Saturday, February 18, 2012


I feel a bit left behind lately. This wacky winter has everybody putting in huge cycling volume, outdoors, on the road and on the trail. I read about riders riding every day outside in January, 10 hour weekends, and centuries on mountain bikes.  But not me.  Over the last several years, I've developed a passion for skate skiing in the winter months. I'm not very good at it, but it offers an alternative way to achieve a fine endorphin buzz. Some would call this cross training. High levels of cardio fitness can be maintained on skis.  Most winters, there are periods where you can't ride trails or even on the road safely. I detest trainers. I do not own one. Thus it is outdoors all the time for me. If there's too much snow to ride, that can only mean skiing is superb.

Perhaps I've been too hopeful this winter. I've tried to ski whenever I could, thinking winter will really arrive any day now, and I'd be all set, snickering at my friends sweating on trainers in the basement. Well, winter is almost over, and we still haven't seen snow. Now I fear my cycling friends are snickering at me, as they are fitter than ever in February, and I've only been on my bike at most a few times per week since Christmas.

It will be interesting to see how the cycling community fares this summer. Will there be a lot of early burn-out?  The older I get, the more I learn there's more to fitness than Watts on a bicycle. Cyclists on average tend to have pretty out of wack bodies. How many push-ups or sit-ups can an average cyclist do? How many can't touch their toes with locked knees? Cycling is probably one of the most muscle specific activities a human body can engage in. A very small subset of muscles are used, and only over a limited range of motion. We cyclists become highly unbalanced as we get older, and all kinds of maladies set in.

I learned this the hard way in 2010 when I shattered my ankle. Later I learned my bone density was very low, no doubt a factor. Total lack of impact weight bearing activity over many years of cycling and desk work contributed to this. Now I run to combat low bone density. Even though I run only 10 miles per week, my legs have changed shape as new muscles have been brought into play.

Skiing brings all of the body's major muscle groups into play - legs, core and upper body. To support my skiing passion, I began doing sit-ups and push-ups a couple years ago. Some say the upper body generates more than 50% of your power while skiing.

My hardest workouts since the beginning of the year have been on skis. I've been hitting the Weston "Tuesday Night Worlds" regularly. Thankfully we've had enough cold nights for them to make snow.  These 6-10km sprint races drive heartrates I cannot achieve on the bike. Unfortunately, skiing Tuesday night greatly diminishes the value of doing intensity work on the bike on Wednesday. Some days I'm left with no choice but to just back it down. Come weekends, I like to get in a 3hr ski in the mountains. 15-20min climbing intervals have huge cardio training value. But come Sunday, I have limp legs on the bike. The beauty of skiing is it doesn't tax any one muscle group like cycling does, yet you can hit crazy high heartrates. This also means it doesn't build cycling specific muscular fitness.

Almost half of my training so far this year was not on the bike

I tend think cardio is king in this situation. I hope so anyway. With a solid cardio base, the cycling specific fitness comes back quickly.  I've come into spring in past years very strong with few hours on the bike, hitting the podium at Battenkill in April three times. Should I be worried everybody else is pouring on the volume right now? If I were racing Battenkill this year, I would be a little worried, to be honest. It all depends on what my goals are.

One thing is certain.  I cannot continue to be a cyclist only. My body will not let me get away with it. Thus it is important that I gauge my fitness in ways other than simple bike benchmarks. I turn 50 this year. I can run 10km faster now than any other time in my life. I can do more push-ups and sit-ups now. I can ski 10km faster than ever. So if my Mt Uncanoonuc time on the bike is off by a minute, does this mean I'm less fit? I used to obsess over such narrow definitions of fitness. I still do sometimes. A diversity of benchmarks suggest I am more fit than at any other time in my life. That should be more important than cycling benchmarks.


Mookie said...

Great post, Doug. I've come to the point where I question volume being synonymous with performance. I'm starting to err on the side of quality over quantity. I don't see how riding tons and tons of hours makes you fitter. All it really is going to do is perpetually overtrain you. Somewhere along the lines, the notion that the average Joe with job, wife, kids has to essentially train like a Pro has become embedded in the cycling dogma.

I look at your ankle mishap as a blessing of sorts. How many people can say that they are in the best shape of their life at 50?!

Hill Junkie said...

Alex - I met an amazing couple on my ski today. The Berman's, well into their 70's, are still avid skate skiers and participate in the Weston Tuesday night races. I've seen them around at Weston but didn't really know who they were. Sara and Larry founded the Cambridge Sports Union back in '62 I believe. I'm a CSU member now. It has four sections, running, skiing, orienteering and race walking.

Sara was an elite runner and unofficially won the Boston Marathon three times before women were officially accepted into the race. A great story on this here. I believe Larry still does orienteering (route finding through the woods on foot or skis).

So they are still mixing it up in their 70's and going strong. I would consider myself very blessed if I'm still moving like they are 25 years from now.

CB2 said...

You should ride with Charlie Beristain sometime Doug. He turned 75 in January and rides daily. He goes to the gym or bowling when the weather doesn't permit riding.
Overall fitness, especially over 40, will probably translate into better cycling fitness in that you'll be able to enjoy the sport more with a strong core and upper-body.
Enjoy more = Win.

DaveP said...

I just crunched some numbers through my, Fat Doug Calculator (available as an Apple applet), and he stands a better chance of getting on a trainer than going to a gym.

Keep an eye out for ver 2.0, where I'll be adding a feature that will calculate your bone density.*

* Electrodes not included.