*UPDATE* Psychological Effects of Heart Rate Monitor Use Study

12/21/2010: Preliminary results were reported at Indoor Cycle Instructor in October 2010. Manuscript in preparation. Once published, results will be made available on this site and at ICI.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Conquering Hills: On & Off the Bike

Just three weeks ago, I used to ride a bike for a living. I thought that no crazier a parallel universe did exist than that of being able to do and share what I love, to connect with so many people, to learn so much about people and about myself... all day long.

And then I moved to Burlington, a parallel universe unlike any other.

By way of introduction, so much has happened the past three weeks. I've had the noblest of intentions to update this blog every time something worth sharing (see also: universally applicable and/or otherwise interesting) arose: some cool cardio training profiles, my first ridiculously amazing biking adventure through the hills of Vermont, how I'm training for a triathlon, teaching my first class at UVM (anticlimactic, I thought -- I missed NYSC so much! But I did "Kaizen," the best ride ever, and rocked the "this hill doesn't need to mean everything... but make it mean something!" speech like the cheeseball I am. Love it.), how I converted a few classmates into buying heart rate monitors already! Heh. I wanted to rave about how idyllic it felt to live here, and go all "rah rah health & wellness wooooooo hoooooo!" on you. I've put off writing, in part, because I had all this oh-so-exciting stuff to write about -- and hadn't yet decided what angle to take with it.

But then, everything changed: I got sick of those cardio profiles, so just stopped doing them. I decided it was most time-efficient to hit "snooze" a lot, eat pizza and cookies for meals, drink bottles of red wine on my porch, and pretty much forego any and all physical activity (says the woman who taught 5 Spinning classes a day... just THREE WEEKS AGO!). I sideswiped my brand new car into a dumpster on my way to school (for those of you who never heard me talk about this over the summer: a nearly-lifelong urbanite, I *just* learned how to drive... and suck at it), which costs more than a month's rent to fix. I gave up on a steep climb and walked my bike up feeling like a failure. My triathlon is in 3 days and I just... stopped training.

And then I knew what I *needed* to write about...

Recently, I read an article written by a fellow Spinning instructor where she "outed" herself to her classes as a "failure" biking up what sounds like an absurdly ridiculous MOUNTAIN (the fact that the word "mountain" is used is beyond me, already). She talks about the pressure to be a super-human, to be insanely awesome at everything she does - and how she felt like upholding those expectations actually served to distance herself from her students, in that she was unrelatable. By openly (and utterly bravely) talking about what she perceived as her shortcoming, she reflects on how this served to connect better with the people she coached.
While I don't necessarily experience the same pressure to play "superhuman" (likely because if that were my goal, I'd fail miserably at it... so it's just never been a goal!), I was inspired by this woman's bold self-reflections in offering her experience from which others can hopefully learn.

Last week or so when all the above-cited craziness transpired, I coped surprisingly well -- by calling up some of my go-to Spinning bits. When I crashed my car, I actually told myself (out loud) to breathe.. and successfully averted a panic attack. (I similarly deep-breathed myself to calmness when I got the estimate from the autobody shop a few days later...) When my brakes felt like they were giving out as I was plummeting down a hill at 28.8 mph (via Triumph -- who only pretends to be a car but is, in fact, still a bike), I watched my HR monitor as I diaphragmatically breathed my heart rate down and told myself that my core muscles could keep me balanced no mater what happened.... and that all I had to do was hold on and bear down.

When I coach, I try to bring concepts and techniques from riding outside as can be applied to Spinning indoors. But now, I'm going to reflect on the reverse: how the experience of Spinning can be applied out in the world... both on the bike and, more significantly, off the bike.

Whew. Long intro. Here goes.

1. Talk to yourself. No, really. It works.
If you hadn't read my epic post from my last week in NYC, you should -- it was pretty awesome, if I do say so myself. I wrote about the merits of positive self-talk, and how the way you talk to yourself can shape the way you see the world. I wrote about positive affirmations (with and without powerful imagery), identifying negative thought patterns and engaging in insta-"thought stopping" and immediately replacing negative thoughts with empowering ones.

I do this "in life," but haven't really had the opportunity to apply this to an athletic scenario -- mostly because since I started teaching full-time, I really haven't done anything terribly challenging (in my own classes, if I'm actually working hard -- rare -- I feed off of my outwardly-directed energy ... or mostly, off of YOUR energy... and in my own cross-training, I've pretty much taken it easy for months with all my injuries, etc.). The hills in Vermont are incredibly humbling. I don't ride clipless outside (for those of you who don't know, "clipless" is a counterintuitive term that means "without toe-clips/cages" over the pedals... like we have on Spinners. "Clipless" is actually the same as being "clipped in" with cleats on the soles of your shoes. Can be a bit confusing.... but the "clipless" part refers to what's over your toes.) because in NYC where I learned to ride, I felt like I had to be able to stop on a dime with crazy taxi cabs coming out of nowhere for no reason other than to run you down. (It's SURREAL to ride here on wide open stretches of road here...)

Moving on: You know how I coach you to "pull up" on the pedals, using the backs of your legs -- with cleats, just lifting your knees; with toestraps, pulling up against the straps? The steeper the hill, the more important that becomes -- otherwise you're using your quads alone to push down -- totally inefficient. Outside, I use toe clips which are marginally helpful to the WIPE BACK part of the pedal stroke (remember: "forward / wipe back / lift"?), but it's so hard to LIFT on a tough hill without cleats or toe straps. Take-home point: Vermont ain't flat. These hills are VERY humbling.

I've found that I've been able to climb a lot of these hills just by talking to myself and breathing. Thought-stopping is key. Every "I can't do this" gets shot down IMMEDIATELY. "You can do this," "You're strong!" -- even a simple "YES!" -- all of which have made a world of difference.
I've also been rockin' the "pump those legs!" a lot lately, and find it pretty effective.

2. WHY are you climbing?
Every time I told myself that I wanted to get up the hill so that I didn't embarass myself in front of my new riding buddies, I slowed down and had to get off the bike and walk. Don't climb for other people. Don't climb to AVOID something negative. Climb FOR something positive. Maybe it's because you want to accomplish something you didn't think possible -- the thrill of triumph, the exhalation of victory. Just have a reason... avoidance doesn't fly.

3. The Nuts & Bolts
Pedal stroke fluidity is key. If you STOP on a tough hill, you'll just fall off. Yeah, I did that, too.
Constant circles - "forward / wipe back.... as the knee comes up, other knee goes forward/ wipe back." Climbing a hill even while shifting to a lower gear, pick the pace UP even -- just that forward /wipe back... forward / wipe back." Repeating those words, "forward - wipe back" over and over can be outrageously helpful. Try it. The minute you slow down, you're toast. The "wipe back" is actually where you can sneak in an outrageous amount of power. "Wipe back" with one (remember: drop the heel) and whip the other up, around and over. Practice it on flat roads (as an aside, it's the coolest feeling ever to have miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiles of open flat stretches to cruise at 18-20 mph -- this could NEVER happen in NYC), and then keep the same technique on the hills... shift down, pace up, pump and go. Just like that. The minute you slow down, you're toast.

BREATHING is beyond key. Need to keep the heart rate as low as possible, or your muscles will fatigue like whoa. How do we control the heart rate? "FORCEFUL EXHALATIONS OUT THE MOUTH." Practice opening up the airways, letting a big breath in as the abdomen expands. When it's time to take on the hill, think: BREATH IS FUEL! Hear those words in the deepest, most powerful voice imaginable. I once took a workshop where a Master Instructor (from whom I took that line) played BEYOND creepy music, took on a BEYOND creepy tone, and started SCREAMING that over and over and over again... it was bone-tingling, in a NON-creepy way. That's the voice I always hear...

You should be breathing forcefully enough to hear your exhalations LOUDLY.

To recap:
See hill coming. Breathe your heart rate down. Prepare. Mentally rehearse how it's going to be.
Coming up to the hill: Faster faster faster
As you hit the hill: shift down - faster faster faster, "go go go"
all the while: "HEUH" "HEUH" "HEUH" faster faster faster "pump"
(yeah, those "heuhs" are forceful breaths out the mouth...)

BTW - riding a Spinner is a PERFECT place to practice this -- just instead of shifting down to cope with that hill, you're loading resistance to simulate that hill. We don't to overtax the heart by increasing resistance and speed at the same time (if we can avoid it).... so try increasing speed first, then increase resistance at the same speed.

Note: you MIGHT notice a pattern here...
1. Talk to Yourself. No, really. It works.
EVERYTHING I wrote above holds. Tell yourself you are calm, and you will be calm. Tell yourself you're in control and you'll be that way, too. Tell yourself that you can do whatever it is you want to do, and have specific short-term steps to get you there.

2. WHY are you "climbing?"
I'm mostly using the term for poetic effect, but it really does hold. Your challenges are hills all the same -- things to overcome. Last New Year's, I wrote a piece on goal-setting -- and one thing I talked about was the importance of attaching a reason to a goal, to help it stick.
I'll follow my own advice and share three of my goals right now: to incorporate physical activity into every day no matter what (you'd think this was a no-brainer for me! It's not -- this whole "medical school thing" is getting in the way, already!), to speak more mindfully, concisely and precisely, and to go to sleep earlier. Ok, that sounds great... but where's the "why?" For physical activity, it's because it feels so good... and psychologically, I like being at least somewhat of a"fitness good-example" which I feel guilty about not doing at present. For the mindful/concise/precise speech, not only will it make me a better coach for now, but will ultimately dictate the kind of physician I will become. Sleep? Because it will better equip me to navigate the challenges, and enjoy the wonders, of the days ahead.

Goals are good. Goals with reasons are better. Reasons are the things of which you remind yourself, every day - all day long. I once read a great quote... I forget who said it, otherwise I'd cite it: "You are what you tell yourself all day long." Brilliant.

Goal-setting is great, but what about acute crisis-mode situations (i.e., wrecking your brand new beautiful car)? Still, you are what you tell yourself -- and telling yourself WHY you should be a certain way can be incredibly effective.

Consider the following:
Car crashes. Negative thought pattern presents: Oh shit. Life is over.
Thought-stop/replace: "Life is not over. Life will be fine. You are fine. You are calm... see?"
Negative thought presents: You are not calm. You are screwed.
Thought-stop/replace - provide reason: "You are calm because you need to handle this now. You need to deal with this, get on with your day, and be a patient and even-tempered physician-in-training because you will be proud of yourself for doing so, and society expects this of you. So do it."
Negative thought attempts to present: Well, uh, yeah, I guess I can't argue with that...

(Ok, how this really worked is that after this dialogue, I *bawled* on my 10 minute walk from being stranded to class.... and then had the same dialogue again with myself, and decided it was pretty good that I didn't get hurt, and that this happened so that I could eventually write a Spintastic posting about how Spinning self-talk/breathing techniques can be applied to car accidents... and then I smirked to myself and carried on.)

3. The Nuts & Bolts
I feel compelled to take this section on in the context of go-to Spinningisms, just because I think it'd be funny...

"It's all in the way you think about it" -- break it down.
Insurmountable goals are... insurmountable. We need sub-tasks... those we can handle. The shorter and more specific the sub-task -- just break it down -- the easier it will be. Just like "Be It. Own It. Control It.," eh?

One of the classes I'm taking, which is kind of a touchy-feely, mushy-gushy small group self-reflection on personal/professional development that every first-year med student here is required to take, required everyone to set specific goals for the class, the semester, the year. Ok, fine. But the assignment went further: "List two specific sub-steps you are going to do to accomplish that goal. Include timeframes." and then... "List two specific ways you are going to evaluate your progress on these sub-steps." To be honest, while a lot of my classmates griped, I thought the assignment was brilliant and I really got into it. (Of course I would... this is what I "do" all day!)

"Find a rhythm, and make it your own."
While it'd be cool to have a heavy techno beat following us around all day, I'm talking about establishing a routine.

Some people take readily to new routines, some people need a few weeks. I personally thought that I'd wake up at 5AM, study til 7AM, shower/eat and take the bus to class by 8AM, study from 3-6PM, go to the gym, eat dinner, and go to bed by 10PM. As a practical matter, I sleep til 7, shower/eat in panic mode, miss the bus, freak out, get to class late, study from 3-8PM, NOT go to the gym, eat dinner and junk food, and alternate studying/time-wasting til 1AM. This routine is clearly not flying. That's ok: I submitted it for evaluation, found that it failed, and will find a new one -- after all:" "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you always get."

"Increase, and breathe."
It's funny -- when I came up with this drill as a brand new instructor, I did it as mostly a time-filler to be honest: how to get a 5 minute seated, easy climb to go by quickly. As I did it a few times, I had this epiphany that it was actually a scientifically brilliant concept wherein one can trick the heart to NOT elevate by loading resistance eeeeeeeeeeever so gradually, and thus be able to support a ridiculous work effort at extremely low, fat-burning heart rates. If one were to load up to the end-level resistance all at once, the HR would spike and would not be able to be sustained for more than a few minutes. This is how this would-be "time-filler" inadvertently became my coaching career-defining drill. Go figure.

Over time, I became a bit overly enamored with it - to the end that I actually stopped explaining it for a while. I was privileged to have a lot of "regulars" in my classes -- and over time, I made the assumption that people either KNEW it or at least would figure it out. To some extent, I'm sure that people did -- especially if I made "resistance-loading" gestures in the air, or disciplined myself to coach it more specifically.

What I *never* foresaw that people, on their own, would take "increase, and breathe" and run with it. Some people have described their experience of using it in their lives, taking on challenges a little bit at a time and calming themselves as they did it. I ran with THAT. I started coaching it like that (think: "Give yourself permission to accept this last challenge, smidgeon by smidgeon"). I've had people tell me that they've told themselves "increase, and breathe" before quitting their jobs, breaking up with their boyfriends, proposing to their girlfriends, and all sorts of crazy stuff. No joke. This "time-filler" took on a life of its own -- a life to which it really does lend itself.

And, so, if you never knew the scientific meaning of "increase and breathe" (progressive loading to prompt cardiovascular adaptation), now you know. But as for the psychological meaning, that's all your call. Whatever it means to you, that's what it means.

Before I sign off, super-advanced notice: I will be in NYC to teach on Fri 10/10 (my classes: 12:30PM Water St and 6PM Irving), Sat 10/11 (I'll sub 2 or 3), Sun 10/12 (my classes: 9:30AM 41st/3rd and 11AM Varick). And mark your calendar: paaaaaaaaaarty Sat 10/11, Mustang 85th/2nd.

Ride on,

P.S. Med school's awesome ;-)

1 comment:

Courtney said...

Love you Meliss! Keep riding, don't let the man get you down. He does that sometimes.