LSD and the Art of Zen Cycling;

Another great blog from the keyboard of Mike Kirby

Zen: A state of calm attentiveness in which one’s actions are guided by intuition rather than by conscious effort, lost in the rhythm of the task at hand.

I started to write this many months ago but time pressures meant I did not finish it. But what Kipling called those twin imposters – Triumph and Disaster – struck in the space of 10 days, I now find I have the time a bit more time on my hands.

The triumph was finishing Lands End to John O’Groats (LEJOG for short) in 8 days with my son Harry and Henry Sleight. We took a scenic route trying to avoid the West Midlands and built-up areas where we could. I loved every minute, passing through parts of the country I had never visited, doing almost 1000 miles without a single mishap, apart from a few minor mechanicals, easily sorted.

The start of LEJOG – Harry, Mike and Henry

This was closely followed a few days later by a trip to the John Radcliffe in the back of an ambulance with concussion some torn ligaments and the prospect of a long time away from my beloved bikes.

LEJOG was supposed to be a training ride for the Pan Celtic Race, a 2400km unsupported spin around the Celtic fringe of Brittany and on up to North Wales. Maybe next year. A lot of the preparation for the PCR was, like last summer’s training for the London, Edinburgh, London race, done at a moderate pace and I have definitely grown to love a lot of LSD. That would be Long Slow Distance, not the other stuff.

Most people agree that running coach Joe Henderson was the first to coin the term Long Slow Distance, in sixties California where the sun always shines, and the days are warm and long. He popularised LSD running in mainstream endurance training programs. Whilst the theory was applied to running originally, it is equally applicable to all endurance events.

LSD fell out of favour for a while, but what goes around comes around, and people are turning back to LSD as a much less stressful, and often highly enjoyable way to build fitness and endurance. The secret of success for Tour De France and Monument winner Tadej Pogacar is apparently, long hours of moderate pace riding and his coach, Inego San Millan has researched the huge benefits of this way of training.

By moderate pace, the lower end of zone 2 is recommended, that is, still able to hold a conversation, but avoiding lactic build and the oxidative stress that anyone who rides a bike will be very familiar with. There is strong evidence that athletes who train at the lower end of zone 2 achieve the same training gains as they would at the upper end of the same zone, but with considerably less stress, less fatigue and far fewer injuries and therefore more consistent long term training efforts. It is almost relaxing! Plus, you recover quickly, allowing you to do it all over again the next day. What is not to like?

When some broken bones in my hand – yes, another trip to the John Ratcliffe – meant I was forced off my bike for a few months last autumn, I focussed more on running again for a while. I used a diet of run/walks to start with, to get my cycling legs accustomed to the different stresses of running, building to some extended distance LSD runs, eventually running a half marathon and then a full marathon on the hilly trails around Wendover Woods, for the first time in many years. This year has taught me so much. As to whether a cyclist should run at all, well, that is a whole new blog.

Training for the 1540 km’s of London/Edinburgh/London (LEL) and Pan Celtic has involved a lot of LSD, like three consecutive days of 200 kms per day over Bank Holidays, or a weekend of back-to-back 300 km rides. These were mixed in with tempo rides, perhaps with a few hill efforts, the odd TT, but mostly LSD. Thanks to the weather Gods, last summer was warm and mainly dry. I also have an understanding other half, or at least one that I also training for her own long-distance event, albeit, a very, very long swim. We are both converts to longer slower efforts.

You might think that all this slow stuff would affect race speeds, but I managed a lifetime PB for a 100-mile TT and ran my fastest half marathon for 10 years on a diet of LSD.

Stuff happens when you ride long. Things that don’t happen at all on shorter training rides. That annoying noise your bike might make on a short ride can develop into a ride ending mechanical. The noise will certainly get on your nerves if nothing else.

Your body needs to be fed and practicing getting food and drinks in, is essential. Muscles start to ache, in ways that they never do on shorter rides. This fatigue is impossible to replicate in any other way. Your precious contact points, hands, feet and of course your back side, start to react badly to the constant pressure of being in one position for hours on end.


                                                Memories of LEJOG – rolling into Carlisle and the climb out of Moffat

At 250km’s my feet always start to cramp, every time. During LEL the palms of my hands were rubbed raw by contact with the bars. For LEJOG, I stopped using mits and the problem went away completely. Multiple long days during LEL, did unspeakable damage to important places that cannot be mentioned in polite company. Since then, a different set up (tubeless good/clinchers bad), the best long distance bib shorts and copious amounts of chammy cream have resolved all those issues.  The initial long training rides were all learning experiences. I tested different set-ups on the bike, even different bikes, before I decided which one to use. I worked out the nutrition that was best for me and the best clothing.

Sometimes, I used a 100km lap that brought me back home to refill and fuel. Discipline meant a break of no longer than 10 minutes per lap, as tempting as it was to stop. The power meter became an irrelevance as I rode on feel and to the clock. Getting 300km done in less than 12 hours became my Sunday routine through late June and early July. I also had a few wonderful out and back rides and took the opportunity to ride to places way beyond my normal compass allowing me to test my sketchy navigation skills.

‘Don’t you get bored’, friends asked: No never. Or ‘what do you think about all day?’ asked another. How about: Numbers, distance, legs, food, route, time, speed, legs, feet, hands, backside, legs and that noise my bike is making that was getting harder and harder to ignore. There are also many unexpected pleasures, like an amazing sun rise, mist hanging in hollows, or an absent-minded family of deer, wandering across the road not expecting a cyclist to emerge from the dawn.

Then there are ‘things to look forward to’. These loom large in your mind and become a great motivation. The promise of a proper coffee after an early start, a warm sausage roll, a can of Coke, or just a cold bottle of water on a hot day. Rewards for distance done.

I got into a routine that always seemed to bring me back round to Bletchingdon Co-op on a Sunday afternoon. So much so, that I actually looked forward to it and if my route didn’t pass by, I would sometimes detour to make sure it did. They have a Costa Coffee machine and after a day of jelly babies and Jam Sandwiches, anything savoury like a Scotch egg or a nasty pasty is a matchless salty-delight.

You learn to be kind to yourself. You become hyper-aware of how you are feeling. I would constantly scan my various body parts, checking in with myself for new aches and pains, monitoring energy levels, thirst, and hunger.

Thankfully I am very content in my own company and whilst it was always good to have companionship on some legs of my training rides, setting my own tempo became important. I needed to test myself to my own clock, to stop and fuel when I needed to stop and fuel. It allowed me to relax into a ride, to achieve ‘flow’, for the ride to become almost effortless, any real fatigue, not really hitting until the ride was over.

Runners talk about a ‘God Run’ when you feel you can run at pace, all day, and just keep going. I have glimpsed this. Just a few times, ever. But going long in training, allowed me sometimes to get into a semi-meditative state, on occasion, for what seemed like hours on end. Comforting, calming, warming, tapping out a constant rhythm, I would glance at my watch and wonder where the time had gone, or realise I had gone from A to B and being in the groove, not really having to think too much about it. I think this is the very definition of Zen. Calm attentiveness, guided by intuition.

Re-discovering LSD last year was wonderful, and this year has been more of the same, ‘going long’ ahead of LEJOG, in preparation for the PCR in July, now sadly on hold whilst my body mends. LSD is addictive, being in the zone, lost in the rhythm, feeling the Flow. Try it!