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VeloNews’ exclusive lab rat reports on his progress the night before a big race.

By Jason Sumner

Overend and Brown predict a cold and slippery Iron Horse

Overend and Brown predict a cold and slippery Iron Horse

Photo: Jason Sumner

I’m going to go against the norm this week and start with the bad news.

Right now I’m sitting in the Steaming Bean coffee shop in rainy Durango, Colorado, one day out from what is supposed to be my first A-priority event of the 2008 season, the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic road race. For those unfamiliar, the Iron Horse is among America’s longest running cycling events, this year celebrating its 37th anniversary.

The road race is the feature event, sending riders on a 50-mile trek from Durango, up and over Coal Bank and Molas passes (both above 10,000 feet), and into the historic mining town of Silverton (elevation 9318 feet). The problem is that it’s been snowing in Silverton and on the passes the last three days, and Saturday’s forecast is only slightly better, calling for clearing skies and a balmy high of 42. Who knows what it will be like when racers start heading up the mountain roads at around 8:30 a.m. It could be ugly — or just canceled. Stay tuned.

Either way, you’ve got to love Durango. Not only is it — weather permitting — a great place to ride road and mountain bikes, it’s also home to a litany of cycling legends, including mountain bikers Travis Brown and Ned Overend. In fact, about 15 minutes after I bunkered down at the coffee shop this morning, that pair strolled in and sat down at the table across from me.

“I think the race is going to happen, but it’s going to be epic,” predicted the ageless Overend, who will be contesting his 28th Iron Horse, and at 52 remains a podium threat. “Figuring out what to wear is going to be the key. If it’s just cold, then you’ll need to bundle up a little more, cover the legs. But if it’s raining get out the plastic jacket and pray.”

“If it’s raining, dress like you’re getting ready to swim the English Channel,” chimed in Brown, adding that he’s not racing this year because, “I finally accepted that I can’t beat Ned.”

My goal at this point is to not go sliding off the edge on one of the potentially wet-road descents. The race route, Highway 550 North, is one of the prettiest stretches of pavement in America, but there are numerous places on the winding road where steep drop-offs are not protected by guardrails. Otherwise snowplow drivers would have nowhere to plow the snow.

Anyway, moving on. Like I mentioned last go around, I’ve happily entered the world of training with power, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s a very cool world to be in. I’m on the wireless PowerTap program, meaning my rear hub doubles as a power meter, remotely sending info to a handlebar-mounted monitor. Throw in the heart rate monitor, and you get the full spectrum of data during and after every ride. Info is all easily downloadable to a laptop.

“You can truly and objectively track performance day to day and over time, and can compare it,” answered my coach Neal Henderson when I asked him why I needed one of these gizmos. “Heart rate is just a response. Perceived effort is just your perception of a response. Speed is relative. But power is true work done. By measuring this you get a true look at what you are doing. It’s a straight measure of what you are capable of doing, and that’s the measure of gaining or losing fitness.”

Happily in my case, fitness has been gained. Soon after getting the new toy set up, Coach Neal had me re-do the battery of 5-second, 1-minute, 5-minute and 20-minute field tests that I went through a few months back. Save for a slightly lower 1-minute effort, the numbers were way up, including a 29-watt jump in my 20-minute score, now 311.

“Your progression is really good,” Coach confirmed. “If you look at your 20-minute effort [done up Boulder’s Flagstaff Mountain climb], your average cadence went from 66 to 84, your heart rate was about the same, and you had a 10-percent increase in watts. That’s great.”

Of course my next question was, “Next stop 340?”

“Unfortunately I can’t guarantee that continued rate of improvement,” Coach added. “It can still go up from here, but I do expect it to level off.”

Oh well, a man’s got to dream.

The other hook with a power meter is its usefulness as a diagnostic tool during a race.

“You can see what went well and what didn’t,” Henderson explained. “What happened when you lost touch with the group? What kind of effort was required? Has your training replicated those efforts?”

Alas, it can’t keep me warm, which may be the most important measure of success at the Iron Horse.

Now to this week’s Coach Neal Q&A. If you’d like to ask Henderson a question, please send e-mail to CoachNealQandA@gmail.com. Please include your name and hometown. Questions may be edited for content and clarity.

I’m wondering if you can provide some training guidance. My profile: 50-year-old male. State of Virginia ITT winner and numerous silver medals in the 1980s and ’90s. Race weight then 180-185. My problem: Trying to get fit again. When I ride I try to stay in zones 1 and 2, however at my weight — 205 pounds — usually puts me in zone 3-5 if things get snappy or go uphill. When out for a 60 miler with a small group I saw my heart rate hit 161 riding in the 39×17 into a stiff headwind. My question: Am I overtraining? Is there an approach that a master cyclist should use to ease back into shape? Type and intensity of mileage?Mark

First off, since you’ve not been racing for a while, there are some age-related changes that are unavoidable and will result in a drop in performance. A 5-7-percent decrease in that time is normal. Then combine that with de-training and weight gain, and you’ve got some work top do. Right now I’d classify your training as moderate to hard, which is not really sustainable. If you’re training 8-10 hours a week, you are probably over-stressing your body. Weight is also a factor. I would suggest you back off intensity because it will allow you to burn more fat and minimize the over-training risk. Shift 60-70 percent of your work to zone 1 and 2. That will decrease the chance of overtraining and allow you to use more fat during training instead of carbs, which doesn’t result in much weight loss. I think one hard effort per week is probably enough, and then focus more on base or steady state, maybe two days of zone 1-3 riding.

From what is known in literature — and the lab — on how an athlete’s critical performance measures decrease with age, what would be the most probable values for Jason at, say, 27? What would his 20-minute threshold power output have been 10 years ago? Simply stated, what could Jason have dreamed of had you coached him during his prime years?
John Kominek
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Well, I don’t like to go back and say what could have been. I like to focus on what is possible now. Potential is relative to training history, and since Jason is still on the younger end, he still could have 6-8 more years of improvement. If you look back too much, it just gives a built-in excuse. Jason has a lot of potential moving forward, and I think he can still reach peaks in the coming years.

I’m also a certified coach, although not at the level you are yet. Without taking a recovery week, what is the best way to determine how much rest you need via ATL/CTL/TSS, etc. For those who do not have a power meter, how do you determine when it is OK again to return to hard training? At 14 hours a week for the past four weeks (TSS: 1040, 630, 710, 1000) I need to take some recovery rides, as my power and HR are down and Perceived Exertion is way up. What is the best way to do it? Should I do one full 8-hour week, or 2-3 days of recovery rides and continue with the same volume and intensity I was at?

Using the formulas you’re talking about I like to see 3-5 days of positive numbers for every 15-25 days of training, depending on the individual. If you’re a master, maybe more positive. A higher level rider can go a littler longer, maybe 3 weeks. If you don’t have a power meter, one factor I use is simply ask self the depression-vigor question. Are you excited to start training again. That is something to really consider. If you’re planning 4-5 days reduced training then you will probably be okay. At your training level, which is pretty high, dropping to 8 days from 14 is in the right range. With recovery time, I like people to shoot for half time completely off, half time doing recovery rides. You can even do two recovery rides a day, 30 minutes in the morning and 30 in afternoon. That can speed the recovery process.

I’m 66 years old and ride with a group of 30 to 40 years olds. I can pretty much stay with them on the flats but when I hit the hills I don’t recover as fast as they do, and they start to leave me behind. I am looking for a drink or energy bar that will help me recover faster.

The No. 1 factor in finding a drink or bar is finding something that tastes good to you. After that you are looking for a drink that is 6 to 8 percent carbohydrate solution, because you want to consume about 40-60 grams of carbs per hour. That can be a combination of a gel or bar or drink. For recovery, look for about a 5-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein via a meal or drink. There are plenty of commercial products that do that, so just look around.

Hi coach, I’ve been training with a PowerTap for two years. I live at an elevation of 4500 feet in Banff, Canada. My question is is it ok to use a climb (6 percent with two short sections of 8 percent) to do a lactate threshold test. The reason I ask is because I have no roads that I can ride for a 20-minute test that do not roll up and down. When riding the rolling road, my average power for 20 minutes is 275 watts, but when riding my 20-minute climb my average is 310. Which number can I use when setting power zones? I have been using 310 and it seems fine. When doing intervals I can reach and hold 120 percent as well as 135 percent for prescribed times.
Banff, Canada

Assuming a 20-minute test, most people find a difference between what is sustainable climbing versus on the flats. That is mostly due to how they train and where their focus is. I would say use both — one for flat training rides and one for climbs. That would be the simplest. Also keep in mind that in 20 minutes you can exceed true lactate threshold pretty easily.

I’m a 30-year-old cat. 4 racer in North Carolina. I have had a few top 10 finishes and am fairly consistent with pack finishes. I would very much like to have more top 10s and who knows, maybe even a win. I’ve read some crit-related training articles and some say that if one is racing criteriums they should use crit sprints and standard intervals. Any advice for someone who desperately wants to move up the category rankings? Additionally, how important are teams in criteriums? The club I ride with does not have many road racers. I have thought about moving to another club in order to benefit my race goals. What are your thoughts?
Adam Long
North Carolina

Well, for starters a team is very important. The fittest guy isn’t always winner. Many times it’s the guy with the best — and most organized — team. If you don’t have a team, try keying off members of other teams. Let their teammates do work for them and you. To develop sprint and finish ability — a key to moving up in categories — you usually need mass start top 10 finishes to get points. To do that you need to develop absolute peak sprint power. That can be developed by doing 5-10-second max sprint efforts with complete recovery in between. Do that during long base rides — say 5-10 seconds every 5-10 minutes during a long ride. Start from a variety of cadences. The next aspect you need to develop is high lactate type work, so do sprints with minimal recovery. Try doing sets of 10-20 seconds at 90 percent, with 30-50 seconds of recovery. Do sets of 6-10 and do 2-4 sets. Lastly try doing a race winner workout, do attack sprints with limited recovery, building up to VO2 type effort and then go into a final attack sprint for the finish.

Editor’s Note: Jason Sumner is a 37-year-old, 166-pound freelance writer and Cat. 4 bike racer who is working with a cycling coach – and now training with power – for the first time in his life. Sumner underwent a full battery of lab tests at the beginning of the season, producing a 250-watt lactate threshold, a 3.2 watts per kilogram score and a VO2 max of 51.5. His 2008 goals include improving on his usual mid-pack finishes, not getting dropped on the weekend group rides, and learning something along the way. He is documenting his experiences for VeloNews.com is this twice-monthly column.

Neal Henderson is sports science manager at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and a well-regarded elite-level coach. Henderson’s clients include Slipstream-Chipotle’s Taylor Phinney, Jelly Belly’s Scott Tietzel and Trish Downing, a nationally ranked paraplegic athlete. Henderson is also the winter triathlon coach for the U.S. national triathlon team, and was recently named USA Cycling National Development Coach of the Year. This summer he’s heading out on the road with Phinney, helping the young phenom get ready for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Henderson is working with Jason Sumner on a pro bono basis.