Ironman Racing – Three Most Important Components on Race Day

Every once in awhile we get to talk with some fantastic racers and amazing athletes who seem to be able to train and race consistently year after year, race after race, in multiple distances.

How do they do it?  What’s going on inside their head?

From the outside it may seem like it’s all smooth sailing, but in reality they are constantly working on getting better, eliminating the rough spots, and paying attention to where they can focus better.

In Episode 8 of Tri 2 Listen, Suzanne Atkinson (head coach of Steel City Endurance, and also host of the podcast) talks with Kirsten about what was going through her mind on race day when she sealed her spot at Kona by winning her age group.

Listen to this audiogram to hear how Kirsten divides the race into three major components (no, not swim, bike and run, lol)

You can hear the entire episode with Kirsten and her father Volker at Tri 2 Listen or on iTunes, Apple or Spotify podcasting apps.  Just search for “Tri 2 Listen”, or click below.

Listen to Tri 2 Listen on Apple
Listen on Tri 2 Listen Spotify
Listen on Tri 2 Listen Google

When to Lower Your Stroke Count in Swimming

When to Lower Your Stroke Count in Swimming

green sea turtle swimming towards camera

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Why would you want to lower stroke count?

Well, if it’s too high of course. 😉  So how do you know if it’s too high?When swimming at an easy pace, ie, not adding much power or force, you should be able to move forward through the water with relative ease indicating that you’re well balanced and streamlined in the water.

Everyone will find a limit where either swimming easier turns into drilling, or there is a lower limit to how slow you can swim before you feel you start to sink.   Just above that point…what’s your stroke count?

You can reduce Stroke Count or (strokes per length) by reducing drag or increasing power.  Stroke count is only a reflection of two competing forces water resistance vs stroking force.

These are some additional ways to think about balancing two swim skills to achieve speed in swimming:

Streamlining vs power
Flexibility vs Mobility
Slipperiness vs Strength

Based on your height, an “ideal number” for your stroke count can vary.  For a 5’2″ person, maybe 18 is a conservative lower end target. For a 6’2″ person, perhaps 15 a good lower end target.   If you can’t hit those targets at ANY speed…there are streamlining and /or balance issues…basically problems with drag.

As you increase your tempo, time between strokes decreases, travel distance decreases and stroke count goes up.  What’s the upper limit of the number of strokes where you still feel smooth and in control?  For me…around 21-22 SPL in a SCY pool when swimming comfortably fast.

Can you choose your stroke count at will?   This would indicate that you’ve got great control over your form.  Does your stroke count vary widely (maybe more than 2 SPL) when swimming at the same sustainable pace ?  This suggests poor technique or technique that’s not wired in…as an 18 stroke 25 yd swim at 30 seconds is a very different stroke than a 16 or 20 SPL 25 yd swim at 30 seconds.

The stroke rate ramp test is a good test…but it only shows you your current comfort level. It doesn’t help you diagnose if your SPL and tempo ranges are good for you…only what feels good to you now.  Unless we all have perfect technique, what feels good can always been improved.

FWIW at 5’3″ I can swim equally comfortably at 14 SPL or at 22 SPL…the difference is speed.  at 14 SPL I’m swimming 1:50/100s easily and relaxed.  at 22 SPL I’m swimming 1:30s and getting tired.  A sustainable 1000 yd swim for me is around 1:40/100 and 18/19 SPL…unwavering from that narrow range.

Finally, if tempo stays the same, lowering your SPL (by either improving streamlining or adding efficient propulsion) will make you go faster!

Lots of good reasons to consider lowering SPL as part of a well balanced diet of swim practice and improvement exercises.

Note: This originally appeared in the USA Triathlon Coaching email forum in January, 2013.  Going through and cleaning up old emails I thought it was worth sharing here.

Triathletes over Fifty: Staying Healthy & Injury-free

Due to a large number of questions from my athletes who are aging up into their 50s or older, I am undertaking a series called “Tri over Fifty”. Each article will discuss a different aspect of participating in our wonderful sport for those fifty years of age and older.

Is it safe for athletes over fifty to train for triathlons?

The answer is almost certainly a resounding “Yes”. However, let’s discuss some of the benefits and risks of this type of training. The benefits of physical activity in aging are well demonstrated and include improved cardiovascular, pulmonary and muscular systems, as well as improved brain function.?1? While aerobic fitness doesn’t improve cognitive ability in people without any difficulties, there is a definite relationship between those with regular, habitual physical activity such as masters athletes.?2? But along with the benefits of regular physical activity come risks, such as injuries from either overtraining, acute trauma and cardiovascular events. ?3?

Why 50? Well, to start with, I just joined this decade of life, so I can identify with the many challenges that come with it. Some are common to younger decades as well such as family commitments, caring for kids who may still live at home and being in prime earning years of your job. However, others have more in common with the decades to come, such as problems with arthritis, menopause, andropause, development/arrival of chronic health problems such as heart disease or cancer. Fifty marks a point in our lives when we may no longer feel youthful, but we are far from old age.

The most recent question I received was from a 54-year-old athlete, Dan B., who asked: “How can I remain injury-free at 54 years old while training for triathlons?” Without knowing more about Dan’s specific background, I am going to make some assumptions for this series.

  • You’re interested in maintaining an active lifestyle whether it’s in triathlon or another sport
  • You’re worried about the best and healthiest way to train, given your lofty goals
  • You’re tolerance for certain activity levels or recovery strategies is narrower than it used to be
  • You’ve been training for triathlon at least since your 40s, and have noticed changes in your body
  • You’ve had previous, minor injuries that may be nagging or take longer and longer to recover from

In this article, I want to discuss the most important of these three first…issues related to the heart.

Is Triathlon Training Healthy for the Heart?

Exercise and regular activity are some of the best prescriptions a physician could write for her patients! In this modern world of a pill for every problem, you’d need a dozen or more different pills to even come close to the benefits of exercise, and it still wouldn’t be close. People who are routinely active have up to 50% fewer cardiac events in middle life than their sedentary comparisons. ?4?

Some additional benefits include decreased depression and anxiety, lowered risk of dementia, stronger bones, fewer falls, lowered blood pressure, better lipid profile, fewer strokes, lowered risk of multiple types of cancer and more. Feel free to download the infographic here and share, or print it out and use it as a reminder of why you should exercise.

Infographic showing the benefits of exericse.

Cardiovascular Issues from Endurance Training

The benefits of exercise on the heart are well known. The heart accommodates and adapts to the demands we place on it in the same way our muscles adapt as we lift weights. Initially, there is some minor damage, and after recovery, the muscle rebuilds and repairs itself to be stronger and able to handle more stress. Some adaptations are normal and beneficial like the ones we already discussed. But others may be harmful and lead to sudden death, chronic abnormal heartbeats, or inability to pump blood adequately.

The amount of endurance training that leads to abnormal heart problems is still not completely known, but there does seem to be a sweet spot of about 20-30 minutes of moderate activity daily (ie a 15 minute/mile jog or walk, cycling at 15-20mph).?5? Triathletes, marathoners and other endurance athletes often train 5-10 times more than these beneficial durations. Below I list several different types of abnormal adaptations from an abundance of endurance exercise. These fall into three categories of issues related to muscle tissue, blood flow, and electrical conduction.

Problems with Blood Flow

  • Sudden blockage of an already narrowed artery causing a heart attack or leading to cardiac arrest
  • Already narrowed arteries which may cause angina. Often early signs of angina are ignored or unrecognized.

Problems with Muscle Tissue:

  • Thickening of muscle fibers causing blockage of blood flow (Hypertrophic Obstructive Cardiomyopathy)
  • Scarring of muscle tissue causing myocardial fibrosis
  • Stretching of muscle tissue causing cardiomyopathy or atrial fibrillation

Problems with the Electrical Conducting System of the Heart

  • Atrial Fibrillation, often chronic, that may contribute to fatigue or cause strokes
  • Ventricular Fibrillation caused by a heart attack. This results in complete collapse and loss of consciousness called a Cardiac Arrest, which is often deadly…more often than not.

Risks of Sudden Cardiac Death in Triathletes

Two case series articles have been published that sought to gather and categorize deaths occurring in triathletes. One was published a few years ago and at that time was the most comprehensive article dealing with the topic.

In the US, all identifiable deaths during USA Triathlon races between the years 1985 and 2006 were analyzed. The overall risk was 1.74 per 100 000 (2.40 in men and 0.74 in women). The rate did not seem to differ based on the type of event. Most of these deaths occurred during the swim leg. At autopsy, nearly half had cardiac-related abnormalities such as narrowed arteries or an enlarged heart.?6?

In February of 2020, a similar case series was published in the UK that looked at triathlon related deaths between the years The overall risk of triathlon-related deaths in the UK was 0.5 per 100,000 participants. Of these half were thought to be due to pre-existing cardiac conditions.?7?

The risk of dying during a triathlon due to a heart-related condition is not zero but it’s fairly low. Nevertheless, age is a risk factor for developing heart disease. If you have not had a cardiac evaluation by your primary care doctor, please make an appointment as soon as possible. Screening tests may include an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG), an echocardiogram or an exercise stress test. If you have anyone in your family that has ever had heart disease make sure your physician knows this as well, as it increases your own risk.

Silent heart disease in athletes has been the cause of death in two personal friends of mine, and a third friend was successfully resuscitated after a bicycle ride. All had been healthy & active their entire lives, and their endurance activities most likely prolonged their lifespan. So please don’t let the fact that you’ve been active stop you from getting a checkup and screening with your physician.

Thank you so much for reading this far. Next up in my “Tri over Fifty” series, I’ll discuss the muscle-related side effect of aging called sarcopenia, and again will discuss the benefits of triathlon training in combatting this monster.

Bibligraphy

  1. 1.
    Young J, Angevaren M, Rusted J, Tabet N. Aerobic exercise to improve cognitive function in older people without known cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(4):CD005381. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005381.pub4
  2. 2.
    Schott N, Krull K. Stability of Lifestyle Behavior – The Answer to Successful Cognitive Aging? A Comparison of Nuns, Monks, Master Athletes and Non-active Older Adults. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1347. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01347
  3. 3.
    Franklin B, Fern A, Voytas J. Training principles for elite senior athletes. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2004;3(3):173-179. doi:10.1249/00149619-200406000-00014
  4. 4.
    Sharma S, Merghani A, Mont L. Exercise and the heart: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Eur Heart J. 2015;36(23):1445-1453. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehv090
  5. 5.
    Merghani A, Malhotra A, Sharma S. The U-shaped relationship between exercise and cardiac morbidity. Trends Cardiovasc Med. 2016;26(3):232-240. doi:10.1016/j.tcm.2015.06.005
  6. 6.
    Harris K, Creswell L, Haas T, et al. Death and Cardiac Arrest in U.S. Triathlon Participants, 1985 to 2016: A Case Series. Ann Intern Med. 2017;167(8):529-535. doi:10.7326/M17-0847
  7. 7.
    Windsor J, Newman J, Sheppard M. Cardiovascular Disease and Triathlon-Related Deaths in the United Kingdom. Wilderness Environ Med. February 2020. doi:10.1016/j.wem.2019.11.002

The best Freestyle Kicking Pattern for Triathletes

Underwater view of a man swimming in a pool

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

“The design is finished not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”

Kicking has Multiple Functions in the Freestyle Swim

The kick can help rotate the body, create forward movement, and provide lift in the back end. Each swimmer needs to understand how their kick is fitting in to their stroke, what benefit it’s giving them and how they can improve it. Some folks will use kicking to keep the back end up, while in the mean time they are pushing down on the front of the water with their stroke. If they were to fix the front end, the back end could be repurposed and the same energy used would help them go faster. Yet in many swim squads, as long as the athlete is doing a continuous or 6 beat kick the coach is happy, and hopes over time they’ll get better at it.

Kick Removed equals the popular “band swimming” drill

If you take the above quote to the extreme and “take away” all the leg movements you’re left with the ever popular “band” swimming or no kick swimming, which helps teach swimmer how to quiet the legs, create good balance in the front half and identify the core muscles better.

Progress from there to 2 beat kicking which adds additional rotational component and not a lot of lift.  A 4 beat may provide more lift and compensate for balance asymmetries at various stroke points (sun yang uses a 4 beat on his breathing cycle) and often a 2 beat on non -breathing for example.

Progressing again, a well timed 6 beat kick provides rotation as well as propulsion. Each step also uses more energy and is less efficient when comparing energy spent for forward movement produced. Having the technical ability to choose your kick strategically based on energy management as well as swim speed in a triathlon is a high level goal for any triathlete.

How much Energy should Triathletes spend in the Swim?

No one suggests that a triathlete should go all out on the bike portion of a tri, or that their best tri run split should be equal to their best standalone run split. Yet many swim-centric triathlon or masters coaches will suggest swimming with a 6 beat kick during a triathlon.  This inconsistency in energy expenditure is baffling.

So why the inconsistency in suggesting a 6 beat or flutter kick…  is it best for a triathlete because it will result in the best speed ? It may be faster when done well…but also uses more energy than a 2 beat kick. If a triathlete needs to manage energy across 3 sports, why not use kick timing as an energy management strategy and opt for a 2 beat kick more often?

Why not spend time developing both a 2 and a 6 so you have choices? After all, you train in more than one bike gear too, right?

Triathletes Should get Confident with Multiple Patterns for Maximum Choices while Racing.

It seems like the same coaches who advise against a 2 Beat Kick are also gung-ho for the “band” swimming drill.  In this drill an elastic band is placed around the ankles to remove the kick, and force the athlete to focus on balance and the front end of the stroke.  I think it’s also an excellent drill…especially when it can be done as a no-kick drill withOUT the band! Learnign to control the legs adequately and keep them closely streamlined without having a restricting band, also teaches the swimmer how to control the legs while kicking in any pattern.

If the kick is a progression of frequency from no kicking to a rapid flutter kick, then a 2, 4 & 6 beat kick all fall along this spectrum.   It’s incongrunent to prescribe band drills but proscribe the two beat kick.    Practice all types and expand your options while getting faster as well.

Some examples of Elite Swimmers & Their Kicks…

Here’s a fast female with a 2 beat kick from what I can tell… honesty with a tempo that fast I don’t know how she’d fit in 4 or 6 beats.  This is the incomparable Janet Evans, a 5’0″ powerhouse champion.

 

Here is Katie Ledecky, World Record Holder in the 1500m at her performance in the 2015 World championship.  This is a great video to wtach because she displays a variety of kick patterns including 2, 4 & 6 beat.  her 4 beat kick is an asymmetric 1-3 kick, which means it resembles a 2 Beat kick on one half of the body and a 6  beat kick on the other half.   Take a look and let me know what you see…

Here’s a great one of Katie Ledecky & Simone Manuel competing in the 200m race.  Simone Manuel who I have written about before, is racing at the long end of her competitive ability, and Katie Ledecky is racing at the short end.   Who do you think will win? Both are using 6 beat kicks here the entire way as far as I can tell.    This shows that the distance can help determine the kick pattern.  In the 1500m Ledecky kicks less often.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

What are your thoughts on the best kick timing for triathletes?

Image by <a href=”https://pixabay.com/users/tpsdave-12019/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=79592″>David Mark</a> from <a href=”https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=79592″>Pixabay</a>

10 Questions to Ask When Interviewing a Triathlon Coach

Choosing a triathlon coach is daunting whether it is your first time or your fifth. Knowing what questions to ask is hard when you’re not even sure what you are looking for.

Use these questions as a guide not only for interviewing a coach, but also to ask yourself if you are considering self-coaching.

  1. Where can I read or hear about examples of your past coaching? Experienced coaches will have a ready list of past clients, write-ups on their own websites and often the athletes will write their own race reports that give credit to their coach.  Don’t get enamored by coaches of celebrity triathletes. There are only so many Chef Gordons, Apolo Anton Ohnos or Hines Wards to be coached.   There are hundreds of thousands of athletes you many have never heard of who have been coached by excellent age group coaches. 
  2. Who is your favorite triathlon coach and why? The answer can reveal a lot about the coach’s training style and philosophy. It’s probably that they aspire to coach in a similar way to the coaches that they admire. 
  3. What training technologies do you use and why?   There are so many new technologies out on the market today, and you can’t expect to be an expert in all of them.  Coaches, however, tend to either stick with their tried and true technologies or be early adopters of new gear and gadgets.   You’ll want to make sure that your personality matches your coach’s use of tools and gadgets. And if you’ve invested a lot of time and dollars into a power meter, for example, you’ll want to make sure your coach is comfortable and experienced using it for her clients as well. 
  4. How will you optimize my training for my goal race?   There are a handful of common methods to plan a season, and then dozens if not infinite ways to manipulate basic training ideas.   Some elements of optimization don’t change from person to person, such as the principals of frequency, intensity, specificity, progressive overload.  However, there are a number of ways those elements are combined and emphasized during the season is one thing that makes a certain coaching style unique. 
  5. What kind of experience do you have for my *unique situation*?   This can be any kind of unique situation.   A medical condition like diabetes or a history of a heart attack or pacemaker,  a cancer survivor or even current cancer treatment, recent or remote surgery, limb amputation, visual loss, hearing loss… the list goes on and on.   If you have a unique situation that you think may disqualify you from being a triathlete, think again. I guarantee there is a coach who has worked with someone like you before.  And if not, coaches are trained in how to modify training, bikes, swim workouts, etc to accommodate special people. Find out if your potential coach has experience or has connections to another coach who does. 


Getting comfortable interviewing a potential coach is vital for you to choose the right coach for you. You’ll receive 5 MORE questions to ask when interviewing a triathlon coach by downloading our 2-page infographic “10 Questions to Ask When Interviewing a Triathlon Coach” and have it immediately delivered to your email inbox.