Developing Young Talent in the Pro Peloton with Dr. Iñigo San Millán
Dr. Iñigo San Millán is well known for his work with Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar and Juan Ayuso, the latter of whom he’s coached from a relatively young age. In this Craft of Coaching podcast special, Dr. San Millán talks in depth about the rise of Ayuso and how it’s been a winning blend of physical, emotional, and mental coaching and developmental work. Ayuso’s numbers in the lab revealed huge physiological potential, but interestingly, it was this pairing with his emotional development, maturity, and motivation that revealed something truly special.
For more on this topic, check out our video interview with sport psychologist Dr. Julie Emmerman from Module 8 of The Craft of Coaching, The Role of Self-Awareness and Emotional Intelligence in Performance Psychology.
Beneath Dr. San Millán’s story lies many lessons for all coaches to learn, especially those involved in the coaching of juniors, regardless of their ambitions or experience. Having worked with juniors in both Europe and the United States, Dr. San Millán also talks more broadly about his frustrations with the system here in the States and how it ultimately does not work in favor of successful junior development.
RELATED: The Physiology of Base Season—with Dr. Iñigo San Millán
Hello, and welcome to this podcast special for the Craft of Coaching. My name is Emma-Kate Lidbury, Content Strategist here at Fast Talk Labs. I’m joined today by Dr. Iñigo San Millán, the physiologist and coach who is Head of Performance at the UAE Team Emirates World Tour Team. In this show, we chat with Dr. Iñigo San Millán about the work he’s done with junior cyclists, particularly, Juan Ayuso, the phenomenally talented 20-year-old who’s no stranger to the podium at the World Tour level.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán talks about the work they’ve undertaken to get this rider to compete at this level at such a young age, detailing both the physiological and psychological aspects of their approach. Now outside of Ayuso, Dr. San Millán has worked with hundreds of junior athletes. He shares his perspective and experience on what helps transform a junior athlete into a successful elite adult. It is an interesting show for sure, so here’s our chat with Dr. Iñigo San Millán. Iñigo, thank you very much for joining us.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 01:00
Thank you very much for having me. It’s my pleasure.
We’re going to talk a lot about coaching juniors, and you said you’ve worked with hundreds of juniors.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 01:07
Over the years I’ve been working with, especially when I was working in Europe, which is very common. We had a sports medicine clinic, and then I had my own private laboratory at some point, too. People would come to get tested. Hundreds…many, many juniors over the years.
There’s one in particular, Juan Ayuso. How did you get started working with him? How did that come to be?
Coaching Juan Ayuso and Other Juniors
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 01:32
Our general manager, Matxin [Joxean Fernandez] for the cycling team, the UAE, head of performance for the Team UAE. Our general manager is probably the best scouter in the world. He’s very passionate about it, very good about it. Most, if not all, but most of the top professional cyclists nowadays, Matxin discovered them. He’s been placing them in different teams over the years. Now he’s the general manager of the team. Now his role is to do that for us now; before he did it for others. But anyway, he’s very good at identifying talent. He goes in person to many junior races, World Championships, European Championships, etc. He knows all the stats from all the juniors in the world that have a high level. He identified Juan as a great talent, potentially. He started to work with him to try to sign him for the team UAE. He still was a junior.
How old was he?
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 02:28
[He was] 17. And the idea was like, yeah, that the following year, he was going to sign for us, but we were going to have him racing for an Italian team, a U23 team. We didn’t want to make the transition right away to the World Tour. That’s when he put me in contact with him, and told me “Hey, Iñigo, would you mind starting working with him? He’s a junior, but we want to have him next year with us. Still in the U23 category. That’s why I started to work with him, and I started to coach him.
Okay, but prior to that, how many juniors had you worked with?
The European Approach to Working with Juniors
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 03:05
Many, many, I don’t know, hundreds of those over the years, because that was when I was in Europe. Here in the U.S., I would say that in 15 years that I’ve been here, maybe three or four? Whereas in Europe, it’s very common that it’s a different culture tradition, right. So kids, when they’re 14, 15, they’re already being coached, or in being tested. They go to a sports medicine facility or an exercise physiology laboratory. That’s when they start being tested, and being coached, it’s very common. When I was working in Spain, I would get a lot of junior athletes, which is very common.
Then you would work with them until what age?
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 03:47
Many, they never made it to pro, but a very good number of them though also made it to pros, and others will make it to like a World Tour. Or others to higher level where they have been winning races, also at the World Tour level, and other ones, like Juan in this case, you know, got to be at the age of 19 on the podium at a Grand Tour.
How to Develop Juniors into Pros
We’ll come to talking about how the formula, or if there’s a formula, for how some juniors become “the elite of the elite,” and obviously, Juan, he’s one of those. When you started working with him, had he participated in other sports prior to coaching him?
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 04:23
Yeah, he was playing soccer, like so many European kids. Then eventually, it’s very competitive, and eventually, in my situation as well, as a kid, I played six years of soccer for Real Madrid in the academy. But, I found cycling like most kids, and when you find cycling, and you find that hidden passion that you never thought about. Like I said, “Wow, I love this.” So I quit soccer, knowing [soccer] also was very difficult. When you’re at that level it’s very difficult to make it and then I found, “Wow, [cycling] is a great sport. It’s me. I don’t depend on anybody, and the coach, so it’s my self expression. Me expressing myself out there.” That’s the typical path where like these kids find in all in many situations, and Juan was one of them.
Okay, understood. When you first started coaching him, did you see something special in him straightaway? Was it like, “Wow, there is a special talent!” Or was that a slow burn?
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 05:23
No, I saw he had been already racing for two or three years. There’s a category we call “cadets” that doesn’t even exist here. When I came here, it caught my attention because in Europe, we have like 15 and 16s are not juniors, they are cadets. Here they are called senior juniors, juniors are in Europe are 17 and 18. [Juan] was racing as a cadet, okay, and his dad is very savvy. He’s very passionate about cycling. He loves the sport, so he was his coach. He’s a numbers guy, and he’s very smart about this. He was working with him, and so he already has some structure for coaching, which it was really good.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 06:02
Obviously, in the moment, I started doing, you know, physiological test to him and looking at his numbers in TrainingPeaks and looking at how he, you know, he assimilates efforts and everything. I realized, “Wow, this guy’s really talented.” Obviously by then, too, in the races in Spain, he was winning very easily too. But that’s when I saw, what I’ve been able to build over these last 27 years, is a huge database: the metabolic level, physiological level, and of how, where do you place in which group? Are you at the highest level, the highest percentile? Or are you in the lowest tier? That’s where I can see very well, and that’s where like, “Whoa, this guy plays way up there. . . . Whoa, this is really, really good.”
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 06:50
When I started working with Juan, it was his first year amateur, he was not a junior, but he was still, 18 to 19. That’s where, wow, you see something special, on the physiological level. Then, at the mental level, you saw a very mature kid, really knew what he wanted, and really determined. He was really disciplined, and you didn’t have to really be after him with trainings or anything like that, he would upload all the training program right away. He was responsive very well, all the time, and very savvy about many concepts, which are very important. This is what we’re finding in younger kids more and more—they, you talk about lactate threshold, talk about mitochondria, and muscle fibers, and fuel utilization. They’re really savvy about this, so it’s much easier to work with them.
Okay, interesting. That’s interesting, because there’s two things that you mentioned there that are interesting. One of which is that you’ve got this almost database of, from your 27 years. You can see what puts somebody in the top percentile, and, from physiological testing, where they might land. Can you give us an any insights into what some of those metrics are that you’re looking at, that give you the green light for somebody?
Lactate as a Performance Parameter
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 08:08
Yeah, what we’re looking at, I have a protocol that I started got about 20 plus years ago. I changed the protocols that were done because they were short, and they will not discriminate much. That’s what I was seeing, so I did a longer protocol, longer stages, and then I normalized it by watts per kilogram, so it’s more individualized. Then I have a protocol that it increases every five minutes at first, for half a watt per kilogram. When they get to three watts per kilogram, we do 10 minutes. Then that’s where like I start seeing the main parameter that we see is the lactate.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 08:44
Lactate is the best surrogate that we have, the best proxy to look at what’s the mitochondrial function of an athlete, of a person as well. But for an athlete, that’s what we can see, if you have a very good mitochondrial function, you can clear lactate very well. That means that you don’t accumulate much lactate in the muscles, and they use it for fuel. When you see that you don’t have a good lactate clearance capacity, lactate builds up in the bloodstream very fast, and this is bad news. When you’re like, let’s say 3.5 watts per kilogram, and you have 4 millimoles of lactate, you’re far away to be at an elite level. When you’re 3.5 [w/kg], and you have like a 1.5 millimoles—wow, this is a discriminating factor, for example.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 09:31
You look in this data, and that’s when you start seeing (and we’re talking still at lower intensities), but you see right away, “Whoa, this guy has really good potential,” because it falls in like that 90th percentile. Right away, you see, as opposed to this other guy who’s like in the 10th percentile. You start discriminating, and by no means am I’m saying that that guy is doomed, the 10th-percentile person. Maybe he hasn’t been training correctly. Maybe he hasn’t been training at all, or doesn’t eat correctly. That doesn’t mean that that person is doomed, but it is just like a good reference, to know, we need a lot of work with this person, this kid. He’s only 14, you know what you expect? We have to get in in the next three years, like a long-term or mid- to long-term plan to really improve that athlete at a higher level. But by no means is it like, “Oh, no, this kid is never going to be good.” No, I don’t say that. Unless already sure, they’re like a very high level of professional. That’s where you can say, “Well, maybe you’re never going to make it as a highest level.” But even still, this is a conversation that I don’t like to have. But when they’re kids, I mean, the sky’s the limit; you can get very far.
There’s another thing you said about Juan, was that he is so savvy about training, and uploads all his files, knows exactly what he wants to do. That’s the interesting thing, when you’re coaching juniors, they are kids, and they might have a very different emotional development. One athlete might have a very different emotional development path to another. How do you navigate that and is that a big piece of their success?
Passion and Emotional Development of Junior Athletes
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 11:05
That’s a great question, and yeah, that’s a big piece, and that’s where like, you see kids, like Juan who was determined, was disciplined, this is what I want to do. They have that killer instinct, as opposed to other kids who might be goofing around, they might be more into other things, “This is not my thing, necessarily. Like I love it, but tomorrow I can like a lot of other things.” That’s why you see, like yeah, there’s potential.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 11:36
But hey, at the end of day the kid needs to be passionate about the sport. If there’s not that passion and that determination, you cannot force it, obviously. But at the same time, you see that this kid needs an extra level of the mental readiness for the sport. But here and there, you find people who, which is rare, though. You have some juniors who, they don’t care much about cycling, they just show up and win. But they don’t care much. It happens and is rare. But at some point, they’re going to have to change their mind at some point. Normally, you see these kids are very, very determined, “This is what I want to do. I find my vocation, and I’m going to do my very best, and I’m going to be disciplined.”
When you were coaching Juan, did you spend a lot of time face-to-face?
Leveraging Remote Coaching
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 12:22
I mean, he lives in Spain. I live in here in the U.S., so it was a lot of Zoom calls. Then also, the pandemic was in the middle, too. It’s just funny because we were talking to each other for about a year without meeting in person. First, I’m here, he’s there, and then the pandemic, so it was difficult to travel to get together with people. The first time I met him, wow, it was weird, because I said, “I’ve been speaking with you for a year and this is the first time I shake your hand.”
Was that hard? Is it from a coaching perspective?
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 12:53
No, I think nowadays, that’s the thing, with Zoom. That’s my impression, at least my humble impression, but this is that we got to a point that we feel very comfortable speaking with people over Zoom. I mean, the human touch is always very good. But, the human touch is in Zoom also. I mean, videoconference. But eventually, obviously, you know that you’re going to meet that person, too. That’s the other thing, so it works out.
Dr. San Millán’s Approach to Coaching Juniors
I think you’ve touched on some of the testing and the physiology of Juan. But, let’s talk a little bit more in depth about his training, the training you did with him. Can you talk us through how you trained him and what your approach was, like, globally? Then, if there was any one thing that you honed in on or wanting to emphasize?
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 13:35
One of the things that you need to look at when you work with kids, is especially when they have already contract in this case, right? You want to have a middle- or long-term approach. First, “Hey Juan, you have a contract to be on one of the best teams in the world at the age of 17, so there’s no stress about this at all, the team really believes in you!”
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 14:00
First, no stress, because many kids at this age, they’re dreamers, I forgot to mention early, they want to dream high, “I want to be someday on a Tour team!” [In Juan’s case,] You’re there already, so that’s important. Let’s make sure that we take good care of you and mentally, that you don’t have to stress.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 14:20
Second, we need to work in different areas in the long term, we’re not in a rush. We need to work more on some aspects about his basic training, improving. I’ve been in many podcasts on about this, but Zone 2. We really need to make sure we are pushing this, and then continue over the rest of your career, because this is something that you can keep pushing and pushing. That’s where we start to focus on aerobic base, if you will. Thinking that, “Hey, you’re there already.” Just focus on that. Then the other thing is like, we need to do our intensity training also, but knowing that we’re not here now to win necessarily tomorrow’s race because that race is going to take you to a top amateur team and eventually a top U23, and eventually a Pro Team. I mean, World Tour Team, you’re already there.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 15:13
We have a different approach, or we’re like, “Races are not as important, and your development was the important thing.” In this case was a little bit special, so that’s why we took it easy. We focus a lot on training and training and training and training, and especially also, “Hey, let’s not get into the overtraining area, let’s make sure that we don’t overtrain.” We start to monitor blood analysis to make sure that he’s assimilating. I’ve been using blood analysis forever, for 27 years. There are many biomarkers, if you’re doing blood analysis, they’re telling us if you have muscle damage. If you’re assimilating training, nutrition, competition, if you have fatigue, the multiple parameters are there, they can tell us very well, how an athlete is behaving yet or recovering or assimilating. Then, when something . . . we see there’s muscle damage, or there’s fatigue, or there’s some hormonal imbalances, we change training. Let’s take it easy. Let’s do a few days easy or totally off, or recovery, because we don’t want to get into danger zone of overtraining, which is going to be difficult to reverse. We’re on top of that, boom, now we can move on. That’s what we focused on.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 16:23
Then the nutrition, we had to kind of like focus on, “Hey, let’s organize a nutrition plan. Let’s make sure things go well.” That’s what we started working with him, with a team nutritionist as well brought in. We are great, we’re in contact all the time. His trainings are also paired with his nutrition. Everything has to be matched, and that was also about then giving him many contexts.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 16:48
I remember the first session with [Juan] and his dad, we spent a good, almost two hours with a PowerPoint presentation via Zoom. I’m also a professor here at the University of Colorado, the School of Medicine, and in Colorado Springs also. I like to explain things, right, and I use PowerPoint presentations in my slides. I like the visual, and I like to measure important tools for an athlete, not to tell them what to do or how to do, but the “Why.” Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this training? That’s where I deploy this science, or scientific slides. I can start getting those concepts in their heads. That’s where like, it was an educational process and is still up today. But, I remember the first meeting was like two hours, and I was exhausted because they keep asking questions, for the good. “Wow, this is great,” but I was exhausted with so many questions, gosh, I needed to lay down for a while.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 16:48
But that’s a good sign. I guess, is that a big part of coaching juniors, that education process? Whereby it might be nutrition, it might be energy systems, it might be recovery, it might be the importance of sleep? How big a part of that education is coaching juniors?
Education in Coaching Juniors
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 18:06
It’s very important, to me it’s fundamental, because you need to really educate, insist on it. Why are you doing this? The athlete goes out and trains, and goes out there in front of a plate food, and knows the why, “I have to do it. Now I know the why.” If they’re passionate about it, it’s going to improve their performance, or shooting for the performance. They’re part of this now, they really understand the why, and they put even more emphasis. I always find that all those athletes who know, are well educated, they’re really better off down the road.
It sounds like you’ve covered everything with him. Is there anything, looking back, that you would would have done differently?
Junior Athletes Need to Have a Plan B
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 18:48
I think that he was very impressive from Day 1. The one thing, it’s not just him, but there’s many others who are very passionate about it, is that sometimes they’re too passionate. They’re like, I want to do this. I want to do that. That’s it. You’re still young. I think that there are other things too, and this is what, in the sport of cycling, now, we’re getting so precise to the data for what has to be done. I am not sure if some kids at the age of 24, 25 are going to grow up mentally. We see from other sports that that usually is not the case. But we don’t know. I really want to emphasize always, “Hey, make sure that you read a book or you continue with your studies.”
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 19:34
Like Juan, for example, he continued studies, and he’s planning on starting college. In fact, some of that last year as a junior, he could have said, “Hey, look, I have a pro contract at one of the top teams in the world. I’m not going to study at all.” [But in his case,] He had to even modify his training because he needed to finish high school and get ready for the equivalent in Europe to what is the SAT tests to enter the university because, he really needs to have the option to enter the university. Little by little, take three credits here and a class there, which is good for their heads too, because they’re entertained with something. Then little-by-little within the course of 7, 8 years or 10 years, they can finish up a whole degree. This is his plan. He finished school, and that was a priority. Then, it’s absolutely, this is this is exactly why I would highly recommend. It came from him, “Can we modify a little things?” “Absolutely.” Then, he was able to pass all the tests to be able to go to university. He should be able to now enter a university at any point. Now he’s figuring out what to do. But, he’s going to take a class here and there. That’s why I think always have a plan B, have something. Don’t think is everything cycling, cycling, cycling, have something else.
Then there’s balance that’s like just naturally weaved into life on a daily basis, or weekly basis, or whatever. But then there’s also something down the road longer term, because you can’t be a professional cyclist forever. At the end of your career, you can have something that you have a degree in something, you’re a more rounded athlete. Yeah. Which is overall, a win-win for everybody. I’m sure it makes your job easier to when you’re coaching him if there’s more of a diversity in thinking and approach.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 21:19
Yeah, absolutely. The only thing with Juan is that since he was so young, there’s a lot of assimilation process mentally, like, being 18 already at the World Tour level. Being 19 already, like a podium at Vuelta. Man, I tried to put myself in his shoes when I was his age, like, wow, how do you cope with that? There’s a lot of things, and even for adults it would be like, “Wow, I’m in the spot[light].” But even being a kid, it is like, wow, a teenager. That’s where like, his priority was to say, “Hey, I need to go through this assimilation process. It’s very important for me, I cannot start university now or anything like that, because there are a lot of things, too many things. I need to focus on this and really start my career on the right foot.” It’s not easy to be that popular in that level of the sport, and so young.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 22:18
As his coach, did you help him with that? Or was there a team sports psychologist that helped him with that? Because obviously being in the center of all that attention, media attention, social media nowadays, there’s so many things for young athletes to deal with. It can be a lot.
Promoting a Healthy Mindset in Juniors
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 22:30
It can be a lot on your plate. Exactly. His dad is his agent as well, or manager. He really protects him, and he’s with him. I think this is a great thing, if your dad is passionate about it, he’s there like that, that’s great. I also think that with sport psychology is we have the possibilities for any athlete on our team, to consult with a sports psychologist. But it’s an option. We’re not forcing anybody, I think that is an important aspect that needs to be introduced in the world of sports, especially now that we see the mental health is a big deal. In Europe, not yet, but in the U.S., especially more athletes are coming out, saying, “Hey, I have mental issues. Mental health is important.”
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 23:18
We all have probably have heard about Michael Phelps. He was one of the first ones to come on and say, “Hey, I’ve been going through all this my entire career. This is a reality.” It happens in many athletes. I personally have, for decades since I started, I think that a sports psychologist is a very important figure. Not because you’re crazy, but there are a lot of insecurities. I always say that there’s fear to lose, but it’s very natural, the fear to win. I’ve seen many athletes getting to the top of the game, not in cycling, but in other sports, [thinking], “This is what I’ve been dreaming all my life,” and falling apart because they get finally there. Or being being so close to where they’ve been dreaming their entire life, and all the sudden, they get frozen. Their fear to win, “Oh, man, this is gonna change my entire life. I’m gonna be in a whole different position, if I do it.” It’s not easy, and it’s not rare. This might not have anything to do with Juan, but I’m just going through the sport psychologist figure . . . he is important in these days.
That’s a very good point, because it is something that somebody might have spent years, or maybe their teenage years working towards, and it’s like, “Oh, I can achieve my dream here.” That’s actually quite terrifying, as well as being exciting.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 24:38
At the same time, I think that if you have a good environment where, his dad is there. Right away, he had his inner circle of trust, which I think is very important in the world of sport. There’s an inner circle that all the inner circle is connected, that you can hear one thing from one person and nothing from another person, and then you go there, they might be influencing you. But we’re there to help him to protect him, that gives him security. We’re friends also, and he can, you know, say anything to us. I’m not saying we’re a sport psychologist. But he, and all our athletes in the situation, they’re in a good spot, normally. But that’s where we get to know them very well. We get an intimate relationship with these athletes. We know how just sometimes even just looking at their eye, that’s not your look, something’s off, or your tone of voice, what’s wrong? That’s where in some cases, maybe we can address this problem differently with other athletes or so. That’s why it’s important to create an inner circle of trust.
It sounds like if he’s got his dad as his agent, and that’s almost the perfect setup to have somebody that close and that trusted. We’ve talked specifically about Juan, but it’d be great to sort of tap into your knowledge and your expertise, and translate that sort of more globally to help coaches who might also be coaching juniors, and what you would call the cadets, the youngsters. In your experience, is there any is any one thing that coaches should focus on when they’re developing athletes who are maybe in their teenage years?
Training Focus for Younger Athletes
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 26:16
Yeah, I think that the main thing is they really need to have a very strong foundation. That’s the base, going back to that Zone 2, the best process. But if you start working in that foundation at an earlier age, that’s where you get to like the age of 18, 21, very well. Then the races and some intensity workouts, you throw in here and there, they’re gonna give you the high intensity that you need. You can also structure some high intensity, but that foundation, that takes years. . . it takes years. That’s why the example you see people like [Tadej] Pogačar, who’s still working like this, and keeps pushing it and pushing it, he’s young. But obviously, he’s gonna keep doing that. More reason to do that when you’re 14, 15, is during that foundation. That, I would say is important, and this is one of the reasons why also we’re seeing in other sports.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 27:15
They’re like, a very high level when they’re 20, 21. That’s because they started also when they were like, 14, 15. Those are like, those five years, four years where you have a lot of room to improve, a lot of room if you’re well-monitored, if you’re well-trained. If you have access to testing because that’s the thing, I always say what gets measured gets managed. Which I say because of the example of Peter Drucker who came up with that expression, “What gets measured gets managed.” If you measure by testing the athlete, you know that the necessities of that athlete and therefore you can manage it with the proper training. When you don’t measure anything, it is very difficult to manage. When you go more by more like by the feeling, by I feel is this I think is that. But, it might be beneficial to a specific rider, or maybe might be detrimental to another one. That’s why it’s very important to measure.
You’re taking any guesswork out of it. Making it a total science, exactly what that athlete needs, Athlete A versus Athlete B.
When Collaboration Is Seen as Threatening
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 28:18
This is one . . . my experience here in the U.S., it’s been quite frustrating, to be honest with many coaches. I don’t know, if it’s, I have no idea. I’m trying to figure out why? It’s a cultural thing, or it’s an insecurity thing, or it’s just like a . . . ? But coaches, they just, they tend to [think] I can do everything. I know everything. They do everything. Or “No, I’m not gonna send this cyclist to a laboratory for doing physiological testing or to a nutritionist, but especially not to physiological testing, because they are going to steal that rider for me.” No, that’s not the case. It’s just like, you should send that rider to the laboratory for testing, so that you can have better data, you can work better with that rider.
He or she gets better and you know.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 29:03
Exactly, and you will take the credit. Not only that, but you retain that athlete. The turnover in coaches is tremendous, it’s huge. One of the reasons is things like that, is that cyclists they get overtrained fatigue or, simply they talk to their coach and like, “Hey, what is this? And would you explain it to me?” Then the coach says “No.” Eventually, that the cycle is like, “Ah, this is not working.” Then they go to a different coach, mentor, different coach, and this is bad. Every time you change coaches, you change the philosophies. That’s why it’s important for coaches to really, really be attached to experts in different fields, who can really help you. They’re in the backstage, they’re not going to steal your rider, they’re going to test your rider and give you good data.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 29:48
That’s what I’ve been trying for 15 years in the United States. I gave up already. I’m not pursuing that anymore. I got to that point, but like, “Hey, bring athletes to us, because we can test them and give you good data. We can tell you, “Oh, he’s moving the right direction, or I will do this, or I will do that, you know, these are the training zones.” Sometimes the trainer says, “How do you calculate training zones?” You might think that that rider is, that young kid is training in Zone 2, but [they are] actually doing Zone 4. That’s way higher, and that’s going to lead that person to overtraining. Not developing correctly, so that’s something that, to me, it’s not acceptable.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 30:28
Again, it should be that if a coach doesn’t have, like an entourage or a network of experts, it would be detrimental for the coach’s business. That’s the way it is in Europe, in Europe, it will be unimaginable to have a coach that does a copy-and-paste program, and doesn’t send anybody to do a test. If you have a coach like that, you probably may be paying five bucks a month, or doing it for free. The good coaches say, “Okay, I’m telling these people to go to the same laboratory that everybody does that, because if I don’t do that, I’m in a lower position.” The other athletes are going to choose to go to another coach, because that coach has that network that I don’t have. But here that culture hasn’t been established, and this is why I think that, for the coaches who are passionate about working with juniors, I highly encourage them to really get out of that comfort zone or the culture that we have nowadays, and really move on to what was going to be more beneficial to us. That’s my humble opinion.
Physiological Testing: Juniors vs. Elite Athletes
And to tap into testing and to use other experts and see them as resources, not threats. When it comes to physiological testing with juniors, is there anything that you do differently compared to testing mature elite athletes?
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 31:45
No, I do the same protocol, it’s just that obviously they don’t have the same numbers. I do the very same protocol.
Then I know that you’re a big advocate for the polarized training approach, would take the same approach for juniors?
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 31:57
It’s uniform across the board, regardless of whether they’re juniors, mature athlete, senior athletes, whatever?
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 32:04
I mean, that’s where I was mentioning that, and it is not polarization is it? But similar philosophy, if you will. That foundation, improving that mitochondrial function. The earlier you start, the better off. The more you keep pushing it and pushing it and pushing it. As I was mentioned, even Tadej keeps pushing it will keep pushing it for years, because this is something that first takes years. Also you can keep improving, improving. That’s more reason to start when you’re younger, so by the time you’re 20, or you’re 18, well, you have already several years of working like this.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 32:39
This is to that question, too, I used to be a cyclist here in the U.S. too. Back in the days when I was student, so I did my undergrad here. I would see that many cyclists, they don’t start training with any structure until they’re 20 or 21. Or they’re realizing, “Oh, I might be good at this. Now I need a coach.” I think that needs to change too, that culture from the athlete. I’ve seen the same thing I saw so many, and that’s when I started testing athletes. They were 21, I was like, “Oh, my God, you’re a beast.” Their physiological parameters are amazing. But that athlete is completely undeveloped. If that athlete had started when he was or she was 15 would have been one of the best in the world, maybe. Here we have these athletes, 21, and poof, still have four or five years to develop, and by that time [they are] 26. Time flies. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s been a barrier for many American cyclists.
Is there on the flip side of that, then, is there any downside to starting structured training too soon, too early in an athlete’s development? What what age would you ideally want to an athlete to start that structure?
What Age to Start Coaching Younger Athletes
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 33:57
I would say 14, 15, you’ll be good. I think we started earlier than that, in my opinion, they need to play and just have fun. But starting at 14, 15, it’s important to develop. The other thing too, that I didn’t mention is like, the races are not as challenging in the U.S. too because there are less and less races. The U.S. is transitioning more towards gravel, and mountain biking. They’re big, but it’s losing. I mean, here in Colorado, before there were states races or one-day races for all levels, for all categories. Now, you have like six, seven races in the entire season. It’s like, where do you go with that? This is the big handicap for kids to develop. If you can’t race, you cannot move on.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 34:48
This is why USA Cycling did the great initiative right to have a center in Europe, where they can identify talent and send them to to live entire season there. Or give the opportunity to spend some time there and explore what it is like to be competitive cyclist there, to have a taste of what it takes. You know, I think that’s a very important and indispensable work, you know that USA Cycling now is doing, which is really, really important. And it has shown that the majority of USA cyclists racing at the World Tour level, they went through that academy, if you will, right, of USA Cycling in Europe. That was the route, the pathway, but it seems like it might be the only pathway because we don’t have any structured way in order to give the kids training and competition. That’s something that I don’t have the answer, obviously, but I just see that that’s a big problem.
Can an athlete as a junior show very little potential, and then become a star, or somewhere along with that sort of teenage development, something happens that’s like, oh, wow, they do have a huge potential, but we just didn’t see it.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 35:58
Yeah, sure, you can see is that that’s what I was saying that, you know, the fact that you see a kid, you know, that is 14, and their results are not very good. That kid is not doomed by no means. Right. So maybe his or her growth, development and maturity, you know, is delayed. Right? And maybe in two years’ boom! It kicks off, right. Although the puberty kicks in, right? And wow, that that athlete changes completely. So yeah, of course, you see that, right? So that’s why you need to keep working and working and working. And if you’re passionate about it, don’t give up or don’t let that your FTP or your file on 15 minutes is very low compared to other ones, or your physiological tests are low. No, that should not discourage you. Because yeah, sooner or later you might have puberty kicking in, you know, like, wow, you can transform yourself and keep growing and take it to a whole different level.
Yeah, and what about on the flip side of that? What if you’ve got a junior who shows massive potential at age 14, 15. Then boom, they burn out or blow up? Because that’s not uncommon, have you seen that? How do you prevent that?
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 37:07
That’s a great question as well. That’s exactly what you see also in many instances you see, like a 14-year kids, and in an area where there’s not much climbing. You see that this 14-year kid is six feet tall already. He’s like, 170 pounds, he has a beard and everything. Like, wow, that kid actually has physiologically or biologically has the body of an 18-year-old kid. You know that he’s way ahead of his age. Any kid, it’s very difficult to beat that guy or that girl, but that’s when you say, “Okay, we need to be careful about this.” That’s where, “Oh, yeah, my kid is the best!” Parents say, “He’s the best, he wins everything or I already have a manager.” They’re looking for a pro contract. It’s okay, he’s way ahead, way overdeveloped, at some point, that might be it. Or, sometimes what I see is like, what I call a negative progression. You should see someone with a normal progression at these ages, these teenagers, they should improve more and more and more and more and more. But someone might be improving each year with very little. Each year is improving less than the previous one. They have a negative curve of growth. It’s a predictor of this is going to be it in terms of like, that massive level. They’re gonna keep improving, but not at this level, while the other ones are going up catch up.
What advice would you give to coaches who are maybe new to coaching juniors? It already sounds like you’ve got a wealth of knowledge—what’s maybe one of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned?
Advice for Coaches of Juniors
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 38:50
I think the important thing is like to really get to know that athlete better. Again, what gets measured, gets managed, so try to get to know the athlete better, not only at the personal level, but yeah, physiologically. Who are you working with? Is it a kid who is very underdeveloped? How do you measure that? Or is it a kid is really well developed, and how do you measure that? Or how did you train? Do you tell him or her just do 2.5 hours and do two intervals. But how? That’s what I that’s what I recommend, and I’m using my physiologist’s hat. Because I see that that is important to understand, who are you working with, and what what are the goals for this kid? I don’t know, I could have a bunch of advice from my experience, but I think that was an important one. Don’t be afraid of sending the kid to a physiological testing at a place where people know what they’re doing, and get tested. And don’t be afraid, that’s not a threat. It’s going to enhance your work.
That’s very important. What do you think’s the biggest difference between working with young athletes and working with elite adult athletes? What’s been the biggest in your coaching? In your coaching experience, what’s the biggest difference been?
The Gratification of Coaching Juniors
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 40:08
I think like, with the younger kids it’s great to work for the majority are very appreciative about anything because of the fact that you also work with professionals are like higher-level athletes. They appreciate, “Oh, wow, you have time for me, like, that’s great.” I love that aspect. I love the aspect that they’re willing to learn, they’re dreamers. They’re here being coached, because of a reason. They dream high, you can feel their passion, right, so that’s great. Whereas, sometimes when you train adults, that passion starts fading away. It becomes a career, a profession, and then even the attitude as well. They’re not all, but some of them, they’re not that I appreciative at all. In fact, they change. They’re demanding, I’m a pro, I’m a pro, I’m a pro. Yeah, well, you used to be a very nice kid, you’re a different person. I had this conversations with some athletes who turn pro like, “Look, you know, you are not the 15-year-old kid that I that I met, who very passionate, dreaming high, and was appreciative of everything. Now, you’re behaving like a jerk. I’m not your slave. The rest of the staff, we’re not your slave.” It happens. But, not with everybody. But, there are a few instances that are, I have gone through that.
Interesting. Oh, well, thank you very much for your time today. It’s been really fascinating. I learned a lot and we appreciate your expertise and insights.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán 41:38
Well, thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate it. Thank you!