Oct 28, 2011

The weight on my shoulders

I stood there, partially nostalgic, partially confused and partially giddy with excitement. I stood there, at the crack of dawn, soaking in all that was my return to the weight room. This wasn't just any weight room. This was back home, in north-suburban Chicago, in the gym I used to frequent daily for many years. The layout barely changed, and I was able to recognize many familiar faces, doing the same familiar routines. It was years later, and yet it stayed the same, other than those familiar faces getting a bit older.

It was during my recent visit to Chicago that I began my weight training regiment for the 2012 cycling season. When I lived in Chicago, I lifted during the off-season, but that's because the only other alternative for exercise was shoveling snow. After moving out to San Francisco, I put my gym days behind me and figured that since I didn't need to be off the bike for any prolonged period of time during the year, spending time at the gym was just a waste. Plus, by this time, I was so much into cycling, that I could easily part with what was once my daily routine.


Going into 2012, however, I figured I need every advantage I can get, and after hearing many cyclists, whose expertise and accomplishments I respect tremendously, talk about off-season weight-training, I figured I'd be dumb not to give it a shot. One exception was that I would do the research and start lifting for cycling and not just lifting for the sake of pushing heavy objects.


In part, this was the cause of my confusion, as I stood there, looking at a squat rack with 95lbs loaded on the bar. "Hell, I used to curl that," I thought to myself, "it's going to be very hard not to overdo it first time back." And it was! I had to put a lot of trust in what I was reading and what I was hearing to walk away from the rack after two sets of 20, and conduct myself similarly with the other exercises I had planned for that morning.
I needed to constantly remind myself that I'm not lifting as a bodybuilder anymore (the system most personal trainers use when working with weights), but rather as a cyclist. 

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of lifting very light weights for a long period early in the training regiment was that I felt I had no credibility to come up to people lifting much heavier weights and correct their form. Not that I'm a big fan of doing this in the gym, but when it comes to exercises like squats and deadlifts, I'm okay with a guy being slightly peeved at me if it saves his spine in the long run (as long as no dumbbells go flying at my head).

Now, a few weeks later, I'm in a different phase of weight training. The weights have come up some, and while still resembling a fraction of what I used to lift, it definitely feels good to have the heavier barbell on my shoulders. There are two more progressions to my weigh training. One dramatic increase in weight - a phase where I'll be looking forward to squatting over 300lbs for reps again - and maintenance stage where the weight decreases through end of Base 2.


I've really enjoyed my time back in the weight room, and I'm glad to finally be doing what I've done for many years in the past to help me excel in what I love to do now - ride and race my bicycle(s). 

Oct 18, 2011

More on Powercranks

It's that time of the year for me where long rides are few and far between and burritos are frequent and abundant. After all, I need some fat to burn during those long base miles that will start in less than two weeks. In addition to regular gym workouts, I've also started training on Powercranks. You may have seen the post about my first training session last week. Today was session number four, and boy do I have some stuff to tell you. 

After the first three 30-minute sessions, I decided to take it up a bit and go for 45 minutes. One of the many things I love about the Powercranks (yes, I just used the "L" word), is that I'm actually looking forward to doing workouts on my trainer. I usually hate to sit on a trainer, alone, at home, creating a pool of sweat under my bike, but the challenge of turning PCs actually motivates me to do just that. I'm always curious as to how far I can push myself and how long I can go without screwing up my rhythm. 

That notwithstanding, sitting in one place doing exactly the same thing, even a very challenging thing, can get a bit stale, so I made up a routine for myself to work on my pedaling stroke and to hopefully adopt faster to PCs. 

I began with some steady pedaling under a moderate load for 10 minutes. My cadence was in the 80-90 range and my power was in the 150-200 (but I tried to stay closer to 150 as much as possible). Another element of difficulty I added to this workout was doing it in the small ring. If you think of a LT workout, that would seem counterintuitive, but PCs are actually easier to spin correctly (that being the key term) under a heavier load with very low cadence.  

After 10 minutes, I went into progressive cadence increases, while keeping my power as constant as possible. I began with a heavier gear and cadence of 65, pushing about 180-200 watts. Then, each minute for five minutes, I would increase by five to seven RPMs and shift into a lighter gear to maintain approximately the same watts. This way I could focus entirely on cadence and pedaling technique and not have to worry so much about muscle failure or excessive fatigue (still in prep period). This followed by 5 minutes of rest at the same effort as the warmup.

Another thing I love about PCs is that while resting, I'm still doing the skills workout. Even when I'm pedaling easy, I have to pedal correctly, so while the training is not under any heavy load, or very difficult (coordination-wise), the pedaling skills are still being worked. 

Then came time for some single-leg pedaling drills just to focus the mind on each leg independently. I did the following three sets. Three times with each leg for 30 seconds, followed by three minutes of rest. Then two times with each leg for one minute, again followed by three minutes of rest. And finally, I attempted once with each leg by two minutes, but this was at about minute 37 of the workout and I was starting to pedals squares by 1:20, so I cut it short to 90 seconds. Followed by another three minutes of recovery. 

I was surprised to see that when I went from single-leg pedaling drills to active recovery, where I had to pedal with both legs, it was actually easier to keep my legs in sync, as if each one still remembered what to do from a moment ago.

I finished off with a few spinups, starting from a cadence of about 80 with load that's moderate (200 watts), taking my cadence up as high as possible until my legs started to gallop - I was able to hit 150 a few times. 

I'm still in prep mode, so none of this was done under heavy load, as I'm still getting my brain trained to keep both my legs fully engaged and synced. My overall impression of tonight's workout was good. It felt much easier starting with PCs and getting in sync was much faster (within a couple revolutions), even in a much lighter gear. It is almost as if the body remembered what to do; that first moment of clipping in and starting to pedal was much more natural than the first time I tried PCs. I'm hoping that in a few more sessions, I'll be able to take the bike on the road with them and see how I do while in motion. 

Oct 11, 2011

Powercranks - the first workout

After some time off the bike, it’s now time to slowly move into the prep period before getting into some serious base miles down the line. This season, I’m introducing something completely new into my training routine, Powercranks. For those of you who never heard of them, they are cranks that hang neutrally (not opposite one another) and require both legs to make the “perfect” circle to get the crank around. If you’re not pedaling equally with both legs, you start to develop a gallop-type stroke or stall at a deadspot.

Today, was my first Powercranks workout, and after pedaling just for 30 minutes, I learned several things about my pedal stroke that I hope to improve in the months to come.

As I mentioned above, I’m in prep mode, so the workout I did today wasn’t as much about pushing a lot of watts or getting the legs worked, as it was about training my brain – something much harder. The plan was to pedal relatively easy for 30 minutes with some one-legged drills in between and see what happens during this virgin session.

Throughout the workout, I worked under the presumption that every pedaling error I made with Powercranks, I would have likewise made on regular cranks, but it would have gone unnoticed due to the other leg being able to compensate.

As recommended, I started with the shortest crank length possible on my Powercranks – 145 and began pedaling at a low cadence in a high gear just to get used to the motion of both legs moving independently. I was able to pedal relatively error free for the first six minutes. I did go out of sync a few times, and it was immediately noticeable as I felt one of my legs doing more work than the other because it was starting to do more work while waiting for the other leg to catch up. Or alternatively, it started turning too fast.

After six minutes, I did one 30-second drill with each leg, followed by a minute of regular pedaling and then another minute-long drill with each leg. Granted, considering I was on Powercranks, the whole workout was like one single-leg pedaling drill, but I found it helped to focus on each leg separately to get the motion correct and to get used to throwing my knee over the handlebars – a common way to describe a proper upstroke.

By the time I was done with the above, I found one weakness that I felt needed work. It was easy for me to start pedaling slowly and then pick up speed, but it was much more difficult to slow the cadence down, as my legs would slow down at different rates, resulting in an uneven pedal stroke and even causing me to stall at the top a few times.

Having discovered a weakness, I figured I’d work on that specific skill for the remainder of the workout. So I proceeded to pedal for several minutes, taking my cadence up 10-15 pedal strokes and then practicing bringing it down 10-15 strokes. After a few tries, it became easier to slow down the cadence without much break in the pedal stroke, but this is definitely a skill I that will require more work because if that’s how much stroke I’m losing each time cadence changes in a ride or a race, there is a lot of wasted motion and energy that can be put toward something better. Say, a winning sprint! It also required a lot of mental concentration when it was time to slow the legs down, something that cannot be wasted on pedaling in a race.

In the last few minutes of my 30-minute workout, I did another set of single-leg drills, which proved very informative, as my legs were now a bit fatigued. All of a sudden, I realized that having shorter cranks to start practicing with Powercranks was highly beneficial, as my stroke was short and I was able to turn a much smoother, efficient circle even at the end of the workout.

Additionally, as I went from pedaling with my left to pedaling with my right, I started hearing a lot of noise and clunks, which suggests that as in everything else, my left leg is the dominant one in cycling. This is likely an imbalance I’ve been riding with all these years, but now that I’ve been able to diagnose and have the tools to address it, getting equal output from both legs is something I can work on.

The plan going forward is to continue with 30-minute sessions for the next week or so, then go to 45-minute sessions, then hour-long sessions and finally be able to ride outside without stalling. Ideally, I’d like to be able to do most of my base training on Powercranks this season and continue using them for parts of my build phase.

Stay tuned for more!

Turning pages - season recap


It's time to close the chapter on this 2011 road race season and look forward to a new season in 2012. While the training plans, the workouts and the races to be raced are still being planned out, it's a bit early to start speculating about what's to come and how I see the next season playing out. However, it seems to be a perfect time to talk about how this year went, the successes I had and the mistakes I've made. I think the easiest way to thoroughly discuss this without running on all sorts of tangents is to proceed in parts.

Nutrition

At the end of 2010, I weighed in at about 176-178 pounds, and I had a goal of racing at sub-170 in 2011. Ultimately, I don't believe I entered a single race at under 170, but to a large extent I was successful at racing lighter than I have previously. Matt Fitzgerald's book, "Racing Weight," played a huge role in that accomplishment.

Early in the season, I was able to get my body weight down to decade-plus low of 165 pounds, but my body simply didn't want to stay there, and while I was losing weight and feeling leaner, I kept oscillating between 172 and 175.

I counted calories using livestrong.com and had a picture of what my nutritional intake was composed of - 60 percent carbs and an equal share of 20 percent fats and proteins. This was an acceptable ratio for an athlete according to Fitzgerald. I may have not been much lighter, but eating more nutritious and less processed foods made me feel much better on the bike.

I must admit that it was a bit frustrating not being able to get down to my target weight, but I never gave up and by the end of August, by body stopped fighting me and my weight seemed to naturally drop to 170-173 pounds - this made me very happy, as it was a sure sign that my body was finally getting used to the "lighter me." A six-pound drop over a course of eight months is not that bad after all.

I will continue using the lessons from Fitzgerald's book next year, and hope to actually race at sub 170 sometime mid-season - I'm SO close!

Self-coaching

If you've been reading since the beginning of the year, you'll recall that Joe Friel's book was to be my guide, and to some extent, it was, but I feel that I have made many mistakes in approaching this season.

I didn't properly recover from the miles of 2010 and decided to skip the entire base period called for in Friel's book. I started training very hard right off the bat in January and was feeling strong in February and especially in March, taking a very respectable 4th at Madera. Peaking in March like that, however, may have also resulted in the injury I suffered in April which forced me to take some time off and ride very easy for most of that month. 

Thereafter, I felt that I plateaued a bit, at least relative to the field. I felt that I was getting stronger, but many of my placings a were about the same as early season, top third to top quarter. I guess the more accurate way to phrase that would be to say that in retrospect, my results have plateaued, while I felt my fitness improving, but likely not to its fullest potential.

Next season, things will be way more by the book, and while I may be ready to shoot myself by the third month of base, if it means I'm racing stronger in May and June, it will be well worth it.

Racing

I raced a lot, but did I race too much? Almost 40 races in one season left me completely mentally wasted by the time the year came to a close (does that answer the question?). I even missed a few starts toward the end of the season because I simply didn't want to get on the bike and race that day. 

There is a positive side to all of this, as I've done many races that I missed in the 2010 season, for whatever reason, and between the two years, I've raced about 75 percent of courses used for races on the NCNCA calendar. This will hopefully let me pick races that I can do well in when I'll be peaking and choose good "training" races during the build periods.

I will be much pickier with my races next year. I will definitely race the ones I really enjoyed this year, and the ones that are good ass-kickers training-wise, but I think on other weekends, I'd rather do a hard ride (Roasters maybe), and get just as good of a workout without the mental stress - it does add up. I'm going to cut myself off at about 30 races, maybe ... perhaps.

Criteriums

Last season, I avoided these like fire for reasons you've all heard: danger, crashes, broken equipment, having to get to work on Monday (without a cast), etc. This year, I reluctantly gave them a try and ultimately started to enjoy them a great deal. To my own surprise, the crits I like the most are the technical ones, with undulations and hills. Benicia was definitely my favorite crit this season, even if it wasn't my best result.

I will definitelly do way more of them next season. The one thing that disappoints me about crits, especially coming from racing exclusively longer road races, is that being a 4 and not yet a Master, I can only race one race per day, and sometimes, I'd like to get into two. Hopefully, the upgrade to a Cat. 3 next season will let me do a few 1/2/3 races in addition to the regular 3 races.

M2

Yes, yes and another yes. Going back indoors in the Fall of 2010, was the smartest thing I did last year. While I cannot promise results to anyone, I know that once or twice (depending on weather and my schedule) a week indoors does wonders for my power, and at the end of the day, watts are about half of what wins races. If you're in San Francisco and looking to boost your cycling performance, consider M2. Yep, this is totally a plug, but he deserves it and I wouldn't be raving about it if I didn't feel that I reaped great benefits for training there for a year.

Experience

That's the other half after watts - strategy and being in the right place at the right time (intentionally and not by accident). I feel that I gained a lot of it this year, in road races and in a crits. In other words, a good chunk of the blueprint is there, now it's about having the patience, brains and power to execute.

Going long

I love racing, but I also love days when I can spend 12 to 15 hours in the saddle cranking out a double century - and racing a double century is even more exciting. I've learned this year that there are two things I aim for in a double. The obvious one is a fast finishing time. The second, an extremely low stopping time. My best rest per miles ridden just happened at Levi's Gran Fondo with 4 minutes of stopping time for 103 miles of riding. The goal for next year will be to replicate something proportionally similar in a double.

Wrapping up

These are the things that I'm taking away from this season. In a week or so, I'll blog about the training for next year that will start in November and the secret training that will start much sooner, but until then, I'll just reflect on the year that passed and ways I can make the next one even better. 

Oct 6, 2011

Levi's Gran Fondo report


It was once again time to line up with thousands of others ready to ride in Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo. I did many things differently this year, and my body was in a different state this year as well. Last year, I came up to Santa Rosa the night before, got my packet, checked into a hotel with a friend and rolled to the start in the morning. I remember making a mental note of how much free parking there was when we lined up, and this was part of the reason I decided to drive up the day of the event this year. In hindsight, this was an excellent idea – no line to get my packet, parking close to start and I got to sleep in my own bed, not to mention avoid an expense of a crummy Motel 6 (in reference to this establishment, “crummy” is a term of endearment).

Additionally, last year the Gran Fondo was two weeks after I had finished Everest Challenge, this year I got about five and a half days of recovery time, and two days before the event, my legs were still feeling achy on the bike. 

As I was driving up, I still hadn’t decided whether I was going to ride the Gran Fondo, meaning I’d try to move as quickly as possible, or if I was going to eat my way through the ride, meaning … well, I don’t think I have to explain that. Frankly, as I staged, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do to my legs that day, but that all sort of fell into place once the ride began.

I got to the start much earlier than last year and staged about 7-10 rows back from the yellow tape that was keeping us mortals from the VIPs, about 50 of whom had the privileged of cutting in line and lining up in front of us (apparently regardless of the speed with which they intended to move). Shortly after 8 am, we got the signal that it was starting time, and 7.5 thousand people began to squeeze through a gate, and thousands of little timing chips began chirping as we made our way through.

Immediately, people started to dart to the front from all sides, everyone wanted a position in the front and I just tried to move forward while avoiding crashing and riders who I saw were not used to group riding. After the first few crazy miles, it got sort of settled, but now we were moving on narrower roads in a compact pack, so attention was of the utmost importance. The group was accelerating and slowing down as is common in a big field moving through narrow roads, and each time I tried to leave a few feet of space between myself and the rider ahead to avoid having to brake hard, some bozo would fill in the space – if I was lucky, he would turn his head to look if anything was there. Soon enough it happened, people in front of me went down, some ended up on the road, some in the ditch and I was just lucky enough to have it happen ahead of me enough that I was able to brake and go around safely.

Once the routes (gran, medio and piccolo) began to split, the huge pack broke up and I ended up on the back of a fast group that I think was either the second or third group behind the lead pack with Levi and Co. We were rolling at a pretty good clip, definitely between 26-30mph and I didn’t really have any issues hanging on, nor did my legs feel any significant pressure. They actually felt pretty good, a pleasant surprise. It was somewhere in that fast, flat corridor that I decided I’d “race” the fondo, which to me meant I’d give it the best shot my legs would allow on minimal stopping time, which is now becoming my MO.

By the time the climbing started, the group was whittled down to even fewer riders, as we began to tackle the undulating, but steep, climb up to King Ridge. Having just finished Everest Challenge, my perception of this series of climbs was as follows: I don’t care how steep it is, or how long it is – all I know is it won’t last for two hours and so I don’t really care.

With that thought, I clipped up King Ridge and before I knew it, I was at mile 46 and rest stop number two. I looked down and saw that I still had a bottle and a quarter of liquids and the lunch stop was only 10 miles down the road. I squeezed some Hammer Gel into my mouth, stuffed it down with half a Cliff bar and continued right past the rest stop.

In hindsight, this was a great call because most people stopped, so I had an absolutely clear descent in front of me with no one to get in the way. This was good because the descent was fast, twisty, somewhat damp and a bit foggy.

After dropping about 600 feet, it was time to start climbing over the second part of King Ridge and toward the lunch stop. The next 10 miles went fairly quickly, as the temperatures were low, the skies overcast and I was motivated to move fast if for no other reason than to keep warm. When I reached the lunch stop, fog had become extremely thick. I spent a total of 3 minutes at the rest stop - grabed a bottle of water, filled another with Gatorade and took a bio-break. All the eating would be on the road.

From the lunch stop, it was mostly all downhill toward the coast, but it wasn’t that simple. The fog had become so thick, that I could barely see 10 feet in front of me and coming down very steep grades with twisty turns in foggy conditions is not very pleasant, especially when the damp break pads were barely slowing me down and the Sonoma potholes which I could not see were robbing my wheels of traction.

As I made my way down toward the metal bridge, which I heard claimed many as casualties in the damp weather, a rider was being treated at its start with some bandages to the arm, but appeared to be in otherwise decent condition. This further reminded me that it was important to be cautious. With my race season over, the last thing I needed was a crash in a gran fondo to screw up my ski season, not to mention cyclocross.

As I made my way through the fog, I feared that the coast may be even worse, but I was pleasantly surprised by completely clear weather with even some resemblance of a tailwind, although, I could not really tell if it was more tail or cross. For the first half of the leg along the coast, I was alone and there was a rider in a black kit about 200 yards ahead of me. I was slowly gaining on him, but in no hurry to make the catch. I didn’t want to make a very hard effort to bridge to a rider I didn’t know for no apparent reason. The other reason for my decision to proceed at a steady effort was that I heard a helicopter behind me, which meant Levi and Co. were on my tail (I later learned that some of my friends were in that group, pulling him along), and while I wasn’t going to sit up and wait for him, I certainly wouldn’t have minded if he caught me.

Levi never caught me. A group of seven or eight riders, however, did and I didn’t hesitate one bit to jump on their train. The group self organized quickly as we took 30 second to minute pulls at the front before flicking the next guy along. This went on for a few miles until we reached the next stop and only four of us continued.

And there we were, there was that left turn up Coleman Valley, a steep 1.6-mile climb that came at mile 76 of the ride. I knew this was a hard climb, but I also knew that it’s the last climb and I’ve done it before. I pushed just enough to have the legs to finish with no stopping if I chose to go that route. On the other hand, I was also running out of food and water and there was another 25+ miles to go to the finish, so I did consider stopping at some point down the road (there were two rest stops left).

As I got to the top of Coleman Valley, there was a water stop (one of two) with a bunch of riders filling bottles. I still had some liquids left and the next stop was only six downhill miles away, so I decided not to waste time and just roll downhill. I was planning to stop at the last rest stop, about 15 miles from the finish, but Michael G. and Chris Z. caught me on the flats, a mile or less from the stop and invited me to stop with them. That’s when I knew I wasn’t going to be stopping.

Those guys were taking rest stops and hammering at a good clip. I knew if I stopped with them, they would probably drop me somewhere along the way and finish ahead of me. If I pressed on, I was pretty sure they wouldn’t catch me, not without some sort of hill in the way, and by that point, we were all out of hills. That was a somewhat risky decision because I knew there was a possibility I could bonk, as for the last hour or so, all I was doing is sucking down Gatorade, and that’s not always enough. As I pushed through the last 15 miles, I paid attention to what my body was telling me, so I could at least see the bonk coming if one was.

I was able to team up with a couple guys here and there to get to the bike path that lead to the finish, once on it, a train of about 10-12 riders came by and I jumped on. It didn’t appear as if any rotation was happening on the front, and I was happy to sit in. The bike path has a few turns along the way that have to be negotiated slowly, and it appeared as if people were attacking after the turn because the slingshot effect was significant. I was able to stay on for the first two, but got popped on the last one (we were moving at around 26-27mph). At that point, it was less than a mile toward the finish, so I didn’t really care. I knew Michael and Chris weren’t going to catch me, so I rolled into the finish with a total time of 5:53 and a moving time of 5:49 – a new record for least rest per distance covered! I was also happy to be done under 6 hours and with my season on the road.


Time to rest and think of things to come, and of course blog about them.