Friday, August 24, 2012

Lance Armstrong: Best of the Best...Regardless

I wrote the article below on December 18th, 2008. Lance Armstrong had just announced his comeback attempt to win the 2009 Tour de France. It now appears that he should have stayed retired and kept his mouth shut. But hey, he has a big ego and he must have missed the limelight. Well, he's certainly back in the news.

Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de France races in a row. No matter how you cut it, no matter how you view it, he is the best of the best of all time, regardless of how he accomplished it.

From a competitive standpoint, it simply doesn’t matter whether he used performance enhancing drugs or not.

It has been pretty well established, without naming names here, that virtually all of his main challengers in his seven tour victories were either directly or indirectly associated with some type of devious and clandestine plot to artificially increase their own chances of winning the tour.

Lance Armstrong beat them all convincingly.

This is not intended for anything other than pure speculation, but the way I see it, there are three possible scenarios that explain his dominance in the Tour de France:

1) Armstrong is an extremely talented athlete, even at the rarified elite level, and he raced clean. His incredibly focused and specific approach to the TDF, his mental fortitude, his bike handling skills, his drive and dedication to be the best, enabled him to overcome the illicitly gained “advantages” that many of his competitors had. He also consistently benefited from not only the strongest team, but a team that was extremely well coached and dedicated entirely to his cause. Depending on the drug, how it is administered, and the doctor interviewed, one is led to believe that drugs in sports can give an elite endurance athlete anywhere from a 5-15% performance edge. Armstrong closed, and then exceeded that gap, entirely through natural methods.

2) Every top level professional cyclist of the era was taking performance enhancing drugs. Armstrong had more talent than anyone else, still had the best team, still had the mental toughness, and therefore was able to dominate the 180+ person professional peloton and win seven Tours in a row. The “playing field” had effectively been leveled, and he still was the best.

3) Every top professional was taking drugs, Armstrong still had the other advantages, and in addition to that, he had the best medical team.

Regardless of which, if any, scenario makes any sense at all, one fact remains. Lance Armstrong is the best cyclist ever to compete in the TDF, and then there are the others, all five time winners. Seven of a kind trumps five, and Armstrong’s tour victories came in the modern era. As in most sports, today’s cyclist athletes are more highly trained and talented, and consequently participate in a more competitive sports environment.

Jack Nicklaus dominated professional golf in an era during which it has been acknowledged that there were a few top level golfers who were quite a bit more talented than the rest. In fact, they were called the “Big Four”, and there was Palmer, Player (this has to be the all time greatest name for a pro athlete!), Trevino, and Nicklaus. Most of the major tournaments of the day were won by these four, with Nicklaus being the most dominant. In today’s world, the Big Four could be equated with the “Big 100”, as the skill level is so elevated just to gain entry to the professional golf tours around the world, let alone win a tournament of any kind, that a type of parity has occurred.

Despite this perceived parity, Tiger Woods has managed to dominate the game like no one since Nicklaus, and he is well on his way to being the greatest golfer of all time. He is the Lance Armstrong of golf.

Most physiologists seem to agree that in terms of raw physical capacities at the highest levels of elite cyclists, differences of a few percent exist amongst the athletes. Greg Lemond reportedly had a Vo2 max of 90, and that number has been associated with Floyd Landis. Armstrong’s team has largely been silent on this subject. After Armstrong retired, Dr. Ed Coyle published the results of a long term study of Armstrong’s physiology tests. These tests dated back to the early 90’s when he was first a member of the international peloton, and long before his cancer. Even with Armstrong’s well documented weight loss, Coyle’s tests revealed a Vo2 max of between 82 and 84 when Armstrong was at his peak.

While this level certainly places him among the most physically gifted endurance athletes in the world, his aerobic capacity as measured by Vo2 max alone does not alone explain his dominance. Of course, there are many other physiological metrics critical for success, but Vo2 max has long been one of the gold standards, along with power at LT, that has been used to gauge an athletes’ odds for success.

As I stated above, I don’t really believe it is important exactly how Lance Armstrong was able to win seven Tours in a row. He was the best of the best amongst a very deep, talented field, many of whom have been linked to drugs.

I think he is still the best, and I think he has come back to prove it. At age 37, out of the game for almost four years, he has reentered the sport. He’s done so at a time when even the harshest critics of cycling feel that significant progress has been made in the fight against doping, and that the 2009 Tour should be one of the cleanest tours in the last two decades. The playing field should be as level as it has been in a very, very long time.

Why would he come back if he didn’t intend to race clean? Why would he risk his legacy when he has nothing to gain, and everything to lose?

Just imagine if he wins the Giro, and/or the Tour de France. That will shut everybody up, once and for all.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Article on Nutrition and Hydration in today's Cycle U Newsletter

Nutrition and hydration for long-distance cycling
by Coach Tom Meloy

Before I address hydration and nutrition, note that a taper should be incorporated before a big event. While you can't do anything to boost fitness in the last 7-10 days before a ride, you can definitely boost fatigue. Rest two days before the event, drink a lot of water, and do a short ride the day before to keep the legs loose, perhaps using a carbo loading strategy.

Hydration and electrolytes: For the vast majority of athletes, the easiest way to improve training and racing performance is to consume more fluids. When you're well hydrated on the bike, your muscles function better and you are able to regulate core temperature better, which mean you can produce more power.

The electrolyte repletion rate is generally adequate if 300-600 milligrams of sodium are consumed each hour in a divided dose format in the presence of other electrolytes such as potassium, magnesium, chloride, and manganese. Using Nunn or Endurolytes is one way to get additional electrolytes. Eating salty foods is another, as what the body needs most is sodium. People who sweat heavily need more sodium. Cramping during or after a ride is typically an indication that you didn't have enough sodium.

Your body likes balance. Consuming too much water and no electrolytes during extended exercise is not good and can cause hyponatremia. Some still recommend drinking at least 20oz of fluid per hour, but this doesn't work for everybody.

The best hydration strategy: "Drink to thirst, salt to taste." For less stomach distress, drink in big gulps. Drink whenever you eat solid food on bike. Try a sodium enhanced sports drink like Gatorade Endurance or simply add a pinch of salt to regular Gatorade. I've found that if I don't taste the extra salt, my body needs it. If I taste the salt, I've been getting enough.

As long as you are carrying the weight of two full bottles, I recommend both be filled with a sports drink, but this may be too much sweetness for some people.

On the ride nutrition: Aim to replenish about 30% or a little more of the calories you burn each hour. Over-consumption leads to gastric distress because your body can't absorb and process the fuel fast enough. For an athlete who is burning 800 kcal per hour (very high intensity pace), this would amount to about 240 kcal/45g of carbs (one Powerbar or Clif Bar). The body can process roughly 60 grams of carbs per hour. Endurance riding typically burns 500-600 kcal per hour.
Overloading the system slows it down; starving it brings it to a halt. A simple rule of thumb is to eat one bar an hour and have a sports drink in at least one of your bottles.

A common mistake is to wait until two hours into a long ride to start eating. I like to see athletes start munching 20 minutes into a ride. Rather than eat a bar every hour, nibble on it every 15-20 minutes. You are striving for a constant flow of fuel.

I'm a big believer in eating real food on long rides, but each athlete needs to find what works best for them. People have done the entire RAAM across the country on nothing but Hammer Perpetuem and gel, but not many people are as focused as those riders are! If using a "liquid food" such as Perpetuem, I've found chilling it in the freezer and using an insulated bottle makes it more palatable, as does adding a little gel for flavor.

A little protein during a ride is fine but studies have not confirmed any real benefit. Be aware that too much protein tends to make one feel bloated during exercise. Eating four grams of carbs per gram of protein is a good rule (as found in a Powerbar or Clif bar).

After a hard ride, be sure to take in some carbs during the 30 minute window when your body is very receptive to restoring the glycogen in your cells. Chocolate milk, smoothies, recovery drinks, or regular sports drink all work well immediately after a ride. If you plan on another long ride the following day, eat more carbs than normal the rest of the day. If you are taking the day off, have a beer and reward yourself!

Test everything out in training. If you decide you're going to need 50g of carbohydrate per hour, try it in training and see if it works, and make sure you are matching the training duration and intensity as closely as possible. Keep the nutrition plan simple.

During ultra long events, variety is important because it keeps an athlete from getting complacent about eating. Overly complicated plans often cause more problems than they solve. Anyone who has completed a very long endurance event can tell you a story about a plan that had to be changed. When your nutrition strategy is simple it can be adapted relatively easily and remain effective.

Suffering through a "nutrition malfunction" during a 100-mile training ride can be a great learning experience. It's a good idea to do a minimum of 2 "nutrition training sessions" per month and eat and drink as you would in your goal event, mimicking the intensity and volume as much as is reasonable. It is often during these sessions that athletes realize their nutrition selections are too sweet, too syrupy, difficult to open/eat at higher speeds, too dry to eat at high intensities, etc. If reaching into your pockets is difficult, consider using a "Bento Box" on your toptube.

Recommended training foods:
Fig bars

Boiled potatoes (in plastic bag with salt)
Dry fruit
Sandwiches (PB & J, meats only on cold days)
Energy bars (but not protein, zone or balance bars)
Energy gels
Fresh fruit (tends to be low-calorie so combine with other foods)
General nutrition guidelines:
Consume high glycemic carbs during exercise and for 30-60 minutes afterwards (pretzels, baked potato, cereal and banana, white bagel, white spaghetti, pancakes).
Eat moderate glycemic foods before exercise (muesli, whole grain spaghetti, sweet potato, banana, orange juice).