Training Tips from the Heart: Learn to Listen to Your Body

“Learn to listen to your body.” This is an important training concept at Vision Quest Coaching. What does it mean and in what context is it meant to be used?

Training requires the introduction of a stimulus to the energy system or systems being trained. Generally, this is in the form of an interval of work of various lengths and intensities depending upon the goal. An example: if strength is being trained, a common workout would be 4 intervals of 10 minutes each within a specific power range, pedaling at 50 to 60 rpm, with the low rpm being the key. This is our familiar interval SE.

Further, we know that we cannot train with intensity every day, that the recovery days of no training and/or easier training allow the muscles to rebuild and regenerate to become slightly stronger than before the interval. Train. Recover. Train. Recover. There is only so much intensity that can be exerted over a given period of time. There can be no real training gains without recovery.

But we do not train in a vacuum. We work, we have families, routines become interrupted, we catch colds or the flu, we travel. There are many stressful factors in our lives and these factors can require adjustments in training schedules.

Until recently, this train and recover concept, at least for me, centered around training. The key word in the previous sentence is “recently”…

  • Sunday, September 8, 2013: Sub5Hour Century Team Race, 5 hours, 19 minutes
  • Wednesday, November 6, 2013: Triple ByPass Surgery, 6 hours

57 days separated these two events--57 days that changed my life for the better.

Of course, I was there for both events. I was captain of the “Old Guys Rule” team of which, I am delighted to say, we had 8 teammates age 60+ of the 14 team members.

...and obviously, I was the object and center of attention for the surgery.

We all agreed the Sub5Hour Race was easily one of the most fun cycling events in a long time. The teamwork, camaraderie, communication between teammates, shared effort and shared suffering all made for a difficult but joyful and spirited event. I rode the fastest 100 miles of my life and, other than leg cramps, had no indication anything was wrong.

It was not til the end of September and early October that I began to notice what I would call a “pressure” across my chest; not pain, just a pressure. Comments from my training notes at that time include the following:

  • “Zip, nada, nothing, no energy today.” Thursday, 9/26
  • I took a nap on Friday, 9/27.
  • “Did quite poorly today at the Velodrome.” Saturday, 9/28
  • “Did not train. Too much to do.” (These words could also mean I was tired.)
  • “I never got that good cycling feeling today--never really felt in rhythm or in sync, but that happens. The threshold I found hard. The 1 min intervals were fine.” Saturday, 10/5
  • “My energy level was not high; I barely pulled.” Sunday, 10/6
  • “Extremely winded after short races, more so than I remember.”
  • “Could not maintain a good endurance pace.”

After two weeks of noticing the chest pressure during workouts, I realized that I could no longer ignore the signals coming from my body. I called my doctor and he arranged some tests: EKG on a Wednesday, stress test on Friday. The stress test showed a blocked artery.

The cardiologist on duty explained to me: “You have one blocked artery. We need to take a look at the heart. It looks like you will need an angiogram. With the angiogram, we will insert a stent in the artery to open it up.” To say the least, I was rather shocked. I have been cycling for 31½ years, I eat relatively healthy, my weight is reasonable, I climbed mountains this past summer on my bike that took more than two hours. How could this be possible?

Well, of course it is possible. It happened. There are no guarantees in life. It all made sense. It explained the pressure in my chest. An angiogram was then arranged for the following Monday with the idea that I would have a stent inserted in the blocked artery.

Monday morning arrived and off I went with my wife Anne to Northwestern Memorial Hospital anticipating the procedure with some dread, although I knew it was rather “routine”. Assuming the stent was needed, I was told that I’d probably be kept in the hospital overnight.

I checked in, was prepped, met with the doctor and anesthesiologist, then was taken into the operating room. During the procedure I was partially awake and alert. After some time, I noticed the staff was packing up. “Hey, are we done?” “Yes, we have finished.” “Good. Is the stent in?” “No.”


“The doctor will come in and talk with you.”

That started a parade of five doctors who came in to talk to me at various intervals. The startling news was that I had three blockages: a major artery on the front of the heart and two smaller ones. I would require bypass surgery.

That was Monday, October 21. Surgery was scheduled for Wednesday, November 6. In between came more tests and a meeting with my surgeon.

The two weeks until surgery allowed me time to mentally prepare. I have a friend who is physical therapist. He has known me for many years. He had good advice for me: “Don’t play the role of the victim. You are not a victim. You have never acted like a victim. Take control of the situation. You train, you are a coach; treat the entire process as a training event.”

I did. I visualized the entire surgical process many, many times, from waking up early the morning of the surgery, checking in at the hospital and getting prepped to waking after surgery and recovering. I did the same type of visualization that one does before a race: get up at the crack of dawn, load the car, drive to the race, check in and get your number, warm up, line up for the start, then on through the race itself.

The day of surgery arrived. It all went quite well. I was home in five days. I was given permission to ride easy indoors two weeks after surgery. I have started training regularly, of course at a very low level with gradual, incremental increases in volume and intensity. With my arteries now in good shape, I am looking forward to the strongest cycling of my life!

What can we learn from my experience? The “mantra” of train and recover now has a new wrinkle: Train. Listen. Recover. Listen. Listen to what your body is telling you and act upon the signals you are receiving. My body was giving out signals. I listened before it was too late.

Put simply: listening to my body saved my life.