Friday, 20 May 2011

Does anyone else want to join the "I hate tram tracks group"?

Yesterday morning I cycled to work, as I had borrowed my colleague's Trek Madone to test it out, and I needed to return it to him.  It is only a short ride to work but there are lots of tram tracks along the way.  Usually I just stay near the pavement and avoid having to cross them altogether.  Yesterday though I was waiting at the traffic lights in Oerlikon at a place where cars must go right, and trams and buses can continue straight on, and in order to avoid having to cross infront of the cars when the lights went green, I passed them on the left and waited at the front of the queue.

The problem was that I had crossed one set of tram tracks and was in the middle no man's ground, so when the lights went green I cycled in the middle for a while, before looking for a good place to cross back over the tracks as the ground was a little wet and I knew they would be slippery.  Despite my caution, as I crossed over them my front tyre slipped on the wet metal and went inside the track, flipping my bike in one foul swoop and throwing me onto the ground.

The way that the bike flipped I was thrown down to the ground on my right side, with my left arm outstretched, since the handlebars were crossed over.  The left wrist therefore bore most of the impact, and then after that my right knee hit the ground followed by my right hip.  It was all over in a flash and the first thing I did was make sure there was no tram coming before picking up the bike, dusting myself off and getting the hell out of there to avoid the embarrassment of people coming over to ask if I was okay.  Luckily only one guy saw me that I noticed, and I was gone before he could say anything.

Further down the road I stopped and looked for damage to the bike.  There were some scratches on the right brake lever but luckily nothing more that that, so I carried on to work.  On arriving at work I gave the bike back to my colleague and informed him about the accident and the scratches, offering to get new parts if he wanted, but he was very easy going about it and said that as long as it was only scratches it wasn't necessary for me to replace parts.  He is a very nice guy, as a lot of people would have been very angry at having their unscratched one year old bike scratched after a few weeks of lending it to someone else.  As he was so nice about it I gave him a bottle of champagne that someone had given me as part of an exchange for my old kayak.

That is only the second time in my life I have fallen off on tram tracks.  The other time was in Geneva many years back.  They tend be quite nasty falls though, as your bike is stopped dead in its tracks, no pun intended.  I know a few people who have been injured badly by them, but luckily for me both times I survived with only a few bruises to both my body and my ego to show for it.

Yesterday evening I had another private Pilates lesson booked, so I did't know whether in light of my accident I should cancel it or not, based on the fact I couldn't close my left hand properly, and most of the time we do exercises that involve holding handles attached to springs.  In the end though I decided not to cancel it, as I haven't been able to do Pilates for over a month and a half now due to the teacher going away on a training course, and I didn't want to postpone it by yet another week.  So we changed the usual routine and did other exercises instead, ones that didn't involve having to close my left hand with any degree of force.  It went very well considering the long break since I last did Pilates, and today I can feel my "powerhouse" had a good workout yesterday, but it isn't too sore or uncomfortable.

Today was a rest day and then tomorrow I will do another day long cycle ride, now that my wrist seems to be almost back to normal again.  This time I will take the train to Göschenen and then try to do 3 passes in a row.  The route will either be Furka-Grimsel-Susten or Susten-Grimsel-Furka depending on what I decide later tonight.  That should be around 120km and 3,500 vertical metres if I manage to complete it successfully.  It seems that almost all the passes are open now, which is good news in terms of the range of places where I can train for La Marmotte.

I realise I haven't put any photos into my posts for a while, so tomorrow I am going to try to take some nice photos of the passes so I can liven up my next post :).  But that's all for tonight folks, so enjoy the start to your weekends.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

You can do more with 5 bags of sugar than just eat it

Yesterday during yoga I felt that I had lost a little bit of strength/fitness in the last few weeks.  This isn't too surprising as due to entertaining visitors the last 2 weeks in a row and my focus now being on doing long cycle rides with lots of vertical metres, I am not training so frequently.  A weekly endurance cycle ride is great training, but not the same as before when I was running 3 to 4 times per week on top of the usual yoga and Pilates.

I decided I would up the intensity of my Wednesday lunchtime run, which normally is a fairly easy jog.  On the way to work I stopped at Migros in the train station and bought 5 bags of sugar.  Why you may ask.  Well a bag of sugar weighs 1kg so now you can maybe see where I am heading.

I loaded up my rucksack with the 5 bags of sugar and when I went for my lunchtime run I strapped on my rucksack.  Yes you guessed it, my new thing is running with weights.  This a subject over which there is much debate about whether it is good for you or not.  The fact is that if you are going to run a race with no rucksack then there isn't really any point training with one, as you are putting more pressure on your joints and changing the way we naturally run.

However, if you are like me, and are training to run an endurance race where you will be carrying a rucksack, then the simple fact is that you need to start getting used to it.  The average weight of competitor's rucksacks in the Marathon des Sables is somewhere around 10kg apparently, with the lead runners having packs that are closer to 5kg and the back of the pack runners have packs that are closer to 14kg.

My theory is that if I can get used to running easily with a 5kg rucksack on my back, then I will cope much better when it comes to the race.  If you never run with a pack and then try to run with one that is close to 10kg in the race itself, that is too much of a step up in my opinion.  At the same time I don't want to train with a 10kg pack now, as that is too much of a jump from nothing to 10kg, and on top of that it is a lot of extra pressure on my joints  and I would be more likely to get injured.  If the 5kg becomes really easy then maybe I will increase it later.  But for now I will try to run once a week with a 5kg pack on my back and see how that goes.

Some people may say that already from nothing to 5kg is too much of a jump.  I have a few responses to that.  The first is that since Christmas I have lost over 5kg and I was running back at Christmas already, so my body has already experienced running at that total weight before.  The only difference is the distribution of that weight - more now being on my back compared to being on my belly.  The second is that I was running cross country over fields and on gravel tracks, so I didn't have to contend with the jarring forces of running on roads.  And the third is that I was only running for 40 minutes or so, which is not that far really for someone that has recently completed a marathon.

So you may ask how did it go.  Well I was wearing my heart monitor during the run and my heart rate seemed be somewhere around 140bpm, higher than normal but still not that high.  The pack felt quite comfortable on my back and didn't make any marks on my shoulders.  The only discomfort was that the bags of sugar were moving around and I had to adjust them a little from time to time to keep an equal weight distribution on both sides of my body.  My breathing was a little harder than usual, but still okay, and the only other thing despite the pace being slower than normal that I noticed, was that my thighs were burning slightly more.  All in all though I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable it felt.

The Garmin GPS data for the data freaks out there can be found here

Monday, 16 May 2011

Reduce your headaches, sleep better, increase your energy

Tonight's post is not rocket science.  It is about the simple benefits of regular exercise.  Not ones that I have read about, but ones that I have experienced personally, not just once, but every time I take on a new fitness regime after a period of stagnation.  If I can persuade just one person to get off the couch and do something active, someone that normally does absolutely nothing active, then I will be happy.

I have experienced both ends of the spectrum in the past.  In 2000 before I cycled from John O'Groats to Lands End I was so fit that I felt like my body was a machine.  I could go to the gym for 3 hours lifting weights and doing cardio, and then go out on the bike and cycle for hours on end without feeling fatigued at all.   And I could repeat this day after day, only resting because I knew that I had to, in order to avoid overtraining.  Then at the other end I have had sometimes periods of 1 year or more without exercise, smoking up to 10 cigarettes per day, drinking lots, and eating a fast food diet.  Of course when you have been to both extremes the differences you notice in how you are feeling are far exaggerated from what the average person will experience.  But even on a smaller scale you will probably start to notice one or all of the following:

1) Better sleep
During periods of inactivity I find a lot of difficulty in falling asleep.  It seems to take me several hours after I switch off the lights to actually get to sleep.  I was always jealous of people who could fall asleep almost as soon as their head hit the pillow.  But as soon as I start to participate in regular exercise I notice I can fall asleep much easier.  In addition the quality of sleep is higher.  If you are an insomniac maybe try jogging for an hour after work and then see how you sleep that evening.  The one piece of advise I would give though is try not to exercise within 2 hours of your planned bedtime, as your body needs time to return to normal first.

2) Less backache
Working in an office and like most of us having a tendency to slouch in my chair after sitting for extended periods of time, I sometimes suffered from backache in the lower back.  This soon went after I started yoga or weight regimes.  In fact I haven't really experienced back pain for the last 2 years which is more or less when I started doing yoga on a regular basis, except for when I am doing 100km+ bike rides, where one should expect some bodily protests.  If you don't want to do yoga then even back extensions several times per week seem to help.  Don't overdo it at first though.

3) Increase your energy
Obviously exercise tires you out in the short term, but I find I soon recover.  And even if I am aching all over I still usually feel more energetic inside than I do when I am leading a sedentary life.  When I don't do exercise I tend to feel sluggish and less motivated to do household chores, homework and other things that don't offer immediate rewards.  With regular exercise though, I don't mind so much doing the household chores, and I usually wake up with a spring in my step.  Don't overdo it though - overtraining tends to make you feel chronically tired.  One way to check if you are overtraining is to measure your heart rate each morning.  When you are overtraining you will tend to find that your heart rate is no longer returning to that same resting rate in the mornings.  This is a warning sign that your body needs some rest.

4) Reduce the number of headaches you suffer
Headaches are a problem that have plagued me since childhood.  In my teens I could count on getting several of them per week and was even prescribed preventative tablets by my doctor, to take on a daily basis.  As I got older, the frequency of headaches has reduced, but during regular periods of exercise this is even more noticeable.  During sedentary periods I would say on average I get 2 headaches or more per week.  When I have a really bad headache all I want to do is lie down and sleep and this isn't at all pleasant.  Now though for instance I can go several weeks without one, which is really an improvement in my quality of life.   The regular massage that I take helped too, but it did not prevent them by itself alone.  The massage reduced them to a manageable frequency, but as I increased the frequency of exercise the number of headaches came down to a level I am very happy with now.  Beware though - exercise in itself can cause headaches.  These are commonly referred to as post exercise headaches.  I tend to get a few of these when I start running suddenly after a break, or when I exercise in the heat, or for instance when I switched from running to cycling after the Zürich marathon recently.  Most of the times I think my post exercise headaches are caused by dehydration and I try now to make sure that I am well hydrated the night before I intend to go for a long ride and that I take in enough water during exercise.  Also I think the switch from running several hours to suddenly cycling 100km+ stressed my neck muscles a lot, as when you are cycling on a racing bike you are not in the most comfortable position, and this tension in my neck gave rise to a few headaches at the beginning.  If you are getting post exercise headaches try to make sure you are well hydrated (a good indicator is the colour of your urine, which should be pale and not bright yellow), cover your head and try to avoid exercising during the hottest part of the day and build up the exercise gradually.  Also consider getting regular massage to reduce tension in the muscles.

Words of caution

Obviously the examples above are only some of the many advantages of exercise, but they are strong reasons for trying it if you haven't before.  It won't always be easy though and it is important to take it slowly if this is the first time you are doing so.  I can't really relate to the last comment about taking it slowly, as despite sedentary periods, my body was accustomed to sport at an early age.  By the age of 9 I was competing in local fun runs once per week.  On top of this I spent almost all evenings and weekends on my bike in the woods with my friends.  So my body has a certain memory and I can usually ramp up the intensity fairly quickly.  But I do know how bad it can feel the first few times you start to exercise again after a break.

Usually the first few weeks you start to cough up mucous as your body starts clearing out the junk from your system, even more so if you are a smoker.  This feels horrible and at times makes you start to wretch as it blocks your breathing.  Just take the pace down a notch and the feeling will probably subside.  If you are actually physically sick then you have probably pushed it too far.  Only once have I been physically sick and that was after a timed rowing piece where I went at a controlled pace until near the end, and then launched suddenly into an all out sprint.  In that case the lactic acid overwhelmed my body and I had to make a quick trip to the toilets.  After a few minutes I was fine again, but I wouldn't advise anyone to push themselves to that point by choice.

Just bare with it and within a few weeks you will probably notice the mucous buildup is reducing, your lungs feel clearer and you can breathe better, your energy is starting to increase and you are sleeping better.  In addition maybe your sex life took a positive turn too.

If you don't believe me just try it.  And please let me know the results if you do.  Also if you want any help or advise feel free to ask me.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Hill repeats

My friend from the UK came out this weekend, so on the Friday before he came I wanted to get in some decent training.  He was due to arrive around 3.30pm so that excluded the possibility of going a long way out of Zürich, incase for some reason I couldn't get back in time.

I decided therefore to stay in Zürich itself and go up and down and up and down and up and down the Zürichberg many times in succession.  It may not be the most interesting route to take, repeating the same course over and over again, but the advantage is that you can check your time on each ascent and see if you are starting to slow or not.  In addition you can stop whenever you have had enough and know that you only have a short ride back home.

I am not too sure which is better, lots of hill repeats or a very long steady climb, but I think that hill repeats could be the better option for improving performance.  The reason behind my thinking is that you can really attack each climb when you are doing hill repeats and know that you have enough time to recover on the descent ready to attack the hill again.  This means you can train at your lactate threshold on each ascent, whilst with long steady climbs you are not normally attacking the climb so hard, and it is more about pacing yourself.  On the other hand if the event you are doing containing long steady climbs then you also need to be prepared both physically and mentally to keep climbing for extended periods of time.  So a mix of both hill repeats and long steady climbs is probably optimal when training for an event such as La Marmotte.

I left the house and descended to Central, at lake level, ready to start the hill repeats.  From Central I followed the route of the number 6 tram up to the zoo and then did the small additional climb up to Hotel Zürichberg.  This was to be my bread and butter route for the next few hours.  The descent was a lot of fun although you have to be constantly on the ball, with tram tracks, trams and lots of side streets where cars may pull out in front of you to contend with.  After the first ascent and descent I looked at the clock and it took around 30 minutes.  On each subsequent repeat I was determined to keep it to 30 minutes or under.  The first 5 repeats were done with ease, and then it was time for a quick drink stop at the fountain opposite Hotel Zürichberg.  I love the fact that in Switzerland they put drinking fountains almost everywhere.  It is really cycling friendly, as when you are doing day long cycle rides you can't possibly take enough drinking water with you for the entire day.  I am really surprised that other countries like the UK haven't followed suit.

After the brief stop I continued with the repeats.  There were a group of builders that I kept seeing on each ascent/descent and I wonder if they thought they were in some kind of time warp.  I mean the same person passing the same point on the dot every half an hour must seem a little strange.  It would be like "Haven't I seen that guy before doing that same thing every 30 minutes for the last few hours - is it me or are my eyes playing me up?".  I noticed the fatigue starting to set in after ascent 6 was completed, partly physical and partly mental (from lack of change of scenery, like a caged animal), and decided one more repeat would complete my days cycling.  After repeat 7 I descended nice and gently back to the apartment and started preparing for my friend's arrival.  Based on the GPS data the distance covered was 58.41km (with 1,574 vertical metres) in 3 hours 26 minutes and 14 seconds.

The rest of the weekend was spent sightseeing, with a trip to Titlis.  I took Negrita with me and we saw they had a snow park but to get to it involved going on a chair lift.  If you asked in the UK if you could take your dog on a chairlift I am sure they would say no, but the guys on Titlis said sure no problem.  So I took her on it, and held onto her for dear life, to make sure that even if she struggled she would not break free and fall.  There were many Asians and Indians on top of Titlis and a lot of them were trying to take photos of Negrita.  I didn't mind at first but the novelty soon wore off with people asking me to stop all the time, and in the end I just didn't respond.  I am not sure what was so unique about Negrita that warranted so much attention - maybe it was just the fact that people aren't used to seeing a dog on top of a mountain walking on snow.  But here in Switzerland it is nothing unusual of course.  In the snowpark my friend and I did a couple of descents on various sleds and tubes, and I held onto Negrita so she wouldn't fall off.  I am not sure whether she enjoyed it or whether she was scared but I think by now she must realise that I always look out for her and that she doesn't get hurt.  It is like the other week when I was carrying her in a dog bag with one hand trying to stop the bag slipping off my shoulder whilst cycling along.  Some dogs could have been very scared by that, but she didn't seem too phased.  In fact she seems to get more scared of people and vehicles than she does with me on our little escapades.  The day I get ready to go out and she doesn't come running to the door after me will be the day I know that I have pushed her limits too far.