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

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