Chapter 11: The Goldilocks Principle

Since being formally introduced to the bear known as “hemiparesis” in Chapter 7, I have been making an effort to get to know him better.

Four months on, I certainly feel like I understand much more about him – though I would still rather we had never met.

As of the end of June, I have ridden a further 1,800km – largely driven by the increased demands arising from lockdown. Whilst by no means a momentous achievement, for me this has represented a marked increase in my workload over the period – and so progress, of sorts.

Building on the techniques that I outlined in Chapter 8 – “mirroring” and riding at a steadier pace – I have been experimenting with various aspects of my riding style and pedalling action, to positive effect.

Faced with the challenge of improving the strength in my right leg, initially I decided to try riding up hills exclusively in a seated position, holding a bigger gear for as long as possible whilst concentrating on not overreaching myself physically. This is a known technique in cycling circles for improving leg strength – riding in a bigger gear at a slower cadence is the equivalent in weight training terms of using a heavier weight for fewer repetitions.

Early results were slightly concerning – my times up the various short inclines that I frequently ride were the slowest I had recorded since getting back on the bike – but I told myself that this was to be expected and resolved to stick with it, in the hope that the gains would come in due course.

After a couple of months, I started noticing the improvements – particularly in my quad and calf strength. Maintaining a seated position all the way up, I was able to take 14 seconds off my PB for a short, shallow climb (0.9km at a 3% average gradient) – albeit wind assisted. More encouragingly, I have since beaten my previous PB more than a dozen times – regardless of wind direction and even while carrying a backpack weighed down with 10kg of groceries!

Riding in this way has also helped me to identify the specific area of weakness in my right leg – upper thigh, just below the hip joint. Perhaps coincidentally (though I suspect not), this is a very similar position to the area of weakness in my right pectoral – upper chest, just below the shoulder joint.

Staying seated puts more focus on the quads and calves and in so doing bypasses this weaker area, to an extent. Additionally, riding in a bigger gear – resulting in a slower cadence – requires me to fully extend to the very bottom of the pedal stroke. By concentrating on doing this with my stronger leg (left), the mirroring effect means that I end up doing likewise with my weaker leg (right), which then contributes more. I suspect that the extended pedal stroke on the left side also serves to compensate for the flat spot when the right leg comes over the top – the result of the weakness in my upper right thigh – helping to drag it through.

As with most things in life though, the Goldilocks Principle – too much; not enough; just right – applies here too. It is important not to overdo it by trying to push through the bottom of the pedal stroke on the left side. Otherwise, I just end up overworking the left leg and leaving the right out.

Despite all the adjustments that I have made, the 2 sides of my body still function very differently – like 2 halves from separate bodies that have been stitched together down the middle. Something akin to Frankenstein’s monster perhaps?

Whilst I have now reintroduced climbing in a standing position to my riding, my findings have meant that I avoid doing so unless absolutely necessary – such as on a particularly steep gradient. Otherwise, I bring my weakness into play, which results in my right leg getting overly fatigued, putting me out of action for a day or two. So now I tend to reserve my standing efforts for a few short ramps on the final climb of the day (or if I feel the wind at my back and think there is a good chance of a PB on a favourite segment!). When I do stand, I concentrate on trying to “dance” on the pedals – maximising the extension in my ankle joints and thus favouring use of the calves over the thighs. Even then, I must make sure that I don’t try to dance too vigorously – so strictly slow tunes only!

Generally speaking, I now find that I get my best times by staying seated on short, shallow climbs and by standing up on very short, steep sections. Longer climbs (over 2km) are very much to be avoided. I quite literally don’t have the legs – or rather “leg” (singular) – for it.

In many ways, I find riding uphill is actually more manageable than riding on the flat. Due to the increased exertion required, I am more aware of the need to keep things steady and so maintain a low cadence, whereas on the flat I can get a bit too eager, spinning the legs too quickly. The other benefit of riding uphill is the opportunity to rest your legs going down the other side – something that you don’t get on long flat stretches, meaning that there is a greater risk of me overdoing it by riding too hard for too long. When I bought my current bike, I deliberately opted for something with relatively short gearing so that I couldn’t pedal going downhill – to minimise the risk of repeating my previous mishap – though little did I realise at the time that there would be this additional benefit.

Taken together, these various enhancements have enabled me to ride further – now up to a whopping 33km in a single ride – and more often. Whilst my average speed has not improved, I am definitely stronger. I am climbing more – something that I always used to particularly enjoy – and have now managed to record new personal bests on 5 of the 7 short climbs that I regularly ride.

To top it all off, a few weeks ago, I successfully completed the ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro. By which I mean that I have now ridden up the easiest climb that I can take to get home – a brutal 60m in elevation gain over 0.9km – 82 times in total, corresponding to the height of the mountain from its base camp.

Progress …. but at what cost?

Of course, like all major human achievements, this has been very much a team effort. It has only been possible with the help of my eldest son who has been able (and willing) to walk the dog whilst off school. Although this may seem like gratuitous exploitation on my part, in my defence, he was due to be taking his GCSEs this year so has had very little school work to do at home. So, in fact, I have been doing him a favour – giving him something to do that keeps him out of (too much) mischief and creating a reason for him to get out of bed before midday (once I have woken him up … a few times!).

This arrangement has also enabled me to pick up some of the additional housework demands arising from having 2 extra people (my sons) around the house – plus the cleaner not being able to come – during lockdown, enabling me to swap one fatiguing activity (walking the dog) for another (e.g. mopping the kitchen floor).

My aspiration for a long time now has been to be consistently capable of walking the dog and riding my bike on the same day. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found a way to achieve this lofty ambition.

If I try to walk the dog after cycling, I find that I am unable to control my legs, with my brain fatiguing even more quickly than usual. The other way round, my walking is better, but I struggle to keep control of my pedalling action. I end up leaning on my right side more – presumably because my brain is already fatigued and so struggling to interpret the signals it is (or rather, isn’t) receiving – with the result that I overwork my weaker right leg, putting me out of action for a couple of days or more.

Being completely candid, I would have to admit that my walking has deteriorated quite significantly during this period of cycling more frequently – a phenomenon that has left me pretty confused. I still get the cognitive recharge effect from cycling – indeed, I walk considerably more freely straight after getting off the bike – and days when I don’t cycle leave me far more fatigued cognitively than days when I do, but there is no getting away from the fact that I am finding it harder to put one foot in front of the other these days.

I have developed a number of theories as to what is going on, though the true cause is proving difficult to pin down.

My initial thoughts were that by changing my pedalling action – reducing my tendency to push down harder on my right side – I had somehow shifted my centre of gravity when walking, which I was struggling to adjust to. During the initial period of my recovery, I undertook an extensive period of rehabilitation for damage to my vestibular system – pockets of air in the inner ear that help you to control your balance (think spirit level). In doing so, I suspect that I exacerbated the tendency to lean on my right side, as a way of compensating for my lack of balance. Perhaps by unwinding this a little, I have reintroduced the effects of the damage to my vestibular system – akin to the feeling of walking on a mattress all the time. Or perhaps I have just over corrected and am now leaning too much on my left side?

My other theory is that I have been exploiting the cognitive recharge effect too much – using it to enable me to get more done, which then results in heightened levels of cognitive fatigue, albeit delayed. So what I am experiencing on the days when I don’t ride is actually the cumulative effect of all the additional activity that I have undertaken on the days when I do.

On balance, I am inclined to side with the latter explanation. Over the last few weeks since my previous post, my sleep has continued to be very disturbed – despite drawing back from social interaction to preserve my cognitive resources – something that I would normally associate with pushing myself too hard.

Regardless of the reason, there is no getting away from the fact that there is a definite link between cycling more and the deterioration in my walking capability. As much as I love getting out on my bike – with the cognitive benefits that this yields – this is not a trade off that I am prepared to make. It is too much of an impediment to other aspects of my life – in particular, my ability to join in with family activities.

Consequently, with some reluctance I have decided to rein back my cycling activities to something closer to their previous levels.

It would seem, then, that I have happened upon another application of the Goldilocks Principle. Too much cycling means that I lose out on the other things that I value in life. Not enough means I miss out on the cognitive recharge effect and find it significantly harder to get things done. There is such a thing as “just right”, after all.

Who knew that a children’s fairy tale could offer such insight? Should have known really – anything involving bears has always got to be worth a read!

With lockdown easing – and demand for my services diminishing – now is a good time to reduce my workload on the bike anyway. Since my accident, I have not yet been out on my bike purely for the sake of going for a ride – there always has to be a reason. Without one, my brain starts to overload at the prospect of going out – presumably because the activity starts to involve planning and decision making (e.g. where to go, what route to take). When there is a reason, these elements are already taken care of. Even with a reason, I struggle to make myself take any other route than the most direct one.

Perhaps if I could get out for a ride just for the sake of it, I might find that I still get the benefits, but without the costs. I doubt this will ever happen though. This is how I got myself into this situation in the first place – to do so would feel massively selfish, given the impact to my family. Instead, I might at some point revert back to the indoor trainer on days when I don’t have a reason to go out – I already know that this will achieve the same effect.

Cycling more over this last few months has also made me realise that I want more out of life than just to be able to ride my bike. As much as I enjoy it – and benefit from it – I don’t want to be limited to it.

So, my quest to find a new way of living will have to continue. Cycling is not the answer, by itself at least. Just when I thought I might be getting somewhere, it turns out I have reached a dead end on this particular road.

In the meantime, though, cycling can still be part of the answer. With my new way of riding, I can at least enjoy the ride – just not too often!