Friday, May 30, 2008

Product review: Polar RS800sd running computer

Well, at Four States Triathlon last week my Polar s625x crapped out on me. Besides a power meter for my bike, that was one of the best investments I've made in my training/racing. Despite all its advantages, it had many shortcomings. That's why when the Polar RS800sd came out last year, I was all excited because it kept all the things I liked about my 625 and fixed most of the things I didn't like. The downside was an exorbatant price tag. I had saved up for this for a while, but never was ready to pull the trigger. But when my 625 bit the dust last week, I figured why not. So I ordered one from Schlegel's bike shop and was ready to try it out.

A power meter on the bike is a large reason why I've been competitive at cycling this year despite my lack of training. A running computer is basically the equivalent: I can track my pace in real time, download all my data to TrainingPeaks software, and design my training and racing around estimates of lactate threshold, VO2max, etc. Very useful and effective. But as much as I loved my 625, I disliked many things:
1. Pace and distance would sometimes be way off and difficult to calibrate.
2. Pace/distance measurements fluctuated greatly depending on whether I was running an easy pace or a fast pace.
3. Altitude measurements always drifted to negative and were inaccurate
4. Pace was updated only in 5 second intervals so there was a pretty significant time lag.
5. The footpod was large and bulky
6. The footpod required a 2-3 sec start-up time which made it difficult to use in a triathlon since every single second counts in transition.
7. The wrist unit was like a small phone book on my wrist.

I've now had a handful of runs with my new RS800 and I have fallen in love with running all over again! Here is what I like about it so far, but I still have many more facets to discover as I use it more often.
1. Very slim on the wrist; fits like a normal watch.
2. Pace is updated in 1 sec. increments, so you can react without time lag.
3. Altitude feature doesn't drift anymore.
4. Pace/distance doesn't fluctuate that much when comparing my 8 min/mile pace to my 5:30 min/mile pace.
5. Footpod is small, compact, and lightweight.
6. Footpod turns on automatically. Now I can wear it in races and when I put my shoes on in T2, all I have to worry about is to start kicks in automatically.
7. Pace/distance is very easy to calibrate. You can even change it on the fly...if you run 1 exact mile, you can quickly go the menu and put the exact distance in and it will recalibrate automatically. After trying this out a few times, I now have it to where it's accurate to within 0.01 miles regardless of whether I'm on an easy jog or doing sprint intervals.
8. It has run cadence!! This is huge...I'll talk more about it later.
9. Works seamlessly with TrainingPeaks so that I can calculate rTSS, ATL, CTL, and TSB for running with ease.

There are a few things I don't like, namely that you can only display 3 lines of info on the screen at a time. There are lots of things I like to keep track of, including heart rate, pace, cadence, distance, lap split, and stopwatch split (total time). But I have figured a way around this. You can customize each screen, so what I will do for races is have one screen with pace/distance/cadence and another screen with HR/lap split/stopwatch split. You can easily toggle between the screens with the push of a button, so I'll mostly keep it on the pace screen and flip to the HR screen when I want. Very easy to do during a race.

For biomechanical reasons that I won't get into here, it is often optimal (for most body types) to run with a cadence of 90 or so, and nearly all elite runners do this. I've always tried to stay around this number, but have had to rely on sporadic spot checks: I count my right arm swings for 20 seconds and multiply by 3 to get the number of same-sided steps per minute (my cadence). Now, all I have to do is look down and see where I am. Turns out I am really good about running at a cadence of 90 most of the time. But what I found was that during my hard, speedwork, I actually run with too high of cadence. Your overall speed is an interaction between stride length and cadence such that speed = stide length x cadence. If you increase your cadence and keep stride constant, speed increases, or vice versa. But since a cadence of 90 is generally preferred, this means the primary way to change speed is to manipulate stride length. If I run a marathon, I try to run a cadence of 90 with shorter stride lengths (too long of stride lenghts, and too much speed, means I'll bonk before I finish). If I run a 5K, I *should* run a cadence of 90 but increase stride length to the maximum that I can hold for that distance. What I found out after only one session with my RS800 was that during my speed work, I was increasing my cadence too much and not lengthening my stride enough. Once I identified this, I slowed my cadence back down to 90 and increased stride length by adjusting my arm positioning (I've already rambled too long, so won't go into how to do this, but trust me, you can manipulate stride length purely by adjusting arm carry). Once I made the adjustment of doing my speedwork with a cadence of 90 but longer stride length, my overall speed was way higher than I'd been running for my past interval sessions!! Eureka! Analyzing training data to improve performance at its finest.

Overall, I'm very happy with the purchase. The price tag is just absolutely ridiculous, but in my opinion, if you are going to drop a lot of money, it's best to drop it on things that help you train more than flashy items used for racing only. The logic is that training is what really makes you faster. This was definitely a good investment for training. I'll give it its first race performance this weekend at the Rt. 66 Sprint and Rt. 66 Oly. I'm still not in great running shape for the year yet, but I'm anxious to see how/if it helps me during the 5K on the sprint and the 10K for the Oly. I'll be watching cadence and pace like a hawk to push myself to the limit that I can withstand.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Airshow at Tinker AFB

I've loved going to airshows since I was a kid. Now that I've got 2 kids of my own, I got my first experience of going to an airshow as a dad. We packed up the double stroller, a couple of folding chairs, and Melanie and I headed out to the airshow with Brady and Alex last Saturday. This was going to be an interesting experiment: we were skipping naps for both the boys and it was hot and humid. We were expecting to have some cranky boys on our hands for most of the day.

Took a while to get in since it was on an AFB, and had to funnel into only one security checkpoint. Once we made it through, we started looking at all the planes. Brady is at that age where he thinks big things are cool, from a distance, but up close gets a little scared. I asked him if he wanted to go into the C-130, but he said no. I told him I wanted to go walk through a C-130 but that I was a little nervous, so I asked him if he'd go with me to make me feel better. He agreed if I held him and we went into the fuselage. He thought it was pretty cool and eventually wanted down to look around. We waited in line forever, but finally got to get up into the cockpit. Brady did pretty well.

We then set off to go watch the planes flying. First up was an F-15. It was really loud and Brady didn't like it at all. He was okay when it would come by for low speed passes, but the high speed passes he hated. He kept saying "I don't want him to come back!" We worked out a system though where I would tell him if he was coming in slow or fast. If slow, he'd lean forward and watch with interest. If fast, he'd just sit back in the stroller and try and prepare for the noise. He did pretty good. Alex...he wasn't bothered by their size, speed, or sound at all. Brady was a lot better with the Mig 17's not nearly as loud. He liked all the WWII planes (Japanese Zeros and Kates, US P-40). His favorites were the Pitts biplanes. He liked their slow barrel rolls and when they'd criss-cross.

He wasn't a fan of the F/A-18C, which was one of my favorites (along with the F-15). I forgot how incredible it is to see a plane going streaking by without a sound only to be followed seconds later with the loud roar of the engines! The F/A-18 pilot was definitely into pleasing the crowd...he pushed some hard maneuvers and speeds. At one point, the announcer said he was planning for a very high speed pass with a roll...and he was coming in really low. But as he was coming in (maybe 1/4 mile away), I could swear I saw the "boom" of air starting to form as he approached supersonic. You can't pass over a crowd at supersonic, so he shut it down pretty darn fast and actually came through not that fast and without a roll. I think he got a little too excited to push close to mach 1 and eventually had to abort the maneuver as he slowed the plane down. He did some incredible tight turns at almost 9 G's and also demonstrated the great thrust:weight ratio by shooting straight up to >20,000 feet in a matter of seconds. It was very impressive.

We finished the day by watching the Air Force Thunderbirds in their F-16s. By this time, Brady was becoming accustomed to the loudness of the jets and wasn't as scared. It's amazing how crisp their maneuvers are compared to the "regular" pilots that flew the F-15 and F/A-18. You could draw a perfectly straight line through their rolls and knife-edge passes. After the Thunderbirds, we strolled around the tarmac looking at all the planes up close. Alex slept in the stroller while we still went around.

So 5-6 hours of being there, and skipping naps, the boys were both really good and I had one of the best times of my life. It was so cool to share that experience with my boys, since I remember what it was like loving airshows growing up. Luckily, we did a good job with the sunblock and neither of the boys got sunburned, although Melanie had one spot on her leg that got red and my arms and forehead got too much sun even though I had sunblock on. All in all, it was a very hot and tiring day, but absolutely great!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Four States Race Report

A small group of Tri-OKCers went down to do the Regional Sprint Championship in Texarkana this weekend: Clint Honnoll, Bob and Jen Atkins, Travis Newton, and myself. Desiree Margagliano was the official for the race. To sum it up succinctly: I GOT SMOKED. The lack of training really came around to bite really showed out there. To top it off, this was one of the fastest "front of the pack" races I've participated in. Just some ultra-fast guys at this one. Several guys ranked as SMW Elites didn't even crack the top 10, and a few pros were there.

The 650 yards swim was a clockwise triangle (my favorite layout). The chop wasn't too terribly bad, but the water certainly wasn't smooth. Distance seemed right on. We ended up going in 3 waves because of the # of participants, but even at that, I was jostled around more on this swim than I have at any of the other open water swim races I've done so far. Not enough to make me feel panicky, but more contact than I'd prefer. One great thing though is that I've been working on something to keep my core a little more rigid, and I've been swimming a lot straighter in the I don't even have to sight anymore in open water!! It was such a cool feeling. I just put my head down, and swam. For the first leg, I would glance up periodically just to make sure. But since I was dead-on with the buoy each time I just started trusting it. Not having to sight made the swim much more enjoyable. Swim time wasn't good, but I went pretty easy and was out of shape, so that was expected. Ranked 53 on the swim out of 153...not very good.

I wore my wetsuit since the water temp was 73, and I was worried about having a slow T1, but actually did pretty good: 15th out of 153. Out of T1 and onto the bike. Desiree and I drove the course on Sat. and found a broken beer bottle on the dam. We told the organizers about it and they cleaned it up. Unfortunately, by race time the next morning, there was another broken beer bottle at a different section of the dam. A final check and sweep through immediately before race time would have been nice. Both Travis and I went through it but came out lucky, but I heard through the grapevine that at least 2 guys flatted there. That sucks to have your regional championship ruined by something that could have been prevented. The bike course is about as flat as you can imagine, and a good section of it is on a lake dam. Wind was moderate, but nothing that we're not used to in Oklahoma. It was just a little stiffer wind than I would have liked. I was hoping to go in and drop a good bike split, pushing myself to the point of nearly blowing up, but I just couldn't seem to get it clicking on the day. My wattage output was pretty low...roughly the same as I put out for a 30 mile ride last week, but this was only 13 miles...still not sure what went wrong. Bike split was 15th out of 153 at 23.8 mph, which may sound good, but I have really high expectations on the bike this year. So I wasn't very thrilled with it. Had a good T2, 21st out of 153, then off to the run.

The run course was great. It's not flat, but there are no hills. It goes on a twisty-turny road through thick pine trees. It was mostly shaded, very scenic, and closed course so you could run tangents. My Polar HR monitor crapped out so I couldn't keep track of pace or split time, so just tried to keep up with some people. I saw my friend, Travis, with about 1.5 miles left. He was so far ahead of me that I lost a lot of motivation and pretty much put it on cruise control for the rest of the race. A pretty mediocre effort in my opinion, but my mind thought I could do one thing and my legs said another. Oh well. Ranked 46th out of 153, which is way lower than I normally am on the run.

Post race spread was incredible. All the pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, cookies, fruit, etc. you can imagine. Several kegs of beer (3 I think, which were all floating by the end), lots of Gatorade and water. And all the food was available to athletes and family/fans, which was very cool. There's also a really neat park for the kids to play on, so it would be a great race to bring the family. The announcer at the finish line was funny and entertaining. Many, many great things about this race. Ranks as one of the favorites I've done so far, just behind Rivercities.

My friend, and [used to be] close rival (he's now way faster than I), Travis, had a great race. He put together a phenomenal race despite the fact he had a swollen knee that had to have fluid drained off of it the week of the race. He couldn't even walk without limping, but despite not being 100%, he won the 30-34 AG and posted the 3rd fastest bike split OA. He added a very fast swim and a breakthrough run split to go along with that. He beat me by a good 4 minutes, whereas at March in Okarche he beat me by 4 seconds. He's getting a lot faster and I'm getting slower. I hope to catch back up to him later in the season as I start training again.

I ended up 29th out of 153 OA, and 4th out of 19 in AG with a time of 1:06:22. I wasn't thrilled with my splits or time, but I suppose it's all I could have done at my current fitness level, which has been sacrificed for the last month and a half due to career stuff. And I couldn't quite get my breathing under control for the race...I think it was the thicker air I wasn't used to. Despite my disappontment, I still had fun and overall was a great race.

Next up is Rt. 66 Sprint, which is the OK State Championship. I'm hoping to have a much better showing, but there isn't a whole lot you can improve with your fitness in just 2 weeks. I'll give it a good try, though.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The give and take of life

This is something that every triathlete has to deal with. I'm usually pretty good about balancing life's needs, but I was just buried in April. As a result, I ended up sacrificing training for all of April and the first half of May in order to finish my Ph.D. and get out some manuscripts for peer-review. But what a great month it's been career-wise! I was awarded the Outstanding Graduate Student Award for the Dept. of Zoology, Oklahoma State University. I successfully defended my dissertation and graduated at commencement on May 2nd. And the best of all: I had one of my dissertation chapters accepted for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, or PNAS for short. This was a major accomplishment that I can't even describe how good it felt. Of course, I think I've just hit the pinnacle of my career already!

So some really great things and proud accomplishments over the month of April and May, but now the downside. I didn't swim once, I rode my bike only 4-5 times, and ran maybe a half dozen times. I'm very out of shape and am about 10-15 lbs over my optimal race weight. This is a bummer because I have a string of races coming up that I wanted to do well in: Four States Triathlon (Regional Championship), Route 66 Sprint Tri (Oklahoma State Championship), and the Route 66 International Distance Tri. Four States is this weekend, so it should be really ugly! But I'm going to have fun anyway and try and hit training real hard in June/July/August to get ready for the big races at the end of the year.