What makes Colin Strickland tick? What’s the secret to his success? Hear from the gravel champ himself here.
The first rule of behavioral economics is that while people aren’t always rational, they are predictable. We all build our lives around routines. This applies to just about everything — food, work, sleep, holidays, family, exercise, name it.
After profiling dozens of professional athletes, I thought I saw the pattern in these overachievers: a willingness to sacrifice other parts of life to maximize their potential.
That is, until I met Colin Strickland. Despite being one of the top gravel riders in the world, he puts a priority on moderation.
Strickland is an ex-pro road racer who won Unbound Gravel in 2019 while setting the course record, finishing in less than 10 hours — the first to ever do so. In doing so, he beat World Tour riders and previous winners, surprising many in the cycling world.
This June, Strickland is headed back to Kansas to break his own record, as Unbound returns post-pandemic.
Curious to learn about his preparation leading up to the race, we sat down to discuss his training regime, nutrition and recovery plan, and the gear he’s using to return to form.
Colin Strickland: Cycling Background
Strickland got into cycling very late by most standards, entering his first race after college. Instead of feeling a step behind his peers, Strickland views his late start as a competitive advantage.
Watching many elite riders burn out from a life full of pressure and stress, he is intentional to not obsess over the established path and instead enjoy the process.
Starting to ride bikes as a way to commute to work, Strickland quickly learned he loved riding hard and fast. He transitioned to local alley cat races and later found success on the national road racing circuit, including a few top three finishes.
Still working full-time, Strickland signed with Specialized for the 2016 Red Hook Circuit. After winning three of the four races that year, he went pro.
A year later, Strickland made his first foray into gravel racing. “It took one race, maybe two, for me to realize that gravel was going to be the next big thing.”
He felt that the overall experience would differentiate the sport from other formats and started moving his focus from road and crit races to gravel.
Unbound Gravel Win
His first visit to Unbound was in 2019, and he didn’t know what to expect. “I usually have my best results in similar formats, rolling and fast courses, but never that long. I was confident and made sure to race my own race.”
His racing style is impulsive and improvisational, which ultimately paid off. Gambling that the conditions were advantageous for his style of riding, Strickland broke away from the lead pack halfway through the race and never looked back.
Living in central Texas, he was comfortable in the 90-degree temps and direct sun. “It scorches you. You’re covered in sunscreen or you’re getting sunburned. Luckily, I’d been training in much hotter than that,” said Strickland.
Strickland’s Return to Racing
This year, due in large part to COVID, Strickland hasn’t raced as much leading up to Unbound. Instead of trying to simulate races and follow a strict schedule, he’s playing it by ear.
“I’m not crazy structured in terms of a training plan and I’ve never had a coach. I don’t have the data points of previous races, but I know the general formula for success. Volume is the name of the game for endurance gravel racing. The more volume I put myself through, the better, but only to a point.”
This is where Strickland diverges from the crowd of top-tier cyclists. “I still have other things going on in my life. It’s always a balance for me. I’m rebuilding three diesel engines, am renovating a trailer, have projects around the house, and see friends. My general rule of thumb is that when I feel strong, I go hard and when I’m tired, I take a day off. I intuitively moderate my training and rest.”
A Lesson in Moderation
If Strickland’s training plan sounds laissez-faire for a pro athlete, his nutrition plan is even more so.
“At home, I’m fluid with food. I grew up in a healthy food family so my diet is good in general. Generally speaking, I avoid junk meat, supplement with other proteins, and eat mostly vegetarian.” Outside of those guidelines, Strickland isn’t rigid with calories, carbs, or diets.
It would be easy to write off Strickland as an anomaly — someone so talented doesn’t need a rigorous plan to compete. But not only is that wrong, that is his secret. In balancing cycling with other parts of life, Strickland mitigates stress and, in turn, finds even more success.
“Sure, I could try to optimize more to squeeze a little more out, but I’m really enjoying where I’m at and how I got here,” says Strickland.
For most training rides, he skips gels and race snacks for real foods like nut butter sandwiches and fig bars.
“I do a few rides leading up to the race to experiment with different foods. Recently, I did a 5-hour time trial only with liquid calories and it didn’t work for me, so I’m going back to the old formula.”
His recovery plan is much the same. He doesn’t roll, ice, or stretch unless he feels that it is needed, and occasionally uses a Normatec to help stimulate circulation.
Breaking Down the Bike
“I learned the hard way that you don’t want to flat out of an event. I always err on the side of bigger tires, because flat tires are the slowest tires.”
“This prepares me for anything, like a field of mud. It’s a Boy Scout mentality, preparing for the worst conditions so you’re ready for anything,” Strickland said.