Inflammation in the Body Following Training – What’s Happening?

What is happening within the body when it is ‘recovering’ from training? By understanding the process is it possible to optimise the speed of recovery. Are there any markers, apart from HRV, that provide insight into the state of the body with regards to how well recovered it is at any given point in time?

Well, apart from HR, HRV and pulse there doesn’t appear to be many objective measures of a body’s response to training. Therefore, any proposed solution to speeding up recovery is going to involve a degree of trial and error. Based on what I know so far I’d be needing to focus on the following areas to improve my rate of recovery:

  1. Sleep – quantity & quality
  2. Nutrition & hydration
  3. Exercise
  4. Body manipulation – massages, foam rollers, etc
  5. Minimising & removing environmental stress – ie., relaxin’ and chillin’
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Review Weeks 1-7 Training Plan

A summary of what I have completed so far (TSS, distance):

  • Week one – 865, 215
  • Week two – 908, 204
  • Week three – 611, 162
  • Week four – 235, 85

In the above block I completed 3 active weeks followed by 1 recovery week

  • Week five – 300, 91 Mallorca
  • Week six – 325, 92 Mallorca
  • Week seven – 456, 94

My overall activity in weeks 5,6, and 7 was significantly reduced compared to weeks 1-4. On the rides in Mallorca I felt strong, especially on the long 70 miler. In week 7, on my return to UK I felt tired and did very few activities. On the last day of week 7, I did a Sunday Club ride and felt mentally and physically tired. How can I explain this fatigue given how fresh and strong I felt in Mallorca?

  1. Perhaps it is a result of heavy training in weeks 1-3 and not giving my body sufficient time to recover. Therefore, I was still carrying over fatigue from this initial period
  2. I was following a controlled diet up until week 3 but then I was unable to maintain it and felt compelled to eat. I followed by body’s response and began to eat more than I’d planned. In weeks 5 and 6 in Mallorca I ate freely. I ate high quality food and I consumed a large number of calories on a daily basis
  3. At about week 3 my weight went below 69kg and on my return from Mallorca my weight was 71kg and body fat 8%
  4. I’ve not been able to take HRV readings since week 4 because the iPad is not working so I’ve not been able to accurately gauge my body’s response to training. I really need to get this working so I can adjust my training plan to speed up recovery and return to more challenging training
  5. I am now in week 8 which includes the Exmoor Beauty sportive on Sunday. I’ll schedule recovery rides and get the iPad working. I’ll also return to controlling my diet

Week 2 of New Training Plan 6th March 2015

I’m now into week 2 of a new training plan which I have essentially copied from Andrew Coggan’s book, ‘Training & Racing with a Power Meter’ (chapter 9, location 3645). It’s a 16-week plan geared to improving:

  • Muscular endurance @ 60 and 90 minutes
  • Improving fatigue resistance at level 4 and 5 (Lactate Threshold & Anaerobic Capacity)
  • Increasing force for better sprinting & time trialling
  • Improving FTP

I’ve adapted it slightly to include at least one long endurance ride every week. I’ll be monitoring my response to the plan using HRV readings and adjusting the sessions where required. I will also be reassessing my FTP every 6 weeks.

At the start of the plan I completed an FTP test which came in at 231 watts. I was quite disappointed with this as it had previously been around 260w last September. I have been cycling the past few months but it has been general stuff and the intensity has dropped off quite severely. It just goes to prove how quickly you lose fitness – three times the rate at which it is gained. My long term FTP target remains 320 watts but realistically this year I’ll be doing well to just get it close to 300 watts! Well, thats my target and my overall approach will combine the ‘Coggan’ plan with long endurance rides and lowering my weight to 66-67kg (around 146-148lbs). Reaching 266w FTP will give me a power/weight ratio of 4 (Category II), so this will be my first target which equates to 280w on an FTP test.

My last weight measurement came in at 69.4kg and 7.9% body fat – over the course of the first week of the training plan I had managed to control my diet using myfitnesspal.com to get my weight under control. My muscle mass reading was coming in around 60.3kg. If I assume my muscle mass is 60kg and my bone mass is 3.2kg, then my base line weight is 63.2kg – if I can get down to 66.5kg then body fat will work out at 3.3kg or 5% of total body weight.

I’m planning on doing three weeks on and one week off, however, this is also subject to how I respond to training using HRV readings. If I’m not responding quickly enough then I will factor in some active recovery rides as a means of returning me to the training plan after appropriate rest and recovery and as a means of avoiding over-training. I will use the long endurance rides to extend my total weekly TSS in a manageable and careful way. I do believe that getting TSS up is the key to improving FTP.

Body’s Adaptations To Training Stress – My Own Theories

Since 11th September I have been aware of significant positive changes in my cycling performance, namely:

  • The ability to climb without the onset of muscle fatigue
  • A lowering of my heart rate by around 20bpm for the same power output
  • An increase in my ability to cycle at elevated HR for a longer period, well into the 170bpm range
  • A reduction in hunger fluctuations, especially at night time
  • An increased capacity to handle higher training loads – ability to train 6 or 7 times per week and train twice a day where necessary

I have also been aware of positive changes in my physiology, namely:

  • Steady reduction in body fat, down from around 12% a year ago to around 8% today
  • A steady increase in body water from around 62.5% a year ago to 67.5% today
  • A steady decrease in overall body weight from 74kg a year ago to 70kg today

Currently, my main limiter to cycling performance improvement is muscle failure or more specifically the capacity of my fast-twitch muscles to handle bigger workloads.

It is useful to explore what is behind the improvements which I can summarise as follows:

  1. Planning, monitoring and reviewing training
  2. A mixture of the right kind of training sessions combined with appropriately timed rest & recovery
  3. Structured nutrition and hydration to dovetail training programme

Of the three key reasons, it is in the arena of training and R&R where I am least clear about the contribution of each of the different training components to actual physiological improvements so I am going to assess and speculate about which of them has led to the biggest gains. From the assessment I will hope to draw out some conclusions to help better inform and determine future training.

A Review of Training Approach 

The main contributors in my training can be identified as follows:

  • Gradual steady increase in training load – average TSS score of 30 (210/week) one year ago, rising steadily from around 40 (280/week) in March/April to around 70 (490/week) today. Practically, this correlates with an average of 3 activities per week one year ago to 6/7 activities per week today. One year ago, it would simply not have been possible for my body to handle the current workload of 6/7 activities per week. Training load was gradually increased through the year at an increase rate of no more than 5 TSS points per week and 15 TSS points per month
  • Training consistency – there have been no sharp increases in training and more importantly no sharp reductions either, apart from a 2-week holiday in July when only one short activity was completed. An important lesson learnt was that training gains are lost at three times the rate at which they are gained. Therefore, it is absolutely critical to apply training consistently and continue to build on previous gains and not have extended breaks. It is better to train lightly and regularly than to train heavily with big gaps in between.
  • Distinct training phases or periods – training sessions have been organised into two or three week periods followed by one week ‘recovery’ weeks. There have been three key training phases: phase 1 (March-August) – long endurance rides, phase 2 (August-September) – HIIT & power, phase 3 (October-Present) – strength & fast-twitch muscle. Each phase has clearly contributed to performance gains, however, I would argue that the biggest returns have come from the HIIT phase. The question is whether or not it is possible to embark on a HIIT phase of training without first having established a solid endurance base.
  • Appropriately timed rest & recovery and  – one week recovery weeks followed two or three-week training sessions. These recovery weeks maintained frequency of activities but at reduced volume and intensity. Essentially, the activities have allowed the body to ‘tick over’ from a training perspective whilst the lower intensity has allowed the body to recover and adapt to the training stresses applied in the previous weeks. Over recent months, I have become more aware and responsive to signs of physical and mental fatigue. I recognise the value of R&R to allow the body to make positive adaptations to training stresses. On each occasion I have recommenced training following R&R I have felt much stronger. I have used Heart Rate Variability (HRV) to monitor my body’s response during both training and recovery periods.
  • The introduction and use of recovery rides – I have been using recovery rides between active training sessions and also during R&R. Recovery rides provide slow-twitch muscles with a low-level workout whilst fast-twitch muscle fibres get a complete rest, provided of course it is performed correctly, that is, at power or HR less than 50% of FTP or FTHR. Therefore, recovery rides are great for maintaining training of slow-twitch muscles whilst giving fast-twitch muscles a break. During the last R&R period I also used recovery rides to gauge my body’s recovery. On successive recovery rides I would slightly increase intensity or volume or both and measure my response to the increases. If the response was positive then I would increase it again, if negative then I would maintain the same level. HRV was very useful during this period as it allowed a ‘window’ into my body’s parasympathetic system to gauge how it was responding to rest and recovery. This methodical and objective approach minimises the risk inherent in using subjective cues to determine when to get back to full training.
  • Increased duration and distance of aerobic training – the main change in my aerobic training has been the increase in duration and distances. Every week I was completing a 75/80 mile endurance ride, typically with a group of other riders. This was done from April right through to the beginning of August. With the start of the HIT training, the long endurance rides were maintained but at a lower frequency, once every two weeks. With repetition the longer endurance rides became a lot easier so much so that the 50-mile club rides felt short in duration and distance in comparison.
  • Increase in weight resistance training – I have been including two gym sessions per week on average since the beginning of March. To date I have completed 55 hours in the gym which works out at approximately 7 hours or 7 gym sessions per month. I’ve been doing these sessions to help build strength in my arms, chest, back and core and to work my fast-twitch muscle fibres. They are not specifically done to improve my performance on the bike, they are more related to reducing body fat and improving my appearance but I do feel they are making some positive contribution to my cycling, but I am not entirely sure what. I do know that building strength in my core and back does contribute to improvements on the bike.
  • The use of a power meter to design, monitor, and determine the length of training sessions – I started using a power meter 18/7 and it helped immensely in designing an executing HIT sessions, especially in improving VO2 Max and Anaerobic Capacity. My cycling performance went up a couple of levels during my HIT phase and it was instigated by the use of a power meter. The power meter can be used to accurately determine how many watts to use for a given exercise and more importantly to signal when enough exercise or intervals have been done. The avoidance of overtraining is critical to ensure training consistency and gradual gains. An illness will typically rob one
  • The introduction and use of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) – I have used HIT for VO2 Max and Anaerobic Capacity training sessions. This was prompted by use of a power meter which allowed me to accurately design and adhere to a VO2 Max training session. The power meter also allowed me to know precisely when to stop the session which is invaluable as a means of avoiding overtraining. The gains from the HIT sessions were immediate – improved climbing ability, improved strength, improved aerobic ability and improved anaerobic capability. The results were astounding. If the long endurance training represented the base foundation of a pyramid the HIT sessions truly represented the pinnacle. The sessions involved intervals of between 3, 5 or 10 minutes followed by 5 minutes rest and a warmup and cooldown of 20 minutes. The sessions were usually completed within 90 minutes so very efficient training in terms of benefits realised versus time invested. Normally, I did one session per week and I always followed it with a rest day. Research has revealed (Burgomaster et al. 2005, Gibala et al. 2006, Gibala 2007) big gains from HIIT training. In the Gibala et al. study (2006), one group did 2.5 hours of HIT training (630kj) and another group did 10.5 hours of endurance training (6,500kj). Surprisingly, all training measures improved with both groups to an equal extent. In fact, the power output of the HIT group increased to a higher level than the endurance group. Subsequent studies reinforce the value of HIT and HIIT training. The question I ask myself, is what is happening physiologically to elicit the performance gains? My own view is a combination of: stronger heart, increased concentration of mitochondria in slow-twitch muscles to clear lactate generated by fast-twitch muscles, increased engagement of fast-twitch muscles when climbing through lower cadence, increased stroke volume of heart, increased plasma volume, increased blood capillarization in muscles, increased ability for muscle cells to convert glycogen into energy, hypertrophy of muscle fibres, interconversion of fast-twitch muscle fibres. But, which has a greater impact than another?

Feeling On Top of The World (from a cycling perspective)

It is 31st October 2014 and I feel on top of the world with regards to my cycling. I feel strong, climbs I used to have difficulty with are now feeling, dare I say it, easy and I ride with a feeling of positivity and enjoyment. Given, I was struggling on rides earlier this year, it is worth reflecting on exactly what has happened and how lessons learnt can be used to fuel further improvement, not only in cycling, but in other areas of my life.

What are the main reasons for the improvements:

  1. Weight loss – I now weigh 69.5kg compared to 74.5kg in January, a loss of 5kg or 6.7%. More impressive is my body fat has come down from 12% to 8%, a reduction of 35%
  2. I have used trainingpeaks.com to plan, monitor, and review my training sessions. I have consistently raised my total stress score (TSS) from an average of 38 per day in April to an average of 80 by the end of September. My Intensity Factor has remained around the 0.7 mark for most of the year so the increase in training volume has delivered the biggest improvements. I can now train more regularly than I could earlier this year. Last year I would have struggled to train more often than four times per week. In addition to cycling 3 or 4 times, I have also been going to the gym, typically twice a week but at least once. I have focused on building strength in my core, chest, back and arms.
  3. My heart rate has come down by 20 bpm across different exercise intensities but it has also risen into the high 170’s when I am required to make a big effort which is not something I could have done earlier in the year. Earlier in the year I could only last a few seconds when I hit 170 or higher. I can infer that either my heart is stronger, the stroke volume is greater, my blood plasma volume has increased, there is an increase in both mitochondria and mitochondrial enzymes
  4. I can cycle longer distances with less food which indicates that my body is burning more fat which means my metabolic system is more efficient at working aerobically and less reliant on anaerobic energy production
  5. I can cycle at a higher pace without my legs succumbing to increasing fatigue
  6. I can climb so much easier without breathing too heavily which again suggests improvements in my aerobic metabolism
  7. I can push bigger gears for longer periods of time without fatigue and cramps. There are still occasional niggles of cramps but nothing major. I have recently been working on improving my fast twitch muscle resistance to fatigue by doing sessions that focus on pushing big gears over sustained periods of time.
  8. I have been training consistently – I typically train 6 times per week with one rest day. In days between demanding workouts I do recovery rides rather than simply rest
  9. I rest fully when I feel tired. I use recovery rides to gauge my rate of recovery and when I feel fully recovered I increase the intensity. In my last period of R&R I took a total of 12 days off during my last recovery period. I came back from it feeling the strongest I have ever felt on a bike and definitely a level or two higher than I was previously.
  10. I have been adhering to a strict calorie-control diet to lose approx. 0.5kg per week. I have reduced the total weight of fats I eat and maintained carbohydrates at around 300-350g per day. I have matched calorie intake to training sessions, therefore, on demanding days I have eaten more and conversely on easier days I have eaten less. I have always eaten within 1 hour of a training session and I have consumed enough calories to replenish what has been consumed during the session. I have used myfitnesspal.com to monitor, inform and control my calorie intake.
  11. I now eat three times every day, breakfast, lunch, and supper. Occasionally, I’ll add a snack if I’ve done a particularly demanding session to help quickly replenish muscle and liver glycogen stores.

I definitely need to do some more objective-style reviewing of my performance improvements and try to understand more clearly what is having the biggest impact on my performance. I kind of have an outline idea but it isn’t certain but then again where the body is concerned there never appears to be any definitive arguments for one course of action as opposed to another. For every argument for one way of doing something there is a counter-argument professing the exact opposite. So, armed with more objective facts I intend to nail down what is behind my improvements in order of priority and contribution and then use this to inform, refine, and design my upcoming training programme.

Review Training September 2014 & Plans For October

With just the recovery week left of my 4-week training in September it is useful to review progress against objectives. The main objectives are outlined below alongside what was actually achieved:

  • Increase CP20 to 280W – increased to 274w (98%)
  • Increase CP5 to 330w – increased to 333w
  • Reduce weight to 72kg – last reading 72.5kg
  • Average 700 Tss for weeks 1-3 – actual 676 (97%)

Overall, it is been a highly successful training period. It has been quite tough especially switching to 3 weeks training and one weeks recovery. I certainly felt the accumulated fatigue in week 3. I didn’t manage all the sessions, especially the last 2 gym sessions although this was down to social engagements. I also missed a Saturday session in week 2 because I had a sore calf picked up during a session that week. The biggest improvements came from the VO2 Max hill repeats. These have proved hugely beneficial and have led to a significant improvement in my climbing. I would also argue that they have led to a reduction in my HR for the same power output. I have noticed that my HR is much lower now even though I am putting out more power.

In most of my sessions I have reduced my cadence. When hill climbing it varies between 60-75 rpm and when on the flat it is around 80 rpm. I have reduced my cadence in order to build strength and muscular endurance. Spinning a high gear does not fire up all the muscle fibres, especially the fast-twitch types. Engaging the fast-twitch muscles is leading to an increase in power output.

During this training period I switched from 6 meals a day to 3 or 4 meals per day to allow my body to burn fat between meals. This switch has gone well and I am hoping that by the end of next week that my weight will be at or close to my target weight of 72kg. I continue to closely monitor my meals using myfitnesspal.com. This allows me to record and evaluate my meal and food choices.

My HRV readings have risen to new all-time highs. My readings are now in the high 60’s were before they were in the high 50’s to low 60’s so there has been a very pronounced and positive impact on my HRV. Again, I would argue that the VO2 Max workouts are behind this.

Looking ahead to the next training period I need to consider the following:

  1. Introducing a new strength programme as the current one has been running now without too much change for three months
  2. Introduce anaerobic training sessions
  3. Add a recovery ride midweek following a hard session
  4. Maintaining the VO2 Max sessions – not possible as doing anaerobic capacity hill repeats
  5. Using long intervals to improve muscular endurance
  6. Maintaining long endurance rides
  7. Completing two sessions in one day – a recovery ride in the morning and strength training in the afternoon
  8. Targets: increase CP1 to 600w, CP5 to 350w, CP20 to 280w on the flat, 290w when climbing, Tss 736/week
  9. Reduce to 2 training weeks so a 3-week cycle. 2nd 3-week cycle to focus on CP60 rather than CP20
  10. Begin breathing exercises in final recovery week of September and continue through October

Transitioning to Three Meals per Day

Following on from my success at quashing my night hunger demons I have now reduced the number of meals I eat each day. I was taking 6 meals a day and I have switched to 3 a day. So, why have I done this and what benefits do I expect to get from a lower meal frequency?

My main reason for switching to 3 meals a day is to get my body to burn fat between meals. Previously, I was eating every three hours and although this did stabilise my blood sugar through the day it didn’t give my body the opportunity to burn fat in between meals. I am now eating at 7.30am, 12.30pm and 6.45pm leaving big chunks of time between meals for my body to burn fat. The meals I have are double the size I was eating and I do feel more satiated than I was before when eating smaller meals. So far, it appears to be going OK. I am getting hunger pangs but I am working through these and I am managing to get through to the next meal without too many problems. So, why have I opted for this meal frequency:

  1. My view is that the body has evolved to manage both times of plenty and times of scarcity. In other words it is used to going hungry and has evolved to manage these periods by switching metabolism to burning fat.
  2. Having 3 meals a day will decrease the pressure on my bodily functions, that is, my body will have to work less and there will be less strain.
  3. My body will need to produce a lot less insulin. Insulin can be produced three times a day to clear the 3 meals
  4. I can schedule training to coincide better with meals and I will have prepared myself better for sessions because of the larger intake of calories per meal
  5. Better time management as I’ll spend less time preparing meals
  6. Italians do not snack between meals and as a population they are generally slim and not overweight
  7. In countries where snacking is commonplace, obesity is also high

I am also packing the most calories into the first part of the day so based on 1800 calories (BMR), the calories are distributed as follows: breakfast 850, lunch 550, supper 400. The majority of carbohydrates are partitioned the first half of the day whilst protein figures more later in the day. Because of my training volume I need to consume an average of 2700 calories per day.