Mara Abbott blog: The eight stages of interval training

Making it through the mental challenges of a necessary evil

December being what it is, the first hard workouts of the off season often seem to coincide with the first big snow (or terrifying wind) storms of the winter. This year it also lined up with me getting a new roommate. Although she claimed (earning big points right off the bat) not to mind the fact that my bike and trainer were set up next to the dining room table (you know, facing out the big window with the view), I had to explain to her that when it came time to do the hard workouts, I might have to find a more... private... location anyhow.

You see, I explained to 'New Roommate', about halfway through the typical trainer interval session is when, historically, I develop a bit of an attitude problem. A whole lot of loathing and hatred gets directed at anyone or thing that wanders within five feet of me - particularly if the hapless individual is so foolish to say something like, "good morning!"

Not so in December 2015 - prepare for your socks to fall off with jealousy - she didn't just understand the problem, New Roommate (not a professional, not training for anything in particular) actually did my intervals with me.

No, really. I know - roommate jackpot.

I admit that there may have been a bit of Tom Sawyer-ing on my part ("Like it?" said Tom, "Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?"). In this case it was something along the lines of, "It would feel so great to have a hard ride in before you go to work - I mean, but don't do it on my account. Only if you really want to..." In any case, when Monday morning came, two bikes waited shoulder to shoulder, looking out the picture window toward the snowy street.

These same terrible intervals have surfaced a few times a year, every year, for almost the last ten years. There are seven of them. I have done a lot of them. As such, I have become theoretically stronger (thanks, coach...), but I also have become quite familiar with the progression of emotional drama that correlates with each effort. This time, to motivate and support my new workout buddy in her undertaking I shared my knowledge during rest periods, keeping her apprised of the specific mental strife that could be expected with each stage.

We all love discovering common experience - it makes us feel like we are (incrementally) less crazy. Those workout videos will warn you about the "burn" in your legs, but rarely do you hear about what might start going through your mind. To that end, I thought I should make good on my years of experience and let you in on the process:

The Warm-Up: This is the time when I make deals with myself to make what is surely impending doom seem ever-so-slightly less threatening. Such deals include statements such as "if I flat when I am more than halfway through, maybe I don't have to finish..." (As a side note, I have only flatted once during this workout, partway through the second interval, and my conscience made me fix the flat, pony up, and finish the workout. It was unpleasant, and I was grouchy.)

One: Any satisfaction in finishing the first effort is immediately erased by the understanding of how far I have to go. I generally consider the idea of whether it might be better to stop and pick up the workout again later in the day. I have never acted on that impulse, so it may or may not be a good idea.

Two: I am impelled to stop and check the offset on my SRM to ensure that I am going to get an accurate data file. Never mind that those guys auto-offset now. NEVER mind the fact that it is the effort, not the file that will matter in the long run. It is clearly important that I stop pedaling right now to check this out.

Three: Three is not so bad. It's far enough in that I've settled into a bit of a rhythm, and not so far that things are really starting to hurt. The flip side of that is that if three does feel bad, the impending doom of the next four gets even more threatening. This is also about when I start trying to do the mental math of the decimal equivalent of 3/7. This is challenging to do when you are 42.6% of the way through a brain destroying workout.

Four: This is when the hate starts. Like that red car driving by. I suddenly hate red cars. Or that guy happily walking his dog - what, doesn't he have something important to do? Doesn't the world at large realize that this is really serious business?

Five: One of my best friends, Jane, works for the same training company as my coach, Dean. Once, while lamenting the intervals to her, she noted, "Seven? I wouldn't give one of my athletes more than five." When I pointed that out to Dean, he said, "Well, you aren't everyone." Whoopee. That passing conversation took place probably four or five years ago, but this is where I remember it. Every time.

Six: Back around number one or two, I fantasized about how carefree and manageable it all would be when there was only one left. That is no longer the case.

Seven: Suddenly, inexplicably, the terror and anger dissolve. Everything is ok again. Usually a shouted, "HOORAY!" is in order.

My yoga friends and mentors talk about the importance of watching one's own mental processes impartially, without criticism. Swami Kripalu said the highest spiritual practice is self-observation without judgment. Perhaps - but then again, by the end of the intervals I frankly don't even think much of the yogis.

I mean, it's seven. I'll skip the Dante reference. It's just a whole lot.

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