Kerrison on Watts, weights and suffering
Tim Kerrison is the Australian coach brought into Team Sky to re-think the team’s training and work with ‘the GC group’ from 2010 onwards. Previously, Kerrison had been working as a coach with the British swimming team under Bill Sweetenham and only officially started work with Team Sky at the end of 2009. After a disappointing 2010 and a crash-blighted 2011 Tour, 2012 saw his riders finish one-two on the final podium of the Tour de France.
In as much as Team Sky has taken rider support and preparation to new levels (previously, arguably, only the Italian Mapei team had got close), we thought it prudent to ask him to outline his job.
“My role as head of performance support with Sky is to guide the training and conditioning of training of the guys that are here. And in the past three years that I’ve been with the team I’ve been paying particular attention to the GC riders and how to develop the team to the point where they can win the Tour. My job is really about looking at the demands of the event and then advising the riders about what training would be best, how much, when and about recovery.”
You had no background in cycling at all and the first time you met Bradley Wiggins was in early 2010. At what point did you think he had what it took to win the Tour?
I think our whole team thought that. He had finished fourth overall the year before and I think we believed that he had the potential to finish up there in the GC, but as a team we spent the first year learning about the demands of the sport, learning about the riders we had and learning what we had to do, what we needed to change to get him into a position to win, to where we are now. So I think over time we put all the pieces together and year by year we’ve improved the team, made a stronger team, more capable of delivering the result and as time passed it became clear that we had leaders in this team that were capable of winning the Tour de France.
Were you surprised at how little data there was on the riders in terms of their physiology and on how little data there was on the demands of the Tour?
Many riders are riding with SRM Powermeters, so we can measure power, speed, heart rate, cadence, altitude, temperature, so there is plenty of information out there, although it’s not necessarily managed as well as it could be. And that’s always one of the challenges when technology advances and the amount of information you have access to grows, the challenge is what you do with all this information. So it took us a while to get on top of that as well.
In terms of understanding the physiological demands of a three-week race – coming as you did from swimming and rowing – was that a daunting task?
There’s two elements there. The first one is to work out what a rider needs to be capable of doing on a given day. And then there’s the secondary element, an endurance element which is about being able to recover sufficiently from that effort to be able to continue and being able to deliver the same performance at a high enough level over a three-week period and it’s one of those things that is very hard to simulate that, I mean, you could, in training, but I don’t think it would be a very wise thing to do (laughs), so it’s really only something that you can learn about through racing. And that’s not about bringing in what I learned so much from working in rowing and cycling so much as looking at the specific demands of this sport and drawing on those experiences I have already had.
And so for Brad and Chris, their last three-week race before the Tour was the 2011 Vuelta and actually both of them held up very well – in fact the whole team held up very well – there was some specific challenges in that race, towards the end that favoured Chris over Brad (some steep climbs – KP), but they both held up, physiologically, in terms of what they were able to deliver, really well. “
Was your first year with the team about laying the foundations in terms of gathering data and working out what the riders needed to do before you implemented a training plan for the riders?
Yeah, in terms of training in the first year we just tried to provide the typical support you’d expect within a team but over that first year it probably didn’t have as much direct impact into the sort of training that the riders were doing. Since then, we’ve developed a coaching team and the majority of what we do as a performance support and coaching group is to guide the conditioning of the riders to develop riders who can match the demands of the event. Most of my work is done away from the races and so when I come on a race, because I am new to cycling it’s mostly about overseeing what’s going on, proving support in terms of hydration on hot days and strategies in place to deal with that and learning as much as I can about the sport and seeing for myself the demands of a three-week bike race. But most of my work is in the panning, planning for the training and planning for the performance and the coaching of the riders. We spend a lot of time together away from races at training camps. This year, most of the guys who are here on this Tour team had a couple of training camps in Majorca, a couple in Tenerife and after the Dauphine we did a recon of a couple of the stages and then back into the Alps for another camp there – that’s where most of my work is done.
From a physiological point of view, what sort of adaptations did you expect to see when you were working with the riders at altitude on Mount Teide in Tenerife?
The number one reason we go there is that it’s a climbing camp, it happens to be at altitude and one of the things we expect to see is an acclimatization to the altitude because one of the demands of the Tour is that you have to be able to perform at altitude. So we don’t go there as an altitude training camp to stimulate red blood cell production, we go there to adapt to be able to perform at altitude. Then there’s just the effect you get from being at a training camp, you are very isolated, there’s nothing you can do there except train and recover. And finally there’s heat acclimatization, it’s generally a lot hotter than anywhere else in the rest of Europe and that’s something else you need to be able to cope with at the Tour and we know that was something that Brad struggled with during the 2012 Tour. He’s now, of our riders, one of the best ones at handling the heat.”
Have you had to change Brad’s body shape at all?
After our first year as a team in 2010 we sat down and had a look at everything – we didn’t have a fantastic Tour in 2010 – so we sat down and looked at the areas where Brad was strong and where he needed work and some of the key things was that he had always been strong in time trialling – of course he comes from a pursuiting background his TT was strong and the balance between his TT and climbing needed some work so we did a lot of work on his climbing and one of the elements that’s important there is his power to weight ratio so he’s changed a bit. We’ve focused a lot on his body weight, making sure it was optimal for his climbing but also, when you look at the 2012 Tour route, there was 111km of TT so we had to make sure that he wasn’t too light which would mean he risked losing power in the TTs. It’s a fine balance, but we think we got it right for Brad this year. We’ve had a look at what the demands of the Tour de France are and obviously you have to be strong in the third week and all of our training has been based around being robust, resilient and strong in the third week. Bradley trained harder than he ever had before.
There’s been endless discussion in the media about the form and fitness and power outputs of Brad and Chris. How similar are they?
“I think that both Chris and Brad both have very similar threshold power to weight figures. Chris is a few kilos lighter than Brad. Their performances speak for themselves, but they are very similar physiologically. I think that both Chris and Brad have moved on, they are both better than they were at the Vuelta last year, that’s what we train for and they have both trained really hard and both committed and sacrificed a lot. We recognise that he Tour de France is probably the hardest bike races in the world to win and they knew that they needed to continue to improve and develop as riders.
How can you find a balance between strength for TT and climbing?
It’s not something that we can quantify, we’ve looked at his performances in the past when he was racing at different weights and we’ve decided on a weight and a power development that is appropriate for that. Brad’s racing at about 71kgs at the Tour.
Bradley has said you had revolutionised training. How do you react to that? Is it justified?
Um. I don’t know, I don’t know whether that’s the case or not, the training we do is just…I don’t know, it’s hard for me to say because it’s just an amalgamation of things that I was doing as a rowing coach back in Australia and what I learned from the many, many great swimming coaches I worked with in Australia and GB and looking at some of the innovative training methods we used in Australian swimming, with sprint freestyle through to 1500m, the training we do is just an amalgamation of all the information and knowledge that we’ve accumulated as a coach and a sports scientist. So it’s hard for me to know what is so special or innovative about it, it’s just what I think is the right thing to do to prepare the riders for competition.
Brad made a comment somewhere that I had been coaching the team like swimmers and that’s not the case at all, because they are not swimmers and the events are very, very different! But what I’ve said all along is that the human body responds to a training stimulus in a similar way and human physiology is the same regardless of whether you are a rower or a swimmer or a cyclist and it’s understanding how the body responds to training loads – and having gained a better understanding of that through working in other sports – that has allowed me to tailor the training for the cyclists to do what they need to do at the Tour.
People are getting fixated on watts, threshold power and power-to-weight ratios, but do you think that there’s another element in competition that escapes measurement – a rider’s ability to suffer?
“Yeah, I think that’s true, but it is something you can train – I think – or maybe it’s something you can practice more than anything, but it’s also something you have to be really careful with too, because in training that level of effort you have to go very deep and it puts great demands on the body and it affects recovery times and affects your ability to train after that. So yes, it is something that’s important, all high performance athletes – rowers, cyclists, swimmers – need to be able to endure fatigue, pain and need to be able to continue in spite of their bodies screaming at them to stop, and it is something we selectively build into training sessions, but to be honest we don’t do a lot of it because it is damaging to do too much of it.
We use numbers, the power figures we gather through the SRM Powermeters purely to guide the training process, in some training efforts they will use their box (on the bars – KP) to gauge whether they are riding at the right intensity, but they all also recognise that it’s not the be-all and end-all and on any given day they could be significantly better or worse than what their boxes are telling them. Which is another reason why we typically do not take riders into the lab to test them and try to get a snap shot of what their physiology is on any day. We are more interested in looking at them over longer periods of time which is more useful when it comes to assessing what they are and are not capable of – sometimes that might be over a couple of week period or a three-month period, depending on the training workload that they’ve been given over that period.
There are people asking questions about Brad’s transition from track rider to Tour winner, but I think they’re missing the point a little. If he had been a track sprinter then, you know…that would be valid, but Brad was an endurance track rider and the physiological characteristics are different, certainly, but it is possible to transform a track endurance rider into a Tour winner.
Are you surprised at the interest and speculation in you and your methods?
Um. Yeah, I think so, though it’s not totally new. When I was working with the Australian women’s swimming sprint team for Athens it was similar. We redefined the way women’s sprinting was trained, we went back to basics, coined the term reverse periodisation, did lots of analysis on racing and the training they did. Reverse periodisation was a new idea that meant instead of laying down an aerobic base at the start of the season and doing the speed training at the end of the block, we turned it around, so that we did speed first and then developed aerobic power and threshold through the back end of the season. That was a big change that got results.
So what about the idea that Brad could stay at 96 per cent of his form all year? Did that plan come out of your thinking?
Ah, well, I haven’t heard what he said, but I think it might have been slightly misconstrued because what Brad has aimed to do this year is when he goes to race – he is ready to race and he’s able to race at or close to 100 per cent of what he is capable of doing at that specific time. But he certainly hasn’t been at 100 per cent – at a complete fitness level – throughout the whole year, we’ve taken a very patient approach to this year in terms of holding back a little, he did a lot of training between races and he trained a lot better through November, December, January than he has in previous years, though really just doing hours and kilometres on the bike. We were really conscious of wanting to go to races and perform and we had some objectives along the way and so far he ticked all those boxes, but we didn’t want to get to his Tour de France form in March, we didn’t want to get in top form quicker. And of course there were always those suggestions that he had peaked too early when he won Paris-Nice, peaked too early when he won Romandie, peaked too early when he won the Dauphine, but we’ve been very conscious all the time to hold him back a little bit to make sure he had something left for the big training block in May and then the Dauphine in June, then a little training block after the Dauphine then deliver him to this race in his best form of the year.”
How long did it take you to convince Bradley to give your ideas a go?
“Well, I think if I had come in at the beginning of 2010 and tried to tell any of our riders what they should be doing in terms of training then I would have been laughed out of the room but I think over the period of that year – when Brad didn’t have a great year, for a lot of reasons – I think he recognised that he needed to change something. Shane Sutton probably played a role in convincing Brad that we needed to try something different and that I was worth listening to and I think fairly quickly Brad realised that at least some of the stuff made sense and it kind of snowballed from there really.
Was there a specific moment that you thought that you had overcome any initial scepticism he and the team might have had?
I think we got very, well, fairly immediate results with Paris-Nice in 2011 where he came third, which was probably the best stage race result he had had for a while and that after that, we went up to Tenerife and did our first camp there. We go up to Tenerife, to Mount Teide for a lot of reasons but mainly because it’s a venue where you can’t help but climb, you are up there doing 4,000 meters, of climbing every day and I think it was probably after that, when he went to the Bayern Rundfahrt and performed well there, then went on to the Dauphine and won that and I think after the Dauphine of last year (2011) he knew that he was on the right track with the work we were doing.”
Do you think there would have been fewer eyebrows raised about Brad’s performance in 2012 if he hadn’t crashed out last year?
Well, he has definitely moved on as a rider, in terms of his form, from last year. He won the Dauphine last year (2011) and was in great shape and unfortunately crashed, so we’ll never know. He was in great condition in 2011, whether or not he would have been capable of riding the way he did in 2012, we’ll never know.”
Words: Kenny Pryde