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.


  1. David started swim team when he was 4! He swam a couple summers as a 9-10 too. Nonetheless, great improvement. :)

  2. Thanks for the clarification Jim. Must've just seemed like it, haha. I'll fix it

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