The Allure of Improvement

There’s no feeling quite like the feeling of improving at something, getting better.  If the improvement is a result of hard work, it feels even better.  I think this is what keeps a lot of people running–because more, harder, and better training makes a person faster.  This helps propel people through tough workouts, it getsimprovement them out for runs when they’re not in the mood, when their days have tired them out.  Sure, there’s the immediate satisfaction, on and after the run, but there’s also the big picture, the path one is traveling, the goal one is working towards.  This is true for many things besides running, but with running there is immediate, undeniable evidence of improvement.   Checking your watch after running your neighborhood route, a race, or a workout on the track, there’s no way around the numbers.  They stare straight up with 100% truthfulness, telling you either that you’re getting better or that you need to change things to make this happen. 

When I started running, I was 12 years old.  I loved to run, set weekly mileage goals, and do hard workouts, and there was never a question of whether or not I’d improve from year to year, it was just a matter of how much.  Of course, it’s different now.  In some ways, it’s impossible for me to improve.  I’m never going to run a mile in better than 4:29 (my high school PR), a 5K in better than 15:25 (my college PR), and I probably won’t run a marathon in better than 2:44 (though I’ll explain to anyone who wants to listen that I was in much better shape than that, as evidenced by my 1:08 20K a month earlier, another PR I’ll surely never better).   There have been studies done showing that runners have a set window of time in which to improve, five years or seven years or something like that.  It can’t go on forever.  I think most runners know this is true, and accept it on some levels, but ignore it on others.  Because everyone want to be getting better. 

I’m thinking about this because I’ve hit a plateau in my swimming.  I’d swum before this year, but never with the same kind of regularity or intensity.  And I’ve improved a lot these last 6 months.  Last year when I would do my occasional swim workout, I’d warm up with 500 yards in about 10 minutes.  Now I usually do it in about 8:00.  My hard swim workout last year was 100’s in 1:45 with 45 seconds rest.  Now I can do them in 1:30 with only 30 seconds rest.  But though I’ve been getting to the pool three times a week, for workouts of 3,000-4,000 SwimmingElephantyards, I’m just kind of stuck swimming the same times.  If you’re not a swimmer, these times won’t mean much to you—if you are, you’ll see how relatively slow they are.  But my times really don’t matter because I’m a runner, remember, and I’ve crafted my swim workouts to mimic interval workouts on the track.  My main objective is to get my heart rate up and tax my respiratory system without hurting my knee and I’m still doing that.  And I could still improve–if I swam 5 days a week, stayed in the water longer, did more drills, joined a team and learned from a coach.  But I’m not that invested in swimming, not yet.  Still, it was such a rush to get in the water and swim better times than ever before, to actually feel myself swimming faster.  Improvement is like a drug, and I just wanted more, more, more.  Now when I swim, it’s more like work.  It’s work I’ll gladly take on, because I know what the benefits are, but it’s work nonetheless, not quite as much fun.

Biking; however, biking has become my new drug.  Because I’m getting faster.   I began to bike on my trainer a few days after getting off crutches, but only with very low resistance.  After 6 weeks, I began to ride outdoors on my commuter bike.  I didn’t keep track of my speed or distance, just time, because I knew I was going slowly.  My legs were so weak.  When I’d biked in the past, it was always as a complement to running, and from all my running, my legs were strong enough. will-the-2013-tour-de-france-end-on-alp-dhuez-L-B8yfCU Not as strong as a biker’s, but much stronger than they were after only swimming and walking.  Finally, a few weeks ago my legs felt good enough to break out my road bike, and my second day on it I went hard for a two-hour ride and averaged a little over 16 mph.  That’s not fast, even for me, and it was a real struggle.  But every week, almost every ride, since then I’ve felt a little better.  My knee feels better, my legs are lighter and stronger, and I can spin the pedals around faster.  This week Tuesday I did a 40 mile ride at over 17 mph.  Thursday I did 62 miles with lots of hills.  Now I can’t wait to get out for another ride.  Yes, it’s partly because I’ve been spending an hour or two a day watching the Tour de France, but I think it’s mainly because I’m improving:  I know the more I bike, the better I’m going to feel, and the faster I’m going to get. 

When I’ve biked in the past, it’s always been to get ready for a triathlon, or just as cross training.  Looking at the big picture, that’s still what this is, but for the first time ever I’m not scheduling my rides around my running, so I can focus on it like never before.  And biking satisfies a lot of the same urges as running:  to be outside on a beautiful summer day, to sweat, get thirsty, see the world passing by.  I guess it’s the joy of movement I love, dialing into a rhythm and seeing how long I can hold a pace.  All that, plus I know it’s making my knee and my legs stronger.  Of course, doing physical therapy, lifting weights, doing body squats, walking with ankle weights—all those help make my knee and legs stronger too, and I’ll continue all that, but what I really want to do is bike!  Because I’m improving, and I know it, and I can feel it.

I realize there will be an end to this too—that it’ll probably come by fall, and even if it doesn’t, the weather and my work schedule will keep my from biking much, or at least in the same way.  But by then I plan to be running again, and not just running, but getting better, improving at that, and I can’t wait to see how that unfolds. 

Some of you may find it hard to believe I’m nearing the end of a whole long blog photo2post without once mentioning my lovely perfect wife, even though we’ve only been married a little over a month.  Rest assured, she’s still lovely and perfect, and our marriage is improving every day, but I’ve always had a one-track mind in summer—train, train, train.  For me that’s what summer has always been about, getting in better shape.  That’s what gets me up and keeps me moving day after day after day.  It surely makes me less productive in all other facets of my life, but I just can’t help myself, because there’s no feeling quite like the feeling of improving at something, getting better…. 

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