Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Performance Enhancement On A Budget

Leading up to last weekend’s Tour of Bright in alpine Victoria, there was a lot of talk about the lengths that some non-elite athletes are now going to in order to boost performance. Cycling Tips had a few interesting articles about the use of altitude tents by some Masters Category riders (30+ years old) and also about the huge outlay of time and money that many non-professionals are willing to make in order to be competitive in the age-group grades.

It makes sense. If you’ve got the money and the time, and you’re a cycling enthusiast then why wouldn’t you want to push the limits of your performance?

But what if you’re not in the position to spend thousands of dollars on equipment or numerous hours per week training in order to push your limits on the bike?

Here are some low-budget ways that you can increase your performance (or at least feel like you are) without having to spend the time and money.

Don’t waste your time on a time trial bike

If you’ve ever ridden a time-trial bike, then you’ll know that they can save you time – but only in specific types of races, namely Time Trials, where you are racing against the clock rather than in a bunch of other riders.

Despite technically being a race against the clock, this is not actually considered a time trial.

But for the most part, a time trial bike will just be a huge waste your time. Firstly, there’s setup. In addition to all the usual adjustable parts on a regular bike (seatppost, saddle, stem and handlebars), a time trial bike offers the added complexity of aero bars.
Aero Bars make Time Trial bikes aggravating and messy. (I'll admit, that one was a little too easy.)

Aero bars, allow the rider to find a more aerodynamic (and less comfortable) position on the bike but can be incredibly fiddly. Once you’ve got the position of your base bar set (similar to a regular bike) you need to fuss about with the arm extension length, height, angle & position as well as the arm rest position (fore/aft, left/right and angle). And then there’s cable routing. Because gear and brake cables apparently produce an unacceptable amount of drag for a time trial, they are often routed in a very complicated manner in order to keep them out of the wind, which adds precious time to new cable installation and general maintenance.
These days, a good time trialist does not leave their cable out dangling in the wind.

Brake calipers are also often hidden away in some hard-to-reach location in order to reduce drag. Countless hours can be wasted trying to perform a simple adjustment on a breeze-cheating brake calliper – on some bikes it can take up to 15 minutes just to find the damn thing!

Some time trial bikes even use specially shaped bidons meaning that when you lose one, you can’t just simply steal a replacement off another bike hitched up outside the cafĂ©.
Even this dog sees the infuriating impracticality of aero-shaped bidons.

Another recent innovation are internal bladders, which, although more anatomically correct, require partial deconstruction of your frame in order to top up with water.
The point is, that while all these amazing innovations might save you seconds in a time trial, they will waste countless hours in your everyday life that could be better utilised trying to colour match your skinsuit to your aero helmet – or every other item in your wardrobe.

Altitude tents don’t pay the rent 

The idea behind an altitude tent is to simulate a low-pressure environment (such as being at high altitude) that causes the body to adapt by producing more oxygen-carrying red blood cells. This happens as a natural response to the reduced amount of oxygen in the air. When returning to normal pressure, the excess of red blood cells allows greater capacity for oxygen transport. As oxygen is an important ingredient in the reactions that fuel the body, greater oxygen availability means that the body can function aerobically at higher intensities.

But altitude tents do not come cheap. Upwards of $3000 for a basic setup that you can use to sleep in at home. The Higher Peak Professional High Altitude Sleep System will allow you to simulate altitudes of up to 6000m (!!), the equivalent of almost 12 times the height of Tapei 101, Asia’s tallest building and one which Alex Honnold is planning to free solo climb early next year.
While expensive, without this contraption there’s no easy way to simulate being at the altitude equivalent to 12 Tapei 101s…without travelling to the Himalayas.

But not everybody has enough spare cash lying around to finance training equipment like this. And even if you do have the cash, in Italy, the Federazione Ciclistica Italiana classifies them as illegal due to the fact that they constitute a practice that “…may change the pshyco-physical or biological conditions of the organism and thus alter the performance of the athletes.”

When preparing for this year’s Tour of Bright, Stay True Racing’s Tim McGrath found a novel way of simulating altitude training in order to change the biological conditions of his organism. He discovered that whilst sleeping, oxygen can be restricted the old fashioned way – by simply placing a pillow over your face. And if you want to simulate higher altitudes, try experimenting with heavier weights on top of the pillow until you can barely breathe.

Transfusion confusion

As cyclists, we can all appreciate the value of a good non-homologous blood transfusion. Take out a couple of litres of your own blood a few weeks before an important race, run it through the centrifuge to separate the red blood cells which are then stored on ice until a day or so before the big race, at which time they are re-infused as part of your hematocrit-boosting warm-up routine.

It obviously requires a fair bit of medical equipment, a decent centrifuge, a quality fridge and probably a willing accomplice unless you enjoy hooking up your own IV bag. If you don’t have time for all of this, why not try re-infusing other bodily fluids – taking a jar in to the toilet is all that’s required! Sure, the physiological benefits might not actually be measurable, but the placebo affect generated from knowing that you are putting in efforts that others are unwilling to make should help boost your performance.

No Needles – No Worries!

In a bid to counter many types of illegal supplement injections the UCI imposed a no needle policy in 2011. It basically prohibits “...injections of medicines or other substances, without a medical indication, that have the objective of artificially improving performance or recovery (vitamins, sugars, enzymes, amino acids, antioxidants, etc.).”

These types of vitamin injections don’t come cheap either and you’ll also need to find a doctor willing to cooperate. However, the clever (and thrifty) cyclist can get many of the placebo effects of breaking the no needle policy with a relatively inexpensive trip to the physiotherapist or osteopath for some dry needling.
While these needles won’t actually be delivering any vitamins, you’ll still feel like you are breaking the rules and breaking through to new levels of performance. 

High hematocrit on a low budget

EPO injections provide a great way to boost your hematocrit (red blood cell concentration). A normal (average) value for males is around 45% and in 1997 the UCI decided that an arbitrary limit of 50% was to be considered the upper limit for a normal, non-doped hematocrit.

For a long time, all this really meant was that doping athletes could simply monitor their levels and EPO dosage to keep their hematocrit as close to 50% as possible for all the big races. Unfortunately this type of doping is prohibitively expensive for most amateur athletes. Along with access to EPO, you’ll also need a centrifuge and equipment for measuring your hematocrit at home.

A cheaper way of increasing your hematocrit, is to reduce the volume of your blood plasma via dehydration. What this means is that the red blood cells will make up a larger proportion of your total blood volume. Unless your hematocrit is already close to the legal limit, it’s probably unlikely that you can safely dehydrate yourself enough to break through the elusive 50% barrier, but it will definitely go up, at least temporarily until you start drinking fluids again. So, if timed correctly, you can also use this as a powerful mental tool.
As dehydration increases, so does your hematocrit.

Obviously there are limits as to how much improvement you are likely to see using the methods detailed above. The key thing to remember is that if you are willing to do the things that others are not, you have gained a powerful psychological advantage.

So even if you never compete at a race where you’ll be tested for doping, or where the latest aerodynamic equipment might save you the few seconds needed to win, you can at least feel like you are making sacrifices for your sport, even if you can’t spare the time or money to do it properly. And if you can get through a full racing season drinking your own wee, then you definitely deserve some sort of prize.

1 comment:

  1. Your image for dehydration is not quite right. The upper level of the plasma layer will always equate to the upper level of the uncentrifuged blood. Your "dehydrated, after-centrifugation" image should show a larger red blood cell layer, a smaller plasma layer, but should have the same total height of the "before" sample.