Exclusive Excerpt: The Triathlete’s Guide To Peak Performance

The e-book will give you a look at a unique training philosophy, teach you how to get mentally tougher, and more.

Photo: Nils Nilsen

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If you’re looking for ways to take your training and racing up a level, The Triathlete’s Guide to Peak Performance e-book is your resource. The editors of Inside Triathlon have pulled together the most informative training content from the magazine for this e-book. It is filled with insight into the training and racing secrets used by the sport’s most successful athletes and coaches, such as Craig Alexander and Brett Sutton, that can help you train smarter and harder to break your own records.

Read two excerpts below and learn how to purchase The Triathlete’s Guide to Peak Performance at Insidetriathlon.com/peakperformance.

Checking Your Intensity

Coach Neal Henderson says your easy days are too hard and your hard days are too easy.

By Aaron Hersh, Inside Triathlon contributing editor

Neal Henderson has successfully coached a wide variety of athletes, triathletes and cyclists ranging from age groupers to Olympians by sticking to a fundamental training philosophy—one he believes to be the key to endurance performance. Contributing editor Aaron Hersh interviewed Henderson, who is the director of sport science at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine in Colorado and owner of Apex Coaching, on this philosophy and how it can be used to improve any athlete’s performance. The following is a sampling of their conversation.

The philosophy

The objective of all training is to achieve the greatest level of adaptation, not to become the most tired. Many times people train to get tired or to burn calories. Go ahead and burn calories if you want to work out and lose weight. That’s all well and good, but if you’re a high-performance athlete, whether your definition of high performance is finishing your first Olympic-distance race or trying to win the Ironman World Championship, the best way to achieve your goal is to have an adaptive response to training, which results in improvement, not to simply do more training. You want to do training that has an effect. There are some consistent themes in the way the most successful athletes train, and that’s really about a polarization of effort—workouts are either extremely easy or extremely hard, with almost no training in the middle, and that’s the crux of my philosophy.

Draw boundaries

The first step in creating an appropriately polarized training plan is evaluating the athlete in some objective way. Some of the standard laboratory-type tests I use often include a lactate profile test, occasionally a VO2max test, and an oxygen utilization test to find the mix of carbohydrates and fats an athlete uses for fuel at various intensities. In some cases, we’ll look into less commonly measured things, such as anaerobic power. The lab testing is typically done at the very beginning of the season, or when I start working with the athlete, and then three or four months later, to assess change.

The next part after gathering an athlete’s physiological capabilities is to look at field responses. We perform tests similar to the lab protocols, but we’re out cycling or running on the road. For example, it’s typical that we would do a lactate profile and VO2max test both on the bicycle and in the lab, and then just the lactate profile test while running. We see clear differences in the threshold and heart rates between the two sports, so we conduct tests for both. To conduct these tests outside the lab, we need to have some objective measure of power on the bicycle, usually a power meter, and we use pace or speed while running. Within several days of doing the objective lab measurements, I would have people do what we call power profiling, where we look at maximum power for five seconds, five minutes and 20 minutes. This testing procedure is espoused by Andrew Coggan, [Ph.D.,] author of “Training & Racing with a Power Meter.” Typically a five-minute power test is analogous to VO2max. The 20-minute maximal effort is analogous to the lactate threshold power determined by the laboratory testing. One difference that I have in testing procedure compared to Dr. Coggan is to have the athlete complete all testing in just one session, instead of over multiple days.

From those field tests we get some comparisons for things like an athlete’s preferred cadence on the bike. When we do the lactate profile test in a lab, everyone holds a more consistent 80 to 100 RPM, whereas when they’re out in the field they’re going to push whatever RPM, and we’re going to get an idea of what they like to use. When running, we get a look at their perceived effort, their speed, heart rate and their pace. Lot of times we’ll even do some video taping to get a look at the mechanics of how they’re moving, as well.

In most cases, there’s not going to be a dramatic difference between an athlete’s performance inside and outside the lab, but when there is, that always raises a little red flag for me. In some cases, people actually underperform in the field relative to what they’re doing in the lab. When that happens, I’m going to look at their cadence and their pacing. That’s often a lesson for the athlete. Field-testing might be something, depending on where an athlete needs to make improvements, that we do more frequently, every four to eight weeks.

If you don’t have access to a power meter or physiology lab, I recommend athletes use the simple talk test: At the sub-threshold level, your breathing is going to be accelerated but still controlled. If your breathing is on the cusp of control and you’re gasping a little bit, you’re probably above threshold. Another aspect you might find is that sub-threshold effort feels manageably hard. At the super-threshold level, you’re always bargaining and just trying to survive the interval.

We use the data from the lab and field tests to establish the athlete’s training zones. The zones used by different training systems, whether it’s Joe Friel’s “Training Bible,” Carmichael Training Systems or what we set up at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, the zones are not typically dramatically different. Where we might find some differences is in the amount of prescribed training at these different levels. I prescribe extremely hard training and extremely easy training, because it is at those extremes when the body is going to be stressed. And that’s when we are going to have the adaptations and the improvements. And ultimately, that’s what I am looking for: I want to see change. I want to see the athlete improve. I don’t want to see an athlete just be tired, or just be fit—I want them to be high performing…

The Battle Inside

Prepare your mind to get the most out of your body with these tips and experiences from Ironman champions.

By Torbjørn Sindballe, two-time ITU Long Distance world champion

I finished the bike and knew I was in for a brutal day. Stars spun wildly around my head the final 20 miles of riding as I crashed through dizzy spells and fought to remain upright. My legs were powerless and my muscles were buzzing with soreness. Every hill devoured me.

Like hitting a thumb with a hammer, my body had become numb to the constant muscle firing forced by my will power and desperate need to compete. While clawing through the pain, I had lost three minutes in the last lap. Although I was leading, my internal situation was as grim as hanging from a cliff.

I was still in the black zone when my feet started pounding the pavement. I doubted I would be able to finish. In the punishing sun and 90-degree heat, the 30 kilometers of running stretched out in front of me as might an implausible nightmare. As I passed T2 after the first 3K of running, my coach, Michael, yelled, “Twelve minutes!” The voice in my head responded, “Twelve minutes? What’s he talking about?” I was convinced my lead had shrunk considerably after my miserable last lap on the bike. A few seconds later I saw Craig “Crowie” Alexander coming out of T2, starting to chase me from 3K behind. My lead was in fact 12 minutes. Wow, even though I got the hammer, everyone else was struck harder and let up five to six minutes in the last lap. Despite the miserable state of my body, the gigantic lead knocked me into race mode again. I willed my legs to move faster. There was no jump, no spring-like feeling in my legs; I just tried to motor all I could. I had no idea why nothing clicked into gear despite taking down fluids, salts and energy to rebound.

A few kilometers into the second lap, I passed Michael again. He yelled, “Crowie is closing fast—seven minutes down.” Crowie would catch me if things stayed like this. I surged. I found a threadbare rhythm for a few kilometers and motivation from my experience that chasers usually slow down on the second lap, so if I kept pushing I had a chance. My legs were starting to cave, my quads where gone and I began sliding into the place where I feel like I’m running on big stiff painful logs of heavy wood that are driven forward from my hip without any hint of technique whatsoever. A few kilometers later my calves started to buckle and my core with it. I was running on will alone. I approached the final 10K lap and Michael’s voice rang out: “Three minutes, 10 seconds. Come on, you can do it. This is it. Come on.” Had I been functioning closer to normal, the race would have been a done deal. Not this time, however.

With 9K to go I went into what I call “the black hole.” For energy I relied on mental images of my family and all the work and sacrifice I had given in training. I focused on every tree and every turn like rungs of a ladder, prying myself along and inching through the course. I would think, “Come on. Run as hard as you can to that corner.” At first, I could keep it going for a quarter of a mile but the pain would break my concentration. Thoughts of quitting seeped in: “Stop. Sit down and have a Coke. Call it quits. Slow down.” Negative thoughts poisoned my mind. Within the final 5K I bounced between doubt that I would make it and belief that I could. A bit of breeze or a patch of shade from a tree would lift my mood for an instant, but it would always collapse a moment later. It was push, collapse, push, collapse, push. I had no idea whether Crowie was closing. Finally within 2K of the finish, I started looking back. I could not see him, but I might have missed him. The finish line approached. I looked back over and over again. No one in sight. “Keep pushing,” I told myself. I tried lifting my arms over my head as I ran up the last 100 meters to the tape, but I just couldn’t. I crossed the line: ITU long distance world champion for the second time. I sat down in the nearest chair. I rested my head in my palms and started crying. I couldn’t celebrate; I could scarcely speak. I had given everything…

For more on Henderson’s training philosophy, how to get mentally tougher and much more, read The Triathlete’s Guide to Peak Performance, by the editors of Inside Triathlon magazine.

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