Friday, September 30, 2011

Skiing Easier than Walking (Curing Cycling Injuries)

Great - I see that Reebok have just been fined $25m for false advertising and false claims regarding the function of one model of their shoes. What people don't realise is that this is only the very tip of the iceberg. They must have been incredibly blatant to end up with a fine and it must be much worse that usual. "Barefoot" - is the only way to go!!!!

Skiing Easier than Walking
For many years in ski teaching I've been telling people to pull in with the adductor muscles on the support leg. This aligns the pelvis and upper body strongly over the single hip joint which then acts as a point of rotation and a powerful platform for skating actions. Often good skiers reflect on the fact that skiing feels easier than walking but what we don't stop to consider is that there might be an unexpected reason for this - and that we actually do walk badly. We have mistakenly assumed that walking is something everyone does and that it requires no further thought - whereas we have worked a lifetime on our skiing. It's understandable that the most common faults in walking are similar to those found in running, but it's slightly more surprising to find that the same faults dramatically affect performance in both skiing and cycling. The hip action with alignment coming from the adductors somehow came naturally to me in skating and later on in skiing - but in all the other activities it has been lacking. I can only surmise that this is because in skating it's really the only way to get a proper push with the leg - and I started to skate very young. Later on I became aware that (contrary to common belief) skiing was really skating disguised by an enforced "arcing" trajectory and so the same body mechanics were necessary. For around 15 years my whole focus has been on "skating" and "disequilibrium" as the basis of a continually growing understanding of the sport. At no point did I think that I'd be having to apply this to running, walking and cycling - and that I was currently highly deficient in all of them.

Basic Coordination
Yesterday I did a 45km circuit on the bike and worked on coordination from the start. It seemed impossible to change things at first. Just like when walking badly people lead with the leg and hip reaching ahead I continued to do this on the bike. My hip and pelvis would just follow the knee downwards and upwards on the opposite side. Flipping this around seemed impossible. Progressively  I could hold it longer and longer - the hip and pelvis pulling back and up while the knee would go down and forwards - and on the opposite side the hip and pelvis moving down and forwards as the knee came up. All of a sudden it would flip back around again. It took about 30km to stabilise it and climbing a hill actually helped because you could feel both the pull and the push at the same time clearly. Focussing on one leg alone for several strokes and then switching to the other would help - down stroke then up stroke, down stroke then up stroke - on the same side.

New Sensations
Eventually new sensations started to emerge. First of all the pulling back of the hip/pelvis serves to also pull inwards with the adductors so it aligns the pressure on the pedal accurately and also the bone structure of the leg - exactly as happens in skiing. The power can then pass downwards though your centre and though this hip joint. This makes the glutes and hamstrings functional in powerfully extending the hip joint. Meanwhile this turns the waist slightly towards this extending leg. On the other side of the body the hip is flexing and the powerful psoas muscles are used. On this side the pelvis moves forwards as the knee comes up and a maximum contraction of the psoas is possible (exactly as when running and recovering the trailing leg and pelvis from behind). This feels like the knee is being pulled also inwards in the direction of the navel - towards the other side of the bike where you are pushing downwards. Everything feels like it's being pulled in towards the centre. Glutes and hamstrings working on one side and their antagonist muscles - the psoas - on the opposite side. There is no tension however in the lower back because everything feels like it's aligned to work in harmony, the lower back rotating along with the pelvis. The twist in the spine takes place higher up - exactly as author Danny Dreyer writes in ChiRunning - near the T12/L1 vertebra - the bottom of the ribs. Once the coordination is in place the push down and pull up can be used together to increase power and serious force can be applied without feeling any risk of back trouble.

Curing Lots of Troublesome Issues
I've always had a problem with very high cadence in that at about 110 rpm I'd start to bounce in the saddle and nothing would stop it. Well this did! The bounce finally is caused by the hip moving in the wrong direction. One it moves the correct way then motion is fluid no matter how fast you pedal. I then realised that my previous deep muscle pains and cramps had always been in my quads and that this was an obvious consequence of not being able to access the power from the glutes and hamstrings. The chronic foot tendinitis injury on the outside edge was due to the hip and pelvis following the knee downwards and pulling the hip out of alignment causing the heel to twist outwards and placing weight on the outside of the foot. The months of back pain last year and the beginning of back pain again this year are also caused by the pulling on the base of the spine caused by the same inappropriate mechanics.  Already after three workouts bringing this together I can lie in bed pain free with my back and my foot injury is calming down by itself.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Surf Walking

Hiking just behind Bourg St Maurice in the wild gorges there are some spectacular ancient hidden trails with ancient ruined buildings. There is little sign of tourism but the environment is heavily exploited agriculturally. It's good to see the rugged land still being used here instead of giving over to holiday homes and tourism. The short trail we took goes from Le Villaret to La Rosière then straight up, cutting below Mineurville and then up to Granville, then back mainly by the rough road.

The small chapel here is at Granville.

This bell is on another small chapel at the top of the cliff above la Rosière.

Regardless of the natural beauty of the area and the welcome sunshine and warmth, the main focus of the walk was on technique. 

Power and Lightness
The main keys for climbing are to use the hip extensors and flexors, letting the leg extend fully behind. When one leg actively extends from the hip and the other flexes the combined movement is very powerful and feels light. If the focus is on the extension (glutes and hamstrings) the power can be felt and if it is on flexion (psoas) then there is a strong sensation of "lightness". The same sensations can be felt when cycling if the coordination is correct. There must be a dual rotation at the hip and spine for this to work - the pelvis must rotate. On the bike I noticed that the motion is simplified (for awareness) if you think of allowing the "push" on the pedal to turn your navel towards the leg and foot (instead of away from it - as easily happens). If you try to propel yourself with your leg (instead of using gravity) you rotate the pelvis (spine/hip) in the wrong direction - it tends to force the hip forwards instead of letting it extend behind. The same problem happens in cycling if you try to push very powerfully.

Disequilibrium - Extraordinary Walking Sensations
The other key thing when climbing is to use both Nordic Walking poles simultaneously - keeping the hands low, not letting them go far ahead (keeping the pole/ground contact well behind). This has two functions: power is accessed in the shoulders and large upper back muscles (instead of the arm muscles) and the power is directed more upwards - which assists in overcoming the vertical work against gravity. The posture and alignment of the body being corrected in advance you should be able to focus on the efficient "falling" ahead of the Centre of Mass - so the poles are not used to try to push or pull ahead. Forward momentum still comes from exploiting the fall ahead - or disequilibrium component induced by gravity. 

When descending, once again, instead of reaching ahead to land on the heel and brake - which creates a real shock on the body and a risk of slipping, extend the stride behind. This requires a very upright posture and places the work load closer to the core - to the upper leg muscles and abdomen and not the lower quads. The body is lowered down the hill with each slow extension of the hip flexor muscles - with support from the glutes and hamstrings. The poles just act as a light support ahead helping once again to reduce the vertical component of gravity but this time while the Centre of Mass is lowered instead of raised.

Wave Motion
It struck me when running (following day) that we don't just harness gravity to fall forwards but we also exploit the upwards force against the Centre of Mass to fall forwards. The similarity to energy being transmitted in a wave seems obvious. In a water wave the water goes mainly up and down - in a circular motion. This circular motion resembles the feet when either walking, running or cycling. The Centre of Mass doesn't go up and down - it gets "squeezed" forwards - like a surfer on a wave - or like the energy of the wave itself. When you "fall forward" with gravity and the leg extending behind the CM doesn't lose height. Gravity is forcing the CM downwards but the elastic force of the Earth resists this though the leg, which by extending upwards deflects the CM forwards. Getting the right balance between gravity and leg force would mean a very stable and efficient CM with no up and down motion. The gravitational force is free but the upward force costs us energy. Just like the surfer we are not trying to propel ourselves forwards. When going uphill the upwards push is increased and when descending the energy goes into resisting gravity - slowing down the downwards acceleration from gravity.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Connections: Cycling - Running - Skiing

Back to confusion! It seems that the only mistake you can make regarding the human body is to think that you actually understand it. 

Yesterday I rode from Aime about 55km over the Cormet de Roselend (2000m) to Beaufort. I wasn't motivated - feeling typical End of Season Blues as autumn takes a firm grip on the weather. Predictably it got cold at altitude and rain from a few hours earlier had left the road wet enough to soak me through on the descent. The setting sun had reddened the remaining clouds and after passing the col the wind dropped so despite everything it was magical just being there. I felt physically fine on the climb - no fatigue!

So where is the confusion? Well, I thought that I'd figured out how the legs and core muscles coordinate but now I'm not so sure. For many years my understanding of skiing has evolved in this way - but skiing is obviously relatively complicated - nobody expects cycling to be complicated - at least I didn't, but then again I made that same mistake with swimming. 

When the workout started I put on some music - the same tracks that I've listened to for years and never get tired off - The Afro Celt Sound System (all five albums) - because on the way up to the Cormet you lose all communications so any radio and telephone signals are lost. When in a place with normal reception I currently listen to Internet radio - FRUKIE - Folk Radio UK - because it has a lot of original artists with something different to offer. It's amazing how we can now tune in through the internet on a telephone to radio stations anywhere in the world. At first I thought that this might kill radio but it's really just vastly expanded their broadcasting range. What an evolution since I bought the first ever Sony Walkman tape cassette player in my student years! (That got stolen going through airport luggage - some things don't change!)

Starting out on the ride I felt that despite not improving as much as I'd hoped for this season there was no obvious indication of what to work on. It's not just a case of increasing volume or intensity because you also need time to recover, though organising those things more efficiently can always help. Nutrition is another major factor. I've been losing weight slowly all  summer and wonder how much that affects performance. Much better to be at a steady "racing" weight and then not have to have a caloric deficit. There was nothing "technical " to obviously work on. Perhaps it's moments like this that are necessary because unconsciously you just start to listen more to your body instead of ordering it about. 

Over the years I've noticed that there are common connections between activities. There is nothing completely "different". Skiing might involve sliding - which makes it different from running - but there are many more aspects shared between the activities than there are separating them. Connections are great things to look for because they tend to inform you whether or not you are being efficient or wasteful and destructive. You don't spot connections without going though a long conscious/mindful process of building awareness. Part of building awareness however involves just observing and listening to the body - not judging it. Things taking place unconsciously suddenly spring out to your attention when a pattern is recognised - very much like a stereogram 3D image appears unbidden before your eyes. Yesterday the pattern that jumped out at me suggested that my entire coordination between spine, core muscles and legs was literally back to front. When you get a message like this, if you are honest with yourself, you never push it away. Once the door is opened it should never be closed until you have a satisfactory answer. Understanding the nature of science helps with this process. No scientific theory is a "truth" it is only a stepping stone towards a better and deeper understanding. You don't aim to stop, perched on one stepping stone forever. It's an unsettling feeling however to realise that you might be doing everything wrong - but it's this way that you open yourself to change and improvement.

The connection that I spotted relates to recent things I've learned from running "barefoot" (I say barefoot but mean mostly with minimialist shoes). One key to natural running is to extend the leg behind the body but not in front of it. In doing so the pelvis goes back on the same side - rotating in the hip joint and in the spine -  keeping chest and shoulders stable. The subsequent recovery of the leg uses the psoas and abdomen (core) muscles from a fully extended position. I noticed that when cycling, during the pull up - which corresponds to the leg recovery phase in running - that my pelvis was not in the right place to do the same job. During the "push" or leg extension, I've been following though with the pelvis on the same side. This is probably because in the bent over seated position the leg is actually being extended in front of the body and not behind it. Well, if optimum performance in running indicates that this is an error then perhaps it is also an error in cycling. To my horror I realised that I could extend the leg while simultaneously pulling the pelvis back on the same side - the horror mainly coming from the fact that I was unable to coordinate it at first, but also coming from the awareness that I'd gone all this time without seeing this before even once. This is supposed to be simple - but perception of the body is anything but simple. Initially I found that I could coordinate the motion by focusing on the left leg. Despite my left leg being considerably weaker than my right (due to accumulated injuries) and being right handed and footed, I always ski and perform complex activities much better with it than on the right leg. Perhaps that's because the unconscious mind gets more space to work and also that the left leg is coordinated by the right (creative/pattern recognition) brain. With a little bit of practice coordination started to come on both sides but could easily flip around. Many years ago I had a similar experience in skiing when changing timing from the standard "up/down" to "down/up". I'd be in a race course and suddenly the timing would flip back again. It took about 6 months to be able to completely consolidate the timing and years to be able to reproduce it in all circumstances. The shocking thing that happened next was that suddenly everything fell into place. The hip extensors could be used powerfully during the leg extension (push), the abdomen became much stronger and the recovery (pull up) felt easy instead of like a tug-of-war with the pedal. Fascinating! The adductor muscles more naturally brought the leg into alignment and kept pressure on the inside of the foot instead of letting it slip onto the outside (source of my chronic tendinitis). I could also see why when my performance and power has increased on the bike my back has started to develop niggling problems. I've been straining each side of the body against each other instead of working efficiently internally on each independent side.

Author Danny Dreyer in "ChiWalking" explains how he uses the power of the extension of the leg behind when walking up steep hills - "snapping the knees" is how he describes it. Personally I find that a bit less efficient that focusing on the recovery of the leg  - but the mechanics are basically the same. It was Dryer who brought my attention to the mechanics of this extension and how the power comes from the hip extensors. Likewise, if you follow through with the hip on the push down when cycling then you don't get the power of the hip extensors. This means that any improvement in power is coming from the pulling up on the opposite pedal only and that there is no postural protection due to an imbalance in muscle use. When you coordinate the same as for natural running then you feel the posture protection mechanisms kick in automatically. The same applies to running and walking with natural mechanics - the posture kicks in automatically and the difference is massive.

When I got the coordination right there seemed to be a real ease in generating power. It will take some work to consolidate this and see what the effect is on endurance.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Les Bosses du 13, 2011

The "Weather From Hell" that has characterised every season this year continues. Another race transformed into a course in survival by torrential rain, low temperatures, high wind and lightning. This didn't prevent 2383 brave souls from lining up at the start through an early morning deluge for the 2011 Bosses du 13 - Marseilles' annual open cycle race.

It's quite a big commitment when you have to travel half way across the country for a race. The Sun was out though and weather warm so despite an ominous looking weather forecast everyone was relatively optimistic. Chris was travelling with his wife Lesley and daughter Emily with a view to introducing both of them to bike racing and I was travelling with Christiane, having persuaded her to take a break from her music for a couple of days after her successful (but stressful) concert on Friday evening.

On the way to Marseilles we would pass next to the Vercors massif. Most people head South on the West side of this mountain range due to the uninterrupted motorway. We chose to take the East side due to predicted motorway traffic jams and also the fact that the East side is shorter and much cheaper as there are less road tolls to pay. The East side is also more scenic although a bit slower and we stopped for lunch at the esoteric "Beach Road" Snack Bar - within sight of the stunning Mont Aguille (pictured here). Christiane had climbed this face many years ago and so it was the perfect backdrop for a break. We had our lunch at the "beach" in the middle of the mountains. Unfortunately the restaurant was really a bit scabby and "cheap" though expensive at the same time - but it was warm and sunny and the surrounds were stunning.

We would all be camping at Cassis - a famous seaside resort about 15km from the race start at the Marseilles university campus. Fortunately Chris would arrive early on Saturday morning after an overnight stop en route because advanced booking was not allowed and the site would definitely be full later on when we arrived. Chris booked emplacements for us too.  There is only one snag about taking your partner with you on this sort of event - and it's called "STRESS"! Stress saps energy and is not good preparation for a race. This is beyond a doubt why most guys go to those events alone or with mates - but not with their other half. Nightmare! Enough said about that. 

We all met up in Cassis for an evening meal and found a pasta restaurant in the port. The service was absolutely crap - not only did Christiane and I get served incorrect dishes but we eventually waited about 90 minutes before eating anything. Emily discovered an open and cooked "muscle" in her dish was actually full of mud instead of muscle. The little marina/port is a virtual tourist factory - just horrible. I was the only one to actually end up with an edible dish but the "fresh" pasta was pretty poor quality. Eating was now too late which would guarantee needing a pee in the middle of the night and indigestion during the race. Good start! We should have cooked up a spaghetti in the camp site. Chris's bill was ridiculously high due to his starters. In the actual camp site we found that we were separated from a main road roundabout by a small wall and bush. The traffic noise on a busy Saturday night was aggressive. Fortunately I had ear plugs but Christaine didn't and she hardly slept. During the night the weather broke and a few drops of rain had already started. It was hot enough to sleep without any cover though - in fact a cover was too warm. The fact that the air was still warm would make a correct choice of clothing for the race a bit tricky. All of my errors this year had left me freezing so I decided to accept the risk of taking too much clothing instead (and got it right this time). We were all up and moving by 05:30hrs. I'd forgotten milk for the porridge but was amazed to discover that I preferred it cooked in water. Mixed with a banana it was pleasant to eat. We each had a big mug of coffee and then off to the bathroom. We had to get out of the camp site by 06:30hrs at the latest because the 15km road to the race start over the Col de la Gineste would be closing completely to traffic at 07:00hrs. Chris had to lift his tents because he wouldn't be coming back, but Christiane and I were spending another night there so didn't quite have the same pressure. Regardless, Chris was off out of the camp site before me. Last thing I did before driving off was to give Christiane her umbrella - a very good move! Arriving at the campus and parking at the roadside the heavens opened up and the rain poured down. I got changed and prepared inside the car while watching many others outside getting soaked and inevitably cold as a result. Eventually the rain subsided just before heading off to the start. Chris was parked across the road so we met up there. I'd added a base layer and and waterproof plus had waterproof foot covers.  My telephone went into a waterproof pouch. Once again I'd forgotten to fill the water-bottles! Unbelievable! Luckily there was enough water in the car to fill the bottles - some of it gaseous water - but that's not a problem. At the start we both filed into the priority starting pen and were glad not to have been waiting there like some for the last hour. Despite there being almost 2500 at the start we managed to bump into both Jacques Mat and Richard Pellicier from our own cycling clubs. Lesley and Emily were starting unofficially as Emily is still too young to race officially. They were intending to do the short 85km course. Chris and I were aiming for the long 158km course and Jacques and Richard were going for the middle one. You can change course during the race at certain bifurcation points so nothing was fixed definitively.

The Race
This year's start was a new formula - with the first descent from the campus "neutralised". Annoyingly they didn't let all the priority numbers through before they opened the gates for everyone else. Regardless we were still quite close to the front and we were very grateful that the start was neutralised because the road was partially flooded and even this gentle descent was dangerous with brakes not working properly - especially for those with carbon rimmed wheels. One kilometre or so further on, at the base of the first climb - the Col de la Gineste (heading back to Cassis) - we all had to regroup and stop along the road for a second official start. Chris and I climbed the kerb to move much further up to the front - but Chris remarked that we had managed to ride over some broken glass (which probably cost him badly later on)! Within a few minutes the start gun went off and we were on our way - straight into the climb. I had to remember to start both my Garmin on the handlebars and the Smartphone GPS app with the handsfree button. I had earphones on - just one inserted - to listen to both distance/time feedback and also music. The official race time was definitely 30 seconds too much according to my Garmin. Don't know how they can generate those inaccuracies - their clocks can't be synced properly.

The first climb was horrible because we were not warmed up at all and the peloton predictably set off like a rocket. Some of the others had already climbed some of this earlier to warm up but would have paid the price of being caught in the torrential rain.

Within minutes, despite heavy legs, my heart rate was 170 bpm. I'd had a break of two full days from cycling due to a serious need for recovery so starting a climb like this from a cold start was not a pleasant feeling. Chris was effectively pacing me at this stage and I just stayed on his tail. I did notice however that Chris doesn't maintain a steady pace - he has a tendency to accelerate then back off again - which is a bit tiring. I much prefer a constant pace and effort. Changes of pace hurt! It was fully predictable that starting with the front runners it was going to be a fight to stay with those around us - and that was the whole point of the exercise. You stay with the fastest that you can manage to stay with. Time lost at a slow start is never recovered - even if you think that you are conserving energy. Much is gained by mucking in with a fast peloton. Richard for example is a faster rider than me - especially on climbs - but due to starting slightly further back it took him around 45 minutes to catch up. If anyone has a mishap - puncture, cramp, long pit stop, fall, pause to wait for someone etc. - you generally never see them again, unless they are at a completely different performance level. At the top of the Col de la Gineste there is a long plateau with various dips and rises but it is fast because it is mainly descending. Chris, being prudent, slowed down a bit on the wet descent so I pulled ahead slightly. The descent to Cassis would be immediately followed by a steep climb back out of the hollow where the pretty port was situated. This second climb is steep and when Chris caught up on me he opened a gap of about 100m. I was going though my usual difficulty in adapting to big changes of rhythm - switching  from steep descending to steep climbing. Several others started to overtake me when I recovered my legs and wits and then just stepped on the gas. One burst of power was enough to close the 100m gap even though it was in the middle of the climb and my heart was now up to 174 bpm. From there we stuck together for another descent and then the first proper long climb of the day. Half way though this climb Richard caught up from behind and was soon leading our small peloton - stretching it out - and then snapping it into bits. I could see up ahead that Richard had become Chris's "hare" - as Chris had been mine up until now. There was no way I was going to join him on that adventure - feeling nauseous from lactic acid already. My head was now starting to feel woolly too from all the lactic acid - or whatever it really is that causes those disorienting effects. For me there is a clear signal there to "back off. 

There is always a price to pay for redlining too long. I was only able to sustain those levels during the first half hour then a reduced level until two hours into the race and then it became a struggle to just maintain a good cardiac throughput. After the two hour mark the only other time my heart reached 170 bpm was in the final uphill sprint for the finish line. The progressive decline in cardiac performance was totally in line with overcooking it at the start. Still it was satisfying to hear on the audio feedback that the 30km mark had passed at exactly 1 hour despite this being well into the 3rd climb of the day.

Mistral Full Force!
Around 1hr 20mins into the race and at the start of a long steep descent it started to bucket down with rain again. This time we were all drenched and freezing even at only 1,300ft altitude. The infamous Mistral wind had picked up too and so there was no escape and no mercy.  The Mistral rips down though the centre of France from the North West to Marseille in the South East driven by a cyclonic weather system in the North East and anti-cyclone in the South West (Spain). The cyclone turns anti-clockwise and the anti-cyclone rotates clockwise - the two combining together to blast right down towards Marseilles. The weather had been perfect for weeks right up until the day of the race and then we were hit with the full force of the Mistral weather system. Luckily the first front to come though with the lightning and rain is a warm front or we would have been in even more trouble. The following day the wind actually blew us off our feet and it was cold even at sea level. The race would have been a disaster had it been just one day later.

Decision - Long Course or Middle Course
During that descent, with poorly functioning brakes and bad visibility, freezing rain and accumulating cold I decided to follow my backup plan to switch to the middle course. Chris had telephoned me before the start of the race when sitting in his car during the downpour and even talked about not starting. I pointed out that we were allowed to change course and so could opt for a short one if the weather was too miserable. I think that most people did because 1221 did the shortest course and only 214 (Chris included) did the long one. I couldn't even use sunglasses for eye protection because of the water coming off the tyres of other riders. It was better just to get all the road grit directly on your face, head and in your eyes than be blinded by your glasses. Another consideration for me was the fuzziness in my head after starting too fast. I didn't want to really overdo it and the middle course seemed like the right compromise. It was with a sense of regret however that I turned towards the middle course at the appropriate bifurcation near the 55km mark (Gémenos) - but that regret didn't last long and eventually the decision proved to be a wise one for me.

Dramatically Thinned Field
The first bifurcation for the short course had been at 50km (Aubagne) and after the second bifurcation the field I was participating in had suddenly dropped from 2383 to a total of 440. In other words, instead of being surrounded by constant possibilities for working partners there was suddenly almost nobody. Most of the involvement with others up until this point had been a bit of a blur due to the fast turnover of individuals, but now the nature of the race would change. First of all there was a long section of flats and I ended up pulling a small peloton along, just as I'd been doing shortly before the second bifurcation. I knew that this wasn't wise and sure enough when we slammed into the next section of short but seriously steep climbs I was dropped like a sack of potatoes. There was a long hilly section of about 10km with climbs so steep that I'd have to drop right down to bottom gear and stand up on the pedals just to stay on the bike, then steep narrow winding descents. For about 5km I wasn't able to catch the peloton of five others, but eventually I recovered from the efforts on the flat section and was able to bridge the gap. The group was caught due to fast descending but there was a scary moment when on a sharp bend at a junction my front wheel drifted slightly on the wet road. I'd been forced to brake hard due to arriving at the sharp junction at high speed following a descent and had just a very slight pressure on the front brake later than I'd normally have chosen. Fortunately it was only a tiny pressure on the brake and not enough to cause an accident. This manoeuvre not only allowed me to catch the group but to overtake them and leave them all behind on the next climb. They soon caught up and for the rest of the section we worked together and then hit the big climb of the day as one group. This climb to the Col de l'Espigoulier was about 12km long and going up to 2332ft. Although the gradient was not all that steep it did mean keeping a good speed and high work rate. Some other riders caught us from behind and stepped up the pace. This time I had to accept that I couldn't stay with the group and settled into my own pace. Most of the climb I'd have to do on my own so I put both my earphones in and decided to listen to some music at least. It became colder again as the altitude increased and eventually we were directly inside the clouds. The fact was that I was about to cover most of the remaining 60km almost as a solo time trial with the nasty Mistral wind to deal with on the return leg. I knew that there would be others coming up from behind but as long as my energy levels were reasonable there was no reason to slow down. I had a good pace, just not quite as good as the faster guys I was along with at the moment. On the way up this climb there was a lonely outpost of a refreshment stand and I had time to organise my water bottle before stopping there for a minute to get a single refill. I drank a cup of Coke and ate a half banana while my bottle was filled and my two Isostar tablets added for me. I'd eaten a gel further back when I'd caught up with the small group but it had been a real challenge due to the narrow twisting roads. It had taken about 5 minutes to get the contents of the gel into my mouth. I'd also eaten a few almond based energy cubes to try to top up along the way. Reaching the top it was cold and miserable so it reassured me that it was the correct choice to settle for the middle course. I'd been suffering a sore back for some time as well so that wasn't much fun either. Prior to the back hurting there had been a sore stomach, but fortunately that didn't last for a long time. The back was more of an issue but oddly that cleared up too before the final climbs of the day. The only issue that eventually remained with me was tendinitis in the left foot. The peroneus brevis insertional tendinitis had returned - confirming that this is caused by cycling not running.

Way Home
Descending the other side of the col it was steep, fast, wide and twisty. Today it was also wet so it was not possible to go fast. There were not many others visible at all but about half way down someone overtook me quite fast. I'm quite a good descender even in the wet but this guy was moving. What caught my attention was that his line was not very good and that despite his high speed he lost a lot of time on the actual turns and I would catch him up again without trying. His turns were too round and he didn't cut in close to the apex to increase his effective turn radius. Eventually he went into a turn and was just disappearing from view when I saw his back wheel go from beneath him and he hit the deck. There had been quite a few others on the ground at various bends during the day but this was the first time I'd seen someone actually losing it. Luckily he jumped straight back up and as I went past acknowledged that he was OK. I just continued the descent back towards Gémenos on the long solo effort. At some point back on the flats the wind was starting to cut into my speed and strength when someone overtook me very strongly. I stood up on the pedals and accelerated after him to get shelter on his wheel. After recovering and noticing that he was looking behind to try to signal me to do a turn ahead I stepped on the gas and got in front. Not only was I only capable of staying in front for about a minute at 40kph into the wind but this was all he needed to recover himself and take over again. This continued for several kilometers and pushed up my flagging heart rate once again. There was a peloton ahead which we were closing in on and there wasn't far to go when I just couldn't keep up the pace any more. I think that he accelerated in fact and he was quickly up with the other peloton but I only lost ground from there on. It wouldn't have made much difference because we were soon about to come across some long sections of climbing heading back towards the coast and I'd have lost the peloton there anyway. Once again I was climbing alone and the rain came down in buckets again. I had a waterproof jacket with me but had failed to organise putting the thing on and was soaked to the skin anyway so couldn't see much point in using it now - but it might have kept the wind off me to some extent. The weather was confusing though and it was generally just being wet that caused the chilling. Shortly before reaching the top of the climbs I was joined by a small peloton from behind and was able to hold on to them. This helped enormously because after the following descent there was a long flat section into the wind and so being in a group brought the speed up to a good level and we stayed together all the way into Cassis for the last time.

Last Col
The final col would once again be the Col de la Gineste. Rising up from Cassis it is steep to begin with and I was immediately dumped again. My speed was still respectable but just not as fast as the others. I hadn't cracked but now the Mistral was blasting downhill directly face on and I felt the strength rapidly draining away. This was to be a long 9km climb. One strong athletic guy in dark grey passed me and I couldn't even try to get on his tail. This was repeated by another in white and blue moments later. Eventually another strong rider wearing the name of the Avignon de Pontet Triathlon club came charging past me but somehow I accelerated and got in behind him for protection from the wind. I guess I'd gone through my usual slow transition from flats to steep climbing and was now able to use my legs once more. After a few minutes the protection allowed me to recover more strength and it was not difficult to stay on his wheel. As the kilometres wore on the two who had passed me earlier on began to crack and we reeled them in and overtook them with a couple of kilometres to go to the summit. They managed to hang on close by and when an even faster rider shot by close to the summit I let my triathlete go after him and eased off for the final hundred meters or so - only to be rapidly caught up in a few seconds by both "grey" and "white and blue". The descent back down towards the start was uninspired, perhaps to the strong frontal wind. The others continued to pull away from me. I had no desire to go after them and needed to recover from the really hard climb where I'd gone way beyond my expectations and not lost any time. Nearer the bottom of the climb someone shot by me and I accelerated again and caught his slipstream. He rapidly reeled in the others against the wind and I just tucked into an aerodynamic shape to profit from it. We hit the climb back up to the university and the race was on again. Two or three who were behind me charged ahead and I found myself alone but going uphill at over 30kph and holding it steady. "White and blue" never caught me again and I saw one guy up ahead - it looked like the guy who had fallen earlier and who had just caught up with me again at the bottom of this final climb - his legs were tying up on him though he was about 200m ahead. On the final uphill section of the race to the finish line I went after him and he was looking behind and could see me coming. He managed to resist and held me off by about 3 metres at the finish line. Other than that he was wasted. My legs were painful getting off the bike and I was glad that it was over. It was my best result of the year outside of individual hill climbs. I came 13th out of 55 in the age category and 153rd overall out of 440 on the middle course.

Harrop Puncture Epidemic
Chris had stuck to his plan to do the long course but suffered a puncture and lost about 15 minutes with difficulties in fixing it. He was at the top of a col when it happened and was frozen. Lesley had two punctures and ended up running barefoot in the torrential rain looking for cover and assistance. Luckily someone helped her both times - the second being someone who had abandoned the race anyway due to the weather. Emily apparently enjoyed the little bit she had been able to do despite having to cut short and only do the 50km trail in the end. Christiane sat all morning on the beach under her umbrella playing a low D whistle and harmonica wishing she was somewhere else.

(Middle Course)
1st place      03:41:30   33.9 kph
Me  153rd   04:26:57   28.1 kph (13th out of 55 in Age Category)
Last 440th   06:46:15   18.5 kph
(Note: my own recorded time was 04:26:16)

Starters:      Total 2383
Finishers:    Total 1875
Short Course      1221
Middle Course     440
Long Course        214

After Race
The food wasn't too bad after the race - it was just edible. I felt wasted - fuzzy head - painful legs and a general tiredness.  I saw Chris arrive after I'd already changed clothes and eaten and that made me even happier not to have stuck with the long course.

Christiane and I later looked for a better restaurant to eat in Cassis and found an excellent one in a side street - great quality and not over priced. We were even lucky to have booked because when we went back to eat there it was literally booked out. Sleeping was better because it was much quieter but during the night the Mistral picked up even stronger and the wind did a good job of keeping us awake as it shook the trees around us and battered the walls of the tent. The 35 euro popup Decathlon tent did incredibly well and resisted all the elements without a hiccup. We got up early in the morning - around 6:45hrs and packed everything into the car to then go and get breakfast at the port. In the café the newspapers were there and the results of the race were to my amazement already published in full - so that made for some unexpected entertainment. After breakfast and settling up the account at the camp site we decided to take advantage of the bit of sun that was shining through and explore the peninsula that Cassis is part of. This includes a famous trail called Les Calanques (origin Corsican for "inlet") The area had been a source of calcium for industry until 1981 and is now a protected nature site. The inlet is populated with hundreds of parked boats now as an inlet marina and all the traditional industries have vanished. They had included tanneries, quarries, lead production and hosts of other things. The rock is quite special and the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York is made from Cassis rock. We also learned that the cliffs opposite at 394m vertical are the highest coastal cliffs in Europe and the area of the bay is where Saint Exupéry lost his life crashing his reconnaissance plane "The Little Prince" in 1944.  We stopped for a drink at a small bar/cafe and witnessed a Canadair firefighting seaplane scooping up water in the bay area without actually landing on the water. It had to come in very close to land due to the waves caused by the Mistral. The wind had now picked up so much that we were blown off our feet by a strong gust and it was clear that if the race had been on this day it would have been a disaster. Those winds would have been completely unmanageable at altitude.

The adventure still wasn't over because we ended up driving home through torrential rain and high winds. I had the voice switched off on the GPS and missed a turn off and ended up on the autoroute for Gap. To our horror this was not only the wrong direction but from start to end of this autoroute there was absolutely no way to get off it. It's one section of 40km and there are no exits anywhere! We didn't lose a lot of time though because it was fast and so was our escape route back through the hills to get us back on track. When we came past the "Beach Road" Snack Bar again and Mont Aguille we were astonished to see that it was plastered with snow. In fact at home all the hills were plastered with snow at altitude. One day later the weather would be back to clam, sunny and warm. That's the third time this year that the weather has specifically singled out race day to do its worst. We're getting used to it now.

Body weight is now down to between 67.5 and 68 kg. That certainly improves performance. Next year I don't want to spend all summer fighting the damage done over the winter by re-gaining tons of fat. This will remain my upper weight limit from now on - no more compromise!

The hardest aspect of this race for me was in maintaining mental focus. This wasn't a psychological issue it was due to excessive lactic acid production. My body wasn't processing it fast enough and so it made thinking difficult. This seems to imply that more power and speed training is needed and that perhaps I've focused too much endurance work during the summer. My best performances are on short powerful climbs but that's probably just because it suits my body composition better than pure endurance. It still needs proper training. Lack of concentration on pedalling technique caused the foot tendinitis to return quite severely. Worst of all was the impossibility of thinking clearly at road junctions. The management of the course was absolutely superb with controllers and police covering every possible incorrect exit point and blocking the traffic. Even with all of this extremely clear indication going on it was still hard to deal with anything where awareness was required. The feeling is similar to hypothermia where the brain just stops working properly. I was able to keep focus on the overall effort level and on bringing the work towards the core muscles - but this was the minimum required for survival at this pace.

During the final climb back over the Col de la Gineste I had to ask myself what was it that made the difference when I used the triathlete for pacing. Much of the time I didn't even slipstream, I was more off to his side. Without him though I'd have slumped. I'd often wondered why pros use pacers on steep climbs when drafting isn't possible. It became obvious to me now that the real issue is mental. When you are tired or trying to conserve energy you simply can't do a lot of mental work. Thinking takes energy. Organising takes energy. The pacer sets a rhythm and a work rate. He fights to maintain constancy. All you have to do is stick with him and narrow your focus internally - resting the mind while strengthening its focus - not worrying about anything else. It's all about information and organisation.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Broken Wheel Hub Component

Phew - that was lucky! Only 18 Euros for a replacement part and the wheel is OK. The wheel is a Mavic R SYS SLR. This is the broken bit below with a missing section.The bearings were unaffected and neither was any other part of the wheel. I tightened two spokes about a quarter of a turn with a special key and then they were as solid as the others.

I guess the scary thing about wheels if they start to have faults is that they could get you killed. I'll be more attentive in future. The "creak" however has not gone away at all. All the bolts on the chainwheel have been checked. Latest thing I spotted is that the rear dérailleur is not aligned properly - but oddly the actual hanger from the bike looks fine. I'll get Canyon to look at this image and see what they advise.

Leaving for Marseilles in the morning and the "Bosses des 13" race - looking forwards to it but the weather is not going to be great Mistral wind I believe.

Training ride yesterday legs were tired and there was no power so I stopped halfway through. The day before I climbed up to Peisey Nancroix as a hard time trial to push up my heart rate and work on power - so the legs just hadn't recovered - even a short but very hard climb takes a while to recover from completely. That was Wednesday and with the lighter ride yesterday - Thursday - the legs should be fine for racing on Sunday with two days of complete rest between. Part of the tiredness comes from starting up the running again. Good news is that weight is now down to 68Kg (from 73Kg back in June) This time I've decided that 68kg will be the maximum I ever allow my body to reach in future. It feels so much better to be this weight and that will only improve as more weight goes.

(Following Spring I dismantle the hub myself and find that the technician has reassembled the hub incorrectly. He put in three clips when the ring can only hold two and this effectively stops the ring from being secured in place - it was therefore not secure and not acting as a compression ring. Lucky the wheel didn't collapse or he'd be in court! The lesson is to do it yourself - never pay a technician. I replaced the ring clips with new ones myself but before that I trued the wheel - the spokes having left hand threads - with the compression ring out)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Creak well and truly located!

Found out what the creaking was already! The rear wheel bearing has broken open - after only 9000km on a wheel costing £800!!!!!!! Left it in a bike shop for them to have a look at it overnight. I only spotted it because of cleaning the bike prior to a workout - they always say this is one reason you should clean the bike after every ride.

Ended up going for a ride on the mountian bike but my energy levels were too low. Still managed 255 Watts on one section of climb but my heart rate wouldn't go up. Kept the workout short and returned to base. Not experiencing any real d.o.m.s. from the last run a couple of days ago - so that's a great sign, but legs are still a bit tired from the really hard session on Saturday up to Notre dame du Pré - best to let them recover properly - after all that's how they get stronger.

(The following Spring I find that one of the pedal cranks is not properly tight - so the creak probably actually came from there. I do my own maintenance now and have bought the required tools!)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Focused Running

Second run since returning to "barefoot" running again. It took a week for my calf muscles to recover from the first run and I walked around semi crippled all the time. It's obviously going to take years for the calves to adapt properly. On the bright side, when I ran on the heels with thick running shoes and threw my feet out in front, the effect of the first few runs was devastating for the whole legs not just the calves. At least with only the calves affected it has no effect on cycling performance - so both activities can cross over easily.

Slow and Focused
Just ran slowly and focused on good form today. I believe that it's the first time I've run on a trail with the Vibram Five Fingers and not once had an uncomfortable "underfoot moment". The timing for good mechanics is incredibly fine and subtle. There is very small fraction of a second on the outside of the ball of the foot before the rest of the ball makes contact then the foot sinks down towards the heel. It is so easy to get this in the wrong order without realising it - you have to stay focused and re-focused continually. Going downhill is especially tricky because you want to reach out ahead and the moment you do that you land on the outside on the mid-foot instead but won't even notice it - until one of those nasty "underfoot moments" on a gravel chip or something. It seems that if you make sure that the foot contacts below the body then the foot protects itself naturally.

Downhill Technique
It's easy to think that going downhill perhaps it would be fine to land on the heel or at least mid-foot because you need to brake somehow. Not so!  Make sure the foot lands below you in exactly the same way - the same order of connection with the ground, but extend the reach of the stride slightly further behind the body prolonging the support. This support just seems to slow down the "free-fall" from gravity - so perhaps this means that the supporting leg progressively absorbs the excess energy in the descent instead of the impact from a foot stretched ahead on a straight leg.

Reebok Ad
Just saw the Reebok TV publicity for their "Zigtech" shoe soles. The screen shows hundreds of animated soles happily bouncing around - each one landing on the heel and pushing off the forefoot. The message is clear that they expect you to run on your heels!

Gait Analysis
It's a scary thought when you consider that some high tech running shops provide video gait analysis and custom orthotics - backed by medical specialists - yet they get you to run on your heels in your Nikes and they stand there knowledgeably telling you why you need to spend £150 for shoe inserts! What a bunch of highly trained numpties.

Speed and Power

Speed and Power
Excellent training session yesterday. If anything a good training session is when you can enjoy high energy levels the whole way.

2hr 21min for a climbing circuit that took 2hr 56min back in April. Working on speed and power just now. The long training sessions during the start and middle of the season just left me tired all the time. I'm sure that they built up some stamina too, but I'm not sure how much. Now that the focus is on shorter harder sessions I'm able to recover to strong energy levels. A good test is the second climb on this circuit - from Moutiers to Notre Dame du Pré. It's long, steep and unrelenting with 2625ft of climbing. If you are a little bit tired mentally then it is a torture going up there. You just want it to be over and become almost annoyed by the endless switchbacks and steep sections that seem to go on forever. It becomes a real slog. When your energy levels are good it's totally different - hard and challenging but not demoralising. Yesterday I felt good all the way setting another PB time by 7 minutes. The climbs were at high heart rates - between 155 and 170 and the overall workout was hard enough to wipe me out in the evening and to make sleeping slightly uncomfortable - just like after a long race. This makes me think that this high intensity training is probably the best preparation for racing at the moment - especially as there is no deep tiredness building up. I've searched the internet for information on how to properly build up endurance but there is astonishingly little information available. 

During the session I made a point of sprinting up the steepest sections - working on power output. The first climb up to above Hautecoeur was done in 4th gear but most of the steeper second climb was in 3rd. After sprinting it's hard to settle back into a climbing rhythm with the legs hurting and heart pumping, but just focusing on the core muscles and relaxing the legs it's astonishing how quickly things settle down. The "shear" mechanism of pivoting on the hips and not centred on the spine (described in previous post) is the key to making this work. Even when you feel emptied you can keep up a good power level.

Apples and Carrots
Body weight is now down to 68kg and this makes a big difference. I just stopped eating biscuits, bread, cakes and sweets and after being stuck seemingly permanently at 69kg the weight started to drop again. Giant raw carrots, apples, bananas etc. might not be as satisfying as sugary and fatty biscuits - but they fill you up eventually. Weight just drops off. Yesterday's workout was around 3000 calories - it's almost impossible to eat enough carrots and apples to replace that - so weight loss is guaranteed.

Energy Levels
The issue of energy levels is interesting. I got stuck trying to understand exactly what "energy" is. The more you look at it the more you realise that nobody defines it the same way - not even scientists. It's another elusive issue like "time" which everyone thinks they understand but nobody actually does. Anyway, I think that I have a useful answer that explains why "energy" both exists and doesn't exist at the same time - but I'll write about that properly in another post soon.

Creak Creak
My bike is starting to creak when climbing. Chris's does the same and drives him nuts but even the bike shop can't locate the problem. The Canyon has done 9000km (mostly climbing) now without the bearings being serviced so it's probably about time to have a look at all of this. I like to do my own servicing where possible - but sealed bearings are not always ideal to experiment with and special tools are often required. The advantage with doing your own mechanics is that you learn something about your equipment every time. Unfortunately I did mess up my front suspension forks on the mountianbike by doing this and it took years to sort them out. I'll bet I can get rid of my creak before Chris though.

Flèche d'Or

Letter from Rodion Zaitsev:

Two winters ago still aged only 10, I achieved the level of "Fleche d'Or" in giant slalom racing in France.

I have skied in France most years since starting skiing at age 4, but have only skied for a few weeks each year so reaching a good level in racing is something that I'm very proud of. 

"Fleche d'Or" means "Golden Arrow" in English. This is the top level recognised by the French educational system. The test uses elite racers who are nationally calibrated at the beginning of each season and they set the required pace for the race. For this reason the results are linked to international racing standards. The testing is very accurate and the standard is very high. The race test is open to all ages and all skiers. Ski instructors use the race to gain practice and to check their level.

Racing is a recognised part of professional ski teaching in Europe and French based instructors must also pass a racing test called the European Speed Test.


I have always had the same teacher in France and was able to progress quickly. He taught me that good technique is the key to enjoying skiing at all levels. Ian is English speaking and comes from Scotland - he cannot speak Russian so I have always spoken to him in English. Each morning I'd say to him first thing, "When do we go to the race course?". Time passes very quickly in the race course because there is a lot to think about and a lot to learn, plus it's a lot of fun.

My mother and father both ski. My father is a good athlete and loves to play ice hockey and football every week. My mother is also a good athlete but sometimes loses her confidence. When she is fit and confident she skis very well and enjoys skiing off piste. We all ski together off-piste but always with our instructor for safety. Timothy, my little brother is also learning how to ski and was able to ski off-piste in his first week.

My instructor explained that racing is difficult at 10 years old because it's very hard to go fast. When you are small and light the air slows you down easily. I often have to skate long distances on the flat when we are off piste and the adults leave me behind. The only way to achieve the Felche d'Or was to have very good technique. My instructor does not teach the same way as normal ski school. He is very scientific. One of the first things he taught me was that I shouldn't try to stay in balance. Skis work by trying to fall over. This took me a while to learn because I didn't believe it to begin with and found it difficult to let myself do it. The funny thing is that the more that you try to fall over the better you ski. The ski always picks you back up - that's what it's designed to do. I learned that my job was to fall over and the ski's job was to bring me up. It works. Most people think that they have to try to stay upright and not fall over. We spent a lot of time working on skating though the whole turn and preventing unwanted rotation. Learning "leg retraction" also helped me to go faster. Sometimes you have to push up through the end of a turn and other times the opposite (retract). I just go by feel. The same things work off-piste and in the bumps. Last year we spent a lot of time in the bumps and I learned to be able to control the turn using either edge of my ski. In bumps we keep the feet together and in the race course feet apart - this is connected to which edge of the ski we are using. Bumps skiing helps to get a better feeling so that you know what to do with your legs in a race course. I've learned how to stay soft with my legs and not "resist" with a lot of unnecessary tension. The short turns in the bumps also helps to learn to separate the upper from the lower body. I could go faster because I'm still not able to hit the poles in the race course - they would slow me down too much at my weight - so I take a longer line. 

I enjoy everything about skiing because it is fun and exciting but not too dangerous. I like how I can understand what I'm doing and work out how to change things. When my coach tells me something new I can usually do it straight away because it is building on everything else.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

La Plagne PB

Suffering from severe calf d.o.m.s. today from having started running again. I knew that would be the case having launched straight into a full 8km run at normal speeds. It's always two days after the run that the pains reach their worst - making it really difficult to even walk.

Despite the discouraging leg pains I decided to ride up to La Plagne ski station for the first time this year. It's a tough climb ascending rapidly from 600m at the Isère river to 2000 m at the ski resort - over a relatively short distance of 17.5km. For example, the same starting point to Val d'Isère would be about 45km and only goes up to 1800m. To my surprise there was no pain at all from the calves while cycling and I'd recovered my energy levels completely from last week's really low point - back up to full power. In fact, despite using nasal breathing for the first 45 minutes I ended up with a personal best time, beating the previous time set last year by almost 3 minutes - now at 01hr 19min 56secs. Last year I really wanted to break the 1hr 20min barrier but didn't make it. That's starting from the crossing of the Isère river - the lowest point before climbing up through Macot.

Be low 69kg for the first time this year - 68.6kg this morning. No amount of exercise was getting the weight off and the long distance training was giving me sugar cravings that seemed impossible to ignore. Now I'm only eating fruit and zero fat yoghurt for desert and snacks - plus the odd raw carrot if the munchies come on. This is definitely a better nutrition and the weight is shifting at last. Basically, exercise in not enough - you need to avoid rich food too. Being tired from intense training doesn't help though - it makes control over eating very tricky. My personal aim should be to maintain this fitness permanently and not to have to lose weight or make a massive surge on training to generate stamina and endurance. Winter will be a real test this year - but it's got to be a top priority this time.

Another link to Skiing
During the climb I was thinking about how to tackle the issue of which edge of the foot the pressure should be on - with my natural tendency to end up on the (damaging) outside edge. It struck me that pulling inwards with the adductor muscles on the inside of the legs might work and sure enough it did. Once again, this is exactly what has to be done in skiing to align the leg over the inside edge of the foot (no matter which edge of the ski you are using - but we won't get into that here). I was able to draw on my skiing experience to employ this all the way up the climb and noticed a better and more constant pressure on the pedals. I have to play with this a bit more but it looks like an additional skill that needs to be worked on.

Core Muscles
The main focus on the climb was on "core" issues. Using the core muscles (which include adductors) and relaxing the extremities. This felt very good. Meanwhile I worked on improving breathing quality - not quantity - by using the diaphragm to breathe - forcing out with the abdomen and letting the lower ribs expand automatically on breathing in. I kept the breathing shallow, efficient and fully nasal for as long as possible. This didn't interfere with working with the core muscles for pulling and pushing on the pedals. When walking yesterday with Christiane it was clear that she didn't understand how to use the pelvis and core muscles because her entire bottom was pivoting around on her spine - like a catwalk model - despite having correct pelvic tilt. In an effort to explain I visualised it all slightly differently. Imagine that the pivot point is not the spine but is the top of the femur of the leg supporting you. The leg which is behind will swing forward with the pelvis pivoting around this point. This feels more like a back and forth "translation" of the heads of the femurs - not a rotation. Any rotation at the hips or spine are then secondary - they are effects not causes. "Translation" is a mathematical term for a displacement that is not a rotation. The difference might sound to be subtle but it worked immediately for Christiane. Today I felt this also on the bike. It clarified even better how the core muscles need to be accessed for greater efficiency.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Summer Fruit Trail

In early Spring I took a lot of photos of the amazing colour display of the Alpine flowers - but now it's time for the fruit to ripen. Today when out walking I took the camera on the same trail as in Springtime.


Why Midfoot landing is Wrong in Running

Finally back to running again. At long last the tendinitis on the left foot is starting to calm down - mainly through finally identifying the cause from cycling/pedalling technique. The running was still potentially a problem though. Even walking on the mountain a few days ago had occasionally been painful, but the last cycling workout had not aggravated the injury, seemingly identifying and removing the real cause of the injury. 

There is a lot of talk about "midfoot" landing in running - that is advocated in ChiRunning and often scientific reports claim that elite runners mainly land midfoot. In ChiRunning the target landing site is just in front of the heel. Well, the only way that you can get anything to make first contact with the ground somewhere between the heel and the forefoot is to roll the foot outwards onto the outside edge (supinate) and land on the outside edge of the foot. This way you certainly do land midfoot - but right over the top of the 5th Metatarsal joint - at the insertion of the peroneus brevis tendon! In my particular case I wasn't trying to land midfoot, I was trying to land on the ball of the foot, but on the outside part of the ball of the foot, following the advice of Gordon Pirie's book Running Fast and Injury Free. Pirie advocates having the feet land one in front of the other instead of hip width apart. This also encourages landing on a supinated foot. In my case I wasn't able to stop myself from landing midfoot and so continued to strain the peroneus brevis tendon. Further analysis made it clear that the real reason for the error in my case was that that my foot was still landing slightly too far ahead of the body (old cushioned heels habit). By making sure that the foot landed directly below the body and lengthening the stride behind the body instead (with pelvis involved) I was able to completely avoid landing midfoot and accurately land on the outside portion of the ball of the foot. Yesterday, I returned to running painlessly and was able to cover 8km in 40mins without once hurting the foot. Only a week ago I was still in significant pain from the effects of cycling on this injury.
Basically the cure for the problem has been to increase awareness and develop better technique in both running and cycling. In the process of doing so I can now confirm that "midfoot" landing in running is categorically WRONG.

Had I rested up and sought a standard medical solution for the problem - I'm sure that I'd never have managed to move ahead like this.

Used Google "MyTracks" app for running yesterday because Endomondo crashed and I didn't want to wait for a system re-boot which is the only way to recover from that problem. MyTracks is useless though - the distance and hence the speed is way off because they have no position filtering. What a stupid piece of software! The Garmin forerunner 305 had stuck itself in MultiSport mode and it was impossible to find a way out of it. It's such a shame to always have excellent hardware but cr*p software in everything.

(Update: Time showed me that the foot pain was caused cycling and that midfoot striking is not wrong - in fact it's probably safer and more efficient than forefoot striking.)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Tough Week

The Italian border - top of the Col de Petit St Bernard. This was meant to be followed by a loop around Col St Carlos in Italy before returning back here on the way home. At this point, with a body simply not cooperating I just gave up, went into a friendly café, bought a packet of crisps and a coffee and sat outside on the terrace sheltered from the wind howling over the col (coming from Italy on the left). When you just don't have the legs or the head for it - it's best to go home and save it for another day.

The Italian side of the pass was immersed in thick cloud. This is classic - the Aosta valley leading to Mont Blanc filled with cloud - overflowing into a sunny Tarantaise valley in France. Each valley has it's own particular micro climate in the high Alpine area. Perhaps part of my attraction to the Italian side (Other than real Italian hot chocolate) is that this was an ancient Celtic region. The Celtic connection is still celebrated today with a Celtic Festival at the start of each July at the foot of the Mont Blanc glaciers in Val Veny.

In the evening I sat here in the mist from the flooded Isère river, sharing a great pizza with Christianne. It's the best pizza I've tasted in a decade. This air temperature was still warm despite the wet.

Slow Recovery
For some strange reason I'm having great difficulty recovery from last week's race. Chris had the same feeling of empty legs well into the week also - so that at least encourages me that it's perhaps not me falling apart. I think the race was just really hard. During the week I only had three swimming sessions, and two bike rides including this one - and still feel dead. I'm also very sensitive to weather changes - when the weather degrades so does my energy level. There is some theory that this has to do with electricity and ions in the air. Perhaps there is something in that. I can tell on waking, without looking out in the morning if the weather has degraded or not. There is also a theory that walking barefoot connects us electrically with the earth - and that this has a balancing effect on body acidity. Considering that every household has a direct "earth" connection for their mains supply then perhaps we should be giving such apparent "crank" ideas a little more consideration.

Balancing Diet
I've considerably changed my diet in the past week too so there is a chance that this is playing a role. The pizza was a treat for having removed most stodgy food from the menu all week - no biscuits, no sweets, reduced sugar, fat, refined products and stodge in general. When still hungry after a meal I'd eat a fruit or a couple of carrots. Perhaps the body takes a while to adapt to lower sugar levels. This summer has been so physically hard with long endurance workouts that I've found it impossible to balance my diet intelligently. The training would cause cravings for sugar that I'd easily submit to.

Cycling Technique (Related to Skiing & Running)
The tendinitis in the left foot continues but more clues are emerging as to what the underlying cause might be. When Graeme Obree broke the world record for the hour for the first time, he did it on a bike that he built himself - famously - from washing machine parts. Specifically, he used a washing machine bearing for the bottom bracket. His reason for doing this was because he felt that the standard bottom bracket was far too wide, placing the feet too far apart for optimal power and efficiency. The washing machine bearing was much narrower and so he used it and built a frame around it.

On today's climb I looked at my feet and was amazed to realise that they are much further than "hip width" apart. Part of this is due to my placing the cleats towards the inside of the shoes to give more heel clearance against the frame and to exploit the generous "float" that the Speedplay pedals permit - allowing for variation of the angle of the foot on the pedal and so reducing knee stress. I'd also placed the cleat there to try to shift pressure towards the inside edge of the foot. When skiing, before you get full pressure on one leg, you have to stack up your bones - femur, pelvis, spine - to specifically get the support leg directly below your centre of mass. I noticed that when getting tired on the bike, or when pushing a big gear and remaining seated, I'd pull my leg under my centre of mass in the same way prior to pushing hard. If pushing with the left leg, I'd pull the bike slightly to the right and move my Centre of Mass (CM) slightly left, aligning the CM directly over the pedal. With the bike (and hence the pedal) tilted slightly down to the right, this would place pressure directly on the outside edge of my left foot - where the tendinitis is. Basically, I'm trying to get the foot under the body - exactly as Obree did with his modification to bike design.

The accumulative effect of doing this both seated and standing on the pedals has produced the tendinitis. Tighter and more rigid carbon shoes made the problem worse. The problem was increased by running "barefoot" using a midfoot landing with the foot supinating (on the outside edge). During running I wasn't aware enough to avoid landing on the outside edge of the foot instead of the outside part of the ball of the foot. In fact this appears to be the only way to achieve a true "midfoot" landing and for me it proves the "midfoot" theory in running to be wrong. I guess the injury and pain are all part of feedback and the learning process. Likewise, when running the foot landing below the body comes very close to the centre line - even closer than "hip width" (Ref: Gordon Pirie) Obree, also remarked than the ideal cycling set up was closer that hip width. This is also true for much of skiing. In skiing "hip width" may be a good starting point, but fall-line skiing (bumps, steeps - anything pivoted) requires a closer stance and racing can often require a wider stance. There may be some advantage in the wider stance on a bike if you can stand on the pedals and access the power of the upper body - otherwise, in a seated position, Obree would appear to be correct.

The immediate solution on the bike is to tilt it the opposite way (opposite to my natural tendency) to begin the stroke - which adds the ability to use the full strength of the upper body. If you are at the top of the stroke on the right pedal and the bike is tilted to the right then the angle of tilt of bike/pedal puts you on the inside edge of the right foot for the main part of the stroke. (It finishes up on the outside edge only as the stroke nears the end and the power is coming off). As the bones stack up the bike can be forcefully pulled back across with the arms as you push down - adding more energy to the pedalling. This seems to generate optimal force and alignment though the whole stroke. I watched the climbers in the Vuelta (Tour of Spain) today and could see all of those riders who were standing on the pedals doing this. (Wiggins and Froome were spectacular and made history on this stage - two Brits dominating a Grand Tour for the first time ever.) I'll be watching the next (Sunday) stage live on Eurosport and hope they can hold it together for the final day in the high mountains. It's the "queen" stage of the Vuelta.

Using inserts in my shoes had initially caused me to go towards this (correct) movement - due to consciously trying to pressure the inside edge of the foot. When the foot would feel better I'd flip back to the outside edge again for the whole stroke and get progressively injured again. Today by consciously moving the bike to the side that I'd push down on - or keeping it completely steady - there was no pain during riding or aggravation afterwards. Gradually this is raising my awareness of efficiency on the bike.

Pedal Innovation Needed
Perhaps there is need for the creation of a pedal that rocks laterally - so that the foot doesn't have to. Skis and skates work this way - so the foot doesn't roll outwards and a strong alignment is maintained. In the picture of Lance Armstrong above you can see how his right leg is pulled out of alignment by the foot firmly attached through the cleat to the pedal. The other problem with pedals is that the cleat attachment leads to a broken collar bone when the cyclist falls because he can't get free. It happened to Armstrong during his comeback.

Brake Problem Repaired
The rear brake problem I had in the last race has been fixed. Fortunately I didn't stop during the race for it because I wouldn't have been able to fix it at that point. The wheel had not been tightened up enough when assembling the bike in the morning and this caused it to be pulled slightly out of alignment. In pulling the wheel out of alignment it caused the brakes to close unevenly against the rims. The force of closing the brakes like this caused the mechanism to break loose and rotate where it is held on with a single bolt. The brake mechanism tightens up against a carbon bush and there is a knurled washer locking the two and preventing any rotation. The unbalanced force had cause the outer edge of the carbon bush, with the washer digging into it, to break free and so rotate as a unit. I had to remove the entire mechanism and the layer of carbon from the washer and pace the washer against some fresh carbon where it could bite in again. The brake unit now remains central and no monger moves. It's useful to know that this can happen if you don't secure your rear wheel strongly enough.