Coach's Triathlon Question and Answer Session

author : Rich Strauss
comments : 0

In March '06 I was invited to attend a coaches’ forum for a local tri club, conducted in the format of a round table discussion with a group of local tri coaches fielding questions from the membership. I was called out of town on a family emergency but was provided with the questions asked. Here are my responses on a number of topics:


Question:
Would it be beneficial to spend maybe one or two weeks and just focus on one discipline? Like cycling 5 days in one week with lots and lots of miles? Or getting my running miles up to 60-90 miles in one week and then backing off?


Answer:

I think focused weeks are a valuable training tool. I use them at two times during the season:

  • Off-Season, or perhaps pre-season. Whatever you want to call a block of time during which you're not training for a specific week. During these periods over the past couple of years I've had great success training athletes for a half marathon PR and building 40k time trial cycling fitness. During this period we typically focus on run frequency and cycling intensity while decreasing, or eliminating all together, our focus on training volume.
     

  • More to your question, the structure above is one that I've used extensively with Ironman athletes. In the later points of the season, the requirement to do a 2-2.5hr long run and 4-5.5 or 6hr long ride each week begin to conflict with each other. At this point, about 7-11 weeks out from their goal race, we shift to a bike week, run week format. During the bike week, we turn down the long run and schedule 2 x long rides. During the run week, we turn down the long bike a bit, and schedule two long runs, each shorter than the “normal” long run.

The specific structure you outline above would be very doable on the bike. I would call this Epic Training and can be a good training stimulus and just a cool thing to do. I've experimented with extremely high cycling volume and have gotten a good fitness pop. For the run, I would recommend you focus on a period of high run frequency, not volume. This past season my northern athletes experimented with “30 runs in 30 days,” with two dudes going head to head for 80-90 straight run days. This is not for everyone, obviously, but the focus on run frequency is probably a bit less risky then run volume. Under this regimen, I would count anything longer than 20' as a run.

 

Question:
I see a lot of different running postures and techniques. Is there one “right” form?


Answer:

I've attended a Pose clinic and have used that teaching method, with a few modifications, for a couple years. I now subscribe to the ideas and concepts in Evolution Running. I have no direct experience with Chi Running.


Question:
What are some good drills to work on proper running form?


Answer:

I highly recommend you purchase a copy of Evolution Running. The author, Ken Meirke, is a fellow Joe Friel Ultrafit Associate. Ken has honed his methods while analyzing the running form, gait, and oxygen intake of literally thousands of athletes. In other words, he has been able to quantitatively identify increases in speed at stable or decreased oxygen intake levels due to specific changes in running form and technique. He's the real deal.


Question:
Why is running such a common way to injure yourself and what do you (personally) do for injury prevention?


Answer:

My keys:

  • Measure volume in time, not miles.

  • Focus on creating a schedule of consistent, high frequency running that you can execute, without injury, week after week. In my experience, becoming a faster triathlon runner is more often about simply running, week after week, month after month, year after year, without getting hurt. Get faster by outlasting your competition, who is more likely to jump too soon into the sexy get-faster run training.

  • Never, ever, ever compromise on running shoes.

  • Do your harder runs up hills, easier on your body.

  • Be careful running downhill. This can be a valuable training tool for building strong, hard, fatigue resistant legs, but is also risky.

  • Do a walking cool down, stretch, hydrate, take ibuprofen and glucosamine, ice, elevate and take a nap…under ideal circumstances.

Question:
Is a power meter good for everyone?


Answer:

I've been training, racing and coaching with a power meter since 2002. I credit much of my personal cycling success to the training and execution detail that this tool has allowed me to achieve. However, the most successful power-training athletes I've coached have taken an active interest in partnering with me to learn how to train and race with power. If you are not committed to reading a few books and training articles, learning how to analyze your files with software, downloading your files, perhaps troubleshooting computer issues, etc., then perhaps a simple heart rate monitor would be a better expense.


I will say this: in the hierarchy of sexy training and racing tools, a power meter is right at the top and I won't let my athletes purchase race wheels unless they already have a power meter.


Question:
How long after a workout (mine are typically between 30 minutes and 2 hours depending on the day) should I try to eat and what kinds of things should I try to eat.  What types of calories and what particular foods are good places to find the right balance?

 

Answer:

For training sessions of 60+ minutes, I recommend a liquid recovery meal within 1hr of completing the session, with a 4-1 ratio of carbs to protein, i.e., a simple smoothie with some protein powder. Chocolate milk is a good option as well, and cheaper than XYZ Recovery Powder. I try to get in about 500-800 calories and then eat normally the rest of the day. I monitor how my legs are recovering through the day. If they feel abnormally fatigued, I'll eat “good carbs” of fruit and vegetables.


Question:
I was a college aquatic athlete so my pool workouts are ok, and I have access to a group who do track workouts for running. My questions is, aside from doing longer and harder rides, what can I do on the bike to get that kind of workout? I have done some 30 seconds easy / 30 seconds hard style pieces but I don't really know what to do or if it even helps on the bike.

 

Answer:

Perform a 40' time trial on the bike, going has hard as you can go, keeping an even pace for the entire 40'. At 40 minutes you should have no gas in the tank. A flat course, in the aerobars, at “normal” cadence is preferred. Take your average heart rate for this test. This is a “good enough” estimate of your lactate threshold heart rate. Your speed at lactate threshold is an excellent indicator of your speed at all intensities. In other words, by training to lift your speed at LT, say, from 20mph to 22mph, it also becomes easier to ride 20mph vs. 18mph.


I am a BIG believer in interval training performed at or near your lactate threshold heart rate. I run my athletes through a progression of intervals: 3-4 x 8-20', totaling 30-50' of work interval time. For example, 3 x 8', 3 x 10', 2 x 15', etc. Going over 50' of total work interval time in a session is usually too costly unless the athlete has exceptional recovery resources. The idea with these is to expose yourself to this intensity level for relatively long periods of time. Sitting at or just under LT enables you do these longer 8-20' intervals vs the 30” intervals you were doing. It's simply a better training stimulus.
 

Question:
How do I know if I need a coach?


Answer:

I believe that the more time constrained you are, or the higher your goals, the more you need a coach. If you are time constrained, you likely don't have a lot of time available to read, learn, or experiment on your own to find what does and does not work. Probably 2/3 of my athletes are self-employed consultant types who, being experts in their fields, realize the value of hiring someone to do all the hard work for them so they can focus on what they do best, rather than planning their own training.


Likewise, a good coach has seen every possible permutation and iteration of every fitness limiter, training time challenge, and special situation you can imagine. They have a very large bag of tricks to help you get in the training you need to get done, help you prioritize when the real world comes knocking, and have done enough experimenting with their own training, and across dozens of athletes, to learn what does and does not work.


So in the end, it's usually a matter of learning by making the time investment and training mistakes for yourself, or hiring someone who has been there, done that across scores of athletes and in their own training.


Question:
I have a job & family, how do I prioritize my limited training time?


Answer:

Wow, that's a big one.

  • Schedule a consult with me so I can tell you exactly what you need to do and when in the season, given your current fitness, goals and time constraints.

  • Honestly communicate this structure and requirements to your family. In January, my athletes are able to ask for the green light for training weekends in July. No surprises when the training hammer falls.

  • Focus on ROI for each training minute spent. If you can achieve the same fitness and speed returns in a 2hr bike as you can with a 3hr bike, why waste an hour? Is noodling around the bike paths for 4hrs in February the best investment of your time, vs. a short and sweet hammer session (see LT question) that is over with and done in 2hrs?

  • Train on your time, not your family’s: basically, if you're a busy family person, the sun is up and you're not training then you're either sleeping (which is fine) or you've shifted your training to your family's time.

  • If possible, work your training into your commute. I know many athletes who drive part way to work, run into and out of the office from their cars, ride to/from work, or combine workouts: bike + run = only one shower and costume change. Get creative.

Question:
What is the minimum training time needed to be ready for a Sprint, Olympic, or Half Ironman?


Answer:

The minimum time required is the time you have available. By this, I mean your training plan fits within YOUR lifestyle and time budget, not the other way around. Within this thought, don't focus on overall weekly volume but rather the volume of your long training events. For Sprint and Olympic I'd say you should work yourself up to a 1hr long run and 2hr long bike. Then within this requirement schedule an additional 2-3 runs, 2 bikes, and 2-3 runs. The length of these additional, non-long sessions is ENTIRELY a function of your time available to train. In other words, your Wednesday morning run is 40' because you have 40' to run, not because a training schedule says it needs to be 40'. This logistics-dictated scheduling is what I use with every athlete, Sprint to Ironman.


For Half Ironman, these long event volumes scale up to a 1.5-2hr long run and 3hr long ride. That said, the two most valuable weekly training sessions you can build to, regardless of race distance, are regular 1.5hr long runs and 3hr long rides. In other words, from now until the end of time you run 1.5hrs on Thursday morning and meet your friends for a 3hr ride on Saturday. This discipline and consistency will allow you to do anything in the sport.


Question:
What is the most common mistake that age group athletes make?


Answer: Just one? :-)

  • Not creating a training plan that fits their lifestyle and time constraints.

  • Overvalue gear: trying to buy speed through the latest aero carbon whizbang gadget.

  • Undervalue knowledge: a $5k bike in the garage and not one $20 book on the shelf. Or they don't have a problem spending $150 on two tubular tires but balk at a $100 training plan.

  • Not looking for the easy gains first. It's not always about figuring out new and inventive ways to bang your head against the wall. Look for the free and easy stuff first: body composition, swimming/running form, bike fit, etc.

  • Underestimating the value of simple hard work and consistency. When athletes ask me what I did to earn my bike speed, I tell them I was on the Santa Fe Dam with Jon Pedder at 5:30am every Tues and Thursday while they were sleeping.

  • Avoiding, or not seeking out, training events and partners that challenge their perspective on what far and fast are.

Question:
Starting from zero, how long does it take to train for an Ironman?


Answer:

Your goal long events for an Ironman are a 2.5hr long run, 5-6hr long ride, and a 4k swim, each completed at least once before race day. Your current fitness will determine how long it will take you to build to these distances. If your current run is only 30', you're 50 pounds overweight with a history of running injuries, it will take you much longer to build up to this 2.5hr long run than an athlete with a regular 1.5hr long run and 12% body fat. That said, from absolute zero and no injuries, I'd say about 9 months on the low end, 12 on the safe end. Injuries and body composition will push those numbers upwards. 18 months is possible for just about anyone with the will to prepare.


Question:
Is training alone better than training with a group?


Answer:

No. Anything that reduces the mental cost of training is more likely to help you retain your love of the sport, leading to more consistent training year after year. My most successful athletes have a menu of training partners and groups to call upon for their key workouts or to simply make the training fun. Likewise, triathletes often underestimate the training value of trying to hold a faster athlete's wheel, or what they can learn by simply picking that person's brain during a training ride or run.

 

Some athletes will tell you that since you will be racing alone you should train alone. There is some merit to that but I'll add a couple points. First, you are not alone on race day. You're riding and running with 2000 of your best friends. Second, I'm pretty sure I can whack my head with a hammer. I don't think I need to practice it more than a couple times. In my experience, there is sooo much to think about and engage your mind and attention on race day that I don't think you need to practice isolation too much.

 

However, the cost of training solo all the time is to become stuck in a comfort zone that a group session can lift you out of and to a new perspective on far and fast.


Question:
How do I know if I'm training hard enough?


Answer:

Don't think training hard, think training effectively. Every training session should have a purpose that address a specific limiter. If you cannot identify the purpose of a training session, or the clear benefit you will receive from it, don't do it. Don't do a workout just because it's on a spreadsheet. That said, tools like a heart rate monitor, GPS or power meter will help you assign numbers to Easy, Steady, Upper-Steady, Moderate-Hard, and Hard so that you can begin to quantify your training.


Question:
How can I overcome my fear of open water?


Answer:

This is very common. Begin by swimming in a safe lake with lifeguards and other swimmers near you, then graduate to ocean swimming under similar conditions. Throughout, count your strokes and focus on your form, as a means to take your mind off of your fears.


Question:
Should I always train & race with a heart rate monitor?


Answer:

If you are new to the sport, a heart rate monitor is a valuable tool. I encourage more experienced athletes to add a power meter and GPS to their training tools, so we can put objective, quantifiable numbers behind their training.


Question:
How do I set goals that are high but still obtainable?


Answer:

First, find training partners who challenge your perspective of what far and fast are. For example, 20mph on the bike is only fast if the people around you tell you it's fast. If all you know if 22mph, then 24mph is fast. Perspective. Second, do a consult with me. I can help you assesses your limiters and your time available to train, and give you my honest assessment of what is and is not possible.


Question:
I want to qualify for Kona, what do I need to work on most?


Answer:

Qualifying for men from 25 to 49 usually requires a 9:50-10:30 Ironman. This is very consistent, for all age groups. It's usually just a matter of how many of them show up, the number of slots available to them, and maybe getting lucky in the roll down. So let's call it 10:00. The most common method to get 10:00 is a 1:00 swim, 5:30 bike, 3:30 run, then knock out a total of about 4-5 minutes for transitions. If you are faster or slower than these splits, then you've bought/need to pay for time someplace else. For example, a 55 swim and 5:20 bike has bought you a 3:45 run. However, a 1:15 swim needs to be paid for with a 5:15 bike or 3:15 run. Those are the numbers. Estimate where you are right now and you probably have a good idea what it's going to take. Qualifying for Kona is a worthy but lofty goal that can take several years of chipping away at limiters and consolidating strengths. There is no substitute for hard work and consistency.


Question:
What do you do with the pork chop bone after eating the meat during a long training ride or, better yet, race? Especially, with the new litter laws being enforced by USAT?


Answer:

I usually wrap mine up in the burrito wrapper and stuff it someone else's singlet as I pass them on the bike.


Question:
Assuming one has developed a decent freestyle stroke with reasonable body position and a good catch, how important is the rate of stroke turn-over to an improved IM swim split?


Answer:

 “Good” form will yield a stroke count of 17-20 strokes per length. If you are an adult swimmer and taking less than 16 or 17 strokes per length and are swimming slower than about 40-45” per 50yd, you're trying too hard, artificially gliding. They give medals for speed, not stroke count, and “real” swimmers take about 16-18 strokes per length…they just go faster. I've noticed that swimmers gravitate to a faster stroke rate when swimming open water, I think due to the increased forces acting on their body: wind, waves, other swimmers, etc. They instinctively realize they need to increase their stroke rate to keep moving forward.


Question:
How much of a hindrance to an improved IM-distance swim split is unilateral (one-sided) versus bilateral breathing?


Answer:

Bilateral breathing is a good tool to encourage a good and balanced body rotation. If you are in process of developing good swim habits, this is a good one to pick up.


Question:
If one is carrying excess weight (fat), but is otherwise perfectly healthy, is there a point of diminishing returns, from a performance perspective, when you're really better off simply focusing on cutting caloric (food) intake than increasing training duration (caloric expenditure)? Frequently, after a workout, I come home famished and then, as a direct consequence, am driven to over-indulge -- seemly negating much of the benefit of the workout. It is the quantity, not the quality, of these calories that is of concern here.

 

Answer:

Not sure I understand the question. It's usually easier to create a calorie deficit by focusing on the expenditure side rather than on the intake side, particularly after long training events. For example, assume your basal rate is 2500 calories and you ride for 4 hours, burning 3000 calories. You now need to eat about 5500 calories to maintain your weight. You could eat 4500 calories and still create a 1000 calorie deficit. 4500 calories, if eaten as good, healthy food, is a LOT of food. My keys for my own training are:

  • Eat enough right away to replenish muscle glycogen.

  • Then eat normally the rest of the day, not using the workout as an excuse to chow down.

  • Focus on nutrient dense vs. calorie dense. In my fridge right now are tons of chicken breasts and salmon fillets, a case of oranges, bananas, apples, grapes, strawberries, heaps of vegetables, etc. Of course, I want the bagels in the freezer but I save those for immediately after exercise. Focus on making better food choices.

To create a similar 1000 calorie deficit by focusing more on calories in vs. calories out is probably better termed starvation. Again, my key is to just eat normally after my long stuff, especially the bike.


Question:
With a middle-aged body, a long daily commute, and a career/family/home to maintain, I find that it's nearly impossible for me to strictly comply, for any length of time, with ANY of the published IM training plans I've seen. I can do the required weekly long swim/ride/run session, but have difficulty doing the stuff in-between without either physical melt-down, getting fired from work, or a divorce. To maintain some semblance of a non-tri life, I find it necessary to omit, or drastically shorten the duration of, the mid-week workouts reflected in such training plans. I believe this phenomenon, among “real world” age-groupers, is much more common than the “expert” writers of such training plans realize or care to admit. Please comment.

 

Answer:

You describe yourself as an extremely busy person whose time is very valuable. How much does your bike cost? Your wetsuit? The airfare for your next race? Hotels? Rental car? The generic training plan you're photocopying from a magazine? Generic is just that: generic and off the shelf. A large part of my business is writing quality, affordable but generic training plans for sale to athletes. These plans are not for everyone, but I and any good Ironman coach could create a training schedule that could help you achieve your Ironman goals given your personal time constraints. So I would argue that the divergence you describe isn't between the coach and training plan but rather you and the training plan.


Perhaps you should consider hiring or consulting with a coach to write a personalized training schedule that accounts for your UNIQUE and personal time challenges.


That said, the “numbers,” based on my 4-5 years of Ironman coaching experience are:

  • Build to a 4k swim, 5-6hr long ride, 2-2.5hr long run, each accomplished at least once (separately) before race day.

  • A total (minimums) of 3 swims, 3 rides, 3 runs per week.

  • Most athlete's IM volume settles around 6-9hrs during recovery weeks, 12-15+ during other weeks.

  • Special circumstances, strengths and limiters will change those numbers. For example, a strong swimmer may be able to not swim at all until 4 wks from their race. A heavier athlete should spend more time on the bike, to burn more calories in a lower risk environment.


 

Rich is a Joe Friel Ultrafit Associate, an Ironman World Championship Finisher, a USAT certified coach, and the founder of the Pasadena Triathlon Club in Pasadena, CA. Rich has personally trained over 250 Ironman finishers since 2001, and helped thousands more coach themselves more effectively through his training articles and active discussion forum. His endurance training company, Crucible Fitness, offers a range of personalized coaching and performance services, including FIST certified bike fitting and metabolic analysis with the NewLeaf system. He also sells affordable half and full Iron distance training plans through TrainingPeaks. Visit www.cruciblefitness.com for a complete list of services.

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date: May 1, 2006

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Rich Strauss