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Dajo Sanders is a coach at Ineos Grenadiers and a sports scientist with Maastricht University. Dajo's primary research focus is related to performance, event demands and characteristics of professional road cyclists.
In this episode you'll learn about:
- Dajo's coaching philosophy and methodology
- His role and responsibilities at Ineos Grenadiers
- Volume, intensity, recovery, periodisation, testing and more
- The most important research that informs Dajo's work
- What can amateurs learn from the training of pro cyclists, and what should they do differently?
- How to maximise your training on a limited time budget
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- I started cycling when I was young.
- I went from youth to u23 while doing some international races.
- I am passionate about cycling.
- I was already interested in training when I was racing.
- It eventually led me to pursue a degree in Human Movement Sciences. I did a Master's at Maastricht University.
- My coaching journey started during this period, coaching juniors while racing.
- I recognise I did not have the talent to become a professional cyclist.
- I decided to focus entirely on that.
- I moved to the UK and did a PhD in Sports Science with research on cycling and cycling teams.
- I worked as a sports science coordinator for some years at a University in Scotland.
- I worked with Dimension Data and worked there for one year, and after did some work with Team DSM.
- After some years, I had the opportunity to work with Ineos Grenadiers, and I did my first season with them.
- I continued training myself, but not to the level I had before.
- I continued training a lot when I stopped because it was part of my routine.
- When I moved to the UK, my training slowed down, and I did more running.
- I do more running nowadays with this lifestyle because it is not easy to stay active.
Being a coach at Ineos Grenadiers
- I am responsible for the physical preparation of the riders I am coaching.
- We include the condition side (training prescription and planning). I also coach on a more psychological side of things.
- I am the primary contact for everything related to their performance.
- We have an excellent performance department within the team.
- As a coach, I try to work with the team as much as possible to support the performance in a broader picture.
- I also support training camps and their organisation.
- I also aid during the races.
- You get assigned a specific number of riders you will work with all year and do the training planning and prescription for those.
- However, there might be times when I might be the lead coach at a training camp, so I might also support other riders during those periods.
- There are many factors when we get new athletes and who will work with them.
- We might have a previous relationship in place.
- If you had good results working with those, you would work with them in the team.
- It can also be a language factor. If an athlete speaks Dutch, I probably will work with them.
- If you are a new coach to the team, you might work with the new riders entering the team.
The methodology of coaching
- In Ineos, they advocate that you see the riders as much as possible.
- Nowadays, being an endurance coach means you will do many things remotely. However, we try to look at all the possibilities to be with the riders.
- During this period, I follow riders who will do the Giro D'Itália. They are doing races and training camps preparing for that event.
- If the riders are not doing that block of racing and training camps, I try to find opportunities to meet them.
General overview of coaching and training
- You want to make the riders that you are working with better.
- We look at different areas (physical and psychological) to improve the athlete.
- One crucial part is that I ensure to have athletes are in the right state of mind to perform. All athletes need to do good training, but you might have to emphasise the other side of things more.
- You need to build a good relationship with the athlete.
- A strong coaching relationship correlates with good rider development.
- Then, you must dial the training programs, which depend on the rider's characteristics and the event demands.
- You can have a climber or a sprinter. They are both riders, but the demands for the race can be quite different.
- The parameters to perform in those two specialisations are different as well.
- For climbers, one of the primary parameters for success is that they can produce a high relative power output for a long duration.
- A sprinter's ability to do a 10-15s sprint at the end of a race will determine their likelihood of success.
- I try to break down the goals into parameters of importance and adapt them to the characteristics of that athlete.
- Every athlete is different, so if you combine the individual characteristics and the parameters of importance, we bridge the gap between how good the athlete currently is to how good we want them to be.
Coaches special specialisations
- At the World Tour level, some coaches do have specialisations. For example, some coaches may be more comfortable working with climbers or sprinters and tend to work with those riders.
- The specialisation is often determined by the coach's success within that specialisation. So, if a coach has had success with sprinters, the team will put the sprinters with that coach because of their experience.
- The same goes for preparing GC riders for a Grand Tour.
- If a new good GC talent comes into my team, I would be more inclined to push them towards a coach who has successfully prepared GC riders.
- However, I strive not to be specialised within one rider group. I enjoy working with different athletes and coaching them to success.
- Even within a specific group, such as a group of sprinters, there will be different individual characteristics that I have to tailor training for.
- I like the challenge of adapting my coaching style to suit each athlete's unique needs and characteristics.
- This way, I can help athletes reach their full potential and succeed in their chosen discipline.
Things that Dajo does differently now as a coach compared to what he did as a young cyclist
- Reflecting on my past as an athlete, I realised I had made many mistakes.
- Looking back, I didn't always appreciate the other stressors in my life that were affecting my performance.
- I was working 23 hours a week at a sports store, attending university, and training, but I didn't always consider the impact of these factors on my recovery.
- I was too focused on sticking to my training plan and pushing through rather than knowing when to rest.
- As a self-coached athlete, it was challenging to have a helicopter view and objectively assess what was going on.
- However, I have learned that it is essential to consider all the stressors an athlete faces and know when it's time to push on or rest.
- Reducing volume by 40 to 60% during tapering was too aggressive, as suggested in the literature at the time.
- I have found that it didn't always result in the desired performance on race day.
- However, despite my mistakes, I wouldn't change anything about my past.
- You must decide where to break through and continue with the stimulus, even if that impacts racing.
- I learned a lot from these experiences, which has helped me with my coaching practice.
Coaching aspect that might be different from others
- I don't think one specific element makes me completely different from other coaches on the world tour. I believe the excellent coaches in the world tour generally do many things similarly.
- When I start working with a new athlete who has been on the World Tour before, I can access their training data and get an idea of their training prescription.
- There may be some minor differences in how I would balance their training, but in general, the training will be similar to what they have done before.
- The main difference between coaches is their coaching style.
- Some coaches may be very prescriptive in their training, while others may be more open.
- I have seen riders perform successfully with various coaching strategies, and I have seen coaches succeed with different styles.
- It is essential to have a goal in mind for the athlete.
- I like to think ahead and plan for my training.
- I prefer having a template or a blueprint plan in place for at least the next two weeks. This helps me to have a structure for my training and days off.
- Sometimes, having a plan is impossible due to waiting for a specific race decision, but I always aim to have at least something in place.
- I'm aware that some coaches prefer to approach training on a short-term basis, being more reactive to the athlete's performance.
- However, my style is to have a plan and make minor adjustments depending on how I'm getting through the plan.
- I believe it's essential to have an annual plan or planner for the upcoming season.
- This plan helps me understand what races I'll be participating in and when, as well as what altitude camps I'll be attending.
- The process starts in October when discussions about the following year's race program.
- By December, I will have a draft race program for the athletes I'll be working with next year.
- While there's no guarantee that the athletes will participate in all the races, having a draft program helps me plan the season.
- In the planner, I create an overall overview on a macro level of what I'll be focusing on at different points in the season.
- I split the season into three phases and have a specific focus for each phase.
- For example, one phase may focus on volume and aerobic development, while another may be dedicated to an altitude camp.
- Additionally, I use this planner to schedule metabolic tests and other important events.
- It acts as a red line throughout my training program, helping me achieve the season's goals.
- While having a plan is important, it's essential to remain flexible and adjust accordingly based on my progress and performance.
- Although unexpected events can happen, having an annual planner serves as a guide and helps me stay on track towards my goals.
- In my day-to-day planning, I always have my annual planner alongside it to remind me of the overall picture of the year.
- I'm open to adjusting based on my training or race responses if I need to adjust. However, having a plan helps me stay focused and motivated throughout the year.
Dajo's style of coaching
- I generally approach my training with a balance between prescriptive and flexible elements.
- I tend to be quite prescriptive regarding effort duration and rest between efforts.
- However, I'm more flexible about the intensity of the session.
- For instance, if we've conducted a physiological assessment and determined an athlete's maximum fat oxidation point, I would be more prescriptive in designing a session that targets that point.
- Going beyond that range would alter the athlete's physiology, which contradicts our intended outcome.
- On the other hand, for higher-intensity training, I might not set a specific power number for the efforts. Instead, I provide more subjective guidance, like telling the athlete to go over a certain point.
- This approach allows for more flexibility and reduces the potential of limiting the session's outcome.
- We can't predict how they will perform on a given day.
- They might exceed our expectations or struggle to achieve what we've set out for them.
- Secondly, flexibility can also increase the athlete's motivation and engagement with the training, as it allows for some level of autonomy and decision-making.
Balance volume and intensity
- High volume is one of the most important things to work on.
- Consistently getting the work done will make you a better athlete.
- It is essential to progressively increase your volume healthily over the years to avoid excessive fatigue but still create the adaptations needed to succeed.
- The science is clear that a high volume of contractions creates morphological and physiological adaptations.
- Therefore, every endurance athlete should have a high volume, but the question is how high and how much intensity to incorporate.
- The key to defining a training program is a combination of rider characteristics and event demands.
- It's not necessarily about a set intensity distribution or volume.
- Therefore, it's essential to focus on what will work best for you and your goals as an athlete.
- For example, if a young cyclist has been training for 600-700 hours, and we want to increase their chances of becoming a successful professional cyclist capable of tolerating ground tours and hard one-week stage races, we would need to increase their training volume sustainably.
- To achieve this, we would need to be careful with the intensity and allow the volume to increase healthily while getting more intensity from the races that the cyclist participates in.
- Typically, juniors would have a more intense, lower-volume approach to their training.
- However, if they were to come to our team, we would shift our focus to increasing their volume and reducing intensity somewhat.
- On the other hand, an experienced cyclist who has been training for 1100-1200 hours for multiple years has a solid foundation.
- To see further development with this athlete, we would try adding more intensity within their current volume.
- The specific efforts and training focus points would depend on the athlete's characteristics, specialisation, and the gap we identify in their training.
- My training philosophy emphasises a high-volume approach with intensity distribution being a consequence of the training focus points rather than a set goal. I do not begin my training program with a specific distribution in mind.
- Suppose I want to improve the athlete's threshold efforts in a four-week block. In that case, I will implement more threshold intervals, resulting in a different intensity distribution compared to a different physical goal.
- Therefore, I do not believe in a single set intensity distribution that would be effective for every endurance athlete.
- Instead, the intensity distribution is a consequence of each athlete's training goals and focus points.
How to increase training volume
- I find it difficult to determine the annual training volume for my athletes.
- The volume highly depends on the type of racing they will be doing. For instance, if they participate in stage races, they will require high-volume weeks, automatically increasing the annual volume.
- Hence, I do not have the rule to increase the annual volume.
- In my experience, going from 600 to 1000 hours of training per year, a good amount of volume for a professional cyclist is a steep increase.
- Therefore, I suggest starting with a more moderate increase and adjusting it throughout the year based on their response.
- Sometimes, I have been surprised to find that young cyclists can tolerate a lot of strain, and increasing their training volume quite rapidly is not a problem.
- However, it is always better to be cautious and increase the volume gradually to avoid injury or burnout.
- Therefore, I recommend increasing the volume conservatively to begin with and then, based on their response, making further increases.
Including intensity in the program
- My answer depends on the current preparation and upcoming events.
- If we prepare for a grand tour, we might do a three-week altitude camp, where the first week focuses on adaptation and doesn't include high-intensity training.
- In the second week, I might add one high-intensity session towards the end, and in the final week, we would do more high-intensity training.
- I wouldn't do more than two high-intensity sessions throughout the week. Still, defining what constitutes high intensity is problematic because it varies depending on the athlete's individual thresholds.
- For example, the three-zone model defines high intensity as everything above the second threshold or critical power.
- However, creating a challenging session with more moderate intensity is possible. Therefore, it's challenging to quantify what constitutes a high-intensity session.
- I have tried to reflect on my training prescription to assess how often I do high-intensity sessions, but evaluating them can be tricky.
- We do a maximum of three workout sessions per week.
- It's common to have mixed sessions combining high-intensity and moderate-intensity exercises.
- The recommended frequency may vary from person to person, but three sessions per week is a good general guideline.
- There may be weeks where you can only fit in one or two sessions, and that's okay as long as you are consistent over time.
Recovery during training and the season
- Breaking up the annual cycle into two or three key phases, with recovery or rest blocks in between, is essential.
- Depending on the program and grand tours, the duration of the rest blocks may vary, but typically, five to seven days off would be enough to break up the phases.
- Within each phase, it is also crucial to have micro-recovery moments to avoid excessive fatigue or plateau. (not building all the time)
- While I do not follow a fixed three-weeks-on-one-week-off approach, I must be conscious of implementing recovery moments within my plan.
- I find it helpful to align these moments with other events, such as Christmas or after extended travel. During these periods, I plan for reduced training to ensure I am not pushing the limits too hard and risking burnout.
- I typically organise my weekly training using either two or three-day blocks.
- I've learned from previous coaches that this approach is practical, and I have tried longer training blocks of four or five days but found that they can lead to fatigue.
- Therefore, I typically choose two or three-day blocks and alternate them with a recovery day. The number of blocks I choose depends on logistical considerations, such as the days until the next race or camp and the travel days involved.
Methods to prescribe training
- The type of training session will determine whether to use power or heart rate as a guide for intensity.
- It might be better to go off power for fatmax intervals to ensure the athlete doesn't exceed a specific limit.
- If the athlete adapts to altitude, heart rate can be a better indicator to keep a limit on intensity during the first few days.
- Heart rate response is an important indicator of adaptation or fatigue, but I do not use it frequently for prescription purposes.
- Altitude and heat acclimation work might require more emphasis on heart rate as a guide for intensity.
- An RPE-based approach can give athletes a subjective descriptor of how they should approach a certain interval.
- Athletes need to practice the perception of effort, especially when they can't go off a set power in a race situation.
- The athlete's perception is essential for pacing during a time trial or climbing in a race, so athletes must also train that.
- I don't like limiting my athletes' sessions by assigning them a specific power number. This can set them up for failure if they have an off day.
- Additionally, prescribing sessions based on RPE can almost become like an assessment because I'm checking to see if the power is increasing for a given subjective feeling.
- While there is variability within this approach, I still find it to be valuable in terms of the information that it provides.
- In terms of my approach to training, I use a combination of power, heart rate, and RPE to prescribe sessions.
- Even if I don't use heart rate as a primary metric, I still like to collect heart rate data from every session because it can provide valuable information about how responsive the heart rate is to a given power number, as well as how high it is at a specific power number.
Prescribing endurance rides
- I don't typically give my athletes a set power number to stick within for a general ride.
- Instead, I usually specify that it's an endurance ride in Zone 1, which has quite a wide range.
- I let them sit within that range and keep it relatively free until I need to adjust it.
- Sometimes, I need to adjust it because Zone 1 can be broad, and different athletes have different physiological responses and fatigue development perspectives.
- However, I prefer to keep it relatively free, especially given that everything in the athlete's training plan is already very prescriptive.
- I see where they sit, and I don't adjust it if I feel it's good within the more extensive training picture.
- There might be days when I would be more conscious of the athlete's power output.
- For example, if they've had a hard week where they've completed three intense sessions, I might want to ensure they go easy enough on their endurance days to avoid overloading them too much in that week.
- On these days, I might give them a set power number that they need to stay below. However, generally, I prefer to keep it relatively accessible.
Endurance training zones
- The threshold definition differs, so everyone creates training zones slightly differently.
- I define Zone 1 as the endurance pace and Zone 2 as efforts close to where maximal fat oxidation occurs.
- The general base pace for endurance training is in Zone 1.
- However, during longer endurance training sessions, I also incorporate longer blocks of time in Zone 2.
- These more extended Zone 2 blocks can last from 20 to 60 minutes.
- Therefore, although the base pace for endurance training is in Zone 1, we accumulate a significant amount of time in Zone 2 during longer endurance sessions.
- Thanks to power meters, I collect a lot of data daily.
- I start with analysing an athlete's power profile, which gives me information about their ability to produce power for different durations.
- This helps me set their training zones. To set these zones, I use two thresholds.
- The first is the physiological threshold, which I determine through an incremental test with lactate and gas exchange measurements. This test helps me identify the maximum fat oxidation point and the first lactate term point.
- This information helps me set an individualised lower-intensity zone for the athlete.
- The second threshold is critical power, which I determine using maximal tests of 5-15 minutes or longer, depending on our availability.
- I combine these two thresholds by setting the training zones and using them as a marker to see where the athlete is at.
- I also assess the athlete's progress by having them do maximum efforts in training and critical sessions towards their goal, where I can see if they can do higher numbers for the same intervals.
- During camp, we do intervals at or above a certain intensity and then do a lead lactate spot check to assess my physiological response. This helps us confirm the results of any testing we may have done indoors.
- We sometimes do a standardised warm-up where we collect heart rate and RPE data at a certain power level. This helps us track my progress and performance over time.
- These efforts and training sessions are easily implemented throughout the season and can be used to track progress and performance.
- There are also more challenging assessments, such as physiological or metabolic tests, that are difficult to implement during the season when we are frequently travelling. However, we try to include at least one of these assessments in each season phase to track progress and performance.
Maximal efforts in training
- We create a crucial training session that works specifically for the rider, which he can repeat multiple times throughout my preparation.
- Including some perceived exertion factor rather than a set number of repetitions would be helpful, allowing him to go all-out in certain parts of the session.
- For example, we could use a 15-minute effort with a five-minute free-intensity section to see if the athlete is improving.
- However, it's important to note that this is separate from a fresh peak power assessment used to set my critical power.
Durability and testing when fatigued
- To assess if someone is fatigue-resistant or durable, I would retrospectively look at their fresh power profile.
- This involves examining their ability to sustain power for different durations, such as 5, 10, or 20 minutes.
- After accumulating workload, I would also look at their best power numbers, which kilojoules per kilo or total kilojoules can measure.
- This analysis is biased by whether or not they did maximum efforts at different workload levels. Still, a large amount of data can give a decent idea of someone's fatigue resistance.
- Other factors to consider include performance on climbs and in specific training sessions.
- Within specific training sessions, accumulating workload can also provide information about someone's durability.
- For example, if someone struggles to produce power close to their normal levels after doing a lot of zone-two or three intervals, it suggests they may not be durable.
- This information can be valuable for training and understanding an athlete's competitive strengths and weaknesses.
Most important research that helps Dajo in his coaching practice
- I learned something from every research project I have done.
- Going through the process of designing a study and collecting data is valuable and helps in my practice.
- The concept of durability or fatigue resistance is essential, and we studied it.
- Understanding the concept of fresh and fatigue power profiles and whether it gives enough information for success was helpful for evaluating race data.
- In training, we often saw good numbers from fresh efforts, but they didn't translate to similar results in real races.
- Evaluating the concept of a fresh power profile was valuable and confirmed some of our previous ideas.
- As a supervisor for a PhD student at the University of Stirling, I oversaw a study on talent identification and youth soccer players.
- The study assessed players in different age groups to determine what factors led to success in professional soccer clubs.
- The data were collected longitudinally, and we found that early performance was not necessarily the determining factor for success.
- Instead, it was the progression or percentage improvement players showed as they moved from one age group to the next.
- This was a fascinating finding as it showed that consistent improvement over time was a more significant predictor of success than early talent.
Additional things that help Dajo in his coaching practice
- I've found that research on environmental physiology has been beneficial in my day-to-day coaching practice.
- Specifically, the research on altitude training has been extensive, and there are clear guidelines for designing an effective training program.
- For example, it's clear that you need to be above 2000 meters, and the ideal exposure time is at least three weeks.
- Similarly, research on heat training and acclimation has provided actionable strategies for the frequency of heat exposure and desired core temperature.
- In addition to environmental factors, stress research has also impacted my coaching practice.
- Studies linking stress with heart rate variability (HRV) have highlighted the importance of considering stressors outside training.
Measuring fatigue and recovery
- My performance evaluation is based on a combination of objective and subjective markers.
- The objective data includes my HRV, resting heart rate, and heart rate response during training.
- These metrics can now be measured accurately using devices, making tracking progress easier. Additionally, athletes provide subjective feedback regarding how tired they are feeling. Then, we consider this feedback and combine it with the objective data to decide whether to reduce or continue with the training.
- We may use more structured methods to collect data during critical phases, such as when we go to altitude.
- This could involve answering specific subjective questions on sleep quality, fatigue, and soreness and collecting resting heart rate and saturation data.
- However, in the end, the chat provides the most valuable information.
- When we are together in person at a camp, we can better understand how they are doing and adjust training accordingly.
Research Dajo would like to see done
- Altitude training is a positive strategy that we use for sports training.
- Ongoing research exists on the differences between natural and simulated altitude training in tents and hotels.
- Altitude hotels and altitude tents provide access to simulated altitude.
- The differentiating factor between natural and simulated altitude is the pressure difference.
- I still prefer natural altitude training.
- There is not much research yet on how natural and simulated altitude training could complement each other.
- Altitude tents have the benefit of being adjustable and can be used for shorter blocks of training.
- It would be interesting to see more research on combining natural and simulated altitude training, although it is not easy to research to do.
What could amateurs learn from World Tour cyclists?
- Consistency is key for both amateur and professional endurance athletes.
- Designing a consistent training plan is important for both amateur and professional athletes.
- Prioritising a healthy lifestyle, nutrition, sleep, and recovery is essential for high-volume training.
- Amateur athletes may have more stressors and less support, making it harder to prioritise recovery.
- Professional athletes have the advantage of being able to eliminate non-cycling stressors, while amateurs may need to prioritise certain things to allow for consistent training alongside other commitments.
- Professional cyclists often use extreme nutritional strategies, recovery modalities, and gadgets to measure performance.
- However, amateur cyclists should focus on the basics, such as a healthy lifestyle, recovery, and good nutrition, rather than the most advanced gadgets and strategies.
- Research shows that an 80-20 intensity distribution for endurance athletes is optimal, meaning 80% of training should be at a low intensity and 20% at a high intensity.
- However, for those with limited training time, blindly following the intensity distribution of professional cyclists may not be the best approach.
- Prioritising the basics and tailoring training to individual circumstances and time constraints is critical.
How should time-crunched cyclists maximise that time?
- The first step in training athletes is understanding their goals, varying from having fun to losing weight to preparing for a specific event.
- It's crucial to match training and life, considering the athlete's work schedule and other obligations.
- Spreading out training sessions throughout the week is preferred over doing all the training in one or two days.
- A good training intensity distribution is key to becoming a better endurance athlete.
- The volume of training is a crucial determinant of endurance performance.
- Adding more aerobic stimulus throughout the week can improve endurance without feeling like additional training time.
- A healthy lifestyle is essential for athletes, including proper sleep and nutrition.
- The athlete's busy schedule with work and other events will influence their training capacity.
- Training frequency and duration should be adjusted to fit the athlete's lifestyle.
- Longer rides can be scheduled for the weekends when more time is available.
- Two shorter rides during the week can be added to complement the longer weekend ride.
- One week can focus on moderate-intensity training, while another can include higher-intensity training.
- Opportunities throughout the week can be found to add more aerobic stimulus, such as riding a bike to work or taking a long walk.
- The distribution of training sessions and intensity will vary depending on the athlete's goals and lifestyle.
- The athlete's overall health and well-being are important for improving performance.
- The key to improving endurance is consistent and intelligent training, considering the athlete's goals and lifestyle.
Rapid fire questions
What's your favourite book or resource related to endurance sports?
What's an important habit you have benefited from athletically, professionally, or personally?
If you're very passionate about what you do, you'll be more disciplined and driven to improve.
Who's somebody that you look up to or that has inspired you?
People that are good at something.
From a coaching perspective, Louis Delahaye.