Monday, April 28, 2014

Playing With Power

The combination of buying a Wahoo KICKR trainer along with a winter that was bad enough to ensure that every ride this winter was an indoor ride resulted in me getting pretty familiar with power.

I also took some steps to better educate myself such as reading Joe Friel’s “Power Meter Handbook” so that I could better understand concepts like Functional Threshold Power (FTP) Intensity Factor, (IF) and Training Stress Score (TSS). The book is good but very technical and for someone with my background, a bit difficult to absorb.

Nevertheless, I was able to complete a test for my FTP back in March. It turned out to be a fairly paltry 202 watts. This is basically saying that’s the power I can hold for an hour ride. From that, my coach was able to set up a series of Power Zones for me from 1 (easy, active recovery) to 5 (VO2 Max).

That was great for several workouts but the thing that happened in the last few weeks is that the weather got good enough to start actually riding outdoors—you know, like you’re supposed to.

Until a couple of weeks ago, that meant no power data. All I had was HR and Cadence through my Garmin sensors.

That changed when (after a five week wait) Stages Cycling in Boulder shipped me my new crankset, complete with their crank-arm-based power meter. I won’t rehash all of that technology here but if you are interested, you can check out the technical section of their website, or better still, this DC Rainmaker product review.

The most important thing to understand about this meter is that it measures power only from the left side—specifically from the strain being put on the left crank arm. Doing so allows them to offer products starting from an incredibly low $699.99 which is quite competitive in the market. The nearest competitors (using hub or spider-based systems) are around $100 more. I had to spend a little more to get an entirely new crankset but my guess is that a lot of folks will be able to swap out just the existing arm. They also appear to be adding additional brands and models on a regular, albeit slow, basis.

Like anything new, there is always a concern about whether or not it will work. I was quite pleased to discover early on that I started getting readings right away. The workout I had for the day of my first ride involved a series of intervals into my top Power/HR Zone for declining periods of time.

A couple of big spikes are probably related to starting up a hill in higher gear and not really indicative of any actual work. Nevertheless, it provided me with a good read on just how hard I was working.

In fact, it also helped negate the effects of bad HR data. Like a lot of people (especially those in drier climates like Colorado) HR meters are notoriously susceptible to spikes due to static electricity. That can be created just by riding or (as was the case on the day of my workout) by high wind. As a result, I know I can’t trust the data I’m seeing about my heart rate. Power, however, does not care. You are either working or not and the results are immediate.

This is not to say that I don’t see some value in HR data. Indeed, I’m waiting for a couple of optically based systems to come on the market and buy one. However, when it comes to the ride, there’s really no better way to evaluate how hard you are working.

One controversy around Stages is the question of whether or not you’re getting reliable data by measuring just from the left side and then multiplying that number by 2. The DC Rainmaker article addresses this better than I could. That said, I believe I’m getting the data I need. Is it possible it’s off? Sure. Does it matter that much to someone of my ability level? No, not really.

Of course, in a sport where it seems like there is always some new expense, $700 is still nothing to sneeze at. Despite several new entrants, power meters have not come down in price to something more reasonable like say $300 - $400. Perhaps that will change. They used to go for no less than $1500 (and often times more).

This was a decision I put off multiple times, but now that I actually have the new cranks installed and working as they are supposed to, I’m really happy with the results. The new feature serves the dual purpose of providing me with better performance data as well as being able to do the workouts assigned to me by my coach.

As always, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


I’ve lately begun to openly discuss my desire (probably) to compete in Ironman Boulder in 2015. I’ve even gone so far as to volunteer at this year’s race and get a higher priority registration slot.

My mention of this usually draws a reaction of either you’re crazy (or something to that effect) or merely the question of “Why?”

It’s not an easy question to answer but a quote from the book Iron War probably sums up why I want to complete the 140.6 distance in particular and why do triathlons in general:

“…it can be better to feel anything—even pain—than to feel nothing. Sometimes pleasure and pain are derived from the same source. There is no pleasure in doing triathlon, but it metes out a kind of suffering that is satisfying in the context of our soporific modern existence with its all infernal conveniences.”

Until recently reading that book, I’ve had a hard time articulating why I do what I do. Before I started training for triathlons, soporific was probably as good an adjective as any to describe my life. I had run and trained, but it had fallen off and I was more or less sedentary.

Of course, while suffering has its utility, it can also be destructive. Indeed, for most people, using the term positively probably seems odd if not completely masochistic.

My own recent training experiences have helped me find a way to suffer, but to manage it in a way analogous to the way one manages their intake of hydration and nutrition during a race.

About a month ago my coach “bumped” (his word) both the volume and intensity of my weekly training. Two weekly swims have become three, 20 miles running have become over 25 and cycling has been based on power zones. In a non-recovery week, training hours are around 12. That eases back to 8 every third week when I get to recover. In short, I’ve had ample opportunity to suffer.

Last week, I was assigned a series of interval workouts in which the distance descended and the pace ascended. The last interval in each of the two sets was 200 meters at a more or less all out speed (or what I could manage by that point). A day later, I was riding my bike up a hill for over a mile to push my heart rate into Z5. I had to do that five more times before getting to warm down.

Like anyone who has committed to train, I’ve accepted a certain level of suffering as part of the price to be ready come race day. Each of us has variation on the mantra “It’s worth it” that helps us get through the tough workouts.

What seemed different about these most recent efforts, however, was my ability to keep the suffering of my body separate from the suffering of my mind. While I knew I was hurting, my brain was really showing no more emotion about it than the needles on a dashboard that tell you your engine is getting too hot or that you’re running low on fuel. That’s not to say that I didn't feel mentally miserable at times as well, just not all the time.

When I did my first multi-sport event (a triathlon turned duathlon) the most significant memory I took away was how miserable I was as I moved from bike to run. Leaving the transition area, I felt almost overwhelmed by my high heart rate and shortness of breath. This despite multiple bricks in practice. That feeling crept in a few times during my track and bike workouts, but it never really took hold.

Have I discovered a secret to training and racing even when my body feels terrible? Probably not. More likely it’s one more tool in the belt.

More to come on training and the specific steps I’m taking to prepare for the first race of the season.

In the meantime, have a great week and thanks for reading!

Thursday, April 3, 2014


 While I’m based in the Denver area, my boss and several colleagues are in Phoenix which means I go down there at least once a year. In 2014, I’ve actually made two trips to the desert with a third coming up in May.

In year’s past, I usually got a single run in around the posh homes in the neighborhood adjacent to the Arizona Biltmore hotel. Of course, this year, I’m under a formally coached plan so that meant multiple workouts including the challenge of finding a 4% grade hill.

Last Wednesday the first order was the bike which was a fairly easy 45 minute, high spin, low resistance event. Much as I would have liked to get on a bike that actually measured and captured my performance, no such options were available at the resort fitness center. No matter, I was able to watch RPM and track my heart rate (though I forgot to pack my monitor –doh!)

During my ride, I asked the fitness center manager which of the various pools on property would be best for lap swimming and he referred me to one used by Biltmore club members just on the corner. Sure enough, there was a nice, straight 25 yard-ish pool that had the look of a place not likely to be of use early in the morning.

Should you ever find yourself at the Arizona Biltmore and looking for the pool, here’s a shot from Google maps:

I know, it’s a stunning visual.

Pre-dawn I was there swimming my 3100 multi-set workout and despite being down at lower altitude, suffering a little bit. Not sure what it was exactly, but it was one of the more difficult swims I had. Fortunately, swims have the benefit of affording a quick recovery and I felt fine by the time I left the hotel for work.

Of course, my day was not over. That afternoon, I was assigned five 1 kilometer hill repeats on a grade of 4% - 5%. The thing about Phoenix is that most of it is pretty flat. The exception being the mountains located right in the middle of the city. These, of course are much steeper than 5%.

After some online research, I determined the best place to do the run is on the road that leads to the Piestewa Peak trail head. It worked out to around 4.2% and while I knew there would be some traffic, I also knew it would be slow moving.

A fairly easy but warm 20 minute warm-up run had me at the start of the hill and I headed up for the first. No natural hill is perfectly even all the way up so while there were a couple of short sections that were flat over even slightly down, most of it was a steep climb and I was pushed all the way up into my Z5 heart rate.

I took it easy going back down and recovered pretty well but by the time I finished the fifth repeat, I was more than a little happy to be done with the workout. It was also starting to get dark.

As always, thanks for reading and have a great upcoming weekend!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A New Approach to Training – Part 3: The Run

This is the final installment in my series on the new approach I’ve taken to training under the direction of a USAT certified coach. In past posts, I discussed the swim and bike so naturally, today is the run.

Running is the area where I’ve done the most interval work, though not very much last year.  I think I talked myself into thinking that intensity work would not do me much good for long-course events like the two 70.3 races I did last year. I’ve come to believe that, in fact, intervals are good for all kinds of distances.

Fundamental Changes

A lot of my own philosophy about running had to go out the door when I hired a coach. Some fundamental rules I had just were not going to work with what he had in mind me.

My first rule, never to run on back-to-back days had to go. That’s not to say that I do long, exhausting runs on consecutive days. However, I may be on both feet at different distances.

The second rule was that anything less than 3 miles (and that was a bare minimum) was not worth it. Many of my bike rides are followed by a 15 to 40 minute run that is intended to get me used to running off the bike. These are not really what I would call brick workouts (since the run is often at very moderate paces) but they’re close.

The third rule (more of an assumption on my part) was that long runs are always beneficial. My coach suggested that some of those long miles are “junk” miles meaning they don’t do much to prepare your for race-level performance. Instead, long runs are better when they include a variety of drills.

On a typical long-run under his program, I’m doing a warm-up followed by some time-based interval at a specific heart rate. In general, the longer the interval, the lower the heart rate zone. Twelve minute intervals usually happen in mid Z3 while four minute intervals would be more upper Z4. Each interval is followed by a rest where I just run slowly and recover back down to lower Z2 before the next one start up.

Running this way has multiple advantages. Of course, intervals are designed to make you run faster for longer periods of time (i.e.: increase your stamina) but they also have a psychological effect. Given the way my Garmin is set up, I typically only see two fields: the time remaining in that interval and where my heart rate or pace is. No data on speed or overall distance is included. I can get that easily enough by changing the screen, but I choose not to. As a result, I find myself having gone longer distances than I might have imagined without really noticing. Last Saturday, my 2:15 run turned out to be 14.6 miles. I really had no idea how far I’d gone.

The other benefit from this approach is it is teaching me to take my workout in smaller chunks. I tried to apply this strategy last year at Austin so that I would not feel so overwhelmed by the run. It helped but now I think I’ll be even more practiced. In fact, I may approach the run stage of my long-course races as just another interval workout (with faster recovery times).


A nice thing about running is that changes in training don’t really call for any new equipment. I’m still running on the latest iteration of Brooks Addiction and still timing myself with a Garmin 910XT combined with the same foot pod and HR strap I’ve been using for the last few years.

The on change I am considering is changing to an optical-based HR monitor when new models from 4iiii’s and Mio come out this spring. In the cool dry climate of Colorado, static electricity too often skews the data on my monitor and I’m growing weary of having bad information. That’s probably still a month or two off, however.

Net Improvement

Much like the bike, this is a difficult year-over-year comparison due to being injured at this time in 2013. Looking back to 2012, I’m at similar pace per mile speeds which are typically in the low nine-minute zone. However, my mileage is considerably higher now.  Since the first of the year, I’m putting in about 19.5 miles a week and during the last four weeks (since I cam back from vacation in Jamaica), that average is actually 24.11 miles. That’s nearly three times what I was doing at this time in 2012 and I’m doing it without any real problems.

All of this has me anxious to find out how I might do in the run portion of a race like SOST. I felt pretty good about the 8:08 pace per mile I did there two years ago and I have to believe I’m better trained and prepared for this year’s event. Assuming I stay healthy and weather or other external factors don’t prove to be a problem, it could be a good year to hit a PR. I also get to race in an age group with guys that are closer to 50 than 40. Most of them are still really good, just not quite as fast as the next group down. No complaints from me in that regard.

Other Changes

My coach also put me on a daily stretching routine in the interest of preventing injury. I go through a series of upper and lower body exercises right before bed and I generally have been waking up feeling more refreshed and ready for the next day’s activity. That’s not always the case, but it is more often than not.

I’ve lacked some strength training which I do miss a little bit. It’s hard to say that I really need to be doing free-weights, but I could probably stand to be doing some core work. Given how hard my workouts are, I just usually don’t want to follow them up with sit-ups or side planks, but I expect I’ll have to find a way over that motivational hump and get it done. A strong core really does make for better performance in all three disciplines.

With nearly three months training done, I’m getting anxious to put all of it to the test by racing and while that is still a little ways off, it’s actually less time than I’ve been doing all of this.

While these updates were here to provide an overview of the approach, I’ll plan on doing some future posts with the results.

Thanks for reading!