Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wheels for Welfare

In my day job I pursue questions of significance in development economics and design field experiments to empirically test competing answers offered by theory. It is very rare for a project to pop up on my radar for reasons that are not entirely academic. Indeed, journal editors would likely not understand or appreciate a study of the psychological benefits of triathlon training no matter how much I plead otherwise!

Open water swims are... exciting :)

Having said that, I recently became aware of a really cool organization whose mandate is to distribute high quality, durable bicycles in poor African regions - World Bicycle Relief (WBR).

As a passionate pro cycling fan (save your puns about doping) I can probably recite recent winners of all cycling monuments probably as well as I can explain how to run regressions. So in one of my recent doodlings on the internet, I popped onto the SRAM website (SRAM being one of the leading bike component manufacturers) and discovered that SRAM is a main sponsor of WBR. The more I read about WBR the more interested I got in their operations and the more my academic brain started churning ideas for testing impacts of bicycle relief.

The fundamental question is what's a bicycle worth? For us in developed countries, a bicycle is mostly a pursuit of a passion, be it triathlon, road racing, mountain biking, cyclocross, what have you. At a more basic level, college students use it for commuting but alternative transport generally is available.

In poor countries, however, it can be a means of significant economic empowerment. A farmer can use a bicycle to reach farther markets, carry substantially larger loads, and deliver products quicker and with higher frequency. For these reasons alone, the value of a bicycle in a rural farm household is economically non-trivial.

The WBR bike
So it would be really cool to carefully estimate the value of a bicycle. But before diving blindly into an evaluation, the question needs to be better refined and a few caveats addressed. For example, if bicycles are so important and valuable, why isn't there a market for them already? What are the preexisting constraints? Is there supporting infrastructure available (repair shops for example) to facilitate and sustain inexpensive bike ownership?

With these questions and a few design ideas in mind, I am currently in the process of discussing possible evaluations with WBR in Zambia. The people running the show are very interested in rigorous evaluation, a rarity among such organizations.

Hopefully in due time I'll be able to report back on this forum with our findings!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Reactive Dog + Hard Edge + Bad Luck = Cracked Rib

This sucks.

I have a cracked rib thanks to my dog, Haley. She's big and badass. If there were a biker gang for dogs, she'd be at the helm...
I like to eat other dogs for lunch

 So after finishing a great trail run in Rock Creek Park this weekend, I was fishing around in the car for something when Haley decided she was hungry and lunged for a dog, pulling me right into the edge of the car door... *cracckkkk* there goes my rib.. holy sh** that hurt!

Luckily I didn't let go of the leash else I'd have a broken rib and a lawsuit to deal with...

After some TLC for a few days, the pain is still there but time to harden the f*** up and get on with training. Yesterday I rode my bike to work and felt ok. Today I'll run.. will be quite comical.. but races are coming up and I gotta keep up. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

My Experience with Zone 2 Workouts

"You really need to take it easy for most of your long training workouts," explained Ken Mierke after my VO2 Max test back in October of last year. Turns out my body was switching from fat burning to carbohydrate burning fairly early, much earlier than what would be feasible in a race. In other words, my slow twitch muscle fibers were extremely under-trained. Ken being one of the most respected coaches in the area and in endurance sports, I stopped and listened... and changed my ways.

The science behind the above advice is solid. The human body has enough fat reserves to last any ironman distance. Even the top elite athletes with 5% body fat have enough fat on them to burn all day. Carbohydrate and glycogen reserves, on the other hand, are in limited storage and replenishment imperfect at best. There is simply no way for the body to absorb carbohydrates fast enough during a race to fulfill immediate performance needs. This eventually can lead to a "bonk" where the body stops responding and performance dips substantially. At that point there is nothing one can do other than slow down or stop.

Yes, this is what a bonk looks like

So what can one do in training? The key is that the body only recruits carbs as a source of energy under high intensity; for low intensity efforts the body primarily burns fat and uses the highly efficient slow twitch muscle fibers. The trick then is to train in a manner that raises one's aerobic capacity and effort threshold where the body starts recruiting fast twitch fibers. Here is where Zone 2 heart-rate training comes in. By training in this zone, an athlete can keep her powder dry for longer before having to make the big effort, hopefully much later than the competitors! 

So that in a nutshell is the science, hopefully I've explained it right.

I think I get it... wait.. doh! This was me some months ago

Practice however is hugely variant! Many people simply do not train in Zone 2 and go hard all the time. To be perfectly honest, prior to my test and Ken's advice, Zone 2 workouts made no sense to me either and in fact sounded counter-intuitive -- why would one train at low intensity when the purpose is to race at high intensity?

Clearly the answer is that one cannot and should not train in Zone 2 all the time. There is a need for mixing things up with intense workouts. But there is also a time and place for such workouts. In my training regimen, thats mid-week track for running and hill repeats (or trainer intervals) for biking.  The weekend low intensity workouts leave me significantly fresher to attack these intense workouts and maximize their fitness benefits.

After a few months of such focused training, a slow confidence has started building in me. I've had setbacks, both mental and physical, and have often doubted myself but the numbers are starting to show promise now. 
Two weeks ago I managed to knock out a mostly Zone 2 14 mile run at sub 8 min mile pace.. While this may not be fast in many books (surely, some people on my team run 7 min miles while texting on their cellphones), it represents significant progress for me. At the beginning of the year, I ran a 4 mile race at that pace going all out. Check out a report here. Now, I can run that pace in Zone 2 for 14 miles. The cool thing is that I knew I was holding back and could have gone faster.. great feeling!

Getting there.. ironically, slowly and steadily

Then just this past weekend I found myself alone out front on a Team Z ride with one fast dude on a bike, Ray Nancoz, a Swiss powerhouse. We climbed hills, rode some fast straightaways, blazed the downhills faster than cars, and even ended up in an impromptu drag race at the end (not in Zone 2 btw!). My legs felt alive, as if I've discovered an additional gear. My garmin felt the same way post ride.

Training schmaining... Here's what I want as my tri bike!

Being an economist obsessed with identifying causality, I obviously cannot attribute all my fitness gains to Zone 2 workouts alone. Indeed, I now weigh 148 pounds with single digit body fat, a full 27 lbs lighter than when I joined Team Z. So I'm sure throwing the spare tire out has a lot to do with my speed. Also, my nutrition has improved dramatically, thanks to the magic advice of Rebecca Mohning. Finally, mentally I am getting my head in the game with a keen focus on results oriented training.  

All these factors have a played a role. I'm eager to see if these improvements can show themselves in a race environment. Thankfully I don't have to wait too long as racing season is almost upon us... See you out there!