Riding Gravel RX

Riding Gravel RX – by John Ingham


John Ingham at checkpoint #2 during the DAMn event in 2021.
Author John Ingham at checkpoint #2 during the 2019 DAMn event.

Warning:  Nothing below is intended as substitute for vaccination, masking, or social distancing.

Here at RidingGravel.Com I have posted articles on how riding and racing gravel support physical, mental, and even spiritual well-being.   I have observed that most large-sample studies find that there is hardly a point where more aerobic exercise is not better than less.   Although extreme physical exercise can have adverse consequences in some cases, these exceptions to the rule are far outweighed by how large volumes of aerobic exercise ordinarily lead to longer health spans and life spans.  This said, I have also noted that ample sleep, recovery time, and not over-training can be parts of a strategy for preventing adverse consequences and ensuring the physical and emotional benefits of riding gravel.

I have learned about rest from personal experience.   After my kidney function took a hit from an unknown COVID-like virus or bacterial infection in early 2020, I began cutting back on training volume and races, especially on warm days—my kidney specialist wants me to exercise but he also wants me to avoid dehydration.  This last year I participated in only two events—the first 86 miles of the Day Across Minnesota and the Filthy Fifty, a hilly fifty-two-mile course in southeast Minnesota.  They were, however, perhaps my best experiences riding gravel so far, partly because I was no longer trying to prove anything and partly because, having cut back on coffee, I was sleeping better—I have been limiting myself to an occasional double espresso when out riding with a friend or a cup or two of coffee just before a long ride or race.

From time to time, I have experienced great joy when mountaineering or riding gravel (see my “To Cosmos and Beyond”) but this summer took such experiences to another level.  

In 2018 and again in 2019, I arrived in Gary, SD for the Day Across Minnesota well-trained but less than well-rested and all wired up with performance anxiety and perhaps a little bit of delusion of grandeur.  As much as I wanted to, I could not fall asleep when napping before the start.  The result was going out too hard and various other mistakes.  The worst was a lost hour and ten extra miles in the middle of the night in 2019, when, more than half asleep, I followed two blinking radio towers, thinking they were other riders!  The blunder probably cost me a finish; after 194 miles and 18 hours, I missed the cut at the third and final checkpoint by three minutes.

This year was different.  I had been riding much less and for shorter distances while nonetheless pushing leg and overall body strength with resistance exercise.  I had been sleeping better.  And just before heading for Gary I napped soundly for two hours.  In Gary, I napped for another hour in Mary’s arms and then had a cup of strong coffee just before the start.  As we bolted out of Gary, I knew that I was going to quit at the 86-mile mark, shortly after sunrise when the day would still be cool.  Having nothing to prove, well-rested, and present just for the comradery and fun of it, I was calm and wide awake the whole night.  As I rolled through the darkness, hour after hour, I felt strangely light on the pedals and saddle and the effort seemed remarkably easy, strenuous though it was.  And much of the time, it was as though I were already where I wanted to be—it was as if I wasn’t going anywhere because I was already there, moment by moment.  A loss of my usual worrying, ego-invested self and a feeling of merging with something bigger than myself was enhanced by the hundreds of other riders and a lovely summer night, with perfect temperature and a starry cloudless sky and meteor showers.   When I arrived at the intersection where I had made the fatal navigation error two years earlier, I could again see the radio towers, but having had cataract surgery and being wide awake, the left turn was obvious. 

Trenton Raygor (L) and autho John Ingham on a cold weather ride.
The author with Trenton Raygor (L) of the Filthy 50 event, during a cold weather ride recently.

This year’s Filthy Fifty was similarly better.  Even though Mary and I slept on the ground at nearby Forestville State Park, I arrived at the start rested and relaxed.  On much less training than in previous years, and nearly 81-years old, I finished less than a minute slower than my 2019 time.    The more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain was punishing but it hardly bothered me.  I was having too much fun riding with old friends and making new ones and enjoying the beautiful day and spectacular scenery.  

I believe my Riding Gravel articles are holding up well, but there is much new research to consider.  I would like to revisit nutrition and cardiovascular health, and with attention to remarkable work by Karl Friston, Mark Solms, and others on the functions and foundations of consciousness and the very nature of life itself, I would especially like to develop my thoughts about the mind-expanding effects of endurance exercise and outdoor adventure. 

Such a project will take time.  I look forward to working on it later, but right now we are dealing with a persistent pandemic, with tragic consequences for far too many families and fear, stress, and deprivation for all of us.  This prompts me to update now what I posted earlier about ways we can lower risk in addition to vaccination, masking, and social distancing. 

1) The evidence that aerobic exercise offers protection against COVID is getting stronger. Exercise strengthens the immune system in various ways.   Consider the study done by researchers at Kaiser Permanente Southern California, a health organization that serves nearly five million patients.  The researchers used electronic records to identify 48,440 patients who had been diagnosed with COVID between January 1, 2020 and October 21, 2020 and who had at least three key vital signs and physical activity evaluations in their records by March 18, 2020.  The researchers found a very strong correlation between physical inactivity and COVID severity.  In their conclusion, they say,

It is notable that being consistently inactive was a stronger risk factor for severe COVID-19 outcomes than any of the underlying medical conditions and risk factors identified by the CDC except for age and a history of organ transplant.  In fact, physical inactivity was the strongest risk factor across all outcomes, compared with the commonly cited modifiable risk factors, including smoking, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer ( Note- this is a link to a PDF Kaiser).

Mary and John.  Nick Kapanke’s “Delta of Spirit,” a film about the 2018 DAMn, was selected for the 2019 Banff Film and 
Book Festival.

For a detailed review of the various ways exercise strengthens the immune system and how and why it offers so much protection against COVID, see also this article in Clinical and Experimental Medicine  (Exercise, Immunity, and COVID).

These findings are even more striking given the risks associated with preconditions. For example, according to the CDC, obesity increases the risk of severe COVID infection threefold (Obesity). It is interesting to note, moreover, that lack of exercise is thought to be a risk not only for COVID but also for preconditions that make COVID more dangerous.  If the researchers had not controlled for such confounding variables, the power of exercise to prevent serious COVID would have seemed even stronger. 

2) Vitamin D also supports the immune system. The evidence that vitamin D in regular modest doses can protect against getting infected with the Covid 19 virus is also increasing.  It should be noted, however, that large doses of vitamin D can be toxic, and that occasional mega doses of vitamin D are apparently ineffective against COVID.  There is no point, then, in supplementing with large doses, and if one’s vitamin D level is in the normal range, there may be no point in supplementing with any amount.  Prudence would suggest getting tested for vitamin D level and consulting with one’s physician (Vitamin D).

3) The Cleveland Clinic study of melatonin is also noteworthy, partly because it reinforces what we have been noticing about sleep.  Reviewing the clinic’s records, researchers found that melatonin supplementation reduces risk of COVID infection in whites by 30% and 50% in African Americans.  It seems likely that melatonin protects against COVID at least in part by supporting sleep and, thus, by strengthening the immune system (Cleveland Clinic).  Dosage and possible side effects are not well studied, however, so here too a doctor’s advice is a good idea.  

Of course, if one can no longer metabolize caffeine all that well, quitting coffee is another way to improve sleep—doctor’s approval not needed.  This, though, can be a hard pill for gravel riders.  Caffeine is a much-loved performance-enhancing drug.    One option here is limiting caffeine to just before or during races.  More is not always better.  Sometimes less is better, especially when we savor it.

Riding Gravel would like to remind you to always consult a doctor first before making any decisions concerning exercise and your health and that nothing shared in this post is intended as substitute for vaccination, masking, or social distancing.


Author: John Ingham

About The Author: John Ingham is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He rode a hybrid bike on trails for years. When he retired in 2011, he renewed his earlier passions for rock climbing, mountaineering, and back packing and began doing longer rides. He has been gravel racing for seven years and has completed various races, including the Heck of the North, the Almanzo 100, and the Dirty Lemming 100. Now 80, he appears to be the oldest rider in Minnesota completing major gravel races.

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