By Michael Barry

Sport science, training techniques, aerodynamics, and our understanding of a multitude of variables in relation to a cyclist’s performance have evolved, or been debunked, yet absolutists remain a force. As coaching is increasingly professionalized, training has become a product, like diet, where formulas to fitness are structured and, often seen as absolute. Without seeing shades of gray, perspective is quickly lost. 

Being open minded, asking questions and trying new techniques opens one to failure but also drives positive change and growth. In a sport with countless variables, the repetition of a formula can lead to stagnation. Too often, I hear coaches say riders must train a certain way, riding a fixed wheel will adversely affect muscle development, running is bad for cyclists, to go fast you must sit a certain way on the bike, eating x food will make you fat, etc. Through trial and error we learn. Confined ideas are rooted in insecurity. 

Open mindedness has led to riders eating more carbohydrates on the bike than past generations and therefore they now ride faster, and are healthier. It has also led to increased speed and comfort by riding wider tires at lower pressure. It has helped us understand that sleep can have more value than an extra interval. The list is endless as we are in constant pursuit of improvement. 

In early January, I spent a week in California riding with our son, Ashlin, and a group of young athletes who were being coached for the week by Dr. Allen Lim at a camp he had put together to help them springboard into the racing season. Camps can be incubators for idea development. The riders have a sensation on the bike and can ask questions directly to Allen, who will try to provide answers. For Ashlin, it wasn’t only a training camp but also a lesson in sport science. 

Allen coached me twenty years ago, when he was working on his Phd in Exercise Physiology at the University of Colorado and I was just starting out my professional career with the Saturn Pro Cycling Team. The coaching relationship was one of the most enriching of my career. We would meet every couple days to discuss my training and develop plans and routes. I would ask questions about how my body felt on the bike and he would provide answers; if he didn’t know, he would speak with his professors or colleagues. We learned the science behind why motorpacing simulated racing and was crucial to race preparation. I learned how far I could push myself and still recover. I began to understand what foods worked, or didn’t, and when to eat. Through having an open mind and being inquisitive, Allen changed many of the ways things were done in pro cycling: he affected training techniques, diet, cooling strategies, etc.  

Despite all the data he was analysing, he also taught me the importance of Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), and listening to my body instead of being solely focused on the numbers from my power meter. The numbers only told part of the story as mental preparation and awareness are as important. Over coffees and pastries, Allen would have me write my training programs with him which gave me a better understanding of why and how certain rides, or rest days, affected my performance. Importantly, it taught me the method to training while also giving me ownership of my training.  As an athlete, that empowered me,  gave me the confidence to make changes to a training session while out on the road if I felt good, or lousy, and made me believe that what I was doing was right for me.

Following a formula assigned by a controlling coach will often lead to burnout. An empowered athlete with a growth mindset, who is open to ideas and change will prosper emotionally and physically. Each athlete has unique motivations, mindset and physiology and therefore not all thrive with the same stimuli or in the same environment; it is the coach’s role to understand what affects the athlete and how to work with them, as a team, to prosper.

Binary thinking leads coaches to overlook potentially great athletes who don’t fit into the metrics they’ve determined that a a champion requires. Not all outstanding physical specimens can work with a team, understand strategy, have tenacity, can handle a bike….Many of my teammates who won consistently, or were great domestiques, were not outliers in the laboratory. Famously, Mark Cavendish would never have made it to the pro ranks if only his physical values were considered. 

Despite spending most of his life in sport, Allen will say today that he is still learning and working to answer questions to improve performance. In his words, the “coach is also a student.” He adds, “While science can help us to find answers and unravel the nature of the world we live in, it doesn’t change the nature of that world. While we can change, doing so is scary. So for me, there was always this distinction between science vs. practice…between research and me-search. In the realm of self-discovery, the scientific method only works if we’re open to change…if we can let go of our insecurities and forgive ourselves of our past mistakes so we can be open to learning from the one’s we’ll certainly make in the future”.

My experience on Team Sky was similar to that with Allen. Their growth mindset not only made them successful but also changed cycling. The hierarchies typical in most teams were not as prevalent. The riders were encouraged to ask questions and give feedback. Rider committees were formed to develop clothing, process, and equipment. Everyone had a voice. Coaches from other sports were hired to work with the team as they would think outside of the box that so often confines so many thoughts and ideas from growing. As a result, the team progressively changed the way almost all teams, coaches and riders function. The trickle down from the team’s approach has influenced every facet of the sport. I see those effects whether on the local club rides or at the velodrome when I watch the juniors train. 

Often, people hold strong to their beliefs to sell their product or because they are afraid to ask questions and risk failing. It is easier to blindly follow trends or beliefs than ask questions.  For generations cyclists did things the way Coppi or Merckx did because they were successful. Being skinny was more important than being strong and healthy.  Riders came home starving and depleted from long rides. They relied on drugs instead of getting proper sleep. Research such as Allen’s, and the growth mindset of certain teams, coaches and scientists, made the sport realize how wrong, and toxic, it was. As in science, discoveries lead to more questions; the pursuit of performances is continuous and never absolute. 

Pro cycling was a hard and ruthless world, yet it is slowly evolving into a more nurturing place as teams become aware that happy and healthy riders are productive riders. Realizing the brain is as important to success as a rider’s physiology, most teams now have psychologists or psychiatrists to not only support the athletes but also the staff. 

Perspective and intuition through experience makes us aware of where focus should be placed in the pursuit of performance. In the hierarchy of gains, it is easy to believe in what is being sold to us instead of focussing on what has true value. 

From the bicycle, to the racing environment, to the human elements, the millions of variables that affect the outcome of a rider’s performance make cycling fascinating and less predictable. Perspective beyond the sporting bubble allows us to better understand, adapt and then control those variables. 

Photography by Avery Stumm

3 thoughts on “Training: The Importance of Being Open to New Ideas and Methods

  1. Very good article Michael, with many important points covered. Your advice that all those in a rider’s support group be in a coaching programme is often overlooked. This should include family, teachers, and employers where appropriate. BTW, I watch Ashlin’s continuing progress with great interest and look forward to his future pro. career.


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