Weekend Reading: Four reasons I’m climbing faster, and you can too.

I finally did it! Even as my weight came down and my fitness improved, I’ve struggled to ride Cheyenne Canyon in Colorado Springs in under 20 minutes. I used to live at the top of the canyon, so the 3.1-mile long, 1200-vertical feet high ascent was my climb home. Way back when, in the years much closer to my pro days, I could ride the climb in well under 20 minutes. In recent years, I’ve been somewhere between 20-22 minutes, but never under 20. Until this week!

Earlier this week I rode the climb in 19:41! To put it in perspective, really good amateur racers can do it in about 15-16 minutes and Tom Danielson holds the record at 13:34. But for a nearly-52-year-old guy, I’m happy with anything under 20:00.

The question is: why now? Where did I make the improvement necessary to finally reach my goal? Here’s how I did it, and how you can get faster on your favorite local climb:

  1. Intervals: No surprise here, and nothing all that sexy either. Just straight-up hard interval work. A few years ago I realized that, despite many years of mileage in my legs, I needed max-effort intervals in order to achieve measurable improvements in my climbing speed. If you’ve been riding for many years and you seem stuck at one speed, consider short, very hard interval work. I’ve been doing 90-second intervals on a 9% grade, with about 90 seconds recovery between each.
  2. Plant-based diet: I refuse to be an extremist with my diet, or to recommend extremist diets to athletes we work with. I do believe, however, that a significant shift to “more plants, fewer animals” is good for both performance and health. Keep in mind, eating for good health doesn’t automatically translate into eating for optimal athletic performance. As an athlete, it’s important to think about performance nutrition first (what energy and nutrients do you need for optimal performance and recovery?), and then source your food in a healthy way (fresh vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, whole foods instead of processed, etc.). For me, this dietary shift has helped me lose 10-12 pounds (I’m down to about 158 right now) and have the energy necessary to maintain a higher training load than I have in the past 10 years.
  3. Endurance Blocks: This year I had the opportunity to race Trans Andes (6-day mountain bike stage race in Chile) in January, ride the Amgen Tour of California Race Experience (8-stage race) in May, and ride the USA Pro Cycling Challenge Race Experience (7-stage race) from August 20-26. My personal-best ride up Cheyenne Canyon came about 15-16 days after the final stage of the USAPCC. Following some recovery time after USAPCC, that’s just about exactly when I’d expect to see a nice boost in power at lactate threshold from training block that big.
  4. Power-to-Weight Ratio:  All of the factors above came together in my power-to-weight ratio for a 20-minute effort (remember, PWR always has to be expressed for a specific timeframe. It’s always higher for shorter efforts and declines as efforts get longer.). The day I rode a 19:41 on Cheyenne Canyon I think I weighed 158 pounds (71.8kg), and my average power on the climb was 287 watts. That’s four watts per kilogram (OK, fine, 287/71.8 = 3.997 for you engineers). Now, is 4 w/kg going to win me any hill climbs? No, probably not. But consider this: when I was somewhere between 7-10 pounds heavier, I rode up the same canyon and pushed 288 watts, but I reached the top 90 seconds slower.
  5. New Bike: For the record, I set my PR on the second ride on my new Trek Madone 7. I’m not going to give the bike all the credit for my performance, but it certainly helped me get the power down to the road. If you haven’t tested on out yet, go do it. It’s an awesome bike!

All of the things I did are things you can do. You can shift the focus of your interval training and change the composition of your diet. You can lose weight and gain power at lactate threshold and VO2 max. You can schedule a few long endurance blocks during the year (maybe two or three 5- to 8-day high-mileage blocks). And in the end you’ll see a similar improvement in your power-to-weight ratio, and you’ll see new personal bests on you favorite local climbs.

If you’re looking for help, this is a great time to start working with a coach and preparing for 2013. This time of year used to be one of the slower seasons for coaches, but in recent years it’s become one of the busiest. More athletes are realizing the benefits of year-round training, and many athletes who have ambitious sporting goals for 2013 understand that they need to start preparing now. Athletes who don’t train effectively through the Fall can experience a 20% decline in power at lactate threshold, and that makes it very difficult for any athlete to achieve significant performance gains year-over-year. [Call 719-635-0645 x1 or email athleteservices@trainright.com to talk about a coaching plan to achieve your goals.]

To put that into real numbers, for me a 20% decline in maximum sustainable power would mean knocking about 50 watts off my average power for Cheyenne Canyon! I fought hard for those 50 watts and I don’t intend to let them just fade away. You also fought hard for the power you have right now, so make sure you do what it takes to keep it!

Have a great weekend,
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach
Carmichael Training Systems

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