A chat with Neal Henderson

Boulder, CO based coach Neal Henderson is a very busy man and among his flock of athletes are Cameron Dye, Flora Duffy and Taylor Phinney. We were able to pin him down in between trips around the world.

Slowtwitch: Good to chat with you Neal.

Neal: Thanks, great to finally catch up. Sometimes getting a hold of me is like trying to nail jello to a wall. It only took about 2 years, right?

ST: No worries, we were not counting.

Neal: Hopefully the wait is worth it.

ST: Does it feel good to be home?

Neal: It’s always good to be home. I’m lucky to be able to travel to some amazing places around the world - just in 2012 alone I’ve been to Mallorca, Melbourne, London, Italy, San Diego, LA, and more but Boulder, CO is still my favorite place of all of them. We have true changes in season here – sometime all 4 seasons in just one day! This week it was 80 degrees on Wednesday and today I woke up to a dusting of snow and it’s 35 degrees. I guess I like a little bit of unpredictability.

ST: It would appear that the LA Triathlon result found you well.

Neal: Yes, I was already in LA for the USA Cycling track cycling elite national championships – so killing two birds with one stone while I was out there was nice. It was really great to see Cameron Dye step up and defend his title from last year in a big race with a really solid field. Cam is clearly coming into his own, and is going to be a force within the sport for some time. It was also nice to have Flora Duffy make a successful transition (pun intended) into non-drafting racing and post the fastest run split of the event. She’s got a great pedigree in ITU racing (silver medal as a junior, two-time Olympian, winner of a continental cup & a world cup, top 10 at Commonwealth games, etc.), and is also a very strong cyclist. She has competed in some pro cycling races, but is better at mass start racing (road racing & criterium) than in time trialing. She had a bit of a disappointment in London due to a crash on the bike, and though she was ready to run like she did in LA, it just didn’t come together in London. I’m still trying to convince her to keep on the path to Rio in 2016. They say it often takes 3 Olympics to get it right.

I even got a chance to put on a number at the race in LA – as they have a bike-only option to do the entire 40km bike course as a TT. I had made bets with Cam, Flora and Allen Gardner (another Boulder-based pro that I coach) about our bike splits and fortunately for them, they all won their respective bets and I owe each of them dinner. Also, for the first time in my career of well over 100 triathlon events competing since 1990, I got a penalty! I was called for a position foul (aka blocking) as I was riding too far out into the right lane. Lesson learned - you need to follow the rules of the race that you’re in. In my defense there were 2 lanes available and there was only one guy ahead of me about 1 minute up at that point in the race, and definitely no one behind me within sight (no one passed me the entire race). I am glad that they had lots of marshals on the course to keep drafting to a minimum. So with the penalty, I ended up 3rd place in the bike-only division.

ST: Did you get mocked by Cam, Flora and Allen for that penalty?

Neal: It definitely got Cam to laugh (he’s never had a penalty during a race), but I did remind Flora that she got a stagger rule penalty at Boulder Peak Triathlon a couple years ago, and Allen also picked up a 1-minute stagger related stand down in LA…so he didn’t find it as amusing. Live and learn. Often my athletes get to learn from my mistakes.

ST: How much do you travel a year?

Neal: Too much! In 2012, I’ve had nearly 100 nights away from home – working with the USA national team, doing contract work with Specialized, and also travelling to races with athletes. Last year I flew over 100,000 miles and this year I’m already at about 80,000 with 3 months to go. Some people think travelling like that is more fun than it is in reality.

ST: You have been coaching for quite a while now, actually well before it became popular.

Neal: Are you saying I’m old? Ha – yes, I got into triathlon when it was clearly a niche sport…and in an area (central PA) where it wasn’t terribly popular. I had a passion for the sport, which led me into coaching. I studied exercise & sport science at Penn State University, and while there became the PSU Triathlon Club president. I also coached a USS swim team during one of my summers in college, and since there weren’t many triathlon coaches around I started doing some coaching through the triathlon club. After I graduated I worked in a sports medicine facility where I continued to do some coaching for triathletes and also volunteered with the first USA Triathlon national team in 1996 in Colorado Springs for about 10 days. I moved to Boulder in 1997 to go to graduate school and was an assistant coach with the CU triathlon club team. I was then hired as the head coach in late 1998, and stayed on as head coach through 2000. We won our 4th and 5th consecutive team national championships for CU in those years, and also had 3 of the 4 individual national champions in those 2 years (Nick Cady & Teri Duthie (now Cady) in 1999, and Beth Anderson in 2000). I also directed the USA Triathlon junior & collegiate camp during the summer of 1999 at the OTC in Colorado Springs, and attended the ITU World Championships in Montreal with the team. In 1999 I started my own coaching business, APEX Coaching & Consulting to work with elite and professional athletes and in 2001 I started working at Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and have continued to coach age group and amateur athletes through BCSM.

ST: Why do you think we had that surge in coaches and clients over the last few years? Is it all about the internet?

Neal: Definitely the internet has pushed things forward, but we also used that way back in the early 1990’s with the Usenet newsgroup Rec.Sport.Triathlon as a place for sharing racing experiences, training, ideas, nutrition tips/questions, etc. I guess there just weren’t enough full-on triathlon geeks at the time, though to blow the sport up like we’ve seen recently. The sheer number of events available for athletes to compete in, and the size of some of the events has really taken off in recent years. I do believe that the Olympic inclusion of triathlon in 2000 in Sydney showed the masses that triathlon is not only
about Ironman, but that there are shorter races exist than don’t take all day to complete. Of course the Kona coverage has always shown people overcoming significant issues can compete in the biggest race of them all as well. The “If they can do it, then so can I” thought has probably also helped fuel participation. USA Triathlon has done a good job in educating coaches who have helped to drive the professionalism of coaching within the sport. Triathlon has always had a very positive and welcoming vibe for novices, which is very different from some other sports.

ST: The athletes you work with are quite diverse, but they all seem to have great cycling prowess in common.

Neal: Yeah, I’m not quite sure if that’s a chicken & egg thing…meaning that athletes who are stronger cyclists are attracted to working with me or if the way that I train athletes makes them stronger on the bike. Either way, I think it’s a good thing. As a triathlete myself, I was a swimmer-cyclist and as a sport scientist the sport of cycling offers incredible insight into training & performance than can be tracked in a way that swimming and running have not be able to do in races and in training. I really love riding bikes, and I love helping others ride faster and become better cyclists. Too many triathletes are seriously unskilled as cyclists, and that is something that bothers me as a coach. I’ve made it my purpose to help develop triathletes who are not just strong cyclists, but are skilled on the bike as well – cornering, pack riding, descending, etc. The ability to push big watts does not make a cyclist great, or even fast in all conditions.

ST: Since we are talking about strong and skilled cyclists, did you approach Taylor Phinney or did he approach you?

Neal: Actually, it was Connie Carpenter-Phinney (1984 Olympic gold medalist in women’s cycling road race & former pursuit world champion) – Taylor’s mother – who first approached me. I had helped with some of Connie & Davis’s bike camps – giving talks on exercise physiology/training/nutrition. They also literally live down the street from Boulder Center for Sports Medicine where I work. Keep in mind that Taylor started racing at age 16 in a series of local criteriums in Boulder in March of 2006 and was winning the junior races and Cat 4 races off the bat. Connie was also a junior national team coach for USA Cycling and has a master’s degree in exercise physiology, so she knows her stuff. And Davis, well, he’s got the most professional cycling victories of any professional cyclist including 2 stages of the Tour de France, and also a bronze medal in the team time trial from the 1984 Olympics. I knew that I was committing to something pretty big – both in the potential for performance that Taylor showed – but also a big amount of pressure and expectation that would be placed on both him and me as his coach. I first sat down with Taylor, Connie & Davis in my office early in June 2006 and the rest is history.

ST: How much have we seen of his potential?

Neal: We’ve more than scratched the surface for sure, but there’s a lot more to come. He is only just finishing his 2nd year as a pro, and his training is progressing. Remember, this was just his 7th season of riding and he’s only 22 years old. He is going to be a force within professional cycling for many years. Probably for as long as he has the desire to keep pushing forward. Taylor is a competitor and loves to perform on the biggest stages. The two 4th places in London were both amazing and excruciating for him (he was 7th in the individual pursuit in Beijing at age 18), and his 2nd place finish in the world championships TT was another close call (just 5 seconds away from the victory). He is already hungry for Rio, and he’ll only be 26 yrs old there. I can definitely see him continuing at the top for another 8 years – through the next Olympics after Rio, no doubt. Whether he pushes beyond a focus on one-day races, classics & time trialing we’ll see.

ST: How about Cameron Dye? What is next for him?

Neal: Cam still has the desire to represent his country in the Olympics, and so depending on the situation leading into Rio I think he could make a go for it. If we find that the potential or politics to do that is not there, then he clearly has the capacity to continue to push the envelope in the non-draft Olympic-distance races. But I do anticipate some 70.3 distance racing to be part of his race schedule in the near future regardless to test the waters. He is a very meticulous athlete and doesn’t just do things for no reason. Everything he does is well thought out and planned.

ST: Can you describe your coaching ideology?

Neal: For me, coaching is about using the combination of science and practical experience to help athletes develop long-term success. Endurance sports training takes time to do it right and to stay healthy. I know that many athletes want to see massive improvements right away, and often with the kind of training that I have athletes do we see improvements right away – but it literally takes a few years to reach the best possible results. I’ve prided myself on having long-term coaching relationships with many athletes that I coach. As I say in the initial interview process, it’s not like we’re getting married – but I do believe that a longer term relationship yields the best results. All athletes that I work with undergo baseline physiology testing, and also various objective performance evaluations. I’m not big into guess work in training my athletes. I pay attention to the numbers, but I also need to see in their eyes and get a good read on them every now & then. The more often I get to see them training, then better I can make adjustments on the fly based on what I’m seeing.

ST: Any other coaches you look up to, other than your wife?

Neal: Within the endurance sports world, I respect Libby Burrell who is the new high performance director for Tri Canada. She’s a straight shooter, and is responsible for developing some great athletes including Conrad Stoltz who’s had a very storied & long lived career. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time over the past couple of years with Sir Jamie Staff, who is currently in charge of the USA sprint cycling program. In addition to being a world record holder and Olympic gold medalist in the track cycling team sprint, he was a world champion in BMX prior to that. He has been knighted by the Queen of England as well, so he must be a quality guy – right? He just has a really great way of working with athletes and I think our sprint programs will show some of the fruits of his labor in Rio and beyond. I’m also fortunate to be able to chat with Jim Miller who is the Director of Athletics at USA Cycling fairly regularly. He has been Kristen Armstrong’s coach for a number of years and so has helped coach her to two Olympic gold medals, so he definitely knows a thing or two about helping athletes nail their best performance when everyone is watching.

Outside of the endurance sports world, I would say that John Wooden is the ultimate coaching role model. Sure, there may not be the direct transfer of specific coaching techniques from basketball to triathlon – but his philosophy that coaches are there to teach and help athletes develop not just with regard to performance, but as people is important. As he said “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

ST: What is on tap for the rest of the year?

Neal: I’m looking forward to being in Boulder as much as I can. I’d imagine that there’s going to be a quick trip or two to Europe before the end of the year. I often leave on a Friday evening after work, arrive late Saturday morning and do testing/work Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday, then board an early Monday morning plane back to CO and arrive home in time for dinner Monday night. Then Tuesday starts with coaching an 8am track workout for my triathletes, directly followed by work in the office at BCSM. There’s a UCI track cycling world cup in Scotland in November that I might go to coach with the USA team. Most importantly though, I’m going to sneak in a weekend away with just my wife sometime before the end of the year - I owe her big time.

ST: You are a smart man Neal.

Neal: I don’t know if I’d go that far, but she deserves a lot of credit for what I’ve been able to do. Jane keeps our daughters in line and is amazing.

ST: Anything else we should know?

Neal: Know thyself. I think that’s what some famous Greek philosopher recommended, right? Someday I’d like to visit The Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece where this saying is written in stone. This is also the location of the ancient Pythian Games (fore-runners to the Olympic games), and since I’m into the Olympics I’d love to see some of the history with my own eyes.