*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, February 18, 2009

Holdin' It Down in the Saddle

When I don't write up my profiles within 24 hours of "being in the moment," I get too distracted by my life to ever post them. I'm supposed to be studying like crazy (the fam is visiting for the weekend, for my official "White Coat Ceremony" -- see also: I will get no work done whatsoever), so pardon the brevity.

This is a ride I did with my class last night, inspired by something I'm working on in my own training: heavy hill-climbing in the saddle. As many of us appreciate, it costs energy to stand (10-12% more energy, to be exact)/ Thus, in the real world, we don't do it very often. Only only only when we have to: for extra leverage on a steep climb, for a quick leg stretch, etc. (As an aside, admittedly I am a HORRENDOUSLY poor outdoor rider. I'd never actually seen a real hill 'til I moved to Vermont in August. Humbling, truly. So when I climb, I never stand up EVER -- not because I'm so darned efficient. Because I fall over. Good times...).

Yet, a disproportionate amount of time during indoor cycling classes is spent out of the saddle. Wayyyyyy more time than we ever would spend outside. I'm guilty of it, too.

Why does this happen?

Is it because many instructors distrust the attention spans of their riders?
Do they design their profiles to spend most time out of the saddle because they think their classes can't handle anything but? Is there a justification that as long as they're not presenting 45 minute sprint-sprint-sprint "10 out of 10" balls-to-the-walls insanity, that they have to balance the attentional demands of controlled, aerobic training somehow?

Is it because instructors and riders often confuse the fact that higher heart rates out of the saddle equate with harder (groan) or otherwise "better" workouts? Do they fail to appreciate that getting more work done at the same level of intensity, logically, defines a benefit?
(For example: I can climb a hill at x resistance level at 80% MHR while standing. To climb that same hill, seated, at 80% MHR, I can likely support more resistance (say, 1.5x) -- since my heart rate will drop just by the cardiorespiratory "break" by remaining seated. If I can strengthen my legs by supporting that "1.5x" amount of resistance, at the same level of effort -- well, damn, I think that's something I might want to spend time doing sometimes. Eh?)

Is it because climbing out of the saddle on a fixed gear bike allows a rider to biomechanically "cheat," and thus he or she feels that it's easier/more comfortable? Is he or she then relying on the stability of the core (or, worse, upper body) and the extra leverage to "mash down," instead of triggering the glutes to fire with each forward extension and powerful stroke upwards?

I'm a scientist. Do I care enough about this issue to launch a well-designed research protocol? Of course not. But I do like to answer my own questions, and have a habit of effecting "unofficial" experiments and observing what happens (i.e., Q: Can I do the same profile over and over and over again 3x a week for a month, and have nobody notice? A: Yes.). And so I've done here.

What happens when you take an instructor's preconceptions and agenda out of the equation? One of my go-to stylistic devices that I write a lot about on Spintastic is what I call these "surges" -- intervals of various lengths, presented as opportunities to be met in an individually determined way: with resistance, with speed, with position, or not at all. I coach my riders to only take the "surges" that mean something to them.

When I first started doing this, I noticed a few unsurprising correlations. When I stood up on a "surge," they stood up. When I remained seating, some still stood up -- but a LOT of riders did not. So I just stopped riding. "Surge time" = I get off the bike and start workin' the crowd. I remind them of the parameters of their options, encourage them to make choices consistent with their goals and values. And you know what? A lot more of them stay seated. When reminded to make choices about working at intensity levels that "mean something" (i.e., fat-burning), people often choose differently in response to that cue.

So that's the instructor bit. If you can educate people that control over their heart rate, supreme, ranks among their top priorities, FANTASTIC. "Givin' 'em what they want" is a factor of TEACHING them what they *should* want. I heard Spinning MI Raquel Schmidt brilliantly articulate this at WSSC last year: coaching is the art of getting people to do things they don't want to do, and then evolving to want them."

But what about the other hypotheses? "I'm clearly not working hard enough in the saddle. My heart rate isn't as high." Or, "I can't, biomechanically, find a way to be comfortable in the saddle and still support this kind of resistance."

I found myself wondering whether, if one could refute those two arguments for people, COULD you make them WANT to stay seated when they absolutely did not want to?

Behold, my profile designed to do just that:

Strength Ride: 75-85% MHR
4 block "loop ride." Each block has two loops: a 75 --> 80% hill, and a 75% --> 80% --> 85% hill
Premise: An inversion of norms. You think that the "hardest" work is out of the saddle. Turns out, not true. We're going to reap the benefits of seated climbs today -- blastin' out those glutes and hips, strengthening and sculpting those muscles in the back of the leg by paying attention to our pedal stroke. Our hardest efforts, we'll try our darnedest to support while seated. But stand, we will -- to recover.

Warmup & "Experimental Phase"
Seated flat --> progressive loadings to seated climb: 65% MHR --> 70% --> 75% --> run 75%
Focus on pedal stroke mechanics, adjustments to upper body carriage, hip alignment, pelvic tilt. Upon transitioning to the run, pay attention to what happens to your heart rate. Adjust resistance and breathing to modulate any changes. Observe how it DOES cost energy to stand -- prove it to yourself. As you return to the saddle, observe how your heart rate changes. If it drops, add more resistance to maintain the same level of effort.

Block 1
Seated climb: 75% --> 80%
Run to stretch out the legs at 75%
Seated climb: 75 --> 80% --> 2 mins at 85%
Focus on dropping the heel on the powerful backstroke to keep that flat foot. Slide your weight towards the back of the seat, on the widest part of the seat. Breathe an extra bit of calmness into the upper body, to liberate your legs to do all the work. Direct your awareness to anyplace where you might be wasting energy -- tension in your shoulders, your hands, your jaw.

Block 2 & Block 3
Run to stretch out the legs at 75%
Seated climb: 75% --> 80%
Run to stretch out the legs at 75%
Seated climb: 75 --> 80% --> 2 mins at 85%

Block 4
Now we've done this three times. We've seen that, fo' sure, it is possible to get that heart rate up in the saddle. We've seen, perhaps, that we're stronger than we think -- both mentally, in terms of our ability to focus and husband our resources on the task at hand; and physically, in terms of efficiently supporting more resistance than we expected. For this last block, you've got a choice: you can meet those heart rate parameters the way you always do... or, you can give yourself permission to challenge yourself to apply your new lessons learned.

Same pattern.
And you know what?
With the exception of one rider, every single one of them stayed seated.

Tomorrow will be interesting to see whether, in a fresh context (I'm doing an aerobic interval ride) whether they make the same choices -- whether this actually extends beyond the context of "that ride with the theme of staying seated all the time."

I'm hopeful ;-)

BY THE WAY.... attention to my NYC crew: I'm coming to town for four hours on Sunday 2/22 (ridiculous!), taking advantage of a free ride back with my family.
Teaching my old Sun 9:30AM at NYSC 41st/3rd -- hope to see you there!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"Practicing Commitment" -- Part II

This is a follow-up to a post I just made on my other blog (about medical school). "Practicing Commitment -- Part I" was about life off the bike (contrary to public opinion, I do have one!), reflecting on recent experiences identifying the causes and intentions that are most important, meaningful, and compelling to me. I've spent most of the past six weeks since returning to school working through this theme of "committing" to the things I believe in, a theme that has made its way into my Spinning classes in some way or another.

Behold, a ride I debuted on Thursday, "Practicing Commitment." This time, on the bike. I'm including this as part of the "Coach Yourself" Training Corner (which I haven't updated in forever) because it's just so easy to re-create. Even all you non-instructors out there -- take 45 minutes of your favorite tunes with a steady beat, and follow along this veeeeeeeeeery simple structure:

The concept is simple. Pick something important to you, and commit to it. Maybe it's your pedal stroke (to micro-commit: make the next 45 minutes be all about paying attention to dropping your heel a bit lower on your pedal stroke). Make it's your breathing. Maybe it's your heart rate. Maybe it's something more abstract. Whatever it is, spend a few minutes thinking about why it's important to you -- why it's WORTH committing to, what's it going to take to make it happen.

The ride was then all about imposing challenges to one's commitment. With speed, with resistance, with temptations of rhythm. No matter what happens, you're committing to that "one important thing."

The specific structure is something I do in pretty much ALL my own training sessions: pick a heart rate and commit to it. Change the pace, change the workload, throw in some speed intervals -- use strong, solid breathing to keep the heart rate from going anywhere. It's so simple -- you can do it with your classes, you can do it by yourself, you can do it on a Spin bike, an elliptical/Arc trainer. It's so easy -- and yet so scientifically effective. You are training your heart to get efficient at working at x intensity, and developing your breathing in order to navigate challenges in your road. Building endurance. Building self-efficacy.

I did this profile three times in a two-day period to test its diversity. Giacco (my Spinner NXT -- I need to post a photo soon; he's so pretty!) and I rode this at 80% MHR. When I coached my class, I kept them at 75% exclusively. Yesterday, I did it again myself on an elliptical trainer at 70% MHR. Equally fabulous at all intensities!

The structure is simple:
Warm-up -- working up to 65% MHR, investing the time at the front end to set the stage: to what are you committing, and why? Those are the things you're going to tap into when you start to lose focus, to get tired and/or bored. The trick is in the "why."

Loop #1: Progressively load up to target HR. Seated climb, 3 "surges" (see: "The Ride that Never Gets Old" for my description of how I coach "surges") seated or standing. Maintain target HR by adjusting breathing, resistance, and speed. Pay attention to the effect of relaxed upper body posture, specificity of pedal stroke technique, and diaphragmatic breathing.

Loop #2: Recover to 5% below target HR (i.e., 70% when your target is 75% MHR). As soon as that point is hit, start progressively loading up to target HR again. Seated climb, 6 "surges." Maintain target HR by adjusting breathing, resistance, and speed.

That's it. That's seriously it.

Despite the scientific soundness of such a profile, I was afraid of two things: 1) that people would get bored, regardless of how artfully I coached this -- I'm a mild- to moderately decent saleswoman for the benefits of lower-intensity aerobic endurance training (see also: "So, who wants to burn some fat?!"); 2) that those riders without a HRM would not reap the benefits of such a purely technical ride.

Turns out, #1 wasn't so much of an issue. I often remind my class that the #1 reason people get bored during training is that they simply don't have enough goals -- and that, once they are triggered to set those realistic, short-term, measurable goals for the specific training session at hand, that they can close their eyes and think about those goals any time they start to find their mind wandering. I arrived at this approach by getting bored during my own training. For all my talk about focus and discipline, I have a 5-second attention span at baseline -- I've had to develop all sorts of coping mechanisms to stick with ANYTHING, both on and off the bike. That's where most of my coaching cues come from. And this is precisely why I advise new instructors and veteran instructors who struggle with the age-old challenges of burnout, to just get on a bike and RIDE -- and to give themselves permission to create rides and cues that come directly from those experiences. What's effective to tell one's self is not only appropriate, but ideal, to share with your riders. (Heh. Minor digression with a key exception: Many of my riders know that I've been known to be quite a profane self-coach when I'm racing. I scream crazy things at myself that I would never ever ever say out loud to a class! But, hey, it works for me...)

So that leaves us with #2: whether the experience of non-HRM wearers is in any way compromised with a profile that is so, so, so precise and technical about heart rate control. Well, yeah. Duh. Was it TOO compromised? I don't think so. I feel obliged to use an RPE scale (which I hate hate hate hate haaaaaaaate more than anything, despite appreciating it as better than nothing) but more effectively, I talk a lot about how people should feel -- "able to have a conversation with a TON of effort," "able to chat with me with no effort at all," "able to talk, but something you HATE -- you absolutely HATE." I walk around the room and make people talk to me, is my latest thing that I'm really starting to dig. So did non-HRM wearers feel entirely left out? No. I worked hard to keep them engaged.

But the best part was that they did feel a LITTLE bit left out. Just "wanting" enough that their ears perked up when I closed out the cool-down/stretch with the following:
That I hoped that, even without a HRM, that people were able to get a sense for the relationship between speed, resistance, and intensity -- and how breathing can moderate all of it. That those of them with HRMs felt proud of themselves for improving their attentiveness to the specificity of their training. And that, for those of them without a HRM, that perhaps "a seed had been planted" (borrowing a snippet of a phrase that Jennifer Sage wrote about a few weeks ago that I *knew* I would one day find a way to integrate into my world when the moment was right...) and that, if they had questions about how to get a cheap HRM and upgrade their lives... that I'm here for them.

I've never had such a long line to talk with me after class.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Inspire Yourself.

I've never been so proud to break a New Year's Resolution.

I haven't updated "Spintastic" in two weeks (at the start of 2009, I vowed to update both this blog and my other blog about my medical training each once a week!). But it wasn't because I was lazy or distracted by that whole "being a medical student" thing. It was because I've been really "DOING" these past two weeks.

Doing what? A whole lot -- kicking off a small-group training program (another 2009 resolution), starting up a study on the psychology of HR training (yet another '09 resolution), doing some leg work for a big charity 6-hour Spinathon I'm helping with (and teaching at) in Burlington [time out: I'll write more about this eventually... and anyone who wants to come out for it from out of town, you can absolutely stay with me. We're going to have a big camp-out in my living room... if you're coming from NYC, there are several people looking for ride-shares and cost-splitting with rental cars and gas, etc!], getting hooked up with the coolest interdisciplinary medical clinic on the planet with whom to work on a non-fitness pet research idea, and... uh... that whole "being a medical student" thing. I won't bore you with the details (that's what the other blog is for -- the one that purports to be blind to concerns about an audience! There are plenty of boring details over there, if you're interested). But suffice it to say: it's been a pretty stellar two weeks.

That's not to say I haven't been motivated to write here. I've had lots of thoughts, lots of cool Spinning "moments," several flops of "would-be moments" (hey, you never know what doesn't work 'til you try it!), and a whole lot of general rewardedness.

But what has finally prompted me to sit down and reflect on THIS realm of my life is an epiphany I had tonight during my own training. One of the things I'm still reckoning with this blog, as there are suddenly more instructors who tell me they read it than my riders (who prefer bullet-point highlights of technical pointers on my listserv, I know...), is that I'm shooting right down the middle for my audience... and in so doing, I'm not really writing for either population very well. Until now: now I have a topic that will appeal riiiiiiiight down the middle... the importance of feeling inspired during your training, and accepting responsibility for inspiring yourself.

When's the last time you broke out into a huge cheesy grin, having moved YOURSELF to the point of appreciating how truly awesome you feel?
When that happened, what was it about that moment that defined it for you?
Was it simply a physiological thing - heart-rate controlled, breathing and movement synchronized?
Was it more than that?
Was it your music?

Tonight, I had a fantastic training session. Yes, I was rested; yes, I was empowered by complete control over my heart rate. But I'll be honest: what seemed to make this one special was my music. I actually listened to just a few things different than "the usual suspects," different enough to get my brain to respond differently. I haven't made my brain respond differently during my training -- like I'd lead a class to do, for example -- in a long time. I get bored, even when I do alllllll the things I coach people to do when they're bored (i.e., close their eyes, think about their goals, remind themselves of the relationship between what they're doing and their goals, reflect on how what they're doing right then can contribute to some larger purpose).

People ask me post-class about music often. It's always flattering, since I spend way more time than I probably should in putting it together. I enjoy that people are looking to collect stimuli that inspire them. Great. These requests come in different flavors -- as I'm sure many of you can relate from either the "rider" or "instructor" perspective. And, as with most thing, the flavor absolutely determines the yield.
"What is that?"
"What is that? Where did you get that?"
"What is that? Can I have a copy of that?"

Note from that whatever you will. But I'm going to talk about the second flavor -- as I'd argue, the more adaptive flavor. It favors "process" over "content," a theme actually attended pretty intensely in medical school as it were.

Every instructor hows how challenging it is to find the right chords and beats and auras to capture the effect you want to have on your riders, to structure the experience you want to offer them. Every rider knows how great it is to feed off music that inspires him or her. Everyone knows how tedious it is when this goes awry. Of all the music I've collected over time, the most emotionally gratifying tunes have been the ones that carry with them the "process" that led me to them.

The music I find inspiring often is NOT what other people find inspiring. My tastes vary but my propensity for drama (in music, not in life) can be outright off-putting to some; I know this. The stuff I play in my classes is the stuff I literally conceptualize as the soundtrack to my life at various points in time. Is some of it worth sharing? Sure. So, sometimes I do. Sometimes I post playlists on the "Coach Yourself" Corner; sometimes I just randomly drop references to best-song-ever-in-life du jour [time out: You all MUST MUST MUST MUST stop what you're doing... stop reading this blog, actually. Go download "Paralyzer" (Workout remix, specifically). It will change your life.]. But when I do those things, it's not actually as helpful as I'd mean to be -- or as helpful as some people even THINK it is. More specifically: over the past year, I've entered the world of mentoring newer instructors -- and I make the points I'm about to make here. But I don't think I effectively "take it to the finish line" ALL of the time, so here's an attempt to do so now:

The way I see it, life cannot be about finding "inspiration on tap." If it were that easy, developing fresh music ideas wouldn't be such a challenge. For me, at least, it's about structuring your existence such that you ACTIVELY contribute to your own inspiration, whatever that entails. It's about ACTIVELY finding "your thing" -- and once you find it, to keep re-finding it.

"Your thing" can be lots of things. It may mean specifically soliciting people for ideas through active collaborations you develop -- your colleagues, your friends, random people you meet at the gym. It may mean spending hours reading different blogs collecting ideas from various sources, and then integrating them in a way that makes it your own. It may mean spending even MORE hours surfing Pandora.com, or amazon.com, or iTunes' "people who downloaded that also downloaded this" feature -- experimenting with what you like, fine-tuning your preferences, Googling whatever you can find on your prized acquisitions to find forums or message boards or reviews that give you ideas about similar search targets. It may mean finding something you "kinda" dig but holding onto it until you know exactly what to do with it. It may mean tucking it away, presenting and re-presenting it to yourself in different contexts -- on a bike by yourself, on an elliptical, on the subway, on the street. Rockin' out in your car blowin' out your ear drums, having a grand ol' dance party at 6:30AM en route to school because you're that damned excited by what you hear. Not that I know anyone who actually does that or anything.

It's a good thing I don't have New York plates.

My old life policy was that the "right" song had to feel like a fantastic movie soundtrack in the context of riding the NYC subway system. That obviously doesn't apply anymore. Somehow the stakes got MUCH higher: now, to earn inclusion in a Spinning class, a tune needs to make me cry in my car. I'm not talking "bawling" here; I'm only mildly crazy. But from a moderate "glistening" to all out "conquer the world" epiphany, I need to be profoundly emotionally affected in order to decide something's good enough. And an underappreciated point about what makes something rewarding to hear is everything that goes into the acquisition of that stimulus -- or a separate issue for another day, one's active efforts to EDIT a piece of music (but we'll revisit that) -- the time, the energy, the creative sleuthing. The "process."

If nothing else, consider investing a little time to surround yourself with the stimuli off which you can personally feed
. Go through your music library, dust off some stuff you forgot about, put it a meaningful order consistent with whatever your training goals are for the day, and get excited about it. Get excited about SOMETHING. It doesn't need to be the best thing ever in life; just try to see if it contributes just a little bit more energy to fuel and inspire your efforts.