Goin' to Georgia, Part II

By: Molly Hurford Feb 22

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When I came to Athens, I was expecting a few weeks of riding solitude. Real tough guy stuff; up at the crack of dawn, Rocky-style, doing solo rides. And sure, there’s been some of that. Maybe not the up-at-dawn part, but plenty of solo rides down long rolling roads. However, I’ve also found quite the opposite. In just a couple of weeks, I’ve discovered an incredibly rich community of cyclists, gone on quite a few group rides — all of which pushed my training and fitness to my absolute limits, and then beyond. I’ve had some of the best conversations I’ve ever had about gender and cycling, and picked up some seriously valuable training advice. I’m feeling healthier, waking up happy, and being more productive in my work, especially in my writing.

So yes, traveling to train is clearly agreeing with me. And sure, it’s not a culture shock like, say, traveling to Europe might have been. But there’s still a whole new community for me to explore down here. And thanks to the cycling world, it’s been almost impossible for me to not meet new, amazing people.

Admittedly, the weather could be better. We’ve had some rainy, gruesome days down in Athens, and it hasn’t been quite as warm as I would have hoped. More often than not, I’ve been the nutty one who’s going without legwarmers despite everyone’s urging to “put on some kneewarmers for God’s sake!” But I’ll be damned if I go back to Massachusetts without tan lines. They may not be much, but I swear my legs have gotten a shade darker after only two weeks and countless hours outside.

It has warmed up though: as I write this, it’s 65 and sunny outside, and once I eat, I’m heading out for a nice, long ride. Solo, this time, since yesterday’s second ride of the day was three hours spent hanging onto a wheel for dear life, maintaining power outputs that I didn’t really think I was capable of. I guess that’s another plus side of traveling to somewhere you don’t know very well: when you have no idea what route you’re going on, you have no choice but to keep up with the guy in front of you. Well, I guess you could ask him to slow down. But what cyclist would ever admit to needing a break?

After my last article where I spoke to a few coaches about their experiences with travel for training, I had to get a few more opinions. After all, I did take a month out of my life to do this traveling-to-train-in-warmer-climate business, so I wanted to get as much validation as possible! United Healthcare cyclist Jake Keough gave me his take on travel, though I’m pretty sure that with his travel schedule, even going home counts as travel for him. After jokingly asking me if I was trying to get his opinion because I was rethinking my own travel plans, he told me:
“Seriously though, I think there are a few good reasons to travel somewhere to train. First off is weather: obviously if you cannot ride your bike outside and you are trying to prep for racing, you need to be somewhere warm to train. Second is race simulation: if you are training for a mountainous event, and you live somewhere flat, you should maybe go to the hills and vice versa… Third is acclimatization: this falls in line with the weather, but also altitude and or time zones. To be prepped for a specific event, it may help to train under similar conditions.”

I’ll trust the guy who won Speedweek overall down here last year, and that includes trusting his recommendation on a great restaurant along the criterium course in Athens. Since I’m coming down here again in just a couple of months for Speedweek myself, I guess I’m taking advantage of all of the reasons that he listed for traveling.

The man responsible for me finding a place to stay down here, Shawn Adams, a coach for Cycle-Smart, also weighed in on my decision to travel, though I admit I might have stacked the deck in favor of travel by asking him.
“Training trips are relevant for everyone, whether you’re a world tour rider or a cat 4 cx racer. The benefits are that you get to get away for the distractions of normal life and focus your energy on the bike. If you are from the Northern part of the country you can get a break from winter and come back refreshed and motivated for some of the dreaded cold winter rides.”

He’s absolutely right. I know that going home, there will still be a bit of bleak Massachusetts winter waiting for me. But after the past couple of weeks, I’m actually excited about training again. It feels like it did when I first started riding with a team and every ride was new and exciting. Instead of being annoyed that I have a three hour ride on tap, I find myself looking forward to it.
Also, it’s pretty awesome to realize that even if I eat everything that I want to eat in the course of a day, with my training schedule, I still end up burning off more than I’m taking in. So the progression from off-season stupor to race-ready is happening without me feeling deprived at all. Usually, there’s a mental and physical fight when I go through a few off weeks and realize I’m painfully out of shape. There’s a part of my brain that says, “You’re … fine. Sure, you’re not in amazing shape, but do you really need this? Let’s go make cookies instead of riding.”
Down here, I haven’t heard that voice once. The only thing I feel every day is excitement about riding.

I’ve also had the time (and inclination) to catch up on my reading, and the house I’m staying in is the perfect place for that, seeing as my room has an entire bookshelf of cycling training manuals and old issues of pretty much every cycling magazine ever published. I think they’re a good influence on me. It’s hard to fall into bad habits or decide to skip a workout when there’s a shelf of sports psychology books staring you down.

I feel ready for the rest of the season, and even other areas of my life have started getting sorted out thanks to my being down here. There’s no better time for reflection than when you’re on a road that you know goes on straight for an hour and a half and all you need to focus on is turning the pedals.

There’s only a week left down here and I’m planning on making the most of it. I already don’t feel ready to leave, though I go home to yet another adventure: moving to another cycling mecca, this one in Western Massachusetts. In the most real way imaginable, this trip down to Georgia has been a real turning point in my life, since I won’t be going back to the same place when I get home. For a cyclist, it was the most perfect transition imaginable.

My favorite song happens to be titled Going to Georgia, by The Mountain Goats. You can guess what’s been on constant loop on my iPod this whole trip. And for me, the first couple of lines are perfect for summing up how I feel about being here, and about going home to start this new chapter in my life:

“The most remarkable thing about coming home to you is the feeling of being in motion again / it’s the most extraordinary thing in the world.”

Thanks, Athens, for the most amazing experience I could have ever hoped for.


Goin' To Georgia: Traveling for Training

By: Molly Hurford Feb 9

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During my 14 hour drive to Athens, Georgia, from New Jersey on Monday, I started thinking a lot about cyclists who go South for the winter for training. As the hours ticked away and I realized I wouldn’t be riding at all that day (or the day before, because of packing/trip prep craziness), I started wondering: was the three weeks I’d be spending in Athens worth the 30 hours of driving and at least three days of missed training? My answer is a whole-hearted yes, for reasons I’ll get to in this article; but for a lot of people, is it really worth the stress of traveling?

Our lovely editor here at Embrocation, Nathaniel Ward, and I had been tossing this concept around a bit in a flurry of emails the week before, because, as he pointed out, New England is pretty divided. Some stand by cross-training, indoor rides, and straight up riding in the cold. Others seek warmer climates. The results are mixed, and there’s no clear “right method” for training for road season, as anyone who’s ever tried can tell you. But still: for most people, travel means time, money and energy, so is it ever worth it?

For a lucky handful, like pros and people like myself who secretly (OK, not so secretly) want to be pro, and work from home and are currently sans lease until March 1, going away for the winter makes sense. Wow, those are specialized circumstances!

In my case, I don’t mind training in the cold in New England. I’ve always done it and never had a problem, other than when driven indoors from blizzard-like conditions. This is the first year I’ve seriously started thinking about road racing though, and after a long cyclocross season, both racing and reporting for Cyclocross Magazine, I was “cracked,” as my co-editor likes to say. Having an escape for February, even if I’m still punching a clock, means leaving behind the day-to-day stuff I let get in the way of long rides, and provides a distraction-free mental break from my “real life” that I desperately needed. Plus, if you drive half a day and commit to staying somewhere for three weeks with the express purpose of training, you damn well better take advantage of it.

So sure, I’ll get the quality miles that I may not have squeezed in if I’d stayed in New England. (OK, I know I wouldn’t have gotten them in.) But it’s not really about the weather, it’s about the mental outlook for me. In Athens, I’m a bike racer with a job on the side. Back home, I’m an editor trying to be a bike racer. There’s a huge difference in how I feel when I wake up in the morning here compared to at home. I’m not thinking about work right away (or wanting to hit snooze 17 times.) I’m psyched to get up because I’m riding like it’s my job; because for the next three weeks, it is.

And of course, besides the pros and freelancers, there are the people looking to try their hand at reaching the next level of cycling and choosing to spend some serious time in warmer climates focusing on training. Case-in-point is my friend Donny Green.

“My situation is a bit special. I was presented with the chance to make a big change in my life, leave my job of four years, and move to new town. I needed some sort of change, but the driving force behind all of this was the serious pursuit of bike racing.”

He elaborates: “So I decided that the best way to train during the winter months was to travel to somewhere warm, and for me that’s Tucson. By doing that I knew I would be able to focus completely on my training with few distractions. As far as it helping, I’m almost three weeks in and I’ve been able to get in more quality training hours than ever before in my life. The biggest factors contributing to my quality of training are the weather—sunny and warm almost every day—which makes it easy to get out and ride, and that I have the freedom and time to focus completely on my training without the distractions of home and work.”

Again, while Donny is getting in better miles than he might be getting in New England, a big part of his impetus for leaving is psychological. He could have stayed home and left his job to train, but to commit to doing that took the dramatic step of actually buying plane tickets and finding housing in Tucson.

As for me, my psyche and I are loving Athens so far. A five hour ride seemed like a good idea for day one, and looking back, it certainly was. And I’ve been behaving like a bike racer, too: eating really well (remember those french fries? I picked the salad instead!), stretching post-ride, getting enough sleep, doing 100 pushups because I have a pushup contest when I get home… OK, maybe that last one isn’t really conducive to being a great cyclist. But the ability to do that is pretty impressive, right?

So, clearly this is working for Donny and I (or at least, it seems like it is. We’ll see come Battenkill). But what does a coach have to say?

Al Donahue, perennial New England hardman and race winner, and head coach of Cycle-Smart, elects to stay in New England over the winter months, and is arguably one of the top cyclocrossers and road racers to come out of Western Massachusetts. But he knows that New England in January may not work for everyone:

“Going away can be good if you do it right, and doing it right is very case dependent. Timing, and what you do on this trip are key factors. I have seen plenty of people go away and come back no better; but done right, a rider should come back with invaluable training that can’t really be replicated in the cold. Believe me, I’ve tried for the last 10 years. Riding inside is even worse, I have done base outside all these years with no more than three hours per week inside.”

Next time I write, I’ll have been in Athens for over two weeks, and I’ll be able to give a better opinion as to if it’s working. And I’ll be talking to more coaches and more pros to find out what they think about traveling for training. If it’s good (or bad) enough, I might even include my coach’s thoughts once he gets a look at my training numbers and food diary from down here.

My new goal is to see a live armadillo

In the meantime… there’s one down side for those of us who go away but don’t take a break from work. Turns out riding five or six hours a day does leave time to get work done, but I forgot to take into account how beat you are after those rides! So for now, it’s naptime.

A little something for the comic nerds.


The Unhealthy Athlete

By: Molly Hurford Jan 25

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While reading my normal roundup of weird nutritional articles, I stumbled across one that made me feel both better and worse about my eating habits. I’ve written a lot about proper nutrition, but I’m also the first to admit that I’m no saint about following the guidelines set by every sports nutrition book I’ve ever read. Sure, I’ve gotten better, but I still indulge in cookies, fried food and, of course, the occasional beer (or three).

So to read an article in the LA Times titled, “Charles Barkley, Weight Watchers and why athletes eat badly” followed by an NPR article called, “Baseball Clubs Pitch Players A Menu Change-Up,” well, it made me feel like it wasn’t just me with the healthy eating problem. Unlike my housemate, I don’t naturally come by a deep love of fresh fruits and veggies. Sure, I like a salad. But I really like French fries.

And apparently, that’s part of growing up. As the article on Barkley’s bad eating habits points out, “Players gravitated toward food from their childhoods, foods associated with their social class or their country of origin.” So, being from a meat-and-potatoes background, where dinner always ended with dessert and milk was chocolate or nothing, it’s hard for my sweet tooth to be satiated by an apple.

In a study published in Appetite, titled “Nutrition and culture in professional football,” authors claimed that, “The players’ personal eating habits that derived from their class and national habits restricted their food choice by conflicting with the dietary choices promoted within the professional football clubs.” So even though I might read about sports nutrition, talk to nutritionist and my coach, and know that steel cut oats makes more sense than, say, take-out Chinese food, I’m probably more inclined to choose the take-out because it reminds me of pleasant Friday nights with my family as a kid.

And then, when you add in how I feel after a four-hour ride, my food preference goes from bad to downright crappy. But hey, if Babe Ruth could eat a dozen hot dogs before a game, why shouldn’t I get a cookie, or six, after a long ride?

As the Babe Ruth example would indicate, this isn’t exactly a new problem. In fact, a 1988 study in Physician and Sports Medicine titled, “Nutrition Education for Elite Female Runners,” states that, “A survey of the dietary habits of 115 elite female runners revealed that some did not eat wisely, pointing out nutrition education needs for these subjects in the areas of sweets, vitamin and mineral supplementation, intake of red meat, body weight and body image, eating disorders, calorie intake, and amenorrhea and stress fractures.”

In the International Journal of Sports Nutrition, the article, “Nutrition assessment of athletes: a model for integrating nutrition and physical performance indicators” makes the obvious, but necessary, statement that, “Athletes, like all people, have special nutritional needs based on their age, lifestyle, health status, level of physical activity, physical conditioning, and type of sport. The diets of many athletes are inadequate due to overly restrictive eating habits, nutrition misinformation, dietary fads, and/or obsession with weight and food.”

In fact, when the Appetite study looked at what a group of football players consumed in a day, rather than being fairly similar from athlete to athlete, “The study found a high variability in individual intake which ranged widely from 2648 to 4606 kcal/day.”

And even when they are ingesting the appropriate amount of calories, a study entitled, “Nutritional practices of athletes: Are they sub‐optimal?” suggests that those calories aren’t being ingested in the correct forms, even if the athlete is avoiding cookies or cake. “Compared with the recommendations of sports nutritionists and exercise physiologists, the majority of athletes consume a diet which might be considered significantly deficient in carbohydrate.”

I’ve written about it before, but part of the reason for a lack of healthy diet for elite athletes is actually the fact that, well, they’re elite athletes. In “Nutritional practices of elite athletes,” the authors explain why: “The nutritional intake of elite athletes is a critical determinant of their athletic performance and ability to compete both physically and mentally. However, their demanding training and travel schedules in addition to a possible lack of nutritional knowledge may prohibit them from maintaining an optimal dietary intake.”

There’s clearly a disconnect between what we should be eating and what we do eat, as athletes. Or at least, what most of us eat. As the International Journal of Sports Nutrition study suggests, “There is a growing need for sports nutrition counseling and education to help athletes improve their eating habits.”

So what does this mean for an elite athlete? Simply put, it takes a village. And by village, I mean help from nutritionists, coaches, and family, friends and teammates helping keep your healthy eating habits in line. Or, as a study focusing on triathletes trying to follow a strict dietary plan, “Based on this study, athletes need help to achieve their sports-related nutrition goals, especially during intense training.”

Of course, for better or for worse, a study done on elite road cyclists had some good/bad news: “In general, it is possible to consider the professional road cyclists as a homogeneous group with a similar nutrition intake, eating habits, and nutritional needs throughout the more demanding periods of the season.” Hear that? As per, “Comparison of dietary intake and eating behavior of professional road cyclists during training and competition” in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition, us roadies are all alike. I’m guessing that means most of you also have a secret chocolate stash under your mattress.

That all said, who wants to be my “keeper” for road season? Or at least hide the cookies…

*Ice cream photo courtesy of Väsk


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