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Thursday, 7 October 2010

Beer-Belly Revenge 2010

In the course of writing this post, I confess it did strike me as a little weird and obsessive to have derived real satisfaction from carefully planning and executing a successful year-long assault on one's burgeoning girth, only to start again next week.

Am I bored? Terrified of 'old age'? Addicted to endorphins? I pondered the motivation for a few days. Then I thought, f*ck it, I'm having fun.

I said at the end of last season that to arrest a decline I'd have to do "something radical". A "decline" because after 50 weeks of increasingly patchy training for the Rower's Revenge, I'd only achieved the same pace in the dry as I had during a deluge in 2008. Worse (but undeclared at the time), I'd ended the season a little, well, heavier. "Something radical" because I couldn't simply add to my existing target of 6 training hours a week and hope for the best. I'd have to train far more efficiently to make the limited time count. And I didn't want to 'waste' another year doing the wrong thing.

There are plenty of personal trainers, coaching books and web sites out there dedicated to physical fitness, which vary in helpfulness depending on your own strengths, weaknesses, and target events. But I was more interested to learn how other amateurs had converted all the advice into a realistic personalised training programme that worked for them, without all the hype and packaging.

Unfortunately - perhaps understandably - few people take the trouble to publish a neat summary of how they approach the physical side of triathlons. Though there are numerous valuable individual tips on specific aspects of training, events, tactics, kit, diet and technique. See this 19 minute video guide to transition, for example - though please note: while I DO clip my cycling shoes onto the bike, using rubber bands to keep them off the ground until mounting, I DO NOT attach the left shoe to the rear-wheel quick-release lever. The seat-stay is just as conveniently located, yet incapable of releasing the rear wheel onto the road if the rubber band refuses to snap immediately. And see the videos and this discussion of the dreaded "cyclo-cross dismount", which I've not attempted sober and relaxed, let alone drunk on lactic acid in the heat of transition.

So to really burrow into the physical training aspects I had little choice but to buy and study (okay, obsess over) Joe Friel's "The Triathlete's Training Bible".

My old training programme had evolved only slightly from when I first attempted the Rowers Revenge in 2005 after nearly 20 years of not competing very much at all. I loved the idea of row-cycle-run, because I hate swimming training, and did a lot of rowing in the '80s. Despite enjoying my first Revenge, I had to miss it in 2006 and tried an alternative rowing triathlon at Dorney Lake in 2007. But I returned in 2008 and 2009.

To train for 2005, I went from a fairly relaxed 3 sessions a week to a panicky 3 months of 8 or 9 sessions a week (only to 'race' the bike leg on my 3-ton hybrid...). Having established that I could finish and still make it to work on Monday, I borrowed a little from Mark Allen, the 6-time Ironman champion, and developed a year-round, 4-6 sessions-a-week programme that didn't put so much strain on the diary or cause perpetual exhaustion but offered improvement through consistency. In 2007 I made life a bit easier by acquring a sub-£1,000 racing bike with carbon forks and seat-stays, a basic cycling computer, clip-in cycling shoes that have a single velcro strap to aid transition, and a basic heart rate monitor. To spice up the calendar, I added a few shorter duathlons and rowing triathlons with DB Max. These taught me how to resist the overwhelming temptation to blast through the first leg amidst the adrenalin-crazed crowd, so as to avoid a seizure in the final run leg. Transitions gradually improved on average, but were horribly inconsistent.

But, frustratingly, during the '08/'09 season I missed 55 sessions due to various 'niggles', only a few of which were better described as 'hangovers'. I'd also started to dither in transitions - which I put down to a lack of fitness. And I ended the season heavier, as I mentioned.

So I began 2010 with a new, Friel-based programme that provides more opportunity for recovery, but progressively more intensity. It's broken down into 3 four-week 'base' periods, followed by 2 four-week 'build' periods and a final two-week 'peak' period. Repeating that framework after a 'transition' week allows for two 'peak' events a season. Each four-week block involves 3 progressively more intensive weeks, followed by a light week of low-intensity sessions (sometimes missing a run, since that's hardest on the joints). There are 3 endurance and 3 interval sessions each week, except for short, lighter sessions in recovery weeks. I dropped weights, but retained some pilates exercises at the end of 2 or 3 sessions a week to stave off back problems. I also added a mile to my basic 'endurance' run, invested in a GPS heart rate monitor to keep an eye on my running pace as well as heart rate, switched to a spinning bike for the cycling sessions for safety and consistency, and ate less carbs and more protein.

The results?

Well, the recovery weeks definitely removed the niggles and I only missed 7 between January and October 2010, as opposed to 44 during Jan-Oct 2009. I also lost a stone.

Out on the track, I made big improvements in the first 'peak' event - a mid-season Votwo duathlon on the flat Dorney Lake course. I was an average 40 secs/km faster in the two 5km run legs, and 10 secs/km faster over a 20km ride. I was also more clear-headed and a lot less shaky in the transitions, which were faster as a result.

Comparisons for the Revenge itself are rough because it was dry and sunny for last year's Revenge, but wet last Sunday. And they cut the run from 7.1km to 5.5km because of mud and bridge repairs. Disclaimers aside, the 4km row was a fraction slower, leaving more for the bike and run. The bike pace improved only 5 sec/km over last year's time for 23.4km, but the run pace improved a healthy 27 sec/km over last year (slower than the mid-season duathlon, but the Revenge course isn't flat, and it's tougher starting with a 4km row than a 5km run). Again, I was more clear-headed and didn't dither in the transitions. However, my heart rate seemed a bit lower than usual, so maybe I needed to give it a bit more welly - though the finish photo suggests that was not a realistic option and there's a worse one than that ;-)

In competitive terms, the result was 7th out of 52 in the Mens 40-49 category and 37th out of 166 individual competitors overall, versus 11th and 58th last year. Of course that may just mean there were fewer quick competitors this year, having other fish to fry. Or they hate the wet - I was 9th and 49th respectively in the deluge of 2008.

While places don't mean much outside the top 3, it's worth considering the difference just a few minutes can make. For example, if I'd run just a minute faster this year, I'd have been 5th in my age group and 30th overall. Another minute faster on the bike, say, and I'd have been 4th and 27th respectively, and so on. Daydreams like that provide a bit more motivation than beer-belly avoidance, especially when it's dark, very cold, raining heavily or snowing.

Of course, a fresh batch of 40 year olds next year could easily place me 20th in the group. And I'm under no illusions about the natural ability and giant training load required to bridge the 11-minute gulf between me and the fastest guy over 40, or indeed the 5 minute gap to the fastest over-50 year old(!). But I reckon there's still some improvement in pace to be gained from the current training programme... we'll see next year.
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