Stepping stones to balanced athletic development

"Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good. Everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home. Understand?" - Mr. Miyagi

“Coach, how are we doing? Are we on track?”

“Coach, what do we need to work on?”

These are two of the most frequent & important(!) questions we are asked as coaches. And in some sports, like Ironman triathlon, these questions are quite a bit tougher to answer than in a lot of other sports. First of all, we have 3 disciplines to keep an eye on. Second, & even more challenging - the sport that we want to assess progress in has a very limited number of competitions each year before the wheels start to fall off! Ironman isn’t like pool swimming, where an athlete can compete (& see progress) in their target event, on an almost weekly basis in the meat of the competitive season. No, even a race every 3 months is on the high end of what an Ironman athlete can tolerate. Put plainly, Ironman to Ironman is ‘a long time between drinks’. For the sake of both informed training & sanity(!) in addition to the races, we need a few ‘stepping stones’ along the way! Enter performance benchmarking…

Beyond the important goals of assessing how fitness is tracking towards the main goal (& keeping our athletes enjoying & engaged in the process), the right benchmarks also offer important information that goes beyond ‘is the athlete fit?’ to ‘how is the athlete fit?’ Where is the athlete currently weak with respect to their target event? At the ‘top end’ – intensities above race performance or the ‘bottom end’ – aerobic intensities below race pace? Getting a clear picture of where the athlete is relatively strong and weak can be very helpful in directing the training (& in helping the athlete to select their best event!)

But, of course, answering the above questions of relative strength and weakness requires a ‘ruler’ to measure against. What sort of 5K time is ‘good’ for an athlete with Kona Qualifying fitness? What about basic speed? How fast should a pro triathlete be able to swim a 50 free? What about anaerobic capacity? How do Ironman athletes fare in a Wingate test? And, at the other end, what sort of paces should athletes at the respective levels be able to hold in their aerobic heart rate ranges?

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple of decades accumulating data from a whole range of performance levels in an effort to answer some of these questions. After all, performance prediction based on standards going into an event is one of the the most important questions a good coach needs to be able to clearly answer. If, for no other reason than identifying an appropriate, and realistic, pacing strategy! But beyond that, identifying typical standards that lead to a given ‘A Race’ performance helps the coach to better, more practically, ascertain what training qualities are truly important at each point in the year &, even more importantly, enables them to better direct the training towards those ends.

After looking at some of these numbers over many years in many athletes, I’ve formulated some of these relationships into a simple benchmark table that offers a quick reference point of equivalent performances across various competition and testing distances for an athlete of a given fitness level.

I am not the first to come up with this idea of equating relative performances . The Esso tables have been used for assessing relative performance across different events in Track & Field for many years. Jack Daniels 'VDOT' tables offer a similar comparison for runners. Andy Coggan's relative power tables do a similar thing for cycling. Even in the sport of Olympic Weightlifting, the Eastern Europeans came up with 'The Classification System' that offered strength benchmarks all the way from novice to 'Master of Sport'. In a similar fashion, what I've done here is pull a few more varied benchmarks together in a way that reflects my lab and field experience & a way that is better suited to the multisport nature of triathlon. In so doing, we arrive at a table that provides a good assessment tool for general athletic development. I find this table to be one of the more practically useful tools and something I come back to as a reference whenever I look at test values for a given athlete. You will find that table of equivalent ‘benchmark’ performances below.

Weight (kg):
Training Response:Low ResponderHigh Responder

In it’s current form, the table is set up for a 30yo male of 75kg bodyweight & average training response . But you can obviously play with the dropdowns and sliders to see the table change & come up with a performance table appropriate to your own age, sex, weight & training response.

Importantly, the table indicates absolute (not relative to age) performance. In other words, when I sat "Front pack" I mean of the race, not of your age group. If you adjust the age, you'll see the load changes. It should be obvious that a 50 yo looking to break 10hrs in an Ironman is going to be putting in a very different amount of work to a 30 yo with the same objective.

You'll see a mix of benchmarks from lab tests (VO2max & blood lactate testing) to field tests (50m swim, 200m run, Ironman 'sims' etc) to strength tests (5RM squat) & power/pace benchmarking in given aerobic zones. Along with some underdistance 'B' races to give a wide array of equivalent benchmarks for each fitness level/row.

You’ll also see that the table rows are color coded to group different performance levels. I find this ‘martial arts-esque’ belt system to be useful in classifying athletes and assessing progress over ‘chunks’ of training. In the interests of balanced development, I make it a goal to try and include a number of benchmarks within the training cycle before ‘graduating’ to the next level. For instance, for a current 'yellow belt' athlete looking to go under 6hrs in a half ironman for the first time, we might shoot for a benchmark 'recipe' along the lines of the following…

  • A timed run in their steady heart rate zone (Z2) at under 6:30/K
  • A 60kg 5 rep squat
  • A 50 freestyle faster than 33s and a 200m run faster than 35s
  • A 5K under 22:00
  • An Olympic distance race with a bike at 220W and less than 5:00/K (50min)
  • On their way to their (green level) target of a sub 6:00 flat 70.3 race.

Of course, the ‘marks’ will get progressively more challenging (and more specific) over the course of the build, as the athlete’s fitness (& CTL) grows. Graphically, the ‘stepping stones’ on the above path to a sub 6:00 70.3 may be laid out as such.

Block 1

Focus: Aerobic Base

Key Benchmark:
- Z2 Run under 6:30/K
Block 2

Focus: Strength

Key Benchmark:
-5RM Squat = 60kg
Block 3

Focus: Speed

Key Benchmarks:
-50FS = 33s
-200m Run = 35s
Block 4

Focus: Speed-End.

Key Benchmark:
-5K under 22 min
Block 5

Focus: Threshold.

Key Benchmarks:
('B' Oly Race)
-Oly Bike = 220W
-Oly Run = 50min
Block 6

Focus: Race Pace.

Key Benchmarks:
GOAL 70.3 (A) RACE under 6:00!
While this particular ‘mix of ingredients’ might not be the only way to arrive at that time e.g. I know quite a few athletes who are 5:xx half Ironman athletes of that size without a 33s 50m swim time to their name, keeping an eye on these targets is a good way to ensure balanced development over the athlete’s ‘lifespan’. In my experience, a lack of balanced development *always* comes back to bite the athlete in the butt at a later time in one way or another by ultimately limiting their potential. Balanced ‘all round’ athletes are the ones who continue to improve over the long term.

And, this is not just a beginner problem. Athletes who didn’t put in the time to work on their 50 time in their developmental years are the ones unable to latch onto the front pack in their ‘serious’ competitive years. Athletes who never learned to 'properly' run over shorter distances, are the ones hobbling inefficiently and injuriously through the Ironman marathon. Athletes who didn’t put in the time to develop strength early in their development are the ones who struggle to keep up with the power demands of a competitive bike split, despite impressive aerobic fitness & are often the same athletes who experience perpetual injury due to muscle imbalances!

I liken the importance of working through all stages of athletic development to an infant working through all phases of child development. Several researchers (e.g. Adolph et al., 2008) have shown Children who omit a variety of key developmental sequences in motor skill development e.g. 'belly time' prior to crawling etc., often lack proficiency in more advanced motor skills (& in some instances general learning skills) later in life. In a similar finding McGuine (2017) found that young athletes who engaged in early specialization of a single event were significantly more likely to experience injury that athletes who engaged in multiple sports through their development. Ongoing attention to facilitating a broad, balanced approach creates, strong, responsive, healthy athletes!

If we do find that an athlete is missing some of these key developmental steps, sometimes it’s necessary (& fun :-) to spend some addiitonal blocks devoted to retracing those missing steps by immersing the athlete in some remedial work in the target area (joining the local 12 year olds for a bit of squad work etc). First step, though, before we start to correct them, is to identify these ‘missing links’ to focus on, by getting a broad and extensive check in across paces and distances so that we can work out where the weaknesses (& strengths) lie and home in on those areas.

I like to repeat this process for each training build/’belt level’ by assessing where the current strengths and weaknesses are to help to better where the focus of the ‘meat’ of that training build should lie. Athletes change, they develop, that’s the point. It’s important to keep checking in to ensure that they are developing in a balanced way. Imbalance leads to stagnation. By keeping a focus on development across all planes we maintain access to many different ways that we can ensure an athlete keeps getting better. Furthermore, these multiple modes are surprisingly synergistic. Strength helps endurance by giving us muscle to aerobically train. Aerobic fitness helps speed by enabling the athlete to recover more quickly between high intensity work (& accrue more ‘practice’ at those upper ranges) etc.

A deviation from the above goal of athlete balance does have to eventually occur once we start to enter the ‘black belt’ zone. A look across the rows here & one can see that hitting all of those benchmarks becomes impossible. It’s unlikely we’re going to see the world record holder for the squat hanging with the Kenyans at the front of the Olympic Marathon! :-) The table is built around a fatigue curve of 7%. At a certain level of development, an athlete needs to move away from this mid-range number and move towards either the aerobic endurance ('distance') end of the range (~5%) or the anaerobic power ('sprint') end of the range (~10%) in accordance with their personal strengths. At the black-belt level of performance, the table 'breaks' and it becomes unrealistic to expect that level of athlete to hit all of the general benchmarks of an athlete in an earlier stage of development. You can select the 'distance' or 'sprint' options from the dropdown below & then scroll back up to see what this phase of specialization does to these benchmarks in the table above.

You'll notice if you click a specialized option that the chart only goes to a VO2max of 80. This is because, 'in the wild' we don't see athletes with extremely high aerobic power (VO2max) along with extremely high anaerobic capacity or, similarly, athletes with extremely high VO2max and extremely high metabolic fitness. At a certain point, you have to 'pick your poison'. Or, maybe more accurately, your poison picks you :-)

In this, the black zone becomes the area of the specialist & the worthwhile benchmarks also become more specific to (at or neighboring) the target event. But, in my opinion & experience, in the interests of maximizing long term development, ALL athletes should resist the urge to 'pick your poison' too early & make a strong effort to 'hit your marks’ before entering the black zone of specialization.

This philosophy of true general preparation in the early development of the athlete was a cornerstone of the Eastern European developmental methodology with tough general standards demanded of ALL young developing athletes is strength, speed and endurance events *before* specializing at the higher levels. E.g. the tabl;e below from Arbeit (1997) shows the mix of speed, strength and endurance norms that every 13yo (irrespective of future specialization - swimmers, lifters, distance runners, sprinters etc) had to achieve prior to admission to a GDR sports school. If you have a go yourself, you'll soon see that these standards represent a very high level of general physical literacy, especially at age 13!

This is something that we have moved further and further away from in the (impatient) Western world for both kids and adults (e.g. 10 year old swim ‘prodigies’ moving to 2 a day swim practices at a ridiculous age &, at the other end of the age spectrum – ‘off the couch’ triathletes deciding to give Ironman a go after their first Summer of competing without ‘putting their time in’ in the shorter events). This early specialization has been to our detriment at all levels. All the way up to the highest levels of sport.

I’ll suggest to you that, no matter your current level, a seasonal focus on ‘hitting the marks’ listed above - across a wide range of durations and events, in addition to providing good, frequent markers of improvement (& a good dose of fun!), will lead to strong, well balanced, resilient athletes who respond well to training over the entirety of their athletic life.

Train smart,



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