Monday, February 23, 2015

I Was A Middle-Aged Lab Rat!

Adventures in medical research

I'm not really very squeamish. Needles don't bug me. Any time I get some kind of medical procedure inflicted on me I'm annoyingly curious about what the various doctors & nurses are up to. If possible, I'll want to watch when I get stitched up or I'm giving a blood sample or whatever.
After all, it's my machine they're fiddling with.

The heart catheter: like threading speaker wire into your ventricle
Last summer I heard about a study that the U of T & Mt Sinai hospital were doing on the hearts of old guys with a long history of endurance sports. I signed up; mostly because it involved getting a bunch of fitness tests done, which I was interested in doing anyway (power, V02 max, lactate threshold).

I was warned that it would also involve some "invasive" procedures, specifically a heart catheter; which was nasty enough that the researchers felt obliged to offer the subjects $250 as recompense for the discomfort & inconvenience. Whatever. The cash was a nice bonus, but I was curious about what was going on in my heart. If anything.

So it was pretty cool to be able to watch a live x-ray of my heart working in real time, including seeing the the catheter working its way through my chest to my heart, via a large vein in my arm. The needle the doctor used to insert the thing was shockingly large in caliber but it it just zipped right in no problem. (Weirdly, I could actually feel it in there, in my heart, though it didn't hurt at all.)

That's my chest in the picture, with the end of the dark cable lodged in my heart. There was a monitor nicely positioned so I could see it all, along with the relevant data (HR, blood pressure) as I pedaled a stationary bike a couple of times up to a set heart rate (110, 130, 150 bpm or so). The study was looking at the heart "stroke volume" of men with a history of endurance training, and how it might affect "ejection fraction" of the left ventricle (i.e., the percentage of the volume of blood that leaves the chamber with each beat). That's what they were looking for. I just wanted confirmation that I had no heretofore unknown heart abnormalities that might result in me pulling a Jim Fixx one of these days.

Taking it easy at 50 BPM
According to my summary write-up, "All indices of cardiac function are within normal ranges for endurance trained males. Normal hemodynamic response to graded exercise challenge." Well, that's comforting, I guess.

Plus I found out that my V02 max was 51.4 (not bad for a 52-year-old, apparently), max power was 350W, my resting HR was 47 and max HR was 193 (it hit 200 in my first ramp test at The Cycling Gym). All of which only really mattered because it gave me some sense of what I was working with, and what the possibilities might be for improvement.
And some sense that that I probably wasn't going to crap out doing it.

In the end though, it was just kinda freaky to get to watch all that amazing stuff inside you doing its thing. Humans are incredible, really.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Niagara Classic Road Race, May 18th 2014

...more like Niagara Fails

Like most Ontario races, the Niagara Classic is a circuit race. Niagara is mostly famous for its multiple climbs up the dreaded Effingham Hill, a steep wall that hits 15% and tends to shred the field. The race starts at the bottom of that climb, after a left turn from a side-road that forms the Start/Finish straightaway. That opening bit was supposed to be a "neutral start". Believing that was my first mistake.

My second mistake was getting to the line late and ending up way at the back. So when the the pack took off at full race pace in the allegedly "neutral" start, I was strung out the end before the damn race even officially started.

The "neutral" start; view from the front, where I wasn't. (Note the speed.)
I love all the racing tips books that tell you stuff like "if you're not a good climber, get the the front of the pack before the hills so you can stay in contact with the bunch as they pass you on the way up". Sure. If I could do that I'd probably be a pretty good climber already. Anyway, being back in the dust as I hit that climb at the start of the race was not very heartening; by the time I got to the top of it and rounded the first corner, the pack was long gone. Up the road I could see a few other riders but the gap felt unbridgeable.

Eventually I fell in with one other loser, but he was going even slower than I was, and anyway he refused to pull (or didn't understand the etiquette of the situation), so I left him behind and resigned myself to a long time trial. Which lasted another lap and another climb of the very well-named Effingham Hill before I came to the conclusion that no further good could come from this humiliating fandango, found a Race Marshall, and pulled off. Not a good feeling.

In truth, I probably would have done well to stay in it, as the slower riders gradually bunched up; I might have managed a "not last" finish instead of a DNF. But there is definitely something about the mental game. I gave up - but the fact is, I was beat before I even started this one.

Anyway, next time I will make sure I do a full ride of the course in advance of the race.
Lesson learned: I can't even think about being competitive with other racers unless I have the course beat in my head before I line up.

(Vidcap from JoJo.)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

I've gone mad with power!


Until recently I have not got into using a power meter to train. Mostly because even the most reasonable ones are crazy expensive (probably the cheapest is the Stages model, which comes in at around $800), and for that kind of money I'm more inclined to go with a new wheelset, for example.

In fact, all last year I didn't train with any data at all after my HR monitor crapped out. Needless to say, going by "feel" doesn't exactly lend it self to structured workouts. Or optimal results (See: "2014 Season Overview").

At The Cycling Gym, however, it's all about the power. (And the heart rate. And the SM02.) And the annoying thing about the data is it's stark, honest and unforgiving. The up-side is, you really can see your progress, assuming you actually do progress. Additionally, there is lots of analysis out there that will tell you exactly where your fitness lies relative to the people you might want to beat in a race.

The one I found most interesting was Andy Coggan's analysis of the power profiles of riders at various levels, from untrained to world-class.

My training FTP (Functional Threshold Power) currently sits at 298 watts, based on my most recent ramp test at The Cycling Gym. Which is kinda cool because it was 272w the first test in early December. At my current weight of 76 kg that puts my FTP Watts per kilo (power to weight ratio) at 3.92, or the level of a Cat 3 racer. (Which  frankly seems kinda hopeful to me.) Anyway, this just sets me thinking about what my PWR might be if I were a bit lighter, and how much weight I can lose before I get complaints from my Very Significant Other (I figure 2 or 3 kg, no problem). I was riding at around 72 kg last season, but anything south of that is probably not realistic or healthy. (And not a pretty sight.) Besides, for now it's a bitter cold bastard of a winter and I'm happy to have a bit of insulation.

Steve figures if I can get my FTP to 330 or so I'm good, though that may take a while.
330W FTP at 73 kg... PWR of 4.5w/kg? Those are practically WORLD DOMINATION NUMBERS!

Or anyway maybe enough to not get blown out the back of OCUP M3 races.

I'd take that.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Getting serious at The Cycling Gym

Back in late November I dropped in to a new place near where I live

...called The Cycling Gym run by Steve Neal & Andrew Randell. It was a new thing that opened up in one of the old light-industrial buildings in my neighbourhood.

Steve, it turns out, is a long-time coach, mainly of elite mountain bikers; Andrew was a former pro road cyclist with SpiderTech and other teams, and a former Canadian National Road champion. So their bona fides were pretty good. And anyway, I knew that whatever my intentions, there was no way I was going to do any winter training on my own. So after a chat with them about the place I went away, thought about it for about an hour, and went back and signed on for 3 months. Apart from anything else, the gym was a 5-minute walk from my house. There ya go. No excuses.

Ramp test #1 face, at around 270W
The gym uses Wahoo Kickr trainers, which snap onto your regular bike, minus your back wheel (no trainer tire wear!). The whole process starts with a ramp test to figure out your starting FTP (functional threshold power), and your workout is based on that. So everybody in a given class does the same workout, but at different wattages. The Kickrs are hooked up to PerfPro Studio, which monitors your wattage output, cadence, heart rate and sometimes other stuff like SM02 (using a little device that measures muscle oxygenation).

What I get back from this after every workout is an absurd amount of data (emailed to me immediately after the workout). Average Power, Max Power, Work (in kJ), Aerobic Decoupling Factor, Normalized Power, Intensity Factor, Variability Index, Training Stress Score, Relative Intensity (RI), and times in Power Zones and Heart Rate Zones, among other things; and lots of charts and graphs to help make it digestible. Theoretically, I can track my progress in all kinds of ways, but I'm looking for is a combination of greater power, the ability to sustain higher wattages for longer, and then doing higher wattages at a lower heart rate for longer.

Generally I'm there three times a week, with the weekday workouts starting at 6 am. This means getting up at 5:15am, which I actually do eagerly. That, if anything, should be an indicator of how sick this all truly is.
...and that was today's workout.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Grey County Road Race, May 10th 2014

La Lanterne Rouge, C'est Moi!

It's not every day that I get to feel kinship with a real Canadian international pro cyclist, but the Grey County Road Race last season was my Svein Tuft moment. Dead last! but a proud accomplishment nonetheless. Sure, as sporting achievements go it's not exactly in the same universe as surviving the meat grinder that is 20 days of the Tour de France, but what the hell. It was a great race, for a couple of reasons.

Mostly, because I didn't give up.
Aerodynamic hill-climbing face
I stayed with the pack for the first 30 km or so, but I didn't keep moving up. I was fixated on the back of the guy in front of me, and as a result, I let rider after rider drift past me, so that when the break finally came on one of the many leg-burning rollers, it caught me totally off guard. And because I was so far back in the pack, I quickly got strung out with the stragglers. Then the stragglers dropped me. And in a flash, things got a lot harder and a lot slower. Lesson learned: keep your stick on the ice and watch what's going on. And be constantly surfing forward.

After a while a group eight or nine riders from the women's race caught up with me. Suffering and shameless, I latched on to the back of them, and hung on for 20kms or so until they finally tired of that and blasted away on one of the steeper climbs.

The course had a series of such climbs that paid off in the last 25 km of the race with a blast down Grey County Road 19. A perfectly smooth, fresh piece of 2-lane highway. I was completely alone by the time I got to it, and I had no idea what I was in for. Very quickly I got past any need to pedal (I was all for conserving energy at this point anyway), and before long I was going so fast I didn't dare look down at my speedometer. It was also a very windy day so as the road swooped down the hill the wind would seem to catch your back in spots and push you faster. Or alternatively, threaten to push you over, or into the gravel. I got into the tightest tuck I could, not for speed, but for stability. Slight movements of my elbows worked like spoilers on and F1 car. One blown tire or miscalculation on a turn and I was a road crayon. At the time, though, I was actually pretty relaxed and completely focussed, but not actually frightened. Kind of exhilarated, actually. Then, after the race, I looked at my data – turns out my maximum speed hit 92.5 km/h. That was the first time I've ever known retroactive terror.

It was a few more km to the end of the race, which rather sadistically ended at the top of a horrific climb called Scenic Caves Road. After 80+ kilometres (much of it time-trialling) I was looking at 11 km of 10-14% grade. I could have abandoned right there. But I thought, fuck it, I've come this far, damned if I'm not going to finish it.

I had never ridden up this beast before. However, the night before, my pal Michael & I drove up it on a reco mission to see what it was looking like. This meant I knew exactly how long it was, and where the turns were, and was able to calculate roughly how long it was going to take to get up it, or as I thought to myself as I approached it, "Just 20 minutes of pain, you can handle that!" It turned out to be the single most difficult physical thing I have ever done in my life. Grinding up that hill at about 10 km/h, counting out ten pedal strokes ten at a time, marking out targets all the way up (just get to that road sign!), and then, weirdly, running the last, flatter part to the finish near 40 km/h. Not sure where that came from except maybe desperation for it to finally be over.

And when it was, it was pretty damn good.
 (Note to self: put a cassette with a 28 on the bike next time.)

One of the greatest things I've ever seen.

2014 Season overview

Year Two of the Tour de Newb Five-Year Racing plan did not exactly go as planned.

The goal was to do a minimum of five races, six if possible. Well, that didn't work out. Timing, training and one thing and another meant I ended up only doing three:

Grey County Road Race in Collingwood;
Niagara Classic in Pelham; and
The Tour de Terra Cotta in, uh, Terra Cotta.

As disappointing as this count was, I learned something important from each of them.

Grey County taught me how much I can suffer and not actually die. (Details here)
Niagara taught me that starting at the back of the pack was really not a good idea. (Details here)
And Terra Cotta was a lesson in the value of patience over hubris. (Details here)

All of which is motivation for Year Three.