01 June 2008

Athletic Legacies and Training Speeds

This week, I will share some ideas on being fast as well as some detail on my own program. I will also touch on a few paradoxes between my training approach and my racing performance.


Last weekend, I raced the Triple T in Southern Ohio (that's me in the photo above -- I'm on the bike with the Zipp 1080 front -- seriously fast wheel, use with caution!). The race has a unique format. Athletes complete an Ironman but the distance is split into four races over three days (a prologue, two Olys and a HIM). To place well, an athlete needs to be able to perform well when tired – one of my strengths.

Earlier this week, I sent my race report to Planet-X, Zipp and Blue Seventy. I expect that the PX crew should have it live shortly (click HERE on Tuesday). As you will read, I ended up with the quickest time for the weekend and was reminded that it is quite tough to go fast. Alan touches on the physiological reason why it is tough for me to go hard in his latest blog.

When you know the training/approach required to go fast – but can’t seem to do it – that knowledge can reduce your training satisfaction. In 2005, I was dealing with quite a bit of frustration.

Likewise, even if you arm yourself with the fitness to “go fast” – the knowledge of how hard you have to race can make you realize a few things. Now that I am “fit” I am reminded how tough it is to tap my fitness. Riding around the rolling hills of Southern Ohio I asked myself (more than once) why I was spending the weekend, away from my wife, chasing strangers around the backwoods?!

I feel very fortunate in my athletic life -- first (and foremost) to have the opportunity to train on a daily basis; and, second, to have experienced a high level of success. Strangely, just like my success in the corporate world, I have come to realize that there isn’t anything magical at the end of the rainbow. When I finish first, it simply means that nobody faster turned up and I sit around waiting for my pals to catch up.

For me, the satisfaction lies in experiencing the physical sensation of performing close to my potential. I can feel that in training AND, at training speeds, I can relax a bit and look around at nature. During a bike TT, I have to hold my head totally still and avoid creating any additional turbulence with my helmet (!). I save a few seconds but miss the view.

What is my point? Just a reminder of the following…

If you are dissatisfied with yourself at the back of the pack then you will have the same feelings in the middle of the pack. There are a lot of people chasing self-esteem at the races – I doubt you’ll find it in your racing (you could find it in on your athletic journey, though).

If you think that qualifying for Kona, winning your agegroup, or winning a race will change the way you feel about yourself then you may be disappointed. My experience has been that outstanding preparation is more satisfying than performance. However, I seem to be more process-oriented than most.

Coaches (and athletes) should be extremely wary about defining success in terms of relative performance. Our egos greatly overestimate the importance of victories.

The lessons of athletics come from the process of overcoming ourselves and learning to create habits that support our goals. Success is a continual process of finding patterns/choices/decisions that hold us back and eliminating them. These lessons are independent of inherent ability and ultimate performance.

Inherent ability and relative performance impact the satisfaction we receive but those feelings are shallow compared to the deeper meaning that arises when we overcome our fears and failures.

Take some time to consider the legacy that you are creating for yourself. How have the last five (or ten, or twenty) years served the life that you want to create?


How I Train & Race

With that in mind, I am going to change direction and share some ideas about how I get “fast” relative to myself. How do I improve my performance?

Consistency – the last two week’s articles are a good summary of my Big Picture approach. As a number of male readers wrote in… “it wasn’t just for the ladies”. I wrote that piece to remind myself, and you, of a few things.

Training Load – for ultradistance triathlon, your ultimate potential is closely correlated to the training load that you can absorb. If you have factors (genetic, occupational, whatever) that limit your capacity to absorb training then you will struggle to be a competitive ultradistance triathlete. This can be an unpopular message to deliver.

NOTE -- this point applies most directly to your performance against others -- by training smart, nearly everyone can perform far better than we imagined relative to ourselves.

Your struggles will show as:

***Low energy
***Poor workplace performance
***Poor relationship performance
***Disordered eating (there is a lot more of this behavior than eating disorders)
***DNS and DNF results
***Low race performance relative to training performance

If you have the psychological make-up to be a great athlete but lack the physical back-up then you are going to get frustrated coping with the above. I know athletes that manage to convince themselves that the above characteristics are success traits (!?). I would characterize them as failure markers – when you are dealing with two, or more, then you are limiting your ability to be successful in the large picture of your life.

My advice would be to consider if there is an alternative avenue for you to direct your energies where you could be great. Even if you are the “total package” for endurance sport, the rate of return on hour invested is low. If you are in it for reasons other than financial return or athletic glory, then acknowledging that fact will help you maintain a clearer perspective on how to organize your life.

In my life, I wonder if chasing race victories is simply a socially acceptable justification for wanting to do endless training camps. Training is fun, racing is tough.

I spent the 1990s banking 24,000 hours of work in the financial services industry. It is the return from a decade of work and a decade of training that created my athletic life (today). If you look at a snapshot of me (or anyone else) – then it is impossible to see the 20-30 years of choices that resulted in their current situation..

OK, now a few specifics…

Within each sport my first goal is to maintain efficiency, strength and endurance – read my Four Pillars for what that means. For EVERY distance of triathlon competition, that must be your first goal – both as a novice and an expert – it all starts from there.

The sports scientists say that our absolute VO2 can be trained up in about ten weeks – because of its quick return, intensity is great product to “sell”. It hurts and you get quick returns – must be good, eh?

By applying the Four Pillars, you can improve your power/pace at AeT/LT/FT for ten YEARS. Further, you will find that your capacity to sustain threshold efforts is linked directly to the depth of your steady-state fitness.

What do I mean by “depth of fitness”? I mean “consistent training load” – the first two bullets of this section. Depth of fitness shows mostly in your training log, not short durations TTs or the lab.

In an race like the Triple T – you see “speed” in the prologue // you see “fitness” in the final 13-mile run.

Now, even more specific…

Swimming – As a beginner, I received a huge return on my initial months of swim training. For my first year, I improved nearly every month. It was a lot of fun and the improvement became addictive. Then I reached my first (of many) swim plateaus. The early plateaus where easily overcome by adding volume. My later plateaus required adding volume and intensity. I had to learn how to “work” in the water. In order to improve from my current level, I need to be swimming 22-25,000 meters per week with three solid workouts and an IM set on my “easier” day. Swimming is the most intense aspect of my current program.

Cycling – Cycling is the heart of my endurance program. To perform well, I need a consistent load of 10-15 hours per week with my big weeks around 20-25 hours. Early in my career I did a lot of “touring” (easy cycling) but that is out of my program now. If I can’t ride at least steady then I cut the workout short. When I am riding well, I have the capacity to ride long periods on the flats (uninterrupted) The core of my program is rides of 3-5 hours duration with no more than two short breaks. Cycling is where I do the most work (effort over time) in my program.

Running – For a guy that runs well in races, I run relatively slowly in training. My program has two goals – run (nearly) every day and make my long runs my toughest sessions. That’s it. As a result, I am rarely injured and have a long track record of consistent running. REMEMBER -- if you want to run well then you need long term mileage. This is far more important than the physiological benefits of fast running.

Strength Training – about 70 sessions per annum with about 25 of those sessions hard enough to leave me sore for more than three days.

Here is the paradox – when I time trial, I turn all of that on its head.

Swim – lowest intensity part of my day

Bike – sprint and oly distance will see lots of power spikes; Half IM distance will see lots of power spikes in the 2nd half of the ride; IM distance very few power spikes.

Run – sprint and oly distance run fast the whole way; Half IM build effort and focus on a very fast final 10K; IM stay relaxed in the first half, quick in the 3rd 10K and hang on for the final 10K.

On race day, I have found that time trialling results in a faster time than racing. However, I have won a couple of events when I raced, rather than TT’d.

One final point, the above is not a protocol for health. It contains FAR too great a training load. Once we go past ten hours per week, we are being driven by something different than personal health – mental wellbeing? a circle of athletic obsession? I haven't figured that one out completely!



Feedback from last week.

One reader commented that she has a strong desire for a "performance" program and asked for my thoughts.

The most important aspect of your program is getting out the door each day. If you are doing that consistently then you are successful. You personal health depends much more on "doing" than the specifics of "what you do". I think that we all spend too much time sweating the details within our programs.

One of the fascinating aspects of human nature is how we (all) assume that a program of consistency and moderation contains a hidden "cost". The articles I share here are my views on what it takes for us to become high performers -- in both life, and the athletic arena.

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