Monday, July 28, 2008

You Meet the Nicest People on Bikes

Last Saturday Bill Cofer and I rode the Colorado-Eagle River Ride-100 miles in the Colorado Mountains starting and ending near Vail. At mile 40 a woman passed us and offered some friendly encouragement as we lumbered up a steep hill following an aid station break. We soon caught her on the downhill and quickly dropped her. She caught back on. We dropped her again. And she came back. This went on for a couple of miles. She was so tenacious I finally asked her name.
"Uta" she said with a German accent.
"How often do you ride, Uta?" I asked.
"Only about two times a week," she replied. "But I run also."
"Do you ever do any running races?" I asked since she was obviously in good shape.
"No, but I used to do marathons."
So it finally dawns on me--Uta from Germany, used to run marathons and in great shape. "Is your last name Pippig?" I asked.
We were riding with Uta Pippig, one of the best marathoners of all time (see picture). She ran a 2:21:45, won the Berlin, New York and Boston (3 times) marathons in the 1990s, ran in the Olympics and was ranked #1 in the world in the marathon and half marathon. We rode together and she filled me in on what she does now. (Go to to find out.) What a treat!
She also has a home in Boulder, Colorado where my summer home is so I hope to get together with her on a ride (I certainly can't run with her) some time to pick her brain about training at that level for so many years. This time I won't try to drop her.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Strong and Weak Form

In order to become race ready you need to gain form. Form may be defined as “race restedness.” In other words, when you are at your peak of readiness for a race you must have shed some of the fatigue you have built up over several weeks of training. Only then will you be ready to race well. You do not want to go into an important race tired. That seems to be accepted by everyone.

But here’s one that isn’t so universally accepted: In order to be really ready for a race you also have to give up some of your fitness. Let me explain. Go back to the statement above that in order to be race ready (“on form”) you have to shed fatigue. How do you shed fatigue? You rest more and create less physical stress. What happens when you reduce the stress in your training? You lose fitness, right? If that was not so no one would train. They would only sit around watching TV if that created fitness. But it doesn’t. So in order to gain form you must give up some fitness. That's just another way of saying that in order to race well you have to give up some fitness. Make sense?

The key here is how much fitness you are willing to give up. During a peaking or tapering period in the last several days before an A-priority race you should be reducing the stress in your training by including more easy workouts punctuated by hard workouts. I have athletes do an abbreviated, race-like workout every 72 to 96 hours for several days leading up to their race week. The easy workouts are very easy; the hard workouts are very hard. But there are more easy than hard workouts so on the whole training stress is reduced over this period. As a result form is gained while fitness is lost. But again, you don’t want too much fitness to be lost.

I try not to have the athletes I coach lose more than about 10 percent of their fitness as measured by their average daily TSS (Training Stress Score) on their WKO+ software. I want to see their form (TSB – Training Stress Balance) trending upward over this time and rise above the zero balance point (red dashed line). When both of these occur I refer to that condition as “Strong Form.” Form may still be positive but if fitness drops significantly more than 10 percent then the athlete has “Weak Form.” In the latter condition the athlete will feel great on race day but lack power and perhaps intensive endurance abilities (muscular endurance and anaerobic endurance). Weak Form would not be expected to produce race results as good as would Strong Form.

The accompanying chart illustrates two times in an athlete’s season when he came into form. The first time form was weak. The second time it was strong. Notice that when form was weak the TSB was well above zero (+30) and when form was strong TSB was actually lower (+18). So the issue is not how high form rises but rather how low fitness drops when peaking for a race and form is rising.

In this example, fitness (TSS/day) is also higher when the athlete achieves Strong Form (76.3 vs 42.0) which is obviously also beneficial to race readiness. But even had the TSS/day been the same on race day, the race outcomes would still be closely related to how strong or weak the athlete’s form was at the time—in other words, how much fitness the athlete had lost in the days leading up to the race.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Case Study: Late Season Training

A mountain biker I have known for several years wrote asking what I'd suggest he do in training as he builds to his last A-priority race of the season in September. Since late spring he has mostly been doing a lot of intervals, especially long work intervals at about FTP/lactate threshold. These have worked quite well for him. He was second in his category at Nationals this year and it sounds like he has been competitive at local races throughout the year. But since recovering from Nats and returning to the same type of training he senses that his fitness has reached a plateau. So he wandered if he should change his workout focus.

I get questions like this from athletes almost daily. They are very difficult to answer. Even when I coach someone resolving such matters is a real challenge. So doing this for an athlete I know little about is especially challenging. But I took a stab at his question anyway. Of course, I qualified my reply by being sure he understood I was merely guessing based on what I often see in athletes who have trained like this early in the season.

What I told him was that there are four things I'd recommend trying in training between now and his last A race. Here they are...

1. Once each week do 5 x 3 minutes on a hill at CP6 (the highest average power he can maintain for 6 minutes at max effort) with 3-minute recoveries. After the last 3-minute recovery do a 30-minute steady state ride at FTP/lactate threshold on a flat to rolling course. This workout may boost his aerobic capacity to a new high, elevate his economy by improving power, and raise his LT as a percentage of VO2 max. These may be done on the road or on the trail.

2. Weekly do 3 sets of 5 x 20 seconds at near max effort with 40 second recoveries. Recover for 3 to 5 minutes between sets. These may be done on a hill or flats. These sessions will improve his tolerance to acid and may train his systems to remove acid from body fluids more quickly. I'd recommend usually doing this on a section of a trail.

3. Ride a long off-road session each week at a moderate effort working especially on handling skills.

4. Evenly space these three workouts throughout the week by separating them with 48 to 72 hours doing only easy, recovery rides or days off.

Every fourth week he should take 3 to 4 consecutive days of very easy training, perhaps with a day off, early in the week. Then late in the week test CP6 and CP30 to confirm the numbers he would use for the next three weeks in session #1 above. Finish the week with either workout #1, #2 or #3 above depending on what he thinks is most needed. With two weeks to go until his last race he should start the peaking process described in my Training Bible books. This means only one week of peaking followed by a race-week taper.

I wish I could assure him that it would work but there are no promises. I'm pretty sure it will boost his fitness, however. Unfortunately (fortunately?) training is as much an art as a science. And not knowing everything about the athlete makes it even more of an art. I'll let you know how he does.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Getting back

I'm back in Boulder, Colo for the summer. Have been for about a month now. It's always a great pleasure to return to the Rocky Mountains. My winter home is now in Scottsdale, Ariz because after 30 years of living in Colorado I grew very tired of snow and ice. Frozen water bottles and riding long indoors is just not for me. But I also am not crazy about 110F degree weather. Hence, homes in Ariz and Colo.

The mountains are great for getting back in shape, also. I live at the top of a one-mile climb in Scottsdale but it just isn't the same doing hill reps there as climbing non-stop for several miles here. Two weeks ago I did the Colorado Bicycle Tour in the mountains in southwestern Colorado--440 miles and in the neighborhood of 15,000 feet of climbing. Last Saturday I did the Triple Bypass--123 miles over three passes with 10,600 feet of vertical gain. Two more centuries in the mountains in the next 5 weeks with intervals and tempo workouts in between and I should be in decent shape again. Hopefully, fit enough that my son, Dirk, won't drop me on his easy rides.

There is nothing like climbing for building force and muscular endurance. I've coached many athletes who live in flat places like the coastal areas of Florida. Their fitness would have progressed much faster if they had gotten some mountain time in their late Base periods. Unfortunately, that's not a possibility short of taking a vacation to ride some place like here.

The downside of living here is the altitude. I know that everyone thinks coming to Colorado for a couple of weeks will make them aerobic animals by the time they get back home. Personally, I don't think there's much aerobic advantage unless you go to places like Vail, Winterpark, Breckinridge or some other place above about 7000 feet. Boulder is about 5500 feet. There isn't much to be gained aerobically from being here for a few weeks. It's actually kind of a "limbo," if you will. It is high enough to slow you down when training which means the muscular system doesn't get worked as hard as it would at sea level. And yet the altitude is not high enough to produce much of an aerobic benefit.

Riding in the mountains makes up for a lot of this downside. The other thing I like about training here is the number and quality of athletes. There are people out running and riding every where you go and at all hours of the day. Boulder has to have one of the highest aerobic capacities per capita in the country, perhaps the world. There's always someone to train with who is in better condition.

I'm here until late September when it sometimes snows in Boulder. When that happens I'm outta here and back to the warmth of Scottsdale where I can continue riding in shorts year round.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

64 ounces of water a day?

Does anyone know of any research that demonstrates a need for everyone to drink 8, 8-ounce glasses of water a day? I've got serious doubts and suspect it may be more harmful than beneficial. Perhaps I have missed something. But using a paleolithic model, it seems unlikely that our Stone Age ancestors would have had access to that much water daily given that watering holes are where predators hang out. I would suspect they got little more than a few ounces daily and that was a challenge. Most of their water would have come from their food and small sources such as the dew on leaves, I believe. If this assumption is incorrect, then how is it they thrived for 2 million years eventually populating the planet, but we now have to have 64 ounces a day to be healthy?

How about the oft-repeated stipulation that none of this water can come from caffeinated beverages as they cause a net loss of body fluid? Again, I have never seen any research that supports this notion. Has anyone? In fact, I have found one study that contradicts this belief during exercise (Falk et al, 1990, Effects of caffeine ingestion on body fluid balance and thermoregulation during exercise, Can J Physiol Pharmacol 68(7):889-892).

There are lots of other things that we have been told repeatedly for so many years that everyone now assumes them to be well-supported "facts." I'll get around to them at another time. But for now I'm wondering about all of these people I run into carrying half gallon jugs of water which they sip on all day long until empty and finally go to bed with a mission accomplished.

Can anyone set me straight by pointing out research that supports this notion?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Fuel for Long Races

The longer the event is, the more critical race-day nutrition is to your performance. For competitions lasting less than about an hour little is needed other than water. As the duration of the event extends beyond one hour carbohydrate and fluids become increasingly important. For events longer than about six hours refueling the body is often as important to success as how fit and rested you are.

So what should you take in during a long race in order to maintain your intensity at a high level for the duration? The dilemma you face is deciding how to balance intensity against fuel. For example, if you go slowly enough (such as casually walking a marathon) you can eat and drink almost anything you want and your gut will process it. Want a greasy hamburger with french fries and a beer? No problem! But the faster you go the less your gut will be able to process so the more carefully you must choose your fuel. The reason for this is that the body has several demands being placed on all systems and there is competition for the precious resources which are delivered typically by the blood. For example, the muscles are demanding oxygen and carbohydrate to continue contracting at a high rate. At the same time your body is building up heat and trying to shed it. How does it do that? It shunts blood to the skin where it releases heat into the surrounding air thus cooling you off a bit. If you are taking in food, whether liquid or solid, the stomach and intestines are also requesting blood to process and transport the fluids and fuel. And there are other systems also demanding blood. So it's no wonder that athletes often experience GI problems of various types during long, endurance events. There simply aren't enough resources to go around, and given the choice the body prefers to use the blood to cool you and keep the muscles going. The gut is of secondary importance.

So your challenge in preparing for a long race is to determine what it is your gut can best handle at the pace you will be racing. The faster you go, the more this fuel source should be in liquid form since that is the easiest to process in the gut. Solid food requires water to dilute it so that it may be digested. Guess where most of that water comes from if you don't drink enough. The blood.

Your training while building up to a long race must include some long workouts done at race effort. Not only are you trying to become more fit by doing these but you should also be experimenting with fuel types to see what is going to work best for you on race day. Then, when race day finally arrives, you must stick with the pacing and refueling plan developed in training. I often hear athletes who DNF with a complaining gut say, "But it worked for me in training!" So something changed from the workouts to the race. What was it? More than likely it was pacing. The athlete simply went out too fast and the body couldn't deal with all of the demands placed on it. So the stomach "shut down."

It never ceases to amaze me at how important pacing is to long-distance, steady-state events and how little athletes do to pace themselves appropriately, especially early in the race. It's the key to almost everything necessary for success including refueling.

Webinar on Pacing (2)

On June 12 I presented a one-hour webinar on how to train so that you race with proper pacing in steady state events such as triathlons, time trials, road running events, etc. This webinar is now available for your viewing. If you've been following my blog you will recall that I discussed this topic at some length in several posts a few weeks ago. This webinar provides much more information on that topic with graphics of actual races and workouts for athletes I train to illustrate my points. My experience has been that this is the single most misunderstood aspect of training and racing for such races. I spend a good deal of time with those I coach getting them to train and race with an appropriate pacing strategy. Once an athlete understands this and is able to do it in training then they become much more competitive. There were lots of good questions asked by those who attended. The presentation is available online at There is a $30 fee to view/listen to it.

Percent Grade

Someone asked me how to compute the grade of a climb. Here's a quick and fairly accurate way. Divide the elevation gain ("rise") in feet by the length ("run") of the climb in miles. Then divide the result by 50 (52.8 = 1% of a mile). So 2500 feet of rise divided by 5 miles of run is 500. 500 divided by 50 is 10. So a 10% grade.