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We tapped three of the top coaches in the sport, who are all bringing contender-level talent to this year’s Ironman 70.3 World Championship on Sept. 8, to talk about what it takes to be successful on the Vegas course and offer rare insight into how they prep their athletes for podium success at the half-iron distance.
This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Triathlete magazine.
The Tucson-based coach of 15-plus years brings perhaps the strongest contingent to Vegas this year, with Tim O’Donnell, Heather Jackson, T.J. Tollakson and Matty Reed—all top contenders for the half-Ironman world title.
Coach to some of the sport’s top names—Linsey Corbin, Meredith Kessler, Chris Lieto and Jesse Thomas—Dixon of Purplepatch Fitness is known for his progressive, holistic approach to training and for coining enough new training-related phrases to form a “Dixon-ary” (Monkey’s Knuckle: the last interval of the main set). Two athletes from his squad to watch in Vegas: Emma-Kate Lidbury and Sarah Piampiano.
Head coach of LifeSport Coaching, Watson has guided numerous athletes to world championships, Ironman wins and Olympic gold with Simon Whitfield. Two of Watson’s athletes, fellow Canadians Brent McMahon, ITU star and winner of this year’s Ironman 70.3 St. George, and 70.3 specialist Magali Tisseyre, have sights set on the Vegas titles.
On Vegas-specific preparation
Cliff: I’ve always been a big believer in the specific preparation for that course. You’re dealing with the heat but you’re also dealing with a tougher course and the run, which is a really interesting run. It’s something that I’ve definitely taken into the training—finding the same grades, and making sure that we can run well all the way through the half-marathon.
Lance: I think athletes really have to prepare to be back-half strong for this bike course, to make sure that they have legs left for that run, because that run is basically three two-mile hill intervals. It’s going to be running hills, but it’s also training to run efficiently and economically on the downhill, and building some resilience in the legs.
Matt: Vegas favors the strong over the fast. You have to be strong to be successful here. The one mistake that I think many athletes of all levels make on the run course is that they run up the hill a little too hard and then try to recover on the downhill—there is a lot of time to be had if you just control the hill a little bit. It requires training on specific terrain. You can’t just go and do it and say, ‘I’m going to attack the downhill’ without being prepared. There’s a real opportunity there.
Lance: I think that the swim plays a much greater role in these races where things tend to get a lot more spread out. There may be a couple of athletes who may come through—Sebastian Kienle was a good example last year of being a bit off pace for the swim—but if you’re out of contact for the swim, unless you’re an absolutely dominant cyclist, it’s pretty hard to get back. And this swim is pretty challenging, because it’s not only non-wetsuit, it is like thick soup and you can’t see in front of your face. A non-swimmer is going to pay the price.
Matt: Absolutely, there are a couple of athletes who are ‘non-swimmers’ that have potential to come through—labeling Heather Jackson as a ‘non-swimmer’ is not very fair, but Heather is someone who could do very well on this course. You’re going to have to be a good swimmer, biker and runner—that’s the way the sport is coming. Anyone that’s not balanced is going to have a difficult time.
Cliff: I’m really intrigued with the women’s field—the Nordens, the Luxfords, the Riveros, there’s a really interesting amount of ITU girls that are coming across.
Matt: I think it’s excellent for the sport, and I want those girls to be there. There seems to be this aura around short-course athletes coming to long course—like all of them are just going to come up and dominate, and that’s just not the case. It’s forcing the long-course girls to step up their game a little bit, but also emotionally be ready to realize that they can race against these girls. I was really proud of Meredith [Kessler] in St. George because she had absolutely no fear of any of the competitors. We need to embrace the fact that it’s going to be a more balanced sport.
Lance: It’s been interesting to watch which sort of short-course athletes successfully make the transition like [Michael] Raelert, and those who maybe struggle a little bit more and just don’t have the strength. They are the speed versus the strength athletes. The one thing about ITU-style racing is there is incredible depth there, there are a lot of very fine athletes so it’s neat to see them come up and fill up the rankings. It’s learning a new craft, racing long, and there are years of adaptation and strength that happen as well, so these gals just can’t go and concede those spots.
On racing by feel versus metrics
Lance: I definitely love athletes to have a power meter, and, like any piece of technology I always emphasize that it’s one piece of information that you have to overlay with everything else that’s going on. There’s definitely the tactical element as well, so with these rollers, there’s times when you want to put a ceiling on the athletes as well—try not to punch over the top of the hill at 900 watts if you can avoid it, try to distribute your efforts—but there’s also times tactically at worlds where you just have to take a risk and ignore it a little bit too. Do you look at your power meter or do you just throw your heart over the hill and race? I think at worlds you have to temper both. You can’t be a fool but also, like Pete Jacobs last year in Kona, he saw he was pushing more watts than he had ever done in training and he just kind of went with it because he was feeling it that day.
Matt: It’s important in training to coach athletes to look inward and see how they’re feeling—that’s going to be the primary decision maker in a world championship or in a big race. We train really consistently on power—I like athletes to use power on the day, but I don’t force them into a box. Ultimately, in a half-Ironman race it’s a dynamic environment and you’re going to have to be able to make decisions based on how you’re feeling or what’s going on up the road or around you—decisions not based solely on a number of work output.
Cliff: I am a huge ‘feel’ coach—I love my athletes to develop that ability to race off feel. But to learn pacing, power is a good guideline, and then you can get to a point where you know what a certain effort feels like—Sam McGlone raced a large part of her career without power, and at Ironman Brazil Tim O’Donnell didn’t have a power meter on the bike at all. With Heather we’ve used it a little—she’s definitely a ‘feel’ athlete—but it’s helped her mature as an athlete. It can act as a kind of governor and you can have a bit more of a calculated race.
Matt: Riding 56 miles still takes a certain amount of pacing, and many athletes ride the first 30–40 kilometers too aggressively and then two days later they reflect back on it and don’t have good information. One of my athletes, Jesse Thomas, raced Oceanside this year and was beaten by Andy Potts in a sprint at the end. When we assessed his power file afterward, over the course of the 56 miles he spent 10 seconds or more at about 400 watts more than 50 times during that ride. Any time there was a little stretch in the rubber band, he’d push on the pedals really hard, costing him a lot of energy. So the next time he went to race, at Wildflower, he raced a much smarter race. It’s an interesting case of using raw, objective data. But by the time they get to Vegas you want them relying on feeling.
On the best taper approach
Matt: I try to do a mini block in the last 10–14 days where they do a fair amount of work and then drop them off the last few days. I prefer to get rid of the fatigue early and then talk about a sharpening mini block of work. There’s no magic recipe. I think many athletes do a lot of ‘validation workouts,’ and I really try to teach athletes to have the confidence to recover.
Lance: I’ve always felt like there are two different types of athletes: the diesel-type aerobic engine athletes and then the thoroughbred, the speed athletes. I either do a front-end taper or a back-end taper, depending on the athlete. We will observe how they come out of recovery blocks in training, when they feel good. If they take a rest week in training and they come back and they’re on fire the first couple of days back, it means they will respond well to being rested, whereas some athletes will find if they take that recovery week, their first three to four days back feel terrible, but then after a week of training they start to feel good again, so we try to work out that routine and mimic that as they go into their A race.
Cliff: Some people do really well coming down from a lot of load—that standardized dropping, dropping kind of taper; others do kind of a roller-coaster—a bump up, a bump down. Like Lance said, a lot of it has to do with being attentive to how they feel coming off recovery blocks and when they feel good. The big thing about the taper is the ability to be able to truly rest, especially the mind—the mental aspect is the biggest thing. You need to have periods of true downtime where you can really turn off the brain. I get into the whole Buddhist mentality—see what your body gives you, let it go, let it flow.
Matt: I try to de-emphasize winning when you go to a race like Vegas. It’s all about maximizing your athletes’ performance.
Cliff: I agree, it’s all about process. You’ve just gotta make sure they’re ready. I think people get too caught up in winning. You’ve got to focus on the execution and the process, and the outcome will be what it is.
Lance: With my athletes, we’ll talk about who the players are—I think you have to know their skillsets—there is a tactical dynamic they have to be aware of. As we move closer to the race that kind of conversation is ceased and then the final mental prep for the race is just executing a smooth race on that course and appropriating your focus and your energy on that course. Learning to win is not something we can tell them in the week of the race; it’s the net accumulation of the training and experience.
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