More on the Real Secret to Triathlon Fitness

 

My last blog post generated quite a few questions from athletes.  So, I thought I’d share a few of the more common questions – and my answers to them – with you.

And maybe most important, to address a crucial issue that wasn’t asked at all!

The number one question I got was “how much intensity/speed work should I incorporate into my base aerobic training?”

While there’s no set amount that is perfect for everyone, the guideline I follow is three minutes per hour of training, or 5%, in the early months of base training after an appropriate adaptation period.  Once you’ve been training for at least two to three weeks consistently you can consider incorporating short bursts in all three sports.

Five percent is not a lot, so keep the bursts to 10 to 20 seconds and focus on your form and frequency.

As you get closer to your first “A” race you’ll need to pick a day a week in each sport to increase the intensity duration and, perhaps, reduce the intensity on some other days to balance things out.  That way when you transition into the build period you’ll be better prepared both physically and mentally to tackle the hard work to come.

What might that look like?

If you’re going to spend 12 weeks on aerobic base training, the process might go something like this.  In the first six weeks (two three-week blocks) you can start by introducing short speed work into one or two sessions the first week and gradually spread the short speed work over most if not all of you training sessions.

When you reach the third three-week block reduce or eliminate the speed work one day a week and shift that effort (time) to the day of the week where you’ll focus your key intensity for that sport, e.g., Tuesday for your key run intensity session.

In the next three-week training block, you’ll make a similar adjustment.  That way when the hard work begins you’ll be ready to tackle it.  The key is to be consistent and methodical.  If you try to jump from easy aerobic training straight into hard build phase training, you’ll likely end up frustrated at best and seriously injured at worst.

 The second most common question was “how much aerobic base training should I do?”

Your current level of training and the distance of your “A” race(s) are the basis for determining how much base aerobic work you need.  While there’s no set amount beyond having enough to get you to the finish line, as an experienced triathlete in the early season I like to give myself a minimum of 12-15 weeks where my focus is on easy aerobic base training (zone 2 heart rate training in a 5-heart rate zone system).

The benefits of zone 2 heart rate training come from your ability to deliver ever higher levels of oxygenated blood to your working muscles at the same or less effort and that happens as a result of easy aerobic training over an extended period of time.

Once this is accomplished then it’s time to shift your attention to at least 15-18 weeks of race specific preparation, which includes a 2-3-week peak/taper phase.

Triathlon is a complex sport. To get triathlon fit and have fun racing requires ample time to train, recover, and adapt in each phase of your training.

 The third question was “do I still need to do strength training if I’m doing speed work and hills?”

The short answer is YES. Triathlon is about endurance and strength! Or as Paula Newby Frazier used to say, “triathlon requires enduring strength.”

Why do so many competitors find themselves walking during the run leg of the race? I believe (along with many coaches) that it’s less about lung capacity and more about lack of leg strength.

The key to building leg strength is to start small and build gradually.  Doing too much too fast or piling strength training onto a rigorous triathlon training program will result in injury and exhaustion.

This can be particularly difficult for you if you have a sports background that focused more on strength and speed, such as American football, or you spent part of your year on activities that emphasis high intensity training like cross-fit.  The shift to doing easy aerobic during your base building phase can be difficult because it will feel like your training will be just too easy to be of benefit.  But stick with it.

 The question no one asked – something that occurred to me after the first blog post – is “how do short, strength/speed skills sets impact my recovery?”

Adding short speed sets and more hill training into your routine will likely tighten your muscles.  You’ll want to incorporate more stretching from the very start, especially your calf and hamstring muscles, to maintain and/or improve your range of motion.

If you don’t build the habit of stretching from the very start it becomes more difficult to incorporate later and, as is often the case, may never happen at all.

I personally build in a couple of 30-minute yoga sessions during the week.  And if you spend a lot of your day sitting, be sure to take a few minutes throughout your day to get up out of the chair, move around, and stretch your muscles, too.

Intensity, even in small doses built into your easy aerobic training, stresses your body more than easy aerobic sessions alone.  Don’t skimp on proper body care from the beginning.

Otherwise, trust me, you’ll pay for it later!

 

 

 

The Real Secret to Triathlon Fitness

Do you want to know the secret to getting more triathlon fit?  Yeah, me too.

The fact is there’s no secret.  It’s quite the opposite.

Unlike when I started in triathlon, today there’s an endless amount of information on how to train, what equipment you need, racing tips and advice, how to pick a coach, etc., and it’s growing every day.  Most of this information is good and worth your time to study because triathlon is a complex sport and it’s a long road from novice to mastery.

So where do you begin?  Well, that depends.  It depends because you don’t have an average or normal life, you have your life and that’s where you start.

In the rest of this article, I share my strategies for getting triathlon fit. You’ll need to adjust the information based on what you want to do and why, your current training behaviors, your current level of fitness, and the time you have available.

Are You Tri-Fit Enough to Build?

Before you start your build phase for your key race(s) you need a solid foundation of triathlon specific base fitness.  This could take you anywhere from six weeks to six months or more, depending on your current level of fitness…and more is better.  But what does this mean?

Personally, I avoid clichés like “build a bigger engine” because I don’t find analogies to be terribly helpful.  Instead, in the introduction to the free training plans on my website, I outline what I consider to be the minimum times you need to be able to comfortably swim, bike, and run before jumping into either of my long or short course plans.  But the bare minimum is just that… and when it comes to triathlon base building that’s only the start.

What is a Triathlon Base?

Triathlon base building requires a combination of triathlon specific endurance, strength, and economy (speed skills).  If your base-building strategy is about going out for progressively longer, slow swim, bike, and run sessions then you’re only building your endurance and your strength and speed skills are going to suffer.  To prepare your mind and body for the demanding work in the build phase you need to focus on all three of these areas during your base training.

Integration Is the Key

You don’t need to add a bunch more time to your training to improve your strength and economy.  Instead focus on integrating small amounts of strength and speed skills into many, if not all, of your current training sessions early and often.  Here’s what I mean.

Swim Skills:  Swimming is a highly technical sport so it’s important to incorporate drills into every swim, such as 2-4 x (50 drill/50 swim) in the warm up and cool down.  Maybe even do one swim a week where the main set is focused on drills, e.g., 10 x (50 drill/50 swim).

If you’re struggling with what to do remember that swim drills fall into two broad categories:  body position and stroke power.  Body position drills are primarily variations of kick on side drills.  These drills focus on improving your balance in the water and being streamlined.

Stroke power drills are all about building your power/velocity in the water.  My personal favorites are fist drills, single arm drills, and catch-up drills.  To get a better idea of what these drills look like you can go to Youtube.com and find endless amount of swim drill videos.

And don’t just go through the motions.  Be sure to execute the drills as close to perfect as you can for maximum effect.

Swim Speed/Strength:  Speed work improves economy and builds strength.  You don’t have to do large volumes just do it often.  In your warm up, the middle of the workout, or at the end build in four, six, or eight fast 25’s with 20 seconds rest in between.

Bike Skills:  I group bike skills into 2 buckets: handling skills and pedaling skills.  Handling skills are about dealing with the multitude of things that only show up when riding outside.  If possible, log some group riding time. I’ve seen silly and deadly mistakes made by triathletes who aren’t used to riding surrounded by people. Yes, you can develop some handling skills, especially balance, by riding rollers inside… but I don’t know many triathletes who do that.

Pedaling drills are best done on a trainer for maximum results and safety.  Common drills are single leg drills and spin up drills; both are good but their effect is limited because of their short duration, which is why I usually do them in my warm-up.  To make real progress I like to build specific cadence sessions into my base trainer routines.  These sessions are either mixed in with other sessions or done as a complete workout.

These sessions are always aerobic (no high intensity) so you get the double benefit of building your aerobic capacity and improving your pedaling skills.

A 10-minute base cadence block that I often use looks like this: after at least a five to ten minute warm up begin the session at 90 RPM’s in a moderate gear and increase two RPM’s every two minutes four times (eight minutes) then two minutes in an easier gear.

If you want to make a full trainer session using this workout then start each progressive 10-minute session two RPM’s higher:  2nd session starts at 92 RPM’s, 3rd session at 94 RPM’s.  No need to go beyond 110 RPM’s.

Bike Strength:  The bike is a great strength training tool.  One approach is to do 5, 10, or 20 short speed bursts (about 10-20 seconds) whether on a trainer on the road where you have good visibility for safety reasons.  Another is simply logging time in the hills to build your strength.

Whether on the road or in the hills you can occasionally shift into a slightly harder gear with the focus on building strength.  The key is to do it only for a minute or two and only for a few repeats in any training session.  Your goal is to gradually build bike specific strength over time, not max out your heart rate.

Run Skills:  While running is the most natural of the three sports in triathlon, it’s also quite technical and requires enduring strength to go farther faster.  On the technical side you have stride length and leg turnover.  And on the strength side you have force, which refers to the power you generate when your foot contacts the ground.

An aerobic run regardless of duration will do little to improve your economy or strength.  In fact, if you only do easy aerobic running you’re likely negatively impacting both.  That’s because if you only run slow, then you’re training to run slow… when you can easily train to be faster without more time or much more effort.

To improve stride length and leg turnover build 4 to 10 repetitions of short 10 to 20 second bursts of fast running into each run.  Your focus in these short speed sets is on really moving your feet quickly, which will increase leg turnover and progressively optimize your stride length.

In addition, it’s a good idea to incorporate kick-butt drills into every run.  Each set includes ten reps for each leg and I usually do four sets in every run.  You can do sets where you snap your heel up ten times on one leg then switch or you can snap your heel up on every third step.  This will improve the strength and speed of your hamstrings and subtly improve your forward lean.  And as Dr. Romanov the inventor of the Pose Method once said, “if you can’t lean, you can’t run fast.”

Run Strength:  Just like on the bike, the short speed bursts and logging time in the hills will build your strength.  Also, you can build-in a couple of sets of skipping drills during each run.  Nothing hard, just a couple of sets of easy skipping to gradually build running specific leg strength.

It’s the Little Things

These activities are little things that will pay big dividends later in the year and can easily be built into your current training without adding any additional time… just effort.  If you implement them gradually and conservatively, over time you will set yourself up for a better, faster race season because you took the time to build solid triathlon base fitness.  And that’s the starting place to launch your build up to your key races.

Have fun and train safe!

Are Your Habits Helping or Hurting Your Training?

Get Triathlon-Fit First

Triathlon training is simple.

All you need is enough swim, bike, and run volume and you’re ready to race. That is, if your main goal is to cross the finish line.

But if your goal is to race fast, increasing your volume isn’t enough.

In fact, getting faster is less about training MORE, and more about incorporating 6 potent habits into your routine.

 

Why volume training only goes so far

Just for fun let’s say that this season one of your top goals is to get as triathlon-fit as possible.  And due to your work/home/life demands adding another five or ten hours/week of training time isn’t realistic.  So, what do you do?

Since increasing quantity isn’t an option, increasing the quality of your training is your path to fitness.

The following six habits are game changers. They will bring you closer to your goal of getting as triathlon-fit as possible, while still preserving time in your schedule for all the other things you have going on in your life.

 

Habit #1:  Focus on Frequency First:  Upping the frequency of your swim, bike, and run sessions is the fastest way for you to improve your basic triathlon fitness.  The key at first is to focus more on frequency than duration, e.g., do two 30-minute runs and one 60-minute run instead of two 60-minute runs each week.  As discussed in the training videos that accompany the free training plans at my website, a training rule of thumb is two sessions a week in one of the sports will keep your performance the same, three will improve your fitness, and four will really make a significant improvement.

While it’s true you will probably have to increase your distance at some point, especially if your focus is long course races, if you build the habit of frequency first then you’ll find that stepping up the duration once or twice a week to meet the needs of your key race(s) won’t be as challenging.

 

Habit #2:  Better Technique = Free Speed: Energy management is one of the most important factors in any triathlon and the simple fact is that the better your technique the faster you’ll go at the same or less effort.  That’s why elite athletes always build technique (skills) work into their training. And so should you.

The key is to build technique drills into your regular training. Here are some examples:

•   During your swim warm up and cool down include kick on side drills to improve body position and catch-up and single arm drills to improve stroke power;
•   During your easier rides shift to a lower gear two or three times for five minutes and spin at a higher cadence;
•   During your easy runs incorporate four to ten sets of high knee and/or kick-butt drills.

 

Habit #3:  Short Speed All the Time:  Short speed work is one of the most effective ways to build your fitness and get faster.  It also has the added benefits of improving your technique and, frankly, it’s just fun to go fast! The best way to do this is to incorporate it into your training regularly and keep it short…7 to 10 second bursts.

For example, during your ride you might do a ten second burst every two minutes and repeat it five, ten, or twenty times depending on the ride duration and your fitness level.  A favorite of mine on the run is to do four to ten sets of kick-butt drills followed by a ten second burst every couple of minutes.

If you’re just starting your training then give yourself a couple of weeks before you build in this short speed work and increase slowly to avoid injury.

 

Habit #4:  Eat to Train, Don’t Train to Eat:  Proper fueling is important whether your reason for taking up triathlon is weight management or high performance.  While there’s lots of information floating around about the right triathlon training diet, the most important thing to remember is that no single diet plan works for everyone. Each of us is bio-individually unique, with different genetics, cultures, metabolic rates, physical demands, and much more. If anyone tells you that there is just one perfect diet for all triathletes to follow, run away. Fast.

Instead, focus on fueling your training with whole foods first, like fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats (if you want to know what a healthy fat is, be sure to check out Miriam’s video here). Curtail your reliance on processed foods and wheat products like breads, cereals, pasta, and pizza, especially during your base aerobic building phase because it will help your body learn to burn fat more efficiently for fuel.

Remember triathlon training puts a lot of demands on your body both mentally and physically so feed yourself well and you’ll enjoy the journey more.

 

Habit #5:  Consistency is King:  Triathlons are very demanding and they get exponentially harder as the distance increases.  It takes a lot of triathlon specific fitness to achieve your potential so be consistent in your training: Take your time, build a solid fitness foundation, establish good training habits, and step up the volume and intensity of your training slowly.  Do this and you’ll have more fun and likely spend a lot less time sitting on the couch nursing frustrating injuries.

 

Habit #6:  Give Yourself a Break:  A common refrain overheard at the start of every race is, “I should have trained more!” Don’t let this be you.

 

Show yourself some compassion and learn to talk to yourself as if you were coaching someone else:  Be positive and encouraging.  Remind yourself that everyone from the pro’s on down the line harbor doubts about whether they should’ve done more to prepare.  That’s just human, we all do it, and it’s okay.

 

Bonus Habit #7: Have FUN!

I’ve never met anyone who accidentally did a triathlon; participation is voluntary. You chose this sport because you wanted to get fit, love the variety and challenge of training, enjoy the community, or perhaps for something deeply personal and meaningful to you.

Regardless of your reason, enjoy the process and have fun.

Neglecting Your Nutrition is Risky Business

This infographic is based on hidden dangers of belly fat and ways to eat healthy in order to slim down and speed up. Let me know what you think and if you like it please share it. (click the graphic to view in full size)

DietInfographic

 

 

 

How to Beat Race Day Stress


Over the years I’ve talked with and observed a countless number of athletes while they were milling around the transition area waiting for the race to start.  Rarely has anyone said they feel fully prepared to tackle the day.

More often you’ll hear worry; that they should have logged more training so they’d feel confident when the gun goes off.  The longer they talk the higher their stress levels go.

A couple of years ago while I was volunteering at a race I saw firsthand what fear induced stress can do. A woman who had entered the Tri-Rocks San Diego race became so frightened that she literally froze as she got close to the water.  She was so terrified, she couldn’t move! A couple of volunteers had to assist her back to the medical tent and get her calmed down in case she passed out.

While some nervousness is to be expected and can have a positive impact, too much can ruin your big day. Seeing this athlete reminded me why it’s so important to have a strategy to manage your stress when your mental gremlins try to take over. After all, it’s race day. Your training is done, and the gun is about to go off… it’s time to focus on having the best day possible.

Below are some simple ways you can use your body and direct your self-talk to make a positive impact on your race performance. And, maybe more importantly, you can use these tactics to have more fun out there on the course, too.

Get in the Moment

Being fully present is one of the best ways to tame your nerves and conserve valuable energy.

To get in the moment take some deep breaths to get calm and focus on relaxing each part of your body.  Be sure to remind yourself about all the work you put in to get ready for this day.

http://www.active.com/triathlon/articles/how-to-quiet-your-mind-before-a-triathlon

While this is one the most effective ways to calm yourself it can be a lot easier said than done, especially in our always connected, highly distracted world.  It will take practice. Just 5 minutes a day in the final weeks leading up to the race can make a big difference.

Use Your Body to Change Your Thoughts

The easiest way to change the negative picture in your head is to smile.

I learned this in my first Ironman.  Someone had written something funny on a sign and posted it near the end of the first lap of the bike course.  It just made me laugh and for the rest of the day I couldn’t get that amusing sign out of my head.  It actually made my whole race experience more fun… so much that I couldn’t wait to get out there and do it again.

Maybe you can stash a joke book in your transition bag to pick through to help get you in the right frame of mind.  Or carry a photo of something you find funny or makes you feel happy. Amping up the giggle factor in your head can go a long way to calming the nerves and will help your performance too.

You can also strike what Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy calls the wonder woman pose for a couple of minutes before the race starts.  Your goal is to mimic the identical “fist-on-the-hips” pose as the fictional TV superhero for 2 full minutes. This may sound a little strange but it’s a well-researched way to get your body to release testosterone into your system which can give you a nice little confidence boost prior to jumping in the water.

Another well-researched tactic is to combine physical triggers with race milestones to build personal positivity.  It could be as simple as a little fist pump or thumbs-up as you pass each turnaround buoy and aid station.  The purpose is to congratulate yourself, which will help keep you positive and moving forward.  For best results add a short phrase like ‘well done’ or ‘good job’ with the physical trigger.

Tell Yourself What You Need to Hear

Most writing on self-talk focuses on how to either silence your internal critic or how you need to be more positive in the way you speak to yourself. While both are important the real key is to pick the type of self-talk that will directly benefit you at that moment in time.

Motivational self-talk helps to keep you focused and moving forward.  Phrases like ‘you got this’, ‘you go girl’, or ‘I love this stuff’ fall into this category.  There are no rules just whatever fires you up and gives you the lift you need to keep your feet moving or helps you increase your pace.

Self-talk can also be technique focused.  Repeating phrases like’ high elbow’ during the swim or ‘quick feet’ during the run can be a very effective way to keep you in the moment and focused on your form instead burning valuable mental cycles on how much farther you still have to go. I find this tactic particularly useful coming out of T2 where thinking about how far you have to run can feel overwhelming.

Pick out one or two of these tactics and give them a try in your next race.  I am confident that they’ll help you perform better and have a less anxiety-filled experience.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

Seven Steps to Triumph at Your Next Triathlon

Do you want to shuffle to the finish line or finish strong at your next race?

If you’re like me then you want to kick butt and collect your finisher’s T-shirt and medal knowing you came prepared and gave it your all.  This means you’ll have to do more than log the minimum swim, bike, and run training to ensure you make it to the finish line.  You’ll need a plan that’s specifically designed to get the most out of the training time you have available. And then diligently execute it!

Doing this takes commitment, passion, and focus.  But that’s true for anything meaningful you want to accomplish in life, isn’t it?

To get started, here are 7 crucial questions to answer:

Do You Know What You Want?  What is the tangible outcome you want to achieve?  This is about your dreams and not about SMART goals.  Do you want to win your age group at your next race?  Or maybe you were the homecoming queen in high school and you want to shed that extra padding clinging to your back side before next summer’s high school reunion.  There are no rules other than to make sure that what you want is deeply meaningful to you!

Do You Know Why You Want It?  This may sound the same as what you want but it’s not.  Why you want what you want is the source of your intrinsic motivation.  It’s that emotional fire in your belly that connects you to your deep desires so you get out of bed day after day ready to train.  Maybe the reason you want to win your age group is to serve as a role model for your children.  Or you want to make sure your old high school pals don’t whisper behind your back about how cute you used to be before you got so big.  Whatever your reason, remember it’s about you and how you feel.

Where Are You Now?  Now that you know where you want to go, it’s time to take a hard look at where you are right now.  What are you willing to do, to give up, or to change in order to accomplish your dreams?  Getting clarity on the gap between where you are and what you want to achieve is the starting place for taking small steps that progressively move you forward.

Tip:  Build positive momentum by measuring backwards… focus on how much you’ve accomplished not how far you have to go!

Do You Have What You Need?  Triathlon is a demanding sport so before you create your training plan get a handle on the list of resources that will support your success.  If you’re new to triathlon and unsure what you need then ask someone who is in the sport some questions.  Meantime, at a very minimum, consider the following:

♦  Do you have enough training time to achieve your goals? Your days are already full so that means you’ll have to stop doing some things in order to fit it in.  Piling triathlon training onto an already busy schedule rarely works for long haul.

♦  Do you have the financial resources to effectively participate in the sport? The cumulative expense of equipment, race fees, travel, etc., can be significant so be prepared.

♦  Do you have access to training routes and facilities? Safe cycling and running routes and quality swimming facilities are key to your success so know what you have to work with.

♦  Are there experts available to help you quickly shore-up your weaknesses and improve your technique?

Do you know how to build your plan?  Crafting a plan that’s customized to your life is more art than science.  While all training plans have common features, such as key workouts and rest days, it’s essential to adapt it to your situation and personality in a way that gets you tri-fit and that’s fun for you.  Here are a few important steps to help you get started.

♦  Always start with the end in mind; write the “A” races in your calendar first so you have your timeline sketched out from the start.

♦  Next, build in key workouts such as long run, bike, and swim days…this usually applies more to IM 70.3 & IM distance races.

♦  If you’re going to include lower priority races into your schedule, then jot them into the plan next.

♦  Now begin to detail what you intend to do each day. Personally I like to work with a three-week training cycle where I have one full day off each week and every third weekend focused on recovery.

Understand that no plan that covers weeks and months will survive the reality of your day-to-day life.  Stay flexible because things will happen that impact your ability to train.  Expect it, adjust to it, and move on.

Do you need to share your plan?  It’s rare that your decision to take up triathlon only impacts your life.  Before you commit all your free time to training be sure to review your plans with people whose support you’ll need in the weeks and months ahead.  There are lots of great reason to do this early in your planning process.  Here are a couple:

♦  Most of us get a much-needed reality check when we share our plans with family and friends. If they’re not buying what you’re selling, then you’ll need to resolve this before you go any further. Without their help and support things can get ugly fast.

♦  This is your chance to avoid or minimize any schedule conflicts and ultimately limit any drama that might pop up.

Are You Ready to Change?  What you do every day determines your success in triathlon.  If you haven’t already established solid training habits, then it’s time to start.  The bottom line is that almost all change fails so it’s important to start small and build positive momentum if you want the change to stick!

Start by listing one or two activities you’re going to focus on each week and get to it.  Here are a few questions to get you thinking:

♦  Do you have a morning routine that supports your goals? Something as simple as consistently logging a 20-minute run or spending 10 minutes stretching will get you moving in the right direction.

♦  Are you properly fueling your body to meet your training demands? You’re putting a lot of stress on your body so quality nutrition is a must…don’t use the training as a reason to eat a bigger piece of cake!

♦  Are you carving sleep time out of your schedule to make time for training? This is common and wrong…you need more rest not less so your body and mind can properly recover.

If you take the time to go through these seven steps, you can expect to finish strong and have more fun at your next race.

Use Play & Positivity to Perform

Do you have fun when you head out for a run?  When you think about going out for a three hour ride does it bring a smile to your face and make you feel good inside?  These are some of the first questions I ask athletes that I work with.  Here’s why.

It’s tough to get good at something that you don’t like.  And since participation in triathlon is strictly voluntary, if you don’t enjoy the training then you have to ask yourself why you would take on such a time consuming, complex sport?

Now by fun I don’t mean “laughing at a good joke” kind of fun.  What I’m referring to is the smile that creeps onto your face when you race to the nearest sign post.  Or the positive feelings you get when you think about spending the day chatting with your friends as you ride through the countryside.

Fun Drives Frequency:  Frequency Drives Fitness

Triathlon fitness isn’t something that just happens to you or that you’re born with.  It’s a result of consistent, focused training over time so you’ll likely need more than the promise of an external reward like a finisher’s shirt to keep you motivated.  You need that fire in the belly that drives you to get out and train day after day and keeps you in it for the long haul.  The joy you get from training and the satisfaction you get from tackling hard routines is the path to performance improvement.

This positive mindset toward triathlon training and racing isn’t something anyone can hand to you in a training plan.  It’s an attitude that only you can create and cultivate from the inside out by finding joy in the process.  The more ways you can make it fun for yourself the shorter and more satisfying your path to success in triathlon regardless of how you define it.

“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”
Vincent van Gogh

Mr. van Gogh may not be the best person to quote when talking about building fun into your training but his words are profound.  Finding ways to build play into your training and then taking a moment to connect with your positive feelings are small things that can have a huge impact over time.  Here’s an example from my own training to give you an idea how this works.

When I was a kid I loved to play outside and much of that outside time was spent wandering and skipping through the woods surrounding my neighborhood.  For me skipping is play because it brings back enjoyable memories of carefree times.  And as luck would have it it’s also a very effective strength-building running plyometric exercise.

That’s why I regularly build skipping into many of my runs, except for very easy recovery runs.  Sometimes I skip for height and other times for distance.  It’s a simple, playful activity that’s easy to work into a run and the best part is it doesn’t take any additional time.  Little by little the skipping builds run specific strength, which translates into faster run splits as the season goes on.  But that’s just the play side of things. There’s a second step that was missing that I now have added.

When I get to the end of my run I stop and take a moment to positively connect to the run.   This is a very simple practice that takes literally no time (10-20 seconds) and, in my experience, can noticeably step-up your desire to get out and train more often.

Here’s how it works.  At the end of your workout before you dash off to your next task take a few moments to let yourself feel good about the session you just logged.  Simply take a few deeps breaths, genuinely congratulate yourself, smile, and let yourself feel the satisfaction of moving one step closer to your goals.  That’s all it takes.

The positive effect of this small activity on your motivation will not be immediate because that’s not the way positive emotions work.  Unlike negative emotions that have specific responses, such as flight, fight, or freeze, positive emotions are much broader in nature and slower to develop.  And as such it will take more time for them to work their magic and build the neural networks that will in time connect your training to a positive mindset that can transform your motivation to train into a solid habit.

So if you only do one new thing this season practice connecting to your positive feelings for a moment at the end of each work out.  If you want to push the envelope, find ways to build more play into your training, like doing a little skipping during your run, and you’ll find it easier to feel more positive about your training and, ultimately, you’ll just have more fun.

The cost is minimal and the benefits are better fitness, higher levels of intrinsic motivation, and best of all more joy in your day.  Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

How to Pedal Like a Pro… Almost

No matter how good a cyclist you are, most people are highly inefficient when it comes to turning calories into power and speed.  Cycling efficiency runs between 20%-25%, which means 75%-80% of the energy you burn while cycling is lost to radiated heat.  Unless your athletic background includes years as a pro cyclist then you’re likely closer to the bottom of the range.

The reason it’s important to improve your cycling efficiency, or economy, is because it’s a direct predictor of your overall race performance, especially in longer races.  And the key benefit is pretty straight forward:  You’re faster with less effort and can reserve more energy and leg strength for the run.

So how do you step up your cycling economy?  The single best way to get better at turning the pedals is to ride more, which is certainly why pro cyclists are the most economical.  But if adding high volume cycling to the long list of triathlon activities you need to work on isn’t a realistic option then you need to shift your focus to more time efficient methods.

Improve Your Pedal Stroke

Improving your pedal stroke is one of the easiest ways to get more out of your time on the bike.  When you smooth out your stroke you get more out of each revolution because you slightly extend the power phase… the area from 12-6 o’clock.  Considering that you turn the pedals 5,000 to 6,000 times per hour every little improvement can add up.

This is where cycling drills, such as single leg drills, fast spin sets, and spin-ups, usually come in.  All are very good and should be built into the warm and cool down of every bike trainer session to gradually improve your pedal stroke.  The challenge is that these drills are all short in duration and take a long time to make a measureable impact.

So how can you close the gap between your pedaling efficiency and the pros faster without adding lots of time to your training schedule? By simply building training sessions with a specific focus on pedal stroke regularly into your weekly training plan. Best of all?  Because this is strictly intended as an aerobic workout you can build it into your training regardless of where you are in your training season.  Here’s the drill.

1 Hour Cadence Training Session: 

  • Warm up for 10 minutes.  Include a couple of easy single leg drills and fast spins.
  • First Set:  Start with your cadence at 90RPMs in a moderate gear and increase it by 2RPMs every 2 minutes for 18 minutes then spin easy for 2 minutes.
  • Second Set:  Start with you cadence at 92RPMs in a moderate gear and increase by 2RPMs every 2 minute for 14 minutes and then 2 minutes easy spin.
  • Third Set:  Start with your cadence at 94RPMs in a moderate gear and increase 2 RPMs every 2 minutes for 12 minutes and finish the hour with 2 minutes easy spin.

For obvious reasons you’ll need a cadence meter and it should only be done on a trainer because it’s easier to control and safer than dodging traffic.  If you’re a bit time challenged then simply cut out a set or two but try to get in at least 30 minutes to achieve some benefit from this session.

This routine is one of my favorite aerobic workouts, especially during the base building phase and on active recovery days in between those hard sessions.  For extra credit be sure to set up your running gear so you can finish your workout with a short transition run.  For best results, focus on transferring your cadence work on the bike into a quick cadence on the run.

If you incorporate this workout once or twice a week on your easier days you’ll soon be pedaling like a pro.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

The Secret to Running Across the Finish Line

After participating in and watching hundreds of triathlons, I’ve seen athletes reduced to a slow, painful death march on the run leg. This isn’t an endurance issue; the culprit is lack of strength. In fact, this is the single biggest thing that prevents a powerful triathlon finish.

How Strength Training Powers Performance

  • The first and probably most important reason to strength train is to minimize the risk of injury.  A targeted strength training program not only builds muscle but also strengthens tendons and ligaments that you’re sure to stress as you step up your training.  Simply put, strength training gets you ready faster and reduces the chances of injury.
  • The second reason is to improve your performance.  Increased strength helps you become more economical in your movement patterns, especially for running and biking, so you can resist fatigue longer (versus slowing down toward the end of the race).  Maintaining the same or a faster pace while expending less energy sounds like a pretty good plan to me.
  • Third, it offsets the detrimental effect endurance training has on your strength. This is probably the most overlooked aspect of strength training for endurance athletes. And it’s the most often cited reason to avoid endurance exercise by the anti-endurance training crowd. The simple fact is that long, slow, distance training diminishes your muscle strength. Without strength training to offset this decline you risk what is termed “muscle wasting.”

Wait:  I have to train MORE?

With all the other activities you must do to physically and mentally prepare for triathlon, strength training can often seem one step too far.  Fact is you’re not a bodybuilder so the focus is to get what you need from strength training in the shortest amount of time without impacting the hours you’ve reserved for swimming, biking, and running.

The secret is to focus your strength training to gain strength, power, and athleticism with exercises that specifically complement your sport.

Triathlon-Specific Strength Routine

Your strength training should match the training phase you’re in to maximize your results. In other words it needs to be periodized just like your other training and nutrition.  To keep it simple we’ll organize strength training into three progressive, overlapping phases.

Note:  If you’ve never lifted or you haven’t lifted for a while then it’s a very good idea to meet with a certified strength trainer before you jump into strength training.  A strength trainer can help you evaluate any weak areas, review form and technique, and establish key training benchmarks, such as your one rep maximum, so you progress in a safe, effective manner.

Phase I – Preparation

First is the preparation (prep) phase, which is sometimes called the Anatomical Adaptation (AA) phase.  The main focus of this phase is to prepare your body to tackle more rigorous strength training in the next phase where you’ll make your real strength gains.

A typical prep strength phase consists of lifting two to three times a week for three to six weeks. Start with moderate weights and higher repetitions (1-3 sets x 20 reps) in order to get your muscles used to lifting weights.  Focus on multi-joint exercises (squats, single leg squats, leg presses, lat pull-downs, push-ups, seated rows) that specifically benefit triathlon training and racing.

You can also add some instability to improve your total body fitness and athleticism.  Single-leg body weight squats and lat pull-downs standing on a pillow or Bosu and push-ups with your hands on pillows or an inverted Bosu are just a couple of examples of how you can get more from your strength training without adding additional time.  Remember this is simply an adjustment period for your body! Progress gradually so you avoid injuring yourself.

Phase II – Strength and Power

Phase two is the maximum strength and power phase, which takes place during your early aerobic base building.  This is where you’ll make your biggest gains and it should last from six to twelve weeks.  The beginning of this phase is transitional because you need to progressively build toward lifting heavier weights.  It’s also important to understand that strength and power sessions are two different types of workouts; for best results you should do one of each during a normal week of training.

  • The goal of a strength workout, of course, is to increase your overall strength. In this session after a couple of warm-up sets you’ll push heavy weight (80%-85% of one rep max) for 2-3 sets x 5-6 reps; the speed of each repetition is slow to moderate.
  • A power workout differs in that it incorporates more speed into the lifting. After a couple of warm-up sets you’ll do 2-5 sets x 6-10 reps timed with a short rest.  The sets are performed at a lower weight (50%-60% of one Rep Max) and the speed of each rep is quick.

I suggest that you save the strength workout for the end of a day before your day off.  After such a rigorous strength session it’s tough to ride or run the next day. If you do it before your day off make sure your next non-strength training session is an active recovery day and don’t be afraid to reduce the duration in order to manage fatigue and minimize the risk of injury.

Note:  This phase should be incorporated into your training prior to your highest-volume base phase because it’s very difficult to maximize your strength gains in conjunction with high volume base training.

Phase III – Maintenance/Completion

Third is the maintenance/completion phase, which is focused on sustaining the strength gains you made in Phase II.  You’ll continue with this strength training until a week or two before your key race and ideally do one or two sessions a week.  Unlike the max strength phase you won’t be lifting to exhaustion because your focus is to translate your strength gains from the previous phase into higher power output in your swim, bike, and run.  A typical session will consist of 2-3 sets x 10 reps with the final set at 80% of your one rep max and the speed of each rep is moderate.

If you want to whiz by your peers and run across the finish line in your next triathlon, make strength training your new best buddy and get ready to make some real performance gains. You’ll be surprised and delighted by the results.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

Six Steps for Achieving Triathlon Success

Triathlon attracts a wide range of competitors.  At one end of the scale are people who do the minimum necessary to get across the finish line.  At the opposite end are those who are thoroughly committed to perform at the highest level possible.

If you’re like me, you’re always looking for ways to move up the scale toward peak race day performance.  Whether your goal is to beat the cutoff times or to win your age group, it does require that you use the time you have available to achieve your very best performance.

Below is the six step process I use to set up my triathlon training and racing schedule to help me toward my goals.  Think of it like a template that you an overlay on your triathlon training and racing plans at any time during the season to help identify weaknesses.

Step 1:  What do You Want to Achieve and Why?   Only you know what you want to do (your external/tangible goal) and why you want to do it (your intrinsic motivation/reasons).  If you don’t nail these two then you have a major roadblock to your success in triathlon or any other area of life for that matter.

The first thing to accept is that your motives are all about you;You aren’t doing this for anyone else so let’s dispel the notion that it’s anything but selfish right up front.  Being selfish isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however.  In fact, the best way to think about it comes from a Life magazine interview with Mother Teresa.

When asked why she decided to spend her life caring for some of the most destitute people on the planet Mother Teresa said it was because of the way it made her feel to see the peace on their faces as they passed away.  It was this personal feeling, this emotional connection she felt to her goal, of caring for these people that ensured her success.

Coming up with what you want to do may be pretty simple but getting to the heart of why you want to do it may prove more of a challenge.  So be patient and think it through because it will show in your results.

Step 2:  How Big is the Gap Between Where You Are and Where You Want to Go?  The gap is the space or chasm between where you are at this point in time and where you want to be (that big goal you defined above).  In this step your focus is to establish a clear starting point on your journey toward your goals.  Now is the time to be completely honest with yourself so you can create a plan to improve your fitness, have fun, and minimize your frustration.

To close the gap from where you are to where you want to be is about taking small, doable steps to build positive momentum because nothing builds optimism like success.

Remember that to build positive momentum you must measure backwards (where you’ve come from) instead of measuring forward (your future goal).  Measuring forward will just frustrate you because it’s often like running toward the horizon…no matter how far you go you’ll never get there.

Step 3:  Do You Have What You Need to Achieve Your Goals?  Triathlon requires a unique mix of fitness, skills, and resources to be successful.  That’s why it’s important to make a list of resources available to you so you can clearly identify any limiters you need to tackle.  Here are some examples to get you started:

  1. Available equipment, such as an indoor bike trainer
  2. Easy access to swimming facilities or a gym
  3. Access to people/experts, such as a swimming instructor or triathlon club
  4. Space to train or adequate training routes for cycling and running
  5. Cash for race fees, lodging, and transportation (this is not a cheap sport).
  6. Time to trainwithout skimping on foundational things like sleep.

Step 4:  Is Your Plan Customized to Your Life?   Once you’ve completed the first three steps it’s time to build your training plan.  Remember that building a workable plan is more art than science.  While they all have common features, to be substantive your plan must be tailored to your unique situation. If it doesn’t then it’s nothing more than just a bunch of forms, which is why canned programs often don’t work…the fact is that one size does not fit all!  Here are a few tips to get you started.

  1. Start with the end in mind by writing down your key races first.
  2. Build in key workouts, such as long runs and long rides, and testing days next.
  3. Only detail a week or two at a time…I prefer to develop one week at a time.
  4. Stay flexible:  Understand that no plan that covers weeks and months will survive your day-to-day life.  Things happen that impact your ability to train.  Expect it and adjust.
  5. Remember to allow for buffer time.  Buffer time is all the in-between activities, such as driving to and from the pool, showering after a run, cleaning your bike, or just lying on the floor after a hard workout.  As a rule of thumb add 30%-50% to your planned training time.  For example if you plan to train 10 hours/week then it’s a good idea to plan an additional 3-5 hours for all the other miscellaneous activities that surround your training.

Step 5:  Do You Share Your Plan with Your Family, Friends, and Co-Workers?  Your triathlon training and racing will impact everything (and every one) in your life.  And for most of us the impact will increase as the race distance increases.  That’s why it’s so important to share your plan early and often.  Here’s why:

  1. Reality check:  There’s nothing like sharing your plan with people that know you well to see if they buy what you’re selling.  If this triathlon thing is just a lark, they’ll bust you.
  2. Avoid conflicts:  Find out where your plan has to be modified to work with the schedules of family, friends, and co-workers.  There’s much less chance you’ll get into trouble for things you know about ahead of time.
  3. Buy-in:  Getting buy-in from your support team is extremely important if you want to be successful.  Remember this is a lifestyle so what you do, what you need to do, and what you plan to do will impact everyone around you on a daily basis. Tip:  Plan weekly meetings to review schedules and address any issues, especially in the weeks before your key race.  Remember to let the other people talk.  It’s not all about you…yet.

Step 6:  What New Habits do You Need to Build to be Successful?  It was Aristotle that said “you are what you repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  And while race day is the big event, your success depends on the little things you do every day that builds momentum toward race day success.  Start by listing a few activities you’re going to do every week to get you on the right track.  Here are a few examples:

  1. Establish the habit of training 2x per day early in the season.  This might be a real challenge for you but it will pay huge dividends as the season goes on.  An easy way to get started is to make one of the workouts a short walk just so you’re building in the time and creating the habit.
  2. Create a set morning routine, such as a short run followed by a healthy smoothie, to ensure your day starts off productive. John C. Norcross, PhD as discussed in his book Changeology has determined that linking two desired behavior changes that are related is a very effective way to create new habits.
  3. Eat balanced meals consisting of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats.  Try to avoid the all too common practice of using your training as an excuse to eat junk food and sugary snacks…. remember leaner is faster.
  4. Dial down alcohol consumption to no more than 1-2 drinks/day or eliminate it completely several days/week.  Many a key training sessions have been compromised by too much alcohol the night before.

If you follow these six fundamental planning steps and execute on your plan you’ll make major leaps in your performance at your next race.  Just like that guy who sells suits on TV, “I guarantee it!”

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

 

11 Dumb Ways to Ruin a Race

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, “if you don’t want to follow the rules then no one can stop you.”

Race rules are intended to safeguard triathletes and create a level playing field.  The need to create rules and enforce them has grown in lockstep with the expansion of triathlon – in particular, with the swelling ranks of athletes competing in races.  Unfortunately, many triathletes either don’t know the rules or choose to ignore them.

Recently there was a request on the USA Triathlon coaches email group to share the common rule violations with triathletes. Below is a list of the common rule violations along with my comments on each.

1. Helmets:   You must wear your helmet the way it was purchased without modifications and it must be worn at all times while you’re on your bike.  This rule goes on to say you have to wear your helmet before, during, and after the event.

Penalty:  Disqualification

My Thoughts:  I’ve seen plenty of exceptions to this rule.  If you want to attach a Go Pro video camera or a small stuffed animal of some sort to your helmet there’s a good chance you won’t get penalized…just be sure to check with the race director or a referee before the race.  As for wearing your helmet before and after the race, I’ve never seen anyone get a penalty for not having their helmet on while riding, say, to the bike drop-off area or out of it… but be aware that it IS considered a violation.

2. Chin Straps:   Your chin strap must be buckled at all times when you’re on your bike. Never unbuckle your chin strap unless you are off your bicycle.

Penalty: Disqualification on the course; Variable time penalty in transition area only.

My Thoughts:  Pay particular attention to this one because race officials have very little sense of humor if you violate this rule.  On more than one occasion I’ve seen an athlete’s day abruptly end, especially as he headed out after the swim-to-bike transition, because he forgot to buckle up.

3. Outside Assistance:  You can’t receive assistance other than that offered by race and medical officials because triathlons and duathlons are individual tests of fitness.

Penalty: Variable time penalty

My Thoughts:  The key is you can’t receive equipment or help from spectators, although I have seen referees look the other way when an athlete gets a little help changing a flat tire.  On the other hand you can give things to spectators.  So if you want to get rid of some extra clothes you needed early in the bike leg to fend off the cool morning air that won’t cost you.  Again it’s always a good idea to check with the race referees before the race to be sure…just because I said it doesn’t mean the referee will agree.  

 4. Transition Area:   Place all your equipment in the properly designated or your individually assigned bike corral. The wheel of your bike must be down on the side of the assigned space.  You must return your bicycle to an upright position in its designated bicycle corral.  No person shall interfere with another participant’s equipment or impede the progress of another participant.  Your bar ends must be solidly plugged and you can’t bring ANY glass containers into the transition area.

Penalty:  Variable time penalty

My Thoughts:  Transition areas can be very crowded, busy places so be courteous and efficient with your space…remember you’re setting up for your race transition not base camp to ascend Mt. Everest!   

 5. Bike Fouls: There are four defined bike fouls.

a)     Drafting:  Keep at least three bike lengths of clear space between you and the cyclist in front.  If you move into the zone, you must pass within 15 seconds.

Penalty:  Variable time penalty

My Thoughts:  Drafting is probably the most commonly violated rule in every race, especially if it’s a flat bike course.  Intentionally drafting is cheating and unfortunately many riders are okay with a little cheating.  Unintentional drafting can occur if you’re not paying attention after a rider passes you because they usually slow down after the pass and drift back toward you.  Stay alert!

b)     Position:  Keep to the right hand side of the lane of travel unless passing. Always pass on the left, never on the right…unless of course you’re racing in a country where traffic rides on the left and passes on the right.

c)      Blocking:  Riding on the left side of the lane without passing anyone and interfering with other cyclists attempting to pass.

Penalty for each:  Variable time penalty

My Thoughts:  Position and blocking fouls are also very common and dangerous because quite often faster riders end up going off course just to get around a slower rider who’s riding in the middle of the road.  I’ve been in races where the end result of such carelessness ended in tragedy.  Better to abandon the PR and avoid a DOA.

d)     Overtaking:  Once passed, you must immediately exit the draft zone from the rear before attempting to pass again.

Penalty:  Variable time penalty

My Thoughts:  The overtaken foul gets my vote for the most annoying since it often happens because the individual being past gets competitive and speeds up instead of allowing you to pass.  Wish I had a recommendation for this, but I don’t.     

6. Course:   You’re required to follow the prescribed course and to stay within all coned lanes.  Cutting the course is an obvious violation and going outside the course is a safety issue. You’re not permitted to cross a solid yellow center line for ANY reason. You must obey all applicable traffic laws at all times.

Penalty:  Referee’s discretion

My Thoughts:  This is likely the single most important safety rule because many bike courses are not closed meaning cars are traveling close to riders.  Anyone who’s ever witnessed or personally experienced a bike/car collision knows that the race violation penalty is the least of athlete’s problems.  

7. Unsportsmanlike-Like Conduct:   Foul, harsh, argumentative or abusive language or other unsportsmanlike conduct directed at race officials, USA Triathlon officials, volunteers, spectators or fellow athletes is forbidden.

Penalty:  Disqualification

My Thoughts:  If you think this isn’t an issue than I suggest you volunteer to staff a penalty tent at a triathlon.  Just like prison the penalty tent is full of people claiming their innocence!  There is never a good reason to be abusive – remember this is a tough day for EVERYONE involved in the race:  athletes, volunteers, and supporters alike.  Be nice.

8. Headphones:   Headphones, headsets, ipods, mp3 players, etc. are not to be carried or worn at any time during the race.

Penalty: Variable time penalty

My Thoughts:  Just imagine the chaos of hundreds or thousands of competitors listening to their favorite songs lost in their own little world!  I have seen athletes in Ironman distance races that carry cell phones and make calls during the race.  Really?  If you MUST do this, you might want to double check with the referees before the race to make sure they’re okay with it.

9. Race numbers:    You’re required to wear your race number at all times during the run. Your number must face the front and be clearly visible at all times and your number may not be cut or folded or altered in any way. Don’t transfer your number to any other athlete or take a number from an athlete that is not competing.

Penalty:  You can receive a variable time penalty for a missing or altered number.  You can be disqualified and receive a one year suspension from membership in USAT for transferring a number without race director permission.  

My Thoughts:  The easiest way to meet this rule is the use an elastic race belt for your number instead of pinning it to your clothes; they are inexpensive and easy to move around so it doesn’t interfere with your stride.  Besides getting a penalty you could miss out on scoring a high quality action shot of you in the race because the photographer won’t be able to identify you afterward. 

10. Wetsuits:   As an age group participant you’re permitted to wear a wetsuit without penalty in any event sanctioned by USA Triathlon up to and including a water temperature of 78 degrees Fahrenheit. When the water temperature is greater than 78 degrees but less than 84 degrees F, age group participants may wear a wetsuit at their own discretion, provided, however that participants who wears a wetsuit within such temperature range shall not be eligible for prizes or awards. Above 84 degrees wetsuits are prohibited.

My Thoughts:  Prizes and awards may not be important to you so if you do wear your wetsuit in water between 78-84 degrees Fahrenheit be careful because it’s very easy to overheat, especially in a full wetsuit, which can result in anything from physical discomfort to you passing out in the water. 

11. Littering:   All your personal equipment and belongings that you take out onto the course must stay on you the entire time.  No garbage, clothing, etc. shall be thrown on the course.

Penalty: Variable time penalty

My Thoughts:  Your entry fee does not entitle you to trash the course.  Accidents happen, like your bottle flying off your bike.  But if you’re seen intentionally throwing trash or leaving your old tube on the ground when you change a flat then you deserve a penalty. We’re guests in these communities so if you want them to continue to host you, be mindful and dispose of it at the next aid station or in the transition area.

The Breakdown

Here is a chart to give you an idea of the how long you’ll have to contemplate your innocence when you get a penalty.

Distance Category 1st Offense 2nd Offense 3rd Offense
Short or Sprint 2:00 minute 4:00 minutes Disqualification
Intermediate 2:00 minutes 4:00 minutes Disqualification
Long 4:00 minutes 8:00 minutes Disqualification
Ultra 6:00 minutes 12:00 minutes Disqualification

 

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

Three Swim Drills I Do That Boost My Open Water Confidence

Making the move from pool to open water swimming can be a major challenge, especially when hundreds of your closest friends show up and join you. The key is to build specific activities into your training plan that will make the transition as seamless as possible.

Of course the best thing you can do is to swim as much as possible in the open water.  This allows you to practice using large landmarks like buildings or hilltops to swim straight.   And you get the additional physical and psychological benefits of swimming continuously without having to stop and turn at the wall.

Since most of us don’t have that option, though, there are some easy-to-implement drills you can do in the pool to be a better open water swimmer.  And best of all you can do them without adding any additional time!

(P.S. While there’s not much you can do to simulate bodies swimming all around (and over) you, get more comfortable swimming with groups by training with a water polo team, jump in a crowded lane at your local masters swim group, join a triathlon swim group, or get a couple of friends to regularly swim next to you in the lane while you do laps).

Three Simple Drills for Better Open Water Performance

1. Move Away From the Wall:  Deep water starts are pretty common in triathlon and even if it’s a beach start you may find yourself stopped during the swim and need a way to get quickly back into rhythm.  Practice deep water starts by moving away from the wall a few yards so you can’t use the wall to push off.  Allow your body to settle somewhere between vertical and horizontal just like you would right before the gun goes off. Take off quickly and get into your rhythm and swim at least a full lap before stopping.  Do anywhere from 6 to 10 repetitions at least once a week in the last 6 or 8 weeks before your key race.

2. Play with Some Speed:  Fartlek just means speed play and it’s an excellent way to mimic what really happens out there during the swim.  Whether you need to swim around a slower swimmer or pick up the pace to draft another person or group it’s easy to build this into your regular swim training without adding any time.  For example during your weekly long swim sessions, such as 2-4 x 500s, 800s, or 1,000’s, really crank-up the pace for short bursts anywhere from 25 to 100 yards and then settle back into your planned session pace. For best results be sure to start when you’re away from the wall in order to simulate being in the open water as much as possible.  It’s also a good idea to occasionally stop during one of these repeats just like might happen during your race swim so you can practice a deep water start and a little speed play at the same time.

3. Hold Your Head Up and Look:  Unlike using the lane lines under the water in a pool, in order to swim straight in the open water you have to use things above the water to get your bearings. An easy way to do this is to throw one or more water polo balls or volleyballs in the lane with you and every 5 or 10 strokes lift your head and find it. This teaches you the habit of quickly sighting an object, like a course buoy, floating on the water from water level.  If you practice this regularly you’ll get more proficient at quickly lifting your head, sighting, and getting back into swim rhythm.  For extra credit it’s a good idea when you swim up on the ball to take a few strokes pushing the ball down the pool like you would in water polo. This will require you to keep your head up for a few strokes just like you are likely to do in the open water when those waves make it difficult to see the buoys from the water line.

If you build these drills into your swim training 6-8 weeks before your next race you’ll arrive more confident for your open water start. Sometimes just knowing that you’ve trained for some of the “unknowns” you may face in the race can calm the mind and help you easily take on whatever the day delivers.

That’s it for this week until next time train safe, stay healthy, and I hope to see you at the races.

On Race Day It All Comes Down to a Run

The swim start may scare you but the run is where the real suffering happens if you’re not prepared.

Most people focus on what to do in training but knowing how to save your legs for the run during the race is critical.  I’ve seen both training-challenged and super prepared athletes reduced to a shuffle well before the finish line.

How does this happen?  And more importantly what can you do to avoid the dreaded death march on race day?

Bottom line is this:  Your ability to resist fatigue has to do with making smart moment to moment choices… specifically, choices that keep you moving forward at a sustainable pace without unnecessary spikes in effort.

Here are a few common mistakes that athletes make on race day that lead to failure on the run.

Going out too hard at the swim start:   Hammering it for the first 200 or so yards and then settling into your race pace is a common strategy.  That’s fine if you trained for it and actually do settle into a pace you can handle.  If you haven’t, you can easily put yourself into oxygen debt which will force you to slow down and recover.  This wastes valuable energy for no gain.

High kick rate in the swim:  A good, rhythmic kick is an important part of your stroke. Unless you have a particularly strong kick, however, increasing the rate won’t add much to your swim speed and can lead to early fatigue.

Ride above your pay grade on the bike:  When other competitors flash by you it’s easy to let your competitive nature drive you to push a higher pace.  But unless this is a training race and you’re purposely riding harder than you trained to test your fitness, you’re setting yourself up for an extra-long, frustrating day.  You can’t out race your training.

Try to make up for lost time:  Imagine this: You’re on track for a personal record with a Kona slot fully in sight.  Suddenly you get a flat and to make matters worse the tire change goes badly.  After 20 long minutes you’re back on course and you decide to pick up the pace in hopes of reducing the lost time only to find your legs shot when you head out on the run.  Oh yeah.  This happened to me.

Bolt out on the run like a pro:  Running too hard in the first half of the run can easily leave you hanging on for dear life when you turn for home on the second half.  Going too hard too quickly slows the normal adjustment your body must make to effectively transition to efficient running form.

Now that you know what NOT to do, here’s what you should do instead:

Focus on your breath:  Yes, I know you were planning on breathing throughout the day.  But this is about focusing on taking deep breathes when the gun goes off.  This will help you avoid spiking your heart rate, which is likely creeping up a bit from the excitement of the moment.   Deep breathing will also help you to stay in control and build into a solid swim pace at a comfortable effort.

Ride one gear easier than you can hold:  This tactic lets you build into your pace without over stressing your body during the transition from swimming to riding.  It works particularly well in long course races because physically and psychologically you’re building momentum and you can count on having more in the tank as the day goes on.  Combine this tactic with good pacing and you’re well on your way to a faster run split.

Spin more in the last few miles:  When that “horse to the barn” syndrome sets in its hard not to push big gears to finish the bike leg FAST.  Try instead to increase your cadence up to 90 RPMs or more in those last few miles to loosen your legs and prepare them for quicker turnover in the run.

Stretch before T2:  In those last few miles take a moment to stretch out your back and calf muscles.  Just stand up and lean your hips forward to loosen your back muscles and then drop each pedal one at  time to the 6 o’clock position and push your heel down to lengthen your calf muscles.  This will make it a little easier to jump off your bike, dash into T2, and transition to an upright running position.

Focus on fast leg turnover first:  If you want a faster run leg you need to start with a higher leg turnover.  The reason is simple because after the swim and bike your legs will be tired and your stride shorter.  Your best weapon at this point is a quick cadence that uses your cardio system more than your leg strength.  That way you have a better chance of holding your pace through the second half of the run.

Talk to yourself…Positively:  To help you get into a good run rhythm it’s a good idea to have something in your quiver that gets you focused.  You can count your breaths, repeat a word or phrase like “quick” or “smooth and strong” to yourself, repeatedly count from one to four, hum or sing a favorite song, and by all means smile!  Remember there’s no right or wrong; there’s only what works for you.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

Digging for Gold: Valuable Lessons From Your First Race


There’s a surprising amount of “gold” buried in your 1st race results of the season.  Miss this and it could cost you big time in the next one you do.

Mining race data to improve your future training plans is a no-brainer.  It’s your first, best opportunity to get solid, objective feedback far beyond any test you can do in training.  Yet it’s surprising just how often it’s neglected.

You almost always go harder in a race than you ever do in training, especially through all three events.  There are plenty of reasons for this, but mostly it’s because the race environment drives you to perform much closer to your true training level.  It’s this aspect that makes your 1st race information so valuable.

Since the only thing you and I can control is how well we train and prepare for our races, when we get quality feedback we need to take full advantage of it.   The key is to take some time after the race is in the bag to step back and objectively look at the big picture.  From this vantage point you can to use your specific race statistics and your internal camera to re-experience the race all over again and to make changes to get faster more quickly.

Be mindful not to beat yourself up over what you SHOULD have done but instead to highlight what you did right so you can repeat it in the future and to identify where you can shore up weaknesses and achieve measurable gains.

One of the best ways to do this is to free write answers to some important questions.  Here are three categories to help you get started.

1.    How do you feel about your race?

Did you enjoy the race?  Was it fun?  Was it overly stressful?  Did you accomplish what you wanted, exceed your expectations, or come up short on your goals?  Were there any specific parts of the race that were particularly memorable?  Did you feel you were adequately prepared for this race?

If you can recall some fun highlights then relive them regularly to motivate you during training.  If you have some overly stressful moments, like bursting into tears as you struggled to change a flat tire or panicking at the swim start, get ahead of this before your next race by visualizing being calm and relaxed in that moment.

2.    How well trained were you for this race distance and course?

Were you able to hold your desired pace throughout the race?  Or did you have to slow down because you were unable to resist fatigue as the day went on?  Is there a particular leg of the race that you did better or worse than you expected?  What can your results teach you about where to focus your training in the future?

If you have specific performance goals this last question is particularly important.  For instance one of my goals is to consistently finish in the top ten in my age group (AG).  When I look at my 1st race results and compare them to the top ten in my AG, my swim and run weren’t too bad but my bike and transitions need serious attention.

3.    How effective were your plans?

If you had to rate yourself on how well you planned your race what would you give yourself?  Did you have a solid blueprint for race week training, nutrition, and travel?  Did you give yourself plenty of time to eat, stretch, and take care of business race morning?  How about race day nutrition and post-race recovery?  Did your transitions go smoothly?

In my 1st race this year, the pavement between T1 and the swim start was very rough and my AG wave didn’t start for an hour after the pros went off.  It was painful (yes I’m a tenderfoot) to walk around waiting for my wave to start!  On top of that, the morning air was very chilly.  One guy I met came prepared.  He went to Goodwill the day before the race and bought a sweatshirt and sandals for a few bucks.  Unlike me, he was quite comfy while waiting his turn to start.  The items were then recycled back to Goodwill after the race by the volunteers.  You can bet I’ll remember that one for the future!

Why This Matters

This basic principle of sport and life was said best by a Navy Seal:

“Your performance doesn’t rise to the demands of the occasion.  Instead your performance will sink to the level of your training.” 

It’s not too late to look back (or ahead) toward your first race of the season, and use the data to adjust your training to get better for the next time around.  It is likely the most valuable metric you can count on to make big gains from race to race.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

 

How to Get an Edge Right Before the Gun Goes Off


Do you typically turn into a head-case at the start line?

If so, take heart:  you are not alone!  Race morning is stressful. You shuffle with all your swag into the transition area along with hundreds of athletes all at the same time.  Everyone is hunting down a little personal space to set up their gear among the overburdened bike racks, trying to locate body markers and port-a-potties while praying for short lines all the way around.

Then as you finally make your way to the start line, the head games begin:  it seems like ALL the other athletes (especially those in your age group) look fitter and more confident than you.  Before you know it, full-scale fretting begins, the doubts start to mount and anxiety levels rise.

So how can you turn this thing around quickly and go out and enjoy your big day?  The key is to take three breaths to make the shift.

What’s the Secret to Three Breaths?

Thomas Crum describes the stress reducing effectiveness of using three breaths in his appropriately-titled book “Three Deep Breaths”.   These breaths do several things in order to get calm, present, and help you dial down your relentless inner critic.  Secondly, by appreciating all the work you’ve done and affirming that you’re here by choice you can set yourself up to have a much more positive experience.

Shift from Jittery to Poised in Three Breaths

On race morning, you need to shut down that negative mental rant in your head and shift your thoughts into a positive, self-supportive direction.  The reason for this is pretty simple:  negative thoughts create negative emotions, which narrow your actions down to a fight, flight, or freeze response.  Positive thoughts on the other hand create positive emotions.  These feelings allow you to be present and optimistic, both of which precede success no matter how you define it.

And let’s face it:  being positive is just more fun for you and everyone around you!

I’ve created a variation of Crum’s scientifically-based breathing technique for triathletes below:

Breath 1:  Take a deep, relaxing breath and put a big smile on your face while you do it.  Not one of those fake super model grins but a genuine Duchenne, a full-on smile that pushes your face up and causes crinkles around your eyes.  This deep breath is the place all high performers operate from, because it will calm you and bring you into the present moment, too.  This smile will also drive out those unproductive, nasty hormone-releasing negative thoughts.

Breath 2:  To the best of my knowledge no one has ever accidentally done a triathlon!  Now take your second deep, relaxing breath and remind yourself that you chose to be here.  Your participation in triathlon is strictly voluntary and you have control over how you’ll tackle the race.  Acknowledging this simple fact sets you up to have the best day possible because it really is one of the few times in life when you CAN, in fact, own everything you choose to do for the next several hours.  Delight in the control.

Breath 3:  Take a third deep, relaxing breath and show yourself some compassion.  Shift your thoughts away from what you didn’t accomplish during training and prime your performance by reminding yourself of all the hard work you DID put in to get to the start line.  Focus on how much you’ve grown and what it means to be among the select few in the universe that, like you, did the hard work necessary to be here this morning.

So before the gun goes off breathe (thrice) deeply, get your mind right, and go out and enjoy the day!

That’s it for this week. Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and I hope to see you at the races.