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 Bon Hiver (GOOD WINTER)

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Bon Hiver (GOOD WINTER)

Not an uncommon site after being out in bitter cold for a two hour session. 

Not an uncommon site after being out in bitter cold for a two hour session. 

We've had a stiff does of winter this year (2017) in Bellingham, and it's all the locals can talk about. The last few winters have been quite warm, dry - so this one comes as quite the stiff reality check on an account that's been a bit overdrawn. 

The trick is getting into the ski without getting your feet wet when the main dock is iced in. 

The trick is getting into the ski without getting your feet wet when the main dock is iced in. 

I've personally never paddled in so much wind in such frosty conditions (32º F is now considered warm for a downwind run). Even in the grand age of neoprene and drysuits, one must be careful not to be out too long as the rudder lines start to freeze up and so do the toes. I've come back to shore more than a few times with blue feet and uh, ...other appendages. Hang in there boys.  

It's moments like these that I you don't think about cold feet much at all. 

It's moments like these that I you don't think about cold feet much at all. 

The upside to this is subtle, but remarkable. Like the initial shock of falling in, winter hit hard and my summer time Gorge spoiled brain just wasn't on board. It whined A LOT. 

"I'm cold!" 

"Are you done yet?"

"Are we there yet?"

"This is dumb. We should go in. And drink a beer. Mmmm... Beer!"

All of those phrases have oozed from my frost bitten frontal cortex like a steady drip from a melting icicle. While I can concede that the whining was relentless, it wasn't fruitless either. 

At some point my inner sniveling wimp just decided that misery is the new normal, and my brain just let it go and got back to focusing on how much fun all this nonsense is. Either that, or the poor bastard froze to death in the process of being choked out by the inner viking whose taken up residence in my subconscious will. Yes, this winter is indeed hard. But we're becoming harder. And that's the great thing as I type this lusting after temps in the high 40's, and water to match.

The hardened mind begets a hardened hide. It's not that I am blasé about the perils of cold water... quite the opposite. But I am not afraid either. And that for me is the best part. Heading out into the wind, waves and big blue frosty sea is liberating and joyous... just like surfski paddling is meant to be.

Warmer days will surely come. But why rush such a good thing? 

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Turning On the Off Season

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Turning On the Off Season

As the surfski racing year winds down the warm, the dry and long days of summer mutate to become the cold, wet, blunt instruments of winter. It's the off-season. A welcome break from the long hours of training, hard racing and many self-indulgent sacrifices athletes of all types make to pursue the fantasy that is sport. It's time to kick back, rest up and crack a few cold ones. Or is it?

I recently took the opportunity to ask a few top athletes and coaches that I respect about how they view the off season. Here are some of the insights they shared with me. 

1. The numbers don't lie. 

It's understandable to feel tired and a bit burnt out this time of year. That's your body turning on fuel light to let you know that yeah, you're pretty tired and it's time to get some long overdue rest.

While that might sound obvious, for many competitive athletes who have become acclimated to making steady progress, the temptation can be to not let off the gas peddle at all lest you loose ground. In my mind, the thought sometimes goes like this: "I worked so hard to get to this point, no way am I going to ease up now. Maybe if keep hammering I get a little bit faster?" 

The very nature of the physiological response to conditioning makes this impossible. The tear down and rebuild cycle required to enable and sustain development mandates a cycle of stress and rest. It's true on a weekly, monthly and seasonal basis. Put another way, there are no peaks without valleys. Try to stay on the peak too long, and you'll fall off. And if you aren't seeing peaks, then you're on a plateau. Factor in the psychological demands of training and racing, and maintaining perspective on how you're actually doing is a slippery slope indeed. 

A practical example would be that when I am in my surfski, my natural impulse is to GO AS FAST AS I CAN AS LONG AS I CAN!  Like a dog chasing the ball, it's exactly the behavior the surfski is designed to reward. 

But the numbers tell another story; one of diminishing returns. In the last two weeks, I've recorded a gradual fall-off in my 1000 meter times, and my heart rate numbers also indicate a season's worth of stress catching up to me. I am working ever harder and going slower.

Photo by David Schramm

"When I do go and hit a few hard sessions, I can only benefit from a training session as much as I am able to do it to its full potential. So even if you are only doing 3-4 sessions a week, if you smash the first one and don't recover enough to do the second or third one properly then it’s pointless. You have to learn to listen to your body. So when I start a session and I can feel that i am not getting out of it what the actual session is designed for, then I back off immediately and do something else. Similarly, I can feel when its time do some really hard intervals as opposed to an easy paddle." -Dawid Mocke

Push until broken. 

Another indicator that your in need of rest is when the "MORE!" button stops working. Like a lab rat with a bad cocaine habit, the more button is the one you push when you need to dig deep in a race to make a key move or stay within reach of a much faster competitor. When the more button stops responding, it's a clear sign that you're not adequately recovering between workouts. If you are not recovering, you're overtraining and it's time to think strategically about how your utilizing your time between workouts. 

2. The great must first get good at rest. 

The basics of rest are obvious. We need it in order to recover. No rest, no recovery. Know rest, know recovery. But it is also the word "rest" is easily misunderstood to mean "doing nothing". If you think of rest as a purposeful discipline, then it becomes possible to get good at it. 

Good recovery is rooted in the fundamentals of sleep, nutrition, hydration and your mental well being. For us weekend-warrior-family-types with delusions of greatness (or my case, fastness), the mental wellbeing aspect is often to key to a good recovery. 

The commitments to work, family and friends pile up fast. We're stretched thin, and ordinary days can become loaded down with too much "extra" as everything blends together and sets off a chain reaction that negatively impacts my sleep, nutrition and hydration regimens. By creating boundaries for each commitment, I am better able to prevent the hot mess of life-soup from boiling over and randomizing my life. 

This principal is known as containment, and is founded in your personal ability to create boundaries in your life by letting your "yes mean YES", and "no mean NO". Containment facilitates focus, and focus allows you to "be where your feet are" in life to get the most out of every opportunity. 

3. Every strength is a response to weakness. 

The temptation in the off-season is to focus on improving your strengths, but it's actually the perfect time to work on your weaknesses as well. If you think of your season as one very long race, it's in your best interest to make sure you start your next season with a full tank and the fundamentals of being fast firmly ironed out. 

The off-season presents a unique opportunity to examine and improve on these fundamentals that your season will be built on. To identify the fundamentals, I use a matrix from the business world called a SWOT analysis. 

STRENGTHS: List and rank (on a scale of 1 to 5) each of your natural attributes. Examples of strengths: mental toughness, balance, power, endurance, speed, recovery etc.

WEAKNESSES: List and rank each of your natural weaknesses. Examples: Training, Discipline, Recovery, Balance, Speed, etc. 

OPPORTUNITIES: List and rank each area where you believe you would benefit most from seeing improvement (based on the strengths and weaknesses listed above). 

THREATS:  List and rank those things that might impair, interfere or end your season. Example: Injury, Illness, Work or relocation to a North Korean labor camp. 

At the end of the scoring, circle those items that have the most equity and liability. This is also a handy exercise to do with your coach or a training partner for more perspective. If used wisely, the SWOT analysis can be a fairly simple way to dimensionalize and better understand the areas that most need improvement without conflating them as you identify your key objectives for the next year.

It’s one thing to say you want to do well or win a certain race, its another thing entirely to put a systematic plan in place to do so. In the end, you may not succeed as you intended, but at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you gave it your best shot and made progress attempting it.  

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Mosquitos, Sunshine & Beer

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Mosquitos, Sunshine & Beer

Cooney Reservoir 

Took a drive yesterday to Cooney Reservoir, a pleasant lake near Red Lodge that offers a Shire-like setting with the Beartooth Mountains as a backdrop. Curiously, one lap around the lake is exactly 10k (6.21 miles), and despite being short on time I managed to do eight laps around the lake for 80k (50 miles) in hot, humid, mosquito filled air. Lots of powerboat wake and rebound plus a few drunken fisherman kept the tedium at bay. Reminded me of cycling in the late 1980's and being heckled by rural drivers. Had some pleasant conversations with others who had never seen a surfski before and was offered beers. 

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Lake Chelan

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Lake Chelan

Exotic lawn chairs at the Campbell's resort. 

Just wrapped up several days of ultra-distance paddling on the lovely Lake Chelan. Typically glass smooth water in the mornings, building to a light breeze in the afternoons. Did enjoy one day of wind in the 20 mph range and a good downwind run. The lake is about 55 miles in length, and goes from a resort town to true alpine wilderness as it snakes it's way north. I would put in at the very southern end of the lake, and then paddle up-lake past the 25 Mile Creek Campground for a handful of very long, hard paddling days in the hot sun. 

Very thankful for a few days to unwind from the stress of moving, and just focus on my family and preparation for Vancouver Island. Next stop Montana for some unique altitude training and a few very special paddling locations.  

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Start fast, finish fast.

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Start fast, finish fast.

April 26th, 2015 - Beautiful, calm day in Bellingham Bay for the 11th annual Dan Harris race, part of the Think International Challenge. American racers square off against our Canadian brethren for a race using the cumulative point total of all the racers. The race is structured around participation (great idea!), and the nation with the lowest score wins. 

I was able to salvage yet another bad race start for 4th place finish. Disappointing, because it could have been a much different story with a better start, as I found myself chasing the lead group of three for the better part of nine miles, just twenty seconds behind but unable to close the gap (and wow did I try!). On the bright side, I had the best seats in the house to watch the sprint finish unfold between Jamie Klein (3rd), Kirk Christianson (2nd) and Don Kiesling (1st). 

For myself as a new surfski paddler, it underscores the critical nature of having an effective race start. Surfski racing is unique from other endurance sports in that it's often just explosive off the line. If you don't get off the line in just the right way, you will likely be in damage control mode for the remainder of the race. I've really struggled with my race starts this season so far, and it's cost me over and over again.

A few thoughts gleaned from talking with other, more experienced racers and my own observations: 

1) Make the start your first attack. When the horn sounds, I try not to do much... I use my arms for the first two or three strokes the break the cohesive grip of the water. Once the boat is moving, I give the first 20 seconds everything I've got, as I am in somewhat of a lactic acid free zone. When I start well, I am typically in the 10 mph range by the end of the 20 seconds. To put that in perspective, that can be three boat lengths on a competitor who now has to make up that distance. How to time 20 seconds? Don't, your body will tell you. At the first sign of blowing up, I feel a tightness in my chest and a slight pump in my arms. If the check engine light comes on, I've gone over. Despite the desire to take the foot off the gas pedal, I try to ease back into my regular race pace and get my heart-rate back down into the 170's range. 

2) Find clean water first, then a fast wake. The main objective in developing a fast start is to create separation and get in control of your race as quickly as possible. Simply being in front of another racer often has a tremendous psychological impact, especially if they are prone to doubting themselves. I like to explode of the line, find clean / flat water (if it's available) and then ease up ever so slightly and have a quick look around to see who else has gotten of the line quickly, and if there is another group that needs to be joined or chased.  

3) Power means control. You may be outgunned, outsmarted, or just out of shape, but having a fast start gives you option to at least be in the race. I have noticed that after the first mile, the pace between the first 20 or so racers is relatively the same, and closing the gap between groups in exceedingly hard to do. Especially by yourself. 

4) Don't panic and don't give up. After having several bad starts this year, I have found myself having to stay in the red zone for much longer then I would prefer in order to get back into touch with the race leaders. When you find yourself just out of reach of the leaders, stay calm, but give yourself a goal to make contact quickly and decisively. Don't hesitate, and do whatever it takes to get on a wash before you fade much more. And whatever you do, don't let go of the wash in front of you. It will only make things worse. 

On a few occasions when I have won races, I felt better as the race unfolded while seemingly invincible competitors have faded or lacked the will power to keep suffering late into the game. If someone asked me in the first mile if I thought I had a win in me, I would have politely declined to answer. Well, maybe not politely. The reason isn't that I may not have believed at that moment I would win, but rather that I didn't know what might happen. And that is the beauty of racing. You never know what you are capable of if you don't go find out. 




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Staying the course when it sucks to stay the course.

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Staying the course when it sucks to stay the course.

We've all had it happen. Fast one day. Slow the next. Fast yet again. Yesterday was a bad day for me. As a part of my scheduled training, I did 10 x 1000 meter sprints, and absolutely nothing was working. The water felt thick, the air felt heavy... and I felt slow. Not what I was hoping for, and just wanted off of that damn ride. At the end of each interval my mind cynically asking "why bother?"... My times agreed; I averaged 4:30's for all but one of the efforts - a full 30 seconds slower than my usual pace per 1k effort... OUCH!!! 

This experience reminded me to reflect on "bad days" and how to work around them, as most of what is written about training deals with good days, and the joy of progression that we all crave and expect at regular intervals.  

To understand "bad days", it's important to differentiate between a bad day and overtraining. They are often conflated, and have totally different causes, symptoms and remedies. A marked decline over the course of a week is often a precursor / first indicator of overtraining, or it may be a particularly trying cycle that leads to stellar results. Every case is different, but I'll save overtraining for another post. 

There was a funny word in my first paragraph that is key to understanding where bad days come from. "Felt". When the stoke is running hot, motivation and desire to work hard come easy. Everything comes easy. And hey, even if it's not easy it's still crazy fun to get nuked on endorphins and lactic acid. But when you do something long enough, chances are the motivation tank will run dry at some point. When that happens, a training program that relies on feelings will not be enough.

Thankfully discipline picks up where motivation leaves off. 

Discipline is that inner drill sergeant you have a love hate relationship with. You know that voice, the one that sounds just like yours, only less empathetic, brutally honest and way meaner. Discipline doesn't care about excuses, self doubt or pity, pleas for leniency and especially your feelings. Because feelings change about as often as the wind. 

Tonight we met for the weekly SWIFT Wednesday night time triall race, and based on yesterday's times and my feelings about them, I had low expectations. But discipline reminded me that yesterday is in the past, and has no bearing on what tonight might be like. And that is why I love discipline like my inner fat guy loves beer (whom I love more is an ongoing debate). Because much to the surprise of my feelings, my body was 100% fired up and ready to go... like yesterday didn't even happen. And no sooner had I savored the relief of feeling great after the race, discipline chimed in again and reminded me that we start over tomorrow, because today will be in the past. Jerk. 

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Heart Rate Training Basics

A few different paddling friends have recently asked for some thoughts on using a heart rate monitor (aka HRM) for training and racing. It's a fairly daunting subject that goes from simple numbers to information overload in a heartbeat (ba-dum-cha!!! couldn't resist). 

In one respect, an HRM is a very simplistic tool that offers a real time report on what your heart is doing at any given moment, and your brain is likely to say "um duh, I know this hurts too!".

Yet with a little bit of planning and context for the data, it can become a powerful and transformative resource for making performance breakthroughs consistently happen both short and long term. 

Put another way, you can't manage what you can't track. 

I prefer to use a zone system based on my maximum and resting heart rate. It's helps make the data, and decisions around said data, easy to understand and manage. I start with my maximum hear rate and work back into each heart rate zone accordingly. Determining your theoretical maximum heart rate is fairly easy; subtract your age from 220, and then know that your actual max heart rate will be subject to change as your fitness progresses. In my case being 37, my theoretical maximum heart rate is 183. Theoretical is the key word here, as my actual maximum heart rate lately has been 189. On the other end of the spectrum is your resting heart rate. Your resting heart rate is a solid indicator of your overall fitness, as well as a first symptom indicator of either impending sickness or overtraining. If you wake up and see a 7 to 10 bpm jump in your resting heart, time to back way off.   

Resting: 38 (when I first open my eyes in the AM)

Threshold: 179 (where I can safely keep my heart rate)

Max: 189 bpm (when I ask existential questions about "why do surfski's exist and why do I like them?")

When it comes to zones, it's handy to think of them like gears in a car. For my paddling friends, I've included my relative flatwater speed for each zone. 

Zone 1: 100 to 130 (warm up) 6.3 to 6.5 mph 

Zone 2: 131 to 150 (conversational pace, good for fat burning) 6.7 mph pace

Zone 3: 151 to 170 (mild race pace) 7.3 mph

Zone 4: 171 to 179 (threshold race pace) 7.9 to 8.3 mph

Zone 5: 180 to ____ (1k meter effort / sprint) 9.1 to 11.6 mph

Using Macro Cycles: Knowing when to be in each zone is the tricky part, and how to make them work together for good results. I use a macro cycle approach to managing my training in a calendar year. Each macro cycle is roughly three months, and I use four macros in a year. 

Micro Cycels: Within a macro are three micro cycles, and each is approximately four to five weeks. Each week within the micro cycle should increases in workload consecutively, with a peak workload late in the third week. The fourth week should be a split between the second and third week, with a little less distance, and a bit more cross training.  

Macro 1: Pre-season In the pre-season (December, January, February), I spend 90% of my time in Zone 1 & 2 and each session is roughly 90 to 120 minutes. Think of these as long, slow distance rides with little fast forays into the Zone 3 to spice things up, but no Zone 4 or above. Too much time in Zone 4 and 5 and you risk an early season peak. The pre-season is when I focus on building foundational strength / power and a solid aerobic base. A solid base is crucial for preventing injury or having unpredictable results late in the season. I typically paddle everyday, with one rest day per week. While I will still attend races, I wont be in the hunt for the win. 

Sample week: 

Monday: 12 to 20 miles, Zone 2

Tuesday: 8 to 12 miles, Zone 2

Wednesday: 4 to 6 miles, Zone 3

Thursday: 12 to 20 miles, Zone 2

Friday: 6 to 8 miles, Zone 2

Saturday: 12 to 20 miles, Zone 2

Sunday: REST

 

Macro 2: Early Season (March, April, May) Still some long / slow distance with some longer intervals (15 minutes!) and speed work (1k / 4 minutes) to up the intensity. It shifts from 70 / 30 to 50 / 50 by the end of the macro cycle with a lot of time in Zone 4 by the end. If it's the end of a race, I will do some redline Zone 5. Each session is roughly 60 to 90 minutes, but I start to use cross training (aka "two-a-days") to further develop my fitness. I also try to stack three to four very hard days together, and then rest for a day or two per week. It's unorthodox, but it works really well for me. 

Sample Week: 

Monday: 15 to 25 miles, Zone 2

Tuesday: 6 to 8 miles, Zone 3/4  - X-TRAIN Weights

Wednesday: 4 to 6 miles, Zone 4/5 - X-TRAIN Run

Thursday: 12 to 20 miles, Zone 2/3

Friday: REST

Saturday: 12 to 20 miles, Zone 2

Sunday: 6 to 8 miles, Zone 2/3 - X-TRAIN Run

 

Macro 3: Peak Season (June, July, August) This time of the year is mostly race pace work in the 10 to 20k distance, with tons and tons of intervals and gut wrenching intensity sessions (zone 4 & 5) and the occasional downwind day to keep things fun and to break up the monotony of flatwater training (also known as Fartlek training). I tend to front the load the week for distance, then shift to intensity as the weekend approaches with a Friday off to accommodate weekend racing. Average session is 90 to 120 minutes, but very very intense. I shift to an on / off schedule (one day in the boat / one day cross training). You will notice a lot more rest days listed below, and I have learned the hard way that in peak season the number 1 problem for me is overtraining. 

Sample Week: 

Monday: 12 to 20 miles, Zone 3/4

Tuesday: REST / X-TRAIN Run

Wednesday: 6 to 10 miles, Zone 4/5

Thursday: 12 to 20 miles, Zone 3/4

Friday: REST / X-TRAIN Run

Saturday: 12 to 20 miles, Zone 4/5

Sunday: REST / X-TRAIN Run

 

Macro 4: Late / Off Season (September, October, November) - I typically force myself to stay in Zone 2 & 3 for the bulk of this training during this macro, and keep sessions in the 45 to 60 minute range. I will also take try to take November off. A successful macro here is to stay healthy, injury free and very motivated for the cold damp month of December 1.  

Sample Week: 

Monday: 6 to 10 miles, Zone 2

Tuesday: X-TRAIN Run

Wednesday: 4 to 6 miles, Zone 3

Thursday: X-TRAIN Run

Friday: 6 to 8 miles, Zone 3

Saturday: 12 to 20 miles, Zone 2 & 3

Sunday: Rest Day

Final note: The above is an approximation of what works for me, and training isn't one size fits all. So find a starting point, make a plan and then adjust accordingly. 

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