Friday, January 16, 2015

Exercise is a drug

This is not news to a lot of you: exercise acts like an antidepressant and stress reliever. Those of us who have experimented with a variety of forms of self medication will have figured out that exercise needs to be managed like a drug.

Setting aside the addictive substances famous for monopolizing users' lives, your lifestyle enhancers, legal and illegal, all create a cushion effect in which the user requires more of whatever it is to reach the desired level of whatever you're going for, whether it's mellow relaxation or euphoric energy.

Coincidentally, exercise can provide both of those, whereas most mere substances specialize in one part of the energy spectrum. But I digress.

The experienced user will know that occasional periods of abstinence improve the effect of "the stuff" when its use is resumed. In training we call these abstinence periods "rest days." Yep. You're just managing your habit so you get more high on less stuff. At the same time, hard-core exercisers may be using other substances to improve their performance, particularly if they've been sucked into the competitive side. That complicates their equation, but it need not complicate yours. Racing is the best way to turn any fun activity into a neurosis. A little is educational. A lot can make you delusional.

When I first took up the 30-mile commuting day I would ride 50-80 at least one day a week and try to mix up the pace a bit on other days to make 30 seem shorter. I don't remember when I ate and slept. I know I did. I had been a racer, so devotion to distance seemed normal. If you want to ride more, ride more.

When long and longer rides don't fit the schedule, you have to shorten some days. The Schedule has a way of eating away riding time. As long as the habitual exerciser maintains the basal level necessary to function, the mind and body absorb the fluctuations. And when circumstances taper riding down to zero, the gradual process takes care of detox and withdrawal. Or so it seems.

Schedule and circumstances brought me to zero a month and a half ago. Once you reach zero it's really easy to go a day at a time through weeks and weeks. The thing that got me into transportation cycling in the first place was the knowledge that if you don't put exertion right in front of yourself, between you and whatever you want next, you'll probably walk past it. Or more likely drive past it.

Have you ever been so completely exhausted that you could feel the energy you get from every breath and feel it leave you with every exhalation? You will only reach that point if you have to stay awake for some compelling reason. In my case it was usually a road trip. Back when gas was cheap and hotel rooms were dear, and I had no money anyway, I would drive straight through to wherever I was going, whether it was four hours away or 24. If I absolutely couldn't go on I would pull off and sleep in the car for a while.

Hotel rooms are still expensive. I hate shelling out for what's basically just a bed and a bathroom I'll use for eight hours or less. I can sleep as well in my car as I can in some overpriced roadside fleabag. At least in my car I know who raised the fleas. But I digress again.

A body habituated to exercise, that has been deprived of it to where real deterioration has set in, will react to the faintest breath of it the way that exhausted driver does, rousing on the inhale and nodding off again on the exhale.

My ordinary activities do require a certain amount of exertion in the winter. I have to split some firewood nearly every day, and carry loads of it twice a day. When snow falls I have to shovel, sweep and snowblow it from the area around the house and garage. But that never creates the sustained rhythm that generates the surge of well-being you get from regular riding, running, walking or cross-country skiing.

On Thursday I had a Dutch three-speed on the stand. I was running the Sachs Torpedo hub through its gears and laughing over the name "Sachs Torpedo." Wanna see my Sachs Torpedo? It does not provide a handy adjustment window like a Sturmey Archer or Shimano hub. You have to go by more subtle indicators. Sheldon Brown and Sutherland's were my guide.

Because the parking lot was finally clear and the weather was reasonably mild, I could take the bike out for a test ride. When I muckled onto it to left it down from the stand, the erector muscles on either side of my spine clamped down in a spasm. The wages of inactivity. I set the bike down without dropping it and dropped into a couple of stretches to relax the knots. Once the pain settled down to a dull ache and spread across my whole back I carried the bike down to do the test ride. When I came back in I ran through the warmup exercises from a tai chi class I took years ago. I don't remember anything else, but the warmup set loosens up arms, back and shoulders really well.

At home that night I lay on the living room floor to do some deeper stretches. I used to stretch a lot. While no one would be impressed with my contortions compared to a real professional human pretzel, I did have pretty good flexibility. Not anymore. But I did manage to roll and unroll my spine a few times and then run through another set of tai chi warmups. The feeling afterward compared closely to the way I would feel after a much more vigorous workout and longer stretching session back when I did those several times a week instead of a few times a year.

A body that had never exercised, or never been pushed to the high-intensity dilettante level that I used to maintain would not have gotten the same bounce. One thing you learn about getting high is to recognize the symptoms of being high.

A little does not go a long way. The lift is palpable, but brief, barely longer than the lift of a single breath in that deep exhaustion I talked about. If I don't get some sort of routine going I will fall further and further into the pit of lard, lethargy and despair that is modern industrialized life. Enough time passes and even the hack athlete forgets what power lies within. Even longer and the power itself is essentially gone. We all lose it eventually, but you can give it up much sooner.

No comments: