Holistic Racing Preparation
How many times in a career does an aspiring racer get a new piece of equipment, a new training plan, or a new magic food and figure, “this is it, now I’m on the short path to the big time”, only to realize in the next race that at least one more step must be taken before he or she will finally mount the podium? Many racers go through this cycle of excitement and disappointment again and again. They adjust aspects of nutrition, equipment or training as they become aware of the need for change. They feverishly make one change at a time, always knowing they are on their way, but never getting there. The repeated reality checks are frustrating and demotivating. Are the adjustments that seem so pivotal actually unimportant and without effect? To the contrary, many of them may be vital, but so are all the other changes yet to be made. The changes are necessary but the disappointments are avoidable.
Just how many factors does a racer have to optimize to become a national class or world-beating rider? The short answer is, “all he or she can”. There are dozens if not hundreds of factors that support or undermine the pursuit of racing success; a significant error on any of them can ruin one’s chances in a race or even a full season. In the lower categories, a rider who has outstanding talent or does very well in a few areas of preparation while doing poorly in others may garner some success, but to win at the national or professional level, one has to get most everything right, from race day nutrition and hydration, to training plans executed over the previous several years, race tactics and too many other things to count. If one rider doesn’t get them mostly right he or she will lose to other riders with similar talent but more complete preparation. The process of advancement from the beginner to the professional ranks requires vast quantities of hard work of course, but can also be seen as a process of gradually eliminating errors and overcoming limiters.
Bike racing, like life, can be overwhelmingly complicated. Reducing it to component parts and focusing on just a few of those at a time can make dealing with it possible, but such an approach also obscures a bigger picture. Some riders read that racing fitness requires base riding or intervals of various intensities and ride off to do those in carefully measured doses. Other riders identify an eating regimen that brings them to a good race weight and vow to stick to it. Both groups improve their performance and continue to focus on their new trick, not looking, at least temporarily, for other ways to improve. Then they are beaten by others who have figured out both training and nutrition. These riders are beaten in turn by riders with good training, good daily eating and good team support. I’ll list at least 20 items that contribute to racing success. Before you go off to work on them though, be aware that each can be subdivided again and again so that there are really a nearly infinite number of important factors. Some of them can be implemented in a few days, while others take months or years to have their effect. If a racer makes one change at a time rather than trying to improve all simultaneously, he or she may be very old before everything is optimized. Asking which factors are most important is like asking which spot on the surface of a space suit is most important during a space-walk.
Looking at each factor that goes into racing success one at a time is effective, but also a trap. Reducing a problem to its component parts in this way is known as reductionist thinking. Don’t knock it. Reductionism is essential to modern science and technology. It has made smooth ten-speed shifting, sticky pneumatic tires and carbon fiber possible. By breaking down the problem of bike racing into smaller parts, one can identify limiters and work to correct them. As each one is corrected, new ones can be found. One can continuously become a more and more effective bike racer. Seen another way, one can stay forever on a treadmill of self-improvement. If one doesn’t occasionally take a step back and look at the whole picture, however, success is always a few steps away and it is possible to end up headed in a wrong direction and far off course. Periodically, one needs to ask not just, “what are all the elements of successful preparation and how am I doing on each of them separately?” but also, “what are the underlying principles of successful racing and how am I doing on those?” By looking to bigger principles, one can identify areas for work before one notices them as limiters. When one acknowledges that bike racing success requires more than getting whatever one is currently working on right, one has made the essential transition from reductionist to holistic race preparation.
Pieces of the space suit
Here’s a short and very incomplete list of pieces that are essential for racing success. It should be pretty obvious that unless one’s competitors are doing even worse, a problem on any one of them could wreck a race or season. Only when they are all in place can one ride to one’s potential:
- Training plan with good balance of base, high intensity and rest
- Highly developed aerobic capacity
- Leg and low back strength
- Core strength and flexibility
- Individual riding skills (cornering, shifting, braking)
- Group riding skills (pace lines, echelons, blocking)
- Pacing and saving strength for the vital moments
- Riding Position (comfort in powerful, aerodynamically efficient position)
- Body composition (adequate but not excessive muscle mass and low body fat percentage)
- Daily nutrition
- Race day nutrition
- Race scheduling (enough races to gain race fitness and skills, not enough to burn out)
- Hydration and feeding support
- Toughness (focus, sticking to a plan)
- Psychology (fear control, motivation, ego control, resisting wasting energy)
- Social skills (so the rider won’t be ostracized or picked on by the pack and be able to get rides to races)
- Equipment choice and maintenance
- Choice of riding clothing
- Dealing with special situations such as heat, bad pavement, cold or altitude
- Team support
- Family/social support
- Health Care/Injury prevention/stretching
- Realistic Goals
- Attitude and low stress/ability to relax
The interaction of factors
The factors listed above are not separate in their effects on performance. They all work together. Good training is essential to bike racing success, but it is useless without recovery time. Training and recovery time won’t make a racer faster unless they are combined with good nutrition. The ability to ride fast won’t win races if one’s equipment fails, if one’s motivation fails or if one’s ride skills or tactics are inadequate. Family and financial stress undermine motivation. A perfectly prepared body and mind on a perfect bike will not win an elite professional race without the necessary tactical team support, nor will they even win the local summer road race without a needed water bottle hand-up or without transportation to the race… The number of threads in the web of interconnections is infinite or nearly so. Any important factor not attended to can feed back to undermine many others.
Approached in a reductionist way, success in bike racing requires either tremendous luck or a nearly obsessive attention to details. The improvement that comes with getting everything right is far bigger than the sum of the improvements that come from getting each factor right. It can be hard to see the improvement that comes even with a major change in behavior if other behaviors are still far from perfect. That can make judging what changes are important and should be maintained close to impossible. There are too many factors in the successful bike racer life to hope to stumble on the best combination simply by trial and error. One way past this problem is to involve a competent coach in the development of each bike racer with lofty goals. A rider can check the front of his space suit, but a coach can check the back as well. Certainly the rider who has the talent to ride at a higher level but is satisfied to ride at a lower level can succeed without a coach, but not the rider who’s goals involve pushing to the farthest limits of his or her potential.
A competent coach can help a rider identify and correct limiters, but at the same time helps the rider by maintaining the broader focus. The individual rider necessarily works on one thing at a time, but the coach can help that rider by identifying what the rider will need to work on next and by keeping the rider focused on the most relevant factors at any given time.
The Holistic Approach
There is an entirely different way to approach the question of what to do to become a better bike racer, one that avoids the repeated disappointments of the reductionist approach. Here’s a shorter list of required items for the successful racer:
If a rider knows what he or she needs to do to become a better racer and truly wants to be a better racer more than he or she wants to do anything else, he or she will do it, health allowing. The rider who wants top-level success will do everything possible to maintain health, accumulate relevant knowledge and maintain desire. The three feed and support each other of course.
Knowledge boosts desire by helping the rider believe in the possibility of success and helps the rider stay healthy and injury free. Riders can boost knowledge by reading books and magazines on training, physiology, history of cycling, psychology and nutrition. Riders gather knowledge from fellow riders, coaches and ex-riders, and by riding and racing. Every rider can use more knowledge.
Poor health and injuries are depressing and discouraging, shifting the focus away from the desired end. Good health is essential to the positive attitude that is essential to both desire to succeed and desire to gather and act on knowledge. Good health is maintained through good nutrition, attention to major or minor injuries and illnesses, realistic and flexible training plans, regular medical check-ups, and visits to the message therapist or chiropractor for those who feel they benefit from those treatments. With good health, the rider can act on his or her knowledge.
Desire for success is fuel. So long as one truly wants success and knows that knowledge and health are key, one will do what is needed to accumulate them. Desire is maintained or built by exposing oneself to success stories, storing up resentments, and simply stating and restating one’s goals. Racing posters, books by or about the pros, and race videos all help keep the end goal real for the aspiring racer. So long as one is honestly striving to improve knowledge, health and desire, one truly is on the path to racing success.
There is no guaranteed formula for getting on the podium of the biggest races. There is a guaranteed formula for moving in the right direction though: Every day, do everything possible to improve health, gather relevant knowledge and maintain the burning desire for success. Everything else will follow.