of the River Frome is shared between three public parks – Eastville Park, Snuff Mills and Oldbury Court Estate – all located next to each other.

The location has…

    • Sweeping wild woodlands on either side that have various winding trails which are perfect for running along with a whole range of textures and gradients and obstacles to navigate around and work all my muscles, joints and tendons on.
    • Steep climbs that lend themselves for high intensity interval training practice.
    • Exposed cliff-faces that are ideal for doing bouldering/climbing on and serve as a great means of a quick full-body workout.
    • There are also plenty of climbable trees.
    • Fallen trees across the river and throughout the woodlands that lend themselves for balance/core stability training.
    • Fallen trees, natural rock formations, ruins and certain points along the streams that feed into the river serve as great opportunities for leap and vaulting practice.
    • Various shallow points along the river that are easily crossed which makes it simple to take advantage of the natural landscape on both sides of the river. Stepping stone my way across is also another good means of balance practice.
    • Complete immersion in nature which is great for my psychological wellbeing

And the best part about this location?

It is only 10 minutes from my house.

Primal fitness was something I was aware of even before I put my One-Year Challenge together, but I never really appreciated its full potential until I started doing it in lockdown 1 (and continue to do it even now).

Now that I am reflecting back on it, and indeed my whole One-Year Challenge, I can tell you that I have a gained a great deal more from utilising all the primal fitness workouts I did as part of my dynamic run sessions in accordance with the calisthenics and yoga workouts I did at home than I ever did from weightlifting in the gym.

Back when I was weightlifting my weight would average about 65kg… now it averages between 69kg – 72kg.

I said in my original intention for my One-Year Challenge that I wanted to get my weight up to a 75kg. I’m still not quite there, but I am certainly much closer than when I was doing weightlifting in the gym.

Furthermore, the whole point of developing my dynamic physicality was so that I would have the athletic and gymnastic agility to be able to develop my freerunning practice.

Admittedly, I have not done as much freerunning practice as I would have like to have done as part of my One-Year Challenge, but now I am in the right shape to be able to do so.

Don’t get me wrong, weightlifting is good, but it’s a bit too safe and comfortable… and it certainly is not good at developing a dynamic range of strength.

There is something to be said for going crazy and constantly improvising in an unpredictable natural environment.

My original intention for my One-Year Challenge was so that I could achieve dynamic physicality, which means a lean and toned athletic physique that is strong, flexible, explosive, controlled and fully functional in an array of activities.

And that is exactly what I have achieved.

In hindsight, it seems absurd that I would try to achieve that without a strong utilisation of primal fitness!

Overall, in terms of achieving dynamic physicality, the fact that I lost access to the gym and instead bolstered up my dynamic running, at-home calisthenics and utilisation of primal fitness has actually proved to be hugely invaluable.

 

In summary, I’m so glad I did this One-Year Challenge

COVID came, it disrupted everything, but it did not stop me from achieving my One-Year Challenge.

If anything, COVID motivated me to complete it even more so.

Lockdown 1 ended up being four months for me and that clear up a lot of time for me to get the workouts in.

Even after lockdown 1 ended, I kept up my weekly fitness regime.

It was only when lockdown 2 started in November that my regime started to faulter, but that was only because I was working 7 nights a week across three jobs so I could pay off my £2000 overdraft.

Worked my arse off during lockdown 2

What I actually found was that even though I was not following my One-Year Challenge fitness regime, I was still managing to stay in shape.

All three of my nightshift jobs involved a dynamic range of manual handling, so I was still well and truly working my body out.

I was even able to make up for the loss of my weekly dynamic run, by cycling 10-miles home once a week.

Now at the beginning of 2021, I feel just as healthy and in shape as I felt during the spring and summer of 2020.

I feel much more mindful about my body, how it works and how I can develop it further.

Best of all, I feel much more in touch with nature. I have been reminded that I am just another part of that nature.

My first dynamic run of 2021

Ultimately, COVID was and still is shit.

But the pandemic got me out of my comfort zone and it put me back in touch with a natural way of biohacking my personal fitness.

Now I have the dynamic physicality and improved health and fitness experience to prove it.

And I am certainly going to be building on that experience!

 

Peter O’Brien

15/01/2021