Thursday, February 25, 2010

Easy Means Easy

Sometimes the hardest part of training is going easy. I'm reminded of this from riding with two of my clients who were in town on Tuesday. Both they and I had recovery rides scheduled as we all had hard workouts planned for the following day. I could tell they were having a hard time 'going for a walk' on a bike. At one point I had to chase one of them down to get the effort low again. When we were done one of them told me he had never had such a low heart rate on a bike ride.

Since they are both now starting their Build period, their training must be either hard or easy - never in between. 'Hard,' of course, is related to the event for which one is training. It doesn't mean maximum effort all the time. 'Easy' means zone 1. If one makes the easy days easy, the hard days can be hard. And race fitness improves. If, on the other hand, easy becomes moderate then hard also becomes moderate. And there is little progress.

I learned this lesson from Gary Muhrcke, the winner of the first New York City Marathon in 1970. In 1982 Gary and I both owned running stores (I believe he stills owns his - Super Runner in NYC; I sold mine - Foot of the Rockies - in 1987). That year Tiger running shoes (now called ASICS) had a national sales promotion. The top-10, best-selling stores of their products would win a one-week, all-expenses-paid vacations for two to the Bahamas. Gary's and my store were winners. We met the first day and decided to run together every morning. The next day we met to run. After a few minutes we were running a much faster pace than I was ready for. I felt like I was in a race. I dreaded the next morning. But that day he took us out at such an easy pace that it was embarrassing. It must have been a 9-minute pace. Then the third morning it was a race again. And it went on like that the rest of the week. At the end of the week I was in much better shape, I could tell.

That's when I learned about hard-easy and I've been doing it ever since. It works. But most athletes don't give it a chance. When they feel their fitness is slipping the first decision they make is to increase the intensity of their easy days. It should be just the opposite - make the easy days easier. That will ensure you are ready to go for the next hard workout. Give it a try.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Answers for an 8th grade student

Last week I received a letter from an 8th grade student in Los Angeles who had some questions about triathlon. With all of the talk about childhood obesity and too much time in front of electronic media it's great too see an interest in something as healthy as triathlon. The following is my reply.

Thanks for your recent letter, Camille. You asked some very good questions. Here are my answers.
Q: Which segment is the hardest, swimming, cycling, or running?

A: It depends on who the athlete is. Whichever event one is weakest at is usually considered the hardest. If the athlete is equally strong in each sport then it often comes down to the one in which he or she believes offers the most opportunity for a good overall race performance. So they may work harder in this leg of the race to gain an advantage. That is often the bike since it makes up about half of a triathlon. But many other triathletes would say that the run is the hardest even if they are good runners simply because there is a lot of accumulated fatigue by the time it starts. So there really is no consensus on which is the hardest.

Q: When did you first become interested in triathlons, and why?

A: In 1983 I had surgery for an ankle I had sprained many times while running. Since I couldn’t run for a few weeks I started riding my bike. I had done this often when injured in the past and had become a fairly good cyclist. A couple of weeks or so after the surgery I was riding my bike in the mountains outside my home in Colorado when I crashed. I injured a shoulder pretty badly. My doctor suggested that swimming would help it to rehabilitate. A couple of weeks later I was swimming and it occurred to me that I was swimming, cycling and running, and I was aware of this new sport called “triathlon.” So I decided to enter one. I was hooked. Once again I found that the worst things often turn out to be the best.

Q: What helps you get your energy up when you are at a rough part of the race?

A: There are two things that you get you through the “hard patches.” The first is training. To do well in triathlon, as in any sport, you have to train for the hardest portions of the race. These often occur in the latter stages of the race when fatigue is setting in. Training should prepare you to minimize the feelings of fatigue. The second part of the answer has to do with mental preparation. We don’t always have races where everything goes to plan and we feel great all the way. In fact, that is rare even when we are well-trained. In such situations the athlete must be mentally prepared. Essentially, that means he or she has developed the mental strength to keep moving forward even if it isn’t their best effort. Something that helps with continuing ahead is knowing that these bad patches don’t always last the remainder of the race. They usually come and go as the race progresses. So at the end of the current bad patch there will be a good one. Be patient and things will get better.

Q: What inspired you to get into triathlons?

A: As far back as I can remember in grade school I was interested in sport. I have always loved the challenges of competition. Later in life I learned that competition is about becoming the best person you can be. I also learned that my competitors are the ones who do the most to make me a better person. I am competing with them, not against them. Without their efforts there would be no satisfaction and little gained in sport.

Q: What is your favorite part of triathlons?

A: This probably isn’t what you were getting at, but my favorite part is seeing the athletes I coach achieve – and even exceed – their performance goals. Having helped someone accomplish something that only a few weeks before was little more than a dream is very rewarding.

Q: What was the best race that you have ever done, and why?

A: I have had many races where first place in my category came down to me and one other athlete with whom I was racing shoulder-to-shoulder. There have been a half dozen or so of these for me. Some I won. Some I lost. But in either case the competition was intense and the lasting memory vivid. Races in which I have won my category easily are soon forgotten. And those in which I was not a contender faded quickly from memory. But for those that were tight and I was at my limit I can recall every detail of the experience. It’s remarkable how clear the memory is of such races.

You said that your mother and you had an interest in triathlon but you didn’t mention if you are both doing them. If not, I hope you decide to take the plunge. It’s a great sport with a lot to offer for people of all ages and abilities. If you do, please let me know. I hope to see you at a race one day.

Joe Friel

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Specificity of Training

I consider specificity the most important principle of training. And I tie specificity in with periodization to create training plans for the athletes I coach. So what is it? Basically, the specificity principle says that if you want to become good at something you need to do that thing. Sounds pretty simple, huh?

According to the specificity principle to ultimately become good at bicycle racing you should ride a bike – not run. That seems fairly obvious, but it’s remarkable how many cyclists, when short of time, will resort to a run workout. That may be ok early in the Base period. But in the Build period (3-11 weeks before the A race) there is very limited value.

So how about this one… If your goal is to run a 7-minute pace you need to do a lot of 7-minute-paced running. Not 8 minutes and not 6 minutes. There is this thing called “economy” which relates to the principle of specificity. If you spend a lot of time running 6- or 8-minute pace you will not be as economical at 7 minutes as you could have otherwise been. Economy has to do with how much energy you use (or waste) at a given pace.

One I deal with a lot has to do with triathletes and bike races… Many multisport athletes believe that bike road racing is good training for triathlon. It’s not. Bike races are, indeed, aerobic events, as are triathlons. But that’s where the similarity ends. The outcomes of bike races are determined by two-minute episodes when all hell breaks loose. They are anything but steady state aerobic. Bike racing has a huge anaerobic component which is critical to success. No one in their right mind races a triathlon that way. Triathlons are steady and anaerobic intensity is avoided. A bike race done by a triathlete is largely a wasted workout day. It’s even worse than that because the recovery after one of these delays when the next, truly specific triathlon workout can be done.

(A brief aside… I know many triathletes may be upset about what I just said. I’m sure I will get comments about pros who do this and how successful they are. But I think they’d be better if they stayed focused on triathlon. Some will comment on the “fun” factor of doing bike races. I have no problem with that. I used to do that myself and coach athletes who also participate in both sports. Everyone needs to decide what it is they want from sport. In other words, what is “fun” for you? You can be a generalist who is pretty good at a lot of different things, or you can be a specialist who is very good at one thing. I have no qualms about either. Either can be "fun." The purpose of this post, however, is to describe how to be very good at one sport. Now back to specificity.)

Here’s an even less obvious example… If training for a criterium you need to spend a lot of time in the drops or hooks of your handlebars – not on the brake hoods or tops. Why? Because crit racing demands you be in that position almost all of the race and pedaling economy is different when in the drops versus being on the hoods. Slightly different muscles are used.

You’re probably getting the idea now, but here’s a final one, similar to the above, that is often overlooked by road cyclists… If you want to race well in time trials you need to train on a TT bike. Again, different muscles are used in an extreme aero position than when on a road bike, even in the drops. In the Build period I have riders do muscular endurance intervals on their TT bike weekly.

This specificity principle is applied to periodization by ensuring that your weekly key workouts become increasingly like your next A race the closer in time you get to that race. So let’s examine “key” workouts.

A key workout is one that I have called a “breakthrough” workout in my Training Bible books. It’s a workout intended to push the limits of your fitness. I’ve recently started defining them with a “Training Stress Score” (TSS). I determine very early in the season what the approximate TSS of the A race will be. Then I design workouts based on that stress. I’ve mentioned this concept before here. But I continue to refine it and will post something here in the near future when time allows.

Essentially, a key workout is a hard session. Serious athletes typically do two to four of these in a week during the Build period. If you want to race faster, determining the details of these workouts, when to do them relative to each other, and the rate at which they become increasingly like the A race is what serious training is all about. Missing a key workout is bad but you can recover from it fairly easily. Missing a bunch of them is disastrous to performance.

The bottom line is that these key workouts must be specific to the demands of the A race for which you are training. Specificity isn’t so critical for the non-key workouts in your week. But some is still required. How much is difficult to say. But I’d recommend that a cyclist do them on a bike. That’s probably beneficial, but hard to measure.

It’s a little trickier for triathletes. They probably need to do each of the three sports at least three times a week. That means three key workouts and six “others” every week. Very competitive triathletes do far more than that. In fact, some would probably progress better if they cut back on some of the “filler” workouts.

You can make some exceptions to the specificity principle when it comes to recovery workouts. Triathletes are probably better off recovering on a bike or in the pool rather than by doing an easy run. If you’re going to develop an overuse injury it’s most likely in running. Saving the legs for the key runs is generally a good idea. I still want the triathletes I coach to run at least three times a week. So one of those “other” runs may be to improve skills or as a short run after a key bike ride to prepare the body for the “unusual” stress of running after riding.

At this point I should also get into recovery days in greater detail. That’s a post for another day, however.

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Monday, February 8, 2010

My Bike Fit and Wind Tunnel Testing

I spent the morning in the A2 Wind Tunnel in Mooresville, North Carolina doing one-minute intervals into a 30-mph headwind to get my new Blue Triad SL dialed in for this next season’s racing. While I had taken clients to wind tunnels before, this my first opportunity to get my own time trial bike and position tested.

I’ve had many bike fits done and highly recommend that as a necessity regardless of whether or not your next step will be a wind tunnel. A bike fit will cost you from $100 to $300 depending on how much time it takes and the reputation of the fitter. I found the A2 tunnel to be rather inexpensive as wind tunnels go. I’m used to having my clients pay up to $800 per hour. A2 charges _only_ $390 for an hour. I spent the better part of two hours on the saddle in the tunnel. And that’s about how much time my clients have also needed. That’s still a fair chunk of change so you want to come away with positive results. “Buying” a minute for a 40k is very expensive.

Again, I recommend that everyone has a bike fit done by a professional fitter. I go to a lot of races and see horrible bike positions that reduce power and increase drag – the worst possible combination. With a few small adjustments I could do wonders for nearly all of these riders (the others need bikes that fit – you can’t do much to correct that). It would take hours of weekly training for several months to build more power in order to reap the same benefit as a few basic adjustments of the bike set up would take.

So here’s what led me to Mooresville… After the new Blue TT bike was built up I met with Chris Pulleyn at Bicycle Ranch in Scottsdale, Arizona for a fit. Chris has done this for every athlete I’ve coached for the past three years. He is meticulous and determined to get an excellent position. Accompanying is a picture of Chris setting the position right at the end of the fit. I liked the position we came up with and felt both powerful and aerodynamic.

But there is a big difference between pedaling easily in a fit studio and racing on the road. The wind tunnel showed me that. On the first of 15 runs (a “run” lasts about 90 seconds and includes about 30 seconds of both the rider and the fans coming up to speed followed by about a minute at functional threshold power while readings are captured) I felt a little high. Fourteen runs later we had the bike set for a position that fit my needs – which is mostly 20km time trials. Had I been training for a longer event, especially something like an Ironman triathlon, the position would have been altogether different. The biggest change is that we would have shifted the focus from aggressively aerodynamic toward being far more comfortable.

The before-after pictures you see here show fairly well the changes that Mike Giraud at A2 made in my position. He started by lowering the handlebars. This was done four times for a total drop of 4.5cm. Each time I became a bit more aero, but power dropped off a bit also. By the fourth time the trade off wasn’t good and so he brought the bars back up 5mm. Then he began bringing the elbows in, about 3cm at a time for three tries. The last was too much and so I ended up with the elbow pads 3cm narrower than when we started. This made for a bit too much discomfort in trying t hold on to the S-bend aerobars and so he rotate them I so that the bar ends nearly touched.

After a try at making my shoulders narrower by lifting them toward my ears, which didn’t achieve very much, he tried a different helmet. My Garneau Rocket Air helmet (blue in pictures) was replaced by a Giro Advantage 2 (black in pictures). The Giro helmet fit a bit closer to my back and also seemed better shaped for my head. I also liked the heavily padded ear covers, which quieted the 30mph wind. (Interestingly, this latter is suggested by John Cobb to reduce the sound of the air thus reducing one’s perceived exertion. Only he achieves it by using ear plugs.)

The bottom line is that I wound up with my bars 4cm lower, my elbows 3cm narrower, my hands brought together by rotating the bar extensions, and different helmet. The power and drag numbers are not available as I write this. I will post them at another time.

I’m now ready to race – except for the fitness part.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Read Any Good Books?

I recently read a couple of books you may find enjoyable and informative:

Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald. Matt is a coaching colleague who I have always found to be level-headed with his training advice and have a firm foundation in research. Both qualities stand out in this book which hit the shelves in the last few months from Velo Press who also publishes many of my books. I never thought it possible to write an entire book on this topic. Writing a blog post on weight management for serious athletes seemed long when I did it some time ago. I was expecting a lot of meaningless fill with a book on the topic, but it is anything but that. I found every page to be sprinkled with ideas on how to manage your weight for better performance. And the book is extremely well researched. He often presents both sides of an issue and then explains why he sides with one of them. I find that an enlightening way to deal with topics so burdened with old wives' tales and misinformation. Matt has done a great job. I'd highly recommend reading it even if you don't need to lose any excess poundage. You'll come away with a better understanding of your physiology and also of food.

Trizophrenia by Jef Mallett. I don't usually read books like this but I have followed Jef's comic strips in our local paper (The Arizona Republic) and in VeloNews. In his comics he seems to frequently express something I've done or thought of myself while training. His book is no different. As a triathlete he has a good sense of what others in the sport are thinking. If you're a triathlete I'm sure you will enjoy the book. It's a quick read and will leave you contemplating what you do so seriously many hours a day while chuckling at the same time.

And a little bit of self-promotion... I'm currently working on a book which won't be out until next fall at the earliest (one chapter done!). I've received many questions from athletes over the years basically asking how to apply the principles described in my Training Bible books. This book does that. Based on a periodization model, you simply read the chapter related to the period you are just starting in your training and it will take you through all of the details including not only the period-specific workouts, but also testing, nutrition, mental challenges and common problems. And it will offer sample training plans for your race preparation. I think it's going to be a great book for helping you coach yourself more effectively.