Back in March James, Jonny and I hopped on a plane to Glasgow to jump into a freezing cold canal to race about 400 other blokes up a flight of locks in a slightly mad event called Red Bull Neptune Steps.
It was the second crack at the event for JT and I and, without fail, the most common question we got asked in the build up was ‘why the hell are you going all that way to do that?!’
After hearing the same question for about the 10th time, I actually stopped to consider the answer in a bit more detail and came up with the following reasons, with the common theme being dragging myself 'out of my comfort zone' in one way or another...
1) It's a good reason to mix up your training regime
As I’ve mentioned before in blogs considering things like how getting older has affected my performance, these days, I like to train for different reasons than just aiming to be as fit as I can for any one single sporting goal.
Knowing that the Neptune Steps race involved a short ‘sprint’ of about 6-8 minutes (repeated a couple of times if you progress through the Heats, Semis and into the Final), it was a great incentive to do some really short, sharp, sick-inducing sessions in the pool during the weeks leading up to the event. This made for a great change from the usual steady, aerobic training we’d normally be knocking out for most of the winter.
These sets could almost be called ‘fun’ and became a bit of a talking point down at the pool, especially when 3 blokes in full wetsuits, including full neoprene hoods, got into a single lane and tried swimming up and down side by side as fast as possible!
2) It provides a guaranteed ‘hit’ of those fight or flight hormones we athletes tend to seek out
As a competitive athlete you get used to feeling the ‘butterflies’ in your stomach regularly before races and, whilst it's often not particularly enjoyable at the time, you learn that you get something positive from putting yourself through that mild level of stress.
This is especially true after a good performance, where the subsequent feeling of euphoria, contentment and achievement can last for quite some time.
Now that I don’t take racing quite as seriously (nor compete anywhere near as often as I used to), I've found that something a bit more ‘extreme’ is needed to fire up the ol' adrenal gland!
The combination of cold water, a mass start, elimination race format and some downright intimidating obstacles you face at the Neptune Steps proved to be more than enough to evoke a good old fashioned primeval response in my nervous system!
As ever, I really can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ the feeling on the start line of any of the 3 rounds I competed in, but it definitely got my heart rate up and focussed my mind in a way that's rare these days...
3) It's a form of ‘stress relief’
Whilst it might seem really odd to say this about an event that, on the face of it, is very stressful to compete in, I actually think that it really was stress relieving!
Most of the ‘stress’ I feel nowadays is related to running a small business, or helping to raise two small children and - as a result - a lot of that stress is the kind of day in, day out anxiety that kind of gnaws away at you, that stops you sleeping and never really leaves your mind.
In stark contrast, the stress of a race like Neptune Steps is more ‘physical’ and very, very focussed. It literally demands 100% of your attention for a short period of time and forces you to forget about any other worries you may have going on in the background.
It’s like a kind of abrupt mental cleanse or detox and, without a shadow of a doubt, left me feeling more relaxed afterwards.
I’ve experienced almost exactly the same thing when paddling the ‘Millers Run’ - an ~8 mile downwind surfski paddling route in pretty treacherous (shark-infested) seas off the coast of Cape Town in the past. I'm sure that rock climbers, base jumpers and anyone one else who takes part in ‘high risk’ activities would have similar things to say about the stress-reducing qualities of activities that take you out of your comfort zone.
4) Taking on very different challenges is a great way to stay motivated
Getting out of your comfort zone often involves learning new skills and training in new ways. It also allows you to compete with yourself and others in an environment that's free from the baggage of past performances that you can otherwise compare yourself unfavourably with (useful as you get older and your performances start to decline).
In recent years I've done the 125 mile Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race and ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championships a few times (amongst other things) and these have been great in this respect.
5) It's great for team building
Jonny, James and I travelled up to do the race together and it proved to be a great team bonding experience for us all.
We're all mates as well as colleagues and already spend a lot of time together, but sharing the intense experience of racing with and against each other in a pretty stressful setting was actually really good for us. It meant we could relate to one another’s experiences and it gave us something to talk about other than work!
JP was particularly impressive in that he continued his comfort zone extending streak into the evening after the race, downing a flight of Scottish Whiskey’s at the airport before we boarded the plane home, even though he is usually more of an alcopop man...
In all, I'm not sure that I’d necessarily specifically recommend the Neptune Steps event to anyone and everyone -you need to be a pretty strong swimmer and not afraid of heights at a minimum.
But, I do think that finding something that'll push you out of your own comfort zone can have some pretty decent benefits both to you as an athlete and more generally in the rest of your life.
Our comfort zones are definitely a good, productive and safe place to be for the majority of the time, but the occasional foray outside of their limits is not a bad idea to keep life ‘interesting'...