Mission Impossible 2
In the first of a series of blogs, Ben Dirs outlined how and why he set upon the path to fitness. In the second, he describes his early struggles with his new regime.
The most baffling thing about my quest for fitness so far has been the bafflement of others. My friends and colleagues do not need to say anything, their faces say it all: "But why?" And then it hit me, halfway through a particularly brutal stint on the rowing machine: it is all a matter of identity.
Take away the booze and fags and who am I? They have been my props for nigh-on 20 years, since the night we pilfered a six-pack of out-of-date lager from my dad's garage, a handful of cigarettes from my mum's handbag and headed for the woods. Just about every friend I have made since, every woman I have been out with, this has been a major part of the deal, this is how I have been defined: he comes with fags and booze.
But to think in such a way is delusional, egotistical and more than a little bit sad. Surely it is possible the Dirs down the pub with a lager in one hand and a gasper in the other is not the best Dirs there could be? And maybe it is not too late to define myself in other, less self-destructive, ways? To borrow from Alan Partridge, getting in some kind of nick is not necessarily the same as becoming a narcissistic sports pimp.
Even so, there are times during the first week of my programme where I feel like I am having a Partridge-style meltdown: up at 6am for a bike ride, salmon and a mountain of spinach for breakfast, fish oil and multi-vitamin pills, followed by a few tugs on my electronic cigarette. Clean the pots and pans, knock out some abdominal crunches, and prepare to do it all over again. Ad infinitum.
Chuck work into the mix and things get complicated, hence the rota on my bedroom wall outlining exactly what I should be eating where and when: sausage and eggs for breakfast, tuna salad for lunch at my desk, Thai soup in Westfield shopping centre at 3, mushroom omelette and a forest of broccoli at 6 in the BBC canteen. No bread, no pasta, no potatoes, no rice, no fun.
But there is hard science behind it, as Matt Lovell, nutritionist to England's elite rugby players, Tottenham Hotspur's high-flying stars - and me - explains.
Drinking beer was a big part of my life
"The diet I've put you on will reduce the amount of insulin the body produces," says Lovell. "Excess insulin is produced when we consume too much carbohydrate and our blood sugar level increases. The problem with excess insulin is that it converts excess carbohydrate and other foods to fat.
"But it's the energy-dense carbohydrates you need to avoid. You can eat as much fibrous carbohydrate as you can stomach."
And that means shed-loads of broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus and spinach, mixed and matched with chicken, oily fish, nuts, seeds and dozens and dozens of eggs. As Lovell himself is happy to point out, it really isn't rocket science.
He adds: "You wouldn't cut carbs out of a top athlete's diet, but what you're doing is specific to your needs, which is to alter your body composition. It's not geared up to maximum performance. A top rower, for example, might consume as much as 7,000 calories a day, depending on the total hours of training."
In case you were wondering, 7,000 calories is roughly 35 chicken breasts, or 83 eggs.
While Lovell is a mine of tasty recipe ideas, time constraints and the need to maintain a social life mean I am heading for a big falling out with a couple of food items. Mushrooms and I used to get on like a house on fire but now we've got a major beef.
Sticking to the plan requires putting on blinkers - visual, aural and olfactory - so that you are constantly kidding your brain that you did not see that person piling into a pizza, you did not hear that person talking about ordering in a Chinese and you certainly did not smell that cigarette. One Sunday evening I perch on the edge of a table sipping on soup while 15 of my mates steam into a curry. A chicken vindaloo once a week, sans rice, is not actually a problem, but it was far too close to my bed time.
Exercise-wise, things get off to an inauspicious start. A two-inch adjustment of the saddle on my bike, pretty much on a whim, results in a readjustment of my spine and me having to postpone the programme for a week. My back, when flexed, sounds like a sentence uttered in an ancient African click language. Luckily, I have a physio on speed-dial.
Mark Thomas, an old school-mate formerly employed by London Wasps and Essex CCC, likens my body to a rusty gate and then to an onion, "revealing layer upon layer of problems". "What's up?" I ask after he has prodded, poked and manipulated me for what seems like an eternity. "Pretty much everything," he replies.
Evidently, embarking on a rigorous regime without a physio on board is like going into battle without a shield. Thomas advises me to pop into a bike shop and get it properly fitted, to get advice from a gym instructor on how to properly use the weight machines and to book in for a massage, while also teaching me various stretches to keep the tweaks and niggles at bay. After an hour in Thomas's company, I can touch my toes for the first time in a couple of decades.
Lovell had been non-prescriptive when it came to training, other than to say I should be getting a sweat on twice a day. A couple of broken fingers sustained while skiing ruled out boxing classes, bad knees ruled out running, so it was a case of cycling, rowing intervals and weights, with abdominal exercises thrown in - don't forget that six-pack, which remains my ultimate aim.
For the first week of intensive exercise, my body feels like a condemned building, about to cave in at any moment. I make bets with myself while on the bike. What will go first? A hamstring? A calf? Some muscle I am not even aware of? And the irony is, the fitter I feel, the less able I am to get about on foot, limping as I am like a clapped-out nag.
The world of exercise is alien and bemusing. Why does the gym play old skool house and garage from the 1990s when, this being the BBC, most of the punters would presumably rather work out to The Smiths or The Fall instead? And why do grown men in SUVs allow themselves to get so very angry about a man on a bike using the same road as them?
One day, a schoolgirl tries to push me off as I cycle down the A127, a jape that would no doubt have had hilarious consequences had she managed to pull it off. Meanwhile, I am heartened when treated to a rare sighting of the classic, indigenous 'V' sign, saddened when flicked with the now prevalent middle finger, a symbol of so-called broken Britain.
There is a poignant moment in my local supermarket. The bloke behind the counter had this gag, where he would shout out "10 or 20?" as I walked through the door, alluding to the number of cigarettes I was popping in for. Only this time I had to say no. Sorry bloke behind the counter, but I will not have you defining me any longer. I know, I know, that's 50 quid a week up the swanny - unless you sell protein shakes?