Friday, May 25, 2007

Finding Your Motivation

So why do we run exhausting mile after exhausting mile? After all most of us are never going to win a race or frankly even get close to winning. Many of the people out jogging or filling up the local gym are simply trying to lose a few pounds, look a little better and feel fit, and I don’t doubt that most of the burgeoning ranks of triathletes in this country are seeking the same thing – to feel better, to look better and perhaps live a little longer. But you know what? When these types of extrinsic motivators are your reason for getting moving it is unlikely that you will succeed in the long term. The reality is that most people start exercise programs all the time with great enthusiasm only to give up only a few months or even weeks later.

There is a great article by Tom McGrath in the latest issue of Men’s Health magazine that discusses this topic, and I thought I would pass on a few pieces of information that I thought were particularly useful. First off, external rewards are in the vast majority of cases simply not strong enough motivators to keep us working out. Why? Because exercise becomes drudgery or boring – namely it becomes just work. We work out day after day and it is the same thing over and over again. If working out just becomes work then there are too many activities (constructive or not) competing for our time for us to keep at it. If we want to succeed in the long term, we have to cultivate within us the intrinsic rewards of exercise. We have to enjoy the feeling of movement. We have to enjoy what we are doing, and most of all just have fun.

What will make us enjoy exercise? McGrath points to three factors: autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy relate to an activity in that we choose to do it; it was not forced on us. If we are thinking that we have to do something, or are being forced then we lose our autonomy. If it seems that we are being forced and we naturally bridle against that. If we tell ourselves that we have to workout or we will gain a few pounds, that motivator is just working against us because it cuts into our sense of autonomy. The second factor, competence, relates to the skills that we build while doing the exercise. If we feel that we are doing well or at least improving we will feel good about our accomplishments and continue in our efforts. If we just go to the gym and put in our thirty minutes on the elliptical machine then this is not going to feed our desire for accomplishment. We need to always have new goals and look for progress. For long term success, probably the most important factor is the last, relatedness, which is how the activity connects you to others. Activities that bring you together with others are naturally going to be more intrinsically motivating. Plugging away on the treadmill with your iPod on is not bring you closer to anyone (well, sometimes a good Podcast can relate you to all kinds of people). Instead, find a group to train with, or even just one friend. It can really make the difference.

All of this makes complete sense to me. When I embarked on my triathlon journey it was to change my life and become a better person, but the question remains, why triathlon? Why not just go to the gym and slave away at a treadmill for a while and then call it a day? Why do I have to race, and in three separate sports no-less, and wear a funny outfit? Because it is fun. Getting up early in the morning to set up your gear in transition is exciting. Taking the first plunge into the ocean along with hundreds of others is exhilarating. Passing another cyclist as you make your way along the course makes you feel like a millions bucks, especially when the other guy is younger or has a faster bike. And there is nothing like crossing the finish line and erasing all the doubt of whether you were good enough or whether you could do it. In short it is a blast.

I knew then that starting an exercise program wasn’t enough. It had to be more, and that is probably the only reason I’m still out there, still doing it and still setting goals. Sure I have had my stumbles, but I have always come back. The only solution for continued motivation and improvement is to cultivate more intrinsic rewards in my training. I set my own schedule so that I know that I am choosing to train and no one is forcing me. I set goals and carefully measure my progress so that every time I PR or go a little farther I feel a surge of pride. I search out training locations and ways of training that I enjoy, like getting out of the musty gym and onto the mountain trails or into the ocean waves. And lastly, I find others to train with, so that every week I look forward to seeing my friends so that together we can get faster, stronger and little bit better.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

Doing the Holger

Since my ocean swim was cut rather short yesterday I tried going for a little longer run. I have been working on my speed lately and usually that means intervals. I do a good 5 to 10 minute warm up at a 12 minute per mile pace and then try to kick it up a notch to a 10 minute mile pace for around five minutes. My heart rate usually jumps up to 90% and then I rest by slowing back down to a 12 minute per mile pace for five minutes or so. Then I just repeat this over again for the rest of the session. So far this has been a success. I have noticed a decline in my heart race for relatively higher speeds. I can now run about an eleven minute pace at the same heart rate that I used to get from a twelve minute pace.

I also have to work on my form. As I increase my speed there are opportunities to improve my form. For example, a common drill that runners do is butt kicks. You run and try to get you legs to continue up past horizontal after each push-off until they touch you butt. This is really exhausting to do if you are running slowly, but as your speed increases these kinds of drills make more sense. If you are running slowly and have a proper cadence (around 90 steps per minute) then your stride is very short and it would take a whole lot of extra energy to push you legs back that far. All that extra energy is just wasted, but as you increase your speed your stride opens up and it becomes more natural. As speed increases raising your leg behind you actually becomes an energy saver in that it decreases the length of your leg as it swings forward with each stride. Why is this important? Because you leg acts as a pendulum when it swings forward, and the shorter the pendulum the quicker it will swing simply from the force of gravity, and it will require less work from your hip flexors. Essentially, you can move faster and use less energy, which is what running efficiency is all about.

Another aspect of form to pay attention to is the arms. Most runners keep their arms at about a ninety degree bend at the elbows. Ideally you pump the arms straight forward and back and minimize the movement of the shoulders and torso. Moving your arms takes much less energy that your shoulders or core. You may have noticed that some runners, as fatigue begins to set in, tighten the shoulders and raise their arms. All this does is cost the runner more energy. By decreasing the arm angle the arms are becoming shorter, and as short pendulums they require less energy to move, but unlike the legs this is not a good thing. This is because the movement of your arms is to counter balance the movement of your legs. Without a strong pumping of the arms the entire upper body and core will have to compensate by moving. Your shoulders will move back and forth and this is much more costly in energy terms than moving your arms.

I tried something out the other day that I call “Doing the Holger.” I mentioned Holder Beckmann before, another member of my tri club. He is a great athlete and a great guy, but he does have a unique running style. As you can see from the photo he keeps his arms almost straight as he runs. It looks a little unusual, but actually it is not that uncommon among endurance runners. My theory on this style is that by lengthening the arms he is creating large pendulums that can easily counter balance his legs without moving very much. Less movement means less energy expenditure and more efficiency.

So I tried it out. It definitely feels strange at first, but as I got into a groove I looked down at my Polar S625x heart rate monitor to check my speed, and I was going a whole mile per hour faster than my usual ten minute per mile pace with no noticeable increase in heart rate. It was really working! So I kept it up and averaged six point six miles per hour for the last third of my five and a half mile run. Another breakthrough.

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More Opinions on Bike Lanes in Los Angeles

I have to say I agree with them. . .

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007


My first open water swimming experience was with an LA Tri Club sponsored clinic called Ocean 101. The clinic was hosted by two really great guys, Tim Bomba and Steve Herbert, and they still do it every week for club members who want to become comfortable with swimming in the ocean. For me though, I was never uncomfortable with the ocean. It didn't scare me. Mostly, I think this was because I had never been in the ocean much in my entire life. I never surfed, and when my family went to the beach we mostly stayed out of the water because it was just too cold. But I had certainly heard the concerns of others and figured I would play it safe and learn something before just diving in.

And learn I did. The most important thing I learned that day, and something everyone who wants to swim in the ocean should know, is how to deal with crashing waves. Waves have tremendous power and large waves can be quite intimidating. If you screw up you can really get messed up bad.

So how do you deal with waves? You duck. The wave is caused by the collision of the surface water coming on to shore and the water from the previous wave that is receding back from shore. This collision causes the water to well up into a wall and then finally crash down as the wall of water tips over. The majority of all this movement is happening at the surface. Down below, just above the ground the water is calm. So have to time the wave, and just before it crashes, dive down to that calm water, slowly count to five and then resurface. If you have skills, you can do the dolphin kick and even make some good progress while you are down there. The counting is critical. If you surface too fast you will come up right into the torrent above you. If you come up too slowly, you may come up while the next wave is crashing.

So it is not so hard, but what about on the way back to shore. Here you have to really careful because if you don't pay attention to what is behind you, a wave can crash right over you. Today I was swimming back to shore and as I got closer I kept looking back to see any waves that might be coming. Then I saw a big one. If the wave is going to crest past you then you can try to ride it in. If the wave crests before you then watch out! I saw it starting to crest, and I had to think of what to do. I thought I was far enough behind me that I would catch the remnants and that it wouldn't be two bad, so I didn't duck. I thought I could ride it out, but instead, I got hit hard. I remained calm, and luckily I wasn't thrown against anything, so I wasn't hurt at all. But I did loose my swim goggles, and I damaged my pride. So my swim ended a little earlier than planned, and I went for a run. Hey, I needed new goggles anyways!

Tip: You can prevent the loss of you goggles by putting your swim cap on after your goggles. The cap helps to keep the straps in place and will prevent their loss if you get hit wave, or by another swimmer.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Interesting LA Times Article: More bike lanes? No thanks

An opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times this weekend about how L.A. should treat cyclists as motorists' equals, not as pesky afterthoughts. Personally I agree that bicyclists should be able to use the roads along with cars, but I doubt by simply not painting bike lanes is going to help. What is needed is a motorist attitude change in LA, and I don't think that is going to occur until more cyclists take to the streets, and some simply won't ride their bikes without the illusion of safety offered by bike lanes.

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Swimming Time Trial PR

I am very slow in the pool so whenever I can get even a little faster it makes me really happy. I have been down on swimming over the winter, because it is hard to get motivated to get out into that cold water in the early mornings. And it is not just the cold. The warm, smelly water of the indoor pool at my gym is not too pleasant either, and frankly swimming can be pretty boring if you are just going down the lane over and over again. Drills can help with the boredom, and swimming with others definitely helps, but my favorite way to swim is in the ocean. Sure its really, really cold. But you get the excitement of the crashing waves, the camaraderie of the other swimmers and most of all you are just out there in nature. You see the sun rise over the hills, fish swimming below you and even the occasional seal or dolphin. Sometimes you just stop look around and think to yourself, "this is just really cool." So I had my first ocean swim of the year last Wednesday and now I'm psyched up on swimming. I have my next ocean swim tomorrow, and I cannot wait.

But today I had to deal with my disgusting indoor pool, as the normal pool I go to on Tuesdays is closed for maintenance. My gym pool is rather small and filled with senior citizens having a social hour so it is hard to get any solid swimming in, but I decided to have a time trial because it has been a while since I tested myself. Result: I swam 2500 meters in 55 minutes. Still slow, but a solid improvement.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

New Look Keo Sprint Pedals

Summer came early to SoCal this year with record tempuratures in April, but things have definately cooled down the last couple weeks, and we even had a light rain last night. I missed my normal Saturday morning ride this past weekend because my bike was in the shop and I picked up a new club cycling jersey over the weekend so I was really looking forward to my ride this morning. When I opended the garage door and saw the wet drive, I was thinking, "who has been spraying down the drive?" Silly me. I guess it has been so long since it rained last, that I just wasn't expecting it. The rain wasn't enough to actually bring me indoors, in fact, if you lived almost anywhere else in the country you would probably have been embaressed to even call it rain -- more of a light sprinkling. But it still makes the roads slick, and so I was extra careful.

Over the weekend I also installed some new pedals. The just look spot on fantastic on my new bike. I have been using Shimano SPD pedals for a while now. These are the style of cleats commonly found on most mountain bikes, and they were probably a good choice originally because I did much of my riding on the spin bikes at my gym, and the SPD cleats are compatible with most spin bikes. But now I try to ride as much as possible on my actual bike and lately the shortcomings of the SPD system have become more and more apparent. First of all they are pain to engage because the cleat and the pedals themselves are so small. I have never been able to engage them easily because I have to get this tiny metal thing somewhere on the bottom of my shoe to engage with this tiny metal thing on the petal all without actually being able to see it. The cleats are also metal and so you can slip on them really easily when you walk and they will dig a hole in what ever they get near (like your bike!). I have some rubber "pontoons" on the sides to help with walking, but they sometimes interfere with the engagement of the petal. I also don't like how much float the cleats have. For those of you who don't know, float is the amount of movement your heal can move in or out without the cleat disengaging. The SPD pontoon cleats generally come in two forms, no float or about 7 degrees of float. I want some float, because it is better for your knees, but 7 degress is too much. Moving your heel out that far is very uncomfortable so usually I move my heal in, but then with that much float my heal hits my bike frame before the cleat will disengage. It is very annoying. So I figured with the new bike I should get some real road pedals.

There is actually a guy from my neck of the woods who has invented his own style of pedal that looks really interesting, but they are too rich for my blood. So my choice was between the traditional Look style pedals, Shimano SPD-R pedals or Speedplays. Shimanos are out because it is just too weird to have a campy bike with Shimano pedals. That is probably just silliness on my part, but it doesn't seem to me that Shimano offers anything more than a copy of the traditional Look pedal so really, why go there? I seriously considered Speedplays for a while, but a few drawbacks kept me away. First is the cost. They are definately more expensive for the quality of the pedal. They also are a little heavier. Most people think the Speedplays are really light because in the reported stats the Speedplay pedals are around half the weight of their competitors, but that is usually because the cleat that attaches to the pedal is not counted. The cleat on Speedplays is a large brass plate which is rather heavy, along with a three hole shoe adapter (unless you have four hole shoes, which are very rare). So the whole package is usually the same weight or more than a traditional Look pedal. Speedplays do have the advantage of dual sided entry, but the float is not adjustable except on the high end models, and I have heard of other triathletes complain that they slide around when trying to walk on their bike shoes with Speedplay cleats. So for all of these reasons I figured I should just go with the tried and true Look pedals. I was thinking of getting some cheap generic pedals through Bianchi that had the traditional Bianchi celeste blue (while it looks green to me, Italians call it blue -- traditional Italian biking lore has it that it is the color of the Milan sky) to match my bike. But then I was looking at the Look Keo website and I really liked the design of the new Keo pedals. They are similar to the traditional Look pedals, but have some design improvements, such as more contact between the cleat and pedal, shorter stack, more turning clearance, a lighter weight and ease of engagement. So I pulled the trigger and go a pair of Look Keo Sprints. (I did not know it at the time, but I also just found out that they received the 2006 Editors Choice award from Bicycling Magazine for petals under $200) I wasn't sure about the bright red color on my black, white and celeste Bianchi, but actually it really brings out the red decals on the wheels, and looks really cool. I'll have to post some photos. Edit: Photos Added

This morning was their first test, and if they continue to perform like they did today, I'll be estatic. They engage easily with a solid snap, and feel really solid. Disengaging is really fast and simple and the 4.5 degrees of float in the standard cleats is just perfect for me. It gives me the float that I want, but not so much that I have to over twist my leg. So far a great pedal.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

On to New Challenges

To say that it has been a while since my last post is an understatement. For a while there I think I slide off of the face of the earth. I actually wasn't sure if I was ever going to blog again. You see the first 4 months of this year were more about detraining than training. I was often sick with several nasty infections that my preschool age daughter brought home with her during the winter and then when I finally felt better it seemed that I could only get in a few days of training before some other crisis would occur and whip out another week of training. I was constantly starting my training and never building. I became so frustrated that I started to think that perhaps triathlon, and all three of its sports are perhaps too much for me to handle at this point in my life and that I should perhaps just focus on one or two.

The problem with this strategy is which sports to choose. As I got closer and closer to Wildflower my frustration built and I guess as a protection mechanism I decided to just not doWildflower. I needed a new goal. Something different and something realistic with the time I have available. So lately I have been focusing on cycling. My goal is to climb Mt. Wilson by the end of the year. Here is a nice 3D image of the over 5000ft climb.

(image courtesy of CalTech Velo)
And here is the elevation profile. Definitely an epic climb, but no extreme grades.

(image courtesy of CalTech Velo)

So far I have made it to about 3000ft. Other members of my tri club have been going up this route too, but I usually don't ride with them because I have to be back home at a reasonable hour (I couldn't keep up with them anyways), so I leave the house at five or six in the morning. The triple crankset on my Trek 1220 has been a life saver. I don't think I could move my 250lb body up this climb without a triple. I am usually in my lowest or next to lowest gear the entire way up. No standing, just spinning.

While I appreciate the triple I still am not happy with this bike. All this cycling has made me more sensitive to the fact that my bike just doesn't fit right. It is a 50cm frame which is the second to smallest frame they make and I am six feet tall. I bought a new seat post and toyed with the idea of a new stem and even a new fork, but in the end that would just be putting more money into a bike that will never be 100% right for me. This was hard to admit because I wanted my next bike to be a tribike. I also wanted to have a road bike in the stable, and at my level of skill a road bike is going to be more important than a tribike, because I am simply not fast enough to take full advantage of the aero position available on a tribike. So I started to look for a new road bike and pushed the idea of getting a tribike back for a few years. Who knows. Maybe I wouldn't be doing triathlons in a few years, but still cycling. Then I would really appreciate the choice of a new road bike. If I still am doing triathlons by then, then I know I have earned the tribike. At least that is what I keep telling myself. . .

So what to get. There are so many more options with road bikes than in tribikes, and I combed the magazines and internet for options. I was becoming obsessed. The problem is that no matter what bike you look at there is another "better" bike for a little more money. That is just the way it is. I did not want to regret that I could have gotten something better if I had just spent a little more money, and yet I have to cut it off somewhere. After struggling with the issue for a while I came up with a system. At the risk of revealing to everyone I am an incredible nerd I am going to share with you my system in case you have to make such a decision yourself.

First I selected the features that I cared most about, and ranked the factors. I then awarded each bike points based on how well they satisfied each factor. For me, I cared most about ride quality, because my Trek 1220 is just bone-crushingly stiff. The second factor was that I wanted a decent component group. I am a big guy so I need something that will work well and have good durability. The third factor was weight. It is not that important since I am rather heavy already, but for some illogical reason it mattered to me. The last was the brand name. I guess this makes me shallow, but the name Cervelo, Pinarello or Orbea it is worth something to me. Certainly less important than the other factors, but still worth something. I would be dishonest in my analysis if I left it out.

Now you may notice that I left fit out of the equation. Fit is really a do or die issue. Either it fits or it doesn't. Obviously I can't buy a bike that doesn't fit. But what I am doing here with a point system is really trying to establish a baseline of value, or at least the value to me of each model of bike. Then I go try them out.

So I ranked each factor and gave more points to higher ranked factors. 10 points available for factor one, 8 points available for factor two and so on. If the bike exceeded my requirements it got full points. If it met my requirements it got half points, and if it was deficient it got no points. For example, for ride quality I based it mostly on materials. Carbon, Scandium and Lightweight Steel bikes got full points, other steel bikes and lightweight aluminium got half points and regular aluminum bikes got none. Ultegra or Dura-Ace was full points, 105 was half and Sora or Tiagra no points. For weight, bike less than 18 pounds got full points, less than 20 half and greater than 20 nothing. Etc.

After adding up all the points I then divided each point total by the price of the bike. This gives me a value quotient or value for the money. Certain bikes came up as good values right way, particularly Felt, Jamis and Raleigh. They seemed to offer the best value for the money. But did I get any of them? Nope. This is what I got.

I found a great deal (40% off) at a local shop for a 2006 Bianchi 928 Carbon. It fits very well particularly because the size is 55cm which is actually a rare size. I have short legs relative to my height, and so I need the largest bike I can get while still having a tolerable standover. 55cm is the largest I can go with my legs. Most other brands offer a 54cm or a 56cm. A 56cm is too tall for me to standover comfortably and a 54cm will have a cockpit that is too short. Some compact geometry frames would also work, but they often have headtubes that are too tall, so this bike worked out perfectly.
The full carbon frame allows the ride to be really smooth. The component group is Campagnolo Veloce, which from all my research is very reliable and strong. I gather that the general concesus is that Veloce is between 105 and Ultegra in terms of quality, but that with Campy the lower end components share more in comon with the high end stuff than with Shimano, so it is difficult to compare the two. Really the only difference between component groups for Campy is weight so Veloce should be very durable. I was skeptical of the Campy system at first because I wasn't familiar with it, but after trying it out I like it much better than Shimano. The brifters fit my large hands better, and I like having two separate levers instead of one. I find that I can't mishift like I sometimes do on Shimano, and the cabling is much cleaner.
The bike is also just at 18 pounds. And the name . . . got to love it. I admit I go a little crazy over Italian stuff. It's not rational, I know. The bike was handmade in Bianchi's factory in Italy with Italian components and even Italian wheels. By the way, this is not true of most Bianchis, which are often made in Taiwan with Taimanese components. The bike got full points in every category and because of the closeout price, it was by far the best value of any other bike I considered. The only problem with the bike is that it doesn't have a triple like my Trek so going up Mt. Wilson my not be possible for me. It does have a compact crankset so I may be able to get the gearing I need by swapping out a cog or two in the cassette, so I am still considering what I want to do about that.
Now I have been riding this piece of art for a few weeks, and I am in cycling heaven. Now on mornings when I'm scheduled to ride I wake before my alarm goes off, and I haven't missed a single ride.

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