Thursday, March 19, 2009

Try Hard, Often

I am neither angry, nor lonely, but I am both hungry and tired. My daughter's science project is done, I am finally getting in the week of training I have been close to but just shy of for the last month, my reading is getting back to being near caught up, and I feel the need for a rest week coming on. And how.

I have to remind myself when I worry that my 15, or 17 or 19&1/2 hours of training in a given week isn't enough to win bike races, that the guys I know who are putting in consistent 20, or even 30 hour weeks on the bike this time of year are generally both living in more temperate climes, and not trying to juggle graduate school and parenthood. Ok, I'm only getting a Master's, so it's like tee-ball grad school, and I share custody of my daughter, so that's only four days a week of daddy duty but, still. Riding over 300 miles a week is a hell of a stress on the body for someone who sleeps an average of 7&1/2 hours a night, maybe 9 on weekends.

Generally speaking I try to stay away from jargon heavy, number crunching blathering about my training volume or intensity, as I find it kind of distasteful and largely beside the point. But my blog has taken a decidedly less bike-focused turn in recent weeks, so I figure I can let myself off the leash and spray a little, just for fun.

Why I don't train with power anymore - My Powertap broke, I don't wanna buy another one. Plus, for me, I have been training on the same climbs, more or less, for interval training anyway, for several years now. So I know from previous Powertap usage that if I can maintain 13 mph in the 19 cog on a given 7-8% climb, say, that means I am having a good day and if I do it 5 times, that's a good vo2 workout, provided I am rested enough to see my HR responding well. Or, if I can ride steady LT effort on a 5k climb with my good friend and longtime training partner, Matt Purdy, then I will do better in road races this year, since I tend to get dropped in hilly races where he makes the selection. Maybe I'm cheating, having as I do a sense of what those magical numbers might be. But I don't think so.

I know, I know, everyone loves their numbers. They're so bloody concrete and hard to argue with, so damned masculine. But good decisions win bike races. And the reality for a guy like me is that I still have a hell of a lot of room for improvement left to gain by simply riding more and improving my endurance, eating less/better and sleeping more. When I look around at my life and see before me the ideal of structured athletic purity, well....I'll be bored silly. But I would also, at that point, begin to micro-manage training data in an effort to eke out that last few percent of potential. Realistically, though, I think the best training plan for a guy like me is to a) know my body really well--meaning know my HR zones, know my tendency toward fatigue, how I respond to weight loss, stress, etc; b) train the hell out of my weaknesses, particularly climbing. It isn't rocket science, either--I put out plenty of power to not get dropped in 95% of the races that I do, but I don't feel like a rockstar when I train on climbs, which creates a natural disincentive to train on climbs, because everyone knows training is supposed to provide an ego boost, right? Group rides are the opportunity for you to beat your friends at the thing you're already good at, right? Nope. Oh, and c) Try Hard Often. Really, trying hard is awesome. It will make you a better athlete/student/parent/barista/entrepreneur.

Maybe it's ten years of parenthood talking, but I love training alone, I love ice cream/recovery rides with my girlfriend, and I love rides with one equally matched training partner that are just structured enough to be productive. I seldom do group rides, and these days, if I do, I usually structure it into the middle of a longer ride. I don't often have the mental bandwidth to be competitive more often than on race days, so I try to bottle it, and race hard. This makes me a nice guy to train with--I won't half wheel you, unless we're doing an interval or race simulation, in which case I will try to eat your lunch, steal your teddy bear and kick you in the nuts. But I'll be all huggy afterward.

One of the neatest bits of training wisdom I have ever heard came not from a cycling coach, but from a chess coach, of all things. (Yes, who knew there were such people?) USCF National Master Eric Schiller said in one of his books, that rather than having a "style" most novice chess players have a set of weaknesses that they try to compensate for by avoiding games/positions within games that highlight those weaknesses. This reminds me of my own 170lb inclination to avoid hilly road races and training rides. So many of us have heard the advice, "race your strengths, train your weaknesses" but have failed to consider that as intermediate, or even budding elite bike racers, we really don't necessarily have any strengths yet, beyond an ability to push hard on the pedals...sometimes. Simply put, getting one's ass kicked is of tremendous value. But for me, as a Cat 4 cyclist a few years ago, hey, I was new to this, I had a decent sprint, I could go hard for 200 meters, so, "I'm not a climber" I said. "I'm just too big to go uphill quickly" I rationalized. Bullshit, and I do sprint pretty well, but mostly an internal monologue like that is just an excuse not to try hard. Like not being good at math, or not "getting it" in English class.

So I ramble, I digress. That's why I have a blog, no?

In all seriousness I absolutely respect and value the work and the expertise of cycling coaches and physiologists, and I understand fully that heartrate is a trailing metric, whereas wattage doesn't lie. I would not suggest to anyone that they stop training with power, and I don't have anything against it. But I am a humanist to the core, and I absolutely believe that the emotional and spiritual condition of the human being on the bicycle--assuming, of course, some baseline threshold of "fitness" within a given category or ability range--is the key determinant to performing well, or winning races.

The Humanist's Touchy-Feely Guide to Fast Bike Riding - For many of us who race bikes seriously and close to full time, while juggling the commitments of professional, family and academic life, training time can be a source of enormous stress. Time, weather, fatigue, relationship commitments, etc can all conspire to get us on our bikes and out the door is a pretty preoccupied, harried and minorly (or majorly) stressed condition. In such a condition, I may very well not produce the sort of effort I am capable of producing under not even optimal but at least better, more well rested, less harried circumstances, i.e. a sunny Saturday in June at The Big Bike Race. BUT AT LEAST I CAN GO TO BIKE PRACTICE! Really, this is key. Showing up is more than half the battle, and if I get dressed, I will train; if I am already riding, I might as well ride to the hill; if I get to the hill, I will climb it; having climbed it once, I will likely convince myself to climb it again; thrice is barely more than twice, and having done three repeats, 5 is within sight and I'll feel guilty if I don't, so, before I know it I've done my intervals. And, hey, I was good and went to bed at 10 last night, my weight is down, my HR is responding well to the hard efforts and rising quickly, I feel good about myself for going to bike practice, like, I feel confident! Any coach will tell you that confidence and trust in your training helps produce results. And I think it is also likely objectively the case that most of us never come anywhere close to getting everything out of our bodies that is there to be gotten--it just hurts too much, and we interpret the pain as failure, we're hard-wired that way.

Sure we are all different animals, and different things make us all tick. But there is so much literature out there on sports psychology, so much wisdom about positive visualization, and I know it may sound ridiculous, but I think sometimes having hard, irrefutable data that I am not going as fast as I would like to, or as fast as I did last July, can be really destructive to athlete performance. This athlete's performance, anyway. Plus, like I said, I'm to cheap to replace my Powertap.

Over a certain threshold of basic fitness, if I want to make it to the winning breakaway of a hard road race, I have to want to hurt, and I have to believe in that hurt. We're pretty simple animals, after all, different though we may be.

The numbers that I am proud of, though, are the ones that tell me I have ridden 30% more hours so far this year than at the same time last year. That's an increase of approximately 30 additional hours of training over a 9 week period. I must be trying hard, often. Works for me.

Plus I read a lot of books and I know how to make a model comet.




  1. definitions for a non-racer:
    what is 'train with power'? If this is using power cranks, is it something you would do all the time on non-race rides?

    what is 'half wheel'?

    reality check for a non-racer:
    what are you HR ranges? is HR 'rising quickly' a good thing? How so? What is a max HR (instantaneous) for you?

    curious for a non-racer:
    are you doing cross training? if so, what?

  2. Great great post! I stopped using my Powertap this year because I was stressing too much over the numbers or lack thereof. Now I go out and ride on feel and just ride hard when its time and easy when its time to go easy. I feel stronger and enjoy the training much much more. Good luck and see you at Johnny Cake.

  3. Good post, I am in the same boat as you trying to get in the 16-19 hour weeks, it causes a lot of mental pressure when you have a job and family. The hardest days for me are the endurance days when it's easy to justify quitting early and going back to work.
    What's broken on the PT? It's interesting how many guys feel like a slave to the numbers. I never look at the numbers until the interval or ride is done. I can "get into" the ride that way and let the numbers fall where they may.

  4. Thanks for the replies, folks. It's always nice to know people are reading, and what they're thinking when they are. Cheers.

    Some definitions for Megan and other non-racing readers:
    - Training with power means using a Powertap ( or SRM (, an on-board, power measuring device that tells you how much wattage you are putting out. HR being a trailing metric--it tells you how hard you went a minute or two ago--power is objectively more reliable, in that it tells you how hard you are going in a given moment. It makes specific interval training, training at Lactate Threshold, say, more effective in some ways because you are able to objectively track improvement (increased wattage) from one week to the next, one season to the next.

    - Half-wheeling is when you are riding next to someone on a group ride and you constantly surge, jacking up the pace, forcing the other person to accelerate to keep up with you, as opposed to keeping a steady pace where you can ride side-by-side and hold a conversation.

    - Any individual's resting/max HR is sort of irrelevant, everyone is a universe of one, so to speak. But fatigue tends to result in the body not being able to respond to a hard effort, basically not being able to do what you ask it to do. (Sometimes sickness, stress or fatigue can also result in increased hr, but, for me, usually the pitfalls are short sleep and overtraining, so low HR tends to be where I go when I am too tired) So if my HR at threshold, say, for a 15 minute interval should be between 155 (low side) and 165 (high side)and I find myself riding the climb I usually train on, but unable to get my HR over 150, this will tell me that I am probably too tired to do the intervals that day.

    My point in the post is that, for me, this macro-knowledge (I'm too tired to go hard/I'm fresh and feel good when I start to go hard, therefore it seems like a good idea) is often more valuable than the specific knowledge of whether I am putting out 380 vs. 405 watts.

    - And at this point in the year, no, no cross-training other than ab crunches and the occasional trip to the gym to maintain my chicken like racer arms. I run in the fall for cyclocross, and cx ski a bit, but I am terrible at it. From Mid February on, though, I am pretty much all bike all the time.


  5. This is/was an exceptional post. And I love: "BUT AT LEAST I CAN GO TO BIKE PRACTICE! Really, this is key. Showing up is more than half the battle."

    As a 38 year old, working dad, musician guy, barely Cat5 (once barely a cat3 18 years ago), it's all about this perspective. I remind myself that I'm not (nor I do long to be) in a position where I'm training 20 hours a week and that 5 hours is actually a decent week for me. I love every one of those five hours. Sometimes I forget this and make the whole thing into some kind of responsibility/chore and that messes with my spirit. And sometimes I start comparing myself to friends without kids who have the time to train for hours every day of the week. And that's not good either. After 30 something years, I've finally learned to compete for and within myself; for my own satisfaction and pleasure; and with a realistic understanding of the constraints of my real life. As long as I can keep all that straight . . . I'm doing OK.

    I'm not sure If I've ever commented on your blog, but I do often enjoy. Literate bike racers are the kind I prefer to deal with - and you most certainly fit the bill.


  6. Thanks for your comment, Chris. The intellectually and athletically diverse and talented readership of my blog is humbling, and makes the writing worthwhile.


  7. the pains of training are like penance for the sweet sins and indulgences of racing.

  8. Thanks, Than. I am not at a point where i want to consider racing, but i do want to be a better cyclist. I'll take all the learning i can right now, especially since my time on the bike is low.

    I love hearing your take on things from your much more experienced position.

    I am fascinated by HR issues because my tendencies are pretty far from what the books say i should be experiencing. I spend most of my time trying to get the rate down, but i've never thought to consider comparing my tired rates vs. my non-tired rates.

    I have been finding that some minimal cross training (especially lunges, which i hate with a passion) has really benefited both my running and my biking.

    I, too, am glad for the exposure to such a wide range of people through your blog.