Usually I exercise until the endorphins flow, and either keep it steady at that easy-to-hold pace or wind it down. Even though I know (and have written countless times about) the value of intervals and speedwork and tempo runs--a higher aerobic capacity, the ability to run faster for longer, blah, blah, blah--I hate working hard. A 30-minute workout where you push your heart rate up into the clouds and hang on for dear life? I'd rather run for three hours at a conversational pace.
That said, I love the benefits of those brief-but-oh-so-painful workouts. (Who wouldn't? It's basically free speed.) So to keep myself honest this winter, I signed up for the power training classes at Carmichael Training Systems, which is about 5 minutes from my house. An eight-week block, two times a week. Think spin class, but for bike geeks: everybody uses their own bikes, whose back wheels spin on an indoor trainer and are hooked up to power tap meters, which chart precisely how hard you're working. There is no perky instructor with a Madonna-esque microphone up front rah-rahing you on, but rather three very qualified coaches who roam around the stark warehouse we're all sweating in and yell at us to crank it up, go harder, realize that pain is our friend. The classes are on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and on those days, I get a pit of nausea forming in my stomach around 2 p.m., just anticipating how difficult the workout will be at 6 p.m. that evening. I can't eat, although I know I should since I'll need the energy. Usually I just grab two sheets of graham crackers as I walk out the door and choke them down.
Last night, the sense of dread was more than justified. The workout is a signature one of CTS' called under/overs, during which you spend five minutes in a steady state range (for me, this is a heart rate of about 165-170) then five minutes in the considerably harder climbing range (my heart rate rockets to nearly 180). Take five minutes of recovery, then repeat the whole cycle two more times. In other words, 30 minutes of really, really hard work. (And hard work, it should be noted, that you have to be accountable for: the coaches download the power meters after class, so there's no hiding from big bicycle brother.)
The workout pattern supposedly raises your lactate threshold, or the point at which the cramp-inducing acid creeps into your muscles. By two minutes into the first interval, my legs already were feeling the burn (this was the first tough workout I've done since mostly kicking the sinus infection), and it took every ounce of discipline I had not to tank. "Hang on for 30 more seconds," I'd tell myself. Or, if there were four minutes left. "O.k., Dimity, that's 12 sets of 20 seconds." Or I'd use the alphabet: every time my right foot went down, I'd mentally say a letter. Do A-Z three times on one foot, and that would almost be a full minute. I somehow slogged through it all, but didn't consistently hit the power numbers prescribed for me.
On the way home, though, I wondered why I was doing this to myself. I haven't signed up for a spring triathlon yet. I don't really have a training plan with any goal in mind, other than not hurting my IT band again. I'll never be a great cyclist; it's just not one of my goals. And I'm definitely not looking to befriend pain in this lifetime.
The best I could come up with is that, as masochistic as it seems, taking classes like this gives me confidence and a sense of pride I have trouble finding anywhere outside of athletics--but translates easily to everywhere else in my life. I take on most projects, personalities and temper tantrums because I know I have the physical ability and mental discipline to see them through (or in the case of tantrums, defuse them). In other words, suffering through why-am-I-doing-this workouts makes me prepared for what the world throws at me.
Except maybe another under/over workout on Thursday.