Monday, April 18, 2011

Triathlon Coaches: Part I- The Importance of a Coach

Last week I got engaged in one of those never ending forum debates (on Slowtwitch no less) that has you explaining to your significant other that the reason you can't leave the computer and get to bed is because "there is someone wrong on the internet". The debate was about coaches, and in the end the debate, like so many was more of a case of two people saying the same thing differently. The resolute conclusion was that coaches are an incredibly valuable resource for any level triathlete, and that they must be selected with care and attention.

Why use a coach?

Triathlon is an exceptionally demanding sport that requires you to at the very least be competent at three sports. In order to appropriately train for even a sprint triathlon its best that you be dividing a minimum of about 6 hours a week into swimming, biking, and running. As you get up into the Ironman distances an age grouper could easily be spending 20 hours a week training on top of a regular job and our life's commitments.

In my eyes, what a coach does is allow you to train smarter AND harder. Smarter in the sense that a coach can take the finite amount of time you have available for training, and optimize that time towards improving your weaknesses, building your strengths, and preparing you for your goal races. Harder in the sense that often in the endless weeks and months of training there is a tendency to get a little too comfortable in our training, believing that just having the volume is sufficient.

Training Smarter

I like to consider myself a student of the sport. I'm a numbers and data geek by nature and I can get into an informed discussion about a cyclist's watts/kg, or oxygen uptake and lactate thresholds, Training Stress Scores, etc. So for my first year of triathlon I didn't use a coach, I read a few books, consulted online resources, and spent time learning zones, periods, and swimming more efficiently. It worked very well and I had a great first season.

But now I train with a coach and won't turn back. Late last season after I committed to Ironman Canada 2011 a lot of people were asking me if I was going to get a coach. I was on the fence about it until someone who is a very experienced triathlete with a couple Ironman's under her belt asked me if I had a goal time in mind. She'd seen me race, but the time she pegged me at was an hour faster than the one I'd originally conjured up for IMC. I rationalized about it for a while and then realized I could reach that faster goal time if I spent a lot of time working out a very detailed 500hr/year plan for myself following Joe Friel's periodization methodology, or if I hired a coach to do it for me. At the end of the day I decided to leave the coaching/planning with a coach, and the training with the athlete, and I hired Todd Malcolm of No Limits Triathlon Coaching here in Calgary.

We sat down, went over my goals, went over my past results, and went over what my normal life schedule looked like. Then we worked 3 bikes, 3-4 runs, 3 swims, and a rest day into that schedule for a total of about 9-13 training hours per week. Every week I now receive my workouts through Training Peaks, and accordingly I upload to Training Peaks the bike/run data from my Garmin 310xt, along with whatever qualitative feedback I have on my performance for each workout.

Based on tests every 4-8 weeks, which could take the form of a B-race, or a time trial exercise during training, my coach establishes power or heart rate zones for me to train in. This is the core of what I mean by training smarter. If you follow a periodization plan like Joe Friel's you'll know that many months before your A races you'll be base building, when a lot of time will be spent in aerobic zones. Closer to race season base building turns to the Build Phase where you spend time between aerobic and anaerobic zones, basically getting faster. The zones I'm talking about (typically scaled 1-5) should be prescribed for each athlete by their coach depending on their individual fitness level, which in turn is established during the tests I just talked about. Zones should be prescribed in terms of heart rate, pace for the run, and watts for the bike if you train by power.

In summary a coach helps you train smarter by taking your goal races and breaking your season down into periods based on those goal races. During each period, your training should have a certain focus, and of course certain corresponding workouts. Those corresponding workouts should be done in certain zones based on your physical ability. If this sounds like a lot of detail, thats because it is, and when I decided I would take training seriously, I knew I could do this all myself but it was a question of how much time was I willing to dedicate towards learning how to train, versus actually just training. I value actual training time far more than learning to coach myself, and so I outsourced the coaching to a coach!

Training Harder

The risk that many endurance athletes face is falling into the trap of making your hard workouts too easy, and your easy workouts too hard. When you've got between 6 and 10 workouts a week this can lead to workouts where your body isn't well rested enough to perform at the level where it can make the significant anatomical and cardiovascular adaptations it needs to make you a stronger, better athlete. In this respect a coach can make you train harder by very specifically stating what zone you should be in for each workout.

If an active recovery workout your coach prescribes says you run for an hour in Zone 1 at a 5:15-5:30min/km pace, then keeping to that level is just as important as the next day's workout that says you're doing track intervals at 38sec/200m x 20. If you take a second and do the math you'll see that those are two very different paces, but thats what I mean by going easy when you're supposed to go easy, and going hard when you're supposed to go hard. It wasn't until my coach prescribed me variations like that that I realized how hard I could push myself when I was following a training plan designed to make me a better athlete.

The other side of training harder is consistency. I firmly believe that the age grouper has a tougher time being a better athlete than the pro simply because it's a pro's job to be a better athlete, its how they pay the bills. An age grouper will miss workouts because life or their actual job gets in the way, while a pro has the luxury of not having those excuses. But a coach offers a level of accountability that encourages you to manage your time better and ensure you aren't missing workouts unless you've got a pretty good reason. For the vast majority of age group triathletes, the key to improvement doesn't lie in track workouts or long sub-threshold intervals on the bike, the key to improvement is in consistency, consistency, consistency.


I think it was Lance Armstrong that said "the Tour de France isn't won in June, its won in January". I like this quote because it highlights the fact that its preparation and training months before competition that allows us to excel at our sport. A coach part resource, part mentor, and part drill sergeant and their number one job is to ensure that you have the mental and physical preparation to tap your full potential, get to that next level, and reach your goals. Thats why I believe anyone wishing to excel beyond their current abilities should take advantage of what they have to offer.

My next blog post will be Part II of this one, choosing the right coach for you.



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