Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Heart Rate and Training

I got my first heart rate monitor in 1983 and still recall what a great thrill it was to see my heart rate in real time on my wrist while training. Prior to that we used to stop during a workout and count pulse beats for 6 seconds and multiply by 10 to get an estimate of what was going on. Of course, heart rate dropped when we stopped. So this was a great breakthrough. For the first few weeks I wore it daily just to see how my heart responded to everything – walking up stairs, brushing my teeth, touching my wife (she didn’t like that), eating, and about everything else including sleeping.

It took a couple of years to figure out how to train with heart rate. Then I began a mission to get athletes to start using them. By 1992 the device seemed to have reached a tipping point. That year I noticed that almost everyone was wearing them when I went to running, triathlon and bike races. That was 15 years after the heart rate monitor was invented by the founder of
Polar in 1977.

Now athletes take them for granted. Unfortunately, due to this technology most athletes have now come to believe that their training has a singular focus – to improve the cardiovascular system. That’s not the case. Most athletes would improve faster by focusing on their muscular systems. Many also seem to believe, based on their heart rates, that they know what their fitness is and if they are overtrained or not. Those things can’t be measured by heart rate alone.

Nevertheless, heart rate still is valuable information. I require everyone I coach to have a monitor. I also require them to have a power meter and a speed-distance device (GPS or accelerometer) if they are triathletes. By comparing heart rate with power or speed we now have a very good idea of how good one’s aerobic fitness is. For example, if for a given low- to moderate-intensity workout power or speed increases but heart rate remains the same then you are in better aerobic condition. The same may be said if at the same power or speed heart rate is lower. It’s a simple measure but you must know both input (heart rate) and output (power or speed) to draw such a conclusion. (You can find more on this topic
here and here.)

The key to using a heart rate monitor is determining your training zones. That is done by first finding your lactate threshold heart rate. This is much more precise than using max heart rate. It’s also more precise than using the formula 220 minus age to predict max heart rate. If you do that you had might as well guess. The formula is close to useless for individuals. It works fairly well with large groups of people. If you tested a large group you’d produce a bell-shaped curve. For those in the middle of the curve the formula would predict max heart rate rather closely. But there would be many people at the far ends of the curve, both high and low, for whom the formula is way off. Since you don’t know where you fall on the curve, the formula is mere speculation and likely to be 15 to 20 or more beats off. I’ve also never found any evidence that heart rate changes with age. I’m now 65 and have been using a monitor since I was 39. My lactate threshold heart rate on the bike has remained quite constant at about 152 all of these years. I have also been coaching one athlete for 7 years. His lactate threshold heart rate has not changed either. Bottom line: Forget about your age, using a formula of any kind and finding max heart rate. What you need to know is lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR).

There are many ways to find LTHR. The simplest (not the easiest by any means) is to complete a 30-minute time trial all by yourself (no training partners or races). Warm-up and then go as fast as you can for the entire 30 minutes. Treat it as if it is a race. Ten minutes after the start hit the lap button on your heart rate monitor. When you are all done look to see what your average heart rate was that last 20 minutes. This is a good estimation of LTHR, I’ve found. Please note that this is NOT a 10-minute warm-up and a 20-minute race effort. For some reason many athletes assume that’s what I’m saying. It is a 30-minute, all-out effort. We are just looking at the last 20 minutes of it.

Also note that the first time athletes do this test they nearly always go out too fast and then fade badly in the last 10 minutes. Try to start a bit conservatively and gradually increase the effort as you progress. You’ll get better results that way. Also, note that if you are a triathlete you need to do this test for each sport. LTHR varies by sport.

Once you know your LTHR go to my Cyclist’s Training Bible, Triathlete’s Training Bible or Total Heart Rate Training
books and find the table which provides zones based on LTHR. The books also describe how to use the zones in your training.

I suspect there may still be lots of questions about heart rate training so feel free to post them here. I’ll answer them as time allows with travel this week.

Wichita Falls Talk Saturday

This Saturday from 12:45 to 1:45 I will be the keynote speaker for the annual meeting of the American Society of Exercise Physiologists at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. The topic of my talk is 'The Physiological Concepts Behind Writing of The Cyclist’s Training Bible.' The talk is open to the public. For more information and to register go here.

Coached Training Plans

You probably know that I personally create and sell training plans tailored to specific categories of athletes (sport experience, age, weekly volume, specific event) in triathlon, duathlon, road cycling, bike tours and marathon running. Most are for 11 to 12 weeks but some cover 23 to 24 weeks. The prices range from $35 to $150.

I am now also including a few 'coached' training plans for sprint- and Olympic-distance triathletes. TrainingBible super-coach David Warden and I created these plans together based on the methodology in my Triathlete's Training Bible. In case you don't know David, he produces the most-listened-to podcast for endurance athletes at iTunes - Tri-Talk. He's much like me in that he shares a strong interest in the science of training.

Anyway, he and I created four training plans, two for sprint and two for Olympic triathlons. Look for the plans that say 'by Joe Friel and David Warden.' These are 11- to 12-week plans that sell for $199. Each includes two telephone coaching consultations with David while you are using them. He will help to make sure that things are on track for good fitness. With a plan and a coach to help, you will be on track for a great season.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Interval Training and 40k TT

If you read my tweets at www.twitter.com/jfriel or in the right hand column on my blog home page you'll notice that I do a lot of intervals. What you're seeing there is similar to what I have many of the athletes I coach do in their training. This form of training has been around for a long time but was first mentioned and studied in the scientific literature in the late 1950s. Since then there have been many studies on the benefit of interval training. Most of these studies compared well-conditioned subjects doing high-intensity intervals with control athletes who trained with steady-state workouts only. This somewhat biased the results since several other studies have shown that for well-trained athletes high intensity training is more effective than simply training with high volume at a lower intensity. And you simply can't do the same amount of high-intensity training in a steady, non-interval workout. Intervals win hands down. So given the choice, if you want to improve your performance in endurance sport, intervals are the way to go.

I recently went back through my archives looking for what the research may say about the best way to train for a 40k time trial in cycling. A couple of the athletes I coach are focused on such events this season. I found four studies which suggested that with only 4 weeks of training race times for such a TT could improve 2% to 4%. So if you do a 40k in 60 minutes such an improvement would knock off 1 minute and 12 seconds to 2 minutes and 24 seconds. That's a lot of time reduction in a very short time frame.

Three of these studies (1,2,3) had similar workout protocols with 2 sessions a week with 6-8 intervals in a session and each interval lasting 5 minutes with 1 minute recoveries (this short recovery time is critical to the results you get--don't lengthen it). The power for these intervals was 80% of power at VO2max. If you find your average power from a 6-minute time trial using a power meter you can assume that is your power at VO2max and be pretty accurate. So if that power was 300 watts you'd do these intervals at 240 watts (6-8 x 5 minutes at 240 watts with 1 minute recoveries). That's probably just about your functional threshold power (the power you can hold for 1 hour). Basically that means you'd be doing intervals at about your 40k TT race power. Strange how that specificity thing works, isn't it?

The final study (4) I looked at used a much higher intensity, however. In this study highly trained cyclists and triathletes did intervals once a week for 4 weeks. Each of these sessions involved doing 8 intervals at power at VO2max with each interval lasting for 60% of the time the subjects could maintain power at VO2max. The recovery after each was twice as long as the work interval. So, let's go back to our example athlete from above. If when doing an all-out effort he could hold 300 watts for 6 minutes here's how his workout would look: 8 x 3 minutes and 36 seconds at 300 watts with 7 minutes and 12 seconds of recovery after each. That would be done once each week. That's a killer session so once a week is plenty.

It is possible, however, to combine these two workouts in a week. I often have riders do the first workout with 5 intervals early in the week and the second workout also with 5 intervals later in the week. In fact, if you track my workouts through Twitter you'll find I'm doing something similar to that right now (when travel allows). Most athletes would need 48 to 72 hours to recover from each of these before going hard again.

Just a side note here... Without a power meter you're just guessing as to what the intensity you should be using is for such workouts. A heart rate monitor doesn't improve that guesswork by much. Power meters are a necessity for such precise interval workouts.

1. Kubukeli ZN, TD Noakes, SC Dennis. 2002. Training techniques to improve endurance exercise performances. Sports Med 32(8): 489-509.
2. Lindsay FH, JA Hawley, KH Myburgh, et al. 1996. Improved athletic performance in highly trained cyclists aftyer interval training. Med Sci Sports Exerc 28: 1427-1434.
3. Weston AR, KH Myburgh, FH Lindsay, et al. 1997. Skeletal muscle buffering capacity and endurance performance after high-intensity interval training by well-trained cyclists. Eur J Appl Physiol 75(1): 7-13.
4. Laursen PB, CM Shing, JM Peake, JS Coombes, DG Jenkins. 2002. Interval training program optimization in highly trained endurance cyclists. Med Sci Sports Exerc 34(11): 1801-1807.

Mallorca Triathlon Camp

September 18-25 this fall I will be offering a triathlon camp in Mallorca, Spain. Pro triathlete and TrainingBible coach Jim Vance will be there to assist me. We'll accommodate all abilities of triathletes. You'll learn a lot, get in some great training and have a lot of fun. For all of the details and contact info please go here. Let me know if your questions aren't answered there. This is my first time for this camp so I don't know what to expect as to how early it will fill up.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Marketing and Sport

The last couple of days I've tossed a lot of marketing posts your way in promoting the webinar and clinics this week. Sometimes it's necessary to tell people what's going on even if it's for personal gain. This can go too far, however.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk by a pro athlete who had a good season last year. She credited it to her new sports drink sponsor. She would have us believe that before the sports drink she was training poorly. But after using the new product she started training and racing better. Therefore it had to be the sports drink that made the difference and can take all of the credit for her turn around.


You need to be careful of what recognizable names in sport tell you. I'm afraid some don't. Many of these celebrities have a commitment to a brand which often involves free product, endorsement fees and exposure through media. They are being paid to tell you what a remarkable product the doohickey is and how they rely on it. I don't know of any product in sport that rises to that level of importance. Performance is 99.99% physical and mental preparation. Maybe more. There may be things that athletes like and find meets their unique needs in some small way, but no widget explains everything about their performances.

The same goes for research that is sponsored by a manufacturer. I am always highly skeptical right away. Researchers that don't at least say positive things about the product can never again expect to get funding for their research from that company. I'm skeptical of all the research of such 'scientists' forever after. And there are a lot of them out there.

Now I don't deny that everyone has to make a buck. We have bills to pay to maintain our lifestyles, and some may even believe that the product some how really did make a huge difference even though I may doubt it. There are products I endorse, although very few. I like these products so I support them. But I have always tried to be honest and open about their benefits and downsides. I wish athletes and scientists would do the same.

Saturday's Clinic

I mentioned below that I am speaking at a TrainingBible 'Personalized' clinic on Saturday in San Diego and that we had also done one of these last month in Chicago. The latter proved to be very popular with athletes there so we will be doing more of these around the country. Here are the details for the San Diego clinic.

* Race nutrition consult with Kim Mueller of Fuel-Factor.com.
* Ask-A-Coach station with Joe Friel. Ask him questions you have about your training
* A talk from Joe Friel, "2009, Your Best Season Ever"
* A sports medicine station with Dr. John Martinez, of Coastal Sports and Wellness and from the USAT medical staff, looking for imbalances to prevent possible future injuries
* Run-gait analysis station with Gino Cinco, of UCPT, who will help you be aware of your needs as a runner, with shoes, injuries, etc.

For more details and to register go here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Wednesday Webinar

It's a busy week for talks as you can see below. Add aonther: On Wednesday at 8pm Eastern Time I will be presenting a webinar called 'Your Best Season Ever.' It has to do with how to plan for the upcoming season so that you come into excellent race form for your A-priority races. The cost to attend is US$10 for TrainingBible coached athletes. US$20 for all others. Go here to sign up for it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

San Diego Talks This Week

I'll be in San Diego later this week doing two talks. On Thursday evening at 5pm I'll speak at the San Diego Triathlon Club's monthly meeting. The meeting will be at Road Runner Sports, 5553 Copley Drive.

Then on Saturday I'm speaking at a TrainingBible triathlon clinic at Coastal Sports and Wellness, 4010 Sorrento Valley Boulevard, Suite 300. The clinic also includes individual meetings for each athlete with a bike fitter, physical therapist, run gait analyst, and race nutritionist. We did one of these in Chicago last month and it was very well received. For more details on the clinic and to register go here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I coach some pretty sharp people. One of them, a 64-year old cyclist, just asked me some great questions. He's getting at the heart of what training is all about. The questions were so good I decided to post them here. Note that he is talking about WKO+ software which I use in coaching all of the athletes with whom I work. He uses it also. Every week I send him charts from the software which provide my thoughts and comments on how his training went in the last week and how that may affect our training in the near future.

If you use this software you're aware of how powerful it is. If you don't use it much of this will be a lot of mumbo jumbo for you, I'm afraid. If you want to get a better understanding of this entire topic order a copy of Training and Racing with a Power Meter by Allen and Coggan. It will give you a much greater depth and breadth of what training is all about from an engineer's perspective. Of course, the very best way of understanding all of this is to train with a power meter and use WKO+ to anaylze it. You'll learn a lot not only about training but also about yourself.

But perhaps it might help you a bit if I tell you what some of the acroyms stand for:

TSB = Training Stress Balance. This is often referred to as 'form.' It has to do with the athlete being rested before a race (or not). It may also help us to understand when the athlete is moving toward overtraining as a result of overreaching, which is necessary to achieve high goals. When well rested TSB is positive or at least trending strongly positive. When not 'on form' TSB is very negative and/or trending strongly negative.

CTL = Chronic Training Load. Referred to as 'fitness,' this is a marker of one's training stress over a long period of time, such as 6 weeks. The higher the CTL the higher the athlete's fitness. It indicates that the athlete can handle higher stress levels. Stress (workouts) are the reason we train as it produces adaptation which we call 'fitness.'

TSS = Training Stress Score. This is the heart of the system. The athlete's TSS is calculated for every workout by measuring intensity and duration. Intensity is measured relative to the athlete's Functional Threshold Power (FTP) which is the highest average power the athlete can maintain for 1 hour.

ATL = Acute Training Load. I call this 'fatigue.' It is the athlete's short term, rolling-average TSS. It is generally averaged over a 7-day period.

Question: How much negative TSB I can take without overtraining risk? This is pretty relevant now as I have a pretty clear calendar for the next couple of months and can get in a lot of training. I see that I have been at negative 48 and 36 in the past few weeks and am now at -22.

[Joe Friel] It isn’t so much the depth of negative TSB that is the cause of overtraining as it is the breadth of negative TSB. So far the longest you have been at -25TSB is 8 days (Feb 25-Mar 4). At that point you got some rest and it bounced back up to a positive value. I know of one highly fit cyclist who stayed at negative TSB the entire season and continued to race at a very high level. He is unusual to be able to do that. He is gifted in that he can handle a lot of stress without breaking down. Mere mortals like us would probably wind up overtrained. The key to avoiding overtraining is to have frequent rest to shed fatigue. I try to do that for you about every 3rd week at most for about 3-5 days depending on what I’m seeing and hearing from you. This is very individualized. So far your travel schedule has generally kept us from going that long. So it’s been easy. With a long block of uninterrupted training it is very important that you honor the easy days and days off. Not only will this help to shed fatigue and thus avoid overtraining it will also make the quality workouts higher quality (meaning higher absolute intensities and greater duration at moderately high intensities).

Question: Also, you mentioned a target CTL of 80 before important races—I think I can get a bit above that but we will see.

[Joe Friel] Yes, it is certainly possible depending on how you respond to continued high training loads as you are moving toward now.

Question: Will there be a point at which I will do some all out efforts—I am really not doing any except maybe some of the sprint intervals.

[Joe Friel] I have been gradually moving you toward higher intensities and longer durations at high intensity. Please note the workouts on your schedule for March 13, 15, 18, 20, 24 and 28. These involve some “all out” efforts at different durations that will definitely overload you and create a lot of TSS and negative TSB. I think you are just now becoming physically able to handle this. Also note there are 3 days of rest Mar 25-27 while you are traveling to shed some of the ATL/fatigue from this stressful block of training. The week after that we’ll go hard for only a couple of days and then rest for 2 days before the next event.

Question: Regarding race preparation, what TSB do you think we should shoot for based on my schedule and do you think, at my age, ATL should be for 7 days or more or less?

[Joe Friel] The “science” of training right now is very much a trial and error. It’s really more of an art. I try things (like for the next 13 days) and see how your body responds. I’ve been doing that all along. From that I get a sense of the training load you can manage and make adjustments going forward based on your response. I expect within 2 years we will be able to 'prescribe' workouts using WKO+. At that point we will know more about how to use the data. It’s been around for such a short time that we are only beginning to scratch the surface with its potential. As for the duration of your ATL, I have not seen a reason to change it from 7. This would be a great topic of discussion for us, however.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Training for Best Race

I got a long email from an athlete last week. The bottom line was that he wanted to know what he might be missing in his training. He’s got an important race in the spring and wants to make it his best ever. Of course, there is no way I could tell him exactly what to do. Even when I know an athlete quite well this is a challenge. So I pointed out three things he needs to do in order to be aiming his energy and time in the right directions. Here’s what I told him.

1. Know what your limiters are and train so as to improve them while maintaining your strengths. There are lots of things that could be one’s limiters. This guy is a triathlete so I asked him to consider, first of all, the three sports and how good he is at each. Sometimes age group race results tell you this. A good example of this is a triathlete I coach. It was obvious when I first started working with him that swimming was his weakest sport. So I shot video of him and determined that the greatest weakness here was his catch. So we have been working on that for a month. I just got a new video from him this week and he has improved it considerably. There are still flaws but they are minor. Our focus now shifts to his running. This will be a bigger challenge as we need to improve both his technique and his muscular endurance. We’ve been working on the technique for about a month. It’s also coming along quite well. Now we’re ready to get his ME improved. That will take several weeks.

Of course, there’s a lot more to limiters than this. One has to also determine what the course will be like and compare that with weaknesses. For example, if it’s a hilly course and he is a poor climber then this is a limiter. But if it’s a flat course climbing is not a limiter. Wind, cold, heat and humidity can also be limiters. Water conditions (rough, flat, cold) are also possibilities. There are others to consider such as nutrition and inadequate recovery time.

2. Train consistently which means doing workouts so as to avoid injury, illness, burnout and other breakdowns while controlling lifestyle interruptions. If his training is frequently interrupted for two or more days, for whatever reason, he will not make the necessary progress for a top performance. Consistency is the key to success in endurance sport—not super hard workouts. I seldom have athletes do extremely hard sessions, but they always improve. Why? Because I am conservative when it comes to designing training weeks and workouts. If there is a doubt in my mind about what I have just scheduled I downgrade the workout. It’s better to finish workouts doing less than one could have done, rather than whipping yourself. If you had a million-dollar race horse who was a contender for the Triple Crown you’d never push them to the edge of injury and breakdown. You’d be conservative. Why not do the same for yourself?

A good example of this is a woman I have been coaching for three seasons now. She was new to triathlon when I started with her but had a great background in cycling. I knew our biggest challenge for a couple of years would be avoiding injuries from running. Even being very conservative she still had a few minor injuries. But this winter her legs began to toughen and adapt to the stresses of running. Now she is finally doing the workouts we need to do to help her become a top contender in her age group. She’s actually been quite competitive the last two years, but this will be the year.

3. Train increasingly specific as you get closer to the race. In this regard, roadies are probably the worst of any sport I’ve ever coached. They seem to want to race multiple times each week, 52 weeks a year. Many think that’s what training is all about—just hammering with a group. Most fail to grasp the concept of gradually adapting to training stress which becomes increasingly specific to the demands of the sport. Sometimes the best thing for them, at least in the winter months, is to have so much snow on the roads they can’t get outside. That forces them to actually “train,” albeit indoors.

I was asked the other day in an interview if “reverse periodization” was a good idea. What the interviewer meant by this was doing high intensity in the base period, especially when this occurs in the winter when one can’t do long workouts, and then doing high volume in the build period when springs rolls around. I pointed out that periodization is not defined by intensity and volume. It’s defined by specificity. The closer you get to the race, the more like the race training needs to become. If one makes the training less like the race the closer one gets to it the more likely it is that there will be a poor performance.

Trying to decide how to optimize training in the winter when you can’t get outside is far more complex than simply doing intervals in January and long rides in May. It’s actually the subject of an entire other blog which I will do some other day.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Compression Socks Update

Two research studies have been published on the topic of compression socks since I last wrote on this in October, 2007. You can see that original post here. There may be some I've missed so if you happen to come across one please let me know. I always find it fascinating when technology improves performance. A great example of this is swimsuits in the Beijing Olympics last year. Of course, we've also seen great breakthroughs in cycling-related sports, too, with aerobars, improved wheels and power meters. But let's get back to compression socks. Here are the most recent studies I've found...

Ali, A., M.P. Caine, B.G. Snow. 2007. Graduated Compression Stockings: Physiological and Perceptual Responses During and After Exercise. J Sports Sci 25(4): 413-419.

Summary: Fourteen recreational runners ran a 10k at a "fast pace" both with and without compression socks. No performance or physiological differences were observed for the compression-sock trials compared with the standard athletic-sock trials. There was, however, a reduction in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) 24 hours after exercise with compression socks. Two runners in the compression socks experienced DOMS. Thirteen in the standard athletic socks experienced DOMS.

Kemmler, W., S. von Stengel, C. Kockritz, J. Mayhew, A. Wassermann, J. Zapf. 2009. Effect of Compression Stockings on Running Performance in Men Runners. J Strength Cond Res 23(1): 101-105.

Summary: Twenty-one moderately trained men ran a graded exercise test on a treadmill to a voluntary maximum output on two occasions separated by a week. One test was done with compression socks and the other with standard athletic socks. Running performance at anaerobic threshold improved 1.5% and at aerobic threshold 2.1%.

So what does all of this mean? I really can't say. It's too early to tell. Check back as I'll continue to watch the literature and report it here.