Friday, 28 June 2013

The Joys of Training


I don’t know about you, but I think that it’s debatable whether the word training is the best way of describing the activity otherwise known as physical exercise.  
I might add that I am even less keen on the phrase “working out,” an inaccurate Americanism which seems to be gaining some currency here.

What some people call training, others prefer to describe in more easily understood language, such as keeping fit or, more simply, taking exercise.  
Walking the dog is a form of exercise, so too gardening, D.I.Y., and car washing, as also is marathon running.

The word training conjures up alternative images, such as attending seminars to be taught something, and where “bonding” with work mates occurs.  
Training is also the word used for the preparing of horses for racing. 
And training in the sense of staying in shape seems, to us silver trainers, to be something that professional sports people do to enable them to earn their living, in contrast to the more leisurely physical activity associated with retired people.

With these caveats expressed, I have to admit that (as I write) I and some retired colleagues could be said to be engaged in training.  
Its purpose is to prepare us to ride in the Maracycle, a 2-day bicycle event (or sportive in the jargon).  It takes place over two consecutive days between Belfast and Dublin.   
Approximately 1,000 cyclists are expected to leave Belfast early in the morning of Saturday 29 June and cycle to Dublin, with the return trip the next day.  
The peace charity Co-Operation Ireland which organises the event, estimates that the total distance is 220 miles.  Gruelling is an appropriate adjective.

A couple of years ago the event was re-launched.  One key change involved the moving of the route off the busy A1 and N1 roads.  
While the new course exposes the cyclists to less hectic traffic, it also means that the event has become more strenuous because cycling up and down minor roads necessitates much greater effort.  
Back roads have steeper gradients, more and sharper bends, and often fairly rough surfaces.  

Taken together this means that riders need to be fitter and stronger, and have greater concentration.  
So, perhaps training is the correct word for a marathon bike ride.

Why train?

Allow me to suggest a number of reasons why exercising is important for retired people.  
I use the Maracycle as an example of three reasons why I exercise.
Maracycle Finish Line Queens University Belfast

Number 1 – the challenge

I know that most people are content to keep fit and healthy because it is a sensible thing to do for its own sake, which it definitely is.   
From my perspective, however, I need something extra in order to provide a focus and reason to get out and train.  
An event, especially one which supports charitable causes, acts as a target.  
Its imminence and difficulty will provide me with an incentive to work a bit harder in training to ensure that I get to the finish line, hopefully without injury or mis-hap.   
Some people call it a challenge which, if I recall correctly from my working days, is what targets are supposed to be anyway.

An event like the Maracycle provides the impetus and urgency to train because I know from experience that if I am fit for the task ahead, I will be more confident in my ability to perform better.  

I also know that when fit, my physical recovery will be quicker than if I am below a certain level of fitness. 

Most importantly, when properly fit and the performance is as good as possible, the end product is the satisfaction and joy of a job well done.  
In which case, the effort of spending hours training will have been vindicated.

Number 2 – enjoyment and sociability

My second reason for taking exercise is that it an enjoyable and sociable activity.  

When I’m out in the fresh air, hill-walking in a beautiful place like the Dolomites or the Mournes, or cycling along the river’s edge in sunny Belfast, I notice that there is a great deal of friendly communication with other people, most of whom are strangers.  

Exchanges can range from a spontaneous smile, a hearty wave or even a verbal greeting.  When I meet someone doing the same activity as me, the greeting seems to rise to a higher level, the other person usually exuding unbounded happiness.

An associated benefit of exercising outdoors is the appreciation and enjoyment of the beauty of our natural surroundings.   
The cliché about communing with nature is not as daft as it sounds.  Neither is it the sole preserve of romantic poets, artists, composers of symphonic classic music, or Hari Krishna devotees.  
Whether you are out for a leisurely walk or a speedy bike ride, the smell of grass and of barbecues, the songs of robins and blackcaps make a melodious impression, inspiring in fact.

I have found that when I am exercising, especially involving long-distance activity like running or cycling, my subconscious mind flits about from subject to subject, with almost no involvement from me.   
When out running in my lunch breaks, I found that my brain would of its own accord come up with the solution to a vexed problem that I could not solve sitting behind a desk.   
Now as a retired person when I’m out cycling, the same process operates, again of its own volition.  

Somehow, novel ways to express complex ideas in blogs explode from the ether. With a bit of luck and a fair wind, readers will hopefully find them helpful and amusing, in a lateral way.   
It’s as if the cogs of my brain are kicked into gear by a combination of physical exercise and clean air.

Sometimes my architectural simile comes to mind.  
When I go out on a circuit by bike, the experience provides a perspective which is like a cross section of normal daily life – families in their gardens, farmers working in their fields, people rushing about in their cars to and from work, all the while as I am getting glimpses of various kinds of sporting and leisure pursuits.  Peaceful activity.

The same rationale applies to exercising indoors.  
Having been a member of the same gym for several years, social contact is almost as important as the avowed reason for going to the gym.  
It is always pleasing and flattering to be greeted in first name terms by the staff; and to be able to catch up on the latest news and gossip with fellow members, many of whom, like me, are retired.

Unintended yet beneficial consequences of taking exercise range from making new friends, being advised of a tradesman to repair a problem at home, or even recommendations for holiday destinations.  
More philosophical topics are discussed in the sauna which, if it becomes too heated, can ensure an early exit.

Number 3 – make the world a better place

I cannot fail to mention a third reason for training, namely the benefits that exercise has for health.   
Without repeating all of the regularly-reported stuff about lowering cholesterol, blood pressure, as well as pulse and heart rates, what I like about exercising is that it gives me a wonderful appetite.  
After an energetic body-pump or spin class or a long bike ride, I cannot eat enough food to satisfy the hunger pangs.   
The pleasure of gorging and with no guilt.

Everything is better after exercise.  As well as sharpened taste-buds, sleeping, concentration, sex-life, physical and mental well-being improve immensely.  
The world becomes a better place. Try it and see.

Another pleasing by-product is what is sometimes called the runners high, the process of feeling good after exercise as the body releases endorphins.  Who needs EPO?   

There is also an intangible but real benefit for the emotions.  This is the sense of freedom and control gained over one’s own life.  
The feeling is generated by the ability to escape, to embark on a pleasing activity at a pace which suits the individual and is enjoyable.  Pace judgement is everything.

When I was training to run marathons, I used the lunch hour to exercise.  In the afternoon back at work, I would feel re-energised, alert, sharper in thought.   

By way of contrast, when we attended (using the other sense of the operative word) training courses, away-days, or seminars and had scrumptious working lunches, the impact of a meal was to make me feel soporific in the afternoon – aka the graveyard session.  
Rest and recuperation is good for a body, even if not always career-wise.

As a final point on health, I have to say that for anybody who has had the misfortune to be injured, the joy of returning to training after a lay-off is inestimable.  
Getting back on the treadmill, literally and metaphorically, is like celebrating the body’s ability to be able to recover and to engage in a pleasing activity again, whatever your age, celebrating health and life.  

La Vie e’Bella.

Injury prevention

People can be easily deterred from exercising because of the prospect of picking up injuries or aggravating old sores.  
While I am not a medic or a personal trainer, I would highlight a couple of ways to reduce the risks.

Some people refer to it as cross-training, but I have to say that I am convinced that the use of different forms of training brings its own benefits.  
When I was running marathons and other long distances, I found that occasional bike rides strengthened leg muscles in such a way that I seemed rarely to incur injuries.

Nowadays I balance my main activity of cycling with body-pump and most importantly yoga.  The former methodically exercises all the main muscle groups building overall strength; the latter is excellent for flexibility and, with practice, develops discipline to think one’s way through distraction and pain.
And I haven't even mentioned the professional skills of sports masseurs, physiotherapists, or acupuncturists.

In addition, variety of exercise techniques prevents any possibility of monotony getting in the way of productiveness.


Those who are averse to keeping fit may think that training is all about graft, pain, injury and sweat.   
While there is merit in this stance, I am convinced that an invaluable benefit of exercise is that it trains the body to learn to cope with pain, helping us to explore the body’s limits of endurance.  This is an important life skill.

There is some truth in the maxim, “no pain, no gain.”  Regular exercise is the best way of getting to know your own physiology and to find out your own limits and capacity, body and mind.

An equally important part of training, however, is the communal side.  
Many forms of exercise involve team work.   
Likewise, many solo activities are more enjoyable when performed in a group.   
I know people who can practice yoga on their own.  For me, however, I prefer to do it as part of a class where, somehow, the dynamics of being in a group makes the activity more satisfying, spiritually uplifting.

The Government wants to encourage us to leave our cars at home and get healthy by using our feet or bicycles to get about.   
The important thing is to enjoy training, exercising, keeping fit, staying in shape.  Let me close by presenting a recent example of how this can be done.

Friday last (June 21) was Bike to Work Day.  I joined this year’s intrepid group cycling to work into central Belfast.  
Admitting my fraudulent claim to partake (being a retired person), I found that the temptation of a free and hearty breakfast in Bobbin’s Cafe inside the opulent surroundings of Belfast City Hall was too good to ignore.

There was an expert on hand advising about bike maintenance and an anti-theft scheme to help trace stolen bikes. 
Here’s a video about the event:

There was absolutely no pain and little effort was needed; but what there was in profusion was great craic, good food and highly convivial company.   
And what better way to demonstrate one’s green credentials.

©Michael McSorley 2013