Vox Performance Project: Christine O’Connell

I am delighted to be part of season 2 of the Vox Performance Project.  I’m a road and gravel cyclist, mostly endurance focused, but started racing on Zwift during lockdown.  I also have done some cyclocross and gravel races, and am keen to do more.

I’ve always felt that my approach to nutrition on the bike needed improvement, but I never really invested the time to understand the science. When I learnt about the opportunity to work with the experts at Supersapiens and Precision Fuel & Hydration, I jumped at the chance and I feel privileged to be part of a supportive community.

On the first call with the project team, a key message was becoming a better version of yourself, and that resonated with me.  Cycling is my hobby, my passion but it’s also a key aspect of my physical and mental well-being.

I’ve had a bike all my life, but only started cycling properly in 2012.  I’d signed up for my first big cycling challenge but 2 weeks before, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 40.  I had 9 months of intense treatment, and regular exercise helped me get through it.  I signed up for London to Paris as my end of treatment challenge, and came back hooked on cycling.

Fast forward to February 2018, nearly 5 years post treatment, the milestone when you start to think, to hope cancer might be well and truly behind you.

I was cycling to a meeting in central London. I remember coming through Mayfair and next thing I knew I was in an ambulance, with my bike. I was told that I had had a seizure and that a scan had revealed a brain tumour. A few days later I had surgery to remove the tumour and my oncologist confirmed the diagnosis of secondary (or Stage 4)  breast cancer.

I am on treatment for life and for now my cancer is stable. I’m on a relatively new targeted treatment. I take a pill every day and have regular scans and tests.  The main side effects are fatigue and occasional nausea, and my amazing coach plans my training around my treatment cycles.

My prognosis is inherently uncertain, but I’m doing as well as I could be. The evidence isn’t conclusive, but I think my exercise regime plays a role in keeping my cancer at bay, and for me cycling in particular has significant wider physical and mental health benefits.

Cycling is my escape.  It allows me to forget, at least for a window in time, that I have advanced, incurable cancer.  I also set up a cycling based charity campaign called One More City (www.onemorecity.cc) and so far we’ve raised over £250,000 to fund PhD students researching new treatments for secondary breast cancer.

I have big plans for this year and I’m focussing on improving my top end power and fatigue resistance.  I’m hoping to see the benefits in my high intensity Zwift / CX racing, climbing and endurance.  Of course nutrition, hydration and recovery are key parts of the equation, topics that we are learning about in this programme,

(There’s also packing less on bikepacking trips so I’m not dragging any extra kilos up those hills, but not sure fueling can help here..!)

I have a couple of big events already in the diary : Liège-Bastogne-Liège sportive, Etape du Tour, Raider’s Gravel, and One More City Venice to Munich.

As part of the project, we’re encouraged to experiment with fuelling and hydration strategies, and with Supersapiens it’s brilliant to be able to see what’s happening in real time with your glucose levels.  Plus with Zwift, I’m able to conduct relatively controlled experiments with what I’m consuming and importantly when.

An initial learning is that I often experience reactive hypoglycemia, which is when your body makes a lot of insulin after a carb heavy meal, causing your glucose levels to drop, which seems counter-intuitive until you understand the role of insulin.  I always wondered why I was very tired at the start of an evening Zwift race, despite having a carb snack in the afternoon. I now know I need to have my carb snack 4 hours pre race so my glucose levels stabilise before the start.

But I also learned it’s not that straightforward.  Many factors influence glucose levels, including stress and fatigue, and you can’t always control exactly what you eat and when, especially when you are bikepacking in remote locations.  And for me personally, I don’t know specifically what impact my treatment has on my cycling performance, and unsurprisingly it’s a niche area in terms of the research, and not the main concern of my medical team.  

But through the Vox Performance Project, I have a unique opportunity to learn about how to become that better version of myself. In my next blog, I’ll share more about my fuelling and hydration experiments – a lot of trial and error at the moment but it’s all part of the process.  

Until next time,


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