Coaching is an art, especially when it comes to working with elite professionals. You might think that coaching an average age group athlete would be more difficult because they often lack time, genetics or the experience to be able to dial in a good training program. You may think coaching top pros would easy because they have a bounty of all three of these things. But in the end, average triathletes are much easier to help than the top folks. One simple reason is that when a person approaches performance levels that are near their genetic potential, the final changes that will give them another few percent are usually the toughest changes for them to make otherwise they would have made them already!
A second big reason that a top athlete can be tough to guide is that they forget that on the most basic core level they are just the same as anyone training for a triathlon. The training principles it takes to become an Ironman Champion are the same training principles that it takes to get a person fit enough to become an Ironman finisher. The difference is going to be the level of application of a training protocol that the elite is using. Unfortunately, they can get caught in the mindset that they need to extract and synthesize every small advantage from a million different training philosophies if they are going to be able to propel themselves ahead of the hungry pack of others hunting race victories.
This sets up a potential disaster because the basics are forgotten (you have to swim, bike and run and do lots of it in a sustainable fashion) in exchange for something exotic and far out. It can also keep any single training methodology from working its magic because twelve other things are trying to be integrated into what is already a sound regime. A plate of salmon over pasta might be delicious just as a desert of some chocolate decadence is, but not if they are mixed together in a blender, and that is the training mess some top people end up with when they don’t focus on one solid philosophy. A wise man once said digging a hundred shallow holes might not get you to water. Digging one deep one will. The same holds true for training. Most age group athletes don’t have the time to try a hundred different things to get faster. They go with one and usually end up pretty happy. Pros are tougher to keep on one track. What one training philosophy are your currently following? Or are you? Are you guilty of creating an unsuccessful stew of chopped up bits and pieces from every article you have ever read about how to train?
As a coach, I am like anyone in that I gravitate toward taking on projects that I feel will have a successful outcome. It is the inherent pitfalls that top athletes must overcome that have limited the number of top athletes I have worked with. In fact, I can name those that I have worked with on one hand. Peter Reid, Tim DeBoom, Chris McCormack, Yvonne Van Vlerken, and now Angela Naeth. Three out of the first four landed Ironman victories in Kona from working with me. Angela is hoping to some day! Luis Vargas, cofounder of MarkAllenOnline, had been following her results and seen her race in Boulder. He kept calling her “a diamond in the rough”. Being cautious about working with pros, it took me quite a few months (and countless emails from Angela gently asking if I would work with her) before I was convince. One of the reasons I decided to work with her on top of having all the essential qualities needed to be great–genetics, patience, persistence, and humility–was that she was already training with heart rate and understood the concept. No need for a hard sell on my part about why I think it’s the best foundation for setting intensity levels. We loosely starting discussing ideas as she finished up 2011, and then began in earnest this past winter.
Step One: Plan the Season
The first piece that had to be clarified was Angela’s race schedule for 2012. This is the most important step for anyone when they start a training season: set the quest. What will all the training be targeting? Two people can do the exact same training every day, but the one with a race goal will absorb the benefits better than another who is just training to train. It’s the power of the mind/body connection. So we planned out every race for the season before one workout was designed. Angela is focusing 2012 mainly on half Ironman events with an even longer-term goal of Ironman distance in 2013. Ten races were chosen, some shorter and one or two longer than 70.3, but the bulk will be just that. Next it was clear that the season would be divided into thirds with the first third focusing on Abu Dhabi March 3d, the second targeting a top performance June 2nd at the Rev3 Half, and the final third peaking again for her fall goal race at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships.
Step Two: Hindsight Analysis
Once her key target events were set it was time to do a little hindsight analysis of her training to see what worked and what may have held her back. Again, this is a critical step for any triathlete when going into each season. Look at what types of training gave you great races and what might need to be change or improved upon for the future.
Angela has been nurtured up the ranks over the past three years under the guidance of Chuckie V (Chuck Velupeck a contemporary of mine while I was racing). Chuck works off of similar principles as what I use, mainly focusing on a strong aerobic base situated strategically within certain ranges dictated by heart rate. He is also a strong proponent of listening to your body and taking each day’s training based on your immediate state. However, what seemed to be lacking as we looked at her training over the past few years was a strong longer-term structure.
This comes down to the chicken or the egg question. Should a training program be based on how one feels day to day, or should the training program be put in place knowing that with one eye looking to the future the body will usually be ready and rise up to the workouts that have been planned? In reality, the strongest approach synthesizes both. If you know you have a long ride coming up in two days, usually your body will be ready. If you wake up on that day and ask yourself if you are in the mood for that long ride, the answer might be no. However, sometimes regardless of how ideal the workout might be, your body saying “NO” must be honored. We have her workouts planned six weeks in advance yet talk before each week begins to make sure that what is coming up is still going to mesh with how her body is responding and recovering.
Step Three: Work On Mechanics
Next came the mechanics…stroke technique, running form and bike setup. All athletes become efficient at any motion they repeat thousands of time. But critical for maximizing genetics for everyone is to take the time to develop efficient form before the thousands of hours of training ingrain potentially inefficient patterns.
So first up last winter with Angela was a session at the track. Usually an athlete who can cycle as strong as Angela is heavy on their feet when they run. Not so in her case. A well-placed midfoot strike minimizes her time on the ground, a must for faster running. What did standout as a point to improve upon was her hip angle, which is slightly closed (another issue for some stronger cyclists). We are now working on loosening up her hip flexors and psoas muscles to reduce pelvic tipping that is reducing efficiency in her stride. A second improvement that is just now taking hold is a focus on engaging the glutes for speed rather than a tendency she had to pull in the quads for running power. Weekly low impact plyometric work is solving that. One sport down.
Angela’s cycling has pretty much been dialed in. She has done work in the wind tunnel several times over the past few years to work on her position. Recommendations from there were suggesting a small lowering of her handlebars would make her more aero, but that came at a cost in power output. Not a workable recommendation! The main improvements on the bike will need to come through her training.
The swim still has the most room for improvement. Her stroke, which is very good, does not generate the speed it should. She tends to use the front of her body for power in all sports, which in the water means that she is not getting the full benefit from her lats or from using the hips to generate power side to side in the pull phase of her stroke. We are working on some dry land stretch cord sets to improve her underwater strength and hip rotational torque. More to come!
Step Four: Train, Train, Train
There are athletes who have bodies that can be bent and molded into great shape with lots of force. These sturdy folks can get fit from lots of hard sessions with little necessity to fine-tune the particulars very often. Others if not gently coaxed, will end up injured and burned out from that type of training. Angela is in this category. She has a monster cardiovascular system that needed almost no stimulation to come out like a giant. However, her joints, tendons and bones have taken the slow road to adapting to the demands of triathlon training. Because of this she has done almost all of her racing off of base work and very little true speed training. Her past running volume was extremely low to avoid injury, and certainly not high enough to warrant a long string of track workouts.
Our goal has been to gradually increase her run training (especially looking forward to an Ironman in 2013) while gradually reducing what has been a very large amount of time on the bike to compensate. Last season she had spent over half of her running time on a Stairmaster as a way to activate her musculature while minimizing the risk of injury, which has been an issue for her. By the beginning of phase two of 2012, she is now at almost 0% of her running on the Stairmaster and her overall run volume and consistency has increased dramatically.
During the first third of her season she was still not her ready for any significant speedwork. That will start to be incorporated into her workouts especially on the bike where she can gain anaerobic fitness without needing to worry about injury as she has in the past from running hard. But we weren’t worried about that either. The long-term goal of gradually gaining run consistency and volume trumped any immediate need to get fast for an early season race result. Instead we used prep races to get her anaerobic system ready for Abu Dhabi. It worked! She won her main prep race, the Panama 70.3, and finished second at her big early season event in Abu Dhabi! The diamond in the rough is beginning to sparkle!