Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Things Are Shaping Up

I've spent some holiday down time reading and web surfing regarding training and conditioning. The amount of material out there is intimidating but I've been able to distill three key concepts that I think we need to understand AND USE to prepare for Colorado this June:
  • Heart rate. Yes, it's pounding out of your chest at the top of the Quarry Climb (that's probably your max heart rate), but it turns out that number is critical for training purposes. You need to know that number and how to take your pulse. More in a moment.
  • Periodization explains why I make little progress riding at Marsh Creek. I have my favorite 1 hour loop which I ride 3-4 times a week in the spring. I've even done it 2x in a day. With the amount of miles and hours I have logged over there, I should be on the podium every year. But I'm not, ever. Every program on bike training uses periodization, which explains my lack of progress. More on this coming...
  • Diet. As we computer geeks like to say, garbage in garbage out. And when you are stressing your body with a training program, it's even more important to feed it the quality calories it needs.  
So now I’m going to go deep enough on these topics to make us dangerous. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how deep to go. Too much and it becomes overwhelming, fast.  Too little and you're unable to apply it to get results. So here we go...

There are two exercise states that are important to understand. We've experienced both and I think we need to do a lot more of one, and less of the other for the next few months. They are aerobic and anaerobic:
  • Aerobic is the physiological state where you feel like you could go (almost) forever. Your heart rate and respiration are up and you are comfortable. In this state, your body is able to burn fat calories in addition to carbs. We all have ample supplies of stored fat, but fat burns slowly so to stay aerobic for a long period you must do two things: (1) teach your body to be an efficient fat burner and (2) keep your exertion level moderate. If you push too hard, you will become anaerobic...
  • Anaerobic is when you "feel the burn" (think top of the Quarry climb). This is the physiological state where there is not enough oxygen to burn fat.  As we all know it is sustainable for short periods only.  At these times you are rapidly burning precious carbohydrates for energy. These carbs are precious for two reasons: (1) they allow you to perform these spurts but also (2) they are limited in supply. Power Bars can only do so much, you cannot ingest carbs fast enough to keep up with your body's demands, so these anaerobic spurts must be carefully managed.
Now the riding we do for fun is fairly infrequent especially in the winter.  It is usually about 1-2 hours and is focused on the anaerobic side of things. That's the nature of riding hilly terrain. We very rarely ride longer than two hours and when we do, we are totally gassed because we've been so anaerobic and frankly our aerobic conditioning is pretty poor.

Our ride out west will entail rides 2-3x that long, on successive days, so we need to train for that. It is the aerobic training, the stuff that allows us to go the distance from Durango to Moab, that requires time and discipline and some counter-intuitive techniques. Basically we should spend most of the next 6 months slowly building an aerobic foundation. Bike training geeks call this LSD for Long Slow (or Steady) Distance. The idea is that you are logging lots of time at a moderate exercise level to train your body aerobically, teaching it to burn fat (instead of carbs), building up tendons, joints, and capillaries to support the long sustained output you will require later in training and on the trip.

Now on the periodization. The point here is that doing the same routine over and over just makes you better at that routine. So I can ride my favorite loop at Marsh Creek like a champ, but throw in a different hill or a longer ride, and I've got nothing. Randomizing your routine is an improvement, but there is no goal. Periodization is the best of both worlds because it mixes things up and has a goal in mind. Periodization also incorporates the critical concept of rest. Rest is when your body is actually reacting to the exercise and getting stronger.

So let's pull some of these concepts together in a practical way.

Be aware of your heart rate. Calculate your max heart rate (MHR). You can do this by sprinting to top of the Quarry and taking your pulse, or by doing some simple math (220 minus your age). Now calculate your aerobic zone as 55% to 75% of your MHR. And your Anaerobic zone will be 85% to 92% of MHR. We'll monitor our heart rates during exercise to be sure we're in the right zone. For example, when training for aerobic you don't want to go over 75%. And this is the counter-intuitive part - if you push too hard during an aerobic workout (and go anaerobic) you will do two things:
  • Stop burning fat and start burning more carbs. YOU NEED TO TEACH YOUR BODY TO BURN FAT.
  • Compromise your next workout. By pushing too hard, you won't get the full benefit of the next workout, and you'll lose the benefits of periodization
So put away the single speeds, and ride but ride easy. If you feel a burn, you are pushing way too hard. Learn to monitor your pulse. Think LSD.

Develop a schedule for periodization. The schedule will gradually escalate in intensity through the end of May. Generally it should include a rest day after every workout day, and a rest week every fourth week.  Rest days don't have to be couch days (you could stretch, do yoga, lift, etc.) but it should not make you tired for the next day's scheduled workout. Rest weeks are not sedentary, we just cut back on the duration and intensity. Here is general program I lifted from an excellent book called Bike for Life - How to Ride to 100 by Wallack and Katovsky.
  • Phase 1 - Base
    • Type: Long, slow rides
    • Duration: 3 months (Feb-Apr)
    • Intensity: 55% to 75% of your max heart rate (max heart rate is 220 minus your age)
    • Key is to ramp up miles and pace slowly, less than 10% increase per week. Be patient. Hold back. Fight the urge to sharply increase activity. We are teaching the body to burn fat. Push too hard, and it will quickly transition to carb burning. A basement trainer or doing some road (flat) riding may be the key here. None of us are fans of mixing it up with cars on the road, but there are lots of good bike trails in the area (Struble, Schuylkill trail).
  • Phase 2 -  Build
    • Type: Shorter, faster rides, more hills
    • Duration: 1 month (May)
    • Intensity: 75%, with progressive intervals ranging from 85% to 92% of max heart rate
    • Maintain and continue to build aerobic capacity from phase 1, but start building speed and power. Tools are hill climbing, sustained hard efforts, and some short high-intensity sessions. We are trying to raise our anaerobic threshold higher (higher and higher heart rate before you feel the burn & go anaerobic). Generally this threshold is around 85% to 92% of max heart rate. Will also continue some long efforts so we don't lose the aerobic conditioning from phase 1.
  • Phase 3 - Peak and Taper
    • Type: Continued fast rides, but shorter in duration
    • Duration: 1 to 3 weeks (June)
    • Intensity: 75% with intervals at 85% to 92% of max
    • Relax, but not too much. You're at peak fitness but not well rested. For that we must back up the volume but stay sharp. Maintain intensity but back off the volume by 30% each week for high intensity rides. Shave duration off the long Long Slow Distance (LSD)  rides.
Cross training. There are a lot of good reasons for this, including balanced fitness (biking does little for upper body or core) and just having some variety. Weight lifting and yoga are recommended for bikers. Weight lifting is weight bearing (biking is not) so builds stronger bones, and it also allows you to focus in areas where biking is weak. Yoga is key for flexibility (biking is spent in a poor hunched-over posture that is bad for flexibility). Frankly I'm not sure how to fold this all into a training plan and keep it manageable, but I'm going to try, somehow.

The last area I'll mention (this is getting long already) is diet.  It is critical to be providing yourself with the fuel to get good workouts. This means the right number of calories, and they should be "high quality" calories. So a piece of fruit instead of chips. Watch out for alcohol - them emptiest calorie around. More on this later, pay attention to this and remember don’t go overboard on dieting - you need enough quality calories to have effective workouts.

I have created a spreadsheet tool to help build a customized plan according to the principles outlined above.  It incorporates goals, periodization, rest periods, etc.  Input cells are highlighted in yellow. I have plugged reasonable values into those fields (IMHO), but feel free to fiddle with them to see how it affects the overall plan...  I based it on the 5½ month plan in the book (“Bike for Life”), so to peak as we board the plane in mid-June we would have to start training at beginning of February. If you plan to start sooner (I do) then suggest you just train at the week 1 levels until then. Remember, LSD to build the base and burn fat (not carbs).

Finally, it's a long dark winter and I think it could be motivating to keep track of our progress together. Maybe a wiki or shared spreadsheet or something. It would take little extra effort (5 min per day to enter your information), but I do think it might be a good way to track progress and harness the competitive spirit in each of us for the better. I will look into this.

There you have it! Now go enjoy your last few days of overindulgence...


  1. I bet the guy that took that photo wishes he had a dollar for every time it has been used on a cycling blog. BTW you might want to check out Heart Zones for some very useful and proven heart rate information.

  2. I think I owe him $3 now. Regarding the heart rate stuff, I've ordered by first HRM and am looking forward learning more and raising my game. Will check out the HZ site, Thanks.