walk before you run … or bike

Image courtesy of hin255 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When you’re really passionate about something, it’s incredibly important to know your limits. For instance, the marathon first-day ride I set out to do a few years ago was a great example of sticking my fingers in my ears and going “la-la-la” while my limits flailed around helplessly, starved for attention and likely seeking counsel for neglect. But I had a bicycle, and I was going to use it. Even if it killed me. Really, if you want to be dramatic about the way I felt the next few days, then you could say it nearly did.

I was, back then, about 230 pounds. I was at a point in my life where it was enough of a challenge to extract myself from my computer chair and walk around the block a few times, let alone bike twenty miles to work. I’m pretty sure that burst of ambition was completely guilt-induced – that is, all of a sudden I was in possession of an expensive (to me) gadget that was specifically designed to make my life better, so I had better start using it or think of the starving children in Africa with no bicycles and you should be ashamed of yourself.

This should sound familiar to anyone who has ever purchased a piece of gym equipment as encouragement to get into shape. What should also sound familiar is the fact that it didn’t work – not at all. In fact, it seemed to have the opposite effect: every time I looked at my bicycle after that, I was forcefully reminded of those days I spent writhing in pain, presumably as punishment for even thinking about how good a McGriddle sounded while I was pedalling to my death. And, not surprisingly, that made me somewhat averse to repeating the experience.

See, back then, I wasn’t aware that while limits were made to be stretched, they also exist for a reason. Your body knows how much strain it can handle at once, and it knows how to repair itself – to an extent. For instance, your body will heal a few fibres of torn muscle faster than, say, a whole torn muscle, which will heal faster than a broken bone, which will heal more efficiently than a decapitation. The great thing about muscle fibres? They’re designed to break.

When you use your bare hands a lot, your skin builds up over the heavily-used areas with calluses, making those stronger. It does this because, unless your skin has existential issues, fortifying that area would probably be a good idea if the intent is to continue using them the way you are now. The same strategy applies to your muscles. Except muscles are really good at it. They’re so good at it that they break for fun. If you want to make your muscles happy, break a few of those pesky fibres. Because when they break, new ones are formed that are even stronger than the wimpy fibres you had before. (If you want to be weird, you can think of them as making calluses on the inside.)

It becomes an entirely different matter, though, when you break so many that it’s a full-blown injury. When you have a deep cut on your hand, the scar tissue that forms later is actually weaker than your normal skin, as it’s formed in a shorter period of time and under duress. There’s more pain involved, obviously, and it takes longer to recover. So while I was in bed groaning and berating myself and essentially not moving, my body wasn’t getting stronger – it was recuperating. Not only that, but pain sends a very powerful signal to your brain: if you do this again, you will suffer. And while there is a certain class of people who enjoy that sort of thing (like bodybuilders and Dobby), most of us just want to wear jeans again without our midsections looking like rioting escapees from Denim Prison. Therefore, if you punish yourself every time you do a form of exercise, you probably won’t want to keep doing it. And if you stop exercising, guess what happens to the strong muscle fibres you nearly killed yourself to get? They get weaker still. Which means that yes, you did just torture yourself for no reason, and you’re probably worse off than you were before.

What I figured out this time around is that stretching my physical limits is not the same as punishing myself. In fact, the two are mutually exclusive. What the product hawkers at Super Intensity Gym 5000 won’t tell you is this:  you can do basically anything more than what you’re doing now, and your body will think it’s getting some awesome exercise. My car broke down at around the time I was starting to become more aware of my body’s needs, so this was more of a necessity at first, but the basic gist is the same. Here are the steps I took; I know they won’t work for everyone, but like nearly everything else in this world, they can be tailored to suit your specific body type, location, and ambition.

– If you drive to the store, park toward the back of the lot.

– Drive less. If your city/town has public transit, use that as much as possible, because you’ll end up walking a few blocks from each stop to get where you’re going. (If you have trouble with this step, pray for expensive car trouble during a period of unemployment. That usually helps.)

– If you have a bike, bike more. Start out with little trips to the store and back, or with little errands. I remember how out-of-shape I felt the first ten or twenty times I decided to take my bike on errands that required more than two miles of riding. (Note: Do not bike fifteen miles up a hill to an interview if you’re not used to biking fifteen miles up a hill every day. You will look and smell like a hobo, and you will not get the job.)

– Give yourself new challenges every time you set out. Like, “I’m going to walk three more blocks today to the next bus stop instead of my usual stop.” Or, “I’m going to try biking three miles instead of two.” Or, “I’m going to put groceries in my backpack instead of carrying them on my handlebars.” Once you get used to the idea that anything can be turned into exercise, then exercise starts becoming part of your normal routine.

– If you bike (or walk), find a scenic pathway in your area that you can ride or hike. Double plus if you can picnic there or find a place to read. It’s a reminder that exercise doesn’t always tie itself to a chore, and that getting somewhere is often half the experience. (I hesitate in saying “fun,” because I know for a fact that getting hit in the face by branches or pushing your bike halfway up a hill because you were overconfident in your thighs of steel isn’t fun, but a bit of tasteful bragging to your friends about your newly-found physical prowess kind of is, and in order to keep doing something, you have to remember how you got there in the first place.)

After months of building up the slow way, I take my bike nearly everywhere now – unless I have to save enough money to get a part or buy a new tube (note: if you bike heavily, it may be wise to invest in the super-thick tubes with sealant in them, especially if you live in an area prone to goatheads and/or broken Mad Dog 20/20 bottles). Then I figure out how much time it’ll take to walk somewhere (Google Maps has a “walk” function when you “Get Directions” somewhere; it’s a pretty good estimate for how long it takes the average person to walk from point A to point B. Did you know that if you kept a steady pace and required no sleep or nutrition at all, you could walk from Los Angeles to New York in only 918 hours?? That’s only a month and some change! Wow!), and make sure to set out about fifteen minutes before that in case I get distracted by a butterfly.

What? It was pretty.

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