It’s great to see progress! Especially when you work hard to make improvements towards a goal that sometimes seems so far out of reach that you feel you might never achieve what you’re striving for in triathlon.
In late 2011, I began working with a young female athlete here in Colorado Springs. She had recently completed a promising season full of triathlon, adventure racing, and mountain biking, expressing to me that she wanted to focus solely on Ironman and Ironman 70.3 racing for 2012 with some very lofty end goals.
As we began planning the season, I spent hours looking at her previous results from past years. As a coach, I find that analyzing past races often show us a clear definition of what a triathlete is capable of on a more clear level than looking at just a single race. After all, bad days happen and good days happen, but by creating an average out of a series of performances, I feel I can begin to get a true picture of an athlete’s potential.
We had decided that in 2012 she would once again race the Boulder Triathlon Series (which in 2012 consisted of the 5430 Sprint, the Boulder Peak Olympic, and the Boulder 70.3), and I was hopeful that by repeating the series of races we would be able to see a fairly direct progress of our efforts to improve her strengths even more, while focusing significant attention to her weaknesses. Our main focus for the series was the Ironman Boulder 70.3, in which we wanted to qualify for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. The other races, while we wanted to see improvement, were merely stepping stones to track progress. Looking back, here is a basic look at the results from both 2011 (before working with me) and 2012 (first season with me).
We discussed at length what her strengths and weaknesses were, and how we would approach each throughout the season. It was agreed that in general she was a strong cyclist with an average running ability and a weak swim. This assessment was based on both her abilities relative to her current age-group, as well as where her abilities stood relative to the overall female triathletes in any given race. She also showed ability to work at a sub-threshold effort for long periods of time in longer races; however in shorter races, where efforts tend to be at or above threshold the results showed less success. Based on this, we identified specifics within each discipline and began outlining exactly what we’d be working on.
At the beginning of the training season, which for this athlete started in January, we established a basic weekly schedule of workouts that would serve as an outline for the work as well as a way of benchmarking progress from week to week and even month to month. For the most part, we stuck to the follow schedule:
- Monday: Swim (easy day)
- Tuesday: Swim/Bike (hard day)
- Wednesday: Swim/Run (hard day)
- Thursday: Swim (easy day)
- Friday: Swim/Bike/Run (hard day)
- Saturday: Bike/Run (hard day)
- Sunday Bike/Run (hard day)
It was quite an ambitious schedule, but then so were her goals for the season. Total weekly volume began at about 12-15 hours and settled into 18-22 hours per week by the summer months. There were, of course, recovery-focused weeks and some weeks where “life stuff” simply got in the way of training.
Swim Training. Because swimming was her greatest weakness, I decided that it was imperative that she swim five days per week. In my experience, frequency in swimming quite effectively improves an athlete’s abilities, both from a standpoint of fitness and swim specific technique. We needed to get her swimming abilities much higher than they had been previously. After coaching her through several swim sessions where I made assessments of both technique and fitness, I put together a swim training plan that began with her swimming 12500-30000 yards per week in the beginning, and this built throughout the season to about 25,000 yards per week by the time the 70.3 race was in sight. The focus in the swim sets was to build to as much race effort swimming at goal race distance as possible. Essentially, this means that the main sets of high quality swimming ranged from 2-4k yards.
Bike Training. If swimming was a limiter, cycling was this athlete’s strength. While cycling was strong, there was certainly room for improvement, so the plan was to build her cycling fitness even stronger by focusing on becoming more efficient, as well as understanding some aspects of using cycling strategically. We used a power meter to track progress, as well as give her a specific focus in each workout. Her tendency to “mash big gears” was a key focus for increasing efficiency. Getting her to lighten the gear while maintaining an already high power output was challenging, and something that needed to be constantly monitored. Many workouts consisted of intervals that maintained a race-like effort with periods of varying duration and higher-than-race-effort work. We focused on building her ability to maintain FTP and higher efforts, and I also introduced group rides into the program. With regards to the group riding, we were fortunate enough to have a consistent group ride that met each week and challenged her on several levels.. I think, more than anything, this workout provided a way for her to gauge her progress throughout the season. We had many discussions about what it takes to perform well within the group setting, including being able to “read” the group, understanding the efforts involved (i.e. intensity & duration of efforts), and developing handling skills necessary to safely be competitive within the group. Although some of these things are not “triathlon specific” per se, they were definitely a way to better prepare her for strong cycling.
Run Training. As mentioned previously, the athlete’s running ability was average. What kept her running from being a weakness was her ability to “muscle through” the run. What I mean by this is that although her form was basically sub-par, she was able to overcome bad form to some extent by maintaining a hard, steady pace for longer periods of time than her competitors. While this is indeed an asset, I felt that it was only a matter of time before injury due to poor running technique would sideline her. We began run training with a battery of tests and establishing benchmarks. I put together a series of drills and run specific exercises that would focus her attention on improving run form, as well as address weaknesses in her general strength, mobility, and coordination. The program also maintained her aerobic abilities in running, and very slowly increased the amount of speed development through strides and short (200-400m) intervals. Incidentally, speed development was very limited due to the impact it had on the athlete. Recovery from speed development workouts was lengthy, allowing us only about 2 sessions per 4 week block of training.
General Strength Conditioning. I prescribed sets of what I define as general strength conditioning, and which is strength work specific to the sport of triathlon to this athlete. Most of the strength work was done with body weight only. We spent a lot of time making sure body mechanics were consistent. Track workouts were used to a great extent to focus on run and cycling strength specifics, including a very long progression of plyometric exercises that began with very simple movement (skipping in multiple directions, for example), and progressed to very specific (example: 20-50 meter run sprints). Strength conditioning was maintained weekly all year long.
To train consistently over a season is an impressive achievement. Accepting the daily grind of workout after workout, day after day, maintaining focus on goals, adapting to various “life” challenges, and maintaining a big-picture view of how progress and goals relate to one another takes faith and discipline. If one is able to remain vigilance throughout this process, the rewards are quite empowering. Winning age groups in big races against tough competitors, qualifying for championship races, and gaining the respect of your peers is a great feeling. Still, to experience truly hard work payoff in the form of improved performance is the ultimate reward. In the case of this athlete, we have results from two consecutive years of the Boulder Tri Series to show how the hard work has paid off.
As mentioned previously, we used the first two races in the series as milestone of progress to help guide the training. In other words, are we on track? If yes, then we proceed on the same track as we had in the previous months. If the answer is no, well, we make changes. The real test, based on the athlete’s goals, would be the third race of the series, the Boulder 70.3.
First up was the 5430 Boulder Sprint. A sprint race is all about execution at very high intensities. In the training, we worked on raising the intensity and getting the athlete out of her comfort zone often and it paid off. The overall time of the race was about 4% faster in 2012 compared to 2011. The primary gains were realized in both swimming and cycling, with the swim being 49 seconds faster in 2012, and the bike split being just under two minutes faster. The athlete was the 2nd fastest female in the race, losing by just over two minutes. Full results can be found here
Next was the Boulder Peak Triathlon, which is an Olympic distance triathlon with a slightly longer (42k vs ??k) bike leg. Again we were able to see improvement based on results. Another significantly faster swim split compared to the previous year told us we were definitely on track for swimming. The bike split, although improved, was not, according to the athlete’s account, a good performance. She reported that she “just didn’t feel strong.” This feeling seemed to have turned around, as her run split showed solid improvement by over 2 minutes for the 10k. The athlete was on this occasion the fastest female amateur on the day. Full results can be found here
The third race of the Boulder Tri Series, Ironman Boulder 70.3, was earmarked as the final assessment in the season’s progress, as well as a priority race for the season. Starting with the swim, we saw an improvement of 4:25 from the previous year. This was quite significant in proving the method behind the madness (remember, she had been swimming 5 days per week for about 8 months) to be spot-on target. The bike split saw an improvement of 7:35. Interestingly for this split, the athlete reported that she was actually racing a specific female athlete who had ridden past her not far into the bike leg of the race. She admittedly “red lined” for most of the first half and into the second half of the bike in order to “stay with” the athlete who passed her. She would ultimately pass her rival athlete back during the run, which yielded an improvement of almost 5 minutes over the previous year’s run split. It could be speculated that the improvement in the run might have been better if she had raced more conservatively during the bike, avoiding so much “redlining.” Also significant in the run split is that the degradation between the first and second loop of the run course was much less in 2012 than in 2011. Overall, she realized a nearly 17 minute improvement from 2011 to 2012, as well as qualifying for the 2012 70.3 Champs. Full results can be found here
While this report is a simple overview of the training and racing in 2012 of one specific athlete, many of the principals applied here are also very effective for all athletes wanting to achieve a significant improvement from one year to the next. The approach to creating and executing the training is often the same for everyone, even if the details, the specific workouts, the amount of rest and recovery, the timeline, and so on, change from one athlete to the next. To achieve the progress you desire, there must be a plan, and to that plan must be a deep commitment to execute it. The proof will be in the results.
If you are racing the 2014 Ironman Boulder or Boulder Tri Series, be sure to check into the Trismarter IM Boulder Training Program. While each athlete’s approach to to training for a race or race series should be individual, the principals of training are mostly universal for all. If you would like to work with a coach in this manor, please consider contacting Trismarter for a free consultation. Start your journey towards reaching your triathlon potential!