Because it’s there

What is it that has driven man out of the swamp, down from the trees and to the top of the food chain? To push the boundaries, discover new continents, travel into outer space and test the limits of our own bodies?

Mallory famously replied to the question about why he was climbing Everest with, “Because it’s there”. And I would bet that if you asked top athletes why they had spent their entire lives in the quest for a faster time, a longer throw or a bigger lift that they wouldn’t really have an answer for you as to why they do it. They just want to see what they can do.

For those who don’t know, I am about to embark on a fairly big adventure in a week’s time – ride 1000kms in a week traveling from Canberra to Melbourne. Hopefully, this begs all kinds of questions –

  1. Am I fit enough to do so?
  2. Am I strong enough to do so as there are many mountains in the way?
  3. Why cycling?
  4. How have I prepared for this?

1. Fitness 

One of my biggest pet hates in the modern fitness world is the sheer outright lies that get told all in the name of product sales. In my opinion, there is no greater hoax in our industry than that of how to best prepare for long distance work.

While there has been research to show that high intensity interval training has a¬† positive effect on aerobic fitness despite training at intensities well beyond the aerobic maximum, most notably Tabata’s work.

However, what is striking about reading and speaking to all elite distance athletes is that this is, in fact, not the way any of them train. There are many potential reasons for this – injury prevention, reducing risk of burn out, etc. but the key reason is that to gain skill in any activity you need to be able to spend considerable time on that activity.

And high intensity doesn’t allow that. Short duration, high risk sessions necessitate infrequent training and that will not help you build skill. Take, for instance, the situation that exists with current trends in distance running – despite all the coaching, books, online forums, etc. available marathon times are not showing the same kind of improvements we would expect. In fact, injury rates have risen! Looking at two of the greatest endurance athletes of all time – Dave Scott and Mark Allen – you can see two contrasting running styles, yet both were able to manage sub 2.40 marathons at the end of an Ironman! (Check the clip below, the running part relevant is at 2.20 – Mark Allen, the eventual winner of this epic race runs with what can be called common mechanics, Scott, on the other hand runs like a duck with chest out, butt stuck backwards, yet both run fast).

How did they both get fast? Mark Allen is the modern king of heart rate training. Coached early on by Maffetone, the originator of heart rate training, he was one of the first to pioneer the “go slow to get fast” mentality seen in today’s fastest endurance professionals. As such, his training was all about building the aerobic engine to point where, once he decided to go anaerobic, his competition was usually already run into the ground (in pretty much the same way that Lance Armstrong used to).

So, my goal in building my fitness as fast as possible for this 1000km challenge was to build my aerobic engine. Over the last few months I have had the unusual pleasure of actually training with someone. If you’ve ever trained with someone you’ll know that no matter how hard you try you’ll always end up speaking to them. But that was actually the point. If I went out and rode flat out each day i would have blown myself to pieces days into this experiment. Instead, thanks to my training partner and talking, I was forced to slow down to carry on a conversation and work aerobically – I went slow, to gain speed later.

I’ve been doing this now for three months, riding three to five times per week averaging 300km per week, but with a few weeks close to 500km. And my on bike strength is starting to become evident. Recently I helped out one training partner by pushing them at 42km/h for a couple of kilometres. Or by blocking the wind for people and towing them along at 46km/h for stretches of road (for anyone who rides, you’ll understand the enormity of this).

With one week to go before the adventure begins, I am confident I’ve gained enough fitness – fitness that will allow me to go all day for a week straight. I’ve done that through repeated “easy” efforts with very little “hard” work, in fact, only three sessions over the last two months have been “hard”.

2. Specific Strength

Climbing is never going to be my strong point. Top climbers, like all top endurance athletes, usually display lower levels of body mass than even their peers within the same sport.

I’ve dropped some weight, not intentionally, just as a by product of all the extra work I’ve been doing, but I’m still about 10-15kg heavier than most good cyclists. Now at 86.5kg as of this morning, by rough estimates, I need to work roughly 12.5% harder than another rider who is 10kg lighter (1.25% per kg, or for those power minded individuals roughly 5W/ kg or 50W more work needed, just to stay level).

Hills are the single best way to turn gym strength into specific strength and I’ve done my share of them. Four weeks ago I put in an impromptu training camp that included 240km of climbs over four days. As well, our regular long Sunday ride (another vital tool for developing aerobic base) includes a short but harsh climb averaging 10% with the steepest section 13%.

As my weight drops, my relative power increases, even if nothing else has improved from training. At this point I need to apologise, a sponsor has had production difficulties and while I have been planning to track and share some of my workouts, without this missing tool I am unable to do so. Suffice to say that based on feedback from my training partners, the results are clearly there though!

3. Why Cycling?

One of the standard knocks from those who don’t support endurance training is that a large majority of runners get injured every year. I even wrote about how injury statistics are rising above. It’s all true – running has the potential to really mess people up.

With shoes that are now more shock absorber than foot covering, this is even more possible. If you were forced to run barefoot, it’s extremely likely that for your first few runs you wouldn’t be able to go far before your feet begged you to stop. But with modern running shoes you can dull that message and trick your body into far more than it’s really capable of. And when you push body parts beyond their limit by a long way, is it really any surprise that if your feet don’t start to suffer from plantar fasciitis, it’ll be your knees, or hips, or back, or…

And so I chose cycling. This ride is part of a bigger, more involved plan that I’m not quite ready to share yet. But the bottom line is I need a much bigger aerobic capacity, and to an extent the body doesn’t realise the mode used to gain it. Riding is simply a safer way to build capacity. In kettlebell terms, this is me doing swings to build my snatches. Easier on the hands, develops the necessary hip drive. Yet in this case, strengthens my legs and hip flexors, reduces all impact (apart from the crash I was involved in) and allows me to train day after day after day.

There’s a few other benefits that tie directly to someone who is, at heart, a strength trainer first and an endurance guy a distant second. Firstly, for some reason, cycling works for me. I like two wheels. There’s just something about being on a bike that speaks to me in a way that running doesn’t. When it starts to hurt running, when my lungs burn and my body starts to struggle, I succumb and slow down. Yet somehow, on my bike…I can just keep pushing longer. The pain of cycling is simply something I can endure better than that involved with running. Secondly, cycling is a little more towards the strength side of endurance. Meaning that as someone who has spent a lot of his life lifting weights that my efforts are better rewarded on a bike. Thirdly, I don’t care what anyone thinks – I like Oakley sunglasses and I look damn good in lycra!

4. Preparation

There have been two main parts to getting ready for all this –

Mobility and strength training.

While I love cycling, the reality is that it is an awful activity for you. If you spend your days sitting down at a desk the last thing you need for a mode of exercise is to stay seated. It’s also got positive links to testicular and prostrate cancer as well as a history of increasing risk of disc injuries. Some of these issues can be solved through proper bike fitting, mine cost me $800 to swap around handle bars, seat, seat height, cleat position and a few other odds and ends, but the result is a pain free ride.

So it’s important that we minimise the risks of all this time spent hunched over and mobility and flexibility work is vital. Late last year i came up with the Daily Dozen, twelve specific movements from within the RKC system to help battle time spent on the bike (or in any kind of seated position actually). Here that video is –

Keys are to maintain normal thoracic movement, both extension and rotation which in turn helps me keep normal shoulder and neck function. The neck part is vital as you are often spending hours with your neck in extension while riding. It’s also necessary so you can perform the strength training needed to maintain upper body strength at the same time.

Also, because the legs never ever fully straighten on a properly set up bike the body starts to get all kinds of bad ideas about how much length they should be able to achieve. This can be taken care of either post ride, or during the pump and cossack stretches, or both. As I age and try to maintain my performance, I am reminded of how the FMS concepts apply to training. Active hamstring length (ASLR) is commonly the first correction sought as it effects nearly all other movements. Additionally, without having the ability to even get the body into the right position on the bike via hamstring flexibility the lower back is forced to take the brunt of the body’s flexed position. There’s also a couple of different hip flexor stretches for the same reason. In short – with a sport that has a fixed position it is essential to at least maintain mobility.

The strength work I’m doing I’m not really going to speak too much about as I think it deserves it’s own post. Suffice to say that even though my body weight is dropping through fat reduction, my strength is increasing. I’m hitting pistols, pull ups and presses with weights that are near my best ever lifts AND I’m putting in hours of energy sapping, muscle catabolism inducing cardiovascular activity weekly. There seems to be a misnomer among many in the fitness world that you have to be either fit or strong and that it is impossible to have both. Utter garbage. I’m only at the beginning of this experiment and am still as strong as ever, yet rapidly regaining speed I haven’t had for years. Not to mention looking and feeling better.

What I will say about my strength training is that I train five days per week and, at the moment, have been forced to compromise on what I feel is the best training solution as to maintain my RKCII standards for testing in April. While I am fairly sure that I could hit all my numbers by not pressing, I’m just not prepared to try that out just yet. So my lifts are a compromise that allow me to handle ten sessions per week (five per week each of riding plus strength), improve on both fronts and still drop weight. Even as a non-ideal situation that’s a fairly good compromise.

There’s lots more to come, so stick around. By the way, if you like the articles, please do me a favour and donate money towards the ride I’m doing. It is a charitable organisation, and the ride is for bowel cancer awareness. You can go directly to my donation page here.

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One Response to “Because it’s there”

  1. James Boelter Says:

    That’s an excellent mobility routine in your video. I might do something like this on alternate days – it’s a very appealing and powerful sequence. Thanks for sharing it with us!

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