There's a wall of these quotes. In fact, I can't even go to the bathroom around here without a quote staring me in the face. It's inspirational but at the same time I can see how it's a tremendous pressure. Commitment, winning, success, doing it for yourself, your nation. This inspiration - or is it pressure - is posted on every bathroom mirror and every door. How would you handle it?
We started the morning on deck. The Olympic pool is beautiful masterpiece of 50 long course meters. It invites you to swim. I’ve met the coach before and he reminds me of the classic swim coach – laid back, it is what it is, we do this because it works end of story.
There were 7 triathletes doing the workout, some bigger names, some up and comers. We watched them go through a 4700 meter workout. Today they were doing a toned down taper-like workout because many were racing this weekend. There were some 50s, some 300s and some kick at the end.
We asked the coach a lot of questions and what I learned about the swimming didn’t surprise me. It’s something I’ve learned from trying to figure out my own swimming over the years. Here’s what I'm hearing: technique is important but it’s not everything. The secret to faster swimming? Just f*cking swim. Of course he didn’t say that. But it seems that so many try to think or pay their way to faster swimming when they just need to go swimming. Swim often and swim consistently. Whether it’s high volume or high intensity, follow the program and stick with it.
Now it’s true if you have lousy form you’re just going to end up fighting yourself in the water. But even technique work doesn’t have to be that complicated. Choose one approach and stick with it. How many people talk to this coach, read that book, go to this clinic, then ask the person next to them at masters. Too many swimmers in the kitchen! Pick one, change one thing at a time and give your body a chance to make progress.
Patience. It’s a dirty word with so many athletes but it’s the common thread of the best athletes out there.
The coach didn’t pick apart strokes. In fact, I could look at any one of the swimmers and identify a few things they could do to improve their stroke. But a lot of what I’m seeing around here – whether it’s right or wrong – is that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. They might make small adjustments but if so and so can swim successfully with a little hitch in their kick or a lope in their stroke – then let them be. Changing it might result in that little extra or might result in a total disruption of the athlete’s “feel” and confidence. That’s a big risk, especially to disrupt an athlete's feel.
Around here, what an athlete feels is taken very seriously. We heard about one athlete who doesn’t run off the bike in training because they want all of their running to feel fresh and light. That feeling is important to their confidence and success in racing. Whether it’s scientifically right or wrong to avoid running off the bike, if the athlete feels they need it – it’s taken seriously.
All of this reminds me of something I read in Matt Fitzgerald’s book, Run (a great book and one that several of the coaches around here have referenced). Fitzgerald said to ask yourself what types of training experiences you think you need to feel confident about a race. Think about that – and then have the discussion with your coach. An Olympic medalist had a run loop that he did before a race. If he could do it in xx:xx, he knew he was ready. Every athlete has that pre-race workout, that experience in which they have learned their body lets them know they are ready. This feeling of readiness builds confidence. Confidence is everything on race day.
After swimming, we spent time talking with a coach of a few of the top athletes. They covered periodization and long term planning. There are many approaches you can take – whether you subscribe to a linear approach, a non-linear approach, a 10-day training cycle or a 6-week work cycle – the bottom line is that it has to be an approach that fits the athlete. Not that you make the athlete fit into the approach. So many athletes seek out different coaches or approaches because they think – that’s what I need! Honestly, the best coach is the one who looks at the athlete and says – based on your training, your history, your personality, your goals, THIS is what you need and I’m going to tailor the approach to meet those needs. Again and again, I’m hearing how it pays to develop a long-term relationship with a single coach whose style and experience you feel most comfortable with. Give that coach time to observe you, learn about you and then develop you into the best athlete based on what you do and what they see. This does not happen in one season. It takes time.
Again, Fitzgerald’s book was referenced – the Type of Responder chart. A coach needs to understand the type of athlete they have and how they respond to training in order to be successful with them. Some coaching inquiries I get from athletes include this question – are you a high volume coach? The better question is – are you a high volume athlete? And if so, prove it. Show me the data, the results and health history which reveal that when you are given high volumes of training you excel. Some athletes need high volume, others need low volume with high intensity, some can climb to world class on nothing but aerobic training with intensity two weeks before their peak event. There might be one destination in our sport – the finish line, the medal, whatever – but any wise coach/athlete knows that there are many, many different ways to get there. And none are right except the one that works for you.
There was a lot of talk about test sets. In my experience, athletes either love or hate test sets. They love them because of the challenge, the opportunity to see where they’re at. They hate them because of the challenge and they have to see where they’re at. Tests can be real confidence shakers. And test results are sort of like racing – even when you try to control for everything, there are factors beyond your control. There might be wind, poor sleep or it might just be an off day. And as far as which test set to use – again depends on the athlete. There are oodles of test sets out there. Even one coach might have a dozen test sets. Whichever you use, use it repeatedly so you actually can measure progress. Coaches must also be cautious of doing workouts to see where an athlete is at versus doing a workout to condition them for a race. Benchmarks are good but if you’re mentally and physically draining the athlete from that benchmark set, you take away from more important training for racing.
The day wrapped up with some talk about running. In triathlon – at the ITU level – or even nowadays at any level if you want to be competitive in your age group – it’s all about the run. The foundation of better running is of course better running mechanics which lead to better run economy. Two athletes with the same ability but one has better economy – the more economical runner always wins. How to become more economical? Doing the right type and amount of drills, plyos, etc.
Treadmills were discussed. Treadmills are very useful for locking in a pace, providing a less injurious surface and – if you have kids/time constraints/weather issues – very convenient! However, treadmill running should be limited. You run faster on the treadmill so you’re more likely to get injured. The treadmill also does not allow for glute activation. Glute activation is key to faster running. The treadmill belt pulls the leg back for you – so no glute activation is required. When you get outside, that’s a weakness. On the treadmill the potassium pump also doesn’t get activated. As a result, when you get outside, you have a harder time overcoming inertia.
The coach talked about an interesting study. Athletes had to run on a treadmill for 12 minutes at threshold. They were given one of four things to thinks about: 1) a dissociative thought, 2) an outcome thought, 3) a technical thought, 4) told to focus on what the body is feeling and staying in the moment. Who used the least amount of oxygen? Those told to stay present in the moment and think about what they’re feeling – not those checking the pace on their Garmin nor those disassociating to ignore the pain, nor thinking about the outcome. This reinforces what I’ve felt about running all along – it’s a lot more about feel than we want to think it is. The coach then said that so many triathletes have a sense or urgency or panic about the run whereas the best runners simply let it come to them, it’s a feel. They’re not looking for PRs in workouts, they’re looking for feel.
We also talked about pacing. You can determine the outcome of a race in the first two minutes. Go out too fast – good-bye good race. For every 1 percent you go out too fast, you lose 2.5 percent of performance. Most run too fast off the bike because the pace of the bike confuses us when we switch to running. Learn to conserve yourself and truly hold back. The best races (unless we’re talking something under 6 minutes) are done with a negative split.
We ended a busy day at 4:30 pm which gave me exactly 30 minutes to get into the pool before it closed to the next team using it. I was in the pool by 4:39 pm and then experienced altitude swimming in all of its long course glory. Needless to say, I don’t think my swim pace will get me an invitation to the Olympic team any time soon. I did some spinning on a spin bike before calling myself all triathloned out for the day.
Tomorrow is the last day. We’re going to try the Alter-G treadmill (YAY!) and learn more about day to day planning. By the way, I learned today that some of the athletes here are doing 24 to 30 workouts a week. That does not include recovery modalities – we’re talking pure swim, bike, run and strength. It’s quite a level of work and commitment. But then again – when you’ve got these facilities, resources, the time and you’re chasing the Olympic rings – it's takes that level of dedication, and even risk. Like one coach said - for four years, they need to put everything else on hold - life, everything and instead do everything it takes to get there. Take that risk, take the commitment seriously.
Would you do it?