Monday, August 13, 2012

Should one race two Ironmans in a year?

It's that crazy time of year once more: Ironman signup season, and especially for people on a team, it's easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm (or peer pressure, depending on one's point of view).  It's like a perverse sort of adult Christmas morning, hitting refresh on one's web browser in the desperate hope to have the privilege of paying $700-$1,200 in order to compete in an Ironman a year out.

Lately a couple of newer athletes have asked whether it's feasible to compete in more than one Ironman in a year -- Ironman Lake Placid in July and then Florida in November, or perhaps CDA/Arizona.  It's tough to know how to answer this question.  I've done it twice, IMUSA/Cozumel in 2009, and then Wales/Cozumel in 2011, and I have distinctly mixed feelings on it.

As an initial matter, I firmly believe that most athletes these days jump too quickly to Ironman from short distance races.  It's almost like people view Ironman as the only race worth doing, or at least as the clear "ASAP" goal, even if the goal is only to finish under 17 hours.  I don't understand why.  If the goal is to do your best at Ironman, as opposed to merely finish it, the optimal approach almost certainly is to spend at least a couple of years training very hard and competing at shorter distances first.  It's much easier to add endurance to speed than to add speed to endurance.  Almost every top-level Ironman triathlete was first a world class short-course triathlete, and the same holds for marathoners, who often were tearing up the 5,000m or 10,000m distances before going longer.  People who move quickly to competing in Ironmans often find that they don't get much faster in the course of training for those events.

On a personal note, I don't think that there's anything inherently more impressive about Ironman races than Olympics or half-IMs.  Going all-out in shorter races is painful as hell, and people who do it successfully must be hard as nails.  It's also possible to have considerably more of a life outside of the sport.  I think there's a great argument for simply focusing on short-course races for a long time.

All of which is to say, before deciding whether to sign up for two Ironmans in a year, I think it's worth asking seriously whether it's in your best interest to sign up for even one.  Assuming you're firmly committed to racing at least one Ironman, my view is that racing a second one doesn't require too much more, at least physically.  If one were to race IMUSA in July, it's easy to take two or three weeks off, and then to ramp up the training again in mid August, and to push through November or whenever the second race might be.  There's the risk of overuse injury, of course, but I don't think this is dramatically higher simply because one does a second Ironman a few months after the first.

But this isn't to say that I think doing a second one is a good idea.  Rather, the point is that the chief sources of difficulty in adding the second Ironman are mental, emotional, and social, rather than physical.  When you're signing up for races a year out, a two-Ironman season sounds exciting and romantic.  But consider the reality of how triathlon training is often structured.  Ironman athletes often are told spend the winter training for a marathon, and then to roll the running fitness over into triathlon once the weather warms up enough to make cycling outdoors enjoyable.  In practice, someone might start training in December for a March marathon.  After the marathon's done, you're staring directly at triathlon season, and the ramp up to the first Ironman quickly begins.  After the July race, you takes a couple of weeks off, and then you train intensely again through the second Ironman in November.

Add up all of the training and racing commitments, and you find yourself training hard from December of the first year straight through November of the second year.  I'm about as motivated as athletes come, but I'll tell you that this is not trivial.  Even if you're not injury-prone, training at that level requires regular sacrifices of your social or family life, and it is virtually impossible to keep motivation from flagging.  It's quite likely that, after you race a marathon and the first Ironman and is staring at the second, you won't be jazzed about 120-mile bike rides and 20-mile runs.  The second Ironman can easily come to seem more like an arduous obligation, rather than a fun goal.  And, because you've already finished one Ironman, it's all too easy to take the training for granted since the fear factor no longer looms as large.  As a result, the second race often doesn't go very well.

In sum, in my experience, there's nothing more likely to kill your enjoyment of endurance sports than to train for an Ironman for which you're not enthusiastic, and that enthusiasm very difficult to predict a year or more out.  If you do make it through the second Ironman successfully, it's very likely that you'll be extremely burned-out afterward.  The most natural thing will be to take a few months off, only to find the next spring that all of the benefit from the work you put in the year before has disappeared.  It can be extremely frustrating.

To be sure, there are some people who can train for Ironman after Ironman without batting an eyelash.  They simply love the lifestyle and there's nothing they'd rather be doing.  I think, however, that such people are a small minority, and it's very dangerous to ascribe those characteristics to yourself before you've been around the sport for awhile.  Most people simply need to recharge their batteries, to reconnect with family and friends, to read books, to travel without a bicycle, and generally to do other things.  I don't mean to judge either type of person -- different strokes for different folks.  It's just that you should be honest with yourself about which camp you're in, and it's very difficult to know that you'll be motivated to train for two Ironmans before you've even trained for the first one.

If you do decide to commit to a two-Ironman year, my view is that it might be a mistake to train for a marathon during the winter before.  Instead, you might be better off training for a hard 5k or 10k.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is mental: if you're going to be training for two Ironmans in a row, the chief difficulty is going to be motivational, so don't tap that well any earlier than you need to.  Three-hour runs during the dead of winter can be extremely draining, and it might be better to spend the winter on short, fast training that isn't as much of a burden on your life.  The second reason is physical: if you're is training for two Ironmans, then you're probably not going to get much faster in that time.  You'll get get better at going longer at a steady effort, but training for Ironman is not the way to get fast.  In fact, it may actually make you slower.  The general philosophy of periodization is that your training should get more race-like as the goal race approaches, and for Ironman, that means very long runs and rides.  The flip side of the equation is that, the further you are from the goal race, the more you should be focusing on other limiters.   Spending the winter really working on top-end cycling and running speed can pay huge dividends once it comes time to go longer.

On the subject of winter marathons, a couple of years ago the guys at Endurance Nation put out a couple of videos explaining why, in their view, people training for Ironman should consider not running a winter marathon.  This view is controversial, but I personally agree with it.  Here's the first:

And here's a follow-up:

Admittedly, although these videos reflect my personal views, I haven't always practiced what I'm now preaching.  Last year I trained very hard for a winter marathon, and in fact I wound up running two, at Shamrock and Eugene.  I then went on to race Ironmans Wales and Cozumel.  The reason I ran the marathons, though, was that I had a specific goal of qualifying for Boston, and that goal was entirely unrelated to my desire to do well at Ironman.  Indeed, when I got back on the bike in May, after my second marathon, I was utterly useless for a couple of months.  It was not pretty.  It's also true that I finished Ironman Cozumel utterly demoralized and injured; I took fully two months off of training, and really wanted nothing to do with endurance sports for quite awhile.  It's not an outcome I'd recommend pursuing.

In all, I'd suggest making enjoyment of the sport the highest priority.  Life's too short to do anything else, and certainly you should be careful not to get swept up in others' enthusiasm.  Make the choice for the right reasons, and be honest with yourself about why you're doing it, what you're sacrificing to make it happen, and what you're trying to get out of it.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Getting it Done in Druid Hills

Today I raced what was, by a great margin, my shortest tri ever: the Druid Hills Sprint in Baltimore.  A 300-yard pool swim, 7.5-mile bike, and 5k run.  The idea originally was to race the Culpeper Oly two weeks out from Tremblant, and then this one, one week out, as a last-minute tuneup.  After spending May, June, and early July on ultracycling pursuits and the occasional short tri, I wanted spend the six weeks or so before Tremblant sharpening up my speed and working on my running.

But it didn't work out that way.  In mid July, about a week after the Saratoga 12-hour race, I did an easy brick workout, but three miles into the run, I felt my IT Band seize up and suddenly I could barely put weight on my leg.  I had to take a cab home, and I had trouble walking for several days afterward.  In fact, I had to take nearly two weeks off of both cycling and running at exactly the time when I should have been doing the last big push before the Ironman taper.  I've been doing everything in my power to treat the problem aggressively, from icing, stretching, and foam rolling to massage and chiropractic care.

This has all been pretty demoralizing, because at the moment I got injured, I was riding, running, and swimming better than ever, and my race results were showing it.  And I'm not injury-prone -- my last running injury was nearly six years ago.  But I think that the sheer volume of cycling, including two 12-hour races 14 days apart, was simply excessive when paired with even a scaled-back running plan.

Starting about a week ago, I was able to begin riding again, but I bagged the Culpeper race last Saturday, and even then, last Sunday I dropped out of an easy bike ride after 30 minutes because my knee was tightening up.  Things were not looking great for Tremblant.

Fortunately, I think I may have played my limited hand as well as I could have, because I was able to get through today's race (which included a 5k) without any pain or sensitivity.  In fact, somehow I managed to win the thing overall. The field was not a strong one, and my run wasn't what I'd have liked (a very cautious 20:40), but I was pretty happy with my swim and bike performances, and the key thing is that I've gained some confidence that I'll be able to give it a go next weekend in Quebec without thinking every step about my knee.

Sometimes things don't work out the way we plan, but this experience has reaffirmed the importance of being honest about injuries and not trying to press through them.  I didn't run a step for five weeks, but hopefully my caution has prevented an acute problem from becoming chronic.

And what better way to celebrate a return to health than with my first overall race win?  Rollin' on!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Product Review: Altolab Hypoxic Trainer

A few weeks back, I engaged in my annual stupid tradition of impulsively signing up for an inaugural Ironman in a beautiful place that presents an opportunity for an "interesting race report experience."  In 2009, it was the Cozumel Mosquito Coast.  In 2011, it was Tropical Storm Wales.  This year will be Mont Tremblant, and in 2012, it'll be Lake Tahoe.  Tahoe will be gorgeous; the problem is, the swim is at 6,200 feet, and the bike climbs well above 7,000 feet.  It won't be possible to get there more than a couple of days in advance, so I got to thinking, how am I going to do this?  And I did some research.

Many people have heard of the benefits of altitude training.  It turns out that the benefits aren't clear-cut, because while living at altitude has a stimulatory effect on red blood cell count, it also inhibits recovery and doesn't allow one to train as intensely.  The response has been the so-called "live high, train low" approach, in which people live at high altitude, but do their intense training at low altitude.  There are only a few places where this is possible, however, and it's certainly not possible for the everyday age grouper.
Hypoxico altitude tent

Enter altitude tents.  These are portable airtight canopies that one puts over one's bed, and they're connected to large, heavy, expensive ($5,000) units that look like portable generators.  These units substitute nitrogen for oxygen, and thereby create lower oxygen percentages, much (but not exactly) as one would find at altitude.  Athletes sleep in these tents at up to 10,000 feet or so for a period of weeks leading up to a race.  The tents can be effective, but they're uncomfortable to sleep in due to noise from the generator and buildup of heat and humidity within the tent.  I owned one of these for a year or so, and I found that I had so much trouble sleeping in it that the downsides outweighed the benefits.  Still, I considered renting one of these for a couple of weeks before Lake Tahoe; they can be found for a few hundred dollars for brief periods.

In the course of my research, though, I stumbled upon a solution I hadn't seen previously: the Altolab system. These aren't cheap -- about $600 -- but in the world of altitude simulators, that's not too bad.  I decided to take the plunge, reasoning that I could benefit from altitude training for races leading up to Tahoe as well.

The Altolab system works on the principle of intermittent hypoxic exposure, i.e., brief periods of relatively intense hypoxication with recoveries in between.  In an altitude tent system, you might sleep for 8 hours at a simulated 10,000 feet.  With Altolab, in contrast, the protocol is one session per day, and the session is 6 reps of 6 minutes of hypoxication, followed by 4 minutes of breathing normally.  The key is that the Altolab can simulate much higher altitudes than the tents -- if a tent can simulate up to 10,000 feet, a typical level, the Altolab can simulate well in excess of 20,000 feet.  In the world of altitude training, a tent can be thought of as a very long Z2 run, whereas the Altolab is more like intense hill repeats for a shorter period.  Research on runners and cyclists has shown a clear performance benefit from intermittent hypoxic exposure, a technique that was originally developed by the former Soviet Union.

The Altolab system is dead simple to use, although it's somewhat hard to describe.  It consists of three basic parts: (i) a breathing tube with mouth piece that's connected to a bacterial filter; (ii) a green hypoxic silo cylinder; and (iii) several "altomixer" cylinders.  The green hypoxic silo consists of particles of soda lime, a chemical that absorbs CO2, and the altomixers contain sponges that simply inhibit air flow to a minor extent.  The functional principle is that, when one inhales, the gas consists of a high percentage of oxygen.  The oxygen is absorbed by the lungs, and when it's expelled, it contains more CO2 and less oxygen, along with some nitrogen.  Normally, when one inhales fresh air, the level of oxygen inhaled remains constant.  The Altolab changes that, because when one exhales into it, the soda lime in the green hypoxic silo absorbs the exhaled CO2, leaving only a reduced level of oxygen, as well as the nitrogen.  On the next inhalation through the Altolab, the removed CO2 is replaced by additional oxygen and nitrogen (fresh air), but the exhaled nitrogen remains.  The overall effect is that, when one breathes through the Altolab, the percentage of oxygen inhaled decreases, and the percentage of nitrogen inhaled increases.  (This is why the system is different than breathing through a long tube -- there, the CO2 remains, and you'll eventually hyperventilate trying to get oxygen.)

An Altolab kit comes with 6 black "altomixer" cylinders, and each cylinder used increases the simulated altitude by about 5,000 feet.  Use four of them, and you're essentially breathing at 20,000 feet, which is like being on the peak of Denali.

All of this may sound speculative and gimmicky, but it quite clearly works.  The Altolab comes with a fingertip device that displays blood oxygen levels in realtime.  Normal oxygen saturation is about 98%, but using four Altomixers, at the end of six minutes, I can see my blood oxygen levels dip to about 75%.  This is interesting to play with: take just one normal breath in the middle of a 6-minute interval, and after about 20 seconds, my blood oxygen level spikes back up into the mid 90s before dropping again.  In other words, the altitude simulation demonstrably works.

The AltoLab training protocol is pretty straightforward: an hour a day (6 minutes on, 4 minutes off, and repeat 6 times) for 15 days.  In those 15 days, one gradually adds black Altomixer stacks according to a prescribed schedule, which gradually increases simulated altitude.  After that, every three weeks, one performs a 5-day "top-off" session at a pretty high simulated altitude.  These sessions are easy to do while watching tv or doing anything passive, although they tend to make one a little spacey, so no driving, and probably no reading.

An important note: the soda lime in the green hypoxic silo, which absorbs CO2, becomes exhausted after a couple of uses and must be replaced.  These silos are quite pricey ($15 ea or so, even if purchased in bulk). Thus, if bought in the usual way, each day of altitude simulation will run $7.50-$8.00.  That's still not exorbitant compared to the cost of buying or renting a hypoxic tent, but there's a better way: one can purchase soda lime directly from a medical supply company and simply replace the soda lime in the hypoxic silo.  Using this approach drops the price to about $1/day (not counting the initial investment), which is very affordable.  Below is a video showing how it's done -- though, note that the manufacturer does not endorse this approach.

In all, this is a pretty cool product -- easy to transport (unlike an altitude tent and generator), and reasonably affordable, considering the alternatives.  I've completed a 15-day cycle, and I'm now in the midst of my first top-off phase.  It's been pretty straightforward, although it does make one tired afterward.  I'll be interested to see the results in my races!