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Maybe ITU/Olympic racing is a different sport—but train like an ITU pro and you’ll become a better long-course racer.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
This year, like every other leading up to the Summer Olympic Games, the triathlon spotlight will train upon the top ITU athletes in the world, who are battling for the right to represent their countries in the Olympic Triathlon, which will take place Aug. 4 and 7 in London’s Hyde Park.
While many of us are familiar with this style of racing, having watched countless videos of ITU competitors performing lightning fast transitions and hurling themselves across the finish line, the fact remains the training and racing tactics of a draft-legal race are far removed from anything we’ve personally experienced as age groupers.
“It’s definitely different,” said 2008 U.S. Olympian Jarrod Shoemaker. “I would even go as far as to say that it’s a different sport. There are different energy demands across the race compared to a non-draft race. You have to train totally differently for a non-draft and a draft-legal race.”
But if there is a lesson for age-group triathletes who want a leg up on their competition, it’s that many aspects of this take-no-prisoners style of ITU racing and training are worth emulating. Not only is this discipline the pinnacle of speed, but it’s been the driving force in making the pro field faster and more competitive in every distance of triathlon.
“When you’re doing Olympic-distance racing, having to hurt like you’ve never hurt before for two hours, that really helps the threshold that you can hold at Ironman pace,” said 2010 Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae, who believes that incorporating elements of ITU-style training into her program helped her to win her world title. “And generally the best Ironman athletes are the athletes who have come from Olympic and 70.3 distances and who have that top-end speed and bring it into Ironman racing.”
So what can we learn from the premier ITU athletes and coaches about their training methods and racing tactics to make us faster age groupers? We only need to look to two-time Ironman world champion Chris McCormack to find out, as last year he became the only pro long-course athlete in history to switch to short-course, which he did as part of his bid to qualify for his country’s Olympic team. At 38 years of age, competing for an Olympic berth against athletes half his age hasn’t been easy. His best placing at a 2011 World Triathlon Series race, which is the pinnacle of ITU racing, was 26th. And while he knows that as a strong cyclist, the draft-legal ITU races of today don’t give him the same advantage as the non-draft ITU races he competed in back in the 1990s (he won the 1997 ITU World Championship), he nevertheless loves the challenge of having to regain his swimming and running speed and learning how to train for a totally different kind of triathlon.
“When you are in your late 30s, finding speed is not as simple as going to the track and running, or adding a few more swim sessions to improve your swim speed,” McCormack said. “It is about being more delicate and specific with your workloads. Injury is what will ultimately end the entire thing, so you have to be careful.”
To avoid injury, McCormack is doing a lower volume of training but is more specific about what he wants to get out of his workouts. This training, in turn, has helped him develop a kind of speed and fitness that could prove invaluable to him once he returns to long-course.
“My body shape is different now,” McCormack said. “I am much lighter, and I have developed a much higher anaerobic power position than I had previously. Endurance for me will not be an issue. If I add that now to a rebuilt engine that is a lot more high octane, I think my Ironman racing could be very, very dangerous upon return.”
[Editor’s note: Since this article was published, McCormack was left off the Australian Olympic team. He’s now switched his focus back to racing at the Ironman World Championship this October.]
Draft-legal racing in triathlon began in the mid-1990s and became the standard for the ITU in the years before triathlon’s debut as an Olympic sport at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. The switch was made to make the race more exciting for spectators and to prevent an Olympic gold medal from ever being decided by a drafting violation. (That the ITU has implemented time penalties for other violations is a whole other topic of conversation.) The change meant that super cyclists with weak swims and runs could no longer hope to ride away from the field, and it also meant that the sport slowly evolved into one where the winners had no weaknesses. Indeed, to win a men’s World Triathlon Series race today—especially in the era of Great Britain’s Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee and Spain’s Javier Gomez, who dominate the circuit—you need to be able to swim with the front pack, ride well enough to stay with a peloton prone to dangerous attacks by fierce runners (Gomez and the Brownlees) and run a sub-30-minute 10K off the bike.
But getting into that first swim pack is no easy feat. Two-time ITU world champion Javier Gomez, a compact, muscular athlete best known for running away from his competition, swims 15:42 for 1500 meters, and yet even he generally doesn’t come out of the water first. And while the bike portion of draft-legal races may seem inconsequential to spectators, given the large number of riders who stay together, Gomez and other ITU athletes say that’s hardly the case.
“You need to be a good cyclist to perform well consistently in ITU,” Gomez said, adding that the only way to run under 30 minutes off the bike is to be a strong cyclist, so you don’t pay for the constant maximum-power efforts necessary to close gaps and stay in the peloton. “Some people might think differently. But watching the races from the inside, I’m pretty sure about it.”
As the ITU has evolved, athletes have attempted to minimize any weaknesses in their swim, bike and run—something we all know we should do as age-group athletes but rarely seem to find the time or will to.
“In the past, most of us came from other sports,” said Gomez, who started out as a swimmer. “But now there are pure triathletes from the beginning, so there are less weak points and the best athletes of the new generation are fast in all three sports.”
In many European countries, in fact, fast swimmers who show promise at an early age are being trained specifically for triathlon by well-funded sports federations before they can develop the broad shoulders and upper bodies typical of swimmers.
“They’re picking up swimmers when they’ve developed skills and turning them into swim, bike and run specialists,” said Gavin Noble, one of Ireland’s top ITU athletes. “That makes a big difference, because when you have guys that are lighter, but faster swimmers, it just corresponds to an overall faster time.”
Training these younger athletes to develop the motor skills required to practice triathlon as a single sport rather than three different sports also gives them a huge advantage when it comes to transitions and other technical aspects of the race.
“If you go to a European junior champs, it’s scary to see how fast those guys can do transitions,” said Noble. “The speed at which a 15-year-old is able to transition from swim to bike now is unreal.”
In fact, 10- or 15-second transitions no longer cut it in the ITU because the top athletes are out of their wetsuits in T1 in six seconds and through T2 in four seconds, said Justin Trolle, a New Zealand ITU coach based in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Trolle also says the extreme competition within the ITU has created a rapid evolution of triathlon training and racing techniques that have essentially weeded out the less efficient through natural selection.
Ask ITU coaches how they’ve molded their athletes into top ITU competitors with no weaknesses—as well as their secrets for getting age groupers fast—and their answers might surprise you. Many contend the key to long-term development and success in triathlon is not building a bigger aerobic engine or developing raw speed, but instilling good technique in the run, bike and swim before putting in the big miles. Look at videos of Gomez’s nearly flawless swimming and running form during races and you’ll understand why. Swimming a sub-16-minute 1500 meters or running a 29:30 10K off the bike requires supreme economy. And training at the running speeds necessary to be competitive in today’s ITU races, coaches say, requires good biomechanics and an efficient stride to avoid damaging your muscles to the point of injury.
“There is more focus and awareness on all aspects of running performance, technique included, due to the increasing standards of running required to win,” said Joel Filliol, former head coach of Triathlon Canada who coached Olympic gold and silver medalist Simon Whitfield.
If you don’t perfect your running technique, contends Malcolm Brown, the running coach of the Brownlee brothers, the-odds-on favorites for gold and silver medals at this summer’s Olympics, you’ll simply put a “ceiling” on your future potential as a runner or triathlete, he said.
“Good running technique contributes to the development of endurance running potential,” he said.
A large portion of the speed work that guys are doing now is meant to build mechanical efficiency, according to Trolle, who’s worked with 2012 Olympic qualifier Sarah Groff, ITU pro Mark Fretta and who is now coaching Lauren Goldstein-Kral, a member of USA Triathlon’s Project 2016 squad.
“We’ve gotten to the point where everyone is able to run fast, but it’s the ones with the best technique who win.
“When you develop a program for anyone, technique and mechanics should be the first things that go into the program,” he added. “We focus on mechanics, then speed, then endurance. Endurance should never be the first thing, because when you go long, you don’t have time to think about technique or going fast.”
To improve running technique in his athletes, Trolle regularly videotapes them, runs them up hills and has them dragging a car tire tied to a harness behind them to increase their leg turnover and promote their forward lean and backward leg extension. While some running coaches avoid changing their athletes’ running technique, contending they will naturally adopt their most efficient form, Trolle has been able to drop Goldstein-Kral’s 10K running times by more than a minute in each of the last four years by tinkering with her stride.
Even Shoemaker, who ran cross country and track at Dartmouth College and is one of the fastest runners on the circuit, sees value in continuing to work on his run technique.
“I’ve focused a lot more on running form since college,” he said.
Greg Bennett, an Olympian and the top-ranked ITU triathlete in 2002 and 2003, says perfecting an efficient stride that doesn’t waste energy is one of the keys to success at any triathlon distance, from the sprint to Ironman.
“Make sure the foot lands underneath you,” he said. “Being light on the ground and creating a good feel on the ground is very important. Running well is basically the most pure form of human movement. In essence, it’s a form of dance. It’s all about timing and rhythm, hence I encourage running with music.”
To make improvements on the bike, Trolle has his ITU athletes start the season with big gear, low cadence work on hills to develop leg strength and power. That’s particularly important for those athletes with weak quads coming from a running background. Gomez subscribes to the same training philosophy, saying big gear work on the bike, running hill repeats and doing other strength exercises in the gym specific to the swim, bike and run are far more important to him “than just doing miles and miles” in keeping him fast.
“The run off the bike is not like a track and field race,” he contended. “You need some specific muscles to be able to hold the position and be fast.”
On the bike, failing to bridge a gap or catch up to the peloton after a sharp turn can make or break a race, so ITU athletes also work on maximizing the amount of force they can apply to the pedals for short periods of time.
“ITU training is all about sprint training on the bike,” said Shoemaker, who regularly works on his maximum power in the off-season by doing criterium races and fast-paced group rides. “You’re trying to put out as much power as you can for a minute and then recover as fast as you can. Whereas when you’re training for non-draft races, your training is more about how much you can sustain for a long period of time without wearing yourself down. If you look at the power files for all of us who are racing ITU, it’s up and down and up and down. And if you look at power files for a non-draft race, ideally it’s a flat line.”
Age groupers should take note, though, that the ability to generate maximum power can pay big dividends in a non-drafting race course with lots of turns.
“Peak power makes a huge difference, even in non-drafting races,” said Trolle, noting that losing five seconds around every turn because it takes 10 seconds, rather than five, to get up to maximum speed means you’ve lost more than several minutes in a 40K bike course with 30 turns. Many ITU athletes, including Noble, train with a power meter and can generate 1,000 watts or more for 10-second sprints. To improve their maximum power on the trainer, they’ll do a set of 3 x 20-minute intervals at their threshold wattage, much like an age grouper training for a non-draft race, but within those 20 minutes they’ll perform “continuous blocks of three minutes just below threshold and two minutes above threshold or a shorter interval of 3 x 12 minutes as two minutes and 45 seconds steady state followed by 15 seconds maximum sprint,” Noble said. “The key is that you are dipping in and out of your anaerobic system, producing lactate and then trying to clear it while still riding in an upper aerobic zone.”
For swimming workouts, lots of above threshold intervals are de rigueur for ITU athletes who need flat-out speed to make it to the first turn buoy either ahead of or with the main pack.
“One of the things that’s overlooked by age groupers is getting out fast,” Shoemaker said. “If you can get out fast in the swim, if you’re one of the top-10 guys around the first buoy, you’re not in that big melee of people coming around, and you’re not expending as much energy because you’ve got clean water. So those people tend to get further ahead and end up coming out of the water feeling not as beat up, feeling a little fresher. I think that’s one of the biggest things that is overlooked—that 200-meter speed to get to the first buoy.”
One key workout many ITU athletes do to test their ability to swim flat out, then continue at a high pace, is an all-out 200-meter free, followed by a minute rest and then an 800-meter free time trial.
“Once positioned,” Bennett said, “the rest of the swim is about holding your position, getting right behind the swimmer in front and getting the best draft possible.”
To get her athletes used to these rough open-water swims—swims that produce carnage similar to what is felt in big Ironman and non-drafting races—former ITU world champion and coach Siri Lindley often forces her athletes to swim distance sets five to a lane, side by side.
“You’ve got to be aggressive,” said Lindley, who coached Susan Williams to a bronze medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics. “With 75 men or women, it gets incredibly aggressive. Just going up and down the pool in your own lane isn’t going to prepare you for what you’re up against in those races.”
With only seconds separating the first five places in most ITU races, Lindley and other top coaches also try to instill mental toughness and aggression in their athletes by regularly putting them in the hurt locker in training.
“You’ve got to experience it in training, because feeling it for the first time in a race is going to freak you out,” Lindley said. “But if you’ve felt this feeling before and you know you’re not going to drop dead, then you know it’s just, ‘This is what it feels like when you’re pushing yourself to the limit.’ Some people panic when they’re hurting that much. So it’s also finding a way to stay calm in your pain, if that makes sense.”
Developing the mental fortitude to push while tolerating the extreme pain of lactate pooling in their muscles is key for ITU athletes who need to train and race at the edge of their aerobic and anaerobic limits.
“The goal is when they cross that finish line, there’s nothing left in the tank, and that’s pretty much why we see those guys collapse at the finish line in the ITU races,” Trolle said. “I mean most of them look worse than the guys finishing Ironman when they get across the line. Any athlete that crosses the finish line and says, ‘Wow I feel great,’ probably didn’t do enough speed. If you cross the finish line and there’s nothing left, you’ve probably got it about right.”
To train for this type of exhaustion, ITU pros such as Shoemaker like to jump into short, extremely painful running and cycling races.
“When I race Carlsbad [the Carlsbad 5000, a 5K race], my goal is to have 14 minutes of pain,” he said. “And in some of the cycling races I jump into it’s the same thing.”
These races allow him to “just to focus on that suffering and speed that you can’t really do in training.”
But there’s more to a successful ITU athlete than mental toughness—there’s also conditioning.
“In terms of how the ITU pros race, the main thing to take away is that it’s indeed a race versus others, as compared to pacing out an effort over the course, and in order to achieve that level requires a tremendous level of conditioning,” Filliol said.
To reach that level of fitness—fitness that also can be put to good use in non-drafting and long-course races—ITU athletes and coaches alike admit that there are no real secrets. It’s just a lot of hard work with the right amount of recovery.
Gomez, for example, builds his engine with intervals such as 6 x 1500 meters at 10K race pace on the track, with two minutes rest in between each interval—a workout that is extremely tough but isn’t anything mysterious or groundbreaking.
“We’re always curious. We always want to know what the other guys are doing. But when we’re training in the same location, we end up realizing we’re all doing the same sort of stuff,” Noble said. “There’s no magic session that some guys do that someone else doesn’t. It comes down to an intelligent coach who knows when to back an athlete off. It comes down to knowing yourself, how many years you’ve been able to put it together without being injured.”
Filliol, who from 2009 to 2011 was the head coach for British Triathlon, where he worked with the Brownlee brothers and ITU superstars Helen Jenkins and Tim Don, agrees: “The essentials to being successful that anyone can take away are believing in oneself, doing the work and backing it up daily, and making good decisions about what is really important along the process. It’s that simple.”