At the end of every year, the dinner party chatter and social media feeds of clubs are packed with riders’ declarations of targets for the following year. We’ve all had a target that we’d like to achieve, from the first-time century riders to the cyclists keen to see a speed improvement over a given distance, or to move up a race category.
Often, we look at our equipment to see where we can make the gains. And, to a great extent, rightly so. A lighter groupset with sharper shifting and better braking will inevitably have an impact on your overall speed and efficiency, as will a wheelset or whole bike upgrade from your current “bucket of bolts" to a slick and race-ready road-conquering machine.
In one respect or another, humans are target-driven, so having the equipment you think will help you to achieve those targets is likely to be both a tangible physical and mental benefit to the average rider. However, kit upgrades will only get you so far before either your physical ability, or the flexibility of your wallet, reaches their limits.
So what about another investment? Could an investment in yourself and your ability be the most productive way to achieve your goals in 2017, by hiring the services of a coach to help you maximise your riding potential? We got in touch with two coaches to find out their candid answers, and it’s not as clear-cut – or obvious – as you may think.
What are the potential benefits of having a coach?
For most riders, the process of heading out on the bike, in a group or solo, and completing a ride is a stepping stone to improvement itself. The vast majority of cyclists have a basic understanding of how to improve on a bike: namely, steadily increasing the distance, speed or intensity at which you ride will cause adaptations as you recover so riding at that trained intensity will be easier the next time.
So how could an investment in a coach help you maximise this? Stuart Auckland, of the Matt Bottrill Performance Coaching Team, explains: “Having a coach provides you with structure to your training, and a form of accountability to following the plan - you’re paying for it, after all!
“It also adds some form of extrinsic motivation – knowing that someone is waiting for you to complete a session can be quite a driver, and one of the most important aspects is getting critical feedback on the results of your training sessions."
With potential benefits therefore being a structured plan, accountability and increased motivation, Pav Bryan adds this key distinction of a good coach: “A good coach will take all your information – your goals, your ability, your commitment, your life routine – and develop for you something that helps you improve in a manner most suited to you.
“With their experience and knowledge, a good coach will not just show you what you need to do in order to progress towards your goals, but they’ll make it obtainable based on the skill level of the client.
“The standards I hold from myself and the coaches that work with me is to truly personalise each coaching plan to best support the client’s goal."
Both agree that a personalised training plan, underpinned by sound scientific principles and an understanding of what’s achievable for the rider in terms of their constraints and potential limitations, is the best way to maximise the effectiveness of the coaching process, and the effectiveness of the coaching plan.
So how can a coach actually help you achieve your goals?
While a fundamental understanding of you and your ability as a cyclist, as well as the pressures that constrain you, is clearly important, the goal also needs careful consideration – ideally by someone who understands what your target event will require of you.
“A good coach will understand the demands of the particular event, in order for you to reach your target goal," says Bryan.
“Once they have your information and baseline performance indicators – usually through a test or relevant recent historical performance – it’s simply about plotting a journey to reach the end product.
“Your coach should use regular testing to demonstrate that progression is being made at the right rate, including adapting the right training stimulus tied in with adequate recovery."
Given that benchmarking and feedback in relation to your progress is vital, is it therefore just about the numbers? Is it really just about the power you can sustain for a given period on a bike, perhaps taking the joie de vivre out of riding?
Bryan has this to add: “A good coach will also be a mentor, acting as someone you can talk to when things aren’t going so well. They should help you grow as a complete cyclist, taking into account every component of fitness and performance.
“Technique, tactics and mental aspects are as much a part of cycling as the performance element. A skilled coach will ensure you are capable in all areas."
Auckland agrees, expanding on the areas a coach should analyse and contribute to. He says: “Most people think of coaching purely in terms of the scheduled training sessions. However, a good coach will take a holistic approach.
“Such things may include bike fit and optimisation, aerodynamics, nutrition, mental focus, strength and conditioning as well as event preparation and strategy."
How important is it to have a coach that understands you?
Auckland just touched upon a generally under-appreciated aspect of coaching, the “holistic" approach. The term holistic of course refers to ‘the whole’, meaning aspects aside from pure physical output and performance have a key impact on the success of a training plan, and the enjoyment of cycling.
Confined to a cycling coach-rider relationship, Auckland says understanding of the client is vital to success.
“This is incredibly important; if they don’t understand you then in my view they’re not coaching correctly," he explains.
“A coach needs to know you, what drives you, what challenges you, what obstacles (physical or mental) you might need to overcome, and what limitations you need to work around, for example, personal, family and professional commitments all need to be known and taken into account."
Bryan explains this kind of understanding arises from a two-way street of open communication.
“You need to ask your potential coach a lot of questions, as well as answer theirs to help them design a plan to meet your individual goals," he says.
“This provides more flexibility and understanding. A coach that is listening to your individual goals, and adjusting the training to match your efforts and skill set, will immensely contribute to you reaching your training goals quicker."
He quantifies this with an example of practice that he and his coaching team uses.
“A potential coach should be asking you questions about your level of commitment to achieving your goals," he explains.
“You should answer knowing that if you say ‘ten out of ten’, then you might spend more of your time on the turbo doing things that will progress you to your goals faster but in a less enjoyable manner.
“This could be great, but you might want to ride with your mates every now and again, or in the sun – on that one day we get it. A specialised coach will allow some flexibility to your plan and manage your expectations, getting you to your goals while making it fun for you."
Is there a risk a coach would take the fun out of cycling?
Let’s face it, we ride our bikes because we enjoy it. As a four-year-old, when we first learnt to ride without stabilisers, or as an adult when we cross a finish line or simply get out and about to explore new roads and meet new people, the fundamental similarity is a sense of freedom.
On the face of it, a coaching plan might remove that sense of freedom, thereby constricting the fun you can get out of cycling.
It’s not a phenomenon lost on our coaches, but it also emerges they have an appreciation for this too.
“Perhaps if your goal is at such a high level you need to be restricted in what you do, this might happen. An extreme example is if you’re a pro, you’d maybe expect less fun – but, on the flipside you do get paid to ride," says Bryan.
“I wouldn’t want any of my athletes to not enjoy cycling, and for most people the journey is more important than the destination. Coaches need to understand that if you take the fun out of the journey, the rider probably won’t reach their goal."
Auckland adds: “Losing the fun out of cycling could happen - but only if you both let it. That’s why it’s important for a coach to know you.
“If you like doing the weekday chain gang, Zwift races or the weekend club run then it’s important your coach knows so this can be integrated into your plan.
“Naturally, the coach may suggest some changes, and there might be a necessary compromise of some kind to help you meet your goals, maybe introducing a bit of healthy tension, but as long as it’s a collective working process between you and your coach, you should be able to keep the fun within your training."
But why not just upgrade your kit?
It’s clear that having a coach that appreciates you as an individual, what drives you and what motivates you, is a key aspect of sticking to a plan and seeing improvements.
However, for many – this writer included – the allure of fresh and shiny kit upgrades is also worth more than its actual weight in gold.
A new set of aerodynamic wheels might very well help you achieve your goal of a 30km/h average speed over a 100 mile sportive – and even push you over the line if you’re already close to achieving it, but can’t quite hit the mark on the shallow rims you currently ride upon.
But the feel-good and motivating factor of riding fresh kit, while hard to quantify, is a powerful tool as well.
“We all love trick kit! It looks good, goes good and makes us feel better," says Auckland, while Bryan says it comes back to the enjoyment factor once again.
“For most people if they are riding a bike or kit they dislike, they will dislike cycling in general," he adds.
“And, if you have a scenario where you can definitively say your gains will be better by buying kit, for example you race time trials but ride a road specific bike and you have £1,000 to spend, then you’ll probably be better off buying the new bike specific to your discipline than coaching.
“But, objectively, I think at some point the gains become very marginal for your money – so upgrading to a new bike if your one is already fairly decent might not produce as good results as going from a poor bike to a moderate one."
As Bryan points out, it’s a well-known fact that the mental gains you’ll make from having new kit, as well as the potential resulting improvement in speed, can be just as motivating as having a coach, but there is a blurred line where the cost-benefit ratio changes from good value to poor value.
A good example is the cost-benefit ratio between upgrading from Shimano’s Ultegra to Dura-Ace groupsets, versus changing from Tiagra to 105 or Ultegra: there comes a point when the cost is simply too high to be worthwhile.
That’s when a coach could be the way to go: instead of searching for (yes, we’re going to say it) marginal gains in kit, your hard-earned cash could be better spent on improving the complex organism that has to ride the kit you have.
“You need to be honest with yourself and critical of the upgrade you’re considering," says Auckland. “For example, some wheels may only provide an aerodynamic advantage above a certain speed – ask yourself: can you genuinely sustain that speed for the required distance?
“If not, then the other option is to get yourself coached so you can, and then reward yourself with your next budget upgrade.
“You never know, you may increase your performance to the extent that you can justify an even faster set of wheels than the ones you were already considering."
So, will everyone benefit from having a coach?
Interestingly, our two coaches are conflicted on this one, but both answers have strong merits. Bryan is quite unequivocal in his belief everyone can benefit from having a coach, as long as the rider is ready to follow the plan and take the time to develop a relationship with the coach.
“Yes I think everyone can benefit from a coach, but you need to be ‘coachable’; to be ok with having someone tell you what to do," says Bryan.
“You should understand the process and that your coach might ask you to do things that you may dislike, which for many might actually include increasing rest or recovery time.
“It also depends on the compatibility of the coach and client. Simply not everyone can get on with everyone; there might be personality clashes. However, as a rule I would suggest not giving up if you do not get on straight away. It can take months to build a bond."
Auckland largely agrees, although his exact phrasing uncovers a slightly different angle. “Practically everyone will benefit in some way when taking a critical look at all aspects of their riding and their goals," he says.
“It’s not just all about absolute performance, i.e. being able to ride at ‘x’ power over ‘y’ distance. Good coaching will support you in all aspects of your goals."
So, put simply, Auckland believes fundamentally it’s a critical approach required in order to analyse performance and effect change, with a coach a potentially powerful and influential tool that can help the rider execute this.
However, he’s under no illusions that coaching itself might not be for everyone.
“Not everyone enjoys following a plan and being instructed on what to do; not everyone enjoys being told what to do or are able to receive constructive feedback well," he says.
“Again, I advise people to be honest with themselves. There’s no point in paying for coaching if you don’t have the time or true desire to follow the plan, or will ignore it and race on Zwift or chase Strava segments instead. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that - we should all ride to enjoy it after all."
Bottom line, will money always be best spent on a coach?
Of course, the answer is probably no, as we’ve just uncovered. However, that doesn’t mean a ‘bottom line’ level of thinking shouldn’t be employed when thinking about investing in a coach.
“It all comes down to what your goals are and what kit you currently ride," says Auckland. “There are diminishing returns on kit upgrades eventually, and ultimately you’re the engine.
“Trick kit looks good, makes you feel good and will make you quicker to an extent. However only good coaching can genuinely take your personal performance to the next level and assess all aspects to help you meet or even exceed your goals."
Bryan agrees, adding that, pound for pound, a coach is likely to be the best and most efficient way to get more out of your riding, whatever the goal, but it has to be right for you.
“A good coach will teach you skills that will last a lifetime, while a kit upgrade will not," he concludes. “Doing some research before you choose to employ a coach [or buy a kit upgrade] is important, and truly talking with a potential coach before committing to the partnership will help you decide if it’s right for you and your goals."