“We were looking at all the fancy little things — the hundreds and thousands on the cake, but we forgot about the cake” Tim Kerrison, Sports Scientist, Team Sky.
I’ve always loved the ‘marginal gains’ side of cycling and triathlon. I had a heart-rate monitor shortly after Chris Boardman started using one. I was the first in the UK after Simon Lessing to have the top-of-the-range Aquaman wetsuit (I still use it). I’ve always read countless magazines looking for the latest training secrets or nutrition products that would help me go faster. However, to attain excellence in any field, whether it is sport, art or work. it is vital that we focus on the basics and doing them exceptionally well before progressing on to the complex stuff. A straw poll at the coaching workshop I delivered last week suggested that most athletes had never had the opportunity to work on the basics. Certainly, as an athlete, sport scientist and coach I have been guilty of looking at the ‘marginal gains’ before it was appropriate to do so. It has taken me many years to recognise that this was a flawed approach.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll explore the basics of cycling performance, starting off with ‘The Snickers Paradigm’ then, progressing on how to plan training for the forthcoming season. Hopefully, it will help you reflect on what you do in your own practice and make changes if required. If you’ve got any questions, suggestions, wish to agree or disagree please feel free to leave a comment or drop me an email. I promise to respond.
What makes a complete athlete? What are the skills, physical attributes and mindset required? You may wish to write down what you’re thinking before reading on and reconsider them later.
As soon as I started to ride a bike, I became fascinated about the most effective methods to train, I’ve trawled through literally hundreds of academic papers, read numerous coaching and training books and spoken with many leading experts in the field. I understand the theories of periodisation well, consider myself to be an expert in exercise intensity and I know a bit about training with a power meter. However, the more experience I have gained, the more I have realised that that planning and prescribing training needs to be simple, practical and relevant to the athletes and coaches I work with. Furthermore, I rarely come across coaches or athletes who use periodised training programmes as they’re presented in textbooks suggesting that the textbooks need to change. However, I wasn’t sure how they needed to change.
Recently, I started coaching a 14 year old. Hmmm, a blank canvas, I thought. “what if he is selected for the Olympic talent programme. I need to find out how the programme coaches plan and prescribe training for youngsters, to ensure that how I coach the rider reflects what they’re doing”. Luckily, working at National Cycling Centre , I was able to pester Talent Development coach Tim Buckle. As a result he invited me to a seminar for young riders and their coaches on exactly that subject. Although, I didn’t gain any new information, what I did learn was how to present that information. Tim’s genius was to make planning and prescribing training simple, practical and relevant to his audience.
“Eureka” I thought. Most of us need to fit our training around a busy life; amateur athletes have more in common with 14 year old school kids than Olympic athletes, i.e. limited time to train, many life demands, no professional support teams and limited access to coaches. Why had I been looking at what works for elite athletes when it’s more effective to look to how the best in the business develop youngsters? I had made the same mistake as Kerrison, starting at the top and working down, rather than starting at the bottom and working my way up.
I’d love to continue with Kerrison’s cake baking analogy; however, Buckle buggers this up by using an alternative one, “The Snickers Bar”. He wants to produce riders with the fundamental skills required to progress to compete at a higher level and marginal gains doesn’t come into his equation. So what is the “Snickers Bar”?
The Snickers Paradigm
Old habits die hard and I like to sound clever so I’ve advanced Buckle’s method of developing young riders by calling it a paradigm. Don’t look down the page just yet; Describe a Snickers Bar (a Marathon bar if you’re old and from the UK). What does it consist of?
Yes…. nuts, nougat, chocolate, caramel, and then the wrapper! However, unless all of these elements are present, the Snickers Bar does not exist. If any bits are missing, it’s not a Snickers! If it’s not a Snickers, you ain’t moving to the next level. Simply, the Snickers is the foundations of cycling performance. As I’m Scottish, the next level would be to batter the Snickers, deep fry it and then serve it with full-fat ice-cream. The world class marginal-gains cherry on the top Snickers Bar.
I’ve used mainly cycling examples here, but it’s easy to apply to any sport.
The Wrapper- is work ethic. The wrapper holds everything together and it stops the bar from melting. There are many youngsters coming to sport wishing to follow in the footsteps Brad Wiggins, Lizzie Armistead or the Brownlee’s. What they don’t see is the sheer hard work and commitment that these athletes put in to reach the top. Every endurance athlete must learn to love and want to work hard. Training in mid-winter in freezing temperatures isn’t much fun after all.
Have you ever got back home tired, wet, cold and hungry? The blood starts to flow back into your fingers and toes, resulting in excruciating pain! 2 hours later after being in a sleeping bag, under a duvet, and having the heating on full you are just starting to warm up. Is it a reason to brag to your mates how hard you are or an excuse not to go out the next day?
A summer evening. Life is great. Everyone is out on their racing steeds, gunning it at 50km.h. Going through a roundabout, a car pulls out and you are stranded a few meters out the back. Just then, a crackpot decides to drive at the front of the group and you can’t close the gap. It gets bigger, there’s no way you’ll get back on now! Do you sit up and give in? Or do you imagine you’re Philip Gilbert out front in the Ronde with a 2 minute gap to close?
Training when you don’t want to or looking at adversity as an opportunity to improve is a prerequisite for success. It takes time to develop, discipline and support from others to maintain, but without a serious work ethic endurance sport is probably not for you.
The Caramel- Are you brave? Can you go down a 20% descent with the brakes off? If a scary mad Kazakhstani leans on you, do you push back or do you end up in the gutter? Me? In the first instance, you wouldn’t see me for the rancid smoke coming from the burning rubber from my brake pads. In the second one, I’d be screaming “stay away from my Di2 rear-mech you brute”. I never made it as a road racer! I prefer non-drafting triathlons on flat straight roads! Kirkland is a complete nut, but he isn’t a complete Snickers.
Bravery isn’t just about racing. It’s about having an open mind, not always following the crowd and being brave enough to take measured risks. Sometimes, the bravest fail, but they dust themselves down with the wrapper and try again!
The chocolate- I once worked with a rider whose 5 minute peak power was 575 watts (massive). He was physically exceptional but he chased the wrong moves, attacked just before big climbs (he was 85kg) or chose to mix it with the sprinters when his fast twitch fibre count was 1%. His tactical awareness was similar to a Vietnam GI on angel-dust. He took up time-trialling!
If you’re not the strongest, having a good tactical brain can help compensate. When the red mist descends for others, it is essential to keep a clear head and think about what you are doing and why. The more you race, the quicker you start to make the right decisions instinctively. Why are GB riders now able to win at such a young age, if experience is so important? It’s simple. They practice tactics in training, they critically watch others racing and they are taught to reflect on what went well or less well in races They are encouraged to take remedial action to strengthen their tactical armoury.
Nougat- or nugget if you’re not posh! Being fast is part of being a bike racer. It’s not simply about the speed of travel. It’s about having fast legs. I recently had a parent on the phone saying that their “little Johnny” was getting dropped in local criteriums because he was on junior restricted gears and what should they do? Without a hint of irony, I replied “pedal faster!!!!” It’s simple….if you can’t increase the force, increase the velocity.
Being fast is also about being able to change pace rapidly, shifting cadence from 80 to 135rpm in the blink of an eye. Such skill requires neuromuscular adaptations and for these adaptations to occur specific training is required. Riders are most responsive to neuromuscular adaptation at a young age……think small gears, think track, rollers, BMX, cycle-speedway! Did I mention getting the miles in? Nope! That’s not to say that developing endurance isn’t important, it’s just less of a priority until speed is developed.
Nuts- peanuts, they’re jungle fresh! They’re also skill! In the Tour de France, maintaining the average power at the start of a stage is within capabilities of an Olympic target shooter…well maybe a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea. It’s pretty low! However, the average 1st cat rider would be scrambling at the back of the field, accelerating at peak power out of every corner and they’ll be out the back as soon as a wee dig went in. Why? Because they lack skill. Cornering, descending, being able to bunny hop at speed, eating a gel, putting a jacket on, not falling when coming into contact with other riders, sitting on a the team car bumper at 60km.h are only a few of the skills required to be a successful road racer. When was the last time you practised any of them? “When was the last time you practised then smarty-arse?” I hear you say. Never! But I struggle negotiating a turn in a time-trial and get shouted at by age-group triathletes when going round a corner.
Until Next Time
The Snicker Bar is now complete. We all understand what it is, but how can we make ourselves or our athlete’s into one? Hard work to develop these skills is required before it’s time for the batter and ice-cream.
In a recent presentation to a group of club athletes,only one or two riders cautiously put a hand up when I asked them who trained to develop their own Snickers Bar. That was less than 10% of the group! Which group do you fit into?
Next week, I’ll go into planning training for next year, so hopefully I’ll see you then. If you like my article, tweet it, post it on your Facebook or pass on the link to others that you think may be interested.