The Fight Back to Fitness, Part 2

I wrote quite some time ago about my attempt to find some fitness after almost 10 years off the bike. To be clear, I’m never ever going to stand on a podium. I probably won’t ever make the top 20 in the local cross league but I do want to better myself and crucially, my previous self. This year I think I’ve reached a notable milestone in this aim and so it’s time for a (rather long self indulged) update.

To summarise previous writing I took up cycling again in April 2009 and managed just 4 races in the 2009-2010 Notts and Derby Cyclocross (NDCXL) season before deciding to take some time off. I felt weak, wasn’t enjoying it and for a while other things took priority over cycling entirely. In all honesty I felt pretty demoralized. By March 2010 when I wrote the last post I was feeling chipper again and other issues had settled a little. I was ready to hit the bike! Before that though I needed to reassess things slightly and have a think about “what went wrong”. I came up with a few ideas:

  • Holding unrealistic expectations; while I managed to find reasonable form as a junior in just 12 weeks, the 4 months off the bike prior to that was preceded by roughly 3 years of consistent riding and cross seasons as a juvenile rider. To expect to get even close to that after 5/6 months of training after 10 years off was too much!
  • Not riding enough base miles: Effectively I was starting from scratch and hadn’t yet accumulated any decent mileage. I simply didn’t have the years of conditioning that result in a form of “inherent” stamina (which is my weak point anyway). This kind of thing takes time.
  • Not enough hills, and not enough hills with vengeance!

So with those thoughts in mind I started to focus on the 2010-2011 season and gradually increased the miles from around April onwards (trying to balance it with a little training for the Derby 10K). Over the summer I managed more of the elusive 100+ mile weeks that I’d been chasing the previous year. I rode more hills and I rode them what I thought was hard. Being half a stone heavier and still weaker than my 18 year old self I still couldn’t come close to matching my best time up Sandy Lane but I was making progress. I entered the 2010-2011 season feeling “ok” and in an attempt to manage expectations I told myself that any performance better than last year would be good enough. Hahahaha! Right. Well despite this notion, comparisons to my former self were ultimately inevitable. As a junior I’d finished 16th / 130 odd in the same league on a few occasions; a placing that along with the Sandy Lane time had remained stuck in my head and been a focal point ever since starting cycling again. All in all I managed 8 races that season “trundling” round in around 60-70th place and being lapped EASILY. Best result? 46th at Sinfin which I was fairly happy with, but 25th was 10 minutes down and everyone after that was lapped. Still lacking. Now I *completely* understand that many people would be happy to finish 70th but equally some would be gutted to place 17th or maybe even 7th. It’s all relative isn’t it? We’re all just seeking to improve on what we know we’re capable of. Of course those who would complain about only finishing 7th would be slightly more annoying to the majority of us ;) Anyway I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. The thoughts were persistent:

“I’m only 28! I’m not past my peak yet!”
“It shouldn’t be impossible. It can’t just be because I work a full time job surely?”

Thankfully I didn’t feel as disappointed as before but more thinking was definitely required.

At the end of the 2010-2011 season (about 8 months ago in March 2011) I switched focus a little to getting a few more running miles in the legs as I wanted to do my second 10K in under 40 minutes. Thankfully I did just that :) I started to look over my training logs and thought about the kinds of rides I’d done the previous summer and what I did as a junior. What was missing? Base miles and hard hills can’t have been the answer. Then something hit me. It wasn’t raw data or training statistics but a memory. A particular section of road and a particular feeling associated with it: pain. When I was younger I used to do rides of around 45 minutes but flat out, race place. I think somehow I’d tapped into the youthful desire to prove myself and used that often to ride flat out and really hurt myself. I remembered this one section of road just a mile from home which was a real drag. I’d be giving it everything just to increase my average by 0.1mph, legs and lungs screaming all the way to the doorstep. This was something I was completely missing and the realization of this made me feel utterly stupid. Base miles and special interval sessions on the turbo can’t and wont replace 45 minutes to 1 hour of constant hard pushing on the pedals when you’re training for something that involves almost exactly that. Graeme Obree training in a nutshell. Not only that but I felt like I was holding off slightly whenever I did ride hard. I was missing that extra impetus. So, new training objectives were put in place for late Spring and Summer ready for the 2011-2012 season.

  • Start riding the chaingang to replace the 1 hour non stop hard rides I used to do.
  • Ride hills and ride them harder (note: having learnt once again how to hurt myself *properly* (thanks chaingang beasts) I could ride them harder than I did previously. Improvement in form = more repeats).
  • Do some strength training (either road or intervals) involving big (high) gears. I’d felt my legs were lacking strength in previous seasons and I’d resorted to spinning too low a gear. “Back in the day” (heh) I didn’t have a compact chainset on my road bike and so actually pushed a big gear and this was something I hadn’t been doing much at all even on hills. I knew this was essential.

It’s worth mentioning that by this time I was also in a new and happier relationship – this allowed me to crunch all the training my body could take over the following 5-6 months (an *additional* 1000 miles over the previous year) without worry or compromise – after all I don’t really train that much as the schedules of far more dedicated riders prove! A few 170 mile weeks taught me a thing or two about over training. In June I did the Great Notts Bike Ride – 76 miles in 3:52. In July I managed a particular route of mine at 20.8mph ave. 0.1mph faster than when I was 17. I was really over the moon with this! While still not as fast on the hills I had proved that overall I was pretty much just as fast (all things considered). Finally after 2 years I felt like I could actually relax a bit!

And so, fast forward a little to the time of writing, part way through the 2011-2012 NDCXL season! I’m quite happy with my performance so far. All in all I think I trained as much as possible (for my mediocre body), and *almost* as smartly as I could have done and so I can’t expect any more just yet (that’s next year haha). I was fixated on my placing for a bit but I’ve realised that cyclocross races are not only attracting bigger fields but they’re a lot more competitive these days. More riders. Better riders. While I was 16th / 130 once upon a time, I was still 6 minutes down on the top league riders on a fast course. This season I’ve been 6 minutes down on fast courses and placed in the late 40s / early 50s. The top league riders will always be roughly of the same ability so it’s the “time down” that is a more accurate representation of your actual athletic performance, although finishing with a better position is always a bonus as it means more points! I’ve been able to race all of the races so far except for one (which I got average points for) and have been lucky enough to scrape enough to get into box 1. No more rushing to the start 15 minutes early to get a place at the front of box 2! I feel quite settled and content with my ability at the moment, but I’m still very much looking forward to seeing what I can do next year. If I could reduce that time gap from 6 to 4 minutes I’d be ecstatic, though I realise this may take a considerable amount of extra training. Now, if only this chest cold would go so I can get back on the bike and make myself hurt with a high cadence long interval turbo session…

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