Monday, April 28, 2008

Is it going to be Javier and Vanessa?

After watching the total domination of World Cup competition over the last two years by Vanessa Fernandes and Javier Gomez, we might be tempted to just call them up, give them the Gold medals and have races in Beijing for Silver and Bronze. The fact is that the races in Beijing are not done deals and there are plenty of contenders, both in the women’s and men’s races but especially in the men’s, that can pull off an upset win.

World Cup racing is different from big Championship racing. In order to have a good World Cup campaign, athletes need to be at a good level during large periods of time during the season. In order to achieve this, their level of form needs to have very little variation. Of course this leaves out the possibility of achieving a peak performance at a given race. For most races, this is not a problem for athletes like Javier and Vanessa, since their average level is still well above the average level of everyone else racing against them. Their problem arises at big Championship races, when their main competition are athletes that are looking for a peak performance. In that instance, their average, even if at a pretty high level, it’s still not enough to beat peak performances from other athletes. Good examples of this was Daniel Unger winning Hamburg Worlds, Rasmus Henning winning Des Moines last year or the close races that Vanessa has had at Worlds in the last 3 years.

Another factor to consider is that Javier and Vanessa win a lot because… they race a lot. Racing a lot of World Cups is very stressful. There’s the flying and the airports and the time away from family and home. All this stress also represents time away from training. Those that race a lot, don’t improve as much as those that build up towards a few goal in each season. Those that race a lot build their fitness during the off-season and in between races, and (hopefully) maintain it when racing. So we can say that, even if they’re at a higher level, they are not improving as much as they could (a “scary” thought, having an even faster Vanessa!).

Of course that it’s not like Vanessa and Javier, and more importantly their coaches, are not aware of these factors. And I’m pretty sure that they want to win in Beijing pretty badly. But all this is to say that it’s going to be two amazingly competitive races, with no anticipated winners. And why? Because… IT’S THE OLYMPICS!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Listen to your heart? The answer might be yes.

In my last post, I ranted about how common misconceptions regarding heart rate are still in use in the triathlon community. Does that mean that you should throw away your heart rate monitor? The short answer to that is no. The longer answer follows.

Even if heart rate is not an accurate means of defining exercise intensity, that does not mean that it is a useless control parameter. As long as heart rate is assessed at its true value (through the use of a heart rate monitor), with all its possibilities and limitations, it is still a valuable parameter.

Heart rate is of great importance to teach athletes about the benefits of varying training intensities. Coupling training tasks to different heart rate zones encourages the athlete not to train at the same intensity all the time. It also serves as a guide to learn how to accurately determine perceived exertion. Perceived exertion is the best racing tool there is because it allows you to bring out your best effort on race day. It accounts for weather conditions but more importantly it accounts for athlete conditions. It is based on the “now” that makes racing, not on the effort you put in during your testing sessions. Perceived exertion is the only way to race up to your full potential at any race, and heart rate can help, within its limitations, to zero-in your sense of perceived exertion.

The fact that heart rate reflects more than the metabolic reaction to exertion means that it can be used as a means to evaluate, with a degree of subjectivity, the general condition of the whole organism. Heart rate can tell us a bit about how well the body handles training in combination with other factors as health, level of fatigue, acclimatization to altitude, etc. A higher than usual morning heart rate is a sign that there is something is up, which might or might not be related to training. If it persists for three or more days, a thorough analysis of the training process and the athlete’s environment should be made. Also higher than normal heart rate during low-intensity exercise, combined with lower than normal heart rates as exercise intensity increases clearly indicate fatigue or health problems. These symptoms are not important when isolated, but they might indicate that something is wrong when they persist.

Now that we went through some of the situations where heart rate can be valuable, some of you that do not use a heart rate monitor are probably wondering if they should get one. My opinion is that they are better off by staying away from a heart rate monitor. For the experienced, successful athlete, starting to use a heart rate monitor will only bring unnecessary complexity to the training process, with the possibility of overthinking that comes from it. And if you allow me to quote myself, overthinking is synonymous with underachieving.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

“The 90’s called: They want their training plans back”*

Sometimes when I hear some athletes or coaches, when I read some training articles or blogs, it seems like I am thrown back to the 90’s. The same misconceptions, the same misunderstandings, the same urban myths are thrown around now, like they were 10-15-20 years ago.

The myths that are more prevalent are the ones connected with heart rate. It all comes from the myth that listening to your body means listening to your heart (the anthropological ramifications of this myth are also interesting). From this central myth, comes the common misconception that heart rate is an accurate measure of exercise intensity.

In the beginning of the 90’s, as heart rate monitors became readily available for everyone, it seemed that heart rate was a great training tool. From a scientific standpoint, the emergence of heart rate training and testing started with Conconi’s paper and the Conconi test. From then on, considerable research used heart rate, proving it to be a good indicator of exercise intensity, but only under controlled laboratory conditions.

The triathlon world was perhaps the endurance community that embraced more the use of heart rate monitors in training and racing. Mark Allen changed the way he raced Ironman Hawaii by using a heart rate monitor, going on to win 6 times the race, and that served as evidence to everyone of the superiority of the heart rate based approach to training and racing.

Now it’s time to put things into perspective. Polar launched its first HRM with recording capabilities around 1990, that was 18 years ago. The last time Mark Allen won Ironman Hawaii was in 1995, that was 12 years ago. However, the misconceptions that were born so long ago still persist today, which is something that is quite puzzling. Since the early nineties until now, here’s some things that we have learned:

- Heart rate is not a direct measure of exercise intensity. It is a measure of… wait for it… the amount of work the heart, not skeletal muscle mind you, is performing at a given time. This seems simple enough to understand, but it’s a starting point that many simply don’t understand.
- Heart rate is severely affected by factors like temperature, humidity, altitude, fatigue, hydration status and many more. The day to day variation can be quite significative.
- The Conconi test is now seen as either a nicely crafted scientific fraud, or the result of a highly unprobable sample of athletes (Shame on the coaches that still use it, charging more than $200 for wasting the athlete’s time and money).
- Maximum heart rate is a completely useless metric.
- Rest heart rate is not a measure of fitness or an indicator of overtraining.
- Heart rate is highly individual. Even though it generally decreases with age, any formula that relates any definition of a lactate-based or respiratory-based threshold with age makes no sense whatsoever.
- Any test protocol that uses heart rate to determine intensity is essentially flawed and should not be used to track progress (Homework assignment: write a two-page essay on why the MAF test should not be used as a testing tool).

All the facts stated above, and many more, are supported by scientific evidence. So the question is why do we keep hearing the same things over and over again? Why are we so often thrown back into an ignorant time warp? More than the difficulty that some coaches have to understand basic concepts of exercise physiology and keep up with the scientific literature, I think that business interests are what’s at stake here. Many coaches have built solid businesses out of spewing out the same misconceptions over and over and OVER again. And because that works, meaning that puts food on their table, they are not willing to change a “winning” formula. At the expense of the best interests of their athletes, obviously.

By now, all of you that use your heart rate monitor as your friend and companion, your little window into your heart, must be panicking. What are you going to do now that heart rate is not what you thought it was? Well, even if it is not the trustworthy measure of intensity that you thought it was, it is still a decent tool that can help your training. In my next post, I will talk a bit about how you can make the most out of the information that your heart rate monitor is giving you.

* © Danois Montoya, 2008

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Residual fitness

This past weekend I was lucky enough to witness two world class performances based on “residual fitness”. Even if one of the performances was from an athlete with less that 4 years of high-level training, and the other was from a veteran in the sport, both of them overcame less than perfect build-ups towards their race in order to perform well.

The term “residual fitness” can be a little misleading, since it might lead us to believe that even if your preparation was far from perfect, you still have a little something left in the tank. However, we should call it not-so-residual fitness, or just plain fitness.

Fitness is the weighted sum of all the training adaptations an athlete collected EVER. Of course that the catch is that time is the variable that weighs in the sum, and that whenever an athlete stops training, a relatively rapid loss of the acquired adaptations starts to occur. For example, half the increase in mitochondria from 5 weeks of training can be lost in one week of inactivity. Since the number of mitochondria is substantially related to the endurance capacity of an athlete, it is obvious that one week of inactivity will have a marked effect on endurance. It is required nearly 4 weeks of training in order to recover from one week of inactivity. However, coaching experience throughout the years have taught us that the rate of detraining of the endurance capacity depends on the time that has been spent in building up this capacity. Or in other words, the more time an athlete spends building up his fitness, the longer his fitness will be mantained, even if he/she drastically reduces training. Another consequence of the fact that fitness is a function of time is that the training an athlete does in the last 6-8 weeks is the most important do determine his/her current fitness. But all the training an athlete did before those last 6-8 weeks is of paramount importance, as it determines your fitness entering this period. And that is the residual fitness.

There are many practical implications of what was stated above. The first one underlines the importance that consistency has in the training process. Consistency over weeks, months and years is what brings your residual fitness up, guaranteeing long-term development. Even if your fitness peaks a few times a year, residual fitness determines the starting point from which racing fitness will rise. The second implication is that when approaching a race with a less than perfect final build-up, an (extra) effort to stay focused on the big picture should be made. As long as the training period preceding a period of inactivity due to injury, illness or life was continuous and long enough, there is no reason to panic. The athlete will be able to regain his/her level of fitness in a short time. Residual fitness will carry you on race day, as long as you gear your last weeks before race week to tap into it.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

You can blog later...

I confessed in another post on this blog to being an old-school coach. But according to my definition of what is old-school, I try hard to keep up with the new (meaningful) trends. One of such emerging trends is coach/athlete communication through... blog.

With an increasing number of athletes having a personal blog these days, it seems that the passive-aggressive attitude of sending little messages through blogs, for which I am as well guilty as charged, has invaded the coach/athlete universe. For a lot of athletes, the question pops in their mind: Should I email my coach or just write a blog and expect him/her to see it? And a lot of the times, the blog wins. The problem with this is that what athletes put on blogs is their version of things for public consumption. And what coaches need to hear is the real thing, the nitty-gritty, the straight dope.

There is an obvious difference in the type of information that you share with your coach and the information you share with the outside world. And the only way a coach can do a good job at coaching you is if he has the right information to work with, not a distilled, digested version of your training and your life.

So go and email your coach. You can blog later.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Getting the work done

Jonnyo “invented” that expression: “Getting the work done”. And slowly but surely, the expression and the attitude behind it was adopted by everyone in the posse. I use the word attitude because there really is an attitude behind “getting the work done”.

“Getting the work done" is about trusting what you are doing and focusing all your energy into execution, both in training and racing. The sport of triathlon is full of overthinkers. They overthink everything: nutrition, equipment and of course training. Proof of the existence of these overthinkers is the popularity of triathlon forums, with their endless pages of often pointless discussion. What makes overthinking an issue is that when athletes overthink, they lose focus. Focus on the truly important things: consistency, patience, long-term approach to development. This is a problem for many athletes, but I see it worse when coaches suffer from it. Too many coaches out there overthink their processes and “infect” their athletes with superfluous questioning of every step of the training process. The bottom line is that overthinking is synonym with underachieving.

“Getting the work done” is about consistency. Every athlete has days where it is hard to get out the door for the next workout. Most of the times this is a mental issue that is experienced by athletes at every level. One way of helping the athlete with these issues is to build the schedule around training sessions that do not need a lot of mental energy to accomplish. I like to call them “bread-and-butter” sessions. They are usually short in duration and low-intensity, but are still a very important part of the overall training program. They do not ask much from the athlete in terms of mental commitment and all he/she needs to do is to go out and get the work done.

“Getting the work done” is about expanding your personal boundaries. In order to do that, you have to go to your limit and then past it. You will be in a place where fatigue will cause you to doubt everything you are doing. And you are at that point, the only way is up and for that you need to get the work done.

Finally, “getting the work done” is about commitment to your goals. A lot of people have very lofty goals but hesitate when it is time to do the work that will allow them to accomplish those goals. For the large majority of athletes, what keeps them from achieving their goals is to get the work done.

Now get out there and just… get the work done!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


As some of you have noticed, I stopped posting on my blog for quite some time. It was for me a time of reflection. A time to look back and evaluate my coaching methods and my training philosophy. During this month, I have come to accept the shortcomings of my approaches to triathlon training, and be more open to what others have been using successfully for so long.

Therefore, I have made a list of measures that will become effective immediately for the athletes coached by me:
- From now on, all training should be done with a HRM. The use of a powermeter on the bike will no longer be encouraged. For those that, for curiosity, still want to keep their powermeter, I will instruct them to use power as just an auxiliary metric, with HR being their primary way of measuring intensity.
- The use of a Garmin and a motionbased account will be mandatory for all athletes.
- I will build personalized playlists for my athletes to listen on their iPod while running.
- I will have my own definition of lactate threshold. It will be based on a way of measuring your lactate through your breathing. I will call it pLT.
- I will create my own version of the basic concepts of exercise physiology. This is not totally developed yet, but I think that the next big thing after aerobic/anaerobic is going to be paraerobic.
- Having a long ride on Saturday followed by a long run on Sunday will be one of the staples of my program.
- Another staple of the program will be the mandatory weekly day off.
- Walk breaks during long runs will also be mandatory.
- I will discuss race strategy with my athletes solely based on bike pacing.
- I will stop asking my athletes to do “all-out” or “best average” sets.
- Everytime my athletes have a bad race, I will remind them that there isn’t such a thing as failure, just feedback.
- I will make an effort to read more books about training. When reading those books, I will look for what makes them unique and individual, instead of looking for their common points.
- I will watch Full Metal Jacket at least once a week, always searching for new ways to apply the teachings of the film to my coaching practice.
- I have come to realize that having myself reply to the emails I get from athletes is a practice that belongs in the 20th century. I will now have an apprentice coach to reply to the emails like it was me. Interested coaches should apply to the position and screening will go on until the position is filled. The tuition fees for this apprenticeship will be low, as to allow anyone to have the priviledge of learning from me.
- I will constantly remind myself that triathlon coaching is a business, and that as such, the customer is always right.
- I will take every opportunity to mention the names of the pro athletes I coach, only because it fills me with pride to work with such talented people.
- In order to fulfill the requirements to become an Elite Level Coach, I will write articles and post on Forums demonstrating this new approach to triathlon training.

This is just a small part of all the changes I will be making to my coaching in the following months. It will be a hard process, but I am sure a new, better Coach Paulo will emerge from this.