Q & A With Coach Mel

I submitted this article to be published in Her Sports magazine in January of 2007.  Might be useful for some of you starting to plan your own season in the coming weeks…


1. I’m a triathlete and want to become faster in the cycling leg. I have a sprint tri coming up in a month. How can I get fast, quick?

The first rule in all endurance training is that you must be patient.  It takes time to effect change in your fitness.  Becoming a better endurance athlete is not just about becoming technically skilled; it is about becoming a finely tuned endurance machine.  You will not achieve your best potential in one month, period.

That said, you can choose to focus on the cycling leg of your upcoming sprint triathlon and train to have your best possible performance on the bike.  By focusing on cycling for the next month you will have time to discover your strengths and weaknesses.  When you go back to a balanced triathlon program you will be better able to prioritize workouts to either exploit strengths or minimize weakness. 

The first thing that you must do when planning training for a specific event is that you plan backwards from the day of the event to the present when you lay out your training schedule. If you start from race day you need to realize that you cannot gain any training benefits in the last 10 days before an event.  This leaves about 20-21 days until the event that you can use for training.  The last 10 days you will plan a taper where you focus on active rest to help you get the most out of the fitness you have.  The exact training you are able to do in those 21 days will vary according to your ability level.  It would be prudent to break up the 21 days into three seven day cycles with rest built into each one.  More training will not equate to better cycling if you don’t recover from the training.  Planning recovery is as important as planning the training.

My advice would be to focus a bit more of your attention to cycling in order to improve.  You might want to focus on improving your cadence, getting a better aero position or practice riding at race pace to determine your limits.  You are still training for a triathlon so don’t ignore the swimming and running if you want to put together your best overall race. 

To cycle better, you might want to devote a few more speed sessions per week at the expense of some of your run speed sessions.  You will find that increased fitness on the bike translates to a stronger run without extra run training.  Cycling fitness increases with mileage and experience which takes time to develop.  So in the short term, have reasonable expectations and plan carefully for your best results.

2. I’m training for a half Ironman coming up in six months. Should I schedule some shorter races (sprints, Olympic-distance, even 5k or 10ks) before then as practice? If yes, how many and how should I space them out?

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I believe that racing other types of races and other distances keeps racing fresh and fun.  It is good to mix things up not only in training but also in competition.  Six months leaves a lot of time to prepare so using shorter races will allow you to test your progress in training.  It is important to have some sort of objective measurement to determine if you are improving. 

I like to build 5km and 10km races into the early preparation phase of my year.  I usually work on volume and strength in January-March so I like to incorporate racing at that time to make some of my long runs on the weekend more interesting and to test my form.  I live in a cold climate so that is really the only kind of racing we have at that time of year.  So in the early portion of my periodization, when I am building more volume, I try to keep the race efforts shorter.  Run races are a good way to do that.

When I am approaching race season, I can handle longer races.  This is when I would do the sprint and Olympic distance races.  At that time, I have reduced the volume of training I am doing and am focusing on more race pace efforts.  It does not take long to recover from a sprint or an Olympic event so you will probably be fully recovered within a week.  However, too much racing can leave you tired not only physically, but mentally.  It is better to be hungry for racing rather than burned out from too many competitions.

I would plan to do some 5km and10km races as fitness tests early in your training cycle and as you approach your important race.  They will be good for gauging progress, adapting to race efforts and gaining confidence.  Then I would look at doing a few triathlons that you would really enjoy participating in and try to space them about two weeks apart.  By taking breaks between races you will have lots of downtime to recharge between efforts and get excited for the next race.  This is not for everyone.  Some people feel that they get much better results by “racing into shape”.  You have to go by what works best for you.

Plan some sprint triathlons where you work on lightning fast transitions and overall speed.  Olympics distance races will be good to work on nutrition planning, working out the bugs in your equipment and getting an idea of your pacing strategy.  Doing more than one race in a summer is important not just for improving race preparation; it also eases the boredom of consistent training.  Racing is a fun challenge and that is what triathlon is about.  Adding some spice into everyday life.  The goal is to achieve as much confidence for the big event as you can and create a plan to ensure the big day is as successful and as fun as possible.

3. I’m thinking of going to a triathlon training camp. What are they like and what will I learn? What ones would you recommend?

There are a number of great training camps available that offer different services from different people.  These are great opportunities to network with other triathletes and focus just on training.  I personally love going to training camps. 

If you would like to do one, you need to consider the goal you have in mind.  What would you like to get out of a training camp?  If your goal is to learn more about cycling, I would choose a camp that focused on cycling.  For instance, Powertap offers an all inclusive training camp that teaches participants how to use power in their training with supported rides.  This is a great way to not only build some mileage but also learn from top athletes and coaches about the science of training with power.  If your goal was to become a better swimmer, you would want to take part in a training camp that offers tips on stroke mechanics, some instruction and maybe some video analysis to send you home with some good feedback on your swim technique.  Maybe you would like to go train with top athletes.  There are also many camps that offer overall triathlon training with star athletes and coaches.   Each camp will vary on number of days, cost and what is included.  Choose a camp that will help you focus on your weakness.

Another great idea is a short training camp before a race.  You can find “mini camps” for many races from Olympic to Ironman distance which focus on specific knowledge for that course.  At each stop on the XTERRA Cup Championships tour the pro athletes host free clinics as part of XTERRA University.  These clinics function as mini training seminars for all levels of athlete competing in the event and often pros will give invaluable tips on transitions, equipment set up, nutrition for race day and event specific information.   This is a good way to gather some knowledge and some experience for a specific event. 

Having one on one time with knowledgeable coaches and athletes is fun and beneficial.  What you will have to decide is: what is my budget, how much time do I have, and how far do I want to travel? Participating in a training camp allows you to devote time to immersing yourself in your training which will kick your fitness up a notch.  At the very least, it will be a fun active holiday.

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