Virtual Coaching and Zwift Racing with Ben Thomas

Three-time National Champion...

Having dedicated his life to cycling and professional competition, Ben Thomas has competed all over the world at the highest and most demanding levels. As well as being a three-time National Champion and a consistent top 10 finisher at the UCI World Mountain Bike Marathon Series, Ben is an accomplished mountain bike coach and race strategist. Between coaching aspiring champions, personal training and competition, Ben keeps himself busy, even during these challenging times. So, between sessions on the turbo trainer and catching up with coaching clients, we took some time out with arguably one of the most experienced bike racers in the UK.

Ben Thomas triple national champion cross country mountain bike marathon racer training in the forest.
Training log

"...cross-country racing bug..."

So Ben, how did you get onto the path of cycling, and when did competition become a big draw for you?
"I started cycling when I was at school, basically just playing on jumps and drops, riding the local cross-country trails and riding to school with a bunch of friends. After trying a couple of downhill races, I tried a local Gorrick XC race and did pretty well. From there, I sold my downhill bike and started riding the same trails, but now on a cross-country bike! I had the cross-country racing bug, and after a few years, I started riding for the TORQ Performance team where we rode many of the European World Cup XC events that year.

Coming back from racing big UCI events, I started looking for bigger challenges. After riding the Cape Epic and Alpen Tour, the appeal of riding cross-country races around short laps wasn't quite so great. I soon found myself racing a full marathon calendar travelling to Europe for most events. Then in 2015, I won my first National title in marathon racing. To wear the National stripes at races all around the world was the inspiration I needed to take my racing up another level. I had already been racing for British Cycling at the World Marathon Championships since about 2012, but I wanted to make a real impact.

I was soon finishing top 20 at the UCI World Marathon Series and won the National title again in 2016. By 2018, I was finishing top 10 at the UCI XCM Series. Then in 2019 I cracked regular podium finishes and won the National title for the third time. In 2019, I finally finished well at the World Championships. On a mountainous Italian course, I was flying like a mountain goat, all the way up to 27th place with top 20 only a small mistake away. Just as big a sporting achievement in 2019 was seeing one of my coaching clients win a National title and then race the World Marathon Championships."

Spanish lockdown...

Wow, you've achieved so much in your career already! What's left on your competition bucket list?
"I would love to crack a top 10 at both Europeans and World Champs. I'd also love to win a round of the UCI World Marathon Series and keep retaining my British Championship title against the increasing strength of the competition."

When the global health crisis broke out, Ben was coaching at a training camp in Gran Canaria. As the final attendees flew home on the day the Spanish lockdown began, Ben was forced to spend a day alone with the streets totally deserted, before being allowed to fly home to the UK. Racing was expected to begin in April, but recent global events have since either cancelled or postponed events. "I was and still am absolutely flying with my best fitness and power figures to date. I will be spending lockdown continuing to train hard focused on summer and autumn of racing", explains Ben.

"...Wahoo smart trainer..."

For an international athlete, who's dedicated years to honing their talents, to suddenly be unable to compete or train as effectively as before, what's a typical day looking like for you?
"At 7.30 am, I'm in the office responding to emails and Training Peaks post-activity comments. Between 9 and 10 am, I head out on the bike or climb onto the Wahoo smart trainer. Depending on how long I train for, I could be back at 1 or 2 pm for a late lunch. I then work on training programmes until about 6 pm before cooking dinner and spending the evening with my wife. The longer rides are tricky right now. I've done some big 3 to 4-hour sessions on the indoor trainer and still a few long rides outside, just being cautious not to take any risks. We are very lucky where we live that we can be out in the countryside within minutes and on a weekday, especially the roads and trails are pretty deserted."

Sustained session sweat
Sustained session sweat

"...maintain threshold power..."

Of course, this situation is far from ideal. Tell me how the current global crisis has affected your coaching services, and how are you overcoming those obstacles?
"Clients initially faced the same frustration as me, having trained so hard over the winter, then to face an empty event schedule. As the situation developed, we went from making adjustments each day, to finally creating either a mid-season training plan or scheduling some rest if they'd been racing hard through the winter and spring. There was and still is a lot of uncertainty, but everyone agreed that they must continue to train hard and not let go of all the hard training completed over the winter. Short-term training goals and long-term reasons to keep training, like wanting to develop as an athlete, improving weaknesses, event readiness and general health, is continuing to drive motivation.

For people who don't have a coach, they could benefit from completing three key sessions per week. A virtual race like the British Cycling Zwift Road Race Series on Tuesdays will provide a fun, unstructured anaerobic training session. Combining this with a workout like low cadence and high torque climbing, or the amount of time you can maintain threshold power, plus a workout improving fatigue resistance or aerobic efficiency would be enough to maintain fitness levels and make some improvements to weaknesses. You can then pick up training intensity once we have an event schedule."

Ben Thomas triple national champion cross country mountain bike marathon racer Zwift racing.
Zwift zone zoom

"...grip and puncture protection..."

How has brand support helped you achieve your goals over the years?
"It's a constant battle each winter to find enough support to continue racing so when brands support me through highs and lows year after year it's hugely appreciated. I have worked with Schwalbe now for well over five years and ridden many iterations of the products. I was a huge fan of the older Racing Ralph, so when it was replaced, I was a little worried. However, the new model is a complete revelation in terms of grip and puncture protection. On my mountain bikes, I have either a Schwalbe Racing Ray / Racing Ralph combo or a Racing Ralph front and back. On my road bike, my winter wheels have Schwalbe Durano Plus tyres, as my local roads are normally covered in grit and mud in the winter months, so puncture protection is paramount. On my summer road wheels, I have the new Schwalbe Pro One tyres."

If you need a little inspiration or even motivation, then be sure to give Ben a follow on Instagram or head over to his website where you can find more information on coaching and racing services.

Words: Jess Strange - Velo Me | Images: Adam Hughes Photography @adam_hughes_photography, Ben Thomas