The Making of a Champion

There is a lot of variety in race preparation programs. Plans followed by national teams are different from plans recommended by books or by individual coaches. Coaches recommend particular exercises not found in the programs of other riders. Are national-team riders stronger so they can handle more hard work? Are the national team coaches clueless? Do some riders just find out about new effective exercises sooner, or are those strange workouts as goofy as they sometimes seem? Based on their teams’ results, we’d have to agree some of the national coaches are onto something. Are all the coaches who write books saving the good stuff for their private clients? I swear I didn’t intentionally do that when I was working on Bike Racing 101, and most riders who’ve done a book-based program know that while such programs have limitations, they can work pretty well, at least for a while. Some coaches really are clueless, but many are educated, experienced and competent. How can they prescribe programs that are so different from each other? One answer lies in the fact that coaches may have different goals as they develop training plans, even when the riders have apparently similar goals.

The Brutal “Preparation” of a National Squad

Just as individual riders hope to win their peak events, riders on a national team individually hope to win or to help a teammate win at a big events, such as the Olympics, Pan Am Games and World Championships. The bigger concern for the national team coach, however, is that someone on his or her team should win. If a coach has a large pool of talented riders and only needs to produce a few champions, that coach has different options than does a coach who has fewer athletes to work with or who’s job is to keep individual clients satisfied. The national team coach can take a large group of riders and have them all ride extremely long and fast or do many races, knowing that the majority of those riders will go home mentally or physically destroyed, and many of the rest of them will be destroyed both ways, but that a few will survive and at least one may have the potential to be a champion. Wasting most of the incoming talent will not damage the coach’s reputation, provided that one survivor climbs the podium at a major event. In fact, riders will line up to be destroyed on this successful coach’s team and program.

The brutal program described above is not a training plan for most of the team riders. Rather it is a selection plan for the team. It is the right training plan for a few riders who are ready for it, and a disaster for all others. The brutal program selects the best prepared as much or more than it selects the most talented riders. The most talented rider in the initial group, if he or she is ill or less trained than the others at selection time, will be put out with the trash. The rider with the most potential may not make it through the selection process.

One should not confuse the brutal method of team selection with a training plan. Yes, the hypothetical national team does many hard miles, intervals and races before one or a few of the riders goes to Worlds or the Olympics, but that does not mean that the selection of miles, intervals and races is chosen to make all of the riders stronger. They are chosen to make the strongest riders stronger while the rest are incidentally destroyed. Once the team has been whittled down to those few with the greatest potential, the emphasis switches to giving each rider the training he or she most needs. Then the national team rider’s plan becomes similar to what an individual rider would get from a private coach.

Training plans for Individuals

In theory the goal of the coach of an individual client is to help that client realize his or her potential or goals, but that does not mean that all training plans for such clients will be variations on a theme. No “one size fits all” training plan, even with adjustments, will ever really be optimal for all individuals. The training plan must be tailored to the specific goals, experience, strengths, weaknesses and available time of the athlete. It must account for both physiological and psychological limiters. It should challenge the rider to develop those aspects of strength, aerobic power, flexibility, speed, skill, nerve, tactical sense and psychological fitness that are currently lacking. Since most riders could stand to develop in at least a few areas, good training plans will include a variety of exercises, but that doesn’t mean that all good plans include all possible exercises. Some exercises would be redundant, some would make inefficient use of scarce time, and some would actually be counter-productive.

The one overarching key to success in cycling is the volume of quality training. Top masters and elite amateur racers train 20-30 hours per week, professionals even more. Even top cat 3 and 4 riders train 15-20 hours per week. To succeed at bike racing, one has to love to ride bikes. Even the best racers however don’t necessarily love riding enough to ride trainer through an entire winter at a constant pace, and some riders really are not interested enough in riding to do the necessary volume at all.

Entertaining Training Plans

There are valid programs built primarily to respond to the need for variety and entertainment. These programs are designed to keep the less deeply committed rider training long enough to get fit, and perhaps to develop the intense love of pedaling that is required for racing success. Such programs are characterized by the inclusion of many different exercises, often including exercises that don’t look that much like riding a bike in a race. Some examples of these sorts of exercises are low-resistance spin ups to very high cadence and one-legged drills, both of which can be valuable to those athletes who need to develop a higher smooth cadence, or to correct a leg imbalance or a lazy stroke, but can be counter-productive for athletes who have mastered pedaling.

Motor-learning specialists (scientists who study the learning and refinement of movement skills) have examined the effect of practicing whole skills versus breaking down a skill into its parts. It turns out that part practice is a good way to acquire a new skill or to correct bad habits in an established skill, but that it also inhibits development of mastery. When one does part practice, one is practicing breaking down the movement and thinking about it in parts. While doing one-legged exercises or drills that focus on pulling up or pushing down may be good ways to improve a bad pedal stroke, if they are done too long they also prevent a rider from ever achieving the smoothest possible pedal stroke. Final refinement of a skill requires large volumes of whole-skill practice and avoidance of part practice. Training plans that continue to include part practice after skills are mastered may be entertaining or keep a rider riding, but they are counter-productive to the long-term development of the rider.

Hard riding at near maximal heart rates can also be very entertaining, and can give riders a rush that will keep them coming back. This effect can explain the popularity of some spin classes and club rides. Like one-legged drills or stroke drills, hard riding is the optimal form of training for some riders at some times, but at other times will block rather than enhance the realization of potential.

For the vast majority of riders, the factors limiting development are available time for training and ability to recover. Any training that increases the challenge of recovery without correspondingly increasing the training benefit is counter-productive.

High-intensity training may be occasionally appropriate for the rider who just can’t get motivated without the challenge of the extreme effort. There are riders who’s main limiter is a lack of motivation to stay on a program long enough to receive its benefits. The coach of such a rider may have the goal of simply keeping the rider riding and may create a plan with lots of variety and intensity for their entertainment value. It is also possible to create a training plan that includes variety in the form of skills practice without introducing inappropriate part practice or excessive intensity. A skilled coach will do so.

Training Plans for Future Champions

Some exercises are right for some riders and goofy for other riders. While a good plan will include a variety of exercises to stimulate needed aspects of development, a plan that includes variety for the sake of variety is a plan to help a beginning rider stay interested long enough to achieve a moderate degree of fitness but not a plan on which to reach championship form. If you have serious racing aspirations and a coach offers you a plan with a variety of exercises but can’t explain how each exercise is going to address one of your particular needs, and especially if the plan includes large amounts of intensity year-round or part-practice of already mastered skills, demand better or go look for a new coach. The training plan of a champion contains only those exercises that directly enhance the abilities necessary to compete effectively.

Training plans from books

Training suggested by an individual coach for an individual rider can and should be different from a training plan from a book, even a book written by the same coach. When an experienced coach writes a training book, he or she faces a conundrum: How much to simplify? If the coach-author lays out just one basic, inflexible plan for all riders, he or she fails all non-average riders, which means everyone sooner or later, but if the coach-author puts into the book enough information to deal with every possible special situation, the book becomes so complicated that it fails all riders immediately. The coach as a coach can work with the rider to identify the special situations where additional information is needed. The coach as an author has to decide how much information to include in a book and just hope that readers succeed as riders. A good training book is better than a bad coach, but no book can ever suggest training as well as the best coaches, no matter who wrote the book.

The rider is not a machine to be adjusted and tuned by precise, mechanically prescribed exercises and ramps of volume or intensity. Heart rate and power measurements definitely play a very important role in training prescription; training without one or the other of them is just fooling around unless the rider has very modest goals. Equally important though are body awareness and feedback from the athlete. If an athlete insists on following a linear or fixed stair-step ramp of volume or intensity, the chances of the athlete consistently pushing but not exceeding his or her limits are slim to none. An athlete following a fixed ramp will unavoidably be doing more than the body is ready to benefit from on some days, or less than it could benefit from on other days, if not both. Because good and bad days are party unpredictable, no author can prescribe an ideal sequence of work and rest days. In order to avoid destroying the reader-rider, the author may choose to stay on the lower, safer side of the line, for instance by scheduling regular rest weeks even when they are not needed. Even so, many book plans leave riders burned out after a very successful start. A coach on the other hand can teach or help a rider to be self-aware enough to take rest days as needed, and to increase the training load when the rider can handle it. Buried somewhere in the book can be a section about doing the recommended training unless or until some situation arises, but if the rider doesn’t remember the section on the day that it applies, he or she is unlikely to act on the advice. A good coach on the other hand recognizes when the rider needs a change of plans and prescribes it. Once a rider has deep self-knowledge and knows what to do with it, he or she could conceivably go coachless, or make use of a coach for something other than exercise prescription.

The Training Plan for You

The majority of racers are self-coached, doing some combination of exercises they have picked up from books, magazines, friends and fellow racers. The majority of self-coached racers make satisfactory progress for some months or years. Some tilt more towards variety. Some favor similarity with the programs of their heroes. Some make the training plan itself a venue for competition. Future champions focus on doing what is needed when it is needed as part of a larger plan, which usually means a lot of riding when they are fresh, and lot of resting when they are not, no matter what the particular exercises might be.

If a rider is satisfied with the results gained by following a plan, the plan is good, no matter how similar or different it is from anyone else’s plan or the plans recommended by a coach or book. A challenge for riders whose goals involve competition at a higher level is that the real results of following their plan are only tested annually during the few months of the racing season, or as rarely as once every four years for those with Olympic dreams. Between those real tests, such riders have to keep going on faith and hope. One goal of the coach of the elite rider is to help the rider maintain faith and hope through the long training periods between racing seasons and even in the face of setbacks and discouragements. This goal is achieved by the application of physiological testing, anecdotes, supportive comments, varied but appropriate training techniques and inspiring reading materials. All of these are part of race preparation of champions.

Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching develop motivating training plans for all levels of bike riders and racers, whatever their needs and goals. Individual athletes can begin work with Wenzel Coaching at any time on training plans starting at $80 per month. Check out or call 503-233-4346 for more information. To contact Scott, email him at