Self Awareness is Key to Success, athletic or otherwise

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Lessons from the Tahoe Trail 100

I recently competed in the Tahoe Trail 100. A handful of the high-school athletes that I coach were doing it as a post-season race and encouraged me to come along with them. I was happy that it worked out, and I continue to be impressed with these young athletes and their ability to put so much into their sporting activities, and I’m happy knowing that it no doubt enhances other areas of their lives as well.

Even though endurance events like a 100k mountain bike race really suit me quite well, it hasn’t been my top priority lately to train for and participate in organized cycling events. As much as I love it, I’ve put more of my focus and energy into coaching and personal matters lately. I still always make it a top priority to take care of my body by eating well and staying very active, but as we all know, there’s a big difference between staying active and proactively training to prepare for a big event. In spite of this, I still wanted to do my best relative to my abilities and my resources (primarily my time available for training), and I think that I did a good job at this. It was a lot of fun doing an endurance mountain bike event with much less training going into it that I would have ideally wanted. It was a fun challenge to try to get the most fitness out of a very limited training schedule. This was fun on its own, but all the more so because one of my main roles as a coach to my athletes is to compose a challenging but very efficient training program for them to follow to try to get the most of their bodies while respecting all of the other commitments in their lives.

When all is said and done, in the last 5 weeks leading up to the Tahoe 100, I trained about 4 days per week, ranging from 5-8 hours per week, and was able to finish the event in 8th place with a time of 4:33:38, only about 4 minutes out of 4th place. My longest ride in the last 5 weeks leading up to the event was 3 hours, and I only had 2 other rides longer than 2.5 hours. Personally, I’m very pleased with this result, especially considering that I didn’t do consistent long rides and my longest ride was only 2/3 the duration of the event itself.

So, how did I do it? And, what lessons would I want to take away from the event? Here are a few thoughts that I hope are helpful to you, and maybe will leave you with one or two take-aways that you can implement in your own training to get the most out of it.

Goal setting:

  • Set goals that are reasonable but challenging. Don’t reach for your absolute potential if you can’t train for it, because you’ll be setting yourself up for disappointment. Also, don’t set goals that are too easy or are less than you’re capable of, because it will take all of the fun out of the event.
  • You don’t necessarily need to set a totally quantitative goal. If you’re self aware, then you can set a qualitative goal if that works for how your brain works. E.g. I went into the event knowing that I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting a ton of time into the training required to do my best, so I made a game of trying to get the best performance out of the time that I allowed myself to train based on my other personal and professional commitments. When the event was done, I knew that I had done very well given the fact that I was training less than half of what I would have wanted in an ideal world. I had achieved 95% of the fitness with 40-50% of the time and effort.
  • Don’t worry about everything all at once. Have a gameplan or strategy that you think will be effective for you, or reach out to someone for some assistance in creating this, and then take small actions each day that will work you toward your goal. You don’t have to worry about the next month or two of training today, you just have to do today’s training today; that’s all.
  • Don’t have an all-or-nothing attitude. I’ve observed myself and many of my athletes have times when they seemed to think “if I can’t do an hour or more of training today, then what’s the point” or “I really wish I could give 100% to this, and since I can only give 75% or 50% effort, then it’s totally not worth it because I know that I could do better if I could give more time and energy to this.” But really, there are few things in life that are perfect or times when we can truly give 100% to anything. Most of the time that we’ve felt that we’re giving 100%, we’re probably only really giving 80 or 90%… So let’s do everyone a favor and let go of that perfectionistic, all-or-nothing narrative. Instead, let’s look at where we are, what time and energy we have, and see what action we can take right now that will move us in the direction that we want to go while respecting our own values and overall life goals. If I can only train 1 hour a day during the week because I’m busy with work, then I should make the most of it and know that I’m working toward my goal. Whether or not I wished I could do 2 hours of training, it doesn’t matter. I don’t live in that world and there’s no use in comparing this world where I can train 1 hour to the hypothetical, non-existent world where I could possibly train 2 hours… Make the most of what you have and don’t worry about anything else.

Training:

  • Train as long as you reasonably can. Whether your long training session is as long as you would ideally like it to be or not, consistently getting in a solid endurance session at least once a week will always be a cornerstone of a good training program.
  • Focus on aerobic power and efficiency. I did a lot of tempo (85-95% of LT), threshold, and VO2 max (110-125% of LT) training to prepare, and that was a crucial part of my success in getting great fitness out of a tight schedule.
  • Focus on depleting glycogen frequently. Even if you can’t train for very long periods of time, do what you can to train to a state of relative glycogen depletion or even to a state of bonking. These days I can’t really bonk under normal conditions, but I will slow down a lot and start to feel achy all over. Usually this happens slowly over a training session, but it will happen if it’s long enough, has enough high-aerobic effort, and maybe has little or no carbohydrate consumption during the session. Glycogen is your stored carbohydrate which is an excellent source of fuel for training and racing, especially at high intensities, but it is also very finite and can be depleted in 2-3 hours of intense riding for most athletes. Fat on the other hand is functionally unlimited for any event lasting less than a day, so maximizing your fat-burning capacity is key to endurance performance. Depleting glycogen is a key component of driving up the production of fat burning enzymes. This will happen over a 5 hour training ride, but you can also make it happen on much shorter sessions if you limit or eliminate carbohydrate consumption before and/or during training.
  • Focus on strength. Muscular strength, power, and endurance is crucial for endurance events. If your aerobic system works great, but you haven’t trained your nervous system to keep firing your muscles at a high level for hours on end, then you may cramp or simply get weak and slow down a lot later in the event. Strength training on and off the bike is key, especially if you aren’t training at very high volumes.
  • Core work is also key to delivering power and minimizing back or shoulder pain during longer sessions, especially on the mountain bike, and helps with handling and technical skills.
  • Heat training is good. Whether or not you can train at high altitudes or do very long training sessions, one thing that most everyone has access to is summertime heat. Don’t avoid it all of the time, sometimes if you embrace it and train in the heat (say, 90-100 degree weather), then your body will adapt, get stronger and fitter, and perform better both in the heat and in cool conditions. I’d encourage most people to train in warm weather at least a few times a week. Among other things, your blood plasma volume goes up and enhances performance.

Nutrition:

  • Limit carbs before and during training if you want to deplete glycogen more quickly and maximize fat-burning. This can be easily done by training in the morning after only having water, tea, or coffee (and no sugar). Even if you train in the late morning or at your lunch break, you could skip breakfast or only have something with some fat and modest amounts of protein. This will minimize insulin production and allow your body to be primed for burning fat when you train. And, when you limit carb intake during training, you will deplete your stored glycogen more quickly, creating a big stimulus for your body to increase its fat burning capacity.
  • Get enough protein so that your body has the materials that it needs to keep building enzymes, maintain a strong immune system, and basically stay healthy and get stronger. This doesn’t have to be a lot of protein, and you don’t need animal-based proteins to do this, but just having some (at least 15g) of protein at most every meal should be good. As much as 20-30g can be good after workouts or in each meal when you’re training very hard and long hours, but usually anything more than 25-30g cannot be used at the time that you consume and digest the protein, so more is not always better in this case.
  • Get enough iron. If you are training a lot, supplemental iron may be a good idea. I’d suggest talking with your doctor, getting some bloodwork done, and consider taking some supplemental iron with monitoring every few months if performance matters to you. Likewise, consider taking a B-complex supplement, especially for the B12, which can be hard to get enough of, especially if you’re a vegan/vegetarian athlete.
  • Get plenty of salt when training in warm weather. There’s much more downside to not getting enough salt than there is to taking too much. If you’re generally healthy, active, and have a good diet consisting mostly of plants, then within reason there’s really no such thing as “too much salt.” It’s only if you have a pre-existing condition or set of conditions that predisposes you to high blood pressure that may mean that limiting salt intake may be a good idea, but only up to a point, because again, too little is worse than too much.

Race day nutrition:

  • 6 gels
  • 7 fig bars
  • 4 bottles of mix
  • 3-4 bottles of water

Equipment:

  • Check your drivetrain ahead of any event. Make sure that your chain, cassette, and chainrings are not worn out. Or, if they are, replace them at least a week ahead of the event so that you can make sure everything is working and shifting smoothly.
  • If your chain isn’t pretty new, then consider taking a small bottle of lube with you on any endurance ride where your chain may dry out. Factory grease on chains is usually pretty robust, but if you’ve lubed and cleaned your chain several times since you first got it, then it may get dry and noisy throughout a long mountain bike ride.
  • Choose tires that are appropriate for the event. Look at getting tires that are wide enough and/or aggressive enough for the terrain and soil conditions. Make sure that your tread isn’t worn out. If your tires need to be replaced, then do it at least a few rides before the event so that you can make sure the tires are seated and holding air well, because presumably your bike is set up tubeless, and if it isn’t, then it should be, but you can worry about when you’re at least a few weeks out from any event.
  • Test things out. Check out your tire selection and tire pressure ahead of the event so that you know how things feel and how they handle. Check out your suspension setup. Make sure that you’re comfortable and confident about the way things are feeling on your bike. Don’t make any major changes right before any event.
  • Again, new equipment can be good to make sure everything will perform well and last through the event. You definitely don’t want to break a chain or slide out because your tires are worn out. But, make sure that any changes in equipment happen at least a few rides out from the event so that you can make any adjustments necessary without any impact on your ride the day of the event.