Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Body type

If you want to know whether someone is going to be good at a new sport, take them to a big race and look around. Does their body type match that of the top competitors? If so, chances are they will be fine. If not, better make sure they have some other exceptional attributes to make up for the difference. Or maybe they should go after multi-sport, eg. triathlon.

Runners at the line

Usually, an even easier way to tell is to look at what the person likes as a child. Kids naturally gravitate towards what they are good at. Future athletes tend to stand out at a very young age. They can beat all their friends rather easily and with a huge margin. Occasionally one has to make an exception for speed of development. Some kids mature very quickly and can beat their age-matched peers by virtue of faster development.

These guys are not runners

These rapidly-developing children are the ones that stand out as distance or speed champions well before age 10. Theirs is not so much exceptional ability but rather exceptionally fast development. Their chances of becoming top athletes are not very different from the rest of the population, and once the rest catches up, most of the early birds disappear in the crowd.


So, if you look at kids, don't be tempted by those very young overachievers. Better look at a slightly later age. Phelps's coach claimed he saw the future star as early as age 11 and that makes a lot of sense. Great talent can be spotted early on.

Although there are notorious exceptions, nearly all top athletes in one discipline look alike. They are about the same height, the same weight, and of the same proportions. The latter includes relative length of arms, legs, versus torso, and may include other measures such as chest circumference, head size, shoe size, or hand size.

Body type determines how easy it is to reach things, how much weight you will have to lift, how much air or water resistance you will experience, and how much reach or stride you will have. Head size may influence resistance. Hand and foot size affect how much grip, paddle, or grasp you have.

The most notorious exceptions are people who are too tall or too big for their preferred discipline. Usually these athletes make up for their deficit by exceptional strength, power, or endurance. People like Miguel Indurain, Usain Bolt. They are best known because they don't fit the type. These are the special cases and they are far and few between.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Corporate sponsor

We're getting a corporate sponsor for the Ironman Fundraiser. Vitaminwater will support our effort to raise awareness for Brain Aneurysms.

Despite having two prominent senators, who were victims of aneurysms, Joe Biden and Arlen Specter, the Foundation has had the hardest time raising money to combat this killer.

Did you know that more people die of brain aneurysms, an almost completely preventable cause, than die of AIDS ? The number of victims of brain aneurysms and related vascular malformations is higher than the number of Leukemia deaths, the seventh cancer killer in the US! And despite all that there is little or no Federal funding for Aneurysm research.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

economic woes

The economics woes are hitting North America Sports, better known as Ironman. For the first time in so many years, Ironman Canada had excess slots. Not just once but twice. First, they did not sell all the slots that were available at the race. 400 were left open, so they put them on the internet. These went fast enough and demand was high, rumored to be 3,000 or more. Still, in previous years you had to travel to Penticton and stand in line to get a slot for the next year.

Then, a large number of people who did pick up a ticket in Penticton, decided not to buy their slot. You get a few weeks to actually complete the sale once you take a slot. So there was a second internet sale. That one too closed soon thereafter. Clearly there are people waiting in line. But times are changing. Now there are excess community fund slots for Coeur d'Alene, Lake Placid, Wisconsin and Canada, all very popular venues. Granted these babies cost $1K a piece, but once again these were never to be found except on race day or maybe the week there after.

Triathlons are an expensive sport. A race easily costs over $1,500-2,500 once all said and done. To say nothing of the equipment, training, and other paraphernalia needed to compete. A bicycle, wheels, a wetsuit, running gear, it's not for the faint of heart. The stress on one's pocketbook is greater than the stress on one's body. That is saying something for what people call the most grueling race on earth.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Eating while racing

In any type of endurance competition or record attempt you need to eat while racing. Even in sports that make eating and drinking difficult, such as swimming, endurance racers eat during the race. For swimming this only applies to long events that last several hours. Events such as the English Channel swim or the swim around Manhattan Island.

Nobody needs to eat during an Ironman swim, but some do. Not surprisingly this mostly happens in events with a two-loop swim course that includes a short jog on the beach, eg. Ironman Florida, Ironman Coeur d'Alene, the Great Floridian, and others.

Eating on the bike is quite easy and most cyclists eat candy bars when riding more than 50 miles. Some eat on every ride, irrespective of how short it is. Though that makes very little sense and century rides can be completed without much food intake while underway. However, most century organizers have taken to providing ample food to attract customers. Some events have turned into "gourmet" parties.

More people have trouble eating while running and that is why many triathletes try to eat more than they need on the bike, so they have extra energy for the run. Marathoners used to eat very little if at all, but the widespread availability of GU and other gel products has changed all that. Gels are now so common that many marathons refuse provide them any longer because residents along the course complain of widespread littering from gel packages.

I suspect that most eating while racing is done for comfort, to take a little break, or as a distraction. It is rarely needed and most people do not go hard enough to fully deplete their glycogen reserves. When it comes to fat, even lean adults have enough storage to run several thousand miles. In any case, few go hard enough during the run to need anything but endogenous free fatty acids.

Excess eating and drinking is to blame for a lot of DNF's -did not finish's-, and upset stomachs. Ironically enough most victims think the remedy is to eat and drink more. Many also seem convinced that an ironman event cannot be completed without food intake. It is very clear however, that this is false.

For sure, those taking in excess of 15 hours do not need to eat to finish. Yet they are the ones most likely to do so. First of all, because people rarely go that long without food anymore. Second, because it feels good to take a break and eat something. Third because many think they can make up for lack of training by eating more.

Much has been said about what one needs to eat during a race and special diets abound. For years, liquid-only diets with no residue were favorites among RAAM riders and other ultra-athletes. Getting used to an all liquid diet is as hard if not harder than getting used to eating real food while running.

I recommend that you eat and drink as little as is necessary to complete the race. This leads to faster finishes, less GI problems, less potty breaks, and generally improved well-being.

For short races at high intensity, all one really needs is some readily-available carbohydrate. For events that take a few hours, it is better to add in some fat. Many people shy away from meat and prefer peanut butter instead. The type of fat you eat does not really matter as long as you add some in. The longer the event, the more your intake should resemble everyday meals, and for any event lasting longer than 24 hours, your food intake should be similar to what you normally eat, only more.

As for post-event intake, remember that most of it is an excuse to eat more than you need. There is no need for special potions, or even for rapid refueling. Unless you have another race the next day, you can take your time and leisurely enjoy your chocolate milk after your shower.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Garmin, Spinergy

Kudos to Garmin for their excellent customer service and warranty protection. A few weeks ago, my son's Garmin fell out of its bracket and ended up crushed on the road. This happened even though it was properly seated and "clicked in." I contacted Garmin about this but I wasn't too hopeful. They did however come through in major way. Garmin replaced the unit under warranty. Now that is something to write home about.

Also kudos to Spinergy for offering support for my Ironman Fundraiser! Way to go, Spinergy. We love your wheels.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Mountain biking

It's been a while since I rode my mountain bike. I am still hurting from the somersault I took earlier this year, when I hit a pothole in Redwood Park. I ended up with a mild concussion and a type three acromio-clavicular joint separation (AC for short).

The latter was no fun and kept me from exercising in rather unforeseen ways. Obviously swimming was out of the question. But running for example was not good either. It was mighty painful and I could not really find any position for my arm that was even moderately comfortable. Nevertheless I ran the Boston marathon this way and set a new PR. All the while I was thinking, "let's get this over with so I can rest my arm." I never noticed the leg pain.

Even today, more than six months later, the injury still bothers me. I can put my finger on my clavicle and press it down like a piano key. It comes back up too. My arm tends to get tired easily and there are some positions lying down that are distinctly annoying.

The other lasting impression I got from this incident was that anytime I go fast on my mountain bike I get pretty scared. It is very context sensitive. It only happens on my mountain bike and only on trails. It has little to do with the condition of the trail but everything with the speed of travel. My accident happened on a flat section of trail at fairly high speed. It was what you call a freak accident in a place where you least expect it.

Nonetheless, I went out on a ride today and had great fun. The weather was pretty much ideal and the trails were nearly empty. A road block on Skyline prevented me from going to Redwood and so I went to Tilden and Wildcat. Tilden is a more scenic ride but it has steeper and more slippery descents and lots of gravel. Parts of it are also covered in black clay that turns into deep mud in winter (totally unsuitable for riding) and very hard concrete-like bumpy patches in summer.

I really enjoy mountain biking and today was no exception. However I need to be careful now so I don't get injured before the Ironman in November. That means I will probably limit my trail adventures for now.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Lactate threshold

The lactate threshold (LT) is the exercise intensity at which blood lactate levels start rising rapidly. This happens when more lactate is produced than can be metabolized. It is sometimes called onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA) or anaerobic threshold.

Here is what happens. After a warm-up, you exercise at increasingly intense levels for several minutes. At each intensity, someone takes a blood sample. They measure the lactate levels in the samples and plot them on a curve. Usually they plot lactate versus power/intensity. You can also express LT versus heart rate.

One can buy small lactate meters (they look similar to glucose meters that diabetics use) for anywhere from $200-500. These meters use disposable test strips.

With increasing intensity the lactate level will be more or less steady or increase gently. At some point the increase will jump and there will be a distinct inflection in the curve. From here on, lactate levels will rise quickly. At about the same time, the person will start experiencing difficulty maintaining the intensity required. Although everyone will experience difficulty at some point, in some individuals no clear inflection point in lactate levels is seen. In those cases, an absolute value of lactate is used. 4mM/L is often used as the "threshold" value.

During the test, one also measures the heart rate, and in some set-ups, the amount of CO2 produced to O2 consumed. The latter ratio changes when the anaerobic threshold is reached. In most cases the anaerobic threshold and the lactate threshold occur at about the same heart rate.

In general, the better trained you are the closer your lactate threshold is to your maximal heart rate. There are however, individual variations and some individuals can get their lactate threshold much closer to their maximal heart rate than others.

A non-invasive (no needles) way to estimate LT is the Conconi test. The test was made popular because it was reportedly used by the Postal Service/Discovery Channel team to check fitness for the Tour de France. The Conconi test is easy to do. All you need is a treadmill or ergometer and a heart rate monitor. I should note that the dependability of the Conconi test has been challenged in many studies. Nevertheless it remains a very popular test.

Again, you warm up and then progressively increase the load while measuring your heart rate. You do so until you reach a "plateau" where your heart rate no longer increases (or increases ever so slightly) while the exercise load is going up. Once again, in most individuals there will be a distinct inflection point, where the curve levels off and your heart rate no longer increases despite the increased load.

As described earlier, at or near that intensity, you will experience a distinct increase in difficulty. Furthermore, you won't be able to go very far past that point. It is important to make repeat measurements to get a reproducible number. Preferably you rest in-between trials.

A lot has been written about lactate threshold tests. One thing is for sure: accurate measurements are difficult to obtain. They are also of limited value. But that has not stopped athletes from pursuing these tests with great determination or practicing what is known as lactate threshold training.

It also has not stopped many gyms, health clubs, and other organizations from performing LT tests and charging handsomely for it too. In nearly all cases, you get one shot for your money. So, despite the high tech equipment and professional setting, chances are that your measurement will be pretty meaningless.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Bee/wasp sting

As I kid I got stung by bees and yellowjackets quite a few times, but I never responded with more than a little red bump and some itching and pain. Then one day, I went on a bike ride in Oakland and got stung on the lip. What happened next surprised the hell out of me and caused me to avoid contact with others for a week. My upper lip turned into a bloated, bright red sausage of rather enormous dimensions. It distorted my entire face and lasted for five days before slowly subsiding. I had trouble eating, drinking and talking.

That happened a good ten years ago. Ever since I have been allergic to bee or wasp stings. I am not sure why this happened all of a sudden but here it is. Since then I have had a few more stings, including one on my forearm that made that arm twice as heavy and twice as big as the other. I was once again incapacitated for a week. Not so much because of the esthetics this time, but because I could not use the arm and had to put it in a sling.

Most recently, a tiny bee got under my glasses at the San Jose International Triathlon and stung me on the eyelid. That happened during the biking leg, about 3 miles from the finish. I thought for sure my race was over. But then somehow, I almost forgot about it, parked my bike and went on the run. I am not sure why, but it took almost 1.5 hours before symptoms appeared. I had all but forgotten about the sting. The race was over, I had taken a shower, and I was looking at the vendor booths, when I suddenly noticed something hanging in front of my eye. Like a curtain on my visual field. From then on, things moved quickly and within 20 minutes my eye was swollen shut and it stayed that way for 3 days.

It may have been the adrenalin of the race, or maybe the dehydration, or both, but the delayed reaction surprised me. What also surprised me was how quickly the pain subsided. Ever since my first "allergic" reaction, stings have become very painful with a long lasting, very intense burn. I did feel the sting in San Jose, but the pain went away almost immediately. I was not kidding when I said I almost forgot about it by the time I finished the bike. It was really gone.

Yesterday I got it again. I was running an eight mile loop close to my house and around mile 3 I felt a burning in my right middle finger. I was just running, never saw an insect or anything. Just the characteristic burning pain. I tried to apply some suction but that clearly did not help. It may even have made it worse by causing vasodilation. I decided to keep on running. By the time I came home it was slightly swollen but not all that bad. I immediately applied cold wraps and have been trying to keep it cold for long periods of time. In between I apply cortisone cream. Unfortunately here I do not have access to the longer acting powerful steroids that I can just prescribe in Belgium. But so be it. I do not feel like going to the emergency room or waiting two weeks for a doctor's appointment.

My right hand is moderately swollen now. I can feel the tightness and the heat. The edema has sunk somewhat because I elevate my arm whenever possible so as to avoid a swollen (and possibly damaged) finger. It appears to be better than other times and I have noticed that the reaction may be less vigorous now than 10 years ago. Nevertheless it is quite obvious. What I have also noticed is that the very local signs (at the site of the sting) are now absent. I can't really see where I was stung, there is no red dot there. Just an entire area that is swollen.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


After eight iron-distance events, I will do my first fundraiser for charity. On November 23, 2008, I will compete in Ironman Arizona in honor of Cindy Sherwin, a triathlete who lost her life to a ruptured brain aneurysm while training for Ironman Lake Placid. In the process I will try to raise awareness and funds for the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, a charity, based in Hanover, MA.

My donor page is at

IM Fundraiser

IM Arizona 2008 will be my third IM in Tempe.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Going straight

Perhaps the most important thing distance racers can learn is to go straight and minimize distance. The current web dispute over a human power 24hr endurance event between a kayaker and a pedal boater proves as much. But the issue has also raised its head at the Olympics of all places. Several years ago, a researcher showed that gold medal winners in track events tend to run shorter distances than their competitors. So even in 400m it matters how far (and in this case wide) you actually run. Running on the outside adds significant extra distance compared to the optimum, and that distance is often enough to cancel the difference between the winner and the runner-up.

No caption needed

But the effects of not going straight are nowhere as obvious (although invisible to spectators) as in the iron-distance swim. Whereas top competitors swim an absolutely straight line between buoys, the further back you go in the pack the more swimmers start looking like drunk drivers on a Saturday night cruise. Freestyling straight in open water is a challenge for everyone.

I always found that the one advantage of breast stroke is that you can see where you are going. So if your breaststroke is almost as fast as your freestyle, you may want to consider swimming breaststroke instead. Once you are out of the initial melee there is often plenty of lateral room for a good breaststroke. And what you lose in speed you will more than make up in distance saved.

Furthermore I would postulate that all improvements in swim time that age-groupers brag so much about, come from swimming straighter and closer to the optimal path, rather than from speed per se. The more comfortable a person gets, and the more experience they have in open water, the better the line they pick.

Going straight is also something triathletes should practice on the bike. Often "triathlete-geeks" incur the wrath of "serious cyclists" by wandering all over the road. And the more aero their position gets, the worse the wandering becomes. Nothing is as iconic as a guy zig-zagging all over the road in his aerobars at 12 mph.


On the bike, going straight and being predictable is about more than winning races or riding in packs. It is also the key safety measure and all cyclists should be taught and should practice riding straight. The more predictable a cyclist becomes, the less likely he or she is to die in a traffic accident. Weaving in and out of parked cars, swerving when looking back or grabbing a water bottle, and otherwise surprising motorists is not a good practice and one that you can pay for in blood.

Riding straight requires practice and nothing is better than a country road with good markings to acquire this skill. You should try to ride there (preferably when there is no traffic) and practice looking down, looking up, looking behind you, etc. while staying on the white line. It is natural for your body to turn when you turn your head. It is a built-in reflex and it requires conscious intervention to stop it. But nothing separates an experienced cyclist from a cycle tourist or casual commuter like riding straight and steady.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

recovery drink

I think I finally found the perfect recovery drink. I have to admit that the idea occurred to me before when I was testing Powerbar's recovery potion. I remarked to the sales person that it looked and tasted like chocolate milk. To which she replied, it is like chocolate milk only we add some goodies to it. What those goodies are is anyone's guess. Maybe the sodium? Certainly not the vitamins and trace-elements -now called micronutrients- that everyone is so keen on.

But let me suggest something more wholesome and better: milkshake. Pure and simple. Pour a glass of whole milk and add a scoop or two of ice-cream. Perfect drink. No need to go low-fat on this. I would argue the fat helps. It provides lots of calories and it cuts you appetite in a nice way. So you won't be tempted to scarf down 1,500 calories of carbs.

It has been a long standing tradition to provide ice-cream after century rides. Or sometimes even before the end of century rides, as the Grizzly Peak century always does. Ice cream at the last rest stop (now in Castro Valley and right before another good climb).

But ice-cream and milk is a great idea. Especially chocolate, which must be everyone's favorite flavor after a ride. I know vanilla is the favorite but that is for couch potatoes who never lift a finger. For us hard working athletes, there is nothing that comes close to chocolate.

Here's to recovery! Cheers!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

First ironman

Your first iron-distance triathlon can be a scary proposition. You don't know what to expect. Or what to focus on. This is not as simple as riding a double-century, or running an ultra-marathon, or doing a 10k swim. Triathlon has all three events and you need to be ready to do all three. That means training enough for each, and balancing your training appropriately.

I would strongly recommend that you do a half-distance event before attempting an iron-distance. Preferably do a very hard half, such as the Wildflower, or the Auburn triathlon. It will give you a better idea.

If you are new to endurance and your goal is just to finish within the time-limit, then you should focus on cycling. Especially if you are not a cyclist to begin with. Cycling is the longest event and it is one that offers no alternative. You need to finish on the bike. In the marathon you can walk, but on the bike you need to ride.

Many people worry about the swim, but that should be the least of your worries. If a mass start makes you uncomfortable, you can either choose a smaller, non-WTC event, or you can start way of to the side and far in the back. Smaller events have a lot going for them, and many are every bit as nice as the "real" ironman races.

Either way you will have clear water. Don't worry if you are an extremely slow swimmer, the time alloted is very generous and hardly anyone is disqualified for not making the cutoff. The swim may be a bit tiring, but it isn't going to wreck your day. Chances are it will be over in an hour and a half.

It is important to remember that, even if you take up all your swim time, you still have plenty of time to finish. You only need a 14 mph average on the bike, and you can "run" a 6 hour marathon (slightly faster than walking pace at around 4.4 mph !).

Biking is easily the most tiring event, and although a 14 mph average is sufficient that is faster than untrained commuter speed. So you do need to train. And you need to ride long. I would recommend riding several centuries beforehand. When you do, do one of the following: either try to ride continuously with very brief stops (just fill the bottle and go), and no drafting; Or, ride several 5-7 mi stretches at high speed (22-24 mph). It is Ok to draft and ride a pace-line when you do that. The intensity is what you need. You need to get used to riding long and putting in some intensity as well.

You should be able to ride a century at a reasonable average (19 or higher) and minimal breaks (no more than 30 minutes total), and still feel good afterwards. The best way to judge that is to put on your running shoes and run a few miles. There is no need for long runs, just a mile or two at a good clip will do. If you can do that, you can be confident that you will finish the ironman well within the time-limit allowed.

Just remember, it this is the extent of your training, you will finish well, as long as you don't attempt to race hard. The harder you go, the more likely you are to not finish, or not finish well. That may seem counter-intuitive but it is true. Racing ironman (i.e. going hard the whole time) is very different from finishing ironman (even if you finish with a good time).

Best is to try to finish well the first time. Next time, you will know better and you can prepare for a good hard race. Don't worry, once you do one, you will want to do it again, no matter how painful it was!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Road racing

I started road racing again this season, mostly because my son is doing it and I hate to stand around for two hours waiting for him to finish. So I got myself a license and started riding. It has been over 15 years since I last raced competitively. It is quite an adjustment believe me. Although I have been cycling quite a bit for the past five years, the cycling I do is mostly triathlon-type time trial stuff.

Road races are not that way at all. No steady hard pace here. No slow warmup. Instead we go hard from the start and don't let up until we hit the middle. Then after a short breather, it starts all over again. At least that has been my experience so far. Since I am not well trained for these sudden accelerations and all that anaerobic stuff, -especially not when it comes at the beginning-, it took me a while to get the hang of it again.

I have been riding twilights with the San Jose bike club since the middle of summer, and apart from being unprepared for jumps, my rusty technique in the turns also showed. I was never one for crits and other technical riding and so I spent the first couple of twilights chasing the pack after every tight turn. That too has gotten better, much better. 

After a couple of races where I did so-so, I finally managed to stay with the pack for the entire race at Dunnigan Hills last Sunday. I raced masters 45+ open and, although I had some trouble initially, I was in the lead group riding a comfortable pace. And then, when everything was looking up, I had a flat. Four miles from the finish in a tailwind section, just as the pack eased up again, I had to stop. No support car in sight, so I started replacing the tube myself.

When I was about half way through, a car showed up and surprise, surprise, they had a Campy 10 speed wheel for me. I gave them my wheel, with the new tube hanging out, and took off. Even though the section had a nice tailwind and I rode my heart out, it had been too long of a wait. While I did manage to hold off the stragglers, but I never got back to the pack. Nevertheless, it felt good and I thoroughly enjoyed the race.

Another new adventure.