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!   

Now that was the Giro for me - coffee breaks and all

 Jose Azevedo states the obvious - the Giro isn't the Tour - but it's getting more similar. What I really like is his 'back in my day' reflection:
"Back when I raced the Giro, on the flat stages a break would go early on, then we'd all ease back and ride very, very gently until about 50 kilometres to go," he said.

"A lot of days, the main bunch would even have cappuccino and cake or ice cream stops mid-race in some of the villages.

Now that's a bike race.

Unpredictable Giro tests riders, staff : SBS Cycling Central | Cycling News and Results | Video Highlights

Monday, May 13, 2013

Evans and Wurf now lead Points and Sprints at Giro D'Italia 2013: Stage 9 Results |

Ahh, the Grand Tours. It's just interesting - no, fascinating - to watch the steady, incremental progress that Cadel Evans is quietly making in this Giro. Nothing too flash, but he is relentlessly picking up bunch sprints and high placings, leading to the steady collection of points in the, umm, points classification. No surprise really, it's his style as a "GC guy" to take what's available as it presents.

If he has a plan it's to stay close, match Nibali and the less-impressive-so-far Wiggins and keep on keeping on. Perhaps he will attack on a climb when or if Nibali shows weakness? Or wait until the uphill chrono in week 3? Or just wait, period. It's only the end of the first week after all.

Wurf meanwhile is hanging on in the sprint category (a bit of a misnomer really) through consistency and grit and right-place-right-time methodology. Hansen of course has won a stage so he's happy!  

Giro D'Italia 2013: Stage 9 Results |