Training the mind and body

I’ve been a regular cyclist for 25 years. For the first decade, I was serious, riding every day and following schedules from books and coaches. But if I’m honest, my approach was always based more on “trying” than “training”–I would often skip days, then put out an extreme effort when I did ride to make up for my inconsistency. In the end, this meant I had less fitness than I could have, and races and training involved more pain than they needed to.

Since my son was born, the limits on my time have forced me to focus my riding. I now do most of my rides before dawn on the indoor trainer, and each ride has some structure to it, often interval training. Because of the consistency and efficiency of the indoor rides, I can get up to 5 1-hour workouts per week, and finish before he wakes up in the morning.

A typical interval session sees me spinning slowly at first, then shifting gears to increase the effort for a period of time before going back to spinning. This process repeats up to 30 times per workout. It feels mechanical at times; that I’m treating my body like an IKEA chair durability test. But it’s had a remarkable effect: in just a few hours a week, I’m now close to the fitness I had 15-20 years ago, when I had much more time to ride. And these efforts feel a lot easier than the workouts I did then.

Recently I also started using the Headspace service to practice mindfulness and guided meditation. It struck me today how similar the process is to my cycling training. The Headspace approach is based on short (10-minute) daily sessions. I do them before I ride in the morning–which means getting up just a little bit earlier, but gives more consistency than trying to fit it in later. A typical session spends a little bit of time relaxing and getting settled, then focuses on one or two physical sensations: sound, body tension, breathing, etc.

The part most similar to my cycling is near the end of each session, where the guide encourages you to let the mind go, to let it wander and think about whatever it likes. Since this comes after several minutes of focus, it feels like a rest, giving the mind a chance to catch up to the effort. But every time, after a minute of rest, the guide tells you to refocus, to pull the mind back to center and let go of the thoughts it had wandered to. This feels to me almost exactly like the point in a cycling workout where I shift up and start a new interval effort. The mindful focus is the effort, the wandering the rest interval.

You can’t expect to always be focused, just as you can’t expect to always push at the highest level on a bike. Both processes involve effort and rest. And also like cycling, you can’t make up for an inconsistent mental life by “trying” even harder. The mind requires regular training, just like the body, and the right type of training makes everything easier and more effective.

In a recent Sunset magazine article, a writer spent a day just like a Hollywood celebrity. It involved workouts, special meals, and a busy social schedule. He came away with the feeling that the celebrity life was more like athletic training than hedonistic indulgence. As a celebrity, your image is your livelihood, and it requires regular effort to maintain.

Training isn’t something just for athletes–it’s a process for the mind and the lifestyle as well. It’s been interesting to see how similar techniques can benefit each of those.

How fresh legs feel

Floating bikes

Tour de Suisse tackles the P2HR

My “Perfect 2-Hour Ride” in Zürich looped around the Pfannenstiel, a climb that the Tour de Suisse went over in today’s time trial. I watched it online and it was cool to see professionals on the same roads I rode not long ago!

Kreuziger descends from the Pfannenstiel:

Kreuziger at the point I took some photos last fall:

Kreuziger climbing Pfannenstiel:

Fränk Schleck descends toward the Zürichsee:

Schleck climbs:

Valverde climbs; I never had this many cheering fans along the road, I’m afraid:

John Gadret at the peak, where I’d go straight but the tour went left.

Science |

I love that chocolate milk is now positioned as a sports drink. I’ve long been a fan, actually…

Inner child

Giro from afar

Watching the Giro prologue live and remembering my own visit to the final Giro TT last year.

A bike birthday ride from Andermatt to Interlaken

My favorite web service, the Photojojo Flickr Time Capsule, just reminded me that it’s been a year since I received and set up my Trek Madone road bike–the third frame replacement from a 2005 Lemond Versailles original.

New bike (a year ago; I’ve already replaced the saddle, rear wheel, and cranks)

My bike is basically a Ship of Theseus at this point (thanks Blindsight for the reference), having had almost every piece of the original replaced to make up its current form (seatpost, derailleurs, and brake calipers remain). Still, it’s my bike and I love it.

To celebrate (doesn’t everyone celebrate bicycle birthdays?), I took the day off and rode with a friend from Andermatt to Interlaken. My GPS failed me so you’ll have to trust I rode this route, albeit climbing a bit slower. I did get some video proof however:

And captured this otherworldly landscape from the top of Grimselpass:


Happy birthday Madone!

Alpine tour: Furka, Nufenen, and Gotthard passes

Headed out to Andermatt on Sunday to tackle 3 passes: Furka, Nufenen, and Gotthard. 2 of these I’d missed when I broke a crankarm bolt before Alpenbrevet, and I was seeking redemption.

Managed to make it this time, with the help of my new long cranks and little chainrings. Learned that it gets plenty cold at the tops of mountains, even when it’s warm at the bottom. And also learned to never take the train north from Andermatt when you’ve got a bike–I changed my mind at the first station and rode the rest of the 1000m descent instead!

Danny Hart crushes the World DH

Possibly the best bicycle riding I’ve ever seen…Hart wins the world championships by over 11 seconds in torrential rain in Champery, Switzerland.

Cycling the Stelvio

So far, I have mostly constrained my European cycling targets to those within Switzerland (of which there are plenty, to be sure). But when a friend suggested we ride the Stelvio Pass in Italy, Europe’s 5th-highest paved road and the 2nd-highest pass, it was like a new world opened up–cycling in another country on a day trip. I couldn’t join him then but vowed to do it before I left.

Of course, at 2757 meters (9045 feet) elevation, time was running short before the weather changed. The Stelvio is usually only open from mid-June to late September, blocked by snow the rest of the year. There is an annual motor-free day as well, where cyclists take over all three summit roads. So when yesterday’s forecast for that event was clear and dry, I snuck out of the house early to pursue my goal.

I caught a train in pre-dawn darkness to Zernez, in the Engadin region of the Alps. The bike car was full of riders and machines; mostly mountain bikers heading for the single Swiss National Park. They boarded another bus while I started riding up the Ofenpass, my 700m “warm-up” climb. I could see my breath as I climbed in the cool morning air, which quickly heated up when I crested and descended into the town of Santa Maria.

I crossed the border with nary a glance from the customs officers, and continued descending into the town of Prato, the traditional start of the Stelvio climb. From there it was 25 kilometers and 1800 meters to the top. The organization had set up a little departure celebration with food and drinks, something they repeated at a few places up the climb and which was very welcome.

The climb started well, with shaded roads and steady gradients. I spotted the first of 48 countdown signs at the apex of the first of 48 switchbacks. Soon, however, we left the trees and shade behind and the switchbacks began in earnest, snaking their way straight up the mountain.

The views were incredible.

I met up with another friendly rider, even taller and bigger than me, and we rode most of the climb together. Near the top I was cramping frequently but managed to just hold it together until the summit. We enjoyed the view and the (thin) air while recovering with Cokes and sausage sandwiches (yes, even for me–3 hours of climbing does that to you).

Then it was time for our well-deserved reward: the downhill. I was headed back into Switzerland via the Santa Maria route, as was my friend. We finally got our revenge on the flyweights as we cruised effortlessly past them on the barren, moon-like upper slopes of the descent.

The amazing thing was that since most riders had already finished their climb, but the roads were not yet open for cars (they opened at 4pm; we started the descent at 3:30), we had a completely free path. It felt like it must in the Giro or Tour, with pristine mountain passes blocked off for your personal use. Not until the very bottom did we encounter the first few cars, after 30 minutes of free and clear descending.

Back in Santa Maria, my friend offered a ride in his big Mercedes van back to Zernez, which I gratefully accepted. That saved me another 700 meters of climbing and 90 minutes of riding. I spun out my legs for 7km to the town of Susch, and hopped on the next train.

I made it back to Zurich just before the skies opened up and rain cooled down the air. I think it even snowed on the Stelvio. And here’s what it looked like at 4pm today:

I’m glad I got my chance to suffer on the Stelvio.

Here are the video highlights (the long descent starts at 27:04):

The route map:

And all my photos from this epic day: