Some years ago I sat through a time-management presentation by a motivational speaker. I was the managing editor for a magazine that hit deadlines the way Rocky Balboa hit Apollo Creed. We were but one of many trade magazines our owner published; the room contained nearly 100 editorial and production staffers. We needed the presentation the way James Cameron needs technology lessons.

The presenter’s big show-stopper was a routine in which he took two-gallon glass jar and put a number of large rocks in it. He compared them to job, family and financial obligations. Next, he inserted a number of smaller rocks. Those were meals, personal passions, etc. Then, he shook in a liberal amount of sand—grocery shopping, oil changes, mowing the lawn. Just when you thought it couldn’t hold anything else, he poured in at least a quart of water. Along the way, he kept egging the crowd on, asking them, “Is there room for more?”

By the end, he had the audience wound up enough that when he asked, “What’s the lesson?” They cried, “There’s always room for more!”

“No!” he thundered back. And the room fell silent.

Again, he asked the question, “What’s the lesson?”

As I’d already read about the same presentation in Fast Company, I knew the answer.

“Plan ahead. Decide what your priorities are, first.”

The image of that jar with the rocks, pebbles and sand flooded with water came back to me recently. I was on a group ride that had dwindled in numbers until I found myself riding with a single other rider, a guy into his fifth decade but was on his longest ride ever; it would be 75 miles by the time he returned home.

He was intrigued by the fact that as the group had surged in speed, I had refused to up the ante.

“How come?” he asked.

“I’m fat and I made a promise to myself.”

I told him how my old tricks for weight loss weren’t working anymore. Bumping up my mileage a bit and cutting calories a bit had made no appreciable difference in my waistline. I had decided I must follow the advice of experts; I was resorting to the standby—Friel—plus a new title by Matt Fitzgerald.

The heart rate monitor was a recent acquisition for my companion and he was full of questions about percentages. We talked about junk miles, the yin and yang of really easy and really hard and the curse of living far enough south that the cold cannot crush your will to go hard.

There is little arc to the year for most of the guys I ride with. The average Sunday in April isn’t too different from the average Sunday in August or the average Sunday in December.

This is where our love of the bike can undercut the discipline necessary to build granite-hard fitness. The truth is, I’d love nothing more than to ride every weekend day like it was a stage of a grand tour. Fast, hilly and long, my rides take seconds on everything.

It was in explaining the hard/fast, slow/easy dichotomy that the image of the rock, pebble, sand and water-filled jar came back to me.

“You have to choose your priorities,” I said. “And I’m having to sacrifice my favorite rides so I can focus on burning fat.”

Envy runs deep in our species. We envy neighbors with bigger houses or nicer cars, co-workers with better salaries and offices, and Brad Pitt with his looks, his talent, his money, his homes, and his Angelina Jolie.

You know what I really envy? I envy the guy who can drill it and burn fat at the same time. I’d love to have that kind of metabolic efficiency, kind of like being the human version of the Doc’s DeLorean in Back to the Future, flying around, burning garbage for fuel. I also miss $2.00 movies. So it goes.

Training smart has always been about choosing a priority and focusing on it, but we’re so accustomed to trying to get more out of our training—going faster, going deeper, going longer—that it’s easy to try to add too much to a ride, isn’t it? I’ve known for a long time that it’s okay to make a long ride longer, or a fast ride faster, even to add hills to a hilly ride, but I’ve paid a price for trying to make all my weekend rides long, hilly and fast.

It’s a new year and the time has come to go back to the basics. I’m asking myself what my priorities are, riding-wise, for the year. To get on track, there may be some lonely miles, but my body has taught me tomorrow’s goal is built on today’s priority.

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  1. Robot

    That’s some serious Buddha shit right there. It’s got me thinking. And it hurts. I am terrible for always going fast and wondering why I can’t go longer (stop it.). I wonder, for myself, whether the way forward is to try to clarify priorities, or abandon all expectation.

    I am reaching for the pebble, but you are snatching it away.

    I am not ready.


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  3. ervgopwr

    Hmmm, interesting post. It seems that your definitely positing the (what I thought was old school/debunked) methodology of fat-buring via LSD (long, slow, distance) riding. That the need for witholding the efforts (intervals) will allow you to go longer and stay longer in the magic zone.

    Yet you also state a drop in calories and an up in miles did little or nothing. Could you expand on that?

    Assuming we all had enough time to ride off the calories we eat, I don’t see how it wouldn’t work. Either via a 2-3 hour ‘hard’ ride or a 4-5 ‘easy’ ride.

    Certainly racers/competetive riders, like to spice up with efforts and that those efforts allow us to ride faster if not burning more calories faster.

    Anyway, hope you follow up with a further report on how the chosen path works out.

    1. Author

      I trust what Carmichael and Friel have to say on fat burning and they both advocate longer miles with less intensity. If you consider the number of years that LSD was successful for riders (generations) and the number of years it fell out of favor (fewer than 10) I think we have strong anecdotal evidence that LSD works.

      My body is less efficient than it used to be; that’s all I can say. What used to work just hasn’t worked this fall.

      The problem with expecting a two-hour hard ride to burn off the fat you would otherwise burn off on a four or five-hour easy ride is how that only works when your body is in a pretty highly trained state. I’m experiencing first-hand how aging is making it more difficult to achieve that state as well as to stay there.

  4. Hank

    Very timely and very well-written. Thanks.

    2009 was HTFU. Didn’t sustain it, didn’t succeed.

    2010: This year I play to win the game.

  5. Trev

    Another winner Padraig. I was going to log off the computer and I am glad I didn’t.

    Last year was my comeback year after a long recovery from spine surgery. Won 1 race and so close on a second race.

    This year is my year of vengeance. I am winning or hitting the podium for my selected races all while supporting a new family, training smart and still enjoying wine.

  6. Dan O

    I’m quickly joining the club at age 48. Until age 40 or so, still felt like I was 25 years old. Not that I was ever fast to begin with, but I can feel age creeping up now – for sure.

    Still, just compare yourself to the average dude your age who does nothing physical. Then you feel like superman and know what regular riding can do – physically and mentally.

    It’s all still worth it….

    1. Author

      Trev: It really sounds like you’ve been through the ringer. I know wins can’t make up for lost time, but it is good to know you’re fit and healthy.

      Dan O: I’ll take aging and not as fast as I once was over my pre-cycling self any day. Totally worth it.

  7. Souleur

    thanks for that Padraig, an excellent reminder for us as we all have cabin fever, legs just itching for a ride, and ride hard day after day after day. The mind is willing and sometimes are legs are not there on some days. At 39 last year, I learned the value of true rest days. An older friend taught me to literally small ring it once weekly, long and easy, stupid easy, he said don’t even breath hard. It was amazing to me how it worked, I was far faster for 3-4 days to follow, and overall fitness was much better, wt came down too. Thanks for the reminder, we need it.

  8. WannabeKOM


    I’ve been interested in the Matt Fitzgerald book and would be curious as to what you think about it. Can we look forward to a review? Thanks.

  9. db

    Right there with you on the effort + diet = no change formula.

    I will be trying the same track as you, although I have an added reason. My father will be riding across the U.S. this summer and I hope to join him for a couple weeks. So I’ll be using a touring training perspective. Let us know how your efforts work out.

  10. Big Mikey

    Great thoughts. Although I’d trade the foot of snow we’ve got outside and the complete lack of exterior motivation to train for a chance to ride outside every weekend.

    1. Author

      Lachlan: Thanks for the link. I need to add a link to them. They do terrific work. I’m always impressed with their posts. They are the perfect example of why I stay away from training advice except in the most cursory of ways. Very solid science.

      Yes, it’s true that “slow” is relative. I try to keep my miles somewhere in the moderate to slow-moderate range.

      On a personal note, the training is going well. Endurance is up almost 30% and my aerobic capacity is up just more than 10%. The challenge for me is to get enough calories and protein on the big days, post ride.

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