How physical therapist Nathan Koch gets Trek-Segafredo race ready

Nate Koch's work is part of a complex puzzle to help riders find their best condition

Taking care of a rider is a bit like putting together pieces of a puzzle. Every aspect of performance, from psychological (as described in the introduction of team psychologist Elisabetta Borgia) to bike fitting, is pieced together in a specific way for a rider to achieve his or her best condition to compete.

In training camps, like the one the Team is attending in Spain, Technical and Performance staff join forces to be sure none of their puzzle pieces are missed in the overall picture.

This includes making a rider as efficient as possible on the bike, and this all begins at ground zero with Physical Therapist and Athletic Trainer Nathan Koch in addressing the rider’s mobility.

Mobility allows you to move as efficiently as possible. Most athletes need to work on maintaining or improving mobility for better performance and less risk of injury. The strains and stresses of playing a sport add up. In cycling, for example, the repetitive pedaling motion puts uneven stress on the body and the body adapts.

Nathan Koch has been working in professional sports for 25 years in his studio in Arizona, USA, and has been working with Trek-Segafredo for six years. Training camps are definitely his moments.

“Basically my work is providing consulting to the Performance Team and for the riders. I help to build the big image of his or her body: what is missing, where is the opportunity to get better, and where could they maybe get injured. Training camps are the only moment where I can meet them in person during the year,” explains Nathan.

“Looking to the body, we evaluate it from a nervous and musculoskeletal system. We look at a joint range of motion, flexibility of the muscle, posture, strength, stability and balance. We test our riders from the feet to the head, tending to focus on the back and knees. Our research shows us that in cycling, outside of crashing, the most common injuries are related to these areas. We look at the range of motion in the spine, in the legs, and hips because these drive where the knee goes on the bike.

“At the end, we come up with a plan to address any problems they may have. It’s analysis and prevention work. My starting point is to know past problems that have kept the rider off the bike because one of the greatest predictors of future injury is past injury: if someone had a back injury it’s a high likelihood they can have back pain again.”

Koch has a detailed list of tasks to complete at the camps, with two priorities.

“The first one is doing assessments on all the riders. Usually, it takes 90 minutes with the new ones and an hour for the others. We collect data to have a baseline to make a comparison year over year. That information goes to the Performance Team, to enrich their database, and to the bike fitters who work alongside me at the camps.

“Whether it is for the road bike or for aero testing, sometimes the position they want the rider to get in is something they’re not able to do. Their bodies are simply restrictive. The fitters may not know exactly why they can’t tolerate this certain position and that’s where our cooperation becomes important.

“The second priority is leading classes for the riders. The first is in the morning, addressing mobility and muscle activation to get them ready for the bike. Then, in the evening, we do a core strengthening class. My role is to educate them on the importance of taking care of their body. At the camps, everyone does really well, but the key is how much they’re keen to continue these exercises at the races, or at home, through the whole season.”

Having good physical mobility is something that no one wants to renounce. But… no pain, no gain: achieving wellness takes commitment and a consistent effort is necessary.

“I learned to have a long view,” Koch continues. “I don’t expect to make everything perfect in one camp. It takes years to make progress and it’s a mistake to think we can get the perfect result in a season.

“In a perfect world, physios like to have people working for 45 minutes to an hour. But the reality is different with riders. We have to accept that stuff tends to fall off a little bit during the season. Riders are getting more and more tired, month over month. Our challenge is helping them to figure out ways to feel this is a doable thing.

“What riders really need is 20-30 minutes of daily dedication to stretching or mobility: 10-15 minutes in the morning as a warmup, then another 10 -15 mins later off the bike. Compared to the last 15 years, riders now have consciousness on how much mobility can be impactful to their job. They know taking care of their bodies is essential to success and acknowledge that to reach and to stay at the highest level they need to do these things – they have learned to take ownership of their bodies.”

What really has made the difference in conveying this message is when the young guys hear some of the veterans, like Mads or Toms, saying, ‘I do this every day and it makes a big difference in how I feel when I get on the bike.’

Koch’s work doesn’t end at the camps. In virtual form, there are continuous follow-ups during the season, especially when riders are having any sort of pain on the bike or, worst-case scenario, when they crash.

Koch explains: “We start looking back at the tests we did during camps at his or her normal situation, and then make sure that we get them back to those same levels. What makes the difference is teamwork. When riders feel pain, they’re seeing Team Doctors and Osteopaths at the race, so I look back at the notes I took at the camps to provide my support.

“Then, soigneurs take care about the recovery. They may be the first ones to pick up an injury because they spend so much time with riders. They spend more time working on their bodies than any of us so they’re key persons in our action.”

This complex network of relationships is crucial in the continuous analysis of a rider’s functionality and Nate believes that it is an asset to the sport.

“Cycling is a sport with a lot of history and tradition. By my experience with other professional sports in the US, like football, basketball, or baseball, cycling has a different approach and way of functioning. That’s something unique. Since I’ve started to work with the Team in Europe, it has been a continuous exchange of knowledge between me and the Performance Team.”

“That’s one of my favorite parts of the work: it’s engaging and challenging. I love all these different cultures joining forces. It’s super interesting and something that cycling needs to enhance as a key strength compared to other professional sports.”