I hate to think about it, but I’m a member of that group of men age 45 or older who are at a higher risk of heart attack. While one of the reasons I cycle is to help keep my heart healthy, I can’t help but think about the Jim Fixx story. Here was a man who was credited with helping to start America’s fitness revolution, yet he died from a heart attack during his daily run. This lesson was reinforced for me again when another apparently healthy cyclist had a heart attack while we were cycling across the country.
I’ve learned that it’s important to know the symptoms of a heart attack and what to do if you think you’re having one. That is why I carry aspirin when I cycle. Taking aspirin during a heart attack could reduce heart damage by helping to keep blood from clotting.
Nevertheless, if you think you’re having a heart attack, call 911 or your local emergency immediately. Don’t delay calling 911 to take aspirin. Call for emergency help first, then take aspirin if it is recommended by emergency personnel.
While I sometimes find it necessary to dial back my intensity before I fatigue my legs, I’ve found it is much wiser for me to calculate and maintain a desired target heart rate zone at which I can sustain my heart rate over long periods in the saddle without overworking it. When I do see my heart rate creeping up, I’ve found that there are three additional steps that I can take to lower my heart rate and avoid overexertion.
1. Breathing deeply – One of the reasons I can’t judge my physical exertion is that I don’t always breathe deeply when I am at a high heart rate. Consequently, I monitor my heart rate and force myself to breathe deeply when it increases. Sometimes just consciously focusing on my inhaling and exhaling works for me. However, when that doesn’t work, one of the most effective ways I’ve found to breathe deeply is to try to completely exhale all the air from my lungs. This technique forces me to take in a large quantity of air when I inhale.
2. Stay hydrated– As I mention in my pervious post Cycling During Heat Advisory Warnings http://cycleacrossamerica.com/2018/07/05/cycling-during-heat-advisory-warnings/ I drink plenty of water. To make sure I keep drinking I set an alarm to sound at the completion of every mile. This reminds me to take a sip of water. The rule of thumb to stay hydrated is to drink a water bottle every hour when cycling. This technique makes my intake of a sip of water just the right portion size for my body to easily process.
3. Fuel My Legs – Similar to my alarm to remind me to drink, I also set an alarm to remind me to consume some carbohydrates to fuel my legs. I prefer whole foods like apples, oranges and bananas, if I can find them. However, I do carry processed carbohydrates such as GU if I can’t find anything else.
I hope you will have the same success at eliminating leg cramps as I have with these simple techniques.
As I mentioned in my previous post, How to Judge Physical Exertion, I can’t judge my level of physical exertion by how I feel. Therefore, I must rely on a heart rate monitor to gauge how hard my heart is working to help me to avoid leg cramps. However, to use a heart rate monitor, I needed to know my maximum heart rate first. The commonly accepted way to calculate maximum heart rate is this simple formula:
220 – age = maximum heart rate
For example, let’s say I am 65 years old, subtract 65 from 220 to get a maximum heart rate of 155.
Maximum heart rate is the maximum number of times my heart should beat per minute during exercise. See the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention article Target Heart Rate and Estimated Maximum Heart Rate. Nevertheless, not everyone at the same age has the same maximum heart rate. I’ve found that my maximum heart rate has always been a little higher than what this formula gives me.
Knowing my maximum heart rate along with the ability to monitor it greatly helps me take steps to reduce my heart rate before I get fatigued and get cramps.
I find that the more tired my leg muscles get while cycling, the more likely I am to get leg cramps. To keep from cramping I sometimes try to dial back my intensity before I fatigue my legs. One way to do this is to judge my physical exertion by how I feel. Here is a simple guide I use based on the Mayo Clinic’s article Exercise intensity: How to measure it
Light exertion – There is no noticeable change in breathing patterns. Don’t break a sweat unless it’s a hot, humid day.
Moderate exertion – Breathing becomes deeper and more frequent. Will break a sweat after performing the activity for about 10 minutes.
Highexertion – Will break a sweat after 3-5 minutes. Breathing is deep and rapid. Can only talk in short phrases.
Unfortunately, I’ve found that I can’t always judge my physical exertion by how I feel while I’m cycling. With other types of physical exertion, this method works fairly well for me, but not cycling. Many times, I don’t breathe deeply or rapidly although my body is working harder. While my exertion is the same, my heart rate tends to creep up without me knowing. This has become a real problem while touring because if my heart rate gets too high for a sustained period of time, I fatigue and I get leg cramps.
Tai Chi is a gentle Chinese exercise that combines slow movements and deep breathing. It’s been said to be like meditating while you move. In many ways cycling is my Tai Chi. I find the rhythmic pedaling and deep breathing a form of meditation, especially while cycling a relatively level rail trail through wooded areas. Without the worry of automobiles around me, my sense of the environment comes alive. I start to smell the fragrance in the air. I hear the running water in the stream nearby. I see the movement of small creatures in the brush. But most of all, my mind lets go of the daily stress and is free to wander to any subject. Cycling helps me solve some of the most complex problems in my life in the simplest way.
If relieving stress wasn’t enough, cycling has also improved my balance, strengthened muscles, and lessened arthritis pain. I guess you can think of it as Bicycle Tai Chi.
When you think about it, cyclists get saddle sores for the same reason babies get diaper rash. So, it only makes sense for cyclists to use the same strategies Moms do to prevent diaper rash. Accordingly, here is a modified version of Mayo Clinic’s online article on Diaper Rash adapted for cyclists:
• Remove wet diapers promptly. This translates to get out of your wet cycling shorts immediately after completing your ride. While it is tempting to relax with a cold beer before showering, this is akin to sitting in a bacteria brew incubating an infection.
• Wash baby’s bottom with diaper change. Besides getting out of those wet shorts, get into the shower too. If you’re touring and a shower isn’t available, use a baby wipe to clean the area.
• Dry with a clean towel or let it air dry. Use a clean dry towel and give yourself some time to air out before putting on clean dry underwear.
• Give baby’s bottom time without a diaper. While this may not sound practical for cyclists, I have a friend who tells me that she has let her bottom air at night in the privacy of her tent when she’s touring.
• Consider using ointment. While I rarely get saddle sores, at the first sign of a potential problem, I immediately apply baby ointment to prevent further skin irritation. This has always worked well for me.
Finally, it should be noted that the Mayo Clinic doesn’t recommend anything comparable to chamois cream to prevent diaper rash. My guess is that although chamois cream is designed to reduce friction, a similar product is not used on a baby’s bottom because an anti-friction cream would also prevent a baby’s skin from airing and could also trap bacteria. For this reason I never used chamois cream. I do, however, use a powder like Anti Monkey Butt to reduce chafing and keep my skin dry while cycling.
On my ride today my GPS (Garmin Edge 1030) kept giving me a Heat Advisory warning. While cyclists need to take precautions in the heat, some advantages we have during hot weather are that we generate our own cooling breeze and can carry plenty of water. But there are other steps we can take to protect ourselves from hyperthermia:
Ride during the coolest part of the day. – I try to get out early and avoid riding at midday.
Pick a cool and shady route. – If I can, I like to head for my favorite shady rail trail that runs along a river. This route is considerably cooler than riding on the road. If I do overheat, I can always cool off in the river.
Drink plenty of water. – My GPS allows me to set an alarm at the completion of ever mile. I use this alarm as a reminder to take a drink. I never wait until I feel thirsty. I’ve found that if I do, it is too late and I’ve already started to dehydrate. I carry three water bottles and refill them every chance I get so I will not run out of water.
Take frequent breaks. – Since I can’t easily monitor my body temperature, I watch my heart rate very closely in hot weather. If I see it rising for an unknown reason or not returning to an expected rate after heavy exertion, I find a shady spot and take a break until it returns to normal.
Wear cool clothing. – Here cyclists are in luck. For the most part, our clothing is designed to keep us cool. However, I add sandals, sun sleeves and head scarf to my kit to keep me cooler.
Bicycle manufacturers have made many attempts to improve rider comfort over the years. Their solutions have ranged from adding shock absorbing forks, seatposts and frames to advocating the returning to the springy characteristics of steel frames with many variations and combinations in between. However, finding the right mix of shock absorbing qualities without robbing too much rider energy being transmitted to the pedal is difficult. This, combined with rider weight and preference makes this a personal decision to be determined by each individual rider. I use them all and can only say, JUST KEEP RIDING and experiment with various solutions until you find the right one for you.
As mention earlier, wider tires greatly improved my riding comfort while touring. In addition, the wider tire allowed me to reduce my tire pressures which give a more cushiony ride without increasing my risk of getting a flat. You know the type of flats I’m talking about? They are commonly known as a pinch flat. It is when the tube is punctured by being pinched between the tire and rim. The resulting puncture looks like a snake bite with two holes side by side on the tube.
Another simple change that I’ve made that has greatly improved my riding comfort is to use wider tires. With a larger tire there was more air to cushion me from the road shock on rough roads. In fact, recently while touring with my friend Mike, he told me that he was riding with a wider front tire than the back. He explained that this acts as a kind of front shock on his bike.