In 2004, Gale Bernhardt traveled to Athens, Greece as the USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men’s and women’s triathlon teams. This honor was in addition to her selection by USA Triathlon as the 2003 Pan American Games coach for both the men’s and women’s teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Gale has instructed or coached athletes since 1974 and has a B.S. degree from Colorado State University, is certified as an elite coach by USA Cycling and has served in a leadership role for the USA Triathlon National Coaching Committee from 2000 to present. She is one of the few select USA Triathlon World Cup coaches. Athletes utilizing her personal guidance include Olympic and professional cyclists; top national level masters road racers, ultra endurance cyclists, runners and multi-sport racers. She is a regular columnist for several print and online magazines including Inside Triathlon, Rocky Mountain Sports and Fitness and The VeloNews Gear Guide. Her books, The Female Cyclist: Gearing up a Level and Training Plans for Multisport Athletes are best sellers. And her third book, Triathlon Training Basics, released in 2004, has sold well nationally and internationally. She has a website for her consulting practice, Gale Bernhardt Consulting.
Podium: I think it’s important to start with the beginning. If you don’t mind, could you just start with how you got into sports growing up, and how did that lead you to where you are now?
Gale Bernhardt: When I was a kid I lived in the same city I live in now, actually, and our mode of transportation as kids was running and riding our bikes everywhere. Luckily I grew up in a family that encouraged me to do the same sort of athletic things that the guys were doing. Swimming was really the first sport that I got into competitively at about the age of ten. I swam competitively through high school and then began instructing swimming and doing some coaching. That was really my first coaching experience. It was a very positive one in that I figured out that I could contribute to other people’s success.
Podium: Athletes are all motivated to some degree, how do you size up one’s motivation?
Gale Bernhardt: In my particular situation right now, motivation is not an issue. When people come to seek the help of a coach, either in a one-on-one situation or they go out seeking some sort of structured training plan, they’re typically pretty motivated to do something. Usually there’s a race goal in there somehow. And for the people that seek my one-on-one coaching guidance, my biggest issue with them is holding them back, actually.
Podium: They’re so highly motivated that it gets them in trouble?
Gale Bernhardt: Correct. Over-training. They’re trying to do too much volume, too much intensity and not structure their progress so that they can enjoy success at a rate that keeps them healthy at the same time.
Podium: How does your plan work for them and how do you keep them on their marks so that they don’t get over extended and injure themselves?
Gale Bernhardt: The training part is pretty easy because I get to see what they’re doing and observe that every day with the people that I work with in a close relationship. I can pretty much tell how things are going and I look for certain indicators that things are not going so well. For example, last week I had a cyclist who was producing pretty high power but his heart rate was not coming up, and he didn’t feel quite right. That was a clear indicator to me that something’s not going on right in their training.
When things like that happen, I start to ask questions to try to figure out what’s going on. Sometimes that leads me to nutritional issues and sometimes not. It might be life stress issues. Often I won’t be able to tell what’s going on nutritionally until after it’s happened.
Unfortunately, it often takes some sort of disaster in racing or training to bring that issue up and then the coach has to work to figure out what’s wrong. Sometimes it’s just an isolated incident, possibly a fueling incident with racing, but occasionally it may be the signs of a disordered eating pattern that could lead to big trouble in the future.
A really great example of this kind of problem happened about five years ago. I was working with a stage racer out of Austin, Texas. Now people tend to associate eating disorders with women, but I think that that’s a pretty shallow look at what’s going on in athletics in general these days.
For this particular stage racer, things were going well for his racing and he was about two weeks out from a big event, a key event. We both thought he was on track, but as it turned out he decided on his own that as his volume was tapering, he needed to cut his calories to about 2,000 a day. Now this guy is around 6-foot tall and he weighs close to a 185 lbs. He’s also training two to three hours a day and he decided to cut his daily calories to 2,000 or below, which is really low.
He didn’t think to mention this to me while he’s doing it, everything is pinned. So he goes into the stage race and finishes day one and tries to compete in the second day and he’s totally bonked. And that’s it, that’s the end of his stage race. So I started asking questions about what’s going on because physically he should have had one of the best races ever. All the indicators going into that event, his power output, his heart rate, his training volume, etc., everything was right on.
Then he gets to the actual event and blows up. After asking questions I find out that he goes on this highly restrictive diet in the two weeks before the event and he just wasted all of his glycogen levels by dieting and not being fully fueled going into the event.
Podium: Do you have any particular differences in how you work with women racers as opposed to guy racers? How does gender play a role in this sport particularly?
Gale Bernhardt: That’s a good question. In terms of actually training them, generally speaking, the women’s races are shorter. So the training needs are based on the race event itself, not necessarily because you’re a woman you have to do less. It’s because you’re in this category of athlete, you tend to do less training because your road races are shorter.
On the other hand, women that are racing in ultra events like any of the 100-mile mountain bike events, the women and the men do the same distance. So I would not modify an athlete’s training plan in that particular situation because they are a woman or a man. I would base their training on past history of volume and what they’re able to hold without getting fatigued and what other life stresses they have going on.
So to say that I make things special because someone is a woman or a man, I really don’t. It’s dependent on the situation. Now, having that said, there are women that have to manage households, including kids. Some men do this too and take a fair share of family responsibilities managing some part of the school activities the kids may be involved in, etc.
So the coach has to ask and know about work and work schedules, childcare responsibilities, social or civic obligations and how much time those things take, because the training plan is usually managed around those things. Even if someone is a sponsored pro it can be a factor. I just can’t say that I’ve really made a plan special because someone is a woman or a man.
Podium: Are there any differences with the way in which women prepare themselves for competition as opposed to men?
Gale Bernhardt: I think men will tend to see even training events as a competition more often than women will. I host a group ride every Sunday which is a roadie-oriented ride for pace line work and racing tactics that go along with road racing. Women will take a more nurturing role of helping other people along than the men will. That’s not always true, but I think women tend to be more nurturing up to a certain point.
The women that come to my group rides are very competitive women. So you’re just as apt to see them chase someone down off the front or attack on a hill as any of the guys. Why that is, mentally, I’m not really sure? These women tend to be pretty successful in business as well. So I think there’s something going on there that goes in tandem. They feel willing to take some risks, they feel capable of taking a chance with their energy and their mental voice says okay, do it. If it doesn’t work out, they tend to think, “so what?” But if it does, “I’m the first to the top of the hill.” And that’s great. I don’t think they’re less competitive, but they aren’t so ego-invested in the outcome.
Podium: Do you have a particular method or approach for setting goals with your athletes? How do you go about doing that?
Gale Bernhardt: At the beginning of each season, or when I work with a new athlete, I ask them to tell me what their top three goals are. From that I begin to work with them on the phrasing of their goals to make sure they state those goals in positive terms. I want the goals to be challenging.
At the same time, they (the goals) need to be achievable. So if they come to me and say they want to improve their one-hour time trial time by 25 percent, and they’ve been a fairly serious athlete for five or six years, I’m going to question that particular goal. Twenty-five percent is a huge chunk of improvement. I might see that kind of improvement in a rank beginner or someone who’s just starting in the sport, but for someone who’s been racing a long time, that kind of improvement’s pretty unlikely.
It’s important that the goals be under their control, and more performance oriented rather than outcome oriented. We might end up re-writing goals accordingly and make sure that they are measurable.
If someone says one of their goals is to be a better time trial racer. What does that mean? How much better? And where is our baseline goal? How are we going to know if you’re successful or not? This process is for the athlete as much as it is for the coach, so that we put a stake in the ground and say okay, we know where we’re starting and we know where we’d like to end up. The measuring stick lets us know along the way if we’re making progress towards that goal.
Podium: How do you do focus on mental conditioning?
Gale Bernhardt: Anything you practice physically, you would do well to be constantly practicing mentally, both during training and during everyday thought habits. I encourage all my athletes to do certain things to address particular needs. Sometimes I recommend tapes, sometimes a book to read. I have everyone write a script for me at one point or another that describes their perfect race and how that might unfold. After they have that script, I then ask them to think about all the things that can go wrong and write those down.
Once they have both scripts, we talk about it. If this particular thing does go wrong, what are you going to do about it? What are your options? I find that if athletes are prepared for not only the best case scenario, but also glitches that can occur in a race it is much more likely that they will be successful. If they don’t have something in mind that they can do about a situation immediately, or if they have to think it through too much, the likelihood of success goes down.
Podium: Talk about the “zone”, or peak performance mindset you coach your athletes toward?
Gale Bernhardt: The zone, as you talk about, tends to be sport specific & maybe even ‘skill’ specific. In other words, within cycling, the zone you need to maintain to do a 40K time trial is different than the zone you need for a fast criterium, an aggressive criterium, a road race or an ultra endurance race. 24-hour mountain bike races are very popular right now.
As a coach, I try to recognize when they’ve had a peak experience in training. Athletes don’t always call it ‘the zone’ or recognize what it is, but when they come back after some sort of workout or training race and they have just a great experience, we talk about that. What made it great? How did you feel? What were you thinking about? What happened during the event? And more often than not I’ll find that that particular race didn’t go absolutely perfectly, it wasn’t necessarily textbook, but they were able to deal with situations as they came up and they took advantage of opportunities as they saw them. They were willing to take a risk and they did it and it worked out well for them. Building on that is key.
I get them to talk about that experience with the intention of linking it to something later on. So when they’ve had a great experience in training I try to get them to think about the fact that they’ve already done this in training, and remind them of it periodically. You’ve had this experience, if this happens during the race; you know how to deal with it. Months later it can be really important as they get geared up for a big competition.
So I try to make the race, the big race, more normal and routine. You’ve already had this experience before, just build on the experiences you’ve had in the past and keep those rolling. So I look for those opportunities as a coach, to link a peak training experience, or early season successes, to future events.
Podium: And that helps you build the athlete’s confidence?
Gale Bernhardt: Oh, absolutely. I mean, there may be several incidences that happen over the course of several months of training, and I take little pieces of those so that we can minimize the likelihood they will freak out before a big competition. I try to get them to view a big event as a celebration of fitness and all the good things they’ve done to get to this point. And in the end, it’s not that much different than all these small experiences you’ve had along the way. So when they get into the event, they don’t start worrying that it’s something they’ve never seen before, it’s really many events that they’ve already had success with.
Podium: How do you look at injuries particularly if somebody’s coming off something that really impacted their fitness? How do you work with them with regard to that?
Gale Bernhardt: Well I think you’ve got to take a realistic look at where they are and what’s happened. That hit to their fitness can be an injury or it can be something like a week or two out with the flu. People start to panic that they’ve wasted two years of training because they’re down for two weeks. They feel like it’s all gloom and doom. The fact is that’s really not the case.
Certainly they’re going to lose some fitness but it’s not like they are starting over. I just talk to them about it. Here’s where we are now and here’s where I think you can be in the next six weeks. It will take a little bit of building and caution, but all is not lost.
Sometimes it can be a good thing, and actually beneficial that they get sick and are forced to rest for a week or so. I’ve seen athletes come out of an illness like that and they’ll end up having some of the best races they’ve ever had. It’s only then that some people realize the true value of rest. That’s not true with everyone, but there are a lot of people who are forced to rest due to illness or better yet, they had to travel for business and it took them off the bike for a few days. In these cases, they can come back really hungry and tear the legs off of everybody else. Then they might acknowledge that rest can be beneficial.
Podium: How do you prepare for events early in the season? What do you try to accomplish starting out?
Gale Bernhardt: Most often, during any given event, we will have a few objectives going into that competition. It just doesn’t work when athletes try to focus on everything all at once, especially early in the season. So I think whittling down a buffet of concerns that might happen during any race to the critical three to six that this person has to be concerned about is really helpful. I think its valuable minimizing the number of things they are trying to focus on in any given event.
Podium: What do great racers do to manage their suffering?
Gale Bernhardt: I think top athletes learn to manage pain or discomfort and associate it with success. In other words, if someone pushes that extra effort to bridge a gap or to manage the discomfort of a long time trial, it’s often associated with some kind of a reward.
For the top athletes that means podium. For people who are working their way up, it means a faster time. It’s that anchor point, where you are looking to improve from, that I think is important. Because you’re never going to control whether you’re going to be on the podium that day or not, but you can control your performance and your training leading up to that point. So if all the markers are indicating that you’re getting better, that’s really all that you can do much about.
One thing about pain is that I like for athletes to make a distinction between discomfort and actual pain. Racing at very high levels is uncomfortable. There’s a certain kind of suffering associated with that. And then there’s the kind of pain that’s associated with injury. Athletes at every level need to learn to distinguish between those two different kinds of pain.
I believe being a problem solver is critical to any athlete’s success. Any athlete in any situation, whether it’s training or racing, will find that problems present themselves. It’s the athlete that looks at those problems as a chess game of sorts that is going to be much more successful than someone who says, “I can’t.” At the top level there’s very little difference, physiologically, between top athletes. There’s a few exceptions to that, obviously, but it’s what people say to themselves on race day that can make or break a really great race.