Neuroplasticity, Gratitude and Grace

Even though the days continue to get shorter, and whenever I'm outside, it's dark, I am going through a regeneration of mind, body and spirit. The early mornings before dawn on the bike (inside the bike shop completing "CompuTrainer" miles with other local racers/cyclists) are dark; the drives home from work, also, dark. During the day, I'm in an office with no real windows of its own (my glimpses of sunlight come through the generous offerings of propped-open doors from other offices that do, actually, have windows); and yet, in this time of little light, there is a deepening in my spirit, an understanding of who I am and why. As it turns out, I am a product of a feature of our brains called neuroplasticity

I learned this fancy term over a year ago when writing an RFP (request for proposal) that emphasized the importance of athletic training for adolescents in relation to their mental health. Not that I forgot the term exactly ,but I put it out of mind in the frenzy of last year's race season. And yet, it cropped up again, unexpectedly, on my long commutes to work, where I've started listening to books when the repetition of the news (political horribleness) and of EDM both dull my sense that I exist as a sentient being in the world. How Bad Do You Want It? by Matt Fitzgerald explores the inner (mental) world of the athlete and explains, in rather fascinating terms, how and why we "tick" on the race course-- and how and why (at times) we fail. 

Neuroplasticity came up yesterday. It's the idea that: when challenged, the mind can adapt to a changed physical landscape of the body. An example  nearly everyone is familiar with is the blind person whose four remaining senses before more acute. So too, for the person who incurs some sort of physical handicap: the mind-- working in tandem with the body-- develops a work around to approximate the previous motion pattern prior to the injury. Even studies in which runners are encumbered by elastic bands wrapped around their legs found that, after a few weeks, the runners adapted to run just as efficiently with the bands than without them. 

I think about this in relation to my own body now that I've decided to focus on USAC races (and their distances) by shortening my overall training volume and increasing the intensity at which I perform each workout. I have also hired a strength coach to help me develop my core strength, flexibility and balance. That, paired with my focus on the bike has granted me something unique and unexpected: an "opening up" in what I am able to accomplish, my ability to endure the mental work of enduring, and--for lack of a better way of saying it-- a way of thinking about my body that aligns with a specific physical outcome. 

It is what happens when the music in the room hits a rhythm and I flow into it. I can feel the four muscles of my quads and the three in my hamstrings and my upper and lower glutes perform a kind of dynamic dance as I turn the crank arm around and around and this, too, in time with my breath. I can hardly keep track of it in words. But, it is there at 5:00 am and those rare weekend days when it isn't too windy outside and I hit a lonely stretch of road and I think to myself: "This is what birds must feel like when they are flying." 

It is the strength routine, too: when I can roll one vertebra at a time down to the floor, keeping my feet stable, grasping my foam roller in front of my chest with both hands. Excruciatingly slow; but the point of the exercise to go even slower than you think is possible to move. When I started this routine, my body shook and I could hardly control my descent to the ground, and my slow resurrection back to a seated position. Last night, as I listened to my breath, I realized that each bone in my back was slowly making contact with the floor in measured movements. When I reached the final one, I began my journey back to a seated position, just as slow and just as measured. I realized, halfway up, that I had somehow, silently, learned how to do this motion that was, admittedly, impossible just a few weeks ago. 

It is such a small, silent victory, but one that presses on me deeply.  Simple movements-- learning to feel muscles I haven't felt in lifetimes; learning the connective tissues in my feet, learning the power in my hips and core. It is as though I'm learning crawl. In time, I will learn to steady myself, to walk, to stride. To fly, perhaps, if I can ever be that strong. 

Photo by Melbye/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Melbye/iStock / Getty Images

And yet, in between all this motion-- all these cycling miles and these hours of stretching, breathing, strengthening-- something unexpected emerged: gratitude. Gratitude that I have the capacity to develop strength, to learn new techniques, to dive deep into a sport I love and love it more with the daily dance we do.  My mistake early in my athletic career was to focus on winning: on wanting titles and trophies and accolades to line my walls. This, now, is different. This is not about the finish line. I am happiest when I am on the bike; even, oddly, when it sucks and I am suffering. 

There, I am the most me-- I am wholly physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually myself. Of course the outcomes of races will matter (when the season comes to race again); but unlike before, it is the journey I want to experience more than anything else. I want to experience each and every "opening" of my body to my mind, or my mind to my body; I want to stretch and and do the crazy-slow sit-ups and planks and bike lunges; I want to feel some new ounce of strength in my pedal stroke I hadn't bothered to notice before. 

It's a long road. I want to ride the hell out of it. 

At some point, (I'm sure) I will crash. At some point, I will realize that I have gotten stronger. I might get sick again (hopefully not like last year and its four rounds of antibiotics.) Or, I might not get sick and have a stellar winter training season.  At the center of these spiraling possibilities rests the Freaky-Bee bike and what adventures we share. 

The road. The miles. The internal dance of body and mind. And the gift that I am able to experience all of it. 

Thank you, Universe, for this season.