Why To (Or Not To) Train Like The Pros with John Wakefield

by | Jan 22, 2024 | Training Insights, Bike, Featured, Sports, Training

Is it a good idea to copy the training sessions and programs of the World’s best riders? John Wakefield shares his thoughts.

In these days of following pros on Strava and the general wide access to information that we enjoy, there can be a temptation as amateur athletes to copy the sessions that we see our heroes smashing out or to download a free training program off the internet that might or might not throw us a little too far into the deep end.

Are there risks to copying a session or two that we see a professional rider post on their social media? Should I just keep pushing through when the training plan I’m on seems to be driving me into the ground?

To answer these questions and bring clarity to the situation, we reached out to coach John Wakefield with a few questions about the differences between pro and amateur training and what his advice to the non-pro crowd might be. John is a director at Science2Sport and performance coach for the World Tour Team BORA-hansgrohe. John has coached a range of athletes over the years from budding amateurs to world-class pros and is highly regarded in the field of coaching.

Why To (Or Not To) Train Like The Pros With John Wakefield
John is part of the team of performance coaches that train the BORA-hansgrohe World Tour riders. (c) BORA-hansgrohe

First off John, what would you say is the ratio of pros to amateurs that you currently coach?

 Well first you’ll have to define what a ‘pro’ is. The simple answer is that if you are being funded by your parents, your husband, your wife, to race your bike and you don’t have a self supportive system, then I don’t really consider you a pro. I consider that unfortunate circumstances and an expensive hobby. 

If I look at the actual pro versus amateur ratio that I have at the moment, I actually have a very high ratio of pros versus amateurs, which is not always the case. I would probably say 75 percent of my clientele are professionals and of that 75%, I’d guess 90 percent of them are based in and around Europe.

What happens when an amateur tries to copy a pro rider’s training session? Do they just ride it to their capacity or can it potentially do harm?

They won’t really do harm. At the end of the day, you can try to copy a session of what they do but to be honest with you though, the pros don’t do anything wild or extreme or completely different to the general folk.

At the end of the day, a training prescription is a training prescription. They may be able to obviously produce a higher power value for a longer duration.  That is obviously one thing, so if you try to follow it, follow it. If they are doing threshold, follow it on your own threshold. It won’t really do you harm. The only difference where it can potentially create harm or excessive fatigue is where the recovery rate of a pro is significantly quicker than that of an amateur.

Professional riders can recover and do another hard session typically sooner and better than what the average rider can do. So if you’re trying to do those sessions in succession or follow that four week model of theirs, if that’s what they’re doing, an average rider won’t be able to sustain that.

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The pros can obviously push harder than we could dream of but they can also handle a higher training volume because they are essentially paid to recovery properly. (c) Nick Muzik / Cape Epic

Also, the hours are different. If a pro is doing 25 hours with intervals in it, typically the man on the street can’t really follow that. You’d maybe calm it down to 12 – 15 hours, something more sustainable for you. 

What is the biggest / most common mistake you see amateurs making in training?

The most common mistake that amateurs make in their training is simply rest. They overdo it, they overdo the hours. They often think more is better when you want to get quality over quantity. Yes, hours are important, but when you see what a lot of amateurs are doing, especially back home in South Africa, it’s not a sustainable training model.

They definitely overdo the volume and what typically is the outcome is that they unfortunately land up getting worse, then they land up doing more volume because they think they’re losing fitness or they’re not fit enough, so they do more sessions or harder sessions. Typically, if that is the case, you need to back off, let adaptation happen, and start again. 

What is the most notable difference between the pros and us mere mortals that allows them to train and race like they do?

Genetics is definitely one of them, and a very important part. The professionals are that 1 percent of the mere mortals so obviously they are able to push higher numbers.

They are stronger. They have more endurance in them. They have a better recovery rate, et cetera.  Obviously when you are a pro, your training time versus relaxation and recovery is obviously a lot better. So, you know, they will go and train and then they’ll come home and rest properly.

Yeah sure, they have some chores or admin to do, but typically their recovery time is longer and more beneficial whereas someone like myself or you goes and trains and then comes home and you either need to then take the kids to school or go to work, et cetera. All of that external stress makes a huge difference.

We must also remember that a professional typically also has the correct nutritional guidance, they’ll be following a periodized nutrition plan. Then they also receive therapy afterwards, such as a massage, that they’ll probably be getting three times a week, two times a week, or similar to that. This overall recovery and care available to the pros plays a huge part and the general man in the street doesn’t typically have that available.

Training Like The Pro Cyclists Means Eating Well

When it comes to equipment, in today’s times you can literally buy the best equipment that there is out there. It comes down to whether you have the money or not but you can buy a World Tour level road bike or you can buy Matt Beers‘ gravel or mountain bike off the internet or from the shop.

Sure, there are some special parts on there, which cost more, but you know, theoretically the equipment is there. What is beneficial, and that the general public don’t typically have on the equipment side, is access to testing. So, you know, you can test tire resistance on a drum or you can test it on a track if it’s TT work. You can test your TT position, et cetera, and you have that a lot more accessible.

So, for example, going into a certain race you’ll know that at this weight, that temperature, and this tyre choice, you would run 5 bar of pressure. Those little nuances make a difference. If you have that time available, sure, you can do it yourself but generally when it comes to that sort of extra 5 percent of equipment performance, the pro’s have more availability and access to testing.

If an amateur rider does want to copy a session they have seen a pro rider doing, what guidelines would you advise for doing so responsibly?

First off, be realistic on whether you can actually finish that session. You know, if it’s an easy session, such as 3 X 10 minutes at threshold, sure. Go for it. Just stay within your zones (not the professional’s) and don’t overdo it or try to hit the numbers they are doing.

If it’s something like a super long metabolic effort of three, four hours (as an example) you need to just understand what that entails and the stress it will put on your body and the knock-on effect of that in the next few days.

So always, if you’re looking at their session, translate their values to your values and then apply it. Don’t try to go super deep. Don’t try to mimic them exactly. Do it well within your capabilities and be responsible for what you’re doing.

South African Off Road Triathlon In Gauteng At Buffelspoort
If you’re going to copy a pro rider’s session, remember to translate power / effort the zones to your own capacity.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to an amateur looking to train to their best ability?

This goes back to quality over quantity. You know, you want to essentially get the best out of every training session that you do on the bike. If that’s a recovery ride, you want to make sure it’s super easy. If you want to do an interval day, make sure that you hit the numbers, you are consistent, you fuel correctly and that you get that stimulus out of that session.

Don’t just go around and smash it every single time you are on the bike, that only lasts for a week. Also remember that you want to make sure that recovery off-the-bike is good. Things like eating well, not trying to urgently lose weight, not trying to skimp on meals or skimp on recovery. Those all have a huge benefit once you’ve done your training for the day.

Next thing is to focus on what you want to improve. If you are looking at possibly improving your threshold, you know, do a good block of focus training on that. If you’re looking at improving neuromuscular pathways, do a good focus block on that. If you are doing intervals in the week, don’t try to do them every day or every second day.

Rather look at doing them two or three times a week and then typically leave two to three days in between each interval session so you can get proper recovery in. Then when you do that next session you can get that quality and that stimulus of what you want to adapt. So every time you are meant to hit numbers, don’t just put yourself in a hole by thinking doing harder sessions more often is better. Typically the opposite is what you want to do and how you want to do it.

Tour De France 2023 Stage 5 News And Highlights
Getting a coach doesn’t mean that you’ll only be doing hardcore scientific training. A good coach will help you find the right program to make riding fun while you get fitter! (c) Tour de France

The other option, if you have that availability to you and you’re looking to go that route, is to get a coach and get someone with a proven track record. By that I don’t mean look at someone who just has two really good elite athletes that they pump on their social media or wherever it is but rather what you want to look at is how many athletes that coach has taken and developed or taken from a really serious injury or illness and gotten that athlete, male or female, back to form and fitness.

If they’ve burnt out more athletes than what they’ve developed, I would personally stay away from that coach. Investigate and ask around. See if their methodology and their coaching is what you are looking for from a personality side at the same time, and just see if they or their company has a good and proven track record.

Our takeaways

From what John shared, it seems important that your training program be tailored specifically to you in terms of how heavy the volume is. It isn’t the individual sessions that make you great but rather a well designed program that gives the right amount of stimulus at the right time. Too much volume can hurt you.

Secondly it seems that the rest and recovery time is where the real magic of adaptation happens. Prioritising proper rest and recovery is the best place to start if you want to take your training up a level.

At the end of the day, one of the best things to do is to find yourself a coach who can guide you through the highs and lows of training, who understands the other demands on your life and knows how to adapt your training plan to get the best out of your available time. Some people are able to manage their own training programs effectively but for many of us, the input of a coach can change the game when it comes to adherence to the program and adjusting it to accommodate the other things going on in our lives.

If you’re more of a do-it-yourself kind of person, there are great products for tracking your own training, such as Strava and TrainingPeaks, that help to analyse your efforts and manage long term fatigue. Have a look to see what is out there to support you on your journey and if you’re keen to try out some of your favourite pro rider’s sessions, adjust the targets to suit your capability and give them a bash!

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