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How to Define Athlete Expectations

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Many may see a coach’s job as simply writing and analyzing workouts, but ask any coach who’s been around for some time, and they’ll tell you that guiding expectations is just as big of a factor as the quality of the workouts.

Expectations define an athlete’s mental and emotional state in the training leading up to race day, during the race, as well as when they process their race results afterward. It’s critical that coaches play a part in helping to define the role key training blocks and races have for an athlete.

Outlining expectations early, and revisiting them often, helps to establish the appropriate lens through which to view training and racing at any given time of year.

Expected Outcome 

First and foremost, what’s the expected outcome of a race? The answer can’t always be to win. There’s often a disconnect between what the coach expects their athlete to get out of a race and the expected outcome of an athlete.

The goal for every major benchmark for an athlete should be that the coach and their athlete are on the same page in terms of an expected outcome. If the coach feels a particular race is going to be a good opportunity for training (but isn’t the right time to go for the win), and the athlete feels they’re fit and are looking for a podium finish, there may be an issue after the event is over. 

Always make sure to convey your expectations to athletes prior to critical moments in their training and racing schedule. Explain (in detail) why you feel the way you do, and be open to feedback and critique from the athlete. Arriving at desired expectations should be about relationship building, and entering each event as a team with a common goal. 

Emotional Preparation

An athlete can be at peak fitness, but if they’re not fit emotionally then all can be lost. The body follows the mind, and it’s important that an athlete’s mental and emotional state is addressed prior to an event. Helping to define expectations is the first step in making sure an athlete is mentally in the right space. 

Next, it’s important to discuss potential outside stressors that could lead to negative self-talk or doubt on race day. Is the athlete dealing with more work stress than normal, is there stress from relationships with friends or family, or is diet leading to a less-than-ideal body image? All of these factors can weigh heavily on an athlete’s mind coming into an important period in their training, and ultimately can negatively impact performance.

As coaches, we have to give these more nuanced components of training the respect they deserve and use them to inform any discussions around expectations and outcomes with our athletes. If the mind isn’t fit then we can’t expect excellence in other areas. 

Post Race 

Coaches arguably spend most of their time on race preparation. Between writing the training, analyzing workouts, and discussing results and plans with athletes, there’s a lot of work that goes into the front end of a race. 

While that’s all important and understandable, it’s also important to put in work on the back end of a race as well. First and foremost, the post-race review should cover expectations. Were expectations met? Did the race performance live up to both the athlete’s and coach’s expected outcome? The answer to these questions should help inform both parties on their approach moving forward. 

Oftentimes, the post-race review will highlight the need for a pivot or change to the original plan. This might mean further defining or changing expectations, or it could mean shifting the actual training approach. Races are major learning experiences for both athletes and coaches, and they should be utilized as such. Every race is an opportunity to learn, grow, and show up more prepared the next time around. 

Race preparation is often the primary driver for coaches and a key motivator for athletes. The physical energy that goes into any one event is massive by most standards, but don’t let that energy go to waste by not properly outlining and defining expectations. Take the time to address how an athlete’s emotional state may impact goals for an event, and make sure to use every race (no matter the outcome or expectation) as an opportunity to learn and grow closer with your athletes.

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6 Principles for Training When Traveling

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Travel can be a stressful activity for triathletes. The Type A personality that pervades triathlon doesn’t mix well with work trips or vacations that interrupt training routines. Triathletes often feel like they need to maintain their typical regimen throughout their travels, which can lead to needless anxiety and, when on vacation, angry and exasperated spouses and children (understandably).

Fortunately, athletes don’t need to derail their training program when traveling, nor do they need to ruin their family vacation by having it revolve around swimming, cycling, and running. 

Below are six principles that will enable triathletes to continue to advance their fitness while minimizing stress and maximizing the amount of time they are present to enjoy their travels.

Embrace the run

To foster consistent training, the path of least resistance is often best. Running is among the most convenient forms of exercise, requiring nothing but a pair of running shoes. Assuming the trip is only a few days, it makes sense to use it as an opportunity to execute a small run block of training. This simplifies travel logistics while still allowing for worthwhile fitness gains. 

This doesn’t mean that athletes should ignore cycling or swim training if a hotel bike and YMCA pool are conveniently located and accessible. However, it’s important to consider that the ease with which one can complete a running workout means that athletes are much more likely to complete scheduled runs than other workouts when traveling. Since the overarching goal is consistency, it makes sense to prioritize the run first.

Schedule cycling or swimming on either side of the vacation

In the spirit of the first principle, since most athletes will swim and ride less while traveling, they should sandwich their trip with key swim and cycling workouts. Athletes should emphasize load across these two disciplines directly before and directly after the trip. This ensures they maintain swim and cycling fitness and can utilize their time away from home to focus on the run with less anxiety around lost cross-discipline stimulus.  

Time it so that the travel falls during a transition or recovery week

If athletes know they will be traveling a certain week and will have difficulty executing workouts as prescribed, coaches should time their transition and recovery weeks to coincide with the trip. Since recovery weeks generally entail lower overall volume, athletes will feel less uneasy if they miss or shorten workouts. Since transition weeks are usually preceded by high-load weeks, the extra “forced” recovery that a vacation or business trip provides may actually be beneficial.

Consider a higher-intensity block

When athletes are looking to maximize the benefit of a workout in the shortest amount of time possible, they have to go hard. If it fits the training plan, executing a lower-volume, high-intensity block of training while traveling could make sense for athletes looking to maximize fitness gains while minimizing time commitments. This could mean doing 800-meter repeats on the boardwalk or VO2 intervals on the hotel gym bike before the kids wake up or between client meetings. Saving the key endurance sessions for when athletes return home and prioritizing shorter, key intensity sessions while traveling ensures that athletes continue to gain fitness (and don’t spend their whole trip in spandex or gym clothes). 

Prioritize a few key workouts (and make them count) 

For some, it’s simply not feasible to train each day while traveling. For these individuals, identifying key, high-density sessions that advance fitness is the best approach while traveling. Rather than obsessing over carving out time each day, it may be smarter for certain athletes to identify a few time slots over their travel period and aim to make the most of them. This is especially useful for athletes who have a propensity to skip a workout entirely if they aren’t able to execute it exactly as prescribed due to time constraints.

Make training part of the vacation

A wonderful alternative to trying to minimize the amount of time spent exercising while on vacation is to integrate training into the trip itself. The best way to do this is to combine sightseeing with exercise.  For example, rent a bike and explore the city or countryside, go for a run on a scenic trail, or explore nature and find a nearby lake to swim in. If you’re smart about it, training can be one of the most enjoyable parts of traveling.

Although triathlon training and travel do not seem to mix well, the two can be carried out in harmony so long as athletes plan ahead. By adhering to the above principles, it’s possible to integrate training seamlessly into vacations or business trips without generating undue anxiety or losing fitness.  

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Athlete Deaths in Triathlon and How to Prevent Them

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The news in the triathlon world this season has been peppered with stories of unexpected fatalities occurring at several races across the country. Understandably, coaches may be hearing questions from alarmed athletes concerned about whether or not they too are at risk of being a victim of such a tragedy. 

It’s important for a coach to acknowledge athletes’ fears, but to also place these fears in context. By staying attuned to an athlete’s overall health, a coach can often have a role in preventing any unfortunate outcomes during training or racing.

Sudden deaths during athletic events are shocking for many reasons. Victims are young, often in peak physical condition, and in many cases their deaths are the first and only sign of any underlying illness. In reality though, when researchers have looked closely at these cases, almost all had signs or symptoms of cardiac disease before the fateful day. 

So rather than being a complete bolt from the blue, these athletes’ deaths were often presaged by less severe symptoms that happened in training but were not attributed to a potentially fatal underlying issue.

It has long been understood that when compared to sedentary individuals, those who participate in a regular exercise program, even one with as little as only a few hours of activity a week, have lower rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke (among many other benefits). 

Risk, Explained 

High-intensity exercise, while being overall beneficial, does carry some degree of risk—especially for certain people. While this may seem paradoxical, it can be easily explained. 

Put simply, those who train and race at high intensity build their cardiovascular systems to be extremely strong and durable by virtue of placing that system under increasing amounts of stress. However, it is that very stress that can tip things over and lead to a cardiac event in susceptible individuals, occasionally resulting in unexpected death.

To illustrate this paradox we can look at the statistics of sudden cardiac death to see how being active confers protection in the long run, but may heighten danger for some on the specific day of events.

The Statistics 

In the general population, the risk of sudden cardiac death is 40 to 100 deaths per 100,000 people per year. In athletes, that number is one to two per 100,000 per year. However, if we reduce that to the risk of sudden cardiac death on any given day, for the general population the risk is 0.1 to 0.27 per 100,000 per day, while for athletes in a marathon it is one per 100,000 and for triathletes it is 1.7 per 100,000.

As well as having almost twice as many deaths as marathons, triathlons differ in another respect—the timing of those deaths. In marathons, deaths usually occur late in the race or just after the finish, whereas for triathlons the vast majority of deaths happen early, often in the first minutes of the race. This difference can be attributed to the presence of a swim in triathlons and all of the stresses that places on the heart right at the beginning of the race.

This is an important distinction and worth spending some time on. 

Researchers in Minnesota compiled data from a thirty-year period comprising well over five million participants in triathlons. During that time period, there were 135 race-related sudden deaths, resuscitated cardiac arrests, and trauma deaths. The average age of the victims was 47 years old, and 115 (85 percent) were male, while 20 (15 percent) were female. Of the 135 deaths and cardiac arrests, two-thirds happened during the swim, 16 percent during the bike, and only 11 percent during the run segments, while six percent occurred during post-race recovery. Most of the deaths that occurred on the bike segment of races were related to traumatic injuries sustained in bicycle-vehicle collisions or in collisions with fixed objects like guard rails.

Of the deaths and cardiac arrests, almost half occurred in sprint distance races, 20 percent in Olympic-distance races, and 17 percent in half or full Ironman triathlons. Of the 68 participants whose previous race experience was known, 26 were competing in their first triathlon. Of these first-time triathletes, most (69 percent) were competing in sprint rather than intermediate- (15 percent) or long-distance (15 percent) races.

So based on this study we see a few important trends:

Older athletes have a higher risk than younger athletes—especially those participating in shorter-distance races and those who are new to the sport. This makes a lot of sense as these athletes may not yet have the best fitness and short races are associated with the highest levels of exertion.Men are disproportionately represented in triathlon deaths for reasons that are unclear.The swim remains the most dangerous leg in a triathlon to the point that running in a triathlon has a far lower rate of unexpected cardiac deaths than do running-only events.

Theories

There are a few theories that have been put forward to explain the relative dangers of the open-water swim in triathlon. These include a spike in adrenaline in the early phase of competition that may play a role in triggering arrhythmias, particularly in athletes with underlying (but unsuspected) cardiovascular disease. Some participants may be unfamiliar with and untrained for open-water swimming and therefore may have difficulty dealing with adverse environmental conditions (such as large waves and cool water temperatures). Moreover, collisions among swimmers are routine, as anyone who has done a triathlon knows all-too-well. 

This is important, because a substantial proportion of deaths occur in first-time triathletes who may panic when contact occurs with other swimmers. Finally, water rescue is logistically complex, given an athlete’s difficulty in resting or signaling for assistance if an emergency situation arises.

A final hypothesis, and one that has begun to attract more attention from medical researchers, is the concept of swimming-induced pulmonary edema as a possible precipitant for sudden unexpected deaths during the swim. Pulmonary edema is simply a displacement of fluid from the blood vessels into the breathing space of the lungs. When the lungs become full of fluid they cannot effectively participate in gas exchange and so a person rapidly becomes very ill and in serious risk of death.

Water immersion causes blood redistribution from the periphery to the heart and pulmonary vessels, causing an increase in central blood volume and pressure in the pulmonary vessels. This can be extreme and precipitate pulmonary edema in susceptible individuals, even in those without any obvious underlying medical issues. The effect is worse in colder water and especially during exertion. When swimming induced pulmonary edema comes on, it produces acute shortness of breath, cough with pink frothy sputum, and occasionally chest pain (though this tends to be seen only in older individuals). The process can happen very quickly, and if not identified and treated, it can be fatal. 

However, there is no good evidence as to how often this happens or whether or not it even plays a significant role as a cause of unexpected deaths during the swim. The reason for this is because when a competitor dies during the swim, they always have fluid in their lungs on autopsy. This can be due to aspirating water after losing consciousness, developing pulmonary edema as a consequence of a primary cardiac event, or from the attempts at cardiac resuscitation. It’s simply not known how often swimming-induced pulmonary edema is a primary event.

What can be said is that this entity does exist and that it probably plays some role in these events, but how much of a role may be impossible to define.

The Bigger Picture

Despite all of this, it is important for coaches to emphasize to athletes that while unexpected, sudden death is a reality in triathlon and it should not be something to preoccupy themselves with. It’s true that deaths during a triathlon are more common than in running-only events, but they are still exceedingly rare and taken as a whole, athletes are still far better off in the long run to be training and racing for these events. The health and emotional benefits of participating in this sport continue to far outweigh the potential risks.

Unfortunately there is also very little that can be done to identify those who are at increased risk for developing sudden unexpected deaths from a cardiac cause before they participate in sport. That isn’t to say that there isn’t anything that can be done, only that there isn’t any good way to screen everyone to find those few who have the highest risks.

Several researchers have attempted to screen athletes en masse to try and identify those who are at risk of unexpected cardiac deaths from any cause, and time and time again these studies have proved ineffective. The reason for this is because the main tools that we have at our disposal to do such testing on a broad scale are electrocardiograms (EKGs) and echocardiograms, or ultrasounds of the heart. Those two tests give very different kinds of complementary information (and ideally everyone would get both of them), but they are expensive, not practical, and are rarely all that helpful since they only identify certain structural abnormalities that account for a small number of these cases. 

On the flip side, EKGs are very cheap and easy to obtain. They are not, however, perfect at identifying problems, and worse they frequently lead to false positives that cause more testing and patient worry—both of which end up being unnecessary.

Who Should Be Screened?

Consequently, medical societies have banded together to provide guidance for physicians on exactly who should be screened (and how), and it turns out that screening really should be reserved for those who have already exhibited some kinds of symptoms, or who have a concerning family history.

Since a retrospective study found that 29 percent of athletes who died suddenly during competition had symptoms suggestive of cardiac disease before cardiac arrest, it’s important that coaches have all their athletes carefully consider two questions:

Have you ever felt severely dizzy or faint, unexpectedly short of breath, or had chest pain during or immediately after exercise?Do you have any first degree relatives who died suddenly or had severe cardiac disease under age 60?

An answer of yes to either of these should prompt immediate screening.

If they don’t answer yes, then screening is unnecessary and they really don’t need to worry too much about this happening to them.

Still, the research that has been done on this topic has been used to inform both USAT and the WTC swim start policies. This is the rationale behind the rules around allowable water temperatures for races, the elimination of mass starts from Ironman races, and the Ironman SwimSmart program that dictates how swim courses are laid out for race directors, stipulates the number and spacing of rescue boats, and changed the rules to allow for athletes to get needed support during the swim without incurring penalties.

SwimSmart also encourages athletes to not make a race their first open-water swim experience, to stay within themselves during the swim (go easy at the beginning and ease into race pace), and most importantly to be self-aware and ask for help at any sign of distress.

Despite this, sudden unexpected deaths continue to be an issue in triathlon and it’s doubtful that they can be eradicated completely. For this reason, it’s important for coaches to be alert to any signs or symptoms that their athletes may report that indicate the presence of occult cardiovascular disease, and to educate their athletes on the best approach to the swim in their first, and subsequent triathlons.

References:

1. Hohmann E, Glatt V, Tetsworth K. Swimming induced pulmonary oedema in athletes – a systematic review and best evidence synthesis. BMC Sport Sci Med Rehabil. 2018;10:18. 

2. Spencer S, Dickinson J, Forbes L. Occurrence, Risk Factors, Prognosis and Prevention of Swimming-Induced Pulmonary Oedema: a Systematic Review.

3. Harris KM, Creswell LL, Haas TS, et al. Death and cardiac arrest in U.S. triathlon participants, 1985 to 2016: A case series. Ann Intern Med. 2017;167(8):529-536. 

4. Moon RE, Martina SD, Peacher DF, Kraus WE. Deaths in triathletes: immersion pulmonary oedema as a possible cause. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2016;2(1):e000146. 

5. Fanous Y, Dorian P. The prevention and management of sudden cardiac arrest in athletes. CMAJ. 2019;191(28):E787-E791. 

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Managing Personalities As a Coach

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Coaching is a fantastic job simply because a big part of what you end up doing is interacting with people and building relationships. Because of this, how you manage different personalities as a coach is of the utmost importance. 

There are books, papers, star signs, Chinese years, theories, workshops, and many other tools to identify someone’s personality type, your own personality type, and how to manage the interactions between them and whichever one you believe in. 

Experience has indicated that how a person behaves every day compared to how they behave when they are ‘stressed’ can vary and their personality can suddenly differ. What works one day may not work the next. 

Personalize Your Communication Style

It’s certainly worth looking over several models and theories to give you more tools in your toolbox to help you engage with your athletes. However, much of what you read about can be simplified as communication. If what you or the athlete is saying is logical or sound, then the only reason for the message not to be received is that you aren’t using the optimum form of communication. 

Take the following three phrases:

“RIGHT, let’s smash out the first three reps and then really suffer on the final rep—I want BIG efforts throughout, don’t drop below….”“This is going to be a tough session, so we need to focus on holding good form feel the…”“We are going to all work together on these four reps. Generate strength off each other, and don’t leave anyone behind.”

Each of these phrases could work really well to motivate different people, but use only one of them (or expect that everyone will react the same way to one of them) could mean you miss the mark, and it could actively demotivate some members of your group. 

Coaching Phases

To manage the different personalities you experience in coaching, you need to firstly identify them for yourself (self-awareness), understand your own position relative to the athlete (external self-awareness), understand the individual (empathy), and subsequently work, act, and communicate in a way that gets the best from that individual (leadership).

For simplicity, there are three phases of coaching as a profession:

A developing coachA recognised coachA reputable coach

Phase One

In phase one, the developing coach is learning how to adapt to different personalities, and at the very heart of their development is their own ability to learn how to get the coaching message across to the athlete. In other words, it’s about learning the profession. 

Phase Two

When they reach phase two, they will have experienced many different athletes and will become successful with athletes they coach. They see themselves and others see them as coach or they become part of the profession. Usually, the coach will begin to identify a type of athlete, a distance of racing, or a personality that they work best with. The coach will begin to identify these people as their ideal customers/athletes. 

Phase Three

In the final phase (and this is the crucial difference between phase two and phase three), athletes will seek the coach and the athlete will either ignore the difference in personalities, adapt to it, or end up leaving. A coach in phase three has only two options, either to choose a “my way or the highway” approach or coach the athletes in front of them. These coaches become leaders of the profession.

The interesting point through these different phases is that what is classed as “good” coaching or interpersonal skills are still the same. However, the balance of power shifts from the athlete to the coach. It is this shift of (perceived) power that will impact how a coach manages different personalities. In fact, where the coach sits in their own development is likely to impact how the initial phases mentioned above will be perceived by an athlete!

Interestingly, the very skills that moves a coach from phase one up through to phase two and finally to phase three should still be present and are at the heart of any coach’s personal development plan, but it may be that a misplaced confidence a coach has developed can lead them to forget the very basic skills that make up their job.

Self-Awareness

In order to manage the different personalities you’ll encounter in coaching, you need to be able to identify them, understand them, and understand how actions, language, and communication will impact the personality type. You also need to understand your own personality type and be able to recognize that only through this self-awareness, real empathy towards the athlete, and self-restraint from using a ‘one size fits none’ approach, will you be in a position to motivate and develop the different athletes in front of you. 

Therefore, work out who you are, understand your own approaches, understand where you sit on your own coaching journey, and then use all your tools to understand and communicate with the individual athlete. Only then can you become the best coach you can be to that athlete in front of you.

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4 Ways to Coach Athletes Through Long-Term Goals

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One of the biggest issues that we as coaches run into is that our athletes want to race year-round, be in shape year-round, and be on or near their top performance level year-round. Their top performance goal is often the only thing they envision and focus on, but in order to maintain long-term athlete engagement and success, it’s imperative to lay out the transition of goals throughout your athlete’s season. 

Goal Pyramid 

In order to climb to the peak of the mountain, you have to start your journey at the base. Goals need to be tailored and synchronized with the training periodization pyramid build.

Your athletes’ goals will be more broad in nature at the base season. Each training periodization stage increases in specificity, eventually funneling their training into the peak performance stage. 

Vary Intensity

Our athletes come to us with very specific goals, usually one that is the end goal of the season, or one that would be their top accomplishment. Just as a hurdler starts out with shorter jumps, your athletes should vary the intensity of their goals throughout the year. 

Their top goal is the highest ring—the one with the most power, pressure, and preciseness. In order to achieve the highest-level goals, you should also build the intensity level of your goals through the season. By varying the intensity of the goals, you mitigate the perception of failure and promote long-term success along with forward momentum towards their highest-level goal. 

Lack of Goals (Reduction/Absence) 

As stated, goals can be basic or specific, and low or high functioning. They can also be repressed for recovery. Just as there is an offseason for training, there should be an off-season for goals. 

The lack of goals provides a reflection platform and opportunity to assess what the future goals are and what their past goals accomplished. The lack of goals constitutes either the preparation phase or mental recovery, whether from training, racing, or any other type of transition. Having a lack of goals give the athlete relief and allows them to re-center themselves to continue to move forward on the correct goal pathway. 

As a side note, this is why it’s also incredibly important for athletes to actually have assistance and coaching during the off-season where there is a lack of focused, goal-motivated training as well. 

Listing Out Goals

Another thing that is extremely helpful is to make sure that your athletes understand the timeline of specific goals, along with what each transition period to the next accomplishment is after certain milestones are accomplished. Make sure to outline what each athlete should be focusing on and expecting to accomplish with the proper fortitude and drive, and what to expect during specific times of the year (or each week). 

One of my favorite features in TrainingPeaks is the ability to list out weekly goals. I have checkboxes in which I list what the focus for the week (or next couple weeks) will be. This includes what is changing throughout the week and what they should really focus on for workout specifics. I also list general goals for the week as far as what needs to be accomplished. 

Instead of just completing workouts and following the perscribed training, set the stage for the weeks and months ahead so that they have a clear focus moving forward.

Summary

The top four things you can do to help your athletes understand how goals progress throughout the season include:

Goals need to be tailored and synchronized with the training periodization pyramid build.Athlete goals must have varying intensities throughout the year. Allow for your athlete to have some time periods with general, looser goals.List out goals at specific weeks and months within their training plan. 

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