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Real Food Training, Racing, and a Conundrum

One of the benefits of the Maffetone Method, is that I need fewer calories on the bike. I can remember when I started out, any ride of two hours needed sports drinks and gels. I generally drank one hundred calorie bottle per hour along with a gel. And boy, did I need them! I can remember a couple of memorable bonks and near bonks when I finished later than expected, dragging my sorry carcass to the fridge. Building a steadily bigger aerobic engine means better utilization of fat for fuel, and staying at aerobic intensity means I don’t feel hungry, or desperately needing calories. When I do feel hungry, it’s because it’s lunch time! I would be hungry anyway, even without the bike.

But once I get into the three plus hour range for training rides I have to fuel. Going longer than about 90-120 minutes means that storage glucose will run out, and even the best Maffetone-built fat burning aerobic engine still needs some carbohydrate to keep it all in gear. So calories count. But I grew a little tired of fruity, sweet, expensive gels and drinks, so I experimented with real food and found great success! I found real food digests more slowly, gradually keeping up your energy. I really noticed this mentally. I didn’t realize that there was a “flash and crash” from gels and drinks until I tried real food. It is more of a mental experience where the sugar would make me feel energetic, then later my brain would get a little foggy and fatigued. It wasn’t dramatic, and I thought it was normal. But real food digests slowly and my mental energy is much steadier. What really worried me was my gut. How would it tolerate solid, savory food while still pedaling along for hours? Much better than I thought. But I found that smaller portions more frequently are important. Just a few bites, otherwise you get that “brick” feeling. And that could signal an impending disaster!

Another part of the experiment was real food’s effect on recovery. I’ve found that I really need very little fuel for long aerobic rides. But I wondered if taking in calories along the way would allow me to recover faster, since I would not be digging myself in as deep a hole. The result seems to be that I recover faster and feel better the rest of the day. It used to be that a weekend long ride before lunch would leave me trashed for the rest of the day. I would eat lunch, take a long nap, get up, eat another lunch and be pretty tired.  Partly because of the aerobic training and partly by refueling, I finish these long rides tired, but not exhausted and not famished. I eat lunch, take a nap, just like usual, but the nap is shorter, and I’m not as hungry. I still have energy to do other things. Sometimes I add in walks just because I feel like it!

Three consecutive long weekend road rides went like this:

Same route, about 3 1/2 hours

Went over tem minutes faster after three weeks

Fueled with two bottles of Hammer HEED sports drink

Ate six small onigiri (about a cup and a half of rice)

Ate three dates

Everything went down smooth and felt great. Everything was divided up equally into three snack size bags, one for each jersey pocket. With a little practice, I could eat and ride without too much fumbling.

Another alternative is small Yukon gold potatoes, cooked and cut in quarters tossed with salt and nutritional yeast. Very savory and very tasty! Disadvantage: they get gooey and are a little tricky to eat while riding.

Next up:

Perfect the wrapping of Allen Lim style rice cakes for cycling. They taste great, but I can’t yet wrap them in such a way that they stay together and be smoothly eaten while pedaling by a klutz like me!

BUT:

While fueling for training is dialed in what about racing? How does intensity affect fueling? Racing and that conundrum next time.

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Training on Bread and Water

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Doping cyclists refer to racing when they arenot under the influence of any performance enhancing drugs as racing “on bread and water.” In order to better see how my aerobic engine grows I’m experimenting with my own version of “bread and water” avoiding commercial sports nutrition and supplements. For me it will mean white rice and green tea. Real food.

Base training means building the aerobic engine. This means going slow and resisting all urges to go fast. It takes time to build those capillaries. It takes time for the heart to get stronger. It takes time for the mitochondria to do, well, whatever it is that mitochondria do. But the relaxed pace of training below MAF can be very pleasant. It gives one time to think. It is also a good time to to try new things since there is no pressure.

So Saturday was the first bike ride in way too long, and boy, did it feel awkward! The position on my road bike felt weird, I wobbled a bit going down the street, and today the only soreness is my neck and shoulders. They weren’t used to holding up my fat head for a couple of hours. The good news is that I pedaled well for two hours, but running exclusively is not the same as cycling, so much work needs to be done before racing triathlons again.

The Experiment:
I want to try real food for training rather than processed sports “nutrition.” It seems to me that during low heart rate cycling, it should be easy to eat real food. So I tried making some onigiri to stuff into my pockets. Ordinarily, I don’t need food at all for aerobic workouts under two hours, but I wanted to experiment, and my ride was pushing into lunchtime.

Results?
A qualified success. They tasted great, and chewing on real food was a nice contrast to sucking down gels or liquid fuels. I found that using a little extra water when wrapping them made them hold together better. They held together beautifully in my jersey pockets. Nutritionally, at about 100 calories per half cup of rice, I could figure out how many calories I was getting, which is one of the conveniences of packaged foods. I used the traditional umeboshi paste and higher grade rice which tasted great. I loved the tangy, salty, sour taste, and I think that in the summer heat it would be quite refreshing.

Downsides?
One real, and one potential.

They were a bit of a challenge to eat while riding. They took longer than I thought, so maybe I should make them smaller. Also, the nori wrapper was a bit tough to bite through and chew at times. I anticipated this, but it was a bit tricky. Will it get better with more practice? I don’t know.

The weather was cool and breezy, and I hardly broke a sweat. I don’t know how they would fare in a jersey pocket on a hot summer day. They might need another wrapper of plastic, foil, or wax paper, which would make eating them even more of a challenge for a klutz like me.

But in sum, they taste good, settle well in my stomach, and at a few cents for a serving of rice and a nori wrapper compared to $1.40 for a Hammer gel, I will practice my technique.

Back to the Track: M.A.F. #1

Maximum Aerobic Function Test  #1 (Running)

11:13

Yay!

I year ago today, I shuffled my way to a pathetic 13:27, only a few weeks recovered from pneumonia. Truly, I was starting from ZERO. It sucked. But I persevered with the Maffetone Method, and my fitness steadily improved, which led to a great summer of racing with no burn out like in past years.

But this year I have been worried.

I slacked off in the fall, quit racing, and got a little too serious about an “off season break.”  The holidays interrupted a little, but I got in some nice runs. Then January came, time to start base training, but things fell apart. Huge work stress, a cold, and other assorted troubles conspired to make me miss too many days.

Last week I tried a MAF test on the track, but the results and feel were so off I knew I needed to retest this. I feared this season was over before it even started.

Then I had some encouraging signs:

  • A great weekend long run
  • A great informal MAF test that had a two minute improvement over recent times
  • A good morning HRV score

So I knew it was time to hit the track on the same day that I started last year to see where I stood. I am over two minutes faster per mile than I was at this time last year (and a bit heavier, oops!) I wasn’t able to hit a MAF pace like today’s formally or informally, until late April of last season. So while I wasn’t able to maintain ALL my fitness from last year as I hoped, or build on it as I think you should be able to when training the low stress Maffetone way, it’s worked out pretty well.

But, I’ve been too much of a run specialist. Time to remember those other two sports that make up triathlon!

Real Food Fueling: Base Training Part 2

These little guys got me through 8 hour solo MTB races!

These little guys got me through 8 hour solo MTB races!

After my GI distress in last year’s LQS race, I have been a little more interested in finding real food to fuel my long training rides. I have become a little leery of the sweet taste and processed carbohydrates of  sports drinks and gels. One reason I switched to Hammer products was because they aren’t as sweet, and I found the exclusive use of maltodextrin to work better for me. Until it didn’t.

Plus, real food such as natural fruits and starches will be far more nutrient dense than engineered food.

I have found that the Maffetone Method allows me to train on water alone up to 2 hours. Greater reliance on burning fat for energy means I no longer need carbs along the way. Also, following a starch based diet means my glycogen stores are always full. Part of base training will be trying to push that a little further out. Can I ride for 2 1/2 hrs? 3hrs?

But what about racing?

Higher intensity means more carbohydrate burned at faster rates and the need for refueling. Short races of two hours or less I think will be fine with some Hammer HEED or gel. But what about those marathon mountain bike races? It is for these longer events that I want to find some real food alternatives.

Here are some things I have tried with varying success:

  • bananas
  • dates
  • small potatoes

Most people have discovered that bananas don’t travel well. Dates travel really well, they’re like nature’s gel packets, and I know a guy who raced on figs, but fruits have a problem shared with sports nutrition: the sweet taste can get to you after a while. Manufacturers get around this by adding things like citric acid, but this can be irritating. Finally, I began to appreciate what Allen Lim and many pro cyclists call “gut rot.”

As far as potatoes and sweet potatoes go, they travel well, but I worry that the fiber could cause a problem over time. But after reading endlessly about Allen Lim’s rice cakes and reading a recipe for and explanation of Japanese rice balls I had a flash of insight: white rice! I have been a brown rice snob for so many years that I completely ignored that white rice is low fiber but high carbohydrate without being sweet. It just might solve my problems.

So I turned to Allen Lim and his book The Feed Zone Cookbook for some ideas. As a vegan athlete, I took a real chance ordering this from Amazon unseen, but it seems to have some good ideas and stories.  Scott Jurek uses rice in the form of onigiri, or rice balls wrapped in seaweed. kinda like sushi. Brilliant! All I have to do is find a recipe I like and learn how to package it. This part worries me, as I am clumsy while trying to fuel during a ride. I also don’t want my jersey to turn into a glutinous mess. So far I like the rice cake while skiing, but the stop and go nature of skiing coupled with a chairlift ride makes eating real food easy. For cycling, I will have to practice on some long rides to see if it works.

Then what about Tarahumara foods like chia or the little bean burritos they use while racing?

Stay tuned.

Base Training: Build a HUGE Aerobic Engine

Build cardiovascular fitness that looks like this!

Build cardiovascular fitness that looks like this!

New Year’s is over and while the weather here in California is cold, it’s time to put in those base miles. OK, I know, much of the country experiences REAL cold, but temps in the 30s mean my morning bike commute isn’t happening. That’s a pity, because there is no more convenient way to amass training hours than to incorporate them into something you already  have to do, like go to work.

Of course, I could ride on the indoor trainer. But that sucks.

I would rather be outside running than sweating on the floor. But I promise I will train on the trainer this week if I have to.

Base Training Goal: Aerobic Fitness

This will be my second full season of Maffetone training, and this year I have residual fitness from last season. My informal MAF test of my usual running route shows some slowing from last year’s best, but it has been holding steady, and I have not tried to push that fitness further. In the off season, I think that a plateau equals progress. Compared to last year where I lost weeks of training from pneumonia, this year I have maintained some reasonable run fitness. My hope is that I can build on that this season and get even faster. Like last year, I will not race until the end of March, giving me three months of uninterrupted aerobic base training, except for some alpine skiing. I will use my 180 formula maximum heart rate of 145 until I start racing. If everything goes well, I will experiment with calculating my MAF by working down from lactate threshold, which will give me a higher heart rate range to work with.

Why?

Because unless you race on the track, almost all of your energy is being produced aerobically.

Because more health benefits come from aerobic fitness.

Because it creates less stress, avoiding burnout.

Because it’s good for the brain, helping Seasonal Affective Disorder (more on that later)

How to Build a V8 Aerobic Engine

Stick to MAF.

Aerobic and anaerobic workouts can interfere with each other. Use the 180 formula and be disciplined.

Don’t race

Resist the temptation to “tune up” until after you’ve built the engine.

Increase volume

Do this more by increasing frequency than super long workouts. The sweet spots seem to be 45-60 min. and again around two hours. The Kenyans never train for more than 2 hrs, but they train often.

Be patient

Improved fitness will come week by week and three months should build quite an engine.

Happy training!

Not a PR: By 1.2 seconds

Despite my recent fall hiatus from racing to allow for full recovery of mental and physical faculties, I decided at the last minute  to jump into a neighborhood 5K just for fun. I almost never race on the road. I prefer the adventure and challenge of racing on trails. I also like that trails make comparing times much more difficult, and usually impossible. The temptation to become a numbers freak always worrying about times and paces disappears with the first rocky singletrack section.

But racing once in a while on roads or the track is good too. It’s nice to run on a consistent marked course to see what kind of pace I really can manage with my current level of fitness. If and when I do any anaerobic style training, I know what kind of pace to use. It also allows me to set reasonable time goals for the few events I want to do on the road, like a half marathon and eventually a full marathon.

I last ran this race a couple of years ago slightly faster.

I missed my 5K PR by 1.2 seconds!

Seriously, how can this be? I also ran the Squaw Mountain Run in nearly the exact same time as the previous year. How do I interpret these results?

The Glass is Half Empty:

All that slow aerobic Maffetone training isn’t helping. Train fast, if you want to race fast!

The Glass is Half Full:

I haven’t aged in three years. I’m capable of the same performance.

In reality, this has been a tough year since I started by missing all of January with pneumonia and had to start rebuilding my fitness from ZERO. So I’m not worried yet. I’ll stick to Maffetone for the time being because I enjoy it. I’ll run a half marathon instead of a full marathon for other, related reasons. My race pace now finally reflects my MAF test results, showing that my aerobic system is catching up with my anaerobic speed. So now the long, patient work of building an even bigger aerobic engine for next season begins. I’ll race again next month, then focus on MAF all the way to April before worrying about racing again.

5K Time: 23:00 41st overall out of 500(?) runners

MAF Test Musings: Racing, Losing, and Regaining Fitness

Good news from the track: My fitness is once again headed in the right direction. Apparently, spending 4-8 hrs on your bike going as anaerobic as possible wears a body down. Who would have thought it? I saw my MAF test pace decline about 30 sec per mile through July, and the graph of my HRV remained relatively flat. I was overreaching, and for once, I was smart about it. As school started I took my midseason break.

And it worked!

I have seen my highest HRV scores ever, and the average is up 10 points for the last month. That has never happened before. And my MAF test pace is back to roughly what it was at the start of summer, before all the marathon mtb races. What does that mean?

1. My aerobic fitness had regressed due to the heavy anaerobic demands of racing. HRV and MAF pace measure that quantitatively, but I could also qualitatively feel the fatigue build, and for the first time recognize it early enough to do something about it.

2. My autonomic nervous system is in a good state of balance and is not overstressed.

3. My aerobic system is recovered, and can once again move forward.

Speaking of marathons…

It’s marathon season, and I’ve scheduled a half marathon in October to continue to build toward a December full marathon. Now I just concentrate on long runs, and let the bike fade a bit into the background. For now, all training runs stay at MAF pace. No need to stress my anaerobic system for a marathon, it won’t be needed as much as the biggest aerobic engine I can find between now and then. Besides I had plenty of anaerobic hell in Tahoe this summer.

In other news:

The PCRM Kickstart is going well, but with so many yummy recipes to try, and only one of me to actually eat them, I’m  a little overwhelmed. Oh well, nothing like a little eating challenge to inspire and use up the great fall produce.

Race Week: To Taper and Peak or Not?

The standard for endurance coaching is periodization: dividing the year up into distinct training periods with specific goals. The theory is that you can only make progress for a while in a particular type of training, then you plateau. Plus, you need periodic breaks to allow for recovery and to absorb the training before hitting it again. In a way, you flirt with overtraining, although coaches will call it “overreaching”. Right before edge, you pull back and recover, with the body getting stronger. The Eastern Europeans devised and perfected this method, getting great results. Amateurs can be divided into two groups: those who organize, periodize and peak, and those who don’t.

I’m not a periodizer. In the past I tried to periodize by changing my training to prep for ski season, and then again for summer endurance sports, like mountain biking. Now that endurance racing is more important than skiing, I don’t bother with periodization. I just try to improve fitness and race when I feel like it.  But I have races that I want to improve in, and that suggests that I should periodize by tapering and peaking for a big event.

Here is what Joe Friel, a fantastic coach and author of the “Training Bible” series of books says about peaking:

 “When a true peak comes about, you will experience several physical changes that combine to create a performance that borders on astonishing. These changes include inreased leg power, reduced lactic acid production, increased blood volume, a greater red blood cell concentration, and increased fuel storage. Top these physical transformations with sharper mental skills such as concentration, confidence, and motivation, and you are truly in top race form. All of this, and no illegal drugs are needed.”

(The Triathlete’s Training Bible  3rd edition, p. 33 )

The catch?

“Creating that moment when racing seems effortless makes months of hard work and sweat worthwhile.” (my emphasis)

What?! Months! That means lots of planning. Right, not for me.

I prefer to fly by the seat of my pants. A “pantser”, if you will, when it comes to training and racing schedules. And I like to race a lot, which makes peaking harder. What to do? What I did do was just give up and wing it. Then I discovered the Maffetone Method.

Maffetone has this to say about peaking:

 “The concept of ‘peaking’ as it’s been used through the years, isn’t healthy for endurance athletes. As I’ve seen it in practical application, it usually involves a gradual overtraining. In this first stage of overtraining, performance can actually improve just before more common signs or symptoms of overtraining begin. However, this increased performance window is short, and athletes quickly enter the second, more serious stage of overtraining where injury, ill health, and performance loss occurs.”

(The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing, p. 79)

So what I do is combine the methods a little:

  1.  Schedule a Priority Race
  2. Develop the best aerobic base I can
  3. Take the last few days before the event to cut way back and rest up
  4. Take some easy recovery days afterwards
  5. Race again!

I think this approach fits my personality. I have suffered numerous times from overtraining, and while I never dug myself as deep a hole as many racers, I lost a lot of enjoyment.

Benefits of Pantsing:

  •  Flexible scheduling
  • Easier planning (none!)
  • Simpler
  • Less stress
  • Easier recovery (if workouts are aerobic)

Drawbacks:

  •  Lower performance
  • Slower times
  • Less progress
  • Less recovery (if fatigue keeps building without adequate recovery time)

One thing that I have learned from the periodizing planners:

It’s far better to go into a race over-rested and under-trained, than the opposite. You’ll probably be faster, and you will definitely have more fun.

One Thing Maffetone Got Right:

Minimizing anaerobic training makes it much easier to go into a race rested and ready, because aerobic training is lower in stress.

One Thing the Periodizers Got Right:

If you’re aiming for a specific, high stakes goal, like a qualifying spot for Kona or Boston, may require you to peak for it even with the risk of overtraining.

What about you? What have you tried? What worked? What broke? Any good ideas?

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 #5

After over four months of steady progress in building aerobic fitness with the Maffetone Method, I was still worried about what I would find in yesterday’s test. Since I raced so hard on Saturday, and last Thursday, would my aerobic development slow or regress? Even if it did, would that be a sign of over cooking myself anaerobically, or that I am reaching an aerobic plateau and could actually benefit from anaerobic training?

I woke up with an HRV score of 75 on my iThlete, which is about as high as I can go right now. The long-term trend for me is rising, which indicates steadily improving aerobic fitness. The short-term score shows how rested and recovered I am. Strangely, the day after Hammerstein my HRV was 74. I was expecting a crash, although I did sleep like a log.

So my HRV was good, my legs felt good, and spirits felt good on my way to the track. The weather was warm, but not outrageous. I am always nervous for the first mile because I can’t feel if I’m going faster than before. The result? My first mile was a minute faster than last month’s average! Still progressing! Miles two and three slow down a bit, of course, but my current MAF mile pace is about 45 seconds faster than the best score I achieved last season. Yay!

The Good:

I am still progressing, and I have two different objective measurements giving me that feedback. MAF average pace: 10:20. HRV scores regularly in the 70s.

The Bad:

I’m not as recovered from the Hammerstein as I thought. The soreness came back, and it was just a short, easy run. I guess even that little impact was enough, but I was feeling it in my quads, hamstrings and right calf. So I slathered them in magnesium oil a la Ben Greenfield, and elevated them for a recovery nap before administering the Traumeel and compression socks.

The Puzzling:

If my fitness is better than last year when I raced the LQS at Northstar, why did I struggle to last 5 1/2 hr at Laguna Seca? Perhaps I didn’t take in enough calories on lap 1? Did I go just a little too hard on the climbs early on? Or is it just that I haven’t done enough really long rides?

Not much time to solve the puzzle before the next 8 hour race . . .