Just over a year ago, on the evening of January 23rd, 2020 I put my bike on the trainer, climbed aboard and did a race on Zwift – one of my fastest and most successful yet. I did notice a strange thing, though. While in races before that my maximum heart rate had been 192 bpm, this time it went over 200 a couple of times. Still, I was pleased. I came in fourth in my class.
The next day I went back to work. The morning felt completely normal, however in the afternoon I started feeling bad. I could barely stay awake and had a bit of a cough. On my commute home in the bus I was shivering. I took my temperature when I got there and it was around 101°F. Sage installed me on the couch under piles of blankets. I was fine as long as I didn’t move. Getting up to go to the washroom was terrible, though. Coming out from under the blankets I would immediately feel as if I had entered the Arctic. I’d shiver and involuntarily wail in such a way that Sage joked that there was clearly a ghost in the house.
Soon any way I lay on the couch hurt my shoulders, hips and joints. When it came time for bed I took some cold medicine and fell fast asleep. The entire night I slept the sleep of the dead and woke to find my clothes and sheets wet with sweat – as if someone had poured water over me in the night. I may have slept the entire night but I felt exhausted, waking just long enough to take more medicine, have a bit of food and water and go back to sleep. The entire day was spent just like this.
That night my temperature spiked at over 103°F. It responded to medication so I never felt worried but the cough, headaches, body aches and exhaustion were awful. The next two nights I slept alone as nobody wants to sleep next to someone sweating like they are in a bicycle race.
I took the next several days off from work, returning when my fever was gone and my cough had abated. The exhaustion stayed on for several weeks. My boss was really concerned saying that she’d never seen someone experience exhaustion for that long after an illness. Was it COVID-19? Who knows? It was very early in the pandemic and so I, and others at work who had it just thought we’d picked up a really bad cold.
However, for me one other thing showed up almost immediately after I recovered. The relatively mild sadness and let down after returning from my trip to India seemed to become all-consuming and worries spread. I became certain that friends and loved ones no longer liked me and that nothing would ever be fun again. I was sure that work was going poorly and my performance wasn’t great even as I was being praised for what I was doing. It was annoying because on one level I knew that these thoughts were ridiculous but on the other hand it was difficult to shake that feeling. I, quite literally, didn’t feel myself.
Sage and Daegan were wonderful, though, and rode out the storm with me, reassuring me when I needed to hear it, but most importantly encouraging me to make some lifestyle changes. Some of those my readers and Instagram followers likely noticed, others were not so obvious. The changes were slow in making a difference but I know for sure they did and so I want to share them with you in hopes that no matter why you might be feeling awful, you might have some things to try.
My days were once very free-form. There were nebulous plans for what I might do. I know that at some point I had to eat and shower. I might intend to do some exercise if I could fit it in, then do household chores or shopping. All that changed. Now most days, weekend or not are relatively structured and work like this:
I wake up early – usually by 6 but sometimes beforehand. I walk to the kitchen and turn on the coffee maker (I filled it with grounds and water the night before). Into the living room I go for sitting meditation. For most of 2020 I did only ten minutes but gradually increased it. Now I do 30 minutes. When the timer goes off I go to the washroom and have a shower. Before getting in the shower I will brush and floss my teeth. Once I get out and dressed I go into the kitchen and make breakfast, calling out to our digital assistant to put on some music. I eat breakfast while playing card games with Sage (loser does chores) . Weekdays at 7:30 we stop and I power up my computer.
Take note of this as I feel this is important: I don’t immediately turn on my phone or power up my computer. I do sometimes read a newspaper or book as I get ready but that’s it. I wait as long as I can before looking at a screen. At the same time once I did look at screens, I carefully curated what I looked at. For weeks on end I would stay away from social media, and those times I did go back to social media it would be for only a few minutes a day. I controlled this by inactivating accounts during extended times I didn’t use them and when I did use them I used software to automatically limit how much time I could spend there.
Work also became regimented. I use a modified version of the Pomodoro Method, (fewer breaks and no long breaks) to have extremely task-focused work sprints. Lunch comes at noon and often Sage and I play more games while I eat again).
After work, comes the other extremely important part: exercise. In March I started going outside for 30 minutes of exercise every single day regardless of weather. Often, as you saw, my time ended up being longer and I almost always found interesting places to do it. Any negativity I felt almost completely evaporated within twenty minutes. Lately as the temperatures drop into negative double-digits I’ve been back on Zwift, riding virtually but except for when I was recovering from my recent running injury I’ve kept moving every day for almost a year now.
Another incredibly important part for me was, and always has been volunteering. Sometimes I combined it with my bike rides, doing 20-30 km/week of riding delivering vegetables for Bike Brigade, other times it was volunteering at an adult literacy centre (online) to help someone learn to make their own website. One of the best ways to avoid feeling self-absorbed and introspective is to turn outward and to help others.
If I had to cook dinner I factored that in. Sometimes that meant starting dinner early and then going out afterward. Other times it meant heading out the door immediately and then cooking dinner.
Bedtime was, as much as possible, by 10PM. Before that I had another routine. If Sage and I were watching something we’d turn it off, set up the bed (we store it in a closet at night for more space). I would go to the kitchen to set up the coffee for the next day and then brush and floss my teeth. Then it was off to bed. I would read a few minutes and then sleep. The next day the whole thing started again.
How did this work?
It definitely did not work overnight. February was difficult, March was difficult but a little better, April was better. By summer I had mostly good days and some great days. By August even more so. Now, I still have occasionally bad days but as I try to write about how it was last year it’s hard to even put my mind in that place. What was I thinking? Why was it so important to me? I remember it but in some ways it feels like something someone else experienced. Except in my case I also feel bad about how my own state affected others around me. That part of it I can access easily.
Why do I think it worked?
Each aspect of my new habits addressed different challenges.
Daily exercise, especially doing it outdoors was a huge one. There are lots of studies that talk about the psychological benefits of exercise. All sorts of great neurochemicals get produced by just getting yourself moving. Other studies talk about the value of getting outside. In Japan they even talk about Forest Bathing – just getting out and enjoying nature as a really important thing to do. Combine them together and you have huge benefits. For me there are two more things as well. When I’m exercising, particularly when it’s strenuous or challenging, my focus must be taken away from any rumination. I need to focus on breathing, I need to focus on not crashing into a tree when careening down single track. There’s not time for navel gazing. And often just that little break from doing it is enough to reset my mental state. I also had lots of fun exploring our city and sharing all the interesting things I found with you here and on Instagram. I may have been sad at one point that my five day bicycle tour in India was over, but in 2020, on trail runs and bicycle rides I made 278 trips. I had no idea when I started how rewarding that would be.
Meditation is one of those things that feels a little weird to me. In some ways it feels like religion, in others like “woo” but in the end, there’s lots of good science behind that one. For me, what I notice is a reduced tendency to let my thoughts run away from me. A year ago, a small negative thought could blossom into a huge obsession. Now the negative thoughts may come but it feels like having an adult in the room as well. So while one part of my mind might be feeling crummy another part is calmly just watching it. I am able to take myself and my thoughts less seriously. That’s a huge deal.
And the regimentation and routine? The pomodoros and schedules and tasklists? This keeps me on track even when I don’t feel like it. No matter who we are we have things that we consider must-do, things we should do and things we like doing. Most of us like watching TV, we should study or floss our teeth, but nearly everyone considers cleaning ourselves after using the washroom a must do. We never say “Meh, I’m tired, I’ll use toilet paper next time I’m in here.”
By adding this routine and changing my attitude, I moved more of my “should do’s” into the must-do category. The morning routine was easiest – each task becomes the trigger for the next one to the extent that I now look forward to the whole thing. Exercise became the same way. Am I awake? Am I healthy? Ok, then, I can always spare 30 minutes to get outside. What? I don’t feel like it? Too bad, the benefits are large. Also: ask me how many times I had to tell myself (or Sage had to tell me) that every single time I went out after not feeling like it I felt great within 20 minutes and came home in an amazing mood. In 278 workouts in 2020, even when I could barely walk home, even when I crashed my bike, I walked in the door happy, sometimes literally singing.
How did I make it stick?
This was the hard part. I have a few tricks up my sleeve on this. The first is ‘streaks’ – I used apps to track how many days I’d been active and having them display visually helps a lot. If I was going to put a gap in my workout, I had better have a good reason – one I’d be happy with days or weeks later.
The other is more abstract. I had to change my attitude toward myself. I need to reduce the number of “good excuses” for not doing something. “I don’t feel like it” is not a rational response. I had to be mindful of my own self-talk. I often caught myself trying to rationalize something. “I’m really tired, let’s skip riding tonight.” was one possible method I’d try to sabotage myself. The response to that was to remind myself that all I needed to do was 30 minutes. No matter how tired I am, as long as I’m not injured, I can do something for 30 minutes, and off I’d go.
Another method was procrastination. A great way for me to do that was to sit in front of Google Maps and try to decide where I was going to go. I love maps and can spend hours planning a 30 minute ride if you give me the chance. But Sage had the perfect solution for that. If I see that trap happening, set a ten minute timer. If I haven’t made a choice by the time the timer goes off, the destination will always be the Leslie Spit.
The last method, the big gun, if you will, is to ask myself if all this is important to me. If not, if the routines are no longer serving me that’s fine – change the routine. So far, the answer has always been “Yes, it’s very important.” and so the response is that you always do what is important. There are no excuses. You don’t just decide not to show up for a job interview because you’re not feeling up for it today. You don’t sit and read Reddit for a little longer when you know you have a flight to catch. Showing up for the things that we do to care for ourselves is just as important as showing up for a flight – possibly more important because we need to show up for life every day.
It would be wrong to say that in one year, everything is now perfect and the only thing stopping everyone from having the best life is that they’re not trying hard enough to do the right things. But I am really happy to say that as I enter 2021, I feel not just in a better state than I did after getting sick, but better than I felt entering 2020 – or even 2019.