Saturday, February 21, 2009

Listening Deeper to My Body

The larger opportunity in having pneumonia, which is so tenacious and long-lasting, is to learn to be at ease with and in touch with my whole body, in all of its states: healthy and strong, weak and tired. This is true acceptance, without which true change is not possible. My body might heal, but I would miss the larger lesson, which is that I stand in opposition to my body when I try to force it to heal. “Listening to your body” means to truly be in concert with it at all times.

~ From my journal, under today’s date
Pneumonia will get an endurance athlete thinking pretty hard. Pnuemonia is like taking a wrecking ball to the edifice on which endurance athletes labor so lovingly and painstakingly: Our ability to convert oxygen to performance. If VO2 max is your sine qua non, you’ll really start to ponder the eternal verities when it’s been weeks since you’ve taken a clear, deep breath.

So this week, instead of training, I'm thinking about living in concert with my body. As an endurance athlete, I spend a lot of time challenging my body’s limits. I stretch its ability to convert oxygen to energy. To store and use energy from food more efficiently. To convert that energy to power more efficiently, and to use that power to create higher speeds. It’s a wonderful adventure, benefiting us in too many spheres to number.

Watching all this, our friends who don’t cycle think we take absurdly good care of our bodies.

But there is a knife-thin edge we walk in relationship with this one body we are headquartered in. Speaking for myself, I tend to my body a quite lot – but I ask of it even more. I push myself harder than I should. I ignore the fairly sizable stressors in my life. And then I don’t wait for full healing before returning to too much volume or intensity.

Through all of this, I am beginning to learn about my own embarrassing obstinacy. This week, I noticed myself still behaving and thinking like I am ready to ride. I check Accuweather upon awakening; if the weather is sunny and in the 30s, I try to rationalize a quick outdoor ride later in the day. With pneumonia. Right. Thankfully, it quickly became patent how absurd such a move would be. So, I turn to the jolly task of thinking about my friends who are able to go out that day. I envision how much fun they’re having, diving down winding country lanes. I think about how I won’t be able to keep up with them when the group rides start up again in a few weeks. And then, perhaps dumbest of all, I think about where I would have been today if I’d been able to keep up my training through all these weeks of being off: Build phase, instead of looking at starting up Base 1 all over again in early March. I think these thoughts even though I know that, bottom line, the reason I can’t go out today, the pneumonia, is due to this very kind of thinking, which led me to push too hard in the first place.

The illness, thank heavens, has been mild, as these things go, but it also has lasted 4.5 weeks so far. And the honest truth is that all of the aforementioned pining and self-abuse is really just misplaced anger at my body for not being as strong and resilient as I wish it were. Even off the bike, it’s me against it.

I point all this morbid stuff out as a way of saying that I am actually changing all of this. I’m learning that listening to my body, much like a spiritual path, is a never-ending process. And that, while external goals are useful and praise-worthy, right now, my bigger job – obviously, or I wouldn’t have tried to ride my way through pneumonia, which I unknowingly did for the first half of this thing -- my bigger cycling goal right now is to learn to balance exciting objectives with day-to-day body awareness. To say, “I will have this much fitness or do this ride by that date,” but also to take the time and patience to tune in to the signals from my body each day. Can’t get my heart-rate up? Red flag. Brutal week at work? Red flag. Rode a couple hours more than I planned to last week, and I’m planning to just go ahead and build on that this week? Big red flag, waving like mad.

It's easy to say "I'll listen more to my body." I'm aiming for the kind of deep, intuitive relationship older cyclists I know have with all aspects of their bodies -- heart rate, immune system, sleep patterns, moods, little wisps of differences in performance on the bike. These are guys who've been doing this for decades through blistering sun and icy winds. Whip-thin guys with white beards and legs like beef jerky, all gristle and lean muscle; guys who can ride me into the ground without breathing hard.

Jon Krakauer, with typical savage accuracy, said: “It is easy, when you are young… to assume that if you want something badly enough it is your God-given right to have it.” Next week I turn 45, closer (in years, at least) to those Zen-master vets than to my impetuous youth. I think it’s time to set both feet firmly on the path that Paul Fournel (one of those Zen masters) so deftly sketched:
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, The Need for the Bike

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