THE SUNSHINE VITAMIN

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Few things encapsulate the relevance of the outdoors as vitamin D does. It has been aptly called the sunshine vitamin. When human life recedes indoors – as it has in recent times dominated by work and workplace, sedentary lifestyle and growing atmospheric pollution – we turn our back on sunshine. In India, that should provoke thought because we were already a population associated with vitamin D deficiency. This blog spoke to two doctors who lead an active lifestyle for an overview of the role vitamin D plays in our life:

“ In the basket of vitamins, vitamin D is an important one. Yet ironically, it isn’t strictly a vitamin. Vitamins cannot be produced by the human body. What we call vitamin D is more a hormone. Thereby, it is the only vitamin, which can be produced in the body,’’ Colonel Muthukrishnan Jayaraman, an endocrinologist with the Indian Army and a regular runner, said. The main role of vitamin D is in bone mineralization and calcium metabolism. Research has shown that vitamin D has receptors in many cells. It has an anti-cancer role; cancer can get out of control in cells that are deficient in vitamin D. Although not yet established beyond doubt, vitamin D is believed to influence immunity. Deficiency in vitamin D can lead to inflammation and autoimmune diseases. Further, there are connections between vitamin D levels and diabetes.

In general, nutritionists advise a Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of 600 to 800 units of vitamin D (600 being for those up to the age of 70 years; 800 for those above 70). Over time, the body needs more vitamin D. There is also an optimum level of 30 nanograms per milliliter, assigned for vitamin D in the blood. Below 20 nanograms is deemed deficient. Above 30 is good for bone health. However, above 100 is toxic. “ Between 30 to 100 nanograms – that is what we need. There has been a recommendation that the RDA be more,’’ Col Jayaraman said. The body gets vitamin D through synthesis and supplementation. In the latter, sources of vitamin D include select fishes and egg. “ Some of the food items we turn to for vitamin D are expensive. But we have an inexpensive avenue to process vitamin D in sunlight. The sun’s ultraviolet B (UVB) rays affect cholesterol in the skin cells and provide the energy for vitamin D synthesis. It is generally noted that the sunshine available between 11AM and 3PM works best for this purpose. The recommended period of exposure to sunlight is 15-20 minutes. You can expose as much of your skin as you wish. Don’t go overboard. Excessive exposure, prolonged exposure – these can be counter-productive. We are all familiar with the sensation of sunburn. At about the point of being sunburnt, you may conclude that you have done enough to synthesize a month’s worth of vitamin D. That is a practical thumb rule,’’ he said.

The population of South Asia – including India – is generally deficient in vitamin D. This has been attributed to the darker skin of the region, which is not very efficient at vitamin D conversion. The predicament has been compounded by acquired habits like excessive use of sunscreen (especially brands sporting high PF value) and emergent environmental problems like atmospheric pollution. “ A study from Mumbai last year showed that almost 80 per cent of the survey sample was deficient in vitamin D. There was another from North India, which showed deficiency of 15-30 per cent. Deficiency was higher in urban areas and less in rural areas. It betrays the impact of lifestyle and varying degrees of exposure to sunlight therein. However what should worry us in India is that even solders and farmers, who are generally associated with greater time spent in the outdoors, have vitamin D deficiency,’’ Col Jayaraman said. Further, contemporary lifestyles are not helpful for vitamin D production. “ Modern day life has grown progressively sedentary and courted the indoors. We don’t indulge in sports; we spent less time outdoors. What we should note is that the risk associated with fair skin – that of excessive exposure to sunlight causing skin cancer – is not high in the Indian context, ‘’ he said.

“ Vitamins refer to a group of nutrients which are not synthesized by the body and are required in small amounts through dietary sources. In Latin, vita means life. Vitamine was the original word as Thiamine was the first vitamin to be discovered. At that time it was thought that all such nutrients would be amines (they are organic compounds which contain and are often actually based on one or more atoms of nitrogen). The amine angle wasn’t found to be true.  So the `e’ in vitamine was dropped to de-emphasize the amine reference,’’ Dr Pravin Gaikwad, a pediatrician based in Navi Mumbai, who is also a runner and triathlete, said.

Vitamins are micronutrients necessary for cell function, growth and development. There are 13 essential vitamins required for the body to work properly. Vitamin D, through a historical accident, became classified as a ` vitamin.’ It is produced in the human body. It is absent from most natural foods except certain fish and egg yolk. Even when it’s obtained from food, it must be transformed by the body before it can do any good.  It’s actually a fat soluble pro hormone steroid that has endocrine (hormonal) and extra hormonal functions. Hormonal function is involved in calcium homeostasis and extra hormonal function is related to genetic mechanisms required in cell multiplication, differentiation and death (apoptosis). The dietary sources of vitamin D are oily fish such as salmon, mackerel (100 gm gives 1006 units); cod liver oil and egg yolk (100 gm egg yolk offers 218 units of vitamin D; each measure of egg yolk is approximately 18 gm, so 5-6 eggs would be required). Red meat and animal liver supply negligible amounts of vitamin D.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The main raw material for vitamin D is sunlight. Therefore, it is also known as the sunshine vitamin. The recommended requirements are: adults up to 70 years – 600 IU per day, beyond 70 – 800 IU per day. Vitamin D has been found to regulate the expression of almost 900 genes involving calcium phosphate metabolism, immune system and brain development. It is well-known that vitamin D deficiency causes rickets in children and osteomalacia (softening of bones) in adults. It also aggravates osteoporosis. Further, vitamin D deficiency causes chronic muscle pain and muscle weakness. Several observational studies have demonstrated the association between robust levels of vitamin D and reduced mortality and the risk of developing certain types of chronic diseases.

“ Vitamin D has been found to be important for physiological functions such as muscle strength and neuromuscular coordination. Deficiency may lead to increased risk of falling, especially in the elderly. This vitamin’s role in preventing development of colo-rectal cancers, breast and prostate cancers has also been observed. Vitamin D’s role in brain development and function has been a subject of study lately. It has been found to be so crucial that it is also regarded as a `neurosteroid.’ Further, it has been documented that vitamin D can influence fundamental processes for brain development in the embryonic brain. The influence of vitamin D is also suggested in complex planning and formation of new memories. Vitamin D deficiency could be responsible for the patho-physiology of schizophrenia,’’ Dr Gaikwad said.

As said earlier, the main raw material of vitamin D for human beings is sunlight. It is derived through the photo conversion of 7 dehydrocholesterol to cholecalciferol (vitamin D3) in the skin by UVB radiation – 299-310 nm – following exposure to sunlight. The amount of vitamin D produced depends on several variables like environmental factors, personal variations and personal habits. The environmental factors include latitude; season, time of day, weather conditions, amount of air pollution, natural ozone layer and surface reflection. Personal variations include skin type; age and obesity. Habits include sociocultural habits like clothing and religious preferences, lifestyle, workplace and sun avoidance-practices like using sun block. Exposing the whole body to UVB radiation inducing a light pink color for 15-20 minutes will prompt production of up to 10000 IU of vitamin D. As per the Endocrine Society’s clinical practice guidelines, vitamin D deficiency in blood is less than 20 ng/ ml; insufficiency is 21 to 29 ng/ ml and sufficiency: 30 – 100 ng/ ml. “ Over 50 per cent of the world’s population and around 75 per cent of the Indian population is supposed to have insufficiency or deficiency of vitamin D,’’ he said.

The solar radiation between 11AM to 3PM is maximally helpful for vitamin D production. Over 7AM to 11AM and 3PM to 7PM, the radiation is around 40 per cent of what you get at the earlier mentioned time. “ It’s obvious that most of us (including children nowadays) are not outdoors at the time of peak exposure,’’ Dr Gaikwad said. According to him, a study published in 2018 from Pune indicates that men in western India, living in an urban setting at 18.5 degrees north and having dark skin, required over one hour of casual sunlight exposure to the face, forearm and hands (15 per cent of surface area) between 11AM and 3PM or scaled equivalent time to maintain vitamin D level above 20 ng / ml and 2 hours for 30 ng / ml.

Challenges to proper vitamin D synthesis include: increased air pollution, which makes solar radiation available less on the planet’s surface and the thinning of the natural ozone layer, which actually helps with getting radiation but is found to increase incidence of skin cancer. To note further is that it is direct sunlight and not reflected sunlight from surfaces (of buildings) which has maximum UVB for vitamin D production. “ We Indians have skin type 5 (Fitzpatrick type 5) due to which we are able to produce less vitamin D compared to lighter skins. However, the same factor plays a favorable role in preventing skin cancers,’’ Dr Gaikwad said (according to Wikipedia, the Fitzpatrick scale was developed in 1975 by Thomas B. Fitzpatrick as a way to estimate the response of different types of skin to ultraviolet [UV] light. Type 5 is described therein as: very rarely burns; tans very easily).

The older one’s age, less is the skin thickness. That leads to decreased capability for vitamin D production. With incidence of overweight and obesity increasing alarmingly, cases of vitamin D deficiency have also increased because vitamin D available in the blood reduces as it gets deposited more in fat cells. Sociocultural habits like clothing also makes production of vitamin D that much more difficult. Our present day lifestyle and workplaces offer no outdoor exposure during the peak hours. Sunblock with SPF 15 and more reduces UVB penetration by more than 95 per cent. High fiber phosphate in the diet makes calcium in food less available for absorption. Low calcium in diet exhausts vitamin D stores fast. Finally, in South Asians, there is a gene which may also contribute to low body stores of vitamin D by activating its turnover thereby exhausting its stores, Dr Gaikwad said. Generally, we get around 10 per cent of vitamin D from food and the rest from the sunlight. In August 2018, FSSAI allowed fortification of food with vitamin D. Certain milk brands are now fortified with vitamin D. It is also pushing for the fortification of oils.

There’s no evidence to suggest that very high doses of vitamin D can prevent or treat COVID-19 and that individuals with limited access to sunlight should consider a supplement, a British Medical Journal (BMJ) report on nutrition, prevention and health has stated, Dr Gaikwad pointed out.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Immunity depends on many variables of which sunlight is just one factor. If we maintain a healthy lifestyle – meaning thereby proper nutrition, exercise (at home in the present pandemic situation) and adequate sleep – and ensure ways to withstand the stress of modern life, immunity would not be compromised. In general, given that modern lifestyle demands we be less exposed to sunlight, vitamin D production would obviously be less. The best option seems to be to monitor the blood levels of vitamin D and take supplements, if necessary. Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin (not water soluble like vitamin C and B complex vitamins). It remains stored in the body for a long time and does not get excreted if taken beyond required levels. In Nordic countries, where the winter lasts for a long time, blood vitamin D levels are known to fall by only 20 to 40 per cent. “ If lockdown extends for a long time, a blood test to check vitamin D levels – especially in the elderly population above 70 years of age – may be considered,’’ Dr Gaikwad said.

The risk of taking very high doses of vitamin D is vitamin D toxicity. As it is a fat soluble vitamin, vitamin D accumulates in the body gradually and shows symptoms of hypervitaminosis D after a few months, which are largely reversible but may cause kidney damage and calcium deposition in arteries. So it is always recommended to be taken under medical guidance with monitoring of blood levels, if necessary.

(Compiled and edited by Shyam G Menon, freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

THIS YEAR IT’S RACE ACROSS AMERICA, FROM YOUR HOME

Lt Col Bharat Pannu on his home trainer (Photo: courtesy Bharat)

As COVID-19 swept across the planet, many bicycle races got cancelled. Lockdown restricted access to the outdoors and people were forced to refashion their chosen sport for pursuing it indoors. Runners attempted marathons indoors; cyclists pedaled on their home trainers..

Computer programs promising virtual rides have been around for some time. Amid pandemic and lockdown, they zoomed in popularity. It wasn’t long before bicycle races embraced the technology.

In early April 2020, one of cycling’s famous events – the annual Tour of Flanders – had an online digital version, won by Belgian cyclist, Greg Van Avermaet. According to those who followed the race, the format featured a shortened distance of 30 kilometers compared to the event’s real distance of 250 kilometers. This was partly because the event was a demonstration of technological possibilities and partly because riding in race mode for three hours on the home trainer was considered challenging enough. On April 3, in an email communique to those who had registered to participate in Race Across America (RAAM), the event’s organizers informed that the 2020 edition of the race was being cancelled. Some 20 days later, on April 24, VeloNews reported that Australian journalist Rupert Guinness who was among those scheduled to attempt 2020 RAAM, had set the ball rolling for a virtual reality version of the race. The report said that more than 800 people from around the world has signed up with expressions of interest to race.

RAAM – its route runs from the US west coast to the east – is one of cycling’s toughest endurance races. It is also fairly well known in India now, having been attempted thrice by that pioneer – Samim Rizvi (he would try it four times altogether; in 2011 he finished just outside the race’s 12 day cut-off), before the Mahajan brothers (Dr Hitendra Mahajan and Dr Mahendra Mahajan) placed first in the two-person male under-50 category at 2015 RAAM. In 2017, Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath became the first Indian cyclist to complete the race within cut-off in the solo category; he was followed to the finish line by fellow Indian, Dr Amit Samarth. This year as RAAM goes virtual in mid-June, Lt Col Bharat Pannu will pedal his avatar across a digital American landscape comparable to the distance and elevation gains of RAAM. He will be racing in the solo category. Bharat, who is a familiar face in ultracycling in India, has been training for RAAM for the past couple of years. His 2019 attempt was prematurely terminated following an injury he sustained while training in the US. The subsequent 2020 attempt appeared lost due to pandemic till it found an extra lease of life in Virtual RAAM (VRAAM).

Based in Bengaluru, Bharat will move to Pune for VRAAM, scheduled to commence on June 16. The virtual race has three categories – the full 3000 mile-length of RAAM, the shorter race built into RAAM called Race Across West (RAW / in this instance: VRAW) and the60, which involves riding one hour every day for the 12 days of VRAAM. The overall cut-off for VRAAM remains the same as in the real race – 12 days. According to the virtual event’s website, “ all ride distances will be stunning road segments in the USA. They will not be the actual RAAM course.’’ The virtual race covers a total distance of 4542 kilometers and entail elevation gain of 73,739 meters. The technology platform used is FulGaz. As per details available on the FulGaz website, the VRAAM route is composed of iconic and interesting rides from the US. It has also been mentioned that since the actual route of RAAM is not being followed, sometimes a segment may repeat. The real RAAM is done with support vehicles and support crew. Bharat had planned all that before the 2020 edition of the race was called off. His crew was largely drawn from the community of cyclists in Pune. They will be supporting him for VRAAM too. “ I would have liked the attempt to be staged at a venue accessible to the public. But the present circumstances don’t allow that. So it will be at a private location,’’ he said.

A view of Oceanside pier in California, traditional starting point of Race Across America (Photo: Rajeev G)

At the heart of the VRAAM attempt will be the present day home trainer. Bharat has been using a smart trainer for the past few years. While virtual reality means he avoids being physically present in the US, a multi-day endurance race like VRAAM will have challenges despite rider being stationary. In fact, one of these challenges relates to the physical restrictions associated with cycling on a trainer. In the outdoors where bicycle moves on open road, the cyclist meets every turn and climb with a body language that is freer and more versatile than what is possible when bike is rooted to one spot. As may be imagined, when the bike is locked into trainer and the whole contraption stays stiff and incapable of lateral flexion, dynamic movements of the sort possible in normal cycling become impossible. There will be no leaning into curves, no weaving, very little of standing up and pedaling. You are limited to an utterly linear delivery of power. Repeating this over a long period of time takes a toll. The issue of saddle sores could be more pronounced in this kind of cycling because you don’t have room for postural adjustments that allow relief. “ When riding your bike outside, the bike moves and flexes in response to your body, kind of like a dance… a stationary bike doesn’t move, so there may be a bit more friction and as the rider moves side to side…,’’ Tracy McKay, Bharat’s US-based coach pointed out. The neck is another critical part that endures stress during distance cycling. Extended hours of cycling are known to fatigue the muscles holding the head up. For VRAAM, Bharat will have the computer screen showing his avatar, hooked up to a TV screen for bigger image. Slip into his saddle and imagine it – you can’t keep that TV screen in poorly thought through location and endure the resultant strain on the neck endlessly. You have to plan its position well; as Bharat said, keep it in line with his most comfortable riding position, maybe at an angle that is tad lower than normal to be easy on the neck.

The biggest challenge is none of the above. Human beings thrive on variety, multiple stimuli and three-dimensional eyesight. The actual course takes you through mountains, arid country and plains. All of these settings have very palpable ecosystems. They challenge the rider but also retain variety in the experience. Confined to where he is, Bharat will have little change in weather and no change in surroundings. His perception of world he is cycling through will be the two dimensional display of a computer program. Advanced smart trainers exist that allow lateral flexion to an extent and also simulate feel of terrain. But replicating the outdoor experience entirely and convincingly is still a long way off. “ VRAAM is basically a mental challenge,’’ Bharat said. What he may end up battling the most is – monotony. “ As always the mental aspect is the real challenge…VRAAM provides some visual stimulation to provide sense of change and progress. At the same time riding in stationary (format) with all creature comforts available may prove very tempting to step away from the bike more often. The brain creates interpretations of what we are experiencing to help manage and safeguard our well being. For the riders, staying on the bike must be more important and valuable than getting off the bike,’’ Tracy said. He also pointed out that hydration / nutrition requirements for VRAAM will be different.

Given he will be pedaling in contained ambiance Bharat estimates he won’t have to worry of outdoor risks like traffic, taking a tumble or falling off the bike. “ I believe I will be therefore taking less rest and keeping the momentum going,’’ he said. According to Tracy, VRAAM and RAAM are similar and different at once. “ VRAAM should not be looked at as a simple video game… it is not a training event. It is its own unique challenge that’s never been done. Technology allows riders and their crews to look at rider data heart rate; elevation, relief, load, etc. it will be tough! Good Training for RAAM, yes and vice versa…’’ Tracy said.

Major Sandeep Kumar (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

Besides Bharat who will be attempting RAAM in the solo category, there is Major Sandeep Kumar who will be participating in VRAW. Sandeep started out in running; he was part of a group from the army that did 50 half marathons in 50 days. He moved on into ultrarunning and the triathlon. In 2016, he secured podium position at a triathlon of full Ironman dimension, held in Chennai. “ I was doing cycling also during this period but it is a sport requiring time and attention and I didn’t have enough to spare given the nature of my work,’’ he said. Becoming part of Bharat’s crew for the 2019 edition of the well-known Indian ultracycling event, Ultra Spice, changed that. The race provided the army officer a ringside view of what went into ultracycling. Sandeep was included in Bharat’s team for 2020 RAAM, as crew member overseeing nutrition. Then pandemic struck and RAAM got cancelled. When VRAAM was announced, he decided to support Bharat and also attempt the shorter VRAW. “ We were already training on smart trainers. So attempting VRAW made sense. However cycling indoors for long will be challenging,’’ he said. Additionally, there are three members of Bharat’s original support crew for RAAM who will attempt the60. Unlike in RAAM, a race roster wasn’t available for VRAAM making it a bit difficult to ascertain if there are other Indian starters besides the said five.

 (The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

CYCLING / VIRTUAL REALITY: IS IT THE PROVERBIAL TIP OF THE ICEBERG?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Within the classic trinity of endurance sports – swimming, cycling and running – cycling has been early candidate for creativity by technology.

As life slipped indoors due to COVID-19 and lockdown, swimming pools shut and running got severely curtailed. But cycling stayed partly afloat thanks to the home trainer.

The concept of trainer is not recent by any yardstick. According to Wikipedia, the “ dandy horse,’’ also called Draisienne or Laufmaschine was the first human means of transport to use only two wheels in tandem. Invented by Baron Karl von Drais, it lacked pedals but is regarded as the first bicycle. He introduced it to the public in 1817-18. In the early 1860s, the Frenchmen Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement, in their design, added a mechanical crank with pedals on an enlarged front wheel – this was the velocipede; the first bicycle to enter mass production. Look up the history of the bicycle trainer and you will usually find a photo of a velocipede trainer from 1884. So it would seem: as of 2020, the bicycle is roughly 203 years old and the trainer, 136 years old at least.

The velocipede trainer resembles an early form of the stationary bike or exercise bike. It makes no effort to hide its immobility. What we today recognize as the home trainer, packages that trait into a piece of specialized equipment or accessory – it is an adjunct converting regular bicycle into a stationary bike.  This home trainer now comes in various finishes, the most advanced of which is the smart trainer. The latter category allows you to experience a ride in virtual reality (akin to gaming environment). Using specialized software you can link a responsive trainer to a digitally mapped cycling route. You see yourself on computer screen as an avatar responding to the physical effort you put on trainer. In high end programs, you can compete with others in the digital ecosystem of a race of your choice. Needless to say, in these months of pandemic, technology platforms promoting virtual cycling have gained popularity while the home trainer has sold well with select models out of stock on some websites.

The best known of cycling’s emergent technology platforms is Zwift; it is described on Wikipedia as “ a massively multiplayer online cycling and running physical training program that enables users to interact, train and compete in a virtual world.’’ It is made by a California-based company called Zwift Inc, cofounded by Jon Mayfield, Eric Min, Scott Barger and Alarik Myrin. As of 2018, Zwift had 550,000 user accounts, that page said. But this number is from before the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown accompanying the pandemic is known to have hugely increased the traction for programs like Zwift (some media reports have estimated user base at a million plus). “ The companies creating these platforms were investing in technology and marketing earlier itself. The pandemic and the lockdown that followed grew their user base exponentially,’’ Nigel Smith, Head Coach, Kanakia Scott Racing Development, a road racing team based in India, said. It wasn’t possible for this blog to get an idea of the scale and value of the relevant potential market. What we do know is that cycling is one of the world’s biggest sports and among humanity’s popular forms of physical activity; there is separately a rising army of gamers and programs like Zwift appeal to both dedicated cyclists and those in the overlapping borderlands of cycling and gaming. According to crunchbase.com, Zwift – it was founded in 2014 – has so far raised $ 164.5 million including a December 2018 instalment of $ 120 million. A podcast by Rouleur magazine also cited similar figures. Additionally, the Crunchbase page said that as per Privco, Zwift had a post-money valuation in the range of $ 500 million to $ 1 billion as of December 19, 2018. A December 2018 report on sportsbusinessdaily.com regarding the $ 120 million raised, mentioned that according to its co-founder and CEO, Eric Min, the startup was “ approaching unicorn status.’’

Screenshot of FulGaz’s version of the UCI 2020 World Championships ITT course in Aigle, Switzerland. The home trainer adjusts resistance based on the actual course elevation profile (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

There is a December 2014 interview with Eric Min by Kelli Samuelson, available on the Zwift website. Two paragraphs therein provide an overview of the company’s inception. Min and his partner Alarik Myrin had co-founded Sakonnet Technology. It worked out well and the duo thought: why don’t they start the next venture together? “ We were looking at different industries, but it seemed all the great ideas were already taken! The turning point was when my older brother Ji, a private equity professional, advised me to stick to what I know best. Alarik had been encouraging me to take a hard look at cycling since I was so passionate about the sport. But whatever we decided to start together, it had to be consumer focused with the technology at the core of it and the business had to scale,’’ Min has been quoted as saying. At this point in time, due to family commitments and work, he was doing most of his cycling indoors. “ It had dawned on me that the indoor cyclist was being underserved and that the indoor experience hadn’t really changed all these years. It still wasn’t fun or social! Then I had a moment of eureka. What if we could take something that was historically mind numbing and turn it into entertainment? What if we could take advantage of video game technology, social networks, and friendly competition, and package that experience for the indoor cyclist?’’ Min explains in the interview.

Late April 2020, as news appeared of the push to host a virtual reality version of Race Across America (RAAM), the program involved was FulGaz. There are differences between the nature and texture of these programs. “ Zwift appears more interested in the blend of cycling and gaming. It is not above creating a make believe gaming world around cycling. There are already elements of equipment upgrade and trade using points earned, built into the format. It is also more social. That seems to be their preferred trajectory. On the other hand, FulGaz – it is an Australian company – appears focused on making their version of virtual reality as close to real life as possible. They offer some iconic cycling routes in digital format, which your avatar cycles through. The first type of product should appeal to the larger crowd combining cycling and gaming; the second should appeal to the more serious cyclist. That is what I would think,’’ Naveen John, among India’s leading bicycle racers, said, when asked about how the market was getting split between the various programs on offer. Are these technology platforms indicative of a whole new world of obsession opening up within cycling?

There are aspects of cycling outdoors that may not be acquired if your interest is restricted to excelling only in virtual reality. Aside from software, the core of this new paradigm is built of home trainer and bicycle. Once a bicycle is mounted on a trainer, its feel and behavior is different from riding outdoors. “ You pick up bike handling skills and bunch riding skills by cycling outdoors,’’ Nigel said. However there are critical variables in the equation – technology and the push of virtual reality to progressively become as close to reality as possible. Already high end trainers exist that can simulate the feel of terrain and permit a degree of flexion for bike mounted on it. But if you push gaming further, then what you wish for in the realm of fantasy may exceed what you normally need in the real world of cycling. Not surprisingly, there have been moves by companies currently in the programming sphere to get into related physical hardware. This is why the simple and tempting question of whether performances in virtual reality will outdo performances returned in the real world (example: which will be faster, RAAM or VRAAM?), doesn’t make complete sense. The two are not exactly comparable; it is not apples to apples.

The two worlds – their nature, their potential and their challenges – are mutually different. However, at some levels, there would be benefits transferable to each other’s distinct universe. Nigel did not think that there could be coaching totally focused on excelling for home trainer-based virtual reality. He feels the general push is still to cycle outdoors and excel there. “ There is a way to race and excel on these technology platforms and it is not necessarily the same as riding outside. I think what a coach would look for is a well-rounded athlete and not merely an efficient cardiovascular system on a pair of strong legs. However, training on the home trainer lets you focus on specifics,’’ he said. Another example of potential synergy was reported by Cycling News – a story from the Zwift Academy program begun in 2016, in partnership with Canyon-SRAM.  The article quoted Eric Min describing Zwift Academy as “ an entirely new means of identifying talent.’’ The 2019 Zwift Academy had nearly 9000 woman participants, a growth of 80 per cent compared to the previous year. Jessica Pratt of Australia who topped the program secured a one year contract and the final spot on Canyon-SRAM’s roster for 2020, the article said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Further, between June 2020 (time of writing) and same time a year ago, there is a palpable difference as regards general interest in cycling’s virtual reality avatar. “ About a year ago, I recall there was a debate comparing cycling in the real world and the same in virtual reality. At that time, sentiment was definitely favorable to the outdoors,’’ Nigel said. The divide isn’t that sharp now. What the pandemic unleashed in home trainer-based cycling, may well be a genre that becomes a world by itself. There are reasons why this line of thought merits attention.

For some time now the Olympic movement has been studying the world of gaming. In 2017, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had said that competitive gaming could be considered as a sporting activity. There have been reports since indicating that the 2024 Paris Olympics may have e-sports in the list of sports for demonstration. The earlier mentioned December 2018 report on sportsbusinessdaily.com quoted Min as saying, “ our goal is to bring Zwift to the Olympics.’’ In September 2019, NBC Sports reported that IOC and Intel have partnered for the Intel World Open, an e-sports competition to be held before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (the 2020 Olympics have since been postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). In December 2019, an article in Business Insider said that in recent clarifications (following the 8th Olympic Summit held earlier that month) the IOC has said its interest is confined to games based on real sports. According to it, “ the committee floated the possibility of embracing video games that make use of virtual or augmented reality to add a physical component to gameplay.’’ In other words, the IOC wants you to move, be physically active; plonked down on a chair and pushing buttons won’t do. In this new matrix, cycling sits pretty. Programs like Zwift and FulGaz require you to be actively pedaling on home trainer. “ From the ranks of established sports, I think cycling has a good chance of making that cut as regards e-sports at the Olympics,’’ Naveen said. That is of course, assuming the Olympic movement is still interested in e-sports and the programs currently fascinating cyclists continue to be partial to physical activity.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

STUDY SHOWS RISE IN FREQUENCY OF EXERCISE DURING LOCKDOWN

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Following a survey of 12,913 participants from 139 countries, the website runrepeat.com has concluded that the act of indulging in physical exercise increased in general, during the COVID-19 induced-lockdown. There was however a dip in frequency of exercise for those normally used to exercising very often.

The survey required participants to report how many times a week they exercised, worked out or played sports before the outbreak of COVID-19 and after the outbreak acquired global scale. For the purpose of study, a person working out 1-2 times a week was deemed an average athlete; up to three times a week – moderate athlete and more than four times a week, avid athlete. Average athletes were found to have increased their frequency of exercise by 88 per cent. Moderate athletes increased their frequency by 38 per cent. However, avid athletes decreased their frequency by 14 per cent on average, a report by Paul Ronto, dated May 27, 2020, available on the runrepeat.com website, said (the report may be accessed on this link: https://runrepeat.com/exercise-covid-19-study). The survey was done between March 24 and March 30 this year.

Within these blocks, those who normally exercise once a week were found to have hiked that frequency by 156 per cent. Figures for other categories were – twice a week: +55 per cent; thrice a week: +8 per cent, four times a week: -10 per cent, five times a week: – 16 per cent, six times a week: -18 per cent and seven times a week: -15 per cent.

The study also looked at running since that was an activity permitted at many places during the period of survey. The trends were broadly similar to what has been cited in the case of exercise. Those used to participating in running once or twice a week ramped it up by 117 per cent, those previously running up to three times a week increased it by 55 per cent on average and avid runners – those running more than four times a week – decreased their efforts by nine per cent.  Broken down further, the details were – those who previously ran once a week: +205 per cent; twice a week: +76 per cent, thrice a week: +22 per cent, four times a week: -2 per cent, five times a week: -10 per cent, six times a week: -13 per cent and seven times a week: -11 per cent.

The runrepeat.com study has also been mentioned by World Athletics in its statement of June 3, 2020 on a four year strategic plan to grow athletics as world emerges from lockdown.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

2020 BOSTON MARATHON / SOME RECONCILE TO A REAL RACE IN DUE COURSE, OTHERS GEAR UP TO GO VIRTUAL

Bajrang Singh (Photo: courtesy Bajrang)

The 2020 edition of Boston Marathon has been cancelled. The marathon, initially slated to be held on April 20, 2020, was postponed to September 14, 2020. With the Boston Mayor cancelling mass participation events due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organizers had to cancel the marathon and instead opt to hold it as a virtual race, which can be run anytime during the week September 7-14. It was the first time the marathon was being cancelled in its 124 year-old history.

Boston Marathon has stringent entry norms and attracts some of the best amateur marathon runners from around the world. The initial postponement and subsequent cancellation was on expected lines; as warranted by the current global situation. Nevertheless, there is an element of disappointment. A virtual race isn’t the real thing – right? Further, at least some runners – particularly those coming to Boston from developing economies – may have suffered financial loss owing to cancellation of flight and hotel bookings.

This blog spoke to a few runners from India who had registered for the 2020 Boston Marathon:

For Lucknow resident Bajrang Singh, this was to be his first attempt at the Boston Marathon or for that matter, any World Marathon Major. He had qualified for the 2020 edition of the iconic race with a fairly good margin.

On March 4, he traveled to North Carolina where his son’s family resides. “ I wanted to train in conditions similar to Boston Marathon. That’s why I came here much earlier,” he said.

But with every passing day, the pandemic got progressively worse. Boston Marathon, slated to be held on April 20 originally, was postponed to September 14, 2020.

“I was disappointed when the marathon got postponed to September. Still, I decided to attempt the September race. Now that has been cancelled,” he said.

A retired army officer, Bajrang Singh, 60, started long-distance running in 2016. “ During my career in the army, I ran short distances. I retired as a Colonel in 2014 when I turned 54 and in some time took up long-distance running,” he said.

At the 2019 Airtel Hyderabad Marathon, Bajrang Singh completed the race in three hours, 40 minutes and 32 seconds. The finish timing at Hyderabad helped him to qualify for the 2020 Boston Marathon with a decent margin.

“ Now I am stuck in the US and waiting for international flights to resume so that I can get back to Lucknow,” he said.

In the US, the lockdown has not been as stringent as it is in India. “ People have been moving around though large gatherings are not allowed,” he said.

Once he is back in Lucknow, he plans to attempt the virtual format of the Boston Marathon scheduled for September.

Deepti Karthik (Photo: courtesy Deepti)

Early May Deepti Karthik, amateur runner from Bengaluru, cancelled her registration for Boston Marathon. After the race got postponed to September from April, she felt it was prudent to withdraw from the event.

In 2020, Deepti was to run three World Marathon Majors – Tokyo Marathon, Boston Marathon and Berlin Marathon. Tokyo Marathon was held in March this year restricted to elite athletes. Besides Boston, she also cancelled her registration for the Berlin Marathon.

“ I am disappointed that the races were postponed and cancelled. However I don’t regret canceling my registration for these events,” Deepti said.

She feels it would be prudent to let at least one year go by before people can participate in a race, especially international marathons. Amidst lockdown in India, Deepti was able to focus on strength training and engage in occasional short runs in a lane close to her house.

Now that the 2020 Boston Marathon has been cancelled, the uncertainty surrounding the event has lifted, Sunil Chainani, Bengaluru-based runner, said. “ There is disappointment but given the current situation, it is the most sensible decision,” he said.

Sunil Chainani (Photo: courtesy Sunil)

He was to run Boston Marathon for the first time, this year. In his endeavour to complete the six World Marathon Majors he has already done Berlin Marathon, New York City Marathon and London Marathon.

Sunil is yet to study the details of the virtual race. “ But it will never be the same. Boston Marathon is about the atmosphere, the spectators, the weather, the route and the pleasure of running with good runners,” he said.

He is still keen to run the Boston Marathon and hopes to manage it in April 2021, subject to conditions surrounding the pandemic. “ I would like to emphasize that I will not take any chances that are detrimental to my health,” he said.

A member of the ultra-running committee of Athletics Federation of India (AFI), Sunil kept himself engaged during lockdown with fitness activities including strength training and various challenges. With lockdown norms easing in Bengaluru, Sunil has been able to step outside for his early morning run.

Nihal Baig (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

Mumbai-based triathlete, Nihal Baig, was to attempt Boston Marathon for the first time in 2020. He may now consider attempting the virtual race as a challenge to himself.

“This is probably the first time Boston Marathon is getting cancelled,” he said.

During the lockdown, he was able to run within his housing complex. It gave him a loop of 1.5 km and an extended loop of three kilometers. “ The longest run I have done so far is 28 km. I have managed with hydration for these runs. But to run a marathon, I may need gels,” he said.

By September 2020, which is when Boston Marathon’s virtual race is slated for, the situation surrounding the pandemic would have hopefully changed for the better.

A triathlete, Nihal was also able to do intense cycling workout at home. “ But I have not been able to swim because all pools are shut,” he said. He has enrolled for Ironman 70.3 Goa, slated to be held in November this year.

Ashoke Sharma (Photo: courtesy Ashoke)

“ Most of the Ironman triathlons around the world have been cancelled or postponed. So far, there is no word on any change from the Goa Ironman event,” he said.

Ashoke Sharma was to commence training for Boston Marathon in June coinciding with the easing of lockdown norms in Gurgaon, where he stays.

“ With the cancellation of the race, I don’t have to do any intense training for some time,” he said. He had enrolled for the 2020 edition of Boston Marathon after qualifying for it. “ I plan to register for the 2021 edition of the marathon depending on how the situation surrounding the pandemic pans out,” Ashoke said.

“ I was mentally prepared for the cancellation,” he said. This was to be his first attempt at the event. He has already finished Berlin Marathon, London Marathon and Chicago Marathon among the six World Marathon Majors.

He is not sure about signing up for the virtual race. “ In September, the weather in Gurgaon is not very pleasant,” he said. During the ongoing lockdown, Ashoke has been doing home-workouts including cycling.

Kumar Rao (Photo: courtesy Kumar Rao)

For Kumar Rao the 2020 edition of Boston Marathon was to be his third outing at this marathon. “ I was expecting the cancellation given the situation,” he told this blog from Bengaluru, where he resides. Kumar has also registered for the 2020 edition of New York City Marathon.

“ My plan now is to train for the virtual format of the Boston Marathon. I have been running on my treadmill, clocking a distance of 50-60 km per week,” he said. Kumar has also been doing other workouts to maintain fitness.

He is keen to explore virtual races. “ I would like to do some virtual races to keep the motivation going,” he said. By September when the Boston Marathon virtual race is scheduled to be held, the pandemic scenario may have altered, he said.

Five years ago, Murthy R K quit his high paying corporate job to focus on training and securing qualification for the Boston Marathon.

“ I am really disappointed that the event has been cancelled. For the past five years, I worked really hard to qualify for this marathon. A lot of hard work has gone into meeting the qualifying time,” Murthy, an amateur runner from Bengaluru, said.

“ I attempted the Mumbai Marathon five times to get my Boston qualifying time,” he said.

Murthy R K (Photo: courtesy Murthy)

Qualifying for the Boston Marathon is a “ major achievement,” according to Murthy. “ It was the most satisfying experience,” he said.

He is very keen to run the virtual format of the race. “ It will be a prestigious and historic experience doing the Boston Marathon’s virtual race,” he said.

A coach now, Murthy has been busy with home-based fitness activities, training individuals and groups on various elements of fitness.

“ I have not stepped out for a run during the lockdown phase. With norms easing, I may commence running outside,” he said. Murthy is averse to running inside apartments as it could lead to injuries.

Among the six World Marathon Majors, he has already completed New York City Marathon, Chicago Marathon and Berlin Marathon. “ I am not keen to complete all six WMMs. If I am able to do it through qualification I will go for them,” he said.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)