Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

10-Point Plan to Podium at the Worlds

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Someone asked me last week at a Worlds Celebration Dinner what I attributed my result to. I replied with some half-thought through answer about having been well prepared, a bit of luck, etc. My answer was true, but it wasn’t exactly insightful. I then thought that I should document the answer so I can refer to it at a future date.  I have distilled it into 10 factors, of varying importance.

 1.     Do an honest assessment of where you are at 

In corporate they call it a gap analysis – i.e. the difference between what you have set as a target and your capability to deliver. The most common mistake I see (and have made) is:

  • Failure to set a realistic goal
  • Reluctance / failure to critically assess your own weaknesses

The trigger for my initial assessment was the 2008 Otway Odyssey. At that race, where I finished around 90th overall, it became patently clear that if I was to be a competitive mountain biker I needed to improve my technical skills, improve my mountain bike specific fitness and become more efficient.

 2.     Invest in Learning Technical Skills

Having picked up road racing late, I knew that a finely tuned engine was necessary but not an end in itself. On the road the investment in tactical skills paid big dividends, and on the mountain bike the investment in technical skills have the same ROI. Essentially, if you wanted to be competent as a mountain biker you need to be able to ride everything (i.e. not walk), ride most things quickly and do both of the above safely. I was luckily introduced to Pat Fitzpatrick who spent countless hours with me honing my technical skills. Pat is great at not just telling you what to do but why you are doing it, and I picked up lots of time over a 24 hour on the back of his instruction.

Learning to ride a mountain bike fast is a lot like lowering your golf handicap – sometimes you have to get worse to get better. Continuing the analogy, bad habits are easy to learn when you are self-taught (golf and mountain biking) and hard to undo. Even one lesson is better than none.

 3.     Invest in Becoming Efficient

Similar to learning the technical skills is the challenge of riding efficiently. It’s partly about negotiating the terrain, but it’s also about pacing, breathing properly and understanding when and when not too put the hammer down. A former 24-hour guru, John Claxton, taught me to smash the crest of hills so you can carry speed down the other side. He also taught me to resist the temptation to brake while you are in a corner, or exiting one (all braking should be done prior to the corner). Efficiency is more critical the longer the race.

 4.     Learn Mountain Bike Specific Fitness

My early weakness from a fitness perspective was steep, sharp hills. Unfortunately in mountain biking there are lots of them, and I had to get better at them if I was to be more competitive. I then did what is difficult to do – I ignored my strengths and worked on my weaknesses. Instead of smashing the flowing singletrack that I was proficient at I did hill repeats on pinches, challenging myself to try different approaches, gears and strategies. It took some time, and though it didn’t turn a weakness into a strength, but suddenly short, steep pinches were no longer a weakness.

 5.     Set Realistic Goals

The mistakes in this area are obvious: goals that are too ambitious or goals that are not ambitious enough. People err probably equally on both sides of the ledger, but it’s very common for people to select a goal that is not specific enough to provide you with direction when you need it. `Being competitive at the Otway’ is an example of a completely useless goal. By who’s standards? Who judges it? My goals in 2009/10 were:

  • Qualify for World 24 Hour Champs in Elite
  • Ride World 24 Hour Champs and Aim to Have A Perfect Race (defined by me as the combination of no sleep, start fast, ride controlled, minimise mistakes, minimise transitions and finish spent)
  • Ride the entire Victorian Enduro Series (7 x 6-Hour Races) and place consistently

 6.     Develop/Follow a Structured Plan (Read: Get a Coach – and a Good One!)

I am bigger on strategy than execution. I tend to be good at setting goals and identifying a broad program but the detail lets me down. At its worst, this manifests in a lot of wasted effort because I do workouts which are most convenient rather than most required. This changed when I started working with Jess Douglas. Not only did she help me with setting goals, she took away the stress of coming up with weekly program and challenged me to be more open-minded about certain sessions. As an example I hated doing wind-trainer sessions but she convinced me they were necessary. As it turned out, they were. The accountability of a coach and a program were critical in those weeks where I felt like it was all getting on top of me, and when my training partners deserted me.

 7.     If you don’t know – find an expert

Experts are everywhere, but we don’t always tap their experience. There are a few reasons for this, most common of which is complacency. In short, we don’t want advice because we think we’ve got it covered. I used experts in lots of ways in my preparation, including a dietician (Tanya Lewis – Life Personal Trainers) from Adelaide who helped me drop weight without compromising energy. While I knew that some of the secret to weight loss (i.e. discipline), there were things I didn’t know: portion sizes, when to eat carbs and how to use protein. Even if you retain 50% of what an expert tells you it’s a net gain. The other expert I found was Norm Douglas – husband of Jess – who knows more about running a 24-Hour Solo Pit than anyone. I learned in an hour from Norm (at an MTB Skills Clinic) enough to save me an hour in my next 24-Hour Race – transition, preparation, bike maintenance, being smart. To find that hour physiologically I would have had to give up work and train full time!

 8.     Commit (Read: No Excuses)

I had a few convenient excuses leading up to the worlds: I turned 40, I had a baby and I did a lot of my work interstate (regular trips to Sydney). The challenge for me was to use them as minor obstacles rather than excuses. I think propensity to make excuses / change goals too early is the single biggest reason why people’s seasons fall apart. Commitment extends beyond training to diet, sleep and general health. The counter-weight to commitment is ensuring that achievement of your goals is not at the expense of other (more) important things in your life. Winning a world title and losing a marriage is not a zero sum game.

 9.     Execute

I have always prided myself on the fact that even though I train hard, it’s on race day that I come into my own. Whether it was football, road racing or mountain biking, I have always expected myself to come up a level when I pin a number on. On the start line of a 24-Hour Race I am telling myself that I have done the training to physically hurt myself but now I have to do the mental job. The cliché is that some people can `hurt’ themselves more than others. I actually think it’s that some people expect / demand more of themselves than others. It’s not about tolerance for pain, it’s about an intolerance for taking the easy option.

10.  Reflect and Celebrate

When you succeed, revel in it, because it doesn’t necessarily happen all that often. People who leap from one goal immediately to the next without reflection, in my humble view:

  • Run the risk of doing something mindlessly (i.e. I race because I’ve always done it)
  • Pose high risk of burnout

An old football mentor of mine explained that the reason we do most things of a sporting nature are for the `glory’. That doesn’t mean for the lap of honour, but we are all chasing that feeling where we recognise ourselves and are recognised by others for our achievement (including how much work we’ve put in). Not taking the time to bask in some of that glory is a mistake.

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