Friday, December 27, 2013

Fat-free, cholesterol-free, gluten-free... how about hype-free?

When I was a little boy most people simply ate whatever made sense to them, based on things like their childhood upbringing, the cost and availability of foods, ease of preparation, and personal taste. As I got a little older my mom started to warn us to avoid eating fat, and thus began a whole series of attacks on our diets, all based on sound science... or were they?

For millennia humans have, in fact, been surprisingly adept at discerning patterns; it's something hard-wired in our brains to help us survive in a hostile environment. Mothers did their best to raise their children to be healthy and strong, based on the anecdotal evidence in the lives of those around them and the advice their own mothers passed down to them. And I can easily pull up many sources of historic nutritional advice, including advice from famous philosophers.




But the post-World War II era saw the emergence of the first large-scale studies of our diet. Most famous was perhaps the Framingham Heart Study, in which 5,209 people in a small Massachusetts town were followed for many years, starting in 1948, in an attempt to uncover risk factors for heart disease. The study of Korean War soldiers followed it, along with many more. But the conclusions drawn from these studies weren't always justified.

Every time a well-intentioned study has come along, revealing some new connection between diet, exercise and health, there has always been a pattern:


  • New information is cautiously (usually) presented to the scientific establishment, suggesting a possible link between whatever and our health. 
  • The conclusion from the new study is presented in a simplified format to the general public. 
  • The media jumps on the simplified conclusion, simplify it even more, and emphasize the most controversial aspect of it. 
  • People overreact to the media stories and demonize or praise the whatever. 
  • The food industry is happy to "feed" the hype in order to sell higher-margin products. 
  • A backlash occurs, people start to question even the initial cautious scientific conclusion, and they revert back to their previous behavior. 
  • Eventually things calm down and a more sober assessment of the data results in a more nuanced approach to the whatever. 


Look familiar?

That's what happened with the war on fat: After some initial hype resulted in a decline in fatty diets and a commensurate decline in heart disease, we instead had a huge increase in type 2 diabetes as people ate/drank more carbs in place of fatty foods. Eventually people came to understand that not all fats are bad, and some are essential to our health, in moderation.

Then we had the war on cholesterol: Since cholesterol was the sticky substance that was blocking our arteries, it seemed obvious that reducing the amount of it in our diets would be beneficial, right? Well, since 75% to 80% of the cholesterol in our blood is produced by our own livers, not from the food we eat, that idea has declined in recent years as scientists have instead uncovered evidence suggesting it is really much more complicated than that, and it may be far more inflammation of the arteries that allows this blockage to occur.

That was followed by the war on carbs: After the low-fat, low-cholesterol diets resulted in type 2 diabetes people started to revert back to higher-fat diets. When the initial euphoria associated with unlimited fat intake died down (along with some of its adherents), people realized that not all carbs are bad and avoiding them altogether was not improving our health. Who would argue that the carbs from fresh fruit are unhealthy?

That's happening now with the war on gluten: After the the initial discovery of yet another culprit in our poor health, people are now questioning the value of the war on gluten. Soon all of those expensive gluten-free foods at the store will be gone, and people will revert back to regular old wheat. Yet, perhaps gluten really isn't essential to our health, and perhaps we can get the nutrients in grains from other, healthier food sources?

The wars on alcohol, coffee, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners and more continue unabated, more or less.

I believe the biggest source of this pattern of hype/rejection is that the "causality" of the issue is oftentimes ignored. That is, the conclusions from scientific studies often don't truly separate the causes from the effects. Example: Is it the eating of cholesterol in food that causes coronary artery blockage? Or is the blockage caused by something else, that in turn allows the cholesterol to accumulate? The human body is exceedingly complex, as is nutrition... when you combine those two very complex subjects into one subject you can imagine how the complexity must increase tremendously. We will probably never fully be able to separate cause and effect, but we can certainly narrow down the possible answers.

The old saying "Don't throw out the baby with the bath water" still holds true: Within those large cycles in popular and scientific opinion there are always some truths that don't change. We shouldn't rely on the popular media, our friends, family and personal trainers for advice about diet. We should rely on a cautious examination of the best possible scientific evidence when making decisions that affect our health. That means we should read the original scientific studies rather than rely on the simplified message we get from the media or others trying to profit from the conclusions.

That said, I don't pretend to read the full texts of the many scientific studies, but like all humans I am hard-wired to find patterns, and when I see a pattern I try to learn from it.

Good luck, we need it!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

My 2014 season plans

After a good 2013 season it might seem strange that I am completely changing course for 2014, but there are many reasons. 2014 is the season I am finally committing to an all-out pursuit of my strengths in racing.

Why my 2013 season wasn't a full success: 

My podium appearances at road races were in the less-competitive Masters Category 3 and 4 circuit races at CCCX. I am still not podium material in the real contests where I have to compete against talented and experienced Cat 1 racers. Years of training for this haven't changed things for me much. My placings in the other road races (usually Masters Cat 1/2/3), criteriums and even mass-start track races I entered this year weren't spectacular; even though I did consistently finish near the front I could never seem to sprint much.

When I tell people I am a pure sprinter they immediately think of guys like Mark Cavendish or Peter Sagan... they are not pure sprinters at all, but what I would call "road-race sprinters." They can ride for hours at a high speed, then sprint hard out of the huge mass of riders, something I have never been that good at as I am usually too tired from the high typical speeds. While it's true Cavendish has twice won world championships on the track it was in the "Madison" race, not track sprints at all. The more I know myself the more I know how different I am from guys like them.

Why I should change course for 2014: 

My two silver medals from the 2013 Masters State Track Championships follow the bronze medal I won in 2012; all of this was in pure track sprints. This is far more telling to me; I did well without even doing the very specific training required for these races. Well, that is all changing...

What I am doing about it: 

I am still a big believer in "riding lots," to improve in bike racing, but I am ramping down my cycling with just shorter, easier rides filling in the gaps as I feel like it... I do love riding and these moderate rides sure are a pleasant change from the pain of my old workouts. Conversely I am now starting to ramp up my gym workouts, even going so far as to pay my teammate Ed Price, a Certified Personal Trainer, to help me.

Strength training seems to be the accepted training for track sprinters (though I am still researching this topic). Currently I am doing lots of lighter weights with high numbers of reps (repetitions) to build up my strength gradually as I enter the 2014 season. Recently Ed started introducing slightly heavier weights with lower reps, and plyometrics (dynamic jumps and such) into my weekly workout with him. So far I am actually really having fun and look forward to these 2-hour sessions, much to my surprise! Who knew gym workouts could be fun? Ed's energy sure helps too.

My trusty, but sold, 2010 Felt TK2
Another step I took was to buy a new track bike, though it's actually a slightly used bike. My 2010 Felt TK2 was a nice, solid bike, but not as nice as the carbon Serenity Marvel I bought. The TK2 also had a nasty shimmy  (speed wobble) from the front wheel during maximal sprints that was frightening; several adjustments didn't fix it and I was told a larger frame would help. Buying used equipment also allowed me to upgrade to a much higher level than buying a new bike would have allowed within my budget.

My Serenity Marvel has a larger frame (57 cm vs. 53 cm) and is much stiffer (full-carbon vs. aluminum). And with the money I saved buying a used bike I was able to buy a Zipp carbon wheelset with tubular tires: a 2006 808 front deep-dish wheel and a 2005 900 rear disk wheel. Plus, the guy who bought my TK2 didn't want its wheels so I got to keep them as spares, perfect for warmups too!

My new-to-me Serenity Marvel, with Zipp wheels
One hiccup occurred early on: Shortly after I bought the Serenity I started testing it at the Hellyer Park track and I was still getting a bad shimmy during all-out efforts at high speeds (over 35 MPH). That was frustrating as that was one of the reasons I sold my TK2, and here was that same problem resurfacing. Fortunately Jeff Solt, who has coached me a little in the past, was available to help me sort the new bike out and after changing the handlebars and stem my position on the bike was what he called "...pretty much perfect. There are many sprinters who have worked a long time to get as good a position." That reassures me that if I can do everything else right I will get as close to realizing my full potential as can be expected in this imperfect world.

My 2014 season schedule: 

I plan on racing just about every single track sprint race at Hellyer that I can manage, including match sprints, team sprints, 500 m time trials, and perhaps even an occasional Keirin just for fun. Then on June 7th and 8th I will try for gold again at the 2014 Masters District Championships. And since the USA Cycling Masters Track National Championships are in Redmond, Washington this year, I will try to race there too, even if just for the experience.

I must admit that I have been moving in this direction with some reluctance, because my heart is still fixated on the glorious image of epic road racing over vast distances, up and down mountains. But I also must admit that I love to win, or at least feel like I have a a chance, and the track is far more inviting to me for that reason. And the more I explore track racing the more fascinating it is.

Now I just have to keep training properly and keep my mind aligned. Exciting stuff!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

My 2013 season retrospective

The season is pretty much all done, and it's always good to look back and see what worked, what didn't, and where to go from here.

The last couple of years I was considering returning to a "periodized" training program, as I did in the past before I joined Team Bicycle Trip and Mark's consistent, year-round FTP-focused workouts ("FTP" is "functional threshold power," one's 1-hour power). I felt periodization was best for me for a few reasons:


  • Fun! Variety is more interesting. 
  • My power levels have barely changed at all after 5 years of consistent FTP workouts. 
  • Align my workouts more with the type of racing I do: short with highly variable efforts. 


I was putting my periodized plan together last fall and happened to show it to Steve Heaton on our way back from Race Around Lake Tahoe. He was more than happy to help me flesh out the weekly program with a huge variety of workouts to choose from to suit the various periods in the season's workout schedule.

For 2013 I ended up following Steve's workouts very closely, incorporating them into Mark's team workouts whenever possible. So, where in the past I might have done steady-state intervals up the various long climbs in our area, this year I would instead make the pace much more variable to simulate the way races surge, slow down, sprint like crazy, slow down, etc.

This ended up being quite fun, as I would often draft my poor teammates and then attack around them. Since that's usually considered rude I always made sure to clear that with them first. But the upside was that I was able to stay with some of the fastest guys who would usually fly by me on those climbs, all while improving my ability to sprint and recover quickly.

I would usually do a few rides every week at L2 ("level 2") or L3 power for a full couple of hours; a nice 'tempo' pace that's tiring but doesn't cause suffering like the usual 20-minute L4 intervals. The other rides would usually involve very hard, but short, efforts in L5 or L6, separated by easy pedaling to recover before hitting it hard again, time after time.

One workout I liked was the "3x5m(30s L5/30s L2)" workout, as I wrote it in shorthand. I would warm up, then for 5 minutes I would alternate between 30 seconds in L5, then 30 seconds in L2. This I would do 3 times (sometimes with the team at the UCSC workouts), when a given week called for this type of workout. Another was in L3 with L6 sprints every few minutes, with no recovery, followed by a few sprints. The hardest was a "3x10m(15s L5/15s L2)" workout (if you can decipher that you will see why!).

The result? My best season since 2007! I had two 1sts at the CCCX circuit races, two 2nds, several other podiums, some track 1sts, plus two silver medals at the Masters State Track Championships.

Interestingly my results for criteriums weren't that good (my best was 11th at the Masters State Criterium Championships), nor in mass-start track races (I got 4th in the Masters State Track Championships scratch race). I thought I'd do better... but I have learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses and how I respond to training.

Mostly I have to acknowledge that I am a pure sprinter. So much so that when the pace is high I am too tired to sprint very well. I have known this a long time, but this year I have had to finally accept that no amount or type of training will change that.

That's OK; knowing all of this helps me decide on a course that will best suit my potential, instead of trying to be what I am not. So... on to 2014 and a whole new beginning for me!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

For Sale: Felt TK2 track bike

My trusty Felt TK2 is for sale!
I bought this bike new at Bicycle Trip in Santa Cruz in 2010 and put about 900 miles total on it, all on Hellyer's banked ovals. It has never been crashed and has never had any damage or repairs needed. The paint is very nice, with only a few tiny scratches. 

This is a size 54 cm complete bike (except pedals), suitable for riders about 5'5" to 5'9" tall. It's ready to race on the track or convert to a street "fixie." It has a flippable rear wheel with provisions for either two sprockets (one with a lockring) or a single-speed freewheel and a sprocket with a lockring. The fork is also drilled for mounting a front brake. 

These strong aluminum-frame bikes are popular with good reason. Mine is entirely original (other than a tire that had a seam split; I replaced it with a Vittoria Corsa Evo CX). I can sell it with either the original 15t sprocket, or a 14t or a 16t. 

For the full specs, see Felt's 2010 TK2 page.

The 2010 model's MSRP was $1399, the 2013's MSRP is $1859. 

I live in Santa Cruz and can show the bike at the Bicycle Trip shop where I bought it, but I can bring the bike to other places and in Santa Clara Valley. Please email me to arrange a time and place.

Update: It is SOLD! 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Yes, Virginia, there really is a fat-burn zone

Way back when, some personal trainers came up with the concept of a "fat-burn zone" training intensity; a work-rate designed to match your body's optimum ability to burn fat for muscle fuel. I think it was intended to make workouts easier for their lazy clients. Like usual, some others disparaged that concept and ridiculed it saying there's no such thing as "fat-burn zone." So what should we believe?

I stopped believing in the fat-burn zone after reading articles from the naysayers, like Marc Perry's "The Fat Burning Zone Myth: Don’t Be Fooled." To me it seemed like the answer was closer to a simple "calories in vs. calories out" formula; ride harder to burn more calories. Certainly if you have limited time then that makes sense; even if you believe in the fat-burn zone, who has the time to ride for hours at a moderate pace?

Then I was on a group ride with USA Cycling Pro Road Race National Champion "Fast" Freddie Rodriguez in which he mentioned several times that most of his riding involves lower-intensity fat-burn riding. Eh, a seasoned Pro believing in these myths? OK, let's first agree that being a Pro doesn't mean he knows everything (and may mean he has lots of time available for longer rides). But still, clearly whatever he was doing seemed to work well for him and maybe I needed to revisit the subject (something that I had turned over in my mind countless times anyway).

So, the naysayers will tell you that working harder burns more calories per hour, which is true enough and not in dispute. But if you visit Marc's article above and read the chart there, do some calculations and ponder it a bit you may start believing in the fat-burn zone after all.

According to Marc's chart a 30-minute workout at 75% intensity burns 140 calories from fat, while a 50% intensity burns 120 calories from fat; OK, true enough, but that's almost the same results with far less suffering! And we can ride at 50% much longer without depleting ourselves. Heck, we might even have some muscle glycogen left afterward so we can do some higher intensity training the next day. Note that I wouldn't advise only doing moderate "fat-burn" rides regardless... since we all want to get faster we need the higher intensities too.

But, hold on, what's this "afterburn effect" he mentions later? It seems higher-intensity workouts cause our bodies to burn more calories after the workout is done; perhaps more than we burn during the workout. This reflects the energy we burn later on to repair and otherwise recover from the workout itself. According to the article "39 calories burned for the cycling group [from 3.5 minutes] vs. 65 calories burned for the sprinting group [from 45 seconds]."

One problem with the afterburn effect cited in his article is that he cites two different studies to reach his conclusion: One studies 30-minute workouts, another studies 45-second and 3.5-minute workouts... I don't think it is logical to apply that to the typical hours-long rides we cyclists use for even higher-intensity training. The afterburn effect is far more applicable to weight-training, I would think, as it reflects the massive amount of energy the muscles require for fiber repairs and the extra energy required to replace the spent glycogen (your body doesn't replace burned fat unless you eat too much, so I bet that also explains the lower afterburn from a lower-intensity workout).

The article refers to another article which states “If you're working your muscle to the point where you're causing damage at the microscopic level, it's going to take energy to repair that." And "We have a long way to go before we understand this [afterburn effect]." In fact, I would say Marc's article is severely flawed as a guide for most cyclists, as nobody can do 100% sprints for more than a couple of minutes total. And we don't usually train sprints more than once a week (if at all).

When we cyclists do high-intensity workouts we need to burn lots of glycogen. Many cyclists eat gels and drink energy drinks during their rides to avoid depleting their glycogen... and then wonder why they aren't lean. Perhaps it's because if we deplete our glycogen and then replace it immediately with carbs, can we really lose much fat? And the afterburn effect from our typical rides, even the higher intensity ones, can't possibly come close to what the article cites (unless you're doing standing-start track sprints, e.g.).

Even the most ardent cyclists I know (including some State and National Champions) don't ride more than about 3.5 hours a week at higher intensities. And that's still far more than the 45 seconds Marc uses for proof of his conclusion.


  • If you ride 8 hours a week in the 50% zone you will burn 1920 calories from fat (about 1/2 pound). 
  • If you ride 3.5 hours at 75% you will burn 980 calories from fat (about 1/4 pound). 


Never one to rely on one source, another article, on About.com, shows that upping the intensity from 60-65% to 80-85% only raises the fat burn from 73 calories to 82 calories per 30 minutes.


  • If you ride 8 hours a week in the 60-65% zone you will burn 1168 calories from fat (about 1/3 pound). 
  • If you ride 3.5 hours at 80-85% you will burn 574 calories from fat (about 1/8 pound). 


So these articles don't agree on the exact amounts, but they do show the same trend of the lower fat-burn from shorter, higher-intensity rides. Plus, you will burn some fat from the afterburn effect either way: Both intensities do have an afterburn effect, it's just exactly how much that's in dispute. I suspect the amount isn't that different for cyclists at typical intensity levels. Now, weight-trainers would have a larger effect, as I read it.

So, to burn fat cyclists need to work for long periods at an intensity they can maintain for that period. It has worked well for me; I spend almost all my time in lower intensities and consistently measure between 6% and 9% body fat. Even my tougher workouts are typically 90 minutes sub-threshhold ("recovery" and "endurance"), and perhaps 10 minutes at higher intensities.

OK, I'm no expert, but read the articles above and decide for yourself. I think it's likely Marc really had weight-trainers in mind, and we readers may be guilty of applying the results from a set of studies to cover sports they weren't even addressing.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Converting back to pure sprinter

Five years ago (how time flies!) I decided to get smart about my training and embarked on a long-term diet of aerobic-threshold intervals. I knew then that this would diminish my sprint power some, but I hoped the improved endurance would benefit me in long races, especially with climbs, and allow me to be fresher for the final sprints. All of that training, over the last five years, was designed to improve my weakness: endurance power.

Three years later I had, in fact, improve my endurance power... by a small amount, maybe 5 watts as the graph on my later post shows. My hope was that even that would've been enough to allow me to do well in some road races. I did win some races and upgraded to Category 3. But the jury is still out on the question of whether that training truly helped me.

I knew, going into that training program, that I might be a "non-responder" to aerobic-threshold training. The proportion of one's muscle-fiber types can help or hinder one's response to certain workouts. If one has too much of the "fast-twitch" ("type 2b") sprinter's muscle fibers they won't convert to "slow-twitch" ("type 1") endurance fibers. Thus, pure sprinters are non-responders to that training. Had my muscles had more of the in-between "type 2a" fibers I could've been a "responder" obtaining good endurance combined with the ability to sprint. As I started to suspect back in 2010, my muscle fibers are most likely heavily skewed toward the type 2b fibers typical of pure sprinters and endurance races will never be my forte. But I had to try.

Endurance power is still my weakness, and sprinting, my strength, is now slower. As my competition gets faster my training and racing needs to play more to my strengths; nobody wins with their weakness at higher levels of competition and my recent wins have all been on the banked oval track. Now I have to try a new tack; train my strength. To quote an expert: "Popular wisdom believes race your strengths, train your weaknesses; but the most effective coaching programs tend to operate in a tight range of capitalizing on one's strengths." All those endurance workouts destroyed my sprint power and now it will take time to rebuild it; a few more years maybe for the type 2a, but probably not so long for the type 2b. At this rate I'll be 70 before I figure all this out!

But as I've said before, knowing my strength is no guarantee that I can excel in that area. My biggest concern is that I am too small to be a good sprinter. The top track sprinters tend to be rather large (though big is no guarantee of success either: witness Robert Forstemann, a massive guy who yet didn't podium in the Olympics). But I won't know how far I can go until I really apply myself to that area of specialization. And track sprints sure are fun!

I recently hired a coach who is a track-sprint specialist and I hope this can help me get answers to my constant questions and save me some time. For now he has set up a program to help me do better in criteriums with more emphasis on short intervals and no more long hill climbs at threshold.

But, if I can swing it, he may be able to help me on the track going forward. That program would drastically change how I ride, train and eat. My rides would be shorter but much more intense. My training would likely include lifting heavy weights in the gym. My meals would cut out carbs (and probably be healthier!). This seems to be pretty standard approach for track-sprint training.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Year-end overview time!

Many experts seem to agree that having realistic, achievable and measurable goals helps us to progress in whatever area of our lives we choose to focus on. Last Fall I never posted my goals for the 2011 cycling season, but I should've, because they'd make me look successful!

My 2011 season goals could have looked like this:

- Win a race at the velodrome. Done.
- Upgrade to Cat 3 on the track. Done.
- Improve my tactical sense. Done.

Ok, that's after the fact, so not really what the experts would approve of. Had I actually set goals last Fall, I probably would have made one be to win a road race or criterium. Still, I feel good about my 2011 season.

For my 2012 cycling season, I want to:

- Win some more track races: It will be difficult, given I now race against faster guys.
- Improve my power: Unlikely, but maybe getting bigger (muscles, not fat) would help.
- Beat 3 hours in Race Around Lake Tahoe: We were 3:02 this year.
- Help promote a race, probably at Hellyer velodrome.

Let's roll up our sleeves...