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So you've landed here on my iWillNotBonk.com Triathlon Training Blog and you're probably wondering who the hell this Tavis guy is and what iWillNotBonk is all about.

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

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Mental Toughness and Reaching Your Potential

How much of an athlete’s performance is dependent on their mental toughness? Chances are you already know mental toughness plays an important role in an athlete’s ability to reach their full potential, but how can coaches help grow athletes mentally as well as physically?

Dave sat down with Joanna Zeiger, triathlete World Champion, Olympian, the author of The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness, and distinguished researcher in the field of mental toughness, to discuss her journey as an athlete and how it inspired her to help other athletes reach their goals.

Resources

The Sisu Quiz
RaceReady Coaching
Joanna Zeiger
The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness

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The advent of online coaching has revolutionized the industry by providing opportunities for coaches and athletes that simply did not exist before. While online coaching can be more convenient for today’s busy athlete, the lack of a coach being physical present has created new challenges for coaches, especially when it comes to the ability to provide inspiration and motivation. However, it is necessary for online coaches to continue to motivate their athletes and and recognize when to kick it up a notch when an athlete is in need.

Here are nine great ways to help you realize when your athlete needs help and know what to do to motivate them when they do:

1. Recognize motivational shifts

Athlete motivation builds from external sources while inspiration grows from within the athlete. In general, an individual uses motivation to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Regardless of your athlete’s motivation level, your responsibility as a coach is to continually motivate your athletes; however, the effort you spend providing motivation should match your coaching agreement. Even if you are only providing a general training plan, you should still provide motivational tools that are focused on and accessible to the masses.

Shifts in athlete motivation happen more than you expect, and coaching remotely makes it increasingly hard to identify a discouraged athlete. Motivation changes typically occur after either significant life events or extended training periods of the “daily grind,” and often toward the end of the season. Look for cues like a lack of desire to train as much as they should, less than their best effort in training (including shortening and skipping), and a general effort that doesn’t match the level of their goals.

2. Increase communication

The best way to create motivational energy and inspire your athletes is to make them feel that you are just as involved as you would be if you were there in person. Strive to touch base more often to prove you’re not “just another coach behind the computer.” Use as many avenues of communication possible with your athlete.

Communication opportunities that result in motivational support can include video chats, phone conversations, texts, emails, and social media platforms. Chat with your athlete and ask them what forms of communication help motivate them and connect with you the best. As a coach that began her career at the start of the new age of online coaching, I have found that communicating in every way possible significantly helps build motivational momentum.

3. Be a good role model

Being enthusiastically involved in the sport you coach creates a greater sense of relatability to the athlete. Going to associated events, participating in the sport you coach, and supporting the industry sets you up as a positive role model to your athletes. Your athletes hired you to help them become better athletes so it makes perfect sense that they want their coach to be highly involved and dedicated, as well.

A good coach role model constantly strives to show compassion, moral courage, humbleness, honor, respect, and integrity. Also, a good coach role model does not place excessive pressure on athletes, especially in an online coaching situation. Too much pressure can demotivate an athlete as they feel that they are being controlled. Bribing is also not recommended because once the rewards disappear, so does the athlete’s motivation.

To create an online role model presence, feature your coach involvement through channels such as an educational blog, helpful videos, and Facebook or Instagram posts along with your primary forms of communication. Use these platforms to feature you or your athletes in action, post motivational quotes, inspiring videos, your training adventures, and more.

4. Derive motivation

Motivation is the external force that derives from one’s inspiration. Whenever you can trigger a strong, internal, emotional desire related to your athlete’s training you capitalize on one of the most powerful motivators for your athlete.

Get to know your athlete’s true “why.” What drives your athlete to train despite failure, pain, and hardships? What feeling is creating their persistence to train? What does your athlete want to ultimately feel from training, racing, and from the sport long-term? Emotions that are key for motivating athletes are optimism, self-pride, acceptance, serenity, inspiration, elation, joy, excitement, and ultimately the hope and belief that they will reach their goals and dreams.

5. Use imagery

Focus on setting a mental state that will work best for your athlete. If the athlete is a novice, focusing on external stimuli will help motivate them while experienced athletes should focus more on internal factors such as how their body feels during the training. Images are everywhere in today’s society and have a greater influence on us than we would think. Have your athletes follow races online, watch professional clips of their sport, etc. Make sure to post or share images with your athletes that will inspire while creating the right mental mindset.

6. Set goals

The association between training and goal outcomes can be muddled if it is not clarified and communicated continually. Make sure to remind your athlete what their short- and long-term goals are. Put a reminder the beginning of each week of their training plan. Have your athlete place goal reminders in a highly visible location like a mirror, training area, device background, etc.  It also helps to share your athlete’s year-long periodization training plan so that they know what to expect. This secures your athlete’s focus on how big-picture goals relate to the day-to-day routine.

7. Positive reinforcement

Coaches should always balance their positive and negative feedback. If an athlete is lacking motivation, it is important to to slightly over balance the positive reinforcement. Make sure to praise your athlete for their hard work, training bests, a PR, or their work ethic. Sport includes both success and failure, and success usually does not come without failure. It is your job to normalize failure as something that is to be expected and productive in order to succeed.

When communicating positive and negative feedback with your athlete make sure to mention the positive before talking about ways to improve as it motivates the athlete to learn and prioritize a change from their failure more so than receiving negative feedback first.

8. Team effort

The power of feeling the support and involvement of a team is highly motivational. Whenever your athlete trains with a group it produces an extremely powerful source of motivation. When motivation starts waning, suggest your athlete train with others. When your athlete is surrounded by other athletes that have similar, like-minded goals it brings out your athlete’s inspiration. Consider creating an athlete team or coaching group that makes athletes feel apart of a collective support squad. Power in numbers creates a motivational snowball effect that helps aid your motivational efforts exponentially.

9. Schedule for success

Each and every barrier that your athlete experiences uses up motivation. The severity of a barrier has an inverse relationship with sport motivation, so it is imperative that you create a training plan that avoids expected barriers.

Come up with solutions that prevent barriers. For example, create training plans that fit around scheduled events. Doing so will improve compliance, as it is easier to find time to get training in. Work with your athlete to find what kinds of factors help them train and make it more enjoyable.

Suggest laying out training items the night before a workout, keeping a spare gym bag of equipment just in case, or carrying doubles for equipment that might require maintenance and prevent a training session.

Breaking out of the training monotony by switching up routines or providing novelty to a plan also helps athletes reignite their passion and excitement for training and racing. When the athlete seems tired and lacks motivation, sometimes rest is needed. Be aware of your athlete’s motivational levels when communicating with them about their training and racing.

Conclusion

In the end, a coach can only provide so much motivation to an athlete, and, as mentioned, motivation is inspiration plus external action. You can provide the external motivation, but the athlete has to provide personal inspiration, as well. Often, athletes hire coaches out of fear instead of out of inspiration, and, in this case, you shouldn’t blame yourself for not being able to create the motivation they need.

It is important to discuss what helps motivate your athletes to create the most successful relationship. The program you offer can be world class, but the communication and support has to be there, too. Shift your mindset away from being just a training planner and consider yourself also as a motivator for success. It is possible for online coaches to be just as supportive—if not more so—as today’s in-person coach.

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“I can maintain 90 seconds for 100 meters with a short rest over and over, but am struggling to break 40 minutes for 1900 meters in open water (OW). What’s happening?”

This is a question that comes up a lot in lessons and at the lake for coaches. Considering athletes are not turning each 25 meters or 50 meters, they should be significantly quicker in a wetsuit in OW, right? What could be going wrong?

Distance from zig-zaggy swimming is usually the culprit, but if the GPS reports back that your athlete was a fraction over 3.8 kilometers for an IRONMAN-length swim or around 1500 meters for and Olympic-length swim, what else might be slowing them down? If we eliminate the obvious (distance, since just a little meandering could easily add 200-300 meters and 3:30-6:00 minutes to your time), then what remains?

Whether it is a triathlon, otilo, aquabike, aquathon, or pure swim, we can divide an OW swim into various segments: pre-race, water warmup, start, mid-race, end of swim, and exit. There is room for improvement in each segment, and we can also explore other key areas to find ways to speed up times.

1. Warmups

Drylands and warm-ups are key areas to factor into swimming better on race day. Most pool-based sessions will have 20-30 minutes of swimming ahead of any fast work to prepare stroke technique and increase the heart rate.

Prior to getting into a pool-based session many coaches will encourage some gentle arm swings to prepare the body for the harder work. This can be useful if you want a longer main set, but only have a 60 minute window available.

On race day, I appreciate the fact that there are 1,001 things to prepare for, but a dryland warm-up really helps. This is especially true since time in the water is limited and cool making “warming up” harder. Often, the warm-up area is chaotic and full of swimmers going in all directions making a sustained swim almost impossible. Most arrive on the starting line cold, technically deficient compared to a pool swim, and wearing a poorly-fitting wetsuit that hinders rather than helps.

2. Poorly fitting wetsuit

An athlete’s wetsuit can be a source of irritation and result in a loss of speed for a variety of reasons.

If a wetsuit is too small the material in the arms and legs will pull away from the body fatiguing your athlete as it stretches during the kick and pull. There also might be problems breathing due to constriction around the chest, and, if the suit is too short in the body, will make the athlete cramped and uncomfortable.

On the other hand, if the suit is too big and floods with water athletes will fatigue as they carry extra weight around the course. If you can quite easily get the suit on in under a couple of minutes then I would suspect it is too big and you should try something smaller. Also, a surf wetsuit is neither buoyant or warm and should be avoided.

Wetsuits can also be too buoyant, which causes issues. As swim technique improves, suits will no longer be needed to keep the swimmer afloat. If your athlete cannot hold their body in a neutral position, it is very hard for the legs to assist rotation and body position since they will spend a lot of time at or above the surface. If the legs and chest are too buoyant, then the swimmer will arch their back making swimming faster harder. The swimmer will will constantly be held in a “head up” position creating the feeling that they are continually sighting and putting the brakes on.

3. Lack of confidence in OW

Are the pool sessions you are prescribing preparing your athletes for a harder swim in OW? Are you challenging them to swim over race distance so they know they are competent at the distance and can also swim it with some speed?

Entering swim-only events is a great way of testing swim pacing and strategies. Nothing beats training in OW to get a feel for pace. Pool sessions don’t simulate OW conditions well and can create a gulf between cruise pool speed and OW race speed. A hard training swim in a lake followed by a cycling workout might provide some insight to limits in the swim.

Every once in a while, prescribe a swim test that replicates race distance and gives your athletes a chance to see how hard they can attack the swim. For a 1,900 meter event I would suggest:

3×300 meters (30 second rest)
3×200 meters (20 second rest)
3×100 meters (10 second rest)
2×50 meters (5 second rest)

There should not be enough rest to recover, but just enough to help them keep the pace high.

To calculate an IRONMAN-length swim time to help with seeding and get an idea of how to push the pace, prescribe:

4×400 meters (30 second rest)
4×300 meters (20 second rest)
4×200 meters (10 second rest)
2×100 meters (5 second rest)

Instruct your athletes to start their watch as they push off into the first 400 meters and subtract 4:05 minutes from their total time to estimate their 3.8 km time. Test again in a month and push a little harder. Faster? Too fast? Heart rate too high? A little experience will help you find the best pace.

4. Poor starting position

You might be surprised how congested the back of an OW start can be, and adding breaststrokers to the mix makes overtaking very hard. By no means am I suggesting starting at the front if an athlete isn’t confident with their speed, but they could be giving away minutes each race. With additional race experience, athletes might be prepared for a higher start on the grid where a faster start, more options for drafting, and opportunities to receive a “tow” can be taken advantage of.

Starting too high can also lead to issues if swimming is not a strength. Athletes may be driven off course by advancing packs of swimmers resulting in additional sighting as they need to navigate more frequently.

Learning to settle into an effective mid-race cruise is essential after the excitement of a swim start. It’s important not to swim too slowly and exit off the pace, but equally important to know when to calm down after the excitement of the start.

Prescribe this main set after a good warm up to help with pacing after the start:

50 meters FC fast, 250 meters relaxed, rest 30 seconds
100 meters FC fast, 200 meters slightly quicker than the previous 250 meter pace, rest 30 seconds
150 meters FC fast, 150 meters quicker than the previous 200 meter pace, rest 30 seconds
200 meters FC fast, 100 meters quicker than the previous 100 meter pace, rest 30 seconds

Athletes should pull on the steadier mid-race cruise (MRC).

5. Under and over kicking

Leg kick will assist swim speed to a point, however, too much will leave your athlete fatigued for the bike. The absence of kicking will put more pressure on the arms, slow the athlete down, and result in the same amount of fatigue. Athletes will find a better balance when the full body contributes by recruiting more muscles to do less work keeping them fresh for the bike.

6. Complex courses

I recall a popular race in the UK that had a busy “M” shaped route with an additional dogleg and exit. Lots of sharp turns required lots of sighting and slowed progress. Compare that course to a “U”, for instance, with a simple entrance and exit.

When I raced Tri Standard distance competitively I would try to avoid comparing races, but it was sometimes helpful looking at an average of a few of them to see how the season was really going. So, if you are comparing a few OW races to your pool speed check to see if they are slow races (i.e. complex courses). It is useful to look at pro times and mid-pack times from race to race to get a feel for the speed of the course.

7. Drafting

Going too fast and blowing up and drafting off of someone slow who drags you around to a slow time will leave you equally frustrated and annoyed.

Swimming on someone’s feet is perhaps the best position for the best streamline and the most hydrodynamic gains, but after spending part of the year working on catch position, feel for the water, hand shape, hold on the water, and lowering bubble creation athletes spend the race sitting in bubbly kick water avoiding stabbing people’s heels. No wonder it can be tricky deciding if the pace is too fast or too slow.

I prefer to sit on people’s hips so I can look for calmer, cleaner water and get a more accurate idea of my swim pace. Too fast and I let them go. Not quick enough and I drop them to join a faster group going by.

8. Adjusting technique

I teach the concept of trying to be an adaptable swimmer. Being able to change tactics and technique as conditions dictate can be helpful. As conditions change, the stroke (especially tempo) can adapt to take advantage of changing weather or water conditions and assist your swim speed.

Keep in mind, lengthening and stretching out the stroke or lowering stroke count against a slight current will slow swimmers dramatically. Speeding up stroke turnover in coordination with the flow might not be the best use of economy of effort, either.

Arriving early and watching earlier waves swim, if possible, for clues about the water conditions can help your swim. Is there any wildlife floating on the water in a river you are about to race in? How fast is it flowing? Are the ducks struggling to stay stationary? Encourage your athletes to adjust their technique based on what they see and feel in the water.

9. Bad comparisons

Are you comparing like for like and being fair to yourself? There is a vast difference between a 100 meter FC repeat in a 50 meter pool with a good turn while sitting on someone’s feet wearing neoprene shorts and 100 meters in a 25 meter pool without drafting and three slow turns.

What you are you using when you say “pool speed”? There could be as much as 10 second difference between 100 meters in those two pool lengths. Over 3.8 km is a long distance. Your comparison might not be as bad as you thought depending on how you are gauging your pool-based swims.

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Your athlete is preparing for a big race and you want to be sure they are dialed in, peaked, rested, and ready to crush it. You’ve been focusing on their workout plan and the training seems to be going well. That’s great, but, all too often, what many coaches tend to ignore (or at least place less emphasis on) is their athlete’s body composition, everyday nutrition, pre-workout nutrition, in-training fuel and hydration, and post-workout recovery nutrition.

A large majority of coaches are not experts in this arena and that’s OK, but what is not OK is ignoring or placing minimal emphasis in these areas (more on this later). Our goal as coaches should be to help assist our athletes and set them up for the absolute best success possible; therefore, placing laser-like focus on our athletes’ training and nutrition is imperative.

It’s time to dial in the one-two punch.

Take Control—You’re the Coach

Some athletes can be extremely motivated, and that is a coach’s dream. These super-motivated athletes typically want to complete more workouts and want to go even harder than you have prescribed. As coaches, we embrace this energy and enthusiasm that these athletes possess, but remember you were hired for a reason: to be their coach, not their cheerleader.

You are preparing your athlete for the big race, and you have their best interests in mind. You need to take control in the critical phase of the training cycle before a big race.

Yes, coaching takes a ton more time, effort, and energy than cheerleading. Reinforce that the prescribed training, including heart rate, power, pace, speed, reps, strength training, etc. is dialed in for their specific needs and goals. It is important to encourage the athlete to use all of their energy to focus on what is on the schedule as opposed to what is not on the schedule (more workouts, harder workouts, etc.).

Work-to-Rest-Ratio

As coaches, we push our athletes hard.

The bigger the athlete’s goal, the bigger the commitment from the athlete and the more we are going to try to stretch the athlete’s comfort zone. But, we also should understand the power of rest, repair, and recovery. As mentioned above though, the super-motivated athlete will oftentimes view a rest day as an opportunity for an easy swim or an easy run instead of actual rest.

Once again, as coaches, we need to take control. While it’s easy to appreciate the athlete’s drive and desire to do work on a scheduled rest day, it’s critical that we reinforce the huge benefits of rest and how it will make the next day’s workout that much more productive. Keep in mind, we are preparing our athlete for their big A-race, and we are prescribing the best work-to-rest ratio in order to achieve mega-success.

I like to remember the following statement: “I know an athlete has arrived when they embrace rest days as much as they do the work days.”

If You Don’t Know It, Outsource It

My ninth grade English teacher and football coach would tell us that “there are two types of people in this world: those that know the answer and those that know where to find the answer.” In order to set our athletes up for success, we must become both of these individuals.

Endurance coaches can learn a lot from the MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) world. For example, an MMA athlete has a striking coach, wrestling coach, Jiu Jitsu coach, nutrition coach, strength and conditioning coach, etc. The athlete is surrounded by an incredible team with one common goal: the athlete’s success.

Now, let’s look at the detail necessary to dial in an athlete’s nutrition for their big race. We need to start with a good baseline of the athlete’s body composition (body fat percentage and body water percentage) as this is critical for an athlete’s success. An athlete can do a ton of training, but if their body composition is not optimized for race day, you have not set up your athlete for the best success possible. This is why each meal or snack leading to the A-race needs to have the right balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

In addition, we must dial in the athlete’s fueling frequency and timing, including how to properly fuel their body prior to workouts. The athlete should have their in-training and in-race fuel and hydration plan perfected. And, no, telling an athlete to take in x-amount of calories per hour is not nutrition coaching. That’s like telling an athlete who wants to be a runner to “just go run.”

For example, on the bike, the athlete must know how many bottles of fuel to take on the bike, exactly what goes in each bottle, and how much plain water they need per hour. Then, we need to problem solve, if necessary, based on the workout data and athlete feedback. Did the athlete cramp? How many times did the athlete urinate during the workout? What was the athlete’s body composition before and after the workout? And, based on the analysis and a lot of other data, how will we need to tweak the athlete’s fueling moving forward.

Now that the workout is in the books, it’s time for recovery. We need to have their post-workout fueling and hydration dialed in, too. Why? Because we need to reload their glycogen stores so they can properly recover from the day’s workout and be ready to perform optimally for tomorrow’s.

As a multisport coach and nutrition coach, I’ve been very fortunate over the years to collaborate with running coaches, swimming coaches, multisport coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, and personal trainers. These coaches and trainers typically know the importance of nutrition, but nutrition coaching may not be in their wheelhouse. That’s no problem. If they are willing to outsource (those that know where to find the answer) it’s because they have their athlete’s best interest in mind.

As coaches, it’s important to always have our athlete’s best interest in mind. These athletes trust us and are putting their success in our hands. In preparing your athlete for their big A-race, ask yourself, “Am I providing my athlete with all the necessary tools to succeed?” And if the answer is “no”, that’s OK; it may just be time to find someone who does have the tools.

 

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Mateus fell off his bike right in front of me; I avoided hitting him by pure luck. We weren’t going fast, but the wet surface of the narrow street made for one of the scariest crashes I have ever witnessed.

He lost control of his front wheel first—probably because of the slippery, broken pavement—and it happened so fast that his hands were still on the handlebars and his shoes still clipped into the pedals when he hit the ground. He rolled with his bike a couple of times before eventually being able to stop. When I reached him he was having a hard time breathing, and I thought his shoulder was broken into pieces. As his friend, I was worried about his injuries, but as his coach, I immediately thought we’d have to re-plan his whole season; it was November 18th.

But the X-rays gave us some good news: nothing broken, “just” a grade 2/3 strain of the Acromioclavicular joint (ACJ), one of the smallest joints of the shoulder. Despite needing nearly four months to fully recover, Mateus barely missed a beat in his training. In fact, he managed to take an hour off his IRONMAN time by the end of the season. Here’s how he managed to maintain momentum through a scary injury, and ultimately achieve his goals.

Stay Positive

“The first days were probably the most anxious ones because I was waiting for the full diagnostic and didn’t know if I was going to need surgery or not,” Mateus says.  As a coach, those were tough days for me as well. I was trying to keep a positive attitude, but I knew Mateus was very concerned and that his attitude towards the injury could play a crucial role in his rehab. So I did my best to remind him that all the strength and conditioning he had done in the autumn made his muscles and bones stronger, and that was one of the reasons why he didn’t break any bones in the crash.

“After I got the response that I didn’t need the surgery, I went crazy with the physio exercises and tried to do everything that was in my power,” says Mateus. “It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be able to do triathlons again… I was always about how to adapt and be able to do it again and taking it step by step.”

Take What You Can Get

As soon as Mateus started physiotherapy, the training sessions we had planned for that period were put on hold. We left plenty of time for rest and recovery and gave full priority to his rehabilitation. As soon as he had the green light from the physio, we started easing back into activity.

On the 27th of November, not even two weeks after the accident, Mateus was able to go out and do a short run-walk. Very slowly, of course, so to avoid any major movement of the shoulder. We kept sessions to only every other day: That week, on top of another run-walk (5 min run and 5 min walk), he also did an easy turbo session of just 30 mins.

The following week (December 4th) he trained every single day: run-walk on Monday and Thursday; a Speedy Walk (2 hours) on Sunday; a gym workout for the legs on Tuesday and Friday; and easy turbo on Wednesday and Saturday. Running and cycling were quite easy to perform, but of course it took more time to get back into a pool.

Use Strength and Conditioning for Recovery and Prevention

One of the main reasons Mateus didn’t completely smash his shoulder in that crash was all the work we had done before the accident. It’s not something you might consider until faced with an injury, but gym workouts reinforce not only your muscles, but your bones as well!

Bones are elastic tissues that react to resistance training, and in Mateus’ case (as with other athletes) they got stronger through gym training. Because of these benefits, we kept this kind of training routine in his schedule through his recovery. The main components we worked on were muscular endurance, then strength and finally power, before eventually decreasing the gym workouts by early spring to concentrate on race season.

Ease Back Into Training

It took Mateus almost two months to get into the pool again; though that was partly because of Christmas holidays and a long-haul flight to visit his family in Brasil. On January 12th he performed a 20-min swim test to give us a baseline. After the workout, his comments read: “RPE: 3. Shoulder working fine on front crawl. Breast stroke not that comfortable, but ready for a proper swim set.” That was all I needed to hear!

For the first few weeks we limited swim sessions to just twice per week, and on the 31st January we did his first Critical Swim Speed test after the injury. His result was 1 minute 58 seconds CSS for the 100 meters, which was not much slower than his previous season bests. “I am so glad I insisted on you doing it!” I told him. It was definitely a huge morale boost for both of us and we were looking forward to the next stage.

Prepare for your Return to Full Speed

February was a build-up month for Mateus. In the first two weeks we tried to bring him back to his pre-injury routine and volume, pushing a bit more to regain the volume we had planned before the injury. It was tough, but we made it. By the time Mateus entered the pre-race season (early May), he was back in full force and ready to fly!

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