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Gym Lifecycle vs. The Real Thing January 3, 2014

Posted by Bill in Conditioning.
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lifecycle versus bicycleFive years ago I moved away from easy access to safe riding on the American River Bike Trail. To close the fitness gap, I moved my time onto a Lifecycle at the local gym, and while I did maintain my fitness level, I’ve been wondering about the actual transfer of that fitness to actual riding. Today, my first day back on two wheels in quite a long while, I made a few surprising discoveries. Did it transfer? It depends on which part of me you ask.

Overall, the gym machine indeed kept me from turning to trail mush. I can still sustain a good speed over several miles with a low heart rate. On flat ground, though, it became apparent that the two exercise modes are not created equal. While large muscle groups did more than fine, within each group were discreet areas that were not as well-conditioned as the rest, so I experienced micro-area fatigue particularly in the adductors (groin muscles) and hamstrings.

The adductor issue I attribute to the Lifecyle being a fixed entity, with no demands on me to control the lateral dynamics of a bicycle. This fatigue was relieved by on and off-bike stretching at several mile intervals. It’s likely the hamstring issue is related due to the complexity of motion of muscles that cross two joints (hip & knee), but that’s harder to pin down knowing the Lifecycle geometry does not accurately reproduce the riding position. This is not intended as a criticism of the Lifecyle workout at all, as comfort is an important aspect of getting one’s tired ass into the gym three days a week. Lifecycle recumbents are really comfy, and that feature makes a big difference in getting the needed time in.

Now the really AWESOME part of what the gym experience produced for me was in climbing. CLIMBING. Part of the gym cycle workout is increasing peddle resistance over time to maintain a target heart rate. I set out early on to keep my heart at 75-80% of max BPM over the course of an hour. That gets harder to do as one builds muscular aerobic capacity, so you have to push harder to sustain the target HR. In case you think that sounds awful, rest assured that it is very satisfying, as the beta endorphin kick feels really good and you generally feel better and stronger all the time once you get into the groove with your workouts.

The biking payoff, though, is the development of pushing strength. A slope between Sunset and Hazel Avenues has always left me winded at the top, and today it was a total piece of cake with minimal downshifting. I arrived at the top with significantly more speed and feeling quite studly. Unless you’re able to sustain hour-long climbs several times per week and methodically build capacity (not possible for most recreational riders) the gym machine is the common person’s route to building significant climbing power.

So while I know I have to climb onto the bike to maintain performance biking fitness and strength, my gym time has proven to be a mostly successful (and somewhat grudging) substitute. There will never be anything like a body in motion, at speed, to fully answer the question, “What’s the point of being fit?” But if you need to artificially sustain that fitness to keep two-wheeled magic in your life, the gym can help you stay there and maybe even build your performance capacity.

Why bicycling is like sex July 3, 2010

Posted by Bill in Conditioning, Equipment, Reflection, Uncategorized.
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1890 nude on bicycle with glass of wineThis blog originated from my observations about getting older, and efforts to return to a level of fitness from before my lifestyle became anti-exercise.   How to sustain something that would benefit my body over the long haul, to allow me to have a long haul in the first place.  As a educator of humans for many decades, one thought has held true for all: nothing is sustained that isn’t fun or immediately beneficial.  How many NordicTrack machines are taking up space in garages, piled on top of college textbooks we haven’t yet had the nerve to give away?

I also knew I was a slave to chemistry… fun or not, I had to cope with the fact that my body had some cardiovascular growing to do, and that didn’t sound fun.  Here’s the deal:  fitness is a question of how well your body can turn oxygen into useful energy.  The more oxygen you can convert into energy, the fitter you are.  The good news is this: regardless of your age, your body can increase its fitness as a result of your efforts.  The bad news is this: you have to give it a reason to do so.  You have to stress it, make your heart pump faster and harder, to engage the chemical machinery and tissue growth required to make you better able to use oxygen and deliver it to muscle tissue.

The word “effort” in our culture has negative connotations.  “To get good grades, you have to put in effort.”  “Politicians must make an effort to avoid corruption.”  I’d like to shift the paradigm a bit here, hence the title of this post.  Sex requires effort, at least good sex does.  It may even require a bit of planning and careful orchestration of circumstances (right, parents?). Bad sex does not encourage a return to the scene, so most of us put a good deal of energy, effort, into making sure the experience is a good one for all parties involved.

Well, the same thing goes for bicycling.  If you do it well and pay attention to details, it will feel good and you will ache for more.  If you ignore the details or assume someone else (a bike builder, for instance) will take care of them for you, it’s not going to work out and you’ll wind up with a two-wheeled paperweight.  So, think of your conditioning regimen as an act of love-making. Just like with sex, a partner can make your bicycling experience far more rewarding, but a partner is not required for a quality experience.  Regard the following list, and keep the metaphor running:

  • Decide what kind of bicycling feels good to you, but leave yourself open to an evolving/changing sense of what that is.  Quality bike shops such as The Bicycle Business rent performance bikes for test rides.  If you are tentative about dropping the Big Nickle, a few rentals will help you narrow your interests.  Also, top shops also employ very experienced people who have much wisdom in these things.  However, none of those folks would have guided me to my Madone, so don’t take their word as gospel.  Test various rides, get opinions of other riders, and let your imagination be your guide.
  • Find the right setting. Doing it in high traffic areas is not generally satisfying, so find a place to ride where you feel safe and you can pay closer attention to the act of bicycling, to your body’s attempts to communicate its needs to you, and to your surroundings beyond finding the texting driver before he/she finds you.
  • Pace yourself. Listen to your body’s attempts to determine what feels good.  If your body says “go faster!”, do that.  If after riding a half mile your body says “I’m pooped!”, give it a rest.  If the inside of your legs feel tight, get off the bike and rest them and gently massage.  Whether bicycling or lovemaking, pushing into some crazy performance ideal ruins the entire experience.  Setting goals in either activity is certainly useful, but it isn’t the goal that determines the joy you will derive.  It is the journey that will determine the quality of your experience, and it is the quality of the journey that will determine whether you want to embark on another.
  • Pay attention to your attire. Just yesterday I was riding in 90 degree morning air, passing rider after miserable rider (all men) wearing their favorite cotton weekend t-shirt.  They were red in the face, visibly sweating.  Other riders (those clearly not dismayed by those who sneer at the “spandex crowd”) had prepared themselves with moisture-wicking, highly evaporative synthetic clothing, and were obviously comfy.  Also, you are much more attached to your crotch than you think.  Heavily padded riding shorts may feel odd, but if you are riding more than a couple blocks, they are well worth the effort and weirdness.  1890s cyclingI once had someone say, “Oh, you’re one of them,” when she found out I was part of the spandex crowd of bicyclists.  Yep, guilty as charged, and happy with my lot.  120 years ago people were clothed head to toe in cotton or wool from neck to ankle for both cycling and sex.  Let us aspire to more modern expressions of attire in both.
  • Hydrate aggressively. This does not mean stop every half hour at a drinking fountain.  This means drink when you are thirsty, and on a bike this will be every few minutes during a moderate workout.  Not only do you sweat it out, you exhale a great deal of your body’s water.  When your throat feels parched, you are dehydrated, and blood will not move to your extremities and muscles as effectively.  If you are not secure about reaching for a water bottle from a rack in your frame (or if you’re vain about frame appearance like I am), invest in a backpack hydration system such as a bike-specific Camelbak.  Narrow, as your back is part of your cooling system, so the more of your back that’s exposed the cooler you’ll stay.  If you don’t hydrate sufficiently, you will cramp sooner, you will feel artificially fatigued, and your recovery period will be far longer.
  • Focus on the moment. OK, this sounds kind of new-agey, but it’s for real.  Your life is a collection of experiences, and as humans we seek to repeat those experiences that give us pleasure and we avoid those that don’t, despite our best “adult” intentions.  If you think for half a second about addiction, you’ll get my drift.  As you ride, stay in touch with how you feel, and give yourself permission to stop that which doesn’t feel good.  Do not “push through the pain.”  That’s high school football coach bs, and it is a very destructive orientation.  Especially as you are beginning a conditioning regimen and you are learning how your body responds to exercise, experiment with periods of exertion and rest.  While it feels good to exert, it also feels good to rest.  Over time, your periods of exertion will grow and your rest periods will shrink, but it should all continue to feel good.  In time you’ll find the balance of exertion & rest that works for you, and which feels good over an extended period.
  • Check in with your doctor. This is particularly true if you have not exercised for decades, if you have other health issues that would be negatively impacted by sudden exertion, or if you’re at all nervous about beginning exercise.   Older (and not-so-older) riders will feel a bit on the creaky side coming off a period of non-exercise, and  there may be momentary aches and pains as you extend into ranges of motion unfamiliar to your body.  Mostly those little annoyances will pass, but do respond to those that don’t with a little personal TLC.

I don’t care what they say February 15, 2010

Posted by Bill in Equipment, Reflection.
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After today’s inaugural 20 miles on my “new” build Madone, nobody can ever tell me that a non-racer geezer doesn’t belong on a race bike.  Well, they can tell me, but now I have no reason to listen, without a moment’s doubt.

madone 6.9 inaugural run Why should the pleasure of easy climbs followed by acceleration off the crest unlike anything a heavy bike can produce be reserved for young team and pro riders?

There is no practical and age-appropriate machine for any particular individual or age group.  If you want to feel a snappy turn and you want your bike to shift effortlessly, without hesitation or grumble, you find a way to make that happen for you.

After this build, giving me a truly awesome ride at 15 pounds 2 ounces (with pedals, without water & tools), I have something that tells me in uncomfortably unforgiving terms that the only limitation is the rider and the condition thereof.  This bike screams “Come on!” as I think about how to spend my time.  Do I take advanced training in Tivo programming, or do I divert into the garage and spin for awhile?

Posts to come will have more to do with returning to a higher level of conditioning at a certain age.  WIsh me luck.  Or better yet, join me.