10 Questions With Cycling Coach Dave Morris

Over the past decade the number of coaches available to the general public has risen enormously. It seemed for a long time that coaches were thought to be only for the elite athletes but that sentiment has changed in many sports. Now, with a shift in attitudes, amateur athletes benefit as much if not more from personal coaching.

I first became aware of Dave Morris through the mtbr forums in the mid 1990’s. Like any online forum, this one had passionate particpants but one in particular, MTBDOC, was a vet/masters mountain bike racer who had been coached by Dave for several years. His posts spoke of a regular joe with normal genetic potential and a full time job, who realized significant fitness gains on limited training time.

Around that time there were some articles published in Bicycling and Mountain Bike Action that discussed some of the training principles used by Dave and I started putting some of these ideas into practice after my wife and I had our first child. I found that I was able to ride relatively well on extremely limited saddle time.

I gave up racing for a few years while our children were young but returned to the scene two years ago. I sought out Dave for some coaching to try and make a go at racing while still placing my family and regular job first. It’s one thing for coaches to train elite athletes to championships but it’s another to take a basic amateur and help them improve on their limited time schedule. I’m just a sample size of 1 but my experience with Dave’s coaching principles has been awesome, and I am riding stronger than ever before on limited training volume.

Dave agreed to an interview and I hope you’ll find it interesting. He has a unique perspective on the sport, having spent a large part of his career working with hundreds of elite and amateur level cyclists, as well as being on the front line of sports research.

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Can you give us some background on your education, work, racing and coaching experience?

Dave: I received my bachelor’s degree in exercise science from the University of Missouri and immediately went to work as the strength and conditioning coach at the US Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York. I then returned to Missouri to work on a master’s degree in human performance and it was there that I started to perform research on cyclists. After receiving my master’s degree, I went to work as a physiologist at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs where I worked extensively with cyclists. A year later found me back in school, this time at The Ohio State University to work on my Ph.D. in exercise physiology. After finishing my coursework for my PhD, I was offered a job with USACycling as a physiologist for Project ’96. I am still not sure if my decision to leave the doctoral program at Ohio State for the position at USACycling was a leap of faith or one of stupidity, but I did it none the less. I met and worked with some of the most talented and nicest athletes in the world while I was there, and that part of it I will never regret. After leaving USACycling following the Olympics in 1996, I started my own research, coaching and consulting business – RacersReady.com. In 2003 I went back to school to finish my PhD at the University of New Mexico and received my doctorate in 2005. I now serve as the chair of the exercise physiology department at the United States Sports Academy.

My racing career actually started out in triathlons, but it was clear to me that cycling was my strong point and it was also the discipline I enjoyed the most, so I eventually focused solely on racing bikes. I guess I was an OK amateur, racing on both the road and the mountain bike. My biggest strength was climbing, but unfortunately, I lived in the Midwest, where the scene was primarily filled with flat criteriums. By my late 20’s I was kind of tired of all the hassles of racing a bike. Not the actual racing itself, but all of the issues you have to deal with that surrounds the racing. I did my last real race, the Leadville 100 mountain bike race, when I was 31 after a friend coaxed me into doing it. Since then, I’ve done some club racing and a few triathlons, but that’s about it. I still train like an animal. I just like putting on the running shoes, getting on the bike, or in the pool, or the weight room and just seeing what I’m made of. In fact, I probably do more hard training now than I did when I was racing!

My career as a coach began while I was still working for USACycling. My first athlete was a kilo rider named Sky Christopherson. He was a 19 year old who had won the kilo at Junior Nationals the year before by riding a 1:09. The national team coach put him on a program and a year later he was still riding 1:09s. By that time the national team coach had given up on him so I decided to see what I could do. I put him on a block training program I designed specifically for kilo riders. Five weeks after I started working with him, he won the kilo at nationals, riding 1:05 and change. Four weeks after that he was riding under 1:03. He was my first national champion. Jane Quigley followed with a story that was similar to Sky’s. After four months of working on my program, she went from someone who was riding so poorly on the national team program that she was ready to retire, to winning the silver medal at the world championships. Since that time my clients have won another silver at worlds, three world cups and 17 more national championships.

Note: Don’t forget about the vet sport racer in Virginia who won their first race ever after 16 years of trying under Dave’s guidance!

With a full time job how much are you still coaching?

Dave: Not as much as I used to, but I am still working with a few people. I love coaching and will probably always do it to some degree.

Your book, Performance Cycling came out in 2004. How was it received?

Well, that depends on how you look at it. I haven’t made much money off of it; in fact, I think I am still working off the advance I got from the publisher. In all fairness though, they never really promoted it that well to the cycling market. I mean, when was the last time you saw an ad for Performance Cycling in VeloNews? I took out a couple of ads a few years ago and paid for them myself, but that was about it. But then again, I didn’t write it to get rich. Actually, there were a few reasons why I wanted to write a book. First of all, I wanted to share what I have learned about cycling and training with as many people as I could, and a book seemed to be the best way to do that. Another reason I wrote the book was to help the clients I work with to understand the program that I was giving to them. The final reason for writing it was that a lot of people were taking credit for ideas that I came up with and developed. Not long after I left USA Cycling, a very prominent cycling coach got a copy of my strength training program, took my name off of it, put his name on it, and posted it on his web site. I mean word for word. He didn’t change a thing on it except for the name of the author. Things were getting out of hand, I was getting frustrated and really wanted to set the record straight by establishing that these were my ideas and that I was the one responsible for developing them.

As far as what people think of the book, they either love it or hate it. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. But I guess that is what you have to expect when you introduce new ideas. Some will take to them right away while others never will. But, I must say, I have never heard from someone who has embraced the program, followed all of the principles, and been disappointed with the results.
Looking back, there are some things that I would have done differently, like providing more sample programs. But at the time I was more focused on trying to teach people how to develop their own programs rather than put ones in the book that may or may not be the best one for them.

Note: Obviously, I’m biased and like the book. It is relatively small but I found that it has taken several re-readings for concepts to sink in. I consider the book to present more of a framework for training rather than a personalized plan. The section on strength training is a little confusing and I put it into an Excel template to make it easier to work with.

Your training philosophies differ from more traditional cycling programs in several key areas. Can you highlight what the major differences are?

Dave: Mainly, my program stresses more high-intensity work and rest and less low-intensity volume. A lot of this approach came from looking at SRM files and seeing exactly what cyclists needed to do in races to be successful.

Note: Andy Coggan, one of today’s most respected power training gurus said that Dave’s book was one of the few novel things to come out in recent literature.

One area in specific, the endurance phase, such as for an XC mountain biker, is significantly shorter (3 weeks) in your program vs some others ( several months). Why is that?

Dave: I have always been perplexed by the use of lengthy base periods for cyclists. They inundate every discipline of cycling from track sprinting to ultra endurance events. Every year, riders act like they are starting from scratch and have to build themselves up from nothing by starting with a low intensity endurance period. The use of long base periods were more necessary decades ago when off-seasons were longer and a lot of the riders were in pretty poor condition when they started off-season training in January. These days though, off-seasons are short and riders typically stay in pretty good condition throughout the year. But by doing an excessive endurance phase, you are basically starting over from square one every year instead of building on the power you have developed the past season. I know the argument that doing a long base period increases your capacity to do intervals later in the season, but building the capacity to do intervals by gradually building up the volume of intervals that you do works also, and it also exposes you to more high-power work and ultimately results in a better training effect. I don’t want to underscore the importance of low-intensity, volume training, but I think that it is overused or misused by a lot of riders and coaches.

In general, how is an XC mountain bike racer’s training going to be different from a Cat III Roadie?

Dave: Generally speaking, the mountain biker’s program is going to feature less volume and more short, high-intensity intervals. However, you really need to look at the requirements of each rider’s races. For instance, the roadie who is focusing on criteriums will have a program that is much more similar to a mountain biker’s than will a roadie who is focusing on stage races. Within mountain biking, the programs differ considerably based on the types of races the athlete is doing. Will the races focus primarily on wide open courses with long climbs, or tight courses with a lot of obstacles that require a lot of short accelerations?

In your opinion what is the biggest mistake amateur cyclists make in their training?

Dave: Not recognizing what limits their performance and focusing on the correct type of training to improve on those shortcomings.

Is there a rough guideline for how many hours a week a vet sport mountain bike racer needs to put into training compared to say an expert mountain bike racer?

Not really. It depends on the individual, their race demands, how much time they have to train, and how much time they have to recover. Generally though, I find that most of the serious mountain bikers spend way too much time on the bike and too little time recovering.

Note: Just for reference I’m 37, Vet sport and am riding between 2-12hrs/week usually averaging around 7hrs/week.

Can racers still train well without having to do lots of indoor trainer work?

Dave: If they do it right. The advantages of being on the trainer are the consistency and control of the resistance. You would be surprised at how much time a person spends coasting or soft-pedaling when they are doing intervals outdoors. Once you get the cadence up and leveled off, the power can really drop when you are riding on the flats. If you really want to do your intervals on the road or the trail, find a good hill or hilly section for your intervals.

Why should a mountain bike racer also train on the road?

Dave: You can do a lot of high-intensity work on the road bike without the pounding that you get from the terrain while on the mountain bike.

This helps a lot when you are trying to do consecutive days of hard training. Also, the group rides and races on the road give you opportunities to work against stronger riders in ways that you just can’t get on the mountain bike. This can provide great opportunities to get in some really high-quality training.

What is your opinion on sport specificity when applied to the off season of cycling especially regarding the debate surrounding strength training compared to on the bike workouts like sprints, muscle endurance intervals, and singlespeeding?

Dave: The efficacy of strength training for cycling is a pretty hot topic of debate these days. I am of the belief that resistance training can be beneficial to cyclists from a variety of disciplines, though some riders may benefit from it more than others. The program must feature high speed “power” training with weights and be integrated with resistance training on the bike that features sprint, leadout, and muscle endurance intervals. Single speed riding can be utilized to do these types of workouts but it should be done on a fixed gear to really get the type of stimuli you are looking for.

In today’s world of sport science why is there still such heated debate on these issues?

Dave: To do good research and to do a good job of interpreting the research that has been done in this area, you must have knowledge of exercise physiology, research design, strength (resistance) training, and the physiological requirements of racing a bicycle. There just aren’t a lot of people out there who can cover all of these bases. Some may do a few of them well, and are thus looked at as “experts” by others, but because they aren’t considering the whole picture, they may not be giving the most informed opinion. For instance, a lot of people use the study by Bishop et al. as evidence that weight training doesn’t improve cycling performance. In this study, a population of trained cyclists were split into two groups. Both groups performed a time trial followed by several weeks of identical training on the bike before repeating the time trial. The difference between the two groups is that one group performed strength training in the weight room in addition to their on-the-bike training, while the second group did no strength training. The results showed that both groups had similar improvements in their time trial performance after they finished their respective training programs. Those results may seem pretty conclusive to many, but when you take a closer look at the study, they don’t really settle the argument at all. For instance, the weight training program featured only heavy resistances and slow contractile speeds, so it didn’t provide stimuli to develop muscular power at all.

Secondly, there were no workouts that were designed to integrate what was gained in the weight room to useable power on the bike. Finally, the study only looked at the effect of this particular weight training program on time trialing ability in long time trials, so no evaluation was done of the effects on short and intermediate term power.

Other works have suggested that certain aspects of cycling performance can be enhanced by well-designed resistance training programs. Mike Stone headed a study at the Olympic Training Center that looked at the effects of resistance training on sprinting ability. I haven’t seen a published report of the data, but I talked to a few of the people who were involved with the study and they stated that a positive effect was seen. Paton et al. studied the effects of plyometric training on 4000 meter pursuit performance. They found that cyclists who added the plyometrics along with Leadout type of intervals into their program improved significantly more than did those who did similar training without lifting the weights. Unfortunately, because both plyometrics and Leadout intervals were added to the program, it is difficult to say whether the improvement was due to the plyometrics, the intervals, or a combination of the two. And no, sprinting and pursuiting aren’t road racing or mountain biking, but these types of efforts are often used in road racing and mountain biking.

Finally, training studies like these are pretty difficult to do. They are very time consuming and it can be hard to find subjects who will volunteer for the study and have the discipline to stick to the protocols. Finally, in this day and age when exercise physiologists have to bring in big grant money to survive, most of them are studying obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, because these areas are sucking up all the money, and there is little left to fund sport performance studies.

How important have power meters been to cycling?

Dave: Very important. I see so many more power meters today than I did 10 years ago. However, despite the fact that the instruments are used more today than they once were, the data they provide are still underutilized. Sure, cyclists are using them to monitor their power outputs during training, but very few are using them to identify why they were successful in a race or why they weren’t. This is obvious by the fact that most people’s basic approach to training is the same as it was 30 years ago. It’s frustrating to see.

How can a cyclist use power training principals if they don’t own a power meter?

Dave: My best advice to those individuals would be to simply do each of their intervals as hard as they can for the given length of the interval and the volume of the workout. That gives you the biggest training stimuli and the most potential for the desired training effect. There are other tricks you can use to gauge your power outputs from one workout to another. For instance, if you are on the road or trail, do your intervals in the same place every time and keep track of how far you are going each time for intervals of a particular duration. Be aware that things like the wind and trail conditions can influence the amount of speed you can make from a given power output. If you are on a trainer, use a consistent gear from one workout to the next and count the number of pedal revolutions you can get over a specific period of time.

Is the heart rate monitor still a useful tool for the amateur athlete?

Dave: Well, I never thought they were particularly useful in the first place. Too many things other than power output can affect your heart rate. Plus, in shorter intervals, heart rate does not have the time to respond to the workload and thus never gives you true reflection of how hard you are working. I think they provide more confusion than useable information.

Your book had a great section on ergogenic aids. Have there been any new (legal) ones since publication that might be beneficial to the amateur athlete?

Dave: If you are talking about nutritional or pharmaceutical ergogenic aids, no. I have seen a lot of hype, but nothing of any substance. There have been some advances in equipment which is a bit of a surprise considering the restrictions the UCI placed on equipment design after the 1996 Olympics. Quite a bit of work has been done with the fabrics used to make cycling clothing in an attempt to help regulate body temperature and reduce drag. Chet Kyle has been doing a lot of work in this area. I haven’t talked to Chet in a while, but I google him every once in a while to see what sort of things he is doing. He does some pretty amazing work!

What is going to be the next big training tool or advancement for bike racing?

Dave: Advancements in the field of genetics are growing by leaps and bounds every day. Once genetic manipulation becomes practical in humans, I suspect that it will be abused in sports. I started squawking about this issue 10 years ago when I was working for USACycling, but nobody there wanted to listen or even look into the matter. It seems to be getting a bit more attention these days, though.

Does bike weight really mean anything at the amateur level?

Dave: It can make a big difference in hilly races, but if you are asking me if it will allow a sport rider to keep up with a pro, then no, it doesn’t make much difference at all. So I guess the answer depends on your goals.

Note: I would call this justification for being a weight weenie, wouldn’t you?

Disregarding genetics, what are the characteristics that separate elite riders from their amateur counterparts?

Dave: From a physical standpoint, the most pronounced difference in road and mountain bike racing is the ability to produce and maintain high power outputs. There are a lot of physiological variables that can contribute to this difference. From a mental standpoint, the pros seem to stay more focused on doing what they need to do to get the job done, while amateurs will often allow themselves to become distracted. They preoccupy themselves with things that don’t really matter and lose site of the big picture.

Note: I thought he was going to say mental toughness or something similar. In hindsight, I’d say Dave hit the nail on the head. I suffer from getting distracted on some bike geek thing every other month and oftentimes it feels like I’m starting over when I get re-focused.

What do regular joes, (Married with kids, full time jobs, 35yrs old +) need to consider when training and recovering?

Dave: The two most important considerations are to be realistic about your goals and be realistic about the time you have to dedicate to the sport. Don’t set goals that are unreasonable given your work and family obligations. When you are constructing your program, you need to consider all of the demands of your life and not just cycling. The stress of a job, the stress of a family, and the stress of training and racing should all be considered when you are formulating a schedule of training, competition, and rest.

What is the difference between being overtrained and training under fatigue such as during block training?

Dave: That’s tough to say because we still lack a firm definition of overtraining. What I tell my clients is that if you are tired and having trouble doing a workout at the end of a three-day training block, don’t worry, that’s to be expected. If you are having trouble doing the work on the first day of a three day block, that is a different story, and if it is the case, it’s best that you take some time off or reduce your training volume until you start feeling better and regain your enthusiasm for training.

Any suggestions for the mental aspect of training/racing and learning to embrace the pain?

Dave: Positive mental attitude is such an important aspect of performance in cycling. I am constantly amazed at how much more a person can accomplish once they quit complaining and just focus on getting things done. Being able to view a workout as a positive opportunity rather than a negative chore really changes your ability to withstand training loads. So, rather than viewing a workout as work that has to be done, think of it as an opportunity to make yourself better. Think of it as an opportunity to see how tough you are.

Always take something positive out of a workout or race. I made a big deal in my book about the goal of always doing the best job you can do for any given situation, and I can’t underscore the importance of this goal. I don’t care who you are, there are going to be workouts when you can’t hit the power or volume numbers that you have set for yourself in advance. This is especially true for amateur riders who have so many other responsibilities other than racing and training. For these people, certain things can pop-up in their lives that may leave them at less than 100% for a workout. In these situations you usually can’t perform as well as you can on your best day, but you can perform as well as possible for that particular day. This attitude can be very empowering and lets you finish each workout with a sense of accomplishment.

Note: Dave’s section on goals is one of my favorite parts of his book.

There are more coaches available to the amateur athlete than ever. Any tips for helping athletes find the right coach for them?

Dave: Three things: compatibility, education, and experience. First of all, be honest with yourself about what you need from a coach. Do you need a training program? Do you need someone to encourage you during your workouts? No coach can meet every need of every rider, so once you figure out what you need, give the potential coach a call and see how well they can meet your needs. A phone call also gives you a chance to see how well the person communicates with you. Beyond that, do your homework on the coach. Look for their level of education in exercise physiology and their experience in cycling and coaching. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for references. A good coach shouldn’t be ashamed of the work they’ve done and should be willing to give you the chance to check up on what they have done for others.

What does the future hold for Dave Morris?

Dave: I plan on continuing to coach, teach, and do research.

Thanks Dave! The Biking Hub would like to thank Dave for the time he took to answer these questions. I know that this interview contained more than 10 questions, but we figured that this was a good exception to the rule and that you enjoyed reading this interview as much as we did! For more information about Dave and the projects he’s involved in, be sure to check out his website.

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