Training talk with world-class cyclist Amber Neben and coach Tim Cusick | EP#205
Amber Neben is one of the most accomplished cyclists in the history of women's cycling, with two individual World Championship titles, two Olympic games, and recently finishing 4th at the World Championship Time Trial event at the age of 44. Amber and her coach Tim Cusick join us today to discuss the training that has led to so much success and importantly, great longevity and continued success in the sport of cycling.
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In this Episode you'll learn about:
- How Amber's training year leading up to the 4th place finish at the Worlds was structured.
- Her two phases of training: foundation training and performance training.
- The big picture: structuring training around 4-year cycles rather than 1-year plans.
- The importance of training progression and focusing on time in zone.
- How Amber's training and aspects around training have changed over the years as she has learnt more and developed as an athlete.
- How is training adjusted for age, at the age of 44?
- The difference in training between (elite) female and male cyclists.
- Takeaway messages from Amber's training and cycling journey applicable for amateurs and age-group athletes.
About Amber Neben
- I started as a soccer player, then moved into distance running and eventually got into cycling which has been my career for the last 20 years.
- I’ve raced all over the world, competing in 27 different countries and in 15 different World Championships.
I’ve won 3 of them, 2 individually and 1 in the team time trial.
- I’ve raced tons of stage races and individual races, all different kinds of races across my career.
- I have a BS in Biology from the University of Nebraska, an MS in Physiology and Biophysics from the University of California Irvine.
- I also coach and I have a Precision Nutrition certification as well.
- After a really bad crash in 2013 which reset my career, I wrote a book ‘When Schmack Happens’.
- I started in mountain biking but quickly moved to road cycling and this has been my focus for most of my career – I am specifically a time trial specialist.
In the beginning and middle part I was also a good climber which helped build my time trialling.
Amber & Tim's coaching relationship
- We started working together at the end of 2014.
- We were both working a cycling camp when we met.
- At the time, I had been coaching myself in recovery from the crash in 2013.
I had a conversation with Tim and he agreed to be a consultant for me.
- We built trust over time and learned how to best communicate with each other, and eventually I handed everything over to him.
- Earlier in time there was a lot of strict science behind the plan, but as I’ve aged a little it’s switched over more to strategy.
The communication we have has allowed him to be a real artist with my coaching.
2019 World Championships in Yorkshire
- I am 44 years old and I was 4th place in the recent World Championships in Yorkshire. It’s quite unique to be this high in the rankings at this age.
The winner was half my age!
- Yorkshire was my main goal, but I did have to qualify first to compete, which was done through the National Championships.
- 4th place is always the hard place to be because you’re one spot off the podium.
But for me, I had a mechanical in the last 3km’s of the race, and I was struggling with severe vertigo, so I was really happy to finish where I did.
Training leading up to Yorkshire
- Yorkshire was just one step in the plan so you have to go back and look at the bigger picture, and we wanted to qualify for the Olympics.
- It’s important not to think it 1-year cycles, we’re actually usually thinking in 2-3 year cycles.
The Olympics being every 4 years drives that for us, but it’s still important for any cyclist training over time to think on the bigger picture.
This can often lead to producing better results, and you can think about your season as a step to achieving something bigger.
- With Amber, we had the main goals and looked at what it took to qualify for the Olympics.
We then look at the criteria and see what we need to achieve, which is a game changer.
- Olympic selection happens in June 2020, before Nationals, so we had to meet all the criteria this year.
We looked at three core events: Pan Am, Nationals and Worlds and this became the core of our planning.
- We then needed to do some road racing and other races to ensure we were bringing a well-rounded resume into the Olympic process.
- We chose Redlands because it’s local to Amber, and to do well at the Tour of California, and that was the outline to our season schedule.
- My typical approach is breaking things down into a two-phase, sort of periodised plan.
Phase 1 is all about training foundation – you’re training to training. This is more a base phase.
- Amber does a fair amount of training and handles a pretty high training load.
But when you’re looking at multiple years, you don’t want to raise that training load across all four years and make it hard to peak for the Olympics.
Three years ago was probably her lowest CTL of her career, and we’ve then been building each year back a little higher.
This introduces more training load, builds more training resilience and builds more fitness and capability, which will hopefully translate into performance.
- Most of the year leading up to Nationals was foundation training, we didn’t do much of my phase 2 training which I call driving a peak.
We knew we didn’t want to peak too early, and we needed to either extend it to World’s or re-peak by Worlds.
- We focused on lifting thresholds from below, pushing the lactate tolerance and that type of approach.
Only a couple of weeks before National’s did we flip the performance switch on and do some high intensity training load.
- Often you see athletes whose foundation training is poor, and they attempt to do 5 minute interval sessions to raise VO2 max.
They might only be able to do 20 minutes - 4x5 or 5x5.
If their foundation training is really strong, they can maybe add a sixth or seventh interval.
If they can do that well and absorb that stress and strain, they respond better in peak.
- Amber was knocking out good depth of work, a lot of time in zone in the performance phase, so I knew she was on form.
- She went to Gatineau, she won it, UCI 1.1 - she crushed it!
She was then on the same form at Nationals, and we shut down after that to try and rest before World's.
- We then did an abbreviated foundation and a slightly longer performance phase leading into World's.
World's was a longer and tougher course so we knew it was going to take more fatigue resistance and resilliency.
- We shifted training more towards a strength and power type of focus.
Amber did a fair amount of climbing in the performance phase in the preparation for World's.
- Amber doesn't need an extensive taper, she needs a bit of workload to perform well, so we usually do our last hard session about two weeks out.
- We felt the process was solid and she was able to peak for a second time.
Foundation phase vs performance phase
- Amber trains a high volume, so in the foundation phase we do a lot of 'base training'.
We do a lot of high volume high duration rides, she trains 20-25 hours a week.
- I am a zone three trainer, during the foundation phase I use a more pyramid approach so we do a lot of tempo and sweet spot work.
We're pushing the threshold up from below.
- The main thing we're doing in the foundation phase is progressing.
- With Amber, it's crucial to maintain progression. As soon as we stop progressing load in the foundation phase she'll stagnate quickly and we'll fall backwards in fitness.
- 90% of the work is what we'd classically refer to as 'aerobic'.
- Once we move to performance, volume comes down to a degree and intensity goes up.
We flip to a more polarised format.
- We still get some endurance rides in but pull down the endurance intensity.
We do 2-3 hard workouts a week (a little higher than the classic 80/20 modle) - but Amber takes a higher stress and strain level to produce a response and she recovers really well, while still having enough energy to make a response.
- In the 2-3 hard days we're typically doing 2 high intensity workouts, and 1 speed workout.
- In the performance phase, Amber and I communicate well about fatigue and we respond to this.
This is a big challenge of the ageing athlete, you can quickly move into the 'too far' zone so you need to be attentive to fatigue.
Managing fatigue in training
- There's no objective way to measure it, so I've had to learn over the 20 years of training how to read my body.
Often learning those lessons has come through making mistakes and pushing too hard through it.
- The biggest trick is learning how to figure out what are the days where you're tired but you need to push through it, versus the days where you go out and then need to pull the plug and go home.
It's more of a sense than anything objective.
- I often communicate to Tim how I'm making the power - am I straining to make it or am I on it.
- My sleeping and some of the rest and digest from the parasympathetic can give you a clue.
- Sometimes your brain gets tired, and you have that lack of motivation, but it's different from just being tired.
- It's about learning to communicate well with your coach and discuss this and explore your fatigue with them.
You learn this over time when working with a coach - it's a process.
How Amber's training has changed over time
- It's easier to start from 2013 and the crash, and think about the second phase of my career.
- There were a couple of key things that needed to change:
Physically I had some issues as my glutes weren't firing properly, and I was having gut issues which were impacting fuelling and recovery.
From a training perspective I was stagnant, and had been doing the same thing for a long time.
- I worked with the same coach for 15 years, and we often did the same workouts at the same time each year and I was continually trying to do them harder.
I won some huge races with this coach and learned how to take care of my body, but it was still 15 years of the same thing which created stagnation.
- Also between 2009-2010 I had a 14 month period where I was in 3 trauma centres resulting in surgeries from crashes and injuries.
It takes a toll on the body, and I didn't do well addressing the whole body which I paid for in training and probably contributed to the stagnation.
- Figuring out how to time peaks right has been a huge driven since 2013.
- I have also learnt that you don't need to set a World Record every time you're on the bike!
- Also increasing time in zone and doing more work - I've been training for so long so in order to create a stimulus that creates an adaptation it's more and more about the overload.
Learning how to progress time in zone with SST and VO2 stuff has been huge.
- With age your recovery becomes more important - the better you recover the more load you can handle so it feeds off itself.
So paying attention to my sleep, and doing small lifestyle changes to improve and maintain my sleep has been huge.
- I made big mistakes in 2017 and I wasn't acknowledging that I needed to be in bed early at the same time every night.
I was trying to do it all, and it had a big impact and I've since made some lifestyle changes to improve that.
- I had to make sure I had time at home to unwind and get away from the stimulus that would keep me awake.
- Also being on electronics was not helping, so I'm now disciplined enough to manage my work so that I can be off electronics for an hour before bed.
- I also use orange glasses at night, and have worked hard to get my body in a rhythm, which has really helped me increase the quality and quantity of sleep.
- When I started to work with her there was workout stagnation - this doesn't mean she was doing bad workouts, it's just that your body gets efficient at adapting to that stimuli.
- When Amber came to me, she would do a certain amount of base training, get to a certain chronic training load, and then be basically at that CTL from February through the race season.
This means she'd be very flat in her progression.
- I wanted to start by reshuffling her annual hours into a new format.
More progression through the foundation phase, causing a significantly higher number in the CTL.
Then spending down that high fitness through the race phase and into peaking, instead of allowing it to be a flat line.
- In 2017, we came out of Doha and we ran a high training load following her crash.
We both got a bit greedy because she was doing so well, we trained back to a high training load and she smashed it at National's.
In hindsight, we both could have seen the warning signs that that extended high CTL load was starting to have an impact on her overall habits.
- By the time she got to Bergen she was on the cusp of being over-trained, and she wasn't really sleeping well. We had probably over-focused on peaking, growth and progression.
My lesson from this was to focus on the next goal - Olympics in Tokyo - and significantly reduce CTL, start further down and build year on year to Tokyo.
- We now raise to a higher CTL at select points in the season and spend down when we need to as we don't want extended periods of flat CTL.
Applications for age-group athletes
- One of the mistakes people make is not focusing on time in zone.
- TSS is a score of what you've done, it's not an indicator of anything else.
The actual driver of TSS is the workouts, the efforts and energy you tend to expend.
- For time constrained athletes, during the foundation phase you need to adapt an expansion of time strategy.
- Say you start with 45 minutes of tempo Tuesday - most athletes then repeat this session a few times and then they realise they can go longer.
But for the time crunched athlete you don't really want to do more than one workout with the same time in zone.
The only reason you'd do two is if they really struggled the first time, as soon as they can do it okay you want to progress.
- This is the same with sweet spot workouts - keep progressing time in zone, not just intensity.
- If you only have an 1hr 15, once you can do 3x20, keep tweaking the modality of the rest - can you do 3x20 with 4 minutes rest for example.
You don't always need an increase in power, just accept the expansion of time.
Your power will go up due to the increase in fitness, but make the driver increasing time in zone.
- Raise power once you've reached your maximum time.
- This will keep you progressing TSS for similar workouts.
Adapting training and racing in your 40's
- For younger athletes, remember that the things you're doing now are going to pay dividends for you later.
I wouldn't be able to do what I can do now if I hadn't paid attention to the details of my recovery and my nutrition 10-20 years ago.
- I now pay a lot more attention to bodywork and understanding how connected our bodies are and how important that is to training.
I've worked with Lawrence van Lingen in Laguna Beach. He's worked to untangle years and years of issues and inconsistencies I've had with my bodies.
Cycling is a sport where you can continue to supercompensate and layer problem over problem.
- Being able to unlayer problems and learning how to prevent them moving forwards has been great.
I've got better at keeping my body in an optimal state to absorb the training, adapt and respond.
- I started on the bike in the years when fat was bad, so all you did was eat more carbohydrate. When you're young it's fine, but years and years of doing that came at a cost for me.
I've had to learn how to eat better on the bike, and fuelling with more real type foods has been important to sustaining my general health.
I've also got better at eating well off the bike which has helped too.
- Working with Tim and loading and laying the work has been different and has been better.
As I've done that right, you build a foundation to do it better the next year - the more you train the more you can train.
- The final piece of the puzzle is the mental side, and you learn as you get older that everything isn't 'life or death' - you have a better perspective of the big picture.
You learn to forget things quicker, and continue to learn from the things that don't go right.
Tuning your body and learning to listen to your body comes from years of experience.
- Part of what makes Amber an amazing mature athlete is that she is disciplined and has a process.
- Driving to compete in the Olympics at 45 is a rare thing, we don't have a road map or others to compare this too.
- We've been cognitive and we've been a team in creating the discipline, and it's four legs of a stool: nutrition, sleep, bodywork and training.
- Amber's discipline in each of these four things allows her to perform at an elite level at her age.
- I work with younger athletes to shape their discipline and habit for this reason.
- The stool and those four legs sit on a floor of stress. Pro's learn to deal really with with over-arching stress.
The ability to accept, absorb and get over stress has a big impact on training, regardless of age or athlete level.
Body maintenance work
- Everyday before I go out for a ride I'll spend 5-20 minutes of body work.
I start with breathing and twisting to make sure I'm using oxygen and expending CO2, making sure I've turned on the parasympathetic nervous system as much as I can.
- I also want my hips to be flat, and they tend to rotate forwards which impacts my glute activation.
In my pre-ride mobility I'm paying attention to my hips and where they are.
If they're rotated something is pulling so I'll figure out where that's coming from - e.g. is it my shoulders being tight and maybe I need to make my neck longer, or is it my abductors or my quads pulling.
I'll go through a series of movements and actively try to stretch and activate at the same time.
- After my rides, either directly after or in the evening I spend time using a tennis ball as a trigger point on areas that feel tight.
Also simply rubbing the fascia in the areas that contribute to my problematic patterns.
- In the beginning all I did on the bike was eat gels - quick energy carbohydrate.
I would do 5 hour rides and eat 8-9 gels on the bike and then would come home and have carbohydrates to recover.
It was a ton of sugar and my body got really carb dependent.
- In the interim phase in 2013 I had to try and get my body to remember how to use fat.
On the bike I had to try and blend the fat utilisation with carb utilisation better.
- Now when I fuel on the bike I keep my hydration in the bottle, and my energy/calories in my pocket.
I use an electrolyte blend for hydration, and I will have something like a Bonk Breaker bar in my pocket.
This gives me a mix of carbs, protein and a little bit of fat which helps slow down the release of energy.
- In choosing to fuel that way I have to be very on top of things as if you get behind it's hard to catch back up.
Learning to cues my body gives me - the hydration cues versus the food cues.
Gender differences in coaching
- Women's cycling don't have access to the same level of coaching the men's cycling do because they don't have the salary so can't afford it.
- It's been a great evolution working with women cyclists - their discipline and approach and toughness in getting things done is very different.
As a coach you have to be able to adapt to that and use it as a strength, but also know when to stop it from being a limited or a weakness.
- In all good training it comes down to demands of the event and the ability of the rider.
- One of the big differences between men and women at the professional level is the length of season intensity and length of racing.
At the high level, women are not racing quite as much as men, and the events aren't as long and they tend not to have Grand Tours.
This means men need to train to a higher CTL that women have the requirement to train to - not that they couldn't, it's just the event demands are high enough to require it.
- When you talk about the everyday riders, I don't think there really is a difference.
Women are tougher than the guys and they can handle training just as well!
- I train the individual, and I individualise training for their specific needs.
There is uniqueness for every person, and you as a coach have to find this, male or female.
- There are some physiological differences you need to pay attention to but it's still not that big.
Women have a better response at certain hormonal levels so you might need to consider this and may find a better response to higher endurance style training - but there's no specific answer.
- There's some science that suggests women deal with lactate better and will get a better response so you can get better improvements through threshold work too.
- At the end of the day, the individual demand outweighs the gender demand.
Lessons learnt from the past
- Over the years I've made many mistakes in racing but they've given me a better ability to be able to read and understand races.
I would encourage people to not be afraid to get out there and race and make mistakes, because you're going to learn a lot that you can use going forwards.
- From the training side it's been learning how important it is to make an adaptive signal versus putting myself into survival mode.
- Often with athletes, doing work is not a problem, but resting and doing the right kind of work can be more of a problem.
It's key to understand better how to create that adaptive response, without putting yourself in a non-functional overreaching zone.
- I hope my age is a big encouragement! You are never too old to dream.
- Remember that achieving any goal is going to be hard and it takes time and work.
It's never a straight line, you will have set backs but you just want to be trending forwards.
- Hard is not impossible, when you attend to the small details and the daily things you can do it sets you on a path to achieving those goals.
- It's about blending the science, the art and the recovery.
- Also have a really clear 'why', which helps motivate you and prioritise your decision making.
- We've evolved away from a 'training plan' - we have a calender with workouts that happen in phases but we have a training strategy.
We're trying to accomplish things towards our training strategy with each micro or meso cycle.
Once we've accomplished that, we move on, if we don't we analyse why we didn't and tweak as necessary.
- All of that is responsive and adaptive to Amber's fatigue management.
- For example: we may have a training plan of 3 weeks on, 1 week rest.
We loosely use that, but if Amber begins to show signs of fatigue 2 weeks in, we rest.
If Amber gets to 3 weeks and she still had good training in her, we don't rest yet.
- This has largely been possible because of the quality of Amber's communication: she writes amazing notes - she understands her body well and can describe it well.
- I adapt our plan based on her sleep, her data numbers, and her notes.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to endurance sports?
- I don't know I jump around too much!
- What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success?
- I think being intentional in the details of each day, including the details within your workout or whatever you want to achieve that day.
- What do you wish you had known or done differently at some point during your career?
- I wish I paid more attention to skills - on the bike skills - which are often forgotten.
- I wish I could have felt differently on the bike which would have changed results.
- I now understand how connected the body is and how important it is to respect and protect it.
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
- Px4 - Amber's coaching business
- When Shmack Happens - Amber's book
- WKO5: Cycling and triathlon analytics with Tim Cusick | EP#199
- WKO4: How triathletes should use its powerful capabilities with Tim Cusick | EP#72
Connect with Amber & Tim
Connect with host Mikael Eriksson
Hi! I'm your host Mikael,
I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.
I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show.
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