Average to Epic is an integrated guide for helping men and women transform their lives through endurance sports. Be it riding a bike 100 miles, running a marathon, or completing long-course triathlons, this book provides the resources, practical tips, planning, and motivation for the average person to take on epic athletic challenges. It covers endurance road biking, endurance mountain biking, long-distance running, and triathlons. Many middle-aged people want to drastically improve their fitness and overall wellness. Taking that first step is often difficult. Motivation is hard because of time commitments and lack of information, guidance, and experience in endurance sports. Average to Epic provides motivation by demystifying the world of endurance sports and helping the reader take the first steps in getting into one of these sports and training for an epic event. It guides the aspiring triathlete through the murky waters of their first triathlon as they work toward a half Iron (70.3) or Ironman; takes the non-runner or 5K weekend warrior through the details of good running form on their way to completing their first marathon; and explains the world of cycling to encourage the reader to ride 100 miles on a bike. In doing so, this book helps the reader achieve a broader and more important goal: lifelong fitness.
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A Mid-Lifer‘s Guide toEndurance Sports andLifelong Fitness
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Average to Epic: A Mid-Lifer‘s Guide to Endurance Sports and Lifelong Fitness
Maidenhead: Meyer & Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd., 2017
All rights reserved, especially the right to copy and distribute, including the translation rights. No part of this work may be reproduced—including by photocopy, microfilm or any other means—processed, stored electronically, copied or distributed in any form whatsoever without the written permission of the publisher.
© 2017 by Meyer & Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd.
Aachen, Auckland, Beirut, Budapest, Cairo, Cape Town, Dubai, Hägendorf, Indianapolis, Maidenhead, Singapore, Sydney, Tehran, Vienna
Member of the World Sport Publishers’ Association (WSPA)
E-Mail: [email protected]
Introduction—The Adult-Onset Athlete
Part IWhere to Begin—Demystifying Endurance Sports
Chapter 1Endurance Road Biking
1.1 Types of Road Biking Events and Races
1.2 Road Bike Culture
1.3 Getting Started With Road Biking
1.4 Top Excuses for Not Road Biking
Chapter 2Endurance Mountain Biking
2.1 Types of Mountain Biking Events and Races
2.2 Mountain Bike Culture
2.3 Getting Started With Mountain Biking
2.4 Top Excuses for Not Mountain Biking
Chapter 3Endurance Running
3.1 Types of Running Events and Races
3.2 Running Culture
3.3 Running Shoes
3.4 Accessories and Clothing
3.5 Running Mechanics
3.6 Running Form
3.7 Running Injuries
3.8 Top Excuses for Not Running
Chapter 4The Triathlon
4.1 Types of Triathlons
4.2 Triathlon Culture
4.3 Getting Started With Triathlons
4.4 Top Excuses for Not Doing a Triathlon
Part IIThe Endurance Body
Chapter 5Making Movement—The Basics of Exercise Physiology
5.1 The Musculoskeletal System
5.2 The Cardiopulmonary System
5.4 Training Effects
Chapter 6Nutrition 101—You Are What You Eat
6.1 Micronutrients and Macronutrients
6.2 Our Understanding of Food Over Time
Chapter 7The Mind and the Mental
7.2 Determination and Grit
7.3 Psychological Interventions
7.4 Perceived Effort and Mental Fitness
7.5 Meditation and Sports
7.6 Sports and Mental Health
Chapter 8Endurance Sports and Aging
8.1 Slowing Down the Aging Process
8.2 Training and the Masters Athlete
Part IIIMaking It Real—Setting Goals, Planning, and Training
Chapter 9The BHAG
9.1 What Is a BHAG?
9.2 The BHAG Breakdown
Chapter 10Tools of the Trade—Measuring, Monitoring, and Motivating
10.1 Tools for Measuring
10.2 Tools for Monitoring and Motivating
Chapter 11Fitness Assessment
11.1 Basic Assessment
11.2 Advanced Assessment
11.3 Nutritional Assessment
Chapter 12Basic Training Concepts
12.1 Your Body on Training
12.2 Training Zones
12.3 Dr. Don’s Ten Truths of Training
Chapter 13Key Workouts and Training Plans
13.1 Key Workouts for Each Sport
13.2 Strength Training
13.3 What? No Training Plans?
Part IVGo Time! Your First Epic Event
Chapter 14General Race Considerations
14.1 Planning and Execution
14.2 Nutrition and Hydration
14.3 Race Recap
Chapter 15The Road Century
15.1 Race Overview
15.2 Race Report—Blood, Sweat, and Gears (BSG)
Chapter 16The Mountain Bike Metric Century
16.1 Race Overview
16.2 Race Reports
Chapter 17The Marathon
17.1 Race Overview
17.2 Race Reports
Chapter 18The Ironman Triathlon
18.1 Race Overview
18.2 Race Reports
Appendix A: Road Cycling Clothing Chart
Appendix B: Parts of a Road Bike
Appendix C: Parts of a Full-Suspension Mountain Bike
Appendix D: Parts of a Running Shoe
Appendix E: A Primer on Reading and Interpreting Scientific Research
Appendix F: Running Clothing Chart
Appendix G: Aggregated Nutrient Density Index for Select Foods
Appendix H: Daily Nutritional Goals and Dietary Guidelines
Appendix I: Basic Fitness Tests
Appendix J: Fitness Test Scoresheets
Appendix K: Advanced Fitness Testing
Appendix L: Relative Perceived Exertion Scale
Appendix M: Lactate Threshold Testing Protocols
Appendix N: Checklist for an Ironman Triathlon
Appendix O: Race Plan for Beach-to-Battleship Ironman Triathlon
Appendix P: Resources
Average to Epic, Don Rose’s latest book, is a terrific, concise roadmap to endurance sports and the lifelong fitness that comes with it. It is a practical book that aspiring endurance athletes can use to get a glimpse into the training and preparation needed for an epic event.
Going long is different than other masters sports, as the long training hours also allow for reflection, deep thinking, and patient growth. There is no hack in endurance training, and therefore it requires maturity. It’s a different kind of commitment, one with little glory or awards…it is truly health, fitness, and a lifestyle.
I’m a coach. Not a coach that stands on the sidelines and barks orders and drills. I am a coach for endurance athletes; some might even say mainly for ultraendurance athletes. It’s a different type of coaching. Many of their “races” are actually events, adventures, and challenges. But they all started in some way by dabbling in endurance sports, often the shorter versions: 5- or 10K runs turned into half marathons and marathons, or doing a sprint triathlon then moving up to Ironman, or even being a pool swimmer moving up to longer lake swims or ocean swims. Many started small, most started with dipping their toe in gradually. And soon they started learning more about themselves, about what they were capable of, and what the new normal kept becoming! It was no longer just a 10K race, it was being able to run a 10K before work! And through all this transformation, I have coached these athletes to go on to seek new adventures, greater challenges, even more unique events. Why? Because endurance athletics is an amazing doorway into being healthier and fitter than you have ever been before.
This book guides the aspiring athlete through this process of transformation.
Endurance is also the great equalizer: You can be a professional football player or even an Olympic athlete, but once you enter the endurance sports world, all that talent and skill quickly levels off. It’s about going long; it’s about doing the miles; it’s about a mindset and patience that resets the talent button for all.
Coaching endurance athletes all over the world is different because there are often no defined races in these endurance sports: it’s getting from point A to point B. The time rarely matters, it’s the distance that you covered. When was the last time you asked about the time for the runner who finished a 100-mile endurance run? It was more the awe of having run 100 miles! Or the RAAM cyclist? Sure, it’s the RACE Across America, but the person you are talking to rode a bike from coast to coast! San Diego to Atlantic City!
Endurance sports allow us to open doors, not only to health and fitness, but also into ourselves. We learn more about ourselves in training for a marathon or Ironman than in any 10K or shorter races. Training gives us insight into our bodies as we learn about pacing, nutrition, hydration, and see ourselves adapt over time. It also teaches us about patience, perseverance, commitment, and discipline as we train hours and hours on end, and often solo.
And finally, a lot of my time in coaching endurance sports is about mindset. Getting the athlete prepared for the mental challenges of the long day ahead. The emotional roller coaster of a marathon, an Ironman, or longer. I am often quoted as saying, “We are all capable of being athletes.” It is a mindset; it is how we approach our goals, desired outcomes, or achievements. You need not be talented or display world-class results in order to be an athlete. You need only to prepare as diligently and thoughtfully as possible and be present with your intentions in order to be an athlete. Just because the world’s best are faster does not mean they are more prepared, diligent, or present in their activities than you!
This book is the first step along that path in becoming an endurance athlete. Whether it’s making the distance less daunting or learning how to make your body work with you along this journey toward your goals, Average to Epic shows you the steps needed to become an athlete: in endurance, in mindset, and also in life.
Two-time Olympic Swimmer
Ironman CDA Champion
Ironman Age Group World Champion
70.3 Hawaii Champion
Multiple 100-Mile Ultramarathon Finisher
Founder and Owner of AIMP Services: An Advanced Coaching Service for Mindset, Leadership, and Ultraendurance Events
Meet Jim. Jim is 42. He’s has a successful career in sales, moving up the ranks from salesman to VP of sales for a medical device company. On the home front, he has three children and is a devoted father. The last 15 years have been rewarding but hectic with raising children and pursuing a career. Jim’s athletic endeavors as a youth had been significant. He swam year-round in middle and high school. He was good enough to get a partial scholarship at a Division 1 university where his specialty was butterfly. During the early years of family life, he was still fit, continuing to swim and getting into running. But with the pressures of life, he had gone from doing sports to coaching sports to watching sports. His travel schedule made it increasingly difficult to get any exercise. He did the occasional StairMaster or treadmill at the hotel. Some weekends he’d play a game or two of basketball with some of his old fraternity brothers. He was reasonably fit, for his age, but “love handles” were starting to develop, and he found himself taking the elevator more than the stairs. At 6’1” and 210 pounds, he was no longer the lean swimmer of his former years.
Meet Sarah. Sarah is 43. She and Jim met in college and married shortly afterward. Sarah had the struggles of wanting to be a great mother but also wanting a career. She had gone to evening college while working to earn her law degree. To give her flexibility with the family, she worked part-time providing legal services to immigrants, one of her passions. Together, Sarah and Jim were great partners in raising their children. They communicated well and had similar values. Like Jim, the commitments of work and family had pushed Sarah’s fitness to the back burner. In college, she had run cross-country and had stayed reasonably fit, at least for the first child or two. She had never really lost the weight she put on with the last child. She did yoga and an occasional Pilates class. On some weekends, she would jog with her girlfriend; not much of workout, but a great chance to talk about life.
In January, Jim and Sarah took a rare vacation together without the children. During their time away, they had a chance to talk about the future: college for the kids, retirement, aging parents. But one topic kept coming up over and over: their health. Middle age had crept up on them. The busyness of their lives had ever so slowly increased with each promotion, client, and child. Looking back, they could see how this slow creep had affected their health and well-being. The mad dashes between soccer practice and violin lessons had reduced family to fast-food drive-thrus. Not only had their children’s nutrition suffered, but those calories had gone to Jim and Sarah’s midsections. Travel, kids’ activities, and clients virtually eliminated any consistent aerobic activity. They both agreed it was time for a change.
After their vacation, Sarah joined a gym and committed to three days a week of aerobic exercise. Likewise, Jim returned to his first love of swimming, joining a Master’s swim program, swimming twice a week when in town and finding pools to swim in when traveling. After six months, Sarah and Jim started to see some changes in their fitness. But to be honest, the workouts were boring and repetitive. There seemed to be no real point to the workouts, no goals, and no drive.
This book is dedicated to the Jims and Sarahs of the world. There are millions of people in their mid-life who have let their health and fitness slowly get away from them. They might be in average shape or worse. At some point, they have come to realize, like Jim and Sarah, that the future is not so bright or interesting with the current plan. The current plan might be simply no exercise at all or some minor activities like walking the dog, doing a few yoga classes, or doing an occasional weekend charity run. These are all good intentions to stay fit, but it’s really not enough to combat the rapid changes that occur with aging. And like Jim and Sarah, even stepping it up a bit with consistent workouts can increase fitness, but this lacks the motivation and excitement to stay with it for the long run.
I would argue that for mid-lifers with average, or even below average, fitness, the route to better health is to achieve something epic. This means riding a bike 100 miles or finishing a marathon or completing an Ironman-distance triathlon. I would also argue that most people never take on these epic goals because 1) they don’t see themselves ever being able to achieve something like this (be honest, you almost put the book down when I talked about the possibility of you running a marathon), and 2) the path to get there is daunting. This book shows that an average person can achieve epic athletic accomplishments once thought impossible. More importantly, it helps you get to epic by giving a practical introduction to endurance sports, the fundamentals of fitness, and the training strategies to help you get started.
This book is not about me, but it might be useful to hear my story to see my path from average to epic.
I’m a nerd. Pure and simple. I caught the curtains on fire with my chemistry set. I took apart broken 8-track tape players for fun. I immersed myself in biology books in high school. I coveted my standard issue RPN calculator on my first day at Hewlett-Packard. I didn’t have a pocket protector but secretly desired one.
I am also athletically average. My father was an engineer and my mother an art teacher. Not exactly an athletically rich gene pool. Growing up, I loved my bike but considered it only as a means of transportation. My fitness exploits on it ranged from how long I could skid to impressing the girls by popping a wheelie. Mostly, I liked the way I looked on it (figure 1)! I raced sailboats as a kid and was interested in racing strategy, the physics of airfoil lift, and predicting wind based on cloud formations. But I was also interested in winning by understanding all aspects of sailing better than anyone else. High school was the pinnacle of my athletic achievements. In track, I was the slow leg of the 4 x 400 relay. In junior varsity basketball, I averaged 1.8 points a game, could not jump, and spent a lot of time warming the bench. When the varsity coach came in to talk to us about moving up to the varsity team, he paced back and forth in front of us, scratching his balls, and said in that gruff coach voice, “Boys, you have big decision to make. It’s going be either books or basketball.” Wow, what an easy decision. BOOKS!
Figure 1 Donnie at age 10
I went on to get my undergraduate degree in nutrition, something I remain passionate about today. After earning my PhD in chemistry, my life took the path of Jim. A career, a spouse, and four kids. Life was good and busy, but my health took a back seat. I had enjoyed swimming in my youth and occasionally swam laps for fitness. BORING! I ran, or rather jogged, a few times a week. It was refreshing and invigorating. I even ran a 5K race, pushed myself hard, nearly puked, and swore that off. In my mid-40s at 6 feet, 172 pounds, I wasn’t fat. Bulky, maybe. I did have those “love handles” but no major health problems. Cholesterol was decent. Blood pressure was good. But as I projected my life forward 10 or 20 years, aging was going to get the best of me, and I wasn’t going to get any healthier keeping the status quo.
Then one day, a buddy of mine was turning 50, and to celebrate, he was inviting people to ride 50 miles. 50 miles? On a bike? But I was intrigued. I had loved riding my bike as a kid. I even took a touring trip on bike along the coast of North Carolina in college. So I went down to the local bike shop and bought a road bike. I gathered with these other “roadies” for the birthday ride. I came in running tights, a running top, and a Wal-Mart windbreaker. What I found were guys with tight, color-coordinated spandex outfits (kind of silly looking, really) stretched tightly over bulging leg muscles showing smooth, shaved legs. The first 10 miles or so weren’t too bad. The guys were friendly enough, and I even got a complement on my bike. Then the lead group started pulling away. They didn’t look that far off. I pedaled hard but never seemed to get any closer. One guy in his early 60s (I wanted to be like him!) came by and said, “Grab a wheel, and we’ll catch ‘em.” Huh? Grab a wheel? He sped on without me. Later, I lost my map and ended up following a sweeper who was riding to pick up stragglers. I wisely only rode 35 miles with an average of 13.5 mph. Pretty impressive for my first time on a bike in 30 years. I came away from that ride with several impressions. First, there were guys in their 40s, 50s, and even 60s who were fast, strong, fit, having fun, and able to ride 50 miles at a much faster pace. Second, I wanted to be one of those guys. Third, I wanted to be one of those guys because I knew the only way to lifelong fitness was through setting goals and working hard to achieve those goals. Thus, my journey as an adult-onset athlete began.
So my first goal was to be able to ride 50 miles at the pace of those middle-aged, Lycra-clad guys. I achieved that. Then 100 miles. Done. 100 miles in the mountains. Done. Then I took up triathlons—Escape from Alcatraz, USAT Nationals, Ironman 70.3. Then a couple of half marathons and a marathon. Somewhere in there I threw in some cyclocross to spice things up. Then mountain biking caught my interest. There was lots of skill required, and those trees don’t move out of the way! Plus, I loved being in the outdoors. Through all this, I read everything I could to learn about endurance sports—equipment, gadgets, how to train, how to race, how to fuel, how to hydrate, how to win, and how to lose. I also learned everything I could about the peripheral aspects of endurance sports—stretching, core strength, eating right, yoga, and meditation.
So what’s your story? Are you someone who…
•… is in the mid-life years and has let your fitness slip away with the busyness of life?
•… is used to setting goals and getting stuff done in many areas of your life, but exercise and fitness has never been one of those areas?
•…has been motivated by inspirational stories of athletic greatness but thought it never applied to you?
•…has met plenty of people who bike and run but were put off by their cliques and elitist ways, talking a foreign language?
•…would like to be more into fitness but is confused about how to get started with endurance sports?
•…is seeing the aging process taking hold of you and would like to do something significant to slow it down?
•…sees your parents struggling with their health at relatively young age or have passed away due to diabetes, obesity, or heart disease and don’t want that same eventuality for you?
•…wants to be a role model for your spouse and kids to get them more active and fit?
If you can identify with some of these, then maybe this book is for you. And maybe a new journey is for you. An epic journey!
This book is based on one simple premise: Athletically average people are capable of achieving athletically epic goals.
Locked inside you is the ability to achieve things that today you think are impossible, outlandish, and even laughable. Bike 100 miles. Finish a marathon. Finish an Ironman triathlon. This book is dedicated to unlocking that athletic potential. With an understanding of endurance sports and how to train for them, setting realistic goals, developing the right attitude, and making the commitment, the impossible is possible. I’m living proof of that!
But let me be clear about this book and my motives. This is not a 16-week plan to complete a marathon or 12 steps to better triathlon or a simple introduction to endurance mountain biking. This book is meant to help you not only achieve incredible athletic goals, but also, more importantly, to lay the foundation for lifelong fitness. This book is not to help you finish that marathon so you can check that box and go back to your old ways. This book is to help you check many boxes along the way as you transform your life into one of enduring fitness and health.
In addition to the simple premise above, this book is built around a number of guiding principles:
(Almost) nothing is impossible. One of the working assumptions of this book is that you are capable of achieving amazing things, within reason. When my son was 12, he dreamed of playing NBA basketball. Growing up around Carolina basketball, the hallowed ground of Michael Jordan, that dream was understandable. I tried not to squelch that dream, but the odds were against him given his height, jumping abilities, and the genetic predisposition his mother and I had given him (lots of nerd genes, few athletic genes). But the world of endurance sports is different. There is plenty of room for mere mortals to pick the sport and the goal that will challenge them and work hard toward that goal. Sure, a podium finish at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, may be out of reach for most of us, but finishing an Ironman-distance triathlon is well within your reach, as much as swimming 2.4 miles, riding 112 miles, and then finishing it off with a marathon may seem daunting now.
Understand your motivations. Why are you doing this? Understanding your motivations will help during the darker, more difficult moments of trying to achieve your goals. Everyone’s motivations are different. Some are complex (I’ve got demons to exorcise through beating my body up); while others are simple (I think it would be cool to do a triathlon). Also understand your motivations relative to your goals. Short-term goals (finish this race) are different from long-term goals (lose 25 pounds, qualify for the Boston Marathon). Also, your motivations will change over time as you get further into endurance sports and learn more about the sports and about yourself. You might love the community vibe of racing and the party afterward or groove on the solitude of being alone for hours on end.
One person’s epic is another person’s easy workout. You’ll need to calibrate what epic means for you now as you dive into endurance sports and in the future as you become confident and proficient. This was driven home for me at a local sprint triathlon. I had pushed myself hard but was using the race as preparation for a much longer triathlon later in the season and to keep my racing skills sharp. Standing at the finish line, some of the last racers were crossing the line, totally gassed as they crossed the finished. It was clear by their tears, smiles, and emotion that this was an epic event for them, one that they would remember for a lifetime. Decide what’s epic for you and like your motivations; epic today may not be epic several years from now.
It’s a journey. Goals are great. They give us something to shoot for, a milestone to aim for that demarcates achievement. But think of this as a journey where the goals are mileposts along the way. When we focus so much on the goals, we sometimes lose sight of the journey, the bigger picture. This is especially important when we set aggressive goals and fail to meet them. Often, we need to step back and not only understand why we didn’t achieve the goal but also take in the lessons learned. As my son’s kindergarten teacher told him on the first day of class, “Mistakes are for learning.” Make sure your journey is a learning journey.
Think sustainable; think long term. As you think about engaging in endurance sports and the kind of things you want to achieve, it’s tempting to work toward a goal, give it all you’ve got, achieve the goal, and call it done. This “one-and-done” attitude does not lead to a life of enduring fitness. It’s similar to trying one diet after another; it does not create a sustainable way to eat. Likewise, endurance sports can be an unsustainable diet to achieve a weight or can be a lifestyle for long-term fitness.
Variety is the spice of life. One way to create a sustainable lifestyle of endurance sports is to think about sampling the broad menu of activities. I started out road biking and then got into cyclocross. The competitive nature of cyclocross led me to triathlons, which reintroduced me to running, something I had done earlier in life. Then I decided to explore mountain bikes. A few seasons of endurance MTB racing, and I found myself doing an XTERRA triathlon (an open water swim, mountain bike, and trail run). This led me to an Ironman triathlon and then back to marathons. So it goes. For me, the variety helps keep me fresh.
Be prepared to reexamine your self-image. When I started endurance sports, my self-image was not that of an athlete. I saw myself as a science nerd posing as an athlete. Slowly over time, my self-image changed as I accomplished goals and achieved things I thought impossible. I remember finishing a half marathon in 1:35, seventh in my age group and a PR for me. I was talking to a buddy about my finish, and he said, “I had no idea you were a runner.” Neither did I. But over time, I’ve realized that though I might not be God’s gift to running, with proper training and dedication, I have become a runner.
Have an attitude of gratitude. When I started into this endurance sport thing, I failed to recognize the many blessings I had. My engine wasn’t as big as some of my buddies’. My running stride was fairly uncoordinated. My swimming was awkward. It’s easy to focus on the negative instead of being grateful for what we have. Just getting out of bed pain free (most days) and being able to ride a bike, run, and swim are real blessings we need to be thankful for every day. Which leads me to my last point…
Don’t forget to give back. All this training and racing and fitness stuff is quite narcissistic. We can get so wrapped up in our little world of power meters, intervals, and finish times that we forget the people around us. The immediate ones who come to mind: spouse and kids. Spending time with them, of course, is important. But an even better gift is helping and encouraging them to make health and fitness a part of their lives, too. You can serve as role model. Beyond your family, you can give back in so many ways—volunteering at a local event, helping with registration, or working one of the aid stations. Be a volunteer coach for a youth triathlon team. One of my personal causes is “more kids on bikes” based on the supposition that more kids riding bikes will make the world a better place. Kids today don’t have freedom due to helicopter parents or flexibility due to too much structured activities to strike out on their own into their woods and neighborhoods.1 To that end, I’ve organized a youth cyclocross team and weekly mountain bike rides for elementary and middle school children.
This book will help you in your journey to achieve epic feats of endurance athleticism. It is divided into four parts. Part I is an introduction to the major endurance sports: road biking, mountain biking, running, and triathlon. It is written for the novice and demystifies each sport by explaining the events and races; the terminology and jargon; the equipment, clothing, and accessories needed; and finally some of the fundamental techniques required to be proficient. Part II focuses on fundamentals of fitness by explaining how the body works in performing endurance sports. Chapters here cover physical and mental aspects of fitness along with nutrition and how it affects fitness. The next half of the book is where things get more real. Whereas the previous chapters were theoretical and informational, parts III and IV are practical and applied. Part III begins by helping you set an epic endurance sports goal and breaking that goal down into a plan for achieving it. Subsequent chapters cover training tools you will need, an assessment of your current fitness and diet, basic training concepts, and key workouts for each sport. Part IV walks you through what to expect for your first endurance event, be it a long-distance biking event, a marathon, or an Ironman triathlon. Each chapter is punctuated by a race report or two for a race I’ve done in the past with the hope of sharing some of my successes and failures.
So let’s get started!
1A book that inspired my thinking was Richard Louv’s, Last Child in the Woods.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
The first step in pursuing an endurance sport is choosing among the many sports available. This chapter provides an overview of four major endurance sports: road biking, mountain biking, running, and triathlon. Endurance sports are 1) are usually done alone, as opposed to team sports, 2) require some level of training to complete, 3) are typically done in a competitive context (a race), and 4) usually last an hour to several hours, thus the endurance part. Among sports, in general, one can think of them in terms of intensity and duration, as shown in figure 2. As you can see, most of the endurance sports we’ll consider in the endurance sports zone are lower intensity and longer duration.
Figure 2 Sports mapped according to their duration and intensity.
“100 miles? On a bike? Are you kidding me? That’s the kind of distance people go in cars, not on bikes.” That was my reaction when a buddy wanted me to do a local charity road century. The longest distance I had been up to that point was 35 miles. 50 miles? Maybe. 100 miles? No way. After some thought, my curiosity was piqued, and I decided 100 miles on a bike would an epic goal.
The world of road cycling has many possibilities, from short, fast races to long, ultraendurance events. Table 1 shows the different types of road biking events and races.
Clearly some of these races are for the experienced racers (e.g., crits), and some are very intense and fall outside of the endurance category (e.g., crits and cyclocross), but as your riding progresses, you may want to dip your toe into one of these. For someone new to the sport and interested in more of an endurance event, the charity rides are a good place to start.1 Most offer several mileage options within one event, and the diversity of riders means you can find strong racers out for a fast 100-mile training ride alongside an average rider riding 35 miles for the first time. With the low-key atmosphere and well-stocked aid stations, they are a great introduction to endurance road riding, specifically, and endurance sports in general.
Table 1Road biking events and races
Criterium, or “Crit”
A very fast and intense multi-lap (10+) race on a closed race course.* Races are usually held in downtowns using city blocks as a rectangular course. Multiple races are held in a day, each according to skill/speed categories (Cat 4/5 being the novices and Cat 1 or pros being the fastest). Prizes and prize money go to the top finishers of each race. Race is usually sanctioned by a group such as USA Cycling, which means a racing license is required.
10 to 50 miles
Longer version of a crit on an open course with single or multiple laps, depending on the course layout. Multiple races and prize money. Most races are sanctioned and require a license.
30 to 100 miles
A single- or multiple-loop course where you are racing against the clock; usually requires an aerodynamic time trial bike. Winners are grouped by age or category. Sometimes sanctioned.
10 to 40 miles
A rapidly growing European import which combines crit-like racing on grass, mud, and gravel, requiring the handling of a mountain bike. Usually held in the winter (off-season) months, each event has multiple races throughout the day according to categories. Usually sanctioned, requiring a license.
5 to 20 miles
Road Charity Ride
Usually raising money or awareness for a cause. A mass start for all riders with multiple route options of varying distances (e.g., 25, 50, 75, 100 miles). Some events are timed with timing chip on each rider. Usually involves a large post-ride event with food, drink, and music. Non-sanctioned so does not require a license.
25 to 100 miles
A newer format involving cyclocross or mountain bikes on gravel roads for long distances.
50 to 100 miles
Very long distance or time (100+ miles or 12+ hours):
75 to 3,000 miles
24-hour bike marathons where you try to complete as many laps as possible, either solo or as part of a team.
Multiday races are either composed of defined stages (Tour de France) or undefined stages (Race Across America--RAAM or Tour Divide).
Randonneurs are non-competitive, self-supported rides over long distances, usually with checkpoints along the way to validate the route.
* Closed to other traffic.
**Of the shorter road events, cyclocross is the most approachable for the newbie. The atmosphere is mellow, the speeds are rational compared to crits and road races, the race is intense but relatively short (30 min), and fellow racers are very welcoming.
The Riding or Racing?
For a road biking event, the question arises: Is this a ride or a race? For some events, such as charity rides with a party, friendly atmosphere, it’s a ride. Some events are sanctioned by a governing body (e.g., USA Cycling or USA Triathlon). Being a sanctioned race, it adheres to certain quality and safety standards. As such, the participants are required to have a license. This makes it a race. For the beginner, this can sound a little daunting, but it’s really nothing more than paying your fee and getting a card. For road or mountain races, the newbie is assigned the lowest category (e.g., Cat 4); for triathlons, you are assigned according to you age group (e.g., 43-year-olds race in the 40-45 AG). Where the lines blur are those unsanctioned events that look like a charity ride but have timing chips and bib numbers. Then it starts to look like a race.
As with any sport, there exists a certain culture you should be aware of. For road biking, that culture is steeped in tradition, originating from European roots. In his somewhat irreverent but accurate book on bike culture, Eben Weiss (aka BikeSnobNYC) portrays the road cyclist in this way:
The Roadie is, in a certain sense, the prototypical cyclist. Road racing is certainly not the oldest form of competitive cycling, but it does have a long history, and it is by far the most popular competitive discipline. After all, even people who can’t tell a road bike from a mountain bike have heard of the Tour de France. The drop bars, the jersey with rear pockets, the tight shorts, and the diminutive brimmed cycling cap together embody the cyclist in the popular imagination.
Because road cycling is steeped in tradition (and occasionally garnished with attitude), every single aspect of road cycling—from clothing choice to equipment choice to hand signals to which way to pull off the front of a paceline—is governed by rules. And like all rules, some of them have evolved out of necessity, and some of them are simply tradition for tradition’s sake. In this sense, road cyclists are like the Amish, or like Hasidic Jews, in that they are by far the most orthodox of cyclists. Sure, you might not want to be one, but you’re still kind of glad they’re there. Like orthodox religious sects, Roadies are also immediately recognizable by their appearance, though generally they eschew austere dark robes in favor of festively colored Lycra.2
Road biking, like most specialized sports, has its own set of jargon that must be learned. On my first-ever bike event, I was riding along when one of my friends rode up and yelled, “Grab a wheel!” Huh? Thus began my deciphering of the specialized, and sometimes, confusing phrases used by people on two wheels. Here are few of the phrases and terms you might encounter:
•LBS—Local bike shop
•Bikers—People riding motorcycles
•Cyclists—People riding bicycles
•Draft—The area of lower wind resistance found just behind another rider; makes you go much faster and much farther with less effort
•Grab a wheel—Get close behind so you can draft me and catch up with the rest of the group; very helpful when you get dropped
•Dropped—When riding a paceline and you can’t keep up; usually happens on a hillPaceline—Cycling community-style with each rider taking a turn at the front to create a draft for the riders in the rear; requires concentration and smooth pedaling
•Dropped like a bad habit—Being dropped from a paceline very early in a ride
•Clipless pedal—Pedal where the shoe clips into the pedal; the phrase is a confusing holdover from the days when clips referred to the metal cage around the pedal for holding the shoe
•Pull—What you do while you are at the front of a paceline
•Bonk—To run out of energy while riding (“I bonked so badly yesterday I could hardly see straight.”)
A more complete list of terms and lingo can be found on the web.3
Before you can consider an endurance road bike ride on the order of 50 or 100 miles, there are several prerequisites. First, of course, is getting a bike and getting it adjusted for a good fit to reduce pain over long distances. Next are the nearly endless accessories and clothing that go along with road biking. Finally, one must learn how to ride the bike. Not just keeping balance but learning how to shift, ride in groups, and so on. After a certain level of proficiency, then you are ready to begin preparing for endurance road rides and races.
To take up road biking, you must first learn little about road bikes, their parts, and how they work. A schematic of a road bike is provided in appendix B with the essential parts shown. The function of each part is also provided.
So what bike to buy? When I started looking online and walking through local bike shops, I was overwhelmed with options. I saw bikes that were north of $5,000 and others that were $500. What does tenfold difference in price really get you? It seemed clearly to be a case of diminishing returns. Very knowledgeable salespeople would tell me the bike choice should meet my goals and riding style. Casual riding? Club riding? Touring? Racing? How the heck was I supposed to know? I had not been on a bike in 40 years.
Being an analytical sort, I tried to established criteria to help guide my decision.
Cost. Given the fact that you can spend almost as much on a bike as you can on a car, I needed to establish some upper limit of how much I could spend (or rather, my wife required some upper limit). Since I didn’t know enough to know what was important to me, I did not want to drop a bunch of dough on high-end features I couldn’t really appreciate. I also looked at this bike as a starter or entry-level bike. My strategy was that if I stuck with the sport, I could upgrade later.
New or used? Related to cost was whether to buy something new or used. Given the fact that I’ve never bought a new car, and it looked like there were a lot of value in used bikes, I chose a used bike. My experience in buying used cars was to buy them from a mechanic since they, the theory goes, would have the be best insight into the shape of the car (or bike).
Weight. With all the new technologies going into bikes, I wanted to take advantage of these and have a bike that was lightweight. It was clear that the lighter the bike, the more it cost. In talking to my wife about this, it was clear she had another perspective:
Me: It looks like an all-carbon bike is the lightest bike out there.
Her: Why do you need a light bike?
Me: To go fast!
Her: But I thought you were getting this bike to exercise. It would seem to me that a heavier bike would give you a better workout.
I tried not to succumb to her logic but did not quite know how.
Brand. If you talk to 20 owners of bikes, you will get 20 different opinions about their favorite brand and model. Ask them what they like about their bike, and you will get answers like “smooth ride” or “climbs like a goat.” You’ll also experience this Ford versus Chevy rivalry among some bike owners. Trying to get something objective and quantitative was impossible. Since I come from a technical background (PhD in chemistry), I decided to focus on the major brands that seemed to have spent a significant amount on R&D, such as Trek and Specialized.
Online or LBS. Reading through various discussion boards, there seemed to be two camps when it came to buying a bike through eBay or craigslist versus from a local bike store (it took me a while to understand what “LBS” stood for). In one camp were the free-market capitalists who thought the best price should rule the day. Some of these folks thought it was fine to look at models and even be fitted at a LBS but buy the bike online. The other camp considered the LBS a sacred part of the local cycling community; they provided the best service and should be preserved at all cost. Of course, the truth lay somewhere in between.
So there it was, I was after a sub $1,000, lightweight, used bike, preferably from a local shop where the mechanic would know something about the bike. After calling around and looking at a lot of bikes, I purchased a used Trek Pilot 2.1 from a local bike shop.
Road bike sizing is based on the measurement of the seat tube height from the center of the bottom bracket to, in most cases, where the top tube meets the seat tube. (See figure 3, seat tube height C-T) However, it gets a little more complicated because road bikes have evolved from a flat (horizontal) top tube to a sloping top tube (compact geometry), shortening that distance. As a result, some frames are also measured from the bottom bracket to the top of the seat tube (figure 3, seat tube height C-T).4 For reference, I’m 6 feet, and I usually ride a 56-centimeter road bike.
Getting the right size bike is the first step in having a bike fit you properly. Bike fit is important to your comfort, and your comfort is important in being able to ride for long distances without the distraction of pain. Bike fit relates to how your body sits relative to the bike. As such, there three major points of adjustment for proper bike fit:
Figure 3 Road bike geometry
1. Cockpit length. The cockpit length is the distance from the saddle to the handle bar. It is determined first by the top tube length5 and then adjusted by the handlebar stem length and the fore–aft position of the saddle. The cockpit length determines how far you have to reach to the handlebars (the reach distance is another measurement often used; see figure 3). A long reach usually brings the body into a more aerodynamic position but can also put more strain on the back.
2. Saddle height. The height of the saddle determines how much reach your legs have when pedaling, and thus pedaling efficiency. A saddle that is too short can result in knee pain whereas a saddle that is too tall can lead to hips rocking back and forth during the pedal stroke. The latter can lead to lower back problems. Generally speaking, you want a slight bend in the knee at the bottom of the pedal stroke.
3. Handlebar position. With the saddle height in the proper position, the last major adjustment is the height of the handlebar. This is first determined by the headtube height but can be adjusted up with addition of spacers onto the steer tube (the tube running from the front fork up through the head tube). As with cockpit length, a lower handlebar position relative to the saddle will result in a more aggressive, aerodynamic position at the cost of more strain on the torso.
In addition to these major adjustments, additional, more subtle adjustments can be made to finetune the fit of the body to the bike:
1. saddle fore–aft position relative to the pedals
2. pedal crank length
3. saddle tilt
4. brake and shifter position on the handlebar
5. handlebar width
6. cleat placement on the shoe
All these bike fit adjustments affect your comfort and your ability to ride long distances. Discomfort comes in several forms, so it’s important to identify what its source might be. Posture-related discomfort arises from both your body position over the bike and your body’s strength, or lack thereof, in supporting that position over long periods of time. For example, in the typically leaning-over posture found among most road bike riders, the neck and back need to be strong to support the trunk for hours. Some of this discomfort can be addressed through bike fit (e.g., cockpit length); some of it can be addressed through exercises (e.g., core strengthening); and some will be addressed with time (e.g., neck pains receding after months of riding). Contact point-related discomfort comes from the three points of your body that touch the bike: hands, bottom, and feet. Of these three, the beginner struggles with saddle sores early on. There is no easy way around these. Counterintuitively, a squishy saddle can actually lead to more soreness. The only real solution is time in the saddle. Hand issues usually come about from too much pressure on the hands, arising from poor positioning on the bike (too much upper-body weight being supported by the hands), and also riding style (palm placement on the handlebars putting pressure on sensitive nerves). Foot pain can come from nerves being pinched by the shoe or improper cleat placement on the shoe. Needless to say, these different types of discomforts are interrelated. On top of that, the beginner doesn’t have the stamina, strength, or experience to know which pains are fixable and which just take time in the saddle. I spent many hours with a bike fitter who, at the end of the day, told me I was just going to have to get more miles under my belt before some of my discomfort would go away. And he was right!
One way to sort all this out is with a good bike fitter. The LBS where you bought your bike usually does bike fits as part of the purchase, but the level of sophistication may not be sufficient. Many cycling-popular areas will have a professional bike fitter who can take you through the process of getting set up. But as mentioned, the fit gets your body in the correct position, but it won’t automatically make a comfortable ride if your body is just getting used to riding or you have significant weaknesses in the core muscles or the upper body.
After you get the bike, you’ll need the proper accouterments to get you out on the road and looking like a real cyclist. The following are the most common accessories:
Saddlebag. Fits under the saddle. Get one with buckles and straps. Velcro seems handy, but it can come loose on rough roads.
Repair kit. Goes into the saddle bag and includes an inner tube, one or two CO2 cartridges and a CO2 cartridge chuck or head, patch kit, and two tire levers.6 Optional items include chain quick link, multitool, cash, and a few bandages. Put all this in a plastic bag and put that into the saddle bag. This makes it easier to get it out and keeps the stuff from getting grimy over time.
Pedals. If you notice bike ads, they never show bikes with pedals because there are so many options, and people buy the pedals after the bike. If you buy a new bike from a store or online, it will usually come with flat pedals. These are fine to start (that’s what I road for my first rides). Over time, most people switch to a clipless pedal that has a cleat on the bottom of the cycling shoe that locks into the pedal and unlocks with a slight twist of the foot. The choice here is single-sided entry (Shimano SP) or double-sided entry (SpeedPlay).
Hydration. The standard here is two water bottle cages (you can spend a small fortune on carbon water bottle cages—not necessary) mounted to the down and seat tubes and two water bottles.
Lights. There are two types of lights: lights to see and lights to be seen. The former are for riding at night on dark roads (not generally recommended for safety reasons). The latter are for being seen by traffic when the light dims. It’s a good idea to carry a blinky, a blinking LED light on the rear of the bike and used when heading out for an early ride or finding yourself out when the sun is going down.
Cycling computer. This digital device displays your speed and distance. Start out with something cheap and simple. If you get serious about training and need to track heart rate, power, cadence, and so on, you can upgrade to a higher end unit. ANT+ is the current standard and allows the wireless transmission of data from a power meter, cadence meter, or heart rate monitor to the cycling computer. Even more sophisticated computers include GPS for tracking your route, using the GPS for distance as compared to measuring the number of tire rotations. An alternative, or used in addition to, is the smartphone to track speed and distance.7
The most important clothing item is the helmet to keep your brain from being scrambled in the event of a crash. There are many choices and price ranges here, but it comes down to fit. Head down to your local bike shop and try on different helmets. I ended up with two helmets, a medium and a large: the medium for warm weather riding and the large for cold weather when I put a thick cap on. Next on the list are the cycling shoes, or cleats. The choices here are color (black is standard) and fastener (Velcro versus buckles). For clothing, the first choice to make is what will cover your lower body. You have three choices: spandex or Lycra shorts with built-in padding (chamois), spandex bib shorts with padding, or baggy shorts with a padded liner. If you get over how ridiculous you look in spandex, I’d go with one of the first two options. The compression of spandex helps your legs, and you’ll fit into the cycling crowd better than baggies. (For a more complete discussion of baggies, see the section on mountain bikes.) I personally like the bibs because they keep the shorts high and tight while you ride. Add to that the cycling jersey, and you are ready to ride—at least in warm temperatures.
As BikeSnobNYC stated, “every single aspect of road cycling—from clothing choice to equipment choice to hand signals to which way to pull off the front of a paceline—is governed by rules.” For clothing choice, it may be hard to know the rules and what it takes to achieve “the look.” To help you along, I’ve assembled style points (table 2). We are going assume you have the basic kit down (spandex bibs or shorts, a cycling jersey, clipless pedals and cleats, and a helmet). From there, you can lose a number of style points.
Most of us learned how to ride a bike as kids. We had training wheels until we could balance. The training wheels came off, and we wobbled back and forth for a while. But then we were free, riding our bikes through the neighborhood. Simpler times. One gear and world to explore.
Road biking can bring back many of those feelings of freedom and speed. But the sophistication of today’s road bikes requires some additional skills and technique.
Gearing and cadence. If you are a total newbie to road cycling, the first thing you’ll notice is the remarkable number of gears on a road bike. On the front (the crank), there are two, maybe three, gears (chain rings), and on the back (the cassette), there may be 9, 10, or 11 gears.
Table 2Cycling clothing style points
Points lost(10 pts max)
Visor on helmet
Reserved for the mountain biking look.
Sunglasses inside helmet straps
Only acceptable in triathlons where you have to get the helmet off in transition to the run.
Jersey tucked into cycling shorts
Yes, I’ve seen it!
Probably good for safety, but it says “commuter.”
Again, for the mountain bike crowd.
Rear rack for panniers
Very useful but takes away from the racing look.
Unless you are a pro, wearing a pro team kit should be avoided, unless the team is vintage (e.g., Motorola or 7-11).
Huge saddle bags
If it’s larger than your saddle, you are carrying too much.
Swinging saddle bag
It needs to be secured underneath the saddle. It is amazing how many people don’t understand how the straps and buckles work. When in doubt, visit the LBS.
A grease mark on the inside of your calf says “greasy chain” or “sloppy dismount” or both.
Reflectors on spokes and plastic ring next to cassette
These come standard from bike vendor. They are the first thing to go.
More for mountain bikes; use CO2 cartridges.
Stop sign crash
Practice getting in and out of your clips before you go into public.
Clothes too loose
If it flaps in the wind, get rid of it.
That combination produces upward of 30 different gear options for riding. Luckily, many of those gears are overlapping. The best way to think of the gearing is that each chainring produces a different range of gearing, with the largest chainring giving you the highest and hardest set of gears whereas the smallest ring gives the lowest and easiest set. Figure 4 shows the gearing for a 50-34 (front) and a 12-26 (rear) and how the 50 chainring produces a higher range of gearing (measured in gear inches), and the 34 produces a lower range.8
Figure 4 Gearing for two different chainrings (50 and 34 teeth) combined with different cassette gears
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