Many readers have approached me at races recently to ask about my training secrets. I don't have any really. My friend Brett once commented to his coach that my training is comprised of fartlek rides. Because my training lacks formal structure that most coach-based programs entail, Brett surmises that I may just be one of those genetic naturals in the sport. I may have inherited some good mitochondrial DNA from my mother. Surely there is more to this puzzle.
So how does one going on 47 years of age continue to hit new PR's on climbs each year? I can only speculate in my case. Here's a go at it, in no particular order.
Cross training. This winter I spent less time on the bike and more time on skis than any prior winter since I took up cycling. Readers may recall I fretted over my cycling fitness early in the season due to so few hours spent turning pedals. I never once hit an indoor trainer. The first six weeks of the year averaged 4-5 hours of riding, but at least that much again on skis.
I am still a hack on skate skis, but that does not diminish the enjoyment factor or the aerobic quality factor. XC skiing is likely the most intense thing you can do to your heart and lungs. My ski workouts were all about intensity, all the time. Waterville Valley workouts usually involved a few thousand feet of climbing at anaerobic intensity. Do this for three hours, you're cooked, mission accomplished. Mid week I hit the Weston Tuesday night sprint races. These ran 15-25 minutes right on the verge of puking the whole time. It is much harder to put that much stress on your cardio system on the bike. An epic snowfall winter was actually a blessing in disguise. I believe my cardio fitness improved over winter.
Cadence. Over the last few years, I've noted a steady decline in my average cadence on both the flats and the hills. Don't know why. It is just happening. I always used to be a big proponent of spinning. But the last couple years I've posted the fastest times yet on hillclimbs while pushing bigger gears. Could periodic singlespeeding be building strength up a bit, so a lower cadence is more optimal? Fast spinning is metabolically expensive. Everybody has a magic balance between muscular fatigue and aerobic stress. Mine seems to be shifting more towards using strength despite an apparent improvement in aerobic capacity. This is a best case scenario, as sustained power improvement is coming from both directions.
Training While Fatigued. This may be a big factor. I used to always recover well before my hard workout days. The last couple years, and this year in particular, I more often than not feel sore and/or tire going into my hardest workouts. Occasionally, I pull the plug on a planned hard workout and wait another day. But most often, I go with it. Interestingly, things loosen up, and the power output is there despite sensations that I'm suffering more than I should be. I have not put the Power Tap on my bike this year. No HRM either. 100% perceived effort is used. Liberating actually. I tend to do 2-day training blocks during the week. A set of VOmax intervals (hills at 3-9 minute duration) might be on Tuesday, while a 60-90 minute threshold effort on or off road might be Wednesday's workout. No rote repeats. Nearly all rides are loops, often solo, sometimes with one or two others. I've learned that the only way to tell I should not do a hard training session is to start one, see how it goes, and if it isn't happening, pull the plug. You cannot simply make the decision by how sore your legs are or how tired you feel. Nine times out of ten, the body comes through and I get a quality workout in. This effectively increases the number of hard workouts per week I get in.
Intensity Over Quantity. The past couple winters I did not get much time on the bike. When I did get on the bike, I was often sore from skiing. But I could not afford to waste these precious hours on recovery rides. I rode them like I meant it. Most rides included low cadence, high force efforts on small hills. If roads were dangerous, I sometimes hit a cell tower access road that gets plowed and do a few repeats (ok, I do repeats sometimes). I'd push the biggest gear that I could barely do without dabbing. The efforts lasted maybe only 2 minutes, but do a bunch of these at off the chart muscular force, your legs are mush in no time. The focus was on cycling specific muscular stress. My thinking was I'm not getting 12 hours of riding in per week, so I needed strength training to maintain cycling specific muscle mass. I got all the cardio I needed on skis.
Aerobic Activity Volume. I got a surprisingly large amount of aerobic work in at this point in the season, over 300hrs in fact. This comes from XC skiing and two cycling trips with huge volume. My body seems to respond well to liberal doses of threshold and VOmax work. The dubiousness of the epic mountain rides we do may in fact not be so dubious for me. What is interesting is that the Type-I muscle fiber guys usually bury me towards the end of these rides, but I come out ahead in a 30-60 minute hillclimb race. I in fact may be more of a Type-IIa muscle fiber guy. If true, it explains many things. I'm a loser of a sprinter and I struggle with ultra endurance efforts lasting many hours. Somewhere in the middle I have a sweet spot. It is perfect for TT-ish efforts like short MTB races, hillclimbs, and individual time-trials.
Diet. Virtually nothing has changed in my diet for several years now. My weight has varied very little too, maybe hitting upper 160's in winter and lower 160's in summer. I have made one small change though that I believe has made a profound impact on my performance. Are you ready for this? You will be disappointed, as very few athletes will benefit from what I discovered.
Since starting this blog, I've commented about my struggles with asthma. I've kept an inhaler nearby for most of my adult life. Over the last 10 years, I rarely used it as a rescue inhaler. I used it primarily to ward off exercised induced bronchial restriction (EIB).
My family doctor recommended a few years ago to take fish oil supplements to improve my LDL/HDL cholesterol ratio. They've always been out of whack. A couple years later I go in for physical, and no change. I read up on fish oil and learned that I needed to take many capsules per day to effect a change. So I did. During this research, I came across recent studies that show Omega-3's (DHA/EPA) can have anti-inflammatory properties. Asthma is an inflammation response. The studies showed that in a certain class of athletes, DHA/EPA reduced some athlete's EIB to point of becoming completely weened off albuterol. They took very large doses, on the order of 3000g of DHA/EPA per day. I upped my intake to about 1000g.
There were times even when I used my inhaler, I still got a tight chest. Nothing kills a ski or bike race faster than when it feels like you have an 800 lb gorrilla sitting on your chest. I more or less forgot about the asthma studies for a while until one day last summer I noticed I hadn't had any asthma in a long time. I was still using my inhaler before hard workouts and races. I decided to stop using it for a while to see what would happen. No asthma. Not even a hint. I went through a whole ski season this past winter with no asthma. We hit some nasty cold days, and those always used to give me trouble. Not anymore. I have since let my inhaler prescription expire. I now take one high potency capsule with 900mg of DHA/EPA per day. I feel like on average I have about 10-20% more lung capacity. Sure, I had good days when I wasn't taking any Omega-3's, but most days had some degree of limitation. Now every day is good day. This not only has an impact on instantaneous performance during a race, but also lets me train harder on a regular basis. The last year or so has let me train untapped space so to speak.
There's really no way I can prove 900mg of DHA/EPA per day is behind this. I can point to studies. I have no control. I can't think of anything else I changed in my life at the same time. Some people just outgrow asthma. Does that happen after 46 years?
So there you have it, the Hill Junkie secrets to hill climbing success. At some point though, I will hit the back side of the age curve. Each of the last few years I thought would be the year. My mother thinks when this day arrives, I won't deal very well with it. It's inevitable. I'm not going to stress over it now, nor will I when that slower day arrives. In the mean time, I look to local guys like Gerry Clapper or John Funk, my age, that are much stronger climbers than I. Ned Overend, whom I've had two occasions to meet at Mt Washington, is at a whole different level altogether in his early 50's. There's always hope and inspiration around us.
Thanks for reading.