Saturday, January 23, 2016

SPACE Mission Update: Signs of Improvement

I'm really encouraged by the improvement I've seen in my performance after I hit the halfway mark of the SPACE study. As of today, I've completed 15 of 26 weeks. And as I noted in my earlier post, I've really learned a lot. My mid-protocol test results are back too, so I thought I'd share some of that information for the data-curious among you.

The Tests
The second set of performance tests is a chance to compare my results with my baseline numbers. I wrote a bit more about those here, in case you'd like to catch up. But I'll repeat the numbers below side by side with the new results for comparison.

Bill during V02Max test
There are three measures to compare: 1) a static leg strength test, a V02Max test, and a body fat composition test. Of the three, the most dramatic and difficult - by far - is the V02Max test. This is where the goal is to pedal on a stationary bike with the resistance increasing every 2:00 minutes. The directive from the physiologist conducting the test: "Pedal to exhaustion." All of this happens while strapped to a breathing tube, nose pinched shut, so as to measure the consumption of oxygen and the composition of the gases you are inhaling and exhaling.

Well...see above for yourself! In the picture, I'd only just started, so I look rather composed. By the end, I was not in such pristine form.

The other two tests are much less demanding. The static leg strength test involves having your dominant leg strapped to a dynamometer that measures the force you exert when moving your leg. There are a series of measures, from pushing against a solid force to kicking the leg out against variable resistance. The heaviest repetitions are heavy enough that you can't move the leg fast at all. The longest test involves kicking out and pulling back as rapidly as possible twenty times against less resistance. This allows for measurement of endurance as well as peak force.

The third test is body fat percentage. This is the easiest physically. You strip down to a pair of bike shorts and sit in a big egg-shaped machine. What this test lacks in physical demands, it more than makes up for in emotional ones. Humbling. To say the least.

Results: Getting Better!
I went into the testing period thinking I might have improved some, but with modest expectations. So it was really heartening to see that I improved quite a bit on all of the measures! Results compared with baseline numbers are in the tables below, followed by some discussion.

Leg Strength Baseline Midpoint
% of bodyweight 85 147

Body Composition Baseline Midpoint
weight (kg) 75.6 76.4
% of lean body mass 23.1 22.3

V02Max Baseline Midpoint
ml/kg/min V02 43.5 48.3
METS 12.4 13.8
Peak Watts 275 325
MAX Heart Rate (BPM) 187 188

Discussion
First things first, that weight includes my clothes and shoes! As you can see, I gained about a pound between September and January. Not bad, given my usual spiral into winter. But this is one time I can say, without it being pure fabrication, that the weight gained was muscle rather than fat! Why? Because my lean body mass percentage improved over the same period. So far so good.

It makes sense that I gained some muscle when you look at the results of my leg strength test. In September, I was able to move 85 percent of my bodyweight with my right quadriceps (the machine isolates these). In January, I improved to 147% of my bodyweight. Big gain!

My V02Max numbers also improved more than I expected. I knew that I could push more Watts than before, based on what I was able to do on a day-by-day basis in the lab during my 30 minute continuous workouts. But it was nice to see this translated into a nearly 5% increase in V02, from 43.5 to 48.3. Here's what that translates to using the chart I linked to in an earlier post:
I go from the upper end of the "Good" category to the upper end of the "Excellent" category. Not bad. Knocking on the door of Superior. Maybe they'll let me in come April.

What Does It All Mean?
It's pretty clear to me that the kind of short (30 minutes or less per day), but intense and very, very consistent workouts I've been doing can translate to good results. And not just in my baseline fitness and potential, as the mid-point numbers show. I am seeing real improvement in my performances as well. Based on what I've done in my 30 minute workouts, for instance, here is a comparison with week 6 and last week:

3 x 30 Min Continuous Week 6 Week 14
Avg. Watts 235.38 240.2
Avg HR (BPM) 171 162

What that translates to is three 30 min. workouts last week, all of which topped 240W and all done at a HR that felt less like imminent death. Based on my most recent performance data, I think my functional threshold power is now somewhere between 228-232W, with peak 1 minute Watts of 325 at the end of a 30 minute effort. 30s peak power is about 375-400W. And, based on my daily experiments in pacing, I think I could do a few attacks at 300+ W in a race situation, if I rode smart and had recovery options. There will be no long breakaways above 240W, but I now see I have some tools in the toolkit to play with.

Friday, January 1, 2016

SPACE odyssey: the halfway mark

I just finished week 13 of my Mars mission (background here), so it is time for an update about how things are proceeding. I will be doing my mid-protocol tests next week, so I'll have numbers to report like I have done previously shortly. But for now, I'll stick to the things that stand out to me - either as realizations or observations - about the overall experience of being a participant in this fascinating study. And for each, I've set a little goal (it is New Year's Day, after all!) for the coming year.

1. It remains on the whole, fun for me to participate in this study.
This is not a revelation, though I am happy to report it now with more certainty than I would have had at the beginning. Working out 6 days a week and following a very structured workout each time is something I've never done with this degree of precision. Because the point of this, from a scientific point of view, is to make a dataset for the team to analyze, I am doing exactly what is called for each day with no deviations. This is true for each individual day, but also for each week with just a few exceptions when I've had to reschedule a session due to travel.

But I like the regularity of the workouts very much. I'm going to try to keep up the pattern of 6 workouts/week throughout the year even when the study is done.

2. Intensity is much much more important than I thought for producing physiological adaptations.
This is saying something, because I've understood for a long time what the point of exercise is - to create stress that causes the body to adapt. The interesting thing I've started to see now, though, due to the large amount of data I am producing from a very consistent workout regimen is just how much adaptation can come from relatively short, but hard workouts. I'll have more to say about this once I get my next set of testing data back, but here are a few bits that you might find interesting.

At the six week mark, I reported that my best 30 minute sustained efforts came when I was producing between 235-240W. Those are continuous, no coasting, no rest numbers. So they function like an FTP test. I do this workout every other day. So I've done it about 28 times now.

As I start week 14, I am consistently able to produce W in that range. One key difference though is that at Week 6 I was doing that with an average HR of 170-172. At 13 weeks, it's more like 162-164 for the same power. I haven't seen a lot of improvement in my PR for the 30 min workout. I think this is due to the fact that my regimen is not really designed to produce huge gains in performance, but is rather designed to help astronauts maintain fitness levels in zero gravity conditions. Still, I'm getting better: more efficient and better able to use more of the total power I can produce.

An area where I have seen consistent improvement is the 4x4:00 interval workouts, with 3:00 active recovery in between. These long intervals are done at a Wattage level of my choosing (unlike the other two intervals, which are set by the computer), so I can dial them up to 11. I think about these days as the days I get better. Early on, I was doing these at 240 or 250W. In week 3, I started at 268 W for interval one and had to drop way back in subsequent intervals to try and recover from that first one.

But these days, I'm doing 4x4:00 at 283W. That's a big difference. Considering that in my baseline max test, I was only able to get to 275W (for 2:00), it's a noticeable change (though not necessarily a big change in my V02Max). I think by the end of the study, I'll be able to do 300W for all 16:00 worth of work interval. That's my goal, at least.

3. Making the Science is Weird.
First, I want to say that everyone I see as part of the study - all of the research assistants, post-docs, and others who run the project on a day-to-day basis - has been extremely nice, courteous, generous, grateful, and professional. They have clearly been very well prepared by the folks in the lab. But they are also, in general, super nice folks. They go out of their way to treat us like people (not like gerbils running on a wheel) and to express their gratitude for our effort and commitment to the project.

I can see why the PI's on the project spend time training the research staff to be like this. Because it is just a little bit weird to be a research subject. Some of the measurements - like blood pressure, etc. - feel like a visit to the Dr.'s office. But for the workouts, there are specific cues for the researchers to collect key data points such as our heart rate, cycling cadence (revolutions per minute), watts, and/or perceived exertion level (how hard we feel we are working). And so it's a little strange going full bore in front of other people who are literally measuring your effort. I think about folks being nervous to work out in a gym in front of others they don't know. Try doing it while someone is literally standing right beside you, taking your HR after every 30 second interval!

The takeaway here is simply that I've got nothing to hide any more. Now that I've been a 45 year old rat in a lab, slathered in electrode gel, huffing like a freight train in front of undergrads less than half my age (good god) writing down everything I can do or can't do on a given day...I know I can go to the pain cave now in front of anybody.

Bring it on, 2016!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

9 years of Doing Diabetes

Me, Lily, & Les at my first TdC in 2007
Nine years ago, I made a change. My doctor, also a colleague of mine, showed me the results of my checkup. I had met the criteria for a diagnosis of Type II diabetes. It was not a big surprise. I'd been creeping up on those numbers for several years. First, came elevated blood pressure and an anti-hypertensive. Then elevetated cardiac risk factors creeped in. All the while, my fasting glucose numbers were creeping up. So that first high HbA1c was not a surprise, but it was a signal that it was time to do something.
I knew that my family history was one of the risk factors I couldn't do much about. But everything else I could address: overweight, high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose, and high blood lipids (fats). And the most important tool - my magic weapon - was a bike.
I participated in my first TdC in June 2007 after losing 60lbs. Since that time, I've maintained a normal A1c for the last 8 years, and have done it without medication for the last 7!

Doing it for myself, and for others

But I'm still doing the things that made me healthy. Riding, counting carbs... "doing diabetes" so I don't "have diabetes." And as you can guess, it has made a big difference in my life. But what has made me even more proud is just how many others I know - friends, family, colleagues - who have let me know that my efforts to do this and to do it "out loud" in public, have been helpful to them as well. It is that, more than any other thing, that inspires me to ride in the Tour de Cure ride each in support of the ADA. 
And I'm doing it again this year! My campaign is underway, and you can track it here. And of course, I appreciate any support you might give in monetary form to my fundraising efforts. But...what I'd really love is for you to come ride with me!

  • Want to ride in Ann Arbor in June at the TdC with me? If so, get in touch and we can form a team. We need five riders, but we need not all do the same distance or speed. We'll cheer for one another and do more good together than any one us might do alone
  • Can't make it to Michigan? Join a Tour de Cure near you! There are events all over the country. Find one and let me know so I can cheer and lend you support 

     

Nine years ago, I made a change. My doctor, also a colleague of mine, showed me the results of my checkup. I had met the criteria for a diagnosis of Type II diabetes. It was not a big surprise. I'd been creeping up on those numbers for several years. First, came elevated blood pressure and an anti-hypertensive. Then elevetated cardiac risk factors creeped in. All the while, my fasting glucose numbers were creeping up. So that first high HbA1c was not a surprise, but it was a signal that it was time to do something.

I knew that my family history was one of the risk factors I couldn't do much about. But everything else I could address: overweight, high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose, and high blood lipids (fats). And the most important tool - my magic weapon - was a bike.

I participated in my first TdC in June 2007 after losing 60lbs. Since that time, I've maintained a normal A1c for the last 8 years, and have done it without medication for the last 7! 

But I'm still doing the things that made me healthy. Riding, counting carbs... "doing diabetes" so I don't "have diabetes" .

- See more at: http://main.diabetes.org/site/TR/TourdeCure/TourAdmin?px=6398072&pg=personal&fr_id=11064#sthash.59KVRUim.dpuf

Nine years ago, I made a change. My doctor, also a colleague of mine, showed me the results of my checkup. I had met the criteria for a diagnosis of Type II diabetes. It was not a big surprise. I'd been creeping up on those numbers for several years. First, came elevated blood pressure and an anti-hypertensive. Then elevetated cardiac risk factors creeped in. All the while, my fasting glucose numbers were creeping up. So that first high HbA1c was not a surprise, but it was a signal that it was time to do something.

I knew that my family history was one of the risk factors I couldn't do much about. But everything else I could address: overweight, high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose, and high blood lipids (fats). And the most important tool - my magic weapon - was a bike.

I participated in my first TdC in June 2007 after losing 60lbs. Since that time, I've maintained a normal A1c for the last 8 years, and have done it without medication for the last 7! 

But I'm still doing the things that made me healthy. Riding, counting carbs... "doing diabetes" so I don't "have diabetes" .

- See more at: http://main.diabetes.org/site/TR/TourdeCure/TourAdmin?px=6398072&pg=personal&fr_id=11064#sthash.59KVRUim.dpuf

Nine years ago, I made a change. My doctor, also a colleague of mine, showed me the results of my checkup. I had met the criteria for a diagnosis of Type II diabetes. It was not a big surprise. I'd been creeping up on those numbers for several years. First, came elevated blood pressure and an anti-hypertensive. Then elevetated cardiac risk factors creeped in. All the while, my fasting glucose numbers were creeping up. So that first high HbA1c was not a surprise, but it was a signal that it was time to do something.

I knew that my family history was one of the risk factors I couldn't do much about. But everything else I could address: overweight, high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose, and high blood lipids (fats). And the most important tool - my magic weapon - was a bike.

I participated in my first TdC in June 2007 after losing 60lbs. Since that time, I've maintained a normal A1c for the last 8 years, and have done it without medication for the last 7! 

But I'm still doing the things that made me healthy. Riding, counting carbs... "doing diabetes" so I don't "have diabetes" .

- See more at: http://main.diabetes.org/site/TR/TourdeCure/TourAdmin?px=6398072&pg=personal&fr_id=11064#sthash.59KVRUim.dpuf

Nine years ago, I made a change. My doctor, also a colleague of mine, showed me the results of my checkup. I had met the criteria for a diagnosis of Type II diabetes. It was not a big surprise. I'd been creeping up on those numbers for several years. First, came elevated blood pressure and an anti-hypertensive. Then elevetated cardiac risk factors creeped in. All the while, my fasting glucose numbers were creeping up. So that first high HbA1c was not a surprise, but it was a signal that it was time to do something.

I knew that my family history was one of the risk factors I couldn't do much about. But everything else I could address: overweight, high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose, and high blood lipids (fats). And the most important tool - my magic weapon - was a bike.

I participated in my first TdC in June 2007 after losing 60lbs. Since that time, I've maintained a normal A1c for the last 8 years, and have done it without medication for the last 7! 

But I'm still doing the things that made me healthy. Riding, counting carbs... "doing diabetes" so I don't "have diabetes" .

- See more at: http://main.diabetes.org/site/TR/TourdeCure/TourAdmin?px=6398072&pg=personal&fr_id=11064#sthash.59KVRUim.dpuf

Nine years ago, I made a change. My doctor, also a colleague of mine, showed me the results of my checkup. I had met the criteria for a diagnosis of Type II diabetes. It was not a big surprise. I'd been creeping up on those numbers for several years. First, came elevated blood pressure and an anti-hypertensive. Then elevetated cardiac risk factors creeped in. All the while, my fasting glucose numbers were creeping up. So that first high HbA1c was not a surprise, but it was a signal that it was time to do something.

I knew that my family history was one of the risk factors I couldn't do much about. But everything else I could address: overweight, high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose, and high blood lipids (fats). And the most important tool - my magic weapon - was a bike.

I participated in my first TdC in June 2007 after losing 60lbs. Since that time, I've maintained a normal A1c for the last 8 years, and have done it without medication for the last 7! 

But I'm still doing the things that made me healthy. Riding, counting carbs... "doing diabetes" so I don't "have diabetes" .

- See more at: http://main.diabetes.org/site/TR/TourdeCure/TourAdmin?px=6398072&pg=personal&fr_id=11064#sthash.59KVRUim.dpuf

Saturday, November 7, 2015

100 Miles of Nowhere, Camp Kesem Live from Michigan Edition!

"This Wasn't Really Supposed to Be a Thing..."
Elden & I before mounting up for the 2015 100 MoN
Today, November 7 2015, all over the world folks are doing the epic event known as the 100 Miles of Nowhere. The brainchild of the brilliant, kind, and slightly deranged Elden "Fatty " Nelson of fatcyclist.com, the event challenges participants to find the shortest tolerable course imaginable to go 100 miles without going anywhere at all. It is as much a test of one's mental toughness as physical stamina, though friends and family of the dedicated riders will surely tell you that it's proof positive of a deep affliction to the bike.

Fatty did the first one all by himself in his garage, and he wrote about it. To his surprise, it caught on. And now this thing that, according to Elden "wasn't even supposed to be a thing" is very much a big thing. 

Readers of this humble blog will recall that I've done this thing before. More than once, in fact. There was the time when I rode 3000 laps in my circle driveway, for instance. And the time I rode on a stationary trainer in front of my local bike shop. I like to make it a spectacle.

But perhaps you are asking...Why? Why do we do it? There are many reasons, truly, but the main one is that we get to engage in something truly wonderful that a certain group of people - I call them "People of the Bike" and my friend Mike "MC" Clark calls them "Bike-Minded Individuals" - have come to learn. That the bike is a tool to make good things happen. Not just for oneself, but if you work at it, for many, many other people as well.

100 Miles of Nowhere for Camp Kesem 
Team Fatty at the Kesem Summit, 2015 100 Miles of Nowhere
This year, I got to be part of Team Fatty once again for #100MoN, along with several of my dedicated, kind, and dauntless Michigan cycling community friends. We joined Fatty himself at the National Summit meeting for Camp Kesem outside Fenton, MI and got to see and feel the amazing power the bike can generate when we turn our pedals for a great cause.

When Fatty said he'd be coming to Michigan and he could use a little logistical help, I sent him a message and said I'd be happy to do it. I knew my MI crew would be equally stoked. We are, as People of the Bike, all about being there to help, especially when we can work together to make much more of a difference than any one of us could do alone. Our team consisted of two of my colleagues from Michigan State - Bump Halbritter & Mike Ristich, and three friends from the West part of the state: Derek Dykstra, MC, and Kaat Tahy. I've shared epic days in the saddle with all of them in the past. But yesterday's ride in which we went zero miles while riding 100 miles worth may have topped them all.

Healing the Harm Cancer Does to Families
Camp Kesem has a powerful mission. They provide children who have lost parents to cancer with a place to go to help with recovery from the damage that the disease does to families, to relationships. I've been witness to this, up close, in my own life. And I have to say, it is a hard thing to talk about. We know cancer does devastating damage to those afflicted with the disease. And we rightfully focus most of our energy on the care and comfort of people who are directly affected.

But cancer is something that families get too. They get it without asking for it. And it stays around. I've watched dear friends lose partners this way, and children lose parents. I've felt devastated for those family members. The nature of the disease and our limitations, clinically speaking, in understanding at any given moment how it may or may not be progressing, how an intervention may or may not be working...these weigh on loved ones in the circle of care in unimaginably difficult ways. At the time you feel most compelled to act, to care for and comfort those you love, you may find yourself without options to do much of anything. You turn your focus outward. Love overwhelms you. All while inside you are afraid, you are frustrated, you are mourning the loss of a life that has already irrevocably changed. You too have this thing called cancer. So may your children. It may not be in your body, your cells, but it has nonetheless invaded your life, your home, and your realtionships.

I wanted to write those things, because for those who have gone or are going through this ordeal, even thinking them can seem like the wrong thing to be doing. Add guilt to the pile of emotions that one feels in that situation. And there aren't many obvious outlets, not many treatments for the violence that cancer does to families. I lost my Dad last year to cancer. And one of the things he asked me to do was to take care of everybody around him, the people who loved him so much. "Help them," he said, "help the kids."
Counselors at the Kesem Summit Cheering Us On!

I know my Dad would have been proud to learn about the powerful response to this aspect of cancer that is embodied in the healing energy, spirit, and generosity of Camp Kesem. Our group felt it yesterday - we were cheered on during our ride by hundreds of college students from all over the U.S. who had come to the Kesem Summit to train to be counselors, to prepare to meet children this Summer who will spend some time healing, learning, singing and laughing with others who share their challenge: to overcome the pain cancer brought home to them.

So we rode. And we laughed and sang along with Kesem crew. We rocked. We rolled. Not necessarily in that order.
MC brings #bikeface to 100MoN!
Fatty rocks!


DiD and Kaat ride and inspire!









Mike leads the way
And in the end, as we drained our reserve tanks to finish the ride, we left refilled, with more energy than we had coming in. Seeing people assemble to give their time, to suspend the rules of their day-to-day lives to do something improbable, to connect with one another...it's pretty great. And it reminds you that we can make amazing things happen when we combine the power of creativity and caring.
My MSU colleages with Fatty after the 100 Miles of Nowhere 2015

Saturday, October 31, 2015

SPACE Lab Update - After Week Six

I've now completed six weeks of training in the SPACE lab study. That means I have approximately twenty (!) more weeks to go. So I thought I'd make a few observations about how things are going. Overall, I am really enjoying it! I go and work out every day at Noon except Saturday, which is a rest day. It's a nice break in the middle of the day from work.

Going to SPACE
The Wrong Stuff? Ragtag asteroid miners
Each day I change into my cycling gear - most often in my office - and walk over to IM Circle on the MSU campus. This, as you can imagine, elicited some odd looks from some of my co-workers, especially the front office staff in the academic affairs wing of the Arts & Letters Dean's office in Linton Hall. They saw me go into the office in street clothes, and emerge wearing lycra. They were pretty sure I had a secret identity for the first week or two. Now, everybody's in the know, though, so it's mostly The Right Stuff and/or Armageddon jokes.

The Workouts
After the first couple of sessions which were mostly about calibrating my fitness level, the pattern of workouts is very steady. I alternate between a 30 minute sustained effort and intervals of various lengths. Every other day, then, it's a 30 minute ride for as much power as I can sustain over that period of time. It is very much like an FTP test, in other words, for those familiar with cycling or other endurance sports. A bit more on that later. The interval workouts are 4 x 4:00, 6 x 2:00, and 8 x :30 respectively. Each day also has a warmup, the length of which varies according to what the activity is for the day, and a cooldown that is determined by the time it takes for my heart rate to return to 120BPM - usually just a couple of minutes or so.

Since there are six workouts and I come in six days a week, the pattern looks like this for me:
MWF 30:00 sustained
Sunday 4 x 4:00 intervals
Tuesday 6 x 2:00 intervals
Thursday 8 x :30 intervals
Measuring Effort - All About the Watts
Monark LC-7 just like the one I ride.
One of the reasons I was so excited to participate in this study is to learn more about training with precise power measurement to calibrate effort. For cyclists on the road, this means using a power meter that is integrated into some bike component: the hub, the pedal, or the crank. For me, it means cycling on an ergometer - a kind of stationary bike that interfaces with a computer to both dynamically control the resistance and measure the watts produced by the rider.

This gives a very precise measurement of watts produced because there is no other form of resistance - hills, wind, or friction - just what is applied by brake in the ergometer. And unlike real rides out on the roads, the watts required are continuous (no coasting or downhills) over a 30 minute ride. If a traditional time trial is know as "the race of truth" because it is just one person against the clock, then this is the race of extreme truth...because there is no fooling the ergometer.

When it comes to learning about measuring cycling effort with power, I have not been disappointed. It's pretty amazing to see, especially when combined with other measures like cadence (revolutions per minute of the crank) and heart rate, just what I am capable of in general and on any given day. One thing I can say is that a few things I've come to understand about myself as a rider are supported by the evidence I see when I look at the cycling data I've generated so far.

So, What Have I Learned So Far?
Ranges for V02Max, from whyiexercise.com
I don't have a big engine, but I am efficient and I can use a lot of the power I am capable of making. My V02Max is not huge, which is what I mean when I say I don't have a big engine. By most folks' accounts, I am in the "good" and just short of "excellent" range, and nowhere close to "elite."

V02Max is something that varies for each individual and has a significant genetic component, which means you basically are stuck with what you have. But V02Max only defines the top end - the "max" - output you can produce in a very short, very hard effort. What is a more useful measure is how much of your maximum you can use over some longer period of time. This measure is known as your FTP - functional threshold power - and it corresponds to the level of energy you can sustain for 60 minutes. You can find this out by riding for 60 minutes, but usually a 20 minute test will do fine (for more about that, check out Allen & Coggin's book Training & Racing with a Power Meter).

My FTP looks to be about 230W at this point, but unlike V02Max, FTP is much more responsive to training so it will likely get better. Today, though, I can produce that amount of power for 60 minutes without slowing down. Based on the results of my first Max test, that's about 84% of my V02Max. So while my top-end power and my power-to-weight aren't particularly impressive, when I'm fit I can use quite a lot of the power available to me. This is not news to me, really. I always knew, for instance, that I cannot outsprint many people. And I can't overcook a ride either...trying to hang on to a pace that is too hard is a sure way for me to get dropped. But...what I can do is find a sustainable pace - and while it's not huge, it's still good - and stay there for a long time. If I can then coax someone else to go just a bit into the red, I can eventually outlast 'em.

And, I can recover really fast and at a relatively high level of activity. I don't need to back down the pace too much to get back to a decent level of effort. This means that I can attack from a fairly high pace, back off just a little and recover, and attack again...and do it over and over.

All of this I've known from experience. But now I also have some numbers. Here, for example, are all of the 30 minute sustained efforts I've done since the beginning of the study so far in a histogram, graphed along with the MaxHR for that same session.
30 minuted sustained efforts with Watts & HR
Already, an interesting trend has emerged here. I'm building fitness and improving my PR for sustained Watts over time, but I go through periods of improvement and then a moment of recovery. The ride on Monday 10/26 is a bit of an anomaly because the Saturday before I rode 55 miles, and so rather than try to go all out on that day I just set a pace for my FTP (230W). The week prior, I had set a new PR for 30 minutes each time. My best effort so far is 241.85W with a Max HR of 183BPM.

Some of the variation here is the result of me trying different pacing strategies as well. As I noted, there is no fooling the ergometer, and I dial up my own resistance (in Watts) for this workout. So if I want to ride, say, 230W for thirty minutes I can't start a whole lot lower than that or else I'll need to make that up later somewhere. That's quite hard to do in a short amount of time, obviously. It is average/normalized power we are talking about here, but there are no big spikes in effort on the ergometer.

The pacing strategy I generally pursue is to hold a relatively high rate of power - 230 or 240 W for the first 20 minutes or so - and then see where I am in the last 10 minutes. If I'm feeling strong, I can add resistance and go for a PR. Having done 240 a few times, I can say that it is very close to what I am capable of producing on any given day. There will not be huge leaps beyond this number, though I may (and I hope to) continue to improve over the course of the study. We will see where I can get in twenty more weeks.

For now, though, I am having a lot of fun. Geeking out over the numbers is part of that, so watch for more reports as we go along!








Monday, September 28, 2015

Go For Launch! My New Mission

Mars
Today was a pretty exciting day for space exploration, especially as it concerns a future manned flight to the planet Mars. No, I'm not talking about the discovery of liquid water, though that was pretty cool. I'm talking about the start of my own contribution to the Mars mission as a participant in a research project! The study will evaluate the use of feedback - including games - in the quest to keep astronauts healthy on long space missions.You can read more about the labs' work; it's fascinating stuff!

During long periods in zero gravity, humans can lose muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness. To avoid these problems, astronauts do exercises in space. Keeping space explorers motivated to exercise over long periods of time and with sufficient intensity is part of that challenge. Different methods of doing that is part of what the study I am participating will evaluate.

To Boldly Go...
My mission is not five years long. It's not even as long as it would take to get to Mars, but almost. I'll be doing 26 weeks of workouts during this study, six each week, all on a stationary bike. Last week, I had my first round of physiological testing, which included V02Max - a holistic measure of overall cardiovascular fitness - as well as body composition (fat %) and leg strength. I'll post a bit about my results in a separate entry, as they are well-worth geeking out about in their own right. Suffice to say that not many amateur athletes like myself get these tests due to their costs. But that's one of the cool benefits, IMHO, of participating in this study.

So, every week day and every Sunday at Noon I'll go and do a workout. Three of the workouts each week will be done at a steady pace, a.k.a. "tempo" rides. The other three will include intervals of varying intensity. For some of these, I'll have feedback in the form of data, a game-like display, or both.

Day One
V02 Max test setup - mine looked a lot like this!
Today was my first workout day. The goal was to calibrate my steady-state pace. There was a target in mind derived from my Max test last week for my easy or "all day" riding pace: 130 Watts. Assuming ideal conditions (no wind, flat ground), typical rolling resistance/tires, and at my current weight of 165lbs, that's just about 17mph. I rode that pace at 96 RPM for 15 min. after a five minute easy spin warmup. The goal was to make sure my heart rate agreed with that being my "all day" pace.


After that, I was free to ramp up the resistance to find something harder for the last 15 minutes of this workout. I dialed it up a few times until I was at 200W. My goal was to keep my cadence about the same, at 96. At that pace, I'd be going just under 20MPH in perfect conditions. In the Mid-Michigan wind, probably more like 18.5-19. But it felt reasonable. Hard but not unsustainable. Three minutes of cool down followed until my HR came down.

And that was it! Calibration done. Not much feedback on this one; I could only see my cadence. Tomorrow, I am guessing we'll do an interval workout. But I don't know.

Beyond...
I won't update this blog after every workout, though I am keeping a log of all my activity during the study and I may publish some results from that as we go along. But for a while at least, I won't be doing as much posting on some other sites like Strava (though I don't have to quit riding on the road or running during the study; I only need to log this activity to the researchers know about it). But don't worry. I'm working!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Buying a Stationary Trainer - FAQ

I'm always happy to get asked about stationary cycling trainers by folks looking to start (or diversify) workouts at home. In this post, I'm mostly pitching to non-cyclists or beginners. I'll save the rollers vs. trainer debate for another time. I'm thrilled to see folks consider a trainer because I think it really is a device that just about everybody can use to get some quality exercise and at their own, preferred pace or level of intensity.

Without exaggeration, my trainer is the single best exercise equipment purchase I've ever made. I have used it for eight years now and am really happy with it. More about that in my post called "Going Nowhere: The Technology" from a few years back. 

Here, I want to offer a few thoughts on buying a trainer for yourself in response to questions I get from friends and co-workers.

1. What Kind of Trainer Should I Get?
Like bikes, I recommend buying a trainer that you will actually use.  For that reason, I recommend a fluid trainer for every one. And...this may seem counterintuitive, especially for those who are not hardcore cyclists.
And now a word about types of resistance...and what "fluid" means:  
A trainer is something you hook up to your bike's back wheel that provides enough resistance to allow you to pedal as if you were on the road. How the resistance is created is the primary way trainers vary. So when we talk about types of trainers, we are also talking about types of resistance.

All things considered, I find it is better to go with a fluid trainer which uses hydraulic resistance over the other two common types of resistance: mechanical/wind or magnetic. The other two types are much less pleasant (they are louder, and rather than a smooth resistance "curve" they offer sharper tiered or all-or-nothing resistance levels). These types also tend to be far less convenient to use. You may have to get off the bike to change resistance or you might top out, limiting the kind of riding and workouts you want to do. Fluid trainers do cost a bit more than the other two types, but not so much more that it makes the less convenient ones more attractive. This is particularly true if those features cause you to use the trainer less. 

Fluid trainers are quiet - I can watch TV at normal volume when I ride mine - and they give you "road feel" resistance that works just by changing gears on your bike. Hence the fluid model is worth the extra cost. 

2. How much is this gonna cost me? 
Fluid models start around $300 for major brands like CycleOps or Kurt. But you can get a good fluid trainer for a little over $200 bucks by discount brands like Blackburn or house branded by Nashbar or Performance bike. Wind and magnetic units will go for around $150-250. The major brands will be sold at your local bike shop, which offers a chance to go ride them and compare. I also needed a warranty repair on the resistance unit for mine after several years of heavy use, and my LBS took care of everything for free. So if you've decided to go with a fluid model, I recommend going to your LBS for it. But whatever you do, don't be the guy who goes and rides one at the LBS and then comes home and buys it on Nashbar. That's bush league, man. 

3. Are they tough to set up?
Not at all. Most (apart from pricier direct-drive units that replace your back wheel altogether) just require lining the back wheel skewer up with a collar on the trainer and using a locking lever to hold the bike in place. It's easy to take the bike on and off (or swap bikes if more than one person is riding). After you get the initial set up done, it takes literally a few seconds. 

4. Besides the trainer, what else do I need to get?
You should definitely get a riser block - a plastic cradle that raises your front wheel to make it level with the back wheel as it is suspended in trainer. These are inexpensive ($20) and work better than phone books (the wheel is secure under load and won't slide). Without a riser or climbing block, your wrists will suffer from the pressure of pointing downhill. You won't want to do more than a short ride without one. 

Optional, but recommended: 
  1. a trainer tire. Nice road bike tires are expensive (~$60 or more) and nothing wears them out faster than riding on the trainer. A trainer tire is inexpensive ($~25) and is made of thicker, harder rubber that won't wear out. 
  2. a mat to put the bike and trainer on. Especially for hard floors, this will make the area less of a mess when you sweat and it will make your whole rig more quiet.
And that's it!

5. What about used models?
If you can find a used one, go for it. You'll likely see the wind and magnetic models pop up like mushrooms on Craiglist shortly after the New Year each year...but that's because of the annoyances I mentioned above. Folks upgrade to fluid and never look back, selling their cheaper models. If cost is a big barrier, you might get started this way too. You will not see many fluid models for sale used. In fact, I'm not sure I recall ever seeing one on CL even though I check it routinely in the bikes category. This tells you something, no?


Sunday, December 28, 2014

This new year, don't make a resolution, set a goal

We are approaching the two weeks of the year when fitness centers and gyms fill up. If you are someone who is planning to focus on your health and fitness this year, I'm here to suggest that you try thinking about a goal rather than a resolution to start your new year. It's a small change that can make some positive differences. Here's a few to consider, starting with the big one:

1. Set a goal for yourself not a resolution
A goal is something concrete that you'd like to achieve. Think about something today that would make you proud to say you accomplished a year from now. Make it something that, deep down, would even impress you...in your quiet moments alone you would say "Wow. I DID that!" That's a worthy goal. Maybe it's riding your first century - 100 miles - on a bike? Maybe it's running your first 5k without walking? Maybe it's doing a sub 3:30 marathon and qualifying for Boston?

2. Connect your goal to the things that motivate you.
If performing in public is something that makes a difference to you - did you just feel your pulse quicken a little? - then you might consider setting a goal based on an upcoming event like a race or an organized ride. If you ride a bike and live in Michigan, for instance, maybe you decide this is the year that you do ODRAM, the One Day Ride Across Michigan. Or maybe DALMAC? Maybe you aren't the kind of person that needs a crowd to be motivated, though? Maybe it is all about testing your own limits? Maybe you ride the Pere Marquette Trail from end to end this year? Whatever it is, make it about your own personal milestone.

3. Write it down...then make it public
This is an important one...you have to share your goal. I'm trying to keep this post short, so I'll save the literature review for another time, but there is good evidence to show that being accountable to yourself and others for your fitness goals actually helps keep you engaged over a longer period of time. To put that simply: if you say out loud and in front of people you care about that you'll run a 10k this year, you are more likely to follow through with it than if you keep that goal to yourself. Same goes for writing that goal down on a sticky note and sticking it to your bathroom mirror.

4. Make decisions, day-to-day, that get you closer (not further away) from the goal
Now you see why having a challenging goal is important...it can be the driver for smaller, more consistent changes in your behavior throughout the year. Will you get up for a workout on Sunday morning before the rest of the family? You might if you consider that it allows you to get one step closer to completing the Detroit Marathon next Fall. Will you have a burrito or a grilled chicken salad for lunch? Maybe the salad helps you get over the hills to Lake Charlevoix that you know are waiting for you on DALMAC day 4.

5. Keep track of your progress toward the goal
This means factoring your larger goal down into smaller things that you can keep track of and even measure. Feeling good about your progress is a key benefit. And soon, you may be one of those folks repeating what sounds like a cliché: it's not the destination, it's the journey. Truly, for me, it's both...I definitely do better when I'm on a challenging path to a new and exciting place. But not far into the journey, I realize that I like getting there as much as I like getting to the end.

So...what's your goal for 2015?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Century One: A Few Things You May Not Hear Elsewhere

100 miles! (and .7 bonus)
There are lots of articles out there about preparing for your first century. And there are some really good training plans out there too, that give good advice worth following.

Why Do It? Because It's There. Like a marathon.
Riding a hundred miles in one day - also know as a "century" - has a few things in common with running a marathon. Folks can't seem to resist comparing the two. And having done both, I'd say a marathon is a bit harder for a couple of reasons. First, it's a race and most people do it at race pace the whole way. Second, there are no scheduled rest stops, nor can you "coast" downhills. It's running (or walking) or not. That's it. But for these same reasons, most people who do a marathon prepare more systematically than many who attempt a century. And so more first-timers fail to complete a century, in my experience, than fail to complete a marathon.

But there is one very, very important way that a marathon and a century are very much alike. And it takes folks who are new to both distances by surprise (not in a good way). They are both long enough efforts to require a whole new level of energy management. Both are dramatic breaks from the next shortest distance that folks have usually done (i.e. the half-marathon or the metric century: 100,000M). For both of these shorter distances, it's possible to gut them out.

There is NO WAY to do that successfully for a century or a marathon. You will suffer badly without making and sticking to an "energy budget" for these distances, which is precisely what makes them special. Even for well-trained athletes, a marathon and a century requires some income (energy in) and it absolutely means the athlete has to spend wisely (energy out). 

A Century Is Your Goal, Some Basic Things to Know
  1. It is a long effort. Around 6ish hours or more for most first-timers.
  2. There will be rest stops. You should rest at them. And eat and drink.
  3. There will be other riders. They will have different levels of ability and experience, so be careful when you decide to ride with folks you don't know well. Stick to your own "energy budget" (more on this below) even if it means letting them go. 
  4. Carry food and water with you. Always have some. Take more so that you are fully stocked after each stop. Even if you don't need it, someone who you are with just might.
The Good Stuff: Advice You (May Not) Hear Elsewhere

1. Your Ride Begins at Mile 60
You'll be taking inventory throughout the day, and making choices about how hard to ride, when to eat and drink, etc. for hours before you get to the point where you know how good those decisions actually have been. At mile 60 or so, the bills will start to come in. If you are sticking to your energy budget, you'll feel some leg fatigue and a bit saddle sore, but otherwise ok. If you have overdrawn your account, you'll start to feel bad around this time. With 40 miles to go, you'll start doing some impaired math and your brain will begin sending alarms. Some will be explicit and conscious: "oh shit, we've still got 2 or 3 more hours to go!" and some will be unconscious and sneaky: brain: make him nauseous even though he really should be eating! muahahaha!

What To Do: Ride smart in the first 60 miles. Go about 2-3 miles per hour slower than you can sustain on a normal hour long effort. If you can average 20, go 18. There will be plenty of time to pick the pace up in the last 40 if you feel great.  If you can average 18, go 16, etc. Enjoy the route. Talk to folks. And don't get drawn into a group going your 20 mile pace for the first 60 miles. You will suffer mightily if you do.

2. Eat. More.
Eating on ride day is part of preparing for the event. This is no time to eat as you usually do in terms of volume. Eating in the first hour of the ride is something you do to prepare for hour four. Eating in the second hour prepares you for the second half of hour four and first part of hour five. Eating in hour five helps you make it to the end.

As I alluded to above, your brain does funny things to make you stop when you've overdrawn your energy account. One of these things is make your stomach upset *precisely* when you need to put food into it. Early warnings may be gurgling, burping, etc. You must have nutrition, though. It will seem like a bad idea. But you'll soon feel better if you do eat (some people find liquid nutrition supplements to work better than food, but I find that real, actual food is best for me). It's really quite amazing. If you don't eat, or can't eat, you may as well get into the SAG car. Your day will be done. You are out of gas.

What to Do: Eat at every stop or at least once an hour. Practice eating on long rides before your event to know about how much you need. Once you know your limits and know what it feels like to bonk, you will get better at knowing when to do something about it. But until then, it is a good idea to ride with someone who has this experience and let them know what you are feeling. They can help you through it.

3. If you feel bad, you can feel better. Trust this. Rest, eat, and keep turning the pedals. 
There are two things that happen on a long ride or run that cause people to stop. One is a bonk - running out of fuel. This happens more often on a bike than on a long run because the bike's mechanical advantage lets people run out of energy before they hit their fatigue point. This is very hard to do with running alone, though you do see it often with triathletes due to the fact that the run comes as the last event. When you bonk, there is only one way to recover: eat.

I have a lot of these. 100 miles!
The other limit folks reach is their lactate threshold. This is a point at which it feels like your muscles stop working. They are out of available fuel and they are loaded up with waste products. Cyclists sometimes call this "cracking" - reaching your limit, particularly on a climb - where you simply can't go any more/faster. When you crack, there is only way to recover: rest.

But here's the cool thing. If you rest, you will recover! Your mitochondria will catch up and produce the energy your muscles need to go again. Resting at the rest stops and going a sustainable pace in the first 60 miles will help to ensure that you don't get behind in the first place. Eating will help too because - you see - that energy is what your big muscles need to keep going.

What To Do: Tell your brain that just because you feel bad at mile 65 doesn't mean you are in for 35 miles of hell. You can and will feel better. Shut up brain.

4. Ride Your Ride With Your Body
Ok, here's the thing about cycling in particular. The longer you do it, the better your body adapts to make long rides easier. First, those mitochondria I was telling you about. It takes a while to build up volume & density, but when you do, you keep them for a long, long time. That's why the 70 year old woman who has been riding centuries for 35 years can kick the 20 year old first-timer's ass when we get to mile 80.

The second adaptation is about using energy reserves. A cool thing happens when you train for endurance events that require more energy than you can get from, say, your daily meal. Your body has to shift to using energy it has stored up - in glycogen in the liver and in fat. This is sometimes called "system 2" where "system 1" is food energy, converted to blood glucose and then to ATP to drive skeletal muscles. But you have to train your body to shift smoothly into fat-burning from the ATP-CP system which uses available food energy in your bloodstream.  This is a big topic for another post, but suffice to say that you can get better at it. And over time you can sustain harder efforts for longer times without as much risk of bonking or cracking because you train your body to use energy from fat more efficiently. It's a good thing. But it doesn't happen overnight.

What To Do: More long rides. The more long rides you do, the more adapting you will do. You needn't do them fast. But long is important, because you have to force the changeover into system II. I find, these days, that this happens for me around the two hour mark. So if I'm preparing for 100 mile efforts, I simply need to do 3 hour rides more often to get ready. And I can ramp up the distance pretty fast. If I do eighty this week, I'll likely be ready to do 100 next. Really. And once you've done 100 a bunch, you'll always be able to prepare and complete the distance again.

A Final Thought
100 miles is a big deal. For most people, it means you are using up almost twice as many calories riding your bike as you would normally eat during a single day. Be proud of yourself for setting this as a goal and be especially proud for achieving it! If you try, let me know how it goes for you!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

How to Maintain: FAQ

I'm fasting for my annual checkup blood tests, which includes HbA1C, cholesterol & triglycerides, all indicators of my cardiac risk and of how well, on the whole, I've been controlling my blood glucose levels. I had my physical exam last week and all was well. It's been 7 years now that this has been the case.

Seven years of controlling my Type II and CVD risk factors with nutrition and exercise. Seven years with numbers in the "normal" range or better. And yes, seven years at my target weight.

Sometimes folks ask if it is "as they say" harder to maintain this weight (and really, I guess, that means healthy habits too) than it is to lose the weight or make the needed changes in the first place. I have a clear answer: no. It's way easier. But that's just one of the questions I get asked about weight loss. I usually try to change the subject to the broader category of healthy behaviors. Because I really never set a goal of losing weight, it was just a means to the other end of getting healthy and getting to a place where I didn't need to take medication to control my risk factors.

But I know folks want to know about losing weight and maintaining weight loss. So...here are some other questions folks sometimes ask, presented with short answers. If you have others, feel free to ask and I'll answer them too.

About Me & Losing Weight

Q: So how much weight did you lose, anyway?
A: About 70lbs. I was 230 at my heaviest. For the last 7 years I've been within a few lbs of 160 with zero exceptions.

Q: How long did that take?
A: About 9 months. Apart from the first week with some water weight loss, I didn't drop more than about 1-2 lbs per week.

Q: Did you hit a "plateau?"
A: I didn't graph it, but I do recall weeks with losses less than 1lb. But otherwise it was pretty steady.

Q: So, how did you do it? Diet? Exercise?
A: Both. I did 45 minutes of vigorous exercise 6 days a week. I counted carbohydrates and calibrated my intake to achieve a normal steady-state blood glucose level between 100-140 mg/dl, with the high number being less than two hours after eating.

Q: Yeah, but what was your diet?
A: No restrictive diet. Just counting everything, watching what the food did, then adjusting portions, timing, and choices to get the BG results I wanted. I still ate (and still eat) everything.

Q: So you still eat sweets and stuff.
A: Oh yes.

Q: Wait, so did you count calories?
A: Nope. Because all calories aren't the same. (try getting fat eating celery; pandas can do it, but you can't).

Q: So did how did you set a goal weight?
A: I didn't really. I eventually got to a place where my other numbers - the ones I was really monitoring like BG, A1c, etc. were normal, and that determined it. Now, somewhere between 160 & 165 is what I try to stay at, but only as a shorthand for the other things.

Q: Ok, so then how do you figure out how many carbs equals the right amount?
A:  That took a while. But you can only do it by monitoring your BG.

Q: So about this *exercise*...what did you do to lose the weight?
A: I've written a lot about this, so I'll keep it simple. I rode my $300 7-speed comfort bike on an $150 indoor trainer. I did structured workouts consisting of short, intense intervals and varied these each day. I did it all while watching inane sports talk shows.

About Me and Maintaining Weight
Q: So what do you do now? is it the same?
A: No. I eat a little more and exercise a little more, on average, than before.

Q: How much more do you eat?
A: Not much. Roughly 1 more carb unit per meal per day than when I was trying to lose weight. That amounts to 2-3 units for breakfast, 3-4 for lunch and 3-4 for dinner and usually one 2 unit snack somewhere during the day too, depending on how active I am that day.

Q: How much more exercise?
A: About 6-12 hours per week. On the high end of that range in warmer weather. At least half and sometimes more than that is vigorous exercise (heart rate above 75% of max.)

Q: So why more exercise?
A: Just for fun.

Q: Oh, so that's not all for keeping weight off?
A: No...for that I'd need only about 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week, or 150 minutes of moderate (less than 60% of max hr).

Q: So this HR thing...is this important?
A: Only as a measure of intensity. Your body will only adapt to exercise that is a challenge. If you do the same thing over and over and never challenge yourself, you won't cause change. Bodies are amazing at adapting to things. The cool thing, though, is that intensity is better than duration for causing adaptation. So a little hard exercise can be as good for you as lots and lots of moderate exercise. (so stop reading on the treadmill).

Q:  But you are some kind of cycling freak now, right?
A: Kind of, yeah, but that's not required. It's just fun for me. (although when you burn 9,000 calories in a day you *can* pretty much eat whatever you want)

Q: So you are now, like, normal? I mean no diabetes or anything?
A: Clinically yes. Normal numbers. I'll find out if that's true still next week when my latest tests come back. But I've had an A1c near 5 for the last 7 years. So far, so good. And much better.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Buying a New Bike: Do, Don't Do, and FAQ

So you are thinking of getting a new bike...
One of the things that my friends and colleagues often ask me about is buying a new bike. Usually, they haven't been on a bike since they were young. They might never have set foot in a bike shop. Given the way the bike market has diversified - with lots of different models and brands available - it can all be quite intimidating.

I can't tell you in words just how much I LOVE giving this kind of advice! See, I can only buy so many bikes for myself before a) my sanity is questioned, b) my marriage begins to crumble (though since Leslie rides too, we are delightfully co-dependent). So helping others select a new bike is a great way for me to get the vicarious thrill. Also, it fills me with joy to think about the feeling my friends have when rediscovering the bike.

If you are thinking of getting a new bike, here are some things to do, things to not do (or not worry too much about, and then answers to some common questions!

Buying a Bike (for the first time in a long time): DO...

...go to a local bike shop (LBS). Bike shops sell bikes that are better quality than those offered in retail stores. The frames, the components, and perhaps most importantly the assembly/setup is worth the extra cost.

...visit several shops in your area. Bike shops have personalities, and they carry different brands and models to serve different kinds of riding. They do this to be competitive with one another, but also because the people that run these shops usually do so out of love (it's a VERY low-margin business and a tough way to make money) and out of dedication to a vision of one sort or another to provide something needed in the community (e.g. a woman-friendly shop, or a shop that caters to recumbent riders).

...build a relationship with the LBS that fits you. Your bike will need service and you'll need a reliable place to get supplies like tubes, tools, etc. As your riding changes, you may also need other gear like a bike rack or bib shorts. Buying these from your LBS will help them out (the margin on these items is often better than on bikes, which is super low).

 ...think ahead about the kind of riding you want to do. This should be the first question you are asked when you are looking at bikes. How often do you plan to ride? How long will your typical ride be? Where will it be? On bike paths? on dirt trails? on the road, perhaps to work or to the farmer's market? maybe a little of all of these? Why are you interested in a bike? for exercise? for a source of green transportation? for long-distance bike tours? Answers to these questions will help narrow down what bike *categories* are best suited for you.

...think about your budget. Entry level bikes at bike shops will run from about $400 to $1000 depending on the category. You may also need a few accessories right away which can add some cost, namely a helmet, water bottles, bike shorts or other clothing, pedals and shoes (for road bikes, especially), etc.

...ride several different models that fit your riding needs and your price point. The good news about bike shop bikes is that they are very, very similar in overall quality and - because competition is very tight - all the major manufacturers (Specialized, Trek, and Giant are the big three) offer similar models at similar price points. You may need to go to more than one shop to try all of the ones that appeal to you. But riding them - outside - is essential.

...buy a bike that fits you. You can only do this by riding them. So go do it. You'll feel the difference.  How can they differ so much if the quality is all similar? The simple answer is that they have different frame geometry (the shapes/sizes of the main triangles that form the bike) and even small differences in geometry can make a surprising difference in how the bike feels depending on your own body. A good shop will help dial a bike in to your comfort zone, but even after all the adjustments are made to the seat, bars, etc., the fit will be better on some bikes than others. Just like a pair of pants.

...buy a bike that you LOVE. I mean it. Buy the one that is so gorgeous it quickens your pulse. The one you can't take your eyes off of. The one that makes you want to get on and go! I hereby grant you permission to care about the colors, the leather seat, the lug details where the seat tube joins the bottom bracket, the sparkly streamers that come out of the bar ends... A bike you love is a bike you will ride. And for all the expense, there is no bike more expensive than one that you do not ride.

Buying a Bike (for the first time in a long time): DO NOT...

...settle for shabby treatment by an LBS. If you can't get your questions answered when you are actively interested in a bike, or if you get attitude because you are looking at one kind of bike that the salesperson doesn't happen to like, this is not OK. I recommend that you  wrap up your visit and walk out. Go to another shop. The experience in the shop matters.

...buy a bike without riding it. It's like buying pants off the rack without trying them on. They might look good and they might be the right waist and inseam numbers. But they could be tight through the hips. Or they could pinch when you sit down. And they will just hang in the closet unworn, mocking you.

...worry about the brand of bike. If you are buying from a reputable shop, all the brands will be good. In fact, if you are buying one of the major brands, odds are they are made in the same handful of factories overseas anyway. If you are buying from a more boutique maker, you'll be paying a little more but you may or may not get a better fit (unless you are going full custom, bespoke, crafted just for you...but that's another post). Buy the bike that fits you, suits your riding needs, and that you Love. Brand be damned!

...be afraid to ask for an extended test or demo. Bike shops will usually let you take a bike you like for a weekend to see if it will work for you. Go for it.

...spend more than you are comfortable spending. Bike prices scale up mostly as a function of the components on the bike - the wheels, the drive train (e.g. crank, derailleurs, gears, shifters...collective known as "the group" or gruppo) and your all-important touch points: the saddle, the bars, and the pedals. Frame materials contribute to cost too, but not as much as you might think. So...don't feel bad about sticking to a lower price point at first if you need to. Why? you can always upgrade the components later as your riding changes.

...leave the shop without everything you need to actually ride the bike. Got a helmet? pedals? If you don't, you'll kick yourself.

...discount the health impact a bike can have, and factor that into your thinking about costs. I haven't spent a dime on health care costs apart from my health insurance contributions (out of my paycheck from work) in four years. A lot of that is due to my bike. Well worth it!

Buying a Bike (for the first time in a long time): FAQ

1. Should I wait for a sale? Probably not. Because bikes are already sold by shops at a very low profit margin, sales are not frequent and when they happen, they are usually only offered on models that shops need to clear out of the shop. If the model doesn't happen to fit you (either in terms of style, size, or look) you'll be out of luck anyway.

2. What about used bikes? Like on CraigsList.
I know this can be tempting. I've bought a bike on CL myself. But only after watching it for 2 YEARS until the bike I wanted came around... The main reason I don't recommend buying a used bike is the LOVE thing. It's hard to find a bike that you'll feel passionate about that way. And depending on the condition, etc., it may not even be a bargain.

3. Can I buy a bike online?
It is possible, though most brands sell only through authorized dealers/shops. There are business reasons for this, of course, but also a customer-service reason. See above all that stuff about riding a bike first and fitting, etc. Hard to do that online. So...I don't recommend online purchases for a first (or first in a long time) bike purchase. It's just too hard to get everything right.

...got another one? fire away!  use the comments or tweet @billhd