Becoming a good coach isn’t as simple as attending a few courses or reading a few chapters in a book…as I have learnt over the last few years! I hope to share what are considered the general principles of coaching with my unique perspective from experience with numerous and very different athletes. I have also highlighted a few observations at the end which should make this more interesting reading.
Prescribing training is ‘apparently’ the daily and weekly activity that is thought to be the majority of a coach’s work, where in fact session prescriptions are just the final action. Session choice is a conclusion from understanding a client and how a programme is working as it should or if it needs adjustment. There is no such thing as the ‘perfect plan’ or any ‘single’ way to coach, just the ability to apply a programme so that an athlete responds as optimally as possible, given the practicalities, compliance and obstacles that commonly get in the way of training.
Knowledge of how to design and deliver optimal training is important, although if this is not communicated properly then an athlete will not benefit. This knowledge does not guarantee success as a good relationship and communication between coach and athlete is required to maximise the chances of optimal performance, as a dynamic- responsive plan requires planning, feedback and refinement. Just following a programme doesn’t mean an athlete is being coached.
Coaches have their own style and athletes are individuals, so the one-size approach does not fit all. The modern coach, should be an expert in sports science and training theory and has many functions in a coach-client relationship. They need to be applied ‘scientists’, up-to-date on the latest research and apply multiple principles in practice with some experience as a competitor. Sound knowledge of physiology, nutrition, and preparation for competition, mental and emotional aspects are needed to develop an effective coaching frame work, but above all good communication.
Typically an athlete brings a practical goal to the coach who then is able to translate that goal into performance objectives and milestones at each step in the programme. The coach is then able to project manage the timeframe with appropriate phases and periods tailored to the athlete and their chosen disciplines. The effectiveness of any particular session or series of sessions is determined by the motivation of an athlete and flexibility of sessions is partly driven by the awareness of the athlete of their own body. A ‘total stress’ policy about the athlete abilities to cope with work and other commitments needs to be transparent and is more conducive of responsive prescription and optimal training.
Depending on the level of experience, an athlete may prefer to be led by the coach if they are considered to have little previous experience. At intermediate level the relationship can rely on dual input from both or for more experienced athletes, they may seek confirmation and training options from a coach. This leads on to how an athlete wants to be coached, in a participatory manner or with less involvement in the decision making process, which may be a preference for some.
Coaching in action:
The effective role of a coach is to support a rider to adapt physiologically and psychologically at a rate appropriate for his/ her stage of development and individual needs. Prescribed training and coaching interventions should be logical, justifiable and rational. These should be custom-based on the requirements and feedback of riders as there is a large variation in rate and size of inter-individual adaptation.
Reference to a programme template is also critical to planning and a structured method of short/ medium and long term goal setting for training/ nutrition/ recovery and competition. Compliance is fundamental to success although chasing athletes for training files and feedback may not always be possible. However, if a coach is unable to analyse sessions and prescribe training in time for the next session based on the previous all of a sudden a plan becomes sub-optimal and less responsive. Frequent updates of training are crucial to an effective plan. Relevant info, and refinement of a plan enables fluidity, as catching issues quickly helps long-term consistency in training load.
Avoiding over-training and illness is always at the forefront of a coach’s consideration, but finding the limit of an athlete is often necessary. Constant monitoring and adjustments are needed to continuously bridge the performance objective gap. Movement through the phases puts the coach in an overseeing role, relying upon experience and process knowledge of the physiology of training. Questions should be asked…Where are you now? An assessment of skill set required to meet goal important? Where will you be? How do you get there? Session prescription must be appropriate for the age and stage of the athlete.
The principles behind Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) can be applied to an athlete at any stage rather than just junior cyclists in early development. A typical development plan for a competitive athlete can last between 3-5 years depending on the amount of competition number of peaks planned. Generally these periods are segmented to cover the following-
-Training to train
-Training to compete
-Training to win
Frequent reviewing of performance is essential through a season and race performance logs are obviously the most important determinant of success. Although key events come towards the end of a programme so monitoring of performance parameters throughout is necessary to predict success.
Monitoring the programme:
Objective indicators to assess progress is the best approach to monitor training progression towards a goal. The measure-train-adjust maxim emphasises productive training and minimises trial and error throughout a programme.
Biometric lab tests and power profiling under controlled conditions allows the strengths and weaknesses of the athlete relative to the goal events demands to be assessed and interpret data based on event demands. Performance progression from baseline is sometimes (purposefully, due to the biological response) non-linear under some training strategies, so clear milestones and the appropriate assessments; critical power or lactate threshold (power or velocity) can be done at relevant follow-up times to update zones every 8-12weeks. Robust and reliable performance testing can answer the following:
- Is current training effective?
- Has the athlete adapted to the training stress?
- Are the event demands gap being bridged?
Unfortunately, off-the-shelf testing have considerable limitations. As all athletes are different, genetically, they respond to their environment uniquely. A single power parameter, such as FTP (W/kg) may be similar between two individuals, but one athlete may be less efficient in achieving that power. Also between the two athletes anaerobic capacity, above threshold, may be smaller. This can represent their ability over certain terrain or during race-specific efforts.
Typically, assessments are performed as necessary; pre, mid and post season, with their timing dependent on the event goals. An important monitoring tool which is being more commonly used in elite and advanced training programmes is the inclusion of the Lamberts Sub-Maximal Cycle Test. During low volume recovery weeks, the LSMCT can assess the stress cycle of a programme and determines if the individual is coping with the training load and if there are any signs of over-training, as to adjust the programme accordingly.
Planning a programme:
As previously stated, the perfect plan does not exist. Following a generic plan does not mean you are being coached. The process requires co-learning and to adapt the plan when necessary…
When to train? When to rest? How to re-organise the week?
Initially, a responsive programme template is needed to direct the training in the early stages and throughout, anchoring the periodisation with the event to maximise the probability of peak performance.
The direction of a typical personalised training programme can take the format as shown in the table:
Below I thought I would share some the main issues I often see with new clients and how they may help you address your own training which may apply equally to both cycling and running:
- The fear of losing fitness by missing a training session or two, once in a while.
In fact, evidence from studies in exercise physiology show that peak aerobic capacity declines to only around 85% after 6-8 weeks of no riding in intermediate level trained cyclists. Even though lactate threshold declines at a faster rate in relation to VO2Peak, this is generally re-established quite easily over successive rides during peak season, without detriment to long term performance depending on their age and stage of training. A couple of days off tend to help motivated athletes recover from the total stress of busy life schedules and should be welcomed, if not frequent. When an athlete tries to make up for lost sessions is when things start to go wrong possibly leading to the start of an over-training cycle without further time off the bike. A dedicated low volume recovery week will demonstrate how adaptations occur after some intensive riding sessions and strength supplementation. So any training voids should always be taken in context of the overall volume and intensity.
- Finding it difficult to remove the ‘full-gas’ mentality of every training ride or run.
Usually this means riding as much as possible at threshold and at peak aerobic capacity in climbs. Elite riders tend to ride at threshold for only 10% of their training time, during the racing season, as to polarise their efforts. Threshold training is physically the most exhausting intensity due to carbohydrate usage and stress on the muscles. High proportions of threshold/ or ‘sweet spot’ intensity may be effective for individuals with less than 6hrs a week to train. Although threshold training alone, ignores the importance of neuromuscular stimulation and anaerobic system tolerance to improve muscle efficiency and mechanics. A good coach can sell the merits of developing particular abilities- rather than always looking at achieving peak performances. This can mean trying to stay out of some training zones on specific rides, for instance active-recovery intensity won’t help on a purely endurance based ride; or the anaerobic zone will stress the aerobic capacity development more than desired in certain phases which overlap with resistance work.
- Unable to rest/ recover properly, even if injured or ill.
Highly motivated individual often see illness and injury as a weakness to be overcome by training harder. While some acute injuries or upper-respiratory infections may have a negligible impact on training, understanding the our bodys signals for when to cease riding or running is exceptionally important. Adequate recovery is often necessary so further training can take place at a stronger level, which is then more productive.
- The impact that a changing diet can have on body composition and performance.
Periodising diet is often important for providing the right fuel substrates pre/ mid and post rides. Ride duration and intensity during a phase is part of a bigger picture; increasing efficiency through greater fat metabolism meaning less glycogen is used and reduced need for carbohydrate; greater neuromuscular strength training, meaning greater protein intake for muscle repair; working on anaerobic capacity means greater carbohydrate necessary to improve glycogen storage….focus on these typically occur at different stages in a programme. Synchronising nutrition with these phases is important for achieving optimal peak performance.
- The importance of active recovery after hard ride/run days or low volume weeks for adequate adaptation.
Unlike illness and injury which require forced recovery…pre-scheduled and dedicated low volume recovery weeks are necessary for an athlete to adapt to all the training performed up to that point AND to train at a higher position (of super-compensation) fully motivated and energetic. Changes in muscle biochemistry and physiological adaptation take place when they are not under stress and can repair themselves in a favourable environment under adequate nutrition. Further training during this period, although acutely may be tolerated, long term performance/ health issues will arise if this is frequently repeated.
- Underestimating the effect of cross-training and strength exercises on event performance.
Just riding a bike does not automatically mean optimal performance will be achieved. Changes in physiology come from anabolic triggers, usually from training session ‘shocks’. Cycling can only provide a certain exposure of performance improvement before a plateauing of fitness is experienced. Strength training concurrently provides the foundation for building cycling specific endurance, and will delay when training stagnation is experienced. Similarly cross-training early in a programme provides a similar strength component that helps to shock the physiology into supporting greater performances than were previously capable. Obviously, a cycling specific endurance is necessary and so ‘transference’ should always be a priority for concurrent and multi-sport athletes.