Monday, 19 December 2011

Get Fit Commuting

"Those people they got nothing in their souls
And they make our TV’s blind us
From our vision and our goals
Oh the trigger of time it tricks you
So you have no way to grow
But do you know that tonight the streets are ours"
Richard Hawley, Tonight The Streets Are Ours, Lady's Bridge

I love that song. I'm sure Richard Hawley wasn't thinking of cycling when he wrote it, but it has been a companion of mine on the road this week. Snow and ice, rather than TV, was trying to blind me, but I did my best to remember my vision and goals.

And my plan. Project 4 has one particular target, but it's as much about the journey as the destination. My theory is that your average commuter can apply structured training techniques during their commute in order to improve their performance dramatically. Step one was to set the goal, but the next step was to choose a structured method.

The reading I've been able to do has revealed three methods used to measure and improve performance in cycling training:

  1. perceived exertion, in which the cyclist gauges their effort against a perceived scale.
  2. heart rate monitoring, in which the cyclist constantly measures their effort using a monitor strapped to their chest that feeds data on heart rate to a wrist- or bike-mounted computer.
  3. power metering, in which a device fitted to the bicycle's crank or hub measures the power the cyclist is producing and feeds the data to a bicycle mounted computer. Often power meters are used in conjunction with Heart Rate Monitors (HRMs).

Each of these methods aims to help the cyclist to keep their training in the right zone for improvement.

I quickly decided that perceived exertion was of limited use to the performance commuter. On a set of rollers it may be possible to focus on a perceived scale of exertion. However I think that on the road it is too much to ask to concentrate on traffic hazards and perceived effort.

Power metering combined with heart rate monitoring seems to be the gold standard in modern training for amateurs. A power meter can tell you instantly that you are training at, say, 300 watts, so you can measure your training in real time, rather than waiting for your heart rate to climb. However, there is one simple reason why this is not an option for the performance commuter and that's cost. A power meter would cost at least £1,000, which would be one year's budget. I also need to leave my bike chained up outside a hospital all year round and my training bike is my transport. Adding a power meter to the frame would just add to the risk of theft and the cost of insurance.

So, I've decided to see if it's possible to create a training programme based on heart rate monitoring. The science of this method is complex and fascinating. It is based on the idea that your body reacts to different levels of exertion. Train at the right level and your body becomes stronger, or leaner, or more capable of endurance or both. Train at the wrong level and, although you may get fitter temporarily, you will damage your body and fail to achieve your potential. These levels, or zones, are measured as a percentage of maximum heart rate so, using a monitor, you can always stay at the desired level of exertion.

One of the first principles of HRM training is based around the need to build a deep "base" of cardiovascular fitness. This is achieved by exercising for many hours without over exerting. By building this base through regular training your body's physiology will change and you should become a better cyclist.

In week 1 I did a maximum heart rate test. In week 2 I'll start to find out HRM training really will work for a commuter. I sure hope it does, because there's no plan B at the moment.

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