Sunday, December 2, 2018

Listening to My Body

Recently, I have been doing some longer rides on the commuter bike I inherited from my wife through the flat neighborhoods on the east side of the peninsula. The ride illustrated on the map (shown in the lower half of the figure) went from my house in San Carlos to the house where my father grew up in Palo Alto (shown in the upper half of the figure), an approximately 20 mile ride round trip.

This blog does not have a large number of readers, most of my posts top out at 50 to 100 visits. A handful of these are regular readers, mostly or entirely friends and family (howdy!) and I suspect the rest are people who found a post via a google search. I hope they found what they were looking for, but even if they did, I suspect few of them found a reason to become regular readers. If that's the case, why do I keep posting? My younger son Matthew says "If you want to think, write" a saying I find to be very true, and this post was a perfect example. I started out writing one thing, but as my writing forced me to think things through, I ended up going an entirely different direction.

I initially anticipated that this post would discuss a recent review of the history of the development of a recommended exercise regimen by the medical community, with the goal of underlining how uncertain we are that the current recommendations are optimal, but when I dug into it, I realized everything worth saying in that paper is contained in this sentence. Don't get me wrong, the core advice of the medical community, "exercise lots", is quite solid, it is just the details that remain to be solidified. In fact, there is a recent paper reinforcing the "lots" part which has been picked up by the press (CNN for example),  that I may review one of these days. The bottom line for me is that I am trying to bicycle as much as I can, and therein lies the story for today.

As long time readers of this blog will know, I have done a fair bit of reading in the exercise literature, and one enduring lesson I have gleaned from that reading is that the best way to bicycle as much as possible is not to go out every day and ride until I drop. Doing that would lead to overtraining and, much less riding in the long term. Rather, I have to develop a sustainable exercise plan, one that I can maintain month after month, year after year. Many cyclists, including some who have commented on this blog, have found objective criteria to help them develop such sustainable plans, things like resting heart rate. I have tried a lot of these, and the only metrics that have worked for me are subjective:
  1. Measuring my speed on a standard ride.
  2. Monitoring my feelings; aching legs, general lethargy, lack of enthusiasm, and mood.
(Even though it may not seem so, speed on a standard ride is subjective. If I have more enthusiasm, I may ride harder and be faster for that reason, not because I am fully recovered, which is what I am testing for. In the end, subjective criteria are the only ones that have worked for me.)

Last August, the last time I talked about my riding schedule, I said: "I increased my riding from three to four rides a week ...[and]... I seem to be handling four days a week OK." (The "rides" I am referring to are identical repeats of my go-to ride, a 23 mile ride with 1300 feet of climbing.) That continued to be true for two more weeks, at which point I noticed that not only was I feeling more tired, but, it "seemed like" the speed at which I could do these rides was getting slower, not faster. Why do I feel the need for the "seemed like" qualifier? It is because there is a great deal of day to day variation in how fast I can do this ride, so that I cannot conclude from one or two slow rides that I am riding too much. It was only after I saw a pattern over a few weeks where my rides were significantly slower on average that I seriously wondered if four rides a week was too much. The problem is that even two weeks of rides is a very small number, statistically speaking, so it is hard to be sure that my rides had really gotten slower. On the other hand, I really couldn't wait much longer than two weeks to make a correction to my routine, should a correction be necessary. While writing this post, I actually went back and forth a few times, sometimes thinking I had overinterpreted the data, that my rides had not gotten significantly slower, and other times thinking that I had gotten it right. As of this writing, I'm thinking I got it right, but that explains the "seems like" in my characterization. So, combining apparently slower rides with a higher incidence of aching legs, low enthusiasm, and general lethargy, I decided to cut back from four of the hilly 23 mile rides a week, to three of those rides plus one shorter, flatter ride. Of course, as always, life intervened and I had to adjust my ride schedule to work around those interventions, but for four weeks, I rode schedules that attempted to approximate that goal, and it seemed like my ride speed was recovering.

On the surface, this all seems like good news; I determined I was riding a bit too much and successfully adjusted my schedule. However, the decision to cut back on my riding felt like a real setback. Four 23-mile rides a week doesn't even come close to the volume of riding I was doing just five years ago when I was participating in 200 kilometer brevets*. Had I really gone so far downhill in those five years? Why, all of a sudden, is seven hours a week too much, when five years ago, I sometimes did that much in a day? There are many possible explanations, each with their own implications for how I ought to be riding. Maybe, at my age, five years older is significant. Maybe, illness and death of my wife is still affecting me. Maybe, I have not yet thrown off all the effects of my pneumonia of last winter. Maybe, other sources of stress in my life are impacting my ability to ride. Against this background, my older son Michael came up with another possibility. "I can't believe you do this same ride over and over again. I think you are just getting bored. Boredom can feel like tiredness, you know." That didn't seem right to me, but he is a very smart man, so I took his advice seriously. With that in mind, when the opportunity came to ride a second metric century with my friend Roger came up, I jumped at it despite having little time to prepare. How little? Well, my speed may have come up a bit, but my subjective feeling was still one of tiredness, so because my body was telling me it was more in need of rest than training, I did only one 39 mile long ride two weeks in advance to prepare, followed by two relatively easy weeks. The metric century went well, I was very tired at the end but had no trouble finishing, so this minimalist training plan seemed to work, though there is, of course, no way to be sure that a different plan might not have worked better.

The metric century was one response to boredom, but another, driven not just by boredom but also inspired by the Peninsula Bikeway ride I took a while back and by my interest in easier rides that still met my medical prescription for 300 minutes of moderate exercise a week, I started exploring routes through the beautiful neighborhoods on the eastern flats of The Peninsula, the ride shown at the top of this post being one. So does this mean I have become a slacker, just easy rides and minimal training going forward? Not at all, I will continue to listen to my body, and if I am feeling strong, will try upping my mileage again, perhaps seeking out some bigger challenges. I am not yet sure if my son was right, that what I was calling fatigue was actually boredom, but I do know that introducing more variety into my riding has been an extremely pleasant change, so I intend to do more of that. The metric century is a very popular distance for group bike rides, and I like being able to participate in one of these at short notice, so I may try to work one longer ride into my weekly schedule such that I could ride a metric century with no extra preparation at all. Stay tuned to see how this all works out.

* A brevet is just a bicycle ride. Brevet is what randonneurs, a kind of bicycle rider who specializes in long distance challenge rides, calls one of their challenges. A 200 kilometer ride is their shortest brevet, the other common distances being 300, 400, 600, and 1200 kilometers.