Sunday, September 30, 2012

Improved Sleeping – Getting Started

I've mentioned on a few occasions that I’d like to be a better sleeper. Most of us can tell that our performance is better when we are well rested. If I work out on a Friday afternoon, it’s probably not as good as the same workout would be on a Monday morning.

In order to know where I need improvement, I needed to know how bad a sleeper I really am. To me, the best way to learn about this was with a Zeo Personal Sleep Manager. This is an alarm clock, but not any ordinary one. With its wireless headband, it actually measures and records your brainwaves during sleep to determine what kind of sleep you got and how much.

If you want the really fine details, you should read this post on DC Rainmaker. You should read his blog any way, but this is specific to the Zeo.

Got all that? Good.

Zeo is more than just a system to measure your sleep. Included with the purchase of the machine is a sleep coaching program that evaluates your data and, along with your answers to some questions, recommends a plan that will help with overall improvement.

My first steps, involved just understanding what a typical night looked like for me. Here are the results from my first night with the machine:

As you can see, there are two elements to restorative sleep: Deep and REM.

As most people know, REM or rapid eye movement is generally the state in which dreams occur. It is also the period of mental restorative sleep. Deep sleep is the period for physical restorative sleep.

Research available through the Zeo website indicates that adults will experience between 30 minutes and 2 hours of deep sleep a night. I seem to fall in the middle of that grouping (the results above are typical of most of my nights). I had wondered if I might need and therefore experience more deep sleep as a result of training. Since I didn’t get the system until after triathlon season ended for me, I don’t really think I have the answer yet. Logic would suggest I’d be in need of more restorative sleep during a longer or more intense training week.

REM, on the other hand is something that is needed pretty much everyday. To varying degrees, I’m in a profession that requires a fair amount of brain usage so it didn’t surprise me that I was getting around 3 hours a night of REM sleep.

As far as total sleep, I seem to be averaging around 7 hours, 45 minutes on weeknights (Sunday – Thursday) and 8 hours, 28 minutes on weekend nights (Friday and Saturday).

Overall, none of this would suggest I’m a bad sleeper, but I’m still struggling with waking up in the morning. This will become more of an issue when I start swimming early in the morning later on in the winter. More than once, I skipped my workout to sleep more. That’s enjoyable, but it doesn’t really help me prepare for an upcoming season!

I’m still working on that one, but in the meantime, I’m also following the coaching the Zeo site is giving me. For example, I’m trying to limit caffeinated beverages after 3:00 pm. I’m also seeking to reduce the amount of bright light I’m exposed to during the last hour before going to bed. Both seem to be having a positive effect.

This is an ongoing process so I’ll post from time to time on my progress and any other nuggets of information I gather.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Components of an Off Season Training Plan

Just over a month after my last Tri and, at soonest, still 29 weeks until my next, I’m already thinking about 2013 in its entirety. What can I say? I’m a planner. In fact, I’m a pretty good planner. To be so, you have to follow some basic rules:

The Rules of Good Planning

1)      Be flexible. Field Marshal von Moltke first said it and it’s true for lots of things outside of the military world; no plan survives first contact with the enemy.
2)      Use past experience as a guide, but don’t expect years to be identical. I’m only getting older and the fact is that I’ll eventually not be able to do some of what I set out to do.
3)      Be ready for multiple drafts. Even before I begin its execution, I’ll go back in and re-write whole sections of the plan. This is particularly true as it pertains to training for 70.3 events.
4)      Picking races is like going through the all-you-can-eat buffet. Everything looks good when you are in line, but actually competing in and completing them is another story all together—to say nothing of training for them.
5)      A training plan should be joined at the hip to a training log. In fact, in my case, they are one in the same document separated only by tabs on a spreadsheet.

Alternating Long Weeks

I don’t recall whose plan it was that recommended this, but I’ve adopted the strategy as my own. Just like the sequence of a race, I start with the swim, followed the next week by the bike and finally by the run. It keeps things mixed up and interesting and also gives different muscles a break.

That’s not to say that I don’t do all three sports each week, but just one gets my extra focus. I also seek to avoid two-a-days. They have their place, but there’s not much reason for it when my main goal is laying down a base.

Heart Rate Zone I

I mentioned last year that much of my strategy for off-season training was based on the things I learned in the book Heart Rate Training by Roy Benson and Declan Connolly:

 Their strategy involves the classic pyramid approach but with far more information than I had regarding heart rate and the energy systems the body employees at each rate. Different schools of thought set up between four and five zones for heart rate, but the four they use work well with the pyramid:

If you want to know about all of them in detail, I suggest reading the book. For the time being, my focus is on Endurance. That’s distinct from Stamina in that Endurance refers to how long you can keep going, without consideration to speed, whereas Stamina refers to how long you can maintain at a specified pace.

Endurance training is nearly 100% aerobic which means using fats rather than carbs (in the form of glycogen) as fuel. Your endurance heart rate, Zone I, is about 60% - 75% of your Max Heart Rate (MHR).

This means slowing way down on runs and rides and going a little slower in the pool. There’s not a good way to get your HR in the water without buying additional equipment which I’m trying to avoid. But since the HR strap works just fine on the bike or on foot, I keep a close eye on it when training.

Each week, I’ll be adding more time to my long workout, whatever it may be at that time. The goal on the run, for example, would be to eventually be doing long runs that would be at or near the time involved for a slow full marathon.

Doing this is harder than it seems. I found myself going at painfully slow speeds when I started out last year. My ego kept insisting that I looked like a slow poke out on my training routes, but I knew that it was serving a greater purpose.

Time vs. Distance

Distance is not a factor in my off-season plan. I do everything for specific time periods. For the purpose of tracking everything, I record how far I swam/rode/ran after I’m done, but the plan simply calls for X minutes at a particular activity.

This is nice in that I know more or less how long I’ll be training each week. It also ensures that I can’t just go faster to complete a workout. An hour is an hour whether that’s 6 or 6.5 miles, it’s not going to go by any faster. Using my Garmin Connect account, I’ll set my goals around how many hours of each activity I’m aiming for each month.

MHR Testing

Since all of this is predicated on knowing your maximum heart rate, you need to test it. The formulaic approach is 220 – Age = MHR. That’s pretty weak however and not suitable for a serious endurance athlete.

After spending the rest of the week resting and recovering from last Saturday’s adventures, I’ll be heading to the track this weekend to see just how fast I can get my heart going before it plateaus. Last year that was 171 beats per minute. I’ll be interested to see if I get a similar result.

More on the test after it happens.

In the mean time, if you're interested in the plan I have for the off-season, I've put it on Google Drive here

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Race Report: 2012 Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon

My anticipation for this year's Rock & Roll has been growing for a long time. One reason is the time that has passed since my last race. The Rattlesnake Tri was five weeks ago, though it feels like much longer. I've also had this one mentally circled as a "goal" race since early in the summer. With all of that time, today's race really could not get here soon enough for me.

My confidence in my ability to run the distance was bolstered after last year's race which I completed in 2:06:53, a PR. Considering I had done previously done the course twice before in my 30's, setting a new record at 42 felt pretty damn good!

Since then, however, I've struggled a little bit at the distance. Last December, I ran the Rock Canyon Half Marathon in Pueblo. I had no illusions about doing that one in PR time. It was a snowy windy day and a course I really didn't know. However, despite being on pace for a 2:07 goal for most of the race, I hit the wall in the last 2.5 or so. Truthfully, I was glad to finish.

Four and a half months later I was in Fort Collins for the Horsetooth Half Marathon. This time I thought I might PR. I had been training well all winter long and we were blessed with a nice running day. Indeed, I felt pretty good even after climbing the big hills at the front of that course, but alas, one last big hill, a stiff breeze and very sore muscles pushed me down below that goal as well.

When I did HITS in July, just completing that hot, exhausting and utterly difficult course was enough. I'm not a strong enough runner that I would ever hope to run the third stage of a 70.3 at record pace.

All of that brings me to today, the fifth time I've run 13.1 in the span of a year (last year's race was on October 9). Despite my struggles with the half mary, I've had a better year running. With that in mind, I aimed to complete the race in under 2:00.

As suggested by the race organizers, I picked up my packet at the expo on Thursday, leaving Friday for the out-of-towners. Apologies in advance for the camera work. I'm shooting with a new phone and am--obviously--still getting used to the camera.

Competitor Group is very proud of this series. And they reflect it in their pricing:

I registered early and saved a whopping $20 of that price. As I recall, when I did the Rock & Roll San Diego in 2006, the cost was about half of that $195. Ouch.

To their credit, they got us through packet pick-up with ease. Not that it should be hard, but I was through the pick-up section in something under five minutes and then out onto the expo floor.

I've been to so many of these things that I don't really find them all that interesting anymore. Maybe I'm just getting old, but getting a free granola bar just doesn't hold the same thrill it used to. What's more, most of the stuff there is for sale rather than for free. Sports Authority, the marquee sponsor of the Denver event actually sets up a store inside the expo. Here's a blurry (sorry) picture of that.

If actually R&R merchandise is more your thing, you can get that as well. You can even try on clothing in one of these "dressing rooms":

I really hope that they were never used for anything else prior to serving their purpose here.

I think I made it for a whole 15 minutes before hitting the road back home. Outside, I felt compelled to take a picture of the giant blue bear peeking in the window of the convention center. Why? It's a giant blue bear peeking in a window!

Then it was time to wait for race morning. For me that started at 5:30 this morning and it was pitch dark outside. It was also cool and would stay that way for the rest of the morning. Having done so much training on hot summer afternoons, I was especially appreciative of this fact.

No doubt, part of the cost of this event is the downtown venue. This includes the benefit of having the staging area, including the start and finish lines in Civic Center Park.

The gear check is still part of the deal as well so soon after arriving I checked my bag with post race clothing, etc. and was ready to kill some time before getting to my start corral.

It's a this point that I feel compelled to say something about starting in the right place. Though no doubt you, friendly reader, already know this. You don't help yourself and only mess with the race of fellow athletes by either signing up for the wrong time or just not starting with your assigned group. I spent much of the first mile dodging and weaving around people who were walking or were clearly not ready to run a race in the 2:05 time assigned to our group. That's right, my goal was 2:00 but I signed up for 5 minutes slower out of respect. If I catch you after mile 6, fine, you just weren't having the day. But you, the jerk walking right next to the corner I'm trying to tangent, you're a disrespectful, clueless idiot and you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Whew! I feel better now.

Running through downtown Denver is indeed a unique experience. It's part of what makes this race so special and part of why I'm willing to fork over my hard-earned cash for it. That doesn't mean it isn't without some hazards. Downtown streets are still covered with cracks, bumps, dips and other obstacles that make it easier to trip or twist an ankle. Still, it's a really cool experience.

I felt just the slightest twinge of fatigue early on. Hard to say why, but I managed to shake it off and just kept putting the miles behind me. It's always a great feeling to notice how fast each mile goes by. 4.75? Wow, it feels like I just passed the 4 mile mark! Cool!

There's something of an altitude gain between the LoDo section of the course and last section of downtown on Broadway, but it's subtle and you don't really notice it. That all changes at about 3.6 miles in. As you make the turn onto 17th Avenue you are faced with the steepest, biggest hill of the course. It's always amusing to notice how all of the little conversations stop in places like this. But soon enough the hill is behind you and then it's a cruise down 17th all the way to City Park.

Turning off of York Street and into the park itself, you're greeted with a group of cheerleaders. I don't know which high school they are from, but I'm guessing it's Denver East since that's nearest. I can't say why, but they're awesome! I guess they just have some energy in their routines or their voices or whatever, but it always gives me a lift.

The park seems like it would contain a lot of choke points, but it doesn't. The whole race was crowded, but I had plenty of room to move, pass and get passed without feeling like I was going to crash into someone. I also started making some good time through this section. Indeed, miles 6, 7 and 8 all of which are in or partially in the park were at 8:18, 8:30 and 8:22 respectively. I started to think I just might hit my goal, but then again, there were still several miles to go.

I figured I needed to do at least 75% of the course at under 9:00/mile pace if I wanted to finish in under two hours. If things got slower after that, well that probably wouldn't throw me off. But it didn't happen. Even though I was feeling tired, I also kept my pace pretty consistent.

As I entered Cheesman Park for the last section before heading back to the finish, I felt a pretty strong pain in my left knee. The left has given my trouble on and off over the years and now it felt, well worse than normal. I knew I had the cardio and strength to finish but damn, you can't really beat an injury. I hoped I could just run it off and not have to limp or drag my left leg behind me and miss my goal time as a result.

I didn't feel bad about not being one of the full marathoners turning south at this point. I still like the idea of doing that distance, but today was all about the goal and I was starting to feel every one of the 11.5 miles or so I had completed at that point.

Cheesman is home to the last real hill of the course. It doesn't look to bad as you approach it, but since it's late in the race, you definitely feel it. But then its over and down the hill you go, the finish line less than a mile away.

I sort of recall a euphoria doing that section last year. Probably because I had no goal and was just thrilled to be so far in front of where I expected to be. This year---eh, not as much. Being that it's a downhill run, I felt pretty good, but I also was ready to be done and my achy knee was continuing to make intermittent appearances. But then it was right onto Sherman Street and then left right away onto 14th Avenue and then down hill (more or less the same big hill at 3.6 miles) and into the finish. Despite feeling sore and I tired, I gave it a little kick.

And my time: 1:53:37! I never imagined I could do it that fast. For a while during my training through the late summer, I began to question whether or not I could even break 2:00.

This report is already getting pretty long so and I gave a full review last year so I'll abbreviate this one:

On the positive, the race is an event. It's large in scale and the production quality is world class. Bands on the course, tons of support and a great venue keep me coming back. They also learned from some of last year's mistakes such as not parking a semi-trailer in the area where folks line up to drop off their gear. As I mentioned before, Civic Center park is a great place for both the pre and post race activities. In some ways, it's Denver's version of the National Mall albeit much smaller.

This one is getting to the point that there's really only fine-tuning needed. I could complain about price, but if people are willing to pay it--and based on today's crowds they are--I can't fault the business model. I chose to participate. In fairness to everyone who is trying to run at a specific time, I think they should be a bit more strict on corral enforcement. No one gets to move up to start at a faster time. Period. Moreover, I think that anyone aiming a time of 2:10 or less in the half should be required to prove they can do it. Setting qualifying standards, as is done for the BolderBoulder might be worth consideration.

As I was heading back to my car, I was pleasantly surprised by a text from my brother who just happened to be in town with his family and were having breakfast nearby. I got to enjoy a little time with them before heading home for a much needed and dare I say, deserved nap!

I'm now on my annual week off where I'll do absolutely nothing until next Saturday when I think I'll do a 1 mile max heart rate test, just as I did last year. Then it's time to slow down and build up my base. I'm leaning toward going back to Rock Canyon, as long as I stay healthy but otherwise, it will be nice to just train with no goals, pressure or worries. I don't doubt I'll be champing at the bit to get back into tri season next spring, but for now, I'm going to enjoy the down time!

Thanks for reading!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Two Years In: What I've Learned

A little less than a year ago, I posted what I took away from my first year as a triathlete. There's no question that there were a host of things I leaned in the first year. Nevertheless, while there are fewer, there are still some nuggets of wisdom I think I managed to glean from my first non-rookie year. So here goes:

  1.  You cannot prepare enough! I didn't do a bad job of getting ready for my first 70.3 event. After all, I did finish it and actually was only 20 minutes behind my goal time. However, now that I know what the experience is like, I'll be more ready next year with more running, more biking and bricks. Yep, even though I sore them off earlier this season I think the shorter variety makes some sense. 
  2. Putting down a big base paid off. I spent a lot of my off season working out in Zone 1 which is 60% to 75% of my max heart rate. That base gave me a solid platform of endurance upon which I was able to build better stamina. I swam faster and ran faster during the season. I plan on putting down an even larger base this off-season
  3. I'm not good in the heat. Period. On the run portion of HITS I had the benefit of putting ice under my hat, being drenched with cold sponges and drinking plenty of water and energy drink. It helped. Indeed, it probably made the difference between finishing and a DNF, but it did not make me any faster. I may not be able to completely avoid hot courses (this is a summer event in Colorado after all) but avoiding temps in the mid to upper nineties is going to factor in to my 2013 schedule.
  4. Sleep may be the ultimate "X Factor." I'm not a terrible sleeper, but I could be a lot better. I read about Tour de France athletes getting something like 9 hours a night and it makes the 7 or so I usually get seem kind of paltry. I managed to train myself to fall asleep earlier on the night before races but I need to extend that to every day. I plan on talking more about that this off-season.
  5. I can't rule out a 140.6. That is not to say that I've convinced myself to train for the ultimate triathlon distance. Far from it. The time, energy, physical and mental toll that such an effort would require are sill very daunting. They're just not daunting enough to convince me that I don't want to join that elite club. It definitely won't be happening next year. But I may (will probably) put a full marathon on the schedule at the end of the off-season and see how that goes. I raced for close to seven hours at HITS. I ought to be able to run for five or so.
It's amazing how fast a season goes. Even with five races and months and months or training, it's still flown by faster than Alistair Brownlee in the Olympics! While part of me is sad the season and the summer have ended, another part is anxious to hit the reset button and focus on the good work that can be done in the off season. I've already got the beginnings of a training plan written and as soon as tomorrow I'll be back at the local rec center pool swimming laps. 

Additionally, I'm still training hard for the upcoming Rock & Roll Denver half marathon in just under three weeks. I've got a sub two hour goal in mind for that one. 

There's so much more I could say, but short and to the point always makes for a better post.

Happy Labor Day, thanks for reading and have a great week ahead!