*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.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Begin with a Purpose

It's been a long time. I'm two weeks away from the start of my last year of medical school (HOW did this pass so quickly?), currently knee-deep in snow and waist-deep in Institutional Review Board paperwork to get my next HRM study approved (yes, yes, I'll write up the first one eventually -- just as soon as I get the next one up and running: it's way more important, way more useful). Immersed in writing up specifics of a project I've adored and invested in for the past two years, one would think I'd be overjoyed. After 10 hours of writing various sections in an illogical order, with only one paragraph remaining to write of my 20-page protocol, I do not feel satisfied or proud or rewarded. All I feel is stuck, counting down the seconds until it's over, and taking absolutely no steps toward making "over" happen.

You know what part's left? The "Purpose" paragraph. The first paragraph of the document. I left the "Purpose" for the end -- and in the end, I have no steam left to define it.

I'm training another group now for the 11th Annual Special Olympics Vermont "Ride for a Reason," the 6-hour charity indoor cycling marathon event I help organize. It's an event that has meant a lot to me over the past three years. It was the first way I really connected with my new community after moving here from NYC for medical school. It afforded me the opportunity to bringing mentors and colleagues who inspire me (from all the chapters of my life) together all on one stage to co-lead the event with me. And while the novelty has surprisingly worn off as an athlete after banging out a bunch of these 6-hour indoor rides and a handful of outdoor Centuries, it's been a most rewarding experience as a coach to guide so many young athletes through their first endurance conquest. Life really doesn't get better than watching someone get their first taste of profound and utter pride.

Each year, I charge a small fee for riders to join a training group for Saturday morning endurance rides on a Spinner for a few months leading up to the ride: we start at 60 mins, then progress to 75, 90, 2 hours (we do weekly 2 hour sessions for a month), 2.5 hours, and 3 hours. This year, I decided to do it for free to inspire folks who'd never been on a Spinner longer than a 45-50 min class to give it a shot. I SO believed that I could take a group of newbie aspiring endurance athletes and teach them what they need to know in order to bang out 6 hours on a Spinner. The more I train people to do it, the more I gather their feedback on what works/doesn't, and -- of course -- the more of these events I ride myself, the more confident I am in knowing specifically what I need to teach people in order for them to be successful on Game Day.

I held my first training session this weekend. I have 6 riders in the group. One rode this event last year (his first 6-hour ride -- I was so proud that I decided to ask him a few months afterwards to marry me; just kidding... I was going to do that anyway!); two have done two-hour endurance rides with me before; the remaining 5 have never been on a bike - stationary or outside - for more than an hour. But you know what? They're taking on their first indoor Century with confidence.

As they filtered in and set up their bikes, I scribbled an impromptu list on my whiteboard. I've decided to share it here.

Top 10 Things You Need to Know in Order to Conquer a 6-Hour Ride
1. Begin with a purpose.

Yes, like I didn't do with my IRB paperwork. You know what? Six hours sweating on a stationary bike surrounded by 100 people doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Most of the time, it sucks: it's hot, it's wet, it's humid, it's uncomfortable, it's boring. It's not something one just does. It has to mean something. It has to mean something specific.

Why are you committing to this challenge? When you finish, what will you be able to say about yourself? What will you learn in the process? What will you remember? What will you now be able to do? How will your life be changed in some way? What does it mean to you? Now is the time to start developing answers to those questions -- you're the only one who can. Your answers may change over time, and that's ok. But you have to have SOMETHING in mind. Otherwise, why bother?

2. Learn how to sit: protect your crotch and protect your wrists.
Technical imperative #1. Multi-hour rides are great for helping you detect subtle imperfections in your form . During this weekend's 90 min ride, we obsessed over one specific aspect of form: directing your weight on the saddle. We talk about "not leaning on the handlebars" ad nauseum - but we all do it. I learned that while training for my first outdoor Century, when I lost motor function in my left thumb. "Handlebar-leaner? Who, me?" After six hours, your wrists don't lie. The mantra I've been repeating for my riders is: "Keep your wrists lined up with your thumbs." That alignment, if observed, tends to reflect that there is not excessive pressure on the handlebars. The other part to that is driving one's weight through your butt (where we all have more padding, like it or not) instead of the anterior pelvis -- AKA "front part of the crotch." I describe to my riders about thinking of a stake being driven through their tailbones. It's kinda weird, but it seems to conceptually "work" for people.

I concluded the first training session by asking my riders to close their eyes in the first few minutes of the cool-down and direct their attention to anything that hurt or felt stiff or sore. THAT'S the part of their form they'd focus on in the next ride. We can learn a lot from our pain.

3. Learn how to protect your feet: keep your feet off the insoles of your shoes.
Have you personally ever experienced "hot feet?" It's quite possibly the worst pain on earth. That's nerve pain, or "neuropathy" -- the same thing that happens to folks with poorly controlled diabetes (except theirs is with them all day, every day and very very very difficult to treat). Cyclists' neuropathy is a temporary problem caused by compression of the nerves on the bottom of the feet. Stiff-soled cycling shoes help to reduce that pressure, but they're not sufficient to overcome subtle imperfections in pedal stroke form over the course of 6 hours.

Even if you think you're not "mashing" downwards, you're probably doing a little more downward pushing than you think. I tell my riders to imagine there are firey hot spikes in the insole of their shoe -- if their foot touches the insole, they're going to get hurt. Their job is to keep their foot towards the TOP of their shoe -- either pushing up against the toe strap (if they're in sneakers) or simply lifting their knees up if they're clipped in. We do drills focusing energy on the upstroke (hip flexor action) synchronized with downbeats of the music (vs. the temptation to mash down on the downbeat), as well as the backwards wiping portion of the pedal stroke. These drills are great to combat the mental tediousness of long rides, too.

4. Learn how to breathe.
Breathing is key for a) controlling heart rate/conserving energy, b) psychological management of challenge, c) combating boredom. The first part is self-explanatory; the latter two, perhaps not so much.

I teach my riders that there is no better feeling in the world than experiencing true mind-body connection, feeling completely in sync with their environment, their breath, the way their body is moving, etc. We practice synchronizing breaths with music, with pedal strokes, etc. We close our eyes. We give ourselves permission to pay attention to all these subtleties, to get lost in it -- and in so doing, to find something magical.

5. Eat every hour, and drink more than you're used to.
'Nough said. I'm not kidding. You need to replenish glucose; otherwise, your liver will think you're in a fasting state and start catabolizing muscle to free up raw material protein for it to manufacture its own glucose. Bad. If you keep a low level of constant glucose on these long endurance events, you've got enough of a base substrate for good ol' fat metabolism to continue.

6. Keep your heart rate wayyyyy lower that you're used to. Try to stay below 80% of LT for most of the ride.
Also 'nough said. Granted, there's a lot of energy/adrenaline pumping during these big time events -- and lots of instructors trying to feed that. I remind my riders to empower themselves NOT to follow every acceleration, position change, resistance load, switchback drill, etc. that comes their way. Heart rate control is the prime objective. We spend most of our hours together practicing progressive loading drills (i.e., "Increase and Breathe...") so that they learn how to load resistance and load speed without affecting heart rate, by modulating the challenge with their breathing. And we also practice breathing heart rate down by extending the exhalation extra-long, to bring HR down faster. This way, if they're tempted to surge to LT in the middle of hour 1 of 6 on Game Day (ill-advised), they can get right back down and recover. But I also remind them to take responsibility for making their own choices and pacing themselves according to what they need.

7. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Own your discomfort.
For me, this was always my #1 reason for riding 6 (or 8, in the cases of my outdoor 100-mile rides) hours on a bike. The idea that when you're up against something horrible -- like 36 hour overnight surgery call, or stuck in an OR standing 15 hours sans eating, peeing, etc., or stuck in a snowstorm with your car stuck in a snowbank, or your job is too stressful to bear, or you're too anxious to do something you know you want to do, or WHATEVER it is that you find unbearably uncomfortable... you remember that you've been uncomfortable before. And that you survived. That you didn't need to resolve that discomfort in order to function -- that you just kept going. Thus, you will always know that you can do it again. So here during this training, during this event -- treat it as though it would be ok if it lasted forever.

It's a concept that doesn't naturally occur to people: the idea of seeking out something uncomfortable for the specific purpose of getting used to being uncomfortable. I've written a lot about the merits of this concept, the underpinning for basically most of how I live my life. I incorporate this into my coaching cues whenever possible.

8. Develop coping mechanisms for boredom.
Six hours on a stationary bike gets boring, dude. Seriously boring. So you have to do stuff. Give yourself pedal stroke drills, breathing drills, HR games, etc. Develop strategies to re-focus, entertain yourself, simply pass the time, etc. Don't rely on the instructor (including me) -- with few exceptions, you'll be disappointed at least some of the time. Rehearse a plan for "what you do when you get bored." It may mean closing your eyes, focusing on an aspect of your form, focusing on a particular part of your pedal stroke. Whatever it takes. Plan it in advance so that, when the time comes, you expect it and remain in control.

9. Coach yourself.
A six-hour ride is such a deeply personal matter. You might here glimpses of inspiring insight from the person up front guiding the group -- but where the real inspiration needs to come from is within. You must always be talking to yourself in your head. Tell yourself the story of how things are, the way they should be. Coach yourself through your form, your breathing, your pedal stroke. Coach yourself through every movement you make. Envision how you want to feel and look and be at any given moment, and describe that vision to yourself. I've written a ton about this concept here.

10. Remember your "reason."
When you're exhausted and tired and sore and stiff and bored out of your mind, what's going to keep you going? The instructor at the front of the room? No. It's the reason, the purpose, you started with. Remind yourself of that. It sounds like a silly, trivial point -- but you have no idea what kind of difference it makes. And if you're not finding that it makes a difference, there's a good chance that your "reason" isn't meaningful enough to you. Find the one that keeps you going.

That's all for now. I feel like somewhat less of a blog-delinquent. Sweet...