Getting ready for the race: A Q&A with cycling coach Chris Carmichael

Apr 25, 2014
Category: Training 

The founder of the 15-year-old Carmichael Training Systems (CTS), Chris Carmichael is perhaps the best known coach in all of cycling. His multimillion dollar CTS empire provides world-class athletic and life coaching for thousands of athletes from professionals and Olympians to anyone pursuing peak performances in sports and beyond. A former pro and Olympic cyclist and an award-winning coach who was inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame, Carmichael is recognized and respected as an innovator who has pioneered and furthered technological advancements such as power meters, aerodynamic testing, altitude training and online coaching tools while helping his athletes achieve their goals and reach beyond their capabilities. His immense knowledge and revolutionary methods and philosophies have filled the pages of eight top-selling books. Carmichael has inspired athletes as well as the business world and academia by delivering motivational talks for Fortune 500 companies, Ivy League universities and international coaching conferences. From being a member of the first American team to compete in the Tour de France to coaching Tour de France overall and stage winners, there is no one better than Carmichael to tell us how Amgen Tour of California riders prepare for next month’s race as well as shed light on how these extraordinary athletes train and live.  

Insider: How do riders train for an 8-day stage race like the Amgen Tour of California? How much of the training and preparation is on the bike versus off the bike like in the gym?

Chris Carmichael: The conditioning and speed work is almost entirely on the bike, but being a professional cyclist is a 24/7/365 lifestyle. It’s not just about the miles you put in on the bike, the climbing efforts, and interval workouts. It’s how much sleep you’re getting, what you’re eating, your body composition and weight, and making sure you’re recovering from and adapting to your training. It takes years of cumulative training and racing experience for a rider to reach the level where they can race an 8-day professional stage race at the top of the sport.
Insider: Do you train any athletes that will be competing in the 2014 Amgen Tour of California? If so, who?

Carmichael: At the moment, we work with Gregory Brenes (Jamis-Hagens Berman p/b Sutter Home), Jonny Clarke (UnitedHealthcare), and Ben Hermans (BMC Racing). Obviously the teams haven’t named their ATOC squads yet, so we don’t know for sure if one or more will be there.

Insider: Please describe the role of a cycling coach. Unlike most other sports where the coach provides strategy and direction for the entire team, cycling coaches typically work with individual athletes on a team and thus may be coaching competitors. How do you handle the conflict of having athletes racing to win the same races?

Carmichael: In endurance sports, coaches play a wide range of roles. I believe that at its foundation, coaching is about inspiring an athlete to achieve more than he or she thinks they’re capable of. You do that by believing in them, supporting them, and challenging them with training and competition goals that enable them to continue growing in the sport. Sometimes you end up coaching competitors, but for a good coach it’s not a problem. You’re only interest is to see your athletes 100% ready with the fitness, wisdom, experience and tactical savvy necessary to perform at their best. If that’s what you focus on, it doesn’t matter who the competition is.
Insider: Do you work on race strategy with your athletes or are you simply training their fitness?

Carmichael: Fitness alone doesn’t win races. Fitness alone won’t even get you into the pro peloton. Developing pro-level fitness requires a lot of hard work, but it’s a relatively straightforward process for athletes who have the physiological potential for it. Coaches spend a lot more time and effort teaching athletes – pro or amateur - how to be an athlete 24 hours a day. That doesn’t mean they have to be obsessive, just that decisions about nutrition, rest, travel, and commitments can be viewed through the lens of being an athlete.
Insider: How much of your role as coach is to be a motivator, soundboard or psychologist? How much mental training/preparation do you do with your athletes?

Carmichael: I believe a coach’s primary role is to inspire athletes. There will be no results without inspiration. But you can’t just be a cheerleader either. Your workouts and guidance have to be founded in proven sports science and you have to understand that athletic training is not a linear progression. There are ups and downs, setbacks and triumphs. A coach has to guide athletes through the hard times and help them seize the great times. The best moments in coaching are watching athletes reach goals they didn’t think they could achieve, but that you knew they could achieve.
Insider: What do riders do to recover each day to be able compete at this level day after day in a race like the Amgen Tour of California? Do you work with your athletes on recovery?

Carmichael: Recovery is a skill we work on with athletes from Day 1. Whether it’s in training or a stage race, your ability to recover from today determines your ability to perform tomorrow. Recovery starts before the stage ends. Riders have to be careful to stay hydrated and well fed right through the finish line. They can’t stop eating and drinking in the final hour of the stage when they can ‘smell the barn’. After the stage, the riders’ meals, massages, physical therapy, time in Normatec recovery boots, etc. are all structured to help them recover as completely as possible.
Insider: After I posted something on Facebook about the Amgen Tour of California, a friend who does not ride wondered if he would be able to compete in a race like the Amgen Tour of California or the Tour de France. It’s a common misperception and gross misunderstanding by the general public to comprehend the extraordinary level of strength and fitness pro cyclists possess. Further, they do not know how incredibly difficult it is to compete day after day for 8 days or even 3 weeks as in the Tour de France. How do you explain it? How do you manage client expectations when a new cyclist comes to CTS and their goals and expectations need to be adjusted?

Carmichael: Professionals in all sports have the skill, strength, and speed to make the nearly impossible look easy. I’ve talked to professional football, baseball, and hockey players – even NASCAR drivers – and they’ve all had those same conversations with fans. As coaches we sometimes encounter athletes with unrealistic expectations. You have to be frank and straightforward with athletes, show them where they stack up against the competition, and then support their desire. If an athlete is passionate about their goals and understands what they’re up against, then I’m on board. Many times those athletes with outlandish dreams are the ones who achieve feats that have the greatest personal value regardless of what the result looks like on a results sheet.
Insider: You are known for revolutionizing cycling and endurance sports in a number of ways. Working with Lance Armstrong, you perfected the technique of riding at a high cadence utilizing aerobic fitness thus putting less strain on the muscles as opposed to pushing bigger gears and relying more on muscular strength, which requires a longer recovery period. You also mastered the science of nutrition for endurance athletes, including cyclists, IRONMAN Triathlon winners and marathon runners. From a coaching perspective, what do you see as the next major innovation in our sport?

Carmichael: I think we’re seeing a convergence of technologies. There are a lot of great technologies available for measuring an athlete’s performance in real time, and there are also great internet-based tools for sharing that information instantaneously. I don’t exactly know what the result of that convergence is going to be, but I think it will have a big impact on how athletes train, how athletes compete, and how fans experience competitions.