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Mistakes of Self Coached Athletes

by Racer X Virtual Trainer


Earlier this year, Joe Friel Tweeted about the top ten mistakes self coached athletes make. For those of you who do not know, Joe is considered by many endurance athletes and coaches as one of the best coaches in the world. He is the author of ten books on training and diet for endurance athletes including the popular and best-selling Training Bible book series. He holds a masters degree in exercise science, is a USA Triathlon and USA Cycling certified Elite-level coach, and is a founder and past Chairman of the USA Triathlon National Coaching Commission. His training is based on over 25 years of experience and when he talks, I pull up a chair and listen.

So when he Tweeted about the top ten mistakes self coached endurance athletes make, I followed intently as most of the training principles for endurance athletes follow the same lines as those for motocross. Plus, most of the top trainers in motocross come from a cycling background so often times what pro MX riders are doing to train gets lost in translation to the average Joe. Check it out and see how many mistakes you are making. After each mistake, Coach Seiji and I offer comments on how this translates to motocross. If you follow the articles on Virtual Trainer, this should all sound very familiar!

#10 mistake: Too much emphasis on miles/kilometers.

Correction: The key to race success is appropriate intensity.

Comments: Study after study shows that the key to high performance for experienced athletes is intensity – not volume. It’s not how many miles you did; it’s what you did with the miles. Measuring only how many miles or hours you train does little to gauge progress toward race success. Anyone can go slow for a long time. This is not to say that that volume is unimportant. One hour of intense training and nothing else for an entire week won’t get it done. You need to find a balance. That’s the beauty of bike power meters and run pacing devices (gps, accelerometers): They allow you to express what you’ve done as workload and intensity (example: Kilojoules and watts).

Virtual Trainer - For motocross, I know way too many trainers who are on the miles kick. Anything over two hours on a cycling ride (especially for an amateur) is too much. Remember, in MX we use running, cycling, and rowing as a tool to train for motocross. For endurance sports, it IS their sport.

Coach Seiji - Motocross has a very high skill component that has to be trained while relatively fresh for best results…too much volume/too little recovery leaves little time/energy for productive skills work/retention.

#9 mistake: Too much emphasis on heart rate.

Correction: Your engine is muscle.

Comments: Your heart reacts to what your muscles are doing. Watching heart rate is an indirect measure of what your body is accomplishing. It’s a bit like using the gas gauge on your car to determine how fast you are driving. If the muscles need more oxygen then the heart responds by beating faster to provide it. The heart is subservient to muscle. The heart never turns the pedals, drives the legs up a hill or pulls your body through rough open water. Only the muscles do that. The experienced athlete will make greater advances by focusing workouts on the muscles rather than the heart.

Virtual Trainer - For motocross, think flexibility, strength, and muscular endurance training.

Coach Seiji - Muscular endurance is the key ability that determines output while actually riding, not cardiovascular endurance. Cardiovascular endurance aids muscular endurance in a general, indirect way but muscular endurance is very specific to activity.

#8 mistake: Set goals much too high to motivate greatness.

Correction: An overly high goal does the opposite. Goals must be just out of reach.

Comments: Setting unbelievable goals works only in Hollywood. Winning a World Championship when you can barely finish a race isn’t a goal – it’s a dream. It becomes a goal when you devise a plan to accomplish it. If you can lay out a detailed and realistic plan that leads to such a goal then it becomes believable and achievable. But if all you do is set unbelievable goals then you are dreaming. And everyone knows it including you.

Virtual Trainer - For motocross, this translates perfectly. Don't set a goal of winning Lorettas if you can barely qualify at the regionals. Set a realistic goal of winning your region then getting a top 5 at Lorettas. Don't forget, weekend warriors need goals too. Maybe yours should be to lose that spare tire you've carrying around for the last few years.

Coach Seiji - You also need process related goals between these large, results oriented goals. If you accomplish these intermediate process oriented (how you do something, not what you do) goals, results oriented goals should come automatically. Also, make sure these are YOUR goals, not someone else’s. Nothing makes motocross less fun in a faster way, than trying to fulfill expectations that are not realistic and not yours. I see this all the time in the amateur ranks.

#7 mistake: Haphazard training.

Correction: Have a purpose for every workout.

Comments: In my Training Bible books I explain 6 abilities that workouts can be focused on: aerobic endurance, muscular force, speed skills, muscular endurance, anaerobic endurance and explosive power. Two others to add are testing and recovery. If one or more of these 8 aren’t the purpose of the workout then you aren’t training—you’re playing. It’s ok to occasionally do a non-purposeful workout. But if you have high goals such play must be rare. The lower your goals, the more you can do whatever you feel like doing at the time.

Virtual Trainer - For motocross, this mistake is an exact translation. Never train without a plan even if your goals are not so lofty.

Coach Seiji – This is the classic unloading your bike and just riding motos…every time you start your bike and roll out on the track, you should have a plan for the effort that is directed towards a process related goal that leads to a results oriented season goal. Of course, there are definitely times where the goal of the effort is to have fun…

#6 mistake: Inconsistent training.

Correction: High goals? Don’t miss workouts. Ever.

Comments: Consistency is the single most important aspect of training. It’s more important than long or intense workouts. You’ll improve faster by working out frequently and regularly rather than by doing hard workouts with lots of days off in between. This comes down to moderation and infrequent attempts to find your limits. Pushing yourself to the edge frequently leads to soreness, illness, injury, burnout, and overtraining. These will cause you to miss workouts and lose fitness. You gain fitness at a much slower rate than you lose it. But, let’s face it, you will miss a workout on occasion due to things you have little or no control over—weather, work, family activities and other responsibilities. When these happen you need to do some workout rescheduling. Try not to miss any of the key workouts on your schedule.

Virtual Trainer - For me, this is one of the biggest mistakes I see top athletes make. You have to be consistent in your training and racing to win championships. And for the weekend warrior who just likes to ride, inconsistency in the gym is your #1 biggest enemy.

Coach Seiji - Illness and injury kills consistency..think about that. If you actively do things to avoid both, and you have healthy lifestyle habits, consistency becomes automatic. You cannot avoid taking some risks but you can manage risks by taking risks that are smarter during training. Over the course of a season and career, you are going to come out ahead of you make a 1% improvement week in, week out vs. making a 10% improvement one day only to have to take the next month down because of overtraining, illness or injury.

#5 mistake: Too little rest, not enough race intensity before race.

Correction: Rehearse the race every 72 hours for 1-3 weeks prior. Should be rehearse the race intensity/duration every week NOT every 72 hours. You can rehearse intensity every 72 hours but the volume is super low.

Comments: The purpose of pre-race tapering is to shed fatigue—not to improve fitness. Being rested provides a greater payoff than becoming more fit in the final days. But race prep goes beyond becoming fresher. It also involves preparing for the unique demands of the race. In the last 7 to 21 days before race day gradually reduce workout duration. That’s the taper part. And every 72 hours or so do a challenging workout that simulates a key portion of the race. The workouts in between these are for recovery.

Virtual Trainer - For motocross, the key thing to get out of this is the taper. If you race on the weekend, your longest training sessions should be early in the week. As the weekend approaches, the volume (aka length of workout) decreases and the intensity increases.

Coach Seiji - MX tapers are much shorter because the relative duration of the races are shorter than most endurance sport races. Intensity also refers to what happens at the track as well as in training off the bike…remember that there is a high skill component here and the skills must be rehearsed at race speed/intensity. Moderating speed/skill (riding slower than the best of your skillset/technical ability) doesn’t work in my opinion. I know some trainers try to moderate moto riding intensity…this to me, in simple terms, is practicing to ride slower. As the race approaches, your intensity on the track goes up because your volume goes down..sprint laps, etc. Intensity increases only because the riding session becomes shorter….mental intensity as well as physical..average “pace” over 30 min is going to be lower than over 1 min…

#4 mistake: Workouts too intense.

Correction: Increasingly train at goal intensity in last 12 weeks before the race.

Comments: I once spoke to at a triathlon club meeting. Afterwards one of the members told me he and a few others were training for an Ironman. He went on to explain that they were doing anaerobic endurance training on the bike. It was very hard, he said. Would that help? My answer was “no.” It is counterproductive. At no time in an Ironman do you go anaerobic. If you do, the party’s over. Just because a workout is hard doesn’t mean it’s appropriate. Train at intensities that are similar to what’s expected in the race.

Virtual Trainer - For motocross, this isn't necessarily true since we are often times in the anaerobic zone. But I think the biggest mistake of motocross athletes is going hard all the time. Every workout should NOT be an anaerobic workout.

Coach Seiji - Your easy days need to actually be easy so your hard days can actually be hard.

#3 mistake: Not enough Base—start Build period too early.

Correction: Develop endurance, force and skills before race intensity.

Comments: Athletes typically can’t wait to get to the truly hard training with “intervals ‘til you puke,” hard group rides and all of the other high intensity workouts we love. But these are best saved until the Build period (if done at all) starting about 11-12 weeks before the first A-priority race. Until then it’s best to develop the three Ss: skills, strength and stamina. And they are best worked on in that order. If you have poor sport movement skills there is no reason to be doing hills or long workouts. They will only make your skills worse. Once skills are coming along well it’s time to build strength (traditional weights, functional exercises, force reps, and/or other). And finally fully develop your aerobic endurance after the first two Ss are well-established. All of this will probably take in the neighborhood of eight to 16 weeks depending on your physical starting points for each of the above. Only then should the race-specific training begin.

Virtual Trainer - For motocross, again this goes along with going hard all the time. Think of the base period as a pyramid and the peak of the pyramid your max output. The bigger the base (of the pyramid) the taller the pyramid can be.

Coach Seiji - Go from general to specific as you get closer to the competitive season. Understand that your fitness is either going up or going down…it doesn’t just stay the same…the smart athlete gets this and plans training so that the rise happens when desired as well as the fall, and most importantly, the “peak” is timed and lasts as long as possible.

#2 mistake: Too many hard days. Not enough easy days.

Correction: To go hard you must rest before.

Comments: I’ve found that athletes don’t like to rest. I can give them the hardest possible workout and they will excitedly salivate in anticipation. But schedule an easy day or, heaven forbid, a day off and I’ll have to justify it. All too many make their easy days moderately hard which means they come into the next scheduled hard workout just the slightest bit tired and so it also becomes moderately hard. All training migrates to the middle of the sliding intensity scale. This is the road to poor performance. The closer you get to the race the easier the easy days must be so that the hard days can be truly hard.

Virtual Trainer - For motocross, I can't remember how many times I've said this to athletes. Coach Seiji always uses the equation, Training + Recovery = peak performance. Meaning, training and recovery are EQUALLY important.

Coach Seiji – I repeat: recovery is EXACTLY half of training. Exactly half, and so you must also plan for recovery: daily, weekly, monthly and over the course of the season just like the actual training components. Another thing: better to arrive at the race 10% undertrained than 1% overtrained.

#1 mistake: Poor ability to pace properly.

Correction: Learn to negative split workouts, intervals and races.

Comments: This is the most difficult skill there is to teach endurance athletes regardless of the sport because it’s based primarily on emotion. We’re excited at the start of the race and so go out much too fast for far too long. Even most athletes who have intentionally planned their race pacing tend to start at much too high an intensity. (This applies only to steady-state endurance events such as time trials, triathlons, running races, centuries, etc.) There seems to be a belief that they can “bank” time by going faster and more intensely than the average goal pace, speed or power early on. This actually has just the opposite effect. Lactate production increases (if the intensity is near or above the anaerobic threshold) which gives off hydrogen ions putting the working muscles into an acidic environment. Muscles don’t operate well like that and so you are eventually forced to slow down to shed the acidity. This loss of time due to the slow down has been shown to be greater than the time gained early on. Even if you start at faster than goal pace, speed or power yet well below the anaerobic threshold there is still a price to be paid with a rapid decrease in glycogen stores and perhaps other causes of early fatigue due to poor muscle recruitment. The fastest times of those I’ve coached have almost all been accomplished by negatively splitting the intensity of the event with the second half only slightly more intense than the first half. (This also true of most running world records.) This is a hard skill to learn. The starting place is learning to negative split workouts, especially the race-like sessions. I’ve written quite a bit on this topic here. To find more go to my blog home page and on the right side of the page enter a search for “pacing.”

Virtual Trainer - For motocross, this doesn't apply in my opinion. You should be in good enough shape to go as hard as you can for the entire moto. If you can't, you might want to check out 1-9 above.

Coach Seiji - True dat. You need to be riding at race speed and intensity during practice…riding slower gets you better at just that..riding slower, because of the high skill component.This does apply though, to field tests used for determining training heart rate zones/power zones.

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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  1. Gravatar
    kevin October 14, 2011 at 6:32 am

    I like your analogy - "Think of the base period as a pyramid and the peak of the pyramid your max output. The bigger the base (of the pyramid) the taller the pyramid can be."

  2. Gravatar
    Coach Seiji October 14, 2011 at 8:18 am

    I have had the honor/pleasure/lucky streak of working with some of the world's best exercise physiologists/coaches/trainers: I was at the Human Performance Lab at the University of Texas at Austin under Dr. Edward Coyle (leader in carbohydrate metabolism); Chris Carmichael (Lance Armstrong's coach) at CTS and finally, Joe Friel at Ultrafit/TrainingPeaks. I learned the most from Joe, that information was the most practical, and has produced the biggest positive changes in everyone I have trained. I cannot stress how smart this guy is and owe a lot of my success both as an athlete and a trainer to Joe Friel. I suggest that if you see something he writes, that you devour it with all you have.

  3. Gravatar
    Coach Seiji October 14, 2011 at 8:19 am

    Also....the wider the base, not only will the peak be taller but you can hold it for a longer time and little chinks in the pyramid will not make it collapse, i.e. missing a day here or there, getting off schedule, etc. have less of a negative effect with a wide base.

  4. Gravatar
    Matt October 14, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Great article, I can say that I fall into 9 of the 10 mistakes at one time or another.
    I am one for training by the heart monitor, alway's keeping one eye on it.

    Not no more though, thx VT

  5. Gravatar
    Vince / ramair350 March 21, 2013 at 8:11 am

    Excellent suggestions. I used to race MX and no longer can, but I am now focusing on masters running (yeah yeah boring as hell compared to MX, I know, but less death, injury, and expense involved). Anyway, excellent article - this directly applies to my daily routine and goal planning for running, and was nice to see how it applies to moto. Great concepts - I'm printing this one out to stick on the office wall! I really need to pay attention to the pacing thing - last year I barely qualified for an elite starting place in a 10K race with 30,000 people. My instincts from my moto days kicked in and I had an awesome holeshot for the first 1/2 mile of the race. And then I got passed by about 100 people for the remaining 5.7 miles. Although I was in misery, I couldn't help but laugh thinking that I had pulled an Alessi, and if I could just "run a wide road" I might hang in for a good position...

  6. Gravatar
    Brian March 21, 2013 at 11:29 am

    I agree with most of the concepts but the title implies that coaches and trainers don't make mistakes, or that the self trained are incapable of proper training. There are plenty of coaches and trainers teaching crap. Asking a coach if you need a coach is like asking a CPA if you should do your own taxes. A lot of people need motivation, but if you don't the information taught by coaches and trainers is readily available. They learned it somewhere right?

  7. Gravatar
    Douwe March 21, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    I don't think the article implies that coaches and trainers don't make mistakes, and it certainly doesn't imply that people are incapable of properly self training. In fact it's the exact opposite. It's simply telling you that you are more than capable of it and gives some good guidelines on how to do so. Good article.

  8. Gravatar
    Tom April 10, 2013 at 3:12 am

    #9 is complete BS. Heart Rate is the most important thing to train by.

  9. Gravatar
    Coach Seiji April 10, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    Heart rate as a training tool has always been used as an estimate of cardiovascular work intensity, AN ESTIMATE, it is NOT actual work intensity. It is only measuring your cardiovascular system's response to the actual work intensity or workload and it also responds to things not related to work load like temperature, illness, etc. This is why serious cyclists have trained via the actual direct measurement of work rate (watts) using power meters for some time now. You can be doing the exact same work load (say riding your bicycle on a windless day, on the same road with the same bicycle and tire pressure, perfect world kind of situation) and your heart rate going the exact same speed can differ depending on heat (usually makes it higher), emotional stress (same), fatigue, etc. You ARE doing the same work load at the same work rate but your heart rate says otherwise. Other issues are that heart rate zones change with fitness and heart rate zones differ by activity (both "solved" by testing as fitness changes and testing for each activity. Watts is watts and Joules is joules and will not be affected by these do the work, that is the number, you do it or you don't do it. The actual "angle" of this article, I think, is saying that heart rate, which estimates cardiovascular output, is over emphasized in training activities that are not just comprised of cardiovascular motocross. Yes, the heart rate has some correlation to how "hard" your entire body is working but on a motorcycle there are skill components, etc. example would be if it's hard dirt and dry, the lack of traction makes it more difficult to raise the heart rate if that is what you are using, simply because the acceleration and braking forces you have to overcome are much less than when the dirt is tacky..or it could be hot, etc. To me, it's like using heart rate to measure the intensity of say a set of squats...that's not relevant to the strength factors being stressed. Should you use heart rate to monitor cardiovascular activity? Sure, it is a good tool for that and can actually be used to double check your physical state (heart rate is too high or low for activity's level compared to what you know or feel should be normal, etc). Power is better but currently is expensive and only available in cycling. Is it the end all, be all for training. I don't think so. Intensity is what you are trying to monitor and heart rate can help but for strength, actual moto, etc. I don't think it is that relevant or accurate.

  10. Gravatar
    Tom April 11, 2013 at 4:12 am

    This still doesn't make sense. You have to find your max HR and resting HR and then you can determine your HR zones and know what intensity you are training at. I know there are sometimes where HR irrelevant, like for weight lifting, but for motos, running, biking, swimming or rowing HR is the best and most efficient way to train and get better. You are talking about all the factors that make HR go up as a bad thing and acting like they can be ignored. The truth is they are there and are one of the main reasons HR is so good to train by. Your heart can only work so hard for so long. If your HR is going up because of heat, track conditions, illness or anything else then you have to back down to keep your HR at the proper intensity you are supposed to be at for that wworkout. Pushing through a high HR to try to keep certain power or lap times is only going to cause overtraining and not as efficient improvement.

  11. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer April 15, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Tom - Determining HR training zones from max and resting heart rates is not very accurate at all. Lactate Threshold testing is a much better approximation. I only mention this because of your mention this in your comment.

    Just to be clear, Seiji is NOT suggesting heart rate training be eliminated. In moto there is no other way to determine intensity (and work done) since the amount of work done by the rider on the motorcycle cannot be determined (yet). To quote Seiji "Should you use heart rate to monitor cardiovascular activity? SURE, it is a good tool for that and can actually be used to double check your physical state (heart rate is too high or low for activity's level compared to what you know or feel should be normal, etc). Power is better but currently is expensive and only available in cycling. Is it the end all, be all for training. I don't think so. Intensity is what you are trying to monitor and heart rate can help but for strength, actual moto, etc. I don't think it is that relevant or accurate."

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