Jody Cundy: Transferring effort in training to speed on the bike
Interview by Declan Holt
Track cycling requires the mastering of many techniques and specific body architecture in order to become an international champion.
No one element alone will provide success so riders and their coaches must apply their focus to a wide range of environmental factors including rest, diet, sprints, starts, form, aerodynamics, recovery, tapering, tactics, mental preparation, injury prevention and supplementation.
Jody Cundy will be assisting us by providing insight into his career as a Para Olympian and the highly nuanced training required at the top levels of the sport.
The main thing I found from doing my research on you Jody was the switch from swimming to cycling. Why did that come about, were you in involved with triathlon at all or did you just decide to have a go on the bike?
I’d always ridden a bike as a kid. I lived in a country county so kids just ride bikes everywhere but I pursued my swimming career and then moved to Swansea to be a part of the high performance swimming centre.
One of my friends said ‘they’re having a disability day on the velodrome, do you want to come and try it?’ This velodrome had only been open for maybe six months and was only about forty-five minutes away from where I was living. I went down there and had a go on the track.
I was interested in having a go on the track because when I was following sports Chris Boardman was riding his bike in Barcelona and peaked my interest in track cycling. Following him and Graham Obree’s back-to-back hour records. After that whole rivalry I always wanted to get on a track. One of the coaches at the velodrome spotted me and thought that I might be good at it. It was the first time I’d been on a track and after that I was hooked.
I went back two months later in Manchester when we had a training camp that was close by. It got to the point where I entered the 2005 National Cycling Championships just on an off chance that I might do well and on the first ride I rode, I broke the British record in the flying 200 and I found track cycling a little more interesting after that.
Six days a week I’d go swim and one day a week I’d train on the bike and basically learnt at the back of the pack with the coaches all of the etiquette and the skills that I needed on the track. Unbeknownst to me the coaches had been sending my times off to British Cycling and one day they came back and said I was going faster than anybody out of the British squad and would I be interested in a trail. At that point we were like ‘Yeah we’ll do the trial, see how it goes’.
We won the trial and a few days later we got selected for Great Britain to race in the Pan Cycling Cup – a big multi sport event they used to have years ago in Manchester. I broke the record there at the team sprint. In the first race with the team and myself we broke the world record and then won gold in the final.
After that I was pretty much asked by British Cycling ‘Do I want to join the cycling team?’ to which point I thought it’s a pretty interesting offer over the end of my swimming career anyway.
It was a bit of a hard decision to go from the swimming which id done all my life to do a different sport but I knew that the options were good if I continued on the same path I was going.
So I took up cycling and hung up the goggles. I think naturally I’m a better cyclist than I am a swimmer – which helps. I think the fitness background I had from swimming also helped, the amount of improvements I made in literally six months were huge. I went from doing a 1:19 kilo in October of 2005 to winning the worlds and a new world record of 1:10 in August the next year. A bit of coaching and pointing in the right direction and I took 9 seconds off.
Now my kilometre record at sea levels is 1:04.3 and at altitude like 61.4. It has moved on quite a bit, but during that initial swap over I felt like I was a teenager again, every time I jumped on the bike I went a bit quicker.
Sadly the gains have slowed down quite considerably now, its gotten to the point where, its not like a plateau but it gets a lot harder to get a bit faster. You’re then focusing on techniques and training methods and other bits that you can extract from the bike to make yourself a bit faster.
In the kilometre it’s a really fine balance of pacing. You basically need to get everything out in four laps – you’re talking just over a minute’s effort but you’ve got to try and get it all out.
It doesn’t matter whether you start slow and try and finish fast or go flat out at the start and die on your feet, it’s likely you’ll get exactly the same times.
It’s fine tuning all of those bits and making sure that:
These are all things we work on daily. Every major competition we do we’ll sit back and look at how the planning has gone, how the training went and what things we’ve changed, what things have and haven’t worked and how that translates to the Kilo.
We analyse all the bits that work and try to add those back into training so the next time we do it, all the benefits that we got last time are still there. But we also try and tweak all the bits that we didn’t quite master on that ride that we may have mastered on another one.
So it’s just refining it all the time so you never get a finished article. Every time we do a Kilo I’ll think ‘If only I could have done that little bit there’ you’ve done everything you can to get to that point, ‘I reckon if I can get a little bit more out of that second lap that would help through all of the other bits’.
But when it comes to positioning on the bike we have some cool systems at British Cycling where we analyse our position on any effort we do. We just look at the high-speed footage and we can see what our position looks like so if the position is breaking down or whether we’re fatiguing.
Sometimes it may not be about the actual effort as such it’s about when you’re in stress maintaining position so you don’t lose anymore than you would and then you find once you can hold your position you can increase the speed again.
It’s just fine-tuning all the time. It goes from being that crude process it was when I first got into cycling; basically taking a big chunk off just by doing a bit more training, getting a bit more strength. Now we’ve got to the point that the fine sand paper is out and we’re smoothing off all of the rough patches.
So you obviously measure a lot of variables. RPM has got to be an important one for you as well of power output do you aim to maintain a consistent power output during the race or deliberately peak at certain points?
With the Kilometre being such a short event, a lot of it is about peak power and sustaining as much peak power as we can. In training we have SRM’s and we’ll check where we’re at.
There is so much variance from session to session and effort to effort its not so much looking at raw numbers its looking at trends of what that training has given me – a little bit more power, I’m a little bit stronger in the gym at the moment but I’m not as strong on the track.
So how do I try and convert those two to make the benefits of what I’ve got. Its understanding what the data is and to make sure where moving in the right direction. As for training a specific race pattern then yeah more is better but sometimes its not always better.
I’ve read some of the files on the rides that I’ve done and maybe it was either a faster track or there was more aero or I just had a good day. Sometimes my average power would be less but I’ve actually gone faster and then other days I’ve put massive power out and actually gone slower because the actual race craft wasn’t as good.
It is a fine balance of harnessing all of the power you’ve got and making sure you put all of it down into the track and get the most out of it.
How do you evaluate a new training method or something that you’ve been doing for a long time as well, whether that effort is transferring to speed on the bike. Are there certain measures that you look at to determine effectiveness?
For a specific event, Mexico for instance, we knew that in Mexico the race was going to be at high altitude which means you go faster and you use a bigger gear. However when you’re going slowly during the start effort the effects of the altitude really kick it up. You’ve got to be strong off the line so we knew that we needed to get a big gear off the line quickly. So all of the training we did was based on being strong and accelerating the bike as quickly as possible on a really big gear.
It was all about force production, torque and strength and so that’s what we’ve focused on. That’s what we try to get better. We’re always trying to get the quarter and half times down, and on a standing start it’s about going from certain speeds seated to accelerating those big gears.
We try and do it with bigger gears than I would have used in the race. Then we analyse ‘did this bigger gear get us off the line faster’ and the answer was yes.
Sometimes you get benefits from doing things that you’re working on specifically that result in benefits in other areas of the race.
One of the best starts I’ve done had to be Mexico but as a whole, ended up also producing more power than I normally would in the second half of my race.
The last two laps although we didn’t forget about them, weren’t a priority but because the first two laps managed to gain more strength it actually was a nice little add on bonus.
However sometimes I’ve done stuff where I’ve gone ‘yeah I’m going to work on that’ and we end up getting that result, but it can end up taking away from other areas of the race.
It’s working out what works best; one for me as the athlete and two what works out best for the actual outcome. But at the end of the day we want to go as fast as possible – that’s the ultimate thing. But sometimes what works for me won’t necessarily work for another athlete. We’ve got quite a few sprinters on the squad and if we all did the same training we all get completely different effects from it.
So some of us will benefit from being strong to get us off the line quickly and some of us will benefit from doing longer efforts that will take us through the end. It’s finding out what kind of athlete you are, what suites you best and what you’ll get the most from.
A lot of the time we’ll find that some athletes get really tired from doing the same work, some people can just eat that up and just want more and more.
That’s what has happened over the six or seven years I’ve been riding on the track now. It’s finding out what I’m good at, what I’m not good at and working on the bits that need working on.
How do the top-level riders like you allocate time do the different aspects of training? I’d imagine you break it down into key areas, like the start, middle and end of a race – I’m sure it’s more detailed than that though?
You’d be surprised. Literally our training sessions, depending on what part of the process we are doing, will reflect what we’re working on. If it’s the big strength starting block we’ll do lots of starts and lots of heavy lifting in the gym.
Then we’ll go onto the next one, we’ll work on speed and strength, and so we’ll add those elements to the track. We’re not taking away from starts, we’ll still keep starts in there but it won’t be the prominent feature.
We’ll work on another part of the race and then as we get closer to racing we’ll start bringing out race kit and doing the longer efforts to doing the highest speed efforts the ones simulate the break down at the end of the race – when you are sort of on your last legs and then hopefully by the time we get to the race we just bring each of those elements together.
We try and break down the race into the start, the middle section and the finish – in simple terms. Training is then reflective from that depending on where we are in the cycle and usually culminates in all of those elements coming together either for a world championship or a Paralympic games.
Whereas next year is RIO, which is more interesting, world championship in March and then we have Rio in September; you’ve almost got to peak twice.
Do you go straight through and do what you normally do at the worlds or try and fit the entire training cycle between worlds and Rio?
Or do you start now on your Rio cycle and almost have a non-finished product at worlds where you can then continue to go for?
It all depends on how you’re going and what the coaches think you can get the most out of.
So I guess it comes down to your coach’s philosophy and everybody’s mental outlook on how they could be prepared for two big competitions stuck together.
Yes, its doable but you really need to know yourself and where you’re at and what you are trying to achieve.
What we also wanted to know was the power to weight ratio you maintain. Do you have to deal with weight fluctuations and do you get a better result at a certain weight?
It’s a weird one actually sometimes when I’ve been heavier I’ve actually been faster, whether it’s when you lose weight you’ve then lost muscle mass so you’re not producing as much power.
It’s a real fine balance of getting the power to weight ratio with the most bang for buck off the start line but also the bit where you are mid race and you’ve got momentum.
If you’ve got weight and because you are on a flat track it’s not like you’re going up and down a mountain, you can maintain the momentum through the corners.
If you watch the tandems ride, two sprint guys on a tandem frame probably weighs 200 kg and they’re doing 65-70 km/ph in the Kilometre and they don’t slow down – it’s all about maintaining momentum.
Whereas the lighter you are, in turn you speed up quickly however you slow down quickly so there is a balance on the weights side of things as well.
It’s not a personal preference but what fits you better, sometimes some riders ride better lighter, some riders ride better heavier and some there is a sweet spot middle-ground where you feel like ‘That’s where I want to be’ – fast off the line but I also want to maintain power expense mid-way through the race as that will help me finish the race off.
You will find your balance in the end for what works best for you.
If I were on the track producing tons of power but not going very fast I’d be looking at maybe losing weight to try and not lose the power but then to strip off the excess. It’s when you start losing the power with the weight when things start to go wrong.
And does it also come down to a riders line, that’s a bit of an art form as well the line they take may give them the speed boost for their frame and weight?
Exactly, and each track is completely different that’s the thing. On TV you see a track and they all look pretty much the same, they’re all 250 m, they are wooden and go round in a circle.
Whereas when you get onto a track and you find that certain tracks give you a bit of speed coming out of the corner, some tracks are pretty dead and don’t give you anything and you end up having to work harder throughout the lap to get more out of it.
Whereas some tracks you can work in specific parts of the track and you can get more bang for your buck. Some tracks you can throw it into a corner and as long as you nailed it in that corner you will get a slingshot effect.
The strength varies as well because you get that slingshot from weight and power in the corners. If you sat down and broke it into real tiny bits you could really go to town on it but we just try and keep it simple because the simple stuff is the stuff you get most bang for your buck.
It’s when you are looking for those hundreds and thousands of a second you go ‘I wonder if we did this’
There are elements of:
It varies from track to track and usually those 5-6 days you get to ride on the track before a championship is all about perfecting what you get from the track and how you get out of it.
Which track do you spend the most amount of time training on and what is your favourite track to ride on?
To be fair one of the fastest tracks I’ve ridden was actually Manchester, which is the track that we train on pretty much everyday.
That’s the one that British Cycling is based and where all of our training is set from so it’s the track I know the best.
There are tracks out there like where we put the World’s next year in March in Italy. It’s more of a bowl shaped track but in one way you feel like you’re generating speed all the way around. It’s a great track to get high speeds out of and it’s one of my favourites.
The track in Mexico, even at 1800 meters (above sea level) is ridiculously fast. I reckon if you put that track at sea level people would break records on it. There is something about riding that track that just felt fast and it just felt right certainly for me anyway.
There were other people that said ‘well I don’t know about that track maybe this maybe that…’ but for me it just had the right balance of work to reward from it.
Some tracks you get a big smile on if you’re riding through the corners and blasting at top speed and you come flying out the other side.
So you play the track that you are on? It’d be interesting to see all the differences as I was watching videos today where they stuck a Gopro on the handlebars and that really gave me a sense for the first time of the speeds and how tight the track actually is from the rider’s perspective, you imagine it to be a lot wider than a small bowl at the bottom edge of the track.
Like I say each track is different so there are the bowl’y tracks with long banking relatively short straights. You turn in all the time but it’s a subtle turn all the way round and then you’ve got tracks like Beijing and Glasgow that have got really long straights but really tight banking so the actual in field is closer together spectator side to side.
So you’re centering in and then centering out, there’s no waiting to go back in onto your line?
When you find you’re on a fast track its in the corner you generate speed and before you know it your already cornering again for the next bank in.
Whereas on some tracks you go around a corner really quick you get a nice throw out of it but you look at the straight and think ‘Oh my god that next corner is miles away’. It isn’t really that far at all but at the end of a Kilo anything that is more than 50 meters feels like a long way.
How has riding and training in the mixed improved your individual racing? Do you learn a bit more from the other riders their perspective like when you had to sit out and watch them from the seats did that give you another insight into how you guys race?
The whole mixed team sprint is really unique especially within Para cycling. When you’re able bodied track cycling pretty much everybody is full gas all of the time.
In Para cycling, because each of the riders have got disability categories, you’ve got different things you have to look out for.
So somebody might be a really quick starter but not actually do anything after that because their disability doesn’t allow them.
Some of them might not get off the start line very well and just generally progress all the way round so then its all about the time and effort of the jump.
The mixed team sprint we did, the recent C1 event in Manchester where we set the worlds fastest time was the first time we’d ever ridden together.
We’d not even done any practice together which is shocking to say coming from British Cycling background where we are fastidious about details.
We had a girl that’s come from athletics who’s in our squad, she won the 100 meters two weeks prior to the event at the world championships in Doha.
We’ve got one lad that used to be on the squad who hasn’t been on the squad for a while but is now back as well. So there was never a time where we could all get together. We literally just mapped it out and hoped for the best.
You do learn what the other riders do, how they do it and how you can get more out of yourself and for me it was about watching what John was going to be doing and how he accelerates.
We did a race at nationals in September where we had a different start person but I was still following John.
It was the first time I’d followed John for a long while as we were training for London and I missed all of his cues that give you the sense that he’s about to go.
For example, when you see a cat that’s ready to pounce, they have that little shake and then they go, well when your following someone on the track you know when they are about to accelerate and I missed all of those cues.
It only takes one or two pedal revolutions and you’ve missed the cue and it ends up being a really long race because they’re one or two peddle revolutions ahead of you.
All of a sudden they’ve got a five-meter, then ten-meter gap on you and your just chasing really hard to try and make it.
You learn what different riders do and that makes you more aware of your weaknesses and your strengths. Johns upper body disability; he’s missing his forearm and elbow, he’s able bodied from the chest down so he’s got a really strong seated drive whereas the seated drive for me is probably my weakness because being a below knee amputee I don’t have the power that he does seated.
But I have the bit where I can get out of the start gate and throw the bike around with my two arms whereas he has to start seated. So following him and seeing the way he does things and knowing that if I want to stay on him I’m going to have to commit 100% to even make sure that I don’t lose him and that in turn makes my lap better, whereas if he’s gapped me or I have to use more energy to close the gap than I would have used on the last lap when I’m on my own.
You’re always learning what the other person does and how they ride and how you can get better from it. You can also give them feedback as well so because you are following them a few centimeters behind their back wheel if they take a different line that you think may be slower or faster you can go ‘I like what you did there’ or ‘have you ever tried doing this?’
So you can be your own coach in a form from the back and feed that back to the other two to hopefully make the team as a whole go fast.
It’s great that it all interlinks
At the end of the day with Para-cycling team sprint it’s all about having a perfect combination. For us we’ve had two of the fastest riders; myself and John over those last two laps but we’ve never had somebody who could start the race off at the speed of Kadeena Cox now does.
So we’ve always been outside the loop but now we’ve got a start person means we can exploit myself and John and we’re back in the team together and we’re in a good place to go forward for the Worlds and Rio.
It sounds like it’s all falling into place for you?
Yeah if I could only get rid of this elbow injury then I’ll be laughing.