How I fight my inner gym teacher

An occasional riding buddy asked me why I pay for a coach when I don’t race bikes.

I enjoy riding my bike. So much so that if I could, I would get on my bike and never get off. Until I was too distraught and exhausted to continue.

The coaching I get — virtual, via Training Peaks — helps me avoid that. Because I’ve got a human, trained in the coaching, and a former pro racer, watching over me.

He keeps my workouts reasonable. He admonishes me (nicely) for ‘colouring outside the lines’ and gives me positive feedback when I do well and when I stick to the plan.

His comments are a constant reminder of how I must meet and turn away from my tendency to over-do it.

Gym class wasn’t gym class until someone barfed

When I was in grade school, I had a phys-ed teacher for whom gym class wasn’t gym class unless someone barfed.

He died in 2016. I read on his memorial page comments from his students — some I went to school with — speaking kindly of him and praising his fear-striking, insult-hurling approach because it made his athletes stronger and, after all, deep down, he really cared.

Me, I think, it helped turn into a self-loathing masochist whose appetite for athletics extends well past the range of sensible into self-abuse.

I stopped eating for a while in my last year of high school. I don’t blame that gym teacher (or any other teachers for that matter) for this. It was a combination of adolescent insecurity and a need to define myself as an adult and autonomous human that kinda backfired.

That episode started with me obsessively running and weight training to be a better rugby and/or football player to make the first team and all that. But it got to the point where I really didn’t care about the sport any more and would go for a run after practice because practice itself wasn’t enough exercise.

Then I realized that football had the potential to injure me and keep me from running. So I quit the team and just kept running. Until weight loss and caloric deficits made me so distraught and depressed that I couldn’t handle the thought of lacing up my shoes.

As hard as you can for as long as you can stand it

Fast forward to me trying to take up running as an adult. School gym classes had given me no greater understanding of how to train than “go as hard as you can, as often as you can, for as long as you can stand it.”

So that’s what I would do. What it looked like was some sort of hero run, followed by five days off where I was too stiff to move. And when my legs were limber again, I would go again. And I’d never get any faster. Running would never feel any easier. And then I’d hurt something. Then stop.

Then I discovered the Running Room. Their clinics got me into running in a sustainable way that allowed me — for a time — to improve my fitness, my health and yes, my speed.

Running Room clinics offer one or two nights a week of training with a coach, and a program that expects participants to run on non-clinic nights.

Each run has a set pace and time. But if you don’t follow it, your coaches are none the wiser. And I just had to be me.

So I have these blog posts of me going on about how I know the program says 5km, but I decided to do 10km instead. And how I thought I might try to run 70km a week instead of the planned 45.

Had they known, I am sure my clinic leaders at the Running Room would have told me to dial it down. And I should have. Because of course, I got injured. And not a cute little ‘take a couple of weeks to heal up’ injury but a ‘Son your legs will never work the same again’ injury.

Coaching offers sustainable fitness

That’s what led me to going all-in on cycling and signing up with a coach. Yes, cycling is easier on your body than running so the risk of injury is lower.

More than that though, I realized I needed oversight. Succeeding in the sport wasn’t just about having a technique or a training method. It was about taming my psychology.

I am very much in the “numbers or it didn’t happen” camp. If I wanted to, I could ride offline and hide that from Coach Jake. But then it wouldn’t ‘count’. And I could not countenance that.

Since I’m racing mostly against age and competing mostly with myself, the numbers — and the Strava “hardware” — reward my effort.

Remote coaching only works because of the numbers. For each ride, the coach knows your heart rate, how much power you were putting out, how much power you can put out, the temperature, the elevation profile of the course, how fast you went and at what cadence. With this, the coach can tell whether you’re sticking to the program they have set or whether you’re overdoing it or under-doing it.

To me, the cost is worth it. I’ve been doing my riding with a remote coach for more than five years now. It’s the longest period of sustained physical activity I’ve seen in my life. I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been. I have no injuries and am pretty fast for an old guy.