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WTC's Interview with Tom Kirk, Custom Cycle Coaching

We met Tom at his laboratory at Oxford Brookes University where he completed his PhD in exercise, physiology and nutrition. Tom has raced international road cycling races across the globe and also has extensive team manager experience, having worked with road bike teams such as Bike Aid from Germany and British Elite teams including Metaltek.

We began by asking Tom about his early studies and then followed this up by discussing his coaching services and training camps.


Which Training Camp - What brought you to Oxford?

Tom Kirk - When I was competing in stage races I became interested in the relationship between energy intake & energy expenditure using power meters on the bike.

I moved to Oxford in 2007 to do my PhD in Exercise, Physiology and Nutrition, looking at specific nutritional interventions in lightweight rowers, who must carefully balance fuelling their intense training sessions with maintaining a lean body composition. Lightweight rowers are much taller than cyclists, normally 6 foot plus and are trying to get below 70-72kgs, often having been in the high 70s even low 80s. My study looked at all aspects of fuel intake & how this affected their performance and whether technique held up.

After the completion of my PhD, I stayed in Oxford and maintained my relationship with the University working with athletes from several sports.


WTC - What testing do you now do at the Oxford laboratory?

TK - I now do a full range of comprehensive tests for outside clients, not only in cycling but across the various cycling disciplines and a range of other sports. Athletes either come direct to us or their coaches have arranged for them to come in. Riders in these other disciplines will maybe require the tests to be set up in a way which is more relevant for their sport as each discipline has very distinct training requirements.

One of the athletes I coach is a Para-Olympic track cyclist who has just won a couple of gold medals at the recent World Cup.

We sometimes get non-athletes coming. Recently we had an actor who wanted to know his body fat % with the goal of getting leaner and gaining muscle mass for his up and coming role.


WTC - What is the aim of the testing?

TK - In cycling, climbers need to get as lean as possible whilst still maintaining power. People come into the lab not only to get their training zones but also wanting to know how much fat they’ve got, how much muscle they’ve got and how to achieve the best weight to optimise the races they’re doing.

We run the normal tests to find the VO2max and Lactate Thresholds to establish training zones. But we try to go a lot deeper, for example considering  how much fat and carbohydrate people are using at different intensities. This is important because we all have limited carbohydrate stores; marathon runners hit the wall because they’ve run out of carbohydrates. If we run out, the body will slow down. In a bike race you want to reserve those carbohydrate stores when you’re in the pack, saving them for when the attack comes or the mountains arrive, when we need carbohydrates to maintain a high intensity.

Well trained endurance athletes usually have a high rate of fat oxidation. People new to the sport are often reliant on eating lots of carbohydrates, especially with the sports supplements marketed at endurance athletes and can have a low fat oxidation rate. This can be improved through specific training, the timing of energy gel & drink intake during training and through dietary changes.


WTC - Lab testing or testing on the road?

TK - I like to use both, we get people in to the lab regularly but field tests are useful too. More and more people have power meters so we can see race files or do a time trial set and get the feedback from those. But in the lab we can get under the bonnet and see in more detail what’s going on. A bit of both is probably the answer.

Ideally every athlete would come to us every 3 or 4 months over their training season. But people have to travel to us and have work commitments etc. which means we do see some athletes once or twice a year. The less testing we do, the more important their power files are.


WTC - Sports nutrition or natural food

TK I think a bit of both; sports nutrition products certainly have their place. If you are racing and you need about 60-90grams of carbohydrate an hour and want to replace the sweat you lose, having a sports drink helps achieve that goal.

There is nothing wrong with having a peanut butter and jam sandwich or a banana instead of an energy bar. Personally, I’d rather have a packet of jelly babies in my pocket than an energy gel. They give a similar end effect and taste better, so you’re more willing to eat them in the little and often quantities you need.  It’s largely down to people’s own personal taste. If you like a jam sandwich, you’re more likely to eat a jam sandwich.


WTC - How would you advise someone of refuelling strategy?

TK - The strategy would depend on the person, their training goals and at what stage they are in their training, but we would advise everyone individually.

If you’re training intensively and on consecutive days, you may want to start refuelling before the end of one session and certainly immediately after the session. For example, you’ll probably eat and drink a little bit more through a training camp compared to a one-off training session so you start the following day with full energy stores.


WTC - Do you offer field testing on your training camps?

TK - It’s about getting the riding in, but we do a Time Trial one day a week which is about a 30-35 minutes climb. It’s a lot fun but also a chance to get the power meters out and see what’s going on. We can see the rider’s pacing in a real life situation as well as the power output.

Being on one of our camps, we can keep a check on a rider’s fuelling & help them understand what is required. One of the aspects everyone finds really useful are the evening talks on training, nutrition and tactics.


WTC - What are the aims of your training camps and how do you go about trying to achieve this?

TK - Having raced at a high level myself and then been a team manager, you understand that the small changes can really make a difference. Reading what the riders are doing is important and then helping them with some minor changes and seeing the improvements coming through in their performance. 

We typically build into the week, not working too hard so that you go home in a box, but getting enough stimulus from the week. We work in 2 groups but these are not set so riders can interchange depending on their level of fatigue or improvement. We give people the flexibility to get the most out of it.

We run specific camp weeks in March and early April but we would also run camps for university teams (we already run the Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University cycling teams’ training camps), clubs and groups of cyclists. The camps are based at a villa we use in the Alpujarra region in Southern Andalucia.

The accommodation is around 50km from coast at the foot of the mountains, in 30km you can climb to Trevélez, Spain's highest mainland village (at 1,500 metres) and home of the pigs used to make the famous Pata Negra hams.

The training camps are ideal for those who want to prepare for the big sportives like the Marmotte or l’Etape du Tour. Our rides offer more variety than can be found in the more common cycling destinations such as Mallorca and Tenerife. This is good and safe cycling country; the roads are beautifully smooth and are not over crowded with other cycling groups or traffic.

To contact | Custom Cycle Coaching | Dr Tom Kirk |


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