Listening to your body

I’ve been a bit quiet of late, and theres some good reasons for that.

Firstly I went on holiday with my Wife and Wee man, I had simply the best most relaxing time. It was the perfect break from the normal routine to spend some quality time with both of them and to leave feeling refreshed and recharged.

Secondly I’ve not ridden as much as the last few weeks I have been a little under the weather, nothing serious but another lesson learnt.

In March I had a fairly bad throat infection that had developed into not quite a full blown quinsy, but still had quinsy like symptoms. This had happened as I had tonsillitis and was a little run down, I had not listened to my body and had not let it rest enough. I had continued my lunch gym sessions and routine as I had the SES round at Pitfichie coming up, a race that I later pulled out of for other reasons.

By the time I went to the doctor I was suffering with headaches, sore throats, difficulty swallowing and even laughing was a little painful. All as I didn’t take the time to get over a simple sore throat.

But had I let myself recover properly in the first instance and taken the time off the gym and the bike then it wouldn’t of progressed to the extent that it had. Lesson learnt. Riding bikes and working in the gym makes you fitter and healthier, but if the engine has a problem when you start, running it wont make it better.

Thats not to say that I didn’t ride my bike, but there were a few rides when I really should of resisted the temptation.

I now feel back to full strength and ready to get back to the gym and riding properly again. Which is just as well as the clocks have changed and the evenings are lighter later. The local trails are also in absolute prime condition, a dry winter and warm April have dried them up a treat (even with the late snows attempts to dampen them down again).

A preview of one of those video projects.

The time off the bike has meant I’ve had less to write about but has also given me time to think of some new projects and posts for the coming months. I’m also going to make some video projects which I hope people will enjoy. But as always, it is something fun to make that I would probably do anyway.

Well heres to a great summer season and see you on the trails.


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Gotta Learn to Lean

The winter mud is refusing to freeze, so another wet and mild winter to grind through.

With the winter season being the time for base miles and building the foundations for the coming years riding, the skills side of things can be easily left behind. Base miles, as important as they are for fitness, can be a bit dull, so time to find some turns.

Some self filming (easy tiger) is also a great way to see your form so you can dial in technique. Got to learn to lean properly in the turns.

gotta-learn-to-lean-mtb-cycling-stravainging-scotland-3

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Sessioning

I once wrote “Sessioning is not Strava.

And it isn’t, sessioning, stopping mid trail to push back up and practice a corner, drop or feature does not win PBs and KOMs. Or does it? Sure, on any particular ride a sessioned trail will sit you at a time of 20 to 30 minutes instead of 2:30 on Strava.

But surely its obvious, that never stopping to assess the trail, to practise specific skills and only riding the Strava race, is counter intuitive to progression? Inarguably Strava will make you faster, too a point, by encouraging you to attack and ride with the clock counting against you in your head.

But riding like this will only get you so far, you plateau as you ride the line you know rather than the best line. You ride on your subconscious rather than practising conscious efforts.

Again you could argue that setting a specific skills goal for a days ride, better body position, being less of a passenger on drops and rock gardens will make you better. But riding a full trail with goals like this is tiring and you will forget and revert to your ingrained riding style.

Also sessioning with friends and ideally, better riders, will encourage progression even further. When you are attempting a feature repeatedly by yourself, you cant see what your doing right and more importantly wrong. Watching more accomplished riders attacking the same trail that you are riding will show you better ways of riding, better lines and more dynamic riding styles.

The winter is a perfect time to develop your bike handling, the ground gets more challenging and your body english has a bigger part to play. No room for passengers in the slop.

In winter training, you traditionally think long boring rides and base miles. And whilst building fitness is important, so is building skills. Picking a specific type of feature and breaking down the body movements, technique and deliberately practising until it becomes an unconscious effort, rather than conscious effort, is where gains for the coming year will be made.

Ride without Strava sometime, see if you ride differently.

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Schrödinger’s Valve

When I was a toddler I had an aortic coarctation, it was treated with surgery.

I had annual check ups which involved ECGs and x-rays to ensure there was no further coarctation. As an adult the medicals are far less frequent and thankfully there is no sign of narrowing of the artery.

A common other defect for those who have or have had a coarctation is a bicuspid heart valve. This is when the three leaflets that usually make up your heart valve are fused into two.

bicuspid-aortic-valve-normal-tricuspid

If this is the case then there is usually no ill effect if you are fit and active but when in your 40s to 50s then surgery may be required. Especially if other symptoms present themselves.

I was at my medical recently and the consultant was unsure as to whether my valve is normal or bicuspid, the results were inconclusive.

My fitness is important to me for lots of reasons, to be able to participate in cycling and enjoy it to the best of my abilities without my fitness stopping me. But now more importantly than anything, to be there for my wee boy and wife.

If I do have a bicuspid valve and surgery is required as I move forward in life, I will not allow my fitness to inhibit my recovery or quality of life afterwards. For my wife and for my wee boy. The time in the pain cave is for more than myself its for them as well.


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Train in Vain

Returning to work is not without some advantages,
There is an excellent on campus gym for a start.

Back to work with a bump, sort of. I work at a university so returning to work after my paternity leave during the summer break meant I had a gentle reintroduction to the workplace. With no classes or students to keep the mind occupied I thought I would take the opportunity to get some consistent and planed training done in the run up to the  Tour De Ben.

I had a 10 week period in which to build some power and overall conditioning, not a huge amount of time but not so little that good progress couldn’t be made.

stravaiging-training-plan-mtb-scotland

I broke the time into two 4 week cycles with a unloading rest week in between and a final tapering week in the run up to race day. Each week gradually built on the intensity or volume of the previous week mixing intervals and weight training to get the most out of the available time I had for training. I predominantly would be getting gym time in during my normal lunch hour, this meant that 45 minute sessions up to 5 times a week would be the back bone of the plan.

Each week has two weight training days spaced 48 to 72 hours apart to allow for recovery whilst getting the best impact for those workouts, with interval sessions on a spin bike making up the remaining three gym sessions. Outside of the gym, I tried to get one or two rides on the bike a week but with the quickly darkening nights these rides were no more than 2 hours tops.

by the time this all added up I am able to get between 6 to 7 and a half hours training in a week. It soon adds up and I have been trying hard to structure the week so I was getting quality, as I wouldn’t have the volume training of longer rides.

The weight training days also incorporated floor and free weight workout routines from James WilsonJames runs a website called Mountain Bike strength Training Systems where you can purchase training plans and workout routines that are specific to mountain biking and specific types of MTB racing. He has been the fitness couch to an impressive roster of riders ranging from US National winning XC riders through to Aaron Gwin. The online part of his business means that the average rider can also get access to a structured plan for training for our sport.

For people like myself who are not able to commit that amount of time, he has a series of 15 minute workouts which he calls his “15 Minute Trail Rider Tune Ups” 0r 15M-TRTU, not the snappiest of titles. These sport specific routines focus on building mobility and working the muscle groups in areas that relate specifically to areas of being on the bike, like cornering and standing pedaling. I am enjoying the routines and I am finding it a fairly easy 15 minutes to add onto normal workouts or when the wee man is asleep.

All said and done whilst I feel I am in better condition for all this, the true test comes on the 24th when I try to beat my previous best time. If all goes well or I’m mad enough to try, I might make my secret goal for the day. The good thing about a secret target is there are no expectations and regardless of your time when people ask if you did you can just say “yes…”.


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Dad with bike – Will Race

The countdown is on to my first proper race of the year, the Cream O the Croft Enduro.

For past races I’ve put in a reasonably structured gym plan complimented by a more haphazard “time spent on the bike plan”. With no access to a gym and time on the bike being my main source of training, a slightly different approach to race training was needed.

Being a stay at home dad, any training comes second to looking after the wee man. But when I started trying to work out a basic training plan, I realised that he was far from hampering, he was maintaining my base fitness. Using the Garmin Vivofit my wife got me I discovered I was covering upward of 70km on foot a week, that is some serious base miles right there. With time spent on the bike in the evenings it started to add up to a reasonable amount of training time.

Training has been happening in three ways, walks, short evening rides (30-45 minutes) and bigger weekly rides. With the space to train identified it was time to structure it a bit more deliberately, I broke my training down in to a few rough parts.

  • Base miles – these are made up of walks with the wee man.
  • Intervals, to be done as an evening ride.
  • Longer ride with skills focus

Base Miles

The base miles are a fairly straightforward affair, at least once a day I take the boss for a hours walk. To make that time useful for training and more importantly, engaging for him, a lot of those walks happen in the woods, going uphill. A fairly typical walk can involve a track walk of a downhill trail or exploring new hills whilst getting the boss out in nature.

Trailwalking
4.2km 215m elevation

Intervals

The interval rides are taking the place of gym work, where previously there were circuits focusing on building strength and recovery, now I’m beasting myself on the bike instead. Knowing there would be a climbing and more XC orientated stages at the race meant sprinting and prolonged efforts on climbs would need attention.

Climbing Intervals

Interval rides aren’t that exciting, but they work, I can get a 30 – 40 minute ride in the evening, ideal for some intervals. I divided the intervals into climbing and sprinting sessions. The climbing was a straightforward smashing up a steep short climb and recovering on the descent, then repeat.

Sprint intervals
A bit all over in the middle…

The sprints are a block of 30 seconds full gas 30 seconds recovery for 5 minutes, 5 minutes recovery, repeat. There are plenty of philosophy’s and ways of structuring intervals and I’m no expert, but I tried to base them on race conditions. Sprints will benefit a enduro style stage as well as an XC stage, if a stage has a climb mid stage it probably wont last longer than 30 seconds and probably wont be as steep as 10 – 15%!


Main Bike Time

These rides are the main time I get on the bike, each ride as well as being time getting back to pace also has a skills focus. For example, on a recent ride at Tarland the focus was braking before corners and features as well as improving jumps. Tarland is a great place for honing some skills as you can session a whole trail pretty quickly.

The main areas that I’m trying to work on are;

  • Body position, stop riding like its a 1990’s XC race, straighten my back, hips back, shoulders low and elbows out.
  • Brake properly, finish before corners and features, slow in fast out.
  • Be smoother and braver, to not startle at drops and blind lips.

I have started mixing my local loop up so that it forces me to tackle these weaker areas, making me deliberately practice and session the features that are hard.

We all have commitments, other priorities on our time, making time for fitness or skills training can be hard. Sometimes looking at it a little more creatively will reveal space to train that you didn’t realize was there, and every KM is one more than everyone sitting on their couch.


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Progression – Chasing Form

Often when riding, I get the nagging feeling that even though I’m trying to progress my skills and become a smoother, faster rider. That last year, I was fitter and faster.

Turning the cranks, trying to move forward, deliberately practicing skills and sessioning challenging trails, yet sometimes I feel like I’m just going backwards. Mostly I am sure it is a confidence issue, I lack a certain confidence, not in my ability to ride at a pace but that my current “form” is always weaker than it has previously been.

For me, the doubt was probably always there, but it started to creep in more last year when my wife and I were blessed with our first child. As you can Imagine, towards the end of the pregnancy and for the first few months riding took a back seat with not many miles being clocked and my “form” began to stiffen in my mind.

But how much of these feelings are just that, feelings.

So much of our sport is psychological, intangible feelings of form and flow, yet anything we can measure and quantify needs to be placed within context. The condition of the trails changes with the seasons, meaning comparing any two runs made at different times should only be done with a pinch of salt.

As a tribe, mountain bikers have always tried to go faster, we have always raced, but when your racing yourself we do have some tools to help us measure our progress.

Lets do the math!

Pulling timings from Strava, I plotted the top 10 fastest times for two regular trails in chronological order. The first trail (Roots Manova) is fast, steep and with some proper technical sections to catch you unawares, the second (Log Ride) has less vertical drop and more pedal but still has plenty of teeth to bite you. Both are regulars and I have ridden them a few dozen times each so I know them well.

Roots manova top 10 times

Log Ride Top 10 Times

The trails are both natural in style so have eroded, been dug and have evolved over time. Runs two months apart can be on noticeably different trails, so as I said previously, any comparison has to be with a pinch of salt. All that being said, once the times are plotted chronologically we can see the trend.

The progression is visible as the trend is for the time to decrease, ie for me to get faster, and I would certainly hope so. I have been riding these trails for a good few years, and whilst erosion has made them more challenging, I would hope my skills would have grown to match the evolving trail. I can also see that my recent times, albeit whilst not feeling fully back to pace, are still landing within the top 5 of my times.

You can also see that whilst the trend is saying I’m getting faster, there clearly is a spell in the spring of 2015 when I was faster, on form. Once a level of speed and confidence is felt it is oft remember fondly in the rear view mirror and when the mojo is a little rusty, it can feel like the faster times where faster and you are more off the pace than you actually are.

DCIM100DRIFT

Strangely, I do feel that I am riding cleaner from a technical stand point, cornering better, braking better, hitting technical sections more smoothly. Just without some of the small amount of speed I once had.

Ultimately even without timing we know when we are riding fast and when we are just cruising. Not every run has to be a “YOLO” run, but it is important not to let the gremlins into your head. Once there, target fixation and doubt creep in, thoughts of past crashes and crashes still to come make you jam on the anchors. And that is when it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, I’m off form so I’ll ride conservatively, I used to be faster here and that drop is bigger than I remember so I’ll just roll it, thus making you slower and stiffer on the bike.

Better to ignore past pace and just enjoy the ride and remember.

Its all in the mind.

 

Progression – Local Loop

Your strengths are those you practice most, and your weaknesses those that are too hard or to rare an opportunity to perform.

A few things have caused my riding to change and progress over the years, one of the biggest influences has been the local loop. We all have a local loop, somewhere we can crank straight from the house or after a short drive, long drives eat into riding time. What the local terrain has on offer and the style of the trails to be had there will dictate the strengths and weaknesses of your riding (unless you travel to ride a broader variety).

Whilst on a skills course aimed at steep and natural terrain I was told that I was riding with an XC style. This didn’t surprise me all that much, as my local loop for most of my time on a bike had been just that, cross country. My strengths on the bike reflected this, as did my weaknesses.

Countesswells mtb stravaiging.JPG

Strong in the climbs, fast on undulating terrain where constant power is needed and trails with climbs or sprints in them. Conversely I was slow on steep terrain, lacking in confidence with jumps and drops, and relied to much on my fitness to build and keep speed.

This started to change a few years ago when after moving house my local loop changed, I went from averaging 160m of elevation in 10km to 260m in 10km. The change of local riding spot had a pronounced effect on my riding, but it was not without teething problems. Crashes, broken bike parts and sliced tyres, as not only did my skill level have to adapt to the more technical terrain but my bike setup had to change too. The challenge was rewarding and riding bike became thrilling again and not just a test of physical ability.

DCIM101DRIFT

My progression was apparent when I next visited Glentress with my brother, who traditionally I had always been chasing. My new local loop had been beasting me for a few months by this point and I was now out in front, my power in the climbs had also grown as the greater elevation had made an impact.

However I still found myself chasing the pack whilst on my LBS shop rides, when I realised, I was on the groups local loop, not mine. When on home turf you are faster, more confident and have the trails memorised. When on unfamiliar trails its a new learning curve, new challenges and new terrain to master.

Scolty DH 4

There will always be scope for improvement on your local trails but variety is the spice of life after all. I try to mix it up with as broad a variety of trails as possible but time spent traveling is time spent not riding. My local loop has taught me a lot, and has many lesson still to school me. But weaknesses still remain and new ones have been brought to light, and again they reflect my local loop.

So the only way to address those is ride somewhere that forces me to address those weaknesses and gives me the scope to progress those elements of my riding, making me a faster and more rounded rider.

But and hours driving is an hour not riding, its a tough call sometimes.