Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Thanksgiving Cyclist's Prayer

Well, it’s the fourth Thursday in November, and while I can’t say I’m exactly grateful for what happened this morning on my ride, I am grateful for some of the insights it’s provided me. Somehow, I’ve managed to either injure or re-injure my left knee. Velophoriacs will know that I spent a good part of the last 12 months trying to shake a very nagging knee injury – actually, both knees, which have chondromalacia.

I have a bunch of theories about how I got it, how I usually am able to fix it, and why it cropped up again today, but I’ll bypass those right now.

I got in a perfectly horrible mood as the pain set in. It started right about when I got all the way “out” for my out-and-back route, and was about to turn “back”. The further I rode, the more it hurt, the slower I went, and the more I started bona fide, vile, base cursing at the top of my lungs. I was thinking about how many months total out of the last year I’ve actually been able to ride the way I wanted. Between knee injuries, overtraining, finishing grad school, moving, and so on, it wasn’t a good number. I was losing it.

Now, I’m back at the house. I’ve showered, had a bite, and some time to relax a bit and think. My usual thing is to take an injury or piece of bad luck and expand it into a disaster – very black and white. As a therapist, I know just how harmful this is to one’s mental health. Doesn’t stop me. I drag myself down into the pit of despair.

Yet today, for right now, I’m just chilling. I’m feeling more… factual about this injury. It’s not because “I’ve done this so many times, I can’t do it to myself again.” It’s not because I know that, every time I do this, it almost never turns out as bad as I think it will – even though I know it’s as possible I’ll feel better tomorrow as it is that I’ll be off the bike for a week or even much more.It’s a different reason this time.

It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m grateful. I came very close to having a bad car accident earlier this week, but God saw fit to make the whole thing pass in the blink of an eye, and I drove on – fully amazed. Not a scratch. It made me think; my life is so much better than I know it is. I was grateful that night, you better believe.

Probably the most important lesson I have to learn to make my life better is this: I have what I have. It’s as simple as that.

In my first year on the bike, which just ended a couple months ago, I pushed, pushed, PUSHED myself to be a faster, stronger rider. I wanted to be a great rider so badly, I could taste it. I thought about it day and night. Nearly drove my saintly wife crazy. Partly as a result of that, I spent much of the year injured or so exhausted I could barely function.

Slowly -- very, very slowly -- those “negative” results are teaching me that I often become obsessed with an idea that is not based in reality. Then I make myself miserable trying to realize it, no matter what it takes.

Like life itself, training can be very confusing: Sometimes we need to push harder, and sometimes we need to pull back – or walk away. When I get fixated on one idea, one goal, it becomes just about impossible for me to pull back. I tend to either want it all, or say “It’s not worth the frustration; I’m ditching the whole thing.”

Today, for Thanksgiving 2008, in addition to all the other wonderful things in my life – my loving and kind wife, my job and career, which I like, my relative good health, my nuclear family all alive and relatively okay, and so much more – I want to say a prayer of thanks for the GOOD rides I had this year. The ones where I really enjoyed myself, whether because of gorgeous scenery, incredible fitness that let me fly past previous limits, great company, or any of the other delightful things that can happen to me on two wheels. And a prayer of EQUAL thanks for the pure flame of desire that keeps me banging up against my shortcomings as a human, so I can learn to balance them out and be happier with what I already have.

Maybe, because of the built-in limits of my body and my life, maybe I’m not destined to be the rider I thought I could be. Or, maybe it won’t happen for a few years, while I work out the kinks as a beginning serious cyclist. Either way, I will live on. And that life is a gift much, much larger than any one goal, no matter how alluring.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Establish a Dialog with Your Thighs

By remaining attentive to the messages your body sends, through exercise and in pleasure, you can take an elegant inner voyage on the bike. A lasting voyage, a permanent school, continuous retraining. The dialog you establish with your thighs is a rich one that helps you set your limits, improve your endurance, tolerate pain, and recognize the intolerable.

I find it useful every day.

~ Paul Fournel, Need for the Bike

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Joys of Cold-weather Riding

During each of my rides through September and October, I felt a combination of joy and sadness rising up within me. The joy came from the comfortable riding temps and the panoply of changing leaves – New England at its best. The sadness arose because summer was dying. Soon, no more plentiful sunlight and warmth for riding upon arriving home from work. Cold. Dark. Rollers. Wearing out my favorite podcasts and music playlists, while I pedal nowhere for hours.

But… I forgot how much fun cold weather riding can be. Oh, yeah – right! You can still ride outdoors for much of late fall and winter! In its own strange way, it’s as pleasing as summer riding. (Until the snows come, that is.)

Last week, I went for a long ride in a heavy fog, temps in the low 50s. As I shot down the road, moody light emanated from all directions at once. I freight-trained along through huge fingers of mist, the mountains to one side of me all draped in soft foggy lace.

I love feeling toasty-warm under my winter gear, protected from the harsh elements I am rocketing through. I love hoping that the people passing me in cars are thinking, “That guy must be nuts!” when, in fact, I feel great. I love the snap my legs get when its cold outside (once I’ve warmed up, which takes extra time).

This weekend, I laid out a big chunk of change for serious winter riding tights. I rode through all of last winter in a double layer of polypropylene beneath a pair of running tights that bagged and wrinkled too much. Once home, I put on my sleek new black tights and topped them with a silver-and-black jersey, and I felt like a rocket waiting for blast-off. There was a ferocious wind that day, and the windfront fabric worked like a charm – warm and dry in front, breathable in back. I felt cozy and I looked fast – what could be better?

For my Tuesday a.m. ride tomorrow, it’s supposed to be in the low 20s. We’ll see just how well this recovered affection for cold-weather riding holds up then.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

They Don't Call It a "Personal Best" for Nothing

It's worth noting that this was essentially a private victory. The world barely notices the Olympic steeplechase champion.... The forty-year-old steeplechase champion of the World Masters Games is slightly more prominent than the employee-of-the-month at the Shop'N'Save. No, his triumpth had nothing to do with fame and everything to do with the fact that down that last stretch he went when he could have eased up. And it is a victory (or a failure) equally available to the less genetically endowed stuck in the middle of the pack. As with writing a book, exactly one person knows if you've given it your best shot, or if you've been satisfied with something less.

Bill McKibben, Long Distance: Testing the Limits of Body and Spirit in a Year of Living Strenuously
Sometimes, when I'm pushing myself like mad to edge up my average speed record for a familiar route by a measly one tenth of a mile per hour, I ask myself, "Who's going to know if I accomplish this? Why does it matter so much?" It's a really good question to use when I want to find out if it's worth it to use up so much of my limited weekly amount of bodily energy -- my wattage account, if you will.

Sometimes, the only thing to do is GO. Other times, I realize I want to spend that energy elsewhere -- either on Saturday's hard ride with my friend, or perhaps on a dinner date with my wife on Friday night. I'm 44, I've been under quite a lot of life stress lately (see recent posts), and this is only the beginning of my second year of sustained endurance training. I only have so much wattage to go around, and I've blown myself up big-time -- out of commission for many weeks at a time, more than once -- acting like I had more in the bank than I do.

Our society places a highly exacting value system on athletes: Those who suffer the most are called "heroes." And those whose busy lives, or limited bodies, demand moderation, get zero air-time or magazine covers. They are -- judging by their absence -- worthless, in the eyes of the media and the public at large.

The point is this: For most of us, not one other soul in the world cares whether we put in that extra interval. So, make sure it's worth it to you.

And if it is, then kill it. And enjoy the suffering all you can. 'Cause there's no-one to impress.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

How to Overtrain

It’s been quite a long time since the last post. I’m hoping to keep this blog alive, but I recently moved to a new part of the state and started a new job, and getting settled took more time and energy than I predicted.

I also increased my training load considerably after moving. I’ve written here about the much more numerous and serious hills in my new location; in addition to riding much more vertically, between mid-August and late September I also greatly increased my distances while simultaneously trying to increase my average speed. All within the first four weeks of a very stressful move, and starting the new job.

For those of you who are considering greatly increasing both volume and intensity in your training, while going through a big life stressor, allow me to offer a word of advice:


In mid-September, after about a month of this ridiculous load, my body simply said, “I quit.”

It took me too long to figure what was happening. Being in my first year of real endurance training, I’d read about overtraining, but I’d never gone through it, so I didn’t recognize it. It started innocently enough; I was sleeping very poorly. Since I occasionally go through bouts of this, I trained right through it, thinking perhaps the extra effort I was putting in was helping relieve the stress. Mistake number one. Life stress and riding stress have to be added together when considering training load. They are two halves of a whole.

I kept adding intensity and volume. I hit my distance goal for the season about three weeks after the move, riding farther than I’d ridden in two and a half decades. Each long ride included numerous hills far steeper and longer than the ones I was used to in my previous location. Meanwhile, my performance stats kept improving. I figured, as long as I was adapting positively, I should keep increasing my load (provided I took rest days and lighter weeks here and there). Mistake number two. If you’re increasing your training stress in more than one factor (intensity, frequency, or duration), be aware that your body is bearing an enormous stress.

I did five days of lighter riding after my personal distance record. After that, I felt like Superman – like I could ride anywhere at any speed I wanted. So, after the rest week, I did a six-day stretch with two intense time trial workouts and two separate days with hill repeats on that big hill – the final day including a few one minute max efforts within the hill repeats. Crazy.

I simply lost sight of the how often I rode intensely. It was like crack; the more and harder I rode, the faster I got. On the road, I was thinking, “I’m ready to ride with the big dogs. I know I can hold my own.” I felt so excited.

All this, of course, during the first three weeks of a stressful new job, and a new apartment in a brand new area.

I’m sure you can guess what came next.

The Saturday after those hill repeats, during a routine, moderate spin, I realized I felt like utter crap. The entry from my training log says:

Feeling sluggish, irrtiable, uninspired today. Seasonal allergies bad.

Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!!!

Yet, onward I pushed. Thinking it was a fluke, the next day I rode a moderate distance, and ended up dragging myself through it. I hated a good portion of that ride. I had started feeling exhausted at work, sometimes to the point where I had to turn out the lights in my office and sleep for 25 minutes just to finish the day. I did finally figured out that I had gone too far, but there, too, I made a mistake. I only backed off a little, instead of getting off the bike altogether for at least a week as I should have. I just didn’t see the big picture.

I dug a huge hole for myself, and, long story short, I ended up having to do little to no riding for the better part of three long weeks. My allergies were raging. I was sickly-thin and couldn’t gain weight.

I started doubling up on helpful nutritional supplements like ginseng and B vitamins, eating mountains of healthy greens, and adding red meat to my diet. I firmly re-established my sleep cycle, and did light cross-training like hiking, yoga and long walks. By the time I started feeling even a little healthy again, I had lost months’ worth of fitness, which I’m currently still regaining -- slowly.

And so it was that I learned the limits of my body. Overtraining is a very real thing. In retrospect, and after a lot of research, it’s easy to see the signposts. The exhaustion during the day, poor sleep at night, and increased allergies all started long before I had problems while riding. I could have started extra rest right then and probably saved many weeks of recovery time later.

And then again, had I taken a serious break once I did find that I couldn’t ride well and that I was hating the act of riding (other common signs of overtraining), I could have still saved time and fitness.

Training is tricky; usually “less is more,” especially for those of us solidly into middle age and with demanding lives. Then again, sometimes “more is more;” some days that extra intensity is just what I need to blast out the blahs. But when a lot of symptoms are cropping up at once, it’s time to get off the bike and rest.

I can’t say that you’ll always come back stronger – sometimes, you might lose a bit of fitness. But at the very least, you’ll lose a lot less than you would if you pushed through it.

So, that’s where I’ve been all these weeks. With luck, I’m solidly back now, and you’ll be hearing from me.