Thoughts On Athlete Development

Early on I knew that I wanted to give back and support kids that have the drive and motivation to be good at a sport where the learning curve can be pretty steep and intimidating.   I wanted to give kids opportunities to really enjoy the sport that made a huge impact on my life and achieve their goals.  What began as mentoring a few local young cyclists each year eventually led to the opportunity to work with USA Cycling and run the West Coast Mountain Bike Development Camp, and soon after that, the opportunity to work with Bear Development.  In addition to Bear, I have had the pleasure of working with several high school mountain bike teams over the last few years which has been an awesome experience, as well as continuing to work with several junior and U23 athletes independently.  All of these experiences have been immensely rewarding, frustrating at times, and extremely valuable in my understanding of athlete development. 

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In no particular order, I wanted to pass along some of the knowledge learned over the years to help those up and coming in the sport.  This is by no means definitive, but some commonalities and lessons I have learned over the years.  Many of these are from my own experiences, mistakes, and observing the results of others mistakes.  Making mistakes is how we learn and hopefully this will help the juniors, U23s, and the rest of ya all starting in the sport later in life.

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  • Young riders, not just in pure age but in “athlete” age or experience, respond to training differently than athletes with 5+ years of experience. Training should be challenging but manageable, and tailored to their abilities.  All too often I see juniors and U23 riders try to mimic the training of their favorite Pro.  Just because Bradley Wiggins trains for 30 hours a week doesn’t mean that is the best thing for a 17-year-old mountain biker nor will it make him as fast as Bradley Wiggins.  Most Pro cyclists have years of riding in their legs, a base that allows them to build from big weeks versus just being broken down by them.  Respecting where the athlete is in their development, regardless of their age is crucial for long term development.   Not all 20 year olds are in the same place developmentally.  Even athletes competing at a higher level may not have the training experience or volume in their legs to benefit from more advanced or higher volume training. 
  • Athletes that are younger in age can benefit from more variability in their training. Physiologically, they respond quicker to training stimulus and the variety helps maintain motivation.  Most athletes under 15 are best served by not following any formal structure.  Just riding their bikes, doing group rides, and racing is enough to drive improvement in younger athletes. 
  • Delaying early specialization can benefit young athletes later in life and sport.  There are many studies (1, 2, 3) showing the dangers of kids specializing in one sport at an early age and how that can negatively affect their motor development and overall learning of movement patterns.  At some point in the development process an athlete will have to specialize in one sport to reach elite level ranks (where that point is can be debated and is most likely different for each athlete), but the later we can push that the better it is to the athlete as a whole.  The risk of overuse and burnout drops significantly in multi-sport athletes and in programs that allow “play” (more on this below).  I would even argue that it is best for junior cyclists to participate in multiple cycling disciplines.  Track cycling can be an awesome way for young cyclists to learn tactics and group riding skills.  Mountain biking can increase bike handling and overall strength.  When Dr. Andy Pruitt was running the Specialized Junior racing program this was a requirement for the Specialized Junior Athletes.  They all had to participate in at least two disciplines.  It didn’t matter which two but they had to do two.  Many of those athletes from that program have continuing racing and become lifelong cyclists (which really should be the goal for all junior development programs).  
  • Development may mean sacrificing immediate results for long term gains. Early experience is often more valuable than one good result.  Putting an emphasis of achieving valuable experiences and learning in increasingly challenging races will result in wins later.  Of course ending up on a podium is a great experience, but that may not be realistic for where an athlete is in their development.  If an athlete can come away from a race have learned something about positioning, tactics, fueling, a better perspective on fitness, or any other multitudes of technical skills than it is a success that will pay off in results later. 
  • Parents, stop doing stuff for your kids. Be a good cheerleader, supporter, but stop packing their race bags, making sure they have their race nutrition and recovery nutrition, or making sure they packed their shoes.  Let them make mistakes, it is how we learn and become better athletes and people.
  • Not all athletes should be professionals. Yep, that is the hard facts.  It is less than 1% of adolescent athletes that go on to be professionals. Thus, that probably shouldn’t be a goal of any development program even though some athletes may ultimately have that option.  There are many life lessons we can learn from sports including self-discipline, mindfulness, confidence, responsibility for ourselves and teammates, effective goal setting, and good decision making skills that can be invaluable later in life and should be the core of most development programs. 
  • You got to keep it fun. As soon as a program loses that it will greatly lessen the chance of success for its riders and the program itself.  I don’t know any highly successful people that don’t enjoy what they do at some level.  I have never met a successful pro that didn’t enjoy their sport.  This also applies to the programs themselves.  Keeping things fun also applies to the directors, support staff, and coaches in development programs.   Most development programs are acts of love for the sport, giving opportunities to riders many didn’t have coming up in the sport, and out of the kindness of directors, coaches, and support staff.  Those people don’t stick around if the overall experience is not enjoyable, rewarding, or fun.  
Goal setting and ownership of that goal is a core principle in the Bear Development program.

Goal setting and ownership of that goal is a core principle in the Bear Development program.

Like I mentioned above, this list is not definitive.  There are so many aspects of developing good, young athletes that it would be hard to cover all of it. I would love to hear thoughts from others that have helped develop young athletes.  What worked and what didn’t?  Ultimately the more kids we have on bikes the better!

More On Levels and Zones

An example of a power duration curve in WKO4

I had a few people ask for some explanation on my comment about training levels being more descriptive, not prescriptive in the last article “Not So Secret Sauce.”  I thought it would be helpful to explain and to expand a bit more on training levels, zones, and threshold to help athletes and coaches have a better understanding of these concepts.

Why zones and levels?  Seems redundant right?  Actually there is a fundamental difference in how we define these.  Levels are descriptive and used in post ride analysis.  They tend to be broader than training zones, and have some dependency on the workout as a whole. For example, an endurance training level may be anywhere from 200 – 265 watts, but we may want an athlete to be more at the lower end versus the higher end of that range depending on the goals of the workout.

Technically we really only have 3 levels: above Threshold (anaerobic), between aerobic and anaerobic (between threshold), and aerobic.  In other words, this is easy, moderate, or hard.  Of course there are transitional zones between these that can elicit different responses.  This is where training zones start to come in.  Zones are prescriptive and include how hard and for how long.  As technology evolved we started to have ways to provide more detail and specificity.  This detail allows us to hone in on specific aspects of fitness adaptation.  To achieve these definitions of zones we had to have an anchor that varied by fitness.  Thus threshold (however you want to define it) became the anchor as the alternative of anchoring at “max” wasn’t as accurate.  Whether you are using heart rate or power, anchoring your training zones at threshold will provide you a lot more accuracy in your training.

These are the traditional training levels created by Dr.Coggan

These are the traditional training levels created by Dr.Coggan anchored by threshold in level 4.

With power becoming more prevalent, we were able to test as often as we would like to set accurate functional threshold numbers.  You didn’t need to travel to a lab to find out where VO2, lactate threshold, or any other physiological number was at.  You could easily go out and do a test to figure out where your functional threshold is and set your training levels optimally.

One important note: functional threshold power is really a surrogate power for maximal metabolic steady state and does have its definition rooted in physiology, but is much more actionable and  predictive of success in sport than a lab derived number like VO2. 

As a definition, functional threshold is the max power or pace you can maintain for an hour.  Doing an hour-long effort can be technically challenging (where to do a steady state 1-hour effort, pacing, fueling) that we often use a 20-minute test done after an all-out 5-minute effort to exhaust anaerobic ability and then take ~95% of that 20-minute effort to determine threshold.  We could then use that functional threshold number to create individuality in our training levels as well as track changes in fitness over time.

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This works well for about 80% of the athletes out there.  In a typical bell curve application, the 10% of the athletes on either end need a bit more customization.  This is where using diagnostic tools can be very helpful in determining those outliers and creating a more individualized approach for those athletes that fall outside the bell curve.  Individualization is one of the core training principles and is the key to increasing training efficiency and effectiveness (I will write more on the other core training principles in the future).  It is defined as training that recognizes the unique physiology of the individual athlete.

One of the most powerful diagnostic tools we currently have is the power duration curve for cyclists using power.  This is essentially what is your maximal workload for any time frame.  While this is an extremely valuable and informative chart for cyclists with power, the core principle can be applied to all athletes even if not using power, heart rate, or any training metrics.  Essentially, your maximal intensity will decrease as time duration increases.  All athletes can produce a higher output for 5 minutes than they can for 10 minutes.  Most coaches have used this principle in prescribing workouts for shorter durations for quite some time.  In athletes using heart rate, we often wouldn’t even prescribe a specific heart rate for efforts less 5 minutes due to the limitations of how heart rate responds.  Instead, we would have athletes do close to maximal efforts for the prescribed duration.  There are some limitations to this, but it often works well for those athletes not using power.  In runners, I have also found that running pace on flat ground or normalized graded pace in the hills is a good proxy for power and while fundamentally a bit different, the same power duration curve principles apply.

An example of a power duration curve in WKO4

An example of a power duration curve in WKO4

Back to cyclists that have power, using the power duration curve allows us to customize power prescriptions for workouts based off their unique physiology and not off generalized percentages of threshold.  Don’t get me wrong, using percentages of threshold is pretty accurate for efforts up to and including threshold workouts but when we start working on those efforts that are higher than threshold percentages don’t give us a level of specificity that respects the individuality of the athlete.  For example, we may have two athletes at the same threshold power but one can produce 10% more power at 5 minutes than the other.  Prescribing a 5-minute effort based off a percentage of threshold for those two athletes would produce two different workouts and two different results from that workout.

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Achieving this level of individualization was the goal of Dr.Coggan in using the concepts of the power duration curve to create iLevels.  This gives us 9 training zones based on the data from the power duration curve.  Before the release of the iLevels, we would often have to look at mean maximal powers for a variety of durations to set prescribed powers in workouts.  Now we have the very robust iLevel algorithm that does a lot of that work for us.  There is still some need to tailor the prescribed powers and durations for athletes, but the heavy lifting is done.

iLevels

iLevels

Using the power duration curve we are also able to phenotype athletes, or defining the specific type of an athlete.  Some cyclists are TT specialists while others are road sprinters and others are all-arounders.   Defining the type of the athlete is useful in guiding training and better preparing them for the demands of their goals. For athletes that are using heart rate, we tend to use performance results from races, group rides, and rider feedback to phenotype an athlete and get an idea of where their strengths and weaknesses lie.  While this is significantly less precise than what we are able to do with power it can still be a very powerful tool in individualizing training for an athlete.

Hope that explains a bit more the function, definition, and value of training zones as well as highlight the heightened specificity that results from using a power meter.  Training with heart rate or even perceived exertion can still be very effective, but it is hard to beat the added specificity and individuality that training with power can give us.

Happy Training!

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Lower Cost Power Meters

Powertap P1 Pedals

It may be a little late to add anything to your Christmas list, but if you have some Christmas money burning a hole in your pocket a power meter can be a valuable investment in your training.

In my Interbike coverage I talked about some new power meters that were coming out.  I recently had a few questions on lower cost options for power and the benefits of training with power so this would be a helpful guide for athletes looking to make that plunge into power training.

Winter training can be hard.  The sun sets earlier, the days are colder, and El Nino is bringing a big rain stick.  But this is when athletes can make big gains in fitness.  Maybe you have downloaded the next big training plan, worked with a coach to set up a winter program, or finally got into the gym to start a strength training program (you really should by the way!).  The big question come spring is “am I any faster?”  That can be a hard one to answer.  Sure we can look at our Strava times for any given segment but how do we really know if there was a bit more tailwind on that section or that your tires weren’t under-inflated that day.  That is where the objectivity of a power meter can be incredibly insightful.

Power on the bike is synonymous to weight in the gym.  If you go to the gym today and squat 150 pounds and go back a week later and squat 160 pounds than you know you have lifted more weight.  The same applies to wattage on the bike.  If you do a maximal 20-minute effort at 250 watts today and then do 260 watts for the same 20 minutes next week, then you know you improved and did more work for the same time period.   In other words, you got faster!  Having an objectifiable measure of performance is extremely valuable when changing or adding new aspects into your training. After all, we are all a sample size of 1 and what may have been shown to work for a group of cyclists many or many not work for you.  For example, weight lifting has been shown to be beneficial and can improve performance for a lot of cyclists but power would allow you to quantify how much strength training is really benefiting you.

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OK, blatant post for a really good guide on weight lifting for cyclists.

Thankfully, power meters have been coming down in price and at this year’s Interbike trade show we saw lots of lower cost options for those cyclists wanting to make the plunge into power.  One brand new product shown was the Powerbeat by Wattteam.  It is a user installed, dual sided power meter, that is set to retail for $499.  The Powerbeat is compatible with almost any crank on the market including carbon cranks, and is both ANT+ and bluetooth compatible.  It features a rechargeable battery with about 40 hours of ride time.  The install process is quite interesting given that 4iiii (more on them below) decided on not following through with their original plan of letting users or bike shops do the install.  I didn’t get to see the install process first hand but the tools and videos online look to be pretty straight forward.  They are set to start shipping near the end of the year so expect to see some real world testing soon.  I am hoping this product lives up to its claims as it could be a very affordable way for athletes to get into a dual sided power meter.

Powerbeat by Wattteam

Powerbeat by Wattteam

Stages has been on the market for a few years now and continues to be a good lower cost entry into the power meter market with their left side crank arm strain gauge system.  They essentially use a strain gauge attached to the left side crank arm and then double that power to account for the right leg.  While this is not quite as accurate as a dual sided system, Stages has shown to be consistent and reliable allowing athletes to train with power and track changes in fitness with confidence.  This year they released a carbon crank option as well as dropped the price on their entry-level units to $529.  The carbon crank arm (with an interchangeable bottom bracket spindle for SRAM and FSA) starts at $629 for the crank arm and $70 for the bottom bracket spindle.  The carbon products are set to begin shipping this winter or early spring.  Full pricing and options are available on their website stagecycling.com.

Along the same concept of the Stages Power meter is the 4iiii Innovations Precision Power meter which is also a strain gauge attached to the left side crank arm.  The main difference with the Precision is that you send in your aluminum crank arm (no carbon option yet) and they will install it for you. While this is a minor difference it can result in some cost savings since you don’t need to buy an additional crank arm.  The cost of the 4iiii power meter is $399.99 and takes between 2 – 3 weeks turn around to have it installed.

Well known electronics maker Pioneer entered the power meter market a few years ago and has continued to be a very good option for athletes.  Their dual sided, 12-point sided analysis power meter is only $1000 if you already own an Ultegra or Durace crankset, and this year they introduced a left side only option that starts at $800 including an Ultegra crank arm.  The system can also be upgraded to a dual sided system later for a reduced cost.

Pioneer Power Meter

Pioneer Power Meter

Powertap has been making power meters for about as long as most of us have been riding bikes and this year they added a few new options to their time-tested power hubs.  New this year was power measuring chain rings and brand new pedals. The Powertap C1 chainrings are only offered in a 110mm 5-bolt spacing as of now.  This is somewhat limiting but there are still multiple crank options that are compatible.  There is a full list of compatible options on their website.  At $699 these enter the market as a good lower cost option for a dual sided power meter.  Power tap also released their new P1 pedal system.  This is a dual sided pedal based power meter system that has overcome some of the complexities of other pedal based systems.  It is literally an install like any other pedal without the need for torque wrenches.  It uses AAA batteries with approximately 400 hours of ride time.  The cost for the P1 is $1199 which is a bit higher than the other options presented here, but the simplicity of use and dual sided function of the pedals make them a solid bargain.

Powertap P1 Pedals

Powertap P1 Pedals

The power meter market has been growing like crazy and I am sure there are other options I missed on this list.  I purposely left off “pseudo” power meters that use wind resistance and body metrics to measure the forces resisting a rider instead of the force created by a rider, or mysterious HR straps that somehow estimate power output.  I have found these to not be very reliable and near impossible to use for training and measuring improvement in riders.

Let me know in the comments if there are other systems I missed.

Successful Holiday Strategies for Endurance Athletes

How is it even the holiday season already?!  Seems like it was just yesterday we were up in Truckee for road cycling nationals…

The holiday season can be stressful and hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle.  You have more demands on your time, the days are shorter, and there are the social gatherings with tempting sweets.  With all these stresses and opportunities to splurge, it is pretty easy to slip away from your healthy routines and skip a workout here and there.  While some indulgence isn’t necessarily a bad thing, letting that snowball into weeks of missed workouts and chocolate turtle cookies for breakfast can be problematic and set you back once spring rolls around.  It is possible to lose a lot of those hard-fought gains you worked for throughout the year with 3 – 4 weeks of missed workouts, cocktail parties, and cookie trays.

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The good news is that there are easy strategies to prevent that from happening.   When it comes to workouts, I like to emphasis frequency and consistency with my athletes, not volume.  That essentially means more frequent shorter workouts is better than less frequent longer workouts even if your weekly volume is the same.  For example, a 30-minute trainer workout done 4 times a week is better than 1 two-hour ride on the weekend.  This is also a good time of the year to focus on some strength training.  There are a lot of body weight programs that only take 15  – 20 minutes that could be done a lot more frequently.  Hip bridges, body weight squats, planks, side-planks, and pull-ups are all great exercises for endurance athletes.  If you have access to a gym, getting in three 45 – 60 minute higher intensity strength workouts can do wonders to retain fitness as well as give you an opportunity to work on weaknesses that have been neglected throughout the year. (Blatant plug)  Weight Training for Cycling: The Ultimate Guide is a good resource in setting up a strength program for this time of the year.

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Using an indoor trainer to maintain cycling fitness can also be a good strategy for getting in quick workouts.  Getting your bike setup and leaving it ready on the trainer is a good way to eliminate excuses from getting in that quick spin.  When you get on the trainer you should have a plan for how you are going to use your available time.  Don’t just get on and spin your legs away.  Here are a few workouts to get you started:

  1. Micro-burst intervals: Warm-up for 5 – 10 minutes.  Then complete 1 blowout effort for 30 seconds at a hard effort (9 out of 10 perceived exertion).  Spin for 2 – 3 minutes then start 2 – 10 minute efforts where you ride at maximum intensity for 30 seconds, and then spin easy for 30 seconds, repeating until the 10 minutes is done.  Spin easy for 5 minutes and repeat the 10 minute effort again.  Cool down with at least 3 – 5 minutes of easy spinning.  Total time can be as short as 35 minutes.
  2. High Cadence Efficiency Drills: Warm-up for 5 -10 minutes.  Then start 4 x 5 minutes at the highest cadence you can maintain without bouncing in the saddle.  Recover at your normal self selected cadence for 1 minute between efforts.  Your intensity for the high cadence efforts should be close to your normal endurance pace.  Cool down with at least 3 – 5 minutes of easy spinning.  Total time can be as short as 30 minutes.
  3. Threshold Intervals: Warm-up for 5 – 10 minutes. Then complete 3 x 10 minutes at aerobic threshold or a perceived exertion of 8 out of 10.  This should be close to the max intensity you can maintain for the duration of the interval.  Recover for 2 minutes between efforts and cool down for at least 3 – 5 minutes after last effort.   Total time can be less than 40 minutes.

Happy Holidays everyone!