How Good Can You Be?
by Peter Cannell
Founder & Principal, Cannell Champion Training
A question every athlete wonders and thinks about during training, planning and working with their coach is, "How good can I be?" It doesn't matter if you have been riding for many years or just started, the question invariably comes up - "How good can I be?". Cycling is the type of sport that takes years to really excel at, not the kind of competition you can simply pick up quickly and be great.
There are a number of factors that will determine if you will be any good or not, including: VO2 max, age, riding skills, adaptations to training and not least of all your dedication and motivation. The first two factors you have near zero control over. VO2 max is determined by the size of your lungs, stroke volume of your heart, basically the size of your engine. Your body can only process so much O2, and training state will not change this a great deal. Age - well, that one is easy. Start early. However, starting at a later stage in life is not necessarily a bad thing, and many riders have developed and excelled starting late in life. Riding skills - this is much like developing hand-eye coordination, you either have a solid foundation of coordination and control of your body or you don't. Some guys look comfortable, completely in control and natural on the bike, while others look scared, tight and always on the verge of falling off the bike. If you are lacking in skills then practice, make it part of your daily training - every day, carve out time to work on skills. If you fall into the latter category, practice is quite important, but don't expect miracles to happen, you probably won't be the guy at the front of the field in your next pro/1 criterium.
This brings me to the next factor, adaptations to training. This is a critical aspect of rider development. Applying the appropriate type of training stimulus and then recovering from that training is paramount and very few riders get this completely correct. Most riders I come across really enjoy riding "hard" - they like to hammer, like to go out and ride long, do hilly rides, hard group rides and come home tired. Most riders like to do this TOO much. The overwhelming majority of racers neglect the recovery aspect of training and the result is frequent sickness, mental staleness or stagnating or declining fitness. Determining the appropriate training stimulus for a particular rider is something that only experience and testing will show - i.e., what type of training elicits the most gains in fitness. One rider may benefit more from a high volume of threshold work while another might progress faster with more VO2 work.
While entire articles can be written about recovery, it is worth discussing a bit in this context. When evaluating a rider's potential you have to consider their entire daily life and what that is made up of. Are they engaged in manual labor, long work hours, stressful family life? Can the rider afford to have nutritious food available and in the proper portions? An athlete with an optimal recovery situation including plenty of restful sleep, regular naps, quality food, stimulating but not overly stressful work and family life will make excellent gains in fitness.
Finally we come to motivation and attitude. Without exception I feel this is the most important factor in determining potential for athletic success. The body will do what the mind wills it to, no question about it. I am not suggesting you can get off the couch and ride a 50 min 40km TT, but the mind is incredibly powerful and can provide the energy, motivation and drive to achieve amazing things. Having a very focused, strong level of motivation for excellence is not the norm. Most people do not have this valuable asset and those that do are often called crazy, nuts, delusional, unhealthy, etc. Think about the barefoot marathon runner clocking in at 2:15, the guy riding in the 40 degree rain or someone who leaves a warm bed at 4AM to train while others sleep. Having a strong desire to excel is absolutely essential - it will allow you to push through levels of effort and suffering you never thought possible. It will allow you to pass on unhealthy foods or other poor lifestyle choices with ease, while others give in to temptation.
So when a riders asks "how good can I be" - there are many factors to consider. The vast majority of riders have to strike a balance between riding, family and work life and are not looking to win a national championship, but simply be the best they can, given the constraints that exist in their life. They want to have fun, enjoy racing but be the best they can be. Others may have sights set on a national or world championship or maybe completing a 100 mile ride is the goal. Whatever the goal is, being honest with yourself about your goals is important and as a coach it is important to be realistic yet completely without pre-determined limits when discussing goals with an athlete.
Peter Cannell is the founder and principal of Cannell Champion
Training, a highly personalized coaching service that focuses on
maximizing an athlete’s full potential through discipline and focus
while balancing work and family life. Peter can be reached by email or at www.cannellchampiontraining.com.