Five Minutes With Samuel Thompson

Five Minutes With Samuel Thompson

17 February, 2024

We sat down with Samuel Thompson, ultra-racer and coach who has founding his ultra-cycling consulting company Samuel has competed in ultra-races and audaxes for almost 10 years, including everything from the Three Peaks Bike Race to GBDURO. He channels all his experience and knowledge into providing bespoke coaching and consulting for ultra-riders; make sure you learn from his wisdom.

1. Self Coaching and External Motivation

You’re an ultra-racer and coach, first question, do you coach yourself? And if so, how do you manage without the external motivation?

At this moment my training is self-guided, but I have been coached in the past and would not rule out again working with a coach to provide that external oversight to my personal training. I recognise the value that a third-party can add and for me, just as much for managing training load and preventing overtraining as providing that accountability to get the work done.

I have always been highly self-motivated and enjoy training for training’s sake. Especially when I have a goal to work towards, sticking to a plan has never been an issue. I have however had to work diligently to guard against doing too much and falling in to the trap of not taking easy or recovery days seriously, thereby harming the effectiveness of my quality work. To an extent, one can get away with this in ultra-distance events as there is some benefit from having a high training load but there are times of the year where quality has to be prioritised over quantity. Even for the longest rides, I now like to have specific aims beyond just doing a certain amount of miles or time so there is always progression beyond just spending long hours in the saddle at the same speed.

Photo by Markus Kroell - @mittelgebirgeclassique

2. Sleeping outside at GBDURO22

You finished GBDURO in 2022 in second place. This was the year of no indoor sleeping. How did you prepare for that?

I was pretty set from the outset that a tent would be the best approach for me. Looking optimistically at the previous years’ stage finish times, I predicted that I would likely have two full nights at each checkpoint so having a canvas roof over my head would be the most comfortable option and offer the best quality of sleep - which is by far our number one recovery tool. This particularly during the British summer where one of the few things you can count on is rain and I’ve learned the hard (and soggy) way that a night out in the open in a bivvy bag isn't much fun.

I therefore splashed out on an extremely light & packable tent and got used to setting it up, packing it on my bike and riding with the set-up I would be using at GBDURO. During the stages, which were likely to take 24-36 hours to complete, I didn’t count on anything more than a short kerbside nap, so being able to erect/pack away the tent was not imperative as this would just be for the CPs. This strategy turned out to work very nicely as with 36+ hours to recover after each stage I felt relatively ready to begin the next - although this was also thanks to the amazing hospitality of the volunteers at each CP and the endless supply of food!

Photo by Huw Oliver - @topofests

3. First race in 2017 vs. Now?

You started racing in 2017 at the TransAtlantic Way. How did you find your first race vs how you race now and what have you learnt?

2017 TAW was certainly a baptism of fire, wind and rain. I made almost all of the common rookie errors but was gripped by the thrill of the race and learnt so much from the experience. Anyone's first race is always going to be somewhat of a leap in to the unknown and although I had done a lot of miles in the build-up I found that after the first couple of days my body was beginning to fall apart. I’d put this down to over-exuberance on the first raft of hills, the unrelenting nature of the course and lack of conditioning to multi-day riding to this extent. I also spent far too long obsessing over the tracker and my race position. I now rarely even check the tracker during a race, prioritising focus on my own performance as this is the only thing I have control over - the race outcome will then take care of itself.

On top of the physical conditioning, my approach to training and logistical preparation has been refined through experience and research. I now have less of a focus just on doing big distances in the build-up to an event but prioritising quality and ensuring the longer rides contain specific challenges I am likely to encounter during the event (e.g. night riding, hike-a-bike). I also diligently study my routes, with a particular focus on re-supply options so that I can be as efficient as possible when the clock is ticking.

Photo by LostDot/TransPyreneesRace @transpyrenees

4. Audaxing vs. Ultra-racing

However, your experience didn’t start there! You started Audaxing in 2014. Can you tell us a bit about the difference in experience between Audax and ultra race?

Audax is a common starting point for many people who eventually transition to ultra racing. The accessibility, unpretentiousness and welcoming nature of the events makes it easy to see why. For me, witnessing the exploits of those in the budding ultra-distance self-supported racing scene got my competitive juices flowing. Simply completing Audax events within the time limit didn’t seem enough and I wanted to see how my best compared with others.

There are some key differences between these experiences though. Although Audax does necessitate an element of self-sufficiency, you must be prepared for an additional level of this when racing. You have to be comfortable with your own company, and there will not be someone else there to lend a helping hand when something goes wrong. Building these considerations in to your training for a race is therefore important. The competitive aspect is also something that I find leads to a level of satisfaction and accomplishment over and above any Audax. Races often take you to places and put you in situations that you would never normally have to deal with so there is that additional sense of ‘adventure’. However, Audax rides have formed a valuable part of my training calendar for the social aspect they can bring, as well as the miles on the road.

Photo by Markus Kroell - @mittelgebirgeclassique

5. What is a good beginner race?

With so many race finishes under your belt and coaching knowledge, what would you say would be the best race for a beginner racer?

My recommendation would have to take in to consideration the individual circumstances, background and capabilities of the aspiring racer. Also very important is to understand their motivations for wanting to ‘race’ and what their definition of racing may be. Some people seem to shy away from employing the term ‘racing’ as they think this only applies to those at the pointy end going for the overall win. However, wanting to get the best out of oneself is ultimately what most of us want to do when racing so no matter where this places you in the overall field your ambitions to ‘race’ are just as valid as anyone else's.

Generally I would promote a progressive approach to racing by starting with distances you are confident of completing. If the ultimate dream is to compete in one of the cross-continent events then formulate a plan to build experience so that when you do take it on you will be able to get the most out of the experience.

One event that does specifically cater for rookies and I can vouch for is All Points North. Their rookie category permits additional time for newcomers to ensure that they finish at a similar time to the other participants. This is otherwise an exceptionally well organised event, offering the opportunity to start and finish in Sheffield, the finest city in the UK for cycling (I may be slightly biased there!) .

Photo by Huw Oliver - @topofests

6. What is Reverse Periodisation?

Your training philosophy is quite interesting. Could you explain a bit more about Reverse Periodisation and what this is?

Periodisation in general is a fundamental training concept that involves the use of planned cycles, each manipulating volume, frequency and intensity in order to optimise training adaptations, achieve peak performance at a specific moment and prevent the occurrence of overtraining. An important part of this is building towards the specific demands of the goal event, which means that the closer to that date, the more that your training will resemble that goal.

Traditionally, almost all research and guidance for cycling training has been aimed at those participating in the most popular disciplines such as short time trials and road races lasting a handful of hours. The physiological factors determining success in these events are more related to short, explosive efforts (e.g. a climb or sprint) or sustainable power at FTP. Conversely, for ultra-distances one must be capable of maintaining a sustainable effort at a comparatively lower power but for a much longer duration.

The ‘traditional’ periodisation model therefore privileges longer duration aerobic work in the early season, moving toward a greater focus on intensity as the goal event approaches. For those with ultra-distance goals, flipping this concept on its head is intuitive and an approach that many in the northern hemisphere naturally employ as riding outdoors becomes more appealing and practical in the spring/summer months. However, it is more nuanced than this as doing the right sort of intensity in the early season is crucial, along with managing load and being smart about the long distance work later in the year. It’s not just about doing more and more miles, as fatigue needs to be carefully monitored and the specific demands of the event considered (over and above pure distance).

Finally, I’m not convinced that ‘reverse’ periodisation is the best term to employ when using this philosophy in an ultra-context. If training is more specific to the goal event as the season progresses then it isn’t really ‘reverse’. Perhaps I need to coin a new term to make the distinction clear!

Photo Huw Oliver - @topofests

7. Quick tip!

If you could give one coaching tip to new racers, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to experiment, to safely and progressively push your limits, whether that be physically, learning what equipment works for you and putting yourself in positions where you are slightly outside of your comfort zone. In races, something unexpected or unwanted is very likely to crop up. It’s impossible to plan for all eventualities, but the more you have put yourself in similar situations and have found the solution, the more confidence and capability you will have to tackle whatever happens. Seeing all obstacles that present themselves in training and preparation as opportunities to learn is a valuable mindset to have. Plus, experimenting is the only true way to find out what works for you as an individual. We all have different abilities, tolerances and preferences so what worked for previous race winners may not be right for you. Ask any internet forum or Facebook group what the best ‘x’ is and the response will almost always be ‘what I have’. Research is an important first step, but nothing beats experimenting in the field to find what you really need and don't need.

Photo - Michael Wacker @adventurebikeracing