Rachel Atherton's 2013 success

Alan Milway, the Athertons coach, tells us how Rachel got on track to become World Champion.
Rachel Atherton at the 2013 UCI MTB World Championships, South Africa
Rachel Atherton at the 2013 World Championships © Sven Martin
By Red Bull UK

As a coach working to prepare downhill athletes, the mountain bike race season dictates my year. As the months go by there is a focus on different aspects of training- all with the ultimate goal of race success.

For the athletes, there are some months where no-one sees the fruits of your labour, and then as the race season begins, suddenly, if all has gone well, results start to come and momentum picks up. This isn’t by chance or out of good fortune, but as a direct result of the toils unseen by anyone. It is away from the media, the fans, journalists etc, and is often quite solitary. This may sound strange for anyone who was sat at the breakfast table recently and opened the Times newspaper to see a big interview with Rachel Atherton. It is all glitz and glamour right?

I joined Atherton Racing in November 2012 and was tasked with preparing the Athertons for competition. Gee and Rach for Downhill, Dan for Enduro. Each had very different requirements, motivations, strength and weaknesses, but all ultimately had the same goal – to win.

Rachel has had a spate of injuries, some career threatening, and most often centred around her shoulders. Crashes take their toll when there is no crash mat, but instead rock, roots and trees.

In terms of the way I coach, I am a scientist, a numbers man. I like to quantify things and try to take direction from what the evidence says. It gives me confidence in what I am doing with my athletes and in turn I try to explain and show this to the athletes so they can gain confidence in what they are doing- where they need to focus, and to show them how they are improving and why.

When I started working with Rachel I needed to learn about her and what I was working with. I had previous test results, and took her to a lab for assessment myself. I looked at her movements in the gym, read pages and pages of previous training, weights, exercises, sessions. This started to build up a picture of what I had in front of me, how she had come to be this way, and how best to move forward. I also spoke to people who had worked with her – what was she like to work with – what motivated her, what did she like or not like to do.

We had our direction and our goals for the year – to win World Cups and the World Champs. The World Champs track wasn’t actually suited to Rachel on paper– long, pedally and quite flat. Her engine is like a V8 – huge power but thirsty and can run out of fuel sooner than others. Do you focus on fuel economy and ‘range’ and try to put all the attention in to this, or work with her strengths and gradually work to increase the time in which she can hold full power?

Alan Milway training Rachel Atherton
Alan Milway training Rachel Atherton

Looking back over the training plan and the build up to the season, you can see the strength gains, the routine developing, and almost an enjoyment to that routine. Play to the strengths and you will have a happy athlete – work solely on the weak areas and you will have an unhappy athlete as they will just feel tired and poor. You need to balance them and that is the challenge. I don’t know how close I got to getting it right, but she improved as training progressed and that must be a good sign?

Rachel was potentially very strong, but in order to get the best benefit from this potential we worked in the gym to develop this. We use free weights; Olympic weightlifting bars, dumbbells and kettlebells, to develop strength, with whole body movements such as deadlifts and squats. Functional strength is important for any athlete and these simple exercises are a very good way to develop this.

There was a block of training camps booked for pre-season and here we could really focus with no distractions and just a foreign land with roads for our bikes and gyms to lift weights. Where Sport Science can be misleading is that in these environments there is no point in having a perfect plan if it is not practical, enjoyable, suitable and takes account of what it is like to train twice a day for weeks on end. A typical day would be a 2.5hr road ride working to specific effort levels and routes that I had planned, back for lunch and a break, then out to the gym for strength training. I was out there too on the bikes, in the gym coaching and trying to get a feel for what they were going through. One day in the future I may do this from a car or motorbike with a microphone/ear piece, but while I still have the ability and fitness to ride with them – I think it helps the athletes realize what is set is practical and achievable.

Many interesting things came out of the training camps; we altered the gearing on Rach’s road bike so that she couldn’t smash out climbs how she wanted, but had to produce power in a different manner, we used heart rate monitors and power meters to show what was happening during efforts, and tried to mix training by pushing her strength further, but also increasing her efficiency and endurance. I also learnt that how she feels during a session is really worth understanding – hard days for her are difficult and push too much at your peril, but when she is buzzing and excited, you’d be a fool to hold back-time for max lifts and efforts!

Rachel Atherton Training
Rachel training hard

It is well documented that she benefits hugely from the support and example set by her brothers, and this was great to witness first hand. Dan is the ultimate big brother and if everyone had a big brother like him they would probably do more, push themselves further and reach more of their potential. Patriarch of the family he knows Rachel so much better than I ever will that he can just read her and when he needs to offer his help, or encourage and drive her. This obviously translates to the downhill bike so well and as the year progressed more and more time was spent on the downhill bikes and sharpening up these skills.

In the rhythm of winter training camps there needs to still be a very clear realization that the fittest, strongest athlete in the World still needs to be able to ride their bike down a very steep, technical hill faster than anyone else – bike skills are critical, and tying the second training camp in to a transition with suspension testing was a great way to keep this in focus. It also meant that the riders could see how their improved conditioning was helping them on the bike for repeated runs.

Although there have been some injury issues this season, with the performance network surrounding Rachel and the team these have been addressed really well. Darren Roberts looks after all Redbull UK’s athletes and is an invaluable link with his injury and rehabilitation experience. We will often discuss potential problems, solutions, and approaches to take. Any issue or assessment Rachel needed was handled in conjunction with Darren and the network he has around him.

Thanks to her training and this support network Rachel came in to the 1st National healthy, strong and fast, and for her to win, Gee to win Elite Male and Taylor Vernon to win Junior Male was a big start to the season for GT Atherton Racing! (And a huge relief for me!)

As the season continued, focus moved from trying to continually make gains, to keeping the levels we had reached and maximize the approach to a race weekend: warm ups, recovery, nutrition etc. How could we use the time available between races to rest but also start to steer preparation towards the World Champs?

These key sessions weren’t fun or easy, but were easier to tolerate at this point of the year where there wasn’t an infinite number of them on the cards! They kept focus throughout and especially as the World Champs approached.

So from the dark winter months of hard work, through to the start of the off-season, the race season has flown by once again. The record books will show a National Championship, 4 World Cup wins, a World Championship and a World Cup overall title for the young lady from mid Wales. Now is the time to enjoy the results. Rest and recover from the exhaustion of training, travelling and racing, because before long, we will have entered that cycle once again, this time with the bar starting very high indeed!

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