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How To Approach Coaching Mountain Bike Stage Races

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Road cycling and stage racing have been intertwined since the beginning of bike racing, but in recent years mountain bike stage racing has emerged onto the scene. Mountain bike stage races share some similarities with road stage races but are uniquely geared to test every aspect of mountain biking. From long endurance stages to the technical downhill enduro stages, off-road stage racing requires not only great fitness but great technical skills.

In this article we’ll explore a few training and preparation tips for these events and gather insights from one of the best pros and a few race directors.

Building Training Blocks

You might already be thinking of some obvious differences between mountain bike and road stage racing like riding terrain, but there are also other important factors like the lack of large pelotons. There is nowhere to hide in a mountain bike race, the pressure is always on you as an individual, and there are few opportunities to draft. You need to be prepared to go hard every single day of the race.

Jeremiah Bishop, Canyon Pro Athlete-Ambassador and winner of the 2018 Breck Epic, has a lot of experience stage racing. He advises athletes to “Make sure to plan a big three-week build period that includes a four-day race block. This gives you a good idea of what it is like to perform tired and lets you practice your routine. Then, two weeks prior to the race, I like to reduce training volume by close to half but will go hard every third day to stay sharp while including some VO2 or race simulation workouts.”

Adding “race blocks” within a normal build period for your athletes is an example of how stage race training might differ from training for a single day race. Athletes need to be able to ride hard on tired legs to do well in a stage race, and the only way to train for that is to work hard on consecutive days. One tactic I like is to train hard for two to three days prior to a low priority race using the race as the last day of the race block and, at times, the build period.

Training Rides

Training rides during race blocks should include long zone-three and zone-four efforts with short to moderate zone-five efforts added in the mix. Race blocks should mimic the race, so if there are stages consisting of shorter or longer days, copy that style during your block. Have your athletes complete these rides on the mountain bike and preferably off of the road to simulate the race.

During these blocks, heart rate may be less accurate than power as a guide. Also, depending on fitness, neither heart rate nor power may be accurate after the first few days. So, for this reason, it’s important to have your athletes rely on perceived effort and plan to simply go hard each day analyzing heart-rate and power data only after the ride.

Picking The Race

With the number of stage races available, your athletes will have many to choose from depending on skill and fitness level.

Races such as the BC Bike Race, a seven-day stage race that started in 2007, are great for athletes looking to have a great experience on the trail. The race is in an amazing destination regardless of whether athletes are looking to win a category or experience some of the best trail systems in the world day after day.

Andreas Hestler, co-owner of the BCBR, former Olympian, and professional mountain biker, explained what makes the race special.

“The BCBR has focused on what British Columbia is famous for, single-track,” Hestler said. “Our distances make it attainable for those just beyond beginner, all the way to advanced. The only difference is the speed with which one finishes each day.”

Sage Melley, owner of the Cactus Cup in Phoenix, AZ, an early-season, three-day stage race geared toward all levels of riders, explained that her event is a cross country-style event with terrain that makes for a great early-season and entry-level stage race.

“We don’t have big mountains in the desert,” Melley explained, “so expect courses that are smooth and fast with loose corners.”

Race Week Preparation

Preparation is everything, and that includes the race week itself.

“Go over the route in detail and create a note sheet for each day,” Bishop recommends. “Perhaps you want extra tough tires for the crazy day or extra food for the 110k stage. The less you need to think about for each day the better it will go.”

Days come and go very fast in a stage race. After each stage, there isn’t much time to think about anything except food, recovery, and your bike. Preparing a race plan ahead of time will afford your athletes extra time to recover both mentally and physically through race week. This is key as they need to wake up the next day as fresh as possible and ready to go.

In any case, training for a stage race is more than just one simple build period or one race block of training. It’s a year-long effort to get to race day feeling confident and ready. Consistency in training for any event is the key, so register early for these events, use the event as motivation to train hard, and focus on consistency to reach race day in peak form.

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Which Mental Toughness Groups Do Your Athletes Belong To?

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I wrote a piece a few weeks ago introducing The Sisu Quiz, a way to measure mental toughness. The Sisu Quiz was developed from a study that I carried out aptly named The Sisu Study which was published in early 2018.

The Sisu Study explained

The Sisu Study had two main goals. The first was to determine whether athletes can be grouped based on their level of mental toughness; think of it as The Myers-Briggs of mental toughness. The second aim was to better understand if mental toughness groups are associated with demographics, sports performance, and sports satisfaction.

The Sisu Study measured eight dimensions of mental toughness (MT): confidence, constancy, control, determination, visualization, positive cognition, self-belief, and self-confidence. If you’d like to learn more about the eight dimensions, my Training Peaks course is based on these dimensions and goes into great detail about each one.

I won’t bore you with all of the gory details of the analysis and results, but here are a few juicy tidbits.

Athletes can be classified by their level of mental toughness

Basically, I implemented a statistical technique that groups athletes who are most alike on the eight dimensions.

This method essentially looks at the cumulative athlete score for all of the dimensions and then  compares that to other athletes’ scores. Then, we are able to say, “OK, you two have similar scores, let’s group you two together” and we repeated that method for all athletes in the study. Once the statistical technique had finished, each athlete ends up with a group number.

Three very distinct groups emerged which we named “High MT”, “Moderate MT”, and “Low MT”. How did we come up with these names? I’m glad you asked.

When you look at the average (mean) score for each dimension by group membership, you end up with a table that looks like this:

*modified for clarity, from:
Zeiger JS, Zeiger RS (2018) Mental toughness latent profiles in endurance athletes. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0193071. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193071

So, what’s really happening?

You can see a lot of things happening in this table.

First, the eight dimensions of measured mental toughness are on the far-left column. You can see the mean score for each group in the subsequent columns. When you look at the mean scores for each group, there are well-defined differences between groups. Notice that the High MT group showed the highest scores for all eight dimensions and the Low MT group showed the lowest scores across the board. And, the Moderate MT group? Well, they landed right in the middle.

Now, this doesn’t mean that an athlete can’t be high in six dimensions and low in two others. Because these are averages, there will be individual variations, but as a group, each category was very consistent.

A few interesting things appeared when looking at demographics and MT group membership. Females and younger athletes were overrepresented in the low MT group compared to males and older athletes. Athletes in the high MT group expressed more satisfaction with their performances and placed higher in their division.

These are important and actionable findings.

How to the implement Sisu results

You might wonder how to put the results of your athlete’s or your Sisu results into action. Here are a few ways to do so for each level of MT.

Low mental toughness

Athletes with low MT often lack confidence and that can lead to poor decisions.

Here is a quote from a low MT athlete: “I love the structured training but right now I think it might be “bad” for me because I push myself to do it even when I don’t feel great.”

This athlete recognizes her inability to back off even when feeling poorly, and this leads to repeated injury and illness. Much of this behavior is due to lack of confidence and the need to derive her self-esteem from the workouts themselves. We are working on building her self-esteem through non-sports activities, visualization, and positive self-talk.

Low MT athletes should focus on raising one or two dimensions of MT at a time. Often, raising just one or two dimensions will raise the others automatically.  

Moderate mental toughness

Moderate MT athletes are generally content with their training, racing, and level of MT. However, when faced with real adversity, moderate MT athletes tend to make excuses and are not self-reflective. Moderate MT athletes should concentrate on constancy, the ability to keep going when things get tough, and control, the perception of being able to personally influence the situation. These two dimensions are best improved by eradicating excuse making and taking ownership for events that occur, while also implementing positive self-talk when things are going badly.

In my experience, moderate MT athletes can be very defensive, so tread lightly.

High mental toughness

It would seem that high MT is the holy grail of mental toughness. In many ways, it is. But, it can also come with a price.

High MT athletes are introspective and do a good job of analyzing their training and racing in an objective manner. On the flip side, high MT athletes can be their own worst enemy because they feel they can use their MT to fight their way through any situation. This can be a detriment in terms of health and well being. A high MT athlete is incredibly determined and can often push away negative thoughts. This means that when the SOS light is flashing, it is ignored.

High MT athletes need to understand that stopping when appropriate is a greater indication of MT compared to forging forward needlessly and recklessly.

Summary

Mental toughness is a complex construct due to its many facets. With the Sisu Study, he have tried to ease the process of measuring MT so coaches and athletes can pinpoint areas that need work. And, don’t rest on your laurels; if you don’t nurture your MT, you might find your MT waning when you need it the most.

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Tips to Integrate Travel Into Coaching and Life

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For many coaches, travel is an inevitable part of their business. Whether you’re traveling to races, continuing education opportunities, promotional events, or conferences, the odds of escaping travel are slim. While travel can be a great opportunity to grow your business and interact with new athletes, it can also drain your resources and make it challenging to manage time and other responsibilities.

What are some effective ways to keep yourself and your work strong while you’re on the road?

Communicate

Most times we don’t have control of our travel schedule. It’s based on the event organizer, race promoter, or the athletes we’re working with. Even though the timing might be out of your control, do your best to control other variables.

Communicating to your clients, staff, and business contacts in advance is the first step in setting yourself up for success. When travel presents a challenging schedule, try to communicate any modified expectations regarding your time and availability. Communicate when and how you’ll be available, and how your schedule will differ from what it might normally be.

Often, the stress from travel worsens when we try to maintain the same level of availability as when we’re in the office. If people know what to expect and you’re open and honest about what your time away is going to look like, more often than not there’s very little disruption. As with most things in life, communication is the first step towards success.    

Schedule

Personality type often dictates work schedule. Some like to schedule every small detail, while others are comfortable keeping things more fluid. Often, there may be more flexibility in your day-to-day life, however travel sets the pace, schedule, and tone of each trip. Since much of this is out of your control, develop a schedule before you hit the road to keep you on target and help you make sure things don’t fall through the cracks.

Another one of the most stressful things related to travel is feeling scattered and pulled in too many directions while trying to focus on the task at hand. Don’t attempt to keep the same schedule while external factors have changed. Whatever your method is (ie. calendars, task list, reminders) make it a point to write it down, plan for it, and schedule it. You don’t need to account for every detail, but high level tasks, appointments, and core responsibilities should be mapped out so you have a clear path forward. Developing clear, schedule objectives helps alleviate some of the pressure and clear your mind to focus on what’s in front of you.

Be flexible

Don’t attempt to work the same way that you normally do. It’s often unrealistic to take calls in the middle of the day, answer emails, or write workouts as you typically would due to the nature of your travel schedule. That’s okay.

Adjust your workflow, appointments, and client expectations to make things easier on you. The added stress of travel can be alleviated if you don’t try and fight it. This may mean that you carve out some time in parts of the day you’re not usually accustomed to so you can tackle the things that need to get done. Be as productive as you can during activities that you’re going to do anyway like breakfast, dinner, or commuting to conference sites and races. Often, your time is very limited so taking advantage of “free” time can diminish stress that may pile up throughout the day.

It’s also helpful to “get ahead” before you leave to lessen your workload versus waiting until your travel has begun. This is often easier said than done, but looking forward several weeks in advance leading up to a trip can help you cross things off of your list before life gets even busier and more hectic. Don’t try to fight your schedule, but rather make the necessary adjustments so the the schedule will work in your favor.

Travel can be one of the great parts of being a coach. Being able to interact with colleagues, athletes, and industry influencers is a great way to stay relevant and educated. However, it can be a stressful time that leaves you feeling drained and unproductive. Try to plan for as much as you can by communicating in advance and scheduling work around your travel itinerary. Next, make adjustments as needed and try not to go against the flow, but rather work with your schedule to be as productive as possible.   

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CoachCast: Smart Strength with Jess Elliot

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As more endurance athletes turn to strength training to boost performance, it’s becoming increasingly important for coaches to keep up with the latest science. Are you confident you’re properly prescribing strength workouts for the biggest impact or are you just depending on the same old routines you’re used to?

Dave Schell sat down with Strength and Conditioning Coach Jess Elliot to talk more about some of the biggest mistakes she sees endurance coaches and athletes making in the weight room.

   

Resources

TAG Performance InstagramTAG Performance FacebookSupertraining by Mel C. SiffTriPhasic Training by Cal DietzCoach’s Strength Training Playbook by Joe Kenn

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How To Stop Rickrolling Your Clients

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For those of you not familiar with what it means to get rickrolled, here is a short explainer. Rick Astley is best known for the 1987 hit song “Never Gonna Give You Up.” It is now a popular gag in internet groups to provide a link to that music video in an unrelated conversation thread but label it something seemingly related (e.g. How to Get More Clients). The person who clicked on the link and received an unasked-for 1980s dance break is said to have been “rickrolled.”

It is all a bit of harmless interwebs shenanigans, but can be a useful metaphor for our discussion today because of two things:

The song is almost entirely about rules. “Never” this, and “never” that. Because a link, like a rule, is something we all follow. And, in both cases can sometimes be very unhelpful.

The Rickrolled Athlete

Coaches, you know these people. You may even have some not-so-fond memories of being one of them in your past.

Best described by Mr. Astley’s lyrics, these are the athletes that struggle to be flexible enough to succeed in new situations. There are two common types:

“Never Gonna Give You Up”The NGGYU athlete seems to be on a revolving door of burnout, short-lived retirement, and comeback attempts. Over and over again. They just can’t seem to make the comeback sustainable or the retirement stick.“Never Gonna Let You Down”The NGLYD could be mistaken for a robot. Their workouts are so mechanical and they never deviate from exactly what is prescribed. Nothing seems to faze them and they never miss a workout. Influenza? Still going. Broken femur? Still going.

You can probably see where I’m going here. In both of these cases, these athletes aren’t doing themselves any favors.

For the NGGYU, their learned behaviors don’t work in either sport or non-sport environments. They’re likely welcomed back with open arms and receive congratulations for going hard on each comeback attempt only to burnout once again. Then, when they leave the sport family the other life just isn’t very enjoyable, so it’s once again time to make another comeback.

For the NGLYD, it’s all work all the time, and as long as nothing breaks it’s also all praise all the time. To them, rest is a four letter word and a recipe for disappointment for what they perceive as “lost gains.”

What’s Going On?

Hits from the 80s aside, these athletes are likely both suffering from overly-rigid rule following. This is also known as “psychological inflexibility.” Simply put, it occurs when an individual repeatedly attempts to apply a rule or heuristic to a context where it doesn’t work.

For most people, after a few failed attempts we will try something different. But, for some, it makes sense to just keep trying to force it. In the long term, if the athlete is a square peg and the context is a round hole, the repetition will begin to damage the athlete.

Think of the athlete that sticks to a 1,800 calorie per day diet no matter what their training load is or the athlete that always trains through injuries. Both are desensitized to their context and are taking outsized risks that will likely slow or ruin their long-term outcomes.

And, just like rickrolling, where following the link doesn’t help, they’re following rules that aren’t helping and may actually be doing serious harm.

How to Avoid Rickrolling an Athlete

The good news is, rigid rule-following is a learned behavior, so it can be unlearned. And, coaches can construct the environment around the athlete to be more sustainable and to avoid the common pitfalls of rigid rule following.

Build Training Plans and Diets That Reward Timely Self Monitoring

In order to combat rigidity, we first need to notice when it occurs. It’s important to pay attention to both internal experiences and external experiences.

Monitoring internal experiences can include both physiological and psychological factors. How are athletes feeling emotionally and what rules are they depending on in any particular moment? Monitoring external experiences includes factors like how closely they adhere to training plans and what cues they are following that may reveal if a behavior is going to be more or less effective.

For an athlete following a training plan or diet, start monitoring their experiences by using a set of pre- and post-workout surveys for training or morning/evening surveys for diets. Be sure to build in questions that encourage self monitoring, and promptly reward quality completion of those surveys. As a result, you and your athlete will start noticing opportunities for flexibility.  

With practice, behavioral cues that prompted inappropriate rule following will transform into cues that encourage athletes to experience needed discomfort as they try new things and to let go of old rules that don’t work.

Prioritize Flexible Behavior over Specific Numbers

We shouldn’t ignore data in sport, but it’s easy to devote too much importance to them, too.

If all an athlete hears from a coach is “X watts” or “Y calories”, eventually they will focus their behavior on those numbers without regard for context or risk. This is where we start to see rules become too rigid. “Never” this, “always” that; the rickrolling starts here.

If you find an athlete is regularly reporting specific numbers instead of a more flexible assessment of their performance in context, start by waiting to respond. Often, athletes might report additional information or reflect on that original report a bit more. A coach’s attention is a powerful reward. Give more of it when the athlete is demonstrating improved flexibility and withhold it if the athlete is overly-focused on specific metrics.

No coach wants to do harm to their athletes, but sometimes we don’t know when harm is being done and inadvertently rickroll them. Be careful to avoid holding too tightly to rules that don’t help outside of certain context. By improving self monitoring and prioritizing flexible behaviors, coaches can improve the training environment and help build a more adaptable and robust athlete.

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