Input vs. Output

While I like to say that my triathlon racing strategy is “Swim, Fly, Run”, in reality it’s quite a bit more complicated, it’s terribly hard to output “fly” quality cycling at a moment’s notice, especially when you’re out there in variable weather conditions on variable road surfaces and most importantly on varied terrain. Unless you’ve got the dough to throw around for a power-measuring widget for your bike you’re stuck measuring an unreliable output: speed. The alternative to measuring output is to measure input, and I think that learning the difference between the two took quite a while for me to really learn. It might actually be the case that I only when started to track outputs (pace) vs. inputs (effort) in the pool, where things are very standardized, that I got to really learn the difference between inputs and outputs on the bike.

So, to introduce, I’ll start by sticking with the input/output comparison in the pool. I’ve learned pretty well how hard I can go for a 25m sprint, a 50m sprint, a 100m sprint, a 200m sprint, a 400m swim, a 750m swim, a 2000m swim and a 4000m swim. The keen observer here will note that along the way I switched from sprint to swim, that’s a mental input. Do I think I’m sprinting or do I think I’m swimming? I also have a pretty good idea of how fast I can go for each one of these efforts… read the other blog posts on swimming if you’re keen to find that out. The result in swimming is that the inputs are tied to the outputs. In basically all circumstances with a few exceptions, really choppy water, really cold water, wearing a wetsuit, etc. I know what effort-input it takes to result in what kind of pace-output.

In cycling the effort levels are generally not tied to the outputs via much of any calculation. For example. I did a 20km TT two weeks ago during training at an average HR of 154bpm (input) and netted an average speed of 40.94 kph (output). The next weekend I did a 40kmTT, and for the sake of comparison, I’ll just compare the halves, also each 20km efforts. I averaged a HR of 173bpm (input) and only netted myself 31.76 kph (output). In the second half. I netted myself 46.01kph (output) for 169bpm (input) during the second half. Now, there’s a few things to note here:

  1. The wind was headwind for the first half and tailwind for the second half, lending to the obvious discrepancy between speeds. The input was similar on both halves of the ride but the output was very different.
  2. The net result of the 40kmTT was a 171 bpm average giving me only ~37.6 kph. Does that seem right? Well, maybe the hills make me work harder and the wind makes me go slower. But really? an extra 15bpm of input and I get a massive 4kph slash in output? Something is wrong… it’s called riding with a flat tyre. Once again, inputs are not tied to outputs.
  3. Both of these inputs come in the thick of training. The resulting output is less than it would be if I were to apply the same input when freshened up. Arguably this is a modification of input levels between heavy training and fresh racing, I’ll accept that, but when the indicators of effort are generally perceived with the exception of heart-rate (which is only an indicative variable), then you’re best to work with the shifting perceptions as your inputs.

All this being said, the point isn’t really so much that I could have been a lot faster in the 40kmTT as it is that how fast you go in a 40kmTT is unfortunately pretty arbitrary. The inputs and outputs in cycling are kinda bunk, but that’s OK so long as you don’t use outputs all the time to train and race. If we go back to the “Swim, Fly, Run” strategy for triathlon, there’s still a matter of how hard you’re flying, and that should be something that’s dependent on distance and the demands of the race. So here’s my breakdown, perhaps you find the markers to be similar, perhaps you find them to be different:

  • Racing cyclocross I often could average 176-178 bpm for a 40-55 minute race. Cyclocross is a rather full-body version of cycling with lots of punchy-climbs out of the saddle and run ups off the bike etc. Doing that kind of HR on the bike when just using legs is more like a 5-10 minute best effort. If I can average above 170bpm while on a bike, I’m likely climbing out of the saddle at a HARD pace or really killing myself on the bike in an interval set, or drilling myself into oblivion in a TT. I usually can get it to spike up to there on almost any given day if I decide I really need to. I basically never can get it above 185bpm, although when doing VO2 testing I have managed to break 200bpm each time I’m on the bike, and have two people yelling in each ear not to quit yet.
  • The following are Triathlon specific intensity zones. What’s appropriate for road racing is generally what it takes to do what you want to do with the peloton. You don’t get to decide, and as such I don’t need to describe.
  • I treat Olympic effort as, mouth open breathing hard, need mental reminders more than every minute to keep the pace up. I also feel like I can taste it when I’m going hard enough. Perhaps this is psychosomatic, it might also be that once the blood lactate level gets up your taste and smell receptors do indeed start to pick up on it. It could also be that you’re breathing out a high concentration of CO2 and somehow you pick that up. In any case, I do use that taste marker as well. When TTing at that kind of effort it’s all upper leg limited strength it seems, and glutes, if I really go hard towards the end of the hour I can get a bit tight in my lower back. Calves always feel like they’re getting a free ride when going this hard. Observed HRs are 160-165bpm.
  • Half Ironman effort is basically where I’m at if I decide to go hard but don’t feed myself those mental reminders every 30seconds to keep pushing the pace. It’s a focused effort, I like to mentally focus on trying to ride as though I’m trying to maintain momentum at this pace. Keep the hard pressure on the pedals so there are no lapses in putting out the good power but I don’t need to be trying to incessantly accelerate. Last summer during my HIM races I made a point of taking note of how I felt at halfway, if I was on schedule with nutrition I gave myself permission to work a bit harder on the second half so long as I didn’t get a sore back. HIM effort for me is an eating threshold: meaning I can put stuff down my esophagus and it gets digested, or at least it definitely doesn’t come back up. I could maybe eat stuff when going at Oly effort if chewing it didn’t disrupt my breathing ability. When at the training camp in Penticton this spring I was often heckled for getting to the top of a climb and starting to peel a banana or open a bar to eat before we went down the other side. They thought I was showing off that I wasn’t going hard, I was just generally hungry. Some people will put their eating threshold down at a lower effort level than this, but this is where mine is. Just like the taste marker I use for Olympic type effort, the eating threshold is a personal preference of mine for Half Ironman effort. It works well for me so I use it. Observed HRs are usually around 150, capped at 155. (20kmTT average HR was 154bpm, came after 90kms into the ride. the output here – although I just told you not to use it – of ~41kph is an approximate Half IM bike pace, and being at the top end of the spectrum it would be a fast one!)
  • Ironman effort. This seems like a full balanced leg effort, upper and lower legs, little to no strain through my lower back. Try to stay relaxed in my oblique abs and disconnect the upper body from the lower body to stay calm. I’d characterize the effort level as what I could chat with someone with one sentence at a time. Not a full discussion. Can close my mouth and breath through my nose if I’m chewing for a while without getting out of breath. Maintaining enough mental focus to keep the pressure on the pedals at all times but devoting mental attention to peripheral details like staying relaxed through my shoulders and upper arms, keeping my head in an aerodynamic position (I basically never ride with my aero helmet on but I often pretend like I am so that when I do put it on it doesn’t go sideways into the wind.) HR 135-140. I can’t climb a hill out of the saddle at this HR. It’s impossible unless I get a triple chainring. If I’m going up a considerable hill the HR comes up, guaranteed into mid 140’s. The physicist in me says it’s OK to work a bit harder on the uphills than on the flats. The extra effort is more favorably being translated into moving me forward faster rather than pushing air harder, so the return on investment is favorable.
  • Long ride average HRs wind up around 115-130bpm. 130bpm only if I’m by myself and not sucking a draft at all. Minimum HRs while riding my bike (should probably call it sitting on my bike and turning pedals… hardly call it riding) is 100bpm. I’ve scored a couple rides below 100bpm this year already, they’re not useless, they’re enjoyable, and when the primary goal is to have fun I find it ridiculous to say that I shouldn’t do them.

There’s 5 inputs here, and that’s enough for triathlon in my opinion. There are a couple more input levels necessary to race well at cyclocross and race well in road racing, both of them are on the top end, they’re needed to train for the start in ‘cross, mashing gears to climb the barely climbable, running the sandpit, and for periods of the road race where a selection is being made. None of these things happen in a traditional non drafting on the road triathlon, and aren’t so necessary to distinguish, not that they don’t happen during training, for example on group rides, but they are used sparingly.

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4000 yards

Triathlon Photo

61:47 for 4000yds. This is pace for a 65:15 IM swim. Compare with my December 18 result of 68:19 and my February 19 result of 63:51 and my March 19 result of 63:01. This is one of my biggest leaps forward to date. How impressive this is in my mind is really highlighted by the fact that my swim volume over the month preceding it was pretty miserable. I had no swims for 13 days while I was off riding bike in Penticton because the pool was closed there. Then since getting back I had two weeks where I only managed to fit the club swims into my schedule and no others. My swimming consistency has been alright but it’s nothing to be proud of, certainly nothing indicating that I could break any records in the TT.

How’s this possible then? Well, for starters the pool was abnormally cold which means that you don’t heat up as much when you really get down and start working hard. That’s a big plus as the pool we swim in is often uncomfortably warm if we’re swimming at really high intensities. The other big contirbuting factor was that I started 5 seconds back from Jan Plavec who was swimming a 1650ydTT and after about 400yards I caught up to his draft (he started HARD! way harder than my 40sec lead-out split which I even knew was a somewhat stupid pace to push off with) and then I proceeded to mooch about 500 yards of nice drafting off of him before he pulled over and let me pass. I dutifully maintained the approximately the same pace that we were swimming so he could also benefit from a bit of a draft for his splits. Although once him and Ernst left the lane at 1500 I was alone in the lane and cruising along without much frame of reference. I managed well for about 500 more yards and then a combination of less peripheral motivation to maintain pace as well as fatigue had me trail off. The splits look like I totally died a miserable death in the second half which is somewhat true, but at least I did so in a relatively uniform manner. +5.4% decoupling is pretty close to as bad as I’ve ever done without actually doing something like getting heat-stroke, getting a flat tyre, or bonking, even or negative splits are something I can normally do while running, swimming and cycling without really dying over it. I think it’s probably a bit of being conservative in my pace-judgement early on and having above average mental focus at these sorts of challenges. To this end, there isn’t all sorts of jumpy pacing happening like I did during some of my earliest long swims. I also suffered some serious cramping during the final 1000yards, my right arch of my foot, my right calf, my right hamstring and my right ass-cheek all cramped simultaneously and I had to really back off the kicking for a stretch while I tried to stretch out the muscles as I swam. The big bump at 2000yds was me taking a quick break to re-tie my swimsuit so I didn’t loose it during the second half of the swim.

The next question is clearly… how long until I get in under an hour? Well. HCH really wanted to see all the datapoints so let’s have a little look here:

Triathlon Photo

If we incorrectly presume that my progression is linearly tied to how many yards I swim, and incorrectly assume that every week during the past 120 days I swam the average yardage that I’ve covered over this period (9600 yards/week) then I should make linear progress towards the 1 hour goal. These assumptions suggest I’ll meet the goal in approximately 3 weeks time around May 12, 2010. I’m going to need a cold pool to do it though and a bit of drafting wouldn’t hurt either. I also need to put in the time in the pool and rack up those yards. 9600yds as a weekly average is alright considering that Christmas break, a trip to Ontario and the Penticton training week are all averaged in. I do however need to make sure I’m getting in that fourth and maybe fifth swims in each week to keep the progress coming instead of resorting to the default of 3 club swims which will soon become 2.

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Looking for a coach

A few circumstances changed in my life in early February and part of the result was a decision that I was going to really take my crack at Ironman seriously this coming August. Prior to this my intention was to take my best crack at the race given my circumstances. The difference is likely largely pedantic to the observer, and that’s not really the point of this article. It was a decision that I would allow my training for the race to dictate my circumstances for the next few months. Part of that decision was that the situation would change from one where I was happy to make my best season planning, training and goal setting decisions completely alone to one where I decided that outside input was now necessary.

What exactly would be the source of this input was a tricky thing to decide. The coaching options available were either ones I could source locally; where I couldn’t be all too picky about method, philosophy, or price; or online, where I could precisely choose philosophy and protocol, select an appropriate price bracket, and resign myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be meeting face to face or doing any training sessions with him/her.

Having spent a good amount of my prior time training developing my own training philosophies and approach it was important to me to find someone who was going to provide coaching in line with those ideas rather than completely different to them. This meant that I’d spend more time doing the sessions given with good confidence that they were going to make me a faster triathlete rather than spending my time arguing with the training plan’s protocol and not investing myself in the sessions as they had been set. The result of this desire was a now rather specific search. A search for someone who would take on an “enjoyment first” approach to training and racing but with a serious understanding of what it means to be competitive. I needed someone who was going to be a proponent of developing the broadest and deepest aerobic base as possible, someone who wasn’t going to be afraid to boost up the hours of work. It also meant that I wanted someone who was keen to make me fast, challenge me, and had a pretty good idea of what it takes to split hairs on details for the sake of success. I wanted coaching that was directed and purposeful, with a big plan behind the scenes, I wanted to be able to buy into the plan and be able to trust that it would work.

The search was both extensive and not-extensive at the same time. I spent a good amount of time searching, most of the places I looked though were obviously not a good fit from the outset. Some were pretty good options with a couple drawbacks but after having poked around for quite a while and sent out a bunch of inquisitive emails I settled on one of the first options I had considered. I’ve joined up with the Everyday Training Crew and I’m being coached by Steven Lord. Steven is quite an accomplished ironman athlete, having qualified for Kona four times and set an Ironman distance PR of 9:15. I found out about him a couple years ago reading about Epic Camp and had followed his blog on and off over the course of the past few years. His approach to the sport is pretty much characterized by repeatable high volume.

Everyday Training

Since starting with Steven the biggest change to my program has been to running. I’ve axed intensity in favor of increased frequency. Absolutely all of my running with the sole exception of one testing run every 2 weeks has been done with a strict HR cap of 162 bpm. Steven also posed a challenge of completing 30 runs in 30 days which I successfully accomplished ending on March 23. All runs were of 30 minutes duration or longer. This has led to the best consistency in running I’ve ever achieved in my life. My training log suggests I’m on about 25% better run form than I’ve ever achieved in my life.

My training analysis system gives a measure of form as an indicator of predilection to absorb further training or perform at a race. I measure form in Aerobic Hour Equivalents (AHEs) as a way of taking into account the relative exertions of different paces. Time spent doing aerobic work counts towards AHEs essentially at one-for-one and time spent at threshold counts towards AHEs at approximately two-for-one. Interpretation of form should be indicative of capacity for running speed, however this is nowhere suggested to be linear and I certainly am not running 25% faster than I ever have in my life. I do believe however, that my ability to absorb base training is at least 25% stronger now than it has ever been.

Having a coach has provided, I believe, a beneficial amount of accountability to get things done. I did feel the risk on occasion of being pressured to get workouts done just because they were scheduled even when I felt like I normally wouldn’t have tried. This was an artifact of adapting to this new system and the urgency to nail everything right now is basically gone, there still remains a healthy dose of pressure behind having to write up a weekly report of the work completed. Taking the time weekly to report in also makes me more interested in tracking how I’m doing, this is of real benefit as it’s an added reason to keep paying attention to details from day to day. Steven is likely one of the most detail oriented people I’m aware of, maybe even moreso than me! This has already rubbed off a bit on my approach to triathlon and believe that as it continues to do so I’ll continue to reap the benefits. This is something I believed was a strongpoint of mine last season and it allowed me to both train well and race well, the fact that this is something I can see noticeably improving I believe is a sign of good things to come.

So, to wrap up the post I guess the question to answer should be: “Am I going to be faster as a result of seeking help instead of doing this myself”. The answer really has to wait until August 29, although based on the consistency I’ve been able to manage, the endurance I can already sense I’m developing, and the resilience I’ve seen in my ability to load up on some serious running – the answer is almost inevitably yes. What I’ve really done by jumping into this coaching relationship is make ironman the only goal this year. The base-fitness development that I’m working on at the moment is very much geared towards ironman-speed and in some sense it’s a good thing I’m not even debating an olympic or sprint distance race this season, it would be frustratingly short. Having real support from Steven in making these decisions of where to focus my time and effort all-but-guarantees that I’ll be faster than without him. If there were no coach I can almost guarantee I wouldn’t have the same commitment to sole focus at developing Ironman-speed. For starters, I probably would have been out and running at a bleeding-eyeballs kind of effort for the Frank-McNamara race this evening.

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Swim TT

Triathlon Photo

63:01 for 4000yds, big thanks to Simmon for writing down my splits otherwise I would have only had 4 splits as that’s as much as I can remember in my head. Compare with my December 18 result of 68:19 and my February 19 result of 63:51. This is not quite the same enormous leap in progress I had last time but is still an improvement and for that I am happy. This is pace for a 66.5 minute Ironman swim. That’s a 1.5% improvement in my TT pace over the course of the last month. I had much less of a negative split this time, basically swimming the same pace as the second half of my TT last time for the full swim this time, only -0.2% decoupling.

Since my last test I have had a real focus on short and fast intervals, and swimming these short distances I have seen marked improvement. This hasn’t necessarily translated over to the long distance stuff the same way I’d have liked it to, but it is an improvement so I’ll take it. The longest week of the last four was only 12200yards, compared to the previous times I’ve made big gains in my swimming when I have put in some 20km weeks in the pool. It might only the addition of a few longer steady-state swims to beef up my confidence to hold those faster paces for the full duration, but I haven’t done them yet so this was the best I had today.

The last entry on this blog was when I last did a 4000TT test, which is a pretty miserable fact. I have been under a self imposed ban on writing for pleasure since the beginning of February, I’ve needed to focus my efforts on getting a paper published. I now have a deadline for getting that thing out the door of next Friday, coinciding nicely with my departure for a week of cycling in Penticton BC. I’ll hopefully be able to unplug from the mayhem of Edmonton while there and do some catching up on some things that I’d like to have written about including: Endurance sports and caffeine, my cycling adventure in California, the search for a personal coach, the transition to working with a personal coach, a book review on “The Maffetone Method”, a book review on “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, and the highlights of some amazing bike rides in late February and early March facilitated by some outrageously unseasonable weather. OK, so maybe I’ll do some writing about those topics in a week, and most likely I’ll have some stellar riding to report on from BC, until then some serious work needs to get churned out…

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4000 yard TT

Photo from gallery: Triathlon - 2009

63:51 for 4000yds. Compare with my December 18 result two months ago: 68:19 for 4000yds. This is pace for a 67.5 minute Ironman swim. That’s a 6.5% improvement in my TT pace over the course of the last two months, and a whopping 14.3% over the course of the past 3 months which is my first datapoint doing 4000 yard TTs and corresponds to the beginning of when I started the increased focus on swim this winter. I had a quite strong negative split, -1.3% decoupling, but that’s partly due to me making a relatively significant effort increase during the second half. I wanted to make sure that I was going to finish my 4000 feeling absolutely confident that I had swum my fastest TT possible. The variability in this result is more consistent across the hour compared with that previous result and indicates that I didn’t loose focus at any point in the swim.

The keywords I was focusing on were to make the kicking count, and to swim with momentum. The first is to directly combat my tendency to only kick hard enough to maintain an acceptable body position. I’ve started to realize that my body position through the water is actually better when I’m kicking for propulsion rather than just kicking for body position. Like most aspects of triathlon it’s one of those things where when you work harder you go faster, but I’m starting to feel like there’s an efficiency improvement as well, so my return on investment for that effort is something I’m starting to consider worthwhile. The second is based on feedback from Erin, that I have to work pretty hard to get back up to speed every time I loose some of it, and that I’m best off to just keep the bits of speed that I’ve got. Right now that means two things for my swim stroke: 1) ensuring that I am not afraid to keep the arms moving, if I back off the arm-speed and focus more on getting long strokes excessively I am speeding up and slowing down with every stroke, an incredible waste of energy. 2) that after I push off the wall I’m going faster than swim speed, if I coast down to below swim speed before swimming I’m wasting energy, I’m best off to give a double kick and take a stroke before even thinking about breathing. Taking that first breath doesn’t break my body position in the water as much if it’s a mid-stroke breath, and hence I don’t loose that momentum.

The trendline is a per-kilometer average pace.

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4000 TT

This is for Dave Roberts:

Photo from gallery: Triathlon - 2009

68:19 for 4000yds. This is pace for a 72 minute Ironman swim. Not a lot else to say, -0.2% decoupling is not bad. Effort certainly did drift up. Started out paying attention to Jan in the next lane, not bad to start out a bit hard, that’s how it goes on race day too so I don’t mind doing it in practice. My watch wasn’t running correct so I needed to fix it after 500m. I felt quite smooth from 750m through about 2000 and then needed to concentrate quite hard. Variability in pace reflects this, dialed in well early on, gets a bit shaky and then control is regained once I switched counting “up” to counting “down” and pace is excellent to finish off.

The trendline is a per-kilometer average pace.

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The Swimgame concludes

The swimgame concluded this afternoon even though technically I could score two more points if I made it to a pool tomorrow and swam 4000. I’ve got an MRI scheduled though and one of the stipulations is that I’m not allowed to have exercised earlier in the day. So be it, I certainly met my goal of scoring 20 points and am content to leave it at that. Plus I don’t want to make it too tough on myself to break my record if I decide to follow through and actually do do another swim camp sometime later this winter.

The totals were 38.8k and 13hours 27minutes in the pool over the course of two weeks. Those totals occurred over 6 days each week and the second was larger than the first: 18750 & 20050. At the moment I’m ranked 11th in the competition out of 34 people. I think I’ll get passed yet by one or two people. Only two people will have scored all 41 points available. I could actually imagine doing that now, I certainly couldn’t two weeks ago but I’ve definitely brought my swimming to a new level with this camp. Hopefully I’m diligent in keeping the volume up and with one or two more real surges in swimming focus over the winter I can imagine making a few more breakthroughs and might end up placing better in the swim than on the run at a triathlon next summer. That would really be cool.

I tried the twitter thing for the past two weeks and it still seems just about as dumb as before I started. It’s a great way to waste time though. In any case, here are my swimgame tweets outlining progress through the camp…

  • @EnduranceCorner – I’ll be playing the #swimgame starting Nov 23. I’m setting the goal today = to score 20 points.
  • Finished first swim of the #swimgame 2600 for 1 point. Club swim so no bonus pts: 12×125 as 50drill&75swim with 15sec rest as mainset.
  • #swimgame Day 2. 2000TT today, 34:46 & split of 17:32 so -ve split to boot! Count as 2×1000 descend on 0sec rest? Don’t think so. 3 pts tot
  • #swimgame D3 2100 as 6×200 on 3:29 3:30 3:23 3:29 3:26: 3:28 then 300 suicide set w/ p-ups and s-ups each 25. tot 4 pts: swim yet tonight.
  • Second swim of D3 for #swimgame. 10×200 broken as 4/3/2/1 descending, range 3:35 to 3:23 last sprint in 3:04. 2 pts & 6 tot
  • #swimgame is killing me and I love it. I surpassed my biggest weekly distance ever today with 2×1000 on 17:50 & 17:04. 8pts tot.
  • Actually 9 pts tot, that was my 5th swim of the week, I’ll do at least two more this week so the #swimgame scoresheet will display correct.
  • two more #swimgame points, longest swim ever, 4000! Depending how I feel I might do it again tomorrow. Fastest of 7×300 in 4:19. 11pts tot
  • #Swimgame Day6. 4000 conts in 1:13:30. Outside-tops of shoulders ache, never ached there before, I didn’t know I could?! 14 pts total.
  • Week 2 of #swimgame kicked off with longest swim of my life. 4200 and 30×100 as main set. On pace for bonus set until last 5. 3 pts:17 tot!
  • #swimgame D9, 5×400 on 7:01, 7:00, 6:54, 6:44, 6:16. 2 pts today, 19 tot. Feel for water improving, 4th 400 felt awesome, normally I’d fade.
  • #Swimgame Day 10, 1500 drills for 0 points. Moving too slow and ran out of time to score.
  • 2600 for #swimgame as 5x(300pull 200swim). Focus on breathing from hip, coach’s orders! 21pts tot
  • 2000 band/buoy for #swimgame: 24 pts. First swim with band, found it difficult to swim with much effort- I realize my balance is quite poor.
  • 3750 for #swimgame, main set racing Ben 1/2/3/4/5/4/3/1 (00s). Final sprint deeply anaerobic, 7 people cheering on deck, called as a tie.
  • #swimgame last bonus: 8x(25flykick 25 sidekick 100swim 100pull) Mrs. Physio said fly-arms are no go. +1000band took all I’ve got. 4000tot.
  • #swimgame is over for me: no exercise prior to the MRI is allowed tomorrow. 38800 swum. 31/41 points scored. Certainly made my goal of 20!

So what changed? After 4 days of daily swimming I showed up for tri-club practice on Friday and felt ready to hammer. I was feeling quick in the pool and stuck on the tail end of the train a lane up from where I would normally swim. I really felt like I had developed a feel for what makes a good catch and what doesn’t. I had worked all week on making my long arms work to my advantage by taking a really long reach. Erin even noticed, I was reaching better – focus and dedication was paying off with muscle memory. I took a day off mid-way and the constant ache that I had developed in my shoulders and back had started to wane. Week two was all about developing strength, once I had a better catch I was far from strong enough to pull on it with any speed. To say that I managed to get strong during week two is totally bogus, but I continued to benefit from the volume by putting good muscle memory into my arms. I also identified that I was cheating on good balance by swimming with wide feet. The two band-swims that I’ve done really highlighted that I don’t have very good balance in the water. I need to really work on that to maintain a streamlined position in the water, and part of that is improving core strength. So, 13.5 hours in the pool basically gave me good reason to keep swimming, and concrete tasks to work on. I’m totally pleased with this endeavor, even though it may have turned into a make-work project.

I’ll conclude with a plot of my weekly distance over the period of when I started shoulder rehabilitation last fall up until the present. The past two weeks both doubled my longest distance in any week prior to that. [click it for larger]

distance plot for swim

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I’m competing at the swimgame competition being virtually hosted by Gordo Byrn at EnduranceCorner for the next two weeks (November 23rd to December 6th). There are no restrictions on who can join and there is no requisite speed to swim any of the sets. Slow-squid are on equal footing for point scoring as fast-fish. The pool of competitors is supposed to be twittering their #swimgame progress as they swim into the @EnduranceCorner/swimgame list. I guess the idea is that you get to brag as you go how many points you’re earning, it’s not for accountability purposes as far as I know.

Points are earned each time a swim of 2000m/2200yds is completed and this forms the basis of the competition, swim frequency is goal number one. From there on there are incentives to score more points as the 14 days go by. Points are earned as follows:

  1. Your minimum swim distance is 2000m/2200 yds. Each time you hit that distance, give yourself a point.
  2. We decided that 4000m/4400 yds merits special recognition, each time you hit that distance in a single workout give yourself a point.
  3. Five swims in a week gives you a bonus point, each week.
  4. Ten swims across the camp gives you another bonus point.
  5. A bonus point for completing each of the following:
    1. 5×400, on 20s rest each swim faster than the one before
    2. 2×1000 on your choice rest, second 1000 faster than the one before
    3. 4000 meters/4400 yards without stopping – all three-stroke breathing
    4. 10×200 group them 4/3/2/1 and speed up for each group. Take no more than 15s rest on each 200.
    5. 8×250 as 25 fly, 225 choice – you decide the rest
    6. 2000 meters/2200 yards with pullbuoy and band. The band should be a rubber band (say an old bike tube, cut the valve out) and tight around the ankles. I recommend this is done continuous, three-stroke breathing. However, if you can’t manage continuous then I think you still deserve the point if you do the distance.
    7. 2000 TT for time – this is a great benchmark to have. You get the point for doing the TT – the split time is for future reference. Compare your speed for the first 200 against your speed for the entire swim – you will learn something about your ability to pace.
    8. 20×100 – take your average 100 split from the 2000 TT and add 10s to it. For example, if you swam 30 minutes for your 2000 then the average per 100 is 1:30. Adding 10 seconds is 1:40. So you would swim 20×100 leaving on 1:40. The goal is to be slightly faster that your TT time – in this case swimming ~1:27. You don’t need to be faster to get the point – I just wanted to give you a target for how to play the effort. You’ll likely start WAY too fast – know that we tend to repeat our patterns in races so this is a good workout to learn how to control yourself early.

I’ll post again in two weeks with my progress on this project.

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Ironman: t minus one year

The big reason for the bike trip was to make my way out to Penticton to sign up for Ironman for 2010. That is now done and on August 29, 2010 I’ll embark on what I can almost guarantee will be the most challenging day of swimming, biking and running I’ve ever done. I’m really looking forward to it. This blog entry is mostly notes for myself for next year, not terribly stimulating reading, so if you read it and get to the end thinking ‘what a waste of my time’, then don’t complain because you’ve been warned.

I was stationed in OK falls for the 2009 edition of Ironman Canada to be the support crew for two friends who would be racing on Sunday morning. They had a lot of tasks to do associated with race preparation and when they weren’t busy it was important that I didn’t try to distract them too much from their most important task in the days prior to the race: relaxing and letting all the fatigue drain out of their muscles. Despite having ridden almost continuously during my waking hours for the past 7 days I still opted to get out and make the most of the excellent riding terrain by doing another ride. I really wanted to ride the IMC course while there so that I could mentally log it in my head in advance of actually heading out on the course. I found that it is a huge advantage to actually ride courses prior to racing on them. I didn’t used to think this was terribly important but this spring when I started to do more mountain biking I realized the importance. Knowing what is coming up and having done the corners before makes it so much easier to ride with confidence. That makes a huge difference in actual speed when the course is technical and the experience lets you ride faster… on a triathlon course it’s probably not going to make a huge time difference but the confidence that it adds is significant in my opinion. I have an excellent mental image of the ride and know where I’ll likely feel strong and where I’ll likely need to focus hard to ride efficiently. If you ask me it’s completely reasonable to suggest that pre-riding the course this year made me 5 minutes faster on it next year. If I could train there on all my training rides I think I’d gain another couple minutes just by getting so familiar with the pacing demands of this course, irrespective of fitness. At an Olympic or sprint distance race the difference is likely only a matter of a few seconds, because there is only one pace – HARD… but for IM I think this is likely a significant advantage because the pace is never hard.

I had it in my head that I should leave the hotel in OK falls at around 8:30 pm so I’d be on the middle section of the course at the same time of day as I would be for race day. But being lazy in the morning was more important and so I took my sweet time to get out there, meaning I’d ride a bit more in the heat of the afternoon instead. I rode from the Penticton Beach down along Shaha and then up the short climb over McClean Creek and the fast curvy descent into OK Falls the previous afternoon. The start is just fine, quick and fast, the first climb is short enough that even though I probably won’t ride it in as controlled a manner as I probably should it’s not going to take a big toll on myself. The road is winding and the surface is less than ideal so it’s likely that the traffic on the course will cause some trouble here. I figure that if I can swim 70 minutes I’ll have had a good go of it, that would put 800 people ahead of me. Add only a couple minutes to that and I’ll have a thousand people ahead of me. It’s clear that I’m planning on hopping out of the water when the pack of triathletes will be at it’s thickest. The point all that is: by the time I’m at McClean Creek Road people will be settled in on their bikes and riding predictably and I’ll likely be ready to make some serious passes, maybe a hundred on this climb alone. I have reason to believe that I’ll be riding at a steady+ pace or high zone three here, getting through some of this crowd is going to probably help calm me down, it’s early in the course, not a long hill, and adrenaline is guaranteed to be high.

The roll south from OK Falls to Osoyoos was not dead flat like everyone describes. There were plenty of short rises along the way, I felt like they make this section of the course quite dangerous, not because they put you in any danger, but they offer a relentless barrage of opportunities to go hard for 30 seconds. If the mentality through this section is not well controlled it is completely possible that I get caught up with the huge number of cyclists who I’ll be tearing down the road with and just muscle my way up all those little hills. Deadpan flat would be fast and in one way would be dangerous because I’d feel like I had a significant advantage to push a big gear and use my momentum to my advantage, but this terrain is likely worse because each potential effort is effort is less than a minute, and each can be justified alone, but added together they present an opportunity to shatter your ability to run that afternoon. The key for this section is patience, probably the most here out of the entire course.

Once through Osoyoos, Richter Pass is exactly like everyone describes. It comes in four stages, each being about the same grade with either a downhill roll or flat stretch between them. There is tons and tons of room on the road here and taking the climb easy is no problem. Likely ride each section seated and finishing out of the saddle before trying to get aero and crank the speed back up on the flat sections interspersing the climb. Descending this pass is fantastic, it’s a straight shot down the back and 80 kph is basically guaranteed in the aero position with deep wheels. Immediately out of this descent the infamous rollers begin and they’re what makes this bike course hard. Again, the opportunity to go hard here is dangerously readily available; luckily each hill is long enough that you’re not likely to do so (hammer) accidentally. I’ll be doing the same drills all spring and summer that I did this year to improve my efficiency on the rollers. Seated climb into standing climb, get aero on the top and get up to speed, soft pedal the downhill in a big gear and recover, ride through the gears on the beginning of the ascent making sure I don’t push any of them too hard and settle in on the climb at a moderate pace. This is a tough section to ride and saying that I’m going to actually take it easy here is impossible, or I’m just lying. Taking this section actually easy means you’ll be here all day. I do need to try and take it as easy as possible though. That means I really have to work on riding rollers for the 2010 season, it needs to become a strength of mine. I am great at riding blazing fast on the flats already at 80rpm for hours at a time but I need to continue to develop my skills on the short climbs at variable cadence. I don’t need to get fast on the equivalent of the Great White North Half Ironman course, I need to get efficient on the IMC course.

After the rollers end the rest of the ride really plays to my strengths. There is a long and flat stretch all the way to Keremeos, the focus here is staying aero and likely pushing a big gear. Keeping it totally controlled I’ll be allowing myself to ride relatively fast contingent on the conditions that I am keeping up with nutrition and feeling like this is an easy effort. The out and back isn’t as flat as the first traverse of the valley but it’s generally flat. Many people get bored here according to reports. That’s not something I typically deal with while riding and if I stay focused here I can imagine that I’ll be riding my way past some more quick swimmers in this section especially if there is some wind to contend with that will make the non disciplined triathletes loose focus and perhaps get out of the aerobars.

The course leaves the valley it was in and heads up towards Yellow Lake. It’ll be dangerous to think of the climb having started as soon as the turn is made, it doesn’t. The grade isn’t flat anymore but it’s probably best to think of it as just a hillier section of the out and back until I pass the turnoff to the Green Mountain Road. At this point there is a climb on highway 3A that lasts three miles and it’s a real climb. To think of Keremeos to Yellow Lake as one long 20km ascent will absolutely shatter any positive thoughts you had going for you, the real climb is short and only 5% and I’m sure it’ll be loaded with spectators. Riding that 3 mile section at a moderate effort is A-OK but not the entire 20 km. I’ll maintain my out-and-back race plan through to the beginning of the steep section, stay focused and ride steady. Hitting the top of the short climb it’s time to load up my bottle cages with all the weight I can scavenge from the volunteers handing out gatorade and water because it’s a long fast descent. I’ll probably try to eat a pseudo-meal at this point in the ride. It’ll be sometime around noon and I have 25km or half an hour left to go on the ride. I’m thinking somewhere around 500-700 calories at this point including an entire bottle of gatorade and then follow it with just water on the run down to Penticton. It’s a stress free ride down that hill and I can give my digestive system some time to work. I’ll definitely run an 11 tooth ring here and it’s an easy cruise, low cadence, take it easy and have some fun.

What I learned about the Bike course on Saturday by riding it I feel like I learned about the run course on Sunday by watching it. That’s not to say I know everything there is to know, but I learned so much about Ironman running by watching this race that it felt like I was ready to give it a try. Looking at the faces on people leaving transition it seemed obvious who was headed out there with mostly just hope of running 26.2 miles, those who knew they were going to run 26.2 miles, and those who were already considering the possibilities of not finishing or walking a huge stretch of the run. The difference quite clearly was not who looked fresh and who looked tired, no-one looked fresh and everyone looked tired. Ironman marathon running has basically nothing to do with marathon running in my opinion. The only thing that’s the same is that you have to run for 26.2 miles. I learned basically that I am going to be starting that run feeling tired and that it wasn’t a matter of maybe getting 15 miles into the run and having to run 10 miles tired. Marathon running in my experience is all about 20 miles of warming up and taking it easy and then 10 kilometers of a real push through to the finish. I had guessed that maybe this would be the same deal except the hold-on section of the run would just be way longer. It’s not like that at all, not the first part nor the second part. Everyone was starting with the look of fatigue in their faces and no-one has the potential to jus run hard for 3+ hours. This was true for people getting off of their bikes after a 1 hour swim and 5 hour ride almost to the same extent as for people getting off their bikes after 90 minutes in the water and 7 or 8 hours on the bike, you start the marathon tired. This is a fact.

People who likely were going to end up walking looked in really rough shape, no surprises. The difference between people who look like they’re likely to be successful and those who are maybe going to be successful is all about efficiency and focus. Some people look to be running along in fine form but their faces just look like they’re shell shocked, they were looking scared, eyes wandering all over the place at the crowds, fiddling with their fuel belts. adjusting and re-adjusting their racing clothes. I think a lot of them have thoughts going through their heads like ‘the end of Skaha is a long ways away from here’… followed shortly by ‘oh man, that’s only halfway’. The people who looked like they were on track for success were focused and just running. Many of them had smiles on their faces and it seemed to me that their focus was down the road, not to the end of the valley, they were blocking out all of the unnecessary stimuli. When the first AG athletes started to come back into town they looked exactly the same as they did when they went out. Their motion was unbelievably efficient and their focus was identical to how they looked on the way out. These were the people who managed to hop off their bikes and do exactly the same thing for 3 and a bit hours. It wasn’t about starting out, running a ways and then pushing really hard to the finish, these guys started out and were consistent for 26.2 miles. They were successful because they didn’t have to slow down and that’s it. The guys who came back into town two or three hours after that likely weren’t lacking as good of a race plan or pacing or likely even fitness. What separated them was the fact that they did not have the durability in their legs to set out and do exactly the same thing for 3.5 hours, which was run at a reasonable, even and controlled pace. Running was hard from step one until they got to the finish chute, but the ‘hardness’ was all difficulty and never effort. Marathon running has an effort level that necessarily picks up at the end to hold that ‘best physical limitation’ pace through the finish, from my observations Ironman running has a mental effort level that necessarily picks up at the end to just keep going.

Nutrition for Ironman no longer seems terribly complicated. Nutrition for the bike in my opinion is all about keeping enough calories in my stomach that I am forcing my stomach to absorb as much fuel as it possibly can. This means eating as much as it takes to keep me on the edge of starting to get full. In my experience that’s 400-450 calories per hour, no problem. I’ll eat a bunch at the top of yellow lake and let my stomach work through that for the last half hour on the bike mostly because I know I’ll be doing more than 50 kph for much of the descent and am unlikely to eat well, I finish off without having depleted myself and not a full stomach, but likely still some food in there. Getting on the run it’s going to be so hot that I can likely drink and drink and drink. Lots of that is going to be coke and gatorade, some gels in the mix if I am also drinking water which at the moment I think is probably unlikely, I’ll just be chugging gatorade. Nutrition on the run is actually pretty simple once I realized that to be successful the goal is just to hang in there and not slow down. That formula means: do what it takes not to slow down, stay cool, drink, run, drink, run, eat if I can, drink, run, stay cool, run, run, run. I’ll easily be getting 300 calories per hour on the run just by drinking if it’s hot, there is nothing complicated here. This was a relief to observe, figuring out nutrition has been of great interest to me thus far during my triathlon involvement and it’s something I’m pretty good at. Also note that what I might think is actually really simple is not super straightforward, the point being though that fueling during Ironman is guaranteed not to be more complicated than anything I’ve done before which is what I was expecting. I thought I had a big learning curve and the answer is no. Now that I know this, I think the only thing more complicated than what I’ve already done is nutrition for RAAM. No plans are set yet!

Going fast at Ironman actually seems simpler than going fast at a half Ironman. At the half distance the idea is to try and shave off just enough of your speed at each event from their stand-alone PB times that when you put them together you get to the finish as fast as you can. That means that you have lots and lots of things in the balance. You’re going pretty hard on the bike so you’ll get stomach aches if you try to eat too much. You can deal with cramping on the run because you really stressed your muscles on the bike to move fast. At Ironman, you swim, then you go for a slow bike ride during which you have to stay focused on the task at hand but never need to move quickly, you can eat lots of whatever you want because you’re not going too hard. Then you get off the bike, you’re tired and you have a long ways to go. What makes you fast is that you start out of the gates doing what you can do for the entire run, likely by the time you’re a few aid stations in you’ve got your pattern down and you do exactly that for the rest of the day. The concept of performing at the edge of your physical capacity does not look to be a component of Ironman success whatsoever. Ironman success is based on consistency, durability, focus, determination, self control. On race day that’s about all you need, and lots of those things don’t require training, they require learning. The one training based component, also the thing that I think has the potential to make me relatively quick is durability. I don’t have durability for Ironman running yet, I’ve got Ironman durability on the bike but no humanly possible bike ride can make up for slowing down on the Marathon and needing to walk a few miles. I also recognize that the durability that I’ve developed is not heat-proof. I need an asbestos coated durability for Penticton. So that’s all I’ve got to do in training: learn how to be a durable runner. Then do some fun stuff in training (on the bike or on bike-run bricks) that forces me to come face to face with my ability to stay focused, my determination to complete hard workouts, and self control to stay reserved in my efforts. That’s the recipe, if it bakes a good cake, then this blog post might be more interesting than I had first guessed it might be.

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So how long was the swim?

Convinced that the Calgary 70.3 swim course was longer than the advertised 1900m I figured I should compare to the results from the Steelhead 70.3 that occurred the same day over in Michigan. Of course, this is presuming that their swim course wasn’t short or long or had a massive current. I chose Steelhead because the swim is unidirectional and perfectly straight. If there is any course in triathlon that has an exact swim course length this is it. There has occasionally been a current flowing in lake Michigan and the organizers will swap the direction of the swim to ensure that athletes don’t have to swim against the current if it exists. I believe this is normally not an issue unless there have been storms on the lake… in any case I heard nothing about current this year and therefore presume there was none. I also made the decision to not include the pro field in the data. It probably messes with the average more than it should because the depth of the pro field is a marker of how much it affects the average.

I simply calculated the average age group swim time and adjusted all the results appropriately. This is not precise, nor perfect, but all I had time for during lunch. The result is that the swim course was approximately 2116 meters long. With 1600 people competing in each race this average time should be a pretty accurate marker of the course length, and to confirm I checked that the histograms also matched well, indicating that it’s not some extraneous times that influenced the results unfairly.

Photo from gallery: Ironman Calgary 70.3 - 2009

In any case, Stefan likely could have swum below 30 minutes (29:47) and I basically swam exactly my anticipated swim pace with a suggested swim time of 33:16… almost swimming 1:45 / 100meters exactly. Hopefully they get this right for next year.

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