Episode #59 – The Role of Genes and Practice in Cycling

Episode #59 – The Role of Genes and Practice in Cycling

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You will never think of talent the same after this episode. I take a look into the role that genetics play in determining your talent, and how much weight should be placed on skills acquisition verses natural ability in cycling.[buzzsprout episode=’111192′ player=’true’]

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I’m not sure whether you have ever heard of Ludo Dierckxsens, the belgian rider that had a 12 year professional career that was marked as much by his aggressively fun character as it was by his results. Results that included this win on Stage 11 of the 1999 the Tour de France.

What’s remarkable about Dierckxsens is that he was a spray-painter in the DAF truck factory before turning PRO at 29. It’s an unlikely story, and one that is definitely the exception on PRO cycling, rather than the rule. He may of sign a PRO contract late, but how long did it take him from when he started cycling? I can’t say for sure, but his palmeres has him winning races 10 years before that.

Is it the case that he did something wrong? If so, what did he do wrong? Of course I have no idea what surround his unique circumstances – but it raises an interesting question.

What factors go into predetermining someones success at cycling?

In this episode I’m exploring the idea of talent. Touching somewhat on development, and taking a deep dive into the idea of being born with a gift.

This topic is interesting from a Semi-Pro perspective, especially those that have entered cycling into later on in life. I hear a lot of self defeating talk when it comes to riders, and their own abilities, or genetic makeup – is there still hope for them?

What do you believe your ability is? It’s a biggie in cycling – before I dig into ability though – What role do motivation and opportunity play in your success?

Something a little personal about me. I believe I sit in the ability-no motivation category because I’ve always found it hard to train consistently. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve begun to enjoy the process much more than the outcome, and training has become much more motivating in itself.

It’s hard to develop motivation but understanding your why is something I’ve spoken about before – it could an effect on how long or how you train, or how long you stick with the bunch over a tough climb in a race – something worth considering.

Same can be said for opportunity – the starting price of a bike – plus the expensive of travel, race fees is definitely a contributing factor to inhabiting a rider from developing.

I’ll admit there’s nothing really groundbreaking there – that’s because the interesting stuff starts with your ability. I will split ability into two categories, physical and mental.

Physical Ability

A book by David Epstein’s called ‘The Sports Gene’ is a breakdown of the latest research into the nature versus nurture debate as applied to sport. Because it debunks the idea that nurture (practice and environment) is the key to success, arguing with well-chosen examples that nature, in the form of genetic makeup, also has a crucial role to play.

Regarding physical ability in cycling, something like reaching aerobic capacity in cycling is a gradual process – with some claiming that 5 years is the time frame it takes to reach our aerobic capacity. Genetics plays a role in how we get to this point. This is where the idea of talent comes from – or class if you’re a european cyclist.

The definition of talent has changed over time from the idea that it’s a skill that preexists any attempt to train to, your ability to get more benefit from you one hour of training than your training partners one hour of training.

I had this happen to me – and maybe you’ve experienced this – where I had a training partner when I was younger, and we did pretty much the same training week-in-week-out. I believe my response was better, and the results in training and racing at the time showed that.

This is definitely a genetic disposition to respond better to the same amount of training – Along with things like aerobic capacity and weight loss are pretty much agreed upon as being genetic. Ouch! It is true – there are ways to test this, but the consumer technology isn’t there yet. So I wouldn’t bother at this stage in the genome game.

This is only part of the equation. I will admit a big one when it comes to cycling, don’t we aren’t reaching to win the Tour or be the open road world champion. So stay with me…

Mental Ability

Is what I’ll call the genetic ability of the mind. Things such as responding under pressure, reading a race, pacing…there is claim to genes in the brain are being linked to picking up skills quicker. Such as genes associated with proteins in the brain – Ouch double blow.

If we were to look at the professional peloton – there is the idea that cyclists would have certain innate qualities that are higher than average. I don’t have anything to back this up, but something like your emotional response or pain tolerance could be an example. More likely a specific type of pain though – because we know a big part of racing bikes is simply pain management.

The first person that shot into my head was this guy…Tyler Hamilton). What would explain his higher than normal ability to suffer? I can’t answer that but I do believe us mere mortals can train this area of our cycling. That it’s something that can be learnt over time. Even the man himself says it’s possible.

How about other factors?

Putting direct mental ability aside, how important is it to practice skills in cycling? Elements like tactics, bike handling, reading races.

Part of me wants to say that skill isn’t as important as a game like golf for example. That’s me just being naive though – there are things we all do after a certain time on the bike that we simply don’t think about once we have mastered the skill.

Braking for example – when was the last time you went into a corner at speed, or made an emergency stop and thought about how to distribute the braking.

The idea of deliberately practicing at the edge of your ability is a hard one to transfer into cycling because even at lower levels of racing, for example if you don’t have the fitness to attack, how will you ever learn how to attack. Sometimes it’s just not possible.

There are bottlenecks to skill development in cycling. Places where I can see a clear path are mountain bike descending, or CX dismounting. Those can be isolated from a certain fitness requirement – and practiced in their own right. How?

What Daniel Coyle author of the book The Talent Code says here makes a lot of sense. And it’s these skill based elements of cycling that can help you reach your potential by growing…not being born with a gift.

Is it as simple as Malcolm Gladwell’s idea from the his book Outliers, puts 10 years of practice until you are a master, and deliberate practice has become a central concept in development.

As Epstein states in an interview on NPR – “It’s become shorthand for practice. There’s no denying practice is important, but it’s the role of the scientist to figure how important it is for each sport.”

Yes in cycling the engine is ultimately what drives the rider, but it’s a little more blurred when it comes to Semi-Pros. There are other factors because while PROs are looking for the pinnacle of all humans no restrictions withstanding. Semi-Pros are searching for the best performance based on a lot of compromised factors.

For Semi-Pros I see the combination of developing your engine less of importance as skills that are specific to your event. Working out the skills that have a clear progression, and having a timeline of intentional, well-planned, and individualized development will help you develop further.

How can you apply that to specific cycling skills?

Through deliberate practice you can develop yourself.

This doesn’t stop there though because development includes other valuable areas of growth, including psychological, cognitive, and emotional. Plenty of areas to get the edge over the next guy.

The biggest takeaway I want you to get from this episode is that talent development isn’t only for the young, or those with a certain ‘ability’. Everyone has the potential for improvement, regardless of age or beginning ability level, and the concepts of development can be applied regardless of where an individual is at. Remember that developing yourself is not an all-or-nothing concept. An individual’s true capacity cannot be fully understood in the early stages, particularly if the athlete has not yet fully developed.

So put some thought into what areas of your cycling, you can actively develop. Daniels’ last point is direction. Getting the right direction at the right time will help you clarify on what to focus on to get the most out of your training.

Tech, Hacks & Products

I want to use this section of the show to share with you an idea that I’m really excited about.

I want to work it out with you, and everyone else that’s listening. I want to lay out my idea and get your feedback on it.

Sometimes I feel like whenever I record an episode, or offer bits of advice to cyclists, I sometimes wish I could see the bigger picture to help them with the biggest bottlenecks that a specific cyclist faces.

I know, because I’ve done this, my friends have done this, When someone just focuses on the things that make the biggest difference. It’s like lighting a fire underneath them!

So here’s the idea: A high-performance program for Semi-Pros. I want to see if this is valuable to you.

The basic idea is this: I help 3 cyclists optimise their life for training and increase their power.

Here’s the way I want to lay out the product – I’m interested in knowing if you would like to sign up.

A monthly program based on a 4 week power-based cycling program and mobility and stability program. Moving into an off-season getting hold of your strength and mobility is a great to motivate and challenge you. This is personalised for you and your demands and desired outcome.

The training program will be co-authored by me and my mentor, which happens to be my old coach. Who has a great track record working with elite riders. I’m not going to divulge her details on the podcast, but if you want more information just ask, I’m happy to let you know in person.

I think there is great value in that alone – without going too far into the virtues of having someone write your program. That right there is a time saver – and confidence builder.

The programming is just the start though. Because once the program is written that’s when we take it to the next level. I work with you on optimising your life for training. Figuring out in detail, the best times to train on the bike, in the gym, when to take recovery, how you can batch your meals. We will work together to reduce or eliminate anything that gets in the way of your training time.

Part of this is delivering your training workouts when it counts, so all you have to do is focus on the workout, thus maximising your workouts. The 80/20 of what will make the biggest difference to your fitness. This is going to be delivered via email, and online training software like trainer road.

The final part of the program is weekly group accountability calls. I’ve been using this in my own cycling on and off for the past 6 months or so, and I am really seeing the benefit in this type interaction with other cyclists. Different perspectives, training ideas, experiences, racing tactics, you name it. The opportunity to jump on the phone and talk to other cyclists having the same issues as you is highly undervalued. Especially, because I will guarantee you will not have a local competitor on the call. This alone will give you an edge when you arrive at the starting line.

The idea here is to start the program with 3 foundation members. After which I will close the offer to work exclusively with these riders. to give them the rockstar treatment, and to because having only 3 foundation members will help me to refine the system, to deliver better results in the long run.
Price – I’m starting at $229 per month.
Actually seeing results one to one is the exciting part of this for me – At the end of the day I want to cyclists to say – this program has changed their life.
Would you spend $229 for a monthly high-performance training program? If you think that works for you – I have a page at semiprocycling.com/high-performance-program that you can check out.
Otherwise email me [email protected] let me know what you think or if you want to discuss your cycling goals, we can jump on Skype and have a chat about them.


Photo Credit: exit17 on Flickr


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