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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Training zones - 3 may be enough

Training is a funny thing.  At once, it's a process that's really complex and extraordinarily simple all at the same time.  It's very difficult to take an athlete and a timeline to a given race, and make everything go well so that they perform at their best at that race, but at the heart of the process is a very simple equation:

Stress + Rest = Fitness.  And repeat.

This equation represents the building blocks of training, but it's assembling those blocks where the difficulty comes in.  Some of the blocks will be bigger, some smaller, and orienting them so that an athlete's weaknesses are worked on -- all the while bringing their fitness along in a way that is specific to the race they plan on doing, takes time and experience.

Training zones, whether they relate to heart rate or power (on the bike) are the fundamental part of the building blocks....of that rudimentary (stress + rest = fitness) equation, and, again, putting an athlete through these zones at particular times, on particular days, for particular durations, is where the complexity lies.

I've noticed from working with my athletes that have come from another coach to me that many coaches don't approach it this way....they treat the organizing of workouts as a very simple, broad process -- training periods are very long, and poorly defined at times, but then they inject complexity into it by creating a whole bunch of training zones.  I've seen as many as twelve but often you'll see them broken down into 6 or more levels, like:

Recovery: the intensity to train at for active recovery
Zone 1: Optimum fat usage
Zone 2: Endurance
Zone 3: Tempo
Zone 4: Threshold
Zone 5: Anaerobic fitness

Sometimes coaches will break the zones down further so that there are seven, eight, or nine distinct levels.  Way too much, in my opinion, and there is a lot of overlap even with 6 zones -- really, how much difference in intensity is the "Recovery" zone versus your intensity on your first 4 hour "Endurance" zone ride?

Athletes, left to their own devices, almost always train too  much at one given intensity -- they gravitate toward "the middle".  "The middle" is seductive that way because it doesn't hurt that much but we still feel like we're working hard and getting something done.  Problem is this virtual no-man's-land of training is generally a waste of your time if you're training to get faster and/or more efficient on your bike.  Why?  Because "the middle" isn't hard enough to make you faster, but it's just intense enough to require some recovery time.

When I coach a cyclist, especially one who has come to me from a training program heavily relying on "the middle" (which is most athletes), when we first start, I exaggerate their training zones by giving them only three zones they can work in:

1. Recovery/Easy
2.  Threshold
3. Super-duper hard

Or something along those lines.   In my opinion when you create more than 5 zones there is tremendous overlap with them and it really blurs the lines as far as the day to day training goes.  The zones should be simplified which can lead to greater specificity in the organization of the day to day training periods.  Organizing those workouts around three or four zones allows you to be very clear and focused on what EXACTLY you're working on that day, or that week.  It also keeps you out of the middle compared to the 6+ zone method, since as you might imagine all those extra zones come from breaking up the "middle" and the recovery/easy zones into smaller and more obscure parts.

The "recovery/easy" level is differentiated only by the duration of a given ride -- an "easy" ride could be 3 hours long, while a "recovery" ride could be nearly the same intensity, but only 45 minutes to an hour long.  As we get farther into the training, then I'll often break up the "Recovery/Easy" into two separate pieces, but I don't add in anything else between those zones and threshold since I want my athletes to stay out of that barely sub-threshold zone with extreme prejudice.  Limiting their options in this way really makes an athlete realize that every day has a purpose....every day is meant to do SOMETHING. 

The only "somethings" we focus on early in the program is either recovering, building some aerobic baseline (both are "Recovery/Easy"), working on overall efficiency at threshold ("threshold"), or bumping up efficiency at the very maximal ranges of gross power and strength ("Super-duper hard"), and we're rarely trying to work on more than two or perhaps three of these things on any given training period.

Incidentally, you may ask what about the "super duper hard" zone?  Where is that?  In most of my training plans I don't really set specific heart rates or powers for this (sounds strange, I know).  The reason I don't is that your intensity on these days is very easy to find, even without a heart rate monitor or a powermeter (although the powermeter can provide a useful "carrot" during them.  The intervals on these days, especially early on in the program, are only between 30 seconds and 2 minutes long each and you may do anywhere from 6-20 of them depending on the day.  Instructions?  Go as hard as you can for one minute, rest during the given recovery or "off" time, and then do it again, and again, and again.  You have to keep in the back of your head that you have six, or eight, or twelve of them total to do, but you are literally just riding as hard as you can.  You can do this without any specialized equipment (unlike "threshold" workouts, where it can be really useful to have a heart rate monitor or powermeter or both to keep you right on the razor's edge of your threshold zone), although as I mentioned a powermeter can provide a great carrot since you can see what your power is on the first interval and try to stay as close to that for the duration of the intervals.  If you can't hold that power and you drop off precipitously then you know you overshot and that will help you on the next day of intervals.

Another reason I simplify zones, other than to re-train a client's idea of what it means to train every day is because I don't believe in bottom-up physiology -- namely I don't believe you can get faster or more efficient at higher levels of exertion (like at your anaerobic threshold) by training slow and easy all the time in the "aerobic range".  I believe, especially for the time-strapped athlete, your time is best spent with a brief dose of very difficult intervals on some days followed by adequate rest, interspersed at different times with long endurance days (if your preferred events require that).

If your goal is to race or even to just be more efficient in your local century or group ride, if you spend all your training time adhering to the lower training zones of the aerobic training idea  you WILL get more efficient.....but only at that slow pace.  If the pace picks up at a race or a climb steepens on a tour you'll find yourself struggling to maintain and quickly running out of gas.

Training at these higher intensities is incredibly important, even if you don't plan to race because getting more efficient at higher intensities DOES make you more efficient at all the intensities below that -- meaning there IS such a thing as trickle-down physiology.

This is especially useful for an athlete that has a lot of demands on their time.  Those of us that work and have families, etc don't have time to put in 20 hours of base work in a week.  I know personally, I need to get a lot of bang for my buck, so even if I'm training for a marathon, I rarely have time to run more than 35 or 40 miles in a week.  I use a lot of shorter, faster workouts (especially on the track) in order to bridge the gap.  In my experience, personal and with clients, a 75-minute workout with a couple healthy blocks of intervals is worth closer to 120 minutes in a lot of situations.

So keep it simple.....train hard.....then rest hard....and repeat.  Whether you're riding in the local Tuesday-night ride or running an ultra-marathon, training for it doesn't have to be incredibly difficult (but I'd always encourage you to seek help from a skilled coach).

happy riding (and running) 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Lab testing vs field testing

We're really lucky to have access here in Grand Junction to a world class lab testing facility at the local university.  Just to have have it available is a rare treat.

You might expect, that since I work with many athletes that I would have them in there every week?  Well, not quite.

While I think the equipment they have is great, I don't use it terribly often.  Why, you ask?

The main reason is that once the test is done and you have the results, sometimes those results are a bit of a dead end once you go home and begin training.

Let's take one of the most common tests used there, the VO2 (sub or max) test.  We can get a lot of information about a rider or runner through the use of this test, but not all of it is usable or meaningful to every athlete.

VO2 max testing can run $75-$150 each session
For a cyclist, the most useful piece of information you get from this test is your power and heart rate at "threshold".  From the test you can then craft your heart rate and power training zones so that you can "train appropriately".  Sounds pretty good, and it is on some levels, but the problems are a few:

1.  So now what? 
It doesn't tell you how to train though.  Your training plan still needs to be set up in a periodized manner so that you train longer or harder or rest depending on where your fitness is and what you need to be working on at that moment.  The data doesn't tell you how to organize that, it can just narrow down where your intensity levels lie.

2. Moving targets
While it's great to be able to quantify your threshold power and heart rate, a major problem is these data points (of power and heart rate) are moving targets and require consistent re-testing to re-set zones and power levels.  As you train, your power levels improve and need to be scaled up, which would require another trip to the lab and the shelling out of $75-$150.  If you really don't have any trouble spending this every eight weeks or more, then great.  But since there is an alternative to doing this that's free and can easily be integrated into your training plan, is it really necessary.

Quarq powermeter

There are many variations, but I use a very simple and repeatable 20-minute field test that can be done to easily find your threshold power and heart rate.  Granted if you don't have a power meter it'll require more attention to detail on the heart rate end, but if you don't have a power meter you probably wouldn't benefit  drastically from the lab and it's power data anyway, making consistent re-testing a waste.  Is this field test going to give us as much information as a VO2 test?  Nope, but frankly much of the VO2 data isn't usable on a daily basis, and the field test DOES give us what we need -- a very accurate measurement of what our power and heart rate at threshold are at that time.

Metabolic cart for lab testing

Incidentally, when training with power, once a client gets a baseline of information on how I want them to train and we begin to integrate occasional field tests, it gets very apparent when power zones need to be adjusted and by how much.  There is so much consistent data coming from today's power meters that if you pay attention to it on the right days, you can easily stay on top of your training and get a very accurate blueprint for how the next few weeks of training should go.

So I really don't have a grudge against the local lab -- actually I like very much the people that work there.  And frankly, I've had clients that just really want to get tested in the lab, to some extent for the "cool" factor.  I've often brought them in for an initial early season test which we can then set our first training zones from that session.  After that first test, most clients then opt to just run the field tests since they can be done easily, consistently, and with a lot of accuracy.

So, I love the lab -- very grateful to have access to it -- but it's just not something I need to use every day.

Monday, October 1, 2012

More "women's specific" mythologizing

So it seems the women's specific myth isn't going away any time soon, unfortunately.  It doesn't seem to be discriminating between road or mountain bikes either, as a few more femme bikes have been released for the dirt.

I certainly have nothing against bikes made specifically for women....certainly my years spent fitting bikes and building custom rides has made me acutely aware that a bespoke bike (and all it's parts) makes for the most enjoyable ride possible.  I can appreciate wanting a bike a certain color -- not every woman is going to want the black or red or black/red bikes that predominate the industry.

Much of the bike market's marketing for women's specific bikes talks of ladies' special body measurements that require a bike made differently from a man's.  I have seen the different manufacturers reference frequently, and contradictorily, that women have:

  •  longer torsos relative to their height, 
  •  sometimes shorter torsos as well ;-)
  •  shorter arm reach
  •  longer reach relative to their torso length (??)
  •  longer inseam 
  •  surprise!  shorter inseam as well!
Confused yet?  Me too.

Let's look at some facts:

There have been thousands of studies going back hundreds of years, in the field of anthropometrics ( the science dealing with measurement of the size, weight, and proportions of the human body).  Many of the studies will have an "N" value (meaning how many participants were studied -- generally more is better) in the thousands or tens of thousands.  We have really good data on this, and you could (and people do) write thousands of pages on all the comparisons.  

I pulled some data from a University of Rhode Island study back in 2009 that was updated just in the spring of 2012.  To keep it simple, we'll just look at the data from one main table that measures:  Stature (overall height), eye height, mid-shoulder height, waist height, sitting height, buttocks height, eye height (sitting), upper arm length, lower arm + hand length, upper leg length, and lower leg length.  They're broken down into male and female groups with percentiles from the 5th to the 95th -- 95th represents the tallest while the 5th percentile represents the shorties.

Keep in mind that when you're study includes thousands of test subjects you're going to find the best way to measure them so that it's simple, clinically applicable and simple/fast.  So these measurements weren't taken off X-rays, MRI or other super-accurate (and expensive method).  Rather these were taken with simple measuring rigs and tape measures and so the dimensions measured are different sometimes than you would expect....for example torso length is measured with the subject sitting on a flat surface, and the measurement is taken from the seat of the "chair" up to the top of their sternum, so it includes the pelvis and thorax.

Still, we can get a  good idea of what the data shows.

So without belaboring this too much this is what their findings say:

(As a percentage of their overall body height)

Torso length

5th% percentile
males -- 35.5%  - so their torso makes up roughly 35% of their total height
females -- 34.2% 

males -- 34.5%
females -- 35.3%

Buttocks height

males -- 46.2%
females -- 45.5%

males -- 49.1%
females -- 48.3%

Upper Arm length

males -- 33.8%
females -- 35.0%

males -- 35.3%
females -- 36.4%

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the measurements they took -- they had many more.  I just grabbed a smattering of them as a representative sample.

So let's put some of this into perspective....when considering any of these measurements, while there are differences, I'm not seeing any earth-shattering differences that would make me think you could, in any sort of reliable or useful way, manipulate a stock bicycle's frame geometry to match a certain rider, male or female, even if everyone followed the averages expressed in this study, which of course almost no one will (more on this later)

As an example, for upper arm length we see one of the larger differences between the male and female measurements -- 1.2%.  This represents an actual difference of around half a centimeter, or about the thickness of two nickels.

Furthermore the differences are a mixed bag -- when a leg measurement favors on gender in the 5th percentile, that same measurement may be greater (again, slightly) for the other gender in the 95th percentile.....or vice versa.

I looked at the tallest and shortest of the gender, but the results were the same in the middle heights -- consistently close and inconsistently favoring one side then the other.

And as I mentioned before, these are averages and small deviations on any measurement are blended in but will be minimized.  A female may fall into the 50th percentile for height and leg length but have arm lengths that fall into the 65th percentile. 

I recently had a male client, with moderate flexibility, who stood about 6'4" tall (193 cm) with a 37.5" inseam.  I've had a few clients built like this and most of them really did better on a custom geometry bike because their relatively short torso and middling flexibility restricted their handlebar position.  What differed about this client was his arm reach.  He had arm lengths of a man many inches taller, which made it much easier for him to reach his handlebars even if they were in a longer or lower position than we normally see with someone with his torso length. 

Something to consider is that these deviations from the norm -- like his extended arm reach -- aren't uncommon.  Not when you consider that 66% of people fall outside of one-half standard deviation from the average (while 32% fall greater than one full standard deviation away).

So now......given these small variations in the "averages" and the vast potential for deviations from these averages, how useful do you think it would be to alter the geometry of bike in order to fit one sex or the other better?

Add to that all the natural variations we see outside of body segment lengths, like flexibility and strength, and you have a nearly impossible task.  I know this makes it seem like it would be impossible to create a stock bike that fits ANYONE, when in fact standard sizes tend to work out okay for many (but not most) riders out there.  Those riders that they work well for are fortunate to have been born into close proximity of the average measurements.  This fortunate phenomenon is less common if your overall height is on the high or low end of the charts -- bike designs for the very big and very little are still lacking.

So how well do stock bikes fit the masses? 

In my experience about 25% of the population fits them with little or no changes to the bike. 

A full 50% require changes to bike parts that I would consider "significant" in nature. 

What's "significant"? An example would be requiring a stem with a rise above 15 degrees.  Often riders require multiple changes -- bar reach and height accommodations AND cleat and saddle adaptations as well. A simpler definition would be any change that's likely to affect the overall balance or handling adversely.  Now,  a 20 degree rise stem wouldn't render a bike unrideable, but it will be a compromise....the bike won't steer or handle the way the geometry was designed for, and the rider's overall balance and weight distribution will be "off" which can lead to many small issues (for instance, not being able to settle comfortably on a saddle, incomplete engagement of some of the more powerful leg muscles, or more weight on one or more contact points).