I’d wake up thinking about it. I’d be thinking about it when I’d be trying to work. I’d be thinking about it when I tried to sleep at night and as soon as I woke up.
No, not sex, and no, not my bike.
What was bothering me was the now-intrinsically linked pair of the food, and the absence of my bike.
What is this about?
This one is something I’ve been toying with writing for a while and hasn’t been very easy to pen.
Anyone who knows me, whether ‘properly’ or in the virtual world, may know that I’ve not been such a happy chap in the last six weeks, both on and off the bike. Following an awesome training camp in Spain, where the legs felt decent and the miles passed easily, I came back to the UK with the typical endorphin fuelled motivation for the season to come. Time to build on that first ramp in form, time to perfect my diet, time to train hard.
Weight fell rapidly from my already meagre form, and my already low white blood cell count plummeted. As the weight fell off, I was shocked and concerned, but at the same time, found it quite satisfying. How low could I go? The weight loss was only a few kg, but that seemed enough to tip my body into a place it didn’t like. The numbers on the bike dropped as quickly as they did on the scales, and I generally felt like shit, both mentally and physically. I knew i needed to get some timber back on the bones, yet I also didn’t really want to get bigger.
The planned ramp in form off the back of a great training camp failed to materialise as I failed to complete my intervals over and over again. Then, before I knew it, I was off overseas again, to Nice, on what had been billed a ‘racer’s camp’. I’m a little bitter about this camp, but the ‘racers’ element failed to materialise, and the customer-friend boundary with the acquaintance who organised the trip become blurred. The visit to Nice became an accumulation of junk miles that further fatigued me and pushed me further downwards. In the month since then, things became worse and worse. The numbers dropped, my heart rate cesased to rise with effort, and my legs felt ruined after any session.
For me, as with many recreational riders, my mindset is closely tied to my training. As the numbers spiralled down, my mood closely followed. As the weeks went on, I became entrenched in a spiral of either trying to train, or half-heartedly rest my way out of the fug, to find myself only plateauing further, or, indeed, digging a deeper hole.
The following is an exploration of how and why this happened, looking briefly at the many ingredients that contributed to this unhealthy stew, and a consideration of how so many of us over-enthusiastic amateurs are so unfortunately close to treading over the line that I’m struggling to accept that I’ve crossed.
N.B. The following piece has not been proof-read fully yet. I may read over and edit it, i may not. I just wanted to put it to bed and get it out there, having procrastinated over writing it for so long.
So, read on…
Overcooking: More is MORE.
I went into 2018 with lofty ambitions after a great 2017 on the bike. Having riding strongly through the spring and early summer, I reached a peak in August for the Haute Route Iron, and then somehow capitalised on that form in early October for a romp around Provence at Haute Route Ventoux. In January 2018, all the typical new year’s resolutions were amplified like the blood values of a ‘well prepared’ rider being looked after by Doctor Ferrari or Fuentes. Target placings in events became more optimistic, training plans became more demanding, diet and lifestyle considerations became more monastic. Obviously, all those went out of the window by mid-January, but the intent was there.
With the new year came a new bike, and quite a different position. I was caught between having to get miles in on the new bike, and a crippling fear of getting her dirty in the notoriously dirty roads of my Chiltern training ground. At the same time, the flat I was renting was poorly heated, and totally removed my will-pwer to get out n those oh-so valuable base mile rides. Instead, my winter was spent mostly staring at a laptop screen, banging out interval after interval, often to various levels of effectiveness. It’s said that a reverse periodised training plan (that is, a lot of top end and interval focus in the winter, with the long steady rides performed in spring and summer) can work, if properly managed, and I half-mindedly looked to emulate it. One concern raised regards this interval-heavy focus in the winter is the risk of burnout. I ignored it, I’m better than that.
Those long easy base miles that I should have been accumulating outside were reserved for recovery days or the taper for a training camp or event. And when I was on those recovery days, ‘zone 2’ would tend to creep up towards zone 3 – that slightly pointless junk zone – in the search for just a little taste of suffering. Although I felt fine through the winter, and got myself into pretty strong shape prior to my February training camp in Spain, it later materialised that I was just pushing myself closer and closer to somewhere I didn’t want to be.
The 80:20 rule is commonly thought of to be the bedrock of endurance training: 80% of the time you work really easy, 20% of the time you train so hard you think you might leak some body fluids somewhere. Any time in the middle was a waste. For me, the 80 and the 20 became blurred, with the numbers starting to become more like 50: 50. The 80% of easy rides became too hard, and the super hard rides failed to be ‘super’, just ‘quite’. Too fatigued from the junk accumulated on the not-so-easy rides, the legs and head couldn’t achieve the really hard stuff; the stuff that mattered. And again, though I felt fine at the time, it appears I was neglecting my recovery.
Rest, they say, is the most important part of training. Rest is when the hard work done in the intervals beds into the legs and builds you for next time. You let the load build, then allow suitable time to recover and rebuild; fresher and stronger for the next set of training. I’m well aware of this, and always have been. However, like many of us, we don’t always respect it. For untrained and overenthusiastic amateurs, especially those of us with a bit of time to play with, more is definitely more.
For most of us, and especially me, the gremlin term of ‘overtraining’ is something we hear of, but dismiss. Like so many of the terrible things in life, ‘it will never happen to me’. Overtraining, the failure to respect your recovery days and easy weeks, leads us down a dirty path towards something far worse; non-functional overreaching. This latter term, is essentially the phrase used to describe the state an athlete can fall into when they continue to overtrain, without respecting the most important bit – the resting bit. The load increases, but the numbers decrease, or even decline, and with it, other life factors start to deteriorate; sleep, mood, concentration, focus. Y’know, those things that we need for boring real-life stuff. I won’t go into this in depth here, as there’s plenty of better, more informed writing on the topic, available on the web (try this for a start point if you want to know more (https://hammerathletic.com.au/functional-vs-non-functional-overreaching/)
Although I did allow myself rest days and ‘recovery’ spins, the easy rides were too hard, the rest days probably too infrequent. My load wasn’t really hat big – I know plenty of others doing a lot more – but it seems that I managed to do just enough to spark a fuse that exploded my form. Perhaps month on month of hard riding, constantly pushing threshold, hitting interval after interval over winter, started something off. Who knows. I didn’t feel burnt out in myself; I was mentally capable and sleeping well, I had energy for the day to day.
But on the bike, I had nothing. I’d feel myself blowing up within an hour of a ride, I’d fail to complete intervals that were my bread and butter months before, and I’d spend the morning after one of these failed sessions with twitchy, crampy legs, that feeling you get having ridden a stage on the Haute Route. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I struggle to comprehend how this crash has happened, and that’s partly why I find it so distressing.
Undereating: Less is best
Like all too many cyclists, runners, and triathletes, my relationship with food is both extremely healthy and somewhat unhealthy. For years, I’ve had what would best be described as a disordered relationship with food. It blossomed in my impressionable late teens, when growing up in a family environment blighted by anorexia. I developed dieting preferences with focus on smaller plates focussing towards health, a behaviour that you’d probably call not quite the anorexia of a relation, not quite the quest for perfectly clean nutrition of the orthorexic.
Despite loving cycling, the archetypal partner-in-crime, cake, was notoriously absent from my life. And despite knowing the millennial fear of carbohydrate (particularly amongst athletes) to be misplaced, I developed an aversion to these energy giving goodies. The condition became near critical around five years ago, went away a bit, and has simmered away gently ever since, bubbling over every now and then.
I always had viewed images of the pros at their peak leanness with a mixture of disgust and awe. Images of the stick-like figures of like Froome and Poels flying through the high peaks always struck a slightly romantic nerve; the classic image of the solitary troubled climber. Whilst I knew their physique to be one that should be nither be idolised nor aspired to, it sort of intrigued and appealed to me. The gaunt, slightly shocking looks on their faces, the pointy cheekbones, collarbones and elbows did fascinate somewhat.
Any athlete, be they pro or amateur, who tries to manipulate their weight and body composition to be optimal (that is, minimal) in time for a certain event, knows that trying to lose a few kg for their A races, and then maintaining that feathery mass, is far from fun. I know this, and yet enjoy that mild torture of attempting to be at my lightest, all the time. Just as more is more in training, less is less with weight. This has caused me problems and discomforts of the whole of my recent adult life, a lack of weight and general resilience has led to minor ailments of all sorts, ranging from common bouts of anaemia and reynauds syndrome to digestive issues, a constant sense of being cold, getting knocked out of line by small children, etc etc. But that was just the way it was. I accepted it as an inevitable consequence.
There’s a slightly sick joke amongst the cycling community that when your mum / nan / aunt (insert elderly female relative here) tells you that you look unwell and need to be fed up, you’re on form…You’re down at raceweight and ready for the fight. Another sign of this, in my experience, has been your heart rate monitor slipping down your chest. Without a bit of extra timber to grip on to, the bloody thing just doesn’t sit still. I craved both of these frustrating symptoms of being lean. Too lean.
I was far from starving myself, but I was far from feeding optimally. Strange eating patterns and habits formed, and those fairly typical of the dieter; strict control and probably underfeeding through the day, then a loss of will power in the evening and mindless grazing on lower quality, but still reasonably healthy snacks in the evening, bowls of ‘healthy’ cereals (to appease my conscience) mixed with berries and yoghurt as i gazed at the T.V. and thought about bikes. The calories were never that far away from being that far from what i needed to sustain myself, just a little too few, and perhaps, more crucially, at the wrong times. Probably a sufficiency of calories in the evening, but not enough in the day, when my misplaced motivation was high, leading to an energy deficit at the points when I most needed it; when i was training, when i was doing that other stuff like earning money and doing boring normal things
Many of my friends tell me that my main limiter on performance is my weight, or lack of it. That golden ratio of power to weight – the formula that needs optimising – would probably actually improve with a few more kilos of muscle on the quads and thighs. With a bit more weight, my power would probably increase at a greater ratio, something that more than proved itself during my late-season romp around Provence with Haute Route Ventoux, when my weight was at its highest in a few years and the power responded very favourably. Despite this, that background of disordered eating bubbled away in my mind. Make the weight, be lean, go fast, was my thinking.
On my return from a quality training camp in Spain this year, where I could feel the blossoming of form and the shaping of tan lines, I returned full of ambition and excitement. With that drive to build on the work done on the bike in the Alpajurras, stupid eating behaviours reared their ugly head again. Never starving myself, but being conscious of eating not quite enough. Clean up the diet a bit, shed any last bits of fat, get lean. Those beloved sausage rolls, undoubtedly the chink in the armour of my diet, in the bin, the portions of my beloved nut butters and maple syrup scaled back.
My intention of losing 1kg of winter insulation, to get me down to around 61kg, what I considered to be my race weight, backfired hideously. I somehow shot down to just over 58kg in a matter of weeks. I was shocked and concerned. A little bit of toning up had somehow become more like a stripping of muscle. A loss of almost 5% of my bodyweight in that little time had to be at the expense of strength and power, an it played out dramatically on the bike. The numbers dropped, I felt battered after every session (the majority of which I failed to complete), and life sucked.
Cleaning up and trying to move on
I always felt myself above a training plan. I know my training zones, I know the types of sessions that I need to do, and I know when to rest (or, in my case, in the past, pretend I’m resting but actually just dig a hole). There was so much I knew, but I never properly practiced it. Under-recovering, constantly pushing threshold and pushing burnout in that self-affirming and self-reassuring search for the burn… A sort of sense of worth from having really pushed myself.
However, after 3 weeks of slide following my trip to Spain, and even worse stagnation after a disastrous trip to Nice, I felt in a mess. I was suddenly riding at numbers that I was achieving about five or six years ago, when I first started training with a power meter and started to transform myself from a casual leisure rider to whatever I am now. Without wanting to sound melodramatic , I felt a total mess; not being able to concentrate on work, thinking about my health, thinking about eating, thinking about not eating.
I took the plunge and swallowed my pride and engaged coach Tom Kirk, the brains behind Custom Cycle Coaching and the Andalucia training camp, to help me. He knew how I ride, was aware of my situation following our staying in touch after the camp, and, with riders like Olymian Dan Bigham on his roster, he clearly knows his stuff.
I’m nearly a month in to the plan and whilst I feel nothing but confidence in Tom, I still feel like I’m going nowhere. We’ve been racking up big hours of zone two – easy aerobic work, with a few intervals thrown in. The only limiter on the aerobic work, having racked up tens of thousands of miles over the years, is my patience and how much fuel I have in my pocket. So, whilst I find this easy side of the spectrum so incredibly easy, the intervals feel so horrifically hard. And they’re not even intensities I would have found that hard about three months ago. The legs feel weak, like they’re pushing an unnaturally big gear, and they feel lacklustre and without the spritely spin they used to. Meanwhile, my heart is beating like it’s about to explode, and I feel like I blow up in every session. I feel a shadow of myself.
Simultaneously, I try to put the weight back on. But I’m still terrified of gaining weight. I step on the scales, and when I see I’m sub-60kg, I hate myself and fret about how this lack of weight is probably contributing to my mailaise. Sometimes, perhaps when I’m carrying more water or am perhaps a little, ahem, full of last night’s dinner, I see a number in the mid-60kg range, and despise that I’m ‘heavy’ yet still pathetic on the bike. I’d accept more kilos with more watts. I refuse people’s advice to see a therapist about my weight as I feel it’s a waste of time.
However, time is running out, and I’ve got a lot of events booked in. I dread the thought of each one of them. The plans I formed 6 months ago with hopes of crossing finish lines with the hitters in the first groups are becoming prayers of just crossing the finish line. My pride won’t let me accept the idea of being slow, yet that’s what I seem to have become.
If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this long, rambling twisting tale, thank you. I appreciate it doesn’t really lead anywhere or form a conclusion, but is as much for my own desire to get it off my chest as anything else.
What am I trying to tell you? I guess I’m just trying to warn you.
- Respect your zones
- Respect your rest
- Respect your carbs, enjoy your cakes, and keep your friends at the pizzeria close.
- Love your bike and your riding. I feel like it’s been a while since I’ve been able to do that.