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When to Take a Midseason Break

I haven’t trained more than a couple of days in the last three weeks. I didn’t quit completely, I just scaled back. I exercised, but not every day. I didn’t go for as long, and I kept everything strictly aerobic, below my Maximum Aerobic Function. I knew it was time for a break, and showing that wisdom can indeed come with age, I actually took that break. How did I know that it was time?

Quantitative Factors:

Race Performance:

If race times flatten or worsen, it’s a good bet you’re overcooked. I raced the Squaw Mountain Run in basically the same time as last year. I went for one last 8 hour mountain bike race, and only lasted four hours. I was crashing, cramping and suffering in the heat. (although I did solve the mystery of the Tahoe Trail 100 meltdown, wear the hydration pack!) I really wanted to race XTERRA Tahoe at Incline Village, so I cancelled other race plans.

MAF Test:

Maffetone believes the objective data from a MAF test is the best, so if you plateau or regress it’s time to carefully evaluate what’s going on. I regressed in both formal and informal MAF tests. Time to back off.

Heart Rate Variability:

HRV should increase as fitness increases. Coinciding with my decline in MAF tests, my HRV never seemed to increase much past where it had been. There would be a big dip after a race from the anaerobic stress, but as I recovered, my HRV would only return to where it had been before, no higher. Kind of like treading water.

Qualitative Factors:

Mood:

I didn’t want to race that last MTB race, but I had already signed up and paid, so I went anyway. Usually I delay registering until the last moment, just to be sure. But I thought it would sell out, so I put it on the calendar when it seemed like a good idea. Our attitude and enthusiasm is a great gauge of our fitness. If we feel flat or over cooked, most likely we are. Pushing on will just make things worse. So I pulled the plug on another race and rested instead, knowing the start of school would increase other kinds of stress dramatically. I ran a little, biked a little, and took days off. I wanted to be ready for Tahoe.

How to Know When to Jump Back In:

Qualitative:

When you feel like it! When Tahoe came around, my motivation was mostly back. My extra rest brought back my enthusiasm, and I had a fun race, even though it was harder than I expected. With some extra recovery days after the race, I feel excited to train again for my next big goal, a marathon in December. That goal motivated me to take my break now, rather than burn out too late. My nutrition, which had also suffered as I gave into temptations, is now back on track as well.

Quantitative:

My HRV has hit all time highs, both for a single day and average. My informal MAF test today showed several minutes of improvement. I now have motivation and a positive attitude toward my new goal. I’m cutting way back on racing and doing a run focus from now until the marathon. I feel confident that this time I won’t burn out early, instead I’ll make it all the way to my December vacation with increasing fitness.

Do you take breaks during your season? How do you when to stop and when to start back up?

Lake Tahoe 4/8 hour Mountain Bike Race Report

Last year I did this race in the four hour solo category just for the fun of it. Conditions were difficult, but overall the race was a great challenge and lots of fun. I used it as preparation for the XTERRA Tahoe City race, since the bike course uses some of the same trails.
Last year, after California’s endless winter, two miles of the course had to be cut out due to snow. Even with the shortened course, race crew had to shovel for days to clear enough trail to be usable. Despite their heroic efforts, there were several big patches that had to be negotiated either on foot or as a slippery ride.
There were none of those problems this year. This year conditions were much more typically summertime Tahoe: warm, dry, and dusty. No snow or even mud to contend with. Just lap after lap of rocks, singletrack, and forested meadow. Last year I gassed myself by doubling up the racing by following the mountain bike race with a 10K trail run the next day. I did not repeat that mistake again. Instead, I doubled up on the bike and entered the 8 hour Solo category. I wanted the maximum aerobic workout I could get for the day, and boy howdy, did I get it!
I was a little disappointed with my performance at the Hammerstein last weekend, but I figured that in large part that related to the normal fatigue at the end of the school year coupled with pacing and fueling. That seems to be true. I only lasted 5 1/2 hours there, but here in Tahoe, at 6,000+ ft elevation, I lasted almost the full eight hours. I did not make that improvement based on fitness gains. It shows clearly that training and racing are truly dependent on other life stress. A week to recover from school, the race, and consolidate that fitness, led to a much better showing this weekend. A fellow racer remarked on my Hammerstein t-shirt, calling me a glutton. Yes, but I want these huge days to bolster my fitness for my “A” race, the Lake Tahoe Trail 100 (Leadville Qualifier) at Northstar in July. It appears that I have made some progress, but not enough to meet my time goal for Northstar. While I think the Northstar course is a little faster, with more road miles, I clearly have some work to do on my fitness.

Breakin’ it Down:

The Course:
Dusty singletrack and doubletrack. A rocky, tight, twisty singletrack climb, and a steep, loose, rocky jeep road climb that hurt. Some fast scary descending. Lots of forested singletrack, and a lot of leg sapping false flats that felt harder than they looked.

The Good:
I stayed upright (mostly), pedaled (mostly) and survived for nearly eight hours. I completed five 12 mile laps for a total of 60 miles, similar to Northstar. My performance was similar to last year’s Northstar, and I still have a month to prepare. My nutrition worked well. I used Hammer Sustained Energy on the bike, and steamed purple potatoes when I would pit. I took one caffeinated Hammer gel late in the race to power through. I drank plain water from my Camelbak. And I finished feeling much better than I did last weekend, or on the shorter version of this race last year. I even felt better than after Northstar. I’m recovering faster.

The Bad:
I crashed. While climbing at a snail’s pace. Embarrassing, but I couldn’t unclip fast enough. Gotta get those shoes and cleats fixed. I had a few minutes of tummy troubles due to mixing my energy drink stronger than usual and gulping a little too fast. I spent more time in my pit than I wanted to. It helped keep me going, but contributed to my biggest problem: I. Am. Really. Slow. My average speed is nowhere near what I need to meet my goal at Northstar. I wasn’t DFL, but pretty darn close.

The Ugly:
That loose, rocky jeep road climb. I hate it. I have ridden it many times in races, but it’s hard. This time I had to walk sections several times. On my last lap I walked the whole thing. I blamed my shoes, but I don’t think I had it in me anyway. Steep jeep road, I abhor thee! And, yay, next week I get to climb it two more times in the XTERRA. Lucky me.

The Puzzling:
My average heart rate was 151 bpm, last year’s four hour events yielded a 161 bpm average. According to some coaches, the Maximum Average Function heart rate zone should be 20-30 beats lower than lactate threshold. Estimating my LT at 175 from other races, my training range to maximize aerobic development should be 145-155 bpm. This coincides nicely with recent marathon mtb racing, but puts me a full 10 bpm above the range prescribed by Maffetone and Mark Allen using the 180 formula. What do I do? Stick with the 180 formula, or go with the LT formula?

I think my plan going forward will be to intersperse some workouts using the higher heart rate range. I have toyed with the idea previously of adding in anaerobic work now that I have built a base. But since racing at this distance stays primarily aerobic, I see no need for LT intervals. Instead, I will mimic race conditions by upping intensity a bit. I also need more volume, in the form of longer rides. I just need more adaptation to sitting in the saddle for so long. I will continue to use HRV and MAF tests to ensure that I am progressing and not overtraining. If I start to regress, I’ll slow down.

A Preview of Coming Attractions:
XTERRA Tahoe City: Can I beat Dave again?
Lake Tahoe Trail 100: A Leadville Qualifying Series Race

M.A.F. Test #3

Time: 4 PM

Conditions: Cool, breezy, threatening rain

Mile #1: 10:50

Mile #2: 10:56

Mile #3: 11:25

M.A.F. Average pace: 11:03 per mile

Average Heart Rate: 139 BPM

Alright, this MAF test is a real conundrum. My average only improved by a meager six seconds per mile over a month of training! Even more puzzling is that my first mile took me 10:50, fully fifteen seconds slower than last month? WTF? The improvement came from a much steadier pace for miles 2 and 3, with my final mile twenty seconds faster. WTF? redux  I was actually concerned while I ran that my result might actually worsen this month, but it didn’t happen. I avoid looking at the time while I run, until it’s time to record the split times. But I worried anyway. I resolved that if I did worsen, I would retest in a week to if this was a fluke, or a warning sign. Maffetone emphasizes the value of regular MAF tests to keep training and lifestyle on track. One thing that stands out a little is the relatively slow pace of mile one. This could mean that I wasn’t adequately warmed up. So, since I improved only a little, I will retest in two weeks instead of four, include a longer warmup, and see what happens. Another strange thing was that the differences between each mile time were much smaller than previous tests, which could indicate a plateau.

What could explain all this?

1. The August test came at the end of summer, and school had barely started. I had spent a lot of time in Tahoe over the summer and I believe I picked an aerobic benefit from the altitude. My times on some familiar training routes improved significantly. That doesn’t seem to be the case any more. As my red blood cell count, hematocrit, and EPO levels normalize to sea level, it’s possible that I was slowing down my rate of progress.

2. School means a dramatic change in lifestyle. No longer do I have the luxury of living like a pro athlete. The increased lifestyle stress can interfere with aerobic development. Even being  a little sloppy in nutrition that might not matter in the summer matters now. And other personal stresses that seemed handled from the comfort of a summer hammock took longer than expected to resolve.

3. Heat stress, while not a factor in either test, was an issue over the last month, causing me to miss a few workouts. Plus the heat really makes me cranky.

In any case I had planned to change my training after September. This marks six months of Maffetone style training, so for the next three months I will train a little differently.

The Plan:

Continue all running and cycling workouts at MAF intensity.

Increase running volume three ways:

1. Longer long runs. Building from 90 min. to three hours to prepare for the December marathon.

2. A medium long run midweek, 60-75 min.

3. Short transition runs off the bike

Decrease bike volume by shortening commutes and shortening long rides to 90-120 min.

Add in some strength training. This will be the only anaerobic efforts I’ll do.

Tighten up the loose ends in diet and work on stress reduction to improve sleep quality. My HRV levels have also plateaued, so I may need more rest.

I will retest in two weeks, to see where the trend really is going, and if further lifestyle modifications are needed.