Monday, January 31, 2011

This is brilliant...

"A conversation between someone training for an Ironman, and someone not training for an Ironman."

So true... Thanks to Elaine for this one!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

I must be doing something right...

...I just beat my personal best in the Half Marathon by over three minutes!! That's the biggest single improvement I have ever made in that distance. I still can't believe it, the time 1:23:34 doesn't sound like it belongs to me yet, it's too new and shiny.

I ran according to Jonathan's formula for my heart rate but, I suppose because it was quite cold, it was very difficult for me to get my heart rate that high. It even started to drop in the second half of the race in spite of me having to make a more concerted effort to keep the speed up. It really feels as though my cardiovascular system is no longer the limiting factor, nor my technique, but instead that my legs start to get a bit heavy. I think I was probably the only person taking carbohydrate gels during the race - I did it partly to practice for the Ironman but also because I am convinced that they help, especially if the sugar levels of my legs are the bottleneck. I use High5 Isogels which are brilliant because you can take them without any additional water at the cost of being only slightly bulkier. At one point during the race, one of my little bottles in my Fuel Belt fell out and I turned back for it but then decided to leave it behind; someone in the crowd very kindly picked it up and looked out for me several kilometers later, handing it back to me as I made my final dash for the line. If you are reading this then "thank you very much". It will now be my lucky bottle.

I haven't noticed that I am improving so drastically in training but I suppose I have been complaining that it is getting harder and harder to hit the high heart rates. It always amazes me how different competitions are from training and how it is possible to run so much faster for what seems to be so much less effort. Is it the drafting effect of all the other runners, the freshness from having tapered off in training or simply the adrenaline? Its certainly true that for the last 200m I did one of my trademark war cries and the adrenaline injection was incredible, I surged forward as if someone had just pressed the turbo button.

During the race I told myself several things:
- Engage the hips and run tall. As you get tired it is easy to relax the hips and collapse into the classic "k-bend" shape whereby you lose all the spring from the ground.
- Punch it forward. This was a new image that came to me today while I was running. If your hips are engaged then you can use the kinetic chain from your feet to your hands, just as you would if you were punching someone. If you get it right, for the same leg turnover (cadence), you spend ever so slightly less time in contact with the ground and ever so slightly more time flying. You have to be careful not to overstride or for the running gait to become disjointed.
- Focus. Its very easy to find yourself thinking about the shopping and it does make the kilometers fly by, but I find that I tend to slow down without realising. I had to keep reminding myself to keep my mind on the job and to push every so often to keep my heart rate up.
- Central Governer. This is Tim Noakes' theory that our brain is responsible for fatigue by subconsciously making us feel more tired, our legs more heavy and providing us with tempting reasons to stop running altogether. Just because it is in your head doesn't mean it is easier to override: it has a very serious and critical function, to stop us literally killing ourselves by overexertion, Still, it is possible to argue with the Central Governor and, in this case, I reminded it that my heart rate was consistently lower than it had been last time I had run a Half Marathon and so there was nothing to worry about.

As usual, I noticed some people running with incredibly heavy strides - I shudder to think what they are doing to their knees. Those who run with music are often the worst offenders because they can't hear how heavily they are landing. Others are under the false impression that the longer their stride, the better.  I have to hold back from telling them something because I'm sure they wouldn't take it well. I've never been too receptive to people who have "found Jesus" who are keen to save me from eternal damnation for purely altruistic reasons (as far as they are aware). It is all to easy to get "religious" about minimal shoes and the "conspiracy" of the running shoe companies.

Personal note to self: next time bring some toilet paper - it doesn't seem to be included in the inscription fee. Thanks to an anonymous runner for "lending" me some.

POSTDATA:  I couldn't help noticing that there was only one pacemaker for the apparently random time of 1 hour and 23 minutes. I didn't pay him much attention as, at the start, I had no realistic intention of trying to run that fast. I've been wondering since then what was so special about the magic 1:23 which I got so close to beating. Now I know. It is the cut off Half Marathon time for automatically qualifying for the New York Marathon for the under 39s... Aaargh, had I known that maybe I could have squeezed that little bit extra... who knows. Next year I will definitely get in: not only will I be 39 so the qualifying time will jump to 1:30(!), but it would also be the 4th year in a row that I have been rejected by the lottery - here the rule is, 3 strikes and you are in. There is still a remote possibility I get selected to run this year - if not I'll just have to content myself with running the San Sebastian Marathon again.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Next stop: Getafe Half Marathon

On Sunday I'm running in the Getafe Half Marathon. The race numbers sell out very quickly because - in spite of being at 600m above sea level - it is the fastest Half Marathon in Madrid as it is a very flat course. I'm a bit nervous about it because this is the first time in months I will be trying to beat a fairly tough Personal Best (1:26:44 in the Madrid Half Marathon last year). To beat 4 hours in the Marathon was just a question of it coming together on the day (or, in other words, nothing screwing up). The San Silvestre race was in "plan coña" as my coach observed when he saw the results. Other than the Madrid Half Marathon and a 10K race I did back in February last year, all the other races I did were either duathlons or triathlons and they are all so dependent on the course and the weather that there is no way to compare between them. As I have said before, this is one of the main reasons I prefer competing in triathlons. But on Sunday, I know I would be looking at my watch and cursing every second that I am over budget. I think I will do what I did in both the 10K and the Half Marathon I did last year, in both of which cases I got a PB: I will turn off all the displays on my watch to do with speed, pace or even elapsed time and just run to my heart rate. It takes quite a lot of discipline not to even look at the big red digital clock that looms over the arch that you pass half way - sometimes you overhear someone saying that we are on such and such a pace. I'm going to focus on running as well as I can, keeping sheltered from the wind and meting out my efforts so that my glycogen stores get me just over the line.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Maximum strength

The question is, can he get up from there?
I did the maximum strength test last night which consists of "squatting" ever increasing weights until you fall over backwards. Its perfectly safe because the dumbbell is constrained to move in a vertical plane and there are safety stops so you don't get completely squashed. Diego measured the power I was able to generate with each successive weight increase using a small device which measures the velocity at which I could lift the bar. Just like a car has a different power response at different loads - typically a petrol engine has a "humped" power-torque curve with a maximum power at a sub-maximum torque (force) - it is interesting to know for what load (weight) we can generate the most power (force x velocity). I must have a diesel engine because I reached my maximum power just at the point where I reached my maximum force and literally could not lift the weight. Its quite a disconcerting sensation of impotence and bewilderment when you are literally unable to stand back up. Once you get to these kind of weights, I think it becomes important to have a reasonably good squatting technique: if you let the weight fall too quickly it is impossible to overcome the momentum needed to change direction; if you go too slowly then you become tired. For some reason, my arms started to hurt much more than any other part of my body, presumably because I was straining against the bar, and today they are sore as hell - not sure how well I will swim today. My legs don't feel at all tired but then the dreaded DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) as their name suggests, often set in after 48 hours.

One of the interesting things that Jonathan has been experimenting with is the relationship between the velocity at which someone can squat and the weight. He has established a very convincing relationship between the two which means that you can estimate your maximum strength without having to lift maximal weights (which has its risks, of course, as well as being unpleasant). Unfortunately, the machine used for that test was at the menders so there was no option but to go until "failure".

Now that I have the results of the test, I can follow Jonathan's weight program more correctly. When he sets me a weights session he specifies the number of sets, the exercises I should do, the number of repetitions in each set, the time I should take in lowering the weight in a controlled fashion, whether the lift should be explosive or not and, finally, at what percentage of my maximum strength (RM = Rendimiento Máximo) the lifts should be executed. Up until now, I have been setting the weight to be that which I can lift the number of times I have to lift it. Nevertheless, just as it is important to find that Maximum Effective Dose, it can be more effective to exercise sub-maximally. I find that for almost all the other exercises I do (lats, calves, quadriceps, isquiotibiales or hamstrings as they are more commonly known, glutes or bum) I need to use about half the weight I would squat in order to achieve the same intensity.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Week 2 / 20

 Last week was relatively easy, "only" 10 hours of training plus two weights sessions. I have a half Marathon next Sunday so I guess this is a kind of mini taper, with extra focus on running (which is just as well, because the temperatures fell through the floor this week and I was getting a brain freeze from going along at anything more than 15kph). My right hamstring is giving me a bit of gip, so I have to keep an eye on that. I would try doing some Nordic hamstring lowers which are a very effective way of encouraging the muscle to fix itself but my knee is a bit sore from the somersault I did over the handlebars the other day. As you can see from the pie chart, it is harder to do most of the training in Zone I than it looks. This is because a proportion of the Zone I time on the bike bleeds into the Zone II because of hills, traffic or simply that I find it difficult to not get carried away. Its also hard not to let the Zone III training bleed into Zone I. Its certainly the case that I am having more and more trouble getting my heart rate up while running. I think that this is a good sign, that it means I am getting more efficient because the speeds at which I am running are not suffering. I think that it will take a while for my legs to catch up with my cardiovascular system. Still, 11% in Zone III is not bad after all.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Results of bike test

Please allow me to gloat just this once. I may never win anything again worth winning or beat any records worth beating but I think I have a right to feel chuffed about the results of my bike test. You get a mark out of 10 for each of the various categories, your VO2max, how close to your VO2max your anaerobic threshold is, your effeciency in terms of oxygen use, how many watts you can crank out etc. The mark "10" usually corresponds to an elite athlete (for example, Paula Radcliffe, unsurprisingly, gets 10 out of 10 for running efficiency and VO2max, a combination of which makes her a World Record Marathon runner). Ordinary mortals may get very high marks for some aspects but not for others, resulting in a good performance but not a World beating one. Well, I didn't get 10 in some of the criteria, I got #N/A! which means literally "off the scale" (more than 10, not less than zero - very funny!). My VO2max came out lower than in the running test I did at the end of last year (53 versus 61) which I suppose reflects the comments I made here on the day of the test.

I shall enjoy my little victory but now the trick is to convert it into something meaningful, or at least, something that is recognized (by me, if not by others).

Haha, I managed to crash the spreadsheet with pure leg power

Pixie dust

I'm really quite skeptical about these magic powders that I'm "supposed" to take, especially after what I have been reading lately. It is so difficult to isolate the effects of a particular nutrient and it seems to me more important to get your overall diet right and then, and only then, think about taking supplements if you are feeling low on energy or a blood test shows up a particular imbalance. It is true that the training I am doing is not exactly "natural" and so it may well be the case that I am lacking in some nutrients, vitamins or minerals and it may also be the case that it is impracticable to get those nutrients, vitamins or minerals through eating whole foods - perhaps you would have to eat inordinate amounts of oysters for example, and this would provoke other imbalances. The bottom line is that my coach said that it would be a great shame if I got ill during my training, or especially near the event itself, and that I should consider taking supplements to help prevent this from happening. I know everyone else he trains is taking a similar cocktail, so now superstition or the fear of hearing "I told you so" is twisting my arm to do the same.

I have been taking omega 3 capsules and, in particular, cod liver oil (tasty burps, yeurghh!!) which is also high in vitamin D. Vitamin D is a peculiar vitamin in that we actually produce it in our bodies as a reaction to exposure to sunlight. There seems to be some controversy over the RDA (Recommended Daily Amount) with some researchers suggesting that we should be getting considerably more. Of course, you have to be careful not to burn but the irony is that it seems to be the very same people who spend an unusual amount of time in the sun who have vitamin D deficit; this is because they wear sun block. Now I'm not advocating that we should throw away the sun creams and welcome skin cancer into our bodies but  perhaps judicious and measured sun exposure is what is called for. Vitamin D apparently helps boost athletic performance and particularly fat burning activities.

Every so often I have a protein shake, typically made from whey protein and taken with milk. Its actually quite a nice drink but I'm not yet taking this every day.

I had hoped to get all the amino acids from eating more fruit and veg. The amino acids are very important because they act as anti oxidants, that is to say, they bind with the free radical oxygen atoms that are produced by literally burning foods and limit the damage they could otherwise cause to healthy cells. I think of the anti oxidants as a kind of sprinkler system. As there are many different types of amino acids, each with their own functions in the body, it is important to have a varied diet. The Essential Amino Acids (EAA) are the ones that our body cannot manufacture or synthesize but this does not mean that the other amino acids are not "essential" to life. A good guideline is to try to eat fruits and vegetables of many different colours because it is the amino acids that are responsible for the colour so this helps ensure we get all the amino acids we need. Now the superstition has kicked in, I've decided to take some supplements for amino acids (essential and BCAA, Branched Chain Amino Acids) just in case. Its probably going to bugger up some kind of delicate natural balance but while I am following a particular school of training I think I should also follow that same school of nutrition. Maffetone would doubtless frown upon my decision but then he would also insist that I did absolutely all my training below the aerobic threshold which is not completely consistent with the training program I am actually following. I'm thinking of going "holistic" next year - perhaps taking a sabbatical from competition - and trying out just doing lots of low intensity long runs and eating whole foods, a la Forest Gump. I'll see how I feel after the Ironman - its something that cannot leave you indifferent: you either feel you have done so disasterously that, after 6 months, you have got the bit between your teeth again or it is such an amazing experience that you are ready to think of doing another one a couple of weeks later. I can't imagine I will cross the line and think "OK, that's done, now what?".

I'm also starting to take L-Glutamine which is a special amino acid which is supposed to help in recovery from workouts and to help prop up your immune system. Add to that, L-Carnatine which, as its name suggests ("carne") is found in red meat and supposedly helps fat burning. I may also start taking Creatine which, to be honest is the only magic powder I have taken for which I have definitely noticed an effect (notice I didn't choose the word "benefit"). I tend to put on several kilos of what looks to be muscle mass but is apparently mainly water retention and I notice that my strength improves but at the cost of having to lug those extra kilos 42km. I think I will give it another try, now that I am eating more conscientiously,  and if I find myself getting too heavy I should have enough time to slim down. In any case, as there is thought to be an increase in water retention, perhaps this added weight is not as bad as it sounds. The guys at the triathlon club swear by Man Clout - just the thought of that disgusting flavour brings back bad memories - but I have to remember not to try ordering it from work because the websites that offer it look like dodgy porn sites. Lastly, there is L-Glucosamine which reportedly helps strengthen cartilage which is what tendons, ligaments and bits of the knee are made from (and ears too, but I've never heard of anyone injuring their ears running). I will start to take this too.

This is what I am taking every day - check out the size of that amino acid tab!
The weirdest thing I tried taking in an attempt to "hyper-hydrate" before a race was Glycerol. (I had thought that it was necessary for bomb making but maybe I am getting confused with Gycerine.) The only way to get my hands on it was in the guise of a treatment for glaucoma, which is the painful pressure in the eye due to the collection of ocular fluid. Apparently the glycerol binds with water molecules in such a way that they don't pass through the kidneys and out as piss. I've become much less paranoid about being hydrated in races and also better at drinking on the run, so I won't be taking this stuff again.

All these supplements were recommended to me when I went for a dietary analysis about three years ago. I remember it being quite a challenge to remember how much of what to take and when. I don't think there is any reason to believe that I will be told anything different by repeating the analysis now - and the diet I was prescribed was frankly impractical - so I've decided that I am going to take Protein, Omega 3, Cod Liver Oil, L-Glutamine, L-Carnatine, L-Glucosamine, Creatine and BCAA and EAA in addition to eating as "heathfully" as possible. Any adverse effects and I'll try to work out which of the supplements is the offender.

At some point I would like to do a detailed blood test, one that is specifically aimed at endurance athletes, as well as electrocardiagram and echocardiogram tests on my heart. As you know, I am doing this Ironman in honour of my dear friend, Neil, who died suddenly from a heart attack last year. Another friend of mine who was preparing an Ironman last year did an electro- and an echocardiogram and only in the latter test did they spot a defect in his heart. His doctor allowed him to compete (which he did with great success) but on the condition that he kept his heart rate below a certain threshold.

Friday, January 21, 2011

My commute to work

My commute by bike (green), car (blue) and on foot (red)
Thanks to the amazing invention of Google Earth, just over a year ago I was finally able to figure out how to get to work by bike or even on foot. My bike route is quite a long way round (about 16km) but it is the most picturesque, passing through several pine forests and virtually not touching tarmac. On a normal day, I can make it in in about 45 mins, pedaling at low intensity (below my aerobic threshold). On days like today, the route can become quite technical - think frozen bike tracks in the mud - and I ended up going over the handlebars at one point. Nothing more than a little scratch but I think my keys must have also gone flying so I'll have to look out for those on the way back... It was also freezing cold - my beard froze and so did my gear cables for goodness sake - and my hands were extremely painful when I got inside, despite wearing gloves. Its a bit of an art working out how many layers to put on: put on too many and you sweat too much, too little and you freeze- not a problem I have when running.

I'm enjoying running in much more these days. I go by a shorter route which is also cyclable but it involves going on more roads; when running you always have the option of the pavement. The technical bits are not a problem while running: I've found that trail running is excellent for speed, balance and strength (not to mention boredom limitation). One thing is key, though, and that is a little head lamp to light up the trails. You can actually cause yourself more injuries running always on flat surfaces because you are consistently stressing the same little muscles in the feet and they can easily get strained or out of balance. Also, the extra effort to get your feet off the ground when they sink into the sand or mud means that you really fly once you hit the tarmac. The route is about 12.5km and there is very little traffic (if any) along most of the roads - it takes about an hour running at my aerobic pace.

The only hard thing is getting out of bed an hour before I normally get up. The night before I pack my little rucksack with a clean shirt and underwear and try to make it as simple a matter as possible to get out of bed and into my kit. Then, I've got it all organized. I have a spare suit hanging up in the work gym (the staff let me use their locker) and a pair of work shoes under my desk. I get to the gym, shower and change and then cycle up to the office in my suit. Then I lock my bike to some bars in the underground parking and hang out my kit to dry for the return journey (the bars double as a handy clothes horse). Once a security guard asked me if the bike and the kit belonged to me. I thought at that moment that the game was up but it turned out that he was just worried that someone might steal it and that I would hold them responsible for it! Having said that, I did once leave my cycling shoes in the gym and someone had pinched them by the time I went back that afternoon and my feet are not the most common size (size 48 EUR / 13 UK!). Maybe the culprit had had a hard time of sourcing shoes for his equally outsized feet.

Logistics aside, the feeling of having got to work under your own steam is incredible. It sounds like a trivial thing but it's not; neither does the journey itself seem like "dead time" nor does the exercise you would otherwise be doing on a static bike or treadmill seem pointless. I've seen cats, rabbits, snakes, frogs and even foxes on my route. You arrive in so much of a better mood than if you have had to sit in a car for even as little as 15 minutes, which is what it could take me on a good day. The time I spend commuting by bike or on foot, I treat differently to the rest of my training time which I take more seriously: I may listen to music or I may mull over what I am going to do when I get to work or think over conversations I have had during the day. Its my meditation time, my private time when I am passing through the woods, hidden from sight from the cars in their parallel universe. All this is what it is like commuting in January; when the days get longer and warmer it is so much more pleasant. I'll post some pictures in the next few weeks of some of the striking sunrises and sunsets that I see.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bike test

I did the VO2max test on the bike today. You can't really argue with that very straight line showing an almost perfect linear relationship between my pulse rate and the number of watts I was cranking out, which were being steadily increased by Diego, my friendly "torturer". It got to the point where I couldn't go any further just because the weight of my legs was not enough to move the pedals any more; I would have had to get up out of the seat which is probably more like running than cycling (certainly it has little to do with cycling in an Ironman).

I found it very useful to do the test (again) even though my thresholds look as though they will still be where they have been for the past year. This time there was a point in the test when I noticed my breathing pattern change; I glanced at my watch and - lo and behold - it showed 125bpm which is exactly where my aerobic threshold is. The same thing happened at my anaerobic threshold. So this gives me confidence in the thresholds, something that is vitally important, as I have stressed several times already, if I am going to stick to the training and racing plans. What also helps me to accept the 30bpm difference between my cycling and running aerobic thresholds is the fact that I was only able to get to 178bpm while seated; in running (and in general, for that matter) my maximum heart rate is 191. I had previously estimated my maximum heart rate while cycling to be 185bpm, which I registered during a duathlon last year. However, this was going up a b*astard hill standing up on the pedals and cursing loudly.

I still have some doubts over how much the cooling of a 30kp/h wind on the position of the aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. It's clear to me that you can eek out more wattage at a given pulse rate cycling outdoors compared to being on a stifling static bike but this doesn't necessarily mean that the thresholds obtained in the lab are wrong; the question becomes whether you should go by power, by heart rate or by "feel". One thing I do notice, is that when you are out on the road, you are much more distracted and the conditions are constantly changing, such that it becomes very difficult to judge your aerobic zone by feel. By contrast, when I am running, I can usually predict my heart rate to within a beat. I guess this is why so many people by those extraordinarily expensive power meters. I'll stick to my trusty heart rate monitor.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fight or flight?

I really have to work on my anger management. When my pulse is elevated, like it was yesterday in a medium intensity run (around 165bpm), my fuse is as short as a very short thing indeed. I was running along the edge of a road in the village where I live - the pavement is too narrow to run comfortably along, and the road has two lanes and a speed limit of 40km/h - when a car "beeped" at me. I stopped and he wound down his window to say that I couldn't run "in the middle of the road" and that he had nearly "killed me" because a bus had pulled out in front of him. I pointed out - no I shouted very rudely - that I had lights (both headlamp and flashing light strip on my ankle) and "what if I had been a bicycle?". This is always my argument: I was running along at a good clip, faster than most people cycle AND I had lights, so why should I not be entitled to use the same space that cyclists are allowed to use? Of course, motorists (and probably policemen, had there been any present) would find my argument rather baffling, as I was clearly sans biciclette.

You can see in my heart rate graph, exactly the point where I stopped, he stopped, we ruffled our feathers and then the "fight or flight" reflex kicked in and my heart rate jumped 10 beats due to the adrenaline injection. If you are reading this, I am sorry for calling you fat and lazy and for suggesting you should get out of your car and do some exercise instead. I'm really not very proud of myself for that. It's just as well we both chose "flight". One of these days I may not be so lucky.

PS: The other spikes in my pace are due to (a) having to pass through a security turnstyle and (b) having to scale a two metre high gate which gets locked at around 7pm.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Totally Immersed

I'm starting to get back into swimming after months of neglect. As a friend of mine once said, my style is more Total Submersion than Total Immersion. But its gradually feeling better. I am so lazy though, I just can't be bothered to do the drills. Is it laziness or is it fear? I suspect it is the latter: fear of failure. I'm going to start to get some one-on-one lessons which I think are fundamental. I'm pretty tall (1m89 or 6"2.5) so I should be able to swim well, but I've never had much of a built up upper body or at least, this is why I always think I can never swim as fast as other people. Still, in 5 months you can work wonders. This is how I would love to look in the water - only 9 strokes(!!!) to cover a 25m pool:

Monday, January 17, 2011

Week 1 / 20

One week down, 19 to go... The first week back to school was pretty tough - hard to get back into work (the work that pays the bills), a fairly hard training week and also my wife was ill, so she needed support from me when I was instead out on my bike. Also, we had a couple of our kids' friends to stay the night on Friday night...

Anyway, I got just over 15 hours of training under my belt, plus one weights session. As you can see from the graphs above (sorry about them being in Spanish), that effort was divided up between swimming (N), biking (B) and running (C), in about the same proportions as the Ironman race itself will entail. [I'm not sure why the pie chart came out wrong, there must be a bug in the spreadsheet and it is protected so...] The upper bar chart represents the TRIMPS (TRaining IMPulses) which are a function of duration and intensity of training. The lower bar chart represents my subjective score for how hard I found the training that day to be. The Friday (V) felt much harder than it was supposed to be, probably because I'd had an upset stomach and I was getting tired from all the running I was doing. The amazing thing I find about training for triathlons is that you can feel utterly exhausted going into Saturday and yet, because you are switching from one sport to another, you can feel fully recovered on Monday without having taken a day off. Normally, of course, it is important to have rest days but I have less days of complete rest programmed than when I was training purely for the Marathon. The good news is that meanwhile my feet have grown back enough of a thick skin to be able to run without any more blisters.

Pozuelo-Brunete-Valdemorillo-Navalagamella-Fresnedillas-Quijorna-Boadilla-Pozuelo (109km, total ascent 1080m, 4h)
On Saturday I did a beautiful 4 hour ride (see map and elevation profile). I tried to plot it out beforehand using Bike Route Toaster but every time I got to a particular section "se tostó" (it crashed or "toasted itself"). I found out why once I got to that section because it turned out to be a dual carriage way on which bikes were not allowed. Nevertheless, there was a generous hard shoulder with relatively little broken glass and debris so I rode along that; at one point I was overtaken by a couple of policemen on motor bikes but they didn't tell me anything. I'm lucky to live in a very picturesque corner of Madrid. The weather was absolutely perfect, the sun was shining but it was not too hot (around 10-15 degrees). The route has a few challenging hills so it was impossible to keep my pulse rate in the aerobic zone all the time but, on average, my pulse was 128bpm. On the ride I drank about 2 litres of water (I had 2.5 on board between all my various water bottles) and I ate a couple of Apple and Cinnamon Mule bars which tasted sooooooo good. In summer I will have to drink a lot more on the long rides and probably take electrolytes with the water but, for now, it is nice not to have to worry about that.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Someone more crazy than me

I think it is such a shame that this book has gone for the jugular in marketing terms. I was "recommended" it by Amazon and it was enough for me to read the cover and see that the author had also written a book called "The 4-hour Workweek" to disregard it. By coincidence, a friend whose reading tastes coincide largely with mine, mentioned the book to me the next day and told me to ignore the marketing BS.

The style reminds me very much of Malcolm Gladwell, whose books I have very much enjoyed reading, in that it is peppered with curious (real) characters and anecdotes to illustrate his points. It also shares the objective of Gladwell's books of bringing to the layman interesting bits of research that would otherwise take years to filter into the public domain. But what is most interesting of all, is that he puts his money where is mouth is - that's to say, he actually subjects himself to all the tests and theories, converting himself into a human guinea pig. In parts the book is more of an account of his experiences, like a healthy version of "Super Size Me". As a result, it is relatively "unpreachy" as all he is saying is that he has tried these ideas out and they have worked (or not in some cases) for him. He encourages you to have a critical mind and not to just accept what he says but, at the same time, not to confuse healthy skepticism with laziness or resistance to change.

More than anything else, I am enjoying reading the exploits of someone who takes a similar approach to me, but who is 100 times more connected, 100 times more committed and 100 times more crazy than me. As he says, he has put himself through these tests so that we don't have to. Some of the discoveries he has made I had already come across, like the Paleo diet and Total Immersion Swimming; to me, this lends more credibility to the parts of the book that are totally new. It is also interesting to read his experiences - for example, of learning Total Immersion Swimming - sometimes novices are the best people to explain a new technique as the masters are, by definition, those for whom the most time has passed since they struggled to learn the principles.

The principle which seems to underlie everything in his book is what he calls the Minimum Effective Dose. The idea is that, if you get 80% of the maximum benefit of doing a deadlift, say, by doing only 2 reps, you should only do 2 reps because any more is not only wasteful, but is depriving time and opportunity from doing other things (including doing deadlifts more often). For example, if you overdo it then your muscles will be sore and you won't be able to train as effectively the next day. This is pretty much the same idea that I described in a recent post. It sounds obvious, but the reality is that, as soon as you have completed the second repetition, you think "That was easy, I'll just do a couple more because that will make me even stronger" - the question is, at the cost of what? As the author says, the principle of the Minimum Effective Dose is all very well but the key is to know what the minimum effective dose is. Each of the chapters - that promise to help you lose weight, improve your sex-life and give you superhuman strength - give a prescription of this Minimum Effective Dose. The idea is not, "How to Get a Six-Pack without Lifting a Finger" but finding the most efficient way to achieve your goal. The other key point he makes is the importance of being able to measure whatever it is you are trying to achieve. This is not only encouraging but it is essential in order to be able to determine scientifically what this Minimum Effective Dose is. To give you some idea, the author has subjected himself to weekly blood tests over a period of 10 years (and spent over $250,000 on his "experiments").

Even if you don't have any intention of following his advice, even if you think it is all a load of BS, it still makes very entertaining reading.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Unsung heroes: Marc Herremans

I recently came across the story of Marc Herremans.

Marc Herremans came sixth in the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii in 2001. Just three months later, he was training in the Lanzarote on his bike when he slipped on a tight bend and fell onto some rocks, breaking his back. He ended up completely paralyzed from the waist down.

I am hesitant to compare my trivial ordeals with that of Marc but, in my case, when my fitness was scuppered at the age of 21 with a bout of mononucleosis, I felt cheated and I remember feeling loathe to regain what I had already rightfully earned. So I find it incredible that this guy only three months later was preparing to compete again in the Ironman World Championships, this time in a wheelchair. Eventually, in 2006, he was the first wheelchair bound athlete to complete the Ironman World Championships, although he didn't win any prize money for doing so (this seems particularly mean spirited of the organizers, I must say).

He has also set up a charity, to help other people in a similar predicament, which is called "To Walk Again". Being able to walk is something we take so for granted, I just cannot imagine the strength of character Marc Herremans - not to mention many others that he represents - must have.

Training ride: El Cayo-Colunga-Lastres-Villaviciosa-El Cayo (50km)


Aargh, how can people let these places fall into ruin?


I bought some mudguards the following day

"La griega"


The "man" in yellow is a permanent fixture - to scare off birds or burglars?

Una ria

A brothel, Asturian style (I kid you not)

This could be yours for a cool 1.5 million euros

This Polish pilgrim stopped me to ask directions on his way to Santiago. He seemed unaware of how like a Smurf he looked

El Gaitero (rhymes with shite-aero) - Asturias' worst but most successful export

An inauspicious start to 2011

Was it worth the blisters?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

I've gone and done it now

Why is it that I have to keep on pulling bits of dead skin off my foot (and there was loads after my foolish footwear last week - we are talking 7cm x 3cm x 1mm) until I accidentally pull off some skin that is still alive? It becomes like an obsession, all time dilates and I could easily spend hours doing it. Maybe that could be the secret to getting in that elusive "zone" that athletes are always talking about although I can't quite see how to combine it with anything else.

It took ages to get those leathery Hobbit like soles on my feet, I hope this doesn't set me back to months of blisters. I wonder if I will be able to run tomorrow...

Postscript: I did an 18km run but the new skin wasn't quite up to the job so it looks like its back to the blister cycle. I've put a Compeed plaster over the raw bit, hopefully that will tide me over until the skin has fully grown back. I really must resist picking next time!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Home gym

Its quite difficult to pick out the good stuff from the products that are hyped on those 24 hour shopping channels. There are so many "miracle products" out there that promise to turn you into that hunk or hunkess. Or at least, you make the association unconsciously although it is much more likely that they got their bodies out of a tin. Still, it would be wrong to dismiss everything that is sold on Shopaholic TV.

If you want to have huge and impressive but not particularly useful muscles, the best way to do this is to lift extremely heavy weights using those machines that you find in the gym. There isn't much point thinking about buying these machines unless you have tons of space (and money) because they work very specific muscles and so you need many of them. This is because the movement is constrained or supported and so you don't use any of those smaller muscles which are needed to move things in "real life" (things don't usually move in perfectly straight lines). In fact, it is very easy to end up with severe muscle imbalances that, while they may look impressive, they could easily become injured doing real work. In fact, most body builders use free weights (that is to say, dumbells) for this reason.

If you have any doubt why you should need to do strength work while training for an Ironman just work out the number of steps you take in a Marathon and multiply that by one or two times your body weight (your impact force in running). Now imagine going to the gym for the first time and lifting 150 kilos, say, 40,000 times! Strength training in endurance events is absolutely fundamental to avoid injury and it will also improve your performance.

Muscles can also have different kinds of strengths. The muscles are made up of many fibres that are of different types. Simplifying things somewhat, there are aerobic fibres - the dark meat you get on chicken legs for example, which are good for endurance - and anaerobic fibres - the white meat of the chicken breast, which are good for explosive power. It is believed that we are endowed with a proportion of each of these fibres genetically. This doesn't mean that the day we are born, it has already been written whether we have the potential to be a Usain Bolt or a Haile Gebrselassie. Luckily, there is a third type of muscle fibre which can change from aerobic to anaerobic, or vice versa, as a function of training. This is one of the main reasons, I believe, for why so much low intensity training is necessary for a long distance event. I'm always fascinated by the fact that, as soon as you go over 400m, the bodies of the dominant athletes of that distance change dramatically from those Superman-like figures, to frankly quite weedy looking guys. But don't be deceived, those stick like legs are capable of supporting incredible loads, over and over again. This is because they have been trained to use a much higher proportion of their muscle fibres. A body builder is more interested in having big muscles - there is no penalty for weighing more in his or her sport - so, the less fibres he activates proportionally, the better: that way, his muscles must get bigger in order to cope with the stresses he puts on them. A long (or middle) distance runner must be efficient first and foremost.

The good news is that you can do a surprising amount of effective training at home with a few silly looking (and relatvely cheap) bits of kit.

The Swiss Ball

It is surprising how much more effective it is doing almost any exercise while balanced on this ball: you notice it the next day. The reason is very simple: your brain automatically activates many more muscles and muscle fibres in order to stop you falling off. There are all kinds of different routines you can do on it, many of which you can find on the internet or just invent yourself. Incidentally, the classic stomach crunches or "abs" of the 80s went out with deely boppers and Mike Oldfield. This is for very much the same reasons as above. If you want to have a rippling six pack then that's all fine and well (although you'll need to get your body fat to less than 6% if you actually want to see them) but you can actually give yourself postural problems by overworking this group of muscles. The core muscles are crucial for running as they are for most sports, and they comprise not only the outer, visible layer, but an inner belt of muscles which are equally important and balance the outer ring. It is much better to train both these sets of muscles using either the Swiss Ball or doing what is called the "plank" or one of its many variants.

Stretch Cords

These don't really need much of an introduction. They work very well for two reasons. The first is that, any movement you make while they are in tension is unrestrained, so you activate many more muscles. The second, rather obvious reason, is that, unlike weights, the resistance increases as you stretch the cord so you get the perfect amount of resistance each time.


I haven't even bothered to find out what TRX stands for but it is a great example of "branding". The concept is simple - by suspending various bit of your body you can get a very effective workout with all the advantages of free weights plus the fact the equipment weighs next to nothing and can easily fit in your suitcase. It definitely beats using the hotel gym when you are on a business trip. The downside is that branding comes at a price - about €200 to be precise. It's such a simple idea that it is very easy to copy and this is exactly what has happened. I picked up some which are just as functional at a third of the price; you could probably make your own for less.

BOSU (BOth Sides Utilized)

Is it a board, is it a ball? No, its a BOSU
This can be used both right way up and upside down for loads of different types of instability exercises. The reason why it is useful to have this and the Swiss Ball is that you could hardly imagine doing what this guy is doing, balancing on a Swiss Ball! It is very good for all the lower leg and feet muscles which are so important for running. You can also combine its use with other exercises, pulling on the Stretch Cords while standing on it, etc.


Wouldn't it be great if you had a ready set of weights, all about the appropriate size of your body weight, say, and that you could carry around everywhere with you while taking up no extra space and not weighing a thing when not in use? Of course, everybody has this for free - it is their own body weight. For example, a very difficult exercise you can do are Nordic Hamstring Lowers (pictured left) - be careful at first! If you haven't got a handy helper around, you can get a bar which will fix to door frames and doubles as a pull up bar.

I'm starting to notice that these Scandanavians seem to be at the forefront of Sports Physiology time and time again. Both Polar and Suunto (the most popular heart rate monitors) are Finish companies. There must be some truth in what they say about that Viking blood they have.

A word on Vibrating Platforms...

If anything looks like the con of the century, then this must be it. And, anyway, didn't they claim you could lose weight with them back in the 80s? Its possible that it was once thought that you could somehow break down fats by shaking them to pieces but these platforms were found to be useful for Astronauts who, without that useful thing called gravity were unable to do any of the above exercises. Furthermore, without any impact from walking about, they developed serious cases of osteoporosis as the body noticed that all that useless bone wasn't good for anything and started to redeploy those cells elsewhere. The vibrating platform was thus saved from obscurity.

Meanwhile, some athletes noticed that it did actually have a training effect. Specifically, the vibrations trick the brain into believing that the body is going out of balance or that it is about to land hard and so your brain activates your muscles in preparation. It is similar, I suppose, to electrostimulation in that your muscles (and apparently very high proportions of their fibres) are being activated without you making the mental effort to do so. The advantage of the Vibrating Platform is that you can apply it to large areas of your body at a time. For the same reason it helped the Astronauts, it is also good to strengthen or rehabilitate bones, tendons and ligaments. My coach has even written an acdademic paper demonstrating the improvement in jumping of a women's basketball team as a result of vibration training.

Still, this doesn't really fit into the category of "home gym" as it is big, bulky and very expensive (I certainly don't have one). If you are going to buy one big item, then this is a good one as very few gyms have them and they are often monopolised by people (incorrectly) thinking that they can use them to lose cellulite. By the way, don't be fooled by the cheaper models - if you are going to buy one, make sure you check the specs of frequency and amplitude of vibration.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Time management

A lot of people ask me how I can think of training for an Ironman when I have a family and a job (touch wood). I have yet to see how well I cope with the heaviest training weeks which will be sometime in March or April and will probably be over 15 hours of training but I have already found some "tricks" without which this would be unthinkable.

The first trick was really the turning point for me and the point when I realised I might just be able to juggle all three (job, family and training). When I broke my foot last year I bought a Mountain bike to help me ride back to fitness and it was then that I discovered that it was possible to get from my house to work going through forests and hardly setting wheel upon tarmac. One thing I missed about London when I moved to Spain was that I used to be able to walk to work (and, until a serious road accident took the fun out of it, I used to go by bike). There is only one thing I hate more than driving and that is driving in Spain. Don't get me started on the lack of sensible roundabout rules or the fact that most drivers are too damn lazy to lift that little stick with their little finger, the one that operates the indicators which, as their name suggests, indicate to other road users your intentions! AAARGH!

Ten deep breaths... Where was I?

So, yes, I discovered I could get into work on my bike in about 45 minutes and avoid the stressful (for me) drive in which, these days, is taking anything from 20-40 minutes. Not much of a drive, I know - I'm lucky to live quite near work. If you do the sums, it means that I get 1h30m of training time for a "cost" of 30 minutes or so. In practice it is difficult to commute in every day of the week - if it has been raining the paths become virtually unusable and one time it was so bad, I managed to completely wreck my disc brakes (which cost me 200 euros to replace!). But if it were possible and it was of the same training benefit, I could do all my bike training using only 2 and a half hours of my time a week!

Another trick is to use the indoor turbo trainer which is a simple and relatively cheap device that you can hook the bike up to, turning it into a state-of-the-art indoor bicycle. The only disadvantage is that little bits of rubber from the tyres fly all over the place and stick to everything with static. I can be training on the turbo trainer and helping the kids with their homework or watching a film with my wife. I know not to kid myself that this equates to "quality time" with the family but it does help. Also, training indoors is more efficient than training outdoors - you can't coast or freewheel on a turbo trainer - so my coach equates an hour on the turbo trainer to 1h12m cycling outdoors. It is, however, boring as hell and you need a good fan to keep you cool.

Unfortunately, the very best way to make the most of your time is to train alone. The few times I have trained with other people, however much more enjoyable it is, I always end up losing loads of time faffing about. You have to be very organized and have all your kit ready at all times so that you don't waste time looking for things or realizing that you haven't got any clean socks. I also try to do almost all my training on the bike and running leaving from home and timing it such that I arrive at my doorstep just as my training time is up. Its not only a question of saving time fixing your bike to the car but I also have a thing against driving somewhere to go train; I find it so much more rewarding to be able to start right outside my front door. Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to live somewhere where this is possible.

Lastly, I try to minimize the number of times I have to change my clothes - within reason of course! So I may do a session after work, drive back in my sweaty sports kit and shower and change into my lounge-about-house clothes once I get home. It's amazing how much time you lose putting on a suit every day!

One thing you have to be very careful not to do, is to try to eek extra training time out of the time when you would otherwise be sleeping. What makes this particularly hard to do is that, the more you train, the more your body needs you to sleep so that it can effectively repair itself. This is one of the areas which puts strain on the family because I tend to want to go to sleep shortly after the kids go to bed... The other, more significant strain, is that I spend most of Saturday and Sunday morning training when I could otherwise be spending time with the kids or helping out at home. Although I wouldn't go so far as to say my wife has encouraged me to go for the Ironman, she is very supportive and tolerant of the load it puts on her (and she undoubtedly won't feel the same glory as I will when I cross the finish line in May). One thing I have learned is to make her aware in advance of exactly what the consequences of this undertaking are and to involve her in decisions of when it is best to train and which races I train seriously for and which I do "for fun". Still, I think I will only get one shot at the Ironman because it is so expensive both financially and in terms of what my family is paying. I'd better make it good then!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Japi Niu Llia

HAPPY NEW YEAR!! (I scheduled this post to appear at 00:00 on the 1/1/11 - don't think I'd be sad enough to be posting to my blog at a time like this! In fact, all being well, I will have just popped into my mouth the last of the grapes which are customary to swallow in time to the chimes of the clock striking 12 in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid and will, as with every year, be still struggling to down a mouthful of bitter grape seeds.)

Can you find Rob?
Every New Year's Eve, all across Spain, people take part in a race called San Silvestre. In Madrid alone 30,000 people run the 10 kilometers from Real Madrid's Bernabeu stadium down to the sports stadium in Vallecas (hence the name San Silvestre Vallecana). The question as always is, what colour will it be this year? (Last year was pink...)

In previous years, athletes of the standing of Paula Radcliffe have competed (and won, of course). This year we have no less than Zersenay Tadese, the 2009 World Half Marathon Champion (he'll no doubt be crap at 10k haha). There are two races: the international edition for which you have to qualify (with a time of less than 38 minutes in 10k) and the popular edition in which the other 29,000 people run. There is still fierce competition to win the popular edition - the winning time is usually just over 30 minutes... But the spirit is more of a huge street party with people dressing up and as many people coming to cheer on the runners as actually running. This year I got a qualifying time for the international edition but, as it was not in one of the three or four officially homologated races, I was not eligible. Instead I've decided to run in the popular edition wearing a dressing gown, boxer shorts and slippers. (By the time you read this, I will already have run - watch this space for a photo...)

2010 has been a great year for me, particularly in my sporting endeavors. I "only" broke my elbow falling off my bike this year and - touch wood - have not suffered any other injuries. I managed to get personal best times in 10k, half Marathon and the Marathon (my coach set himself this goal last year which, for him, was something of a taller order). I even made it on to the podium in one race! (OK, it was only a race at work but there are 6,500 people working on my campus so it's not too shabby.) I did my first duathlon and my first triathlon (a half Ironman, no less) and I completed the Madrid half Ironman distance event (half Astromad) which is touted as being one of the hardest in the world. I also finally figured out how to control my nutrition, both during races and in training.

Any New Year's Resolutions? I don't tend to believe in them as my experience has shown me that, if you need an external impulse to do something, it typically doesn't get done. However I have decided to stay off the alcohol and hard drugs ;-) until I cross the finish line in Brazil at the end of May.

Happy New Year to all of you and see you in 2011!