Have you stopped improving?

It happens to all athletes at some point in their careers.  Whether you’re a professional or amateur racer, or a cycling enthusiast, all athletes go through a time where the improvement process stalls. 

For some it can be a plateau, even though they’re putting in an immense amount of work.  For others, not only do they not improve, they feel like their fitness is going backwards.  That feeling can be extremely frustrating and take a big toll on morale.  

Let’s examine some different angles on this common subject and see if we can get a good perspective on why it may be happening and what to do about it.  One note:  We are not examining lack of improvement due to overtraining or excess fatigue.  Although very valid, that is a rather large topic and not the focus of this article.  Being slightly fatigued or tired is part of a normal training program.  If your fatigue is excess and consistent, you have another more important issue to address. 

What we can learn from corporations - The first question you need ask yourself is simply; where are you coming up with the conclusion that you are not improving.  And additionally, whom are you comparing yourself to?  

It’s hard to compare fitness week to week (or year to year) in race situations or group riding environments, because each race/ride has different demands and competition.  In other words, there are too many external variables to use this as a valid indicator of fitness. Getting yourself on a good performance testing or power profiling program may be just what you need to really understand how your fitness is stacking up month-to-month and year-over-year.  

Think about how cool it would be to have years of performance tests (or power profiles) to truly understand where you stand from a fitness perspective. This type of ongoing data analysis allows you to get a visual on your current fitness level, and what it takes to get to another level or back to where you were previously. 

As it’s stated in the subject line, it’s analogous to companies comparing their books month-to-month, quarter-to-quarter, and year-to-year.  Can you imagine a major public company not doing comparisons and just guessing at how they are doing? It would be ridiculous!  So why shouldn’t an athlete do the same types of comparisons as companies do?  Bottom line here is that you really don’t know which direction your fitness is going until you track it.  Once you begin tracking it over time, you can gain a true perspective on where you stand fitness-wise. 

The base of the pyramid (or lack of)  - When new athletes come and visit us for the first time, one of the first questions we ask is what their training program has been in the past.  You would be surprised how many athletes tend to understand the basics of training, yet how few apply it to themselves.  They don’t take the necessary time to work on one of the major components of a complete training program: The base level of aerobic fitness. Not defining “base” and applying it over time is probably the single most popular reason athletes don’t improve like they expect. 

Not having a proper base can lead to a very “rollercoaster” season, with many ups and down in terms of how you feel and what your body gives you during any given day.   One week you are feeling great, the next, you are wondering what the heck you are doing on the bike! First defining what base is right for you is important.  Every athlete is different in his or her needs.  Then taking the time through consistent training is necessary to build the foundation for a solid year and career.  The longer it takes to get fit, the longer you stay fit!   

Who are you training with? - Being successful means being single-minded. Single-minded is doing what’s right for you. One of the primary factors riders don’t improve is they ride with the wrong groups. It’s important to ride with groups at the right times, as they can push you past your comfort level. Remember, in cycling, the sum of the whole is greater than it’s individual parts. A lot of riders aren’t prepared to ride in certain groups, but they mistakenly think going hard most of the time will lead to improved fitness. This can’t be further from the truth. A good training program combines many different elements. We have had many athletes where we took them out of the group environment for an extended period. We then prescribed a program that was right for them and was tailored for their fitness level and goals. The result, their fitness skyrocketed! Ask yourself whether the group you ride in is best for your fitness at this current time.

Patience– We live in a 24-hour society where results are expected quickly. If they don’t occur, most become impatient and stray from the plan, search for another coach, and blame anything and everything.  Getting fit takes time and you must commit to a program and stick with it for a while to see if it helps.  In general you will make significant gains early in your career, then plateau.  Make sure you get some perspective from your coach as to where you are in this timeline.  Obviously at some point, you may need to search for a different style of training, but for the most part, understand where you are in the big picture and have perspective. 

Life One of the hardest things to understand and accept for most athletes is that it is primarily the limitations of life off the bike, and our chosen environment, that dictates how far we go in the sport.  Most athletes who come to us have the required physiology to do well in the sport, but it’s their lifestyle off the bike that limits their development.  At the professional level, there are no boundaries, as bike racing is what they do for a living.  Their whole focus in life is bike racing and their athletic development.   

At the amateur level, it’s another story. When you line up at the start line every Saturday, the chief referee doesn’t ask all riders who had to travel for work the last week to raise their hand, so they can get a head start.  The reality is that most of amateur racers have jobs, kids, and responsibilities and can only devote a limited amount of time and energy to our hobby.  That is where the comparison thing to other racers and training partners get’s tricky, as certain riders sacrifice more than others and have different priorities.   

It’s not easy to see and understand this concept. Each person must gain perspective on where they stand and what they are willing to sacrifice to improve in the sport. 

The last thing you want to do is compare yourself to another friend, teammate or competitor, even though the temptation is there to do so.  Every athlete is unique and comes from a different athletic and life background and mindset.  Just because they do something that’s helpful for them, doesn’t mean it will work for you.  If you give two people starting at the same fitness level (watts per kilo at threshold as an example) the same training program, you would not expect they would achieve the same fitness level.  And this is only using the physical training program as an example.  There is not a training program in the world that measures sacrifice, emotion, and perseverance of an individual.   The key point to remember is when you look at another athlete, you really have no idea as to what they are doing or thinking.  Learn from other athletes, but focus on what it takes for you to improve. 

Summary

As we stated at the beginning of the article, everyone goes through a time period (if not many) when they are not improving and their morale is tested.  It’s all part of being an athlete.  Understanding that there are ups and downs is part of the journey.  The key is to have a good plan, good guidance and good perspective! Stay level headed and know that “this too shall pass.”

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Is setting goals enough?

Obviously, setting goals is a major "to do" when it comes to coaching endurance athletes.  With 20+ years of experience, setting realistic goals that are attainable for each unique athlete has become more of a creative art.    

At Athleticamps, we focus on two specific categories.  More improtantly though, there is an underlying principle or philosophy that we apply  to those two categories that help our athletes achieve them.   We will discuss this principle later in the article. First, let's discuss the two categories:

  • Event goals - Setting event goals are pretty straightforward. Perhaps you want to do a specific event like the Markleeville Death ride.  Or you want to peak for a specific race or set of races.  Basically looking at the calendar and giving yourself enough time is the primary prerequisite.  And as a coach, making sure you are capable of those events is obviously important.  For example, if a development racer says he wants to do the Tour de France next year, I would have to pat him on the back and say, "I like your enthusiasm, but let's set that one a bit longer out in the future" :-) 
     
  • Physiological or training goals - We believe there is a lot of value in  tracking progress through performance testing (indoors) and data analysis (outdoors).  A simple analogy would be businesses setting revenue and expense goals and reviewing them quarterly to see if they are on track or not.  Or if you work with a investment planner, you would want to meet with that person and see how your money is doing and what particulars made your net worth go up or down, hopefully up.  Why wouldn't athletes treat their training and goals the same way?  This aspect of your program is a bit more tricky and in-depth in that it involves understanding the athlete, their background, and personality.  But as a coach, this is what we love and enjoy and do on a daily basis.  There is no simple canned approach because every athlete is different and requires different "ingredients" to improve.  And again, just like with event goals, it requires a knowledgeable coach that can help you navigate through all the training philosophies and "stuff" you read and listen to and make things as simple as possible.

As important as understanding that we need to set these two categories of goals, there is an underlying principle that needs to be applied and is much more important: Teaching proper training techniques.  

Through my experience, goals are achieved not by solely focusing on statements like "let's get you to 300w for a 20' power test" or "You want to ride 21mph or 50 miles".  They are achieved by teaching athletes how to train properly. The goals are a byproduct of that philosophy.   Don't get me wrong, the two categories of goals are important to every program, as that is the light at the end of the tunnel.  But it's teaching how to navigate through that tunnel which is more important.  

We love athletes that not only want to achieve goals, but want to learn how to train properly and ask the proper questions.  After all, you as an athlete are out there dedicating the time and sweat . It's important to  understand what you are doing and why.  Being a coach is also about being an educator.

We believe that our unique environment at Athleticamps fosters this philosophy.  We are not just a training center with over 20+ years of experience, we are a think tank and learning center. We offer all the ingredients needed to make your individual recipe work!  We love athletes take on challenges, want to learn and understand that being a successful athlete includes setting goals and knowing there are ups and downs when achieving their goals.

Stop by, say hello and let's talk about teaching you what it takes to get there!

Ride safe, ride strong....

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What does every Master's Level Athlete Have in Common?

The number of Master’s athletes has dramatically increased over the past two decades. And right up there in popularity are the cyclists including road, off-road (fastest growing) and triathletes. According to USA Cycling’s website, 53% of members are age 35-54 and only 19% are ages 19-34. Looking at cycling versus running clubs is always a good indicator. There are definitely not as many older runners, probably because running can be so destructive on the body over time, so a lot of older athletes (ex-runners) are finding the bike to be the key to continued activity and enjoyment. 

As far as we know, there are few longitudinal studies that measure physiological systems with a focus on performance of athletes as they age.  Most studies on athletes are done with younger, fitter athletes.  There are now more studies being done on master’s level athletes.  But few follow them through their lifetimes.  So, we are left to hear first hand from our Master’s athletes as to what actually declines with age in terms of their performance. The key is that by understanding these changes, it can allow us to adapt training programs to achieve maximal success.

As coaches, we are continuously amazed at how well master’s athletes can perform, especially versus younger athletes.  Unfortunately though, there is still a decline in performance as we get older. Let’s briefly look at some of the physiological changes that we notice:

  • Cardiovascular Function – This is made up of declines in central and peripheral circulation, maximum heart rate, maximal stroke volume, and cardiac output. Maximal heart rate is the one we notice the most, as heart rate is something we have monitored during training since the invention and increased popularity of portable heart monitors 30 years ago.

    When I ask some of my friends/athletes that I have known for years, considering the fact that they have stayed active, their maximal heart rates have all dropped anywhere in the range of 5-20 beats/minute.  This, in turn, directly leads to performance declines and heart rate zones need to be “recalibrated” periodically.

    If this subject really interests you, seek out a cardiologist with an interest in sports performance and them about intrinsic heart rate and b-adrenergic receptors as we age.  There is an excellent study here that discusses this very subject.
     
  • Body Composition – Ah, the dreaded body composition shift.  There is no doubt, that losing weight, especially, that last 2-3 kilos ranks right up there with many performance goals of the Master’s athlete. They do go hand in hand in that losing the extra weight usually requires a consistent training program.

    There are three primary reasons we gain that extra baggage. 1) Diet  2) less physical activity and 3) the body’s ability to mobilize fat.  Consider this as a side note:  If you consume just 10 calories per day more than your burn for 10 years, that’s additional 10 pounds!  So, what can be done?  One thing is for sure; it can sometimes require harder work and dedication than the physical training program itself.  Seek out a good nutritionist who has had success with athletes.  Have them review your eating habits and have them be the person who holds you accountable.  It’s important to understand that the weight you held in college may not be the weight that is currently optimal for you.  Good advice and a good program can help determine the optimal body composition. 
     
  • Respiratory Function (VO2) - There is a lot of conflicting evidence on this one, as most anything related to physiology.  But the consensus is that you lose about 10% of your maximal aerobic capacity per decade whether you are sedentary or active. Losing your maximal VO2 is usually related to a decline in your maximal HR, body composition, and amount and changes in your training programs as life gets more complicated and different priorities arise, like life!
     
  • Recovery from training – Again, there really hasn’t been that much research done on the decline of recovery as we age.  All you have do is listen to athletes and friends for the past 20 years.  It definitely declines.  The question is why?  

Remember that there are two important components regarding why we need recovery.  1) We break down muscle/tissue when we exercise, amongst other physiological systems and 2) the ability to repair or recharge those same systems. We could point to a variety of factors, including diet, amount of rest, training status, as to why it requires more time.  The bottom line is that most master’s level athletes say they need more time to recover between efforts, thus affecting the amount of training that can be done in their programs.

To us, the key is fitting workouts together like a puzzle. For example, perhaps one day the focus of the workout is strength type efforts, where the cardiovascular system is not overly stressed, but the essential component of strength is benefited.  The next day, a focus can be more aerobic.   In other words, you are working on different “systems” on different days.

One addition item.  In a recent study, 75% of athlete’s polled (not sure of the amount in the study, but it was large) said they applied some type of recovery program to their training, like recovery drinks, massage, etc.  I still thing the biggest and most important, regardless of all the other things you try is sleep.

  • Thirst – The body has an amazing ability to keep “osmolality” or the fluid balance in and out of cells in balance.  It’s called being thirsty.  That’s how the body monitors hydration status (not weight.) The problem is that as we get older we lose our ability to detect thirst and there are a lot of variables that affect our ability to detect it.  For example, how many times have you heard that a rider forgot to drink, as they were so focused on the race or event itself?

We don’t believe that monitoring weight before and after workouts should be the sole method of monitoring hydration status. The color of your urine should be slightly yellow (not dark yellow) and you should be visiting the bathroom every couple hours.

  • Heat – I can first hand attest to this one.  It really seems like the older we get, the more sensitive we are to heat.  It could be related to a decline in our sweating capacity, but it sure seems like we still sweat a lot!  The good thing about heat is that it really doesn’t take that long to adapt, perhaps a week.  Take your time doing it, stay out of extreme weather variations and make sure you continue to hydrate yourself, as you use more glycogen stores because of the loss of fluids.

Summary

First, the obvious: It’s inevitable that there will be a decrease in performance as we age and the reason for those decreases are very complicated and somewhat different for every athlete. For example, just because your teammate’s max HR has declined “X” amount, that doesn’t mean yours will by the same percentage.  The question is how much decline in your overall performance will you experience, and what can you do about it to minimize the decrease?

Second, the positive: It used to be (not too long ago) that once you were over the age of 25-30, give or take, it was all downhill in terms of your ability to be a fit athlete.  I remember a prominent figure in the sport saying that cyclists shouldn’t go to college, because it took away from their ability to be good bike racers.

The reality of today is that masters are getting into the sport at a later age and their ability to adapt to aerobic and anaerobic training and improve is absolutely amazing.  You cannot believe how many times I hear, “I wish I started this when I was younger.”   Well, if you jump ahead 10 years from now, you are younger.

So, what is in our control?

From a health perspective, there is no down side to riding a bike, except perhaps too much sun, crashing, and decreased bone density because it is not a weight bearing sport, but these things are independent of the benefits we achieve. 

By understanding and recognizing some of the changes listed above, training programs can be adapted to achieve maximal fitness.  It’s important to also understand that it’s not just one thing that contributes to decreased performance, but many things that are dependent on each other.  We are very complex machines!

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The benefits of consistent performance assessment

Working with thousands of athletes of all levels of experience has revealed one trait they have in common: those that show the most improvement are the ones that regularly use performance testing to track their progress.  Most cyclists are familiar with using a power meter to track their output when riding, however, both testing and tracking are necessary elements to help athletes improve, reach goals and enjoy their sport more.

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Colby came to us 6 months ago with lacking focus in his training.  He was consistent in his riding, but showed little improvement.  After an in-depth discussion and review of his current program there were four main objectives we implemented immediately:

  • Bike fitting - he told us he had significant discomfort on the bike. A rider that can't focus on training because they are uncomfortable will be limited in their fitness improvement.
  • Specific event goals  - Colby has no desire to race, but wishes to improve his fitness, travel to some cool events and step outside his comfort zone to achieve them (he did by the way!)
  • Weight goals - Determine and track attainable weight goals
  • A comprehensive testing program - We test for two main reasons:  1) to objectively determine heart rate and power training zones, 2) track progress and determine what is and what is not working in your program.

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After working with Colby for 6 months, here is what we were able to determine based on two test sessions:

  • Weight dropped 3 kilos and body fat percentage decreased from 17% to 13%.
  • His wattage at lactate threshold increased from 187w to 214w which is an increase of 12.7%
  • His watts per kilo at 4 mMols of lactate (near lactate threshold) increased from 2.8 to 3.3 w/kilo which is an increase of 15%.
  • The goal is to "shift the lactate curve to the right" so at any level of lactate production, his watts are higher.  In Colby's case, you can see this quite clearly.
  • He also performed Max VO2 tests and increased his max wattage 8% and his VO2 Max went from 52.4 to 57.4 mL/kg/min which is an increase of 9%.

During this time period Colby trained an average of 6-10 hours per week and accomplished his event goals.  We just met again and planned out 2018's goals!  We love working with athletes like Colby whose love of the sport and desire to improve is infectious.

Ride safe and ride strong,

The Athleticamps coaching team