Push Beyond Barriers Like an Endurance Athlete
A conversation with Steve Owens, CEO of Colorado Premier Training
By Alice Bumgarner
Steve Owens and his team coach endurance athletes – cyclists, triathletes, and runners from all over the world. His innovative, state-of-the-art training equipment measures athletes' heart rate, power output, and energy expenditures...
as well as a score of bike computations, such as speed and distance. His team then creates customized training programs.
What makes Owens work particularly innovative is that he incorporates "CNS scoring" into the data, which measures an athlete's physical, mental, and emotional stress. "No one really encompasses everything like we do," says Owens.
Alice Bumgarner (AB):
What is the importance and the role of innovation in today's global economic environment? How is this role reflected at your workplace?
With respect to sports, if you're not innovating, someone else is. We always have to be on the cutting edge and exploring things. Innovation means confirming which things don't work. It also means looking for certain principles that haven't been applied the right way to instruments or equipment. Also, for us, it means making innovation available to our clients.
What is the most exciting innovation you've been involved in developing? What factors made it so exciting?
Developing our test bed and software system, which accurately measure the force of drag on an athlete in a wind tunnel. It tells us how many watts an athlete needs to produce to go a certain speed on the road.
Within the wind tunnel, we have three cameras running so we can see a cyclist from all sides. We've integrated body-motion capture, so we can measure body angles on the fly – hip angles, knee angles, etc. – as we're doing a test in the wind tunnel. It's literally the most accurate measurement in the world.
The more information we can collect about an athlete at once, the better. For example, if we know that at a particular point of the ride, your drag angle is this, your knee angle is here, and your arms are here, we can go back and replicate a position based on that. Then we try to refine that baseline position, so an athlete can improve speed. It's all about overcoming wind resistance.
What surprises have you encountered when you're training athletes?
Here's one: We train a guy who's a formal world champion in the time trial. He puts his elbows pretty far apart on the handlebars, which is actually very counterintuitive. You'd think that would be slower. But we took the measurements, and it actually works for him. That's just how his body is shaped.
We can make assumptions about things, but they're not always correct.
When an athlete hits a barrier, what do you recommend?
We don't really believe in barriers. We're always breaking barriers. We have to find a way to creatively get past those.
I think when people talk about how they can't get past a barrier, it's maybe because they don't have realistic expectations. In endurance sports, in particular, it takes many years to develop an athlete. If you said, "I'd love to work with you; I'd like to run a marathon." I'd say, "Let's set up expectations. It takes a long time to develop, so we're looking at five years or whatever it is. Let's lay out some other goals to reach along the way."
When it's not a case of unfair expectations, it's simply that the person needs rest. As a coach, a lot of times I'm there to pull the reins back. These guys and girls are just tearing it up. They just want to go and go. As a coach, I have to hear the energy in their voice or lack thereof and know when they need to rest.
It's like someone at work managing a project and panicking because they don't know if they can make the deadline. In that situation, it can help to put the brakes on for a second, bring everyone into a conference room and lay out the problem: We need to get from point A to point B, so let's take a calm step back and figure out how we're going to do it.
What are some of the obstacles that prevent your team from coming up with innovative ideas for the athletes you coach?
There are so many rules within the sport for what you can't do, and for us, it's important to not feel so confined by the rules that we can't create new ideas or come up with that elusive widget that will revolutionize the sport.
A good way to do that is hiring someone who maybe doesn't know the rules. Someone who's a swimmer or skiier, who knows nothing about cycling and its rules. We've brought in the U.S. National Ski Team to work on a solution, for example.
What, if any, problem solving, creativity tools or innovation software do you use or are you familiar with?
We work with a tool called TrainingPeaks.com that lets us download pieces of equipment, like GPS power meters, heart rate meters, and so on. That's what TrainingPeaks is good at it. For us it's a good synergistic relationship.
Are you familiar with virtual collaborative innovation communities and networks (such as IdeaConnection.com) that bring together experts, facilitators, and product developers for confidential collaborative creation?
No, I'm not.
What blogs or other media on the topic of innovation do you read? Are there any books on innovation that you recommend to others?
I just try to keep with other like-minded people. I read all the online cycling publications, which sometimes include tech articles.
What principles guide the training you give your athletes?
We use three weeks of progressive training stress, then a week of recovery, then repeat. It's based on energy systems building from lesser intensity to higher intensity. And it has to do with monitoring overall stress.
The fact is, something always come up during training. People get injured or something comes up with their family. We need to integrate that into the training, and take into account how it affects them as a person.