The Great Athletes’ Bake Off

Posted on Posted in Blog

Hands up those of you who opened this blog hoping for a list of cakes that are good for the athletes?, you lot go and stand in the corner. This isn’t even a nutrition blog. The title just refers to an analogy I find myself using time and time again – ‘Don’t worry about the icing until you have baked the cake’. In a nutshell, don’t over complicate things until you are sure you have the basics nailed down.

When I started cycling back in the late 80’s (after watching Greg Lemond beat Laurent Fignon in the tour by 8 seconds), training advice was limited to an occasional article by Peter Keen in Cycling Weekly and advice handed down by the elders on club runs on what works for them. Coaches were just for the professionals in those days, so most of us found our way by trial and error.

Fausto Coppi when asked what it takes to become a great champion is famously quoted as saying

"Ride your bike, ride your bike, ride your bike" - Fausto Coppi

These days we have a world of information in our pocket via the internet. Cyclists are a million times more informed about training than we were back in the day. With forums and social media, any and every new training and nutritional idea is shared and devoured instantly. However this can be detrimental to the self-coached athlete who is constantly looking for those ‘marginal gains’.

An effective training program can be quite repetitive by its very nature. It should address the basics and then work on them consistently and progressively to build a platform for the athlete reach their greatest potential. The problems arise when we read an article touting a new way to ‘get fit with just 3 minutes high intensity training per week’, or how your ‘performance will be transformed this season if you cut carbohydrate from your diet’. Then next week you read a different article and decide to try that way instead. When you lose sight of the basics and lose consistency, you lose progress. When a mate tells you all about a new interval session he’s been doing, there’s no point just copying the session unless it is within the context of a structured program. What following blindly will achieve is at best, inconsistent form and at worst, no form at all on race days when you want to be fully fit and fresh.

The problem with most self-coached athletes is they also tend to concentrate on the aspects of their fitness that they are already good at or enjoy. So if you hate climbing hills, it’s probably because you have a lot of room for improvement in that area. If you break into a sweat at the mere thought of endurance intervals, you probably need to do them. There’s nothing wrong with racing to your strengths but you still need to address the gaps.

So for me, what are the basics? Well assuming that you’re giving yourself enough recovery and not overtraining, then the basics are:

1, Build the biggest Aerobic engine that you can.

2, Make yourself stronger and more resilient with resistance work and corrective exercises.

3, Pay attention to your nutrition.

The Engine. I seem to use the word engine a lot, but it’s the fundamental basis for building a winning performance. Have you ever been in a break where all the other riders are obviously stronger than you? You are out of your depth. That’s usually because they are cruising along with in a 3.0 litre BMW and you are trying to match them revving the balls off your Nissan Micra. The bigger the engine, the more Oxygen you are utilising, and the faster and more efficient you will be. Just as the powerful BMW can consume much more fuel than the puny Micra, so the elite cyclist can process a lot more Oxygen than your average club rider.

Strength. Whatever your sport or activity a stronger more resilient body will make you more efficient and injury resistant. Get in the gym and do some appropriate strength work at least once a week. If you are carrying a niggle or injury, don’t ignore it. Is it caused by over use, poor alignment on the bike or weak postural muscles? Whatever is causing it, get it sorted before it gets worse.

Nutrition. Get your nutrition right for your objective. This is probably the area where there is the most conflicting advice. Good nutrition should help optimise your body composition, fuel your performance, repair damaged muscles and most of all keep you healthy. Different objectives require different nutritional strategies whether it’s to lose some weight before the season starts or putting the finishing touches to your fitness in the final block before a target race. Get this right and you’ll see results.

So get the basics sorted and be consistent via a structured, progressive training program. When that is done, then you can put the icing on the cake. (BTW There’s nothing wrong with a nice piece of cake now and again.)