I’m a strength coach. I train people to get stronger. I’m also training to get stronger. I’m a powerlifter.
Oh shit… actually, I’m not. I haven’t done a powerlifting meet in two years. I haven’t picked up anything over 365lbs in over two years now.. I’m not actually concerned with getting that much stronger right now. What I’m currently concerned about is mountain biking. Concerned isn’t the right word; excited is.
Last year, I decided I wanted to do a bike race. After making that decision, I picked out a bike for all-mountain style riding, purchased it, and started riding. Yes, this is out of the typical order of doing things. I began riding Stillwell Woods on Long Island, riding 5 miles at a time. I also rode at Mountain Creek Bike Park in New Jersey, where the trails are rough and rocky but require little if any pedaling. It was as quick as I could wish for, and a great challenge. Alas, I was missing something.
I was actually missing two things. The first was bike skills; I hadn’t rode a bike in years, let alone ever before at that technical ability. I also lacked the aerobic capacity that many experienced riders have. So, I decided to improve on those two for this season. More accurately, I decided to give a lot more attention to my cardiovascular fitness. What do I mean by that?
Developing technical skills for any sport will always take longer than developing the necessary fitness levels for that sport. In this case, my body knows if I’m on a rocky or rooty trail when I’m handling the bike. It has no idea where I am when my heart, arms, or legs need to work harder. As a result, I’ve been working more. Through the winter I was working a bit differently in the gym, and now that it’s warm enough to ride, I’ve been doing far more of it. For example, last week I rode more than I had in all of 2014 combined.
The week began with a 12-mile jaunt through Central Park, then a 15-mile excursion to Brooklyn. The weekend included 23 miles on the trails of White Clay Creek State Park in Newark, Delaware. During those rides, and as I write this two days later, I realize that I’m far less beat-up or fatigued than I would have expected to be. Quite simply, I’ve done a much better job of prioritizing things. Fitness first, riding second.
You see, riding is really really fun for me, but last year I wasn’t very good. Nothing is going to be fun if you suck at it. I bought a bike and headed right out onto the trails, which was fun, and exhausting. Rather than getting out on the trails to ride mile after awkward mile this year, I’ve been working on the strength and capacity necessary to string together those miles more gracefully.
10.5 hours of work over the course of a week, including two strength training days, wasn’t nearly as shocking as I expected, simply because I’ve spent months working up to that amount of work. Let’s be certain; it’s not for fat loss, it’s not for competition. It’s because riding is ridiculously fun for me, and being fitter will allow me to have more fun.
The search for fun has informed my most recent fitness realizations.
I’ve long appreciated that strength is the basis for all other characteristics of fitness. As you get stronger, you have the potential to increase power, endurance, and work capacity….but not if you don’t train those. It’s a current cliche in strength & conditioning to stress the significance of strength work. It’s great and essential for general fitness goals, but when something becomes specific, you have to shift your training.
Bias towards strength, then bias towards performance goals.
Getting stronger is great, when it’s framed in a way to support performance goals. Often it may be, but not every client you may see is a marathon runner who is secretly waiting to do their first powerlifting meet. Focus on getting strong enough, then train the hell out of the things that mean the most to you.
Include more aerobic work.
That’s right, more aerobic work. For everyone. Yes, it’s a blanket statement, and I’m aware that it could appear to be a pendulous swing from the “Everyone needs to get stronger” strength training crowd. But it’s true. We need to do more aerobic work, period. Does this mean that everyone needs to run, spin, swim, and count 10,000 steps every day? Maybe. If your workout isn’t elevating your heart rate at all, you may be missing out on other benefits of exercise.
Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been dedicated to including high-intensity finishers after the majority of my strength training lifts, while avoiding consistent steady state cardio on the same days. Things flip on other days, when I intentionally maintain a steady heart rate for 30+ minutes. It’s the classic model of aerobic training. I’m doing it to avoid interference from training styles, but guess what? I feel so much better!
I’ve taken this n=1 experiment and applied it to my coaching clients, programming at MFF, and general recommendations. YES, you should walk those 10,000 steps per day, and YES, you should walk or go on a light jog on your day off from ‘hard’ training, and YES, you should get off the bus two stops early and walk. I consider it all physical activity for our mental health, with physical benefits as an added bonus.
Fun trumps everything.
If you’re not having fun when you exercise, then you’re missing the point. Maybe the program isn’t appropriate for you, or maybe it’s your mindset. Ultimately, I believe that there are enough exercise options that we can always have fun when we’re training. If it’s not fun, you’re not going to do it, and if you’re not training, you’re complaining.
I’ve had more fun on my bike this spring than I had in the previous two years. Prior to that, I had more fun preparing for my two powerlifting meets than I ever had before. Is one better than the other? Hell no. They’re both a blast, and I’ve learned more about my own body and exercise science interests in the process. My adventures in mountain biking, and therefore endurance training, is sure to continue through out the summer. It’s time for pump tracks, cross country trails, and the bike park. With that I’ll continue to learn, and pass on everything that I can. Now, let’s make sure you’re having as much fun as I am!