Motivation- I rode here last year and home afterwards

I’ve been wanting to write something about my training for ages. The reason I haven’t is that there’s a huge disparity between what I say to others and what I do myself!!! Do as I say, not as I do? Well not really. You see, I don’t have a regime and I don’t record and analyse what I do. It doesn’t work for me. I’ve had to be very flexible about what I do and the big steps forward have come from listening to what my body and mind are saying rather than following a  training regime every week. My ability fluctuates hugely still, although at a much higher level than when I started and some days my mind just says NO when I contemplate riding. I nudge things around and sneak up on it sometimes and the element of surprise seems to work. I’ll pretend I’m not going out all morning and then throw my kit on when my head least expects it!

I may plan to do a tough hill session and end up spinning or visa versa. There’s always an element of suck it and see, it’s more Fartlek than Interval. I have a Sport Science Degree and specialised in Sports Psychology. I understand the fundamentals of training and when people ask me what to do I have a series of stock answers before ever considering the bike. Firstly, if you want to start riding, do it gently, after going to your doctor and getting a health check. It’s nothing to be afraid of and means you won’t find yourself having a cardiac arrest at the roadside because you didn’t know there was a minor problem!

Next, I had to learn to set my bike up so I wasn’t inviting injury by sitting/riding badly. There are a plethora of articles out there on how to do this. If you’re not confident, go to a proper bike shop (not Hal****s) and get them to check it out. They will set it up with you and all you have to do is ride it. I chose to do this myself and looked for comfort over and above everything else. I’d previously crushed a spinal vertebra in an accident and I need to sit more upright or my back goes into spasm. It’s also why I run a wider saddle, this gives me more support and in over 4000 miles last year I never ever ached at all (thank you Santos Travelmaster). You want to be comfortable, especially if your touring, otherwise it’s a miserable experience and you can get that watching Eastenders!!

Early days

I had a barrage of health tests when I began riding and the results weren’t pretty. I had to change my diet, lower my cholesterol ( I produce quite a lot) cycling lowered my percentage body fat and I had lots of joint pains to contend with on top of having had two cartilage operations on my left knee. Stretching  and flexibility became a main stay of my weekly routines and training. I stretch before and after every ride and do Yoga/Pilates 4/5 times a week. All the aches and pains disappeared as I did more of this and I highly reccomend you do some.  I only do 20-30 minutes a day. It’s also helped my (sometimes) fragile and vulnerable mind too, having a grounding effect that leaves me feeling more level, even on days when I feel Sh*t. Cycling has this effect too and I always feel better for having been out as long as I ride honestly to what I’m feeling on any given day.

When I started riding I weighed 15 stone. I weigh twelve now!!! I’ve gradually lost all that body fat. I didn’t feel very big at the time and was gobsmacked last week when I got weighed as part of a health check. Cycling burns calories, that’s for sure. Working hard you can burn around 600 kcal an hour. Even going slower, 300 kcal is normal. Great, you can look at the scenery, work your Cardio Vascular system (C.V) and lose weight, without pounding your joints to death, all for the cost of a bike.

I started gently. Hills were big scary things that macho-men in tights danced up and I wheezed and strained up. By staying on the flat I built up my Cardio Vascular system (heart and lungs). I also gave my tendons and ligaments time to catch up with the game. Let me expalin why? Firstly, you work on your Aerobic system, the system that utilises the air you breathe in with every breath. You do that because your Aerobic system governs ALL your recovery. Poor C.V system =poor recovery=poor fitness.  Your heart gets bigger and stronger and your lungs more efficient (and you muscles get more efficient too) Secondly, your muscles strengthen quickly and your ligaments/tendons much more slowly. So, keeping to the flat lessens the chance of injury or overuse injury to these in particular.

To increase the workload on the flat, I span the pedals faster. This means you use a greater percentage of your Aerobic Capacity which increases your fitness without overloading your muscles/tendons and ligaments. So many people ride along pedalling too high a gear with their legs revolving slowly. Bad,bad,bad, it encourages injury and doesn’t work your C.V system, so get those legs spinning and you’ll feel the increase in demand it makes on your lungs and heart. Spinning is a great technique to learn and really helps on the hills, unless you’re Alberto Contador and weigh 6 stone!!

What I found was that I could incorporate sections of ‘training’ into a general ride. I’d spin for a while or power along in a higher gear and then slow down, getting back to enjoying the scenery.  I built this up in a totally non-scientifc manner, learning about what I could and coudn’t do. I also learned a few pedalling techniques both sitting and standing. Once on the road I had to face the hills though. I learned quickly to back off at the bottom and spin the pedals, taking it easy as I could. I’m no athete and don’t want to be, so making myself throw up on every hill just spoils the ride! At this point I also began to learn what food and drink worked for me whilst riding. generally we have  Glycogen stores for about two hours  , so we need to eat whilst riding or we meet ‘the wall’. Even at a gentle pace we use Glycogen stores to help burn fat, so this is important to understand.

Early 2010. Cycling equals cheesy grins

I was 49 when I started and whilst I dont have a heart rate monitor, I do have a brain and it knows when my hearts getting near the limit, cos I can’t manage and get really breathless, just like you do.  Stop, rest, stretch, drink, eat and look at the fabulous view you have from the climb you’re halfway up already. That’s what I did. Once recovered, I’d carry on. Seriously, learn how it feels to be at a certain point in your C.V. systems ability really helps you ride. If your really comfortable when you start you’re probably at about 50% of what it can do. With time and effort you can ride comfortably at 70-80% of what it can do ( more for elite athletes). The fitter you get, the quicker you recover, that’s what fitness is.

Improvement is initially really fast. Slob to forty miles in a day in a few months, yes, anybody who applies themselves can do that. Where the sport science comes in is when you are a reasonably fit rider who wants to avoid the dreaded plateau where you never get any better. That’s not what I’m writing about or why I ride, so I don’t want to go there. I only wanted to gain enough muscular endurance to go ride for days on end, recovering inbetween, so that’s what I focused on.

What I figured was that if I could ride three times a week, on a regular basis, I’d get fit enough to tour and that’s what I did. Any more and I would be over doing it. Any less and I’d lose the training effect as the gaps between sessions were too big. Some folk build up to tours by carrying increasingly heavy loads in order to ‘get used to it’. This is not good because it increases load on your joints etc without benefit. It doesn’t increase your fitness, you can do that by working harder, increasing the intensity and duration of the hard work sections of your ride. By all means have a few weekends away with your kit. I did and built up my touring through a series of preparation tours, but don’t do it in training.

One of the great joys of doing something new is that you learn so much about yourself. The mental preparation for my ride last year and for this one is so important. I had to learn to listen and act on what my mind and body told me, otherwise I’d bring myself to ‘crisis’ where the world is something I can’t cope with. Not good!! Initially I had ‘butterflies’ and sometimes nigh on full panic attacks just being away from home!! To cope with that I bought a folding bike and trailer. I kidded myself that I could always catch a bus or get a taxi home and it worked. I got to ride further and further from home until I was confident enough to ride a full sized bike and not worry.

With the Sustrans crew in Ayrshire-Looking a lot slimmer!!!

I was almost as nervous about my first tour of four nights as I was about the ‘Round Britain’ ride. I know nerves, being an ex-runner and climber and they’re my friend. They tell me I’m ready for what I’m about to do and bugger off once I get going. Sometimes they tell me I’m being stupid and I’d better not do whatever it is I’m about to. Knowing the difference is something born of experience and you will have to find that one out for yourselves. Usually though, we ‘suss’ out situations and our intuition tells us the truth. Learning whether to listen to it or bypass it is a lifetimes work !!

My next ride will stretch me mentally and physically. I have to use trains, ferries and fly home at the end. I feel ready to do this now, whereas last year I wasn’t, so the coast was the natural border to my adventure and why I chose to ride it. Knowing when/how far to move the boundaries and when not to is an art form. Looking back, I couldn’t have done more than I did last year and looking forwards I feel nervous about what I’m undertaking. It isn’t debilitating though, so I reckon it about the right size step. I’ll only know when I do it and if I knew I would succeed right now then the boundary would surely be too close!

The experience I’ve gained over the last two and a half years is something that you can only gain for yourself. You can read all you like about how to tour, what to take and many other aspects of riding a long distance, but you have to work out for yourself what things work for you, like how much gear you need, how many miles a day, how to look after your bike, how often to eat/drink and a myriad of other things.

You can do this several times a day 🙂 Adventure is in the mind, you don’t have to go far. My first ride on the Tarka Trail was an adventure, as was last year. We can all have adventures, we just need to believe in what we do. It may be that your first adventure involves one night away in a B&B, YHA or tent or you may want to circle the globe. Whatever it is, go and do it by being true to yourself and taking that first step. The stumbles on the way will increase your self awareness and your self knowledge/confidence and you may find yourself in a world of  new opportunities and hope.

N.B: If I can help/support you to get started in any way please message me here or on my facebook pages:  Graeme Willgress & GraemeWillgress.com. Nobody else will see what you write and I’ll do wheatever I’m able to help. Have fun 🙂