By the time Dave Hayward and Michael Powell gridded up on the start line for the Veteran’s National MTB Marathon Championship at Margam Park, they had amassed some 800 hours of training between them, in six months of preparation. Michael was the defending champion, and Dave wanted the title.
These two athletes would ride out of their skins in this race, outclassing their competitors and stretching out a 20 minute gap to third place. The race on the day was one of the closest and most exciting marathon events ever, but the race tells only part of the story.
My challenge as coach to both of these athletes was to help each fulfil their potential, and although they shared a common goal in wanting to win the marathon jersey, each took a very different journey to the start line, and ultimately to the finish line.
To see these two in training was like a scene from Rocky III. Mike was training like Rocky – he was following my training prescription, but using a more natural and facilitative approach, relying on his own bio feedback and heart rate response. Dave was training like the Russian - using very scientific methods. Both were getting great results, Mike even managed to drop his local chain gang on his mountain bike in a show of great early form.
Each athlete knew that I was coaching the other and that I would be giving them an equal amount of input and coaching advice. What I underestimated was the extent to which this would motivate both athletes. Each knew the level of commitment and, to some extent, the strengths and weaknesses of the other. There was no question of there being an easy race, or an easy win, for either athlete.
On race day Mike went from the gun taking Dave and Pete Turnbull (the eventual Bronze medallist) with him. However, Dave’s superior power to weight ratio soon gave him the advantage, and Dave pulled ahead on the gruelling opening climb under a beating sun. Mike didn’t panic. He knew his limits and knows his body well, something that the facilitative style of coaching he has followed has given him.
I coached Mike last year to his Marathon win, where my main input was to hold back his training after ultra-endurance races. I was monitoring his nervous system fatigue and resting him until he reached the training sweet spot, when an athlete is recovered from an overload period. From that point I could add the training load again. The result was an athlete who was in top form, and able to go hard from the gun. Mike won the 2008 Marathon title by a clear 12 minutes. He would not enjoy such a clear run in this race however.
Mike is a very competent rider who has been racing for many years and is not easily fazed, even by very technical courses. He has the ability to suffer and can read a race well, allowing him to pace and time his efforts to great effect. However, he is a bit of a slave to his heart rate monitor, and its indication ruled his psychology during training.
Dave on the other hand was a very raw rider. He was fit and light, but his lack of knowledge about nutrition during races, technical skills, pacing and racing psychology were lagging well behind his physical ability. He was, however, a clean slate and was willing to undertake a very autocratic routine. We were using power meters fitted to both on and off road bikes, along with tools to monitor his nervous system. With Dave I had power, speed, cadence, heart rate, torque, temperature and altitude data for every single ride he did over the 6 month period up to the Championship race. We lab tested, field tested, pre-rode the course to build his physiology to the course demands, over geared, sprinted, core stabilised, mobilized and stretched. Then we re-tested and did it all again, only more focused this time on the weaker areas of his physiology.
Dave is only human and there is a limit of every athlete’s motivation, especially during such a demanding autocratic plan when the body and the mind say enough is enough. For Dave this came during a particularly tough carbohydrate depleted training session where a low calorie intake and demanding interval protocol led him to be training outside in a torrential rain storm on the rollers. Thunder and lightning, very tired legs and motivation pushed to the very limit was almost enough to see the bikes going in the skip. If I could have seen this coming I would have had an easy period scheduled in a day earlier, but even with good communication and coaching processes these days can and will happen with athletes. A good motivational talk, evaluation of goals and a rest week and Dave was back on track.
As spring approached the emphasis for Dave shifted to technical skills. This is a good tip for any mountain biker whose performance output has reached a plateau - don’t batter yourself with more and more intervals in an attempt to pull that extra 20 watts. Instead, get your skills tuned. It will take a good minute off your lap times during an XC race and it’s a great deal more fun than doing nose-bleed intervals up a hill. I also made some changes to David’s bike, as his original set-up was very, very wrong. Too low at the front, too narrow and the seat height was way out - so much so that it was causing an injury to the back of his knee.
The skills training paid dividends for Dave, as by the end of lap two he had managed to get through the steep, rocky descents without incident and had pulled out a 3.5 minute lead over Mike. However, the three-hour mark is a turning point in any endurance race, and this is where Mike’s experience gave him the edge. He was able to maintain the high pace and pull minutes back on the third lap from his less experienced rival. As the pair started their fourth and final lap, Dave’s lead had been whittled down to just two minutes.
There had been a turning point much earlier in the season that had not gone in Mike’s favour. He caught a virus just before spring, and it set his training back by weeks. His body took so long to recover that it was a challenge to bring him into racing form in time for the race. As well as this, he was in the middle of a house-building project over spring, which caused a fair share of disruption and distracted him from some of the key areas where marginal gains can be made. Good nutrition, recovery and regular sleep can make up the winning margin between two closely-matched athletes.
By mid-May the fitness of both athletes was as good as it could be, and the final race tuning was underway. The performance testing results for both athletes are shown below.
(AT= Aerobic threshold. OBLA= Onset of blood Lactic accumulation. MAP= Maximum aerobic power)
On paper Mike has always lagged behind Dave, but we don’t race on paper and Mike’s far superior technical skills had always enabled him to get the better of Dave in races, by quite some margin. The final test results were encouraging for Mike, as even after a disrupted winter and illness in early spring he had still increased his performance. Dave’s performance gains however were quite remarkable, and this huge increase in performance along with the skills training, may have tipped the balance in his favour. I knew it was going to be close and it was too close to call on race day.
The final preparation the athletes still had to cope with was the pre-competition anxiety that can drain the energy out of a rider before a race. I spoke to both Mike and Dave the day before the event, and reiterated the need to focus on process, pacing, feeding, gear and line selection, and when to switch from internal to external focus. Keeping all these process drills working in the athlete’s mind prevents the mind from backing up with negative thoughts or losing focus.
Mike had unfortunately lost a bottle on the first lap, and with the threat of dehydration hanging over him, decided to stop at one of the feed zones for 30 seconds, to take on extra fluid that he couldn’t carry. With temperatures reaching 28 degrees under a cloudless sky, riding without fluids was simply not an option. Mike was chipping away at Dave’s lead, pacing himself hoping that Dave would pay for the fast start.
It wasn’t to be. Dave crossed the line just 120 seconds in front, a tiny margin in a race lasting over four hours. Mike was a full 18 minutes ahead of Pete Turnbull in third. Between them they had ridden away from the field, and ridden themselves to the limit.
Dave was emotional with the joy of the win. The stress of training his weaknesses and aggregating marginal gains had taken a huge toll on him and his family. His family had given their complete support to the project and were there on the day, passing bottles and cheering him on. The win was a family achievement for the Haywards.
For Mike, juggling training with illness and outside commitments provided a different set of challenges. He had also worked very hard towards his goal, and had made significant improvements in his fitness, despite the setbacks. Stringing together blocks of unhindered training, and being able to say to yourself that you have achieved 100% in every aspect of your preparation goals is difficult to achieve, even for full-time professional athletes. External circumstances will affect the training focus, and ultimately the end performance. With structured training, Mike was able to make the most of his circumstances and produce an impressive performance on the day.
For a coach, understanding the science of human physiology is fairly straightforward. Understanding the unique learning patterns and motivations of individual athletes, and managing a training programme that incorporates an infinite range of circumstances, is a far greater challenge. It has been a pleasure to coach two such dedicated athletes, who I know will go on to consolidate their success in the future.
Andrew Patterson is a Sport Scientist and coach, owner of Patterson Training a Sport science consultancy in Macclesfield, Cheshire. He has over 10 years of experience in professional coaching and also tutors and assesses coaches for British Cycling.