I am less than 9 weeks away from my first big race of the 2011 season. NINE weeks. That is not very long. To be technical about it, it’s only 60 days off. Eek. All sorts of thoughts are flooding my brain, and I’d rather not go too deep into them without wanting to crawl under my covers and stay there for the next two months.

Life has been busy, and I knew it would be. It’s not like grad school wasn’t busy, but being a post-doc in a new lab, getting up to speed with different projects and figuring things out, well- it takes its toll. And while I feel like every post I make as of late is a woe-is-me about how being an adult completely sucks (it doesn’t completely suck, by the way), that isn’t the topic of this post. Rather, my focus today is how I am trying to get through the slumps, no matter what they are, and finding that it is easier than it seems.

Slump #1: Sporadicity of weather and life (yes, I know I made that word up)

The craziness of life and the weather go hand in hand. How, you ask? Well, One day, its a gorgeous 65F and sunny, with a small breeze, and I am just itching to get outside. What will I do? Ride my bike? Go for a run? Why not both? No problem finding motivation to get outside on days like that. So I make sure I get what I need to get done before 5pm, I make sure I go to bed early so I can wake up and run or swim before work, and its all good. But when its 30F and sleeting, however… that’s a different story. Why should I get up early when I can just lay in bed a little longer? So I get to work a little later, and then I find that I don’t really want to wait at the bus stop in the pouring rain. Work late? I suggest to myself. Why not get all this work done *now* (at 8pm on a Monday evening) so that if the weather is nice later in the week, you won’t feel bad about leaving before sundown. Except, it doesn’t work like that. Just because I work late one day doesn’t mean I can just take off early later. No, you see, I have a really good habit of getting into a routine, no matter what it is. Which means, it could be good for my work productivity, or it could be good for my triathlon training. No matter what it is though (and its usually only one), once I get on a roll -say, doing histology for my projects –  well, its hard to get out of the groove. And that is not a terrible thing. Being determined is a strength, a great personality trait. But it can sometimes lead to bad lifestyle changes. Like, for example, skipping lunch because I want to get something done, but that something is going to take me 5-6 hrs to do, so I don’t actually eat lunch until 6pm (most others would call that dinner).  Anyway, these choices spiral a little out of control, and I sometimes lose sight of what I am actually trying to do. So, I have to take a step back to regain my focus.

One way I can encourage myself to make sure I find balance in work/life is by having things to look forward to. I joined a masters swim group, and I have made friends that I look forward to seeing each time I go. I bought a CycleOps JetFluid Pro trainer, and its so sleek and quiet and smooth that I want to ride my bike all the time, no matter what its like outside. With the new trainer, I have been doing some really fun indoor sessions, including some Sufferfest videos and some from my coach. I’ve also been tinkering with my bike fit, and I’m rocking a new Adamo saddle which makes me not want to get off my bike fifteen minutes after getting on. All in all, I am just really finding a connection with my bike, and I have my one-bedroom hardwood-floors and brand-new-bike trainer to thank for that.

Slump #2: MIA embarassment

I missed a week of Masters swim at the beginning of February because of my trip to Puerto Rico. That was two Saturdays (one of my favorite Masters days), one distance freestyle, and the other random don’t-think-just-swim-what-coach-says workouts that have been making me stronger and stronger in my weakest sport. Because of the vacation, I didn’t buy a month pass for Masters, which meant I didn’t feel obligated to go and get my money’s worth. As the month wore on, and I had eighteen years’ worth of work to catch up on (that is at least what it felt like once I returned from vacation), I found myself staying at work until late into the evening, going to bed later, and not finding the ignition to get up and get my butt off to swim at 430am. Then, I felt like it was too late. I haven’t swam in two whole weeks! I thought to myself. If I go now, everyone will wonder why I am so slow and why I have been skipping out. So instead of swallowing my pride, sucking it up, and just going back and proclaiming “I am a lazy piece, but I am back because I want to get better”- I just didn’t go. That was lame. So today, I bit it and threw down for a month pass, and since I am going to be on a tighter budget now, I really do have to get my money’s worth.

Slump #3: Wearing the big-girl pants

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a lot of pressure at my new job. To be honest, my boss is amazingly cool, laid back, and seriously smart. But, I think part of the pressure comes from within. I don’t want him to be ashamed for hiring me, to think he made a bad decision. I don’t want to let him down, nor do I want to be a bad reflection of my former boss. I want to be the best at what I do, but – of course – I have the humility to know that I won’t always do a perfect job. The job I have reminds me a lot of endurance sports;  I have such a passion to fully submerse myself into the knowledge, the literature, the research. I want to absorb it all and push the limits and do something amazing. It’s been challenging to both find the time and find the mental partitioning to do that with training, too. But I think that training has always been an integral part of my success as a researcher. It helps me find my center, it keeps me from spiraling out of control down a path. It keeps my brain focused and requires me to allocate time to specific tasks instead of going off on tangents for hours on end down a dead end. And I think I’m finding that groove, the style of structuring my day so that I can do my research and still relieve stress and find strength in endurance training.

So, here’s to getting out of the winter slump, no matter what it is (raises glass of milk).

What slumps have you been dealing with lately?

To be or not to be (coached): Is that the question?

I’ve been chatting with some friends recently, on twitter and in person, about the pros and cons of hiring a coach. For years I’ve been on my own, and I’ve been really psyched about it. I have a fairly solid background in developing and executing the right kind of training, or so at least I think. I also have a graduate degree in exercise science, and my education in physiology (and general interest in the matter) seems to help. Plus, my background in collegiate running has given me an exceptional gift: I was part of the building and assembly of training plans, I learned how to properly prepare for peaks, how to taper right, and how to execute a focused season (or not). And I did this twice a year, for four years in a row. It was like a religion. This, and my history of training marathons over the last few years, has really helped me to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what is just a waste of time. Even still, the question continues to linger about whether or not a coach would help make life a little easier (and me a little faster).

Here’s where I’m coming from:

Collegiate running: I was on a team that was coached by two different coaches (not at the same time, of course) who had completely different theories about running. My first collegiate coach, who I had during my freshman and sophomore seasons, was a Yooper with a strategy to get his athletes fast. Trouble was, sometimes his strategy backfired, resulting in burnouts and out-of-phase peaks. I remember the day I peaked during my sophomore cross-country season. It’s like it was yesterday… out there on Lahti Road doing 800m hill repeats. I was the fastest on the day, and I even grabbed the Lahti Road record! But it was training, and the rest of my season was shit. And we were still two weeks out from the conference meet. Needless to say, I learned that peaking during a late season training session, not at an “A” race, is not that awesome.

My second coach, who came along after our first coach resigned, was more educated in endurance physiology, and he was a fan of Jack Daniels (the PhD, not the whiskey). His training philosophy brought me to a 5K PR, made me a stronger and more efficient runner, and taught me the benefits of going long even if the race was relatively short. He encouraged his athletes to read, to educate themselves on the running and training philosophies, so we could better understand where his 2-a-days and 3.5hr runs were coming from. Terms like “LT” and “VO2Max” made sense long after I took classes on the subject, because who really pays attention in exercise physiology at an engineering school anyway?

Anyway, once I graduated and moved on, I wanted to continue racing (after a brief break sabbatical, that is). From what I had learned from my former (2nd) coach’s training strategies, I developed my own training plans. Each week looked something like this:

  • One long day (Sunday)
  • One threshold day (usually Thursday)
  • 2-3 recovery days (Wed/Fri)
  • a race, max-effort, or general intensity day (Tues or Saturday)

I also used two-a-days, both to get me in shape fast and to boost my aerobic fitness (LT), and before I knew it I was deep into training for my first marathon. I trained through the winter in Montana, but I did it all indoors. I’d hit the treadmill 6 days a week, somedays twice, running anywhere between 30minutes easy to 22miles while watching America’s Next Top Model. Sundays were my long runs, Mondays were almost always full recovery (off), Tuesdays and Thursdays would be a nice hour run in the morning with harder stuff in the afternoon. Wednesday and Fridays were recovery days, and Saturdays were either easy or longer intervals. That was my week, every week, from December to March, treadmill mashing and iPod tuning. Until, of course, I ran 26.2 miles for the first time outside in Napa Valley, California. And I was very satisfied with my finish of 3:22.

From there, it was all in some direction over a hill towards who knows what. I move back to Michigan and got back to training with some of my former teammates. I trained mostly outdoors from then on, but I kept my training schedule roughly the same. I squeezed in a few more marathons while working my butt off at school, and eventually got into a good rhythm. And with that rhythm came more challenges, including my introduction to triathlon. Instead of running every day, I swapped out biking and swimming. The key run workouts (the long run, the track intervals) would stay, but biking would take the place of the recovery and easy days. Swimming- well, that was something I forced myself to do once or twice a week instead of a recovery run or bike. And it rarely was fun (ok, endless relays were pretty fun).

With the planning of my first Ironman distance triathlon, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing key running workouts, so my first training plan as a triathlete actually used a marathon-specific run plan. I based my training on a book by Pete Pfitzinger, which may not have helped my Ironman run but actually helped my post-IM marathon five weeks later (where I ran a marathon PR of 3:19). Anyway, I was a little more knowledgeable after season #1 of triathlon, thanks to trial-and-error, not to mention just having experience under my belt, and my second season in triathlon was more successful. I was more diligent about my training plan; I kept an electronic spreadsheet so I could update it and kept track of weekly training hours. I watched my season progress, and the ups and downs of my weekly hours fluctuate somewhat sinusoidally (thanks to my planned training cycles).

This season, though, I had more doubts about my training than ever. I was racing better, but I was also having a more difficult time planning my training. I know how to handle one sport, but how could I deal with three and still try to do well? I had a hard time answering questions like: When should I do my long runs and rides? When am I supposed to do my hard swim workouts? Do I swim hard on the same day as a hard track workout? Or do I swim hard on my run/bike off day? Or do I bike hard on my run recovery day? These were questions that I couldn’t answer yes or no to unless I just did it, but I was afraid and hesitant that I would make the wrong decision and make my season go south real fast. I also had problems with accountability. One poor decision that I made on my own was my post-A-race recovery; or lack thereof. I basically didn’t do anything for two weeks after Rev3 Full, and the three weeks leading up to my fall marathon were full of sitting around eating candy, drinking bourbon, processing words, and being stressed out. In hindsight, active recovery may have been more beneficial than the “recovery” I was doing- which was more or less just being sedentary.

I don’t even have enough fingers to count the number of times I questioned getting a coach. I asked friends who had coaches, and we talked about their relationships. I talked to friends that didn’t have coaches, and we discussed the pros and cons of hiring someone to tell me what I thought I already knew. I talked to friends that were coaches, and got some great, rewarding feedback there, too.  I feel like I am in a tricky situation, because I know enough about training to know what might be a good idea or a bad idea, and this makes it really difficult to wrap my head around the possibility of having a coach who could have different views and opinions about things than me.

There’s also something so rewarding in designing your own plan, laying down the tracks that can bring you to having a great performance. Knowing that I was able to race fast this season, on my own, by doing the work that I put in- the work that I developed- well, anyway, this idea tends to linger in my mind. Over the past several months, whenever I would consider getting a coach, I’d ask myself: Would a coach help, or would a coach tell me something I didn’t want to hear? And not to mention, can I even afford it?

Now, I understand that not everyone can design their own training plan, let alone stick to it. I definitely didn’t stick to mine like I probably should have. There are weeks in my training plan that are sparsely sprinkled with completed workouts. This season, the only accountability I had was myself, and that was better sometimes than others. But regardless, having a coach is not essential to the triathlete. There, I said it. Now all my friends who are coaches are going to stop talking to me.

But they shouldn’t, because there really does come a point when having a coach is beneficial. For example, beginners rarely know where to even begin, let alone figure out how they are going to fit in training in their already-busy schedule known as The Real World. Because, let’s be honest, who can hire a coach if you don’t have a job?

And even for the “experienced” athlete- there comes a point when someone who thinks they know everything (points at myself) might need some insight. There comes a point when ya gotta say: “OK, do I want to get faster with the help of someone else, or am I OK with rolling the dice?” I sat down and thought about it, I thought really hard. And seriously. I considered all aspects. How much will a coach cost, and how much can I afford? What will they offer me that I don’t already have at my fingertips, including a boyfriend that bikes, a kickass group of cycling buddies, and a running partner that runs the shit out of everything (ok, maybe that’s not what I meant)?

Most importantly, though, and this is the real deal: If I hire a coach, am I confident that I can put aside what I know think I know and trust what this other person tells me as true? Can I say: “Oh, I feel like I should be running for 5 hours if I want to do well in a HIM” and they tell me- “No, you’re flippin’ cheesefried nuts.” That’s the biggest step: getting over what you think you know. Of course, if we look hard enough, we can usually find what we’re looking for. It’s like those people that go to the doctor to get the diagnosis that they want to hear. Sure, some would call them hypochondriacs, but if the fifteenth doctor they see tells them they have a rare disease that no one else has ever heard of and will get them special attention, than its the fifteenth doctor they are going to trust.

Ok, maybe finding the right coach is not really that extreme. But hopefully, you get my point. It’s not just “hearing what you want to hear”, though. It’s also hearing what is right to you. Finding the right coach is finding the right pairing of personalities; it’s finding the person that you can relate with, and the person that is willing to work with you. And when you know, chances are you will really know. And hopefully for your wallet’s sake, that person isn’t Dave Scott at $600/month. Of course, I say that, because I am a measly grad student making $20K a year. I am sure there are triathletes out there that eat $600 for breakfast.

How to Assemble a Road Bike

Although I recently sold my triathlon race bike frame (and its guts are spewed all over our apartment), I have placed the order for a new (seriously sweet) tri bike frame from one of my awesome sponsors, Kestrel. However, the delivery date is T.B.D. (rumors have it that its still being optimized to be the best it can be; I love love love engineering!), and I just couldn’t go any longer without riding my trainer (seriously, who says that?).

I have also decided that this will be the summer that I race my first road race. Maybe even a crit or two, who knows. In just my first year of cycling, I’ve developed quite a passion for the sport. Training with the big kids pushes me to get to the next level. Getting other women involved in the sport is really motivating, too. So, in order to train now and race (UCI legal) later, I had to get a road bike. The awesome guys at The Bike Shop twisted my arm, I swear.

The day the bike arrived, I told everyone who crossed my path that it was Christmas. I felt giddy and happy, and I was smiling ear to ear, so excited to hop on the saddle. My LBS really helped a girl out, like they usually do, because they found me the best deal, looked through their catalogs at last year’s bikes that were still in stock, and truly helped me save money and get the best bang for my buck (I am a graduate student, after all). Since I spend a lot of my free time in the Shop anyway, I thought- what the heck, I might as well try to put my own dang bike together.

So, without further adieu, I introduce to you… my new best friend, Jamis Xenith Race.

Getting the bike into my apartment was the easy part. Actually, putting the bike together wasn’t too bad either. Most bikes these days come to your local bike shops pretty far along on the assembly process. There’s some attachments and tightening and tuning that must happen, but its not like the bike shop dudes will have to assemble the wheels for you (well, in most cases anyway).

So I decided to assemble my own bike. Easy schmeezy? I wouldn’t go that far. But it wasn’t terrible.

Step 1: Mount bike on bike stand. Since my bike is all-carbon, I had to be extra-careful not to tighten the grip too tight to the top tube, otherwise I would run the risk of cracking it. Not a good thing to do on Day One. Once its on the rack, its much easier (and safer for the bike) to take the packaging off. Again, all-carbon means I don’t want my bike really touching anything unless my wheels are on, so touching the fork to the floor is a really bad idea.

Step 2 Put the saddle on the bike. Then, assembling the bike is that much easier because I can access the cable housing for the brakes and rear derailer much easier. Another just-be-careful tip: Don’t tighten the seat post down too hard if its an all carbon post. Carbon is extra-stiff with a high strength-to-weight ratio, but doesn’t fair well under hoop stresses (carbon tube lay-up, anyway, which is what bikes are made with). So, tighten it down juuuust enough so that the seat post doesn’t move. Use a torque wrench and make sure you don’t exceed the collar’s max torque (I knew I forgot something, thanks RunningBlonde! My LBS guys have their internal torque wrenches dialed !).

sStep 3: Put on the brakes and handlebars. Some bikes come with integrated headsets, others don’t. Be careful when you are changing things like your stem (that connects your handlebars to your headset), because it could result in your fork falling off your bike and crashing to the ground (another problem if you’ve got a carbon fork).The handlebars are attached to the stem pretty easily, but what position they are in really depends on the cyclist. If you put it together and see that it doesn’t fit quite right, modify the handlebar placement by getting different length stems or stems with different angles. I ride a 60mm stem on my tri bike, which is basically nothing, and I like it that way. It all depends on your bike fit and what you want to get out of your bike.

The brakes are pretty fun to connect; there is a hole on the backside of the fork that reaches the front side, where the front brake sits (usually). Tighten the bolt with an allen wrench and your brakes are attached!  Line up the brakes and tighten the bolt down even more to make sure the brakes don’t go all wobbly on ya. Positioning the brakes just-right over the wheels is an easy affair.Step 4: Route the cables. Routing cables can be easy or it can be a lot of work. There are different cables for brakes and shifters, too. Lucky for me, my rear and front derailer cables were already good-to-go (most bikes will come like that if you buy a complete bike). Having the right length and the right tension in the cables is key (plus, the cables wear in over time, so its always a good idea to take the bike back into the bike shop and have them tighten things back down after a month or so of riding on a new bike). Step 5: Make the fit adjustments. I sold my last road bike (Marin Treviso) because of two reasons: #1- I always rode my tri bike because it was my first tri season and I wanted to get comfortable on it (hence, I never rode my roadie) and #2- riding my road bike made my crotch (sorry!) and shoulders hurt-like-hell. I could never find my sit bones, and I’d always end up propped up with the front of my pubis on the nose of my saddle. No matter how many times I’d try to sit back and find my sit bones, I never could. Maybe over the last year I’ve learned to sit right thanks to my triathlon bike (not likely), or maybe the Xenith (size 51) was made for me, but throwing a leg over that bike, at the height I arbitrarily chose for the saddle, just fit! The pedals were where they needed to be (so the crank arms were the right length, too), my sit bones were where they needed to be, my shoulders felt relaxed and my arms weren’t stretched out, and everything felt gooood. I didn’t even have to swap saddles, which is something I’ve heard that everyone does.

As a side note, I really think anyone that shells out a couple grand on a bike should get it professionally fit. Hands-down, the best thing I did to prepare for my first triathlon season was to get fit on my tri bike. I was lucky and never had any issues with back problems or cramping, on the bike or afterward, and I attribute this to the fit. I went to Peak Performance in Sylvan Lake, Michigan, to get mine done. Chad is a great guy! Very knowledgeable, and willing to spend extra time with his customers to make sure they leave happy.A few other tips:

  • Support your LBS: True, these dudes are my really good friends. But I have a passion for shopping local anyway. Wherever you’re LBS, the staff will likely have your bike ready-to-ride out the door when you buy it, so that takes all these steps out of the picture.
  • No go? Try online vendors: Not everywhere has an LBS (or a bike shop that sells tri bikes, or a bike shop with nice people). I bought my first tri bike (Quintana Roo Caliente) through an online vendor. I was nervous at first, but since my LBS couldn’t get the Scott Plasma Contessa that I dreamed about for so long, I had to get something (there was an incredible backorder those bikes were on, which I attribute to Linsey Corbin’s success at IMWC ’08)! Trusted online vendors that I’ve used: (always well stocked and very knowledgeable staff!) and Backcountry (BC is hit or miss with bike stock)

So there you have it: some (very basic) steps to building your bike when it comes. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to ride my bicycle now.