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Coaching Aging Athletes Using Insights from Historical Data

BY Joy McCulloch

A significant mental hurdle to overcome as athletes and coaches, and life as a whole, is comparing what we are now to what we once were.

I began Big Wheel Coaching in the summer of 2009. I was a high school Physical Education Teacher and team sports coach at the time. I observed parents who, as adults, had aged out of fitness, teams, and the opportunity to have a coach as their guide and advocate. I was racing professional mountain bikes at the time and a new subscriber to TrainingPeaks. I decided to blend my passion for coaching and cycling into a form of “PE for Adults” and created Big Wheel Coaching. As the business grew, I stepped out of the high school gym in 2010 to focus entirely on coaching endurance athletes.

I have two athletes from that era who remain part of the BWC family. Ken Adams found my services in 2012 through SocalCycling.Com, an online resource for coaches, routes, events and more. At the time, he was 54 years old and an avid recreational cyclist looking for guidance. Ken did not have a strong history in sport, and the traverses of life challenges had brought him to the bike, where epic rides and adventures awaited. But he lacked fundamental skills from bike handling to fueling, where our coach-athlete relationship began.

His 10th anniversary this month as an athlete with me has been wildly successful, traumatic, heartbreaking and triumphant. As Ken learned what cycling had to offer him, he searched for epic rides and routes in the Sierras. Tackling insane double centuries, spending 15 hours on the bike riding solo through the mountains — if it is a crazy idea, Ken probably conjured it up. With these adventures, he clocked on average 10,000 miles per year. Though, several catastrophic crashes and setbacks came with all those hours on the bike.

Adjusting Mind and Body

We worked tirelessly on his skills, finding a great bike fitter — who has changed over the years to ensure we are using cutting-edge methods and equipment to meet him where he is at today. We have focused heavily on his fueling strategies and pacing – specifically on double centuries where these two aspects of the event can make or break it for any athlete.

We have also relied heavily on historical data on TrainingPeaks. One of my favorite features is the ‘Post-Activity Comment’ section, where Ken religiously leaves feedback on all aspects of his rides. From his nutrition, the weather conditions, mechanical issues and more, we can look back at any given event or ride and know so much more than the raw data shows us. Comparing his notes on those previous rides in addition to the power/heart rate and route profile, we can more accurately plan and strategize for the next event or big ride. We can see what his TSS was for specific portions of the route and check kJ burned to help ensure he is pacing well and has enough fuel to be put directly to use. We use a bird’s eye view, then zoom in with a magnifying glass and see what we did right and wrong. Our missteps have been our most incredible learning tool to help set him up for success at his next event.

With this data and context, we have grown to understand that rest is the most crucial aspect of his training. He can crank out epic adventures, but the key to making sure he can do them is getting adequate rest and quality reboot before doing it again.

Although Ken continues to tack on years, the biggest interference to his routine and fitness have been surgeries resulting from crashes and, more recently, the need to have two spinal fusions. These have been challenging, but Ken has fully embraced Zwift and the online training options with smart trainers. These tools have been a game-changer and key to keeping him moving, having high-quality training sessions without worrying about traffic, neck mobility, etc. He upgraded to a 55” TV screen for a complete immersion Zwift experience. He is thriving with the challenge and new way of doing focused training, and, we agree, without his great indoor setup, he most likely would not have continued with his cycling at the same level.

Clear Communication Between Athlete and Coach

A key for our partnership is that we are partners in his training. I enjoy collaborating with him on what he wants to do and listening to what fills his cup. Those needs have changed over the years, so as a coach being attentive to what he really wants to do – even if it’s a bit wild and not the ‘best’ option – I understand that ultimately, he is the captain of his ship. I am a guide and adviser. I see myself as the bumpers for bowling — he won’t roll a gutter ball. I will help put the pins back up and give it a try again. This freedom for him, I believe, has been paramount to the longevity of our partnership. A 200-mile ride is not in the cards anymore for Ken, but he can still enjoy a great 5+ hour ride with friends gaining quality elevation outside.

Our partnership has been a valuable learning experience in how I interact with the rest of my athletes after spending over a decade helping him. Listening is the best tool a coach can have, and validating what the client wants, and believes is extremely important. Coach-athlete collaboration is a potent tool that empowers an athlete to have a say in their trajectory. This collaboration has helped me, as a coach, be mindful to keep rides and activities on their schedule that, by the numbers, may not be the most advantageous, but keep training delightful to some extent. And they are thankful for that leeway and more open to circling back around to learn more, grow and develop since the platform for me to teach from has been built solid through collaboration and mutual respect.

Revisiting Previous Activity Data

It is tough for Ken to look back at his CTL and FTP from 2014 and compare them to where it is today. And honestly, it’s hard for me to compare those on my personal data as well – things change so much in different ways for everyone! We have had some great conversations where we can dig through data and see some were from different power meters that were overly gracious with our FTPs or that we were in competitive seasons that are no longer part of our goal sets. Having the chance to share my journey is helpful and encourages him to see what his peer group is up to! When you look at a 64-year-old man with multiple spinal fusions and setbacks and challenges, he is literally at the top of the group! We then work to find scenarios for him to be with his peers where he can get a “win,” so to speak and see his hard work and diligence pay off.

A significant mental hurdle to overcome as athletes and coaches, and life as a whole, is comparing what we are now to what we once were. But wow, the future is so awesome and open with opportunities. It’s a real treasure to be a coach and help athletes of all ages find the opportunities ahead.

At Big Wheel Coaching, we are honored to work with over 75 athletes of diverse talents and abilities. Our clients usually stay with us for three or more years. As Ken celebrates his 10 years with us, I hope to be collaborating with him in his cycling and fitness journey into his 70s.

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About Joy McCulloch

Based out of Southern California, Joy began Big Wheel Coaching, Inc. in 2010 along with her husband, Brian. They focus on creating attainable and sustainable training plans for their diverse athletes who range from recreational level enthusiasts to professional racers. Joy is a USAC Level I Coach and TrainingPeaks Level 2 Coach and Ambassador. Joy’s degree in Physical Education and history coaching high school athletics has laid a solid foundation for setting athletes up for success as well as the opportunity to teach Coaching Education for USAC and TrainingPeaks University. She raced throughout the country as an elite road cyclist and professional mountain bike racer, retiring in 2017. Follow Joy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and sign up for her weekly newsletter through her website.

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