Crashing Through Recovery

Many of you know that I have been recovering from a pretty good spill on the ice right before Thanksgiving. I had actually made a decision not to ride that day. In fact, I cancelled the outdoor VQ ride after driving in for the early a.m. indoor ride and assessing the ground as I walked into VQ. Then about 30 minutes before the outdoor ride was to take off, a few VQers and VQ coaches convinced me that it was OK to ride. We decided to do a non-sanctioned VQ ride with about 11 of us. To make a long story short, we headed out against my gut instinct and, sure enough…BAM! All but 2 of us fell on some black ice about 5 minutes into the ride.

Let this be a lesson to everyone out there to trust your gut instincts, because as my Uncle Tony says, “if you think it smells bad…don’t eat or drink it!”

In the 40 years that I have been riding a bike, I have fallen more times than I would like to admit. I still find it hard to believe that while on a casual outdoor ride, at just 15 mph and at the experienced age of 43, I took one of the worst falls of my life. I managed to, in the words of my surgeon, Dr. Brian Cole, “decimate” my shoulder. And to make matters worse, my knee took a hit that ruptured my PCL (posterior cruciate ligament). So, needless to say, I have had the longest break off my bike in 40 years, the worst fitness of my life and the most chronic pain I have ever experienced. Let me share…

First and foremost, like most people that have not been hurt in a while, I was not going to let a little shoulder injury keep me from staying fit and training hard. I figured that it was not that bad and I would bounce back like I have with any other injury I have had. I usually heal quickly and the longest an injury kept me away from my bike was 2 weeks MAX! I have had broken collar bones, separated shoulders, broken hands/fingers/knuckles, road rash from head to toe and even a few concussions, but none of these held me up for long and I returned to my top shape within 6 weeks of the injury. Today I find myself 12 weeks from my accident and still wondering when I will be completely healed up and can really start to ride hard and long again.

Here is a look at the last 12 weeks…

The process started with denial: “I am fine. I should be good to go in a couple of weeks.” Believe it or not, I actually felt this way post-surgery. Copious amounts of pain pills, plus the post-op endorphins, made me feel like I was healed just a few days after. I was really thinking that somehow I was different than everyone else and I estimated my progress as about 90% healed. I took my arm out of the sling thinking I no longer needed it.

Then week 2 arrived. I took the initiative to reduce the pain medication. The realization that I had been managing the pain with medication–and not my super-human healing abilities–hit me. Hard. It was so bad I could not sleep or move my shoulder at all. The fact that I had been feeling good the first 4 days after surgery and spending way too much time out of the sling, because “life” is easier without the thing, did not help at all. I had failed to realize that the pain meds coursing through my body were causing me to think I didn’t need the sling. Still I maintained my “I am fine” attitude.

Week 3: I decided to revisit the pain management plan the doctors had offered me so I could sleep and survive the serious pain during all waking hours. Thoughts of getting back on the bike started to surface. But after going to physical therapy, I realized that those first 2 weeks without the sling cost me some healing time and now I was basically back to the beginning from putting too much stress on the “unslung” joint. This is the point when I became pissed at myself because I thought I healed like Wolverine, but really I was just an idiot. I vowed to never take that damn sling off!

Weeks 4-6: PT started with Andrea from IBJI. She was not only my physical therapist, but also my voice of reason when it came to getting back on the bike. I got the green light to start some indoor cycling, but only while putting very little weight on my left side. I used an adjustable bike with the front end way up, allowing me to put more weight on my butt and less on my hands. I started riding indoors a couple times each week. It was not enjoyable. I could not ride hard and always felt sore after, sleeping terribly.

Weeks 7 and 8: These were the toughest weeks for me. Up to this point I did not feel like I was getting any better. Still in the sling, I had no range of motion, stability or strength in the shoulder. My mood started to go south for the first time during the process. Until now I had been distracted with so many things: VQ was busier than ever and we moved VQ Chicago, Thanksgiving and Christmas brought family to town, the kids were home on break plus the New Year…lots of things to keep me busy! But then the holidays were gone, my fitness was plummeting, my weight skyrocketing and my mind was starting to go a bit dark. As you know, this is not a place I visit very often.

The feeling that I was not making progress started to scare me. I realized that saying I was fine and focusing on doing everything that would make me fine, were two different things. I needed to acknowledge where I actually was and then put a plan together to get myself through it. Every time I started to think negative thoughts, I would redirect my thinking to focus on the controllable things that could help me improve, rather than the potential downsides. I would do more PT exercises, try to get better sleep, make better choices with my food and drink more water. Even if some of these individual actions are not tied directly to healing and recovery, I believe they are tied to mindset and that is a critical part of healing. This shift helped me endure some tough moments. Then, all of a sudden (or at least it seemed that way because I stopped focusing on time off the bike and started focusing on everything to get myself back on the bike), I had a breakthrough. The pain started to subside. I got the green light to take off my sling. I really started to feel much better. It seemed as though I improved 10% during the first 7 weeks and from week 7 to week 8, I improved 50% more. So, now at 60%, I felt it was time to try getting on the bike at the VQ Florida Camp and take it outside!

Weeks 8 through 10: I got out on the road a little in Florida, but inside I knew I wasn’t really ready. I figured I could improve my fitness maybe 1% by riding a bunch and risk an accident or more delayed healing (like I did those first 2 weeks) or I could be sensible and give it another couple weeks before riding outside again. As we often say at VQ: I realized the juice just wasn’t worth the squeeze.

Weeks 10 through 12: Feeling much better! And, after reflecting on this process, I can tell you that the challenge of balancing a positive attitude while also being honest and realistic is harder than I thought. I needed to realize the process is hard to manage both from the healing and pain perspectives. It is tough! Being positive is good, but acknowledging that you really are hurt is also important. I don’t think I acknowledged that at first. I tried to be so positive that I ignored the fact that I was really messed up and recovery would take time, sacrifice and pain. I get that now!

I want everyone to understand that coming back from an injury is hard. If you find yourself here, remember: it is a process. I don’t care how strong or special you think you are, we all heal at a similar rate. If you think that you can short-cut that process by staying positive, you are dead wrong. Yes, you need that positive attitude, but in combination with a realistic understanding of where you are and what you need to do to get back on your feet. The attitude will take you through the plan, but it is not the plan by itself.

Here are my take-aways:

  • It takes time–the one variable over which we have very little control.
  • It takes discipline and support.
  • It takes becoming OK with losing fitness and changing your focus for a while.
  • It takes realizing that you will get better and it will never be as fast as you think!
  • It takes being 100% truthful with yourself during the process.
  • It takes making sure you have supportive people around you. I was lucky to have people like Andrea from IBJI, Dr. Cole, my wife, Lori, and friends like Jeff Rothstein to shoot me straight and support my recovery process.

I am grateful for the folks at Rush and IBJI. They put me in a position to be back on my bike soon and ready to roll hard again. I am also thankful for all of the support of the Vision Quest team and members. Your kind words, treats and show of support were all very helpful to me. This whole experience is just one more example of how awesome the people of VQ really are.

This week I got back on my bike for an outdoor ride with friends down to Bartlett Lake. I reflected on a new motivation, appreciation and excitement to continue getting better. My cycling fitness has not changed much in the last 10 years. Sure, I may get 5% better or worse, but that’s about it. I have never taken off for this long and I think it will act as a complete reset for me. I’m resetting my appreciation for the beauty and opportunity to ride my bike, resetting my excitement to grow again as a cyclist and resetting my understanding of all people/athletes that come back from injury. It’s never easy to come back from injury, but it can create new opportunities, make us better teachers and give us a renewed gratitude for life.

Ciao~
Robbie

Holidays Are Here!!!

I love kicking off the holiday season with Thanksgiving. It sets the stage for all things good: friends, family, food and gratitude. One of the things we love in Italian culture is to cook for people. It brings a feeling of excitement when someone eats the food you prepared for them. The feeling is incredible! Thanksgiving is all about people: those who came before us and those who are still with us. It’s the food and the people!

The other reason Thanksgiving is so special to me is that it is a time to reflect on how wonderful life is. Vision Quest has blessed me with great people. I am so thankful for each and every athlete involved with VQ (past, present and future!). The ability to be part of someone’s athletic journey is a gift that I appreciate. I also am thankful for having a great group of people with whom I work on a daily basis. The VQ team is a passionate one that wants the athlete experience to be spectacular. Their complete commitment to making VQ better inspires me every day. They are all big-time Givers. We are blessed and excited to do what we get to do each and every day.

Now, for us as athletes, there is a side to the holidays that can be tough. Many of us might feel stressed when trying to stay focused on exercise and proper diet. Understand that this is a struggle for all of us. This is a GOOD thing! Think about this: if you are able to keep your diet and exercise routine perfect over the holidays, you may be out of balance. Time spent with family and friends or helping out at local charities becomes way more important than getting all of the specific workouts in. At this time of year, eating and being social and present with others becomes way more important than that super strict carb restriction you are focusing on. This is one of those things where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The holiday season is the time to prioritize the things that mean the most. That might mean a slight gain in weight or a slight drop in fitness. That’s OK! It can be easily fixed with a couple of good weeks of training in January as long as the hole you dig is not too deep. To be honest a little extra around my belly and some loss in fitness reminds me that we all have a pretty good life! If you’re really worried about the food, maybe eat a huge salad before heading out to enjoy parties and events. That way, when the appetizers appear, you won’t feel like you want to eat the entire platter.

Looking to the new year, I am eyeing a return to normalcy once again. I’m coming off a crazy month that included a bit of a cycling spill that required surgery, Dave and his team have moved our Chicago location and we are overhauling our entire billing system. Life is busy, but you know me: I consider myself blessed to be busy!

Enjoy these next weeks. Keep your mind focused on the most important things and when you get a chance to train make the most of it. Watch your portions and make sure you smile and reflect often. Savor these moments–we never know how many we will have.

Thanks to all of you for another great year!

Ciao~
Robbie

Functional Training

As a business owner and father of four, I have had needed to keep a pretty set routine over the last three years. I have tried to create a better home-life balance and have not been maintaining my personal functional training with the consistency I once did. This caught up with me. I have felt a gradual decline in my overall athleticism and core stability. Aches and pains have been inching in and I attribute it to decreasing overall core strength and stability. So starting on Oct 1st, I have done a 40 minute range of motion, stability based, strength class twice a week here at VQ Highland Park. Angie, from Illinois Bone and Joint Institute is our class leader.  I have been doing this class pretty consistently for last 6 weeks and I have noticed a huge difference in the way I feel both on and off the bike.

The cold weather usually makes me feel a bit more lethargic on the bike and I tend to get a little off which from switching from my road to my cross bike. The workouts are also shorter and more intense with a bigger focus on upper body engagement when riding. It’s not uncommon for the body to feel out of balance until returning to the road bike in April. Since I have started a consistent strength training routine I have felt more balanced and stronger then I have in years.

My diet, training hours, training intensity, bike and set up, sleep, and work hours have not changed much over the last 5 years. The only change I have made has been FT class with the VQ crew on Monday and Wednesday from 6:50-7:30 a.m.

This is not an over the top, hard core, pump fest, but rather a balanced based well rounded workout with a focus on range of motion, stability and rotational movements.  We do simple squats, pushups, balance exercises, coordination drills (brain busters is what Kelli Richter calls them). These things are all done at a tolerable intensity that leaves you tired but not blown to smithereens.

I think for the first time I have found a program that does not take too much time and really makes a difference in how I feel. Here is an example of how I feel better:

1. I always have to see a chiropractor or physiotherapist when I start riding longer or harder on my cross bike since my hips tend to get off kilter and I end up pedaling with one leg way more then the other, I have not had to see the chiro once this fall/ winter. My body feels perfectly balanced and my legs put out equal power.

2. Another example is when I do my VQ performance test for athletes I often have to demonstrate a walking hamstring stretch for the athletes. I am always strong on my right leg, but terrible on my left leg. Since the strength training work I can perform the stretch better on both sides and there is no difference in my ROI or my balance on either leg.

3. The last thing I will tell you is that my power on my cross bike has been the highest I have seen it in 4 years. Both my short and long range power is mid summer levels and my volume has been cut in half over these last 12 weeks.

Keep in mind, these are issues I have been dealing with for 5 years and now they are gone. I am excited about this program and think that everyone should give it a try.

Fall Fitness

Greetings from Robbie Ventura 

Fall Fitness
Most people approach their fitness at this time of year in one of three ways:

 1. Increased engagement: completely gung ho and super-focused on 2015 goals
These athletes are using this great fall weather to ramp up training on all fronts.

2. Change in engagement: pulling back on endurance engagement and reducing overall training time
These athletes seek other forms of exercise, often involving more strength and coordination. This departure from longer, more steady state exercise to a focus on more athletic and strength work makes a ton of sense to me.

3. Disengagement: unfortunate stop to all training 
Some are physically and mentally burnt out or are out of balance from a long season. Others have lost all their motivation because they have no fall or spring goals. And then there are those who are just on to other things.

At this time of year, VQ mostly sees the first two approaches. We have athletes who are so pumped for this year’s cross-season, as well as goals for next year, that they are training hard and loving this time. Many of the VQ veterans are taking a break from big volume training to focus more on healing and getting to fitness components like strength, stability and skill. We realize that getting stronger, more stable and balanced will help adapt to higher training loads in the spring; consequently, keeping us growing and helping to reduce the risk of injuries. To me, putting on a little muscle and increasing range of motion rounds us out and allows us to stay younger and more capable.

Now, whether you are going for it or winding your endurance training down a bit, this is a perfect time to get some reference points on your current fitness level. You can find this information in the lab or in the field.

  • The lab provides a great way to quantify your fitness level. I love when athletes come in to participate in a blood lactate test. We can determine so much about how they have adapted during the year and where they stand in comparison to tests taken in the past. The lab test is nice because, through interpretation, we can determine how the lower end energy systems have adapted to the training load.
  • Now, if you are short on time, you can still look at the threshold and high-end energy systems by doing field tests. Field tests are very effective in determining the higher end energy systems. You can do a field test by doing a 4-minute and 20-minute all-out test. This will give you an idea of where you are and whether you have improved the higher end systems. There is a good chance that if you have improved these systems, you probably improved the lower end systems as well.

The key is to create a consistent test that you can repeat as often as you like. At the very least you should test now, in the spring and again midsummer. This will help give some structure to your season and help you determine what is working and how your fitness changes throughout the year.

I also think these tests help determine how an athlete’s current training intensities should look. What are the current power, HR and PE zones? Believe it or not, power zones change throughout the year and recalibrating them is important. If you have never done a test, then I suggest doing one now. No matter where you are currently in your fitness quest, testing will give you valuable data to improve as efficiently as possible.

So, whether you are a VQ athlete or not, be sure to get a fitness reference point this fall. You can do a lab test that involves a lactate ramp test and will provide great data on low- and high-end energy systems to point you to your focus this off-season. If that’s not in the cards, do the 20-minute field test so we can calibrate your indoor and outdoor training intensities to maximize your training effect no matter what your engagement level is.
Ciao~

Robbie

 

Midseason Lull

I have been criticized at times for writing about things that have already happened and teaching things you have to wait an entire year to use. In other words: timing is key. This greeting takes that into consideration, offering advice about something that will most likely be experienced by all of us in the next few weeks.

For endurance athletes, August can be a difficult part of our seasons. Many of us had a huge summer and are tired and spent from the stress and training for our “A” events that took place in July. For bike racers especially, since July is the peak of the season, motivation in August is tough! For those who have big goals in early- to mid-August, like Ironman, Leadville or other “A” events, this time is nerve-racking while you hope and pray that you have done enough or, in some cases, not too much! Either way, there isn’t much you can do now…so you start to get nervous!

Those with great fitness and big July events may start to experience some symptoms of “burn out”. This often happens after a big event or season goal has gone by. You feel physically tired and the motivation to train is starting to dwindle. Many of us have been going at it hard since May and are just plumb tuckered out, needing a break. For me this is the part of the year that I call my “midseason lull” and I have experienced this almost every year since I started cycling. My motivation to train and eat right and do intervals seems to fall sharply during August and I have had to learn how to manage this change. About 20 years ago, I started to take 7 to 10 days off at this time and reduce cycling and training. During these 10 days I do other things to stay fit and freshen my mind. I play a few rounds of golf, go for a wakeboard, take a family vacation…and when I do ride, I do not do intervals! With all this fun comes a slight decrease in fitness. Losing some fitness is much easier to swallow when my early summer goals are behind me and my fall goals are far enough away that I have time to get it back.

The key to that statement is “fall goals”. Picking events in October or November are critical to bouncing back and getting remotivated to train after that August break. Let me reiterate: always have a fall goal! The biggest problem I see for endurance athletes is a post-event mental and physical nose-dive in the fall and then having to spend the entire winter digging out of a hole that does not need to be there. I say this now because there is still time.

Pick an event in late-September, October or November that excites you. After your break in August, get excited to get in great shape for your late-season goal. If you have a big event in mid-August, take 10 days or so in early-August and get after it in mid- to late-August. Either way, allow yourself a break, then put the next goal on the board and go for it. The goal does not have to be nearly the size or scope of your big mid-summer event, but it has to have enough substance to stimulate/motivate you to get back on the horse.

The key here is to be okay with losing a little fitness. Knowing that will provide some mental and physical rest that will bounce you back to a higher peak than if you would have just kept grinding all summer and fall. The loss in fitness that a mid-summer break costs you is not that great if you have had a great spring and summer of training and events. In fact, I would bet that some of the lack of motivation and stagnant fitness is caused from your body’s inability to stay on good form for such a long time.

I am not saying to take the month of August completely off, but rather a short, unstructured break from training, hard group rides and events. You can still ride a couple times easy when you feel like you “want to” but also do some others things to keep you occupied that do not involve measurement, stress or extreme fatigue.

I just did a week trip to Italy and I probably don’t need to state the obvious: I ate and drank way too much; however, I really unplugged mentally from the day-to-day schedule, structure and stress. That allowed me to return home motivated and excited to work hard with the VQers to get them ready for some great later-season event goals. I am doing the Levi Gran Fondo with some friends on October 4th and am now excited for and focused on this event. It will be great to connect with my old teammate Levi Leipheimer and some of the beautiful roads of Santa Rosa. I also have some smaller goals like the Sub-5 Century in September and Rebecca Rusch’s Idaho event. These are measuring sticks for me to use along the way, but are also events I will enjoy and use to help tune the motor for Levi’s event in October.

For now I suggest you do the following: grab a calendar, your significant other(s) and a glass of wine and figure out what you can agree to for a fall event. If you have big events in the next couple of weeks or have finished your big events already, understand there will be some post-event blues. Have some fun, take a break and recharge the battery. Your fall event will have you back on track and enjoying the process once again.

Ciao~

Robbie

Potential

We all have more potential than we are aware of, that is for sure. Maximizing that potential can be dangerous. Often times the juice is not worth the squeeze; requiring too much time, energy, cost and thought.

At VQ we try to find the balance in uncovering as much of that potential as possible without throwing the athlete’s entire life out of order. This can be done through effective training and education that teaches the athletes about their bodies.

The process always starts with an evaluation and a goal. Once these two things are in place, the process of uncovering your natural gifts can begin.

Many of you reading this are at different places in your potential discovery, but please read on. See how far into the process you are and get a glimpse at how to keep on rolling.

After you have a goal and a general idea of needs for achieving that goal, you need to develop a consistent training routine. The routine might include working out every TuesdayThursday and Saturday for 30 minutes. This routine will become part of your weekly habits and you will see tremendous growth as your body starts to adjust and accommodate this new consistent weekly stress. The key is consistency. Making the routine doable is very important. It needs to reflect what is realistic.

To take your growth a step further, you may want to slowly increase the intensity (how hard you go), frequency and duration of training within that routine; thereby increasing your volume of work and adding more stress to the system to further elicit a stronger training effect. Now here is where it gets tricky: at some point you will no longer be able to increase your duration and frequency since you have no more time available to train. Many of us find ourselves in this space at one time or another–“stuck” in our progression. Once you are here, you need to start doing the following to further the process of uncovering your potential:

  • First, record your training and how you feel during and after your workouts. Once you start doing this you will want to move to stage two.
  • Next, while recording how you feel, also include other information gathered from your training tools. You may want to invest in tools that monitor speed, heart rate, power, distance, calories or kilojoules burned, cadence, etc. Many of us do both of these things pretty well, but the most important component comes next…
  • Finally you need to analyze this information. Looking at your data and your comments about how you feel and then comparing that to your outputs, helps you learn what workouts are the most effective in making you better. Looking at trends in your training and trying to determine when you need rest and when you need to push it will further help you dial in what types of loads will help you maximize your improvement.

Over time this process helps you learn your body and how it responds. This is key because once you learn your body and its responses you can work so much better with a coach or training program.

At Vision Quest one of our big goals is to create an environment where all these things are easier. We do performance evaluations and goal-setting sessions before athletes start to train with us. We have some really great VQ event goals for them to engage in if they do not have specific goals of their own. We have a variety of workout offerings to fit various lifestyles and we try to get people in training routines that do not disrupt the balance of life. We have swim, bike and strength workouts at all times of the day to make it easy for all our athletes to find a consistent training routine. Our cycling software allows them to keep track of a ton of information and auto-upload to their e-mail or TrainingPeaks account (online software used to track performance and input comments on how they felt). The analysis is the toughest part early on, but over time as you learn from the VQ coaches, staff, data and other athletes, you will find what works best for you. This is an ongoing process that changes as you change from beginner to expert, younger to seasoned, low stress to high stress. The process needs to be meaningful and reflective of the realities of your life.

This process of maximizing your potential is part of the joy of training and getting fit. It is not about winning or keeping up with the guy that trains 30 hours a week. It is about being the best you can be with the time you have. And, through it all, really enjoying the process of learning more about your body, how it works, what makes it tired and how much training intensity, time and rest are needed to optimize your fitness!

Ciao~

Robbie

Cold, Cold, Cold

The key to improvement is training right! An easy way to train right is to train indoors. Just ask Andy Potts who spoke to all the VQers a couple months ago. Andy is one of the most talented and grounded athletes I have met in the endurance world in a long time. He spoke to us from the heart and his passion and charisma were contagious. I think everyone who left the “Andy Potts Night” was motivated, excited and happy to be part of the endurance community. He spoke at length on the value of training indoors and how he could never get as good as he is by just training outside. He talked about the value of controlling load and increasing the work-to-rest ratio systematically, as well as the benefits of a controlled environment. After seeing the most recent FTP test results at VQ, I agree with him 100%. I have witnessed bigger improvements in power output by VQers this year than in any other year in the history of our program.

Now as we continue to refine protocols and improve our product, I reflect on the idea that people have been forced to ride inside more this winter and because of that we have been able to control the intensity and thus make bigger gains than would have been made outdoors. That is a silver lining to the big cloud of winter that has been shadowing us so persistently this year. Three cheers for getting stronger indoors!

There comes a point though, when we all feel like enough is enough and we need to get outside. When I get to this point I am willing to give up some improvement to get out for a nice long sunny ride and soak in all the outdoors has to offer. I was so fired up to get those great camp miles in Arizona–and now it is on to Base Camp in May! The sun will be shining and we will feel the awesome effects of all that indoor training. We were able to get outside a few weekends ago at the Barry-Roubaix. The event was a huge success for VQ with over 40 athletes taking the start. The overall consensus at day’s end was that it was one of the hardest, longest 60-mile days ever, but also one of the most rewarding! The event was well run and the support amongst competitors was unlike any bike race I have ever done. Supporting and encouraging one another openly is a sign to me that our sport is evolving in a positive way. The new energy from riding outside together was incredible and I hope the vibe at Barry-Roubaix continues to spread to all aspects of bike racing.

In closing, I will say that we need to find the good in every situation–it’s the silver lining in what our lives bring to us. The weather has been a challenge, but it brought the biggest improvements in VQ’s history. The road conditions, temperature and travel time to Barry-Roubaix were challenges, but the satisfaction of finishing, time spent with friends and rising to the challenge were very positive things that came out of that event. When gray clouds roll in, it is important to keep your goals challenging and your mindset positive in order to find the silver lining. Both of these things together make a great combination and can be influenced by people around you. Surround yourself with silver lining-seekers and you will find yourself wanting to smile more!

Ciao~

Robbie