My life and the world around me

Category: cycling (Page 1 of 5)

Diving into structured training

I started getting interested in bikes when I was 13. My interest has waxed and waned over the years, but never really went away. I’ve thought of myself as a cyclist since I got my first pair of cleats at 17. I’ve always been interested in bikes as objects of technology and craftsmanship, and I’ve always enjoyed riding them. At various points I’ve gotten to be a pretty strong rider, but I’ve never been methodical about it—beyond following Eddy Merckx’s advice to ride lots, and perhaps alternating long days with short days, I’ve never been interested in structured training. Lately I have gotten interested, and like so many things, once you pry the lid open on a subject, you discover it goes much deeper than you ever imagined.

I’ve been trying to digest a lot of the concepts involved in structured training, but I haven’t found any one place that packages them up so far. There is a book (and a paper that preceded it) that, well, “wrote the book” on a lot of this, and I may eventually break down and get it. For now, this is my own cheatsheet. Some of this may be wrong. I’m not going to link back to citations for everything. Caveat lector.


Watt
The unit of measure for power. Training these days is structured around power and heart rate. In the past, cyclists would ride to time, or to distance, or to speed.
Kilojoule
The unit of measure for total work performed during a workout. Note that watts are a measure of instantaneous power, but kilojoules are a measure of work over time (same as watt-hours: there are 3600 joules in 1 watt-hour). Thanks to a statistical fluke, the work performed in kilojoules is treated as equal to the calories burned during a workout. So you burn 1000 kCal in a 1000 kJ workout.
Functional threshold power (FTP)
The maximum average effort a cyclist can put out for one hour, measured in watts. The gold standard for this is to ride an hour all-out. Most people don’t do this because it’s awful—instead, most people ride a 20-minute FTP test and deduct a certain percentage from that result—typically 5%, but if you’re not exceptionally fit, it should be 10% or 15%. Even riding 20 minutes on the road is difficult just for logistical reasons—you’d want 7 or more miles of level road with no stops, or a hill climb that’s a few miles long, again without stops—so I suspect most people do FTP tests on stationary bikes. FTP is a training tool: it’s used as a baseline for other workouts. All my interval patterns are based on percentages of FTP. It’s also good for bragging rights (unless your FTP is as low as mine, in which case you prefer not to talk about it). I’ve seen articles on how to maximize your FTP test results, but this seems wrong-headed if you’re using it as a training tool, since all the training you base on it will be off. The most celebrated record in cycling is the hour record, which is pretty much what it sounds like: how far you can go in an hour (on a track bike, in a velodrome). The current men’s record for this is about 55 km, and it’s estimated that riders are putting out about 440 watts at that level (which sounds less impressive when you realize it’s about 3/5 horsepower—less than a chainsaw engine puts out).
W/kg
Your power-to-weight ratio. Usually refers to Your FTP divided by your weight, but may be used to describe the power you can maintain over shorter periods. A small, strong rider will have a better power-to-weight ratio than a big rider who’s not so strong, but the big rider may have a higher absolute wattage output. These numbers can be important in different contexts: riding fast over level ground is mostly a matter of raw power because once you get past about 16 mph, almost all the drag you encounter is aerodynamic drag, and that increases with the square of your speed. But riding fast up a hill is more about W/kg, because you’re going slower in the first place (so aerodynamics are less important) and gravitational drag becomes a big part of the total resistance you encounter.
Critical power
The maximum power that can be maintained indefinitely, in watts. You can put out higher power, but only for a limited period of time, and there’s an asymptotic curve plotting the relationship between power output and duration, so you can put out very high power for a few seconds, fairly high power for a few minutes, and critical power for hours. Going beyond CP means relying to some extent on anaerobic capacity.
W’ (w prime)
The capacity for work above critical power, in kilojoules. You can put out effort in the W’ range for 10–15 minutes. The problem with going into the W’ range is that it costs a lot of energy, and once you’re done, you’re very depleted.
Normalized power
This is a weighted average power for a workout. Because all the time you spend above critical power tends to burn you out more quickly, a workout in which your effort fluctuates between high and low levels will be harder than a steady-state workout at the same average power. Normalized power reflects that.
Intensity
Normalized power divided by FTP.
Training Stress Score (TSS)
This is way of expressing a workout’s duration and intensity. Riding for one hour at FTP will have a TSS of 100. This is used to set weekly training goals, so for example you’ll aim for your all your workouts in a week to add up to a TSS of, say, 350.
Chronic training load (CTL)
Average TSS over 42 days.
Acute training load (ATL)
Average TSS over 7 days.
Training stress balance (TSB)
CTL minus ATL. I’ve also seen this referred to as “form.” The idea is that you want to be fresh for big events, so you taper off your training in the days beforehand. This metric is used to optimize your tapering.
Heartrate (HR)
Everyone has a maximum heartrate that’s estimated based on age, and heart-rate zones are all calculated based on your max HR. I’ve seen 220 minus age (for men) and 226 minus age (for women) as the most common way to compute this. Going by this, my max HR is 166 (as of this writing). I’ve also seen 208-(0.7 × age), which for me winds up being a few bpm higher (the results from these two equations match for men when they’re 40, for women when they’re 60). I’ve pushed myself to 165 bpm during workouts and held it steady there for a minute or two, so I’ll call these formulas close enough for me. Resting heart rate can improve dramatically with exercise. Four-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain was reputed to have a RHR of 26 bpm in his prime.
Zone
Can refer to heart-rate zones or power zones. Anyone who has used a fitbit with heart-rate monitoring has seen the yellow/orange/red zones. And it’s my understanding that the theory behind Orange Theory fitness boutiques is that they keep you in the orange zone. It turns out there are numerous different zone systems, with different numbers of zones and different breakpoints between them, and if you keep track of your data with more than one app/service, keeping their zones in alignment is a chore. Zones are another training tool, where you aim to keep your heart rate or power in a certain zone for a certain period of time during your workout.
Lactate threshold
A limit on sustained effort. Any effort beyond LT will basically be a sprint that can only be sustained for about 2½ minutes. This is really interesting to me. When I was younger, we thought of lactic acid as the waste product of exercise, and that lactic-acid accumulation occurred because your body was working too hard to clear it. Now we understand that lactate is part of the energy-transport system (also, we talk about lactate now, not lactic acid), and LT occurs because your body is producing it faster than it can process it. The body needs to deliver oxygen to the muscles in order to clear the lactate from them. We used to talk about the “anaerobic threshold,” that is, a level of intensity where you couldn’t get enough oxygen to your muscles to prevent lactic-acid accumulation, and to some extent, we still do, but nowadays we mostly talk about the lactate threshold to refer to the same idea. I get the impression this is because what we’re describing is the actual measured blood-lactate concentration. Apparently there are numerous ways to define LT, although the one I’ve seen used the most is where the lactate concentration is 4 mmol/l. This is also sometimes called LT2, to distinguish it from LT1, which is the point at which your body starts accummulating lactate faster than it can clear it (“onset of blood lactate accumulation” or OBLA). The effort in watts where LT1 and LT2 are reached can be measured, and obviously, the higher the wattage the better.
VO2max
The amount of oxygen you can breathe in per minute, in units of ml/min (sometimes expressed relative to body weight, ml/min/kg). The gold standard for testing this is to exercise to exhaustion while wearing a mask that measures the volume of air you breathe, but it can be approximated based on max and resting HR, or heart rate after specified exercises. There’s obviously a relationship between VO2max and LT, and LT is generally estimated to occur at 50–60% VO2max for untrained athletes, and 70–80% for highly trained athletes.
Intervals
A workout where you alternate periods of high intensity with low intensity.
HIIT
High-intensity interval training. A style of intervals where you ride close to VO2max with relatively long “on” intervals.
Sprint intervals
A style of intervals where you ride beyond VO2max with short “on” intervals.
Polarized training
An approach to training based on long periods at low intensity and short periods at very high intensity. The balance can be in the range 85/15 to 95/5. The idea is that you spend all your time in Zones 1/2 or 5, and none in Zones 3/4 (assuming you use a 5-zone system)—or that you simplify your zones to “easy/no-mans-land/hard.”
Threshold training
The opposite of polarized training: spend all your time in Zones 3/4. There seem to be different definitions for this (just as there are different definitions of zones), but the general idea seems to be steady-state training at 75–90% of FTP. Current scholarship seems to be that polarized training gets results faster, but threshold training has a lot of adherents.
Sweetspot training
Same as threshold training
Moderate intensity continuous training (MICT)
Same as threshold training
High-volume training
Long miles at low intensity. Also called “base mileage.” My understanding is that you’re supposed to have a lot of base mileage before you attempt higher-intensity training.
Cadence
Pedal speed, measured in rpm. Most experienced road cyclists aim to keep their cadence around 80–90 rpm. There’s evidence that lower cadences are more energy-efficient, but it’s easier to produce more power at higher cadences.
Bike computer
Also called a “head unit.” Bike computers used to just compute riding time, speed, and distance, and if you were really fancy, you got one with a barometric altimeter. Those still exist, but these days, fancier ones are tantamount to smartphones (many of them run the Android OS), and connect to a constellation of other devices.
Heartrate monitor (HRM)
There are two types: the traditional chest strap, which monitors the electrical activity in your chest muscles, and the newer optical type, often built into a watch or armband, which visually detects the changes in your veins as blood flows through (word of the day for this: photoplethysmograph). Chest straps are usually cheaper and have longer battery life. Some of the optical ones can also work as pulse oximeters.
Power meter
A meticulously calibrated strain gauge applied to a part of the bike’s drivetrain (pedals, crankarms, crank spider, rear hub) that transmits its readings to a bike computer. Although they’re coming down in price, power meters are still really expensive, and add at least $200 to the price of whatever part they’re attached to. Having a power meter on the bike has transformed competitive cycling, as racers know how much power they can put out for how long, and don’t make heroic-but-doomed breakaways.
Smart trainer
An old-fashioned stationary trainer would usually let you vary resistance manually, but did not calibrate this beyond “easy” to “hard.” A smart trainer uses computer control to apply resistance, and can measure power reliably. Smart trainers can use smartphones or bike computers as their controllers and front ends.
Golden Cheetah
Freeware analytic software. I first downloaded it about four years ago, and was so confused by what I was seeing that did not look at it again until last week. I still don’t understand half of what’s going on in there, but I’ve got a little bit of a handle on it.

Formulas for various concepts

Gears

SRAM just introduced a new version of their top-end road group, Red, with a different approach to gear ratios that they claim gives more range and tighter spacing. This smelled like marketing hokum to me.

Warning extreme nerdery follows.

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900 miles

At the end of July, I had a routine doctor’s visit. Got on the scale. Clocked in at 170 lb. I hadn’t weighed that much since 1991. So I got back on my bike.

I still remember when I was six years old and my father took the training wheels off my bike and convinced me to ride it. I was terrified. He ran alongside me as I rode around the block. (My little sister, in contrast, took her training wheels off by herself, leaned her bike against our father’s truck, climbed aboard, and rode off.)

After that I got the hang of it, and bikes became an important part of my life. I started going on long-distance rides when I was 13. I did a little bike touring in high school, and I competed in some triathlons and bike races starting right after I graduated high school.

I didn’t have a bike during the time I lived in Japan, and when I was living in Chicago for a couple of years after that, I had my road bike but didn’t use it much (thus the 170 lb).

After I moved back to Austin in 1992, I got back into riding, and it was a great time to be a road cyclist in Austin—there were a bunch of then-pointless and unused roads that were like a playground for cyclists—360, Southwest Parkway, Bee Cave, and so on. I hardened up and could motor all day. On one occasion, I rode the 165 miles to a friend’s place in Houston in 9 hours flat. Some months later, I did it again, 20 minutes faster.

In 2000, a lot of stuff in my life changed, and I found myself cycling less and less, but in 2010, I started riding regularly again as I prepared for my Southern Tier ride, which I completed in October that year.

But that wrecked me—my upper body was emaciated when I finished. I remember at the end of the ride struggling to lift my 30-lb bike over my head. I decided I needed some kind of a whole-body workout. I signed up for a bootcamp class, and stuck with it until it petered out several years later. I never found a replacement that interested me, so I was back to a relatively inactive lifestyle (thus the 170 lb).

As of today, I’ve logged 900 miles since that doctor’s visit. I’ve clawed back a fair amount of lost fitness, and lost the weight I wanted to lose. But I’ve got a long way to go before I’ve got the level of fitness I had when I was younger—if in fact it’s possible to attain that again. It would have been better all around if I had stayed more active.

Four years

Four years ago today, I was smack in the middle an adventure: a transcontinental bike ride.

When I finished that ride, my body was wasted: I had lost at least 15 pounds. You could see my ribs through my back. I decided it was time to find a more whole-body workout. I started doing a boot-camp workout with Gwen. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it, exactly, but it was definitely good for me. After a few months, I had finally resolved some weak spots left over from my broken pelvis, and had built up core strength that I’d really never had before. I was pretty regular about it for the next 3½ years or so, going three times a week, occasionally taking a month off when life got crazy. Boot camp completely displaced cycling for me. I didn’t do any serious riding after I got home from my big ride, only commuting around town.

A couple of months ago, that boot camp class ceased to exist as such when the trainer started a gym; he offers something similar at the gym, but I realized I don’t want to go to a gym. I was also missing riding. Today I went out with a friend for my first ride in four years. My neck’s a little stiff, and I was tired earlier than I should be, but it was good to get out there.

I still need to do some kind of whole-body workout. But I need to keep riding my bike.

Bike-share systems and the poor

This morning there was a story on NPR about bike sharing, specifically how it doesn’t do a good job of serving the poor. There are basically three reasons for this:

  1. The bike stations are not located in areas most useful to poor people;
  2. You need a debit card or credit card to use the system;
  3. Bike-share programs are expensive.

The story got me thinking about all the ways it’s expensive to be poor, and they’re certainly illustrated in this example.

To get a debit card, you need a bank account. To get a bank account, you usually need to scrape together $100 for an opening balance. This is not a huge hurdle to overcome, but if you never have $100 left at the end of your pay period, it’s going to take planning, and if life throws you a curveball before you’ve got that $100 saved up, you’re back to square one.

I looked at the prices for bike-share programs. Chicago’s Divvy has two price structures: yearly memberships and day rates. $70/year or $7/day, plus usage: in both cases you get 30-minute trips for free, but if you’ve got a longer bike trip than that, you get dinged $1.50 or $2.00 per 30 minutes. Austin’s nascent bike-share system has a similar breakdown, but is slightly more expensive.

So if you’re poor, the annual plans are probably out just because of the upfront costs, even though on a per-day basis, they’re a much better deal. If anything, you’re on the daily plan (Austin also has a weekly plan), although again, this presupposes you’ve got a bank account.

What about getting your own bike? You can get a beater bike on Craigslist. There are bikes listed there right now in the $20–50 range, so if you’re poor, the break-even point for rent vs own comes quickly—within one pay period. If you could afford the daily bike rental, you could afford to buy a bike. If you’re going to use a bike for commuting to and from work, it would be a no-brainer. It would also be a no-brainer for someone with more discretionary income who wants to commute by bike.

So given that anybody with even marginal math skills could figure out that ownership beats rental for routine, day-to-day bike usage, what’s the use-case for rental? It’s for when you’re out of your routine. Non-routine uses are hard to predict—it seems redundant to point that out. That makes the best placement of bike stations problematic.

Another obvious use case is tourism, and from what I’ve seen in Chicago and San Antonio, the placement of bike stations clearly targets tourists.

I don’t think it would be a bad idea for bike-sharing systems to be more accessible to the poor, but as long as those systems are run by private companies trying to turn a profit, it’s going to be difficult to balance that equation. Organizations like the Yellow Bike Project can do more to improve bike mobility for the poor right now, by providing them with their own bikes, teaching them how to maintain bikes, and giving them access to shop space.

Thoughts on an iPhone app for bike touring

I’ve played around with a number of iPhone apps for cyclists. None of the ones I’ve looked at are really optimized for bike touring—instead, they’re mostly oriented towards fitness cycling, which has somewhat different goals.

An iPhone app for bike touring would need to overcome the problem of battery life and fulfill three main tasks. Battery life isn’t as big a problem as it is generally made out to be, but even in a best-case scenario, it would be difficult to get a solid 24 hours of use out on a single charge when using the iPhone as a bike computer for a big part of the day.

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The not-Nueces not-Bike Boulevard

Dear City of Austin—

I think your heart actually is in the right place regarding bikes. You want to do right by bikes. But time and again, you’ve shown that when you apply bike facilities to existing infrastructure, the streetscape is such that the results are worse than no bike facilities at all. Beyond that, the fact that compromise apparently is valued not only as an end in itself, but as a higher goal than a good outcome (which is the nicest way I can say that you lack the courage of your convictions) means that good ideas get turned into bad ones. We saw this with Shoal Creek Boulevard, and now we’re seeing it with the Nueces Bike Boulevard.

The irony is that Nueces already feels like a de facto bike boulevard. It gets very little motor traffic and is a pleasant place to ride. When the project was first announced, I thought it was smart, a way to recognize and build on what already exists.

But the whole Shoal Creek Boulevard debacle taught us that the city prioritizes convenience for parked cars above bikes. I suppose the retreat from the original Nueces Bike Boulevard plan is slightly less appalling, in that it shows the city prioritizes convenience for moving cars above bikes. But it is still galling.

I don’t want to be that guy who complains without offering solutions. Here’s mine: Stop. Stop planning or announcing any bike facilities whatsoever. You just get our hopes up and then let us down.

Survey of iPhone bike-computer apps

I’ve written before about the iPhone’s potential and drawbacks as a bike computer. And there are a lot of bike-computer apps available for it right now. Let’s take a look at them.

I’ve gone on a bit of a kick lately and tried out four different ones. There are one or two others that I haven’t gotten around to yet. I hope to eventually, and will report on them in this space when I do.

Executive summary: Rubitrack for iPhone and Cyclemeter are clearly oriented towards performance cyclists; right now I’d give the nod to Cyclemeter. GPSies seems almost like a toy, but might be of use to hikers. Motion-X is for GPS otaku.

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