They Are Not Little Soldiers

I had a brief conversation with a skills coach this week. They are switching clubs and are interested in having me work with their next group of athletes. When I asked why they were leaving the answer I got was very unsurprising:

“I don’t care if someone likes me or not, but I’m a human being first and people need to treat me with respect”.

Okay, I wasn’t expecting them to say that, but I wasn’t shocked to hear that they haven’t been treated with respect – given that many head coaches scream and yell, demean, criticize and question the effort of the athletes the fact that they treat their junior coaches the same way is not surprising.

They continued:

“They are not little soldiers” when referring to the athletes.

Again, I’ve been getting this feeling recently when watching some skills coaches. To hear this coach say it was great because I’ve been thinking that there is a better way to training young people than to treat them like soldiers going into battle.

Then the shocker:

“You can’t write someone off at 7″.

This did floor me. While I believe we can assess some athletic potential at a young age, it is true that many national champions didn’t even start training for their sport until 10 or 11 and in the case of some sports even later. Even if someone is training at 6 and appears to be utterly hopeless, there is no reason to believe that they cannot overcome a talent gap with effort to become a much better. And you can’t really assess talent at 6 or 7 because the individual may not have the body awareness to clearly demonstrate their talent.

It is said that getting a person involved in gymnastic or martial arts very early is a fantastic way to accelerate their athletic progress in all areas, and I’ve observed this to be true. But it isn’t necessary. It may speed things along, it may help an average athlete perform at a higher level early on, but it isn’t going to create a champion. Talent is talent, regardless of what has happened in the first 5-10 years of life.

1000’s of children do gymnastics when they are little and do not make the world stage in anything and 1000’s of world class athlete have never done any gymnastics or martial arts. But some skills coaches see the advanced performance, make the jump that it is because of talent and focus their coaching energies on these athletes. When the athletes true level of talent begins to show (usually around puberty), the coaches work them harder and question their focus as opposed to looking at the athlete and realizing that they are relatively good at their sport because of their head start.

Unfortunately they may have written off a number of 7 year olds how have what it takes to be world class but just didn’t get the same athletic start.

Power Cleans – Sets of 5 with 1 Minute Rest

About 4 months ago I decided to start cleaning – this is when you pull the bar off the ground, drive your hips forward and catch the bar on your shoulders. I regard it as a speed movement because there’s no way your going to be able to catch the bar on your shoulders if it isn’t moving very quickly. It’s fun to do because it’s new and there is something exhilarating about making weights fly – which is basically what happens when you pull with everything you have.

The reason I decided to start doing power cleans is because my starting strength is brutally slow – my first 3 steps or peddle strokes look and feel like I’m taking it easy when in fact I’m actually trying to make them really quick. Once I start moving my muscle are able to fire at a speed that gets me up to my top speed fairly quickly.

The initial learning phase takes about 6-8 weeks. During this time I learned the mechanics of the movement, improved the flexibility of my forearms to allow me to catch the bar and my nervous system became more efficient at firing the fast twitch fiber to allow me to get the bar moving and accelerate it to top speed. Once this happens, you can start to load on the weight and experiment with different rep and rest schemes.

Over the last month I have been doing sets of 5 with ~60 seconds rest between sets. The bar comes to a complete stop at the bottom and I may rest up to 10 seconds between reps; if the bar is moving slowly I will rest longer and if I’m still able to pull with max speed there will be about a second between reps. Depending upon how I am feeling, how quickly the bar is moving during the 4th and 5th rep and what else I am planning on training, I will do between 5 and 10 sets.

I like this approach because I think it carries over to cycling very well because 5 cleans is roughly the equivalent to 5 complete peddle rotations which is exactly what is needed to kick it into top speed to pass another rider or to blast into an open space to lead the group into the single track.

My starting strength has increased and I feel more force being directed to the peddles. I have also found that my 10 yard sprint time has improved.

Riding With Elite Riders

On Sunday I went to Albion Hills to do some riding. I rode with a few guys I’ve known for a while and one guy I have never met before named John, who rode a single speed with no shocks. It was a great ride and it’s the hardest I have worked in years.

John is one of these guys whose physiology is ideal for bike racing. He beat me at everything which is unusual. I worked hard to keep up and when we stopped to wait for the other guys, I was always winded while he just seemed to be breathing normally. I asked him about this and he told me that when he was last measured his max heart rate was 216 – which he has gotten his heart to. He is able to maintain a HR of 185 for extended periods of time and it recovers really quickly when he slows down. Compared to my numbers of 174 – the highest my HR has been in years – and my ability to sustain work at 157 and it’s clear why I was left trying to stick to his tire for the draft.

I asked him how his numbers compared to other people and he admitted that his cardiovascular system is in a league of its own – he’s in the same range as top professional cyclist. Being 10 years younger than me, the fact that I didn’t die trying to keep up with him was both lucky and a sign that my training is moving me in the right direction.

What I liked most about the ride is that it was a pissing match. He knew I wanted to beat him and he was pretty vocal each time he passed me, which only served to fire me up even more. It was good natured and it brought up my riding to a level I haven’t seen in years if ever. I’m not sure if he was being nice but he did make a few comments that it was good to finally have someone stick with him, but then he pulled away again so I’m not 100% sure he wasn’t mocking me.

Hopefully I’ll get to ride with them again. The guy who set-up the ride has just started back to cycling after a decade long break and he’s getting better each day. He’s picked the right group to ride with because they are forcing him to get improve much faster than he would if he was doing it on his own and his progress is fantastic; it’s even better considering 8 weeks ago he was still smoking.

The take home lesson – train up if you want to improve; and quit smoking today!

What Phase Are You In?

Spend as much time in gyms as I do and one thing will become very clear to you, most people go to the gym without a clear purpose. There isn’t anything wrong with this – I’d sooner see people go to the gym for the sake of going than have them never go – but going to the gym without a purpose isn’t going to allow you to make the most of your time there.

The human body is an amazing thing with a fantastic ability to adapt to its environment; it takes an average person about 6-9 weeks adapt almost completely to an exercise program. For this reason, people need to approach their training or gym time in phases that have a distinct purpose and end goal. For example, many gym goers are there to drop a few pounds of fat and increase or tone muscle – basically, they want to look good naked. I think this is a fantastic goal because it is going to help someone feel better about themselves and it is going to improve the quality of their life significantly. The issue with it is that very often, trying to tackle two goals at once will prevent you from making much progress in either one.

For those individuals looking to lose body fat and increase or tone muscle I would suggest that they separate these two goals into distinct phases – one for fat loss and the other for muscle building or toning.

For example, the first 6 weeks are for fat burning and will consist of metabolic workouts aimed at increase calorie burning and cardiovascular fitness through the use of interval training. During this phase you may do 20-30 minutes of varied speed and resistance (or incline) running, cycling or elliptical machine 3-4 times per week along with some strength training – 1 or 2 full body workouts per week consisting of 1 or 2 sets of 8-10 reps per body part. Your diet will be modified and carbs will be reduced. After about 6 weeks, your body will have adapted to the workout and the reduced carb diet and you will move to the next phase with is for muscle growth.

The next 6-9 weeks will be for muscle development. During this phase you may do 3-4 full body workouts per week consisting of 3-4 sets per body part. The rep range will be different on each day and will range from 6-8, 9-12 and 12-15. The exercises will change every 3 weeks and you will lower the amount of cardio you perform. In some cases you will eliminate the cardio to allow your body to become de-conditioned to it so when you enter the 3rd phase, fat loss, you will find the movements taxing on your body again.

You will repeat this cycle of fat loss, muscle building over and over again until you achieve your fitness goals. The good thing about this approach is that you will rarely get stale or bored with what you are doing in the gym because it is changing constantly and when you start each phase, your body will be shocked into adapting to the new stimuli.

If this seems completely foreign to you or you do not know where to start, consider getting in touch with a good trainer to help you plan your workout phases.

Too Much Training Volume

Too many coaches hold the view that more is better when it comes to training volume and this belief is hurting their athletes.

Most of the conversations I have with coaches about a lack of progress focus on the athlete and not the poor program design. I hear things like “the athlete just isn’t getting it” or “they are losing focus” or “the athlete is weak and needs to work harder”. I have yet to hear a coach say “I’ve asked them to do more work than they can recover from” or “I don’t really know what I’m doing so I just get the athlete to do more” or “I train them the way I trained 20 years ago and don’t really feel like advancing my understanding by learning”.

I’m not implying that these coaches do not know how to make their athletes better at their sport because many of them do; they have an eye for the sport and can see things that more people can’t. In fact, many sport coaches are the only people who can coach the skills with their athletes. The issue is, they don’t understand the body well enough to understand that their athletes are failing to make progress because the brain cannot control the muscles to the precise degree needed to make the progress and instead blame the athletes will or focus.

Why are the athletes not progressing? There are two reasons, the muscles are not recovered enough to move as required and the nervous system is not recovered enough to coordinate the muscle fibers to move as required.

In the car racing world a driver can tell his mechanic that the car isn’t responding correctly when he press down the accelerator. The mechanic will then take a look, uncover the problem and fix it. A damaged spark plug for example will limit the amount of power that an engine is able to generate and once it is replaced, the engine goes back to full power. This is like the muscle not being fully recovered. A chef may find that he’s burning all of the items he tries to fry and when he looks at the stove realize that the gas dial goes from off to full with nothing in between. Once the dial is fixed to allow for precise heat adjustments the chef regains the ability to cook foods perfectly. This is like fixing neurological fatigue.

Cooking and car racing have one thing in common that most sports don’t have – a tool that acts as a medium between the individual and performance. This medium can be examined, shown to be malfunctioning and adjusted to function correctly. With most sports, the medium is the athletes body so it’s harder to figure-out the cause of malfunctions and since it’s harder to figure-out or see what is causing them, the first impulse is to blame the athletes will or conscious effort.

This is, when dealing with high level athletes, completely wrong. These individuals work hard, have greater focus than most people and are driven to perform better and better each workout. Their body’s however, cannot perform at a higher level each workout because of muscular and neurological fatigue and without sufficient recovery, their performance decreases. The coaches solution of making them do more reps, more cardio, more anything only serves to decrease their performance further, which will make the coach work them harder.

The good news is that body won’t allow this to continue for every long and the athlete will get sick well before they work themselves to death, which most high level athletes will do because of their work ethic. After about 6-7 weeks of over training, illness takes over and the athlete can’t perform at all. They take a few days off to recover from the illness which allows their body to recover and when they get back to their sport, they perform much better. The coach is happy and feels good knowing that they did a good job because of the improvement. They attribute the illness to a cold or flu and they start the cycle again – performance will begin to decrease after a few weeks as the athlete “loses focus” and the illness will return.

This pattern will continue until the coach smartens up, the athlete switches coaches, the athlete quits their sport or the athlete becomes aware enough to dictate the pace of training and lets the coach know that they are taking a few days off when they need to. Unfortunately, too many young and promising athletes will leave the sport and never actualize their potential because the fun leaves the sport due to this avoidable pattern.

If you are a coach and you notice in your athletes a pattern of decreased performance followed by sickness, a lack of focus following intense training periods, dramatic increases in performance following time off or if your solution for everything is more training, you need to get back to school and learn about neurological and muscular fatigue. If you allow your athletes to continue this cycle YOU are failing them and you may be chasing them out of the sport they love.