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Building an Elite Cyclist

Cycling and endurance coach Neal Henderson on dialing in your diet, embracing pain, and perfecting the work-exercise balance.

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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