Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Off Season

I read an interesting article by Ironman legend Mark Allen recently suggesting that for endurance athletes, being competitive past 40 is no longer just an option but an expectation. One of the main reasons he cites is the modern understanding and importance given to recovery, claiming that previous training concepts often resulted in a burn-out in athletes by their mid thirties, if not earlier. Without this in-built fail mechanism he suggests that the deterioration of performance with age is far less that we had previously thought, and that otherwise the limiting factor is our expectations and belief.

There's a large and growing community of athletes in their 40s and 50s still remaining at, or near, the top of their game. Another legend, 6-times Ironman world champion Natascha Badmann won Ironman South Africa in 2012 at the age of 45. Mountain bike legend Ned Overend is still fully competitive at the ripe old age of 58, and in another recent article he hits on some similar nerves in analysis of his longevity.

As both of these articles allude, the mental burn-out is often more decisive than the physical. Without the passion to remain in the sport you won't stay with it long enough to discover that your body is still capable.

The off-season then - that annual break from our normal training routine - is much more crucial to our our ability to stay motivated than many of us are willing to admit. It is also crucial that you not only let your body rest, but that you involve your mind in other interests and let go of the obsessions for a while.

The pros, and those that are racing for a specific period during the year, will arrive at a point for a natural break at the end of the racing season. When it's your job it's an easy choice and usually cause for celebration, there's also a pressing need for you to get back on your bike after a few weeks hanging out in the pub. For those without a clear start and end to the season it can be hard to make the decision when to take time off. I think also there's a fear that we'll somehow lose momentum with our drop in fitness and maybe become less motivated to come back at all.

One way or another my off seasons usually end up being decided by outside influences. I'm now in the throes of coming back from an enforced rest - caused by an injury, surgery, and subsequent recovery period. I can't remember when was the last time I took 3 weeks completely off the bike. Probably the last time I was injured!

Anyway, I was definitely suffering from a temporary mental burnout even as I wound down my training before the surgery. There's a fine line between a discipline and a rut, and when you have to force yourself to get out and do the miles because you don't want to lose fitness, I think it's time for a premeditated loss of fitness.

Even as I lay in hospital I was trying to figure ways of getting back to at least minimal training earlier. In the end my body wouldn't let me (I've learned to listen to it!), so it was a clear 3-week break before I could get back on the bike at all. By the time I did, I was really looking forward to having a really methodical and slow build up to where my fitness was before the injury - and then beyond!

It's been a great mental rejuvenation; letting go of my fitness, enjoying having the opportunity - and energy - to do other things, and then planning my comeback! I'm now enjoying actually going slowly on the bike, even using the bike lanes instead of the roads, allowing fat guys in sandals to overtake me (good ego therapy!), and relishing the actual feeling of riding a bike.

Another outcome is the resolve to keep my running, swimming and weights/core routines going. Most of the time all I want to do is just get out and ride, but overall body conditioning is a crucial key to keeping strong and avoiding injuries, so you have to introduce a healthy discipline of cross-training and off-the-bike workouts in the off-season, and be vigilant not to let them go once the mileage and intensity starts ramping up.

I'll take another 3 weeks of moderate but gradually increasing distance and intensity, prioritizing the off-bike stuff, before I take a few days off and then start my base training. I'm aiming to eschew the usual linear periodisation this time in favour of what is sometimes referred to as "reverse periodisation". Quite apart from the use of this concept to great effect in the sport nowadays, I think this will work well for me; as an aging athlete one needs to keep the intensity higher than the young things who develop muscle strength from lighter activity - and lose it far less quickly. Just putting in the base miles no longer makes any sense.

However, the available training manuals don't offer any ready-made training plans for this approach so I'm using my accumulated experience and designing the whole plan myself - which takes some energy in planning and constant reevaluation - and as always I'm using my body as a test lab. I love it!

Base training therefore will not have the typical increase in volume as a priority, and will include three key intensity focuses: 1) Force, 2) Speed (cadence/sprints), and 3) Threshold. I'll be documenting my progress here for those interested, so by all means join me on this journey, and if you have anything to comment or add, even better.

First step is done. Batteries recharged. Now the fun begins!

Great article on reverse periodisation by Nick Grantham

Thursday, October 3, 2013


OK, so I'm an optimist. I'm the one who sees his cup as half-full rather than half-empty. I would rather consider everyone innocent until proven otherwise.

Being a follower of an athletic sport is always an act of faith. When this faith is betrayed and the rug firmly pulled from under our feet, we need to look for some solid ground to stand on.

If we are still drawn to the sport, we need to re-build that faith. I managed, after an awful lot of reading, to come to terms with what had happened within the sport of cycling, and through that I built some faith in the ethics of certain people in the sport. Most importantly though, I developed an insight into the circumstances that made people make the decisions they did.

Two of the journalists most outspoken against Armstrong and the doping culture were David Walsh and Paul Kimmage. Having read everything I could find from them and from riders like Millar, Obree and several others (as mentioned in a previous article), I could see that the British amateur cycling scene was, as it continues to be, a stronghold of idealism and clean competition. It had also become the most successful amateur track scene in the world under the direction of guiding lights such as David Brailsford.

Now that many of the protegees of this scene have made their way into the pro tour - many under the direction of Brailsford in Team Sky or in other teams with clear ethics - I have faith that at least this corner of the peloton contains worthy heroes. It's of no small significance that after spending the whole Tour de France following Team Sky, David Walsh remains convinced.

So yes, my faith is reserved for those I really believe in. This is always the case anyway - we follow our favourites. I continue to dig, and occasionally find new gems. So my list of “good guys” includes Froome, Wiggins and a gradually expanding group. It's still fundamentally an act of faith. I want to believe.

I can't be 100% sure of anyone. I enjoy immensely what Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert and Jens Voigt can do on a good day. Would I stake my life on them never having used chemicals to enhance performance? No, of course not. Now we have an exciting world champion in Rui Costa - from the same mould - who once served part of a suspension for a "controlled substance" that he and his brother were later found to have unwittingly taken as part of a dietary supplement. While for some it might dim the brightness of whatever he subsequently does; until otherwise enlightened, I believe in him.

As for numbers; from my 30+ years of training and racing in sport one truth of human physiology is inescapable: a world class athlete is mostly a result of nature, not nurture. Top athletes are genetically "chosen". The average guy won’t come close even with years of high-tech training, yet the gifted one can turn up at his first race and blow the field away. Genetics: blood values, VO2max, lactate threshold, pain threshold, muscle development etc have a massive range of variance from the mules to the Derby winners. Put the thoroughbred on a highly-structured and monitored training plan, and you may come up with power numbers that are off the charts.

I'd also like to point out that we share this history - and the accompanying sense of disappointment and loss - with the current riders on the pro tour. Many of these guys were inspired to get on a bike by the now fallen heroes of the blood-doping era. If you as a fan/amateur can feel so betrayed, the young person for whom cycling is their whole life will need some serious therapy to combat the unfillable void of shattered illusions and demolished faith. I hear many modern athletes speak of this experience, and I know they are determined not to ever go down that path.

To the cynics I will say this: if you really care about the sport, make the effort to dig as deep as you can to get as full a picture as possible. Doing this involves some pain, and will probably turn your stomach for a while as you sift through the really mucky stuff, but you’ll come out the other end with a deeper understanding of the problem, a connection to the humanity behind the decisions - good and bad.......and perhaps a few new heroes.

Nice Twistedspoke piece on Froome during the TDF

Grey Rules

Somehow we need to come to terms with the sport of cycling's past. While I'm the first to agree that a black-and-white view to doping in sport is the only way to move forward, we can't deal with the history of the sport with the same severity.

What started (at least in our sport) with athletes looking for ways to make intolerable suffering more tolerable, went unchecked at the crucial early stage, and became unmanageable at a point where the sport was already big money with too much at stake.

Now we have medals, jerseys, races that nobody won. We have some of the most defining moments in the history of our sport captured on video that contributed to no result. We have the best years of the lives of so many riders, team crew, soigneurs, mechanics dedicated to pursuits now made redundant and even embarrassing. Why? Because the sport was allowed to play by rules that embodied a dark secret that eventually had to come out.

From an article called Lance Armstrong's Endgame by author/editor Bill Strickland on Bicycling.com:

"His ultimate legacy most likely is out of our hands. Fans who may not yet be alive will decide who he was. To us, today, Eddy Merckx is the greatest cyclist who ever lived, not a fraud who tested positive for a stimulant while leading the 1969 Giro d'Italia and had his 1973 Giro di Lombardia win stripped for the same. Joop Zoetemelk is the hardman who started and finished 16 Tours—a record—and won one. He's not a reprobate who was caught doping at the 1979 Tour, received a paltry penalty of a 10-minute time addition, and maintained his second-place podium spot. Jacques Anquetil is the five-time Tour winner who in 1961 took the yellow jersey on Stage 1 and wore it all the way to Paris, not a boastful cheater who said, during a French television interview, "Leave me in peace—everybody takes dope." And Fausto Coppi is il campionissimo, the champion of champions, not an admitted doper who said on Italian television that he only took drugs when necessary—"which is nearly always."."

This is not Hollywood.

.... and I'm still a cycling fan.