Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What it Takes

Alan Couzens, MS (Sport Science), CSCS, PES.

The pic above is of Ironman legend Peter Reid. Many of you will be familiar with the Ironman documentary that profiled Peter’s preparation for the 2005 Ironman World Championships, aptly titled “What it takes”. Movies like this, along with a lot of the old school books written by the big 4 (Molina, Allen, Scott and Tinley) do a good job of illustrating what it takes to reach the pinnacle of the sport. On the flip side, there are ump-teen books on the market today aimed at the absolute novice triathlete with the goal of completing his/her first triathlon. However, IMHO, there is a big gap in the information channel for the 50+% of athletes in the middle who are looking to move to the next performance level.

For a data-obsessed guy like myself, one of the best aspects of getting involved in the coaching game has been the mass exposure to the training and performance data from athletes of a wide range of abilities. I am certainly in a better position now than I was a couple of years ago to comment on ‘what it takes’ to achieve those stepping stone goals of, completing your first Ironman, running your first IM marathon, moving to the top of your age group or nailing that elusive Kona slot. Considering my own past ill-conceived notions of ‘what it takes’ it should come as no surprise to me that most folks have absolutely no idea of the actual long term training volume that it will take to achieve their goals. What is somewhat surprising, though, is the emotional attachment that some folks have to their chosen protocol, no matter how incongruent with their goals it may be. Some 11+ hr Ironfolks are desperately attached to the notion that if they don’t hit their 25hr training weeks, they’ll never breakthrough to the next level. Of course, there is no way an 11hr athlete has the fitness reserve (or, generally, the life circumstance) to make these 25hr weeks happen on a consistent basis and so the end result is nothing but inconsistent training mixed with a solid dose of frustration.

On the flip side, I have come across other athletes who significantly under-estimate the time commitment necessary to complete an Ironman. These busy “type A” professionals will typically only be able to consistently complete single digit hour training weeks and will, unsurprisingly, have a less than enjoyable experience on race day.

What is interesting to me as a coach is the emotional attachment that many athletes have to their training approach. Often, I can do my level best to explain to my athletes that their current training choices are not consistent with their current performance level or realistic performance goals, but frequently I have seen this fall on deaf ears. In retrospection, I’ve concluded that there are 2 reasons for this:

1. I am a far better “thinker” than I am a “talker” and sometimes I fail to accurately communicate the ‘why’ behind my training prescriptions to my athletes

2. My athletes don’t have the same ‘big picture view’ that I do, i.e. they only have access to their own training logs and the metrics that they choose to personally track and analyze. Meanwhile, I have access to a wide variety of athletes logs and I analyze EVERYTHING.

So, I thought it might be useful if in this blog, I throw out some quick numbers from a few of my athletes as to “what it takes” to achieve various performance levels.

First up, let me profile the 5 athletes that I’ll give data for:

1. Athlete 1 is a 35-39AG male competitor. He has an IM PR of 10:30 (on a challenging course) and a half PR of 4:33. He has a fairly flexible job, no wife or kids. He is targeting IMWI

2. Athlete 2 is a 40-44AG male with an IM PR of 10:55 (Half- 5:12). Steady job schedule, wife, kid. Target race is IMFL.

3. Athlete 3 is a 30-34AG male with an IM PR of 12:19 (Half-4:52). Part time, flexible job schedule, girlfriend, no kids. Target race is IMAZ in November.

4. Athlete 4 is a 45-49AG male with an IM PR of 12:19 (half PR 5:05). Also a busy career schedule that involves lots of travel and a wife and kids to throw in the mix. Target race: IMWI.

5. Athlete 5 is a 40-44AG male marathoner/ultramarathoner (PR:4:xx) training for his first IM.
Now the fun part….

We have 5 athletes spanning the gamut from first timer to top of the AG ranks. So here’s the big question, can you pick which training numbers belong to which athlete??

Believe it or not, athlete a corresponds with the first athlete profile, athlete b with the second, etc.

Note: These numbers aren’t presented as ‘targets’. That’s not how it works. You keep the training trending up and you get there when you get there. Phil Collins sang “you can’t hurry love”. Well, you can’t hurry training adaptations either (though it doesn’t carry a beat as well :-)

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post based on the concept of “if you want to train more, prove it by racing (and training) faster”. I often come back to that point. There is little value to be gained from adding 5hrs of training volume if you drop 20W in the process.

While the above is obviously a limited sample, it gives you some idea of the sort of volume that different levels of athlete are hitting right now. It also shows that there is a limited correlation between early season training volume and race performance. It seems that volume isn’t the final answer. So, what is?

If we look at the athletes at the top of the table, the distinguishing characteristics are as follows:

1. The guys at the top of the table exhibit a slow, steady consistent build up in volume and intensity over a long time period. Athlete A’s volume has progressively increased from 52-60hrs over the past 6 months, with a corresponding progressive increase in intensity. Athlete D’s monthly volume has varied from 40-93hrs with fluctuating intensity.

2. The guys at the top of the table have been involved in long course racing for a relatively long (unbroken) time. They have multiple Ironman races under their belt and many Half IM’s. Athlete A has been at the IM game since 2003. Or, in g-speak, “It takes a long time to get good”.

So, in this sense, when answering the question “what does it take?”, the final answer may be a protocol that allows you to progressively increase both volume and intensity of training over many seasons. This is an important question to come back to when deciding whether to radically change your training volume or intensity from one week or month to the next.

When it comes to fulfilling your potential as an Ironman athlete, patience is a virtue.


Morten Liebach said...

You start out talking about weekly hours, but later you talk about "...52-60hrs over the past 6 months,...". That's so little training in 6 months that I assume you're talking about training time for an average 4-week block or so, right?

Anyway, I really enjoy your blogging and I learn a lot. Thanks for sharing.

BLM said...

Time for a new post!