Book Reviews · cycling · fitness

Reading about riding around the world

Two years ago I finished and reviewed This Road I Ride: My Incredible Journey from Novice to Fastest Woman to Cycle the Globe by Juliana Buhring.

This year I read Coffee First, Then the World: One Woman’s Record Breaking Pedal Around the Planet by Jenny Graham.

I was reading it at the same time as Nat’s partner Michel was attempting a 1000 km ride. I blogged about not being tempted by either option. But obviously I’m a bit fascinated by people who have this in them.

The book was published this spring but the ride was in 2018.

Here’s the basic facts.

Who: Jenny Graham, 38 year old Scottish endurance cyclist and adventurer

What: 18,000 miles, 16 countries, 124 days

If you don’t want to read the full book, you can read Bicycling magazine’s short version here or the Guardian’s account here.

In light of Nat’s post about providing support for Michel’s ride, it won’t be a surprise that for Jenny Graham’s ride which was required by Guinness to be unsupported in order to count, the main challenges were logistical.

There were broken bike parts, lots of sleeping in ditches and bus shelters, googling coffee and breakfast near me, unexpected menstrual needs, charging of all the equipment, and many opportunities to persuade well meaning strangers that it was okay for a woman to ride alone at night.

Interestingly for us more everyday riders there was also no angst about speed or fitness.

As with Buhring’s book there’s a lot of racing to the next stopping point and not so much introspection. There’s also a lot less detail than you might expect about the places Graham is riding through. We get to know Canada through Tim Hortons and her fear of bears and Australia through long straight roads, winter riding conditions, snakes and kangaroos. The section on riding through Russia was like an advertisement not to do that with lots of near death on the roads.

The book really is a head down story of the logistics of managing this sort of ride. Yet somehow you get inside Graham’s head and Graham’s story is pretty engaging.

It did make me think more about some extended bikepacking trips but it also hammered home for me that I like riding with my head up and seeing the places I’m riding. Also, both books and Michel’s trip which I followed along with Nat on social media, made me realize how much sleep matters to me. There was a lot of talk about sleep deprivation in the book along with accounts of mini naps and drifting off the road. I knew she made it and even so I found it hard to read.

The book is gripping–i read it pretty quickly–but it’s not the adventure book I’d imagined.

You can read the history of the record Jenny Graham holds here.

cycling · training

Sam has six thoughts about the need to go slow

An orange stripey snail on a bright green mango fruit. Photo by Unsplash.

In a TEDX talk Stephen Seiler explains how “normal people” can train like the world’s best endurance athletes. What’s the lesson? “No pain no gain” is a slick slogan, but a fundamentally flawed approach to getting faster and fitter over time.” Instead, Seiler who has spent years studying the training habits of great endurance athletes explains that high volume training in the “easy zone” is the way to build, speed and endurance.

This article on the biggest mistakes that self-trained cyclists make makes a similar point.

One of the big mistakes is avoiding easy rides. “Most self-trained cyclists assume that only the hard rides matter. But, that’s a wrong assumption.  In fact, easy rides are just as essential as the intense rides. You need to do the easy rides as they help in developing your aerobic system and promote the recovery process.”

The trick is, of course, that you need to spend the time you’re not going easy, going really hard. How much time should you spend in each zone? The worry is that self-trained cyclists, that’s us cyclists without coaches, spend most of our time in the murky middle.

From What Everyone Gets Wrong About Endurance Training: “In 2010, a meta-analysis by Norwegian researchers examined the actual distribution of training intensity used by elite athletes across the full spectrum of endurance sports. The conclusion: The best in the world complete about 80 percent of their training volume at low intensity, 7 to 8 percent at moderate intensity, and about 12 to 13 percent at high intensity.”

Here’s the problem though–time. Professional athletes training for competition have hours each day set aside for training, most of it in the easy or green zone. You and I have jobs. We have families. We might read books or go to the theatre. We aren’t doing this full-time. Cramped for time, we look for short cuts. One short cut that’s often promised is high intensity interval training. But apparently, so cycling coaches tell me, this can’t replace a solid aerobic base. Building that base means a lot of time exercising in a zone so easy it hardly feels like work.

More from What Everyone Gets Wrong About Endurance Training : “Successful training for endurance sports is highly nuanced. Athletes do require some HIIT in their programs, but they need a tiny fraction of what is being proposed by many in the fitness industry. The endurance athlete will use HIIT as a supplement to—not a replacement for—the aerobic base work that makes up the foundation of their fitness.”

Six thoughts:

One, all of this has got me thinking about zooming around in the virtual world of Zwift. I spend a lot of time in Zwift, going hard, racing uphills and competing with past me for sprint PRs. I’m friends on Facebook with a few cycling coaches who complain about the tendency of Zwift to encourage speedy riding rather than base building. I probably should do some more easy paced group rides in Zwift. There are even some good training plans in Zwift. It might be time to stop just playing and make a 2020 plan.

Two, it might be time to unpack my heart rate monitor. Yes, I could use the talk test but I’m kind of attracted to numbers and data and tracking things. See Take it easy: Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 1 and Go hard! : Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 2.

Three, this is all about sports performance not health. For the health benefits, HIIT is just fine.

Four, while I don’t have the hours and hours a day competitive athletes have for base training, I do commute by bike and run errands by bike and all of that is in the easy zone. It counts too.

Five, while I raised the worry about zooming and Zwift that’s true for spin classes too. Spin classes whether on a Peloton bike or in a studio are rarely in the easy-going zone. Again, most of the people in the classes aren’t training for performance. Mostly they’re training for general health and fitness reasons.

Six, thinking about this forces me to think about the kind of cyclist I am. I’m not racing. I’m not training for a competitive cycling season. So can I ignore this advice? The problem is that although I’m not racing, I like to ride with fast people. I want to go out with the local bike club. For a woman rider in her mid fifties, I suspect that means taking my training seriously.

See you in the green zone!

How do you think about training and performance for running/cycling/cross country skiing and other endurance sports? Do you follow the 80% easy rule?

Book Reviews · fitness

Sam thinks about pain, endurance, and performance (Book review in progress)

I’ve been thinking a lot about pain lately as I emerge from the knee pain fog that took over lots of my life this fall/winter. At its worst I just couldn’t think about philosophy, work, relationships, or my kids while walking. That’s the usual stuff that fills my brain but my knee hurt too much to think. I used to think of my walks as productive time.

I enjoyed the freedom to think as I walked and often claimed I thought more clearly when walking. Like my standing desk, but better. Instead with my knee pain, I had to focus on breathing through the pain, paying attention to my gait to not make it worse. I’d count steps not with a tracker but in my head to help me make it to my office. The walk was 1.3 km and often I’d stop along the way and check messages, take photos of horses, and catch my breath and regroup.

See Pondering pain and its absence.

Thank you knee brace!

There is nothing the world could do to accommodate this pain. I’ve wondered about how to think about injuries and disability and my knee. See this post on getting past the usual talk of injuries and healing. It’s not that simple. It’s not just a matter of inclusion/exclusion either. See Andrea Zanin’s post on pain and the what the social model of disability leaves out.

Now I think of myself as someone who is good with pain. And I’ve been thinking about what I mean by that.

I think that of myself I suppose because other people tell me that. That’s part of the story. I gave birth to three kids without pain medication. I’m not claiming I could handle difficult births without drugs but run of the mill uncomplicated easy births didn’t seem to need drugs for me. I hear it too from physiotherapists who make your body move in painful ways as part of the injury recovery process. I do exercises even though they hurt. And once, when a dentist couldn’t get the freezing to work for a root canal, I asked him how long the painful part would take. Not long, he said. Just do it, I replied. And yes it really hurt but I lived to tell and we’re still friends.

I’m also reading a really wonderful book about endurance and I especially enjoyed the chapter on pain. I’ve liked Alex Hutchinson’s work for years. His column Sweat Science is one of my fave things to read and share on the Fit is a Feminist Issue Facebook page. I also follow his work in The Globe and Mail. It’s not particularly feminist but it is evidence based reporting on fitness. That’s rare. His book Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance is well worth reading. Chapter Five is about pain and endurance athletes.

Of course, I’m also drawn to the chapter because it’s about cycling, the sport of pain. Cyclists have lots to say about pain. Lance Armstrong, “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.” Hutchinson goes for Jens Voigt, of “shut up, legs” fame. Among reasonably equally fit and talented cyclists a bike race is about the willingness to suffer. She who suffers the most wins the race. And the ability to suffer was Voigt’s claim to fame.

Hutchinson details some of Voigt’s successes including his career capping attempt at the record for The Hour. Voigt succeeded but he only held it briefly.

What’s the hour? Says Voigt, “The beauty of it lies in its simplicity. It’s one bike, one rider, one gear. There are no tactics, no teammates, no bonus seconds at the finals. The hour record is just about how much pain you can handle! It’s the hour of truth.” p. 85

What’s so tough about it? Hutchinson explains that for a trained athlete sixty minutes of all out exercise sits in the excruciating gap between lactate threshold and critical power. In other words riders need to find the highest metabolic rate that is also steady state. Done right, writes Hutchinson, the hour is the longest bout of painful high intensity exercise you can endure. p. 97

I haven’t done anything like the hour but I have done various distance time trials in a velodrome with a coach yelling “suffer” at me. If I finished and could walk away with a smile, clearly I hadn’t worked hard and suffered enough! Going fast on a track bike hurts. It’s not about bike fit or about things you can fix. It’s about working your body that hard. There’s definitely pain involved. Rowing was similar.

Hutchinson also reports on various tests of endurance athletes and pain. It’s true that athletes can take more pain than the average person. It’s not that they perceive pain differently. In the tests that Hutchinson reports on both athletes and non athletes report pain starting at about the same point. The tests involve non fun things like holding your hand in ice water or having a blood pressure cuff squeezed well past the point of comfort. But notably, for a given test, where the average person says “stop” at point n, the athlete is still going strong at 2n.

The gap between athletes and non athletes is striking. But so too is the gap between athletes in season and off season. It also makes a difference how you get in shape. Athletes who train using high intensity methods, repeated all out sprint drills for instance, develop a high tolerance for withstanding pain than no athletes who train at a moderate pace.

I’m going to his Guelph launch on Wednesday night. See BOOK LAUNCH: Endure! Award-winning journalist Alex Hutchinson launches his book, Endure! on Wed. May 30th at 7pm in the ebar. And I’m going to give him a copy of our book and hope he spreads the word.

Past posts on pain:

Greetings from the Pain Cave

Three great articles on the psychology of pain and of pushing yourself

Are athletes masochists?

Why are painful workouts so much fun? (And other questions about suffering and athletic performance)

Here’s a cycling t-shirt I love but I don’t feel the same way about knee suffering as I do about really hard ride suffering:

View this post on Instagram

New cycling t-shirt

A post shared by Samantha Brennan (@samjanebrennan) on

athletes · eating · Guest Post · racing · running · sports nutrition · training

Aimée crosses a line (Guest post)

by Aimée Morrison

My half-marathon is in two weeks. I hit peak training mileage and intensity and the onset of summer heat at the same time. Naturally, my hydration and fuel strategy fell apart, and I had to buy a fuel belt, which is something I swore I would never do, but here I am. I’m thinking about why this has me so freaked out. Because I’m pretty freaked out.

The precipitating incident was last Sunday’s long run. My training group ran 20km and it was remarkably hot, all of sudden. Now, I had pretty easily run the same 20km the week before, and all the other runs before that. What happened this past Sunday, though, was: I didn’t have enough water in my tiny handheld bottle to compensate for the all the extra sweating the heat entailed, never mind the extra distance as we kept adding kilometers week after week. I also lost all my hunger cues because that’s what heat does to me and so I forgot to keep nibbling on my carb-and-chocolate baked bites that are my go-to run fuel. I also lost the pockets where I stashed these little snacks because I was now running without a jacket, so I hadn’t brought enough of them in any case. I just completely failed to hydrate and fuel anywhere near enough. I bonked at 18.5 km, and I had to stagger-walk the last 1.5km.

Which is how I found myself at the Running Room the next day, staring at a wall of bottles and bags and belts and bladders and cringing. I bought gels and reconciled myself to paste-food instead of solids. I bought a belt. It’s got a zip pouch for my phone, a quick-grab strap system for gels, and two-quick draw holsters from which I can quickly extract either of two fluorescent yellow 10oz water bottles. It’s got a non-slip strap that doesn’t bounce around on my hips, and a spot I can stash Kleenexes. It’s a fancy and expensive fanny pack, basically. I hated it on sight.

Well. Guess what? I’ve worn it out for my last three runs, and now I love it. It turns out that a steady stream of water and gels does keep me feeling strong through my whole run, and prevents me from feeling like trash in the hours afterwards. But I still feel really cringe-y about other people seeing me in it.

The thing is, I think I look like a jackass, some cross between a soccer mom with a purse full of snacks, a norm-core 90s dad, and some kind of ridiculously self-important non-athlete with more money than muscle endurance. Yeah: full on imposter syndrome, rooted in some pretty judgey thinking about soccer moms and 90s dads, and probably some worries that I now look exactly like all those other middle-aged fanny-packed women runners out there in their tech gear chugging along the Sunday sidewalks in their groups. It’s great that 25 year old me used to roll my eyes at those women in their sun-visors but I should rethink this practice at 45, when I am now clearly also a middle-aged woman with a whole hat rack of sun visors (so practical!) chugging along the Sunday trails with my group. It would be best if I could not reflexively hate myself for occasionally looking like … what I am. Ah, internalized ageism.

At the same time, I am kind of amazed at myself. How did I get here? This person with electrolyte sports drink in the left holster and water in the right? With gels on my hip that I greedily squeeze down my throat when I’m stopped at lights? But then I doubt myself: I’m just keeping a 7min/km pace—with walk breaks!—for a couple of hours in the middle of the city, not racing across the Sahara. Who do I think I am?

Increasingly, I answer myself firmly: I am a runner, putting in 35-45 km per week, across five days a week, doing hills, doing sprints, running big distances over long hours, in groups, with my husband, by myself. On my bonk run, my FitBit indicated I had burned something like 1350 calories over those 20km. I am very much entitled to my Endurance Tap energy gels and my electrolyte drinks. I am a pale and scrawny middle-aged woman with strong looking legs and a weak looking chin. I wear a fuel belt. I am an athlete.

You need a gel? I’ve got some extra, here in my fanny pack.

Aimée Morrison is on sabbatical from professoring in new media studies in 2018 and trying to achieve some healthy ratio of words-written to miles-run. She’ll run her first half marathon in Ottawa on May 27. With the help of 4 Endurance Tap packs, one bottle of electrolyte replacement, and one bottle of water, she finished this week’s 20km run in record time and without bonking, not even a little.

athletes · competition · fitness · inclusiveness · running · training · triathalon

By the way, fat people also aren’t lying about exercise either

Earlier this week, I talked about the lack of credibility given to fat people when it comes to what we eat. You can tell people, if you’re me, that you’re a non drinking, non fast food eating, vegetarian but people don’t really believe you.

But it’s also true that no one believes what we do when it comes to activity either.

This week Ragen Chastain appeared in People Magazine as the heaviest woman to ever complete a marathon. She’s actually completed two because the first time she didn’t know it would put her in the Guinness book of records and she didn’t notify them.

She’s not alone as a larger endurance athlete. See my post (Updated) Plus sized endurance athletes, we exist!

What gets me about Ragen is not what she’s done, though that’s remarkable at any size, it’s the lengths people will go to deny it. Tracy blogged about it here, When “pathetic” loses its irony. It’s a post about a Facebook group she was in that allowed a lot of Ragen trolling, bashing, and skepicism to go unchecked.

You can follow Ragen’s journey to Ironman here at her blog IronFat.

The Ragen haters have their own blog IronFacts, which is a debunking blog which supposedly tells the truth about Ragen and details her lies. It was last updated in May 2017. Since presumably People magazine has its own fact checkers maybe that’s shut them up. I don’t know. I find the whole thing puzzling.

Like, why would you even doubt that she’s telling the truth?

There are medals, race finishing photos, pictures of completion times. She’s never claimed to run the whole thing. Instead Ragen like lots of amateur athletes runs and walks her marathons. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

To me it can only be explained by a kind of prejudice against larger bodies, that those of us who have them can’t be trusted and shouldn’t be believed. We set out to lie and to cheat people. I’m not sure why people believe this but they seem to.

What do you think? Do you also find out puzzling?

The sun setting over Mo’orea, an island in French Polynesia