Cycling, Podcast, Training

Training talk with Tom Bell | EP#356

 September 19, 2022

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Tom Bell - That Triathlon Show

Tom Bell is a coach, performance consultant, and elite cyclist based in Yorkshire, United Kingdom. He is the founder of the coaching business High North, that also produces great educational blog posts that go beyond what can be found in the vast majority of media outlets in the endurance sports industry. In this interview we dive deep into Tom's approach to training and coaching, and various bits and pieces on topics of interest.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Long-term planning and goal setting
  • Monitoring training responses
  • Testing in the field and in the lab
  • How Tom applies progressive overload in training
  • Recovery
  • Indoor vs. outdoor training considerations, as well as considerations for different types of terrain
  • Low-cadence work on the bike
  • Strength training for cyclists

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Tom's background

03:22 -

  • I have been a mountain bike rider for the last decade, racing World Cup mountain biking cross country. I managed to win the MTB Marathon national title in 2017 and missed the cross-country title in 2018 by a fraction.
  • When the pandemic started, I raced more domestically with more hill climb time trials. (UK discipline, where you do time trials from the bottom of a hill to the top)
  • I won the hill climb national title at the end of last year, so I am the current national champion.
  • Concerning coaching, I run a performance consultancy with my wife, where we offer everything from coaching to consultations with self-coached athletes and produce various information resources.
  • Hill climb time trials are a discipline where the variables are minimal. Typically, you have a simple short course entirely uphill with 2-8 min in length.
  • It is a power-to-weight ratio game; you can almost decide the race outcome from that metric.

Long-term planning and goal settings

06:28 -

  • I take queues from the business world that focuses primarily on long-term planning and figuring out the best way to get from A to B.
  • Setting reasonable, measurable goals is a good practice and way to work.
  • We try to plan like a "car journey". We want to get from A to B in the most efficient way possible. Therefore, we have to figure out where we are at the beginning. (analysing the physiological profile and their psychological strengths)
  • After we look at the goals (destination) of the athlete and then draw a line between the two and figure out how we will get there in the best way, where we will do some performance tests along the way, and then you have the day-to-day steering to keep you on the right road. (communication between coach and athlete)
  • It is challenging to try to set goals in a somewhat abstract way.
  • Typically, we plan for the coming season (having aims and targets that are further out). If you are coaching an Olympic athlete, you must aim for the Olympics with a more extended plan.
  • We also question whether it is better to check the goals and work out from there or to figure out the physiological profile to establish goals.
  • You might set goals that are not appropriate for an athlete.

Setting season goals

10:42 -

  • We have a mixture of outcome goals and process goals. We figure out the outcomes athletes want to achieve (usually a race result or a finishing time), but these goals are out of the athlete's control.
  • So, you do not want to hang too much on the results to evaluate success or failure.
  • We usually work backwards from a set of dates and figure out what the performance goals should be, like a particular power output or something within those lines.
  • Then, it returns to the daily goals leading to the outcome goals.
  • For example, daily workouts have performance goals like executing a good warm-up or completing intervals at a set power or heart rate. We can also focus on fueling.
  • You can stack a specific amount of small tasks that will eventually lead you to the outcome.

Evaluating athlete's progression over the season

13:32 -

  • It is a mixture of using key training metrics and communication with the athlete. The tests depend on the resources, the athlete's personality, and what they like and dislike.
  • If you look at aerobic development, you might want to look at the efficiency factor, power-to-heart rate decoupling. It is helpful if you can use lactate testing or something along these lines.
  • However, communicating with athletes and making them aware of their sensations in training can be an excellent way to evaluate how athletes improve. (it gives more data points instead of waiting for maximal effort testing)
  • Essentially, maximal efforts or lab tests only evaluate how athletes perform on a given day. It is challenging to say if they would perform better on any given day.

Prefered testing methods

16:07 -

  • We have here a VO2 Master and some Moxy monitors, and what we decide to do will come down to the individual.
  • You can get much information these days from more field-based testing.
  • We work with athletes worldwide, so we cannot test them in person.
  • Physiological testing is good for setting a baseline and understanding the current location of the athlete's physiological profile.
  • Test methodologies like Gas-exchange Vo2 max tests to get some information on the ventilatory thresholds and lactate tests are good lab tests.
  • Then, we can pair that with power tests to fill out the power duration curve and get a good sense of the starting point and the right direction for training.
  • If athletes enjoy the testing process, they can do tests more regularly.
  • Physiological testing is something that happens twice per year.
  • You might want to try to pick up some differences that might not pick up with these instruments.

Field base testing

19:11 -

  • A complete power duration curve facilitates more accurate modelled metrics (WKO5).
  • Some athletes might need to do some time power tests at a specific intensity after a prescribed amount of work.
  • It is helpful for people competing in sportives or races in which race performance depends on power outputs more towards the end of a race.
  • Ad hoc testing during workouts is an excellent way to perform tests because it does not feel like a formal test.
  • Typically, we do a peak power (sprint) effort, 1-2 min tests, middle range efforts 3-6min, and long-range efforts.
  • We cannot get a maximal effort for more than 60 minutes, but you have the durations to apply other models such as critical power and W'.

Prefered models

22:50 -

  • When we do these tests, we will look at each and evaluate how each compares to the baseline of the day-to-day training process. We find that the critical power is a robust frame to use.
  • It gives more information than the famous FTP test.
  • Moreover, it allows you to predict maximal performances over specific duration ranges. (for pacing strategies and competition plans)
  • Nevertheless, we will check if the models correspond to reality, and depending on the athlete, and one model could be more helpful than the other.
  • These models allow us to understand which areas can have more potential for improvement compared to the event demands.

Training progression method

25:50 -

  • We might fall into the trap of making training too varied and changing it weekly.
  • If only some workouts are optimal for the athlete, I think repeating the same workout design for a period is helpful.
  • You might add an arbitrary amount of repeats to a single interval, but no one knows if that is the right thing to do.
  • We ask athletes to repeat the same protocol, with the difference of going long on the last interval (let the athlete find the right level of progression).

Getting the right workouts for the athlete

28:14 -

  • Much comes down to experience and the points we decide it is better to work on at a specific moment.
  • It also will depend on the feedback from the coach and athletes to have some feedback on how the sessions went concerning enjoyment and their feelings about how that workout fits into their overall plan.
  • It is a multitude of inputs that we try to integrate as things move.

The importance of physiological markers

29:55 -

  • Real-world performance is the aspect you want to optimise. (it is helpful if you have great metrics in the lab which do not reflect in real-world performance)
  • I think having a balanced view on the relationship between physiological markers and the power duration curve because both have their benefits.
  • It is cool to have the tools to do field base testing with power meters, but it is challenging to understand where that performance comes from in physiological terms.
  • It is good to see "under the hood" and analyse where you can improve and perform better.
  • Nowadays, some software is starting to have the features to do that. 

Differences in Tom's training methodologies

33:14 -

  • Motivated athletes do not have a problem with training much.
  • It is with rest and recovery that athletes suffer a bit.
  • Most athletes look at their training capacity but do not look at their recovery capacity. (They can squeeze 12 hours per week, but can they recover from that?)
  • So, I emphasise to athletes that sometimes resting a bit more might be the way to get fitter.
  • When I start working with athletes, we try to determine their limitations. (doing a SWAT analysis)
  • Sometimes, their workouts are fine, but their surroundings limit athletes.
  • Most athletes are unaware of how crucial recovery is in training.

Outdoor vs indoor cycling

37:09 -

  • This aspect is individual to the athlete because it depends on their schedule, how easily they can fit in specific rides and their prefered workouts.
  • If you train for indoor racing, outdoor riding is more specific and help athlete avoids burning out.
  • Indoor cycling is efficient as you can control most variables.
  • Some athletes struggle to control intensity in variable terrain, and indoor training removes many barriers and allows for much more control.
  • I think a combination of both is the best approach.

Terrain and workout types

40:19 -

  • We work with our athletes to be aware of the training environment they have in their neighbourhood and choose routes that suit the training sessions they do.
  • Flatter routes are suitable for standard aerobic development rides, where you want to keep the intensity low and not have spikes in intensity.
  • Steeper hills help for various interval training sessions, especially short intervals (having a gradient to push against).
  • More extended, shallower climbs are more suitable for tempo work and longer intervals.
  • Unstructured rides could be beneficial because it allows the athlete some "space", but it does not mean you cannot get an intense workout from it. (these are part of our athlete's training - e.g. "group rides")
  • However, letting the terrain influence your ride and taking the structure out from workouts have positive impacts.

Recommendations for athletes when choosing training routes

44:57 -

  • We have athletes living in the centre of London or San Francisco.
  • If they ride outside and can ride in parks, they can do laps around those spaces.
  • Usually, it takes a while for athletes to get out of the city. So, athletes go easy while getting out of the city and returning to it. (it does not take energy away from the session they will do)
  • Entering and leaving the city can add one hour of training, so using it as a warm-up and a cool-down does not take too much out of the athletes.

Low-cadence training

47:17 -

  • It works for some athletes.
  • We do cadence drills because of the race specificity athletes will face.
  • For example, if athletes do "European sportives" with more extended, steeper climbs, there will usually be low cadence training.
  • We use it more with specific preparation and familiarisation. 
  • Some athletes suffer from cramps in races where muscle tension is high for an extended period. So we use it to prepare for those demands.
  • The event demands would inform what we would do in training. Typically, the power associated with those efforts is around tempo/sweet spot intensity.
  • Combining low cadence work with that sub-threshold intensity is a good balance. The intensity is high, and the torque needs to be high.
  • It is intense to give a sound stimulus but also allows for longer durations.

Strength training for cyclists

49:58 -

  • Scientific literature and anecdotal evidence suggest strength training is beneficial to many cyclists.
  • We need to look at the individual athlete to see if we can successfully introduce strength training into that training program. Moreover, we evaluate whether the athlete's physiology indicates that strength training could be beneficial.
  • We keep things relatively simple: the number of exercises is low, and we follow a standardise periodisation approach throughout the year. (build towards maximal strength and then taper to bring more of the primary sport and specific training in as the strength training goes into maintenance mode)
  • All cyclists should aim to add strength training to their programs, especially at the beginning of the season, when the primary sport is not so essential.
  • We aim for our athletes to go into the gym to use machines and lift heavy weights. Some athletes have well-equipped home gyms.
  • The question is on using relatively low bodyweight exercises versus lifting heavy weights in the gym.
  • However, home strength training is not something to be put aside.

General Questions

Three pieces of advice to help athletes improve their performance

53:14 -

  • First, looking at long-term planning is a suitable way to see improvements. Looking for quick short-term wins is usually detrimental compared to something focused more on the longer term. Moreover, that fitness goes away quite fast.
  • It will take a few weeks/months to improve fitness, which could help prevent people from falling into non-functional overreaching and overtraining.
  • Proper nutrition strategies are essential. Athletes read about low carbohydrate training, and there is a place for some athletes for specific workout modalities and goals.
  • However, you want proper nutrition, and if you misunderstand that low carbohydrate and try to do high-intensity workouts like that, you will quickly get into problems.
  • Concerning women, I would optimise training for their menstrual cycle as essential as well. There are times in that cycle when carbohydrate ingestion has to increase, so we would try to optimise training concerning that aspect.

Evolution of Tom's coaching methodology

56:20 -

  • As you coach more athletes, you realise more things and access that you might have gone too far on one topic.
  • One thing is the polarised literature. If you read that too literally, this moderate intensity could be an intensity you would not spend time at all.
  • However, it became clear that a more pyramidal approach tends to materialise depending on how you view it.
  • The more you apply it, the more you realise that it is beneficial to train in that intensity. So, we should not be too theoretical about applying specific intensity distributions.

Topics Tom is interested in increasing his coaching skills

59:20 -

  • We are trying to create resources for self-coached athletes.
  • The number of self-coached athletes is higher than "coached athletes".
  • Individual athletes could be in a good position if they have the tools and knowledge to coach themselves.
  • Quite a few people work with different coaches for their accountability. However, athletes know their bodies best and always have that direct feedback.
  • If athletes know how to use specific frameworks and best practices to plan their training, that is potentially a massive group of athletes we could help.
  • So, we are working on "behind the scene" information resources and little tools that can help self-coach athletes and teach them some methodologies so they can use them themselves.

Rapid-fire questions

1:02:05 -

What is your favourite book, blog or resource?

Daniels' Running Formula by Jack Daniels

Scientific Training for Endurance Athletes by Phillip Skiba

What is an important habit that benefited athletically, professionally or personally?

I would say being conscious about how I spend my limited time and energy, both personally and professional.

Who is someone you have looked up to or who has inspired you?

Coming from an MTB background, I get inspiration from the sport's greats. (Nino Shurter and Julien Absalon)

And also, my wife has been very inspirational to me.


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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