Monday, September 1, 2014

Cycling… for When You Can't Walk

Post-Hiking Attempt to Cycle
Like some sonorous seafloor-dwelling creature, I slide my way around the house, grasping at furniture for support. And as I squeal pathetically when descending a single stair, I can't believe that a stroll down the rocky hillside of that rainbow-spewing beast had the power to incapacitate me like this. But incapacitate me it did. And now, if I can walk at all, it is with a stiff, clipped gait, heaving my body forward like a pile of broken luggage that won't roll on its own. 

It is in this sorry state that I move, mincingly and with a deranged grimace, toward my bicycle. With a trembling hand, I keep the handlebars steady as I jerkily bring an aching leg across and gracelessly hoist my bottom onto the saddle. I am almost afraid to push off, wincing preemptively in expectation of pain. But instead, I feel the bliss of non-pain. I feel a lovely, liberating weightlessness. By some miracle (okay, science), the muscles that hurt when executing every other movement do not hurt when pedaling. Today the bicycle is my mobility chair. Again!

A funny theme to this summer has been engaging in activities that wreck my legs even more than the bike itself. Running 7 miles on too-soft sand first did this to me, making my calves feel like led injected with fiery poison for days. But that was nothing compared to climbing mountains. I wrote about climbing Croagh Patrick a little while ago. I have since also climbed the steep and pointy Errigal, and, most recently, the near-vertical, flat-top Muckish. 

Now, when it comes to scrambling up a mountain, I absolutely love it. I don't find it particularly effortful to climb, even fairly steep sections, as long as I don't try to go too fast. And I love those moments of looking back over my shoulder and discovering how the views have opened up. Getting off a mountain, however, is a different story! My balance, though greatly improved compared to several years ago, still isn't great, and I seem to lack an intuitive sense of picking a good line. On the way down, I slip, slide, misstep, and stumble a lot. I also feel as if I'm constantly fighting my body's desire to let itself go and tumble down at full speed. By the time I reach the bottom, I am drained of energy and my legs are aching - which is nothing compared to how they feel the next day. The culprit of the pain are those long bands that run along the outer thighs. They aren't just tight; they bind and dig in like a row of steel nails. 

I remembered this pain again as soon as I got off my bike to walk the short distance to the supermarket entrance. I cursed it as I shuffled around the isles feebly. Perhaps it was my lack of confidence when descending responsible for this; no doubt I was over-bracing myself and tensing those muscles too much - the walking equivalent of riding the brake. 

At the till the checkout girl gave me a once-over and said with a chuckle, "What were you at theday?"

"Mountain," I mumbled, and she laughed and nodded in understanding. 

Well, the pain will go away in a day or two. Until then, at least I have my bike to get around. If only I could ride it indoors!

31 comments:

  1. My theorem, which is mine (see Elk, Ms. Anne) , is that overdeveloped muscles from cycling are used to overwork/punish the other parts of your body when you engage in some strenuous non-cycling activity. A normal person would be tired all over earlier, like a fatigued version of the One-Horse Shay.

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  2. Lovely way to describe it. Brought back memories of the Yosemite camping aftermath. We had concluded at the end as well that letting the "brakes" go as much as possible during descent was the key. But, easier said than done. I wish I had tried biking afterwards. It probably helps with the recovery. I am a huge fan of the shake it off theory.

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  3. Descending steep slopes is something of a controlled fall rather than "walking". Like feathering your brakes on a downhill, you use your muscles to control the speed of descent rather than coming to a stop or near stop at every step. Like riding on gravel/dirt trails, you become accustomed to allowing a little give without panicking and tensing up too much.

    I think walking down steep slopes uses very different muscle combinations than most other movements. Because of this, and because you're usually doing this at the END of the day when you're tired, I've found people tend to injure themselves much more than ascending which is assumed to be harder.

    What lovely hills to pick your way up and down though!

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    1. MaxUtility - You're spot on, one mountaineering book I've got estimates that 80% of all mountain injuries/accidents occur on the way down.

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  4. Wait, was it a 'stroll' down a mountain side or a slipping, sliding, stumbling, fighting it all the way walk down a mountainside? The latter will certainly create aches you've never felt before and make a stroll almost impossible, at least for a few days!

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    1. The problem with climbing mountains, is that the discrepancy of what it's actually like and the way you remember it is even worse than so-called "randonnesia." After a mere day, I remember the sliding/fighting as a stroll. Of course the scenic photos don't help. I mean how bad could it have been if there were rainbows, right??

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    2. Oh no, no….That may be true for you but it's certainly not true for me. Our brains or memory or something must work very differently. I remember every painful step of almost every descent I've ever done, stretching back for years. The spectacular views, the friendships, the campouts, all made the pain worth it, though.

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    3. It's true for me for some activities more than others. When it comes to difficult or miserable bike rides, I actually tend to remember them fairly accurately. Then next time I am pleasantly surprised to find it not so bad.

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    4. As you say, it's always about expectations. I bike more than I hike, so it's physically easier.

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  5. When I used to run road races I remember being told that on steep downhill stretches it was always best to just let go, lengthen your stride and lean into it, as opposed to holding back and fighting it the whole way down. So I did. I also notice my kids have that already figured out when on hikes and it's time to go back down the hill. The tend to laugh the whole way down, at least until they get out of earshot because I'm going slow and steady -- too brittle these days ;)

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  6. There's a solution: you need a downhill-specific mountain bike.

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  7. I've had the same sort of experience, only with back spasms, Some days, I could scarcely walk or sit, but the stretched out position on my bike somehow relieved the pain. It was such a consolation to go out for a ride.

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  8. For a long time (and this was quite some time ago)
    I used to deal with the pain of those fatigued stumbling near-falling descents by deliberately taking ones that had to be rappelled, instead. Of course, this had its own set of challenges...

    Biking just feels much better than walking after a hike-down.

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  9. You ran seven miles in the sand?! I thought you described yourself as non-athletic, more artistic and cerebral. Now I feel you're just a freak of nature. I consider myself as athletic but could never start from nowhere and run that distance on sand…wow.

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  10. And who sez you can't ride your bike indoors?

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  11. Back in February 2012, I foolishly crashed my Vélib' bike share bike in Paris, landing on the outside of my right knee. For six weeks, I had to walk with a cane. But ironically enough, I could ride a bike, completely pain-free, two days later, because the knee only hurt at full extension. I could sail across Paris on a bike (insofar as one sails on a Vélib', which weighs 22 kg), dock it, then pull my folding cane from the basket and hobble slowly to my destination. It must have been quite a sight.

    In any case, cycling, walking, and hiking do use somewhat different muscles, and I think dr2chase is on to something: muscles that are strong from cycling can compensate for those that are weaker, but only to a point. I remember being in agony the day after a fairly short mountain hike in New Hampshire, at a point when I was riding a lot but doing very few hikes.

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  12. Things hurt when you hurt them.

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  13. Going down is always worse than going up. And, from experience, I can tell you that the only thing that gets you fit for it it doing it. You can help by finding set of stairs and doing repeated ascents and descents but it's still not the same.

    One other thing I would recommend is a foam roller to help stretch out those bands of yours. Extremely painful the first few times you roll them out but also very good for helping recovery. You can do it after long rides too.

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  14. Please,please post a photo of yourself moving mincingly and with a deranged grimace...This made my morning!

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  15. yes. but it is a "good pain." a foam roller, a hot bath, and 600mg of ibuprofen is my cure.

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  16. try trekking poles on your next outing,they have made a huge difference in my downhill hiking

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    1. Tried them, but somehow they only confuse me and make things worse, especially when loose rocks are involved.

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  17. different set of stabilizers, from the sounds of things you've strained/overused your tensor fasciae late muscles.


    These are stabilizers of the knee, used heavily going down uneven terrain on foot. On a bike - not used so much.

    Hot bath, motin, time and perhaps a massage from someone you feel comfortable with.

    Maybe a bit of wine also, can be a muscle relaxant.

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  18. Not because of what I do but rather the way I do it, I'm often in the same boat as you, unable to move about without looking like a cripple. Yet, when I manage to throw my leg over the top tube and start pedaling, all is fine. Then it's off the bike and back to shuffling all over again. In those times I also suspect it's much easier to transport myself via bicycle than getting in and out of an automobile or on and off a bus. Thank goodness for bikes!

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  19. That is the IT band. You should do daily stretches for the IT band. Too tight of IT band can lead to knee or even lower back issues. Stretches for it will help a lot.

    Also you can use a foam roller to loosen it, and as well as a way to push soreness out of legs. Foam rolling works wonders.

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  20. Another additional thing that will help you is to be attentive to balancing your leg muscles. Leg muscle inbalances can lead to problems. As a bicyclist your front upper leg muscles and outside upper legs muscles (quads) dominate your upper inner and upper back leg muscles. You should do exercises that develop your upper inner leg muscles and also your upper back leg muscles.

    Also since you bicycle a lot, the hunched forward position shortens the tendons in the back of your lege making for tight hamstring muscles. Important to stretch those a lot to compensate. Yoga can help to balance and stretch everything.

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  21. I had exactly this experience yesterday. I hiked Mount Monadnock on Sunday and could barely walk the next day, but my commute to work by bike has been painless despite the fact that I'm hobbling around stiff-legged and wincing on stairs.

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