Toolbox: The Coach-Athlete Connection
As a career competitor, coach, and idea-seeking sponge for over half a century, I’m reflecting on the performance evolution as a fact of untenable certainty. Being and developing a champion athlete has become more complex in the 21st Century and, for a creative, spirited athlete/coach, this is a very good thing.
“Back of every creation, supporting it like an arch, is faith. Enthusiasm is nothing. It comes and goes, but if one believes, then miracles occur.” Henry Miller
Photos by Jinna Thomas
Planning and Building a Champion
Cycling champions have been shrouded in a murky haze of secrecy. Athletes and coaches are sometimes not apt to share their guarded secrets, so what went on behind closed doors, although known and talked about within the circle, was still a guarded science. Partly fact, some hearsay and largely misunderstood by the general public until the public revelations of the past few years of doping and performance enhancement drug use.
Out of this steady stream of bad publicity has come not only change in the form of testing and regulation, but also a focus on the synergistic relationship of rider and coach to find new ways to optimize performance without the well-deserved stigma of performance enhancement being tied directly to illegal stimulant usage. It has forced cycling coaches to be creative within legal and ethical boundaries. I am excited and renewed at this creative process, as it has been my focus for all these years to race clean, and to compete and win without the abuse from ‘shortcuts.’ My approach is to use the best of Old World concepts with New World tools and technologies, so I’m here to share a few of my explorations from the realm of unlimited potential.
For the rider who has his/her sights on the three-tiered podium ‘just getting on the bike and riding’ is no longer enough – not by a long shot. Let me share a 2014 example of how it works, and how one athlete is progressing up the championship ladder.
Denise Mueller was a versatile young performer as a junior. Denise and George Hincapie were chosen as the top junior cyclists in 1991 but shortly after this Denise retired from cycling seemingly for good. She is now a mother of 3, and runs a successful family business with numerous outside interests including active motor racing. Needless to say, time is a precious commodity, and our plan needed to be designed to make every minute work.
The 3 year road back to form has renewed her overall level of athleticism, but mostly it has brought back the celebration of physicality in her life. To this end she first tackled running, competing in numerous half and full distance marathons on multiple continents. In year two Denise conquered her fear of water by first learning to swim, then she competed in triathlons. With no burning desire to make a career of it, we targeted two events, the tough St George, Utah half-Ironman, and then the full Ironman in Arizona. In both events she placed well in her age group and in both cases had excellent bike splits.
In year three, 2014, Denise finally began to hit her stride, and we begin to polish her cycling form with the idea of developing her power and form. We began focusing on pack riding and what it would take to get to the top as a road and criterium racer. From a coach’s perspective I enjoyed her eagerness to improve and her seemingly limitless faith in our training process. It’s a coach’s dream to have an athlete who has a broad based combination of capability and desire.
So how did we set about building a plan? First we set some goals:
• Win two National Championships in 2014: the Women’s 40-44 category and the Mixed Tandem in the 90 combined age category with yours truly.
• Move from Cat. 3 to Cat. 1-2/Pro by end of 2014 or early 2015
Our “how to” plan included 9 steps:
1. A biomechanical Bike fit. Using our PowerFiTTE protocol, Denise’s road bike was set up to optimize her body dimensions to emphasize greater comfort first before we could tweak the set up to improve her power. Another consideration was improving her conditioning off the bike for greater leverage. Although never an issue as a teen, comfort soon became the overriding issue. Her saddle choice, along with exact height, fore/aft and nose tilt adjustments proved to be a challenge. Her setup has continued to evolve throughout the road season and numerous saddles were used to constantly adjust the pressure points.
2. Off-bike exercise regime. Working with experts in biomechanics, I have developed a catalog of exercises referred to as BodyFiTTE to work muscles both in a concentric as well as eccentric motion. Additional Yoga sessions followed to enhance mobility and help with the recovery process. Observing Denise’s individual set of biomechanics, I worked with her to equalize her left/right Range of motion (ROM) and gym based strength of various major and ancillary core muscle groups. I noticed early on she was quickly fatiguing key major muscles and her low back, so we focused on body work, primarily working on loosening her external hip rotators and psoas which opened her up her lower back (QL). By mid-season we had muscles firing equally and everything was lining up in better sequence, which allowed us to use her core strength for greater driving stability. This in turn added more complete firing from the major muscles. This stabilized heart rate while allowing her to effectively use her new strength to increase power output.
3. Body Work. Denise got at least one deep tissue massage per week and more when she was racing multiple times. We also used the powerful Dynamic Motion Therapy (DMT) Joint capsule technique on her weekly to break up muscle impingements. With emphasis on Ian Jackson’s unique Breathplay ‘upside down’ breathing techniques, we were able to tap the parasympathetic nervous system to better control her breathing.
4. A detailed training program. Both on bike/off bike training followed. We rode weekly track sessions at the San Diego Velodrome and rode rollers to bolster leg speed, and used an indoor trainer with a great new product called Reflexers to increase and essentially automate hip flexor firing. Reflexers utilize resistance bands that are used while pedaling. We used the Reflexers on one and sometimes two indoor sessions per week. Yes, even in San Diego, we train indoors for maximum power! Our hardest training of the week was a large group ride on Wednesday that took the entire season to master the full distance in the pack, while weekends were dedicated to racing. By season’s end Denise had ridden 31 formal races.
5. Hypnotherapy. Early in our bike training, and from actually racing with Denise in several men’s 45+ events, I noticed she had some performance anxieties that dated back to her junior racing days. Working with a local therapist, we addressed these deep seated phobias. After a month of therapy, we noticed substantial improvement in mental fortitude and motivation.
6. Power monitoring. This proved essential for determining our rate of progress and triggering our true periodization cycles. To avoid staleness I didn’t emphasize it all the time, but the Garmin data is constantly available to us to monitor and I have it synced from her Garmin files to my tablet to view results on a daily basis. I get daily sleep reports to determine precise hours of sleep, average HR, lows and highs during training cycles. Such information is vital in giving us our needed data to dictate the precise progression of training.
7. Cyclic Variations of Altitude Conditioning. Look it up (www.cvacsystems.com). This unique pod allows us to maximize our recovery from hard workouts and simulates altitude training gains at seas level with varied sharp assents and descents only one hour per week. Since the nationals were in Ogden, Utah we needed to be ready with our own simulated altitude prep.
8. Correct nutrition. It is our goal to add full spectrum vitamin and mineral replacement on a daily basis. Since Denise is a very heavy sweater, all the primary minerals including magnesium – vital for recovery and production of ATP – are increased. The product we use for this is Acid Check, which helps buffer the effects of acids in the body caused by hard exercise. All of the essentials are ingested along with the essential amino acids, anti-oxidants and EFAs. We also added extra vitamin D-3 to safe guard her immune system as the training began to ramp up.
9. Blood testing. Every six months we looked at blood counts to make sure all of the essential ingredients were present and utilized. Using the ALCAT worldwide food sensitivity test we have recently uncovered some major issues with some of Denise’s favorite foods, so more changes are in the works as I write this.
The Results to Date
After a slow start in which she struggled to find her form and confidence in the tough SOCAL 3-4 women’s category, Denise begin to grasp the significance of what it would take to win in the sport she had left 23 years ago. The confidence in close quarters pack racing took some time, but changes and strategies were discussed and altered, and results were close at hand. After a 10 day training camp in Mallorca, Spain she was finally on target and shortly thereafter made her first podium finish in second place.
At the Dana Point criterium, with riders crashing right and left and just behind her, Denise won her first field sprint. This was the beginning of an unprecedented seven straight criterium and circuit race wins, including a successful solo in the Torrance criterium. Another win at the Barry Wolf criterium in Woodland Hills, and she was elevated out of the Cat 3-4 class and won her first Cat 1-2/Pro race at the Chula Vista circuit race the following week.
Several Pro criterium podiums followed, but our goal of winning on the tandem changed our training direction. The course in Ogden was not just hilly, it was mountainous, and we are not exactly lightweights, so we begin simulating course conditions with several appearances in some of the fast and hilly San Diego group rides, bolstering our confidence by doing damage in the peloton. Early September in Ogden saw our first shot at a national title come up just short and we ended up taking the bronze in the 90+ tandem road race. Photos on the podium tell the story about who the real climbers were, as we towered above the two higher tiers on the box!
In order to win any race you have to take ownership of the course, and we couldn’t quite make the payment. I was happy with our ride, but the 40-44 women’s criterium was only two days away. The beauty of training is in the details, and our pre-run was an opportunity to learn every nuance of the 8 corner circuit. Wet or dry, we were ready, and on race day, our game plan was executed with complete and predictable perfection. Denise got the hole shot out of the final turn to the finish and won the category easily, even winning overall against the baby masters 35-39 group as well. To further sweeten the results, her Gold elevated the Sisterhood of Cycling team, whom I’m coaching along with Amber Neben, to the overall points Championship, which we believe is a first for an all- women’s team at the USA Cycling Nationals.
This year has reinforced two long-held beliefs:
1. This is a profile of just one, special athlete. My work with other athletes varies, based on their individual goals and requirements. ‘One size fits all’ does not apply in my profession.
2. While this season is over, we have already begun the process of addressing weaknesses that slowed our progress; short and long term goals are already in place. Next year Denise and I will focus on her two major goals: the World Championships, and an unprecedented effort for her to test limits and cross more boundaries by setting a world speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
I’m a very happy coach!
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.johnhowardsports.com.