Thursday, August 13, 2009

What it Takes (Part II)

“A dream doesn’t become reality through magic. It takes sweat, determination and hard work”
- Colin Powell.

I was in the unfortunate position over the last couple of weeks to lose 2 athletes that I had been working with one-on-one over a relatively long period of time. It bothers me on a ‘gut’ level when an athlete changes coaches. Probably harkens back to my swim coaching days when it was common for the best swimmers in our squads to abandon ship when they were either ‘poached’ by one of the less ethical coaches that made up our competition or they became impatient with the amount of work that they were putting in vs the perceived lack of results that they were achieving.

So, I decided to write this piece as a bit of a ‘reality check’ for those athletes who do aspire to reach their full performance potential in the sport of triathlon. This is in no way suggesting that reaching the front of the pack or the top of your age group is the only worthwhile goal. As Molina says, “take a look around, the fountain of youth doesn’t come easy”. Staying in fantastic shape and having fun are worthy goals.

Nor is it suggesting that the MOPers are ‘slacking off’. For your first 2-3 years in the Ironman ranks, the middle of the pack is an important developmental stepping stone on your Ironman journey. However, for those folks who’ve been in the sport for a while and are thinking about taking it to the next level, I offer the following reality checks.

Reality Check #1: There is very little difference in commitment between the top of the age-groups vs the Open Elite.

The guys who are racing Kona are doing so by getting top 10 at the most competitive Ironman distance races around the world. These folks are very serious competitors that make athletics a large part of their lives. Additionally, a surprising number of them are in a financial position to live a ‘pro triathlete’ lifestyle. In actuality, perhaps the only difference between the pros and the elite AGers is that maybe they started a little later than the pro athletes or had a period of their life that was career focused that caused them to miss their absolute window of opportunity in a physical sense. But make no mistake, these athletes aren’t holding back. They are 100% committed to reaching their potential in the sport.

Reality Check #2: It still takes a long time to get good.

Baker, Cote and Deakin (2005) studied the developmental patterns of expert, mid-pack and back of the pack Ironman athletes. They found that on average there were 12,000 hours of training behind a 9:30IM performance. Developmentally, these training hours must occur before age begins to negate performance improvements, i.e. by age 40-45. So, for an athlete who begins competing in Ironman triathlon at 25-30, they have about 15 years to accrue 12,000 hours of work. This equates to an average of 800hrs/year for 15 years!! For an athlete who goes in with some single sport experience, maybe they’ll get there in 10. For an athlete with endurance experience who commits to doing nothing but train, eat and sleep, maybe they’ll get there in 5 :-). Most of us don’t have this option.

Additionally, there are intensity limits that constrain just how ‘rushed’ this development can be. In order to challenge your aerobic abilities, a bulk of your training must be above the aerobic threshold. The glycogen cost of training at this point limits most folks to 2.5-3.5hrs/day of training. In other words, if you’re going to get ‘serious’ start now.

Now, the pattern of performance improvement illustrated by Cote’s study is both interesting and potentially discouraging, see below:

By the time the average athlete gets to a 15hr IM they have 4000hrs of training under their belt (5 years of single sport @~300hrs/yr + 5 hrs of triathlon @ ~520hrs/yr). By the time they ‘graduate’ to a 12hr ‘midpack’ performance, the average athlete has 6000 hours of training in the log books (an additional 2000hrs of training over 2.7 years for a 3hr performance improvement). However, to graduate from mid-pack (12hrs) to FOP (9:30) requires an additional 6000 hours of development!! Or, put another way, an additional 6-8 years of ‘2 a days.'

This is not unusual to the single sports. In the world of swimming, for instance, a kid with realistic goals of swimming open nationals will begin 2 a days at age 13-14 and have 6 or 7 years of these under their belt before reaching their peak performances at the national or international level in their late teens to early twenties.

Of course, one big difference is that our developmental period as long course triathletes is later than it is for swimmers and this poses some significant ‘life challenges’. Despite how it feels at the time, our lives are much more ‘simple’ during our high school years. Get up, eat, go to swim practice, go to school, leave when the bell rings, go to swim practice, eat, sleep. This is much more challenging in adulthood when other responsibilities are vying for attention. Still, this does not negate the fact that this (simplicity) is the path to success and that if you really want to compete with the guys at the top of the sport, that’s how they’re living.

Perhaps the other difference is the performance expectation that comes with 2-a-day training. I remember my promotion to the “A Squad” when coming up through the swim ranks carried with it a feeling of privilege to finally be ‘swimming with the big boys’ rather than something I needed to suffer for x amount of years in order to ‘get somewhere’. A 6 year period where long periods of high volume training offer very modest improvements in performance can be hard to take if it’s all about the ‘end game’. In fact, with the non-fitness related variables involved in the Ironman game coupled with the fact that most athletes will only race 1-2x per year, it is likely that athletes will experience seasons where despite increasing training load, performance regresses. This can be tough to deal with if you’re not getting a good deal of intrinsic motivation just from ‘living the life’.

So, what does it take?

• Persistence (irrespective of bad races)
• A lifestyle that supports 6-8 years of ‘serious’ training. What is serious training? 18-24hrs/week of aerobic training (3hrs/day, 10 sessions a week, 48 weeks a year).
• A deep love of the process

That means that, to achieve ‘your best’ in triathlon, for almost a decade, you need to be willing to put other aspects of your life in maintenance mode. It is difficult to climb the corporate ladder and the AG ranks at the same time. That doesn’t mean you need to ‘drop everything’, it just means you need the type of job (and the assertiveness) that enables you to block out time for a morning and evening training session most days for the next 6-8 yrs (see Gordo’s latest blog for more on this).
It also means, as an athlete with nothing better than an 11-13hr IM to your name, you need to have the courage or the naivety to ‘back yourself’.

This is a common decision among the majority of the guys (top age-groupers and pros) that I know who have ‘made it’. My buddy, pro triathlete, Justin Daerr comes to mind. At our last camp he recounted how, as a 12hr IM guy he planned his college class schedule around the needs of his 20+ hr training week not because of his pro ambitions, or an impending Kona goal but simply because “he enjoyed riding his bike”.

Maybe in the end, the answer to ‘what it takes’ to reach the top of the sport is to not care about ‘what it takes to reach the top of the sport’. Rather, to realize that you are committed to being a lifelong triathlete and committed to the life that it entails irrespective of performances (good or bad) or life demands at any point in the journey. A commitment to a life of consistent training offers so much more than a trophy or a ticket to Kona. As a buddy of mine says, the journey is the destination.

Train smart.


As mentioned, I have 2 open one-on-one coaching slots available for athletes who are willing to work with me for the next 5 years or so to discover their potential in the sport (athletes in current coaching relationships need not apply – I’m no poacher :-)


Jeremy said...

Hey AC, loved the blog post as usual. Also noticed you said that you lost two of your athletes and therefore have (probably already filled) two open positions for new clients. Just curious as to what your rates are, criteria to join, and philosophy are. Hit me up via email if you get a chance. Thanks-


Alan Couzens said...

Hey Jeremy,

Still taking applications. Most important thing to me is it's a good fit for coach and athlete (I'm getting picky in my old age and if you're going to lay down good money, you should be picky too :-)

Fire me an email "alan at" and we can get some email dialogue going.

Thanks for the interest.



krelli said...

Hi Alan,

interesting post from your side.

However, I get the feeling that you are too concerned about training volume or weekly training hours.
In my opinion, doing high quality training instead of endless hours in standby-mode, enables one to reach fast IM times much earlier in life!

First speed, than volume! ;)

By the way, I love your blog!
Keep it on...


Alan Couzens said...

Hey Krelli,

I actually agree with your comment 100%.

The core tenet of DELIBERATE practice is that the hours are leading to higher levels of performance. Hours put in without this feedback are like fumbling in the dark.

I also agree that in a developmental sense, speed should come before endurance.

The mistake I see a lot of athletes making is assuming that just because 'speed markers' are improving, IM performance is improving. There comes a point where athletes must start putting in the hours to have an IM performance worthy of their FTP. Many make the mistake of continuing to focus on raising the roof without concern for the %FTP that they can hold for long durations.

Thanks for reading!!



KMB said...

I was really bouyed by your closing comments stating that the journey is the destination. Your site has a link to the recent blog written by Joe Friel basically lamenting for the days when IM distance racing wasn't en vogue and fast 5k and 10k times were the goals.

While Joe's blog title is "Everone's a Winner", clearly his message is that the sports of marathon and IM have been cheapened by those who would walk and by those who bypass shorter events to claim bragging rights for finishing longer events.

As a life-long endurance athlete who has only recently begun IM triathlon (3 years now), it wasn't until I did IM that I realized how true your last statement really is. And it took "just finishing" to really appreciate the fact that I didn't enjoy racing (in fact it kind of sucks) but rather, enjoyed the company of other athletes, enjoyed the sense of accomplshment and enjoyed the sheer fun of the endurance lifestyle. Here's to another couple 1000 hours before the end... Thanks.

Alan Couzens said...

Hey KMB,

Thanks for the kind words and the support.

I can definitely relate to what you're saying. The attitude towards your fellow racers is a whole lot different in the last hour of an Ironman compared to the last minute of a 5K.

There is something very cool and supportive about the Ironman community, whether a fraternity of suffering or personal accomplishment, it is a fraternity.

It's funny too, I have a feeling that your obvious love of the process will, by it's nature, lead to better performances (and athletic longevity) than a 'win at all costs' mentality.

All the best for your next thousand hours. See you out there!


Anonymous said...

Hi Alan,
Just stumbled upon this site... I love is an absolute goldmine.. I love to drill down in the science behind the sport..

One question, though:

Having just been tested earlier this week, I know that my IM heart-rate corresponds to somewhere between 198 and 207 Watt... Looking at the tables and figures on this blog, that would mean, that I should expect to do a flat IM in 10.36:30 (5.05:30 bike - 3.56:00 run + swim and T1&2's)

The total time is pretty much what I'd expect...but I'd have thought the bike to be 20 mins slower and the run to be 20 min faster

I'm doing a flat IM in juust a few weeks and will be testing this..but could you elaborate on how you got to these numbers, please?



Alan Couzens said...

Hey Bo,

Thanks for the comments. Glad you're enjoying the blog.

The bike/run equivalents that I presented are based on our typical lab numbers for VO2 at respective bike and run paces. In other words, at 200W, our average athlete is using ~2.7L/min of oxygen. If we put the same (80kg) athlete on a treadmill and look at the pace they are running at 2.7L of uptake it will be approximately 4:14 marathon pace.

Guesstimates on the bike splits for a given power can be derived from a formula presented by a scientist named Bassett who compared SRM data with bike speeds.

It's somewhat typical for 'runner types' to lack the strength to hit the equivalent VO2 numbers on the bike so that comes into play.

Additionally, as outlined, your best Ironman performance time is likely to come from an ~20min 'run heavy' split.

Have a great race!