What I’ve Learned from Training (in the Past Few Weeks)

The last month or so has been one of those periods when time seems to be moving too fast, and there aren’t enough hours on the clock to get everything done that I wish that I could. I thought it would be good to take a look back and see if I could extract something useful from the blur of life passing by. Here are the things that stand out amidst the noise:

I can train when I’m sick

I follow a training plan set out by my coach, and his rule of thumb when it comes to illness is “anything above the chin, train through it.” If it’s below the chin, we consult and make decisions based on what is happening. I had the opportunity to put strategy to the test recently, and although it wasn’t a good time, it definitely proved to me that I can train through a cold. I had a doozy, which swept through the whole family. It was bad enough that I found myself taking involuntary naps and pounding cold meds daily just to remain upright. It was very hard some days to get on the bike or the treadmill. At its worst, my resolve faltered and I texted my coach for guidance. He gave me an out, saying I could cut my workout for the day in half and reduce the intensity.

I agreed. But once I got on the bike, I felt a little better. That was something I noticed all along during the course of the cold; once I got moving, I felt a little better. My head drained out a bit, I could breathe a bit more, and I could keep going. I didn’t have the energy I usually would, but I could do the workout. And it didn’t make anything worse the next day. So I didn’t take the out; I ended up riding the full scheduled 1.5 hours.

My most eloquent of post-workout commentary

My over-arching goal when it comes to triathlon is to develop relentless consistency that will break my cycle of going on-again, off-again over periods of months or years. Proving that I can get through a cold like this and not miss a workout was a key experience for me.

It doesn’t hurt to exist

Something I noticed during the past few weeks is that a certain kind of feeling has disappeared from my daily existence. When I’m out of shape and overweight, there’s a lot of constant pain involved with just going about my day. My back often hurts. Standing for extended periods hurts. It hurts to stand up or to sit down. Putting on pants is an effort, as is putting on shoes. I can remember many times that tying my own shoes caused my heartrate to elevate and my breathing to become more labored.

Lately, most of that is gone. I can put on my pants easily, with solid balance. Standing and sitting don’t cause any extraneous pain, and my back has never been better. The only pain that I really feel is residual workout pain. Sore muscles, fatigue, overall exhaustion. I will take that over a general pain of existence any day, because it’s a sign of what I accomplished. It’s a good kind of pain, and it feels like strength.

The Garmin Forerunner 935 is great

Early in the year, I picked up the tri bundle that includes the Garmin Forerunner 935 watch. It was quite a while before I got the chance to really see what it can do, and how it would hold up, because I was confined to walking workouts on the treadmill and easy bike rides on the trainer while I worked through my concussion recovery.

Now that spring has sprung and my symptoms have all but disappeared, I’ve been using it much more extensively, and I have found it to be one of the best pieces of equipment I’ve ever owned. I went through two other fitness/sports watches before this one (a TomTom and a Fitbit Ionic), and both of them failed pretty miserably in various respects. So far, the FR935 has been rock-solid. I’ve used it in the cold, the heat, indoors and out, in the pool, with structured workouts, GPS navigation and external sensors; I’ve basically thrown the book at it and it has performed reliably through all of it. The one time I had a failure was in the pool, and may have been due to user error more than anything (I was so worn out I was smashing into the wall), but even in that instance it saved and recovered most of my workout so very little was lost. That’s something no other watch I’ve tried could ever hope to do.

I’ve been swimming with one arm tied behind my back

Almost literally. I recently took advantage of a swim analysis gift I received for Christmas, and took video of myself in the pool to send off to my coach. He analyzed my stroke and sent me a video back and gave me lots to think about. (I may do a video on this later)

An examination of where my arms *should* be

My biggest area of weakness right now is my left arm, which is dead weight and doing nothing to help me move forward in the pool. I had noticed that it didn’t seem to do the same thing as my right arm, but not coming from a technical swimming background, I didn’t know if that was normal or not. Turns out yeah, it’s not normal.

I also have a very low stroke rate, which needs to pick up. Apparently there is no ideal stroke rate that applies to everyone, but mine is low enough that it stands out as needing to be sped up quite a bit.

This is all great to know and will be an opportunity for measurable improvement. However, it’s also going to mean lots of hard drills in the pool. Time to smash against some more walls.

Perspective is everything

Since escaping the shroud of post-concussion symptoms, I have objectively been on a tear. My Training Peaks is green for miles. I haven’t missed a workout in months. I’m regularly achieving new peak performances and by the numbers, everything is trending steadily up. By all metrics, I’ve surpassed the fitness level I’d achieved last fall. If you put Now-Me against Pre-Concussion-Me, I don’t think it would even be a contest.

Welcome to Concussion Valley

Still, though, just last night I found myself deeply fretting about my upcoming schedule, the state of my training, and whether I was going to be able to achieve my goals. What if there isn’t enough time to get in shape enough for my 70.3? What if the concussion put me so far back, it’ll be an insurmountable challenge just to finish? In 2015 I ran faster than I run now. Shouldn’t I be fitter at this point in the season? Not to mention the fact that my weight has plateaued (again) and eating responsibly to lose weight remains an enormous struggle. And on and on.

There is no problem here except what’s in my mind. Which just goes to show how much of this sport is entirely mental. It’s a long game, with long trends. It’s easy to assume that the odds of success are long, too, since everything else is. When the reality is that if you put in the work, you will get better. And one thing I know for sure is that I’m putting in the work. That’s really all I need to keep doing, and all I need to remember.

New Race on the Calendar

My “A-Race” this year is the Musselman Triathlon, which will be my first 70.3-distance race. I’ve been looking for a smaller, shorter race I could do in advance of that one that would time up well with my training and is close enough to me to not be a logistical headache. There are lots of running races in northern New England and a fair number of cycling events too (though mostly fun rides, not races), but triathlons are harder to come by. It’s even harder still to find one that takes place on the specific weekends that work within a larger training plan for the year.

Most triathlons are pretty flat, and I suspect that has a lot to do with their scarcity in this region. Vermont in particular doesn’t really do flat.

The race I found that fits the bill for my training and schedule is the Greater Nashua Sprint Triathlon. I’ll be going a little further afield for this one, but not terribly far. It’ll be a couple of hours in the car to get there; less if we stay with family who live closer to the venue.

Even as sprints go, it’s a short one. Here’s a preview of the three legs:

The swim clocks in at less than 600 yards according to the website, but still manages to pack in three turns. The turns are the worst part of the swim, for my money (apart from the mosh pit) so that’s a little disappointing, but it’s probably due to the geography of Lake Naticook and for safety reasons. It looks like the waves are staged on a dock.

The bike course currently shown on the website is amusingly just a screenshot of someone’s browser tab displaying Google Maps, which has been converted into a pdf. I converted that to a Strava Route so I could get a sense of the details, and it’s a ripper. Very short and very flat.

Greater Nashua Sprint Triathlon Bike Leg

The bike leg climbs only about 430 ft over a distance of 9.5 miles. That’s less than half the elevation per mile that I’m used to in training around where I live, and the total distance will be the shortest bike leg I’ve raced so far.

The run leg is a good match for the bike, keeping things flat and fast.

Greater Nashua Triathlon Run Leg

The exact location of the transition/finish area is unclear, but it looks like the total distance will be just over a 5k, at around 3.2 miles, with about 80 feet of elevation gain.

So what do these details mean for me?

This race will primarily be a training tool for me, an opportunity to practice organization, transitions and race-environment stress management. So in that sense, the details don’t actually matter all that much. I’ll be there to practice triathloning and to have a good time.

That being said, I wouldn’t say the race particularly caters to my strengths. I do better in a swim when I can establish and hold a groove; 3 turns means a lot more buoy sighting and thinking about things other than swimming ahead at my own pace. Cycling is my strongest discipline, but the relatively shortest opportunity here, which means that there will be less time to make up for deficits from a slow swim, and more complications in terms of pacing because I’ll be tempted to really drop the hammer on a <10 mile ride (but thereby risking leaving less in the tank for the run). The run looks like a fairly standard 5k route, but running is probably my most challenging discipline, so that’s really no help. So at the end of the day, this could prove to be a pretty tough race for me, if all of these factors stack up in the right (or wrong) way.

My aim then will be to mostly forget about all of that, and to focus instead on managing my pre-race anxieties, race day strategies and transition performance. After all, those are really the only things from a sprint-distance race that will meaningfully translate to a 70.3.

My Challenges with RPE

Since getting into triathlon training last year, I’ve encountered a whole slew of metrics, terminology and methods, most of which are pretty new to me. Particularly because I use Training Peaks as my primary workout recording tool and to interact with my coach, I’ve come to consider things on a daily basis that I never knew existed before. IF, TSS, FTP…there’s a seemingly unending list of acronyms to Google and to try to figure out the importance of.

Ironically, one of the most challenging ones for me to master is proving to be RPE, or Rating of Perceived Exertion. In concept, it’s a very simple idea. You do a workout, and you record how it “felt.” In Training Peaks, it’s as simple as picking an emoji that corresponds to your feeling and picking a number on a scale of 1-10. I’ve also seen another scale that goes up to 20 or so, presumably for finer resolution of this subjective assessment.

In practice, I find it very difficult to manage. There are so many things that go through my head when I try to describe how I “feel” — about anything, not just training. “How I feel” is a question that, for me, is usually almost impossible to clearly answer. My answer, or my attempt to formulate one, is usually comprised of what seems like a dozen or more different components, which I then have to distill down into a succinct answer. When I think about how a workout felt, it’s no different. I think about my physical feelings, my mental feelings, my emotional feelings, my expectations and how they align (or don’t) with reality, my general mood apart from the workout…just to name a few. On top of that, I have a hard time separating out “progress” on a micro-level. That is to say, if I feel badly at the start of a workout, but progress to feeling great by the end of it (whether physically or emotionally or mentally), how do I put a single number or emoji face on that? In some senses, it’s a success and feels great. In others, it might be lower than expectations and all I did was salvage a turd.

I think this may be part of the reason why it’s tempting to lean in to objective metrics. They are hard numbers, without influence from subjective factors. If I average 200 watts, that’s what I averaged. There’s a simplicity there that is attractive amidst the mental chaos that can go along with focused training.

On the other hand, metrics can be a vortex. You can become obsessed with numbers to the point that you disconnect from your subjective experience of training, lose the underlying connection to your body and its limits, and that sort of defeats the whole purpose of training for me. Ultimately, RPE is important for that reason. It forces you to think about yourself in connection with an experience you just had, and to evaluate that using nothing but your mind and body.

I think that it will get easier with experience. In that respect, figuring out how to classify my “feeling” after a workout is a skill that I can practice. And like so many other aspects of triathlon training, it seems like that skill should translate to the rest of life, as well, where I often struggle to define complicated feelings.

Creating Training Video Content

My goal of creating a YouTube series in the lead-up to my trip to Puerto Rico turned out to be a great exercise. Ideally I wanted to put out content once a week. I didn’t quite hit that mark, but I managed to produce 6 short videos, which I think was a long enough playlist to call it a success.

Producing the video series had a ton of side benefits. I reacquainted myself with a lot of technology that I hadn’t touched in a while, I found a new way to focus mentally on my training, and I taught myself the essentials for creating training videos. That last one is pretty key. It’s a pretty sensible theory to document the training you’re doing anyway, and create video from it, thereby being doubly productive in two things that are important to you (namely: training and creative output). It’s another thing altogether to do it in practice. At the end of the day, producing a video is producing a video. It takes planning, focus, execution and follow-up. So it’s not as simple as killing two birds with one stone; in fact, you have to do the work from both sides. So it’s more like…throwing one stone from each hand simultaneously at two separate birds.

Like so many other things, it just boils down to being efficient. Figuring out the steps needed to accomplish the task as smoothly as possible and learning what is superfluous and unnecessary.

Where I go from here with my video content is a bit of an open question. I definitely want to keep producing, but I don’t have a defined series to use as a framework, now that the Puerto Rico trip is over. I suppose I could do a Road to 70.3 series, but that’s a long way off and I think it would be a whole lot of repetitive content, which is what training for half/long course triathlon is. I’m not sure I could keep that interesting.

For now I’ll just cut videos when there’s something interesting going on. My latest is about a run I did in Maine; you can check it out here.

Slow Going

It’s been about a month since the collision happened now, and recovering from the concussion has been frustratingly slow going. Over the weekend I made my second attempt at running since the incident, and the next day I was nauseous and dizzy again. I had been looking forward to being healthy enough to do the prep work and testing week that my coach has had the team doing, begrudgingly accepting that I’d just be a week behind. It took me a lot of internal arguing and self-reflection but ultimately I accepted that it just isn’t time yet. I wrote my coach that I wasn’t ready. Then I sat down and cried.
It’s not all a sob story – it gave me some important realizations. One is to crystallize my goals and intentions. My wife told me “at least it didn’t happen the month before a race.” Sage advice, to be sure, but in hearing it, I realized that the race isn’t my ‘why.’ It’s not actually the most important thing to me, not by a long shot. I’m gunning for consistency and lifestyle change, becoming a “full-time-part-time” athlete. That’s what had made me sad – the realization that I had to let go of my ambitions to be consistently active through this period of the year, which has always been my most challenging period. I was so motivated and prepared and ready to do it. My brain just isn’t ready yet. But now I clearly see what’s most important to me – consistency over time. So I feel more prepared to be patient and exercise restraint.
My goal now is to be healthy. I want to do my baseline tests, not because everyone else is doing them, but because they will give me and my coach information and data that will make it achievable for me to train consistently over the long term. That’s the point of doing it. And I suppose I have my bruised brain to thank for the realization. I guess concussions are good for something.

In the good news of the day, I got my bike back from the bike shop, and it’s a thing of beauty.  Upgraded wheelset means it dropped a full pound.  It’s so light now, it’s like it doesn’t even exist! 

Crash

I went for a trip to Canada about a month ago, and brought my bike along so I wouldn’t miss any training days. I told my coach what I was up to and had him give me all my swims during the week, so that the weekend would just be run/bike. That proved more intense than I expected, and two days in a row in the pool had me pooped. I was looking forward to riding in new places, though, so I was pretty sure it would work out okay.

I went up on Thursday night, so my first ride was on Friday. I plotted out a route that seemed reasonable and would take me alongside a river. It was a city road, but there was a bike lane and a fair number of Strava segments on it so the circumstantial evidence pointed to it being an okay place to ride.

When I finally got out there, it had started to snow. Not a big deal for me normally, and I was already dressed for the cold. What I didn’t anticipate was the effect that melted snow would have on the pavement. I would find out soon enough though.

The road was two lanes on either side with a median in the middle. At an intersection, I slowed until I had a green light, then pedaled forward. Whereupon a car suddenly appeared, turning left right in front of me. I clutched my brakes and found myself hydroplaning. Everything went into slow motion. I wasn’t scared or surprised at that moment. I was just…annoyed. “Goddamnit,” I remember thinking, “I’m going to wreck my bike.”

And I did. I don’t remember how, exactly, I hit the car, but I was told later that I took out the rear view mirror on the passenger side with my hip (I definitely had the injury to prove that one). I think I then rolled over the hood and landed sort of in front of the car. I remember hitting the right side of my head on the pavement, hard. “Wow,” I thought, “that didn’t even hurt.” It was true, it didn’t at the time. My helmet had done its job. It would hurt later though. A lot.

An ambulance was called, I think by the driver of the car, and the police arrived, all within maybe ten minutes. It was only after I was in the ambulance that I started to feel anything besides adrenaline. That dropped away and all of a sudden I felt extremely nauseous and I noticed pain in my hip and knee. I was dizzy and couldn’t focus well either.

The hospital visit was pretty smooth overall. The diagnosis was a concussion, with nothing broken, just some hard bruising on my hip and some road rash. They let me go with instructions for painkillers and rest.

My bike, on the other hand, didn’t fare quite as well. However, it looked like the frame was intact and only the wheels, bars and components had really been affected. Considering that I still hadn’t paid for all of it, that was a very good thing.

Since the collision I’ve basically been waiting for my head to get better. I’ll write more about that next time.

Adventure Ride

Some pretty big stuff has happened since I last wrote an entry, but for now I’m going to step back to recap a fun ride that I did just before winter hit here.

There’s a great and eclectic group of people that I’ve connected with through the local bike shop, Vermont Bicycle Shop, who are part of the shop’s “adventure club.” It’s not exactly a team, and not exactly a club in the traditional sense, and not exactly anything else.  It’s a somewhat loose collection of people, most of whom hang around the shop fairly frequently, who get together and go on halfway madcap rides that deliberately seek out challenging, weird or nonsensical destinations and routes. The one thing I’ve seen that this ragtag band of cyclists (in the broadest of definitions) all have in common is that bikes are an extension of their identity in one way or another.  Lots of people enjoy cycling; for these folks, the line of distinction between themselves and the bicycle is hard to find.  

I’m the only triathlete in the group, and one of the few with a roadie background, so I amicably bear the brunt of a lot of jokes about aerodynamics and fancy equipment.  I don’t mind.  It’s always good to receive perspective from others, and there’s plenty of opportunity for me to jovially strike back when the mood is right.  

The ride of the day was to be a gravel ride, on dirt roads with quality ranging from “maintained” to what’s known around here as “Class IV.”  To normal people, a Class IV road is something you would normally only see on the Discovery Channel or if you got lost in the woods.  Usually just a vestige of the past and only technically a road, they are swaths of relatively clear space cutting through the remote Vermont forests, littered with rocky glacial remains and leading to places only the hardiest of folk will ever see. To adventure bikers, it just means ‘fun.’

The group gathered at my house, as it was the ideal starting point for this particular loop.  That gave everyone plenty of opportunity to make fun of my brand new Bont triathlon shoes, which I had just gotten fitted since literally tearing the soles off my ancient pair of Garneaus.  Considering it was about 35 deg. F and these shoes are basically open-air slabs of carbon with velcro straps on top (they don’t even have a tongue), they were definitely an unusual choice for the day. They were my only choice, though, apart from putting platform pedals on my bike and wearing hiking boots.  I was too excited to try them out to miss the chance, so I doubled up my socks and stuck some plastic baggies over my toes in between and let the ribbing fly.

We set out, starting on dirt roads and heading further away from civilization as we went.  One of us realized he had a soft tire, but luckily we were riding right by his house so he stopped to swap out his bike (the N+1 rule is widely followed in this group.  I’m an outlier, having a mere two bicycles in my possession). No big deal, and we continued onward.

Some of my favorite parts of the day were when we paused to regroup, and found ourselves in a serene section of the forest, where nobody was around, but there were quiet signs of life if you knew where to look.  A farmer’s field, just through the treeline.  The peripheral lines of a sugarbush down the hill. An abandoned cabin by a pond, once idyllic, now forgotten and reclaimed by the encroaching wilderness.  Artwork on an old barn.

These are the moments that give ‘adventure biking’ its definition for me, personally.  But everyone has their own ideas of what it means, which is part of why it’s such an interesting thing to do.

Our first Class IV section was traversed with great enjoyment, and spilled us back out onto a dive-bombing gravel road that intersected suddenly with a main asphalt town highway.  Brakes were vigorously applied.  Luckily, none failed.

From there, a decision was to be had. Do we continue on the planned route, or do we diverge back into the woods to tackle a serious Class IV section that promised adventure of the hardiest sort, an incredibly technical downhill on terrain that could only be called a ‘road’ if you squinted real hard, were slightly drunk and had never seen a river before?  I had the suspicion that this was the plan of the ride’s organizer (shop owner and mechanic Darren) all along, and that he lured everyone in with the relatively sane route in order to spring the change of tack on them at the fateful moment of divergence.  It wasn’t a far stretch with this group; the decision was all but foregone.  Plus, Darren brought snacks.  So off we went.  To adventure!

Getting to the challenging bit required some more climbing on dirt roads, which was fine by me.  I love climbing, and I love doing it on dirt roads, now that I’m the proud owner of an Orbea Terra, which is basically a carbon frame road bike with almost-all-terrain tires.  I felt great and looked forward to every foot we went up.  

Back into the woods we went, and the challenge was suddenly upon us.  Photographs and videos unfortunately can’t do it justice, and my phone died from the cold before I made it to the bottom, which is where the better perspective would have been provided.  But picture a steep hill in the forest.  Now, make it twice as steep.  Now, rake out all the trees in an 10-foot-wide swath, straight down the hill.  Then erode it with wind and particularly water for about 100 years.  Find all the boulders and rocks under the soil that you can, and leave them there.  Call it a “Class IV” road.  Now get on your bike.

Those riding fat bikes were the only ones to make it down successfully.  The more experienced riders on gravel bikes generally made it about halfway.  Darren made it ¾ of the way down, displaying excellent bike handling skills, but then missed a line and over he went.  He was certain he’d cracked his frame and damaged his drive train because he landed right on a boulder, but he miraculously evaded consequences.

For my part, I stopped about halfway down and walked.  I knew there was no way I was going to survive the descent without falling, and I didn’t want to break anything – on myself or my bike.  What I hadn’t accounted for was my shoes.  Walking down a mostly-dry glacial riverbed meant I was slipping and stumbling off boulders with every step.  Not exactly the surface a pair of triathlon shoes were meant to walk on.  After I got home later, I photographed the bottoms of my brand new babies and sent the picture to Darren in horror, asking if I had just ruined everything.  Luckily the damage is largely cosmetic.  But I’ll be re-thinking my footwear choices for this kind of ride in the future for sure.

Once we all made it down, across an intersecting stream bed and up a hill on the other side, it was back out onto gravel roads and onward to home.  We had all met a challenge together, survived it and had a blast doing it.  Exactly what an adventure ride is meant to be.

Back in the zone

4 days down this week, with little to no hesitation or holding back, and things seem to be holding up well. I’ve had moments of tightness but no pain.

I’m trying to take lessons from this experience. It was a very minor injury, all things considered. It hasn’t taken long to get back to training how I want to be training. I missed a couple of runs and bikes but I was still able to swim, and swim pretty hard. My reaction was an emotional one, out of proportion and probably detrimental to other aspects of my life.

It’s yet another example of triathlon teaching life lessons. Find perspective. Things are rarely as bad as they seem. Above all, remember and learn, and apply next time.

This week has been a sudden preview of the coming onslaught of winter, and a test of my cold weather riding gear. My first ride was in 35 degree rain; today it was 28 degrees and snowing. I know I’m going to need an indoor trainer, but I’m putting it off as long as possible. Being outdoors is too important.

On the way home today I rode by my youngest daughter’s outdoor ECO class and stopped by for a visit and some tic tac toe with sticks and leaves. Definitely a highlight of a very cold ride.

Easy run

Today I went out for an easy run. It was on the schedule as an easy chill run anyway, but I took it extra slow, running near 11-minute miles and being really careful on the hills in particular. I stopped a couple of times to stretch also.

I felt the muscle pull but it didn’t hurt. I didn’t feel like it was slowing me down. A few times there were periods where I didn’t feel it at all.

Afterward, I felt it probably more than I had during the run itself. So I don’t think it’s completely better, and I’m not sure what will happen when I get back on the bike. But for now I’m glad to have been able to get out for a quick run at least, and get a green compliance day on TP. I’m trying not to be overconfident about it, but I’m very eager to put those red non-compliance days far behind me soon.

Injuries

Early in this year of training, I hurt my calf. Just running along, then all of a sudden whoops, my calf is busted. It was a bad pull if not a tear, and it was debilitating and discouraging and basically awful. When you’ve built so much into your training, not just as physical conditioning but also as an emotional and mental therapy, being prevented from doing it is close to nightmare.

Yesterday I went out for a run in the cold rain. I started on hills, which was nothing particularly new. At my turnaround point, I felt something in my upper inner thigh. And it wouldn’t go away. It wasn’t one of those normal running pains that come and go. It was flaring when my thigh went back and when I brought it forward, a sharp kind of pain that felt white and distinct. Before long, I was walking. The first time I’d had to walk since I hurt my calf. I walked for about a mile and then was able to jog home slowly. I knew I couldn’t do my scheduled strength workout though. My first scratched workout in this 12-week plan.

I didn’t pay enough attention to myself when my calf got hurt. That is, I didn’t take note of the process of what happened after. At least not in a way that I internalized as any kind of useful information. If I had, I wouldn’t be so devastated right now. I would have learned something. I would believe in temporary, not permanent things. I would feel the value in rest and recovery, even if it’s forced. I would be okay.

I don’t feel okay.

I was able to swim today, a strength workout of about 2,000 yards total. Just an hour. I did it with a pull buoy so there was very little load on my legs. Still, I felt it when I had to stabilize myself in the water. It was hard to force out of my mind.

In the parking lot, I jogged to the car. Just to see. I felt it. Sore and tight. I wouldn’t make my run feeling how it felt. Another scratch.

It’s not failure. It’s part of the process. It happens. Injury and recovery. Build up and taper. Still.

I don’t feel okay.