The Off Season: The Second Arrow
There is a Buddhist parable that explains suffering something like this...
The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.”
Training can be exactly like this. We know that we are a little out of shape after a long winter, so we have a lot of work to do. We start getting together a training plan to make up for lost time, and a lot of it is hard. Our desire is to make “our hard days harder”, and those hard days hurt. Instead of embracing the work, we whine, moan, and doubt ourselves. Then, when we fail to finish a workout, we call ourselves lazy, worthless, and no good. We walk (or crawl) away from the bike with not only sore legs, but now a poor demeanor as well.
Staying positive in the face of hard work and pain is a tough task, and for many of us mental toughness is harder to conquer than any physical demands. Our bodies can accomplish a whole lot more than our mind’s give us credit for.
I can recall several times this year where I simply could have quit, but somehow, I did not. I could have doubted that I would make it. I didn’t die, I had made it to the end of the ride, race, or whatever the seemingly dauntless task was. If I doubted it could be done, I would be suffering twice. The physical pain is arrow one, and the doubt and agony that follows it are arrow two. The doubt is a construct of your own mind, it is not real.
Practicing mindfulness is a personal journey, and I am not advocating any religious tenets here, just simply stating that any athlete can benefit from meditation and awareness of the self. Especially on the trainer this winter, you can really practice getting in tune with your mind and body and overcoming the hardships that hard training throws at us. If you come to the work with doubt, you are more than doubling the painful part.
Before getting on the bike, come to it with a clear mind focused on the task ahead. Practice deep breathing and focus on the positive. You tested. You know your FTP. The plan wouldn’t be what it is if you weren't capable, would it? You can do this. But, whatever you do, don’t take on the work with a bad attitude. Yesterday’s struggle is already in the past.
When you are on the bike, get into a rhythm and get locked in. Use music to keep you distracted or pumped up. I have been sharing my playlist favorites with the blog, but any upbeat tunes while help you get through the toughest of work. There are other methods as well, like mantras.
Use a mantra** to keep your mind busy while your legs start to scream. I like to repeat a phrase in my head that I recite while my pedal strokes fall. Lately, it has been “no mud, no lotus” which I have also adopted as the website’s new tagline. It comes from a book (by the same name) that explores the relationship between suffering and happiness. You cannot have one without the other. For the less philosophic, the classic Jens Voigt, "Shut up legs!" works pretty well, too.
Back to the philosophic, without the mud, there can be no lotus. The mud smells awful, but the lotus smells wonderful. When the lotus dies, it goes right back into the soil as well.
Without the hard work you are putting in, there will not be any racing glory or any finishing those challenging rides with friends. If you have the right attitude and learn to embrace the challenge and suffering of training, you will be one step closer to happy days ahead. Why suffer twice by having a bad attitude about it? Why suffer the second arrow?
**Just as a side note, I always prefer mantras with odd numbers of syllables. This goes back to my running days when I would recite mantras while training for the marathon or other long races. Because the mantra was often matched with my breathing, it is best to not have the breath always come with the same footfall. I don’t know where I originally read that, but it makes sense to me after plenty of hours trying it out. Here is a more recent LINK on the topic of rhythmic breathing.