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3 Lessons I Learned In The Coaching World

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At the end of the 1970s, Ron Gunn, the athletic director at Southwestern Michigan College in Dowagiac, asked if I would help teach a class for beginning runners preparing them to run the Honolulu Marathon. Ron labeled the class Marathon 101. This was the decade of Frank Shorter winning Olympic gold, Bill Rodgers winning nearly every race he entered, and Joan Benoit winning the Boston Marathon wearing a Red Sox cap. Before then, only members of high school or college teams ran, but long-distance running was about to become mainstream.

Reflecting back on the class, Ron and I probably overtrained the runners blindly following us with too many miles. Few coaches in that era offered adult runners much advice or respect. During our previous coaching experiences, Ron and I had been with young runners. Our adults ran more miles than I might ask a similar group to run today.

Nevertheless, everybody (including my wife) finished Honolulu and had fun — one reason being that they spent nearly a year getting ready. The ramp up to high mileage had been gentle, so they gradually adapted to the stress. Thus, I learned my first lesson as a coach of adult runners:

1. You can run long distances if you take your time.

I also learned a lot, soon after, from a young runner. In the 1980s, our oldest son Kevin graduated from Indiana University and went to work for a Big-Eight accounting firm in Chicago. He chose, as his goal, qualifying for the 1984 Olympic Trials, meaning he would need to better an already difficult 2:19:05 standard. As a bottom-of-the-ladder accountant, Kevin worked long hours, which made double workouts difficult during the work week, but, like almost every other individual working a 9-to-5 job, he had Saturdays and Sundays off.

As our strategy, we decided to cram most of the hard work into the weekends: speed training on Saturdays and long runs on Sundays, plus a couple of easy (double-workout) runs each of those days to add mileage. To prepare for the weekends, we ran easy on Fridays or even took a day off. Mondays also became rest/easy days to recover from the hard weekend workouts.

The pattern proved perfect. In his next marathon, Kevin bettered the Olympic Trials qualifying standard by 10 seconds. Check any of my training programs in books or online and you immediately will recognize the same pattern.

2. Got a busy life? Run tough on weekends, rest before & after.

I carried this lesson into my next coaching experience with adult runners. By the 1990s, the Chicago Marathon, under the direction of Carey Pinkowski, had earned its place among the great 26.2-mile races of the world.

Elite runners setting world records out front set the tone of the race, but the pendulum had begun to swing toward the back of the pack with runners finishing in 3, 4, 5, 6 and even more hours. Carey asked me to work with a local runner, Brian Piper, to develop training programs for a class Brian taught for backpackers. Brian and I designed schedules for Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced runners that featured long runs on the weekends, but also a balance of mostly easy (more mileage) runs middle of the week.

That worked for Novice runners. Intermediate runners ran more miles. Advanced runners did speed work one or two days a week. The program was better balanced than my previous schedules, and the success rate was huge with 99 percent of the runners who completed the Chicago training program finishing the marathon. Their finishing time (3 or 4 or 5 or 6 hours or more) mattered little. Follow the program, and enjoyment was guaranteed, both training and in the ultimate race.

3. Find a class, follow a program, and success will be yours.

What began as a training class in Dowagiac for a few-dozen adult runners evolved into a system of training that, over a period of several decades, has attracted hundreds-of-thousands to my programs for the marathon as well as other distances.

Certainly, I had a successful career as a long-distance runner, my greatest achievement finishing as the first American at the Boston Marathon. I learned a lot from my own successes and failures, but learned even more from the many runners I coached.

I am proud of them.

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As part of the partnership between the Global Triathlon Network (GTN) and TrainingPeaks, we’ll be bringing you twice-monthly episodes of the new “Triathlon Training Explained” show, where hosts and former pro triathletes Mark Threlfall and Heather Fell answer your triathlon training questions with the help of TrainingPeaks software, coaches and industry experts from around the world.

When training on the bike, it can be hard to know just how hard to go in order to maximize your endurance and your power output at the same time. “Sweet spot” intervals, which are commonly referred to as intervals between 88 percent and 94 percent of your Functional Threshold Power are a great tool for increasing your FTP over time and dialing in your race day fitness.

If you don’t train with a power meter, you can still do sweet spot interval training on the bike using your heart rate threshold and keeping your effort between 75 percent and 85 percent of your maximum heart rate.

In the latest episode of GTN’s “Triathlon Training Explained,” host Mark Threlfall dives into why exactly sweet spot efforts are so effective, how often you should be doing them, as well as highlighting three solid sweet spot workouts to try on your own.

Watch the full episode below:   

Triathletes in the know like GTN’s Mark Threlfall and Heather Fell use TrainingPeaks to help plan, track and analyze their training. Dial-in your triathlon training with a free 14-day Premium Trial today!  

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Go Faster Before You Go Longer

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Humans tend to like ordinal hierarchy structures, and we love to attain the next rung on the ladder. Ordinal categories in road running could be race distances like the 5k, 10k, half marathon, and marathon. Of course, it’s only natural to see each as a rung of the road running ladder that we climb.

But this focus on distance can take away from other markers of improvement. For example, imagine telling a friend that you shaved 3 minutes and 44 seconds off your 5k over 12 weeks. Unless she’s involved in your training, or races 5ks herself, this sort of improvement can be difficult to put into context. Tell someone you completed your first marathon, on the other hand, and you’ll likely get real excitement.

Of course, some partially ordinal demarcations do exist as “household names” in running races, for example: a 3-hour marathon vs a 4-hour marathon, or the recently-famed 2-hour barrier. In the track and field world, everyone knows the tale of the 4-minute mile, and countless athletes celebrate their first 5-minute mile. But even as endurance athletes, these ordinal demarcations in time aren’t nearly as prominent in our lexicon as common race distances like 5k, 10k, half marathon, and marathon.

In part, that is why there has been such immense popularity in the longest race distances; it’s easier for us to conceptualize achievement in terms of distance (or “rungs”) than time. But are we acting rationally in choosing distance over speed? If you’re not sure what’s mostly at play in your own mind, then you might want to consider going faster before you go longer!

Going Shorter is Harder

For one thing, it’s not that hard for a relatively fit person to complete a race of almost any distance given some coaching and enough time. Going longer is foundationally a matter of building volume tolerance, and then making sure you fuel appropriately. Going faster, on the other hand, requires the painful use of various energy systems in training, and may require strength training, and/or learning and drilling technical aspects of the race.

You’ll Get Different Adaptations

Going faster leads an athlete to be more well-rounded, and is certainly more mentally engaging than logging 6-hour long workouts. Developing the speed, strength, and power, by training for higher-intensity events also lends itself to better long-term orthopedic and cardiovascular health than does training for the ultra-distance events and certainly allows for more-than-sufficient aerobic fitness for high quality of life.

There are Events for Every Distance

There is a reason the running events in the Olympics and World Championships include everything from the 100m to the marathon. It’s because they all test something different! And when performed at their highest levels, all are equally challenging. The case could be made that the shortest of road races and triathlons are the most painful and thus the most challenging, since there is good scientific evidence that events lasting 2-10 minutes are the most excruciating.

You Can Free Up Time and Mix Up Your Goals

If I could send one message to the endurance world, it would be this: get faster at the distance you currently compete in! Did you finish middle to back of the pack of your 5k or sprint triathlon? Get on the podium next year! Did you place in your age group? Win the race next year! Don’t care about placing? Aim to take 5-10% off your time from last year!

There will always be something longer to chase. Even if you decide to go longer a few years down the road, the training you did to go faster will not have been lost, and will serve you very well in the longer events. In the meantime, you might even have more time each week to spend with family, and be less likely to get burnt out! Let’s make “moving down” the new “moving up.”

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Striking the appropriate balance between your power output and weight is critical for a sustainable and healthy approach to training and racing. Many athletes try to maintain as low a weight as possible while still being powerful on the bike—but it can be difficult to hit that sweet spot. If weight loss is taken too far, athletes can see a decrease in overall power, along with more serious health issues. While watts per kilo are often top of mind, health and resiliency should ultimately be the key goals for any athlete. Here’s how to strike that elusive balance.

Why is Weight Important?

Weight plays an important role for all athletes to some degree, but in cycling specifically, watts per kilogram (W/Kg) or strength-to-weight ratio, has been found to be one of the single best predictors of performance. Simply put: the higher a cyclist’s W/Kg is, the more likely they are to excel. To illustrate this, consider that one pound of excess weight requires about two watts to pull up a hill. On a bike, three kilograms of fat equates to around three seconds per kilometer on a climb.

That means that if you have ten pounds to lose, you could be climbing 7-10% faster.

Tools such as BestBikeSplit can help illustrate the relationship between weight and power. In the example below, we can compare what a relatively small decrease of 5% in total body mass would do for a rider’s performance over the course of the Leadville Trail 100 bike race.

Between the two figures below, every factor besides weight is identical, including FTP, bike weight, weather, and rolling resistance. The first image shows the athlete’s baseline, while the second shows their adjusted time given a hypothetical weight loss. You can see that simply being 5% lighter made this athlete over 15 minutes faster, with the biggest time benefits (shown in green) occurring during Leadville’s notoriously challenging climbs.

How to Improve Strength-to-Weight

So we’ve identified that improving strength-to-weight ratio is important, but how do you optimize yours? There are three ways to improve W/Kg.

Increase your power output while keeping your weight constant.
Keep your power output constant while decreasing your weight.
Increase your power output while also decreasing your weight.

Depending on an athlete’s goals, current level of fitness, and current weight, any of these three approaches could be the right one. They may also shift over time as fitness increases and weight loss goals are met.

Set Informed Power Goals

First calculate your W/Kg at different durations along the Power Duration Curve. The four standard durations are 5 second, 1-minute, 5-minute, and FTP (Functional Threshold Power). For the purposes of power profiling, these are the ranges that best reflect neuromuscular power, anaerobic capacity, maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 Max), and lactate threshold (LT) respectively. These four durations not only correspond to different systems in the body, but also let you work on event-specific efforts to make sure you’re building strength in the appropriate areas. Once you identify where there’s room for improvement you can then select the right approach for you to begin increasing W/Kg.

Revisit Your Training

Next it’s time to tackle strength to weight from both a training and diet perspective. Focused workouts with supplemental strength work will help replace fat with lean muscle, as well as increase your power along the power duration curve.

As you replace fat with lean muscle you’ll see gains from a strength perspective, as well as adaptations on a cellular level. While you train your weaknesses with sprints, intervals, hill repeats, and strength training you’re changing the way your body consumes oxygen and processes lactate.

Your body’s uptake of oxygen, often referred to as VO2 Max, will increase as you focus on building strength and aerobic capacity. This allows you to perform efforts outside of your lactate threshold (105%-110%) for longer durations. Increased efficiency in oxygen delivery helps your body to more quickly buffer lactic acid, letting you spend less time anaerobic when you begin your next sprint or big climb. While your focus on W/Kg will no doubt have you feeling stronger and looking leaner, you’ll also be building a healthier and more efficient body.

Dial in Your Diet

A healthy diet is important for any athlete interested in maximizing their performance and looking to reach their full potential. The “right” approach will be based on each individual’s needs and goals. However, there are a few guidelines to help increase the likelihood of achieving any weight loss goal.

Improve the quality of calories coming in.

Focus less on the actual caloric value of the food, and more on the nutrient value. Quality foods tend to have fewer calories, but are more nutrient dense, which will help your body stay healthier and help you feel fuller.

Fuel for performance.

Unlike non-active individuals who attempt to lose weight, athletes have to balance calorie burn with calorie intake. Make sure to still get enough carbohydrates, fat and protein to fuel high-quality workouts.

Eat more often.

Taking in smaller, more frequent meals tends to help stabilize blood sugar and stave off overeating.

Track your calories.

The goal is not to capture every single calorie, but rather create an environment where you’re mindful of intake. This awareness typically helps limit overall consumption.

How to Achieve a Healthy Balance

Balance is key! Whether your sole focus is on increased power, or you’re trying to find a healthy weight while realizing your potential on the bike—there has to be balance.

From a weight-loss perspective, using body fat percentage is a good gauge. The minimum healthy body fat for men is 6% and for women is 14%. These percentages can and will change during the course of focused training, but for most athletes, dropping below these ranges can negatively affect health and performance. I prefer body fat as a measurement, rather Body Mass Index (BMI), which is easy to calculate, but is calibrated based on the general population rather than athletes.

Make sure to keep your training in check. Often athletes think the answer is to just “do more” in the pursuit of their goals, but volume isn’t necessarily the answer. Focus on quality over quantity and be sure to leave plenty of time for recovery. A focused approach where workouts are written and executed (based on weaknesses identified along the power duration curve) will yield much more precise results, rather than those that attempt to “just ride”.

Most athletes want to be stronger, faster, fitter, leaner, or lighter. While the pursuit of all of these things is fine, it must be done in such a way that performance and health are prioritized. Taking a sustainable approach to finding an ideal strength to weight ratio will yield long-term fitness and health benefits.

Focus on proper diet and mindful workouts to create an approach that’s individualized and structured. Improving strength to weight ratio can be one of the greatest performance gains for any athlete, but it must be done responsibly and with great care.

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Planning for Performance: Going Beyond TSS

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We live in a complex and ever-changing world in which our job as coaches is to help others achieve their potential. Being an effective planner is an important part of that job. However, as coaches we deal with unpredictable humans whose adaptations to training are highly individual. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that science has been unsuccessful in providing high-quality evidence about the best way to plan and prescribe training.

Periodization is a theoretical model which suggests that if we enter volume and intensity into the plan in the right way, then optimal form will occur on race day. Of course, metrics in TrainingPeaks such as Training Stress Score (TSS) can be used to build periodized annual plans and workouts to bring efficiencies to the coaching process. However, the skill of coaching is not only in using such models. In this article, I’ll take you beyond TSS and explore the more human factors relating to planning for performance.

The Domain

One phrase from ultra-endurance runner Scott Jurek changed my life. He talked about “operating in a place between exhaustion and oblivion.”

As a sports scientist and coach, I’ve had the privilege of working with and knowing some exceptional athletes. What makes them stand out is not normally a high FTP, an ability to amass high training volume, or the discipline to follow a highly structured plan (although these are important). It’s an ability to operate in the place that Jurek describes, which I’ve subsequently termed “The Domain.”

Towards the final third of a race, regardless of how long the race is, things tend get tough. Multiple signals from our senses converge in our brain, telling us to slow down. For athletes to achieve their potential requires that they can override these signals so that oblivion happens momentarily after the finishing line.

Entering “The Domain” in good shape doesn’t happen accidently. It requires planning to ensure the athlete gets to the start line physically and mentally prepared. It also means nailing pacing and nutrition throughout. Finally, it requires recognition that great performances can come from suboptimal preparation, in which adversity can be a powerful motivator.

But how do we plan to enter “The Domain”?

Some Principles of Planning
“WITTW” and Marginal Gains

I start the planning process with my “What It Takes to Win” (WITTW) spreadsheet. It includes many rows of the factors needed to achieve optimal performance. It covers physiological, psychological, technical, and tactical “stuff” directly relating to performance and lifestyle attributes that are more implicitly linked. Columns, include:

Where is the athlete at?
Where do we want to get them to?
How?
How are we going to measure progress?

I’ve spent my career learning about all things related to triathlon performance. However, I rarely consult the spreadsheet because I’m acutely aware of the “bike-shedding” trap that catches many of us. This trap involves focusing on “marginal gains” while forgetting the “low hanging fruit”. Picking these fruit means exploring the following questions:

Is the athlete training with reasonably consistently?
Does that training have a reasonable degree of specificity?
Can the athlete remain focused in stressful situations?
Does the athlete have good technique?
Has the athlete developed good ‘feel’ and pace control?
Can they give quality feedback?
Does the athlete have a healthy, balanced diet?

There is a coaching dichotomy here though in that many athletes like “shiny marginal gains”. Their wants and needs are not the same thing. Part of our job is to provide expert guidance which builds confidence while maintaining client retention rates. Therefore, it does no harm to build the odd marginal gain into a plan, catering for their wants as well as needs.

Individual Response & Dose-Response

Responses to training are highly individual, and the same training plan will result in different adaptations between athletes. The dose-response relationship is important in this regard. The basic premise follows that if training load is too low then adaptation will be sub-optimal, and if it is too high then maladaptation will occur.

The “ideal” dose is influenced by genetics and training history. Factors such as injury, illness, the menstrual cycle, and other life stressors are also important in determining dose. Building a complete training plan using readily quantifiable metrics such as TSS is flawed unless you take the time to understand other stressors, which are more difficult to quantify.

Fortunately, TrainingPeaks has introduced “How Did You Feel?” smilies and a “Rating of Perceived Exertion” scale as new subjective feedback features to give us greater insight into these factors, but we need to go even further to prepare our athletes for race day.

Going Beyond TSS

Building and maintaining relationships is fundamental to effective coaching. Many athletes have strange and biased beliefs (as do some coaches) about training, and these will influence their coaching expectations about how they expect you to train them. They will often resist change unless they believe there is clear benefit in doing so, especially if your coaching approach is counter to others are doing.

There is a tendency in sport for mass adoption of training practices advocated by guru coaches or pro athletes. This is called “jumping on the bandwagon,” and athletes we work with may already be on it heading in the wrong direction. However, behavioral change is a process of evolution rather than revolution. Therefore, a training plan may involve slowly steering beliefs about training in a direction different from the bandwagon, without athletes noticing that change has happened. Allowing athletes to make their own mistakes with limited coaching intervention can be helpful as they’ll be far more open to coming around to your way of thinking if they believe it was their idea in the first place.

When planning training, we must also consider what motivates athletes and what they enjoy. I recently spoke with an athlete who had just abandoned a high-performance program. She told me that she still loved her sport, but had fallen out of love with training and her training group wasn’t a happy one. The coach appeared to be too focussed on the end outcome of winning and lost sight of why the athletes were involved in sport in the first place. Rather, building and maintaining a motivational climate in which athletes embrace the challenge and enjoy training is key to achieving performance goals.

Allowing such a climate to develop often requires loosening constraints rather than using rigid plans and overly structured workouts. For example, my local running club coach prescribed a “Follow the Leader Fartlek” in the local park. There were nine athletes in each group, and we each had four minutes leading in which we determined direction, recovery, and the surfaces we ran on. While I collapsed in a heap at the end, I was happy. I could have used words and phrases such as proprioception, VO2max, speed development, and Wolff’s Law of Bone Remodeling to describe some of the likely training adaptations, but a fun, hard session captured it better.

Related is my aversion to structuring training plans around promoting specific physiological adaptations such as lactate-threshold training or a VO2max workout. However, that is not to say that I don’t use my scientific knowledge of such things to plan. Rather, I prefer to discuss training in terms of how they relate to the demands of an event and how they prepare an athlete to race. While swimming in a pool, riding an indoor trainer, or running on the track may develop a more finely-tuned engine, they do not prepare athletes to meet race demands (e.g. swimming structured laps in a 28°C pool is very different to swimming in a 14°C ocean with 500 other people and riding an alpine climb on Zwift doesn’t equate to climbing a real mountain). Therefore, group swimming in cold water or road climbing should be integrated into a plan if that’s what a race demands.

To Conclude

Planning training should ultimately prepare an athlete to meet the demands of their key races in which they are physically and mentally ready to enter “The Domain”. However, the holy grail of planning training probably does not exist. I use TrainingPeaks and other tools such as BestBikeSplit to bring efficiencies to and enhance my planning processes. To be an expert coach requires far more than great software. It requires an open mind, a passion for helping people, and a pathological desire to understand the how, why, and what in doing so.

Creativity and fun are equally important, if not more so, to science in helping athletes to enter “The Domain” willingly. That means that training plans cannot necessarily be captured in tidy spreadsheets or a Performance Management Chart. Rather, they can appear messy and may not reflect our vision of what a good plan looks like. However, if an athlete’s performance in races continues to improve, then the plan is likely to be working.

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