Friday, May 30, 2008

Webinar on Pacing

There has been so much interest shown in the topic of pacing in endurance competition in this blog recently that I've decided to do a webinar on the topic. It is scheduled for Thursday, June 12 at 8-9pm Eastern/5-6pm Pacific in the US. Attendees are not limited to the USA, of course. Feel free to attend no matter where in the world you live. Since there will be a Q&A session at the end we've limited it to 50 participants. For more information and to register please go here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Someone just posted a question about sticthes. That's another nagging problem I see a fair amount of in athletes. I've experienced it myself and once lost a race due to this. The following is an article I wrote on this topic many years ago. I've not found anything new to cause me to revise it...

In the early 1980s I trained with a fellow who was plagued by side stitches. I'm sure you've experienced one of these yourself when running. Gradually, a sharp pain in your upper abdomen forces you to slow down dramatically. You jog along gasping for air and pushing on the painful spot. A few minutes later the pain subsides and you cautiously resume your earlier pace.

My friend, an excellent runner, tried everything from stretching to acupuncture to special diets. Nothing helped. He wasn't alone in his quest for an answer. For years, the stitch has been a mystery to everyone including exercise physiologists and the medical community. Here is a possible solution.

It's clear that gravity has something to do with the malady—they are rare in biking or swimming. Sports that involve the up-and-down motion of running are most susceptible. It also appears that most stitches are on the right side of the abdomen, in the area of the liver, the heaviest organ in the gut.

The liver, stomach, and spleen all hang from ligaments attached to the diaphragm, a large, flat muscle in the gut that creates inhalation as it contracts. During running these organs bounce pulling down on the diaphragm, and sometimes, perhaps, causing the gut cramp known as a stitch.

Here's what to do. With a stitch on the right side, exhale when your left foot strikes the ground. This will transfer most of the jarring force away from the afflicted side allowing you to take the stress off of the diaphragm. Give it a try. Several of the athletes I coach have had success with it.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Muscle Cramps

This is the time of year when I get a lot of email from athletes describing how they just did their first races of the season and were going great until a cramp came on. Should they eat more bananas, is the most common question.

That cramps are more common in the first races of the year and not in the late season probably tells us something. No matter how hard you've been training this spring the workouts are not as hard as the races are. The body simply isn't in race shape yet. By the end of the season the body has adapted to the stresses of racing and is less inclined to cramping.

But for a few athletes the problem continues throughout the year. There is no more perplexing problem for these athletes than their susceptibility to cramping. Muscles seem to knot up at the worst possible times during their important and hard-fought competitions.

The real problem is that no one really knows what causes them. There are just theories. The most popular ones are that muscle cramps result from dehydration or electrolyte imbalances. These arguments seem to make sense—at least on the surface. Cramps are most common in the heat when low body-fluid levels and the possible decrease in body salts are likely to occur.

But the research doesn’t always support these explanations. For example, in the mid-1980s 82 male runners were tested before and after a marathon for certain blood parameters considered likely causes of muscle cramps. Fifteen of the runners experienced cramps after 18 miles of the race. There was no difference, either before or after the race, in terms of blood levels of sodium, potassium, bicarbonate, hemoglobin or hematocrit. There were also no differences in blood volume between the crampers and the non-crampers. Nor were there any significant differences in the way the two groups trained.

For very long events, those lasting more than about four hours, a bit more is known. A few studies have linked these cramps to hyponatremia—low sodium levels. This condition may result from drinking large volumes of fluids that are low in sodium and may be aggravated by starting the event with low levels of sodium. Since serious athletes are particularly good at avoiding the use of salt on food, they may be highly susceptible to hyponatremia. The day before and the morning of a very long race it may be a good idea to use salt more liberally to increase the body’s levels. The sports drink used for the race should also provide adequate levels of sodium. For long races, eating salty foods may also help prevent not only cramping, but also the life-threatening symptoms of hyponatremia.

It’s interesting to note that athletes are not the only people who experience muscle cramping. Workers in occupations that require chronic use of a muscle, especially one that crosses two joints, but don’t sweat profusely as athletes do, are also susceptible. A good example is musicians who are known to cramp in the hands and arms.

So if it isn’t dehydration or electrolyte imbalance, what causes cramping? Other theories are emerging. One is that poor posture or inefficient biomechanics are a cause. Poor movement patterns may cause a disturbance in the activity of the Golgi tendon organs. These are “strain gauges” built into the tendon to prevent muscle tears. When activated, these organs cause the threatened muscle to relax while stimulating the antagonistic muscle—the one that moves the joint in the opposite way—to fire. There may be some quirk of body mechanics that upsets a Golgi device and sets off the cramping pattern.

If this is the cause, prevention may involve improving biomechanics, and regular stretching and strengthening of muscles that seem to cramp along with their antagonistic muscles.

Another theory is that they result from burning protein for fuel in the absence of readily available carbohydrate. In fact, one study supports such a notion. In this research, muscle cramps occurred in subjects who reached the highest levels of ammonia release during exercise. High ammonia levels indicate that protein is being used to fuel the muscles during exercise. This may indicate a need for greater carbohydrate stores before, and better replacement of those stores during intense and long-lasting exercise.

When you feel a cramp coming on there are two ways to deal with it. One is to reduce the intensity and slow down—not a popular option in an important race. Another is to alternately stretch and relax the effected muscle group while continuing to move. This is difficult if not impossible to do in some sports such as running and with certain muscles. Actually there is a third option which some athletes swear by—pinching the upper lip. Strange, but true.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Chart of a Negative Splits Interval Session

Sorry. I lied below. Here is yet another post on negative splits. This is a graphic of a bike interval workout similar to the one described below. It went 8-8-6-6-4 minutes with 2- minute recoveries. Thirty-two minutes at around FTP. It was a good effort for this athlete.

OK. That is the last negative splits post. I promise.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Last Pacing Post

Even though pacing is one of my favorite topics - as you can undoubtedly tell from my long string of posts on this subject - I promise that this is my last for some time. I want to share with you an interval workout that is great not only for improving your ability to negative split but also for building muscular endurance. ME is the key ability for steady state racing such as time trials, triathlons, and running road races. It should be the a primary focus of your training for such events during the Build training period.

Here is the bicycle version. It requires a power meter. A heart rate monitor simply won't work for this kind of session as it is not sensitive enough to give you good data about pacing.

1. After warm-up do a 10-minute work interval at just below functional threshold power (FTP). This is roughly the equivalent of your lactate or anaerobic threshold power. If you have done my CP30 self-test or know your actual CP60 from a race then that is what you would use for a power level on this first interval. So if your FTP (or self-test CP30 or CP60 or AT/LT power) is 250 watts try to make this first one 245-249w. You may find it very difficult to do this if you are not good at pacing. Watch your power meter very closely.

2. Recover for 2 minutes by spinning easily. Check your average power for the first interval.

3. Do an 8-minute work interval at a slightly higher power than the first. So let's say you averaged 248w on #1. For#2 try to average 250w.

4. Recover for 2 minutes and again check your average power for interval #2.

5. If the average power on #2 was higher than for #1 then repeat the 8-minute interval. If the power for #2 was lower than for #1 subtract 2 minutes and make this a 6-minute interval. Again, try to beat the power of the previous interval, but only slightly.

6. Recover 2 minutes and check power for the third interval the same as before.

7. If the power for #3 was higher than for #2 repeat the same duration as #3. If it was less subtract 2 minutes.

8. Recover. Check previous interval power.

9. Continue with this same process until your interval becomes 4 minutes. This is the last one regardless of what happens.

If you are poor at pacing your intervals will go 10-8-6-4 and you're done. 28 minutes of FTP work. That's a good session so your ME should be nicely challenged. But you also know you need to focus on pacing. The fact that you are fading as the workout progresses gives you a good idea of what also happens in a race. Learn to hold back at the start and you will maintain a much higher average power and produce a faster race.

If you are good at pacing (and have your FTP correct) then the work intervals may have totaled 36 or more minutes. That's excellent.

This same workout may be done running using a pacing device or on a track with a stopwatch but reduce the subsequent work intervals by 3 minutes. So the intervals may go something like this: 10-7-4 (21 minutes total) or 10-7-7-4 (28 minutes).

I guarantee you that this workout will improve your pacing ability and your ME fitness if done once a week throughout the Build period.

OK, that's my last negative splits/pacing post for a while. I promise.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Negative splits--finally!

The chart to the left is from the same athlete who I gave a hard time to last week for doing a hill reps workout with positive splits on each work interval and a positive trend for the entire hill reps portion. In other words, she was starting out at too high of an effort on each work interval and then fading as each progressed. And she was fading as the workout progressed. This is the way most athletes train and race in steady state events such as time trials, triathlons and running races.

You'll recall that I made the point that you should make the first part of the workout and race feel much easier than the second half by holding back a bit at the start. In a flat race with no wind the first half of the race would be completed in about 51% of the total race time, the second half in about 49%. The above chart is from a workout one week following the workout for which I gave her so much criticism. You can see here that she completed the workout exactly as it should be done. The work intervals trend upward to the right slightly and increase in intensity as the session progressed. Very well done.

On the right is a race file from that same athlete for a 5 mile hill climb TT done last Saturday. Note that the race portion of this chart has a definite increase in power as the climb progresses. That's excellent. In fact, she may have held back just a bit too much in the first half as the average power slope is a bit steep. Learning to pace a steady state race correctly is a very difficult skill to learn. She has made great progress in one week, however. Learning to pace correctly will produce the best times possible in such events. And in order to get it right in races you must first learn to do it in workouts.

Monday, May 5, 2008

More on Negative Splits

A few weeks ago I wrote about negative splitting a race and the 51-49 principle (the importance of making the first half slightly slower/easier than the second half of a race). The graph on the left is a good example of what happens when you do just the opposite--positive split the course. This is from a 65-minute hill climb done as a bike test. Notice how heart rate (red) stays steady while power (black) drops steadily. The athlete simply went out too fast. This makes for a painful race or workout that is slower than it would have been had he gone out easier.

Patience when racing is hard to learn. The best way to learn it is to rehearse negative splitting in workouts. What most people do in training is what you see in the second chart. This was four climbs of about 5 minutes each with a descent recovery. The intensity prescribed was just below functional threshold power (FTP). Feeling good at the start of the workout the rider exceeded FTP on the first interval. The black dashed lines show how power tailed off for each work interval. And over the course of the workout each work interval also started at too high of a power level and dropped. By the end of the workout the athlete could not get even close to FTP with interval #4. This was not a productive workout. Bad habits were ingrained and muscular endurance and force were not appropriately challenged.

The take home message here is that you race the way you train. If you want to produce the best times possible in steady state events such as running races, road time trials and triathlons then you need to pace the workouts correctly by negative splitting them. This means you hold back a bit at the start of each interval and try to gradually lift the output as the interval progresses. And you try to make the latter intervals faster or more powerful than the first few intervals. By doing this you ingrain what it takes to produce your best possible race times.

The third chart is a long ride done in preparation for Ironman Hawaii. Following a short warm up the athlete rode steadily for four hours. Notice how power (black) rises very steadily throughout and heart rate (red) remains coupled very closely to it. This chart is so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes. :) This workout was done five months prior to Ironman Hawaii in which the athlete did a 5:05 bike split. He raced the same way--steady and negative splitting the course. Learn to train this way and you will soon be racing faster.
By the way, a power meter on the bike and a GPS device for running makes this much easier to do. Trying to negatively split a workout or race based on heart rate is not always effective, especially when doing intervals.