Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Training - Learn to Suffer

For the last few years I find myself in the same position each winter. I trained a bit in December so I'd be okay when I did my 5 day January Florida trip, and then I'd go do my 2 or 3 week February California trip. I'd return home with mixed feelings - the training was great but just a bit too short. One cannot make a season on three weeks of training.

Yet this is what I did. Once I returned things would get hectic and I willingly traded training time for other things in life. The Bethel Spring Series, in March and April, was the high point of my racing season, and by the end of the Series my weight started creeping up and my fitness was deteriorating.

By June or July I was virtually back at December fitness. A few desperate days on the bike and I'd pray for a good result. By the time August rolled around my season was over, no races easy enough for me to finish. The lack of fitness formed a vicious circle - I wouldn't even enter races like the 6 AM Prospect Park races because I'd be dropped on the first or second lap. Since I didn't race, I'd lose some of that "fast" fitness. So I wouldn't enter the next one.

So on and so forth.

With my new focus on cycling, my world has changed.

I skipped the Florida trip this year. The reason for my somewhat full time training also meant that I couldn't afford to blow about $200 a day to stay in Florida for five days of training (like I did before).

Instead I attended the Dungeon Training Camp.

Free, convenient, open all day (and night if necessary).

Actually, I'm still attending it. Last week was a doozy, 16 hours in 6 days, capped off with a 5 hour session on Saturday. Most days also included some weight work as well. The prior week was almost as heavy, much more lifting, about an hour less riding.

The missus has been fighting a cold and I thought that perhaps I'd started to pick it up by Sunday. I ended last week's schedule a day early and skipped a couple days this week. Thankfully I never felt worse than a little iffy and so things worked out. Yesterday I picked back up and felt some forgotten but familiar sensations. Drowsy muscles awakening to some work, swollen until I warmed up, a bit stiff, and pleasantly strong.

Of course aerobically things still hurt. I did one effort "just to see" and it ended after about 30 seconds.

I've come to hate suffering and it appears that I still hate it.

This concept of "suffering" is not foreign to me. In fact, in eighth grade, when I was 14 years old, my first cycling mentor impressed upon me the importance of being able to suffer. As evidence he pointed to a quote in an often referred to magazine called Winning - racers "need to learn how to suffer."

Next to it was a glorious picture of Fons De Wolf (in Bianchi colors I think), a promising German neo-pro that never fulfilled the pundits' predictions.

Apparently he was not able to suffer enough.

I embraced suffering when I first started training and racing. I read about "tunnel vision", when you make an effort so hard that your eyesight starts to take hits in order to keep your legs going. I rode as hard as I could up all the hills to try and reach that state of, at that point, nirvana. I only managed to induce tunnel vision once, and for the life of me, I can't remember where it happened.

I guess the memory part of my brain also took a hit.

Nonetheless, suffering was the key to bike racing. Field climbing too fast? Suffer more. Field blazing along in single file? SufferFest. Time to sprint but you're already deep in oxygen debt? Suffer like a man.

It took about 15 years before suddenly something happened. I didn't want to suffer anymore. My season suddenly changed.

Before this realization my early season training used to be pretty similar year to year. Enter a few training races. Do some group rides. See how things go on this hill or that hill, the ones that sometimes cause problems for me. Enter a Cat 1-2-3 race and finish, using it as motorpacing. A 1-2-3 dunk was good for 2 months of speed, 2 months where every Cat 3 race felt slow, even if the attacks were going at 38 or 40 mph ("Well the 2s went 42 mph, this is nothing!").

Every two months or so, I'd "renew" the Cat 1-2-3 sensation. Usually one in May, another in July, and perhaps one in August or September.

Tuesdays were sprint days at SUNY Purchase. I'd contest perhaps 12-15 sprints, sitting out every other one (either leading out or literally simply sitting in). Although it hurt, sprinting was like a drug for me. Still is. I can be as dead as a doorknob and "clang clang clang" the bell rings and suddenly I have at least 45 seconds of top notch racing in my legs. So although it hurt, it wasn't "suffering".

When that ended I raced at Floyd Bennett Field, a 2 mile rectangular course on a flat and windy airfield. The good years I could sustain 42 mph on the tail wind side, crouched low on the Scott Rakes, ignoring the guys "blocking", the guys sitting on my wheel. They'd cast dirty looks my way when I pulled off and I'd do the same thing the next lap. I never placed (well, once) but I loved being able to ride fast, not get dropped, and watch the others suffer on my wheel.

Then that ended. Life intervened. And my only hard workouts were the occasional Thursday Night Summer Street Sprints or a Gimbles ride where I actually hung on to the field. My inability to suffer on my own started to affect my racing, the "Life Intrudes" bit not helping at all.

I realized I didn't want to suffer anymore. I no longer attacked hills with the goal of becoming unaware of everything around me except a foot wide lane in front of my wheel. The Cat 1-2-3 dunk suddenly felt like I jumped into the deep end of a pool. And I couldn't swim. I'd get shelled and suddenly the Cat 3 races that seemed pretty tame were, well, pretty fast.

This continued on for many, many years, perhaps a decade.

I still decline most helpings of suffering. But I am at the point where I can pick and choose how I suffer. So when I need to do a hard ride, I know what to do. I have a difficult time suffering on the trainer - there is no compelling reason to keep pedaling so hard.

On the road, on steep climbs, it's a different story. Not falling over is a very compelling reason to keep going, even if I'm already at an elevated heartrate and my breathing has deteriorated to gasping. So on the hard days I set out to Mountain Road, to the west of town, to hit the hills that I'd normally skirt around.

Steady days require something else, the need to keep pedaling all the time. Descents really screw up the rhythm so I avoid them - but that means no real climbs either. High rolling resistance helps keep speeds in check and forces pedaling more. These days call for a mountain bike, outfitted with lights and fenders, and a cruise around a 15.5 mile flat route. I've gotten proficient enough on that loop that I can do it on the mountain bike in the same time it used to take me on the road bike. And, more importantly, my heart rate is actually lower on the mountain bike.

Pros do a couple things which seem to stay consistent. High cadence and low resistance work (i.e. "spinning"). Low cadence, low heart rate, high resistance work (i.e. "lifting on the bike"). And motor pacing.

The latter is something I rarely do - it's only when I catch kind traffic that I any motor pacing. Sometimes it doesn't work out well but usually it's not a problem.

What's interesting is that as I started regaining fitness, my ability to suffer has marginally increased. The key word is "marginally". I'm not aiming at getting tunnel vision in the basement but I am able to push myself a bit harder than normal.

I found that playing music works well to numb the pain, and the louder and faster and more aggressive the music, the harder I can ride. Headphones beats speakers and I now have a method to help entice my body into suffering a bit more.

So, with my legs loosened up from my very short ride last night (an hour now seems like I just started getting warmed up), I am ready for the start of the week of training. Music, video, bike, trainer, weights, they're all ready and waiting.

I'm actually looking forward to doing a bit of suffering today.



Anonymous said...

Aki - Great Post. I am just curious, what kind of efforts are you putting in on your 2plus hour trainer sessions? You are going to be scarey come Bethel.


Aki said...

My efforts aren't too big, although if I lose myself in music I end up riding a lot harder than I thought possible.

"Easy days" are typically 120-135 bpm. Wattage varies but it's well under 200, prob like 120-150.

The days where I feel good and let my legs do what they want, I'm averaging 145-155 bpm.

As reference in races I typically average 160-168. Bethel keeps me in the 150s. Hartford killed me, I was 168 avg. Based on that, my harder workouts are like a hard group ride.

I should also point out that I actually lost the ability to push myself mentally a long time ago. Yesterday I went to do an 8 min effort at TT pace. After about 2 minutes I just stopped, didn't feel like it. Barely holding 200 watts. Told myself I was a wimp, spun a bit, then went again. I didn't last 60 seconds before I gave up.

Riding (hard) outside is a lot easier for me, indoors is more targeted, like weightlifting. I use big gears, turn them slowly, or spin little gears fast. I'm counting on building an aerobic base for my trip out west shortly - that's where I'll be doing a lot of speedwork etc.

My 2 hours sessions are usually an hour warm up, 20-30 minute stretches in the 53x14-11, 20-30 minutes of spinning 39x19, and random accelerations or pretending I'm climbing a steep hill.

I hope to be good at Bethel :)