A few weeks ago, one of my athletes came to town so that we could work on her swim and run technique. For her, the common thread to improvement in both disciplines lay in making adjustments to the balance of her distance per stroke (or stride length) and her strokes (or strides) per minute. Balancing these two elements across the disciplines is essential to optimizing performance in triathlon.
In The Boys in the Boat, about the University of Washington eight-man crew team and their journey to win gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Daniel James Brown illustrates the same concept as it applies to rowing.
There are certain laws of physics by which all crew coaches live and die. The speed of a racing shell is determined primarily by two factors: the power produced by the combined strokes of the oars, and the stroke rate, the number of strokes the crew takes each minute. So if two boats carrying the same weight have the exact same stroke rate, the one producing more power per stroke will pull ahead. If those two boats have the exact same power per stroke but one has a higher stroke rate, the one with the higher rate will pull ahead… Every race is a balancing act, a series of delicate and deliberate adjustments of power on the one hand and stroke rate on the other.
This is an instructive passage from a rich and inspiring book. It helps to illustrate an important fundamental concept: speed is a function of distance per stroke and strokes per minute. This applies on the swim, the bike, and the run. What we’re after is striking that balance to optimize power, turnover, and efficiency.
In the interest of clarity, it is worth mentioning that in cycling the distance your foot travels around the bottom bracket is fixed, however, depending on your gear selection, the distance per pedal stroke, or gear inches, will vary. In cycling, gear selection and the corresponding gear inches determine your effective distance per stroke.
In all three disciplines, efficiency also has a direct impact on your effective distance per stroke. The better you can direct your energy in a straight line, the farther and faster you will go for every stroke and stride. Efficiency is both mechanical and metabolic. Mechanical efficiency has to do with technique, streamlining, aerodynamics, stability, the condition of your drivetrain, etc. Metabolic efficiency is a function of fitness. The fitter you are, the longer you can tolerate and sustain higher cardiovascular and muscular loads.
On the swim, bike, and run, accelerations and pace progressions are some of the best ways to improve power, distance per stroke, and efficiency. Accelerations and pace progressions improve turnover and also help to develop the body awareness necessary to manage and regulate physical and mental focus, relaxation, and technique under fatigue.
Hill training on the bike and the run, as well as low cadence, heavy gear work on the bike, are indispensable for developing the power and core strength necessary to increase distance per stroke and to hold that stroke/stride length over time.
In the water, my athletes use pull buoy, paddles, and ankle straps daily to build swim specific strength that will improve their distance per stroke, stability, and efficiency. Accelerations and pace progressions are standard-issue for the development of turnover, economy, body awareness, and power.
In swimming as well as the other disciplines, I have my athletes focus on three intensity levels: strong, very strong, and fast that correlate with Brett Sutton’s moderate, medium, and mad. Tuning into these three intensities help to work the balance between stroke length and stroke rate. It is easiest to conceptualise it for the swim. I explain that strong should feel long, strong, and balanced. There should be good purchase and hold of the water as well as strength and muscular engagement through the body. Very strong should have the same length of stroke, purchase, balance, and engagement as strong, with an increase in turnover. With fast the focus is on high-intensity, turnover, and just cracking it out.
Getting back to the athlete who was visiting to work on her swim and run technique. As we were wrapping up she expressed a concern that is shared by many athletes who attend training camps or don’t have regular contact with their coaches. She said that she felt more confident doing the new techniques while I was watching and was concerned that when training on her own she would just practice and reinforce poor technique. The key to improvement, I told her, is in two things: awareness and discipline. I know that she has both. It is her awareness that allowed her to make the adjustments while I was watching. Her discipline is what has her consistently nail her sessions, to the letter, regardless of circumstance. Tapping into those two resources – awareness and discipline – is what makes the difference for her. Likewise, awareness and discipline will make the difference for you of as you continue to work the balance between power and turnover, as well as so many other things in triathlon and beyond.
Mateo Mercur has been a professional triathlon coach for nearly 15 years. He has trained three Age Group World Champions, an Age Group WC Silver Medalist, and the Ironman Maryland Women’s Champion. Based in Bend, Oregon.
Triathlon is a draining sport and too often I see professional and age group athletes racing and training at a high level year-round, day in and day out, year after year. This is not healthy or sustainable.
Humans have since the dawn of time advocated a Sabbath or time of rest. Religion has always seen a benefit in integrating mindful rest into our lives. In addition, our earliest industry, agriculture, saw the benefit of taking a break to allow for rebalancing and rejuvenation. Allowing the land to go fallow lowered yield in the short term in exchange for keeping the land vital for years to come.
In today’s fast paced world, whether in triathlon or in our outside life, we are unwilling to rest and only do so as a last resort once we are sick, injured, or burnt-out. Instead of preserving our long-term health, we chase the short-term performance.
Stuck in a vicious cycle, the modern athlete refuses to take the time to recover that both our body and mind require. Constantly in a state of exhaustion, it is not possible to rebuild without taking time away. The toughest challenge in the world may be to take the step back and rest taking a Sabbatical from the constant stress of the chase.
I would advocate every seventh year a break from high-level long course triathlon racing or at the very least an offseason every year. The professional athletes with highest career longevity take the time each year to rest their mind and body. Likewise, as you see the current crop of women triathletes taking a sabbatical to expand or start a family, I would venture to guess you will see many of these top performers come back stronger in the next five years as the time of unstructured training has allowed both their mind and body to rebalance.
Trying something different over the off-season, means you stay fit and continue to have fun.
We can all learn from our ancestors that rest is a vital part of long term development. Rest doesn’t need to mean sitting on the couch, it can mean enjoying some shorter races or doing an xterra or trying a new sport rather than chasing a Kona qualifier that year. But do give your mind and body a break from the constant struggle of long course racing. Taking a step away to restore your body and your passion for the sport whether for a month or a year will allow you to return in a healthier happier state ready to attack the next season.
Mary Beth Ellis is one of the USA’s most decorated long distance triathletes. A member of the US National Team for 4 years, during her career she was an elite ITU racer as well as Top 5 Ironman World Championship finisher. Mary Beth Ellis runs her Trisutto.com coaching program in Andover Massachusetts in the USA and speaks English.
Join Mary-Beth at her triathlon training camps on the Ironman Mont Tremblant course in July http://trisutto.com/camps/#tremblant
There’s been a lot written recently about Gill Fullen’s battle with Cancer, her comeback and most recently her victory at Outlaw Half by various media. Therefore, I felt it’s only right that as her Coach I now should write down my own thoughts.
Gill’s journey is one that is very special for so many reasons without her recent battles. She is an incredible athlete at Age Group level and one that you could argue ‘what if?’ or ‘if only’ she found the sport earlier.
Gills a multiple Champion at Age Group level, and without being disrespectful to other competitors, she finds it easy as there is nothing Gill likes to do more than race hard. That’s not saying others don’t, it’s just Gill does have those rare qualities only the best seem to have at the higher end of the sport.
When Gill came to me to coach her I had one condition.
‘You take yourself out of your comfort zone and walk away from all the easy wins you’ve had. ‘WHAT?’ was the look I got from Gill.
I could tell Gill had never had anyone say this to her before and I went on, ‘COME ON you want to find that extra 10%, don’t you? And see where you could really go in this sport?’.
‘Yes, your right, but I’m too old’, she said.
I told her age is just a number, and now we do things my way.
She looked at me with shock, and said ‘We’ll see, so many have tried before you’.
It was then I knew I had a fighter on my hands.
This was the start of a great relationship between Gill and I, we are very straight with each other. We sat down over a year ago and set a plan, the plan was to move away from the Age Group mind-set, and step up to another level and test yourself again. The plan was wins at Outlaws, amongst others, but what wasn’t in the plan was the big ‘C’… Yes Cancer.
When Gill told me, if I’m honest my reaction perhaps wasn’t normal. I didn’t feel sorry for Gill, I don’t think she needed that, she needed someone to say, ‘Well come on, we’ll fight this together enough’. People around you say the right things, so I’m going to be objective and challenging just the way Gill likes things to be.
Gill responded in a way only a real fighter would. Days/weeks and months past and the motivation was amazing, she never gave up and got stronger with motivation. Yes of course there were downs, but everyone is human; Gill responded to each challenge with grit and in such a touching way. she is gifted with not only talent, but in true spirit and determination and this carried through the whole time, which for many was and is inspiring.
Gill in Kona
Typical of Gill the texts started flowing back in, asking me about training, telling me what she had done and what she was doing, each week and month she was doing a bit more but not without setbacks. In true Gill fashion, she kept on pushing and became stronger and stronger, sending me texts “this isn’t going to beat me.” Continuously hounding me to start training properly so we could get back to our original plan, and when those texts started to proceed about races for the future I thought Gill was now ready to plan for the 2017 season ahead.
Gill’s determination and courage to beat off one of the biggest battles of her life is one that deserves enormous respect. When most would have crumbled, Gill stepped up and looked at Cancer right in the eye and challenged back, trading punches that was a survival technique, not knowing if one of those thrown could be the last.
As serious as it sounds, we are talking about the fact that Gill is one special human to be able to show the way and fight for life, not just in the sport she loves so much. Triathlon has given Gill the chance to down her true character.
Gill is a very talented, and gifted in many areas, but is yet to become the complete athlete. Yes, Gill can still improve, age for me is just a number and if you’re good enough then why not give it your best shot.
Perry Agass has been a professional coach for over 10 years and has worked with some of the best coaches and athletes in the world. He is a passionate, motivated and very thorough with excellent results.
Perry regularly holds camps in Cyprus for all levels of athletes.
Ironman distance racing is ultimately about energy management. How you control and distribute your effort throughout the day is essential to a good finish. The ironman bike leg plays a crucial component to this end, as it normally represents the bulk of one’s total race time. Regrettably many still race the bike leg as if nothing were to follow, either caught up in the excitement of the day or on the quest for that new bike split PB. Yet the success of the subsequent run (assuming adequate training preparation) is very much predicated on what you do on the bike, from energy expenditure (pacing) to energy intake (feeding).
Here are three simple suggestions to help prepare your bike leg to have a positive impact on your run.
Technique – Practice Feeding
I will take a road less travelled. No talk about goal TSS, IF, cadence, peddling foot motion or about ideal head, back, hand position etc. Instead, a crucial fundamental – practicing the mechanics of getting nutrition from its storage place on the bike, or on your person, into you while staying comfortably in control of your bike.
This may sound presumptuous to many but forgive me. There is reason. I have personally encountered/witnessed individuals who were committed to an IM, kitted with slick race bikes, yet (in training) refused – literally – to reach for a water bottle (from a seated position let alone from the aero position) unless at a full stop, one leg on terra firma. All will agree that feeding is imperative in ironman racing. It is the 4th discipline. However, all the best nutritional advice and formulations are for naught if it remains affixed to the bike frame by T2.
It all starts with the set up – using kit or makeshift solutions that suit your comfort and ability/experience level. It is all fine and dandy that the latest trendy slick water bottle mount between the aerobars will save you 45s to 1min over 40k (in a wind tunnel). It is of little value to you aerodynamically in an ironman if every time you have to drink you need to break position by sitting up or you lose directional control of the bike, because holding course with one forearm is precarious for you. In this instance, perhaps using a refillable aero bottle may be more suitable. Yes the wind tunnel numbers may show +0.0001g more aero drag on that straw than the former set up. But if it helps you minimize movement on the bike while drinking then you will feel more comfortable to sip regularly whilst holding a better aero position for longer (win-win). And don’t feel belittled…. remember our World Champ…
Chrissie in Kona
Therefore comfort of access is crucial. If you are apprehensive to reach for items the more likely you will not eat or drink sufficiently. If you have a seat mounted cage, practice reaching back extracting and returning while keeping your eyes on the road. If you have a refillable bottle between the bars, practice refilling from another bottle on the fly. Likewise, practice ripping off gels taped to the top tube, reaching into your top tube food box or your jersey back pocket using either hand. Being ambidextrous is also advantageous. Should you race in a country where they drive on the opposite side of what you are accustomed to back home, the aid stations will likely be on that “new’ side. [Tip – practice your feeding mechanics while riding the turbo as well instead of having a buffet table alongside.]
So, whatever set up you chose for hydration and nutrition, you must practice using it as you would on race day. Learn to reach for things, and place them back on the move. If you are reluctant to do so, you may very well miss crucial feeding and begin accumulating a potentially unrecoverable energy debt before starting the run.
Training – Holding Race Pace Under Fatigue
Everybody is a hero coming out of T1. Some even act like it’s a BMX race start Don’t believe me? Go to Kona and observe the sprinting and jostling of some age groupers not even 50m up the hill from the King K hotel – utter lunacy! What matters is how you can sustain your race effort on the back half, to one-third of the course. This is where the real (smart) heroes shine.
In practical training terms this means first ingraining the necessary restraint at the outset of your long rides that will target race pace. No sense in beaming about your watts for the first 50k only to fizzle and falter by 80 km. Second, include progressively, longer continuous segments at target race pace effort at the back end of long rides when you are fatigued. These could start at 30 minutes and progress to 2 hours at the tail end of a 3 – 4.5hour ride. Don’t be afraid to try. Remember this is ironman race pace, not 40km time-trial pace.
Daniela has perfected the art of race pacing
The second component to these race-pace segments is cerebral – applying a race mindset, making tactical decisions as you would on race day. This will further amplify the value of such race-pace segments especially when facing undulating terrain with a tailwind. It will likely be difficult to hold a target power number. But you can still put out a “race effort” by doing the right things – i.e. holding tight aero and speed on descents, pushing a touch harder up a grade or into a momentary head/cross wind, deciding when to fuel based on terrain ahead and time etc. That is still relevant race-pace specific training.
Intervals are great for developing your race-pace. Long continuous segments will really train your physical and mental stamina and confidence to perform when tired, including making the right tactical decisions. The more you practice this in different conditions, the better positioned you will be come the run.
Race Preparation – Building Race Specific Stamina
Every ironman course is 180km (+/-), yet each one has its challenges – a climbing course is daunting for many, while holding aero position for hours on a flat course is unbearable for some. Barring an opportunity to ride the course in vivo, see it on a map and study the profile provided by the race or using Google Earth, Map My Ride or such. Appreciate, understand and then train to task…for the benefit of the subsequent run as well.
To highlight, consider Ironman Whistler. The course features approximately 2000m of cumulative climbing. There are about 20km’s of leg sapping, undulating terrain before the first major climb ~12km with 8-10% pitches thrown in. The last ~35km back to T2 is pretty much a sustained climb. In between there are lots of high-speed descents.
Obviously, climbing strength and descending skills should be incorporated into one’s bike training regime. With respect to race specific preparation within the last ~12 weeks, it would be beneficial to choreograph rides that accumulate a similar total elevation gain (or more) and periodically include a long sustained climbing effort on the back end, and then doing so before a transition run. This will achieve at least two things.
- You will need to diligently work your effort and fuel management to best position yourself energetically for the run. This may not be as straightforward as when riding a flat course.
- It will accustom your body to run with substantial climbing fatigue in it, which for some may be quite difficult as compared to a flatter course.
Likewise, if a course happens to have a lot of corners, you would want to plan rides that regularly disrupt your rhythm with frequent direction changes. Cumulatively this will have another unique effect on your disposition before the run.
Whatever the course you chose, study it, know it, train for it.
Incorporate these three tips into your ironman bike preparation to ensure you keep the “fuel flow” going, to remain on task as fatigue sets in and to bolster your confidence in handling the challenges of your chosen course. Doing so will increase the chances of a successful run.
Ed Rechnitzer has over 28 years experience in triathlon and has completed multiple Ironman events, including Kona. He is a Trisutto Coach based in Calgary.
Join Ed at one of his three Mont Tremblant Camps in July.