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!




Winter Blues…Group Training Keeps the Blues Away

 When I come into VQ Highland Park on a Saturday, from freezing temperatures outside, and witness over 120 smiling athletes training hard on the trainers throughout the morning, it lifts my spirits and confirms how important group training is at this time of year. The cold, snowy weather we have experienced this winter has been the worst I have seen in recent history. This weather has proven to bring down our morale and excitement for life significantly. I believe what we do at VQ really helps many of us from losing motivation and happiness during these tough winter months. Exercise, in general, is so important to staying positive during these short, cold days. This is true for the VQ athletes as well as for the VQ coaches and instructors. After speaking with many in the latter group about what they find motivating, they unanimously said, “the smiles and passion of the VQ athletes”. I could not agree more with the VQ instructor crew.

For those of you reading this who are not VQers, I encourage you to find a group of athletes to train with who are motivated, supportive and friendly. A good group can really help keep you fired up, not only for exercise, but for being healthy and happy overall. A positive group training environment can be a “game changer” when the gray winter blues start getting the best of our moods.

Things to look for in finding a good training group:

  1. Good balance of life–find a group that is not “over-the-top-serious” about competition, but moreover wants to be efficient with training and focuses on the journey, not the finish line.
  2. Members need to smile a lot and be supportive of you no matter what your level or goals might be.
  3. Reliability–if they are on time, reliable and consistent, you will have a much easier time showing up…even when you don’t feel like it.

I would suggest trying out a few indoor training groups and settling on the one that makes sense logistically, financially and feels right in your gut! The class times and location of the studio should make sense so you don’t spend all your training time driving to and from a facility.

If you find yourself getting blue this winter you may want to think about finding some training buddies, cranking some good music and praying for spring!



Challenges Present Opportunities

Well 2013 is officially in the books for VQ. We had our last Group Event in Tucson, Arizona at the world-famous El Tour de Tucson. This was a race/adventure that I will never forget. Why, you say? For many reasons actually… First and foremost it was the first time in El Tour history that it rained on race day. It not only rained on race day, but also the day before and the day before that, leaving the entire course drenched in water. Tucson does not have a sewer system to accommodate rain and snow like we have in Chicago. Instead, they have giant run-off trenches, called washes, that cyclists cross on two occasions during the event. The roads had standing water and both washes were flowing nicely by the time the race got going. Almost all of the VQers attending the event took the start–in itself, a massive show of fortitude and grit! Just starting this 5- to 9-hour journey in the cold rain is something that over 50% of the El Tour participants decided to forgo. That’s right: over half of the participants bagged the entire event because of the conditions! The start was hectic, wet, cold and dangerous, but the VQers persevered. The rain never let up and the temperature never got over 48 degrees for the entire event. VQ had a combined total of 33 flats with many a VQer finishing on flat tires, plus several other mechanicals and 4 cases of hypothermia. We also had 4 VQers attempting their very first centuries–what a first 100-mile-adventure to have!

One of my all-time favorite quotes is from Bruce Lee and it applied to this event for many: “A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves as something to aim at”.

I have done this race many times: Always with a bit of a competitive spirit; Always in a position near the end of the race to compete in the first group on the road; Never really experiencing it from a different perspective. So I was sad when I flatted out of the first group, but was remotivated after I saw several of the VQers pass me, seeing them rolling along the rainy Tucson roads. I spent the last half of the race bouncing from group to group, riding with a bunch of VQers and finally seeing the race from a different perspective. I watched the dynamics of people working together to make platinum, watched couples riding together and friends riding in groups despite their different abilities because they wanted to finish together. This new perspective provided me with a really unique, neat experience.

After another flat and a uniform change (from a sleek VQ kit with craft base layer to a cotton hoodie and a poncho), I took to the course again, this time with a whole new cast of VQ characters to interact with (some of whom thought I was a cycling novice riding with a poncho that captured the wind like a spinnaker sail at the America’s Cup!). That poncho was actually choking me at every direction change as the hood filled with air and yanked my head violently, leaving me gasping for air and making a nice red line across my throat!

There were many different levels of cyclists comprising this group. Some riders were very strong, having found their way into this group via mechanicals, crashes or other mishaps. Some riders in this group were from the 70-mile event that started at a different location. Some riders were those that survived unscathed for the first 75 miles and ended up here. So many different abilities made this group less cohesive than the other groups I’d experienced throughout the day. And at day’s end I considered myself lucky to have the opportunity to ride with so many different athletes and learn more about the different tribes that form during these events. I tried to get them all to ride more effectively together, but I learned some things too. One interesting thing that I saw firsthand was as the ride wore on and the athletes became more tired, the differential in the fitness levels started to become more apparent and the ability to work together became more difficult. At the end, tensions were rising while common sense and good decision-making were decreasing significantly for most. We know it is important to remain strong mentally with physical fatigue. It takes training and experience to make this happen. I certainly had my own opportunities to work on my mindset as I encountered my various setbacks along the way. As a rider somewhat obsessed with aerodynamics, riding with that poncho was a much tougher experience than I could have imagined it to be! I had to continually adjust my mindset to be as positive as possible given the circumstances I encountered. Mental toughness and a strong positive attitude make a difference in these moments.

A true example of a great mindset is a 74-year-old, retired brain surgeon named Francisco Gutierrez. He finished his first century at El Tour. He has been with VQ for almost two years and has come a long way. He gained the most from this experience because he not only learned to ride in the rain, pace himself, work with others, dress and keep warm, ride through water, draft and eat properly, he also gained something way more important: the confidence that at 74 he can do amazing things both physically and mentally! Way to go, Francisco!!!

And so with that, I’d like to close the year by thanking you for the opportunity to support as well as learn from you each and every day. You are my gift and it is my wish to inspire you even a fraction of how much you inspire me. Happy Holidays to All!



Season Reflections and Fall Training

This time of year allows me to step back and look at what an incredible year it has been for Vision Quest. The years seem to fly by and we need to remind ourselves to stop and reflect on the journey. For those of you who took on huge challenges like Leadville, Ironman, marathons, centuries or first triathlons, spend some time thinking about all the incredible things that happened along the way.

I have been reflecting on a few of my personal experiences this year. As many of you know VQ took on Leadville with over 50 people signing up for the challenge! When game day came, we had 36 riders cross the line as Leadville finishers. The 50 riders had the journey of a lifetime. Collectively, we lost over 500 pounds of weight. Many of us, approximately 80%, learned how to mountain bike for the first time. All learned about the effects of altitude and how best to control efforts and maximize the ability to deal with the thin air. All learned a bit more about one another and many went from casual acquaintances to true friends.

Things happen on race day that prove these friendships. One example of a very selfless act from one VQer to another: Kris Siudak was riding along during her Leadville race day adventure when she came across a fellow VQer who had crashed. She waited 30 minutes with him to make sure he was taken care of before she continued on with her race. Why? Because the training process galvanizes the bonds between us all and the final event is just a culmination of the stories, fitness, friendships, mental battles and knowledge gained through the process. This is why almost all of us cried when it was over. They were tears of joy, relief, happiness and even sadness that this event is now over and even a look ahead to the next adventure. And then there is the quality of the people training with Vision Quest. Kris is just one example of the high standards Vision Quest athletes set for themselves.

This can also be seen during other events from this season. The Sub-5 Century pushed many of us beyond our comfort zones. We worked together and saw the value of teamwork. I can tell you things done as a team are much sweeter than things done on your own. The sharing of stories and similar experiences are heightened when relived with others, while tough times and disappointments are easier to bear with the support of a team. I know many of you have felt these same feelings this year in your journeys. I encourage you to spend time reflecting and recording these adventures. They will continue to gain meaning over time.

Now on to the fall… Most of us think we need a break from working out, but we don’t. What we need is a break from the structure and the type of work we have been doing. We all need to mix it up a bit and take a break from our routines. Pros need a break because they train 30 hours a week and are totally beat up or injured. They also need to take time to reflect on their seasons as a whole and make adjustments to their plans for the following year. We do not train that hard. A break, even a short one, from exercise puts us a little behind the eight ball, causing a need to overcome that loss in fitness. De-training your sport a bit is fine, but keeping active and doing things that keep you moving is critical. The best thing is to do something fun that puts more balance into the body. Becoming athletic again and really enjoying the elements are fun ways to stay in shape and stay motivated to keep fit. I am looking forward to riding the trails, returning to my functional training workouts and playing in the leaves with my kids.

Enjoy the fall and all the smells, sounds, excitement this time of year brings. Be sure to keep making the juice worth the squeeze and bring back into balance your top priorities.

I hope all of you carve out a little time not only to reflect but to write down some of those reflections. Use them to appreciate the opportunities we all have like running, biking and swimming. These reflections will help us learn how to be better for our next adventures.



Leadville is Here!!!

For many of us, this is a great time of year because the hard and long training is behind us and we are resting and focusing on recovery and time with family. For others whose major events are in the fall, this is a time of anticipation. For me personally, the journey to Leadville, thus far, has been fantastic and now my mind has shifted from more miles and hard intervals to proper nutrition, sleeping a ton and enjoying the taper process. Of course, Leadville is not the only thing going on here at VQ. We have many athletes doing triathlons, centuries, marathons, etc. I am sure there is a similarity experienced amongst all training groups during these times.

This is the point when many athletes stress about the event and waste energy and happiness worrying that everything is not perfect; they start to second-guess everything. I tell my athletes that “the hay is in the barn at this point” and the mind should be calm if you prepared the best you can. Nobody prepares perfectly. Nobody. Not even the best pros in the world do everything they can. Do not let thoughts of the event overtake your mind. Of course it’s important to focus on the race from time to time, but it should not consume you!

For the VQ crew working toward Leadville, the process has been one full of learning: as much from each other as from the experts! I am so proud of all the VQers that contributed information and time to help ensure everyone’s improvement. It more than excites me when I see so many VQ athletes becoming closer friends as they make their way toward their goals. For the Leadville crew as well as the other VQ groups who are completing events together, going through this process creates a bond. Any time a group of people suffers and trains for this long, a mutual respect among the members is certain to grow. Many great friendships are made and strengthened in the process.

So much can be learned about a person when riding (suffering!) alongside one another for long periods of time. We come to realize that although we are very different, we do have a lot in common. As the training gets tougher, we learn just how much we need one another for support. This often happens without even a word passing between us. The group knows that tough times will happen for all of us at some point in training and on race day and the tighter the team, the better the chance for survival. The support of the group is one of the best feelings you can have when going into an event that pushes you so far out of your comfort zone.

Your training partners are key to race day success. The funny thing is: you do not even have to see them that day! Just knowing they’re out there on the same course, suffering like you did together so many times during training, is comforting.

Many of you have come to the taper part of your season now, but a reduction of training load is not the only component of a taper. Quality and quantity of sleep, improved nutrition and a reduction in your day-to-day stress are the keys to a successful taper. Keep in mind that stressing about the event or the lack of short-term training is not productive. As I said, the hay is in the barn at this point, so enjoy the reduced workload and mentally relax. Although you’re putting less hours of exercise in, your body is working very hard to grow and recover from all the training you have done. You should be hungry and a bit anxious/nervous at times. This is normal and should be embraced.

From experience, I can tell you that everyone is nervous during the taper period and the feeling tends to increase as the event comes closer. This nervousness is normal and can be controlled by being prepared for the event and doing some mental exercises to focus your energy on productive positive thoughts about the event. This may take some practice. Writing out a race plan helps ease some of those nerves. The plan should be specific and include your pacing strategy, nutrition and hydration strategies and notes which include each challenge of the course and your solution for it. Also note the two to three things you want to focus on throughout the event and rehearse them in your head. These thoughts will replace negative thoughts that are likely to enter your mind at some point during the race. Remember the taper period is not idle time. It’s your body’s time to grow…let it do its job!

Best of luck in all your events this month!


Keep Your Competitive Spirit in Check!

This time of year has our motivation at an all-time high! We have our goals firmly fixed in front of us, we are in our training routines, we have great weather (most of the time) and we are all fired up about training harder and longer than we ever have! This is all fine and great, but we must ensure during these times of heightened motivation that we stay grounded, not getting caught up with “keeping up with the Joneses”.

I have seen this a hundred times if I have seen it once: athletes try to do as much as or more than other athletes doing the same events as them no matter what. This is a dangerous game to play for many reasons. Each athlete has his/her own level of fitness, time and freedom. Each has a plan specific to his/her lifestyle, needs and goals.Copying others volumes and intensities does not work. Many of the people I work with are Type A personalities and the reason they are successful in their professional careers is because they do more than everyone else or more than is required. This is not always the case when training on the bike once you achieve a high level of fitness. This is a tough concept to grasp for people that have been rewarded for doing more all the time in other aspects of their lives!

Often times, having people in our training groups with similar goals motivates us to keep training even when we don’t feel up to it. However, there is a flip side to that coin if motivation gets out of control. Before we know it, we are comparing ourselves against other athletes’ workouts instead of comparing ourselves within our own plans. Then suddenly, we are doing too much in hopes of staying even or doing more than those Joneses. This causes us to worsen.

The easy fix is to have a plan and stick to it. Doing more because someone else is doing more is simply not effective. I have fallen into that trap myself as a professional cyclist. It took me a few really bad months to learn that I could not handle the training or racing volume that many of my teammates could handle or even needed to do. I simply had a different physiology and I needed more rest and far less volume to compete at my best.

This issue is often seen in collegiate sports with everyone training the same. As a result, many collegiate endurance athletes don’t reach their own, individual potentials because they are overtrained in programs, for most schools, that are not customized for every runner, swimmer or biker. They often train as a team and compete as a team. If the program works, the athletes do well, but if it is too much, they either burn out, overtrain or get injured. At the collegiate level, it is a difficult problem to solve with mandatory meets and training times for teams. Having 30 kids on different schedules is just not practical for most collegiate coaches and programs. For most of us though, that is not the case. WE have a fair amount of control over our training time and intensity; therefore, adjusting our plans is very easy.

Doing less than our peers can, at times, be difficult for some of us. Our egos and our minds convince us that we are falling behind. Trust me, our bodies will thank us later as we continue to grow steadily throughout the year. Trying to keep up with others becomes mentally stressful as well, so just stay the course, and trust your plan and your own instincts.

I’m bringing this up because I see my Leadville group starting to have this vibe. The desire to do well at the event is driving training decisions. We lose our objectivity because we are in the thick of it, want to do well and start reacting to what we see around us. It causes us to look at other athletes and what they are doing instead of focusing on our own plan and where we are individually. Training at this level cannot work this way. Once you are fit, you have to be smart and do what is necessary to maintain it, not do more because someone else did more. This is the quickest way to fry yourself to a crisp and will require months of dedication to come back.

One last thing, if you ever question whether to train more or rest more: rest! If you feel you need a rest and everyone else is going long, do what is best for you and forget about “keeping up with the Joneses”. After all, in the end, who knows? Maybe the Joneses won’t be able to hold your wheel!


All Sorts of Setbacks Athletes Encounter

There are all sorts of setbacks athletes encounter in their training and preparation processes. Some include weather, injury, accidents and sickness. Most of us will face at least one, if not more, of these in a season. If you have trained for a specific goal over the past few years, you probably experienced all of these. The reason behind this article is my own recent experience with setbacks. With the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race looming this year, I have to readjust my plan. Setbacks are an inevitable part of the training process and that is why understanding your plan and having a good coach who can help you adjust it can mean the difference in achieving or falling short of your goals.

Setback #1: This Stinking Weather
This has been one of the toughest winter/spring seasons we have ever had here in the Midwest. It has been cold, cloudy, rainy, snowy and just plain miserable for the last eight weeks. This put a huge damper on getting the overall training volume necessary for me to be at the fitness level I expected. So, what have I done to adjust? I have worked more on some of the specific energy systems that can be controlled indoors. I have spent more time on the weekends with my family and friends, focusing on getting ahead in these other aspects of my life so when the weather does start to come back around, I have created some extra time in those areas, allowing me to train a bit more than usual to try and “catch up” a bit. And third, I really focused on my diet and reaching my race weight. I used discipline in this area that I might have directed at getting through some of the longer rides had the weather cooperated.

Setback #2: The Crash
About a month ago, on one of my only outdoor rides on my brand new MTB, I fell…really hard. The first thing people asked after the crash was “who crashed you?” My reply was (and always is) that crashes happen and putting blame on someone does no one any good. If you bike long enough, I will bet that you will “get crashed” and you will “crash” someone else. Most crashes are a combination of factors that come together in an unfortunate end. In this case, many of the factors could have been avoided–by me. I was overlapping a wheel (this is a big no-no!), we were all tired (tired riders make bad decisions) and it was one of the first road rides of the year so everyone was a bit rusty. The combination of all these things sent me hard to the ground and even now my ribs are still sore and my right hand is pretty mangled. This setback has cost me a month of preparation mostly because I have not been able to sleep and when you can’t sleep, you can’t grow.

When I crashed as a pro, I could come back on my terms. I had no business, family or other things in my life to take up my time. Now I have limited training time and must try to figure out that perfect balance point to coming back. Come back too quickly and I risk not healing all the way. Come back too slowly and I lose too much fitness and with an event like Leadville, fitness is everything. The solution for me is to come back pretty soon, but not to high intensity work until I am totally healed. Riding long and easy will not hurt my injuries or tear me down as much and as a result, recovery (sleep) will be less important.

The last adjustment I may have to make is my performance race goal. This is a tough one for me to swallow, but something that will allow me to enjoy the process without the pressure of being unprepared for my target performance.

Setbacks are part of the game. Everyone will encounter them as they move through their athletic careers. Part of our growth as people and as athletes is in how we handle the setbacks and experiences we take away from challenges along the path.