Category Archives: lifestyle

Fitter, faster, further – the improvement dilemma

Most regular cyclists want to improve, whether it’s fitter, faster or further – or any combination of those. I completely understand that and I want to improve on all three – but there’s a but ..

The issue is that such improvements are unlikely to be even across members of a cycling group, and that can cause problems.

Let me explain.

I joined the group I ride with about 6 or 7 years ago. We were a slightly motley crew with carbon, aluminium and steel, racing, hybrid and touring bikes. The group was very sociable, we waited to regroup regularly and had a ‘banana break’ at halfway which was also a major regrouping and the opportunity for a chat. We’d do about 45 miles (c. 72km) on a Saturday morning at just over 14mph (c. 23kph). There were those who could cycle faster but they sacrificed some speed for sociability.

It’s all moved on over the years. Bikes have been upgraded and so have the riders’ abilities. More now cycle on the continent in the summer and more have climbed a few Alps – this year 3 more did Ventoux. Last year a group rode the length of the Pyrenees and this year a group rode in Corsica. The 100m Ride London, long sportives like the Dragon Gran Fondo, the Club des Cinglés du Mont-Ventoux, everesting and even Paris Brest Paris have now been tackled by group members.

Saturday rides are still a similar length but are now more likely to be ridden at 17-19 mph (c. 27-30kph).

A second ‘blue’ group was introduced successfully which does shorter and slower rides with an emphasis on the social side – some of us take turns to lead that and it’s always enjoyable but will not provide good training for the more committed cyclist. The issues are really with the faster, longer ‘red’ group.

Don’t get me wrong, I think all progress this is brilliant – but it comes with a price. Not everyone has improved at the same rate and some now struggle to keep up. With a focus on speed, the group does not often stop to regroup. It also makes it hard if not impossible for inexperienced riders to join the group – and introducing newcomers to the joys of cycling was always a key purpose of the group. It’s a group of good people (and me) – we set up a charitable company to raise funds for local cycling initiatives and we are quite prominent in the town, with our own annual sportive being part of the town’s festival.

Last Saturday I rode with a very nice chap who was riding with the group for the first time. We rode at a very respectable 15.5mph (c. 25kph) but were left behind by the main group. I was telling him about the social side of the group and the chance to meet a few people at the banana break – but we never had a break as the group(s) in front didn’t stop long enough for us to catch up.

There was a lady riding behind us and a ‘sweep’ but we didn’t see them either as we kept going, waiting for the break which never came – but by the time we realised that it was a bit late to stop. Apparently, another very good cyclist was dropped by the main group on Saturday and had what he called an ‘improvised limp home’ – that wouldn’t have happened in the past.

What’s the answer?

Multiple groups? A return to ‘collegiate’ cycling rather than the more self-centred ‘push myself at my optimum speed’? A more rigorous regrouping regime? None is perfect or, perhaps, possible.

Of course, I am no saint in all of this. I probably felt worse about Saturday because I’d have liked to have joined a fast group after the half-way break. I have cycled with the group less this year because of my specific training for my ‘everest’ last month – so I’m as selfish as anyone else.

My options? I could stay and simply join the fast groups – or I could effectively leave the group and do my own thing.

But there’s the irony – I’d be leaving and being anti-social in protest at the anti-social nature of the group; and I’d be putting my own cycling first in protest at the way others do the very same thing.

It makes my head hurt. Come to think of it, it used to be my legs hurting – at least that’s another beneficial feature of cycling improvement!

Training plans – benefit or burden?

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Of course I understand that if you set yourself a significant challenge, you have to train for it. However, I have mixed thoughts about most training plans.

My main gripe is that I always feel guilty when I fail to stick to them (which is every time). Once the guilt sets in it’s easy to forget the good bits you are doing and what you are achieving and just focus on the negatives – the parts of the plan you are flunking.

Holidays, injury, bad weather, social commitments, laziness – there are always more reasons not to train than there are to train.

My other gripe is that they always seem to be so over-blown. That’s double-edged. Bad because it makes it even more likely that they can’t be kept to – but good because failure to keep to the plan doesn’t mean you’re bound to fail at the challenge.

I ran the London Marathon twice in the late 1990’s and had sub 4 hour training plans that I failed to keep to – but (just) managed sub 4 hour times on both occasions.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. If I was setting myself up as an expert and advising people on training for a specific event, I’d certainly be taking a cautious approach and building in some contingency to avoid people keeping to the plan and still failing at the challenge.

The thing that’s got me thinking about this is the everesting training. Clearly, it’s a sufficiently ridiculous challenge that I need to train – but how? I’ve found reference to a plan on the internet that seems to be endorsed by the Hell’s 500 people so it’s ‘official’ but they want $66.66 for it and it seems to entail at least 90 hours of cycling over 8 weeks. I’ll bet it’s good but that’s just the sort of plan that I know I’ll flunk.

So, taking the theory from that plan, I’m just going to have to cycle as much as I reasonably can, with much of it being uphill. In particular I’ll embrace the high intensity training model and go for hill reps up Dragon Hill – much as I did earlier in the year training for the White Horse Challenge.

I’ll couple that with weight reduction, where possible. The bike weighs in at about 7kg and I’m too mean to upgrade to Dura Ace to reduce that any further – but perhaps I’ll risk going without taking a spare tube and pump (or rather leaving them in the car).

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Weapon of choice

I ride with a carbon saddle and want to keep that for lightness. It’s never been a problem (even for the triple Ventoux in 2015) but this could be a few hours too far for that? It needs thought.

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Instrument of torture

As for me, I weighed in at about 65.3kg this morning (not too bad for 177.5m – 5’10” and 10 stone 4 in old money) so I’ll keep an eye on that. I wonder if I could lose a bit more without compromising on what little power I have?

 

How (not) to train for a triathlon

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I did a sprint triathlon in 2015 – and another last year. I enjoyed them but learnt that: I swim badly; I cycle reasonably; I am almost adequate at the run (for an old bloke). So, after signing up for an olympic distance triathlon I will have addressed the issues, right? Wrong.

The early year focus has been on my first sportive (90 miles on 23 April) to the exclusion of running and swimming. Since then I’ve cycled less than 45k, been in the water three times and have run three times, gently, with my wife and three times alone – and only once as far as 10k.

At over 60, I should know better and I don’t really have the excuse of insufficient time, given how so many people manage to do much more while sill working.

Worse still, I’ve only tried on my wetsuit twice and will not manage to get in an open water swim before the event itself. Perhaps I have a secret death wish?

I did take a swimming lesson – but just one and only last week. It was good but, at this stage it will probably serve mainly to confuse me as, during the lesson, I was totally unable to practice more than one new thing at a time – and even then several other things (like breathing) went to pieces. I’m sure it will be really helpful once all the advice becomes a natural part of my swimming but perhaps the session I plan tonight isn’t enough for that to happen!

Sunday promises to be interesting.

So: train consistently, work on your weaknesses; taper properly; and don’t let the event introduce new things to you (especially like wearing a wetsuit for the first time).

Oh yes, and do what I say, not what I do.

A second trick in a week. Old dog overload?

After mixed results from the ‘introduction to wetsuits’ experience earlier in the week, last night I tried a swimming lesson. I guess I must have had a rudimentary lesson or two at school as a child when I learned to swim – but certainly nothing in over 50 years.

Two sprint triathlons have largely proved what I already knew – I don’t swim well. The impending olympic distance triathlon had me looking for the swimming silver bullet – the hope that a proper coach would identify the one small thing that would transform me into Michael Phelps overnight.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that. The coach was very good and in just 30 minutes came up with a number of things to work on. Together, in time, I’m sure they will improve my swimming but I think that Michael’s records are safe from me.

So: starting breathing out as soon as my face is under the water; not kicking from the knee; more rotation along the long axis; a longer reach; a straighter pull backwards rather than down; and delaying the start of the next stroke until the other arm passes my head.

It’s all a lot to think about and trying to incorporate all the advice was really hard. I found I could (sort of) do any one of them if I thought about it hard – but then the others went out of the window. With a longer stroke and fewer strokes each length, I take fewer breaths and that messes with my breathing. Eventually, I assume that each stroke should be smoother and more efficient, and so less exerting, but the key there is ‘eventually’.

No silver bullet, no overnight transformation – but lots to work on in the next week or so.  If it all becomes the norm in my swimming I’m sure it will be really beneficial – if I live that long.

It just reinforces the high regard I have for good triathletes – the ability to master the three skills is really something this cyclist admires.

Old dog – new tricks?

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Instrument of torture. How can something apparently so simple be so difficult?

I won’t say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, just don’t expect too much too soon. At least that’s the experience of this old dog who has tried to learn two new skills this week.

I’ll deal with the first one first. With my first olympic distance triathlon just over a week away, I tried to get into a wetsuit. It was a disaster. I didn’t time it – which is a good thing as it would have been too depressing – but more worryingly I couldn’t actually get into it at all. Eventually the arms and legs went in but I couldn’t do it up at the back.

To be honest, I rather panicked at this point. It’s a second hand Ebay special that I was sure I’d researched carefully but it seemed clear that I’d bought a size too small. I went back to the manufacturer’s website and that confirmed that I hadn’t made a mistake – I am pretty well in the middle of the ranges for height and chest size and at the lower end for weight.

Unfortunately, the suit did not know this and it steadfastly refused to do up. Having got hotter than I might after a couple of hours’ cycling I did the only sensible thing – I gave up. At this stage I was expecting to have to abandon the triathlon completely as it will be wetsuit-compulsory and I felt too mean to go and buy another.

I tried again the following day, sure that I’d lost weight overnight – or that my technique would have miraculously improved. It hadn’t. I’d like to think it was simply due to my manly chest but, having been a cyclist for a few years, I’m a rather more Chris Froome than Arnold Schwarzenegger in that department.

I swallowed my pride and asked help from my wife who seemed pleased to be getting her own back after years of needing help to get into evening dresses and necklaces. It worked. Sadly, it fits so well that, far from making me appear sleek and lithe, it highlights bumps and lumps that I didn’t even know I had. I thought it might have a slimming effect like a corset – instead it just magnifies the bits that shouldn’t be there and mocks the bits that should be bigger. I was also rubbish at getting it off. I’ve watched the Brownlees and they don’t seem to have the same problem – how could that be?

The only good news is that I eventually went online to get advice about putting a wetsuit on. The site I found says ‘get a helper to do the suit up’ so perhaps I shouldn’t have worried in the first place?

I’m wondering if I should drive to the triathlon wearing the wetsuit. The problems are obvious: the final nerve-induced visit to the gents; death by overheating on the journey; explaining it to the Police if stopped or to the petrol station attendant if low on fuel.

They say transition is the fourth discipline in triathlon. Sadly, for me, that may mean it takes as long as any of the other three.

Second new trick tomorrow.

Making it up as you go along – is there any other way?

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DIY calf muscle treatment kit

I like to think of myself as reasonably intelligent (which, of course, almost certainly means I’m not) but much of what I do is made up as I go along.  That is certainly true of my sport and training and is a very good reason why this blog is not ‘how to ..’ but – at best – ‘how I ..’.

I got out for a run this morning in surprisingly decent weather and managed 9.1km at 5:55/km (5.65 miles at 9:30/mile). Not exactly burning the tarmac but something to build on. If I can break the hour mark in the triathlon 10km I’ll be happy.

The good news is that the stretching and ‘ice pack on calf’ approach tried yesterday might have worked (at a cold but not-quite-frozen temperature). Although not entirely niggle free, the legs are not too bad and my heel seems to be much less tender.

Admittedly, the ‘freezer blocks stuffed down the back of cycle leg warmers’ design may need a bit of polishing before it hits the High Street, but I may have stumbled on something that works for me.

Another possible glimmer of common sense breaking through is that I’m trying to arrange a swimming lesson. My technique (such as it is) comes largely from the internet so is shaky at best. I understand that drowning during a triathlon is generally frowned on, so I’m swallowing my pride (and obstinacy) and going for some help from an expert.

Watch this space.

If at first you don’t succeed – try tri again?

 

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A number of cycling friends refer to me as ‘going to the dark side’ when I tell them I’m doing a triathlon – but I have great respect for triathletes. Quite apart from the extra kit required, the additional skills and training time that are needed demand real respect.

With my first sportive out of the way I’ve turned my attention to the triathlon in a couple of week’s time. Not enough time to train properly – but it will be very much a ‘happy to get round’ experience, being my first olympic distance event – and my first open water swim since I was on a seaside holiday in my teens.

It’s not started well. A short run with my wife on Monday, a swim in the pool on Thursday another run on Friday, a gentle cycle on Saturday and a second run with my wife today are all I have to show for the first week’s effort.

The running has left me with painful calf muscles, achilles tendons and a sore heel. I spent an hour after today’s run with freezer blocks tucked inside leg warmers to see if that will help as I can’t afford too many days without a run if I want to get run-fit in time.

As for the swimming – even less encouraging. After the sprint triathlon I did last September I swam every week and got up to 100 lengths in the pool (2.5km) fairly comfortably. I lapsed after Christmas so Thursday was the first swim for 4 months – and felt like it. Not a pretty sight and surprisingly little forward motion for all the effort being expended.

I’ve still got to try on my wetsuit for the first time and fit in a practice open water swim wearing it.

How do triathletes find the time to do all this properly?

This could end in tears.