Monday, 30 July
Integrating Racing as Training
In this Entry, I discuss how I am integrating frequent racing this season as part of (for me) an ambitious training-racing sequence. I am targeting a total of 15-20 races this season - including some ultra events. (For more details on my proposed race schedule, scroll down to the first Entry of this Journal.)
Integrating “racing as training” enables me to race frequently, yet still enjoy some reasonable race performances. In this Entry, I will talk about some general practices I am using to accomplish this integration. In the next Entry, I will review 2 weeks from my training log as a case study implementing these general practices.
However, before I begin...
No, this is not the name of an elective college course in outdoor recreation, it’s a 101-mile mountain bike race held near State College, PA. While it took me 13 hours and 44 minutes to finish this single-loop course (more time than my slowest iron-distance tri), I finished gracefully. This means I did not sustain any injuries, and that I am able to resume training.
Can you say “rocky”?
The course included an honest 40-45 miles of rocky terrain - single track and degraded roads - most of it on the descents. After a sustained climb on my road bike, I am accustomed to a bit of easy saddle time descending. Not so here! I had to crouch and focus on navigating the rocks. No rest of the weary.
I have tremendous respect for ultra-endurance mountain bikers, and I aspire to pursue this craft further. While the physical demands are high, vigilant mental focus and technical skill are paramount. If you are a veteran iron-person looking for a new challenge - one that will really test your ability to stay focused (and still levy a tax your body), try a 100-mile MTB event. Here is the link to the National Ultra Endurance Series of 100-mile MTB events.
Oh, and make sure to balance your technical skills with humility. For sure, I lack the technical skills to be competitive - finishing 199th out of 203 finishers. However, I excel in the humility required to finish gracefully. I am willing to dismount and walk when the terrain exceeds my skill level. Wilderness 101 had 43 DNF’s.
In a future Entry, I will return to the subject of ultra-endurance mountain biking. For now I will conclude by sharing one my personal highlights of the event. Around Mile 30, I was working on a sustained climb up a forest service road. As with much of the race, I was alone in the quiet forest. This kind of solitude is conducive to inner reflection. I spent much of the race silently repeating mantras.
As I “zen-ed” my way up that climb, silently sounding my mantras, I approached a timber rattlesnake crossing the road. Between 5 and 6 foot long, the rattler appeared to be black, but as I got closer, I could see the copper diamond pattern glowing through the satiny black aura. I use “aura” because s/he appeared to have more of an energy field than a tangible surface. We acknowledged one another from our shared mystical peace and moved on. No threats, just peaceful coexistence. For me, a truly “shamanic” moment.
Looking back, this talisman was heralding what was to come in the next 70 miles: An epic bone-rattling pilgrimage through the rocky forests of Pennsylvania...
And now, to begin the discussion on integrating frequent racing-as-training, I begin with...
Recovery for Races
For some (but not all) of my races, I reduce my training volume during the week leading up to the race. (More on this in a moment.) During these reduced-volume weeks, I maintain the frequency and intensity of my training sessions, while reducing the duration. And I still perform my (typically) twice-weekly functional strength sessions - mostly a mix of Pilates and yoga.
While many of my swim-bike-run sessions are not “set in stone” with respect to order, frequency, duration, intensity or day of the week, I usually perform my functional strength sessions early in the morning every Wednesday and Saturday. The Saturday session usually serves as a final “tune-up” before a Sunday race.
These “mat work” sessions are typically 65-75 minutes. I focus on functional core strength, lateral stability and flexibility/mobility (stretching). No two sessions are identical. After more than 3 decades, I have an extensive repertoire of exercises and stretches I can use. Requiring only a mat and a small fitness ball, I can perform these sessions just about anywhere.
These sessions serve as strength training, body “tune-up” and recovery simultaneously. How is this possible? These sessions are anabolic - chemically stimulating recovery, while training neuromuscular recruitment. I finish every mat session feeling tuned-up, recharged and relaxed.
Reducing volume (exercise-induced stress) before a race enables deep recovery and adaptation - not only for the muscles and cardio-vascular, but also for the endocrine system. This chemical recovery is vital for great race performances. Yet, it’s not a lot of fun to go through.
Endocrine recovery is a lot like the withdrawal process an addict goes through. The entire chemical balance of the body changes. As athletes, we grow accustomed to a particular exercised-induced high. When we reduce the stress, we reduce the chemical response of the body. We don’t get that endorphin-dopamine high. However without adequate recovery, race performances are diminished.
Worst case scenario when we don’t balance the endocrine system: Chronic Adrenal Fatigue.
The criteria for volume reduction/recovery/taper before a race:
- Need for recovery (Injuries, chronic physical, mental, emotional and/or chemical fatigue
- Priority of race (A, B or C race?)
- Difficulty of race (Duration, intensity, heat, terrain)
- ”Big Picture” (How does this race fit synergistically into the overall race season?)
Active vs. Passive Recovery
Active recovery implies using light, non-stressful activity to stimulate recovery. In a word: “mobility”. Easy activity slightly elevates metabolic activity to help “flush” the body. It also helps to alleviate stiff and sore muscles.
As I mentioned in an earlier Entry, most of my swim sessions serve as vital active recovery. True, I could improve my swim speed if I trained for it, but it’s not possible to do everything. Given my goals this season - an ambitious tri season with some endurance mountain biking - the swim-as-active-recovery approach has worked well.
I also use short, very slow run sessions for recovery, as well as frequent short bicycle commutes to the pool and to shop for food. Most important for these active recovery sessions is that they are short (at least the bike and run sessions) and very easy.
(Note: If you have a tendency to inevitably ramp up every session, or take off after that cyclist that just blew by, stick to passive recovery.)
It is a very rare day indeed that I will refrain from any form exercise. Typically this occurs only if I feel ill. In my decades of experience enjoying the endurance athlete lifestyle, I have developed the discernment and patience to go very easy during my recovery rides and runs.
After two of my Olympic distance tri’s earlier this season, I have gone out for an easy 30-minute recovery run the evening of race day. I arrive home, unpack and sort my race gear, and then head out.
This season, I have followed most of my races with a long mountain bike training session the following morning. Typically, I prepare my cycling gear the night before. The next morning - after T’ai Chi - I run very easy for 30 minutes, return home and have a smoothie with some Hammer Soy Protein. Then I head out on the mountain bike.
These MTB sessions have been 4-5 hours in duration beginning at low and building to moderate intensity, with both sustained moderate and short intense climbs. I have gone into these sessions with tired legs and done lots of climbing to simulate the conditions I anticipated at WIlderness 101.
I used this “post-race load” training method after:
- 02 June: Keuka Lake Olympic (03 June: 180 minutes hilly road bike)
- 30 June: New England Tri Fest Olympic (01 July: 240 minutes MTB)
- 14 July: Musselman Half Iron (15 July: 340 minutes MTB)
In addition, on 15 and 16 June, I did two consecutive days of 4 1/2 hours on the MTB. I began all of these long rides from my house, riding 90-100 minutes on the narrow gravel outskirts of road shoulders to a local state forest. I chose roads with sustained hill climbs - not the most direct route to the forest. Then I rode 90-150 minutes on the forest single-track trails. I returned home the same way I rode out.
Hours of riding the narrow gravel shoulders on sustained climbs were just as effective in my MTB training as the forest single track. I had to stay focused and watch my line. The varying surface - grassy, loose or packed gravel - provided a continuous challenge.
I rode in continuous heavy rain 01 July (4 hours). The ride on 15 July was quite hot and sunny. These “post race load” rides represent the core of my training specific to WIlderness 101.
During the Wilderness 101 “event” (I cannot in earnest say it was a race for me), I often passed riders on the climbs and then got passed by the same riders on the descents. I interpret this as an indication of my lack of technical skill in rocky terrain, yet better than average technique on the hills.
During my hilly “post-race load” training rides, I focused on maintaining a stable pelvic core and “saddle-silence” on the sustained climbs. This was invaluable during WIlderness 101. I was surprised at the number of otherwise proficient riders who weaved and swerved up the sustained climbs. While I certainly lack technical MTB skills, my intense focus on pelvic core stability in the saddle is a great asset. Without this, I would not have finished the event.
Another key element to integrating frequent races into my training with reasonable results and no burn-out is sequencing. The simplest method of sequencing is to start the season with shorter races and use them to develop speed for progressively longer races.
My season started with a 10K run, a sprint duathlon, and a sprint tri. Next, I raced 3 Olympic Distance tri’s and a 40-mile mountain bike race in 6 weeks. These races led up to Musselman Half Iron (2 weeks after the last Olympic) and Wilderness 101 (2 weeks after Musselman).
In addition, the Wilderness 101 - and the training rides leading up to it - have served as my long rides for the upcoming Peasantman “Steel Distance” Tri (in 3 weeks). (Note: With the exception of hill repeats, I rarely train outdoors on my triathlon bike anymore. Virtually all of my tri bike training consists of interval work on the trainer indoors - even when the weather is nice.)
These training rides have also served as skills development and training rides for the inaugural Xterra ASP Epic in late September.
For me, this method of sequencing is the art of “finesse”. It is as much creative and intuitive as it is deductive. I enjoy the synergy of sequencing the races and integrating them as training while still producing a few good performances along the way.
Continuing in this process of sequencing, I have the Cayuga Lake Olympic Tri (8 days after Wilderness 101), followed two weeks later by Peasantman Tri. (Peasantman is “Steel” distance, at 144.6 miles.)
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