Monday, 24 March 2014

A good start to the season!

After four months of training, persevering through long cold, windy, miserable road rides, hours on the turbo trainer, time spent weight training, mountain biking through pouring rain and mud, I was getting to the point in the past couple of weeks that I just wanted to get racing!  That point finally arrived at the weekend, and the weather sorted itself out nicely just in time:

This was me getting ready just before my first race of the season on Sunday 23rd March: Round 1 of the Scottish XC Series at Forfar.  Not only was this my first race of the season, but it was my first time competing in the SXC Series.  I therefore had a lot of unknowns going into the race.  I wasn't specifically peaking for this race and was using it to learn, but as my first race of the season I obviously wanted to do well.

We arrived at the venue on the Saturday afternoon to get a couple of practice laps in.  The course had been taped up by the organisers and it was fantastic.  A real roller coaster of bomb holes into a disused quarry, some nice flowing singletrack sections, a few rooty bits through the trees and a couple of grinding fire road climbs to test the lungs and the legs.  It really was a great course!

The organisation from the SXC team on race day was superb.  Lots of clear information through the PA from our compere, good signage, good parking not far from the start/finish area and lots of updates throughout the day.  This kind of thing lets you relax as a racer, instead of worrying about minute details.  The SXC team were also happy to answer any of my silly newbie questions!

After watching a bit of the morning races (females and some of the younger categories), it was off back to the van for "second breakfast", time to get the bike ready and myself ready too.  There were some good quiet roads nearby perfect for my warm-up routine and I got this underway just before 1pm, with the race start at 2pm.

On the start line, given I had a lot of unknowns, I tried to remain focused on my own race.  I had no idea what the competition would be like and I also knew I wouldn't be gridded as I didn't take part in the series last year.  Those who had competed last year were gridded on their series positions from the end of the year and the rest of us just had to hope we got a good space behind them.  To make things harder for us at the back, they chose to set off the Sport and Masters categories together but gridded the Sport guys in front of us.  There are a range of riders in both categories, so its not any difference in speed that's the problem here: it was the number of riders.  They typically leave a 2 minute gap between categories but this meant we had more people to compete with from the start line to get that elusive place in line at the front entering the first section of singletrack.

Shortly after 2pm, we were on the line and given the 15 second warning . . . The whistle blew and we were off!

I really must try to work on my "race face"!  That is not a good look!

The start was fast as expected but it soon stalled in a bit of a pile-up as we entered the first singletrack section a few hundred metres from the start line and fought with each other for space.  It just takes one rider to slow or stall on this short climb and then the guy in front of me went down.  I hope he's okay and recovered to get on with the race.

Instinct just kicked in at this point and I quickly unclipped, grabbed the bike and ran around him up the hill.  I got back on as quickly as I could but I knew this would affect my chances to keep close to the front (gridded) group.

While I do always try to plan my race strategy in advance, tactics can take over and you may have to change your plan.  Given there were not many overtaking opportunities in the first loop through the quarry, I was fortunate enough to squeeze by a few other riders and then step it up a notch on the first fire road climb.  Although it's hard to spot (by race numbers) if it's a Sport or Masters rider you are passing, I did manage to get past a few more riders on that climb and then settled into my rhythm.

I really didn't know if I'd be able to make up the time to the front group but this was all part of the learning experience.  As well as being there for me in the feed zone, my wife (who I couldn't do all this without!) was keeping me updated with my position and rough time to the group in front.  By the second lap, I knew I was in 5th place and had around 40 seconds between me and the next Masters rider in front.

I moved up to 4th place through the misfortune of another rider (who was in 2nd place at that point I'm told) having a puncture.  But that's racing and you have to take advantage of these situations, so I pushed on in the hope that I could make up that time, but unfortunately slowed a bit on my 3rd lap and the gap went to over a minute.  This was also when I was caught by 3 of the Vets who had set off 2 minutes behind us Masters at the start.  The top Vets are really fast and it's a very competitive race! 

At that stage in a 4 lap XC race with laps around 20 to 22 mins, this was going to be a tough task to make up such a gap.  However, this was what I was there to do: not just race, but learn for my future races.  I continued to fuel myself according to the nutrition I'd planned and pushed it on the final lap.

Entering the feed zone on my last lap:

While I made up some time on the final lap, it was just too large a gap to close, but I gave it my all . . . resulting in more race face photos!  I really must look out for the camera and try not to pull these faces!

It's at this late stage in the race that you can make silly mistakes but I kept reminding myself to keep it smooth and controlled on the descents and quarry or root sections, as that will always be faster than being on the ragged edge!  The marshals were great and continued to shout on encouragement or ring their cow bells as we passed them - it really does help spur you on at this stage!

And across the line . . .

It all felt like it was over so quickly, for someone who has previously specialised in endurance events like 7, 10, 12 and 24 hour solos.  But I loved every minute of it and I'm absolutely hooked on this format of racing!

The top 3 in my Masters category were Alex Dimitriou, Ben Greenwood and Scott Logan.  Well done guys!  I was 4th and you can find full results for all categories here.  The Elite race must have been amazing to watch as there was a sprint finish and only 5 hundredths of a second separating the winner, Rob Friel, from second placed Gareth Montgomerie!

Given this was my first time competing in the SXC Series and my first season competing in the shorter (but faster!) XC format, I'm over the moon to have come 4th.  I learned so much and everything worked out well so I know what to do for my next races.  I was really happy with my warm-up, nutrition, clothing, and strategy.  My Trek Superfly was running perfectly and felt great.  Although I naturally slowed a bit on my 3rd and 4th laps, I didn't slow as much as I thought I would so that's a good sign that my anaerobic endurance training is paying off, so I just need to keep working on that for the next race.

Also, with finishing 4th, it means I'll now be gridded at the front for the next SXC race at Cathkin (which is my local race) and that will help me avoid any pile-ups or jostling for position again at the start.

So, while I've still got more to do and I've learned a lot, I'm really chuffed to have come 4th in my first XC race this year.  I've got the first round of the British XC Series in Essex this coming weekend and it's a much larger field there, so I know it will be really competitive.  I know what my goals are though and what result I'd be happy with.  Then it's time to focus on the SXC Round 2 at Cathkin on 13th April, so if you're Glasgow based and can make it along to cheer us all on, please do!  There were plenty of spectators at Forfar and I'm sure they'll agree it's a fast, fun race format to watch, with great on-site catering, hot/cold drinks and a good atmosphere.

Thanks to the Alpine Bikes Trek Store Glasgow for supporting me this season and helping me get off to a great start, and thanks to all the organisers at the SXC for a fantastic first race!

Friday, 7 March 2014

Rest and Recovery

Sometimes the right thing to do in your training is not to train.

That may sound strange if you're not used to following a training plan.  Perhaps someone has given you that good old advice of "just ride as much as possible every day".  This is actually very bad advice.

It's really important to listen to your body and rest when it needs it.  Recovery is one of the most vital aspects of training and over-training can lead to pretty serious problems and really poor performance.

Being an amateur, I don't have a coach.  I could pay for one, but I actually quite enjoy coming up with my own training plans.  I like the planning and structure, the science, the analysing of data to benchmark and monitor my progress.  I rely a lot on books and online resources, and have been producing my own training plans for 3 years now.  Last year, though, was the first time I included official "R&R" weeks: Rest and Recovery.  This was thanks to reading Joe Friel's work and listening to his sound advice.

Today got me thinking about these R&R weeks, hence the blog post.  I usually have one of these weeks every 4 weeks in my plan.  I follow the proven structure of periodisation in my training plan, working through specifically targeted periods each typically lasting 4 weeks.  So, it works out perfectly to have 3 hard weeks of training in each period, followed by a rest and recovery week (with reduced volume and intensity).  This gives your body the chance to recover from the intense training, and restore itself ready for your next training efforts or race.

To quote the legendary Joe Friel, "As strange as it may seem, there are athletes who believe that fatigue is the reason for training.  They have come to view this natural side effect of hard work as a marker of improved fitness.  Shoter-term increases in fatigue are normal as the volume or intensity of training rises, but it must be unloaded frequently to maintain fitness growth.  Failure to do so is a training mistake."

One other thing I've learned about a training plan though is that you need to be able to change it if something in your life or your racing changes.  The date was changed for one of my "A priority" races this year and so I had to re-jig my training plan to peak a bit earlier in the season than originally planned.  I did this by shortening my base training period (because my base fitness was good) and introduced my build training (more intense power/anaerobic workouts) earlier.  But in doing so, I had to skip an R&R week.  I have now learned from this mistake! (which is also an important part of training - mistakes will happen, so learn from them and move on!)

Instead of going 3 weeks then an R&R week, I've now done almost 5 weeks and I'm due an R&R week next week.  Those two extra weeks have taken their toll and my legs have just been feeling a bit heavy and drained this week.  Thankfully I've not seen any other signs of more serious fatigue (for example, my waking heart rate, which I take every morning, has stayed at the same level), but I know my body well now and I know it needs a rest.  I still did my training Monday to Thursday this week, but eased off on one session last night and have taken today as a full rest day. 

And I mean a full rest day!

I even took the day off work.  Work has been busy and so I could do with a day off anyway, but I still want to do some intense training this weekend before my full R&R week next week.  So, no cycling, no weight training, and as little walking as possible today!  It will mostly be spent sitting on my rear end!  I've had a lie in and relaxed on the sofa at home.  I'm then going to go see a couple of films at the cinema and just generally chillax!  Although I'll probably need to take my fluffy slippers and tartan pyjamas off before going to the cinema!  Otherwise, I might be taking the chillaxing a bit too far . . .

This may just sound like I'm just having a lazy day, something most people might do on a Sunday.  But this is actually part of my training plan.  I've listened to what my body needs and I'm sure I'll feel the benefit this weekend as I'll be able to put more effort into the intense training I've got planned, and then have a full R&R week next week.  It will rest my mind and body in advance of that, and remember that resting the mind is just as important for training and racing.  It might seem like a waste of a day's annual leave from work, but giving my mind a break from work also helps me focus on my training too.  When it comes to racing, you definitely don't want to have the stresses of work or anything else playing on your mind on the start line; especially in mountain biking when you need full concentration for technical courses!

Next week's R&R week is not just about rest.  It's about the second "R" too: active recovery.  It's also a good time to check your progress with some testing.  I'll have one full day off again, do my usual weight training and Pilates sessions, three active recovery Zone 1 rides, some skills and sprints practice, and the Saturday will be my testing day.  I'll either do a Lactate Threshold Heart Rate test or use one of my local trails to check if my personal best time has improved (a really good way of checking your progress and one of the benefits of apps like Runkeeper and Strava these days!).

So, if someone is telling you just to ride as much as you can, just politely nod and walk away.  Go back to your structured training plan and ensure you have at least one day off the bike each week and a rest and recovery week every few weeks.  And remember to listen to your body - coach or no coach, only you can do that!