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What would give you the most time savings in an IRONMAN 70.3 or IRONMAN-distance swim? Would you say it’s the weeks of structured training and improving your cardiovascular efficiency or effectively performing open water drills and skills (i.e. sighting, pacing and navigation) more efficiently?

What if I told you that small skill improvements would give you more noticeable results? Indeed, by applying the theory of marginal or small one percent improvements to every aspect of your triathlon swimming, you can get the most benefit and time savings. These are in the form of open water swim skills and drills, tips, insights and advice for improving your swim stroke and technique, not numerous hours in the pool or lake.

If you can improve everything you do in the water by one percent, then the net effect is a much greater performance in the water than just cardiovascular efficiency alone.

This article will help you to apply this theory to open water swimming 70.3 and Ironman.

The Aggregation of Marginal Gains in Open Water Swimming

It’s so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making better decisions on a daily basis.

Almost every swimming habit that you have — good or bad — is the result of many small decisions over time. It takes lots of perfect practice to ingrain movements into muscle memory, and into actions where our neuromuscular system eventually enable these patterns to become automatic. For every action in water, there is an opposite and equal reaction. This can be unforgiving at times, yet when performed correctly can help propel us forward with greater ease, speed and power through the water.

Meanwhile, improving by just one percent often isn’t notable (and sometimes it isn’t even noticeable). But it can be just as meaningful, especially in the longer swims of an IRONMAN or IRONMAN 70.3.

And from what I can tell, this pattern works the same way in reverse. (An aggregation of marginal losses, in other words). If you find yourself stuck with bad habits or poor results, it’s usually not because something happened overnight. It’s the sum of many small choices — a one percent decline here and there—that eventually leads to a problem.


There is power in small wins and slow gains. This is why average speed yields above average results. This is why the system is greater than the goal. This is why mastering your habits is more important than achieving a certain outcome.

So where can you find these tiny percentage improvements in your swimming technique for open water?

1. Sighting and Navigation

Did you know that you can add 20 percent or more to your overall open water swim race distance by not sighting effectively or often enough? We often see GPS swim tracks where swimmers have gone further than they expected. For example, swimming 2700m in a 1900m IRONMAN 70.3 swim due to poor sighting.

Sighting every six to eight strokes and checking on your navigation reference regularly is important to swimming and sighting effectively (and ensuring that you swim in a straight line). It’s best to sight on something higher like a darker tree, building, or spire, than a buoy in the water! Learning to sight efficiently while swimming in open water saves time and energy.

Sight after you breathe, there’s more time for water to clear from your goggles, thus improving visibility, and less drag from pulling your head directly forward out of the water.
Practice sighting off landmarks such as highly visible buildings or other structures on shore. Don’t rely solely on race buoys as they can be harder to see while in the water. In a race choose these landmarks beforehand while you’re warming up or during practice swims.

Practice sighting by turning your head slightly forward either before or after taking a breath. When sighting after a breath, you are more likely to rely on peripheral vision, which will also reduce drag.

2. Pacing for Open Water Swim Racing – Sprinting and Threshold Efforts

Being able to maintain and control your race pace under fatigue, and maintaining your technique becomes even more important in the IRONMAN 70.3 and IRONMAN swim legs.

If for example your goal is to swim 3800m in open water in 64 minutes, the pace you want to hold for each 100 meters is a 1:36 pace. You want to be able to hold this pace throughout your 1,900m or 3800m swim distance.

Build up to this gradually over time, starting at 10×100, working up to 40x100m.

Many triathletes wonder if they should sprint off the start line of a longer swim race. Be aware if you haven’t conditioned your body for some sprints over a number of weeks that you’ll produce high levels of lactic acid during the initial several hundred yards of the swim, and as such you may not recover for 10 to 15 minutes. That is a lot of lost time  until you can swim at your target race pace again, and it is likely to have diminishing returns in your overall time.

Try this swim session and see how you feel. It will make you as strong as an ox, and as fast as a cheetah using positive split intervals.

Supersets x 5

Swim a good warm-up and cool down with this session as this set is very tough and you need to be prepared to work very hard.)
5 x 150m as 50m front crawl flat out, then straight into 100m at 80-85 percent effort with 60 seconds rest at the end of each 150m.

Great swimmers have a variety of speeds, including warm up, aerobic training speeds, lactate speeds and pure print speeds. Having knowledge and an inherent feel for what these are will help you in swim races, and in particular knowing whether to sprint in mass starts.

By learning what your race pace is (and how to hold onto it), by making minor adjustments to your technique, by drafting and sighting well, you can create valuable savings in the water.

One way to check if your pacing is on target is to see if you can do even splits (+/- 3 seconds) over 15 x 200 meters free at your race pace with 60 seconds rest in between. Work up to this pacing test over a few weeks.

3. Technique for Turning around Buoys Effectively

Do you feel like you lose your way a bit when turning around buoys in open water? Or, when you’re racing, are you filled with dread at the thought of being punched and kicked just as you’re about to breathe?

Try swimming slightly wider around the buoy away from the corner where everyone tends to congregate. Practice turning around the “T” at the end of the lane in the pool first, then progress to open water. You’ll need to sight straight after your turn to re-align with your navigation point ahead quickly.

Depending on the race course, you may end up performing up to four or five turns around a buoy or other non-moving object in the water. You should be practicing to use these pace changes to your advantage.

Choose an object in the water to practice turns.
When approaching the turn, you should transition to one-side-only breathing with every stroke.
The side you breathe on needs to be facing whatever object you are turning around (another sighting drill).
Try to cut the turn as close as possible, which may require you to use short, choppy strokes.
Practice transitioning from a tight, choppy turn back into a long, relaxed glide, as you would do in the race.
Go for eight to 10 turn repeats.

Also practice doing “Crazy Ivan” turnarounds in open water, where you turn a full 360 degrees. Keep your strokes short and in the direction of your turn, keep kicking, and arc you body around the buoy. Over emphasizing the turn like this makes it easier in a race—and it’s fun too!

4. Drafting Techniques that Will Help Save You Time and Effort in a Race

You could save as much as 18 to 25 percent of your energy swimming in open water by drafting efficiently and effectively. This means you could save up to 90 seconds over 1900m, or three minutes over 3.8km!

By swimming in someone’s wake who is slightly faster than you, you’ll save quite a bit of your energy in open water, enabling you to swim faster than you would normally. Practicing swimming in close proximity to others will ensure you get used to this feeling.

There are two methods of drafting, one where you position yourself about 12 inches behind the swimmer’s feet, and the other where you swim close to the lead swimmer’s hip. Make sure you keep sighting in each position. Don’t necessarily trust that the swimmer you’re drafting is navigating perfectly.

However, by drafting effectively, you can significantly reduce your oxygen uptake, heart rate, blood lactate,  and rate of perceived exertion. Additionally, your stroke length is dramatically increased when in an ideal drafting position.

5. Mass Starts Techniques

Does a feeling of panic start to overcome you when you think about open water mass starts? There are several things you can do to manage these fears.

Position yourself in the pack so you breathe toward the group. For example, if you normally breathe in a race to your right, start on the far left hand side. This way you’ll be out of the melee of the main group, and in your own space more.
Float horizontally in the water prior to the start so you can get the best send off when the gun goes. This also gives you more space around you than a deep water “legs down” start position, limiting people swimming on top of your legs.
If you don’t want to be a part of all those flying arms and legs, then plan your escape route before the race starts. Don’t start in the middle of the front. Start at the back, where nobody else will really want your space in the water.

6. Adapting to Wetsuit Swimming

Swimming in a wetsuit can give you between a seven and 10 second improvement over 100m than swimming without one. Also, as you go higher up the product range, the available technology helps you to swim faster and stay more stable and higher in the water.

The overall savings can be as high as two minutes for an IRONMAN swim, (The test group for this study were all tested with Race Zone 3 wetsuits, at the same heart rate, and perceived effort of exertion on the same size loop in a lake).

Practicing drills which make you feel slightly disorientated in the pool are very useful for distraction control and maintaining your rhythm and tempo when swimming in a race. This way you can also be accustomed to getting bumped about by other triathletes swimming in close proximity to you.

We would recommend the following swim drills to help you get the most out of swimming in your wetsuit:

Barrel rolls and somersaults
Eyes closed with sighting
High elbow recovery

Slide your thumb up your side from hip to armpit
Promotes high elbow recovery

Barrel rolls
While doing front crawl, keep kicking and rotate yourself 360 degrees mid stroke holding a lead arm in front for balance
Body roll and power in core /obliques and helps develop muscles used in rotation

Practice turning around the “T” at the end of the lane in the pool first, then progress to open water. You’ll need to sight straight after your turn to re-align with your navigation point ahead quickly
Teaches you to do buoy turns effectively in open water. Try to make them as tight and fluid as possible

Eyes closed swimming
Practice this in a pool, in the middle 10 to 15 meters of the lane close your eyes to see if you can stay swimming straight (only if no one else is swimming in the lane, or in an organized club session)
This shows you if your stroke pulls you to one side or is uneven, and you’re likely to do this in open water. If you do, sight more often (every 6-8 strokes consistently)

Chicken wings
Touch your hands into your armpits
High elbow recovery

Front somersault start in deep water, with 15 yards max effort, 35 yards easy. Repeat  6 times. 60 seconds rest in between each
Good for distraction control and maintaining tempo / rhythm. These can be combined with barrel rolls for a real challenge to maintain our rhythm and tempo

7. Sea Swimming

The sea can present many different challenges to your normal swim stroke. For example, in choppy water, if you keep your fingers just above the surface of the water, then you are quite likely to have an unexpected wave come along and cause your hand to enter the water below your shoulder. In order to allow a reasonable stroke, you need to have a much higher recovery with your hand in open water.

Top Tips for Sea Swimming

Sighting in swell: You would have no doubt seen in the Olympics open water race, it a slightly different technique to sighting in flat water. Due to the size of the swell you’ll either need to lift your head higher, or sight on the crest of the wave. If it’s choppy be prepared to sight more, as the currents can move you around more than normal.
Navigation: Sight on something that’s high if you can, or if swimming parallel to the beach, sight horizontally as well as forward to maintain your position.
Bilateral breathing: It’s recommended to be able to breathe bilaterally while swimming in the sea, for two reasons. One is for making sure you hold your position in a group and to make sure the currents are not moving you around too much. Two, if you’re swimming a rectangular course and the swell is high, then sighting toward the beach going out and back, will stop you from swallowing lots of water— if you’re breathing in toward a wave rather than from away from it.
Drafting in currents: If there is a current pulling you away from the first buoy, try angling yourself into the current more. So if the current pulls you to the right, swim more over to the left about 30 degrees, so you’ll then be drifting in an arc to the right spot to turn next to the buoy.
Wading: Running in the water up to knee height, by flicking your feet out laterally and your knees inward slightly. Doing this will help you to run and keep your feet clear of the sea water and waves. This is much quicker than swimming at this depth.
Dolphining: To get past the breaking waves, it’s best to use a dolphining technique. This involves a mixture of a butterfly swim technique, with launching yourself into a dive, touching the sea bed / sand with your hands and then pushing yourself back up again into a dive. Only do this until the water is about waist deep, after this it’s best to start swimming normally.
Beach starts: You can have a lot of fun with this next exercise as long as you have a safe beach entry for practice. Be sure to check for submerged objects that you might not have otherwise seen when entering for your warm-up. If you’re with friends, divide yourself up into pairs and label yourself one and two while standing on the beach looking out to the water. Upon the command “Go!” attempt a safe beach entry into the open water using wading and porpoising skills. Once you are deep enough, swim 40 strokes away from shore before turning and swimming back fast to the beach, making sure you avoid any head-on collisions with any other swimmers in the process. Run up onto the beach and tag your partner. Let them do the same 40 strokes before you take over again and then each do 30 strokes, then 20 strokes, then 10 strokes.


By applying these small, one-percent gains from every aspect of your swimming technique, they can all add up to something fundamentally larger than the original whole you once knew as your swimming stroke! Let’s see how much we can help you improve your swimming technique and fitness over the next few months, so you can have the best swimming season yet.

Thank you to Race Zone 3 and James Mitchell for the photo in this article.

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In August 2016, when the German powerhouse Tony Martin finished 12th in the Individual Time Trial at the Olympic Games in Rio—3:18 behind the gold medal Fabian Cancellara—many thought that the German rider was already over the hill. Fast forward to the Qatar World Championships held in October 2016: Tony Martin has his revenge and wins not only the team’s TT with his squad, but smashes the individual event and brings home another gold—his fourth in the discipline.

What happened in between? An incredible recovery? A grueling training schedule that was able to get him back into shape?

Martin confessed that ahead of the WC, he trained in his bathroom with the heater on in order to get used to the conditions he would face in Doha. Afterward, he said that the actual race was easier than doing turbo training in the toilet.

At the same time, there was also another (more technical) reason for his success: After the Games, Martin decided to go back to his former TT position. Not one as aerodynamic as what he opted for in Rio, but one that in the past had helped him crank out more watts on his bike.

Before Doha, he told Radsport News that the changes in the aero position he used in Rio “Have been serious. I had my hands very high up and my elbows low down, but that wasn’t for me. Now, I feel much more comfortable again. One has to accept that the aerodynamics are not everything, but the comfort factor plays a very, very important role. If your body does not work well, then the whole aerodynamics thing means nothing.”

That is equally true (if not even more important) in longer time trials, or events like IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3. The balance between aerodynamics and comfort is a tricky one, but one that you must take into consideration when you’re spending a big chunk of your training time on your TT bike.

When Mat Steinmetz, the bike fitter employed by Cervélo to develop the P5X and a TrainingPeaks contributor, presented the bolide to the European press, he also listed his own fitting pillars: comfort, power and aerodynamics — in that order.

There are many bike fitters who will put you on a bike by only looking at numbers, and they will not take into consideration your comfort, or the final wattage output you can perform on your bike (I have been there in the past, as well). And that is a bad practice. It doesn’t matter how aero you are on the bike according to your measurements: if your position is not comfortable and you cannot sustain it for a long period of time, then aerodynamic gains are useless and can be thrown out of the window.

However, not being able to sustain an aero position also could be due to the fact that either your fitness level is not yet used to riding in that position (but you can adapt to it with the time). Or perhaps “the most aero position” is just nonsense for you on that bike.

Tony Martin is a good example of this at a very high level. Martin is one of the best specialists of the TT, so he’s used to riding in a TT position. Yet, the aero fit he had in Rio was just not good for him. A more relaxed one, the one he used again in Qatar and he had also used in the past, was actually ideal and made him perform at his best. He also said he will work on his aerodynamics again this year, but the process of getting faster will be achieved step by step, as he needs to get used to it while not losing power.

But how should you set up your bike according to the event you are participating in? Do you need a different set-up for short TTs, 70.3 and IRONMAN events? And, more importantly, do you need to get a bike fit at all? If yes, how often do you need to get one?

Two-time IRONMAN World Champion Jan Frodeno is convinced that doing a bike fit is probably the best investment you can do if you’re spending a lot of time on your bike. Frodeno says that, theoretically, you just need to do a bike fit once (although he has one bike fit a year) and you can be re-set only when (and if) you change your bike.

“Frodo” also uses the same fit both for IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 races, and this is a great choice. Both events have long bike legs where you wouldn’t really need a different position on the bike, unless you have already experienced a lot of gains by riding the two races on different set-ups.

At the same time, having the same position for 70.3 and IRONMAN will also make all your training much simpler as you won’t have to change the position all the time. Furthermore, the one set-up solution would also give you more time to adapt to the position you prefer. And that is really important: take plenty of time ahead of the your “A” race to adapt to your position.

A good bike fit, in my opinion, is definitely worth it, not only because you will be put on your bike in the correct position, but hopefully in a comfortable one that will boost your performance rather than limiting it. Working with a good fitter (ask your clubmates for advice, but also do research online and don’t just jump into the first shop you find) is crucial. Give him/her plenty of feedback on how you feel on the bike, and not only in situ or indoors, but particularly when you’re riding outdoors.

A bike fit, as Frodeno says, is money well spent — and again, theoretically, you just need to be fitted once. After the fitting session, in fact, you will get access to your bike fitter report (if not, ask for it). Those numbers will be the base for all your future purchases and fits. If you don’t understand all of them it’s okay (most of us don’t have a clue of what they mean), but ask your fitter what they represent so you can become more familiar with them.

Most importantly, though, is to practice in the new position. Take plenty of time before your “A” race to test the position and make sure you do it early in the season. This will give you enough extra time to fix all the niggles. If you’re riding a short TT months ahead of an IRONMAN, it is also okay to change your set-up and do some tests and experiment a bit.

In this case, it’s good to go more aero, meaning more “closed down in the front,” and see if you can sustain that position and for how long — and to see if with time you can get used to it without losing power and speed. But generally, if you have a couple of IRONMAN 70.3s planned as a build-up for your long event, it is wiser to keep the same position on your bike for them that you will ride during your IRONMAN. Finally, go for the position that makes you feel comfortable in the long ride and that allows you to push more power into your cranks, or that you can ride at higher speeds.

I had two bike fits last year ahead of an IRONMAN. The first one was all numbers and totally not comfortable. It was rubbish and I could not even sustain it for 40 km. The second one was dictated by comfort, but allowed me to push hard and go fast anyway.

This season I have another fit planned (after doing more research in the market) and a bit like Tony Martin (yeah, I wish!), I am trying to retain the comfort, but also looking to get a bit more aero than last year.

Try to look at the experimentation process as a fun part of your learning process into the sport, and not only as a pain or unnecessary expense. It can be the difference between a good and a great racing season.

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There are a few important areas to consider when mastering T2, the transition from riding the bike to running during a triathlon:

Streamlining your transition area
Learning a swift dismount
Adaptation to running well off the bike

The third issue of muscle adaptation is incredibly important. The SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demands) principle says: “Adaptations in human physiology do not occur in a vacuum. Rather, they are responses to the specific demands imposed upon them.The body responds to a given demand, whether biomechanical or neurological, with a specific, predictable adaptation.” 1

What this means to the triathlete mastering the sport is that practice and exposure to the same kind of stressors in the race environment will mean the body adapts better and is able to respond successfully on race day.

For T2, this means setting up a streamlined transition area, practicing a fast dismount, and perhaps most importantly, educating the legs on making the change from riding to running through practice and a change in focus toward the end of the ride.

The Transition Area

Continuing on the theme from Transition Clinic Part 1: Swim to Bike, keep your set up simple. Shoes should be placed with the opening ready for your foot. A bungee lace will make this easy and no tying is required. Sprinkle baby powder in the shoes if you aren’t wearing socks. This helps reduce friction that causes blisters and also helps the foot slide easily into the shoe. If you are wearing socks, have them rolled and set up so you can just slide the foot in one motion. A visor or hat and a race belt with your number should also be nearby so that you’re more likely to remember to put them on.

In case something was lost during the ride, I tell my athletes to leave an extra bit of nutrition and a bottle filled with sports drink in transition. I usually take a three-second pull on the bottle  while in T2, and I also take a salt tablet if the temps are high.

Keep whatever fuel will be used on the run near your shoes so you can take some in before you head out of transition. That being said, remember that in a short course race, fueling becomes less of a concern. In long course racing, taking the time to eat half a banana and take salt with fluids while you’re exiting transition can help with the run. No matter what the distance, try not to spend time sitting or being still. Every second counts in a short course, but the same thinking can be applied to long course events where the time is better spent moving forward toward the end goal rather than staying in one place.


Triathlon transitions require practice. This is twofold, both the physics of dismounting and the physiology of the body in transition. If you feel capable, learn to dismount your bike leaving your shoes on the pedals. This is easier to master in races that have a slight downhill or flat leading into transition.

Riding with your feet on top of the shoes in the last 400m makes this move simple. Once off the bike, grab the nose of the saddle and propel your bike forward. Keep a high cadence with short steps as you make your way to the rack. Try incorporating this practice into training during your race-specific prep period. Every ride can end with a few dismounts and 10 to 20 strides of pushing the bike. Eventually this can extend to a full transition practice with a short run or workouts that mimic your particular race-day environment. For example, if you know your run course begins with a steep hill, try practicing in an area where you can find that type of terrain in order to prepare your body and your mind for this challenge.

Changing Focus on the Bike

A simple switch in mental focus and a self check-in during the last eight to 10 minutes of the bike can help with a better transition. If the opportunity exists, stand up for a few five to 10- second intervals to change the position of the body and the blood flow. Then, add in some higher cadence spins.

Finally, be mindful of stretching your running muscles before you dismount. By loosening the back and hamstrings, the change from pedaling to running won’t feel so severe. Note hydration and fuel status while in the last portion of the ride. How do you feel? What can you do to make the switch to running easier?

As with much of sport, practice is essential to achieving success in triathlon transitions. The more you can do this outside of competition, the easier and faster it will be on race day. Remember these key steps: set up a streamlined transition area, change focus toward the end of the ride and prepare for a great run.

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At TrainingPeaks, we are committed to supporting athletes and coaches in achieving their fitness and coaching goals. In an effort to better understand the needs, wants and relationships of endurance athletes and coaches, we are supporting an in-depth research study by Andy Kirkland Ph.D. Kirkland is a triathlon coach, sports scientist and lecturer in Sports Coaching at the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom.

Through his research he will also be exploring beliefs around the role of a coach. By doing so, the hope is that we can all play a part in improving the quality of endurance coaching, coach education and training advice given to athletes worldwide.

The findings of the study will be shared throughout the endurance sports industry including national federations, governing bodies and in academic journals. Participating athletes and coaches will be provided with an executive summary and presentation, which will be published here on the TrainingPeaks blog. Preliminary findings will be also be presented at the Endurance Coaching Summit in Boulder, Colo., August 3 – 4.

We’re asking athletes and coaches to participate by completing this 20-minute survey. Regardless of your level of training or coaching and whether you are a coach, coached athlete, or an un-coached athlete—your feedback is appreciated. After successfully completing the survey, you will be entered to win a Garmin Fenix 5 or Garmin Edge 820.

Complete the Survey

Click on the survey link that best describes you:

I’m a coach

I’m an athlete who has a coach

I’m an athlete who doesn’t have a coach

Endurance Sports Survey

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Is It Time To Break-Up With Your Athlete?

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All relationships between coaches and athletes are by definition, finite. Knowing when it is best for the agreement to end can be tricky to figure out for both parties. That said, how and when you should break up with an athlete is an important skill for you to learn as a coach.

Sometimes, it is easy for the athlete to know when it is time to move on. If the coach is not meeting their basic needs, such as providing training in a timely manner, or is making basic mistakes (such as cutting and pasting workouts from another athlete) this is a clear indicator.

From the coach’s side, if the rider is unmotivated or not following the suggestions given, it is simple to see that the rider may be ready for a change in his or her support network, or possibly a change in sport status.

However, the subtler scenario is when the coach and athlete have hit a plateau in growth or progress. This can be much more difficult to diagnose, as it is not always clear when the rider’s stagnation is a result of the coaching, or simply that the limit of the athlete has been reached.

Coaching is part art and part science. The coach looks at metrics and input from the athlete, and weighs these against improvement and results. This process requires experience, intuition, diligence and some creative energy.

The coaching industry didn’t used to be quite so scientific—or helpful. When I was a junior rider / young senior, (from the late 80s to the mid-90s) coaches were enigmatic, rare, mythical creatures. Most of them had unpronounceable names and bizarre advice that involved consuming horsemeat, as well as avoiding air conditioning and the middle of croissants.

In the last decade, the coaching industry has undergone significant growth, and there is an ever-increasing hunger for science in the field. The market is flooded with a plethora of meters and wearables that can be used to collect data and generate graphs, charts and tables. These are great tools but ultimately the data must be interpreted by a human, and human interpretation means bias.

In order to make a program, the coach must make decisions based on a combination of empirical evidence, historical athlete response  and gut feeling. A strong instinct is a necessary ingredient for a good coach, and that instinct is developed over years of experience in the sport as a rider, or in the service of other athletes. With that instinct comes a biased perspective, and coaching instinct.

The same instinct that can make a coach great is the same instinct that can warp the objective lens of a coach over time, making it hard for the coach and athlete team to progress to a higher level. On the one hand, experience and instinct can help coach an athlete through a particular situation because the coach has seen it before. On the other hand, if a particular athlete does not respond to a given stimulus the way a coach expects based on his or her experience, the stubborn or entrenched coach may believe that the same approach will eventually work. Thus, experience and instinct can both assist and prevent good coaching.

A sharp coach will seek to learn from the literature available to expand his or her depth of knowledge. Many modern coaches consult scientific studies to educate themselves on new training modalities, refinements of training methods, or on the efficacy of nutritional supplements. The paradox is that ultimately, all the data in the world may not help the coach figure out what works well for a given athlete. Ultimately, every human is unique and responds to load differently, and we are only on the cusp of a truly comprehensive understanding of why one rider goes fast and another does not.

Training load on any given day is only one out of 199 variables in the equation of impacts to an athlete’s performance (although, not all variables are weighted equally). Every coach and athlete relationship ultimately boils down to a series of experiments with an N of 1.

As it is difficult to establish a direct cause and effect relationship between coaching and performance, it can be challenging to determine when a relationship has reached its potential. Experienced athletes and coaches alike can both sometimes sense when their relationship has reached “critical mass.” This can come about as a result of entrenched coaching behaviors, or simply being too familiar with an athlete. Sometimes, it takes a fresh pair of eyes to see new potential in a rider.

One important job for the coach is to constantly challenge his or her own perspective on why a decision is made about an athlete’s program. If a coach comes up with the same solution to the problem over and over, unless the athlete is winning a high percentage of races, the coach is perhaps incapable of looking at his or her own work with a critical or honest eye. Even if the athlete wins a high percentage of events, the nature of sport is such that the level must always be raised. If the coach cannot raise their standards or look critically at their own methods, it may be time to move on.

Another crucial aspect of coaching is having a good rapport with the client. Only when the coach is in touch with the client’s life events, the demands of their work, the rhythm of their family, and their mentality towards training is it possible to have a complete understanding of the client’s entire life, including their strengths and weaknesses (including blind spots). This is a key aspect to coaching effectively, and also to knowing when the relationship has reached its potential. The coach should honor their commitment to the client and recognize when the time has come to move on. A holistic knowledge of a client’s life off the bike will help a coach understand the evolution of the relationship more effectively.

The athlete’s job is to challenge the coach to justify the program they are given. Too much challenge can be counter productive, but the educated and engaged athlete should seek to know why the coach makes the call they do. The rider does not have to know every detail of the decision making process, but they should understand the basic philosophy of their program and why it is being implemented with a particular design. If the coach cannot answer the “why,” it may be time to move on.

Don’t confuse the coach with an enigmatic persona who should not be questioned. Many figures in modern society are taken as authorities when they ought not to be. If a coach becomes defensive when an aspect of a training program is questioned, this is possibly a sign that there is too much ego wrapped up in their work. A good coach is always willing to recognize that there may be a better way, and thus to have a discussion about methodology or program design.

Likewise, if a coach cannot handle discussion or criticism with his or her peer group, it is unlikely they will be able to look at a rider with an open mind or fresh perspective. It is difficult to fill a cup that is already full.

Sometimes the athlete/coach relationship gets blurred and becomes too friendly. For some athletes, this is a problem, as they no longer respect the authority of the coach. Some riders have a misguided perception about the role a coach should play in athletic success. Coaches are partners, mirrors, and intellectual counterparts, not authoritarians or motivators. The job of the coach is to guide with honesty and wisdom, not command from a place of superiority.

Coaches can be trainers, and some athletes only want “training” written for them, so they do not have to engage or think. A rider who is disengaged from the why of the coaching process is not being coached; they are being trained. There is nothing wrong with this level of service, but athletes should be aware that if they are being trained, they are not reaching the potential they could with a proper coach. Sometimes athletes who prefer a trainer simply want accountability. Knowing that someone is watching, and that this person is being paid, is enough to help motivate the athlete to act on the program.

The success of a coach should not be measured solely by the FTP or race wins of the athlete. Progress and growth can occur in non-tangible ways, and many times in an athlete’s career, this means more than watts gained or placings earned. However, the most obvious sign that a coach and rider relationship has reached its terminal velocity is stagnation. If this is a consistent theme, it is time to re-ignite the flame with some new energy. This may mean changing coaches, or simply re-invigorating the relationship with a camp or a vision quest-length ride together. Some of my best coaching insights have come on the bike, sitting in the saddle right next to my athlete.

Just as every coach/athlete relationship has a finish line, all athletic careers have a finite lifespan. Whether you are a coach or an athlete, the aim should be to maximize the time available to best impact the goals of the rider.  The role of the coach is to honor the athlete’s quest to maximize performance within the context of life.

The post Is It Time To Break-Up With Your Athlete? appeared first on TrainingPeaks.

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