Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Frenemy

I've long claimed that I don't train. I ride my bike to hang out with friends at good caf├ęs, after taking in all the magnificent scenery on the way. I don't use a heart rate monitor. I don't do intervals. I don't race. I just ride my bike.

But the reality is that all that riding can have the side benefit of increased fitness. And sometimes I do seek out hills and make an effort to get up them in short order. But still this is not training, not in any structured way, not in any way that a coach would call training.

And to go along with my anti-training attitude, I have long resisted indoor exercise of any kind. I am no gym rat. For me, bad weather just makes an adventure more memorable. 

But since last autumn, my outdoor-only, non-structured, lackadaisical approach to exercise has been in a bit of conflict with my need to recover and regain some strength.

Initially, since it was all I could do, I walked. In fact I walked and walked and walked some more. I logged a lot of walking time last autumn, and found lots of interesting places to explore on foot. Of course, each time I walked on a new trail, I thought about whether it would be good for riding - because... ya know - I'm a cyclist! I did thoroughly enjoy my walks and found that I saw and took pictures of things I wouldn't necessarily see or stop to photograph on the bike.  We often talk about how we see so much more on a bike than in a car. Well slow it down a little more, and there's even more to see!

But as much as I enjoyed and appreciated my walks, it was always with the idea of getting strong again to get back on the bike.

Once out of the brace and freed to start doing some core strengthening, I started a structured PT program. Indoors. The first day that I was able to get on an indoor bicycle was very exciting for me! The thrill didn't last very long though. What is there to look at in the gym? Sorry, watching TV or watching other people suffer just isn't the same as seeing a sunset, or watching the wind-swept waves through a grassy meadow, or seeing the white tails of deer as they bound off into the woods. I quickly found I wanted to be outside. This was doubly enforced when I decided to do the Festive 500 indoors. After watching way too many videos and sweating and suffering way more than I ever would outside, I knew that indoor cycling would just never become a thing for me!

But since I still wasn't able to actually ride outside, I headed down to the Harvard Stadium. I'd heard about people who would run the stadium. This sounded really hard. I decided to start easy. The proper athletes run up the seats (at twice the height of the steps), and then run down the steps. They move from section to section, climbing each and every one of the 37 sections. I started slow. I walked up the steps, slowly. Then I walked down the steps using the handrail. Until you've lost all your core strength, you may not realize how much you use your core when going down stairs! This was truly enlightening. And while it wasn't quite the changing views one gets on a bike ride, at least I was outside, with sunshine and a breeze.

The first time out, I walked for about 20 minutes. Up the steps in one section down the steps in another. Until I ran out of handrail. I'm not sure why they only have handrail on just a few sections, but it probably saved me some pain the next day! As I was still quite weak and being pretty cautious, I stopped when this crutch of sorts ran out. Good thing. I could barely walk the next day. My calves were screaming!

A couple of days later, I went back, careful to stop after 20 minutes, and to stretch my calves lots.  After a few visits, I built up the strength and confidence to let go of the handrail. My calves had become accustomed to the workout, and now my abs and other core muscles got in on the action. 

I started going twice a week, and slowly added a little more time and distance. I worked my way around the stadium. I went from doing one section up, the next section down, alternating sections up and down - to halfway around, then all the way around, then all the way around and halfway back and finally all the way around and all the way back. The temperatures increased as I increased my strength and time. So I started carrying water bottles with me, to encourage me to swing my arms and to have something to drink along the way. 

Recorded with my phone. GPS signal isn't the most accurate. I really don't weave all over the place. The toughest thing is when strava says 0 feet of climbing, since the phone doesn't have an altimeter, and the maps don't have the elevation data for the steps!

And while it isn't the most exciting thing to do, it can be fun to watch teams who come out to practice on the field, or other walkers, or the folks who actually run the seats, and do pushups in between sections - the hardcore athletes. I even occasionally would meet a fellow stair walker and strike up a conversation. But usually it was just a wave or nod from afar, an acknowledgement that this is tough, and a thumbs up.

One day, I decided it was time to try the seats. Now this was a whole new level of effort and it really used glutes and lower back and hamstrings. Similar to my initial outings, I just did a couple of sections this way, and slowly started to build. 

But there is no coffee shop halfway around. The view really doesn't change much, and I can't say that I consider this fun - like a nice bike ride. But I am seeing my strength return, so I keep going back. It's like my old frenemy - the water tower. It's hard, but rewarding, and it's outside.

But speaking of the water tower, I finally made my return there on a bike a few weeks ago, before heading to a coffee shop.

Frenemy, indeed!


  1. Black tape on the shoulder -- my friend Lynn uses the same tape on her knees.

    Nice report giving a good explanation of why doing stairs is good training.

    1. I still have a scar on my left shin from where I missed the next higher step or bench when "doing stairs" on the the football field bleachers during high school cross country practice.

      360 students in the high school --> you can guess that the total volume of up-and-down was significantly less than your wander-about in Harvard Stadium.