Sunday, August 25, 2013

Barefoot Pain Elimination

The minimalist shoes allow the feet to feel the ground and we simply aren't used to that. We don't really need much protection - just a "tread" like the surface of a tyre to protect the skin- the body is well designed to cope with the rest even when our feet are more conditioned since childhood for the comforts of well-shod urban lifestyle.

The feet only function efficiently when we allow them too - by letting them flex and feel the ground uninhibited by thick cushioning and ramped up heels. The autonomous reflexes, muscles, tendons etc. work to our advantage when we give them a chance and they protect us very well.

When we run on ramped up cushioned heels and throw the foot in front of the body to land on the back of the heel, we end up with a shock of between 4 to 7 times the weight of the body that ripples through the bones and joints.

When the foot lands directly below the body, somewhere between the forefoot and the front of the heel, there is no shock. It's obvious that any amount of displacement of the foot ahead of the body will give a proportional percentage of this shock. Even letting the foot creep 1/10th of that short distance ahead a dynamic shock almost equivalent to body weight will be added during the foot-strike. That force is obviously enough to turn a pebble into a pain with minimalist shoes. Pain is there to warn us but the message can easily get confused. The message isn't to change the shoes, it's to learn to run better.

The other major issue that contributes to sharp pains from stones is muscle tension. For musicians it takes many years of playing a musical instrument to even begin to perceive how progress and performance are dramatically inhibited through unconscious tension. We automatically try to overcome problems by using force and in the process develop chronic tension that becomes self defeating - especially as we are not systematically aware of any of it. Feet are very complex, more so than hands, containing 1/3rd of the body's bones, yet most people can't name any of them let alone distinguish what they are doing with them. Tension is clearly going to play a massive role in any running style that has been built on the "power paradigm" of using muscles instead of gravity for propulsion. If a conscious effort is used to relax the foot completely during the footstrike then it flexes to accommodate even sharp stones pretty well. The foot has t least a million years of evolution behind it (slightly more than the Nike shoe company) and if we remove unnecessary tension and inappropriate mechanics then it just gets on with the job of protecting us.

What makes me feel sure about this? Well, it's clear that 40 years of modern running shoe technology development has utterly failed to improve the statistics regarding running injuries. During all that time nobody was looking at how the body worked naturally without shoes. The initial comfort that shoes provide masks the gross mechanical problems that they introduce which are only expressed as overuse injuries that mysteriously appear over time. Something like 60% of all runners will have an injury like this once per year. Sometimes those problems are very painful and very difficult to recover from - as in the case of plantar fasciitis.

Moving over from a messed up Nike running style to a "barefoot" natural style with minimalist running shoes will no doubt always be very tricky and lead to a new set of potential injuries. However, reflecting back on my own transition, though there may have been various issues with unwelcome pain there has never been an actual injury of any kind. Running prior to this was always like steadily working through the manual of running injuries with each classic issue appearing on cue as the previous one cleared up; shin splints, Achilles tendon, knee pain, ililotibial band syndrome (hip), plantar fasciitis, sciatica - prolapsed discs/ surgery, chronic pain in the quadriceps, torn ankle ligaments, pulled hamstring and lots of minor issues.  

Sure you can run "barefoot" and do it all badly - but the difference is that you know it instantly, before any chronic injuries develop. Nike comfort running leads to chronic physical problems just like McDonald's comfort eating leads to obesity - it just doesn't seem that way at the time.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Evolving Cycling and Running Technique

It’s odd how personal perception gradually shifts over time with regards to the mechanics of any physical activity. Whether this is sport, musical instruments or a craft it’s the same process of skill building that can’t be rushed. Perhaps the process can be sped up a bit by working at something 6 or 8 hours per day – but the accumulated time on the activity is probably the same. There seems to be a gradual awakening or growing of awareness, which although it can’t be rushed can certainly be slowed down or stopped altogether. You know when you are on the right track when things keep on evolving and leading to new and unexpected doors opening.


Watching how Christiane successfully used Chi Walking technique to protect her knees when hiking led me to spotting another aspect of mechanics that is normally invisible. By pulling her hip backwards as she climbed a step – rotating at the base of the spine – her goal was to pull her femur and knee into a better alignment – instead of her tendency to collapse the knee inwards. Watching this process it became obvious that the reason this worked was partly because while the hip moved back, effectively moving the head of the femur slightly inwards in line with the knee, this left space for the knee to extend – but in a backwards direction. In a sense the leg was being “pulled” straight. The knee extends backwards, the hip extends backwards and momentum meanwhile carries the centre of mass forward while the upward power comes mainly from the hip extension. Getting the hip to move backwards effectively places the joint behind the centre of mass – yet most people instinctively do the opposite! Most people try to extend the hip forwards – compressing the knee (collapsing inwards) prior to extending everything forwards (compressing the abdomen and base of the spine) and leaving the centre of mass trailing slightly behind. Inverting this and getting it the right way round reduces the effort required enormously – it’s dramatically more efficient for climbing anything and protects the joints.

Evolving Chi-Cycling Technique

Apply the above observations to cycling and quite a lot can be explained. Most cyclists are not really aware of using any particular muscles or muscle groups – at least until cramp strikes. They just “pedal”. Advice on the subject is sparse and not very helpful – especially regarding seriously confusing information about seat heights – which is usually to set the seat far too low. The standard advice is to be able to place your heel on the pedal at the bottom of the stroke with the leg slightly bent. The problem is that if you extend your ankle at this point – which is a very good thing to do – then you will need to raise your seat by at least 5 centimetres. Clearly the issues involved are not as simple as certain standard formulas suggest.

Good cyclists do not just rely on using the quads to push down on the pedals. Isolating the quads to push down on the pedals would rapidly lead to knee injury as well as muscle tiredness. The normal way to include the hamstrings in the stroke is to flex the ankle as it goes over the top of the stroke (the dead spot) and this redistributes some of the load to the hamstrings. If the seat is set quite high – so that an ankle extension is used at the bottom of the stroke, then this flexion at the start can be easily varied to move the load around on the legs according to needs and tiredness. Climbing, in particular,  without the hamstrings and glutes is going to wear out the quads very quickly.

The one thing you will never hear about in cycling however is the involvement of the hip in all of this. The accepted “wisdom” is that everything from the pelvis upwards must remain still so that the legs work against the upper body. Where have I heard this complete nonsense before? Oh yes, skiing! Watching the recent Tour de France the winner Chris Froome could be best described as moving in a fish-like manner with his entire body as he wriggled up the hill blowing away all of the competition on Mont Ventoux. There was nothing “fixed” or stationary about his upper body. The point is that it’s not just the ankle that is involved in deciding how the hip extension is executed, but the spine, pelvis and hip itself.  Pulling the hip backwards during the “push” allows the knee to extend and the hamstrings and glutes to be used. This also gives the massive benefit of activating the core muscles – stretching the lower abdomen instead of compressing and weakening them. If only the ankle is used to move between muscle groups there is no reflexive activation of the core muscles. Things start to get really interesting when both the ankle action and hip action are used consciously.

There is also commonly heard advice to “not flex” the ankle during a stroke because it is apparently inefficient. I suspect that this has to be considered but also weighed against the need to use the main muscle groups efficiently. Too much ankle flexing is definitely going to be inefficient and certainly ending the stroke with the ankle flexed makes no sense. In running the flexing of the foot and ankle happen (ideally) in a fraction of a second which causes the tendons to store and then release energy incredibly efficiently – but a cycling stroke would be much slower than this so flexing must absorb and waste energy as heat – so this must be accounted for. It would seem that movement at the hip is a better choice all round – especially as the bigger core muscles become active as a result and it’s not just a “resistive” flexing as happens at the ankle – in fact it’s an extension, an opening up over a short range of motion.

Concentrating on the knee pulling backwards during the “push”, to extend the leg, is another way to re-focus on using the glutes and hamstrings. Each of the joints; ankle, knee and hip can therefore become the focus of attention.

I’ve noticed in contrast that some of the most powerful top track cyclists appear to do the opposite – they follow through on the “push” with everything – knee, hip, shoulder and entire body weight going into the stroke. This use of body weight does seem to give the greatest short term power for sprinting, but personally I’d reserve it for that use only. I’m not even sure if it is more effective because the difference between the skills for each technique is so big. Perhaps the counterintuitive Chi action is more powerful once it is well mastered. Time has shown that there is a great depth of awareness involved in the Chi coordination and there are many aspects to learn – so I don’t want to judge its effectiveness too soon in this context. Regarding endurance and health there is already no doubt of the superiority of Chi coordination. Training re-programs movements and converts them in automatic skills – unconscious habits. For me the successful development of Chi skill has meant the end to lower back pain in cycling  - and considering all the damage and surgery my back has gone through that is pretty significant. I can push the biggest and hardest gears possible to exhaustion on a short climb – with the core muscles contracting reflexively and no damaging strain on the knees or back – but only through using Chi coordination.

Oval and Dual Camber Chain Wheels

All of the above described actions of chi coordination appear to be enhanced with oval (Rotor) or dual camber (Osymetric) chain wheels. Those modified chain wheels greatly reduce the length of the “dead spot” between pushes on the pedals. This modification means that you get a feeling of connecting each push immediately with the previous one and the core muscles stay constantly engaged in the action. Notably the last two Tour de France races were won by Wiggins and Froome who both used Osymetric chain wheels. Wiggins used a standard Shimano compact (50T/34T) for the Italian Giro this summer – but that’s probably because the oval chain wheels can’t be made small enough for such extreme climbing – especially the Osymetric dual camber chain wheel which only goes down to 38T (equivalent to 42T on the push and 34T on the dead spot). I use a Rotor 36T oval for the small chain wheel and Osymetric 50T for the big one – which is still demanding but the mountain roads are not quite so steep in France. This technology lends itself incredibly well to the chi coordination.

Chi Running

In the past week the absence of bike races has let me focus on bringing running back into the program. There is a period of adjustment necessary when starting to run – due to DOMS – which is very undesirable during a bike racing program. The key to minimising DOMS when using minimalist shoes is to land near the front of the heel – and avoid both a forefoot or “back of the heel” strike. The chi running uses the same basic coordination as the cycling, exploiting the core muscles, glutes and hamsrings as the foot lands beneath the body and the stride extends behind. When climbing the leg simply lands vertically beneath the body in a short stride and when a rapid cadence is maintained (around 80 strides per minute) the elastic rebound of the tendons in the feet can be felt as an overall reduction in effort. It’s like going into bottom gear on a bike but with a boost that comes from the elastic efficiency of the tendons. The fact that the chi coordination is so efficient means that there is no real impact on the cycling that follows. The chi cycling should also ensure that running following cycling should be equally effective. Right now I need to motivate myself to run so it’s easier to run before cycling.

The issue of the “barefoot” aspect of running is still quite controversial. My own feeling is that we need to go as “minimal” as the terrain permits. Running on sand or grass barefoot would probably be ideal. Minimalist shoes need to be chosen according to the terrain they will be used on and how well the athlete’s feet are adapted. If grip is needed then a proper tread is required. If sharp stones will be encountered then some form of plate underfoot needs to protect the bones. Running on tarmac requires a small amount of cushioning for impact as well as tread for both grip and protection from friction, glass or metal. The main thing is that there is “zero drop” between the front and back of the foot and there is no excessive cushioning that raises the foot up of the ground changing geometry in any significant way. Getting the shoe choice right  would probably yield a similar degree of feedback from the ground in each case – not enough to cause pain but enough to solicit good reflexes instead of damping them and leading to injury or the encouragement of an unnatural running style.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Alpine Life

Until today I thought that only skiers created “moguls”. Now I know that cows do too!

This flower might seem a bit boring but it’s the Arnica plant – yes, the one that we use to fight inflamation…

Linegrette – only grows where it is very wet.

This plant is at home clinging onto a rock at 6000ft…

Amazing rock formation…


Alien life…

There are hundreds of different plants so I’m trying to keep to a minimum here…

… that’s what I mean!

The trail home…

Tarantaise “Wild Water”

Tarantaise means “wild water”. The name applies to the mountain catchment area for the Isère river. Perhaps this also explains why not only are the world champion white-water kayak championships held here, but why it contains an amazing collection of major international ski areas – with 11 main areas containing many small stations  The area is bordered by the Beaufort Massif to the north, the Aosta valley to the east and the Maurienne valley to the west and south.

View point is “La Mont Jovie” (2558m) at la Plagne.

Panaroma 1: Beaufort Massif ridge (left half), Mont Blanc is in the middle (clouded over) with the ridge for the Aosta valley on the right half. Near the middle in the valley we have Bourg St Maurice, sloping up toward the left to the Cormet de Roselend with the Col de Petit St Bernard straight ahead and La Rosière ski station sloping up to the right of this far central portion. Following the ridge to the right we traverse la Plagne, and Les Arcs. The view of St Foy is blocked by Mont Pourri and the view of Val d’Isère is blocked by the Bellecote.


Panorama 2: Aosta ridge on the right. The Grande Motte in Tignes and the Grande Casse (highest) left of middle, then Pralongnan beneath the big cloud and the far Maurienne valley ridge extending to the right with Courchevel just above the heads of the seated people.


Panorama 3: Courchevel, Meribel, Les Menuires ( The Three Valleys). Oddly enough there are actually four valleys – the fourth containing Valmorel and the Col de la Madeleine. You can see the four valleys diagonally sloping down to the right. The Maurienne valley is behind them.

Hiking up the Mont Jovie we both used Chi Walking technique and flat “barefoot” style shoes. The effect was stunning in that neither I nor Christianne (beside the table d’orientation) had any muscle, joint or foot pain despite a steep 1000 metres vertical of hiking. Even descending was without strain or difficulty on the body. This transformation makes hiking appealing!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Minimalist Running–Heel Strike Controversy

There is currently a small backlash in the media against minimalist running and the success of the market in minimalist running shoes. One good article from the Washington Post is here: 

There is another interesting perspective from the wonderfully articulate Kenyan runner Kiplimoc Chemirir:

The Washington Post article does not come as a great surprise to me because it is addressing the issue of forefoot versus heel striking. Some time ago I realised that forefoot striking was not right for distance running – at least for my legs. The Achilles tendon and calf muscles were destroyed by this and even after a short layoff it was hard to run only 5k without problems in this area. None of this is news however! One of the most popular representations of running technique that is applied to minimalist running is ChiRunning. (This and “pose” method are the most prevalent). In ChiRunning it’s made clear that the foot should strike the ground with the heel – however there is a subtle twist that is completely missed in the above articles! The trouble with modern thick heeled running shoes is that they encourage over-striding in front of the body – leading to a heel strike on the back of the heel. Runners don’t learn to be aware of their feet or stride due to all of this cushioning. ChiRunning explains that you need to aim for a point towards the front of the heel. This is quite a fascinating exercise because there isn’t actually a real contact point there – you have to just visualise and aim for this target. It’s probably more of a mid foot strike but with an emphasis towards the heel. It probably looks like a mid foot strike, but it’s slightly different and feels different. When I started using it with minimalist shoes it dawned on me that it’s the feeling I used to get as a child running very happily in standard flat un-cushioned plimsolls – and it was totally natural for me then – before being seduced by my first pair of Brookes running shoes based on the Nike principle of encouraging over-striding as a way to lengthen stride.

In conclusion – the news that most barefoot African runners actually heel strike does not come as a surprise and certainly goes a long way towards vindicating author Danny Dreyer  in ChiRunning. Initially I was very skeptical of his work but after studying it very closely and persistently I was very surprised at how each detail he described turned out to be right – and how much of my own resistance had to be overcome to get to this point of understanding.

Kiplimoc’s writing is beautifully poetic and inspiring – but he seems to write more from the heart than from the head. He criticises “barefoot running” success on the track but ignores the fact that world records have been broken barefoot (Zola Budd 1985, 5000m). He points out the obvious negatives in barefoot running but fails to acknowledge that there may be value in the fact that he grew up barefoot and developed his instinctive running style from that foundation. He also ignores the fact that elite racing shoes are very close to minimalist in design – being very thin and flat. You don’t see fat Nike running shoes on elite racers.

Barefoot running on tarmac with exposure to glass, steel objects and all sorts of unnatural risks doesn’t make much sense. Minimalist shoes that protect but allow natural feeling and sensitivity of the feet are at least extremely useful for developing both awareness and allowing the body to find it’s own natural efficiency. Some of the older generations of UK fell runners – when they only had heavy  boots – would scout their entire routes barefoot. Apart from the fact that 1/3rd of the body’s bones are in the feet there is a mechanical effect that ripples up all the way through the body. If the stride is wrong then posture is damaged and all sort of havoc is generated. Landing on the front of the heel, with the foot below the body (not in front) and extending the stride behind the body creates an entirely different and positive set of physical consequences compared to over-striding and landing on the back of the heel – which damages knees, hips and backs – probably causes basic shin splints too.

Minimalist shoes seem to be needed across a range of functions. Very thin and light seems to be great for soft trails. When there are stone chips to run on then slightly thicker protection is needed and where there is mud then proper treads are needed to grip. The key seems to be to always go as minimal as possible while respecting the terrain. Feet that are able to feel the ground seem to act like a second pair of eyes – that’s probably what nature intended and where Nike went wrong.

Endurance Nutrition

If there is one thing that is remarkable about nutrition and sports science it's how incredibly little is known. Considering there is  a lot of possible scaremongering regarding the relationships between exercise, diet rich in carbohydrate and health I decided to look closely at what information is widely available.

Sticking to the subject of diet related to endurance sport I only found one study analysing the diet of elite Kenyan runners - the most successful in the world.  It turns out that without any deliberate or scientific intent they get a whopping 76% of their calories from carbohydrates. Even more surprisingly 20% comes from table sugar that they put into tea with milk. They also get the timing of their eating spot on for replenishing glycogen in the liver and muscles - eating within an hour of exercise. They don't use supplements! In contrast male American endurance athletes only get 46% of their calories from carbohydrates - making up the difference with calories from fats. It appears that runners consume about 3500 calories per day and cyclists around 6500.  No wonder I get tired on long bike rides when I don't remember to eat! I did see one guy race with bananas taped all over his bike frame and handlebars - which was hilarious  - but I think I'll stick to nasty refined supplements thanks.

There appears to be a lot of confusion about whether the top elite athletes are actually damaging themselves or not. The most obvious thing that stands out is that genetics plays a major role, but there is no way of knowing how big a role is played by doping. The chances of then working out the role of nutrition in all of this seems pretty slim - and despite hundreds of universities specialized in sports science and physiology there is apparently no useful or relevant research being done.

You come across vague statements like "top athletes neutralize free radicals and inflammation better than others". Yes, but are there ways to ensure this always happens or can the body be overloaded to the point of gradual destruction? Nobody appears to really know. 

What I would like to know is that if I get my RDA or more of vitamins and minerals in the first 3000 calories of the day - can I eat refined sugar for the next 3500 on the same day (assuming I spend 6 hours in the saddle, cycling) without it being an nutritional issue? Nobody even seems to ask this question. It seems to be how the Kenyans operate instinctively with their sugared tea - but there is no information whatsoever on the long term health of Kenyan athletes. There does not seem to be a single traceable case of heart attack amongst them - but that could be because of genetics or that in the past they couldn't afford doping programs - which after all cost people like Lance Armstrong millions of dollars and almost killed him from cancer. I think I'd place my bet on the latter. It's very easy to get a wide range of banned and dangerous drugs today with complete instructions on how to inject them so more and more Kenyans are now being caught doping - unfortunately. Substances like GW1516 are being consumed by athletes (some cyclists caught recently). This stuff never even made it onto the legal market anywhere due to the cancer it induced in lab rats. People seem willing to abuse their health to extraordinary levels in order to succeed.

Some people suggest that running for elite competition and running for health are different objectives - but that seems like a cop out and a good way of both remaining ignorant and justifying it. People do simply die young in all walks of life - perhaps we just pay more attention when it's an athlete. The medical views on all of this are completely inconsistent. 

Most people will never perform at elite levels or anywhere near that - so it's probably best to keep that in mind. Statistics for endurance sports in general regarding cardiovascular health are extremely favourable. I'm inclined to think that health factors such as obesity, malnutrition and stress are greater indicators of potential trouble. Obesity and malnutrition go together - often the food cravings coming from the absence of quality nutrients. Obesity and lack of exercise also go together - whether it's muscle building or endurance. Exercise is the best way to manage stress too. We also now know that running preserves the length of telomeres (on the ends of chromosomes) that shrink as you age - giving runners an average biological age of 16 years younger than sedentary people. It would seem that anyone exercising regularly (especially endurance - and not at super elite level), avoiding obesity, getting quality nutrients (including fibre) in their overall diet and not doping or taking drugs/alcohol(in quantity) is placing themselves in a large protective zone which, unless there are very rare and unfortunate genetic reasons, should ensure good health throughout a fairly large and flexible range of dietary behaviour. Aiming for strong performance with a high carb diet - with or without supplements - would seem to be well within the zone.

Medical study of heart disease related deaths during marathons (link) :


A total of 215,413 runners completed the races, and four exercise-related sudden deaths occurred, each due to unsuspected structural cardiovascular disease. Three deaths occurred during the race (after 15 to 24 miles [24 to 38.4 km]) and the other immediately after its completion. The ages were 19 to 58 years (average 37), and three were men. Three of the sudden deaths were due to atherosclerotic coronary artery disease (narrowing of two or three vessels) and one to anomalous origin of the left main coronary artery from the right sinus of Valsalva. None of the four runners had prior documentation of heart disease or experienced prodromal symptoms, and two had previously completed three marathon races each. The overall prevalence of sudden cardiac death during the marathon was only 0.002%, strikingly lower than for several other variables of risk for premature death calculated for the general U.S. population.


Although highly trained athletes such as marathon runners may harbor underlying and potentially lethal cardiovascular disease, the risk for sudden cardiac death associated with such intense physical effort was exceedingly small (1 in 50,000) and as little as 1/100th of the annual overall risk associated with living, either with or without heart disease. The low risk for sudden death identified in long-distance runners from the general population suggests that routine screening for cardiovascular disease in such athletic populations may not be justifiable.

Since taking up road cycling racing several years ago I’ve noticed that people do die regularly – but normally when going very fast downhill and coming off the road. Despite being in gruelling races with 17,000ft of climbing at high altitude, with several thousand entrants, I’ve not heard of a single death from heart disease – though a lot do end up with saline drips and oxygen in the med tent. Compared to downhill skiing where avalanches are a constant and relatively unpredictable threat the attrition rate is very small.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Two days since the monster St Carlos ride and I unexpectedly felt like a blast up to La Plagne –  4,600ft climbing. Normally this would still be a recovery situation so that was unusual to start with. The climb straight up to La Plagne is pretty soulless and it can feel like mental torture grinding your way up there and that’s what I expected. Instead, the feeling was good both physically and mentally. The only thing that appears to have changed all of this is the food supplements. There was no tiredness following the St Carlos ride and recovery seemed to just happen quickly. Today I started consuming the potion every 20 minutes from the start. 90 grams this time – a bit higher consumption rate than the last time. Salt was slightly reduced  due to there being less heat and much more lemon juice was added. It tasted delicious and was easy to swallow. Amazingly the climb pace was close to a personal best despite being overweight. All very odd that only changing feeding during workouts can make such a dramatic difference – but so far this does appear to be the case. Once again there has been no sleepiness to follow the workout. I read that EPO is supposed to give an improvement of 5% to elite athletes. Just mixing maltodextrin and fructose and making it easy to use seems to have given me about 50% improvement.

I also read that amphetamines give about 5.5% improvements. That means that all the athletes before the Lance Armstrong era were getting an even bigger advantage from doping! The hypocrisy in using him as a sole scapegoat is just unbelievable. Every French cycling hero that existed should be dumped or they should back off and reinstate all the rest including Armstrong.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Blood Sugar, Fatigue

Colle St Carlos

Yesterday was the first really big “climbing” ride of the year with 3100m accumulated climbing including the steep Colle St Carlos in Italy. The start of the workout was my “recovery” ride from last week’s race because I hadn’t been out once since. Despite resting for a week after cramping the legs enough to hurt the muscles for the next four days the legs were not responding to begin with so the first climb – 30k up to 2200m altitude from Bourg St Maurice to the Col de Petit St Bernard was just a warm up. It’s not like there was a choice. My heart rate stayed around 145bpm and the legs slowly got used to working again riding all the bad memories out and getting the blood flowing again.


The day was never going to be easy for a combination of reasons – lack of fitness, excess weight and slightly inappropriate gearing. My small chain wheel is 36T instead of 34T and being oval it’s equivalent to pushing a 38T on the down stroke. I’m about 10 kilos overweight just now and not working out nearly as much as I should. Part of the reason however for not training is the demotivating effect of tiredness. People talk about “doms” – delayed onset of muscle soreness – but strangely they don’t have an equivalent term for tiredness; for which I suggest – “dof” – delayed onset of fatigue.  A lot of people seem to get this, which renders them practically useless for the rest of the day after endurance exercise. Problems often begin during the exercise not just after. The first sign is a dull headache and then an inability to concentrate, a sort of “brain fade”; another of my personalised terms. Normally this leads to a plodding pace which could go on forever but which proceeds in a dense fog of negative thoughts and feelings. Sometimes there is no sign of fatigue during the workout, especially if it is short, but then an hour after completion you just fall asleep or become unable to concentrate of anything. There is almost a state of complete forgetfulness induced – as if you were drugged. This doesn’t seem to affect everyone the same way and is probably a result of differences in metabolism. There may also be psychological factors – not regarding the tiredness but regarding the stigma of discussing it. How can you possibly  be a “hard case” if you fall asleep systematically after your workouts? Better to call it a “nap” and pretend that it’s normal and a choice! Not so easy if you have a demanding intellectual program ahead of you though – like studying music or writing – which ends up being completely forgotten about.

The answer is too simple – food!

During yesterday’s monster session there was no headache, no brain fade, no stomach cramp, no fog of negativity and especially no “dof” – delayed onset of fatigue – despite the session involving 6 hours of intense heat in the sun and temporary cold in the wind at the high altitude mountain passes. After finishing at 7pm the rest of the evening until 2am was energised, not tired. What made the difference? The answer is too simple – food!
Exercise draws blood away from the gut and curbs your appetite. Add to this the difficulty of swallowing and breathing when running or cycling and cause of the situation regarding food begins to become more obvious. Once fatigue sets in and concentration becomes difficult then even the simple act of reaching for a gel in a pocket, opening it with your teeth and trying to swallow it seems like a strangely insurmountable task.  Gel is a pretty horrible goop at the best of times and humans don’t normally like things that resemble frog spawn so I have no idea why they add soluble fibre to make “gels”. Eating solid foods is even harder. The athlete tends to simply ignore the issue or delay eating as much as possible and keep it to a minimum. Often in a long workout only a few small gels are consumed. Adding powders to water bottles can be complicated and also drinking sticky water eventually becomes unpleasant. Gels and energy bars are stupidly expensive too – another reason to avoid them. Stuffing yourself with porridge and flapjacks just leads to a bloated gut and you can only really manage that a few hours before a session and not during it. So what’s the answer to all of this? Make your own energy supplements!
Perhaps after many years or a lifetime of training the body adapts to low sugar levels but for most mortals we don’t seem to have the means of getting to this point without sacrificing everything. It’s not even clear if such an adaptation actually takes place – but the body usually does adapt in positive ways to exercise. meanwhile the answer does appear to lie in food supplements and how they are delivered. Research appears to have converged on a certain formula of sugars – analysed for improving performance, but from my own brief experience giving a stunning solution to the “fatigue” problem. The problem is multifaceted in that it concerns:
  1. rate of absorption of carbohydrates from the gut
  2. quantity of absorption of carbohydrates from the gut
  3. metabolic processes
  4. ease of consumption
  5. motivation for consumption.
First of all here is the recipe: all ingredients can be bough online at 
Flexible flasks with nipples that can be opened and closed with the teeth can be bought from www.raidlight .com or other more compact reusable ones can be found at www.wiggle .com sold with supplements inside (squeezy lemon)

Per hour/flask:

  • 60 grams maltodextrin (High glycemic index 150)
  • 30 grams fructose (Low glycemic index 19)
  • 2 grams sea salt (Guerande – for quality)
  • 0.4 grams multivitamin/mineral (50% RDA – to be reduced if more than two flasks are to be consumed))
  • 0.2 grams caffeine (50% RDA – to be reduced if more than two flasks are to be consumed)
  • Lemon Juice to taste
  • Water – (total mix volume approx. 110ml) leave overnight to dissolve completely after stirring


Rate of absorption of carbohydrates from the gut

The two different sugars are absorbed in the gut through different pathways. It appears that Fructose is not completely understood in this respect. Maltodextrin is glucose molecules chained together. Both glucose and maltodextrin have the same rate of absorption (GI 150) but maltodextrin has one specific advantage – it requires only 1/6th of the water that glucose needs to be absorbed. This water requirement becomes critical when trying to avoid stomach bloating and pains during exercise. (Another name for glucose is dextrose.) The fructose (GI 19) is absorbed much more slowly.
Adding electrolytes to water causes the water to be absorbed more rapidly. Whether or not that causes the sugars to also be absorbed faster is not clear. What is clear is that you don’t want water bloating the gut for any reason. Electrolytes apparently won’t slow rate of absorption of carbs.

Quantity of absorption of carbohydrates from the gut

With the two sugar" digestion processes being different it allows the body to assimilate up to 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour total compared to the usual maximum of 60 grams. No doubt this also has an effect when smaller quantities are being consumed – simply being a more efficient absorption process.

Metabolic Processes

Maltodextrine (glucose) uses insulin when being metabolised. A rapid release of glucose into the blood will cause an insulin spike and then be followed by a blood sugar low due to excess insulin. One way to prevent the fluctuations in blood sugar is to keep up the intake of carbs every 20 minutes once you have started to use them. Fructose does not use insulin when being metabolised. Having a steady input of slower absorbed fructose should act to stabilise blood sugar levels regardless of what is going on with the glucose. Interestingly, when excess glucose is consumed it is converted into subcutaneous fat but fructose is converted into fat around the internal organs.No doubt that is why high fructose drinks such as sodas cause a big belly.

Ease of consumption

Gels are very expensive and difficult to use. Tubes end up thrown on the ground during sports events and anything that goes back into the pocket with an unsealed opening will make a seriously sticky  mess. Packets of gel are really difficult to open with the teeth and have to be consumed entirely. Food bars have similar issues – which could easily lead to loss of control of a bike at higher speeds or through hitting a pothole while attention is distracted. Gels can be horrible in the mouth due to their consistency and solid foods can seem to be too dry and difficult to chew and swallow. Reusable squeezy flasks are really easy to use and mess free. Bulk ingredients for supplements are cheap. Mixing with water only makes a runny liquid that is both compact and very easy to swallow in any desired quantity. When kept apart from drinking water the water bottles can be simply full of refreshing water. Each time you swallow some supplement you can take a drink of fresh water to clear the mouth and provide the water for digestion. Due to the maltodextrin there is no need to drink excessive amounts compared to when using glucose (dextrose). This makes the entire organisation simple and flexible. Even for those who have trouble drinking plain water (me) this issue is dealt with due to the sugar sill in the mouth.

Motivation for Consumption

When you know there is no expense, no difficulty, no mess and swallowing is easy then you feel encouraged to make the effort to consume the supplement according to protocol – that means “even without hunger or thirst”. You know that it will make life much better for you later on during the workout and in the recovery period. Flavouring can be added to taste with lemon juice being ideal but also freshly squeezed orange juice. Electrolytes can be altered to taste. Isostar provides 800mg of sodium per hour – which is the equivalent of 2 grams of sea salt. I use sea salt because it has no additives and still has its trace elements such as iodine, zinc, potassium and magnesium. This is quite a lot of salt replacement and so probably erring on the high side. It makes the supplement taste like toffee but doesn’t spoil the taste. If the weather is colder then clearly this can be lowered because there will be less sweating and water replacement needed – so as well as being able to adapt flavouring to your needs you can also modify the contents appropriately. This makes the whole system much friendlier, more relevant and more suitable.

Conclusion Regarding Food

Just a short spell with using this procedure has demonstrated a remarkable difference. Instead of being dominated by blood sugar induced fatigue during performance the limit is now simply fitness. After the race or training session there is a feeling of energising instead of the dreaded “dof” and consequent zombie act.

Cycling Technique

Chi-Cycling technique has now become the default coordination for me. In the past the monster Colle St Carlos circuit has always brought on some manifestation of sciatic issues for me – usually loss of feeling on the outside of my left foot – related to an old and failed lower back operation. Yesterday, despite forcing as hard a possible in sprints during the downhill sections in top gear and labouring on the steep St Carlos there were absolutely no issues with the back. This is clearly completely down to technique. The transfer of upper body weight over the pedal also removes all the weight from the other pedal automatically – so it’s easy to mistake the Chi coordination for a simple displacement of the upper body – but the motion is much more sophisticated and specifically involves the core muscles.


Climbing the steep St Carlos with gear ratios that were not big enough (for my weight) posed an interesting problem. It became clear that rather than resorting to inefficient weaving on the road it would be better to focus on more efficient pedalling. Correct coordination of the hips – pulling back the hip on the side where the foot is pushing forward at the start of the stroke (apparently moving the body over to that side) – made it possible to keep constant and smooth pressure on the pedals – one taking over immediately from the other. This smooth pressure would prevent little accelerations and decelerations – very critical to efficiency on a steep climb. The oval Rotor 36T chain wheel seemed to help organising this process a great deal – because the oval form causes a significant reduction in the size of the dead spot between each push. This is supposed to allow you to train the more appropriate muscle groups. It’s certainly easier using a 34T chain wheel but the oval 36T is probably much better than a standard 36T – even though it’s acting effectively as a 38T during the smooth and constant pushing.

The key to all of this appears to be “resonance”. It’s not about using force, it’s all about timing. Resonance is where the effect of a small impulse in a system is amplified – because it is in tune with the system. When effort is out of tune, even slightly, then most of the energy is simply absorbed and wasted. Instead of using force and strength it seems more important to be sensitive to tuning in to the system.  When the timing of the push (forward then down) is correct then it all connects up through the core muscles and there is a continuous muscle activity involving the whole body – especially the largest muscle groups. This allows a sort of overall relaxation instead of a fighting because there is no stress focusing on isolated muscles. There is a sort of relaxing spread of effort over all the muscle groups. If you watch the climbers in the Tour de France and in the time trials you see an enormous amount of body motion. People always criticise this but the best riders performing at their best do exactly this. This year on his historic victory on Mont Ventoux Chris Froome looked like a fish wiggling his way up there. They do not immobilise the body – especially the hips and pelvic area.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

La Bourgui 2013


Cold bugs, lack of training and excess weight made the thought of participating in the brutal Bourgui less than appealing. This is one of those races that attracts only a small field of enthusiasts. In the past I’ve only tackled the long course which passes down into the valley and then climbs up and down to a total of three ski stations – utterly destroying you. This time, not being in such good shape, the only option was the short course of 80km with about 2000m climbing. The reason for participating is simple. There is no better way to get motivated for pushing yourself hard and improving fitness. Racing is just an enhancement to training. Too many people take their results too seriously. Sure, the results are important, but only as a motivational factor. There has to be a mental dissociation between the stimulus of racing and the utter meaninglessness of the actual results. If results are taken too seriously then obsession sets in and it always has a destructive element. Those winning become stupidly egotistical and those losing become discouraged and give up. It’s fun and that’s all there is to it – unless of course you chose to make a living from it. My motivation for racing is that it helps to keep my body and brain functional – and to keep doctors well away. It’s fun and it’s shared by nearly everyone participating.There are a few around who don’t get it, but not many.

Race Start (8am) - Saint Martin de Belleville 1450m – Ski Station


For once this race would not begin amidst thunder, lightning and torrential rain. It was a T-shirt day even at 7am at St Martin de Belleville (1450m altitude) where we started only 7.5km down the road from Les Menuires. The following night brought major thunder storms but for once the Bourgui would be in sunshine – which of course brings its own challenges. Personally heat doesn’t bother me, cold does, so I was happy. I was also under no illusion about how difficult this short course was going to be. Even the descent to Moutiers at 530m altitude involved long “faux plat” sections which meant working very hard from the beginning. In fact the start is a 1km steep climb – when you are not even properly warmed up. This climb is to sort out the pecking order from the start and to avoid a totally mad pack of cyclists with different levels all bombing straight downhill together and ending up in a heap at the first hairpin bend.


The Descent to Moutiers

The problem with descending at up to 70 km/hr is that there is only one proper safe racing line through a tight turn – which is exactly the same as that for a racing car. You have to start from the outside, cut the apex close to the inside and then go back to the outside to finish. It’s also advisable to get all of your weight on the outside pedal (same as in skiing) and not on your saddle – if you want to be able to stay upright in the event of a skid. The road isn’t closed so this line is not always possible of course but when you can see clearly then it’s the safest and fastest option. Unfortunately not everyone is aware of this so often when you move to the outside some muppet will try to cut to your inside – with the risk of skidding, a “toute droite” or failing to brake and taking you out in the process. The least effect it has on you is that you are forced off your line and have to go all the way round the outside of the bend. The safest way to tackle tight bends then is to start from the outside and then only cut to the apex if there is nobody to your inside. If there is someone to your inside than you will still be faster because he will have to brake a lot more. The danger is real. Already this year one cyclist died on the descent from the Glandon during the Marmotte – and that descent was already neutralised for safety reasons. On the Tour de France there was also serious carnage on that same descent. It’s always a sense of relief when you get to the bottom of a fast descent fully intact no matter how brave you are when the adrenaline is up..

Moutiers is right at the apex of the Tarantaise valley system. “Tarantaise” is very difficult to define. It appears to encompass everything including the Three Valleys (Val Thorens, Meribel, Courchevel) and Pralongion, and then the Haute Tarantaise with  La Plagne, Les Arcs , Tignes and Val d’Isère. This is perhaps the world’s premiere ski area but it’s seldom seen in this geographical context all put together.

Valley circuit

There is a long stretch along the valley from Moutiers to Cevins where drafting would be essential – both there and back. Prior to this there is a 200m climb towards Naves. 200m is a short climb, but not when you are trying to go fast to stay with a peloton. Managing to stay with a fast group would be rewarded by a good speed inside the peloton for the rest of the valley circuit. I knew that this would destroy my legs but didn’t care. Going slow is not and interesting option and although unpleasant it’s always better to go too hard than to regret not trying hard enough at the end. Those who are sensible and know their limits do their best to avoid pulling in front of the group but I managed to make the mistake of ending up in front several times. Eventually it became clear that I couldn’t stay with the group on the small hills if I didn’t get positioned near the front anyway – with a view to ending up at the rear by the top of each climb. My power to weight ratio was so far off the mark. At 74kg I’m 10k over the weight that starts to give reasonable race results. It was very clear that remaining with the group until the start of the big final climb up to Les Menuires would be fine – but that I’d be dropped right at the start. The high speed through the valley would have given about a 20 to 30 minute advantage at the start of the climb, but most of that could be rapidly lost. There would at least be the satisfaction of having lost the time due to genuine exhaustion and not because of taking it easy.

Sports Nutrition

The climb to Les Menuires began as predicted. Painful from the beginning. The route is an old steep one on the East side of the valley with endless hairpin bends. Fortunately the sun was still not high in the sky so nearly all the race up until now had been more or less in the shade and in reasonable temperatures. That was about to change and the heat was now on – literally. I just tried to settle into a pace that my legs would accept. There was a feeling of nausea but the main issue was the legs tying up after such hard work on the flats.  During the first hour of the race I’d started to consume a sweet mix from re-usable flasks in my back pockets. Instead of using gels or drink powders this was an experiment with special sugars to try to increase the levels of carbohydrates consumed. Normally the body can only digest 60 grams per hour during exercise, but there are ways to increase this to 90 grams. Speed of digestion is one issue, but also the amount of water required in the process is important. The third consideration is also the rate at which water itself is absorbed. Glucose (Dextrose) is the fastest assimilated sugar in the intestine, but it takes a lot of water and leads to bloating. In my case that gives nasty stomach pains. Glucose also comes in the form of maltodextrine and this version is absorbed at the same rate (Glycaemic Index 150) but only requires 1/6th of the water in the intestines. Maltodextrine is the major ingredient needed. This is best mixed at at ratio of 2:1 with fructose. Fructose has a low Glycaemic Index of only 19 and so is absorbed more slowly but it uses a different mechanism that is apparently not fully understood. The two sugars together permit 90 grams of carbohydrates to be absorbed per hour instead of only 60 grams. Glucose (from maltodextrin or otherwise) uses insulin to metabolise so could cause an insulin spike and associated sugar low to follow – however the fructose does not use insulin to metabolise so this probably stabilises the blood sugar level somewhat. Excess glucose in the body is converted into subcutaneous fat whereas fructose turns into stomach fat.

To help absorb the water faster – and probably the sugar too,  it’s useful to include electrolytes in the mix – particularly Sodium, Potassium and Magnesium with several trace elements. Good quality raw sea salt seems to fit that bill very well – like Sel de Guerande.

Metabolism of the sugars seems to benefit from a range of B vitamins so adding a good multi-vitamin/mineral  powder to the mix is also very useful. There are also antioxidant advantage to be considered with vitamin C – but this quantity has to be limited due to the effect of vitamins preventing mineral absorption.

Caffeine powder is another very useful additive as it definitely stimulates the metabolism of sugars – however not in the form of coffee or tea – where other chemicals do even more to prevent the metabolism and cause overall lower blood sugar levels. Flavouring if required can be just something simple like lemon juice or perhaps freshly squeezed orange. I like the idea of being able to chose my own flavouring and knowing there are no weird chemicals there.

Ordering from  I chose Maltodextrine, Fructose, Multi-Vitamins/Minerals, Caffeine and bought the Sea Salt locally.

This would have been perfect except I didn’t check my post box and although it had all arrived before the race it was only after the race I found the stuff. Meanwhile I’d improvised by filling flasks with an obnoxious concoction of similar – but nastily flavoured stuff with many E additives from Decathlon and a few other dubious sources.

During the race the interesting thing is that there was no stomach pain, no headache and no bonking. In revenge my legs were absolutely destroyed!

Les Menuires

Being unfit and fat is not a recipe for great performance, but it is one for pain and discomfort and that came in abundance during the climb. The big gap behind was quite a good shield so that not a lot of people would overtake me during the climb - but the climb is a monster by any standards and it's not nice feeling the legs complaining from the very start. For the first 3 km I kept a normal climbing pace of between 12 to13 km/hr. When light I can manage closer to 17 km/hr on an isolated climb but at the moment around 11km/hr is sustainable on a long session. Unfortunately there was a sudden drop off with the first feelings of cramp - to between 8 to 9 km/hr. This wasn't a "bonk" and there were no headache symptoms. The legs were just hitting their limits. Bonking would have caused an even greater drop in speed and a real plod at another 2 km/hr slower. While the energy and head were still there the strength wasn't there in the legs. The sugar goop I'd prepared tasted horrible as expected and was slightly nauseating, but it didn't cause any stomach pains and was easily swallowed and washed out of the mouth with fresh water.

At 11 am  (3hrs after the start) I was at St Martin de Belleville around 7.5 km from the finish. Deciding to put the left foot on the ground while drinking and refilling a water bottle the  leg went immediately into cramp - mainly the quads. Just the simple act of putting body weight on the leg was enough to cause this. For the next half kilometre it was a struggle to ride through cramps on both legs - but particularly the left one. Eventually this died down and a rhythm was found again. 3 km from the finish there was a slight steepening of gradient that I didn't even spot, but my legs certainly did. Violent cramps hit both legs this time and it was very obvious that there would be no riding through this one. Getting off the bike was no great solution either because the load of standing up set off even greater violence with the muscles spasming - quads and hamstrings for both legs. Luckily there was a wooden barrier at the roadside that I could sit on and this immediately released the cramps slightly. Attempting to stretch was a waste of time because the muscles on the opposite side of the leg would just cramp even more. I tried massaging the quads but resigned to losing time. While this was going on and I was clearly in agony a French family thinking that I might be dying came running across the road, mother and children together all looking extremely concerned. I immediately told them that it was nothing serious, just cramp and that it would pass. However I had no idea if it would pass or not and whether the last 3 km would be possible as it was all still uphill. I accepted a drink of water from them even though I had my own - more to show my appreciation of their concern than through necessity. After about 5 minutes (I think) it was time to get back on the bike and give it a go. The timing was good because a few hundred metres down the hill somebody was catching me up. Surprisingly, not only were the legs fine but I was able to keep a higher pace for the rest of the climb even going head on into a very strong wind most of the final stretch. Odd! Guess it will take forever to even being to understand the body.


105th out of 147 and 18th out of 33 in age category. Not a total disaster but not far off! Next target is to lose another 10 kilos. The race was great though – motivating! There is no way to get this level of motivation alone in training or to self-inflict so much pain. The satisfaction of finishing and overcoming personal limits  is enough recompense. The perspective this gives on the need to use and develop the body intelligently is priceless. No more cheese for a while then.


The overall dual winners of the long course (which fortunately ended after I had finished and not before). Ogier (left in photo) normally wins it anyway.





The prizes are impressive - carbon bikes and trophies - but none for overweight plodders. There should be weight categories instead of age categories. "Power to weight" would be even more accurate. Yes I'd love to organise one of those races to my own rules - but administration is definitely not my cup of tea.

Actually, everyone was presented with a smart set of frameless sunglasses which are surprisingly good and fit properly. (Very unusual for a freebie)

I'd most of all love to add 20+ kg of ballast to the skinny rats who win those events!