The news of qualifying for the Challenge Championships took a while to sink in, and with that the daunting challenge. In my mind the main realization was that unlike other triathlons that you can enter regardless of ability, this is a qualification only event. The cheerful message in the invitation to participate at the championships stated, “well done, you are the best of the best”. Quite frankly I found that thought very daunting because it will probably change the race dynamics in essence that the whole field will be much closer matched in terms of fitness and ability and as such competition across the disciplines will be fierce.
“All smiles after finishing the Ironman Triathlon in 9:47:52 good enough for 4th in my Age Group”
That boosted my mojo for the start of the off-season training period. To find the right focus for the off season I had to have an honest look back at my races and then review where my weakest areas are and where the most time could be gained.
Running came out as the area where I could improve the most, particularly working on more speed and endurance at higher speeds. It’s right to say that running isn’t my favorite of the three disciplines so the prospect of 3-4 runs per week in combination with autumn and winter weather didn’t quite appeal to me.
However, a good catch up with my coach and we decided the schedule in a block of training to work in strength and speed. This will become a period of higher intensity running as well as weight training. Will have to see what improvements can be had.
The second discipline that yielded the potential to improve was swimming, and a visit to my swim coach ensued. I did pick up a few bad habits over the racing season which in effect were preventing me from swimming faster. Another set of videos with a narration of exactly what I was doing wrong painted a stark picture of just how much work I had ahead of me. As with most things, I suppose it gets harder and harder to improve as we get into marginal gains. At least having the video reference was very useful and that gives me something tangible to focus on over the winter.
About 3 months into this block of training and a combination of a lot going on at work and with that long days spent at work. The high training load resulted in me getting fewer and fewer hours of sleep. Then the joys of having a young child in nursery resulted in my daughter picking up a pretty stubborn flu virus and eventually she kindly passed it onto me. Due to the aforementioned lack of sleep, long hours at work and high training volume meant that this time it wasn’t a lucky escape for me as my immune system was down and I lost a full week of training.
For someone who trains 10 sessions over 5-6 days per week that is difficult to accept, however at least it came at a time where it wouldn’t directly affect one of my planned events provided I could regain the fitness lost beforehand. There are various views on having a prolonged time off training and the resulting benefits, however in my mind it was almost as if my hard-earned fitness was leaching out every day.
Fortunately, after a week my body started to win the battle against the flu virus and I slowly started to pick up training again. Limiting myself to “only” one session per day. Aerobically I felt fine but my muscles were still protesting and I could definitely feel I had lost some speed and power. Also, being an engineer I use a lot of data to track my training and watching the various graphs on my training data dashboard all trending downwards did little to comfort me. Target is to get back to my fitness levels by Christmas and ( rather naively ) not let the festive period undo all of the hard work it took to get back.
As it happened unlike what appears the norm over the festive period for a lot of people, a combination of being off from work and sleeping properly gave me the energy to keep training. As a result, I was probably one of the few people starting 2017 with the same weight as I had before the festive period.
Given that we live in the U.K. The weather during the off season is not the most appealing for cycling and keeping up bike fitness. To address this I found myself considering two options:
1: buy a winter bike with associated cold and wet weather riding gear
2: upgrade my turbo and spend my winter training indoors
Neither of which seemed overly appealing until I tried a virtual cycling world called Zwift. Essentially in this virtual world you ride on virtual roads with people from all over the world. Zwift takes the information from your turbo ( if you have a Smart Turbo ) or otherwise from a number of sensors such as power and cadence to calculate your virtual speed based on your weight and body composition. This requires a degree of honesty about entering your weight and dimensions and more importantly keep this updated if your body weight changes. This leads to heated debates on their Facebook page where people vent their suspicions that fellow “Zwifters” are “weight doping”, I.e. Entering a much lower weight than they physically are and thus getting an unfair advantage.
“Indoor alternative to cycling outside, it does get very warm and sweaty, hence the towels”
Why would people get so agitated I wondered, however after spending a fair amount of time riding around the virtual world that is Zwift I began to understand.
Zwift is incredibly addictive and it brings out the competitive nature in people as it creates league tables for various segments of the course which are live. Furthermore, once you entered a segment it will give you your predicted finish time for that segment against the segment best and your own personal best. So, what tends to happen to me is that I start a session with the mindset of just sticking to a pre-planned ride with heart rate and power zones and before long I’m out of the saddle, sweat pouring, legs burning giving it absolutely everything on a segment to at least beat my previous best.
What cleverly happens is that your virtual you, then gets the relevant jersey ( I.e. Green for Sprint winner, Polka Dot for Climb winner and Orange for the fastest lap around the route )
Also, passing someone who then re-passes you brings out more competitive drive and I certainly have definitely pushed harder than I would have done if I was out in the cold on my own.
Add in that you can send messages to those riding around you as well as a “RideOn” ( virtual thumbs up ) and it makes for an even more interactive experience. One of the sessions my coach planned was the establish where my bike fitness was in relation to the 112 miles required in an Ironman triathlon. This resulted in me doing the full 112 miles ( 180km ) on the turbo in a time of 5 hours 24 minutes ( yes really that long )
Apart from the pile of soaking wet towels on the floor and the feeling that I had generated enough electricity to power our house for a month, it was actually ( dare I say it ) …fun… the weather outside on the day was a couple degrees above zero with sleet and rain coming down. I definitely wouldn’t have had an enjoyable experience cycling 112 miles in that. Add in the danger of being knocked off your bike or clipped by inattentive drivers, the appeal for riding indoors increases.
( this statement will probably lead to me being ridiculed and trolled by the hardened cyclists ) however I quite happily admit that cycling should be fun for me and I’m rather on a turbo inside than outside suffering in the cold. Zwift makes it a lot more bearable and it also syncs with my TrainingPeaks and Strava accounts. So, it captures all of my data and updates my dashboards etc.
“Zwift: the virtual cycling world, 180km done in 5 hours 26 minutes and 33 seconds”
After the ride, I posted my session on the Zwift Facebook page and it was really nice to get a large amount of support and responses. Which then creates further discussion, all in all it makes me feel part of a virtual cycling community. Rather bemusingly, one of the apparent rites of passage is posting a picture or your indoor set up ( by some referred to as “man caves” ) within the group. The range of set ups is simply astounding, anything from a rickety garden shed or garage with Zwift running on a laptop or tablet, to a full room dedicated to riding indoors with polished wooden floors and full 4K large screen TV’s. I’d go as far as saying I have ventured into a whole new world, and I suppose if you spend hours on end indoors than having a great set up certainly enhances the experience.
The third discipline of triathlon, running, is arguably the area I enjoy the least but also the area which yields the most room for improvement for the year ahead. Having had an honest review of my season, in all but one of the events I ended up going backwards on the run with people I had overtaken on the bike coming past me again.
My coach and I therefore decided the spend the first part of the off season on, adding in higher intensity running sessions that would help me build speed on the run. One of the most brutal sessions to do for me, is running all-out effort hill repeats. This consists of a 1 minute max effort sprinting up a 5-10% incline and then 90 seconds jogging down before doing it all again. On the hill I use for this, the footpath runs close to a curry restaurant so the smell of the kitchen greats you on the way down during the recovery in between sets. This smells quite nice on the first two or three reps however after that it starts to become rather unpleasant following a max effort.
Another downside of running for me is that this is an activity mostly done outside in the cold and wet weather. As much as I can also run on a treadmill, anything over 45 minutes on a treadmill is a very uncomfortable experience. Despite being able to watch YouTube videos of Ironman events for motivation and having a desk fan provide air movement, I find it rather unpleasant.
Therefore, I now spend every other Sunday going for what is known as a long slow run. This also puts in perspective just how much fitness I have gained from doing Ironman training. Running 26km ( 16.3 miles ) or in other words a half marathon followed by a park run now has become a normal distance. The benefit is that running gives me a lot of time for what I call uncluttered thinking as it gives me time to mull things over in my head. One of the things I have discovered is that running is a great way of processing more complex work issues; as a result, I seem to have my best ideas whilst out running. Capturing these when I come in ( so I remember them ) is still something I’m working on but overall it has been very beneficial.
With just under 4 months until the Championships in Slovakia my coach and I have started ramping up my training a lot. This feels at times that it leaves me in a perpetual state of muscle soreness. I suppose muscle soreness has become the new hangover ( change in lifestyle but more beneficial for my health than previous source of said hangover ) . However, looking forward to the time ahead, more about that in my next blog…
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