British Triathlon Federation Performance Coaching Conference 2014

British Triathlon held the Performance Coaching Conference at the East Midlands Conference Centre on the 15th of March 2014. In this blog, I’ll review the conference, providing my perspective and picking out key learning points that may be useful to other coaches.

tri runner


It was great to be given the opportunity to attend the British Triathlon Performance Coaching Conference from both a professional and personal perspective. The day was a complete success with the programme far exceeding my expectations.

The conference was opened by the CEO of British Triathlon, Zara Hyde Peters OBE in which she introduced the theme “Science and Innovation”.  I was a little sceptical of this theme. Many coaches are drawn to the sexy side of the sport and want to learn about the cutting edge. However, the basics such as communication and planning are often forgotten. My scepticism was ill-founded as every presenter made the innovative bits relevant to most of the coaches in attendance.  10 out-of-10 to Coaching Development Manager Paul Moss and the BTF team for putting together such a wonderful conference.

In this Blog, I review the presentations picking out some top tips and provide a bit of personal commentary in the hope that it will help your training or coaching, even just a wee bit.

Paul Moss
Paul Moss, BTF Coaching Development Manager

Jim Pennycook: MOD Centre for Defence Enterprise

Jim provided an overview of his work at the MOD, relating to innovative and new technologies. Strategic planning for war has much in common with preparing athletes for high-performance competition. His first point was to always ask “Why?” This simple question is often forgotten, resulting with people doing “stuff” without a clear purpose.  Environment is key insofar as it must be set up to allow people to succeed.Earlier in the week, my boss introduced me to the Knowledge Transfer Partnership, a programme that supports “UK businesses wanting to improve their competitiveness, productivity and performance by accessing the knowledge and expertise”.  The success of sport in the UK, especially in cycling, has been due to a willingness to engage with outside industries, to embrace chance and thereby create excellence.

What really interested me were the physical demands of soldiering. For example, infantrymen will typically only be effective fighting machines for 20 minutes. Previously, military training focused on endurance but now it’s more about strength development and intervals to replicate the demands of fighting.  Soldiers used to drop their kit, which can weigh up to 70kg before fighting, but in Afghanistan when they did so, it was instantaneously nicked! Therefore, they carry on fighting carrying one bodyweight’s worth of the stuff! It makes doing an Ironman sound easy! Military training has therefore adapted to meet these changing demands.

Similar to many sports there is an obsession with the weight of equipment. For example, batteries required to power technology are relatively heavy and are a limiting factor in fighting effectiveness. Therefore, reducing battery weight is a key focus of research and innovation programmes.

Appropriately trained personnel are vital to military effectiveness. Jim has studied Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) most specifically to examine “how to facilitate change”. Planned people are the most content…..simply having a plan reduces stress and improves efficacy. However, people still want to avoid planning or change.

 Top Tips for Coaches

  • Always start with high level planning
  • Understand ‘why’ not just what
  • Planning should be based on outputs
  • Good feedback is required
  • Testing regimes should not disrupt training
  • The success of a coach is based on success of athletes; choose clients carefully. 

Prof. Mike Tipton: Heat and the Effects on Human Performance

Mike is a professor of human and applied physiology. His area of expertise is thermoregulation of human performance in extreme environments, applied within elite sport, the military and business.

Even though physiology is my area of expertise, environmental physiology is something I don’t know a great deal about. For example, I didn’t know that only 15% of the world is sufficiently temperate to sustain human life without clothing and shelter. The optimal temperature for human survival is 26°C and the body functions best for endurance performance at around 11°C.

It's sometimes harder for coaches to deal with the cold
It’s sometimes harder for coaches to deal with the cold

Prof. Tipton argues that thermal regulation of an athlete is likely to affect performance more than either nutrition or training and merits similar attention within training programmes. There is also considerable genetic variability in how people can tolerate different environments, deal with dehydration and changes in core temperature. Ginger people tend not to cope well with heat so maybe the Marathon des Sables is not for me!

There’s one ‘extreme’ environment that most of us involved in triathlon within the UK are exposed to, cold open water! Over the last few years, I’ve developed a love for open-water swimming and discard my wetsuit at every possible opportunity! I’ve often wondered how I perform much better in it relative to my peers in the cold. Mike gave me my answer.  No, there’s not a direct correlation between level of gingerness and thermoregulation, I believe it’s due to me being acclimatised and having no fear of the stuff.

swim 1

Swimming in Cold Water

When entering cold water, the skin and superficial nerves are cooled very rapidly. The trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for a number of neuromuscular responses, is stimulated which can cause gasping, swallowing water and the heart to slow. Blood is drawn from the extremities to the vital organs, meaning that there is less oxygen reaching the working muscles. Increased anaerobic energy turnover is required resulting in greater perception of effort and a more rapid onset of fatigue. In really cold water, I’ve found it feels as though I’m swimming in mud!Open-water racing has a disproportionate mortality rate when compared to training in open water. It is thought that this is the result of a “strange arrhythmia” in the heart; putting your face in the water slows the heart….. the adrenaline in competition quickens it. The result can be irregular electrical activity in the heart and in the extreme, it can stop.

Reduction in core temperature is rarely a problem and neuromuscular responses cannot be controlled. However, regularly immersing yourself in cold water is likely to reduce the shock effect by ½.

Top tips from Prof. Tipton include:

  • Practice acclimatisation in training: this is vital for inexperienced athletes who are more likely to panic.
  • Be prepared for the mêlée of a mass start and keep calm; extended breath holding and anger should be avoided.
  • Practice transition when cold.
  • There’s no need to ‘warm-up’ in cold water (AK- simply get over the shock side by immersing your face before the start).

Kirkland’s Application of the Theory in Developing a Pre-Race Routine

I’ve developed my own pre-race routine which I’d like to share, particularly because after hearing Prof. Tipton’s presentation I have discovered it have theoretical underpinnings.

  • Find a quiet area away from other competitors. Many have a habit of sharing their anxieties and fears just before the start. This isn’t helpful.
  • Practice meditation techniques such as mindfulness of breathing and/or a body scan. These techniques lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, resulting in a calming effect.
  • Have a warm-up routine, arm-swings, skipping and alike.
  • Choose your race starting position, making your decision from the shore rather than when in the soup.
  • Enter the water slowly, waist deep at least, then do a little breaststroke.
  • Put your face in the water slowly, prepare for the shock reflect and focus on keeping breathing relaxed.
  • Progress swimming into freestyle, building intensity very slowly.
  • Get to the start position.
  • Start the race no faster than you’ll be able to maintain for its duration. Focus on staying relaxed. An anxious, adrenaline filled swimmer’s stroke will shorten, it will be less efficient and will waste energy in the mêlée. A fast start is only important for those where tactical considerations are important i.e. elite drafting events.

There are many British athletes who compete in hotter climates e.g. Nice, Hawaii etc….. The degree of acclimatisation, hydration status, clothes worn, state of health, skin disorders and use of medication may all affect how well they perform in the heat. Better acclimatised athletes will have an improved electrolyte balance and be able to metabolise carbohydrate more efficiently. In the heat, heart rate may initially be elevated but as the athlete acclimatises it will come down and steady  to a ‘normal’ level. Therefore, monitoring heart rate is a good way to assess how athletes are acclimatising.

 Top Tips for the Heat

  1. Integrate acclimatisation strategies into training.
  2. Be very prescriptive and monitor adaptations.
  3. Skin is the best material in the heat: it must be well protected though!
  4. Only use pre-cooling strategies when too hot. Hands in cold water (10°C) is effective. 

 Ian Pyper: Performance Science in Elite Triathlon

Dave doing a Fatmax test at GSSI
Dave doing a Fatmax test at GSSI

Ian is a Performance Scientist to British Triathlon and the Great Britain Triathlon Team. He gave an overview of sports science support and performance analysis received by elite level athletes. The approach they use is very similar to the “leave no stone unturned” approach of the Great Britain Cycling Team.

Having worked in a performance environment as a sports scientist, I probably found Ian’s presentation the most challenging. That’s no disrespect to the quality of his work or the presentation. It’s just that coaches like Darren Smith of D-Squad and Brett Sutton don’t get much sports science support but still manage to consistently ‘produce’ world beating athletes. I believe that this is because:

a)      they understand people.

b)      they understand the sport better than any scientists.

c)       they have eyes and use them effectively.

d)      they are amazing communicators and motivators.

e)      they understand that humans can only perform at their best when exposed to tough. performance orientated environments.

I strongly believe that a sports scientist will only re-enforce what a great coach already knows. If I had my way, I would divert resources into training and mentoring performance coaches who are able to understand and apply the science for themselves. Of course, sports science does have many important roles which Ian highlighted:

  • Performance analyses to better understand technique, tactics and identifying risk factors for injury.
  • Monitoring training, recovery and race performance.
  • Benchmarking and screening athletes: strength, speed, endurance and biomechanical tests.

These roles provide coaches with information which can result in performance gains and minimise incidences of injury. If a team of 10 support professionals contribute even 1% to the performance of an athlete who goes on to win Olympic Gold, then in monetary terms the investment will have paid off. I’ve also accessed top level support for athletes in the knowledge that it will make them feel valued and supported; thus, a placebo effect is likely.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ian’s presentation and he’s obviously doing a great job. I’d just like to see greater investment in developing coaches from grass-roots to elite level who better understand how they can use sports science to develop people.

Simon Jones: Technical Performance Planning for Coaches

Simon was former Head Coach at British Cycling Performance Team Director at the Western Australia Institute of Sport and is now Head of Endurance Sports at the English Institute of Sport.

Simon ran a workshop on technical planning and the planning process for a performance environment. Everything was linked to having an understanding of “what it takes to win”. I feel I’m selling Simon short by not writing more, but it was a practical workshop using the EIS Technical Planning Tool.  It started off with higher level planning, moving towards the small details. I’ll certainly be developing some of my own tools based on what I learnt on the workshop.

Rob Bridges at the Snowman
Rob Bridges at the Snowman

Sarah Broadhead: The Chimp Model- Understanding Yourself and Others

Sarah is a chartered Psychologist and Director of Sport at the Chimp Management Company and is  the Sport Psychologist to the Great Britain Triathlon Team.

I love what Sarah does and have been to one of her workshops before. I chose to miss this one as it was running parallel to Simon’s workshop. Sarah works with Dr Steve Peters, using a ‘novel’ model in sport terms, which takes more from psychiatry and neurology than is typical. If you’ve not already done so, I’d urge you to read Steve’s Book The Chimp Paradox . This book has the capacity to change your life and certainly the way you coach.  Some psychologists criticise this model because they feel it is not wholly valid. However, I would defend it up to the hilt as it contextualises many complex evidence-based principles in a way that can be understood and applied by us all.

Chatting with other coaches, they felt that Sarah’s workshop was great!

Peter Keen CBE: Keynote

Peter and Dr Sarah Springman, ITU Vice President
Dr Sarah Springman, ITU Vice President and Peter Keen CBE

Peter is Director of Sport at Loughborough University, he was previously a special advisor at UK Sport and Performance Director at British Cycling.

Rarely does one get the chance to thank someone for sparking an interest in a subject that becomes a passion in your life. I got that chance at the conference. Back when I started riding the bike in the early 1990’s, Peter was coaching Chris Boardman (one of my hero’s) and I read Cycling Weekly religiously, loving to hear about his battles with Graeme Obree. They used fancy bling heart rate monitors, carbon fibre bikes and suchlike. I loved it all and began reading as much on sports science as I could. Whilst I’ve met Peter a few times, it was wonderful to hear him talk so modestly, eloquently and intelligently on being a coach.

Peter stopped being a sports scientist in 1997 as he felt that what he was doing came far too close to coaching. He has seen many changes in that time, most noticeably a more holistic approach in which it’s not just about physical conditioning. Technical, tactical and psychological  aspects receive equal attention. He gave some great coaching advice that many coaches would do very well to consider:

A coach is there to serve athletes and not their own ego. Good things are unlikely to happen when a coach is ego orientated. It will go wrong when coaches want or need a win more than the athletes they coach. They must not fear or think of horror when things go wrong……..covering one’s back is a road to nowhere. The paradigm a coach should follow is not clear: is it a medic, a councillor or teacher? What a coach should not be is someone who simply tells others what to do!

The coaching relationship can be a very intimate one, a relentless dialogue of an athlete’s life, knowing what they are thinking before they think it and anticipating how they’ll respond in certain situations. What do they eat when they are at home……each aspect is important in optimising performance. Finding the line can be challenging though and the relationship must not become a dependency. Being able to be effective in a high performance coaching environment means being sufficiently comfortable in who you are and what you do.

I had a chat with Paul Manning an ex-Olympic champion and now endurance coach at British Cycling last year and he said the best riders he worked with were the ones that were always asking questions. Peter confirmed this by saying that Boardman was a great questioner, always asking why. In turn, he gave wonderful feedback, always so much information to work on.

One delegate asked Peter what he thought of remote coaching. He suggested that whilst it has its place, simply seeing how an athlete moves, acts or behaves in any given situation is priceless in terms of coaching.

Key to success is having a vision of what it is……working backwards to plan how to achieve that success. Keen’s early career was based on numbers and what they mean…sometimes understanding them is intuitive but it’s not always clear cut. He recommends not to “go on rhetoric or emotion”, even though they do sometimes have their place.

I understand well what Peter meant when he said that a key thread in his career was that “he was doing something he is fascinated about, a motion of flow where the clock goes too fast and there’s never enough time in the day.

Prof. Vicky Tolfrey: The Science Behind Three Wheels, Not Two

Lucy Wainrwright: Nutrition and Recovery in Triathlon

Apologies chaps but I didn’t see these sessions.


What a great day. Peter Keen’s talk was definitely the highlight for me. The sign of being engaged for me is that I had a massive list of questions for all presenters that I wished there was time to explore. I met some wonderfully inspiring and knowledgeable coaches too, swapped emails with a few and even had a follow-up online meeting with one coach on the Monday to discuss how we could potentially work together professionally.

I’ve been to one or two conferences in my time but thought this was up there. I’ve been to ACSM in America before, costing several thousand pounds to attend but learnt far more from this one. Great job Paul Moss!



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