Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why Train?

[My apologies that this post is so late. For a variety of reasons, this post was more difficult to compose than I had expected, and thus took longer to write.]

This is my bike, equipped for the 200K brevet on May 18, in a sea of Texas wildflowers. I am scattering some pictures from recent rides through this post in an attempt to leven this mountain of words.

I am a huge fan of humor. Besides its entertainment value, I believe humor also has the very serious purpose of allowing the communication of subtle, complex, or subversive ideas that would be difficult  to otherwise get across. One of my favorite humorists is Bike Snob, and I have been squirming for the last several weeks as he has been poking fun at the foolishness of training at the same time I have been writing post after post about my training regimen.

Bike Snob pokes fun at training because (if I understand him correctly) it reflects an unrealistic pretense on the part of amateur bicycle racers. They see themselves as somehow equivalent to Bradley Wiggins and thus expect to receive the respect and perks of Bradley Wiggins just so long as they have all the right equipment and keep up with the latest, most sadistic training regimen.  Bike Snob's contention is that we should ride because it is practical and because it is fun, and that we should attribute no virtue to ourselves nor expect any special treatment for thus looking out for our own self interest. Training, according to him, is neither fun nor practical, and thus is an appropriate target for ridicule. (Note how all the insight, subtlety, and fun of Bike Snob's telling gets lost in my humorless rendition.)

Trees with bizarre blue-painted trunks along Buffalo Bayou. Is this some kind of disease preventative or other treatment? Is it somebody's questionable attempt at decoration? I have no idea.

At present, I am not doing much practical cycling so my reasons for riding are for fun and to improve my health, a reason not considered by Bike Snob (though one that is also self serving). For the purpose of health, it is important I ride regularly. What I currently find fun about cycling is long rides in the country, and, let's be honest, a certain competitive sense of progress. If I can complete a 200 mile ride this year when I could only complete a 100 mile ride last year, that's fun! Thus, to my eye, training is not an unrealistic pretention, but an investment in the future, sort of like saving money for a vacation. In short, by having a regular training program, I make sure I ride regularly for my health, make it possible to do longer, more interesting rides, and develop a satisfying sense of progress.

A few weeks ago, my long training ride was 62 miles. Because my wife had the car, I rode it from home and got up to the required distance by stringing together a bunch of my standard rides. This part of the ride, one of the prettiest, is along Heights Boulevard. Every time I ride by this sign, I am intrigued. Given that my Dad spent his entire career as an employee of Ma Bell, maybe I should take the time to go into this museum some day.

My current training is directed towards completing a 200K (124 mile) brevet on May 18. My recent training has been dominated by the ideas of Dr. Phil Maffetone. Central to Dr. Maffetone's program (though certainly not unique to him) is training at a fixed, relatively low heart rate. The idea is that this program favors endurance by developing slow twitch muscle fibers and their infrastructure. The core of this program is both a training ride and a metric to determine if that ride is working as it should, a Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) test. When I began riding MAF tests in December of last year, they were so easy to complete, that despite Dr. Maffetone's reassurances, I found it difficult to believe they were actually improving my fitness. As Dr. Maffetone predicted, my speed on these rides gradually increased and as a result, the rides have become more taxing. While these rides certainly do not yet push me to the limit (I could ride faster), I now find them an effort that leaves me tired, a tiredness from which I need to recover. The jury is still out on the success of that program, but I remain guardedly optimistic.

Why is the jury still out on the Maffetone training program? One of the attractions of Dr. Maffetone's program that it has its own built-in metric for success. The training rides in this program consist of riding for 45 minutes while keeping my heart rate between 130 to 140 beats per minute. If the program is successful, the distance I can ride in that 45 minutes (my average speed) should gradually increase. Each week (this week included), I have been reporting the results of my MAF tests at the end of each post, and the fact that my speed is improving over time is no longer in doubt. I have been using Microsoft Excel to plot my MAF Test results and to fit a line to those results, but a weakness in Excel is that it cannot provide an estimate of how sure I can be of that line. I have been wanting to become more familiar with the statistics/programming language named "r" for some time, so I fed my MAF test data into r, figured out how to use its "lm" function to do the same line fit as I have been doing in Excel, and gratifyingly, r fit the same line to my data as Excel had. Even more gratifyingly, r unlike Excel was able to tell me that there is less than one chance in a million that my apparent improvement in speed is due to chance variation. The reason the jury is still out, even though the Maffetone program is working as promised, is that the Maffetone program's built-in metric provides no evidence that my ability to ride a 200K brevet will be improved. Such a brevet, unlike a MAF Test, takes 12 hours not 45 minutes and is ridden not at a fixed heart rate but at whatever heart rate happens. In short, the Maffetone program might be the wrong training program for a randonneur. Although I don't expect to ever be certain if it is or if it isn't a useful program for a randonneur, based on how this cycle of preparation for my May 18 brevet works out, I hope to be able to make a good guess.

Texas Bluebonnets. "Please Do Not Pick Wildflowers"

MAF Tests are only one part of a training program; a foundation that (if they succeed) will allow me to complete more focused and difficult training rides rides with less stress and thus greater effectiveness. This larger training program consists of MAF tests, some parts of last year's training that seemed to have worked well, and some new ideas, most of which have come from Joe Friel. The major idea I am carrying forward from last year is a weekly long training ride starting at 40 miles long the first week and increasing 10% per week until they reach 90 miles long a couple of weeks before the brevet on May 18. For the remainder of this post, I will describe the new ideas Joe Friel has brought to my training program:
  1. Training seven days a week, as I had initially planned, is too often. According to Joe Friel, training 4 days a week provides close to maximum training benefit. As is more specifically recommended by Friel, my current routine includes a rest day both before and after my weekly long ride. Here is the training I have done so for and what I am projecting for the remainder of my build phase:
    Record of my training schedule starting in March leading up to a 200K (124 mile) brevet in May. The numbers are the length of the ride in miles. Rides on a purple background are MAF tests. Rides on yellow are long training rides ridden as quickly as is comfortable without regard to heart rate. Long rides are not always done on Wednesday, but I have "normalized" the schedule by moving rides around a bit to make the schedule more readable. Rides on green are social rides, ridden at whatever speed my wife wishes to ride. Numbers in black are completed rides. In the case of long rides, the adjacent number in parentheses is the distance I was scheduled to ride that week. Numbers in grey and in italics are planned rides. I plan to do some easy rides on the days before the 124 mile (200K) brevet but have not yet decided what they should be so they are not shown on the schedule.
  2. An important part of performing a MAF test correctly is knowing at what heart rate these tests should be ridden. Joe Friel provides two different ways of determining that heart rate zone, one based on the easily measured heart rate at lactate threshold, and a second based on the relationship between subjective levels of exertion and heart rate zones. Using these two together, I was able to confirm that the 130 to 140 beats per minute I am using, much higher than expected for a man my age, is in fact the correct heart rate zone for my MAF test rides.
  3. Adjusting training in response to how my body is responding is an essential part of any training program. Joe Friel introduced me to the concept of decoupling; an increase in heart rate not accompanied by an increase in effort. Decoupling is a sign of lack of fitness. More specifically, Friel noted that this can occur in the middle of a long ride as an indication that the ride is longer than the rider is trained for. This has provided me a valuable indicator of my training status. I have not worn a heart rate monitor on my recent long rides, I find the reporting of heart rate is distracting and disrupts the focus I need to finish a difficult ride and I find its chest strap uncomfortable. However, I did wear it for some of the earlier rides, and they confirmed that as I increase the length of my rides, I see decoupling at the end of each ride, but each week I can go longer before decoupling occurs, precisely the desired effect.
  4. As I previously posted, Friel introduced me to the notion that the symptoms of overtraining are different for younger and older riders. Many unconscious bodily functions, including heart rate, are regulated by a balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. According to Friel, overtraining in younger riders (which are the targets of most studies) tends to be manifest as a perturbation of the sympathetic system, whereas overtraining in older riders tends to be manifest as a perturbation of the parasympathetic system. Because many of the effects of these two systems are opposite, this can be confusing for an old guy like me! I have extracted this data into a table:
    In the first few rows, I align symptoms that are more or less opposite in younger and older athletes, in the next few rows, I list symptoms unique to younger riders, and in the last few rows, those unique to older riders.
    One of the most discouraging things about this table is that many of the symptoms of overtraining in an older rider like me (e.g. decreased heart rates) are identical to the effects of proper training! Some of the others (e.g. decreased lactate) are not possible for me to measure. Pretty much the only useful signs I have of overtraining is feeling tired all the time and being depressed. I did look at my blood pressure and heart rate over my last training cycle, beginning in December, at they have been pretty steady:

    The upper panel show my heart rate, measured first thing in the morning over the last 4 months, and the lower panel my systolic and diastolic blood pressure. To my eye, they are not changing.

Future Topics

In "Cycling Past 50", Joe Friel provides a training program to prepare for a 100 mile ride. That program does not increase mileage each week the way mine does, but rather increases for three weeks and then decreases the length of the long ride. The results is that it takes much longer to prepare for a 100 mile ride, but Friel opines that not including the decreases leads to overtraining and a failure to build long term endurance. I did not have the time to try this idea for this training cycle, but I certainly would like to consider it for the future.

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