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Entries For: January 2010


Performance Gains

A little about the novice effect, and how training progresses

Every now and then you'll read or hear about some dramatic new (or, more likely, recycled old!) training method that gets huge gains in performances from some group of people.  This happens in most sporting fields.  There'll be some new product making big claims about 20% improvements in some measure of performance and so on .. Glossy adverts, flash websites making big claims, and they've got studies to back them up!

How does this happen and what does it mean, and how can you, as a skeptical cyclist who's seen it all before, make sense of it?

Leaving out sloppy science and badly designed studies paid for by companies trying to sell their product, let's see if we can make some sense out of training and performance.

Firstly, take a look at this graph :

Performance vs time

 The X axis is time spent training, the Y axis is performance and hopefully you'll notice that there's a ceiling, that's your genetic potential.  Everyone has one of these, and ultimately that's what decides if you can be an elite athlete or not. The only way to go above your genetic potential is to get involved in doping.

The graph starts at "untrained novice".  In our context, this would be someone who's never ridden a bike in any sort of training sense but can ride without falling over.

As you can see from the graph, initial performance increases are rapid.  A novice, very quickly with good training, progresses and makes rapid gains.  This isn't unique to cycling, it's the same in weight training, running, rowing, you name it .. anything that has a significant physiological fitness component responds in this way to training.

What's interesting, and often misleading, is that even poorly designed training plans can lead to rapid initial advancement, it's call the 'Novice effect' which I've mentioned before.  It approaches the genetic limits slower than an optimally designed program would. 

An extreme example of this would be setting a couch potato up with a program of lap swimming as their cycling training - initially their cycling would improve but it would rapidly plateau, much more rapidly than a program of well designed cycling intervals would.  The novice effect is basically 'something is better than nothing' in this context.  This often leads to much confusion, as we, gullible humans, see what we did initially working (even if it's not optimal, how do you know?) and assume that it's the best way to train.  It might be, or it might not be, the novice effect can be deceiving to the unwary.  This includes a lot of exercise physiologists who use poorly designed studies and very unwise extrapolations to lead coaches and athletes down dead-end paths.  So-called 'evidence-based coaching' is fraught with peril, as so many studies are poorly designed and the subjects badly chosen.

What should, I hope, be obvious from this visual depiction of progress in the graph above, is that it's relatively easy to get significant improvements from untrained athletes, and also, that it's much harder to get improvements from athletes who are close to their genetic potential.  A 20% improvement in a novice is fast and easy, in an elite athlete close to their potential a 2% improvement may take months or years or never.

Marketing people love to use novice improvement to 'prove' that their product is better than everything else and thus, sell you something.  Sometimes, their product is very good, but the data is misleading if it's not viewed in the context of the above graph.

Books - one missing, some mysteries

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This is an open call for a reply! Who dropped off "Breaking the chain?" and who has PPST:2nd ed?!

About a week or so ago I found, on the front porch of aboc HQ, four books.  One was one of mine that I'd lent out, 'Breaking the Chain' by Willie Voet, and three others that weren't mine but were very cycling-specific.  It's a mystery as I'm not sure who I lent Breaking The Chain out to so I don't know what the story is with the three others?  Am I to keep them?  Borrow them and return them?  I don't know .. If it's you?  Please let me know!

Also, I think I lent my copy of Practical Programming for Strength Training 2nd Ed out, but again, I'm sloppy with loans and can't remember who I lent it to, if you have it, can I please have it back, it's one of my main references and I'm missing it a lot!


Apples and oranges?

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But .. we supply dinner!

Alex Simmons up in Sydney is starting up a spin session.    $40 a session, which is $160-$200 a month depending on the number of Mondays in the month or something like that.  Wow ... They are supplying computrainers, and they're expensive ergos, but still .. That's a lot of pony up for for an hour or so on an ergo.  I wonder if they provide dinner?  We do.  The Computrainer increases your cycling power by 20-30% and your speed by 2 to 4 MPH (3.2-6.4km/h) or so the Computrainer website claims anyway. I'm not sure I'd ever make that sort of a claim and I'm a little surprised that Alex, who is by all accounts an ethical sort of a guy, would quote that claim on his site, even if he did add in "it has the potential to" which is one of those wishy-washy weasley phrases used by companies that sell placebos that"have the potential to INCREASE MUSCLE BY 1100108.76%!". I know Alex, not all that well, but I did spend some time with him at the level two course last November and he's a good guy, very devoted and certainly a very good prescriber of power-training drills and a very keen coach. If there's a market for it up there in Sydney, good luck to him with the venture.  It's a tough gig to make money being a full time cycling coach and a bit of hyperbole is to be expected, I guess.




More new toys

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As a few of you reading this know, I've been working with Hilton Clarke and John Beasley in at DISC getting hours up for mentored coaching as part of getting the level two cycle coaching qualification.

I've got the hours up now (23 mentored, I needed 20), and by way of trivia, I've logged all the time I've spent coaching since the start of January.  So far, 90.5 hours, in a month.  Phew ... That's a combination of time spent running spin sessions, having meetings with riders, strength coaching in the 'haus, time at DISC with Hilton and John, coaching Em at the Junior Vics and so on.

Seiko S149Along the way I've had to use the stopwatch. The stopwatch all the elite coaches use here is the Seiko S149.  It's not a cheap bit of kit, RRP in Oz is around $700 but you can get it online from the US for around $400 or so, which is what I did.  Why such an overpriced stopwatch?  You can get a basic lap/split stopwatch for around $20.  But, this has a printer (big deal?) and it's also the standard that everyone uses, so if I'm working with Hilton, or John, or any of the others we can all use the same timer and know how it works and how to use it.  The printer is handy for working with pursuiters, being able to print out lap splits and cumulative times is of value.  It's also pretty-much bombproof.  John's S149 is about 10 years old and still works, you can't see the writing on the case anymore because it's been handled so much, but it works as well as the day he got it.  That sort of reliability is worth paying for.



Australia Day Madison

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It went very well in the end, despite some early issues!

Often stuff behind the scenes doesn't get noticed (that's why it's behind the scenes, right?).  At yesterday's Australia Day Madison there was some confusion and consternation, in particular with regards to the race program at the start of the day.  Luckily Blackburn has Rob Monteath as secretary, Rob was under enormous pressure and was lacking in information, as he'd not been made privy to very much, but was the focal point for enquiries on the day and beforehand.   Rob, the club and all of us who raced and were involved owe you a debt of gratitude for your hard work and dedication and calm under fire.  Thank you.  Without your efforts the day would have been a disorganised disaster, instead it ended up a huge success.


Rambling on about coaching

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There's a big difference between being an institute coach and an individual rider's coach

I've spent a little bit of time now over the last week with a few very experienced coaches as part of the process of getting level two accreditation.  It's been very educational so far, although I've only scratched the surface of what they do.  There's some interesting things that have cropped up so far.

Some obvious things :

Everyone has different approaches and methods and styles, as John Beasley would say "there's more than one way to skin a cat".  Everyone's also got different agendas and that brings me to the meat of this article.

Who does a coach work for?  The answer is fundamentally important. 

If a coach is employed by an athlete, the coach works for that athlete.  Their goal at that time is to help that athlete achieve their personal goals.  There's a role there for the coach to guide an athlete towards appropriate long term goals but there's no selection policy and the rider's wants come first and if a rider can't or won't do something, the coaches job is to find alternatives that the rider will do.  If a rider wants to specialise in a particular event, then the coaches job is to help that rider achieve in that event.  The aim is to develop that rider, one egg, one basket and handle the basket very carefully, so to speak.  Donna-Rae told me once, and I'll never forget it "As a coach you may have many athletes, but each athlete has only one career".  This is a fundamental defining aspect of the role of the coach for the individual rider.  The rider is trusting the coach to help them achieve their goals.  The rider has the power to hire and fire the coach.

If a coach is employed by an institute or a team or a club*, then the coach doesn't work for the individual athletes any more.  They work for the institute and have to provide the results that the institute wants.  This may not always be in the best overall interests of every one of the individual athletes in a particular squad, or meet up with the wants of those individuals.  The athletes then become tools to be used by the institute to achieve its aims.  A common name for the institutes is the gold medal factories.  They have a very different job to do than that of the coach for an individual rider as their master is focused on different outcomes.  They have selection processes, they have performance criteria and they have to not only select athletes but also de-select them. 

From the outside, the training programs look similar, but from the inside the process and motivation is different.  Somewhat similar to the difference between a training bunch of roadies and a race.  It looks the same from the outside, but inside it's a vastly different animal.  The institutes, development squads and national teams are funded by political decisions and they have to produce politically acceptable results.  In the context of the AIS, this means gold medals at Olympics and World Champions, for example.  It doesn't matter to the political masters how many athletes the institutes churn through to get those results.  While the coach of a squad like the AIS, NTID etc will certainly care for the riders in their squads, they know that they serve a different master.  The individual riders may want the same thing that the coach wants for them and that the institute's funding relies on, but the rider is, ultimately, a disposable entity.  They (the riders) know this and accept it as part of joining the squad.  If they don't make the grade, they're out.  It's a different world.  This is, crudely, the "chuck the eggs at the wall and keep the ones that don't break" world.  Some squads are more overt about it than others, but this is the fact of the matter.

[*] Often at club level this is different, many clubs 'employ' coaches to provide introductions to the sport or general 'club training' and there's no selection criteria or much in the way of performance requirements.  Showing up is often sufficient!




Level 2 progress

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I'm getting more stuff done ...

Some of you will be aware that I'm working on getting level two coaching accreditation, I started off at the course a month ago in Adelaide, and there's extra requirements apart from the course.

Part of it is logged coaching time, 60 hours in total, 40 unsupervised and 20 supervised or mentored.

Needless to say the 40 unsupervised hours are already done.  That didn't take very long at all.

The 20 mentored/supervised hours are about to get underway.  I'm doing time with Hilton Clarke tomorrow at DISC with the NTID squad, and with John Beasley on Thursday and Friday with the Malaysian sprint squad, also at DISC.  I'm quite looking forward to it.


Sport is about not winning

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An interesting and clever article ...

From here.

Some extracts :

Defeat is the sporting experience that dare not speak its name. Defeat is the thing that keeps us coming back: for when victory is certain, where is the joy? A mismatch brings no pleasure to the winner, and we call such victories hollow.

And it finishes with :

We are as hooked on defeat as we are on victory. Sport would not be sport without misery, without despair, without hopelessness. Victory is for wimps: it is in defeat that the true spirit of sport is to be found.

Read the whole article, it's more about soccer than anything else, but it's a good article, from a spectators perspective.

Keeping the kids in the sport

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Where do all the J17's go?

If you've been around bike racing for a while (more than the average parent of a competing kid, ie: a 'generation' or so), you'll probably have noticed something.

There's stacks of J11's, J13's, J15's and even plenty of J17's, but then .. there's a big gap until you get to masters.

What happens?  Why is this so, and can we do anything about it?

Here's my hypothesis for why :

The young kids race each other, it's a very supportive environment, in particularly at track races.  There's lots of races and a reasonably small pool of people to race against, when the pool is small, the competition is reasonably close, so little Johnny has peers to race with.  There's a lot of coaching for the kids (loads of enthusiastic parents, coaches looking for a ride to glory on the coat-tails of the Next Great Champion and so on ...).  The kids aren't really expected to win when they race adults, so they don't develop much  emotional resilience - they don't learn how to cope with losing when they've tried their hardest in an environment which is emotionally committed. There's been a few papers written on the emotional side of what happens when talented kids grow up and it starts to get harder to win but none I can find with google right now.

As the kids grow up, more start to race, in general.  By this I mean that there's more J15's than there is J13's and J11's.  The competition gets tougher but they're all still on restricted gearing so the really strong ones can't whip the less strong, it's a pretty level playing field.

Then they get to J17 and J19, and they're often thrown into higher grades against adults, their gearing isn't as restricted so their strength starts to make the differences bigger, and the ones that aren't the top of the tree win less, and less, and less ... After a while they get sick of losing all the time, and quit.  Who can blame them?  The coaches are losing interest in them, they haven't made the state squad because they're only the 6th fastest pursuiter in the state and so on.   They may have talent, it may take more time to develop, kids grow physically and emotionally at very different rates.  What happens to the almost-good-enough riders?

Bike racing (except round robin match sprinting) is a very cruel sport.  If you play footy, cricket, hockey etc, on average, you're going to win 50% of the time.  This is the nature of team sports with round robin competitions.  If you race bikes, on average, you don't win very often, a few stars win just about everything, the rest of us have to find something to take home from our races that makes us feel good, or we quit.  To add to the stacked odds, 99% of bike racing at amateur level is individual.  So, not only aren't you winning very much unless you're a star, you don't have the team support around you to help, to dilute the failure.  The footy player gets to play with their club, in a grade that's appropriate for their abilities and they get finals to compete for and so on.  In cycling, there's no such thing.  At least, not here.  Show up at Glenvale this summer in D grade and you're racing 80 other cyclists every week.  That's a 1:80 chance.  Most riders once they reach senior ranks rarely if ever actually win a race.

So the kids give it up.  They sometimes come back in their late 20's or as masters, when they've grown up enough to know that there's more to sport than winning, that competition in itself can bring out the best in them, but who expects most teenagers to get that?  Some do, and I'm lucky enough to know a couple of them, but I suspect they're in the minority.  If they weren't, all those J17's from two years ago would be racing J19 and senior racing.  They're not.

The same thing happens in athletics too, but I don't know enough about that sport to comment, I expect it happens in a lot of individual sports once the kids get to 17 or so years old and it all gets a lot tougher.

So what can we do to keep them?  Not just the super-talented ones (although losing them is bad, some just take more time to shine), but the good, hard working but not top of the heap riders?  I have a few ideas, I'd like to see more teams racing across the grades, which I think would help, but do you have any other suggestions? Am I full of it or is the above close to the mark?  What do we do as a sport to encourage and retain the kids that won't ever win an A grade race?

Edit: Some feedback I've received on this :

As the kids get older their social life increases, they want to spend time with their friends and 
girlfriends and boyfriends. Most partners are not prepared to sit at a cycling event and watch their 
other half go around or disappear in the distance for hours on end - they want to be doing other 
things. And their friends don't really want to come and watch either.

Secondly study starts to impact this age kids, they are starting to enter VCE territory and this 
impacts greatly on their time which doesn't leave time for training and competing as well.

A third reason is that other sports also come along that their friends invite them to join, most very 
little outlay compared to bikes, and again they are with their everyday friends.

Lastly they start to get part time jobs - most in retail - and these impact the most at weekends and 
after school, with the long trading hours we have in Vic.



Long days ...

A lot of coaching, some intense training ...

It's been a hectic new year so far.  I've spent some 18 hours coaching in the 'Haus since Jan 1st, and about 6 hours coaching at DISC and Blackburn.  Not bad for 7 days and a more-than-full-time job!  I spent this morning motorpacing in at DISC with Liz Randall, then tonight we had another Summer Spin Session where we did some full recovery sprints, but they were still damn hard!  Time now for sleep ...


Population, and David Attenborough

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The biggest issue we face ...

Sir David is onside.

Relevant quotes :

"I've never seen a problem that wouldn't be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more."


the Trust accuses policy makers and environmentalists of conspiring in a "silent lie" that human numbers can grow forever with no ill-effects.

We can't keep breeding forever ...


Does Internet Coaching really work?

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I've been doing it for years, but am still unsure ...

When I started aboc way back in 2003 I dreamed of, amongst other things, being an 'Internet coach' for cyclists.  I did it for some time, I had some clients who were interstate, some even overseas.  After all, if you're communicating by email, you can be anywhere, right?  And when more people have downloadable HRM's and power meters, it seems even easier. You get their data (when they remember to send it!), slap it into WKO+, check it out and you know everything about the rider's progress.  Write a program, email it out, get the data, send the invoice ... Have a successful cyclist as a client ... Heck, you can probably even bodge up some software to automatically generate training programs based on some simple formula and you don't even have to do any work at all.

But does that really work?

I had some spectacular failures using that method.  Most of the riders I worked with were terrible at communicating with me, I'd get very infrequent emails or none at all from most of them.  They'd do maybe some of their program or none, I had little in the way of regular contact with them despite the best of intentions, I'd send nagging emails to some and seldom get replies.  The failures weren't necessarily the riders faults, I practically live on-line, but that's not how the vast majority of people live, even office deck jockeys don't have time to send regular emails and so on all the time.  Sometimes I'd be too snowed under with work to respond quickly to queries too. Some riders, if I saw them more regularly, I'd have seen that they weren't responding well and we'd have changed things around to suit them better.  Even if a rider has all the fruity bits (HRM, power meter etc) there's still no substitute for actually working with them at training sessions.  You can see so much more when you watch them closely than you can from a load of training statistics.

I don't doubt that for some riders (but I suspect this is a very small minority, at least in my experience) the Internet coach thing can work.  However, in the vast majority of cases unless you actually see your athletes regularly, I don't think a coach can really know what's going on.  I think it's important to see how your riders respond to training, you need to talk to them, face to face, you need to see them on an ergo, on the track, or racing, or in the gym, regularly.

I still do some Internet coaching, but am increasingly uneasy about its overall worth.  For a recreational racing cyclist, some structure and hand holding from a coach developing a program is often useful and a good way to get them started, and a coach in that position can do the 'Internet thing', essentially matching up the rider's available time with a bunch of training sessions and setting some goals.  This amounts to spoon-feeding an athlete Joe Friel's book, with a few variations on style.  It works, kinda, and can get some riders going well, but in my experience as a model for coaching beyond that initial first few months, it doesn't work well.

I know I feel a lot better about working with riders regularly and seeing them regularly at training and racing sessions than I do when I see them very infrequently.  I'm trying these days to structure my coaching such that there's regular contact (actual physical, in the same place at the same time) at training sessions, such as our ergo sessions, sessions in the 'Haus, at DISC and so on.  I think it's far better than just emails and data dumps.  Coaching's not just about the data, it's about understanding the riders and working with them to achieve their goals.

What's your experience and thoughts on this?  I'd appreciate comments on this article, please.

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