Elaine: All Things Tri
Thinking about triathlon training? This presentation will combine the science of triathlon training with the reality of making it happen with busy schedules, demanding jobs, and other responsibilities.
Plenty of reliable research underscores the effectiveness of polarized training for all triathletes. This includes those training for a sprint triathlon, an IRONMAN, or anything in between. So how should a triathlete include polarized training in winter cycling workouts?
First of all, polarized training is the fancy term given to the type of training that Vmps has always advocated: Do the hard workouts at a strong intensity, easy workouts at a light intensity; and avoid moderate intensity training. And winter is the best time to train the fundamentals for cycling--strength endurance, economy skills, and endurance--which incorporate nicely into polarized training.
Strength Endurance Cycling Workouts
In the winter months, the strong intensity workouts are used to develop the strength endurance abilities needed by a cyclist. Strength endurance is the toughest cycling ability to build and maintain, and is critical to the development of a cyclist (especially those over the age of 30). This is why Vmps puts a significant emphasis on making sure our athletes develop the strength endurance capability. (Note that the primary way to develop it is on the bike, not in the weight room).
Building strength endurance requires emphasizing two areas: (1) the force or the push on the pedals, especially during the 12 o'clock to 2 o'clock position in the pedal stroke; and (2) torque which rotates the crank around. Research has shown that the most effective way to build strength endurance is through high force, low cadence intervals, preferably completed in two weekly workouts. Any additional cycling workouts should be done at a light intensity, endurance pace. Most athletes do the stronger intensity interval workouts during the week, and a light intensity longer ride on the weekend. (That's an example of polarized training).
Most of our clients begin their strength endurance cycling training in November. The first strength endurance interval workout of the week consists of shorter intervals (6 minutes to 8 minutes in length) with a cadence of 60 to 65 RPMs, and a rest interval that last about 60% of the interval time. The second interval workout of the week consists of fewer, but longer intervals with a similar low cadence. As the training progresses, the training stress is gradually increased by lengthening the duration of the intervals or shortening the recovery between them. In January, the high force intervals are longer in duration than in the previous two months, and the cadence is in the 70 to 75 RPM range. The higher cadence offloads some of the training stress from the working muscles to the cardiovascular system, but continues the development of strength endurance.
Cycling Economy Skills
The high force intervals are an optimal time to work on cycling economy skills such as proper pedaling mechanics, and micro rests. Proper pedaling mechanics can be emphasized with the 'stomp and un-weight' focus. Stomp and un-weight is a simplified mantra to address the misconception that cyclists should pedal in circles. Studies have shown that the fastest cyclists do not pedal in circles. Rather, the fastest cyclists are able to put a significant amount of force into the 12 o'clock to 2 o clock phase of the pedal strokes, and then quickly un-weight the foot at the bottom of the pedal stroke. This 'un-weight' ability decreases the amount of time to get back to 12 o'clock, the point in the pedal stroke where the most force can be exerted. Emphasizing 'stomp and un-weight' during high force intervals helps to imprint this more effective pedal stroke into cycling. Also, one legged drills where you lighten one foot from the pedal, while focusing on pedaling with the other leg for one minute intervals, emphasizes the 'stomp and un-weight' rhythm.
The other economy skill helps a cyclist obtain micro rests while working on the bike. Slight changes in where a cyclist is sitting on the saddle during work intervals promotes micro recoveries for the working muscles. Shifting back on the saddle engages the rider's glutes more, while moving forward towards the nose of the saddle favors the quadriceps. Practicing these slight body position shifts during the foundation training helps them become second nature during the race season.
Endurance is the easiest fundamental to establish or get back. Furthermore, each year of endurance training is added into your endurance bank, and is already there when you go to establish your endurance base for a new race season. In short, with each additional year of training, it takes less work to establish an endurance base.
At Vmps, during the foundation phase for cycling, our athletes work on endurance during longer, conversation paced rides on the weekends. We emphasize keeping these rides on the lower end of a perceived exertion scale so that the rides don't hinder the athletes' recovery from the week day interval sessions. A common mistake, especially if these rides are done with others, is to go at a tempo pace. The problem with a tempo pace during endurance rides this time of year is that the tempo pace is not the most effective pace for promoting the enzymatic, cellular, and metabolic changes that improve aerobic endurance, and it creates fatigue which then detracts from the harder mid week interval sessions.
So this winter, plan to incorporate polarized training and working on cycling fundamentals into your workouts. It's structured, fun, and proven to work.
Most athletes are terrified of taking a break. They are afraid of losing hard earned fitness. Of others gaining an advantage. Of navigating days not built around getting in workouts. Don't worry; you will be fine.
Structured training puts a tremendous stress on our body and mind. Stress is good; it allows us to get stronger when we allow adaptation and recovery to occur. During the season, we do this by incorporating recovery weeks into our schedule. However, these recovery weeks are not enough to unload the training stress that accumulates over many months of training. Rather, multiple consecutive weeks of significantly reduced training and a change up to the routine are required.
If your A races are done for this season, then look to October as the month to recharge those batteries. You can still be physically active, but keep it unstructured. Add in something new like cycle cross, trail running, or yoga. Maybe even put the Garmin in a drawer. Gasp! The goal (you love goals, right?) is to take that much deserved break. You earned it.
A wetsuit is wonderful. It keeps you warm in chilly water; provides buoyancy to counteract a less than optimal body position; and reduces drag to allow your body to glide through the water more efficiently. Plus, it puts a layer of neoprene between your body and the icky stuff in the open water. In New England, donning a wetsuit has become as much of a part of the triathlon pre race ritual as putting air in your tires. So, it’s not surprising that a triathlete might come to rely on a wetsuit to feel safer and more secure in the triathlon swim. And I mean REALLY rely on a wetsuit. A few days ago when I suggested that an experienced IRONMAN triathlete do an open water swim without a wetsuit, the response was an unequivocal: ‘No. My wetsuit is my binky’.
This year, warm lakes and rivers are causing that binky to be snatched away on race day by race directors at some area events because USA Triathlon rules state:
Age group participants may wear wetsuits but will not be eligible for awards if the water temperature is 78.1 to 83.9 degrees.
Age group participants may not wear wetsuits in water with temperatures equal to or greater than 84 degrees.
In the first scenario, many age group participants opt to wear a wetsuit and not be eligible for awards. This means starting in the last swim wave, and risking overheating during the swim or while waiting for the later swim start. In the second scenario, some folks choose not to race. Despite months of training and preparation, they skip the race to avoid doing an open water swim without a wetsuit.
It does not need to be this way. A person who swims in a pool without a wetsuit has the skill and physical ability to swim in the open water without a wetsuit. That person needs to know at an emotional level that the wetsuit is not needed. (Reason does not work in this situation as was evident in my client's binky response).
So what’s a triathlete to do when the prospect of losing the binky looms?
As the temperature of the local waters continue to tick upwards, lose that binky, and experience the benefits of entering the water unencumbered by previous beliefs.
Long Course Training 2016-rev1.pdf
Yes, the triathlon swim is tough, especially for people who do not come from a strong swimming background. But you didn't choose this sport because it is easy, right? Most likely, you chose this sport because of its challenges, and the opportunities it presents for you to learn and grow as an athlete. So let's look at the various 'obstacles' presented by swimming, and figure a way through them.
1. Swimming is Time Consuming.
On the surface, I agree. You gotta pack your bags and get to the pool during lap swimming or scheduled group workouts, or you need to meet others at the lake at a designated time. Fitting in swim workouts seems burdensome. Triathletes, however, have an uncanny ability to 'squeeze' in mega mile bike rides and very long runs, or to analyze reams of data from their latest tracking gadgets and provide updates about it on social media, but they can't consistently fit in their swim workouts. Therefore, the problem isn't necessarily time constraints; it's more a matter of not getting the same feelings of accomplishment from a swim workout as one gets from other aspects of the sport. In other words, priorities. We tend to prioritize what gives us satisfaction over what makes us feel inadequate. And lumbering away in the pool without seeing progress can make even triathletes with the best of intentions feel demoralized.
Setting the stage for feeling accomplished with your swim training can be done by setting a few measurable objectives each month related to a glaring weakness in your swimming or swim training, and tracking your progress towards these objectives. If consistency in training is a problem, an objective can be as simple as, 'To get in one pool swim workout and one open water swim each week'. If lack of progress in improving swim technique is a limiter, then an objective along the lines of, 'To include a 400 yard drill set that related to the high elbow catch' in each pool swim workout. If lack of progress in muscular endurance is a limiter, then an objective might look like, 'To attend a weekly Masters swim workout'. The goal isn't to fix everything at once, but rather to monitor progress in your swim training, which in time, should result in improvements in your swim fitness.
2. My Swimming Doesn't Get Better
Improving your swimming requires patience (lots of patience), and a willingness to leave your comfort zone. Patience, because it's going to take time to master good technique, and develop the strength to swim strong. The willingness to leave your comfort zone is crucial because that's where growth occurs. Leaving your comfort zone means attending swim workouts with people who are a lot faster than you. It includes using swim drills to emphasize aspects of good swim technique, and then immediately doing swim sets to incorporate that technique into actual swimming. Finally, it means doing swim sets that vary in speed, including really hard sets with teeny bits of rest. These sets take you out of your comfort zone, way out, but lead to tremendous gains in swim fitness, ability, and confidence.
3. Feel Nervous During a Triathlon Swim
Many people feel anxiety at some time during an open water swim. It's the brain warning that what we are doing is risky--we get breathless, nervous, our heart rate picks up. The innate 'fight of flight' response kicks in. Preparing your brain ahead of time is the best way to ward off anxiety during a triathlon swim. Teach your brain how you want to view yourself as an open water swimmer. Strong? Confident? Sassy? If you don't teach your brain, it will choose something (weak, unprepared, incompetent), and most likely it won't be something you like. Once you decide on how you want to be viewed as an open water swimmer, come up with a mantra that will teach your brain that view of you. And then reinforce that by repeating that mantra every day, several times a day. Your brain will have no choice but to believe it. (My brain thinks I am 'a strong, confident swimmer').
Mastering skills specific to the open water--swimming straight, navigating buoys, and dealing with anxiety--help mitigate nervousness during an open water swim. These areas are covered in my blog article, 'Open Water Swimming: Fun and Exhilarating vs Dark and Scary'.
In summary, don't rely on excuses for the results you get in your triathlon swims. Rather take charge of your triathlon swim.
Here are five things to consider when trying to figure out how to fix this.
1. Lifting your head when breathing causes your legs to drop.
Just a little lift of your head triggers a corresponding big drop at the other end of your body.A pull buoy reduces how much your legs would drop in reaction to the head lifting when breathing, so it reduces the drag created by this problem in your swim technique. Trust that the water will support your head, and make sure the air from your lungs is exhaled into the pool as you are rotating to take the breath (versus completing the exhale when your face is out of the water). These two little steps can help you avoid lifting your head when breathing.
2. Poor core control makes it difficult for your body to be in the correct, streamline position.
Squeezing a pull buoy between your thighs helps to engage the core without your thinking about it. Get that taut body without the help of holding a pull buoy. When you push off from the wall seek a tight streamline position, and maintain that taut, yet relaxed body control while swimming. Play around with this tautness feeling when doing side kicking drills. Go from ridiculously stiff to loose like a noodle. Eventually find that taut, relaxed feeling, and own it. An added benefit is a nice streamline off the wall works your core. So you are getting in some core exercise while becoming a better swimmer. A two-fer!
3. Wide legs when kicking creates drag and throws your body position off.
Think 'swimming in a coffin' or a tube if the whole coffin thing freaks you out.
4. Kicking with your feet flexed acts like a brake.
During the down kick, the pressure of the water should be able to move your foot into a streamline position with the toe eventually pointed. This doesn't happen with tight ankles so do some stretches to loosen your ankles. (This tends to be a common problem with people who come to swimming from a running background).
5. Proper kick timing helps your body rotate.
Whether you are using a 2, 4, or 6 beat kick, the key to good timing is that when your hand enters the water to initiate the stroke,your opposite leg should kick. With a 2 beat kick, that's the only kick. With a 4 or 6 beat kick, there are other kicks in between, but the most important one for timing is the one when your opposite hand is entering the water. The Monkey Swim Drill (one arm swim with the other hand on a kickboard) is a good drill to exaggerate the extension of your leading arm from the scapular as the opposite leg kicks. Most people's kick timing tends to be ok, just not emphasized enough to give a lot of umph to the body rotation.
Working on these items in the coming weeks can help you become a faster swimmer. The second one, which focuses on good core control, should be done at every workout and every time you push off the wall. Then choose two of the other items to work on at each workout for the next month and see what happens!
Here are some of the surprises the open water swim has in store for a first timer:
· It’s dark.
· You can’t touch the bottom soon after starting to swim.
· It’s challenging to swim in a straight line.
· It can be difficult to navigate around a crowded turn buoy.
· You get breathless due to heightened anxiety and colder water temperatures.
· Sometimes you get a mouthful of water instead of air when you go to breathe.
You can deal with these factors, with a little practice. The first two are givens—open water is dark and deep, but that doesn't matter. There is nothing under the water that you need to see in order to be able to navigate the swim course, and you don’t need to touch the bottom to be able to swim.
Swimming Straight and Navigating Around Buoys
In the open water you navigate by swimming towards the swim buoys that mark the swim course. You can do this by peeking forward occasionally while swimming--sighting on the next buoy or landmark behind the buoy. However, sighting by lifting up your head and chest, causing your legs to drop lower in the water, can waste a lot of energy and slow down your swim considerably. So practice efficient sighting in the swimming pool and in the open water. Begin by exhaling completely into the water, breath to the side as you would normally do while swimming, but then turn your head forward keeping you chin low. By the time your head is facing completely forward, you have gotten a panoramic view of what is happening to your side and can sight on the buoy or landmark that is your target. Remember to only sight as often as needed to swim in a fairly straight route.
As you approach the turn buoy, avoid the temptation to swim close to the buoy. While this is the shorter route, it can get crowded at a turn buoy (think toll booths during rush hour). Instead, take a path a few yards from the buoy. This will avoid crowds and allow you to use a more normal freestyle stroke while turning.
Dealing with Anxiety
Breathlessness is related to anxiety and a panicky type of swim stroke, and can be exasperated by cold water. While you cannot control the water temperature, you can work on controlling anxiety and maintaining good swim form.
During practice swims in open water, consciously inhale bringing the air deep into your lungs and then slowly and completely exhale the air into the water. Focus on achieving long, rhythmic swim strokes versus short, frantic ones. The “catch up drill” is a good approach for elongating your stroke as it exaggerates a hesitation between strokes. During the catch up drill, swim your regular freestyle stroke but wait until you touch one hand on the other before beginning your next stroke. This means for a moment, both your arms will be extended in front of you. Incorporate a minute or two of catch up drill into your open water swim if you are feeling breathless. It’s less taxing than regular freestyle plus helps to eradicate a short, panicky swim stroke. If you cannot lessen your anxiety while swimming, temporarily resort to a “panic stroke”, the stroke that you will use to help you relax. Breast stroke and side stroke are popular panic strokes because they allow you to get your face out of the water and breathe whenever you want. Try to avoid floating on your back as you cannot navigate in that position. As soon as you start to feel calm, switch to freestyle stroke, even bargaining with yourself that you will do 25 strokes of freestyle before resorting to your panic stroke again.
Finally if a mouthful of water causes you to begin coughing, slow down, take a gulp of the water to try to wash down what is in your throat (I know lake/ocean water can be gross but it beats choking), and switch to the side stroke or breast stroke for a minute or so in order to relax. Then proceed with your swimming. You may need to make adjustments to minimize the chances of taking in more water. Breathe to the other side if it’s waves or a splashy swimmer that is causing you to take in water. Roll your body a little more on its side when you are going to take a breath which should get your mouth closer to the surface, making it easier to reach for the breath.
In addition to the open water swim practice, incorporate mental training into your open water swim preparation. Come up with a brief phrase for how you want to view yourself as a swimmer. (“I am a strong, confident swimmer” is the phrase that works for me; "Just keep swimming" is the phrase that works for one of my clients). Repeat the phrase while you are stuck in traffic, when you swim laps at the pool, as you cook dinner, etc. The more you repeat it, the sooner your brain will believe it.
Practice the open water swim segment for your triathlon in the comfort of your own home by visualizing it. Imagine lining up with the other people in your swim wave. Hear the race director signal the start of your swim wave. Feel the cold water envelope your body as you make your first few strokes. Accept the darkness and depth of your swim environment as you focus on your deep breathing and long, swim strokes. Imagine occasionally having trouble sighting the buoy because of the hordes of swimmers and rough water, but being patient knowing that the next time you take a peek you will see the buoy a little closer than it was the last time you looked. Stay calm and patient while boxed in by other swimmers knowing that you will find space for swimming soon. During your visualization, steadily make your way through the swim segment all along thinking, “I am doing a triathlon!”.
Today my family and I attended a mass for my father who died four years ago. When I got home, I dug out this essay that I had written a few months after his death. It's called "Let's Go to the Midway".
Most of the time, triathlon plays a positive role in our lives—feelings of accomplishment, improved health and wellbeing, and the sheer fun of swimming, biking, and running. However, there are times when triathlon brings frustration, disappointment, and even physical pain--bad races, equipment problems, and injuries. Learning to deal with the downtimes can help our overall experiences with the sport and with life.
Through example, my father taught me how to deal with the sport’s letdowns even though he had never trained for or competed in a triathlon. I’ll dust off the old cliché for this article, because when life gave him lemons, he made lemonade. And he did this through his final days.
A situation that clearly illustrates my father’s determination to enjoy life occurred this past January. My father had been battling mylodysplasia for years, and the disease was progressing. My sister brought my father to a doctor’s appointment and the prognosis was not good. When my father and sister came out of the examination room, my mother asked my father how it had went. My father responded, “I’m fine. Let’s go to the Midway”. (The Midway was one of my father’s favorite restaurants). Shocked, my sister asked, “Dad, Did you understand what the doctor had said to you?” My father replied, “I understood what he said; now let’s go out to lunch”.
My father had understood; his prognosis was dire. There would be no more holidays, no more birthdays, and no more anniversaries. He would not live to see his youngest grandchildren grow to adulthood. My father only had weeks left to live. But at that moment, he was feeling ok. He was with his wife and his daughter, and he was a little bit hungry. So rather than wallow at his failing health, he decided that the best thing to do at that time was to enjoy lunch at his favorite restaurant with his family. He wanted to go to the Midway.
There were plenty of times during his final years that my father felt sadness and anger and fear as he battled mylodysplasia. He acknowledged and dealt with those feelings. Yet, he knew instinctively to make the most of the moments given to him, to embrace the simple pleasures that life has to offer. And we should do the same. So when faced with feelings of frustration or disappointment about training and racing, let’s acknowledge and accept those feelings. Then as soon as possible, we can make the most of the time that has been given to us and let’s go to our “Midway”.
Usually all goes well when a person makes up their mind to lose weight. The positive reinforcement from the number on the scale dropping each week and clothes fitting better help to keep motivation high...at least initially. Then it hits. The scale won't budge or edges a bit in the wrong direction. Oh no! A weight loss plateau. When this happens (and it does for almost all people who try to lose weight), take a deep breathe and say, "I can do this!'. Because you can. You just need an approach for tackling this.
Here are four tips for breaking through the dreaded plateau:
1. Think through the food choices you have been making around the time that the plateau hit. Look for calorie creep: slightly larger portion sizes; more meals outside the home; mindless grazing on junk food; more alcoholic drinks, etc. It takes a caloric deficit of 3500 calories to lose one pound. Calories multiply quickly when your guard is down, making that 3500 calorie deficit a thing of the past.
2. Recognize that if you have lost a few percentages of your body weight, your daily caloric needs have probably dropped. If you weigh less, your Resting Metabolic Rate (energy cost of doing nothing) decreases. This is exacerbated if you lost some muscle during those early weeks. Muscle is metabolically active, burning more calories than plain old body fat. You may need to take in fewer calories than before in order to continue to lose weight. Don't get drastic. Just dropping by about 200 calories a day (or exercising to burn an extra 200 calories) from the point you were before the plateau should do the trick.
3. Track your daily food/drink intake and exercise amount using a food/exercise log. This holds you accountable (goodbye calorie creep), and gives you a clear indication of the calorie intake/exercise amount that you need to achieve to lose weight. MyFitnessPlan.com and fitbit.com are two of the easier logs to use.
4. Boost your activity outside your workouts. You know what I mean. Triathletes will pop off a two hour run, but will circle the parking lot at Target until a spot opens near the door, or will wait for the elevator at work instead of using the stairs. Wear a Fitbit or a pedometer to track your steps and then set a goal to boost them.
Hang in there. You are an endurance athlete. You don't quit when a workout or a race gets hard because you expect it to be challenging. That's what draws you to the sport. Use that same mindset as you work towards your weight loss goals.