The path to improvement is not a straight line. There are dips and valleys and — this is the critical point — you need those dips and valleys if you ever want to reach those higher levels.
In the gym that Macky and I go to in Taos, one entire wall is painted with the slogan “STRONGER THAN YESTERDAY” in giant capital letters. I’ve never paid it much mind, but today it grated on me, most likely because today was my first workout of any sort in close to three weeks, and my first time in the gym since, um, mid summer. Yikes. In other words, I wasn’t feeling stronger than yesterday. I understand the sentiment behind this mural, but at the same time, it seems a little wrong. After all, a hard workout won’t make you stronger tomorrow. It will make you tired (as it should). And then, assuming you give your muscles time you recover, you will get stronger. You can’t get stronger every single day. That’s just not how training works.
This is something that I have to remind myself frequently this time of year. My season ended three weeks ago in Finale, and since then I have ridden only three times, and today was my first day back in the gym (or thinking about training at ALL). My reasons for riding have been radically different over the past few weeks — instead of training or racing, I’m riding because either I’ve set some prior obligations or I just need to get outside and move my legs. Consequently, my riding has changed. I’m not pushing it, I’m going slow, I’m relaxed and not taking any risks. I’m enjoying the views and stopping to take pictures. And well, mainly, I’m just not riding that much. That will likely continue to be the case for another month, possibly longer. I feel no obligation to train on the bike right now. In fact, training is the worst possible thing I could do at this point in the season.
But (and this is a very big but, by the way) taking a break like this requires trusting the process. And sometimes trusting the process requires allowing yourself to intentionally get rusty. It requires allowing your skills to deteriorate and allowing the fine point of your fitness to taper off. In sum, you have to willingly, intentionally get worse. You have to show up the gym and be WEAKER THAN YESTERDAY. (Or like at least, weaker than last month.) And you have to be okay with that.
Have I “lost” fitness by not riding for three weeks? Well, yes.
Have I “lost” skills by not riding for three weeks? Well, yes.
It’s no wonder we find these valleys stressful, when the best English verb we have to describe the situation is “lose.”
I learned last year that I have to have this period of “loss” in order to gain skills and fitness over the next year. This is the part of the year where I stop pushing myself — I don’t do scary things. I don’t ride hard. I don’t strive. And that feels strange and uncomfortable and reproachable. Yet, all this is also accompanied by a sense of relief. Racing bikes for an entire season is hard, and in ways that go beyond the physical reality that, yes, lugging your bike up a hill and then coming back down it at breakneck speed is hard. There is the mental and emotional toll of putting yourself out on a start line, the lingering injuries, and the stress of travel and logistics. It is hard. Recovery is essential.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t scary. That doesn’t mean that I don’t worry every single time I take more than a week off the bike that maybe all those skills are “gone.” The reality is that the experience of “getting rusty” is not a pleasant one. We feel good when we’re peaking, flowing, and on top of our game. Feeling off or slow or weak sucks, and makes it so easy to doubt the process.
If you are feeling this way — let me reassure you. It’s not gone, whatever it is. Nothing is lost. You’re just rusty. And that’s okay. That’s good. It will come back.
After all, it’s just like riding a bicycle.