Thursday, March 13, 2008

Training - Burnout


If you're a drag racer, it's an exciting word. It means your race is about to start. You're warming up your tires, laying rubber on the track, setting up for what you hope will be an excellent launch into a winning race.


It's a bad word when used around any athlete. It stands for staleness, for hitting a plateau, for the beginning of the end.

And in the last couple weeks I started thinking of the word.

I used to be able to motivate for even hours long trainer sessions, riding harder (according to my heart rate) than a pace at which I sometimes race.

But for the last few weeks I've had a hard time getting motivated on the bike. Yeah, racing is fine but I find that training, usually on my own, it's hard sometimes.

There are two types of burnout. The first is physical. You can't sleep, can't recover, and your heart rate never gets above just over your resting heart rate. Physical burnout is somewhat fatal. Usually some enforced time off will fix it, but little else. I spent my first year as a Senior racer training insane miles, trying to "get in shape" for 100+ mile road races. I won a race early on but after that I was toast. I think I finished one race in the 45 I entered in the latter half of the year. I could barely turn the pedals but I kept thinking I needed to do more speed work.


When your body is depleted, you can only recover. I spent a depressing winter trying to figure out what went wrong, gave up on trying to win 100 mile road races, trimmed my training accordingly, and suddenly I was flying again.

The second type of burnout is psychological. This is a better problem to have if you have to deal with one or the other. Mental burnout is not physical - this means the body is still able to train and develop, but the mind up top is a bit toasted. Up in this northern town, I am without my standard group rides, so virtually all my rides are solo - the exceptions are when I catch or get caught by someone.

I've developed some ways to deal with psychological burnout. I started coming up with these ideas when I was 15 and sitting on the bike in the basement of my house. Unheated, dark, with no music or no TV, no heart rate, not even cadence, I had no distractions to take me off the pain of riding.

So, just like any creature in a limited environment, I started playing mental games with myself. A few tricks come to mind right away - Revolutions, Time, Long Distance, Coffee, TV, and Music.

First, though, I should point out the big "Do Not" of riding and countering burnout. You absolutely have to keep your eyes off the clock (or any cumulative meter). Just like watching a pot of water boil, keeping your eyes on the time or mileage will slow time down to a crawl. This mentally drains you, and since you're dealing with mental burnout, that's the last thing you want to do. Instead, focus on immediate numbers - cadence or heart rate works, and if you don't have a cyclocomputer, just counting revs using your watch is great. This will keep your mind on the here and now and keep your physical effort levels higher than low.


I read somewhere a long time ago that a person can do 40 revolutions no matter what - that amount of work can be done while holding your breath. So whenever I'd get into trouble, I started counting pedal revs. If I got to 40 and I was still okay, I started again, because, obviously, I could go 40 revs.

So I'd keep counting.

As long as I felt okay, I'd keep counting, mentally keeping track to make sure I was counting in multiples of 40. Sometimes, on a long climb or during a long trainer session, I'd find myself up to 400 or 600 before I realized it.


Another method of making time go by is to, well, watch time go by. Sort of. Don't keep looking at the clock, the odometer, whatever you use to keep track of your overall riding time. You should keep thinking about time every now and then, guessing at where you'll be, and after 10 or 15 minutes, check your clock.

You'll probably find that you're at about 3 or 4 minutes.

Seriously, time crawls when you're working hard, and your perception of time gets distorted with every increase in your heart rate.

Once you get the hang of checking your time, you'll find that doing an hour on the trainer (or on the road) only involves four or five time checks.

Long Distance

I've told a few of my friends recently that I have a hard time motivating for those sharp efforts most racers rely on for training - intervals, sprints, things like that.

One thing that I find helps is to simply pile on the mileage. Go easy at first, then, later, make efforts while I'm already deeply fatigued. I find those efforts much easier to sustain than ones I make when I'm fresh.

And, ironically, the highest wattages I've seen have always been when I'm the most tired - after a couple hours of incredibly hot riding last summer or after 4 or 5 hours of desert heat in California this past February.

A lot of times I'm tempted to go and do multiple laps of a shorter loop. I justify it in thinking I can see if I can't go faster, that if I flat or bonk or something I can get home easier, etc. But realistically it's one thing to set out to do a few laps and it's totally different to actually do those two or three or four laps.

It's a lot easier to do an out-and-back or a loop course, one where you're committed to doing the mileage. If you ride an hour always heading away from your house then you'll be forced to ride an hour back, give or take.

Climbing takes about 3-4 times longer than descending so figure out how much you climb or descend and take that into account. If you gradually gain elevation the return trip will be nice, but if you're constantly descending (say, you live at the top of a big climb), budget more time for he return.

My most enjoyable long rides are like this - my PCH rides, the Palomar attempts, the Kent rides (Norwalk - Kent - Norwalk), and some of my exploratory rides up here northwest of Hartford.

If I'm feeling okay, I'll push the "out" leg a bit further, forcing myself to ride that much more to get back. And I always try and ride harder on the "back" leg to try and get used to working when I'm tired.

Doesn't mean I can, just means I try.

Coffee and TV

Coffee or, more specifically, caffeine amps the system. If you drink caffeinated drinks all the time it's not as potent, but saving coffee for pre-ride drinking makes for a higher energy ride. I wouldn't go out and take caffeine pills - they're so concentrated and don't make you automatically drink 10 or 20 ounces of stuff with it - but a mug or two of coffee (2-4 cups) or a can of energy drink is hard to beat. Caffeine, sugar (if you ride almost immediately you'll absorb the sugar efficiently), and fluid.

TV is also good when sitting on a trainer. Visual distractions work well, like when you watch a movie, but I think watching cycling is better. I'm a big believer in people learning by imitating - I was first exposed to this when I learned to play violin simply by watching my teacher. He was the equivalent of a Wilfried Peeters or a just-below Jens Voight. Excellent, almost the best in the world, but not quite star status.

It was his influence that brought me as far as I got, but I reached my limits when I ran out of hand eye coordination (aka "talent").

Imagine learning how to ride with someone like that - you'd take things for granted that others never even learn.

Likewise, it's not a bad thing to sit on a trainer for an hour or three and watch pros pedal on TV. You see how they sit, pedal, and handle the bike. If you set up a couple tall mirrors, you can observe your own form as well.


When on the trainer, I find that relatively fresh music gives me an insane boost in power, sustainable heart rate, and sustainable perceived effort.

Music is magic.

The key is "relatively fresh". If I've been inundated with the songs for the last couple months then it won't do anything. Listening to individual songs is like smelling different perfumes in a store. After smelling a few different bottles of the stuff they sort of overwhelm me. New or rediscovered music, that's the best.

On the trainer it's a no brainer. I use some small ear phone type things, hook it up to my computer (I use a 6 foot extension cord so I don't inadvertently pull my whole computer onto the floor if I fall over or something), and crank the volume.

Except for not hearing the missus when she calls me, I can't see any disadvantage over this setup. It certainly beats shaking the whole house with a cranked out receiver/amp pumping a couple hundred watts of power through the speakers, and in my current apartment, I don't even have that choice.

On the road it's a bit different. I ride regularly with a hands free ear piece for my phone. I've spent 5 or 6 hours riding with such an ear piece piping in MP3s off my phone. I keep the ear piece in my right ear, turn my head regularly to directionalize sounds, and keep the volume pretty low.

There are some disadvantages to this. First off, it's not stereo. Second, at some point though, I may miss a little noise, a hint of some potential danger. Finally, if you play the music long enough to kill your phone, you've just killed your phone.

Now that I have a less powerful phone with a shorter life battery, I've decided against bringing such electronic music with me on the road. Instead, after an hour or two, I find myself humming songs. Not as effective, but, hey, I'll take it.

The above tricks will help deal with mental burnout. It won't do a think for physical burnout.

So what does that all mean for me?

I'm going out for a loop ride :)


Colin R said...

Nice to see someone with a lot more experience than me also doing the right-ear-only headphones trick on long road rides. I really don't think it adds that much danger, especially if you're as neurotic about looking over your shoulder as I am after a year of commuting in the city.

Aki said...

I tried using one of two headphones but that made the songs not right - I'd miss all the left stuff.

The hands free thing works well because it's mono.

Of course at the beginning I used such a setup on long rides with three others (3-5 hours in Florida). I could barely understand what people were saying when I was on the outside - even with the music off, the earbud was enough to distort words.

But I can hear cars and such pretty well with an earbud in, even with music piping through it at a low volume.

And you're right, looking around all the time helps.

Anonymous said...

Another great post - with some good tips on how to break up the monotony of the trainer. I can totally empathize with the lack of group rides since I moved too. Hopefully that'll change soon - but in the meantime, I can sometimes get out of work early and meet you up your way...

Hope you had a good loop ride. See you at Plainville Saturday?

Aki said...

I forgot to post two things that help with mental burnout - one is taking a day off, the other is riding with others.

SOC - I woke up too late to be at Plainville today. I would do it only if I felt that Bethel would be canceled, otherwise I'd be driving all over the place. Next week (before Easter Sunday) I should be there, weather permitting. I should be there the last week of the race too, the week after Bethel ends. I hope people have a good race there today.