There were more than a few occasions last season when people expressed surprise that I didn’t have a coach. It seemed that nearly everyone I was racing against had at least sort of formal training plan, and several people did take me to one side and suggest that I would likely benefit from being coached in some form or another. I must admit, I’d never really thought about it before but the idea of having ‘a plan’ to rigidly stick to filled me with dread – riding my bike has always put a smile on my face, and I didn’t want it to become a chore. And besides, I’d always quite liked the fact that people thought I was slightly nuts for riding everyday all through the winter instead of retreating to a warm spare room on the turbo until spring.
I think I finally made my mind up in the bar in St Malo after the Duo Normand that I would take the plunge and hire a coach for this season, even if only out of curiosity as to how much of a difference it would actually make, however it was the purchase of my turbo that really opened the door to something more scientific than my existing regime of commuting back & forth to the office. Now I could record my power output, and actually measure just how hard I was actually pushing myself (or not), as well as quantifying any improvement in my abilities over time beyond just another PB in a time trial.
I was in two minds about whether to hire on or off island (how can someone coach you if they’ve never seen you even ride a bike?), but the others I had spoken to all used off island coaches and seemed to get on OK what with various training diary apps, Skype and email. So I did a few Google searches and came up with a shortlist of few places that offered various packages ranging from 12 week generic training plans to 12 month tailored coaching programmes with a professional coach. In for a penny in for a pound, I thought I’d probably get more out of something more tailored so a couple of emails and a questionnaire about my type of riding and goals for the coming season later and I had signed up with Dig Deep Coaching. They set me up with a Training Peaks account and then introduced me to my hand-picked appointed coach.
First things first, after a brief introductory Skype call, I had to take a functional threshold power (FTP) test so that we could determine my maximum power output and set my training programme accordingly. I can honestly say that was the hardest I’ve ever worked on a bike – I turned myself inside out and really felt like I was going to throw up, which was about the right level of effort I understand! Once I recovered, my coach outlined the parameters for my training zones and set my training plan for the first week – mostly power work set around my ‘sweet spot’ – about 80-90% of my FTP. The initial 8 weeks followed pretty much the same pattern, with the same 3 or 4 sessions appearing in my Training Peaks diary over and over again, which did worry me a little that it was going to fall into the ‘chore’ category quite quickly. However, the sessions have varied since, and there is now enough variety in my training to prevent any feelings of Groundhog Day.
It’s followed from there really. Three weeks of 3 mid-week turbo sessions, a couple of recovery rides and the ‘treat’ of a long ride out in the real world if I’m not racing of a weekend. Every fourth week is a recovery week, and then it’s back to business. I’m still commuting to work by bike, albeit a much shorter route than before, but I’ve definitely been working harder than I did last winter and as well I would otherwise have pushed myself if I’d been left to my own devices. Each Monday I get my sessions reviewed and feedback on my performance, and my programme for the week ahead gets input into my Training Peaks calendar for me to follow, and if I ever have any questions outside of this time my coach has always responded fairly promptly to any ad-hoc emails.
Not that it’s all be been plain sailing. There are a couple of things that haven’t quite worked out as expected – I’ve found that initially the hours I’ve had to put in have been above what I had indicated I had available to train on the questionnaire I completed when I joined (much to my wife’s annoyance); and I’ve struggled to understand the benefit of a couple of the sessions such as high cadence spinning or low effort 4 hour endurance rides – although that may well be a lack of understanding on my part as much as a lack of communication from my coach. To be fair, he has suggested changes to my programme based on what he seen of my performance (over-training springs to mind!), and changing my routine slightly has helped maintain my motivation too.
Speaking of motivation, although it’s ultimately down to me to actually put the hard graft in, I’ve found that thought of letting someone down if I didn’t do the sessions has helped kick me up the backside (more so than the thought that it’s actually costing me money for the training!), so I haven’t missed a session yet. Also, receiving feedback for the first time ever has been a real bonus. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all been super-positive brown nosing stuff as I initially feared, but I’ve found that having someone who is supposedly objective analyse my sessions and point out positive things even when the feedback I’ve given has been that I felt that a particular session went badly, or felt I was really suffering whilst doing it, has helped keep my chin up when I was initially beating myself up about it.
So far so good then. I have done a second FTP test and although my power output only increased by 2 watts, I had shipped 2 or 3 kg of weight, so it was a 4-5% increase in the all important watts/kg ratio. I’m definitely having a better ‘cross season (well, read MTB XC series on a CX bike) than last year, with a win and a third place out the four races so far, although I’m not sure if that’s just a result of more experience given last winter was my first racing off-road. The real proof will be in another 6 weeks when the road season starts, but I suppose I won’t know if it’s really been worthwhile value until I’m sitting in that bar in St Malo after this year’s Duo Normand.