How Fit … ?

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we learn that the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42 which I’m sure is correct. If we ask Strava how fit I am the answer is …

154.

Not bad, eh?

In fact three point six (recurring) times greater than the meaning of everything but notice that back in February when I started tracking my bike riding on Strava my fitness was zero. As far as I can recall I had a pulse and could ride around the block – zero it could not have been.

It looks as though my fitness has improved and in the last couple of months there is the suggestion of a plateau. The dotted line at the right hand end is a prediction of what would happen if I quit exercise. In broad terms I wouldn’t argue with all that but what does the 154 represent? If you are a 152 am I fitter than you?

There are a number of metrics in Strava and other fitness and training apps for which you can find an explanation but not a definition or a formula. Strava’s explanation from their glossary is …

While fitness is a complicated concept, it can be simplified to an accumulation of training. The Fitness Score is calculated using Training Load and/or Relative Effort to measure your daily training, and an impulse-response model to quantify its effect over time. This will intuitively capture the development of fitness from training, as well as the loss of fitness during a break.

and you won’t find Relative Effort or Training Load in the glossary.

So training volume goes into a black box where it is fiddled with in mysterious ways and out comes the answer in unspecified units.

Fitness is indeed a complicated concept. The word fitness has a great deal of work to do. At it’s broadest it means capacity to do something. It’s gets a lot easier to get a handle on it when you define the something. Let’s make that endurance exercise. Now we can consider the factors that contribute to capacity. They may be physical characteristics that the athlete in question is stuck with such as leg length or characteristics that are amenable to manipulation such as weight and body composition.

Endurance sports are various ways of turning food into distance covered with the prize going to the fastest person to the finishing line. Oxygen is required to burn the food. A good measure of fitness therefore is the maximum rate at which oxygen can be utilised or VO₂max. It comes in two flavours – absolute and relative.

To measure VO₂max accurately is a laboratory task. Inspired air is compared with expired air to find the amount of oxygen removed by an athlete as they perform a steadily harder task until the athlete cannot continue or the oxygen consumption reaches a plateau. The difference in humidity and temperature of inspired and expired air has to be addressed. A mask is worn throughout.

The Absolute VO₂max is simply the number of litres of oxygen taken up per minute going full gas. For relative VO₂max you divide by weight and express the result in millilitres per minute per kilogram. In a series of tests for a single athlete it’s handy to have both in order to distinguish between the contributions of adaptation and weight loss. If comparing one athlete with another relative VO₂max is more useful.

As the saying goes “Test is better than guessed” but it requires attendance at a lab and a fee in the vicinity of $200 a time. It’s not a one off – if it’s worth doing then it’s worth doing regularly to ensure that training is having the desired effect.

There are ways to estimate VO₂max rather than measure it. These don’t involve wearing a mask and analyzing expired air. Some don’t even involve exercise!

If you are interested in an estimate at the level of a general health interest try the online calculator at worldfitness.org. In my case I think the answer was a little flattering. Four different ways are on offer at MDApp including one based solely on resting heart rate and age. For the other three you will need to do some exercise. The Rockport Walking Test involves a one mile walk. The formula includes a refinement that reduces the error involved in being the wrong gender.

For the price of five or six visits to the laboratory you can buy a smart watch that will estimate your VO₂max and tell the time. Passler et al 2019 (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health) tested a bunch of wearable devices and concluded that they don’t do a particularly good job of measuring energy expenditure or calculating VO₂max.I believe they are reasonably good at keeping time and some play music.

If you are male and have a power meter you can estimate VO₂max by investing six minutes of your life in all out effort on the bike and plugging the result into a calculator provided by Michael Konczer. I haven’t been able to find a formula for females. So sorry girls – you’re walking. The formula used is …

It is an informative site with a table that you can consult to see how your result stacks up.

Regular testing is the ideal way to keep track of progress. A six minute test over the same course is directly comparable especially when measured by power rather than distance because that reduces the problem of variable winds. Estimating VO₂max from it may not be as exact as a lab measurement but the error will be much the same each time and it gives a value that will serve well enough for rough comparisons with other athletes. Friends will be delighted to hear of your improvement.

VO₂max is a very handy metric but by itself it will not tell you who will win the next race. Economy is the ratio of work done to energy expended and this varies from athlete to athlete as does the ability to tolerate workloads close to maximum. According to Allen, Coggan and McGregor VO₂max is to be found somewhere between 106 and 120% of functional threshold power (FTP).  If you know all those numbers for every entrant your crystal ball has a better chance. And the higher your VO₂max the better the chance that it will be you.

Back in the Zone …

Back to the daily grind. It was strongly tipped that our fearless leader would lock the entire state down again but instead he has mandated masks. If nothing else it will improve the appearance of the Victorian public. But I digress. The theme was power meters.

Functional Threshold Power measured on the bike is a handy way to adapt training intensity to a particular individual. Zones based on heart rate are another easily accessible method and a chest strap is less expensive than a power meter. Exercise physiologists have laboratories and all sorts of tech and therefore the means to make things way more complicated. By and large, though, the physiologists prefer a three zone system rather than five or seven,

You can find a good post (and podcast) by Dr Shawn Bearden on the topic <HERE>.

The zones or domains have nice practical names moderate, heavy and severe. The boundaries are only slightly fuzzy, rather than mostly arbitrary, and correspond with changes that can be demonstrated in the laboratory.

During moderate exercise oxygen consumption increases with work load. If you drew a graph it would be linear. At the same time lactate levels rise very little. As the intensity increases there comes a point where the slope of oxygen consumption increases and you enter the heavy zone. Round about the same point the lactate level heads gently upwards. FTP is close to the top of the heavy domain.

The moderate zone is easy, efficient and sustainable. The heavy zone is less efficient but still sustainable. Increase the load further and lactate begins to rise more rapidly, breathing becomes laboured and exhaustion beckons. The severe zone is inefficient and unsustainable but essential for a place on the podium.

from https://www.highnorth.co.uk/articles/cycling-training-zones

The boundary between moderate and heavy sits at about 65 to 70% of FTP or at the top of zone 2 in the Coggan model that I discussed recently. Severe kicks in at the top of zone 4 (roughly).

Race pace for endurance events is in the heavy zone but should you train there? Proponents of polarised training say no. Training at moderate levels will build stamina and pace efficiently with the athlete adapting and recovering from fatigue optimally. Top this off with some training in the severe zone.

So perhaps the most important use of a power meter in training is to ensure your easy days are easy enough. You don’t need a power meter to tell you when you’re going flat out.

The Power and the Training …

A Google search on the term “training principle” yielded “About 301,000,000 results (0.48 seconds)”. The sheer volume means I won’t be reading them all but I’m also put off by a hint that the science may not be settled …

and the very next result was for the four principles in case you were wondering why four had been omitted.

One of the principles (or one of the pitfalls) must be more is better so let’s have a look at seven courtesy of teamusa.org

Individuality

Specificity

Progression

Overload

Recovery

Adaptation

Reversibility

A quick precis will suffice for some of these. We all respond differently to training. You get better at what you practise – swimming makes you a better swimmer it has little benefit for your football ability. Stop training and the benefits fade and disappear. That disposes of individuality, specificity and reversibility.

Which leaves Progression, Overload, Recovery and Adaptation. These are the three core principles, yes, I know, maybe that’s why the number varies so much. The process goes something like this. Apply a training stress. Recover. Adapt. Repeat with a greater training stress.

Just as it’s  fine line between pleasure and pain it’s a fine line between training and over training, increasing the stress too rapidly leads to injury or exhaustion and the exercise program falls in a heap. Adequate recovery is an essential component of a successful training program and sometimes the hardest to endure.

If you’re offended by my reduction in the number of principles we can restore it to seven by adding the law of diminishing returns. The well trained athlete has got a lot more work to do to make progress than the beginner.

Enter the power meter. It gives an accurate measure of the training stimulus. It makes it possible to increase the load by sensible amounts. It also provides a means of limiting the stress to enable adequate recovery. If the keen cyclist gets carried away every ride they may fail to progress because they are always too fatigued to up the effort when required. The trap is often summed up as going too hard in the recovery sessions and not hard enough in the hard sessions.

Today is a rest day. My next task is to measure my capabilities and establish my FTP and training zones. I will explain …

Burning Matches …

Training is of benefit because of the response it engenders. Exercise at a greater intensity than the body is used to (overload) will produce some minor muscular mayhem that will be followed by repair and restoration (adaptation) leading to a greater capacity for future exercise (increased fitness).

There is considerable science to support all this for which we are indebted to an unbelievably large number of athletes who are prepared to exercise to exhaustion while breathing through masks and surrendering muscle biopsies at intervals.

Not everyone responds to the same extent or in the same way to training and there are way too many variables to formulate a precise prescription for the best of all training plans. The gap between Sports Science and Sports Coaching is the realm of Art.

I think it’s a very reasonable assumption that more is better, until more is too much. You’ll know where the boundary is after you cross it.

Endurance events are completed (by and large) at a rate at which oxygen supply keeps pace with fuel consumption except perhaps for the last hundred meters or so. In order to improve that pace it has been the practice of many athletes to train at the very boundary of aerobic/anaerobic metabolism. A growing body of coaches believe that this is too high a risk for the rewards it brings. The same risks are there for the enthusiast but the rewards don’t include gold medals.

The currently fashionable answer is polarised training. It’s a combination of a lot of Long Slow Distance with a little very high intensity mixed in. The middle intensity around the lactate threshold is avoided.

The suggested mix is 80% LSD and 20% high intensity. The true believer measures this out with a stopwatch and a power meter. The less obsessed can simply burn a match on a hill or two or try for a personal best on the next Strava segment on their morning ride.

Volume vs Intensity …

Cycling does you good. Does more cycling do you even more good?

Given my advanced age the effect of cycling on all cause mortality is of urgent concern. Research on older folk getting off the couch and onto their bikes is scant. The obvious advantage of such studies would be the relatively short time the researchers would need to wait for the endpoints. In the absence of old folk as guinea pigs  we can look to wise coaches for opinion or extrapolate from studies that draw their participants from a wider spectrum.

Joe Friel is wise and famous and a prolific author. In Fast After Fifty he tells us that long slow distance will set you apart from the guy next door. It will also set you apart from the guys on the podium. In other words he damns it with faint praise. His prescription is to go for the intensity.

This is borne out by findings from the Copenhagen City Heart Study (Schnohr et al)

Relative intensity and duration of cycling were recorded in 5106 apparently healthy men and women aged 21-90 years drawn from the general population of Copenhagen, and followed for an average of 18 years. Total number of deaths during follow-up was 1172, of these 146 were coronary heart disease deaths. For both sexes we found a significant inverse association between cycling intensity and risk of all-cause and coronary heart disease death, but only a weak association with cycling duration.

If you want to live longer ride faster not further. QED.

Charity rides are a fun way to spice up your riding program. They’re better than races because they are races really but a large proportion of the riders don’t realise it and are therefore easier to beat. These events have succumbed to the Corona virus for the moment but they will return one day. The one I’m looking forward to is Maryborough’s R3R. I did the short course last time. Next time my goal is the full 109 km.

Can I prepare for 109 km by doing interval sprints? Well not on their own. Volume is vital, the effort though must be at a certain intensity. The “fat burn” zone doesn’t cut it. Joe again …

Very low heart rate training is often referred to as the “fat-burning” zone. This is another case of a myth that refuses to go away. Low intensity, slow exercise does not burn more calories or more fat than does high-intensity, fast paced exercise.

In fact high intensity exercise will have a greater impact on body fat than low intensity junk miles even if the calories consumed during the exercise is less because of the impact on metabolic rate during the rest of the day.

Which leads us to the real point. Volume is a fairly meaningless metric. What matters is effort versus recovery, training versus over-training.

Fartlek …

lek (v.)

of certain animals, “to engage in courtship displays,” 1871, probably from Swedish leka “to play,” cognate of English dialectal verb lake (see lark (n.2)). Related: Lekking.

In some birds such as grouse, birds of paradise and the Ruff the males congregate in some hallowed spot and put on a display. Females visit and make their choice. The most beautiful or vigorous or otherwise appealing males get the vast majority of the copulations, most males miss out. Larks incidentally lark about in individual displays, strictly speaking they are not lekking species.

Fartlek shares some of the etymology and I hope that by introducing the topic this way I have caused a momentary image of male athletes gathered together farting loudly in order to entice female athletes to have sex with them. But no, fart is the Swedish for speed. Fartlek is speed play. It’s a form of training that introduces bursts of high intensity exercise into long slow distance sessions, an informal means of pushing the heart rate up without the regimentation of interval training.

My training objectives are to increase endurance and increase my average pace. It means that there has to be sessions when I take a bit more out of myself than is comfortable so the plan is

  • One long ride a week
  • One interval session
  • One or two rest days
  • Three or four other rides.

Riding on my own I tend to go into a meditative state and set my pace by perceived effort. I hammer away at a pace just short of my lactate threshold. a habit formed in the remote past. When riding with others the convoy moves at the speed of the slowest ship (or breaks up). Someone is getting less of a workout than they would really like. If that’s me I like to inject the occasional burst of speed, get the heart into at least the cardio zone and then slow down to let my training partner catch up. Fartlek.

Not every ride has to be flat out, indeed going too hard too often will lead to a lethargy that leaves you too tired to undertake the next planned ride or declining performance. Fartlek is a good way to break up the other rides into small periods of effort and longer periods of recovery. It provides an opportunity to take in the scenery and keep the activity fresh.

Set aside the fart for the moment lekking is fascinating behaviour and the most fascinating of all is the Ruff Calidris ( formerly Philomachus) pugnax. Lekking males develop a neck collar whilst the Reeves, the females even have a different name, remain their usual plain selves.

The video shows the boys showing off and occasionally fighting …

… but most fascinating of all are the game players, the satellite males. The females gather to watch the spectacle and among them are some males that do not don their finery and join the competition. They simply take advantage of the odd excited female. Whilst the hottest Ruffs get to father the most offspring the sneaky copulaters also get to pass on their genes sufficiently often to account for a percentage of satellite males in the subsequent generation.