One foot in front of the other. That’s what it comes down to. One foot in front of the other. In order to get better at anything, one-off attempts ain’t gonna do it. To get good, you gotta put in the time, the effort, way too much sweat, sometimes blood, and – don’t laugh at me, but I’ve been there – the tears.
Training, especially hard training, brings with it no small amount of punishment to the mind and body. That’s not to say that if you’re just cruising you won’t get something out of cycling. You will. It’s a healthy lifestyle/activity. But when you’re aiming for longer distances, faster sprints, bigger hills, or all three, there’s no doubt you’re gonna hurt. But that’s okay… if you don’t waste it.
Here’s an example: I started running after last year’s MS ride, because most of the team had switched away from riding to running as the temps dropped. Each run hurt. Bad. Partly it’s because I don’t have a middle-gear. I go until I can’t. Then I stop, and then I do it again. Throttling isn’t something I do well. So each time I ran, it was pretty torturous, even when it felt good (I try not to think about those implications).
I started getting better. I was running farther, faster, with less pain and more consistent effort. After running my first 15k, followed by my first half-marathon, my work schedule took off like crazy (4th quarter is pretty insane for me). And I found that I couldn’t get out 3-4 times a week to run. Instead I was down to 1 run a week at best.
So here’s the problem: when you run only once a week, you don’t get better. You do anything once a week, and you probably won’t get better. So though I still felt the pain and suffering from a solid run, in the end, it didn’t account for much because I didn’t get better.
Herein lies the difference between training and suffering. Suffering can often be a part of hard training, but hard training isn’t always a part of suffering. Now, if I was just cruising along and not trying to train, then it wouldn’t matter. I wouldn’t be putting in enough effort to reach a stage where I’d be suffering because I wouldn’t be actively trying to improve.
I ended up dropping running in favor of cold-weather riding gear and way, WAY more intervals on the trainer. I wasn’t running enough to make it worth the suffering. Instead, I’m hammering on the trainer, and when I reach the 8th interval set I’m usually ready to pass out. But that’s okay, because I know I’m getting better. I’m not suffering needlessly, I’m training hard, and with that comes some suffering.
In reading online, I’ve found that there’s a workout “dead zone”. This zone is a range of effort that usually falls in the 80-85% of your max output. You’re working hard enough to push your body, but not hard enough to make that effort yield a lasting change come the next training time. Below this level you can sustain your efforts for long periods of time, getting a good workout without suffering. Above this effort you’re usually suffering, but you’re also improving workout after workout.
The problem is, that dead zone – even though it seems like such a small range in your output ability – is ridiculously easy to stay at. Not sure why. Maybe it’s just that we’re built to naturally push to 80%, and reserve the rest for emergencies. I don’t know. But in any case, the less you do an activity, the easier it is to fall into that gap, so that though you’re getting a workout, you’re probably not getting much better.
With all this being said, what can you do, not to avoid suffering but to avoid suffering needlessly? To make sure your workouts count? There’s a two things I’ve found that have worked for me in recent days:
1) If you want to get better, get out there and get better. No excuses, no delays. Set a minimum number of days per week for your activity, and do it no matter what. You don’t have time to be out for 3 hours? Make it 2. Make it 1! Just get out there. Often times it’s hard to get past the idea of starting, but once you do, you’ll feel better for having done it. Not only because you’ll most likely enjoy the activity, but you’ll feel better for not letting yourself down.
2) If you’re out there already, don’t waste it. Learn to recognize that dead-zone, where you’re kinda pushing / kinda cruising, and make a decision. Do you have enough to push harder? If so, do it, and get out of the dead-zone. You’ll hurt, you’ll be tired, but you’ll be better for it. If you start to push and notice you can’t hold it – maybe you’ve been pushing hard for a few days now – drop down instead. There’s nothing wrong with riding lightly. Work on your cadence, your breathing, your form. Heck, just enjoy the scenery and clarity of mind that comes with a nice ride.
In the end, it’s okay to suffer for something you love. The blood, sweat, and tears that fall today will lead to a faster, better you tomorrow. Just don’t let them fall in vain – otherwise instead of more miles, you’ll only end up with more regret.