In this video, Joe Friel is joined by Ben Day, a former pro cyclist who is now a high-performance coach, working with Team BikeExchange on the World Tour, as well as pro triathletes such as Chris Leiferman.
Friel and Day talk about the importance of goal setting and the measuring and monitoring of specific data throughout the course of a season. And despite the plethora of data now available for coaches and athletes to analyze training and performance, Day talks about the importance of balancing objective and subjective feedback from his athletes, as well as the significance of non-verbal communication.
Later in the interview, Day gives a great example from his work with former pro cyclist Ruth Winder and how impactful it could be on her training if she focused too heavily on power numbers. As a result, they removed all but time of day from her bike computer during some key sessions to help improve the anxiety she felt around hitting certain watts. This type of holistic approach to measuring performance—“more than just numbers”—is what Day and Friel both agree constitutes the true art and science of coaching.
Joe Friel 00:04
Hi, Ben. Good to see you!
Ben Day 00:08
Joe Friel 00:20
I heard you were you racing Pro for 14 years or something like that?
Ben Day 00:25
Yes, that’s right. From 2001, I moved to Italy as an amateur, started racing professional 2002. Then spent seven or eight years in Europe full-time, and then moved to the U.S. and spent the second half of my career there racing in domestic teams. This is where we raced a lot on the domestic calendar, but also coming back to Europe and some Asian races and stuff as well. I survived 14 years as a professional, and I’m pretty proud of that, because not every year was easy to get through. But, character building, I think is a good way to state it.
The Start of Day’s Coaching Career
Joe Friel 01:03
You bet. So, when did you get started in coaching?
Ben Day 01:07
I started 2009, so halfway through my career. What happened was, I was on a team where we were quite well paid. As a professional, it’s definitely a job and you need to make ends meet and pay for the mortgage at the end of the month. But, the team I was on was folding and, the market in the U.S. at that time wasn’t looking very good for the following season. Therefore, I was forced with my back up against the wall and had to really contemplate, “How will I support myself moving forward?” It gave me some time to reflect on what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, essentially. Spending some time on that, and really thinking about what was at the core of who I am and everything that I’ve been living for the last 15 or 20 years before that, it was preparation for high performance. I also love to help people. It’s always something that’s been innate in my personality as well. It just made sense to get into the coaching world. That was 2008.
I started by reading your Training Bible back then. I then started working with TrainingPeaks in one of the earlier versions. I was just learning how to structure training, and I was quite fortunate that I had worked with a lot of really high level scientists and coaches throughout my career as well. Neal Henderson in Boulder, I worked with him. I also worked with Inigo San Milan. I caught quite a few really big names in sports physiology and coaching. I really learned a lot of things, different things from these different people. But I always had the beauty of seeing it from the N = 1 experiment of, “What works for me? What really resonated for me, and what would I change? What did I want differently?” That has created a lot of the style, perhaps, methodology to my coaching so that I try to replicate all the stuff that really resonated with me working with those guys, and implementing and things that I felt like I was still missing. Then beyond that, I think it’s always learning, continuing to learn, continuing education, and really learning how to listen to people. I want to make sure that I can identify the things that they need as individuals, because we’re not all the same person, as we’ve learned.
Joe Friel 03:43
Very good point about continuing to learn. It’s a never-ending process, isn’t it?
Ben Day 03:48
That’s true. I’m up here in Denmark at the moment before the Tour, and we have the Science and Cycling conference that happens here before the Tour de France each year. It’s a great conference where a lot of the sports scientists from all the other teams get together and have a few days as we did last night as well. But, just to compare notes, research, and stuff like that. We are all here because we live and love this stuff. It’s really interesting to push the boundaries of sports science and methodologies in all different aspects of performance. It’s definitely not just a training program, that’s for sure.
Joe Friel 04:24
Your coaching company is called Day by Day Coaching if I recall correctly. We know you’re working with Team Bike Exchange. Do you also coach triathletes?
The Different Athletes Day Works With
Ben Day 04:38
Yes, but just a couple. I’m currently working with pro Chris Leiferman who was 4th at the Ironman World Championship in St. George a month ago. That’s been something that has forced me out of my comfort zone a little bit because a lot of my cycling coaching has come from intuition and real experiential knowledge whereas when I’ve delved into understanding the disciplines of swim and running, it has really forced me to see it from a different viewpoint in terms of, “I don’t have the experience of going through massive training programs on my own with those things.” It was more book-taught to begin with, and over the years, I’ve gained the experience from taking my athletes down those pathways. But what I’ve really gained out of being forced out of my comfort zone there is to really appreciate technique and doing things correctly. Not necessarily doing them hard or doing them better. I think with running, and especially swimming, are two disciplines that really reinforced that. Whereas on the bike, you can really push hard and push the load hard. If you do that in running, you can quickly injure yourself. If you do that in swimming, you’re not going faster, you’re just going harder.
Joe Friel 06:03
I always call that creating more bubbles around yourself and not really going any place.
Ben Day 06:08
Yeah, or when I’m swimming, keeping my head above water.
Joe Friel 06:15
Obviously you’re coaching some very good athletes, in both triathlon and cycling. Are you also coaching age groupers?
Ben Day 06:22
Within cycling, yes, but a little bit. I have a few private clients out there as well that I work with. I think it’s really important to continue working on all aspects, a lot of the fundamentals stay the same. It comes back to really listening, identifying people’s situation, and how to best help them move forward.
Face to Face Communication
Joe Friel 07:45
Comparing ways of doing things is really a good way to learn about how to become a better coach by helping others become better coaches also. Is your coaching some combination of face-to-face and long distance coaching?
Ben Day 07:52
I think the face-to-face element is really important. Especially with the high-performance guys, and this is where I have a commitment to be face-to-face with my World Tour riders, for example. There’s a lot that we gain out of being able to look at people, being able to read their body language, being able to watch them on the bike, and take them out motor pacing. There’s also the mental aspect, just conversations, just trying to pick up on little things that might not be said in words. It’s a relationship, it’s a really strong and sometimes quite emotional relationship, as we go through the rollercoaster of a career together.
Joe Friel 08:46
The thing we’re talking about here today has to do with setting goals, trying to achieve those goals, and measuring progress toward the achievement. This starts to get into some really deep areas after a while when you start talking about all of this. But, you’ve been through this yourself for a number of decades, it sounds like. You’ve had this personal experience with it, and you’ve also had the experience working with athletes, I’m sure of all types, professional to to age groupers. When you look back at this, is there anything that stands out for you as being a good way of helping athletes set their goals or decide what it is they’re really aiming for in that season?
Setting and Achieving Goals
Ben Day 09:37
Definitely. I think it’s something that really has to be set as a process. I’ve worked with a couple of people in the past, and I’ve been learning as I’ve gone along as a coach in learning how to best apply my skills and assistance to those athletes. I recall back around 2009, the first couple of years of my coaching career, I worked with a particular athlete who really didn’t want to set goals because he didn’t want that pressure. He didn’t want to have any sort of pressure coming from this side of his life, because he was feeling so much pressure from his working life. I really struggled with that. I tried to let it go for a period of time and let this occur in a freestyle manner. But when we went back to reassess where we’re at a couple of months later, we hadn’t actually made any progress. We’re just sort of like, keeping the wheels turning, but we weren’t pushing the cart down the road. I came back from that experience in realizing that, even if that’s what somebody’s asking for, I think it’s important to have a really good conversation and to define these goals and go through a process of how to find these goals in a way that you can control the the outcome. I think that’s one of the trickiest things about the goal-setting process.
When you go to a race, you can’t just say I want to finish first in this race, because what if there’s (in the Tour de France: 219) other people who also want to finish first as well. It’s a little bit too complicated and well beyond most of our control. Now in talking to them, sometimes there’ll be just like an informal conversation, and we just really talk it all out, our immediate term. Talk out, what do you want to do in your life? What do you want to achieve in your sporting career? Just work through that in an informal process.
But, I think at some point, it’s really important to get it down on a piece of paper so that we both understand and sign up for the same objectives. I think in that way, I can be held accountable as the coach, the athlete can be held accountable as the athlete, and we have a direction in where we’re moving. Otherwise, I think, in my experience in the past, we would just be keeping the wheels turning, but not actually moving anywhere. Sometimes it’s a bit more of a formalized process where I’ll have a fairly in-depth goal form where we break down each goal into actionable goals and process goals. We will talk about the different things that we need to put in place in order to achieve those goals. Even to the point of doing that month by month. It really depends, sometimes that might be a little bit too much with everything that they’ve got going on. But overall, I think it’s a really important thing to have that in mind, if progress is the name of the game. If it’s just for cycling enjoyment, okay, it’s fine to spin the wheels. But I think myself, my skill set, is more aligned with with performance sport. It’s something with the athletes I’m working with, the objective is always to look at improvement in progression.
Joe Friel 13:01
I’m assuming that the pro athletes, especially the pro cyclists, and triathletes you’re working with, have got a lot of metric data available to them through power meters, heart rate, monitor, speed, distance devices, etc. Do you require that for every athlete you work with if they must have those types of devices?
Day’s Device Requirements For Athletes
Ben Day 13:27
I think there is a bit of an issue in our domain of paralysis by analysis. That’s one of the things that I’ve experienced, there’s so many data streams that we can jump into now. I think the power meter has obviously revolutionized what we do as coaches and what the athletes can attain. But, along with that has come through so many different data streams. I think it’s really important to filter some of that out and come back to subjective responses like, “How are you feeling? What’s going on? How did the session feel?”
I remember a few years ago working with super talented female athlete, Ruth Winder, who finished her career last year with Trek-Segafredo. The numbers on the screen on her Garmin at that point, were giving her so much anxiety, just in training to achieve these numbers, that we removed all the numbers on the screen, and all she was left with was time of day. One screen. On the biggest Garmin that you can have, a big digital display that just said time of day. That way she could figure out where she was in her ride. I think that it was an amazing experience and it took the angst out of those numbers in the whole training process. It brought back the feeling that the athlete needs to have in order to find that line that we need to push from her when we are out there training. She has plenty of experience, she knows how to push herself. I never, ever had any doubts that she wasn’t working hard. But sometimes these numbers that you see in front of them create some doubt in the mind of the athlete. I think it’s a really important thing for each and every athlete to have a really good healthy relationship with the numbers that they’re working with. Also, to always find time to stay in tune with what they’re feeling out there. Perhaps lead with that before they lead with the numbers that they see in front of them.
Don’t Get Lost in the Numbers
Joe Friel 15:28
That’s very refreshing to hear Ben. I’m glad to hear you say that. I’m afraid sometimes we get too caught up in the numbers, metrics, devices, and all this stuff. We lose the focus of why we’re here and what we’re trying to achieve. It also goes back to how we feel, how the athlete is feeling on any given day. Sometimes they have really good days, and sometimes they have bad days. If the numbers are just reinforcing their bad days, sometimes that can really be a setback for the athlete, an emotional setback, that the things are not going as they should be, because the numbers aren’t right. But you apparently are doing a lot with the athletes, you were talking about to make sure that she understood that it wasn’t all just numbers. It has a lot to do with how you feel and what’s going on inside your body. That’s really the key thing. That’s what we all used to do, going back decades before all this stuff came along before the heart rate monitor even. We just went by how we felt on an anytime we went out for a workout. I think we’ve kind of lost track of that.
Ben Day 16:33
I agree. A way that I’ve tried to think about the whole training process to always keep my mind in the right place with all this stuff is with the power output, I’m looking at the external output. But the training process is putting everything together. This is the nuts and bolts of the creation of the performance. Let’s say the baking of the cake. When they go out and do their training, I’m trying to sometimes separate out those ingredients. The performances that I’m looking for on those days, very isolated, and it’s not a global response that I want to like. Maybe my focus on that particular day was metabolic conditioning, something like that. Perhaps it was big gear efforts or threshold efforts. But, the focus would be clear on what it is in that particular day. I don’t need a race-specific performance on that day, I just trying to target that particular focus. This is what I think about in terms of creating the physiology of the athlete, is to break it all down into these smaller components. Then, my job is to bring all those ingredients together, come race day, so that the performance is there. The performance is the cake with the icing on top, that’s when it all should be coming together. I think power quantifies their output super well. There’s no better metric that we have for that in reality, except perhaps speed, but that’s a different rhetorical conversation. But for me, it’s just really important that we keep in mind, in the process, in the building blocks, we’re isolating these things out, we’re putting the cake together, putting those ingredients together. With this in mind, it’s not always about the numbers. It’s about, how do I feel? How can I get more out? What’s my response today? I really listen to that subjective feedback, and then encourage them to explore what’s going on and learn about their own sensations.
Joe Friel 18:33
How do you peak the athlete? Let’s go back to your athletes, you’re talking about who’s got some strong feelings, emotional reactions, to numbers and training. You take away the numbers, and you’re working primarily with just RPE, how they feel. How do you go about peaking the athlete for competition when that’s really the only metric you’ve got to work with?
How to Encourage an Athlete Without the Stress of Numbers
Ben Day 19:00
As a coach, I still have the data streams. I’m just taking those data streams away from them. I will still have those data streams to be able to access. But, again, race performance is not always about more. Like if I go and analyze a file from a Tour of Flanders, for example. One of the most exciting one-day races that we have here in Europe, 260 kilometers long. A bunch of cobble climbs in Belgium. It’s a super stressful race, but an amazing crowd. It’s a great thing to be a part of. The files, big in terms of accumulating load over the six or seven hours of the race. But there’s nothing within that file that is like a breakout performance because it’s so stochastic. There’s so many micro bursts, small accelerations, fighting for position. There’s so much load that comes from that race that is not quantified from from the power output itself.
In running, we have to be careful in terms of what metrics we’re looking at in terms of defining. Are they moving towards peak performance? That comes back from historical data that we have of that athlete. Perhaps in the same building block from the year before, like, what were the parameters that we’re using for this specific period of time? Let’s see, if it’s the classics, one day races, they might be a little bit more of a VO2 focus. I need to create some parameters there, that I’m making some comparisons from one year to the following year, to see how they’re comparing. Within that, sometimes I might use a MMP curve, keeping in mind that if they haven’t done maximal outputs along that curve, that I might not have the best data to be looking at. Always take it with a grain of salt. But then, come race day, you really need your athlete to also step up to another level, but you may not actually see it in the power file. Ultimately, it’s the race performance itself. Sometimes the easier they take the race, the more chances they have of winning, too. There’s a lot of intuition there, and I don’t think everything is quantifiable, except for race performance itself.
Mentally Preparing Athletes for a Race
Joe Friel 21:13
Let’s take one thing is not quantifiable. That’s the mental side of this whole thing. The athlete has to be prepared, both physically and mentally to perform at a high level come the event. But that’s a very difficult thing to measure. We’re really not going to be able to sit down and put numbers on their mental preparation. This may be emotional. They may have a lot of things going on here between their ears on how this competition is coming forward and is going to impact them. Is there any way you’ve got to deal with the athlete when you’ve got to really spend?
Let’s say you’re working with an athlete and your primary concern to the athlete is their mental preparation. Is there something you’re doing with your athletes to prepare them mentally for competition, even though you know, they physically prepared? Things are looking good, but you’re not really sure about the mental side of it.
Ben Day 22:11
One is to identify with what that might be in the first place. That is important. For me, each athlete that I work with is basically a separate relationship. It’s the conversations that we have in a month in the years beforehand, that create an overall picture. It also lays the groundwork for a really open and honest environment. If there are concerns that they feel comfortable in voicing, I hope they come forward and voice that. Beyond that, it’s important for me just to be aware of what might be changing, and there might be something else that’s going on. This is where within a team environment or professional environment, it’s a bit tricky, because I feel a real strong duty of care to my riders. But then on the team aspect of things, management really wants to see the race results, we all want to see race results. It’s this balance of needing to be professional and consider the business aspect of this performance, but also caring for the athlete and making sure that we’re providing the support we can for them.
How to identify things that may come up? Sometimes we turn and sometimes if they don’t come forward and express it, might miss it. But I really find one of the most important things is just create this nurturing environment where they know they’re not there to be judged. In that, I am there in their corner, and I can help them with with whatever they bring forward. It’s a tricky one. It’s numbers, which are very black and white. But when it comes to mental preparation, it’s so important. I think we’ve been acknowledging it to be really important for such the longest time, but I still think it’s something that we need to improve on and to continue to find better ways of doing it.
Just to add to that, something appeared during a conference here in Denmark at the moment. There was one team that came forward and presented a longitudinal study that they’ve done on athletes’ objective response. It was from, I believe, 2013 to 2019. It had something like 42 months, I think, it was of subjective feedback, of day to day, how do you feel? How did the race go? They went through all that data and to try to create some correlations between what they’re receiving from the athlete and what their race performances were. What they concluded at the end of that was that they couldn’t conclude anything from it. It was a great thing to pursue, but I realized there wasn’t something that was really giving them a leg up in the process. This is where I think it’s great to have the option for a little smiley face to your workout. Or perhaps it’s like, please write how you feel out of 10 or something like that. I think it needs to be an individual response, and if you’re not connected with your athlete, if you’re not having that two-way conversation in an environment where they’re happy and willing to come forward with what’s going on, then it’s a very, very easy thing to miss.
Joe Friel 25:34
Ben, this has been a great conversation. I like your approach in the way you’re seeing your athletes from a broader perspective then simply be it’s been a number. Good stuff. I wish your team the best of luck the next three weeks, and I look forward to seeing how you do going forward with all your athletes.
Ben Day 25:52
Thanks a lot, I appreciate your time. Thank you!