John Mandrola, M.D. is a cardiologist specializing in heart rhythm disorders in Louisville, KY. He is an avid cyclist, husband of 20 years, and father to two teenagers. To learn more about Dr. John, visit his profile in our Expert Network.

How did you become interested in health and fitness, and how did it become part of your daily life and career?

My first real foray into fitness was accompanying my Dad on his evening runs. Then, through college and medical school, I stayed reasonably fit by playing intramural sports, rugby, and lifting weights. The tipping point for me though, was one cold Sunday morning during residency. While munching on a donut, I stumbled upon ABC’s coverage of the New York Marathon. I was entranced, pulled in, inspired.

From that morning on, I was hooked on fitness; immersed in a quest to race a marathon. It was three years before I was healthy enough (free of overuse injuries) to run the Chicago Marathon. I accomplished my goal— my time (3:08) qualified me to run the Boston Marathon. But soon thereafter, a gnarly pain in my heel began and Plantar fasciitis hobbled me for months on end. Running was out of the question.

There was no choice; I had to buy a bike. I found that my heart, lungs, and legs worked pretty well together. Plus, the sensations of going 20-30 mph crushed those of running 9-10 miles per hour. Like many cyclists, I quickly became a former runner.

One thing that isn’t very well known about competitive cycling is the razor thin margins between success and failure. The difference between winning a race and finishing in the pack might only be a few watts— or extra pounds. Attention to detail, therefore, is critical. Things like sleep, nutrition, maintaining the lowest possible body weight, and even stress management all add up to make huge differences in bike racing. Alas, these are the same behaviors that prevent heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, Cancer. Well… you get the picture. This is the connection: the behaviors that prevent disease form the foundation of successful cycling.

What are your weekly workouts like? What do you do and why? How do you make fitness and health a priority in your schedule? 

My weekly workouts vary according to the cycling season. A typical core week of training includes three “hard” rides: one long (3-4 hour) endurance or aerobic ride; one ride with 10-20 min efforts around threshold; and one with over-threshold, sprint-like efforts. During racing season, a race would count as a hard riding day. On the other 4 days of the week, I do easy rides: spinning around looking at scenery, or when forced indoors, spinning easy enough to watch a movie at the same time. It’s rare for me to skip an entire day of exercise. I also try to mix in regular stretching, core exercises, and some light weight lifting. These “extras” become increasingly important with accumulating birthdays.

As far as fitting a healthy lifestyle into a busy schedule, two ‘P” words come to mind: planning and priority. Planning means thinking about the future. Going to bed early so that you can exercise in the morning; buying healthy foods; and laying out your gym clothes the night before an early workout are just a few examples of good planning. There are many more. Priority means that exercise and healthy living come first. Study after study confirm the notion that carving out time for regular exercise and eating healthy foods boost productivity. The commonly held excuse that there are not enough hours in a day for health is simply wrong— and actually counter-productive.

One of the specific things that our family does to fit exercise into our schedule is to hire a personal chef. For slightly more than what a typical family meal would cost, Chef Angie shops for and prepares four fresh, balanced, and gluten- and dairy-free meals each week. Having help with cooking not only provides us with nutritious meals, but (just as importantly) allows us to ride each evening before dinner as a family. That’s a priority definitely worth the cost.

What did you eat today specifically for breakfast/lunch/dinner? Is that typical for you? Why?

Breakfast was a bowl of oatmeal and one cup of low-fat yogurt with granola, book-ended by two cups of coffee. The doctor’s lounge lunch included barbecue-chicken, broccoli, and a bag of baked potato chips. Dinner was baked cod with zucchini, tomatoes, and white rice, and a glass of wine. This is typical of a day in which I ride easy. On big ride days, I need to eat more to top off my glycogen stores with carbohydrates before riding. My favorite pre-ride food is peanut butter and jelly for afternoon rides, and French toast for morning rides.

What do you have the most trouble with in terms of health, fitness, and happiness?

My health, fitness, and happiness struggles are the same as most. Food-wise, I wrestle cravings for high-glycemic carbohydrates like white bread and desserts. My patients don’t often believe this, but I actually talk to myself about turning down brownies, pastries, and my greatest weakness of all— French baguettes.

The second facet of health that I struggle with is getting enough rest. I know the benefits that getting adequate rest brings, but yet, the over-achiever in me often wins out— at work and at play.  Staying up late writing, riding too hard on easy days, and trying to squeeze too many patients in the office schedule are all mistakes that I work to minimize.

Where do you find happiness on a daily basis?

Happiness is something I look for every day. Most days it’s easy finding things to be happy about, but of course, not all. I am very, very fortunate to have a healthy loving family, a few close friends, a rewarding profession, and a better than average cycling ability. That’s a lot to be happy about. I remind myself of this often. I try and think positive. My college-aged daughter recently re-tweeted one of my blog posts; that made me tingle with delight. Grins are healthy, and free.

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