Five mistakes commonly made by the self coached athlete

2 January 2015

Mark Fenner is a coaching guru. His proven methodology has been used to help all levels of cyclists from beginners to elite athletes achieve their goals with the time they have available. It is this methodology that forms the sports science behind Today’s Plan.

Mark has been riding and racing bikes for over 30 years, and obtained his Bsc Hons Sports Science degree in 1996.

It is interesting that behind nearly every top athlete or sports person there is a coach or trainer in the background underpinning the success with advice on both the physical, psychological and technical aspects of any given activity. Some  might ask why it is necessary, I mean even for a top golf player who has the best swing in the game, they still have a coach who will analyse their game, their swing etc to make sure it is right and bad habits or bad technique are not creeping into their game. Why is this necessary for the best player in the world if they are already the best in the world?

The simple answer is it is nearly impossible to be objective about ourselves; we often cannot see the wood for the trees and make the same mistakes again and again. Bad habits creep into our game and we tend to default to a standard ride or a standard intensity all the time. Does this sound familiar to you?

Up until very recently I had always looked after my own coaching and training schedules and it stands to reason as a sports scientist and coach to others for many years I simply followed what I preached so to speak. I had been successful, but, could I get better? Could I go faster and develop more power? The last coach I had was BCF head physiologist and guru Louis Passfield and that was nearly 20 years ago! In fact it was so long ago that I had fully forgotten the real sense of accountability and excitement of completing a set session and sending in the data to somebody else. I trained hard at least I thought I did, but, had I reverted to the default tempo rides that so many of us revert to time and time again?

I recently started working with an old friend of mine Simon Jones and it has been fantastic. Now Simon is not your everyday coach having worked with Bradley Wiggins for 10 years and he helped steer the Great Britain squad to multiple Olympic and World track titles, he has a massive knowledge base and experience. As coaches we started working with each other and coaching each other and the process has been enlightening and by going through the process we have uncovered some interesting self coached issues that can befall everyone.

In this article I want to highlight five problems that the self coached athlete might face and therefore hopefully get a few readers to step back and look from the outside in on their own training and see if they can change things for the better, get fitter, go faster and gain more power, BOOM!

1. Without a doubt the biggest problem I think the self coached athlete faces is doing too much training and not getting enough quality rest. One of the biggest issues with us all is that we are programmed to want to do more, as doing more will make us better right? Wrong, more often than not doing more training simply makes us more tired and performance suffers.

With most cyclists motivation is not a problem, I mean you only have to be on the road most mornings in any major city to see hundreds of riders out there smashing themselves on the bike before going off to work. This is not the sign of someone that needs some extra motivation and it is exactly the reason that leads us to doing too much. I am not going to get into the nitty gritty of sports science in this piece, but, if you have been doing the same training for months on end and you are not seeing improvements in your performance then there is something wrong. Step back and analyse what you are doing, monitor all the signs of overreaching and see if they are directly linked to under-performing.

The tell tale signs are;

  • A constant feeling of fatigue and heavy legs.
  • Irritability over small issues and minor problems.
  • Eating too much or too little and craving sweets and sugary items.
  • Sleep issues with problems getting to sleep and getting out of bed having had enough sleep.
  • Mediocre performances all the time, big plateaus in performance when you should be pinging.
  • Getting sick too often or sickness hanging around too long and not clearing up.
  • Losing motivation and not wanting to get out of bed and go for a ride.

If you are or have been having any of the issues mentioned above it is time to take a rest and come up for air. Having a few days off will not have any major consequences in the long game of getting fitter and may well be a blessing in disguise. If you do take some time out, look at what got you into the position in the first place and change it. I use the analogy from the film Groundhog Day and it is a classic;

If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you always got…

2. Another thing that I see in so many riders who look after themselves is a lack of focused goals and potential races or events that they would like to compete in or go and race. Goal setting is such an important component of the training puzzle in that it is by setting our goals and understanding the demands of a certain target race that we can set in motion the plan of attack and skills required to go and do it. More often than not the goals get mixed up and what I would call wishy washy. Goal setting needs to address the SMART principle and this is;

  • S = Specific
  • M = Measurable
  • A = Attainable
  • R = Realistic
  • T = Timely

If you apply these simple rules to planning and organising your goals you will go a long way to achieving them.

3. A thing that runs hand-in-hand with number two on the list is developing a real idea of what it is that makes us want to train and to race in the first place. This might sound quite simple, but, in reality it is often a major problem for athletes as understanding the real motivators is so important and I often see riders who think they want to be the very best they can be and finish a certain race in a certain time or reach a certain power output not really grasp the processes that are needed to get there.

By understanding what it is that makes us want to ride our bikes we do away with the disappointment of not achieving a goal or reaching a target. For most riders the real reason to go out and ride the bike is to have fun out on the trails with mates, not, spend most of the time training on your own looking to hit a specific number on the power meter up a climb. This sounds simple doesn’t it, but, in reality our expectations and dreams do not actually correlate with reality and what really drives us and motivates us and this is a very important consideration to think about both before and during a training schedule.

4. Another classic conundrum for the self coached athlete is the information overload and who to believe in chestnut. With increasing availability of the internet, magazines, books, Facebook, Twitter and TV it is information overload for most people trying to develop their own raining schedules. Who do you believe and who do you follow? It is so difficult and more often than not the self coached athlete moves between schedules following one then switching to another.

Nothing seems to really work as nothing is followed properly and your local crew or local elite rider pipe in with all their knowledge and tells you that you are not doing enough kilometres, or, you are doing too many kilometres. I bet you have all been there and all done it, you have a schedule to follow and then someone puts the seed of doubt into your head about it and suddenly you are doing something else. Just like with goal setting developing and following a plan should follow a similar set of rules and by following them you should be able to see a progression in you fitness.

These principles are;

  • Specificity
  • Progressive Overload
  • Recovery
  • Adaptation
  • Reversibility or Detraining

Stick with these principles and don’t be put off by your mates and all the so called experts out there and you will not go far wrong. I will add to this that belief in what you are doing is also very important. Once that seed of doubt creeps in the chances are you will not go for it in your training and commit to it 100% and it will be destined to fail.

5. The last of the self trained athlete big five I am going to touch upon in this article is pacing and monitoring efforts in both training and racing. How many riders have gone into races feeling great and then after 10 minutes have quite literally felt the wheels fall off and had the feeling of going backwards and going far slower than you had in training? Or gone out to do efforts up a climb to beat a personal best and felt amazing for the first 10 minutes only to struggle to the top way outside your PB time. Does this sound familiar? With the use of a power meter it is far easier to gauge our efforts and relate them to the actual physiological demand on the body.

Our heart rate is only a measure of the actual demand and it lags a fare way behind in time to the actual demands. What then tends to happen is that we get the red mist descend at the start of a race and go out like a bull in a china store, the sensations of effort are masked by the adrenaline and caught up in the moment of the race.

We are flying and we cannot feel our legs at all, we must be going great, we are going to smash a PB. WRONG, if you are going at a speed or power way above what you have been doing in training or in recent tests then you are going to pay for it, it is as simple as that. Very soon the actual demand will catch up with you and the body will start to regulate and you will have to slow down to recover. This process can affect the whole race or test and ruin a good result and leave you feeling terrible and that you haven’t got any fitter or faster at all. Again a very de-motivating experience that can be easily avoided by following a simple set of steps and processes that you can go over in your head at the start of your next race;

  • Don’t start too hard.
  • If you think you are going too hard you are definitely going too hard.
  • If you think you are going just right, you are still going too hard.
  • If you think you are going too easy, you are probably going just right. 

If any of the issues I have touched upon in this article have got you thinking it is time to act. Set a goal that poses a challenge, plan how and when you can work towards the goal and stay strong and keep motivated through the journey.

But most of all enjoy your time training and working towards completing your goal!