Category Archives: Training

Plank Challenge Complete

High plank.

High plank.

I’m not usually a New Year’s Resolution kind of guy. My philosophy is that if you want to do something for yourself, like get into shape, you should just do it. Most people do not stick with their resolutions, mostly because their goals are lofty and they expect immediate results. The path to fitness requires a long-term commitment, with time and effort dedicated towards it every day.

This year is a little different for me. Believe it or not, today is the one year anniversary of successful hip surgery. The road to recovery has been slow, with a lot of highs and lows along the way, but I had finally been able to achieve some fitness gains toward the latter part of the year.

I bit the bullet and participated in a 30-Day Plank Challenge on New Year’s Day. My goal of 5-minutes was lofty, but I had a month to get there. Fortunately I made quick progress and achieved that goal within a couple of weeks. The real challenge was not reaching a certain time, but putting in an honest effort each day. It is not easy to get up every morning, eat breakfast, drink coffee, and do an exercise for a few minutes that makes you shake.

I didn’t stop once I reached the time goal. After modifying my way through week three, I committed to doing my best during the final week. The last level was to do Plank Jacks for as long as possible. At first I was under the misimpression that I was to move my legs inward and outward every 5 seconds, which made it a difficult plank, but easier than it could have been. I learned midway that it was actually supposed to be more like 1-2 seconds, continued movement, just like jumping jacks. There already was the shoulder and core pressure of the plank with the added component of cardio. Times dropped considerably for not just me, but everyone. This was a tough plank.

We were all relieved when level four was finished. We now had two days to attempt to reach our best time. As it turned out, I had a tough core workout on the eve of the first attempt from another challenge (which I will talk about later). From the first second of the plank, my shoulders and core started to shake. I managed only 82 seconds, and it was a fight to hold on even that long. Compared to the planks I had done throughout the month, this was a small number, but there was a good reason for it. I was simply all used up. Rather than get discouraged, I rested and tried again the next and final day, committed to putting together a good time.

IMG_6195

This was my time. I was hoping to top five minutes and reach my best time of the entire month, but the remnants of my other workouts during the week worked against me. Still, that’s a tremendous time, and I could have reached five minutes probably if I were fully rested and recovered. It was a great way to finish and punctuate the challenge with style. I’m proud of sticking with it, but also for doing well.

The best planker in our group was Darrell. He put in a three-minute plank on day one, and continually put up the best times of our group all month. Like me, he had a bad penultimate number, mostly due to having a tiring day, but he came back for the final day. He finished his challenge with a respectable 5:31 time. He was the overall “winner” of the challenge, with 7,000 total seconds planked and the highest time.

Believe it or not, I was second. I surprised myself with how well I did. I was still quite a ways from Darrell, with just over 4,000 total seconds planked. The most important metric for me was the level of improvement over the month. I improved by 378% from my first plank, which was at the top of our group, although most everyone improved by an impressive amount.

This was a tremendous challenge and I’m glad to have been invited. It was just the motivation I needed. And it isn’t stopping here. We now have a February Challenge coming up soon, Squats, and I’m working on another intense challenge already that I’ll discuss soon.


Plank Challenge Week Three: Success and Modification

When I initially set out to try this task, I set a goal of three minutes, which I then stretched to five thinking it would be impossible and keep me motivated. Well, sometimes perseverance pays off. I reached five minutes this past week.


IMG_6154

I could give it an asterisk for difficulty, but I won’t because I was fully suspended for the entire time, and had made incredible progress until then. After starting the challenge on New Year’s Day with a measly 63 seconds, I had gradually improved and achieved a high plank time of three minutes within about a week.

We then shifted to the second week and a tougher level. This plank had us alternating low and high planks, sort of like doing a half push-up every 5-10 seconds. I was dreading this, as my upper arm strength isn’t there for a large number push-ups, but I was surprised to find this challenge manageable. It was not easy, to say the least. One of the advantages is that you get to change positions. Even though transitions can be tough, the high planks were less punishing than the low planks. It also helped with the mental difficulty. Usually I do not watch the clock, but for these planks, I had to, and I began to think in the number of transitions. “I can handle one more cycle,” I would think, and that would be another 20 seconds. The cycles helped time pass faster.

I was regularly above three minutes as we neared the end of the week’s challenge. My penultimate level two plank was four minutes, which I felt great about. With one more of these remaining and the dreaded level three around the corner, I aimed to meet my goal at last. I had five minutes on my mind for that last plank. I played an upbeat, long song, and got to work. The last minute was a grind, and I was careful not to lose form. I shook and grunted, but managed to achieve the five minute mark.


There’s always adversity in life, and I found mine with level three. This plank is one legged. We start at regular plank position and alternate raising legs six inches off the ground. I worried this might interact with my recovering injury, and I was right. The first plank happened to be on a freezing cold morning, which is when the injury is at its most painful. It was no problem when I was raising my right leg, as the pressure and balance was on my left, uninjured side.

The first time I attempted lifting my left leg, I felt a twinge of pain. Hmmm. This might not be good, but at least to start, it was manageable. I’m used to enduring a little bit of pain as I progress through my recovery. I went through another cycle, and the pain was more pronounced. The problem was that when I had my left leg up, most of the pressure and balance was pushing inwards towards my core. My hip joint was absorbing most of it. There was a feeling of it being pushed from both sides. After a couple more cycles, it was continuing to hurt. I ended up stopping at 1:30, my weakest time since close to the beginning. On top of that, my hip felt off and the pain stuck with me the remainder of that day and the next. This type of plank was not going to work for me.

With the weather warming up and doing modified planks, the hip is feeling better again, but I have to find ways to challenge myself. For stage three, I’ve decided to come up with challenging, modified planks. This list is a great place to start.

For my modifications, I have done some brutal planks. One day I did an alternating forearm plank, which is pretty much the same as what the group is doing, only I lift my arms instead of my legs It puts more pressure on my arms and shoulders, while still working out my core and relieving my hip. I managed over two minutes and literally collapsed when I was finished. Tough plank.

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Another modified plank was absolutely brutal, and required a little bit of trial and error just to get myself off the ground. I used the above medicine ball, and eventually ended up pushing off with my wrists into a high plank position. Even though high planks are usually easier, they were much, much harder this way because balance was a factor. I managed no more than a minute each, but tried it a couple times in order to get a good workout.

The remainder of this week will be about continuing to challenge myself but staying committed. Now that I have reached my time goal, the most important part is completing a worthwhile plank every day and accomplishing the challenge.


Plank Challenge: Week Two

Regular plank

Regular plank

Around mid-morning yesterday, I was telling my co-workers about this plank challenge. They were not just impressed; they were inspired. One of them asked if they thought if they could beat me in a plank challenge. I wasn’t intending to brag, but said that I would probably do better simply because I had been doing this for nine days. They took that as a challenge and rounded me and a couple others into the conference room for an impromptu plank challenge.

At that time I was wondering if I spoke too soon. I had just done a difficult plank a couple hours ago, so I doubted whether I’d have it in me to do a long one. Either way, this was happening. We got the stopwatch out, and four of us started doing planks with one serving as referee to make sure we stayed up and used proper form.

The challenger realized in an instant how difficult this was, yet managed to hang on for a minute. That was impressive for someone who hasn’t done one before. I knew that the biggest challenge would come from a guy who works out often. We were the last two remaining up at 1:30, and then he started shaking and decided to bail out. It was just me and a room full of cheerleaders. “Keep going, Aaron!” they encouraged me. I dug in and stayed up for a full three minutes, which was my best time since the challenge began. Even though that felt good, the plank wiped me out. I was out of breath, panting, exhausted. These planks are hard!

My first plank on New Year’s Day was 63 seconds. Everyday I have gained time gradually, and finally broke two minutes on the 5th day. By the time we changed from level one to level two, my best time had been 2:17.

High plank.

High plank.

For the second week, we switched to dynamic planks. We start in the regular plank position and alternate into a high plank every 5-10 seconds. It is almost like doing an awkward push-up, only not as difficult. I was worried on the first day whether I could handle this plank because I don’t have much upper body strength. To my surprise, that first day I had my best time to date at 2:30 minutes. Part of that success was because changing positions made it easier to a certain degree. The difficulty of a standard plank is in large part due to having to stick in an uncomfortable position. Mixing it up helps a little bit. At least it did that first day.

On the second day, I found that day one lulled me into a false sense of security. What I didn’t count on was getting sore arms from being in high plank position, which is a similar soreness as having done a number of push-ups. My second day in level two resulted in a setback. I could only manage two minutes, and found it a lot more painful. That was the same day as the plank challenge I did in the office, which reinvigorated me.

On the third day of level two, which was today, I managed my longest time doing any sort of plank – 3:03. I only beat my previous best by three seconds, but I’ll take it. The dynamic planks are now even more difficult than they were, but part of what this exercise has taught me is how to endure, just like with cycling. When it gets difficult, the biggest challenge is to hang in there, just as it is when you’re in the midst of a long, arduous and painful climb.

I’m not the only one in our group that has shown improvement. One of the guys has already reached five minutes, although in fairness, his first plank was three minutes and I think he had more experience going into this challenge. Aside from me and him, three other people have hit three minutes. Others have shown gradual yet consistent progress. Some have skipped days for whatever reason, while other seem to have given up on the challenge.

When I first started, I couldn’t imagine how difficult or how rewarding this challenge could be. For awhile I wondered whether I could even make it through the month doing this, especially with the dynamic planks in weeks two through four. Now I’m not quite as worried, and I am pretty confident that I’ll meet my five minute goal. After 10 days, my core already feels stronger. I have better posture and my back hurts less often.

This challenge was a great idea!


The 30-Day Plank Challenge

Happy New Year!

Millions of people have set resolutions to get themselves into shape. The gyms will be flooded on Monday, and that will last at least until the end of the month, perhaps longer. Eventually and unfortunately, a lot of people will cave on their resolutions.

I have not been that person, at least not for a great many years. New Year’s was just part of my off-season training regiment, which meant finding some sort of exercises to do indoors until the weather warmed up. If anything, January has been an annoyance because the gyms get crowded, and as sad as it is, I look forward to when people break their resolutions and give me more space.

Injury has changed that part of me. I’m now gladly joining the hordes of people with a New Year’s resolution to get back into shape. That starts with a 30-day Plank Challenge. That is not the only thing I’ll be doing, as I plan on a lot of cardio, but planks are going to be my primary motivator.

Regular Plank

Since I’m out of the habit of training, it is not as easy for me to motivate myself as it once was. This time I was invited to a Fitness Challenge group via Google Plus. This gives me motivation in spades. We have 38 other people in the group, and most of them are also participating. They post their progress daily. I’ve set my iPhone to give me Google+ notifications, so throughout the day I’ve been getting notified of people’s progress. Thus far it has all been positive. Everyone encourages everyone, and I’ve jumped in and done the same. We’re all in this together even if our goals and fitness are not the same.

Everyone’s situation is different. Some people are dealing with injuries like me. Naturally they are limited and looking for any sort of progress. Others are in peak shape and just looking for further toning. One person posted a picture of their abs to ask the group if we saw much definition (not in the “Meathead Rob Lowe” sense). Let’s just say that the definition of my abs would be found in the dictionary – maybe rotund, plump, overweight, or whatever. That will change this year.

The plan is to do a plank every day and stay up as long as possible. We track everyone’s progress on a shared spreadsheet that gives lots of useful stats, like the percentage of improvement, the average plank time, and so on. The goal is to improve every day and work up to a time goal. At first my goal was 180 seconds, but I decided to raise it to 300. I may not get there, and that’s fine, but I don’t want to restrict myself to a lower goal and get comfortable.

These are the areas that get worked out while planking. It is an efficient exercise.

These are the areas that get worked out while planking. It is an efficient exercise.

We have the month divided into four stages. For the first week we start with a regular/static plank, which is simply placing forearms on the floor, elevating the body onto the toes while keeping the back straight. Keeping form is important. When I did one of mine, I asked my wife to look to make sure my back was straight. If I feel myself losing form, then it is time for me to stop.

In the second week we’ll be doing a High Plank. This is where we start doing a regular plank, and then we move to a push-up position and alternate every 5-10 seconds. Needless to say, this will be more difficult and plank times will drop.

The intensity continues upward in weeks three and four. Stage three is a Single-Leg Plank, where we start at a regular plank and then raise one foot off the ground six inches and hold it straight, and then alternate every 5-10 seconds. Stage four are Plank Jacks, where we start from push-up position, and then jump our feet out into a jumping jack move and then back home, repeating every 5-10 seconds. The last two weeks might be more of a challenge because of my injury. It is possible I’ll have to modify, or maybe I’ll be able to do them normally and my hip will cooperate. It is unpredictable.

After these four weeks, we have two days doing the regular plank again, just to see the results of our month-long efforts. Hopefully this is when everyone, including myself, will reach or maybe surpass their goals.

So far, so good for me. On New Year’s Day, my plank time was 63 seconds. I wasn’t impressed, but improvement came fast. In four days, I have improved to 104 seconds, which is one-third of my goal.

The challenge will be done by the end of the month, but most likely I’ll keep planks into my repertoire. The core is an often neglected area in cycling training, yet it is also necessary for stability, bike control, and to maintain good form and reduce the chance of injury. I may decide to vary my planks to keep working the core. There are plenty of other variations to try.

On my way!

On my way!


“It Doesn’t Get Easier … ”

Greg Lemond famously once said that “It doesn’t get easier, you just get faster.” I’ve heard this refrain repeated dozens, if not hundreds of times from fellow cyclists. It is thrown around so much that it’s almost a cliche, but it is also a great motivator for getting through a difficult part of your training.

This is not a trip to Disneyland. Training is suffering, and improvement is the reward for all that hard work.

I have recently found that the reverse is also true. When you do not train as much as needed, it still doesn’t get easier, you just get slower. When comparing this year and last year’s Mitchell performance, I noticed some startling similarities. Even though my time this year was over an hour longer than last year, my heart rate activity was at about the same rate. Both days I felt worn out when I reached the top, and both days I was achingly sore the next day.

Strava Premium has a useful little tool called Suffer Score. For people like me who are too cheap to invest in a power meter, it’s a good way to measure training intensity. It also a good barometer for how difficult a ride is. When I say that Mitchell is a tougher ride than Bridge to Bridge, I have some evidence to back that up.

I have now done Mitchell twice as a Strava subscriber, which allows me to do some comparison. Of course last year I was disappointed with my 7:07 time, and felt I could have done a little better. That may not be fair. When looking at my heart rate stats, however, it looks like I pushed quite a bit.

2012 Mitchell Stats

2012 Mitchell Stats

64% of my ride was spent in threshold level, which is quite a lot. My memory is that I worked pretty hard on the rolling hills from Spartanburg to Marion, and tried to control my heart rate a little more on the climbs. If I had drafted more along the way to Marion, the threshold percentage probably would have dropped, but so would my time. It is safe to say that my heart rate was elevated for the vast majority of the climbing.

Here are the 2013 stats:

2013 Mitchell Stats

2013 Mitchell Stats

First off, ouch! I believe that 555 is my highest recorded suffer score for any ride. This shows that a slow time is not the only consequence for poor training, not that I could help it this year. The key difference between this and last year is that most of my hard work was at the end of the ride. I had an easier time getting to Marion, so my suffering was again during the climbing. The 4+ hours of saddle time with an elevated heart rate was very close to last year, but the total time was 8:25.

It also shows that cardio conditioning is essential training for climbing. Assuming I get healthy and put in more interval training, I should improve not just on this year’s time, but also last year’s. Either way, it is going to hurt just as much, even if it does not take as long.


Mitchell or Bust?

mitchell highest peak

My singular goal for this early spring season was to conquer the Assault on Mount Mitchell. My hope was to reach a time goal of 6:30, which would beat my personal best from last year by 37 minutes. The way I was training, this sort of goal was not out of the question.

Then it happened. The injury.

Recovery has been slower than anyone expected. The doctors thought it could be close to 6 weeks. 12 weeks later and I was still on the couch.

It has now been 15 weeks, and I was just recently given the green light to start riding again, albeit slowly. To my surprise, I found that I still have a little bit of fitness. The good news is that the hip has improved somewhat, although I have to deal with occasional soreness and cannot ramp up the mileage and intensity just yet. There could be lingering issues, and surgery at some point is not outside the realm of possibility.

What about The Assault on Mount Mitchell? Even when I was first diagnosed, I planned to continue with my registration. That said, I expected a month or two more to train. Now, with 9 weeks to go, the clock is ticking.

I’ve warned many cyclists not to take Mitchell lightly. In my opinion, it is the most difficult road ride in the southeast. I would recommend most people plan their training carefully over the offseason, and do as much riding and climbing as possible in the late winter and early spring before tapering for the main event.

I don’t have that luxury, but as of today, I am still planning to do Mitchell.

Some people will think this is a crazy decision. John Bryan made the decision long ago to ride from Spartanburg to the top of Mitchell. That was pretty crazy, yet he was successful.

After testing myself, I can tell that I have a chance at completing the event. The time goal is out the window. This year I won’t think about a finish time. I’ll stop and go as needed, and make sure I reach the top of the mountain with my body intact, however long it takes.

Because of the injury, my training plan will be drastically different from previous years. In the next several weeks, I’ll work on increasing the mileage while minimizing intensity. This is my base mileage. After that, assuming the hip remains healthy, I’ll get in some easy climbing. Again, not too much.

I plan to work up to a plain ol’ century ride, which will be the Tour de Cure on May 4th, just a few weeks before Mitchell. That will be the main test. I feel that with my carryover fitness and experience with climbing, that I can complete Mitchell if I can ride a century. It will most likely be the toughest challenge I’ve had to face, but it can be done. It is really up to my body and the progress of my recovery, but I am going to try.


The Strength Cycle, Phase One

I’ve been following a thread on a mailing list regarding whether or not a strength program benefits a cyclist. There have been many well-reasoned, passionate arguments from both sides, but it seems the consensus is either it depends on the person, or we simply don’t know. Some rider friends have told me that weights can actually hurt rather than help, while others say the opposite.

Last year I put together a rudimentary program inspired by Joe Friel that I think worked for me. There was an initial setback on the bike, which probably had more to do sore legs than anything else. Once I was back into riding shape, I found myself stronger than ever. However, a lot of my results probably had to do with the weakened state of my muscles. I simply hadn’t experienced enough in the sport, so any program would have made a difference.

Things are different now. This last year was phenomenal, and I’m now in significantly better shape than ever in my life. That may mean that my gains will be less drastic, but I am trusting that my coach knows what he’s doing. Even if it doesn’t help, I doubt it will hurt.

That’s Bobby’s visual example of how to leg press.

The first phase is a lot of easy leg and core exercises. To my surprise, he does not have me doing squats, at least not yet. The workout now is more well-rounded, not just working the quadriceps, but also the calf, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and other neglected muscles.

I found that my quads were in pretty good shape going in. That was a pleasant surprise, given that the only maintenance I had done was hill climbing. That bodes well for next year.

The other muscles, eh … not so much. The hamstrings weren’t so bad. Calves were rough; lower back was painful. I still have not been able to complete the prescribed back exercises.

Speaking of neglected muscles, my abdominals have not been worked out in about a year. That’s the muscle group I always mean to work out, but the most I get done is a crunch or two.

Bobby’s core workout rocked my world. He has me on a series of complex exercises, some of which make me feel like I want to throw up. After the first two routines, my abs were killing me. What’s worse is they seemed to feel worse every day afterward. After a couple weeks, the soreness has finally abated, but the workouts are still tough. I have made progress, and that’s all I can ask for.

Will this routine work for me? I think so. The power gains may not be substantial, but the peripheral gains should be noteworthy. A stronger core and lower back should give me a better pedal stroke. Even if I gain nothing, this should reduce the chance of injury, which is worth all the suffering.

I also know that eventually a rest week will be coming. Soon?