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.

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