Archive for Marathon Training

Triathletes: Have We Needlessly Overcomplicated Training Intensity?

"K.I.S.S."  - Just about every experienced smart person ever 

Back in the late 90s, in my very early days as a triathlete, I worked with Coach Troy Jacobson. Troy taught me a lot about how to train. One of my earliest “lessons” came when I went to one of his (well-known at the time) weekend triathlon workshops in Baltimore. The weekend began with a Friday evening gathering. It started out friendly enough - you know, the usual (slightly forced) smiles, hand shakes, and nervous chatter.

Not long into our evening however, things started to get serious. “Up on the wall,” he said - for a winner take all, wall-sit. His intent was clear: to find out who was REALLY serious about improving - who was willing to suffer and hang on until no one else was left.  (I managed to be the last one "sitting" that night on the wall. Somehow. I mean, you know….he didn't know me. And since I’d recently hired him as a coach, I wasn’t about to give in or give up. He needed to see I was ready to get to work to do whatever it was going to take).

The fun got even more serious the next day when Troy led our group out to a rather “famous” hill (to his previous campers and the local riders) for some all-out, no holds barred, bike hill repeats. It was a massively steep hill that was about 200-300 yards long. It’s all a little bit of a blur as I look back, but I have vivid memories of three things (beyond that I suffered immeasurably):

The first was Troy speaking to the group beforehand with a very serious tone – everyone was nervously staring as he said “your goal today is to go as hard as you can up the hill, in the biggest gear you can turn, and then turn around and get down as fast as possible so you can do it again. Keep going until you can’t go anymore.” Naturally there were a lot of nervous laughs in the group – everyone knew ahead of time what was in store. There was no hiding.

The second thing I remember was him riding alongside of me up the hill literally screaming at the top of his lungs for me to go harder. And I mean screaming. No mercy. He spent his time during the repeats, circling up and down the hill encouraging all of the riders. (It’s worth noting that at the time, Troy was the top amateur at Ironman Hawaii and one of the best long course triathletes in the country; he'd soon become the half-iron national champ. And his strength as a triathlete was cycling. Bottom line, the guy was fit and could ride!).

Not that it matters to this blog post, but I was the last one left that day.

So what was the third thing I remember? He gathered the group together afterward and congratulated everyone, then looked at me with a grin and said, “well, Al, I guess there are some hills up in Connecticut, huh?”


Learning How To Train

That weekend taught me a lot about what it meant to go HARD. But that’s not all I learned. It also taught me about what it meant to go very easy, too.

You see, Troy had 28+ mph half-iron bike speed in his legs, but despite that bike strength, he’d also be very comfortable in an easy ride situation averaging 15 mph or so. On a flat road no less. We had the occasion every so often to do these kinds of rides together in those early years, during which we discussed how important it was to keep it easy in those kinds of situations. In other words, he knew when it was time to keep it EASY and was very willing to do it.  He didn't let ego lure him into a too hard effort. And similarly he also knew when it was time to go HARD. He taught me the difference between the two, in real time.

The same lessons were emphasized in running. And in the pool.

Differentiating intensity. Making sure easy was easy. And making sure hard was….well…VERY hard.  Not just giving the concept lip service, but actually putting it into action on a daily basis.

Of course, I’d learned the value of differentiating intensity and effort from my competitive running years much earlier. The difference with triathlon is important though – with a higher overall workload with more training hours and more skills to develop, the risk of training at the wrong intensity carries with it greater consequences: Over-training, staleness, injury, and sub-par race day performances, to name a few. All of which leads me to the title of this post:

Have we made training intensity too complicated? 

Troy had a very simple system for setting up heart rate and RPE based training zones. He used the simplest possible approach, using basic colors we're all familiar with to represent THREE different intensities.

  • Blue was aerobic (which is easier than most endurance athletes think!).
  • Red was HARD (which I’d guess many have never really experienced in the way I did on that hill).
  • Gray was the dreaded "no-go" zone in between the two.

You're Getting Tired, But Are You Improving?

He and I discussed this gray zone quite a bit. This is the intensity you generally want to avoid like the plague. It’s the intensity that will tire you out and that feeds your ego, giving a short-term ego boost, but in the long run (no pun intended), isn't likely to help you reach a new, higher level of fitness and performance.

Here's a couple of examples:  (You'll have to adjust pace based on your own fitness level right now - regardless, I hope you get the point).

  • How about going out and running a 5k race and averaging a 7-minute per mile pace. Then going out in training and doing the majority of your “aerobic” running at around 8:30 pace.  Assuming that 7-min average was on a fair course and your best effort, your true z2 pace is much closer to 9:00 (or slower), than to 8:30.
  • What about going out for a group ride on a course you know you could honestly ride at ~16 to 17mph average speed and have it be truly, comfortably “aerobic,” yet the group you join has some stronger riders with egos (doesn’t every group?) so you work hard to hang on the back of the group and end up averaging 18 or 19mph for the ride. Sounds like you’d improve from that, right? I mean, you worked very hard, right?

I think it's fair to say you deserve some kudos for hanging on. You certainly went hard enough to tire yourself out. But the really important question to ask in my opinion is, did you go hard enough to truly lift your fitness to a new level after some recovery? I'd bet my wallet that Troy would say no. And I’d agree with him.

So what are a few of the most common training errors I see that are related?

  • You could guess this one: turning “aerobic” z2, into semi “tempo” or moderately hard.  (Ego, ego, blah, blah)
  • Not making easy z1, easy enough.
  • Not taking time to warm up into sessions from the start. Your first mile should be your slowest, most of the time. (The exception might be a “race specific” session where you’re working on a specific skill or ability that dictates you go harder from the beginning).
  • Letting ego or your training group dictate how you train.
  • Not running or pedaling or stroking easily enough during "recovery" intervals that separate "work" intervals.

Most folks will read this and nod their heads. “Yup, I guess that makes sense.” But very honestly, most will only give it lip service in the heat of the moment, because egos are powerful! 😊


Troy was one of the best triathletes in the country at the time I worked with him and he ended up giving me my start as a coach when he created the Triathlon Academy. He's one of so many that have taught me so much along the way.

Above all else though, he reinforced in me a concept that I’ve repeated a thousand times to others as a coach:

The hard days should be easy, and the easy days should be hard.

In other words, when you train easily on the days you should, you’re actively resting and preparing for the next hard effort, when you’ll be ready to go, precisely BECAUSE you didn’t go semi-hard the day before.

Similarly, after a truly hard day (like it was for me on that hill), you’ll be forced to go easily the day after. And because of the effort you expended, that “easy” session will actually feel hard. You’ll run “slow,” pedal “slow” and feel like you’re moving through molasses.

All you need is some smart recovery and you’re ready to get back after it, bringing everything you’ve got and getting every ounce of benefit out of the session in the process.


Sometimes Simpler IS Better

Despite all the cutting-edge graphics and charts on platforms like Training Peaks and others, all of the discussion among coaches and athletes about TSS (Training Stress Score) and the detailed zones courtesy of Andy Coggan et all, the reality is...some things don't change as much as we might thing, as time goes on. And sometimes, simpler is better.

Blue is blue. Red is red. Gray is gray.

The take home? Spend most of your time being blue. When you are red, you should be ready to rock, so don't hold back. And, avoid the gray as much as you can.

Train smart!

To your success,
~Al

FIVE Years – 22 Minutes

 

Hi Everyone...Coach Al here. I've got an important message for you today, one that is hopeful and empowering and will help you be happier and better in 2017 and beyond!

Back on October 7th of last year, I was at an Entrepreneur Magazine conference in NYC and had the good fortune of hearing some great presentations including one by writer, James Clear. (His articles on behavioral psychology, habit formation, and performance improvement are awesome - check them out!)

Mr. Clear has developed quite a following online because of his often profound and always concise writing.

James Clear articleHe wrote an article recently entitled "You're Not Good Enough To Be Disappointed."

The article resonated with me and with many others, including some colleagues in the coaching community and some smart introspective athletes I coach. If you missed it, click on the image to the left and read it.

I get frustrated, but that's just me.

The article from Mr. Clear reminded me that one of the things that has always frustrated me, whether it was teaching percussion privately back in the day, or today as a coach, is how quickly people get impatient or discouraged whenever something is "hard" for them, or when they don't get instant results from a little bit of training or work.

I'm also frustrated whenever athletes want to brush over the learning process (essential to improvement and growth, and for me, FUN), so that that they can get to the "really" good stuff, whatever that is.

Now if that sounds harsh or hits home and makes you a bit uncomfortable to read, then you have a choice. You can close the page and check out for now, or you can keep reading and see if there's something here that's worth thinking about. I hope you keep reading.

Now listen, this ISN'T about me, it's about you. I'm here to help you get better.

But at the same time, I have to be honest...

Like every one of you, when I think about how a thing might help me, I go back and relate it to my own experiences. In this case, for me it's my development as a runner. So let's start there:

I ran my first Boston marathon in 1983 as an unofficial runner (aka "back of the packer"), finishing in around 4-hours. The picture you see is from that day, hanging out with some friends right before the start. What an amazing day it was!

I finished, absolutely IN LOVE with running AND with the Boston Marathon. I wanted to come back as a qualified runner, not one that jumped in the back and ran as a scab.

So, I made a huge decision that day, vowing NOT to run another marathon until I was ready to run fast enough to qualify. (No small feat since the men's open qualifying time then was 2:50!).

Four years went by.

Injuries, miles, a lot of reading and study and research, more injuries, and dozens of road races and track sessions later, the time arrived when I believed I was ready to give qualifying a shot. I signed up for the Marine Corp Marathon as my first "official" marathon. Luckily for me, the qualifying standard had been lowered from 2:50 to 3 hours! My 3:01:20 that day in 1987, starting behind 11,000 runners, got me in.

So let me ask, would you or any of your friends take four years, F-O-U-R years... to train and improve, between their first and second marathons?

(Many runners and triathletes are so anxious and impatient, they sign up for their second marathon (or ironman) before the ink is dry on the finisher certificate from the first, without considering what it really will take to improve!).

 

FIVE YEARS - 22 minutes.

My first "official" Boston (and 2nd official marathon) followed in April, 1988. The image to the left and below is from that race. (Gotta love the fancy painters hat, right?) 🙂

1988 Boston Marathon

I will admit that when it came to training, my entire focus as a runner was on one thing: How I could run the marathon faster, and the Boston Marathon in particular.

So it was more racing, more injuries, more humbling mistakes and "learning" opportunities. Hell, the things I write about and share today with the athletes I work with, I learned the hard way over those years and the ones that followed.

I trained for 5 years before running the 2:39 at Boston in 1992 that stands today as my PR for the distance.

5 years to improve by 22 minutes.

F-I-V-E years. Twenty-two minutes.

Have you or any of your friends worked relentlessly for 5 straight years, with a laser beam focus on one race, one distance?

Some of the athletes I've worked with look back and like to say I have more talent than they do. I don't believe that. (Do you remember this? "I Don't Care How Talented You Are,")

I have no more talent than you do, but as soon as I crossed the line in Boston in 1983, I knew what I wanted - I LOVED training with a very specific goal. And I LOVE the process. I always have, and I'm sure it comes in part from my life as a musician.

If you're going to reach your true potential, you have to be willing to listen, learn, and work really hard for as long as it takes. And you have to try to avoid being frustrated, mad, or disappointed. It's that simple.

As James Clear (and Dan John) pointed out, the fact is, you haven't worked long enough to be disappointed, frustrated, or discouraged.

It's time to embrace the process and enjoy the journey, my friends.

Just keep learning and working hard. Every day's a new day.

Happy trails!
~Coach Al

Is STRAVA The Newest Coaching Tool?

 

I was chatting recently with an athlete I just started working with about an upcoming marathon she had planned to run. I am excited about the opportuity to be working with her; regardless of how talented she might be, she is eager to learn and understands that contrary to popular belief, it doesn't take gobs of talent OR huge sacrifice to pursue our dreams and goals and approach our ultimate potential.  All it really takes are four things:

  1. willingness to be honest with ourselves
  2. a never ending desire to learn
  3. a commitment to relentless, smart work 
  4. the patience to do things the right way and stay the course

As she and I discussed whether she should follow through with her plans to run the marathon, which incidently was only a few weeks away, I decided that reviewing the plan she had been following would give me a sense of her preparation, so I asked her to forward it to me.

As I looked the plan over, I instantly recognized what I believe is the most serious and common flaw of many marathon training plans.  

I have to admit I wasn't that surprised to see it - I've seen it over and over again in many different plans written by many different coaches.

What is that flaw? Simply put, it is completing that last long run too close to race day. 

When I brought up the topic of this all-too-common mistake, she replied: "...all I have to say is, it's really incredible how hard it is to undo mass perception like that!  To be honest, while it makes complete sense, I had never heard that before!  The proliferation of social media and Strava in particular, gave me some insight into how some of my friends train who also race, and they certainly haven't applied this approach." 

I thought to myself, WOW...have we reached a point where Strava, is now not only a place to race for an "FKT" or fastest known time, but is now also a coaching tool?

  • Are you an athlete who decides how you should train by watching what others do (often total strangers) and apply what you see them do, to your training?  
  • Do you assume that because someone might be faster, you should train like them?
  • Do you believe that there is a "one size fits all" when it comes to training?

It seems to me that with the popularity of Strava (and other social media), the inclination for some to follow others or see what they do and use that as coaching guidance, without really understanding how that might be helping OR hurting, is an ever increasing problem.

Who knows why others are doing what they're doing, or whether THEY might go even FASTER if they employed a different approach?

If you've shown up on race day with tired legs and performed below your potential as a result, give this topic some serious consideration. Resist the temptation to blindly trust the plan or the "expert" giving you advice.

Learn. Think. Train smart.

For a much more in-depth review of what I believe is the best overall approach for tapering into your marathon or iron distance triathlon, check out this blog post I wrote prior to last year's Boston Marathon entitled "Old Habits Die Hard." 

Happy trails!

~Coach Al