This past weekend, I traveled to Atlanta for the USA Triathlon Art & Science of Coaching Symposium.  Over 200 coaches were in attendance to listen through two days of assorted lectures from some of the biggest names in triathlon.

Friday started with Neal Henderson (coach to Olympian Flora Duffy) speaking on how to develop triathlon specific cycling fitness.  In his words, “it’s not just about watts or watts/kg.”  Instead of talking us through secret sauce bike workouts, TSS and power, Neal focused on the basics: you cannot generate power (and performance) on your bike until you know how to ride it.  A refreshingly simple thought but also timely as so many focusing on pushing up FTP through smart trainers indoors and wonder why performance isn’t matched outdoors.  It’s important to create training situations where you practice basic cycling skills; cornering, steering, posture.  Some other key points:

  • Your performance is influenced by your capacity to perform (training, rest, genetics), your execution and tactics.
  • Use data as information – allow it to inform you on the athlete, then translate that to the athlete to transform their performance
  • Understand the demands of the competition & design training to meet those demands (terrain, weather, course design, effort)

Favorite takeaway:  Focus is important, refocus is critical.

Next up, strength training with Carwyn Sharp, a strong proponent of lifting heavy for endurance athletes.  Carwyn cited several studies showing the benefit of resistance training for cycling and running (results with swimming were less clear).  Resistance training through heavier lifting engages the Type II (fast twitch) fibers which are recruited once the Type 1 (slow twitch) fibers become fatigued.  The biggest benefits of resistance training for triathletes:

  • Improves neuromuscular capacity (getting things to fire in the correct sequence)
  • Improves anaerobic power & capacity
  • Improves movement efficiency and economy
  • Improves rate of force development

Progressive overload is required to get an effective and safe adaptation; start with bodyweight exercises and eventually progress to heavy lifting.  Incorporate plyometrics along the way.  Ultimately, power lifting is the goal because power is the goal.  Carwyn advised that strength should be periodized through the season and always take place after your swim/bike/run sessions.  Of course, proper form is critical when starting any strength program.  Meet with a skilled personal trainer who can observe and correct proper form within each set.

Favorite takeaway:  Muscular endurance comes from swimming, biking and running; use the gym to gain power.

Jesse Kropelnicki spoke on using data with athletes.  Jesse has been coach to many top pros including Angela Naeth, Linsey Corbin and Cait Snow.  He’s known for his engineering-influenced approach of protocols, formulas and calculators in training.  Jesse talked through some of this approaches to using data in training at the micro and macro level.  He reminded us that the purpose of utilizing data and analytics is to produce results.  You can have perfect charts and graphs but if those numbers don’t produce results they aren’t meaningful.  He admitted that he has learned, the hard way, about the drawbacks of relying too heavily on data and numbers.

Favorite takeaway:  There’s a level of detail that you may apply to a human that doesn’t lead to performance.

Next, registered dietician Lauren Antonucci covered best practices in nutrition.  Lauren communicated a very straight up, practical view on sports nutrition.  A few tidbits:

  • Focus on energy balance (the combination of energy intake and energy expended) – in her experience, many endurance athletes get this equation wrong (eating too little for the energy they expend)
  • Remember, the gut always wins (you can be highly trained but if your nutrition plan doesn’t work, you won’t perform well)
  • The average sweat rate is 1 liter (33 oz) per hour
  • Avoid starting a race with an empty stomach (better digestion with a little something in stomach)
  • Avoid fructose in sports food (hard to digest)
  • Consider chicken soup race morning or the night before

A great follow up to Lauren was listening to Alan Lim, founder of Skratch Labs, speak on hydration. Alan boiled down a highly technical topic into a fun presentation with hand drawn pictures and practical suggestions.  Some of notable points:

  • For every 100 calories burned, 78 are lost to heat (we are not very efficient & this is also why pacing is important – higher intensity/more calories burned = more heat created that must be dissipated)
  • Keeping cool is the focus; allows more blood to flow to working muscle
  • Increased aerobic fitness leads to increased ability to dissipate heat
  • Most of what we sweat is salt
  • Precompensate for loss of salt by drinking a saline solution prior to racing (similar to chicken soup suggestion above)
  • The goal is not to replace everything lost (this will maintain hydration but not sodium & can still lead to hyponatremia)
  • Sodium is the only electrolyte you need to replace when exercising
  • Average sodium loss is 1000 mg/liter
  • When you’re drinking but keep on urinating, especially late in exercise, you need more salt (not more water)
  • GI distress occurs when stomach empties faster than small intestine can absorb
  • Pace your calories going in (consistent trickle of energy)
  • Acclimate for hot conditions & stay as cool as possible in competition through use of cooling techniques

Favorite takeaway:  Find your individual formula of how much water and sodium you need to minimize performance loss due to dehydration

Saturday kicked off with a high performance panel.  A very informative look into the college recruitment linksprogram, how USA Triathlon identifies and develops talent.  While there are many performance-related benchmarks these athletes must reach, it was legendary coach Bobby McGee who explained the importance of mental skills and mindset.  Of particular interest was this slide on the “links of the chain” that must be present in a high performing athlete.

Ian Murray gave an engaging talk on the business of coaching, in other words the business of people.  He gave simple suggestions on subtle things you can do to improve your service and connection to athletes to acquire and retain athletes.

Favorite takeaway:  It’s communication, it’s empathy, it’s understanding – it’s the human interaction.

High performance coach (and Olympian) Barb Lindquist put together a very informative presentation on the art of writing engaging swim workouts.  In her words, she’s an artist and the swim is her tapestry.  Science is the foundation (she uses the ASCA/USMS zones & terms for swimming) but it’s the art of applying that science into creative and challenging swim workouts that makes a difference.  Here are a few takeaways:

  • Technique is important (especially high elbow for catch)
  • Frequency is critical for the non-swimmer; more “touches” on the water matter (even 15-20 minute sessions are high value)
  • Learn to use the clock as a training partner (no Garmins; athlete should know how fast they swim every repeat & how to read the pace clock)
  • Balance masters and solo workouts
  • Swim open water no more than once a week (not a sub for pool swimming, too much can make you slower)
  • Mix in IM (all 4 strokes) to improve strength & teach you how to find rhythm in your stroke (similar to how you need to find your rhythm in open water after disruptions)
  • Practice race simulation sets (work on “get out” speed as well as race pace)
  • Open water skills can be practiced anywhere (surges, drafting, sighting, getting touched/touching)

Favorite takeaway:  Creativity counts; how you give workouts is an expression of who you are as a coach.

Finally, what was perhaps the most valuable session of the weekend – Jamie Turner, coach to Olympic gold medalist Gwen Jorgenson.  Turner was refreshingly down to earth, funny and humble with a quiet ferocity and passion for coaching.  He engagingly told his story about becoming a coach and the story of Gwen becoming a gold medalist.  I’ll do my best to capture what he shared.

How did he get into elite coaching?  A series of odd jobs: you do the work & opportunities present themselves.

What is coaching?  Coaching is a commitment, first & foremost.  It is a ruthless pursuit of excellence.  Athletes want to know: will you work for them?  A coach is objective, an expert, believe in your athletes.

How do athletes come to get coached by you in the squad environment?  It’s about performance, not training.  It’s about setting up a performance focused environment. 

What does process mean?  To have an ability to do your shit when other shit is going on around you.    Athletes must invest in the process.

How did you work with other “experts” when coaching Gwen?  Surround yourself with those who will live and die by the athlete’s performance.  Then, give them ownership of that part of the process.  If you want someone to do something well for you, here’s what you say – “I believe in you.”  These people are part of her ‘footprints of success.’

How did Gwen stay healthy with so much racing this year?  Focus on body composition.  She needed “bulletproofing” to sustain her health and the racing.  She needed to gain mass (muscle).  She works with a nutritionist who would make suggestions (ie., make your oats with milk).   

 Talk about Gwen’s path:  Success isn’t that linear path that you think it is.  Gwen DNF’ed her first race after joining the squad.

On building self-esteem and confidence:  Gwen journals every day, ‘things I did well’ and ‘things I could do better.’  After a particularly tough race, she felt she had lost her ruthlessness and willingness to win.  She wanted to talk with a sports psychologist.  Sometimes the answer is already there.  The athlete needs prompting to go search for the answer that is already there internally rather than seeking answers externally. 

Gwen’s traits:  Gwen trained ferociously for the OlympicsThese are the traits that focused Gwen on becoming an Olympic champion:

  • Consistency is king
  • Get the most of the least
  • 99% right is 100% wrong
  • Process builds confidence
  • Competition raises the bar
  • Investments not sacrifices
  • She doesn’t want to do stuff that won’t make her better
  • Self-aware/be in the moment
  • Be diligent
  • Wants to know the why, the rationale
  • Turn up every day & do what you do can
  • Don’t have to have great days, good every day is better
  • At the Olympics, just had to do what she’s done before

How did you prepare for Rio?  Sought the advice of the great Craig Walton (who coached Emma Snowsill) and asked how to prepare Gwen 200 days out, 100 days and 50 days.  At 50 days, Walton said her main goals were to stay composed and stay with her winning process. 

When was the moment he believed Gwen could win the goal medal?  WTS in London, Gwen raced with an upper respiratory infection (approved by her doctors).  Snot dripping from nose yet she was still able to execute the process under stress & deliver a performance.

What’s the best thing Gwen’s parents did for her?  Teach your child to have good habitsDon’t give your child the answers, teach them to find solutions to problems.  To make his point, Jamie held up an empty roll of toilet paper.  He explained that when your child sees that, they have a choice.  And it’s up to the parent to teach them what to do.  He said he doubted that you would have seen an empty roll of toilet in Gwen’s house growing up.  This example might seem silly but it demonstrates how champions have mastered the simple things which come from a foundation of setting good habits and making good choices every single day.

How did Gwen prepare for the Rio course, specifically the bike?  Nothing magic ever happens in the comfort zone.  Gwen needed to expand her vocabulary of speed, broaden her understanding of velocity, she rode on the back of a motorcycle at high speed down twisty roads to prepare for downhills at Rio.

On preparing for the Olympics:  Olympics is about excellence every day for 4 years, not excellence for 1 day in 4 years.   

My final thoughts on the symposium:  Ten years ago, I set out on the path of full-time coaching.  In that time, our sport has changed.  There are more races, more tools, more athletes.  Coaching has also changed.  No longer is the coach simply providing workouts to shape fitness.  Athletes want a well-rounded coach able to advise on equipment, sports nutrition, mental preparation, race planning, course selection, strength training, injury prevention, recovery modalities, etc.  It is easy for the coach to become overwhelmed by (and with) a lot of stuff. 

But does that stuff matter?

We are also now in a world as coaches where you can seemingly measure everything.  Every week I see a new product or service testing something else; your blood, your sweat rate, your vertical oscillation, your swim stroke rate.  However, as many presenters warned, it’s important to focus on what really matters: the human interaction, the athlete.

We, as athletes, are more than FTPs, formulas and TSS scores.  While data, graphs and numbers can help us understand trends and make loose predictions, ultimately we are coaching a person.  A dynamic person with physiological and psychological strengths and weaknesses, fears and needs, comforts and discomforts.  A person who sometimes rather than being told what percentage of FTP to hold in their next race simply needs to hear I believe in you.

While data, calculators and formulas can often make us feel like magicians (especially when it all comes together!), the real magic comes from how we work with our athletes and how that work inspires and supports them to be at their best.  Therefore – in each talk from some of the biggest names in triathlon, it was apparent that while science can support the art of coaching, it will never replace it.  The wise coach knows the science but also knows that the art of coaching – of bringing out an athlete’s best through training, preparation, the process – is what ultimately paves the way for the possibility of optimal performance.