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I'm just an average age-grouper / weekend warrior blogging about Ironman Triathlon Training and this complex puzzle of juggling life, having fun and reporting on my various feats of strength and endurance adventures!

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Off-Season Training: When It’s Time to Ditch the Trainer

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The trainer is an incredibly valuable tool for winter and year-round training. This is especially true for cyclists and triathletes in colder, snowy climates or those who need structured workouts to reach specific fitness goals. While this can be necessary in the big scheme of things, there are times when you should get off the trainer to boost your fitness and abilities.

But, when and how should an athlete leave the trainer behind to get a mental break from the monotony?

Let’s take a look at three most impactful ways to get off the trainer, and how to do them right.

1. Ride outside on sunny, warmer days

I’ve promoted a simple rule since 2008 with all of my athletes: if you have a sunny, warm day in winter, you can and should get outside for a longer ride.

The winter is the one time during the year I recommend that, when the weather allows, an athlete break from their structured training plan to get a mental reprieve from training. For some athletes this means taking a half day off at the office, leaving work around lunchtime, possibly bundling up, and heading out for a nice three- to four-hour endurance or tempo ride.

I sometimes find myself using the phrase: “screw your training plan ride!” This allows your athletes a chance to restore their mental energy, something that can be lost in today’s world of structured training.

Be careful not to take this to the extreme though. Up to three days of riding like this within a seven-day period of good weather is the max I recommend. All other workouts should follow their structured training program.

Also, on a warm winter day, it might be tempting to ride harder than you should. Make sure you don’t push it so hard outside that you have to take a recovery week afterward. Most rides should end with an Intensity Factor (IF) of roughly 0.60-0.75, depending on your level of fitness. TSS will be dependent upon your fitness level, but for the average IRONMAN 70.3 triathlete or “Cat 3” road racer in the U.S., aim for TSS between 150-225 for each ride.

2. Add strength training

Of course, strength training must be added in the winter, and as discussed in my last article about using the trainer, cutting your total ride time in favor of focused rides is one of the top things athletes should be doing. This allows plenty of time to get in the necessary strength work to help athletes get stronger and move better.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a gym! A single kettlebell (8kg for beginners, 12kg for intermediates) and a yoga mat is more than enough to start a solid strength training program.

Share this video playlist with your athletes to add a 30-minute strength routine to their workout after using the trainer. Emphasize moving swiftly from each exercise to the next, and follow the order given below. The order of these movements is incredibly important as this workout is designed to help move better and open up tight areas right after firing important muscle groups.

Dynamic warmup

Complete 1-4 and return to 2-4 for a second round.

Foam rolling exercises: 1×30 seconds each sideLacrosse ball glute medius: 2×30 seconds each sideOne arm lat stretch with deep breathing: 2×5 deep breaths each sideSofa stretch: 2×30 seconds each side

Strength workout

Start with A1, then immediately move to A2. Take a short rest, then repeat both exercises until you complete all prescribed sets. Then, move on to B1 and B2 in the same fashion.

A1. Bird-dogs: 2×3-5 sets each side concentrating on techniqueA2. McGill Crunches: 2×5 sets holding each repetition for 5 seconds

B1. Side-lying straight leg lifts: 2×8-12 sets each side concentrating on techniqueB2. Double kettlebell hover deadlifts: 3×5-8 sets holding each for two seconds at the bottom

C1. Kettlebell eastern goblet squats: 2×8-12 setsC2. One arm kettlebell rows: 2×6-8 each arm keeping abs braced and shoulder blade held back and down

D1. Max effort front planks: 3×3 rounds bracing everything for 5 seconds, relaxing on the ground for 3 secondsD2. Foam roller with stretch: 3×30 secondsD3. Lunge reach twist: 3×30 seconds

TrainingPeaks University

Interested learning about building strength training plans?

Take author Menachem Brodie’s online course Strength Training for Cycling Success or Strength Training for Triathlon Successto understand more!

3. Cross-train to build fitness and stay mentally fresh

This is a roadblock that a lot of athletes and coaches encounter, as they instead think “HTFU” or “just push through” will get them to their goals.

Yes, there are definitely days and times where we need to push through, but it should not become an every-other-workout occurrence. I heard this often from my powerlifting coaches in high school and college: “We want fives, sixes, and sevens for 90 percent of our workouts. Another nine percent will be eights and nines, with competition as a ten.”

This means that most days workouts should not leave you mentally or physically drained and should have a rating of perceived exertion (RPE) of five, six or seven. You shouldn’t be so tired from your last workout sessions that you are dreading the next day’s workout.

This is where so many endurance athletes go wrong in the winter. They keep exhausting themselves on the trainer convinced that somewhere a competitor is going harder. In fact, it’s not how hard you can go day in and day out that will get you to higher performance, it’s your ability to recover day after day while being consistent with training.

So, go on a hike, take your mountain bike for a ride in the snow, go for a swim, try rock climbing, or go climb stairs. It’s just important to do something that gets you physically moving and helps you build fitness. That is truly the key to having a stellar winter base period and being able to enter race season in a fresher mental state, a highly overlooked part to top performance.

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The Whole Picture: An Introduction to Total Load

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This is Part 1 of a five-part series on total load, the cumulative training and life stress an athlete experiences while training.

What is total load, anyway?

Simply put, “total load” is a way to think about all of the stress that athletes encounter in their lives, both positive and negative. In addition to an athlete’s workout, other factors such as sleep, diet, and mental stress impact a body’s ability to train, recover, and perform. Many athletes don’t realize that factors such as work stress and travel can really impact their ability to train and perform well. 

We will explore the factors that comprise total load in a five-part series, starting with this introduction. A deep dive into the major components of total load will follow:

Total Load Overview: Why does it matter? What are the key components? Physical Stress: Training, endurance, high-intensity workouts, strength and conditioning stressMental Stress: Workplace, emotional, travel and jet lag stressSleep and Diet: The two primary recovery enablersActive Recovery: Speeding up recovery using light workouts, yoga, and Pilates

Why does total load matter?

The new ethos of marginal gains pushes amateur and elite competitors to optimize the volume and intensity of their training in pursuit of maximum performance. When combined with psychological and non-sport stresses, maladaptation is increasingly likely.

The concept of total load has been around for a long time, but significant progress on the subject has been made in recent years. In early 2016, the International Olympic Committee organized a group of experts to examine a growing body of evidence indicating athletes with poorly managed total loads suffered from higher rates of injury and illness compared to competitors. In this context, “poorly managed” indicates training loads that were both too low and too high, in addition to rapid changes in total load.

That study led to a two-part statement on identifying and managing total load published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The authors concluded that it was important to monitor and measure the following factors to better understand total load:

Internal and external loadConsistency of training load over timePsychological stressTravelIllness

Only when considering all of these factors can athletes and coaches achieve a comprehensive picture of total load. In addition, monitoring and managing total load over time has been shown to have the biggest impact on improving performance while reducing illness. The infographic below summarizes key findings from research by the Australian Institute of Sport.

njury and illness: success infographichttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26839047

What is external and internal load?

External load describes the physical work performed during training and workouts. External load measures include traditional training metrics such as power, speed, distance, duration, and frequency. Research has demonstrated that some newer external load measures such as Acute:Chronic training load ratio (of which TSB is an example), and GPS-derived metrics (acceleration, high-speed running used in team sports) predict injury more effectively compared to traditional ones.

Internal load refers to the body’s stress response to the external load. Examples might include an increase in hormones such as cortisol or physical damage to muscle fibers. The range of internal load measures is less obvious, but includes rating of perceived exertion, Training Stress Score (TSS), psychological scales, hormone measures (salivary cortisol, c-reactive protein), blood lactate, and heart rate measures (resting HR, HR Recovery, and Heart Rate Variability or HRV).

New research

The General Adaptation Syndrome model, which suggests that a given level of training load will produce a repeatable adaptation in each athlete, has been used for around 90 years to predict an athlete’s response to training. However, in his 2017 thought-provoking paper, Dr. John Kiely addressed the relationship between total load and the body’s response that suggested otherwise.

Kiely argues that the old General Adaptation Syndrome model is far too simplistic, as neither our body’s homeostasis nor our stress response remain constant. In fact, they vary with life experiences, bio-rhythms, and many other factors. This is where holistic measures, such as Heart Rate Variability (HRV), can be useful as they can better reflect the total internal load as perceived by the body, rather than just the amount and intensity of training.

Non-training Stress

For all but the most cosseted professional athletes, training is not the biggest source of stress on the body. Factors such as mental stress, frequent travel, inconsistent diet, and sleep loss represent more significant sources of stress for many athletes with busy lives.

In a recent interview with a coach of high school and college-age athletes, we observed that mental stress from work assignments and social pressures frequently led to poor diet and sleep. As a result, those factors further compounded the imbalance between total load and recovery.

Spent the morning with a national track athlete and Olympian medalist. More or less 90% of the session was related to life stress. It is often a hidden contributing force in the injury history of athletes.

— Eugene Oppelt (@eugene_oppelt) January 17, 2019

It is important to consider all of the sources of stress when coaching to prevent such an imbalance, but it can be difficult to identify when life begins to fall out of balance. One way we can determine the key stress influences for an individual is to track an all-inclusive stress measure, such as HRV, while recording stress, fatigue, sleep, diet, and other markers on a daily basis. Observing trends in this comprehensive data then allows for refinement and adjustment of lifestyle.

TrainingPeaks University

Interested in learning more about heart rate variability?

Take Simon Wegerif’s online course Introduction to Heart Rate Variability to understand the basics of HRV and how you can use it to measure total load.

Remember that it’s not just training that stresses the body, it’s total load that matters! It is always important to consider external and internal loads, not just the training itself, because the body’s specific response is highly individual and even varies over time.

The next article in this five-part series will take a closer look at how physical stress and training contributes to total load.

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CoachCast: Heart Rate Variability with Simon Wegerif

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In its simplest form, training is a method of increasing biological stressors in order to increase performance in an athlete. But, how do coaches know when they push their athletes too hard and actually hurt their performance? This is especially important considering athletes encounter stress from more than just endurance training such as work, personal life, illness, and even environment.

Dave sat down with researcher Simon Wegerif to discuss heart rate variability, a precise and easily measured metric that may help reveal when the body is overstressed and likely unable to endure heavy training loads. As even more information about the importance of effective recovery is published, coaches may want to consider adding heart rate variability to the data they monitor.

   

Resources

ithlete appSimon Wegerif TwitterIntroduction to Heart Rate Variability course

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Do you “Sisu”? A New Way To Measure Mental Toughness

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In 2016, while doing research for a planned study on mental toughness in athletes, I came across the word “sisu”. Sisu is a Finnish word that roughly means “strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity.” In the most of simple of terms, sisu means grit. It is not situational or momentary, though; it is a characteristic that lies deep within (have you seen Free Solo? Alex Honnold is sisu).

The word spoke to me on a level so profoundly that I named my study on mental toughness, The Sisu Study. I call the resulting test I developed to measure mental toughness The Sisu Quiz.

Measurement is important

People love quizzes. I mean, who doesn’t want to know which Friends character they most resemble or which Hogwarts house the sorting hat would put them in (according to Buzzfeed I am Chandler and belong in Griffindor). Taking an innocuous, fun quiz is straightforward enough. The results can be laughed off or you can say to yourself, “Wow, that is so accurate! How did they do that?”

But, what happens when a quiz tells you something deeply personal, like your level of self-esteem or how much confidence you possess? It becomes harder, doesn’t it?

That’s the case with the Sisu Quiz. There are some components to the Sisu Quiz that might make an athlete uncomfortable (although, I imagine if you are afraid of getting results about mental toughness, you likely need to work on your mental toughness). The questions scrutinize how an athlete handles different sporting situations. If the questions are answered truthfully, an athlete’s innermost “secrets” will be uncovered.

The Sisu Quiz was developed using three different validated questionnaires, which, when combined, measure eight dimensions of mental toughness: determination, confidence, control, constancy, self-belief, positive self-talk, visualization, and self-esteem. Through some fancy algorithms that have lots of Greek letters, which I don’t entirely understand, I am able to generate information about your level of mental toughness on each of the eight dimensions (low, moderate, or high) and your overall Sisu score.

Determining which Friends character you most resemble will hardly change your life or your outlook on how you approach your training and racing, whereas determining your Sisu score can profoundly alter your athletic trajectory.

It may seem that I am overstating the importance of the information from the Sisu Quiz. I assure you, I’m not.

Learning about yourself is difficult

I cannot emphasize enough that it takes courage to dig deep into the psyche and learn about ourselves in a way that might be different from what we imagined. Push away your doubts and fears because information about mental toughness can be paradigm-shifting.

Here’s why. Athletes spend hours upon hours training their bodies. Athletes train through the ravages of winter. Athletes buy fancy equipment and travel to exotic locales and spend lots of money on incremental improvements. However, athletes rarely spend time honing their brain. All of the training and fancy equipment and lofty goals are moot if you are too nervous to race well or if you get down on yourself at the slightest setback or if you give up because your adversary is beating you.

I tell injured athletes all the time: get a diagnosis. It is difficult to treat an injury if you don’t know what it is that you’re treating. Mental toughness is no different. In order to most productively make improvements in mental toughness, you need to know where to focus your work.

Take action

Remember this: do not put a value judgement on your Sisu score. Again, do not put a value judgment on your Sisu score. Your score is actionable information from which you can start to build a mental toughness training plan. It is something which can be raised. It is not meant to threaten your self-esteem.

My TrainingPeaks University course, The Champion Mindset: A Course on Mental Toughness, was designed for both coaches and athletes as a means to learn about research on the components of mental toughness and provide specific tips to make measurable improvements.

By taking the Sisu quiz and course, you can start on the the triad of “Identify-Learn-Enact”.

In terms of mental toughness, you want to identify strengths and weaknesses. Once your areas that need improvement have been identified, the next critical step is to learn about those specific areas of mental toughness. The learning phase allows you to put those components of mental toughness into the context of your life and how you approach your sport. The knowledge gained during the learning phase will then enable you to enact new mental toughness behaviors that are productive rather than destructive.

Here’s an example. Suppose you take the Sisu Quiz and identify that you have low positive self-talk. The learning phase will inform you that athletes who are high in positive self-talk have less anxiety, more confidence, and improved performance. You will also learn the difference between motivational and instructional self-talk and how to rewrite your script. Finally, you will aim to enact positive self-talk in any situation which you are prone to speak negatively to yourself.

Take five minutes to fill out the Sisu Quiz and learn about your mental toughness. Don’t panic if the results are surprising. Just take a deep breath and know you can find help to improve your mental toughness.

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Why Coaching During the Off-season is Key to Athlete Success

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Whether you are coaching new or existing athletes for the upcoming season, there are many reasons why you should continue your coaching during the offseason.

Most importantly, off-season coaching provides the opportunity to get your athletes on the right track. Sometimes, the wariness of extra costs and the aversion to the “structure” of off-season coaching makes athletes feel that a coach is unnecessary. But, truth be told, off-season coaching actually saves athletes money long-term, prevents injury and burnout, dynamically increases the quality of training throughout the year, positively influences overall athlete success, increases athlete happiness, and more.

Athletes often do not understand that coaches switch focus during the off-season, but that impact is still as strong as ever in ways that rarely get highlighted.

1. Prevent panic training

Athletes sometimes only rely upon coaching during critical training cycles.

While peak performance is always the desired outcome, limited coaching can result in crammed training practices. The consequences of rushed training ultimately results in too little time to accomplish training and racing goals. Decreasing the rush cram training creates less risk for injury and builds fitness at a steadier pace.

It is especially important for new athletes or more experienced athletes new to coaching to start working with a coach in the off-season. As a coach, it is important to remember that new athletes might need extra time to adjust to coaching and the learning curve can sometimes be steep. When on-boarding a new athlete, the longer you can work together, the better, and the easier it is to plan streamlined, quality training when it counts most during peak season.

2. Strengthen weaknesses

Even though the off-season has the potential to be unstructured, it also gives athletes the opportunity to develop high-level skills. Small changes that have the potential to create huge impacts can be initiated during the off-season that would have been impossible during race season. Improvements can range from technique, strength, equipment adjustments, mental training, recover, or nutritional adaptations. Without coach direction, athletes tend to work on what they’re already comfortable with instead of working on their weaknesses. Coaching during the off-season allows you to offer guidance on the aspects of training they find most most difficult to make sure they improve in areas where they need it most.

3. Prevent overtraining and injury

Many athletes continue training at a level that is far too high in intensity, volume, and frequency during the off-season. Such practices do not allow for proper recovery necessary for next season’s success. Chronically overtrained athletes often don’t give their body enough of a break and wonder why they never reach their goals.

Coaching these athletes during the off-season prevents excessive training and creates an opportunity to focus on recovery. The off-season also provides the chance to create a dynamic, strength training enhancement period for injury prevention and rehabilitation.

4. Stay on track

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are athletes who have a tendency to lose focus, direction, and motivation in the off-season. Even if the athlete previously set strong goals, they might find themselves getting distracted with life events. Oftentimes, sport provides the structure they need by providing a constant in their life.

The last thing you want a goal-driven athlete to do is take two months off unless it’s necessary for other purposes. After all, it is always easier for your athlete to stay in shape than it is to get back in shape after several months off.

Promoting year-round activity strengthens the season’s starting point and decreases the overall time it takes for them to get back in race shape. By coaching throughout the off-season you can also prevent an athlete from only concentrating on easy workouts by including dashes of intensity.

5. Promote variety and active rest

During the season, you coach your athletes to do concentrate on the specifics. While in the off-season, you have influence to inject variety into your athletes’ training regime to keep it fresh, different, and fun.

Use this time period to develop multi-sport abilities. Activity in another sport breaks up the mundane sport focus you’ll be thinking about the rest of the year.

Cross-training is applicable to the in-season sport in ways that might not be apparent upfront. Suggest new routes, new workouts, or even some outside reading that applies to their sport. Consider suggesting some camps that help increase your athletes’ exposure to new skill sets and experiences.

6. Low pressure communication and reflection

The opportunity to reflect without the added pressure of competition is possibly one of the best elements of continuing or starting coaching during the off-season. It allows you to bounce various ideas around for future improvement.

During the off-season, you should still give your athlete some space, but also think about exercises that build motivation, prevent burnout, and promote full recovery for the upcoming season. Adjusting coaching guidance can create a space in which the athlete starts to miss their sport and will be ready to start for the upcoming season.

Your role as a coach is incredibly important regardless of the training period. While rest is crucial for any training plan, guidance during the off-season ultimately results in more forward progression. You, as the coach, take on the role in which you aren’t just there for them in-season, you are there for them throughout all dynamics of sport development. You have the power to create an influence that allows your athlete to make the most of your coaching relationship and develop a foundation for successful training, and much of that starts in the off-season.

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