Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Cyclist's Training Bible

Any of you who happen to be following my blog posts in chronological order may find today's post incongruous. A few weeks ago, I reached a crisis of faith where I decided that I need to reevaluate what I am trying to accomplish in cycling and concluded that I could not plan my future training until I decide what kind of cycling I can and want to do, and here I am reviewing a book about training. Chalk it up to inertia. I ordered this book and started reading it before I suspended my training. Besides, I assume I will resume training at some point, and I hope what I learn from this book will be useful when I do. That said, this post addresses the questions of why I ordered this book in particular and to what extent it met my expectations.

Picking a coach, whether it be a personal trainer or a book author, must be based on trust. Sure, you can and should evaluate any training plan based on your personal experience with that plan, but it takes a big investment in time before you have enough results to evaluate, so you want to have a fairly high level of confidence in any routine before you try it. Based on my unscientific perusal of the web, Joe Friel seems to be one of the most highly rated, if not the most highly rated writer of training books, so right off the bat, there is reason to consider trusting his advice. Besides, I have already read two of his books and I am a regular reader of his blog, and I like what I have read. One final factor that gives me confidence in Joe Friel is his transparency, he explains why he recommends what he does. As I have previously noted, I am a card carrying member of the medical establishment, and many coaches are not. Joe Friel does reference the medical establishment on occasion but notes that the medical establishment has little to say on many of the issues of importance to athletes, a characterization I reluctantly accept. In the absence of their advice, Joe Friel bases his recommendations on years of personal experience coaching a wide range of athletes, data not at the level of a double blind clinical trial, but credible information nonetheless.

Why after reading two of Joe Friel's books (and his blog) would I want to read a third? Does it take Joe Friel three books to say what some others say on a single web page? (Joe Friel actually lists 13 books he has published on his blog.) The first of the previous two books I read was "Total Heart Rate Training" which I got after I first started using a heart rate monitor. That book answered a number of the questions that came up as I started using this tool. Regular readers of this blog know that another issue with which I struggle is the effects of aging on training, so the next of Joe Friel's books I read was "Cycling Past 50" which I found less useful. After reading it, I questioned the value of reading any more of Joe Friel's books. However, as I continued to think about training and follow Joe Friel's blog, I decided to read "The Cyclist's Training Bible" in the hope that it would pull together a lot of Joe Friel's ideas in an organized way which might help me better to understand them.

I purchased "The Cyclist's Training Bible" from Amazon, and one of the more useful features of the Amazon website are user comments. The two biggest criticisms of this book in those comments are 1) that it is focused on serious racers and thus had little to offer other kinds of cyclists and 2) that it is much too long and technical. I was recently accused by one of my readers of "way overanalyzing things." Mea Culpa! That's me. As a result of this personality, I was undaunted by the accusation of excessive technicality. On the other hand, the limited application of this book to racing cyclists is a problem for me; I currently have no expectation of ever participating in a bicycle race. What I didn't expect until I got the book is that it isn't a book on how to train, it is a reference book to provide information to help in the development of training plans. Expect to spend a lot of time and do a lot of work to go from this book to a list of training rides for next season.

Finally, I note that this book is (implicitly) targeted to younger riders (e.g. those less than 40 or 50 years old) although Chapter 14 does contain a little information on adjusting the routines for different kinds of riders, such as older riders. This last point has recently become less of an issue as Joe Friel (who himself is approaching 70 years of age) has posted a series of detailed updates for older riders organized by the various phases in Joe Friel's periodized training plan: Prep PhaseBase PhaseAdditional Comments on Base PhaseBuild PhasePeak PhaseRace Week, and Transition.) Unfortunately, these updates don't completely solve the aging issue for me as they are directed towards the athlete who has raced their entire life and do not address someone trying to (re)enter the sport beginning at an older age.

The 18 chapters, 4 appendices, and 330 large pages (the book is oversized) is a lot of material, and to use it requires a lot of effort on the part of the athlete. And yet, on November 20 of 2008, Joe Friel says on his blog: "In my Training Bible books I laid out very specific training protocols that the self-coached athlete can follow to simplify the process because they generally work at some level for everyone. But do you know how often I follow those same, exact protocols with the athletes I coach? Never. Why? Because I’ve been doing this long enough now that I am aware of lots of variations and how they might best be combined for a given athlete’s unique situation. I don’t expect the self-coached athlete with no background in sport science to understand or even see all of the alternatives any more than I would understand anything beyond basic accounting practices while my accountant could see multiple issues and solutions." So, according to Friel, this massive tome is the Cliff Notes version.

In order to provide a fair review of "The Cyclist's Training Bible", I need to acknowledge that I purchased it knowing I was not in the target audience. Later in this review I will discuss what useful in formation I have been able to obtain from this book despite being outside the target audience, but before doing that, I will pretend that I am interested in bicycle racing and assess its value based on that fiction.

Value of "The Cyclist's Training Bible" for the Bicycle Racer

Joe Friel starts this book with the following exhortation: "Talk is cheap. It's easy to have big dreams and set high goals before the racing starts. But the true test of a commitment to better racing results is not in the talking, but in the doing. It doesn't start with the first race of the season-its all the things you do today to get stronger, faster, and more enduring. Real commitment means 365 days a year and 24 hours a day." In my opinion, the potential user of this book should take these words very seriously. This defines the target audience for this book, if this is not you, you might want to look elsewhere for advice.

To evaluate this book, I went through it, making up plausible but fictitious results for the various tests in this book and then proceeded forward to develop a training plan based on those fictions. These are my reactions from having done so:

  1. My first reaction was confusion. I think some of that comes from the complexity of what the book is trying to convey, but I have the feeling it could have been organized differently to make it easier to follow.
  2. I found that it was essential to read the entire book word for word, and only then to try to develop a training plan from it.
  3. When I did, the training plan I developed seemed physically very taxing to me, I doubt that I could successfully follow it. I suspect that what this means is that at this point in my life, it is unrealistic for me to attempt bicycle racing.
  4. If I were attempting to follow this book to train for bicycle racing, I would most likely invest in a power meter (ca. $1,000.) More generally, because this book is directed towards serious bicycle racers, it makes the reasonable assumption that one should be willing to invest in this enterprise.
  5. I think many people attempting to use this book will, at some point, wonder if it doesn't make more sense to invest in a personal trainer.
  6. I think there is no doubt that I have not spent nearly enough time with this book to give it anything like a fair evaluation.

Having argued that this is a book for serious racers, I don't want to overstate that position. Friel acknowledges that most of us are not professional bicycle racers (or even coaches), that we have a job and we have a life. What his book really does to provide a model for understanding cause and effect. Given real world constraints of how much you can train, this book tells you what is the best training to do to maximize your performance, and if you are thinking about increasing or decreasing that amount of training, what the consequences of that change will likely be, not in absolute terms of course, that depends on too many factors, the particular gifts of the athlete probably most importantly, but in relative terms. I think if you are serious about bicycle racing (at whatever level), and if you are the kind of person who finds the effort of working through a complex book like this appealing, time spent with this book (and I predict it will be a lot of time spread over more than one season) will be time well spent.

What Value  "The Cyclist's Training Bible" has for Me

Given how customizable the training plans in "The Cyclist's Training Bible" are, could I customize them for a brevet rather than a race? Having considered this seriously, I have to answer, almost certainly not. There are just too many differences between the specific subset of bicycle races Joe Friel considers and brevet riding to make this possible. Just as one quick and simple example, if we equate a brevet with a race, Friel's training advice is that one's longest training ride should be as long as the race. That obviously cannot work for a 1200K brevet. Training for randonneuring by necessity requires a strategy that allows you to ride brevets that are much longer than any of your training rides.

That said, I am not sorry I purchased this book. If nothing else, I am glad to know what everyone is talking about. Given the prominence of this book, I feel like I needed to read it even if I had learned nothing useful from it. In that case, I would have been able to ignore it without concern I was missing something important. That is not the case, however. I'm not sure I have encountered anything in this book that I have not already ready somewhere else (I have been doing a lot of reading) but often what I read explained, extended or confirmed something important. As noted above, I feel like I am far from having plumbed its depths, and even so, here are some useful ideas I have picked up so far:

  1. The second training regimen I tried was that promulgated in the "The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing" by Philip Maffetone. In that book, Philip Maffetone recommends training at a rather mysterious maximum aerobic training heart rate and using an associated Maximum Aerobic Performance (MAF) test. To my delight, Joe Friel also uses the term maximum aerobic heart rate which appears to be the same thing, and as I had inferred, it corresponds to heart rate zone 2. Further, he validates the use of a test which turns out to be the same thing as a MAF test. This confirmation dramatically increases my confidence in this approach.
  2. In the chapter on keeping a training diary, Friel suggests you track "morning warnings"; such as your subjective estimation of the quality of your night's sleep and changes in your heart rate before getting up. This tracks closely with suggestions made to me by a reader, Iron Rider. Besides confirming the value of this approach (which I am now trying to use), Friel suggests some refinements that might make it a more reliable indicator.
  3. Similarly, Friel argues that it is almost always a mistake to train if your legs feel tired. I had suspected this was true, but having that confirmed will give me more confidence that I am not being lazy when I moderate my training as a result.
  4. Friel argues that it takes 3 to 7 years to determine a rider's potential. Riders who start out having poor performance and/or poor response to training sometimes end up being the best riders in the long run. I don't know if that applies to someone as old as I am, but it is something to consider.
  5. Because of my personality and my schedule, I tend to ride by myself rather than with a club. It was gratifying to have Friel state that riding alone provides, in most cases, a better training experience.
  6. In comments back and forth between me and Iron Rider, the issue of how to estimate the difficulty of a training routine arose. Friel opines that the best way to estimate that (which he strongly recommends one records) is by cumulative workload, which can best be estimated using a power meter and sophisticated software (which I do not have) but also can be estimated subjectively. This is something I hope to try going forward to get a better handle on regulating my training.
  7. Although Friel validates the MAF test, he notes that, as I have observed, its results can be highly variable due to environmental and other factors, and that this variability can hide the training effects you are testing for. His solution is, once again, a power meter and sophisticated software. Whether or not it makes sense for me to invest in these tools, the confirmation that the variability I observe is to be expected is very useful to know.
  8. Many coaches, including Friel, recommend weight training as a component of a training plan. That said, it was interesting to me when Friel wrote "If you only have a few hours to train each week...weight workouts are the first ones to omit." I probably will run out of will power before I run out of time, but it is still useful to know how to prioritize.
I have been doing a lot of reading lately, "The Cyclist's Training Bible" being just one book of several. I am trying to create a mental model of the reality of training that I can use to understand my limitations and how I can work around them so I can continue to enjoy the benefits of cycling. In that context, I feel like the time (and money) invested in the "Training Bible" has been well spent.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Cycling Skyline Drive

My son and I ready to depart for our ride

Although I retired from my biomedical informatics faculty position at a local medical school two years ago, I still try to keep my hand in by running my consulting company and by volunteering in my specialty. To that end, I spent last week at the headquarters of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists in Alexandria, Virginia, as part of the advisory board for a major new software product they are developing, CancerLinQ. Alexandria is in the Washington DC area where my son and daughter-in-law live, so I imposed on their hospitality and stayed over an extra day. For years, my son has been wanting to show me one of his favorite bicycle rides, Skyline Drive, and so he took a day off of work and we spent it riding together. My daughter-in-law did not have the luxury of ditching work so I was able to borrow her bike. I got to their apartment the afternoon before the ride, and my son had left a book out for me to look at: "Bicycling the Blue Ridge: A Guide to the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway." This book describes these two connected roads, which together span the length of Shenandoah National Park, as the perfect cycling road. The next morning, we drove the hour and a half to the beginning of Skyline Drive and rode what is probably the hardest 40 miles I have ridden since restarting cycling in 2008.

What made this ride so difficult for an aging Houstonian like me were the hills. Though not of the scale of the Rocky Mountains or the Sierra Nevadas, Shenandoah National Park lies in the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachians, which sports some impressive climbs of its own, devastating coming from the flatlands of Houston and well beyond anything I have ridden in Texas. This is despite the fact that we cheated a little by driving up the first big climb before starting. The two red arrows on the diagram below indicate where we started our ride (on the left) and where we turned around to return to our start:

The highest elevation of our ride (the green peak between the red arrows) was Hogback Overlook at 3385 feet. We initially were mislead by some confusing signage (picture of my son), but eventually found the true high point (picture of me.)

Not everyone agrees with the sanguine assessment of "Bicycling the Blue Ridge", some find the winding narrow road, absence of shoulders, and distracted drivers intimidating. The saving grace is that this is a scenic road in a national park, the speed limit is 35 miles per hour, and drivers are told to be alert for cyclists. On the other hand, although Virginia state law explicitly allows bicycles to ride two abreast when conditions warrant, park rules do not; we were stopped by a ranger and given a written warning for doing so. This is a picture of what the roads looked like:

On the east coast, the turning of the leaves in the fall is quite spectacular and in some places the time of peak foliage is the biggest tourist draw of the year. We were just past peak foliage in the park, but it was still quite spectacular in the valleys visible from the road. Had we been riding on the weekend, the traffic might have made our ride most unpleasant. As it was, we had a relatively quiet ride whilst still being able to view the foliage:

For another take on this ride, there is a great ride report on the bicycle touring website Crazy Guy on a Bike. This is a terrific website, by the way, if you have any interest in bicycle touring.

For some time, my son has been trying to talk me out of randonneuring, at least at the level of rides like Paris-Brest-Paris. My son and daughter-in-law both expressed concern at my recent exhaustion, and suggested I take a break from training. Originally, I had been planning a 200K brevet for the weekend after this ride. The brevet had been on my calendar for quite some time, but when the trip to DC came up and my son suggested this ride I had thought about doing both. I realized this would be challenging and after some soul searching realized that a ride with my son was more important to me than a brevet, that I would do this ride and then if I was too tired for the brevet, so be it. Of course, I abandoned the brevet well before this ride, so the question was moot. Perhaps somewhere in this story is a clue as to what my cycling career should look like going forward.

MAF Test Results

For those new to this blog, each week I had been posting an update of my training results as measured by a MAF test; see my previous posts for explanations of my aerobic training program, MAF tests, and the graph I had been posting. As of today, I am suspending posting of these results. As I noted in my last post, I am currently unsure of the goal of my training and until I resolve that, cannot design a training program and do not know what role, if any, MAF tests should play.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Training for a Failed Brevet

In my last post, I reported that I was unable to complete the training for a 200K brevet in November of this year. That result was unexpected and affects how I think about my training. In this post, I will discuss the training I did leading up to that failure, explain why I think the explanation of that failure does not lie in the details of my training, and the implications of that failure for my cycling going forward.

I am very interesting in training and get new ideas from books, websites, and the comments I get on this blog. One series of comments that was particularly interesting was from a reader identified as "Iron Rider." Iron Rider uses and champions a training program he developed called "Recovery Based Training." His program is based on the premises that it is best to train when fully recovered and that being fully recovered is associated with a lower resting heart rate. Key to this program is figuring out how to reliably measure your lowest heart rate each day.

Iron Rider had two suggestions for me:
  1. Figure out how to measure a true resting heart rate and to train hard only on days when that was not elevated (recovery based training).
  2. Looking at my training plan, he wondered if one of my standard rides, the MAF test, was a harder ride than I thought. I do this ride at a heart rate of 130 to 140 beats per minute, which Iron Rider noted would be expected to be at the high end of the aerobic range for a man my age. 
I considered Iron Rider's points very seriously, and to address them I did three things:

1) Based on Iron Rider's suggestion that I was training too hard, and on comparison of various training programs, I changed my training program from what I had been doing, which is rather unconventional, to a more conventional program, one I believed would be less stressful. The table below diagrams my training:

To the left of the table are the dates of the first day of each week. Across the top of the table are the days of the week. To the right of the table is summary data for the week; number of rides taken that week and the total number of miles ridden. Within each cell I indicate what ride was done that day. (A white cell means no ride.) This table has been normalized to move rides within a week so that all long rides are shown on Friday and most or all brisk rides are shown on Wednesday, etc. independent of when that ride was actually done, to make the table easier to look at. The number in each cell of the table is the length of that ride in miles. The color code, shown below, indicates the kind of ride each ride was. MAF Tests are ridden wearing a heart rate monitor and kept strictly within Zone 2. Brisk Rides are often intervals with the fast part of the interval being ridden in Zone 5. Long Rides are typically ridden without a heart rate monitor but, based on perceived effort and spot tests with a heart rate monitor, are mostly ridden in Zone 2. Similarly, Pace Rides are ridden mostly in Zone 2 and Zone 3. Based on perceived effort, easy rides are ridden in Zone 1. The red line across the table between 8/12 and 8/19 indicates when I changed my training program. Comparing the two programs, the first is similar to what I used to prepare for my brevet on May 18 and the second is a more conventional program. The new training program adds brisk rides but  involves fewer miles per week. All training programs I have tried include one long ride each week that gradually gets longer as I approach a brevet, reaching a maximum of 90 miles. Thus, for all programs (including this new one) the number of miles varies significantly week to week, but for any given length of long ride, the weekly total will be less in my new program.

To be clear, Iron Rider did not recommend my new training program, he only suggested that riding three or four MAF tests in a row might be too much. Arguably, the logic for changing my training program was premature at best. In fact, a case could be made that this change is responsible for my inability to prepare for a November brevet; that the training program that came before was similar to the one that successfully prepared me for a brevet in May, and that I should have stuck with what worked. I do not believe that is the case, however. Whether the new or the old training program is better I cannot say, but I find it implausible that the new one was so much worse as to make the difference between success and failure. In addition, there were other differences between my training for my May brevet and my training for my November brevet. The training program to prepare for the May brevet began six months after the previous brevet, for the November brevet one week after the previous brevet. The training program for the May brevet began after a one month break from training followed by base training, that for the November brevet started immediately with base training. I think it is much more likely that these two differences are responsible for the different results than how many MAF tests I rode each week or whether or not I included a brisk ride.

2) I figured out how to measure my true resting heart rate. In the graph below, the values in blue are the heart rate measure when I measure when I take my blood pressure. This is done after dressing and walking down stairs. The red values are my heart rate measured before getting out of bed. The red values are lower and more consistent. If I measure my blood pressure two or three times in a row, the values for my heart rate often vary by five or more beats per minute. If I measure my resting heart rate two or three times in a row, the values agree within a beat or two. Thus, I believe the red values represent my true resting heart rate.

In the graph above, the four red arrows at the bottom of the graph represent the last four successful "long" rides I completed. The week after the successful 80 mile ride, I felt very tired and I took a week off. The following week I felt even more tired but I attempted a 90 mile ride anyway. At the end of 37 miles I felt utterly drained and abandoned the ride and thus my plans for a November brevet. The missed ride and the unsuccessful ride are marked by black arrows. The first thing I note is that there is no simple pattern to my resting heart rate, it goes up and down quite dramatically day to day. However, as I continue to look at the data, I see a hint of a multi-day pattern. As I reach my subjective exhaustion, it looks like my resting heart rate, if anything, is reduced on average, not elevated. The thin black lines are a least squares trend line fitted to the true resting heart rate (red) and blood pressure heart rate (blue.) I now think the blood pressure heart rate, which neither increased nor declined, is not useful, and do not expect to be discussing it in the future. The true resting heart rate, though not as easily interpretable as I had hoped, does seem to have some consistency:
  1. Statistically, over the course of the time I have been measuring it, during which I experienced exhaustion and overtraining, it declined. 
  2. Perhaps more interesting, the six days that my resting heart rate was less than 60 beats per minute all occurred after my 72 mile long ride, five after the 80 mile ride. 
Assuming the decrease in resting heart rate is real, not a statistical coincidence, the surprising fact is that in contrast to the increase in resting heart rate predicted by Iron Rider, I am experiencing a decrease in resting heart rate in response to over-training. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised. As I previously posted, Joe Friel claims that, for young riders, over-training is indicated by an increase in resting heart rate, whereas in old riders (me), it is indicated by a decrease. I plan to continue to collect my resting heart rate, looking to see if a decrease in this rate might prove to be a useful warning sign of over-training.

One confounding variable affecting my resting heart rate is not shown on the graph above. On occasion, I have been known to enjoy a wee dram with my wife in the evening after dinner. On the following mornings, my resting heart rate is often significantly increased. At first, I was afraid this was suggesting I needed to give up this indulgence. However, since I am now thinking that a decrease in resting heart rate is bad and an increase is good, perhaps this is saying the opposite? I don't really believe that, common sense tells me that alcoholic beverages should be an infrequent indulgence, but I find the result amusing nonetheless.

3) Iron Rider wondered if my MAF Test rides (indicated in purple) were more difficult than I realized. If so, doing two or three of them in a row, as I had been doing, might produce too much stress. This hinges on what heart rate zone these rides are being ridden in, at the low end of aerobic training as I had supposed, or at the high end of aerobic as Iron Rider suggested. Heart rate zones can be defined relative to one's heart rate at lactate threshold, so in order to answer this question, I directly measured my lactate threshold heart rate. I did so using a procedure given by Joe Friel in "Total Heart Rate Training"; I completed a 30 minute time trial by riding as fast as I could for 30 minutes. For the last 20 minutes of that ride, I measured my average heart rate. The notion is that, for the first 10 minutes, it is possible to ride anaerobically, at a faster speed than can be supported by the rate that oxygen can be delivered to the muscles, but thereafter, it is not possible to ride anaerobically. The line between aerobic and anaerobic exercise is referred to as the lactate threshold because anaerobic exercise by necessity generates excess lactate. It is possible for this technique to underestimate the heart rate at lactate threshold if the rider (me) does not go "all out" during the time trial, but it is not possible to overestimate that heart rate. Long story short, I measured my heart rate at lactate threshold, it was 160 beats per minute as I expected, and thus my heart rate zones are what I thought they were; my MAF test rides are ridden in Zone 2, at the low end of the aerobic range.

Besides being a training ride, my MAF test rides are a metric to monitor training. When I started collecting MAF test results almost a year ago, something I hoped to get out of doing so was an indicator of overtraining. If training is going well, the speed ridden during a MAF test is expected to increase month by month. If the speed ridden during a MAF test fails to increase or even declines, that is supposed to be an indicator of overtraining. I have been posting the results of my MAF test results each week, and here is the data to date:

The blue dots (connected by blue lines) represents the results in miles per hour for a 45 minute ride on a closed track at a heart rate of 130 to 140 beats per second. The thinner red lines represent my "eyeball" fit (interpretation) of the data. The red arrow indicates the day of my May 18th brevet. My interpretation of this graph is that my training worked from when I started Philip Maffetone's aerobic training plan in December of 2012 up through my May, 2013 brevet, but that brevet pushed me into overtraining (a conclusion supported by my subjective feelings) from which I never recovered. At first I thought my lack of improvement was due to the absence of longer rides during the recovery period after my brevet. When I restarted long rides and my results still didn't improve, I concluded that I was stuck in an overtrained condition.


My current belief is that changes in my day to day training plan probably had little impact on my ability to prepare for a November brevet. My best guess as to the reason I was unable to prepare for that brevet is that I didn't recovered adequately from my brevet the previous May. What it would have taken to recover remains to be determined. I cannot, however, think of any plausible training plan that would have insured I could have ridden a second brevet in 2013.

So where does that leave me?
  1. I no longer think it is possible I can ride Paris-Brest-Paris in 2015.
  2. I no longer think it is possible for me to complete a Super-Brevet series of 200K, 300K, 400K, and 600K brevets in 2014.
  3. I think it is extremely unlikely to impossible that I would be able to complete a 200K brevet by January of 2014 (the first step in the above series.)
  4. I think there is every reason to expect that I could complete a 200K brevet in May of 2014, but it is very unclear how long it would take me to be ready for a brevet after that; it could be up to another year.
  5. I don't have a lot of evidence that any of the above will change. It is very possible that opportunities for training to improve my randonneuring capabilities are limited at the same time as the sands of time are irrevocably reducing my abilities; this year could be the high point of my career as a randonneur.
Is one 200K brevet a year enough to keep me involved in randonneuring? Is there any chance I will ever be able to do significantly more than that? What alternatives to randonneuring do I have as a cyclist? I recently started reading Joe Friel's "The Cyclist's Training Bible" (which I will review in a future post) and that book talks a lot about plans and goals, the connection between them, and the distinction between goals that are too easy, unrealistically hard, and just right. Up until now, all my training plans have been based on a goal of completing a 1200K brevet as some point in the future or at least being able to regularly participate in brevets of various lengths. If that goal is unrealistic, I need to establish new goals before I can develop a new training plan or evaluate the one I have. Stay tuned.