Start Getting Ready for Next Season

There’s a lot that goes into a successful season, whether you’re a competitive cyclist, runner, or triathlete, or if you have fitness goals or events that you want to train for. For most people Fall is the time of year that they consider taking some time off or at least time away from structured, hard training. Except for cyclocross racers, most people are starting to look ahead several months to their next goals, and will do well to take some time to look back on their past seasons and plan for the next one.

I’m planning on putting together a few articles and videos that cover some of the key things that you will want to do or want to plan for during this time. To start, it’s almost always a good idea for athletes to take some time away from very difficult training to allow themselves some time to rest both physically and mentally. Usually, as training time goes down, this may free up time to address any issues that may be hard to address during the season. For many people who have had minor aches and pains, you may check in with a physical therapist to come up with a strength and flexibility routine to prevent those issues. You may look at changing your bike fit or your shoes. You may start to invest more time in strengthening your core, legs, and shoulders so that you’re a stronger athlete and less prone to injury in the future.

Sandy and Sean Pescadero 1-2

That last piece is one thing that I wanted to address right now. No matter where you’re at in your training or planning for the coming year, if you aren’t racing or doing any goal events right now and have a little while before you do, then you should definitely consider investing some time into strengthening your core and even your whole body. Spending just 15 minutes or so, maybe 3 times a week at home with a yoga mat and a pair of dumbbells, or going to the gym a few times a week can do a lot to get you ready for the increased training volume that you may be planning.

First and foremost, doing core work can help increase your comfort and power doing most any sporting activity. If you increase your strength there, then you’ll generally have a stronger platform for everything else. So, definitely consider doing a series of planks, push-ups, crunches, or other things along those lines a few times a week or every other day. You’ll be happy that you did.

Personally, I’ll usually aim to do 3-4 circuits of push-ups, suspended front planks, side planks, back-extensions, mountain-climbers, and maybe some bent-over rows and/or dumbbell curls for good measure. Here’s a brief video that expands on this a little…

Beyond just doing a basic core routine, it can be very good to also do some leg-strengthening work. If you have access to a gym, then doing things like squats, dead-lifts, trap-bar dead-lifts, leg presses, leg extensions, or hamstring curls can all be great. I’ll never do all of those things in one session, but I may mix it up and do slightly different exercises from week to week. At any given session, I’ll usually try to do 3-5 movements and do a handful of sets of each.

If you’re at home, then you can do a lot even with minimal equipment or even just doing some body-weight exercises. If you plan to make strength work a regular part of your routine, then I’d suggest getting one or even two pairs of dumbbells and a box or bench. This way you can transition from body weight exercises to weighted ones. Focus on squats, lunges, box step-ups, calf raises, and maybe some plyometric type work, like squat jumps, box jumps, or straight-leg hops for your calves. I’ve done this kind of routine with good results over the years and am convinced that you don’t necessarily need a gym membership to get in a very good strength workout. The gym may offer you more options, but you can do a lot at home on a minimal budget.

To tie it all together, this is my basic routine and one that I’d suggest trying or using as a model for constructing a routine that works well for you. I’ll often start with body weight to warm up and then use my weights to make it more of a workout. I have a pair of 25# and 35# dumbbells, but you should try different weights out to see what will work for you.

about 3 sets
push-ups
suspended front plank, often with mountain climber movements (knee to chest)
side planks
back-extensions
dumbbell curls
bent-over dumbbell rows

then I’ll transition to legs:
squats
lunges
box step-ups
calf raises and/or hops

Clearly this is nothing fancy. The whole thing may take just 15 minutes if I’m in a hurry and only do two sets of everything. Or, if I have more time and motivation, then I’ll do 3 or 4 sets, and it may take as long as 20-25 minutes, but really, it’s not that time consuming. I think that sometimes this is the best use of a short period of time if all you have available is a half-hour in the morning before a full day at work or with family. Or if you’re on the road and just have a hotel gym and a full day of other work or family activities.

I’d encourage you to try adding this kind of basic routine into your winter schedule just 2 or 3 times per week and see what it does for you over the first 4 to 5 weeks. I’m sure you’ll feel good about the time and energy you spent doing this, and will probably want to continue.

Good luck and keep moving.

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How to CRUSH the Diablo Challenge!

Every year for a while now, the Diablo Challenge has been held at the end of the racing season, usually the first weekend of October. It’s a mass start unofficial race up Mt. Diablo starting at the Athenian School at the bottom of South Gate Road and goes all the way to the summit of Diablo. It’s a fun event and has been used to raise money for the Save Mount Diablo organization.

Many people just do it for fun and to support the charity that aims to preserve lands around Mount Diablo. Some also do it for the challenge of racing up the long 11 mile climb up about 3,100 feet of elevation. It’s a great climb, and one of my all-time favorite places to train and test my fitness. I’ve ridden it hard dozens of times and it’s always great.

I’ve won the Challenge a few times and have some fast times up the climb, even taking into account the fact that the Tour of California has finished there a few times. My best time from South Gate to the Summit still ranks in the top 10 on Strava. Not too long ago, Phil Gaimon tried to set a fast time and was a little faster, but didn’t get a chance to get all the way to the summit, since there was some snow at the top and the road was closed for a few weeks at that time.

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In any case, I have some experience on the climb and know what it takes to ride it fast. I wanted to put out a few thoughts on pacing and basic strategies to try to help you if you’re trying to go out and train on the mountain, if you’re using it as a test of fitness and want to do your best efforts there, or if you’re doing the Diablo Challenge. Personally, I’d recommend doing Diablo at least a few times a month if you live in the East Bay and want to be a strong climber, road racer, or time trialist. Even if you’re not a racer but want to be strong for group rides, Gran Fondos, or a big bike tour, it’s hard to beat Diablo for high aerobic training in the Bay Area.

So, here are a few thoughts on riding the mountain:

Power: If you have a power meter, hopefully you have a good what your peak power curve is like and a reasonably good idea of how long it will take to complete the climb. You can use that information to target your peak power for the climb. So, let’s say that you are trying to break an hour, you’ve ridden it in training recently and have done the climb in 1:01 or 1:02 at about 250w, then you could probably aim to do the climb at 250w or maybe even 255w. If you are fresh and motivated, then you can usually squeeze out a few extra watts compared to an average training ride. Sometimes you can surprise yourself and do an extra 10 or 15w more than your recent training sessions, but this is not usually the case, so you shouldn’t count on it. If you head out at 260-270w for the first 10m, even though this may feel easy at the time, it’s usually not the best idea and in all likelihood you will slow down later.

Mt Diablo from Vollmer Peak-2

The climb is a little steeper on the second half (about 7% grade) than the first half (about 5%), and you’re going slower. So, if you go out too hard, it doesn’t help you as much in the first half as the same amount of extra power would help you in the second half of the climb. So, try to keep it steady, or if you can, maybe try to do a negative split with a few extra watts on the top half than on the bottom.

Throughout the climb, there are a number of short steeper pitches and a number of brief periods of shallower grades. Use the shallow bits to try to recover, drop your power just a few watts and catch your breath. Use the steep bits to pick up a couple of seconds here and there. Throughout the climb, an optimal strategy will include a few dozen small fluctuations above and below your threshold of up to 5-10%. Below, I’m posting a screen shot that shows those spikes in power as well as some major dips. You can see my HR drift downward throughout those periods of easier riding. That extra reserve of cardiac output helps you to feel much more comfortable and gives you the ability to attack the steeper portions of the climb with a little extra power.

Heart Rate: Heart rate is incredibly helpful for longer threshold efforts. I find it very useful for pacing long training efforts, hill climbs, and time trials. Your heart rate does vary fairly significantly from day to day and week to week depending on how well recovered you are, how much glycogen you have in your legs, whether or not you have had caffeine, and how excited or focused you are. But, if you pay attention to your HR numbers on a regular basis, you can usually tell very well what your HR values will be on your ride today and you can adjust your expectations up or down a few bpm accordingly. Any time you’re racing you can usually expect to see slightly higher HR numbers than in training, because you are ideally a little fresher and more motivated than on a normal training ride.

Diablo Peak from half way-2

Allow yourself several minutes at the start of the climb to let your HR drift slowly upwards. You don’t want to see peak HR numbers within the first 5 or even 10 minutes. If you’re maxed out early on, then it’s hard to recover and still maintain high power throughout the climb. For people who aren’t used to training with power, they are often surprised to see that their power is slowly but steadily dropping even though their HR is remaining constant on a long climbing effort like Diablo. Try to avoid this. Ideally you see a sharp rise for the first few minutes, then a slow rise for another few, but then it should plateau and just inch upwards another couple of beats per minute [bpm] towards the later portions of the climb.

For me, I may expect a hard TT effort up Diablo to have an average HR around 160-165. I know from experience what power is reasonable (about 400-410w when I’m in good shape) and I know what it feels like. I’ll take into account all three of those inputs in gauging my efforts (i.e. HR, power, and perceived effort). Always listen to your body. So, if you look at this particular effort of mine, you can see that I averaged 162 bpm and 415w, but you’ll notice that I never saw my HR at 162 until several minutes into the climb and only briefly. After the first 10m to the Pay Station, you can see that my power dropped and my HR followed when I rode through Rock City. I think that recovery is crucial. During the Diablo Challenge, you can often get a draft if you can find a few riders to rotate with at that point. Past Rick City and the helipad right below the junction, you can see that my HR started to hover in the low 160s. Finally in the last 1/3 of the climb, my HR finally remained in the upper 160s until the end of the climb. I averaged 166 bpm from the Junction to the Summit for this particular effort. But, you’ll also notice that I did 420w for the first half of the climb and only 410w for the second half of the climb. I think that I could have gone a few seconds faster if I had paced it a little more evenly.

2017-10-06 (2)

You’ll notice that even late in the climb near the final ascent up the wall to the Summit, I tried to get a few moments of recovery before hammering up the last few hundred meters up “the wall.” Even just getting my HR down 3-4 bpm for a few moments allowed me to relax, focus, and dig deep up the last portion of the climb.

Clearly, I’m a bit of an outlier, but it’s always very useful to look at peak performances to see what a perfect or near perfect performance looks like. Whether you’re trying to ride faster than last year, trying to break an hour for the first time, or trying to win the race, it can help to look at the pacing of the top one or two performances that you see on Strava leaderboards. Usually the KOM on any competitive segment is a pretty ideal pacing strategy.

Coyote on Diablo-2

Perceived effort: Perceived effort is not something that is often discussed in training or sports performance articles, but it’s very important. I always pay close attention to how I’m feeling when I’m training and racing. I’ll definitely also be looking at what my HR and power numbers look like, but I consider them all to be valuable pieces of data that inform my pacing, racing, and training decisions. Even though you can’t put a precise numerical value on this, it’s good to listen to your body.

Along with HR, I would suggest going into the Challenge or any time trial type effort, whether in training or racing, with a specific expectation of how hard it will feel ahead of time. I would pace it so that you don’t feel like you are at your limit for the first 1/4 or 1/3 of the climb. After you get settled into your pace, you should feel like you’re inching towards your limit, but until the last 1/3 of the effort you shouldn’t feel like you’re at your limit.

Hydration and food: I would recommend having a bottle of mix with you while you ride any long climb at a hard pace. Keeping your mouth and throat wet helps your breathing to feel more comfortable and may provide a marginal advantage in its own right, because your lungs need to be wet/humid to do their job. But, mostly it’s good to stay comfortable and not feel lousy with a dry, cotton mouth. It’s also good to take in a few carbohydrate calories during a long hard effort like this. You can actually absorb and use some calories, but you won’t become glycogen depleted over the course of a single 11 mile climb. Still, blood glucose is an important fuel source during hard efforts like that. And, studies have shown that putting sweet things in your mouth (like drink mix) is performance enhancing.

Because the climb is short enough that you can’t run out of glycogen by the time you reach the top, you don’t need to worry about taking in a lot of calories during the climb. But still, some people may benefit from having an emergency gel that they may consider taking while they ride through Rock City. Or you could take a few chews. Really, I think that for most people it should be ideal to just have on bottle of mix for the ride and that should be sufficient.

Warm up: In order to perform your best at any kind of intense effort you need to have a good warm-up. The more intense the effort, the more thorough your warm up needs to be. For less intense efforts or longer events, you don’t need as much of a warm up. Professional racers have good habits here because it’s very important to them and their livelihood basically depends on their race-day performance.

Before time trials, mountain bike or cross races, or intense road races that start with a hard climb or something like that you’ll usually see longer and more intense warm-ups. For longer events that won’t start very intensely, you’ll often see athletes doing more relaxed warm-ups just to get loose.

For something like the Diablo Challenge, I’d allow at least 15-20m to ride at a comfortable pace and then another 10-15 to do a few moderate efforts. Start easy and slowly ramp up until you’re riding at a decent clip a little below your threshold. As you feel more warmed up and ready to go, consider doing a few short efforts above your threshold. Finally, in the last 10m before your event, you may want to stomp on the pedals for a few 3/4 effort sprints for maybe 8-15 seconds at 150% of your threshold power. This way your aerobic systems are all warmed up, but also your nervous system is ready to engage your muscles at a high level and your muscles will be better prepared to clear high quantities of lactate. Some athletes find that they even want to do 1 or 2 short VO2 max intervals that are long enough to make their legs start to hurt. When your legs start to ache or burn it’s generally a sign that you’re doing a moderate to high amount of anaerobic metabolism and feeling just a little bit of that before racing intensely can make your legs feel more comfortable once the race or time trial starts.

Again, listen to your body and do what helps you to feel ready to ride hard. That’s all you need, but you can’t do your best if you aren’t fully warmed up.

This might look something like this:

15-20m starting 50% of threshold and slowly increasing to 90% of threshold

2-3×1-2m at 105-110% of threshold

2-3 short powerful accelerations (8-15s at roughly 130-160% of threshold)

5-10m easy spinning before lining up for the event

What’s the best drink mix?

Given the fact that we want to stay hydrated and to perform well while we’re training and while we’re racing, it’s good to consider what drink mix options there are and to see if there’s one or two that may meet our needs the best.

So, this article is meant to address the question: What’s the best drink mix for me?

If we’re trying to figure out what the best drink mix is going to be for us, then we probably have to think for a second about what we’re trying to get out of our mix and what it’s supposed to help us with. The obvious answer to this question is to say that we need to stay hydrated or at least delay becoming dehydrated, and preserve proper nervous system function by preventing hyponatremia. In order to do this, we will want to have some water and sodium, which are clearly two things that all drink mixes provide. We generally also want a source of carbohydrates to fuel our efforts, because they provide an easy to burn fuel source for our more intense efforts. Except for electrolyte-only products like Nuun and Gu Hydration Tabs, all drink mixes will provide some amount of carbohydrate that we usually will want while training or racing. This may not always be the case and there are reasons for sometimes not taking in a lot of calories during your training, but it’s definitely a separate topic that I hope to address in the future. But, for those times when we want carbs, different drink mixes will have different types and different amounts of carbohydrate, and this is going to be the big differentiating factor that may inspire you to choose one drink mix over another.

We all have a functionally unlimited amount of fat stored in our bodies that can be used as fuel, but it takes more oxygen to burn fat as fuel and our fast-twitch muscle fibers need carbohydrate to perform. As we get closer to our anaerobic threshold our rate of fat burning drops of quickly to very low levels and at which point we essentially only use carbs for fuel. So any intense efforts have to be fueled by muscle glycogen that we had going into our workout or blood glucose. We can replenish blood glucose while we train up to a few hundred calories worth per hour, and this can reduce the rate at which we deplete our glycogen stores, but we can’t replace glycogen until we stop training, eat carbs, and rest. So, it’s up to our drink mix or training foods to help supply any carbohydrate that we will use for our efforts, because we can’t really make changes anywhere else once we start exercising.

So, how much sodium and carbohydrate do different drink mixes have? And, what kinds of carbohydrate do they have? Well, here’s a table summarizing several of the options available today:

drink mixes

So, if you look at the range of different drink mixes, it’s easy to see that there is a huge range of how many calories you can get per bottle. And, there’s a decent range of how much sodium there is per bottle. But, even though electrolyte and calorie content do vary from product to product, you clearly have the choice to mix your bottles with more or less of the product that you’re using, so in principle you could mix all of them to the same electrolyte or calorie density. Clearly in some cases you wouldn’t want to do this because they would have way too much of one thing or another, but this makes it clear that the only thing we need to be concerned about is the ratio of electrolytes and carbs and the type of carbs present.

Some drinks also have nontrivial amounts of calcium and magnesium, some have added amino acids, and some have added vitamins, like vitamin C. Amino acids can be helpful for reducing protein breakdown during exercise and may improve performance, especially in the long run over many days and weeks of training. This can be a good thing, and they are usually found in low enough concentrations that they generally shouldn’t have a negative impact on your digestion. But, they aren’t essential to good performance, so I’m not sure I would worry to much about that until you have figured out what the right balance of fluid, electrolyte, sugars, and starches work well for you. Likewise, vitamin content of your drink mix will almost certainly not improve performance, but actually vitamin C and other supplemental antioxidants are likely to decrease performance by reducing oxidative stress on your body. Your body has its own antioxidant defenses and they are made stronger through aerobic exercise over time. But, one of the things that helps make us fitter is the adaptation that occurs after sustaining some level of oxidative stress, so clearing that away with supplemental anti-oxidants will not help with this process. Given the options available, I would always choose the option that has less vitamin C, or other antioxidants.

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Now, the biggest thing that will affect our short term performance and comfort while we’re training or racing will be the electrolyte and carbohydrate content of our drinks. Both the amount and type of carbohydrate can influence how well we tolerate our drink mixes, so it’s a good idea to try out different mixes and see how well you enjoy the taste and how well you can tolerate medium to high quantities of fluids when you’re drinking sugars versus starches like maltodextrin. And, once you figure out what kinds of carbs work well for you, you might be set, but you might want to try mixing them with a little more or less mix per bottle to see what mix density works best for you.

If you can find a mix that you enjoy and tolerate well, then you should be pretty set. Ideally you will also need to take into account how many calories are in your mix and how much you will be drinking, and then you can consider how much additional solid food, gels, or chews you will want to take in for racing or harder workouts. Overall, your whole intake of foods and fluids needs to work well for you, so you should try things out in training so that you can make sure that you’re getting the most out of your body. And, as with anything in training, it’s good to practice the things that you will be doing in racing or during any goal events. Whether you’re doing a century ride or a stage race, the nutrition and hydration strategy that you use will have a big impact on how you feel and how you perform, so practice your strategies in training and adjust them as needed before your events so that you’re never trying something for the first time when it matters to you most. This goes for the food and drink items that you’re going to consume, as well as the quantities. If you want to take in 300 calories per hour during a really tough race or event, then you should try that out in training at least a couple of times to be sure that it will work for you.

Also, there is clearly a little bit of a challenge for athletes who are training for hours at a time. If you’re out on your bike for 3 or 4 or 5 hours, then you can start your ride with some drink mix that you made at home, but after that you will only have water to refill your bottles. So, the two obvious choices are to either take a small bag or tube of drink mix or to take electrolyte only tablets like Nuun or Gu Hydration tabs. It’s good to take this into account, because tablets are much easier to work with, but then you won’t be taking in any calories in your drinks after the first couple of hours and you may want to increase your consumption of solid food in order to compensate. During races, this may be less of an issue if you can get new bottles with drink mix, but you can’t always, so it’s good to have some foods that have a little salt in them in order to be prepared if you can only get water later in your race or event. Or, for runners doing half or full marathons, research what your event will have available and be sure to train some with that drink mix so that you know how well it will work for you and how much you can take. Either way, experimenting while you are training is going to be a major key to your success. If you’re lucky, you may be able to tolerate most any food or mix, but many people cannot, and sometimes you may be able to perform better if you consume fewer calories in order to maintain a comfortable stomach than if you eat or drink too much of something that makes your stomach feel lousy. So, just try things out in training and get your stomach used to whatever products you choose to use or will be using in your event.

If you do this and try out a few products and see how everything works together for you, then you should be well on your way to establishing a set of optimized habits that will help you get the most out of your training and racing.