Today was the last day of the coaching mentorship.
The morning started with short-term and daily planning. The details. We viewed some of the specific workouts the elites were doing. The “secrets” if you will. Of course the workouts aren’t really a secret. There are hard workouts, easy workouts, strength workouts. Nothing shockingly new here. But I never thought there would be. There are no secrets, just work that needs to be done. That work should condition you for your peak race. As you get closer to your race, that work gets more race specific.
The secret to coaching, then, is the art of applying the work at the right time to get performance at the right time. It’s rather simple, But sometimes the simple is the least understood, or the least accepted. It can’t be that easy. Triathletes are filled with misconceptions of this coach or that coach has the secret workout to make them faster.
After working with 4 coaches in the past 10 years, attending coaching seminars, reading countless coaching books, here’s what I’ve learned: there’s only so many ways you can write a zones 1 to 2 workout. And just because a workout is boring, or slow, or simple doesn’t mean that it’s not what you should be doing. In fact, it’s the boring, easy, simple that often gets the athlete to the next level. Doing it consistently over time leads to progress. Skip that simple work and you end up going somewhere that your body can’t handle. As the swim coach told us yesterday, “I believe in not taking your body some place it’s not meant to go.”
On the weekly schedule there are hard workouts and easy workouts. What's a hard workout? Like any other hard workout; hill repeats, mile repeats. No secrets. Do they swim hard every time they swim? No. Do they run track every week? Depends on the phase of training. How many hours of training a week? Depends on the athlete. Moreover, volume wasn't as important as frequency. Through high frequency they gain a great deal of conditioning.
How do they handle it? After all, up to 30 workouts a week is no light load. But they increased to that level of “more” over time. Some of these athletes have worked with their coach for several years. There was no instant fix nor instant rise to the top. Any new elite (or even athlete!) needs to be prepared that progress is a slow process. It took years to condition their body to safely handle a higher training load. Training load must be increased patiently – give your body a chance to adapt. Adaptation is the process that keeps you healthy. The increased training load then allowed them to have the fitness and skills to compete at the higher level.
The last part of the discussion was about race specific training. Look at your peak race and find out everything you possibly can. In today’s age of information, you can find race reports, profile charts, pictures, videos – seek every piece of information possible about what you might encounter: terrain, temperature, humidity, typical wind speed/direction, water type, concrete/asphalt/off road, course lay out, turns, course lay out, sunrise – this list could go on.
Next, we visited the exercise physiology lab. It was a hollow place where the wind whistled through the pipes that ran across the ceiling above neatly organized research equipment. The exercise physiologist discussed his role in working with the athletes. He helps them to understand the challenges of different race courses and then strategizes how to handle them based on research. When the Olympics were in Beijing, the two biggest obstacles were the heat/humidity and air pollution. He helped the athletes prepare for both. Research articles sat in holders on the wall. I grabbed one of everything, mentally putting it on my growing list of things I need to read (along with the half dozen books I ordered from Amazon.com after listening to coaches talk this weekend).
We had the opportunity to run on the Alter G Anti-Gravity treadmill. The benefit of the treadmill is that you run with less impact. When you’re coming back from injury (rehab) or just looking for a gentler alternative to running (prehab), this $77,000 treadmill would be a very useful thing. How does it work? You put on a pair of compression shorts, step into a “bubble” that is over the treadmill. The lower half of your body is then zipped into the plastic bubble. Then, it calibrates to your weight. As you run, you can reduce the pressure in the bubble chamber which drops your body weight. It goes all the way down to 20 percent of your body weight.
As I was running, I realized that if I weighed 22 pounds, I would be damn fast. At 20 percent my body weight, I felt like I was light on my toes and running on air. One of the other coaches bravely dropped the pace to a 3:39 mile and ran like Road Runner trapped in bubble wrap. I bravely ran an 8:00 per mile which at altitude feels like 3:39 to me. As I moved the pressure back to my normal weight, I felt so heavy. If anything, it was a good exercise in the relationship between weight and running fast. To run better, I have come to the conclusion that I need to lose 30 pounds. And here I was thinking I had only 4 pounds to go to my weight pre-baby.
We also got to use the Wattbikes. Think Computrainer meets spin bike. Except you can bring your own saddle and pedals. Much cheaper than the treadmill (about $2500 each) and hooks into a main computer that shows excessive amounts of data about your pedal stroke, power output, etc. You can plot out the force you put on the pedal at each part of the pedal stroke for every single pedal stroke during your ride. You take 90 revolutions per minute multiplied by a 60 minute ride – that’s a lot of data.
The day finished early which allowed me to get to the pool during open lap hours. I hopped into a lane and noticed a workout on the white board. It was for the modern pentathletes. I started doing the workout when I realized the athletes next to me were indeed the modern pentathletes. They had started around the same time as me so there were a few 50s where we were actually swimming in sync. I switched my hard efforts to their easy efforts and swam my little arms off to keep up with guy in the next lane. 4000 meters later, I declared it one of the best swim workouts of my life. I was swimming in the Olympic pool with Olympic athletes. Heaven? Yes, surely.
Afterwards, I sat in the hot tub. Two of the athletes hopped in and started talking about their day. They had already been fencing, did a fartlek run and then after the swim they had to go to the sports med building to get some work done on their legs. Just another day in the life of an Olympic athlete in training. Yet as exciting as that sounds, I think it would be draining. Day in, day out your life, your job is your body. That’s a lot to ask of it. It demonstrates how truly different their bodies are. Not only do they have the engines but they have the durability and the drive.
In the morning, I go home. As both an athlete and coach, this has been an exciting opportunity. I’ve spent 3 days living a version of the Olympic dream – in a beautiful setting rich with the resources you need for athletic success. Olympic medal success. And if you don’t achieve it? I’m not sure around here it has much to do with genetics, talent or skill. It has a lot to do with health but also attitude, mental toughness and wanting it. One of the coaches was telling us about the breakthrough year an athlete was having because this year - they were finally taking it seriously. How badly do you want it? If I had to post a quote on my mirror, I would have that one staring back at me every single day.
Will the US get medals for triathlon performance in 2012 in London? There’s a lot of great coaches behind the athletes and a lot of great athletes. Will it all come together? I suppose that’s the risk that any of the 100 athletes living here onsite are willing to take. They dedicate four years of their life to one day. One day – no do over, no redemption race. What if you raced your peak race this year like it was your only chance, that one day?
How badly would you go after it?
While I spent a few days learning about training for the Olympics, what’s going on here isn’t about Olympians – it’s about how to excel at a sport. Some athletes might excel to winning their age group, setting a new PR or simply getting across a finish line. Seeing sport at this level only proved to me what I’ve known all along: that if you want something badly enough, you need to have a plan of how you’ll get there and then you need to follow that plan with 100 percent focus, passion and intensity.
The past few days were all about learning how to put together that plan for an athlete looking to excel. To me, it doesn't matter if that athlete is beginner or elite, there are commonalities in what makes a successful plan and athlete. Sometimes as coaches we wonder if we’re doing the right thing for our athletes – is this enough, is there a better way. The other participants and I agreed that the past few days, we got a lot of confirmation. Confirmation that as coaches, we are doing the right thing. And that when the right coaching combines with an athlete doing the right things, you get performance. Great coaching parternships are where two talents (coach & athlete) meet and commit to a common goal: performance.