Monday, 16 February 2015

Review: Trainer Road

A structured workout from Trainer Road.
Yellow is power, red is heart rate, white is cadence.
I decided to kick my indoor cycling up a notch and use Trainer Road.  It's cycling software designed for use on an indoor trainer.  It advertises 800+ structured workouts, 40+ workout plans and live feedback from your sensors.  I had followed along with others using Trainer Road and figured I'd give it a shot.  Since they offer a money-back guarantee for the first 30 days, trying it out was a risk-free endeavor.

Trainer Road supports sensor data from both Bluetooth and ANT+ and supports Windows, Mac OSX and iOS (iPhone / iPad) for platforms.  You can watch things like Netflix while it overlays the information on your screen or you can sync it to workout videos like the Sufferfest.  You can create your own custom workout.  The program supports teams and you can set your team to have access to its own private workout.  It works on a subscription based model where you pay $10 per month (lower rates for yearly of course).

I started setting up my Windows PC, which I thought would be a perfect fit for my configuration.  All my sensors are Bluetooth 4 and my laptop has native Bluetooth 4 support.  Unfortunately Trainer Road only supports a specific Bluetooth dongle and cannot make use of native Bluetooth 4 support on a PC.  While it's a cheap fix (the dongle costs $20) I was annoyed.  I also didn't feel like ordering a $20 dongle just to try out the software.

Most of my portable devices are Android based, which Trainer Road does not support.  Fortunately Goldilocks has an iOS device, an iPad mini, which I could steal liberate borrow for my workouts.  Trainer Road works just fine with native Bluetooth 4 on the iPad Mini.

Setting up the application was pretty painless.  It paired seamlessly with my Polar H7 heart rate monitor as well as my Wahoo Blue SC speed/cadence sensor.  

In most of the workouts there is instructional information, Sometimes it is giving specifics about the workout, like what your cadence should be or information on the next interval coming up.  It will also encourage you to do things like go in the drops (or use your aerobars if you have them).  One of the things I really like is the comments on form -- tips on relaxing your upper body to conserve energy and how you should be positioned on the saddle.

The other cool thing about this software is Virtual Power.  In order to see your power output you normally would require a power meter.  But power meters are pretty expensive.  Trainer Road can emulate one if it knows what kind of trainer you have.  Using the power curve information from your trainer and your speed, it can estimate what your power is.  My trainer was in the list; it also took into account what my resistance was set to.

How It Works
The actual work out consists of a profile coloured in blue.  Your sensors generate several lines representing power (yellow), heart rate (red) and cadence (white).  The data is also in numerical format on top of the screen.  The general idea is you are trying to keep the yellow line outside of the blue profile; it's also represented numerically as "Target Power".

The 8 Minute Test
To get started, you want to find out your Functional Threshold Power.  Trainer Road provides a couple of tests to do this, the 20 minute test and the 8 minute test.  I can't really speak about the 20 minute test as I've never tried it, so I'll stick to the 8 minute test.

The test consists of a warm up with 2 fast spinning efforts to get your legs going.  After some easy spinning there is an 8 minute effort, followed by 8 minutes of easy spinning, then another 8 minute effort, then more easy spinning and you are done.

The idea behind the 2 8 minute efforts is to go hard but stay consistent.  You need to hold yourself back enough to last the entire 8 minute interval, but you don't want to feel like there is "gas left in the tank" so to speak.  You want it to be a pretty steady effort, not jumping all over like crazy.  Don't worry about having enough strength left to do the second interval, the recovery period in between will leave you refreshed enough to tackle the second one.

Upon completion the software will calculate your FTP based on both efforts.  With this number it will set each workout with your power numbers in mind.  Each time you do better on this test, the software will push you harder on subsequent workouts.

Problems with Virtual Power
I was looking forward to training with power instead of heart rate.  Heart rate takes up to 2 minutes to respond to your effort, whereas power is instantaneous.  Fatigue and other factors play a role in your heart rate, whereas power is always the same.  Of course, there are things heart rate is better for.  It helps keep your intensity in check, making sure you don't push yourself beyond your limits.  Fortunately Trainer Road also keeps track of your heart rate so you can have your cake and eat it too.

To beat the boredom of working on a trainer, I indoor cycle in a group with others.  Many of us were using Trainer Road so we sync'd our start together and performed the 8 minute test.  At the end we started talking about the results we had.  When I gave my number there was a lot of jaw dropping, eyes widening and people saying, "That can't be right."  My virtual power numbers were reading like a pro athlete.

I got in touch with Trainer Road Support to see what the problem was.  We went back and forth in email many times, each time with different ways to make sure my trainer was set up correctly.  We did everything from ensuring every setting was correct, to making sure the wheel was solidly connected to the trainer, even silly things like making sure I had only one magnet.  I took pictures and sent video of my configuration.  Eventually we did track down a problem with my tube; my tests after that were lower but still too high.

After three weeks of emailing back and forth and several 8 minute tests later, we'd pretty much gone through everything we could and my virtual power was still extremely high.  They gave me a free month due to the length of time I ate up doing everything.  I thanked them for their help and released them from assisting further.  After all, they had been thorough.  They couldn't have made any money off me either, from the amount of time support spent on my problem.

So in the meantime, if I want accurate power numbers I'll have to keep pining for a power meter.  I would love to get access to one briefly, just so I can see how the numbers compare.

Final thoughts
Despite my problems with virtual power, I would definitely recommend it.  Even if those numbers are wrong; as long as they are consistently wrong I will still progress with my workouts.  From the experience I also know that support will try very hard to help when things go wrong.

This is me with my old coach.
Trainer Road put her out of a job.
At least for the winter. :D
That being said, I wouldn't recommend Trainer Road if you are looking for a cheap replacement for a power meter.  I would recommend it as a great software to really push you and get results.

As for me, I plan on keeping my subscription going until it's warm enough to ride outside.  I'm happy with the progress.  If the numbers were closer I'd probably keep the subscription going all year.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Shred Some Lake!

The lake has been on my mind a lot. I have been eager to re-visit it and get a proper ride in.  Last time I was worried because I didn't have any safety gear, nor would I know what to do with it if I did.

My first step was getting educated on what to do.  So after a quick browse through Youtube, I found a great video featuring Dr Gordon Giesbrecht.  Dr Giesbrecht (aka Doctor Popsicle) is a professor at the University of Manitoba with a PhD in physiology. He has extensive experience with cold physiology.  Click here to check out his web site.  Check out the YouTube video below for tips on how to survive falling through the ice.

My next step was safety gear.  I got myself a set of ice safety picks at Canadian Tire.  Also known as ice safety claws and ice rescue picks, this tool can be used to perform a self-rescue after falling through the ice.  In the small cylinder is something that resembles a sharp nail.  The idea is you kick your feet and use these to pull yourself out.  They are left draped around your neck and sit inside your sleeves, so they are always close to your hands.

Normally I am eager to try out new gear.  That being said I hope I don't get the opportunity to use these ice safety picks!

Checking out my weather app told me there would be a dusting of snow a few centimeters deep.  The temperature would be -14C and wind chill would make it feel like -24C.  At that temperature I knew I'd be fine with a base layer (winter cycling jersey, thermal tights, knee warmers, cycling liner, thin toque, wool socks).  I added in one piece of mid-layer (merino wool socks) and one layer of shell (red rain coat).  I stowed my sunglasses and opted for my goggles instead.

The other modification I decided to play with was a thermos.  I have a few but they don't quite fit in a bottle cage.  After a slight modification of some rubbery material held on with some rubber bands, I had a thermos that would fit well.  The particular thermos I was trying out was a Tim Horton's coffee thermos, so I filled it with some fresh coffee.

In the other bottle cage I stowed a room temperature energy drink.  I wanted to make sure I was well prepared regardless of circumstance.

The beginning of my ride was marred with a near accident.  There was a car parked in the shoulder, a pickup truck passing me on the left and another car coming towards us.  Instead of slowing down and/or proceeding cautiously, Mr Pickup Truck just  blasts through full tilt.  Complementary video clip below:

So I proceeded over to the lake and found terrain similar to last time.  There was packed snow, packing snow, drifts of powder snow, ice and crusted snow, both supportable and breakable.  It was difficult to tell the difference between each.  I was surprised at how often my rear wheel would kick out to the side while my front wheel stayed straight.  In other words, I was having a blast!

I decided to give my thermos a try.  The good news is, my coffee was still very hot.  The bad news, the mechanism which made it easy to pour had frozen open.  In other words, I would have to drink my whole thermos of coffee in one go.  I'll be honest, at the time it was not a hard sell!

While enjoying my hot beverage a pickup truck passed by.  The passenger gave me a big grin and a thumbs up.  It warmed my heart more than the coffee ever could.

I wish I could say the same about my energy drink.  I was used to getting about an hour out of a bottle before it would start freezing up.  The first few times I drank from it, things seemed fine.  But the wind chill in an open area really accelerated the freeze.  It wasn't long before my energy drink became energy slush.  Normally slushy drinks are awesome, but they are detrimental to staying warm.

This was one of the funnest rides I had all winter.  You wouldn't think it would be challenging to ride on a mostly-flat lake.  It's actually quite the contrary! Because the lake is so open, all the snow is at the mercy of the wind.  There are finger and pillow drifts everywhere.  It's difficult to tell a snow drift that has become hard to one that is powder fresh.  Sometimes vehicle tracks will show you the way, other times they just led you into a fresh powdery trap.  You had to keep alert and be ready for anything.

I made some time lapse footage of my experience below.  Enjoy!