Thursday, December 25, 2008

Most Read Posts of 2008

The following is a recap of the five most read posts on this blog in the past year. It’s interesting to note that four of these were originally posted in 2007 but continue to be viewed more than the more recent ones. Click on the post title below to visit the original article. In reverse order they are...

#5 –
Biomac Shoes. This was posted to my blog in 2007 not too long after #1 (below) was posted. It is related to the midsole cleat topic discussed in the #1 read post and because of that relationship continues to draw readers. This a German-made cycling shoe that is extremely light and also incorporates an arch cleat. I learned of midsole cleats from the maker of Biomacs—Goetz Heine. He actually flew from Europe to Phoenix to show me the shoe and cleat position in 2006. At first I was skeptical, as are most people I talk with about midsole cleats. And with good reason: Changes to age-old practices should not be accepted at face value and must be carefully evaluated.

#4 –
Road Bike Posture. This was also a post from 2007 in which I suggested that roadies should sit on the saddle with their hips rolled forward. This is a bit hard to explain but the post’s accompanying pictures illustrate the idea pretty well. I go on to suggest that the best way to achieve this position is to get a bike fit from a professional fitter and to make sure that you have a saddle that is right for you. This latter is a real challenge. You can go through a lot of saddles trying to find one that feels right. I might add that I’ve known many very good riders who don’t sit on the saddle as I propose here. But being a “bar stool sitter” makes it more difficult to be fast, I believe.

#3 –
Active Spokes. This is the only blog post from 2008 to make the top 5 most read. This one is about an invention an Ironman triathlete came up with that would allow a wheel to automatically change from light rim to heavy rim while in a race or workout. In the piece I explain that a light rim is advantageous for climbing and accelerating, but that a heavy rim works better on a flat course or descent. The pictures that accompany the post show a simple device that moves weights on the spokes from the hub to the rim when high speeds are reached. And they can be customized to different courses and speeds. But talk about a hard sell! As athletes we are firmly convinced that light wheels are best for all situations. It’s not easy to change a person’s mind once it is made up.

#2 –
Foot Strike in Running. This dates to March 18, 2007 and gets a surprising number of hits for such a brief discussion. In it I suggest that a flat or mid-foot landing while running is preferable to landing on the heels. I’ve actually softened my position on this issue just a little bit since first writing this. Then I said that any time the heel touched the pavement before the ball of the foot was unacceptable. Now I believe that if the knee is bent when the heel strikes that this is probably going to work alright for most endurance events. It’s when the knee is locked out straight and the heel strikes first that presents the greatest problem. The footstrike in the top picture (red shoes) on this post is really not too bad. This year I wrote a follow up to this topic which showed this knee-locked, extreme-heel-strike technique so common with many runners.

#1 –
Cleat Position. Interestingly, this was the first piece I ever posted on my blog back in January of 2007 and has always generated a lot of visitors. The gist of the post was about how I had changed to a midsole cleat position the previous year and found it to be more economical than the traditional cleat position under the ball of the foot. As an update, I continue to ride this way and can’t imagine ever going back. Most of the athletes I’ve coached in the last two years still mount their cleats midsole and agree with my experience. I continue to get questions from athletes about the nuances of making such a change. But for some reason it tends to make a few athletes angry that I would propose such an extreme thing. For some reason there is an almost religious fervor about where one places his/her cleats on the shoe. This reminds me of the Big Enders and Little Enders in Gulliver’s Travels. They went to war over which end of the egg should be opened first. I never cease to be amazed with people.

I look forward to posting in the coming year what I am thinking about and doing with the athletes I coach. And I hope you al will continue to question me about these things. Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Electrolytes and Muscle Cramps

I got a real kick out of this cartoon, especially given my recent 4-part series on hydration. I think Monty is spot on here—most of us don’t know what electrolytes are but believe we must get them during exercise or something bad is going to happen. The most common belief is that we will experience muscle cramps if we run low on electrolytes. What actually happens during exercise is that the concentration of electrolytes increases since far more body fluid is lost as sweat. Sweat is hypotonic, meaning that the concentration of such stuff as sodium, magnesium, etc in it is far less than what the normal concentration is in the body. And the body appears to operate based on concentrations, not absolute amounts. Sports drink marketing has led us to believe that it's absolute amounts. The following is a previous post from my blog on the subject of muscle cramps…

In the spring 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 or take in sodium while exercising, 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 in the 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 cramps. 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 seem to be more 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, a marker of dehydration, between the crampers and the non-crampers. Nor were there any significant differences in the way the two groups trained.

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 possible 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.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Simplified Base Bicycle Training

If you are now in your early base period of training there are only three things you should be focusing on in your training: aerobic endurance, force and speed skills.

I seem to write about this topic a lot this time of year, it seems. That’s probably because I see so many athletes doing so little in their training now to optimize fitness in these three critical areas. Most are in a hurry to get into muscular endurance, anaerobic endurance and power training. In fact, those who burned out last July or so have been training these abilities since September when they started to get their enthusiasm for training back. They are flying now. That’s why I call them “Christmas Stars.” By about May motivation will start to wane again and will be totally gone by June or July when, in most parts of the northern hemisphere, racing is still going strong and has a few months to go.

Patience is the key to success in endurance sport. I’ve also written about that idea many times. One must be patient with training. When passed by a group of Christmas Stars on the road now you’ve got to have the patience to hold back and stick with your planned base fitness training. It helps to have a coach, someone who will hold you accountable for what you do in workouts. I seldom have to remind the athletes I train that they need to stick with the plan while avoiding Christmas Star group rides. Down deep we each understand the benefit of building deep levels of fitness in these three key abilities before starting to do the high intensity stuff later on. We realize that if we are patient now and just grind out the miles as planned, the reward later on will be much greater.

There are three simple ideas I build into the workouts of the riders I coach to help them get benefit from every workout this time of year. Here’s the gist of what I have them do in the form of training suggestions for you. There’s more to it than this. You can read one of my books to get all of the details. But it can all be boiled down to three basic elements of training for early base training…

Aerobic Endurance. Maximize 2-zone training time each week. For now, try to get about 40% of your training time each week in this zone. And higher doesn’t count as part of the 40%. Pay close attention to your power meter or heart rate monitor. Ride steadily. Avoid high and low numbers. No sprinting and no coasting. You’ll have a big aerobic engine after a few weeks of this.

Force. Climb all hills on certain select rides each week staying in the saddle. This will do wonders for building hip and knee extension strength improving your riding power overall. After a few weeks of this you will be a stronger rider, just in time to start the high intensity training. This is a simple stepping stone workout for great sustained power.

Speed Skills. Put a 25T or 27T cassette on your bike and pedal at high cadence on all terrains, including hills, at least three days a week. “High” cadence means at the upper end of your comfortable cadence range. Most riders are comfortable from about 75 to 95 rpm. So ride a lot averaging about 95. Your power will drop down some. That’s ok. It will rise in a few weeks as you become more economical. Improved pedaling skills will pay off in faster racing later in the season.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Ironman: Run a Marathon?

Question: I was planning on doing a big run focus in Jan-Feb and I was thinking of using an early season marathon as a goal to keep me motivated. The Napa valley marathon is March 1st. I know there is a significant recovery cost after a it worth it? If you feel that this is worthwhile, a sub-3-hour marathon would be a very satisfying accomplishment for me, but only if it is something which is building towards the higher priority goal of a 9:14 Ironman thois spring.

Answer: There is not a compelling reason to do a marathon when training for an Ironman. But there are many reasons why you shouldn’t. You mentioned one – the necessary recovery afterwards which may last a month if you PR’ed. During this time you’d be losing running fitness (the
WKO+ Performance Management chart confirms this). There’s also an increased risk of injury and a loss of focus on swimming and cycling. Trying to PR in a marathon makes it an A-priority race. Too many of your resources (time and energy) are shifted to running as a result. You're first and foremost a triathlete. And, besides, the pace you run in an Ironman is no where near the pace you run in a marathon PR-attempt.

You’d be much better served by training for a half marathon. One of the many upsides of this, one which I really like, is that you train faster than when training for a marathon. The key to training is not how much training you do, but how much quality there is in your training. This generally equates to the intensity of your training. Faster training means faster running. I like to have Ironman triathletes run fast in the late base period because in the build period the running becomes much slower being done at your goal IM pace, which you could do all day if you hadn’t just finished a 4k swim and 112-mile ride.