Coach Britni Bakk and I have just returned from that wonderful and epic Coast Ride. While it sounds quite hard core, the pace we rode really isn’t. We are just getting from A to B, B to C, C to D, D to E and finally E to F every day on bikes. This leaves a lot of time for good conversation, reflection, reviewing and solving world problems. It would be fair to say that every day was a business meeting or strategy discussion between Britni and I about athlete development, progression and best laid plans for that individual. There is no one way for any one. There is only the way for every one.
The Coast Ride was really 4 days with a 5th day that carried us to San Diego through busy places and bike paths. The 5th day was a gravy day. It was the previous 4 days that really counted. Ironically, it gave clarity to how we approached our efforts and how it parallels that of a developing athlete. For us, it came easily since we have about 70 years experience between the two of us but for some, it would be a hard lesson if approached any other way.
4 Days of Riding the Coast = 4 Years of Developing as an Endurance Athlete
It’s fair to day that all athletes would be well served to take at least a four-year view of their training and goals. Sure, athletes will have goals and events within the coming 12, 9 or 6 months, and it is necessary to get ready for those events. But, I have always found that as a coach, looking beyond the next race is a pivotal key to success and longevity. Wouldn’t you agree?
Year One – Learn
For better and worse, endurance training is cumulative. On the positive side, this means the work you’ve done up to now has been gradually building upon itself, creating your current capacity.
There’s no substitute for experience because there is no shortcut to building that foundation. The downside is, of course, when you’re new to endurance sport you have to be patient while building the foundation.
Ramping up training workload to match your newfound enthusiasm is a recipe for burn out, over-use injuries or fatigue.
Coast Ride comparison: Any riders that went out too hard on Day One were shot out the back by the end of the day and soft pedalling to the hotel unsure how they would manage the next 3 days. Hard lessons to learn but lessons nonetheless. Those well paced, patient and willing to respect the magnitude of the 220 kilometres finished strong and were still smiling for more that evening.
Year Two – Train
Year two is about building the physical toolbox, and to do this, you have to train. With a year of generalized ultra-distance training in the bank, it’s time to pick a goal event and commit to a long training buildup.
This is often the year we encourage athletes to enter their first real endurance event, but perhaps not the hardest they can find. Compared to Year One, athletes might also complete in more varied events, including trail runs, fondos, swim races, etc. These events are key for developing the race-day habits you’ll need for your key event(s). Racing experience also breeds confidence in what you enjoy, excel at and gravitate towards.
Coast Ride comparison: this was the day a few riders would dig in and test their endurance. While it was wise to stay aerobic and play off attrition, it was also ok to play a bit and dig in. This was the day we rode through Big Sur with big climbs and harrowing descents. We needed wits, alertness, calculated caution and definitely endurance. It was also the day to learn what the body is capable of, bond with others and manage fuel. This day felt like there was meat on the bones for anyone willing to pace, rise up, hold back and push strong all in the same breath.
Year Three – Challenge
Year Three is a great time to go big. This is the year we encourage athletes to set more audacious intentions and challenge themselves to do something they might have not though possible in Year One. If the first two years were somewhat conservative in an effort to gain fitness and experience gradually, Year Three is the time to take bigger risks. If you finished your first ultra-endurance event in Year Two, leverage that experience by pushing yourself to complete a challenge with additional obstacles, like more climbing, higher elevations, or greater heat. These aren’t hardships just for the sake of hardship, but rather they are further steps in the process of learning to adapt to challenging conditions.
Coast Ride comparison: this was the day athletes started to show their true ability. Winds were up and not always coming from behind and fatigue levels were such that aerobic riding was almost the only option. Those that took in the first two days with patience shown through unapologetically and rose to new levels of riding abilities and endurance strength. The hardships we faced riding through Lompoc and away from the Coast tested our ability and our experience. Adaptation was at its best on this day.
Year Four – Optimize
Four years is a long time to wait for anything. But, if you’ve been patient, by this time you are ready to make a breakthrough. Year Four is when you dial in all the details with the goal of setting personal bests, winning a race, placing as high as you can in your age group and optimizing your performance. For aspiring elite athletes, this is often the year for breakthrough performances. For enthusiasts and age group competitors this is typically the first year when the basics of training, nutrition, pacing, and race day routines feel like second nature and culminate in the race of a lifetime.
This year is also marked by a crucial shift in mindset. There is no longer any doubt you’re capable of reaching the finish line, and once you are secure in the knowledge you can finish, your mindset can shift from surviving to improving and competing. You can start examining and scrutinizing previous tried and true routines and strategies in an effort to optimize them.
In training, Year Four is also the time for more advanced techniques. Early on, there is so much room for improvement you don’t need to get fancy. The best strategy is the simplest, and added complexity substantially increases risk for usually little reward. In Year Four, however, athletes have a strong foundation of training workload, experience, resilience, self-awareness, and perspective (usually). As a result, athletes are typically ready to add in advanced techniques such as heat acclimation, back to back interval days, block style training or other techniques often coined “marginal gains”, because they’ve reached a point where those techniques can actually deliver benefits above and beyond the fundamentals of endurance training.
Coast Ride comparison: Day Four was certainly the time to optimize, ride efficiently and hopefully finish with a breakthrough effort (as strong as or stronger than how we started). Traffic, navigation, winds, technical riding and longer than anticipate miles demanded experience on this day. We all needed the previous 3 days to create our unique 4th day.
So there we have it: Learn, train, challenge, optimize. It’s a simple formula with each piece building on itself to form a better endurance athlete. If you are patient and progress naturally, it might just be your key to a performance of a lifetime.