Core is Key
I am writing this article following a two week training block in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado intending to share some learnings about both the importance of core activation and engagement in cycling. Over 14 days, my husband John Bye and I swam, biked and ran close to 400 miles, training generally at a mile or two above sea level, and gaining over 25,000 feet in elevation in our various running and biking workouts. These workouts were hard – admittedly some much harder than others and not just because of the climbing involved. A lot had to do with how “well prepared” we were for each workout. You might be thinking “what do you mean prepared, it’s a workout, so don’t you just jump out of bed and go?” I certainly used to – that was possible until a few years ago when I both began to demand more performance out of my body and made my way into the masters category of racing. If you’ve found yourself struggling to execute on some of your training sessions at times with no logical explanation, or if you simply want to enjoy our sport for the long haul, keep reading.
Over the last couple of triathlon racing seasons, I recall shaking my head in frustration after failing various “functional movement screening” tests during a physical therapy session, especially during those training blocks where my lower back, hamstrings and IT bands seemed to be in a constant state of discomfort. I could never accept the diagnosis that “your core is weak”, but what I have finally learned is that regardless of how strong your core is, if you cannot engage it, you are simply out of luck when you need to dig deep to power your bike or your body forward in challenging situations and/or at top speed.
If you are in the early stages of your triathlon career, this may not resonate just yet – but trust me, the sooner you raise your awareness to this issue the more effective your workouts will be. The inability to engage the correct muscle groups wasn’t a problem for me (or some of my other MAPSO Kona buddies) several years ago, because as a high performing athlete, our bodies got extremely good at compensating, so if one muscle wasn’t firing the way it was supposed to, something else took over and while we might be uncomfortable, we could still perform fairly well. Now though, after racing for well over a decade, when things don’t work, sometimes the body just shuts down.
To illustrate how this played out during my training block in Colorado, let me tell you about a couple of the rides we did and what happened on these rides. The first ride of our training camp the day after we arrived in the Denver area took us up to the top of Lookout Mountain in Golden Colorado – one of Colorado’s beautiful and iconic climbs, a 46 mile round trip from John’s sister’s house, with 3,600 feet of elevation gain. The snow-capped Rocky Mountains in the distance, the foothills and Tabletop Mountain in our sights during ride were breathtaking. After making our way through the historic downtown Golden and upon making our right hand turn to start our ascent up the mountain, I spent much of the main climb a few meters back off the wheel of one of the local pro women. She was not very chatty, especially when John passed her and said hello, so we assumed she was taking care of business and was not out simply to enjoy herself. I was pleased to stay with her to the top, feeling great for the majority of the climb and optimistic that my body could handle the high altitude and tough training I was about to put it through for the next two weeks.
Well, two days later, things changed a bit. For our second ride of the trip, we rode from Idaho Springs (7.5K feet of elevation) to the top of Mount Evans (14K feet of elevation) over a mere 28 miles. This ride is one of the most challenging road rides in all of Colorado, based on not just the gradient but the logistics. Granted, it’s Mt. Evans, not Mt. Everest, but similarly, it’s one of those mountains that you don’t want to be stuck on above treeline after about noon when the storms roll in. We’ve been in situations on Mt. Evans before where we’ve gotten rained, snowed, and hailed on in the same ride where the sun was shining just moments prior. We now know better than to start too late in the day, and generally plan to be sagged at the top due to dangerous traffic, road and weather conditions.
We drove 45 minutes to Idaho Springs, jumped out of the car, onto our bikes and began to ascend. During the first seven miles out of Idaho Springs and up the mountain before the increased gradient and switchbacks started, I found the long, slow grind to be excruciating. My legs felt like bricks as I watched John Bye ride away early on in the climb, with no ability whatsoever to stick to his wheel, then after about 10 miles and now into the switchbacks, I watched Jenn Docherty do the same. My lower back was screaming and every time I tried to increase my wattage and/or cadence my adductors wanted to seize up. I was using all quads and little core. My power output was well below what I should have been capable of, yet I couldn’t do anything to change the numbers. Despite several breaks to rest, each time thinking that when I restarted things would feel better, I could not get the right muscles to fire. I could barely turn my legs over and if I went any slower I’d be going backwards. How is this possible? I just did a strong ride two days prior and now it seemed as though I’d never ridden a bike before. This continued on for several miles, and after the final rest stop before the most difficult half of the climb, I acknowledged to John and Jenn that “my legs are just not working” and they would need to go ahead without me while I slowly made my way up the mountain at a significantly reduced pace.
A couple hours into the ride at one particularly exposed switchback above treeline with the wind threatening to blow me off the mountain and a big storm cloud above my head, I called my sister-in-law, whose husband was sagging us. I told her to let Bob know to look out for me as he drove up, and plan to pick me up, as I would not be able to make the full ascent on this particular day. This mountain was like a tough race – unforgiving – and being at less than 100% trying to ride Mt. Evans is like showing up for the Ironman World Championship without bothering to train. Riding up the steep switchbacks into gusts of wind so strong they stopped your progress when you hit them head on, and they moved you as much as 3 feet across the road when gusting from the side, above 12K feet, on a narrow, winding road with no shoulder and sheer drops on each side leaves little room for error, let alone the delirious weaving back and forth across the road that I found myself doing.
The bad news for me coming from the call I made was that Bob had gotten delayed by an errand earlier in the day, so my choices were to continue another 10 miles or so up the mountain or turn around and descend (dangerously) as the wind continued to gust. I decided to continue, since it would be even more risky (and cold) to try to descend, and at worst, even if I was moving slowly, eventually Bob and the Suburban would come along and I could throw my bike in the rear and my broken body into the back seat to take a nap. Further, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy having lunch and a slice of homemade pie at Echo Lake Lodge because I’d be there all by myself, waiting for the others to finish the ride, and the thought of sitting there eating pie and feeling sorry for myself was more horrible than trying to fight through the pain.
So, I continued on, switchback after switchback, getting a push by the wind from behind at some, then facing a wall of wind on others, and despite my snails pace above treeline, I made it to the top before Bob did with the Suburban. It was sheer and utter agony most of the time – I could not remember a ride where I ever felt so bad, worse even than I felt after throwing up all over myself on the Queen K Highway at mile 90 of the Ironman World Championships one year. One of the mountain sheep that was munching on the side of the road looked at me, laughed and said, “you call that climbing???”
By the time I made it to the top of the mountain, passing one guy who had walked with his bike the last three miles, I found myself 35 minutes slower than the last time I’d done the same ride. Poor John and Jenn just about froze to death at the top waiting for me, and it was a good thing Bob and the Suburban showed up quickly because by the time we loaded the truck with all the bikes and people, they were in as bad as shape I was simply from standing around in the cold wind waiting for me and Bob to appear.
Reflecting back on the Lookout Mountain ride (albeit that ride was much easier than Mt. Evans), the main difference was in both my preparation that day, as well as the fact that I was likely a bit fatigued from the prior climb when I attempted the Mt. Evans ride. What I’d like to share is some insight with respect to core activation that might help you avoid a bad race or training day due to a lack of responsiveness, or worse, a shutting down of the key muscles that need to fire in order to perform.
Working with All-Pro Health, some of us have developed a series of exercises to do prior to training or racing in order to get the proper muscles to engage and to activate our core before attempting a workout. A contributing factor to the lack of performance on the Mt. Evans ride I just described was one of core activation and a failure to fire my glutes all day. I had nothing more to give on that ride and there was nothing I could do to change that – but by focusing on recovery, foam rolling, stretching and corrective/preparatory exercises for subsequent workouts got things back on track for the remaining 10 days of training.
What were keys to success?
Massage – deep tissue massage at Devil’s Thumb Ranch Spa to aid in (both physical and mental!) recovery from my poor performance on Mt. Evans
Yoga – 3 sessions of Vinyasa/Flow Yoga throughout the trip at our favorite Yoga studio in Winter Park – Mountain Moon Yoga - aided in stretching tight hips, hamstrings, glutes, calves and adductors
Corrective/preparatory exercises – here is my routine that was developed with the assistance of All-Pro Health that I skipped on the Mt. Evans day but followed routinely after that:
Foam rolling – focusing especially on upper quads, IT bands, adductors
Lacrosse ball – focusing on hips, glutes, calves and adductors
My top 10 corrective/preparatory exercises to fire the appropriate muscles, including:
Child’s pose, with hip circles
Opposite arm/leg extensions on all fours
Planks, lowering to “cobra” then “up dog”
Toe touch/”yogi toe lock” to awaken hamstrings
Forward lunges/lizard pose/Warrior 1
Forward lunge with torso twist (adding a resistance band)
Pigeon to open up hips (although I will admit I hate doing this…)
Time permitting many of these can be tied together via a short practice of vinyasa flow yoga with sun salutations, warrior 1,2,3 and standing splits. Also, check out the exercise video library at:
Activating the muscle groups critical to executing either a race or training session, especially those of us who are racing in the masters categories - is key. My training got back on track with a focus on these 10 exercises/stretches to activate my core muscles – and despite the fact that I could not get to All-Pro Health for the soft tissue work I have come to rely upon to keep myself moving well, I was able to self-correct some of the compensation related problems that were detracting from my performance. Diligently following a routine involving adequate foam rolling, stretching and muscle activation exercises before each training session makes a big difference. Try it—and see how you do! Hope this is useful – good luck in your training!
I've been working as hard on my recovery as I did in my training, and it's paying off! Catch up on my health debacle by reading my first blog here then read this update below.
Bone Stress Injury
I am officially off the crutches after using them for 4 weeks and weening off of them for an additional 2 weeks. I can walk around without any achiness returning in my hip, which I haven't felt in over 4 weeks. I can even ride my bike again! I did two rides, one in Lake Placid where I went for a "training camp," and one with the Mapso Tri Club near where I live, that were pretty hard and both over 50 miles. I'm happy to be off the crutches even though they did give me an opportunity to drop some jaws...I could walk without pain and without a limp, so sometimes I would be crutching down a sidewalk, and suddenly pick up the crutches and walk completely normally. Onlookers were shocked and it made me a little bit happy.
You may ask why I needed the crutches if I didn't have any pain. The simple answer is that my doctor said so. The more robust answer is that my bone stress injury is in a place of "high risk" and continued stress on the area, especially since I have osteoporosis, could lead to avascular necrosis, where the bone essentially dies and requires surgery. Not ideal! To play it safe, we kept me on the crutches longer than many would consider necessary for a standard "low risk" stress reaction. I have also begun pushing off the wall in the pool, which is allowing me to keep up with my old lane! I still can't run because the force your joints must withstand is approximately 4-5x your body weight when running, far greater than the ~1.4x your body weight when walking. I'm hoping to return to the Alter-G at Dr Todd's and then hopefully return to the roads soon thereafter.
I had blood work done last week and the result came back at 308 ng/dL, a 41 point increase from one month ago. I'm pleased! Though I would have loved to see it jump faster than that, this new number puts me in the range of "normal" (albeit at the low end). The symptoms of low T have abated dramatically since I stopped training. The fatigue that I used to experience on the train after work is all but gone, and I'm almost back to my old self in the bedroom. This jives surprisingly well with my doctor's comment that most men experience symptoms of low T if it is under 300. She also mentioned that men feel the full benefits of this hormone at around 600, so I still have work to do if I want to situate myself in the best way possible for triathlon performance.
Another interesting thing I learned about testosterone (from a smart friend of mine) is that a discovery has been made linking certain gene mutations with low testosterone. We've known that one's natural testosterone levels are influenced by genetics, but now we know which genes have the highest correlation with those levels. The men studied had somewhere between 0 and 4 genetic mutations termed "risk alleles" and those with 3 or 4 mutations had a far greater chance of testosterone under 300 ng/dL (30%) than those with 2 mutations (15%), 1 mutation (12%) or 0 mutations (5%). We all have access to whether we have these risk alleles by doing genetic testing through 23andMe, which I will do soon. I'm mainly interested because it will educate me on whether I had a compromised starting point or not, which is something I don't know right now because I never had baseline testosterone measurement done before I began training for Ironman.
My bone density is going to take some time to return, many months to be more specific, but in order to monitor the progress, my doctor gave me a test kit that would tell us whether I'm creating or breaking down bone. It was a urine test that I did about two weeks ago and I should be receiving the results any day now. I am optimistic that the trend has been reversed, partly because of my higher testosterone levels, and partly because my blood work revealed an interesting genetic mutation that makes me susceptible to low bone density. I have a double mutation in the MTHFR gene, specifically in the C677T variant, that means my body isn't very good at converting inactive folic acid and B12 to their active forms. I'm 10% as efficient at creating the enzyme that does the conversion as compared to a person with no mutations in that gene. It's actually a fairly common thing to have at one, or even two, mutations and the good news is that it is easily treatable. Just take methylated (activated) forms of folic acid and B12 so your body doesn't have to do the conversion. I've been taking that for about a month now as part of a special multivitamin I'm taking.
I'm also doing a few other things to help strengthen my bones...I take magnesium and strontium and will be doing weight-bearing strength work that will encourage my body to develop greater bone density (not yet though because I still need to be careful with my bone stress injury).
I'll be "racing" this weekend in honor of my brother, Justin, who died of cancer in 2008, at the Lake Waramaug Sprint Triathlon in Connecticut. I'll likely do just the swim and bike, and then drop out before the run to avoid re-injuring my femur. Each year, we do an event like this one, and raise money from family and friends for St Jude's in his name. Please read our one page letter and consider a donation! We are grateful for any amount!
"The next station is...Summit."
My eyelids slowly rise, contacts dry and stuck to my eyes. I grab my bag full of sweaty training gear and empty UCAN bottle from that morning's threshold ride at Tailwind Endurance and stand up. Whoa. I feel weak, and now a rush goes through my body as blood begins to circulate more rapidly again. I walk down the steps and off the train feeling terribly sluggish. Of course I do. I got up at 5am this morning, trained my butt off on the bike for an hour and a half, worked a full day and now here I am falling asleep on the train. I have a hill workout tonight that doesn't sound fun right now, but hey, I'll wake up after the first couple of miles of running.
I give Lauren a kiss and run out the door to meet Clyde at the hill, two miles away. My legs feel like jelly but that must just be the sleepiness wearing off. It'll go away like it does every time I do a run in the morning right after waking up. Not this time. I get to the hill and my legs still feel lazy. Weird. I know what will fix it...I'll run hard up this hill for 5 minutes! My heart rate will be north of 180 and that'll definitely wake me up. I hit the button on my Garmin and Clyde and I charge forward; my legs are heavy-feeling but I reach the top at a solid pace and jog back down. Somehow, my legs still feel sluggish though and not just for the first rep, but all five of them. What the heck!? I must just be off today.
But it wasn't just that day. Week after week starting in March 2015, I got off the train feeling lazy, and it continued right through any of the evening workouts I had. I hit the splits fine, but I didn't feel like I had an extra gear. After this persisted for a while, I began moving all of my workouts to the morning when I typically felt less lethargic, even if I had to wake up before 5am. Further to the fatigue was that I often lost interest in using the bed for anything besides sleep for days, or even weeks on end. Now that's weird. I'm 28 years old and I KNOW that's not supposed to happen yet.
This is what it feels like to have low testosterone, as I've had since at least March of last year, due to overtraining / under-recovery. It's terrible, and can affect many aspects of life including energy levels, sleep patterns, mood, sex life, fertility, cognitive ability, bone health and body composition. The symptoms that each person experiences are different; for me, it has been fatigue, low libido, and bone health (see my previous blog called “Update: Bad News, and More Bad News”), but for other people it could be any combination of the other symptoms that I listed.
I write this blog so that you might be aware of the issues that can arise from too much endurance training and perhaps prevent the problems that have wreaked havoc on my health. Life is about balance, and I screwed up my balance. I may look healthy, but I’m not. You may like what you see in the mirror, but you may not be healthy either. I am a case study for what NOT TO DO, and I hope you will learn from my mistakes.
If you have low T like me, know that we are not alone. It is a very common thing for triathletes, and if you have the type A, overly-disciplined personality that so many of us triathletes have (and many take pride in), then you are at high risk for suffering from low T. If any of the below apply to you, then you might be driving yourself into a hole:
- “I try to fit in as much training as my schedule will allow”
- “If I miss a workout, I try to make it up later in the week”
- “I got to bed late, but that 5am swim session is too important to pass up”
- “I know I’m already really lean, but every pound less I am is a pound less I’ll carry during my next race, so I think I’ll lose a few”
- “My wife and kids no longer recognize me”
Tip for the women reading this: it doesn’t just apply to men! Women face similar issues with regards to overtraining and hormone imbalances. Women are actually at a greater risk of bone health problems. I’m not as familiar with the issues as they relate to women, so you should consult your doctor.
It’s not just triathletes that suffer from hormone issues, but other endurance athletes too. Many of you may be aware of Ryan Hall’s story, which has helped to bring the low testosterone issue into the limelight. I’ve been a fan of Ryan’s since I was in high school because he was a senior when I was a freshman. I watched in awe as he, Dathan Ritzenhein and Alan Webb duked it out and shattered records. Ryan went on to race at the marathon distance, running the fastest time ever by an American in the 2011 Boston Marathon, 2:04:58. He also broke the American record in the half marathon running a blistering 59:43. This year, he retired from the sport, at the young age of 33, struggling to run just 12 easy miles per week because of the devastating effects of low testosterone.
Over the past three weeks, I have been on a fact-finding frenzy. How can I make important decisions about an integral part of my life and future without information? I wanted to see how common low testosterone is in endurance athletes, and ask them what they’ve done to manage it. I chose to focus on elite endurance athletes, about half professional and half elite amateurs, because they typically take on higher volumes of training, which I’ve come to understand is the biggest factor leading to low T. I polled 22 elite triathletes and an astonishing 13 of them have had diagnosed hormone issues due to endurance training. Out of the remaining 9 people, 6 of them have experienced symptoms of low testosterone but have not been formally diagnosed. Just 3 out of the 22 elite triathletes I polled claim to have never experienced hormone issues! Further, at least 6 from the list have also had low bone density due to hormone imbalances, and bone stress injuries like I have.
The prevalence of health issues, particularly at the elite level, is both disheartening and encouraging at the same time. It’s great to know that I’m not alone, that many of these athletes continue to train and compete at a very high level despite these problems, and that some of them have overcome the issues. I must admit though…it’s scary to know how common it is and that it’s likely something I’ll need to manage for as long as I am training at a high level in this sport.
Attitudes toward their hormone issues have varied widely with some accepting it to be a cost of the sport, while others have fought back (and won) through natural measures, like Cody Beals. I choose to fight back.
Matt Bach, A Case Study
Below I will describe what I’ve done over the past five years to cause such devastation to my health. I do this so that you might have a better understanding of what it took for me, and you can compare to yourself. We are all different though, and some of our bodies can sustain a lot more stress than others before they break down. Note that you may be training far less than I, and may be getting more rest, but still could experience issues. On the flip side, you might be training far more and sleeping 5 hours a night, yet haven’t experienced any problems health-wise. Lucky you!
How I Dug My Hellth Hole
Overtraining / Under-recovery
2010 – The year my wife and I began triathlon. Spinning classes, some running, practically drowning in the pool, and some killer abs classes at the gym. This was not when I began overtraining.
Weekly Average: 6 hours
2011 – Met a group of tremendously dedicated triathletes in Hoboken while I was living in Jersey City. Saw their knowledge and company as a way to get good quickly, and I was right! Upped my training and they showed me the ropes. I did 3 half Ironman events that year, along with some shorter triathlons and running events. I was self-coached and partook in “leech training” where I would join in on my training partners’ workouts, usually created by their coaches.
Weekly Average: 12 hours
2012 – Competed in my first Ironman at Lake Placid. My body seemed to be able to cope with more training, so I gave it more training, as I was still self-coached. I saw improvements in fitness over the past couple of years simply by increasing volume, so I, like so many others in our sport, figured improvement must be linearly correlated with volume. My attitude drifted in the direction of trying to fit in as much training as possible given my work and sleep schedule. I noticed that if I got under an average of 7:15 sleep per night, I would get sick, so determined that 7:15 was the right amount. While it was not my goal, I missed qualifying for Kona by 1 slot in my debut Ironman going 9:59.
Weekly Average: 16 hours
2013 – Seeing how close I was to qualifying for Kona, I was determined to get there. I remained self-coached, increased my training even further, and fit in as much training as possible. In fact, I stretched the limits of what was possible to put into my schedule. I rarely saw my wife during the week, and spent only a handful of hours with her each weekend. On one occasion, we had her parents over for dinner and I practically kicked them out at 9pm because I had to get to bed early for a 5am wakeup call the next morning to go on a century ride by myself. Nearly every Saturday for three months, I rode over 100 miles up 9W to Bear Mountain and back, then tacked on a run afterwards. For a five week period before tapering for Placid, I had not given myself a single rest day. I ended up having a terrible race at Placid, missed Kona by 1 slot again and went 9:58. Frustrated but knowing the fitness was there, my wife allowed me to sign up to race Ironman Louisville four weeks later on her birthday. It turns out I had some niggling issues that stopped me from doing much training in between the races, which in hindsight was what allowed me to win my age group at Louisville and qualify for Kona (I was stoked!). Another factor was that Jared Tootell, a training partner and friend of mine, informally coached me after Placid, and taught me the value of the trainer and quality vs. quantity. This was my first foray into “less is more” and likely saved me from digging myself even further into this hellth hole. I competed in Kona 7 weeks later to complete my 3rd Ironman in as many months. This year was the peak of my overtraining / under-recovery, and when my life balance was most out of whack.
Weekly Average: 17 hours
2014 – Three Ironmans was a lot to handle. I was mentally shot and I decided to make 2014 a “down year.” I would regroup, hire a coach for the first time, and do just half Ironman events this year. Training under Earl was totally different than how I coached myself…I had extra bandwidth. I had a solid rest day each week, trained fewer hours, yet improved faster. Training was going so well that in June I decided to throw the inaugural Ironman Maryland onto the race schedule in September to try to qualify for Kona for 2015. Between June and early September, training increased marginally to “Ironman training” from “Half-Ironman training” but all of the training was more focused and specific to my goals. I continued to get 7:15 of sleep per night, but without really knowing it, I had taken my first real step in the direction of better training/recovery balance by hiring Earl.
Weekly Average: 14 hours
2015 – Having won Ironman Maryland in 2014 in a massive PR of 8:51 on what felt like “light” training, the prospect of going pro became real. I felt compelled to train more this time and see how big of a ripple I could make in Kona, targeting the top amateur spot. A great result there would put me in a good position to go pro either in 2016 or 2017. My volume stretched again and I felt as though some of that extra bandwidth was gone. Then in March, I noticed the symptoms of low testosterone for the first time as described in the intro to this blog, but I didn’t know that’s what my issue was until August when I was first diagnosed. I had total testosterone of 153 vs the “normal” range of 300-1000. By then it was too close to Kona to just stop training, especially when the only things I noticed were fatigue and low libido, and I was continuing to improve performance-wise. In fact, I had a number of massive breakthroughs in training last year and was top amateur at Eagleman 70.3 by over 5 minutes. I kept the testosterone issue in mind, but decided to continue training at a high level through Kona, and then I would address the issue. I placed 72nd overall in Kona, failing to execute the race I knew I was capable of, and then took time off. After 2 weeks, my testosterone levels had already risen to 256, more than a 100 point increase over my known low point, though still not in the range of “normal.” Several more weeks off would help, and learning more about what could be done to improve my levels naturally would set me up well for 2016.
Weekly Average: 16 hours
2016 – This is when I finally started doing a lot of the right things (though apparently not enough!). After gathering tons of info from doctors, studies, google, Cody Beals, and ancient cave paintings, I decided to pursue a smattering of natural methods to improve my testosterone levels, which you can read about in the “What I Did Right” section below.
Weekly Average: 13 hours
This is a loaded topic! Weight is a major factor for some people when it comes to having hormone problems, and it may have had something to do with mine. While I’ve always been very lean, my weight actually puts me in range of “normal” on the BMI charts. Just to be safe, I’ve increased my weight since I learned of my low testosterone in 2015. Prior to 2015, I weighed 145 pounds (I’m 6’0”) and if I ever found myself below 140, I would feel like dirt. In 2015, I increased my weight a few pounds to 148. Early this year, I increased it further to 155 and now I’m “chunky” at 163.
Something of note is that in early 2015, one of the experiments I ran on myself was to see how low I could go before losing muscle mass or feeling like dirt. I had begun employing metabolic efficiency training in 2014, so thought that maybe with my new nutrition regimen, I could go lower than 140 and still feel strong. Every pound less I weigh is one pound less I have to carry for 138.2 miles (the swim doesn’t count) through the lava fields right? Right, but it’s not sustainable! My body rebelled and I couldn’t even drop below 145. I pushed and pushed and just couldn’t do it. It turns out that your body’s response to having low testosterone is to retain body fat! Now it makes sense, but I am fairly certain I did some damage during those months.
I’ve always wondered why professional triathletes are all heavier than me, even if they are shorter. I think I now understand the reason why. I think I also understand why Mark Allen was known to have said “you need to be fat in July” to race well in October.
Other Factors & Notes
- I, like many of you reading this, work full time and sit in a chair all day. Top pros don’t do that because it is not conducive to training at the highest levels of the sport. While we are toiling, they are recovering, but we gotta bring home the bacon!
- I trained for 5 years straight at a high level because each success and failure led to new goals to pursue. Even in 2014, when I planned on reducing my training/racing for a year, I ended up doing an Ironman. The low T and bone density problems I have take years to develop, and I never really gave my body a long break.
- “Early season” not light enough. A better plan might be to do moderate but consistent training from January to July then ramp up in August/September for an October race. It’s a long season if you train hard January through October!
- Offseasons – I generally took at least 2 weeks completely off, then had a period of 1-2 months around the holidays where I did just ~25% of my usual volume.
What I Did Right
- Up until 2014, not a lot!
- In 2014, I began Metabolic Efficiency Training with Nicci Schock. At the time, I didn’t know that the principles of MET reconciled so well with the dietary measures one might take to improve testosterone.
- High in healthy fats
- High in protein
- Low in processed foods
- Low in sugar and simple carbs
- Low in alcohol
- In 2015, once I discovered the low T problem and had researched how to “fix it” I:
- Started a vitamin D supplement, which can help with testosterone production
- Started taking Omega-3 fish oil supplement
- Brought the training volume down a bit (just 1-2hrs less per week)
- Cut soy out of my diet because soy encourages estrogen production, which decreases testosterone levels in men
- In 2016, I took more natural measures to raise my T levels:
- Stopped training for several weeks after Kona 2015, then gradually got back into it starting in late December
- Began regular heavy lifting sessions in the gym under the supervision of my physical therapist, Joshua Grahlman of Clutch Physical Therapy, particularly dead lifts
- Increased my sleep from an average of 7:15 to 8:00 per night
- Better work arrangement that allowed me to train in the middle of the day
- Gained 7 pounds
- Doubled my vitamin D supplement to 4000 IU daily
- Began taking a zinc supplement which helps with testosterone production
- Working with Dr. Barry Sears to manage cellular inflammation and improve recovery time through the consumption of large quantities of high quality fish oil
Time for a little side story! After Kona 2015 when I was determined to get a handle on my testosterone levels, I met with an endocrinologist. I thought I had a good idea of how the meeting would go…I’d explain that I have low testosterone, and that I thought it was because of overtraining. The doc would say, ok, we’ll slap this testosterone patch on you and you’ll be good to go. I’ll say “no, doc, I can’t do that because I’m an athlete and it’s against the anti-doping rules” and then the doc would say “ok, then let’s take natural measures to remedy this.” Doc would then list a bunch of natural ways to do it that would probably overlap quite a bit with the methods I had already learned from Cody Beals. Maybe I’d learn a thing or two, and would consider the appointment a success. NOPE! We didn’t even get past the first part. I explained that I have low testosterone due to endurance training, and the endocrinologist, someone who is an expert in hormones, wasn’t even aware that the link exists! Needless to say, I walked out and never saw that doc again.
Performance Enhancing Drugs
I won’t take supplemental testosterone, and here’s why:
- It’s banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)
- It can cause fertility problems and other side effects
- I don’t like the idea of “slapping a band-aid” on something instead of fixing the root cause
- Even for the short-term, I won’t take it because I don’t want to risk there being an asterisk next to a future result. “Yea, but he took testosterone at one point.”
- Because it can be done without it
It’s been a roller coaster emotionally. Though I typically excel at remaining rational, it’s been hard to keep my head on straight. The journey has brought up tons of questions and has driven me to learn things about myself. Am I doing the right thing for me and Lauren? A future family we might have? Is this a career change I should be pursuing? Will I find the right balance between training and recovery? Will that equilibrium translate into enough training to compete with the best in the sport? Genetically, do I have what it takes? Should I throw in the towel?
Recently, with the help of my coach, I realized that these health issues have only brought more clarity to the question of whether I pursue a career as a professional triathlete. When I ask myself what I should do, the answer is still to go for it. I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t. To be able to say that, even given my new situation, is a powerful indication to me that this is the path I need to follow.
My Path Forward
- Decrease my training to near zero for the time being to allow my testosterone levels to restore to at least the low end of “normal,” targeting 400+
- Begin and progress a strength training regimen to improve testosterone levels, maintain core stability, improve bone density, and limit muscle imbalances
- Continue metabolic efficiency training but maintain a higher body fat %
- Get more sleep! I will be targeting an average of 8-8.5hrs per night
- Gradually introduce more endurance training while continuing to achieve rising testosterone levels and improved bone density
- Continue working with my doctors to assess my blood work and correct some of the abnormalities through (natural and legal) supplementation
- With every upheaval comes opportunity, and the extra time will allow me to work closely with my sponsors in ways other than by giving them exposure through racing. I’ll do more speaking engagements, educational events and blogging.
- Early next year, my goal is to have positioned myself in a way where I can employ a “less is more” approach to my training that will still yield performance improvements. It may involve as little as 6-8 hours of high-quality, intense training per week, similar to the approaches of Sami Inkinen (ridiculously fast age grouper and co-founder of Trulia) and training partner Jared Tootell (husband, father, banker and elite age group Ironman athlete who makes it happen). Professional triathletes Cody Beals and Sarah Piampiano had similar problems with hormone imbalances, and bone density issues. Both have recovered from those, came back even stronger than before, and have gone on to very successful pro careers. I hope to use their success as a model for my own.
A Frog Slowly Cooked
There is a fabled science experiment that a frog can be boiled if the temperature rises slowly enough, but the metaphor is apt so I will use it. A frog is placed in a beaker of water which is placed on a hot plate and slowly heated. If the frog were to be placed in boiling water, it would jump out, but here, the frog remains in the water until it’s literally boiled alive. My doctors have told me that testosterone and bone density don’t change overnight and that my levels have probably been coming down for years. As for the mythical boiled frog, the threat developed gradually and I allowed myself to get cooked.
What I Hope For You
Get blood work done. It’s either free, or nearly free (just a co-pay) and really easy to get. Simply talk to your primary care physician about your level of exercise and concern that it may be affecting your hormone levels. Routine blood work does not typically call for testosterone measurement, so be sure to have your doctor request it specifically.
If you think you have experienced symptoms of hormone imbalance, do not hesitate to email me at email@example.com. I can help point you in the right direction.
Keep your priorities straight. Remember what is important in life! We love endurance sports, but your health comes before training and competition, as does family, and if you’re not healthy, you’re not going to be there for them.
Don’t be a frog slowly cooked.
I received this custom Tri Kit in the mail a couple of days ago. I LOVE IT! and can't wait to race in it, but yesterday I learned that I will not be racing Ironman Lake Placid. Many of you may have noticed that I did not race Raleigh 70.3 last weekend. I won't be racing Eagleman 70.3 this upcoming weekend either. My season is up in flames and I'm working on accepting the facts of my situation and choosing the best path forward.
As any of you who have listened to the podcast series about my journey to "go pro" on Endurance Planet will know, it started with what I thought was inflammation in my hip, but I've discovered that it's much more than that. The "hip" injury is actually a stress reaction in my right femoral head where it meets the femoral neck, according to an MRI I had done a couple of weeks ago. The good news is that it's not a stress fracture, but only a stress reaction, because I was smart enough to stop running on it when the pain appeared. The bad news is that the stress reaction is in a bad place, a place of tension, where weight that I apply to that leg tends to put more strain on the affected area which makes it susceptible to reinjury. In fact, if I continue to aggravate the area, I could actually kill the bone. I was put on crutches and immediately knew I would not be racing Raleigh 70.3 or Eagleman 70.3. I won't be running anytime soon, can only do light cycling, and can swim but can't push off the wall. In my meeting with Dr. Sylvia Hesse, a fantastic orthopedic doctor in Manhattan, I mentioned that I've had issues with low testosterone due to overtraining. Hmmmm...are the two linked?? I hadn't thought to ask that question, but Dr. Hesse did. She had me do a bone scan and the results were terrifying. I have osteopenia in my hips and osteoporosis in my spine. To summarize...Overtraining led to low testosterone, which over prolonged periods can lead to low bone density, which led to the stress reaction I have today. I'm a mess.
Yesterday, at a follow-up meeting with Dr. Hesse, she assessed my progress and didn't like it. I still have a subtle dull ache in my hip area on the right side, indicating that I'm still injured. I had been on crutches for 2 1/2 weeks already, but was told that I will be on them for another 2 weeks. I also won't be able to race Ironman Lake Placid. The risk is too high that I will reinjure myself, or even cause another injury somewhere else due to my low bone density. My health is the priority so I will be focusing on restoring it for the rest of 2016, and though the racing season is up in flames, I may be able to take a page out of the phoenix's book and rise from the ashes next year.
I will continue to blog and speak about the health issues - I want you all to know of the problems that endurance training can cause so you can be careful in your own training approach. Stay tuned for my blog about low testosterone, why it happens, and what you can (naturally) do about it. I'll use my own story as a case study so that you might prevent or repair your own issues with low testosterone. It's more common than you think.
Until I can get back to health again, the Tri Kit will hang in my room waiting for me to return.
Be healthy, and train happy.
Failure. On the surface, it's TERRIBLE! The emotion it stirs and self-doubt it can drum up throws you for a loop. You start questioning why you're even attempting what you're attempting. Why am I going back to school to get my Masters? Why do I deserve the job I just interviewed for? Why do I think I'm capable of completing an Ironman or PR-ing at my goal Olympic distance tri this summer?
STOP! Quiet those thoughts. It's ok to be disappointed for a little bit...let yourself gripe and complain because maybe you'll feel a bit better about it, but then you need to remember to hush up and keep going. Onward and upward. Dwelling on the negativity of a failure isn't going to get you anywhere, in fact, it's likely to take you down a peg. Instead focus on what you can learn from the failure and then ask yourself "what's next?"
I had to keep these things in mind earlier today when I totally bombed a powertest on the bike. I've recently been crushing it on the bike, hitting breakthroughs on a near weekly basis, but today was far from it. During my last powertest, I averaged 331 watts for 20 minutes, and this time I averaged just 315 watts. I started out perfectly, with the first 5 minutes averaging 327w, and then the wheels already started coming off. I struggled to hold even 320w for the next 5 minutes, then faded further to the high 200s, all the while holding a high HR of 180. I just felt like I couldn't turn my legs over even though I was working hard. A total disaster. I've recently done workouts at higher power outputs with my HR in the 160s. During the test, I started wondering "why?!? Am I just not trying hard enough?? Is there something wrong with my bike or the powermeter? Is there something wrong with me?" I tried to banish those thoughts from my mind because I had committed to a 20 minute all-out effort, and having those thoughts would do nothing but hurt my performance, regardless of the absolute number I ended up with. I finished the test and then tried to figure out what happened. My coach and I controlled for just about every factor that might have negatively influenced today's test. Three factors (that I can think of) remain:
1.) I might have ridden too hard on Saturday. I rode with a group from Mapso, a local tri club, and though I tucked in behind them for 98% of the ride, it was still an aggressively paced ride that may have sapped my legs for today's effort.
2.) The Computrainer may have been miscalibrated. This would be a bummer but I very rarely have calibration issues so I think it's unlikely.
3.) I might be in the early stages of being sick. I'm often hit with a surprise terrible workout that is a total mystery to me until two days later I wake up with congestion and a sore throat. "Oh, that's why!"
If #1 was to blame, that was totally my fault. I got wrapped up in the fun of riding with a solid group of cyclists and let myself go too hard. Lesson learned.
If #2 or #3 was to blame, then all I can do is let this one roll off my back and move on to the next. If I let the failure get to my head, then I'm letting a fake failure get to my head, and there's nothing worse than spoiling your confidence over a failure that didn't even happen, right?
Failure. Learn from it, and move on to the next.
Each year, I pick a handful of things to experiment with, and one of them for 2016 is high dose, high quality fish oil. People's diets often lead to high levels of inflammation, particularly in the U.S., and as an athlete, we choose to inflame our bodies daily through our training. Dr. Barry Sears has pioneered the use of Omega-3 fish oil in order to keep that inflammation under control and optimize recovery. Something that I've learned lately is that inflammation is about balance, like so many other things in life. Too much inflammation and your body destroys its own tissue leading to injury and minimal performance gains. Too little inflammation, and your body doesn't know what to repair. Inflammation is your body's signal to heal itself, which it does in a supercompensatory way leading to you being stronger, which leads to performance gains. Woah! Isn't that what we are looking for as athletes!?
So how do we measure inflammation? A blood test. I did a blood test before starting the fish oil consumption to measure my AA (Arachidonic Acid) and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) levels, which are used to calculate the AA/EPA ratio. Dr. Sears' research has concluded that 1.5-3.0 is a good range with 1.5 being ideal. My original test on February 3rd came back at 5.1 (8.96% AA / 1.76% EPA), and after taking 10 capsules per day for a bit less than 3 months, my ratio is now 1.5 (8.2% AA / 5.6% EPA), spot on with the ideal number! I guess Dr Barry Sears knows what he's talking about when it comes to dosage recommendations! Not only did my second test number reflect a better ratio, but both my AA and my EPA numbers improved, particularly my EPA percentage. The ideal range is >4% of total fatty acids, a number I failed to meet by far in my first test. After taking more fish oil, I've achieved it and then some, meaning I have a lot of "good" fatty acids in my system now. This totally jives with the fact that I've been taking a ton more fish oil under Dr. Barry Sears' guidance, and not just any fish oil, but the highest quality fish oil there is on the market, OmegaRx fish oil.
So the science proves there's been a theoretical improvement, but how do I feel?
The quick answer is that I've been feeling great! I have been recovering like Wolverine from my workouts, soreness is minimal, I feel sharp-minded, and the symptoms from having low testosterone last year have abated (listen to the recent podcast on Endurance Planet, Episode 2 of "So You Wanna Go Pro?" where I talk about my testosterone issues: http://www.enduranceplanet.com/ep-2-so-you-wanna-go-pro-the-boston-marathon-special-and-athletes-facing-low-t/).
The longer answer is that I've been feeling great, but it's hard to tell that it's directly due to the fish oil. There are so many factors in life and in training that could affect my ability to recover, or my testosterone levels, that it's hard to say for certain that it is high dose, high quality fish oil making the impact. However, given the fact that my health has made a turn for the better this year is a good sign that it has been beneficial to me. All of the things that are supposed to improve because of an ideal AA/EPA ratio, have improved. Another way I could try to test whether the fish oil is helping me is by stopping consumption of it and seeing if I feel worse. I don't want to though! There's a good chance that it is helping my health and performance, so I'm going to continue taking it as long as I continue to feel as great as I do.
Feel free to comment or message me directly if you have stories of your own regarding the impact of fish oil on your health. I'm interested to hear!
With the first major set of training and racing behind me, it's a good chance to recap the early year. This year, I started training off with a distinct run focus. I had a goal of setting a new PR in the half-marathon distance while building towards the Boston Marathon. During Boston, my goals were simple and straightforward: sub-2:50, learn something from the race, have fun, and recover to be ready for tri season.
Dr. Todd has been keeping my body fit and ready for all the work Coach Earl (Tailwind Endurance) had me doing. We ramped up the run mileage while getting in some quality swims and rides. Some people might be against an early season marathon and what it can or can't do for training. This provided me with an early season set of goals and focus so that I could constantly work towards achieving something. Being in the NE, there are not many options for early season triathlons so running races make sense. It's now 2 weeks on from Boston and I can say that my body is ready to go and I'm geared up for triathlon season. Post Boston, my quads were shot, knees were a bit achy, and calves were beaten up. During the initial recovery days, two things really jump started my recovery. First, I swam on Wednesday, two days after Boston. After the swim, I realized how great it was to be able to cross train. The floating around, stretching, and no impact exercise loosened up my body. I got out of the pool and could walk down the steps without having to turn around. I could bend over and actually stretch my legs without my back hurting. All of this from just the one swim.
Cross training is so important. As triathletes, we have the ability to exercise in multiple ways. In addition, strength training is critical to the body's ability to absorb workouts and recover from them. I have been able to get out for a few runs and steadily feel my legs coming back. The first one was tough but I made it through and immediately went to the roller.
The second part that helped the recovery was the visit with Dr. Todd coupled with all the roller work. It takes 5 minutes to roll around and the impact is huge. This helped break down some of the lactic acid and loosen up the muscles. Dr. Todd helped with movement issues and general tightness in my legs and lower back. The power and flexibility came back and I feel pretty close to normal now.
Running to triathlon season gave me a great run base for the start of the season. I have some work to do to develop the bike power I'd like to have. But, my season goals are later in the year and I have plenty of time to get there. For now, it's time to focus on bike strength and maintaining the run capabilities coming off the bike. The first test and gauge of tri fitness will come in about 3 weeks at JerseyMan. I'm looking forward to getting the new bike out and racing the Ventum One as well as seeing where my early season fitness is. The run build has been great and broke up what could otherwise be a long stretch of training by giving me an opportunity to focus on near term goals while developing the long term strategy for the season. Now it's time to get going!
Coming off an age group win at Ironman 70.3 Florida last Sunday, I am excited for the opportunity to write my first article for All-Pro Health! I've been working with Todd and Tejal for a few months now, rehabilitating my body from several years of intense racing and training, largely focused on Ironman and 1/2 Ironman distances. The integrated treatment plan I have benefitted from over the last few months includes a significant amount of soft tissue work, but also an extensive array of exercises intended to strengthen and correct for the compensation my body has gotten to be so good at, especially over the last couple of years. Why is this important? As I have "aged up" (notice I do NOT refer to this as "getting older!"), I have observed that my body does not recover as quickly and when the correct muscles do not fire, racing/training through that has at times been quite painful. So perhaps the first takeaway to consider is:
Take a comprehensive approach to rehabbing your injuries. Ensure you are not only focusing on the problem areas, but get to the root cause of the problem and develop a long term strategy to correct it. This will require patience, something I do not have an abundance of, but I will do my best and will keep you posted!
Now onto the main topic for discussion....
After a fairly lengthy off season and my rather "relaxed" approach to early season training, why jump into a 1/2 IM in April to kick things off in 2016? I've found this to be not only a great way to kick off spring break, my husband John Bye's birthday, and a family vacation, but also:
An early season race is a great way to test baseline fitness, challenge your ability to focus mentally, and identify areas of strength/weakness in order to tweak (or build) your training plan for the remainder of the year.
Baseline fitness - what is this and how do you access this?
For those who have been racing/training for several years, you will agree that when starting a new season it is generally not normal to just "pick up where you left off" and perform as you would in peak season, but certainly you can count on a level of base fitness that has built up over the years. As you ease into your training program, make sure you've got some workouts scheduled that can help you find this pace, even if only for short intervals. This actually works - I did not have the benefit of many long rides/runs before IM FL 70.3, but I did have a couple key workouts that helped me settle into my race pace.
For example, on the bike - one of my interval sets on the Computrainer within two weeks prior included (after an adequate warm up and some drills) a 4x5 minute interval set holding my goal 1/2 IM watts, followed by 4x2 minute interval set "faster than 1/2 IM race pace". The purpose of this was to remind my body what it felt like to hit certain power numbers, especially since I wasn't as dialed in to my training as I would have liked leading up to this point, and it actually worked, in fact, so much so that I looked down at my bike computer several times wondering out loud, “how could I possibly be riding this fast?” (For those who do not train with power, this same idea could be effectively duplicated targeting heart rate or level of perceived exertion.) I biked the rolling course at 21.7 mph in 2:34, and while it was certainly challenging (especially with the wind, I don't like wind!) it was a manageable pace made possible by triggering some muscle memory in just a couple of specific workouts.
Mental focus - how important is this?
As important as it is to swim, bike, run and execute transitions well to win or even to complete a race, bringing your "A game" mentally is probably even more critical. Yet this is where we tend to spend the least amount of time preparing and where an early season "practice race" can help. Think about it, when you enter a race early in the season, generally you will not be as prepared physically as you would like to be, especially if you are like me and take your time "easing in" to the season! So that means it's going to hurt when you are out on course. (And if you are still rehabbing an injury, it will hurt even more!) This is where you get some great practice in the discipline of mental focus that will benefit your entire season.
By the time I got to the run last Sunday at IM FL 70.3, the temperature was rising in proportion to the rise in my heart rate. Dave Ragsdale announced the first few women heading out of transition onto the run course, then I was the fourth women out, so I was in a good place heading into the run. But I also knew this run would be tough - it was a three loop course around Lake Eva, with a few big hills on each lap - and at the start of the first loop, it was all I could do to get my legs to turn over, especially on the steep climbs. In fact, I don’t think I could call it running up my first climb, it was more like doing some tip-toe speedwalk thing…Rather than let this bother me, instead I focused on putting one foot in front of the other and would reassess in a couple miles after my legs had a chance to adjust to running off the bike.
My left calf, which has been causing me problems for awhile, tightened up and my quads were on the verge of seizing up. I “ran tall”, engaged my core, and shortened my stride up the hills, took some salt at the next aid station, then noticed I was starting to find my stride again. But it didn’t get any easier, as I needed to keep pushing my pace, and I became focused on "one loop at a time."
Breaking the course into segments - 3 x 4+ mile loops - instead of thinking about needing to run 13.1 miles was key. Then within the segments, focusing on the terrain (especially the downhills where I could look forward to some recovery), the location of aid stations, and being very conscious of where I was vs. my competitors when the course looped around the various out and backs were the things I was thinking about (and good distractions from focusing on the pain in my legs!)
The other element needed to retain mental focus, especially as fatigue sets in, is confidence. Having run E Murray Todd as an early season half marathon a month or so ago (feeling similarly unprepared at that race too!), gave me the confidence to know I could execute a decent half marathon. While I’d done few long runs since, I knew I could draw on those “miles in the bank” as Bill Haskins would say. In terms of pacing strategy, I clearly did not have it in me to run a peak season ½ IM run. I focused on a couple of key track workouts that I had done over the past couple of weeks that were quite similar to the Computrainer workout I described above, with the focus on simply “dialing in” a goal pace that, on the track, felt easy, but on the last loop of IM FL 70.3, felt like it was the best I could do. By the last loop, I needed to resist the urge to walk the aid stations with everything I had. I wanted to pull over and stretch, but knew I would likely not be able to get moving again if I did. So I dug deep, focused on my form and needed to rely on my mind - after doing a quick assessment to ensure I wasn't doing any damage to my recovering injuries - then ignored those inner voices telling me to slow down or stop and instead thought of the competitors that were likely gaining time. FOCUS, do what you have trained yourself to do, perhaps the season before, but no matter. And then, finally, THE FINISH LINE, and the age group win, following a 1:38 ½ Marathon run (7:31 pace).
After studying my race data and allowing my body to recover, I will consult with Todd and Tejal and get another functional assessment. This will help me refine my training for the rest of the year. Stay tuned for the next article and I will share more findings!
Wrapping up a solid week of recovery and heading into race weekend, this is a good time to review the run build to the season. My goals for the early part of 2016 were to build the run fitness, try to set a new half-marathon best, and come to Boston ready to enjoy the race. While it might seem a bit odd, the Boston Marathon is not a primary goal of the season. The goal surrounding this race is to throw in a demanding run and then focus on recovery to get to the tri season in the best shape possible.
Together with Dr. Todd, we've been working on stabilizing my core, strengthening the hip flexors, and helping the body deal with the different strains of training. As a teacher, I enjoy a spring break just like my students. This was prime time for an uptick in training and intensity. As a result, Dr. Todd and I saw a bit more of each other recently and really worked out the kinks. This week has been both a mental and physical recovery week. We worked on the hip flexors, paid attention to a tendonitis issue in my left foot, and loosened up my back. I went for a pre-race tempo run today and floated along for 3 miles at 6:15 pace. It was a great feeling.
Races present all types of possibilities and opportunities. Boston has a clear place in the season for me and is a launching pad for the rest of the year. I'm looking forward to the race, spending some time outside cruising the streets of the greater Boston area, and especially the NormaTec boots on Wednesday morning. Thanks for all the race week work, Dr. Todd! See you on the other side.
What an experience! A few weeks ago, I packed up my newly-built and aerodynamically improved 2016 CEEPO Viper and made a visit to the A2 Wind Tunnel in the middle of nowhere in Mooresville, NC, accompanied by my coach (Earl Walton) and a few training partners from Tailwind Endurance who were also there to test. The A2 Wind Tunnel is a top-notch facility frequented by professional triathletes, NASCAR drivers and even garbage can manufacturers (don't you hate it when your garbage can blows off down the street?!). Last year was the first time that I really began to tinker with my aerodynamics because in the first few years of doing the sport, there was plenty of lower hanging fruit than trying to squeeze a few extra watts out of my position or gear. At this point though, there isn't as much low-hanging fruit and making the trip sounded like a worthwhile venture. A huge thank you to Joe LoPorto from FitWerx for sending me to the tunnel and having the bike built and ready for action! Going in, we had put together a wishlist of things to test, including these:
1.) Bring my front end down by 1cm, then 2cm
2.) Bring the aerobars from a 0 degree position up to 10 degrees
3.) Test out various tri suits to find which is fastest on me, and purchase my custom tri suit for the year based on that knowledge
4.) Test out hydration setups to find what is fastest for my body, position and bike
5.) Test different aerohelmets to potentially replace the Lazer Tardis helmet I've raced in since I began the sport, which is typically slow in the tunnel
6.) See the impact of arm coolers vs no arm coolers, and wrinkly arm coolers (like I wore in Kona) vs smooth arm coolers
There are tons of claims out there by equipment manufacturers (bike companies, tri suits, aerohelmets, hydration setups, etc) that they are the fastest out there, sometimes quoting numbers that make it sound like you'll drop 20 minutes off your Ironman time just by using their sunglasses. There is also a wealth of information from people who have done aerodynamic testing before, whether it be in the velodrome or a wind tunnel, about what was faster for them. While there are certain things that tend to test faster for most people (ie sleeved tri suits vs sleeveless), the only way to really test the impact of your position and gear selections on your aerodynamics is to test it yourself. Some things are quite counter-intuitive: having a bottle or two in a rear hydration setup tends to be faster than no bottle for most people (though whether one or two is faster varies person to person), and having a well-fitting BTA (between-the-arms) hydration setup can actually be faster than no bottle at all!
After arriving at the wind tunnel and hearing Brian Stover and Heath Dotson talk about the testing, I decided to follow their lead. They're the experts and have spent countless hours in the tunnel, so I thought it best to let them guide me through what they think is most worthwhile to test, rather than pretend like I know best.
My first run in the tunnel was without me on the bike. For all the runs, we used the industry-standard wind speed of 30mph. It's faster than I'll ever ride a long course bike leg in, but necessary to help amplify the effects of the changes we are testing. For each run, we tested at 0 and 10 degrees yaw. We tested my oval-shaped Zipp Vuka base bar and ended up switching quickly from that to the flat tear-shaped Profile Design Prosvet which saved about 1.5w right off the bat. Then I hopped on the bike, got a tutorial from the wind tunnel crew, and did two baseline runs so that we would have an accurate starting point to compare the final runs off of. They wanted me to pedal at a pace I could pedal all day and to keep nice and steady from run to run and within each run. One of the tough parts of wind tunnel testing is keeping human error out of the statistics, even though there's a human in the tunnel. I thought I was pedaling steady, but after the first few runs, they asked me to ride steadier because the numbers were varying somewhat wildly, to the point where the variance was greater than the potential time savings.
After baseline, where we found my CdA to be 0.260, we moved my back up (0.6cm) and front down (2cm) which helped me get my back more parallel to the ground and resulted in 3.3w of savings. Bringing the pads in on my aerobars by 1.5cm each brought in another 3.6w. Then we moved the bars up from 0 degrees to 10 degrees and though the result was actually worse at 10 degrees, they took me up to a "praying mantis" style 30 degrees, contrary to intuition and something I wouldn't have thought to do on my own. It worked! My numbers got worse and then got better with the "praying mantis" actually being my fastest run yet by about 2.6w. After a number of aerohelmet tests where we found several helmets better than my Lazer Tardis, I was told that it was my last run. HUH!? That two hours went by REALLY fast. We didn't even get to test different tri kits, hydration setups or my arm coolers. I had even waited to order my custom tri kit because I wanted to test different brands and buy the fastest. Bummer. If I am able to make a trip to the wind tunnel again, near the top of my list will be hydration and tri kits. I did get to try on a couple of kits, and for this year, I'll have to choose which fit the best without the benefit of real data.
In the end, I moved my CdA from 0.260 down to 0.247 and saved 10.8w at 0 degrees yaw assuming a speed of 24.0mph, Ironman goal pace. I went in expecting to find 10-20w and for my final CdA to be in the realm of the professional triathletes who are about the same shape and size as me. I wasn't able to get down quite that far as the most "slippery" time trialists and pro triathletes have CdAs in the ballpark of 0.21-0.22. If I had a CdA that low to begin with, and only found 10w, I would have been thrilled as I could conclude that I am already very aerodynamic, but having gotten only down to 0.247 and finding only 10w, I feel like there must be more there. Don't get me wrong, I'm pretty aerodynamic in the grand scheme of things, but if I want to get to the top, every watt counts! After talking with the Heath about why I might not be as aerodynamic, he suggested that it might be because I'm "built like a swimmer." HUH?!?! That's the first time I've heard that one! I've always had a pretty scrawny and undersized upper body from all the years of running, so it was the last thing I thought I'd hear. It turns out he didn't think I had a big upper body like a swimmer, but that I have broader shoulders than most of the top time trialists. If I am able to scrunch my shoulders underneath me and round my back, I'll have a smaller front for the wind. That would require me to improve the flexibility in my shoulders and get to used to generating power in that position. That, or break my collar bone. I think I'll pass on the collar bone breakage.
Another thing to note is that many of these changes come with a cost. Some require an additional monetary outlay (i.e. buying a new aerohelmet or base bar) while others require a compromise to your comfort on the bike (i.e. butt up, front end down or the new praying mantis position). If I can't hold the more aerodynamic position comfortably for 112 miles during an Ironman, and I run terribly, then the 5 minutes I saved on the bike won't be worth much. I'll need to practice in the new position for a while and see if I can get used to it before I race Raleigh 70.3 and Eagleman 70.3 in June.
While I was at the tunnel, Melissa Alfano from TRS Triathlon happened to be there collecting material for an article on the wind tunnel, and she asked me to answer some interview questions. Check out the article!
All in all, it was an extraordinary experience that I never thought I'd have the chance to do. We found over 10w, which for anyone who's done FTP testing knows, is not easy to achieve by increasing fitness. Theoretically, this will save me around 2.5 minutes in a Half Ironman and 5 minutes in an Ironman. Isn't "free" time awesome!?
My race schedule is finally complete! I usually have it set in stone by the end of the prior year but this year was a bit different because I was busy weighing the pros and cons of racing as a pro. I decided to stick to the amateur ranks this year and here is the plan:
March 19th - Spring Thaw 5k
April 10th - Chase the April Fool 5k
April 18th - Boston Marathon
June 5th - Raleigh 70.3
June 12th - Eagleman 70.3
July 16th - Lake Waramaug Sprint Triathlon
July 24th - Ironman Lake Placid
September 11th - Santa Cruz 70.3
October 8th - Kona (pending qualification in Lake Placid)
- I'll be racing the Spring Thaw 5k, a local 5k to get back in the swing of racing and to help support a friend of mine who is directing the race.
- I'll be the "Fool" that everyone is chasing at Chase the April Fool 5k! Come out to Liberty State Park and see if you can catch me!
- Most of my schedule was created with "going pro" in mind, potentially next year.
- Raleigh and Eagleman are just 7 days apart, which is an experiment to test my ability to recover and to see what it's like to race back to back weekends like some of the pros do. I will take that week off of work in between and spend the time in either Raleigh or Cambridge doing all that I can to recover and be ready to race Eagleman. Should be interesting!
- The Lake Waramaug Sprint Triathlon is our annual Race for Justin, my brother who died of cancer in 2008. Each year we raise money from family and friends for St Jude's in his name. St Jude's was Justin's favorite charity and he would often pass monetary gifts on to St Jude's so that one day no child will have to go through what he went through. Support the cause please! Blog on that in the coming months :-)
- I love Ironman Lake Placid! It was my first and second Ironman and I want to go back to challenge myself on the course.
- I chose Santa Cruz 70.3 so that I could test my ability to travel for a 70.3 like the pros do all the time. To this point, I've only ever flown to a full Ironman.
See you at the races!
I'm finally firing on all cylinders! After having a bit of a rough start to 2016 due to little injuries pestering me like mosquitoes, and the lingering of my Achilles problem from last year, I'm now back in the groove. The patience I wrote about a couple of weeks ago is paying off as the injuries have subsided and I feel more resilient and injury-free than I've been since mid last season. Here is an example of what my training looks like nowadays:
Monday AM - Ride shorter, more intense intervals on the CompuTrainer at Tailwind Endurance for 1hr 15min. Do 30min of stability and plyometrics off the bike
Monday PM - OFF, maybe a massage
Tuesday AM - Run around 10 miles with Fartlek intervals in Summit, NJ
Tuesday PM - Swim a coach-prescribed set, around 1hr 15min at John Jay College in NYC
Wednesday AM - Ride longer intervals on the CompuTrainer at Tailwind Endurance for 1hr 30min. Do 15min of core work off the bike
Wednesday PM - See Doctor Todd for treatment
Thursday AM - OFF
Thursday midday - See Josh Grahlman in NYC for treatment and 1hr of strength conditioning
Thursday PM - Run around 10 miles with longer intervals on the West Side Highway path and Central Park in NYC
Friday AM - Run to the pool and Swim at Hoboken Masters for 1hr 15min
Friday PM - Spin an easy 1hr 15min at Tailwind Endurance, then roll, stretch, do yoga, or whatever else I find to be therapeutic and recovery-based
Saturday - "Long" Ride of 2hrs on the trainer, mainly drill, endurance and tempo-based, with a short run (~15min) off the bike
Sunday - "Long" Run of around 14 miles then Swim 2hrs at Berkeley Aquatics
That's 3 main runs, 3 swims, 4 rides, and 3 strength sessions per week totaling around 15 hours of training. My coach and I have found this to be a good balance of training that allows for enough recovery, and for me to always feel like I have "extra bandwidth" in my schedule (very important!). On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I'm up before 5am so my wife and I are like old people because we go to bed at 9:30pm every night! Keep in mind, the above schedule is just one week during the base phase of training. Each week is a bit (or a lot) different depending on the time of the season, whether it's a "down week" or not, or whether I have life events that step in to remind me to be a "normal" person every once in a while. Consistency is king, but there should be some ebbing and flowing in your training too.
My swimming is just coming back into form after a month off due to some arm injuries (rookie mistakes), and my running is also just coming back after many torturous months of Achilles pain after Kona last year. Fortunately, I've been able to devote the extra energy to my cycling and strength work. I did an FTP test a few weeks ago (303w FTP) and am close to where I was the last time I tested back in March of last year (312w FTP). Normally, I dread FTP tests because they're so brutal! But this next one I'm kind of looking forward to because I want to see if I can exceed where I was last year in March, in February.
I just did my first Masters Swim meet ever! I swam the 100IM, 100 backstroke, the 50 backstroke as part of a 200 medley relay, the 200 free and the 50 free as part of the 200 free relay. I had a blast! I swam faster than expected given how little swimming I've done. You can see my Facebook page for more of a recap.
I'm also going to the wind tunnel next month! I'm stoked to see what kind of "free speed" I might find in that expensive hurricane chamber...
Even with all of this training, I still manage to do almost all of it alongside training partners - I love training with people! If anything here piques your interest, message me on Facebook or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and maybe we can get together for a training session. Always happy to answer questions too!