China, cycling, off-season, training, and new beginnings.

Usually my main interest in posting on my site is to relay ideas about training, nutrition, or lifestyle issues that affect endurance athletes, usually cyclists, triathletes, and runners. Every once in a while it seems appropriate to put in a word or two about what I’ve been up to and maybe any new insights that brings me with respect to the life of an endurance athlete. Feel free to skim and read whatever interests you. I never know what people will find interesting in my writing, but you can always shoot me an email and ask (nate@englishendurance.com).

ChinaUtah team ride

Yes, about a month ago, I went with my team to China for a few late season races. 6 of us from the team went, and we spent 10 days doing a stage race with all short, flat, sprint stages and then did a one day race before coming back home. It was interesting, and pretty cool to go to China since I’ve never been there. The racing was, quite frankly, terrible for me as a rider. With no mountains, no long stages, no time-trials, and no truly interesting features to the race except for the blistering paces on the flats, there wasn’t much for me and all of my slow twitch muscles to do but hang in and try to take some wind for my teammates when appropriate.

Ironically, after Utah, I figured my season was over because with my injuries (a few fractured vertebrae, abrasions, and sprained shoulder) I wasn’t fit to ride the inaugural Tour of Alberta with my team. Given an early start to my off season, I decided to experiment a bit with my diet and training and had been pleased to drop a few pounds below my normal racing weight (which is the same as my off-season weight). Losing 3-4 pounds is great for winning the Diablo Challenge mass-start hill-climb charity ride, which was fun, but not so great if you want a ton of power for races on flat ground that average 29-30 mph most of the time.

Still, I think most of my teammates are in somewhat the same state of mind of feeling fortunate to have gotten through the races unscathed by any serious illness or injury and having had the pleasure of another adventure only made possible by the sport we love.

Cycling and New BeginningsDiablo by Craig Huffman

At the end of this season, it became clear to us athletes and those that follow the sport that job prospects for cyclists were not at their high-point, to say the least. Rather, domestically and abroad several teams were folding, budgets were tight, and there was again an abundance of talent available with not so many positions around for them to fill. As much as I’ve enjoyed racing for these last several years, I’ve enjoyed most of all the opportunity to progress as an athlete, to increase my fitness and capabilities, and to increase my skills and knowledge of the sport and how to participate in it. To that end, each year has provided me good stimulation physically and mentally as I’ve tried to better myself physically and mentally as a cyclist.

As the off-season was setting in and teams were making their offers, I was given a few good opportunities to continue racing at the professional level, but only at a similar level of compensation to what I’ve had the last few years. This wasn’t really what I was looking for, and quite frankly is less than I think an athlete of my abilities is worth. But, in the current financial climate of the sport, it’s hard to look on any legitimate offer too poorly. Still, I’ve spent the last 6 years or so seeing how far I can develop as a cyclist while also committing myself to full-time work off-the-bike, and now also engaging in a steady flow of coaching work. If I were afforded a proper opportunity to forego a full-time job in order to pursue cycling full-time, then I might take that opportunity, because I’m certain that I would have more room to improve if I weren’t on such a tight budget with my time. But, nobody saw fit to give me such an opportunity.

To be sure, I’ve actually found that working full-time and trying to be  successful athlete with only 15-20 hours a week to train to be quite challenging, interesting, and fun. I take great pleasure in knowing that I’ve won professional races, finished 5th in the US Pro TT, finished in the top 15 at the Tour of CA, and accomplished many of my goals with a full-time job and only averaging about 16-18 hours per week on the bike. I definitely think it has helped me to develop a skillset and knowledge base that helps me as a coach, because quite frankly, the training that a Pro Tour cyclist does and what is available to a 40 hour a week working person are not at all the same, nor should they be. So, with limited room for further improvement and other reasons, I decided that I would take the next step in my efforts to explore my athletic potential and to move to triathlon in the coming year.

I’ve long planned on moving to triathlon whenever I saw my cycling coming to a close, but needed to choose the most appropriate time. To speak plainly, there isn’t much money to be made in cycling by anyone except the cyclists who are regarded as being the most promising or most successful and are compensated accordingly. Unfortunately, this system is not always fair, but for better or for worse that seems to be the way life often is across different circles, so I try not to let it bother me much. Likewise, there is a lot of inherent risk in the sport and most people will come away unscathed except for a number of superficial scars on their hips, knees, and elbows, but there are some who don’t walk away from the sport so comfortably. Some break their necks! Ha! Like me. Luckily, in spite of having one or two fairly catastrophic falls myself, I’ve been able to avoid any real damage, and I’d certainly like to keep it that way. If I’m not getting paid and not being given a real opportunity to pursue the sport full-time, then why should I keep at it?! Well, because it’s my passion, like many other athletes, but the rational side of me says that it’s an all too silly activity to risk one’s neck, quite literally, without real room for substantial improvement.

Lastly, even though I’m “only” 29 going on 30 in a few months, there is the simple fact that every year that I’m cycling, I’m taking away from other things that I could be doing with my time, like triathlon, coaching, and who knows what else. Perhaps I’m too swayed by the mentality of our age and the desire to pursue different dreams, but I do want to see what triathlon is like while I’m still young and have a room to see if I’m any good at the sport, among other things.

So, yes, I’m “retiring” from pro cycling. I’m committed to a move to triathlon to see how well I can do at that sport, and have started training to that end. I’m also committed to coaching and trying to develop materials for athletes to try to help them pursue their passion of testing themselves physically, as I love to do so much.

Off-Season and TrainingMt Diablo photos 265

For all intents and purposes, my off-season started the day I crashed out of the Tour of Utah. With a few broken vertebrae and some silly neck-brace to help keep my head from rolling off, I took 2 weeks totally off of any kind of physical activity, then took 2 weeks of riding the trainer every other day, followed by a month of regaining my legs on the bike. Basically, all of my training has been foundational with a lot of volume, tempo, and threshold riding, plus some weight training, and increasing amounts of running.

As always, you can see all of my over-distance training on Strava where I share all of my bike rides, runs, and now even swims. For the most part, my aim right now is to rely on cycling for good aerobic conditioning and endurance while I slowly add in slightly increasing volumes of running and swimming to the extent that my body allows. Even though I used to be able to manage 50-80 miles/week on a regular basis when I weighed 140 lbs in college, it’s been some years on the bike and my legs aren’t ready for that pounding quite yet. Hopefully they will be soon, but I’m easing into it as slowly as my body seems to want. Always, whether riding or running or otherwise, one of my cardinal rules in training is to try to avoid injury. A missed training session here or there because you’re cautious is nothing compared to a missed month because of injury sustained while mindlessly pushing ahead. I always hope that I have an adequate feel for what my body needs and what it’s limits are so that I can follow that rule successfully. I have so far in my first career as a runner, and then as a cyclist, so hopefully I can keep the streak going.

Clearly, my efforts to train as a triathlete, both now and my plans for it in the long run, are based on the same general principles as any endurance sport, but because of the nature of the sport will demand very different training methods than I’ve previously employed as a cyclist. I have a variety of ideas about how I plan to pursue this new endeavor, but I’ll bring those up another time in another text. In the meantime, I’ll just say that I’ve been having fun working with a few triathletes on their training, and thinking and planning for my own metamorphosis into a multi-sport athlete myself.

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How do I train when I can’t train? Part 2

Just recently I posted about some of my post-accident thoughts regarding my efforts to train, even tough I really couldn’t in any normal sense of the word. On a similar topic, I wanted to address some basic ideas I had about a more normal, real-world problem: How do I train when I can’t train… because I’m busy, my work schedule is packed, and I have swim meets for my kids or soccer practice or whatever other family stuff on the weekends? This is the real challenge that most everyday athletes face in their efforts to achieve their goals.

Even though you and I may have slightly different goals for our sporting activities, and we may even participate in different sports (cycling, running, triathlon, or what have you), the issues we face are probably the same. In an ideal world, we could do the right amount of training, at the right intensities, at the right times, and thereby maximize our body’s ability to get fitter and thereby we could perform at our very best physical potential. But, unless you’re a well-paid professional athlete or you’re independently wealthy, you’re probably like me and everyone else you know in that you have to balance your sporting life with the rest of your life. This basically leaves us with an optimization problem: how do we get the best results out of our training with the time we have? Ultimately, I try to think of everything as an optimization problem; in training and in other things, I think it’s often a good approach.

The way I look at it, you shouldn’t worry about things you can’t control or change. Don’t get upset if your work schedule or family obligations keep you from training the way that you want to, unless there’s something practical that you can do to adjust things, get a bit more time to train, and keep everyone happy in the process. Definitely do look for those places in your life where you can streamline things, save time, move things around in your schedule, so that you can have a more stress-free existence and make a little more time for your training. Streamlining things is clearly helpful in other areas as well, but as far as training goes, it can be key.

After we’ve seen what our schedule is like and what our realistic training time can be, we should just think about what’s the best way to get the most out of it. How many days should we train? How many hard days? Easy days? Long days? How much or how often can we race? What kind of fitness will I need most for the events I want to do, and how can I get the most of that kind of fitness out of the 6, 8, 12, or however many hours I have to train?

Just for kicks, we can look at how I try to approach my training. Between my work at Mike’s Bikes 30-40 hours each week and my work with my clients, it’s challenging for me to carve out more than 16-20 hours a week to train. Sometimes, I can do more, but not consistently. Most successful stage racers who focus on climbing and time-trialing will train at least 30-50% more than me, but I’ve been able to be competitive with my time by trying to make the most of it. What do I need to focus on as a stage racer with a need to climb and time trial well? I definitely need endurance, a high threshold and aerobic capacity, good strength, and an ability to ride hard day after day. How do I try to accomplish those fitness goals? Each week looks like this:

2 long rides (4-6h) with lots of threshold and aerobic capacity work
2-3 medium-length rides (2-3h), usually with strength, threshold, and aerobic capacity work
1-2 easy rides
1-2 days off the bike to recover
1-3 cross training sessions per week, usually running and/or strength work (especially in the winter)
1 day a week (on average) on the TT bike doing hard efforts (sometimes more)
2-5h of tempo each week
1-3h of threshold each week
20-45m of aerobic capacity each week
variable strength, power, and anaerobic capacity work, depending on the time of year and upcoming events

Trying not to get too bogged down with details, I’ve found that it works well to try to get a lot of intensity into a few medium length rides, to get 1 and hopefully 2 high-quality long rides each week, some time on the TT bike and in the gym, and usually 2 days of quality rest each week. (If you care about the details, check out my Strava, everything is on there). Long rides without high quality efforts are much less valuable than the same ride with hard efforts. 3-4 quality days with 1-2 easy days and 1-2 days off is much more effective than training 6 or 7 days a week at a lower intensity, even for endurance.

What would I do if I had a 9-5, with just commute riding and weekends to train? Most weeks, I would do the following. Every 3 or 4 weeks, maybe if I was extra busy, I would take an extra day or two off, but with a full Monday-through-Friday schedule, it’s hard to overreach on your training. Also, if commuting by bike, we might be dealing with an assumed commute ride back home after work, but that’s fine, just extra time on the bike building an aerobic base.

Monday: off the bike, go for a jog, do some core work, strength training, maybe plyometrics

Tuesday: ~1h, ride to work, warm up 15-20m, do some aerobic capacity efforts (e.g. 3x5m, 5x3m, etc.)

Wednesday: ~1h, ride to work, warm up, do 15-20m tempo, do some big-gear efforts (short accelerations or sustained efforts)

Thursday: ~1h, ride to work, warm-up, do some anaerobic efforts and/or some high-tempo/threshold efforts (depending on racing goals)

Friday: take off the bike, go for a jog, do some core work and light strength work

Saturday: 3-5h, long ride with some high-aerobic efforts (tempo, threshold, and/or aerobic capacity work) or race

Sunday: 1.5-3h, short to medium aerobic endurance maintenance ride with some optional tempo, sprints, and skill/technique drills

That’s only about 6-8 hours of actual riding, maybe 9 or 10 if you had a big week. But, you’d have a good foundation of aerobic fitness, strength, and high-end aerobic and anaerobic power output. I think you’d be doing about the best that you could with that schedule. Plus, you’d have 2 days off of the bike to take a break from riding, rest those muscles a bit, but also work on general conditioning with just a light warm-up jog and then some valuable core work and strength work that should help keep you strong and healthy. Even if you raced every other week, doing a 3-5 hour ride twice a month would keep your endurance in very respectable shape, especially if you could double up with a moderate ride on Sundays at least a few times a month.

The exact recipe will differ for different people or different schedules, but look at what you can do to get in 3 or 4 days with some quality and look at the days when you’re tight on time as a chance to cross train or rest. Always look at how you can try to work things out to get you towards your goals. It’s impossible to address every schedule that different people will have, but hopefully some of the above examples and thoughts might be helpful to some.

What do I do differently from other pro cyclists?

Every athlete is unique and has a lot of things that influence their training and lifestyle. Where we live, work and family obligations, personal experience and physiology, available training resources, and a million other things affect our training. Still, there are things that each of us do differently by choice. Here are a few things that I do differently from a lot of other cyclists and endurance athletes.

1. I try to include some intensity in most of my rides. That’s not to say that I go out and hammer every day. Far from it. But I do spend most of my training time going out with a purpose, and that purpose is almost never to just get time in on the bike. I don’t do a lot of “base miles” or “long-slow distance” training. The way that a lot of people talk about both of those things, I would say that they’re of very little value, unless you’re coming out of an off-season break or dealing with an injury issue, in which case just doing easy to moderate riding can be the best option, or even the only option, as you get your legs back under you for some more normal training.

Under normal circumstances, if you have the time and energy to go out and train, then why don’t you do something that’s actually going to stress your body so that you can get better? Most of the time, you definitely should. LSD isn’t going to do that for you. If you don’t have the energy, time or motivation to train, then you should be focused on recovery. Recovery can be easy riding, easy cross training (like a hike), or just plain time off. I usually prefer the latter, as it’s generally the most effective form of recovery.

If you’re going to go out for a 4 or 5 hour ride to build your endurance, then why won’t you include some focused efforts along the way to get more out of that time out training? No matter what you do, if you’re out for 4 or 5 hours, you’ll be doing something to maintain or enhance your endurance. You can do a lot more if you include some focused efforts in that time by working on aerobic strength and power with some tempo or threshold riding, working on maximal aerobic power with some VO2 efforts, enhancing your speed with some sprints, or strength with some big-gear efforts.

Think about what’s lacking in your fitness or what is relevant to your goal events, and consider doing some focused work on those things during all of your training rides. And, when you’re not doing those things, then it’s generally time to recover and get stronger from the workouts and drills that you’ve been doing. In neither case should you be doing just “long-slow distance” training.

2. I don’t do many “recovery” rides. This is a corollary to number one. Basically, if I need to recover, then I’ll usually take the day off. If I have the energy to go out for a real ride, then I’ll plan some actual training. It’s not common for me to just go out and ride easy. Less than 20% of my riding is easy or recovery riding.

Most of us have probably read articles or hear people say that you should include a certain amount of easy recovery rides in your schedule, and even dogmatic claims that you really need to include them in every training week, that you’re short-changing yourself if you don’t. I’ve read and heard people say that you need to have 3 or 4 easy days each week and/or that on your easy days you need to ride “embarrassingly slow.” Why should you be getting dressed and going out to move your legs around “embarrassingly slow”? Should you lie in bed for an extra 2 hours a day because “active” lying is better rest than actual sleep? No… I’m being a bit polemical, but really, if you need to recover, then you can feel totally confident about the value of taking the day off. Most of us who are busy outside of riding and racing can use that time for other things.

If I have the time and energy to ride, I find that things work much better even on my easy days if I ride enough that I get warmed up a bit and my legs get loose and my HR gets a little elevated. If I go out and soft-pedal for 1-2 hours, then I generally don’t feel better that day or the next day and am usually fairly confident that I could have used that time better doing something else.

I used to follow other people’s guidance rather than listening to my body and experience, and rode especially easy 2-4 times per week, religiously doing “recovery rides” of 1-1.5 hours. These days, I take more days off, do fewer recovery rides, and seem to notice that my recovery is usually better, so I can include more real training days in my schedule.

3. I try to cross train year-round, both running and strength training. A lot of athletes include some cross training during the early part of the off-season to build overall strength, fitness, and mobility. It’s a good way to stay fit without getting burnt out on your sport of choice, and to help undo the imbalances that arise from being singularly focused on one sporting activity. But, a lot of professional athletes don’t do more than a couple months of cross training during the off season, whereas I try to include it any time I have a break from racing for more than a week or two.

When I’m racing every week, I don’t include these activities because I don’t want to have a lot of muscular soreness going into races. But, even in the middle of the racing season, I’ll try to include running and strength training sessions in my routine. I think that this is good for my overall health and fitness, and I think that it benefits my sporting performance. I didn’t use to include as much cross training in my schedule, and never used to include it during the season, and I find that I perform better with it than without.

Specifically, I notice that weight training helps enhance my neurological recruitment more than cycling alone can accomplish. I notice feeling stronger and more powerful on the bike when I’m able to include strength training in my routine, especially in the saddle. I’ve noticed the biggest benefit to the power I generate on my time-trial bike.

With running, I really appreciate the fact that running (especially hill running) works out my cycling muscles hard, but differently and more explosively than when I’m riding. I think it’s great that running can get my heart-rate up as high or higher than it gets riding, and hard uphill running seems to require a greater increase in cardiac output and blood pressure than any kind of riding I can do, thereby strengthening my heart beyond what I can get from just cycling.

4. I modulate my diet. Depending on where I am in my training year, what workouts I’m doing from day to day, whether or not I’m racing, and what kind of racing that is, I try to modify my diet to suit my goals. Mostly, this refers to increases and decreases in carbohydrate intake, but also comes into play with fiber and iron intake, whether I avoid or consume processed foods and carbohydrates, when I’ll consume meat, and probably other things that I’m forgetting.

Basically, I’ll eat more carbohydrate when I have hard interval training or racing. If I’m doing more strength, endurance, tempo and threshold training, then I’ll eat less carbohydrate and try to avoid most, if not all, processed foods if I can, especially carbohydrates. I think that keeping carbohydrate intake moderate for foundational training is worth trying, because training without having your glycogen stores topped off enhances some of the endurance adaptations that your body makes to that training.

If I’m racing or doing high-intensity interval training, then I’ll eat more carbohydrate, and use processed carbohydrate as a way to get easily digested carbohydrate into my system to maximize glycogen storage. I’ll also reduce my fiber and meat intake when I’m racing, to try to keep things easy and quick to digest.

During heavy training and racing, there is a lot of evidence to support taking an iron supplement, but absorption is an issue, especially after a training session. So, I’ll try to include liver in my diet every week or two, and will take an iron supplement regularly, but in both cases, I try to avoid doing so in the hours before a training session. First thing in the morning or in the evening usually are best for this.

5. I train at a lower volume. If you’ve read other materials on my site, then you’ll probably already be aware of the fact that I am not a proponent of high-volume training, but am an advocate of moderate-volume, multi-intensity training and greatly appreciate the value of cross training. There are a lot of reasons for this, and I think that four of the reasons that this works well for me are listed above. But just for kicks, here’s a quick glance at the top 20 finishers at the 2013 Tour of California (you can see me in 14th), with some discussion below…

1 Tejay van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team 29:43:00
2 Michael Rogers (Aus) Team Saxo-Tinkoff 0:01:47
3 Janier Alexis Acevedo Colle (Col) Jamis-Hagens Berman 0:03:26
4 Mathias Frank (Swi) BMC Racing Team 0:03:32
5 Cameron Meyer (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge 0:03:33
6 Matthew Busche (USA) RadioShack Leopard 0:03:50
7 Francisco Mancebo Perez (Spa) 5-hour Energy p/b Kenda 0:04:52
8 Lawson Craddock (USA) Bontrager Cycling Team 0:05:24
9 Philip Deignan (Irl) UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team 0:05:33
10 Chad Haga (USA) Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies 0:05:52
11 Leopold Konig (Cze) Team NetApp-Endura 0:06:03
12 Marc De Maar (AHo) UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team 0:06:28
13 David De La Cruz Melgarejo (Spa) Team NetApp-Endura 0:08:58
14 Nathaniel English (USA) 5-hour Energy p/b Kenda 0:11:17
15 Brian Vandborg (Den) Cannondale Pro Cycling 0:11:32
16 Laurent Didier (Lux) RadioShack Leopard 0:11:40
17 Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (Spa) RadioShack Leopard 0:11:51
18 Lucas Euser (USA) UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team 0:12:41
19 Bartosz Huzarski (Pol) Team NetApp-Endura 0:14:29
20 Lieuwe Westra (Ned) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team 0:14:59

Of course, I don’t know exactly what goes into each one of these riders’ training routines, though I do wish more athletes would make their training programs public. I’d be willing to bet that every one of the riders in the top 20 at California, or at most any race that I attend, do at least 20-50% more riding than I do. If I ignore the biggest race weeks in my calendar because they skew the numbers, then my average weekly volume sits around 16 or 17 hours per week of riding… year round… as in, about 2/3 of the roughly 22-26 hours per week that is pretty average for a lot of pro cyclists. That’s not so much training time.

I think that this example is a good one to illustrate my point. I’ve been racing fewer years than most of the riders above. I train a lot less than most of them, if not all of them. I spend a lot of my “free” time away from riding holding down 2 jobs (coaching and working at a bike shop)… yet somehow, it works out that I’m able to be competitive with most of these guys.

It’s clear that at least at the present time, most of those riders were able to out-perform me that week, and some of them probably always will (Tejay, for example). Perhaps more importantly, it’s also clear that my approach to training is very effective if I can get so much out of myself in maybe two-thirds the time of other athletes performing at a similar level. How does that work? Because of some of the reasons stated above. I try to include a good amount of intensity in my riding, I cross-train, I modulate my diet, and likely some other things I’m not thinking of at the moment.

I do wish that I had more time to train, and think that I would perform better if I could. However, I would still adhere to the principles that I currently subscribe to and would keep my volume at a lower level than most other pro riders, choosing to focus on quality over quantity, and always looking for ways to maximize my training and recovery time.