This is perhaps one of the most contentious topics in coaching for any sport, do you work on building your strengths or improving your weaknesses? This is something every coach will consider when developing a training program for a rider, however it can be difficult deciding between them. To help there is a third concept, it’s called a limiter. Those familiar with the writings of Joe Friel will know this term, however I have a slightly different interpretation of it and it is the cornerstone for all of my programs so I thought it was about time I explained it.
At first glance you may think that a limiter is nothing more than a weakness. This stems from approaching everything from the rider first. Pick a rider you know and ask yourself, “are they a good climber?” If the answer was “No” then ask yourself this, “does the fact that this rider is a weaker climber limit their ability to get a good result in a flat race?” Again the answer should be “No”. In essence this is the difference between a weakness and a limiter, essentially its only a weakness if it limits your chances in a particular race.
Once you begin to look at thinks from a ‘limiter’ perspective you will notice that you start looking at the race dynamics first. What type of course is it? Will it be wet or windy? How long is the event? The answers to each of these questions will then you decide what the specific limiters are for you for that specific race. For example, if you’re a good climber but poor sprinter and you plan on racing a flat criterium then your climbing is neither a strength or a weakness. The poor sprinting however could be a limiting factor as it will hinder your ability to respond to attacks and sprint at the end. To take this example further lets look at a typical criterium race.
Your typical criterium race runs for around 45-60 minutes and usually starts quite quickly. The race to the first corner can be at break-neck speeds, especially on a tight, technical circuit and the pace over the first few laps remains high. A few attempted breakaways are made and inevitable caught and the accelerations accompanying these helps keep the intensity high. Poor positioning (e.g. at the back) can be enough at this point to result in riders being unhitched even though they may have been fit enough to survive if they had better positioning skills. The pace settles down through the middle part of the race and if you’re with the bunch at the 15 minute mark then there is a good chance you will still be there towards the end, at which point the main attacks will start to occur and the pace will pick up again. This exposes the weaker (less fit) riders that are left and some are dropped or barely hanging on. The last few laps will usually be ridden at close to warp speed and the casualty rate is quiet high with only the best riders able to hang on for the sprint finish.
This example exposes a few common limiters for criterium performance. First and foremost is bunch positioning skills. Riding at the back isn’t always a sign that a rider isn’t strong enough to ride up the front and win. Instead it can often be a sign that the person doesn’t have the confidence or skills to move forward and maintain a better position. As a result these riders are forced to deal with the ‘concertina effect’ at the back and spend more time working anaerobically. In turn this leads to an early exit from the race. Positioning skills are also important towards the end of the race, however raw power and lactate tolerance tend to play a bigger role. Riders who can’t sustain the higher power for as long will go lactic and get blown out the back while other riders will just be hanging in there. Coming into the final two to three laps the lead out trains will start to form up and the pace will be even higher. From here it’s a game of nerves, positioning and sprint power (and skills). Riders with good threshold and Vo2 power will get through to the end but to win you need the sprint power – if you don’t have it then this is your main limiter for this race.
Using this example as a template for your next target race you should now be able to start examining the race and determine what your main limiters are. If one or more of these limiters will result in your getting dropped before the finish of the race (or at least before the last 20 minutes) then those are the main things you should work on in the lead up. For example, don’t work on your finishing sprint if your main issue is not being able to sustain the higher pace of the opening laps in a crit or if you can’t get over that first climb of the day.
As a coach, one of the most important questions I ask riders is, “what are your primary target races for the next 3, 6 and 12 months ?'” All subsequent training then looks to ensure the rider is in the best condition for the specific demands of these races. It’s important to remember that limiters are not just physical abilities. You need to focus on your skills as well. How is your cornering? Are you comfortable riding in the wet? Do you spend to much time out in the wind? Can you improve your bunch positioning skills? These all need to be factored in to your preparations to give yourself the best possible chance at a top result.
Finally, stop for a second and think about the types of races you do. What do you feel your own strengths and weaknesses are for these events and what do you think your event specific limiters are? It’s always as obvious as it seems. Think back to previous races and try and remember where you struggled or got dropped. What were the circumstances leading up to that point. For many people the answer to this question is hill climbing but the important thing to recognise is that doing more hill climbing isn’t necessarily the only way to improve at this. Some riders can climb quite well when fresh but they are often fatigued at the bottom of the climb because they had to work too hard in the section leading up to the climb. This rider doesn’t need more hills work, they need to improve their sustainable racing speed so that they are fresher when they hit the climbs!
So, the next time you have a target race in mind, take a moment to think about what the key components are for that race, not only will this help you understand the purpose of the training you will do but it will also put you in a good position to understand the tactics that will likely be used in the race.