The boom in participation has gone hand in hand with a huge influx and growth of technology in cycling. For example, the number of athletes participating in the Kona Ironman World Championships racing with powermeters has increased more than 5 fold in the last 8 years. In 2008, less than 10% of bikes had a powermeter, whereas the most recent statistics show >50% of all bikes are being fitted with powermeters. Similar trends, albeit lower percentages, are now being seen in our local mountain bike stage races. The popularity of powermeters has resulted in an abundance of information available on the internet, social media, in books, podcasts, etc. Everywhere we look, there are so called professionals giving training advice. This abundance of freely available information is great, but often leads to confusion, resulting in athletes often over-training, performing and applying training principles incorrectly, which results in stagnated or decreases in performance.
As a result, cyclists have begun seeking the help of professional coaches to help de-clutter the abundance of information available. However, not everyone understands the value of a coach or what to expect from a coaching relationship or experience. This leaves us with the questions; will you benefit from getting a coach, and when is the right time to seek the help of a professional coach? We will discuss and try and debunk some pre-conceived ideas about coaching.
What is coaching?
What seems to be a very simple question is in actual fact the exact question you need to ask yourself when seeking the help of a coach. In cycling terms it is hard to define, however the definitions provided by parallel fields provide useful insights, the international coaching federation (a federation for life coaches) defines coaching as, “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential”, and lifestyle or wellness coaching as “a professionally trained coach who acts as a motivator, educator and accountability partner to support individuals in making lasting lifestyle changes that improve their physical and mental wellbeing”. These definitions illustrate the complexity of a coaching relationship and that coaching is far more engaging than simply producing a training program for a client.
What should a good coach do?
It goes without saying that a good coach needs to provide a periodised training program, which is individualised to your ability and available time. But, what is too often not mentioned is the additional benefits of a coach and the extent of your relationship with your coach. When choosing a coach, you need to know what you want from the relationship. To us, there are four key roles of coaches. To ensure you are going to get the added benefit from a coach, he needs to be able to deliver the following tasks:
1) Translation of Science
With the abundance of information available, the role of the coach is to translate the science and to incorporate best practice into your training program. One of the fundamental problems with cycling training today is that traditional cycling training methods have become deeply entrenched in what many today believe are best practice. On several occasions recent scientific studies have debunked more traditional training principles. A properly designed periodised training program therefore needs to implement and translate the most recent scientific literature.
2) Motivation and accountability
We feel that these two facets; motivation and accountability, go hand in hand and are critically important. For these to be properly implemented you do however need to ensure that you invest in a more interactive training plan. Coaches normally have a few tiers or packages of coaching and provide anything from monthly interaction with four weeks of individualised training (what we call category 3 coaching) to a very interactive relationship with analysis of session data and monitoring (what we call category 1). The latter category of coaching would be essential if motivation and accountability are required. We all know how hard it is to drag oneself out of bed on a cold winter morning. Knowing that you are going to have to answer to your coach is certainly a very undervalued benefit. Further, we all have times when training and life simply gets tough. Your coach is there for support when times gets tough and may be your outlet, which is often required to get you back on the road and focussed on your training goal.
3) Eliminate uncertainty
Our experiences have taught us that a successful athlete is a highly driven athlete. A highly driven athlete always tends to try and do too much, train too hard and always feels as if he has not done enough or trained hard enough. A coach is there to eliminate this uncertainty and help guide the athlete and remind the athlete of the greater goal. In the age where there is an abundance of self-proclaimed experts around trying to impart their wisdom, especially when we see our competitors and friends post their rides on Strava as soon as they are done, it is only natural to start doubting what you are doing and feel as if you are not doing enough. It is when this doubt creeps in that we tend to deviate from our original plan. It is this uncertainty that a coach helps you eliminate.
4) Objective feedback
The process of training requires careful monitoring across a season, but also monitoring and analysis of specific key training sessions. The problem when looking at your own training is the large level of subjectivity. Athletes tend to be very harsh with themselves due to being extremely driven. A good session will never be good enough, which will eventually lead to the athlete feeling that they need to do more – resulting in over-training and a decrease in performance. The benefit of a coach is that your coach will objectively analyse key sessions (if included in your package as mentioned above). This again is a huge benefit to eliminate doubt and ensure progression.
When should I get the help of a professional coach?
Personally, we don’t believe there is a right or wrong time to utilise a coaching service. Coaching is for anyone from the individual who is simply trying to get more active and lose a few kilograms, to the professional cyclist. Personally, we have found that individuals who gain the most are those who have tried self-coaching and have failed or stagnated due to the reasons discussed above. We have some of our greatest successes and improvements from athletes who had stagnated for years despite training very hard (too much).
Is getting a coach the right option for me?
Important to note that no coach is going to be of any benefit to you if you are not able to listen and trust your coach 100%. You have to respect your coach and trust that she/he knows what is best for you. Any amount of doubt in your coach will nullify any potential benefit. Often athletes who come from self-coached backgrounds are still very stuck in their own ways and not always open-minded to change. Coaching is a two-way relationship and communication and trust are key elements of that relationship.
How long before I may start noticing benefits and how much will I improve?
You are not necessarily going to see immediate improvements. Any well-developed training program is periodised and includes all facets which contribute to your ability to ride faster. These then come together in a so-called ‘peak’ at the time of the event you are training for. That being said you should see small (<2%) session-to-session improvements when repeating the same training sessions. This should be monitored by coaches to ensure that there is progression, albeit small. However, there is no way to predict your personal ability and potential to improve. Genetically we are all different and therefore our ability to respond to training will be vastly different. We do, however, regularly see improvements of around 5% in peak power output from one year to the next.
Which category of coaching is best for me?
Over and above your personal budget you have to ask yourself why you have sought the help of a coach. To be able to choose the correct coaching package you have to review the four key roles of coaches highlighted above. Compare what you are expected to receive in each coaching package and compare it against the potential listed benefits. Only a very comprehensive package (what we call category 1) will give you all the potential benefits. Other important factors to consider are how structured your calendar is. For example, if you require your training program to be adjusted regularly to accommodate your ever-changing work commitments, a basic package (category 3) is going to be of little benefit to you. When you meet with you prospective coach for the first time, go with a list of expectations and let him guide you to the correct coaching package.