Sunday, 26 February 2017

Racing The Munga - How to Prepare (Part 4 - More of this and that)

I would like to disclose that I do not get to ride The Munga for free. I pay my way like regular folk. While on the subject of disclosures I should mention that neither I nor my immediate family work for or have shares in Tiger Brands the makers of Oros Orange Squash... my race bottle juice of choice - the race supplement of champions :-)

Back to the real stuff...

Rope in some Race Snakes. 

I have some riding buddies who are real powerhouses but are not endurance athletes. I like to organise occasional rides with them so that I get a reality check. It's too easy to assume you are going along at a reasonable pace on training rides when in fact you falling into the trap of LSD pace. As I said in the previous post, if you train slow you race slow. Going out with some short distance race snakes is going to help you stay race pace calibrated. That's not to say that you will race at their pace, rather that you will better understand the pace from which you will dial back to get into a long sustainable effort. Dialling back from low effort = no effort - you may as well stay at home. 

Ride like a girl. Or rather, first think and reason like a girl when you enter races. Among my friends the saying "you are riding like a girl" is a compliment. We know many girls who give us guys carrots every time. I have been beaten by girls on both Munga's. There's no shame in that. Rather, there is respect for how tough the ladies are. 

Over the two Munga events there has only been one lady who has not managed to finish the race and she is one of the toughest competitors I know. She just had a bad day at the office. On the other hand the number of guys who haven't finished runs into the many dozens. Why?

Guys are essentially a bit dumb and driven by sense dulling testosterone. For some I think the idea of hanging a Munga race board on the wall of their pub at home (or their metaphorical equivalent) sounds like a really cool thing to do so they click on the enter button. After shelling out some Rands they tell their mates and high fives are unleashed and beer caps popped and after a bout of mind dulling inebriation a mate or two decide to join in the fray resulting in a few wide eyed and totally unprepared riders sitting at the first water point on race day wondering what happened. Ladies on the other hand are more inclined to mull over the implications of the commitment. They think through the challenges and make the decision to enter knowing that it is going to be tough, it's going to hurt and tears might be shed but they are determined to finish at all costs. 

Lads, if you are going to enter The Munga then stop and reason like a girl. Think about it chaps - bragging rights only apply to finishers. 

Make some tough choices. 

If I've heard it once I've heard it a hundred times. - "let's take the shortest and quickest route back!"

I understand that the end of a long ride is always the hardest and there is nothing you want to do more than get off the bike and into a soothing shower. Toughness isn't dispensed for free at the local chemist or cement supplier. It's bought at a price and that price is discomfort. No matter how hard, far, or miserable your training ride is, it's always going to be easier than a tough day on The Munga. When you get to that part of your training ride where you decide on the route home choose the hardest and longest option. When you are sitting at home later that evening, after that soothing shower, you will realise that tough choices, if they don't kill you, make you stronger. 

If I plan to do a tough ride I map out a gnarly route beforehand and if during the course of the ride I feel like death warmed up I stick with the plan and suffer through it. On race day there are no soft options - get used to it.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Racing The Munga - How to Prepare (Part 3 - A bit of this and that)

There are any number of reasons why you are reading this post. Maybe you are bored and it's a great time filler, or perhaps you just like reading my musings. It could even be because you are interested in my understanding of what it takes to compete in endurance events. Whatever the reason, welcome. 

Endurance racing adaption is poorly understood with little research to back it up. Try googling endurance racing tips and apart from some reasonable advice on Double Century and 24 hour racing (entry level endurance events) you are unlikely to find anything other than a few offering "the top 5 tips to successful endurance cycling." The first three bits of advice are typically; drink, stretch and eat. It's far easier to find a list of 30 things to do to ride a faster Argus or 947. 

What follows is my opinion based on years of experimentation, observation, and extensive field testing. As such, it constitutes empirical evidence rather than the trite information you are likely to dredge up on the internet. I will not tell you to "drink one bottle of water an hour" , or tell you that "by the time you feel thirsty it's too late". You certainly won't hear me prattle on about the right gels or carb energy bars to eat while riding - you are more likely to hear me elucidating about the pleasure (and therefore benefit) of poking a jam smeared roosterbrood down my throat sometime between midnight and sunrise or the simple joy of munching on a packet of crisps while seated in the shade of a doringbos. 

What you do with this information is entirely up to you. There is no one silver bullet that will make you good at the endurance game. Endurance adaption is a multi stranded bow. Below is an outline of the strands that work together for me. 

Most, if not all, good endurance athletes compete in a manner which is consistent with who they are in their day to day existence. They are tough nuggets, who are naturally wired for the task. Even so, they need to condition themselves and have a lot to learn when they first start plying their trade in the endurance arena. If you consider yourself an average Joe without natural endurance toughness there are things you can do to lessen the odds against you. If you, like me, aren't a dyed in the wool endurance athlete don't shy from the challenge because there are very few naturals out there and most of our fellow competitors are in the same boat as us. 

In my last post I covered how I go about training which, quite frankly is fairly unimpressive. This post was originally intended to address the mental challenges of endurance racing and how I go about addressing them. However, there are a few things I should have covered in the physical training preparation post but I forgot to put them in. We will begin by looking at those challenges. The physical and mental issues in many of them are well entangled. 

Replace your alarm clock with a sundial. 

If you are in the habit of waking up at 4 AM and going for a long ride then I hate you because you possess a level of discipline that I don't have. Envy aside, you need to prepare yourself for the heat you are going to encounter on The Munga. It gets quite warm. 45 degrees Celsius warm. 

As the Race approaches I keep a bike at the office and make a point of riding in the middle of the day particularly when it is blisteringly hot. There are a number of benefits. Firstly, you simply get used to the idea of riding in the heat and find a rhythm that keeps fatigue and pace in balance. But the biggest benefit is the physiological adaptation that takes place. Physiological Adaption - sounds cool doesn't it! The definition is more impressive: "Physiological Adaptations are internal systematic responses to external stimuli in order to help an organism maintain homeostasis."

I have included the definition so that you understand that while some of the things I do might seem a little weird there is some science behind them. 

Among the many benefits of heat acclimatisation is improved thermal regulation and sodium retention which means you are less likely to suffer from cramp and heat stroke. The best part about this adaption is that it only takes a couple of weeks to reach peak adaption. Cautiously combine this with dehydration training (covered in the previous post) and you'll cope with the heat without worrying about dying a lonely death on the side of a deserted Karoo farm road. Here's a link to fill in the details:

Go for a ride when your sundial stops working.

In other words, do some training rides after the sun goes down.

Most cyclists have never ridden at night. I have taken many people for their first night ride and the response has always been positive. I love riding at night. It goes without saying that it is very different to riding during the day as your world shrinks to a small circle of light. Most of my night rides are off-road. It helps keep my night navigation skills sharp (for other non-GPS races) and I get used to how the terrain looks under lights. You will soon find the right lighting solution. I always recommend a combination of bar and helmet mounted lights. The bar mounted lights should be brighter than those on your helmet so that you can pick up the detail. Don't take my word for it, get out there and find out for yourself. Better still, if you live in Johannesburg join me for a night ride. 

The best time to move during The Munga is during the cool of the night. I love riding at night and have become very adept at it. I'm very ordinary while the sun is up but you'll have to ride like crazy if you want to catch me at night.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Racing The Munga - How to Prepare (Part 2 - Physical Training)

Now that you've landed on this page we need to get a few things clear. If you are a proper athlete then there is nothing of value to be found in these pages. This blog is intended for people like me - ordinary amateur cyclists who face the challenge of trying to shoehorn training into the regular clutter of life with a view to achieving better than ordinary results. And let's face it, if you can finish The Munga you are certainly well above average.

As discussed in the previous post I assume you know how to ride and have a race or two under your belt. If time permits keep up your regular habit of going to the gym, doing spin/Cadence/Wattbike sessions, or doing Pilates. These are all good training. Your challenge is how to translate shorter distance racing into non-stop distance.

Endurance adaptation is as much physical as it is mental. We will deal with the physical aspect first.

It seems the go-to tool for most people considering an endurance race is long slow distance (LSD) training. I have earned my distance stripes over the years so LSD training no longer forms any part of my training regime.

I have mixed feelings about promoting LSD as an effective training tool for endurance racing. LSD, in my humble opinion, is how you start your training season after a lengthy lay off - it's low intensity base training. In Gauteng we have great winter weather so we don't go into training hibernation. That being the case the use of LSD is questionable.

I know a number of people who ride endurance events whose staple training is LSD with a bit of hill work tossed in.

Sounds okay doesn't it. But here's my difficulty. If you train to ride slow you are going to race slow. During endurance events I always race slower than I train.

The most I will ride in training is 5 or 6 hours. Notice that I defined my maximum training effort as time and not distance. That's the first adaptation you need to make - distance in training becomes irrelevant, it's all about time in the saddle. In an endurance race most athletes travel at about the same speed. The biggest difference in how many hours they spend moving forward. When training, the terrain will dictate the distance covered in the time set aside.

I get no added benefit from going over 6 hours during a training ride. I simply end up tired and slow and off my bike for a few days while I recover. Fortunately I know I can ride for a long time during a race. In race conditions I'm good for 36 hours and on occasion have stretched that to 42. Knowing that I can do that takes away the necessity to ride like that in training. On race day I back off on my usual training effort which translates into a massive multiplier effect on the number of hours I can pedal before it's time to sleep.

It's a huge advantage knowing that you can ride forever. However, most people don't know their limit. This is one area where limited LSD will help. For a conditioned athlete a long slow ride is primarily mental training - there's little to no physical benefit - but It's comforting to know that you aren't going to collapse at the end of a 12 hour ride. Go and do at least one long ride. You could hop on your bike and go tackle a 12 hour training ride or you could be a little more methodical and avoid the very real risk of overtraining injuries.

Alex Harris (Mr Munga) understands that riding long distances is the experience of the few. With that in mind he has organised Mini Munga training rides. If you need to get your head and body around the concept of doing big rides then you should tag along on these rides. They start out at around 6 hours and over the course of a few months step up until you bang out a 12 hour ride. They are not particularly challenging or fast and are well within the grasp of a Munga entrant. If you are unable to complete a Mini Munga training ride then you need to rethink either your training programme or your decision to enter the race.

Once you know you can in fact ride for an extended period the next imperative is to start working on your effort and speed remembering that you are going to race well below this effort. I focus on riding shorter distances with an average heart rate of 80% of my max HR. My typical training ride is around 3 hours. The 5 to 6 hour rides are used occasionally as a system check - I ride them hard to see what sort of condition I am in. In general I keep my rides short. The vast majority of them on my mountain bike. No magic there, I simply prefer riding on dirt. A solid road bike session would be equally beneficial, particularly for a race like The Munga which is flat and fast. You need to get used to turning your legs over for hours at a time. Closer to the race it's better to do most of your riding on your mountain bike to get used to the set up and condition your arms and neck, particularly if you are planning on using aero bars which I recommend you do.

I would also recommend a couple of shorter non-stop races to test your endurance adaption under real race conditions and start working endurance into your very fabric. The one thing that you cannot train for is sleep deprivation and it's essential that you figure out how to deal with it. These races are an ideal opportunity to do so. The chances are that the first few times it will be hit and miss. Rather get the big kinks out before you get to The Munga. I've been at this game for 10 years and I'm still refining my techniques.

Among my regular races are the Freedom Challenge pair of Race to Cradock (575 km) and the Race to Rhodes (475 km) These are self navigated (without GPS) which make them particularly tough.

A far better starting point is another pair of races that I do - Durban Dash Down and Durban Dash Up by Massive Adventures. They are races staged between Jhb and Dbn over 615 km. They are GPS guided and are long enough to test your resolve and actually short enough to do non-stop. A great opportunity to get used to a little discomfort, learn the techniques of a power-nap next to the road, and deal with the monotony of cycling through the night into the next day when your brain just wants to shut down and sleep. Last year the Down version took me 28 hours and the Up version 36 hours. They are great races on which to cut your endurance teeth. In fact, they are great conditioning races and I will be doing them again this year. The idea of riding from Johannesburg to Durban or Durban to Johannesburg in one effort is captivating. It's a great story to share at parties as most people have driven between those cities and appreciate the distance involved. If that doesn't tickle your fancy then go look at the other offering at

To round out this post I will briefly mention a few other critical training techniques I use which I believe contribute to my ability to punch above my weight in endurance events.

Firstly, I train dehydrated. For rides of 2 hours or less I ride without water. If I can grab a cup of coffee along the way I will head out for a ride of up to 4 hours without water. Most people will shudder at the thought as we have all been indoctrinated by the twin mantra's of "Drink a bottle every hour" and, "By the time you are thirsty it's too late." Go google the subject and these themes ooze out everywhere. New research pours cold water on that advice (pun intended). I started riding without water years ago and subsequently found a study done Down Under that highlighted the benefits of training into a state of dehydration. I had stumbled onto something and it has proven to be a huge plus for me. Here are a couple of articles on this subject:

It would be irresponsible for me to advocate for anyone else to train into a state of dehydration, so the safe approach is to stick with the old advice of telling everyone to stay hydrated. But give it some thought and decide what works for you. It certainly works for me. The key is to only dehydrate during training. During an extended race you cannot deal with a hydration deficit so I make sure I drink enough from the start to match my losses. One of the added benefits is that I never panic about how much water I have left. I know I can go for a few hours before running into trouble. My plan is to always have sufficient water but in the event that something goes wrong, such as leaving Sutherland without filling my bottles in last year's race, I'm able to put it aside and focus on moving forward.

Secondly, I believe in the benefits of Banting, particularly for endurance athletes. I have been Banting for many years and my race performance has improved in leaps and bounds since I cut down on my carbohydrate intake. Once again, the old adages are no longer relevant. The saying of "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day" is simply not true for me. As a rule I only eat once a day - dinner. I can ride for 4 or 5 hours with nothing more than a cup of unsweetened tea for breakfast. For most people that's very odd as they wouldn't dream of riding that far without breakfast to sustain them through the ride. Banting makes your body efficient at metabolising fat. When you are Banting adapted you aren't dependent on glycogen to fuel your muscles, you have a few weeks supply of muscle fuel stored up as fat. Endurance cycling effort is low enough that your body can metabolise fat at a rate that can match your rate of burn. That said, when racing I put my Banting diet on hold and eat anything that is available or offered. If a chunk of cheese or a huge knob of butter happens to be on offer it is always the food of choice. The most important aspect is that while racing I am never overwhelmed by hungry and therefore am not distracted by the need for food. I simply eat as opportunities arise.

Thirdly, ride without stopping. I mentioned earlier that I stop for coffee during my rides. Apart from the coffee stop I try and move without stopping at all. Maintaining momentum is a key part of endurance racing. If you stop and wait for riding buddies or stop to stretch or eat, or are simply in the habit of putting your foot down every 30 minutes to look around it is going to cost you many hours during the race. Work at being efficient. During the race your transition times are going to become critical. There are 10 official water points and 5 race villages. Assuming you are going to stop and sleep 3 times that leaves 12 transitions that can either work for or against you.

Lastly, know your way around your bike. Some of us are blessed with great mechanical skills and it pays dividends when things go wrong. Experience has taught me that things will go wrong. I know some people who don't know how to plug a puncture, break a chain, or replace and adjust brake pads. I'm not even sure they have the requisite tools to do those tasks. These are essential skills particularly when the distance between some race villages is over 200 kilometres. If you are a mechanical dunce then sacrifice some trail time for some workshop time. Ask your local bike shop or a buddy to teach you the basics of how to keep your bike going while out on the trail.

So nothing amazing about that advise. It's broad brush strokes because I don't think there is a one size fits all approach. Endurance events are fairly new and not particularly well understood. Adventure racers know how to do this stuff and they rise to the top in long distance cycle races simply because they know how to deal with discomfort and that's key because the real challenge of endurance racing takes place between your ears. In the next post I will attempt to unpack the mental challenges as I understand them.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Racing The Munga - How to Prepare (Part 1)

A few days ago I received the following message - "Please would you consider posting about how you prepare for something like the Munga? And about what the day or two after look like for you."

Interesting... there is a big difference between "how YOU prepare" (as in me) and "how TO prepare" (normal folk) ... this might end up a case of, do as I say and not as I do. Let's start with the second part.

Post-Race Recovery.
After I get off my bike at the finish line I stay away from my bike for at least a week. Mostly because my backside is sore and also because I just need a break to let my body recover. I suppose I should have a post-race routine that includes stretching, massage and other clever stuff like ice baths and recovery drinks, but, as you are about to discover, I'm both unscientific and unmethodical in my approach to cycling. I simply sloth around and eat whatever I fancy. To entertain myself I put my feet up and start writing my race blog.

It's hard enough getting your head around a race like The Munga. If you have enough head space left to be systematic immediately post-race then I reckon you haven't raced hard enough. You should leave everything out on the trail and finish hollow but happy. If it makes you happy then, by all means, have a massage and drink your fill of recovery shakes. I'm not convinced it serves a useful purpose but what do I know. I'd sooner have a milkshake and a side of fries before falling down on the carpet for a good snooze. I like to keep it simple. I'll touch on the subject of simplicity a bit later.

Race Preparation.
Right up front I should tell you that it has been said of me that my training is both insufficient (not enough) and inadequate (unstructured) to prepare for any form of racing. My physical race preparation is minimal. I generally ride 2 or 3 times a week with my average training ride being around 55 to 60 km's - go look on Strava.

Ten years ago when I was training for the Epic the general consensus was that you should be training for at least 15 hours a week and I did just that. These days I manage between 6 and 7 hours. I know that's not a lot. However, I rode 11 000 km last year and half of that was in competition riding, the majority of it during endurance races.

After 12 years of riding, and I guess a whole pile of endurance enabling DNA, I know I can turn my legs over for at least 42 hours before I need to sleep. In the early days I would do training rides of 200 km. I found them quite exhausting. I wouldn't say they were a waste of time, but I don't do that any more. I race a handful of 500+ nonstop races every year so they help keep my legs in endurance shape.

Race preparation includes equipment, body, and mind. I have covered equipment choices in an earlier blog. It was written before I had done my first Munga. With two Munga's under my belt my equipment choices remain the same so I won't cover that again. It was a 3 part post which started here:

Transitioning to Endurance Distance.

If you're intending to do The Munga then I assume you have done your fair share of one day or multi day stage races. If you are a race virgin then I suggest you bump The Munga down a few notches on your bucket list - it's not the ideal way to get into racing. Marathon distance racing and endurance racing are different animals. I have ridden with marathon distance podium finishers and have watched them fade as the distance ratchets up.

What if you don't yet have any distance in your legs? Well, you have to start somewhere. In the next post we will discuss the options for getting some distance into your legs and head.