How to train an athlete for a world record attempt

How do you train an ultra-endurance cyclist to smash a world record attempt by 45 days? Here Lesley she gives us the lowdown on how she created the training plan that got Mark to the start line.

When did you start training Mark for the challenge?

I started formally working with Mark in August 2016. Obviously I didn't start from a blank canvas, Mark set out on his first world record attempt in 2008 and has consistently completed a range of ultra-endurance challenges since, so he had a great foundation. The difference with this challenge was that it was the first time he was fully supported by a whole team of specialists, and my role within that was to get him into the best physical shape possible. 

What did you actually do in that 11 months of coaching Mark full-time before he set out on the challenge?

I guess the main difference for Mark was that he had never really had any formal structured training when preparing for a challenge before this. This was the first ever time he had had a coach, in the past he had always just cycled to how he felt rather than following a structured training programme. So the first thing I did with Mark was work on structure and consistency. For me these are the two most important elements of constructing a successful training programme. They sound easy and straightforward but the reality is that most individuals struggle to plan effectively. During training you have to stress the body in order to achieve adaptations, however if this happens too quickly or you don't include enough rest days this can all fall apart. 

"The whole art of creating a training programme is balancing the recovery element with the build element, so that you get the best out of someone without taking them so far that you increase their risk of injury and illness."

And how did you structure the training from building miles in the legs in August 2016 to being challenge-ready in July 2017?

So I always work in 4 week blocks. For the first 3 weeks of each block we would build up and then in the 4th week Mark would have what I refer to as an adaptation week. That week basically gives his body a chance to recover from all the stress that’s been placed on it by the training.

So Mark would do a week with reduced training?

Yes, it's important to note that this is not a week of sitting in front of the TV with your feet up. Instead it is a week where the volume and intensity of the session are reduced in order to give the body a chance to catch up with itself. You cannot adapt to training whilst training, this only occurs during recovery. The volume of training is still quite high when you’re talking about people like Mark, but it just reduces slightly. It gives the body that little chance to recuperate properly before you move on, because the next block will build even higher.

The whole art of creating a training programme is balancing the recovery element with the build element, so that you get the best out of someone without taking them so far that you increase their risk of injury and illness, and I think working in those blocks can help you achieve that balance.

What type of training did you do with Mark?

I prescribed a variety of training in Mark's programme - everything from hill running to road cycling, to indoor cycling and a variety of body conditioning exercises. Mark would complete a high volume of training each week, for example in the programme a three hour bike ride is what we used as a recovery session, whereas for most people this would be their main session! 

Mark has a busy working schedule where he often travels, as well as a young family. How did you fit the training schedule, where the volume of work was always increasing, around his existing commitments?

Mark's team would email me his schedule for the following week every Thursday, including where he would be and what commitments he had, and based on that schedule I’d create a training programme to fit in with that. It would be a daily programme of sessions to go out and complete and I would tailor it to wherever he was, what terrain he was near, what kind of weather would occur where he was. Everything was adapted to where Mark was and what was going on in his life at that time. 

Because the Scottish winter weather can make it difficult to do a lot of training outside, Mark went to Majorca in December to get some outdoors training done in the sunshine where we were hoping the weather would be more reliable, however it actually snowed while he was out there! The hotel staff had never seen snow in their lives so that was pretty unpredictable - it's a reminder that you have to be prepared to adapt the programme last minute sometimes!

What kind of strength and conditioning training did Mark have to complete to get his body ready for the challenge?

In terms of strength and conditioning this is where Laura Penhaul Mark's physiotherapist and performance manager took charge. She did a full assessment of Mark - looked at all his strengths and weaknesses in terms of his conditioning and then prescribed exercises for him to do to address certain areas. We worked closely together to make sure he was in the best possible condition when he reached the startline in Paris.

What kind of testing did you do with Mark throughout the training programme?

Mark came into the sports science labs at Sighthill Campus relatively regularly throughout the training programme. I did a whole set of testing on him at the beginning including things like VO2 Max, lactate threshold, body composition and immune system analysis. Having Mark in the lab and able to use all our equipment to fully analyse his fitness was what enabled me to set a training programme that was specific only to Mark. 

Once Mark has completed the challenge I'll then use this data to help him work on his recovery from the challenge as a whole. 

Who looked after Mark's nutrition during his training?

Ruch McKean is the sports nutritionist on the team and she has been working really hard to ensure that Mark has been getting all the nutrients he needs. While he is on the challenge Mark is eating around 9000 calories a day - which is a lot of food! Ruth's plan while he's on the 80 day challenge was to drip feed him, so that he is given snacks and little meals throughout the day so he can carry on cycling rather than trying to fit all those calories into one or two meals.

What other areas did Mark work on in preparation for the challenge?

Mark did a lot of things for the first time for this challenge that he hadn’t done for previous ones. It may be surprising but before this challenge he had never actually had a professional bike fitting! So we made sure he did that so the bike was perfectly adjusted for him. He also went to a podiatrist and they specifically looked at his foot position on the pedals, and made sure his feet were in the best condition possible to be able to take the amount of force being put through for 16 hours a day over the 80 days. 

What defines an athlete like Mark? How do you know you are working with an athlete that is capable of pushing the boundaries of human endurance beyond anything that's been seen before?

The first time I met with Mark and we had our first consultation I realised that I was working with someone very special and different to the other athletes I had worked with previously. Mark has surprised me at every turn in terms of his total commitment both in preparation and while he's out on the road carrying out the challenge. Physically he has a very good engine and mentally he is incredibly strong, I personally have a learnt a lot working alongside him this past year.

Want to learn the skills to work with record-breaking athletes?

Lesley is an Associate Lecturer and teaches on our MSc Sport Performance Enhancement. She has worked with elite athletes from a variety of sports including running, cycling and rugby and can teach you the key skills and knowledge to successfully build a career in an elite applied sports environment.