“If I was coaching you now, I’d probably start you back with interval sessions.” Dave Smith’s response to my probing about the role of traditional endurance miles, pyramids with broad foundations and, as he put it “handed-down hearsay training advice” surprised me. I remember intervals on the turbo as being the definition of torture: the lung-busting intensity, a numb backside on the longer sessions, profuse sweating giving way to light-headedness and clammy hands immediately post-ride. Is this what Cadence’s new Performance Director was advocating for a 46-year-old, coming back after two years out of the sport? I looked for a wink, a hint that he was joking, but no.
Dave was giving the first in a series of free-to-attend Coaching Clinics at the centre which I’d attended merely as a blogger initially, but was now finding myself increasingly enthused and engaged as a rider – well, a potentially ‘reborn’ rider in any case. But intervals? Really? Do I have to? And yet the more Dave spoke about his views on training and the role coaching can play, the more I found myself convinced by his easy-to-understand, no-nonsense explanations – after all, why shouldn’t I believe someone who’s built a 20-year-plus successful career in the realm of performance, coaching World and Olympic Champions, Yellow-Jersey holders and the likes of David Millar in his early years?
Everything Dave outlined in this introductory Coaching Clinic slowly made sense to me as his logical arguments followed one after the other. We no doubt all came with reasonable prior knowledge of how training works: training stress forces the body through an adaptation via recovery, this overcompensation allowing us to come back stronger than before. So, first up Dave pointed out the fundamental mistake we often make in thinking of recovery purely in terms rest, rather than a vital component in the training cycle. Given the time of year, Dave focused much of this first talk on winter training, where many competitive riders like those in attendance end their seasons tired but with a high level of accumulated fitness, and then forget about the bike for a month or more, no doubt put off by bad weather and the temptations of ‘the social season’, before coming back to training in the New Year. Certainly pro riders require a period of both physical and mental downtime to allow their bodies to recover from 9 months of intense competition, but amateur athletes like us need to use this layoff as active recovery in order to simply avoid throwing that hard-earned fitness away.
But exactly how much training do we need to do in the off season? Surprisingly Dave says that it’s fine to cut the volume down to a third of the in-season quantity, but it’s vitally important to maintain a sufficiently high intensity. A 15-hour week of on-the-bike training during the racing season could be cut to 5 hours of work on the turbo in winter if the intensity is sufficiently high, whilst perhaps taking advantage of the other 10 hours to address areas we’re likely to ignore: getting injuries fixed, working on weaknesses like core strength and flexibility, or researching areas like nutrition – all off-the-bike activities that’ll help performance in the long term.
It was at this point where I piped up with my thoughts on those winter endurance miles needing to be long and slow, and where Dave put me right. What followed was an intriguing exposé of the three physiological components of our training: our body’s capacity for the exercise, its ability to sustain a certain intensity for the duration of the exercise – the body’s percentage “functional utilisation” of this capacity – and its efficiency. Dave explained with real-world examples and a straightforward clarity that simplified these concepts: my long, slow winter rides would train me to ride, well, a long way, and slowly – but I’d struggle in racing because I’d lost the ability to perform at the required intensity. Wouldn’t I need to be riding 90 miles in order to compete next season in a race of that distance? Dave thinks that it’d be fine to cut the distance to two-thirds, so 60-mile winter rides would be OK provided the intensity was there. A phrase of his that stuck in my mind was “practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent”, with Dave telling us to think of the way ‘old-school’ riders used to maintain pedaling souplesse over the winter by doing miles on fixed-wheel machines. This repetition would help their muscle efficiency, the constant pedaling motion strengthening the neural pathways to get more powerful electrical signals to the muscle fibres; but it’s only one component in the whole story: consider the different types of fibres within the muscles themselves. Apparently we’re not so good at using all of them, so a training ride the day after a hard day in the saddle may seem daunting at first, but not only does the ride normally get a lot easier than we imagined it would be, it’s a great training technique as it forces the body to recruit more of those fibres you don’t normally use, making you stronger. From this short introductory session it’s easy to get an insight into Dave’s immense experience and knowledge in how to help athletes get the best out of themselves, and as an ex-competitor I’m not at all surprised to be hearing that if I want to improve, I’m going to have to get used to suffering … again. And yet somehow this first step towards better self-knowledge has me enthused, fired up, motivated and looking forward to the training challenge ahead. Intervals? Bring ‘em on!
Dave says this is exactly what coaching is all about: it’s up to the individual to decide they want to achieve something, and that’s going to require commitment and dedication on their part; a coach can help with motivation by assessing how realistic a goal is, telling an athlete they can achieve it, and guiding them towards it. Rather than training diktats, it’s more about getting athletes to ask questions of themselves, and helping them to keep their training consistently effective: the body’s response is incredibly efficient, so if there’s insufficient training stimulus, fitness will drop back to the lower level where it simply needs to be.
We’d spoken a lot in the two hours about the correct intensity for training to be beneficial, so inevitably the conversation turned to areas like heart-rates and power output. What tools do you need? Dave says that these tools can contribute greatly to the mix, but points out that certain time-poor clients would waste energy obsessively poring over power data files and so on rather than using their most limited resource – time – to do something else that would bring them an equally useful training benefit. If you remember, there’s the anecdote that if we went by ‘the numbers’ alone, apparently Mark Cavendish isn’t any good … Dave qualified this by stating that of course, at the higher levels it makes absolute sense to take advantage of every available tool and detail to gain the edge – think Sky’s philosophy – but tempered this with a cautionary tale of a potential client handing him months’ worth of effectively useless data because his power crank hadn’t been calibrated beforehand. To me it seemed like Dave was revealing his coaching philosophy here: more important was first to empower people – to get the psychology right, to work with them to stay motivated and suggest approaches – rather than having them fixate on power. What most of his clients needed was less complexity in order to focus, and that in training, as in life, you often need to take external stresses and distractions away in order to see a clear path to success. Count me in!