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Coaching Case Study - Novice To World Championships In A Year!!

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 focusses on a selection of athletes – all with differing circumstances and considerations - and describes how their training was designed and adapted throughout 2016.

Naomi is a 30 year old former equestrian rider with very little experience in endurance sports. She trained with a running club and competed a handful of pool triathlons in 2015 with very little swim or bike training. In November 2015 she began working with The Endurance Coach to complete a structured winter with the aim of qualifying for the ITU age group Worlds in Cozumel.

It was clear early on that Naomi is very motivated and committed so it was a case of challenging the energy into training which would be slowly progressive and avoiding doing too much too soon. Because of her obvious ability to absorb training and her mental strength I suggested we should aim for the standard distance even though her swimming was way below the standard it needed to be.

The priority during the first two months was to therefore establish a realistic routine and achieve consistency in all disciplines with an emphasis on swimming volume and frequency. Swims were limited to 60 min three times per week as she didn’t have the fitness to maintain technique for 90 min sessions. This approach lead to a steady increase in swimming fitness and speed and also provided a strong aerobic base which would ultimately result in faster bike and run splits.

One of the most common mistakes people make is training too hard when it should be easy with harder sessions being compromised due to excessive fatigue. To address this the winter began with training being polarised between easy sessions and interval sessions which required very short intensive efforts. Prolonged efforts were limited to short events during the winter: cross country, Parkruns and Endurance Store duathlons were scheduled every couple of weeks. Performances weren’t outstanding but that was to be expected – they were being used for training purposes and I wasn’t particularly interested in how well she did that early in the program.

As we approached the Worlds qualifiers training volume increased during the spring and longer high resistance efforts were included in training. Cycling intervals required increasingly higher resistance (usually on a turbo) and longer running hill reps were used to increase force production. By now Naomi was also training 3-4 times per week in the pool for 90 min each time. The majority of this training was done with a combination of pull buoy, band and paddles to increase her upper body strength and efficiency.

Race results were steadily improving and with a focus on speedwork combined with lower volume Naomi was ready for the qualifiers. The events were early so there was very little chance to gain experience in open water racing. We used training aquathlons and simulated open water scenarios as best we could in training but her first real experience was going to be the qualifiers. The events were also relatively close together so it was a case of avoiding overtraining between them and relying on a ‘purple patch’ where she’d maintain (and hopefully increase speed) for that period of time. By the end of the qualifiers Naomi had won bronze in the national championships and qualified for the following events:

  • 2016 ITU Worlds (standard)
  • 2017 ITU Europeans (standard)
  • 2017 ITU Europeans (sprint)

Once she’d qualified the pressure was off so we could focus on improving further and gearing the training around Cozumel. In July Naomi was scheduled to have a mid-season break as it’s impossible to continually improve for an entire calendar year. The plan was to spend at least two weeks doing very little and then focus on the Worlds. Nobody believes me when I explain the importance of this as they usually feel great and very motivated, especially if they’re racing well. Naomi was no different and because she included extra training during the recovery weeks the following month was a step back as her body rebelled as the training caught up with her.

Sometimes people need to find out the hard way: it was a learning experience and she’ll be more aware in future as a result. She’s not the first and certainly won’t be the last! The rest period was then rescheduled the following weeks which didn’t leave as much time to prepare for Cozumel.

Training was adapted in the lead up to the Worlds. The fourth swim was completed alone and was very easy: multiple L1 reps with pull buoy, band and paddles. The idea was to develop the sense of flow and momentum in a peaceful environment without hitting any times. The emphasis on upper body strength was for several reasons:

  • The swim was in the sea so upper body strength and efficiency was vital
  • The stronger the upper body the less the legs would be used during the swim
  • The less the legs are used the lower the heart rate is
  • The lower the heart rate during the swim the faster the bike and run splits are

Naomi had bought a power meter and cycling performance improved sharply as she wasn’t relying solely on perceived effort or heart rate. From physiological testing we knew she should be able to achieve certain figures and there’s no hiding with the power values in front of you, something I’ve previously found with numerous athletes. By using it during turbo sessions and 10 mile time trials her power improved considerably in a short space of time. We also experimented with cadence to find the sweet spot where she’d maintain the highest power with the lowest heart rate. The high resistance turbo work paid off as cadence settled at 72 rpm: by riding at a lower cadence heart rate was lower so she would start the run with less fatigue.

I wanted to improve running speed as it wasn’t quite where we wanted it but was wary of introducing a second track session as it would be too risky. Naomi was already doing pace efforts off the bike in brick sessions so we opted to add a treadmill session every couple of weeks. There were several reasons for this:

  • Progress in speed over the following weeks could be accurately measured
  • By using 0% gradient leg speed increased so running economy improved at speed
  • The treadmill was forgiving so there was less chance of injury
  • Efforts could be very short without having to accelerate or decelerate (she used the hand rails to lift herself on and off the treadmill while the treadmill was still moving)

The sessions involved multiple 15-30 second efforts at the fastest speed she could run at while feeling completely relaxed with similar recovery between efforts. The overall training stress was relatively low but the increase in running speed was considerable.

Volume steadily increased throughout August and early September and race results became more promising after the mid-season blip. By the time she left for Cozumel Naomi was in the best shape we could have achieved so it was a case of tapering and consolidating the training up to that point. We included the Aquathlon Worlds on the Wednesday on the strict understanding she would race the swim and take the run steady. Any harder and the triathlon at the weekend would be compromised especially considering the heat on the run. The aquathlon also provided invaluable experience racing in the sea: it was basically a dress rehearsal for the triathlon.

At the triathlon Naomi was 7th in the swim, 2nd on the bike and held on for 8th overall in her age group. Considering twelve months previously she didn’t own a bike and rarely swam it was a very satisfying result. It demonstrated how Naomi’s commitment and willingness to learn from setbacks developed her as an athlete: she’ll be commencing training this winter from a much higher level of fitness so 2017 is looking very promising indeed.

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