Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Stress and the Aging Cyclist

Two posts ago ("Sad News") I revealed that the "That Which Must Not Be Named", which had been interfering with my cycling, was my wife's fight against ovarian cancer, and that she had finally succumbed to that disease. By the end of December of 2016, we pretty much knew the fight was over except for the crying. In January, however, the brilliant doctors at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center came up with a treatment that did not affect the outcome, but did delay it by some months, and during those months my wife felt almost normal. Starting in mid-December, I was unable to ride. However, when that treatment kicked in in February, I was able to ride again, as shown on the above MAF test graph. By May, this treatment wore off (and could not be repeated) which meant I could not ride again. I restarted riding 10 days after my wife's death, but did so in California where I cannot ride MAF tests. By the time I returned to Texas in mid-July, I had regained a great deal of lost fitness, and since then have been more or less maintaining that level of fitness, at least as measured by a MAF test.

So here I am, living in limbo. Last post, I described how I expect my cycling to change once I move to California, but probably that is still a month away, and longer still before I am settled. What am I doing in the meantime? Contrary to the title of my last post, I am riding MAF tests. Why MAF tests? It is crushingly hot and humid in Houston in the summer, and the only time I can ride is right after sunrise. Trying to do more interesting rides (and there are rides I would love to do before leaving Houston forever) would expose me to rush hour traffic and, because such rides are usually longer, to more heat. So, the Rice Track it is. I don't always ride MAF tests at the track. One of my wife's former colleagues has become a riding buddy, and the days he shows up, I ignore heart rate and just ride and chat with him. However, on days I find myself alone, turning the ride into a MAF test reduces its tedium just a little. What has been apparent, not so much from the test results as from how I feel and what I can do, my ability to ride is at a low point, and the reason why is the topic of this post.

I am trained as a biochemist and I should know all about the various regulatory systems that govern my metabolism, but until recently, I didn't. The reason I didn't is that research scientists (including me) specialize by necessity, so what I learned about metabolic regulation in my introductory courses I largely forgot, and in addition, much of it was obsolete. It is only since I restarted cycling and tracking my training results I have revisited these issues in the hope of better understanding my experiences. What I learned is that my body has various processes that compete for resources; fighting infection, building fitness, and responding to stress being some of the important ones. What are those resources? I don't know for certain, but it could be as simple as food (glucose)! If so, that is pretty stupid on my body's part because I suffer from over-nutrition (I am fat) and so conserving glucose makes no sense for me. That is neither here nor there, because these systems evolved when starvation was an issue, and for better or for worse, I am stuck with them. So, if I am relaxed and not exercising, my body devotes more resources to fighting infection. If I exercise hard to build fitness, this takes resources away from fighting infection, and I have to be careful not to overdo it, or I will end up with a cold. (Similarly, if I have a cold, I will find it more difficult to build fitness.) However, if I am stressed, resources are taken from both fighting infection and building fitness to be used for "fight or flight."

What is stress? When my body's regulatory systems evolved, it was probably things like encountering a saber-toothed tiger. Today, it is being yelled at by my boss, or worrying because I don't know how to pay off my debts. When I retired in 2011, it was to a large extent because interactions at work were difficult, which resulted in stress, and I worried about the effect of that stress on my health. Neither of these sources of stress apply to me today, but others do:

  1. My wife died recently, I am still very sad about that, and that sadness is a form of stress.
  2. My life is undergoing major changes. I am moving away from Houston, a city where I have lived for 30 years, longer than any other place I have lived, a place I love, to live in California.
  3. Besides the stress that results from the unknown described above, there are the practical logistics of selling my house, going through 30 years of accumulated junk to decide what to get rid of and what to keep, figuring out how to get rid of the stuff I am getting rid of, executing my wife's estate in the face of bureaucratic lunacy, etc., etc. This is stressful.
  4. I caught a cold just before leaving California. Although this is not classical "fight or flight" stress, it does take resources away from building (or even maintaining) fitness.
What are the symptoms of stress and how do they impact my cycling? This question brings me to the point of this post. This is probably the most stress I have experienced since I restarted cycling, the symptoms of that stress have been clearer than I have ever witnessed, and I thought it was worth sharing this newfound clarity. What I have noticed is the following:
  1. I am tired all the time, really tired. Since I restarted cycling, I have never gone through a period where I enjoyed riding less. I have often found it hard to start a ride, but always before, I enjoyed my ride once I got out on the road. Now, it is a constant effort of will during the 45 minutes of a MAF test to not just exit the track and ride home.
  2. This high level of tiredness is despite a much lower volume of training than I am used to. Since my wife died, my schedule has been a pretty steady three rides a week, down from five to six rides of week that I manage when nothing interferes.
  3. My heart rate, the measurement that regulates my MAF Test Rides, behaves differently. One of the subjective factors I record from my MAF Test Rides is if legs are limiting or if heart rate is limiting. What I mean by this is do I feel like it is a strain to keep my heart rate above 130 bpm, or rather, when I ride comfortably, am I constantly slowing down because my heart rate drifts over 140. (On my best days, I record "balanced"; my legs and heart are in sync, a comfortable ride results in a heart rate between 130 and 140 bpm.) These days, I mostly record "legs limiting"; I find it hard work to keep my heart rate above 130 bpm. Somewhere I read that a symptom of not being fully recovered from previous workouts is a low heart rate; my heart is trying to take a break. I will try to track down the source of that idea in a future post, but I do think my "tired legs" is my body telling me to save my strength for fight or flight.
I strongly believe that exercise is important for both my physical and mental health. Although I generally believe in listening to my body, I think my body is giving me bad advice at the moment. It is my impression that the medical community believes that chronic stress is an unnatural, and thus harmful state; the tiger should either eat me or go away. My body is telling me not to exercise, but to save my strength for the crisis I am facing, having no idea that this "crisis" is going to persist for a long time, and that the consequences of not exercising for all that time would be vastly worse than the impact of exercising while stressed. That said, I am stressed, exercising while stressed is problematic (I cannot seem to shake my cold, for example), so I have been doing the smallest amount of exercise I feel like I can get away with, thus the three rides a week, and short, easy rides at that.

I usually plan my blog posts a couple of posts in advance, I have an idea of what my next two to three posts are going to be. As often as not, however, those plans change. With that in mind, my current plan is to do one more post from Houston, tying up a few loose ends before leaving, and then the one after that to be the first of what I hope are a long series about cycling in California. Stay tuned to see if I follow that plan.