On Balance: Mike Birner of Mid-Maryland Coaching

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving”

-Albert Einstein 

To select the coaches featured on ‘In The Crosshairs,’ I looked through past race interviews and noted the people credited with helping podium finishers succeed. One name that kept cropping up was Mike Birner. An accomplished bike racer and successful coach, Mike is president of Mid-Maryland Coaching.

If you obsess over how to improve every aspect of your racing, or even if you are just looking to toe the line of a race for the first time, it would not hurt to read this interview. But if you really want some insight on how to train for and ultimately find success in cyclocross, Mike’s nuts-and-bolts training articles in Cyclocross Magazine are mandatory reading. Ninety percent of what you need is right there in plain English. For the other ten percent? Well, that may be where hiring a coach comes into play.

As you work through the second installment of the ‘In The Crosshairs’ coaching series, you may notice that the questions I ask Mike are eerily similar to those I asked Chris Mayhew. To be perfectly honest, they are identical. Although that may expose a lack of creativity on my part, the nuanced responses I received give me confidence that I made the right choices in picking coaches to interview. These guys are not going to give you stock or cookie-cutter answers. (You will see the same thing later this month in our third installment.) The coaches are serious about what they do and they put a lot of thought into their methods and their athletes’ needs. The core principles followed may be similar, but the art is revealed in the subtle differences of the execution. To see what exactly that means for Mike Birner, we go to the interview.

CXHairs: When did you start cycling? 

BIRNER: Roughly, sometime around ’88. I started to ride seriously on a Schwinn Super LeTour. By late 1989 I hopped into my first race-The Tour de Crofton-and proceeded to get dropped. 

CXHairs: How did you get interested in the sport? 

BIRNER: Looking back, I think it started when I was kid and my Dad took me to see the Wheat Thins Pro Criterium in Baltimore. I don’t remember a lot about that day but I do remember sitting on the curb watching these riders speed past us in a blur. It was pretty amazing at the time to see the speeds they were traveling on a bike. 

Mike And His Bike
Mike And His Bike

From there, I seem to remember following the sport through what marginal coverage there was. That typically meant watching 1 hour of wrap up coverage of the Tour at the end of July. Once I started riding seriously I met Jay Murphy, a lifelong teammate that got me further into the racing scene. It’s his fault. 

CXHairs: Did you come to cycling from another sport? 

BIRNER: Junior level golf as a kid, but otherwise no other organized sports. 

CXHairs: Anybody in your family race bikes? 

BIRNER: No-no real interest at all. 

CXHairs: Did you grow up following professional cycling? 

BIRNER: Yes, following the minimal coverage that there was which usually meant reading the Baltimore Sun to find the top 3 in the results for the European races then waiting a month for Velonews to find out what actually happened. 

CXHairs: What made you decide you wanted to coach? 

BIRNER: I had worked with juniors and beginners on and off for a number of years and finally decided it was time to give it a shot as a real business. When I started out in cycling there was not a lot of information on how to train properly or even how to race. I’ve always wished that I knew then what I know now as I think I could have been a much more successful rider. I enjoy being able to pass that information on and give newer riders the opportunity to see what they are fully capable of achieving. 

CXHairs: What training/education/experience did you draw on to prepare for coaching clients? 

BIRNER: Years of getting dropped! As a former category 2, I spent many weekends in the early-mid nineties traveling up and down the east coast racing the big money pro/1/2 events and hanging on for dear life.

After-Birner?
After-Birner?

We were way over our heads at the time but it brought a whole new level of, shall we say, ‘getting schooled’. You learned how to corner, how to paceline, how to draft really quickly because if you didn’t you came off the back. It was mostly survival but the education was irreplaceable. 

In addition, I have had many coaches in years past ever since I raced collegiate for the University of Colorado, Boulder. I have experienced many different coaching styles, what works and what doesn’t and how some things work for one rider but not another. 

CXHairs: Do you coach only cyclists? Any triathletes? 

BIRNER: Duathletes. Currently no triathletes but some new associates might change that in the near future. 

CXHairs: Are most of your clients serious racers or do some come to you just to get in better shape or maybe finish a century? 

BIRNER: A mix of both. While most seriously race I do have a few that are serious recreational riders as well. I say serious because they also have goals and show just as much determination in achieving them. 

CXHairs: Do you have any Web-only clients? 

BIRNER: I have a couple clients that I have not had the opportunity to meet in person yet but most are local and I see on occasion. My preference is to handle clients that I can ride with from time to time to have a better idea of other variables-fit, technique, etc. but as we grow the business we have more and more requests for web-only coaching. 

CXHairs: For clients that you see face-to-face, is most of the coaching relationship online? For me, it’s nice to be able to upload files and chat via e-mail with my coach, but it’s also nice to know that if I want to borrow a wheelset he’s not across the country. 

BIRNER: Most of the coaching is handled online through email and the online training calendar and log. But my athletes have my phone number as well and know that they can call when needed also and often do. 

CXHairs: Do you have a coaching philosophy? What is it? 

BIRNER: Primarily: balance. I see so many people that try to put in too many training hours and yet can’t seem to make the gains that they are expecting. By emphasizing quality training time and reducing wasted hours on the bike you are left with more time for family, career, etc. If your girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband is sick of you being gone all weekend because you are out training, the stress that’s going to be created from this will be detrimental – more than most ever realize. For everyone this balance means something different but finding the right number of hours you can attribute to training vs. family vs. job will lead to greater gains in the long run. 

CXHairs: Do you focus just on workouts or do you also give your clients advice on race strategy, nutrition, technique, etc? 

BIRNER: It’s all encompassing. These other elements are critical components as well. Our goal is to help our athletes become better cyclists and this means looking at the entire picture. If they have poor fit on the bike or poor decision making during a race the greatest fitness in the world may not overcome that. Why stop short and be physically prepared for an event but not be mentally, technically or nutritionally ready? It takes mastery of all aspects. 

CXHairs: What, if any, are the main differences between coaching road and cyclocross racers? 

BIRNER: In general, I believe the cyclocross racers tend to be a harder bunch. They are much more willing to get through the short hard workouts where roadies still try to rely on duration over intensity. Not that the roadies don’t need more duration-they generally do-it just seems to be harder to push the quality over quantity concept through to them. 

CXHairs: What is the biggest misconception people have about a coach’s role? 

BIRNER: I’ve had riders tell me that they look to me for motivation. My take on this is if you REALLY need motivation from me you don’t want it bad enough. There is a certain level of motivation that does exist from having a coach and someone walking you through the steps. But the riders who are successful have an inner drive that only comes from themselves. It may not exist every single day – the coach may need to intervene from time to time and re-emphasize the goals but the real driving force needs to come from within. 

CXHairs: What do you believe is the biggest benefit a coach can provide? 

BIRNER: Accountability. Honestly-most of my athletes are experienced and smart enough to put together a reasonable training program for themselves. What I think they benefit the most from is that they have someone else to answer to beyond themselves. The fact that someone is looking over their shoulder and following their workouts day by day gives them some additional motivation. 

Also, while a rider may be smart enough to put together a proper training plan, I’ve found that self coached athletes tend to prescribe workouts that they are already good at and ignore the weaknesses because those are the workouts that they don’t enjoy. A good coach is going to pinpoint those weaknesses, focus in on them and make it an issue to improve them-much to the dislike of the athlete. 

CXHairs: The people reading this most likely race cross. What is one thing they can do for next season that will make them faster? 

BIRNER: Prepare earlier. Most riders I know don’t start training for cross until September-with races following shortly after. Training for cross really begins in June or July if you are not also racing a full road or mountain bike season. Once the racing starts it becomes hard to get the high level aerobic workouts in without driving yourself into the ground. In June or July, workouts like these can be done with consistent repetition allowing for a strong base of fitness. As soon as you start racing it takes a tremendous amount or recovery time during the week and workouts like those become hard to accomplish. 

CXHairs: Is it just me, or do most clients say things like “geez I absolutely suck on the bike” hoping you will tell them how great they are? 

BIRNER: Of course they do-we are all our own worst enemies. But unfortunately you are what you think you are-if you believe that you suck than you probably do. Until you change the way you think you won’t accomplish much. This is why we try to coach this attitude out of our riders right away. 

CXHairs: Do most of your clients train with power? What are the benefits and the pitfalls of the PT?

BIRNER: Most use power though I still have about 40 percent that are heart rate/perceived-exertion only. Power definitely has its advantages in that I think it makes it much easier for the athlete. It’s a concrete number that gives immediate feedback. Most athletes that train with heart rate still tend to do intervals that start out too hard and they suffer for it by the end whereas the power meter users tend to get much more steady consistent efforts that are in their defined range and with this a prolonged interval time. The downside is, of course, some people can get too focused on those numbers and where they THINK they should be. This will often lead to a lack of progress because the athlete believes that they can’t do 10 watts more than they are already doing. I’ve been known to have riders cover up the powermeter computer with electric tape when doing a workout to overcome this. 

CXHairs: During the race season, how much feedback do you get from your clients and are you able to successfully modify or fine tune training to optimize results? 

BIRNER: Some athletes give me very little information-that is their nature and hence I can’t do much more than prescribe the next set of workouts based on what I know. Others give me updates on an hourly basis! While it may be extreme, I certainly know how they are feeling and when I need to adjust accordingly. I suppose you get out of it what you are willing to put into it. 

CXHairs: Along the same lines, how closely do you monitor training and tweak workouts throughout the year? 

BIRNER: Constantly. Most of our athletes are on a ‘custom’ plan, which means we look at data for the week before prescribing the following week. Goals can change during the course of the year (especially when races are cancelled or rescheduled) and so timelines need to be reworked in these cases. 

CXHairs: Weightlifting: good or bad? 

BIRNER: Depends on the athlete. I still am of the belief that most riders up to age 50 will not become faster bike riders because of the training in the weight room. There are exceptions though. First – I believe it can be beneficial for both men over 50 and women as a weight bearing exercise to help improve overall strength and bone density. Second – when an outlying injury persists, core or weight work may be the only recourse to strengthen the areas necessary before the rider is even capable of consistent training. For everyone else, I think the time is better spent on the bike – or for recovery. 

CXHairs: Have you ever had a client willing to pay you but not do the work? How did you or would you handle that situation? At what point do you consider firing a client? Ever had to do it? 

BIRNER: Even when I’ve had an athlete go through a period where they may not have accomplished much it’s usually a short time span. Eventually they return and I feel that paying that monthly bill can be a big motivator to get back on the plan. 

CXHairs: Other than being interviewed on “In The Crosshairs,” what is your proudest coaching achievement? 

BIRNER: I was very satisfied when I put together the series of four articles on “Training for Cyclocross” in Cyclocross Magazine. Nothing I could ever find really outlined a clear-cut program for putting together a cyclocross training program through an entire season. I had a lot of positive feedback from these and I hope they helped a lot of riders out there. They are posted on our website for everyone to view – www.midmarylandcoaching.com

Also-I’m certainly proud of all the great results our riders achieved last year as well! 

CXHairs: Does your coaching and racing ever conflict? How do you balance your own goals with those of your clients? 

BIRNER: Sometimes-but usually it’s minimal. Being at the local races and trying to get in a warmup while everyone wants to catch up on the past week can be tough. 

CXHairs: POP QUIZ: I consistently finished between 15th and 20th of every race I entered this past CX season. My goal for next year is top 10s. What do you need to know about me to help me reach this goal? 

BIRNER: Everything! All the details have to come together to make those improvements. So many questions like: What’s your warm-up routine? What’s your starting position? How fast are your starts and what do you do to improve? What’s your base aerobic fitness like? What do you do for race specific training? What is you pre- and post-race nutrition? Should I go on? 

For more information go to www.midmarylandcoaching.com or contact Mike at midmaryland@comcast.net.

Photo credits: Anthony Skorochod and Mike Neary.

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