Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Almost time for lift off

Just a few more days to go now until I board the plane to fly out to LA for the Track World Championships. It is these times, right before major competitions, that a lot of athletes can easily get it wrong. There is a natural tendency to panic and think that you must train extra hard and do lots of extra work in order to make sure you are completely ready to race. But this is the furthest thing from the truth.

Racing for me starts on Friday, February 10 and my first event is the 3KM pursuit. That is just over 2 weeks away. As I sit here writing this, I have a cold. Fortunately it's not a bad one, but just enough to slow me down. And that, is probably a blessing in disguise. It's a reminder to me to take my foot off the accelerator pedal and relax. Believe it or not, the hard work is already done. 

I've spent months getting ready. After the last World Championships on the road back in September, I took a couple of weeks off (not really 'off' but rather took it easier) and by the start of October I was back at work, training hard. I starting training on the track straight away – whilst a lot of other riders didn't start their track training until much later on (some are only seeing the track for the first time in January!). I didn't want to lose momentum and let my fitness slide too much. It just meant there would be less ground to make up if I kept my fitness at a steady level, but took some time off mentally to relax.

That's 4 months of training on the track in the bank. Mixed in with gym sessions, lots of road miles and even core exercises at home in the evenings. Like I said – the hard work is already done. All that's left if to sharpen up a bit and find that little bit of extra speed I need for race day. And that... comes from doing LESS. Not more. As my coach says, 'the best way to hold your form is to rest up'.

And so, being forced to take it easy in this final week before departure due to having a cold is just what the doctor ordered. It's forcing me to go against that natural instinct to do more and to do just  enough to stay sharp, but not overtax my muscles. I am in fantastic form – I'm just tired a lot. But that's to be expected after the heavy training camps we've done. So yet again, this 'down time' is giving me the chance to recover and get some much needed rest in before the final push.

The Irish Paracycling Squad and Support Staff heading the Los Angeles
And that push begins in earnest tomorrow. Tomorrow the last few sessions on the bike begin and the intensity begins to ramp up again. Upon arrival in LA, we'll have a week of training on the track there, getting used to the intricate details of how it differs from other tracks and getting used to the climate and time difference (8 hours difference from the UK). Lots of time to make sure we are going to peak perfectly for race day.

I'm looking forward to this latest challenge. I love to race and it's been several months since I've had that full-on adrenaline blast that only comes from pinning a number on your back. And there's lots at stake – for me and my teammates. I'm trying to win another rainbow jersey (on the track this time), whilst my teammates are battling to be chosen to go to London (and some of them also with a shot at a rainbow jersey of their own). It's all to play for.

And so, my feet are up on the sofa for one more night. I can feel myself getting stronger and healthier (despite the snotty head cold). I have faith in my training and my coach. And can't wait to board that plane. And if all goes according to plan... I'll be coming home a happy man! 

I wish ALL my teammates the very best of luck and have supreme faith that all of them will achieve personal bests. I've seen the hard work that all of them have put in and they can only but be rewarded for it. This thing that we do – this riding of bikes – it is our passion, our joy, our nemesis and our reason for being. Or at least... it is for me.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Training Camp Experience

Whew!! It's been a very busy past few months. The Track Cycling World Championships are almost here now and preparations have been ramping up. I'm just back from my third training camp in the past 3 months and only have just over a week to go until I leave for Los Angeles and the final mini-camp before racing starts.

I thought I would try and share some insight into what goes on at a training camp. Many people think it's a bit of a holiday (as we normally go somewhere nice and warm in the middle of winter for these camps), but the truth is far from it. It's work for us. Hard work. And we normally come home in a state of near exhaustion. But that's the goal.

The hard truth about training camps is that they are somewhat routine and monotonous. You spend a good amount of time on your bike (of course) but you also spend a lot of time looking at your watch, waiting to be somewhere for your next meeting or appointment. There are many things that must be done each day at certain times (from urine samples to meals) so it's a perpetual process of waiting and rushing to the next thing!

And yet, despite all the busy times, there are also huge gaps of downtime where you suddenly find yourself at a loose end. This can be the hardest part of camp – killing time, especially when you're stuck in a country that has no english TV channels. You become skilled at enjoying your own company. Either that or rehashing the same conversation over and over with your teammates.

There is an frustrating trend towards analysing and dissecting your performance on the bike on a daily basis. This can be a killer as it often messes with your head, especially if you have failed to perform to your own expectations. As we are currently focussed on track cycling, where everything is measured in lap times down to the tenth of a second, it's easy to get wrapped up in the figures and obsess over any drop in performance. Just ONE tenth of a second per lap, over the course of a 3KM pursuit race, can mean the difference between winning and not medalling at all. So it's easy to see why we obsess over the numbers in such finite detail.

Not every camp is the same. Sometimes we have different support staff with us performing different functions. For instance, at our last camp we had a full support crew – including our physiologist and video analysis expert. This means we have more to do but at the same time, get a lot more feedback and useful information on a day-to-day basis.

And so... a typical day. Wake up and pee in a cup. Run down the hallway in the hotel, cup of urine in hand, and jump on the scales. Take note of your weight, and have your urine sample checked for hydration levels. This is to make sure we are drinking enough and not getting dehydrated (very easy to do, especially in warmer climates). Then it's off to breakfast. We all fill in a daily diary of sorts, chronicling our weight, fatigue levels, previous day's training, etc. It just provides a record of how we are feeling over the course of the camp.

Fabian Cancellara and me at the track.
After breakfast, it's back to the room for a change of clothes and to pack for the rest of the day. Dropping bags off in the hotel lobby, we then jump on our bikes and head out. It's a leisurely 30 minute ride to the track, allowing us to warm up the legs a little and spin out some of the stiffness from the previous day. On the tougher days, we'll do an hour and half on the way to the track (this turned into 2.5 hours one day when we arrived to find that our track time had been bogarted by Fabian Cancellara so we had to kill an extra hour!)

Track sessions are basically a daily event at training camp – it's the main reason we are there. What we do each day varies greatly depending on the goals for the session and the level of fatigue the riders are experiencing. A heavy day will involve multiple testing efforts to mimic race day. In between efforts, the physiologist is there to check blood lactate levels and various other tests to monitor physical changes in the body. It's the science behind the riders aimed at helping us produce the best possible performance come race day.

The track session last two hours (but you don't ride the entire time). Still, the efforts you do, although short, are intense and really take their toll on the body. I've often said that 12 laps of the track flat out, is harder and leaves you feeling much more worked over than any 20 minute time trial or 2 hour road race I've ever done.

Once the track session is complete, it's back on the road bikes for another ride back to the hotel. Once again, this can vary in time from 30 minutes to two hours – depending on the day. The route home and the terrain covered can also vary from completely flat to mildly mountainous – depending on what's on tap the next day and how tired we are already feeling. I've taken the opportunity to do some of the island's better-known climbs (albeit short) on the way home from the track – but usually when I have a light day following!

Arrival back at the hotel means the hard work for the day is done. For me, it usually means a quick shower and then hopping into bed for a quick snooze and to start my recovery. Usually everyone is pretty hungry by the time dinner rolls around and we are some of the first people in the hotel to be lined up waiting to get into the restaurant as soon as it opens. The place we stay at had a buffet each night with a decent selection of food. It means you have to self-regulate what you eat (which can be hard when you're hungry and there is an unlimited supply of food in front of you), but the morning weigh-ins help keep you on the straight and narrow.

After filling my face with food, it's back upstairs for my daily massage. This is a critical daily event for me. Without it I would struggle to even remotely be at my best the following day. But don't get me wrong – this is no health spa massage with soft music and warm stones placed on your body. This is hard-core sports massage from an expert in reviving tired and sore muscles beaten nearly to death by hours on the bike. This is damage limitation in many ways – fixing what can be fixed, but trying to stop the inevitable slide towards complete breakdown in performance that comes from a daily battering on the track and roads. The woman (Fionnuala) who travels with us is an artist. She can find the problems areas and get to the root of the problem in short order. She knows how much I rely on her skills (as do we all) and can never thank her enough (cheers Fi!).

Screen grab from video at track. Checking my position.
As the evening winds slowly towards completion, there is still work to be done. Each evening, the video expert is available to review the footage of you on the track. This gives you the unique opportunity to see yourself on the bike. You can analyse your position, pedalling technique, the lines you the around the track, your cadence, power output and many other minute details. It goes you a completely different perspective to your riding and helps you see and correct problems that you would otherwise be oblivious to. The coaching staff is there to review the videos with you, and to point out areas to work on where improvements can be gained.

The physiologist is also present for you to review any data from the day as well. I was able to determine my best pre-race routine through a series of tests with her – again something I couldn't do without this valuable input.

Some nights will bring either a squad meeting or an individual meeting with the manager and coaching staff. These can be general housekeeping things or the chance for you to discuss your performance in greater detail, a chance to formulate strategies, air grievances or just get some reassurance.

At this point (sometimes it's now late in the evening), you are free and clear. The rest of the night is spent any way you want. Riders may go for coffee, chat in rooms, stretch out in front of the TV, hang out in the hotel lobby and enjoy the free internet, etc. It's an individual choice. I personally like to rerun to my room and put a movie on my laptop. I actually spend this time before bed doing a core workout in my room. Just some basic exercises to help keep me solid on the bike. And then it's under the covers to watch my movie until I eventually fall asleep.

As mentioned – every day is different. There is a rest day in the middle of the camp which gives you a day to relax and recover a bit. Mostly it's a grind. But it's what we sign up for. You go home feeling battered, but with the knowledge that you'll be better and faster for it in the long run. It usually takes a good week afterwards to recover, but once you do, there is a noticeable spike in performance. 

And so, as I come to the end of my rest week after camp – I can already see the start of those performance boosts in my efforts. Though still tired, I'm already getting faster. The final drive begins right now as competition is just a few weeks away. I look froward to seeing if all the hard work over the winter pays off – and hope that all the sacrifices that my teammates have made are worth it for them. As a group, we have done an enormous amount this winter and I think we will all see great results.

One final word. A massive thanks to my coach Brian Nugent. He has guided me over the past few years and taken me from a mediocre rider to a World Champion. Not always seen eye to eye on everything, but these days we work together and strive for the best. I'm hoping to do him (and Ireland) proud in Los Angeles and bring home some more medals. We'll know in 3 weeks!

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Every high power engine needs the right fuel.

I admit that when it comes to nutrition, I am at a disadvantage. It's not that I don't know the correct things to eat – it's just that me and food have a long-standing love-hate relationship. I love food, but hate what it does to me. I could seriously eat all day long if there was some way I could get away with it. Yes – food is definitely my arch nemesis.

So it's no surprise that I struggle to eat the right things at the right times. This may come as a surprise to people who think that all of us 'elite' athletes are incredibly picky about our diet. I suppose most are – I'm just hopeless a lot of the time when it comes to doing the 'right' thing.

It's not news to any of my readers that I used to be seriously overweight before I took up cycling (again) and got fit. And of course, to stay at the top of my game these days I must monitor, to some degree, what I eat and try and counter what I am burning off while on the bike.

However, this post isn't about my eating habits off the bike so much as it is about what I eat to stay fuelled whilst ON the bike. I have learned, perhaps the hard way, that it is curtail to eat and drink the right things in order to maximise your training sessions. And even more important to get it right when it comes to actually racing. It's a regime within itself – from your pre-ride nutrition to what you on the ride and finally what you take in afterwards to help your recovery.

Last year, whenever I was away with the Irish team, I was able to use sports nutrition products from ZipVit ( After winning the World Championships while using their products, it was a no-brainer for me to decide to use their products exclusively again this year. The have so much to offer, and because their stuff actually tastes good, I'm more inclined to use it on a daily basis.

My day starts off with some of ZipVit's vitamin supplements. They do a good variety of them, designed to do different things for different types of riders. I personally go for the ones that help improve my endurance on the bike. (I don't want to be TOO specific and give away all my secrets!)

On days that I'm at the track or on race days, I like to warm up with a couple of their caffeine gels in me. I'm using the Cola flavoured ones these days. They are also useful to carry with you on longer rides when you need an energy boost. (I take along the plain orange flavoured gels for these types of rides, as well as for road races to help keep me fuelled on the go).

To help on the fluid front, ZipVit do several different flavours of sport drink (crystals) also. I'm a lemon man myself. They even do electrolyte tabs that you can drop into your bottle. Taking on enough fluid during training (and especially during racing) is perhaps one of the biggest failings of many athletes (and probably even more so if you're just an amateur). You can and will sacrifice a huge portion of your performance if you become even mildly dehydrated during a ride.

Here's a simple test you can do to see if you're hydrating properly: before going on a ride weigh yourself (preferably naked). Then go on your ride. At the end of your ride – weigh yourself again (also naked) as soon as you can. As long as you haven't stopped along the way for a toilet break, you should weigh the same as when you left, assuming you have properly hydrated yourself. (There are other assumption where regarding any food you may have consumed, but I'm trying to keep it simple).

A litre of water weighs around 1KG. So for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) lighter that you are at the end of your ride – that's 1 litre of fluid (2 standard water bottles) that you should have consumed. The length of your ride, the air temperature, how much you sweat, etc will all play a role in how much you fluid you need, but I would wager that most people will return home from a ride of 2 hours or more mildly dehydrated. 

Most sports drinks will throw some fancy science at you as to why they are better than water, and how they help you hydrate better, faster and so on (and I'm not going to debate any of this), but I will say one thing they CAN do very well – and that is to encourage you to drink MORE. Why? Because if it tastes good, you'll drink more of it. It's that simple (and this HAS been proven). Let's face it – water is dull. But something that tastes sweet (or to your liking) will make you want to drink more of it. This is where my ZIpVit Energy Drink serves me best.

Lastly, there is my post-ride nutrition. If at home, I go for a recovery shake (for me it's the ZIpVit chocolate mixed with either water or skim milk). If I'm at the track or on the road, I'll usually opt for the Protein Recovery Bars. I swear – their Chocolate Orange flavour bar tastes as good as most chocolate bars from any corner shop. Both the shakes and bars are a mix of protein and carbs that help your body to start repairing your muscles from the day's efforts to get it ready for the next workout. The more often and faster you recover – the better your next workout will be.

Since I started taking my nutritional (on the bike) a little more seriously, and started using these products on a regular basis, there has been a marked improvement in my performance. Not only do I actually FEEL stronger on rides (and can last longer before fatigue starts to set in), but I have seen my power increase. I have less muscle soreness on a day to day basis and can simply train harder than before. I suppose the true test will come once competition starts again, but I am confident that the gains being made in training will transfer seamlessly to my races.

Everyone has their own personal tastes when it comes to nutritional and sports supplements. But I highly recommend having a look at the ZipVit range of products. They offer 'starter' packs for a low price that allows you to try some of the bars, gels and drink mix that I have mentioned. If you don't like it, then you're not out of pocket for a big wad of cash! (Plus they throw in a nice water bottle so all is not lost!)

Now, I just have to sort out my nutrition OFF the bike and 2012 will be a breeze!

Monday, 2 January 2012

Breaking with tradition. Sort of.

First of all – let me wish everyone reading this a Happy New Year. It's the 2nd of January as I write this and I must apologise for not posting in a while. I've been very busy preparing for the upcoming Paracycling Track World Championships, and this has seen me away at training camps for a lot of the past 2 months. And when back at home, my time has been split between the track, the gym, the roads, trying to maintain some form of a social life and various other commitments. It feels like it's all go, all the time these days!

I'll be leaving again in a few days for the next round of training, but before I go, wanted to post up a quick report from the Christmas break. A year ago I wrote about my annual Christmas tradition and how I usually spend the day on my bike followed by a solo roast chicken dinner. If you've read the post, you'll see that I'm not really a big fan of this time of year. So, when the big day came around again this year, I decided that I wanted to stick with my annual tradition – but was going to make some changes...

The past several years I have thrown my bike in the back of the car and driven out to a stretch of road about 30 miles away that they hold road races on regularly. I chose the spot because despite the cold and snow that normally prevails this time of year, this particular location is usually free of snow and ice and so safer to ride on. Plus it has a nice little climb in the middle of the route to keep it interesting. And by going back to the same spot each year, it gives me the chance to compare my form from year to year.

This year my regular riding partner and good friend Kevin decided that he was free of all family obligations and wanted to come along for the ride. However, due to work commitments, he was unable to travel the 30 miles to my usual ride location. Instead, in order to accommodate him, we stuck to our local loop. As the weather was unseasonably warm this year, riding locally posed no problems. Riding near to home saved me the drive back and forth and gave me someone else to ride with, so really a win-win situation!

Kevin and I at the top of a Peak District climb
We set out at a leisurely pace, enjoying the fact we were out in the fresh air instead of dealing with the usual traumas that Christmas Day can bring. This was to be a fun ride and not a hard-core training ride. It's about getting the work in, but not about battering ourselves.

We did 3 solid laps of our training loops, taking up 3 pleasant hours. The loop is a good mix of flat and hilly, with a couple of steep 5 minute climbs in the middle. Perfect training for the pursuit on the track!

Again – after the ride, my usual course of action would be to return home for my 'Christmas meal' – consisting of a roast chicken from Tesco, some potatoes and, of all things, asparagus. Random, I know. Well, this year I'm not actually single, so the solo meal wasn't on the menu. However, in order to maintain some semblance of my tradition – I had the same meal, but shared it with my girlfriend. She also isn't a huge fan of Christmas and doesn't go in for the traditional Christmas dinner, so was happy to partake in my meal with me. 

So, what's the point of all this? I suppose it's this: tradition is great and doing things the same way year in and year out can serve a purpose. But to grow and improve, sometimes you have to make changes (sometimes just subtle ones) and try new things. Call it evolution. It applies in life and it applies in training. If you do the same things in your training all the time, you won't improve. You need new stimuli and new ideas to keep things fresh and interesting.

And so, as we embark into 2012 with all the promise it holds, especially for those of us going to the Paralympics – don't be afraid to try new things and embrace new ideas. If you've never SEEN Paralympic sport – give it a chance. Experience the courage and determination that these athletes posses and celebrate their achievements. And in all the YOU do in your life – I wish you every success.

Stay tuned – 2102 is going to be a big one!