Tuesday, December 24, 2013

How do you describe the act of shifting gears?

While many aspects of riding are intuitive and easy to understand, some are often very difficult or odd to explain. One thing that often causes confusion during conversation is the many ways cyclists describe the act of shifting gears. Based on feedback or occasional strange looks I get, I'd like to eliminate some confusion.

As we increase or decrease our speed on a bike, we are required to shift gears in order to continue pedaling comfortably. Describing that action to others has numerous variations. Let's see...is it shift up to a bigger gear? Harder gear? Smaller cog? Bigger chain ring? Easier gear? Do easier gears make it harder to go fast or easier to go slow? Is first gear the biggest or the smallest option. How many gears does this thing have? Argh! Now, I understand why people enjoy the simplicity of single-speed and fixed gear bikes.

Long ago, when bikes had just one gear we didn't have to worry about shifting. Bikes similar to what we have today, had one front chain ring and one rear cog. The combination of varying sized chain rings and cogs produced a unique, measurable gear. "Gear Inches" refers to the distance in inches that the bike travels during one full rotation of the crank.

Cyclists used gear inches to describe the gear they prefer or had chosen for a ride. The topic would often be discussed before, during, or after rides. "You're running 76 inches? You'll be spinning like a top during this flat ride!" Conversely, "110 inches? You'll likely need knee replacement surgery during the off-season!"

The term "gear inches" may be new to many and unfamiliar to most. Today, only track racing cyclists and single-speed mountain bikers use this terminology. Even among them, "Gear Inches" isn't often heard. More commonly, we describe gears as being bigger or smaller.

A bigger gear is one that has more gear inches or allows you to travel further per pedal stroke. When you are pedaling fast or accelerating down a hill, you shift to a bigger gear to continue pedaling. Conversely, when you find yourself struggling on a climb, you shift to a smaller gear that has fewer gear inches.

Try to avoid using the words, Hard or Easy when describing gears. They may mean the same as Bigger and Smaller but this is where the confusion begins. Let's all speak the same gear language and avoid confusion.

I use the phrases bigger and smaller gears in many of my workout descriptions. I may suggest shifting to a bigger gear to do a more strenuous pedaling exercise. I refer to Spin-Ups being done in an easier gear. Hopefully now, you have a better understanding of what I mean.

Now go correct all your riding buddies when they say all types of weird things to describe shifting. It's Bigger and Smaller and you have an understanding of Gear Inches to back it up.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Sharing My Data - Workout Progressions

As you look at your workouts over time, you may notice how they slowly evolve. Often starting with some fundamental drills or skill development. Then incorporating more intensity or personal goal-oriented purpose. These are called workout progressions.

My own workouts go through progressions. As I refocused months ago, I included longer rides simply to regain some endurance that I may have lost. I continued by incorporating long intervals towards the end of those endurance rides. I shared some of those efforts in earlier posts.

Earlier today, I incorporated another progression. Endurance rides are getting slightly longer. The efforts I add at the end are becoming more intense. I previously did numerous rides including 60-minute Tempo intervals. Although they were difficult, I had proven that I could do them and was ready for more. On this rainy Monday, I progressed by including Sweet Spot Training intervals in the last hour of a 3+ hour ride.

Sweet Spot is identified as the top of Zone 3-Tempo or lower portion of Zone 4-Threshold (88-93% FTP). A little more intense than a Tempo effort. It is significantly more difficult when doing longer intervals. Today, I did 2x25-minute Sweet Spot Training (SST) intervals within the last hour. I dealt with rain throughout the ride while an early headwind and rolling terrain created some fatigue.

I often hear feedback that it is difficult to remain within the Sweet Spot Training zone while out on the open road. Yes, it is a narrow zone of intensity but it can be done. I try to do my longer intervals on flatter routes with fewer intersections. Sometimes we simply have to improvise.

I originally planned to do a 20-minute interval. I came to a red light at 18 minutes. Nothing I could do at this awkward traffic intersection. I was forced to wait. To make up for it, I decided to stretch the interval to 25 minutes.

As I was nearing 25 minutes, I was approaching another long traffic light at a highway. I turned left before the highway intersection to finish the interval without interruption (see image). This spontaneous change in route allowed me to complete what I had set as my goal. I turned around to cross that highway during my rest period.

During this first interval, I was right at the upper limit of the zone and happy. That was encouraging. After a brief rest, I started the second interval hoping to repeat with another 25-minute effort. This time, my average power was slightly lower but still well within the Sweet Spot Training zone.

Now let's return to the topic of progressions. It is important that we complete all of our critical workouts. Just like students in a classroom, you don't continue to the next chapter of study until completing the previous. Doing so may be inviting at first but you may be missing something critical to future progress.

We have to prepare ourselves mentally and physically for each progression. We can't just dump in with 4 hour endurance rides. That could lead to overuse injuries. Trying to go too intensely too soon may cause injury plus be too mentally straining to maintain until your goals arrive. That creates an overtraining or burnout scenario. 

We start training early and train with the appropriate volume and intensity. Slack off for a few weeks and I will be forced to hold you back until you are prepared. Starting early provides time to overcome the inevitable "training distractions".

As you look at your workouts evolve over weeks and months, appreciate the progressions. They indicate that you are moving forward with your training. Ready and prepared for what I may throw at you next.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Sharing My Data - Prepare your bike for winter riding.

It may not be Winter yet, but the cold and nasty weather has arrived early. You've likely had to pull out all of your deep winter clothing already. As you fuss with how to dress yourself for the endless weather variations, consider dressing your bike for winter riding too.

As cyclocross season has just ended in our area, my CX bike went through its typical winter conversion. The fender are back on. Wet roads, snow melt, salty and dirty road spray is contained by my favorite Planet Bike full fenders. They keep me clean and dry while helping to keep the bike clean too.

I reserve two sets of wheels for the winter. One set with wider and more durable road tires. Another wheelset with CX tires for more versatility. Within minutes, I am ready to ride on paved or gravel roads and towpaths. Cyclocross bikes are great for their versatility. I often say that if I were forced to own just one bike, it would likely be a cyclocross bike.

We may notice the extra weight and sluggish feel of the bike. It is winter. We are just riding or training. It is important to maintain our ability to ride and train although mother nature is not cooperating. Feel free to reach out to me if you'd like some additional tips or guidance to make your bike more hearty this winter.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sharing my data - You don't need hills to improve your climbing.

Last weekend, I did an impromptu experiment. On Saturday, I did a workout on the towpath that included 3x5minute Zone 5-VO2 Max intervals. I was on a dirt/gravel surface using my cyclocross bike with CX tires. This combination provided some increased resistance when compared to road riding on a road bike. I recorded the 5 minute intervals and noted the average power for each.

The next day, I found myself riding in an area that I was not that familiar with. While driving to the location, I noted a long hill that I could use for training. I rode back to that hill intending to do some hill repeats.

I began the first interval without knowing how long it would take to reach the top. To my surprise, it was exactly 5 minutes. My workout just became more useful to you. How would my power on a 5-minute climb compare to the 5-minute intervals I did the previous day on a completely flat towpath with just added resistance?

I stacked the graphs and noted the average power in each interval. Click on the image to enlarge.

The top graph is the flat towpath ride.

The lower graph is the climbing ride.

All of the intervals were within my VO2 Max training zone. All were 5 minutes long. The average power for each was relatively similar. This provided some evidence to support something I've been saying for a long time. "You don't need hills to train for climbing!"

I know people who insist that they cannot prepare for hilly events or improve their climbing because of their flat geographic location. I tell them, "You don't need hills. You need creativity!" I suggest they go out on windy days in search of open roads.

A headwind or stiff crosswind will add resistance to the effort. Do the ride on a heavy bike or with some other handicap and you increase the resistance. This is how you mimic the training load experienced while climbing while in the absence of hills.

Unfortunately, there is more to being a good climber than just overcoming increased resistance. Understanding how to read the grade of a hill is critical. Planning a strategy for shifting gears or figuring out when to stand out of the saddle is important. Mountain bikers have to use bike handling skills to deal with varying traction on uneven surfaces or obstacles. You won't get the entire climbing experience while on flat terrain. So, I recommend an occasional trip to hilly terrain for those intent to improve their climbing ability.

So as you look ahead to new events or ways to improve, your geographic location does not limit you as much as you think. You just need to be creative.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Isolated Leg Training Intervals...Part 3

Yes. It takes three blog posts to break down this one workout. It can be complicated or confusing. I want you to get it right.

I created a short video to help you with the Isolated Leg Training Workout. After a good warm-up, I do a segment of time with each leg. Then pedal with both legs for a short time just to get a rhythm back and then repeat the ILT interval.

In this video, I’m doing 25 seconds with each leg. When you include the time fumbling with pedals, it takes a full minute to complete both legs. This makes it easy to use a stop-watch to keep track of how much you have done.

Coordinating your intervals with a stopwatch makes this workout much easier. My personal workout often looks like this:
01:00 start Warm-Up
10:00 Start Right Leg
11:00 Start Left Leg
12:00 Use both Legs
13:00 Start Right Leg
14:00 Start Left Leg
15:00 Use both Legs
16:00 Start Right Leg
17:00 Start Left Leg
18:00 Use both Legs
19:00 Start Right Leg
20:00 Start Left Leg
21:00 Use both Legs
22:00 Start Right Leg
23:00 Start Left Leg
24:00 Use both Legs
25:00 Start Right Leg
26:00 Start Left Leg
27:00 Use both Legs
28:00 Start Right Leg
29:00 Start Left Leg
30:00 Start Cool-Down
40:00 Complete Workout

I hope this helps you to visualize how this workout should be done. Let me know if you have any questions.

Isolated Leg Training intervals...Part 2

So now we know why Isolated Leg Training is important. How do you do these intervals properly? Here are some responses to feedback I often receive.

Where do I do these intervals? I do my best to avoid the trainer. ILTs are one of the few workouts that need to be done on a stationary bike. Pedaling with only one leg is certainly awkward and potentially dangerous. Let's try to avoid getting hurt before the season begins. Also, save yourself the strange looks as you pedal down the road like an amputee. 

Am I supposed to get this sore? Proper warm-up is crucial. We are going to be using some new muscles during the workout. It may be early in the season. The muscles may have gotten used to some time off or reduced intensity. Warm up the legs thoroughly to avoid muscle strains and excessive soreness the next day.

What do I do with my other leg? Unclip one foot and put it on a piece of furniture or on the trainer near the rear axle. Pedal with one leg for 20-60 seconds. You should be at your normal or higher cadence as you begin the interval. Your cadence will slow as you fatigue.

Is it supposed to be this difficult? Think about smooth circles. DO NOT drive the pedals down and rely on momentum to bring it back up to the top. That defeats the purpose of the workout and is cheating. Push down, pull back, pull up, push forward....Repeat.  

How much resistance should I have? If you are unable to get to 20 seconds, reduce the resistance or shift to an easier gear. If you are able to get to 60 seconds and continue, you need to increase resistance or shift to a harder gear. 

I feel sloppy. Not only are you recruiting muscles, they have to contract at the correct moment to work in harmony. The sloppiness or choppiness of the stroke is due to a lack of coordination of these muscles. This will improve with practice. If this continues, use less resistance. Allow the muscles to get used to the new movement before increasing intensity.

I'm totally confused by the timing of the intervals. One complete interval consists of riding with each leg. Then return to using both legs and regain a rhythm before beginning the next interval. Right, Left, Rest, One...Right, Left, Rest, Two...Right, Left, Rest, Three. Use a stopwatch or bike computer to coordinate your intervals and keep track of how many you have done. I do one minute with each leg followed by one minute with both legs, starting a new interval every three minutes.   

How often or how long do I have to continue these workouts? This is usually asked by those who are struggling and need it most. My workouts build upon one another each month or so. If you skimp now, I will make you pay for it later. Next month, I will be pounding you with seating climbing intervals. You will be using these recruited muscles, driving the pedals at a lower cadence, concentrating on spinning circles and remaining relaxed. After that we move on to seated climbing with explosive bursts or sprints as you approach the top of hills. It won't get easier.

I hope this adds value to your ILT workouts. Early in your training, it is time to gain form, strength, and set the foundation for future workouts. As always, do not hesitate to ask questions and provide feedback. I enjoy the opportunity to help.

Isolated Leg Training intervals...Part 1

I prescribe isolated leg training intervals (ILTs) for nearly of my clients. I often get comments and feedback. I wanted to take a moment to share some FAQ's about this workout.

In my experience, ILTs are by far the most important workout for new and intermediate cyclists. After 20 years of riding and racing, I still incorporate them into my own training routine. ILTs are short intervals pedaling with only one leg. Why are they so important and beneficial? 

Not all legs are equal. We all have some amount of strength imbalance. We have a dominant side. We also may not be symmetrical. Bone length, muscle size and strength, and hip alignment contribute to variations in strength. By pedaling with only one leg, you expose the differences between each. You can focus to improve the weaker side. For those with a severe imbalance, I recommend doing more intervals on the weaker side to correct the imbalance faster.  

Build strength, recruit muscles. ILTs are similar to a one-legged squat. When doing a squat, you are building strength. With only one leg, other smaller muscles are forced into action in order to maintain balance. In pedaling a bike, the gluteal muscles and quadriceps do the majority of the work pushing the pedals down. When pedaling with only one leg, other muscles are forced into action. The calves and knee flexors pull the crank back at the bottom of the stroke. The hamstrings pull up. The hip flexors push the cranks forward at the top. See the attached muscle use chart. 

This is the time to remember. The early-season is the time to incorporate these intervals. Build strength, recruit muscles. Correct imbalances and poor form. Then we can move on to more advanced workouts to maximize the gains made. 
Pedal in circles...Not squares. Untrained cyclists tend to have a choppy pedal stroke, pushing too hard for only a portion of the stroke. They often appear to fight the bike, rocking body and bike as the cranks turn. ILTs improve your pedaling technique. You apply force more evenly throughout the pedal stroke with both legs. More muscles are involved. When you get it right you feel a certain unity between bike and body. You may be putting in a big effort but the upper body remains still and relaxed while the bike continues straight with little effort required for balance. 

Use the element of surprise. When significant power is not required, we can ride without concern for form and technique. When it is time for a big effort, use good form to disguise your effort. Maintain the same appearance or body language while you fire up all of those extra recruited muscles. As the gap between you and your competition opens, leave them wondering how you sped away without any sign of extra effort.
I hope this provides a better understanding of why these intervals are so important. I will come back and explain how they are to be done effectively in a second message.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sharing my data - Establishing Benchmarks

As I mentioned a couple months ago, I allowed my fitness to drop pretty low this past summer. Things got away from me. Enough that it became a concern. After a few substandard Functional Threshold Power (FTP) tests, I needed to get my act together in preparation for upcoming goals.

We typically want to benchmark the beginning and end of a training plan. What was our level of fitness as we begin and how much did we improve? The FTP test is also used to establish our training zones. Those zones will change as our fitness improves. That is especially true for those training with a power meter. We repeat the test as required to ensure that our training zones are accurate. When fitness progresses at expected rates, we can get by without testing. When fitness levels becomes uncertain, we test to confirm our training zones and continue forward.

After a couple months of improved focus in training, it was time to see if I was getting myself back on track. I also wanted to create a benchmark for comparison. Benchmarks are important as we need to monitor fitness trends both up and down. How does my current fitness compare to this point in previous years. Establish a personal database of fitness levels at critical junctions on the training calendar. As with any scientific experiment, the more you repeat the test, the greater the value of the results.

My previous FTP test was September 13th. I have been training consistently since then. I did a couple recent races. Then took a few days to rest and re-energize. On Thursday, I repeated the FTP test

The result was a pleasant surprise. From April 2013 to Sept, I benchmarked a slow but steady decline of 11%. This recent FTP test result illustrated a 10% increase. That is something to get excited about.

As power is influenced by body mass, we also have to consider weight gain or loss as we create our benchmarks. A person with more mass, has the opportunity for more muscle mass and greater strength. Additionally, gravity is pulling our mass down on the pedals. Typically, higher mass creates higher power.

We know that higher mass is often a burden when cycling. Especially when climbing. Ideally, we want to increase power while minimizing body mass. The reason I mention it is because during the time between my recent FTP tests, I lost 5-7 pounds of body weight. That makes the 10% power improvement a little more exciting.

How did I make such a noticeable gain? One day each week, I did a long ride of up to three hours containing a 60-minute Tempo interval. Two days per week, I did shorter rides containing Sweet Spot Training (SST) intervals. I worked up to 4x20min SST intervals. Those are the intervals that build our engines. It is not a coincidence that I did 20-minute intervals. I was preparing to repeat the 20-minute FTP test. When you do 4x20minute intervals just below FTP, one interval doesn't seem so bad. That is exactly what intervals are for. Overload in training to stimulate an adaptation in the body. The results of the adaptation make the test, race, or event seem easier.

So, I got a little boost as I get ready to begin my next segment of training. Am I back to my old self? All race-ready? Absolutely NOT. I have not been doing the shorter and more intense efforts required in the races I plan to do. I have not been climbing which will determine the outcome of my events. I am just beginning to get race-oriented. I have plenty of work remaining to be done. I am on schedule and ready to continue.
Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Sharing my data - The race within a race...

The 6 Hours of Cathedral Pines is an endurance mountain bike race out on Long Island, NY. It is also one of the last MTB races on our local calendar. Lots of people are looking to extend their season, cash out on their long training season, or just have fun.

I had numerous motivations. There is no better way to help others prepare for a race than to do it myself. First hand experience on the course is a huge benefit. Afterwords, I can share my specific experiences to help others prepare. When you see me showing up for somewhat random races, this is often the reason why. I need to see things for myself in order to better help you.

While 2014 is often on my mind, it is too soon to become overly focused. Having just one vision or goal can often lead to overtraining and disappointment. We set up a training path towards something big in the future. We use secondary goals or events to motivate us along the way. In some cases, we mix things up to provide a "healthy distraction". That is what this race was for me.

Cross-Country and endurance MTB races were once my bread and butter. I don't want to bite off more than I can chew by doing a 6-hour MTB race. I want healthy distraction, not a death march that requires weeks to recover from. I registered as part of a Co-Ed team with a client. Sherry was also interested in checking out the event although 6 hours was less inviting. We decided share the time.

We rode the course the day before the race. Just to check things out and know what to expect. The trails are relatively flat, very twisty, and often very narrow. A non-racer may say they are flowy and fun. A racer may say they are fun but frustrating as passing is difficult.

On race day, I would start the race to manage the craziness of the start and deal with other anxious riders. I had no visions of a great finish. Just looking to gain an early position to stay amongst those racers that had their game face on. That is where I would enjoy myself and get the most out of the day.

The first lap was relatively uneventful. Lots of anxious riders gunning for the entrance to the woods. As part of a team, I could race more intensely than those doing the full 6 hours alone. I went into the woods among the leaders and things went smoothly. Actually very smoothly and I enjoyed the twisty trails. Visual overload as trees and brush fly by while you focus on the rider or two ahead.

I finished one lap and took a break. Sherry did a lap and I went back out. This time I did two laps. I was just chilling, riding fast, and enjoying the trails. Enjoyed passing a few riding buddies as they were pacing themselves for 6 hours in the saddle. When I returned, Sherry did two laps. I relaxed and caught up with some old friends around the race start/finish area.

Things got interesting for me as I checked the standings. We were once in 2nd place, had been passed, and now sat in 3rd place. Another Co-Ed team rider had passed Sherry and was only a few minutes ahead.
Finally, I get to the subject line of this email. We all have different reasons for entering a race and unique expectations. There can only be one winner. We don't always race to win. Most races I enter, I have no chance of winning...EVER! So what should we do? We create "The race within a race".

I decided that I wanted that 2nd place spot back. I got myself excited to do some real racing. No ill intentions for that other team. It was just my own private challenge. I got ready to go back out on the course. Shed some layers, fuel up, and wait patiently for Sherry to finish her lap.
In timed Endurance races, the race is decided by who can finish the most laps in the fastest time. You can't begin a new lap after the time cut-off. The anxiousness at the start is only matched when riders try to beat the 6-hour cut-off time in order to begin another lap.
I watched the clock as I waited for Sherry to return. I began the next lap not knowing if I could beat the cut-off. I now had two "Races within a race"; to pass the other team and finish this next lap before the cut-off.
It became a very exciting race for me. That is why we create the race within a race. Find something that provides a challenge, motivation, and reward. What you choose to race for is only limited by your imagination. Do better than the previous race. Finish in a higher position. Finish in less time. Help your team to succeed. Keep people from passing you. Pass as many as you can. Make the funniest face for the photographer. The options are endless. Find one that works for you.
I put the hammer down in that lap. The course had gotten worn in by all the previous riders. Ruts and berms had formed to provide better traction in corners. The leaves had been pushed aside. I pushed myself to the limit my body would give. I pushed my skills to their limit on the twisty course. I was completely race focused while having fun. I came out of the woods and towards the finish with just 30 seconds to spare before the 6-hour cut-off. My reward? I got to go out and do another lap. (sarcasm)
That 45-minutes lap was my fastest of the day. It was within one minute of the fastest time by any racer that day. I won my race to beat the cut-off. After all racing was done, we were back in second place. I won my other race within a race. Apparently, I had passed the guy from the other Co-Ed team during my fast lap. I had no idea who he was as I passed. He did not beat the cut-off time.
While waiting for awards, that gentleman approached me to offer congratulations. He shared a story of how I passed him as we each attempted to beat the cut-off. As I went by, he knew he had lost his 2nd place position but couldn't push himself any harder. His tale provided an even deeper satisfaction to my race within a race. I thanked him for the story and for pushing me to race hard to the finish.
Although I had no ambitions for a great race result, it resulted in a great race. There is always something to race for. All you have to do is create an opportunity to motivate yourself. It was a great day and one of my most enjoyable races of the year. Thanks for reading along. Now, go out and discover something to race for.