The Coach(ed) Corner: Chasing rabbits

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  • Published Nov. 7, 2008
  • Updated Nov. 29, 2012 at 10:30 AM EDT

By Jason Sumner

Sumner on the rabbit hunt.

Photo: Mia Sullivan

I don’t know about the rest of my fellow weekend warrior ’cross-aholics, but race time is often also deep thoughts time. It’s not like I’m out there unfurling the complexities of E=mc2 while hopping barriers. But rarely does a race pass when I don’t find myself pondering something beyond the typical “pedal harder-don’t crash-shit, I crashed-man, I’m cracking-cool, I feel better” merry-go-round.

This past weekend, at round No. 1 of the Boulder Cup, the day’s conundrum was a simple, Why? As in, Why the hell was I out there suffering like a mutt in a third world country? The answer, for me at least, is multi-faceted. There are the standard answers such as staying in modest shape, setting and achieving a few goals, and, it is something to do besides sitting on the couch eating Bon-Bons while watching the Broncos give up easy touchdowns.

The chase is on.

Photo: Mia Sullivan

But upon deeper reflection, I’ve decided that my willingness to endure temporary pain is exceedingly driven by what I’ll call the perpetual rabbit chase. You know the drill: You have 2-3-4 buddies (aka rabbits) that you do most of your riding and racing with. And while of course it’s exciting to pass anyone during a ’cross race, it’s always a lot more fun when you actually know the guy’s name. On the flip side, getting passed is never desirable, but getting passed by one of your rabbits always stings a little more.

Now granted, much of this motivation comes tangentially from the fact that I’m not out there winning races, and therefore need something else to motivate me. I’m sure for podium regulars, winning is indeed the driving motivation. But for muckers like yours truly, the race within the race often becomes the race.

(Sorry coach, I know this is not killer-instinct thinking. And yes, I still think about the front of the race, too. It’s just sometimes harder to get excited about 10th, 11th or 12th, when seven-day group ride bragging rights are on the line.)

KP making the charge.

Photo: Mia Sullivan

Anyway, the rabbit chase has been on in full effect this ’cross season, with myself and good friends Neal and KP duking it out on regular basis. We’ve all had moments in the sun, and all been face down in the dirt or sand. If there was a scoreboard it would read, tied. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to realize that the end result of the rabbit chase isn’t all that important (18th is still 18th). It’s the motivation you get from your rabbits, and that your rabbits get from you, that makes all that suffering bearable.

In order to stay competitive in this rabbit chase, I sat down with Coach Neal this week to discuss a few topics specific to this time of year: not getting sick and not gaining too much winter weight. His advice in a nutshell — wash your hands and take it easy on the booze.

“I’m really a big believer in all the hand sanitizer bottles that you see popping up this time of year,” said Neal Henderson. “Using that plus washing your hands frequently goes a long way towards staying healthy.”

Neal has one in his sights.

Photo: Mia Sullivan

And if you do feel something coming on?

“Vitamin C and zinc can be a big help,” Coach added. “Also try to stay really well hydrated and back off your intensity a little. If you look at your heart rate, perceived effort and power, when you start coming down with something, you’ll see that at the same effort level heart rate will be 8-10 beats higher. When that happens you should go on the defensive. Get more sleep and decrease training intensity. If your illness is just in the head and not the lungs, doing some easy training is probably better than nothing at all. A lot of times I’ll have guys set up an indoor trainer with no fan. That way they’ll stay out of the cold and help cook out the viruses at the same time. But if it gets worse, then it’s time to pull the plug.”

Here rabbit rabbit.

Photo: Mia Sullivan

As for making your post-cold comeback, the strategy is slow and steady.

“That first week back should be half of what you’ve been doing,” he said. “The second week after a light illness can be 100 percent. But if it was a heavy hitter, go with 75 percent that second week, and then 100 in the third week.”

And what about the off-season spare tire many of us seem to acquire?

“It really depends on a person’s history,” said Coach. “If someone always gains a big chunk of weight, say more than 10 pounds, that’s going to be hard to get rid of. But 3-6 pounds isn’t a big deal. Reasonable early-season training over a couple months will take care of that without requiring a lot of specific behavior changes. But when you are getting into the 8-10 pounds gained, then it is going to require a more conscious effort to lose that. So if you have that big gain pattern from previous years, it’s good to look ahead and come up with strategies to minimize it. Maybe you are drinking more. Alcohol by itself has a pretty high caloric density, and it can lower inhibitions, meaning you’re more likely to scarf down that second piece of pumpkin pie.”

Bugs: Matt’s the rabbit we can’t catch.

Photo: Mia Sullivan

The flipside is that a little down time — and not worrying about calories — is probably a good thing for most of us.

“I think a good 1-2 weeks off is fine,” Coach recommended. “Maybe try to line it up with your holiday travel, so you are not dragging a bike through the airport or stressing about getting workouts in when you’re at grandma’s house.”

All good advice, as soon as the rabbit chase is over…

Lots of interesting questions this week. If you’d like to ask Coach Neal Henderson a question — or just tell us about your motivations and/or rabbits — please send an e-mail to Remember to include your name and hometown. Questions may be edited for content and clarity.


I just stumbled across your link while checking out some upcoming races I plan on attending in Seattle. I live in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the ‘cross scene is growing rapidly. Anyway, my question: I am a bigger guy from a racing perspective — 6 feet, 190-plus pounds. I have a background in mountain biking and race cat. 2 road, but my biggest hurdle in ‘cross is the mud. I have no problem handling the bike but I sink like a stone, and the more power I apply the deeper I sink… and slower I go. Any suggestions?


I’d start by looking at tire size and tire pressure. Find riders who go through the mud well and find out what their set-ups are. Typically a more narrow tire will sink quicker and find more firm ground. The other aspect to look at is your running. If you know that riding mud is a weakness, then it may be better to prepare to dismount if you know that every time you’re going to get bogged down. It may be best to dismount right at the start and run whole thing. You may find out you’ll come out ahead of somebody who rides half way and then bogs down.

Good luck,


Hi Coach,
Let me start off by saying that I’ve lost over 50 pounds within the last few years so I know what it takes to shed pounds. I’m coming off a breakout year — I’ve moved from the ‘tempo’ rides and am now riding ‘house of pain’ rides. I’m also starting to race cyclocross. I’m making end-over-end improvements in all aspects of my riding. I was 186 pounds in March — down from 255 a few years ago — and am now about 201. Interestingly enough, I don’t really ‘look’ heaver than I did in March, but I feel a little heavier and my pants are a little more snug. But It’s not like I’ve gone up a size. In fact, my shirts are a little looser. My body fat scale, which I don’t really trust, says 21 percent. Doctor Max Testa clocked me in about 15 percent in March (189 lbs) and 17 percent (196) in September.

I’ve been struggling with weight all year — it seems that no amount of riding or tightening up my eating can help me lose weight. More experienced riders have said not worry about my weight until the off-season. However, this year, the off-season will be shorter because of ’cross. If I don’t eat, I don’t ride as well. I try keeping my calories down but then I just don’t have the legs and stamina for the difficult rides. I eat pretty well in terms of unprocessed foods, portion control, drink plenty of water etc. I’m just not sure why the needle is moving in the wrong direction.

Is this a normal phenomenon for cyclists, or do I need to eat even less? I’m riding like crazy, even mixing in a few 1.5-hour easy rides during the week. As I ride more, does my body get used to riding and burn fewer calories?

Thanks for any insight,

Hi Neil,
As you ride more you may become more efficient in terms of what type of fuel is being used. As you improve endurance you tend to see more fat being used as fuel as opposed to carbohydrates. But total amount of energy will only marginally change, and only over years of time – and it will never make pounds of difference. I think one good idea for you would be to do a truthful body composition test. Skin folds have error, BIA has error. One of best is DEXA scan (dual energy X-ray absorptiometry). It’s is low dose X-ray done over the entire body to get a true measure of bone, fat and lean tissue. It can be harder to find, but typically you see them available at some hospitals and universities. I’d also recommend that you look at overall stress in your life. Not sleeping well or other high stress factors can have an impact on body composition.

The next step would be to work with dietician. Start with a resting metabolic rate test to find out your basal calorie needs. If you are using a power meter, you could get actual energy expenditure in kilojoules which is essentially calories. Then you’d have an even better idea of what you actually need to take in.

Bottom line, I would not obsess about weight as long as your performances on the bike are getting better.

Hope that helps,


Hello Coach Neal,
I am an aspiring ultra-marathon mountain biker, who like most people, has a job and a family. My schedule is limited to one day off during the ski season, which runs through the first week of April. I know the importance of early season base building and would like some suggestions on how to achieve long, low intensity workouts within small chunks of time. My goals for the season will include a couple of 100 milers and ultimately — if it happens — the Breckenridge Epic. Any help would be great.

Thanks very much for your time,
Taos, New Mexico

Hey Anthony,
One idea is that you could try going to the very opposite style of more traditional training. Instead of an early season volume build, try going with higher intensity, low volume in the winter, basically reverse periodization. You’ll do higher intensity, low volume first, and then as you get to better weather, more free time, and closer to your long event, start doing the volume. There have been some very successful athletes who have used this format. There is more than one way to get it done. If your lifestyle doesn’t mesh with the standard operating procedure don’t be afraid to try something different and buck the traditional training ideas. You can still be successful.
Good luck,


I’ve been hearing much debate on the effectiveness of detraining this time of year. Some say a break is necessary from both a mental and physical standpoint, but I find myself falling into the second camp that believes detraining hinders fitness improvement because so much time needs to be spent re-gaining lost fitness. And frankly, since few of us are pros, we don’t operate at the same pace as they do during the year and don’t need the break. What’s your opinion?
Denver, Colorado

Hi Jordan,
Good question. The answer really depends on the individual. How much training have you done? Have you been dealing with injuries or other impacts to your training during the season? And for some it’s just a mental thing. They get cooked by end of season and do need some time off. For someone who races for a living, that break will probably be more necessary. But I’ve also seen plenty of regular people that also need a break this time of year.

One approach is instead of thinking of it as detraining, go into a maintenance mode where you are not trying to progress your training. So maybe do 1-2 quality days a week, but drop total training volume. Another way to look at it is to pick up more cross training so you can both get that fire for the bike back, and work the body in different ways. Go for a hike or do some cross country skiing. That way you’ll have that true burning excitement for the bike when it comes time to start back up again.

On the flip side, if you’re not tired keep riding. Even the top pros don’t dramatically detrain just because of the amount of time it takes to get it back. In general you lose it twice as fast as you gain it. So backing off a couple weeks is about the limit for most pros. They usually do nothing and then start back up.


Hey Neal,
My question is about weight training during the off-season. I know there are differing opinions on this issue. Am I better off doing slow RPM hill repeats to build power, or is weight training more effective? If you do advocate hitting the gym could you give some advice on what to do (i.e. heavy weight, low reps; light weight, high reps; stressing the muscles to exhaustion, etc.)
Thanks for the help,

This is definitely on of those issues where you will find opinions on both sides of the line. There is not a ton of clear cut research that applies for the cyclists we are talking about. A lot of models have used un-trained individuals and have shown that weight training does not improve performance. But there are some studies that have shown threshold improvement. Personally I would say it depends on what kind of riding you do and what kind of strength training background you have. A crit racer may want higher resistance training, so on the bike I recommend that you throw in some maximal sprints during your training rides: short all out sprints of 5-10 seconds with complete recovery in between. This will help improve cycling specific power.

In the weight room, the No. 1 piece of advice is be safe and don’t hurt yourself. Ease into it and do a progression by getting the body ready for a couple weeks. Then do a more classic strength training routine of 2-4 sets and 10-12 reps. Then move onto a more power phase with higher weight and lower reps, and then go back to an endurance phase, say 1-2 sets and 20-50 reps. I’m not going to say it’s the perfect substitute for time on the bike, but it can give you something to do when you can’t ride the bike.
Good luck,


Hello Coach,
I’m 33 and have been “retired” from cross-country mountain bike racing for 4 years. Before that I raced at the expert level in local/regional events for five seasons. I’m healthy and have maintained reasonable fitness, but not peak or race fitness, during this layoff. I have not gained weight, and regularly ride several times a week.

In my past racing and training, I followed a specific training plan outlined in Joe Friel’s Mountain Bike Training Bible, and am committed to following a similar training sequence this off season. Is it realistic to return to equal or greater fitness after my four year layoff from competition?
Indianapolis, Indiana

The old adage says that it’s always easier to return to a place that you’ve been before than to go where you’ve never been. So yes, it’s very likely. A four-year layoff isn’t so bad if some fitness was maintained and weight was controlled. It might not happen until end of season, but you also may get to a higher level. Don’t sell yourself short and say that you’ll only be as good as were. Age drop off usually doesn’t occur until into the 50s. Through the 30s you shouldn’t see any major drop off. And of course there are plenty of guys in their late 30s that are still going strong, including a certain other cyclist from Texas who’s attempting his own comeback. I wouldn’t bet against him and I wouldn’t bet against you as long as you are willing to put the work in.
Good luck,


Hey Coach Neal,
I’m a 45-year-old with a full-time job and a 3-year-old. I’m in good physical shape, but my history as a soccer player and sprinter has left me fast but short on cycling-specific endurance. After a few major injuries I gave up contact sports and took up cycling to rehab and keep in shape. I’ve been riding for about six years now and have begun doing some of the local races in Ottawa. In the summer my riding includes a crit race once a week (one hour), one other night of riding during the week (two hours), and one longer ride (3-4 hours) on the weekend.

I’ve also started racing in the local cyclocross races. They are one per week, 1 hour long, from September till the end of November. Once winter arrives I set up my trainer and ride each night after the kid is in bed while watching the hockey game (Hey, I’m Canadian). That is usually about a 1.5-2-hour session. As you can see, I do not have a lot of time to train and it shows as the boys with the 10-20 hours of ride time per week are smoking my ass in the local races.

So to limit embarrassment and burn marks on my backside, how do I get the best bang for my training time? What should I be doing in each season to give me max benefits? Lets say I want to focus on being a better crit and cross racer. I’ve read a bunch of articles in various magazines but generally they assume much more time than I seem to have available. Moreover they have a lot of training jargon and use either heart rates or power levels to explain the sessions. Let’s just say that the $1000 plus for a power measuring system isn’t in the family budget. With kids and life, most of my riding is summer evenings when the days are long and I can ride after the kids bedtime. In winter I actually have more time to log miles because I ride indoor on the trainer.

What I need is a plain English outline of a training plan for the 5 to 10 hours a week I have in the summer and 10 to 15 hours a week I have in the winter to train. Or maybe I just should accept that I don’t have the time to really get any faster than my old-man, 45-year-old legs are now. Either way, set me straight. I can handle being slow, but if I can do something about it I’d love to get some guidance on the matter.

Thanks for whatever advice you can send my way and keep up the good articles. At the very least I can live vicariously through others!
Ottawa, Canada

Thanks for writing in. I have a couple ideas for you. For starters, since you have more training time in the winter than summer, you might think about targeting some early season races when fitness will conceivably be at its highest. Another thing to keep in mind is that regardless of the amount of training time you have, you still have to focus on maximizing recovery. Also the lower your training volume is, the more intense it should be. So in winter you may not need to go as hard.

So let’s start with a 9-10 hour a week program. First, I’d start by picking a day off. Figure out where it fits best in life with work, family, etc. So lets say it’s Sunday so he can spend more time with the family. On Monday do a steady state endurance ride that’s about 90 minutes. It should feel moderately hard, not too hard not too easy. One where you can still talk and not be labored.

On Tuesday work on sprints because you are still relatively fresh for the week. Do a pyramid of 5-10 second sprints with a variable amount of rest in between. Maybe start off with less rest in between, say 30 seconds between sprints, and then build to 4-5 minutes rest with longer sprints, say 10-20 seconds. Do this over 90-minute session with the rest of the time being done at an easy pace. Wednesday do a steady aerobic ride, say two hours.

Thursday do active recovery, just 30-60 minutes real easy, with some high cadence low resistance mixed in. Friday do a tempo ride with threshold intervals (basically your max output if you ride for an hour). Start with 3-6 minute threshold intervals, and build to 10-15 minutes, doing 30-60 minutes of total interval time over a 90-minute ride. Saturday do two hours steady with some short sprints every 5-10 minutes

Start there and check back in a few months and we’ll take it from there.

Good luck,


Editor’s Note: Jason Sumner is an almost-38-year-old, 172-pound freelance writer and Cat. 4 bike racer who is working with a cycling coach — and training with power — for the first time. Sumner underwent a full battery of lab tests at the beginning of the season, producing a 250-watt lactate threshold, a 3.2 watts per kilogram score and a VO2 max of 51.5. His 2008 goals include improving on his usual mid-pack finishes, not getting dropped on the weekend group rides, and learning something along the way. He is documenting his experiences for is this twice-monthly column.

His coach, Neal Henderson, is sports science manager at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and a well-regarded elite-level coach. Henderson’s clients include 2008 Olympian and soon-to-be Livestrong rider Taylor Phinney. Henderson is also the winter triathlon coach for the U.S. national triathlon team, and this year was named USA Cycling National Development Coach of the Year. Henderson is working with Jason Sumner on a pro bono basis.

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