You Must Be So Fit

I’m so envious of your life – you must be so fit!  You must work out all the time!

If I had a dollar for every time someone has said this to me….

It’s a common misconception in my industry that as a trainer, you get fit simply by osmosis.  First of all, I never approach my time in the gym as a “work out”.  There is always a goal, always a purpose.  I am usually in pursuit of some measure of strength, whether it’s the desire to effortlessly execute 10 dead hang chin ups, chasing my elusive double bodyweight deadlift, overhead pressing 30% of my bodyweight…you get the picture.   I have goals, and they take consistency, planning, time and sometimes math to achieve.  So I seldomly get into my gym just to work out.  That I save for my bike.

Yes, I do get to demo exercises (never with my working weight), and occasionally I have a client who insists I match him chin up to chin up (I’m happy to oblige), but for the most part, I watch others train, and this, for the record, does not improve my fitness.

To be successful at what I do, I have to read a lot, answer emails, build and maintain relationships, write programs, continue my education, all this in addition to the hours I actually spend with clients.  I’m one of those people who wishes to never be entirely comfortable, so my drive and thirst for knowledge sometimes overtakes the need and time available for sleep. 

Another little known fact is that I have two children.  Two children that in addition to relentless dance and soccer schedules, pull off consistently good marks – academics are valued highly in our household.  Building solid work ethics, and keeping them well fueled and rested, again, takes time and consistency.  They are not as successful as they are by chance, I’ve put in a lot of hours to get them there.

I’m telling you this not to make you feel sorry for me.  I have a thriving business, my own gym, and a job that I absolutely love.  But to be honest, there are lots of fit women in this community, with ample hours to train, and I’ve found myself from time to time a little jealous.  The message here is that with all these demands on my time, I have to train as smart as possible to maintain my own fitness.  In the words of Joe Friel – train only as much as needed to achieve the desired effect.  With age comes responsibility, and too often, I hear others giving up on their own goals. 

Hypothesis to be tested:  Can a time constrained cyclist really gain fitness in only 6-8 hours per week?

Two years ago, I signed up for my first Gran Fondo – from Vancouver to Whistler.  I did this in part to show my road bike that there was another world outside my living room, and in part to see what I was made of.  In terms of my cycling fitness, my introduction to mountain biking usually involved driving up and riding down.  Sure, I’d get out and climb occasionally, see improvements when I taught weekly spin classes, but my riding consistency and overall fitness was definitely not what it should be.  So the idea of riding my road bike 120 km to Whistler, with its fair share of hills, was for me definitely a challenge.  Then there was the whole issue of time – how would I make this happen?  The magic of signing up and committing to an event, is it makes you train.  I had a few people I knew around me that were training for the same event, and I was motivated not to be the weakest link.  One trainer in particular who I worked along side at the time told me point blank she was going to beat my Grouse Grind time (she didn’t), and I imagine her personal goal was to beat my Gran Fondo time (again, she didn’t).  I wrote a program for myself and a client who was also planning to race, and took my road bike outdoors.

It was terrifying at first – road riding - sketchy brakes and skinny tires – when my past experience was knobby tires and disc brakes.  Is this really riding?  North Vancouver isn’t exactly road cycling friendly.  My first ride out with my good friend Cynthia was filled with stories of how she’d been hit three times to date while riding.  Not exactly confidence inspiring.

Hypothesis:  Will putting in road miles improve my mountain biking fitness?

But train I did.  2-3 times weekly in my living room on my trainer, sweating, heaving, while my son cheered me on, and my teenage daughter avoided looking in my direction.  What I was religious with was my weekly long ride, getting up at the crack of dawn on Sunday mornings, sometimes riding to Squamish and back (130 km) before my children had even gotten out of bed.  I craved my trail bike, but I stuck to my plan.

About eight weeks into my training, I went out for an XC ride in Whistler with a group of guys to pre ride that year’s Betty and Veronica race course (a fun women only mountain bike event).  Some of the climbs were grueling – grades we don’t have in North Vancouver – but it was an epiphany – while my brain told me I couldn’t possibly make the climbs, my legs had a different idea – and they went.  And they climbed.  And they passed.  I remember pulling up beside one of my friends, realizing that I was actually going to drop him.  I hope he didn’t see the ear to ear grin on my face. 

Lesson learned:  You are always 8 weeks away from an improvement.

All this gained by simply riding with consistency, sticking to a plan, and for the first time ever in my mountain biking career, riding slow and long.  I set a simple goal, to finish in the top 10% of my age category.   I began my training about 20 weeks out, and got really focused in the last 9 weeks.  I stuck to the plan 80% of the time, and tried not to stress when life got in the way for the other 20%.  I rode 3-4 times weekly, averaging under 8 hours per week.  Race day came and I had a great ride.  Felt strong, fuelled well, did lots of passing on the hills.  Finished in Whistler feeling like Lance as I rode to the finish line amidst fanfare.  I achieved my goal of finishing in the top 10% for my category (not bad as there were 500+ riding in my category), and gained a new understanding and appreciation of the true benefits of training smart.

This was probably the easiest fitness gain I’ve ever made in terms of overall effort.  The biggest improvements came from focused intervals and a once weekly long ride.  The simplicity is beautiful, and the output overall not that difficult.  I learned to enjoy the road.  It’s a much more social type of riding than the trail.  The distances you cover, the coffee you drink, the camaraderie of a new group of cyclists you haven’t encountered yet.  Burning a whack of calories so you can justify non stop eating for the rest of your day.  Taking the stairs and feeling your legs in a way you’ve never felt them before.  Heavy, done.  Truth be told though, I didn’t abandon the baggies until the actual day of the Fondo.  Still a mountain biker.

Lesson learned:  If you train smart, have a plan, you can achieve a measureable gain even without the luxury of time.

Setting a goal, having a plan, seeing success – it’s what we all crave and need, and it’s achievable for every one of us.  What are you made of?

All materials ©2019, Monika Marx | Design by Action Design | Development by John Housser | Photography by Stephen Wilde and Danielle Baker