637 Days To Go is my blog, which was originally started with exactly 637 days until the start of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. And now it's been re-started with 637 days until the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Training Camp Experience

Whew!! It's been a very busy past few months. The Track Cycling World Championships are almost here now and preparations have been ramping up. I'm just back from my third training camp in the past 3 months and only have just over a week to go until I leave for Los Angeles and the final mini-camp before racing starts.

I thought I would try and share some insight into what goes on at a training camp. Many people think it's a bit of a holiday (as we normally go somewhere nice and warm in the middle of winter for these camps), but the truth is far from it. It's work for us. Hard work. And we normally come home in a state of near exhaustion. But that's the goal.

The hard truth about training camps is that they are somewhat routine and monotonous. You spend a good amount of time on your bike (of course) but you also spend a lot of time looking at your watch, waiting to be somewhere for your next meeting or appointment. There are many things that must be done each day at certain times (from urine samples to meals) so it's a perpetual process of waiting and rushing to the next thing!

And yet, despite all the busy times, there are also huge gaps of downtime where you suddenly find yourself at a loose end. This can be the hardest part of camp – killing time, especially when you're stuck in a country that has no english TV channels. You become skilled at enjoying your own company. Either that or rehashing the same conversation over and over with your teammates.

There is an frustrating trend towards analysing and dissecting your performance on the bike on a daily basis. This can be a killer as it often messes with your head, especially if you have failed to perform to your own expectations. As we are currently focussed on track cycling, where everything is measured in lap times down to the tenth of a second, it's easy to get wrapped up in the figures and obsess over any drop in performance. Just ONE tenth of a second per lap, over the course of a 3KM pursuit race, can mean the difference between winning and not medalling at all. So it's easy to see why we obsess over the numbers in such finite detail.

Not every camp is the same. Sometimes we have different support staff with us performing different functions. For instance, at our last camp we had a full support crew – including our physiologist and video analysis expert. This means we have more to do but at the same time, get a lot more feedback and useful information on a day-to-day basis.

And so... a typical day. Wake up and pee in a cup. Run down the hallway in the hotel, cup of urine in hand, and jump on the scales. Take note of your weight, and have your urine sample checked for hydration levels. This is to make sure we are drinking enough and not getting dehydrated (very easy to do, especially in warmer climates). Then it's off to breakfast. We all fill in a daily diary of sorts, chronicling our weight, fatigue levels, previous day's training, etc. It just provides a record of how we are feeling over the course of the camp.

Fabian Cancellara and me at the track.
After breakfast, it's back to the room for a change of clothes and to pack for the rest of the day. Dropping bags off in the hotel lobby, we then jump on our bikes and head out. It's a leisurely 30 minute ride to the track, allowing us to warm up the legs a little and spin out some of the stiffness from the previous day. On the tougher days, we'll do an hour and half on the way to the track (this turned into 2.5 hours one day when we arrived to find that our track time had been bogarted by Fabian Cancellara so we had to kill an extra hour!)

Track sessions are basically a daily event at training camp – it's the main reason we are there. What we do each day varies greatly depending on the goals for the session and the level of fatigue the riders are experiencing. A heavy day will involve multiple testing efforts to mimic race day. In between efforts, the physiologist is there to check blood lactate levels and various other tests to monitor physical changes in the body. It's the science behind the riders aimed at helping us produce the best possible performance come race day.

The track session last two hours (but you don't ride the entire time). Still, the efforts you do, although short, are intense and really take their toll on the body. I've often said that 12 laps of the track flat out, is harder and leaves you feeling much more worked over than any 20 minute time trial or 2 hour road race I've ever done.

Once the track session is complete, it's back on the road bikes for another ride back to the hotel. Once again, this can vary in time from 30 minutes to two hours – depending on the day. The route home and the terrain covered can also vary from completely flat to mildly mountainous – depending on what's on tap the next day and how tired we are already feeling. I've taken the opportunity to do some of the island's better-known climbs (albeit short) on the way home from the track – but usually when I have a light day following!

Arrival back at the hotel means the hard work for the day is done. For me, it usually means a quick shower and then hopping into bed for a quick snooze and to start my recovery. Usually everyone is pretty hungry by the time dinner rolls around and we are some of the first people in the hotel to be lined up waiting to get into the restaurant as soon as it opens. The place we stay at had a buffet each night with a decent selection of food. It means you have to self-regulate what you eat (which can be hard when you're hungry and there is an unlimited supply of food in front of you), but the morning weigh-ins help keep you on the straight and narrow.

After filling my face with food, it's back upstairs for my daily massage. This is a critical daily event for me. Without it I would struggle to even remotely be at my best the following day. But don't get me wrong – this is no health spa massage with soft music and warm stones placed on your body. This is hard-core sports massage from an expert in reviving tired and sore muscles beaten nearly to death by hours on the bike. This is damage limitation in many ways – fixing what can be fixed, but trying to stop the inevitable slide towards complete breakdown in performance that comes from a daily battering on the track and roads. The woman (Fionnuala) who travels with us is an artist. She can find the problems areas and get to the root of the problem in short order. She knows how much I rely on her skills (as do we all) and can never thank her enough (cheers Fi!).

Screen grab from video at track. Checking my position.
As the evening winds slowly towards completion, there is still work to be done. Each evening, the video expert is available to review the footage of you on the track. This gives you the unique opportunity to see yourself on the bike. You can analyse your position, pedalling technique, the lines you the around the track, your cadence, power output and many other minute details. It goes you a completely different perspective to your riding and helps you see and correct problems that you would otherwise be oblivious to. The coaching staff is there to review the videos with you, and to point out areas to work on where improvements can be gained.

The physiologist is also present for you to review any data from the day as well. I was able to determine my best pre-race routine through a series of tests with her – again something I couldn't do without this valuable input.

Some nights will bring either a squad meeting or an individual meeting with the manager and coaching staff. These can be general housekeeping things or the chance for you to discuss your performance in greater detail, a chance to formulate strategies, air grievances or just get some reassurance.

At this point (sometimes it's now late in the evening), you are free and clear. The rest of the night is spent any way you want. Riders may go for coffee, chat in rooms, stretch out in front of the TV, hang out in the hotel lobby and enjoy the free internet, etc. It's an individual choice. I personally like to rerun to my room and put a movie on my laptop. I actually spend this time before bed doing a core workout in my room. Just some basic exercises to help keep me solid on the bike. And then it's under the covers to watch my movie until I eventually fall asleep.

As mentioned – every day is different. There is a rest day in the middle of the camp which gives you a day to relax and recover a bit. Mostly it's a grind. But it's what we sign up for. You go home feeling battered, but with the knowledge that you'll be better and faster for it in the long run. It usually takes a good week afterwards to recover, but once you do, there is a noticeable spike in performance. 

And so, as I come to the end of my rest week after camp – I can already see the start of those performance boosts in my efforts. Though still tired, I'm already getting faster. The final drive begins right now as competition is just a few weeks away. I look froward to seeing if all the hard work over the winter pays off – and hope that all the sacrifices that my teammates have made are worth it for them. As a group, we have done an enormous amount this winter and I think we will all see great results.

One final word. A massive thanks to my coach Brian Nugent. He has guided me over the past few years and taken me from a mediocre rider to a World Champion. Not always seen eye to eye on everything, but these days we work together and strive for the best. I'm hoping to do him (and Ireland) proud in Los Angeles and bring home some more medals. We'll know in 3 weeks!