Bikerumor Interview: Vegan Fueled Elite Coach James Herrera
James Herrera is the founder and CEO of Performance Driven, an elite coaching program for athletes and executives based in Colorado Springs. He has served as the Director of Coaching/Premier Coach for Carmichael Training Systems and a coach/consultant with the U.S. BMX program and the Center for Creative Leadership. Herrera competes in road and mountain cycling and trail running, holds a black belt in several martial arts, and is an avid snowboarder.
I was lucky enough to get coached by Herrera and can say first-hand that he has a way of understanding his athletes; what will make them faster, and how to get them stronger. I caught up with him after he rode the Leadville 100 and ran the Leadville Marathon to talk about being a vegan (he offered up some recipes!), training and his own background.
You’re a vegan, right? How do you fuel your training?
A good friend of mine says “vegetarian” is an old Indian word that translates to “bad hunter.” I get a lot of shit from my friends for my vegan diet. But what can I say? It just works for me. Bottom line is, we could all do better to make a shift towards a more plant-based eating strategy. All the peer-reviewed research out there says it’s the best way to prevent all the major diseases, so why wouldn’t it be a great way to fuel athletic performance? The bulk of my diet is built on vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. I can pretty much eat as much as I want and still maintain a healthy weight. Since I started eating this way, I’ve never felt better, stronger, or had more energy throughout the day. Here are some of my recipes:
Vegan Oatmeal Cranberry Cookies
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup traditional oatmeal (not instant)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 pinch salt
1/4 cup organic dried cranberries
2 tablespoons real maple syrup
1/4 cup agave syrup
1/4 cup canola oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
Preheat oven to 375. These can be made with just a bowl and a spoon. Overmixing will make them spongy, so start by mixing the dry ingredients together and then add syrup, oil, vanilla, and cranberries. Spoon onto lightly greased parchment or Silpat. Bake for 10 minutes or less, until slightly brown on edges. Cookies may seem a bit too soft, but they will firm up a bit while still maintaining a good soft, moist texture. Be careful not to overcook (or they will be dry and hard)!
Vegan Oatmeal Cookies
1 1/2 mashed bananas
1/2 cup applesauce
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 dash salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 dash nutmeg
1 cup raisins or dried cranberries
3/4 cup oatmeal
Blend the first four ingredients. Add dry ingredients. Drop onto greased cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes.
Vegan Oatmeal Peanut Butter Banana Cookies
1/3 cup peanut butter
2 ripe bananas (overripe is fine)
1 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp soy milk
2 tbsp maple syrup (optional)
2 1/2 cups quick cooking or rolled oatmeal
1 dash cinnamon (optional)
1/4 cup flour
In a large bowl, mash bananas with a fork until smooth. Add peanut butter, soy milk, vanilla, and maple syrup and mix well. Add remaining ingredients and stir until well combined. Drop spoonfuls of dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet and bake 13-16 minutes at 350 degrees, or until done.
What are the newest trends in training?
I’d have to say we’re in the “gadget era of cycling. Seems like everyone’s got a GPS, altimeter, or power meter on their bikes these days. While some of the info gained from these devices is very applicable to training, lots of it is just data overkill. It’s sometimes cool to look at after the fact to know you did 5,000 feet of climbing that day, or send the ride map to a friend. But as a coach, one of my primary questions is: Did it make you faster on your bike?
I heard a wise man and highly respected individual in the cycling world once say, “There are two things you need to be world class on a bike: the ability to suffer and good genetics.” Unfortunately, we don’t all have superhuman genetics, but we can all learn to dig a little deeper, push a little harder, and overload our systems to accomplish tremendous gains in training. In 20-plus years of working with athletes, that’s the one thing I believe people need to learn if they really want to get fitter and stronger.
Do people really have to be so structured about training?
With athletes or anyone who’s training to get fitter at a particular discipline, I’m always looking to find what makes that person tick. Simply put, we all need to overload our bodies in training with demands that are greater than our norms. That’s why we use the interval training concept. We can go harder for 10, 20, or 30 minutes that we can for an hour. So if I want to improve my best hour pace, I break the ride up into smaller chunks of time, going above my hour pace for the shorter intervals.
Some people do great with the highly structured approach, going up and down the same hill or stretch of road for a predetermined interval and recovery time. Other athletes do better with what I’d call unstructured intervals. They simply find a predetermined loop that includes segments that are conducive to doing the time at the intensity we’re looking to accomplish that day. In many cases, I feel this unstructured approach is more effective physically because it’s more like true racing, and psychologically because the athlete doesn’t get bored going up and down the same stretch of road. At the end of the day, the name of the game is still overload. How you get there is entirely up to what’s going to motivate you most.
What about good, fun, hard group rides?
Hard group rides are definitely an important part of training. They’re the best way to get race-like intensity and motivation by riding with people that are stronger than you. You’re always going to push harder when you’ve got a carrot dangling out there. But keep in mind, hard group rides should always factor in as a training overload. Also keep in mind that another key component of training is recovery. If you don’t take the down time you need, the overloads don’t do any good. Too many racers I know are all about going out and riding hard all the time. They get good to a point, but just can’t seem to make additional gains. Do yourself a favor and take the rest you need after the big training loads and you’ll definitely find some horsepower you didn’t know you had.
You’ve worked with all levels, ages, and genders? Who’s the perfect athlete?
Good question. I don’t know if there is a perfect athlete, although I’ve definitely worked with some incredible people. I’d have to say, the perfect athlete is someone who’s disciplined, dedicated, and determined enough to put themselves through the rigors of training, intuitive enough to listen to the signs and symptoms their body’s are giving them, and open enough to communicate what they’re feeling so we can make adjustments on the fly. I’ve had pros, age-groupers, and people straight off the couch fit that bill at one time or another.
You also do some training and racing yourself. How does a coach self-coach?
When writing a training plan, I just treat it like I’m doing it for someone else. I know the demands of the events I’m targeting, times, distances, terrain, etc. I build training using a logical, periodized training methodology that I adjust on the fly as I adapt. The trick is when things come up like illness and fatigue, then answering the question:“Should I train today? It’s sometimes hard for a coach to be objective when you’re dealing with yourself. Especially when you’re as thick-headed as I am. Many times, I’ll push through a day that I probably shouldn’t when I would never tell an athlete of mine to do the same. You still have to be smart about it all and listen to what your body’s telling you. One good thing is, I have a lot of great friends who also coach and I can always run something by them.
Do you have to be a former elite athlete to be a great coach? Seems like a common thing for an ex-athlete to do.
Absolutely not! This is one of the biggest misconceptions I think people might deal with when finding a coach. There’s an assumption that if you were a great athlete, you must be a great coach. I’ve met, hired, fired, and managed a few hundred coaches in my time. I’ve known some ex-professional athletes who were horrible coaches and some mediocre athletes who were tremendous coaches. I’ve also known a small handful of ex-elites who are great coaches, but not because of their athleticism. More because they have the personality, communication skills, and education that helps them connect with people.
With coaching, you definitely have to know the sport. But you don’t have to be an ex-pro to have that knowledge. You should also have a good background with physiology, energy systems, nutrition, biomechanics, and a few other things that elite athletes may have never learned. In many cases, world- class athletes didn’t go to school to learn this stuff. They just had the superhuman genetics to let them do what they did. They often don’t understand basic physiology or how training is truly laid out because someone else was doing all of that for them. Being a great coach also has to do with one’s ability to connect with people, great communication and listening skills, and knowing enough about psychology to know what makes people tick.
What I see more times than not is ex-pros turned coaches who simply dump their old training on athletes they work with because that’s the only thing they’ve ever known. It’s a very one-dimensional approach to training. And unfortunately, too many times, athletes buy into the hype of hiring an ex-pro turned coach, thinking their going to get the inside scoop or some sort of edge on training–usually doesn’t work out that way.
You grew up riding BMX bikes, but have ridden mountain, road, and track as well. What’s your favorite type of riding?
I’m way more of a dirt guy than anything else. I don’t mind road riding, but I’d rather be on my mountain bike 90% of the time. I live in an area where the mountain biking is just way better than the road riding, so it’s really never a question. I dig the extra sensory overload you get from the dirt, rocks, roots, and just getting away from the traffic and pavement. I run a fair bit as well and am the same way with that. Except there, it’s 100% trails. Pavement running just plain sucks.
Tell me about this new fad with ultra distance events. You’re doing some of that as well.
Yeah, pretty crazy. Seems like it’s the new thing these days. People are willing to go out there and suffer for 12-24 hours more so than doing the shorter cross-country races. I think there must be some sort of perceived badge of courage for gutting out the longer races. The people that do these races are looking for a challenge and longer time and distance seems to offer that. In a sense, the suffering for those events is very different than the pain you go through for a three-hour cross-country race. For whatever reason, people are just willing to go longer and a bit slower than they are for going lactic for two to three hours. You’ve done both kinds of racing, so you know what I’m talking about.
Like you said, I’ve fallen victim to it as well. I’ve been doing the Leadville 100 mountain bike race for the past five years and have just started to do some longer trail-running races, with plans to do a 100k next year. There’s a great feeling of accomplishment with the training and completion of events like that. And people are definitely digging them. Seems like there were more people registered for the Leadville 100 this year than any of the U.S. Cup mountain-bike races. The race directors, Ken Chlouber and his wife Merilee, have just done a phenomenal job with their events, creating something that’s incredibly challenging and giving people a huge sense of pride when they cross the finish line. I understand Mike McCormick did a tremendous job with the Breck Epic as well. Events like these are the future of mountain-bike racing.
–Interview by Heidi Volpe