Monday, August 29, 2011

failure is the chance to do better next time

My fortune cookie this weekend said failure is the chance to do better next time.

As with life, so with sports. To reach out beyond what we are accustomed to, we have to (at least, gingerly) explore the discomfort zone.

Recently, I've been having problems getting my body to accept something beyond that 10K run at 7.0 mph, which I know I can repeat fairly comfortably (see Natural Training).

So I tried pushing things a bit last week.

However, running at 8.0 mph only got me 6 minutes before entering the red (anaerobic) zone (On the edge).

So I tried again on Saturday, this time at 7.5 mph.

As you can see, I basically tried to run in blocks of 10 minutes at 7.5 mph (1.33 miles) to keep the heart rate (HR) from entering the red zone. Then walk for 5 minutes inbetween to allow the HR to drop.

How do we evaluate this? Well, a measure of fitness that's commonly employed is to see how fast the HR drops during recovery (the faster it drops the fitter you are). What happened was this:
  1. At the end of the first block, my HR was 164 bpm. It dropped nearly 60 bpm to 106 bpm during the recovery. An encouraging sign.
  2. 2nd block, I started to run into trouble. My HR hit 170 bpm by the end of the 10 minutes. This is in the anaerobic zone for me. The HR dropped 55 bpm to 115 bpm during the 2nd recovery zone.
  3. 3rd block, I knew I was done. After 8 mins @ 7.5 mph, I was already back up at 170 bpm. So I shut it down.
My body's wimpy response to the 0.5 mph (1 km/hr) increase was kinda disappointing. Total fail.

I tried to do these 10 minute blocks as a natural interval workout, hoping to get my 10K in. Five 10 minute blocks would have gotten me nearly 11 km. Unfortunately, I stopped just shy of 3 blocks.

As any cyclist who has trained using a powermeter knows, time spent in the red zone is always costly. You have a fixed and limited number of minutes in that zone for your body. Every minute spent there will cost you aerobically in the end. And distance running is all about aerobic capacity.

So I knew every minute I spent at 170 bpm (rather than at 160 bpm) would hit me hard on the next block to come. And as I hit 170 bpm just 7-8 minutes into the 3rd 10 minute block, to paraphrase my friend Barry Dattel, there's no way, no how I could have completed the 5 blocks I had planned.

I have my excuses ready of course: it was a busy first week. I taught 4 times. Many meetings. And prepared and gave a colloquium talk as well. So by Friday I was all in the red, so to speak. Plus my body is not yet in marathon shape. Blah, blah, blah... but ultimately unconvincing.

After the frustration with the treadmill, I completely over-compensated and took it out on the spinning bike. This was workout #8 below:

I spun 615 kcal in 43 minutes (rate of about 860 kcal/hr). Average HR on the bike was 142 bpm, significantly higher than my normal relaxed time on the bike. In addition to the 467 kcal from the treadmill, the total kcal was nearly 1100 kcal. Yes, the workload was a bit high for a short workout. (1500 kcal would be a medium workout in my book.) But hey, it was a Saturday.

Taking a step back, the fortune cookie's optimistic interpretation of events, namely failure is the chance to do better next time provides perspective. We should see opportunity in every failure. There's a silver lining in every cloud and all that.

Case in point, this week an aftermarket part was not working properly anymore in my car.

Monday morning, I dropped my car off at the place that originally installed the offending part, but I had nobody to give me a ride to work.

I brought out my race bike, which has scarcely turned a wheel in anger since PacTour Elite Southern Transcontinental - and that was back in 2007, nearly 4 years ago (see Day 17).

And I rode the five miles or so to work in 100F heat. To my surprise, I felt fine. Arriving at the office, I smiled and thought: hmm, maybe I am not doing so bad after all. 106F for the afternoon trip back. But hey, round trip, it'll be ten miles. Good preparation for tonight's tilt at the treadmill.


As I promised, I tried again today after work.

Monday's results are obviously significantly better than Saturday's. Instead of three 10 minute blocks at 7.5 mph, I got nearly four 10 minute blocks in at 7.5 mph. (And getting in the target 5th can't be far away.) As a result I burned 615 kcal on the treadmill instead of 467 kcal on Saturday. Plus another 321 kcal on the spin bike afterwards gave me a satisfactory Monday total of 936 kcal. I call that a good start to the week.

Obviously, there are no scientifically valid improvements in aerobic capacity that are realizable in only 3 days.

The red line is the heart rate.
  1. As the graph shows, I reached 165 bpm at the end of the first block. It dropped to 110 bpm (55 bpm delta) on recovery.
  2. 2nd block, I reached 170 bpm, dropping to 119 bpm (51 bpm recovery delta).
  3. 3rd block, I reached 172 bpm, dropping to 125 bpm (47 bpm recovery delta).
  4. 4th block, I hit 172 bpm by minute 7, so I shut it down at minute 8. If I had persevered, the recovery would have been worse again.
These HR numbers are much as the same as on Saturday. There is no training effect possible so quickly.

So why was I able to last longer 2nd time around? Well, immediate gains are the result of neuromuscular adaption to running at 7.5 vs 7.0 mph. Basically, the muscles in the legs first get used to firing at an increased rate.
(Incidentally, same thing is true for weight room workouts. Initial gains cannot be from muscle size adaptation.)

The other effect is learning to survive at the higher heart rate (HR). Back when I used to train on the bicycle, I called it "learning to live in the 170s", i.e. getting used to the HR staying in the 170s bpm range for an extended amount of time. Of course, as aerobic improvement accrues, the sustained HR will drop for any fixed speed.

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