What it Means to Go Hard

article_gohardThis morning I had to take someone through a brutal protocol…. ramped exercise test for VO2peak followed by 20 minutes of rest. And then…. 1 minute all out for max and average power. Great data collected and he was the picture of “having gone all out.”

He climbed (er fell) off his bike and lay down on my floor. I thought I would need the AED. When he sat up a few minutes later, he simply stared off into space. This guy is a brilliant PhD, mind you, and all I could get him to respond with were monosyllabic grunts. “Do you want some water? Pedialyte? Candy bar?” 


I know how he felt because I ran myself through the same test on Tuesday. Wasn’t pretty. When I finished I was shaking like a wet chihuahua on a cold day in January and it brought back the memory of the hardest effort I have ever done. It was actually at the velodrome and as I was coming out of turn 4, I could see black vertical lines converging toward my nose as I crossed the finish line. Unfortunately I think I lost by half a wheel. But I figured out what it means to go hard.

I experience similar feelings whether I am sprinting, in a time trial, going through a test, or a max effort deadlifting or squatting. It isn’t just that feeling of “hard” in the heat of the effort. It is what happens after going all out. My body shakes. I get loopy. I stare. I gasp for air like the goldfish at the end of that ‘Faith No More’ video. I know I need to eat or drink, but can’t. Oddly, from the initial shock, I can recover fairly well. Even to the point of getting a cocky pride in blasting into a new level. 

But then, hours later, a new wave of Post-Hard-Effort-Weirdness (P.H.E.W.) hits me. Legs aren’t numb or tingling but there is definitely some kind of nervous system disruption. They feel like I have sea-legs. Sitting doesn’t feel too good. Standing isn’t any better. Laying down just doesn’t feel right. It is an odd wired-but-tired feeling. 

If I really hit it hard enough, I can feel it in my feet and hands… the next morning. As soon as I wake up, my first thought is that I need to write down the license number of the truck that hit me. Then I curse myself for being so foolish at my age, mutter “I can’t do this anymore,” and try to justify that slippers and boxer shorts could be the next fashion trend and I could be the one who starts it. As the day wears on, I feel better and realize I will actually survive as long as I walk slowly and stop every twenty feet. 

Not to be nasty and wish you pain and suffering, but I hope you have all felt this same way at some point. If we experience this, it shows us that we can a) really do it, and b) will survive if we push it. The thing is, we need to push ourselves to these levels every so often or else we simply plateau. 

We all know this too. Kind of a no-brainer. If we keep doing things we can easily accomplish, we don’t improve. Going hard allows us to get better, stronger, and faster. We can put down more with less perceived effort. 

From my experience, there are two problems with going hard. First, when you go hard, are you going hard *enough?* Second, are you doing what you *need to do* to go hard enough?

The first question can be answered simply: test yourself. Either with a lab test like the one I completed this morning or on the road, or in a race, so you can quantify “hard” for your training. The key to learning about *hard* is not necessarily in the numbers but in your reaction. When the demons come, do you face them or give into them? You see, “hard” plays tricks in our minds. 

If it is a time trial or the final kilometer of a crit, a part of our mind will be our biggest barrier. Not the wheel-set you rode. Not the final climb. Not even the squirrelly rider next to you. The biggest barrier is you and what your Talking Self is saying. Often it is self-criticism, a knock on your confidence, anxiety, and difficulty staying focused.

Overcoming these barriers requires an internal fight. It requires us to first identify when the mind is interfering and then to allow our Doing Self to step in and quiet the Talking Self. As Jens Voigt says, “Shut up, Legs!” Snap back to the present and own the goal. Trust the Doing Self to take aim and fire. 

The second question, are you doing what you need to do to go hard enough, is quite simple, but rarely followed. If you want to get to the right level of hard, be it training or racing, you absolutely must recover and rest before and after. 

With a truly hard effort, the entire body takes a hit. All systems are pushed to their extreme. Cardiovascular, muscular, nervous, endocrine, etc. And this is what is often forgotten. We awake the day after a hard effort and by the afternoon our lungs feel fine, we even start walking in straight lines without holding onto railings or friends. But our central nervous system hasn’t recovered fully. 

Our focus isn’t as sharp. Our thoughts are not as clear. Barriers are not as easily overcome and our Talking Self starts to dominate over the Doing Self. And because of that, if you try to push yourself to hard levels every day you will plateau. 

All too often I see individuals ride a hard group ride or race and then go out for an “easy” recovery ride the next day. But in that easy ride, they ride with a few friends, don’t pay attention to their training levels, burn up a few matches, or end up out on the road for twice as many hours as needed for their goals. “Hey, it was just a 5-minute climb and a few yellow diamond sprints. It was fun. I felt fine and my legs are tired but I’m good to go for tomorrow’s 10 x 1 minute intervals at 175% VO2max.”

But don’t get down on yourself when you can’t hit your target numbers the next day. This can get disconcerting. Especially when you need to go to new levels of hard for a podium finish but can’t because you wasted energy on what was supposed to be an easy ride. As Charles Poliquinn says, “Too often, we make our hard days too easy and our easy days too hard.”

If we keep making our easy days too hard we can never reach our full potential on our hard days. So knowing what hard really means is 1) knowing how hard is hard, 2) knowing when to recovery, and 3) knowing how easy recovery has to be.

Go hard when you need to go hard. All other times, keep a lid on it.