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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fascia & the whole ball of wax conundrum

Having just re-read the excellent Men's Health article on connective tissue: I am again confronted with the fascinating & somewhat mystifying process of "coaching" elastic return. Clearly functional mimicking is the way to go - but evaluation specifically (quantifying) becomes a bear. Understanding that good running implies a 5 to 1 ratio of elastic return to power & knowing that 50 plus % of elastic energy in running is stored, mid stance, in the achilles tendon & plantar fascia is eye-opening. It forces all run coaches to see whether plyometrics & other elastic encouragement drills have a dramatic effect on endurance running ability - especially when it comes to the risk reward issues of this "intense" joint/tendon/ligament training for the marathon & Ironman. I have of course had good results with milers & half milers (or 800m & 1500m runners for you more advanced folk!), but although my "slower" runners have had great improvement in their 5 & 10km times, I am still unsure whether the smaller range of motion, less intense drills I have done for the longer events, have produced worthwhile results. Certainly no one has been injured & I have not done an experiment where I nail down the other larger variables, like endurance training.

Thoughts/references anyone?

Strange this entry started off with a rather more esoteric coaching question - How does the athlete & coach blend & manage training that meets the demands of competition for each specific athlete when considering the mental, emotional & spiritual component on the one side & the central, peripheral, brain/spinal & endocrine component on the other? See diagram above

Monday, September 28, 2009

Running an ultramarathon

I recently had a fellow coach in Australia ask me a question, that after I answered, I figured may be of value to a wider audience: "I have been reading your books and planning my ultra marathoner's preparation for a 100 mile event. In your experience what are the key areas (mechanically, physically or mentally) that the ultra marathoner should be working on, or the key areas that make the difference between a good day and a great day?"

· Mechanically I think the high cadence, low leg carriage, heel striking shuffle is key
· Physically it’s all about muscle endurance – the run/walk method rules in this distance race. Never running more than 10min at a time, helps with fat metab, vascular reset & lowers overall HR considerably & many more benefits. Must train like this also. Functional muscle endurance work essential
· Here’s where it ALL happens – very, very few individuals can actually train sufficiently for a 100 mile foot race – there are simply not enough hours in the day of the average person who has a full time job! So in these races it comes down to a management of self, a controlling of emotion. It’s very hard to go out conservatively enough for the younger racer & they shoot themselves in the foot in the 1st 30 miles. There is also no such thing as a “perfect” day out there – every race will have tough patches & the neophyte expecting everything to go according to plan is in for a rude awakening. The mantra becomes, “You will have bad patches & they will pass”. Training an ultra runner to deal with the mental emotional demands of competition is essential – visualization, manipulating & habituating internal dialogue & massive preparation that ensures an answer to every eventuality, even the ones that are not predictable is essential. Feeling ready, excited & confident is what is required in order for the athlete to reach beyond their logical capabilities on race day. It’s ALL about attitude. These races almost always take the athlete to a place of altered consciousness beyond logic & a fair amount of trust in their coach, training & self is crucial to a good performance on the day. It becomes necessary to define for themselves, very, very clearly what a successful race would be. So often a runner is disappointed by a result that to the coach & other observers seems to be in alignment with what was being said & shown in training only to be hijacked by an unsaid, un-divulged (even to self) expectation once the run is complete.
· A 4th point that you do not mention, but that is as important as the preceding 3 is the question of logistics & planning. These races are all about prepping like for military exercise – it’s hand to hand combat with yourself out there & it requires planning down to the most minute detail. I have athletes set up a large piece of poster board & as the weeks go by, they record every detail of what needs to be done, by whom, by when & how: Foods, liquids, quantities, pace, expected arrival times at aid stations, shoes, gear (warm, cold, lubrication), weather, terrain, flashlights, aid station procedures, options (especially with foods), which pacers where, what kind of motivational tools, statements may be required by these pacers, body weight, variability expected, temperatures, quirks, superstitions, tone of voice, etc, etc, etc. Accommodation, drivers, pre & post race, travel, support team & leader – all on a time line that covers the slowest possible scenario, an okay scenario, an ideal scenario, & dream scenario. What are the deal breakers – when can you pull the athlete out. Aid station procedure based on athlete status (physical, mental, emotional). Tips, cues, cue cards, idiosyncrasies etc. It never goes according to plan, but it does not go at all without a plan!
· Finally – the trouble with these long races (& this fits in with point 3, but deserves its own billing it is so important), is that there are not really a lot of lead up races that demand the same amount of focus or preparation, nor do they give enough insight as to how training is really going. It is very challenging for an athlete not to become emotionally & mentally exhausted in the final build up phase – there is so much expectation & so much to take care of & so much that can go wrong. Work very hard on creating a sense of peace, calmness & relaxation going into the event. Have ALL the tanks full, not just the physical, for the physical can drain out through the others if they have leaks

Hope this is helpful


Thursday, September 24, 2009


I must say that although I am all too fully aware that we need to step it up in the running department, the swim was an eye-opener for me in terms of its physicality & specific demands. I'd say that we need to do a GREAT DEAL MORE WORK on training our athletes to meet the actual demands of competition in the swim. The leaders in both the men's & women's races lifted their heads out the water almost every 5 strokes - that's very specific & must demand a high level of both skills & fitness. One of those swimmers was our own Sarah Haskins who had the swim of her life to come out almost too far ahead of the pack all on her lonesome!We also need to look into having a greater section of our gene pool in the USA participate in draft legal triathlons. Sure I know it is dangerous to a certain extent, but drawing athletes from a background of time trialing on the bike, into the sport of criterium style cycling is no way to apply the law of specificity. The difference between an animal that can put out an hour of maximum constant power in an isolated setting & the requirements of the draft legal racer, being masses of pace changes over a great variety of intensities in a much more technical setting with high speed cornering, plus the tactics of bunch riding, drafting, breakaways, etc. is vast. If cycling can have its categories that need to be graduated to, why can we not work with them & accredit our athletes in the same way - in this way we can have them race knowing that they are at least riding with athletes that have acceptable cycling skills. I am convinced that a whole new type of athlete will be attracted to the sport - athletes that may provide us with talent up to the demands of a world championship triathlon bike ride. These may be athletes who love the cut & thrust of crit racing & don’t see it as a necessary evil to get to the run in a position to do well. We have good riders who can swim & run, but too few.The US has a phenomenal collegiate & national swimming infrastructure - year after year, Olympics after Olympics the USA produces incredible swim teams. This year the US even produced a one man team that took home more medals than any other country's team combined! This is both a boon & a blessing for USA triathlon: We produce the best swimmers in the sport. Trouble is that this brings athletes that were swim specialists & have somatypes more suited to the sport of swimming than triathlon. Swimmers are somewhat larger than triathletes, needing more upper body strength & mass, which is NOT a limiter in the water, but hurts the triathlete, especially on the run. Somehow we also need to source our athletes from a domain that has taught them to swim from a very young age & developed very technically proficient swimmers, who have not necessarily gone on to full time swimming as their primary sporting activity. Let's face it - quality cyclists who come to the sport & have been cyclists for a while almost never make it to the top. I say almost, not because I know someone who has, but someone probably has! Many swimmers have made great triathletes, but in almost all cases their run has been a limiter to some extent. Similar to cyclists, but not quite as definitive are the runners. If they have not learned to swim effectively at an early age & developed a feel for the water, they are often doomed to be 2nd pack swimmers at best & spend their careers playing catch up on the bike, hoping the pack comes together & there are no significant breakaways up front. This in turn commonly leads to these “runners” not having as much run left after the herculean efforts required to make up lost time on the bike.
If we can create natural swimmers & runners with a fearless mindset (for the bike), we can develop the bike skills a little later
Finally the question then becomes: “Where do we find world beaters?” So far the answer seems two-fold:
· Create a situation/culture where triathlon is not a sport graduated to, like with so many of today’s top athletes who came from some other specialty, but rather a primary choice made by youngsters when they would have chosen football, basketball, swimming, etc. Athletes like Hunter Kemper & Matty Reed come to mind. There are about 5 such top early specialisers in the junior & U23 ranks that I know of currently – we need to ALL do our best to motivate kids to take up the sport. This seems much more common in Australia, a triathlon powerhouse, than here in the USA. This would mean introducing things like a more “professional” collegiate triathlon scene, complete with recruiting & scholarships. The bigwigs tell me that this may be the case as soon as 2012 for women—that would rock! Imagine our top collegiate coaches coaching these athletes as swimmers & runners – bring on the medals. Develop triathlon as a bigger school sport, like cross country or track. The sport grew from IM & many of the top performers today are graduates of the Olympic/ITU discipline – top tri names like Michele Jones, Macca & Sam McGlone are but a few. Trouble is kids should not be drawn to these longer races too early, but rather start in the sport much younger in the short races – develop their skills & love of the sport & then move on later to the longer races. It is time to lay down the age old grudge against draft legal racing – there is room for both & ultimately I believe that the draft legal short distance triathlon will ultimately help the US regain its top spot in the long distance races, especially IM.
· Source from multi-disciplinary sports that have swimming & running as part of their culture. The only one that comes readily to mind for me is surf lifesaving, which seems to be the source of some of Australia’s triathletes & our current Olympic champion, Jan Frodeno. Here’s what he had to say before his victory in Beijing in this regard: “I come from a swimming and surf-lifesaving background. Really it was the 2000 Olympic race that inspired me a lot and when someone said to me as a joke "hey, why don't you try a triathlon?" I thought why not and after my first race I was hooked!” (From Alistair Brownlee, current World Champion & World #1, was a swimmer & runner from a very early age
Hmmnn! Now I’m thinking too much again about how to inspire coaches to step their game up one more time; again & again!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

vitamin D

Check this out:

Picture of 2000 Olympic Champion & 2008 Silver Medalist, Simon Whitfield just prior to the start of the 2009 world triathlon championships on the Gold Coast of Australia.
Whoa there is SO much going on in the world of endurance sports. My areas of greatest interest - distance running & triathlon have had plenty to talk about.

The rivalry between Sammy & Haile in Berlin that failed to materialize, the heat at that race that did not stop Haile from being on pace for over 30km of the 42.2 & the dramatic drop of pace that took him from a 2:03:33 possible world record to "only" a 2:06.

Then there is the ongoing despicable behavior of the South African Athletics Federation, ASA (Athletics South Africa), as regards the matter of Caster Semenya, the young girl who won the 800m at the world champs. She caused eyebrows to be raised after her world leading time earlier in the year. ASA was asked to look into it by the international governing body, (IAAF). They lied & said they had not & when the IAAF did the testing, ASA accused them & the world of being racist. Turns out the president of ASA was lying all along & that tests had been done & the poor kid should never have been allowed to participate in the 1st place. The IAAF messed up by leaking information that was supposed to be doctor patient privilege. Horrible - the biggest loser is now the poor athlete; she may never compete again & the emotional damage could be immeasurable. Turns out the tests, as far as the experts are concerned, were a relatively simple affair.

Then we had the world triathlon championships, where I am sad to say the USA did not bring back a single medal. 2012 is rapidly approaching & those role players involved (myself included) had better get our butts in gear. I know the athletes are working really hard, (& so too the support entities) & as of yet this is not enough.

More on this next time.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A thinking man's game? Perhaps not

Spending 10 days with triathletes of varying ability, from world class to their countries best, but somewhat beginners still, I have wondered about learning & skills acquisition, both mentally & physically.
When it comes to their training, in a perfect world, most endurance athletes are considered by their coaches & themselves as being methodical. In my empirical experience nothing could be further from the truth. Both running & triathlon require some significant skills development. This is hopefully done in the tried & tested pedagogic method of setting a purpose for a workout or skills session, breaking it up into its separate parts, then learning those separate parts & finally putting it all together in sequence repeatedly until it becomes automatic.
We learn 1st automatically & instinctively as a response to the demands of our event – then as those demands evolve, so hopefully do we. Of course there are those who carefully study what we do & through science, physics, debate & thought come up with possible models by which we can do things more effectively. Then the athlete faces a daunting task; unlearn what was learned without thought through thoughtful, cognitive processes. This unlearning is best done with a “replacement” mindset – i.e. replace the existing behavior with the new (& hopefully better) behavior & then have the patience to accept a period of decreased effectiveness while habituating the new skill set & then with a little luck come out the other end a better athlete.
Good athletes allow themselves to be open to constant learning – it is a natural process. Even habituated skills get better each time we use them, especially under pressure. Like peeling the layers off an onion, we can only get to deeper realizations about our physical ability mentally, by experiencing & then revisiting our experience after the fact. Here video & photography are very useful, as we cannot always trust what we feel, but video (in slomo) does not lie! Great athletes have a hard time teaching what came “naturally” to them. I use parentheses, because it really was quite a formal, but perhaps unconscious effort on their part to get that good. Some have been lucky to have great conscious thinkers for mentors or coaches who took them along the journey with great care & attention to the processes of learning.
The process of “making automatic” is an interesting one – keen, but inexperienced coaches try to create rules for each process & then teach these rules & often young athletes learn these rules with great fervor & are left in competition trying to remember the rules for each situation without allowing habitually learned responses to show up automatically. This is also a product of anxiety – you can literally see an athlete thinking in competition – a fatal flaw! True habituated skills acquisition actually makes the conscious mind emptier. This is the true meaning of the sayings: “I just knew it. I had a gut feeling. I stayed out of my own way. I got out of my head. I just went on auto-pilot.”
Great athletes can give reasons for why they worked their magic at a certain time. The truth is they think this after the fact when they go through their performance in their mind. When Tiger Woods was asked what he thought of the phenomenon that he is, his answer was both astute & revealing. He said that he is busy with the process of being a golfer & not observing what it is to be a golfer – a BIG difference.