*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.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Trusting Your Judgment: Evaluating Yourself... and Evaluating Others.

Yesterday, I drove 9 hours (round-trip) to ride a stationary bike for 2 hours. Some might call that crazy, and indeed those "some" would be correct. But every mile of the drive, every pedal stroke of the ride, was specifically by design -- and very specifically worth-it for very specific reasons.

When I learned that Spinning MI Josh Taylor would be presenting his signature "Everest Ride" in Boston, I literally squealed. The right half of my brain cites Josh Taylor rides among its Top 5 Favorite-Ever Life Activities; the left half of my brain understands why. Together, we're going to describe this for you as a jumping off point to discuss a bunch of stuff that's been on my mind lately -- namely, the science and art of evaluation (both of ourselves, and of other instructors).

Recollections of a New Instructor.
The first time I rode with Josh Taylor (ECA in New York, March 2007), I had been a Certified Spinning instructor for a mere month. Hadn't yet taught a single class. Had been riding religiously with the same instructor for 3 years, of whom I thought the world: high-energy, engaging, entertaining. Shared my taste for REALLY bad mid-90s dance music. SUCH a character. I followed him around NYC to ride at various clubs, and hung on every word he said. Inspired me through my gradual evolution of "life upgrades" -- heart rate monitor, cycling shoes, instructor certification. Talked about "fitness literature." He was so much more knowledgeable than any other Spinning instructor I'd ever met. I treated his -isms like gospel.

During my Spinning instructor orientation, many of my hero's signature "moves" were covered and demonstrated. In the Contraindications segment.

One-count jumps, hovers, a few other things I'd been instructed to do several times a week for years. There they all were, right there in the list that my new certification was making me promise not to instruct another human being to effect.

Well, I told myself then, if the Spinning program says I can't do this stuff as a Spinning instructor, then I won't do it. My hero isn't Spinning-certified; this stuff must be allowed by his certification program (Schwinn). Spinning has its "core moves," and my job is just to do these core moves and that's it. I'm supposed to only do the things that people would do on a road bike, is what they say. I get it. I'll do what Spinning says. I'll follow Spinning's rules just swell.

Table that. We'll come back to it.

So I got certified and started taking a bunch of different instructors' classes before I started teaching, in efforts to broaden my perspectives. I didn't want to parrot "my guy" -- I wanted to get ideas for profiles and cueing, even music. I wanted to fine-tune my appreciation for what worked and did not work for ME as a rider, so that I could translate that into my instruction. I declared that this would be a value to which I would most fervently commit from day 1 -- that I would always make time to invest in my experience as a rider; I knew that it would make a difference. And damned straight it did, damned straight it still does.

Every class I took that first month sucked. I was so bored, so unstimulated. But I kept showing up, and kept talking my way through all of it.
Note to self: don't say that. Don't to self: don't do that. Ohhhh, absolutely do not do THAT either.
How did that make me feel?
Is there ANYTHING about this moment that can teach me something?
How can I make this experience mean something?
How would I do that better?
3 years later, I still engage in the exact same dialogue with myself every single time I take another instructor's class. And every time I force myself to have this dialogue *especially* under conditions of tedious desperation, I evolve. Not a dramatic, life-altering evolution. A subtle step along my spectrum of continuous improvement. A blast of mental training, a dash of mindfulness. A sprinkle of Kaizen.

Then, I went to ECA and met Josh Taylor. It's funny, looking back on this experience 2.5 years ago -- the specific aspects I remember as unique and special and life-altering, they're really NOT. But at that point in my life, I'd never heard an instructor coach people to close their eyes and make their experience on their bike go beyond the bike. Big deal, one might say now. But that first time, it really WAS a big deal. That was NOT the style that I'd trained under. It was NOT consistent with the set of expectations I'd brought to the table.

"This is Spinning!" he said. "This is what Spinning is all about."

Really? How, after 5 years, was I seeing something SO different? It was a little bit hokey, a little bit over-the-top. It was a little bit nuts, all this talk of "feeling," and "inhabiting," and "connecting" and all sorts of crazy stuff that seemed absurd to intertwine with exercise.

Dude, we're riding a bike. WTF? I kept thinking.

I'll never forget the rhythm that changed my life, that changed the entire way I see my world and the people, moments, memories, opportunities therein. Climbing seated to rolling thunder, almost stuffy drums. I was bored. I was an hour into my first-ever 2 hour ride (for which I trained for months! Little did I know that I'd one day pop 2 hour rides like candy...). I had bad, bad hot feet. Is this guy for real?

Then it struck. Some kind of Apache tribal warrior-type thundercloud war chant. It struck me, like a dynamite explosion under my butt -- numbing me with a warm, comforting ecstasy, driving me out of the saddle, each explosive beat driving my upstroke. My shoulders assumed a groove they'd never been inspired to explore, an expression that would one day become "my thing." My hamstrings inhabited the beat so fluidly -- I was that beat. I don't remember looking at my HRM (I think I didn't used to be this obsessive about it?), and I remember not caring. My heart thundered, synchronized to the booming fire echoing through my ears. I had no objective measurement of my power; I didn't need it. That moment was everything to me.

The beat subsided and I returned to the saddle, breathed my heart rate down. What the HELL was that? That... feeling? What IS this?

I walked away from that experience declaring that Josh Taylor was the best thing to ever happen to life, and that I was damned proud to be part of a program that could make me feel like I just felt. It became my personal mission to share THAT feeling with another human being. I couldn't describe it if I tried. I just had to figure out a way to do it -- to experience it, to find a way to translate it.

That became my criterion for evaluating an instructor's talent. "Did he or she make me FEEL something?"

Table that. We'll revisit that, too.

My Progression.

One year later, I rode with Josh Taylor again. I'd been teaching a year, then. Life was entirely different. My music tastes had changed, my approach to creating profiles had changed. I was way more technical than I'd imagined. I was super-into heart rate training. I'd started my first training tips listserv. I was comfortably settling into the role of being a "resource."

I still took tons of other instructors' rides, and evaluated them according to:
1) Did they make me FEEL something?
2) Did they do any contraindicated movements, per the Spinning program?
3) Were they sophisticated enough to incorporate HR training "accurately?"

Turns out, that paradigm wasn't so effective:
1) I was missing the greater point. Truly great instructors don't MAKE people feel something.
How I reckon with this now: Gifted instructors motivate people to inspire THEMSELVES to feel something. That's the art. That's the part that lasts.

2) While it's easy to identify that short checklist of "moves" that the Spinning instructor manual prohibits, that approach also misses the greater point. CONTRAINDICATED MOVES ARE NOT BAD BECAUSE "SPINNING SAYS SO." They're contraindicated because they're unsafe. Did I "get" that then? I don't think so. Moreover, this framework does not account for how to handle novelties not covered in the manual as prohibited/unsafe. If an instructor, apparently seasoned and popular, does something that I'd never seen before -- how do I evaluate that? If my body feels bad when I do it, that's a good sign that it's bad. But what if my body DOESN'T feel bad? Does that mean that it's not bad?
How I later reckoned with this: Ask myself what a) muscles are performing the action, under what conditions and b) for what purpose. I'm a second-year medical student and a certified personal trainer, so I now feel confident with my knowledge base of what muscles do what and are supposed to do what. If I can't answer both of those questions, I ask the instructor. If their response is inadequate, I pursue this further via credible sources (I try to find e-textbooks whenever possible - but often a simple Google search is a good start, with a skeptical eye to screen for quack/otherwise unqualified junk).

Spinning MI Jennifer Sage wrote two brilliantly thorough pieces on
a) what's wrong, specifically, with certain "moves"
b) how to explain this to your students when you correct these unsafe practices
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Moreover, inspired by Jennifer's recent efforts to spearhead a movement to enhance safety in Spinning classes, I am going to start re-evaluating how I approach correcting my students who deviate from 100% safe form (if they're close, I tend to 'let it go.' No more...)

3) If a "seasoned, popular instructor" said something HR training-related that I'd never heard before, I'd default to assuming they were credible and that I was simply a "newbie" who didn't know any better -- that this was all part of my learning process, assimilating these new truths. Turns out, this is not necessarily so.
How I later reckoned with this: Actively educate myself through credible sources (see above, plus taking as many continuing education courses as I can -- I read texts/journals/newsletters/books/legit forums like a fiend, have taken every Spinning CE workshop available plus a ton of online courses). If someone says something "new," I ask them. Most times, they can't back it up. If I'm motivated, I challenge them. If I'm tired, I excuse myself and figuratively pat myself on the head that I've invested in myself to have educated myself better.

back to the second Josh Taylor ride. Similar style/approach, though he paid particular emphasis to the idea of "not telling people what to do." Again, from my present reference frame, no big deal. But then? HUGE deal.

"Ride this song," he said.

Whoa. Life-altering moment that forever changed the way I coach. In fact, I credit that one moment with jumpstarting me on my trajectory to starting to conceptualize myself as a coach at all. To teach people to make their own choices -- allowing themselves to feel something, to respond to stimuli, etc. That started right there. I made a ride called "RIDE THIS SONG" in February of 2008, and unleashed a whole new world. My music changed. My cues changed. My themes changed. I changed.

And Now?
Literally, every week, I am an entirely different instructor. I chuck most rides because they strike me as obsolete, amateur flops as soon as a month later. I coach off the bike to be able to preserve my own training time (without overtraining) to work on inspiring the very connections in myself that I hope to effect in other people. I spend time inhabiting my music (on a Spinner, on an elliptical, in the car -- only disadvantage of the latter is that I can't close my eyes), and the creative juices flow.

I try to take other instructors' classes whenever possible, even if only for the experience of training myself cognitively and emotionally to cope with "strife." I introduce myself and my background at the start of the ride, to obligate me to endure, to be present, and to be... PLEASANT. Masochist. I force myself to identify at least one thing I'm going to thank the instructor for, something genuinely deserving of appreciation. Empty positive feedback is just as bad as no feedback ("Nice job" -- groan.)

NOW here's the paradigm I use to evaluate others:
If you actively educate yourself, and keep educating yourself, you can have confidence in your judgment. Whether you're an instructor or a rider or both, your job is to educate yourself. This empowers you to make your own decisions, and to trust those decisions. You don't need to blindly follow the clown at the front of the studio. Put yourself in a place to genuinely believe that you "know better."


Two weeks ago, I took a class with an instructor who seems to be held in high regard by people whom I hold in high regard. His class was a well-planned Endurance ride, and he was tremendously more knowledgeable than other instructors I'd met in his community. I appreciated his attention to proper form. I appreciated how much attention he paid to HR training, and how actively he encouraged training at lower rates. I tapped into this appreciation, and reminded myself of it... every time he pissed the everliving hell out of me:
* "You should never cross 140 bpm. I never do."
>> Hello, you have NO idea what 140 bpm means to everyone in the room. 140 is the lower-limit of recovery for me. I have a metabolically measured LT of 184; if you don't know that about me, don't prescribe me a specific heart rate in bpm.
>> If the idea was to refer to aerobic heart rates, the "never cross it" concept is wrong, too. Elite athletes incorporate periodization into their training religiously; us mere mortals can afford to do the same. The heart gets stronger from variety; MOSTLY aerobic work, but weekly trainings exclusively between 75-85% MHR and weekly anaerobic intervals are important components.
>> Half the room wasn't wearing a HRM. Apart from one reference to "being at a 16" early in the ride (with no explanation of the RPE 1-20 scale; if I wasn't an instructor/trainer, I'd be as lost as the people in the room...)

"Quarter-turn to the right."
>> CONTRA-FRIGGIN-INDICATION. I expected so much more from this seasoned, popular instructor. Why I was especially enfuriated was that I knew those damned bikes. I knew they were falling apart. I knew just HOW different every bike was -- that's one reason we *DON'T* say things like that, because it's unsafe to assume that a quarter turn on Bike A (when we ride Bike B) is appropriate.

* "
It's your ride. Ride however you want to, seated or standing. [I rise up from a seated climb to a run for 20 seconds, with intent to transition to a standing climb after I stretch out my legs -- I'd been seated for 30 minutes straight; I'm training for a Century... I try to hold the saddle as much as possible!] But if you're in hand position 2, that is THE most inefficient position you can possibly climb in."
>> This statement was designed to generally correct something specific he saw that he didn't like (i.e., how I was riding).
First off, there was nothing to correct. A run is an appropriate transition to a standing climb, especially someone who has been pushing a ton of resistance in the saddle for 30 minutes.
Second, calling me and my choice "inefficient" does nothing to motivate me. It makes me shut down, makes me want to leave and never ride with x person again.
Third, it does not account for what I need to train for. I ride a hybrid with a horizontal handlebar. I rarely stand; but when I DO stand, my form more closely resembles HP 2.

Again, asking myself what I can learn from negative experiences:
* I am now exquisitely sensitive to making sure that the words that leave my mouth are carved deliberately, and leave no room to be misconstrued as defeating/demoralizing riders at worst -- at best, pissing them off and inspiring them to recount their exchange with me in a blog post about poor instruction.
* I was quite proud at how readily I rejected these three observations. Early in my Spinning career, I might have been intimidated by this person's standing. But now, I really do know better. I educated myself, and I trust myself. I trust myself to recognize inappropriate practices when I see them, and to believe strongly in my assessment. To practice commitment to that assessment, to be able to support it with evidence -- that's a very specific skill. I train my riders in the process of "practicing commitment," as this skill directly shapes our physical and mental performance -- on the bike, and off (i.e., training as a physician is ALL about "practicing commitment").

So when I practiced commitment to my 4.5 hour drive (each way) to Boston, I reflected on the life-altering moments past that symbolically marked the path of my evolution through the Spinning program.

The Everest Ride, which I'd heard about "being awesome" but hadn't heard anything about what it actually was, centered around the concept of accepting a challenge beyond your limits -- and being willing to leave something behind to make it there. Using the experience of riding the Spinner to process that emotional force, to deal with it somehow.

Ummmmm. Sound familiar?

I felt a warm flush wash over my body. It had something to do with 50 people in an enclosed studio with no fans, but it was more than that. It was the appreciation that what I was about to undertake was not going to be another "first pass," a novel concept. This was how I saw and interacted with the world. It was going to be an affirmation of my values as a coach, as an athlete, as a person. The things I'd arrived at through the path I carved out myself, translated into well over a dozen versions of training sessions to inspire that level of awareness and analysis in other people. A symbolic marker of my progress along that continuum.

As I heard the powerful voice that has guided me over time, nearly synchronized with the thoughts booming from the depths of my brain in anticipation, I knew what I was "leaving behind" on Everest. Doubt. Doubt of expertise, doubt of usefulness, doubt of here-and-now efficacy to DO. Not just in Spinning -- Spinning is just a tool -- but in all of the things that I compartmentalize into the "potential to do... one day" box.

I tasted fear. I tasted pity, anxiety. My eyes burned with salty unease. There were moments when it hurt so badly that I cried; moments when my desire for "clearance" seized my breath, my movement. There were moments when I felt so purposeful that I cried more.

9 hours in a car, 2 hours on a bike, 3 hours on a blog. All distinct, specific processes designed to question, answer, evaluate, re-evaluate.

I felt something, alright. I made myself feel something.


J said...

The best epiphany is one that climaxes with "Holy Shit!" With no uncertainty, what I read is further evidence of a great Spin Instructor and someone sure to become an even better physician...! jjunkin

J said...

p.s...send me a brief update on your survey (n=?) so I can use it to drum up a little more business on my website, mkay?

Melissa Marotta said...

Jon! I SO do not deserve you. Thank you, most sincerely.

N = 120! I'm letting it run til August 1, I decided. Then I'll write it up. What's neat is that responses are coming in from all over the world, and it is FASCINATING to see what thoughts people link with their HRMs -- some adaptive, some not so much. But we'll be able to all learn from all of it.

Anonymous said...

This is such a beautiful entry. Thank you, Melissa:)

Melissa Marotta said...

Thank YOU. I forgot all about this one. Thanks for prompting me to re-read, and to re-evaluate... and maybe even *gasp* to write again for the first time in over a month!