22 July 2008

Big Dog Racing

This past weekend, I was racing at the Vineman 70.3 in California. The race experience reminded me of a few things that I’ll share in this week’s letter. Until I receive some race photos, I have used a favorite from the archives. Below is a thumb that Dave sent along to tide readers over. Thanks Dave -- for the photo and running a fine race out there in Cali!

It seems somewhat obvious but it is worth setting the scene with the observation that we can race in three types of fields: weak, moderate and strong. Each of us will cope a little differently within these levels of competition and each type of racing is useful for an athlete.

I chose Vineman because a strong field of elite competition was likely. I figured that Chris Legh, Craig Alexander and Chris Lieto would turn up. The bike course is against my preference and having strong athletes there would provide me with an honest picture of my fitness. It is easy to fool ourselves in training – you line up with five of the best athletes in the world, you will get some clear feedback.

Little did I know that a lot of other speedy people had the same idea and the race was one of the fastest that I have done. Terrenzo, Craig and Steve finished in a different zip code than me. As an aside, Cam Brown traditionally puts a similar amount of time into me in a Half IM as he does in a full IM. I’m not sure if I have ‘weird physiology’ or am simply soft. I saw Mark Allen this afternoon and, like Dave Scott, his standard for a decent Ironman starts at about 8:10 for the guys!

Lining up with such great athletes, I felt completely relaxed. The expectations are on them and, if things go well, then I have a shot and beating them. As well, there are plenty of people to tow you along, or chase down later.

A few years ago, I asked Scott why one of his athletes was always choosing the toughest events. It was clear to me that the athlete could win a lot more races with ‘better’ race selection. Stepping aside from appearance fees… Scott said that it is fun to go fast and race the best people. Vineman last weekend gave me an appreciation of the benefits of strong competition.

I came within 5 (!) meters of making the front swim group. There was a bend in the river and the depth went down to 18 inches. The lead group stood up and everyone looked at each other. That was my shot to get back on but I couldn’t quite bridge on. If I had really been willing to kill myself… ???

As it turned out, neither could Chris Legh and I ended up swimming beside him. I eased off to get on his feet and another athlete “had” that position. So I backed off and got behind him. He then lost Chris during an acceleration around the turnaround buoy – beware of turns! Anyhow, he was kind enough to tow me for the rest of the swim (much appreciated) then drop me in transition!

My transitions left quite a bit to be desired. The speedy guys took a couple of minutes out of me during the race. Not to mention at least one kilometer of soft pedaling while I tried to get my feet in my bike shoes. My skills are “ok” but the top guys have the little details wired. X-Factors.

Before the race I predicted that I would average 40 km/hr on the bike and run about 1:20 for the half marathon.

As it turned out, despite shifting my training focus heavily towards the bike, the top guys rode close to ten minutes into me and I ran 1:15 off the bike. I’m not sure if my slower bike performance is mental or chronological (Father Time). I am grateful that my position/equipment is improved because I am able to get a lot more speed from my power.

The elite draft rules (10 meters) make a big difference on bike speed. For what it’s worth, being able to ride under agegroup rules (7 meters) would make a big, big difference to my times. Perhaps I’ll demonstrate in my 40s when I go back to agegroup racing – with a 7 meter draft zone very fast times are possible with smart tactics.

I used all my gizmos on the bike – HR, speed, cadence, power. For racing I am using the new wireless SRM with PowerControl VI. I’m very happy with that product – paid retail, and boy do they charge (PowerTap works great if you are on a budget).

I recalibrated on race morning and that may have had an impact on my power numbers (which seemed a bit low). For the techie people out there, I raised my offset from 570 to 609. Adjusting manually back down to 570 makes the numbers look a lot more ‘normal’ compared to my testing and powertap data.

As an interesting point, coping with ‘low’ power data is an unpleasant, but valuable, experience. Even as a seasoned athlete, seeing low data was depressing for me. Ironically, I’m only happy on the bike when I am riding too hard!

When I arrived in T2, I definitely felt like quitting. I suppose that it is tiring to go fast but, inside my head, the sensation was that it is depressing to go slow. I had run the numbers on my day and calculated that I was going to finish in about 4:20.

With Monica waiting outside of T2 (wondering why it was taking me so long in there), I made myself a deal that I could retire from athletic competition but only after I ran 13 miles. Finish line retirement was OK, quitting in front of my wife wasn’t acceptable (perhaps that’s why she came…)

Heading out on the run, Jay-Z was arriving on the bike. While it was nice to see that she was leading the ladies’ race, her presence drove home that I hadn’t exactly scorched the bike. It also meant that I had better get moving because Joanna loves running guys down!

I ran on feel and had no idea about pace. I noticed that everyone (that I could see) started their run faster than me (Monica asked if I had stopped to eat a burrito in transition). This continued until about 2K into the run when I started to relax a bit and speed up.

Approaching the turnaround, I saw that I was two miles down on Terrenzo, Craig and Steve. I perked up for a bit then saw a long line of people heading out of the turnaround area – how did so many folks get in front me? However, my good mood persisted as I figured that I could catch at least a couple of them. I caught a few more guys and the fear of them coming back on me spurred me along.

Arriving at the finish line I was surprised to see 4:04 on the clock. That’s less than a minute outside of my personal best for the distance. Part of me was a little disappointed because it looks like I have to postpone elite retirement for a bit longer!

Jay-Z held on for victory and Monica tells me that she’s won three straight Half Ironman races. That lady has been speedy for a very long time. She let me feel her gold ring from the 2000 Olympics during the pro meeting and it is always nice to race alongside her.

I wonder how fast I could go if I was as tough as the ladies?



12 July 2008

Athletic Inversion & Living The Dream

October 2008 marks the 20th anniversary of Scott Molina's victory at the Hawaii Ironman. Part of Scott's motivation for returning is the desire to get-it-right in terms of preparation, and race day performance. If an athlete as successful as Scott feels that he hasn't quite got it right -- after 30 (!) years of racing -- then there must be structural limitations in the human condition.


One of the key things that Charlie Munger repeats in his Almanack is the advice to "always invert". I have been reading that advice for three years but only recently started to grasp the meaning. I think what he is trying to tell me...

...to improve your chances of being successful, make sure you figure out what can kill you.

Munger believes that a solid track record of success can be created by sticking to what you know, working hard and limiting your poor choices. Inversion is a method of bringing potentially poor choices, or situations, to the front of your mind.

The books that I recommended in the last few weeks do a great job when it comes to applying this advice in the real world. However, I spent yesterday considering what derails athletic success.

According to Daniels, the two key aspects of athletic success are inherent ability and motivation.

However, our ability to achieve athletic success is a mixture of what we choose to do and what we choose to avoid. Nothing impacts choices as directly as your peer group -- choose associates wisely.

Across an athletic lifetime, there are ample opportunities for self-sabotage. World Champions (like Molina) have interesting stories about personal triumphs. They have hilarious stories about their mistakes. Unknowingly, I have been studying oral autobiographies of great champions/investors/coaches over the last eighteen years.


How we defeat ourselves in racing

The image above is a histogram of an ironman-distance power file. Don't get too caught up in the details, the picture helps me explain a couple of concepts for endurance success.

The Dead Zone -- the dead zone starts at the average wattage (and heart rate) for a Half Ironman race where you ran well. What is "running well"? I like to define it as within 7% of a fresh half marathon split. Within my own racing, I can come within 5%.

Why do I call it the dead zone? Because if you spend too much time above your average Half IM power (or heart rate)... your hopes of a decent marathon will DIE. The more time you spend there, the greater the likelihood of marathon difficulties.

We shouldn't blame the molecular structure of our nutritional choices, the issue lies with our selected race effort.

In racing, the #1 thing that can kill you is choosing a race pace that exceeds: (a) your fitness; or (b) your capacity to fuel to the finish line.

The likelihood of a superior performance increases the more easily you start the day. Consider:

Swim -- once you are swimming an easy to steady effort, you will find that you need to massively increase effort for a tiny increase in pace. You won't believe the scale of this relationship until you actually try it for yourself. In fact, a number of athletes strongly resist learning this knowledge.

As the saying goes...
...you can bring athletes to the lake but you can't make them negative split with a heart rate monitor attached...

The test workout is 5x800 meters (each one faster than the one before) -- best done open water or in a 50-meter pool. Check your average/max HR per lap against your pace per lap. Compare your workout average pace/HR with the average pace/HR for the final two laps.

Bike -- providing you choose humble gearing (a BIG assumption), you have the option to moderate and totally control your effort. If a former World Ironman Champion like Scott Molina can ride with a 30/27 then you should be able to suck-it-up and be realistic about your gearing needs.

Run -- if you blow on the run then the time penalty is MASSIVE, the cost of a marathon meltdown is disproportionately high. At Ultraman, I have pulled back 10-minutes per MILE, off athletes that run into trouble.

Does your prior race record show that you have the experience, fitness and competence to "race" to what you think is the limit of your fitness? I put "race" in quotes because very few people ever race an Ironman.

So what is a realistic effort for you to aim for on the bike? Here is a test workout... 3x40 mile loops, no long climbs, no drafting, with less than 90 seconds of stopping between each loop. Do each loop faster than the one before -- if you pull that off (and aren't wrecked) then Lap 2 is a good guideline. If you can't descend the laps, or if you are totally worked at the end, then even your slowest lap is too fast.

Download your data from this workout and look at your actual heart rate and power profiles. That is your benchmark for IM -- given that you are swimming 2.4 miles and running a marathon as well... you are likely to need to step _down_ from that actual training data. Similar to the swim test set... you will feel a lot of mental resistance when faced with this information. Many don't want to know.

No doubt some of you think that I am nuts to recommend a 200KM race simulation ride -- does your prior racing track record show that you have the knowledge to determine appropriate pacing?

I did a series of race simulation rides in 2001 -- they were extremely tough and the lessons are still with me! For some reason, lessons learned alone, in training, tend to stick with me longer than repeated errors made in the heat of competition.

A word on averages, fast triathlon cycling is about learning to optimize your speed on the LOWEST possible wattage. An athlete that can go the same speed as you on 80-90% of your power has a huge advantage once the run begins. We all tend to focus on the big numbers, however, the athletes that are most impressive are the ones that go quick on low power. Learning how they do that can give you and edge -- some ideas... aerodynamics, fast in the slow bits, avoiding spikes, bike skills, relaxed at high speed.

Even armed with the above knowledge, it is near impossible to apply it when stressed and surrounded by people making poor decisions. Socially, it is far safer to fail conventionally than 'risk' success in an unconventional manner. I have numerous podium finishes that result from (what others call) cycling 'weakness'.


Q. What is the #1 killer of athletic success in training?
A. Fatigue.

I have been working with athletes for ten years now and the greatest challenge that we face is managing fatigue. Athletes that successfully manage fatigue are more consistent with their training (and happier) thereby increasing their ultimate athletic success.

Here are some tips for improving how you manage fatigue.

Chasing Fitness -- Chasing fitness happens when you sit down and calculate the "fitness" required to meet an athletic goal. You then train at your goal fitness level, rather than your current fitness level. We do this in a lot of different ways -- solo athletes, do this by chasing Personal Bests in workouts; group training athletes, do this by seeking to "win" workouts with "faster" athletes.

My experience is the best training partners are slightly weaker physically, stronger mentally and very fun to be around. You then let the group dynamics lift your fitness.

As for the effect on your training partner... remember that most of your competition isn't consciously seeking their personal best, they are controlled by moment-to-moment emotions.

Chasing Averages -- I've nuked myself a few times with this approach, most recently last week. Here is how it works... you sit down with a recent lab test, or race result. The data is "real" so you have confidence that it will provide a reasonable benchmark to what you should do. You then pull out the exercise physiology textbooks and calculate the precise intensity that you should hold for the workout. Then, for an unexplained reason, you add 5-10% to the intensity and 10-20% to the duration! Fortunately, I cracked fairly early in that workout!

Another word on why averages are misleading. Have another look at the chart above. The average of that ride was 253w. About 6% of that ride was less than 100w but less than 2% of the ride was greater than 400w. With heart rates/power/pace, there are always more very low values than very high values. The longer, and more variable, the workout the greater this effect. As well, my brain always seems to "normalize high". If you ask me to guess the average power of an effort that I just completed (when I watched the screen a lot), I am nearly always 5-10% too high.

What does this mean?

A - If your goal effort is 180-190w then you'll probably average ~175w if you execute correctly.

B - If you set your powermeter on "average watts" and try to hit a number then the majority of your ride will be well over that number and you'll fail to notice (highly costly) power spikes.

No Man's Land Training -- A fit athlete will have the capacity to train every session a little bit "too hard". Taking the three main physiological markers, AeT/LT/FT, the mid points between each of these, should be avoided, with particular attention being paid to the mid-point between AeT and LT. There is a big increase in recovery requirement (and hardly any training benefit) from training slightly over these points, as opposed to slightly under. See the attachment from last week for more info.

NOTE -- intensity moderation is easier to apply to others than ourselves! Having a coach review workout files (post fact) can help you stay sane.

The final three points are sleep, life stress and nutrition (including drug/alcohol use). These are huge in terms of their impact on the amount of fatigue we carry around in our lives.

Sleep -- an extra hour of sleep, every night.

Life Stress -- consciously choosing to do less, in order to achieve more.

Nutrition -- eat real food.

The more simple you can make your life, the greater the chance that you will be able to execute successfully.


Living The Dream
Q. My description of a dream job would be: one that involved endurance sports, is active, flexible, challenging, and has a good potential for return on my investment of time and money. Very, very, very difficult to find something that meets those requirements, I think. I've contemplated becoming a race director, opening a gym/training facility for endurance athletes, going to school for ex. science, or getting a job with a company in the industry. All have their appeal. But its a huge set of steps between considering these possibilities while still in school and taking the plunge and leaving a steady job and income to try some venture of my own devising.

I've been reading your blog for a while and you seem pretty qualified to answer my question, which I am getting to. I've asked enough questions to realize that asking "how do I get that dream job" has just as many answers as there are people to answer; that is, everyone has a different story, and while they do help, they won't help me figure out my own plan. So my question is this: what is the most important skill/trait I can cultivate now and while working in engineering to help prepare me for the kind of profession I am contemplating?
Because of the high value we place on personal freedom, jobs with large degrees of freedom, rarely come with a high return on capital (human or financial). That said, when I look at the things that are most important to me (freedom, fitness, health, nature, love), these items do not cost much to acquire. They did, however, require years of preparation in terms of planning, positioning and effort.

The opportunity to build personal capital in your 20s is valuable. However, when I look back, even more valuable was: (a) being surrounded by a group of highly intelligent people that enhanced my desire to work; (b) the acquisition of a wide range of skills and the opportunity to apply these skills in a range of situations; (c) instruction (by example) of the level of commitment/effort/perseverance required to achieve challenging goals.

When I look for people to associate with, I ask myself, "does this person have a track record of achievement backed by work ethic and strong personal values?" Spending your 20s focused on the creation of that sort of person would be time very well spent.

More specifically for your goal, my advice is to focus on building your expert credentials, as perceived by your target market. Share your knowledge freely as it has little value if hoarded. The market will let you know if your experience has value and relevance.

Sharing your experiences, also improves your communication skills. In the field you are considering, effective communication is important.

Within your expert credentials, three things to consider:

Image -- always present yourself the way you wish to be seen by your target market. Be aware that most people will quickly see through a lack of authenticity. Remember that what takes decades to build can be pulled down very quickly. Respond slowly, and thoughtfully, in environments you don't control (such as other people's internet forums).

Within my own life, I have found it much easier to eliminate choices that don't fit my desired image than create something that doesn't exist. If you chip away at the items that don't fit then you will find that, over time, you end up with a "self" that is in pretty good shape. Over the last few years, I have taken a hard look at the aspects of my life that run counter to honesty, kindness and health. I work daily at the elimination of small things that are inconsistent with these values.

Put yourself in the right peer group, learn to enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done and gain control over the little things that are inconsistent with the person you want to become.

Perception -- there is the way we see ourselves, and the way others see us. From a business point of view, an understanding of how others see us is very useful. What aspects of your story resonate with your target client base? What special, or interesting, knowledge do you have to share? Sharing genuine experiences of an interesting life is probably the most popular form of soft-marketing you can do. We share a love of interesting stories.

Knowledge -- do you know what you don't know? Do you know what you need to know? Do you have multiple approaches available to help your clients? At the beginning of our athletic journey we know so little. Start by figuring out how the different approaches work, and don't work, for you. Work with the best people you have access to. Solidify your knowledge by sharing, and teaching, it.

Most of us get into trouble when we stray into areas where our knowledge is limited. Even as you achieve expert status (whatever that means) resist the urge to opine on all range of subjects. Focus on sharing experience in the areas where you have specific, and relevant knowledge. One of the nice things about being part of a smart team is that you have the ability to bring in support when clients ask questions outside of your core competency.

The ability to ask for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. One needs to be self-confident to admit one's limitations.

If you put yourself "out there" then there will be people waiting to sling arrows, or anonymous comments, at you. By sticking to what you know, it will make it easier to handle it when people seek to bring you down. Remember that our critics exist to criticize, no matter what they say, they have little interest in helping us.

While you are building the above be aware that the more successful you become the greater you are at risk for being hurt by various forms of cognitive bias. One of the reasons that I study under different teachers is to keep my "toolbox" filled with more than one approach for each problem.

Many experts become so immersed in their own dogma that they lose their intellectual freedom. I have had some very intelligent people agree with me in private, but note that they can't change their opinion because of the weight of their past public record. We share an irrational bias against people that change their opinion. Always give yourself the freedom to change your mind in light of new information.

I didn't answer your question directly because people that create world-class financial returns from triathlon are more scarce than World Champion triathletes. However, there are many examples of people that create an enviable lifestyle in our sport, and I believe you will find that much more rewarding than outsize financial returns.

Hope this helps,

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05 July 2008

Altitude -- Part Two

The picture above is Molina and me on Day Four of our high altitude training camp. We are on Loveland Pass, one of the most beautiful climbs in the Rockies.

Two weeks ago, I offered some general outlines for training camps. A little over a year ago, I offered some general outlines for altitude training. In reviewing those pieces, it struck me that they lacked practical advice for how YOU might approach a training camp at altitude. So that is my mission this week... offer you practical tips on how to get the most out of a 3-10 day altitude camp.

Why go to altitude?
Training at altitude produces desirable physiological changes for endurance athletes. My experience is that the most valuable (and potent) altitude stimuli occurs via blood desaturation during exercise at altitude. If you want to review the science on altitude then see the two book references at the bottom of this piece -- the books contain summaries of the best work that has been done on altitude.

For the endurance athlete, I define altitude:
Low altitude is less than 4,500 feet
Moderate altitude is 4,500 to 6,500 feet
Mod-High altitude is 6,500 to 8,500 feet
High altitude is 8,500 to 10,500 feet
Very High altitude is over 10,500 feet

The first tip is to spend the bulk of your training camp one level higher than home. For example, if you live at sea level then be based at moderate altitude (4,500 to 6,500 feet). Remember that the primary goal is blood desaturation, then recovery. If you live/train too high then you end up with excessive desaturation and inferior recovery. Each day during training, feel free to sneak up a further level -- however -- be careful when training two-levels-up as fatigue/training stress is greatly magnified.

At an altitude camp, my main goals are (order of importance):
  1. Increased red blood cell growth via blood desaturation during training (my main goal each day)
  2. Build endurance through volume overload
  3. Maintain sport specific strength via hills (bike/run), big gear work (bike) and paddles (swim). I find low cadence work (swim/bike) to be well-tolerated.
  4. Enhance LT (not FT) performance via sub-LT, mod-hard blocks (generally 10-20 minute pieces at the end of an hour steady-state main set). See file at bottom for explanation of my terms.
  5. Maintain general strength -- keep overall training load such that I have enough energy to hit the gym every 4-6 days.
Some altitude training locations:
  • Jindabyne, NSW, Australia (3,000 feet; nearby Thredbo is 4,500 feet)
  • Bend, OR (3,600 feet)
  • Boulder, CO (5,400 feet)
  • Font Romeu, France (6,000 feet)
  • Vail, CO (8,300 feet)
My most common mistake with training at altitude is going too hard during the camp. Don't race during altitude training camps.

Tips to avoid going "too hard":
  • If you have access to sport specific testing then keep your heart rate under lactate threshold (as defined in the file below, ~2mmol definition of LT)
  • If you don't have access to testing then Mark Allen's MAP formula makes an effective cap, not target!
  • If you can blow yourself up in group training situations then: (a) make sure your camp partners are physically weaker than you; and/or (b) drop off the back _immediately_ when you hit the long climbs.
I have seen outstanding athletes ruin their training camps on day ONE, from ignoring the tip above. Even if you follow that tip, you may find that your early days at altitude leave you quite tired.

As well:
  • Disrupted Sleep -- if you can't sleep then assume you are training too intensely, reduce your heart rate cap by 10 bpm for 48 hours to regroup.
  • Sleep -- even if I have a little trouble sleeping, I make sure that I lie down for 10 hours per day. Molina likes naps -- I skip them so that I can fall asleep more easily at night.
  • Work -- don't expect to get any work done, you may be able to field easy telephone calls but you won't be able to devote much quality thought
  • Family -- don't con your spouse into running support. Keep family vacations about family.
  • Fitness -- arrive fit and train below your level of fitness. Altitude and increased training volume will give you the stimulus you desire.
  • Hydration -- in your first 72 hours at altitude increase your rate of hydration when training and across the night.
  • Nutrition -- always keep your heart rate down for the first two hours that follow solid food (if you ignore this tip then you will get "GI-feedback" that may have you sleeping on the couch). During training, keep your solids for the tops of long descents and use liquid nutrition. Make sure you have a protein source across your long training days. Avoid depletion, I tend to gain a couple of pounds during my most successful training camps.
Final Tips:
  • Gizmos -- leave your GPS and Powermeter at home, your training paces and power will be impaired at altitude -- this is the price you pay for building those red blood cells. I place my PowerTap in heart rate mode so that I am not tempted to chase watts.
  • Gearing -- use humble gearing. Most athletes will do best running a triple up front with a 30-tooth small ring. You need a lot of gears to stay under your heart rate cap in the early days.
  • Swimming -- unless you are a very efficient swimmer then you will have to dial your swimming way down. A good rule of thumb is to add 10% to your send-offs for each "step up" you take in altitude. Yes, you will likely need 20% more time to survive a workout in Vail if you are coming from sea level.
  • Running -- run easy and consider substituting trail hiking for your long runs.
  • Fun -- I was really lucky to have Scott along for this camp. He is my ideal training partner -- stronger than me mentally, great attitude outside of training and not seeking to kill me in training. I caught him looking at a map of South Western Colorado this morning so perhaps I can tempt him back in 2009!
  • Jacket -- always carry a rain jacket -- every single ride -- the weather changes FAST in the mountains
Finally, one that I learned from Chuckie V, NEVER CLIMB INTO LIGHTNING. The mountains will be there next time.

Hope this helps,


Recommended Reading

Files for Download

Endurance Corner Training Zones and Physiological Markers

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