The vast supper 

Coach Chris Carmichael on the evils of Atkins, the danger of couch potatoing and the fearlessness of his most famous client

click to enlarge Chris Carmichael timing his most famous client. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS CARMICHAEL
  • Photo courtesy of Chris Carmichael
  • Chris Carmichael timing his most famous client.

There are many ways to launch a successful business career. Experts say education, innovation, dedication and hard work are generally high on the list of traditional ways to forge a place in the business world. Not real high on that list of ways to jumpstart a business career is this: being struck by a savage case of diarrhea as you pedal out of the French Alps on your bicycle in the midst of the Tour de France.

But that technique works, too. Just ask Chris Carmichael.

Carmichael runs Carmichael Training Systems, a training and nutrition empire from an office located alongside the rail yards near downtown Colorado Springs. He and his staff have guided more than 5,000 amateur and professional athletes down the fitness highway during the past five years. He has authored several books on the health, fitness and diet, including his latest, Food For Fitness (Penguin, New York, $26).

Anchoring his empire is one gigantic claim to fame: For the past 14 years, Carmichael has been the trainer, coach and nutritionist for Lance Armstrong, the six-time winner of the Tour de France.

And none of it might have happened if Carmichael hadn't been stricken by dysentery as he pedaled furiously -- as you might imagine if you've ever experienced the mind-numbing, cheek-clenching panic that accompanies this intestinal equivalent of the hydrogen bomb -- out of the Alps and into the towering Pyrenees along the border of France and Spain in 1986.

Sick with a week to go

Carmichael was a world-class cyclist. He rode as a member of the U.S. Olympic team at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and two years later set his sights on the granddaddy of all cycle races, the Tour de France. And he was doing just fine until, well, until Mr. Bowels decided his race was over.

Carmichael doesn't get into any great detail, thank God, but summarizes the encounter this way: "I didn't finish the Tour de France. I got sick with a week to go. It was dysentery."

click to enlarge Lance Armstrong and Chris Carmichael at the Tour de - France. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS CARMICHAEL
  • Photo courtesy of Chris Carmichael
  • Lance Armstrong and Chris Carmichael at the Tour de France.

From that position of defeat (and I think most would agree that defeat is squatting in the bushes with your spandex bike shorts around your ankles as the snow-covered Pico de Aneto taunts you from the horizon), Carmichael has come a long way.

When he returned to America following his lone attempt at the Tour, he got a phone call from U.S. Cycling. He was asked if he wanted to coach.

"I was 29," Carmichael said. "I wasn't ready to quit. I was a competitor. But I called my father and he said, 'Chris, this might be a good thing.' "

He listened to his father. He gave coaching a shot. He liked it.

"I thought it would be a short-term thing," he said. "But I enjoyed coaching right away. I felt I had an aptitude for it. I could articulate my experiences and help other cyclists."

What sets Lance apart

By 1990, Carmichael had established himself as one of the top coaches at the U.S. Cycling training center in Colorado Springs. And it was that year that he met an 18-year-old cyclist who was just emerging from the junior ranks and showed, well, more than a bit of promise.

"At 18, Lance was a very gifted athlete. No question about that," said Carmichael.

Carmichael's office has one of Armstrong's yellow jerseys from one of his six Tour de France victories, a framed birthday gift from the world's best cyclist that is adorned with Armstrong's handwritten greeting, "Chris. Happy 40th. Damn, you're old! Lance Armstrong."

"Lance's maximum oxygen uptake, the way he utilizes oxygen, his aerobic engine, tested really high. But others tested as high as he did," said Carmichael, who left U.S. Cycling in 1999 when Armstrong, beginning his famed comeback from cancer, asked him to become his full-time trainer.

click to enlarge Food for Fitness by Chris Carmichael (Penguin, New - York) $26/hardcover
  • Food for Fitness by Chris Carmichael (Penguin, New York) $26/hardcover

It is, Carmichael said, an immeasurable thing, the soul, perhaps, that sets Armstrong apart.

"It's not the physiological part," he said. "He's one of the few who understands that to be really successful at the very highest level, you have to risk failure. There are a lot of gifted athletes who rely just on that gift and never fully develop it. They're afraid to lay it all on the line, to go all out, because they think, 'What if it doesn't work? What if my best isn't good enough?' Lance is not afraid of failure. He never worries about what will happen if he fails. He has removed that fear.

"All of us can walk a straight line on the ground. But take us up onto the edge of a 10-story building and ask us to walk that same straight line and we look over the edge and we fall apart. Lance doesn't fall apart up there."

Eating to win

In addition to that mental toughness, Armstrong excels because of another factor: nutrition. He and Carmichael work on that aspect of the cyclist's training year-round. Well, almost year-round.

"Right now, September and October, is his time off," Carmichael said. "Lance eats any meal he wants. He has a beer. Or a glass of red wine. He loves apple fritters. And ice cream. This is the time of year he can do whatever he wants. And he'll gain 10 or 12 pounds over his Tour de France weight, getting up to 175 pounds or so. But pretty soon, near the end of the year, I'll tell him when that period is over. And then we get back to work."

It is that work, the nutritional part of world-class training, that Carmichael is trying to bring to the weekend warriors, people who want to run a 10K or climb a 14,000-foot mountain or just get in top shape for the ski season. His online Carmichael Training Systems currently has about 4,000 members who pay a monthly fee for meal plans and recipes and strict, customized, technical guidelines to fuel their activities. The general nutritional outline of that system makes up much of his new book.

"The book Eat To Win was the only book that really addressed this issue," he said. "It's a fine book. But it's 25 years old. It was the last book that went after the active lifestyle in the area of training and nutrition. Now, with all the fad diets out there, this seemed like the right opportunity to look at this issue again."

Among the first targets Carmichael shoots holes in is the Atkins diet.

"The theory is that you deplete the stored carbohydrates in your body by eating only fat and protein," he said. "But fat, protein and carbs are the macronutrients of life. The flaw in that diet is that it ignores the fact that carbohydrates are a fuel. You can't achieve and be active and not have carbs. But it's a diet that says you can sit on the couch and still lose weight. No exercise! It's the quintessential American lifestyle. I can lose weight and do nothing!

click to enlarge Of Lance Armstrong, at left, Carmichael says, He never - worries about what will happen if he fails. He has - removed that fear. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS CARMICHAEL
  • Photo courtesy of Chris Carmichael
  • Of Lance Armstrong, at left, Carmichael says, He never worries about what will happen if he fails. He has removed that fear.

"The truth is, if you have any kind of active lifestyle, if you hike or cycle or run, low-carb diets are exactly the wrong way to go. Carbs aren't the reason Americans are overweight. Hell, carbs are a staple of most Third World cultures. Rice and potatoes and bread. And you don't see a lot of fat people in those societies. We're fat because our activity level has slowed down."

The good and the bad

A main component of Carmichael Training Systems, a key theme in Food For Fitness and a big part of Armstrong's phenomenal success, Carmichael says, is a nutritional approach called "periodization" -- different eating habits at different times of the year.

"A cyclist, for example, during the summer has daylight until 8:30 at night and might ride 30 to 35 miles three or four times a week," Carmichael said. "You need nutrition to match that activity. You need a lot of carbs.

"In January, when it's dark before you get home from work, your total aerobic exercise time might be cut in half and your weightlifting time might double. So you need entirely different nutrition to match that activity. You want to reduce your carbs in that wintertime period and increase protein to match the weight training. But definitely not during the other times."

His advice is paying off, for athletes and for his company.

Carmichael Training Systems began in Carmichael's home in 1999 and moved to its current site on Sierra Madre Street in 2000. Today, he's searching for more space to open a performance center, a physiological and biomechanical testing center with a sports nutrition laboratory and even a cardiology testing center, a place where serious athletes spend a week to 10 days undergoing tests and getting advice on how to perform at a higher level. Carmichael already has two performance centers, one in Philadelphia and the other in Aspen.

And Carmichael, whose mother grew up in Colorado Springs and graduated from Colorado College, wants to stay in town.

"The good side of running a business here is the economics. It's affordable," he said. "And I have a lot of contacts within the U.S. Olympic Committee. The bad side? Well, if you can't find talented people, employees, who live here, it's not a very easy place to recruit to. It doesn't have the sex appeal of, say, Boulder."

And there's another reason, a very big reason, why Carmichael wants to stay in town: "I have a lot of friends here," he said.

Let's hope those friends have the common decency not to bring up that dysentery in Alps thing.


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