The other day I went out on my road bike for a longish ride on one of my favorite familiar routes. I had no agenda and no time constraints, and the weather was ideal—temperature in the low 70s, with blue skies, plus a few puffy clouds for decoration. All the components of a perfect day were in place.
Except for one thing: me. I noticed that I kept struggling to maintain my pace. My right knee was hurting a bit, my left calf was intermittently crampy, I was breathing hard and feeling like just turning the cranks was a major act of human labor. I tried easing off, but then the feelings of discomfort and energy depletion would creep back. I even stopped once just to check that my brakes weren’t rubbing. They weren’t. Sigh.
So I took a break at Fern’s, a local country store that’s a magnet for road cyclists. They have a variety of delicious foods that run the gamut from sweet to salty, and there’s seating space outside near a bunch of bike racks—this means you can leave your fancy carbon road bike outside without worrying about it. I opted for a sweet-salty combo: coke plus crackers. I had bars and clif shot blocks too, so was well prepared, but was feeling in need of an extra little pick-me-up.
Having refueled, I resumed my ride, pedaling along country roads that went through woods and wetlands. Surely it doesn’t get any better than this, right?
Well, within 20 minutes I was laboring and feeling like I was working hard just to maintain forward motion. I made it home, feeling unsatisfied with myself. What happened? What was wrong with me?
Background info: I don’t have a bike computer on my road bike. I blogged about why here. So I didn’t have any idea how fast I was going during the ride. But I did keep track of time and mileage, so when I got home I calculated my average speed. Turns out, I was riding about 1—1.5 miles per hour FASTER than my usual pace. AHA! So that was the problem: I was hurting on the ride because I kept going too fast (for me).
I’m sharing this story because I’ve been thinking and reading and writing about health behavior change. A cardinal rule of most behavior change theories is this: Don’t try to do too much at one time. It’s better to lay down sustainable habits of small change than to try to leap into a new or different state in one fell swoop. We see evidence of these theories in slogans everywhere:
Unfortunately, we are also besieged by messages like these, too:
Going hard is something I often like to do on the bike. Interval workouts (when I get around to them) are really satisfying—I go hard, rest, go hard, rest, ride home and flop. However, it’s always been hard for me to go slowly enough when I need a comfortable, mellow long ride. One reason is that I get enthusiastic about pushing myself and testing my limits. We all like to do this sometimes. Another reason is I get self-conscious about being seen on the road, going slow. This is supremely silly. When I ride with faster cycling friends, they don’t care; in fact they’d prefer I go slow enough to sustain a comfortable, non-grumpy demeanor over the course of the ride. And when I’m riding alone, I’m, well, alone. There’s no one else to worry about. Its. My. Ride.
So why is it is so hard to go easy?
Partly this is about fear of being seen as I am. Seen as slower. Seen as older. Seen as bigger. If I go as hard as I can, I can outrun, outpedal that image, and instead chase some ideal in my head of what a cyclist should be like. Something like this:
But there’s some good news to report. This week Tracy blogged here about Mirna Valerio, who is a an ultra-distance runner who writes the Fat-Girl-Running blog. She was also profiled in Runner’s World here.
If you didn’t see this, or didn’t get a chance to read it, do it now (well, once you finish reading this post!). Mirna is an incredible role model in a bunch of ways, but the one that really spoke to me was this: she runs slowly (relative to serious runners), and she can go all day long (she’s an ultra-endurance runner).
That’s right. Mirna runs an 11—13 minute mile (6:50—8 minute kilometer) She can also run 20—30 miles (32—50K) at one time. This is really something. Mirna represents one great way to be an athlete—she runs at a pace that makes it possible and sustainable (and fun!) for her to be an ultra-long-distance runner. Maintaining this identity isn’t always easy; she says she has worried about being too slow for some events she’s entered, but she reports that the race organizers have been supportive. Tracy has blogged about this issue as well, noting that the later finishers in distance running events are sometimes greeted with a depleted snack table, no big cheering crowd, or even race volunteers packing up to leave.
Mirna runs through all of this, leaving the complications and expectations behind. She trains religiously, running at 6am many days of the week, and she sweeps up her students and others in the wake of her enthusiasm.
This story may not totally transform my approach to cycling; I still tend to go too hard too often. But it does remind me there are other goals I can pursue. By going easy, I can go longer. Longer in distance, longer in habits, longer in my life, and longer in satisfaction.
Now if only I could get up really early in the morning like Mirna does. Some goals, however, may have to wait…