Roughly two years ago I wrote an article to explain how, after a long period of inactivity, I wanted to incorporate again regular physical exercise into my routine. At that point I had started to exercise at home... how did it go and where am I now, after 24 months?
Let's say that even with the best intentions and goals, we are pretty much guaranteed to fail to achieve them unless two critical aspects are not part of our approach:
A genuine interest and drive to the tasks required to attain the goal.
A way to measure and take stock of progress for each goal.
In my case - I had a genuine interest and drive in keeping my fitness level in general. But I discovered that this was not holding up for the "how" I choose to achieve these goals: doing exercises at home, to me, gets boring real fast.
I was also missing a way to measure my progress. Apps can help but at the end of the day counting the number of push-ups I can do, or the seconds I can keep in a position doing planks does not motivate me. It's just not my cup of tea.
What happened then, naturally, is that I gradually lost the drive to continue my exercises. Slowly, other activities started eating into my exercise time. Any excuse becomes valid to do something else. Until I stopped exercising, again - if we exclude weekend hikes or walks in the open (something that I like doing much more).
The moment of truth
Fast forward a few months, to the summer of 2021. I just arrived at my holiday destination. The place I was staying was not exactly in the centre of the city, so on that day, I ended up walking much more than I usually do. When it was time to get back, I realized that although I had no issue in returning to my place, I was feeling absolutely exhausted. Sure, it takes some day to acclimate, but even with that into account, I felt the muscle aches and lack of energy were completely unwarranted. This is something that really struck me and made me realize once more that I was not paying attention to my fitness.
After that, for the rest of the vacation, I resolved to walk and hike as much as I could. Same for swimming, I made a point of swimming more and for longer stretches, just to push myself a little harder and start honing up my resistance to more appropriate levels.
When I finally got back from the vacation, I didn't want to let the momentum fizzle out. Knowing that home exercises wouldn't work, I decided to start going out for runs. I never particularly liked running, but I do like being in the open and where I live there are plenty of quiet spots in nature where I can go. So even with it not being my favourite activity, at least it was taking me to places I liked being.
The first run I did was for 5.65 Km on the 1st of September 2021. I know that thanks to my sports watch. It took me 33 minutes and one second. As the device also has a heart tracking function, I was able to observe how the poor muscle was struggling to cope with the intensity of the exercise I put it through.
But it was a start and, more importantly, I was doing something that not only I enjoyed more than the previous activities I tried doing, but also something I could measure. More importantly, I could observe the effects that training was having on my overall fitness by using metrics. For example, I could see that even running the same distance and pace, my heart rate was lowering and I was feeling less under strain. Or, I could push a little more and cover more distance, or increase my pace, while remaining within appropriate heart rates for my situation.
The moral of this is: never underestimate the motivational push that can derive from observing one's own failure. The feelings when a temporary setback occurs can be tapped and morphed into fuel which will propel you toward your goals. It is important however to remain honest and acknowledge what has gone wrong to do so.
Old habits die hard
Fast-forward a couple of months, I had to visit my family back in Italy. There at my family home, I saw my old road bicycle getting dust in the storage room. Somewhere in my wardrobe, I managed to dig out my cycling kit, shoes and helmet from back in the day. Sure, not up to the latest fashion spec, but who cares!
I thought: I'm probably not going to be able to do much more than 10-20 Km, I'm not used to being on the saddle and it will hurt. But the bicycle was there, beaming and glinting back to me with the hope that I would take her for a spin again.
I was a little apprehensive about the decades-old tires and the brake callipers have gone unchecked for a similar timespan, but I couldn't ignore the occasion in front of me. I clipped in my shoes and off I went!
In uncommonly balmy weather for the end of October, I started pedalling and heading outside town, toward the same hills I went to many times in the past. It felt particularly good: in my opinion, bicycle speeds are ideal to wander around and absorb all the surroundings with all of your senses. In a car, you go too fast to notice anything less than the major landmarks. With a motorbike or moped, the sound of the engine will cut out the sound of your surroundings. If you are on foot, you usually cover far less distance: the extent of it is very limited.
Possibly thanks to the time spent running and using the spinning cycle at home, I found that I still had plenty of energy in me after 20-25 Km. At that point, I was near an intersection, one way leading back home, and the other leading to an uphill, more panoramic road section. It's a Cat.3 climb of roughly 3.3Km and 200m ascent, with an average grade of 6.6%.
Me being me, I attacked it with all my might 😀
Of course, I was not prepared for it and my vintage bicycle has gear ratios that are not designed for unfit people trying to climb a hill. This means I was moving really slow and had to stand and push for every pedal stroke. It was really hard, my heart was pumping like crazy and my legs and muscles were burning like hell, not used to taking this kind of punishment. I had to fight the urge to turn around my bicycle and ride the descent more than just a couple times.
In the end, I persisted and managed to get to the top. I stopped and I took a picture to take in the nice view in front of me - and also to catch my breath!
Since I was not planning a longer ride, I didn't bring any food with me. So - having enjoyed the nice and fast descent from the hills - I suddenly realized I had eaten into my energy reserves and ended up limping back home at a very slow speed, with my butt and wrists hurting from all the vibrations on the saddle and handlebar, and my lower back agonising from the prolonged posture on the bike.
When I got home, I had completed 55.3Km and 414m of total elevation. Despite the general body soreness and hunger, I had made it, and I was grinning like a Cheshire cat.
Rediscover your passions
From there, the wheels were literally set in motion. When I got back to the United Kingdom, I continued doing training runs for longer distances (10 or 15 Km). Going back to Italy again during the Christmas holidays, I was able to enjoy my bicycle a few more times.
One of the advantages of having lived in the UK for a while is that I have hardened up to the cooler weather. This means that I was able to convince myself into riding in freezing temperatures, something that would have horrified me in the past.
In my hometown, during winter it is quite common for the whole place to be firmly held in the grip of a thick fog. But as soon as you hit some elevation in the surrounding area, you literally pierce into the shroud and can enjoy terse and cool blue, sunny skies.
In the end, these bike trips demonstrated very eloquently what strikes a note for me in regards to sports and fitness🥰.
At the same time, going back to Italy every time I craved to pedal was not really an option, so once I got back to the UK I decided to equip myself with another road bike to explore the British countryside!
Do what you like the most
I have to say my brief affair with running has now ended. As soon as my bike was delivered, I just swapped over to cycling 100% of the time.
In my experience, I find running much more punishing to my body than cycling is: it would not be uncommon for me to feel some discomfort in my knees or feet after a long (10 - 15 Km) run. Conversely, with my road bike, I get muscle fatigue, but I very rarely have any discomfort at all. Most of the discomfort went away after the very first rides when I needed to get used to staying on the bike for many hours and in an awkward position to my usual ones.
To track my progress, I installed speed and cadence sensors, as well as a proper heart rate monitor. Paired with Strava, I can obtain a ton of insights about the routes I take, the segments I do and my performance on them.
For example, I can look at a specific road segment and review all my efforts on it. I can literally see how I am improving over time as I train more. I've seen (and felt!) my heart pace moving into lower, more comfortable zones as I progressed.
Take the below one, it's a climb I first attempted back in February. It took me more than 13 minutes to clear it at that time. Fast forward a few months later, in June I'm able to clear it in 10:32 minutes. I can pat myself on the back now 🤣
I'm also enjoying tons of useful content and advice from Youtube. For example, the Global Cycling Network channel has helped me immensely in understanding what to do and what to avoid, how to eat before and during a ride, how to tackle challenging road segments correctly, improve my cadence etc...
Most important of all, I am truly enjoying this activity. There are many wonderful places around where I live here in the United Kingdom. Great country lanes, fields and pastures with all sorts of animals and birds lurking around. I am not training or exercising, I am just enjoying being active in nature and I am looking forward to it every time I go.
Last but not least, why not combine my other passions together (photos/videos) and see if I can create some cycling content myself as a hobby? To that note, I adapted my action camera to fit on the handlebar and here is one of my first attempts at it.