Keys to a Strong Underwater Pull

By Coach Nick Morrison

When we talk about swim technique, it can quickly get overwhelming because there are a hundred different things to think about. Point your toes, keep your core engaged, rotate from the hips, keep your hands toned but not too tense. It’s a lot to think about! In order to make sense of it all, we need to focus on one thing at a time – preferably the one thing that will be most impactful in our stroke. The one thing that every swimming should focus on is developing a strong underwater pull.

A strong underwater pull is made up of three parts (I know, I know – I feel like I’m contradicting my ‘one thing’ statement already). Those are: 1) an early catch, 2) a vertical forearm pull, and 3) a late finish.

Early catch and late finish go hand in hand. Together, they make your distance per stroke as shown in the picture. The longer the distance you can cover with each stroke, the better. The catch is the point where your arm first grabs the water. You want this to be as early in the stroke as possible. The finish is the end of your stroke when your arm is fully extended and your hand is down past your hip.

Swimming - strong underwater pull

Between the catch and the finish is where the underwater pull happens. The key to a strong underwater pull is a vertical forearm. Think of your elbow to fingertips as your paddle which is propelling you through the water. You need that paddle to be vertical. This ensures that you are generating power in the right direction.

The most common mistake I see athletes make is rushing the catch. They will be so excited to start the pull that they forget to catch water first and their paddle won’t be vertical in the water until their arm is even with their shoulder. This causes a couple issues. First, it dramatically shortens your distance per stroke. Second, instead of propelling their body forward through the water, they are actually lifting their shoulders out of the water toward the surface because their paddle is not yet vertical when they start to pull.

So remember, be patient at the catch. Give yourself time to get your paddle vertical in the water. Then start your pull. Maintain that vertical paddle through the pull and finish all the way down past your hip. Finally, keep in mind that every incremental improvement helps.

Pacing and Variability in Cycling

By Coach Nick Morrison

If you ride with a power meter, one of the most beneficial metrics to analyze after you ride is your variability index (VI). VI tracks the fluctuation in your power output. Low fluctuation means you held a relatively constant power output during the whole ride and the VI score will be in the 1.00-1.05 range. Lots of fluctuation means you were constantly changing your power output – at times going really hard and at other times going really easy. These are two very different approaches to riding – sprint/recover/sprint/recover vs. pace evenly. As shown in the example variability chart below, these may still end up with the same average power. So, which approach is more appropriate for you?

Variability Comparison

If you are training for time trial style (non-drafting) triathlons or for endurance cycling events like century rides, low variability is the way to go. These events are all about pacing. In triathlon, you need to look at your bike portion not only to look at your bike split, but also to make sure you set yourself up for a good run. Riding with low variability will set yourself up for a great run while riding with high variability will make you struggle through the run (even if you get through the bike alright).

Some courses and conditions will challenge you more than others. On nice calm days with a flat straight course, it’s pretty easy to ride with low variability. You’ll barely even need to change gears. If it’s a windy day or if you’re riding a winding or hilly course, the conditions will be more challenging to keep a low variability. When you’re riding in those challenging conditions, keep an eye on your power output and try to keep it constant. Shift frequently. Avoid the temptations to attack hills (even short ones) or accelerate aggressively out of corners – both cause your power to spike. Challenging courses and conditions are just that – challenging. But if you’re smart about how you approach the ride, you can still do well.

There are times where high variability is the norm. The biggest factor here is if it is a draft-legal event. Drafting completely changes race strategy because riders can tuck in behind the riders in front of them or the full peloton and save a ton of energy while maintaining speed with the other riders. Then when it comes time to try and create separation from the other riders, you must be able to produce a tremendous amount of power to sprint ahead and lose others on your tail.

Take a look at these two power files: Rigoberto Uran’s 2017 Stage 9 Tour de France win and Lionel Sanders’ 2016 Ironman World Championships. Both had impressive power outputs – Uran’s normalized power was 291 watts and Sanders’ NP was 306 watts. The big, big difference is that Uran’s VI was 1.24 while Sanders’ VI was 1.02. That clearly and dramatically shows the difference between a Tour de France ride and an Ironman ride. Uran spent much of his day drafting, but then when the time came to create separation from the pack, he opened up! Sanders on the other hand needed to set himself up for a good run and didn’t have anyone to draft behind nor anyone drafting behind him that he needed to create separation from.

Keep this info in mind next time you’re out for a ride. What is the appropriate pacing strategy for your workout or event?

 

Special thanks to Training Peaks, Rigoberto Uran, and Lionel Sanders for making these power files available!

Nutrition Basics in Daily Life

What you eat in your daily life has an impact in how well your body will be able to perform in training and on race day. Many athletes we coach are either trying to lose a few pounds, looking to optimize their performance, or simply seeking a healthy, well-balanced diet. This article outlines some key nutrition information and builds from very basic to slightly more intermediate levels. At the end, I also address some common misconceptions that I see causing confusion.

Level 1: Quantity and Calories

At the most basic level, we can think of food in terms of quantity which is most often measured in calories. Calories are a unit of energy. Food provides us the energy our bodies need to survive, move around all day, complete workouts, and build muscle after workouts. We need to keep our total caloric expenditure (everyday life + workouts) in balance with our total caloric consumption (how much we eat). Or, if you’re trying to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than your total caloric expenditure. If you find yourself eating more calories than you’re expending, you’re likely going to gain weight.

Level 2: Macronutrients

Protein (target 10-25% of your diet): Protein is used to build muscle. The best times to eat protein are during meals, after a workout, and just before bed. You do not need to eat protein during most workouts since it is not used as energy to fuel workouts. Small amounts of protein can be beneficial during longer exercise (over about 3 hours).

Carbohydrate (target 40-65%): Carbohydrates are used for immediate energy, with higher intensity exercise, over shorter duration. Your body is still burning carbohydrate for energy during longer, moderate and low intensity exercise, but it becomes the secondary fuel source. The best times to eat carbohydrates are shortly before, during, and after exercise and during meals. You should avoid eating carbohydrates in the couple hours before bed since you’re about to be sedentary. When your body consumes carbohydrate, it immediately converts it to glycogen and stores it in your muscles. Our bodies have a limit to how much glycogen they can store (typically around 1200-2000 calories), and any carbohydrate you consume beyond that limit will get converted to and stored as fat.

Fat (target 20-30%): Fat is used as energy in longer, moderate to low intensity exercise – it’s the main fuel source we use in endurance sports. The best times to eat fats are during meals. You should avoid eating fats shortly before and during exercise as it can cause GI issues. It also takes your body 10-12 hours to metabolize fat, so keep in mind that the fat you eat now won’t be ready to fuel exercise for 10-12 hours.

Level 3: Simple and complex carbohydrates and their impact on blood sugar/glycemic load

Blood sugar (glycemic load) is just that, the amount of sugar in our blood. Our blood sugar levels will naturally fluctuate throughout the day as we eat, digest, and exercise. Our goal needs to be to try and keep those fluctuations gradual and small instead of rapidly rising or falling to extreme high or extreme low levels. Carbohydrates are sugars, so we need to focus on what types of carbohydrates we’re eating in order to manage our glycemic load.

Simple carbs: Simple carbs are high glycemic foods which means they are digested quickly and cause a very fast and very high rise in blood sugar levels. This is a bad thing, so we want to avoid simple carbs in our diets. Simple carbs include foods like desserts, table sugar, soda, candy, white bread, and others.

Complex carbs: Complex carbs are low glycemic foods which means they are digested gradually, so they cause a slower rise in blood sugar and also a lower overall rise in blood sugar. These are good things, so we should try to pick complex carbs for our carbohydrate needs. Complex carbs include whole grains, whole wheat bread, potatoes, sweet potatoes, brown rice, beans, chick peas, and more. Although at a molecular level, some foods like fruits and milk are simple carbs, you can think of them as being in the same category as complex carbs since they act more like complex carbs because they have plenty of vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber which results in the same gradual blood sugar increase that you get from true complex carbs. 

Glycemic response

In practice, this can actually get pretty confusing because it’s not entirely black and white as to which category a given food falls into. It’s probably more accurate to think of simple vs complex carbs as a spectrum rather than two distinct buckets. Some clues to look for are the amount of fiber and how refined/processed the food is – you want more fiber and less refinement/processing (ex. choose whole grain breads with visible grains, seeds, nuts, etc. instead of white bread which is highly processed). Also, if you stick to natural sources of carbs like fruits, vegetables, and dairy, you’ll be good.

Read more on simple and complex carbs here.

Level 4 and beyond

There is more beyond this information! Keep in mind that additional information builds on this foundation – it does not replace this foundational information. It’s just like how we all learned math growing up. First you learn basic addition and subtraction, then you learn your multiplication tables and long division, eventually maybe you continued to more advanced topics like algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and beyond. Each new advanced topic builds on the knowledge from the prior grades. If you can get the information outlined here correct though, you’re going to be doing pretty well. Then if you want to continue to learn more, that’s great too!


Common Misconceptions: Fad Diets

We need to be careful about chasing fad diets. Fad diets typically follow the outline of, “Only eat this, never eat that.” Typically, what happens with fad diets is that when someone starts the diet they see initial success and weight loss. This is primarily because of the ‘never eat that’ part of the diet’s rules. By cutting out a significant part of the dieter’s food intake, the diet will be successful in getting that individual to initially lose weight. In the long term though, many people end up struggling with fad diets because the diet is either too restrictive or because the person finds replacement foods that technically follow the guidelines of the diet but still end up giving the person too many calories overall.

Common Misconceptions: Calories

“Counting calories alone is not enough” vs “Calories don’t matter” / “Calories aren’t a thing”

It is absolutely correct that counting calories alone is not enough if you are trying to watch your weight. Countless individuals struggle to lose weight even after significantly reducing their caloric intake because they still have a poor mix of macronutrients or are eating lots of simple carbs.

However, “Counting calories alone is not enough” is a very different statement than, “Calories don’t matter.” The first is correct while the second (calories don’t matter) is most definitely not correct. This is an important distinction to keep in mind for two reasons. First, an endurance athlete (and by endurance athlete, I don’t just mean professionals – I mean anyone completing and training for runs, bike rides, triathlons, etc. at any pace) typically follows a training plan that consists of both an off season where your volume is relatively lower (say 20-30 miles per week for a runner) and peak training season where your volume gets significantly higher (40, 50, or even more miles per week). With this type of training, your body needs fewer calories during the off season and more calories during peak training. If you aren’t able to adjust throughout the year, you’re going to find yourself either gaining weight in the offseason because you’re eating too much or struggling through workouts during peak season because you’re eating too little and your body is out of energy. Second, even if you are eating an appropriate diet of the right foods (complex carbs, healthy fats from plants, etc.) you can still gain weight if you’re eating too much of it and your caloric intake exceeds your caloric expenditure.

Common Misconceptions: Carbohydrates are the enemy

The trend right now is that carbs are the enemy. Carbohydrates are not the enemy and not all carbohydrates are bad for you. You need to include complex carbohydrates in your diet – especially if you are an endurance athlete (again, I mean all levels of endurance athletes, not just the pros). You do need to keep in mind your overall balance of macronutrients to make sure you’re not getting more carbohydrates than you need, but carbohydrates are a part of that balance.

Simple carbohydrates are the enemy. This is true and this is what experts actually mean – it just gets misstated by many other individuals. Unfortunately, simple carbohydrates are abundant in our culture. They’re hard to avoid if you eat out much, so you’re better off preparing your own meals where you can ensure you’re not dumping extra sugar in everything like many restaurants do. If you do eat out, try to be conscious of where you go and what you order.

Low carb and no carb diets are also catching on right now because the average American leads a pretty sedentary lifestyle – they drive everywhere instead of walking, they don’t get much or any exercise, and they sit in an office job all day. If you’re an endurance athlete (again, I mean all levels of endurance athlete), you’re not the average American leading that sedentary lifestyle. The average American does not run marathons, complete Ironmans, or participate in century rides. Endurance athletes of all ability levels need carbs – you don’t need to go overboard with them, but you do need them.

 

Sources: USA Triathlon, RRCA, Jesse Kropelnicki

Bike Safety

Happy Spring! If you’re like me, you’re excited to be getting off the trainer and biking outside more. The weather is warming up, the days are getting longer, and we can ride outside more consistently. Enjoy the nice weather, but keep in mind these few things to make sure you’re being safe.

#1 Wear your helmet.

Please, please, please wear your helmet! That should be the first thing you always check to make sure you bring when you’re going out for a ride.

#2 Leave your headphones at home.

When you’re riding outside, you need to be alert to what’s going on around you which means you need to be able to hear. Leave your headphones at home for the trainer rides.

#3 Pick a good, clockwise course.

Get to know the area you live in. Where are the good roads to ride? Look for bike paths, marked bike lanes on streets, and roads with wide shoulders. Look for roads that are well-maintained with minimal potholes and debris. If you’re riding a loop, ride clockwise. That means that you’ll be making mostly right turns which means you don’t have to cross in front of traffic to turn.

#4 Check your blind spot – way back.

If you do need to merge across traffic, make sure you check your blind spot. Remember that cars are going significantly faster than you, so they come up fast and from a long way back. When you check your blind spot, you should be looking a few hundred yards behind you – not just a couple car lengths – to make sure it’s clear.

#5 Signal with your left arm.

Always signal with your left arm. This keeps your right hand on the handlebars and your back brake – if you need to hit only one brake in a pinch, you want it to be your back brake because your front brake would send you into a front flip. Cars will also be on your left, so it’s easier for them to see your left arm. Pointing up signals a right turn, pointing left signals a left turn, and pointing down signals stop.

#6 Ensure you can see and be seen.

Especially if you ever ride at dawn or dusk, but also if you ride on overcast days, make sure drivers can see you well and that you can see well. Wear clothing with reflective paneling. Ride with a headlight and taillight on your bike. I know they’re not aerodynamic or lightweight, but most lights clip on easily so you don’t have to keep them on for race day.

#7 Establish yourself in the lane.

As I write this one, I know it will be the recommendation that is the most contentious. When there is not a shoulder or bike lane – and there won’t always be one – I believe it is important to establish yourself in the lane. Many cyclists will try to ride to the far right side of the road, literally tiptoeing the edge of the pavement. I don’t. When there is no shoulder, I will ride to the right side of the lane but still with a few feet on my right before the edge of the road. I do that to leave a margin of error on my right before the edge of the pavement – basically, space to swerve if a car passes too close. When I see other cyclists completely hug the right side of the pavement, I also see cars pass them dangerously close while trying to share the lane. By establishing yourself in the lane, but on the right side of it, it communicates to drivers that they need to cross over to the next lane/oncoming traffic in order to pass you. If oncoming traffic isn’t clear, then they need to be patient and wait. I will say that some drivers don’t particularly like being patient and I have been honked at many times in situations like this. I would rather have them honk than have them pass dangerously putting my life in danger. Better yet, review #3 above, and avoid this situation entirely.

If you want to get technical on this one, Colorado Law states, “…a bicyclist shall ride far enough to the right as judged safe by the bicyclist…” As the bicyclist, you’re in control of what you consider to be safe. Familiarize yourself with what the law is in your area if you live outside Colorado.

#8 Follow the rules of the road.

Stop at stop signs/stoplights and signal your turns. Doing something like running a stop sign or red light on your bike not only puts your life in danger, but it also builds animosity between you and any driver that just saw you break the law. As cyclists, we need to show drivers that we respect the rules of the road, and they’ll in turn respect us. I know it can be frustrating if you hit a stoplight right in the middle of an interval. I’ve been there too. Regardless of what you’re training for or what workout you’re doing, it does not justify running the light. Plus, look back to #3. In picking a good course, you should also consider things like whether or not your ride includes higher intensity intervals and if so, try to hit those intervals on sections of the course without stops and intersections.

Have fun and enjoy the nice weather, but above all, stay safe!

Training with Power

Training with a power meter is hands-down the most effective way to train and race on a bike. If you’re new to using power meters or are considering getting one, this will help you understand how to make the most of it.

Power is the most accurate way to measure a cyclist’s work effort and in turn to use for training zones and race pace targets. Speed fluctuates far too much with hills and wind to be helpful on the bike. Heart rate is better than speed, but still leaves a lot to be desired since it is a lagging metric and because it is influenced by too many other variables than just current effort. Power though instantly tells an athlete how hard they are working. It is a factor of the resistance level (how hard you are pushing on the pedals) and cadence. Increase one while maintaining the other and your power output will go up.

I further like to think of the resistance level in two forms – internal and external factors. The internal factors are the ones you control and the external are the ones out of your control. The main internal factor is gear selection. Shift down to an easier gear and you reduce resistance or shift up to a harder gear and you increase resistance. The main external resistance factors are wind and grade (uphill/downhill/flat). Handling these external factors is what really gets at the heart of why power is so beneficial.

Imagine you are riding on flat ground at a given power output and given speed. Now the road changes to a slight uphill. If you were pacing by speed, you would have to increase your power output to maintain the same speed up the hill – you shouldn’t do that. Instead, with a power meter you can see that you can maintain your cadence and shift down to an easier gear to balance out the uphill grade. The result is that you maintain a constant power output and accept that your speed drops on the uphill.

That example also illustrates the importance of shifting frequently. With every change in grade and wind, you should be shifting. In a non-drafting triathlon, your goal should be to maintain a constant power output at your race pace target. How well you do this is measured by something called the variability index (VI). VI measures how much your power fluctuates during a ride. VI of 1.00-1.05 shows that you kept your power output relatively constant while higher VI numbers show that there was a lot of fluctuations in power. Notice that I did say in a non-drafting race.

Different race types require significantly different strategy. You can see this by comparing power files from Lionel Sanders during Ironman Arizona (non-draft) and Ben Kanute from the Rio Olympics (draft legal). Sanders kept a VI of 1.01 – that’s about as steady an output as you can get. Meanwhile Kanute’s VI was 1.20 and the article also shows his time in zones which shows that he was constantly going from sprinting to coasting/drafting and back. Both were fantastic races, and both are fantastic athletes, but as you can see from the power files, the races themselves are very different.

The last thing that I want to point out is that exact power numbers are only worth comparing you to you – not to other athletes. What I mean by that is that you can track your power output during training and see that you increased your average power during a 20-minute test from 240 watts to 260 watts and know that you have improved. You cannot however compare one cyclist’s 20-minute test of 240 watts to a second cyclist’s 20-minute test of 260 watts and assume that the second cyclist is faster. If the first cyclist is lighter, it’s very possible that the first cyclist is actually faster. If you want to compare two cyclists, the best way is just to compare their race or time trial times over the same course.

Hopefully you have a better understanding of what power is on the bike and how you can use it to benefit your training. With this understanding, the next step is to work with your coach to determine your functional threshold power (FTP) and to set training zones to use for pacing during workouts and races.

Pedal Power

By Coach Nick Morrison

Pedaling efficiency and technique is an important skill to master for all cyclists. It’s key for success at all race distances, and especially over longer and longer distances. Not only that, but offseason/winter/indoor training is a great time to focus on it.

The goal

An efficient pedal stroke is when the cyclist is pushing/pulling on the tangent of the circle that the pedals make at every point. Imagine looking at a bike from the right side like in the diagram. Think of the pedal stroke like a clock. At 12, a cyclist should be pushing forward, at 3 pushing straight down, at 6 pulling back, and at 9 pulling up. Avoid the tendency to just think about pedaling as an up and down motion.

Pedal Stroke

Drills

There are a couple of drills that I like to have my athletes work on to improve their pedaling efficiency. Both are easiest to do on an indoor trainer but can also be done riding outside. If you try these outside, just make sure you pay attention to your surroundings and pick a safe path, quiet road, or parking lot to try these out.

The first drill is called spin-ups. Shift down to your easiest gear and lower the resistance on your trainer all the way down. Then spin-up to the highest cadence you can maintain. As you reach your limit, you’ll probably feel your hips start to bounce around on the saddle. We want to try and eliminate that, so really focus on rounding out the bottom of your pedal stroke and pulling back at 6 o’clock. Also think of pedaling forward and backward instead of up and down. As you improve, you should feel your hips settle into place in the saddle and you should also notice that you can hold a higher cadence.

The second drill is called single leg or peg leg. Again, shift down to your lowest gear/easiest resistance. Unclip one foot and rest it against your chain stay (avoid rubbing your heal against the wheel!). Then pedal with just one leg. Focus on keeping a constant pedal stroke speed and applying power all the way around the pedal stroke. When you first try this out, you’ll probably feel a disconnect as you round the top of the pedal stroke and you’ll feel a distinct jerk somewhere between 12 and 3 as you connect back and reapply power. Focus on pulling up and over the top of the pedal stroke so that you can maintain the connection to power and eliminate that jerk. If you’re having trouble, practice first sitting more upright with your hands on the handlebars and as you get the hang of it, challenge yourself by going down into aero position.

Track your progress

As you practice these drills, challenge yourself by recording the highest cadence you can maintain before your hips bounce around in the saddle and time how long you can do the single leg drill without that jerking feeling. You’ll also probably notice with the single leg drill that you have a dominant leg. Try to even those out so that you can get the same score with each leg. Set a benchmark for yourself and try to improve from there!

How Fast Should I Run?

One of the first questions I get from many of my runners is, “How fast should I run?” Running at the right training paces for you is one of the most important ways to train smart so that you get the most benefit out of your training.  

How to find your training paces 

In order to find appropriate training paces, we can use recent race results or the results from a recent fitness test to determine something called a VDOT or VO2 max. VDOT is simply a measure of your fitness level. If you want to get specific and into the science of it, it is literally a measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can process in one minute. Higher numbers correspond to higher and faster fitness levels.  

There are a couple ways to measure VDOT. The first and most accurate way is to go to a sports science lab and measure VDOT. These tests can be expensive and hard to find though. The second way is to estimate VDOT based on recent race or fitness testing results. This is cheaper, more accessible, and arguably just as effective.  

Take a look at the table below and find the VDOT for a recent race or fitness test that you completed. Then look across that row at the training paces for that ability level. Those are the paces you should target on your training runs.  

VDOT Race Times and Training Intensities Handout 

You can also use this calculator to find your training paces. 

A common mistake that I see in experienced and new runners alike is that they try to run fast all the time. Looking at this table should be eye-opening for many of you because there is a drastic difference in pace from conversation to tempo pace and because the conversation pace is slow – embarrassingly slow. 

If you recently did races or tests of different lengths – say a 1 mile and 10k – and they equate to different VDOT values, that’s ok! Based on your 1 mile time, you might have a VDOT of 47 and based on your 10k time you might have a VDOT of 45. Determine the appropriate training paces based on the highest VDOT you get.  

If races/fitness tests of different lengths indicate different VDOT values, that also may be an indication of a limiter for you. Continuing with the same example, those results may indicate that the runner is better at shorter distances (the 1 mile) than longer distances (the 10k). This runner would have an opportunity to improve and more closely reach their full potential by focusing their training on building endurance for their longer distances. You could also look at that from a different angle and say that this runner is better at shorter distances and would be better served by focusing their goals on racing shorter distances and sticking with their strengths. Either way, whatever you decide helps us customize our training approach for you.  

What are the benefits to running at these paces? 

There are two big benefits to running at the appropriate paces for your fitness level – the body system you are stressing and the energy system you are using.  

Workouts at a conversation pace primarily stress the cardiopulmonary system and teach your body to burn fat for energy. Basically, conversation pace runs make your heart and lungs stronger and teach your body to burn fat for fuel which makes you more efficient over long runs. This is crucial for long distance athletes.  

Workouts at a tempo pace or faster primarily stress the muscular system and rely more heavily on the glycolytic system for energy (burns a higher amount of glycogen/carbohydrates). In short, that means that tempo pace runs help improve your leg strength and increase your top speed.