*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.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

What I Learned During My First Half-Century

I'm going to let several hundred people in on one of my former best-kept secrets. When people become Spinning instructors, one of the basic choices they have to make is whether they're going to get up there and 'do their thing' (safely designed training sessions devoid of contraindicated movements) or specifically go out of their way to appeal to outdoor riders. I decided I was going to become the 'fan favorite' of the roadies. Talking and looking the part, educating people with solid training principles, serving as a decent resource post-class for my racers, I arrived at the role I intended. I trained outdoor cyclists in a personal trailing capacity, coaching them for all kinds of big events. This was "my thing." But here's the kicker: Prior to one year and one week ago, I *never* learned how to ride a real bike.

When I was 6 years old, my dad was teaching me to lose my training wheels. I begged him not to let go, as he chased after me on our street. He let go. I fell off. I broke my wrist and never got back on.

Last June, I ended my relationship with a guy I truly thought was The One. As a symbolic act of independence, I hauled myself out to Brooklyn (away from anyone who expected me to be this crazy accomplished road cyclist), rented a bike and (with the help of two awesome friends, both gifted indoor cycling instructors) taught myself to ride. Picked it up pretty quickly -- I found that all of my indoor cycling skills directly translated, once I figured out how to pick my foot up for a push-off stroke. I bought my bike last summer, Triumph (named for my first Endurance ride that people actually requested, and for the fact that I friggin' taught myself how to ride a bike in a day). 'We' rode around NYC, dodging taxi cabs and inhaling truck exhaust fumes, and managed to live to tell about it. When I moved to VT a few months later, it was SO nice to not worry about getting killed by a car every 5 seconds. Legit bike lanes and wide shoulders and nice people -- imagine? But I also encountered another new phenomenon: HILLS. Turns out, anything that ever inspired me to downshift in NYC absolutely didn't count. I had no idea that I'd genuinely never been on a legit hill, even a legit false flat. I had no idea that I actually really truly SUCKED at climbing. On a Spinner, I'm clipped in -- I have use of my entire leg, and my entire leg can do amazing things. On a real bike in sneakers, I'm SO limited -- inefficiently mashing my way up, petering out and dismounting. Ick. Hotshot cycling coach from NYC walkin' her bike up all the hills on group riders. Nice job.

But I got better. I strength-trained like crazy this winter (better able to mash, if need be) and designed my own indoor training sessions to simulate the conditions I knew I wanted to get better at riding outside in my new 'hood (better able to control my heart rate when I had to work hard). I registered for my first Century this September. And I built up my confidence to actually 'life upgrade' to clipless pedals. But what happened on my first day clipping in? My front wheel got wedged in a crack on the road, and I landed on my head - a bloody mess on the side of the road. It had NOTHING to do with my pedals; I would have fallen the exact same way (I've analyzed this repeatedly...). But now I've conditioned a new association between fear, my shoes, and my bike in general.

I have a history of panic disorder, which has been in check for a long time. I've not had a panic attack relating to my bike. But one of the things that happens with panic is that the ANTICIPATION of having a panic attack leads to dramatic avoidance behaviors. I've been avoiding my bike like the plague. I got VERY good at rationalizing my avoidance: need to study, it's too rainy, it's too windy, all that. My rationalizations had tremendous buy-in power. But at the end of the day, I was avoiding my bike. I made myself ride a few weeks ago and bawled all the way through it, thinking I was going to die every time I saw a crack in the road or *gasp* a car (again, my accident had nothing to do with a car). It was absurd. I vowed that when school ended and I moved out to my rural wonderland, that I would force myself through gradual exposure until I got back to baseline.

I imagined how I would handle this with a panic patient, and asked myself the same questions.
What are you afraid of? Falling and landing on my head.
Is that a logical expectation? Yes, you idiot, it JUST happened.
Why would you fall? There'd be a crack in the road and I'd get stuck it in again.
Do you have control over that not happening?
No. Cracks come out of nowhere.
If you see something scary, do you have choices in your response? I guess I could get off my bike and walk - but I might not see it in time.

Done. Intervention point identified. I chose a route that I'd driven a dozen times -- and I drove it again, analyzing the shoulders very specifically. I made mental notes where the shoulders were going to scare me, when I'd have to veer over into traffic. I made mental notes where the "scary" downhill portions would be. I told myself that whenever I was scared, I had permission to get off my bike. That my only goal was to get to X intersection and turn around and come home.

So I did. Out-and-back, 20 miles RT. Nothing special. Did it in sneakers, though, and was genuinely proud of the hill work I did (Central VT is an entirely different UNIVERSE than Burlington). Saw my preceptor and some others at a gathering afterwards and declared that I was going to double my efforts the next day (today). Oh REALLY?

Stickin' with what worked, I drove out a route I'd intended for a 20 mile out-and-back (40 RT). 40 miles is the longest I'd ever ridden - I did it once last fall (before my more specific training), and it wasn't pretty. I got a sense for where the roads sucked, where I'd probably get scared, and rehearsed how I'd respond. I mapped it out when I got home -- and just for shits and giggles, figured out where an extra 5 miles (so, 10 round trip) would be. Just in case I got ambitious.

I also checked the forecast. Thunderstorms. Great, now I can avoid again!

Woke up. No rain. Wind looked tricky but not awful. Wind. Bad. Let's not do this.

I told myself how proud I would be if I did this. 40 miles is no joke. I would feel like I were back at baseline. I could stop being afraid. If I could ride 40 miles, I would genuinely believe that I could ride like a real person and start conceptualizing myself like a real cyclist. Come on.

Upon retrieving Triumph from the shed, I felt a drizzle. See? Bad idea.
It stopped. Ugh, I guess we're doing this...

Rode 10. Roads were tricker than I remembered them. Not happy. Wanted to turn back.
Told myself that if I road another 5 and was still unhappy, "we" could go back. Felt ok. Another 5? Sure.

The next 5 miles were TREACHEROUS. The entire thing was downhill, steeply downhill. I tensely clutched at my brakes, compressing my median nerve like none other. My face hurt from the horrified expression I must have been wearing. I clenched my jaw. I clenched my shoulders. I clenched a gazillion other parts of my body that I coach people not to clench. I thought I was going to die.

Really? Why are you going to die?
Because I'm going fast.
Have you ever gone fast before?
Did you die?
Do you have brakes?
Have they ever failed?
Why would they fail right now for the first time ever?
Because there's wind in a weird direction.
Fair. Do you think you could slow down slow enough that wind wouldn't matter?
I guess.
Do that, then.
Ok, I can do that.

Before I knew it, I was at the 20 mile mark.
Another 5? No.
But in another 5, you'll be at the halfway point of a Half-Century. Don't you want that?
Hell YES. Go.

When I saw the lake that I'd flagged on my map last night as the 25 mile mark, I got tearful. I was so proud. It meant that I WOULD ride 50 miles. There was no turning back -- or rather, there WAS turning back. Turning back MEANT riding 50 miles.

And I did. Hell yes, I did.

And what did I learn? I learned that all the crazy, cheesy, overly analytical things I coach my riders indoors to think about actually works. It works amazingly.

More specifically:

1. "Begin with the end in mind."
I often ask my riders to fast-forward to the end of a training session. How do they want to feel, physically and emotionally? What kinds of choices do they need to make in order to make that happen?

I didn't really have a clear end in mind. At the 10 mile mark, I was sort-of content to go home - sort-of disappointed, too. At the 20 mile mark, I HAD an end in mind: I was riding 50 miles, and I was going to entirely revolutionize my self concept as a cyclist. The last 30 miles of my 50 were ENTIRELY different, because I believed that I would actually do this crazy thing I set out to do -- I didn't feel 'set out' until close to the halfway point.

2. "It's all in the way you talk to yourself."
An exercise I've started doing recently is counting the number of positive vs. negative statements I make to myself. I lose count after a few minutes, but the intention is helpful.
When I veer towards a crack I'm trying to avoid, it's NOT helpful to hiss, "WTF is wrong with you?" as I'm prone to do.
When I'm freaking out about a steep downhill, it's similarly NOT helpful to yell at myself for freaking out.
If, instead, I tell myself that x scenario is ok, that I'm ok, that I'm good at things, that I have permission to use all of my resources and available options to improve my situation -- THOSE things are helpful.

Our attitudes are directly shaped by the way we talk to ourselves.

3. "Know your numbers."
My cyclocomputer is a piece of junk but the cadence meter was actually working today. And obviously, I don't engage in (most) physical activities without my HRM.
Why was that important? For one thing, I know what HRs and cadences I can sustain.
But for another related but separate, underappreciated thing (by me, at least), I can be comforted and assured when I see numbers that are WITHIN the range of things I know I can sustain.
Sure, that hill is ridiculously steep and never ends -- but you're pushing 80 rpm.
What does that mean? That means that this hill is within the scope of your abilities. You maintain 80 rpm routinely. You're REALLY good at maintaining 80 rpm. It's just like on your Spinner. Just keep pumping. You're fine. If you weren't fine, you'd slow down and start petering out.

When I question my ability to do "this thing," it's the numbers that speak against that doubt. I would NOT be maintaining 80 rpm on a hill I couldn't climb. If I see a heart rate that is below LT (which I just had officially measured during a metabolic test -- I have 100% confidence that my LT is my LT), I can shut down ANY self-talk that says I can't hold this level of effort. No, dude. You can hold LT for a half hour. You think you can't push 15 more seconds to the top of this hill? You hold LT forever all the time. Go.

You can psychoanalyze yourself and beef up your ego and have complicated internal dialogues all you want, with varying degrees of success (depending on your level of buy-in to what I'm writing about) -- but you can't argue with numbers. If you know the numbers that you're good at -- when you see them, you know you're doing the same good thing you've gotten so good at doing.

4. Eat every hour.
I've been saying this forever to my riders, in anticipation of our longer endurance special events (I routinely do 2- hour rides with my regular groups, and this is a rule). I'm glad I followed my own advice. It worked well.

Biochemically, though it's not actually known why, there needs to be a certain level of glycogen PRESENT even if fat is the predominant source of fuel for skeletal muscle at a given aerobic heart rate. When the glycogen stores are depleted, skeletal muscles cannot use fat -- even if there's a ton of fat around for fuel. Next best thing, cortisol starts smashing protein (from muscle) to have amino acids as raw materials for the liver to start making its own glucose. I don't know about you -- but I have a ton of fat that would LOVE to be fuel. So I make it a point to keep replenishing my glycogen stores every 60-75 minutes of exercise, always, no matter what.

5. If, after 50 miles, your upper body hurts WAY more than your crotch, you're doing something wrong.
I think that's a pretty fair "life policy." My form outdoors is lacking, big time. When I take breaks, it's not because my butt or my legs ache; they're always "median nerve breaks." I compress so badly that I literally lose muscular function of my entire right thenar eminence (i.e., my thumb can't shift down). I climbed my miles 35-40 in a WAY higher gear than I needed, just because I couldn't shift down but didn't want to stop in the middle of a hill I remembered lasting FOREVER (downhill) in the opposite direction.

I am a "gripper" when I brake down a huge hill (because I'm scared), but have gotten better about being mindful of my grip, elbows (down, not out), shoulders and hip flexion while I'm climbing something tough for me. I don't think I'm leaning forwards terribly much.

I don't have this problem on a Spin bike. I've trained most aspects of my form such that they come very naturally. If there's anything that I can do differently it might be to increase the angle of my hip flexion, such that I'm sitting more upright -- less susceptible to the laws of physics, that I would physically move in the direction of my acceleration. If anyone has any thoughts, I welcome them!

6. Beyond how you talk to yourself, how you SEE yourself determines whether you believe the things you say to yourself.

I don't think I thought about this much until today. I tell myself all sorts of things. I lie to myself frequently. "This is the way it is, self." No, that's actually NOT how it is. But I adopt it as truth, and run with it.
"You're not afraid." --> "Ok, I was actually petrified. But, yeah, ok, I'm not afraid. Great. Glad we're agreed on that front now."


The mediating variable is self-concept. I never saw myself as a real cyclist until today. I was always faking it, always limited by some liability or another. When I'm afraid or I screw up, I attribute that to the fact that I'm "not a real cyclist." It didn't matter how many people I've coached or with whom I've corresponded/dialogued. It didn't matter how many people I've inspired, or who have inspired me. I wasn't a real cyclist, and that was that.

The next time I tell myself I can't do something, I'll have a new comeback line that I'll actually believe in.

But you rode 50 miles.

Yeah, I did.

Next-Up This Week:
1) Using Your Expertise (as an instructor and/or as a rider) to Evaluate Stimuli Around You and Improve Yourself in the Process (i.e., ideal vs. sub-ideal instruction, contraindicated movements, inaccuracies)
2) Streeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeetching for Cyclists (I promise, it's coming, Jen!)


Charles said...

Good for you M! I know it took a lot for you to write this and I am sooooo proud of you for a) getting this off your chest and b) riding 50 miles. That is AWESOME. Welcome to the club! The next set of numbers you'll be looking at are average speed and max speed. Just wait.

Lane said...

50 miles is a huge accomplishment! I tried it once last year on a relatively flat route and felt like I was going to die by the time I was done. The eating/nutrition thing is key. If you don't have enough readily available fuel your are going to to get stopped in your tracks. So what did you have to eat?

Melissa Marotta said...

Thank you so much, guys!
Charles - the only time I think to look at my speed is when I'm flying down hills, and it makes me freak out. "You're not a car! What are you doing?!"
But I want to start paying attention to that usefully. I need to finish my Century in 6.5 hours of riding time, not accounting for breaks. It's meant to be done in 2-days -- if you're doing it in 1-day (which I absolutely am), it has to be done within 8 hours. I used to be faster before I got so scared of speed. Speed is the ONE variable about my accident that could have changed anything. If I had been going slower, I could have stopped. But I was going 23 mph or something like that, and I didn't need to be. Now I see the world in terms of "if I had to stop short right now, could I?" -- I need to break out of that.

Lane - Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamen.
I'm a PB/banana/ricecake sandwich kinda gal. I ate a gluten-free bar after the first hour, half my sandwich after the second hour, the other half after the third. Next time I do this length, I'd have two of such sandwiches. They're all I like when I'm training. During my 6-hour ride in April, I ate 3 of them or something crazy like that. What's your fuel of choice?

Kala Marie said...

Good for you! And way to kick butt too!! That takes a lot to share so much online and to strangers. But, I'm genuinely so proud that you did it. You kick serious ass, my dear!

Lane said...

What's your fuel of choice?

Clif Bars are all I've ever used, recently I've been adding Emergen-C to my water which seems to help.

Problem is after 3+ hours on a bike (HRM usually says about 3000 calories) I'm usually done no matter how much I eat. Fuel replenishment seems to be my biggest problem, along with my inefficiencies. Just can't seem to get the energy back as fast as I use it.

I really don't like PB, but I'm thinking I might give it a try.

Melissa Marotta said...

Sorry for the delayed response! I'm living in the middle of nowhere for the summer with scant internet access, and I plum didn't see this last week (and it since got buried).

Kala - Thank you so much for always being such a wonderfully supportive e-presence. The 'spilling my guts to strangers' phenomenon comes from an overarching life mission to find some sense of purpose for any small or tiny struggle. If someone can learn from my inadequacies, awesome.

Lane - I'm a big Cliff Nectar fan, though they don't fill me. When you say that you crash fuel-wise - how frequently are you eating? I did a 3 hour ride yesterday and had to shorten my fuel interval to 50-55 minutes. The key with solid/liquid fuel, I find, is to re-fuel BEFORE you perceive that you need it. Is that how you approach it?