Acid. Pot Pies. And Speed.
Eventually, being a poser just starts to suck so hard that you can only stand being around yourself so much.
I have written before — a lot, actually — about the immense challenge that I know cycling road racing to be. But I know this only from a kind of indirect experience. Yes, I’ve been riding a road bike for a long time, and I’ve almost always trained with those who raced. But although I’ve often known the feeling of Clorox coursing through my quadriceps while straining to catch a training group that’s sprung off the front (and actually caught them) I’ve never done so in a real, bona fide race.
That changes this year.
Like everything else I’ve ever, ever done, I lurk as a wallflower for evar before actually participating. I make sulky, solo trips to the library to check out books about my new interest. I subscribe to magazines. I poke around specialty stores in the hopes that I’ll make the acquaintance of a two-wheeled Obi Wan that will take me under his tutelage. I’ve memorized stats from past Tours de France, parts lists from multiple supplier catalogs, romanticize over the spring classics, and know more than many bike shop wrenches about esoterica such as derailleur compatibilities, bike fit and positioning, and frame geometry.
All without ever wheeling up to a start line.
Cycling on the local and state level isn’t like pro or collegiate sports, where you have to be gifted, scouted, and wooed in. If you wanna race, buy a license — even a single event license — and go pedal your heart out.
There really are no excuses.
Since my childhood I’ve always sought someone who would both make the first move in befriending me, accepting me in, and ultimately, kicking my arse along the path of vaunted excellence in whatever my latest attempt at super herodom happened to be.
In terms of competitive cycling, that mentor never appeared. No golden halos to point the way. No voices from the Champs-Élysées or from atop the endless switchbacks of the Stelvio ever pointed me towards a local coach or wrote a training plan on tablets of whey protein.
After two years now of being surrounded by a very active cycling community, and having made the acquaintance of a low-key, inclusive bike shop, I’ve finally bucked up. So, enough waiting around, already.
I’ve gotten out, said “shut up, legs,” and “shut up, fear,” and have simply started riding with those who do race.
The Right Fuel for the Right Tank
However, you can’t expect to be competitive without a plan. And after all this time of reading and watching from a distance, I know for a fact that you need people around you who have made it their job to master physiology and nutrition to get you on the real path to strength and speed. Because as intimately as you think you know yourself and your body, the reality — the awful, honest reality — is that your day-to-day diet, your day-to-day stresses, your day-to-day routines, have lulled you into a bit of a stupor. You’ve adapted. And adaptation has made you slow.
Or, at least, a bit hard of hearing to that chorus of still, small voices inside.
So this week, I had a visit with a sports nutritionist, the effervescent and knowledgable Dawn Weatherwax of SN2Go, who illuminated facts that I had always internalized, but never knew what to do with. Now, with real measurements and real goals, I have an equally real plan.
The discovery from that 2-hour session? Despite being six feet tall and 152 pounds, I have been, in Dawn’s words, “starving myself.” Oh, and to make matters confusing — I have too much body fat for a cyclist: 18.9%
“How can that be? Starving myself, but I have too much body fat?”
When I told her that my goal for racing included being a better climber, I knew that we’d talk about strength to weight ratio. Great strength lugging less ass up a hill equals win. I just figured it was all about eating and training for strength.
I was two-thirds right.
After a test to determine my Resting Metabolic Rate, we learned that I was burning over 2,600 calories by simply reading other people’s blogs and brushing my teeth. She said that the typical healthy adult male burns around 1,800–1,900 calories during rest. Me? I’m crushing that by nearly a grand.
Add in the fact that I will train on the bike 4–6 times a week, and that means I need to replace all the calories the riding is burning off, as well.
After lots of questioning about my diet, two more things came up: I’m not eating nearly enough calories to replenish what I burn naturally and with exercise, and what I have been woofing down hasn’t helped build muscle. Beef pot pies, imported cheeses, manic Taco Bell runs that parallel a woman’s chocolate and chips cravings during a visit from Aunt Flo, and gallons of whole milk meant that my saturated fats score was off the charts.
My body was storing away what it could to keep me going, and although it wasn’t easy to see on me when I was just in my skivvies, the flubber proportion was nonetheless too high.
Pro cyclists have between 6–8% body fat. Me? I’m shooting for 10–12.
So…this week, I’ve been living the dream of many a portly American. My caloric goal is a minimum of 3,200 calories a day, with an eye toward 3,800+. Geezus, Mary, and Joseph that’s a Titanic’s toilet of food. And that food is comprised primarily of 4+ meals a day, heavily weighted towards lean protein.
My jaw muscle is going to give Romanian weightlifters a run for their ruble. Dawn has provided detailed lists, percentages, and menus.
Lastly, weights. I’m alternating days upstairs in the home gym with core and leg work, and then upper body.
Rip ‘em up, then fill ‘em with broiled chicken and eggs.
So How Hard is Hard Enough?
Now that I’m putting the right gas in the tank, it’s time to make sure the tank and the engine are humming together. That’s where lactate testing comes in.
Eddy Merckx’s famous recipe for succeeding at bike racing was, “ride lots.” And that’s awesome, if you were born with the aerobic capacity of a tractor trailer and a heart the size of Jim Plunket’s head.
Cycling requires endurance, the ability to go from fast, steady-state riding to explosive bursts, climbing ability, and recovery during an event. Can you maintain a relaxed body state while riding near 30 miles per hour, and stay at that edge before your lungs begin to react as if you’re drowning? That’s the physiological equivalent to time trialing, another of cycling’s specialized disciplines. When do you train for this? How do you train? What days, weeks, and months should be focused on what?
OK. One thing at a time.
The measure that has been set by research to define the most profitable intensity level for training has to do with that sizzling, burning sensation you get in any muscle during intense, repetitive activity. Essentially, your muscles, like any internal combustion engine, creates exhaust. At a certain level of intensity, your body can clear that exhaust and you keep on truckin’. However, when you kick it up a few notches, and then set it to simmer, your muscles can no longer clear the exhaust. It accumulates. This exhaust is called lactate.
Lactate hurts. And when the pain gets bad enough, you slow down, or stop.
The trick is to learn at what heart rate your body can no longer clear that acid, and then, to train mindfully just below that heart rate, within a very small window. Usually just a few beats. This is known as training at your lactic threshold, and the intent is to build speed and strength at a level where your body is constantly mucking the stalls of your muscles.
Bruce C. Jayne, a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Cincinnati conducts very controlled lactate threshold tests, not only for the UC cycling club, but for many local cyclists. For $50, you are guided through the test, and provided with a wealth of information about your level of fitness, including an Excel worksheet that has specific training zones recommended for you, based upon your Vo2 Max and lactate threshold.
Saturday morning, December 15th, I showed up alongside the women’s team of my adopted cycling shop, Element Cycles, to bare my pinky finger to the rigors of the lancet. Nate, my test conductor, is a relatively new rider, but he was very helpful to me as I tried to overcome my fear of getting stuck.
When they said, “You won’t even feel it,” they were nearly completely right. The little spring-loaded snapper made much more noise than it did pain. Not that I bothered to look, mind you. It was decided not to take the first reading until I had achieved at least 140 beats per minute, which is where I’m in my comfortable “working” zone.
The last time a doctor — or in my case, a nurse — tried to take a blood sample from my finger, I was in first grade. She unwrapped what resembled an X-acto blade from a sterile paper wrapper, while my mom held up my hand, by then as wet as a kitchen sponge fresh from the dishwater. The nurse pinched my finger like a vise, and ever since I’ve always associated that searing pain with World War 2 stories of bamboo and fingernails.
This wasn’t anything close. It hurts more snapping your fingers to “Mack the Knife.”
As to the test itself, the methodology is straightforward: your aboard a bike that is made to resemble your own in terms of position. You bring in your own pedals and saddle and measurements, the guys set you up, and you climb aboard and start spinning easily. Every three minutes, the load on your muscles steps up 25 watts. With my eyes on a power meter, I worked to keep the power and speed in pre-determined slots, which any training cyclist knows is par for the winter course. Maintaining the speed numbers up to around 24 mph was a straight shot; my muscles knew what to do. However, maintaining power within certain levels for those speeds was a mental roller coaster. I’d never ridden with a power tap before, and I was honestly shocked to see what the smallest adjustments to my position or muscle contractions would do. For example, simply telling myself to “relax my calves” would create a 20 watt increase, but then, as I fatigued, holding that level of smoothness became maddeningly difficult.
Add that level of concentration to the fact that the lactic acid was now beginning to pool, and…ouch!
During the first 15 minutes or so, it was a walk in the park. I’m talking with Nate about local rides, shops, and coaches. During the final 12 minutes of my 27, that is, when I hit the wall, and there wasn’t a lot of gabbin’ goin’ on.
The “step sheet” ahead of me, attached to a fan, explained the watts, speed, and gear ration to maintain during each 3-minute interval. As I was approaching the 27 minute mark — and with it the next blood reading — I knew I was starting to lose form. My hips were just beginning to rock. I was starting to do the Greg Lemond shoulder dance that he would famously perform while climbing; shifting his body weight over each quad. My breathing was now labored. If there was an OBGYN in the house, she’d have started to shout, “Push!”
Nate only had to punch my right hand pinky once. After doing so, he muttered, “Yeah…that’s what I like to see.” So I knew he had a gusher. Before subsequent readings, he’d take my hand towel, and wipe down my right arm, then, taking the concentrated sweat, he’d use that towel to prime the tiny cut open again for the next reading.
Nate was rubbing me down like Secretariat at 26:20.
I tried to be a good boy: minimal upper body movement, relaxed shoulders, jaw, and elbows. Focus on funneling all the power I could through my lower back and into the entire leg. “Turn big circles, BIG circles…c’mon, baby. C’mon.”
26:35 Damn, that was a long-ass 15 seconds…
“Impressive, Sam. You look good So consistent. Good power.” I couldn’t tell if Nate was being kind, or if he really, honestly meant it. You know that irritation you get when you feel you’re turning in a mediocre performance, yet people congratulate you? You just wanna say, “Cut that out!’ But I knew I was at the end. And I wasn’t going to do what I desperately wanted to do: flail. Just throw my body, carcass-like, down at each pedal stroke. But that’s not cycling. If I couldn’t keep proper form, I’d stop.
Nate had the meter in hand. “Stay with it! Stay with it.”
And just as he brought the meter to my freshly opened pinky, the pedals ceased.
10 seconds shy, he daubed me with cotton, and wrapped a fresh Band-Aid. That’s all she wrote.
Professor Jayne, as I was switching from sweat-soaked kit to dry, menschy track suit, shared lots of great technical background. In between descriptions of how power meters track time and the various philosophies on what to actually do with this data once it’s logged, he made this statement:
“You’re always haunted by the thought, “did the subject actually go to exhaustion? Did he or she really ride as hard as they could?”
I played mental ping-pong with that for about — 2 seconds. Could I have gone harder? Yes. Maybe another 30 seconds, and it would have resembled a thorazine dance. And since we were testing my abilities as a racing cyclist under load, I did the right thing. I rode into the wall. By choice. I knew the wall would stop me. But somehow, when I came to, I’d be better for it.
A Rush and a Push and the Land that we Stand on is Ours
So. I have food goals. I have hard and fast lactate numbers that have already been converted to workout zones. I have a weekly workout plan that, at least through the winter months, is designed to flip those few fat pounds on my 152-pound frame to lean muscle.
Next, I’ll be targeting specific race events, soon to be released for the 2013 calendar, and start planning to peak for those events.
And that’s a whole new topic of study.