Racing On Empty

A week ago I managed to win the National Master’s criterium championships in my age group, regaining the dark blue stripey jersey that I had previously won in 2015. The race saw around 20 of us take to the start line on a flattish non-technical circuit that is traditionally a sprinter’s paradise. In order to win, I knew I had to get away from that larger group, preferably with less than a handful of other people, as a bunch sprint would see me nowhere near the podium, even in a race of women my own age. So that’s what I did: a few attacks from me and others softened up everyone’s legs and then with about 7 laps to go I picked my moment to launch off the front solo, gained a solid gap, and managed to hold off the bunch until the end, winning by 20 seconds ahead of the sprint for second place. Hurrah!

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From the outside, it must have looked like I was on great form that day. But the reality was my power output during that attack and solo break was just average, and my top end power during the race much lower than I would have hoped. Not that I expected better: my main focus for 2019 is cyclocross season, which starts in September and culminates next January. All my training since last January has been focussed on recovering from some niggling injuries that flared up last season and making myself more injury-proof this season, whilst building up volume and intensity steadily to give myself the broad base of fitness that will see me through the next 6 months. These crit champs, along with the National Master’s RR champs end of the month, are stretch goals that if I felt fit enough to contest, I would. So with my fitness just reaching those levels, I went for it.

But my long term goals meant no tapering. School’s out in a week’s time and I can’t afford not to ridelots whilst I have the childfree time to do it. I’m still running 10-15 miles a week and hitting the gym at least once – things I never did when I took road racing seriously. But worst of all, my not-that-busy everyday life took a sudden turn and I ended up with a lot more lifestyle stress in the week before the race than I usually have in a month: cycle commuting into busy London on two different days (I rarely commute into London); consecutive 530am wake-up calls on both race day and the day before (I rarely wake up before 730am); a long train ride to an even longer meeting the day before the race (I rarely take 2 hour train journeys); and to top it off, spending the early morning of race day in the cold rain supporting my young daughter’s first triathlon. Add to that the Crystal Palace crit on Tuesday in which I finished with my worst placing in 11 seasons of racing there – dropped not only by the break when it rode off but also the remainder of the bunch a few laps later – and a set of short intervals on Thursday during which I could literally only complete two of each duration as I was just too mentally drained for more. Some form eh? So how did I manage to turn up on race day and win?

I’ve always had a good sense of when my body needs a break (see my other blog post) and whenoverreaching in training, lack of sleep, or general life stress is getting in the way of fitness gains. But recently my HRV apps have been helping me see it a lot more clearly. Here are a few screenshots:

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The above is from the EliteHRV app, and I can see that the rise in coefficient of variation (the 7-dayrolling average difference between readings) from the previous weekend is slowly rising along with HRV, indicating that those training sessions were pushing me a bit but not too hard. Then as the week before the race ends, the CV drops but HRV stays the same, indicating that I was recovering from my stress load (helped no doubt by easing off in training for a few days).

Below, the WattsonBlue app shows a similar story. The little rise in HRV from the beginning of July indicates that I had been handling my training well, so race week was just about conserving mental and physical energy knowing my life stress would be quite high. Indeed, there was a slight drop towards race day but nothing too severe. (As an aside, I do not take HRV readings on race mornings– a personal decision that basically comes down to me not wanting to know. Maybe in future I willcover the screen so I won’t know the result until after the race? In the interests of science!)

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Overall recovery – a subjective measure of feeling physically and mentally recovered from the previous day – was trending downwards towards the end of the week. I knew I was long on anxiety and short on sleep but it could have been much worse if I’d been trying to train more or harder.

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And speaking of sleep, a couple of late nights, poor quality sleep, and early wake-ups put me in a hole that I just barely managed to crawl out of by Sunday morning. And yes I really do need a average minimum of 8 hours a night to perform well!

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Finally, my overall subjective metrics were trending low by the end of the week and therefore Saturday consisted of nothing but my long train journey and meeting bookended by the easiest ride in

and out of London I could manage. No pre-race efforts for me! Again, by Sunday things had somewhat stabilised, enough to go into the race feeling ok.

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None of these measures reflect anything surprising to me. But I have spent years where important race weeks have seen me cram too much training into not enough sleep, take on needless life stressthinking “I can handle it”, or just not be disciplined enough with my time in the days before an important race (rebuilding your entire bike the night before, anyone?) And then on race day I’ve underperformed – too much physical fatigue, too mentally distracted, too wiped out in general.

So despite years of experience and knowing myself and my capabilities (and limitations), it’sincredibly useful to see these concepts spelled out in data. If only to remind myself to go to bed already! And this is why I won the race last Sunday – not because I was the best racer, or I was the strongest on the bike, or could jump the hardest to get a gap, or make everyone else work so hard they fell off my wheel. Simply because I could gauge my life and training stress in the week before

the race to give myself the best chance of success on the day. And luck of course. But luck only matters if you put yourself in the best position to be lucky.

Written by, Maryka Sennema - Head of Exercise Science

Kieran Blay