5 Ways to Become a Better Hill Climber – Bike Training

Make Climbing Hills fun by training specifically for your race or adventure!

Image by moerschy from Pixabay

Recently an athlete asked me the following question:

I’ve noticed that I can pretty much keep up with people on rides. Except when we hit a hill, I hit a wall.  Thank god my descending skills are great otherwise I wouldn’t catch up with the pack!

Any recommendations in terms of training for climbs?  I would like to work on those at least once a week.

Here is my answer:

You can do several things to train for climbs.

#1 More Overall Power equals Better Climbing

The first is to climb, climb, climb!  Climbing is all about strength to weight (or power to weight) ratio.  So the more overall power you have the better you will do on climbs.  Thus any sort of training that raises your threshold will help with climbing (sweet spot, threshold, VO2).

#2 Climbing Short Fast Hills

Shorter climbs are frequently about anaerobic efforts and the ability to recover from them quickly.  Especially in Pittsburgh most hills are only a few minutes long or shorter.  This taps into anaerobic energy stores.  So doing hill “sprints” at various lengths from 30 seconds up to 3 minutes with FULL RECOVERY will add an aspect of fitness.

#3 Training to Recover from Short Efforts

As far as recovery from hill-climbing, doing sprints with short recovery will help you learn to “tolerate” lactic acid and keep riding when your legs are cooked. So you can craft a number of different workouts to improve at hills.


#4 Overall Leg Strength Work (Bodyweight Training)

I think it is also beneficial to work on sheer muscular strength with bike-specific leg work in a weight room or with body weight.  Lunges, Bulgarian split squats (rear leg up on a chair, other leg forward, squat down and up, step-ups, deadlifts, one-legged deadlifts, etc).

#5  Develop a Solid Core for Climbing 

Don’t forget solid core work.  When climbing the upper body often comes into play and without a strong core to transmit energy and stabilize the upper & lower body with one another, you’ll just be a floppy noodle on the bike.  Sue’s “Core and More” exercises are great for this. (She also covered the good leg work).

Mixing it all together

I would do core 2-3 times per week, bodyweight leg strength 1-2 times a week, even progressing to some plyometrics, and finally at least one day a week focusing on on the bike climbing and strength work, with at least one long hilly ride on the weekend.

That’s enough workout ideas to keep you busy for a while. Finally, I’ve talked to many cyclists who simply say that “one day” they were suddenly good climbers.  It comes as the years of riding add up and you get stronger and more efficient. Unfortunately, there is no fast way to become a better climber, but if you are consistent in your training you will get there!

This article was original published on my retired blog excersice physiology, MD on March 18, 2009

The Myth of Hypoxic Breathing

Baby (and Adult) Humans cannot breathe underwater

This is a response to a forum post over on Beginner Triathlete about so-called “Hypoxic Breathing” swim drills, and originally appeared on my retired blog, exercisephysiologymd.com on January 17th, 2007

I’m a huge proponent of using terms that accurately reflect the underlying physical changes that occur on a biochemical level when training for triathlon swimming. The words I use as a coach transmit meaning to the athlete that may help reinforce what the benefit is.

That’s why the term “Hypoxic Breathing” does not belong in a swim or triathlon coach’s lexicon. If you ask swimmers, triathletes and many coaches what hypoxic breathing drills are, they’ll respond with answers like:

  • Holding your breath
  • Swimming Underwater (as far as you can)
  • Swimming a length while minimizing breathing
  • Swimming with increasing time between breaths, eg. every 3, every 5 or every 7 strokes

I want to address the first two responses primarily, but principals apply to the latter 2 answers as well.

Firstly, holding your breath prevents CO2 from escaping your lungs. Our body is constantly consuming oxygen and producing CO2 as a waste product. The CO2 builds up much faster than the oxygen is consumed, and needs to be released through the lungs. Holding your breathing causes the CO2 level to build up in your bloodstream. So these sets should really be called “Hypercarbic” sets. “Hyper-” meaning elevated and “-carbic” relating to the carbon dioxide level.

The build-up of Co2 in the lungs while holding your breath stimulates the brainstem and diaphragm to breath. This is the sensation you feel when you hold your breath without exhaling. The lungs start to burn and the urge to breath is irresistible. Breathing is usually involuntary, meaning we don’t think about it and when not thinking about it, don’t have control over it. Our brainstem, spinal cord, and diaphragm will keep the bellows moving no matter what.

But when we voluntarily decide to hold our breath, we are overriding the built-in mechanisms. We can continue to override those mechanisms even when the urge to breath crops up. When trying to stay under the water for a long time, some swimmers and divers will hyperventilate first, in order to lower the CO2 level and delay the urge to breathe. This means that the oxygen in your bloodstream drops lower and lower while the CO2 level takes longer to build up.

However, people have died doing these drills. There is no physiologic benefit from doing them. The name is a misnomer. If you want to swim uninterrupted without worrying about breathing, use a snorkel. The benefit of using a snorkel is that you don’t have to break form when breathing, and can focus on other parts of your swim stroke comes from not having your form break down when you roll (or don’t roll, or lift your head, or claw your way to the surface) to take a breath.

A far, far better solution is to have someone work with you to learn how to breathe properly. The number of strokes you take per breath is irrelevant. There is no right number. You need what you need. The body’s need for oxygen consumption and getting rid of carbon dioxide is dependent upon how much energy you are using and in what form you are using it (aerobic/anaerobic, etc). When I start my swim warmup, I will frequently swim 7 to 9 strokes without breathing only because I am swimming smoothly, I have not gotten my oxygen consumption up by working hard, I am not generating a lot of waste products due to the low effort. When I have the urge to breathe, I breathe. When I am doing long endurance sprints, I may breathe every 2 strokes. When I am rested and doing a single 25-yard sprint, yes, I can do it with no breaths. But not because I am forcing myself to do it. It is because 15-20 seconds of maximum effort requires little oxygen.

A novice swimmer who uses all the energy they have just to stay on the surface of the water will need to breathe every stroke because of the amount of energy they are using.

Do not play with the basic needs of your body.

There is a mantra in Emergency Medical Services:

Air goes in and out,
Blood goes round and round
Pink is good and blue is bad.

That’s all an EMT, Paramedic or Emergency Medicine nurse or physician needs to know in order to resuscitate a patient. If it’s good enough for these professionals, it’s good enough for the recreational swimmer.

Air goes in and out.

Don’t forget it.

Practice it daily. Frequently. You’ll get really good at it.

Running Threshold Field Test 20 Minute Protocol & Calculator

woman running towards camera on a dirt road with a race number, smiling

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

This is one of several articles describing different testing protocols for running.   These tests are appropriate for triathlete as well as for runners.   This test is for determining your estimated Threshold Heart Rate.   If you’d like to determine your threshold running paces, visit the Running Pace Training Zone Calculator.    Or return to our main Training Calculators Page

20 Minute Protocol for Running Threshold Heart Rate

This is a twenty-minute field test protocol used to determine your “threshold heart rate” and pace.  Knowing your threshold heart rate will help you both plan workouts as well as to measure progress in your training.

Field Test Warmup

A good running warmup serves several purposes in both training as well as racing.   Your muscles need time to both warm-up physically as well as “wake up” neurologically.   When you start an activity, your body recruits only the smallest amount of muscle to get the job done.  Why? Because you are an efficient human being! The body only uses as much energy as needed to get a task done without wasting energy.  In order to run your best and fastest, you need to keep stimulating the muscles involved in running with a good warmup.   Your brain and nervous system will recruit more and more muscle groups in order to spread the workload.  By recruiting more muscles you can run faster and determine your true abilities.

Suggested Run Warmup: 5-10 minutes brisk walking with muscle activation drills.  5-10 minutes easy jogging, with three twenty-second strides thrown in, 2-3 minute recovery between strides. Be sure to take a minimum three-minute recovery before beginning the test, so your muscles can recruit the energy systems needed.

  • Begin 20-minute effort at the maximum sustainable effort.
  • If needed start slightly below what you think you can sustain, but continue increasing effort without going harder than you can sustain for the duration of the test. You should finish knowing you gave it everything you had.
  • Your estimated  Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR) is 95% of your 20-minute average heart rate for the test.
  • 15 minutes easy cool down with stretching

Now you can do some simple math to determine heart rate training zones, either relative to your LTHR, or as a percentage. These zones are starting points.  Each test will have some variation as heart rates can vary from day to day depending on several factors. Taking 95% of your 20-minute average HR is just an estimate for your “true” threshold heart rate which could be determined with a 60-minute time trial.

As long as you maintain the same conditions from test to test, the 20-minute test is excellent for maintaining your current heart rate zones and measuring progress from test to test throughout the season.  Record in your training logs your 20-minute heart rate average, the total distance covered for the test and the average speed of the test.

The heart rate is used to determine training zones, and the average speed and distance are used to measure progress from test to test.

Calculating your Heart Rate Zones
Zone % LTHR Easy Math
Level 1 (Recovery Zone) 0-68% < LTHR – 35 beats
Level 2 (Endurance) 69-83% 25 – 35 beats below LTHR
Level 3 (Tempo) 84-94% 15 beats below LTHR up to LTHR
Level 4 (Threshold) 95-105% Tested LTHR from time trial
Level 5 (VO2) >106% 5-10 beats above LTHR
[CP_CALCULATED_FIELDS id=”7″]

Additional Run Testing Resources

5K Running Field Test
A 5k race or field test is a fantastic way to regularly check your current fitness, training paces  and heart rate zones.  After you test, be sure to use our Running Pace Training Zone Calculator to determine your training zones.

Steel City’s Running Pace Training Zone Calculator
Our own running pace training zone calculator uses well established physiologic principals and a logarithmic regression that accounts for human fatigue rates.  What’s that mean? It’s among the most accurate training pace estimators available on the internet.

McMillan Training Zone Calculator
While we enjoy using our own calculator for customized training plans, in a quick pinch the McMillan Training Zone Calculator is one of the best out there.   Like ours, Greg McMillan’s calculator is based on human physiology, and also accounts for variations in muscle fiber type (sprinter vs endurance). Have fun with this one!

Running World Pace Calculator
Running World gets our vote for one of the top calculators because they use the same reference material that we do!   it’s laid out so that you can enter 2 different previous race times to get your estimated goal race pace.  This one is Steel City Approved!

References

 Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Triathlete’s Training Bible, Joe Friel

Training and Racing with a Power Meter, Hunter Allen & Andy Coggan

Dr. Phil Skiba, personal communication

Dr. Skiba’s great book:

Triathlon Swim Coaching – Save Energy and Get Faster

Efficient Triathlon Swimming  Philosophy

Transform Your Skills

After

Before

IMG_5745

Swim coaching manuals from the early 1900s up through the mid 1990s and later have traditionally focused on drills that include kickboards, pullbouys and high volumes swimming as a means to improve.   Coaches who learned to swim during this time period are now in their 40s & 50s and responsible for coaching youth, high school and collegiate athletes, as well as mentoring younger coaches.  That’s why you hear of “traditional instruction” as opposed to more modern and efficient swim instruction.   Coach Terry Laughlin of Total Immersion brought more modern skills to the lay public through his swim camps and books on self coaching.  Inspired by Bill Boomer, new ideas of learning to float and be supported by the water, rather than struggling to stay on the surface, became common place.  Efficiency in swimming skyrocketed when these balance, posture and streamlining ideas began to spread beyond coach boomer’s personal contacts.

By breaking down swim skills into small manageable components and then reassembling, your swimming stroke can be transformed into one that is smooth, enjoyable and faster than you have experienced.   The secrets of speed already lie within your own body and our job is to help you experience and understand how to apply this in your swimming.

Learn to Make Swimming your Favorite Activity

Most swimmers contact me because they want to swim faster…or they want to enjoy swimming more in order to pursue healthy physical activity. Whether you’re a rockstar triathlete or a retiring school teacher or any where on the spectrum of swim speed, you’ll learn to enjoy the PROCESS of learning to swim better.   We make swimming a mindful activity that infuses you with energy, helps you escape from the daily buzz and stress of your life, and incorporates whole body movements in a non-impactful, endurance and stress-reducing pursuit.  AND you’ll swim faster as a result.

 

Make Swimming The Best Part of Your Training Day

SuzSwimCoronadoMany triathletes and exercisers dread the process of getting up for the gym, getting ready, changing and going to do a ‘work out’ for any variety of reasons.  Maybe you’re nodding your head right about now?

By focusing on the process of swimming and getting your mind in the right place to practice gentle movements you’ll find yourself more energized as you learn to swim better.

Through this regular practice you’ll not only become a better and faster freestyle swimmer, but you’ll also begin looking forward to the pool as the best part of your training day.

 

Who Should Take  Swim Lessons from Steel City Endurance?

Triathletes of all levels

From learn to swim and complete your first triathlon, to crossing the finish line to qualify for Kona, both beginner AND elite triathletes can make improvements to their swim.  For the elite athlete, the basic laws of hydrodynamics can get challenging to manage as your speed and skills improve. It seems counter-intutiive, but to maintain progress and get faster at swimming, you need an experienced eye to help show you what you can’t feel or see on your own.

Adult Learn-to-swimmers

Steel City Endurance has a very non-intimidating approach that will ease you ito the water at your own learning speed, helping you gain confidence for your next trip to the beach or snorkeling vacation you’ve always dreamed of.  Improving your relationship with the water helps you be more confident AND safer around any water activity.

Masters Swimmers & Swim for Health

You’ll find yourself passing your old lanemates wondering what you’ve done differently and looking to YOU for instruction once you learn the fundamental mistakes that are holding you back.   If you’ve got joint arthritis or need to swim for your cardiovascular health, being able to swim easily and without stressing your neck, shoulders and back is vital for you to continue a healthy lifestyle with swimming.

Sign up the Lessons or Clinics that are Right for You

suzSwimUWPrivate Lessons

Sign up for one on one or small group lessons.  A minimum of three one-hour, or six half-hour lessons are recommended to allow you to completely transform your stroke for beginner, intermediate and fearful swimmers.

Included is video evaluation above and below water, with expert stroke analysis.  Technique development tailored to your current level of ability, clear instructions on how to structure your practice before your next less. Lessons are 55 minutes long.

Bring a Buddy

Sign up with a swimming buddy to improve your ability to practice proper swimming between lessons and on your own.  Learn what to look for in your parters form so you and your buddy can self-critique when swimming without an instructor.  Minimum lesson length is 1 hour.

Swimming Lessons for a Fast & Efficient Stroke

Lessons with Coach Suzanne Atkinson

Private (1) Buddy (2)
Single Lesson (55min) $85/$75  Add $30/$25 per person
Three Lesson Package $225/$210 (savings $30) Add $75/$65 per person (save $45)

Discounted prices apply to current members of any USA Triathlon Club:   $10 discount on all swimming lessons, $15 discount on packages of 3.

 

Stop Working Out in order to Build Confidence in Racing

Stop Working Out and Practice Instead

4 male triathletes running and diving into the ocean

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

 

Is Training by Heart Rate Better than Training by Effort?

Do you use a power meter or heart rate monitor for every cycling workouts? Do you know your training zones by heart? Do you regularly execute a threshold test set every 4-6 weeks throughout the year as your fitness improves? If so congratulations are in order…or are they?

Executing a workout well often means hitting prescribed training levels such as a target heart rate or power zone.  But an even more powerful training skill to master is nailing the effort level without out prescriptive guidelines.   Instead of having a pre-determined target to hit, you ride (run/swim) by effort following the guidelines of the workout and tuning in to your body’s response and signals.

  • How long can I sustain this effort?
  • Can I work at this level of dis-comfort for another 4 minutes without fading?
  • Can I repeat this focus level for another three sets of the same activity?
  • Is this recovery level easy enough that I can do another hard effort for the next eight minutes?

Nailing the workout intention when using effort alone means you’re in tune with how your body is responding to effort that day.   But it takes practice!

 

Failing is a Step Closer to the End Result

Henry Ford Quote - Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently

The first time you execute a workout like this, you may, in fact, you will fail miserably.   You’ll start too hard and won’t complete all the efforts.  You’ll finish too easily and not hit the desired intensity. You’ll look at your heart rate tracing after the fact and see a line that looks like the profile of the Hilly Billy Roubeaux instead of even like the Sahara desert.  In other words, your efforts were all over the place, rather than steady, even and repeatable.

You’re thinking,  “But coach, just give me a power target and I’ll hit it”.

Success in triathlon is not always about hard work. It’s more often about being in tune with your body on a consistent basis and relying on that instinct you’ve developed on race day.  Power training is fantastic, but there’s no substitute for your intuition about your own body’s performance.

There’s a recipe for developing this instinct.   Given any specific task, complete the workout in a “practice” mode.  You’re not trying to build fitness, nail a heart rate zone, get anaerobic, VO2 max-ish, or wherever the effort falls on a physiologic scale.

You’re trying to tune your instincts to hit the intention of the workout. ie  “go hard for an hour”, “run easy for exactly 30 minutes”, “execute three evenly paced efforts with 2 minute rest at the maximum of your ability”.

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Training

It may be hard to see how it’s different to hit a power range for three eight-minute efforts, versus doing the same effort without targets and going just by feel.

The first is “prescriptive”…your efforts are given by your coach or your spreadsheet of training zones. But your spreadsheet doesn’t know your body’s ability on that specific day, and your coach won’t know unless you are in a daily training environment or communicate intensively on a daily basis.

In the second example, the power is “descriptive”.  You or your coach look at your power levels, effort or heart rate zones AFTER you complete the workout instead of before or during.

You improve your ability to understand your body while executing  a practice session, rather than a workout. While practicing, you’re also developing the specific fitness needed to improve your fitness and master the pace, master the effort and tune into your body.

On race day, it matters less what your power or heart rate targets are…it matters more if you’re operating within your body’s ability to cross the finish line having used your energy wisely and finishing in the fastest time you’re capable of.

 

Fitness Follows Mastery

Once you master the workout you can learn to push your abilities while still maintaining the practice intentions.  Maybe it takes you three ‘practice sessions’ to do an evenly paced 3 x 8 minute effort with 2 minutes rest.   “But Coach,” you protest again loudly…”If you’d just give me a target, I can do it right the first time!”   Right…but that’s not the point.

Building fitness is easy. Anyone can prescribe hard workouts.   Online training simulators like Trainer Road, Zwift and Sufferfest can help you do testing sets, tell you how to crunch the numbers (or do it for you) and give you back more training sets to do.  That’s algorithmic.

But coaching is an art and racing well requires practice…not just fitness.

Practice executing specific workouts by listening to your body.  Repeat these efforts to do it “better”…more evenly paced within the workout guidelines.  See what your heart rate and power were AFTER the effort is done. Are your efforts even or ‘hilly billy’?  Is each effort similar to the previous or do they get less intense as you get more fatigued?  Or is the first effort even and the second and third efforts ragged?

 

Practice Perfect the Push Performance

Chris McCormack - Triathlete running up stadium steps

Photo: Nils Nilsen, Triathlete.com

Reread the workout guidelines and see if you executed it well.   If you did, congratulations! You now have a baseline. Next time you try it, see if you can push just a little bit more.  If the workouts are well designed, you’ll be building the fitness you need, but more importantly, building your reservoir of body sensing, pacing and confidence in racing.

Chris McKormack, two time Ironman World Championship winner, explains this concept well in a blog post called, “Keep it simple“…

“Training is about teaching yourself to understand your boundaries and then slowly pushing those boundaries up. You need to know how to feel those and where they are!

I say go out and try to get in touch with your perceived exertion and your body rhythm at least a few times a week in all the disciplines of our sport. Most of the time in training, especially when I go to a new town, I often test myself by doing the following. I leave the hotel room for a run and check the clock before I leave. 

I then say to myself, ok I am going to go and run for 1 hour. When I come back I try and see how close to that hour I actually was. I take no watch with me nor do I set any preconceived pace. I run freely and try and feel my way to understanding just how long I have been running by my surroundings and my pace and effort. Funnily enough, the fitter I get the better I am at getting very close to the hour.

 

Ride “Blind” and Benefit

During your next training session, try putting black electrical tape over your power meter or heart rate monitor.  Turn off Zwift and Trainer Road and go old school while listening to tunes, or watching a scenic youtube video.   Learn to “practice” rather than “workout”.  You’ll tap into a new set of skills needed for triathlon speed, success and enjoyment.

A Christmas Inspired Swim!

Christmas Swim: Choose the best tree for your home and Decorate it! 

Did you ever have the opportunity as a child (or adult) to choose your own tree from a farm, cut it down and haul it back home…only  to discover it was too tall or too short?  I recall setting up a beautiful spruce in our living room when I was 9, 10, 11, 12…(it was a yearly ritual), only to have my father curse, take the tree out of the (&@#%) tree stand, Lay it down one the coffee table and slice off a 1/2″ segment with a orange handled hand saw.   Some years this ritual repeated itself half a dozen times before the cursing stopped.  Only when the tree was just the right height and standing up straight, did we string the lights–starting at the top– and then finally begin to decorate the tree.

This practice is inspired by that yearly ritual in three parts

  • A) Choose the right tree for the house
  • B) String the lights evenly form top to bottom
  • C) Decorate and hang the ornaments.

Warmup: 500 – Choose the right tree
The tree you bring into your home needs to be just the right height. Not too tall and not too short.  When you swim too tall, you risk stressing your shoulder, neck or lower back.  Strive to have your posture “just right” so you’re tall from crown of head through heels, and your arm extends forward, but only enough to keep the line of posture and not force you to arch too tall when you extend

4 x 25 sequential focal points. Repeat three times total for 300 y/m total

  • Point the crown of your head in the direction you’re swimming (Tall like a christmas tree)
  • lengthen your spine by imagining a rope pulling you forward from the crown of your head.
  • Gently squeeze your glutes as you extend the arm, feeling how good posture crosses the waist into the lower limbs as well
  • Point your toes as you feel a long line form crown of head through your feet.

200 continues freestyle, rotating through any focal points above that felt most helpful

Set 1:  String the Lights 1000
We String the lights starting at the top and try to space them evenly.   In this set you’ll do a body scan from head to toe as you did in the posture focused warmup.   Look for symmetry between right and left sides as you do so.

5 x 50 sequential focal points. Repeat for a total of 500 yds

  • Head Stable – head doesn’t wobble side to side as you rotate the body with each stroke
  • Arms extend on tracks – send arm forward as the body rotates, not across the body. Slide the arm out a little bit away from the center if you sense any crossing in front. Make each side even
  • Shoulder Blade (not full shoulder) clears the water with each rotation.  How far do you rotate? See if you can rotate “just enough”, so that the shoulder blade and back of shoulder clear the water, but the entire shoulder doesn’t come to air.
  • Hips align with shoulders. The hips should rotate as a unit with the shoulders. Pay attention that when the right shoulder blade clears the water and comes to the surface, the right hip should come to the surface as well.
  • Legs quietly respond – Try to quiet the legs instead of kicking the legs. Allow them to respond to the symmetrical rotation and stability created with the focal points above.

500 Freestyle Swim – Rotate or pick and choose from any of the preceding “top down” focal points as you string the lights on your tree.  Occasionally check in to make sure that the height of your tree is still the right size for your room. In other words check in on your posture once every hundred or so.

 

Set 2:  “Decorate the tree”

In swimming we can think of decorations as all the fine points that happen in the periphery of your stroke.  Fingertips, toes, elbows, knees, nose, chin etc.   These small body parts are of course attached to the bigger parts and usually follow where the core, shoulders and hips go. But directing awareness and attention to them can heighten your ability to improve quickly and make a smoother, more efficient and faster stroke.

4 x 75 rotate focus by 25

  • Chin – is your chin jutted forward, pulled back, teeth clenched or face puckered?  Focus on a soft chin gently drawn back to help align your cervical spine with good posture
  • Elbow – allow your elbows to swing toward the sides of the pool building during your recovery rather than up towards the ceiling or behind your back.  Pair this with the torso rotation focal point to really stabilize your side to side rotation with each stroke
  • Knee – Focus on the back fold of the knee and try to keep it open and pressing gently toward the ceiling when you bring your leg up prior to your kick. This helps lengthen the legs by helping remove excess knee bend. Soften the knee during the down beat of the kick, then press the back of the knee toward the ceiling again.

300 Freestyle Swim – Rotate through each of these three “decorations” as you swim a continuous 300.

There Goes My Hero, Terry Laughlin, Farewell.

4 swimmers in the waterThe first time I met Terry was at my coach training course. When he walked in the room, he illuminated it with his smile, and greeted me by name without hesitation. I felt as if we had known each other for years, even though we had only corresponded by email for a few weeks. His capacity for remembering names, details, focal points and moments of mastery, even after years had elapsed mesmerized me. Every time I listened to Terry speak or coach, I learned something new from him. His capacity for bringing in fields seemingly unrelated to swimming and tying them into the sport was uniquely academic, insightful and set him apart from any other coach I’ve ever met.

During my coach training course, we discussed a test set at the deep end of the 50m pool. He leaned over the edge, while sitting on the diving block and asked me for my times and stroke counts. He took the time to not only suggest how I modify the set to try and achieve better master, but also explained his thought process and multiple options. He empowered me to become a better coach, not just a better swimmer.

Here is a swim set you may want to try, inspired by that first impression of Terry coaching me in a sunny California pool.

Terry’s Mile (1600 y/m total)


(200) Swim 2 Rounds of 4 x 25, 10 seconds rest. count strokes for the 25 as follows. #1 Count hand entries. #2 Count hip rotations, #3 count kicks (can you do it?) #4 count what felt easiest.
(300) 4 x [3 x 25] rest 5 seconds between 25s, leave “on the top” of the pace clock for each set. Use the stroke count from swim #4 above as “N”, and for each 25 swim “N-1”, “N”, “N+1” Try to calibrate your recovery speed to hit your stroke count. Slow your recovery to lower count, speed up recovery to increase stroke count
(600) 4 x [3 x 50] Rotating through these three focal points focusing on “shaping the vessel”
#1) Let the hand and forearm slice into the water through a small hole
#2) Let the lead arm part the water as it extends forward
#3) Let the body follow the path created by the lead arm
(300) 4 x [3×25] use each focal point above and while counting strokes (do the streamlining thoughts decrease stroke count?)
(200) 2 x [4×25] Count strokes as follows #1 Hand entries #2 Hip rotations #3 Count kicks (2bk), #4 count what felt best. Did your SPL decrease from set #1?

His and Hers bread

Also, I wanted to share something about my last exchange with Terry…words are so inadequate to describe the loss of such a wonderful teacher, friend and mentor. He had an infectious laugh and could find something wonderful in nearly any topic…even bread.

He loved to travel, try new foods, and especially seemed to appreciate artisan breads and unique lodgings.

The last time I saw Terry in person was at a Total Immersion clinic in Yellow Springs Ohio. For the clinic, fellow TI Coach Vicky and I stayed at a grand hotel in downtown Yellow Springs. Terry bought two loaves of bread for us,  they were sold as ‘his’ and ‘her’, fresh, whole grain seeded loaves. ‘Hers’ had seeds on the inside and ‘his’ had seeds on the outside. We texted about the amazing bread and the clean lodgings with the cute café.And the best part of this memory was how funny he thought the names were and his belly laugh when he explained why they were called his and hers loaves.

His last text to me was ‘Everyone here enjoyed your company and Vicky’s’. Heartwarming.

Finding your Blind Spots – Improving your Triathlon in the Offseason

Finding your Blind Spots – Improving your Triathlon in the Offseason

IMG_6786Last week I rented a small SUV while I was at the Long Course World Championships in Oklahoma City, OK.   Normally I rent compact or economy cars because they’re less expensive and I don’t have a need for a lot of cargo room.  But invariably, by the end of my trip my back and neck are tired and sore from the low, molded seats that these cars usually come with.  So on the spur of the moment I upgraded to an SUV.  My back was really really happy with that decision!   But I had two close calls while driving on the highway, trying to switch lanes and noticing that there was a car in my blind spot.

I’m used to the blind spots on my own vehicle, and therefore know where and when to look and for how long before I switch lanes.  I was a bit surprised to have this happen twice…once on my right and once on my left in this rental SUV.  It didn’t take more than one occurrence though, because as soon as I knew there was a blind spot and where, I knew to look for it before switching lanes.

Improvement Requires some Type of Feedback

Normally in order to locate your blind spots you need some type of external feedback.  Hopefully it’s not a car accident that becomes your first warning a car was too close to you. Typically I look in my mirrors, rear view, then side view, then finally I turn my head to check for anyone there…in that blind spot that I’m used to.  IN this new car, I had to look further back and for a second longer.  But once I knew it was there, it became routine to check and I had no further close calls over the weekend.

Applying “Blind Spot Reduction” to Triathlon Training

How does this story apply to triathlon training?  WE all have blind spots in our own preparation for the sport.  Whether it’s a fitness blind spot (Doing only long slow distance and no intervals?), possibly a sport balance blind spot (you like running the most, so you skip all your bike rides?), or often a technique or skill blind spot (not sure when to shift gears, or how to smooth out your swim stroke?)

A blind spot means we can’t see it.  We need some type of external feedback to identify it.  So chances are, unless you train often with a variety of friends, hire a skills or technique coach, or sit down with someone to review your training and preparation you may not know where your blind spots are.

I can guarantee one thing, though…if you can locate them, they will almost automatically improve!  Just like my rental SUV story.    Once I knew they were there, they became a non-issue.

How to Find your Own Blind Spots (Hint: If you already know about them, it’s not a blind spot!)

If you become aware that you preferentially skip bike rides to go for a trail run, then maybe you’ll be more inclined to get in an extra trainer ride this winter or sign up for a spinning class.  Pay for it ahead of time or buy a punch card, and you’ll be more likely to go.

Even if you enjoy swimming and feel skilled, seek out a qualified swim coach in your area, or someone who can do video analysis from good quality submissions…and get some outside feedback on your stroke.

How to Specifically Ask for Outside Help

Take a swim or run clinic.  Ride with a different group of people.  Join a local tri club’s weekly fitness session.  All of these are ways to get objective feedback especially if you ask for it!   How do you ask for feedback?  Just pick out someone who seems confident and comfortable, or perhaps there is a coach attending and let them know your concerns.  Ask questions like:

  • Can you watch me shift during these rolling hills and let me know if I’m using my gears appropriately?
  • My right shoulder gets sore when I swim longer than 1/2 mile, especially when I am forced to breath left.  Can you take a look at what could be contributing?
  • I can’t seem to increase my pace when I try to run intervals. Can you let me know if you see anything that could be causing an issue?

You don’t have to know the answers, and you also don’t need to Know what your blind spots are.  You only need to be aware that all of us have them.   Blind spots are even easier than weak spots to address, because the simple act of becoming aware of them opens up all sorts of avenues to create lasting improvements.

 

I’d love to hear from you.  What kind of blind spots have you discovered in the past? How did you address them?

Swimming Faster… What’s your hurry?

Swimming DolphinsLast weekend I had the rare opportunity to see dozens of dolphins swimming, leaping, spinning and playing in the ocean.  They were Atlantic bottlenose dolphins gathered at the mouth of the Ogeechee River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean near Savannah, GA.

What’s our hurry? Dolphins are particularly interesting to us as swimmers because like humans, dolphins are also mammals and must breath air regularly…they don’t have gills.  This means that they need to surface often.  Granted they can hold their breath for a long time, but they always need to return to air even momentarily.    Babies are assisted to air by their mother or an aunt if mom is out feeding somewhere.   Thus they often surface in pairs.

However this was different.  The dolphins surfaced in groups of three, four and five. And there were several groups of them.  They didn’t seem to care that we were nearby, and they also seemed to enjoy circling and swimming under the boat.

My entire extended family was gathered on that day to recognize the lives of my grandparents who lived in Savannah for many years.  We co-mingled their ashes as my aunts & uncles poured them into the ocean and we watched them drift away…the two of them finally together again after fourteen years apart.

The captain gave a thoughtful speech about water & ocean and how central it is to all of our lives…water being a part of us all.

I thought about what a rush we all seem to be in as athletes, swimmers, triathletes, competitors, and how impatient we always seem to be waiting for improvement to happy, rushing the process of discovery, taking shortcuts to speed…and simply wondered, what’s our hurry? 

All too soon the days and months and years will pass by.  Our children will grown, our friends will change and move on, our parents will age.  New pets will come into the family and old loved ones will be remembered.

I felt compelled to keep my athletic and coaching ambitions in perspective. I want to swim faster and I want my athletes to swim faster as well, but even more importantly I want them to experience and enjoy the life they are living now, no matter their swim ability.

Slow down…enjoy the pace…speed will find you, so enjoy the ride.

An Interview with Long Course World Champion Kirsten Sass

This interview originally appeared in a live Facebook interview with Kirsten Sass and is transcribed here.

The Fresh Freestyle coach crew and friends were excited to chat with amazing athlete Kirsten Sass yesterday,  the day after her age group AND overall female win at the ITU Long Course Triathlon World Championships this weekend in OKC USA.

kirstenworlds2

We were grateful for her to spend an hour answering any questions we had. In case you are not on FB or missed the chat here are some excerpts from the conversation.

Qu: Congratulations Kirsten! What will you do today as part of your recovery?

Kirsten: Thank you! Well – it will not be the most ideal recovery day as most of it will be spent driving home! I will just try to get out of the car periodically and do some moving around. 😉 Probably a nice easy swim tomorrow will help more than anything!

Qu: Thanks for taking the time to answer questions! I have one more: what is your go-to recovery snack after a training session?

Kirsten: A lot of times it depends on how intense the training session was. If first thing in the morning I try to just eat a good breakfast within 30-45 minutes of finishing. If I just need something to tide me over, my all-time favorite snack is a banana with almond butter.

Qu: Wondering how you balance everything between the kids and training? Spending 40 hours working every week and 3-4 hours a day with the kids how do you fit it all in and have energy to make it to the weekend? What are the most important tips for getting it all in and who are the most important members of your Team?

Kirsten: Great question! None of that would be possible without the support of my amazing husband. I tend to get up early, (sometimes REALLY early) and that is when I try to do my most important training session for that day. I then am able to spend some time with the kids before school; I start work around 7, so my husband takes them to school. I generally finish work around 3 so I can get an afternoon training session in if needed, and still have the late afternoon/evenings for family time.

Qu: What does your typical week look like in training?

Kirsten: Well, it depends a lot on what I am training for. It has been rather interesting the past month getting ready for a sprint draft legal race, an olympic distance tri, and a long course that was almost an Ironman distance. Typically I try to get in a good quality tempo/interval session of each discipline, a longer distance of each, and a recovery/skills based session of each. Then, depending on how that goes and how my time is, I may add in some additional sessions. Biking is my favorite, so I typically try to do a group ride in there somewhere.

Qu: The weekend before sprint and international races in Cozumel, this weekend long course in Lake Hefner OKC, two very different swims. Was there anything you did differently in the 2 environments?

Kirsten: Great question! They were two very different swims. The swim in Cozumel was relatively calm, but with a very strong current. I was actually fortunate to find a swimmer of similar ability and stay with her (hoping that would help some with the current). The swim yesterday was pretty amazing. It was very windy, and the water was really choppy. I have done ocean swims that were more calm. White caps, rollers, almost felt like body surfing and getting caught in undertows at places. Difficult to sight due to the waves. And there were shallow areas where people were actually walking. So – a little bit of everything! I found that I just really had to relax and try to ‘become one with the water’ – not fighting it but letting the chop carry me if needed. I also resorted to a flash-back from my early days of triathlon . . . when I first started I had a race where the swim was a mass start and I got a little panicked. I noticed it was a beautiful sunrise and just tried to take it in every time I took a breath. After the race I was talking to my dad and some friends, and they teased me about looking at the sunrise. Then they realized I had the fastest swim split of the group . . . . 🙂 Well, yesterday I spent a lot of time looking up at the sky – because I was more likely to actually be able to get some air by doing that! The one thing both swims had in common though, was really not expending a lot of energy trying to ‘push through’ or ‘fight’ the water, but to trust my form and training, and swim efficiently. I felt great getting out of the water yesterday!!!!

Qu: I’m doing the half in Cozumel next week. Could you share any tips or strategies as to how you adjusted your fueling and hydration plans to deal with the heat and humidity?

Kirsten: So, living in TN I am pretty used to hot and humid. Cozumel is a different kind of hot and humid. The sun just feels ‘stronger’ somehow if that makes sense – we have decided maybe because it is closer to the equator. Definitely try to arrive a few days early to adjust, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Electrolytes will be key. Have something to drink while waiting for the start. Drink early and regularly on the bike. Take in water/electrolytes every aid station on the run. Wear a cap and fill it with ice at the aid stations on the run – or if a visor is more your speed then be sure to dump some cold water on your head every chance you get. Hydrate and stay as cool as possible!

Qu: What is your favorite thing about the sport of triathlon?

Kirsten: Hands down, my favorite thing about triathlon is the community. While an ‘individual’ sport, the support I have always received from my fellow competitors never ceases to astound me. There is something about sharing that experience of testing your limits and pushing yourself above and beyond – it creates this environment of unity that is hard to recreate. I think that is why I have especially enjoyed racing the World Championship events this year so much – being part of Team USA exemplifies that in so many ways. It is a most amazing experience – and I would highly encourage everyone to do a World Championship event if given the opportunity. Very, very inspiring.

Qu: And your second favorite thing?

Kirsten: After racing yesterday, I realized what I also love, and why I continue to race as much as I do, is the challenge. I train hard, I make choices in what I do and don’t do, because I love it. You go to a race, and the conditions are challenging. Especially with the longer races – the challenge increases. Suddenly it is about much more than just the physical. There is nutrition, hydration, and most of all, psychological. You can do the training – can you put that training to work in a race? Can you continue to push once the going gets tough? There is always something in a race that doesn’t go according to plan. Can you get through that and just keep moving forward? Can you adapt and overcome? Can you acknowledge that voice inside you that says you need to slow down and recognize whether you really do or if it’s just saying that? I was telling a friend of mine that it is like why I love doing Time Trials – the ‘race of truth’. There is no hiding, no drafting, no easy-way-outs – it is you and your ability. When you are able to do your training justice, and push through, and go beyond what you might have thought was possible – well it is just an incredible thing. It is what keeps driving me, and why I hope to continue doing these races as long as I am able. And – I would be remiss to fail to acknowledge the roll of all those spectating and cheering on and off the course. That truly makes a difference – and many a time has gotten me to continue to push when the mind said to slow down.

Qu: When did you start triathlon and what was your swimming background prior to that?

Kirsten: I started doing triathlons in 1999. Growing up my swimming background was a backyard pool and Girl Scouts (side-stroke, hahaha) at the lake. When I went to university my roommate challenged me to try swimming because ‘it was a good form of exercise’ – so we went to the university pool – and it was ALL I could do to make it 25 meters. I looked around at everyone else swimming with apparent ease, and knew that I should be able to do that – so I started swimming. I met a girl who was there frequently who turned out to be the coach for the university triathlon club, and she invited me to start swimming with them. She was a Total Immersion Swimming coach at that time, and started teaching me drills and technique based swimming. My father had also discovered Total Immersion, and when I went home for the summer, continued to help me work on my swimming. Then he signed me up for my first race. And that is how it all began… And, although swimming continues to be my biggest challenge in triathlon, I truly love it. I love the feeling of when the stroke comes together, and everything just flows smoothly. I love doing an open water swim in the early morning when the lake is like glass and the sun is just coming up. I love the challenge of trying to ‘find faster’, while balancing form and efficiency. I love the ‘more intense’ – longer, interval-type swims, and I equally love the ‘just get in the pool and enjoy swimming’ swims. There is always, always, something to learn and more to gain….

Qu: One of my favorite things to ask you about is your nutrition…can you share a typically race day’s nutrition strategy, and maybe also a typical or favorite non-race-day meal?

Kirsten: I discovered this amazing product called UCAN. It is a ‘super starch’ meaning it provides a steady energy source without spiking blood sugar (like sugary gels and such will do). It is my number one pre-race nutrition. I like the protein formula – it is a powder I just mix with water and drink about 45 minutes before I race. If it is a short race (sprint) then a lot of times that is all I need. For a longer race I will generally eat a few boiled eggs, some white rice, and a banana with almond butter early. Then still use the Generation UCAN just before the race.They also make bars which I used yesterday on the bike, and then for a half or full IM if I need something on the run my favorite is Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut almond butter. As far as a non-race-day meal . . .I am lucky again in that my husband LOVES to cook. And he does it very well! I don’t do any grains – other than plain white rice. People are always surprised, but, although lacking in nutrients, it is easily digested and I generally just eat it after a training session. Otherwise I follow something similar to the Whole 30 – lots of fresh veggies, and lean meat. My diet also changes depending on racing and season. In the winter we will do more soups, butternut/spaghetti squash, etc, while in the summer it is more of the fresh vegetables in season, salads, etc.

Qu:It seems to be working well for you. Plenty of folks struggle with nutrition…how long did it take you to sort out your current strategy?

Kirsten: It actually started back in 2014 because I somehow committed myself to several Ironman distance races within a short period of time, and I knew nutrition would be paramount. I contacted UCAN, and also worked with a nutritionist for a while, because I really wanted to dial it in and did not have time or room for errors. I worked with her for about 6 mos – through the Ironman(s) and a little into the off-season just to make sure I knew how to continue on my own. Apart from that, it is still a bit of a continuous learning process. Sometimes what always worked in the past stops working, and sometimes I just crave something new. I really try to be in tune with my body, and trust my instincts if that makes sense….

What a great opportunity to get to know Kirsten, and learn a little about the life of a truly gifted and amazing athlete!

Thank you Kirsten for spending Sunday morning with us!