Sunday, October 23, 2016

Where did THAT come from?

I'm hardly in a position to write a "Secrets of my success" story; I have not broken any World Records, won any bike races, or made any headlines in recent years.
But I have come off arguably one of my best seasons of racing in 2016, with massive improvements to my cycling power numbers, running speeds, and racing intelligence, and I can't help but reflect and share my thoughts on how this came to be.

But let's rewind a bit, as it's been 3 years since my last post and it's probably best to recap a bit.
2013 saw me bike racing in cat 3, dabbling in cyclocross, running, and duathlon.
I raced the BMO Okanagan 10k in 41:50 and averaged merely 250W for the 30k Provincial Time Trial.
That season I only attained half of my upgrade points for cat 3, despite racing nearly everything on the calendar.

2014 was the first season for Peloton Racing, the cycling club Mike and I started. This led to an inspired first half of the year with the prospect of riding with teammates. Alas, with Mike in cat 2, it wasn't until the last couple weeks that I finally got to really race with Karel and JVD. If you've never raced road bikes before on an organized team, let me tell you, there is an instant elevation in your abilities. Karel and Jack made sacrifices for me and I was able to get enough points to upgrade to cat 2!
Finished the season off with 2nd place at Blitz Duathlon, after focusing on running for a few weeks but with plenty of carry-over cycling fitness.

With a jump to the big leagues (of Alberta cycling) for 2015, I knew I was in no condition to compete unless I enlisted a coach. JVD was an obvious choice as both a teammate and friend, and has a track record second to none in cycling and multi-sport.
My goals were pretty simple, work on my FTP to get my TT times at cat 3 podium level. I had no delusions about my TT ability versus other cat 1/2 men, but that would at least give me respectable times.
My other goal was to keep running on my calendar so that I could keep up my elite runner fiancee.
She would start bike racing this year as well, and both having the same coach helped coordinate our weekly workout schedule to put in runs and rides together, aka "date nights."
Well, first ABA stage race Velocity, I get 32/44 in the ITT, and subsequently dropped from the road race later that afternoon. This was going to be a looong season. BUT... my time in the ITT would have put me 3rd in cat 3!
My power numbers were up over last year and I reached my training goal. The rest of bike season went much the same; coming in bottom 2 in each ITT, getting dropped in each road race, and getting lapped for the first time ever in a criterium!
With a bit more focus on base and general aerobic strength, my running was coming along better.
I came in 3rd in the Footstock Duathlon, coming into T2 tied with first but my hands were too frozen to get my helmet off! At Blitz, I flatted right before the bike turnaround in a great position. Later in Kelowna, I set a new PB in the BMO 10K at 39:43. Oh, and did I mention I married my best friend, lover, and training partner that summer, atop Sulphur Mountain! Regardless of my lackluster race performances, this was easily the best year of my life!

Then I did something I haven't done before... I took time off. Surgery forced me to 6 weeks off running and cycling! In the past 5 years, my previous record was 3 days! As I eased back in, I took up swimming a couple times a week, and when the snow came, Mel (also coming off a month-long injury-forced hiatus) and I decided to take up cross country skiing, and loved it!
I also added stair running. 
For the next 3 months, I averaged about 1-2 bike, 1 run, 1 stair, 1 swim, and 1-2 xc ski activities per week.
Oh the variety! I was loving every one, none of them feeling like a "workout," though many scored some pretty serious TSS. 
It wasn't until March that I decided to re-enlist Jack to coach me, but this time my goals were different.
Bike racer. Nothing else should interfere with this plan, from March until July. One more kick at cat 1/2.
After that I could assess where I was at, switch focus to duathlon or running or bbq'ing...

I felt like my fitness level was high, despite my lack of bike time. My weight was down from the cross-training and I hit some new power numbers in Penticton camp in April. Nothing dramatic, but a good start.
More interestingly, I could recover from my workouts better and my endurance on long rides was at an all time best. Hard to quantify those benefits, but I could tell this year was going to be different.
I spent little to no time on my TT bike this year, but rather built on top of my base with some highly specific sharpening of the upper training zones.
But would it pay off in racing cat 1/2?

May 14th, Velocity ITT, 16km. Passed by my 1 minute man around km 2. My 2 min man passed me about one km later. My power numbers were dropping, and my lungs and legs were failing me. Then my Garmin mount came loose. Then my 3 and 4 min men passed me... I'll spare the expletives I was thinking, but let's just say morale was at an all time low.
I had been sick all week and wasn't completely surprised by this disaster, but the team was so supportive, with Melissa and Stephan Becker winning their categories, and several others in the top 5.
The road race later that afternoon forced me to stop dwelling on my defeat. Having been dropped in that race in previous years, I set my expectations pretty low; complete 3 laps (might as well get a ride in).
Well, 3 laps came and went and the pace was pretty modest and I started feeling good. I went to the front and pulled. I chased. I even broke away and formed a chase group that stayed away and almost caught a 6-man break. I finally felt like I was racing again! Managed a decent sprint after 140kms, good for 10th! Morale was an all-time high again, just like that.
The next day, I felt a bit of intimidation lining up for the crit. But, like the day before, I found my racing legs and hung on. Didn't tango in the sprint, but was very happy with a 15th place finish (and not getting lapped!)

The rest of the bike racing season would see me hang on in every crit and smash my power numbers. My Canada Day Crit normalized power for 1hr was 339W! 2 days later I finished 2nd in my age, 5th overall in the Great White North Duathlon, qualifying me for World's in 2017, despite little to no running.
I would finish off bike season with an 8th place finish in a semipro-stocked Tour De Bowness criterium, and among the lead group of 4 in a strong MEC century race.

Then I switched to running, and after a month of footwork, proceeded to set new PB's in the 5K (18:43), 10k (38:22), and my first half-marathon (1:24:12).

So... what lead to this breakthrough? After training and racing competitively for 7 years, how did I crack through my plateau?
I've noticed a trend among other racers in cycling and running lately and a few themes leap out.

Take Time OFF
All endurance athletes I know have something in common, some addictive personality type that is fueled by working out. It helps us deal with health, weight, stress, kids, family, etc. After competing at a high level for so long, this workout routine is so engrained that it's very difficult to break it, and yet that is exactly what our bodies and minds need to fully recover and heal after multiple seasons of high volumes and intensity.
Everyone has seen a racer sustain an early-season injury and come back near the end of the season fired up!

Hire a coach
We also often measure our success by watching others. I've certainly been guilty of coming home after a good 3 hr bike ride, feeling accomplished, only to upload to Strava to see so-and-so posted a 5 hr ride and suddenly feel like my effort was inadequate. Once I found a coach I trusted, I never had that feeling again. I knew that my 3 hours were part of the plan for the week, and that week fit into the plan for the season. A good coach will push you to try things you wouldn't even imagine doing in training, giving you an unbiased assessment of your capabilities. Whether it's forcing you to push harder, or forcing you to take a rest day, it's one thing very difficult for even the most seasoned athletes to do themselves.

Find something ELSE
Half the people reading this will immediately tune out, but here's a way to take time off your primary sport while sustaining your mental and physical fitness.
Last year I took up swimming, stair climbing, and cross country skiing and did not even think about the bike for months. It kept my weight and endurance in check, such that when I was ready to bike, I was truly ready!

Turn off the Garmin
Ok that's crazy talk, especially coming from me. Strava or it didn't happen, right?
Ok ok, I don't mean actually turn it off, but don't rely on it. What happens when doing an FTP test where your expectation is X watts? You typically achieve X watts, or lower.
Set out with a 40 minute 10k goal and that is likely the best you will attain.
Once in a while, it's helpful to recalibrate and go on feel. Push on up hills, recover when you've pushed too hard. I know it's not the prescribed pacing strategy and I know it's an inefficient use of your glycogen stores by not pacing evenly, but it's a great way to release yourself from the confines of your own self-assessed limitations.

Enjoy yourself
There is a time and place for high intensity, long endurance, or overloading training stress. But in the off-season, go on 'rate of perceived fun.' Run until you're not LOVING it anymore. Ride as hard as you like, taking the time to appreciate your surroundings, nature, your family. Take it easy, meet new people, discover new roads. If your kids or spouse isn't as fanatical about the sport as you are, now is the time to invest in the future of the rest of your lives. Find a tangentially related past-time that you both enjoy, hiking, skiing, etc.

In the end, you will all do what you wish and my only reason for writing this is that I have discovered these to have been tremendously beneficial for me and want to write it down, as I continue my eternal search for unlocking the hidden potential in myself and my loved ones. Watching Melissa elevate her performance this year and watching my 12 year old son discover his first crush with running fills me with such hope and pride that I am inspired to update my blog again.
Hopefully it won't be another 3 years until my next post!