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.


  1. training for a 125 mile ride you should do 50 mile rides consistantly. as in three 50 mile or longer rides a week. the old adage; you can ride 2.5 times farther than you are normaly riding; rings true in this case.


  2. Thanks, r2. I have never come across that rule of thumb. Do you know where it comes from?

  3. I think you are way overanalyzing things. Almost anybody can complete a 200 or 300k brevet--just keep the pace slow and steady, and eat way more than you think you should. My Rando breakthrough came when, on the advice of an experienced rider, I started eating something every hour on the hour. I didn't get faster, but I could keep riding for ever.
    As far as training goes, when I have time for long rides, I ride long rides at a comfortable pace. When I don't (much more often), I ride for an hour or so and make it as intense as possible.
    And, doing a brevet is much easier than training miles. Even if you end up by yourself off the back, as I often do, the breaks at controls keep spirits up, and breaks up the monotony. Especially if there are friendly volunteers. Even chatting with a convenience store clerk for a moment or two helps.

  4. Experience! My LBS guys told me long ago.