By Lee Zohlman, USA Triathlon Elite Level Coach and former recreational triathlete
I was not the best triathlete. It’s taken me some time to formulate the following thoughts and put them down on paper. Oh, just over two years I would say. This article is a hodge podge of my own personal training experiences and my coaching philosophies and I truly wish I could separate the two but I just can’t. I wanted to get down some, not all, of the elements which helped me improve to help others make speed for themselves.
There were many faster athletes than me every year for the eighteen years I competed. There were faster swimmers that made my arms feel like they’d fall off when I raced them. I remember some unreal cyclists who just were relentless in their hammering. And runners? Well, I never was a natural runner and there were boys that blew by me like the wind. But on those few days when I was able to put all the pieces together I won and it felt great. They weren’t flukes and they required hours upon hours of what I call the three pillars of high performance: Planning, training and executing. Hell, I never even qualified to get my Professional license but there were races where I did win or get on the podium overall. Overall! The vast majority of the close to a million endurance athletes in the US will never win overall. After the seasons of seeing podiums in the Age Group divisions I looked at aiming for the overall in larger races. These were well known races with 700 plus athletes. There weren’t many of those wins and podiums but it is special to think that on those days I executed better than anyone else. The following are the KEY components I attribute to these performances. Some are equipment related while others are training related.
I’m a coach so I know the value of having a coach and every season which I wanted to do well I hired the smartest coach I could find. I had some great coaches but they were great in different ways. One could program average workouts but could motivate me to conquer the world with one word while another gave me the smartest*, most intense sessions I’d ever seen or done. The planning was vital and having smart sessions was the backbone of the training. The quality and timing of the training sessions are by far the most important aspects to reaching any level of performance. Planning and executing makes speed.
Pumping up the Swim
Swimmers can’t run and runners can’t swim. That pretty much sums it up but for good, bad or ugly I had a solid ten years of competitive swimming before I even toed the line in my first triathlon. This helped me a great deal but to swim with the front pack some things needed to change. The first was testing. I never tested before. I killed myself in some 500 and 1000 meter tests to get some baseline numbers. I was clicking off six minute plus 500 times at first. To test well you have to be ready to bury yourself. You have to be willing to intimately crush yourself. Tests hurt! The next step was upping the volume. Now, this can be said with any endurance sport and let me tell you a little secret here. You’ll see improvement in performance pretty much anytime when you carefully, and I mean carefully, increase volume even without increasing intensity. But I did increase! Over the course of three months I increased the weekly swim volume by 15-30%. Then came the paddles. I used them or they used me you could say. I used them for 50-60% of each session at times. I swam sets of 1000 or 1500 meters at a time. I used them in the ocean. Then came the retests and the times dropped. They came down more than 10 seconds per 100 but the real gem to take away was the confidence. I had the confidence to look at a body of water and know that 500, 1000 or 1500 meters was no big deal anymore. Confidence makes speed.
I have to speak in watts language here and typically I try to write for the everyman athlete but for this article it’s all about watts. Getting a power meter (PM) will NOT make you faster. It absolutely will not! But, getting a PM along with smart workouts will make you see true performance. Now if you want to perform even better then get a PM, smart workouts and a cycling advisor to help with the analysis and comprehension of what you’re doing. I did that and started using a PM in 2001. But it wasn’t until 2009 that I got uber serious. What did I do? I lost weight. After months of misery while watching literally every calorie, I hit 65 KG or 145 pounds. That was it. All I could handle. Then after putting on a few pounds and testing and retesting I hit the pinnacle of my upper age group performance. 306 watts. This culminated with a power to weight ratio of 4.5 watts per kilo-4.5 W/Kg. To give you an idea the Typical Tour de France podium cyclist is usually in the low to mid 6 W/Kg range. I can’t comprehend that. Ouch! For me when I was doing the test where I saw low 300’s I thought my hair was on fire, my eyeballs sweating acid and the world was going to implode into a syrupy mass of carbon and lycra. Once again the workouts I did for two seasons to get there were nothing short of ridiculous in my book and I write ridiculous workouts for a living. But these workouts were not written by me. To this day there is one workout which I never, ever was able to do. Just one workout that lingers in my head and haunts me. This one workout had such intervals that just seeing it on my programme deflated me like a Patriots football.
I did intervals upon intervals on top of more intervals. Here are the takeaways with some equipment and methods I deem mandatory to time trial faster:
- I got used to doing 20,30, 40 minute intervals out of the saddle at 50-60 RPM’s
- The above intervals were married with more 10,20 and 30 minute intervals at 90-100 RPM’s dancing around 4.5 W/kg
- I used Q Rings on both the road and tri bike which increases power 4-7% with no effect on raising blood lactate levels
- I used cleats with Zero float which adds 6-10 watts
- I got lighter and stiffer tri shoes. Rotational weight uses more energy
- I raised, yes raised, the front end on the bike to improve leg extension
There were so many talented guys faster than me even at that power but they had to be able to swim fast to get on the bike close to me. It’s not about the bike. In the end I attribute mine and my athlete’s improvements to intervals.
Intervals make speed.
Again volume and intervals comes in here and the run is the most tricky to improve because it has the highest rate of injury. If the coach gets the dose wrong than out come the aches and pains. I went from running three to four times per week to six to eight times per week. Yes, eight times per week but the trick is the volume. Some of the runs were 20-30 minutes only at a heart rate of 120-130. I watched the HR and speed more carefully for many of the runs and also did more frequent faster runs after hard bikes. Week after week and month after month of doing these harder sessions on the track and off the bike led to faster run times. I was able to drop :30-:45 per mile off my tri run times. This was a game changer. Now with a faster swim I was out with the top guys, could hold my own on the bike and had a run where I could hold off a few folks. The run! If you only take away one thing from this article it’s that triathlon is about the run. And if you do long course triathlons than even more so.
Running more makes speed.
There are other elements which helped me make speed that were more lifestyle oriented. I was able to get in at least five naps per week averaging forty minutes. This is a crucial way to speed up recovery. I was able to average an extra three hours of sleep per week which over month is 12 hours, over an eight-month season- 96 extra hours of sleep! The crazy training sessions are only the stimulus for change. The real improvement on a cellular level occurs during sleep where the vast majority of human growth hormone is released. Every minute of sleep counts so get in whatever you can.
During a few of the crucial Periods of training where I had three to four training sessions per day I made sure to eat within thirty minutes of finishing each session. I always had some fast absorbing carbohydrates and easily digestable protein sources. But more importantly I always stayed fueled with carbs during each session. The wheels would come off if I became hungry so planning ahead was always in the front of my mind. I would make sure to think of where I was going to be and what would be available. Planning ahead makes speed.
Confidence is built in training first! Matt Haugen, 2000 Team USA Olympic Coach would always say this to me. Each quality session accomplishing the goal of the day was more confidence gained. Being in the race zone and having confidence that I was capable of whatever I was facing and more, gave me a level of security which I never knew. My ideal visualizations which helped me have moments of the utmost confidence were when I would never let one negative or dark thought enter my mind. This was harder than any interval. They would try to sneak in like a mouse through the floorboard but I would work hard to close the hole. Only positive thoughts are coming in! I accepted the pain because I made friends with it in the training. It’s what I wanted. I invited it in and with the last mile to go I had one mantra to help me close the race fast. Nail in the coffin, nail in the coffin. It was repeated hundreds upon hundreds of times. I repeated it when I couldn’t breathe in the pool, was on the bike in the middle of nowhere on some godforsaken island off the coast of Africa chasing my coach up a mountain and I for sure repeated it on that damn rubber track running around like a hamster on a wheel. Confidence makes a strong mind which is made in training and taken to the race.
Strong minds make speed.
*Smartest- the true definition to me of a great coach. One who really knows the science of human performance and can create a programme blending said science with the art of programme design