More is less - Training in the Era of COVID-19

April 08, 2020

As a community, we bike racers have come a very long way in a very short amount of time. Things are changing at an unprecedented rate in this sport. Most recently, that change has not been positive — for any of us. And we are struggling, like every other community on earth, to come to grips with just what that means for us as individuals.

One thing that rings true for all bike racers is the concept of sacrifice. A lot of times, we’ll make short term sacrifices in training or racing to benefit the bigger picture. Sometimes this can be as simple as sacrificing that extra dessert cookie to the bike racing gods in exchange for a better watt/kilogram ratio in our upcoming hilly race. Sometimes that can be much deeper, as in sacrificing a product relationship in the name of something you believe in. And sometimes, sacrifice can be directed beyond the self. Sometimes we sacrifice a race opportunity to stay behind and help a friend in need, or to celebrate a momentous occasion in someone else’s life.

Right now, I’d like to ask my fellow bike racers to pause and consider an alternative to their optimistic, if self-interested goals of continued growth in light of a very unusual event in our world. And really, it’s not that big of an ask, as many of the larger governing bodies that provide the infrastructure for us to race our bikes are actually making the hard decisions for us. Yet many of us still don’t seem to understand. Things are changing rapidly in this world, and we must make a sacrifice for the larger good over our own self-interest in athletic betterment. A time will come, for you and me both, to pursue those things once more. But that time has distinctly come to an end, for now.

It’s perhaps upsetting to think this way. But upset is an integral part of sport. For many of us, this is the very stuff from which dreams are made. Defeat is really nothing more than fuel for the fire. Still, this one is different. It’s undefined. And it’s the kind without precedent from which to derive a timeline for return. It’s also perfectly timed to spite us the most, as it has come around right as many of us have only just begun to write the story that would have been our 2020 racing season.

We already put in the work — the early mornings in the gym, the hours and hours spent suffering in the name of progress, and the social engagements missed due to an overwhelming degree of fatigue built up in the name of something much more significant for ourselves come May. Many of us have only just successfully returned from a major injury. Some of us have even come back from two major injuries since we last raced. And despite it all, every single target that we had laid out for the coming season has now been torn out from beneath us on the eve of its realization.

But right now, none of that matters. This time is different. And we need to treat it as such. We must do this for our own benefit as athletes, but also for the sake of humanity because our choices here can quite literally mean the difference between someone’s loved one living or dying, if not ourselves. And that is the fact that I don’t believe most of us are wholly equipped to grasp just yet.

Nicole Pressprich riding in Oregon after the season was effectively canceled.
Finding playful lines in the forests of Oregon.
Early season work paid off with a podium in Texas.

I should qualify this challenging perspective with some of my own sacrifices as an athlete in light of this pandemic. One short month ago, I had already hit 3,500 training miles for the calendar year. I had put in more time in the gym than ever before. And I was seeing the results of all this hard work, both in early-season racing and in the unrivaled group riding scene that is Tucson, AZ. What’s more, I’d finally managed to secure everything I needed as an athlete to take the stress out of racing. I had travel covered by sponsors. I had been given the best equipment I could dream of to train with and race. And I had finally finished the buildout of a custom van conversion that could get my fiancé and me to all of the races on our schedule. It’s complete with all the niceties of home right there at our fingertips. It was going to be the season we had always dreamt of having. So yes, I understand how hard this is.

Without exception, every one of the athletes I coach was also on the cusp of a breakthrough season. For those who had started racing early, the results and category upgrades were stacking up at a pace that exceeded all expectations. Opportunities followed, with guest riding spots, early preparations for a first UCI racing experience, and countless power breakthroughs by each one of these inspiring individuals, even just this past weekend. Telling these friends that I no longer support their efforts to grow as athletes were some of the harder things I have faced in a long while. But at my core, I know that this is the right choice, the only right choice for us all.

In a time of unprecedented technological advance, it’s so easy to lean on technology as our savior in the gross absence of any external output for our amassments in fitness gains. But here is a new reality: that biofeedback you are holding onto and those CTL numbers you wake up every morning staring at are no longer relevant. There will be no racing for a long, long time. All of the races from the spring racing period have now canceled or rescheduled to the fall. Yet we likely won’t be racing in the fall either. Most medical experts today agree that regardless of how the virus spreads this spring, or how long this spring’s outbreak lasts, it will hit even harder in the fall.

I’ve been through a good deal of personal strife in my short time on this earth, a good deal more than most people my age. And the hardest part of any of it, without a doubt, was the unknown. The period between initial diagnosis and initial treatment, the days spent awaiting results from biopsy, awaiting emergency surgery, awaiting results from a follow-up scan, those were each the hardest times in my life. Harder still, is the thought of my family out there in the waiting room as I spent an unknown period on the operating table before an outcome could be announced. Waiting for answers is hard. It’s absolutely paralyzing, at first. It leaves you lonely, like not much else in this life can do. It leaves you limp, on an abyss of nothingness, with only the ghosts of adverse outcomes to keep you company. But the most significant commonality in all of these scenarios, that which I began to take comfort in after many, many rehearsals, is that an outcome always comes. So choosing to continue to enjoy life in creative new ways, despite the unknown, is entirely up to us. This is true even when doing the same thing we have been doing, interrupting progress and all, is no longer an option.

Finding more reasons to ride for the sake of riding. Less for the training load.

What I’m proposing here is hard. But consider the effects. Maybe we continue doing what we’ve always done, stressing our bodies for minute gains, or even just for fitness maintenance. That kind of effort comes at a substantial cost. Yet if done with all of the current guidelines in mind, it still stresses the immune system to the point that we are far more susceptible to contracting the virus when we do take off our superhero capes and head out into public to grab more groceries. And to what end? Even if the current projections of the scientific community are wrong, and we are lucky enough to race our bikes again in the year 2020, is it worth the gamble? Beyond self-inflicted immunosuppression, what if we continue to train all through the spring and summer to find out once again that the prospects we had for the fall are pushed back until spring or summer of 2021? To me, the off chance that we’ll race again this fall is certainly not worth the physical and mental toll we will incur in relentlessly pushing our bodies to their limits during this period.

So let me propose an alternative. This has been my personal position as an athlete for three weeks now since I returned from my first big race of the year, which was ultimately my last. I am no longer an athlete. For now, I am simply a human being. It’s a different race than the one I am used to, but a far more important one. It’s a race that is under attack and set to lose far more lives than any war in history. I am going to side with my humanity and do what I can, even if that is nothing more than watching Tiger King on rerun.

Importantly, the current guidelines allow for my continued riding outdoors with my immediate family. So I will continue to do that for as long as I am able. Which I know may also come to a halt for a while too. In this new practice, I will focus on the basics: gratefulness and moderation. I will think about my place in this world right now, and how that relates to my place in this world both before and after this pandemic. I will consider that for so many of the people I know by name and see at my “races,” this is already what they are practicing each and every day. I will continue to ponder how I can blend that attitude with my future racing aspirations because it’s not just one single choice for me. It’s a task that I will have to continue to work at, long after this strange period comes and goes.

Meanwhile, I will take solace in the fact that I am doing everything I can reasonably do to contribute to the collective effort we all face in combating this global threat. My family and I will be safe as a result of this small sacrifice. So will countless others who I might otherwise interact with daily, even though we might all remain asymptomatic. Whenever racing does return, I will be ready to get back to work, fueled by this break. I won’t be scarred by a year of eternal, aimless “training.” I will be ready, but only when this world is ready. Importantly, I know I won’t be alone.

Finding adventure with those who matter most in these challenging times.

My top 10 immediate rules for responsible physical activity in the times of COVID-19*:

  1. Ride your bike not to train, but because it makes you happy. Ideally, this will help you to remember your passions for this activity that athletic progress has suffocated for so long.
  2. Ride by yourself or only with members of your immediate household. This is true even if you’re staying six feet apart, as there’s no reliable way of controlling your respiratory cloud out in the wild, short of riding in an N-95 mask.
  3. Only ride from your doorstep. Don’t drive to ride because it encourages unintentional spread to other communities and also crowding at ride meetup spots and trailheads (which are now illegal to use in most states, if you weren’t aware).
  4. Stay off of singletrack and ride in areas where you won’t likely encounter others. If you live in an urban area and following this rule would mean sticking to your basement, that is your only responsible option right now. Don’t lie to yourself, thinking you can responsibly avoid others when passing on singletrack. You might be a trail ninja, but that trail is built for one.
  5. Practice an extra degree of caution, because a trip to the ER right now for a broken bone or sutures is not only the riskiest thing you can do from an infection standpoint, but it’s an incredibly unnecessary use of an already throttled health care response.
  6. Limit intensity to 60% of your maximum heart rate (or a 6 out of 10 in perceived exertion, for those who don’t track heart rate).
  7. Bring all of your own snacks and supplies to ensure that you don’t need to seek outside contact to enjoy your time outdoors. Consider taking a Katadyn water filter or similar if you need more water than you can carry.
  8. Eat well. No, restricting calories to stay slim in light of decreased work volume is not helpful right now.
  9. Stay hydrated. Start each day with a tall glass of water.
  10. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY — this is not the time to push through any symptoms or signs of uneasiness. Consider taking your resting pulse in the mornings to help judge your body’s underlying fatigue levels and realize that external factors like increased anxiety can play into this more than you might believe.

*Did you slip up on one of these rules? We all make mistakes in judgment. We are human. But take ownership of your mistakes and do your best to stick to these rules and we will all be better for it. These may well change as the science around this outbreak develops, and protocols evolve.

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