What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Shifting Paradigms In Athlete Development

Part 2: Last time I introduced the concept of long term athlete development, as explained by Istvan Balyi at the recent USA Cycling Coaching Symposium in Colorado Springs. While generally applied to adolescent development, I put forward the idea that many of the tenets of LTAD are equally valid for an adult population, especially those in early stages of learning a sport. This month we expand on the principles and lay a foundation for your success in 2011 and beyond.

By Matt McNamara

Long Term Athlete Development is the process of optimizing training, recovery and competition programming relative to the biological maturation and development of the athlete. For our purposes we are going to presume that most of us are at, or beyond, late stage maturation (which certainly isn’t to say we’re grown-ups yet!), and that we buy into the idea of long term athlete development having value for our own training and racing. If you missed the last article, read it here..

Where You At?

Central to the idea of LTAD is that it is a process. As we discussed last time this maturation process probably falls under the umbrella of learning to train appropriately, effectively, and efficiently. Recall that we had reduced the concept of “training” down to four core phases:

1. Learning to train
2. Training to Train
3. Training to Compete
4. Training to Win

For the long term athlete development cycle to be effectively implemented you need to know both where you are currently and where you’re going to go each of the subsequent years.

So, at this point it’s a good idea to ask yourself where you are currently. Be honest. Can you hold a steady state effort over varied terrain for at least 20 minutes within a range of +/- 5 beats for heart rate, or +/- 10 watts for power? Can you really work an echelon? Have you ever motor-paced? Do you follow a structured approach to your training, or just wing it day to day? Do you only train your strengths? Can you read a race? These are good starting points to begin looking into the future.

No one phase is more important than another. Indeed, learning to train may sound mundane, but it is the foundations laid that allow growth into the subsequent stages. Similarly, training to win sounds natural, but if you focus too much on the idea without developing the other core areas you may well sabotage your own development. So, let’s see where you’re at…

Learning To Train: For many of my athletes, even those who have raced for years, this is the most readily bypassed stage. Athletes in this stage will tend to have no real goals walking out the door each day and ride how they feel. During this stage you should be focusing on implementing a workout plan,. Better yet, take the time to create weekly and monthly plans. I’d like the athlete to have a general annual plan, but at this stage the focus should be on smaller time stamps and creating success day to week to month.

Training To Train: This isn’t quite as dour as it sounds. Training to train is as much a function of learning your abilities and deficiencies as it is the project of developing as an athlete. By the time you reach this stage you should have a solid grasp on planning the season to address event specifics as well as how to tackle your own growth areas. One key focus of this stage is to do the development work that sets the foundation for future success. Training to train is where you develop the year over year fitness that leads to upper category success. It is also where you start to learn the craft of racing.

Training To Compete: Lots of riders think they are here already. They race, ergo they must train to compete. For me, training to compete is more about starting to specialize your training. It may sound clichй, but this is where you start doing the true event-specific work that makes the difference. Matching kilojoules, motorpacing, peaking and tapering. To be honest the nuances of training to compete are unique to each individual and this is where you should begin to take a full spectrum approach to your preparation. Nutrition, sports psychology and focused, preferably power-based, training takes the fore.

Training To Win: If you compete you want to be here. Don’t be simplistic in what this phase means. It’s not training to win anything, it’s training to win at the elite level. By this time you have a solid grasp on the fundamentals and it really comes down to execution. You’ve probably already got your 10,000 hours to establish expertise, so you know the importance of the little stuff.

Where You Going?
Now that you have a start on where you’re at, you can begin to create where you’re going. It’s fine to aspire to the Pro Tour, but next to impossible to short-cut your way there. It’s just as fine to set out to get that elusive upgrade, or to improve your tactical acumen, or whatever it is that drives you to improve. That passion is what keeps you going, but don’t set an insurmountable expectation for yourself – it really is about the fundamentals.

Istvan Balyi had a graph in his presentation that included over 30 different elements that impact performance. Big ticket items like nutrition, physiology, and environment carry equal weight to seemingly secondary things like attention, focus, and integrity. The point is that each of these represents interconnected cogs in the machine of performance. Unfortunately, the prospect of addressing all of these cogs can seem overwhelming, but fortunately, you’re already competent at many of them, so it’s more a question of fine tuning than starting from scratch.

One of the revelations of the presentation by Balyi was the idea of a paradigm shift. Though this term is clichй, it is no less valid for you to look at your training from a new perspective. The point of implementing a LTAD plan as an adult is to give yourself free reign to try something new with the full knowledge that only constant change and adaptation is the true path to growth.

While it may seem daunting to imagine a new paradigm, training is training and there are still some fundamentals that can help direct your new approach. Keep it simple by thinking of them as the five S’s:

1. Suppleness
2. Skill
3. Speed
4. Strength
5. Stamina

These five elements form the basis of a structured program and can be used as a reference point when deciding on a plan of attack, especially when looking out a few years. Below is one version of a possible progression:

This is by no means “the” plan for everyone, but is more an illustration of the nearly infinite variation in training that can lead to excellence over a longer than usual window. By including the five “S’s” you give yourself the confidence of including elements necessary to success, but pliable enough to allow for some truly outside-the-box approaches.

So far we’ve looked at big picture, macro considerations, but often the essence of a paradigm shift is in the little details like the week-to-week progression and design. To that end let’s show you a couple of different approaches.

A common approach is to do a three week build followed by a recovery week. It’s a time proven approach. More and more athletes on the cutting edge seek to shake up their programs by varying the work/recovery ratio day to day and week to week. Cycles that include two weeks of high volume and two weeks of high intensity, or longer 4 – 6 week build periods before a rest week often give a necessary training stimulus. Similarly riders are mixing up the daily workloads to create overload. Instead of the classic Tuesday sprints, Wednesday tempo, Thursday endurance, riders are doing longer 4-6 day blocks, or mixing in VO2max and Threshold workouts to create appropriate stress. There are dozens of variations possible and I’d encourage you to go out on a limb and try something new this year.

Training day in and day out, year in and year out, can become tedious. As you begin to prepare for the 2011 season take a moment to ask yourself where you fall on the long term athlete development progression outlined here. Be honest and realistic with yourself and you can begin to lay the foundation of a training plan that sees you make maximal progress.

Varying your daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly focus this year may just provide the necessary shake up in your program to take you up a level, or at least keep you focused throughout the season.


1. Balyi, Istvan – Long Term Athlete Development. USA Cycling Coaching Symposium Presentation. October 2010
2. Balyi, Istavn – Paradigm Shifts in Coaching. USA Cycling Coaching Symposium Presentation. October 2010

About Matt McNamara:
Matt McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He owns and manages the Sterling presented by Sendmail, Inc cycling team. You can find him on www.facebook.com.. Facebook He is the President of Sterling Sports Group and races road, track, and cyclocross in Northern California.

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