The pain cycle

Pick up a cycling magazine or drop yourself in the middle of any pack of young male cyclists and you’ll hear this message loud and clear: to make the most gains in this sport, you have to push yourself as far as you can, and then repeat. I went in to the sport living this mantra, and boy did I work my ass off. I showed up at group rides, the only B rider, and was forced to hang on to the wheels of the jet engine A group. On the mountain bike, I put in full days with a group of guys, forcing myself to dig into the red zone until my hamstrings couldn’t take it anymore. And on my road bike, I trained for an ambitious first century, one with 8,000 feet of climbing in the sweltering August heat.

Am I crazy? Looking back, I’m beginning to think so.

Instead of shopping for dinner, I found myself scanning the frozen veggie aisle in search of the bags that best contoured to the shape of my aching limbs. I also bought ibuprofen by the jug, popping it like vitamins just to fall asleep some nights. I won’t completely discredit the science behind this intense training. Yes, I was getting faster, increasing my endurance and lactate threshold. But at what cost?

Cycling was slowly losing its appeal. I was resting and recovering more than I was riding. And when I was riding, I was whining and complaining. And no one wants to listen to that for fifty plus miles. So last fall, I put myself on the bench and set out to find some answers.

I hit my own grocery list of specialists. Chiropractors, orthopedists, physical therapists, a cycling coach: I tried it all. And while I picked up a few tips here and there, nothing hit the jackpot. I was still sidelined by my pain. But I was slowly getting somewhere. One of the best things I did was to get a bike fit (and a new women’s specific bike). Think of how many rotations your legs do every ride– thousands– fixed to a pedal in a steady rotation. I quickly learned where my knee should be in relation to my pedal and what a difference it made! No more pain in my back and I could easily spin for hours. I was halfway there.

The second key piece to my recovery was the most surprising to me. It was nothing that I would have ever done on my own or thought of for cycling. But when a female cycling buddy reported that acupuncture had significantly improved her IT band, I figured it was my last shot.

I quickly overcame my fear of needles as my legs looked liked porcupines. Every needle caused my sore muscles to sputter and release. It was painful at first, causing more pain and raising my doubts. I quickly realized that I wasn’t just being treated for sore legs, but my body was being treated as a whole. We analyzed my diet and lifestyle. She quickly identified me as an overdoer. I was stretching too forcefully, exercising too vigorously, and not resting enough. I started doing self massage, gentle stretches, and gradually building up my miles. It was so frustrating starting at square one as my friends hammered away, but it was well worth it in the end. By listening to my body and throwing away all the training charts and interval workouts, I was following my own recipe for building endurance and strength. It wasn’t written down in any training plan, but was instead based on my own intuition, that tiny voice I had been ignoring and pounding into the pavement for so long.

Yes, I still overdo it at times (I may or may not be sitting on a frozen bag of peas as I type this), but I’ve learned to reign it in and to listen to what my body is telling me. Instead of hammering away at every hill, sometimes I sit up and spin, finally taking in the landscape, something I never noticed before because I was too busy following the leader to the top of every hill. I like these new rules. Cycling is fun again.

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