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Gear, Motivation, Training

Back and Better Than Ever

So the past three months have been brilliant. Mostly because it’s summer, and I’ve spent a lot of time by the pool, biked and sailed my way through Croatia, and generally enjoyed any and all training I’ve done because it’s been well balanced by time spent not training. But despite this sort of lax, do-what-I-want approach to things I followed for about the first six months of 2012, I’m seeing huge improvements and actual quantitative and qualitative evidence that I’m in the best overall shape I’ve ever been in across all three sports at once.

Let’s back up.

My spring season was a huge fail, or at least that’s how it seemed when I ended a long run back in February in tears. But it was a blessing in disguise, really, because instead I got on the bike and started racing and picked up a new skill set and a whole group of awesome teammates and an even greater passion for cycling as a sport in itself. And I think it’s pretty gratifying to watch the Tour and the Olympics and even our local races and actually know a tiny bit about what it feels like to be out there — it’s given me a whole new understanding because I’ve experienced it from the saddle, not just from the couch.

Eventually I started running again after, oh, three months off, and I was able to build up to decent speeds and distances without any trouble. And I’m pretty happy to say that I’ve been in the pool three times a week almost without exception since January 1. Swimming used to make me cranky, and now I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t excited to jump in the waterl. It’s funny how that works.

So this is all well and good, but at some point in June I realized that because I hadn’t raced since December (bike races have nothing to do with time, so they don’t count), I had no idea where all this fun, train-when-I-want mess left my fitness. And I was starting to get a little bit of the triathlon bug again. Only a tiny nudge in the back of my brain, but a nudge nonetheless. And I knew the cycling road season would be mostly over by the beginning of August, and then I’d have the entire fall free, and from the little interaction I had with other triathletes, everyone else seemed to be neck-deep in it with good results. When’s my turn to see if this hard work is getting me anywhere? So I did some thinking and decided that the October 70.3 I signed up for way back in December would be a reasonable target, mainly because it’s an easy trip that’s already mostly paid for.

Which led me to two things: hiring a coach and joining a masters swim team.

The first step in all this was to ask AJ, a great friend and brilliant coach who not only has experience as an athlete but also as a PT, sports manager, and fitness instructor, where I should start if I wanted to build a schedule for myself. I figured I could probably make my own plan, and it’d look a little something like what I’d been doing all along with maybe a little more structure to my weekend builds and bike/run interval workouts. And that’s exactly the case. But I decided that I don’t want just another good race — I want a great race, one that really does justice to my abilities as a triathlete and is based on real, focused training — and so the answer to all this is to put my training in someone else’s hands so they can do the thinking for me. And what I love about AJ is that her whole philosophy is centered around balancing swim/bike/run with the rest of your life and making sure that what happens between workouts is as thoughtful and important as the workouts themselves. Rest, you guys. This is where I’ve failed in the past. I could have hired an expensive celebrity coach or someone I didn’t know and trust or someone who would put me on a way more intense schedule, but that’s not what works for me right now, not when I’m really enjoying other things in life. So AJ agreed to take me on, because she’s crazy.

I also realized that while I love swimming alone, and I’m pretty good at pushing myself in the pool without anyone’s help, the only way to prevent a plateau is to suck it up and swim with people who are faster, preferably significantly faster, than I am. So I did some research on this too and settled on a team whose practice locations and times fit in perfectly with my schedule. Five minutes into the first practice, I knew I was in the right place, and as it turns out, a friend I did some training with last winter swims with them too. Doing coached workouts with a team — and for now, in an outdoor pool as the sun rises — has reminded me why I loved (LOVED) club swimming in my former life. The camaraderie and the shared suffering is great, and it makes me work hard, harder than I do on my own, harder than I can imagine actually enjoying, and yet I do. And I’m already seeing results, but more on that in a minute.

One of the first things AJ had me do was some testing to find out where we’re starting in terms of swim/bike/run fitness. My bike test accidentally came in the form of a TT in Shenandoah, in which I red-lined for 40K/a little more than an hour and discovered that my anaerobic threshold on the bike is 180bpm. That’s about 8-9 beats higher than my test during IM training. I know that field tests are a little less accurate than lab testing, but given how much this hurt (spoiler, A LOT), I’m gonna say that it really was a good representation of what I can do. So, six months of getting my ass dragged around by boys was productive. AJ’s response? “If I kept my HR at 180bpm for an hour, I’d be dead.”

My next test was in swimming, and it’s pretty impossible to do any sort of HR measurement in the pool, so instead we used the 800/200 test to determine base 100 interval times, which will also be a good indication of how much masters is helping me improve. So base Z4 is 1:24, and base Z4/5 is 1:20/100 yds. I don’t think this is all that outstanding, but it’s definitely better than I was at any point in IM training, and it’s only going to get faster from here (I think). This is indicative of nothing, but this week I swam 3 x 100m all out in the middle of a long set at 1:20, 1:18, and 1:15. Meters, you guys. From a push. That last one is 1:09/100 yds. I’ll take it. Given that to break 30 minutes at the 1.2 mile distance I’ll have to swim comfortably under 1:30/100yds, I think we’re on the right track.

And finally, the run. Despite my history as a strong runner, this is always the X factor on race day, and it’s also my biggest perceived weakness after all that time off. But as it turns out, it’s not really much of a weakness at all. My threshold here is 189bpm (holy WOW, over 90 percent of my max HR), and I can very comfortably run 8-minute miles in the bottom half of Z2. So that bodes well for race day and the rest of my training.

So what’s the takeaway? Well, y’all, I haven’t lost it. If anything, that six months of fun, unstructured training made my heart and my lungs and my muscles big and strong, and never once did I feel any sort of burnout. In fact, I started this training cycle ready and raring to go with upping the volume and intensity and regularity, and I can look back and say that what I did from January to June was beyond brilliant, even if it was the result of an unfortunate injury. While everyone else was worrying themselves to death over their target heart rates and hitting mileage requirements and all the other bullshit that comes with serious training, I was having a blast and essentially accomplishing the same thing.

BOOM.

So what else is good in my life?

– My abs. Apparently lots of fly kick and a regular core routine work wonders in this department. Remember that goal I had at the beginning of 2012 to run in a sports bra and be happy about it? Done and done. Shirts are now just another piece of laundry I have to worry about. And it’s been noticed. Is this superficial and vain? Probably, but I don’t care.

– My yoga practice. I finally found my favorite option for yoga in Studio DC, which has bomb-ass heated power yoga classes that are challenging and fun and great for both my practice and my triathlon fitness. I recently advanced to holding an arm balance and an inversion (edit: an unsupported headstand for more than 30 seconds!). Thanks, Courtney.

– My nutrition. I joined a CSA, which means I get delicious fruits and veggies every Friday, many of which I wouldn’t chose to buy, which has forced me to be more creative with my meals. I’ve also put a huge emphasis on clean eating, which means I’ve cut out almost all processed foods and stock only whole, fresh foods in my fridge. No crackers, no cereals, no sweets, no Powerade, no Clif bars, nothing with ingredients I can’t pronounce. I feel 100 percent better than before I did this. I’m still into the once-a-week froyo, though. Girl’s gotta have the occasional dessert.

– My social life. I’m hanging out with friends much more regularly than I could or did during IM training, and I’m so happy about it.

So bring it, triathlon! I’m ready for you.

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