Cycling, Podcast

Training talk with cycling coach James Spragg | EP#251

 September 14, 2020

By  Mikael Eriksson


James Spragg

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • James coaching philosophy
  • Training structure, from macro (periodisation) to micro
  • When and why to select specific types of training for a given athlete
  • Profiling an athlete and figuring out their limiters and needs based on the event demands
  • Understanding and applying science in one's coaching practice
  • "Rapid-fire" miscellaneous training topics

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03:30 -

  • I got into cycling when I was between 13-14 years old, I was lucky to get picked up by British cycling talent scouts early in my career.

    However, I didn’t make the cut at a certain age and hence I moved abroad, which is basically where I have lived ever since.

    For about 10 years I made a living out of being a cyclist and raced professionally for 6 years, both on the roads and cross.

    I didn’t race at the highest level on the road but participated in some big classic races as well as some big stage races.
  • For about 3 years ago, I ended my career as a cyclist and started studying my masters within sports science.

    Currently I just started my PhD where we are looking at why the power-duration curve for the same rider differs in a pre- versus post fatigued state between different types of riders (classic riders, GC riders, etc.).
  • In terms of coaching, I started to get involved in coaching while I was still riding on a full-time basis.

Coaching/training principles

06:45 -

  • I think you need a good evidence base in order to make good decisions as a coach.

    To get that evidence base, I think a deep dive in the relevant literature is a really good start, and with this I mean that you’re not only aiming to extract the conclusions and ”the broad picture” of each study but really try and understand the findings and the reasons for why some things seem to work in one case but not in another and vice versa.

    Applying this knowledge to the specific athlete in front of you is in turn what coaching is all about.

    With a good evidence base, you can start by making good decisions for the individual athlete and as you get to know the athlete and understand what seems to work and not work for this person, you can make further decisions taking the athlete in the right direction.
  • The most common mistakes that I see both coaches and athletes do is focusing too much on small details and forget about the three pilars that all great performances stand on: training, eating and sleeping.
  • Two good tips of great resources for ”acquiring that good evidence base” is the textbook ”Endurance Training: Science and Practice” by Inigo Mujika and the website Research Gate where you can browse around and find millions of super interesting scientific articles.

Training structure

14:05 -

  • A good start is to make sure you know the athlete’s goals, what it would take to reach these goals and in turn where the athlete stands right now.

    After you have identified this ”gap”, then you can start by structuring up the training with the aim of closing the gap.

    In this process I always try and identify and utilize the ”lowest hanging fruits”, meaning that we target something that can easily be fixed and generate rather much in return at the same time, and this can be sleep, nutrition or something in the training.
  • As an example, we can take a track cyclist that I coach.

    She has a certain goal and in order to achieve this goal, I do some deep digging in terms of the requirements for such a goal, which within track cycling basically is power output and speed.

    Then we do some diagnostics of where the athlete stands at the moments, mainly in terms of these parameters, but for other physiological aspects as well.

    After that we may find that this athlete needs to develop her strength to be able to accelerate from a really low gear, which one must be able to do very well within track cycling.

    Based on this, we structure the training, which then will comprise of plenty strength and conditioning work.

Micro cycles

22:45 -

  • When planning the micro cycles, I always put the current focus area in first to prioritize this type of training, by doing so I also minimize any potential interference effects from other types of training and make sure that the athlete is not too fatigued and can focus really well on the currently most important training.
  • When it comes to how I spread out hard sessions or days, wether it is two days in a row or with one easier day in between two hard sessions or days, I use to leave this up to the athlete themselves.

    However, when it comes to recovery I don’t like to chance and hence I have developed a protocol to ensure that my athletes are fully recovered after a hard block of training.

    This protocol consists of one recovery day followed by a ride where I let my athletes ride at a 5/10 in perceived effort for five minutes and record power an HR.

    During the first days of recovery after a hard block, I see an increase in performance (power) during these five minutes but as the athlete starts to recovery this plateaus and then I know that the athlete is fully recovered and ready for a new stimulus.

Training modalities

27:20 -

  • First, I try and make sure that the athlete is healthy and has a good strength and conditioning base of which you then can build specificity on.
  • Training volume in form of base endurance training is a great predictor of performance (critical power etc.) and constitutes a big part of my training programs and is a key to any type of performance.
  • In terms of interval lengths and types of intervals, I use to prescribe more and more specific intervals to the racing demands as we get closer to race date, both for mental and physical preparations for what’s to come race day.
  • My starting point is a polarized approach and within this concept, training in ”the middle zone” is not highly emphasized.

    However, for certain events, I definitely think training in this zone has its place, like for instance in the specific training phase before an Ironman where you ride at this intensity on the race.

    Some people also seem to respond really well to this type of training, and then I take this into consideration and let that guide my training planning to a fairly large extent (even though the scientific literature at the moment seem to favor a polarized approach on a general plan).
  • When it comes to age group athletes who do not have the time to train large volumes, it can to some extent be switched out against high intensity work.

    However, in my experience, this can work rather well in short term and you can get an athlete really fit in a relatively short time (~12 weeks), but after that I have found it hard to take the athlete much further fitness wise without laying down a solid volume base.

    One approach to deal with this is to try and squeeze in volume whenever opportunity arises, which for instance could be training camps or extended weekends.


34:45 -

  • I utilize several different performance as well as psychological tests for my athletes.

    As a basis, I let my athletes undergo a critical power field test, consisting of a 3mins all out effort followed by a 12mins all out effort (with a 30mins break between efforts), yielding their critical power and W´.

    I prefer a critical power test instead of the classical 20mins time trial test because you get both critical power and W´ from a critical power test instead of just the threshold on a 20mins test, which actually just is a guess of the threshold (the typical 95 % rule used is fairly inaccurate).

    For track cycling, the W´ is also a key metric that is really important to know, which is an additional reason for why I use the critical power test.
  • In addition, I also let my athletes fill in a psychological assessment form in order to get a profile of the mental aspects of the athlete to investigate if any psychological interventions need to be undertaken.
  • I also let my athletes answer questions about nutrition and sleep to see if any interventions are needed in this area.


40:55 -

  • I think pacing is super important, it is the art of putting all the work together that has been done for 6-12 months into one performance and how to maximize your current potential.
  • The pacing plan that you can get from for instance Best Bike Split provide a really good basis for a pacing strategy even though it needs to be tweaked to fit the individual athlete’s physiology and the specific course.

    The basic principles for pacing is, however, that you want to push the pace a little bit extra in hills and head wind segments as you get more speed for a given power output when the speed is lower, and then back off a little bit power wise during faster sections of the course.
  • I use to advice my athletes to find a segment that is way shorter (could be 5km if the event is a 40km time trial) than the distance of the event that they are preparing for but has the similar profile in terms of hills and wind, and then let the athlete ride this segment in target pace and experiment with position as well as how they spread out the power over the course to find how they achieve the greatest speed on the lowest possible wattage.

Current interest areas within sports science 

 49:40 -

  • A subject that leads really nice into my PhD topic and that I find really interesting is how to identify, predict, avoid and in turn prevent a decrease in the power duration curve for athletes both in a pre-fatigued (like after 3h of riding) state as well as across a season.

First take on several different topics

52:00 -

  • I use all three of HR, power and RPE in order to evaluate, prescribe and analyze training data and think that they all have their place and tells you different things, which are all out of interest.

    So my advice is to collect them all and see how they are changing over times in comparison to each other and against the other parameters.
  • Training intensity distribution: My starting point is a polarized approach but I am not overly dogmatic towards this strategy, if an athlete seems to respond very well on medium intensity work I will prescribe plenty off such work.

    Don’t also forget the mental aspects of things, if I have an athlete who really likes doing sweet spot work or get a big mental boost from those types of sessions, then I think that serves a really important purpose as well.
  • Rest, recovery and nutrition: Under-pines everything, I think sleep probably is fairly underrated and it is completely impossible to achieve any great performances without proper sleep.

    Nutriton is equally important and I live under the mantra of ”fueling for the purpose of each session”, meaning that you will need carbs for high intensity work etc. etc.
  • Strength and conditioning: A good strength and conditioning foundation is really important to build from but when it comes to how to improve the performance in endurance events or on the bike by strength and conditioning, I think they definitely exist but are much more difficult to incorporate without getting undesirable interference effects etc.

Rapid fire questions

1:00:05 -

  • What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to endurance sports? Endure Alex Hutchinson.
  • What is your favorite piece of gear or equipment? Nothing.
  • What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success? Whenever I get stuck with a problem, I go out for a ride, run, climb or any other activity and then get back to the issue with a fresh mind and most frequently another approach.


Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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