On MTB Coaching with XC Pro Hannah Finchamp

Hannah Finchamp answers your questions about mountain bike coaches and how coaching works.
Photo: Clayton Otto

We recently interviewed Hannah Finchamp about her professional XC and gravel career, and she shared some helpful tips on the importance of a proper bike fit. Now she’s back to tell us about what it takes to be a mountain bike coach, how to know if you could benefit from a coaching program, and what her athlete guidance looks like.

Who better to coach mountain bike athletes than a professional mountain bike racer, right? As a pro rider, Finchamp has been coached on how to race and train, when to stretch, what to eat, how much and when to sleep, what reps to include in her strength training, and how to hone trail skills — all for as long as some of us have been riding mountain bikes. Now she’s a professional coach herself, and she has loads of helpful knowledge to share.

How long have you been coaching other riders, and what inspired you to start? 

I’ve been coaching athletes for four years, but whatever I may or may not lack in duration, I make up for with my education, attention to detail, and personal experience. I graduated from college in 2018 with two science degrees. One is in exercise science and one is in athletic training. I am Board-Certified Athletic Trainer and I am a USA Cycling certified coach. I have also been competing in endurance competitions for 15 years, five of which have been as a professional mountain biker.

I understand the trust that goes into a coaching relationship so I put a lot of attention and energy into every workout that I write. I am constantly working to further educate myself and keep up with the current research. I am extremely passionate about what I do and I believe that shows through in my coaching.

I’ve always loved writing workouts. Since I was 10 years old I have enjoyed coming up with new and creative interval sets for myself. I really enjoyed coming up with a workout that would be both entertaining and challenging. I carried that passion throughout most of my career in sport and when I went to college I decided to get a degree that would enable me to coach with a scientific foundation. Now, I love coming up with training plans for my clients and watching them achieve their goals. 

How do you help athletes get motivated when they hit a slump or plateau?

I think that mixing up workouts and creating new and exciting ways to train can go a long way for motivation and mental health during a slump. For example, if you do a similar workout all of the time and don’t see any improvement then it can become demoralizing. If you completely alter the workout then it’s difficult to carry those same expectations and you will be more likely to break through that barrier because you won’t be weighed down by what you ‘have been’ or ‘used’ to do in the same workout.

When an athlete reaches a plateau, but they are well rested and should be seeing gains, what are some of the things you look at to change the situation?

This is when it is really important to know the athletes you coach on a personal level and where communication is key. You have to start looking at the athlete as a person and not just numbers on a chart. It’s important to look at things like health, nutrition, power numbers etc, but often times it’s the simple things that get missed. People often don’t want to admit that their everyday life is impacting their racing or training, but it does and that’s ok. The sooner people recognize that connection, the easier it is to overcome. I can’t tell you how many times I have had an athlete frustrated about a workout and after a conversation come to the realization that they also had a terrible day at work or barely slept at all the night before. We are people first and athletes second and it is important that a training plan helps to tell and fit that story.

Photo: Clayton Otto

What’s different about coaching MTB athletes verses cyclocross or road racers?

I’ve coached everything from marathoners and ironman athletes to mountain bike, cyclocross, and road. While every athlete is different, one very basic coaching principle can help dictate how. The most basic way to view training is to mimic the demands of the sport. Normally we do that through a periodized approach with appropriate rest and ramp rates, but in the simplest terms each sport’s training will be different according to the sport’s needs. Cyclocross is much shorter and punchier, verses road that might be longer and more consistent. The most important piece that can often get missed are the technical differences of every discipline. Road racers should be working on tactics and moving through a pack, and mountain bikers should spend days working on technical skills. It’s important to look at the whole picture. 

What is your coaching philosophy?

My coaching philosophy is centered around evidence-based practice and exercise physiology. I seek to use scientific knowledge to cater to the uniqueness of human performance and ultimately to help an athlete reach their goals. I believe that each person is unique so every workout should be unique as well. I craft completely individualized training programs and I work hard to be able to back my plans with research. I also thrive on explaining the reasoning behind certain workouts. I believe that when athletes understand the ‘why’ behind what they are doing they are better able to perform to the best of their abilities. 

Photo: Clayton Otto

How do you work with clients who experience performance anxiety? They are ready, but their minds are sabotaging the work they do.

When an athlete is experiencing performance anxiety, I think it is important to take a step back and establish different process-orientated goals. These types of goals help the athlete think about objectives other than their placement or time. These goals could be anything from a specific nutrition strategy to skills execution. It’s important to help take the stress out of performance, re-focus on the enjoyment, and help racers to feel like the training that they are succeeding in. 

What does your coaching process look like?

I believe that the relationship between a coach and an athlete is an extremely personal relationship built on trust and understanding. For that reason, I do not put specific restrictions on communication. Not only am I better able to do my job as a coach if an athlete communicates with me and informs me about what is going on in his or her life, but consistent communication also inspires confidence. Sometimes it is helpful just to know that if a question comes up it can be easily asked and answered. In addition to email, text, and phone call communication I utilize the TrainingPeaks platform for training plans so I am able to analyze workouts and provide feedback directly related to each workout. 

How much do you work with nutritionists, bike fitters, and strength coaches to help athletes create a well-rounded plan? 

It takes a village to support an athlete. I do my best to provide every athlete with the information that they need to reach their goals whether I can supply the resource or if they need to seek advice from someone else. Since I have a degree in exercise science, I am also able to supply strength workouts for the athletes that I coach. If an athlete has a dedicated strength coach that they already work with then I am always happy to help incorporate those workouts and work side by side with another professional. I often recommend other resources such as nutritionists or bike fitters on a case by case basis. I think it’s very important for a coach to understand where his or her knowledge stops and where another person could provide better guidance. A coach does wear many hats, but one of them must also be to know when to refer. 

We are people first and athletes second and it is important that a training plan helps to tell and fit that story.

How much of your work with athletes is about mental health and strength vs. training plan creation?

It really depends on the athlete and the time of year. Right now, during this pandemic, there has been an emphasis on mental health and making sure that every athlete is staying in a positive headspace. The training plan creation is a given. Every coach should spend a significant amount of time crafting plans for their athletes. Mental health and mental strength is something that takes a coach-athlete relationship to the next level.

Why should athletes consider paying a coach? 

There are a lot of ways that I could answer this question. The obvious answer is that a coach should provide an educated and clear path to improvement. I think that the reason for hiring a coach spans a reason much greater than that. A coach should take away any concerns regarding training. A coach will give you piece of mind to know when enough is enough and also when to push harder. Not sure whether to do five or six repetitions? A coach takes the question out of that as well. Even coaches have coaches because it helps to provide an objective view to an athlete’s training.

Photo: Clayton Otto

What are you doing differently with your clients now that the race season is pushed back several months? 

We are in such unprecedented times right now which means training should look different as well. Every athlete is unique, especially as some states and countries begin to reopen and others remain with restrictions. Some of the athletes that I coach have already begun racing again and others won’t be racing for several months. I’ve been focusing on using this time to work on weaknesses that we otherwise might not have time to focus on. I think with the right attitude, an athlete will be able to stand on the start line after all of this and be stronger than ever before. 

If someone wants to be a cycling coach, what certifications or degrees would you recommend they look into?

I would recommend looking into an exercise science or human performance degree. It is also beneficial to become certified through USA Cycling. Extra education or certifications will never hurt. While many coaches rely on experience alone, education provides a foundation that allows coaches to better adapt to every scenario, and not just ones they have experienced before for themselves.

A great coach works with their athletes to achieve each goal rather than forcing the athlete to fit a cookie-cutter format. 

How do you find clients, or how do they find you? 

I’m always interested to hear how people find my coaching services. Since I’m very active in the cycling community people can find me through a variety of platforms including at the races in-person, through my website, and even through Instagram. 

It’s always very exciting to hear from a new athlete because it means I have the opportunity to hear someone else’s story. Never be afraid to reach out to a coach and see if you are a good fit. I find that many athletes are hesitant when they reach out for the first time because they aren’t sure if they are ‘good’ enough for a coach. The right coach will be able to meet you where you are and should help to champion you toward your goals. I’ve never turned an athlete away because of ability level. I’m always happy to have a phone call and see if we are a good fit with personality and philosophy. 

What’s the difference between someone who is a good coach and someone who’s great?

The difference between a good coach and a great coach is the ability to listen and adapt to each individual athlete. A good coach understands the optimal way to train in the ideal circumstances. A great coach can formulate a plan to optimize performance for an athlete with work, family, and other time commitments. A great coach works with their athletes to achieve each goal rather than forcing the athlete to fit a cookie-cutter format. 

We would like to thank Hannah Finchamp for taking the time to share her coaching story with our community. Hit her up if you have some performance goals to achieve in the near future.

Photo: Clayton Otto