Starting my cycling journey (again)

Over the last few weeks I have been getting back into the routine of regular training and looking for improved cycling performance. In my previous years I raced pretty seriously, competing in region also, national, and international events, even picking up quite a few wins as well! However, when my Master’s degree started alongside another job with long commutes (see previous post) my training time was dramatically reduced, and when I compared the time available with what I was used to, I fell by the wayside and was happy with an occasional ride for enjoyment. With the PhD just around the corner my aim is to get back into riding and competing but in a different and more controllable discipline, this blog is about how I am going to approach getting back into training and racing on limited time.

When you have been used to training weeks in excess of 20 hours of hard riding, alongside strength and flexibility work, looking at between 5 and 8 hours of training time can seem paltry in comparison. However, what I have learnt over my time as a sports scientist and coach is that specificity and individualisation is the key to high performance. I am going to focus on how I can make the very most out of these 8 training hours per week, in order to improve my performance. My focus was then directed towards what discipline I would focus on; road, cyclocross, time trialling? I am a road racer at heart, cyclocross rider by upbringing, and time trialling as a result of sheer scientific curiosity. 

My appraisal of road racing came to the conclusion that with the stress I used to put myself under both before and after races, and not to mention the numerous aspects of physiological performance that you need to train, this discipline wouldn’t be a wise choice for a main focus. Cyclocross was next to be appraised; muddy, cold, and tough on equipment… Maybe a few races for shits and giggles. This led me to time trialling. I have only done a couple of time trials; a 21 minute 10-mile TT and a 53 minute 25-mile TT. I am not built for TT excellence; under 60kg and 169cm in height, but what I do have is a capacity for pain tolerance, aggression, and the joys of the scientific process. With the aim of time trialling to complete set distances as fast as you possibly can, this makes my goal essentially a lengthy n=1 case study.

The first step on this case study was to complete some baseline testing; a Lactate Threshold Test and FTP test at Cadence Performance Centre where I work. My lactate threshold came out at 240W, down from ~280W when I was racing, but my maximal power from the ramp test actually increased from ~340W to a nice 363W. This means that my first goal is to target train my threshold in order to get it back to the 280W mark. However, I knew my capacity to empty myself over a known timeframe had always been quite good, so I decided to see how the lactate threshold power from a ramp test compared with functional threshold power from a 20-minute test. I did the two tests 24hrs apart and my FTP came out 10W higher – I wasn’t surprised. So I had my baseline numbers, my targets, and my individualised training zones; now to put a plan into place.

I know my body responds well to certain types of training; tempo rides for 3hrs, 10-20min sweetspot work, 30:30 sessions, and the very important recovery rides. I looked at my available time and decided that I would likely be better served by a 2hr tempo/sweetspot ride at the weekend, which would give me around and hour each day during the week to train. I mapped out an easy 1hr circuit through my local fields I could do on my cyclocross bike on Friday as a recovery ride, which would keep the enjoyment there and prevent monotony in training. This left two 1hr sweetspot sessions to be placed on Monday and Thursday, with the joyful 30:30 session on Wednesday, and an easier indoor interval session on Tuesday. My progression method would involve 2-3 weeks of this, followed by 1 week of slightly reduced volume and intensity to promote recovery and adaptation. I plan to re-test my lactate threshold every 2 months, and FTP every month. If I can manage a 5% improvement in threshold each month, I should be back to my old performance by May, leaving the summer months to enjoy enjoy this power.

I will be keeping things updated as the training, work, and importantly the PhD progress, but this blog outlines the plan at the moment, although if the time I have spent coaching athletes had taught me anything it is the importance of being flexible and being able to adapt to necessary adjustments.


There and back again: a commuter’s tale

The beginning of my commuter’s tale lies at the start of my academic career, with campus being an hour away, which means that developing an effective commute was paramount for me. Very early on in my first year I made the switch from daydreaming or listening to music, to reading or making notes. Over the course of my degree this developed until I counted the majority of my commute time as time spent studying, in an extremely focused “do not fucking disturb me” manner. It also had the added benefit of allowing me to progressively wake up and prepare myself for learning later in the day… strangely I did feel sorry for the students that lived nearer to campus; waking up fifteen minutes prior to a heavy 9 am lecture on physiology probably isn’t too facilitative to information retention. Silver linings, eh? So this continued for the next 3 years and added up to a significant amount of focused study-time, coming out my undergraduate course with a first-class honors degree.

Starting my master’s degree also marked the starting point in my current career as an applied sports scientist in London, which meant a large extension to my commute. Travelling to work by train was a source of great stress; with frequent delays, loud passengers, and long hours being the return for a significant portion of my income. I work in London but live way out along the north Kent coast, pretty much as far east as you can go, so the time requirement for getting to work was around two and a half hours. You would think that this would mean more study time, but with train changes and busier lines, it wasn’t the easiest. The greatest impact on this ability to study came simply came from the time at which I had to awake each day – around 4:30am to get the train between 5:30am and 6:00am. Even with a heavily caffeinated bloodstream, I wasn’t in any state to devour journal after journal. With this came stress and anxiety about not using this time productively, but not having the resources at the time to change the fact. This, along with some other factors which I’m not going to go into today, meant that the start of my master’s degree was quite a rocky one. However, following a significant amount of growth and learning I was able to get back into the routine of productive commuting.

Fast-forwarding to the present day, I always have a goal to complete on my commute, which is of course scheduled on my ToDoIst app (a post will be coming on this), and have converted the time constructively. I learnt fairly early on that sometimes it wasn’t always effective to force myself to read when my mind wasn’t receptive to the heavy literature; which led me to swiftly discover the joys of podcasts! There are plenty of podcasts on the topic of cycling, human performance, physiology, or other related topics, which meant that I had discovered a goldmine of information which I was able to process in the early hours of the morning. Listening to conversations about relevant topics and making notes seemed like such an obvious solution to the time-sink of the commute, I often wonder why I didn’t discover this earlier on. My current podcasts, for example, are serving the dual purpose of furthering my academic and cycling performance knowledge, as they center around planning, completing, and analyzing performance in cycling time trial events. Talk about dual-purpose!

With the start PhD looming around the corner, I am brainstorming ideas on whether my current techniques of ensuring commute time is effective are adequate, or whether I would need to adapt. I do intend to continue my productive use of the commute, but acknowledge that reading or data analysis may be better to complete during this time than listening to podcasts. I’m going to experiment with listening to these while completing my cycling training sessions on the indoor trainer, and thus expanding my productive time. The start date of the PhD is still being finalized, but I’m hoping to get underway around the start of February, so I am sure another update on productive commuting may crop up around then!

It’s the deep breath before the plunge…

With 2016 now underway the reality of starting a PhD is well and truly upon me; the contracts are being sorted out and I should be starting within the next few weeks. I set up this blog to help me document my progress through this journey from a personal perspective.

My field of study is related to the way in which the human body adapts and responds to exercise, specifically the causes (and hopefully solutions) of inter-individual variability in training response. So that may sound like quite a scary topic but inter-individual variability in training response is basically the phenomenon that frequently occurs when people complete an exercise training regimen; some people get better, others worse, and some stay the same. So, why does that happen; why does it matter; and what the hell can we do about it? Well, that is my PhD.

I’m doing my PhD at the University of Kent, UK, under supervision from Dr. James Hopker and Prof. Louis Passfield. My research is funded by Cadence Cycling Performance Center, where I complete work testing and coaching cyclists at a range of performance levels. I decided to complete my PhD at the same University that I completed my B.Sc. and M.Sc. for a multitude of reasons, but mainly because I enjoy working with my supervisors, have good knowledge of the lab equipment and protocols, and not to mention that I currently am living in a sleepy seaside corner of the country so extending a commute any further would be a nightmare!

The other aspects of my life involve cycling, where I am a pretty decent road cyclist; films, where I watch things on a screen pretty well; and being with family… obviously. I am going to maintain this blog by completing weekly updates on what I got up to that week. This is mainly for my benefit, in the way that it will get me to reflect on how I spent my time and evaluate what I completed that week. If this blog serves to help anyone in any way whatsoever, well that’s just a bonus.