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!”.

Off Bike Training for On Bike Health

When you’re just starting off, the best way to improve on the bike, is to ride the bike.  As you get better and better though, what you do off the bike really starts to matter.  In other words, preparing for and recovering from rides makes a world of difference.  For this post, I’ll talk about some of the key things you can do. 

Strength Training.  A few years ago, a friend would always harp about doing strength exercises to prevent injury.  I didn’t listen.  It was a huge mistake…  Now’s my chance to do the harping. 

We all know that winter gym training is great for building leg strength and fixing muscle imbalances.  But that 2-3 months in the gym doesn’t hold you over for the entire year.  So, it’s important to keep doing strength exercises throughout the season. 

During the season, you’ll want to avoid high weight strength training as it can take away some cycling specific strength.  Instead, focus on body weight exercises (like squats) and core exercises to keep you comfortable on the bike (preferably compound core). Year-round body weight exercises can help maintain some of the strength gains from winter gym training but more importantly will help keep you healthy during the race season.

Yoga.  Yoga is great for a variety of reasons.  It can build strength, it can help you stretch, it can help you relax, it can make you sweat, and it can even give you another reason to wear tight fitting clothing. A variety of yoga styles exist and my recommendation is to give them all a try to see what works best for you.  Personally, with all the other things going on in my life, I prefer a more relaxing yoga style that emphasizes stretching. 

There are a number of ways to get into yoga.  It can be done at a studio or it can be done at home.  YouTube is filled with great yoga videos you can do anywhere. Here are a couple videos I like that are focused on stretching for cyclists: a shorter practice and a longer practice.

Stretching.  Stretching is great for keeping the muscles limber and allowing you to ride comfortably for long hours.  With a busy schedule, it’s easy to convince yourself to skip a stretching routine. However, it only takes 5 minutes and your body will thank you.  Be sure to stretch those quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, and your back.

One of my favorite things about stretching doesn’t actually involve physiology at all.  Stretching after a ride gives you time to reflect on your training that day so you can have better insight when communicating with your coach.  The better input a coach receives, the better they can work at getting you faster.

Massage. Massage has been shown to decrease inflammation (1) and can be another great way to get the body functioning right again.  Following a crash, a skilled massage therapist can also massage surrounding muscles to get you realigned.  This is important for bike fit and overall comfort (both on and off the bike). 

Massage can be tricky if you’ve never gotten one before.  It’s best to stay on the lighter side so that you don’t leave too sore.  There can also be some delayed soreness so if you’re not used to massage, don’t get one the day before a big race.

Now I know massage isn’t the cheapest thing.  Although they aren’t as great, there are a number of other options out there.  There are “space boots”, foam rollers, massage “sticks”, massage “balls”, and so on and so on.  These are great tools to keep at home or when traveling.  They can help flush the legs and give you something to do while watching TV. 

Keeping the body healthy is vital for optimal performance.  These workouts and recovery techniques are great for maintaining performance and aren’t going to take much out of you.  Although they may not feel physically demanding, they are just as important as the intervals you do on the bike. And as the season progresses, your body will thank you.  Your coach will thank you.  Your team director will thank you.  Heck, maybe even your mom will thank you.  Thanks for reading!

Running Away From Cycling

Running and cycling, two sports with a lot of similarities, and even in triathlon – two sports that people train for concurrently. However, there are also big differences. On a simple level – and being FAR from an expert – I think when we look at running next to cycling, with regards to metabolics, oxygen demand, and HR response, we see super similar figures and demands. Where the sports start to diverge in demands is the mechanics. Without going down too much of a rabbit hole, on a bike the athlete is limited by oxygen uptake and transport largely, with the bike taking care of the mechanics. However, running, athletes can have super different economies (how fast they can go for their internal effort), based on the mechanics of the body (tendon stiffness, technique, etc). I’d say those differences are simplified in general, and that I am far from an authority to talk on this topic.

Regardless of whether I have the authority to talk on this topic, I am super interested in it, so I am going for it. What I want to get into is – this broad topic of what are running equivalents of cycling load? What are running equivalents of cycling performance? I am super interested in this; because it’s something I’ve really chased as a hobbyist athlete myself. As a coach – it’s all about cycling for me, but as a hobbyist athlete I’ve been getting really into running. 2013 was my last year really “racing” bikes, and pursuing cycling as a priority. Since then, I’ve been slowly trying to “become” a runner.

Slowly is the key word there, and it has not necessarily been by choice. Over the past 4-5 years, I’ve played with running, and gone in and out of overuse injury. On a simple level, I think the big thing has been that I came to the bike with a bunch of that “aerobic fitness” but without any bike in between me and the ground to help translate it to speed – my poor body wasn’t quite equipped with the mechanics and structural strength to make that translation efficiently and safely, thus injury. So I think that is something that’s quite interesting already. Transitioning from cycling to running, there’s this big disconnect in what an athlete as the aerobic capacity to do and what they have the structure to absorb. I’ve heard some smart folks liken it to a chassis insufficient for the engine it’s carrying.

It’s been a slow process, but at this point, I’m running what “feels” like a pretty decent load – totally arbitrary, right? But I’m running 5-6 days a week, and not regularly getting injured – so it feels like I’m actually running. With that realization, I started to ask myself, am I running as much as I was cycling, when I was racing? By hours, I am not. But, that leads to an interesting question – how should load in these sports be compared? I spent some time perusing for research done on athletes that transitioned from cycling to running, but there is not a lot out there. Probably no one really cares, and it’s a pretty niche question – but I care, so now hear my rant! I was trying to think of a way to compare my running load to my cycling load. Subjectively, an hour of running does not feel the same as an hour of cycling, there’s no coasting. Perhaps an interesting way to look at it would be calories per week, as then you’re looking at energy toll. I don’t know – it’s something I’m playing around with, in my head. Usually doing an hour of running at endurance type RPE, I’ll burn 800-850 calories per hour, on the bike I’d burn 700-800 kJ an hour. There’s a whole bunch of ways to bring up grey area when talking about training loads between the two – elite cyclists are training for 4-5 hour events, elite marathoners are training for 2-3 hour events – so it makes sense that weekly training volume might be lower.

Back to the idea of, am I running as much as I was cycling when I was training for cycling, here’s what I thought of as a first try:

In the winter of 2011-2012, over the 16-week period from Nov 1st to Feb 28th, I averaged 16 hours per week on the bike, with my highest volume three weeks being – 25:45, 23:22, 22:52. A world tour cyclist I work with, in the same period did an average of 20.75 hours per week, with highest volume three weeks being – 30:07, 29:56, 28:57. So the number I came up with, was that regarding general volume, when I was training for cycling I was training at about 77% of “world elite” cycling volume.

To over simplify – most elite road marathoners are training in the ballpark of 180 km per week, with peak weeks of say 230-250 km per week. My past six weeks of running, I’ve averaged 88 km per week, with a peak week of 102 km. So in relation to “world elite” marathoners, it’s probably more like 48-50% of the training volume. Now, the other wrench we could immediately bring up is that elites are running faster than me, so if we look at weekly volume in time instead of distance, I’m probably closer to 60% of the volume. My general gut feeling is that if I was running about 120-130 km per week, I’d be around 10 hours of training per week – and I think that’d be an “arbitrary equivalent” to the volume I was doing on the bike back in the day.

So on one hand – I’m probably still comparatively running less, than I was cycling. But also, who is to say these relationships are linear, who is to say volume is the big driver in performance vs. maybe time at intensity, or peak times, etc. I’m not really looking for answers here, but I think it’s interesting, and I think it’s fun to think about. There really is not research out there on athletes with background on one endurance sport, transitioning into running. I’ve seen some cool research on differences in economies of athletes that are expert in one sport, when they’re doing the other. And of course you could argue that any research with triathletes is in this vein. However, I think the fundamental issue athletes run into in this transition is this engine bigger than the chassis thing – these two things have not developed concurrently.

I kind of doubt anyone has held on to this point – but I still have to put in a plug here. I’ve gone through many trials, tribulations, and just general damaging (on my body) experimentation with my pursuit of running. In the past 12 months I’ve progressed way faster than the 12 months prior to that. My average volume over six weeks from August to mid-September was 40 km per week, and as I’ve just said my past six weeks averaged 88 km per week. The big driver for me, has been getting coached by Dave Schell. He’s really helped keep me in line, not give in to my crazy too much, but also been willing to indulge my crazy and counter it with a wealth of knowledge. It’s been quite a bit of fun for me, and probably a stressor for him having to argue with me regularly. Point being, there are things I feel knowledgeable in – but the knowledge is not finite, the world is always growing, always changing, no matter how small a slice of it we’re looking at. Not just my running has grown from working with Dave. It’s good to challenge oneself and not get stuck in a way.

A bit bummed to end it on such a preachy note – but here we are. Thanks for reading, this is a fun topic for me!

I Can Feel it in my Gut

Just like the fashion world, the science world has trends.  What are the hot fashion trends right now?  You’ll have to ask Nate…  As for the latest craze in science, it’s gut bacteria. 

First, a short review on bacteria.  Bacteria are about a tenth of the size of human cells and are found everywhere in the world, including inside you and on your skin. In fact, you have more bacteria cells in and on you than you have human cells (estimates vary and go up to a ratio of 10:1 (1)).

We all know some of these bacteria can be harmful to humans.  However, some bacteria can actually be beneficial.  It’s this latter symbiotic relationship which is what science has begun to focus on.

The majority of the bacteria located on you or in you, are found in the gut.  More specifically, most bacteria (10-100 trillion) are found in the large intestine (1).  Not too long ago, we used to think all the valuable digestion and absorption of nutrients had already occurred by the time food reached your large intestine.  Now we know that’s only partly true. In the large intestine, some of the food that you weren’t able to digest actually gets digested by bacteria.

In this process of breaking down food, bacteria produce various products that can actually be beneficial to human health.  For example, gut bacteria produce short chain fatty acids which the cells of our large intestine can use as energy (2).

Researchers are also looking at how the byproducts from gut bacteria may help exercise performance.  You may remember a popular media article suggesting gut bacteria help make better athletes, which led to the term “poop doping”.  While fitter individuals do have greater gut bacteria “health” (3), the article was a little too speculative, as researchers don’t know whether one (healthy gut bacteria) causes the other (high fitness level).

No study to date has determined a mechanism for how gut bacteria can directly impact exercise performance.  That being said, gut bacteria may indirectly influence exercise performance.  For example, gut bacteria produce signaling molecules that assist with reducing inflammation and improving immune function (2).  This could help with recovery and overall health, leading to better performance (3).

So, what does “healthy” gut bacteria look like?  At this point, no research has found the optimal species of bacteria or distribution of bacteria (3).  Instead, a “healthy” gut simply has a diversity of bacteria types (4). This idea can be hard to grasp but can be better understood when thinking like an ecologist.  Maybe you’ve seen the video of what happened in Yellowstone National Park when wolves were reintroduced.  To summarize, when wolves were reintroduced (an increase in diversity), the overall health of the ecosystem improved.  The same happens in the human body. 

While a number of things influence diversity, it seems the primary determinant of diversity is diet.  Diet can influence diversity in two main ways: introducing different bacteria types and sustaining these different bacteria types.  It may come as no surprise, but the typical American diet does not promote diversity (U-S-A! U-S-A!).  Luckily changing this is relatively easy. 

To introduce different bacteria types, the idea is that you just have to eat probiotics.  These probiotics have living bacteria that can take up residence in your gut.  There are a number of ways to ingest probiotics.  Fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, tempeh, and kombucha all contain bacteria.  Probiotics also come in supplement form like pills and powders.  

Here’s where things get a little tricky.  Probiotics are great for increasing gut bacteria diversity in unhealthy individuals (or following an antibiotic treatment).  However, in already healthy individuals, the science isn’t clear that probiotics increase gut bacteria diversity (5).  That being said, probiotics have been shown to improve athletic performance.  This may be related to gut bacteria improvements but the actual mechanism is not well understood (3). 

Now it’s one thing to introduce bacteria, but the bacteria aren’t going to survive unless they get fed.  To sustain your diversity, you’ve got to feed the bacteria.  Bacteria can feed off a variety of nutrients but the optimal source is dietary fiber (6). You aren’t able to digest dietary fiber so it travels through the digestive tract down to the large intestine where the bacteria are then able to use the fiber as fuel. 

The primary source of dietary fiber is fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. There are also fiber pills you can take (often called “prebiotics”).  However, to best sustain diversity in the gut, you want to consume a diverse diet of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.  An added benefit of this diverse food intake (particularly dietary fiber), is that it also is a way to increase gut bacteria diversity (6).  The more diverse the diet, the more diverse the gut bacteria (4).

There are other aspects of diet that can potentially influence the gut bacteria.  For example, it has been suggested that animal products treated with antibiotics could influence the gut bacteria in humans (4,7).  The USDA sets rules about antibiotics based on levels that appear in the blood of humans but these antibiotics may still influence bacteria in the gut and alter diversity.  The same has been suggested of pesticides (4).  The best thing to do then, is to eat antibiotic free meats and organic fruits/vegetables. 

Now hopefully this overview hasn’t left you pooped (I held off on the puns for as long as I could…).  But just like in fashion, it’s exciting to see where this latest science craze leads us.  A lot of the research suggests gut bacteria may be the next frontier for improving overall health and possibly athletic performance.  In the meantime, keep eating those fruits and veggies.  Thanks for reading! 


The Power of No Power

10 years ago I got my first power meter. There were two "real choices" I can think of - PowerTap and SRM. There were some "other choices" - Ergometer, iBike, and probably some others I'm missing. At that point training with power was certainly popular and established, but it wasn't what it is today. Today it often feels like power meters are on bikes like bar tape - I'm sure there's some people out there riding without bar tap, but it's not really done, and why? A lotta folks are training with a power meter. I was just at a team camp, and these kiddos are rocking 3-4 different bikes, between training bikes, racing bikes, TT bikes, and they've definitely all got power meters. Well, point being - power meters are popular as hell. The pros have them, and trickle down economics is a thing. 

Where I'm going with this next is a place I believe is becoming a more popular topic lately, and one I've written on before - but today the mood is striking again. Are we blinded by data? At what point could power meters be hurting us more than helping us? My short fuse answer to both those questions is that, yes, we are blinded by data, and the point at which power meters hurt us is earlier rather than later. We (the "royal" we, of coaches, analytics software, etc) have gotten really "good" at coming up with metrics to track training loads, crunch power numbers, and generally "figure it all out". Honestly though - when I really start thinking about it, about what information is gained - it feels an awful lot like not that much information is gained, but rather it's turned into a game of synonyms. We're taking an end goal that is super simple - go faster - and breaking it up into a million different pieces. My question is, does having more pieces make a puzzle simpler or harder? I'd say harder, but that is also a metaphor and we're not trying to do a jigsaw puzzle, we're trying to ride bikes faster. 

Don't get me wrong - I am a big believer in the data, and it has a ton of value to me, but I also find myself getting more and more confused by it and having more confidence the simpler I can make a process. Here's a scenario - 5k climb, rider does a maximal effort, time of 15:24. Goes and trains for 6 weeks, does same climb again - 15:24, but cadence was up, HR was down, CTL says "fitness" is high - look at that, they're just cruising. BUT - the time was the same. OK so to me yeah, no progress. Now that's probably oversimplified, obviously maybe weather is different or something. But saying weather is the same, etc, I think one thing the limitless amount of data we have available has taught us to do is ignore the elephant in the room because we can always find some metric that says we're making progress. Surely, there is value to that - but at some point I also believe it's not supposed to be warm and friendly - the elephant in the room should be realized - sometimes progress isn't made, despite our best efforts to draw a data picture that convinces us it has.

OK - so this sentiment is common at the moment, I think. There is a reason that less people are doing cat 3 RR's, and more people are grinding gravel wearing jeans (which is another post - that can't be comfortable!). Cool is in, and maybe power meters and data isn't cool? So at the risk of trying too hard to be cool - I'd say those folks have a point. Maybe they don't have a point about it being "fun", it's not supposed to be fun - it's supposed to be snowing and uphill both ways. However, I think it's a very worthwhile challenge to simplify the task, ditch the meter, focus on going fast - which folks don't need ten metrics to judge - and make it happen. There's easily a whole other post about the benefits of riding without a meter to also train speed development that's not necessarily accomplished by just doing more watts. However, the attention span is waning, and the inbox is filling out - so rant over for today. Take up the challenge - ride a week without a power meter, without analyzing data, and tell us about it.