My First Ragnar Trail Relay: Just Don’t Blow Up, The Fajita Lesson, & Astronomy

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The Ragnar Trail Relay came to Aspen, CO last weekend. I ran the race with seven other people, mostly from my wife’s company. We were the Kenzan Running Club. This was my first Ragnar. It was unique among the races I’ve run. I like to recall specific moments after events like this and reflect on what I saw and felt. Experiences like this are the highlights of my life. The memories and emotions are important.

Most teams were eight-person teams like us. The race consisted of three loops: the green easy loop, yellow medium-difficulty loop, red hard loop. We all ran all loops once. I ran first (green), ninth (red), and 17th (yellow.) We were finished when runner eight crossed the finish line.

The Kenzan Running Club immediately post race.

The Kenzan Running Club immediately post race.

The night before

My wife and I camped out the night before the race. It was COLD that night. There was frost on the ground and tents in the morning. We slept well. Sleep was limited from there on out. It also didn’t stay cold.

Fortunately for us, some other teammates got to the camp site early and grabbed a prime spot. We were close to the toilets and the transition area. A word to the wise: If you do this race, get there early. Very early.

Don’t blow up

Teams were put into flights with the slower teams starting earlier and faster teams starting later so everyone would finish within a certain window. Flights left every half-hour starting at 10 am. We started at 1 pm. I was the first runner. The first loop was very warm, high 70s. No shade. Heat throbbed off of the parched trail. The temperature climbed.

The challenge in an endurance event is to take a very hard effort and spread it out over the entire course of a race. Every runner has started out too fast and paid the price at some point later in the race. That’s not good. At the same time though, you don’t want to finish thinking, “I could’ve run harder.” Another wrinkle was the fact that the race required us to run again and then again.

A few people passed me. Whenever I’m passed, I listen to their breathing and I watch how they move. Do they run strong and relaxed or brittle and tense? If it’s the latter of those two, then I know I’ll probably catch them sooner or later. I like passing people. I don’t win trophies and I’m not a top runner, but I truly enjoy beating other runners to the finish line, especially if I did it by running smart.

My mantra was, “Just don’t blow up.” That meant run my race, not someone else’s. Don’t give in to the urge to charge ahead early just to catch someone. If someone passes you, let them. Be patient. Wait until the end is near to hit the gas.

The most shade anyone would see on the trail.

The most shade anyone would see on the trail.

My coach made the analogy of holding on to an electric wire, the type used to keep cows away from the fence. You can hold on for a little while but you can’t hang on to that thing forever. If you grab ahold too tightly, too early, you’re cooked. You blow up which means you screwed up. The blow-up/electric wire paradigm played on a loop in my head throughout the race.

I was very pleased with my conditioning and performance. I was never overly sore and none of my joints hurt. I was especially happy with my downhill running as I had to do a lot of it in the dark on very tired legs. I never crashed or flew off the mountain into space.

A well-run operation

The organization and execution of the race was impressive. From what I can tell, the Ragnar race is a complex thing with a lot of moving parts. Everything seemed to operate smoothly. I didn’t detect any crises or surprises on the part of the staff.

Parking for team vehicles and shuttles to other parking areas worked very well. I was very grateful to see well-marked trails, especially at night. The workers were organized and helpful. The campground was crowded but very adequate. There was plenty of water available and food for purchase if you wanted/needed any beyond what you brought—and there were free ice cream sandwiches!

Now this is really important: The port-o-potty situation was excellent! The effort and efficiency in maintaining and cleaning those things was phenomenal! Thousands of people using those things over and over, round the clock—especially in the heat!—was a true marvel. What a relief to have access to mostly clean, well stocked toilet facilities. Don’t think I’m joking. This is a huge thing.

Epic view from the red loop. This is why we do this.

Epic view of Snowmass ski resort and from the red loop. This is why we do this.

The Kenzan Running Club

Our team was a very compatible group of people. We got along very well, had a lot of laughs and were very comfortable around each other. Everyone was well-prepared. We happily shared space, food, equipment, and encouragement.

To expand beyond our team, my impression of all the Ragnar competitors was very positive. I didn’t see any drama or dumb behavior. I saw no meltdowns, freak-outs, arguments, or fights. I did see a lot of courtesy, encouragement, and the always appealing magic energy that is shared among people suffering together. We passed each other and were passed while exchanging kind words. The camp site was somewhat crowded but we all made do and lived comfortably together. The trail running community tends to be a laid-back, respectful group.

Between runs

Managing rest was a challenge. We made constant efforts to avoid sunburn and drink lots of water. Staying off my our feet was a priority. We all spent a lot of time chasing shade as the sun passed over us from east to west. We were already spending a lot of time in the sun and any time spent in the cool shade was essential to feeling human. Lying in the grass under trees was heavenly and refreshing.

The Red Loop & the Fajita Lesson

The world isn’t perfect and neither was my race. Here’s the story:

There was a complimentary dinner Friday evening between my first and second runs. I had two thoughts:

  1. I’ll need a lot of calories for this event.
  2. I should have enough time between my first run and the second run for the food to digest and I’ll be OK to run. (On this point, I think we all felt like our next loop came much faster than we anticipated.)

Thus I ate a pretty big plate of chicken fajitas, onions, peppers, tortillas, guacamole and cheese. The magnitude of my gamble might seem obvious to you right now. It’s obvious to me now but due to some sort of faulty psychology, I thought my decision was reasonable. And it was hot…

Fast forward 2-ish hours. I felt okay and I continued to feel well enough during the long, steady, climb at the front of the 6.7-ish mile red route. I started at 8:10 pm. Twilight was coming on. I didn’t need the lights yet but I would soon. (More on night running in a moment.)

Almost time for moonset in Aspen, CO.

Almost time for moonset in Aspen, CO.

Fast forward a little further and it was time for a 2 mile, high-speed nighttime downhill dash over fast, swoopy terrain. There was jostling and sloshing. My digestive system lodged a prolonged protest. I knew this race would be tough and I welcomed the challenge. I didn’t welcome this. I began to fantasize about those port-o-johns. I thought my teammates might have to hose me off at the finish. By some combination of force-of-will and supernatural providence, I was saved. No hose down needed. That’s enough about that.

Running at night

This was a new thing for me and I enjoyed it tremendously. During my second run, the red loop, the hardest run of the race, I saw day turn to night. To my left, as I ran along the high ridge line I watched the pink sunset fade to black. On my right, a massively swollen blob of a moon rose and dominated the sky. I don’t see that happen every day. It was a stunning sight and a unique experience. (I took a pic while high up on the ridge line but it was no good. You’ll have to settle for the one up above which was taken after my 2nd loop at about 4 am. That’s not the sun.)

My wife, ready to march into the night.

My wife, ready to march into the night.

The early nighttime atmosphere was electric. There transition area buzzed with powerful energy. Music blared and thumped. A bonfire blazed. Everyone had on their nighttime running gear. We all looked like we were about to do battle with the Cylons, Klingons, and/or the Decepticons. We were sharp, confident, and energized. This was all happening before the wee hours, before the music got turned down so we could grab a few moments of sleep, before the deep fatigue set in and we were zombified.

Looking up at the mountainside from camp we saw the continuous trickle of bobbing little lights. Those were runners descending from the red and yellow loops back to the start/finish area. I wish I had a picture of that for you.

The finale

My final run started around 4 am and ended about 40 minutes later. For me, anything before 5 am isn’t morning—it’s night. This was far outside my experience. I had maybe three hours of sleep before the final leg but I felt OK. It wasn’t as cold as the prior night which was good. This was the yellow loop, or the middle-difficulty loop. I was grateful that the red loop wasn’t my last loop and I was very happy to avoid more exposure to the heat. Runner number eight came through and I was off.

The climbs were tough on the last two loops but the descents proved difficult both from the the fact that it was night and that my legs were very tired. The challenge was to descend as fast as possible without the legs collapsing and careening down the mountainside.

I like descending. There is a focus that’s required to run fast down a mountain. It puts one very much in the moment. It’s meditative. It’s not like sitting in rush-hour traffic. I passed a lot of people and only one person passed me. He was moving much faster than I.

Our final runner came in several hours later, between 11 and noon. A couple of our team fell and got skinned up a little but no one had any major injuries or issues. The race finished at 6 pm. We were grateful to be through before that.

Finished before the sunrise.

Finished before the sunrise.

The trails for this race were not very technical at all. They were smooth and relatively free of rocks and roots. Compared to most of the Denver-area trails on which I trained, these were sidewalks. That was probably a good thing for night running.

My lights were the Black Diamond ReVolt headlamp and the Nathan Zephyr Fire 300 flashlight. A lot of people ran only with a headlamp, but several articles I read about night trail running suggested a headlamp and a handheld light. I liked having both. I could see both the trail at my feet and further down the trail.

If I had it to do over, I would’ve brought a little less gear with me on the red loop. I brought more than I needed to drink and a winter hat and gloves that I didn’t need.

I might’ve also done a night run during training, just to get feel for the lights. I don’t think I missed without a night run though.

For anyone thinking of doing this race I strongly suggest you familiarize yourself with trail running. This was very challenging. I wouldn’t recommend it for a green beginner. That said, it wasn’t overly brutal. It was very doable. The vast majority of us were very mortal.

That’s most of my story. Our stats are below. Follow this link for a look at all the teams’ stats. I think we did well. Several of us want to do it again.

Kenzan Running Club
Finish Time
22:59:51
Overall : 82 / 227
Gender : 47 / 126
Categ : 35 / 99
Race No 181
Gender Mixed
Category Open
Status Finished
Splits
Split Name
Time
Time From Prev Leg
Loop 1 Green 00:40:32 00:40:32
Loop 2 Yellow 01:19:45 00:39:13
Loop 3 Red 03:00:30 01:40:45
Loop 4 Green 03:48:33 00:48:02
Loop 5 Yellow 04:40:19 00:51:45
Loop 6 Red 05:55:50 01:15:31
Loop 7 Green 06:35:32 00:39:42
Loop 8 Yellow 07:10:30 00:34:57
Loop 9 Red 08:26:52 01:16:21
Loop 10 Green 09:09:07 00:42:15
Loop 11 Yellow 10:01:45 00:52:37
Loop 12 Red 11:29:07 01:27:21
Loop 13 Green 12:18:18 00:49:11
Loop 14 Yellow 13:01:06 00:42:48
Loop 15 Red 14:20:57 01:19:50
Loop 16 Green 15:00:05 00:39:08
Loop 17 Yellow 15:43:38 00:43:32
Loop 18 Red 16:59:41 01:16:03
Loop 19 Green 17:54:44 00:55:02
Loop 20 Yellow 18:41:27 00:46:43
Loop 21 Red 20:21:08 01:39:40
Loop 22 Green 21:06:29 00:45:21
Loop 23 Yellow 21:49:06 00:42:36
Loop 24 Red 22:59:51 01:10:45

||Hide

http://www.racetecresults.com/MyResults.aspx?uid=16432-2143-1-58655

Tapering for the Ragnar Relay

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The Ragnar Trail Relay is next weekend, June 9-10. My workouts are now getting a little easier and a little shorter. Runs will continue to ease up with the expectation that I will peak for the race, feel good, and perform my best.

The past four weeks have been very challenging. My coach has been prescribing longer runs and runs with specific hard-effort drills. Hard runs have been on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Easier efforts have been on Mondays and Saturdays with rest days on Wednesdays and Fridays.

HRV

It has been interesting to watch my heart rate variability (HRV) as my training has progressed. Briefly, HRV is used to measure training status. With HRV, I can see if I’m fully recovered and ready to train hard (green), somewhat fatigued and in need of a light workout (orange), or very fatigued and in need of rest (red).

The art of overreaching

Typically, one should adhere to the green/orange/red training recommendations shown by the HRV app. Most days it’s a good idea to train hard if one is fully recovered, to back off if one is tired, and to rest if one is very fatigued.

There are exceptions to most rules and HRV training rules are no different. Hard training when the HRV is orange or red may be useful if applied correctly. (Overreaching is the term used for this training strategy. This article discusses overreaching on the bike but the same concepts apply to any athletic endeavor.) I have definitely been in the orange and red more often these past few weeks.

As a big, general rule, I love trail running. It’s a meditative experience, and my time out in nature is a very exciting yet calming experience for me. Some might call it spiritual.

But with a sustained increase in training, not only have my HRV scores dropped, my attitude toward running has changed. I’m not as enthusiastic about it. I often look at a workout and I think, “Ehhhh? God… What?! Hill intervals on top of other hill intervals for how long? Who thought this was a good idea?

This shift in attitude is no surprise.Too much training, and too much hard training done for too long can result in overtraining, which is nothing anyone wants. Overtraining symptoms may include mental decline, weakness, sickness, and injury. Overtraining may take months and potentially years to overcome, and overtraining is partway down the road to death! Apathy is part of my nervous system’s way of protecting me.

I’ve experienced this diminished mental state in the past during hard training but it’s interesting to analyze it alongside both the coach-prescribed workouts I’m doing and the HRV readings.

With no interest in either dying or being overtrained, why would I want or need to overreach?

It’s because overreaching + adequate rest = bigger & better performance. With training, we dig a hole. We beat up the organism to a certain degree. We stress muscles, bones, connective tissue, the endocrine system, circulatory system, the mind, and the nervous system in general. If we rest adequately (taper) then we should see the organism rebound, get stronger and thus be able to perform at a high level. The diagram illustrates the idea.

This is how training is supposed to work.

This is how training is supposed to work.

The value of coaching

I feel that working with a coach has been invaluable in that she is guiding me safely through these rocky training waters. She’s had me work hard enough to realize significant fitness gains and she’s kept me from working too hard and becoming overtrained. She’s said several times that she wants the hard workouts to be so hard that the race is a piece of cake. After last Sunday’s 2.5- hour, 12.4-mile gruel-fest through Golden, CO, I can say that I believe I’m firmly on the right track and that the Ragnar Relay may actually feel like a jog in the park. Next weekend will give us the truth.

Smart Coaches Use Coaches

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When it comes to lifting weights and being athletic, I think most men feel like we can do it on our own.

“My high school coach taught me how to lift. I don’t need help.”

(In looking back at what my coaches taught me about lifting… My god… They knew little to none about the subject. And when I look around the gym and see men “lifting,” I think they must’ve had the same quality of coaching I had.)

If we ask for help then we run the risk of looking weak. The ego won’t allow it! Meanwhile, all pro athletes use coaches. If it’s good enough for them then just maybe it’s good enough for you and me.

Hell, I’m a certified trainer and a running coach. Shouldn’t I be able to do it all myself? Apparently not.

Two concepts come to mind:

  1. The more I learn, the less I know. (I think that should be modified a little to “The more I learn, the less certain I am.) And,
  2. Much like the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, the athlete who does his own coaching might have a pretty dumb athlete on his hands.

There’s also this:

Regarding my knowledge:

  • There are things I know,
  • Things I don’t know,
  • Things I know I don’t know,
  • Things I don’t know that I don’t know, AND…
  • Things I think I know but about which I’m wrong!

If you total all that up, then you see that the chances of my being in possession of knowledge is very slim! I have lots of room to screw up. Hence a coach.

I could’ve continued to bumble forward on my own, trying and probably failing to cook up a great running plan. Maybe I could’ve cobbled together a very good performance but I doubt it. More likely I would’ve wasted a bunch of time trying to coach myself. Fortunately, I received wisdom from who-knows-where and I enlisted help.

I hired a running coach and I am very happy with the decision. Her name is Mary-Katherine (MK) Flemming and she’s helping me run smarter, not just harder.

Every time I talk with MK I say to myself, “I didn’t know that!” or “I hadn’t thought about that.” So that’s very good. I feel like MK is coaching me based on sound principles and a throughly thought-out plan. That’s better than me guessing and hoping I’m doing things the right way. It also saves me time to do other things I’d rather do, like write this blog post.

Further, we all like to do what we like to do. None of us are very proficient at doing what we don’t want to do. For example, I want to lift more. It’s easy for me to convince myself that I feel okay, that I’m not too fatigued and that “just a little lifting” will be fine. But my version of “just a little” turns into quite a bit. The cost of lifting more while running is that my muscles ache more, I’m fatigued more often, and my nervous system will fry. Overtraining looms…

(I thought I might be able to simultaneously get stronger in the weight room and become a better runner. I’m not sure how feasible that is. Waaahh…)

MK provides accountability. So important! She treats me like an adult and tells me I can lift if I want to and there will be consequences. My running workouts will suffer and I won’t get the most out of my investment. I hate hearing that!… But it’s true and she’s right.

In short, the benefits and the value of having a coach:

  • She’s an running expert and specialist.  I benefit from her knowledge.
  • I don’t have to struggle and agonize over a plan.
  • My plan is individualized.
  • She’s provides objective eyes and accountability. That is, she tells me what I need to know, not just what I want to hear.

Do you think you know it all? You don’t. If you’re serious about your athletic performance and you’re a fitness expert/coach/trainer/whatever, you would do very well to enlist the services of a coach. Get an expert to help.

I’m Training Like A Mother.

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That title doesn’t make a lot of sense. Or, it does make some sense and that last word denotes something that shouldn’t be said in polite company.

What I’m really saying is that I’ve connected with a running coach. Mary-Katherine (MK) Flemming, an RRCA-certified running coach, reached out to me after my last blog post. She’s a mom who trains moms. Other than being a humanoid-type creature with two arms, two legs, and a head, I may not be her standard client/athlete. I’m not sure who/what I had in mind for a running coach but I probably wasn’t thinking about joining a mom-related sort of organization. Call me a backward chauvinist caveman—but what can I say?—my brain just wasn’t tuned in that direction. I’m very glad I kept an open mind though.

We talked and I was very pleased and impressed with what she had to say. I respected and admired her intense curiosity about running, management of planning, strength training, rest & recovery, and how to coach dedicated runners who also live normal lives. MK, like me, has been through various setbacks to her running career yet she persevered. I was excited to see someone who shares my passion about physical activity and performance. You can read about Mary-Katherine’s background and credentials here.

Further, she was able to answer all my questions and she helped me realize there were a lot of questions that I’d never thought to ask. Questions such as:

  • How does one incorporate both road and trail running when training for trail races?
  • How should runs be progressed based on heart rate? (She’s very much into HR training.)
  • How does one manage biking, hiking, and weight training while running?
  • I’d read Steve Magness’ Science of Running and I wanted to talk with a coach who was familiar with those methods. She follows his work and spoke on his methods..

Heart-rate training is a cornerstone of MK’s training plan. You can read about her approach here and you can hear her discuss heart-rate training here. Her training approach is influenced heavily by Coach Phil Maffetone. The essence of the strategy is that by spending a lot of time training at a fairly low heart rate (determined by this formula), you train your engine to burn fat for fuel and you build a significant and broad aerobic base. A strong aerobic base then allows for trainees to better develop anaerobic power and speed, avoid injury, and ultimately race their best.

I’m about a week into the plan and I feel good. If I hadn’t had the experiences that I have, then I would say I’m surprised at how easy the runs have been thus far. It seems that a lot of us runners need to ease down a little, run a bit slower and rest more. MK discusses this interesting and very common phenomenon in this podcast interview.

I’ve seen similar challenges with some of my clients. For some of us, sweating and picking up heavy things is fun and we love it.  We plan our day around or workouts. Or weekends feature extra long bouts of exertion. Even our vacations are built around strenuous activity which we enjoy.

But rest? That’s a tough one. We think that if we don’t lift/run/ride/swim enough then we’ll get weak and fat. The truth is that we CANNOT get stronger/faster/better if we don’t rest enough and recovery adequately. This is one huge reason to employ a coach. You may think you can do it on your own, but very often professional help is absolutely a great investment. To learn more about employing a coach, check out the training programs of the Train Like A Mother Club.

 

Sport Metabolism Testing at the CU Anschutz Health & Wellness Center

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Doing my best Bane impersonation. Might be good for Halloween.

I’m currently training for some road and trail races. Part of that training process is running at different paces to elicit various training effects. Those paces are built around such factors as the aerobic threshold and the lactate or anaerobic threshold. (The definition of those terms are beyond the scope of this blog post. To understand them I suggest you read this from endurance coach Joel Friel.)

Up to this point I’ve used pre-made running plans such as the Run Less, Run Faster and the Hanson’s Marathon and Half-Marathon Method. Those books prescribe paces based on 5k and 10k race finish times. From those race times it’s possible to

I bet its hard to run in that coat.

The Batman villain Bane. I don’t know what his VO2 max is.

predict race finish times of distances up to the half marathon and marathon. Along with race finish times, training paces for speed, tempo, and long distance runs are also derived. I’ve discovered

those training paces, particularly tempo run paces, are too fast for me. Rather than blunder around trying to solve the problem by myself, I sought help.

Testing at Anschutz

A few days ago I visited the sports performance lab at the Colorado University Anschutz Health & Wellness Center in Denver. I underwent the sport metabolism assessment. The test started with a 12-minute warm-up on a treadmill that went from walking to jogging to slow running and running up to a 9:10/mile pace. That was followed by a five-minute rest. (The test conductor explained the whys and hows of the warm-up and rest period. I won’t go into all the information but now I use that process before all my runs. Essentially it enables me to perform better.)

The fun began after the rest period. I ran in two minute intervals. Speed was increased after every two minutes. This process was repeated until I was nearly blue in the face and I couldn’t run anymore. It took about 12 or 14 minutes to hit my limit.

As you see in the pictures, I wore a mask connected by a tube to

Running & bleeding

Running & bleeding

a computer. The computer measured my O2 intake and CO2 expiration. This gas analysis allowed us to see at what paces my aerobic and anaerobic thresholds exist.

Not only did we analyze my breathing, but we also analyzed my blood via a finger prick delivered near the end of each two minute stage. I can’t tell you what joy it is to combine bleeding with intense running…

(For cycling performance testing, the same test is done on a type of stationary bike.)

What did I learn?

I NEED TO SLOOOOW DOWN.

From my speed workouts to my tempo runs to my long runs I should run slower. Running faster isn’t just about running faster — and I knew that! Countless running articles and books preach the idea and I thought I had it figured but I was wrong. The big points and the factors that need improving are these:

Fat metabolism:

I need to spend 80% of my time running for base endurance. In this zone, I use mostly fat for fuel. This works out to a pace of about 11:30/mile. Prior to the test I thought this pace was about 10:00 to 10:30/mile. The good news is that an 11:30 pace is really easy!

Anaerobic Threshold:

My AT occurs at a 7:45 pace. I should be able to maintain that pace potentially for a full marathon. But right now, when I hit my AT I crap out quick! I need to gradually nudge my ability along. If I run at or over my AT (which I have been doing) then I overwhelm my ability to function at that pace. So now my tempo runs are 9:10/mile.

Anaerobic training:

This is speed work and this is where I will improve my VO2 or my ability to utilize oxygen. The pace for this work is 8:40/mile. I had been running my speed work at about 8:00/mile.

What else?

First, the idea that I can get my tempo/race pace down to 7:45/mile is fairly exciting to me. It means I might be able to hit a 3:30 marathon! That’s a powerful motivator for me. All the slow miles I’ll need to put in won’t be done aimlessly.

I’ve said it for the past few years and I’m saying it again: I need to work with a coach. I’m a certified running coach but it’s not something I practice much. As the saying goes, “The lawyer who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.” I need an objective set of eyes on me. A good coach can adjust my training schedule where a book or a pre-made running plan cant. It makes sense to work with someone who coaches runners on a regular basis. I am considering several resources:

Off-Season Part II: What Does It Look Like?

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As I noted in my prior post, I’ve engaged in a lot of fun and challenging physical activities. Now it’s time to step back a bit and rest.

Effective training is made up of peaks and valleys. Training and rest are flip sides of the same coin. Rest must follow training in order for adaptations and progress to take place. The more extensive, prolonged and/or intense the training, the more rest is needed. Here’s an outline of how I plan to conduct my off-season.  (It’s not technically a full season, btw.)

Short-term plan

Week 1:

  • No running.  None.
  • Only easy bike rides: to/from work, maybe 1 or 2 easy road rides, no mountain biking
  • de-load week from lifting: This is week 4 of a 4-week block. I’ve been lifting 4 days/week; this week will probably be just 2 at the most. I’ll do some variations on the lifts I’ve been doing. Workouts will be short. Less will be more.
  • Prioritize sleep.

    Week 2:

  • To paraphrase a friend’s take on off-season: If I feel like it, I’ll do it. If I don’t feel like it, then I won’t.
  • “It” being anything from road/trail running to road/trail riding to hiking to whatever else there might be.
  • Start a new 4-week lifting block. This will involve hard work but since my riding and running will be reduced, I’ll still be resting to some degree.
  • Continue to prioritize sleep.
  • Weeks 3-4:

  • This will take me to the end of October.
  • Continue lifting
  • Some mountain biking
  • Some trail running
  • No real planned training beyond the lifting schedule
  • Ski season comes up soon.
  • Feasting/gluttony season is also waddling my way.

Beyond one month:

We have a big trip coming up the first week in December. It’s a scuba diving and other-fun-stuff trip to the Caribbean island of Dominica. Since it’ll be a beach gig, the wife and I want to look our best in swimsuits and such.

The real challenge is that my wife and I are in fairly good shape. We don’t need to lose much fat. Our big-picture eating habits are mostly very good. We exercise very regularly and we have a consistent, healthy sleep routine. There aren’t any big, bad habits we need to change. Thus it’s small details we need to mind. Here are some thoughts:

  • We’ve given up booze except for my birthday and Thanksgiving.
  • The only sweets we’ll have are following a significant (minimum 2-hr) physical effort such as a ride, run or strenuous hike.
  • It’s probably a good idea for me to give up peanut butter. It’s probably a little too easy to eat. Further, that it’s ground up makes the calories easier for my body to access than regular nuts.
  • Maybe consider giving up dairy?
  • As December approaches we will likely cut the carbs a good bit, and up the protein, fat and vegetables.
  • It’s very easy during this off-season situation for weight to creep up. With all the training I was doing this summer, I needed to eat a lot and I could eat a lot without any consequence. Now I plan to lower my activity level but my nervous system will still want to eat like I was during the summer. Thus…
  • I’m trying out the Eat This Much app to help me plan meals that correspond to my needs. This helps bring awareness to my current habits so I can tweak them in the right direction.
  • I need someone to take my body comp.
  • The current lifting scheme should help add muscle.
  • I’ll gradually resume significant endurance activity which should contribute to reduction in body fat.
  • Review my Precision Nutrition text to figure out else I need to do.

 

 

Training Both Ends of the Spectrum: Strength & Endurance

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For years I’ve been faced with a question to which I have yet to find the answer. The more I Iook for the answer, the louder I hear the question, and that is this:

Which do I love most, strength training or endurance training? Do I love lifting heavy stuff or spending hours running and biking? It’s as much of a question now as it’s ever been.

The truth is I love both activities. I love to lift weights and I love endurance activity. I can’t choose one. Periodically my interest swings more to one or the other but I have yet to find a way to de-emphasize one and specialize in the other. Why does this matter?

Concurrent training likely causes some conflict at the cellular level in terms of trying to achieve gains. That is, lifting a lot may interfere with endurance adaptations and significant endurance work my inhibit strength, power and muscle-growth adaptations.

From what I’ve come to understand, aerobic conditioning seems to inhibit gains in strength, power and muscular hypertrophy more so than the other way around. As regards endurance performance, carrying around extra muscle mass makes running and biking more difficult—especially when going uphill.

(Want to read more about this? StrengthandConditioning.com has a good discussion of research on the topic titled Should we avoid concurrent training to maximize hypertrophy?)

If nothing else, I often feel like a party of one. Sometimes it seems like I’m the only person who is enthusiastic about both lifting for five reps and under as well as suffering, sweating and panting for over an hour. I don’t meet many others who share my enjoyment of both types of activity.

Because of all of the above, I’m excited about an ebook from Juggernaut Training Systems called the Hybrid Athlete. I’ve been following a sample program from the book for a couple of weeks now and I’m enjoying it. I’m lifting more than I have in a while and at the same time I’m running, biking, and hiking a lot.

There are several different sample programs but it’s not a book of cookie cutter workout templates. The book discusses the underlying mechanisms at work during both strength and endurance training.

Most important, this book discusses recovery and the need to strategize lifting and endurance workouts. For someone trying to train hard on both ends of the exercise spectrum, managing recovery is crucial. Thus, there are ways to train for strength while resting the endurance systems and vice versa such that the athlete won’t be overwhelmed, burned out, and possibly injured. The Hybrid Athlete discusses all of this.

Finally, what makes me respect this work is that the writer, Alex Vada, has walked the walk. He’s competed in Ironman traithlons as well as put up impressive numbers in the power lifts.  He’s relied on academic learning and experience in the gym, on the road, and in the pool to develop this book.

Follow this link to learn more about essentials of the hybrid athlete training.

 

 

Hiking the Maroon Bells – A Training Plan

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My wife, our friend, and I recently completed a big hike, known as the Four-Pass Loop in Colorado’s Maroon Bells Wilderness. That part of Colorado is a truly world-class mountain wilderness. Mention “Colorado,” and most people will conjure images of this place in their minds. The scenery is as dramatically breathtaking as as anywhere on this planet. We were surrounded by massive 14,000 ft. peaks, high alpine forest, natural mountain lakes, and waterfalls. It’s difficult to describe how spectacular this trip was. I highly recommend it to anyone with a taste for outdoor adventure. Just be prepared. This trek was not a casual, easy jaunt.

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Crater Lake and the Maroon Bells looming behind.

The hike covered about 28 miles (Mileage varies depending on where you enter the loop.) and crossed four high-mountains passes each one above 12,000 feet. We took 2 nights and about 2.5 days of travel to get the job done.

Snowmass Peak and exquisite Snowmass Lake.  Trail Rider Pass is way up to the left.

Snowmass Peak and exquisite Snowmass Lake. Trail Rider Pass is way up to the left.

We carried about 30 lbs. of gear and food on our backs. The pack weight plus the elevation and the frequently very technical rocky, rooty terrain made this trip especially challenging. I’m happy to say that while it was by no means an easy task, I felt good, strong and entirely up to the event. I was pleased with my conditioning for the trip. Here are some notes our my preparation.

Specific hike training: Hike!

As I’ve said before in this blog, the best way to prepare for a specific event is to do the event. In this case, we planned to hike anywhere from 6-10 miles per day, over high mountain terrain, with heavy packs. Thus our training consisted of several long hikes with loaded packs. In addition to weekend hikes, we spent several weeks wearing our packs during daily walks with our dog. The idea being that we needed all the time we could get wearing loaded packs. We might’ve looked odd walking the streets in big backpacks, but oh well. Let that be someone else’s concern.

To be clear and emphatic: The best training for hiking, is hiking.

This is me doing my best impression of a hiker on Buckskin Pass.

This is me doing my best impression of a hiker on Buckskin Pass.

 

I’ve been running and cycling for most of the year. I believe both activities have helped provide me with the type of cardiovascular ability to sustain multi-hour hiking at high altitude.

Going back to the idea of specificity, trail running is a close relative of hiking and is a clear choice of exercise for hike preparation. Trail running seems especially effective at preparing not only my heart and lungs but also my feet and ankles for the demands of extending hiking. Walking and running over uneven ground requires the feet and ankles to move through a galaxy of angles and it’s a great way to fortify those lowly and under-appreciated appendages.

The muscles of hiking and weight training

Marching uphill is especially demanding of hip extension and the requisite muscles, particularly the glutes and hamstrings. In contrast, hiking downhill requires strength and endurance of the quads and control of the pelvis by way of the hip abductors. Lost balance and a nasty fall may be the price for poor pelvic control.

With these ideas in mind, I’ve spent much of the spring and summer doing exercises such as lunges, split-squats and step-ups. Those exercises seem very effective for addressing the demands of hiking.

I particularly like what I call offset lunges, split-squats and step-ups. These are done by holding a kettlebell or dumbbell on one side of the body, thus creating an asymetrical, offsetting effect which presents different demands than a typical squat or deadlift.

If we look at real life—particularly hiking—it’s rare that we’re balanced evenly on two legs while working against a load that’s distributed in a symmetrical way on us or against us. So I believe that exercises in which one leg is doing more/different work than the other while the forces of gravity are applied in asymmetric ways are very valuable. (Not that more conventional, symmetrical exercises aren’t of value.) Here are some of those exercises:

I also started deadlifting several weeks prior to the hike.  Even with a properly fitted pack, there is a lot of weight and work going through the back and hips. I knew I’d be putting on and taking off a heavy pack and I thought a deadlift would help prepare for that task.

Upon review, I believe a back squat or a good-morning might be superior to the deadlift in that each of those exercises put weight on the back, thus resembling a loaded pack on the back. (See, symmetrical exercises are good too!)

The future

I’m contemplating running the 4 Pass Loop. Others do it (Read some accounts herehere, here, among others.) and though it’ll be a fairly massive bite to take, I think it’s in the realm of possibility for me. I was very happy with the speed with which I was able to move during the hike. I’m thinking of what it would be like with a lot less gear, lighter shoes, etc. I think it’s feasible. So I ordered my first running vest and I’m contemplating what I’ll need to pack into it. The big run might happen next year…

 

Notes on the Triple Bypass: Riding, Descending, & Managing Fear

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I recently completed the famed and fabulous Triple Bypass bike ride. The route went from Evergreen, CO to Avon, CO in about 120 miles. It took me about 8.5 hrs to complete the ride and I felt good. I’m not sure there’s any way to make a ride like this easy but adequate training makes it a very reasonable journey.

You're not Eddy Merckx.

You’re not Eddy Merckx.

Ride lots: climbing

A journalist once asked the great Belgian cycling champ Eddy Merckx to give advice to young cyclists. His reply: “Ride lots.”

That answer embodies the best way to prepare for a big bike ride. In athletic training, the specificity principle means that if we want to be prepared for a thing, then we better spend a lot of time doing that thing. If I want to be a strong cyclist then I should spend plenty of time on the bike. Swimming, running, yoga or weight training probably won’t do as much for my cycling ability as cycling will. Thus, I pedaled a lot.

Since the Triple involved riding in the mountains, I rode in the mountains. I trained from early May to the first week of July. I averaged 100 miles per week. Most of those miles came from two big rides, one on Tuesday and one on Saturday or Sunday. I also did sprint intervals on Thursdays. Other rides were short, slow and easy. I ran sporadically and squeezed in about one, maybe two weight workouts per week.

Besides simply climbing, I did a lot of climbing intervals. These weren’t highly organized. They were mostly fartlek-type workouts in which I would ride very hard for anything from about 30 seconds up to several minutes during a climb, then back way off, ride easy, then repeat the process. My sprint interval workouts were similar.

(Many such workouts are more highly organized They usually consist of timed work/rest intervals such as 1 minute of work to 2-3 minutes of rest. I didn’t feel the need to be so precise.)

I was pleased with my performance. I felt strong during the climbs. I passed a lot of people and I was passed by only a few. (The Triple isn’t a race, but I still pay attention to such things. My bet is most people do too.)

Ride lots: descending

What goes up usually must also come down and riding in the Rocky Mountains means there are many fast downhill rides. I have been witness to some incredibly fast descents by people who appear to be fearless. I am frequently in awe of the downhill skills of some of my fellow riders. I’m a bit more cautious and hesitant than some people. I want to go faster downhill though. I want to be a better descender. I figure if others are so comfortable with gravity then so too can I.

There’s no one magic way to descend fast. Like any skill, it takes mindful, frequent practice. I watched videos, read articles, and then went out and tried to apply what I learned.

There are numerous articles and videos on going downhill efficiently. I found this article, Descending, to be very through and useful. Among the many videos I watched, I got some good information here:

(A note on braking while descending: I’ve always heard that I should brake early, scrub some speed, then lay off the brakes as I go through the turn. The Descending article discusses why braking should occur up to the apex of the turn. It’s worth reading. Also, the video discusses how to use the front brake differently from the rear brake. All of this was valuable info to me as I worked to improve my descent. I tend to use my brakes as described in the article, and I’ve been laying off the front brake if I feel the need to reduce speed further while turning.)

With the idea of specific training in mind, it’s clear the only way to get better at descending, was to descend. I practiced a lot and I stayed mindful of the skills I was developing.

Fear & learning

Riding a bike fast down a mountain can and probably should cause a bit of fear in a normal human brain. It definitely does in mine. The fear must be managed. It probably can’t be eliminated. I must live with it.

Whether it’s cycling, skiing, or the trumpet, Effective learning can’t happen in the presence of overwhelming fear. Too much fear causes us to revert back to old habits, clamp down, tense up and freeze. At best it means no new skills are gained and we stay frightened of the task at hand. At worst it can mean catastrophe and maybe severe injury. Thus, only through gradual exposure to faster speed, greater lean angles and tighter turns could I build my downhill skills.

My process was one in which I gradually took (and continue to take) a little more risk each time I descended. I worked on my position, braking, and leaning the bike every time. I worked to keep my fear in check. The result is that I’ve become faster and more comfortable on the downhills. I never made any great leap forward but rather I made gradual progress which I expect will continue.

Regarding fear in sports training, I found a very worthwhile articled titled Learning from athletes in extreme sports – know and use your fear to improve performance (and achieve more for yourself). I like this:

During a recent coaching conversation, a World Cup Mountain Bike racer described how, if he was in touch with a sprinkle of fear, he would execute his ride very well. If he didn’t have this feeling, he might be a bit more sloppy in his riding, make mistakes or choose less effective lines.

These athletes are in touch with their fear and they know it well. I believe that there is a strong link between how well an athlete knows their fear and their success. The better they know it and can work with it, the more they’ll achieve.

Thus far I feel I’ve made respectable progress in going downhill. I’ve been moving faster through turns than in the past. I wasn’t the fastest descender in the Triple but I felt I kept pace with plenty of other people. The process will continue.

Colfax Marathon 10-Miler (A Late Update)

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The Colfax Marathon, half-marathon, 10-miler and marathon relay happened on May 15 and here’s a quick update on things.

A good cause

I ran the 10-Miler to help raise funds for The Gathering Place which is a Denver shelter for homeless women, their kids and the transgender community. I’m very pleased and grateful that a total of $2343 was donated by my tremendously generous friends, family and clients. My original goal was $2000 and I’m thrilled to have gone over that goal. It’s all going to a very good cause that helps a vulnerable segment of my city. I look forward to helping The Gathering Place again in the future.

Race results

Here’s the rundown of the numbers:

Post-race nonsense and a medal.

Post-race strangeness and a medal.

  • Net time: 1:21:36
  • Pace: 8:09/mile
  • Overall place: 81 out of 1014 runners
  • Overall men: 52 out of 325
  • Division, Men 40-49: 11 out of 77

I won’t be winning any ribbons or prize money any time soon, but I’m very pleased with those results. Eight minutes per mile was my most optimistic hoped-for pace. This was on a course that started downhill and ended uphill. In three of my last four miles I averaged just under 8:00/mile. That’s pretty decent, I think.

Several things went well. First, it was a cool, cloudy day. Heat dissipation is a massively important thing for good running performance. I’m about 200 lbs. so I generate a lot of heat and I need all the help I can get.

My training went well. I ran the most I’ve ever run over the winter. I built a plan based loosely on the Hansons Marathon Method. I did speed work one day a week, tempo work on another day and a longer run on the weekend. In between those main workouts I was typically running shorter slower runs to build my aerobic abilities. These short/slow recovery runs were vital! They weren’t “junk miles.” They had a purpose which was to condition my aerobic energy system. I think it’s likely that more such running will help me be faster in future races.

I tapered the week before the race by cutting distance but I kept some of the intensity of the speed and tempo work. I replaced some of the runs with bike rides as well.

Finally, I believe I did a good job of maintaining a sensible pace at the beginning of the race. It’s always easy to launch out of the gate, run too fast, then crap out in the second half of a race. That didn’t happen. I ran within my limits and I was able to put on strong finish.

What I love about running is that there’s always room for improvement. There’s always an opportunity to do better than last time. Some time (sooner rather than later I hope) I’m going to enlist a running coach to help me get better. I’d love to run a sub-8 min/mile 10-miler or maybe half-marathon.