Monday, May 30, 2011

Le Challenge Vercors

Le Challenge Vercors 168km 3200m climbing

Result: 222 out of 331 overall. 45 out of 72 category. 06:33:32 hrs, Ave Speed 25.15 kph
Ave HR 148 bpm, 10160 calories, 72.3 kg

The Vercors
The Vercors is an amazing mountain range sprouting up from the plains near Grenoble. It is both wild and inaccessible with steep cliffs and impressive gorges all around. Those qualities made the Vercors a major centre for the French resistance in WW2  - the "Maquis de Vercors" who were destined to distract and slow down the German forces in preparation for D day - but who were ultimately abandoned by the allies and suffered heavy loss of life as a result. Cycling around the Vercors and enjoying the great beauty and majesty of the area it's hard to imagine any of this troubled recent past.

The Vercors appears to have it's own micro climate so despite generally warm weather we awoke to freezing cold and ice on the tents. The beads pictured on the tent below are not water they are solid ice. Normally ice forms crystals and fern type patterns so it was unusual to see round beads like this. One advantage of the ice is that it seemed to shut up the frogs. The same "duck" sounding frogs that were at the Ventoux were also beside this camp site. There was a small stream - passing close by and it was great to see that it was full of trout and life.

Finding a place to eat was not a problem here - the only restaurant visible (L'Etale) was empty at 7:30 pm and it was a pasta resaurant. We both opted for seafood salads and then pasta & bolognaise. The quality was excellent for a change at one of those remote venues and I walked out of the place with my stomach feeling distended but very satisfied and set up for the following morning. I'm probably going about this all the wrong way because as usual ended up with gut ache throughout the start of the race - but never bonked - so I don't know. Chris got to watch the European cup final in an empty bar and as much as I found it boring I tried to take an interest. Why does the entire management team sit on the sidelines wearing grey suits and chewing gum constantly with their mouths open? They must be uniformly moronic. Football is not a sport - it's a game and not a particularly good one at that.

It was already chilly walking back to the camp site and tents for the night. Fortunately I'd taken Christiane's advice and put socks on before going to sleep. Apparently sleep is just impossible if your feet are freezing - it seems to be an automatic response of the body. My sleeping bag is down filled although it is a lightweight "summer" one and so my only problem was sweating and condensation inside the bag. Chris in his tent was freezing and didn't sleep apparently - but I heard him stirring at 5:45am and starting to cook his breakfast. I'd cooked my own breakfast at night because I didn't want to mess around with cooking in the morning. The grass and earth was a bit lumpy but I'd stabilised the porridge/banana mix on the gas stove and had it cooking nicely. Turning towards the tent for a minute and then turning back I was gutted to see the stove burning grass and porridge already feeding the worms. Grass being relatively clean it was all scooped  back into the pot and the cooking resumed. At least the most messy job was done and out of the way for morning. 

Morning temperature was 2.5°C at 7am and so it wasn't appealing for the start of the race. It took quite a while for the sun to reach the valley floor where the campsite was situated but even when the sun was up it remained at only 5°C. With clear skies this would obviously change quite soon. Decisions had to be made about what to wear. In the end I opted for no extra clothing - just tee shirt and shorts and it was fine. The adrenaline in the race had me warm within 5 minutes of the start - or at least oblivious to the cold. General tiredness had me feeling slightly cold and shivery until a couple of hours from the end - but I don't think that was due to weather.

There were only two options for distance - either 100km or 168km. Either too short or too long! The only sensible option really was the long course because we are preparing for long races in July anyway. 168km over a mountain range would be a much greater challenge than 86km over the Ventoux the previous week - and that seemed to have stretched me to my limit then. My body was a bit tired from all the training during the week and I did not feel confident at all about racing such a long distance (100 miles) over mountains. Mentally, there was not a lot of positive dialogue going on inside my head - but quite a lot of excuses instead. I could think of many reasons for bailing out but ultimately it would be the best training option no matter how it was looked at. 332 participated in the long course with over 400 in the short course but as usual there was no way of identifying who was on which course. Everyone starts together in a mass start and much later the route bifurcates separating out the competitors. Chris and I started somewhere towards the back of the bunch because due to the cold we had no intention of turning up early. 

Right from the start it was obvious that Chris was on fire and was not suffering from the same negativity as I was. I just stuck close by but couldn't get into it at all - every effort seemed to come against my will. Chris was climbing fast so I just kept by him and we overtook a lot of people in the first couple of hours. My unconscious brain had clearly decided that it was not cooperating with my intentions - it just wouldn't let me get into it - probably due to a combination of tiredness from training and the knowledge that this was going to be a very long day in the saddle hauling excess fat up steep hills. It's like the brain establishes your permissible parameters in advance and there's no way to override it - other than training. Chris had left me behind by about 50m on the second col, just before the major descent off the edge of the Vercors down to the plains below. My extra weight as usual kicked in to good advantage on the descent and I soon caught up and started overtaking everything in sight - including cars and anything else that got in the way. There was one plateau and luckily I'd found a partner to share the work and slipstream but we soon came to the bifurcation and everyone around us went left - on the short course - and I alone turned right into a very long tunnel going downhill. I could see a group in the distance inside the tunnel so that confirmed that no error in direction had been made and so I had to step on it to try to catch them - but they were fast! After the tunnel there were some bends and on each bend the group slowed a little so it gave me the opportunity to gradually catch them without expending too much extra energy. This was an excellent move because eventually we arrived on the flat plains with a long stretch ahead of us and with this group being large I could just tag on the end anonymously and be pulled along. When you are not feeling too good then there is no motivation to go to the front and work hard. Chris had a similar experience at the bifurcation. He was with a good group and they all went the other way leaving him on his own - but completely isolated. He went though the monster tunnel thinking that he'd made a big mistake and was going the wrong way - there were no other cyclists in sight. Eventually Chris was able to spot us from above but my group was by this time half a kilometre ahead of him. Apparently my bright La Plagne colours were visible and he could see me tagging along at the back of the group. Chris wasn't standing for this humiliation so he powered on by himself fighting to catching up with this group - which is extremely hard with no one to provide slipstreaming and a period of recovery for your legs. Arriving at the end of the plains and the bottom of the Col de la Machine - the major climb of the day - Chris caught up with us seconds later. I knew however that at this point I'd have to let eveyone go because I'd not manage to sustain the power output to hoist my excess flab up that hill at the speeds we had been going at without completely exploding. Rather than Chris speeding off ahead I deliberately slowed down to a speed that my body and brain could tolerate - which was not the sort of speed you really need for a race like this. When hovering around 9 or 10 kph on a steep climb then this is survival mode. At 12 to 14 kph that's reasonable. At 7 to 8 kps then you're in trouble. I settled into the 9 to 10 kph mode and still couldn't get any sort of positive dialogue going on inside of my head - it was just going to be an unwelcome grind.

Plateau on the Col de la Machine

Carrying extra weight produces a really disadvantageous power to weight ratio - which is demoralising. People that you can keep up with easily anywhere else just leave you standing still on the steep pitches and there's nothing you can do about it. I slogged all the way up this 12 km climb and then after a small plateau the climb resumed but was not quite so steep. Somehow at this point the feeling of mental "resistance" disappeared and I accelerated up to 14 kph - but not just due to the slightly less acute gradient - it was a mental shift too. From that moment on I was "in the game" or "in the zone" and I have not a clue as to why this should happen after 4 hours of unenjoyable effort. I covered two cols at this higher velocity and then teamed up with a couple of others to fight our way against the wind on the return stretch right up the middle of the Vercors. Half way along this stretch a big steam train of about a dozen riders tore past us - so we jumped onboard and ramped up the speed once again. Now I could rest anonymously at the back again and didn't have to pull at the front. Unfortunately there was a very steep 10km climb still to confront after this long haul. The first 6km were the steep ones and people were off their bikes walking - lying on the ground - grinding to a slow crawl - everything you might expect to see due to exhaustion. I had to slow down again due to the steepness but mentally it wasn't such a struggle as earlier on. I dropped into bottom gear and managed to keep up a good fast cadence trying to spare the muscle power of the legs. Occasionally I'd dropped down to 7 to 8 kph but not for long and managed to stay between 9 and 11 kph. One cyclist overtook me on this climb on a bike with straight handlebars and a very high seat post. I could see that he was pulling up completely on one side at a time - like I did last year. He was young and probably has good back health so was getting away with it - but although it gives much more power it does wreck your back eventually. It was good to be able to recognise the pattern though. During the final 4km of the climb I was able to attack again and catch some of those who had dropped me on the steeps. On the descent from this col I encountered another fast descender and we stuck together for the next 20 km until the end of the race with good pacing and teamwork to get across the flats and climb the remaining more open and faster gradients. I seemed stronger than he did and enjoyed working in front after each recovery period slipstreaming. It felt like an effort that was being rewarded as we wound in two other competitors and dropped each of them behind.

It's a strange feeling making those alliances with complete strangers who you never see again after the race. Part of the attraction of the racing is the party atmosphere - the coming together of people to share and motivate each other. There was a lot of chatter on this course with many a friendly comment from passing strangers.
Chris finished 15 minutes ahead but had seriously bonked during the final climb and couldn't get his heart rate over 110bpm again despite stuffing himself with sweets at the final refreshments stand half way up the climb. I'm glad that I'd moderated my pace because it was enjoyable during the final few hours right up to the finish line - but this wasn't really a conscious decision - I'm not sure what it was. Getting off the bike I felt fine. Last year my legs were often in serious pain for 10 minutes forcing me to sit down - but now even with much greater demands there is no post race trauma like that any more.

The long course was won overall by Nicolas Ogier from the Macot La Plagne club. It's a strange club to be in because it just seems to exist around this one successful rider and his family. There is nothing organised between other members - just the wearing of the La Plagne colours sponsored by the ski station - which slightly offsets the cost of participation.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Lose weight fast!

This week had taught me that I understand absolutely nothing about endurance training. After Tuesday's big workout that removed at least a kilo of fat from my body I was feeling seriously "abused" and thought that recovery would be difficult. Only one full rest day for recovery and then I went out and equalled my own record on a 50 minute hill climb and had the best "sensations" that I've felt all year! Not only that but I'd raced on the Ventoux just two days before that big workout. The previous week when I'd trained less hard I was completely tired out. I really don't get it.

One thing I do get though is how to lose weight fast. One day's really hard workout with about 5000m climbing (16,400ft) and a complete kilo of fat has gone. No mystery to that. Apparently one pound of fat yields 3500 calories so when you do a workout that burns over 10,000 calories then the fat is going to fall off fast. I'll aim for one workout at this level per week now until my weight is reasonable - which for my height is 67kg - but for a pro cyclist would be a shocking 58kg !!!! The scary thing about this information is that only 3500 calories will put on a pound of fat - that's only a couple of kebabs!

Received a new telephone yesterday which I'm hoping will replace the Garmin GPS eventually. It will take a week until the SIM card is active but I tested out the GPS yesterday with the Endomondo app and it was very impressive. This is definitely the way to go. One lightweight device for communication, GPS navigation/tracking, HR, cadence, Power sensor logging, music/radio, camera/video - all simultaneously - and it works! Even more impressive it updates in real time on the internet - so anyone watching at home can see where you are in a race etc. This is obviously the way things will move in the future and even though the apps are a bit primitive just now they will develop rapidly. The telephone is the Sony Xperia Arc, but most of the recent Sony smartphones have ANT+ technology in them - some of the older phones only need a firmware update to activate the chip. I'm not impressed however by the camera technology, but it's reasonable for snapshots - better than any other phone camera I've seen yet, but that's not saying much.

This is  a sample Xperia Arc photo taken during a thunder and lightning storm that cut the workout a bit shorter than planned. I was unable to capture the menacing darkness of the clouds and rain and the detail of the village in the foreground is poor despite the original image being a supposed 8 mega-pixels.

No more cycling now until this weekend's 168km race over the Vercors mountain range. This is going to be a tough one and I can't see myself "competing" over that distance at the moment. It is more likely to make a good training session than a "race". Saying that - if anyone thinks that "cyclosportives" are not really racing then it's interesting to notice that doping tests are now taking place for winners and other targeted individuals. I intend to have a couple of "barefoot runs" in the two days leading up to the race instead of cycling. This should especially give my bum and back a bit of a rest from the strain of sitting on a saddle all day. Last week was the first time ever that I'd managed to run barefoot on two consecutive days without any calve pains at all - plus the times are now at between 20 and 25 minutes per run instead of 12 to 15  - so the adaptation is finally starting to take place. It just feels great running this way.

Just found out from a magazine article that numb fingers/hands on the bike is caused by pressure on a nerve in the wrist. Yesterday on the bike I deliberately changed the grip so that the wrist wasn't "kinked" and sure enough there was no numbness. That's useful to know because my left hand has being going numb regularly and although it recovers quickly when swung around in circles it wasn't clear what caused it in the first place - I'd thought it was due to the shoulder or upper back but it was is fact more direct.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Dark side of the Col de la Madeleine

For some weird reason I got it into my head today to start from home in Aime and cycle over the 2000m Col de la Madeleine, down to La Chambre at the bottom on the other side for a break and then climb back over to return home. Most sensible people are content to climb just one side of this monster - which is a 26km climb from the Tarantaise valley side (home) and an 18km climb from the Maurienne valley side. I was curious as to what would happen tackling both sides though.

On the way up towards the col on the Tarantaise side there is a ski lift at Celliers around 1600m heading East over a ridge to join up with Valmorel ski station. Over the other side of the col on the way down to La Chambre there is a full blown ski station called Saint-Françoise-Longchamp which extends all the way up to the col.

Starting the training session I could feel that my legs were still tired from the Ventoux but gradually that sensation disappeared as the legs warmed up. The legs were probably still tired but I just couldn't feel it any more. The Tarantaise climb is 26km but the steepest part is at the beginning - up to Bonneval. The col is over a range that separates two major glaciated valleys - Tarantaise and Maurienne. Those major glacier flows have produced steep sides to those valleys at lower altitudes and this makes the entry to a passage like this quite challenging. You know that the distance is 26km so you want to attack straight away - but that's a mistake because the steepness just leaves you exhausted and there is nothing left in the legs by the time you reach high altitude. It's best to take it easy for the first six or seven kilometres until it flattens out a little and then pick up speed. Today I controlled the situation quite well and so when nearing the top I was able to avoid exploding - but it still hurt and it was good to get to the summit - where I paused to take some photographs and enjoy the scenery, sunshine and atmosphere.

The restaurant at 2000m is not open yet despite the road being open for a week now. 
This is the classic French business model.

This view is back towards the Tarantaise valley. The sad looking snow plough is probably there for working with the restaurants on the Col during the ski season

The rest of the views are from the Col de la Madeleine towards The Maurienne valley.

Arriving at La Chambre - the town you can see in the photo above, I'd hoped to have a spot of lunch. It was about 2:15pm so it was still early enough and there is a bar/restaurant right at the bottom of the descent which had its menus displayed outside. Asking the woman if I could eat I was greeted with the typical F****d up French response: "NON" - meaning - you can only have a greasy, nasty "croque monsieur" piece of crap to eat. I removed myself from this enterprising restaurant and sat alone on a step to eat two small protein bars and fill my water bottles at a drinking fountain. Surprisingly I didn't feel like eating any more than that anyway so found another bar and had a couple of coffees instead - once the staff had finished eating of course - and grudgingly decided to serve me. I put the extra sugar cubes in a pocket just in case I had a sugar low on the return climb - but in the end they weren't needed.

The climb back up to the col was hard - once again being steep at the start, but now also extremely hot in the baking sun - probably around 34°C out of the wind - which is amazing for Springtime at altitude. The road had been recently patched up which had already meant a hairy descent due to loose gravel all over the place. Now on the climb the tar on the loose chips was wet and they stuck to my tyres like pins attracted to a magnet. It's tough climbing when tired anyway but this sort of irritation can quickly become a torment. I stopped and picked up a twig that could be used to reach down and scrape the tyres clean while riding the bike. This certainly made the situation more tolerable and removed the sensation of being in Fred Flintstone's Flintmobile with half the flint chips on the road becoming part of the bike. From about 1200m altitude the air was cooler and more acceptable, but the flint chips were still uncooperative. About this time I was overtaken by a younger rider heading over towards the Tarentaise. No doubt he had circled around the valley bottoms and was returning home over the col - which is the typical route. He was keeping a good pace, showing up my tired slow pace. I really wanted to shout to him that he was a wimp because this was my second time up the col today - but didn't have the energy. About 3km from the summit I was overtaken again but this time enough was enough and I stepped on the gas. Surprisingly there was something still in the legs. At this altitude however there was a strong headwind each time the road turned to the North West - which was most of the time - plus the incline was averaging around 8% so it was a real battle to the finish - the battle being against the wind not the other cyclist who I'd managed to keep at a stable distance. I discovered last year that when there is 3km to go to the end of a climb you can attack as hard as you like because you can sustain it no matter how tired you feel. It's like the brain decides that it's going to give access to the reserves that it's been locking away until it knows that you can't really do any harm.

All winter I'd worked at developing a riding position that allowed use of the core muscles - particularly the psoas - without destroying my back. It had become clear that you need to contract on the "pulling" side while you extend on the "pushing" side. On the first climb today I suddenly felt the hamstrings during the pulling up phase. The main power was still from the psoas but as the knee flexed it's like the hamstrings started to be activated by reflex. Now I know why people say that the pull up is from the hamstrings. It's the psoas that's the key though - you just feel the hamstrings as more clearly identifiable. My own hamstrings have always been quite weak with all of my sports seemingly prioritising the quads instead. Perhaps this new sensation is due to the hamstrings naturally strengthening due to the new lower position on the bike linked to the "pull up". I know that I can generate more climbing power with the saddle higher and yanking up hard on the pedal with the entire side of the body - but it destroys the back. Perhaps by developing a more all round musculature - including hamstrings - then this situation will gradually change.

The descent back into the Tarantaise was cold due to the the North Eastern ridge on my left blocking out the sun for long stretches. It was time to put on the windbreaker for the first time today. The biggest problem descending was that I couldn't stop yawning. It seemed that all my body wanted to do was to go to sleep now. Arriving at 6 hours in the saddle and everything was starting to hurt, neck, back, hands - everything. My bum was surprisingly okay though - the bum bones were a bit uncomfortable but not as bad as on shorter rides only a few weeks ago. The body adapts quickly. Getting to the bottom of that descent was the second most welcome feeling of the day. Wow it was great to be on something flat again for a while. Off with the jacket and now the intense heat was back and with it a strong thirst - but no water left. At Aigueblanche I passed a water fountain and although it was not indicated whether or not the water was drinkable I had to fill up a bottle and drink. The other option was to head for a shop because they were still open, but I really wanted to press on and get home plus I hate the idea of leaving an unguarded bike outside any shop. That's probably the biggest advantage of training with others - there is more security in every aspect. I drank the water and pressed on. Several kilometres later when passing through Moutiers I started to feel indigestion - a heartburn feeling. That never happens to me on a bike so I guess the water was not good after all. Thirst overcomes all inhibitions though and when essential I had another mouthful - there was still a fair amount of climbing to go to get home but in the end I only drank half the bottle. All I had wanted since passing the col for the second time was to get home and the last stretch seemed like the longest. After 7hrs 24mins in the saddle and feeling pretty horrible it wasn't even a joy to finally arrive - the body felt terrible even off the bike now. Clean sweetened drink, a couple of biscuits and a shower and already the body was starting to recover. About 30 minutes after arriving home I felt fine, but the body was generally throbbing - especially the "core" which is probably a very good thing. Sleep was easy coming but as usual when the body has a lot of repair and building to do it didn't last all night. It'll take a few days to get over this one - which was almost the equivalent of the extreme "La Marmotte" in terms of climbing and time. The goal here though is to get the body to adapt to such demands PRIOR to entering any such competitions in future; In other words: "Train Hard, Race Easy!"

Note: After burning over 10,500 calories on this ride it was no surprise to wake up the following morning a kilo lighter. It's interesting though that this doesn't make you more hungry it makes you less hungry.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mont Ventoux - Froggie Odyssey

Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence - what an exceptional venue for the first race of the season! Scary to begin with such a monster climbing event though.

The van is dead so the carefree days of just turning up and sleeping in a nearby car park are over at least for the time being. Organisation and timing were required instead of spontaneity - but that's probably a good thing. Expenses are quite high for those events if you want to do them regularly - 70€ fuel, 50€ road tolls, 35€ entry fee - if you add to that food and accommodation it's not really sustainable to be doing this every week. I decided to help reduce the cost by camping - and for only 36€ bought a "pop up" tent. The design of the tent is quite incredible, a really excellent piece of design making basic camping simple and rapid. One slight worry however was a rather large notice inside the tent stating "This Tent Can Burn" - I guess this is a risk you take when you buy a cheap tent made in China.  

Driving alone without someone to read a map for you is when the GPS really does help. The distance was 336km and due to leaving at 3pm on Friday and the camp site closing at 7pm it meant that I couldn't hang around. Negotiating the speed traps is perhaps the worst part of driving in France - even on the expensive toll roads the gendarmes are out with mobile units trying to boost their income at your expense. Driving has simply become unpleasant since speed traps started to appear everywhere - you can't focus on driving because you have to be paranoid about your speed and forever looking at the speedometer. Arriving with plenty of time to spare I staked out my spot at the municipal camp site of Beaumes de Venise a beautiful ancient village where the race was to begin at 08:30am the following morning. Camps sites like this don't take advance bookings so if you are working on Friday there is no way that you can turn up late in the evening and get access - this is the classic way that the French do business - making it as awkward as possible. I popped up the tent and went into town to sign up for the race. The emplacement next to mine had a camper van with an enclosed awning, table, chairs and even flowers. There's something completely incongruous about domesticating a camp site location to this extent. Unfortunately camping in the wild is pretty much forbidden throughout France. There should be a law allowing anyone to put up a tent anywhere for a night - as long as they move on the next day.  

Local small businesses do well out of those events with several hundred people attending over the weekend. Regardless of this fact - as usual - it was impossible to find a restaurant willing to adapt and provide meals that would permit carbohydrate loading. Everything was meat and sauce oriented. Eventually I had to settle for a pizza. One thing really hits home in this area of France and that is despite its great beauty and warm climate it is very poor. The only business in the area (other than tourism) seems to be the vine yards and wine making - which doesn't seem to sustain a whole population. You wouldn't want to leave your car parked alone with all you gear in it for too long and it feels more like being in a dodgy banlieu of Marseille.

The bike was fully prepared in advance with the only requirement being to pump up the tyres to 110psi in the morning and oil the chain with special nano tech oil - which I'd left off for transporting the bike in the car. Racing tyres and tubes were fitted in advance and the gears adjusted to operate smoothly.

My Garmin Forerunner 305 is starting to have battery problems so to be sure I'd brought my laptop to use for charging the unit. In the tent I ended up leaving the computer operating on standby all night so that it properly had the GPS unit charged in the morning. I don't think I'll buy another Garmin because not only do they not upgrade firmware as well as they could but they have put this unit on the market without the ability to change the battery.  The Garmin also computes distance using horizontal distance and not slope distance - basically it doesn't take GPS altitude into account when computing distance. This isn't a problem where there are long inclines but when topography is very changeable then it does accumulate a significant error. The 305 can record distance from an odometer sensor but the idiotic Garmin engineers did not allow the unit to record distance from both GPS and odometer so that comparisons could be made - likewise when you enter a long tunnel the GPS stops but the odometer can't take over. Garmin=Stupid Design. The dedicated cycling GPS units look quite impressive but the maps are really expensive and I don't even want to find out what level of stupidity Garmin has engineered into them. We'll just have to wait until smart phones evolve a little more and then Garmin is dead. The latest Sony Xperia Arc phone has a built in Ant+ chip for working with sports sensors - heart rate monitors etc.

Before going to bed I cooked my porridge and mixed the chocolate high energy goop so that there was no work to be done in the morning. Almost immediately on going to bed (on a good thick auto inflated expedition mattress) there was a loud cacophony of what sounded like demented ducks or geese. The noise was loud but tended to die away after a while - it wasn't constant. I imagined a duck pond close by and perhaps a fox or cat tormenting them - but then an owl joined the chorus. Eventually it seemed that the owl would start hooting and then the ducks would react. Something else flew overhead making a sharp rasping sound but I've no idea what it was. It was to this ongoing symphony that the night passed in an uneasy sleep awakening at 6am to a bright clear day, an hour before the set alarm.

The sky was so clear that it was worth the risk to leave any extra clothing behind even though the Ventoux is almost at 2000m altitude (from 85m at Beaumes de Venise). This would be the first race wearing the colours of La Plagne and all that was needed in the pockets were a couple of small energy gels and a spare tube. The two 500ml water bottles had a protein/energy/isotonic mix added. It was the first time using new Camelbak bottles. Camelbak have as usual stepped well ahead with design - the bottles were great. No more opening and closing - they remain permanently open but only release liquid if you squeeze or suck - plus there is a lock that makes them properly drip proof for transporting. The plastic is also free of the harmful ingredients for which hard plastic bottles have developed a bad name recently - and along the same lines there is no plastic "taste". I also appreciate that the filling hole is wider than normal which makes it much easier to ladle powder mixes into.

Prior to the race it's important to take some time to warm up the muscles. The problem is that if you do this close to the time of the race departure then you are guaranteed to be behind several hundred others at the start. If you go to the start too early then you have a long wait and the muscles cool down. During the warm up I could feel that my legs were not strong. Only two days earlier I'd been ridiculously slow on a climb but continued just to keep the legs working. It had been impossible to recover from a monster workout on Monday. I'd been hoping that the legs would still recover in time but although they were a lot better they were not great. The start was divided into two groups - those on the long course (about 300) would begin in front and the rest behind (about 350). I ducked under the tape and joined about a half way though the second group because I had opted for the short course, this being the first race of the season and my training not going very well so far. Basically I was confident that I'd find fast enough people to work with regardless of where I started and because over an 86km course it would climb about 2700m, it would be mostly up and down anyway, so slipstreaming isn't so important. The timer was electronic and attached to the bike frame.

The start of the race was fairly uneventful - no pileups or crashes, perhaps because it began straight away with a climb. There would be about an hour of riding with one col to pass before arriving at the foot of the 20km climb up Ventoux itself. I remember one woman dressed in rose and white starting just ahead of me and was interested because she had a much faster cadence than most and seemed to be doing well due to her light body weight or good power to weight ratio. Unusually for me I don't recall much of that first hour of cycling except that I already noticed a tendency for me to overtake a lot of people on the descents and then for some of them to catch up again on the climbs. That's what happens when you are too fat! The weakness in the legs was also noticeable during some of the climbs near the start - but not disastrously so. This was also the first ride this year over one hour where my heart rate would average 83% (158bpm). That was the average over almost 4 hours so this was really ramping things up a lot. Both the increased intensity and the leg weakness would be hidden to a large extent simply by the adrenaline created by the race. That first hour involved a lot of overtaking in general - perhaps catching a lot of the slower people who were heading out on the long course which only split off after the upcoming Ventoux climb.

Shortly after the start of the Ventoux climb the woman in rose and white from the start overtook me again and this time I was not going to be able to stay in contact. Most people who passed me however were only crawling ahead of me and not opening up too big a gap. In general I was holding my own quite well. The pizza from the evening before was still giving me a sore stomach which was not aided by all the rest of the carbo loaded junk I stuffed myself with in the morning. The feeding strategy, however unpleasant, seemed to pay off because there was no need to eat during the race and no loss of concentration or hypoglycaemic dip. Drinking the sugary/protein mix however did cause me to burp a bit - but it's simply hard to drink when you can't relax your output level. About the only time you can relax properly is when slipstreaming on flatter ground - and there wasn't any of that until about half an hour before the end of the race.  Near the middle of the climb the gradient hits 11% and stays like that for 3 kilometres. It's probably this section that gives the Ventoux its fierce reputation. One bystander, intending to encourage me announced "c'est plus facile aprés" which when directly translated says "it's easier after". I replied to him "It's always easier 'after'!" Quite a few people commented on the "La Plagne" club colours as we passed - always friendly of course. One guy on seeing the name as I overtook him said that I'd be able to climb this "tout seul" - that it would "happen by itself". However I could feel the lack of strength in my legs so just focussed on compensating as best as possible through good technique and keeping good efficient form. Quite a lot of people were cracking, clearly dropping back or actually stopping. I knew there was no danger of that for me, but was just disappointed at my lack of conditioning, uncomfortable stomach, over large stomach and slight kidney ache. The last few kilometres near the summit are tough because you can see them way above you and my legs were just starting to tie up by this time, plus there was a slight headache that goes along with prolonged over-exertion. To my own surprise though I got up off the saddle and accelerated for the last few hundred meters overtaking several others who had been grinding slowly past me on the way up. It's amazing the reserves that can remain when you think that you are done. Passing over the top there was a sense of relief more than anything else. 

It takes me a while to recover enough from climbing to be able to drink properly so I just focussed on catching people up and overtaking - especially on the bends. Most people cannot judge corners very well - perhaps they don't get much practice. Some guys are fearless descenders and can leave me behind - but they are few and far between. During the descent on the main road I overtook perhaps a dozen riders, until the bifurcation for the two courses. When we hit that point I was suddenly abandoned on my own - the group that was around me were all going on the long course. For a while I continued the descent alone and then someone ripped past me on a gentle gradient so I accelerated and slipstreamed until we got to the main descent and narrower winding roads. This guy was a good descender so I was happy to sit behind him. He couldn't judge the bends very well though so while he pedalled like mad to get ahead on the straights I'd just relax and get right back up to him on the tight bends. He had a good attitude though and didn't hesitate in overtaking cars and any obstacles that might have slowed us down. Overall we tore past another dozen riders who had not been even visible ahead of us prior to this section of the descent and a tidy group formed for working together on the plateau ahead. The group turned out to be quite fast and this really upped the pace on the return leg - until we came to another col to climb over. There was a lone rider ahead who must have been quite strong and we had been catching him gradually but he was good enough to keep us at bay. Eventually on the climb I knew that I just couldn't keep this pace up and had to let the group slip away. They caught up with the lone rider a short while later and all pulled away together during the climb. I was happy to let them go because it was just overdoing it too much for me to stay with them - even if the climbs were likely to be quite short. Before reaching the top I saw that even the lone rider had been left behind by the charging group. 

Looking around me there was no one behind so I felt that I'd be completing the course on my own now having lost the group - but surprisingly only seconds later just before the top of the climb I was overtaken by a guy who kept on looking behind. I'd jumped on his tail to try to motivate myself up the rest of the climb but he didn't seem to want to cooperate and work together. Eventually his partner caught up and this was what he was concerned about - he didn't want to team up with anyone else but her - yes - it was the woman in rose and white again. Somewhere along the way - I'd overtaken her again and didn't even notice. She couldn't have pulled that far ahead then on the climb up Ventoux. There was a young guy in tow behind her so for a while I pulled in behind them and we completed that small climb together. It was boiling hot now and though I was feeling a bit thirsty it was hard to drink much just because of the exertion level. Descending on the other side it became clear that she was afraid of the tight bends and couldn't keep any speed up so I had to leave them and go ahead. Later at the next small col the situation repeated itself, this time the narrow descent taking us onto the main road and about 5km from the finish. Coming around a corner I found a long straight road ahead, perhaps 2km long and directly into the midday wind. I attacked as hard as possible sensing that the finish was close but after a while it felt like climbing up the mountain again just from driving into the wind. I could see the lone rider way ahead now, probably about 500m and even the group that had dropped us was still visible. Just then the team behind me came ripping past with the guy pulling the woman in rose and white at a good speed and also another two strong riders who had joined them. Clearly they were able to work together on the flat and really ramp up the speed. I stepped on the gas immediately and got in behind - it was a major acceleration. By the end of the straight we had almost caught the lone rider but now entering a build up area there were some tight bends to negotiate and the woman was struggling again. This time the other two young guys pulled away and left the rest of us. I didn't want to get stuck behind the woman who couldn't turn so put my hands on the drop bars and sprinted to bridge the gap to the young guys and made it - ramping my heart rate up to 175bpm for the first time in the race. They were now on a mission to get to the finish and about 200m from the end we overtook the lone rider who was a bit disturbed to lose three places right at the end but he had nothing left to give. Only tactics and some luck got me past him in the end. I came in 16 seconds ahead of the woman in rose and white but was very happy with that because she had her own personal team assisting her for the whole race. Ultimately, my climb was 12 minutes slower than last September but I had been 7 kilos lighter then and had the entire season behind me, plus I'd had a bad few weeks training recently and still had breathing problems from the cold virus. This time with all that extra weight was probably a better performance than last September - but it's made me decide to never let this weight problem be an issue in future. I'll get rid of this fat and not let it come back again. 

About half an hour after the race when talking with my neighbour in the camp site - the domesticated one, (who turned out to be English) I started to have some minor breathing difficulties. It was the sort of asthmatic feeling that occasionally hit me after a very hard sprint. It was stiflingly hot and I was dehydrated despite drinking half a litre of diluted orange juice. I'm certain that the brief breathing trouble was caused by hyperventilation. I'd noticed myself breathing poorly and rapidly through the mouth during the race. This has been going on since that viral attack in April but I'll have to focus on nasal breathing for a while now to sort this out.

126th out of 363 on the short course and 17th out of 74 in my age group in 3hrs 57:45mins. That's reasonable for the first race of the season and it will get better from here on in. 

Nicolas Ogier, also from the La Plagne club was 11 minutes behind me! However he was on the long course - about 50km longer!!! He came 4th overall on the long course. He is as skinny as a rake though and probably doesn't need a house because he lives on his bike.

Leaving the camp site I asked the attendant what sort of birds were making all that noise at night and she asked me if it sounded like ducks. I answered yes so she corrected me and told me it wasn't birds at all it was frogs! Unbelievably they sound exactly the same and because this is their mating time they are at it all night.  There is a river runs beside the camp site and it used to be used for swimming - an old photo from the 60s in the camp site office shows how it was back then. Now there is a dam upstream and swimming is forbidden - isn't it typical how good things get destroyed? It must be a million times better to swim in a river than some horrible chlorinated town swimming pool. Perhaps that's what the frogs were making such a fuss about.  French people must eat them because they think they are ducks. I suspect that the owls were also eating the frogs and perhaps the high pitched squawk was a frog flying off in the talons of an owl. (Please note that those frogs do not "croak, croak" as they do in the UK - they go "quack, quack")

Driving home I thought about eating some chocolate covered protein bars and fruit that I'd brought along with me. Stopping at a petrol station I had a look for the insulated bag that they had been stored in but just couldn't find it - though I was sure about leaving nothing behind in the camp site. Searching back in my memory the last place it was seen was inside the tent - because it had better ventilation than the inside of the car. It then dawned on me that when I'd folded up the amazing pop-up tent all the squidgy food had been left inside it. In fact I'd knelt on top of it forcefully to compress the tent into its small packing case. Perhaps this could start a new trend where not only is the tent pop-up but all the contents along with it. I did have the impression that my domesticated neighbours were that sort of product anyway.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Intelligent Walking

We all know how to walk correctly, don't we? At least the "biomechanics" experts know don't they? Well it seems that the scientists haven't done their job here and everywhere you look they say "research needs to be carried out". Basically they like to cite their scientific credentials, especially if they earn a living on the medical side of this (podiatry etc.) but they basically haven't a clue what they are on about. I wrote about the "Emperor's New Clothes" syndrome in respect of "balance" for skiing - but this ugly syndrome seems to haunt everything related to science. Let's face it, who's going to want to admit to not knowing how to walk correctly, especially if they have studied biomechanics based subjects?

Running recently using the information from the late Gordon Pirie's book "Running Fast and Injury Free" has been a real breakthrough for me. Pirie is not alone in his understanding, but current popular publications do not target or separate the key issues as intelligently as Pirie does. I'm personally having a lot of trouble with my calve muscles adapting to barefoot activity - but it is becoming clear to me that this is normal and it is a consequence of a lifetime spent doing everything in shoes or boots with significant heels - the muscles and tendons have been shortened. The problems I'm having are not caused by going barefoot - as they seem to be on the surface - but they are caused by shoes. Recovering from sore calves last week I was discussing the mechanics of movement, specifically the forefoot strike, with Christiane, who is a qualified mountain guide. She surprisingly said that sometimes she walks like that. My first reaction was that's not right, this can only be used for running - but then I reflected on the fact that I actually walk with a forefoot strike when going up and down stairs no matter what I have on my feet. Forefoot striking for walking in general just goes against everything we've ever heard though - doesn't it?

Mulling over the subject I went out for a gentle walk and began to play around with the walking stride, once again wearing the Vibram Five Fingers. To my great surprise it actually felt very natural on the tarmac to use the foot with a forefoot strike instead of landing on the heel. It was necessary to focus at first to deal with the change in coordination, but that's something you have to do develop any skill. Okay, perhaps at my age it  seems a bit late for "learning to walk" but better late than never!  Going off-road up a gravel trail and then a rocky footpath the effect was just stunning - no painful surprises under the foot - nothing! Normally when covering this sort of terrain there are a few sharp stabs under the foot but I'd been putting that down to still being a bit over sensitive - now all of that was gone. Within minutes this new way of walking felt completely preferable to "normal" heel striking - it already felt natural. This outcome was completely dependent upon the previous work on barefoot running. Exactly the same principles apply to both and there is no way I'd have worked this out for myself from scratch. Christiane is an exceptionally intuitive and sensitive individual so it doesn't surprise me that she had identified this on her own - but I just wouldn't have spotted this at all. For me the brainwashing of "heel strike" when you walk and the comfort of thick soft heeled shoes had become a chronic addiction. Like any addiction it was progressively worsening - the heels getting thicker and softer over the years but the damage getting worse and awareness being driven out of the picture altogether.

So how does this work?

Forefoot Strike: First thing is that the foot comes down on the outside edge of the forefoot. The foot then flattens onto the whole forefoot, eventually coming down onto the heel. The foot rolls back onto the forefoot and over the toes to complete the stride (Toe/Heel/Toe)

Placement: The foot mustn't reach too far ahead - it falls almost directly beneath the body - with the toes pointed slightly downwards (simply relax the ankle).

Stride Length: The stride length is lengthened by staying in contact with the ground further behind the body. To allow the foot to get further behind the pelvis has to rotate slightly, following the foot back. This equates to swapping the reach ahead of the foot/heel strike for a "reach behind" instead with a forefoot strike.

Centre Of Mass: Making the above changes naturally places your centre of mass further forward relative to the support of the ground - so without trying it becomes the main source of propulsion as you "fall" forwards.

Core Muscles: Now that you are reaching behind and including the pelvis the core muscles around the psoas are activated to pull the leg forwards for the recovery.

Posture: Not only are the psoas muscles activated but your entire posture changes reflexively. You can feel the postural perineum muscles (used a lot in Pilates), you become more upright with the upper body.

Arm use: The arms and shoulders become more active and counter the motion of the pelvis (opposite direction)

That's a list of the basic mechanical actions that I can identify for the moment. The effect however is much greater than that. Pirie talks about "caressing" the ground with the foot and that's exactly what it feels like. If you heel strike then you land square on the heel bone and a shock travels up the body. When you land on the outside of the forefoot, the foot is already at an acute angle with the ground and as it flattens (technically this is a rotation from an acute angle to flat) the energy is absorbed in the flattening action and there is zero shock to deal with. This means that stones don't hurt your foot at all and there is no shock being dealt with by your joints. The participation of all your postural muscles means also that you can respond to any subtle adjustments that are needed. One extremely important aspect of this is that not only has the vertical shock been removed but any pressures travelling up or down through the core of the body are now distributed though the core muscles instead of through the spine. The instant I go back to a heel strike I can feel all the core muscles go flabby, the skeleton takes over support and shock waves travel right up through the body. No wonder I've had spinal surgery three times!!!!! The shocking thing is that when my back troubles began I was directed to the highest qualified podiatrist in my country and what did he do? He raised my heels even higher! 6 months later I was having surgery.

I've noticed that if I go back to walking in heeled shoes not only is it impossible to walk without a heel strike but even on returning to barefoot walking it's hard to re-coordinate a forefoot strike to begin with. I have a great deal of experience with proprioception issues being a professional skier - so if it's tricky for me then I suspect it will take a great deal of concentration for most people to change.

The tactile (proprioceptive) experience, with the reflexive posture included, makes the entire process of walking a real physical pleasure instead of a plod - which it always feels like in shoes. I must confess it's the first time in my life that I'm actually excited by the prospect of going out walking. Perhaps this will calm me down from my excessive sports activities - but I doubt that really.

In America some people have labelled this way of walking "Fox Walking" because it is very quiet and there is a tendency to place one foot more in front of the other - thus minimising the signs you leave on the ground. If someone is tracking you this is a good way to lose them! A few individuals are suggesting that it is really the "natural" gait - but as usual there is no real scientific information either way.

One thing that is clear and accepted is that shoes definitely change the way we walk as do different surfaces. It just makes so much sense to go back to using the foot as nature designed it and to learn from it directly. I notice how I even stand differently on my bare feet already - using support along the whole length of the foot. Previously my foot would just collapse in a heap unless I tensed the muscles because my body didn't recognise where to look for the support from after being conditioned to mushy spongy shoes that confuse all proprioceptive information.

Skiing Connection: When I have a skiing client who is aware enough to deal with selective pressure on different areas of the feet I have in recent years suggested a specific pattern. The pattern is in connection with timing (high to start a turn, dropping into the turn and up to finish - like a motorbike)  and it is Toe/Heel/Toe. Only yesterday was I able to connect this with walking and only a week ago with running.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Beaufort Deviation

Very tough workout today - 123km and 3100m climbing. Was in the saddle for 5hrs 49mins and was surprised to average above 20kph for this one.

The start from Aime to Moutiers and then on to Albertville was against an unusually strong headwind ripping up the valley. It's tough training alone against a relentless headwind. When someone overtook me about 10 km before Albertville I used him to pace me the rest of the way into town. I didn't ride close enough to slipstream but kept a constant 3 to 5 meters behind. Just psychologically this makes a big difference. I didn't want to be a hero and take a turn in front because I had to conserve energy for the climbing ahead - but enjoyed the increased pace. We were experiencing a cold front after all the rain (snow) and thunder of the previous few days so I had on a cold weather training jacket and felt fine. At Albertville I peeled off and started the 46km climb to the Cormet de Roselend. Previous attempts have always had my legs in deep pain by the time the steep climb up to the Roselend dam starts - just after Beaufort - but today there was none of this so despite a poor week last week the training in general must be paying off.

Beaufort Village (I live on the other side of those mountains)

The fun and games all started just after Beaufort. It's a long straight moderate gradient up a glaciated valley to get the the foot of the big climb - but today the road was completely sealed off to all public - I tried to pass but couldn't - they sealed it off thoroughly.  This meant a deviation which looked like it was climbing up a very different and very steep mountain for a very long way - and that was right. It was slightly worrying because there was no indication how long the deviation was. In the end it was about 500m climbing over 10km. Had it not been spectacular, sheltered and sunny I might have bailed out because I'd started this trip rather late - about 2:35pm so that the air could warm with the sun - but hadn't anticipated this glitch. The "glitch" suddenly took on another allure when I started the descent back down from the deviation towards the main route because the back wheel felt unusually squirely on the turns and so I stopped to check it. Sure enough a puncture - the first in over 6000km with those tyres. It might have been due to me changing back from a race tyre and catching the inner tube or something. I stopped in the middle of nowhere and replaced the tube - checking with my fingers first that there was nothing sharp in the inside of the tyre. To my great surprise the 27gram carbon pump I've carried on the bike for over a year was utterly useless - couldn't blow up anything with it. Unfortunately I hate hand pumps so much that I'd never actually tried it out! That was a silly move indeed.

Near the Cormet de Roselend

There were a couple of houses here in the hills but very quiet and not too promising regarding potential help. I walked up to one and around the side to find a door open and a workshop inside with two young men. One had an air compressor right beside him and took my wheel and inflated it to 110psi in seconds! It was so lucky that it seemed almost weird. I did not expect to get out of that one so easily. Payback however was not long in coming. Fate had timed it so that only a few minutes into this descent a bee would hit my forehead - deflected from the helmet and shove its arse down between my sunglasses and head. Naturally the bee stung me square between the eyes and then got free and flew off. There was an almost anaesthetic numbness right down to the tip of my nose from that sting but nothing worse. 

The climb up to the Cormet was fine but I was in the granny gear quite early on. Normally I find myself crawling up there with legs in significant pain the entire way - but today was different. Despite the extra climbing already I was able to hold a more acceptable if somewhat slow climbing pace - but with no deep pain - only tiredness. At the top of the Cormet (2000m Altitude) I swallowed the last drop from my two water bottles. In fact I cycled almost 6hrs and burned over 8000 calories just drinking one litre altogether - but felt fine. I ate a protein/energy bar and it had a great effect during the descent -  the energy and clarity returning to my head quickly. This was all I'd eaten. The drink had some energy/protein powder mixed in to it too though. The new "La Plagne" club shorts were excellent - no bum pain! Don't know how that works because the padding is not as thick as on any of the other shorts and I'd expected them to be worse - but they are much better. I'd mistakenly brought arm warmers instead of leggings for the descent from the Cormet. Undeterred I squeezed the arm warmers over my legs because this was going to be cold - fast, no sun, high altitude and late. During the descent due to a mixture of cold and pressure my left hand went dead a couple of times - and the feet were pretty cold. It's a long way down, especially when you are tired and cold, but you just have to keep on going because you know it's much warmer in the valley below. I could feel the warm air as usual after the last turn down towards Bourg St Maurice - but it took until cycling uphill to Macot about 13km further on until I felt warm again. Thankfully Christiane had cajoled me into taking LED lights on the bike and as it was about 9:15pm when arriving at the house they had been used for the last 20 minutes and I was very glad to have them. 

Resting now for a few days probably - but will have to see how to make it to the race on the Ventoux on Saturday without arriving there exhausted in advance.

View from Cormet de Roselend  over Beaufort

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Two Sports!

The day after the long "barefoot" run my calves were quite sore with DOMS, as would be expected, but not enough to feel this when cycling. Prior to employing Gordon Pirie's techniques a long almost 50 minute "barefoot" run would have crippled my calves because I haven't been running at all for a long time. The one really surprising thing though was that my legs were totally shot for cycling - there was no strength at all there. I did about 1000m climbing yesterday but couldn't go fast. On the other hand this time last year I'd have climbed no slower even without being so tired. Today I climbed 500m in the middle of a severe thunder and lightening storm ( a bit scary!) and felt some strength returning and the DOMS receding already - but don't know if I'll be good for racing on Sunday. It took 37 minutes to climb to Granier whereas last year I'd brought this down to 29'56". I feel that by Sunday the legs could be back to normal. This is the problem when trying to work on two sports. Still, the running is so enjoyable that it is just going to have to work out.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Gordon Pirie forefoot strike

I've read the excellent Gordon Pirie book though the first few chapters where he explains how to develop correct running technique. His explanations are really fascinating and clear. Yesterday I did two 15 minute runs applying his information - but still have some DOMS today in the calves although not crippling as they were previously. Particularly interesting was his explanation of how the foot strikes the ground. According to Pirie the foot should land on the outside of the forefoot - the foot progressively coming down on the rest of the forefoot and finally allowing the heel to contact the ground so as not to injure the calve. This of course is the opposite of conventional wisdom which says to strike the ground with the heel and let the toes contact the ground last rolling forwards on the foot from  heel to toe. Ultimately everything I've observed in good skill development from skiing to playing the violin involves "the opposite" of conventional wisdom. I put "opposite" in inverted comas because it is always opposite but with a subtle twist - so we don't spot it easily.

This shoe is the new Merrell Trail Glove - I'm definitely getting a pair! Tried on size 41 and 42 in the shops yesterday but need the size between. This shoe accurately reflects Pirie's stated requirements for a running shoe. It has a wide toe box so that the toes can splay out. It is very light (same as Vibram Fivefingers). It has the same thickness under the heel as under the toes - but more protection under the ball of the foot with "plate" to prevent sharp objects from hurting. The heel is low and doesn't contact the Achilles tendon. It has a good range of tightening so it can hold the foot securely like a glove. The all round protection of the foot is good and substantial. It gives full "barefoot" sensory perception. It looks "normal" unlike the Fivefingers. I'd feel very comfortable running off-road with this whereas the Fivefingers don't inspire confidence in rough terrain. I'm happy to view my Bikila LS Fivefingers as mainly a road running shoe - which is what it actually is anyway.

Yesterday when playing with the modified foot strike I had to access the trail by taking a steep flight of concrete steps up a hill. I noticed that both going up and down the steps - no matter what shoes I had on - the automatic reflex was to use the foot exactly as Pirie describes for running. You do not go either up or down steps landing on your heel - you land on the outside of your forefoot with the leg slightly flexed - even when descending. It was really fascinating to observe this - after a lifetime of using steps without ever noticing. This is a good sign that Pirie is correct - because it links up immediately to other things as all good science does.

I'm also working on squatting on the fronts of the feet - with heels on the ground. This gives a deep stretch of the calves and I can't actually get into the full squat without support - so I'll continue to do it every day after exercise. Pirie once again correctly insists on avoiding static stretches because they are associated with injury to runners - this information has been stated often recently but Pirie's book was written 20 years ago!

Yesterday I also tried to use the arms as Pirie describes and it works too. Until now I'd just been carrying my arms and trying to relax them as we are normally told to do. Pirie makes it clear that this is a great error.
One exercise he gave really connected with me - it was to feel how a quick punch forward with the arm connects with a rotation of the pelvis backwards on the same side. The arm action should be snappy and forceful - not relaxed and limp. This works! It also made running feel a bit more like Nordic Walking where the upperbody is very active. Pirie also explains that the "stitch" comes from not using the arms actively and relying on the stomach muscles to balance the legs instead - and I often get a stitch when not in good running shape - so that makes a lot of sense.

Running barefoot with this awareness yesterday felt simply great. I really don't want to run any other way now but may have to until  the calves have properly adapted - but at least barefoot running is now looking attainable thanks to an improved understanding of technique. It's not just "attainable" but it's the only way to run correctly!

Pirie made me laugh when I read in his book that if you want to beat anyone in any sport just get him back on his heels! In skiing I teach heel use so that people can have a strong ankle, avoid using the boot as a support to replace bone structure and muscle, learn to rock the foot from the subtaler joint and use the hip adductor muscles all in coordination. Pirie however is absolutely correct - you might learn good coordination for skiing this way but you won't excel. Eventually the skier has to learn to get the pressure off the heels and onto the forefoot but while maintaining all of the same coordination and without ever allowing the ankle to collapse. There is no greater nonsense in ski instruction than "flex the ankles" but 100% certifiably stupid BASI trainers (UK) just love to tell people to do that. When you consider that most proprioception (awareness of the body in space) is controlled via pressure sensors in the feet and that 70% of those are in the forefoot - then yes - you want to get onto the forefoot for skiing as soon as you can. Killy's statement about "the intelligence of the feet" being his key to success takes on a clearer perspective in the light of this information. In addition Killy cut away the backs of his ski boots so that he could extend the ankles better - and that is exactly what is often required to be on the balls of the feet. If standard running shoe design is a compete mess - which according to Pirie is the case (he was associated personally with the founder of Addidas) - specifically because of the raised and padded heels - then I think the same question should be asked about ski boots which are jacked up very high on the heels and ramped forwards even on the bindings. I've always felt uncomfortable with this - but there is no alternative out there at all in skiing.

Despite the DOMS I decided to run a proper trail run barefoot today. The idea was to work on technique and try to use the pain to highlight any faults and more accurately correct them than otherwise. The plan worked out pretty well. First of all the Fivefingers were great on the trail. Forget about hurting your feet - you just don't - but you do feel everything and that's great. It really is like you have eyes in your feet when running "barefoot". As long as you are being attentive to your running the feet seem to look after themselves - but the moment your attention wanders off you get paid back by having a sharp stone or something bring your attention rapidly back for you. That's a great thing because we want to be mindful of the activity - not dreaming. I was amazed at running on a rough trail and in a heavy rain storm there was no discomfort or difficulty at all from having no padding beneath the feet. I read some time ago that by pressing shapes made from groups of fine points against the tongue the brain is able to see the corresponding images visually - not imagining but actually seeing - that is, seeing with the tongue. Considering that most of the body's proprioception nerves are in the front of the feet then perhaps in a sense there are "eyes" in the feet and the "sixth" sense of proprioception makes it happen - it certainly feels a bit that way. I've worked for years personally to develop better use of my feet in skiing, developing foot flexibility and coordination, making and changing shapes continuously. I got rid of orthotic foot-beds years ago and stopped having foam injected inners that altogether leave you with about as much sensation and control as a pair of concrete wellies. Normal running shoes are without doubt equally destructive.

During the run I understood what Pirie meant about the feet needing to land one in front of the other - single file so to speak. He points out that this is made possible by using the arms correctly and if you don't then the feet leave two tracks one beside the other. I could feel the connection with the "punch" forwards of the arm, the pelvis rotating backwards and everything lining up so that the feet placed one in front of the other. When this is working it's then much easier to ensure landing on the outside extremity of the forefoot. If the feet are apart you don't seem to get properly on the outside and the forefoot lands a lot "flatter" instead of on its edge.

After about 25 minutes the calves were hurting significantly so my concentration had to become more focussed on technique than ever. The Pose technique claims that there should be no push off and that pushing off at the end of a stride overloads the calves. I became aware of an unconscious push off and with a real effort to relax the muscles was able to gradually eliminate it and this eased up the pain considerably. In the Pose technique they talk about only lifting the foot up behind and avoiding a push off - using gravity only for propulsion - then posing the foot directly downwards below the body. With the improved alignment I became very aware of posing the foot and the more directly below the body it was the easier it was to land on the forefoot and for the foot to then relax down onto the heel. It put me in mind of how a kangaroo leg works - with the foot itself becoming like a very short lower leg like the kangaroo's. Getting the foot to pose on the ground directly below then made me aware that I had been leaning too far forwards with the upper body. Once this slight lean was corrected all the pain miraculously disappeared and I was able to speed up - this being about 40 minutes into the run. It then became clear that the main cause of the calve muscle problems is due to posture - leaning slightly too far forwards. When the posture was corrected I found that using a push off didn't hurt any more. Pirie repeats again and again in his book - "Don't lean forwards!"

Pain still returned when running downhill and of course I was changing my posture automatically to compensate for the slope - exactly like a beginner skier or child on skis I was keeping the upper body in the "vertical". This really caused a rapid loading of the calves. The solution was exactly the same as in skiing - bring the upper body back into perpendicular with the slope! It was an amazing experience with all of this coming together. Both Gordon Pirie's information and Pose method technique were required to make sense of it all and to make this happen. Pirie does not mention about using gravity for propulsion - but he did coach with a "fall forwards" right from the start of changing somebody's running technique. I love his story about coaching a 58 year old marathon runner who was at just over 3hrs and with no effort other than changing technique was able to get down to 2hrs 32mins!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Big Chainwheel?

Until today I wanted to get a bigger chainwheel for the racing bike to be able to go faster on the descents. Having just read about the death of Belgian Wouter Weylandt in the Italian Giro due to a high speed fall on a descent - I've changed my mind. I don't want to go any faster now. Last year even in the amateur races that I enter some guys were reaching over 100kph on the descents and of course - in one particular race there was also a death when someone lost control and went over a cliff. I'll content myself with a top speed of 70+ kph and leave it at that. I guess those polystyrene helmets aren't all that good after all - surprise, surprise!

On the bright side David Millar is wearing the pink Jersey of the leader of the Giro having finished second in today's stage in a breakaway - that must be an absolute first for Scotland! Millar was my mother's maiden name - but he's not a relative - being born in Malta I believe.

Today I was very pleased to have a really low bottom gear anyway as I ended up climbing on single lane steep forest roads which became rather steep at altitude. The granny gear was much appreciated - 34/28T.
I climbed up from Laundry through Montchavin and the road was steep, wide long and empty - just great! The sun was blazing like mid summer again and it was great to be blinded by sweat for the first time this year. The aim was to try to find a route from Montchavin right through to La Plagne and it seemed to be going really well until at 1850m altitude the tarmac stopped and only a mountain bike would manage the rest. It couldn't have been far at all from La Plagne but I had to back track. The workout had been excellent though. I see on Google Earth there seems to be a road that cuts across a bit lower down so next time I'll look for that one. Still, a workout of 2hrs 37mins was long enough anyway. Yesterday's running had me a little bit concerned about whether or not it would affect the quality of the cycling workout but it seemed to only have a minimal effect and I could really work hard on the climbing. The bum is also getting used to the new cycling shorts as they didn't hurt this time. I reckon I'll use them for shorter workouts (the saddle is really hard!) so that I can save the more padded ones for very long rides but with the bum bones getting the conditioning ffom the harder setup in advance. I don't want a repeat of last year's Marmotte race where my bum was shredded due to lack of appropriate conditioning and cushioning.

It's early May and I've managed over 1000km already with every session involving some climbing. Two season's ago when I started racing in August I'd only covered a total of 800km by the end of the season! It's been a steep learning curve and my only regret is that it should have happened 35 years ago!

Core Power

On a warm sunny morning it felt great to be running on a trail once again. The fitness from cycling certainly crosses over to running because despite not running properly once this year until now it felt really good. Normally when you start running after a long lay off it feels completely useless. I left the full "barefoot" running aside just now - bringing only some of the mechanics into the run and using normal but low profile running shoes - just to get some mileage and exercise in without suffering from calf pain again...

The following is a selection of information I've dug up about running technique that is all really good...

This Youtube video gives a really good demonstration of how barefoot running functions:

This link gives an excellent insight into proprioception though the feet - and the pdf download is very useful.

This book written by one of Britain's most successful ever runners is just way ahead of it's time. I'm reading it here free:

The following quotation is from the article at the following link  I quoted it because it ties so well with my own view about coaching in general and the approaches I now use in skiing...

"The following day begins with still more detailed discussions of the technique and how to learn it. Dr Romanov goes into quite an extended explanation of the psychological factors involved and a fascinating, sometimes philosophical, explanation of how the essence of the training is developing perception and awareness while you are running. He states again that this is not easy and explains that we will have to work very hard and continuously in order to make the improved technique our own. As he explains, most people try to disassociate themselves from what they are doing when they are running, rather than embrace the awareness required.

In his discussion, I am reminded of how in order to improve my own swimming I have found it requires continuous focused attention. Dr Romanov explains the failure to improve which is widely experienced by runners as a consequence of unwillingness to actually think about what we are doing. He further insists the benefit of training when done without awareness is lost because the body will reject activities that the conscious mind does not embrace

Core work!
My favourite information and views on running come from Dr Romanov and his "pose" technique.  Following however a lead from a book by Danny Dreyer called "ChiWalking" that I have currently on order from Amazon, I was mostly focussed today on "core" muscle systems. The ChiWalking book synopsis mentions that it recommends accessing core muscle reserves and that those are much more extensive than the relatively weak leg muscles. Dr Romanov doesn't say much about this but thinking on Dreyer's theme is interesting and I've been joining a few of the dots by myself. When cycling there is a great improvement in efficiency, speed and endurance if you combine "pulling up" with "pushing down" on opposite pedals. As with even Dr Romanov, in cycling this pulling up is always linked to the hamstrings. My own experience tells me that this is not quite right and the the real power comes mainly from the psoas muscles. Interestingly Dr Romanov does make this link and although he is really big on pulling up the foot high behind when running using the hamstring - he says that the core/psoas must be linked to this  when pulling the foot forwards and that it is all linked together with a rotation of the body. I think that he may have underestimated the importance of this though and that Dreyer might be closer  though I have to wait until the book arrives to confirm it. I  can certainly feel the same thing now in running as in cycling and how the core muscles play a major part. I guess that the aim in running (and walking) will be to access those muscles to tap into real power and endurance just as is happening in the cycling. 

The same core muscle systems appear to be used in ski technique when "pivoting". There is a greater emphasis on using the hip adductors in skiing - but they too are core muscles. Normally the psoas in skiing mainly stabilises and works reflexively in an eccentric contraction (contracting under load) instead of a deliberate contraction. Pulling "inwards" seems to be the skiing equivalent of pulling "upwards". The psoas is only used actively (concentric contraction) in racing "retraction" turns and in some compression turns in bumps (to reduce compression).

Last year I hurt my back by getting the coordination of the pull wrong on the bike - literally yanking everything up on one side. Over the winter I became aware that the core muscles are more effectively and safely used if there is a contraction on the one side - knee and ribs coming together. This aligns the pull of the muscles more through the abdomen and with a bit of practice it seems to be even more powerful than yanking upwards using the back instead. I can feel the same in running when pulling the leg through from behind - especially if there is a slight rotation of the pelvis extending the stride backwards before the pull. I've just got to stop "pushing off" from the foot which is a real habit ingrained over many years. Perhaps this is where the calf pain comes from when running barefoot as it unnecessarily overloads the calve muscles. Interestingly the main "power" to be used in the body for running according to Dr Rakimov is in the "pull". That's definitely what I'm already feeling when cycling. There is almost an illusion in cycling though in that you feel a strong load when you are climbing and then remember to pull up harder - when you do so the load disappears and so you feel that this is not right - like you are somehow not working properly. At the same time your speed goes up considerably - but it's like the brain almost can't accept it. The aerobic loading goes up a bit but the body can sustain that much longer than any heavy muscle load.

I was fascinated today though when I arrived at a short hill and started to increase power. My immediate response was to stop allowing my pelvis to reach behind but to do the opposite and thrust it forwards during the push off. I guess this is a bit like the equivalent of yanking up the bike pedal with the whole whole side and back included - except this is a running version trying to drive forwards and all the strain is in the quads and the calves. I have pretty strong quads and a strong upper back so probably gravitate unconsciously towards those problematic actions. I'd absolutely never noticed this though in the running - it really makes an amazing difference just being "aware" of what you are doing.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

End of Season Tignes - Open again June 18th for the Summer season.

Went up to Tignes today just for some administration stuff and to hang out a bit there. Spotted this stunning lenticular wave cloud over Mont Pourri on the way there.

Going for a walk around the lac de Tignes the "vernal" plants were all out in their full glory - those are the first plants to push through once the snow clears off the surface. Here is a slide show below of some of the photos I took at the side of the lake. Christiane poses as a flower for a couple of shots. The lake was teaming with trout - some really big ones too - amazing to think that they can survive the winter below the ice that all the people are walking over.

The lifts are still open at Tignes - all of them in the main station area - though hardly anyone was actually skiing. Nearly all of the commerces were closed. We spotted one restaurant open in Val Claret and one one boulangerie in Le Lac - where we had lunch overlooking the lake.