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What Makes a Good Training Plan?

USA Cycling's Jim Miller reviews everything a coach must take into account to prepare a training plan that cultivates both performance and longevity for the athlete.

Jim Miller USA Cycling Coach Fast Talk Podcast

Coaches and athletes often ask me, “What is the best training plan?” The truth is, there’s a million ways to “skin a cat.” When I look at an athlete’s training plan, I’m looking to see the progression over the season. I’m looking to see the energy system development. I don’t really judge how a coach skins the cat, just that the cat gets skinned.

Planning for progression and performance 

I just looked at an athlete’s plan, he’s entering his fifth consecutive 30-hour week, and I’m thinking, Why? Maybe I’m not going to be overly critical just yet—if an athlete performs, they perform. But you have to be looking at performance.  

In a lot of scenarios sport-specific performance is overlooked. This is especially true with strength or nutrition programs. The athlete is getting stronger in the weight room, but if this work is inhibiting the athlete’s performance on the bike, the coach is not doing their job. It’s important to consult the Performance Manager to make sure the gains are truly gains.  

On the other side of things, there are some coaches who can deliver a beautiful plan in Performance Manager, setting up a great progression, but it’s just not realistic.  

There are coaches who might not elicit a bunch of great performances, just a single performance. Your job as a coach is to elicit a bunch of performances along the athlete’s journey, it’s not a one-shot deal.  

Athlete physiology and sport-specific demands

There can be a disconnect between a coach’s method and the individual athlete’s physiology. This is often an issue. It is also what separates good coaches from great coaches.  

Some coaches have a good method dialed that worked for a number athletes and they proceed to copy, paste, repeat. Great coaches can take an athlete and approach that athlete with a mentality of “I will learn what I need to learn to make you perform.” As a coach, ultimately, it’s your job is to get that athlete to perform, to get them to do things that they don’t think they can do.  

But the athlete’s physiology is just one piece of the puzzle for the coach. The coach might need to solve a discipline-specific problem. I’ve coached road, track, mountain bike, and cyclocross. What is required for each discipline is totally different. Each requires different energy systems, different preparation to create adaptation leading to a peak performance.  

The coach might need to consider the athlete’s role. At the World Tour level a domestique, GC rider, climber, and sprinter face very different energy demands. You need to create adaptation and adjust to the athlete’s training to prepare them for that role.  

I coached Lawson Craddock and we worked really hard to make him a GC racer. Ultimately, we couldn’t get there so his value to the team shifted to being a domestique. Now we are focusing more on riding on the flats. Whereas before we were training him to be a climber, now we are working to get him to the point where he is able to ride 340W for six hours. Think about how challenging this would be—it’s like changing jobs all of a sudden. The athlete has to be able to adapt to different things that are asked of them at different teams.  

Coaching peak performance over a career

As coaches, how can we help the athlete have longevity in their career? What is the athlete’s value at this particular moment to a team? How can we maximize that value, while also making a plan for that athlete to keep their job?   

Pro cyclists have some of the worst jobs. They sign a one- or two-year contract. Then, when the contract comes to an end, if the athlete’s performance is not where it needs to be they are told to take a salary cut or leave. Most of us wouldn’t take that job.  

With the younger guys who are trying to make a World Tour team, we might have to look at them for 3-5 years, asking, “Where do they need to be at 23, 25 years old?”  

Figure out how to develop that athlete and plan accordingly. Obviously, it’s not a one-year plan. Together, with the athlete, we need to ask, How can we get you ready to ride in a World Tour, and get attention in three years’ time? What do we need to do now so you can be good in the long-term?  

I enjoy taking that longer view, developing the athlete, and planning for their longevity. It’s why I don’t like private coaching.  

The challenges of 1:1 private coaching 

As a private coach, you are an employee of that athlete. You are trying to keep your job and you might hope to do that through short-term success. But if the athlete’s job is dependent on what they can do four years from now, will that be enough? It’s hard for private coaches to take a longer view on performance, to be patient in developing the athlete.  

If I’m a private coach, I try to manage the athlete’s expectations right away. I want to be crystal clear on the goals for the season so when that race comes up and the athlete wants to go test their fitness, I can ask the question, “Does it fit within our goals?” There will be lots of opportunities to compete in one-off races in a season, but every one of them must be dialed into those larger goals.