Case Study: Kona Preparation, Part 1

The data from this study focuses on a female elite age-group level athlete, 25 years of age. Her disciplinary strength in triathlon is cycling, while her greatest limiter in the sport is swimming. Her running ability is not a particular strength nor weakness overall, however it is adequate relative to her competition. The primary objective for this athlete in 2012 was to qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Kona. This objective was achieved in early May and upon qualifying, her secondary objective for 2012 is/was to finish in the top 10 amongst amateurs at Kona.

This case study demonstrates how her training program over a three month period has culminated in peak fitness for an early Fall race: the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, HI.   The data in this case study reflects a training period of three months, beginning five months, and ending 6 weeks prior to the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona.

Taken into consideration are her specific strengths and limiters, both on a macro level (specific disciplines in triathlon) and a micro level (specific areas within each discipline), and the individual goals of the athlete.

We (coach and athlete) decided to focus on the following three goals during this three month time frame keeping in mind development of both her short-term (affecting fitness and ability specific to the goal race) and long-term athletic potential:

  1. Improve overall swim fitness through an increase in swim training volume. Based on the athlete’s personal observations and race results, the athlete was experiencing a significant drop in performance in the second half of the swim portion of long course races. Improving her overall swim fitness, ruling out the possibility that swim specific fitness was the limiter was our goal.
  2. Improve cycling fitness by: increasing cycling cadence overall and increasing power output for durations from 3 to 20 minutes. Given the fact that the athlete’s abilities to maintain high power output for short-to-moderately long durations was a limiter, focusing on this ability would not only improve her strength and power, but also endurance relative to long course triathlon biking (90-180k).
  3. It was decided that run development would be placed on a maintenance track for this period of time in order to further positively influence both swimming and cycling development. To say that running was placed on a maintenance track is not to say it was neglected. Run training was continued according to a plan that would prepare the athlete for her primary events, however emphasis on further development of her running abilities was not included in this three month period of training. More details about this below.

With this information, a training plan was executed and monitored to optimize the athlete’s adaptation.  With these developmental goals and objectives in mind, training began in June of 2012.

In part 1, swim training and progress analyzed:

Swimming: With swimming being the athlete’s weakest discipline, and in particular, the ability to maintain high efforts consistently, a swim plan was put into place to address the issue. This plan included the following:

  • Swim volume was increased from the previous four month average of 15-17k per week to 20-24k per week in the new plan.
  • The individual swim workouts focused on sets of shorter distances (primarily 25 to 200 meters) where near maximum efforts were required with little rest in between intervals, building each set up to between 3-4k of very hard swimming in each workout.
  • Secondary focus was placed on swim technique at this time. This is to say that we monitored swim stroke fixing big problems when they occurred, but we primarily did little technique adjustment.

Nearly all the swimming was done solo. Even though training in a group does have its advantages to improving overall swim fitness, circumstances did not allow for the athlete to swim in a group setting during this period of training. The athlete swam Monday thru Friday, with Saturday and Sunday as swim-rest days. Monday’s and Thursday’s were generally lighter swim days in terms of volume. A typical swim workout was as follows:
Swim Workout Example

Open water swimming was occasionally added on a few Saturday’s as part of a “big training day” or “race simulation day.”

Swim Results: During each block of training in the three months of data collected the athlete was tested regularly. Test results from just prior to this data are used as a starting benchmark, and testing during this period was executed when the athlete was in various states of fatigue and form (good form referring to when the athlete is both fit and rested). The primary test from which data is being gathered to report here is from the USA Triathlon Standard Testing & Protocol, which for swimming is a 200/800 test. Results are as follows:

dk test dates

What these results show us is that at 200m and 800m, the athlete decreased her time per distance by 6.7% and 3.0% respectively from test results on May 1. While the decrease in the duration it takes to complete each distance is a positive improvement, the degradation in pace per 100 from the initial benchmark to the final benchmark goes from 6.7% to 10.8%, which indicates that abilites at shorter distances have improved more than that at longer distances. Coach’s Note: It’s likely that increasing efficiency (improving swim technique) will greatly improve the disparity between the two distances tested. With increased efficiency, the athlete should be able to maintain the pace in the 200m test for longer durations.

While test results in the pool are one thing, race results, particularly in triathlon where swims are generally held in open water, are another. Open water swimming presents an athlete with challenges that are not faced in pool swimming (water current, water chop, etc.), and thus open water pace/100 is usually slower than pool pace/100. Here is a direct comparison between race results from 2011 and 2012 of the same races:
5430 Sprint Swim Splits, 2011-2012

Boulder Peak Swim Splits, 2011-2012

Ironman Boulder 70.3 Swim Splits, 2011-2012

Based on the data from race results, the athletes has shown considerable improvement in swimming at these three distances:

  • 750 meters: 5.9%
  • 1500 meters: 5.5%
  • 1900 meters: 13.2%

It’s good to keep in mind that elements of open water swimming make it difficult to draw exact results from one event to another. Open water is an environment less controlled compared to that of pool swimming. It’s also note worthy that while we would all like to think that racing brings out the best performance in each of us as athletes, sometime this does not happen. I would suspect that the Boulder 70.3 swim split from 2011 is not indicative of this athlete’s abilities, but rather a sub-par performance and thus it is likely that a 13.2% improvement in pace is also not accurate. However, the improvements from 2011 to 2012 are significant enough that at a minimum it can be deduced that the athlete is without a doubt swimming faster in 2012.

Parts 2 & 3 of this case study will address cycle and run training.