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Smiles and Miles: 4 Strategies to Prescribe Training That is More Fun

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You coach endurance athletes. Goal-oriented, disciplined, and driven are some of the words people will use to describe them. Endurance sport performance selects for those who have demonstrated these values. The start of a marathon or a triathlon is lined with better-trained individuals than, say, the bench of an adult kickball game. In the latter, you can reasonably expect to show up with a 6-pack of beer on a Tuesday night and still be the game’s MVP. As a coach, you probably advise a different pre-race nutrition strategy.

Encouraging your athletes to be disciplined will eventually fall on deaf ears. The message will get stale as you preach to clients with other “real world” obligations. If only there were another strategy…

Successful training is a product of stress and rest repeated over time. Discipline is required to achieve this consistency, but let’s remember the higher goal is consistency. Discipline is a way to achieve consistency, but so is fun. Prescribing training with no fun is like cooking food with no flavor. You might be able to get the meal down, but will you want it again and again?

Finding ways to pepper “fun” into the stress and rest cycle will help your athletes push harder during sessions, better enjoy their downtime, and more sustainably continue their programs year after year. Subtract seconds from their splits and add smiles to their miles with these four strategies:

1) Prescribe a Playlist

Your athletes are not machines. As much as we might like to convince ourselves that we can tick off a certain wattage on the bike or pace on runs “automatically,” we’re still human beings. There are thoughts and emotions which contribute—positively or negatively—to performance. Encourage your athletes to structure their training environments to cue emotions and thoughts which lead to improved performance.  

It’s well-documented that emotions contribute to athletic performance. Music can act as a trigger for those beneficial emotions and as distraction from the discomfort of the moment. A 2015 British study found that listening to music with “emotional resonance” for the test subject improved endurance performance up to 10 percent. Emotions are strong when we are weak.

You can help coach your athletes to find the right playlist through encouraging them to learn self-awareness. Do they perform best when angry, happy, relaxed, or threatened? Why not cue the emotions that help with the task at hand, and then let the emotions do the work? Helping your athletes find their optimal emotional state for performance differs individually, so play with music selections to see what works best.

Also, this goes without saying, but you cannot have consistent training without prioritizing safety so no headphones on the roads! Try a bluetooth speaker in your back pocket instead.

2) Build In Rewards

There’s an anxiety to beginnings. It’s not uncommon to dread or procrastinate a key workout as fatigue and outside stress build. Unproductive thoughts can quickly spiral out-of-control.

It’s your job to remind your athletes that beginning the session gets them closer to the end. Encourage them to plan something enticing following the workout and link the workout to other activities that get them excited. Get them out the door!

It’s tempting to think of rewards as “big things” we only gift ourselves once in a while. Remind your athletes of the countless smaller rewards accompanying their athletic journey, and encourage them to imagine that addictive post-workout high. Linking workouts to one other positive thing will get your athletes moving. The first step, pedal, or stroke is the hardest then momentum becomes their friend.

Individual reality is a product of one’s thoughts. For an athlete who needs to run in the morning, encourage them to run somewhere with a beautiful sunrise. You’ll be prescribing a sunrise to be enjoyed while running instead of the usual “AM Run.” There are countless strategies like this to build rewards into the regular plan. Be creative!

3) Find Some Friends

During our build-up to the 2016 Olympics, my least favorite workout of the week was a Tuesday evening run. We called our schedule “Tremendous Tuesday,” and I had a hard time dragging myself out the door for this final workout.  Then, my friends and I found out a local taco shop which offered “Taco Tuesday!”

We organized a group that consistently met at the taco shop at a set time, and almost immediately the final workout of the day went from being something I dreaded to something I did before downing horchatas and endless bowls of salted tortilla chips. Instead of thinking about how heavy my legs felt, I instead thought of Matt and Jen waiting at the trailhead.  

We’d scheduled a reward for after the run, but the larger reward was the company on the trail. Help your athletes find some friends or locate a group, and then build it into their weekly schedules. Including friends and training partners can make an athlete’s training plan feel like a normal part his/her life instead of a demanding distraction.

4) Change the Focus

When motivation is low and it’s hard for you athletes to do much of anything, be like a doctor and change the prescription. As a coach, it can be easy to fall into a routine based on your experience that turns into monotony for your athletes, but there are endless mental strategies you can use to transform your training plans.

If you normally schedule runs based on time, switch to a mileage goal instead. If you normally calculate pace in miles/hour or minutes/mile, switch to the metric system for a week. Help your athlete find a different pool or track. Help them find open water and prescribe 15×80 strokes at whatever feels like threshold instead the 15×100 threshold set they’ve been repeating for the past six weeks. Challenge them with Strava segments, to join a race on Zwift, or to build a mental game based on town welcome signs or dashed vs. double yellow lines on the road.  Shift their perspective and their training grounds will be transformed into a playground.

Conclusion

Contrary to popular belief, focusing on the “fun” as an important part of training is a strategy that makes preparation both more effective and more sustainable. Endurance competitors require flexible thinking as athletes adjust to inevitable ebbs and flows of motivation. Tapping into some of these natural strategies to keep athletes entertained, and thus engaged, while their body trains and races will help them feel better about their routine, train more consistently, and dull their perceived exertion during sessions. Use the points above as a starting point, and use your creativity to expand from there.

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Should Endurance Athletes Do Plyometric Training?

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Plyometric exercises are typically used by sprinters and power athletes to develop their fast twitch muscle fibers and improve their speed and agility. The question is—can plyometric training improve the performance of athletes in triathlon or other endurance sports?

Let’s first define plyometrics: Plyometrics are exercises that enable a muscle to reach maximal force in the shortest amount of time. Most people think of plyometrics as ‘jump training’, because common exercises include jumps, hops, and bounds, all with the intent of minimizing the time spent on the ground. However there’s also a stability component, as well as a strength-building component that help you decelerate to land softly, and ultimately have better control of your body. Therefore the answer is yes, plyometric training offers many core benefits for triathletes and endurance athletes, including:

Improved Speed
Improved Strength
Prevention of injuries
Improved coordination (i.e. improved connection between our brains and our body movements)

Improved Speed

Let’s first focus on running in particular. If you were to analyze video of various runners, you would notice that the faster, more efficient runners spend less time on the ground. They are using more stored energy with each foot strike to accelerate into the next stride. Plyometrics train the body to reduce this ground contact time while running and can also improve overall running mechanics.

Improved Strength

Explosive exercises like squat jumps and kettlebell swings make muscle fibers stronger and more flexible by stretching them prior to contraction. Think about your quad muscles when jumping: your muscles stretch as you bend your needs into a squat position, and then contract as you jump up. Do this repeatedly and those muscles get stronger with every contraction.

This strength will not only improve endurance while running, but can help generate the explosive power to execute a sprint on the bike.

Prevention of Injuries

Think about how many times your feet hit the ground when running—it may not be hard but it’s continuous, sometimes for hours at a time. As you run, you not only have to propel yourself off the ground with one foot, but also absorb the forces generated as you strike the ground with your other foot. If your body can’t efficiently execute this process over the course of a race, the resulting fatigue can lead to other issues, including injuries and deteriorating performance. You often see Ironman races decided in the late stages of the run when it all comes down to how efficient the athlete can be when fatigued.

What plyometrics can do is teach your brain to activate certain muscles at certain times to take the load of your body while working at speed. This is key to injury resistance. When your brain knows at what time to activate what muscles, you can reduce significant impact to your spine and other joints, and are less likely to twist your ankle, for example. With plyometrics you will teach your brain that it can still work properly and efficiently, even when the body is tired.

Improved coordination

It is your central nervous system (CNS) which controls your muscles in order to swim, bike and run—your skeletal muscles are not very smart and they simply do as the CNS tells them. But the CNS does not activate all the fibers in a muscle at once. The act of running, for example, is a coordinated orchestra of contraction, stabilization, and relaxation of all the muscles in your body. Strength and plyometric training teach the body how to better coordinate muscle contractions, which help movements become more and more efficient. In fact, when athletes add plyometrics into their training from the beginning, most see gains in performance very quickly.

Bringing speed and strength together is the name of the game; by incorporating plyometrics into your strength program you will help prepare your body for better, more efficient performance in triathlon or whatever sport you choose. Ready to try for yourself? Here are some simple plyometric exercises to get you started:

Ankle Hops / Skipping

The best way to introduce your body to plyometric training is to start with ankle hops (hopping on the ankles using the calf muscles with straight legs) and then build to skipping rope. However, for many athletes, the ankle hops are enough! This may be all of the jumping that you need to improve.

Start with 3×10 ankle hops twice per week.  When you are ready to try skipping, perform 3×30 skips with two legs, and then you can progress this into 2 hops left leg, 2 hops both legs, 2 hops right leg… and so on.

Box Jumps

Begin in a squat position in front of a platform 12-18 inches off the ground. Lower your body down and then spring up onto the box, swinging your arms up to increase momentum. Land on the balls of your feet in a slightly squatted position and hold your balance solid for a second or two. As you master this move, increase the height of the platform

Depth Jumps

Stand on top of a strong platform 8-12 inches high (the greater the height, the greater the strength component, the lower the height the greater the speed component). Focus your gaze eye-level straight ahead of you while you step slightly forward off the platform, landing on two feet on the ground at the exact same time. React as quickly as possible to the ground to spring back up into the air as high as you can vertically. Swing your arms to vigorously upward as your feet hit the ground to add speed and power to your jump.

Single Leg Square Hops

Stand on your right leg, with a slightly bent knee in a runner’s position. Picture creating a square on the floor for this exercise. Focus your gaze eye-level straight ahead as you hop forward and stick the landing. Now hop to your right—and stick the landing before you hop backwards (stick the landing), and finally to the left again to finish 1 box. Perform 3 boxes (12 hops) on the right leg and then repeat with the left leg.

Thank you to Lauren Babineau for her contribution to this article.

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Why Endurance Athletes Should Watch a High Heart Rate

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Last winter I was on a long base training ride, and I felt generally awful. At first, I blamed my much higher-than-normal heart rate on fatigue, or perhaps a dying HRM battery. But after a couple of days off the bike, and more closely monitoring my heart rate in general, I decided something still didn’t seem right.

A visit to my primary car doctor and a quick EKG resulted in a speedy referral to a cardiologist. Long story short, the diagnosis was Persistent Lone (or Idiopathic) Atrial Fibrillation or AFib. “Persistent” meaning my heart was in a state of AFib all the time; “Lone” or “Idiopathic” meaning that (with no commonly recognized risk factors) the cause was unknown.

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a heart condition characterized by an irregular and often rapid heart rate. It’s not lethal on its own, but it can increase your risk of stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications. The American Heart Association estimates that at least 2.7 million Americans are living with the disorder. Traditional risk factors include what most would expect for heart conditions: congenital defects, age, heart disease, excessive stress, and stimulant use. However recent evidence suggests that long-term endurance sports training might also be a significant factor.

I am not a doctor, and my intent is not to contribute to the debate around AFib and endurance athletes. The purpose of this article is instead to raise awareness, and to provide some lessons learned through my firsthand experience with AFib, in hopes of helping athletes better-identify and deal with the issue if it arises.

Know What’s Normal

In my case, the doctors cited my quick identification of a potential problem (and seeking of medical attention) as critical factors in what would ultimately be a successful correction procedure. Like many athletes, I have a good understanding of what I “should“ be seeing with my heart rate relative to power and perceived effort, and was able to quickly identify that something was wrong. For performance, monitoring HR is becoming less prevalent, but there is a lot of value in consistently using it for insights into your overall health. (Here’s how to get started with a Heart Rate Monitor).

Don’t Self-Diagnose (or Attempt to Treat) Potential AFib

If you suspect any potential issues, just go see a doctor. If you are indeed dealing with AFib, Early detection could be critical in determining the effectiveness and complexity of your treatments. Furthermore, this stuff is nuanced, and the symptoms, causes and contributing factors are varied. Subtle differences could change your particular treatment options and likelihood of management.

It’s natural to be curious, and it’s always good to learn a bit more about what you are dealing with online. However I would recommend sticking with the more straightforward explanations and source materials. Fringe pieces can be really counterproductive, and can potentially give false hope, or undue fear. I read an article early on that said “shocking” your system with a surprise burst of cold water in the shower can “reset” your heart. I can report that it entertained my wife, but didn’t cure my AFib.

Trust the Process

Once diagnosed, you’ll have to work to accept the situation, along with the timeline for treatment—which for me was around six weeks. For athletes that can mean a good chunk of a key season, but it’s important to work through it one step at a time to ensure you get the most accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. I can also report that no amount of fighting, flailing or pouting is going to change AFib or make things move any faster.

I was fortunate that my first treatment approach (electro cardioversion) was a success. Basically, I went under general anesthesia while the doctor applied an electric shock to my heart, sort of like rebooting a computer. I have been in normal (sinus) rhythm since, and after a period of caution post-procedure I have pretty much returned to regular training. I even raced a good part of the spring and summer.

Live Your Own Life

There is an ongoing discussion in the endurance sports community over whether prolonged endurance training increases risk of AFib. Some prominent figures are sounding alarm bells, but others insist there is no clear evidence, and too many variables to connect the two.

My doctors acknowledged the debate, but said that from their perspective there wasn’t enough compelling evidence to stop me from training and racing as much as I liked. I have continued to train and race, but I admit there are days when I might not hammer as hard as I once did, just in case. Since the cause of my AFib was unknown there’s always a risk that it will return—but statistically speaking, the longer my heart keeps a normal rhythm, the more likely it is to stay that way.

Ultimately, nobody can tell you the right answers here but you. If you’ve noticed symptoms of AFib or have already been diagnosed, I recommend staying calm, seeing your doctor, informing yourself as best you can. That way, you can choose your own best path accordingly.

References

Mayo Clinic (2018). Atrial Fibrillation Symptoms and Causes. American Heart Association (2018).

What is Atrial Fibrillation? David McNamara; Mark S. Link, MD, FACC.

Ablation of Atrial Fibrillation in Athletes: PRO, Expert Analysis. American College of Cardiology. Mar 08 2017. Chaitanya Madamanchi, MD; Eugene H. Chung, MD, FACC.

Ablation of Atrial Fibrillation in Athletes: CON, Expert Analysis. American College of Cardiology. Mar 08 2017.

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Working with Assistant Coaches: Building a Culture of Trust and Success

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Expanding your coaching business can be one of the most rewarding accomplishments as a professional coach. Bringing qualified and enthusiastic coaches on board not only opens your business up to more potential clients, but it also transforms the culture of your company.

The transition from a “one-man show” to a diverse staff with a wide range of experiences helps create an environment where all coaches can thrive. Knowing how to best utilize your staff and their skill sets will provide a better experience for the athletes you work with, as well as everyone on your team.

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Trust Your Coaches

The first step in bringing anyone else on-board should be to ask yourself one question: “Do they add value to my coaching business?” If the answer is “yes” then that means they should bring a unique blend of skills to the table that complement and expand the ones that are already present within your coaching company.

If you feel that the coach is qualified then it’s paramount that there be a culture of trust established early on. As a business owner and head coach it can be hard to put aspects of the business in other’s hands. However, that’s the beauty of working with other professionals. If the relationship is founded on trust, both the business and the assistant coach will thrive. Let them flourish by providing the opportunities necessary for them to live up to their full potential.

Opportunities for Growth

No one likes to be stagnant. Whether professionally or personally, it’s always important to feel like you’re moving forward.

Continued education and development are a big part of a successful coaching group. These opportunities not only provide greater knowledge and know how, but also keep the team excited to expand their approach with existing and future athletes.

Coaching is an ever-changing and dynamic profession, and being a lifelong student is an integral part of a successful coach. Encourage assistant coaches to seek out seminars, lectures, and training camps that interest them. Whether these simply build on an existing skill set or open new doors for a coach, it’s always time well spent and an important investment in the productivity of your team.

Learn From Each Other

One of the best things about growing a coaching business is the chance to surround yourself with extremely qualified individuals possessing a wealth of knowledge. This knowledge shouldn’t be shared from the top down, but rather laterally between all coaches. Everyone comes from different backgrounds with a diverse set of experiences, and these experiences are what each and every coach on staff can and should be learning from. Carve out time to discuss new ideas and approaches with your coaches, and make sure that they are doing the same thing with their peers. While continuing education opportunities are extremely valuable, oftentimes conversations between coaches can yield the greatest insight.

Your coaching business is a unique chance to bring together a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. Both head coaches and assistant coaches should always take the time to learn from one another. These conversations can help build an environment of mutual respect and trust that leads to a cohesive coaching group. If you can build trust, while constantly looking for opportunities for growth, you’ll have a motivated group of coaches that are inspired and prepared to help their athletes excel.

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Training Tips I Wish I’d Known Before Running My First Marathon

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Your first marathon can be overwhelming, and it can be hard to refine or define where you can improve. Whether your race goes exactly as planned, or you crash and burn, there are always things you can learn. Here are some things I’ve picked up over the years that I wish I’d known on my first marathon start line.

Preparation is key!

You can’t fake a marathon, or at least one you’ll be proud of down the road. You will find that when you give yourself the proper time to build a base and go through a full 8-12 week cycle, your outcome will be far better than simply linking race to race.

Recovery is far more important than training hard.

You will not reach your potential if you’re waking up sore everyday, taking foggy afternoon naps, and extending every run to the max.  Learning when your body needs a day off is far more important than proving to yourself that you can finish a 20 mile run when you’re on the verge of being sick.

The body ultimately sees stress as stress, whether it’s self-imposed (training) or external (life, family, or work etc.) So don’t be afraid to take a loss on the day or accept that a shorter run will have to suffice. There are days when your planned workout will only hurt your progress, especially if you feel tired, stressed, or agitated.

Be realistic about your workouts.

A “work hard” mentality is great for racing, but not necessarily for training. Remember that working hard is relative, and you’ll feel better (and be able to work harder when you do work hard) if you also learn to embrace easy days. You should be completing your runs, and completing them with confidence. If you’re bailing, failing, or missing your goal pace—you’re aiming too high!

Think of it this way: Do you taper for a race? Why not taper for a workout? It sounds cheeky but your days between workouts are intended to be restorative and allow you to come in to your workouts ready to perform. If you can’t execute your goals, then you’re either setting an outrageous expectation, or your body isn’t ready to perform after your last workout—no other scenarios exist.

Build a team.

The best athletes in the world appear to know it all, but they’ll be the first people to thank the guide, mentor, coach, or friend who helped them get to the next level. Setting a world record or a personal record is rarely done solo, and your tribe or team will ultimately be your best asset when it comes to the ‘tough stuff’.

This becomes key especially when self-doubt enters the picture. Many have fallen into a trap they can’t get out of because they haven’t seen all the options, or can’t see them from where they stand. Young coaches or seasoned vets all come with a different frame of view so don’t shy away from either—they learn from each other too! Build a team who has your goals an interest in mind. The sign of a good team member is someone who will get your butt out the door when you need it but will also hold you back when you need to rest.

Your plan will fail, and that’s okay.

You will evenutally have a bad race – you will miss your PR, you’ll folly in the final miles, or blow up on that climb. Fallibility is human. We only truly fail when we become too stubborn to learn from our mistakes. Sharing a few tears and frustrations from a DNF will often take you further than simply working harder in the same rut. Failure is a teacher, not a punishment— how you use the opportunity to learn is up to you!

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