Category Archives: Fitness

My eclectic exercise mix

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the bike saddle over the past few months, training for my Great Divide mountain biking trip, and this Spotify playlist has helped ward off boredom and made my workouts much more enjoyable.

There’s a good New York Times story here about choosing the best music for exercise. And there’s actually some peer-reviewed scientific research (such as here and here) to support the notion that athletes perform better while listening to tunes and/or watching video.

headphonesMy preferred vehicle for delivering these songs and others is through a pair of Bluetooth wireless headphones connected to my iPhone. I’m able to fast-forward through songs by touching a little button near my neck and I no longer have to worry about strangling myself with wires. The sound quality on these things isn’t great, and the connection to the iPhone isn’t 100% reliable, but hey, whaddya expect for $50.

For safety’s sake, I don’t listen to music while riding in traffic, but here in Denver we’ve got a great network of paved paths along all the major rivers and streams, so I’m able to rock out in relative security.

Happy listening!

Cycling a 14er: Idaho Springs to Mount Evans

There aren’t many summer afternoons with blue skies above Mount Evans, the 14,265-foot peak west of Denver that features the highest paved road in North America. Today was one of those days. Carpe diem.

Mount Evans
A rarity: clear skies above Mount Evans

I had planned to bike from Idaho Springs, 7,555 feet, up to Summit lake, 12,830 feet, and then turn around after 23 miles or so. I’m training for the 47th annual Bob Cook Memorial Hill Climb on July 21 and a 1,000-mile bikepacking trip along the Great Divide later this summer.

When I got to Summit Lake and saw clear skies above Evans, I decided to go for it. I had the wind at my back the first mile or two, which was a total blessing, and once I was within a few miles of reaching the top, I felt a surge of energy and there was no going back. The very end of this ride is brutal–a series of sometimes steep switchbacks that snake up the last 1,000 feet or so of elevation. It’s almost always windy up there, but today was relatively tame and when I got to the parking lot at the summit there were tons of motorists walking around in short-sleeve shirts.

Atop Mount Evans
At the top of North America’s highest paved road

I snapped a few photos, gobbled a Cliff Bar, and then bundled up in a jacket and leg warmers for the 28-mile downhill.  I knew this benign weather wouldn’t last long.

The descent from Evans is one helluva ride and karmic retribution after you’ve busted your ass to climb the 14er. From the top down to Summit Lake, the road is in pretty rough shape. There are some nasty potholes, frost heaves, and cracks in the asphalt that limit your speed, as do the switchbacks. But things get smoother on the second half of the trip back to Idaho Springs and the good folks at the state highway department have just paved some sections that are a joy to ride. I peaked at 43 mph, a few clicks short of the maximum on last week’s ride, but it still felt like being on a motorcycle, or so I would imagine.

This was only the second time I’ve ridden all the way to the top and I felt much better today than during last year’s ride. Then again, my time of just under 4 hours is more than double the unbelievable course record of 1 hour and 41 minutes, achieved in 2004 by professional cyclist Tom Danielson, who also holds the record for New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. Jeannie Longo, the 13-time world champion, holds the women’s record at 1 hour and 59 minutes.

I’m not about to set any records, but I was surprised how strong I felt toward the top of the ride, especially because the first 7 miles coming out of Idaho Springs were into a pretty stiff headwind.

Breakfast at the Sunrise Cafe
Breakfast at the Sunrise Cafe

I think I did a good job with keeping myself fueled and hydrated, starting with an enormous breakfast of eggs, french toast, and bacon at the Sunrise Cafe, a greasy spoon near home where I sometimes gorge before heading into the mountains.

On the climb, I always stop for some goodies at the Echo Lake Lodge, halfway to the top, and while I was crestfallen today to find the caramel smores already gone, some dark chocolate with sea salt and a cashew grizzly provided a nice sugar high, as did the four packets of GU energy gel that I inhaled along the way.

Another positive was that I kept my heart rate under control. My goal was to keep my ticker below 150 beats per minute so I wouldn’t burn out too early and I did a decent job with that. As you can see in the graphic below, I was in the low 150s a fair amount, especially at the very top, but I never got above 160. Once my heart rate gets above 155 or so, my legs and lungs start burning as my asthma kicks in and my performance plummets. Don’t get me wrong: I’m pretty tired now and I’ll be feeling this ride tomorrow. But I’m glad I pushed myself without blowing up and I’m now even more excited to tackle this same climb three weeks from now. Fittingly, when I got home to Denver this afternoon, my race packet and jersey had arrived in the mail.

Mount Evans hill profile and heart rate

Some favorite cycling and fitness apps

For decades, I mounted bicycle computers to my handlebars and attached sensors to my wheels so I could tell how far I’d pedaled and how fast I was going. But smartphones have changed everything. I now rely on my iPhone and apps to track my rides.

If you’re willing to take a few seconds at the beginning of your ride to open up an app and tap a few buttons, you gain access to a wealth of data: distance, elevation, speed, precise maps, even cadence and heart rate if you buy some accessories. You can mount your smartphone to your handlebars so you can view the measures while riding, but I prefer to slip my phone into my jersey pocket or Camelbak and forget about it. As you ride, the apps record a trail of digital breadcrumbs that can be plotted in everything from Google Maps to GIS software. Websites connected to the apps store all your rides, show your mileage in calendars, and offer lots of advanced features I haven’t even explored, including nutrition and weight tracking.

I’ve been experimenting with a bunch of fitness apps and have settled on two as my favorites. The first is Strava, which is made for cycling. Below is an example of yesterday’s ride, from Denver to Golden and back on the Clear Creek Trail.

One of the features I like about Strava is the ability to track your performance on specific segments, usually hills, and compare yourself to other riders. It’s a great way to benchmark your fitness and make your standard, close-to-home rides more interesting. I live in a neighborhood called the Highlands, so I finish pretty much every ride by sprinting up one of the hills tracked by Strava and this little game prevents me from dogging it on the tail ends of my workouts.

Apps like Strava can also help you find new routes. Dozens of others cyclists here in Denver are using Strava and creating a sort of crowd-sourced bike map of the city. It’s amazing/humbling to see how fast some people get up these hills. Are they on motorcycles or really that fit?

MapMyFitness and its cousin MapMyRide are similar to Strava, but with the former you can also record runs, hikes, and other types of outings. Like Strava,they use GPS to track your ride and offers a number of ways to analyze the data, including a 3D virtual tour. If you’ve got a website or blog, you can easily embed ride summaries like the one below, or post to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

One disadvantage of these apps is that your phone needs to be running its GPS, which drains your battery. The problem is even worse if you try to pair these apps with a heart rate monitor. I bought a pricy dongle for my iPhone that picks up the ANT+ signal, but never could get it to work well with any iPhone apps. Instead, I download data from my heart rate monitor watch, a Garmin Forerunner, to my PC (or Mac) using a free application called SportTracks. Below is an example of a graph from the program that shows my heart rate and elevation during today’s recovery ride along the Cherry Creek Trail.SportTracks

More on heart rate training in a future post, but for now I’ll say that it’s been super-helpful for pacing myself, avoiding over-training, and improving my endurance. In the meantime, I’d encourage any fellow cyclists to try out some of these apps (another popular one is Endomondo). They all have free versions that should satisfy most needs and you’re bound to learn something useful about how your ride.