The original article appeared in Triathlon Academy. Translated by Rafal Medak.
Many say that Brett Sutton is a controversial coach. However, if someone produces such stars like Chrissie Wellington, Nicola Spirig or Daniela Ryf consistently over 25 years his training methods and triathlon philosophy must be working pretty well. Last weekend we had a privilege to host Brett in Ilawa. 25 participants took part in our 3-day workshop, including 11 coaches from Polish Triathlon Federation. I believe that even those who may not fully agree with all Brett’s methods benefitted from his advice and experience. Brett repeated a number of times that one of keys to success is the intuition of the coach, understanding of his/her athlete’s mentality and abilities, as well as facilitating the training, encouraging the athlete rather than hindering or getting in the way. However, this is only one component of the success, the second is simple hard work and dedication. When the athlete is given a swim session with a main set of 40x100m in the pool or 50x200m fast intervals on the track, he/she should not be surprised.
Before I summarise our weekend with Brett, I’d like to thank Rafal and Alicja Medak. They both train with Brett and both participated in Ironman World Championship in Kona 5 times. In one of her Ironmans in this season Alicja had the fastest run from all female Age Groupers. Rafal’s help with translation of Brett’s lectures as well as interesting comments from his own training and racing were invaluable. Big Thanks.
However, if it wasn’t for the help of two participants who knows how the workshop would have finished!? Brett came to Poland with a bad tooth infection which became much worse during the flight. When we were about to launch a ‘Project Dentist’ and started searching for a doctor in Ilawa it occurred that among the participants we had not one but two dentists! (Grzegorz Witkowski and Karol Sujka). They quickly organised for Brett a sightseeing trip to Olsztyn (around one hour drive each way) and a long visit in a dental clinic. Big Thanks for help and organising everything so quickly and efficiently!
Our 3-day workshop was very fruitful. It was a very busy time for all and we were working hard from early morning to late evening. Except two swimming training sessions our work could not be called hard training. I would call them more ‘cat walk’ sessions aiming for assessment of our running technique, bike set-up and cycling technique as well as effectiveness of our swim technique.
When it comes to the swim technique I’d summarise the approach in one sentence: ‘It does’t matter what your arms do above the water, as long as it has no negative impact on what is happening below the water’. Brett was proving in different ways that you can do different things above the water, even silly ones during the recovery phase as long as you do 3 things below the surface correctly and efficiently with the most important phase being the push which is the key component of propulsion moving you forward. A significant part of the swim training consist of swimming with paddles and pull buoy. When Brett noticed my massive paddles he could not believe it that I was swimming with such a huge size. Over next 30 minutes Brett explained what equipment should be used by whom. We were explained how different size and shape of paddles impact the traction of the hand in the water, which are too large or too small or have a wrong shape for individual athletes or are just not designed for front crawl.
In my case (here’s a piece of advice for strong, muscular swimmers with a poor technique and no feel for the water) paddles of a large size are really not ideal. They not only ‘swim for you’ but also further engrain your mistakes and bad technique. Only after explanation by Brett I understood that such a big paddle (on the picture the black one with blue straps in the middle) was swimming for me. For 100m I was able to swim 15sec faster with my paddles than without them! Even worse it was propelling me forward during first two phases of the swim, placing and pressing (or as others call it catching) but not when it was supposed to during the push phase when I should be working the hardest. Moreover, during previous training with paddles I subconsciously felt something was wrong, but since I had read that we should be swimming with paddles I started swimming with them without thinking which ones are correct for me. My choice was the bigger the better. All participants of the camp were explained which paddles are correct for their individual stroke and how they will be correcting their mistakes. You should also think about choosing the training equipment that is correct for you.
I think for a number of participants the swim lecture was revolutionary. I will not repeat all the pieces of advice because it would probably take more than ten pages but also due to the reason that each piece of advice was very individual. Every person was individually assessed and received personal feedback. As Brett repeated few times, everything is individual and different things work differently for different swimmers.
Running technique proposed by Brett is also known as quite controversial, although not as much as his approach to other two disciplines. He was trying to explain to us that the running technique in triathlon, especially in longer distance races should more resemble 50km walkers who cover the distance at an average pace faster than the Ironman runners using the marathon runners technique. Summarising such a technique is far from running on the front or even mid foot. According to Brett this is not the most effective technique for Ironman runners. Long distance athletes should run more on the entire foot or even strike with the heel. Among others we analysed the running technique of Daniela Ryf and Jan Frodeno, who run in an Ironman differently than in short distance races. During second day we did a simple running test showing us how wrong most of us were approaching running in Ironman. We were told tu run 8 short loops including a 100m uphill section. Most of us trying to impress the Coach were trying to run on our toes, and probably the runner trying the most was ME. My technique looked like Usain Bolt’s during his 100m sprints. After running the incline section we would run a 200m short section back to the bottom of the hill and during this run back most of us run completely differently, with a technique that was more natural for us. When in the evening we were shown a video of us running we were explained the ‘other way’ and why the front foot running is not the best way when one tries to cover a marathon in an Ironman.
The lecture about riding a bike was also very comprehensive. We covered not only the peddling technique but also the set up and the position on the bike as well as the choice of the equipment. I will concentrate here on the principle of riding with slow cadence. Brett argued that in his view that fast cadence may be a wrong one for a number of riders, in particular those who do not come from a cycling background and started riding late. Their bodies and in particular the euro-muscular system are not conditioned the such a riding style. Lower cadence translates into lower heart rate and this helps to start the run in a much better shape. During the run the heart rate will naturally go up so it is better to save the heart for the demands of the marathon rather than tire it unnecessarily during the bike leg. In addition during and after finishing the swim our heart rate will be the highest in the whole Ironman, not only because the impact of the adrenaline at the start but also the faster pace wiring first few minutes, exit and run between first and second lap as well as changing the body position to horizontal after finishing the swim leg. Even before I start the swim my HR is usually well above 130bpm. All this forces the cardio system to work really hard. It is a much better and sensible approach to allow your heart to work less during the bike allowing it to rest a bit during the bike and preparing for the run. Of course each of us must find the optimal cadence suitable for an individual athlete during which our pace is the highest at a given heart rate. It should all be caveated that such a racing approach and bike technique must be trained and it may take months to master it and get used to the muscular pain associated with it. Different TriSutto athletes ride with different cadences generally ranging from 75 to 85 rpm. Few of us were shocked the Rafal confirmed that during his Ironman and Half Ironman races this season his average cadence was approximately 67-68 rpm!
We have also spend few minutes talking about the cleat position and the benefits for some athletes which they have achieved moving the cleats backwards. Such an approach allows for reducing the impact on the calf muscles. Here we also heard some criticism relating to the ‘cyclists’ approach to the peddling technique riding ‘in circles’. Such technique does not allow for any relaxation during the bike leg, again something that is a norm in cycling that may not be the best approach in triathlon.
Finally, one of the key messages that Brett was trying to instil in the participants was that triathlon is one sport and not three separate disciplines and it should be trained as such. The key is to get as fast as possible to the finish line covering each of the three disciplines in a different way. Sutton’s training and racing philosophy is based on such a ‘common sense’ approach: use arms during the swim, during the bike use the big leg muscles but save the heart and during the run apply a running technique that will allow you to cover all the distance in a steady pace.
I hope that each of the participants learned something that will allow them to become a better athlete. We were given a brilliant lecture about the sport, I have to admit some of messages were very different and sometimes controversial, however the feedback from the participants was great and that we will try to organise another workshop with Brett and his TriSutto team again next year. Very interesting were not only our main lectures but equally interesting were our discussions between the athletes and coaches. Once again I’d like to thank all participants and Rafal and Alicja and I hope we will meet soon again during another training camp or a workshop.
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