Monday, January 7, 2008

The Ultimate Success Formula for Triathletes

Part 1: The Theory
Alan Couzens MS (Sport Science), CSCS, PES

“The only secret of those of us training at Caulfield and Ferny Creek was the consistency of our training. None of us ever missed a day. As a result, all of us were improving. Although each of our sessions would physically stretch us, we never finished a day so exhausted that we were unable to train to the same standard the following day.”
- Ron Clarke (18 time World Record Holder in Distance Running)

I just got back from a trip to Australia to visit the folks and see my sister get married. It really is a long, awful flight and even now, 4 days back I am still feeling the effects. On the positive side of things, I did get a lot of reading done on the long flight. One of the books that I re-read was Jack Canfield’s Success Principles. I am a big fan of the personal development genre and within this genre, Canfield’s book has to be one of my favourites. When reading one of the chapters on “paying the price” it got my mind thinking about the similarities between Canfield’s message and that of another of my favourite authors in this field, Tony Robbins.

Tony Robbins has to be one of the most well-known success gurus of this century. I am a big fan of his in general, but one of my favourite Tony Robbins’ principles is something that he calls the “Ultimate Success Formula”. The thing that I really love about this formula is it’s simplicity. Basically (paraphrasing), it goes something like; there are 4 key steps to success in any endeavour:

1. Define your outcome
2. Model the behaviour of those who have achieved your outcome
4. Develop the sensory acuity to know the results you are getting and modify your actions accordingly.

In my opinion, this formula can just as appropriately be applied to the field of triathlon as it can to anything else, business, relationships etc. As a coach, the thing that is striking to me is the rarity that most athletes actually follow through with the most important step - #4. Just about every semi-serious triathlete out there has a goal of some description. Many of them have also sought out a mentor, in the form of a book or a coach, to help give them some clues of how to go about achieving their goal. The serious ones also don’t have a problem taking ‘massive action’. Some also do a fantastic job of obsessively logging the details of their workouts. However, the air is starting to get pretty thin when we look at the peak triathletes who actually analyse and use this data that they collect to determine the future direction of their training.

For many of us, the process of devising a training plan is analogous to the following scenario: You decide that you want to take a trip from Orlando, FL to the tiny mountain town of Nederland, CO. So, being a relative novice traveller, you go to the map store and buy a large scale map of the continental US. You set off from Orlando and follow the interstates on your way to Colorado, but when you reach the border, you are shocked that you can’t find Nederland anywhere on your map. So, rather than taking stock of where you are and pulling into a gas station to refine your search with a smaller scale map, you decide that Rand McNally doesn’t know what he’s talking about & you go searching for a different map of the continental US from a different publisher. Of course, this map doesn’t have your final destination on it either. End result, you jump from one guys large scale map to the next without ever paying attention to where your current route has landed you or refining your search to determine your future direction and you never make it to your destination.

The best athletes around get this. I first met Gordo at Epic Camp 2006. I was coming off a couple of pretty solid months of training, including 2 x 30hr weeks and I was feeling pretty good about my ability to keep working with a high volume approach. At the first opportunity I had, I spoke with Gordo about my recent training and where I should go from here. His first question and one which, to a large extent, inspired this blog, was “is it working for you?” It shocked me, but I really didn’t have a solid answer to the question. Sure, I was obsessively monitoring the details of every workout, but I wasn’t, at least in any measurable way, taking the time to analyse the data to determine what training stimuli yielded the greatest improvement and, whatsmore, my plan for the future was based strictly on my assumption that more volume = more results. I was following 2 of the 3 steps in the Training Peaks ‘monitor, analyse, plan’ credo, but my plans, in no way, shape or form were influenced by all of the data that I was monitoring.

Even now, the tendency is always to believe that I could do more than I currently am, if only....

For a good portion of the past 12 months my basic goal has been 3 hours a day of training. Did I base this on my average volume for 2006? Nope. Did I take into account that I was little more than a month out of a wheelchair after my hip surgery when I set these lofty goals? Nope. My plan was based solely on the volume that I believed I would need in order to be competitive in my age group over the Iron Distance in 2007 and 2008. This is one of the most common and harmful mistakes that I come across as a coach on a daily basis. Type-A age group athletes typically let their goals for the season dictate their rate of improvement rather than letting their rate of improvement dictate their seasonal goals. This is one of the reasons that it is so difficult to develop over the long term as a self-coached athlete. It is true that, as a society, we have a tendency to greatly overestimate what we can accomplish in a year, while grossly underestimating what we can achieve in a decade purely by applying unrelenting patience and persistence.

Hopefully by now, I have convinced you that in order to ‘train smart’ in ’08 and beyond, it is important to determine the efficacy of your training plan to this point. In order to do this a couple of questions need to be answered:

1. What was your training methodology in ’07?
Pay attention to the word methodology, as opposed to plan. What you intended to do at the start of the year is far less important than what actually got done.

Note: With improved sensory acuity the gap between what you intend to do and what you do will shorten. This can make a big difference to your confidence and your belief in yourself as an athlete.

2. Did your training methodology bring about the desired results?
The 2 results that I definitely want to achieve for each and every athlete, each and every year are:
a) A rise in the athlete’s ability to tolerate work, measured by an increase in volume AND intensity from year to year.
b) An improvement in the athlete’s performance standards from one year to the next.

Stay tuned for part II of this article, where I will outline some of the specific numbers that you can track in your log on a daily basis in order to effectively answer these questions and how to track these metrics over time to determine what is working for you.


Gordo Byrn said...

This is the best piece of writing that I have ever read by you!

Your time on the plane was clearly well spent.

I want to read the Success Principles book that you mention. Bring a copy to Solvang.


The other brother said...

Wow. This might be one of the best (most simple, yet profound) things I've read from ANYBODY about training for sport. Thanks!


Rick said...

Alan, Many thanks for an elegantly simple, meaningful post. I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Chuckie V said...

Ditto to the above statements Alan! I've cut and pasted this to a document and shall refer to it often. Too bad there's only a sequel and not a "mini series" coming our way!

Unknown said...

Great write up. Based on previous discussions w/ self coached AG athletes, a common theme is the lack of periodic testing. While race results are the ultimate test and are usually performed w/ a high degree of motivation, I surmise the typical AGer does not race enough in equivalent conditions to truly access the degree of improvement from their training methodlogy. Looking forward to the 2nd installment.


Anonymous said...

Great article Alan. Plenty of food for thought. I would encourage you or anyone to slip over to This is a guy who has been utilising, under the guidance of a Mystery Coach, the methods of Arthur Lydiard. One of the coachs favourite workouts is an evaluation run (kind of like what Mark Allen used to do during his patience phase) of approx. 3 miles as a means of monitoring the progress and adaptions of the current workload. This sort of ties in nicely with your piece.


Paul Fleuren said...

Thnaks Alan,

Awesome stuff. That's all I have to say


Brandon said...


I am going into "Round 3" of triathlon and this was helpful in so many ways! I'm glad I have Endurance Corner on my side :-)

See you back in Boulder,

Grace said...

Hi Alan-
I have a question about lactic acid testing. I am currently looking into performing a lab test (do you know of any labs in Southern California?), but for now I will do the 30 min effort taking the average heart rate over the final 20 min. I did a 5K race where I had a good 20 min warm-up then ran the race in 21 min with an average HR of 173bpm. Is it wise to use the 173# to base my training zones on, or would the 30 min test be more accurate?