Sunday, March 04, 2007

Thirty Minutes Over Weakness

I LEAVE MY APARTMENT building and encounter an overcast sky and a stiff early-March wind. I resolve to be stiffer. I am headed to the gym near my building, ready to devote time to the most unselfish gift I can give myself: better health. Cold air lashing at my unprotected legs does nothing more than sharpen my perceptions to full alertness, quickening my pulse but not deflecting my pace or purpose.

I want to perform 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, as I often do, but with a twist. I decide to pursue a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), alternating in pace and power from a baseline stride to a near-run on the elliptical trainer, and driving my heart rate higher for small, proscribed periods. Though I usually set the trainer on an alternating pattern of resistance and incline, my pace is ordinarily steady through the whole course. This time, I want to push myself harder.

The weight-loss course on the trainer intersperses 2-minute drills of flat and inclined work. I choose the second of the 2 inclined minutes to be my high-intensity stretch. During that minute, I will pump as hard as I can while keeping my feet flat, to distribute the impact evenly and work all the muscles in my legs. Riding up on the toes will waste energy I can be driving into the machine. If I can't keep this form consistently, I will it back to the last 30 seconds for my hard interval. The important thing is I will still get a half hour of labor on the device, beneficial at any intensity.

I stretch carefully before starting. Parts of me are more limber than others. After I lift weights, I take some time at a stretch rack to work some flexibility into the tensed muscles. Workplaces are black holes for flexibility. The only stretch most folks get is the long stretch of time they spend sitting in the chairs, myself just as guilty. I always make time for stretching in at the gym, while I am in an environment that supports it, so I don't turn into some frozen golem on the train while I'm riding to work and my muscles are healing. I may not have a lot of muscle mass, but I definitely feel it when I haven't gotten them limbered up after pushing them.

I eschew the television over the trainer in favor of my iPod. The club has several communal TVs, many set to the in-house video channel. Though I like some of the tunes, particuarly 80s electropop and current dance tracks, the pop stars who represent most of the other musical offerings are little more than a clutch of spoiled tweakers, empty shells filling themselves desperately with the attention of the distracted public. I shun them and conjure up a classic, The Power and the Glory: Music From NFL Films. This music is the poetry of war, hymns to brutal sacrifice and brilliant endeavor. I will need the inspiration.

My pulse during the first 3 minutes of the ride, at my typical pace, hovers between 125 and 130. As per the informal calculation for maximum heart rate (220 – age), theoretically I can kick my pulse up to 183 before diminishing returns are realized. When my moment to up the pace comes at 3:00, I strive to get as close as I can. It's difficult at first to remain in total contact with the pedals, but I try to find a balance among pace, contact, and form that still lets me push hard. By the end of the incline at 4:00, my heart rate has ascended to between 145 and 150.

Once the flat interval begins, I slow my pace to bring my pulse down. It stays in the 140s for a full minute, despite my dropping to a pace more suited to escorting a funeral cortege. Gradually, it creeps down to the 120s . . . pauses there as the trainer ascends into the third minute of the next 4-minute up/down cycle . . . then winds slowly into the mid-one-teens . . . before the seventh minute begins and I speed up to my fast pace again.

Over and over, I repeat this cycle. Each time, I succeed in maintaining a hard, fast pace through the second incline minute. I get my pulse to drop by 30 points in the interval, then ride it fast again. I feel sweat trickling down my back and from the tip of my nose. This never happens with the usual 30-minute constant pace rides I take. I rehydrate, trying to minimize the time my hand leaves the sensor for the heart monitor.

The final cycle approaches. I lure my heart, like a nervous animal, down to a moderate 114 before the final intense minute arrives. By coincidence, the music is rising to a dramatic crescendo. I pump full out, riveting my gaze on my feet so they don't fly off the pedals and send me flying. My grasp on the sensors is slick and tentative, so I grip the bare rubberized plastic above them. My quads are fatiguing quickly, and my glutes can barely maintain the pace. I force myself to see through all 60 seconds without losing speed. By the time the 29th minute arrives, I am gasping for breath, but I can let my pace ride slacken to whatever is comfortable, because I have survived the final intense interval.

I grab the sensors to establish my heart rate. It flashes for a while, then displays 128. Are they too moist to get a proper read? Apparently not, because a second later, the number jumps to 180! I've nearly touched my aerobic maximum! I gulp down air to feed the starved muscles along my outer legs, now working at a far more rational pace. They've earned a rest.

Exercise like this is the only defense I have against premature death from something stupid and avoidable. I need to make this part of my life, especially during my job hunt, to stay positive and healthy and deter any depression and desuetude. Escaping from the current job site will be a huge lift to the morale, but also present an historic opportunity for me to reset my daily activities and establish a more healthful pattern. Seeing as I have withdrawn all energy of care from that office, I can use my final 4 weeks of employment to devote my power and energy toward constructive goals like this and face interviewers from a confident place. Yet another reason to embrace this change in life as a well-timed gift of circumstance.

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