Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sour grapes and lemonade from lemons

'Oh you aren't even ripe yet! I don't need any sour grapes.'

And so I won't be making an attempt at an Ironman distance this year. My buddy is returning to the workplace after a three year hiatus, and with it goes the opportunity for me to pile the hours on necessary to rise to the task. That sounds like a load of hooey. She pointed this out by saying, "I wasn't staying at home so you could do an Ironman". Indeed, not.

I was starting to really tire of the training as well. Working out twice a day was becoming a routine, and had come to the point where I didn't want to do much of anything. Long runs had become a chore and logistics issue, the bike a way to burn hours without joy, and swimming...well, I still like swimming. The more I read, the more it seemed I was turning a blind eye to the dark side of the Ironman, leaving athletes beaten and uninterested in riding or running for months afterwards. The statistics showing that Ironman athletes have higher divorce rates. The sign my friend jokingly posted to me on Facebook that said 'If your relationship is still working, you didn't train hard enough'. No, it isn't going to happen this year, it is clear.

Part of me is saddened, part of me is greatly relieved. I can race sprints and olympics, and even halfs. That is great fun. I wouldn't be racing an Ironman, I'd be surviving it. Not sure that sounds like fun. I know I will make it, that wasn't the question. It seems that question, however, drives most people who attempt the race, and makes them enormously happy. Surviving - at least to me - isn't an accomplishment. You can do that in myriad ways, some athletic and many not. Surviving a tenuous situation you put yourself into could easily be categorized as blatant stupidity. I don't survive athletics, I celebrate them. I race, and do so in celebration of life and health. Scratching the long race off the calendar and replacing it with either a half or a oly on the same weekend brings me joy. And isn't that the point? Isn't that a reversion to the path I should have been on?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Level up

I have been frustrated with my new power meter (Powertap G3) since I started using it in place of TrainerRoad's otherwise excellent Virtual Power calculator. It's largely psychological, in that my FTP is lower than VP estimated it to be, but I had been advised to expect this. However, it's still hard to stare at a power target and struggle to hit it knowing the last time you saw that number it was at a much lesser effort. The other component to my frustration is of course physical; the difference between riding at 75% and 80% FTP is no small step, and the difference between 75% and 100% FTP is a VERY large step.

I've come to understand why - with virtual power, the calculation is based on wheel speed and resistance, where speed is variable and the resistance curve is constant. While my particular trainer (CycleOps Fluid2) has a well documented sloppy curve -it's not consistent, depending on temperature - the bigger problem in my observation is from smoothness of pedal stroke. To understand this, imagine the pedal stroke split into quadrants around the crank. A single pedal stroke, for simplicity, can be though of as occupying half the circle, since the other leg begins its power stage as the one leg ends its own. Now imagine what happens with a masher, or one that creates the bulk of their power in one quadrant, as opposed to a smooth pedal stroke throughout two quadrants. If they apply, say 300W in quadrant 1, and 100 in quadrant 2, multiplied by 2 (two legs), that's an average of 200W. Let's say that makes the wheel spin at an average of 22mph. Now over to the power meter; applying 200W of consistent power only spins the wheel at 20mph. Quelle horreur! So why not just use the masher stroke?! A worthy question. Because take the bike off the trainer, and you aren't dealing with the smooth resistance of the trainer, you're dealing with wind, topography, and racing stresses. You're also making sure you don't overcook yourself on the bike (if you're a triathlete that is) so much so that you can't compete on the run. Nope, constant power is the coach in your corner...can't get away with surge pedaling. You need something measurable and repeatable.

Anyway, so back to the lab...borrowing a video game term from my kids, I 'leveled up' this weekend, and in one fell swoop seem to have increased my tolerance for lactic acid. It still kicks in at the same point, but if I stop thinking about how much things hurt and start thinking about how damn strong I am (visualization folks, not ego problems), there's a lot more in the tank that I previously had found. I'll be doing some more work with longer (ie 10-15 minute) intervals at 95-105% FTP using my last test, as it's feeling like I'm higher than that now. My goal wattage is no longer a freight train travelling towards me in the tunnel, it's the *actual* light at then end of the tunnel. I was getting mentally beat up by my power meter until this happened, it's about time.

I'd be remiss if I didn't log another part of the puzzle - I moved my cleats back. This rather small, seemingly innocuous change (we're talking about 3mm difference) relieved a strain I felt in my upper groin near my glutes after about 45 minutes of riding, and translated into fatigue quickly. I experimented with it on a longer (2hr) ride yesterday and felt like I was able to hold my targets better, or at least with greater comfort. I had tried sliding the saddleback and height up to provide the same tweak, but it put me in a strange place on the bars that wasn't good, and tightened me up on my back pedal, so I moved the saddle back and adjusted the cleat instead, finding that significantly more comfortable. I can now get steeper as well, although it's not something I think I'll set up permanently; I'm very much enjoying the relief in my back since adding the extra 5mm spacer under the headset. There's now 3 under there, but it feels great.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Swimming Tips

I spent some time in the pool last night with a buddy who is undertaking his first triathlon this coming June. He finally relented to me bugging him to come swimming, as it's a half mile swim that measures long, and not to be taken lightly. His technique needs a lot of work as one might expect, and it struck me watching him the journey I've taken with swimming. I did my best to not overload him with information, trying to limit the advice I was giving to the 'big things' that I saw first, with the 'little things' left to tackle further down the road. What I saw I think translates across most new swimmers, so I thought I would share.


My friend was very concerned about how much water he was taking on, and kept saying it was difficult to find the timing for when to breathe. It's natural that this is the biggest concern, without it, death can come quickly! In some cases, this could be driven by both anxiety and technique, but in this case, I didn't sense the anxiety. He seemed comfortable enough in the water, and while his stroke wasn't smooth, it was consistent. If I'd seen it falling apart after a few strokes, I'd look more to anxiety first, then tackle the stroke. So how to address breathing? After talking with him a bit, it came down to his feeling he had to breathe too often; the main symptom as not having exhaled by the time he went to take a breath. After visually checking that he was actually exhaling underwater (again, not an anxiety issue here), we set about fixing the 'timing' as he called it. If he didn't have enough time to exhale fully, I suggested first slowing down the stroke. Doing this meant changing how long his arms were underwater, and in turn what they were doing down there. Again, keeping the information short (not the place yet for a full discussion of proper catch and pull, nor even roll) I simply suggested reaching longer in front. It seemed to help him slow things down, which was the real goal, and his breathing timing started to make a little more sense to him.


It's interesting to me that all of us as kids who learn to swim are told to start with our arms fixed to our hips, using nothing but the kick to motor us around, and then as adults, we have the worst looking kicks imaginable. My 3 year old son has a textbook kick motion. The 38 year man that is my friend had a scissor kick that swung well beyond his shoulders and propelled him backwards. How does this happen?
As someone who had to re-learn to kick, it seems to me because we think the crawl is driven by our arms, and that the legs are there for 'extra' propulsion, or possibly nothing at all. There certainly is a version of the crawl where that's true, but if I'm teaching the crawl, I don't subscribe to this version. What I did, and what my buddy is currently un-learning, is using the legs to balance null points in the stroke - that is, when you go to breathe as a beginner\novice, your opposite side arm is probably not starting a good catch, it's more likely pushing down on the water in order to push your head up for a breath, a natural instinct. That push down buoys your chest and sinks your legs. Your legs react to you being sideways (you're breathing to one side) and their own sinking by trying to do what they do on land when balance goes awry - they spread out. Our land instincts are useless in the water, however. 

Useless land habits

On land, in order to go faster, you need to use more force. There is of course an economy of motion that must be mastered first, but if you want to run faster, you need a more powerful stride, and more of them (higher cadence). This increase creates turbulence, but at little cost. You can move your legs really fast, and it doesn't make you slower - ever. If you lose you balance, you regain it by throwing out your arms, becoming supple throughout the body, and spreading your legs to focus your center of gravity. 

In the water, the more turbulence you create, the less you move. You just create bubbles. If you lose your balance or bearings underwater, the simplest way to regain them is to stop and let your natural ballast put things right; your lower body, having less air than your chest cavity, will sink, and your head and chest will rise. Moving faster underwater is about maximizing the amount of propulsion you generate with as little turbulence as possible, and minimizing the amount of resistance you create against that propulsion. A textbook catch and pull is massively negated by a kick that's too busy and too low in the water. A great kick is negated by a pull that pushes water towards the kick. Every motion underwater has a corresponding vector of activity, and is either enhanced or fights with the other vectors. Starting from the front, the hand entry should be quiet and quick, the goal being to get in the proper position as quickly as possible with the least turbulence. Once in position, the catch is simply a muscle engagement - the water becomes 'solid', and you push it backwards until there is no more leverage. The kick serves to keep the hips high, flattening the torso against the water, again to minimize drag. The legs can very well do nothing - in fact in a wetsuit (where they float flat on the surface), this could well be advised, and is exactly what I had my friend do. I handed him a pull buoy and told him to stop moving his legs completely. If you *do* have a kick, it should be propulsive, fluid, and at the surface of the water. If it's too low in the water or too wide in the water, it creates turbulence against the flow of the vectors created by the arms. Disturb the water in the wrong place and it becomes less solid and more viscous. The more viscous the water, the harder it is to catch it, and the slower you will be. No pool, no channel, pond, lake, inlet, ocean, etc. feels quite the same in this regard.

Back to the example

After tying up his legs with a pull buoy and slowing his stroke down by having him reach further, he was able to swim 100 yards without stopping, which he wasn't capable of when we started. His comfort increased and his effort decreased properly. I showed him a short video of his legs underwater (invaluable tool, by the way!) so he had a mental image to go with the sensation that his legs are still too wide. We'll continue to swim together over the coming months and weeks, and we'll see which directions we take, but after one session, he is already showing improvement.

Thursday, March 6, 2014


The birth of my first son wasn't enough to convince me that smoking a pack plus a day and drinking whiskey most nights of the week wasn't a sustainable lifestyle. Well, fine - I knew I wasn't healthy, but I wasn't grossly overweight. Just a little. I got sick just like everyone else, my hairline was receding a little, everything normal. Then the birth of my daughter wasn't enough. Yikes. Then a few years later the birth of my youngest son...ok, I see the issue. When you have kids - at least when I had kids - little alarms go off in the brain saying "Hey! You should see this! Watch that kid, it's somethin' else!". The little devil that sits in an easy chair on one shoulder that fed me smokes and tumblers also had some choice words, along the lines of, "meh, so what." Those two things don't juxtapose too well.

Eventually - as in my youngest was now a couple of months old - I decide that as stubborn as I appear to be with myself (now THAT'S embarrassing), the only way I might actually clean myself up is to put myself in a life or death situation where I have to live cleanly. Signing up for a triathlon seemed like it fit that bill. If you can't swim, you'll drown. Bingo, death - check. If you don't quit smoking, you'll die on the bike or the run. More death - check. Must "train", so that I actually finish, meaning I'll get in some sort of shape other than 'lumpy'. Excellent. I signed up on January 1st for a sprint triathlon (the naming of which made me laugh for a couple of years - how do you sprint for an hour, I thought?!) in my home town to take place the first week of June, just prior to my 34th birthday. What a birthday gift, I thought.

I started to work out how to run, and it didn't seem I could. I would barely make it a mile before a searing pain enveloped my lower legs, all the while my chest and back jiggling. I can't describe the breathing sensation, but it wasn't therapeutic. The race distance demanded five kilometers of this. Into death's sweet arms I marched on.... The swim. I quickly came to the conclusion that I could not swim a half mile as required. More accurately, I couldn't swim 4 laps of a pool doing anything but the breast stroke. So that's what I decided to do. I tried desperately to swim a crawl, but I couldn't seem to last at it much more than a couple of minutes. Could I ride a bike? Well yes, in that department I thought I'd be alright. I'd ridden bikes everywhere since early youth, commuting with them through high school and college. I'd even taken a bike tour through Cape Cod in my teens, and had ridden at the front the entire time. I'd never ridden a road bike, but I knew my legs were strong and my road knowledge and comfort were there. I purchased a used road bike and considered that the portion to worry the least about. This was a challenge!

Fortunately, triathlon proved to be the perfect distraction, and I shed my slovenly habits without missing them. I can't remember my last cigarette, it wasn't an event. I can, however, remember my first triathlon. I swam a lovely breast stroke, rode my bike 12 miles, and ran\walked my way across the finish line. I had lost about 25 pounds since the first of the year, and I became infatuated with the bizarre sport of triathlon. In comparison to the vast majority of the participants, I was awful at it. I had a lot of room for improvement, though, and an engineering background to apply. I considered myself a work in progress and took to training a lot more, vowing to come back the next year and try again, but the triathlon bug bit deep; I made it only two months before I completed another sprint distance race, and improved substantially over my first effort. Whatever hope I had of this being a passing fancy were obliterated.

A few years later, I've actually come to be rather good at triathlons. I've podiumed (race-speak for a win, place, or show) in my age group several times, and have taken on longer and longer distances each year. Like other athletics, triathlon races are split up by age groups, meaning you might be first among 60-65 year old males and get a nice pat on the back, or you might place overall amongst all finishers and be given a heartier pat on the back. You don't typically win anything tangible other than a pat on the back, and maybe a pint glass with some words on it. The sense of accomplishment is enormous, however.

A perfect example of a reversion - I was off the path, and found my way back on. Triathlon changed my life, and I enjoy it immensely.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Reversion, a definition

  1. 1.
    return to (a previous state, condition, practice, etc.).

You could call reversion an observation, and in fact most probably do, often in the context of statistics and their relevance in measuring health, finance, population, and other fascinating studies. However, in my observation reversion has taken shape more as a philosophy. I'll do my best to explain.

We've all read and heard several religions described in a nutshell as being the process by which we get closer to 'God', however one defines 'God'. In one example, 'God' is an entity, an omniscient power, and our closeness to that entity is measured by our ability to live by a code and absorb a dogma. In another example 'God' is the absence of clutter, be it metaphysical, karmic, physical, sociological, etc., and our closeness to that is measured by how spartan we keep our existence. While we humans generally don't agree on the particulars, I think we do agree where 'closeness to God' manifests in the physical world; we see it in nature, and declare things as wrong when they seem to defy nature, destroying it or altering it in some way that takes its innate beauty away. Sometimes nature takes the shape of something ugly or profane to us, but its place in the universe is secure, even if its purpose isn't clear to the naked eye.

All of these philosophies can boil down to a search for identity and purpose. Every search has a path, whether conscious or not, and at the end of the search one can look back and see that there were wrong turns and dead ends along the way, that there lay a more direct path to the destination that we couldn't quite follow along the way. I'm not suggesting that every turn is without its own merit - sometimes great discoveries are made on tangents and misdirection - but I will suggest that upon closer examination, those tangents are actually part of the path and its discovery. To that end, I'll call reversion the process of finding our way back to the path after taking journeys away from it. While it seems like an oversimplification, it's often astonishingly revealing; the more I use this simple context as a lens on my life, the more seems to come into focus. If life is a process of straying and reverting, then through careful observation the path should be a tangible scientific discovery. 

I'll share funny stories, sad stories, observations, ideas, and interests of mine here, and periodically I'll cast the lens back upon myself and my entries in search of journeys and reversions. Hopefully with practice I'll see the variances and reversions for what they are and stay on the mean.