Saturday, March 30, 2013

Spin Class Isn't Just for Girls Anymore

I think spin class is for girls.  

Or, at least I used to.

I was a firm non-believer.  Spin classes were for overweight wannabes, soccer moms, or the super athletic, spandex wearing gym rats that never do anything outdoors.  Spin classes had nothing to do with actual cycling. 

As a cycle snob, I didn’t think spin class could do anything for me.

I tried a spin class a few years back with a group of Soldiers.  I walked into the room thinking the class would be a waste of time.  I made sure that during the class I didn’t enjoy myself at all.  The seat was uncomfortable and I never felt like I was actually pushing myself during the workout.  I left feeling unchallenged and unsatisfied.  I was also not a cyclist back then, and laughed at guys wearing spandex/lycra and goofy jerseys riding around town or down the highway.  I was a runner and you would never catch me on a bike like that.

More than a year later Char and I made a decision to try something new.  We wanted a new hobby that we could both share and learn together.  It had to be healthy and get us out of the house.  She was a strong swimmer and I was struggling to keep above water.  I was a strong runner and she could never keep up on my long runs.  Our strengths and weaknesses kept us apart during our workouts.  Cycling was neutral territory as neither of us had ridden in years since we were kids.  Oh, I played around on a mountain bike in college and let her borrow it a couple of times.  But, otherwise, we were totally new to the cycling experience.

We bought new bikes and some inexpensive starter gear and started riding on the weekends.

As we developed as cyclists, and I began riding farther and faster during the weekends, the idea of a spin class still didn’t appeal to me.  I just didn’t see how it could do anything to improve my cycling.  I thought the only way to get better at something was to do that thing over and over until you improved.

Over time I became a more accomplished cyclist and began devoting more of my time to researching the sport and ways to improve my own performance.  There is a lot of literature that promotes using spin classes to develop stronger rhythm or cadence and fast twitch muscle fiber.  I loved riding in the mountains but had trouble with the longer hill climbs and began to realize that I was missing something in my workouts.

A few months ago I read a Facebook post by someone who I knew had become quite an accomplished cyclist.  Their weekly Saturday spin class instructor had put them through a grueling 4-hour workout.  4 hours?  That’s right about how long it took me to do my first 60-mile ride.  I couldn’t imagine being in a spin class for that long, but it gave me pause when I considered what that kind of intensity could do for my own fitness level. 

Then I found myself here in the desert on my pseudo vacation and without my bike to ride.  The borrowed mountain bike I used during the Tri the Deid Triathlon just wasn’t cutting it for my workouts.  The stationery bikes in the gym just couldn’t approximate the feel and posture of riding a real bike.  The Death Ride Tour was and still is approaching and I needed a way to prepare for it.  I wasn’t sure if spin bikes would really approximate the feeling of a road bike but it was the closest that I could come to the real thing. 

My first spin class was almost an accident.  I was doing a weight workout followed by cardio on the bike with a battle buddy.  All the regular bikes were full so we went into the spin room to use theirs.  As we were pedaling a spin class showed up and started warming up.  As the instructor started giving instructions, we shyly got off our bikes, and slinked out of the room.  But just those five minutes convinced me to come back. 

The next week I showed up for my first spin class.  The instructor was upbeat and very detailed in his instructions.  He took the first few minutes to ensure everyone had fitted their bikes correctly with regards to seat and handlebar height.  That alone made me more comfortable with the class and made for a much more effective workout.  Instead of fighting with the discomfort of the bike I was able to follow along with the different phases of the workout undistracted.  We did an assortment of intense intervals of hill climbing and sprints.  I left the spin class both exhausted and very excited about the workout I had just endured.  It was the closest feeling to cycling that I had experienced in months and I was determined to make it a part of my regular weekly workout plan.

The Spin Bike Room

Since then I’ve tried to hit at least two classes a week in conjunction with a weight-training workout.  The results have been telling in both my swimming and running.  The spin classes have been an incredible cardio and leg muscle workout and have helped to
shave more than two minutes off my 500-yard swim time, and 12 minutes off my Half Marathon.

Only time will tell how my cycling has improved once I get back to the States, but for now I’m confident and excited to continue to make spin class part of my regular routine.

The true test will be in two months when I take on the DeathRide Tour V in the mountains of Southern Colorado.  Until then I will keep spinning and cycling every week.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Gym Rat?

Are You Calling Me a Gym Rat? How Dare You!

I’ve never been one to lift weights and going to a gym has always made me self-conscious.  I am a skinny guy; I have small arms and not much upper body strength when compared to your typical gym rat.  With my predilection for endurance sports, I’ve never felt the need to lift weights or get “pumped up.”  I felt that most of that weight training would be lost on me.  It would just create extra weight that I would have to carry around on the bike or while running.

A few months ago, I read an article about weight lifting for cyclists.  It started me thinking about what I might be missing out on by avoiding the machines and free weights typically associated with body builders, football players and guys that “pick things up and put them down.”

Last summer I began training for my first triathlon.  I was already a runner and cyclist, but not much of a swimmer.  Let me be honest.  I had a solid sidestroke and that was it.  I couldn’t keep my face in the water for more than a second or two before I was choking and flailing for the side of the pool.  Char found me a nose-plug that helped me keep the water out and we spent the entire summer working on my swim routine.  As anyone who has read my previous posts knows, we did manage to get my swim up to where I could finally complete my first triathlon without lifeguard assistance or rescue.

Then I came to the ‘Deid.  I was determined to spend as much time as possible in the pool and get this swimming thing down.  As I developed my stroke and built power in my lungs, I started to notice that now the issue was my tired legs and arms.  I needed more muscle in my shoulders, chest and back to keep my stroke fast enough to propel me through the water. 

For the first time in my life, I hit the weights. 

I was timid at first.  I furtively glanced around the room to make sure no one saw me adjusting the weight on a machine, lowering it until I could lift it.  I wasn’t comfortable with my workout routines and I didn’t really have a solid plan.  I just picked a couple machines that didn’t look too uncomfortable and that I could figure out.  Some of these things look more like medieval torture devices than fitness equipment.  When I found a few I liked, I started hitting them a couple times a week.  I started to notice results in the first month.  I wasn’t really getting bigger, which is what I was afraid of, but I was feeling stronger in the water.  I was swimming faster for longer.  But I needed a better plan.

Sometimes, that’s what friends are for.

My boss is a meathead, and most of my coworkers can brag about benching some ungodly weight that makes me gasp.  They started dragging me to the gym for their workouts.  They showed me how to not be afraid of several of the free weights and more diverse machines.  At first, the muscle soreness was pretty scary and I was embarrassed to be lifting only a fraction of what they were using.  But over time I learned to accept my limitations and feel confident about the weight that I could handle.  Equipment that I couldn’t figure out before was now familiar and fitted into my own personal workout program.  I don’t feel bad at all about walking into a room full of weights, proudly picking up some bars that are probably meant for small children, and grunting away with the other Neanderthals.

I’ve started looking forward to my gym time.  I plan workouts that specifically require me to hit the weights either as a warm up or break between cardio sessions. 

I think I’ve become a gym rat.  I pick things up and I put them down.  Then I lift them over my head or pull them towards me.  Then I pull them down or swing them away.  And I make sure to grunt in a manly manner.

But on a serious note, I am swimming better.  I feel stronger in the water and my times are slowly dropping.  I don’t have to pause between strokes to breathe and recover.  I can maintain a pretty solid pace without exhausting myself after each lap.  My legs feel stronger and recover more quickly after a good run.  I noticed all these improvements in the Tri the Deid Triathlon last week.  Even after forcing a fat tire mountain bike through 15-20 mph winds I had enough strength to run an 8-minute pace for 3.1 miles.

Maybe becoming a bit of a gym rat isn’t such a bad thing.

Now, how do I get into that yoga class?  That looks like fun.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Tri the Deid

I Tri’d the Deid!  Which sounds worse than it actually is.

Last weekend I competed in the Tri the Deid Sprint Triathlon.  It was a modified sprint tri with 500 yard swim, ~11 mile bike ride and a 5k run.  The swim took place in an indoor 25 yard pool, thus the unusual distance.  The bike ride was 4 loops around the living and sustainment area of the air base with mostly borrowed mountain bikes.  There were a few teams and units that managed to smuggle and ship over their fancy carbon fiber road bikes, but for the most part we all rode on rickety mtb’s.

Let me go ahead and put this out first so there are no surprises or misconceptions.  I didn’t win.  I know, a surprise.

But I did get swim a personal best in the pool, and I rocked it pretty hard on the bike ride. 

The most intimidating image before a triathlon for me is the empty pool waiting to suck the life right out of me.

As everyone knows, I’m not much of a swimmer.  In my first ever triathlon in September ’12, I swam over 15 minutes for 400m to be the second slowest swimmer on Fort Bliss.  This time I was a little farther up the list with 13:15 for 500 yards.  All the time in the pool finally paid off.  I actually swam faster for a longer distance.  Just have to brag for a minute even though I was one of the slowest swimmers overall.  But this time, I was farther from the bottom than before.
I came close to being lapped, but was proud of my time nonetheless.

My bike ride was pretty awesome, for being on a fat tired mountain bike in the wind.  I pulled a 42 minute ride, the fastest guy on a carbon fiber rode a 27 minute time.  Most averaged in the upper 30 miuntes and most of those were on road bikes.  So, I beat almost all the mountain bikers.  And, believe me, there is nothing better than passing guys on road bikes like they’re sitting still.  Wimps.

Trying to ride a fat tire mountain bike into the wind.

My run was nothing to brag about.  After swimming and biking, my legs were trashed.  I came off the bike and could barely pick them up and put them down.  I ran a 24:52, almost a minute slower than I had anticipated.  On the return leg of the out and back course, the headwind was really frustrating.  Luckily, I had a friend in a fellow Captain that had just finished running for our battalion’s team (and scored the fastest 5K of the day) and came back to run with me for the last half mile. 

Check out my sexy shorts at the end of the 5K.  Also, that's CPT Akremi who came back after his 5K to motivate me.

Lesson learned this time around is that training pays off.  I’ve spent a lot of hours in the pool working myself to death to improve my atrocious swim form.  Also, even without the cycling amenities I have back home, indoor cycling and spin classes do pay off.

Best decision of the day was to keep my swim jammers on for both the bike and run portions of the tri.  The Army PT shorts I was supposed to switch into after the swim would have bunched up on the bike ride, especially in the wind, and would have chafed during the run.  Riding and running in a pair of TYR swim shorts (long “speedo” style) was a good decision that paid off in time saved and skin unmarred.  I may have looked funny, but I felt great.  Coincidentally, I had just ordered a triathlon short and top set that will be waiting for me when I redeploy.

Overall, it was an amazing race and great affirmation of all the time I’ve spent working out over here.  It filled me with the confidence to keep training for more triathlons.

We rarely achieve anything alone.  At times, we must all rely on someone to pass us a water or motivate us to finish.