Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"Total Heart Rate Training" by Joe Friel

A couple of weeks ago, I purchased the book "Total Heart Rate Training" by Joe Friel (ISBN 978-1-56975-562-4, published in 2006). In this post, I will describe the book. In a future post, I will describe how its contents have influenced my training.

Joe Friel has published many books on training, including books about cycling, running, swimming, and competing in triathlons and I expect to read more of his books in the future. This book covers the use of a heart rate monitor in all of these sports. I originally downloaded the trial version of this book for my Kindle, but found that I didn't like the formatting of the Kindle edition so purchased the paperback edition for $15.95. This book is short; 176 pages, 43 of which are appendices and an index.  I think this shortness is a good thing, the book is packed with content but contains little filler. "Total Heart Rate Training" is very balanced and objective; although it suggests that a heart rate monitor is helpful, it does not oversell this device. This book discusses both the positives and the negatives of using a heart rate monitor, and provides information that can be used to obtain many of the benefits of heart rate training without a heart rate monitor. This book is stand-alone, it does not depend on any other of Joe Friel's books. You can design workouts based only on the information in this book. The reason I am interested in reading more of Joe Friel's books is to go beyond what is in this book, not to complete it.

How does the advice in this book compare to the advice in Phillip Maffetone's "The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing", the book that my current training is based upon? Although there are differences, nothing in Friel's book would suggest that the training I am doing based on Maffetone's book should be changed. That said, Friel's book is much more detailed and extensive on the topics I care about despite being shorter. Maffetone's book contains a lot of personal history and discussion about how he developed his ideas, as well as advice on massage, diet, and other holistic considerations. Perhaps I should be interested in these things, but as of today, I am not. Friel certainly has his theories about diet, and I assume other things as well, but you won't read about them in this book; it focuses tightly on training using a heart rate monitor.

How much is there to say about heart rate training? A lot, as it turns out. I was inspired to purchase this book because of questions I had about my personal experiences with heart rate training, and because when I directed my questions to Google, it frequently sent me to Joe Friel's blog. (I used data from that blog in my post on "Personalized Training".) Some of the topics covered in this book are as follows:

  1. I wondered why sometimes my speed will slow towards the end of a ride even though my heart rate stays constant. Friel discusses this. It is a phenomenon he names "decoupling" or "cardiac drift". Although he says its cause is "not fully understood", the fact that he acknowledges it is helpful by itself. However, he then goes on to list 18 factors which he has found to contribute to this phenomenon and notes that it indicates a lack of aerobic fitness for the portion of the ride where it is observed. That is, when I ride the first 30 miles of a 37 mile ride at a roughly contant speed and heart rate, but find my speed tending down and/or heart rate creeping up for the last 7 miles, Friel would say I am in good shape for a 30 mile ride, but not for longer rides.
  2. As regular readers know, overtraining is a concern of mine and I have been frustrated that my objective symptoms don't consistently indicate overtraining when my subjective feelings suggest that is going on. In this book, Friel describes how the two parts of the nervous system that regulate heart rate, the sympathetic and parasympathetic system, can both be affected by overtraining. In younger athletes, the effects of overtraining show up most often in the sympathetic system whereas in older athletes (me), overtraining most often shows up in the parasympathetic system. Because most discussions of overtraining focus on younger athletes, it is perhaps not surprising that the symptoms described don't match mine. Friel lists the symptoms of both sympathetic and parasympathetic overtraining, and in fact the parasympathetic symptoms match my experience quite closely. 
  3. In my "Personalized Training" post, I struggle to determine which heart rates correspond to which zones for me. Friel defines zones both in terms of heart rate as well as into a 10 level "Rating of Perceived Exertion" which provides a way to check that the heart rate zones are appropriate. 
  4. Friel not only talks about heart rate training during base training, but throughout the training season.
  5. Common to all zone-based heart rate training, the heart rates corresponding to different zones will be different for different athletes. In most zone-based training, personalization of heart rate zones is accomplished by expressing zones as percentage of maximum heart rate, the highest heart rate an individual is capable of. Friel explains why he prefers not to use maximum heart rate to define training zones but instead uses the heart rate at lactate threshold, a heart rate which can be determined much easier and more safely than the maximum heart rate.

In summary, I recommend "Total Heart Rate Training" enthusiastically. The one weakness of this book is the flip side of one of its strengths; its nuanced and detail oriented consideration of every aspect of training. I think if I had read this book before "The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing" I might have missed the main point; that it is valuable to train at well below maximum effort. That point is certainly made in "Total Heart Rate Training", but I think it is easily missed among all the other details. Now that I have internalized that, I can use the greater detail of "Total Heart Rate Training" to refine my training and carry it through its various phases to what I hope is a successful brevet season.

My Garmin heart rate monitor has failed, so I cannot perform any MAF tests and my posting of these results is suspended until it is replaced. Fortunately, having just read "Total Heart Rate Training", I am able to continue my base training substituting "Rating of Perceived Exertion" for Heart Rate.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Canino's Grocery Ride

Canino Produce Company is a Houston Institution. It is a single store (i.e. not a chain) located in a wholesale produce terminal. They call themselves a farmers' market and, while they do not guarantee that all their produce is local, they do promise to provide as much local produce as possible. That, the ambiance (e.g. industrial fans rather than air conditioning and raw concrete floors), and the collection of farmer-run booths they encourage out back all lend credence to that claim. Finally, right across the street is Flores Spices and Herbs, an exceptional business selling spices in bulk at most attractive prices. In short, my wife loves this place. A few years ago we discovered that it was possible to bike there and that a set of panniers we had lying around were adequate to carry home a week's worth of produce. Since then, we have made this 20 mile round trip ride every few weeks.

One very unique feature of the City of Houston is that it has no zoning laws, which means mixed use neighborhoods are more common here than elsewhere. Some neighborhoods do manage to maintain homogeneity via deed restrictions and the like, but many others just go with the flow. Despite this (or some would say because of it), Houston has very distinctive neighborhoods of which we are most proud.

Our ride begins in the City of West University Place ("West U"), an independent city with its own mayor, city council, police, and fire department despite being entirely surrounded by the City of Houston. West U is almost entirely residential and is graced with quiet streets almost perfect for bicycling. The only downside is that these small residential streets have stop signs at most corners prevent us from picking up much momentum. This pattern continues into Houston through a number of beautiful residential neighborhoods for approximately 4 1/2 miles, almost half the ride.

Highway 59 is spanned by four of these very attractive bridges as it passes southeast of downtown
Next comes just over a mile of riding through a shopping area with relatively high traffic followed by a hair-raising crossing of Allen Parkway, the Buffalo Bayou, and Memorial Drive. As we pass over Buffalo Bayou, we look down on the Buffalo Bayou Bike Trail:

Then we traverse through a commercial neighborhood for another mile. This stretch features one of the characteristic low quality Houston bike lanes. Once we cross under I10 (always exciting), everything changes as we enter into the delightful neighborhood of Houston Heights ("the Heights"). We travel on Heights Boulevard, a divided road featuring a beautiful park between the north- and south-bound sides:

...and one of the finest bike lanes in Houston:

This is perhaps the nicest part of the ride, and it lasts for 1.8 miles. About a half a mile in, we cross the MKT Bike Trail:

About a mile in, we cross 12th street. At this point, the route we are following is the same as if we were planning on riding the White Oak Bayou Bike Path (30 miles round trip). If that were where we were going, we would take a left turn on 12th Street and ride 1.2 miles through attractive residential neighborhoods to the southern end of that 7.5 mile trail. However, we are going to Canino's, so we continue on Heights Boulevard, past the gorgeous victorian homes:

... until we reach 20th street. A right turn leads into a very different, mixed use neighborhood with residential, retail, and industrial cheek to jowl. For most of this mile long stretch we have the questionable benefit of another of Houston's low quality bike lanes.  A left turn on Airline Drive and less than a half mile brings us to Canino's:

We always do this ride early on Sunday morning (Canino's opens at 6 am, 7 days a week) and I would hesitate doing it at any other time. On Sunday morning, the fact that Airline Drive is four lanes wide makes it tolerably safe, but it traverses a commercial/industrial area with heavy truck traffic which, at busy times, would be more dangerous on a bike than I like. At that point, we do our shopping, load up the panniers, and ride home the way we came.

Urban rides are very popular among Houston bike clubs. The reason is that Houston has a rich and interesting mix of neighborhoods with histories and personalities worth exploring. Besides making us feel just a little bit ecologically responsible, we enjoy our "Canino's Grocery Ride" for precisely this reason. I hope to further explore Houston's neighborhoods in the future, and will post about them when I do.

For those new to this blog, each week I am posting an update of my training results; see my previous posts for explanations of my aerobic training program, MAF tests, and this graph.

The most notable thing this week is the paucity of new test results (gaps between the points). I have been doing the rides, the problem is that my measured heart rate has neither been believable nor within the proscribed range. I will comment on this in a future post, hopefully after I understand it. Other than that, the training program continues to stay on track.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Second Brevet: Try, Try Again

(For anyone new to this blog, the sport of randonneuring or brevet riding is a branch of bicycling involving challenge rides, most commonly 200, 300, 400, 600, and 1200 kilometers in length. These rides are not competitive, they test endurance and self reliance rather than speed. RUSA, the US governing body for brevet riding, has an excellent description of this sport.)

I began this blog almost 9 months ago, right after completing my first brevet. At the time, I had very ambitious plans about my future in this sport. However, rather than that first brevet being the first in a series of longer brevets, I have yet to be able to even repeat this first 200 kilometer ride. Trying to understand why and to overcome the barriers preventing me from continuing have taken me on an exploration of training regimens, muscle physiology, and the impact of age on training. My next attempt at completing a brevet will be a 200 kilometer ride sponsored by the Houston Randonneurs, on May 18.

A serious randonneur will usually attempt to complete a brevet series, successfully riding 200, 300, 400, and 600 kilometer brevets (abbreviated 200K, 300K, 400K and 600K) in the same calendar year. Besides earning the Super Randonneur award, this qualifies a randonneur to attempt a prestigious 1200 kilometer brevet. Since typically one must qualify in the same year as the ride, a randonneuring club will sponsor a super brevet series starting as early in the year as weather permits and have makeup and other rides for the remainder of the year. The Houston Randonneurs series begins in January, allowing completion of a brevet series by early March. This is the Houston Randonneurs schedule for 2013:

I am not yet sufficiently fit to attempt a brevet series, so I am only looking at the 200K brevets. Looking at this schedule, I realized that the 200K rides in January would be too early in my training. The next 200K brevet is on May 18. To determine how best to prepare for that brevet I needed to consider the first three of the four phases of Periodized training:

BaseProvide a foundation for later training.
BuildMaximize fitness for a selected event.
TaperRegain energy before the selected event.
TransitionRecovery between events and between one season and another.

I am currently engaged in Base training which should last at least three months. I began my Base training at the beginning of December and so the soonest I could begin the Build phase is the beginning of March. Last year, I had a two and a half week Taper phase during which I froze and then reduced mileage to regain energy for my brevet. This is pretty standard and seems to have worked well, so I will stick with that. This leaves March 1 through May 8 for my Build phase. Last year, I used a Build phase adapted from by "The Complete Book of Long Distance Cycling" (ISBN # 1-57954-199-2).  To determine if I wanted to do that again, I compared that plan with what I actually did and with what an experienced randonneur does as described on the British Columbia Randonneurs website. For each of these plans, I shifted rides around within a week to make it easier to compare them and placed them on a calendar leading up to my brevet on May 18. For each day of the plan, I indicated the distance in miles of each ride and used a color code to indicate how fast each ride should be ridden:

Aerobic training is what I have been doing for the past few months, riding at a heart rate of between 130 and 140 beats per minute. The speed of that ride will be determined by my heart rate and will vary, hopefully getting faster on the average over time. Pace riding is done at the speed that I intend to ride my brevet. The long ride is also ridden at Pace, but this is the ride that gets longer each week, reaching a maximum a few weeks before the brevet of 70 to 75% the length of the brevet. A fast ride should be done about as fast as I can go for that distance, significantly faster than I intend to ride the brevet. An easy ride is done more slowly than the brevet. As of today, my aerobic training rides are a little bit slower than Pace and quite a bit faster than my easy rides.

Here is the plan that I attempted to follow last year; the number is the length of the ride in miles, the 124 mile ride is the 200K brevet:

This chart shows both the Build phase and the Taper phase. It is assumed that the Base phase has been completed before this schedule is begun. The Build phase runs from February 25 through May 5. The Taper phase begins the week of May 6 when the long ride doesn't increase in length, it is the same length as the previous week and continues until the brevet on May 18.

As compared to that plan, this is what I actually did last year:

I rode significantly fewer mile, had more "easy" days, took more days off, and skipped two of the long rides compared to the plan. My "Base phase" was a hodge-podge of whatever rides I had managed to squeeze around other events, totaling just over 500 miles of riding all done at Pace. For comparison, my Base phase this year should total over 1200 miles of riding. That said, when I compare what I did with what other randonneurs do as exemplified by the training schedule below, I did quite a bit more:

This chart is different from the above two in that is shows Base phase, April 1 through April 21, Build phase, April 22 through May 1, and Taper phase, May 2 through May 17.

Interestingly, the advice I received after my first brevet was that I was training too hard, and that I would exhaust myself, which is what happened. On the other hand, my experience with 30 mile rides over the last few weeks suggests that I will need a lot more training than what I have done so far this season if I hope to ride 124 miles in May. Based on that, and based on my subjective impression that aerobic training is energizing more than tiring, this is what I am going to try to do for my Build and Taper phases this season:

My hope is that the four days a week of aerobic training rides will both maximize the benefit of my long rides as well as to allow recovery between them. Realistically, I expect that I will miss a day now and then due to weather or other obligations, and I expect that my daily mileage will deviate from the mind numbing regularity shown above, especially on the weekends when I ride with my wife. In particular, I have given specific thought to what happens if I miss one of the long rides in the progression. In light of the notion that I may be overdoing the long rides anyway, if I miss a long ride, I will continue as if I had completed it. For example, should I miss the 66 mile ride during the week of April 8, I will do the 72 mile ride during the week of April 15 as planned.

Alternative Plans:

The Taper phase in this plan might be doing more harm than good by repeating the long ride from the previous week. Eliminating the first week of Taper might reduce exhaustion before the ride. The 10% per week increases might be resulting in too many long rides. By upping the weekly increase to 20%, I might decrease the overall stress of the Build phase. For the moment, the above chart is my plan, but I will adjust it along these lines if my experience suggests that I do so, and I will certainly consider abbreviated Build and Taper phases for future seasons.

For those new to this blog, I am posting an update of my training results each week. See my previous posts for an explanation of my aerobic training program, MAF tests, and this graph.

This week's graph shows a continuation of the upward trend in MAF test speed. As this upward trend continues for a longer time, it becomes more convincing.

The last three rides shown on the graph were almost certainly slower due to weather.

It is my experience that at the same effort, my speed on the Rice Track is about 1 to 2 MPH faster than on the road presumably because I never have to stop or change speed on the track. If this estimate is accurate, my corrected speed in these MAF tests is about 1 MPH slower than "Pace", the speed that I maintain on a long ride. I hope that the observed increase in speed will continue at least until I am riding these MAF tests at "Pace". At my current rate of improvement, this would take 38 days.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Aerobic Training, Month 2

A bicycle that has nothing to do with today's blog post. This picture was taken in Silicon Valley by my son. I am including it because it is fun, I can't think of a blog post where it would be a better fit, and to liven up this post which is otherwise a bit dry.


I have been testing Philip Maffetone's aerobic training regimen ("aerobic training") for two months now, and it seems to be working as advertised, though it is difficult to be certain. It is also unclear that "working as advertised" and "accomplishing what I want to accomplish" are the same thing, though I am hopeful they are. Finally, I have some observations to share that might be of value to anyone beginning heart rate training.

Aerobic Training Results To Date

Since December 3, 2012, I have been sharing my aerobic training results every week at the bottom of each post. Here is the latest:

The jagged blue line connecting the dots reflect the results of MAF (Maximum Aerobic Function) tests, which besides being tests, are training rides; most of my training rides these days are MAF tests. I ride to the Rice Bike Track to warm up, ride around the track for 45 minutes maintaining a heart rate (HR) of 130 to 140 beats per minute (BPM) for 45 minutes, and ride home to cool down. In addition to the MAF test rides, I try to do one longer ride each week. Finally, weekends are reserved for my wife, and she and I do social rides together with no HR monitor. After experimenting, I am trying (but frequently failing) to ride 7 days a week. Of all these rides, only the MAF test rides are shown on the graph above. The grey line is a best fit straight line generated by Microsoft Excel as a measure of how fast my speed is increasing. Excel is claiming that, on average, my speed is increasing by 0.0248 miles per hour each day. That seems like a small number, but if it kept up for a year, I would be riding at 22 mph without exceeding a HR of 140 - Tour de France, here I come! Obviously, it is unreasonable to expect such an increase to be sustained, but it is exciting while it happens.

Given the above graph, why am I not certain that the aerobic training regimen is working as advertised? What Dr. Maffetone promises is that if you regularly exercise at your "maximum aerobic heart rate" (140 BPM for me), your speed will increase, and that is exactly what the graph shows. Or does it? In the first place, notice that the blue line is very jagged - I may or may not be getting faster in the long run, but I am definitely way faster some days than others and very often, I am very slow after having been fast a few days before. Excel also provides a "correlation coefficient" for the grey line. Correlation coefficients range from 0 to 1, where 1 means that the line predicts what is going to happen perfectly and 0 that it doesn't predict what is going to happen at all. In this case, the correlation coefficient is 0.165, a very low value; most of what is going on with the MAF test results represents random day to day changes in speed, very little of it with improvement over time. Thus, the long term increase in speed I am claiming could easily be just due to chance. Second, the weather in Houston has improved over the last 47 days - it has gone from being cold, rainy, and windy to warm, sunny, and calm which, as is explained below, could easily explain any improvement that actually exists.

Why would weather affect the results of my MAF tests? There are three reasons. The first is wind - anyone who as bicycled knows that tailwinds do not balance out headwinds; an "out and back" ride on a windy day is slower than on a calm day. Thus, the wind at the beginning of the training period could have lowered my speed which improved as the wind went away. The second general reason is less obvious, and thus more interesting. There are many things besides exercise that affect heart rate; including any kind of stress. Heat, cold, anger, or fear for example will increase heart rate. When I complete a MAF test on a cold day, the cold itself will increase my heart rate, and thus it takes less exercise to get it up to 140 BPM, again slowing my ride. The third general reason why weather affects my results is rain; it was rainier at the beginning of the 47 days than at the end. I confess, I am a wuss. If it is pouring rain out, I take the day off. It is quite possible (and I firmly believe) that missing days of training has a dramatic and rapid effect on my performance.

Despite all the above, I believe that my performance is improving. In the first place, there were some nice days at the beginning of the 47 day period, and if I look at my performance on nice days with low wind at the beginning and the end of this period, my best performance is a bit faster at the end. In the second place, I can notice a dramatic change in my heart rate during warm up, and even more during cool down. When I began this regimen, it took extreme measures to get my heart rate down near 100 BPM by the end of cool down; a lot of coasting for example. Now, I just ride home, slowly for sure, but without a lot of thought and pedaling all the way. In the third place, when I started, I felt like I was holding myself back on the training rides. I still have to be careful not to let my heart rate go above 140 BPM, but now I have to be almost as careful to keep it from going below 130 BPM and although I don't feel like I am racing around the track, I feel like I need to keep my speed up, so subjectively, maintaining a HR of 140 is getting harder as predicted.

Even if aerobic training is "working as advertised", it is possible that all it does is allow me to ride fast for 45 minutes at a low heart rate when what I want to do is to ride 1200 km from Paris to Brest and  back (or at least 200 km through the Texas countryside) without a thought for my heart rate. I have worried about this, and when I rode 30 miles two weeks ago after having gone a month with no long rides, I found I was very tired and my HR had soared by the end, presumably due to the stress of a longer ride. There were other issues with that ride, but nonetheless I worried. Last week I repeated a 30 mile ride, and it went much better, so I am guardedly optimistic. I am tentatively assuming that this aerobic training regimen by itself will not prepare me for riding a brevet, but that it will prepare me for the training rides that will. What I hope will happen is that, as before, I will have to do increasingly long weekly training rides to get ready for a brevet. However, I am hoping that it will be easier to accomplish these longer rides and overtraining will be less of an issue than it has been in the past. In next week's post, I will describe my plan for getting in shape for a 200K (124 mile) brevet on May 18. I had originally considered trying that with minimal preparation, say one 60 mile training ride a few weeks before the 200K. Based on my current experience, I have rejected that plan and now intend to do the same 10% increases in the length of my weekly long training rides I have done before, starting at 40 miles and increasing to 90 miles. Stay tuned to see if my three months of aerobic training sets me up to complete this series of long rides with greater ease and reliability than what I have been able to do in the past.

Observations on Aerobic Training

In the previous section I tried for a skeptical tone; I think it is important to distinguish between what I believe and what I know. In this section I am going to be more subjective and focus on what I believe.

  • Let me start by saying that I really like this aerobic training regimen. I do believe I am becoming more fit as a result but I also believe that it is an extremely gentle regimen. One of the most reliable signs that I am overtraining is a slight ache or tiredness in my legs that persists. Adding a longer training ride the last two weeks has given me just that symptom. What I am doing to treat that tiredness is more aerobic training, and it is working. I feel like MAF test rides are soothing and healing, that rather than making me feel tired, they make me feel energetic. 
  • I have developed the feeling that how often I ride has a big effect on my performance; that doing aerobic training every day has much greater benefit than when I skip a day now and then. It is also for these reasons that I have eliminated the rest day from my schedule. When I first started aerobic training, I did what is generally recommended and took one rest day each week. I now feel like a MAF test ride is a better "rest" than taking a day off, so I have eliminated the rest day; when I can, I ride all seven days of the week. I feel so strongly about this, I am seriously considering getting an indoor trainer so that I don't miss my ride on bad weather days.
  • I have noticed three major effects of growing old on my ability to cycle. First, it takes me longer to develop fitness. Second, overtraining is a constant risk which means that if I ride more to make up for my difficulty with gaining fitness I am very likely to slip into overtraining. Third, I feel like I loose fitness very quickly, so if I rest to recover from overtraining, I loose what little fitness I had managed to develop. With aerobic training and riding every day, I feel like I never overtrain, I am constantly building fitness, and I never have to take off time that would cause me to loose fitness. Of course, nothing is perfect. For one thing, circling Rice Track 40 times is quite boring. For another, the fitness I develop may be at a lower level than what I could develop if I rode faster and farther as I used to. Nonetheless, I feel like this training regimen is a big improvement overall.
  • Something I wish I had been warned about (and thus which I am warning you about) is that at the beginning of the program, following the the training plan as written was basically impossible. In fact, I am still not able to follow the plan exactly though I am getting closer. When I first started, my heart rate would shoot up during warm up and would not come back down during cool down. Even now, my heart rate isn't coming as far down during cool down as it should. Dr. Maffetone says that it should return to 10 to 20 BPM above your resting HR. Since my resting HR is 70 BPM, that means I should get it back down to 80 or 90 BPM which I cannot do, though I am getting closer. My advice to someone starting this kind of aerobic training is to do the best you can when you start out but not worry too much if what you do isn't perfect. Just persist and it will get better.
  • Similarly, I find it very difficult to keep my HR within the range of 130 to 140 BPM. Last Saturday was the first day since I started this regimen that I completed an entire 45 minute ride without having either the low HR or high HR alarms go off one or more times during the ride. At the beginning, they would go off on the average once per lap. This feels just like trying to back my car out of my long, narrow driveway:

    First I steer the car one way but then as I fear hitting the fence or the house, I overcorrect in the other direction until I am forced to drive back to the garage and start all over from the beginning. The same with HR, it starts to fall, I increase my effort a little too much, and after a cycle or two of that, I have an alarm. This is aggravated by a time delay in the process. I don't know how much of that delay is the time it takes my heart rate to change after a change in effort or how much is that the Garmin has a delay in reporting the heart rate, but the net result is that it is easy to overcorrect when feedback is delayed.


Dr. Maffetone developed his aerobic training regimen for young racers. However, I believe that it might be even more valuable for us older athletes and those of us not trying to ride fast but to ride long. There are almost certainly too many variables to allow me to ever be objectively certain that this regimen is better than what I had been doing, but I tentatively believe that it is, and if preparation for a 200K brevet in May goes well, I may become a true believer.