This post is meant to change your life.
If it doesn’t apply to you, it may very well apply to one of your riding buddies. It may also apply to someone around you who doesn’t even exercise. Please share it broadly to change someone’s life. Like any cycling team, we need to look after each other, don’t we?.
Most people I know, including me, delegate the maintenance of their car to a mechanic. Most people I know, including me, do the same thing with respect to their training. It makes perfect sense. A reliable mechanic will take good care of your car. All you need to do is drive it to the shop, wait, pay the bill and drive away. A reliable coach will post your training schedule on your Training Peaks account and provide feedback. All you need to do is go out there and do the work.
But is it so? I don’t agree at all.
Imagine that one day, while driving on the highway, the ‘Check Engine’ light comes on. You go straight to the dealer who sold you the car and have them perform a checkup. After a few hours, they announce that you have serious valve problems and the cost to repair it will be in the thousands. “But I did bring you guys my car every six months for a tune-up. How can I have engine problems? You guys are the specialists!”
They answer: “You forgot to change the oil for the past three years.”
“What???, you guys didn’t change the oil for the last three years???”
“Not our job, you were supposed to check yourself if the oil needed to be changed.”
Sounds improbable doesn’t it? It is hard to imagine any mechanic performing bi-annual checkups on cars not checking if the oil needs to be changed. Do we agree?
That being said, my experience with every coach, coaching company or training commentator I have met, talked to or read in the last ten years – including some very close friends of mine – is exactly the same as dealing with a mechanic who doesn’t check the oil in your car when performing a tune-up.
“You are talking about people who you admire and some of them are almost family to you. Are you being serious?”
“I am dead serious.”
I have come to conclude in the last two weeks that there is a deep flaw in all the training programs I have ever undertaken. The same applies to all the recommendations I have read from renowned coaches and sports experts. So what is missing? What is that deep flaw? Keep reading.
Any coaching expert will have you follow a very detailed training program aimed at improving your fitness in a very organized fashion. Your schedule will include rest days to let your body recover. The cycling experts will have you perform regular field tests or propose other methods of gauging your power and fitness progression. They will suggest you attend training camps where you will learn a ton about cycling both on and off the bike. They will recommend a good bike fit and advise you to regularly have your bike tuned by a reputable bike shop. They will analyze your nutrition and make recommendations. They will prescribe stretching, yoga and core exercises. Sounds like a pretty comprehensive approach, doesn’t it? That must be all you will ever need to maximize your cycling abilities, right?
No, it isn’t. Not by a long shot. Let me explain.
I have been coached for more than ten years. I have been to countless training camps, read numerous articles on training, watched videos on the subject and, over time, a lot of the people who have helped me become a better, stronger cyclist, became dear friends of mine. These are people who I consider to be some of the best in the business. Until about two weeks ago, I was convinced that, over the years, the outstanding advice and support they gave me in order to perform at the best of my ability, was all I needed. There wasn’t any way to transform my cycling and reach a new level of fitness.
While on a ride this week with my old coach Jason, I told him that my next blog post was going to be a bit of a criticism of him and his peers. He smiled. I frame it as criticism but in reality, I want to give back to them. I am very grateful to them for all the knowledge they have given me, the positive impact cycling has had on me and my family and the strong relationships I have forged through cycling.
I am writing this post to share my recent experience with my friends about a transformative way to become a stronger cyclist (or just live a healthier life as a non-cyclist). I also hope it helps my friends in the training business to get even better at what they do for athletes like me who can be described as middle-aged amateurs with a full time job, plenty of great cycling ambitions, keen to participate in long cycling events and want to optimize their training and become as strong as possible. My goal is to contribute in making everyone better athletes and live a healthier life.
“Hey, so what is the deep flaw you are talking about?”
Here we go: If I were to get involved in coaching, the first thing I would require from a new athlete is not to perform a fitness test but for them to perform a sleep test. What’s the point of training hard if you can’t properly recover from all the training? Training and recovering are inseparable. Keeping your car engine running properly means checking the oil regularly. The imperfect analogy with the mechanic is meant to illustrate the point that, just like checking the oil in a car engine is one of the most basic function of a mechanic to keep you car engine running properly, I believe that one of the most basic functions of a coach is to test you for sleep quality in order to maximize your fitness.
I recommend a sleep test to find out the quality of your sleep. If you google ‘cyclist & sleep’, you will find a multitude of articles that confirm what we already know: sleep deprivation isn’t good for your cycling. Sleeping eight hours a night without waking up doesn’t mean you are getting good sleep.
My recommendation is based on data. I have used a power meter since 2007 and I have kept the data from every single ride I have been on for the last ten years. It is also based on feel: “How do I feel now compared to then?” And if there is a difference between how I feel now and how I felt then, how do we explain it?
This past week was designed to be a minimum of twenty hours of training with a LOT of interval training, low, medium and high intensity intervals. It also includes a lot of climbing. Last night I went back to database of rides and plotted the results of my biggest training weeks in 2013 and 2014 when I was in the best shape in my life. Here are some date points of the biggest training weeks of 2013/14 and of this past week:
1 – I’m older than in 2013/14.
2 – I am less fit than in 2013/14.
3 – June 24, 2013 week: 19:43 hrs of training and 11,974 kj.
4 – June 24, 2014 week: 21:12 hrs of training and 12,502 kj.
5 – February 20, 2017 week: so far 16:02 hrs of training and 8,336 kj and two days of training left. In other words, I can easily obliterate the 2013 and 2014 records at the snap of the fingers.
6 – I remember being crushed by the 2013 and 2014 big training weeks and wearing my extreme tiredness as a badge of honor.
7 – My nutrition, weight and way of life along the three weeks mentioned here are the same.
8 – In 2013/14 I was mainly just riding while every ride this past week has included structured interval training.
8 – Today I was awake a 6 am, not wanting to sleep in but rather wanting to go out there on my bike and kill it; blasting through past records like a knife through butter.
So how do we explain the difference between how I felt then and how I feel now? Why, in spite of being less fit and a little bit older, having basically the same lifestyle, can I feel better now than I used to then? How can I feel fresher now compared to a few years ago after comparable energy expenditure? I can’t even wear the hyper tired badge of honor anymore because I don’t feel hyper tired. How am I able, within each ride, to complete the training intervals successfully instead of dreaming about lying on my couch instead? Why, why, why?
I guess logic would say: “Because I recover better.” But why and how?
There is only one significant data point that is different between then and now: My new CPAP machine (or Continuous Positive Airway Pressure). I recently wrote a post explaining how I was diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea. I recommend you read that post. I used to be like most of you: convinced I was the least likely person to suffer from this condition. I describe in that post the signs that led me to get tested, get treated and then crush it on the bike.
By the way, before getting into the details of the importance of not only getting sleep but quality sleep, one might ask: “Did I read this right, you have embarked on a twenty hour plus training week? May I ask why?” Yes, you may ask why. I am registered to participate in the inaugural Mavic Haute Route Rockies cycling event which will take place in Colorado between June 24 and June 30:
Having participated in the Haute Route Alps in 2013 and 2015, I am back for the challenge. In my view, the fast expanding Haute Route series of amateur cycling events in Europe and North America are the best organized, most challenging and most satisfying events any amateur can participate in. I know what it takes to complete a seven day Haute Route and I can tell you that I am convinced that this year’s event will be more ‘manageable’ given the fact that I am actually getting real sleep. There are about 450 participants in an Haute Route. Given the fact that on average 7.5% of the population suffers from obstructive sleep apnea, it is safe to say that about 33 people will participate with that condition. If you have obstructive sleep apnea and are not diagnosed and treated, then those of us who are treated will recover better than you. Don’t miss out on making your Haute Route experience even better and get tested now. And also, look for me on the start line, we can share stories about AHI, air pressure, humidity and heat. Those around us won’t understand what we are talking about, just like non-cyclists don’t understand cyclists who discuss tire pressure, watts per kilo or disk brakes.
Let’s get back to getting restful sleep. First, what is obstructive sleep apnea? It is a potentially serious sleep disorder which causes breathing to repeatedly stop and start during sleep. There are several types of sleep apnea, but the most common is obstructive sleep apnea. This type of apnea occurs when your throat muscles intermittently relax and block your airway during sleep. A noticeable sign of obstructive sleep apnea is snoring. Who doesn’t snore?
I did a sleep test about a month ago. The report came back and it was horrifying. As an otherwise healthy man with no blood pressure or weight issues, doing a lot of exercise, I was told that, on average, I stopped breathing for at least ten seconds (called Apnea) 24 times an hour and I had difficulty breathing for at least ten seconds (called Hypopnea) 26 times an hour. These apneas and hypopneas are associated with a decrease in blood oxygenation.
Based on the results of the study, the sleep specialist will give you an Apnea–Hypopnea Index (AHI) which is an index used to indicate the severity of your sleep apnea. It is represented by the number of apnea and hypopnea events per hour of sleep. If your AHI is over 30 (like mine was when I got the test results), you are in a lot of trouble. The higher the AHI number, the worst your sleep is. In other words, your AHI is like your handicap at golf; the lower the number the better you are doing. This is how you calculate AHI:
Based on the AHI, the severity of obstructive sleep apnea is classified as follows:
- None/Minimal: AHI < 5 per hour
- Mild: AHI ≥ 5, but < 15 per hour
- Moderate: AHI ≥ 15, but < 30 per hour
- Severe: AHI ≥ 30 per hour
In other words, six to seven hours of sleep with an AHI of 3 is much much better than sleeping eight to nine hours with an AHI of 32!!! I never knew I had difficult breathing while sleeping because I never wake up when I sleep. I’ll bet everyone reading this feels the same way, unless your spouse has been telling you for years – like my wife use to tell me – that you have breathing issues but you keep procrastinating about doing something about it – like I used to. But try this: while awake, pinch your nose and stop breathing for ten seconds every minute and do it for eight hours in a row and let me know how you feel.
My doctor who prescribed the sleep test (which by the way I did at home in my own bed and there is nothing to it, so stop procrastinating) sent me a text when he got the results: “We need to put you on a CPAP machine right away.” A CPAP machine increases air pressure in your throat so that your airway doesn’t collapse when you breathe in. This what my CPAP machine looks like:
(PS: My advice is to you is to NOT start googling CPAP machine and how people adjust to them. Just get on with your sleep test and worry about the various options to treat obstructive sleep apnea later. I personally have a love/hate relationship with my machine and will get into that in a different post.)
Everyone who gets diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea will read somewhere than they will feel better once treated: ‘They will have more energy, feel less anxious, have better concentration, feel happier and younger’. I read all that that myself. But nowhere could I find what impact being treated would have on a middle-aged athlete who likes to participate in grueling multi-day cycling events. I guess the average person with obstructive sleep apnea doesn’t dream of cycling hundreds of miles a week and climbing the highest mountain roads in the world.
I now have the answer and I am sharing the answer with you: ‘If you sleep better, you will recover better. If you recover better you will be better equipped to repeat large training rides day after day. You will also be better at completing intervals after intervals within a particular ride’. Instead of dragging your butt out of bed after 16 hours of hard training in five days, you will wake up and want to go out there, crush it and set records.
If sleep is so important, wouldn’t you expect every coach (and doctor!!!) on the planet to prescribe a sleep study to their athletes? We all know already that athletes need to pay attention to their sleeping habits. What I am talking about is no different than going to the doctor’s office for blood tests or the annual EKG. A sleep study at home costs close to nothing, doesn’t interfere with your sleep and could change your life. Every training camp should add an option for riders to do a sleep test during the camp. Why test how hard you can ride your bike but not test how well you recover from riding your bike? These questions never crossed my mind until a few days ago.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious condition. It needs to be diagnosed and treated. Saying “I sleep very well” is no indication of your sleep quality – as illustrated by my case. Do me (and you) a favor, call your doctor, get your sleep test done and be sure about your true ability to recover (and live a healthier life!!!).
Most serious amateur (and pro) cyclists can tell you all about their watt/kilo, their TSS, IF, ATL, CTL and TSB. They plot all those useful charts to track their progress and they spend hours a week analyzing their rides on systems like Training Peaks. They can tell you their peak five, ten and twenty minutes average and normalized power better than how much money they have in their bank account. They are on top of the latest science on functional threshold but couldn’t tell you what their sleep efficiency is or what their oxygen desaturation index is.
Cyclists know that they need sleep to recover and to perform well, “OK, guys, it’s nine o’clock, I’m gonna hit the sack, I’m doing a group ride in the morning”. But why are we so unconcerned about quantifying the quality of our sleep? The amount of hours of sleep for me was NEVER an issue but it turned out the quality was THE issue. If we spend hours quantifying and analyzing the quality of our riding (which for the average serious amateur means riding six to twelve hours a week) why are we not doing the same thing about the ONE thing which can have the biggest impact on our ability to ride better: sleep (which for the average person is 42 to 56 hours a week).
This is part of what I wake up to every morning:
Yes, you read that right, my AHI went from being an extremely elevated + 30 to being an extremely low 1.6 literally overnight, thanks to the CPAP machine. Just as I thought I was on top of the multitude of data variables to gauge my fitness, I discovered a whole new set.
For those not entirely familiar with the “high-tech” way to track your progression as an athlete, probably the most popular way for cyclists to gauge their fitness and how well they perform is to track their performance management chart:
I have personally used this chart for years and studied it religiously. I still use it through my Training Peaks account where I download my ride data files. Here is a reminder of how this very useful tool works. You will notice that I am changing one of the key equations in order to include quality of sleep in the determination of your form.
It all starts with your Training Stress Score (TSS). Every workout you do is assigned a training stress score based on duration and how intense the workout was relative to your threshold.
Fatigue (Acute Training Load, or ATL)
By taking an exponentially weighted average of that stress from the past seven days you are able to calculate your Fatigue, or an estimate of your fatigue accounting for the workouts you have done in the past two weeks.
Fitness (Chronic Training Load, or CTL)
The performance management chart also uses each day’s TSS to calculate Fitness. Fitness is an exponentially weighted average of the last 42 days of training and reflects the training you have done over the last three months. However, the workouts you did 15 days ago will impact your fitness more than the workouts you did six weeks ago. You may notice that as Fitness goes up so does Fatigue, only at a greater rate. The performance management chart helps to tell a story: consistent training is marked by a steady rise in Fatigue and Fitness where as a sharp drop might indicate time off due to sickness or injury.
Form (Training Stress Balance, or TSB)
Finally, by subtracting yesterday’s Fatigue from yesterday’s Fitness we come up with the Form. Just because you are fit does not mean that you are ready to ride at your best. A negative Form would indicate that you are carrying a lot of fatigue and are not on form. However, by tapering you can shed fatigue at a greater rate than you lose fitness and come into form on the day that matters most. There is no single Form that works for every athlete, but as a general rule of thumb you would want to be slightly negative up to positive 25. If your Form becomes too high it may indicate that you tapered too much and are losing fitness.
In short, Fitness minus Fatigue equals Form or TSB = CTL – ATL. That is a key equation that most serious amateur cyclist can talk about in great detail.
While I have used this measure for years in order to gauge my form, I don’t think this equation is right.
I think the right way to look at the equation is TSB = (CTL – ATL)/AAHI.
I define AAHI as the past seven day exponentially weighted Average Apnea–Hypopnea Index.
How can one determine Form or how fresh or rested they are without taking into account the quality of their sleep? And again, quality of sleep is not the same as ‘how many hours one sleeps’. Far from it.
No one reading this post would argue that, before a certain event, a particular TSB number has the same meaning regardless of sleep quality. Which of the two examples is more likely to be conducive to better sleep quality before a particular event: (i) sleeping eight hours in your own bed or (ii) ‘sleeping’ on an overseas full flight in economy from New York to Paris and getting on your bike two hours after landing?
No one would argue that it is preferable to have a TSB of plus 20 before an event and combine that with a night of partying as opposed to having a TSB of plus 10 and combining it with a good night sleep.
So if intuitionally we now that sleep quality matters, why wouldn’t we want sleep quality to be factored into the TSB equation? In other words, sleep quality (AAHI) is an extremely important factor in determining Form.
Let’s look at the revised equation of Form I am suggesting by factoring in sleep quality. If my Form, calculated as a TSB of plus 20, is combined with an AAHI is 15, then my adjusted TSB will be 1.33. If I have a TSB of 10 and an AAHI of 1.6 (like mine currently), my adjusted TSB will be 6.25? Which is better: 1.33 or 6.25?
I know I am on to something. I intend to continue my research on the subject.
Going into this past week of training, I knew that watts per kilo was meaningless compared to my ability to recover (AAHI) and to push through the workouts. I am stronger tonight as a result of better sleep quality not any other measure out there. Being able to recover better and quicker lowers the perceived exertion of the workouts, it increases your enthusiasm to train and it allows you to better enjoy multi-day events. I hope that all coaches, training organizations and training camps organizers teach their athletes about the importance of sleep quality and its direct impact on recovery so that people enjoy our sport to the fullest.
What are you waiting for?