Hunter Allen Interview

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Hunter Allen is the owner of the Peaks Coaching Group, Inc. and the co-developer of CyclingPeaks Software. Widely known as one of the top experts in the world in coaching athletes using power meters, Hunter recently co-authored Training and Racing with a Powermeter with Dr. Andy Coggan. His coaching credentials include being a category 1 (elite) USA Cycling Coach, a certified yoga instructor and a certified personal trainer. In the 10 years that he has been coaching, the athletes that Hunter has trained have won over 400 events, including national championships, and many regional and district titles. Hunter is also former professional cyclist for the Navigators team and raced for over 17 years in Europe, South America, the U.S. and Canada. For more information, please visit www.peakscoachinggroup.com

Podium: You were an accomplished racer and now you are a well known and highly respected cycling and endurance coach. You have been doing this for a long time. Tell us what you believe are the top three attributes of the best endurance athletes. What do you feel they absolutely have to have to be successful?

Hunter Allen: To be a top endurance athlete you have to be physically able to be one of the best. Unfortunately we’re not all gifted and we don’t all have big lung capacities or the ability to buffer lactate like them. So that’s number one. You can be a good endurance athlete without having that – but you may not be able to compete at the elite level. So I think that comes first.

Secondly, is the willingness to work hard, that kind of go get ’em, push it all the way to the end, I’m gonna train harder than everybody else attitude. It is really key. I met so many riders when I was coming up – that were way more talented than I was but didn’t make it as a professional or didn’t even get to Cat 1, because they weren’t able to train or didn’t want to train enough. That comes back to that mindset that says, “I’m gonna go out there and I’m gonna train harder than everybody else does and do more hill repeats than everybody else does and push myself farther than everybody else does.” The mental attitude striving to be better and constantly trying to push yourself a little more is really key.

Endurance sports are so hard, I mean the sports are so incredibly difficult, the willingness to persevere is important because there are so many races you want to quit. So many times you want to stop and you think that it’s never going to get better. There are so many sacrifices you have to make. And so you just have to dedicate yourself.

I’ve studied eastern religions and philosophies, and [when] you look at the professionals in endurance sports they are a lot like monks – Taoist monks or Buddhist monks. They’re not going up to the top of the mountain to sit and meditate for 12 hours, but there are a lot of them doing a moving meditation on their bike for six hours every day. They’re controlling what they eat. They’re controlling how many hours they sleep. At the elite level it can be like a monastic lifestyle because of those things.

Podium: You’ve mentioned perseverance and the willingness to work hard. What other psychological factors contribute to an athlete’s ability to be successful?

Hunter Allen: Well certainly PMA, positive mental attitude. I think that’s a huge one – being able to have to have that positive mental attitude even when the chips are down.

I know so many athletes that just don’t have that. It’s really hard to coach an athlete that is constantly looking at the things that went wrong and not able to see the positives. They’re not able to look past mistakes and move forward. People who don’t have PMA will say, “Yeah I got on the podium, but I wasn’t first.” They get all bummed out about not getting first. Instead, they could be saying, “Wow. I made the podium and, I stood up there with one of my heroes and it was a really awesome experience. This just goes to show I’m almost there. I’m right at the cusp of winning a big race.” So a positive mental attitude is absolutely key.

The other thing that is important to me [involves] self-respect for your body. That goes hand-and-hand with self esteem. How do you listen to yourself and listen to your body, having enough self-respect to do what’s right by it. If your body says “I gotta rest.” then you have to listen to it. If you’re not feeding your body the right nutrition, the right supplements or recovery shakes afterwards and being respectful of your body it’s really tough to make on the elite level.

I’ve been working with an elite female mountain biker this year. We’ve spent almost six months working on how to respect her body more. She’s got some issues with that. In the past couple of years, she hasn’t listened to her body and she’s gotten over trained and under-nourished. She’s had injuries she might have avoided. This year, she’s not been injured – she’s hardly been sick. Her nutrition is dead-on and she’s riding better than she has in almost three years.

Podium: Why do you think athletes are resistant to the idea of listening to their body, or respecting what they’re telling themselves?

Hunter Allen: I think that the internal drive in some of these athletes is so strong that you have to balance it. The hard work balanced with the self-respect. For me as a coach and for me when I was an athlete – how did I balance that? “Okay, you know, I gotta do 16 hill intervals because my competition’s only doing 15.” But at the same time, you know, if I’m out there and I do 12 and my knee starts to hurt, am I still gonna do 16? No. I’ve got to listen to that and say, “You know what? I really need to call somebody to come pick me up because something’s going on with my knee and you have to respect that.” Sometimes athletes are so over-achieving and so determined and so hard working that they shut off that self talk – they just push through it – and then they get injured.

Podium: How do you teach that kind of a skill, a willingness to listen?

Hunter Allen: Yeah, that’s definitely not an easy one. I think that once I recognize a pattern, a self-sabotaging pattern they’re in, I have to give them permission to listen to their body. It sounds weird, but I just give them permission to listen. They have faith in you as a coach, that what you’re telling them is going to work. So, especially for this elite MTB racer we talked about, I might give her options like, “Okay, I want you to do this many hill repeats, this many VO2 max intervals, this many kilojoules in this ride. But if at this point in the ride you’re not able to maintain a certain wattage then don’t do the intervals. Or, after this race on Saturday, don’t go out and do a six hour training ride on Sunday if on Saturday you get muscle cramps or something else happens that could potentially injure you the next day.” I give them permission to not go hard.

Podium: You’ve written about other mental skills including focus. Talk about it.

Hunter Allen: Right. Focus is a really good one. Because I’ve been teaching yoga for five years having the body awareness to know what muscles are being recruited is really valuable. So when I talk to an athlete I might say, “We’re going focus on doing a time trial and I want you to focus on being in the moment for the entire time trial. How do you achieve that?” You know, it’s not like, being on the side of some cliff in a rock climb where it’s essential to be in the moment. I’m like gonna die if I don’t, right?

But at the same time if you’re trying to do a 40k time trial and you’re pushing yourself at the edge, where it hurts. I try to emphasize a shift in awareness from pain to a feeling of deep performance. Those on the edge saying, “Oh, this hurts, this hurts, this hurts” – [giving in to the suffering]. What if their internal focus was attuned to deep performance? It might sound like, “Okay, I can feel my quads muscles fighting right at the edge. I can feel my glutes right on the edge, at the maximum force they can produce. I can feel everything in my calf muscle and I can feel the bottom of my foot pushing down on that pedal.” [Imagine] focusing on that feeling and then changing your mindset about, “Okay, that’s the feeling that causes that peak performance and it is confirmation that I am doing my best.”

If they start to lose that, then I always have them come back to their breathing. I tell them, “Okay, now you need to find your breathing. Where are you? What’s going on with your breathing? Are you out of control with your breath? Is your breath not in a rhythmical ventilation rate?” If you catch yourself looking at the trees riding down the road instead of focusing on that peak performance feeling, I always have them come back to their breath. I then have them create a kind of a mantra if they can. Everybody’s mantra is a little different but one that I still use when I’m on the edge and pushing myself as hard as I can goes like this. I say every time I inhale, “power in.” Every time I exhale, I say, “feeling strong.” And so it goes – “power in, feeling strong, power in, feeling strong”. And that helps bring me into the moment. It has the added benefit of focusing my mind on two incredibly positive affirmations, and, on top of that it brings my breathing back into rhythm.

Podium: How important are goals or goal-setting in the work that you do?

Hunter Allen: Goals are super important to me. I’m very goal oriented myself, so I have personal goals for my business and everything else or basically nothing would get done. Consequently that’s the number one thing we focus on when I sit down with my athletes at the end of the year. We reset goals. We do this often throughout the year and every three or four months we will review where we are and have a goal reset. Certainly for the following year we set goals. I think it’s almost impossible to be successful at the elite level, if you don’t have goals.

Podium: We’ve been talking about coaching with elite performers and people getting to the highest level of sport. But I know you coach people of all levels – from elite national champions all the way down to those pursuing personal triumphs. How does what we’ve been talking about differ for someone going for a personal performance goal? Say a 62-year-old grandma who wants to finish a local half century or a metric century?

Hunter Allen: I think that that’s greatest thing about sport in general – at whatever level you’re out there trying to learn something about yourself and you’re open to new challenges. You wonder how far you can push yourself as an endurance athlete and you work at breaking down those the mental barriers”…”Oh, I didn’t think that I could go as hard as I went for six hours.” Or, “I didn’t think that I could beat that guy because he always beats me.” For anybody, a masters athlete or kid, it’s about making it a peak performance. “Am I doing the very best that I can do?” And so it is with the elite athlete, the same thing happens with them. Everyone is learning constantly by what they are experiencing out there in the race.

Whether you are a pro adventure racer or somebody who just wants to do some local cross country ski races and beat your time from the year before, it’s about trying to find “that presence, in the moment.” We all want to be in the moment and feel like we’re “on” for as long as we can have that feeling.

Podium: You mentioned people who just doing a couple local races. A lot of those folks are very serious about their sport but they’ve got families and jobs the whole package. When you’re working with somebody like that, how do you best help them maximize their experience? What do you do with folks who have limited time for training?

Hunter Allen: I think that comes down to a couple things. The first thing we can do is talk about – goals. You have to assess their goals and determine how realistic they might be. If their goals are realistic and it sounds like they can definitely achieve them with the time available then that’s the first step.

If they’re not, then we have to have a serious little sit down talk. “Hey, for you to go do the Tour De France, you’re 45-years-old and you gotta family. You’ve got ten hours a week to train?” I don’t think it’s gonna happen. But, it is possible that you can win a district time trial championship.” So once we get agreement and set those goals, then it’s about attacking. I’ll say to myself, “Okay, this person has ten hours a week to train, let’s make sure those ten hours are super quality for a masters athlete.” For athletes that have jobs and families and all I’m not a big advocate of encouraging them to just go out for an easy day on the bike or whatever. To me it’s better if they take that time and spend it with their family and really enjoy that hour or two where they are completely rested and at ease family. I’ll tell them, “Instead going out for an easy hour on Monday and taking that withdrawal from the emotional bank account of your family, let’s just keep things square with that emotional bank account and spend that time with them, going to soccer or doing whatever your family wants to do. Then, boom, come back on Tuesday and we’ll get after your best effort.”

Podium: Talk a little bit more about the “emotional bank account.”

Hunter Allen: Right. I think that I got that concept from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. That really resonated with me, the idea of an emotional bank account. I have X amount of whatever….good feelings, money, positive energy, whatever, in my emotional bank account with my family, my wife, my kids, my boss at work. It’s a concept that illustrates the exchange of value in relationship. I know that I can take withdrawals from that account when I need to, but I have to think seriously about it, “Is this a worthwhile withdrawal? Am I going get the most benefit from it?” I do my own cost to benefit analysis.

So for training that master athlete, I encourage him to think about those things. Hopefully he is thinking, “I’ve got super key workout on Tuesday, and I know I’ve got super key workout on Wednesday. Those are the two things I’m going focus on this week. And they’re going to give me the biggest bang for my buck. That way on Monday and Thursday and Friday I can spend them with my family and know that I’m still going to race well on Saturday.”

Podium: That’s a hard concept for some – not training every single day.

Hunter Allen: Right. I was victim to that when I was a pro as well. I said, “Oh, I gotta train everyday. ” Once I got out of being a professional I realized I didn’t actually have to be training hard every day, or even riding everyday. I think a lot of coaches and other athletes have probably found this to be true. It’s really hard to get that [message] through to some athletes. A lot of times they have to have a forced layoff to realize it’s not the end of the world. I’ve learned that having a complete rest week where I’m off my bike can be a really good thing.

For those athletes who find it’s really hard not train, (the message) almost has to come from a place of authority, “this is the drill sergeant coach and you have to listen to me. You better do this or else.” Or, it has to come from an unexpected place or an unavoidable experience, where it’s like, “Oh man, you know, I couldn’t ride this week, because I had family stuff to deal with and just couldn’t ride.” The whole week they fretted and worried about the fact that they weren’t riding. And then that weekend they raced and won and they realized, “Oh, wow. You know, I didn’t really have to ride at all.”

Podium: You work with young athletes and developmental athletes who are trying to climb the ladder. What skill, in addition to physical development, do you really think they need to be working on, especially early on? We’ve got a lot of kids who are 17, 18, 20, 21, 22. These kids are out there riding. They can ride with the masters or the seniors and spank them, but they’re still developing.

Hunter Allen:
Right. Well for sure those are the ones that really should develop that goal-oriented thinking and develop the habits of always writing down their goals. When I work with them we’re always creating an affirming statement to go along with our goals. We have goals within the race which are process goals, and then we have outcome goals. I think goals are really key for younger athletes to develop.

I also try to foster a great attitude for learning, of still searching, of trying to absorb everything they can. So it’s like, “Okay, read this book on nutrition. Read this book on training. Read this book on mental training. You know do these activities.” From that perspective you’re almost like a college professor and giving assignments. Altogether these things help them to develop perseverance, hard work, positive mental attitude, and listening to your body. You know I try to give them that experience.

Podium: It sounds like you’re asking them to reach beyond just listening to you as a coach, that you want them to embrace all of this.

Hunter Allen: My goal certainly has never been to coach people for the rest of their life. I know that’s doesn’t make sense from a financial perspective or from a coaching perspective. To me it’s all about teaching an athlete to be a good coach to themselves. I expect that to happen. Once I’ve coached somebody for a year or two, maybe three, they’re gonna move on. You know, whether they move to another coach or whether they have now learned enough to coach themselves. To me that’s a very big sign of success for me personally and I’m very satisfied with that because that’s something that I’m part of – imparting this knowledge that I’ve gained through years of experience with my work. Letting that happen.

One of the other reasons that I’m a coach is because I always wanted a coach, you know? I wanted one. There was no one coaching the way we do now when I was racing. I always wanted to have somebody take me under their wing and open doors for me. So, for me to be in a place where I can do that for my athletes, it’s just a great thing. To me that’s a lot of fun.

Podium: So if you were gonna give advice to a parent who had a kid who went to nationals at 13 or 15 and had aspirations for their child to become a pro, what advice would you give to that parent to make sure their child is developing as a healthy, young racer who actually does have potential?

Hunter Allen: Well, certainly you have to encourage them, you have to be supportive and yet not pushy. It’s important to be an encouragement and supportive. Taking them to races and getting the things that they may need to help them financially [with the sport]. Taking those steps is really the biggest thing that you can do.

At the same time, it’s a fine line between trying to get them to achieve more, but not [overwhelming them]. Some parents have an attitude that includes yelling and screaming at them after the race. “Why didn’t you win?” That kind of attitude is destructive. Parents who approach it more like, “Oh man, you know, that was so close. You were in the breakaway, caught with one mile to go. That was so awesome. I’m so proud of you for going for it and sticking it all out on the line like that. That’s what pro’s do.” Positive affirmations [like that] are really more productive than anything else from the parent side. Parents have to guard against getting too overwhelmed with it all. I’ve met tons of 15-year-olds that soon as they got their driver’s license, that’s it. No more riding. And if they survive that, then they’re likely to go to college. Then it’s beer drinking and they have got to survive the party stage in college. After college there might be girlfriends, wife and family. Those things have to happen. There are a lot of other things that are going to be happening between the time a 15-year-old becomes a national champion and a professional athlete at 22 or 23 years of age.

Podium: What do you think that cycling has to offer a young athlete as – in terms of their growth and development as a person- whether or not they have the potential?

Hunter Allen: Well, to me cycling is such a wonderful sport because of those mental skills we talked about earlier. The fact that [cycling] teaches perseverance and that it teaches hard work is a reward. It teaches that goal setting is important in the rest of your life. It teaches that maybe having a coach or having a mentor can help you go farther, faster. It teaches these kinds of success-oriented goals throughout your life.

Podium: Do you think that learning those skills is limited to the teenagers? Or do you think those that start the sport at 35 can learn those skills?

Hunter Allen: Oh, absolutely. We had a rider here at our spring camp this April, a good rider. You know a diamond in the rough. He needed to lose about 20 pounds and had to deal with low self-esteem. He was really quiet and obviously had low expectations coming into camp. Through working with him at camp, we were riding everyday and providing him with small successes and giving him opportunities to do some different things. We would set up a situation and tell him, “Okay, you’re gonna win this race scenario.” “I want you to attack right here.” And then, “I want you to go for it here.” We pushed him out of his box and it was really cool because two weeks after camp was over, he calls us up and he’s like, “Yeah, I lost 12 pounds already.” And I was in the top 15 of the race I did this weekend and that’s the first time I’ve ever been on top of any race. Then, last week he called up and he’s like, “I got top five in this race.” So it’s that same kind of thing. Here’s a guy who’s 40 years old, all the sudden you see the wheels of success churning for this guy. And I just know that’s it is going to translate to his job as well.

Podium: When you’re working with your athletes, whether they’re elite level or going for that district time trial, what zone or peak performance mindset do you try to coach people for? What do you feel is that zone or mindset that they need to be in to perform well?

Hunter Allen: I think the biggest thing is for them to have a strong belief in themselves. That’s true at the elite level too. One of the elite pros that I coach is a guy who is one of the best in the world and the same things apply, his small successes continue to foster more confidence in himself and continue to break down those barriers [self-doubt]. He started out with, “Oh, wow, I can’t believe I stayed on that guy’s wheel. I never stayed on that guy’s wheel before.” And that has evolved into a belief that he’s starting to have in himself that he can be a world champion. His [confidence] is greater than it’s ever been.

So I try to foster that belief in themselves; that they can be a world champion or that they can be a Cat 2 racer. It is really powerful. That belief comes from the small successes, the incremental successes you work on. Their internal dialogue changes, “Oh, wow. You know, I rode on that guy’s wheel and he didn’t drop me and he’s dropped me every single time before it.” So they must experience success for themselves. Some athletes I think are born with it. I mean there’s no doubt some athletes have a very high belief in their abilities and they do very well just naturally. Some don’t. But that certainly is something they can learn.

Once you’ve got a taste for success, and you’ve proven to yourself that it wasn’t a fluke by following it up with another success and another and another, you have established a learned pattern. I like to say, “Five successes will pretty much change anybody’s life.” Once you have five successes of something, whatever it is whether you’re selling cars, you’ve won five bike races or whether you’ve completed five Ironman Triathlons. Whatever they are, that is enough to solidify that belief in your mind. So I always look for those five successes and once that occurs, “Bam!” They believe it.

Podium: When you’ve got athletes that don’t handle race pressure well. They get very, anxious and nervous. How do you help them with that as a coach?

Hunter Allen: Well, I think again, it goes back to that same thing, changing their mindset. I have that article on my website that I wrote awhile ago, called the “N Word”. The N word is the nervousness. It became very apparent to me that the same physical feeling that I felt when I was nervous was the same physical feeling that I felt when I was also excited. It required a different paradigm and a different way of thinking about it. When I personally recognized that the feeling of excitement is the same feeling that I’ve labeled as nervous, I decided to change the way I thought about being nervous. And it set me up for a much better state of readiness. People would ask me before a race, “Are you nervous?” I would respond, “No, man. I’m excited. I’m ready to go. I’m pumped. My muscles are twitchin’ with anticipation and I’m ready for this race to start, ready to go.” I mean, that’s the feeling you want. It allows you to reframe it as a positive – and that’s why I call that article The “N word” because I don’t even want them to mention it. For some they might need to “fake it until you make it”. So training their mindset and reframing how they think about it has worked well for me. “Yeah, I’m excited. I’m excited about this race.” “I’m ready to go.”

Mental self talk is key. If you tell yourself often enough, “I’m a climber. I’m a climber. I love climbing.” You may do this just because you want to be a really good climber and right now you aren’t. So if you keep telling yourself that, and you go out every day and climb up the same mountain over and over and over…not so all of the sudden something magical happens. You open up your eyes and one day you’re in the front group of some big mountain climb, and you realize you actually are a climber. So, you may be fooling yourself at the beginning but at the same time you are sending that message out to the universe, and combining that with focused work.

Podium: Sounds like you’re very much setting your mind up to say, “Here’s something new to believe” and you’ve got to repeat it for awhile to make it so.

Hunter Allen: Absolutely.

Podium: Is there anything about mental training that we haven’t touched on that you’d like to?

Hunter Allen: I once got to work with a couple of really cool sport psychologists. One was Dr. Bruce Ogilvie who was absolutely phenomenal. The other was Dr. Patrick Bailey, who’s done a lot of work with the Canadian hockey team. I encourage every athlete to seek out some way to have that experience.

I can’t remember where I read it, but there was a study of Olympic athletes when they first started doing sport psychology in the US for Olympians. In the study they asked them “When you get on the line at the Olympics how much physical difference is there between you and everybody else on the line?” And they answered anywhere from a half a percent, one percent, two percent, ten percent, on up to 50 percent or whatever. As I recall, the average response was basically a one percent difference between what the American Olympians thought of their physical abilities versus the world, gold medalists, as well.

They also asked, “How much of winning and getting a gold medal is physical vs. how much is mental?” The prevailing responses suggested that 90 percent of it is mental. Then they were asked, “Okay, so you train physically 25 hours a week. And that counts for one percent. How much mental training do you do a week?” And these athletes are like, “Uh, none.”

And that counts for 90 percent? That was a big thing for me just to know that, “You know, they are right.” There is a lot of a mental training you can do – reading books, listening to books on tape, whatever. I’ve got tapes from Dennis Waitley Tony Robbins and Brian Tracy. They all teach things that help me. So, I say anything you can get your hands on, you gotta do it.

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