Saturday, December 4, 2010

Getting With The Program

I used to love to ride my bicycle. 

I came to it late in life, in the spring of 2006, around the same time I started rock climbing. I realized if I was going to get better at climbing I needed to lose some weight and improve my general fitness.  It seemed like a good time to buy a road bike. Once I did, I discovered that I really enjoyed cycling.

I started out just riding for fun, first in the city parks and eventually in New Jersey and Westchester County. I was no speed demon but I loved the feeling of freedom that came with cycling. I was amazed at how with only my legs and two wheels I could escape the city and find myself in beautiful environments with rolling hills and wildlife. It was like I'd stumbled into a whole new world. I found it most enjoyable if I rode hard most of the time, but I didn't use any special tools to keep track of how much effort I was putting forth. I loved riding for its own sake and tried to squeeze in time on the bike whenever I could, both before and after work. And since I was basically starting from nothing I improved constantly. I was always getting faster, riding longer, feeling stronger and thinner. Before I knew it I'd lost a ton of weight. I went to buy some new pants and discovered my waist size had shrunk by two inches. 

Then one day in mid-2007, my friend Greg, who was also a cyclist, told me he was thinking about entering a local bicycle race. This was something I had never considered before. The idea of riding in a pack of cyclists, just inches away from my competitors, was frightening to me. I had seen these groups in the city parks and they had seemed like an elite species far above my level. But ever the joiner, I decided that if Greg was going to do it than I might as well try it out as well.

I couldn't keep up with the pack in my first few races. In cycling the term for it is "getting dropped." I got dropped several times and in the process I learned that nothing motivates you better than getting dropped. I started working harder in my rides and before the year was out I was able to hang on in the races that were held in Prospect Park. Don't get me wrong, I was no great talent. I did not come close to winning any of these races, and the people I was racing against were all beginners like me who'd never won anything in their lives. But I could complete the races and finish with the main group, which was in itself a great thrill. The first time I was in the thick of it at the beginning of the final lap, wooshing by the line with the official's bell ringing in my ears-- I'll never forget that feeling. It was an adrenaline rush unlike anything else I'd ever experienced. 

The next season I continued racing, finishing with the pack most of the time, feeling like I was in pretty good shape. I was still highly motivated. I would regularly get up at absurd hours in the morning to get two-hour rides in before returning home to help get the kids ready for school. But in spite of all the effort, I wasn't really improving much any more. I'd reached the point of diminishing returns. I was using a heart-rate monitor for training now, but crudely. My workouts weren't varied or periodized; I just identified a few zones and tried to work out in different zones on different days of the week. In races, I felt like I could move about the pack at will, but it seemed clear that on my own I was never going to get myself strong enough to outpace the pack or beat several fast guys in a contested sprint. I realized that if I wanted to do better, I had to train smarter, and I needed someone to impose more discipline on my training schedule. 

So when Greg told me at the end of the 2008 racing season that he was considering joining a team, I was already on the same wavelength. With some real coaching and teammates to work with, I figured I could keep improving, and maybe place in a race the next year or at least play a key role in helping a teammate win.  We bot ended up joining a team that was dedicated to introducing cyclists to racing. The team provided intensive coaching with daily instructions and feedback, and regular weekend rides together to work on specific racing skills and strategies. 

Joining this team turned out to be my big mistake.

There was nothing wrong with the team. The coaching was amazing. We each had personal access to the team guru, who gave us assignments every day, and who also set up a team strategy for every race. His approach was totally sound and within the mainstream of current thinking on how to train best for bicycle races. 

The problem was the relentlessness and monotony of the training schedule. We were generally expected to ride six days a week. (The seventh was optional!) Most of the riding, especially early on, was low-intensity endurance riding, designed to build a good base for the season. I found this kind of riding dull. Doing it outside was not a lot of fun. As it got colder and I had to do my endurance riding on a stationary trainer, it became positively mind-numbing. Nevertheless I stuck with it. Through the winter I did more riding on a trainer indoors than I ever had before, and as winter turned into a very rainy spring I did more riding in the rain than I ever would have imagined possible. By the time the racing schedule really got under way in March and April of 2009 I was already feeling burnt out.

As the year wore on, I got more and more tired of the never-ending training, and my results in races were not spectacular enough to make it all seem worthwhile. I was definitely a better racer than ever before. While in prior years I had just been keeping up with the group on good days, now I could actually rest and recover while keeping up, and expend extra effort from time to time but still stay with the pack. My cycling instincts also improved and I felt more comfortable in the field, especially on descents, which had always terrified me in the past. But I was still no threat to win anything. I couldn't sprint to save my life, and I often struggled even to do the jobs I was assigned in races by the coach. I would chase down a break or two and then be spent, just hanging on at the finish instead of helping to set up one of my teammates. In out-of-town races, which always featured much tougher hills than the races in the city parks, I was regularly dropped. 

By the time the season wound down in September and October, I was half-heartedly doing my assigned workouts, cutting it short on many days and feeling guilty and inadequate most of the time. Nevertheless I planned to stay on the team for 2010. I hoped after some time off to recharge my batteries I could build a great base for the next season and maybe have a better year. 

Then I broke my ankle in late October and took a much bigger break from cycling than I'd planned. And after about a month off the bike I realized that somewhere along the way I'd lost touch with everything I loved about cycling. I'd lost all desire to ride. Instead, even after my extended holiday from cycling, I now looked at my bicycle with dread. Whereas in prior years I had enjoyed simply riding around in the park, now, after countless thousands of trips around that stupid park loop, I couldn't conceive of such a feeling. Imagining riding had become like contemplating parking my car, or doing the dishes. There was no fun in it any more. I had to make a change. I decided I had to quit racing and hope that if I just started riding again for fun the love might eventually come back.

I'm sorry to say that even a year later the love hasn't returned. I don't really know how to ride for fun any more. If I don't monitor my heart rate while riding and stick to a zone the whole thing seems pointless. All year I've resolved to get on some sort of regular schedule of riding for fun and fitness but it has been an enormous struggle to motivate myself to get out of bed to ride. So I've gone through the year riding in fits and starts, getting a bit better from time to time but then taking whole weeks off and falling backward again. I am slow and weak and I don't enjoy my time on the bike. It remains a chore.

By now you must be wondering why I am writing at such length about cycling on a climbing blog. If you're still with me I applaud your patience. 

Here is the connection:

For four years I have climbed for fun and I have improved greatly without making any particular effort to get better. I have just climbed routes that seemed fun, and I have improved pretty steadily. But not so much recently. I reached the point of diminishing returns quite some time ago, and I think if I wish to get better I have to change the way I go about it. 

I want to train with more purpose. But I worry. I do not want to ruin myself for climbing the way I inadvertently spoiled myself for cycling. I enjoy climbing at the gym. I dearly love climbing outside. I don't want any of my climbing to become just a chore. It has to stay fun.

I own two well-regarded books on climbing performance, The Self-Coached Climber, by Dan Hague and Douglas Hunter, and How to Climb 5.12, by Eric J. Horst. I would like to say that I've read them, but I've really only skimmed through them several times, considering a few tips and strategies until, inevitably, my eyes have started to glaze over. 

Part of the issue for me, I think, is that I don't really care if I ever climb 5.12. It would be nice but I would be satisfied with much less. Really my goal is to be a solid 5.9-5.10 Gunks climber. I'd like to lead MF (5.9), Le Teton (5.9), Feast of Fools (5.10b) and Directississima (5.10b). I'd like to take trips to climb Epinephrine (5.9), the Regular Route on Fairview Dome (5.9), The Yellow Spur (5.9), or even the Casual Route up Long's Peak (5.10a) and feel like these climbs are straightforward and well within my limits. I think there exist a lifetime of climbs like these out there in the world and that I would be satisfied, given my limited climbing time, with these sorts of climbs as my objective.

The best way to achieve these goals, of course, would be to climb outside every weekend. But that is never going to happen. This year I was very lucky and got outside as much as a family man with a job could possibly get out. And in a good month I got two to four days on real rock.

Given my objectives I don't think I need to do relentless conditioning of my crimping muscles. I don't think I need to do tons of monotonous campus training. I don't think I need a rigid, periodized schedule. But if I want to keep getting better I need to improve my general physical condition and train with a bit more purpose. And I need to lose weight. So I've identified a few goals, along with the methods by which I intend to achieve these goals.

Goal # 1:  improve endurance. There are two things I can do that I hope will make a big difference in this area. The first is that I have to make myself start cycling regularly again. Even if it is just for one hour, three or four days a week, if I do it regularly it will make a big difference in my overall fitness. I have considered other sports and given the time constraints I have, and my antipathy towards running, I think it's cycling or nothing. So I just have to make myself do it. The second thing I intend to do is to take a portion of my gym time and reserve it for endurance work. I don't intend to devote my entire gym session to it for weeks on end-- that would risk misery and burnout. But maybe once every two weeks I will spend a session simply trying to stay on a wall at the gym without pumping out for long periods, traversing on an easy bouldering wall for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. 

Goal #2:  lose weight. Here again I have two ways I intend to make progress. The first is, again, to get back to cycling regularly. When I was at the height of my cycling mania, I was starving all the time. I was constantly burning calories and constantly losing weight even though I ate like a teenager. And I weighed at my best about a dozen pounds less than I do now. I know I will not get back to the same amount of cycling I used to do. But if I ride regularly I will make progress. The second thing I intend to do is to improve what I eat. I won't go on some fad diet or eliminate all bread from my meals or anything crazy like that. I am fortunate in that I currently eat tons of crap that I can easily eliminate from my diet and still be left eating reasonable food. I can stop eating potato chips with lunch, stop snacking on candy that people leave around the office, stop having ice cream in freezer at home, and I think these steps alone will make a huge difference. The main thing, I think, is to get myself motivated to do better on a daily basis. So I have purchased a bathroom scale and I think I will start keeping a log of my exercise, diet and weight, just to try to make myself do some basic, regular things to get fit. And I may start bringing healthy lunches to work from home so I can avoid the temptation to eat some huge deli sandwich or pizza in the middle of the day.

Goal #3: improve pull muscles and core strength. I hate lifting weights and I don't own a hangboard. But I do have a neglected pull-up bar and there are many simple exercises one can do at home. At first I plan to just try to do some of Horst's recommended strength exercises after every cycling session-- pull-ups and crunches three or four times a week. Since I am currently doing no strength exercises, I believe adding these two regularly may make a real difference. If at some point I want to add more, then fine. Additionally in the gym I can make it a point once every couple weeks to devote a session to repeats of very overhanging routes, and maybe even to campusing easy (V0-V1) boulder problems. 

Goal #4:  improve my climbing skill set. This will require a shift in my attitude more than anything else. I believe I am in a bit of a rut at the gym. When I climb roped routes, I gravitate towards the 5.10s. When I boulder, I tend to do V3s. I do these routes because I usually can do them. I try harder routes and sometimes I am surprised and find them easy. Most of the time they are hard for me, but only on rare occasions do I take a route that is hard for me and work at it until I tame it. I see other people take a different approach. I have seen a climber struggle on a V3 bouldering route I have found easy, but then I have seen that same climber move on to a V5 that I have never even considered trying. The difference between that climber and me is that that climber believes anything is possible, while I am held back by an imaginary ceiling. I want to break through the imaginary ceiling and devote at least one of my gym days every week or two to taming routes that are harder than my current level. 

So now you know my plan. I hope it adds things to my program that will improve my climbing, without making my climbing sessions into a never-ending chore. I'm sure you'll be relieved to know that I won't be posting my daily progress here, but as the months go by I will let you know how it's going!


  1. You might check out Dave MacLeod's book "9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes." It does a great job of putting the different aspects of training into perspective, without getting bogged down in specific regiments. Plus, he is a bold trad climber, so his advice jives better than the advice in those sport climbing books.

  2. I will take a look at it, thanks!

  3. Keep up the good work by the way.