It’s (not) Not About the Bike (AKA the sound of money)

My brother visited me in New Zealand a year and a half ago and brought his fancy bike with him to do GodZone, one of the world’s most competitive adventure races. I wasn’t jealous until I lifted the bike.  It weighed half what mine did.

It’s my bike now, although I’ve hardly ridden it since.  But I got it out today for a spin. Is it a coincidence that it’s also the day I signed up for my own chance to tackle GodZone?  Probably not.

Me, an $8000 bike, and a shipping container.

Me, an $8000 bike, and a shipping container.

As I was pulling it out of the shipping container/garage I remembered something Jason had said to my son, Keegan  (who was also enamored with the bike) way back during his visit.  He’d been revolving the pedals backwards when Keegan asked him what the sound coming from the rear cassette was.

“That, nephew, is the sound of money.” Jason said.

(Rumors are that the bike is valued at nearly $8000, though I’m sure I got it for less)

So, anyway, after adjusting the bike to my body’s geometry (I share the bike with my wife…only way she’d approve the purchase!), I took it for a quick spin around my old ‘in town’ time trial loop ride.  The loop is only 2.68 miles long with no traffic and a gradual quarter mile climb about a third of the way through.  I used to do it once every couple of weeks but it has been nearly four months since I’d been on the bike, so I wasn’t expecting big things.

But…I used to do it on a hand me down mountain bike–an old Avanti Hammer aluminum frame beast. My best ever effort was around 8:40.

Today I manged 8:05.

Sorry, Lance.

Sorry, Lance.

I want to be clear here–I’m not doing a flip-flop all of a sudden and arguing that you need to sell your kidney ($15000 if you do it in India–you’d have change to spare!) for a bike to train on. I still standby the words of wisdom I so eloquently penned for Breathe Magazine back in 2015  that espoused the superfluousness of high dollar gear for training purposes.

But I am saying that this out of shape biker just beat his former PR, off the couch, by 7%, thanks to a little bit (or in this case a lot) of carbon fiber.

I’m also saying, that, at least this time, Lance got it wrong.

Happy Training.

Back to Basics

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There have been a few things in my life recently that have made me spend some time evaluating what I really think is important.  And while most of the resulting thought has little to do with the subjects of this blog, at least a bit of it does.

Because fitness–in as much as it gives me the ability to wholly participate in and interact with this fabulous physical world of ours–is important.  And for me, because I’ve enjoyed so much personal growth at the hand of what I’ve termed ‘success enabled by suffering’, the level of fitness I seek is, at least by many people’s standards, relatively high.

The route--3 km lake, 22+ km river, 9 km lake

The route–3 km lake, 22+ km river, 9 km lake

But how high?  When it comes down to it, what level of fitness am I going to need to keep finding that optimum balance of having time and energy to focus on other aspects of my life while maintaining the physical and mental platform from which to keep chasing the benefits of epic challenges (like my latest effort, a swim between cities), and able to keep up with my two boys so that I can share in some of whatever (fingers crossed here) wild missions they come up with as they get older.

I wonder this because in the face of my recent evaluation, many of the motivations that have ordinarily sustained my drive to maintain a high level of fitness have all but disappeared.  I no longer feel very competitive.  The lure of forging this new and novel path–using HIIT to approach ultra endurance, has faded.

If my happiness depends somewhat on a minimum level of fitness, then by defining that minimum level I can simply use the minimum effective dose (MED) to get there and think less of training, and more of just living. And if/when my ambition returns, even if it does so spontaneously as it did last weekend with the swim, I’m well positioned to suffer my way through an epic adventure or two.

Basic Fitness Goals–to always be able:

  • Run a sub 6:00 mile
  • Swiw a sub 6:00 400 meter (open water)
  • Strength: Perform 90 seconds each for continuous tension (CTL) chins and push-ups.

Simple and easy as.

The Perks of Over (winter) Training.

Over-winter-training back in North Dakota a few years ago--a place that takes the concept to a whole other level.

Taking over-winter-training to another level in North Dakota, 2011.

I typically hate training outdoors in winter, particularly when embracing more high intensity efforts. And particularly when I’ living someplace where it actually gets cold. And since I do live somewhere where it gets cold…

Last winter, I ended up buying a rather expensive gym membership (everything is rather expensive in New Zealand) and gutted it out on treadmills, rowing machines, ellipticals and stationary bikes for five minutes at a time. It was epic. But it was still cold (apparently heat, too, is expensive–so much so that the gym membership didn’t include it).

So when winter rolled around this year I just manned up and stayed outside. Thankfully it was relatively mild and I only occasionally had to face challenging conditions like freezing rain, but it was still cold none-the-less.  Which meant that lungs burned badly, joints ached, and muscles felt sluggish as I raced along the final straight-away on my 4.5 km mountain bike time trial or rounded the last bend on my last 400 track repeat.

But I stuck with it, set reasonable expectations, and low and behold, it is suddenly spring.

Today it was 17 degrees and sunny (about 63 F for all you Americans and Brits) as I shook the legs out in preparation for my mile time trial.  I wasn’t looking forward to it.  It was desperately rushed and last minute. But on the plus side I could run shirtless for the first time since April.

I took it easy on the way out, giving myself time to get into it.  As I passed half way I still felt pretty good.  My lungs weren’t burning.  My skin didn’t sting. I hadn’t once registered an achy joint. I cruised down the finishing straight, happy that it had been relatively painless because I’d really been dreading it.  All winter the time trial was the hardest of my rotating HIIT runs.  It usually felt horrible by a minute in and I’d just hang on for the rest, wanting to dry heave at the end. And I’d always feel the rawness of stretched or dry or  broken alveoli (whatever it is that causes that awesome post HIIT cold weather burning of the lungs) with every deep breath right through until bedtime.

But this time around a combination of low expectations and higher temperatures made for a matching of my personal best, all without what felt like a personal best effort.  And that, in my opinion, is one of the unexpected perks of over (winter) training.

Lessons from the field

Atop hanging vallye with a gaggle of youngsters.  My second time up for the day...

Atop hanging vallye with a gaggle of youngsters. My second time up for the day…

I’ve spent the last three weeks out in the field. For me that meant a week as an outdoor instructor at a pair of all girls camps (three dozen 14 year old girls, oh my!), a week as a guide on a 6 day, 150 km long pack-rafting trip, and most of a week as a parent helper at a pair of overnight primary school camps with my two boys. The first two weeks were too important financially to skip, and the last one was pretty critical to maintaining the work-family balance.  But these weeks were pretty also pretty key training weeks my lead up to GodZone, this years “A” race for me.  In fact, they lay 7, 6, and 5 weeks out respectively–prime training time.

Initially I struggled to decide whether to accept the offers of work, fearing that it would impact my training.  But in the end the dollars were too hard to turn down and I decided to try to take the work. Same deal when upon return from that pack-rafting trip my boys informed me they wanted ME to come to both of their camps. I initially thought only of what workouts I’d miss and started, by default, rationalizing why their mom should go instead.  But in then end I couldn’t refuse. I just sucked it up and did my best to fit the training around these priorities and in doing so got quite an education.

Week 1 'training' camp accommodations.

Week 1 ‘training’ camp accommodations.

The first week’s work entailed daily hikes of 2-3 hours, as well as leading lots of “ABL” (adventure based learning) activities.  It also involved lots of singing and screaming and organizing and talking with the other teachers. It was exhausting.  Since I was getting paid to lead the walks and manage the activities, my training window was 6 to 7:30 am.  No problem for my wife, but a major problem for me, as I’m hardly a morning person.  To make matters worse the camp was set in Deep Cove, a stunningly beautiful spot in Fiordland New Zealand that also happens to be one of the wettest spots in the world.  It was almost always raining.  For someone who doesn’t like getting up early to begin with, getting up early to train is pretty hard.  Getting up early to train in rain that is measured annually in meters is damned near impossible.  But then again, so might be finishing GodZone.  I managed the former by hoping it might help me manage the latter.

packraftUM

early mornings on the water. Great paddle training!

It was actually pretty good AR training.  Headlamps, mud and water, darkness, and hills. Big hills.  I was so exhausted by the early start coupled with the near constant activity that I wasn’t able to do anything fast, but I did do it.  The same went for my training while guiding.  Even though the trip was relatively easy for me, it still covered some 140 km over six days.  I added an extra 16km on day two when I had to choose between an afternoon nap (the day’s seven hours of travel had ended by noon) or a trail run.  A fartlek in packrafts on day 5, blasting from the last of the three clients to the front on the lake paddle, served as an attempt at higher intensity work, the first attempt in during the period in question.  My back got knackered–a heavy ill-fitting pack and the long hours in the boat followed by the hunched walking position and crappy hut mattresses.  But I soldiered on, pushing the clients through torrential rain (a third of a meter over two days!) and accross swollen rivers.

And then this most recent week–full days of leading hikes and kids activities on the beach, complete with atrocious food (the food situation gradually got worse over the three weeks…), and heaps of sandflies.  A super cold night that reached zero degrees (celsius) with me in a 10 degree bag kept me from getting much sleep before being joined just after six AM by my teammate for an hour uphill run before the kids woke up.  Then I went up the mountain again the next day once they went to bed.  For lack of other options I did a 30 minute tempo paddle in a tiny packraft (scout) and a couple of 500 meter time trials on an inflatable SUP.

It’s been a complete departure from anything I’ve done before, particularly my normal way of training.  I’ve been very busy.  Very physically busy (unusual for me) for so long now.

Here are some of my take-aways:

  1. Relationships make training long hours very hard (for me).  I always feel like i’m choosing racing over relationship when I train too much.  This is why HIIT works so well for me in general–I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing time with my partner, or attention to my partner and family for an unreasonable amount of time.
  2. HIIT, at least my version of it, isn’t really compatible with even a reasonable level of other (physical) activity.  I found it virtually impossible to do any significant HIIT over the past three weeks. My levels of activity, both physical and mental, were WAY too high.  The motivation was gone to work that hard.  I suspect that even if I would have tried my performances would have been sub-par, but in truth it was just impossible to try.  Moderate/tempo pace work was the best i could hope for, but in light of everything this became pretty satisfying.
  3. Nutrition isn’t unimportant.  But it’s not that important.  My diet was pretty good the first week (and there were plenty of calories).  That being said I didn’t eat and drink during any workouts, even ones that were 90 minutes long.  I also didn’t eat on any of the hikes. I did eat lots during meals though.  The second week, I forgot my lunches (long story) and so had only a breakfast of porrige before 6-8 hours of near constant activity (low-moderate intensity). This would sustain me fine until my freeze dried dinner.  All in all I was probably taking in 2500 or so calories a day, and burning far more. I still felt good and strong on this strategy. The final week the food was crap. Frozen meat, white bread, and lots of ‘baking’ (cookies, brownies, etc).  The first overnight I ate tons of the stuff and even though I exercised, I felt like crap.  Not just physically, but mentally too–just a real funk. But the second overnight I brought my own food in and had the willpower to resist the baking.  The exercise didn’t necessarily go any better but the mood was night and day different.  Food for thought.
  4. It’s HIIT and nothing else or no HIIT for me.

Happy training!

Reflections on an Apprenticeship

Beauty and the Beast. Vaughn (L) and Adrian atop Mount Luxmore.

Beauty and the Beast. Vaughn (L) and Adrian atop Mount Luxmore.

The Kepler Challenge is approaching quick.  Vaughn Filmer is feeling confident.  His most recent long run has helped quite a bit (http://ultramentalapprenticeship.blogspot.co.nz/).

This experiment of assisting with his training using HIIT methods has been a good one and I’ve learned heaps from watching his progress and more importantly reading his blog which gives good insight into what is going on in his head.  Here are a few things I’ve picked up, or that have been reinforced for me as a result–

  1. It works.  Using HIIT to develop fitness, for those that are capable of performing such efforts routinely, works beautifully.  After 16 weeks of training Vaughn’s running (of which he’d done very little previously) was on par with many runners that have been running at much higher volumes for most of their lives.  Focusing on speed/form vs distance during the outset of training seems to have returned very good results.
  2. Doubt is normal.  Wondering whether we will be ‘up for the task’ when using HIIT as a primary tool in preparing for a big endurance event is to be expected.  Reading through Vaughn’s blog you’ll notice that he has lots of doubts about his ability to cover the 62 challenging km of the Kepler Challenge.  He worries about missing workouts, about not running longer, and about a whole host of things.  Keep in mind that he’s taking on this ‘challenge’ with a longest ever casual run of about 10 km, prior to commencing training 4 months before the event.  His recent post, written in the aftermath of his longest run, is the first real glimpse you’ll get of him feeling up to the task.  And he is.  Until you get that first real serious effort in it is hard to believe that doing so little (time wise) might still allow you to do so much.
  3. Doubt is inevitable.  I know, we’ve already covered this, right?  But I’ve realized there is a LOT of doubt.  This additional doubt comes primarily from the the pursuit of something along unconventional lines, particularly when a very strong conventional training climate exists.  For example, Vaughn’s mate Adrian (who will also be my teammate at Godzone) is also running the Kepler and is an animal.  He trains hard and he trains a lot–using a much more traditional volume.  He seems to recover in half or less of the time than other people do.  Going on a run with him means you’re likely left in the dust or pissed off because while you’re suffering he seems to be on cruise control.  This is at turns both motivating and disheartening. It is easy to look at the Adrian’s out there and think that you ‘should’ be doing what they are doing.  But the reality is that the in the spectrum of athletic ability everyone (even Adrian) will fall somewhere between the two extremes.  The tendency for most of us is to only look only towards one end–to gaze ‘uphill’ at those doing more than we are or doing it faster.  And of course, because using HIIT for endurance is so unconventional, it is almost a sure thing that the training methods used by that ‘uphill’ bunch won’t be the training methods you’re using.  So it becomes important to maintain perspective–remember the main motivation for using HIIT for endurance for those of us that choose to do so is because it takes so much less time.  I won’t make the argument that training hard 1 hour a week is better than training hard 6 hours a week.  But training hard 1 hour a week might be better than training more moderately 6 hours a week, which is quite likely what many of those people you’d see if you looked ‘downhill’ or laterally might be doing.  Get confidence in looking at your peer group–what does your training allow you to do?  How much have you sacrificed in terms of time/lifestyle to achieve this.  Don’t take your hard work, however short in duration for granted!  Even though Vaughn might arrive at the finish line behind Adrian, he will arrive ahead of a great many people who’s training commitments were three or four time’s what his was, and be competitive with plenty of serious ‘amateur’ runners who were putting in 60-100 km weeks in preparation.

Remember, if you’re goal is to WIN races, you need devote most of your time/energy to your fitness.  Even extremely low volume approaches for competitive triathletes at the Ironman distance is around 10-12 hours a week (as compared to 20-30 for normal volume).  These folks are certainly focusing on as much HIIT as they can manage, but supplementing it with a healthy diet of more moderate intensities as well.  But for those of us who are happy being personally/recreationally competitive, focusing on HIIT first and cutting out the rest–as I’m hoping Vaughn will realize–can offer a good alternative to prioritizing fitness (and all the resulting complications this has with having an othewise robust life) over everything else.

 

Feeling Bad: the dark side of high intensity training

darthHigh intensity training for endurance has a dark side.

It never feels easy.  In order to embrace and benefit from true high intensity work, you must first realize and then accept the fact that workouts aren’t going to feel good.  You’re not going to get to the point in the program where you get to go out and run a few miles and pat yourself on the back because ‘hey, that felt great!’

When you do high intensity work, you won’t get the runner’s high…or the cyclists thrill of the open road.  You will get pain, doubt, the taste of blood in the back of your throat, and uncooperative bowels.  You won’t struggle to fathom how you will manage another mile, but how you’ll manage another minute. You won’t feel fast and light and easy.  You’re legs and arms will feel heavy, your lungs too small, and your will inadequate to it’s task.

This dark side will also play tricks on your mind and your mind will challenge you by repeating it’s rhetoric. It will tell you that you failing.  That you are slower than last time.  That you have no hope of making your goal–that your efforts are futile.  These suggestions will be hard to ignore, particularly when you feel awful less than 5 minutes into your workout.

It will be easy to give up.  It will be even easier to slow down–to decide to settle for less speed if it simultaneously means less pain.  There are a million reasons why you might be actually be slower, why you might not meet your goal.  You didn’t get enough sleep, you haven’t eaten well, you’ve got too much on your plate and are stressed.  Your mind will run through the list and try to get you to abandon your attempt because your mind isn’t a big fan of discomfort.  And maybe some of these reasons truly do apply–they’re not just excuses but actual factors that are negatively affecting your performance.  On the other hand…

My experience has been that I always feel lousy.  When I’m totally busting my butt and really going after it I always feel flat, tired, spent.  I never really feel fast.  I just hurt.  So I’ve made my peace with the dark side.  I don’t try to fight it, but I don’t give in either.  I just let the thoughts come in  and listen to their arguments and often even agree with them, believing that indeed I must be going much slower, sometimes pathetically so, than I’d hoped.  But I don’t ease off.  I never ease off.

And in the end, I’m usually not slower after all.  

Happy Training.

Recovery

Without proper recovery, there can be no improvement.  This fact remains regardless of what your workout program includes–whether it be high intensity sprints, hour long sessions in the gym lifting weights, or 30 mile long runs.

One benefit that I’ve noticed about my type of training is that I rarely, if ever, need to consider whether I’m recovered. Over-training, a specter that waits in the shadows for many recreational athletes aspiring to endurance greatness, hasn’t haunted me at all since I began following a low volume training regimen as I try to train for epic races. At present, using a 30 minute a week schedule broken into 3 workouts a week, it is simply impossible to over-train.  I can put 100% effort into each and every second of my workouts and by the time the next one comes along (typically about 47 hours and 53 minutes later), recovery and super-compensation have both invariably occurred.

But there is a slight downside to low volume methods–the epic races and adventures themselves can take a bit more of a toll on someone using them.

I had my own experience with this recently when doing a run through of part of the marathon course that will anchor the Wilderman triathlon (a race I’m directing) this summer.  The effort was a ‘test’ of sorts to see how my current program–which includes only about 3 miles of running every three weeks–prepares me for ‘bigger’ things. Although I managed the 20+ miles reasonably well, I’m sure I’m paying a bigger price today than my running partner who regularly engages in 10-15  mile runs as part of his weekly training.

Recovering from such a long day out takes longer for me. Part of the extra toll I pay is because of the low volume–my ligaments and tendons and other connective tissues are likely not quite as durable as those of someone who isn’t over-trained and regularly puts in training sessions which last longer (1/2 of the time/distance of a goal race, for example, as opposed  1/25th).  But the other part of my increased recovery time stems from the fact that my next workout requires me to actually be recovered because it will demand near 100% intensity.

Low volume high intensity training is only possible for athletes that know how to recover properly and following such a program based is a great way for those currently engaged in chronic-cardio to gain a quick education in the art of resting.

Doing more with less (part 4)

Pic12The longer the race, the more the required elements for success shifts towards the mental side of the mental-physical continuum. In the case of a 4 hour event there might still be a pretty even balance. By the time you reach the 24 hour level though, the truth of the matter is that even a super fit athlete is going to go through at least one period where physically they feel absolutely awful. What this means is that no matter how fit you might be going in, if you don’t have the mental toughness to push through this low point you won’t finish.

The good news is that if you’re an enduro-phile who’s got this mental toughness then you can probably get away with a low-volume, high intensity workout program and enjoy a reasonable level of success in some events that are considered to be monstrous efforts. The bad news, or maybe the fine print rather, is that this comes with a few caveats:

  1. Experience helps. Although I have met a few people (and thereby believe in their existence) that haven’t really done anything endurance oriented but do seem to have somehow developed – or were just born with – the required mental toughness, most people without experience simply don’t have it. It might be a good thing, however, because while HIIT might provide one with a physical platform for ultra endurance muscularly and cardiovascularly speaking, research suggests that connective tissues (tendons, ligaments, etc) take a bit longer to develop the ability to deal with the high repetitions demanded of such events. In my opinion, if one is planning to use low volume, HIIT to attack ultra endurance racing, putting in a years worth of progressively longer events during the start of one’s budding endurance ‘career’ will help prevent injury to these connective tissues.
  2. 90% Mental still means 10% Physical. Even when the balance places heavy burdens on the mental, the physical still plays a pretty important role. For instance, the fitter you are, the further you will tend to get before coming face to face with the wall of doubt and discomfort that is the inevitable result of a long enough race. This matters because – to keep it simple – the difficulty associated with overcoming this doubt is pretty much proportional to the ratio of race distance/time remaining to race distance/time completed. When you’re at your lowest point and considering a DNF (for whatever reason), if part of your internal dialogue includes a glimpse of how far you’ve come – and that distance is significant compared to how far you have yet to go – you’re much more likely to continue. For this reason, getting as fit as you can (with whatever training time to decide to use), is beneficial.
  3. Sorry, not for sale. For those that don’t have it, mental toughness is hard to come by – irrespective of training volume. While true HIIT requires extraordinary focus and determination in the short term, it offers no exposure to the mental grit needed for real endurance success. Conventional (ie high volume) training, on the other hand, often attempts to provide some version of mental toughness by requiring big efforts as part of the program. In doing so, it fosters a bit of what I call ‘conventional confidence’ – a belief in one’s abilities and chance of success based on external validation measured against the prescribed training regimen. In other words – we feel ready because we have done X, Y, and Z as we were told (and in some cases we even paid to be told) and are now deemed ready according to an external source of conventional wisdom. This works sometimes, particularly at the lower end (shorter duration) of endurance racing. But my experience has been that as one pursues more daunting goals, ‘conventional confidence’ both fails and can even lower chances of success. Why? Because you can’t train to make a 24 hour race feel easy. Even 20 hour a week training programs won’t reproduce the mental and physical challenges that need to be overcome in such events and if (or rather when) that low point is hit, a crumbled sense of external confidence can create more doubt and reasons to quit for an athlete that initially had higher expectations of success. Ultimately, ‘internal confidence’ is critical for such efforts and unfortunately isn’t readily developed in budding enduro-philes by either HIIT or conventional higher volume training.

The last caveat begs the question of how to develop mental toughness. The good news is that, at least in my opinion, it is possible for most people. The bad news is that if you’re starting from near scratch it can take a pretty consistent commitment, will entail a fair bit of misery, and probably a little bit of (at least perceived) risk. So what’s the prescription? Trial by fire. But we’ll cover that, and provide a basic nuts and bolts guide to ultra endurance training “three hours a week style”, in the last installment of the series.

Doing more with less (part 3)

Pic2There is a growing body of evidence that short duration high intensity training provides physiological adaptations similar to longer duration moderate intensity training. The first studies examining the potential of what is often referred to as HIIT (high intensity interval training) are decades old – but until recently the methods did not receive much attention. In the last few years, however – partly due to the surge in popularity of programs that incorporate HIIT principals like CrossFit, perhaps – the benefits of HIIT have been more widely reported.

For someone with limited time and high ambition, HIIT is good news. By training harder for shorter periods of time, one can potentially reach the same fitness level (and thus maintain the same competitive ability) as someone training many more hours but following traditional programs aimed at endurance athletes.

Consider for example someone training for a marathons – most beginner/intermediate programs will have them running between 25 and 50 miles per week. Many programs focus exclusively on number of miles (take a look here at the results of a quick google search of marathon training programs) and don’t prescribe intensity at all. Athletes taking up these programs typically spend all of their time at moderate to low intensities and depending on their typical per mile pace would be committing 3-7+ hours a week to training. Using mostly HIIT training an athlete might expect to be in as good of shape and perform as well during races and only train a 1/4 to a 1/3 of that.

It seems hard to believe, right? If the claims of HIIT were true, you might ask – why don’t we see more recreational athletes using them regularly and doing more/better on fewer training hours? And why are true low-volume training programs so damn near impossible to find?

The answer: HIIT is hard.
True HIIT – the kind of concerted near maximal effort that make up my three 10 minute work-week training sessions – isn’t something most people want to do. So while some training programs might flirt with the edges of ‘high intensity’ on occasion, many are targeted towards more recreational athletes never approach it. If you’re aiming to achieve any sort of serious fitness with total weekly training times measured in minutes not hours, however, you will need to become intimate with the pain of high intensity work. And it HURTS. A lot.

But if you can do it, it works. And it can lead to a level of fitness that is sufficient, at least in my experience, to attempt even really big events. Of course it won’t make those events easy, and the lack of traditional ‘big volume days’ might leave an athlete a little low on confidence heading into them – a fact that might make even those capable of regular HIIT efforts favor conventional programs. For those that already possess that confidence – or are willing to embrace the trial by fire mentality and risk failure to get it – the a HIIT low volume approach could be attractive.