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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.

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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