Balancing Theory with Craft;
A Forum with Allen Lim
March 15, 2009
Presented by CRCA, New York, NY
A Re-cap by Ann Marie Miller, MA
What a thrill to be able to spend an afternoon discussing the latest advances in training and cycling with the mastermind behind the Garmin Slipstream Cycling team, Allen Lim. Recognized as a leader in the study of training with power, and his work with Powertap power meters, Allen has been the mentor to many of the world’s top cyclists.
John Eustice, 2 time US Pro Champion and promoter of the Univest Grand Prix, served as moderator for the presentation and discussion with Allen Lim. The afternoon started with a review of what had been a stellar week for the Garmin-Slipstream team on the European circuit; with stage wins at both Paris-Nice (Christian Vandevelde) and Tirreno-Adriatico, including a breakthrough win by Tyler Farrar over uber-sprinters Mark Cavendish, Tom Boonen, et al. Allen feels like it is no surprise the team is coming together; he could see from testing and results on training that they have the potential for these wins and even bigger things.
Although Allen is known for crunching numbers and analyzing Power files, the presentation focused more on the intuitive side of training and progression. Allen continued to emphasize the importance of applying science individually, and how his method isto ask riders how they feel after workouts and races to teach the athlete how to interpret these sensations along with the data they collect form these rides.
He noted how other aspects of fitness, such as body awareness, flexibility and core strength contribute to improved performance. Even body weight strength exercises, like squats, push ups, etc., can aid in overall muscle efficiency. He believes strength training, even just body-weight exercises like 1 legged squats, and core work with a physioball can make a huge difference in a rider’s integrity and performance. He cited the fact that Christian Vandevelde suffered from back problems for years, but started a core training regime using physioballs, and does not have those pains anymore. He claims Christian keeps up a maintenance routine even when they are racing in season! He said the Garmin team looks like a traveling circus checking into hotels with their physioballs, foam rollers, and other fitness accessories! (Good news for me – everyone makes fun of me for doing strength training year round. Not to mention my “aerobic warm-up” packed with squats, push-ups and core work of all manner).
Allen noted that strength training was a catalyst to improved performance, and emphasized strength training for Masters’ Athletes, to maintain fast-twitch muscle fibers. He admitted not having worked extensively with the Masters’ population, but reiterated the studies that show Masters’ athletes tend to maintain slow-twitch muscle fiber over time, and that those who continue to exercise don’t show much of a loss of cardiovascular fitness, but the fast twitch muscle fibers are the first to go with age. Strength training and plyometrics can delay the decrease in fast-twitch muscle performance.
Since gains from strength training show a steep decline after 6 weeks of de-training, he advocates maintenance strength training throughout the year, if possible.
He reviewed the periodization calendar of the Garmin team; riders peaking for the Classics in March-May do high volume training in December; those aiming for the mid-season and the Tour De France train for volume in January, while riders peaking for late-season and the World Champiosnhips might not start volume training until March.
He believes in focusing on skills and easy pace for early-season training, and says your body will only do what it can handle, so start slowly.
Although Garmin does extensive testing, he does not prescribe exercised in terms of “Lactate Threshhold”. Although they don’t use LT to prescribe exercise, he said it is valuable to teach athletes to identify their limits. Rather, they start with intervals such as 20 minutes at a steady pace, then break the 20 minute segment in to halves, doing “negative splits”, then quarters, using a “hard/easy, hard/easy” approach. Then they proceed to motorpacing, using “watts/kg” as the criteria for intensity. They break the levels into 2-4 watts/kg pace, 4/6 watts/kg pace, 4-6 watts/kg, 6-8 watts/kg, and as unthinkable as it sounds, 8+watts/kg. In my dreams!!!
He discussed some of the adaptations the Garmin team had to make as Americans racing in Europe. Basically, they did best by maintaining their identity as Americans, rather than trying to convert to European culture. They cling to American-style eating and lifestyle habits.
I expected his philosophy would be strictly scientific, and I was pleased to see how he married science with the humanity of the sport. He uses a lot of intuitive application in exercise prescription; some riders respond to certain training or stimulus; others need another approach. They try to give the riders as much information as they can accept, in a way they can deal with it; he doesn’t hit riders over the head with facts & figures. He admits he has no proof that the scientific information is helping the riders, but he uses is because it is the best evidence they have.
He expressed reservations about taking the results of LT testing too literally because he believes the stages in a typical LT test are too short. He claims that LT results would be very different for most riders if the stages were longer, and that these stages that are too short may over-estimate an individual’s LT
Working one of the preeminent physiologists who served on powerhouse squads like ONCE Allen says the data from the Garmin riders suggest they are as strong, if not stronger than the ONCE athletes had been, so he has high hopes for their performance this year.
He noted that yes, it IS possible to have breakthrough performances after utterly “bad days”. In truth, if an athlete bonks, or reaches glycogen depletion, and then restores the muscle glycogen, there is a “Supercompensation effect” that allows the muscles to increase their capacity to absorb glycogen. This is basis behind the old “carbohydrate-depletion, carbo-loading philosophy, in which athletes would limit carbohydrate consumption while training, and then increase carb intake while cutting their training load to max out glycogen storage. (Can’t imagine how cranky I’d be craving a chocolate chip cookie if I had to restrict my carb intake!)
Some of the most innovative approaches they use concern recovery methods. They use pneumatic compression devices (developed to promote circulation in lymphodema patients) applied to the legs after races to gently “pump” blood through the muscles. He said a key to recovery was to lower the high core temperature to stop the catabolic processes.
Although icing can reduce inflammation, it constricts the capillaries and reduces local blood flow to the muscles, so they prefer the pneumatic devices for recovery.
Acknowledging variation between riders, he said people with different LT values can get similar performance results using different mechanisms; there are many ways to get a good result – different bodies rely on different systems and physical mechanisms.
He said physical asymmetries were the biggest injury problem for pro cyclists; and correcting these problems had to be done off the bike, “fix it in the gym first”, in real life, and then on the bike.
He does not believe in IV’s for rehydration after long endurance events; he will not let his athletes “take a needle”. He says if the IV solution contains glucose, you miss an important step in muscle glycogen storage because when glucose hits your small intestine, it stimulates a hormone which aids in glycogen storage.
Also, the bolus of cold water hitting your gut aids in cooling & minimizing muscle catabolism.
Since Allen is the stage racing expert for the team, I asked what the local amateur racer could learn from his Grand Tour experience and apply to shorter stage races like Fitchburg, Green Mountain, etc. He offered these tips:
* Weigh before & after each stage & replace the amount of fluids lost as soon after the race as possible. Many riders sink into a gradual state of dehydration from day to day in stage races.
* Eat a recovery meal consisting of carbs & some protein immediately after the race; and fuel adequately later as well.
* Increase your sleep by 1-2 hours the week prior to the event.
* Get off your feet as soon as possible after the race, & STAY off your feet as much as you can.
*\36-48 hours before a prologue, the Garmin team does a “Hot workout” in an elevated temperature to induce profuse sweating. This releases a hormone to improve aerobic performance by increasing blood plasma volume. For our purposes, the workout could be 1- 1 ½ hours long, with at least 20 minutes high intensity.
To avoid burn-out, he suggests taking a break in the middle of your season for a week or two, so you are “hungry” to return to training.
Since his name is synonymous with power meters, he encourages riders to train with power to create greater awareness. But he asks his athletes to fill out manual “training logs” & comment on how they feel when training to compare with actual power output data. He is developing software to allow an athlete to record their physical sensations and feelings and compare to power output.
Allen’s likable boyish approach and blend of the most advanced scientific information with sensitivity to the individual’s personality is most appealing and a good model for any coach or mentor. Next time, I’d love to have him spend a day leading a training session!