Reflections on IM 70.3 Edinburgh

IM 70.3 Edinburgh

Introduction

The nature of my beast is that I love to learn and over the last 6-months I’ve certainly done that. That’s because IM 70.3 came to town and it gave me a great opportunity to engage with some wonderful people and learn more about a sport that I’m pretty expert in already.

In this blog, I’ll share my observations and reflections as an active observer of a truly world-class event. You may even gain a few top-tips to help you for next time.

Changing Perceptions: The Ironman Brand

We’ve all got our perceptions of different brands and I am no different with the IM one. But perceptions shift. I’ve gotta say that in terms of Pro athletes, the brand could do way better in gender equality and athlete welfare. The Pro’s help sell product and the epic battles they’ve had in Kona have certainly added to the IM global brand. However, to qualify for Hawaii with a Pro’ licence, most have to over-race and have little opportunity to earn a decent living unless they are top of the tree. It wouldn’t take much for the brand to make their careers more sustainable and their lives a little easier by ring-fencing a small proportion of their mammoth profits to support those who inspire us. It’s no joke that most Pro’s use equipment that is not up to the same standard of many age-groupers and that’s because some are struggling to make ends meet.

However, what I failed to recognise is how the brand motivates and engages with so many people in a way that local races cannot. IM quality assurance processes are second to none because they have a ‘machine’ which ensures a wonderful experience for A-G athletes. To justify the cost , quality must be amazing and customer satisfaction high. They manage to achieve this and its convinced me not to be overly critical, but to look for ways to work with the brand to enhance race experiences for everyone.

The sense of community amongst athletes has been like ParkRun on steroids (lets not mention A-G athletes on HRT).

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Are you up to the challenge?: Athlete naivety

Edinburgh and East Lothian has experienced quite challenging sea conditions and high-winds in the run up to the event and on the race day itself.  Whilst they were atypical conditions, they were not entirely unusual or unpredictable.

I was out swimming in the Forth in the run up to the event and conditions were as tough as I’ve ever swam in here. Rather than be put off, I’ve emerged from the water with a huge smile because swimming in waves is so much fun. I’m not a great swimmer (repeating 100m’s on 1:40 to 2:00 mins depending on fitness). I’m not doing any swim training at all just now but would have happily completed the full race distance without too much difficulty.

However, I was genuinely shocked and astounded to chat to numerous athletes who had done minimal or no open-water practice in the run up to the event. This resulted in high levels of trepidation and a lack in confidence from some. I believe this was a factor in many athletes being plucked out the sea or failing to make the cut-off time. Confidence is everything when swimming in open-water. Admittedly, I feel safer in the sea because I am less suceptible to being attacked by a man (always a man) with lane rage and I’d rather be stung by a jelly fish than drink baby pish. However, without confidence in rough sea conditions, the environment can be risky for the underprepared. Whilst IM wishes to encourage first-timers (which is great), individual athletes must take responsibility and prepare for all types of sea conditions. Doing otherwise is not treating IM racing with the respect it deserves and it is tempting failure. Part of the attraction of endurance sport is that it allows us to escape from ‘real life’. Reducing risk must therefore be balanced with not over-sanitising the sport. I think that balance was right and it was entirely appropriate for the race distance to be shortened because of the weather. Saying that, it also lost those who had prepared for the conditions their competitive advantage, which was a little unfair.

I also heard many reports of the race being the hardest many athletes had experienced, including over the 180-km race distance. These people need to understand Rule Number 5 in cycling. One cannot argue with individual perceptions. However, I’ve ridden the bike course around 5-times and despite me being overweight and far from race-fitness, I can confirm it isn’t too hard. I lived in the Peak District for many years and have done tougher rides to buy a vanilla slice in the patisserie in Marple! Yes, the wind blew, but it nearly always does in East Lothian. Those who thought the course was overly tough had obviously failed to prepare for the demands of the event and/or got their pacing wrong.

During the run up to the event, I found the unofficial IM 70.3 Edinburgh Facebook page engaging, supportive and highly entertaining. The entertainment came from the number of utterly daft questions that many people were asking and it gave those of us in the know the opportunity to demonstrate how clever we were to each other.

The page told me that many 1st time competitors were completely naive, lacking an adequate understanding of the sport  and knowledge of how they should be preparing for the race.   Whilst colleague Alister McCormick has qualified the psychological demands of endurance sports in this paper I’m not sure he captured the magnitude of stress and anxiety many athletes suffered as a result of their inexperience…which transferred into the race experience for some. Being adequately prepared and knowledgable brings with it confidence. However, that cannot be gained by training alone, getting advice on an internet forum or on the pages of 220 Magazine. It comes with building a greater triathlon community with training groups, clubs and high-quality coaching.

As a coach and deliver of education for athletes, this gave me a wonderful insight into ‘the market’, and potential gaps that could be filled through coaching interventions. Watch this space… Which brings me on to Silent Wolf Coaching.

My Experiences with Silent Wolf Coaching

John, Grace and Paul were responsible for the IM 70.3 Facebook page and setting a positive and inclusive vide within it. They did a wonderful job. What many of you will not have seen is how they helped so many athletes in their journey to the start line.

IM 70.3 Edinburgh 2

I was privileged to be invited by John to deliver the swim coaching at two preparation weekends for the event and it was an amazing experience. I don’t think I’m overstating it by saying the weekends were a highlight in my coaching career. The main reason is that over the course of a few coached sessions, we saw the confidence and technique of the athletes grow rapidly. Many had never attended a triathlon club session, let alone experienced triathlon coaching… even within a few sessions we saw a marked improvement in athlete performance.  Seeing the smiles and ‘glow’ in athletes who have rapidly grown in confidence is why I do my job.

What does this tell us? Well…that coaching is worth far more than buying a fancy aero-bike. Paul and I were standing at the bike mounting area at T1… I jest not when I say that some athletes lost more time in getting their leg over their bike and clipped in than could have been gained through using a £2000 set of wheels over a 40km TT. Indeed, some of the people who had obviously never practiced mounting a bike in a race situation were riding Pro level bikes. Not cool.

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The fact is that paying for a coach for 6 months would cost a 10th of what some athletes spent on their bikes! I’ve helped an already rapid athlete go 15-mins quicker over the 70.3 distance through expert guidance. I believe the benefits of good coaching to an average A-G athlete could far exceed this time gain.

The team at Silent Wolf did an outstanding job of supporting so many athletes and I think I’ve made some pretty good friends in them too.

To Conclude

Triathlon isn’t an easy sport. Despite what the marketing may say, there are no shortcuts to achieving your potential. A expensive bike or the latest nutritional products at very best will result in marginal gains. The fundamentals of the sport include consistently in training, technically appropriate practice, being highly disciplined and patient. Expert guidance from a good coach will speed up the learning process but there’s no substitute for experience either. If you wanna do a one-off 70.3 then that is fine, but for longevity and to truly enjoy the sport means that the fundamentals must be embraced.

Finally, the organisers, Paul and Richard, did an awesome job. They’ll be first to admit that everything did not go perfectly, but this is normal for a new event of this magnitude. More toilets and hot pies will probably be in place for next year.

There have been other criticisms of the event, but they’ve typically been the result of inexperience, idiocy or general cockwomblery. The course was tough but fair. The finishing rate wasn’t high relative to other events, but that’s no reflection on the organisers. Those who didn’t achieve their goals need to learn from their experiences and come back fighting next year. For the resilient, the sport offers an amazing challenge  because it has a habit of catching even the very best athletes out.

For those of you who achieved your goals, very well done and an even bigger pat-on-the-back for those who helped make IM 70.3 Edinburgh such a wonderful experience. If my bloody foot recovers, maybe I’ll be joining you on the 1st of July 2018 to experience the joys and pains of a world-class event in my home city.

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Group Riding on the Open Highway

Riding in a Group It’s Tour de France time again and the weekend warriors will be out in force. But the increase in numbers comes an increase in inexperienced riders. A rather well know NGB is rather worried about its insurance premiums, partly as a trend trend towards more dangerous group rides, crashes and casualties. When […]

Riding in a Group

A Group Riding Session

It’s Tour de France time again and the weekend warriors will be out in force. But the increase in numbers comes an increase in inexperienced riders. A rather well know NGB is rather worried about its insurance premiums, partly as a trend trend towards more dangerous group rides, crashes and casualties.

When I started cycling over 20 years ago, it was in a club environment. Lets not pretend these were wonderful days in which newcomers were welcomed with open arms. Rather, the rides were ‘hang on if you can affairs’ in which I typically did not hang on. I would arrive back later than most at the  secret society club rooms. Old boys would talk about how they rode 80 miles on a 100 inch fixed gear to a road race, they would win it and then cycle home again with only a jam piece for fuel. It was a macho environment in which you were welcome to ‘f**k off” if you weren’t hard enough and changing clubs was as safe as shouting “EDF” in Moss Side. Lizzie and Laura wouldn’t even be able to buy any female specific clothes let alone consider wage equality. Some of the shit things I saw back in these days still motivates me to do a better job in encouraging youngsters who want to ride a bike.

However, there was a positive. Cycling etiquette was literally booted into me. I was taught how to sit on a wheel, how to ride through-and-off and to communicate holes in the road or approaching cars. It wasn’t until 10 years later that I got really good riding advice from cycling legend Brian Rourke. His type is fading fast….an old boy who’s been a great pro, still able to mix it with the fast boys but wanting to help the youngsters and inexperienced riders learn how to ride a bike safely. Brian would nip back, push you up to the bunch, or guide you through corners following his line to catch up. Amazing stuff. Nowadays, offer similar advice on a chain-gang and you’re likely to be told where to go.

The brilliant news is that lots of youngsters who now receive excellent coaching and learn their craft well before they even reach junior level. This is thanks to dedicated volunteer coaches and professionals who deliver skill based coaching sessions. The majority of older riders haven’t experienced skills coaching and prefer to focus on training zones.

Of course, It’s easy to be critical of others and I’m certainly far from a bike handling wizard. However, a problem we are facing is having riders coming to the sport later in life who haven’t been through the club environment, who have not been coached and who feel the need for speed!  The typical demographic is now ABC1 males who are reaching a mid-life crisis, who have plenty disposable income and are not the best at listening to advice.

This isn’t good for the sport as big crashes are far more likely. Egos take priority over safety, despite it being ‘cycling law’ that we should consider the safety of other riders just as much as our own. Part of the attraction of cycling is that it’s sometimes dangerous…..however, it is cockwomblery when ego and lack of skill are mixed.

There’s no easy solution but I’ve come up with a few top tips that you may wish to pass around:

Top Tips

  1. Recognise that it takes skill to ride a bike at speed. That means riding at the level of your skill rather than of your fitness, when in a group.
  2. Being a weekend warrior can be fun but ‘smashing it’ in a large group with a range of abilities is not safe. Rather, enter a race!
  3. If you don’t know cycling etiquette, don’t ride in a group until you do. You’ll find lots of different versions if you do a simple Google search. For British Cycling members, there’s a great article on etiquette in the Insight Zone.
  4. If you’re an experienced rider, lead by example…don’t be a sheep. That means speaking up when you spot unsafe riding and splitting the group up if it is too large.
  5. Don’t ride in groups of more than around 8-10 riders. You’ll get a much better workout that way and it will be safer.
  6. Try to avoid all-male groups. Maybe a gross generalisation but females tend to know their limitations and have smaller ego’s.
  7. Leave your ego at home.
  8. Don’t wear pants under your shorts!

Size of Groups

I’ve come up with a list of advantages and disadvantages between large and small groups. Unless you road race, I can’t think of a good reason why you would choose to ride in a group larger than around 8 riders, unless it is on a closed-road circuit.

Large Groups (8+)

Advantages

Disadvantages

  • Sometimes replicates the demands of road racing (if you road race).
  • Pace is highly variable so get a good physical workout
  • Forces you to concentrate more.
  • More dangerous because of range of rider abilities
  • More dangerous because of the snaking effect i.e. touch of the brakes at front of the group may result on a rider at the back having to slam their brakes on; riders at back have to accelerate much harder out of corners than those at the front.
  • Large groups make it difficult for cars to pass and motorists get frustrated
  • Difficult for experienced riders to control the group and give less experienced riders tips.
  • The effects of one or two in-experienced riders can disrupt the whole group
  • Work: rest ratio is less than for smaller groups
  • Difficult to do a work-out that is specific to your own training.

Smaller Groups (Less than 8)

Advantages

Disadvantages

  • Much safer than larger groups
  • Can practice race tactics more safely i.e. mini-breakaways, sprinting for 30’ signs and so on
  • Can accommodate a greater range of abilities
  • Ideal to learn group riding skills such as ‘through-and-off’.
  • More inclusive/less intimidating for riders new to the sport
  • Easier for experienced riders to provide riding tips
  • Easier for cars to pass
  • Work: rest ratio is greater than for larger groups i.e. you work harder
  •  Does not replicate the stop-start nature of road racing (only a disadvantage if you race)
  • I can’t think of any more.

Note

Just a wee note to say that this article represents my personal views, rather than those of anyone I represent.

Confidence: The Be All and End All of Coaching?

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I Need a Training Plan

I always do my best not to be too critical of other coaches. On talking about coaching mind-sets, Myles Downey suggests that:

– People have huge potential.
– People have different ‘maps of reality’.
– People have good intentions.

These are really important to me, and probably my greatest skill and worst enemy is to see their perspective and give them the benefit of the doubt. However, there’s a type of coach that really annoys me. He, and I say he intentionally, is the super-confident alpha-male with the permatan who states everything with absolute certainty and believes what he says is fact. He’s the autocratic type who expects you do something because he says so. There is one coach I have in mind who elicits such an emotional rant in me that my partner mentions his name just to wind me up. My Buddhist training flies out the window when I hear THAT name.

There’s another type that I struggle with. It’s the type who uses bad science to sell the dream, the ones who endorse products or use methods that emanate from a marketing man’s Mac. I met a coach recently who sold a product that has little basis in fact, claiming performance benefits. I actually liked this guy but I didn’t find him a credible coach because he was one of two things:

a) Guilty of intellectual idolatry or
b) Intentionally scamming his coaching clients to make money.

The video below is good to watch to get the message. Woops, will Gillian McKeith sue me for posting?

I hear lots of moans about remote coaches, who typically only prescribe training, have the odd weekly chat and manage 30-40 clients. However, I don’t mind this type of coach because they are serving a demand in the market, are giving athletes what they want and charging a fair price for the service.

But hey….. The most important thing in life is to be responsible for ones own actions rather than whine about other people. Lets talk about my favourite types of coach instead.

They are overt, think carefully about what they and speak with humility rather than absolute certainty. They have two ears and one mouth and use them proportionately. They also tend to be female coaches! OK, I’m bias but as a rule of thumb I think females make better coaches than males. They only make up about 20% of all coaches and the percentage is far less at the performance end of sport.

However, I think I’m in the minority because my perception is that Coach Permatan, supplement selling man probably makes more money than the type of coach I prefer. Of course, I don’t buy the neoliberal perspective on judging success on the size of someone’s bank account. It’s relative anyway as the majority of coaches, even those at the highest level are paid a pittance.

Reading a paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by Tenney, Spellman and MacCoun (2008) helped explain my ire. Although it did not report on sex differences or even examine sports coaching, I’ve paraphrased a few quotes from the paper:

– People prefer confidence in others, not ambiguity.
– People rarely independently verify what others tell them, and without that verification they cannot fully assess their sources’ reliability.
– People who are good judges of their own knowledge are rewarded, and those who are overconfident in what they know lose face.
– People are often drawn to highly confident coaches believing this confidence has some basis in reality. However, when they receive evidence to demonstrate this confidence is not matched by ability, then the coach may appear less credible, likeable, and honest.

A few years ago, I was chatting with an Olympic Gold Medallist who had successfully transitioned into being a coach and had supported a multitude of other athletes to podium finishes. He wasn’t the alpha-male type but he did engender confidence in others, maybe because having been an Olympic Champion gives immediate credibility. However, he was found out. One particularly bright and confident young athlete who had won a few world medals wanted to know:

– Why am I doing this training?
– What are the alternatives?
– Why should I listen to you?
– How will you help me go faster?

He said he felt challenged, exposed and ill equipped to answer her questions. The fact that he was sharing this with me showed humility and a desire to be able to answer her questions. His ego was damaged but he retained credibility because he was honest in his responses.

In the world of age-group triathlon coaching, confident and less humble coaches who big up their credentials and/or successes as athletes despite being ‘full of shit’ are often more successful (in financial and performance terms) than a less confident coach who has far more knowledge.

I believe there are a few important reasons for this:
1) When dealing with most athletes, simply getting them training consistently, regardless of methods, is likely to result in better performance.
2) We know that placebo is one of the most effective treatments known to human kind and bullshit coaches use confidence in their own perceived ability to good effect.

Much as it pains me to say it, a crap coach with confidence can help most athletes get faster and make money out of doing so. This may seem unfair but as as Prof. Steve Peters says “It is a fact that life is not fair”. It’s pointless getting upset when Coach PermaTan Placebo is rolling with cash and getting plenty of glory.

The bottom line is that a coach without confidence but plenty of knowledge is as much use as a chocolate teapot. Credibility gained through being a top athlete is typically a bigger commodity than having the coaching skills and intellectual capacity of Einstein. Of course many top coaches such as Brett Sutton and Daz Smith have never been top athletes but they both have the intellect and confidence of a bull elephants. This confidence is what athletes need and expect, especially when the going gets tough. Saying, “hmmmm, I’m not sure…..such a paper suggests but I think we need further research to confirm” just does not cut it.

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Most coaches who consistently deliver success at the very top of the sport have the intellectual rigour to support their confidence and credibility. They are normally willing to justify themselves, admit when they’re wrong and say when they don’t know, all with confidence.

“Tell me what you think?” is a great question because it allows them to calibrate their answer, relative to the athlete’s beliefs (or give them thinking time). I’ve learnt the hard way…..even if you think a coach is talking out their bum, only challenge them in a way that allows them to maintain credibility, usually in a one-to-one conversation, not on pool-deck in front of the rest of the group.
However, if you’re Mr Permatan Placebo Coach man reading this, mark my words, you will always be found out. You should have the lesson of Tenney et al in your ears:

“when confidence is not matched by ability, you will appear less credible, likeable, and honest”.

You will have to hope your clients don’t ask you too many difficult questions or know more than you do. When I’m teaching or coaching, I always assume there’s someone listening who knows more than I do, because that’s often the case. I know that’s hard to believe!

In the academic world, fellow academics typically only ask questions, not because they want to know the answer. They already know it and want to clarify you know your stuff! Particularly cruel ones will be looking to shoot you down and if you come across as over confident, even the nice ones will have a pop too!

Although most athletes don’t like to challenge a coach, some do. I like to be prepared for most eventualities and know that every time I open my mouth, my credibility is at stake.

2016-01-22 TrainingPeaks

The Domain

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The Domain…….a place between exhaustion and oblivion.

In triathlon, we often look to for innovative technology or the latest training methods in the quest to go faster. However, there’s a philosophical concept that’s over 2500 years old which is innate and if recognised will frame the way we train and race. It’s a Buddhist concept called Nirvana, the end of suffering. To get there requires an intellectually disciplined journey in which we lose our ego. Nirvana is a place of balance where there is no perception, just reality in which we don’t worry about the past or future. It’s about the here and now!

Just imagine racing in such a state of no suffering. Psychologists have termed such a state of the optimal zone of functioning. Everything simply feels balanced. It’s a state that most athletes rarely experience, a place where PB’s are achieved and dreams realised. But achieving this state consistently requires the discipline of Buddha himself.

Fatigue, the inability to maintain the required pace can be the enemy but only if you let it be. There are metabolic, neuromuscular and environmental factors that can contribute to this fatigue. Regardless of race distance, fatigue generally hits us at 2/3rds of the way through with efferent signals hitting our brain which tell us to slow down. However, if we’ve got pacing and nutrition right, only a lack of mental discipline or misfortune will slow us down before the end of the race.

The purpose of training is to meet the specific demands of the race. In all but draft legal races, doing so is relatively simple. It’s all about training to maintain a relatively constant pace until the finishing line. We also need to prepare ourselves to enter the Domain willingly. If we think about the Domain positively, like entering the Nirvana zone rather than the hurt locker, then optimal performance is more likely.

Many triathletes are attracted to the sport because it is tough and it suits their alpha personality. They perceive themselves to be mentally tough and this translates into how they train.  This quasi-one-paced mediocrity neither enhances fat metabolism, FTP or VO2max. The fact is that most athletes train too hard and race too slow. I like Stephen Seiler’s 80% easy: 20% hard concept in this regard. Have a watch of the YouTube presentation below if you want to hear more.

I’m a great believer that perceived strength and ego can be the biggest weakness in many triathletes, especially for those who take the path of least resistance. They focus on training the body in that zone between VT1 and VT2, whilst neglecting the training of the mind to meet the demands of their targeted event. Particularly when racing long, many unhelpful emotions and perceptions will catch the mentally undisciplined out, they will push too hard and sub-optimal performance will result.

I once read a book by a polar expedition leader (who’s name escapes me) who said that alpha-trait males were a complete liability when travelling in hazardous environments. Those with less perceived strength would think themselves out of dangerous situations rather than letting their ego drive them to their death. Of course, triathlon is far less extreme and death is rare, but the same principles apply.

Discipline in Training and Domain Training

There’s plenty information regarding training out there; however, information should not be confused with knowledge. We’ve got to be able to apply what we know to the real world and it most cases that means keeping it simple. All most athletes need to consider is consistency and specificity in their approach, doing the simple things well and ‘picking the low hanging fruit’ first.

The specificity comes from training in and around specific training zones:

Easy endurance: to promote efficient movement and energy (fat) metabolism. Developing good technique and formidable best achieved in this zone as it cannot be done effectively when fatigued. Training at this pace takes discipline and mental toughness, especially when training partners are pushing harder.

Medium endurance: for 70.3 and Iron-distance athletes this is race-pace training. It should feel controlled rather than hard. Technique and form should be maintained rather than developed here.

Threshold: isn’t the sweet-spot unless you’re focusing on sprint or Olympic distance events. I would argue that it’s ok to train here in the off-season if you’re going long it won’t do much to enhance your race performance if you go here too often in the race-phase.

Speed and power: is for interval training of up to a few minutes. It can be used liberally in the preparation phase of training and more conservatively later in the season. For certain types of athletes, I’d use such efforts in easy sessions too to break up the monotony or to satisfy a fragile ego.

Domain training: To the best of my knowledge, I invented this zone. It is not bound by any type of threshold other than in one’s soul. Plato may recognise it but Karlman Wassermann certainly would not. To enter it regularly in training is impossible but to achieve optimal performance in racing, it is essential.

Karlman Wasserman

If you go into The Domain, it will be embedded in your memory. I’ll never forget the 1st time I experienced it a few months before The Longest Day. I rode at pace from Edinburgh to a training camp in Aberfeldy with some mates, met with some others and  rode a bit more and then cycled home  as I had work the next morning, This 260km ride over 14 hours became horrible after a coke. My gut refused to take food after I drank it and with 50km to go, my brain glycogen was so low that I could barely signal my hands to pull the brakes. A neighbour had to rescue me from the front door of my tenement block, get me and my bike in the house and then buy me pizza which I could barely eat. I had passed through exhaustion to oblivion.

Domain training can equally be done in short sessions, say racing a mile until you taste blood in your lungs or digging so deep on a hilly ride that you can barely stand afterwards. Used sparingly in combination with easy and medium endurance rides builds resilient and mentally strong athletes. Going into the domain regularly or in combination with loads of sessions between the thresholds can lead to temporarily fast athletes but more often than not it will lead to broken or not quite as fast as they could be ones. I’d love to test this hypothesis on a couple of brothers in the Leeds area………………..

Turbotastic: There’s still time to get on the Watt Bike (or turbo)

It’s getting to the time of year that most of us are giving up on indoor training and getting the miles in. However, is this the right thing to be doing for your performance?

In this Blog I’ll focus on the benefits of turbo sessions. It’s been written specifically for members of my club, Manchester Triathlon and based on the sessions I be delivering to them. However, there’s plenty that others can take away from reading it too!

2015-05-08 Watt Bike

The Benefits of Indoor Training

It doesn’t have to be the middle of winter to get the most of doing some of you bike training indoors. In fact you may find that including at least one indoor session per week on the turbo with make your training more effective.

There’s many reasons for this being the case, including:

  • It’s easier to control intensity which will add specificity to training
  • There’s no periods of freewheeling so your training is more efficient (more work done in a shorter time)
  • You can do very high intensity efforts without having to worry about the risks of the road
  • Your benchmark tests produce better data (in terms of validity and reliability) allowing you to track changes in performance effectively
  • If like me you are surrounded by big hills, you can do steady state type efforts more easily
  • Long turbo sessions help develop mental resilience…..if you can do a 3 hour turbo session, then you can smash the bike leg in an Iron distance race
  • They’re great for doing TT position specific sessions.

Ok….there are downsides such as sweating buckets, feeling sick and getting bored but it’s quite simple to re-frame these downsides into positives!

You can't keep the power on the pedals when the road goes down steep!
You can’t keep the power on the pedals when the road goes down steep!

The Benefits of Attending a Kirkland Indoor Coached Session

One of the most important sides of being a member of a club is the social aspect….meeting friends, training together and motivating each other. Group training can be a challenge too, especially if the coach prescribes a session that doesn’t align with your goals.

However, I believe the most important role of a coach is to engage with as many athletes as possible within the group. That means taking the time to find out about the goals, aspirations and motivations of each and every athlete….. This can’t be done in just one week so a notepad is an important tool of the coach. Of course, it’s impossible to account for everyone’s needs but such information helps with the ‘art’ of coaching.

I am always asking questions…. what athletes learnt, how did they feel during an effort and will they be coming back next week. Coaches are given too easy a time by most athletes…… If a session is crap I expect athletes to say so. If athletes don’t understand what they should be doing and why, then they should ask and a coach should always be ready and willing to answer.

Plan and Deliver: Your Cervelo or Your Life!

Especially as I don’t coach as groups as much as I’d like to, planning is essential. I like to know what I want athletes to achieve in a session before I begin. Obviously, for indoor sessions the physiological element underpins everything else. In an hour’s session athletes will feel short-changed if everything is at 80% FTP (circa IM pace). Therefore, most sessions will be made up of high-intensity efforts and recoveries of various duration.

I will always use the same warm-up and cool-down protocols, shown below, which are the ones that I recommend athletes use before shorter time-trial races. I want to help athletes form habits in training so they become second nature in racing. I’m happy to chat you through the rationale of each if you drop me an email.

Warm-up Cool-down
·         5 minutes easy spinning (Freely chosen Cadence)

·         5 minutes build to FTP

·         1 minute easy

Then:

·         1 min @ FTP 30 sec easy x 4

·         Complete warm-up with 3 minutes easy

·         3 mins of easy spinning

·         5 mins at FTP -10%

·         2 mins easy

·         5 x 1 min at ‘moderate’ intensity in an easy gear as 54s easy and 6 sec max rev-out.

An Active Cool-Down can Aid Recovery
An active cool-down can aid recovery

Most sessions I design will have a psychological and learning element within them too. Triathletes tend to be physical Trojans but mentally weak! Getting faster is more about engaging the brain than ‘smashing it’. Switching off your brain when I’m coaching isn’t an option.

Often when I’m prescribing training, even low level ‘fat burning’ or technique sessions, I’ll end with a very hard effort. Whilst this may not be physiologically optimal, the final memory of the session will be the lasting one “that was bloody hard”. Such efforts satisfy alpha-males and they (the efforts, not the alpha-males) release feel-good hormones too!

The following things give me physical, technical and psychological information when I’m observing riders and they’re just as applicable to you if you would prefer to train alone in the basement (preferably with a mirror):

Posture Is the rider athletically relaxed? Holding tension in the body is inefficient especially when riding very hard. The shoulders hide no secrets….they should be steady and free from tension. I’m also looking for a ‘strong’ core and stable hips.
Where are the head and eyes looking? I don’t want to see a rider looking at their feet……looking ahead shows me that they are engaged with the task at hand.
Breathing Is it deep and controlled or fast and furious? I’ve performed hundreds of VO2max tests in a lab whilst recording all sorts of physiological measures. This means I can tell if someone is sticking to the prescribed intensity or not…… I know what 10% above FTP looks like in terms of breathing! The only time breathing should be shallow is at the point of exhaustion. Shallow breathing is lazy.
Cadence/pedalling Unless the session is focussing on strength development or high-cadence efforts, I don’t mind what cadence a rider pedals at. I once coached a guy who did a sub 19-min TT and his average cadence was 58rpm. There’s other people that can maintain a cadence above 100rpm. This tells me there’s no such thing as an optimal cadence so I’ll let people find their own mark! That said, I’m still looking for rhythm and will pounce on anyone showing signs of ‘soft-pedalling’.

A Few Links

When I’m doing my own sessions in the basement or coaching, I use a great little app called Seconds Pro which is available on IoS or Android to keep track of what I’m doing. It’s worth paying for the Pro version. What is awesome is that you can link it to music stored on your device. I typically use Resident Advisor or Electronic Groove podcasts to keep me motivated.

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A screenshot of Seconds Pro

If you’re a member of Man Tri, please email me and I’m happy to send you the Seconds file so you can do the sessions in your own time. Click on the SESSION PLANS HERE if you wish to see what you’ve missed or may wish to come to in the next few weeks.

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The Savage Beastly Brutal Bollockbusting Nutcracker

There’s an old chap who lives in my village. He’s bearded, tall (he would be taller but he’s stooped), has less fat on him than a butchers dog and he wears a hearing aid. The first time we spoke was on the day of the Charlesworth Fell Race. The race is a traditional village festival one in the Peak. It involves running up a steep hill, along a ridge and down again! It’s 5km and it hurts so much that you get OMS rather than DOMS.

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A view from Coombes Edge

Anyway, I saw the gent in his running kit just before the race start but not at the finish line. Rather, we bumped into each other on the train both having been to Glossop for our shopping. I moaned about having a mild asthma attack on the climb and he gently teased me about how easy this particular race was and that he’d kicked over mole hills bigger than Coombes Edge. I instantly liked him. I love bumping into Neil now! He’s typically on his way back from watching an athletics training session or race. We’ll have a nice chat about what we’ve just done, he’ll natter a bit about the past and who’s running well in the present….. Running is his vital force, part of his soul, his being and his life. I want to be like him when I’m in my dotage . One day he said he’d just been to see his mate Ron another runner that he’d written a book with. It transpired that Ron is none other than the famous Ron Hill! When I got home, I googled Neil and found that he’d been a pretty handy sub 2hr 30min marathon runner back in the day of plimsoles.

Several weeks later I was reading Richard Askwith’s book Feet in the Clouds and Neil got a mention. He had been a buddy runner for one of the all-time running greats Joss Naylor, during a Bob Graham record attempt.

Joss Naylor

For the uninitiated, the Bob Graham Round is one of the toughest running challenges in the world, which anyone can attempt but few succeed. This is a truly gruelling run involves running up and down 42 Lakeland fells in a 24 hour period! The thing was, I was reading about the BG on my way to watch IM UK Bolton. Maybe a strage coincidence but it changed my whole view on big events. My initial fear of watching IM was that I’d be inspired to get enter next year. The opposite happened. It was a strange experience.

Imagine…. air thick with the whiff of silverback pheromones…….emanating from male gorillas of a similar vintage to myself, adorned with similar tattoos and ridiculous one-piece Lycra suits. As I stood watching at the entry point to T1, a man as previously described came zooming towards the dismount line on a Cervelo P3. He tried and failed to do a running dismount, falling arse-over-tit and took another athlete out. I felt sad. Don’t get me wrong……participating in sport is every bit as important as sporting excellence. It should be inclusive rather than exclusive. However, rampant commercialism of by organisers has overtaken the pioneering spirit. The first triathlon many people now do is IM distance and it shows!

Transitions are full of £5k bikes and with an entry fee of close on £500, it encourages a very narrow demographic to compete. Completing the distance is still an achievement but few manage to do so to their potential. That’s because many don’t understand or respect the race and its history.

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Many of the perceived  ‘successful’ events are those which market themselves as Savage Beastly Brutal Bollockbusting Nutcrackers! They may be really long, have challenging climbs or a few rocky trails. However, I’ve got adventure racing friends whose daily commutes are more challenging. Does this matter? After all, many people have a nice day out and get an ego boost as a result. What saddens me is that the aspects of sport that I hold so dear are being lost because races are becoming more about brand, marketing and bragging rights. Again, that may not be a problem to some and I’m certainly not one to impose my views on others. However, in a recent race, I was nearly wiped out by a chap who undertook on me at 40km.h and then I saw why…… it was the only way he could get round a small peloton to my right.

Now I know how Christophe Bassons felt! I was surrounded by a bunch of dangerous cheats. It doesn’t make something right if “everyone else is doing it” just like doping. However, in my case I think my fellow competitors had just not taken the time to learn about the sport. Back when I started cycling, in the late 80’s I was in a traditional cycling club. It was a strange environment for a young lad and I’m certainly not looking back with rose-tinted glasses. In many ways, they were the bad old days, where antiquated views were expressed. It certainly wasn’t inclusive and many first-timers never came back. To fit in, you had to prove yourself! I was a relatively slow rider, but managed to prove myself through sheer pig-headedness! I’d be dropped week-after-week but I’d always come back for more. The good side was that there was always one wise old chap on hand, giving encouragement, ensuring you knew group etiquette and always ready to show displeasure if you stepped out of line or rode dangerously. It’s where I learnt about the importance of respecting the history and rules of the sport. They weren’t there simply for tradition. Rather, if you’re belting down a hill at 50km.h in a group or chain-ganging along a busy road, you’ve got to respect and trust your fellow riders.

These early lessons have stuck with me. I’ve come from the sport of cycling where many, no all of my past heroes have been done for doping. It hurts but it heightens the importance for personal integrity and upholding the rules of the sport. That means not draughting, respecting fellow competitors and trying to be safe! It’s people like Neil Shuttleworth who are now my heroes. They’re not mere interlopers looking for personal gratification. They do their best, with performances often being as good as any world-class athletes. However, they rarely get rewarded or recognition. Rather, they do it because of a love of the environment and of the sport. If you think IM is tough, I challenge you to do a fell race. You’ll see a beautiful side to sport where courses may leave you frozen, soaking, bleeding and broken. You’ll be competing against people that look slightly unwashed and feeble but you’ll be so far behind them as not to worry about the smell. With a tenner, you’ll pay your entry fee, get a pint, a chip barm and an experience to compare with many of the ‘toughest races in the world’. In fact, such races are tougher because they’ll push you way beyond your comfort zone. You may even find yourself struggling to keep pace with a middle-aged granny in a pair of old Walsh’s! It takes a real man to cope with that!

If that’s too much of a challenge, what about a local sprint triathlon? You’ll taste your lungs in a way that’s not possible when going long! In fact the longer you go, the less it hurts…….the pain just lasts longer! The important lesson for me is that sport is more than just completing a distance. It’s about self-discovery, always pushing the boundaries and operating beyond the comfort zone!

99% of people enter races that they know they’re likely to be able to complete with their ego intact! Only 1% enter races where failure is a risk or they may lose face. However attempting such things makes you feel more alive and it’ll ingrain sport deep within your being!

“I think it is human nature to feel doubt at different times, but it is how you use those feelings, or learn from them, that’s important”. Craig Alexander

Aerobic vs Anaerobic Exercise: It’s Missing the Point

I recently saw a question on the 220 Triathlon twitter feed from The Swim Guru on whether anaerobic work should be included within training sessions.

In this Blog, I’ll do my best to answer the question from a personal perspective.

Working anaerobically
Working anaerobically?

Science and exercise intensity

As I’m a chartered scientist, it wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to guess that I love science. That’s because I love observing, quantifying and analysing to better understand phenomena.

In endurance sport exercise intensity is demarcated into different training zones using threshold intensities such as lactate threshold, Fatmax, Critical Power, VO2max and so on. All these threshold values are based on factors relating to aerobic or anaerobic metabolism. However, to think about exercise intensity in terms of only these metabolic factors may be missing the point. Rather, doing so may be limiting training effectiveness and I tell you why.

Like many things in my life, I have ‘light-bulb’ moments when things that were completely confusing become immediately obvious. One such moment occurred during the write-up of my Ph.D. when I read a very brief paper by Mark Hargreaves: http://jap.physiology.org/content/jap/104/5/1541.full.pdf which totally changed my view on endurance performance.

Hargreaves stated the obvious, that the body is a complex system not simply a metabolic one. Rather, the human psyche, neuromuscular activation and skeletal muscle are all implicated in fatigue processes, and thus endurance performance.

My conclusion was that fatigue (or training zones) should not be considered in metabolic terms alone. This is despite virtually every textbook and training manual making such an elementary error.  I was guilty too, focusing my complete thesis on a few tiny areas of science. Hargreaves highlighted how naive I was being. He changed my (scientific) life.

Working aerobically?
Working aerobically?

What is a threshold?

Aerobic and anaerobic metabolism occur on the same continuum with rest being at the lower end and surpra-maximal intensity being at the higher. Human beings like clear differentiation between things and threshold points are used for such demarcation.

Over many previous months in the laboratory and staring at excel spreadsheets, I’d been trying to identify the first and second ventilatory thresholds (VT1 and VT2), using the plotting method below. For all intents and purposes, this is the same as identifying aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. Occasionally, I’d see clearly distinguished thresholds in the data but more-often-than-not  it was messy.  The diagram below took many hours of ‘trawling’ my data to find the set that best represented what Wasserman et al.’s Principles of Exercise Testing and Interpretation was describing.

Data 1

Typically scientific data is presented in such a very clean way. After all messy data or stuff that is difficult to interpret rarely progresses beyond a journal editors desk. However, the more academic literature I reviewed around thresholds, the more I became confused. Researchers argued about the mechanisms and mediating factors of thresholds, using different terminology to describe similar phenomena and the same terminology to describe quite different phenomena!

My conclusion was that this lack of consensus was because the term “threshold” does not perfectly fit physiological processes. Rather, changes in physiological these processes occur on a sliding continuum, without a clear threshold but as a transitional or inflection point (supported by Meyer et al., 2004).

Furthermore, factors such as the the human psyche and neuromuscular activation processes would have to be wholly aligned for threshold intensities to adequately describe fatigue. I reached the conclusion that exercise intensity should not be described only in terms of aerobic or anaerobic metabolism.

More physiology

An area that I also studied was oxygen uptake kinetics, which took me a few years to get to grips. This is despite the subject being relatively simple. The diagram below illustrates virtually everything a coach needs to know about the subject. It shows the oxygen uptake response for a bike rider who’s initially pedaling at an easy 100W. He instantaneously increases power to Functional Threshold Power.      

Data 2

As the rider is relatively well trained, it takes around 2 minutes for him to reach the point where a steady aerobic energy turnover is achieved. The aerobic steady-rate requirement for this rider is 3500ml of oxygen per minute. However, for the initial two minutes the rider is in energy deficit, having to make up for this shortfall through anaerobic pathways. Of course, this is beautifully clean data, it was measured in a lab using £40k worth of equipment and I still had to spent an hour or so to ‘reduce the noise’ in the data by eyeballing then applying a statistical filter! In reality, data in the ‘real world’ would not look like this.

In reality we rarely maintain a constant power/speed (because of choppy water, other people, hills, wind and poor pacing) so our oxygen requirement is never truly constant. This means that our aerobic and anaerobic systems are both ‘switched on’ all of the time. This is particularly true for interval sets (including most swim sessions), fartleks and when running on hilly terrain. Any increase in power/speed, even below the ‘anaerobic threshold’, requires a contribution from anaerobic pathways. Therefore, there is no such thing as either aerobic or anaerobic exercise.  They are not mutually exclusive!!! 

Understanding this in a triathlon context

Imagine a swimmer is doing 10 x 100m in the pool at their fastest maintainable pace with minimal recovery (circa 20 sec per 100m faster than CSS pace with 15secs recovery). A swim coach may call this a ‘lactate tolerance’ set (although they would be talking nonsense…lactic acid is a fuel and tolerance infers suffering….we should love the burn!!!).

For the first 100’s in the set, this would require about a 60% aerobic contribution and a 40% anaerobic contribution to total energy turnover. Theoretically, the  ratio would change as the set continued because the swimmer would be depleting anaerobic stores and not be able to resynthesise this energy quickly enough in recovery. A further likely outcome is that technique falls to bits, pace drops rapidly, as does the anaerobic contribution. Sub-optimal training will result!

Many would describe such a session as an anaerobic workout even though aerobic metabolism dominates! However, I think having such a debate is immaterial to performance because of the demands of the sport.

The demands of endurance sport

There are three reasons why we train:

  1. To get faster (achieved by increasing the applied force and/or rate of force whilst minimising the forces acting to slow us down)
  2. To minimise/prevent injury
  3. To have fun (earning money doesn’t really count…….because the WTC etc have crap prize funds).

Now to use a Kirkland anecdote to explain more!

A few years ago I was at a testing session in a leading lab with one of the world’s best age-groupers….who I hope will read this. He’d just done an anaerobic test and we had an amusing conversation:

“Wow……..your numbers are equivalent to Chris Boardman’s on that test”

“Really” the athlete said with a grin on his face!

“Yep…….his were similar to a 12 year old girl’s too”

The bottom line is that this athlete who is good enough to finish on the age-group podium in Hawaii is unlikely to have his performance limited by the lack of ability to work anaerobically. The same can be said for any non-drafting triathlete in the world. It’s simply not a demand of the sport!

It terms of (1) to go faster no triathlete needs to undertake training to specifically improve anaerobic capacity. Never! However, this is semantics as ‘smashing it’ has its place. Here are my reasons:

  • Training hard and training fast hurts and if done right, it helps reduce the rating of perceived exertion at sub-maximal intensities…… i.e. training hard makes racing seem easier….thus it takes into account psyche!
  • Training above FTP/CSS taxes the aerobic systems more than training below it. Therefore, with adequate recovery, it promotes aerobic adaptations such as improved VO2max.
  • Maximal type training can up-regulate aerobic enzymes such as phosphofructokinase which enhances oxygen delivery and hence performance
  • It can be used to develop strength and speed
  • It makes us feel good, satisfies the ego and it can hit #3……to have fun!

I’m gonna stick to the 80% train low, 20% train high ratio as a rough rule of thumb. That’s because:

  • Training close to and above FTP/CSS relies heavily on carbohydrate metabolism (aerobic and anaerobic glycolysis) which reduces exercise efficiency when compared to fat oxidation. Doing too much high-intensity work compromises endurance
  • High-intensity training often compromises subsequent training sessions
  • Training should primarily be specific to the demands of the event that you’re racing in
  • Most triathletes are unable to maintain good technique when going fast!

Conclusion

So there we go! I believe there is a time and a place for triathletes to work above an FTP/CSS intensity but there’s very few circumstances where training should target improving anaerobic capacity. If however you’re racing ITU, gimme a shout and I’ll revise what I say to you!

All the energy is depleted!
All the energy is depleted!