The off-season can mean different things for different athletes.
It can be used as a complete mental and physical break for those athletes recovering after a long season. It can also be an opportunity to hone in and improve a single discipline, or the chance to build on fitness for the next year.
Coaches need to recognise how best to plan the off-season for their athletes on an individual basis, taking into account their individual mental and physical abilities and make up. They must also remember that the off-season should also allow renewed vigour to be taken into the following race season.
Coach Brett gives his thoughts on off-season training options:
This blog is in response to enquiries from our readers. They see differing rest periods given to different athletes for their ‘time off’ out of race season. After reading that Daniela was given an extended long rest of three months it has thrown confusion into what is necessary for them. So let’s get into it by first putting the Angry Birds break into perspective.
This was a much needed complete ‘spell in the paddocks’ for Danni. She has raced brilliantly for 4 straight seasons with me, without a big rest. Not only is this physically exhausting but mentally draining as well. So we decided it was time for a career reset. A large break away from swim, bike, and run training; plus all the media pressure that builds with a career like hers.
So I’m asked did she do absolutely nothing? If I had my way then yes! However the bird kept in partial shape by gym visits and doing stuff that she can’t afford to do when in full Triathlon mode. What stuff? I have no idea! I made her realise that I wanted her to have a break from me telling her what to do. So we call this type of break a ‘career reset’. However at Trisutto we usually have much smaller breaks. Up to 21 days / 3 weeks for athletes who have all the skill sets in swim, bike and run. This is a very important point, because if one has a big weakness, then after a small break we go into specific stimulus programs.
So let’s break it into two:
If you are extremely good in all three (swim, bike and run), our pros do something every second day. It always revolves around swim today, then nothing tomorrow. Bike the next day, then a run the day after. They are all as short as possible for the individual. These short workouts are very important, so when one returns, we don’t waste a month just getting rhythm back to old levels and getting used to all three disciplines. But the point is we do take time off from any organised sessions.
Now the complicated! If one has a perceived weakness in one discipline we will take a little rest, then go straight into a very specific stimulus program which targets that problem. When we do this we minimise the other two disciplines to a more maintainable level. This is expected to be embraced by our athletes, be categorised as ‘I want to improve’ in their own minds, and they willingly buy into doing it.
Breaks vary because of the individual needs of the athlete. Some with great skills are afforded the opportunity to run their own breaks. Before you say the old cliches again, we have already dealt with ‘No pain, no gain‘ in the last blog!
Now here is another Cliche – ‘We should always be trying to improve as to stand still is to go backwards’. Again this is a lot of nonsense. Daniela Ryf needs to improve nothing at the present.
Nicola Spirig is similar except for her swim. So in her ‘break’ we worked on the swim stroke again. As she steps out for her first ITU World Series race in her quest for a 5th Olympics, she will be sporting her fifth ‘new’ swim stroke. This was dialed in over the winter, and was the only focus. I’m sure the critics will like this one a little better. ‘Little Pistol’ Julie Derron had a break that was about improving her run, to give her the outside chance of muscling in on the Olympics one 4 year cycle earlier than I predicted. We are proud she did so and now has a couple of ITU pro wins in the lesser divisions.
Triathlon Breaks are very important to the program. Watching both Danni and Nicola at training over the last days, neither are in their 100% best race shape, however I commented to coach Robbie these girls are ‘blooming’. The rest has done them a world of good. And that is what you are looking for in your break.
You want it to be beneficial so you can get back into training healthy with a few extra kilos to work with, and feel good about it.
Over the years I have been very misunderstood by many pundits who have not even taken the time to visit our coaching camps to see what we actually do. However I have talked with and visited many great coaches who have that most important feature that makes them superior coaches – and that is curiosity.
They look at my results and ask why?
So when I say to you the most important principle of my success in Triathlon is my true understanding of recovery, it is ridiculed by the mass of naivety that passes for Triathlon experts.
So let us begin with the founding statements I had drilled into me by my farther some 45+ years ago. The statements that kept me at the top of international level coaching of any sport I took on
STRESS + RECOVERY = ADAPTION = HIGH PERFORMANCE
STRESS + STRESS = DETRAINING = POOR PERFORMANCE
Which one do you want for your athletes? That my friends is profound “science”!
So let’s be very clear. I believe that if there is no recovery, then there can be no progress.
In this sport of 3 elements (and 5 for Ironman), recovery is a very complicated undertaking. So one needs to know the sport. Can recovery happen in one facet, while working hard on another? My thoughts are a very definite YES! Can recovery happen when one is tired? YES!
The puzzle for the individual to work out is how much stress is enough to stimulate performance, and the amount of rest needed for that to occur. Here is where it is complicated, as it changes with three things:
fitness of the athlete
age of the athlete
mental capacity of the athlete
Get one of them wrong and you hinder your ability to perform at your highest level.
A coach needs to adjust for each individual, and also over the course of their career. Adaptions made over time can mean that an athlete who worked best on a lighter load, will after 3 years cope with and require additional work to perform at a higher level. If the athlete is with you long enough, you will then see that as they get older they may do better and keep improving by adjusting their work load to once again do less.
When one reads this, you may think I’m trying to confuse, however it is this complicated. Thus why there are only a few master coaches in a sea of mediocrity. It is a fact that every athlete has a different stress level, and this fluctuates. A great coach finds this, and then manipulates it. Recovery is his/her tool to control it.
The next job for the coach is once finding the level is to persuade the athlete that this is best for them. What is best physically might not match up at all with the psychological abilities / requirements some athletes have. I have witnessed many athletes who did great things only because they were dragged kicking and screaming to their results. Not by pushing them harder, but by using recovery they don’t want, to save them from themselves.
As noted in my previous blog, my biggest problem, is athletes not knowing their threshold levels to stress even after showing them with great performances. Their paranoia is such that the more is better syndrome lives extremely close to their pillows, and it takes only one word or performance from a competitor, to start their alarm bells ringing, “i gotta do so much more “. We use some recovery every day in our work outs.
Here are three examples of programs I just sent to serial winners only 5 minutes before I sat down to write this
I want you to go to the pool. Run 20 minutes from there, then swim 200m and 15 minute spa.
I want you to ride your city bike to the pool. If you are bored do an extra 20 minutes on the city bike, then swim 400m easy. Have a spa and ride home.
Coach I can’t do nothing. It drives me crazy! One workout a day doesn’t do it for me. Then ok, ‘What about a run day. 3 runs what do you think?’ Coach that sounds fantastic, how do they look? ‘20 minutes before brekky. 20 minutes max before lunch. If you still feel the need then 20 minutes max before dinner.’
These are actual workouts, and will help all three be better athletes.
Recovery is everything. Your job as an athlete is to embrace it. The Coaches job is to work out how much. If you give some too much recovery they become bored; and as such I’m a master of camouflage, to give athletes recovery while they think they training.
When discussing ‘stress’, people tend to look for the red line. We don’t. The red line is for anaerobic events. Triathlon (excluding the new team format) is aerobic after the start. Thus we look to find the white line. And that to me is B.A.P. – Best Aerobic Pace. With stress that’s what I’m looking for. We do a lot of B.A.P. when our body is ready. Our recovery we have done previously allows for this.
Ironman is a different set of operational tools. The pain is not pain, it is lingering discomfort. There is plenty of gain to be had, if training is done right, without pain. The key is consistency. Not how hard you go. In fact i think going too hard actually limits Ironman performance.
I’ll finish just as I started
Stress + recovery = adaption
Stress + stress = DETRAINING and thus poor performance
The month of May I headed home to Australia to see family, friends and to do a memorial camp for one of my old coaches who was struck down by stomach cancer. We paid tribute to one of triathlon’s real supporters at every level – Scott ‘Aardvark’ Penny. Scott was old school. Scott helped people. Scott got involved. Some would say he was a Triathlon Coach, but that was a cover, the reality is he wanted to help people lead better lives. Money, position, fancy facilities was not his motivation. He ran a local bike shop, he took bike tours of Aussies to Europe. All small scale, but he had one thing he did huge – his effort to help people.
Great to be back in Australia; bike action from Caloundra.
This was brought home to me further when I was looking for gyms for my daughter to train in. Zali is a skier, so nothing to do with triathlons, however I’ve worked in a lot of gyms, and thought no problem, we will find something everywhere we go. I expected to pay for a workout, and to get on with it. We visited many gyms, we looked inside, all shiny equipment, a couple even had an air freshener smell, but they could not give my girl a one day entry. The buff trainers walking around simply said ‘Impossible. She has to buy a membership’. Not helpful when we were only in town for two days.
This was not a one off. The Gold Coast, Sydney then on to Melbourne. I must have ventured into 12 gyms and got knock backs. So disappointing, so I stopped taking her, as it made me sad to see my girl with a dream, and a sparkle in her eye, get told ‘impossible, this is a private gym’. It also had me pondering, and I said to her let’s look for a real gym, with real people.
When we arrived in Sydney, I wanted to give the family the Bondi Beach experience of where I spent a lot of time when I was younger. Again I must have visited five gyms in a 2km radius and were knocked back by all, or except two that were 50 dollars and 30 dollars! So when we saw the new building at the Bondi Icebergs we assumed the gym there would be now the same. However old habits die hard and I said Bondi Icebergs is a traditional place with a wealth of history, let’s at least take a look. We were amazed to walk in and it hadn’t changed in 30 years. The same barbells were there, a bit rusted, and the kettle bell had my name on it, as it had come back into fashion now. Old school alive and well on Bondi Beach.
Of course, the pool in Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast, ‘Aardvarks’ club had a real functional gym in a shed. They nearly broke their arm on the door opening it for us – ‘there you go missy knock your self out the place is yours’. We were joined for a couple of days by my nephew Dale, who we called ‘White Lightning’ as a kid. As he was always so passionate, he followed the Camps. Even after 8 years of running Ripple Fitness in Brisbane, his motivation, the care he took for his athletes ‘You don’t mind uncle Brett if I come to Sydney too. But my motto is I do everything to help my clients have a better experience with their training, I won’t get in your way’.
Then at our camp in Melbourne with coach Michael Harvey who is so passionate about how he can do a better job for his Victorian athletes, that he has travelled to Asia and then all the way to Europe to learn from us, and be better for his athletes. The camp wasn’t about promotion but about my sadness of how poor the performance levels have been out of the State Of Victoria since the 90s. I thought that some would like to know how the most successful group on the planet trained during that period of time? To my astonishment the one person who didn’t need my advice, the great Stephen Foster made his way from the Mornington Peninsula to attend.
‘What are you doing here Stephen?’
‘Sutto I want to learn. I’m missing something and I want to be a better coach.’
Can you can see a theme here yet!
Swimming in Melbourne with Abi, Stephen and Jo.
Then i walked the streets in Melbourne there was no shortage of swish gyms. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment. Sparkly buildings, sparkly equipment and buff attendants who proceeded to say no, we are sorry, but it is not our business model.
Just when we were about to give up we saw a little gem. No not a spelling mistake, it was a gym, but it had heart. No real flash equipment, Muhammad Ali poster on the painted walls to try and lift it. I said to my daughter, that I bet the guy running this place will be happy to let you train here. ‘Why Papa?’ – because when you see a place with a heart and a soul, you can bet those in it are just the same. Sure enough in we went, and were meet by Dave. Older guy, not buff, just fit, hard as a rock with track suit on and peak cap, with a group of women in there working out like real athletes. No tinsel togs here.
Dave was so attentive to his clients my daughter got impatient. Just watch and learn from a real coach. His clients are his fixation, look at him, this bloke is our man. You watch when I tell him what you do he will say yes. When Dave had finished the circuit training, he came over. He said what they did a monthly fee here. I said we down for all of two sessions, and he said the gym is yours enjoy it. I asked about money. Dave said ‘no charge. Why don’t you get to work Zali, we will worry about that later.’
I watched Dave take 6 lessons. And they were lessons. His motivation was only matched by the skill set he was showing in his workouts. This guy knew his stuff. His clients are very lucky, to be in such good hands; and hats off to the ladies who were there, as they were working like real athletes, and they had good shapes that only come from consistent and well trained work. Well done ladies’. I’m happy to say if you in the area from St Kilda to Elwood or Elsternwick, take my tip and do yourself a favour and drive past the fancy Dan soulless gyms and walk into a real gym at For Fits Sake and say hi to Dave and his team . If your serious about your work this is the place.
Which brings me to my point. Facilities mean nothing! One day when we couldn’t get into a gym or an oval as the football was on it we did our work in the cricket nets and boy was it a great session. We improvised, we over came. What really matters is what you do, and who you do it with. Dale, Dave, Caloundra pool. Their place did stink – it stunk of motivation, passion and care. A place where success is nurtured in an environment that can’t be matched by shiny pieces of metal .
They all reminded me of my friend ‘Aardvark’. When I first meet him, ‘Hi Sutto. My names Scott, but call me Aardvark. I’m just here to help!’. The world is worse off for the loss of Scott Penny, but there are still some pockets of places where Scotts favourite saying is still in play.
The ‘no dick heads allowed’ camp was a great success, and the trip made me realise more than ever, that we must keep spreading the word where ever there is one person there to listen.
After a recent article on hidden performance killers I received multiple emails from followers asking about travel, some inquisitive and some informing me that I place too much importance on it.
As I return home on the 24 hour trip from Australia and as we start the race season in earnest, I thought I would make it clear again how much emphasis travel deserves in season planning. As we’ve seen athletes making two intercontinental trips before June, who by August will be asking themselves (again) ‘where did my form go?’.
At Trisutto for our professional athletes we place a limit on how many trips across the date line we make per season. It puts so much pressure on the immune system – one should be viewing the flights as equally stressful as a race. Indeed as a rule of thumb we count a long distance flight + race as the equivalent of 3 races.
Nearly all that train with us and listen to the advice seem to notice how in the later months of the season their form doesn’t fall away like in previous years.
It’s not a coincidence. This was a lesson we learned in the early 90s of Aus triathlon. Australian athletes notoriously struggled bringing good form from Australia to the US / European World Cups. Many were on fire in Australia only to consistently flop overseas. Others the opposite.
Pioneers like Greg Welch and Michelle Jones were a couple of the first to overcome these problems by staying in two ‘Home’ bases for both seasons and avoiding the long haul traveling back and forwards. At Trisutto we’ve never forgotten it.
The Pros and WTS Circuit
The crushing effects of long haul flights are exhibited perfectly in the situation we see at the professional short course level. Where we now have deep performance lulls after Olympic cycles with the heavy hitters either ignoring the WTS series, or others being so destroyed from the travel schedule they need two years recovery.
The 2016 WTS Series. Completely disastrous for long term performance.
For those asking for opinions on ‘form’ and medal prospects ahead of 2020 Tokyo based off the WTS series in 2018. Never in the history of ITU racing has an athlete won the ITU World Championship and the Olympics in the same year. There’s a reason for that and it won’t be different in 2020 either.
You cannot prepare properly for a major event with an official schedule that looks like it was put together by Carmen Sandiego. If the Brownlees, Spirig’s and Jorgensen’s of the sport recognise that, then it shouldn’t be too much to explain to age group athletes either.
In terms of practical advice for our athletes and how one can avoid the pitfalls:
Firstly, we don’t do long, stressful races like an Ironman out of season if they include a big travel component. We do these at the end of our season only when we have had a minimum of 20 weeks of consistent work.
We also try to avoid backing up races early in the season even if no travel on planes is involved. We do this at the end of season also. Why? Because the mixture of travel, race and recovery when one doesn’t have a full base is a huge stress. If you are not fully recovered you might still get through these races ‘OK’, but after two the body starts to flatten and never gets back to peak.
It is often misdiagnosed as ‘over training’ when the real culprit is racing when not ready combined with too much travel. The outcome is the same – poor end of season performance.
I will finish by reiterating the same points I’ve made multiple times in person and print! If you can drive to a race within 5 hours DO NOT get on the plane.The amount of times I’ve heard “Sutto, it’s only a 45 min flight” really does depress me.
Pulling the bike apart, packing it, towing it around the airport, getting on a 30,000 ft compression chamber to sit next to people who may be ill – to then putting the bike back together if it arrives and not broken is a stress even if a ’45 minute’ flight.
The racing season has begun and we are barely one month into it and our new group of pros and age groupers alike are making every mistake in the book.
As this is a constant theme for most triathletes I thought I’d jot down five points to help:
a) Using your race as a family holiday.
I personally love this approach, however to travel the week before the race not only diminishes your performance but dampens the holiday as mum or dad (usually dad) are continually putting what they think they need in terms of rest, food and preparatory training first. I would suggest instead going into the race late as possible, and then spending the following week or days enjoying the down time by doing fun things without the anxiety of having the race on your mind.
b) Flying to close destinations instead of driving.
If the race is less than 500km away I encourage all our athletes who can to drive to the destination. It is much less stressful than pulling your bike apart and putting it back together. The risk of bike damage on the voyage also tends to be greater on flights than in the car.
Secondly, while the flight might be only an hour, you put great stress on your immune system. You are in a different environment in the best case and at the worst you walk off the plane with the sickness of the guy 5 rows behind you!
Another rookie mistake is thinking ‘I need to acclimatize as it’s very humid… Or hot… Or at altitude.’ So you have most people arriving 5-7 days early.
This is the worst possible time frame you can do. Yes, the body does start to acclimatise, but it only starts after 48-72 hours.
So you feel OK the first two days, then the body starts to say ‘Whoa, it’s gonna stay hot or humid so I better get used to this’ and the process begins. The 5-7 day range is often when people are at their flattest in the acclimatisation process. 72 hours later you see people climbing out of it shaking their heads ‘What went wrong? I feel great. I did everything right!’
No you didn’t. This is a recurring problem each season and continues to be ignored.
At home do you normally use an air conditioner? If not, this is dynamite. One must adapt to that type of cooling system. And if not it can kill your race by hour 4 of your first night there.
Is your hotel in a quiet area or is it above a pub that has a disco that finished ‘early’ at 2am?
Finally, If you come from a quiet household to staying in a three star hotel with 400 athletes – simple things like going to the buffet can be a stressful new experience. ‘Oh don’t be ridiculous’ I hear you say. But I can tell you having 35 athletes walking past your food looking at what you’re eating can create anxiety for even the coolest of ‘cool cats’ if you’re not used to it.
4) Pre-Race Food
Away from home we at restaurants. I’m sorry to all restauranteurs who are triathletes, but eating out in a new country is inevitably going to cause a greater incidence of let’s say food ‘problems’. I’m not calling it for food poisoning because normally it’s not, but something as little as a different spice on something can send you to the toilet more times than is good for you pre race.
We see many carbo loading with pizza making sure they are completely dehydrated for the next day’s race.
But no! We fight that with about 5 litres of water to make sure they are ‘extra’ hydrated.
This phenomenon usually starts three days before the race. Every race expo is like a competition of who can carry more water bottles, through the day. Meanwhile if it’s just water you are inadvertently washing all the minerals out, so by race day you’re depleted of potassium, magnesium and salt. Here comes the cramps!
We advise all our athletes that from 72 hours keep the food very bland indeed. Nothing spicy, nothing leafy and that waters bottle should have electrolytes in the water!
5) Course Inspection
Most races set out their swim course and make it a point to tell all to enjoy this great venue.
Sickness on race day often doesn’t come from the food but the open water swimming the last two days.
People think that the water is clean and crystal clear then it must be clear of germs. As a cleaner of many pools in my life, I can tell you I’ve seen pools that are crystal clear full of bacteria and I’ve seen pools that you can’t see the bottom of relatively safe. My advice as a coach is to avoid the open water until the day of the race. So then if there is something in it, it takes a day to incubate.
You will have heard many race directors say ‘the locals swim here and are never sick.’ That can be true. But it misses the point. The locals get used to it.
Now of course I’m going to get criticism from this article, but before you send in angry emails about how much I don’t know – consider how many times you have heard ‘I ate something that didn’t agree with me.’ It’s totally common in the Ironman finisher tent.
We call these five points invisible – as all your hard work can be brought undone by falling for one of the above problems that most in triathlon don’t even see coming. Hope it helps.