I get a lot of suggestions for blog topics, so thank you and please keep them coming!
However, one topic which keeps popping up is my approach to fitness, training and racing. So I thought it was about time to start a new chapter with the blog post theme starting with…fitness.
What is fitness? Good question. There are many interpretations and as sports science is a relatively new paradigm it’s constantly subject to questioning and validation. My own definition of fitness will be quite rightly subject to scrutiny, but for me fitness is a measure of how quickly an athlete can recover from a particular workout involving moving muscles.
An excellent example of fitness comes from our own Sir Bradley Wiggins. In 2012 he won what is seen as the hardest endurance event on the planet, the Tour de France. That particular Grand Tour needs no explanation (though I will refer to it a lot in future posts), but to even complete Le Tour, you need to be seriously, seriously fit. Six days after being presented with the Maillot Jaune for one final time on the Champs Elysees, Wiggins buried himself big time to get Mark Cavendish an Olympic Gold medal in the London 2012 road race. I recall seeing pictures of Froome, Millar and Wiggins in a seriously bad way and that was visually! Imagine how they felt internally? Utterly burst. A horror show!
Someone at the time said to me, “Well, what do you expect, he’s just won the Tour de France, so he’ll be knackered and he’ll also be knackered for the Olympic time trial”. Incorrect on both accounts. Four days later, Wiggins won gold in just that event in style too. But how?
Because he was supremely fit! Imagine if you sprinted for twenty seconds as hard as you can. It will hurt and you should be out of breath. Will it ruin your day? For most people nope, but for the overweight couch potato who smokes forty a day, it would probably at least hospitalise him/her unfortunately. Why, because you are simply fitter and in 2012 Wiggins was fitter than everyone else. It wouldn’t surprise me if his Olympic road race effort felt like our twenty second dash.
The hardest I’ve ever gone was in the Scottish National Hill Climbing championship at Purrin Den last Autumn. The photo tells the story rather well (thanks once again Mark McGhee). I was in a world of pain I never knew existed. Mentally and physically I wasn’t in a great place either and this just exacerbated the whole experience which was grim to say the least. When I crossed the finish line, it took me five minutes to even figure where I was (I thought I'd gone into the future). Being one of the favourites but finishing tenth added to the misery and disappointment, but once the race was a dim and distant memory I was back to my old self, merrily riding my bike, laughing and chatting with my fellow competitors, drinking tea and wondering what the fuss was all about. I even considered cycling home from Fife just to get some extra training done.
But back to the topic. So how do you measure fitness? Another good question. A good indicator is to look at someone’s heart rate (HR) profile during a hard effort and see how quickly the HR drops once the intense effort has finished. But again this is very subjective. You are merely looking at a relative change and it’s difficult to quantify. Yes, there are many gadgets out there that monitor HR with groovy algorithms, but these tend to look at HR variability (HRV) and their algorithms are black boxed, so it’s difficult to validate them in a controlled scientific manner (though it won’t surprise you I have tried).
For a number of years I’ve been testing a HR product called OmegaWave from Finland. It’s USP is the ability to detect fatigue or predict any potential illness (giving you time to take action and prevent illness from occurring). It’s a great device, but for years I’ve tried to break it and failed and was always baffled as to why I was never in any danger zones. So I decided to do some controlled experiments centred around the Strathpuffer and carefully monitored my condition after 24 hours of endurance MTB racing. After my second Puffer, I got the same pattern of behaviour my first – green light, no danger! How can this be? Surely 24 hours of racing and no sleep should put me in a tailspin?
So, assuming the product was defunct, I contacted the owners of OmegaWave and they did some very revealing analysis with my HR data.
I was told I was a very interesting case study. I won’t go into the micro details, fascinating though they are, but the bottom line was this…I was a extremely fit individual who was able to deal with massive aerobic efforts and almost recover without any significant payback - the perfect candidate for the Finnish Army apparently. Naturally, me being me, I didn’t really take it in, but buried away at my core I believed them, because every time I try to break myself both mentally and physically, I just seem to be able to recover quickly and become stronger as a consequence. Long may that continue!
But I can’t see the pacifist ditching his wheels for a rifle any time soon (I prefer to be on the front line of a race, getting “shot” at from the back).
So, ok I’m fit, I’ve finally accepted that. But how fit is fit? Well in the next post, I will discuss how some clever folk have come up with a method of quantifying fitness.