tadej pogacar

Adaptability: Tap into the Trait Tour de France Cyclists Tadej Pogacar, Mathieu van der Poel, and Mark Cavendish Have in Common

By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS

During the last three weeks of the Tour de France, one word has come up over and over again regarding the stand-out performances of Tadej Pogačar, Mathieu van der Poel, and Mark Cavendish: Adaptability. I’m not talking just about their ability to adapt to changing weather or racing strategies (although that flexibility certainly helps), but rather how efficiently and rapidly they adapt to training stress and recover from hard efforts. Everyone can go hard and dig deep once or twice. Really good racers can repeat high-intensity efforts more frequently than average racers. A shared trait among only the best champions, however, is the ability to recover rapidly and adapt to training stress significantly faster than other elite athletes. Can “regular athletes” tap into this ultimate ergogenic aid? To an extent, yes.

Why Tadej Pogačar, Mathieu van der Poel, and Mark Cavendish Are Different

A couple of articles caught my attention over the past few weeks, including this one with van de Poel’s coach, this one with Pogačar’s coach, and this one from Jonathan Vaughters. Underlying their explanations and rationales for the remarkable performances of Pogačar, van der Poel, and Cavendish – and the gaps between top performers and everyone else – is common theme that these three riders are better able to cope with the day-after-day brutality of the Tour de France. Put simply, they can ‘take a licking and keep on ticking’.

Pogačar, van der Poel, and Cavendish are incredibly talented and gifted athletes, but compared to other Tour riders – and even to you – there’s nothing remarkably different about the workouts they do, the food they eat, or the beds they sleep in. What sets them apart is how they respond to those inputs. Coaches see this across all sports. You give a group of athletes workouts personalized for their physiology, anticipating a pretty similar response across the group. They’ll fatigue about the same amount, take about the same amount of time to recover, and then experience a pretty similar amount of improvement. There’s always some variation within the group but every once in a while there’s a complete outlier, an athlete who can absorb bigger workloads, bounce back faster, and reap bigger improvements than his or her peers. In the even rarer scenario, that physiological outlier actually finds and is passionate about the sport he or she is so well suited for, and the result is a once-in-a-generation athlete (i.e. Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Venus Williams, Usain Bolt, Mathieu van der Poel, etc.)

You may not have the genetic predisposition to absorb the punishment of big training days and aggressively raced Tour de France stages and come back tomorrow with fresher legs and a clearer head than the rest of the peloton. But once you realize that adaptability is what sets the best apart from the rest, you can start taking steps to maximize your ability to adapt to training faster and more effectively.

Here are some ways to do it:

Get Really Personal

Generalized training programs are popular because they generally work. If a moderately fit person follows a plan that increases their monthly training hours, focuses their time-at-intensity, and/or improves training consistency, their fitness will improve. To accelerate their progress and reap bigger improvements, you have to find out as much as you can about their physiology, lifestyle, and psychology so you can optimize the work:recovery ratio, target the intensities with the greatest potential for improvement, create a schedule they can stick to, and establish goals and a relationship that keeps them motivated, challenged, and filled with purpose.

From a tactical standpoint, this means including physiological testing, recording subjective feedback along with training data, tracking nutrition (at least for a period), professional bike fit, and frequent communication (if working with a coach).

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Follow Your Own Path

It’s one thing to say individual athletes should follow their own training plan rather than what works for their buddy. That’s true, but you need to go a step further and be open to flipping the script entirely. Effective training needs to be based on sound sports science, but there are a lot of training variables that can be manipulated to suit your own set of personal variables. For instance, some athletes thrive on specializing in one cycling discipline, whereas others need the variety from multiple disciplines and other sports in order to maximize their performance capacity.

Would Mathieu van der Poel or Wout van Aert be champions on the road if they were not champions in cyclocross or mountain biking? Are they phenomenal athletes who happen to compete in multiple disciplines, or does training for and competing in multiple disciplines have an additive or cross-over effect that makes them better across the board? While in principle I believe it’s best for athletes (particularly young athletes) to participate in a wide range of sports and/or cycling disciplines, emulating what worked for van der Poel and van Aert is the new sure-fire path to cycling superstardom. It’s what worked for them. For other cyclists – even those who reached the level of competing in the Tour de France, multiple disciplines might have been too distracting or chaotic.

Stick with it

The magical component of training and adaptation is time. Endurance training is cumulative and the time course for adaptation to training is longer than many athletes would like to believe. The training you do today will takes weeks to manifest as any measurable effect on your performance, and even then it wasn’t just what you did today, but rather how today’s efforts integrated into the weeks and months and years of other activities you’ve completed. Everything you do – or don’t do – has the potential to enhance or diminish your adaptation to training. The greatest lessons champions learn are to make steadfast habits around the things that work and to resist the urge to chase trends. That doesn’t mean they stop innovating, it just means they gradually build a core of known, proven habits and then test out new methods to see if they should be added to that core. What they don’t do is make radical changes on a whim.

Mark Cavendish returned to the Tour de France at 36 years old and won four stages (potentially 5 if he wins on Sunday on the Champs Elysees) and the points jersey. He went through a rough 4-year period of his career when crashes, illness, and team politics kept him from riding at his best. And while he started working with a new performance team when he moved back to Deceuninck Quick Step in 2021, his steadfast commitment to the fundamental routines of being a professional athlete (on and off the bike) saw him through a prolonged trough and provided the opportunity for a resurgence. He didn’t abandon what had worked and start from scratch, and neither should you. Your ability to adapt depends on a strong foundation.

Reduce Lifestyle Stress

The body responds to stress and doesn’t necessarily differentiate between lifestyle, career, relationship, or exercise stresses. However, your capacity for coping with and adapting to stress is finite, not limitless. So, if you are taking up a lot of that bandwidth with stress from your lifestyle, career, and relationships, there’s not a lot of resources left for adapting to training stress. Professional athletes have the luxury of being able to organize their lives around training and recovery and can often minimize or eliminate many common sources of lifestyle stress. Working parents and career professionals may have more daily stressors they can’t eliminate, but one of the best ways to improve any athlete’s adaptability is to examine and reduce lifestyle stressors as much as possible.

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Comments 1

  1. I think you meant to call out Serena Williams, not her sister Venus (who is also an amazing tennis player–but not the caliber of Serena).

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