Staying fit and race-ready as a cyclist during isolation

Staying fit and race ready as a cyclist during lockdown throws up all sorts of challenges. From the physical limitations imposed on riding and training designed to slow the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) to the mental stress related with adjusting to a new normal. It can be easy to lose motivation if your current riding goals are cancelled or postponed to later in the year. Luckily Simon Holt of Grinta Coaching has shared some easy steps we can all take to minimise a slump in our fitness and keep motivated during lockdown. Read on to hear how you can come out of lockdown ready to smash your targets and ultimately make the most of a very difficult time.

Simon Holt Grinta Coaching

Can you introduce yourself a little, who you are, what you do and why you’re passionate about it?

My name is Simon Holt and I have been Head Coach at Grinta Coaching and Sports Director at Canyon dhb p/b Soreen since 2016. I started racing when I was 14 after I was inspired by a trip to Italy in 2000 where my older brother was racing for a Tuscan team. My first UCI contract came at the age of 18 straight out of the Juniors for Rapha Condor Recycling under the direction of John Herety. Following on from that I moved to Italy and raced for a number of years in the colours of Team Colpack. Bike racing has always been in my blood and so when I got diagnosed with an underactive thyroid I began working as a Sports Director for Pedal Heaven (the team’s former name). Alongside this I coach a number of riders of all abilities from their first sportive event right through to UCI elites. 

How did you get started?

While I was managing a tour group across the Alps in 2014 – someone approached me and asked if I would be willing to coach them for an upcoming sportive. I was really excited to translate what I had learned from years of professional training and racing. I worked closely with that first client to identify what their personal goals were and what drove them to succeed. Forming these relationships with all of my clients has helped me pull the best out of people. From there, my client base grew mainly through word of mouth which is something I take great pride in. Before I knew it I had a good portfolio of clients of all abilities and Grinta Coaching was born. 

Who inspired you as a rider?

As a youth I followed the career of Paolo Bettini, purely because I loved his aggressive racing style. I tried to emanate some of his techniques in my own riding. One of the things I love to see when I am watching a bike race or begin training a new athlete is observing how they ride their bike, approach their training and their racing style. It’s such an individual thing! Understanding how that differs between athletes and the ability to have some influence over it is key to being a good coach.

How did you train for the role?

Throughout my 10-year career as a professional rider I was extremely lucky to work with a number of top coaches, most notably Hunter Allen. He has had a huge influence on how I approach my work. He was an early pioneer of the benefits of training to power (he literally wrote the book on it!) I also spent my downtime wisely by learning about the training I was doing to ensure I fully understood what I was trying to achieve from the sessions. I still carry this forward today by actively and frequently participating in cycling-specific webinars and reading material on how to optimize training for different types of cyclists with different goals. Having ‘been there’ as a racer it gives me greater understanding of what my athletes are reporting and I’m able to reinvest this experience back into their training plans. I am also joined at Grinta Coaching by Jake Hollins who holds a Sports Science degree from the University of Bath – so we both converge upon clients to give them the best support possible. 

What is the furthest you’ve ridden on a turbo?

I remember once waking up in Bergamo to snow, I had an endurance ride planned so I just jumped on the turbo and knocked out 5 hours while watching a past edition of Milan San Remo! Never again! The turbo is a great training tool but mentally I, and many others, struggle with turbo sessions over 1-1.5 hours so tend to keep them short and sweet, perhaps double days if you need to keep some volume in there.

With bike racing cancelled for the foreseeable future we imagine the role of coach at times like this becomes more than just that of maintaining a riders physical well-being but also their mental health. Are you tasked with managing the morale of your athletes whose seasons aren’t playing out as we all imagined?

It’s a really difficult time for everyone. A lot of my clients had target events during this period so it’s only natural they find themselves a little demotivated now their goals have suddenly been removed. Outside of that people are facing a period of uncertainty, be it their livelihoods, ability to see family or fear of illness for themselves or others. It’s really important I am there to offer support and to understand the individual physical limits of my clients at this time of great mental stress. I see my main role right now as keeping all of my clients motivated, not to mention both physically and mentally fit at this unprecedented time. As you say, that extends far beyond achieving power numbers.

One solution I have found useful for most of my clients is to allow them to reset, lose a bit of fitness initially, and just go back to basics. Ride the bike for fun, enjoy being outside (when it is appropriate to be there and they can be physically distanced from others), enjoy the rituals we all have with our bikes (cleaning and tweaking the optimal setup), play around with Zwift or other virtual training platforms, and just taking some time to psychologically adapt to what is happening around us. 

Before long, they are ready to start focusing again on a structured training plan. The time for this differs for each athlete and I’ve been reaching out to all of my clients to update and adapt their original training goals so that it’s not just specific events or races people have in mind. We know now that these can be cancelled short notice and we’re trying to be more flexible so that some goals are more personal and solid, regardless of what is happening globally. Finally, I have tried to keep my clients informed on the government guidelines and best practices to reduce the risk of coronavirus, both in general and specifically when it comes to cycling. Grinta Coaching is lucky enough to have an Infectious Diseases doctor within our coaching pool. That has proved to be an invaluable resource as she has been able to give advice and answer queries for #GrintaCoached athletes if and when they have had any specific concerns about the virus

What sort of approach do you take to training at times like these, is it a case of turning back the clock to more off season methods and workouts?

Generally, it is about readjusting the goalposts. I am sure everyone can recall a time of injury or illness which has got in their way. The key to combating this is to have a really good plan in place. At Grinta Coaching we feel that the downtime forced upon us by lockdown is actually a really good time to take a step back and reflect upon weaknesses thereby allowing for development in these weaker areas whilst also further strengthening the ‘engine’. You can train harder now without having to balance freshness for racing objectives. We are also experimenting with different training techniques with our athletes to keep motivation and provide additional stimuli. For example, focused strength & conditioning workouts that specifically improve bike performance.

How quickly can you expect your athletes to switch back on and return to racing fitness when the current lockdown and racing limitations are lifted?

The key to this is that everyone is in the same boat. We hope we will be racing by July 2020 so this is the current target. There are clearly lots of uncertainties around this and for international racing a large amount will also depend on when international borders can reopen. It is important to be positive about the situation we find ourselves in whilst also remaining cognisant of the current crisis. Some races, which would have happened early season may be deferred to September or October – so again – still lots to be positive about!!

Most racers carry a good base level of fitness anyway, it’s arguable that the extended downtime may bring them back stronger and so in reality they are only weeks away from being race ready anyway.

For your sportive rider it’s a great opportunity to develop fitness because all of a sudden they have extra available time working from home. For example, their commute time can be given to another turbo set.

We guess some riders are better at adapting to situations like these than others, for instance those who love the suffering associated with riding indoors. Do you think we can see riders in better form later in the season therefore making for more exciting racing?

It will be very interesting when racing resumes. I think you will see a lot of International racing (Le Tour for example) split very easily. As a nation I think us Brits know how to make the most of turbo sessions however many other nations are not accustomed to that way of training. There will be some very fit race ready riders, and some not so sharp!

As a DS at Canyon DHB Soreen, I have always pushed an extensive race programme as this really lifts a rider. Our guys typically get 20-30 UCI International race days, which gives them great depth but they still need to train around it. Once a rider starts to hit 60-80 race days there is very little training they need to do as the race calendar simply lifts them through the season. Italian, Spanish, Belgian and Dutch riders typically get more race days. So one could argue they are less familiar with the depth of training required to maintain ‘race fitness’ in a period like we are in now. For this reason, I believe we will find it much easier to make the transition back to racing, and once we have a start date I’d like to say my athletes will be more than ready. I am planning their training carefully so that they can deal with a potential extended race season without needing a rest period, which you would normally have to build into a typical season.

What are your thoughts regarding moving more races to platforms like Zwift in order to allow some form of racing to continue? Is it something you would recommend to your clients and the team?

Zwift is a great platform and fantastic training aid. We are still in the early stages of e-racing but in the current situation it is invaluable as it motivates riders and gives sponsors visibility. My main concern is how to regulate it. For example, many turbo trainers and power meters have different power readings so there needs to be a way of normalising the variation associated with that. 

Within the team (Canyon DHB Soreen) virtual races are providing great banter and lifting competitive spirits so I think with the right regulatory structure it definitely has its place within the sport and in modern racing.

What’s your favourite soreen flavour for an isolation ride?

The winner clearly is the banana flavour.

What does your post isolation dream ride look like?

Here in SW London we have a regular chain gang who meet up on Tuesday evenings. It’s a great social ride normally ending in the pub (for rehydration purposes of course) so that has to be high on the list. Further afield, I will visit my brother in Girona for a few days of riding. I can’t wait to ride socially again, it’s amazing how this time is making us appreciate the little things.

What would be the one workout you recommend we do in order to maintain form yet stay fresh and ready for a return to racing?

Find a local climb for intervals. Ideally with a recovery loop. This will keep the engine revving hard and working an important energy system. One session won’t cut the mustard though, it is about the overall plan and consistency of training that makes you fitter so get in touch if you are lost and need some direction during this uncertain time. If you’re just curious or are ready to sign up – I’m more than happy to have an informal chat with anyone. Head over to Grinta Coaching to get in contact.

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