Feel the Rhythm

The increased amount of data athletes can collect about their training has helped to push the boundaries of what we thought was possible. However, this has come at a price.  Some athletes are too dependent on data when they race.  While post-race data analysis is key for improving performance, real-time data analysis can actually hurt performance. 

The most obvious example I see of this is in time trials.  Athletes will have a power (or heart rate) number they are aiming for and will plan their whole pacing strategy around that number.  However, a number of factors can influence that power or heart rate goal:

  • Altitude – Traveling to different altitudes will alter your ability to sustain a given power output (with higher altitudes resulting in lower power outputs).  Altitude will also alter heart rate. 

  • Stage Races – A time trial in the middle of a stage race means you’ll be racing with some fatigue.  How much this fatigue influences your heart rate and power output depends on the previous races.  It can also depend on how well you’ve slept and ate the previous days which only further complicates things. 

  • Weather – A scorching summer day can reduce your ability to sustain a power output or heart rate over a prolonged time.  Producing power also produces heat.  If you produce more heat than you can lose, your body will eventually start to shut down. 

  • Power Meter Variability – 300W is not 300W on every power meter.  The offset between two power meters is not always linear either.  So swapping gear between races/seasons can create a guessing game with expected power outputs.

  • Competition Knowledge – If you know what power output your competitors will race at, you may think you need to alter your power goal to beat them.  However, aerodynamics influences performance and you may not need to race at a similar power to beat a less aerodynamic competitor.  A race situation will also (typically) increase your heart rate.

  • Nutrition – Caffeine can be great for improving performance.  But it’ll also impact heart rate and influence your target for the race.

Misjudging any one of the above factors can greatly impact performance.  Aiming for a heart rate or power output that’s too high can cause you to start too hard and blow up.  Aiming for a heart rate or power output that’s too low can result in a time that was slower than you were actually capable of. 

So, what can you do?  Learn how to race by feel.  This doesn’t mean you are not collecting data – knowing the data is a key part of improving in time trials.  Instead, just hide the data.  If you can program your computer’s display, hide power and heart rate.  If you can’t program your computer, put a piece of electrical tape over that data. 

Now you may have noticed that I specifically said to hide power/heart rate and not to hide all of the data.  Time and distance are important to know for executing a pacing plan.  Even if you don’t have these variables though, you should be able to properly pace.  In creating your pre-race pacing plan, you should know some of the course profile and markers (i.e. last climb is 10k from the finish, after making a left turn there is 3k to go, etc.). 

The ability to pace by feel isn’t going to happen overnight.  You need to get some practice.  This can be done during training.  If you’ve got a threshold interval set planned, try pacing the first half on data.  For the second half, try pacing by feel.  This will help you develop the ability to pace.

And as I hinted at above, reviewing the data after a race is key to improving.  Record how you felt and compare that to your power profile.  Did the power dramatically decrease throughout the time trial?  Then you started too hard.  If you’ve got a coach, this is where it’s vital to share comments about the race so that he or she can provide feedback on how to prepare for the next race. 

Technology is great but when it comes to racing, we don’t want to be overly dependent on it.  So, to optimize your performance, sometimes it’s best to be “old school” and race by feel. You might even find yourself having fun… Thanks for reading!

A Perspective on Injury

“Injury”, it is a bit of an interesting term. An interesting term because it can span such a range of issues, and such a range of repercussions. A scrape from a slide out in a corner is a fair injury, but so is a concussion that might keep an athlete out of training for a couple months if not longer. The implications vary, but the term stays the same. That said the goal here is not to have a ramble on semantics, rather to have a rant on dealing with injury.

I think this is a clichéd sentiment at this point, but a good starting point is the idea that most athletes are relatively good at working hard, relatively good at taking action. That brings about the first challenge in injury. Often injury calls for rest, a decisive move of inactivity. Already, I think this presents a mental challenge – athletes want to be an active participant in determining their fate, and resting can feel like taking a back seat in recovery from injury. The reality is usually different though, there may be a period of rest, but injuries often present the opportunity to do a lot of work and rehab to strengthen the body. Work that is different, and maybe not as enjoyable as an athlete’s “normal training”, but just as valuable – if not more so.

The next point of my injury manifesto; injury often happens due to a chink in the athlete’s armor. Not always. For every overuse injury there are equal or more fluke crashes resulting in a broken collarbone. But for a moment, let’s think about the case of an overuse injury, like a bout of tendinitis. The go to perspective is that injuries like that are speed bumps, a step back, something to be dealt with. At this point I’ve had my fair share of injuries, I’ve had athletes with their fair share of injuries, and I’ve come to a different conclusion. An injury presents not a short-term anchor to be shed as quickly as possible, but rather a chance to get better as an athlete. Sure, there is the mental aspect of building patience, and hard work, and etc, etc – but I think on a simpler level, there are real performance gains to be had because of injury.

As I said, I believe an injury often happens due to a chink in the athlete’s armor. Injuries like tendinitis can creep up because of weakness somewhere in the human structure, or maybe not weakness but a neural recruitment issue, or an imbalance issue, and the list goes on. The list of potential traps is long, and that is why the list of injuries is long. But when we get an injury, it throws our weakness in our face, and gives us a chance to address it. So to me, as I’ve gotten older and seen more injury – I consistently see two types of athletes with injury. There are athletes that “deal with” injury, and get back to being the way were before the injury as quickly as possible. And there are athletes that drill down and rather than trying to return to the athlete they were prior to injury, they push through the injury to become a better athlete than they were before that injury. The first injury will probably get that injury again, they’ll get through it, but it might become pretty cyclical. The second athlete might get an injury again, but it probably won’t be the same one, and it’ll further help them improve their strength. Through these trials and errors, they not only get healthy after injury, but also usually reach a higher level because of the limiters they’ve addressed.

As I stand on my soapbox, I do have to say that as an athlete myself I did not handle injury well. I sulked. I viewed it as “unfair” rather thank taking ownership of the fact that I could invest more energy strengthening my body and probably not be so injury prone. Honestly, that attitude probably was a big factor in ending my career as a cyclist. It’s funny how now that I’m a “hobby athlete” I actually invest more time in preventing injury.

So, I guess the point being injury doesn’t have to be fun. However, I encourage folks to view it as an opportunity to work towards their maximum potential as an athlete. Injury is challenging, but also some of the most valuable feedback our bodies give us. Thanks for reading. Writing a rant never gets old, but I’d imagine reading one does.

The Longest Sprint

For a sprinter to prepare for the Tour de France, is like me baking a cake (but not one of those box cakes!) it takes time, a few key ingredients, definitely a lot of patience, and also the confidence that the process is going to pay off. That said, there are a lot of different cakes – some come out great, and some do not – it takes years to perfect. It may be simple to define some of the baseline demands of being a Tour de France sprinter, however the execution is anything but simple.

Weathering the Storm

The number one objective for a sprinter, on a sprint stage, is to make it to the last kilometer of the race in the front of the race. There is a whole series of hurdles a sprinter must clear, before they can even contest the race. So before the actual details of the sprint matter, a rider must get to the start of the sprint in a position to sprint – not in 100th wheel, not in a group off the back, and ideally not even in the front of the field but with a breakaway up the road. I think of this whole, huge part of the race, prior to the sprint as “weathering the storm”.

It can definitely be argued that every race is different and the demands are different, but on a simple physiological level what a sprinter needs to “weather the storm” is the capacity to absorb 3000 to 4000 kilojoules of work, with large chunks of that occurring around FTP or lactate threshold, and some high intensity efforts along the way to stay in the field and to position for the final sprint. With the Tour de France, we certainly have to factor in that it is a 21-day race, which means recovery and ability to handle the load day to day are paramount. Sprinters are going to be preparing not just for the demands of one specific day, but also for the demands of surviving the race in general – which means a lot of climbing.

When it comes to workout construction every athlete and coach is going to have their favorite potion of choice, that gives them the most confidence in preparing to “weather the storm”. Staying with the theme of keeping it simple, here is a baseline example of how a sprinter might prepare for the aerobic demands of a sprint stage, followed up by tapping into their speed for the finish:

z2 < sprint.png

Boiled down a simple line – stay on the pedals, rack up some kJ’s, sprint at the end – focus on good form under fatigue. This is the key, make it to the race, and still be able to go fast. Certainly races vary, and there are further nuts and bolts it can be broken down into, but it’s also easy to lose the forest through the trees. So let’s make sure we’re seeing the forest before getting caught up in the trees. That is what “weathering the storm” is all about. 

Sprint Mechanics

A sprinter has sat patiently in the field for five hours “weathering the storm”. Maybe their team rode the front of the race to bring back a breakaway and give them a chance at the finish. At this point, it is time to execute the sprint, and hopefully win. The fundamental issue is that fifteen other riders and teams have similar hopes and dreams. Now we are into the mechanics of the sprint. In training sprinters may have all prepared really well, but the rider that puts out the highest peak power in the final 200 meters does not always win. The sprint goes way beyond training, beyond intervals and fitness. At the end of the day the mechanics of a sprint are about positioning, timing, a well-drilled team, and a lot of confidence to execute without hesitation.

There is a great article on TrainingPeaks already, that shows some deeper file breakdown of how to quantify the final sprint of a TDF stage, but what doesn’t show up in the file?

To prepare for the mechanics of a sprint, athletes are not sitting at the computer figuring out what intervals they need to do. They are at races, building a team, and building their specific skills. Now, one could certainly counter that any rider contesting sprints at the Tour has built their specific skills pretty well or else they would not be there. That is a fair statement. However, racing is still king for preparation. Ability to “weather the storm” is the entry fee for starting the race, but time spent racing and dialing in sprint mechanics is how to win.

The same way every sprinter is going to have their favorite workouts to prepare, they are also going to have their favorite race schedule. There is by no means one strict path. But, by the time we are watching our favorite sprinters duel it out on TV, they have been preparing their sprint mechanics for six months. A likely lead up could be:

·      January training camp, here the sprint train started to form up and do some specific lead out work – but without the stressors of actual racing

·      February may include a stage race to build some of that general aerobic fitness before getting into the classics campaign. These stage races are also a great chance for the sprinters to test their sprint train in a race setting

·      March and April probably saw some big objectives in the classics, maybe a Milan San Remo podium if things went excellently

·      As the Ardennes classics fired up in the second half of April, our sprint heavyweights were going into recovery mode, possibly before a May trip to altitude as preparation starts for the TDF

·      June includes definitely another stage race as the final preparation of both fitness, and to dial in the sprint train before the big show.

In conclusion – it’s a long process, and it comes with a high risk of failure. The sprint of a Tour de France stage may look like 200 meters on the television, but in reality it is six months (if not six plus years) long.

Acing Pacing

Time trials are called “the race of truth” because it’s just rider and machine against the clock with the fittest1 person winning.  I interpret things differently.  My interpretation is that time trials are the race of truth because if you don’t know how to pace them, the truth is, you’re going to have a bad time

We want you to have fun during time trials so let’s talk pacing.  The most basic pacing strategy is to break a race into quarters: 

1.     For the first quarter, once up to speed, settle into an effort that feels to be towards the bottom of your threshold zone. 

2.     Increase the pace a bit for the second quarter and go a little harder. 

3.     The third quarter would finally get you to 100%.

4.     The fourth quarter is laying it all out there and increasing the pace if possible (if you paced it right, you won’t be able to increase the pace until the finish line is in sight). 

Sounds simple.  The reality is that course profile and weather conditions dictate the pacing strategy.  As an example, let’s do a case study using the Tour of the Gila time trial, which has some tough climbs and is usually windy. 

Pictured is an example race-day plan using a mapping program (ridewithGPS.com) and a weather app (bestbikesplit.com is another option for creating a plan).  With the Gila time trial course, the goal is to start off quicker than you would using the above “quarters” strategy.  This is because of the fast descent after the first climb, which allows for some recovery. 

gila tt.png

After the descent, on the middle section of the course, the goal is to settle into a good hard effort.  Once to the final climb, it’s full gas.  Here, we think about the weather.  The descent to the finish is fast and has the added tailwind so it will be hard to gain much time.  As a result, the goal is to “finish” the race once the descent begins as the last 4 miles will pass by quick and pedaling will be difficult. 

Now let’s see how it went for a couple of our athletes.  For athlete 1, they started off too strong.  While they do great getting up to speed, they maintain a high pace for too long.  In this instance, the athlete felt they had to chase down the racer in front of them.  The result is their power (the purple line) is already decreasing due to fatigue by the time they reach the top of the climb.  Later in the race when heading up the final climb, they weren’t able to put out the power needed because of fatigue. 

gila 1.png

Athlete 2 does a much better job early in the race.  They are quick to get up to speed and then settle into a pace which is only slightly above what they’ll average for the entire race.  This athlete though, tackles the middle of the course too strong and is fatigued for the final climb.  Power (again in purple) starts high for the climb but fades towards the top when it is critical that the athlete gets up to top speed for the descent. 

gila2.png

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  All of these figures and data analysis are pretty daunting.  However, the concepts are really simple: know the course, know the weather, and ignore your competition so you can do your own race. 

That last point comes with a bit of a caveat.  Towards the end of the race when you’re deep in the pain cave, use the other racers as carrots to chase down.  Let that killer instinct out and you can find that motivation to push just a bit harder. 

Pacing is a bit of an art form and only gets better with practice.  To improve, creating a race-day plan and then reviewing how that plan went is vital.  And lessons learned from one race still apply to completely different races.  After reviewing the above files and talking with the athletes, they’ll be better prepared for their next race.  Just hope they don’t start behind you…thanks for reading!

1 What an embarrassing oversimplification.  While fitness is important, maybe the most important factor is aerodynamics.  It’s a discussion for a future post…

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.