Sunday, January 29, 2012

Week 7 / 10

I spent most of the week basking in the after-glow of running the Getafe Half Marathon in 1:19. Not surprisingly I was a little bit tired afterwards and so I decided to delay my day of hard training until Thursday. That consisted of 4 series of 15 minutes at just below my anaerobic threshold which basically meant running at Half Marathon pace. I did them at 3:45 per kilometer (16 kph - well, actually 16.5 kph according to my optimistic treadmill) all except the last one, for which I had to slack off a little bit for the second half. Still, it was a pretty good workout with my heart rate at 173 bpm as it was during most of the Half Marathon.

On Friday I really was tired. I "only" had to run 70 minutes but I found it more tiring than usual; several people commented on how tired I looked afterwards and some people noticed I was virtually limping from fatigue. But this is what always surprises me about Triathlon training: you can be completely knackered one day and, after changing sport, be as fresh (or fresher) as if you'd had a day off. On Saturday I did a 2 and a half hour cycle ride at a fairly good pace for these parts of 30 kph on average, making my heart rate a little higher than the zone I was supposed to be training in. I decided to take the Triathlon bike for a spin so I swapped the wheels with my other bike and changed the brake pads over to the ones suitable for an aluminum braking surface. This time I didn't have any problems with nuts and bolts working themselves loose but I did have problems with water bottles being randomly launched into the middle of the road. Considering that one of them was filled not with water but with a spare inner tube and puncture repair kit, I had to keep a close eye on them the whole time, especially as I had no-one to "rescue" me this time if I got stuck. I worked out that the particular Camel Bak water bottles I was using are not compatible with the X Lab seat post bottle holder (and, to be fair, I seem to remember reading something about this in the instructions).

After my ride on Saturday, my legs were as good as new for the long run on Sunday. It was a nice treat to run in a group of runners of a similar - and in some cases significantly better - level, most of whom will also be running the Marathon in Seville. It was also a nice change to run at a much more leisurely pace than I have been doing my long runs lately, of 5:05 per kilometer (just under 12 kph). My heart rate was significantly below my aerobic threshold, an average of 138 bpm. Even so, it was a good session, nice company and a picturesque route. What a difference it makes not only to run with other people but to run along a route where hundreds of other runners are also doing their workout. I have run up to 35 kilometers virtually without seeing another soul before. With only a few weeks to go before the Marathon, I can expect little training effect but I do think it is important both mentally and physically to do these long runs. At this stage in the game, the intensity is not as important as time on my feet.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The ageing (tri)athelete

They say that a man has the face he deserves when he is 40 years old. I suppose the same can be said about his body.

I'm coming up to the big 4-0 in the next few months so I guess this topic has been a bit on my mind lately, if only on a subconscious level. So, it wouldn't be a coincidence, then, that I have recently read several articles on the subject - one even in the Economist this week. According to this article, there has been a recent flurry of activity on the subject of autophagy - which comes from the Greek for "self-eating". Rather than some kind of perverted sexual act, this refers to a process the body uses to break down and recycle damaged cells. Evidence from tests performed on the usual suspects - rats - seems to indicate that this process, triggered by regular exercise, helps combat the effects of aging.

I also stumbled upon this article from another blog, where I found this striking photo:

It is originally from an article by 2.52 Marathoner and physiotherapist, Laura McIntyre.

Then last night, as I was drifting off to sleep, I dipped into the Runners's Lore by Tim Noakes and started reading a section on running ultramarathons as you age. By his own admission, it was strange that the main thrust of the article (in a book about running) was actually to encourage older runners to mix up running with increasing amounts of non-weight bearing sports such as swimming and cycling. Anecdotally, the author reported that he had noticed as the years wore on, that the aches and pains in his muscles would become a more or less permanent accompaniment of his running mileage. He said that research was (at the time of writing) currently being undertaken in Cape Town University as to whether muscles had a limited number of "repair cycles". This would imply that a runner in his 40's who had been running since he or she was 20 might suffer a similar slow down to a 60 year old runner who took up running at the age of 40. Selfishly, I hope he is right. It's certainly food for thought and perhaps a good reason to move towards triathlon as we get older. However, an important point he made was that we should not base our expectations on those "outliers" who run sub-3 hour Marathons well into their 60's, or complete Ironman's in their 80's. While part of what makes them an outlier might be due to the small population of similarly aged athletes, some of it will be due to extraordinary genetics. After all, we wouldn't expect to be able to run as fast as Haile even if we did the same amount of training... Still, I just hope I can find a way to keep being active until the end credits roll...

The Lore of Running

I recently got this book back from a friend who I had lent it to some time ago. I'd forgotten just how good this book was. I remember when I first met Jonathan, I said something about books on running and he was a little dismissive. When I mentioned the Lore of Running, he agreed that was a different case altogether (I noticed that he had it on his shelf).

What has surprised me is that, everything that I have learned about running in the last four years, even my foray into the apparently trendy world of minimalist footwear - it's all in there, if you look! There is a very interesting chapter on energy systems and fatigue which asks some questions about the practice of carbo-loading and admits that current sports science is unable to explain how Mark Allen and Dave Scott were able to run a Marathon in 2:40 without becoming hypoglycemic. There is a brilliant chapter chronicling the best runners and triathletes of the last century and their training methods, often with excerpts from their training diary. I think the only area that could be improved or expanded upon would be on running technique and biomechanics.

If you haven't got this book and you are at all interested in learning more about running or at least making sure that the time you invest in it is put to good use then really, you must buy this book. It is in a class of its own.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Rock 'n' Roll

I've wanted to run in the International edition of the San Silvestre Vallecana race held on New Year's Eve ever since I started running again, just over four years ago. It is another goal which has gone from being something that seemed unattainable to not being a "big deal" without me even realizing it. In fact, in 2009 I had the requisite sub-38 qualifying time of 37:45 in a 10k race I did in Fuenlabrada that year, but I was disappointed to discover that it wasn't one of the very few "homologated" races that the RFAE had certified.

This year I really am in two minds as to whether to run the International Sansi or the Popular one with my family. The last one, I ran with my wife and a friend who was accompanied by his two small kids for about 3 kilometers. I think my kids would really enjoy it. It is actually feasible if not a little ambitious to do both as the International race starts a couple of hours after the Popular edition. Although I'd want to run the International one as fast as I could so I could use the first few kilometers of the Popular one as a warm up with my kids, go back with them to the start on the metro and deposit them with a friend / family member who could look after them while my wife finishes her race and I prepare mine. Sounds a bit complicated already, especially for a New Year's Eve.

Anyway, the first step is to actually qualify. I've already broken 38 minutes in a 10k twice this year - technically, the first time was actually on the last day of last year on a unhomologated course and the second time was during a Half Marathon. There are actually very few homologated races in Madrid and some of these are too late in the year to guarantee entry to San Silvestre, for which the subscriptions open some months before. Looking on the website there was the option of travelling hundreds of kilometers to a race which, quite frankly, I can't be bothered to do (I'm already schlepping half way around the world for my races this year). The other option is to run the 10k in Madrid that starts alongside the "Rock 'n' Roll" Marathon - previously known as Mapoma. I've never run the Madrid Marathon - definitely something for the bucket list - but I have run half of it as a training run. The atmosphere is fantastic. It isn't, however, the flatest of courses.

So I've put myself down for the Rock 'n' Roll Madrid 10k on the 22nd of April, two days after my 40th birthday and - what is more of a potential hindrance - a week after the ICAN Half Ironman in Marbella. Well, if I am able to maintain my current form, running 10k sub-38 is like a medium intensity (CCM) run so it should be doable.

Hopefully my wife will also run. It looks like the sort of race that she would enjoy although, this time, she's on her own...

Sunday, January 22, 2012

It is all in your mind - Media Maratón de Getafe race report

My pulse rate cheat sheet
I wasn't too confident that I would be able to make Jonathan's prediction that I should run a 1:20 Half Marathon come true because I had been having mild stomach cramps all weekend. Could be nerves but I doubt it because this race is not one of the "big ones" this year. But Getafe Half Marathon is extremely popular because it is the fastest course in town and it offers good money to the overall winners. 4,000 people (and their cars) descended on the otherwise sleepy Madrid suburb making it quite difficult to find a parking spot. For an otherwise superbly organized event, it is a shame that there is no special parking laid on. I don't remember the event being so hectic last year but I arrived a little on the late side to get my chip and race number, visit the bog for the 4th time (this year I remembered to bring my own toilet paper), leave my stuff in the cloakroom and do a quick warm-up.

I have this very silly theory for why I seem to do better in local races that I drive to than in big races that I have to travel to by train or plane. And it's not the obvious explanation that it might be because I am more nervous about the big races or due to tiredness from traveling. No, it's because I sing in the car on the way to a race. You know, loud embarrassing singing that would definitely not be happening if there were anyone else within earshot of me. I reckon that this warms my lungs up and gets me psyched up for the race ahead.

I lined up more or less where I thought I would place, as usual, miscalculating for the fact that so many people bunch up at the last minute. The gun went off and the first kilometer or so was a mad scramble to run at a decent rhythm with so many people around who had clearly overestimated their abilities. In fact I spent pretty much the entire race overtaking people, I think I was only overtaken by one person the whole time.

This was the first time I ever ran in the same race as Jonathan so I was determined to do him proud. I set my watch up so I could see my pulse rate and the time I had been running but I specifically did not want to know the GPS measured distance; instead I went by the markers by the side of the road. It required relatively simple maths skills to run at 3:50 per kilometer - I just had to keep track of how much under the minute I was at each milestone (kilometerstone) and try to be 10 seconds below that at the next one. I found it pretty easy to keep rhythm and I just kept an eye on my pulse rate to make sure it didn't go too far above the guide written on the back of my hand.

I passed the 10k mark in a net time of 37:36 which is a personal best time for me for a 10k race! I was already about half a minute ahead of pace and I was feeling good. I was so "in the zone" that I didn't notice my family shouting for me the first two times I passed them.

When I got to the 15 kilometer mark I started to breathe a little harder and, by the 16 kilometer mark, I was now breathing my trademark "locomotive" style. A couple of friends running on the other side of the road called out my name, presumably because they recognized my distinctive breathing. Now I was very confident I would break the 1:21 mark, leaving the challenge of breaking 1:20 for another day. I'm not sure whether I was running faster or other people were fading, but I was certainly having to make a big effort. I overtook one guy who slapped me gamely on the back and said "Go machine!". Once I got to the final 96m straight, I could see from the clock that I was in with a good chance to break 1:20! I summoned up energy for a final spurt by shouting and swearing at the pain and discomfort and ran through the arches with a time of 1:19:45 (net 1:19:37)!! Unbelievable. According to the splits on my Garmin, I ran the second quarter Marathon just a couple of seconds faster than the first quarter.

It just goes to show that, sometimes, it is a question of believing you can do it (consciously and subconsciously). I think that the speed work I have been doing lately in the way of series has shown the "central governor" part of my brain that I can sustain a pace of very nearly 16 kph for 21 and a bit kilometers. Very happy with that performance.

Now I just have to translate it into an equivalent Marathon time...

Youness - with whom we went to Morocco - came in fifth overall with a group of international standard runners. Jonathan missed breaking 1:13 by four seconds. Everyone else I talked to seemed to be pretty happy with their performance. I got a feeling, that 2012 is gonna be a good year...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Lactate test

After they had finished with me last night I looked as though I had just narrowly won a fight with a vampire, with streaks of blood standing out violently against the fluorescent yellow of my jacket. To measure the lactate levels in your blood, the only way to do it is by extracting blood. As timing is the key - we are interested in how quickly the body is able to metabolize or "clear" the lactate - the trick is to prick a hole in the subject's ear, thus providing a steady supply of drops of blood to analyze.

I wouldn't normally have my lactate tested before a "B" race like the Half Marathon I am running this weekend in Getafe but, in this case, one of the students of the Universidad de Europa where my trainer is based, was looking for victims - I mean subjects -´to form part of a study for a doctoral thesis. Normally each test requires a patch which costs around 7 euros, so I thought I might as well take advantage of a free test. Perhaps the real reason was that I knew that I would get a "discount" on my otherwise hard Tuesday night training session! (I still had to run 10 minutes at my anaerobic threshold afterwards, which I did at around 16,8 kph).

The protocol was one I was fairly used to. I had to run a kilometer round a track at a prescribed pace. In order to make sure I kept the right pace, I had to ensure that a watch I was provided with "beeped" every time I passed a marker. More than keeping pace, it was important to avoid sudden accelerations and better to err on the side of going too slow, otherwise my lactate levels could blow up prematurely. The first two kilometer runs were at a pace supposedly below my Half Marathon pace, at 4:00 per kilometer (15 kph). The second two, I ran at 3:45 (16 kph). At the end of each kilometer, I would take my pulse (155, 156, 166, 170) and Iker would extract a drop of blood in order to measure my lactate levels.

Afterwards I had a chat with Jonathan. Based on the lactate test and recent training, he said that I should try to run the Half Marathon at a pace of 3:50. That means running it in 1:20, or a two minute improvement on my best time!! As it is a "B" race, I think I can afford to take the risk. Sometimes you are more limited by what you think you can achieve than you realize.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Week 5 / 10

Remind me never to do that again. It was such a grim day yesterday that I couldn't face my long run outside so I decided to run 2 hours on the treadmill. The problem I found was that my feet started to get quite hot and I got some of my first blisters for a long while. I was even woken up in the night every time my toes brushed the the duvet. One of the drawbacks of the treadmill (apart from being boring as hell) is that every step is the same as the last so you tend to overload some parts of the foot and not others. For this reason, it is actually easier for a trained person to injure themselves on a treadmill than on a trail. Anyway, even taking into account the 3.5% error, I ran over 27 km in the two hours. Once you get to 100 minutes, the treadmill rudely stops and you have to restart it (although it doesn't reset everything back to zero).

So the Marathon is looming ever nearer and this time I feel quite different about it. Less obsessed and a bit more relaxed. We'll see whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. This week I have a lactate test and a mini taper before the Getafe Half Marathon on Sunday. This will be my only chance to check my form before the Marathon and I plan to run it flat out rather than at Marathon pace.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Treadmill calibration

On Saturday I was supposed to run for an hour at "CCM" which is halfway between my aerobic and anaerobic thresholds (heart rate of 167 bpm or roughly Half-Marathon pace). I decided to do it on the treadmill so, as usual, I set the incline to 1%, put on a film and set off at 15 kph. By halfway my heart rate was still in the aerobic zone (150 bpm), which is where I do all my easy and long runs. It felt like I was running fast - I was kicking my legs up high and my lungs were being forced to work reasonably hard. I had seen some impossibly low heart rate register on my watch so maybe that was what was broken... I decided to up the ante to 15.5 kph for the second half but even that was only enough to get my heart rate up to 160 bpm so, finally, I ran the last 15 minutes at 16 kph, running a total of 15.4 km in a hour. By which time my heart rate climbed to 170 bpm at the end. It was a fairly hard run but it wasn't that hard! I realized that the treadmill must be running too slowly.

I discovered that there is a way to calibrate the belt speed. I was surprised to discover that all treadmills seem to use the same trick to activate the calibration mode: while holding down the "stop" and "increase speed" buttons, you insert the key and then release the two buttons. When you ramp up the motor to 85% of it's maximum power, the treadmill should reach maximum speed - in my case it was saying 17.5 kph instead of the reported maximum of 18 kph. My treadmill appears to have an automatic calibration mode which you start by pressing the "increase speed" and "decrease speed" buttons as you insert the key. In general, all the speeds were coming out slightly lower than they should have been but I expect that the automatic calibration is on the conservative side. Imagine that somebody were to injure themselves on a treadmill and then sue the manufacturer because it was running at 9.3 kph instead of the 9 kph they had programmed!

I tried using my Garmin foot pod, which is a little device with in built accelerometers that you attach to your shoe. Firstly I calibrated it to GPS signals by running outside and then I ran (supposedly) at 16 kph on the treadmill indoors. The foot pod seems so inaccurate that I wasn't able to come to any conclusion. For example, just by exaggerating the kick under my butt, I was able to appear to run much faster even though I had not changed the speed of the belt.

It seems to me that the best approach is to do the obvious. I chalked a mark on the belt, measured the length of the belt and counted how many times the mark went past in a minute. For this I used a BPM (Beats Per Minute) calculator on my iPhone - sometimes my past life as a deejay comes in handy. By my calculations, the treadmill is about 3.5% slow. Even so, the run I did last night was at an average speed of 14.9 kph - fast enough to run 10k in a tad over 40 minutes and then another half again. Not bad for a less than medium intensity run.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Precise calorie measurement

The most precise way to measure how many calories we burn is to measure the oxygen we consume and the carbon dioxide we breathe out. As we know the chemical reactions for fat and carbohydrate metabolism, in both cases we can work out the ratio of oxygen going in to carbon dioxide going out. From this, we can calculate how much of our energy is being derived from fat and how much from carbohydrates and, finally, knowing the total volume of oxygen consumed, we can then accurately determine how many calories we are burning at a given heart rate. The only real approximation here is to ignore the very small amount of energy we derive from protein (and alcohol!) metabolism. This test is usually performed with a respirometer as part of a VO2max test, whose principal aim is to determine your maximum oxygen uptake. The test can also be used to measure your anaerobic threshold, beyond which you are no longer to metabolize fats as the reactions are too slow for the rate of energy required, as well as your aerobic threshold, below which the calories you burn are mostly from fat.

The latest Garmin Forerunner models (305, 405, 405CX, 410, 310XT and 610) are able to upload a special file created by doing a New Leaf fitness test which is then used to calculate accurate calorie burns in function of heart rate. DC Rainmaker, in his excellent blog that I read every day, has not only just done one of these tests but he has explained in a post how one can "hack" an XML file in such a way that you can upload the results from any VO2 max test. This is good news for me because there is no New Leaf center where I live so I will definitely try this out next time I do one. I'm interested to know whether it is possible to upload a different profile for running and for cycling as the fat / carbohydrate ratio for a given heart rate will be different in each case. This is because you use a different muscle mass in each sport and there will be a different mix of type I (oxidative) and type II (fast twitch) muscle fibers and a correspondingly different VO2max.

Another thing altogether is being able to precisely measure how many calories we take on, short of burning an identical plate of food to the one we are about to eat. Knowing only one side of the calorie balance equation with precision is of limited use... But it can be a good way to equate the training load of running at low intensity with cycling at high intensity, for example (the idea behind TRIMPS or TRaining IMPusles).

Found it... sense or my wallet? Both I hope.

After having cancelled all my credit cards, I got a call this morning saying that my wallet had been found halfway between the gym and the gates. Must have left it on top of the car then. I did actually go back to look for it there last night but it was dark. My wallet was missing half the cards so I went back to the scene and found the rest of them liberally spewn all over a 200m stretch of road.

I rang Jonathan today to say that we had to seriously rethink my training load. A shame really, because physically I am tolerating it very well and I am currently running further and faster than ever before. I want to focus now on running the Marathon and this will free up a lot of time (hopefully) when I would otherwise be swimming and cycling. Once that is over, I should have enough time before the Half Ironman to at least be able to comfortably complete the distance in the sea and on the bike. In the end, all I want to do is enjoy the chance to bomb along on my new bike in the aero position without having to worry about cars!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Someone didn't want me to go swimming today...

Today is one of those complicated days when I "have" to go to the gym before work, at lunchtime and after work if I am to be able to complete the hour swim, the hour run and the weights session I have programmed. So I set out my things last night and got up early but it was just as I was entering the ramp to the motorway (the point of no return) that I realized that I had left my suit and shirt at home. Damn! Even though I was less than a kilometer away from home, I had to drive 10 (half of those in heavy traffic) to get home again and the space outside my house had since been filled so I had to park some way around the corner. Even that wasn't enough to stop me: I looked at my watch and realized I could still just about squeeze the swim in, so I went back to the car. Now, the car has one of those "keyless systems" whereby you don't actually have to insert the key to be able to open or start the car- it is enough for the key to be in your pocket. Why did they have to invent a solution for something that wasn't a problem in the first place? To be fair, the car has been warning me for a few days that the batteries in the key are running low but it had to be this morning while I was standing outside in a pair of shorts in sub zero temperatures that the bloody car decides it's not going to open for me. That really was the final straw so I went back home and tried to "reset" the day by snoozing for 15 minutes or so.

Of course, it's not really a big deal - I can move the swim to tomorrow or even if I skip it, it's hardly going to make any difference. But this is what I found hard about the Ironman training last year: it's not that I am tired or fed up of training, it's that I have to make such an effort to squeeze in some of the sessions that, when anything unexpected happens, it meets with the full force of my efforts in the form of anger, frustration and even guilt. Even though I am "only" doing a Half Ironman this year, the extra load compared to "just" training for a Marathon is very noticeable. As this year I am not too concerned about performing at my best in the Half, I may decide to scale down my training load or skew it towards running (for which you get much more bang for your buck).

Part II

So I did my run at lunchtime without too many problems but, when it came to go to the gym after work, I realized that I had left my work access card somewhere - probably in one of the vending machines. After going all round the building trying to find it I eventually found it on my desk under a pile of papers - doh! I got to the gym a bit late and it was absolutely packed with people fulfilling their New Year's Resolutions so it was quite difficult to get around my weights circuit, but I managed in the end. On the way home I had to pick up something from the pharmacy so, as I got into the car, I took my wallet from my suit and put it in the pocket of the gym clothes I was wearing. Or at least I that's what I think I did because when I got to the pharmacy I couldn't find it anywhere. I made a trip back to work and retraced my steps but all to no avail. It probably fell out of my pocket as I was getting into the car or maybe I made the classic mistake of leaving it on the roof of the car, who knows. The point is that all these kind of incredibly annoying things are happening for a reason more than pure coincidence... I am just overloaded!! What a day. Now that I have written it down (and cancelled all my bloody credit cards) I'm starting to feel a bit better about it already.

Range of Motion

Uh oh
What has this picture got to do with the title of this post? For that matter, what does "range of motion" refer to?

The picture is of my Mac charger after my father-in-law's dog chewed through it at the weekend. Incredibly, I was able to find a replacement charger the next day in a shop on the way home from work. Incredible, because I both work and live "in the sticks". However, yesterday, as I was getting ready to do my series of 20 minutes hard running on the treadmill, the new charger started acting up. Rob needs the charger to charge my Mac, to play the film that Rob needs, to be able to suffer the run. The days when I leave my workout until the evening I tend to get a little nervous; for me, the best time is at lunch time when I am neither straight out of bed nor am I spending time when I could otherwise be with my family. I got especially nervous that I wouldn't be able to do my workout unless I could watch some kind of slasher-flick to distract me as I have been doing lately. In the end, not only did I manage to solve the problem but I had the best workout I have perhaps ever had.

I need to qualify that. The thing is, either I was running much faster for less effort than usual, or the treadmill was broken. I'm really not sure which. It felt as though I was running fast but the difference was (and here the title of the post will become clear) that I was kicking my legs up much higher under my butt. The back of my hamstrings started to get warm from the contact with my lower leg and it felt like the leg was rebounding of my bum. I ran the first set of twenty minutes at 16 kph and didn't even go over 160 bpm (for comparison, my recommended heart rate for running a Marathon is 163 bpm). The next set I did at 16.5 kph and the last 20 I did half at the same speed before dropping down to 16 kph for the end (my heart rate was now where it should be, just below the anaerobic threshold at 178 bpm).

By kicking my leg up higher (larger range of motion) my cadence was lower than it would usually be running at that speed. I may try to measure it to see whether it was lower than my cadence at my cruising speed of 13.5 kph. All the schools of efficient running advocate a high cadence of around 180 footsteps per minute - some even suggest you run with a metronome, others simply say that the high cadence is the result of doing everything else right. The Pose Method, which I followed in order to run more efficiently, talks a lot about the range of motion and essentially says that the drills help us find an optimal range of motion. Too high a range of motion and you are wastefully moving your legs; too low and the cadence becomes too high and the extra steps taken are similarly wasteful. This is also related to the stride length and how much we bounce up and down in each stride. Much has been made of the importance of not bouncing up and down too much - this is needless work done against gravity - but it is also clear that this up and down movement muust be optimized not necessarily minimized. A study that was cited in the "Iron War" book that I read over the weekend came to the conclusion that the "bounce" wasn't a determining factor in the efficiency of the runners it tested but, what was critical, was the acceleration / deceleration of each footstep. In other words, the braking effect which is especially exacerbated by heel striking but is also determined by your skill and elasticity as a runner. So maybe I was bounding more by lifting my leg higher, maybe I was bouncing up and down a little more as a result, but perhaps I was running more efficiently. After all, I have long, powerful (and heavy) legs.

If I get a chance I may try a little scientific experiment of one on myself in order to determine my optimal cadence (the measurable consequence of running with one range of motion or another). The problem, of course, is that many other factors influence the heart rate, in particular, how tired you are. Anyway, something to think about...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Urban cycling

After just having got back from London, which has done a pretty good job of retro-fitting facilities for cyclists to an old, crowded city, I was struck by the amount of newspaper print dedicated to a tragic bike accident in Barcelona. Please don't misunderstand me: it was a terrible thing to happen but it is also something that happens (unfortunately) every so often in London. Meaningless statistics were quoted claiming that riding a bike was 5 times as safe as going by car, given that the number of accidents relative to the population of bike users is five times less than it is in the car world. This would only be a fair comparison if it were restricted to inter-urban journeys: to compare road accidents at 120 kph on the motorway with those incurred while cycling to the local corner shop doesn't make much sense.

However, this particular type of accident is worryingly common. The cyclist rides is on the inside of a large truck, the truck decides to turn right (left in the UK) without having seen the cyclist and drags him or her under the wheels. Actually, I read that this more commonly befalls women than men. The reason that was speculatively put forward is that women tend not to be such aggressive riders as men and prefer to tuck themselves into the side, rather than confidently claiming the road ahead. In fact the same person that made this comment said that the common advice given by road safety authorities to keep in as close to the curb as possible (while watching for opening car doors) is actually wrong: cyclists have to be more assertive and claim a (reasonable) part of the road for themselves and BE SEEN if they are going to survive as equals.

Many steps have been taken in the UK to avoid this type of accident, perhaps the best of these being the Advance Stop Line (ASL) which is the box just behind the traffic lights which only cyclists are allowed to use. This makes sure that they are clearly seen by the motorists behind. Another innovation is for some trucks to have written on the side - "If you are here I can't see you in my mirror".

Still, the best defense against road accidents is to gain critical mass. Once cyclists become a common sight rather than a rarity, motorists will be sure to look out for them. Until then and even after, we have to ride imagining every possible scenario. Please be safe...

Monday, January 9, 2012

Iron War book by Matt Fitzgerald

I'm sure much has been written about the epic battle between Mark Allen and Dave Scott to win the Hawaii Ironman World Championships in 1989 but it can only be a reflection of the recent rise in popularity of ultra endurance tests that it has taken 22 years for someone to write a book on the topic. That "someone" is none other than Matt Fitzgerald, a fairly prolific sports science writer, here slightly out of his usual terrain. Nevertheless, it makes for a gripping read, as the fact that I managed to read it from cover to cover over the (long) weekend testifies.

Matt's thorough research is very evident as he brings back to life the events in such detail as if they were being told the day after by those involved. True to his science background, he is sure to cite all the references he used in the appendix so it is possible to discern what was actually said and done (supposing those interviewed have not since embellished things) from journalistic dramatization.

The book took the predictable but no less valid tack of contrasting the "No Pain No Gain" sheer brute force approach of Dave Scott with the holistic and meditational approach of Mark Allen. At times it seems like the book is biased towards Dave Scott - it certainly shows sympathy for this larger than life character who was prone to periods of self doubt and binging - but I suspect that this is more due to the fact that Dave wears his heart on his sleeve while Mark is battling his personal demons behind the privacy of his outer mask and is therefore much more difficult to read let alone write about.

In my opinion Matt overstretches his analysis in applying current theories of exercise science to an event that happened nearly a quarter of a century ago. While it was a gargantuan feat (Mark Allen still holds the record from that year for the Marathon split in an Ironman) I think the author is a bit presumptuous to paint it as the pinnacle of suffering across all sports. Still, I found some of the ideas quite interesting. While I was familiar with Tim Noakes' "Central Governor" theory - that fatigue is a mechanism that the brain uses to avoid overexertion, rather than a message that the muscles send back - I was not aware of a part of the brain that is apparently activated whenever an "impulse" has to be overridden. This is the same part of the brain that lights up when we are asked to perform a "Stroop test" - in which we have to name the colour in which words are printed, made more difficult by the fact that the words themselves are the names of (other) colours. For this we have to override our impulse to read the word as opposed to saying it's colour. According to research cited by the author, this is the same part of the brain - the Anterior Cingulate Cortex - that is invoked when we override fatigue. He goes on to postulate that Dave Scott was born with a powerful ACC which allowed him to push himself harder than anyone else, while Mark Allen developed this through his difficult relationship with his father. This is an entertaining idea (nurture versus nature) but perhaps taking things a bit too far. But wouldn't it be great if we could substitute running hard series for doing a Stroop test or two?

All joking aside, after two decades in which sport science seems to have finally equated "No Pain No Gain" with "No Brain", it seems as though a return to basics might be worthwhile. After all, to win a race (or even just beat a personal best time) takes mental toughness and this mental toughness is built up through training. Dave Scott trained intuitively, trying to build into his workouts as many challenges as he could so that he would have the confidence come race day to face anything that was thrown at him. Mark Allen would rest his body so that he could perform his hard workouts more effectively; Dave would relish doing hard workouts when he was most tired, so that he could build that mental toughness. It's also true that Dave got injured a lot more often.

In summary, definitely well worth reading. I have seen several videos of the Ironman World Championships and yet, only after reading the descriptions in this book, I feel for the first time the seeds of desire to compete in Hawaii. I will keep it in mind for when I make the 50+ age group (except, by then, the standards will no doubt have sky rocketed).

Week 4 / 10

Another pretty solid week of training safely under the belt: two sessions of series, a long run, a medium cycle ride and some weights and swimming as "fillers". I was quite pleased with the long run which was, as usual, at the end of a fairly tiring week. To be fair, its hard to say where one week starts and another ends because, when I am training for Triathlon, I don't seem to get any days off: the idea is that biking is a rest from running and swimming a rest from biking. We were in Ciudad Real with my in-laws to celebrate "the Kings" who, in spite of the crisis, are still competing fairly aggressively with Santa Claus. The weather was perfect running weather: blue skies, sun (I'm getting asked if I have been skiing these days) and a bracing cold air. I think I went further in this two hour run than I have ever done before, even further than the one I did in London (at sea level) a few weeks ago, covering 26.88 km (pace 4:27, only 12 seconds per kilometer slower than 3 hour Marathon pace). It also felt really easy (actually, I assumed I was running too slowly but decided to stick to my pulse rate of 150 bpm). I really think that the fast running (series) that I am doing is having a trickle down effect and helping me to run faster and bio-mechanically more efficiently at lower intensities.

I'm also trying to ride about half an hour a day on the Triathlon bike (on the turbo trainer) in the aero position, so as to get used to the position. It's still hard to maintain but I notice it getting more and more tolerable. When I ride on the aerobars on my road bike in the less aggressive position that I am able to attain on it, it feels like a doddle. So I'm not sure that the investment in the Triathlon bike will necessarily make holding the aero position any easier but it is certainly a much more aero position unless, of course, I have to keep sitting up to give my arms a rest. The test will be the Half Ironman in April although the profile looks about as "flat" as the roads around here...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Week 3 / 10

Not much to say about this week that hasn't been said before. Apart from the two races I did on Saturday, I think the only workout worth mentioning was the cycle ride I did on Sunday. It was a beautiful sunny day and just the right temperature that gloves were not necessary, neither did I work up much of a sweat. I took the road bike although it is always a temptation to go with the tri bike. In the end, the fact that I would have to swap the wheels around or risk getting a flat tubular and most likely having to call my wife to come and rescue me, tipped the balance in its favour. It was a two and a half hour session so I got well beyond Brunete, about 45 minutes away from my house, which seems to be the epicenter of the world and the point through which all cycling routes round my neck of the woods have to pass. Once out on the relatively flat road to Navalcarnero, I was able to zip along at a pretty handy speed without going above my aerobic threshold and get my average for the whole ride up to 30kph. I have to say I really enjoyed it, in spite of it being the last thing I felt like doing on New Year's Day. Just as well that I like riding because I expect there will be a lot more from where that came from between now and the Half Ironman in Marbella in May.

Oh, by the way, I've been asked to write an article on minimalist running shoes for a Spanish sports magazine.. Watch this space!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

San Silvestre(s)

I'm right in the middle, starting more or less where I finished
I can actually remember taking this step (I didn't get wet by the way)
I said I was going as "Abba" not as "un haba" (bean)
With my wife just before the race
People throwing away the extra layers of clothes
As I already mentioned, I was quite pleased with coming 21st out of 800 runners in the San Silvestre race in Las Rozas in the morning. But it was even more pleasing to see that my wife not only managed to finish the San Silvestre Vallecana race in the afternoon (she'd never run more than 5k before in her life) but that she enjoyed it and is even talking about the possibility of putting her name down for some more races. It was quite an experience running at the back (especially dressed the way I was). It was very crowded pretty much the whole way and I got - ahem - a lot of compliments both from the crowd and from the other runners. I really think it is a great event - many people just run this race and nothing else. We finished in just under 1:15 and there were even those who sprinted for the line, presumably to beat their own personal best times. It's not a race, it's a party.