BTR Speaker Series: Training Intensity

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Last night, I went to see a presentation put on by Neal Henderson. Neal is the director of the Sport Science department at Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and an elite coach. He has been named USA Cycling’s national coach of the year in 2009 based on his work with multiple-time world champion Taylor Phinney. Given that resume and a free lecture, how could you pass up this kind of knowledge?

Training Intensity

I opted to eat at Larkburger beforehand. Ran into Justin there. He was coming/going from a massage nearby. Headed over to Sherpa’s and waited while 30+ folks finished up their dining on the Napali and Indian buffet before we got started. Neal is a Boulder guy so he had plenty of anecdotes about locals and would throw in stuff like “…when you are running up Sanitas”. Right up my alley!

Training Intensity

He went over a lot of information on training methodology. Most of this stuff isn’t radically new information to me. You pick up up over time reading here and there. But it isn’t often put together in such a way with a qualified professional spoon feeding it to you slide by slide and answering your questions. I didn’t try to capture every slide he put up instead I was really trying to digest everything and see how I compared.

Training Intensity

Over the hour+ Neal spoke, he covered a lot of data. I collect a lot of data on myself day to day but I never exactly know what to do with it. Look at my HR graph. Pretty. Next. Well, Neal gave some insight on what things you should be looking for and how you can take that data and do more with it to understand your body and your training cycles. He would share anecdotes about a situation with a world-record level athlete and then some random 10k runner from Boulder. They see all kinds and while there are different levels of athlete at play, the variables are all the same.

Training Intensity

After the presentation, I headed over to Boulder Baked to get a box of custom made hot and fresh cookies for Kim upon my arrival home as a thank you for letting me escape my nightly kid bedtime ritual. As I was walking to my car, I walked by the Tesla dealership and gazed at some car porn for a few seconds. I didn’t get as big of a hard one as I did the first time I saw this car. It seems so small now. But I still love it and once I turn 40 and can show I have the kid’s college money in the bank, something at this caliber will probably be parked in my garage.


Oh, I almost forgot — what did I learn? Where do I begin! In no particular order and only as far as I recall…here is a random list of things. Some of this I already knew but it was clarified or further explained through data.

  • Choose Your Parents Wisely: Some people are gifted at the sport and others are not. This is a major factor. Don’t let it stop you but understand that you are not like everyone else. Some people get more fast twitch muscles. Some get more slow twitch muscles. If you understand your strengths, then you have more informed knowledge about choosing events that cater towards your strengths. Meaning a slow twitch guy isn’t going to get the WR in sprinting but has an advantage in longer endurance events.
  • Overtraining is a disease: If they see one thing more than anything at the Center, it is people that overtrain. Neal showed plenty of graphs to illustrate this. One tool he showed took your GPS/HR/etc. data and converted into power and fatigue numbers. Then when graphed, you could see peaks and valleys. Neal talked about how people in the valley tend to show psychological signs of fatigue (like being pissy). His goal was to balance their training out. People who had hit the wall have come to him for this analysis. They often end up running less for 6 months and then breaking their PR with proper coaching or insight.
  • You probably do more high intensity work than pro/elite athletes do. He showed some good graphs that broke down every workout by zone 1-5. Over the course of a year, these elites were doing 0.5-2% in zone five for the year. Not much at all. Low minutes a week if that. The majority of the time 40-60% was all zone 1 stuff. Running slower is a major component to running faster. I personally got this concept last Fall training for Denver. Much slower in training, yet 20 minutes faster on the PR.
  • Lactate Threshold is important. We spent a lot of slides on LT. Neal explained exactly how they test and measure this on you if you come in. I finally got a solid answer on how they know the moment you cross LT. The graphs showed what your lactate levels do after LT. Hockey stick baby! He backed up the recent article I read saying lactate is not evil. There were 4 lines on that graph and I forgot to snap a photo of that one. Great to visualize that data.
  • Training just below LT is much better than training just above LT. He explained psychological reasons and physiological reasons on why this is. Overall, you get more bang for the buck being on the low side. But you have to know where that is.
  • Nutrition is important. He showed slides on how various athletes burn carbs vs. fats at various paces. Many graphs were like this where they took pace across the X-axis and started you slow and kept increasing in steady increments. You could see how the mix of carbs to fat burnt changed at each interval and how it correlated back to LT. You could find crossover points. You could take those paces and those amounts burnt and calculate for your given race requirements what it would take to get to the finish line. They discussed short races, marathons, and 100 mile races and how the requirements change because of the time you have available to feel the effects of what you are consuming.
  • Training cycles should include rest. Neal seemed to gravitate towards a 16 day on period followed by a 5 day rest period. That makes 21 days or 3 week in a period. Multiple periods for a cycle. If rest isn’t a part of your training plan, then you are wrong from the start. He explained that he takes your event date and first works backwards to insert the rest periods. Then starts coloring in the workload. Rest didn’t mean do not run of course. Active recovery was well advised. But cutting down your workload by up to 50% was. Workload was the term often used…not miles or time. He had a formula for workload and it involved time, effort and frequency. So your mileage should drop of course but might not be by 50%. If you can drop your workload but still get miles, you might be better served.
  • Peaking? He touched on it but didn’t detail it. We were over an hour at this point. He could have done another whole hour (or more) on that topic alone. I got the feeling that he could easily teach a one hour class on this stuff and you still wouldn’t get through it all in a semester. I guess that is why there are coaches! They do the brain work while you spend all your time outside running around the block.
  • Barefoot running? Neal asserted that there is something to it during a quick Q and A session.
  • Going to sea level to race? I asked this question to see if he had any advice for Boston. He gave me 2 tidbits that made a lot of sense. One costs money and the other is free. I may do both.

Good news is that I was on to most of that stuff already. I am not really respecting the rest as I should be though. I need to chart that out some more and plan for it better. See where it really is. I felt totally drained before my surgery from those 22 days straight of good workload. Then 3 days off then a few days easy and I was back faster and better. The data is all there and my geek brain needed a push to get me to the next level in analyzing it all.

Part of me leaves a session like that and thinks “I should get a coach!”. But then I realize that 1/2 the fun in this for me is that I do it on my own. I use friends and community as resources but I feel like if I had Chris Carmichael on the payroll and then finished 10th at Leadville, everyone would go….did you see who is coach was? Duh. But if I finish deeper in the pack on my own, I will feel more satisfied with my achievement. That being said, I can see taking advantage of one time consulting sessions with experts like Neal to get a 2nd opinion on what you think you are doing. I might not be able to spot something as quickly as a trained professional even though it is in my own body. Frankly, we are sometimes the worst judges of our own abilities.

The “marketing message” out there is train harder and train more often. OK, yes but the part they leave out is “train smart” and that involves not training at all — sometimes.

Thanks to BTR for a great evening.