Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Winter Wonderland, glass half full and an athlete interview

This past Sunday was the final day of the Winter Wonderland Triathlon, now in it's second year.  This is an event that kept me very busy for the last couple months as I was race directing, coaching many participating athletes, and racing myself to see where my fitness and speed are going into the season.  It's really a series of races, as it's impossible to hold a continuous triathlon in Wisconsin in February, but it's gotten pretty popular.  It's a unique way to break up the winter training for many athletes.

Since you can't race bikes outside in February, we used computrainers for the bike portion.

Most of the participants are collegiate athletes from around the midwest who are preparing for Nationals in April, but it is also an age group race.  From a race director standpoint the event went very well.  The athletes seemed to have a good time and things ran smoothly.  From a coaching perspective it went well too.  Lots of my athletes competed between the UW Team and SBR.  Many also raced last year and it was a great chance to see the work they've put in turn out a faster time this year. (One in particular cut an absurd amount of time, and I will talk more about him later in this post.)  As an athlete, how I feel about it really depends on what context I put it in.  If I look at my result compared to my triathlon career and my goals, it was a pretty lousy performance.  However, it was better than I expected given the previous year.  If I look at it compared to my 2014 season it was actually a pretty good race.

The last year just wasn't a good year for me as a triathlete... I don't regret it though, it was a good year otherwise and I did learn a lot through it. And some of my athletes had fantastic years, which was more of a focus in 2014. I just wasn't able to put in any significant time training.  The only thing that went well, athletically, in 2014 was my strength training.  It was a little embarrassing to admit when I was talking with someone about signing up for this race or that race, but there were stretches of weeks on end during last season where my combined weekly swim/bike/run training volume was only about 2 hours.  Pretty pathetic for someone with an elite license.  But that's life.  And the elite license is good for three years, thankfully.  Because I do need to step it up in 2015 if I'm going to retain that status.

Coming out of the weekend, I could easily be discouraged about my performance, but I'm looking at it as a "glass half full" type thing.  The way the past year has gone I easily could've gone over an hour. (The winning time was 53 minutes for collegiate and 55 minutes for age group) but I finished in 58 minutes.  Last August in Chicago, my swimming hit a career low point and I came out of the water almost 6 minutes behind the fastest athletes in a 1500m.  This was half the distance and in a pool, but I cut the time gap per 750m from 3min to about 1.5min against that caliber swimmer.  My bike ride on Sunday may have been 40 watts lower than I've ridden that course in the past but it was 20 watts higher than I could do it the last time I rode it in the fall.  A couple months ago my legs would itch like crazy after a run because it had been so long since I'd done any running, and Sunday I ran a 17:30-45-ish 5k. It's unrealistic to expect to bounce back in no time so I'm happy to focus on the process of getting back into racing shape.

God willing, I should be able to stay on track in 2015 and we'll see where things go.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, there were quite a few athletes who raced both years and saw significant improvements.  One athlete on the Univ. of Wisconsin club team, Michael Brill, took his 2014 time of 1:16 and turned it into a 1:02 on Sunday.  That kind of improvement isn't something you see every day so I sat down to interview him about it. (Ok... I emailed him some questions, he emailed me back, then I emailed him a few more, and then he replied to those)

Michael Brill, before the running form changes

Q: 1. How long have you been on the UW Tri team?  What was your athletic background before that?

A: I joined the triathlon first semester freshman year and now I’m finishing my junior year. I was going to do club tennis but didn’t make the moderately selective team. I had previously signed up at the Rec Sports fair to get the UW-Triathlon Team’s emails when Michael Lee and Cody Williams did a perfect Tweedledee and Tweedledumb impression. Although it wasn’t so much of an impression as it was simply who they were, as I would find out. They alternated lines, “Do you like to run?”, “Do you like to bike?”, “Do you like to swim?”, “Then you’d be perfect for the triathlon team!” I said I used to swim and they made me write my email.

During middle school I started swimming and then did it year round. I was always close-ish to state cuts but I don’t think I ever got one. I did soccer in middle school and track for a month until I got mono. Freshman year I tried doing soccer but mono made it difficult. I did swim in the winter though. Unfortunately the two high schools in our city were combined, because there were hardly any people on the team. Practices were located at the other high school, so I had to take an hour bus ride every day. To make things more fun, they were our rival school, creating a certain rift. After a season of getting home at 6:30 every day I stopped swimming. Sophomore year I tried tennis and did that for the rest of high school, playing year round eventually.

Q: During your time on the UW Tri team, how would you describe your participation level?  Has it changed over the course of time you've been on the team?

A: When I first joined the team I only did swim practices because I had never ran or biked really before and those practices seemed rather intimidating. Plus, I was only doing the swims because my scoliosis hurt and to prevent gaining the freshman fifteen. I remember everyone was excited that the team got trainers for bikes- even though I didn’t know what that meant. Anyway, I brought my commuter bike, which was my dad’s 1990s one and helped build the trainers and went to some of the spin workouts. I don’t think I realized that other people’s bikes were worth ten times the amount that mine was. To this day I am still very impressed no one even hinted that it was strange I brought that bike. After that I tried the track workouts. I think I was doing the beginner workoutss, but I still say those were by far the hardest workouts I’ve done with the team. I pretty much linearly increased the amount of practices I go to. I would say I go to five-ish practices a week now and only miss them for work or school stuff.

Q: In one year you cut 14 minutes off of your sprint triathlon time, going from a 1:16 to a 1:02 in a 750m/20k/2.75mi.  That's not something you see every day.  What do you attribute your improvement to?  Did you make any significant changes in the last year?

I was really happy with my Winter Wonderland times- I went from a 1:16 to 1:02, which is 18.4% better if I did that math right.  Before you can change physically, you have to change mentally. Everyone on the team was trying so hard, Andrew was doing professional races over the summer, Charlie who just learned to swim was doing Nationals, and Derek was doing the Ironman.   I had never really done a triathlon besides Winter Wonderland before, but here Coley and Elizabeth were doing Elkhart so of course I had to do my first Olympic as well. Then two weeks later I did the Rev 3 Half Iron. Everyone else was doing the Olympic because it was a conference race, but my triathlon confidence was ready to do the Half. I tapered off training a bit after that. I did sign up for the Madison Marathon and was trained somewhat well until school work piled up and I got tendonitis again. However, I went on the very cold fall team century ride- though without any intention to finish. I had really only started biking at the start of the summer. During the century I got to mile 30 when someone’s bike broke and Katy and I went back with him. Katy, not to be deterred, planned on doing one by herself the next weekend. I was not going to let her bike by herself. She did not know bike paths really well so I led for most and was not getting tired. I saw at one point she was struggling. I also knew she was a strong biker. I started to realize I could actually do this. I had the potential to finish a century ride. I am now in the century club.

Q: So it sounds like you started believing in yourself more this past year.  How has this change in mindset helped you to change physically?

A: I’m not really a big racer, or at least I wasn’t. Even during intersquad time trials I would freak out and panic. But over the last say 5 months I have worked some things out- with the help of some of the tri team of course. These last time trials and at Winter Wonderland I wasn’t nervous. I used to think of it as look at all my teammates oh I have to beat whoever, I have to get whatever time, and what if I do bad- are people going to judge me? Now I feel like every time trial or race is this great opportunity to push myself as hard as I can. If I beat my last time that’s awesome. I like to PR; actually it’s my favorite. Even if I don’t beat my time I will have given it everything I had and that is all that I can ask of myself. Another thing I stopped doing is comparing myself to other people, especially the insanely fast people. You can be inspired and motivated by faster people, but if you dwell on the difference in your speed, all you’ll see is a slow, marred version of yourself. You need to start focusing on and appreciate yourself. You need to win mentally before you even have a chance at winning physically.

Q: And this change in attitude changed your approach to training too, correct?

A: After about four times of getting tendonitis I decided it wasn’t okay. I needed to treat my body better, and I knew I wasn’t going to get faster if I had to stop running so often. I also had to opt out of a race this past fall because of it. Before I was a very heavy and loud heal striker. I had been told my form was not elite quality, but I wasn’t so concerned about it. I supposed running with better form would make you go faster as well. Every couple weeks after track I would ask Wild Bill about my running and he would give me one thing to work on. Then during my long runs I would painstakingly focus on my form: cadence, strike, length, knee height, back positioning, etc. I was told I look like a runner- by an actual track coach- during Winter Wonderland a couple weeks ago. 

Q: Last summer you made a change to your bike fit.  How has that affected your cycling ability?

A: Every time I would bike my back would hurt after about 45 minutes. I figured I leaned too much forward and/or scoliosis just didn’t like biking. I had no idea about biking other than you need to pedal to move forward. I was still trying to change gears correctly and drink out of my water bottle while biking instead of waiting for the next stop sign. At Elkhart triathlon the bike was a 40k and I had to stop pedaling and try to stretch my back out a couple times. After that I was like I can’t bike anymore it hurts during and for the next couple days too much. Then I got Bill to show me where to change my seat height to. Like magic my back didn’t hurt anymore! After that I enjoyed biking more, which made me bike more. In addition I could go for longer rides.

Q: What are your plans for triathlon in the next year or two?

A: This summer I want to race TOUGHMAN Wisconsin (formerly known as High Cliff Half Iron) and Door County Half Iron. I might do the Age Group Nationals sprint. Then in October I will do Haunted Hustle Marathon. And to cap it off I will do Ironman Wisconsin 2016!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Not just a blow dry

Earlier this year at the ITU World Championships we saw both race winners reach the finish line first in what many would consider unusual ways.  First, in the women's race, American Gwen Jorgensen came off the bike over a minute behind the lead pack of 18 athletes but nonetheless proceeded to run her way to first place.  It also might not have been possible without help on the bike from teammate Sarah Haskins.  Then in the men's race Alistair Brownlee, defending Olympic champion, broke away with two other riders toward the end of the bike leg and built a lead of over a minute to start the run that he held on to despite faster runs by his brother Jonathan and the two Spaniards, Gomez and Mola.  Both of these results challenge the stereotype of draft legal racing, which says that in order to win you need to get in the lead pack out of the water, simply stay in it on the bike and then be the fastest runner in that lead pack.  Lance Armstrong once called draft legal triathlon a "shampoo, blow dry and a 10k".... others have called them wet 10ks and claim that the bike leg is meaningless.

This is a topic that I've considered writing about for awhile, but now that ITU has announced that it will soon be converting the AGE-GROUP Sprint World Championships to the draft-legal format, it's an issue that suddenly affects a much larger portion of the people who might be reading my blog.  The point of this post is to discuss draft legal triathlon and how it fits into the sport as a whole.
To be clear, I'm not trying to make one type of racing out to be better or worse than another, or to argue that one type of racing is more of a "true" triathlon.  Personally, I enjoy racing, coaching and  following both formats.  The point I want to make is that the different distances and formats are simply different and fans of triathlon should appreciate them for what they are rather than argue about which is better or more of a "true" triathlon.

The first issue I want to address is the idea of what constitutes a "true" triathlon.  Many people who use this term watch an ITU race and don't like the fact that the outcome of the bike leg is not solely based on an individual's ability to produce power in a time trial. (which is very true).  Because of this, and the fact that the swim becomes relatively more important in determining who an athlete starts the ride with, they decide that the three disciplines aren't equally weighted and conclude that non-drafting triathlons are the "true" triathlons.  But here's the problem with that.... please show me a non-drafting triathlon where the three disciplines are equally weighted.  I don't know of one.

Let's use the (non-drafting) 2013 Ironman 70.3 World Championship race as an example.  We'll look at two big names in triathlon: Andy Potts and Sebastian Kienle.  Looking at their split times, Andy swam 8.6% faster than Sebastian.  Sebastian then proceeded to bike 3.7% faster than Andy and then run less than 1% faster than Andy.  So if that's all I told you, who would you think won?  If you said Andy, you'd be wrong.  Sebastian Kienle was crowned World Champion and Andy Potts finished 4th; off the podium. Why? Because the swim only accounted for ~10% of the race by total time.  Not exactly equally weighted.  Does that mean that Andy is actually a better triathlete or that he somehow got cheated?  Some might argue yes but I will point out that both athletes knowingly signed up to race a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and 13.1 mile run event.  The approach in training and the approach on race day are going to be different for that race vs a 1.5k swim, 40k draft legal bike and 10k run.  To succeed, you have to race these two events differently and you have to train for these events differently.  Also some athletes are going to be naturally better at one or the other depending on their skill sets.  Sebastian was a faster triathlete that day at the 70.3 distance and format, and Andy would very likely be a faster draft legal triathlete.  (In fact he used to race that format very well)

The second issue I want to discuss is the importance of the bike leg in a draft legal triathlon.  Is it important? How is it different?  Sometimes, when watching an elite WTS event, the bike is neutralized by a large pack that forms soon after the swim which contains most of the field, resulting in everyone deciding not to try until the run.  However this is actually becoming more rare due to the tactics of some of the riders (the Brownlees changed the game when they showed up and made everyone else work on the bike), and seems to only ever happen at the very highest levels of triathlon.  That's because the athletes are all so good there's not much of a spread in the swim, even over 1500m, so it's harder to get separation.  Personally, I'd love to see hillier, more technical courses for the pros but at the collegiate and junior elite level, that is never really an issue.  In fact, the bike has been a very important factor in the outcome of the race at every collegiate and junior elite race that I've participated in or coached.  Instead of the enormous, 30+ person packs that many think of when they imagine draft-legal triathlon, in reality, when you're not at the absolute highest level of the sport the packs are usually between a handful of riders to groups of 10-20 at most.

The cycling leg often relies less on sustainable power, but more on technical riding ability.

What results is an exciting chase where the bike leg is very important in determining how an athlete does.  It's just not the same as a solo time trial.  Instead of individual riders making their way through the field and opening or closing gaps, you have motivated packs moving up and down through the field as a group, popping people off the back, swallowing up individual or small groups of riders and small group breakaways throughout the bike.  Where threshold power is at a premium in non-drafting triathlon, the skill set of a successful draft legal triathlete involves bike handling and technical skills, tactical skills, teamwork and/or communication skills with the other riders in your group, VO2 and anaerobic power and the ability to recover quickly from hard efforts.
At the Girl’s Junior Nationals race this year, the four top swimmers worked together to increase their lead from 15-30 seconds out of the water to 2 minutes ahead of the next pack (of 8) by the end of the bike.  It took someone from the second pack running a sub-18 minute 5k in order to catch the slowest runner in the lead pack, and those 4 girls finished 1, 2, 3 and 5.  The top 3 runners were untouchable to the rest of the field because of how they used the bike leg to their advantage.

In Richmond this year, one of my athletes, Sofi Nehring, came out of the water in a group of 6.  Over the 20k ride, her well organized group spit a couple riders off the back, swallowed a couple more individual riders who were caught between packs, and on the final lap bridged up to combine with the group of 10 or so that started the ride ~45 seconds earlier.  I use both of these examples to show how the bike can be a very important, even a race defining, part of the event.  It's just not in the same way as a non-drafting event.

You also get to dive in.

Of course, it isn't always that way.  I used the example of Sofi's very organized group in Richmond, but she had a couple other races where the other girls in her group simply didn't want to work or weren't strong riders, which resulted in a frustrated ride where no time was made up or time was lost vs other groups.  That's one of the variables with draft legal racing... who is on the start line, as well as how the athletes approach the race can drastically change how the race turns out.  For some people, that's a terrible thing because they like to fully control their own destiny, but others like the unpredictability of sport.  Of course, both formats have a degree of unpredictability... we don't race on paper by comparing our fitness markers... but that degree is much higher in draft legal racing.

Think about cycling for a minute... there are 3 formats: road racing, criterium and time trial.  All are different, all require different skill sets, all are exciting in their own ways and some riders will naturally be better suited to one vs another.  But it would be laughable to claim that one is real cycling and the others aren't.  I think that as triathletes, we should look at our sport, with its variety of distances and formats, in the same way.

As draft legal racing becomes more popular, age groupers will probably have more opportunities to race if they desire.  Hopefully this will help athletes decide if draft legal racing is for them.  It's not going to be for everyone, but I also hope that more people will drop the negative attitude towards it and learn to appreciate it for what it is... a different, exciting format of triathlon that is not better or worse than any others.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Mid season/early season Update

On one hand, the season seems to be flying by.  On the other hand it's just getting started.  For most triathletes who have been racing since June or earlier it's the middle of the season and I'm starting to prepare many of my personal athletes for their "A" races and the end of the season.  For me, I just had my first triathlon of the year a couple days ago.  

It's been great to see my athletes in action so far this year.  Lots of hard work has been paying off on their part.  One athlete was selected to represent her home county of Brazil at the Pan American Junior championships and qualified for Junior Nationals.  Another is currently ranked #1 in the state in his age group.  Another just finished her first half Ironman triathlon, making huge progress from one year ago.  Another just won her age group in a 5 mile open water swim!  I could keep going, but long story short my athletes are a constant source of motivation and excitement for me and it's an honor to help them work toward their goals.
It was a proud coaching moment when Robbie won the overall at Rev3 Dells

I love coaching and it keeps me busy, and for most of this year I've done a good job of making sure that my own training was balanced in well.  By that I don't just mean getting in the workouts.  I often tell my athletes that the best way to get the most out of your training, if you had to sum it up in three points, would be this:

1. Do your sessions as written, when they're written*
2. Eat well
3. Sleep enough

*Given constant communication/feedback with your coach, not blindly following a plan written far in advance

In my experience coaching, the athletes who do these three things consistently are, practically without exception, the ones who see the biggest and quickest improvements.  In my experience as an athlete, I have improved most when doing these things, and have stagnated when I have neglected one or more of them.

Fairly simple concept, but I also realize and tell my athletes that life happens while you're going through a training plan.  Everyone needs to decide where their training falls in their list of priorities.  That's something I can't decide for someone. What is going on outside of training effects what goes on with training.  Sometimes we control those things and sometimes we don't.  I just had an athlete have an unexpected two weeks off leading into a half iron this past week.  Was it ideal for her race prep?  No.  But it was for more important things than triathlon so I don't fault her at all.  My job is then to work to try to make any adjustments as smooth as possible and re-adjust race plans if necessary.  That's what we did and she had a great race day.

That's kind of how my recent chunk of the season has gone.  As of my last post things were looking good.  My threshold power was at an all time high and climbing.  I finally felt good in the water again.  Running legs were almost back.  Then mid June rolled around and from that time till now, one thing after another pulled me away from my well-oiled system.  First sleep went, and when that went I wasn't recovering enough to handle the workouts I was doing so they had to be cut back.  The past month has actually seen very minimal work on my part and I was feeling it.  In the past this would've bothered me a lot.  Especially having taken my elite card with the intent of opening up the season better than ever.  I think a big difference the past two years that is a big part of why I was able to have a good season last year and start my training off so well this year is that I put triathlon into a little bit different perspective.  I feel more secure about what I'm doing and why.  I want to be the best I can be.  I'm just not willing to sacrifice the rest of my life for it and it doesn't define me personally so if I have a bad race I don't feel bad about myself.  I put my training above all trivial things and have learned to say no when I feel pulled in too many directions at once.  At the same time when truly important things are going on in life I no longer have qualms about dropping workouts or sacrificing my own training.

So knowing that my fitness was substantially down going into this past weekend's half iron race, instead of being flustered by it I changed my race plan and was ok with not contending for the top 5 spots.  I knew my original time goals I set earlier in the season were out the window, but with a different approach I thought I might still be able to PR.  Going hard for over 4 hours was not going to work this time without a self destruct on the run, so instead I decided to swim easy, bike somewhat conservatively and then run hard.  I felt I could at least work hard for an hour and a half.  

Basically it seemed like things were going to plan up until mile 45 or so on the bike.  The swim was easy and although I was pushing a higher power than I have before for this distance it felt in control and smooth.  Then the road quality changed and regular jarring bumps for the next 10 miles had my lower back absolutely killing me by the time I rolled into transition.  I felt like I couldn't run and my back didn't let up until I was 10 miles in.  At that point I didn't really care any more and jogged it in.  Now I do realize that everyone rode the same course and not everyone had this problem.  I think my lack of fitness was a part of it, that and I have traditionally struggled with that on flat courses of that length when I'm trying to hold aero for so long.  I was actually doing better with it this time until the road changed, probably due to improved strength from my work at FIT this year.  Unfortunately it just meant that I finished the race never breathing hard and 10 min off of my PR.  Legs were shot though. 

So I'm not going to sit here and pretend that it's the race I wanted to have, but there were some good takeaways from the race.  I rode better for that distance than I have before and did it at below my usual half IM heart rate.  That tells me that the strength gains I've worked hard for this year have paid off despite a lower current fitness level.  It's different for everyone, but for me it takes a lot of work to gain strength and speed but relatively less work to develop endurance.  I think it's partly just how my body is made up and partly due to almost 10 years of aerobic training which has built an enormous base.  It will take much less time to get my fitness back than it would to get stronger or faster so I feel that bouncing back, while it will take significant work, is something that is definitely possible this season.  And for me at least, the season is just starting.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Exciting Triathlon Things!

I should be getting back to Madison right about now.  It's been a little over 30 hours since we left Tempe and the Collegiate National Championships, but unfortunately some car trouble (not my car) has left me temporarily stranded in Meade, KS for another day or two.  If you have no idea where that is, I don't either. I'm writing this at the "Moon Mist Motel" which features a goat chilling out on the front lawn.  That's probably the highlight of Meade.

Anyway, at least the internet has made it out to this tiny town so I can get some work done and write this blog.  Although not my ideal way to end it, the race weekend was fantastic and I am really proud of the Wisconsin Triathlon Team for their performance at Nationals.  I've been coaching the team for the past two years and with the support and organization of the team officers and the hard work of the athletes, the team has been steadily and kind of quickly rising through the ranks on the National stage. In 2012 our combined (mens/womens) team rank was 27th, in 2013 we were 16th and this past weekend we finished 12th.  This has happened at the same time the sport itself has gotten faster.  For example, last year a 1:55 in the mens race was 30th place.  This year it was 52nd place on the same course.  The super sprint mixed relay, which was just introduced last year for the first time, is not included in the overall team score but in 2013 the team's relay finished 26th.  This weekend our relay got 5th in a very tight sprint finish (which we won!).  Needless to say I'm really excited and couldn't be happier for the team.  They've worked really hard this whole year.  Team improvements like that wouldn't be possible without it.
Andrew to Katy at exchange #2 of the mixed relay.  This is a very exciting new event in triathlon, and I hope that ITU can get it added into the olympic program. (I'd also like to see a longer course, non drafting event as triathlon grows more popular)

Some of the team with me in Tempe after the olympic race.

Coaching at SBR has also been going well.  My personal athletes are gearing up for the racing season to start and the swimming group that I've been leading has been looking better and better.  The annual Winter Cycling Relay Challenge raised a lot of money for the new exhibit at the Zoo and SBR held the first annual Winter Wonderland Triathlon, primarily a collegiate race but also open to the public.  I'm excited for all of the athletes that I'm working with and also looking to pick up a few more for the summer season.
The Winter Wonderland Triathlon at SBR.  750m indoor pool swim, 20k computrainer ride, 5k outdoor run

As for my own racing, I officially received my USAT Elite/Pro license in mid-January!  At that time my off season came to a screeching halt and for the last 2.5 months I've been hard at work getting back into shape.  I didn't let myself get as out of shape as I did prior to the 2013 season, and as of right now I'm happy with how things are going.  This past week at Nationals has been less training and more unhealthy eating with the long road trips, but with the exception of this week I have been eating much better, sleeping better and incorporating a good strength program consistently, something that has always fallen by the wayside as things have gotten busy in past years.  The result is that I feel better in general, I've gained almost 5lbs of muscle (I'm the heaviest I've ever been in my life, and that is a good thing!) and my FTP is already 5% higher than my previous lifetime best despite starting the season down 20%.  Chasing Andrew Nielsen for a week around the foothills in South Carolina a few weeks ago also certainly helped get my cycling fitness back.  I'm also setting PR's in the pool like crazy on kick sets, which means it won't be long before I'm swimming better than ever.  If things continue to move forward as they have been so far I should be in a good position to kick off my rookie pro season in June or July.
Training camp in South Carolina with the tri team.  It was spring break for them and a (fun) business trip for me.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Holy Grail

A few years ago, I was working with a runner who had come into the store looking for some shoes.  After looking at his gait, I brought out three shoes that I thought would work well with the shape of his foot and the way he ran.  “I’ll try that one”, he said, pointing to the Newton, “but I’m not wearing those two, they don’t make you run better.”  I explained to him that while this Newton may help him feel when he is running correctly, it won’t change the way he runs.  I explained that he would be able to run well in all three shoes I brought out if he changed his stride mechanics, but that I brought these three specific pairs out because they would not cause him major pain in case he didn’t fix his stride.  Some other shoes wouldn’t be as forgiving of his stride, which was exclusively hip movement with no knee bend at all.

But he had come in to find a magic cure for his knee pain, and a golden ticket to faster race times without effort on his part.  Only willing to try certain shoes that he had read about in a magazine, each time he would get up on the treadmill he’d ask if he was running better.  Each time, I told him his knee still isn’t bending and that he needs to try moving his legs differently.  Not believing me, he checked the video I had been taking and sure enough, his footstrike hadn’t changed.  He found lots of shoes that felt comfortable, and in all of them he ran the same way, refusing or unable to change his stride, and refusing to believe that there isn’t a shoe that would make him run better with no effort on his part.  Finally he put the first Newton that I had originally brought out back on and decided that he felt that he was running better in it.  I showed him the video that proved he was still significantly over-striding, but he insisted he was running with better form.  I encouraged him to work on his form on his runs and gave him some pointers and drills to try.  Then I explained that he was in a good, comfortable shoe that would absorb a lot of the shock and spare his knees as much as possible if his current stride doesn’t change.  He bought the shoes, but didn’t seem too happy with me.

This is an extreme example of an athlete looking for that “Holy Grail” of their sport, in other words, that elusive secret that if it could just be found, would catapult the athlete to the top of the podium.  “After all, how did the pros get up there?  They must be doing something that I’m not, or have something that I don’t” the thinking goes.  Unfortunately for those looking for it, the Holy Grail does not exist.  Well, there actually is something that the pros are doing than some others aren’t.  However, it’s not the type of Holy Grail that many would like because it involves a lifestyle, not a quick fix.  I am sure that at least 90% of elite triathletes have made it to the level that they have because of consistent hard work over time, a good plan that is followed faithfully but also intelligently, and the understanding that what they do outside of practice time can have as great an influence on their race times as what they do in the pool, on the bike or on the track.  For example, most elite triathletes consider their diet a vital part of their athletic ability.  Most age groupers, in my experience, do not.  The majority opinion among age groupers is that they train so that they can eat whatever they want.  The majority opinion among elites is that they eat well so that they can support their training.

I realize that I am making sweeping generalizations, and there are definitely exceptions on both sides of that, but it’s largely true overall.  It also might make some laugh that I’m preaching the importance of a good diet to athletes when I have been known for my love for Culvers, among other less than perfect food choices.  I just want to say a quick word about that before getting back to the point, so I’m not accused of being hypocritical.  I do love Culvers, it tastes good, and I admit that I haven’t always made the best nutrition choices… especially during the off-season.  This has affected my athletic ability at times.  It should be known that although I might have Culvers or pizza for lunch sometimes, what isn’t seen is the breakfast of eggs, peanut butter on toast, and yogurt and the dinner of grilled salmon or chicken, steamed vegetables and a garden salad that probably goes with it for the day.  And this past season, my most successful yet, was also my best season nutrition-wise. 

But back to the point… elite triathletes aren’t elite triathletes because of what shoes they wear, or what recovery drink they use, or what bike they ride, or whether they swim with a shoulder driven or a hip driven freestyle, or what coach they have, or anything else of that nature.  A few possess a Holy Grail in the form of raw natural talent, but that cannot be purchased or learned, and by far and away most became elite triathletes because they chose to consistently work hard and make their lifestyles supportive of their athletic goals.

This goes for any sport.  Jordan was known to shoot 1000 free throws after practice ended for the day. 

It’s important to be clear on what I am not saying.  I am not saying that it doesn’t matter what shoe you wear, or what recovery drink you use, or what bike you ride, or how you swim, or who your coach is.  Those things all matter, but they will do nothing for you if you, the athlete, don’t use them in the right way.  I already described how a shoe choice can support a good stride.  A bad shoe choice can definitely injure an athlete, but the best shoe choice will not realize its full potential unless you run in it with good mechanics.  And the best shoe depends greatly on the individual.  

The same goes for bikes.  I raced in the Chicago Triathlon in 2008, and due to unexpected circumstances, I arrived at the start line not having slept at all the night before.  Despite my aero tri bike and aero position, race wheels and aero helmet, I was passed often by men in their fifties who were seated upright on their road bikes.  I just didn’t have the engine that day.  My fast bike setup could only help me when I was fit and strong.  Unfortunately some spend so much time on their bikes shaving seconds that they don’t have time to work on their engines and lose minutes.

It does matter if you adequately replace your fuel after a workout, and it does matter how you swim.  These are very important things, and poor workout recovery or poor swim technique can put a stopper on an otherwise good training program.  However, if a person has a perfect diet, they may be extremely healthy but that doesn’t make them aerobically fit.  Hard work needs to be put in to develop aerobic fitness.  If a swimmer (assuming already has the basics down) finds their perfect stroke, it will only lead them to minimal gains if they don’t work to develop the fitness to maintain good mechanics for the duration of their event.  Hard work cannot be faked.  Proper stroke technique can greatly enhance a swimmer’s ability, but cannot replace a strong engine built over time.

If you do search for the Holy Grail, just make sure you watch out for the killer rabbit 

It also matters who your coach is, but I don’t want that statement to be taken the wrong way.  If you’re on a never-ending search for the best coach, switching each season, you’ll never reach your potential because there’s no consistency.  When I swam in high school, I had four head coaches in four years.  In my opinion, every one of them was a good coach, and I loved being a part of the team.  But from a performance standpoint, it wasn’t the best situation for the swimmers.  Each year, the new coach took at least the first month of the three-month season to get to know us before much personal attention could be given.  They all trained us a little differently, and we could never pick up where we left off. 

In track I had a similar situation with one coach for my first two years and another coach for my second two years.  These coaches were both good, but trained us very differently.  As a 1600m runner in high school, my coach the first two years was big on developing aerobic fitness.  I worked hard under this system and steadily brought my time down from a 6:00 at my first freshman meet to a 4:58 at the end of my sophomore year.  The next two years I trained under a coach who put a much greater emphasis on speed with less on longer, aerobic runs.  I worked hard here too, and eventually I adapted to this program. I finished high school track running faster than I ever had, but my entire junior year was a step back from my sophomore year.  I believe this is because I had never developed the speed to run well under the new training plan, and it took time to get there.  Had either of these two coaches been my coach for all four years, I believe I would have run faster as a senior than I did by training under one style for two years and then another for the next two.

So it is important to trust your plan, give it time, and trust your coach.  As triathletes we can choose our own coaches.  In my opinion, the three keys to a finding a good coach are education, experience and personality.  The personality component means that the best coach for you might not be the best coach for someone else.  Ideally you will pick a coach that has all three, and if so you have likely found a great coach.  You can probably have some degree of success if your coach has two of them, and you’ll likely experience only frustration if your coach possesses just one. 

Once you’ve chosen your coach, it’s important to trust them and allow the plan time to work.  It’s also important to take control of your training, and recognize when something isn’t working to make a change.  Sometimes it’s clear that the coach/athlete relationship isn’t working.  However, if you feel that you’re not progressing the way you think you should be, and your coach has a strong education, knowledge, experience coaching and as an athlete, and works well with your personality, you should look in the mirror first before making the decision to change coaches.  Make sure you’re doing everything right before making the decision to switch.  This is harder for people to do than to blame someone else, and certainly sometimes a great coach and a great athlete (in their ability to work with their coach, not their athletic ability) just don’t fit well together, and sometimes a good coach can do a poor job for whatever reason.  But I have seen many athletes stagnate under good coaches and good plans due to their unwillingness to put in the work or to make lifestyle changes.  I’m not excluding myself as an athlete here at some times in the past.  I’ve seen athletes struggle to understand why they aren’t improving despite their training, but refuse to give up eating fast food 2-3x per day.  I’ve seen other athletes wonder why they aren’t improving as fast as their training partners are, but neglect to work on their mechanics despite clear instruction.  I have personally improved at times, and stagnated at others, on the same plan, depending on my stress levels outside of practice.  Make sure you are putting in the work first, otherwise it’s not a fair assessment of a coach’s ability. 

Consistent communication is the number one way to get the most out of your coach/athlete relationship.  I admit that at times in the past I have failed at this, and it followed that I would perform better when Blake was getting consistent, specific updates about how my workouts were going versus times when he just had to assume I was doing them.  So I understand that sometimes it’s inconvenient to fill out training peaks on a regular basis, but I assure you that in order to get the most out of your coach you must do this. (Or use whatever avenue of communication your coach uses)  I believe that as a coach, I have both the knowledge and experience in the sport to guide triathletes to success.  (I’m by no means the only coach in the area who can say that)  That being said, I’ve had varying levels of success among athletes.  In my experience there has been an almost perfect correlation between the level of improvement and the amount of data and communication I get from the athlete.  The athletes that improve the most are those who respond to my emails regularly, enter their pace data on training peaks for all their workouts, and initiate conversation with me if they have questions.  Those who do not see more modest results, almost predictably. 

As an example, I just had an athlete, who was already at a high level, complete a round of test sets and in 20min worth of work she has improved by over 1 minute compared to 3 months ago.  If the same degree of improvement was seen in a ~1hr sprint distance triathlon, that’s over 3 minutes better.  It’s the equivalent of a 30min improvement in a 10hr Ironman.  For most athletes who are already at a competitive level, I would consider that very successful for an entire year’s worth of training.  This athlete will see higher than average improvement this year because of her commitment to training and her communication with her coach.  She works very hard, thinks about how her choices outside of practice influence her performance, her diet is fantastic, she gets enough sleep, she always updates training peaks with specific data when needed, she asks whenever she has a question about something, and lets me know on the very rare occasion that she misses a workout.  In those cases I can then decide how much, if any, to make up and when.  If someone didn’t know the consistent work she put in, her commitment to the training plan and the lifestyle choices it took to achieve those results, they might be tempted to try to search out her Holy Grail.  “Is she training with a heart rate monitor or power meter?  Which brand?  What bike is she riding?  Does she drink protein smoothies? Soy or whey?  Does she run with a heel strike or toe strike?  Does she run in Vibram five-fingers? Are those zero drop? (they’re not)  Is it her coach?  Maybe I should change coaches, but I’ve been seeing improvement with mine…” These are all points that an athlete should consider in making the most out of their own training, but if they replace the fundamentals of hard work, consistent training and creating a performance lifestyle, they will not create the easy gains that the athlete is looking for.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Through the coach's eye

About a year ago I wrote a blog post highlighting my three athletes and their races, also mentioning that I felt like I wanted to make coaching a bigger part of what I do.  With the move to SBR I have made that a reality and really enjoy working with all of my athletes.  They each inspire me in their fitness journeys and accomplishments.  Since they’ve all finished their 2013 seasons, I’m posting this to highlight their achievements and also to give some insight into how training can differ from person to person, since the ideal training plan varies as much as people do.

Sofi Firmino is my newest, and youngest athlete.  15 years old and having lived in Wisconsin for only the past two months, she has already made waves in the area in the few races that she has competed in.  In her division, which USAT defines as “Youth” (12-15) she has been completely dominant.  In her first two IronKids races, which consist of a 300m swim, 8mi bike and 2mi run, she ran away with the first overall spot, beating not only the girls but all of the boys, too.  At the end of the season, a month and a half after arriving from Florida, she raced at the IronKids US Championships and won the girls 15 yr old division there.  Not afraid to race much older athletes, Sofi competed in the final two Madison aquathons of the series and finished 2nd and 3rd overall, only finishing behind 3 of the top triathletes in the state (Cindi Bannink, Adrienne Amman and Summer Ohlendorf).
Sofi, who aspires to race for her home country of Brazil in the future, came to Madison already possessing excellent triathlon skills.  Her transitions are already at an elite ITU level.  Her bike handling, drafting and open water skills are all great, and I didn’t have to teach her any of it.  It’s a testament to the quality coaching she received with her Florida team and her focus and motivation to excel.  Since she showed up in the middle of the season, we’ve been working on speed and power, without pushing her too hard in the summer since she was racing often.  Now that the triathlon season is over, we’re focusing on a more long term plan, which starts by preparing for the Junior (16-19) elite ITU circuit that she’ll compete in 2014.  Sofi is totally dedicated to her training, both in practice every day and outside of it with her diet and lifestyle. I’m excited for where this young athlete is headed, and honored to be able to help her get there.
Sofi was looking forward to her chocolate donut all week before her race!

The first time I came across Robbie Greco was on the results page of the Verona Triathlon back when I was in college.  I noticed a 14 year old pretty high up on the overall sprint results, and took note of the name because you just don’t see that very often.  So Robbie joined the Wisconsin Triathlon team last fall. He had lots of experience as a triathlete, racing a sprint almost every weekend for the previous couple summers.  But he didn’t have experience training as a triathlete.  He swam for his high school team during the winters, but his training during the season consisted of running 3 miles a day and then throwing everything together on race day.
Robbie is a hard worker, and is determined to race well every time he toes the line.  And he almost always does.  His performances at Collegiate Nationals, and again at Racine 70.3 and Rev3 Dells were fantastic, with other good finishes thrown in during the season.  Robbie was Wisconsin Triathlon’s top finisher at Nationals and during the conference season. He used his strong swim to finish 14th at the draft legal race at Nationals and then followed it up with a totally unexpected similar performance on tired legs the next day in the Olympic race.  He also cut his half Ironman time from just over 5 hours to 4:35 at Racine, among other highlights of the year.
Robbie at the collegiate conference championships. He didn't notice the speed limit sign

While it’s good to recognize your strengths, it’s equally important to identify weaknesses as an athlete.  For example, we found that Robbie does not swim well in very cold water.  Identifying these things will help plan races better to play to strengths and, when the necessity arises that you have to race your weakness, you will have a better plan to deal with them.  He was also having some periodic knee pain, which prompted a running form analysis, which discovered some instability in his hips.  He’s now working on improving that, which I expect to see the results of in the near future.  As with all high level athletes, Robbie loves the sport, and it has shown in his lifestyle, as I’ve observed him making positive changes to diet, sleep etc over the course of his season for the sake of his training.

Ansel Hillmer came to the sport of triathlon from a strong swimming background, but without much experience cycling or running.   After a few seasons on his own including an Ironman finish, he decided to hire a coach at the end of last season.  This year, we have been focusing primarily on the half and Olympic distances.  Ansel has been making good progress in training in both the bike and the run.  He’s also been swimming very well, continuing to transition from a D1 collegiate butterflier to a long distance swimmer in triathlon.  Ansel capped off the season with a great race at the Big Shoulders 5k open water swim in Chicago, finishing in 1:07:15 (1:20/100m, or 6:00/500yd) non-wetsuited.
His triathlons didn’t go quite as well, although we still saw PRs this season.  Ansel’s fitness on the bike and run are both clearly rising, but triathlon is about more than just fitness.  Pacing and nutrition are both important, especially as races get longer, and figuring out exactly what works for you takes some time, and doesn’t always go perfecty.  Despite nutrition issues causing a death march for the final 5 miles of the run at High Cliff half this summer done at 4-5min/mi slower than his pace had been for the first 8 miles, Ansel did manage to PR by a small margin.  Something like that is bittersweet… it says a lot about how fitness has improved in a year, but it’s also frustrating knowing how much more potential there is.  But it’s important at times like that to remember that triathlon training is a process, and with experience and consistency comes results.  Ansel’s head is in the right place and I’m confident that the racing experience he gained this year will show in future seasons in big ways.
As usual, Ansel leading the pack into the water

This was my second year working with Jami Klagos.  Last year she was very new to triathlon, but nevertheless worked her way up the distances that year, completing her first sprint, Olympic, half and full Ironman within the span of 4 months.  She was very busy during the school year with other commitments, and wasn’t able to start significantly training again until towards the end of last school year.  This year she was signed up for the same 4 races: Lake Mills, Capitol View Olympic distance, Racine 70.3 and Ironman Wisconsin.  Her goal was to beat her time in all of them, especially Ironman.
Last year, with her training, I played it on the conservative side, not really knowing how much workload she could handle.  It was still Ironman training though, so she was put through a lot.  Experience is a huge plus, and this year I knew a few more things about her.  For one, I knew the amount of volume she was able to handle last year and the result it got her.  I also knew that she was going to do every yard that I put on her training plan, regardless of how she was feeling or how busy her schedule was outside of training.  She is very motivated to train hard when she decides to train for something. The same issue of not having a base from the school year was present this year, but I knew I could push her a little harder.  Volume wise, there wasn’t a big difference from last year to this year.  The bigger difference was in the intensity of training.  I wasn’t worried about her having the aerobic fitness for Ironman this time around, so we focused more on power development.
She also had more race experience, which helped her perform very well this year.  She accomplished all of her goals, by large margins, this season.  Every race was better this time around (not a common thing, she knows how to bring it every day).  At Lake Mills 2013, her bike/T2/run time was 1:15:23, from 1:16:52 last year. (Swim cancelled in 2013). At Capitol View, she went from 2:56:08 to 2:41:11 this year.  At Racine, she dropped her time from 6:02:30 to 5:33:26.  And finally, at Ironman Wisconsin she cut her time from 13:09:48 to 12:26:26.

Jami and Kent at Capitol View

Kent Klagos is Jami’s dad, and in similar fashion tackled the Ironman the same way Jami did her first year (first year doing triathlons).   For Kent, the biggest obstacle was the swim.  He had done some marathons in years past, and was used to running most days.  However the swim was completely new to him.  I started working with him in May, and at that point he was comfortable swimming a mile in the pool with a pull buoy.  This was a big step up from the beginning of the calendar year, as he informed me that getting from one end of the pool to the other had been a struggle.  However, without the pull buoy things fell apart quickly.  100 yards was about the maximum continuous swimming Kent could do at the beginning of May.
With lots of work in the pool over the next month, at least 4-5x/week, I was more confident that Lake Mills, Kent’s first triathlon would be a success.  However, race day came and the water did not cooperate.  It was the beginning of a bad luck streak, water condition wise, for Kent this year.  He was prepared to finish a smooth water 400m in a lake, but as the couple scheduled open water swims had fallen through the previous week, he was not comfortable at all with chop and (intelligently) bailed on the swim.   He did well on the bike/run, but his first complete triathlon would have to wait until the next weekend.
He was originally signed up for the Capitol View Olympic distance, but switched to the sprint that week.  He completed the swim, and the whole triathlon at CVT, but again the water kicked up and it was a struggle in the chop. (Yes, many people stand and walk that swim, but he was under instruction not to) His time for the 400m that day would have to maintained for the entire 2.4 miles to make the swim cutoff at Ironman.  Kent’s next race was the Racine 70.3.  He had put in a lot of work on the swim, and the other disciplines, since Capitol View and was noticeably stronger in the water, and had more comfort in open water.  Unfortunately, every time Kent gets in a lake for a race it becomes choppy, and this year’s Racine race had about the worst conditions you can have without canceling the swim.  2-3 foot waves, currents from all directions and water that smelled like boat fuel from the reports I got.  He gave it his all but couldn’t handle the brutal conditions and was pulled from the swim.  While mentally that was a big blow, one thing about Kent is that he’s tough as nails and doesn’t ever give up.  The Racine experience lit a fire in him and his push towards Ironman was nothing short of incredible.  He was able to get into the last two aquathons, the second of which was the only calm water swim he had all year.  But he had to finish the first rough one before he was allowed smooth water.  In the 2.4 mile Madison open water swim, he finished in under 2 hours and was gaining confidence back going in to Ironman.  Ironman day came and in the spirit of the season, Monona was being kicked up by strong winds.  Kent pushed through it and came out of the water looking strong, ready to tackle the rest of the race with plenty of time to spare before the swim cutoff. 
Although the swim was the primary focus of the season, we had not been neglecting the other two.  All season, the thought was that as long as he finished the bike in the cutoff time, we’d be fine as the run was his ace.  However, an unexpected hamstring injury outside of training forced him to go into the Ironman knowing that he was going to have to walk the entire marathon.  Kent pushed it all the way to the end and ended up running out of time with 4 miles to go.  Kent’s improvement in such a short time was incredible, and I know that if he wants to give it another go in the future he has the base and experience for it, not to mention mental and physical toughness.

Brenda Knighton has plenty of experience as a triathlete, having completed many events of all distances in the past.  What was different about this year is that she was coming off of surgery that affected her running, so we needed to manage that as she built her training towards Ironman Louiseville.           
Because building intensity into the run would cause issues, we gradually built the volume in a walk/run method in order to build up to be able to handle the marathon.  The intensity in her training came in the swims and bikes.  Because we knew that the run was going to take more time than it used to for her, our goal was to improve Brenda’s swim and bike splits to allow more time to finish the marathon, and build up enough running tolerance to get it done without injury.  Brenda competed in a few triathlons this season before the Ironman, and showed that her first two disciplines were indeed improving, and she was very competitive in her age group through the end of the bike. 
At her Ironman, she had a very strong swim and bike, and was able to get through the run portion safely and under the time limit. As she continues to recover from the surgery and her run gradually gets back to where it had been, she will be able to use her strong swim and bike to set up better and better finishes in the future.
At the IM L'ville finish line

Brenda would also probably want all of you to know that her primary goal of beating her good friend Kitty Cole (a fellow SBR coach), was accomplished at Ironman.  They split the season though, as Kitty finished ahead of Brenda at an earlier race.  Listening to those two trash-talk each other is pretty hilarious.

I have worked with Emma Kultgen off and on for a few years.  Originally, it was just through the Wisconsin Tri Team when I would see her at workouts but this year I took her on as a personal athlete.  Emma is a remote athlete now that she lives out of state, and the race that she was training for was a 70.3 in Europe.
Emma came to triathlon from a swimming background, and as she started running and biking with the Ironman in mind, she did what many long distance triathletes do, and that is a lot of miles at a relatively comfortable pace.  She had experience doing speed work as a swimmer, but was not applying it to running and cycling. 
            When the team started doing a weekly track workout, Emma started coming to those because they were different and fun.  What surprised and excited her was that after a year of doing one run per week with hard intervals ranging from 200-1600m, her long distance race pace had dropped considerably, without changing anything else about her training.  In that year she cut her pace at the 20k run from ~9:30/mi to ~8:30/mi.
            As a personal athlete this year, her training plan contained a lot more intensity than she had done in the past across the board in all 3 disciplines.  We also incorporated strength training into her plan.  In terms of volume, we didn’t do anything crazy.  Having seen her respond well in the past to a small amount of speed work prompted the change in the way she trained.  She responded very well, and her race exceeded any of our expectations.  Emma had done a few 70.3s in the past, and had hovered around the low 6 hour area.  Unfortunately the swim at her event was cancelled, but had she added her usual swim time onto the bike and run that she did do, her total time would have been between 5:15 and 5:20, an incredible improvement.  Her pace on the half marathon was also just under 8min/mi, showing continued improvement there.  Some people respond better to one type of training, and others to another.  The key is to figure out what works for each person.
The water doesn't look so bad here...

            Tim Leung is a first year athlete who came to me looking for some help with his cycling before racing a half Ironman.  We started one month before the race, which is unusual, but my goal as a coach is to help athletes reach their goals as best I can, and I try to work with each situation individually.
            With very little riding done earlier this year, we weren’t going to have time to gain a large amount of fitness (some, though), so our focus was primarily on increasing pedaling efficiency and power through training.  Tim has more experience running, but at his first race the bike took his running legs out so he couldn’t use them.  With proper pacing, he rode the same time on a much harder course and ran well off the bike.

David Mott joined the Wisconsin Triathlon Team on campus a year ago having done one or two triathlons.  David came to the sport with a very strong running background.  It is likely he had the potential to walk on to the UW Track Team as an 800m runner, as he had run 1:54 in high school.  However he decided to do triathlon because it seemed “more fun” and his brothers were on the team.  Despite his strong run, he was a total novice in the other two disciplines, having learned to ride a bike at age 18 and having no formal swim training since he was 10.  He knew how to not drown in the pool, but that was about it. 
            He caught on very quickly though, in fact I’m not sure I’ve ever known someone to improve so fast.  His raw talent as an athlete is undeniable, but it was more than just that.  He backs up his talent with an incredible work ethic and a good diet.  The Wisconsin Triathlon Team doesn’t require practice attendance, but David only missed one or two practices during the school year, for exam conflicts, and then took the initiative to email me for the workouts so he could do them on his own.  I also overheard him being made fun of by some of his teammates for eating a lunch in the cafeteria one day consisting exclusively of tons of spinach and some fruit.  And yet that’s probably a big reason why he responds to training so quickly.  After we reviewed the basics of freestyle in the first two weeks of practice, David was swimming the 500 in about 7:30 (1:30/100yd).  A month later he swam 6:46 (1:21’s).  By mid second semester he swam 10:28 in the 800 (1:18s), and based on his swim times from his open water races this summer, he is likely in the neighborhood of 1:13-1:14 pace in the pool now for 800yds. 
Once a week, I make David bike on snow and ice to practice handling

            The bike was a similar story.  I don’t have that much power data for him, but he periodically checked in on the computrainers and showed continual, overall improvement throughout the year.  He also went from not being able to get his water bottle out of its cage while riding last spring to being able to hold his own in a road race this past July.  David’s racing season was almost derailed as soon as it begun when he got mono early this summer.  However, he was able to rest it off in just two weeks and get back to training, a testament to his good overall health.  By the end of the summer David was hot on his coach’s heels at more than one race, so I am very excited to see where he can go with another year of hard work.

            Liz Murphy is one of my first year athletes.  She was beginning to train and work out after some time off, with the goal of doing a triathlon and eventually some longer distance events.  Her biggest limiter was that she was experiencing significant lower back and knee pain, which had kept her from consistent training for quite some time. 
            We started building fitness very gradually, as to not aggravate anything.  But fitness was not the main priority until we could get the back and knee pain under control.  We attacked that from a variety of different angles.  After some evaluations, we identified and started working to correct some form issues that were likely contributing to the pain.  We made a few adjustments to the way her bike was fit and put a different saddle on it.  Liz started making some changes to the way she ran and biked. We also looked at the type of running shoes that she was wearing and made a change there.  In our evaluations we identified some muscle imbalances that were causing certain muscles to be overworked and others to not fire properly, and specific exercises were prescribed to get the different muscle groups working together properly.  She also saw a Chiropractor.
            As Liz made the initial changes and started incorporating the other techniques and exercises into her training plan, we started to see a gradual increase in the length of time she was comfortable running and cycling.  She wasn’t in pain while training like before, which allowed her to be able to put in higher volumes and intensities which in turn led to higher fitness levels and strength that she couldn’t reach when pain used to stop her before that point.  At the end of the summer, Liz completed a sprint triathlon, and now we are working towards longer distances in the future. 
            My experience with Liz is a great example of how to appropriately deal with chronic injuries.  There are basically two types injuries or pain in athletics: acute and chronic.  Rest can make the pain of both go away eventually, but only in one type is the cause of the injury gone by the time you feel better and resume training.  For example, if a runner sprains their ankle by taking a bad step, that acute injury can be healed by rest and the runner will not re-sprain their ankle just in the normal course of running once it is healed.  It would require another bad step to cause the same injury to return.  On the other hand, if a runner is getting knee pain because their hips are unstable and that’s causing excessive amounts of lateral movement in the knee, rest will make the pain go away but as soon as that athlete puts the stress (running) back on it, the pain comes back.  In this example, rest didn’t treat the cause, it just masked the symptom (for another example, see most prescription drugs and chronic disease in America) Until you identify why the same injury keeps occurring, resting it will only temporarily help, but the reason your injury occurred in the first place is still there.  If injury and pain continually cut your efforts to work out short, or if you consistently get the same injury, it is very likely that there is something about the way you are training, either in your technique or equipment, that is causing your pain.

Summer Ohlendorf is my longest-term athlete.  This year she didn’t have one specific “A” race, but our goal was to use this year to get stronger as an athlete, gain race experience, and particularly improve the run, her traditional weakness in triathlon.  Summer raced a lot, and her season speaks for itself:
            -Oceanside 70.3 1st 25-29
-Collegiate Nationals 10th Draft-legal, 37th Non-drafting, 6th combined overall
            -Rev3 Knoxville 1st 25-29
            -Triple T 4th Solo Senior
            -Lake Mills Sprint 2nd Overall
            -Elkhart Lake 2nd Overall
            -Rockford 1st Overall
            -Pewaukee 1st 25-29
            -Rev3 Wisconsin Dells 2nd Overall
            -Midwest Collegiate Triathlon Conference Championships 1st Overall
            -Rev3 Branson Half 1st Overall
            -Aquabike National Championships 1st Overall
Summer's run made big strides this year

To cap it off, Summer qualified to race as an Elite/Pro triathlete, which she may do in the future when she feels the time is right.  By any definition, Summer had a fantastic season.  But a season like this doesn’t just happen overnight, or in one year.  Like I said, Summer is my longest term athlete, and as such I have records to look back on to see the improvement that wasn’t necessarily discernable on a day to day basis.  After Elkhart Lake, a race she had done for each of the past 3 years, Summer posted her bike splits and overall times.  She chose to look at the bike because it is not affected by temperature to the same extent as the run is, and the swim buoy placement and water conditions have room for error from year to year.  2011- 1:24:05/2:42:14. 2012- 1:20:25/2:36:50. 2013- 1:18:02/2:30:21. I also went back and looked at her overall USAT score in 2009, 2011 and 2013.  This is a way of standardizing courses and taking the average of her 3 best races each year.  She has gone from 87.75 to 90.99 to 94.93.  2010 and 2012 are omitted because those scores are skewed due to racing the Triple T with a male partner.
            It’s clear the long term improvement that has occurred since 2009.  However, sometimes from one race to the next, or one week or month to the next, it’s not always obvious, and along the way there have been numerous setbacks.  It’s kind of like when you were a kid, you never noticed as you slowly got taller, but suddenly you’re 15 and way taller than you were years earlier.  The key is consistency, hard work and intelligent training.  Summer has trusted the long-term program and the results have followed.

            Cody Williams is that guy who raced the Birkebeiner cross-country ski marathon without training and never having had skis on before in his life prior to race day.  So when he signed up for Ironman Wisconsin, I wasn’t surprised.  In fact I half expected him to use the same strategy with the Ironman, but luckily he didn’t. 
Cody gets very excited about his workouts

            Cody did a lot of short course training during the school year, in preparation for Collegiate Nationals, and this set him up with a good base and strength to handle the longer workouts over the summer.  Cody is also a time pressed athlete at times, as he is an RA in the dorms in addition to being a student.  I knew this meant that he wasn’t always going to be able to get the long rides and runs in, or all of the workouts during the week, but the important thing was that I knew that, and wasn’t writing each week’s workouts under the assumption that previous week’s had been completed in full.  It can be dangerous for the athlete if they miss workouts but the coach has no idea.  Going on the assumption that everything is done as written, a coach can easily push the athlete too far if they don’t actually have the base.  It’s better for the coach to know and keep that in mind as future training is created.
            Cody trained hard when he could, and his fitness, high natural ability and toughness to push through discomfort on race day earned him a great Ironman finish of 13:33.

Missy Williams swam in my masters group for awhile, and then decided that she wanted to do some triathlons so I started working with her last fall.  But before I did, something had to be straightened out.  She had a tendency to tell me how slow she was, so I agreed to coach her on the condition that I didn’t hear any of that from then on.  And I haven’t.  For one thing, how fast someone is has never been something I’ve cared about, and I don’t coach athletes based on that.  What I do want in my athletes is the desire to improve their current ability, whatever that is.  Secondly, Missy quickly showed me that she would actually be quite competitive in her age group.  She didn’t believe it yet, but by focusing on the positive, it was easier to move forward.
Of all my athletes, Missy was able to absorb the highest volume in her training.  Everyone has a different level of training that constitutes overtraining, and that is largely based on their ability to recover, which is in large part based on lifestyle and stress levels outside of training.  Although she’s completely swamped after 3pm every day with her two kids’ stuff, before that she can dedicate herself to her training.  Missy has a high volume tolerance, and as such we were able to build a huge aerobic engine.  The race we were preparing for was the Texas 70.3, which would be her first race longer than a sprint.
Going into the race, she told me: 7hrs on a bad day, 6:30 on a good day, and 6hrs on a great day.  In my head I was thinking more like 6:30 on a bad day, 6hrs on a good day and 5:45 on a great day.  Well it turned out that she went 5:59 on a bad day.  I only say that because it included a crash towards the end of the bike portion of the race, which resulted in significant down time and created a large lump on her hip that she named “Timmy”. Missy exhibited a lot of toughness in continuing through the crash and crossing the finish line in under her original “best case scenario” time goal.  Before the crash, she described the race to me as “pretty easy”, which excites me to see what she can do in the future.  There’s a lot of potential here.
Missy and Timmy after the race. 

In addition to working with individual athletes, I have also enjoyed coaching group workouts.  In addition to leading workouts for the Wisconsin Tri Team I have enjoyed my group workouts at SBR.  This summer I led the PBR (Personal Best Runner, not the beer) group as well as pool and open water swim classes.  It’s fun to look back at the end of the session to see the difference in the group as a whole compared to where they started.  The only danger is that sometimes an individual in the group may not feel like progress is being made because they don’t see a difference in their ability compared to their training partners.  But that is comparing yourself to a moving target, as the whole group is training and improving together. 

It’s been a great first year at SBR.  For some athletes, the race is the end of the road, for others training and racing is more of a lifestyle.  I’m proud of what all my athletes have accomplished, and am excited to continue working with many of them and see what the future brings.