What I learned this year: The 2016 edition

Alan Couzens, M.Sc. (Sports Science)

Dec 7th, 2016

As the pic to the left suggests, 2016 was a great year. I had an athlete on my squad take the Ultraman World Championship crown for the second year in a row with Inaki De La Parra's commanding performance, Ruth Brennan Morrey had a breakthrough race in Arizona against a stacked women’s field, almost breaking that magical 9hr mark. Additionally, and equally impressive was the number of working AG athletes who secured that coveted Kona slot beginning with Owen Martin who went 9:03 in Arizona in 2015 to secure the slot and followed that up with 9:02 this year to secure another slot for next year – the man is a machine! Another age group machine – Mr Martin Muldoon went sub 9hrs for the third time with an 8:56 in Roth. Just amazing levels of performance all around and a flat out privilege to be a part of these incredible accomplishments, these incredible life moments.

But, when the adrenaline levels settle and the dust clears, it’s time to take a step back, don the proverbial analytics cap and make an objective assessment of the year as a whole. What did we learn? What could we have done differently? And, yes, what mistakes were made that we want to avoid moving forward? I’ve done some similar retrospective “Learn from my mistakes” articles in previous years (here & here). And still, 20 plus years into the coaching game, I’m happy to say that every year there is always something new to learn. While I’m pleased to say that I don’t think we directly repeated any of those mistakes, some of the recurring themes are interesting. So, without further ado, what did I learn this year?

1. Race conditions are your number 1 competitor!

When looking back and assessing ‘how we did’, my 'go-to metric' is always predicted overall race power output vs actual overall race power output. When I look back to those races where athletes ‘underperformed’ relative to their training numbers, more often than not, it was due to the conditions of race day and, in some cases, not being adequately prepared for those conditions.

Heat is the obvious one. Kona is a unique place. This is the island’s mystical magic but it is also a very real world challenge to prepare for. Unless you're lucky enough to call Hawaii home, it takes $ and a willingness to travel to one of the few places similar to the island for a period in your preparation to truly be ready for what you’re going to encounter on race day. Without this, you can be as fit as you want but the island is going to cap the expression of that fitness. It takes all 3 factors lining up to put together a strong performance on the Big Island in October – huge levels of fitness at the right time of year, true preparation for the harsh conditions you’re going to face and a humility that comes from knowing that our ability to predict just what you’re going to face is limited. It’s the combination of these 3 factors that, in my mind, make it the ultimate challenge, the Everest of our sport!

Less obvious, but no less worthy of consideration would be factors in other 'condition-affected' races such as cold swims, a rough swim in salty, dirty water (that affects digestion in the early bike), an excessively windy day that challenges bike handling and the ability to take on calories, a hard surface run or a run with lots of sharp turns etc etc. The list of possible factors to deal with over the course of an 8-17 hour day is endless and it makes up a big part of the awesome puzzle that is the perfect Ironman race.

2. Injuries suck! So prioritize general strength & mobility work!

The highest level of age-group racing is a precarious place, especially for the working age-grouper. There are only so many hours in the day and in order to be competitive it can quickly become an ‘arms race’ of using each and every one of these hours swimming, biking or running. This strategy works until it doesn’t and when it doesn’t the whole investment goes bye bye.

This was noticeable this year. I have been working with athletes who are now hitting their 40’s and 50’s and who have been spending upwards of 800hrs a year over the past decade involved in 3 movements – the shoulders rounded, internal rotation of the swim, the limited ROM shuffle of an Ironman stride &, most significant of all, the hunched over, limited hip extension aero position of the bike. Eventually something has to give…

There were a number of athletes this year who were either limited in the expression of their ‘engine’ by their ‘wheels’ or were scarily on the edge of being so – muscle spasms in the race, post race injuries etc. This was an important reminder to me that it all starts with a strong chassis. This will be reflected to a greater degree in my programming moving forward. In other words, Kelly Starrett’s name will be brought up on an even more frequent basis :-)

3. Don’t kid yourself on the time demands of preparing for something as tough as Ironman, especially at a competitive level.

Ironman is a race that tests your aerobic endurance over a long period of time and it can only be adequately prepared for by regularly pushing the boundaries of your aerobic endurance over long periods of time. Duh.

Racing at a competitive level in Ironman is getting harder every year & the guys who are doing so are devoting a large part of their life to their goal. As my opening paragraph suggests the speedy AGers are starting to nudge up on the 9hr mark just to get a KQ slot! It goes without saying, this is a serious level of athletic performance that demands serious level of preparation. These guys/gals are putting in the time to train at very close to pro/elite hours.

Furthermore, I think the desensitization to Ironman is leading to a lot of folks with a distorted memory of what “training for Ironman” is all about. Back in the day, athletes often approached me to train them for Ironman with a palpable sense of fear in their voice – a genuine respect for the distance & what it as going to take to prepare for the distance. Now, as the sport grows and ‘doing an Ironman’ becomes as common as signing up for a 5K, we’re losing that & we’re losing that at all levels. Athletes ‘making a comeback’ forget just how hard they were working the first time around – the extent to which ironman was a constant part of their life. Don’t do that. Respect the challenge that Ironman is and make sure you’re 100% ready for what preparing properly for that challenge means.

To prepare properly for an event as challenging as an Ironman, a good part of your life will be built around the race and your life as a whole needs to support that. Get creative, get assertive & carve out the space in your life for the level of training that is appropriate to your goal before clicking ‘submit’ on the website. I saw a tweet that said "Signing up for an Ironman as a motivator to build fitness is akin to having a kid to save a marriage." I would agree with that. Be ready, prepared & committed before signing up.

4. Swimming is a complex movement that is best approached with a simple mindset: The mindset of a developing age-group swimmer.

There are a myriad of factors that go into making a good swimmer and, as the chunky ex-swimmer who still routinely kicks your butt whenever he shows up to lap swim indicates, training volume is probably the last :-) Adult triathletes with a swim ‘limiter’ tend to either a) want to throw volume at the problem. b) want to pull apart & copy (frame by frame) the stroke of Sun Yang. Neither of these strategies works in making inroads on the athletes who ‘grew up swimming’ & so it leads to ongoing frustration.

Kids pick up swimming quickly because they are a) malleable, b) fearless & competitive.

Malleable – physically & psychologically flexible. On the physical side, they can adopt very efficient positions at the shoulder without having to ‘force it’ or work at it. Most adult swimmers will have to both work at it and force it - just a little :-)

Additionally, their mind is malleable. They haven’t spent countless hours pulling apart underwater footage of Sun Yang as their fixed prototype of 'the perfect stroke' They don't over-think. They do what works. They race their buddy. If they lose, they subconsciously try something different because losing isn’t fun.

So what works?
- Get 'kid-like' flexible.
- Practice (& experiment with) swimming fast on a frequent basis.

Pay attention to the stuff that leads to fast reps & do more of that.

5. HRV can save your season!

I know, I know, you’re sick of hearing those 3 letters. Well, I don’t care :-) With every year that goes by, I realize more and more just how powerful HRV is as a window into an athlete’s readiness to do work. There were numerous times this season where I let HRV ‘take the reins’ and I’m glad that I did!

Newsflash: Athletes are people! People with lives and stresses apart from the training that we’re prescribing for them. These lives and stresses have a HUGE impact on the physiology of the athlete. Often more so than the training, even in very high level athletes. HRV has taught me that my ability to predict an athlete’s tiredness based on the training I am giving them is surprisingly woeful! Additionally, HRV has taught me that most athlete’s own ability to assess their readiness to handle work is equally woeful! :-)

There were numerous times this year where I erred on the side of caution on the basis of extended periods of low HRV – after big races, after crashes, after big travel, after illness, after stressful periods & it had the effect of not having to deal with a bunch of ‘false starts’: Athletes who resume training too soon after illness and so get sick again, athletes who start a training block gung-ho but then slowly grind to a halt in week 3 with sub-par sessions. Athletes who consistently get sick or injured when jumping back into training suddenly after big travel trips. I can think of examples of the above from almost every athlete who I got on the HRV bandwagon this season. Another year of tracking confirms – HRV is an incredibly powerful tool. If you haven’t started yet, make 2017 the year of HRV!

6. All coaches should learn to code.

Heck, in this day and age, with our dependence on data for competitive information, everyone (irrespective of profession) should learn to code, but since this is a coaching blog, here are my thoughts on coaches learning to code...

2016 was the year of the Python. I expanded from PHP to a language that includes a plethora of libraries, built by some of the smartest minds around, that specifically focus on the data sciences - Machine Learning, Predictive Modelling, Statistics etc. Needless to say, it was an exciting year :-) As I work my way through these incredible tools, I am constantly reminded of the fact that there is a whole hidden world of information at your fingertips and it is a world that grows literally every time an athlete uploads a file! Any question that you want to ask can be answered with a simple query on the data. Frankly, I don’t understand how coaches in the modern era accurately assess the individual input->output relationships so critical to making good training decisions without the ability to summarize and query the long term data of a given athlete. Even for those with a head for details & an obsessive attention to the sport, I can 100% assure you, our long term memory is simply no match for a MySQL database! If you’re a coach and you haven’t started to explore this powerful hidden world of data-assisted coaching, make 2017 the year that you do so!

Join me in applying the above to make 2017 your best year yet!

Train smart,



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