Tuesday, January 21, 2014

P90X and Competitive Cycling

With the 2013 racing season over and the deep freeze of a Wisconsin winter upon us, it's time for me to do yet another round of Tony Horton's super-popular P90X programs. This will be my third year in a row of using these programs during the cycling offseason to set myself up for a new year of racing. I did the original P90X program in 2012 and P90X2 in 2013, so this winter it makes sense to tackle P90X3, which was just released in December. I attribute much of my success as a masters MTB and CX racer to the P90X programs, so I thought I'd describe my experience with them and share some thoughts on why I think they've helped me achieve my racing goals. Just to be clear, I am not a Team Beachbody Coach, so I have no commercial stake in P90X; my review is  positive but honest.

Year 1: P90X Classic

My first year, 2012, I did the original P90X Classic program from February through May. When I started it, I was in relatively bad shape (keeping in mind I've been a serious athlete my whole life). My 2011 CX season was cut short by a severe overuse injury to my quad, and I had spent November through January just doing physical therapy for that. So by February, I was heavy (168 lbs at 5'8), and while my quad was doing better, I was generally weak from all the time away from my usual activities. I also had been suffering from a lot of back pain since throwing my back out a couple of years earlier. My physical therapist, on one of my final visits for my quad injury, recommended I try P90X, and so I ordered it up and planned to start on February 20th, my 42nd birthday.

Before I recount my own experience with the program, let me tell you a bit about its design. P90X is a 90 day-long boot camp type fitness program and diet. The fitness program is broken down into 3 phases of 4 weeks each, and each phase is broken down into 3 hard weeks and 1 recovery week. Each of the phases has its unique workouts, but the hard weeks in all 3 phases share a weekly yoga workout, a weekly plyometrics workout, and a weekly MMA cardio workout called Kenpo X. You also do a 15 minute abdominal workout 3 days a week after other workouts in all the hard weeks. The workouts themselves last anywhere from 50 to 90 minutes, and all of them are pretty tough, even the yoga. They are tough because they keep you moving, not because the moves themselves are difficult. It is all circuit training; even when you are doing the Chest and Back routine, for example, you move from exercise to exercise so fast that it becomes a cardio workout too. You end nearly every workout drenched in sweat and exhausted yet adrenalized. Through all 3 phases, the hard weeks go basically like this:

Day 1: a very hard upper-body workout + ab routine
Day 2: a demanding plyometrics routine
Day 3: an easier upper-body workout + ab routine
Day 4: a slow 90 minute yoga routine
Day 5: a hard lower-body + back workout + ab routine
Day 6: a fun and easy MMA cardio workout
Day 7: an hour-long stretching routine (optional but I always included it)

The recovery weeks involve doing the yoga routine twice, the stretch routine twice, the MMA routine once, and a very good core program called Core Synergistics twice. Though it is a good recovery week, they were right not to call it a rest week.

As for the diet, it is effective but could be hard to follow for some. You really have to do some research and planning before you start, or you'll feel lost and waste a lot of time trying to figure out each meal. Basically, in the first phase you eat mainly protein, and then in the second and third phases you increase the proportion of carbs to protein. All along, though, the emphasis is on the quality of the nutrients, so it does teach you to eat smarter. Since I had followed various macrobiotic, vegan, and vegetarian diets for many years (but had recently started including meat and fish in my diet), I was already familiar with lots of different sources of protein and was good at preparing meals using a large variety of vegetables, seeds, and nuts. All of this made the diet pretty easy for me to adapt to.

So, just before February 20th rolled around, I bought some weights and a pull-up bar, studied the diet guide, purged the kitchen cabinets of all unhealthy food, and, hardest of all, prepared myself mentally to give up alcohol for 3 months. Then on February 18th, I took the P90X fitness test. I was disappointed by the results; for example, I could only do 9 good pull-ups in a row and fewer than 50 push-ups. That may not sound terrible, but I had been a dedicated climber and surfer for many years, so I thought my upper-body strength was better than that. I also had done many marathons and ultramarathons over the years, so I thought I would have more endurance and leg strength than I did.

Inspired by my lack of fitness, I started the program two days later as planned and immediately liked it. The first workout felt incredibly hard, but I really enjoyed the degree of suffering it dished out. This was clearly the real thing. I was completely exhausted by the end of the first week. Yet I recovered and the rest of the first phase went well. The results were apparent: I was feeling great; I was already up to 16 pull-ups in a row, my core was getting much stronger, my flexibility was better, and my weak leg and shoulder (both of which had been operated on a couple of years earlier) were feeling more stable.

During the second phase, I upped my daily calories a bit and, following the program, I restored some balance between carbs and protein. This made me feel much more energetic. Surprisingly, even with the increased carbs, my weight continued to drop, though more slowly. By the end of the second phase, I was at 155 (13 lbs lighter) and definitely looking more lean. More importantly, I was doing 20 pull-ups in a row and feeling way more flexible and much more fit cardiovascularly. With just one phase to go, I had no trouble staying committed.

In the third phase, I finally started getting on the bike a little. I knew I would be spending the summer in Colorado in order to compete in the Leadville 100, so I didn't want to arrive there without any cycling fitness at all. I decided to ride 2-3 times per week, keeping it to very easy rides since I was so committed to finishing out P90X as strongly as possible. With the fitness I had already attained in the first 2 phases and the momentum I felt, the third phase was a breeze. I finished the program the day before I hit the road for Colorado. I had a great feeling of accomplishment, especially when I managed 31 legitimate pull-ups in a row in the final fitness test. All of the results were pretty astonishing to me. I was down to a very lean 150, had fantastic all-around fitness, and wasn't experiencing any more back, shoulder, or knee trouble. I honestly felt more energetic and spry than I had in at least a decade. 

This greatly improved general fitness set me up for a good racing season. I adjusted to the altitude well and felt strong on the big Colorado climbs (being 18 lbs lighter makes climbing a blast!). I didn't have a very good endurance base, though, so I did have some trouble getting used to the long rides required to prepare for Leadville. But after 2 months out there, I managed to finish Leadville in under 9 hours (my biggest goal for the year), and I returned to Wisconsin very satisfied and ready to race cyclocross.

However, getting on the bike so late in the season (May) and focusing only on endurance rides all summer turned out to be poor preparation for the specific demands of cyclocross. On top of that, I had a lot of stress in my life and was sick pretty much the entire fall. So even though I did a lot of CX races and tasted a bit of success, the 2012 CX season was mediocre overall. I don't feel this was the fault of P90X though; if anything, I had a mediocre season in spite of it.

Near the end of the season, between the national and the world championships, I did a little soul searching and decided that rather than tackle the Leadman Challenge as I had planned, I wanted to make cyclocross my priority in 2013. I recognized that P90X had helped me make great improvements in my general fitness and that it had the potential to help me a lot in racing too, so I decided that, to launch my 2013 cyclocross campaign, I would spend the winter doing the newly released P90X2.

I'll cover my experience with P90X2 in my next post; for now, here is my P90X conclusion in a nutshell: if you are over 35 and want to compete seriously in bike racing (especially MTB or CX with their demands on the whole body), the best thing you can do for yourself in the offseason is commit to a boot camp type fitness program such as P90X. It takes a lot of discipline and forethought to do it right, but the benefits are huge: you learn to eat smarter; you achieve a good racing weight; you become more flexible; your core becomes stronger, which should take care of most back problems; all of your muscles become more balanced, which should take care of many other nagging aches and chronic weaknesses relating to middle age; you improve your VO2 max; and you just feel younger, lighter, and better all around. The downsides for a competitive cyclist are that you either have to give up the bike for a while or have to find time to do both; you have to work your way through some exercises and routines that you might not like or that seem silly; you don't develop the kind of endurance base that is normally the goal of the offseason; and if you don't approach the weightlifting in the right way, you might put on a little more upper-body muscle than you would like. 
Next time: how P90X2 set the stage for my 2013 season

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Lessons Learned from CX Nats

The 2014 CX National Championships are over and done with and so is my season. It is a bit of a relief to be done, I have to admit. But I have to get my preparations for the coming season underway quickly here since my first MTB races are just 3 1/2 months a way. That might seem like a long time, but it's really not when you take into account the need for a brief offseason, a sufficiently long base-building season, and a period of more intense efforts to get the engine ready for racing. But before I write about any of those plans, I thought I'd write a brief account of the lessons learned from my Nats race in particular and the CX season more generally.

How the Race Went Down
I'll keep this brief. Basically, I had a good start, threaded my way through numerous crashes, and pushed a strong pace the first lap. The front of the race quickly got strung out thanks to the crashes, and by the end of the first lap it was clear that a top fifteen finish was the best I could realistically hope for. I wasn't defeatist about it, just realistic. In fact, I went absolutely as hard as I could, and I was very motivated and positive during the whole race. For the remaining 5 laps I battled hard with the 8-10 others who were sitting just outside the top 10. I had great focus, used good tactics, made no major mistakes, and never let off the gas. Thanks to all that, I ended up 13th. Not the top-10 finish that I had set as my stretch goal, but still well within my realistic goal of a top-15 finish.

What I Learned from the Race and the Season--The Positive

1) All my work on increasing my power paid off. This was my main limiter last season, and I put a lot of time into doing all-out 5 minute intervals to address it. I was able to go super-hard on the first lap and keep laying the power down on the straightaway and the big hill each lap.

2) All my work on practicing starts paid off. I didn't think of starts as a limiter, but I knew that in a big race a good start is almost everything. I hit my pedal just right, got up to speed quickly and smoothly, kept myself out of trouble, and kept my cool. Luck played a big role as always, but bike cause I did these things right, I made it ok through the big crashes at the start. And boy were they ugly.

3) I've developed a good feel for when to go hard and when to recover, and I've become really good at staying calm and not wasting energy.

4) My bike handling skills are very good, and I'm getting better at positioning myself against others to take advantage of that.

5) I've developed a much better race mentality. My confidence is much higher than before, and I race to win. That was never really the case before; I always assumed I couldn't win races, and this became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now when I race I recognize the negative thinking right when it starts (usually in the 2nd or 3rd lap of a big race), and I correct it.

What I Learned from the Race and the Season--Things to Work on

1) My biggest problem is that my right quad tends to cramp up near the end of a really hard race. This problem was so bad that it ended my season 2 years ago. This year it was less of a problem, but it still caused me trouble. At Nats the quad cramped up during my last run up the stairs, causing me to lose my battle for 12th place. I'm going to address this by strengthening the quad with heavy weight lifting throughout my base season (and keep up with it less intensely during the MTB and CX seasons) as well as by increasing my endurance and muscular endurance. 

2) Another weakness is my ability to push hard through my second and third laps. While I plan to keep improving my first lap (5-minute) capacity, I'm going to focus more attention this year on my 10-minute capacity. This will mean one day per week dedicated to 10 minute hard intervals with shorter and shorter recovery periods each week. 

3) I need to do more running--more stair and hill running--before and during the CX season. At both Jingle Cross and Nats I had trouble with running. You'd think since I used to be an ultramarathon runner I wouldn't have trouble with this, but sprinting up a hill or staircase is its own thing.

4) I need to drill my cornering technique even more than I did last year (and I drilled it so much!). It's not a weakness, but I recognize I could get even better at this, and that would pay huge dividends.

5) I need to work on bunny-hopping barriers. This wasn't possible at Nats since they were on an icy hill, but there were a few races this season where I could have gained a second here and there had I jumped the barriers. Especially true at Jingle Cross, so I plan to replicate the set up and drill it.

6) Finally, I really need to get my child-care situation under control. There were many times this season when my inability to get a babysitter lined up prevented me from pre-riding courses, kept me from warming up properly, and just generally caused a lot of stress. At Nats, I was at the race for 2 full days before my race, yet I was completely unable to preride the course. And the day before I was stuck on the trainer trying to get the legs opened up for my race. Not ideal at all!

That was a great season--better than I ever imagined. I look back on the goals I wrote down a year ago and realize I blew them away. Now I have a much better sense of what I am capable of, I've set some great goals (esp. a top-3 finish at CX Nats and a top-5 finish at MTB Nats), and I have a very good plan for achieving them. Here's to a great 2014 season!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Prepping for 2014 CX Nationals

I've decided to leave my planning for next year's campaign until after Nationals. It makes more sense now to write about how I've been preparing for the biggest and last race of this long season.

The biggest challenges we all are facing going into nationals are 1) maintaining race form for weeks after the end of the state series, 2) not overindulging during the holiday season, 3) dealing with the stress of traveling, and 4) adjusting to the altitude. It has been a big struggle, but I've managed to deal well with all 4 challenges so far, and nationals are now just 5 days away for me. This is how I managed it.

Since I have family and friends in Gunnison and Crested Butte, Colorado, and was on winter break from my university job, I drove out there on 12/23 accompanied by my 3 year-old daughter, Judit. We arrived at my brother's house in Gunnison (7700 feet elevation) on Christmas Eve, just in time for a big family dinner with his family, with the families of my two younger sisters, and with my mother. I even managed to get a quick spin in to get the blood flowing after the 20 hour drive. Off to a good start.

Over the next 4 days I got some decent rides in right out my brother's door on snow-covered ranch roads. I took it very easy the first ride and gradually worked in some moderate efforts over the next 3 rides, never getting above 75% RPE. I felt pretty good at altitude so far, and the cold air (single digits most days) was made bearable by the bright sunlight. 5 degrees here feels like 25 in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, on the health front, I stayed away from alcohol altogether and stuck to my usual training diet with the exception of some pumpkin pie and a few Christmas cookies. Boring!

On day 5 I moved on up to Crested Butte to stay with my best friend, Jay Prentiss, who lives in an incredible house right on the slopes of Mt. Crested Butte, at 9400 feet elevation. Right away the altitude was hitting me hard. I barely slept the first night and felt a little dizzy going up and down the stairs. I'm very familiar with all of this since my main thing used to be mountaineering and I've been to 14,000 feet hundreds of times and even as high as 22,000 feet a few times, but it still hurts every time I come to altitude. So for the next week my routine was to go to my sister Stephanie's place in CB South in the mid-morning, have her watch my daughter, and get out on a ride. The rides I did there were very productive. I would descend about 600 vertical from her home, ride about 20 minutes up a canyon called Cement Creek on a snow-covered dirt road, turn around where the road was closed, descend it, climb back up to her house, and then do some short hard efforts on the flat road in front of her house. Altogether about 1:30 of training each day. I was feeling better and better with the altitude but still noticing a terrible lack of power on all my hard efforts.

The biggest challenge during that week was that my daughter got sick, forcing me to stay in my friend's apartment with her around the clock for 2 days. All the training I could manage was to sneak onto the trainer while she slept. The first day I did 5 x 5 minute hard efforts with 4 minute rests, and the second day I did 5 x 10 minute moderate efforts with 5 minute rests. Luckily there were lots of kersteperiode races to catch up on via YouTube.
By the end of the week--1/3--my daughter was better, so I went ahead with my plan to go to Longmont, Colorado for 2 days of racing at the Altitude Adjustment Cross races. My brother and my sister-in-law were generous enough to take care of my daughter, and they themselves have a 2 year-old and a 6 year-old, so I felt good about leaving her there for one night. I woke up Saturday morning to a snowstorm and had to drive all the way to Longmont through it to get there in time for my 3:15 race. The 4 1/2 hour drive took me 5 1/2, and I saw countless accidents along the way. The usual mayhem of mountain driving in the winter.

I got to the race with plenty of time. It was pretty much a blizzard at the course, and there was a good 5-6 inches of snow on the ground. Luckily for those of us adjusting to the altitude, it was a fairly flat course with constant turns, so with all the snow there were very few places where anybody could really lay down the power. Good thing because somehow I was still really feeling the altitude anytime I tried out a bit of acceleration while warming up. So I wasn't feeling that motivated to race, but my mood was greatly improved by running into my teammate Alex Martin and our fellow Wisconsinites J.W. Miller and Max Ackermann.

The race itself turned out to be a blast. This was my first time lining up with the likes of Jeremy Powers, Jeremy Driscoll, Justine Lindine, Logan Owen, and other national-caliber racers. But I had a second-row position on the grid and, as usual, managed to have a very good start. I was about 8th going into the holeshot. I stuck with the leaders for about 3/4 of a lap, and a gap opened up behind me. Since the race was all about handling, I started to think I'd be able to hang in there, but then I made the slightest of mistakes, just a quick foot dab, and in an instant I was dropped and facing an unbridled lie gap of about 5 meters. Crazy how fast that happened. I was in no-man's land for a bit, and then on the longer climb, coming at the end of the lap, I started to feel the altitude, so coming through the start/finish straight I got passed by the whole second group and fell to around 15th. I settled in and the rest of the race went well. I just focused on staying upright and having some fun with it. I got passed a few more times, but had an excellent last lap and even beat one guy in the final sprint, so I ended on a good note. My teammate Alex said he had a really bad start, so his race didn't go as well, but I'm sure he had fun since he loves racing on snow as much as I do.

I stayed overnight in Longmont with an old school pal, Peter Schaub, who proved to be an awesome host--he and his whole family. He, too, is a 'cross racer, and had raced that day, so we had plenty to chat about over dinner. Next day it was brutally cold and still snowing. I got out and did the masters race at 10 AM, but it was such a bad experience that I lost all desire to stick around until 3:15 for the pro race. It was bad mainly because the organizer decided to have the large 45+ field start 30 seconds in front of the 40-44 field. Total catastrophe. I was leading my race when, after just 1/2 a lap, I caught up to the back of the 45+ field. With all of the snow and the turny nature to the course, it was next to impossible to pass anybody. I was even reduced to walking along with my bike on my shoulder several times. And each time I hit a straight and tried to pass, I would have to do so through the deep snow to the side, which completely drained me given the altitude. There was a fast Colorado guy in my group, and he was able to work the deep snow better than I could, so he got in a few more passes and finished just in front of me in our 3 lap, 27 minute race; I didn't help myself by getting my front wheel stuck in somebody's pedal while desperately trying to pass people. Ridiculous race. I packed up and drove back to Gunnison.

So now it's just 5 days until I race at 9 AM Saturday. What to do? I will train a bit more here in Gunnison, then head to Boulder on Thursday to catch Dave Eckel's race--our team captain. Friday I'll preview the course, and Saturday I will try to close out this amazing season with a top-10 finish. That'll be a big challenge with the altitude still working against me, but it may just be doable with the right amount of luck and intelligent racing.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Looking Backwards and Forwards 2013/2014

January is the month of Janus, the two-faced Roman god who looks backward and forward simultaneously, and that's what I'll be doing here on January 1, 2014.

Backward to 2013
This was by far my most busy and successful season of bike racing. I raced 48 times: 1 gravel race, 5 road/crit races, 12 MTB races, and 31 CX races. The gravel and road races were just for the sake of training, and while I had a very good result at the treacherously icy and snowy Barry-Roubaix gravel race (13th out of 119 in the Masters 40+ 62 mile race), my road results were mediocre, reflecting my lack of experience in and enthusiasm for road racing.

My first glimpses of good form came in the WORS MTB races; I placed in the top 25 consistently in the open pro/elite field (need to go look up my results to be more precise) and felt very competitive, with lots of good races-within-the-races against strong guys. My MTB season peaked in late July at the MTB XC National Championships held in Macungie, PA on an extremely rugged and swelteringly hot course. There I was 3rd going into the singletrack and 5th near the beginning of the second lap when I got a flat. I threw some air into it, lost about 15 spots, regained a few spots, and then had to stop and throw a whole new tube in, losing I don't know how many spots in the process. I had a strong 3rd lap though, picking off a bunch of riders, and finished 18th. After that my MTB racing was less focused since I was transitioning to CX, but I had a strong Oar To Shore, finishing 64th (11th in age group), despite a major mechanical, and my best-yet Chequamegon result, 64th (12th in age group). And then I hung up my beloved Trek Superfly for the year.

In cyclocross, technically we have to go back to January 2013, when I placed 24th at Nationals in the 40-44 age group and 2nd in the "Non-Championship" race used as a tune-up. I then went to Louisville for the Master's World Cyclocross Championships and placed 24th in the sickest frozen mud anybody has ever seen. That was an experience to remember for life, and it got me very psyched about the next season. To get myself even more excited about the upcoming season, I purchased a Trek Cronus frameset and built it up over the spring and summer, eventually resulting in a 15.05 lb race machine. When the season started with the Sheboygan CX race, I completely surprised myself by taking the holeshot, creating a gap, and soloing to victory ahead of some strong riders, including a few very fast guys that came up from Illinois. And that launched my season because it gave me the confidence I lacked in 2012 and lit a fire under me. I then won the Lake Geneva race in deep mud despite having raced Chequamegon the day before, and I also performed very well against a more national-caliber field (including the current 40-44 World Champion) at the Trek CXC Cup, placing 6th both days. I then won 6 out of the next 11 WCA Master's 35+ races, placed 6th, 10th, and 6th at the three days of Jingle CX, and rounded out the regular season with a good win at Melas Basin in Chicago in the 40+ category and a surprising 3rd place in the pro category at the Norje Ski Jump race. In the championship races, I won the Wisconsin State Cyclocross Championships (Master's 35+), took 2nd at the Midwest Regional Championships in epic snowy conditions, and placed 6th that same day in then pro field. The only thing left to mention is that, with 9 wins, 3 2nd places, 1 3rd place, and 1 5th place result in the WCA Masters 35+ series, I won the series in addition to the state championship race.

2013 Performance Analysis
Why did I have such a good season? Many things came together for me:
--I was uninjured and stayed that way apart from a sprained thumb in December
--I was much less stressed by family life this year
--I got much better sleep (at last!) now that my daughter is 3
--I was highly motivated since racing was/is like a life survival strategy for me
--I became obsessed with CX and learned as much as I could about it on and offline
--I had a great diet and the discipline to stick with it
--I had an excellent fitness base (core, flexibility, etc) thanks to P90X and P90X2
--I had great support from my team, KS Energy Services / Team Wisconsin
--I was able to draw on all the experience I gained doing 17 CX races in 2012
--I had a much better bike, a Trek Cronus with SRAM Red/Force drivetrain
--I also had a good B bike in my Specialized Crux Disc
--I had a fantastic race wheelset, Easton EC90SLXs
--I prepared for the season very well by racing WORS and doing lots of road miles
--I methodically honed my skills on the new CX bike throughout the preseason
--I worked very hard on having a strong start
--I worked to address my main weakness: putting the hammer down on the straights
--I followed a detailed race-day routine, which really kept race stress at bay
--I learned how to race at the front of the race, how to think tactically while racing
--I had a great, very regular weekly schedule once the season was underway
--I prioritized recovery: rested every Monday and Thursday and took some naps at work
--I consistently used the foam roll and a basic yoga routine to stay loose
--I just became more confident with every win and thus raced better and better

Like I said, many, but many things came together for me. For that reason, it will be hard to top this season, but I definitely mean to take it to the next level in 2014.

Forward to 2014
The 2013 season rather awkwardly wraps up in early 2014 with 2 days of CX racing in Longmont, Colorado on 1/4 and 1/5, then with CX Nationals on 1/11. It has been a challenge to keep good form during the holidays with the lack of races, the stress of travel, and the opportunities to indulge, but I've managed well. I drove out to Western Colorado on 12/23 with my 3 year old daughter and have been staying with family and friends in Gunnison (7700 feet) and Crested Butte (9400 feet). I'm struggling with the altitude, the cold, a sick child, and other things but still getting on the bike a lot and feeling pretty good. I plan to race the pro category in Longmont on Saturday and both the masters and pro categories on Sunday just to jolt my body back into race mode. I then will have a few days of training back in Gunnison, a couple of days of previewing the course in Boulder while cheering on teammates in their races, and my race at last 9:00 AM Saturday. Then finally it's time for some indulgence!

After a two week offseason, I will begin preparations to the 2014 season proper. My goals for 2014 are pretty ambitious:

#1 become the Cyclocross National Champion in my age group (45-49 for CX)
#2 place in the top 3 at MTB National Championships in my age group (40-44 for MTB)  
#3 win one of the Jingle CX races (Masters 35+)
#4 win one of the Trek CXC Cup races (Masters 35+)
#5 defend my Wisconsin State CX Champion title
#6 become Midwest Regional CX Champion (Masters 35+)

I have some secondary goals as well:
--place in the top 15-20 overall in all WORS races
--place top 3 in my age group at all WORS races
--place in the top 50 at Chequamegon
--place in top 5 at whatever WCA Pro 1/2/3 races I can get to
--get on the podium at whatever Chicago Cross Cup pro races I can get to
--place in top 5 at all national-level CX events I can get to

I'll have more to say tomorrow or the next day about how I plan to make all this happen in 2014. Until then, happy New Year to all, and a big shout out to everyone who supported and took any interest at all in my racing in 2013!