Coach Case Study 3: I Want To Go To KONA!!

The Endurance Coach help people from a range of abilities achieve their goals in a variety of disciplines. Training methods vary depending on the athlete concerned and programs differ considerably. This series of blogs focuses on a selection of athletes – all with differing circumstances and considerations - and describes how their training was designed and adapted throughout 2016.

Jan is a very experienced triathlete and adventure racer who I’d previously worked with several years ago. She contacted the Endurance Coach in July to provide more structure in her training as she was in the middle of training for Ironman Wales. Jan’s training had been consistent but lacked any specificity so she didn’t feel she was making the necessary improvements.

Her training had fallen into the ‘grey area’ where easy training was too hard and there was very little high intensity work. There was also no recovery regularly scheduled so she was in a constant state of maintenance, not improvement.

Jan also loves to race: if it involves swimming, cycling, running, mountain biking or kayaking she’ll do it. The longer the event the better. This is a healthy approach to sport as she enjoys it but without clear aims and a structured racing schedule she couldn’t excel at any one event.

Time was limited as Ironman Wales was in September so we needed to increase specificity immediately. The problem was that Jan had already entered a couple of events including a coast-to-coast challenge and a weeklong mountain bike event in Ireland. It was unrealistic to cancel the events so it was a case of incorporating them into the plan as well as possible.

As Jan already had a solid aerobic base the aim was to achieve the following:

Introduce more recovery

Improve speed at shorter distances

Limit L1 sessions so they were L1

Provide a clear distinction between the different session intensities

Increase her swimming volume and frequency

Increase force production on the bike and run

Improve her climbing ability for sustained periods on the bike

Adapt her legs to the climbing and descending she’d experience at the Ironman Wales run course

The first thing I did was introduce a recovery week every three weeks to enable her to adapt to the training and there was at least one rest day every week. This modification is the most important and will always improve performance regardless of the training the person does.

Key sessions then focused increasing resistance by using high resistance hilly rides with hard gears on the climbs. By increasing strength Jan would be able to race with a lower cadence and have a lower heart rate: the result would hopefully be less fatigue and a faster run.

There was a small amount of high intensity interval turbo work and a weekly track session introduced to improve speed. This would be a shock to the system as Jan hadn’t done any real intensity for some time.

The longest sessions weren’t as long as many people would imagine. The longest bike was 5 hours and the longest run was 2 hours 15 min, all at a fairly consistent effort. She already had years of long rides and runs under her belt so it was the shorter sessions which would make the difference.

Because the Ironman Wales run course is a hilly road run it was essential to replicate the stresses in training. Jan loves to train off road but relying on trail running would be ineffective as she would deteriorate soon into the run from the damage to the leg muscles. People often fall apart on the run in Ironman due to mechanical failure, not lack of energy and a hilly course is much more punishing, especially on the descents. The long runs therefore included an increasing amount of hilly road running. The first long run was 50% trail/50% road and this progressed until the last run was 20% trail/80% road.

It was essential Jan completed all L1 sessions at an easy perceived effort. This is one of the most common mistakes people make when training for triathlon: if the easy sessions are too hard the harder sessions are compromised because the body is still fatigued. There is no training stimulus and the body is in a state of constant fatigue.

The coast-to-coast challenge was inconvenient but not massively depleting but the mountain bike stage race was more of an issue as it was a month before the Ironman. This would be a key period in the training plan where no real useful adaptations would occur. The event included sleep deprivation and hours in the saddle, day and night so the issue would be how much the event would take out of Jan.

The following week’s training was then compromised due to the fatigue Jan was feeling so we effectively lost two weeks of any training where fitness would realistically be improved.

Training then briefly returned to normal and then it was time to taper. The hope was that Jan would have recovered from the training and the fatigue from the stage race so the taper was designed to provide the necessary recovery while maintaining the fitness gains and preventing the body shutting down.

Jan finished second in her age group and gained her first Kona slot. Her finishing time was slower than she’d previously achieved but was the best possible outcome considering the limited specific training and the inclusion of the stage race.

To a certain extent the preparation to Ironman Wales was damage limitation due to the short period of specificity and the events Jan had already entered. We now have a clear plan for 2017 which will target the Dragon’s Back ultra in May and Ironman Hawaii in October. The requirements for each event are very different so there will be two distinct phases of training (effectively half seasons) with specific aims within each.

As Jan loves the variety of racing it’s important I accommodate it to a certain extent as enjoyment is the primary aim of any sport for an age grouper. If she doesn’t enjoy it the training will become a chore and performance will deteriorate anyway. As long as the events are beneficial to the target races and scheduled at the right time there’s no reason why they can’t be incorporated. We’ve agreed on a race schedule which meets my requirements and satisfies Jan’s love of racing. Enthusiasm shouldn’t be stifled, it just needs to be channeled correctly.

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