Sunday, May 31, 2015

It's all about the goal

I had a race today, and I didn’t do very well. In fact, my race was doomed before I started due to poor planning. It turns out, though, that it was a powerful life lesson. Let’s start with the race itself...

It was cold when we started. About 45 degrees and raining. I signed up for the Olympic distance, which would mean spending about 2 1/2 hours in the rain.

The swim was actually pleasant; the water was substantially warmer than the air. The bike ride was more challenging. Several riders in front of me crashed painfully on a set of nearly invisible, unused railroad tracks. Rain coated my visor and made it tough to see. About 7 miles into the 26 mile course I splashed into a puddle that turned out to be a huge pothole. My water bottle ejected but I pressed on.

My ride suddenly got bumpier. Roads do that. Right? I looked down and noted that the pavement seemed pretty smooth. I pulled off to the side and saw that my rear tire was flat.

The flat wasn’t a problem; we keep spare parts on our bikes. The ten minute tire change was a problem though. I had gotten cold and the delay had destroyed my goal of finishing with an average bike speed of 20 MPH. I called it a day and headed in.

After some reflection, I realized that the day was a failure. Not from the tire, the pothole, or quitting early. Even before that. My two goals this race were to hang with some of my training partners, and the aforementioned 20+ speed. Both of those goals were intolerant of incidents such as a flat. A better approach would have been if I planned to set a personal record for an Olympic where I change a flat. Or, perhaps, a 20MPH bike leg omitting the mile where I changed the flat. In other words, in preparing for the race, it isn’t enough to put a flat kit on the bike. The flat kit needs to be partnered with a compelling, flat-tolerant goal in order to be truly useful.

This doesn’t just apply to cycling or racing. Having fault-tolerant, properly aligned goals is important in our business and personal lives too. How many businesses have we seen fail because they focus narrowly on profitability rather than their entire community? A small change in goal may have made all the difference for them.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Emotional Reasoning

As I drove home for lunch today, I remembered that I need to vote on Proposal 1. This immediately made me swear under my breath; then I had an “Aha!” moment.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

VO2 Max Testing

One of the big challenges faced by endurance athletes is estimating fueling requirements for long races. It's difficult to eat during intense exercise, and eating too much can have disastrous results. Eating too little will leave an athlete under-fueled during later portions of their race, which can lead to poor times or dropping out of the race. To help with this dilemma, endurance athletes train their bodies to consume fat more efficiently. The more fat we burn, the less carbohydrate we need to rely on. The problem, though, is that we need to gain a sense of how much fat we burn at various intensities in order to understand how we should fuel when we race. To answer this question, I turned to Spartan Performance for a VO2 max test.

Although finding the facility was a bit of a challenge, I need to note that Connie, Tyler, and Dr. Eisenmann were fantastic. Once I arrived for my appointment Tyler had me change (by the way, they have showers on-site). Next he took some baseline measurements for height and weight. After answering some questions they had me get on the bike where they fitted the heart rate monitor and head gear. The test works by measuring oxygen, carbon dioxide and the amount of exhaled air. A mouthpiece with a hose attached routes your breath through a machine. Although the setup can look a bit scary, it's pretty easy to get used to.


The test protocol was pretty straight-forward. We started with a couple minutes of warmup. The bike is set to require a specific amount of power no matter your cadence. My job was to try to keep my cadence above 60 as the power required to pedal increased. About every minute, Tyler increased the power by 30 watts. Both Tyler and Dr. Eisenmann yelled encouragement while I pedaled through higher resistance levels. Eventually, as Dr. Eisenmann says, the bike always wins. Indeed, it did. As so many other athletes before me, I claimed I could have gone longer.


My VO2 max landed at about 54.5 ml/kg/min, but that wasn't what I was interested in. I wanted to know where to most efficiently produce power for distance racing. That number was more challenging. The low intensity numbers at the beginning of the test were clearly inflated, and the range available before we switch to 100% carbohydrate burning is surprisingly small. Dr. Eisenmann explained that nervousness at the beginning of the test can skew low-end results. Although he offered to re-schedule the test with an alternate protocol, I declined for now. I did get some ballpark numbers, which was my goal. They weren't good.

At a heart rate of 159, 63% of my calorie burn is already coming from carbohydrate. Based on a ventilatory threshold (which is different than, but often correlates with lactate threshold) of 188, a heart rate of 159 puts me smack in the middle of training zone 2. In the middle of zone 3, my carbohydrate to fat burn is about 80% to 20%. If I wanted to stay at a 50/50 fat to carbohydrate burn, I would need to stay right on the line between zone 1 and zone 2 and produce about 145 watts. This isn't very realistic for racing, even for a long race. Instead…I need to start training to eat better on the bike.

What's Next

I intend to do a running test in the near future, and I'll request the protocol that Dr. Eisenmann suggested for my next bike test. That protocol included 3 minute segments instead of 1 minute segments, and reduced load increases by about 15%. Although my results were a bit disappointing, they're informative. I'd much rather understand where I'm at now, than in the middle of a full distance triathlon when I run out of fuel. As the date for Louisville 2015 gets closer, I'll request another set of tests with the altered protocol. My VO2 max should have increased quite a bit by then, as well as ventilatory maximum. Both should indicate more efficient fat burning, and an improvement in VO2 max should indicate a successful training program.

I'd like to thank Tyler, Connie, and Dr. Eisenmann for their help, and I would recommend the same test to other distance athletes. $75 is a reasonable amount to pay for a much deeper understanding of your body. If you're interested in scheduling a test, you can find contact information at

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Cardiac Drift

I've been re-reading Joe Friel's legendary triathlon training book The Triathlete's Training Bible in order to answer the question "What should the purpose of my workouts be?" While trying to answer that question, I happened across a section on determining race readiness. The protocol calls for doing an “aerobic threshold” workout for a given amount of time, depending on desired race distance and then looking for “decoupling”. For a half-iron race an athlete should be able to run for 90 minutes in low zone 2 without heart rate decoupling between the two halves of the run.

Decoupling refers to the phenomenon of heart rate tracking unpredictably with exertion. For example, it might seem reasonable that if you maintain your power level for a certain amount of time…your heart rate should also stay the same. In practice, as you fatigue, your heart rate will start to inch higher even if your pace remains exactly the same and the terrain is flat.

In order to test race readiness, then, you can keep your power output level and see if your heart rate stays even (See chapter four, table 4.6). I did exactly such a test this afternoon. In the interest of brevity, I only ran for 1.5 hours. First, I warmed up for a few minutes, then set my treadmill to a 10 minute pace and started my watch. 

For 90 minutes, I ran the 10 minute pace. This put me squarely in zone 2 (average was 2.5). At this intensity I was burning a 50/50 blend of fat and carbohydrate (80% of HRmax roughly equals 65% of VO2max, which is about a 50/50 burn). Although my heart rate moved around a bit, the overall averages between the two halves of the workout were well within the 5% drift indicating poor event fitness. For the first half of the run, my average heart rate was 154.2 BPM. For the second half, it was 155.7 BPM, a difference of only 1.5 beats per minute.

Data: Cardiac drift test

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

In good time

I'm reading a book called Flow that discusses (amongst other things) the difference between pleasure and enjoyment.

Pleasure is pretty easy. It comes from watching TV, doing drugs, having sex, etc. The key is that pleasure does not necessarily require skill, and the pleasure will eventually wear off. The book describes enjoyment as similar to pleasure, except that it does not wear off. Enjoyment requires a challenge that can be surmounted, the skill (preferably well-developed) to conquer the challenge, and rules that describe how the challenge must be met, and how we know when we have emerged victorious.

Now, consider behavioral economics for a moment. In order for a behavior to exist, a reward must exist. For most of us, rewards need to be quickly associated with activities. If our actions are not rewarded in the timeframe we expect, there is a strong chance that we will discontinue the action (just ask Pavlov!).

Recently I've found myself questioning the timeframe that I use for myself, and I've found that it might be a bit short for the job that I'm in. My timeframe is generally weeks and months. The other people on my team generally think in days or weeks. Other members of the executive team might tend towards thinking in terms of several months (IE quarters). In order to make the best long term decisions, and undertake the activities that best support our long term goals, I need to get out of the habit of being quickly rewarded for the activities I undertake. Enjoyment might easily take months or years.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Overwhelming Force

For as long as I can remember, I've had the same approach to playing games. In middle school I played competitive chess (poorly). As a young adult I spent countless hours playing video games, using much the same overall approach that I used with chess. As an older athlete, I find myself using the same approach to my racing as well.

The general strategy is simple: amass resources, wait out the opponent, and then bring overwhelming force to bear on any weakness that appears. As a kid, my endgame was terrible. If I got that far, my preferred strategy had already failed and I was likely to lose. As an adult racer, I find that I always have enough gas in the tank for one final all-out sprint. This means that I've under-applied myself to the entire race up to that point.

While this strategy works for relatively simple situations, it does not work for complex situations. Complex situations require surgical precision and the ability to address multiple fronts simultaneously. Any multi-dimensional problem creates multiple fronts that dilute the overwhelming force strategy. Additionally, an opponent that employs the same approach can cause the loss of most of both of our resources, then win with only a modicum of finesse.

Finesse is the key, as it augments strength and applies it most judiciously. As I consider my personal development goals over the next year, moving beyond the use of brute force will be at the top of my list.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Book Review: Racing Weight

Shortly after the opening, the author of Racing Weight begins backpedaling on the the term "racing weight" and replaces it with "optimal body composition". Obviously these two terms have radically different connotations, however only one of them is likely to garner reads for a book.

Optimal body composition, Mr. Fitzgerald asserts, comes about as an adaptation to training in almost any sport. This is somewhat at odds with my own perception on the topic. I had assumed (probably incorrectly) that athletes focused on body composition for their sport; not that training for a sport caused a particular body composition. If you take a moment to consider athletes from a range of sports, you'll begin to notice that elite athletes in a particular sport do indeed share certain composition characteristics. For example, elite triathletes are also accomplished marathoners...but their body composition is much more muscular than their running-focused counterparts. The reason is that for 2/3 of a triathlon, weight has little bearing on performance, but muscle mass is very important. For running, weight trumps upper body musculature as a runner must "press" their own body weight with each stride.

So how does an athlete achieve optimal body composition? The author suggests a six step approach: Improve diet quality, manage appetite, balancing energy sources, self-monitoring, timing nutrients properly, and training in a way which is conducive to optimal body composition.

Diet quality is the most difficult step for most of us, although it need not be. Several years ago I was trying to put on muscle weight when I observed that it is challenging to gain weight while eating a very healthy diet. Body builders frequently lament "feeling bloated" for this reason. A healthy diet is high in fiber and low in caloric density; overeating on a healthy diet is a really uncomfortable endeavor.

In order to provide guidelines for healthy eating, the author devised a scoring system that encourages healthy eating. The system considers only food quality and serving size, rather than calories. For those of us who gravitate towards rich foods, simply asking ourselves where our next handful of peanut butter M&Ms will land in the scoring system may guide us away from poor eating decisions.

Overall the book is well-written, well-cited, and easy to digest. The food quality scoring system is a bit cumbersome, but not terribly more difficult than counting calories. Whether the advice in the book really works remains to be seen, however I intend to put it to the test. Right after I finish this bowl of ice cream.

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