Coach Case Study 4: The Race Across America (RAAM)

The Endurance Coach help people from a range of abilities achieve their goals in a variety of disciplines. Training methods vary depending on the athlete concerned and programs differ considerably. This series of blogs focuses on a selection of athletes – all with differing circumstances and considerations - and describes how their training was designed and adapted throughout 2016.

Penny is a former triathlete who wants to achieve a solo Race Across America (RAAM), a continuous 3080 mile cycle race from the west to east coast of the USA. She had read numerous articles and blogs on RAAM training but contacted the Endurance Coach to ensure the training was appropriate and specific to her requirements.

The majority of published information stressed the need for high training volume but this was clearly inappropriate for . As a very busy veterinary surgeon it simply wasn’t possible to achieve the commonly advised volume around her work commitments. Training therefore needed to be structured in a way which increased her fitness but enabled her to recover sufficiently between sessions.

To enter the solo RAAM certain qualification criteria must be met so the target was Race Around Ireland 2015 and Race Across the West 2016, both official qualifying events. There were several aims which had to be achieved in training:

  • Increase force production for extended periods:

By increasing her ‘bike strength’ Penny would be able to ride with a lower cadence for long periods. This would result in a lower heart rate and therefore a lower energy expenditure, something which would be critical in a 3000 mile event.

  • Develop postural endurance:

RAAM requires the rider to remain in the same position almost continuously for the entire event. Rest stops are as brief as possible so cycling fitness almost becomes secondary to the ability to support the body for the required duration. A common reason for DNFs in such events is a painful condition called ‘Shermer Neck’; the inability to support the head while riding due to fatigue of the deep postural muscles at the back of the neck from keeping your head in forced extension, particularly when on tri-bars. Penny is very slight so it was clear that we would need to integrate S&C work to improve her general strength and increase her ability to cycle efficiently while remaining comfortable.

  • Improve fat burning metabolism so it was as efficient as possible:

For any aerobic event it’s advantageous to be efficient at metabolising fat but the longer the event the more important it becomes. There’s no way Penny would be able to fuel herself for the duration of RAAM if she was dependent on carbs.

  • Develop mental strength:

The longer an event the more mentally demanding it becomes: combined with sleep deprivation mental state becomes more important than physical conditioning. There would need to be events and training sessions which would test Penny’s resolve and help her find ways to maintain positive when she was at rock bottom.

When people begin training for ultra-endurance events the first aim always seems to be to start ‘getting the miles in’. For many people the more miles they do the better and fitness soon improves. The problem is that there’s a diminishing return on continuous volume and eventually there’s a point where fitness ceases to improve and illness and/or injury and/or performance deterioration soon follow. Combined with a busy and stressful job this would inevitably result in a gradual lack of motivation and tiredness. For Ironman athletes this usually means they’re burnt out 2-3 months before the event and then it’s damage limitation until race day.

The basic template for Penny’s periodisation was to focus on quality during the week, some longer rides on her days off and occasional short periods of specific overload. The first 2-3 months of training was as follows:

Penny lives several hundred miles away so the first time I saw her train was at a training camp in January at Club la Santa, Lanzarote. The week consisted of hundreds of steady, continuous miles but there was also a strong emphasis on over-geared climbing. Penny would grind up every hill (staying seated) and recover on the descents. It was clear her strength was progressing well which was promising as overall training volume had been conservative.

The S&C debate continues but I believed Penny would benefit from a structured program which would achieve specific aims:

Develop force potential

Increase strength endurance throughout her entire extensor chain

Increase postural endurance

Avoid DOMS or excessive fatigue

An exercise program was suggested but Penny had little experience of strength training and needed supervision to monitor progress and technique. Her first trainer used isolated exercises and hard sessions which caused excessive DOMS. This was clearly pointless and detrimental to her training so we reverted to Penny completing an S&C program I provided.

As training progressed the aims became more specific to Race Around Ireland:

Maintain peak force production

Increase sustainable force production

Develop aerobic endurance for extended periods

Avoid DOMS or excessive fatigue

Develop mental resilience

Events were used when appropriate to achieve specific goals. People are usually more productive during events so we used long audax and sportives and as training rides whenever we could. Back-to-back sportives were also useful and these were sometimes sandwiched between solo rides before and after the sportives to simulate a mini training camp.

A race simulation weekend was also scheduled which would include sleep deprivation. The fatigue would train Penny to deal with the accumulated tiredness she would feel during Race Around Ireland and help her develop positive mental strategies. Program notes for the weekend explained the planned

Knowledge is power…   

  • To gain a further advantage Penny recruited the help of a sleep expert who advised on a sleeping strategy which would work for ultra-endurance events.
  • Penny spent four days riding Race Around Ireland course two months before the event to familiarise herself with the terrain. This experience would also inform her support team when to swap between her road and TT bike during the event.
  • Penny completed the longest training sessions with crew members whenever possible

Race Around Ireland was to be important stepping stone to RAAM. At 1300 miles it is the longest of the RAAM qualifiers. Unfortunately, Penny was forced to DNF just after the halfway point. Whilst she was aerobically fit enough to continue and had been climbing strongly, she succumbed to Shermer Neck and the pain and inability to support her head and look head made it too unsafe to continue on the hilly course

Once Penny recovered we needed to take stock of the situation and move forward. It was a big psychological setback but there were very specific reasons for the DNF which simply needed to be addressed. Being physically fit enough wasn’t the issue: we needed a body which would withstand the unique stresses of the event. The DNF resulted in specific action points for Race Across the West:

  • We needed to integrate a supervised S&C program so Penny began working with her local CrossFit gym. I wasn’t too keen on her doing the classes as they were physically very demanding (and carried an increased risk of injury) but at that point it was achieving the gains we wanted and provided a social element to training. As training progressed Penny then replaced the classes with 1-2-1 sessions with the CrossFit coach which focused on specific compound movements with more recovery between efforts.
  • The second adaptation was to simulate the stress on the muscles that support the head. Penny’s chiropractor was on her crew for Ireland, but by the time the neck problems manifested, it was too late. A rehabilitation plan was developed including trigger point therapy, regular maintenance treatment and specific strengthening exercises for the deep postural neck muscles. A ‘neck management plan’ was also put in place for Race Across the West with treatment roughly every six hours during the race and in particular after very long descents.
  • Set up of both road and TT bike was also a huge consideration - the lower the front end the more Penny would need to extend her neck and the greater the stress on the muscles would be. Bike fits were done by a bike fitter close to home and it would only be during Race Across the West where we would see how effective the improved riding position was.

Race Across the West is of huge relevance as it follows the first 930 miles of RAAM so would serve as an invaluable course recce. The first three days are spent crossing California, Utah and Arizona desert with temperatures up to 47 degrees. Heat-management and hydration were therefore key training considerations with specific actions:

  • Sweat testing was required to determine the best electrolyte concentration and hydration strategy
  • Four sessions of 60-90min were completed in a heat chamber to test the hydration strategy
  • Long rides were completed with extra layers to make Penny sweat (the physiological adaptation to heat that your body needs to make)
  • Two long charity indoor turbo rides (10 and 12 hours) were completed to provide longer periods of heat stress

Training and racing principles generally remained the same as the previous year but as Penny had acquired a power meter individual sessions became more productive. One approach which did change was the way the training was scheduled. Whereas sessions had previously been assigned to specific days we decided it would be best to list the sessions for each week and leave Penny to complete them when she could. This adaptation prevented the frustration and stress which occurred when clinics overran and sessions were missed – it just provided Penny with some control over her week and enabled her to be more flexible in her training.

Penny was successful at Race Across the West and achieved a huge stepping stone towards RAAM. She had the fitness and mental strength to see it through but this time her body was strong enough to support her throughout the event. The DNF at Race Around Ireland was a big disappointment especially considering the sacrifices which had been made during the entire training process. Instead of rolling over Penny picked herself, learnt from the mistakes and did what was required to get to the finish line.

As Penny trains towards RAAM she’s continuing to seek specialist help from other experts and I’m more than happy with this. By achieving marginal gains in every aspect of the training process Penny will be more confident, better prepared and in the best shape possible. During the recovery phase after Race Across the West Penny has decided to trial a low carbohydrate, high fat diet to try to overcome GI issues that have been an issue through all long training events and races (including Ironman). Whilst used by an increasing number of endurance athletes, there is very little literature and evidence on this approach. The aim is to increase the body’s ability to utilise fat stores meaning that less carbohydrate needs to be consumed (therefore less stress on the GI system). When carbohydrate is consumed, the effect should be greater as your body is also more primed to use it (the aim is not to train or race without carbohydrate) The dietary changes meant training needed to be reduced and adapted to take the increased fatigue into account but as Penny’s body gradually adapts training will begin to intensify again. We will be able to monitor Penny’s progress to fat adaptation through testing at the Endurance Store.

Training for RAAM is a huge undertaking and every aspect of physical and mental conditioning needs to be addressed. When training time is limited and work is stressful training needs to be as effective as possible. Penny’s analytical approach, adaptability, determination and mental resilience will ensure she’s as prepared as possible on the RAAM start line.

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