Why you should rarely try your hardest: lessons from cycling on a healthier work ethic

I was often admonished as a child (as I suspect most people were) to always try my best. That attitude – and the admonishments – continued through to adulthood. In the work place I’m generally expected to put 100% into the job at hand. Certainly, at my first professional job, our CEO – an American, pot-bellied, Covey-quoting 40 something geezer who was actually an okay guy – constantly pushed the line about maximizing our output, of putting our ‘whole self’ into our work. As an early 20 something guy, I naturally thought that was crazy-talk[1].
After all, we were also very busy putting a significant percentage of our energies into timesheets, office-politics, and worrying about our job security when the company was half a million dollars in debt.

However, now, as an early 30 something, with a few more years of office experience, and substantially more life experience, I think that the argument that we should always at least try to do the best that we can is not only unrealistic, but actually destructive.

To back up that claim, I will draw from my knowledge of physical training regimes, particularly for cycling.[2]

Smarter, not always harder

Successful training on a bike is a matter of how you cycle – the time that you spend on the seat – rather than where you cycle to – that is, the distance that you traverse.[3] In other words, it comes down to quality of your work-out over its quantity. ‘Quality’ does not simply equate into riding like crazy for all of your designated cycling time. Rather, it’s about cycling intelligently and having the correct combination of work-outs.

Ten to twelve hours per week on the saddle is frequently touted as an optimum non-professional commitment to cycling. Beyond that, you will still get returns. However, those returns will be disproportional to the additional of time and effort you put in, and the greater risk of injury that you start running.[4] Within those ten hours, a huge variety of cycling styles is available to us – and the more ‘on edge’ that we keep our body, the better.[5] Keep your hours limited in other words, but make sure that what you do with that time stays varied. A combination of 2 x 20km easy rides, 2 x 50km hard rides, and 2 x 50kms of interval training comes to 240 kilometres over six days, with no rides longer than a couple of hours. Each day sees a different style than the last – since by constantly rotating between the different intensities of rides we ensure that we are never overtaxed, and always able to bring maximum energy to bear on every ride.

In the office, one of my favourite tools is the web-based tomato timer, which allows me to structure my work in half an hour cycles – 25 minutes on, five minutes off. This is akin to the rhythm we get on the road as cyclists, where due to either traffic lights or steep-as-Everest hills, we take quick breathers so that we can again throw our all into the ride. Part of this is ensuring that those twenty-five minutes are uninterrupted. People don’t like it, but I tend to turn my mobile phone off whenever at work so that even my Google calendar reminders don’t break me out of my reverie. Considering there are sufficient distractions in most open-plan offices already, we can well afford to get rid of those under our control. And I plug my iPod into its charger and my ears into its headphones.

Toying with your threshold

Cycling extraordinaire Lance Armstrong is a big advocate of knowing our lactate threshold. This is the point your body starts to poison itself with acid (and not the good kind) at a rate faster than it can cleanse. Certainly we can ride much higher than our lactate threshold, and for some time. The problem arises, however, when the lactic acid has reached a critical-mass in our system - our limbs feel on fire, and riding is a whole lot less fun. This is a problem if we still have to get home, not to mention keep up with the peloton.

Cycling past our lactate threshold is great for competitions and for limited sprints during training. Yet if we are always pushing that limit, riding is going to quickly become a whole lot of hurt, and importantly, it is not going to help our performance.

Toying with the lactate threshold, on the other hand, empowers us to push that boundary constantly higher - and this is where the different intensities of rides come into play.

Easy rides:
  • help keep us in the routine of cycling without running any risk of taxing our bodies
  • remind us of the really cool part of cycling, where you get to enjoy the view and chill out in the open air
  • are at speeds we would do with our non-cycling-obsessed friends, so they can be social events

Hard rides: these are where we put the work in, but stay just below our lactate threshold. By doing so, we can actually nudge up our lactate threshold.

Interval rides: this is the most time-effective stints you will end up spending on your bike. There are, to my understanding, two ways you can interval train:
  • Fluctuate rapidly between sprints high-above our threshold, and then easing way back, far below the threshold. If you graphed it, it would look something like a sine-wave. You can easily structure such a routine by finding hills that also look like sine-waves – sprint up as hard as you can, and then glide down with only enough cadence so you can tell that your chain is still attached.
  • Ride just above your lactate threshold for a while, and then ride just below the threshold. Imagine the earlier graph, but just make the ‘wave-length’ longer and the sets at a much lower frequency.

In terms of the office, this corresponds to knowing your limits, but constantly testing them. I have written earlier how productive you can be once you have engaged with a small variety of projects: for instance, working 9-5 professionally, studying 6-10 academically, and doing some outdoor activity all day Saturday and Sunday. You will be amazed at what you can quickly start to accomplish once you push aside your preconceptions of your own potential.

The really important part of this is however is acknowledging your temporal limitations - and responding to them appropriately. It is okay to go hard in three or so relatively distinct endeavours – such as web-designing and studying during the week, and exercising on the weekends – since each are drawing from different reserves. Yet sooner or later you need a break – and spending sufficient time resting and recuperating from our labours is what actually enables us to get back on the job each day.

Example: I quickly jumped from cycling three hours at a stint, to cycling five hours, once I just went ahead and saw what happened when I tried. Similarly, travelling to Japan to teach English when I knew virtually nothing of the language, resulted in the most ‘alive’ period of my life, yet in retrospect the initially decision to leave strikes me as sheer insanity. It is impressive though how quickly we can adapt and think on our feet when pressed. It is also very important to set aside plenty of recovery time after any such adventure – the first time I tackled Port Philip Bay’s Beach Road, it took me a week to feel like I could face riding again. And after I got back after a year in Japan, it took me three months to recover from the reverse culture shock and get back into my studies.

Knowing how much you can put out (in a manner of speaking) and take in

One of the benefits of giving ourselves the opportunity to go really hard – as we do during interval training, for instance – is that we also able to push our VO2 maximum higher. This is the amount of oxygen that we can actually absorb into our blood, and our muscles, and is separate to how much we are breathing. In fact, we can be practically hyperventilating, yet have hit a ceiling where any extra air we take in has no further benefit.

So by partaking in interval training, we can increase both our lactate threshold, and our VO2 maximum. The important bit, though, is that we do both in very controlled doses – otherwise, our legs start eating themselves and/or we have a cardiac arrest.

And just as we learn how much we can ‘put out’, we can also learn our limits of how much we can safely and efficiently take in. That can come down to oxygen, or how many calories (and in what form) we can consume before it stops feeding our muscles and starts becoming dead weight.

The most useful office-place analogy for this is the importance of being conservative about how much information you can, or should, try to absorb and communicate. Information overload is a serious detraction from actually doing productive work. Think of all the Microsoft Office email alerts that pop up in the bottom right corner of your screen, the Office Communicator programs flashing in your task bar, the irrelevant emails you’re cc’d in. As important as it can be to keep your thumb on the pulse of what the rest of your team, or project, or organisation is up to, there comes a point when your ability to process new pieces of information comes to ahead. And it comes very quickly – some say we can only retain up to around seven (give or take a couple) discreet pieces of information at any one time, others say four. After that, any extra information coming our way is just going to become noise – or worst yet, bumping out those half-formed ideas that we should be developing. Try to take on too much at any one time and we risk becoming information bloated.

Easing in and out of it

Even amongst the relatively limited time recommended that we spend on the bike, sufficient time has to be dedicated to both warming up and winding down.

Warming up is obviously important to reduce muscle and cardiac strain – yet it can also be an opportunity to check that everything on your bike is running smoothly, and make any re-arrangements to ensure the next two hours (or five, if that’s the goal) are going to be comfortable and safe.

Similarly, winding down from the ride is important, for one thing, for allowing any toxins to dissipate with the help of very slow peddling. Thus, for a ride totalling, say, two hours, I would allow around fifteen minutes to warm up, and fifteen minutes to wind down.

In an office, the best parallel that comes to mind is the importance of taking our time when starting a new job, or project. There’s often a tendency to boot up our PC and start churning out work as if we’ve been there for a month. Yet building relationships, identifying the potential for creativity in our new role, and figuring out where the best coffee in the area all takes time. Each role should be seen as a mini project or brief – the cyclic stages of concept, design, build, test, and release should be built into the very framework of your role. And don’t expect your superiors to do this for you.


One of the first things that you probably get told in a gymnasium is to always be pushing yourself a little – but never to the point where it hurts. Unfortunately, not many managers or CEOs give the same piece of advice to new employees.

Instead, many end up going through the motions of work, repeating the same routines and never really challenging themselves – while others, like Atlas, take the weight of the world on their shoulders and run the real risk of burning out, or getting squashed.

Cycling indeed can be a useful metaphor, if not for life, than at least for work.

[1] I lasted for all of three months there – long enough to witness the business’s proprietor sack the CEO over some petty difference of opinion. Clearly you had to do more than just ‘live’ the job – you had to believe in it as well.
[2]  I’ll try not to repeat too much of what I’ve recorded there already, though I certainly recommend reading it in its entirety if you’re at all interested in knowing how much exercise is ‘enough’.
[3] Though a ‘base’ of several hundred hours on the saddle is important before you go hard-core.
[4] That’s not to say that we should only work ten hours per week at our office jobs – and while Tim Ferris would argue that we should be able to get away with only four, I’ll be saving that argument for another blog posting.
[5] This can apply to caloric restriction as well – see Okinawan diet.