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!”.

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!