Monday, August 27, 2018

Starting out hard (tail)

When Alex and I were first looking at mountain bikes for me, he suggested starting with a hardtail (a bike with front suspension but no rear) as opposed to a full suspension (both front and rear suspension). He said starting on a hardtail would teach me to become a better rider because it's... wait for it... harder to ride (who would have guessed!). But, for reals, a hardtail forces you to become a smoother rider because it's less forgiving, whereas a full suspension bike lets you roll over and up many more things with much less skill needed. With full suspension bikes getting cheaper and better, it's easy for new riders to justify starting on one. But trading hard earned mountain biking skills for easy speed and comfort can get riders into danger real quick. I was completely on board for starting on a hardtail since I don't like taking the easy way out of things, despite the fact that it was going to be a pain in my butt (literally!). Also hardtails are generally cheaper than full suspension, so for someone starting out, it's less of a monetary commitment and you can get a lot more bike for the money.

I'm glad technology has advanced beyond this 25+ year old fully rigid bike with narrow wheels and handlebars, which I now use for commuting.
Most trails are bumpy, rough places to ride, and modern suspension is a great gift for comfortable riding. Can you believe people used to ride fully rigid bikes on trails?? Those riders must be complete beasts on the trail because they have to be so good at picking lines and getting over things smoothly since their bike won't just do it for them like full suspension bikes do. A hardtail isn't that extreme, but with a rigid rear end, you still need to learn how to pick lines and shift around your weight to make it though the trail, all essential mountain biking skills. A hardtail also gives you a ton more feedback, meaning that you'll instantly know if you're riding something well or not because your bike will either be quiet and smooth (if you're riding well) or loud and jerky (if you aren't). Therefore it's great for a first mountain bike.

Just a few days ago, Alex and I were going out for a ride close to our house, but the trail was all gross and buggy so we decided to do a skills day. I was on my full suspension and he was trying to teach me how to control the back end of the bike. But with all the squish from the rear suspension, I couldn't tell if I was doing anything right or wrong. So we went back to our house to switch bikes to my hardtail, and then I had a much better feel for all the drills.

My hard tail is so hard. Please excuse Alex's snort, he thought the video was silly (which it totally is!). 

For a little over a year, I only rode my hardtail (the only mountain bike I had). Then Alex started dropping hints that it was about time to get me a full suspension, but I wasn't ready yet. I'd ridden on his and it felt like cheating (though really smooth and comfy). It floated effortlessly up and over roots, and I could fly down hills without worrying about all the chunky stuff. But before I switched to the comfort of the full squish, I wanted to make sure I had most of my basics down. Alex keeps telling me that if you can't ride something on a rigid frame, you have no business letting a full suspension bike get you through it. Full suspension lets you hit lines faster and with more comfort, but you shouldn't use suspension as a substitute for skills. It wasn't until after my first mountain bike race where I was one of the only people on a hardtail, getting passed by full suspension bikes that didn't have to slow down over super rooty sections, that I realized it was time. I wanted to go faster, but the jiggling of my brain going over roots was causing me to slow down. So when I found an awesome deal on a full suspension, we went for it!

My full suspension bike is so much squishier! Like a pogo stick.

I've had my full suspension for about 3 months now, and I love it! For riding somewhere as rooty as in the southeast, it makes the rides a lot nicer. And though it completely felt like cheating when I first was riding it, I'm really glad I got one. By learning the basics on a hardtail, I usually avoid letting rear suspension be a crutch. I'm still making similar line choices and shifting my weight around, but I have a little more freedom and comfort. I've kept my hardtail and continue to ride it for skills days because it's so much better to learn on - a rigid frame really tells you when you are being sloppy. Alex and I keep saying that we want to have hardtail days where we take them on the trails to make sure we're staying smooth and not relying on squish to carry us through obstacles. We'll do this one day when we remember... 

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Thursday, August 23, 2018

Structured vs causal training

Only in the last few years have I decided to not hire a coach for triathlon training. Pretty much since I started doing triathlon in 2011, I followed some sort of structured training plan. I loved the structure, the routine, the planning of having someone else decide what I should do. Not thinking about what workout you should do frees up a lot of time and mental space for other things and allowed me to just focus on the workouts. Also it was great having someone to hold you accountable for completing all your training.

Example of a normal week of structured training for me as seen on Training Peaks. It used to feel weird if I didn't exercise twice in a day... 
But structured training can also be very limiting and restrictive if you want to have a life beyond training and racing. If you're type A like me, and can't imagine missing a workout our or cutting one short, then you'll constantly worry how and when you're going to fit your workouts in. If you don't have much else going on in your life, then hard core training is great for filling any voids and eating up a lot of your time. Also it's great to make a goal, work towards that goal, and complete that goal. Super fulfilling way to live.

I lived this life for about six or so years and I'm very glad I did. I learned a lot about discipline when it comes to workouts. I also learned about how workouts and training should be structured. I worked with a great coach that answered all of my frantic last minute questions.

But I wasn't seeing the race results I wanted (no fault to my coach, I just don't always perform the best on race day). It was tiring mentally to work so hard for so long for such a high goal only to miss it on the day it matters. But that's racing for ya, and I respect that, but I was getting a bit burnt out on the whole train hard, race hard cycle. Also since graduating from college and leaving my tri team, going to races by myself was super lonely.

So after a foray into marathons (again lots of hard long training to just miss my goals), mountain biking found me at the perfect time when I needed something new and exciting in my exercise life. Obviously this shift to the trails came with my soon to be husband Alex, and I no longer felt I had to fill voids in my life with exercising and I had someone else's schedule to work around. So I said goodbye and thank you to my coach and switched to casual training.

My definition of casual training is probably different (more intense) from most normal people: a goal of doing at least an hour of exercise (swimming, biking, running, strength) a day and something longer on the weekends, but not worrying when I do it, if I have to shorten it, or even (gasp!) missing it. And if I have a race coming up, I still do try to structure my training to get me more race ready.

My watch doesn't like how I'm currently training! I think this has something to do with me not running much right now and it messing up it's calculations. But I'm okay with it!
This way of training is so much more freeing! And somehow I'm still doing just as well, if not better, in races. Once I got away from the structure, I could really listen to my body to see what it waned (or didn't want) to do on a given day and adjust my workout appropriately. Feeling super tired on a ride? Cut it short. Feel like running all week? Go for it? Can't make it to the pool for a month? Don't worry about it! Super busy all day? Take a rest day!

Got first place in my age group (25-29) and 6 overall female at the Myrtle Beach Xterra Triathlon in April! And I didn't even do much serious training!
With casual training, I no longer have all this stress and guilt built up around workouts. But that doesn't mean I'm any less committed to it. (I still do start to go crazy if I want to work out but can't). I'm just committed in a different way that tries to put the rest of life first before training and racing.

I believe that training and racing should make you happy and be a stress reliever, not add stress to your life. So if you find yourself in the same training-racing cycle I was in, but not feeling very rewarded, then take a step back and ask yourself why you're doing it. If the answer's not fun, then you're doing something wrong! Go out for an unstructured swim, bike run, surf, hike, whatever and enjoy the workout for itself, for no other reason than that you are having fun doing it!

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Monday, August 20, 2018

Healing a hurt heel

Before I started mountain biking and doing tris, I was a runner. And since I was a runner first, that's what I've felt is kind of my defining sport. What I'd choose if I could only do one sport. Or at least that's how I used to feel, until I took over a month off of running to heal a nagging pain. During that month I realized I can survive without running. Gasp!

My Achilles has been hurting me for over a year. It started last summer when I convinced a friend to do track workouts to train for a mile PR. The training was a lot of fun (and super hard). I ran on a bunch of different tracks and surfaces over the 8 weeks of the training plan. I think those different surfaces combined with the same directions of turns was enough to mess up my Achilles. Despite the pain, I still got a PR for the mile (6:07)!

I'm pretty stubborn about injuries. Unless they seriously affect my ability to swim, bike, or run properly, then I'll probably ignore it and work through the pain. Because that's what endurance training teaches us to do, right? Pain is weakness leaving the body! But when is pain something we should take seriously? For me I know it's bad when it affects my form, gets worse throughout a workout, or hurts even when I'm not exercising. My Achilles would hurt when I first woke up and for the first few minutes of a run but would usually go away as I warmed up. That's why I brushed it off as an ache that would hopefully go away on its own eventually. But even when I know I should pay attention to the ache, it usually takes some outside convincing to do something about it.

A year later and the pain was staying the same, if not getting worse and hurting throughout the day. I was complaining to my dad about it and, probably for the hundredth time, he said I should take some time off from running. Of course I instantly thought it was a terrible suggestion and why would my dad suggest anything as ridiculous as not running! But as I let it sink it, I realized he was right. I didn't have any races coming up so this really was a perfect time for some much needed heel R&R. 

I found a stretch online that was supposed to help (eccentric heel drops) and committed to doing 30 of them twice a day until I didn't feel pain anymore. (I was also told to do the same thing by my longtime physical therapist). And I wasn't going to run until I was pain free. I didn't want to put a number of weeks on how long it would take, because that would have make me crazy as I counted down the days while worrying if it would actually get better. I'd let my body do it's thing. At first this plan scared me, but I knew I shouldn't be limping around all day and knowing that I could get back to my normal pain-free running self was enough motivation.

Thank goodness for biking and swimming or else I definitely would have gone crazy over the last month. I spent most of the month biking (mostly trainer rides because the trails have been way too wet), fitting in swims when I could make it to the pool and it didn't close because of thunder storms, or doing strength workouts. Surprisingly I felt pretty good during this time. I usually run for about an hour (6-7 miles) a day 2-4 times a week and as much as I think of this as easy, running takes a lot out of me. Biking and swimming are much easier on my body, while still giving me that good workout feeling. 

Fast forward a month later and I'm basically pain free. I decided today would be the day to test the heel out. I'd run close to my house in case it got worse again. The first few running strides I took felt amazing! I forgot how free running feels! About a quarter mile in, I noticed some pain, but tried to adjust my form and it seemed to work! Yay!! I ran a little over a mile and it felt great. I'm going to build back up super slowly (yes really I'm going to, I promise!). I really don't want any more of this injury crap.

Hi old friends! I've missed you!
So if you have some sort of making pain that just won't go away, maybe it's time to take a step back and find a way to fix it. Giving up exercising is so difficult once it's part of your lifestyle and there was so much anxiety for me about how much fitness I'd lose and how slow I'd get and if I'd gain any weight. But if you're otherwise healthy, then once you're pain free you can get back all your speed and maybe more. But if you're pushing through unnecessary pain, then it's probably just holding you back. Like I've been telling myself... just think how much better it'll feel in the long term! 

PS: A little plug for tris (or multisport training) -- having multiple sports to do is great if you can't do one because of injury or otherwise!

Saturday, August 18, 2018

(No) crying in mountain biking

I'd be lying if I said that mountain biking can make me so nervous that I felt like I could cry at the drop of a hat. Or by being bumped the wrong way by a root. Or not being able to make it over something. I'd also be lying if I said that I've never cried on the trails.

Mountain biking is all about pushing yourself to do things you never thought you could do. And many of those things make me super nervous, scared, and frustrated. My first few months of mountain biking were full of amazing accomplishments, which were almost always proceeded by thinking that I was going to die. Well not die, but fall and seriously hurt myself. And that feeling of not being in control was enough to dry out my mouth, make my knees shake, and fill my eyes with tears. But I never let that stop me because deep down I know that the only way to make myself better is to push through what scares me the most. And let me tell you, it's worth it!

My first time crying on the trail was on one of my first rides. There was this little A frame (i.e. a wooden ramp feature that comes to a point at the top so it looks like an A) that my husband Alex wanted me to ride over. After a few run-ups I finally let me front wheel start to go over the A frame, but then I got scared and grabbed my brakes, which resulted in me falling off my bike and landing on my elbow. I tried to hide the tears from Alex and pretend that it was because of my elbow, but it was an accumulation of trying to do something that scared me and failing. I could have called it quits after that and went back to the car, but, after the pain subsided, I got back on my bike and kept riding. Though I didn't clean the A frame that day and I was still shaking from being scared, I didn't let that little fall stop me from continuing on the ride.

A more recent time tears welled up in my eyes was when I tried to hang on Alex's tail for a lap of a trail. (Alex is a faster rider than me, but I almost always ride in front so we can stay together). I was finally ready to take the next step in mountain biking by finding more speed that I knew that I had, but that meant getting out of my comfort zone and pushing myself to take turns quicker and not grab my brakes as frequently. As a cautious rider, slow turns and brakes were my friends, but taking things easy is no way to get better. So off went Alex and, as I tried to keep up, almost immediately I could feel my mouth dry out, my hands hurt from gripping so hard, and tears welling up because I was getting scared. I tried to ignore all this and focus on smoothing out my ride so I could carry speed and keep up with Alex who was barely pedaling but somehow so much faster. When he asked how I was doing, I hoped my voice cracking didn't give away how scared I was. But if I were to describe a turning point in mountain biking for me, I'd say this ride was it. When my fear finally started to subside towards the end of the ride, so many little things clicked and I could more easily keep up with Alex. To this day, that lap is my fastest yet. (I need to do another one of these laps soon...)

There are so many things to learn by getting out of our comfort zones. I've built up a lot of mental toughness from training for triathlons and marathons, and that attitude of never giving up is essential to becoming a better mountain biker. And thank goodness I have Alex to push me, or I would probably stay in my little protective bubble forever. But those bubbles are so boring. By trying and succeeding at things that scares you, your comfort zone can expand to include so many awesome parts of the trail and speeds you never thought you were capable of!

Monday, August 13, 2018

First ride... AHHHH!

Here goes nothing! I'm gonna hit a tree. I'm gonna hit a tree. Why is this trail so narrow? Don't let my peddle hit that root. Okay I'm moving along. Is Alex even pedaling? Oof my hands hurt from gripping so hard, I can't even flex them.

I'm pretty sure I could have walked faster than I rode on my first trail ride. It was one of the scariest things I'd ever done, but on March 11th, 2017 I biked 11 miles in the woods! Alex and I went to Harwoods Mill trail in Newport News, VA, close to where we were living at the time. There were three sections of the trail, A, B, and C, all increasing difficulty, but all very beginner friendly.

Honestly, before we rode on this trail, I didn't even really know what constituted a "mountain bike ride". In my mind, it was more like gravel or access road, wide dirt roads with lots of hills (which I know know to be a section of off-road riding all of its own nature). These tight, twisty, rooty trails were only for walking or running, I had thought. Where was my wide open road where I could just lay down the power and only worry about avoiding the occasional pothole?

My mind was quickly overwhelmed by all the obstacles I now had to avoid. I thought my pedal were going to hit every root I bounced over. I was proud of myself for realizing to keep my pedal flat when going over bumpy parts and I kept yelling "pedal avoidance!" every time I did it. Also I didn't believe that my handle bars could fit between any of the trees lining the trail, and at the speed (or lack there of) I was going, I don't think I would have made a difference if I had nicked one. But somehow my handlebars fit, and somehow I kept going.

Until I got to a section of the trail that we later named Regular Sized Rooty (Bob's Burgers anyone?) in Part C. There was a tiny uphill to semi-sharp left turn into a semi-steep short downhill with several, what seemed at the time, huge roots. Obviously this part terrified me. How was I supposed to maintain speed and balance while turning into a downhill covered in roots? I thought for sure I'd fall off my bike if I went over this section (the thought that terrified me the most). It must have taken me at least 50 run-ups to somehow muster the courage to not grab my brakes right before the downhill... but I did it! On my first ride ever I made it through a scary section of trail and it felt amazing to conquer my fears! What a rush! I was so excited that we did Part C again, and though it took more convincing, I rode through Regular Sized Rooty again!

Though this kid is riding a way more awesome trail, my exclamations throughout my first ride were pretty similar.  

Back at the car, my hands were cramped in the shape of my bars, my mouth was dry as the desert, and my face had a giant doofy grin plastered on it. I did it! I did it! I did it! My first successful mountain bike ride. There were so many parts of the trail I had to walk through, but I couldn't wait to do it again. I was hooked. There was so much to improve on, so much to learn. It was just like when I first started doing triathlons, I wanted to know and perfect everything. But having gotten a bit burned out on tris lately, mountain biking was a great new way to fill that exercise and adrenaline void. Yay!

Here's my first ride on Strava:

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

I can ride over that??

Bikes are for riding on flat, smooth surfaces, and you want to avoid all bumps and imperfections that could disrupt your speed.

Well that was my line of thought ingrained in me from finally becoming comfortable and capable on the road. What was this whole thing about riding up over curbs and over rocks and roots and anything else that I'd be sure to steer far away from on my road bikes? What was my at-the-time boyfriend (now husband) trying to tell me to do? No matter that he was easily making it over all these things on his cruiser/commuter bike. My brand new mountain bike surely couldn't do that. He was just being crazy.

Because I never learned basic bike skills when I was young, I had to start fresh now. Boy am I glad Alex and I did a few days of skills work before hitting the trail. My first time going over a curb must have taken at least 100 run-ups before I even let my front wheel just touch the curb. Alex told me to weight and unweight the front wheel... huh?? Move my weight around on the bike... what?? All such foreign concepts that I hadn't even know existed in the biking world.

Me and my beautiful new bike!

Slowly but surely, I was becoming able to consistently make it over curbs, little mounds of grass, and even a little tree stump. I am still amazed at Alex's patience and ability to withstand my whining about how I can't do anything. But he knew getting me a mountain bike was a long term investment and he was willing to put in his time.

Despite all my complaining, I was loving learning new things! It was so fun having new challenges to work on. And having a great person to help me work through them didn't hurt. No way was I going to attempt any of these things by myself. After a few days of these seemingly pathetic, but completely necessary, skills days I was finally feeling ready to venture out onto a trail. I had no clue what I was in for!

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Monday, August 6, 2018

Too rainy to ride?

I think it's rained almost every day for the last month or so. The trails around here do terrible in the rain so they've been closed for what feels like forever. And it's not just the trails in the immediate area -- all the surrounding area trails are closed too. I've mostly resorted to trainer rides to keep my legs spinning somehow, but I'm getting fed up and bored with them. So here are some ideas to get you (and me) outside when the trails are too wet to ride:

Skills days
There's so much to gain by practicing your bike handling skills. My husband and I go out for "skills days" when we just want to do something easier and closer to home. And the great thing is, you don't need much in the way of supplies or features. Something I really need to work on more are my track stands, and I can do that right in my driveway. Also you could work on lifting your front wheel or back wheel. Try riding around in the smallest space possible (like a parking spot) to work on your cornering. Bunny hopping is a great skill that you can practice anywhere.

Build some features for your yard
If you have some space in your front or back yard (and it's not a giant puddle like ours), then what better use of it than for building some fun features. We had some extra 2x4s laying around, so my husband screwed them together and made some fun things to try to ride over. If you have logs in your back yard, why not try riding over them? You could pile some up to make it harder. Making skinny lines is pretty easy -- you can start out with them just on the ground and then raise them up by putting more wood under them. You could build some little kicker jumps. And then once you have all these fun features, you can use them whenever you'd like.

Urban rides
One of the local bike shops near us started an urban ride every week where we ride around downtown, looking for fun things to ride on. Skills gained riding around a concrete jungle translate perfectly for riding on the trail. And it's pretty fun to try to ride all these new features. These rides have really helped get my confidence up for some scarier sections on the trail. Stairs are good for riding down, and even up. Little ledges are good for working on your drops (going down) and hops or punches (going up). There are lots of skinnies to work on your balance. And if you really want to get fancy, look into trials riding and trials bikes (even though I don't consider them real bikes!). Today I worked on getting up to a little ledge that went around a fountain (and by little I mean six inches high, a little over a foot wide, and maybe 30 feet long). But regardless of size, it feels good to clean new lines. And you can explore your town or city and get to know it a little better.

Cyclocross/gravel rides
Maybe you're one of the lucky ones and even if your local single track is soaked, you have access to some other fire roads or access trails to ride. They might dry quicker and even though they may not be technical, at least you can get some peddling in. I recently bought a cyclocross bike (because it had pineapples on the fork!), and it's fun to take on trails that wouldn't necessarily be fun on a mountain bike, but are still nice to ride on. Or maybe there are some scenic nature trails in your area that you haven't checked out yet because they're not single track. Use the rain as an excuse to explore new areas and trails that you might otherwise not ride on.

Trainer rides
They're obviously not my favorite way to get on a bike. But I'm one of those people who needs to get her cardio in every day, so when the outside is a no-go, then on the trainer I sit. I have my triathlon bike on my trainer because that's what I'm used to using on there, but there's no reason you can't put your mountain bike on there. Just make sure to use a spare tire so you don't wear out your trail tire. I put on a show (I've been watching Chuck lately), and just spin for an hour. Or if I'm feeling more ambitious, I'll mix in some intervals, usually 5 minutes hard then 3 minutes easy. Trainer rides are also a good way to build up your endurance because you have to constantly peddle or else you loose all motivation when your trainer stops. And magnetic trainers are pretty cheap online, so they're useful to have around as a backup/alternative when mother nature is being mean.

Bike maintenance 
We all need to do more of it (especially me, but that's what my husband's for, right?). So when the rain is pouring down and your bike is getting lonely, what better way to spend some quality time with your two-wheel friend than giving it a good clean and tuneup! Switch those tires to tubeless, fix that annoying creek, tune up your shifting. Then if/when the trails ever dry out, your bike will be ready to fly.

Okay now lets all do a little dance for the rain gods for it to stop raining for a little. Is a week too much to ask for?

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Learning to (really) bike

My serious biking began with my dive into triathlons. As his midlife crisis, my dad started doing triathlons. I was very confused and unimpressed by the amount of gear and training that went into completing one. That all changed after my dad challenged me to do a free little local tri in the town over from us. Being the wonderful daughter I am, my response was "Okay Dad, I bet I can beat you!". This was summer of 2010. I had just graduated from high school, where I had spent my afternoons either playing soccer, lacrosse, or running indoor track. Athletics was not foreign to me, but besides organized sports, I was nothing more than a casual worker-outer.

I borrowed my mom's Specialized Hard Rock and helmet, grabbed my surfing wetsuit, and loaded up the car with my dad. Having grown up by the ocean, I was always comfortable in the water, but luckily, a few years ago, my dad taught me how to do a proper freestyle when I was doing a lifeguard certification course. The tri was super short - a maybe 1/4 mile swim (walk down the beach until someone says stop, jump in, and then swim back), 5 mile bike, and 2.5 mile run. I didn't beat my dad that day, but the triathlon bug got under my skin, and was there to stay.

The rest of the summer I spent occasionally training with my dad's training group. I'm not sure how I managed to do group road rides on my mom's Specialized, because that sounds miserable today, but I didn't know anything better then.

The next summer my dad got me a used road bike complete with aero bars and clipless peddles. Getting myself on that bike was a challenge in itself. I don't have an innate sense of balance on a bike, so trying to balance on something with skinny wheels and drop handlebars was so uncomfortable and strange. Needless to say I immediately swapped the clipless peddles for cages, but even that didn't prevent me hitting my dad at the end of our first ride when we were in between cars at a red light. Stopping and getting my feet on the ground was something I had to work on.

Getting myself to use the aero bars and clipless peddles didn't happen for another year or so. In the mean time, I had done two sprint distance tris and started training more seriously. I joined my college's tri team, found a coach, and really dove in. I loved the rides in the quiet and mountainy area around my college. I was getting more comfortable on my bike, my endurance was increasing, and loved pushing myself on my rides.

During this time, I learned how to put only one foot down when I came to a stop (I unclipped both feet for longer than I'd like to admit). I also no longer had blisters on my hands from breaking so much and gripping my handlebars so tightly. I could avoid potholes, remove one hand from my bars to signal or drink some water, and look over my shoulder, all without wiping out. Many of these things are probably skills most cyclists take for granted, but these were major accomplishments for me. My skinned knees were reminders of how far I'd come.

At the beginning of the bike leg of a triathlon, I tried to press lap on my watch, lost my balance, and tipped over. Balancing on a bike is hard...

Over the next several years, I did many sprint and olympic distance tris. When I upgraded to a tri bike, I had to relearn how to balance on a bike because the geometry was so different. My dad and I invented a sweet hydration system that had drink tubes running from my water bottles in the cages to my aero bars so I never had to get out of them during a race and risk loosing my balance. The uncomfortableness of riding slowly faded into memory as I kept road riding and racing tris. By the time mountain biking found me (I definitely did not seek it out), I was feeling super comfortable on the road, only to once again find myself relearning how to ride a bike for the fourth time in my life.