Sunday, June 22, 2008

Summer Base

I'm doing an organized ride this week - the Bicycle Tour of Colorado. 400+ miles in 6 days and all in the mountains. I've noticed several competitive riders and teams doing the tour. A few triathletes, also. What a great way to rebuild base fitness after the first (or second) A-priority race of the season. Lots of climbing to re-establish force and lots of zone 2, aerobic, steady state. Perfect. And someone else takes care of shuttling all of your gear and provides feed zones along the way. I'd highly recommend it as a way of kicking off the second half of the season. Of course, you would need another 4-8 weeks after it's over to increase the specificity of a Build period in preparation for the next A-race of the year.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Weight Loss

A triathlete recently wrote to ask how he could lose weight before an important race he has coming up in a few weeks. He'd like to shed 5 pounds (2.3kg) before his A-priority race. There is indeed a cost to be paid when carrying excess fat around. One extra pound (0.45kg) costs about 2 seconds per mile running and takes roughly 3 watts to get it up a hill on a bike. So that 5 pounds represents about 10 seconds per mile running and 15 watts on a climb. That's significant and so dropping a bit of excess baggage has the potential to make him faster on race day. The problem is timing. Trying to lose weight while also training at a high level is not conducive to high performance. Losing weight is additional stress for a body already dealing with the stress of quality training. Recovery will be compromised. Such a path is likely to lead to illness, injury and possibly overtraining.

Nevertheless, I told him I'd post an article I wrote on this sometime back. Here's a quick review of the literature on weight loss from an athletic perspective...

What’s the best way go about it? Should you reduce your intake of fat, or perhaps carbohydrate, which seems to be the trend recently. Or should you simply eat fewer calories? Or maybe you should train more. What’s the best alternative?

There have been many studies conducted to answer the question regarding the relative mix of macronutrients in the diet in order to lose weight. The majority of the results report the same conclusion: To reduce body weight, it doesn’t matter whether you eat a high-carbohydrate or a high-fat diet as long as total calories are reduced. For example, in one study, three groups of women dined on a 1,200-calorie-per-day diet for 10 weeks [1]. One group ate 25 percent carbohydrate, another ate 45 percent carbohydrate, and the third ate 75 percent carbohydrate. Each of the diets contributed to weight loss with no significant differences between the groups.

In similar research, 43 women spent six weeks in a hospital on a 1,000-calorie-per-day diet with about half of them eating 53 percent fat and 15 percent carbohydrate [2]. The other half ate 26 percent fat and 45 percent carbohydrate. Again, there was no significant difference in weight loss between the two groups, although the high-fat group lost slightly more weight – about three pounds (1.4kg).

From our perspective, the problem with most all of the studies of weight loss is that they use obese, sedentary subjects making the conclusions questionable for athletes. But a study on the effect of diet on coronary heart disease risk factors of runners may provide some better insights. The subjects were serious runners who ate either a 16-percent- or a 42-percent-fat diet for four weeks each [3]. At the end of the test periods, there was no significant difference between the two diets in terms of the subjects’ weights or body compositions. (It’s interesting to note that risk factors for heart disease improved on the higher-fat diet.) So the lessons of the previously mentioned studies appears to hold true for athletes as well – it doesn’t matter what the carbohydrate-fat mix of your diet is so long as you reduce calories.

Unfortunately, there have been few studies of serious athletes that strictly examined weight loss. But in 1985, McMurray and colleagues examined the issue in exactly the way athletes view the challenge [4]. The scientists attempted to find out if reducing caloric intake or increasing training workload was more effective in dropping excess body fat. They had six, endurance-trained males create a 1,000-calorie-per-day deficit for seven days by either exercising more while maintaining their caloric intake, or by eating less while keeping exercise the same. With 1,000 calories of increased exercise daily (comparable to running an additional 10 miles or cycling about 30 more miles each day), the subjects averaged a 1.67-pound (0.76kg) weight loss in a week. The subjects eating 1,000 fewer calories each day lost 4.75 (2.16kg) pounds on average for the week. According to this study, the old adage that “a calorie is a calorie” doesn’t hold true. At least in the short term, restricting food intake appears to have a greater return on the scales than does increasing training workload.

Notice that I said “on the scales.” The reduced-food-intake group in this study unfortunately lost a greater percentage of muscle than did the increased-exercise group. That is an ineffective way to lose weight. If the scales show you’re lighter, but you have less muscle to create power, the trade off is not a good one.

How can you reduce calories and yet maintain muscle mass? Unfortunately, that question hasn’t been answered for athletes, but it has been for sedentary women. I suspect the conclusions are still applicable. A few years ago Italian researchers had 25 subjects eat only 800 calories a day for 21 days [5]. Ten ate a diet made up of 45-percent protein and 35-percent carbohydrate. Fifteen ate 20-percent protein and 60-percent carbohydrate. Both were restricted to 20 percent of calories from fat. The two groups lost similar amounts of weight, but there was a significantly greater loss of muscle on the high-carbohydrate, low-protein diet.

So what’s the bottom line? It appears that when calories are reduced to lose weight, which is more effective than increasing training workload, the protein content of the diet must be kept at near normal levels. This, of course, assumes that you’re eating adequate protein before starting the diet, which many athletes aren’t. When training hard, a quality source of protein should be included in every meal. This may be some combination of meat, fish, shellfish, poultry and eggs.

1. Alford, B.B., et al. 1990. The Effects of Variations in Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat Content of the Diet Upon Weight Loss, Blood Values, and Nutrient Intake of Adult Obese Women. J Am Diet Assoc 90(4):534-540.

2. Golay, A., et al. 1996. Similar Weight Loss with Low- or High-Carbohydrate Diets. Am J Nutr 63(2):174-178.

3. Leddy, J., et al. 1997. Effect of a High or Low Fat Diet on Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Male and Female Runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc 29(1):17-25.

4. McMurray, R.G., et al. 1985. Responses of Endurance-Trained Subjects to Caloric Deficits Induced by Diet or Exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 17(5):574-579.

5. Piatti, P.M., et al. 1994. Hypocaloric, High-Protein Diet Improves Glucose Oxidation and Spares Lean Body Mass: Comparison to Hypocaloric High Carbohydrate Diet. Metab 43(12):1481-1487.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Cycling in South Africa

I'm in Johannesburg, South Africa for a few days on a business trip. Arrived on Friday morning and leave on Monday afternoon. Yesterday I rode with the CycleLab Saturday morning group. If these riders are reflective of what's going on throughout S.A. cycling then I can report that the sport is quite healthy here. I can easily see S.A. becoming a world powerhouse of cycling in the next few years.

And I found a few things different from group rides I've done in the U.S. The first was how many riders showed up. I was told later that there were about 400. And that was a low turn out since it's now winter here and a bit chilly (it was in the mid-30s when we started at 7am). They get around a thousand, and even more, in the summer months. This is partly because S.A. has some of the biggest road races in the world. Three years ago I rode in the Cape Argus race which starts and finishes in Capetown and goes around the Cape of Good Hope. There were 38,000 starters. It's the biggest bike race in the world.

On Saturday I rode with a C+ group of about 30 riders of nicely matched abilities. Each group had a "moderator" (I don't know what they call these people) whose job it appeared to be was to lead the group and keep everything safe and appropriately paced. Each of them wore a reflective vest much as road workers wear so they were obvious to their groups.

There were a lot of juniors and U23 riders including several National and World Champions in road, mountain bike and track racing. Many of the juniors were driven to the ride by parents, some of whom followed the ride "just in case." I spoke with several of the parents and they showed great interest in their son's or daughter's progress as a cyclist. Each also had questions on what they could do to help their child continue to grow as a cyclist. This is the primary reason I think we'll see S.A. establish a formidable place in world cycling competition.

There was no attempt during the 2.5-hour ride for anyone to try to splinter the group. There was no "attacking" which is such a common theme in almost every group I've ever ridden with in the States. I seldom ride with U.S. groups because of the unbridled aggressiveness of the riders. No one in the S.A. ride seemed to have an ego that needed soothing. They rode steadily over a quite rolling course and chatted. There was always a friendly banter going on. For some in the group the ride was a steady aerobic threshold (AeT) effort. Not real hard but hard enough to improve the aerobic system. For others, like me, it was a muscular endurance/tempo effort. Had I wanted an AeT ride I could have gone with a slightly slower group.

Another thing that struck me was the friendliness of all the riders on the road. In the U.S. when I wave at another rider he/she seldom returns it. I'm passed by riders who don't even acknowledge that I'm there. No "hello" or "how are you doing." There, riders going in opposite directions always waved. Remarkable.

Along the same line, manners in the peloton were exceptional. If someone's tire inadvertently flipped a stone and hit another rider there was an immediate "sorry." The same happened when a rider cut off another without looking and quickly realized it and followed up with an apology. I've never seen such good manners on bikes.

The bottom line... The entire ride was a refreshing change of pace from what I see most everywhere else in the U.S. Watch for many of these same young riders to be on podiums around the world in the next few years as they mature. The sport is certainly headed the right direction in South Africa.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


I believe the three most important principles of training are 1) specificity, 2) specificity, and 3) specificity. I'll give you an example.

I've been coaching Ralph for 5 seasons now. Great guy and a very good athlete. He is both a triathlete (Olympic distance) and a bike road racer. During this time he's been successful in both sports qualifying for Triathlon Worlds several times with one top 5 at Nationals, and he's been a contender in his cycling age category (50+ and now 55+) with top 10s at his state road championships.

For the past four seasons I had told him that he would be a much better cyclist if he quit doing triathlons or a much better triathlete if he quit bike racing. While there is an obvious overlap between the two sports, they are not the same. There are many differences in how to train for these sports. The outcomes in bike races are largely determined by anaerobic endurance efforts lasting two to four minutes during key episodes such as on hills and with cross wind. The outcomes may also be dependent on sprinting ability. Neither of these, however, is critical to the outcomes in triathlons. Here, with few exceptions, the most important limiter is muscular endurance. The successful triathlete has the ability to produce a moderately high power output but hold it for a long time. Just the opposite for cycling. There success is dependent on very high power for very short (relative to triathlon) periods of time. If nothing else, any time you are training to be good at one of these abilities (anaerobic endurance or muscular endurance) you are not training the other one. So something is lost in training.

You can't train to be good at everything at all times. This is the principle of specificity. Basically, this principle says that if you want to be good at something you must exactly and precisely train for its unique demands.

Ralph didn't doubt my explanation of this for the past four years. He certainly understood it intellectually. But emotionally he wasn't ready to give up either sport. He loves both of them with a passion. Then something happened this year which changed everything and gives us a good lesson in specificity.

Ralph's cycling and running came along quite well this winter. In fact, his running appeared to be ahead of previous years. Then it happened in February. Ralph's Achilles began to act up. It wasn't too bad at first but it refused to go away. And it kept getting worse despite very little running and, finally, no running at all. So he was forced to give up the spring triathlons and focus only on bike racing. From that point on it has been amazing to see what has happened. His functional threshold power (FTP) has risen more than 20 watts. It's never been this high, or even close to it, in the last 4 years. He now finds himself near the front of his training group which includes several much younger riders instead of riding mid-pack and struggling to stay on during climbs. His bike sessions are remarkably different. The power numbers are 10 to 20% greater than for similar workouts done in previous years.

Even though the Achilles now appears ready to go again he's decided to stay with bike racing only for the remainder of the season. He's having too much fun to go back, he says. He refers to it as his new-found youth - at age 56.

Specificity is a powerful principle. Ralph's experience is a good lesson in this for all of us. If you really want to be as good at something as you can possibly be you need to keep this principle in mind. That doesn't mean you should never do anything else. Aerobic cross training and seriously lifting weights in the Prep and early Base periods is still beneficial, I believe. But the closer you get to your most important races the more like the races your training must become.

That's specificity.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Downside of Power-Based Training

I recently had an interesting discussion with one of the athletes I coach. He's a pro who trains for Ironman-distance events. I've been coaching him since December and as I do with everyone I work with I've emphasized data analysis, especially his power and heart rate files following key workouts and races. Using WKO+ I examine how each of the key, weekly workouts went looking for ways we can improve performance by tweaking how he trains. And, of course, I do the same thing with his race files. I require that everyone I coach trains AND races with a power meter as this is the best way to discover the stresses that the athlete must be able to cope with and thereby model workouts to better suit those demands. Every week he gets several WKO+ charts for the past several days from me that discuss what I am seeing along these lines so he is on the same page with me. It's a great feedback tool.

He understands that the data gleaned from these files is critical to his continued improvement. He also understands that when he does a key workout I'll discuss the results with him later on. So there is no "hiding;" not that he would. He's quite professional in his training. But he senses a bit more accountability given that I will eventually see exactly how he carried out a planned session and so he strives to produce perfect power files for me.

This is where the downside comes in.

He realized a couple of days ago that when he is racing he still feels this need to produce a perfect power file for me. This means, to him, in part, keeping the average and normalized powers high. So in races he is less likely to coast a downhill, something I advise IM athletes to do, because that would lower his "numbers." It dawned on him that being more focused on power data than race results was counterproductive. That was a crucial awakening which will help him to race faster.

In key workouts one of our purposes is to stress the body with high power loads and high heart rates. Speed is not critical. Stress is. A race is just the opposite. The whole purpose here is speed. And if he can produce high speed with low power and low heart rate all the better. The idea is to keep stress as low as possible while riding as fast as possible. Doing so means he will have more in the tank for the run.

His realization of this basic concept is a breakthrough for him. He'll be a better athlete because of it.

Don't take this to mean that you shouldn't pay attention to your power meter and heart rate monitor during races. You should. In fact, doing a long, steady-state race such as an Ironman with a power meter is almost like cheating. Once you know your numbers, the ones that will produce the optimal bike ride, it's just a matter of paying close attention to them regardless of outside variables such as wind. On the other hand, monitoring speed on a bicycle is pretty much a waste of time. It is certainly a good way to waste a lot of energy as you try to maintain velocity into a headwind--and then fade badly later. With a power meter you just ride your number. You go slower but you are still producing your optimal time and you don't fade and limp home. A watt is a watt. A mile-per-hour is not.

Don't let your desire for perfect data files get in the way of having your perfect race.