Sunday, May 26, 2013

Further Down the (Dorky) Spiral

Let's get one thing straight. Outside of the world that actually runs and cycles, running and cycling is not cool. In fact, it's kind of the antithesis of cool. Watching a scrawny, lycra clad guy with shaved legs pulling 480W up a hill on a bike is only bad-ass if you've ever tried to actually pull 480W up a hill (hint: it's really, really hard). Running the Leadville 100 is honored in hushed reverence by those that can comprehend what it takes to do it. To the average American, it just looks stupid.

Of course sprinters are the exception. I don't know anyone that doesn't think Usain Bolt is one fast, fit bullet of a man. And he pulls it off in a stylish, quirky way. You can love or hate his personality - but he makes running pretty damn cool to everyone:

To be fair - it's a promo shop and probably photo-shopped..... or maybe not....damn.
But sprinting is a different genus from endurance sports - so let's stick to that.. mostly because by filtering and skewing data, my point is made more strongly.

Now - Triathlon only makes it worse.

Exhibit A: The Aero Helmet
Yes, I know they make you go faster... when you are actually going fast to begin with. The minute you stop, you should take the helmet off. Or don't let people take pictures of you. I mean, the above picture is of Crowie... and he's not pulling it off unless he's moving.

Regarding speed. If you're not riding faster than 22mph, you shouldn't wear one. That's not based on scientific wind tunnel testing, it's just my opinion. During the Lookout Mt. Triathlon last year, I saw a 16 year old kid sporting one of these. He looked silly going uphill with it at 8mph. The bike course was also twisty with lots of climbing and really only one straight shot where you could tuck in. I don't think it helped him. Much like this guy.

She's half wheeling him - Biiiiih-tch.

Exhibit B: Compression socks
(yes they work... but at what cost to your manliness?)

The speedsuit... and an example of where MORE compression is needed.
Honestly, I think there are limits to compression. At some point it will stop blood flow and inhibit your molecules from vibrating. I think you turn into dark matter or the higgs boson at that point, but my physics might be a tad rusty.

Higg's Bum... I'm glad I can't see his bosons...
What exhibit are we on now? I mean, there are GPS gadgets, shaved bodies, parachutes, power meters... the list goes on and on....

Of course you can go 'All In' like this guy
Oh, what the heck...  I give you Exhibit X - The Tri Kit.

The word 'kit' is actually used because no guy wants to be caught wearing an 'outfit'. And for god's sake, ensembles are right out. But that's basically what it is. It's an ensemble. And it's functional. The reason you wear tight fitting clothing is to cut back wind resistance on the bike.... and also to show off your bosons.

Now this is again one of those things that is marketed one way, but it surfaces in the real world very, very differently. For example, here is typical marketing fodder:

Fair enough. Still dorky, but at least it's pleasant to look at.
Off course this is how your typical age-grouper rocks the tri kit.
Still unconvinced at where this is going? Ok, you asked for it...

Ok... why would you even allow a kit this size to be manufactured and sold?
Of course the sock / Birk combo really completes it.

But the point is, most of this dorkiness has some root in function. The problem is that no matter what, the dorkiness unavoidably comes along for the ride.

Which is why I've resisted much of this stuff for so long. But slowly, and surely - I've backslid into the fold. I've added compression socks and tights, GPS, a power meter, and even a tri kit to my 'ensemble'. And what I've found is that all this stuff works. Yeah - you can get by without it, but at my age - I really could care less about being dorky. In fact - I kind of like the geeky side of sport these days. For me, it doesn't detract from the love of sport. I spend plenty of days 'old school' and 'electronics free'.

Do you hear the wheels of rationalization spinning? Good, I thought it was just my own BS detector going off. Hang on.. ok, I reset it for a higher threshold.

I've got this short 'training' tri coming up with a pool swim. My ensemble (I mean 'kit') jersey causes too much drag when I swim with it on (I've tested it and it's like 10s per 100yds at race pace. That's a lot. Yeah, I could try and pull on the top in T1, and still might. But that's going to add 5-10s in T1, assuming I'm not all goofy and pull it on backwards or my head through an armhole. So, I got a one piece tri suit. Paige tells me I've officially crossed over. I agree. We'll see how it fares this week with some test swims - I still may go back to just pulling on a jersey like last year if it slows my swim down. I'm hoping it won't.

In all fairness - it's a subdued black.
Of course, wearing this isn't the biggest fashion violation at a triathlon. That bar is pretty high. It's all a matter of context. I mean, the same thing that would come off without a glance at the Renaissance Festival, would probably get you arrested at a liquor store.

Knave - can you point me to the Don Julio Anejo?
Then again, I'm pretty sure these guys are regulars at the Tipsy's Liquor near my house.
Or maybe it was from that college party I keep trying to forget???
Anyway, the other day my buddy Chris and I did a great ride up Chimney Rock to the top of the Lookout Nature center. It's a great hour long suffer-fest of a climb with a descent that takes less than half that, even with me descending on my mountain bike like a school girl.

After the ride (whose finish was punctuated by some rain, wind and not very far away lightening strikes), we stopped by Woody's (oh stop it...) for a couple beers and some food. Then went back to his place and did what all middle aged guys do after ride. Watched an old episode of Star Trek (The Enemy Within) on his monster big screen TV.

Anyway - I was at REI the other day and saw a jersey that fulfilled three criteria:

1. It offered a tie in to the previous night's ride.

B. It pushes all my tri purchases to date into the 'NOT' dorky bubble through the principle of relativity.

3. It ensures that no matter how much motivation a car passing me has to hurl a half full beer can at my dorky head (yes - it's happened) - this will really push them over the edge. Or it may invoke enough pity that they just pass me without incident.

Live long and push 480W up a hill - Bee-hotch!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Wait for it....

Ah yes - It's time again for the thing that athletes both look forward to and dread most. The recovery week

That time when you back off of the training load and let your body absorb all that hard work of the past weeks. A time to catch up on sleep, let the aches and pains subside a bit, and let the body recover. 

Well, that's how it's sold to us. The reality is, it's a week when:

  • You can't sleep soundly because you aren't digging yourself into a fatigue pit every day
  • The aches and pains actually seem to get worse, before they get better (thank you DOMS)
  • You feel flat and slow by the end of this so-called glorious 'recovery week' - ahhhh they tell you; wait for it, the recovery is there... trust me
  • The same neurotic, type-A personality that provides the resolve necessary to stick to our diets, get to the pool at a time when no other living thing is awake, and push out one more interval turns against us and we start to feel like we're sloths on about the first day of 'recovery week'. We can actually feel our fitness wasting away and hear the fat cells multiplying.
Of course the upside is also that we have lots of energy for other things; like reading training articles, wandering around bikes shops and running stores, eating things we shouldn't, and being the recipient of that silent awkward stare when the office elevator doors swish open to catch you practicing your swimming 'catch'; Which of course had to be practiced at that exact moment because: 
  • (a) there was nothing else to do
  • (2) no-one was around and
  • (z) everyone knows that not swimming for 2 days would make you completely forget how to swim. 
Naturally the folks staring decided to wait for the next lift.

Another thing that's fun to do is to spend all day searching for coverage of the Giro d'Italia (hint, go to the BBC, The Guardian, pretty much any publication that is NOT American). Case in point, here's how you find it on the NBC Sports homepage:
  1. Click on 'More' on the menu - it's right next to the 'Olympics' tab - which seems to indicate that cycling in the US doesn't even rate higher than a sporting event THAT ISN'T EVEN BEING HELD THIS YEAR!
  2. On the drop down, it's right between 'Tennis' and 'Dog Show'... thaaaaat's right...
I swear I can't make up things this sad...
By the way. What the heck is up with 'Outdoors' being substituted for 'Hunting & Fishing' - the only two sports in that category. Why not just have that as the menu item? Your guess is probably the same as mine. But I don't hunt or fish and I've got enough on my plate already getting wound up about the sports I personally care about. And after all - that's what this is about. Me and my personal needs.

Yes, I get it. It's my own fault for following a sport that in the US is about as huge as ferret nipples (I have no idea), but c'mon; Saturday was the first stage of the Giro. I flipped on the TV expecting to see at least 30 seconds of coverage. Niente. There was however about 10 minutes of analysis and commentary regarding game 287 in the 3,458 games to be played in pre-season elementary school field hockey, but nothing on a race that is almost as old as the modern bicycle itself.

Ok, I'm done ranting. I know it leads nowhere but sorrow and bitterness - and I'm anything but today. I'm happy for the Internet and the ability to find pictures like the following to ogle after (from the Giro of course):

"I want to go to there....."
Back into the realm of things we 'can' afford but shouldn't, I saw an ad for 'running parachutes' today. I've seen these before, but never marketed in a way that is so distant and unreachable from reality.

Wow - now that is good marketing. The only thing that would make this better is if the parachute was engulfed in flame - or someone CGI'd a sonic boom into the picture.

Unfortunately though, this is what the average person will look like when actually using it, among the certain baying of heckling from people gathered in the park for a Sunday BBQ. To be followed by the old drunken BBQ attendee favorite game of 'Catch the Dorky Runner and Give Him an Atomic Wedgie'.

No. Absolutely not. And I'm not even talking about the parachute.
Of course it's better than this guy - who can't seem to run fast enough to even get the parachute off the ground.

It's sad. Like a kid trying to get a kite off the ground, only to have it shredding behind him as it bounces on the grass.
Anyway, my point is to beware marketing. Otherwise you end up with things like running parachutes, Snuggies, Shaun T. Insanity DVD box sets and Thigh Masters.

Ok - so what have I been doing productive with my recovery week? Uhmmm... how about over analyzing data from the last two weeks worth of workouts?

Quiz Time: What do the following two workout elevation plots tell you?

A) This lucky guy lives in Colorado
B) This idiot lives in Colorado
C) This past weekend was not pleasant
D) This past weekend was really fun
E) A and D
F) I've lost track and stopped caring about this quiz

The correct answer is of course 'Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky' - weren't you listening at all to the first part of this post?

Oh yes, the above profiles were the elevation changes for my run on Saturday followed by my bike ride on Sunday. The run took some Jedi mind tricks to get out the door on. I was pretty fatigued, and it was late in the day. I pushed myself out the door. Here's what went through my mind:

Mile 1 - "...this really sucks. I feel flat and tired. This is going to go on endlessly. There are a lot of hills ahead."
Mile 2 - "...this still blows. It shouldn't blow by now. I must really be tired. I should turn back. Of course if I turn around now, it's going to take 2 miles to get home. That sucks and will be 4 miles. Four miles is almost to 5 and five is halfway to my planned 10 mile run. I should just keep going..."

I'm not kidding - that was my reasoning. It was weak, but my brain bought it.

I'm happy to say that by mile 5 I was having a blast. Things woke up and though I never felt great, I felt strong and fluid, especially on the downhill towards home. I also felt like a mental bad ass. Although given the weakness of the logic that pushed me through, it's more like a mental dumb ass.

Sunday's ride was epic and so much fun. I had mounted up a pair of my new favorite tire of all time. "Continental GP 4000 S". If you don't have these you should chuck whatever crap you're riding on and slap on a pair of these babies. It was like a completely different ride. So plush and predictable. Perfect shock absorption and stickiness through corners.

Rode from my house, up Deer Creek with the High Grade option to Conifer. Stopped in Aspen Park for a ham and cheese sandwich on Rosemary sourdough. Felt very 'Euro' with just that and water in my bottles for a 4 hour ride.
The bumps are 'hurt' my friend - Colorado style
My only complaint was the descent down Deer Creek. Ok - news flash for you motorists. If the road is a 4% grade or more descent, with more than a few 15-20mph curves every quarter mile or so, and you are NOT driving an Italian or German sports car - I can descend faster than you on my bike. I can move my center of mass (by leaning inside the turn). You can't.

And if the speed limit is 35mph, and I'm doing said speed limit - then you are putting yourself (and anyone else in your vehicle or in close proximity to it) at great risk to pass me and then stay ahead of me.

Why do motorists (mostly men) feel that they cannot possibly stand to have a bike going faster than them? I've had more than one pass me - I can hear the engine rev and I hug the shoulder to help them out in this foolish endeavor - then watch as they try to make the next corner at the speed they've accelerated to. I've watched them sail into the gravel and cross the yellow, all to maintain a speed that they wouldn't attempt if not for the pressure of wanting to show the cyclist that they can handle it and didn't just do something really dumb.

And then - I end up having to brake because 'Signor Andretti' can't hold speed through the corners. He's then self conscious (or something) and tries to show me that he can stay ahead of me. I watch the listing of the vehicle through every corner, the passenger grabbing the roof and dashboard and hear the squeal of tires. Meanwhile (and I really don't care about this part) - I'm lazily banking through the corner and post braking to give some distance (and manhood) back to him. Damn, I wish I hadn't already burned the phrase, 'ferret nipple'.

Anyway, listen up. The scrawny, lycra clad cyclist is faster than you and your pick-up truck which including the gun rack and CIBIE light kit, has a center of mass higher than the crowd on the CU Boulder Campus lawn at 4:20 on 4/20.

Anywhoo - I was more worried for them than for me. They passed with plenty of room, but were just going way too fast for their own good. I was having too good a day to be upset about having to brake on the descent. As one of my favorite vocalists is fond of singing, Don't worry - be happy.

Ok, so some other eye candy courtesy of Golden Cheetah analysis software.

HR, Power, Speed and Altitude - Notice the 5x5min Z4 repeats at about 30' in
I don't use this graph that much - I just think it looks cool
Anyway - that about wraps up 'day uno' of my week long 'recovery'. Maybe I'll stay up a bit later and pen a letter to NBC Sports.

Pray for my sanity.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Why Train with a Power Meter

I can be 'Old School' about some things - especially cycling. I rode for years without even a cycling computer on any of my bikes. Just yanked them off one day. In Colorado the numbers are almost irrelevant. A 20 mile ride out here can be a cake walk, or it can be a brutal trip to 'seeing Elvis' and his friend 'ralph'.

It all depends on the vertical gained, condition of the trail (mountain biking), winds and of course the crew you're riding with and the mood you're in.

In running I'm a little more of a numbers guy - mostly around miles, HR and pace, although the latter depends on the above variables as well. But I certainly take a fair share of 'electronics free' runs. And usually the HR monitor is keeping my workload 'down'. Like many I have a tendency to go too hard and not work all the systems so to speak.

I used to guffaw at the geeks with the power meters. Sure, cool gimmick, but I've been riding for a long time. Surely if RPE (Relative Perceived Effort) was good enough for Hinault, then it's good enough for my sorry bum.

I started reading more and more about training with power (i.e. a power meter) and seeing it popping up with the regularity of GPS, iPods, Di2 and other fancy gadgets (like disc brakes ;-) on cycling forums. There are coaches out there that won't even train you without a power meter. I started to think, "Ok, if nothing else, it would be fun just to geek out a bit on some of this stuff. Time to learn more about the bike".

I had been reading Joe Friel's book Your BEST Triathlon as well as The Triathlete's Training Bible looking for help in understanding the dynamics of triathlon training and how to fit all the sports together into a cohesive plan. I really liked his writing style and found his insights straight-forward, but carrying a lot of depth in their simplicity. So one night I downloaded The Power Meter Handbook to my Kindle. I got about 1/3 of the way through it that night and was convinced and pulled the trigger on one.

I can't do as eloquent a job as Sir Friel does, but the arguments center around the simple facts that your body only indirectly experiences things like speed and elevation. RPE can be misleading depending on fatigue, mood, etc. and HR is a lagging indicator of effort. The only thing your body directly experiences is the work it is doing. It is the input to the training equation.

After some settling in time, more reading and finding some decent software to analyze the data, I'm getting a handle on just how valuable this thing is.
  • Regarding software: Garmin Connect is actually pretty good overall, but Golden Cheetah has the perks of WKO+ and Training Peaks, but without the price - it's open source. Of course it only handles cycling where the others are a little more comprehensive, but I can piece it together for now).

There are some useful things I've discovered:

1. The power meter has really helped me with optimizing my pedal stroke to the terrain. I can ride along at a certain RPE, then just do something like focus on different parts of the stroke, engaging different muscles, relaxing my back, and pow - my RPE drops a 1/2 point and my watts go up by 5% or so. I thought I knew what a good pedal stroke was, but it's really helped me refine and measure.

2. There's a nice little calculation called 'decoupling' that can measure your aerobic fitness on long rides. Simply put, it's the amount your HR drifts up over a long ride compared to the power your are putting out. It's a nice way of knowing whether the base is there for the distance covered. Anything below 5% is a good indicator - on my last 65 mile ride in Z2 (aerobic), mine was less than 2%

3. Another interesting stat is your variability index (VI) which measures how steady you can maintain a particular power where steady is key - like in a TT. It tells you when you do an FTP (Functional Threshold Test) how good the test was (you want to hold the highest possible watts for 30min - drifting down means you went out to fast. Mine on my last test was less than 1% - which validated the test (in addition to that's all that I had in the engine at the time ;-)

4. xPower / Normalized Power (basically the same thing, just with a different physiological decay factor applied) is an interesting statistic. It basically takes into account rides where you have lots of variability (like climbing hills or changing RPE), that the 'average power' is not the whole story. That's because there is a physiological cost associated with not running a steady power level. The metric is then used downstream to calculate (with duration) basically how 'hard' the ride was (WKO+ and Training Peaks use TSS, Golden Cheetah use things like BikeScore). This can then be tracked to see what your average training load is (I don't currently do this because the swim and run workouts have to be figured in as well and I'm not using Training Peaks currently. But it would be interesting to do that long term.

Finally - at heart I'm a scientist and engineer, and it's just fun to geek out on this kind of stuff. But as I said above, I've been surprised at just how useful this stuff is and how far off my RPE sometimes is - especially for shorter periods. For example - during a recent set of repeats, I noticed that my RPE would feel like a 7, but then all of a sudden drop down to a 6 just by taking a deep breath and relaxing. It would often drift back and forth like that throughout the repeat, even with a fairly steady wattage. The body isn't a steady state machine - it's more like swirling bucket of chemicals and neurological impulses all being measured with a lagging and subjective perception of effort. Just an interesting learning.

The darker side of curling.
So there you have it. I'm a convert. Of course it's like anything else. It's just data. At the end of the day, what really matters is that you ride your bike, or run, or swim, or compete in full contact curling.

But I've found it's more than just gimmicky data. It's useful and I'm learning in a sport that I thought I understood. It's helping me put some of the pieces together about how my body works - or doesn't work. And I'm having fun.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


I was at a business conference, talking to a fellow competitive triathlete. Another colleague that I hadn't seen in a while wandered up to say, 'hello' and kind of caught the middle of our conversation. He remarked, "Man, I don't know how you guys do it. It's so hard to get on a regular exercise program. Just so hard to get out of bed that early"

The first guy and I exchanged grins and I remarked, "You know. It actually doesn't get easier. It still takes as much resolve to roll out of bed and go to the pool, or head out in the cold rain on a run. But after a while, you just get in the habit of ignoring that inner, sane voice. You go through the motions without allowing those second thoughts to creep in. You learn all sorts of tricks to get yourself motivated (like The Sarge). And once you're out for 15 minutes... most times.... you're glad you pushed through"

Along the same lines, I go a little wombat shit crazy when someone says to me, "Wow, you can eat anything you want and not gain weight. It must be nice" - Uhhhhh..... excuse me, but I have that Slavic blood running through my veins. We are not by nature little spindly men. Left to my own whims and fancies I can balloon up quite nicely into the deuce double naught range.

btw - did you know this is what a wombat looks like? Kind of ruins the magic.
I once read a good analogy. Race car engines are fast and well tuned machines, right? Do you think you can put junk gas into them? The truth is that trying to be an aging athlete, I have to pay MORE attention to my diet than if I was just slugging around. But again, it's about resolve. You build good habits just like you build bad ones. Repetition and teaching yourself to tolerate things like hunger and cravings makes you stronger.

Why am I lamenting about this? Well, I'm trying to drop 4 lbs more in the next 2 months to get to 'race' weight (about 162 lbs on my 6' 1/2 inch frame). I'm not claiming it's a healthy weight. It's more functional and sports specific - especially in the hills of Colorado. And it is freakin' tough to do. Your body wants to hold on to those last few 'fat' pounds.

To do this isn't easy. I'm already at my body's volume limit of training, especially given the emphasis I've been putting on quality workouts. So no more calories to be burned there yet. Instead, I've started tightening the screws on the quality of nutrition and timing my calories. And the cravings have also ratcheted up.

What do I crave? For one, I crave waffles. A big plate of 365 flax waffles piled high with strawberries, banana, walnuts, some coconut flakes and maple syrup. That's right. You heard me. I LOVE maple syrup. Not that cheap synthetic crap either. I'm talking the real deal. Like hammer a spigot into a Vermont tree and bleed it dry.

It's been about 2 months since my last waffle experience. A couple weeks ago I took one waffle and spread raw almond butter on it with just a drip of maple syrup before heading to the pool. It wasn't the same. It was cruel. Like that scene from Silence of the Lambs where the Senator's daughter is in the well and can only see the light cresting over the edge while that mangy little white rat dog (Precious) yaps at her.... Ok.. maybe I'm being a bit melodramatic. Now I've gone and freaked myself out.

But my craving for waffles have caused me to recently start looking at things differently. For example, recently I saw this in a cycling trade magazine... is it just me.... or.....

Anyway. Where am I going with all of this? I don't know. But I know I'm having waffles sometime in the very near future. I don't want to end lured into a deep dark well, gnawing on bicycle hand grips.

And as much as I want to make race weight and go faster, I'm not totally wombat shit crazy.