Friday, August 29, 2008

Weak Form and B-Priority Races

These 2 charts illustrate what I call weak form quite accurately. The athlete has been reporting feeling rested but not powerful in his Tuesday group rides and weekend races recently. He’s at the end of his season and his last A-priority race is well behind him now. All he’s had left on the calendar were several B+ races. He wanted to do well at these which translates to “resting before each race for 2-3 days.” There is always a price to pay for rest – lost fitness. That’s what we see here in these charts.

In the first chart notice how his fitness (blue graphic) has declined in the last 18 days (the portion inside the red oval). At the start of this period on August 10 his TSS/day was 105.5. That’s just below his high fitness point of the season which was at about 110 TSS/day. As of yesterday his fitness had dropped to 91.7 – a 13% loss. I’ve found that losses of 10% or less seem to be optimal when peaking. He’s outside of that range and it’s apparent.

During this same period his form (black graphic) on the first chart has risen from -11.2 to +22, a net gain of nearly 33 points. Form, although declining for the last 5 days due to 3 challenging workouts and races, has remained very positive (above the dashed line) for the last 14 days.

Having positive form almost always means that the athlete is feeling rested. But if fitness drops off too much (more than 10%) power is lost. So this explains why the athlete feels ready to race but can’t seem to produce decent results. Weak form.

The second chart illustrates this in another way. It reflects his fitness (blue) for the last 2 seasons and also shows his top 10 best critical power (CP) values for 12 seconds (CP0.2), 1 minute (CP1), 6 minutes (CP6) and 30 minutes (CP30). Notice that most of his top 10s have been this season which starts at the low point in the blue fitness graphic. His best results of the season came when he was peaking for his A-priority race in June. This is the area within the red rectangle. Notice how many top 10 CPs occurred then. This was very definitely a period of strong form. He lost about 10% of his fitness then but was putting out some of his best power of the season, especially at CP6 which is critical to success in bike road racing. Also note how few top 10s he’s had during this recent period of time described above. Only 3 and they were all at CP1.

This is why I tell athletes that they need to limit the number of A- and B-priority races they do in a season, and preferably spread them out. Resting every week to have good results ultimately means having poor results. Keep this in mind as you start thinking about your race schedule and priorities for the 2009 season.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Conserving Energy in Bicycle Road Racing

One of the road cyclists I coach used to ride a bit too aggressively for someone who was contending for a spot on the podium. He was too apt to go to the front and pull everyone even when there were no teammates to rely on. Coming from a triathlon and running background he saw bike races as mano a mano contests of who could work the hardest and be the last one standing. It’s seldom that way, however, for those who covet a high placement. When riding without team support one must be very conservative in the expenditure of energy.

Success in bike road racing is to a great extent being ready for brief episodes lasting just a handful seconds or a couple of minutes at most that ultimately determine the race outcome – breaks, hills, cross winds and sprints. One must be ready for these by having plenty of matches left to burn. If all of the matches are used up just pulling everyone around the course then the rider is toast by the time a key episode occurs and can’t respond.

He and I have talked about this a lot and I’ve used his power files to reinforce my suggestions to better take advantage of race situations. A race this past weekend confirms that he has it down pat now. The first chart here (“Cadence Distribution”) shows his cadence in 10-rpm bars. Note that the 0-10 rpm bar indicates that he wasn’t pedaling (or only soft pedaling) about 12% of the race. That’s pretty good but not conclusive evidence that he is conserving energy.

You also can’t tell what he was doing as far as conserving energy when you look at his “Heart Rate Distribution” chart. Heart rate tends to stay high even when pedaling easily for short periods in races.

The third chart (“Power Distribution”), however, shows that for nearly 45% of the race he was in his power zone 1 – less than 55% of his FTP (functional threshold power – the rough equivalent of lactate/anaerobic threshold). He was obviously staying out of the wind. This is exactly what he needs to do to produce race results.

I know that some will call this “wheel sucking” and imply that it is some how unethical. But bike racing is basically chess on wheels. The key to success is outwitting the competition. Especially when racing alone one must be very cagey to have a chance against those with team support. Conserving energy is the first thing to master when racing – all the more so when unsupported.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Personal History of Drinking During Exercise

In the late 1950s and early 1960s when I was in high school our coaches in all sports would not let us drink anything during practice. Afterwards we could drink all we wanted but there was a great fear then that fluids in the gut would cause abdominal cramping. Not drinking would also make us tougher, they assured us. I can recall going to football two-a-day practices in the heat and humidity of Indiana's August stifling in full pads -- with a slice of lemon stuck into my helmet. I’d pull it out every chance I got and suck on it to induce salivation. It was gross but kept my mouth a little moist for the two hours practices lasted.

Then in 1962 I went off to college. Remarkably, the football team was allowed to have ice to suck on during practices. Drinking from the water fountain was even encouraged during track workouts in the spring. I had died and gone to heaven! And no gut cramping. But our teams weren’t very good so I figured the ice and water were just indications that we were getting soft and the other teams that whuppped us (which was frequent) were probably going without water. So I always felt a little guilty drinking during workouts and practices.

The next time I recall giving much consideration to fluid replacement during sport was when I was an assistant high school coach in the mid-1970s. By now Gatorade was available and all of our teams used it. And liberally. I recall that one afternoon before a football game I discovered we were out of Gatorade and so I sent a couple of players to get some. They came back with a few gallons of some sort of sugary, orange-flavored drink. The store was out of Gatorade. So we used it. It wasn’t Gatorade, but so what? That night nearly every player on our team who drank a lot of it cramped. It was the weirdest thing I ever saw. Every third or fourth play from the second quarter on we’d have a player writhing on the field in agony with a muscle cramp. It took me years to figure out what happened that night. The drink the boys bought was highly sugar-concentrated. That meant it took a long time to process and pulled fluids out of the general system to the gut to dilute all of the sugar. So they were dehydrating due to too much sugar. The dehydration was apparently causing cramps.

So for the next few years I was very hesitant to recommend that athletes drink much fluid, especially sugary drinks, during competition. In the late 1970s and early 1980s I can recall doing marathons with no pre-race breakfast and nothing but a little water from the aid stations. I was still wary of sugar-drinks and over-hydrating. Some how I got through nine marathons in five years with no carbohydrate yet still with decent times. The same was true for scores of triathlons at various distances over the same period of time.

The last time I used water-only was in the spring of 1982. I paced a friend in a marathon. Before the race I told him to drink at every aid station as we were told to do back then. You couldn’t take in too much was the party line. So to set a good example for my friend I drank a lot of water at each aid station -- a lot! Before the half way point I was nauseous and ducked behind a car to throw up so he couldn’t see me. We finished under his goal time but the experience caused me once again to rethink hydration. It was apparent that I had taken in too much water. So I vowed to cut back on the amount in future races. Now I know what happened was that I became water intoxicated. Too much water just doesn’t sit well in the stomach.

By the fall of 1982 the scientific literature finally convinced me that I needed to go back to using a sugar-based sports drink during competition—and eat something before. I couldn’t believe what a difference this made not only in the way I felt during the race but also in my race performances. So about then I changed what I was telling athletes: Use a sugar-based drink but be just a little careful with how much you take in. Everyone I knew in the sports I was involved with (running, triathlon, cycling) was still saying to drink all you want—without limits. Some how that never seemed quite right to me, but I was definitely in the minority. So I figured I was wrong. My marathon nausea, however, kept me from wholeheartedly agreeing with everyone else.

Since the early 1980s sports drinks have gotten a lot better. I even have my own commercial drinks. But now it appears the scientific literature and long-endurance events are changing their tunes. It appears I was right about fluid volume during exercise after all. There should be restrictions on fluid intake during competition they’re saying. It’s even OK to lose some weight due to dehydration in a race; in fact, it’s expected and perhaps even dangerous if you don’t.

In a few days I’ll update you on what the literature is saying now about fluid replacement during exercise. The pendulum is swinging the other way—slightly.

Monday, August 18, 2008

FTP Confirmation Test

I’m a scientist-athlete at heart (see Athlete Types below). I like to tinker with things in training to see what happens. My client-athletes are often the subjects for this tinkering. For example, for the past year or so I’ve been playing around with a less-stressful way of finding Functional threshold Power (FTP) than the very stressful 30-minute time trial test (CP30 test) I’ve used for several years and written about in my books. While I’ve found the CP30 test to be pretty accurate it is quite challenging and has a significant post-workout recovery component. There are times when I don’t want to stress the athlete that much but would like to check to see that we have FTP correct for the coming weeks. So I’ve been using another, much less stressful test to confirm that what we found earlier with a CP30 test is correct or to slightly modify what we have been previously using for FTP. This test requires having a very well-established lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR) which may have also been determined with CP30 tests, races and workout data. Having an accurate LTHR is critical to the test I’m about to describe.

LTHR occurs at about FTP. And since LTHR doesn’t change much from month to month or even year to year in well-conditioned athletes in a given sport (it varies between sports) it serves as a nice standard. FTP may, and should, change significantly over the course of a season, however. Yet it should always occur at about LTHR.

Here’s how I’ve been doing the FTP confirmation test.

On a bicycle indoor trainer the athlete warms up for 10 to 20 minutes. Then he/she starts a graded exercise test which consists of several four-minute work stages separated by one-minute recovery stages. The first work stage begins at a power that is about 80 watts below what FTP is currently considered to be based on previous testing. Each subsequent work stage is increased by 10 watts. This continues until LTHR is observed. The average power for this last stage is considered to be FTP.

As mentioned, I’ve used this confirmation test for about a year with some of the athletes I coach and the results have appeared to be fairly accurate. But I recently decided to check its accuracy. So last Saturday I had an athlete do the above-described indoor trainer confirmation test. The first chart here illustrates that test. The next day I had him do a CP30 test on the road. The second chart is his CP30 test.

The confirmation test predicted his FTP would be 235 watts since he achieved his LTHR of 152 bpm during the eighth stage when the mean average wattage was 235. The next day when he did his CP30 test his mean average power for the 30 minutes was 240 watts (241w normalized power) and mean average heart rate was 151. The mean average heart rate for the last 20 minutes of the CP30 test was 153. So the effort seems to have been quite high for this test.

The results of the cp30 test would indicate that the Saturday indoor trainer confirmation test was off by about 2% (235w vs. 240w). That’s pretty good so I’m fairly well satisfied that the confirmation test is an accurate predictor of FTP – and is much less stressful than the CP30 test. But I’ll keep gathering data for different athletes to see if it holds up under such scrutiny. It could be that there was a margin of error built into the procedure in that some fatigue was realized from the Saturday test and so the Sunday test may have yielded a lower FTP than might otherwise have been realized. (The athlete reported feeling rested and strong in the Sunday CP30 test.) It’s also possible the athlete held back too much in the first half of the CP30 test since average power increased 6% in the second half. That’s somewhat outside of the 51-49 negative split principle I’ve written about here.

If you try the confirmation test please let me know how it compares with your most recent CP30 test. Thanks!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Athlete Types

It seems like I have written about this before but I don’t find it in the archives. So I’ll talk about it at the risk of repeating myself.

I have found in nearly 30 years of coaching endurance athletes that there are three general types of athletes — artists, scientists and accountants.

Pros tend to be artist-athletes. They would rather not have to use heart rate monitors, power meters, accelerometers or GPS devices. A stopwatch is about as close as they get to using numbers when training. Just as with artists they don’t often think about how. You wouldn’t ask Michaelangelo why he put a bit of color in the corner of a painting. He’d answer with something such as, “It just felt like the thing to do.” Ask a pro how he makes a certain move and he may not be able to tell you exactly. “It feels like this,” he’d say. Pros can benefit from having a coach – someone who can analyze the details and make changes when needed.

Scientist-athletes like to analyze the numbers and then make changes to see what happens with performance. They conduct experiments with n=1 constantly. Their training is one endless scientific study. They love to share what they’ve learned with other scientist-athletes on blogs, message boards and in chat rooms. Their greatest need is to have a coach who can give their training a consistent direction and purpose.

Accountant-athletes simply love numbers. They have multiple devices on their handlebars. They wear a heart rate monitor and a GPS when running. And they look at all the numbers. Following the workout they download all the data and have a great time just looking at it — tables, graphs and charts. Beautiful numbers! They are usually very good at doing math in their heads while training to calculate average speeds and paces, grades, power-heart rate ratios, variability indices, and more. They are very good with numbers. But a coach could help this athlete make sense of the numbers and narrow it down to what is and isn’t important.

There are few athletes I’ve come across who are purely defined by one of these categories. Most have a strong tendency toward one of these categories, however.

As you might guess, I’m a scientist-athlete; I love to experiment to find what works and what doesn’t. That probably helps my coaching. But I try to nurture the artist in me to become a little stronger as an athlete. Because of this I like to talk with artist-athletes as they give me a fresh point of view. But sometimes they frustrate me when the topic becomes the least bit technical.

What’s your tendency?

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Importance of Consistency

In the early chapters of my Training Bible books I stress how important training consistently is to fitness and performance. In fact, the biggest mistake most self-coached athletes make is not training consistently. It’s not that they don’t want to; it’s just that they frequently violate an even more basic tenet of smart training which is at the heart of consistency—moderation. When you moderately increase the training stress in conservatively measured amounts you train consistently for week after week. But if you periodically pile on huge doses of stress, or skip a recovery period, you greatly increase your risk of injury, burnout, illness and overtraining. You may get away with it once or twice, but it will soon catch up with you and will interrupt your consistency. When there is a break in training for a few weeks or even a few days fitness is lost and you have to take a step back in training and begin over again. Many athletes experience this one or two times each season and, as a result, never realize their full potential.

The first chart here shows the weekly Training Stress Scores (TSS) of an athlete who had a considerable amount of inconsistency due to injury early this season. Notice the extreme highs and lows of TSS for the first 22 weeks of the season (within the red box). Around the end of May the injury problems finally began to subside. Following that breakthrough training became more consistent—and also more moderate, you may notice. The variations in weekly TSS highs and lows are quite small compared with the variations earlier in the year.

The second chart shows what has happened to this athlete's fitness over the course of the same period of time. Note how there has been a steady fitness increase the last 10 weeks (in the blue box). With four weeks to go until the biggest race of the season the timing could not have been better. If this pattern continues she will have excellent fitness when it counts the most.

The lesson to be learned here is that in order to produce your best performances you need to train consistently. And the key to consistency is moderation when increasing training stress. If you get this right I can guarantee that you will have your best season ever.