Editor’s Note: This is the second part of an eight-part original GP series, The Road to La Ruta, in which contributor Dirk Shaw chronicles his training for the Fool’s Gold 100 and La Ruta de Los Conquistadores — one of the toughest mountain bike races in the world. Check back throughout the summer to watch the story unfold.
The Road to La Ruta: Part 2
I am a binary person. 1 = balls out, and 0 = no interest. So once I decided to start competing, I consumed every training book I could get my hands on. If total immersion works when I need to understand a client’s brand strategy, then why not go deep and steep myself in every possible theory on training, workouts and mental preparation for endurance competition? I researched and downloaded and read and re-read all the wisdom of many who have tried and some who have succeeded. When I came up for air, what really stuck with me was one simple fact: to be a successful endurance athlete, you need to plan for next year — today.
Road to La Ruta is a series of dispatches, essays and features captures the intense journey of a cyclist as he trains for a mountain biking race across Costa Rica and what many consider one of the toughest in the world: La Ruta de Los Conquistadores. Read the series »
If you’ve kept up with my journey, you know I recently moved across the country, from Colorado to Georgia, making it even more challenging to keep a hard-charging, regular training routine. Clearly, I needed a little extra incentive to stay fit, and committing to some of the toughest mountain bike endurance races in the world seemed like just the right inspiration. It would help to have a good coach.
Back in Colorado, I was fortunate to meet Jared Berg, a training coach whose approach to endurance training is both realistic and demanding when it counts. He keeps time in the saddle to anywhere from 8-10 hours per week on average, with spikes up to 14-16 hours during final preparation. One important consideration in his approach — besides understanding that we also have other responsibilities in our lives — is that recent studies show ultra endurance training has a reverse effect on the heart. This means instead of having a healthy heart from working out, stress can actually cause scarring, which leads to a number of other complications. Kind of a bummer that exercise can actually be bad for you. (The Mayo Clinic has detailed the potential risk in a report, “Potential Adverse Cardiovascular Effects From Excessive Endurance Exercise“.) The debate is by no means open and shut, though. Dr. Larry Creswell, a cardiac surgeon and regular contributor to Endurance Corner says “There just isn’t enough information available to dissuade me (or to make me give recommendations to other endurance athletes) to stop exercising”. For now, I will accept the risk and continue to pay attention to the research.
Once I explained my goals and limitations to Jared — early season XC races from April to June to build towards the Fool’s Gold 100 in September, a big move back east with my family — Jared laid out a plan that was quite simple. It used a periodization training model where volume and intensity change throughout the season with a couple of peaks to prepare for big rides. If you’re not familiar with periodization, it has 5 stages: base (6-16 weeks), build (4-12 weeks), peak (2-6 weeks), taper (1-3 weeks prior to race) and race. My season started in October 2012 and will repeat this cycle roughly twice with the final peak happening around the end of September for an epic 100-mile ride through the mountains of Georgia. I’d go through the five stages while mixing in some cyclocross riding and workouts into my week, keeping Saturdays light and going long on Sundays.
Sounds easy enough, right? Great way to stay in shape. Manageable with all the other stuff going on. Just do the work and check the boxes. But then I really lost it. I heard about La Ruta in Costa Rica, and the binary stuff kicked in. I don’t want to just ride. I want to ride epic. I want to ride for the rest of my life. Three days over volcanoes, through jungles, leaving everything on the trail. I asked Jared what he thought. “It’s totally possible”, he said. “A F.U.E.L. test will help us hone intensities and understand your optimal nutrition”. This was exactly the answer I was hoping for.
The F.U.E.L test I completed at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine includes three tests: lactate threshold testing, VO2 max and exercise metabolic rate. Lactate threshold (LT) is specifically designed to determine appropriate training zones. VO2 max defines your maximum output, and exercise metabolic rate provides a breakdown of how your body uses carbs and fat for energy. This year, I knew if I wanted to go longer I needed to be smarter. The data from these test allowed me and Jared to focus on areas of weakness.
The guys at Boulder Center for Sports Medicine have a very simple chart for articulating training zones.
Zone 1: Active Recovery — Embarrassed to be seen doing this in public
Zone 2: Base Endurance — Feels “too easy” to be getting any benefit from this effort
Zone 3: Tempo — Starting to “Feel like training”
Zone 4: Sub-Threshold — Internal dialogue begins
Zone 5: Supra-Threshold — Loud and obnoxious internal dialogue
Zone 6: V02 — Self preservation
Dirk’s lactate threshold, VO2 max and exercise metabolic rate tests helped him better understand how is body reacts to specific workouts and how he burns calories. Notice, for example, in the upper graph, that in zone 5 he is still burning fat and carbs, but in zone 6 his body exclusively burns carbs. If this sounds like a lot of work for a few races, it is, but as Yoda says, “If you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did — you will become an agent of evil”.
The results of my LT test showed that I could stay in zones 1-3 all day, but once I crossed into zone 4, my lactate levels spiked. The insight is that much of the riding I was doing was just “pretty hard”; in order to increase my LT, I need to spend a large volume over several months at base and tempo with 1-3 workouts per week in zones 4 and 5. These interval workouts can last from five to 20 minutes and in the early season are a killer, but now that I’ve achieved my fitness levels, they are not so bad.
As I mentioned in my introduction to the series, nutrition is key for me this year. In the exercise metabolic rate test, I learned that I am a serious carb burner. Riders strive for a 50% carbs 50% fat balance, but my results showed 70% carbs and 30% fat. This ratio means that my body stores significantly less carbs than fat, and when doing six- to eight-hour rides, I burn calories as fast as dry leaves in a hot fire.
When your internal engine is burning calories this fast it becomes difficult to maintain the intake, and at some point you will burn through the carbs you have on deck and bonk hard. The good news is that you can manipulate this by changing your diet. Once I learned this about myself, I converted to a lower carb, whole foods diet on and off the bike. My snacking while riding has gone from gels and high-carb bars to dried fruits, nuts and some experimental items like homemade rice cakes. I’ve also incorporated a power meter provided by Stages Cycling (look out for a full review soon). Knowing exactly how many watts I put out per hour has allowed me to dial in my nutrition better on long rides. Between understanding what’s happening in my body during workouts of varying intensity and learning how to fuel my body most efficiently for endurance, I’ll be able to continue improving my fitness to perform better come September and October.
But before I get too ambitious with my goals, I like to soft sound things with my wife. Let’s face it, training for endurance events is a selfish activity that keeps me away from home for extended periods on top of traveling for work. This is really a team sport, from start to finish, and without her support I might as well hang up my cleats.
My sales pitch usually happens over a nice dinner and a couple glasses of wine. Actually, my wife’s no fool. Most of the time, she’s made up her mind already, and she just likes to see me squirm. Like I said, it’s a team sport. With three kids, we’re both signing up for endurance training.
For La Ruta, I didn’t think a nice dinner and some wine would seal the deal. But this one sold itself — it came with a romantic stay at a resort in Costa Rica after the race. Very sweet. Deal closed. Now it’s time to dig deep, turn the cranks and push myself way outside my comfort zone.