Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Chasing Capacity

Yeah, my body she told me "don't worry about your [training log] size"
She says, "Just go ride hard every Wednesday night"
You know I’ll never log miles until I slow to a crawl
But maybe some volume will help me go fast and long

Now I'm all about that base
'Bout that base, legs tremble

I never expected to use “All About That Base” as my intro lyrics, as its repeated play was one of the worst aspects of the 2014 PACX series for me, lack of fitness and friends aside. Once I found out that it was about embracing big butts, though, I forgave its annoying chorus. Now as I train for my first 100-mile mountain bike attempt in seven years, I’m all about that base again, but what that looks like for me has changed a lot.

Most endurance athletes are aware of the vague common knowledge of building “base”, usually defined as a lot of long, slow distance mileage before riding or running at higher intensities. Beyond that you encounter the Internet arguments for base training in cycling, against base training in cycling, and totally plagiarized blog posts where someone just swaps in “dragon boating” for cycling. Essentially those all come down to “Do I have to…(whiny kid voice)…ride hours and hours in Zone 2?” Or, for those who have lots of free time and who enjoy long, interval-free bike rides, it can be justification to keep doing so.

In the end, everyone needs base, but depending on your goals, body, and schedule, it doesn’t have to be Zone 2, and it doesn’t have to precede any and all high-intensity work. That is why I’ve stopped thinking about a “base phase” in my training so much as “building work capacity”. I was also kind of happy when my Google search of “work capacity cycling base” turned up an article from the good ol’ ancestral health community in the top five results. Even though I hate identifying as “paleo” these days and keep a low profile out of respect for my vegan teammates (we all agree that veggies are good for you), I am still heavily influenced by the hours of Robb Wolf podcasts burned into my brain. The idea of building work capacity is big among the Crossfit or fitness-for-the-sake-of-fitness community, because ain’t nobody got time for a base phase there.

“Work capacity is the underlying component of any truly successful training program. Quite simply, it is the ability to perform an ever-increasing amount work which, in turn, determines one’s level of fitness.  And that, in turn, defines one’s level of preparedness.”

For cyclists, the preparedness we seek is most likely to go faster than other people in our race or season of choice, in some cases simply to make it to the end in one piece, or to be able to say yes to an invitation for a long ride with fast friends without fear of physical meltdown. Part of this is performing work that simulates the time, power, and terrain demands of the goal at hand, but there is also an element of “training to train”, which is teaching your body to work and recovery better so that you can do the race simulation training more and/or more frequently. This is where work capacity comes in.

Considering that my first race of 2016 was on January 9 after full ‘cross season in the fall, I certainly did not make time for a traditional base period this year. Luckily, my January and February races were endurance races that served as a good precursor to the work that I would be doing later in the season, so in a way they were base-like. They were still races, though, and the intensity was much higher than Zone 2 “base” rides would be. The plus side is that they boosted my overall fitness more quickly, but also taxed my recovery such that I wasn’t able to do much high-quality work during the week or I frequently had to back off of weights or intervals to be fresh for an upcoming race.

Once fat bike season was over I quickly turned to doing Wilderness 101 recon rides every weekend to familiarize myself with the demands of the course and to get an idea about whether I was on track endurance and pace-wise. At first these attempts were pretty disappointing, but now they’re slowly starting to point toward a probable solid mid-pack finish in the 11 hour range, if I can convince my body to hold its shit together for that long. I’d love to be greedy and try to push that goal pace by doing more threshold work during the week, but for now the 5+ hour recon rides are leaving me pretty cooked.

The most recent of said recon rides.

This is where chasing capacity comes in. I haven’t trained at a very high volume the last few years, so one long, hard ride per week plus additional speed work seems to be too much to ask of my body right now. What I’ve learned is that riding a lot of hours per week doesn’t make you fast in and of itself, but it does prepare your body to do more work per week. The more race-specific work you can put in per week, the faster you can get faster. Right now I’m having to carefully monitor my recovery and prioritize the work that I’m putting in. The long rides will get me to a decent finish, even if I can’t do the additional interval work to get a bit faster before July.

I am slowly starting to build my base by implementing a daily habit of getting on the bike or into the gym, even when I’m feeling cooked from the weekend and have to go super easy. Acclimating my body to doing to more frequent training will allow me to do higher volume training which will allow me to do higher quality training, or so I hope. I’ve stopped thinking of my recovery rides as useless filler or a quota to be met, and instead thinking of them as a prerequisite to work that will make me faster later.

2016 has seen me jump into some pretty serious trial-by-fire endurance training, and overall, it’s working. I never felt this confident in my ability to finish a 100-mile mountain bike race on any traditional, coach-assigned training plan, and I have the list of DNFs to prove it. I’m happy for the huge progress that I’ve made, but I’m slowly laying down the foundation for even bigger future successes. And so, after years of resistance, I’m all about that base.

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