5 Lessons for Trail Runners from the 2019 Tour de France
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The Tour de France is ridiculous, awesome, fascinating, crazy and just about every other word in the thesaurus. For three weeks and thousands of miles, 150-plus riders grind themselves into a fine pulp over and over again, fermenting that fine pulp over punishing terrain day after day. If you’re interested in human endurance, then the Tour is captivating even if you don’t really care about cycling. What are humans truly capable of? That’s the question that gets answered every year for a few weeks in July.
What is so cool to me about the Tour is that the margins are so slim as to be nearly nonexistent. Every rider is a pro, they all dedicate thousands of training hours a year, they all work their butts off. They all ride similar machines, eat similar diets, race similar races, do similar workouts. It’s throwing a dozen sets of a dozen eggs at a wall and seeing which don’t break.
That’s why doping is particularly troublesome. In a sport where margins are so slim, any advantage is magnified. This year, the semi-controversial topic is ketone esters, a supplement that theoretically could improve efficiency, at least based on claims of proponents. But like Lance Armstrong’s “cutting-edge training regimen,” it could just be a smokescreen for more nefarious practices.
Belief doesn’t mean thinking you will win the Tour de France, it means continuing to think you are capable of growth even when you’re handed evidence to the contrary.
Whatever is going on behind closed doors, the 2019 Tour that ended on Sunday with a magnificent win by 22-year-old Egan Bernal was one of the most exciting in recent memory. Closely matched athletes went head-to-head (or when drafting, went butt-to-head), fighting for every second. It’s a test tube for endurance generally. We like to think that what separates the top athletes is work ethic, toughness or other grit-related metrics that we can all deploy. But what separates Tour riders is often luck, genetics and strategy. Or maybe it’s ketone esters, micro-dosing and cranial stimulation. The coolest thing from an endurance-nerd perspective is that every little advantage makes a huge difference, so there are lots of lessons that apply across sports, even if you’re skeptical about cycling.
While a top runner might train 20 percent of the amount of a top cyclist, there is still a ton of overlap in the endurance required to perform your best. So what are some lessons runners can use? While I wear lots of spandex, I am not a cycling expert. However, from watching the coverage each day, five big lessons stand out.
Lean on your team
In the Tour, teamwork is everything. If a rider went at it alone, even the best would probably lose massive chunks of time from being isolated at inopportune moments. It all gets back to drafting, which reduces energy used by trailing cyclists by up to 50 percent. What you see at the end of a stage is greatness, but what cycling makes so clear is that every champion is pulled to greatness by their team.
In stage 14, Thibaut Pinot made daring attacks on the Col du Tourmalet that launched him back up the standings after a dose of bad luck earlier in the race. If you rewind the stage a bit, you’ll see his Groupama-FDJ team protecting him in the pack, fetching food and fluid from the team car, and making sure he doesn’t waste an ounce of energy. Near the end, teammate David Gaudu went to the front of the pack and drove a ridiculous pace. He wasted himself to such an extent that at the end of his pull, he couldn’t even pedal up the mountain without making switchbacks in the road. He lost a few minutes in just a few kilometers. Pinot’s attack made headlines, but if he were riding solo, it may not have even been on the front page.
And it’s not just the other riders that make up the teams. Each team has extensive infrastructure from chefs to massage therapists to mechanics. Even in individual sports, a championship moment is never an individual moment.
Running is the same way. Down in Flagstaff, Arizona, the Coconino Cowboys are a group of friends who train together, pushing their limits and redefining what is possible in the sport. In road and track running, nearly every superstar trains with a group. But it goes beyond the training partners. Think about your loved ones, your friends, your coworkers and all the other people that play a big role in your life. They make it possible for you to find your potential.
Engage them in your goals. Talk to them, ask for support and share every success like it’s about the team rather than an individual accomplishment. Because it’s almost never an individual accomplishment, even when it seems that way on the podium.
One bad day doesn’t define you
The Tour is a cool case study in the unpredictability and non-linear behavior of fitness. In early stages, Simon Yates lost big chunks of time. He came back to win a couple stages. Pinot lost time on a flat stage after getting caught behind a split in the pack. His amazing attacks helped define later stages of the tour. Geraint Thomas seemed to bring slightly different fitness to each climbing day, which made the former champion dangerous until the last day.
These are athletes that have their training dialed in to the microscopic level. If their fitness can show itself in mysterious ways, think about a typical trail runner. A good race or a bad race are often subject to the vagaries of luck and timing.
In the face of that uncertainty, the key is to give yourself a chance. All of those riders would not have had their breakthroughs if they gave up or lost faith in tough moments. Every runner faces the same decision when handed evidence that things might not be going as well as they hoped. Do you keep the faith? I think that the most important attribute in any athlete is belief.
So believe through the crappy days. It’s the only way to get anywhere close to your potential.
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It’s not all about the outcome
My favorite accolade in the Tour is the “most aggressive rider,” granted each day and at the end of the race to the rider that instigated the action the most. French fans famously value panache, a passionate display of style. I had an art-history teacher in college who talked about duende, a similar Spanish term for passionate inspiration. His example for the class outside of the art world? Thomas Voeckler, a French cyclist famous for throwing his bike from side to side as he launched another doomed attack.
It’s not just style, but stories too. Pinot had to overcome a phobia of fast descents that manifested itself when he had to drop out of the 2013 Tour, crying on the side of the road. Green-jersey winner for best sprinter Peter Sagan is as famous for being a character as much as he’s famous for being fast on a bike. The Tour would be immensely boring if it was all about who wins. Instead, it’s about the narratives that unfold on the road.
That’s running too. You might win or lose. Cool, whatever. You don’t have that much control over that, and no one cares that much when all is said and done. But win or lose, you can be the aggressive rider that goes for it when the chips are down. You can be the rider throwing their bike from side to side while launching another doomed attack. You can be the quietly confident rider, or Pinot wearing his emotions on his sleeve when he was forced to withdraw due to injury. You probably won’t win, and that will be just another part of a pretty awesome story, rather than what defines it.
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Eventually, it’s as much about genetics as work ethic
We are all capable of incredible, mind-blowing things. And very few athletes ever push up against the ceiling of their potential. But in the Tour de France, things are different. Almost every rider is right there at the limit, looking for another 0.2 percent of growth. What happens at the limit? That’s the psychological moment that is most fascinating to me. Assuming the peloton is clean now after the cultural shift since the Armstrong era, we are seeing how athletes respond when they realize that their bones and gristle are only capable of so much.
That’s one reason that celebrating results is probably not the best way to value attributes you really care about. In the Tour, everyone works hard, so that 0.2 percent separating athletes may just be written in double helixes. So much of any outcome is dictated by genetics, and we probably shouldn’t elevate something that is dependent on the traits of two people who had sex decades ago. Try to celebrate where you are and who you are, always. Pursuing the best of yourself is a virtue that doesn’t mean you have to be better than anyone else.
Let’s end with probably the most important thing in the Tour. The riders need to eat. Then eat some more. Then wash that down with more food.
If a rider undershoots calories even one day, their Tour can be over. If it’s a single stage, they bonk. If it’s over a few stages, they lose their power and drop out. Each day, they may eat 8,000 calories and no one is skimping at the dinner table. If they skimped, they’d be toast. And as toast, another rider would probably eat them.
The lesson for runners is to make sure you are fueling your body so that it can recover and adapt. That usually cannot happen in states of negative energy availability. Yeah, there might be some foods that are healthier than others. But no food is bad food when it comes to keeping your energy stores high.
Eat enough, always. Eat too much, sometimes. Eat too little, never. Do that, and you might not win your next race, but you’ll give your body a fighting chance.
—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.