Monday, December 17, 2007

The butterfly effect, for cyclists

More fun with numbers! Just to see how much of an effect a very small change in equipment can have on my test rides up Old La Honda Road, I tried recalculating my power and such, factoring in tire rolling resistance for the two different sets of racing tires I currently use, using data from tire tests published here:

Why? Because I may have used different tires for my two tests up Old La Honda Road. No big deal, right? I mean, how much difference can tires make? My second climbing test up Old La Honda, which should have been faster, was actually about the same, and I keep wondering whether to care or not, and what could influence the results. Well... I can't remember when I actually switched tires, but this could illustrate how significant just one small change could be:

When I enter the climb data for Old La Honda Road in Tim Clark's new online climbing tool and assume that I used my Vittoria Open Corsa Evo CX tires (Crr of 0.0039), and weighed 154 lbs for the first test resulting in a time of 19:50 minutes, I get 301 Watts as my required power.

I know for a fact that I used my Continental Grand Prix 4000s on my second test (using data for the 3000s, which are similar; Crr of 0.0067) and weighed 151 lbs, and this gave me a time of 19:55 requiring 305W. That is 4W more required power than my first test, just from these tires, in spite of me losing 3 pounds of body weight! Wow! I guess I won't use the Continentals for racing any more!

It is interesting to see that my tire change alone could skew the results that much!!! Never mind headwind, temperature, breakfast and such. I wish I could confirm that I used the Vittorias for my first test, but I didn't make a note of it and now I can't remember. But it's likely that I did.

So, I could be getting more power through my new training, and I need to not worry. Not that I really was, I was merely curious, right? :-)

Bone-density loss in cyclists

This is a real issue for endurance cyclists, in particular, and can cause brittle bones through osteoporosis, in both women and men, over time. The high sweat losses we go through flush out a lot of calcium, but other things also increase our calcium losses. I wonder if the common collar-bone (clavicle) snapping going on at our local races is due more to brittle bones, not just thrashing racers eager for a sprint finish victory.

One thing I've been doing to prevent bone weakening is following the Paleo Diet. One of the concepts it covers is blood acidity vs. alkalinity. Acidity leaches calcium from your bones, and many things can raise blood acidity including hard excercise and also many foods. I always try to balance acid-raising foods with alkaline foods whenever I eat. Sounds complicated, but it's as basic as eating vegetables with your meat, for instance. Spinach, interestingly, is one of the most alkaline foods around (Popeye was right!), and helps prevent blood acidity and resultant calcium loss (and helps you in other ways too). I eat spinach almost every day. I also take fish oil, in part for vitamin D but also for Omega-3. Eating alkaline foods after a hard workout is a great way to go too (try raisins or a banana!).

Another thing I've been doing is some gym training. Very basic, 15 minutes 2 or 3 times a week, using mostly just body weight and light weights. For my legs I also do squat jumps or bench jumps. Just silly-looking jumping for a minute or so. Mountain-biking helps too.

I had my bone density measured last year and it was quite high (the test person was impressed!). The test is very easy and involves a device that gently clamps over your heel bone and measures the density in that area.

Ordinary folks should pay attention to all of this, but we cyclists especially should. Other studies have shown that extremely athletic people don't live as long as those who excercise more moderately, apparently because of the problems that come from the excercise that the typical diet doesn't solve. Excercise releases free radicals and all kinds of other debris, and our diets should be extra-high in antioxidants and everything else nutritious to combat the negative effects.

Buon apettito!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Why I'm no longer following a periodized training program

Some of you may know that I used traditional "periodized" cycling training for my entire 2007 racing season. Periodization is a training method that uses carefully scheduled workouts of varying intensity and volume to allow an athlete to "peak" (reach their optimum fitness level) for selected periods during the year. It was a secret weapon that the Eastern Block used to win tons of Olympic medals during the Cold War, so clearly it worked!

Typically, coaches who teach this method have their athletes select two or three periods (hence the term "periodization") during the year in which they want to peak. So athletes must decide months in advance which races they want to prioritize so they can schedule their training periods to synchronize their peaks with their priority races.

Most cyclists hate the very idea of scheduled workouts, and instead just "ride lots," join anarchic group rides, and try to "race" themselves "into shape." It's better than nothing, but has a low return on the time you spend in training. I tried this haphazard method for many years, with mediocre results. So I resolved to train smarter for my 2007 season.

Joe Friel is one well-known periodization coach and author of Cyclist's Training Bible, and I put together a very detailed workout schedule using his book and templates (you can see my 2007 training schedule here). Every day called for a specific type of ride, and I stuck pretty much exactly to the script. My periodized training allowed me to have by far my best season ever, with five race victories, some other medals and a USCF racer upgrade from Category 4 to Category 3.

So why would I mess with success and discard periodization for my 2008 racing season? I wrote about that a little here, here and here, but I thought I should devote some more time to explaining it in detail.

Off-season training

Traditional periodization calls for a complete break in the autumn, followed by increasingly long endurance-building rides at a moderate pace during the winter in order to rest, recover and prevent burnout, boredom and injuries. In essence throwing away many of your fitness gains from the past season as a precaution against the possibility of overtraining. In the spring you would then reintroduce intensity into your workouts to gain back your speed. Short-distance speed, e.g. sprinting, responds pretty quickly to training so that works well.

But my new program calls for hard training year-round. Historically, lots of racers raced year-round, including all-time great Eddie Merckx who raced on indoor tracks during the winter and many others who raced cyclocross. So this approach has many precedents. But does that mean it's the best way? Maybe not for everyone, but for me it may be.

My "FTP" power (the maximum power I can sustain for 1 hour of cycling), for instance, may still have lots of room for improvement through specific training. That's especially true for sprinters with fast-twitch muscle fibers like me. But FTP doesn't respond to training very quickly, and in the past physiologists even believed it to be totally untrainable as a result. We were supposedly stuck with whatever FTP our parents's DNA dictated! But more recent studies have shown that FTP can, in fact, be improved with several years of continuous, focused training.

And even periodization coaches like Joe Friel have adjusted their recommendations. here's a quote from him:
Over the years my approach to building aerobic fitness has changed. I used to believe that long, slow distance (LSD) was the most important type of training for aerobic system development. But in the last few years, experimentation with the athletes I coach has led me to believe this is not enough. By itself LSD will not fully develop the aerobic system. A bit higher intensity is needed. Rather than just noodling along at a relaxed, 1-zone effort, I believe that one must challenge the aerobic threshold in training to see complete aerobic development.
Because I have not reached my full potential yet there's still hope that FTP-specific training will make me faster for these longer distances.

Racing-season training

The regular season may not change quite as much for me as I will continue my hard workouts, substituting some of them with races. This is pretty much the same as periodization, except for one big difference:

Instead of varying the volume and intensity of my training during a 9- to 10-week period to peak for my two or three priority races, I will simply reduce my training volume (but not my intensity) for a few days before. I will essentially "train through" most of my races, using them as training, and just rest a little before the big races.

With traditional periodization coaches strongly advise their athletes against scheduling more than two or three peaks per year, because of the fitness loss that results from the long process of peaking. They obviously understand the cost of periodizing. Yet they maintain that the cost is an acceptable tradeoff for the improved fitness you gain for your priority races. But is it? Only you can say because it depends on your goals.

For myself, I have decided that I'd rather train for the longer term, and eventually realize more of my potential FTP as a result. Bye-bye periodization!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

What is my FTP power anyway?

FTP stands for "functional threshhold power," and it's basically just one's 1-hour power. That is, the maximum power one can produce by pedalling one's bicycle for 1 hour without bursting into flames.

For cyclists this is interesting to know, because you can use a power meter (installed on your bike; not mine, though, because I can't afford one yet) to measure any change in your power... hopefully it will increase as you get more trained! You can also use your known power to predict mathematically how fast you can ride up any given hill. My friend Steve Rosen came up with a very cool online tool that allows you to estimate your power, based on any one of a number of well-known hill-climbs in the San Francisco Bay Area, and predict how fast you can climb other well-known hill-climbs:

According to this tool, which is more accurate than what I was using to develop my 2008 training goals, my current FTP power is actually 309.86 Watts, way higher than what I first caculated (265.9W). In the interest of truth and accuracy, I should add that just because I could ride at that power for 20 minutes doesn't mean I could ride at that power for 60 minutes, though I'd probably be pretty close.

That is all very nice, but it doesn't actually make me any faster! But it will allow me to predict my hill-climbing speeds and such better. And it will also force me to update my 2008 training goals.

One of my training goals is break the 19-minute barrier riding up very steep Old La Honda Road. To achieve that I could raise my FTP power to just 312W and lower my body weight to 148 pounds. I think finding another 2 Watts is entirely possible, even likely, assuming I can stick to my training plan. And I've already dropped my body weight by 4 pounds in about six weeks, so I will soon reach my goal weight of 148 pounds. Now I just have to actually gain those 2 Watts, lose 2 more pounds and ride the climb on a good day!

Now, back to my other training goal, involving a higher FTP power: What should my new goal power be? I now know I'll soon be about 4.6W/kg (Watts per kilogram of body weight, which is a commonly used indicator of one's climbing ability because your power and your weight determine your speed up a hill). I've also learned that the best climbers in the amateur ranks can have as much as 5W/kg (and the Pros can have as much as 6 or 7W/kg!). Realistically, I will probably never reach 5W/kg, so I will use another tack: raise my power by 5%. That seems pretty optimistic, but my coach, Mark Edwards, says 5% is not totally impossible. That would also raise me up to 4.84W/kg, which is still pretty good, though not great. Hey, I am a sprinter after all! :-)

So here are my updated 2008 training goals:
  • Raise my FTP power by 5%, from about 310 Watts to 325W. My legs hurt just thinking about that!
  • Break the 19-minute barrier up the Old La Honda Road climb.
If I accomplish my first goal I will not only achieve my second goal but blow it away, with a blistering fast 18:06 time up Old La Honda! I still think all of this may happen, but we'll know by no later than 12/31/2008!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

My second Old La Honda Road ITT

As I mentioned a while back, I've been riding two 20-minute interval workouts, usually twice a week. As part of that training regimen, I am also occasionally riding up Old La Honda Road to measure my resulting speed improvement, if any. Yes, if any. Sigh.

Today I rode up Old La Honda with the traditional noon group ride as before, and, well, made no progress:


I was actually 5 seconds slower! Though the first time I just kind of glanced vaguely at my cyclecomputer at the start and end of the climb, and this time I used my stopwatch, so I'd call it a dead heat.

My friend Nick Purtscher, Rock Lobster team racer, happened to join the ride too, and told me his time was 45 seconds slower, so I guess I should be happy with just 5 added seconds! Well, I'd be happier if he hadn't also told me that his best time up took him only 17:30, I believe... that's just sick!

We wondered if the cooler air was a factor (it is denser, after all, and world record attempts are usually made at high altitudes on hot days for the lowest air density for that reason), or maybe the damp pavement (I doubt it; I've heard rain actually lowers tire friction and thus increases our speed). Or maybe we didn't pace ourselves well, which is a common problem (though Nick did use a power meter to help him with that). Or maybe we were both just a bit tired (though my legs felt good today I did bonk on my ride home on Monday, so perhaps I wasn't fully recovered). Who knows.

Still, I actually weighed 3, yes, 3 pounds less today than I did on 10/03/07, so I expected some improvement from that, at least. Plus some improvement from all of the 20-minute intervals I've been doing twice a week since 10/03/07; my pores sweating blood, my legs melting my shorts with their burning heat. (Fear not; I'm exaggerating!)

That 3-pound weight loss should have resulted in a time of 19:30, per my calculations, which is 25 seconds faster than it actually took me. My biggest worry is that I'm overtraining, as the traditionalists would insist is the case. I don't rest as often as I should, I do know that.

Oh, I forgot to mention: Nick and I did a second climb afterwards, at a slightly slower "tempo" pace. Awesome workout, and we even managed to talk a little! Though on the return trip I started bonking again, lending credence to my theory that I wasn't fully rested today.

Well, back to training, and I'll make sure to get more rest between hard workouts! Starting with tomorrow and Friday... snooooore.... :-)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Losing weight and gaining FTP

So, I've been playing with numbers, again, to see if my 2008 training goals are realistic. My goals are:
  • Raise my FTP (Functional Threshhold Power; my maximum sustainable 1-hour power output) power from about 265 Watts to 276W.
  • Break the 19-minute barrier up the Old La Honda Road climb.
It's impossible for me to predict how much of a power increase I can achieve, though my friend and coach Mark Edwards assures me my goal is achievable. But beating the 19-minute barrier up OLH can be reduced to numbers. Play along here:

First, we need some hard data. My body weight when I tested myself up Old La Honda on 10/03/07 (154 pounds), plus my bike and gear (21.45 pounds) yields a gross vehicle weight (GVW) of 175.45 pounds.

Then, using 1190 seconds (19:50 minutes) for my elapsed time up Old La Honda, with 1330 feet elevation gain, and that 175.45 pounds GVW, I can enter those numbers here to calculate the power required to lift my sorry carcass up that hill at that speed:

I get 265.9W as my FTP power on that day, which seems very much in line with what many other cyclists produce.

Playing around with the numbers I can explore what it will take to drop my elapsed time below 19 minutes:

If I want to beat 19 minutes up Old La Honda I will need to either increase my power to 279.2W (higher even than my ambitious goal of 276W!), or lower the GVW to just 167.1 pounds. Barring a super-duper lightweight bike, not in my budget, that would require a body weight of only 145.65 pounds; about what I must have weighed as a Junior in High School! No way!

Or, I could raise my power to a more realistic 275.3W and lower the GVW to 172.95 pounds. It just so happens that I weigh 2.5 pounds less today than I did on 10/03/07, yielding that GVW of 172.95 pounds (yay!), so "all" I now need to do is raise my power to 275.3W. That amount of power seems possible, according to coach Mark, but who really knows?

But if I get the GVW down to 169.45 pounds I will only need 269.7W of power to beat 19 minutes. That 4W power increase seems very achievable. The weight is not impossible either, as I hit 148 pounds about two years ago, before I panicked and started overeating! Sigh.

Here's an ideal scenario: I somehow raise my FTP power to my goal of 276W (all it takes is tons of intense training!), and lower my body weight to 148 pounds (definitely achievable, assuming I can skip the doughnuts!) for a GVW of 169.45 pounds. In that scenario I would be able to climb Old La Honda in 18:27. Very cool!!!

So, a sub-19-minute climb up Old La Honda is theoretically within my reach!

All of this assumes that I can lose weight without losing any power in the process, and actually realize those power gains through rigorous training. Hmmmm. Calculating my full potential is a lot easier than realizing it!