Just over ten months ago I started my latest and most important attempt to get myself into physical shape. Having just been discharged from hospital after suffering a Heart Attack it was long overdue. Aged 42, years of neglect, complacency and idleness had taken their toll.
My quest for fitness started tentatively; a shuffle around the Cardiology Ward accompanied by daughter #1. She was scared of her father’s mortality. I was afraid of every twinge, every strange sensation. We both pretended things were normal, trying hard to mask our fear. Bravely, we managed a lap of the ward, perhaps 100 metres. Afterwards I returned to bed, exhausted by the effort.
Tomorrow morning I will set out on a 280 mile journey to cycle from London to Brussels via Amsterdam.
I’ve come a long way!
So far there have been several distinct stages to my physical rehabilitation:
Stage 1: Confinement
For the first 24 hours I was confined to bed, tethered to machines monitoring my heart, recording every beat.
Then I was cut loose of the wires. I was free to move around but not in shape for physical exertion. A shower was about all I could manage.
After four days of rest I was ready for the long shuffle out of the hospital to recuperate at home.
Stage 2: Finding my feet
My journey really started with “Dad’s little walks”; shorts walks from the comfort of the house. Five minutes was enough to start with, at a gentle pace. Twice a day; morning and evening. GTN spray to hand in case of emergency (fortunately never used!).
I added an extra minute each day as my strength and confidence grew. Eventually I was able to venture out unaccompanied, walking further and faster, my independence slowly returning. Occasional outings with Louise became a sociable evening stroll, slightly more relaxed each time, a pleasant change from anxious medical supervision.
Eventually I built up to 30 minutes twice a day. A good walk at a strong pace. The effort worked my heart, brought me out in a light sweat; proper exercise for the first time in a long time.
Stage 3: A helping hand
Eventually I was ready for Cardiac Rehabilitation, 40 minutes of supervised exercise twice a week. As part of a team, patients and staff, we worked together. Week by week, for 8 weeks, the intensity increased. My swagger returned as my stamina grew, as I was encouraged to (ever so carefully) push my limits.
My Heart Rate Monitor became my best friend, measuring my physical exertion, monitoring my well-being. The magic number was 118 beats per minute, 80% of my theoretical maximum.
I started cycling. Initially at home. Stationary, In the garage. I bought a Turbo Trainer and borrowed a bike. At first it was painful in so many ways, the shoes were too small, the bike poorly adjusted, cleats at the wrong angle and the saddle… the saddle was a sadistic joke.
15 minutes was enough. 15 minutes and a walk, a stretch, some relief. Day by day my tolerance levels increased. I pushed myself. Day after day: “The Long Scream” over and over.
I invested in a bike of my own.
By the end of Cardiac Rehabilitation I could manage a full 30 minutes on a cross-trainer. 30 minutes of continuous exercise, at the upper end of my Heart Rate range. It felt good. I felt good.
It was time to sign up for a longer term challenge… the Euro City Cycle.
Before the winter hit we managed a few gentle outings, cycling’s equivalent of “Dad’s little walks”. I was followed every mile by a good, caring and patient friend. I started to find my legs; 17 miles became 25, then 30.
Stage 4: Laying the foundations
Continuity over the winter built my conditioning. I exercised six days a week come rain or shine. I rotated my cycling routines to provide a little variety; The Long Scream, Angels, Hell Hath No Fury… “The Sufferfest” guiding every spin of the wheel, every turn of the pedals.
I ate well. I looked after myself. No alcohol. No caffeine. Low fat. High fibre. I lost over 45 lbs. A shadow of my former self, approaching my fighting weight.
I added swimming to the routine to provide some extra variety, to improve my flexibility and build my core strength. Far from a natural swimmer, it worked me harder than anticipated. It was a welcome rest for tired legs, and it’ll provide a challenge for another day!
Christmas came and went. A brief relaxation of the strict regime allowed roast potatoes and gravy for Christmas dinner, a tasty treat!
Then back to the training, cranking the pedals, dreaming of warmer climes, of venturing outside.
Stage 5: Head for the hills
Emerging after a winter on the Turbo Trainer was literally a breath of fresh air. The hours on the bike had prepared me well.
Flat and gentle at first, the weekend rides became increasingly long and challenging. Hills were gradually introduced, providing a new challenge to my strength and stamina.
With reassurance from the Cardiologist, I became less obsessed with my heart rate. I continue to monitor it, but focus more on the level of effort, my breathing. Relieved of the tight constraints, my cycling has become less stressful, more relaxed, free.
Cycling has become part of my life. It has made me strong and confident again.
Over 10 months of discipline, a new lifestyle, regular exercise have stood me in good stead. It hasn’t happened overnight, no fads, it has taken time and effort.
With over 2,000 miles in my legs this year, I am ready to take on the Euro City Cycle. A distant dream has become a reality!
I am lucky.
I had a chance to fight back, a second chance. A chance to make a difference, for my family and myself.
If I can do this anyone can. I had a “wake up call”, but there’s no need for you to wait!