Autumn Equinox Reflections on Training

Typically, as the resurrection of the sun in the northern hemisphere is celebrated with all the fertility rites that go with that, the Eostre weather here in New Zealand tends to pack it in.  However this year the sun gods have decided to shine on us a little bit longer and we have been able to smear chocolate all over our faces AND top the sun tan up.  With four such fabulous days forecast, I decided that I would get out amongst it as much as possible.  In doing so I was able to reflect on my training, what I had been doing over summer, what I was doing this weekend (and why), and what my plan will be over the coming winter months.

At the start of this summer I made a decision, where my cycling was concerned, to take the foot of the gas for the most part and really make sure I kept as much riding as possible down the bottom end of the intensity scale.  Over the previous summer and winter, there were at least two high-intensity interval sessions per week and not as much volume at the low end of things.  But with no major events planned, this summer was going to lend itself well to taking a slow approach.  At the same time, this is the first summer in far too long that I have had a mountain bike to play on too.  The local tracks, be they in the hills or out at the forest plantations, lend themselves very well to high-intensity interval training… Not structured intervals, but just natural sections of track that you can attack and ride hard for up to 5 minute bursts before you get a break in the track that allows you to throttle back, stop, and admire the view.

I have also come to really enjoy spending more and more of my active leisure time off the bike.  This is heresy for a cyclist to say, I know.  But as I have come to really enjoy just cruising on the road bike and becoming more aware of everything around me rather than the blinkered, must-ride-really-fast-and-have-a-pained-pro-peloton-suffering-look-on-my-face norm that many cyclists seem to have these days, I have also come to enjoy walking around the many great trails we have here and using the terrain to strengthen my body in ways that being on the bike just can’t.  Not to mention the great scenery, relaxation, and time out from people that goes with this.

[side rant] I love my bikes. I love the sense of freedom and exhilaration I get from riding them. I love the sense of lust and desire I get from looking at the things-of-beauty that many bikes can be.  But the more I see of cyclists racing around the streets, the less I want to be associated with what is fast becoming a middle-aged dick-measuring competition. I don’t see much point in bench-marking against mediocrity. [end side rant]

“Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

The combination of more low-end work on the road bike (often in the morning; fasted), with the sprint-like nature of playing on the mountain bike (and a few low-volume metcons in the gym-setting, occasional stair runs, etc. to mix it up), has seen my speed on the bike creep up to a far higher pace than I have been able to achieve previously.  And that increase in speed has been powered by a very low aerobic input.  That is, even with an increase in road speed, I am not working any harder to generate the power to drive it.

As far as structured training goes, my main focus in recent months has been on consistent strength training.  But like the bike, I have really shifted my previous training style to more of a low-volume approach.  Two main lifts per workout only. Low reps. Low volume from the sets.  Keeping the weight relatively low across several sessions, but still steadily progressing it up.  I really love this style of training.  I have been able to hit ner PR numbers that I have never hit before without feeling constantly beaten up and needing large rest week blocks like I have done with previous higher-volume training structures.  For me, this low-volume training has allowed me to focus on the basics really well and to remain very consistent week after week without getting run down.  It isn’t flashy, but it has worked well for me.

This weekend just gone offered up a good compressed example of how I typically train these days, keeping in mind that my goals are largely non-competitive (other than against my own standards) and very much health/function orientated.  I do, however, like the fact that the training I do gives me a very good base to launch from should I decide to dial myself up for anything competitive in the future.  A stunning Friday morning saw me on the road bike for a low-end roll out to Sumner village and Scarborough beach, where I was greeted with warm sun, almost no wind, the roar of an incoming full moon tide, and a very relaxing atmosphere…

Double bonus for my ride out there was that at the end of the esplanade, Scarborough Fare cafe was open… Which meant I was going to get real coffee on Good Friday (it would have felt like someone had died if I hadn’t…or perhaps someone might have…).  After a couple of cups basking in the sun and just listening to the waves, I took a similar lowish pace back into town and finished the ride trying to rip the handlebars from the bike over the last 200m in a sprint to my front gate.

That evening (and Sunday night) I was into the gym for 2x 4 rep squats and overhead press.  I generally begin all sessions with some mobility work focused on hips and shoulders, and as I am cycling back through a modified 603PTP programme, I have a cash-in and a cash-out circuit pre- & post-workout, which often covers many accessory movement patterns.

Other than the mobility work I do and the flexibility afforded by the movements that I focus on for strength training, I don’t spend a massive amount of time doing additional stretching.  And other than some additional single-limb training, I don’t specifically work on any specific balance training in that environment either.  To me, the gym is very much about creating a stimulus for getting strong then getting out of there.  I much prefer any attempts at transferring my gym-built strength into real-world function out in the real world itself.

Saturday morning and not quite as hot as the day before, but nice enough to head up into the hills and trails on the mountain bike.  We have an extensive network of very well-managed trails here in Christchurch and it becomes very easy to construct all different types of rides to suit your needs/style.  However, for me the mountain bike is about having fun.  It is my toy; my play thing.  As it is not specifically a cross-country racer, there is just no point in trying to ride it fast (I’ve tried – it doesn’t work. I don’t know what it does with the input, but there is just no output).  It is about 15 minutes from home to the base of the hills and then another 20 minutes or so up a four-wheel drive track to the top of the hill.  This gives a good mix of low-end and high-end aerobic warm-up before hitting the traverse trails across the top of the hills.

The traverse track is naturally sectioned, with each section providing 5-10 minutes of riding as you head west along the tops, with stunning vistas over the city, out to the Pacific ocean and across to the Southern Alps.  The nature of the narrow single-track, being a bit up and down and rocky in sections, means that it is very on and off and gives you a good natural interval training ride.  Power on; power off.  Additionally, there is a lot of balance work involved.  Sections of this track provide a better “core workout” than anything you’ll do in the gym, as you are constantly having to adjust all the segmental regions of your upper body to counterbalance the bike.

Deconstructing this ride does tend to takeaway from the fact that it is just sheer good fun (providing you stay rubber side down).  You are applying a very good stimulus to adapt to in such a way that there is little to no mental stress that often goes with doing relatively clinical intervals.  You come down off the hill on a high (having had a speed-fix on the descent), grinning from ear to ear and feeling totally euphoric.

As mentioned earlier, I am enjoying not feeling like I need to be seen to be wearing my lycra superman suit and riding my bike all the time in order to keep my “Cyclist” badge.  Indeed, for all the joy and pleasure that I do derive from doing my own thing on the bike, I know that there are rather large holes in physical development that cycling just can’t fill.  Even when cruising along, or out on the mountain bike, there are things that you miss seeing when you are on the move at 30kph.  Enter trail walking and Sunday morning.

One of my favourite walks is to head from Scarborough beach over the hill via the Flowers Track to Taylors Mistake beach and out along the Godley Head walkway…

The starting point – Scarborough Fare cafe just left of the clock tower.

Near the top of the track heading up from the Sumner side – you can see the recent earthquake scarring on the cliff face in the distance.

Heading over the top of Scarborough Hill and looking out toward Godley Head.  The entrance to Lyttelton Harbour, our shipping port, is just around the corner from that point.

Beginning to drop down toward Taylors Mistake beach.  I made a couple of friends on my way down (donkeys…at Easter! No wait… wrong festival).  Both got a serious ear scratching on the return trip.

You are descending down along a cliff face… A cliff that does have a tendency to fall into the sea in the event of a bloody big earthquake.  If that did occur, that would be my balance, speed, and agility training then?

Down on the beach and time for some rock hopping and balance work.

One of the many holiday “houses” built into the rocks along the beach.

Beginning to climb up out of Taylors Mistake and looking back toward the headland I have just walked down.  Several metres have fallen off that headland in recent earthquakes.

The trail sitting just above the water all the way along out toward Godley Head.  I didn’t go all the way out this day.

More recent earthquake scarring.

There and back to Scarborough was likely about a 2 hour walk and I could have easily pushed out to the heads and back to throw at least another hour on top of that.  You can perhaps see the obvious reason for doing this walk – it is just a stunning place to be, especially on such a superb day.  Additionally, this walk does present the opportunity to throw in some extra elements to my overall physical development that I really wouldn’t want to do anywhere else.

There are several changes in terrain.  From the Sumner side, you are walking up a relatively steep footpath for the most part, with a few large steps thrown in.  I walk up here with my heels driven into the ground and really focus on driving up through my hips with long strides.  Near the top, an opportunity arises to head off the path and scramble up a near vertical section, requiring more balance and drive through the hips, but now also starting to bring the upper body into play.

Across the top and off the road, it is down a steep trail requiring you to be very upright through your spine for balance (you don’t get that extension on the bike, that’s for sure), and you are using a lot of eccentric loading through your quads and knees.  Once through this section, you are on a relatively well-formed trail complete with a steep section of stairs that is best descended on your toes on the edge of each step.  Some good impact and loading through the Achilles tendon.

Down on the beach and my favourite bit – rock hopping.  I aim to balance on smallish rocks, leap wide gaps and stick the landing all the way around to the main beach at Taylors Mistake.  More boosting up larger rocky sections through the hips and more skeletal loading with some of the jumps and landings.  On to the sandy main beach before another off-trail scramble up a vertical section to join the Godley Head walkway.  There are a couple of fence climbs as, er, technically the track isn’t open yet.  But that minor fact doesn’t seem to deter many on such glorious days.  Sometimes things are just sufficiently beautiful that you throw all caution to the wind and just go for it.  Any risk being clearly worth it.

Now don’t get me wrong… none of this was overly preconceived before heading out.  I just wanted a walk in the sun in an environment I find relaxing (I love being either near water, up a hill, and in the sun. Here I got to combine all three).  I just tended to make things up as I walked along, knowing that I will achieve all of the physiological things I outlined above.  Heading out where I did also has the additional factor of little to no cell phone coverage, and certainly once down in Taylors Mistake, no data connectivity.  Nearly two hours of being off-grid and below broadcast depth (admittedly I was on my limit at that point and starting to get a bit squirrelly with it all, but you hopefully get what I am saying).

I know people often struggle trying to cram so many different and seemingly necessary training elements into their gym workouts, or they get fixated with one mode of training and only a small number of ways to work that modality (for cyclists, it is typically riding on their anaerobic threshold or sitting on their butt in a cafe – flat out and stop – that’s all they know).  But here, in one two-hour walk, I was able to achieve everything from tune up my mitochondria, run more fat in my fuel mix, strengthen bones, tendons, ligaments, muscles, improve my balance, work on my posture, photosynthesize some vitamin D, unplug from the world, get some dirt under my fingernails, think, relax, oh – and scratch the ears on a couple of donkeys.  And all I did was walk over a hill, taking advantage of the environment I live in.  It’s really not that hard, people.

And because following that walk I stuffed my face full of some high-sugar, high-dairy, relatively low-cacao chocolate, to the point of feeling very sinusy and decidedly average by that night, I headed out on Monday morning, totally fasted, and held a slightly higher aerobic pace for a couple of hours to burn some sugar out of my system.  The main lesson being that life, and the health of my sinuses, is far to precious to waste time eating cheap chocolate.  It’s the good stuff or nothing at all (a sentiment which can be extended to many other areas in life).

As we are now on the definite shift toward winter, it is time to think ahead toward training over the cooler months.  Although in all honesty, it is unlikely to look much different.  Harder sessions on the road bike will tend to be done indoors on the trainer.  Last year I was doing two of these sessions per week in the 40-60 minute high-intensity classes I was teaching.  On reflection, I found this too much over winter, especially in a class-type setting where you had to be “on” even if you were well and truly “off”.  This winter, I’ll likely drop these indoor interval sessions to once per week and see how that works.

The mainstay of my winter training programme will be strength training. With the low light levels, shortened days, and the fact that I prefer to lift at night and follow this up with a good warming feed of lamb and winter vegetables, I think this type of low-volume lifting is best suited to both my needs and the natural aspects of the season.  It certainly gives me the biggest bang for my buck overall, and the more consistently I have lifted, the better I seemed to have adapted to all other aspects of paleo living.

I’ll continue to play on the MTB – the great thing with living in a broken city is that even when the trails are too wet and muddy to be worth riding, there are plenty of places around town to go and test the skills on.  And in all likelihood, particularly if we get a mild winter (my ski-bunny friends will hate that I am doing deals with, and offering sacrifices to, the winter weather gods), I’ll be doing similar walks as above.  Nothing like walking the trails in Hanmer Springs in June, followed by a soak in the hot pools.

So that is how TPG largely strings together his “training”.  Although I loathe to call it that.

12 thoughts on “Autumn Equinox Reflections on Training

  1. David

    Nice post Jamie. Great variety of effort in a diverse and challenging but beautiful environment. Good approach to life.

  2. Sharyn

    Hi Jamie – I hope you weren’t ‘That MTB-rage Guy’ who featured on the news a few days ago. He did look a bit like you…

      1. Sharyn

        Dear Jamie

        I whole-heartedly apologize for any offence caused by my calling into question your looks / dress sense / riding ability / riding etiquette / bike mis-treatment / testosterone level / ???

  3. Adrian

    Great post Jamie.
    Rona and I can both attest to this approach. Since we adopted it and with your help and ongoing guidance our physical and emotional wellbeing has improved enormously.
    Thank you.

  4. J. Stanton -

    Thanks for sharing pictures of your own playground, Jamie. I believe it’s important to periodically remind ourselves of what good health and physical fitness is for.

    As I say in my FAQ, “Going ‘paleo’ is a necessary step…but once we’re lean and strong and capable, then what? We’re all dressed up with no party to go to.” Exploring the big, bright, beautiful world around us is our first step.


    1. Anastasia

      Exactly right, JS. Those of us who like to stay fit and strong need to be careful that we don’t find ourself well adapted to the gym down the road, rather than the world beyond our doorstep. Not to mention that it’s much more pleasant to spend time out there than in the company of barbells and treadmills. Training for training sake is all good for the pros but cannot be the final destination for somebody who truly wants to embrace the Paleo lifestyle. It’s certainly not good enough for me.

  5. Anna

    Sorry, this is off topic, but this post seemed to be the best one to ask a few questions I have about a temporary move to Christchurch in 2013.

    Just this week my husband (a research biochemist) announced he wants to take a 5 mo sabbatical in Jan-May 2013 at a lab Univ of Otago medical center lab in Christchurch. We’ve just gotten word that his Christchurch lab friends would be happy to have him for a sabbatical, as they expect to be settling back into their regular space at the medical center by the end of this year. We’d actually probably go to Christchurch in January ’13; we can settle in and explore a little plus my husband can work “at home” for a few weeks before the lab would be ready for him in Feb.

    Now my head is spinning thinking about all arrangements I need to make to move our family and what I need to learn about Christchurch in particular (we’re experienced international travelers, but we don’t usually travel out of the US for more than 3 weeks at a time). The post-quake issues in Christchurch add another layer of complexity, esp as it relates to rental housing location, supply, and cost. I also understand that a lot of the city center has been torn down, business have relocated, and so the city center mostly isn’t “back in action” yet.

    First, can you recommend a neighborhood or general area where we’d likely find furnished rental housing for a family (our son is 13 yoa)? More than likely we’ll be looking for 2 or even a 3 bedroom house or apartment in a convenient, family-friendly location (no need for upscale, über-expensive holiday housing, as I’d prefer to save our resources for experiencing NZ, not lounging around). Not sure yet if we’ll hire a car the entire 5 months or if we’ll try to get by with public transport for everyday local journeys and save car hire for short term journeys farther away.

    Second, do you have any sense of state of the “medium length” rental market, both in supply as well as relative cost, esp within easy proximity to the Univ of Otago’s medical center & shops, etc? Any projections/guesses for early 2013?

    I realize you aren’t in the rental housing business, but if you have any tips or suggestions, I’d be grateful. Thanks!

    1. thatpaleoguy Post author

      Hi Anna

      Whilst the central blocks of the CBD are still closed off and the city as a whole is still undergoing more deconstruction rather than construction, there is still a lot going on. The city is finding its feet and there are parts of the city taking on a new lease of life as bars, cafes, and entertainment venues pop up in new areas. Everything is a bit more decentralised, but there isn’t a lot that we are missing out on in the bigger scheme of things.

      If you split the city into quadrants with a split through the middle of the city and across the central park (Hagley), the North-west and South-west corners are the areas you would most likely want to look at. There are a lot of developments occuring to the SW, with some of these likely to be online by the time you are hear. As you drive in from the NW of the city from the airport, it isn’t overly apparent that we have been hammered by several thousand earthquakes. I’d stay clear of the NE suburbs. South-east and along the hills is OK, but there is still a lot of damage and uncertainty in many of the hill suburbs there. Suburbs such as Halswell (SW) will offer you everything you would need and give you a relatively easy commute straight into the hospital and university.

      Your best bet as far as rentals go, would be to contact an agency and get them acting on your behalf prior to your arrival. Despite the demand and pressure, landlords always want good, stable tenents. With enough lead in time, I’m sure they can find you something suitable.


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