Originally written for RaceCenterNW Magazine.
Everyone has heard the old adage: "before you do intensity, you need to build your base." While there are a few things to consider between individuals and training plans, that's basically true. Base training lays the foundation for the training and racing that follows, allowing you to reach your target events fully recovered and in top form.
Think of your fitness as a house. The attic is peak form – the very top. The second floor is high-level VO2Max fitness, while the first floor is LT (lactate threshold) fitness. In order for all of this to stand up and for the structure to be solid, it needs a good foundation. Your aerobic base is the foundation for your "fitness house."
So, does this mean that you ought to spend the whole winter riding around at nothing above your Endurance Level (often referred to as Level, or Zone 2)? It most certainly does not. What it means is that the bulk of your aerobic training, whether it is swim, bike or run, should be at your Endurance Level. It's still important to do a bit of LT and VO2 work in the base-building period, because doing those boosts your aerobic fitness and also your ability to recover between workouts and, eventually, races. This can be done either in your primary sports, or in the gym, or even with some cross-training.
Let's have a look at what a typical Base Period week might look like. Monday is almost always a good day to take complete rest, after the weekend of long endurance workouts. On Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, take an easy (Level 1) day. On the other two, choose one and make it your LT or VO2Max day. It's only necessary to do one day per week of this type of training, at most. Also, it isn't necessary to do more than one or the other in a given week – alternate weeks with one containing an LT workout and the next a VO2Max workout. Then, take Friday off and relax. You'll be well on your way to building a solid endurance foundation.
Originally written for and published in RacecenterNW Magazine.
It's easy to pick the experienced riders out on virtually any group ride. They're the ones who sit relaxed in the saddle while pedaling in smooth, quick circles, seemingly without effort. They have an economy of motion borne of years learning to be as efficient as possible. These riders have mastered one of the keys to cycling efficiency – cadence.
Much fuss has been made about cadence in recent years and, upon examination, it's easy to see why. In cycling, power is torque multiplied by angular velocity. That is, a rider creates power through pedal force (torque) and pedaling speed (angular velocity). One can create more power by pedaling harder or by pedaling faster.
Most of us have a natural tendency to turn over the pedals at a relatively low speed (70-90rpm). It's manageable, steady, and it makes us feel like we're working hard. In fact, we are working hard – harder than we should be! It takes a relatively high amount of muscular power to turn the pedals around at low cadences. Since our muscles hold just a couple of hours' worth of fuel, pedaling at a low cadence only works until our legs fatigue, at which point our race is effectively over. So, pedaling harder works well, but only for a short time.
As endurance athletes, we have a high level of aerobic fitness relative to muscular strength. Pedaling faster effectively takes the stress away from our muscles and transfers it to our aerobic systems. A high pedal cadence leverages the aerobic fitness that our sports already give us, thereby saving our muscular strength for when we need it, such as on steep hills, rollers, or sprints. Pedaling faster allows us to be more efficient and, therefore, better athletes.
Now that you're convinced that you need to pedal faster, how do you go about doing it? In a word: practice. Pedaling at lower cadences trains your muscle firing patterns to do exactly that – pedal slowly. After some time, you're optimized for it. The way to optimize your muscles for higher cadences is to practice those. Start with your warm-ups and cool downs – set a goal of 90+rpm during those times and track it. When you've mastered that, raise your goal to 100rpm, and so on. When you've mastered high cadences in warm-up and cool down, begin, if it doesn't already come naturally by now, to focus on integrating it into your workout sets. Before long, you'll be more efficient, with less muscular fatigue – and a better chance of reaching your goals.
Originally written for and published in RacecenterNW Magazine.
Everyone knows that it is important to take rest days before one's target events. However, regular rest days are a critical part of any solid training program. On the surface, it may seem like a silly question, but what exactly does "rest" mean, and how does it work for different athletes?
In a word, training is adaptation. Doing your workouts provides a training stimulus, and the body's response is to adapt to that load. The time when the actual adaptation takes place, however, is when you are resting. This is why pro athletes often nap after workouts, or do two workouts per day – the rest allows them to recover better so that they can get more out of the next training session. Rest speeds their adaptation, thus making them stronger, faster.
As logical as that may seem, many athletes don't make the most of their rest periods. Most of us have obligations outside of athletics – school, family, chores – which make rest a secondary consideration. Also, it's our natural tendency to treat training as training and rest as wasted time. The first step to optimizing your rest is to think of it as the time in which you get stronger.
Next, figure out which training/rest ratios work best for you. This depends on 1) your rate of recovery and 2) the type of workouts you are doing. For example, if you're an athlete that is endurance-focused and you're doing a lot of short, hard intervals, you may need more time to recover and benefit from those intervals than if you're simply doing lots of long endurance miles. Generally, a 3/1 ratio of days on to days off is a good starting point. Some athletes find they increase their fitness more effectively on 2 days of training to 1 day of rest. Experiment and find out what works for you. Keep in mind that this ratio can change with your training phase and with age.
Finally, when you rest, you should truly be resting. Things like going hiking or waterskiing are not rest day activities. A perfect rest day is a day on which you do a whole lot of nothing, stay nicely hydrated, eat well-balanced meals, take a nap or two, get a massage, and go to bed early. This may be impractical most of the time, but it's nearly always possible to do at least a few of these things.
There are also a few things you can do to increase your recovery, like simply not spending too much time standing up or outside in hot sunshine. Simply put, the easier you make it for your body to make the most of your training, the more you will get out of that training. Optimizing your rest is optimizing your training!
One of my favorite bike-related radio shows, Chicks on Bikes Radio, has gone off the air. I was one of many guests on the final show. Have a listen right here:
-originally published in RaceCenterNW Magazine
When endurance athletes talk about training, a phrase that often comes up is "junk miles." There is a fair amount of misunderstanding about what junk miles are and what they mean to an athlete. They're often thought of as wasted time, and certainly that's the connotation the words bring. Junk miles are simply time put in that doesn't have a specific training purpose. Just because they may not have a training purpose, though, doesn't mean they are always wasted time.
If you've got a tight schedule or limited time in which to train, which most of us do, it is important to make the most of your training time. This doesn't leave a lot of time for leisurely riding or running around. When you do that, it ought to be for recovery purposes – short and very easy. Otherwise, just riding or running around is a bit junky.
Some athletes respond very well to volume. If you're one of them, you've probably noticed that, even without a lot of intensity, your fitness changes in a positive direction. Riding, swimming, or running extra distance reaps rewards and, more importantly, doesn't cost you in extended recovery time. If you're like this, then extra mileage may well be beneficial to you.
It's important to remember that, even in the context of training, as amateur athletes we do what we do because we enjoy it. Whatever your chosen sport, it's likely that you got into it for fun in the first place and became competitive later. Hopefully, you didn't lose sight of the former. Junk miles, for all their dubious physical benefit, help us remember this. They help us remember that what we do can be pure pleasure and isn't always something we have to measure, weigh, and judge the benefits of. We do it because we love it.
Most of the time, racing is a one-day endeavor. Once in a while, though, there will be two events you will want to do on the same weekend; or perhaps, if you're a cyclist, you will do a stage race over several days. How do you shift your training and focus to get the most out of your performance in these events?
Since you will have to perform at a high level on successive days with little rest, your training should include that. The foundation of all good multi-day results is a solid endurance base. Once you have that, you can build intensity into your training blocks. These blocks should be at intensity similar to what you will experience in your event. So, for example, instead of doing a 3-day block that looks like this,
AC Intervals (high intensity)
where you have an easier Endurance day followed by moderate intensity, your block should look more like this:
SST (Sweet Spot Training – 87%-93% of LT)
In this block, the 3 days are all tough and include high intensity in the middle. You can tailor the training to your strengths and weakness to get the most from it. For example, if you are suited to SST and LT-type efforts, leave those to the last two days and do your AC high-intensity work first when you are relatively fresh. Challenge yourself and push your limits – this is what makes you stronger and able to dig deep on multiple days.
Another important aspect of multi-day event preparation is your taper. For single day events, it's normally good to taper lightly, but "keep the engine running" with some hard work leading to the event, a bit of rest, and then openers the day before. If you're racing for several days in a row, though, that will take valuable energy that you ought to be saving for those days. Instead of a day or two of rest followed by openers, try instead to taper by taking several days off in the week prior to the event followed by an easy spin the day before, just to wake the legs a bit. Your schedule might look a bit like this:
Monday – off
Tuesday – Easy
Wed – off
Thursday – Easy
Friday – Saturday - Sunday - RACE
Finally, you'll want to pay special attention to your nutrition in the weeks leading to your event. Since you'll be depleting your reserves over multiple days, it's important to get to the event with a full tank. Your taper and rest will help with this, and you'll want to remember to stay well hydrated and with a good mix of nutrients. Eat your veggies and don't over indulge in pasta or heavy grains. You'll want to start the races feeling light and fresh – not fatigued because your body is using lots of energy to digest the heavy dinners you've been eating.
With a bit of forethought and planning, you'll be able to perform at your best over multiple days, whether it is two Olympic Tris in a row or the Cascade Classic.
-originally published in RaceCenterNW Magazine
Last January, I wrote about the importance of a proper warm-up and I mentioned that I would continue the theme with some information about race and climate-specific warm-ups. As spring heads into summer, and the racing season is well underway, now is a good time to do just that.
How you warm up depends primarily on three things:
1) The type of rider you are
2) The type of race you're warming up for
3) The weather (no joke!)
The best warm-up for you is the one that suits your characteristics as a rider. For example, If you're sprint-averse and go well over steady, long efforts, then your warm-up should consist of work like that and not a series of sprints. If you're a rider suited to shorter hard efforts, like sprinting or cyclocross, then you are likely to benefit from a warm-up that plays to those strengths. The type of rider you are will be what you base your warm-up protocol on.
Next, consider the type of event you're warming-up for. A good rule of thumb is that, the longer the event, the shorter your warm-up needs to be. If you're about to do a 5km prologue or a Kilometer event on the track, your warm-up may be up to an hour long, whereas if you're going to do a randonnée or Ironman event you may not need to warm-up at all.
Finally, it's a good idea to consider the weather. Cold weather means cold muscles, so a long, deep warm-up is beneficial. Always keep your muscles covered and warm, even if you're on a trainer. You're trying to optimize your performance, and energy expended keeping you warm is energy you won't have for your race. Hot weather changes the picture completely. As an endurance athlete, heat is the biggest obstacle to top performance, so it's often best in very hot weather to not warm-up at all. Better yet, warm up as usual and wear a cooling vest to keep your core cool prior to your event.
Here are a couple of basic warm-up protocols, one for riders with strong endurance characteristics, and one for riders with good sprint characteristics:
Endurance: Start out with an easy 10 minutes, then gradually ramp up to an LT (Lactate Threshold) effort over 10 minutes – the last 3 or 4 mins should be at LT. Following 5 minutes of easy pedaling, do another 5 minute progressive build to LT effort before a final 5 minutes of easy pedaling.
Sprint: 10 mins easy pedaling, then 3 x 1 minutes hard (L5), with at least 5 minutes of easy riding between each. Then do 3 x 30 seconds hard sprints, with 5 minutes between.
Use the above protocols as your basis and adjust them for your event and the weather. As a cycling coach, I find that every athlete is different, so you may need to change things a bit to suit you.
Once the domain of a few pros and well-heeled amateur nerds, power meters are now common in cycling and triathlon. When used properly, they're great not only for helping you and your cycling coach optimize your training, but for helping you pace yourself during your target events.
If you have been training with power, then you know what your FTP (Functional Threshold Power) is as you approach your event. In theory, if you tapered properly and don't have any extenuating problems on the day, you ought to be able to hold this power for roughly one hour. So, with this in mind, set a target that's achievable. If your event is a short prologue TT, you'll be able to hold a power number higher than your FTP – perhaps up to 105% of FTP. If it's a 50.3 Triathlon, you'll be on the bike for more than 2 hours following a swim and preceding a run, and should plan accordingly. For an event like that, you'll ideally keep your power in the high Tempo range – about 80% of your FTP.
The golden rule of timed solo events is: don't start too hard. It's far too easy to do, and the cost is very high, as your power data will clearly show. Take your time and work into your effort. Plan on starting at no higher than Tempo (86%-90% of FTP) for the first 5 minutes; then, work your way up to full effort over the next 3 to 5 minutes after that. It sounds easy to do, but in reality the thought of cruising along at L3 (or below if your event length is measured in hours) for more than a couple of minutes is enough to leave even the most patient racers feeling like they are throwing away valuable time. In fact, by not starting too hard, you're ensuring that you don't waste time riding below your FTP after you've started too hard and blasted your legs full of lactate. Think of it as unrolling a carpet – at first it is slow and heavy. As it unrolls, it goes progressively faster until it lies flat.
How does one best monitor this sort of effort? Set your power meter's head unit to show Normalized Power (NP), and hit the lap button as you start. This accounts for undulations in the course, corners, etc. Remember: ideally, it will start low and gradually increase. Focus on your effort, keep an eye on the numbers and with careful pacing you'll ride your way to your best bike split ever.
As a cycling coach, I am often asked about how to prepare for racing in extreme conditions. In hot weather, heat is your biggest enemy. Recently it has become normal to see pro cyclists warming up for time trial stages on trainers, stripped down to their base layers, water bottles in hand and towels draped over the handlebars. What has changed is what they're wearing. When preparing in warm weather, they will now wear ice vests or "cooling vests" from manufacturers like KewlFit. These vests contain removable chemical cool packs designed to help keep the wearer's core body temperature stable during warm-up. The idea behind this is that, while it is important to warm up one's muscles prior to a hard effort, increasing one's core body temperature is detrimental to performance. A cooling vest allows the athlete to warm-up without overheating and compromising their effort.
There is solid science behind the idea as well. Studies have shown marked hot weather performance increases in pre-cooled athletes (Sigurbjörn Á. Arngrïmsson, Darby S. Petitt, Matthew G. Stueck, Dennis K. Jorgensen and Kirk J. Cureton, 2004, Cooling vest worn during active warm-up improves 5-km run performance in the heat, J Appl Physiol 96:1867-1874 and Webster J, Holland EJ, Sleivert G, Laing RM, Niven BE, 2005, A light-weight cooling vest enhances performance of athletes in the heat, Ergonomics 48(7):821-37). The methodologies vary, with some studies using vests, and others using cold baths and/or ice beverages. The most practical pre-cooling technique for most cyclists, however, remains a cooling vest.
So, how do you pre-cool? It's simple – strip down to your base layer (or bare skin) and wear a cooling vest while you do your normal warm-up protocol on the trainer or even on the road. Make sure to also drinking cold fluids and set up your trainer in the shade. In extreme heat, without a cooling vest, it's often better to skip your warm-up entirely. The heat you generate by warming up will only contribute to overheating and become a detriment to your performance. Wait as long as possible before removing your vest, and store it in an insulated bag (often included) so that you can use it to cool down afterwards. Stay cool and you will perform better.
This month I had the pleasure of co-hosting another great edition of Chicks On Bikes Radio. We talked about fit issues related to women and interviewed five great guests:
- John Cobb of Cobb Cycling – fitment and aerodynamics legend
- Annie B. of SheVolution Fitness – women's fitness advocate and consultant
- Joe Holcomb of WestEnd Bikes – master bike fitter
- Jennifer Reither of Team Vanderkitten – professional cyclist
- Jill Gass of Revolution Coaching – coach and women's cycling advocate
It is a great show and well worth a listen:
-originally published in RaceCenterNW Magazine
It's likely that it has happened to you. You're late getting out the door and you're pressed for time. You start your interval workout straight away. About 30 seconds into the first interval, your legs are leaden, your breathing is labored, and the metallic taste in your mouth is telling you that you went too hard, too soon. You didn't warm-up.
These uncomfortable sensations are your body reminding you why it's important to warm-up properly – to prepare yourself before the real work begins. Several things happen when you ease into exercise – your muscle and body temperature increase, your blood vessels dilate, and there are slight hormonal changes. Warming up your muscles allows them to contract and release more quickly, giving you faster response and better recovery (no leaden legs!). The dilation of your blood vessels reduces your relative blood pressure, enhances flow to your capillaries, and increases your body's ability to cool itself, while hormonal adjustments optimize your body's ability to use carbohydrates for fuel.
A good warm-up is easy to do. For run workouts, walk briskly for 5 minutes, then run progressively harder over a 5 minute period, so that your last minute is at your Threshold (half-marathon) pace. For bike workouts, spin easily for 5 minutes, then do 5 fast-pedal efforts (100+rpm) for 1 minute each, with 1 minute between efforts. Alternatively, after your initial 5 minute spin, ramp up to your Lactate Threshold heart rate (or power) over a period of 5 minutes. Spin easily for another 5 minutes and then you're ready for your main set.
All of this adds up to better high-level workout performance as well as recovery between hard efforts. It also means that you recover better day-to-day as your body doesn't spend as much time getting rid of the excess waste products that saturate your muscles when you go too hard too soon. Thus, when you warm-up properly, you can train more effectively each day, and get stronger faster!
In a future article, we'll talk about race-specific and climate-specific warm-ups.