Coaching Ironman Athletes Gordo Byrn, November 2004 The purpose of this article is to offer you, the coach, some ideas on how to most effectively assist your athletes in achieving their long course racing goals. Before we begin, it is worth remembering that there is no “one way” to approach an ultradistance triathlon. There is no single answer, no magic protocol and no easy way. By attending this course, you are taking a pro-active step in furthering your knowledge and your ability to effectively coach your clients. However, keep in mind that there is no faster way to learn about ironman-distance racing than to sign-up, train and race your own event.
If you plan on making a career out of helping athletes go long, then it’s a necessary investment in your further education. Defining the Event For all but the fastest elite competitors, an ironman-distance race is a nine- to seventeen-hour aerobic time trial where the average intensity sustained will be 20 beats (or more) below threshold heart rates. Racing long requires superior endurance, aerobic economy, process management and arousal control. In seeking to create the optimum training program, these four critical success factors (CSFs) should be foremost in the coach’s mind. I’ll get into the implications of each of the CSFs later.
First, let’s simply define them in terms of the race. superior endurance – the ability to sustain optimal race intensity. superior aerobic economy – maximizing aerobic efficiency at optimal race intensity.
superior process management – the ability to create, remember and execute an optimal race strategy. superior arousal control – the ability to resist the temptation to deviate from optimal race intensity. In short get fit, get efficient, create a plan and stick with it.
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Getting it right is far more difficult than it seems and a key reason why intelligent athletes often appear to “race above their fitness” on game day. What’s Optimal?
The word “optimal” comes up a lot when I discuss training protocols for long course racing. I often speak of the optimal strategy for an athlete. As coaches, each season, training cycle, and workout provides us with an opportunity to optimize our clients’ training. But what’s optimal? I wish I could tell you.
I know that many athletes wish that we could simply hand over a piece of paper that tells them everything that they need to know/do in order to achieve their goals. However, coaching and the human body don’t really work like that. There’s a lot of grey in the real world. I have learned several lessons watching, coaching and participating in our sport. I’ll offer you my personal Top Ten list:. Running fitness is meaningless if an athlete arrives in second transition too tired to use it. Ironman-distance race performance builds off superior cycling fitness.
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There’s nothing “fast” about ironman-distance racing. The highest intensity sessions are the least specific in an athlete’s program. Inappropriate intensity is also responsible for most nutritional, recovery and biomechanical breakdowns. All the fitness in the world is useless if an athlete is sick or injured on race day. Arriving at the race site fit, fresh and focused is worth a lot when the going gets tough.
Athletic goals need to sit in harmony with life goals and the reality of an athlete’s life situation. It only takes a little too much (volume, intensity, fatigue) to tip an athlete over the edge. There is no worse feeling than falling apart two weeks out from a goal race after a whole season of diligent preparation.
There is no easy way – the achievement of meaningful goals requires sustained, consistent effort over an extended period of time. Athletes require constant reassurance that it’s OK to rest. The single greatest item that most age-group athletes can add to their program is an extra hour of sleep every night.
Intensity cannot substitute for volume. We are training for a nine to seventeen hour event. The best indicator of likely race performance is consistency of preparation over the eight months prior to an athlete’s A-priority event. Continuous progress requires consistent dedication. An athlete’s year should be based around a straightforward week structure that the athlete can repeat 40 out of 50 weeks without undue stress on his non-triathlon commitments. When faced with a dilemma between Base or Build – choose Base.
While a thorough understanding of sports science and physiology is an essential part of the coaches training, this must be supplemented by your actual experience of the needs and limiters of your athletes. In a sport as young as our own, be wary of “experts” that lack direct experience helping athletes achieve the goals they are advising on.
Creating Superior Endurance There are many different ways to determine training intensity zones (lactate testing – see Hellemans, best average time trial average heart rate and/or power – see Friel/Byrn). For long course training, my view is that the easiest and most effective method is to apply subjective perception. Start training at an easy pace and slowly increase the intensity of exercises.
The bottom of the steady zone can be determined by noting the heart rate where the first deepening of breath is felt. This deepening is caused by the body attempting to rid itself of carbon dioxide caused by the release of hydrogen ions into the blood when lactate first begins to accumulate. This point is also referred to as aerobic threshold (AeT), ventilatory threshold (VT or VT1), the bottom of the aerobic zone (Friel Heart Rate Zone Two), and a range of other terms. So long as we know what we are seeking, I prefer not to debate the appropriate terminology. For the rest of this section, I’ll define this point simply as “AeT” or “aerobic threshold”. If you prefer another term for this physiological marker then just follow along making the appropriate adjustment as you read. I define the point of deepening is the bottom range of an athlete’s aerobic zone (what I like to call steady, what Joe Friel would call Zone Two).
The top of this aerobic zone can be estimated by adding 10 beats per minute to the bottom figure. Zones can be cross checked using the full range of testing protocols but this method seems to work just fine for long course training.
When I first started training (and coaching) my goal was to constantly drive threshold pace upwards. My thinking (shared by many) was that increases in threshold pace/power would result in improved long course race performance. This “top down” approach to fitness is popular as it can be quite time-effective. However, I believe that it approaches performance backwards. We’ve all heard the phrase, “train slow, race slow” but I think that many fail to realize that a well-paced ironman-distance race is, in VO 2 Max terms, fairly “slow”. While an appropriate training protocol will lead to improved threshold pace/power, it is a result, not a key target.
Higher intensity training should be structured to enhance race specific power, pace and endurance – in other words – AeT power/pace and AeT endurance. Implications and ideas:. novices should spend nearly all of their training time enhancing economy and building aerobic threshold endurance. experienced athletes with race times that are significantly longer than their aerobic threshold endurance (11-13 hours) must address their body composition through improved nutritional quality.
For the back half of the field, this is the most rapid way to achieve significant gains in economy, and therefore, race performance. if aerobic threshold endurance is equal to or less than anticipated race duration then spending any material time above aerobic threshold in a race will likely prove costly.
This seems to be an explanation for why many well-nourished and well-hydrated athletes simply run out of gas. I think this is the most common form of “bonking” and it has nothing to do with race nutrition or hydration. The athletes are just tired. The Basic Week Ask your athlete to outline a low stress, harmonious training week that can be completed 40 out of 52 weeks of the year. The amount of training time that you see in this week is what you’ve got to work with.
In order to maximize consistency, training volume needs to be built bottom up for best results. To do otherwise, might work for a few weeks but eventually reality (or divorce) will encroach on training performance. From time-to-time you can insert a stretch week to challenge the athlete but the bulk of the athlete’s training will likely be done within the limits of the Basic Week. Ideas:. Schedule at least three sessions of each sport – with a moderate approach to intensity, elite and experienced athletes can tolerate four to six sessions per sport per week. Schedule two strength sessions – these can be as short as thirty minutes and/or combined with sport specific work. Strength training is most important for cycling limited, female and veteran athletes.
Severely time-limited are likely limited to a single strength training session per week. Gradually push the endurance envelope while improving sport specific skills and economy. As the athlete improves have them train longer and more frequently rather than more intensely.
Increase the steady-state component of their training, rather than overloading them with high intensity sessions. Remind your athletes that getting tired is the point of training and fatigue them with aerobic training. When they are tired use total rest (best for novices) and active recovery/skills work (best for elites and experienced athletes) for restoration purposes.
Don’t underestimate their recovery needs as they will need to be quite fit to handle a lot of aerobic volume. It sounds easy but heading out and riding a focused three or four hours in our aerobic zone is one heck of a tough session. Many athletes will need to start with primarily easy pace and 15-20 minutes blocks of steady work inserted into their endurance sessions. You’ll get a lot of comment from your athletes wondering “how am I going to get fast if I only tool around in my aerobic zone”? My athletes express this all the time during the winter and spring. One of your jobs will be to (compassionately) break it to them that they aren’t fast.
However, the good news is that neither is an well-paced ironman-distance race. I like to use low-priority and shorter distance races for higher intensity training. With my experienced athletes, I also supplement the steady-steady training with sport-specific muscular endurance work that is done “one gear up” from goal race effort – a half-ironman-distance race being an example of a tough race specific muscular endurance session for an experienced long course athlete. While a significant amount of high intensity training is not recommended, I recommend that you schedule quickness training. These sessions include strides, spin-ups and other technique focused work that will build quickness/economy while not generating high levels of fatigue (See Friel/Byrn). The Benefits of Change While the previous sections discussed the benefits of stability in training approach and structure, inserting “change” into an athlete’s program is necessary for mental freshness and ensuring continuous adaptation.
Here are some ideas for how you can incorporate change into your athletes’ programs:. cruise intervals – insert focus periods (1 to 3 minutes duration) into your athletes steady state training – these periods can be higher cadence, lower cadence, different riding positions (standing, sitting up) and/or different intensities. main set structure – change work or rest interval durations – within your basic week, make sure that main set structures are adjusted every 4-6 weeks. recruitment – vary your athlete’s muscular recruitment patterns in training. In the water, use the different strokes. On the bike, use different terrain, riding positions and cadence changes.
When running, use terrain and pace changes. Maintaining a Task Orientation Probably the single greatest mental skill that separates successful athletes for their peers is the ability to maintain a task orientation in their training, racing and everyday lives. Athletes with strong mental skills spend their time focusing on items that are within their control and relevant to the achievement of their goals.
It is worth remembering that in a long distance race the following are outside of our control:. weather;. competition and their actions;.
equipment (flats and other potential issues);. swim conditions (currents, temperature, surf, course accuracy);. bike conditions (wind, debris, other riders, vehicles);. run conditions (cloud cover, temperature, terrain, other runners); and.
aid stations (location, volunteers, supplies). Encourage your athletes to make every effort to be informed about the uncontrollables but spend no energy in seeking to change them. Instead have them focus on managing the items that are within their control:. pacing;. nutrition;. hydration;. equipment (appropriate, serviceable);.
technique (form, cadence, economy);. Gom player alternative for mac. breathing (full, relaxed, controlled); and. preparation (race strategy, course knowledge, training). Every race, every session, every day provides us with an opportunity to practice maintaining a task orientation and avoiding the temptation to waste time/energy on the uncontrollables in our lives.
Defining Success As coaches we tend to pass our own filters, biases and “issues” along to our athletes. Do we maintain a task orientation in our coaching?
Do we provide our athletes with the resources and support they need to focus on the controllables in their lives? It’s worth considering because the attitude that we bring to our athletes will have a large impact on their approach to the sport. Athletes will typically quit/fold/crack when their expected outcome strays too far from their primary goals. For this reason, I’ve found it quite useful to focus them on a primary goal of “executing to the best of my ability given the conditions prevailing at the time”. Many athletes that set highly challenging quantitative goals find themselves mentally beaten down by their perceived inability to meet these self (or coach) imposed targets. In fact, the stress that many athletes experience prior to a key workout or race is directly associated with self imposed targets, which are often based on factors that we cannot control – time splits and relative performance being the most common.
So much energy is wasted during race week by mentally feeding endless what-if scenarios. For athletes that find themselves caught in this trap, have them write down each concern and develop a plan for addressing it. In some cases the only course of action might be “accept that it could happen”. Workout Ideas and Sport Specific Philosophy This article isn’t intended as a how-to-manual for ironman-distance racing. However, no coaching presentation would be complete without sharing a few ideas on actual sessions.
For these key workouts, I’ve used race distance efforts to define goal intensity – this enables athletes and coaches of all abilities to automatically adjust for their current fitness level. If you make an error with these sessions then I would recommend that you do them “too easy” when you start. Nearly everyone overestimates goal intensity early in a race or training session. Sport specific skills will be dealt with elsewhere in this manual. So I’ll focus on a few key concepts and sessions that I’ve found useful. Swim Triathletes rarely need encouragement to swim 50s and 100s quickly on long rest. Where they need encouragement is on the challenging, longer main sets.
Here are a few of my favorites.