On simplicity

Recently, I was reading Daniel Kaheman’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow.’ The book deals mostly with what Kaheman refers to as system 1 and 2 and their interactions. To simplify, system 1 deals with the things we do automatically (driving on a desert highway), whereas system 2 focuses on tasks that require some brain effort (going around place de l’etoile in Paris). What does this have to do with triahlon, or with sports in general?

Have you ever seen top swimmers glide in the pool? They seem to move through the water effortlessly, and usually in stark contrast with beginners who seem to expand considerable energy to just stay afloat. A lot of the work we do in training is to acquire automatisms. Although it is somewhat more true with swimming than with cycling and running, essentially due to the more technical aspects of the former, it still applies to the latter. A lot of work is required to make swimming part of the your system 1, when you don’t have to think so hard about arm stroke / kick coordination, head rotation, hand entry, catch, pull etc.

That brings me to the main point of this post: simplicity. One of the comments coaches frequently hear is: well, this week looks awfully similar to last week. Invariably, some athletes just decide to bail because things ‘don’t change enough.’ Endurance sports are inherently repetitive. And you are going to have to swim/bike/run a lot to improve economy, and to get faster. There isn’t any easy way around it, although I can give you 10 links off the top of my head, telling you how to get faster (fitter, leaner, etc.) with less work, less effort, less time. I try to avoid profanities on this blog, so I will refrain from qualifying them. A few years ago, I heard Dennis Cotterell (Grant Hackett’s coach) say that he wouldn’t take any swimmers seriously before they had swum 5000km. That’s a lot of swimming. That’s a lot of tiles counting too. And that’s awfully repetitive.

The job of a coach is not to make things entertaining. It’s to make the athletes faster. If you want entertainment, I have several suggestions, none of them involving getting up early in the morning, pushing so hard that you feel a little blood and metallic taste in your mouth, or making you wonder how you’re going to walk tomorrow. Training has to remain somewhat simple. Go run 50min. Go bike 3hrs. Main set: 15x200m free on 2.45. Next week? Same thing. Week after next? Same thing. And on, and on. Add some speedwork (tempo, lactate threshold, VO2max, sprints, strides, hill repeats), but the main chunk is awfully repetitive. And simple. Provided the stimuli still yield improvements, then there aren’t any reasons to change sessions, at least not drastically. Thus the repetitive and uncomplicated nature of training. My job is more about doing the right kind of session, at the right time of the year, to identify technical flaws, to figure out when an athlete’s fatigue levels are ‘expected’ vs. worrisome, and thus, requiring me to rethink the training stimuli. But on the athlete’s side, things should be simple. So that when you go race, all you have to do is remember your race plan, and execute it. To some extent, the acronyms we see in triathlon ‘JFT’, ‘HTFU’, ‘KISS’, largely summarize what I am talking about here.

OK, I admit that this post is mostly to answer once and for all the ‘hey coach, I did these sessions already’ comments. Yep, you did. Next time you say that, I’m giving you 4x1500m as your main set in the water.


Into the next season

Ironman Hawaii just happened a few days ago. Folks Down Under are gearing up for the racing season. And most triathletes in the Northern Hemisphere are about ready to start eating tons, put on some weight, and ignore training for a while during the ‘off-season.’ As a matter of fact, I get a lot of emails around this time of the year asking ‘hey, I’m looking for a coach for 2012, would you coach me early next year after the off-season?’ Or ‘what should I do to not get fat?’ Something along these lines.

I’m often bouncing between wanting to be upfront and tell them ‘What’s that off-season you’re talking about?’, and being a little nicer and say ‘yeah sure, we can talk next year.’ When I look over my past emails, I realize that the only athletes I end up talking with later happen to be those who get the first answer. So, over the past year, I’ve decidedly turned off the filter. And it’s really for the best. I have now more athlete requests than I can handle, and I work best with athletes who are self-motivated.

So, why all this blah blah? There is no off-season! Although it’s important to take a bit of time off, with some unstructured training, shorter sessions, less intensity, taking 2 months off (because it’s cold and because people want to spend the following 2 months eating) just puts you at a huge disadvantage. I was recently reading the summary of a lecture given by Arthur Lydiard (arguably, the most successful running coach ever), in Osaka, Japan. There is no mention of an off-season per se. But he spends a great deal of time discussing the importance of endurance (for the 800m runner as much as for the marathon runner) improving running mechanics / running economy, with hill bounding, hill repeats etc. to be the best runner you can be.

What does it mean for triathletes? Use your ‘off-season’ well. Spend a couple of weeks relaxing, no structured training to speak off, shorter sessions, do social rides, but keep moving to maintain some level of activity. Spend some time figuring out what your goals are for next year, a schedule that makes sense with respect to your family and work commitments, as well as other commitments you may have. You may also work on technical aspects of your sport: what can I do to improve my swimming technique, my bike position, or my running economy? This is a good time to work on the technical aspects of the sport. If you are thinking about getting a coach, spend some time looking at what’s out there, what services are offered, ask questions (see this as a job interview, and you’re the interviewer), try to see if you two are a good match, if the programs are really individualized, or just generic stuff, the level of interaction provided, etc.

In any case, here is some food for thought about the ‘off-season.’