Building an Elite Cyclist

Building an Elite Cyclist

Over the last decade, sports scientist Neal Henderson, 41, has become one of the world’s top cycling and endurance coaches, advising Olympic racers like Evelyn Stevens and elite triathlon competitors like Cameron Dye. As some of his clients, including Taylor Phinney of the BMC Racing Team, take to the Alps for the Tour de France, the founder and chief executive of Boulder’s Apex Coaching offers expert advice for the everyday rider.

How do you motivate an endurance athlete?
People drawn toward endurance sports are not by nature lazy. They are hardwired to push themselves. More often than not, actually, with a lot of endurance athletes, the coach is in a role of pulling them back from what they want to do in training. It’s kind of like the horse trainer not letting the horse run as hard as it wants to go but putting the blinders on and pulling on the reins and saying, “Whoa.” I try to provide balance so that the athlete is making improvements, not just getting tired from training hard. We are trying to guide this preparation so that there is a progression. If my athletes are going to the point where they’re exhausted, they’re going too deep and they won’t be able to achieve their next training goal. Fatigue is not the goal. Adaptation is the goal.

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Don’t you think that applies to amateur athletes as well—going too hard and tiring yourself out?
Any individual who is going to exhaustion on a frequent basis is absolutely not in a healthy place with his or her exercise regimen. In training, just because I can go really hard doesn’t mean I’m going to benefit. In fact, it can be counterproductive. After either training or exercising, you are worse than before you started. You are slower, you are weaker, you are less capable. It is only once there’s been recovery that there’s the possibility of being better for it. If I just go as hard as I possibly can at something there is no guarantee that I’ll actually get a positive adaptive response.

What does the average cyclist do wrong?
Going out and riding for a couple of hours could put you at risk for an overuse injury if your body is not acclimated to that level of stress yet. If you’re riding at a  standard 90 revolutions per minute in an hour—that’s, what, 5,400 pedal strokes? If you go out and do that for two or three hours, it’s a significant stress if somebody has not built up to that. Increasing how much you do too quickly is often a troublesome area. Especially as the weather gets nice—spring arrives and a lot of people say, “Oh, the weather is great, I’m going to go out and ride three hours.” If their longest ride in the past three months  has been an hour, that’s definitely a risk for overuse. In general, as a rule, 80% of your training should be relatively easy to maybe moderate and only 20% should be intense.

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So what would be an acceptable ride for the average rider?
Think of threshold as this upper limit of what can be sustained. In cycling we call that “threshold power” or “functional  threshold power,” which is an output that can be maintained for an hour. Using that point, ride at about 60% or 70% of that power. If you are riding three days a week, a ride could be 45 minutes or an hour, but with a dozen 10-second sprints to hit a neuromuscular peak power level.

What’s the benefit of that particular workout?
You’re going easy enough during the in between sprint efforts so that your sprint efforts can reach your upper limit for this short, high-intensity burst. There is a neuromuscular stress that you’re trying to achieve. You cannot do that kind of work over long durations. When people say, “I did a bunch of 30-second sprints,” I can guarantee you that in the last 10 seconds of those 30-second sprints they’re not sprinting anymore. The output level is dropping off dramatically, so they’re not actually training themselves to have a high output. They’re just getting tired.

Should cyclists care about speed?
Speed is relative. It’s the actual work that matters. The power meter is an absolute must-use tool in addition to cadence and heart-rate monitors.

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What do you advise athletes to think about during these long stretches of endurance activity?
I prefer to stay engaged in the task at hand. People who dissociate do not make as great gains, generally, over time. Distractions and thinking about other things other than what you’re doing is not the best way forward. Pay attention to what you’re doing: Are you pushing with each pedal equally? Are you actively breathing using your diaphragm? How is  your posture on the bike? What are your back muscles doing? How tight are you gripping on the bars?

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How do you advise people to better listen to their bodies?
Athletes at a high level will use tools, whether the heart rate monitor, power meter, cadence sensor—those kinds of things—to register the information as sensations. They could tell you their heart rate within two or three beats per minute. They could tell you their cadence within a couple of revolutions per minute, and the power output within a few watts. Even speed—the air moving over you. Can you feel the difference between 18 miles an hour and 20? I know I can. I know the heart-rate difference between 120 and 130 [beats per minute]. For me, I know what that feels like in my muscles. I know what 80 RPM feels like versus 90 RPM. All of those things are a different sensation. I know what my respiration  rate is like at a given intensity so I can use that as a guide, whether I should be going easier or harder. If somebody has that computer on their bike, they can [hide] one or two of those data streams with a  piece of electrical tape and then peel it up and see, am I close? Ultimately, successful athletes have that well developed. They know their body.

Tell me how to break through the wall. 
Ask yourself if you’re able to focus on something else. Rather than a feeling in my leg, can I concentrate just on my breathing for a few seconds—to go just a little bit longer? Can I actually try to make it feel even worse? There’s an aspect with some of these high-intensity activities where if you can actually go deeper into the discomfort, deeper into that place, that’s where the best performances come. We train athletes to go deeper than ever before on race day.

I didn’t expect you to say go deeper into the pain.
There’s the “pain cave.” Sometimes you come up close to that cave and it’s dark and you just don’t want to go there. But if you don’t go there, you’re not going to achieve your maximum. Whereas, when you are well prepared, when you’re there and you’re rested going into an event, you can dig deeper than you could otherwise. I had an Olympian who took a silver in 2012; she got off the track and said, “I never hurt that bad [before].” But thank God. The next team was eight one-hundredths of a second behind her. If she had not gone to that deeper place, she probably would not have podiumed. But  you can’t do that day in and day out, that’s the thing.

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What are your thoughts on spin classes?
It can be a great tool, depending on if the workout has some objective to it other than to just make you tired—if there are intervals being done with appropriate work-rest ratios and being performed at appropriate intensities relative to your capabilities.

What do you advise in terms of an optimal work-exercise balance for a guy getting into endurance training?
For most of the amateur athletes I work with, we look at weekly volume in terms of hours-per-week of training. I would say that the sweet spot of training in any endurance sport is around 8–12 hours per week. Some folks at a good level can creep upwards of 12–16 hours a week and they’re still making gains and keeping things in balance. But for a lot of master athletes, that 12–16 hours becomes too much because as we age, it just takes a little longer to recover from the higher-intensity efforts.

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