Elizabeth Wicks, 72, is a long-time friend and client of mine. We’ve written about her preparation and accomplishments in earlier Newsletters because she’s a terrific example of putting into practice – and benefitting from – so many of the training concepts that all recreational roadies have at their disposal for improvement. As we pointed out about “training” last week in launching my new eArticle:
Some roadies “train” following a programmatic approach to every ride. Other roadies bridle at the mention of the word “training” and have a much looser approach to maintaining fitness. The common denominator for all of us is that we ride primarily to have fun, no matter where we fall on the spectrum. Some of us train to race, for goal events or to set PRs. Others might want to improve a bit this year so that you can do more interesting rides or to peak for a specific event. Surely we want at the very least to maintain the fitness that we have as we get older. If not actually improve.
Elizabeth is a real-world example of a roadie who illustrates the benefit of many of the concepts the pros lay out in my Learning from the Pros eArticle. But today we’ll just focus on one of those concepts.
Last year Elizabeth set the age 70-74 24-hour record at the National 24-hour, and she has set five records at Calvin’s 12-Hour Challenge. Her current record ride of 181.5 miles in 12 hours would be a great accomplishment for any roadie!
Aggregation of Marginal Gains
How have Elizabeth and I worked together to help her achieve these marks? In part by usingan approach called the “aggregation of marginal gains.”
In 2010 Sir Dave Brailsford was appointed as the new General Manager and Performance Director of Team Sky. He was charged with developing the team so that a British rider could win the Tour de France within five years. Bradley Wiggins won the Tour just three years later! How did they do that? How can you improve like this?
Brailsford uses a concept that he calls the aggregation of marginal gains. He says, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”
Brailsford’s basic problem was how to take riders who were already very, very good and make them the best in the world. When a rider is that good, just more and harder training will only yield a little improvement, which may not be enough to win consistently. So Brailsford looked at every aspect that goes into peak performance.
The results speak for themselves: He didn’t just produce Tour de France winners in 2012, 2013 and 2015, Team Britain won seven out of 10 track cycling gold medals at the London Olympics in 2012.
My basic problem coaching any performance-oriented master rider is similar to Brailsford’s. Over age 50, significant improvements can’t just come from piling on the miles and/or heinously harder intervals. A master rider’s body can’t handle that kind of training without breaking down. Further, most of the master riders that I coach are already quite fit. How does a coach take a very fit rider, whether a pro or a masters rider, to the next level?
Some Real World ‘Marginal Gains’ in Action
Like Brailsford, Elizabeth and I look for and improve every aspect of her cycling.
For years Elizabeth and I have worked on her daily nutrition. We’ve discussed the popular diet that recommends eating fewer carbs to avoid swings in blood sugar, energy and mood. I’ve explained that when she’s riding she’s burning a mix of fat and carbs. She’s lean but she still has enough body fat to fuel 12 hours. However, her body’s store of carbs is limited to the first few hours. I recommended to her – and to you – eating predominantly carbs six times a day for optimal training and to avoid swings in blood sugar. She eats breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, a mid-afternoon snack, dinner and a pre-bed snack.
We’ve fine-tuned her race diet. She consumes some commercial sports foods but that gets pretty old riding for 12 hours. Just like the pros, she consumes a lot of real food, especially my homemade sports drink, as well as bagels and deli sandwiches. See my eArticle Eating and Drinking Like the Pros: How to Make Your Own Sports Food & Drink for tips on how the pros handle nutrtion, and for recipes for both sports drink and food.
A steady pace is the key to success in any endurance event, rather than starting fast and fading. Elizabeth knows that she has a tendency to get excited and to start too fast. On her training rides she practices starting at her optimal race pace, not faster, and if she’s having a good ride then picking up the pace later in the ride.
In Calvin’s 12-hour she rides three laps of the 50+ mile loop and then as many laps as she can of the 7-mile loop. Before each race we work out a spreadsheet with the planned lap times based on her fitness that year.
Even Think About How to Sleep Better
Elizabeth sometimes has trouble sleeping. She uses relaxation techniques to help with that. Brailsford has his pros bring their pillows from home to help them get a good night’s sleep – no detail is too small!
This year the forecast was for rain all day at Calvin’s. 12 hours riding in the rain is daunting for even a veteran endurance rider like Elizabeth. Sometimes there are adverse conditions or something goes wrong in a long ride. We can plan around some events like forecast rain or wind. We can anticipate other problems like a mechanical or saddle sore. Other incidents may just happen.
As part of Elizabeth’s preparation we talk through every potential showstopper (things that can hinder or totally stop a ride) that we can think of. We test and eliminate as many showstoppers as possible during her long rides, which aren’t just for training. For example, Elizabeth has a leg length difference and she’s had a professional bike fit to address that. She has tested multiple saddles to find the best one for her.
Some problems we can’t control or eliminate (like the weather) so we develop a plan for handling it. One year the forecast was for wind. Rather than stressing over the implications for a record, Elizabeth said, “I’ll just ride at a steady pace, do my best and see what happens.” A record is what happened! For more see my eBook Stop Cycling’s Showstoppers.
Of course, Elizabeth puts in the miles. We plan her training around a simple but effective structured plan with three phases:
- Winter base miles to build endurance. Elizabeth lives in Massachusetts and says, “Avid roadies like me can ride our bikes in the winter and have a hell of a lot of fun. Like anything else, you just have to learn how.” She also does some intensity work on the trainer.
- Early spring intensity training twice a week and enough long riding to maintain her endurance.
- Late spring race-specific riding with just enough intensity to keep her power and speed.
Feedback is Important
Writing her workouts I use feedback. Feedback from last year — what made her ride better and what didn’t? Feedback from last week — how well did her training go?
Riding her workouts, Elizabeth uses feedback from her heart rate monitor: is she riding hard enough (but not too hard) on her intense days, at an endurance pace on her long rides and easy enough on her recovery rides? This carefully controlled moderate volume training pays off. This year she averaged 17.7 mph in her spring baseline time trial, a whole mile per hour faster than the last two years – and she’s two years older! For more on how to ride at different intensities to get optimal results see my new eArticle Intensity Training 2016: Using Perceived Exertion, a Heart Rate Monitor or Power Meter to Maximize Training Effectiveness.
Every year Elizabeth and I seek and implement marginal gains so that she continues to improve. This summer she’s riding the PAC Tour Northern Transcontinental from Everett, Washington, to Boston, Massachusetts, 3,501 miles with 110,240 feet of climbing in 31 days. That’s an average of 113 miles with 3,556 ft. of climbing a day. At age 72 she’ll be the oldest woman ever to do the ride. She already has plenty of endurance. Over the next seven weeks we’ll be finding 1% improvement here and 1% improvement there until we’ve found enough marginal gains that she can ride the tour with others who are 20 years younger!
You, too, can improve by finding your personal 1% improvements. My new eArticle Learning from the Pros: 35 tips tomake you a better rider starts with Sir Brailsford’s aggregation of marginal gains but offers numerous other useful, actionable tips from the pros. The 26 pages are packed with current information based on tips from the pros but presented in a way that can benefit every roadie whether you ride for good health, for better fitness or improved performance
Learning from the Pros is available for only $4.99 ($4.24 for Premium Members after their 15% discount).
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.