A Swim and a Jog Away From Road Racing

This week we’ve got a guest blog post from Catalyst athlete Aaron Mahoney.  He’s made the transition from triathlon to road bike racing. Here he describes some of the lessons he’s learned along the way. Enjoy!

When I went to college, I took up triathlon, racing a handful of times during the summer. This culminated with racing Ironman Wisconsin last summer where I placed 19th in my age group. During my time training for triathlon, I always looked forward to the bike days. So, after finishing up my Ironman, I decided to try my hand at racing bikes. What follows is a list of the things I felt made up the bulk of my learning curve when adjusting from one sport to the other. 

  1. Training Volume  - Maybe the most noticeable difference between an IM distance race and that required for road racing is the volume of work put in on a weekly basis. During my build weeks last summer, I would put in around 16-18 hours of work a week, culminating at 20 hours before my taper. When I began my first block of cycling-specific training, I was initially (and wrongly) disappointed to see that I only had about half of the volume per week that I was used to. Feeling like my coach had underestimated my abilities (he hadn’t), I thought, “I’ll show him! I’ll bump up each interval’s power by 20%!” (that was dumb). I got done with the first day of intervals with a set of legs that were completely toast.  I kept up this stubborn overreaching all week, and ended with legs that felt like cement and the resurgence of an old overuse injury in my right hamstring. To this day I haven’t told my coach about that. Sorry, Jim. Lesson learned, more is not always better.
  2. Training Intensity - Similarly to the quantity, the quality of workouts changed dramatically. My aerobic base was fairly well developed from triathlon, but I had almost no experience in the anaerobic department (important for crit and road racing). And what a rude awakening it was. I went from performing prolonged sweet-spot intervals to these terrible things called sprints with my legs screaming in protest the entire time. While I’m unsure of the role perception plays in fatigue, I feel like anaerobic work is something that not only requires physiological adaptations, but a mental one as well. I’ve had to get used to being really uncomfortable. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve thrown up at the end of sprint workouts, for which I can thank my nutrition choices (more on that in a bit).
  3. Recovery - I’ve also found differences off the bike. Proper recovery plays a much more pronounced role in cycling than it does in ultra-endurance events. Again, I found this out the hard way. With IM training, I could bunch up the hard (read “long”) workouts back to back provided I took an extra easy day afterwards without much detriment to my training. Much to the chagrin of my coach, I tried to apply this approach to my bike training by putting a hard anaerobic day up against a VO2 day up against a threshold day. Each day I went without rest, my wattage would drop and my heart rate would rise. Eventually, I wasn’t able to train in the appropriate metabolic system because of excess fatigue, something that only an appropriately timed recovery day can solve. Again, sorry, Jim.
  4. Nutrition - I have never had problems with clean eating, so the most glaring difference between the two sports was the amount of carbohydrate needed, and the timing of when said carbohydrates were consumed. For long slow distance efforts, our body can use fats or carbohydrates as fuel for workouts. With crits and road racing, however, virtually all of the key efforts require carbohydrates. This required a slight change in my nutrition. The timing of eating said carbs is also important. Don’t consume the carbs needed for a workout or race right before riding. This is most likely common sense to most all of you, but I learned this lesson the hard way. Right before a Tabata workout, I thought it’d be a great idea to top off the glycogen tank with some pancakes. Long story short it wasn’t a good idea.
  5. Mentality I think this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the mental differences between the two sports. In triathlon at the amateur level, races are usually won and lost by minutes, not seconds. The strategy for the bike leg of the race is to race hard, but always save enough energy for the run. So if another racer passed me on a hill, I could always carry the (mostly valid) excuse that I was racing smart and pacing myself appropriately. In bike racing, especially crit racing, races are decided in a matter of seconds. This is something that I find to be shockingly personal. If I let an attack go, I’ve likely lost the race because the duration is so short. This means that I need to push with everything I have to stay where I need to be in the race. I often find myself holding back worrying that my best effort won’t be good enough, so I might as well wait and let someone else cover the move. This is something that I still work on. It takes a very unique (maybe insane, but who am I to say?) mindset that allows an athlete to absolutely empty the tank and leave it all out there in the race.

This is the culmination of the differences between the two sports. It’s scary, but also scary fun.

On the Rise

This week we’ve got a guest post from Catalyst athlete Landry Bobo!  As a relatively new cat 2, he discusses what he’s learned in making the jump from cat 3 to doing some races with the pros.  Enjoy!

It’s the 2012 Morgul Bismarck—my first ever road race. I’m about to line up for a 30 mile course in the Junior Men 15-16 category. As I ride towards the start area, I pass the Pro-1-2 Men’s field that is already lined up for their race.

“Wow, that’s the pro field,” I remember thinking to myself. I remember seeing on the race flyer that this group is supposed to race 80 whole miles! I look down at my blue aluminum Trek Alpha and my skinny, hairy legs. It was hard to fathom racing with those guys.

My race that day didn’t go too well. I was dropped the first time up “the wall” as the entire field rode away from me. I managed to finish but was completely emptied after the 30 mile race. However, after that moment, I was hooked. One day, I wanted to see what it would be like to race 80 miles. One day, I wanted to compete against the pros.

Fast forward 6 years and I am lining up against a small, but fast Pro-1-2 field at the Front Range Cycling Classic. A few places to my left is Isaiah Newkirk, who would go on to finish top ten at the UCI Tour of The Gila just a week later.

It’s intimidating knowing that I’m racing against guys that are on another level, but 2 hours later I am in a breakaway of four with all really fast guys. I’m hanging on for dear life, suffering like a pig up each climb and trying my best to pull through.

On the penultimate lap I get edged out on the top of the climb as my legs start to lock up. At that moment, I realize I’m bonking. In the 3s I could have gotten away with maybe just a bar and a couple of gels—but the Pro-1-2s is definitely not the 3s, and I’m paying for my inexperience. As the power drains from my glycogen depleted legs, fragments of what used to be the peloton pass me, one by one. I roll in for a mid-pack finish.

If I’d have finished mid-pack and bonked out of the winning move in the 3s, I would have been pretty disappointed. But the P-1-2s, was a whole different ball game (er…bike race).  After several years as a cat 3 I had become accustomed to being one of the strongest climbers in the race. This allowed me to race like an idiot and attack at my whim.

In the P-1-2s however, one must carefully decide where to expend energy as any wasted energy will come back to bite you later on in the race. As a newly minted cat 2, I’ve quickly realized that it’s not my job to attack, sit in the wind, or pull back any breaks.

In just a few races as a cat 2 I have already learned so much. Here are some of the things that I have learned:

1.     Pros are FAST. Let them do the work. All you have to do is hang on.

2.     Every race is hard. There are always attacks. In the 3s, most races everyone would just wait around for the final miles of the race. In the Pro-1-2s, there are guys with nothing to lose who are more than happy to put everyone in the hurt box to try to make a break.

3.     You have to eat a lot more. I recently completed Tour of the Gila in the 1-2s. I was amazed at just how much food I would eat during a 100 mile stage. It was a challenge just to fit all of the food in my pockets.

4.     The races are much safer. This is definitely the biggest upside to racing in the Pro-1-2s. Everyone knows what they are doing and there is a mutual trust between racers. I saw more sketchy moments in 1 race as a cat 3 than I have in 10 as a cat 2.

5.     The races are a lot more serious. There is a lot less chatter. In the 3s everyone would be joking around or whining about the course. In the Pro-1-2s there is a lot less talking and a lot more watts.

6.     Positioning is much more challenging. If you’re not constantly fighting for wheels, you’ll find yourself at the back pretty quickly.

One of the biggest changes racing as a cat 2 now is that I also have to change how I define success. Success as a newly minted cat 2 means more than just the results. I have found that I need to focus more on my own development and less on what others are doing. You can’t control who shows up to your race, but you can control your training, nutrition, and preparation for the race. For now, as I begin racing at this next level, success for me is defined by two things:

1.     Did I do my best? Did I really give my all out there? Not being the fastest one in the pack means that you will be faced with a moment where it hurts so bad that you want to sit up.

2.     Did I learn anything? Whether it’s pack riding skills, descending, or nutrition. There is always something we can be learning.

Racing as a cat 2 has certainly been a humbling experience so far, but sometimes the best way to improve is to just go out there and get flogged. I am always excited by a new challenge and I know that as I continue learn (and suffer), I will be a lot stronger because of it.

Take That Stress, Make it Less

We’re constantly being told that stress is bad, but it’s not that simple.  Stress has different forms.  In the sports world, physical stress plays an important role for improving performance.  Training puts stress on the body and you need this physical stress so that the body will adapt and get stronger. 

In addition to physical stress, there’s also mental stress.  The body’s response to mental stress is similar to the response to physical stress.  There is a release of molecules (such as epinephrine and cortisol) which increase blood pressure, increase heart rate, increase wakefulness, decrease immune function, and decrease muscle building. 

Balancing both physical and mental stress is important for optimal performance.  A coach is often focused primarily on the physical stress.  Training plans and rest days are both ways to manage physical stress.  But, managing mental stress is just as important.  Because of the impact mental stress has on the body, mental stress can also lead to burnout and poor health. 

Minimizing mental stress is one way to maximize the amount of physical stress the body can handle (and therefore the training adaptations you can get).  However, there are many, many mental stressors in the modern world.  So, what can be done to decrease mental stress?  There are a number of techniques…

o   Breathe.  Even when you’re stressed, you’re breathing.  When you’re stressed though, your breathing is more shallow and rapid.  To decrease stress, take three deep breaths.  Breathe in through the nose, pause, then breathe out through your mouth.  This technique activates the parasympathetic nervous system and decreases the stress response. 

Want to add in another step?  When taking your three deep breaths, imagine breathing out the bad and breathing in the good.  This will further help you relax and decrease your negative energy.  This may sound a little psycho, but works wonders for clearing your mind.

o   Wiggle out the stress. Everyone stores their stress somewhere.  To release that tension, try wiggling that area.  Personally, I find I hold my tension in my shoulders.  So performing shoulder circles helps release that tension.  Wiggling my jaw during stressful times in the peloton has also helped. 

o   Shift your focus. Pass a pen (or other object) back and forth (right hand – left hand – right hand). This simple technique takes your mind off the stressful situation and helps you reset.

o   Think of three things you are grateful for. As athletes, it’s easy to get too tied up into race day performance.  So, after a bad day on the bike, this can be especially difficult to do.  But be thankful you were healthy enough to compete.  Thankful you’re able to compete in the first place.  Thankful your parents don’t know you’re skipping piano lessons to compete…  There are a number of different options out there. 

o   Do something you love.  Think back to when you were a kid.  What made you smile or brought a sense of wonder?  Do that.  Maybe it’s doodling.  Maybe it’s coloring in a coloring book.  Maybe it’s playing an instrument.  Maybe it’s just spending some time looking at the stars.  Whatever it is, be sure to do some of it to help you relax. 

Take some time in the evening or after a ride, to practice these relaxation techniques.  These techniques can help you better manage stress and maximize your training.  Stress plays an important role in training but that doesn’t mean it’s got to ruin your training.  Thanks for reading!

If on a Winter's Night a Time Trialist...

Five, four, three, two, one - GO!  The 2018 Gila TT began, I pushed off, and a few out of the saddle pedals later I was down in the aero position holding myself back while adrenaline shot through my body. 

When I crossed the line 37 minutes later the moto that had been following me came up to my side and said “Nice ride dude!  I think you put at least 90 seconds into the guy closest to you.”  It turns out I had put 5 minutes into him, finished in 3rd place, and beaten my best Gila TT time by 2 minutes. 

As I stood on the windswept shoulder of Tyrone I could only ask myself where this came from?  My buddies would say it’s just my new TT bike. But the first thing that came to mind was a conversation a few months earlier when the leaves were a different color.

It started at a coffee shop with Nate in the Fall.  We wrote down some goals and one of them was making a jump in my TT performance.  We put it on paper, I agreed to it, and the commitment was sealed. 

It’s one thing to commit to something, it’s another to do it. That commitment meant actionable things that were unpleasant, like, for example, riding my TT bike.  It’s not the most fun bike to ride - you’re cramped, you’re always looking barely a few feet ahead of you, and sometimes it even meant riding the damn thing indoors on the trainer as well, which was pure misery to me.  But the ‘TT project’ pressed forward week by week which laid the foundation for a better performance.  One session a week doesn’t feel like much, but after an offseason that adds up to 20+ hours of time on the TT bike.

 Sigh.

Sigh.

Another crucial element to the TT breakthrough was strength/mobility work. If you’re an athlete of Catalyst Coaching you’ve seen the above workout (and probably been tempted to ignore it).  I’ve seen it so many times I don’t even have to watch it anymore to do the routine. In short, it’s 10 minutes of mobility/yoga that feels subjectively like a 5 hour ride.  It hits you in all the places cyclists neglect, and, if done consistently, actually really, really helps.  In the past I was notorious for my inflexibility.  I revelled in my violin string hamstrings and immovable IT bands. It turns out that being that inflexible is terrible for developing power and staying aerodynamic on the TT bike.  It took months, and I’m by no means ‘arrived’, but the painful, consistent regime of incremental tissue change gave me a greater range of movement and comfort that made riding the TT bike actually fun.

 Fit by Zack Allison at Source Endurance!

Fit by Zack Allison at Source Endurance!

Since I committed to improving my TT, I decided I wasn’t going to continue on the frankenstein rig I’d ridden in the past.  For starters, it didn’t actually fit me, which, combined with my prior inflexibility, mean that I couldn’t put down the power I was capable of or get aero - not a winning formula. After getting a bike that was my size I also swallowed my pride, stopped pretending to be a fit specialist because I read a few forum posts, and got a good bike fit.  I was skeptical how much it would help, but within a few pedal strokes of riding the bike outside it felt so much better I nearly fell off of it. 

Back to the Tour of the Gila TT.  I was in the midst of attempting the JMSR and Gila stage race double (which hadn’t been going that well) and facing my first race on the TT bike on which I’d never done well.  My mental state should have been garbage.  However, I decided the day before the TT to put aside my negative thoughts and treat every day like a new opportunity.  Warming up I threw on some tunes that spiked my heart rate and showed up to the line ready to taste blood.  Your best isn’t going to happen if you show up the line already quit.

While the breakthrough felt like magic, I have to admit I didn’t just swing my leg over the bike and pull the performance out of nowhere. I committed to improving by spending offseason time on the bike, I increased my mobility, I got my bike and fit right, and raced with a positive mindset.  It’s a beautiful thing to feel the lagging outcomes of your commitment come to fruition.

Marginal Gains or Massive Losses?

It’s 30 min before the start of the race, Jake has his aero gloves on, he’s just lathered his legs with topical sodium bicarbonate, pockets are loaded with the finest packets of glucose, fructose and caffeine, power meter calibrated, wheel choice verified as the best for this course by Best Bike Split. Jake is dialed, no reason not to win.

Flash forward three hours; Jake has just come over the second to last climb in the front group. There is a 10 km technical descent, and then we’re straight into the final climb of the day. Well, the descent. Yes, the descent. By the bottom of the descent Jake is 60 seconds behind the group he was just in. Max it on the final climb, and pick a few guys, but ultimately end up 15th. Where’d Jake go wrong? He put so much effort into every detail of his preparation and made sure all the little boxes were checked.

This fabricated anecdote may be a bit dramatized, but I think it’s something that is pretty commonplace in cycling these days. There is so much sexy, flashy stuff out there that can make us faster that sometimes the weight of these things gets skewed. Point being, all the “marginal gains” that we know and love – they’re a percent here, a percent there. Trust me, I spend much time grinding out trying to find a percent here and there, and I love it as much as the next guy. But where I continually see folks fall flat is in the ability to have the brutal honesty with their selves of, at what point does that matter?

Take Jake, in this story, for example – he’s agonized over detail after detail, to gain his self a margin over the competition. But the reality of it is, when race day came he was so bad at descending that he immediately put himself at say a 20% deficit because he couldn’t stay in the group. Maybe he had the legs to win if he’d started the final climb in the group, but starting the final climb at a 60 second deficit is hardly a “marginal gain”, more like a massive loss.

It’s certainly not a black and white, where if an athlete is focusing on marginal gains they are not focusing on some of the more technical skills – it’s always a spectrum, and everyone is an individual and chasing the result through a slightly different process. The challenge is to find the balance in the spectrum that elicits the best performance on the day. We love stuff we can quantify and track improvement in. Quantifiable facets of racing, like wattage or drag, are easy to put effort into because we can see an immediate number improvement. However, things like positioning, descending skills, etc – they may be more challenging to definitively say if they are improving or not, but they can have huge bearing on the outcome.

So while chasing some of those sexy “marginal gains”, the challenge is to allocate some of that time towards the technical aspects that also factor into performance. Take a step beyond breaking a competition just into the quantifiable components. Figure out a way to prepare for all facets of a competition.

No one should be beyond cornering drills in a parking lot, no one should be beyond racing crits for positioning practice. Closing cliché thought – that 3% just gained in the margin, will be beat eight times out of ten by the “unprepared” fella that rocks up and fights his guts out for position, and totally empties the tank. As Coach Taylor would say, “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!”.