Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The heart - your single point of failure. And other pleasant thoughts

I may be slightly obsessed but it is a subject close to my, umm, heart. Yes, it's cardiac function and exercise. If you don't exercise then you don't get the benefits of exercise, right? You get fat, you lose muscle and bone mass, you lose "condition". Yet if you exercise too much, ie too strenuously or for too long, you risk damage. And if you get wrapped up in what is too-often the "boy's club" that is competitive sport then you are often driven to do exactly that - damage.

Basically what you really want to do is moderate exercise within the bounds of your abilities. Alas, that won't win you a bike race, will it? Well, not a big one, anyway. Trouble is, the commitment you need to make to competitive sport is OTT. Everything about it is wrong, yet it's addictive and feels so good. Given that you are probably going to do it anyway, you may as well read up on the downsides - the risks. If you want to "succeed" then at least do it fully informed.

Effects of Intermittent Exercise on Cardiac Troponin I and Creatine Kinase-MB
Strenuous physical activity is destructive for cardiac function causing an increased risk of myocardial infarction during and one hour after the exercise bout.1 Cardiac fatigue is exercise-induced cardiac dysfunction in the absence of underlying cardiovascular diseases with a large number of symptoms and an unclear etiology.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Reflections on training and aging

Well we all do it - age, I mean.

One moment I'm learning to ride my dad's huge old Alcon and the next I've got 3 kids of my own. Let me reflect on this for a moment.

It was too big for me, the Alcon. It had a fixed sprocket on one side of the back wheel and a single freewheel on the other. Once I figured out that the faster you went, the better, I was OK. And this one idea - go faster - has propelled me throughout my cycling career. Go faster. It's better.

It was at Centennial Park that I found my forte. Laps, lots of them. Each one a fresh challenge. Each lap urging me onward, ever faster. Every rider in front of me a target to be caught. And at Heffron Park it was the same - but better. Wait for the last lap, the bell, and then - just go faster! Catch me if you can!

It seemed that "go faster" was indeed the key to it all. And the maxim held true also at Camperdown, bumpy, steep and forbidding that it was, where going slow was to tempt pedal-clipping fate. Going faster was, once again, the way forward.

Inevitably though life has its rough patches. The big fall. The glandular fever. The heart attack. The lay-offs, the come-backs. It's always the same, but always different. You get older and it all takes a little longer.

The falls took their toll both physically and mentally. I'm still paying for that big one at Heffron in '88. I never quite got back on terms with A-grade after that and never again took the "brave route" through the bunch. I lost trust. I backed off when I sensed trouble. I let others have the win. I lost that "animal" urge, perhaps. I mellowed.

And of course the heart attack was a real surprise. How can I ride every day and still get a blocked artery? Well there you go, you can. And the after effects linger. That question hangs over you, floating at the back of your mind - should I push a bit harder, or back off? How's the heart going?

So here I am, 14 months later. Back to 100kms a week. Well I have been here before, even after the heart attack. But I may have rushed my comeback, as you do. And I fell back into a deep hole. It's been over 6 months since I last rode a 100km week. But I've done it. And the sensations are good, again.

Let me run through the process.

Almost 6 months off the bike and I feel breathless, the quads hurt and sundry bits - like tendons, knees and the contact points - complain for days afterwards. But it was better than I expected. Maybe a comeback is possible?

A few rides later and all hope is lost. I'm not improving. I'm puffing, panting, weak and tired. Finishing is a struggle. Perhaps I should stop?

I persist and after a few weeks I notice that I'm going a bit further and occasionally a bit faster. But still I'm at a loss. It wasn't like this when I was 25. (Yes, well, I'm 57 now.) I'm not exactly jumping out of my skin, I lack zip and I'm wasted after every pathetically short ride. But I can't stop now.

Remembering how I over-did it last year I take it steady and build gradually. I don't want to relapse. I start to feel some good sensations when I hit the 80-km-a-week mark. The legs, heart and lungs occasionally work together. Hope springs eternal.

And cautiously I hit 100km-a-week. Finally the legs have some zip and I can maintain a steady, decent pace throughout the ride. I'm not dying at the half-way point and limping home. Instead I'm accelerating almost - almost - at will over the whole ride. OK, I can't attack a hill like "normal" but I don't think that's too far away. I can see the tunnel now and I suspect there's a light at the end of it. We shall see. 

100km in a single week? Here's the proof:
 Oh well, it's (yet another) start.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Jumping to conclusions about "red running"

There's a link or 2 doing the rounds, basically drawing attention to a sad incident where a young woman was allegedly struck by a cyclist whilst she was crossing at a traffic-light controlled intersection in Enmore, a suburb of Sydney. Allegedly (again, because in truth the "facts" are as yet untested) she had "the green" and thus, by logical extension, the rider was "running the red". Or so we are led to believe, anyway, as the cyclist's POV isn't represented in any story I have seen.

Now it's always unfortunate when people (or animals for that matter) are injured on our roads, and I extend my sympathy to anyone injured in this or any other way, simply "going about their everday lives". I too have been struck by cars, slipped and fallen on oil and grease left by motor vehicles and generally been beaten and battered by the poor state of many roads (as well as the attitudes of many road users). It happens. I've tripped and fallen whilst walking on poorly-maintained footpaths for that matter. So without detracting from the obvious physical pain felt by the young woman mentioned in these articles, for which the media concerned have kindly provided lurid images, I have to agree that life itself carries many risks.

OK, so that's the basic and largely sympathetic background to the story. But I wish to explore it a bit more. Whilst I have generally given up addressing the trolls who are attracted by such stories, once again I am drawn into the fray by the sheer ignorance of many comments. Essentially the debate becomes anti-cyclist, a blanket approach that life would be somehow transformed if "cyclists" somehow vanished from the planet.  Failing that, let's tax 'em into submission. Right - you've heard it all before.

I myself ride, drive and walk and can see (I think) most, if not all sides of this particular situation. I get delayed, I get endangered in all modes of transport. I even know the intersection involved. I don't know for sure (probably no one person has all of the facts) but I suspect that the traffic signals mentioned here are timed too finely for cars, not bikes. So a rider may enter on green yet still be passing through the intersection when it turns red. It's a fairly large, open intersection with a slight rise on the northern side, leading to a hill. Now I repeat again, I really don't know what happened here, but will conjecture that conceivably a rider could enter on the green yet still strike the woman concerned when they, the pedestrian had right of way. As I say, that's conjecture, and it doesn't erase anyone's responsibility; but I put it forward because we really have been led to believe only one set of "facts" so far.

Legally it's still the rider's responsibility to avoid any collision but it's probably not as clear-cut as a car driver deliberately "running the lights". Perhaps a witness can tell us otherwise, however sometimes bikes (and many other vehicles) just take longer to clear intersections. It's physics, not intent to harm. Coupled with a pedestrian lost in their own thoughts, or simply looking by sheer chance in the wrong direction, you have an accident. To label the cyclist (or pedestrian, motorist, or anyone) as "irresponsible" is moot, especially when we only have one point of view available. The legal situation will be resolved but the moral and ethical dimensions may be left unclear. 

In my experience as a road user, if I didn't think I could make it through safely, especially so when the lights had begun changing then I would take action to avoid hitting anyone, irrespective. However I know that sometimes these are split-second judgements involving braking, swerving, surfaces, speed and timing. Until you find yourself in that situation you can't really be certain how you personally would react.  

Now this matters mostly as an explanation, so we can learn from this, without exploiting the situation for other purposes. Indeed if we step away from the individual case here and think more abstractly about the contributing factors perhaps we can address a bigger set of issues about public safety in, on and around our roads.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

One year later and I tempt cycling (and ischaemic) fate...

You may recall that despite having cycled some 300,000 kilometres in this tired old body of mine I still managed to have an ischaemic event (yes, a heart attack) on this very day, New Year's, 2014. As I was doing over 200km a week up to that point it came as something of a surprise to feel a persistent, dull ache that said "stop now" as I crested a familiar hill. Of course being a hardened racing cyclist I pressed on anyway, gasping and yawning, determined to "ride through it".

Until, of course, I just had to stop. I knew, deep down, what it was. Still, I didn't accept it. It seemed so unlikely. So I struck a compromise and turned around, slowly, and crawled - grovelled - home. About 15 minutes after stumbling in the door, I accepted my fate and embarked on a 6 day medical adventure involving 2 hospitals, a late night ambulance ride, 2 cardiologists and 3 stents. A month later I blogged merrily on the topic of not ignoring the bleeding obvious.

So here I am, a year later, still acting the goat. I have just tempted fate and re-lived that epic New Year's Day ride, retracing the exact route and soaking up the pain. Fortunately without the hospitalisation, touch wood. I'd like to say that I've spent the past year steadily recuperating, building up the miles and strengthening my weakened heart. But I haven't. Mind you I started well, with good intentions. I kept to a gentle, progressive plan that got me onto the indoor trainer and then out the door, building gradually. And then the confidence grew. This reconditioned heart actually seemed just as good, if not better than the old one! I set some tougher goals and pressed on. Until I started to tire.

It seemed like I was repeating the very mistake that had got me into this predicament: if in doubt, double the training. Despite the still-fresh memory, I was doing it all again. The training was going up but my form was going down. And then I caught a cold.

Now colds may slow you down but they don't have to stop you, so I backed off and came back. But the cold "freshened up". So I repeated the formula - back off, come back. And the virus came back too. It reminded me of a six-month bout of a "mystery virus" that hit me back in the late 1980s, effectively ending my club-level A-grade racing career. I didn't get a blood test then, sadly, so I'll never know for sure, but a GP reckoned it was mononucleosis. The prescription was "rest". So taking a leaf out of that same book I have had a long, long rest since the end of May.

Which is not to say I haven't ridden. Once a week I've given the bike a spin and tested my form. And mostly my form has been lousy. Given that riding every day is my long-term habit, riding just once a week - and for only 20 minutes or so - hasn't been an easy pill to swallow. And it hasn't been the ideal way to make a post-ischaemic comeback, either.

Which is why re-living my "2014 first-ever heart attack ride" today hasn't been without its measure of risk - or even fear. Sure, I took it easy. Sure, I've done the distance a few times in the lead up. Sure, it's not a century ride. But I'm not nearly as fit as I was then, and the hills are unrelenting. I live on a hill. Getting home is hard enough without worrying about blocked arteries and damaged heart muscle as well.

Anyway, I made it. It could have gone horribly wrong but it didn't. The monkey is off my back (I have avoided riding that route for a full 12 months). Hopefully I will listen to my own advice from here on and build the miles up again - very, very gradually. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

BMC's Lodewyck sidelined with cardiac arrhythmia - it can happen to anyone

Triggered by a crash and associated trauma? Brought on by subsequent medication? Or just going to happen one day anyway? We are only guessing.

The BMC Racing Team today announced that it has removed its Belgian rider Klaas Lodewyck from competition after he experienced irregular heart rhythms during racing and training.

"He had been experiencing some irregular heart rhythm during racing and training," team doctor Max Testa said. "We have been investigating it, first by having him evaluated by sports cardiologists in Belgium. The common decision between a specialist there and the BMC Racing Team's
medical staff is to rest Klaas for an undetermined amount of time while a thorough investigation is performed." 
BMC's Lodewyck sidelined with cardiac arrhythmia | Cyclingnews.com

Point is, it can happen anytime, to anyone. Cyclingnews lists a few more...

Lodewyck is not the only rider to suffer from cardiac arrhythmia - former cyclo-cross world champion Niels Albert was forced to retire prematurely because of heart problems, and Belkin's Robert Gesink stopped racing in June to have an arrhythmia treated. Other riders who have had cardiac issues in recent years include Nick Nuyens, Haimar Zubeldia, Nicolas Vogondy, Nicolas Portal and Kim Kirchen.

Not surprisingly they didn't mention me. Whilst I can't speak for any of the above-named, I can of course speak for myself. I have ridden over 300,000km in racing and training, a very small amount of it at state "open" level but mostly at all levels of club racing. I never imagined that my heart would ever give me trouble. Even when I started to get the odd 'feeling' I dismissed it. And whilst I pushed myself pretty hard - as hard as my limited training time allowed - I rarely felt as though I had pushed "too" hard. Maybe sometimes, but isn't that what you are supposed to do? I always trained 'properly' before racing. I did my base miles. I even ate well, mostly, and hardly ever drank alcohol.

I guess I managed pretty well what I could control. Or so I thought. (Hypertension and stress might be things that I could have controlled a bit better, though.) The other factors - those out of my control - included my genetic predisposition. And in hindsight that's a pretty big one. Cardiac issues on both sides of my family should have given me a hint.

Coupled with starting a family a bit later than most and juggling racing, training, work and that growing family, I was probably cutting things a little fine. And when I then started at university intending to pick up a mature-age degree or two, I noticed that my health was going a little awry... aren't warning signs wonderful?

Only if you read them right! Naturally I thought, "it's stress" and decided to make things better by cranking up the pace - let's get this degree thing over and done with sooner rather than later. Probably not the right choice, but it was the choice I made. And thus an "unexpected" illness arrived in my life, coupled with medication that did nothing positive for my existing, if somewhat hidden, cardiac risk factors.

Of course I didn't ask for a heart attack. Indeed I thought that riding and racing would protect me from such a thing. But I was wrong. It doesn't have to be an outright ischaemia, it can be a mild arrhythmia. But with only one heart allocation per person it's better to listen carefully to your body and assess all of the factors involved. Life is a balance of positives and negatives. Striking the right balance is vital.  

Friday, July 11, 2014

Yet another sealed drivetrain

Planetary gears, this time. Sealed into the bottom bracket of course. And no, not for the first time! Still, it's  a good idea, especially when you run in mud, dust and grit. The downsides will as always be weight, weight and weight, followed by serviceability, longevity and, yes, weight again. You can throw in friction losses as well, but that may be quite minor compared with, umm, weight. We shall of course see!

Nuseti mountain bike features a sealed drivetrain

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Life goes on, even for Froome.

I watched Froome drop for maybe the 4th time in this year's TdF and thought to myself, "he'll stop now". He has an amazing acceleration on steep climbs, perhaps better than anyone else, yet he always looks ungainly, as if he is about to lurch sideways off his bike. He also has bike skills I can only dream of, although clearly he could improve on those a bit, too. He was also in pain, clearly. And he was about to reach the first cobbles.

Nibali appears better than most at predicting "what happens next" and avoiding the worst of it. For some reason when riding and racing I could 'usually' sense when it was about to go pear-shaped, too. Sometimes that worked well, in that I missed going over the top, other times it was a false alarm and I had to work harder to regain lost ground. Sometimes I just hit the deck anyway. But stopping in a club crit is very different from stopping in Le Tour. But Froome stopped anyway.

In my case I have fallen, recovered and ridden again. I have trained, lost or won, and ridden again. I've managed to block an artery and be hospitalised, yet here I am riding again. I think it's just life. You go on. Froome will pick himself up and ride again. Some riders are luckier than others, of course. Froome has had a bit of bad luck and only he knows for sure how much of that luck he attracted to himself. Was he unfocused? Was he too fearful? Was he too far back or on the wrong wheel? I can't be sure, but he knows. Whatever the truth of it, he'll be back.  

Friday, March 21, 2014

Update on recovery from ischaemia

Well as you may already know I had a heart attack on January 1 this year. To be perfectly honest, upon reflection, it was fairly minor as far as ischaemic events go - but ignoring it wasn't an option. Well 60-odd years ago ignoring it was probably the only option. I remember one of my grandfathers (who 'survived' in some senses service in 2 world wars) took 'angina tablets' when the pain came on. He probably had a blocked artery or 2 but there was little you could realistically - or affordably - do about it back then. Whereas in my case they simply inserted a few stents and inflated them, unblocking the blocked artery. It took 45 minutes (if you discount failed attempt number 1, an ambulance trip and brief stays in 2 hospitals). Fixed!

Well, mostly fixed. I'm not exactly the same as I was, psychologically or physically. I am unblocked,  with a renewed blood supply to the organ in question, but said heart now has muscle tissue damage, some of it irreparable, if to a minor degree. Nevertheless my heart beats strongly and regularly, and after almost 3 months of training on the bike (half on the trainer and half on the road) I am back to where I was in December last year - doing at least 200km a week on the road. Mostly flat and only 60% intensity, though. And just a few intervals at 80% or so. And no long, hard climbs for now.

Yet there remains a small, disquieting fear that the heart will be weakened, unable to cope with "normal" training (let alone racing) loads. And statistically that is borne out by those who have repeat heart attacks after their first. So I'm tentative, still. A new clot could form over the stents themselves, for example. But with each passing mile I get more confident that I'm OK. Indeed I feel "better" in many ways. Whereas I was grinding it out for the previous few months (before the attack) I am now refreshed and eager. My body is responding positively if slowly to the training load, whereas it was only slowing down and going backwards before.

Another realisation is that heart attacks can be - indeed often are - "silent". You may not notice you are having one. The one I had, whilst distinctive, was dull and incapacitating for a couple of hours, like dragging a heavy weight around, rather than endlessly sharp and totally, unavoidably crippling, if you can see the distinction. Indeed I began to feel "better" after about 3 hours of this crushing bore of a monumental chest and arm pain. I could see a way out. But by then I was in hospital, which is the best place to be if you want to get "fixed".

Still, I could see how ignoring it and just avoiding strenuous exercise forevermore may - in some cases - work out. But for me I wanted to ride again, and I didn't want to risk the statistically significant attack number 2, the one that would sneak up on me and do me in for good. And it made me ask, 'ok, this is different, it's really bad - but have I had one of these before, just milder?'. And my answer would be "yes". This was just a new level of pain and injury.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but the last 3 months of training pre-attack, sometimes in terrible heat, often had me thinking 'what's wrong?'. And whilst I could do it, I could finish the rides - and the occasional races - I didn't push to my old limits. I backed off. I let the bunch go on the last lap. I gave in to the "pain" of the effort. Whilst it wasn't that distinctive full-on crushing pain, I now recognise that what I thought was "not enough training" or "just old age" was probably a very mild form of heart attack. I have no firm evidence, no blood tests or angiograms to back that up, but it's what I suspect. Whilst my heart attack represents a certain event, the rupturing of some plaque and for a time the complete blockage of a coronary artery, in truth that artery was significantly narrowed for years.

My heart was under attack from reduced blood flow for a long time. I just didn't read the signs.   

Do we need this? Darwin Bicycle folds forward for the climbs and sprints

Do we need this? Do we "need" anything (other than food, drink, shelter, love...) anyway? In some ways it makes sense, that you remain seated and stable in particular holds great promise. However it becomes rather tricky to keep an ideal, or perhaps optimal (shades of grey there) riding position when the bike keeps adapting around you. There's power output to consider, sure, as well as cadence, weight distribution and areodynamics to consider. To get all of that right on a moving, adjusting frame could prove tricky, especially for the rider who just wants to move forward a bit to stretch. Still, a bike that adapts to you sounds "right" somehow. As long as it doesn't weigh too much, of course.


Darwin Bicycle folds forward for the climbs and sprints

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Confidence is everything - the psychology of cycling

Or the psychology of everything, really.

I can tell you how to train your guts out, how to identify your strengths and weaknesses and how to position yourself to win, but none of that will help at all if you don't truly believe in yourself.

I used to train 10 to 15 thousand kays a year - not enough, I know - but it got me into the ballpark (as an A-grade clubbie, anyway). I had some condition. I had some strength. I didn't fade too early. I was there.

I enjoyed the physical side of training and it got me fit enough to be in the game - but I needed some psychological help, too. I needed both the skills of a racer and the motivation to execute my plans. The skills came about by watching, by listening and by practising. By running it through my head as well as actually racing it out on the road.

Winning is first of all about surviving. Getting dropped is the pits. And if you have the condition - enough of it - then it's all about timing and positioning from there, really. Positioning and timing to avoid crashes, to avoid missing the break and to be there - in the right place, on the right wheel - for the sprint. Simple, eh? But how do you get it right?

For me, my head had to get it together. The training helped, the sprint repeats and intervals, the mindless laps all played a part. But it was my head that desired to win and it was my head that had to learn the hardest lessons.

My head had to understand that getting dropped hurts enough that I didn't want to get dropped ever again. And I had to be smart enough to recognise the signs and avoid the danger zones, those points in a race when getting dropped is a very real possibility. Sometimes it's positioning for a hill, sometimes it's just gritting the teeth, chasing and absolutely not letting them go!

My head also had to handle the fight for the break - be in it! Get in there, but only when it's the right move. Size it up, make a judgement. Then commit. Totally.

My head also had to mix it up in the fight for the pre-sprint positioning as well as the tussle for line honours. Sometimes it's frustrating, sometimes just plain dangerous. It's reactive and exciting, physical and mental. It's the end game and it's mostly played out in your mind!      

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Heart problems bring Kaisen's career to a premature end : SBS Cycling Central

Timely indeed, given my own situation. This is Lotto Belisol's Olivier Kaisen on his heart problem:

"At training camp in December I was able to train in perfect circumstances without any problem. Now I think my moderate season in 2013 might be caused by it." Kaisen first noticed the problem during the Tour Down Under in January."After the second stage at the Tour Down Under I didn't feel well. It had been a very tiring and extremely hot day and I had ridden much at the head of the bunch for AndrĂ© Greipel. I did start the next stage, but immediately after the start of the third stage I felt something was wrong. I was scared and together with sports director Herman Frison I decided to quit. He said I couldn't take any risk.

The thing is, and I know this from hindsight more than any analytical brilliance, as you tend to grow into your body over time, it so rarely surprises you. You simply get used to its quirks. After all, you don't get to experience what other hearts are like, although you may still realise that there's a huge diversity in what are "normal" rhythms and rates of beating. Some are fast, some are slow and some are all over the shop. Yet they "do the job". Mostly. So you get "used" to your own quirks and they fade into the background... until one day...

And if you race - or even train hard - you are putting a hefty load on that single point of failure. That load can be extreme in a race, especially if you are dehydrated or have some other variation from the "norm" that one day may create that "perfect storm" that is ischaemia. Now hindsight is a wonderful thing and I don't want to put anyone off cycling to their full potential - far from it - but we can't see into our bodies as we go about our daily lives (well, not without some help, anyway). We have to go by feel. And that's why we need to look after ourselves, eat, rest and train right, and keep a look-out for anything that feels 'unusual'. It could be a sign that shouldn't be ignored.   

OK, last post on this for a bit...

More screenshots of the "ischaemic event"... even more self-explanatory!

My original post on how it all happened. Plus some stats and other nonsense.

Did you want some pictures to go with that ischaemia, sir?

Did you read this: http://addicted2wheels.blogspot.com.au/2014/02/double-training-used-to-work-dont-let.html? Want to know more? Sure, how about some pics? No, not of the stents being inserted (although... now that I think about it, maybe tomorrow?) just some Strava screenshots of me having a "medical event" during a training ride....

It's fairly self-explanatory... 2013 wasn't a bad year for cycling but not great either. I peaked a couple of times with semi-decent months but got sick a few times that wrecked my race season (which turned out to be a good thing, maybe).  I was playing catch-up all year. And then 2013 ended and 2014 went off with a bang (or a whimper perhaps)...

 Just another year? And then...
 One ride too many!
 I didn't feel well at all...
 And the figures prove it!
 'Creeping' is the word
 As I said, I ride a bit
 And I'm still riding!
Hopefully I'll keep it up...

My original post on how it all happened. Some stats and other nonsense. And more.   

Something else to add to my long list of broken bits!

Well I've never broken a gear hanger before... but by the glory of Felt I've done it now! (And I wasn't even changing gear - it just cracked and let go.) (This is a catch-up post, BTW.)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Double the training used to work. Now I'm not so sure. Or don't let age slow you down!

OK, so it 'used' to work. When I was 25 or so, anyway. Even when I was 35. But it started to go awry when I turned 42 or so. I'd always been relatively sensible in terms of avoiding over-training, making sure I ate right, or close anyway, and getting a bit of sleep. But the rules of thumb seemed to be breaking down. One moment all was well and consecutive 100km races on a weekend were fine, the next... not so good.

My rules of thumb? Number one, given a healthy diet and enough rest, is to train three times the distance of any given race per week, averaged over at least one month, preferably 3. After 3, back off, recover and build up again (preferably to a higher level). So if you want to race 100km, train at least 300km per week, average. That gives you base miles, basically. Build on that with specificity. I do have other rules of thumb but that's the main one.

Anyway, it worked for me until I was about 42 or so, but the signs of a problem were there from about 35, if I'd cared to look. I'd injure more easily. I couldn't mix-and-match sports as well as I used to (I was becoming highly cycling-specific but not entirely by choice!). And I was getting sick (mostly colds, mouth ulcers etc; irritants rather than 'show-stoppers') too often. And then it all went pear-shaped from my late 40s onwards. Now some of us will be luckier than others - some even less lucky than me - but my body reacted to aging by randomly mutating, as it were. It may have been stress-related, or environmental exposure to something I didn't even see. And it sent me on a medical-merry-go-round that hasn't ended.

But I persisted with training and racing, even if my racing suffered somewhat and became less frequent (I also had a young family, so was time-poor.) And that continued activity may have helped me fend off stage 2 of my medical maladies. Good aerobic fitness may well have protected me from the worst of my genetic (and perhaps dietary) failings. Which is to say that my heart attack at age 56 (whilst training, of course) was less severe than it may have been. And after 6 days off the bike I was back on - the trainer, anyway. A month or so later I am back on the road, feeling good - if a bit tentative.

What struck me down was high blood pressure, genetics and perhaps a love of dairy products. One coronary artery was significantly clogged and (since this was a new experience to me) I didn't recognise all of the early signs. Sure, I was 'treating' the high blood pressure with training (it works, up to a point, too). And I was still strong - still setting and re-setting Strava KOMs for example - but I became exhausted far too easily. There was no 'pain' as such, just lethargy and a feeling that I should 'go easy' today. Almost every day. At the time I put it down to all of the other medical issues I have collected (as you do) as well as "getting older". But when these new, sudden pains came I recognised immediately that although I had never experienced exactly this crushing sensation before, or the pain in both arms, I knew what the problem was: the heart. And I realised also that I had come 'close' to a similar feeling at the sharp end of a long sprint after a hard crit, several times. But unlike previous occasions I remained breathless and in pain, and it didn't go away. Not when I slowed down, nor even when I stopped.

Being both stupid and a cyclist (the 2 go hand-in-hand) I rode home with the pain, if rather slowly. I ran through some alternative options and even saw an ambulance and thought about flagging it down. I also remembered I had a mobile phone, my wife could pick me up in the car. Then again, I thought, maybe this is just an adverse reaction to the usual prescription medication I took this morning and it'll get better. Maybe I can just ride through this?

Oh yeah, and I live on a hill. My GPS data tells me it was the slowest I had ever ridden that hill, too. But I still wasn't the slowest. (Yes, I checked in Strava to be sure.) Although I knew with 90% certainty it was a heart attack I still wondered how I could ride home, uphill, whilst having an attack. Is that possible? And since I was averaging 200km/week I wondered how it was even possible that this could be happening at all. But it was.

The best part of 5 days in hospital and 3 stents have 'fixed' the clogged artery, now I just have to rebuild and get confident again. It takes time. So today's lesson? Don't think it can't happen. Cyclists - even long-time obsessively daily trainers like me - can have heart attacks. So be alert and react quickly and appropriately (like, stop riding and get medical help). Don't hesitate.

And yes, that daily training probably minimised the damage as well as fended off the day of the eventual heart attack itself. But listen to your body; if you aren't getting the training effect you used to get - and you are even going backwards - don't double the miles, instead take a rest or even have a chat with a doctor. It may just be over-training, lack of rest - or even an early warning sign of something far, far worse!

Some stats and other nonsense. And more.   

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

1998 was a while ago - do we care? Probably.

It would be nice to have a complete picture of doping in sport - all sports - globally but the truth is that it'll never happen. It's too hard, the data is lost or incomplete. Nevertheless when we have the chance to peek back at the past the temptation is hard to resist... but at the end of the day, should we care?

"Italian Marco Pantani, Germany's Jan Ullrich and American Bobby Julich who were the top three during the 1998 Tour de France were all taking the banned blood booster erythropoetin (EPO), according to reports published by French daily Le Monde." 
News: Cycling Central SBS

The samples in question are old but the test is probably valid. Worth noting that Pantani is not around to defend himself.  

Monday, July 08, 2013

The power of planned chaos - Le Tour 2013 week 1

It's been an interesting - indeed fascinating - week 1. Usually (in recent experience, anyway, as nothing is truly set in stone) Le Tour starts with a prologue that sorts the riders into something like a sprinter-heavy pecking order, followed by a few flat stages where the the sprinters swap the yellow jersey amongst themselves. Instead we got a longish and unexpectedly confused stage 1 that mixed things up a bit more than usual, and a team time trial that threw up some surprises and pushed the GC guys up and down in unexpected ways. The result was that one or 2 GC teams (including BMC) were almost out of the main game already. And then the first mountain stage (stage 8) tipped the bucket on a few more teams - most of them, actually. It looked like Sky had sewn it up already. Or so it seemed.

But in stage 9 the ever-creative Garmin team threw caution to the wind and attacked from the gun, shattering Sky's calm, possibly forever. In hindsight it was predictable. Froome's wilful, ungainly and somewhat brazen attack to grab the golden fleece always seemed premature but given Sky's dominance last year most people just expected it. Of course it will be a Sky 1-2 and of course they can hold off all comers from here. Or not, perhaps.

Two thoughts flashed through my mind as Froome took off: 'he's gone too soon, week 3 is where he should do this, if he still can'; and 'my god this looks bad - he not only rides without any style (not a problem for 2nd placed Richie Porte, though) but he looks crazed, in the worst possible 'extraterrestrial' way. Actually 3 thoughts, as I also feared for the race from here if Sky dominate crushingly like last year. As in boring. I shouldn't have worried, though, as whilst Froome still looks ungainly he can obviously defend as well as attack, and Porte (as well as the rest of the Sky team) proved fallibly human. Thankfully.

Of course Sky were aided in their less than perfect stage 9 by an agressive Movistar team taking no prisoners. If only they had a couple more Columbians to drive home the advantage they worked so hard to gain. Mind you the lack of attacks reinforced the "it's only the first week" voice inside my head and calmed the 'extraterriestrial' thoughts. They look human, and un-doped. Just. And unlike stage 8 the usual GC suspects were able to hang in there, reassuringly.
But what really impressed me was Garmin attacking from the blocks, gloriously oblivious to both Sky and 5 tough mountain climbs to come. Thank you, JV and team for that come-from-behind with a run-up approach.  It made the week passably brilliant.

"We were attacking without thinking about it, it was crazy," Martin told a news conference after the 168.5-km from St Girons."We wanted to make the race exciting. We enjoy bike riding, we wanted to put on a show for people at home." Garmin-Sharp's laid-back attitude is in sharp contrast with Team Sky's clinical approach but on Sunday they had a strategy.

"This stage was a bit of an objective for us since the start in Corsica and even after having lost Christian Vande Velde," Martin said, referring to the crash on stage seven that ruled his team-mate out of the Tour."It was a stage that suited us. With the team we have we can afford to be aggressive."

Martin is a decent climber, just like Danielson and Hesjedal, and they stuck to manager Jonathan Vaughters' plan to "cause chaos" in the race. "Craziest thing about today? We planned it," said Millar.

News: Cycling Central SBS

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What really makes a difference to your race performance?

It depends of course on your level of achievement and current fitness, bike fit, diet, health and equipment.

If you have a dodgy bike that weighs a ton and threatens to fall to bits at any second - there's your priority. But if you have a decent bike - say 9kgs or so, made of any popular material and completely safe and serviceable then for 99% of us upgrading won't make much, if any, difference. If it does make a measurable difference - and it's hard to really measure these things - it'll most likely be a head gain, not an equipment-specific improvement.

Not convinced? Well then, in terms of bike improvements aim to reduce rotating mass - starting with the wheels. That is something you'll feel immediately in improved acceleration. You want stiffness? Again, look to the wheels. You'll feel that, too. But weight and frame stiffness overall is of little consequence - except at the sharp end of the elite ranks. Unless you race at that sharp end, why would you pay an extra few thousand dollars simply to reduce your bike by just a kilo or 2? Or stiffen up what is already a remarkably stiff triangle of steel, aluminium or carbon? It simply won't make a difference, except you'll maybe feel and perhaps look cooler in the bunch. Perhaps that matters. Or maybe not! 

Maybe lose some weight yourself. After all it's you that weighs the most in this equation. Bike, 9kg or so. Rider? Perhaps you weigh 80kg with say 20-25% fat onboard (not that unusual, even with fit, fast guys). Imagine how much less effort you'll need to ride fast(er) if you dropped just a few kilos off yourself? It's all about power to weight, and improving your power without dropping some weight is just addressing half the problem. Look to achieve 12% body fat or slightly less (a lot less at elite levels) but don't go silly with diets or do dodgy things. Talk with a doctor or nutritionist if in any doubt. Eat a bit less, ride a bit more.

But if power is lacking, try intervals. Repeated hill intervals or hill sprints (150-200m hillclimbs in a biggish gear but still turning easily - don't grind!) will pick your power up nicely. Balance and consistency are the keys here. Don't just do one thing over and over - you'll get tired, probably over-tired, and become a one-trick pony. Mix it up both on a single training ride and from ride to ride.

Mix in some endurance, some power work and some speed work. And get in a bunch once in a while to get speed and endurance up quickly in tandem with your bunch riding skills. And be consistent. Don't do a single big ride and then not do another for a month or more. You'll lose what you gained.

Make a plan and stick as closely as you can to it, injuries aside. You need to do long rides, perhaps for an endurance event? Then build up with lots of shorter endurance rides for a month or 2, get used to doing lots of miles in a week but not in one go. Then add those much longer rides in later. But repeat them weekly so your body "remembers". So you'll end up with regular, shorter rides dotted through the week and a bigger ride or race once or maybe twice a week. And build the whole thing up gradually and incrementally to avoid injury and form loss.

Remember to be consistent, as in a pattern of repeated behaviour, because that tells your body to adjust to that expected effort. Inconsistency sends a confused message to your body and you'll get a confused response. Throw in speed work and power efforts as well but don't over-train. And plan your rests, too. A good training plan builds gradually, reaches a new level and then eases off before climbing to new heights in the next phase. You need to recover - not stop, just ease off - before aiming higher in power or endurance, or both.

More to come, I'm sure ;-)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Is training really all about periodization, intervals and power?

Well, no, training is about everything. It's about your effort on the bike plus nutrition, sleep, rest and your mental state, too - ie everything. It's even a little about the bike, as well.

But we can get carried away with the details and forget to just ride. To have fun.

I think we all have friends who are a bit unbalanced in their training. They obsess about some aspects - usually the hardware but sometimes also about diet or technique - and forget to just get out and ride. They may even rush out and engage a coach before even attempting the basics - like just riding regularly. They tie themselves in knots trying to meet goals that are way above where their bodies are at and get consumed by the details rather than look at the big picture. Phew. You know the type, right?

So I thought I'd write something about training with a non-technical slant. Mostly for the beginner, but for anyone really: it's Rob's "Just ride" training plan.

Remember - start healthy, stay healthy. If you are really new to exercise or have any doubts at all, see a doctor first.

Now, just ride (obviously). Don't race at first. Don't do intervals or baseline efforts. It's a mistake to do intervals, hill training or big rides without building a regular, consistent base first. Just ride regularly several times a week and well within your ability. If you want to race it's all built on experience and miles in the saddle. Your body adjusts over time to what you do in life, so if you are riding lots then your body adjusts to that effort. You get used to it. Just be consistent and do it because you love it. Join a club, ride with others. Learn by doing.

But you plan to race, yes? Sure, but you certainly don't have to do mega-miles or special efforts at this stage. Unscientific Rule of Thumb Number 1 works for me: if you plan to race then ride at least 3 times that distance in training per week, on average. No intervals, nothing fancy, just ride. So if you plan to race 50km just plan to train 150km a week, minimum. Yes you can do it with a lot less - but in the back of your mind you'll be thinking 'have I done enough?' And the answer will be 'no'. Don't race until you hit - or at least approach - that goal!

Unscientific Rule of Thumb Number 2 is that you need to build up gradually - don't just leap on a bike and ride 150km in one go and say "job done!". That's cheating and it doesn't work, at least for most of us! And it can (perhaps will) lead to injury. Instead make a plan to reach 150km a week (or whatever) in a series of incremental steps. 2 to 3 months is a good period over which to build up. Your body and mind will adjust to the effort and is less likely to break. But if you do get sore, slow down a bit or rest. Take some time to build a base. And don't race unless you have met your training goals first.

Unscientific Rule of Thumb Number 3 is similar to 2, it's "be consistent". Take breaks or ease off if your body says "rest" or "oww" but always come back to a repeatable pattern of effort that works for you. So ditch the "big ride" syndrome (at least for now, we can come back to that later) and go for regular, shorter efforts. One big ride per week works for some of us but mostly it's inefficient and ineffective. A better way to train is to do shorter daily or every-2nd-day efforts. So your 150km training week may be 3x50km rides or one 50km race and 5x20km efforts during the week. This allows your body (and mind) time to recover whilst ensuring that gains are made. If you are inconsistent, however, and do irregular big rides to "catch-up" you simply don't make the same incremental gains and risk injury.  

Unscientific Rule of Thumb Number 4 is "when you have done the miles, build on it". If you have followed what I have written so far you will have set out an achievable plan, adjusted it as needed, achieved it and done your consistent base miles. You may now race with some confidence. Of course a newbie will still struggle as we haven't covered intervals, power training and basic race skills and tactics. But that's the beauty of it all - you get to incorporate what you learn into your dynamic training plan! This is the build phase. You build in efforts that address weaknesses and enhance strengths. Now if you are a newbie to racing then be open to learn as it does involve a lot of skills, rules and etiquette that are not immediately obvious. Again, join a club, ride with others to get that experience.

So the build phase is literally built on a solid, consistent, regular and repeated base of steady miles. Not an on-and-off, patchy, lots-of-days-off melange of commutes peppered with massive catch-up rides. Unscientific Rule of Thumb Number 5 tells us that you lose "some" form and fitness  - it varies from person to person and by age so let's just say "some" - after only 2 days off the bike. You keep most, sure, but you lose 'something'. It may be small but after 2 days a bit of what you just gained is lost again. But if you leave 4 days or more between rides then you lose a much bigger slice of whatever you last gained. Again it's not all lost but it's certainly not all there, either. (Cautionary note - sometimes you just have to rest and recover, treat an injury or whatever and simply must take days off. It happens, it's OK.)

In summary, your body simply doesn't waste resources. If it looks like you won't be using those muscles and endurance power systems again, rather than keep it "just in case" it redistributes those resources elsewhere. Hence regularity and consistency are king, they remind your body of what you need to do. 

Now with the base in place you can add the fancy stuff to build speed, power and endurance. If you really enjoy it and want to take it further you can read up or get a coach. And remember: have fun.   

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Does pre-race carbo loading really work?

Let's face it, most of like to eat. Many of us like to eat a lot. And "carbo-loading" before a race seems like a really, really good excuse to do exactly that - pig out, guilt-free. But is it?

I have to say I've tried it a few times and it hasn't really worked. I've mostly done it in (short, amateur!) stage races or before a big road race. My performance didn't improve - seemingly, because how could I really tell? I didn't endure any better and I spent more time on the loo both pre and post race. But I did it in the '80s and the science has moved on, presumably.

The theory's good, though. In my day (the '80s, like I said) a few days to a week beforehand I'd ride to exhaustion a few days in a row - and I do mean exhaustion - whilst cutting back the carbs. And then I'd 'over-recover' for a few more days by backing off the miles, resting, and ingesting more than enough carbs than strictly necessary to simply refuel. Anecdotally this is still a popular idea - you 'fly' a few days after riding yourself into the ground. Somehow - this is the dodgy bit in my opinion - the body not only takes on what it needs it adds a bit more as a gluttony bonus, as though it senses you are about to do something extreme, or maybe even stoopid. But how does it know (insert something plausible about stimulating glycogen synthase here)?

And why would we evolve such a curious turbo-boost function? It doesn't seem likely, really, does it? If you over-eat you should simply egest or store (as fat) what you don't have room to conserve. Why would there be a secret hidey-hole for extra carbs?

Of course it's possible that waves of feast and famine coupled with our ancient mania for endurance walking have set this up for us. It's possible.

So much for the good old days. These days sports scientists generally believe it does work, even if it's just via the placebo effect (and who cares, as long as it works?). And they have generally ditched the ride-to-exhaustion bit. Rather you just do the diet and rest bit. (Which sounds a bit too convenient for me, but anyway...). The theory remains that training less ('tapering') but eating more carbs (ie eating more low-fat sugar and starch but slightly less protein and even less fibre) over 1-4 days will measurably boost your available muscle glycogen levels before an event. So it does work, indeed it just sounds like resting and recovery to me - and it's even easier than ever. But remember it's still not a licence to pig out!