*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, July 26, 2009

Practical Applications of Life on a Spin Bike

One of my "life themes" centers around the synergy between my "Spinning instructor life" and my "physician-in-training life." For better or for worse (and I'll argue passionately for the former), my coaching life isn't just a side gig. I invest a TON of cognitive and emotional resources into this realm of my life, not only for the rewards that come from empowering people through fitness -- but because I see INCREDIBLE parallels between the opportunities that I have as a coach that directly translate to the skills I need to develop as a doctor.

Note: I try to keep the scope of THIS blog to cycling/Spinning, given my perceived audience -- but if you're interested, here are two kinda-neat accounts on the Spinning/medicine interface from my 'med school life' blog: how I figured out how to reach a woman who was ignoring my efforts to correct her Spinning form by kicking into "doctor/patient mode"and how I figured out how to reach a woman with seveeeeeeeeeere, treatment-refractory depression by kicking into "Spinning instructor" mode.

But back to cycling. I rode my first 70 mile outdoor ride yesterday, and credit my performance ENTIRELY to my experiences on a Spinner. That's a pretty bold statement, so I figured I should write about it.

As many of you know, I am training for my first Century ride. In theory, I should feel confident on the basis of having completed several indoor equivalents AND my belief that, with adequate heart rate control and fueling, one can do ANYTHING forever. As many of you know, however, my self-concept as an outdoor cyclist is ENTIRELY different than my self-concept on a Spinner. I've trained myself and others to ride a Spinner pretty damned well, for pretty damned long periods of time. I have moments of clarity on a Spinner where I genuinely believe that I can do ANYTHING (cure cancer, take over a small country -- literally anything). When I take to my outdoor bike, I believe that I'm going to fall and land on my head. Slight difference, see?

So, I decided to ride 100 miles on a bike that scares the hell out of me as a mechanism for 'practicing commitment' to my self-efficacy as an outdoor cyclist -- that is, my belief in my ability to navigate the challenges of my world. I reasoned that, if I were to ride 100 miles, I'd have no choice but to conceptualize myself as a "real cyclist" -- and that, if that frameshift were to happen, that this would have major ramifications for my confidence in my ability to have direct control over the specific ways I see the world. When I talk about the importance of "training for something," THAT is my 'something.' BTW - if you've not read my "Training for Something" post linked in the previous sentence, it has a pretty sweet ride profile with a description of its theme/coaching language. And the "why" of that 'something' is pretty clear. If I truly believed that I have 100% control over my thoughts (i.e., my responses to situational adversity), think about the applications of that to, uh, EVERYTHING.

Most Spinning classes I teach center around opportunities to invest in this construct -- that is, to apply a certain skill on a Spin bike more globally, to other aspects of people's lives. "If I can do X here, I can do X 'out there.'" That's how Spinning fits into MY life -- and, accordingly, that's the overarching theme I find rewarding to share with groups of people.

"At the end of the day, we're riding a stationary bike. But, since we're here -- and since we've taken the rare opportunity for time that is completely ours, where we have to answer to nobody but ourselves -- not our boss, our spouse, our kids; nobody but ourselves -- why not see if we can make it more than that?

Why not see if we can create an experience for ourselves that stays with us a little while longer? To use this time to improve the way we think, the way we organize our thoughts, the way we process the world around us. To learn to coach ourselves through challenges. To moderate the way our body responds to adversity, through our breathing. To practice skills that are fundamental not only to the way we ride a bike, but that we can apply to the rest of our lives?

Why not see if we can do that? Who's game?"

That's how I talk through a warm-up with a group that's chock full of people who have never ridden with me before. That's also how I describe my coaching approach to new people outside the Spinning realm of my world. Despite my propensity for uber-cheesiness, the concept behind "my schtick" when presented in the context of "these are things we should be doing ANYWAY; why not do them on a bike?" doesn't actually come across as all that hokey).

When people who train with me give me feedback about how "life on the Spinner" indeed translates into how they approach the rest of their lives, I can't fully describe how much that means to me. It makes sense, of course -- that's what I present as the WHOLE POINT -- but to hear that my desired outcomes actually happen is a special, humbling, and enormously rewarding experience that I am most privileged to have on regular occasions.

When I apply my schtick to my own life -- on the bike, and off -- I a) see results, and b) expand my creativity in communicating "how I see the world" to my riders. The stuff that comes out of my mouth during Spinning classes is the direct result of the things I tell myself when I'm training, and when I'm going about the rest of my life. I'm never "out of ideas" for ride themes or coaching language simply because I never stop talking myself through the events of my day. It works, and I'm lucky to have carved out an existence where I have the opportunity to walk groups of people through my own coping mechanisms amidst a backdrop of holistic wellness and life-altering, all-consuming rhythms. What a life.

Training for this Century, symbolically, has been a test of these very coping mechanisms.

When I rode my first 50 miler outdoors, I called upon my experiences on the Spinner to coach myself through it. When I identified specific areas where I needed to improve, I went right back to the Spinner to tackle them.

Each of my solo training sessions on a Spinner had a specific sub-subobjective. I micromanaged specific sub-sub details of my form (the specific angle of the bend of my elbows, the angle of my right hand on the handlebars, the tilt of my left hip), and literally dedicated entire training sessions to each of those super-subtle details. I got really damned good at sustaining my adjustments for 3 hours, 4 hours, even 5 hours (imagine 5 hours on a Spinner centered entirely around the angle of my pelvic tilt?!). I got good at enduring uncomfortable, wet clothing. Got good at coping with "hot feet." Got good at knowing exactly how frequently to eat and drink, and WHAT to eat and drink. I learned to see myself as an endurance athlete -- not just somebody who can DO sporadic endurance events. It's a subtle distinction, but an important one.

When I rode my next 50 miler and had the opportunity to test the tweaks I'd made indoors? Rocked it.

Yesterday I dropped a bunch of money on an organized 110K ride to enforce that I continue to improve without bailing early ("oh, looks like rain..." or "oh, I could definitely do more - but let's go home"), and every cent was worth it.

68 miles (+ 2 round-trip to commute to base) = my first 70 mile ride. Stayed ENTIRELY below LT (even on some pretty ridiculous climbs), and felt like I at least another 5-10 miles in me. With two more months of training, this Century is in the bag. Not a bad shift in self-concept for the woman who thinks she's going to land on her head every time she touches her bike.

Like I did with my post on my first 50 miler, here's what I learned:

1. Invest in your psychological fuel.
If one is responsible about one's intensity (i.e., not going out too hard, too early), endurance efforts are NOT about physical resilience. So I applied my own go-to coaching language about the merits of rehearsing (in advance) coping mechanisms for adversity. I invested time at the front end collecting "thoughts" to fuel my self-dialogue. I asked experienced cyclists what they tell themselves when they're flying down steep hills at the speed of sound and feel themselves tensing up. ("Sit up!" "Check your shoulders!" "Where are your hips?") That's the stuff I told myself when I got scared.

I also posted a status update on Facebook the morning of the event, announcing that I was doing this craziness, knowing that 50-something comments would flood in RIGHT before the ride started (which absolutely happened). Some of those comments were really quite specifically meaningful, and I absolutely tapped into their sentiments. I knew that would happen.

The most meaningful were a couple from people I train who threw expressions that I recognized as my own go-to "isms" from Spinning classes, right back at me. I got tearful -- and you'd better believe I thought about that when my feet were numb and my crotch was on fire.

2. TRAIN for adversity.
When I do these 3 hour, 4 hour, and 5 hour Spinning rides -- I tell myself that I'm going to be proud of myself for finishing, of course. But more importantly, I tell myself that completing this particular training session will uniquely entitle me to feel a certain way.

I KNEW that I wanted to be able to reason with myself, which is why I bothered last week to spend 5 hours on a Spinner in the same pair of soaking wet bike shorts (despite having two extra pairs in my bag), eating ricecakes/PB/bananas while vacationing in the Restaurant Capital of the World. Seriously?

Yes. Because I was uniquely preparing myself for that very specific moment yesterday at mile 53, where I had NO desire to keep going -- but could tell myself, "Hey Self, remember when you rode the equivalent of 75 miles last week? Then you were SOAKED, dripping all over the place, with heinous saddle sores on your thighs. You lived through that -- THIS is no way as bad as what you just did. So why the hell can't you keep going now?"

Good point, Self. You win. Ride on.

I conceived of how well I respond to "discomfort training" when I was preparing for the 6-hour Spinathon I co-led in April. I knew that 'hot feet' were my Achilles heel -- so I did ALL of my endurace training on the elliptical trainer, knowing how much more opportunity I'd have to practice curling my toes and shifting my weight around to relieve compression "on the go." You'd better believe that the stuff I learned how to do those hours on the elliptical ABSOLUTELY reared their head yesterday.

3. Subtleties matter.
I made two major changes in my form. When I describe them, I will appear completely neurotic and ridiculous. But I cannot tell you how much of a difference they made.

My wrists are turned outwards at a 10 degree angle at the ends of the handlebar. THAT subtle. I used to ride my bike (a hybrid with a horizontal handlebar) just like I rode my Spinner. So I changed the way I hold my Spinner; in Hand Position 2, I rotated my wrists entirely indistinguishably to an observer. And that change alone kept me from median nerve compression. FASCINATING.

I made the tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiniest tweak of my pelvic tilt. The tilt I use indoors, when outdoors (i.e., actually moving forwards and subject to momentum), was forcing me to lean on the handlebars when that hasn't been a problem for me EVER. So I changed it indoors, translated it outdoors -- and BAM: I have complete control over turning my wrists outwards (as described above).

4. It's ok if this lasts forever.
For my first two years of Spinning instruction, my favorite compliment was when people told me that they thought a particular ride "flew by." To me, that meant that I'd done a good job planning the training session, framing it with a good intro context and "skeleton" of what to expect (by which to mark progression towards a goal). More recently, as I've become increasingly into all this 'mindfulness' stuff, I'm no longer striving to present stuff that 'flies by.' Instead, I want time to not matter. It's the ONLY time during most people's days where time can POSSIBLY not matter. I even took the clock off the wall during that special mindfulness course I taught. I wanted everything to be a moment-specific phenomenon, completely inhabited moment-by-moment present tense. It made people anxious at first -- but over time, it came together.

That said, in my classes it is NOT unheard of to climb a steady hill for 40 minutes. You talk yourself through the process of commiting to it, question what it means to you to honor your commitment, and analyze what it's going to take to follow through.

Yet when I ride outside, I want every hill to FLY by. I pick up my pace and power through. I used to suck and dismount midway through much of Vermont's "routine" hills, but I got my pace/gear/balance/steering schtick a bit better coordinated over time. I don't ride cliplessly outdoors (UGH; in major need of a life upgrade) so I can't use my hamstrings. I don't stand up, ever. So all that's left is my speed. I trained for it all winter -- surging up to LT, holding it a minute, then recovering. So that's how I climb hills outdoors.

Then I met a hill that wasn't receptive to this approach. Towne Hill Road in Montpelier, VT. My arch-nemesis. It comes out of nowhere, even though I drive up it every day. Every day, it gets steeper - I swear. An unrelenting banked curve, a mile pure insanity. No shoulder. Rocks everywhere. Cars everywhere. The first time I rode it, I approached it in my usual fashion -- and seriously thought I was going to die (though my HRM assured me that I was just a few beats above LT, and would thus be fine). Faster faster faster -- are you STILL not at the end? -- faster faster faster -- When is it going to end? -- Faster faster ohhh, tired tired tired. Nooooo, end end end, you need to end! I'm a medical student -- free time is hard to come by; this is no way to spend free time.

When I climb hills, I forget that I like to climb. I rush through them and gauge my success by how quickly I can climb them. I'm NOT a racer; if I were, that'd be different. So Towne Hill Rd and I had a face-off a few days ago, and I approached it entirely differently -- symbolically, even. I'll eventually make a ride about it. I just settled into a comfortable pace (64 rpm is something I train for indoors, ALL the time) in a low gear and just CLIMBED. 10 minutes, same pace in my lowest front and back gears. There I was on this AWFUL hill -- just BEING, moving, soaking up the views of the mountains the the pines and the fluffy clouds. I hadn't seen how beautiful Towne Hill Rd. was when I was busy fighting it. I was sub-LT, to boot. Relaxed my shoulders, my grip. In that moment, I was "ok" if Towne Hill Rd. lasted forever. (It lasted 12 minutes; that was probably "forever" enough.)

And it occurred to me that Towne Hill Rd was a great metaphor for medical school. Instead of rushing through it as quickly as possible, worrying about when the end is going to come, I really try to enjoy every day of it -- to be aware and attentive, soaking it all up, learning from everything around me.

There were some pretty epic hills yesterday -- hills that literally did seem that would last forever. And in those moments, I truly was OK if that were true. Because I'd trained to be ok with it. And I was.

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