The most important training differences between my age-grouper friends and my pro friends
One fateful summer day in 2010, while visiting my mom in Bend, Ore., I was connected with a local pro named Matt Lieto. After my numerous eager texts, he agreed to meet me for a ride. I was a young (well … 30), scrappy, exuberant and still mostly bare-chested age-grouper, fresh to the sport and determined to prove myself.
I rolled up on my unbranded eBay aluminum road bike with downtube shifters and clip-on aerobars wearing a sleeveless jersey, arm warmers and, of course, aviators. Years later Matt told me that when he saw me, he shook his head in dread of the next 3–4 hours and tried to text his buddy Chris, who was going to ride with us, to tell him to just look the other way and roll past us. Unfortunately for Chris, he rolled up just moments later.
I was pretty amped and the early pace felt remarkably easy. Like crazy easy. Being new to the group, I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, so I just sat patiently on their wheels. I remember thinking, these guys are pros? Oh my God I’m going to own this sport! Let it rain, bitches!
About 60 minutes later, as my patience waned and I was about to say, “forget this” and make my move, we turned a corner and started climbing. Ten minutes into the climb I was like, “All good, I can hang.” At 15 minutes, “OK, this doesn’t feel nice.” Twenty minutes, “Oh God what is happening.” At 22 minutes, 42 seconds, full mental and physical explosion, boom! Fifteen minutes later, I paperboy-crested the climb while Matt, waiting patiently, told me “good job, man,” in a way that sounded sincere and non-patronizing, but knowing him now, it probably was. We rolled back down and I didn’t worry about riding too easy the rest of the way.
Now I’m old (36), an experienced pro with plenty of hair on my chest, a bit on my shoulders and soon to be my back most likely. I have dozens of age-grouper fans, friends and readers of this column who ask me all the time about pro training advice.
I usually avoid those questions because I’m not a coach and I don’t have any education or “knowledge” in physiology or exercise science. But through trial and error and lots of hours with my coach, Matt Dixon of Purplepatch Fitness, I have learned a ton since those age-grouper days about what it takes to train at the highest level. And boiled down, here are the simplest, non-scientific differences between how age-groupers and pros train:
Rules #1, 2 and 3: Please, for the love of God, go way easier on your easy days. Generally speaking, I avoid doing easy workouts with age-groupers. Don’t get me wrong, I love my age-group buds! (Wassup, fellas!) I don’t mean to be a jerk, but damn y’all go way too hard on your easy days. Based on my experience as an age-grouper, this might be because you don’t train as often, so you feel that every session needs to be hard, or maybe when you train with me or another pro, you’re excited and want to prove yourself. I used to be there and used to make this same mistake, so I understand, but that doesn’t make it right!
I don’t know the science behind why it’s better to have hard days clearly delineated from easy days, but my brain looks at it like this: Your race is one day. It’s not the Tour de France. You’re looking for one big effort on one single day. To me, it makes some logical sense to try to make big training efforts as big as possible and make double absolute sure, no doubt in your mind that the days between those efforts don’t take away from the next big day.
Just like when I first rode with Matt and Chris, the pros that I train with now know and do this very well. When we go hard, we go hard, but when we go easy, we go really, really, really freaking easy. In case it helps, below is a reference of the differences between my typical half-Ironman race paces and my easy day paces.
So when I ride less than 180 watts, that’s less than 55 percent of my half-Ironman power. I’m a big guy, so that’s pretty slow. It alarms the age-groupers I train with. It annoys them. They yo-yo off the front as I let them go, then they look back and wonder if my bike broke. Nope, I’m just taking it easy, dude! Sometimes I’m so bored and I don’t want to have to go over any hills whatsoever so I just ride on the trainer at 100 watts and watch TV or write a Triathlete magazine column. It’s literally easier than a walk. The same thing goes with running and swimming.
Half-Ironman race pace: 1:15–1:20 / 100m
Easy day: 1:40–2:00 / 100m
Half-Ironman race pace: 320–340 watts
Easy day: 100–180 watts
Half-Ironman race pace: 5:15–5:30 / mile
Easy day: 7:30–8:30 / mile
Rule #4: Change the plan when your body/mind isn’t up to it. Most people view their training plans as golden, perfectly written prescriptions to accomplish their goals. The only bummer is that your training plan knows nothing about how you’re doing and what the hell is going on with your body and mind. If there’s one thing I’ve changed since my age-grouper days (besides going easy), it’s adapting my plan to how I feel on the day. If I have a big session and I feel run down, I rest and push it to the next day or skip it all together. Yes, this is really hard because I like to think that I’m Chuck Norris and nothing is going to stop me from finishing this workout and/or defeating the enemy. But unfortunately I’m not Chuck Norris, so it’s better sometimes if I just wuss out a little bit.
No matter who your coach is or what your goals are, no training plan is perfect, and some of the art of experience is knowing when your physical and mental signals are requiring a change versus pushing through. But most age-groupers err on the side of pushing through when they should err on the side of chilling out. Of course, changing your plan can go the other way too. If the sun is out, and my legs are clicking, I might squeeze in tomorrow’s work today, do an extra interval or two, push the pace past what is prescribed, and/or defeat the bad guy. But having that mental flexibility is key.
Rule #5: Do strength stuff. To be an awesome triathlete, you should do three sets of max bicep curls and bench press every other day. Just kidding, but you should have a coach, trainer or a physical therapist prescribe specific strength routines to address your needs and weaknesses, which may or may not include bicep curls. One thing I never took seriously when I was younger was the importance of my strength routine. I always felt like it was “optional” if I had the time—the lowest priority. But now I believe it’s worth it to skip a swim, bike or run if it means I won’t get in my 2–3 strength sessions a week. Unless you’re training a super limited number of hours, strength stuff should be part of the prescription. Don’t skip it!
Rule #6: Sleep more. The biggest difference between a typical pro and age-grouper training plan is something that’s not even on the plan—sleep. This one is the hardest to come by for most age-groupers who are balancing full-time jobs with family and training. I struggle with this daily between my son Jude, my wife Lauren and Picky Bars. But as I’ve aged and gained experience, I’ve made sleep the priority, even if it means missing a session. I figure if my body needs to sleep, it’s the most important training thing I can do. I try my hardest to go to bed early and not set an alarm most nights. If I wake up in time for an early team swim practice, great. If I don’t, then it’s skipped or I swim solo later because my body needed the rest. s