Q&A with Lowri Bowen

Meet Lowri Bowen - she’s one of the hardest working, most down-to-earth people you’ll come across on any race start line. Working in Wales’ busiest hospital in Cardiff, her day job (and nights when she’s on-call) can be intense, high-pressure and emotional. There’s a certain amount of discipline required to finish a busy shift and change out of scrubs and straight into lycra but when there’s a deep-rooted passion and drive, then it’s a lot easier, she says.

As a 45-year-old anaesthetist whose job is to literally put people to sleep, she is acutely aware of the importance of rest. And yet many age groupers see a rest day on their plan and immediately think what extra they can slot in. Or when it says easy recovery run, they nudge the effort and intensity up a notch or three, just to feel like they get a proper workout.

My work is basically putting children to sleep for operations, keeping them asleep, controlling their breathing and their heart rate, decreasing their pain, and then waking them up at the end of the operation. Anaesthetics teaches you how important rest is for the body to heal. An anaesthetic isn’t a natural sleep – though we call it a sleep.

The body is amazing, it does wondrous things, but sometimes it needs a bit of a hand. If you read enough blogs or listen to the professional athletes they all wax lyrical about how important rest is and how being a pro it has enabled their performance to improve just by having the time that most of us mere mortals fill with work and life. I realised early on for me at work it is possible to rest.

I can be stood up for a lot of the time in theatre, so I do wear compression socks or tights under my scrubs if I think that’s going to be the case. But where possible I try to sit and take weight off my feet so if I’m in a long case or at night I then try and keep my feet up on a stool and get as close to horizontal as I can. You do get some funny looks but it works for me – being in a horizontal-ish body plane especially from 2am to 6am is better than sitting for sure.

Training is a form of rest from work for me. It is something I enjoy doing (most of the time). It is really, really important I think to have that perspective and not use it as another stick to beat yourself with. It’s a real mental rest away from work and a time where I feel alive as me, Lowri, as opposed to me, the doctor with certain responsibilities.

I also do a fair amount of work with overseas medical charities to help improve healthcare and education overseas. Whilst some would see these trips as impacting on their training, I would see it as a chance to rest and recuperate, to focus on other more important things in the scheme of life and to return really enthusiastically. I do also pack my kit and occasionally fit in a run whether it's in Ethiopia, Bangladesh, or Palestine. It’s a balance just like everything in life. If one part of life takes up more than its share, something has to give in another part. The important thing is that you keep the balance and keep checking that one part isn’t overflowing and affecting another to its detriment. So resting to me comes in two forms – mentally and physically.

After a life-affirming job at work involving a particularly ill child, I thought I’m healthy, why am I not doing these things that scare me? So I entered Ironman Wales. It was a great experience. I wanted to finish before they kicked me off the course. I loved it and finished thinking now I’ve got a target, I’ve got a pb. I’m very competitive against myself but not other people - I couldn’t give two hoots about anybody else. (Lowri finished IMW in 13:18 and came in 10th in her age group).

My motto is just to do your best. If you manage that there is nothing else that matters - you’ve won the attritional battle of human versus event. Because when you cross that finish line, it’s ALL about you for that glorious few seconds. Be the rock star, enjoy it, it's your memory to treasure forever.

I’m like a bull at a gate - that’s why I got a coach. At the start, I would always run at max effort. If the plan said at effort level 6 out of 10, I would run at 7. Because in my head I thought surely that’s better?

Everybody, I don’t care who they are, wants to succeed. No matter what in or when. Nobody ever gets up and says today I want to fail my exam, come last in a race, not post the birthday card on time or not pay the water bill. That’s why we ignore rest, because there’s the niggling doubt that if you rest, you aren’t doing things and others will get that edge on you. But in sport I think it can massively affect your performance. Having a coach who has an overall view of your progress, your fatigue and performance is so important. It’s so easy to get task-focused with training, just ticking sessions off to make the training peaks diary turn green.

I cycle commute to work, it's not a training ride, it's not far but I take it easy and don’t overdo it. It's quicker than running and walking but also a good headspace on the way home. This is in itself a good resting technique – mentally far fresher getting home having cycled than driving and feel like I've left work behind and now getting to my time and space.

It's so easy if life and/or work gets busy to miss a session and then try and shoehorn it in later in the week. This is okay occasionally especially if it’s a key session but the constant trying to catch up loads your week badly and then creates more fatigue. I tend to have a pretty strict ethos on this. If I miss a session then it's missed, there is a line drawn under it and I move on. I can affect the future, not the past. Carrying guilt of a missed session for reasons beyond my control isn’t helpful.

I work really well with my coach Lawrence and give him my work rota which can change weekly – I can have days where I can't swim, bike outdoors or run very far outside when I am on call for 24 hours. There are some days where I know I have a very long day and am mentally quite tired by the end of it. But there are also days where I cycle with friends – which is really important – mixing it up. So Lawrence is really good at working my training around my changeable working rota. I then look at it and then flag up if there are any sessions that I think won't work with what I have got going on at work.

There are days I have to get up and train pre-work. I know my body pretty well and I know I struggle with high intensity in the morning or in a fasted state, so we try and work on things that are less VO2 max if I need to do them in the morning. There are days when I strictly don’t do any early morning sessions as I know I need to sleep as long as possible – these are days where I could be in the hospital for 24 hours. Work is what pays the bills and it is imperative to me professionally and personally that I do my best there too, and I would never forgive myself if I was up at night at an emergency and didn’t function well because I was tired from shoehorning a training session in. It just doesn’t sit right with me.

Organisation is not my strongest point but I’m working on it. I try to plan food for the week so I don’t have to keep going in and out of shops. Planning ahead means there’s less stress and I’m more likely to eat good, nutritious food rather than ending up getting a Boots meal deal in work with crisps and chocolate. My willpower around food is notoriously bad, so I just don’t have biscuits, chocolates or cake in the house. But then again if I’m out with friends I definitely eat them as I think it's important to have a balanced healthy, happy diet. A little of whatever you fancy is surely okay, especially if you train hard.

Ordering food boxes to arrive has been a recent revelation and has definitely improved my diet no end and means I waste far less. I just need to get over the feeling that it’s really indulgent. My fallback options are pasta, cheese and sauce option or fish fingers, peas or beans and baked potato or cereal at any time of the day - hardly the diet of an athlete.

If I have to train straight after work then I’ll take something with me to eat mid-afternoon so I’ve fuelled and I’m ready for my workout as I don’t like to train on an empty stomach.

I loved netball when I was younger. I’m incredibly competitive: whether it’s netball, or Hungry Hippos, I hate to lose. The competitiveness doesn’t extend to any other part of life, just sport.

Netball gave me that buzz, knowing that I was competitive for my team. But shift patterns and injury meant I couldn’t do that anymore. I started running but couldn’t find that competitive buzz again. Then I found triathlon.

Ironman was so far off my radar; I never thought it was something I would do. I actually thought you had to be slightly unhinged to do one. It just looked brutal.

I went down to watch Wales in 2017 and I thought it was amazing, the atmosphere was amazing, but I also remember thinking over my dead body. By the end, it was hard and dark with people shuffling through the marathon and I thought how can you call that fun?

But I got the bug and to anyone who’s thinking about it, I’d say you’ve got to be dedicated, put in the work and know that it’s going to hurt. You’ve got to have that overriding want to do it and enjoy the process. That’s the most important thing because if you’re not enjoying it, then you’re battling something that is just too hard.

I was really pleased with my result in Wales. This year, I did Ironman Copenhagen and I was incredibly pleased and shocked about the result in Denmark (Lowri finished in 11:44, coming home 11th in her age group). I worked hard for it but I also know I’m never anywhere near winning anything. I’m fine with that as long as I’m competing.

I still want to do my best when I get there. When that gun goes I’m not there to make up the numbers. My dad used to say no matter what I do, just do your best. If you do that, nobody can take that away from you. You don’t need to win. Of course, it’s nice but I’m happy with doing my best.

I suppose my motto is simple: work hard, play hard. There’s a Welsh proverb too: “Dyfal donc a dyr y garreg”, which translates as “Tapping persistently breaks the stone”. Essentially, it means if you continue hitting the stone, you will eventually break it, which is how I view training really. Consistency is king.