Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Randonneuring: A Slacker's Journey

Once again, the photos in this post have little to do with the text. In this picture, I am helping teach my older son (the younger one still a glimmer in my eye) how to ride a bike. As you will see in the next picture, he has gone on to become an avid cyclist and we enjoy riding together whenever we can manage it.

In my last few posts, I have been discussing the motivation problems I have been experiencing with my cycling. There are a lot of causes for these problems; my recent recognition of my limitations as a cyclist, the brutally hot Houston summer, my boredom with the limited number of routes available from where I live, and a confusion as to what I am trying to accomplish. I am still planning for a third 200K brevet1 in November, but do not have a clear idea as to how I want to prepare for it, except that I want to try something new. I ride my bike for many reasons, but for the remainder of this post, I will focus on the goal of preparing for the November brevet. The topic of this post is how I have been working around my motivation problems, the implications for a November brevet, and what I have learned over the last couple of years about training. Some of these lessons are as follows:

My older son, about 18 years later, dipping his bike in the Pacific Ocean at the conclusion of a trans-continental bike ride he completed as part of a fund raiser benefiting Habitat for Humanity.

What training plan to follow?

  • Everyone is different. We are born with different genes, we have lived our lives differently, and we are different ages. Boy oh boy does age matter! These differences have two consequences:
    1) Training can help me reach my maximum potential, but that maximum potential is what it is, not what wish it to be. By now, I pretty much know my potential, and all the training in the world will not change that. The best I can hope for is to be able to ride at my potential on occasions when want to and to stay healthy the rest of the time.
    2) The training program that works for you won't necessarily work for me.
  • Randonneuring1 is not racing. It requires endurance, not speed. It is (or at least can be) year round, so the techniques of peaking and periodization so critical for race training do not have the same applicability to randonneuring (which is not the same as saying that randonneurs have the same level of fitness throughout the year). I feel like most training plans, even when they are nominally written to prepare for a brevet, are overly influenced by the training plans produced for racers.
  • As a corollary to the above, preparing to ride a first brevet is not the same as the preparation required to be ready to ride brevets on a regular basis. The approach I used to prepare for my first two brevets were "first brevet" approaches. I am now searching for a year round approach.
  • The second training book I read was The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing. The central message of that books is that it is beneficial to spend a large fraction of one's training riding slowly, a message that my own experience strongly supports. I find that when I ride long training rides, if I reduce my speed, I get close to the same training benefits but with a lot less fatigue and a lot less risk of overtraining.
  • What's true for the training is even more true of the ride. One piece of advice I have gotten over and over again from my readers is that, when riding a brevet, I should keep my speed down. Sometimes that is easier said than done. A lot of the fun of a brevet is riding and chatting with fellow randonneurs, and so I am motivated to stay with them, even when they are riding a bit faster than I might on my own. Even so, knowing that slowing down helps has served me well. If I reach the point in a ride where I feel like I am tiring too quickly, I wave my companions a sad farewell and push on at my own, slow pace.

My younger son is faster on a bicycle than I am and is a good sport about riding with us when we ride as a family, but his heart is elsewhere, as shown in the next picture. Here is is on our 2010 family vacation, bicycling in Maine.

How much to train?

  • I have learned the hard way that there is nothing more destructive than over-training. When in doubt, train less. Once I get overtrained, it takes me weeks or months of rest to recover. Not only does that rest reset my fitness to a very low level, but those weeks or months are lost time. By comparison, if I cut back on my training prematurely, I suffer a modest reduction in fitness and lose at most a week or two.
  • Getting fit happens much more quickly than I had imagined, and for me, much more quickly than the training plans to "prepare for a first century" might suggest. Don't get me wrong, I think for a cyclist who has no experience with long rides, these plans with their 10% per week increase in distance probably are wise. It is very possible that the only reason I completed my first brevet was because I followed such a plan. However, reading the blogs of randonneurs, people who ride long rides on a fairly regular basis, I note that these folks seem to prepare for a brevet with one or two long rides, with the increase in distance from one of these rides to the next being as much as two-fold. Although it may seem like this is not enough training and that the big jumps between rides would be stressful, the advantage is that they don't tire themselves out training. Although I am just starting to experiment with such approaches, my experience so far suggests that they may work for me.

Heart Rate, Training, and Over-Training

In the end, I will find that can ride the brevets I want to ride or that I cannot. That said, it would be nice to have some indicators along the way that I was on the right track. Similarly, since it is so important that I avoid over-training, it would be nice to have indicators of chronic fatigue that would help me head that off. One obvious indicator is how I do on training rides, and this seems to be a popular one among randonneurs. An idea I see expressed fairly commonly is "I went out on a long ride to check my fitness, and found that I am ready for my next brevet." If, some weeks before my November brevet, I can complete a 90 mile training ride in relative comfort, then that suggests I am ready for a brevet, whatever came before. An indicator that I use a lot is heart rate. I have gone into a lot of detail on this topic in the past and expect to revisit it in the future, so in this post, I will just note the following:
  • If I am feeling tired and wonder if I should ride or not, and if I notice that my resting heart rate has been falling, I will use that as additional evidence that I should rest.
  • The result of a MAF test2 is expressed as "miles per hour" but really is about heart rate; it is how fast I can ride at a fixed heart rate. I find that when I am prepared for a brevet, my MAF test score is over 16 mph. I find that the only thing that will increase my MAF test score above 15 mph is long rides. However, I find one or two long rides is sufficient to increase my MAF test score.

This is my younger son's chosen sport, picking up outrageously heavy things. This photo was taken at the Collegiate National Powerlifting Championships. Although he doesn't ask me to pick up outrageously heavy things, he does suggest that it might serve me well to incorporate strength training into my routine. As it happens, virtually every cycling training programs I have looked at agrees with him. Maybe when I conquer my motivation problems with cycling, I can work on my motivation problems with strength training, followed by managing my eating and drinking habits so I can loose a superfluous 40 pounds.

Does blogging help?

I does! There are in fact three ways that blogging has helped my cycling in general and randonneuring in particular:

  • It adds to the fun. One thing builds on another, writing the blog makes me excited to ride, and when I have a fun or exciting or encouraging ride, I want to blog about it.
  • It helps me organize my thoughts, this post being an example. I have changed the conclusions of this post several times during its writing, each change reflecting a clearer understanding on my part of where, in fact, I am in my cycling.
  • I have gotten great comments from my readers, for which I am extremely grateful. Many of the ideas in this post came first from suggestions contained in such comments which I then tried out for myself and frequently found to be helpful.

What's the Plan?

For the past six to eight months, riding on the Rice University bicycle track has become a cornerstone of my cycling. Especially now that the dreaded Houston summer has arrived, a quick ride on the track first thing in the morning when it is relatively cool keeps me riding without overtaxing my motivation. My wife bicycles to work, the Rice Track is on her way, so we leave home together but at the last moment, she continues on to work while I turn off to the track. When I first started writing this post, I felt that this routine was an unfortunate compromise driven by my motivation problems. However, as I have thought things through, it is beginning to seem to me that, completely by accident, I may have hit on a good way to work towards an November brevet. This current phase of my cycling began when I restarted riding after taking off a month to recover from a failed attempt to prepare for a brevet last November. Since then, I have tried three training plans which I will refer to as Block 1, Block 2, and Block 3. In Block 1 of my training program, I rode MAF tests four or five days during the week and one or two recreational rides with my wife on the weekend. I found that my MAF test scores improved rapidly for the first six weeks of that schedule, but that that there was no additional improvement thereafter. That is not necessarily a bad thing, maintaining fitness has its own value, but I wanted to see if I could do better. Block 2 of my training replaced three of those MAF tests with one 50 mile long ride and one fast ride, a 30 minute time trial2. As noted above, the long ride has not survived the coming of summer. Nonetheless, I was able to learn from the five weeks that I completed of Block 2, and this is what I learned:

  • This schedule seemed like it was too taxing for me to sustain. I base this on subjective feelings of tiredness, falling resting heart rate, and a decline in the speed of my fast ride. The first two weeks of Block 2 caused me no problems, but fatigue seemed to build up thereafter.
  • On this plan, my MAF test scores went up and down, but the ups were over 16 mph, a high I had not otherwise been able to reach. The first of those highs came after a single week of Block 2. This suggests to me that I will need to do some long rides before November, but not very many and not long before.
  • Starting from a base where my longest ride was not much over 30 miles, a 50 mile ride was tiring but certainly not agonizing; there was never any serious doubt about finishing one of these rides. I most definitely felt like I could have ridden longer. This suggests to me that my plan of rapidly increasing the length of my training rides before the November brevet is feasible.

Block 3, which is what I am doing at present, is much more random. If I find myself feeling tired, I take a day off. Otherwise, I head out to the Rice track and depending on how I feel and what my recent schedule has been, I do one of several rides. When I am looking for an easy day, I ride a MAF test. When I am up for a hard day, I ride a 30 minute time trial. And when I get to the track and find that my new cycling buddy is there, we make an ad hoc decision as to what sounds like fun. Maybe we just ride round and round the track and chat, providing a workout harder than a MAF test but easier than a time trial. Or maybe we decide to pretend that we are still the young guys we clearly remember being and we tear around the track as fast as we can go, dividing our effort into intervals2 as suits our mood, a workout even harder than the time trial. This is what I do during the week. On the weekend, I ride with my wife. These rides are slower, usually between 12 and 13 mph, and vary in length between 17 and 35 miles. Despite being slow, I really feel these rides contributing to my fitness.

Note that Block 3 dispenses with the long ride (except what I do on the weekend with my wife) but does include a couple of fast rides. I have never had any objective evidence that such fast rides help me in the slightest. I am doing them to fight boredom and as an experiment. I figure doing two fast rides a week for several weeks in a row in the absence of any long rides should provide the best evidence to date as to their value.

None of the weekday rides I am currently doing take more than an hour and a half, warm up and cool down included. The actual time I spend on the track is sometimes as short as half an hour. How will all this short riding help me complete a 200K brevet in November? This is an experiment, of course, I cannot be certain that it will. That said, the rationale for the experiment is that my goal during this summer is to maintain a base level of fitness and as much enthusiasm as possible while remaining as well rested as I can. My wife and I plan to ride in the Tour de Pink again this year, on September 14. As we have for the last two years, we plan to ride the 63 mile route. My wife will need to prepare, and I will accompany her on all of her training rides. Some time between the 63 miles of the Tour de Pink and my Brevet on November 1, I will complete a 90 mile training ride. That will be my training, that and all the base training that I am doing now and will continue to do between now and November. Will all the fast riding I am doing help me complete that brevet? I have no idea, but I cannot imagine it will hurt. Stay tuned.


1) A brevet is a long distance challenge ride, most commonly varying in distance between 200 kilometers (200K or 124 miles) and 1200 kilometers (744 miles). The sport of completing these brevets is called randonneuring, and those of us who participate, randonneurs. The challenge is to complete the distance. There is a time limit, but it is quite generous, requiring a successful randonneur to maintain an average speed of less than 10 miles per hour, so this is about endurance, not speed.

2) A MAF test is both a training ride and a way to measure the progress of my training. It consists of a warmup ridden to slowly increase my heart rate from its resting rate to the lower end of heart rate zone 2 over at least 15 minutes. Then, I ride in zone 2 for 45 minutes, and my score is the average speed I maintain during that ride. How fast I ride is governed by my heart rate. If it goes above zone 2, I have to slow down. Zone 2 is defined as moderate exercise by the American College of Sports Medicine and is a level of effort that allows me to talk in complete sentences, but is too vigorous to allow me to sing. For me, zone 2 is a heart rate between 130 and 140 beats per minute. At the end of the ride, there is a cool down period where I ride slowly enough so that at the end of 15 minutes, my heart rate has dropped to 110 beats per minute.

   A 30 minute time trial is similar in that it is both a training ride and a measure of progress and the result is my average speed. Like a MAF test, it includes at least 15 minutes of warm up and cool down, though it is not possible to get back down to the same slow heart rate as with a MAF test. In this case, my speed is not governed by my heart rate, I ride as fast as I can maintain for 30 minutes. If I push myself as hard as I can, I will be riding near the top of zone 4, which for me is a heart rate of 160 to 165 beats per minute.

   I use the word "interval" the same way as pretty much everyone else in the exercise community; interleaved periods of riding very fast separated by periods of riding very slow to rest for the next interval. There are probably as many different interval patterns as there are cyclists, but what I have been doing is intervals of one to ten laps separated by two to four rest laps. Short intervals are ridden in heart rate zone 5. The highest heart rate I have observed to date is 181 beats per minute.

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