By Brian Walton
Oh the Humanity!
There are two critical components that any serious athlete and coach must address in establishing an individualized training program: the scientific component, and the personal, or human, element. Optimizing a person’s performance potential requires significant attention to both of these equally important branches of the coaching process. Like the Chinese Yin and Yang, a person’s coaching will be out of balance if too little or too much attention is given to one or the other of these arms of the coaching process.
Over the next few months, I will be working in conjunction with PezCycling News’ Stephen Cheung on a series of articles addressing the coaching process. Both of us have unique insight into the coaching process I’ve addressed above; Stephen on the scientific side and me on what I call the “human” side. In the course of these articles, Stephen will be the scientific Yin to my, more human (I spent the ‘91/92 winter training with Brian during his Motorola days, so don’t be fooled into mistaking this for “more humane!” – Toolbox Ed.), Yang.
Meet Mr. Average
The question I want to address throughout this series is, “How do you take an apparently average athlete and turn them into an elite or even world-class cyclist?” When I started out in cycling, I had been at best an average runner; I was once even referred to as a “gnat” by a journalist after I won the Canadian Road Championships! Despite this, I made a career out of racing my bike at the international level and won the Silver Medal in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in the Points Race. In everyone’s eyes I was that average athlete. Getting me into the European and domestic pro-peloton took the kind of human coaching which I’ll be discussing.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Coaching
At Cadence Performance Cycling Center, where I am the Director of Performance, we focus on seven key areas as we assess our athletes’ coaching needs. Before putting together a training program, we use a formal questionnaire and informal interview to determine: 1) the athlete’s specific cycling/athletic history, 2) past injuries, 3) time available to train, 4) (perceived) strengths and weaknesses, and 5) personal goals. Additionally, we work one on one to assess 6) the athlete’s current fitness level and 7) bike position. This builds the foundation of an individualized training program.
Tell Me About Your Childhood…
Before any training schedule can be put in place, it’s crucial for a coach to learn about the athlete’s cycling/athletic past and even some personal history. Knowing the athlete’s past physical activities will help determine the proper volume and intensity to prescribe during the initial phase of the program.
Also of interest is the athlete’s present situation. Before writing a training program, probably the single most important question to ask is, “How many hours do you have available to train?” What’s the point of creating an ideal 15 h/wk program only to find out that it’s impossible for the athlete to train for more than 10 h/wk?
Moving from the initial assessment phase of coaching, we need to get some baseline information about the athlete’s current fitness level. Primarily, this is determined using max VO2 and blood lactate testing. Using the data from these tests, we learn how efficiently the athletes’ muscles use oxygen and the heart rate level at which blood lactate levels rise significantly above the point at which the body can flush this byproduct of aerobic intensity. This data gives us critical information to design specific workouts within the individual’s physiological training limits, and helps the athlete and coach work in unison to determine the necessary recovery time and overall goal setting.
Now Where’s That Bike?
Once we’ve gotten to know our athletes, their goals, their other obligations, and their baseline physiological data, we need to get them on the bike! But before that, we strongly recommend a little preventative medicine: a simple and valuable tool in preventing short or even long term injuries is a comprehensive bike fit. Increased power output, reduced fatigue, increased riding efficiency, improved comfort, decreased chance for injury, and improved aerodynamics are just some of the benefits of a proper fit.
Now that we have our baseline physiological and biomechanical necessities addressed, it’s time for the athlete to get out on the bike. And, really, that’s what it’s all about! If you have the luxury of riding with your cycling coach this is the most effective way to determine your strengths and weaknesses. A one hour ride with an experienced cycling coach will help assess your current needs and how you can improve as quickly as possible. If you are not able to ride with your coach then your own comments and observations will suffice. Note that the more rider feedback you give, the better a good coach will be able to assess your needs and help set your goals.
Through the Goal Posts
A coach can never lose sight of the fact that once our athletes are on the bike they have a definite reason for being there. This is why it’s so important for honest athlete/coach communications throughout the relationship: is their goal to lose weight? Is it to win the state time trial title? Is it to be able to finish with the group on the Tuesday training race? Goal setting will not only provide personal motivation, but will enable the coach to build a program where each and every ride has a purpose, namely, the purpose of eventually reaching the athlete’s goals. Occasionally revisiting your goal/s will help you and your coach maintain your momentum toward reaching them. Think of it this way: Just as a proper bike fit is the essential part of riding a bike, goals are the critical component of a personalized training program.
Sometimes the hardest part of starting a coached training program is just getting started. A look back at the past helps determine the proper course for creating your future on the bike. Using information from the past, present ¬and future–athletic history, personal obligations, current fitness level, short and long term goals—a coach can go on to create a training program based upon scientific periodized principles. Next month, I’ll discuss the different phases of training and how to prepare a training program by working backwards from your goals.
Cadence Cycling website.
Brian Walton has a uniquely well-rounded perspective on training and coaching. He was one of the top Canadian riders of the 80s and 90s, riding as a pro with 7-Eleven, Motorola, and Saturn, and winning the 1989 Milk Race and silver in the 1996 Olympic Points Race. He then became the DS and coach for Team Snow Valley, turning it into the top Elite Men’s team in the USA. He is currently the Director of Performance for Cadence Cycling in Philadelphia, and can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org.