A little while ago, I wrote about what it feels like to me when I lift weights in the gym. A feeling I find, if anything, a better reason to do exercise than any health or performance benefit.
In his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami expresses the deep pleasure he gains from his participation in running. I’ve never liked running. I’m very bad at it. Yet the contemplative, almost poetic accounts of Murakami’s experiences manage to convey how meaningful such an activity can be without veering into something spiritual.
I think cycling deserves the same exploration.
This is a piece I wrote over two years ago when I was starting to take road cycling and my athletic performance somewhat seriously. I was worried that by shifting my focus to performance I’d lose the profound, meditative freedom of just riding my bike. Now I take my athletic performance more seriously than ever, competing in track cycling at a national level. It’s safe to say my thoughts on performance, competitiveness, technology and meditation have all come on a long way. Yet I still think that the discourse penned here offers a chance to look what how we train and why.
Over the last hundred years or so, a number of technological developments have changed how we ride bikes. The fundamental concept remains the same but materials, riding positions and components have all been optimised for diverse cycling disciplines. Now technology is also changing why we ride bikes. It’s had an undeniable impact on why I ride and the state of mind I’m in when I get out for a ride.
I find lifting weights in the gym to be a cathartic, meditative experience. For a few years now, the main draw of this activity has been based more on the profound satisfaction that it generates than a rational intention to improve health, fitness or physique
I’m always conscious that I sound rather zealous when I start talking about lifting. If I’m trying to subtly nudge a friend towards taking up what is arguably the most scientifically effective form of training, I have to exert a lot of effort to avoid sounding like a cultist. When it comes to persuasion, I often fall back on the numerous studies and physiological facts that explain why lifting weights works. However, this completely neglects the real reason that I kept on training after I started and the reason I have continued to develop myself to the stage where I can reasonably be considered to be strong, happy and healthy.
In his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami expresses the deep pleasure he gains from his participation in running. I’ve never liked running. I’m very bad at it. Yet the contemplative, almost poetic accounts of Murakami’s experiences manage to convey how meaningful such an activity can be without veering into something spiritual. I think that lifting deserves the same treatment. I don’t want to make it sound like a “lifestyle” but I do think that there is something really interesting and meaningful on a human level. I can relate to the release of running through my time on the bike, I also do yoga and meditation but nothing comes close to the satisfaction of lifting.
Weight lifting in the gym is one of the purest pleasures I’ve ever experienced. There’s something both simple yet very powerful about forcing a weight off the ground using only your strength. I’m not talking about the end result, which is inevitably that you put the weight back where it started. I’m talking about the psychological and physiological impact of consciously working your entire body in a carefully controlled way.
In almost all cases, I believe lifting heavy things properly in the gym will improve your life. Whether you are male or female, young or old, an endurance athlete, body builder or sloth, this is why you should life heavy things too.
I’ve been pathologically lazy my entire life. Being somewhat short and chubby, I didn’t have very high athletic aspirations growing up. But eventually I got to the stage where I needed to do some exercise. Many people reach this stage but struggle to make it further. If you don’t already want to do more exercise go and look up all the studies about the mental and physical benefits. It’s actually doing the exercise that’s the tricky part.
Yet despite having no intention of getting hench, and certainly no discipline, I ended up accidentally making a ton of progress. It never gets easy, but it does get easier and it’s all worth it. There are also a few things you can do to make get started:
Track cycling sprint events are tough. These are the high speed, short duration events that only enter the public consciousness once every four years during the olympics. How many of you could actually name all the races Chris Hoy has won? While this is an obscure,and seemingly pointless discipline, I have decided to have ago at it. I now decree it to the the hardest sport there is. (note: I have done very few sports so this claim is essentially pointless).
Track cycling sprints events require you to be an absolute beast at almost every type of fitness. Even more annoyingly, putting effort into training one kind of fitness will inevitably come at a cost to another. So it’s a constant balancing act. You have to tread a fine line, testing, training and improving each type of fitness, pushing as hard as you can while being mindful of the potential consequences elsewhere. The result is that the worlds best track sprinters approach a god-like level of fitness as they have to do all of the following:
So far, I have been very happy getting better at fitness because I’ve been able to choose my goals. I’ve been very able to achieve them which has made me happy. This in turn has made me want to get fitter. In contrast to this, during times when I’ve had an externally imposed, potentially insurmountable challenge, I’ve responded by loosing all motivation and giving up. Now my fitness goals are about to transfer form being completely under my control, to being determined by my performance compared to others. And I don’t know how I’m going to handle this.
In the past, when I’ve come up against challenges I found a little intimidating, I’ve basically curled up into a ball (I wasn’t a fan of exams at school). I’ve realised that daunting challenges, and failure to make progress towards achieving them does not motivate me one bit. Now I’m hoping to measure up against other people who are very good at sports and I’m not sure what’s going to happen.
Here’s a little overview of the seemingly random series of events that have got me where I am now – about to embark on an amateur career racing in track cycling sprint events. I’m mostly writing this because I can’t contain my excitement, but it also leads me to begrudgingly agree that cliches like “do what makes you happy” and “anyone can get super fit” might actually have some credibility. Hear me out, ok?
Last weekend I completed my velodrome accreditation, meaning I’m officially licensed to start cycling quickly in a circle for hours on end. It’s been about two years since I first rode on a velodrome, and since then a few things have happened:
Sometimes there is an urge to write, to express an idea, to share an experience. But then you start and it all gets a bit messy.
A while ago, there used to be a whole load of thoughts flying around. Passionate, exciting, new things that just had to be written down. The new concepts were flowing. And then, as soon as something actually got written, solidifying into fixed words, it became so much less certain. A state of mind that seemed completely crystallised, suddenly becomes limited by the inadequacy of text. So the idea becomes opaque again, smothered by programmatic issues of trying to shape that moment of inspiration into something of meaning and value to others.
So what’s the purpose of me writing this? Mostly to satisfy the craving. The hope that something that is done, is better than the perfect work which is never finished. In spite of whether or not this is of value to myself, or anyone else, perhaps meditating on this frustration will be better than not doing anything.
A recent trip back to Cambridge happened to co-incide with the latest volume of Pecha Kucha taking place at Espresso Library. It’s an event were a few people each give a talk made up of 20 slides, each of which automatically moves on after 20 seconds. It’s a fast, concise format that exposes both the speaker and the audience to new experiences.
I could talk about the viture of being concise for days.