Monday, 19 March 2012

new tricks

A full month has passed since the Enduroman race and I'll be honest, it's been a difficult and drawn out recovery. After the race i was super-happy with the shape i was in and motivated and i suppose that this was part of the reason behind why i was tempted back into training too soon - that and my inexperience regarding the extent of the fatigue that the race, and the big block of training i'd put in during my 6-week intensive camp prior to the race. Usually after an ironman, i'll take 2-3 days off and then resume some light exercise during the following week This would be followed by a week or two of unstructured, social and fairly light training, amounting to about 30-50% usual load. During this post -race period I'm pretty lax about my diet, paticulary with regards to alcohol, and sleeping patterns so that after a few weeks i'm generally quite keen to get back on the "wagon" and behave like an athlete again and pick up what i have left of my pre -race fitness. Depending on what time of the year, or racing season this is, this is often when i feel like i'm in the best shape! Trained, rested and enthused.

After the Double, clearly I'd need much longer to recover and i'd set aside a good amount of time with no important races on the horizon to allow for that. Admittedly I had entered a local aquathlon race, and had hopes for a PB at this year's London marathon should everything be going to plan and follow on from the successful start to the year. So, I imposed on myself a whole week of doing nothing more active than receiving massage and then, following the usual pattern, did few light rides and swims the following week. All felt good, and so as the week went on I added in a few more workouts. No planned training, just getting from A to B, staying loose and catching up with old training buddies and a few of the athletes that i coach by joining their sessions. Of course what comes next is fairly predictable…with all the coughs and colds circulating the UK at this time of year, my shattered immune system was not going to let me get away with that and a slightly sore throat quickly developed into a a full-on and prolonged dose of lurgey and self-pity.

The saving grace for me during this period has been the distraction provided by my new training toy - a set of Cycleops Aluminium rollers supplied to me through Blair at Paligap. Blair was keen for me to try their top-end set, which offers variable resistance, but for the type of workouts that I had in mind for these I felt that the single low-resistance setting setting would be better. For my resistance work I have the use of a turbo trainer and plenty of local undulation. At this time i was not able to do any hard workouts, but had plenty of spare time to focus on some "skills" improvement.

Rollers are said to be great for tuning up the core to maintain stability on the bike, enabling you to keep locked on a line when riding in a group even whilst making large movements or gestures with the arms. the need for this was highlighted to me by my friend Emma as we fought over the stability of a tandem one long wet weekend back in November. Now of course, when i'm riding feel that I exhibit perfect poise over the combined centred of gravity of myself and bike - confidently capable of riding without hands, passing bottles, removing layers of clothing and pointing out interesting local features to my companions. However, according to her, the tandem was lurching wildly as my counter weight shifted each time I so much as changed my grip on the bars.

At the time I thought that this was a rather exaggerated and unfair criticism …..until I got on the rollers! For those that don't know "rollers" are a wonderfully simple bit of apparatus that enables you to ride your own bike in a stationary set-up indoors, in the garage or in the yard saving you the bother of carrying waterproofs or a map. The wheels of your bike rest on a set of 3 freely rotating cylandars (rollers!) the middle one is driven by the rear wheel of your bike as you pedal, this in turn drives the front roller by means of a rubber belt, and that drives your bicycle's front wheel which rests on top of it. So nothing's fixed in place but of course everything's perfectly stable so long as you keep it so. There's a little less contact that you get from a flat road surface and a lot less friction - i guess that's why it initially feels like riding over ice; a bit hairy but fine if you don't think about it, or try too hard to ride on ice…..
It's a fun skill to practice when you're too sick to do a "workout" - and 15-20 minutes is time usefully spent and after 2 or 3 of these short practices working someplace with a wall to lean on (initially i tried the fixie, don't think that was the easiest place to begin) I was confident enough to ride continuously. It's probably something that as a beginner i was more aware of …but whilst its very stable whilst you're centred and relaxed, the slightest movement of the front wheel or leaning the bike is very noticable, the tendency is then to over-compensate. With nothing solid to counter-balance against it's down to core strength (or a set of over filled shelves) and an ability to stay calm to set you right. So ,whilst you may think that you're riding a perfect line i'll bet that just like me, each time you look over your shoulder, lean down to reach your bottle, adjust your glasses or expel a bogie that bike is making quite a side-ways movement. Luckily, in a group EVERYone is constantly moving and, if they have any sense, also watching the rider that they're following, not just their wheel.

I've been riding my rollers twice a week for the last 3 weeks now and i'm still not ready for picking up a drink bottle during a workout BUT i have progressed to the point where I can move my hands about the grips, change gear ( even on my clunky old Campy!!!) look and hold my gaze left or right, singing and snot flinging. I'm still using a wall to lean on for mounting/dismounting but am keen to learn a more elegant method.

The second thing that these free rollers are great for, and from my perspective the main benefit of training on them is to work at high cadence. Referring once again to our tandem adventure, another of the issues that Emma and I had was that we have vastly different natural pedalling cadence. It's hardly surprising really since although we met through triathlon, Emma is a long time cycling enthusiast who occasionally swims and runs under sufferance. I don't really know why - because she just loves to ride ride ride and most of all she loves to ride hills (she is very good at it). Long rides, audaxing away for hundreds of km, frequently in the company of those slower than herself and rides accordingly. The high-cadence that she's developed (and observed) with this background enables her to do these gruelling long rides, ascend as fast up the very last hill as she did the first and still be feeling pretty jolly at the end of it. usually. Whereas myself - putting aside the cycling that I did as a kid/youth on heavy 3 geared steel bikes on the rolling roads around Somerset - cycling for me was a pastime that I came to via triathlon, and time trailing. My natural cadence has always been pretty low, I'm a grinder, and although I have often read and heard it suggested that 90rpm is "optimum" and that therefor a higher cadence would be "better" I have never been fully convinced that this is true for triathletes. I've read articles in the mainstream tri mags and "how to train for triathlon" books which have adopted this idealisation of "90rpm" - but they never really provided an explanation that made sense to me. It was quite a breathe of fresh air when Brett Sutton discussed this topic in the light of his athletes tending to riding pretty slow rpm ..scorching the bike course and then running pretty good after that. I did not get the impression that he encourages low rpm….he just doesn't see the value in changing it too much from what comes natural (for these triathletes). You can go fast by pushing a big gear slower or a small gear faster- whilst the former isn't ideal when there are 5 days of a stage race with frequent surges in pace to contend with, but the latter is more likely to get your HR higher for that 5 hour sustained hard effort preceding a marathon - that's not always what u want.

That said, how can I refute that being able to exert power efficiently through a wider range of rpm would be better than confinement to a narrow preferred range? Just like riding on slippery roads or through a ford, on the rollers you're more stable at higher rpm. I'm not sure why but i'd guess that its due to less force per stroke and therefor whatever pedal stroke imperfections and left-right imbalances you have are less effective in both magnitude and also duration. In other words, you "correct" the rocking each pedal stroke, so the quicker your stroke, the faster the correction occurs and lesser the consequences. So these are a great tool for training higher cadence habits and testing out some pedalling technique focused sessions that i have had some of my athletes doing during their off-season. With a heart rate monitor speed and cadence sensors fitted to my bike (i'm lucky, i have a Timex unit that measures all 3 plus power) I first did a testing session which enabled me to determine my current preferred gearing/cadence and have been regularly conducting a workout designed to practice riding in a slightly lower gearing for the same power and test the effectiveness of this. It appeals to me because it's a very measured approach - there's data to review after the workout, it's novel, fun and challenging. It generates a good amount of sweat and some higher HR but is easy on my quads and knees. After a 5 minute warm up, I ride 5 minutes in my "middle" gear - that's 50/17 - at 33.5kph. This requires me to pedal at about 90rpm which now feels quite comfortable and the resultant heart rate is 150-153 bpm which is around AeT. Then follows 5 minutes intervals with 1 minute recovery, riding each interval in different gears at the same speed. After the workout I look at the Hr and cadence as well as whether I successfully maintained the target speed for each interval. It's still true that the most "efficient" - if i look at HR for speed - gears are the higher ones with rpm below 80, but I have found that i am becoming much more comfortable at 90+ rpm and improving my efficiency close to 100rpm. Initially i was unable to maintain my balance at 110rpm due to 'bouncing' effect that the rollers will not tolerate….but now, although it's still difficult and sends my HR right up there, i have smoothed the stroke out and can stay on board for the full interval.

In addition to these short workouts I have been doing a couple of grown up rides - nothing long, just 3-4hrs each weekend - in preparation for a week of solid riding out in Lanzarote whist hosting our second EverydayTraining camp .
Steven is in great shape - his spell in Lanzarote prior to the Enduro kick started his return to fitness after a fairly long winter break and he has maintained his momentum fantastically since then. I'm hoping that, this camp will do the same for me!

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