Tuesday, August 7, 2012

maximum intensity workouts and why I love Strava

Howdy, all! I hope you are all doing well. I am feeling pretty good these days - riding my bike, living life, enjoying friends and family. Here's a little article I wrote for our bike team newsletter I thought you might also enjoy reading. Ride on!

Maximum Intensity Workouts and Why I Love Strava

After you've gone through a cancer journey, you lose many things and part of the recovery process is finding them again. Things that you might have lost along the way:
  • Faith in the universe
  • Faith that you will live a long and happy life
  • Faith in your body
Today I want to talk about the last item - faith in your body. Almost no one goes through a cancer journey without a few permanent "gifts". Some of these are mental, some are physical and some intertwine the two. If you've had breast cancer, maybe you've had surgery or radiation that has left scars, changed musculature, caused skin changes. In my case (lymphoma), you may have a changed blood chemistry that reduces your aerobic capacity or leaves you more vulnerable to infections or more susceptible to bleeding. If you've had lung cancer, you've probably ended up with reduced pulmonary capacity. Fill in your story here!

So, OK. You're through with your treatment, your body isn't the same, but it looks like you're no longer on the verge of dying anytime soon. Now what? I think that in our culture there's a general sense that you have to be careful, you have to take it easy. By God, you just had cancer and lots of treatments! You should just be enjoying life. Go for long walks, watch beautiful sunsets, hug a tree. But hey, guess what? That sounds pretty damn boring to me. But whoa! Aren't you afraid that your new, warped, bent, slightly broken body will collapse if you work out too hard? Remember when you thought you would be a healthy, happy, vibrant 100 year old? And remember when you weren't strong enough to mow the lawn, to climb a set of stairs, to sing a song, to even talk because your lung function was so bad. And now you want to - what? Climb 4,000 feet on your bike, up to 12,200 ft? At night? And come screaming down a road with no guardrails, no street lights, where a wrong turn causes - ahem - bad things to happen? After all the work you've done to get through chemo, you should just sit down and take it easy. 

For me, the answer is: YES! I do want to push my body as hard as it can go. NO! I do not want to sit around and watch sunsets and be afraid that the slightest physical exertion will cause some strange, unpredictable catastrophic failure in my now slightly beat up body. So earlier this summer, I did climb up Fall River Road on my mountain bike. At night. Under the full moon. To the top of Trail Ridge Rd - 12,200 ft. And then a screaming descent. 30 miles, 4,200 ft of climbing. And I was dead last every foot of the way. My companions were very supportive of me - making sure I didn't have a break down, riding up, riding back, waiting for me. And it was HARD. 3+ hours with my heart rate > 150 bpm, which for my age is pretty much rockin'. 

As I collapsed in the car after the ride, I wondered. How many adults, cancer survivors or not, actually do something like this. Challenge themselves to a maximum intensity workout? Push yourself so hard you break. Then you recover, push hard again. Break again. Your fingers are numb, your toes are tingling, you're getting woozy. Because you're at 11,000 ft, you're climbing a 10% grade and your hematocrit is 38? Not many, I wager. And what a loss for them. When you push yourself beyond what you think you can do, you give yourself a wonderful gift. And this gift is especially precious when it comes after your body has been so ravaged by a disease and the poisons and medieval torture we inflict as part of cancer treatments. 

So my advice for every cancer survivor I meet will be this. Do a maximum intensity workout. Don't worry about pushing too hard. You're much, much stronger than you think you are. And to get stronger still, guess what? You have to push hard. It's just that simple. No hard work, no improvement. A pretty good life lesson, by the way. So I'm going to watch the pretty sunsets. But only after I've hammered myself on a bike, a run, a swim - something.

And finally, why do I love Strava? Because it's got the suffer score. This is based on your heart rate during a workout as a function of your max heart rate. So when everyone is ahead of you and you think to yourself "Yeah, I'm only in the 11th percentile of all Strava users that have climbed this segment. But I sure as hell am in the 99th percentile when it comes to working hard!!" Well, now Strava gives you quantitative support for your argument. So get a Strava account, punish yourself on some rides and then compare your suffer score against all those slacker, healthy guys and gals that were just coasting up the road ahead of you!

Here's my Strava segment for the Fall River Ride in July of 2012. Beat my suffer score and send me your Strava workout! cya on the road!!!


  1. LOVE it. Thanks for the inspiration Dad! I now will run those 400s faster....

  2. That was an excellent. I am glad you went, it meant I didn't have to be last. :) It was a pleasure meeting.


    1. Hey, Isaac. It was fun riding with you. And I'm glad ed got us back to the house in one piece! I'm already in training for Fall River 20!3!

    2. Hey, Isaac. It was fun riding with you. And I'm glad ed got us back to the house in one piece! I'm already in training for Fall River 20!3!

  3. Hi George,

    I have a quick question about your blog, would you mind emailing me when you get a chance?



  4. Hi, Cameron. Send me a note - georgef@alum.mit.edu - and we'll chat