I’m writing this week’s post some 35,000 feet above the Earth – flying my way to Edinburgh for the World Commission of Sport Science Cycling Science Conference. I’m looking forward to the day ahead, as there are some interesting presentations scheduled: from Pat McQuaid of the UCI talking about doping control; through to topics on mountain biking at Beijing; race pacing and cycling efficiency. A day of learning...and coffee no doubt, as I catch up with my ex-coach Louis Passfield! I’ll report back on the conference in next week’s post.
It has been an interesting week – although I am fortunate to have work that always gives me interesting times! I think that is the nature of coaching – each of my athletes brings me their own projects, challenges, individuality. I cannot treat any two the same – the way I communicate with them, what they need from me – each relationship is unique. I often find myself explaining to people how I consider coaching all about relationship. Yes, I am a sport scientist, fascinated by the human body and its physiological responses to exercise: but unless I can unravel what is going on for the athlete at any one time, all the knowledge in the world will not help them perform. I have to engage, be empathetic, communicate my ideas – in essence, give my athletes the time they need from me.
I had opportunity to discuss the coach-athlete relationship with an elite athlete this week – my ex- Science in Sport team mate Wendy Houvenaghel. We met up in London for a much needed catch up – as we had not seen one another for over 2 years, not since the Beijing Olympics in fact, when Wendy took silver behind GB team mate (also an ex-SIS rider) Rebecca Romero . I was fascinated to hear about her journey in that time –Beijing silver in the individual pursuit and World Champs Jersey from the team pursuit. I was also able to share my own journey from sport scientist, to athlete, to sport scientist again, to coach and business owner. Each of us has learnt so much through sport. In fact, its Wendy who I have to thank for lessons in coffee drinking (I can report she is still pretty good at that!).
One thing that I realised during my time with Wendy was how to explore the very limits of our potential; we have to go the ‘whole hog’. We cannot be half hearted in our attempts. Elite athletes take this to the extreme. Wendy was finishing off a whistle stop 8 week tour catching up with family and friends before she knuckles back down to athlete life again towards the Commonwealth Games, World Track Champs and onto London 2012. She is just over mid-way through the Olympic cycle, and it is time to re-enter the ‘bubble’ as she described it. Wendy admits she is very ‘all or nothing’ – I smiled, because we share that characteristic! Full on, or full off – it means a very cyclic life, but I do sense it is a valuable tool in getting the very best out of yourself, no matter what line of work or sporting discipline you practise.
I don’t see this as exclusive to elite athletes. I believe that ANY athlete deserves the elite experience. I don’t condemn any of my athletes who opts out of this ‘all or nothing’ way – but I do see a range of choice made among those I coach: those that do everything in their power to maximise and optimise, whilst those who are sometimes a little half-way house. People who want to explore leaving no stone unturned gravitate towards PBscience probably because they see I coach in line with my performance philosophy.
Last weekend I was able to observe the behaviour of some of the athletes in my care. Dan and I drove up to Yorkshire in Mobie in support of 10 PBscience athletes competing in the National 25 mile Championships. You will remember that 2 weeks ago, the athletes were afflicted by high temperatures – and this weekend it was a very similar situation. Although temperatures were a shade cooler, the fact that the race distance was 2.5 times longer meant the build in heat stress was actually greater. Heat stress is a product of time and metabolic rate. Whilst metabolic rate might be higher in 10 mile time trialling, it was the time in the saddle that crucified (read “toasted”) people. Reports of “felt fine on the way out to the turn roundabout, but died coming back” were common – people’s power output just drained away; heart rates through the roof (higher than previously recorded maximums in fact); unquenchable thirst, salt covered lips and skin. Classic symptoms of heat intolerance.
I was pleased to see how my athletes used their experience at the 10 champs to better prepare themselves for the 25: plenty of ice packs and cold towels were in use; hydration with multiple bottles or camel backs; and all warming up in the shade (Mobie’s awning became very popular!). But I sense the athletes were still unaware how much the heat affected their performance that day - disappointed to see their powers lower than normal. I had to comfort them with “but everyone’s were”. It was noticeable how some people’s tolerance to heat is lower than others – indeed, studies show how big an influence our genes have on things such as heat tolerance and response. Unfortunately, some things aren’t under our control: but this is why it is critical to pay attention to EVERYTHING we can control – getting to the race venue the day before, riding the course, starting nutritional and hydration strategies 2 to 3 days ahead of the ride, practising riding at the time of day you are racing – small things add up. Wendy knows the value of the British Cycling mantra “Marginal Gains”.
My athlete Craig is one convert to this approach for his cycling. Before this year, I think Craig would agree with me that he ‘loved riding his bike’ and in some ways it cancelled out his hectic lifestyle – working in London, young family. The long rides annulled all those work socials! Since entering the Leadville 100, Craig has become “an athlete”. He has the utmost respect for the event, and knows the challenges ahead – not just the facts of how many metres he has to climb, the drop in oxygen pressure he faces, the hours in the saddle and power output he needs. He understands the toll this is going to place his body under. We have approached the task ahead like a problem solving exercise – he has weekly and monthly targets in his training and body mass. He has nutritional guidance to support his training whilst losing the weight he needs to optimise his power to weight ratio. One of the strategies we have employed is to have him come into the altitude chamber at the University of Brighton: where I remain a part time research fellow. In the past fortnight, Craig has spent 12 hours sitting ‘at’ 4500m: his blood oxygen levels reaching around 70% of those we would have at sea level. This will help his body cope with the levels we will see in Leadville. The next stage of the process will be to have him exercise at this mountain height – I bet he is looking forward to that!! But, I know he will commit to it, no matter how tough a challenge. Craig is embracing ‘all or nothing’ and his motivation grows as he sees the results: since February he has gained 20W in sub-maximal fitness, lost 7kg in weight and 3% body fat – his power to weight ratio has thus improved an impressive 20%. OK, he might not equal Lance Armstrong’s magical 6.7W/kg to win the Tour, but he now stands a chance of completing the Leadville event: back in February we weren’t so confident.
It is now just 2 weeks until I face my own challenge for the year: the London to Paris bike ride. My training has been going well, and since my 100 mile ride (with Craig) a few weekends ago, I have relaxed having grown in confidence I can manage that ride distance: just need to do it 3 days in a row now! Most of my training has been steady, base endurance riding – rarely taking my heart rate above lactate threshold (except when climbing up hills on the wheel of Juliette, another of my Eastbourne based athletes who is riding L2P with me). So, it was a shock to the system when I did an ‘Epic’ turbo trainer session on Wednesday. Dan and I are building a section on the website that describes each training session the PBscience athletes might encounter in their training plan. The idea is to provide in depth explanation of why the training session works, when we would use it and some practical tips to getting it right. One thing we are going to include is a picture of what the session looks like in the Training Peaks WKO software – not all the sessions we have in the database have been performed, so any ‘holes’ have to be filled. I decided to try out the ‘Epic’ (a session actually designed by Hunter Allen who developed the WKO software) – I think I will rename it to ‘Torture’! An amazing workout, but not one for the faint hearted. Thankfully, the Dauphine time trial was on Eurosport – but I did question my sanity as I looked outside to a beautiful sunny afternoon...the things I do for my athletes! ;-)
I’m sure in 2 weeks, those 3 x 100miles + per day will feel like childsplay now. Oh well, just an example of my ‘all or nothing’ streak I guess.