Friday, March 10, 2006

Finding Deep Fitness

This schpiel is going to be long and wordy! And might even break it up into separate blogs. It's a work in progress for a few weeks.

If we could only save and bottle physical fitness. But we know that getting into top shape is a long and tough process. How do you get there? How do you keep it?

I'm 48 now, and no doubt that's old for athlete. However, over the past six or eight weeks I've enjoyed a level of physical fitness not experience for 15 years. Yes, 15. The aging has certainly slowed me, and during the 1990s I may have posted some faster races than I'm now capable of doing, but those qualifiers aside I haven't been this strong since 1991.

Exercise physiologists and coaches would inform us that getting into really good shape is a function of things like V02 max (your body's ability to uptake and use oxygen) and lactate threshhold (the ability to perform at at a high aerobic level without building up metabolic waste products (biochemicals that build up in the muscles and slow you down). I'm coining a new term, "deep fitness," which captures these effects and more. And with this blog, I'll go in reverse order and give the conclusions first, and then bore you with some personal examples of finding, losing, and finding deep fitness.

It's all pretty simple, and we hear these things over and over but it's still not easy to get onto the right track to achieve deep fitness, and it's even harder for most of us to keep it going for an extended period--we lose our way due our modern lifestyle. Deep fitness is brought about by consistent training (through thick and thin), using knowledge to decide when and how to do certain types of training to maximze your performance, using races as training, good nutrition, focus, a love of training and competition, maintaining good health and immunity, and an overall positive attitude (being goal oriented doesn't hurt either!). If you can implement these factors into your lifestyle, then good things will come in due time.

How long does it take? From a relative newbie to aerobic sports to the veteran, I think you can get into "shape" fairly quickly, within a few months. But to get that real fitness level, the type where you can train or race hard, and recover quickly within competitions or workout sessions--i.e., deep fitness--you need at least a year and half of solid, consistent training. And from there you can maintain that level, and build on it for years.

Ultimately age will slow us down, but in recent decades master's athletes have been wowing us with superb, sometimes jaw-dropping performances. If you have the time, maybe an hour or so a day, and desire, you can train yourself to excel at age-group or open level competition for years if not decades. Those who put in more effort, say two hours a day, can even do better. However it's not all about the time you put in, or the miles, how you plan and execute your training is just as important as volume.

Some Specifics on Getting Deep Fitness
The beauty is that getting there no big secret. We have numerous training guides and online sources, as well as many good coaches. The key ingredients are consistency, management of training volume, intensity, and specificity with a long-term perspective, periodization, and maintaining good overall health and nutition.

Consistency means training almost every day, pretty much six or seven days a week through out the year. Some days you might only have 30-40 minutes to train, but it's worth it to get out there. You also have to be consistent with the right types of workouts--long efforts approaching or exceeding two hours, about every week or two; threshold workouts (at about the pace you can maintain for 1 hour) should be done every week or two (some advocate doing these even more frequently). I generally back down on long efforts or threshold for four to six weeks after a long training cycle (two or three times a year), and just train easy. But for 35-45 weeks out of the year, I'm doing one or both of these each week.

Training volume, if done properly, does correlate to success. The key, however, is to know how to build into it. For one who wants to be competitive at an age group or scholastic level, you might start at about 300 hours of training a year. If you're a runner, that's 40 to 50 miles per week, 50 weeks per year. If you're a skier, that's an average of 6 hours a week. That's your start. For some it's easy, and tempting to move up too fast. For others it's too much too soon.
You have to find your entry level, but have the patience to take time to build up.

We often hear about the 10% rule; that is, you should build up about 10% per year. At lower levels of training (e.g., 30-50 miles/week or 200-350 hours/year) I think you can throw that rule out the window. Round up your increases to maybe 10 miles/week (for your yearly average) or 50 hours per year. Otherwise, you'll be stuck in a slower rate of increase and you could lose volume benefits over the long term.

Where do you top out? It's up to you and your goals. An aspiring junior-level racer might start at 300 to 350 hours in the freshman year and build up 50 hours a year. By the time they're a freshman in college they could be over 500 hours--and at that level 500 and increasing is what you need to compete with the best. Top racers, be they distance runners or skiers, will train 600 to over 800 hours a year. If you goal is to place well in local races, then building to 300 to 400 hours a year might be fine.

My Path: Getting There, Losing Deep Fitness, Finding it Again
What happened in 1991 and now?

There are many similarities between the 1991 and 2006 season. In 1990 I was in the midst of another fairly good running year, that included a 32:27 at the Lilac 10k in Rochester, NY. But a few weeks later I suffered a torn plantar fascia from a steeplechase and had to sit out for half the summer. I kept in shape by riding my mountain bike to work every day up and down some steep hills in Ithaca, NY. A couple times a week I'd do crazy hill intervals, climbing 5-600 feet over a mile or so, over and over. Within a month of resuming my running, I managed a 32:24 10k, in Olean. That fall, I ran the Upstate NY Cross Country Series with the High Noon Athletic Club. We had an excellent team, and even though I was in 15:20 5k shape, I rarely even scored for us because we had three or four other guys running at the sub-15 level. Ended the season disappointedly with a 150s-160s finish at U.S. cross country nationals in NYC. I got sick just before the race and ran flat, about 5 minutes behind the winners. For the next month I just jogged and waited for snow to fly--it was slow coming, and I didn't even get on skis until after Christmas.

Last year, I was also in the midst of a good running year for a master's competitor. After a 35:22 10k and 1:19:11 1/2 marathon in the summer, I was looking forward to tackling the rugged Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks, where I was hoping to put down one of the fastest master's times on record (the master's course record is 2:58, and anything under 3:10 is considered to be quite fast, probably equivalent to a sub 2:50 on a flat course). However, I woke up one morning in July with a sore foot, which turned to be a a stress fracture. I was crestfallen but was determined not to let my hard-earned fitness (a year and a half of consistent training, probably averaging about an hour a day) go away. So to assuage my disappointment, and to keep sharp, I hopped on the stationary cycle almost every day, put on some CDs, and pedalled way, cursing at my bad luck and wondering if I hadn't overdone it in the six or eight preceeding weeks.

No Equinox, but Califorinia International Marathon in early December seemed like a good alternative. I commenced training in September, and tried as hard as I could without breaking down to get into shape. Altough I did manage some 70 mile weeks, I fell short with the training and was disappointed to run an exasperating 3:00:01. Not bad for 47, but felt I was capable of much more. For the next month after the marathon I just skied easy at Birch Hill, averaging about five days a week, 45 minutes to an hour.

Once I got on snow, across the continent and 15 years apart, there were also a lot of similarities between 1991 and 2006. In a way I don't get it, because the training was not orthodox dryland ski training. I was a runner, rebounding off of a summer injury for a fall peak, but on a downward biorhythm by winter. Both years I had a rather blah transition for about a month, and did not expecting much for the ski season other than to get out and enjoy the snow, get into some competitions, and take a break from running. Both years I started with a low key race or two and the racing just took off on its own.

1991 -
16 January, Empire State Games 15 km freestyle qualifier, Ithaca, 2nd OA
Rough snow and thin conditions on a hilly course, I was about 1.5 minutes behind Rick Costanza

23 January, 17 km classic race at Tug Hill, 1st OA
Frigid morning, but I felt fast and no one was close

30 January, Empire State Games 15k classic qualifier, Buffalo, 1st OA
Warmy, sloppy conditions, but won by a minute and a half or two

6 February, Tug Hill Tourathon (largest race in NY), 4th OA
I set the pace for most of the 1st 21 k, bonked a bit, but was still within 4 minutes of the winner.

At the start of 1991 Tug Hill Tourathon (#334),
380 is Peter Davis of Lake Placid, 236 is Rick Costanza of Ithaca.

14 February, Gatineau 25 km Classique, 2nd OA
Almost had a victory against a up and coming junior racer. Took the lead at about 12 - 15 km, up some long climbs, but I was feeling the previous week's marathon and couldn't quite put enough distance. He caught me on the long descent to the finish and had faster skis.

21 February, Tug Hill 21 km freestyle, 3rd OA
Fast snow--averaged about 2:45/km. Race was a wave start, so I never saw the guys who finished ahead (about a minute or two).

6 March, Empire State Games 7.5 km freestyle, 6th OA
My worst race of the year--very slushy slow snow, it was in the 40s and raining, and my skis were like suction cups! I was only 4 seconds out of 4th, but a good 40 to 45 seconds behind 3rd. Several skiers were right behind me. I felt semi-devastated.

7 March, Empire State Games 7.5 km Classic Pursuit, 1st in classic and 3rd overall in the pursuit
In pursuit racing (now a thing of the past it seems), your start order is based on your finish from the previous day. First place goes out at 00:00 and subsequent skiers start at how many seconds or minutes behind they were on the first day. I passed the 5th and 4th place skiers with a half km, and moved into third place by the end of three laps. Half-way through the race my friend Rick Costanza (who started about 10-15 seconds behind me) caught and passed me on an uphill. I skied behind him briefly, and then dug as deep as I ever have in a race. I finished about 20 seconds ahead of him to win Gold for the day, and Bronze for the combined.


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