So, How Many Hats Do You Wear?

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Pensacola, Florida, United States
Husband. *Dog Dad.* Instructional Systems Specialist. Runner. (Swim-challenged) Triathlete (on hiatus). USATF LDR Surveyor. USAT (Elite Rules) CRO/2, NTO/1. RRCA Rep., FL (North). Observer Of The Human Condition.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Want To Give It A "Tri?"

It didn't surprise me.  Much.

After Angela's foray into the marathon, relay and sand run spheres it seemed almost a foregone conclusion she would try multisport.  Since there are very few duathlons in this area, an event with which she had some familiarity, triathlon was the only (logical?) option.

She started to look closely into local events and ask the rhetorical "which event is best for me" question.  This turned into another one of those moments where the ol' coach had an opportunity to chime in.  I provided a brief list of links for events with characteristics I considered entry-level tri-geek friendly: participant fields with a cross-section of abilities, "safe" swim and bicycle courses, good volunteer support, and rule enforcement/education by USA Triathlon (USAT) officiating crews.

After this, she asked "got any triathlon training plans?"

The nice thing about triathlon is that a citizen athlete who is reasonably-healthy and self-aware can train toward a sprint event with little disruption to social life.  Once the triathlon bug bites, however, they'll begin to bleed money at every turn.  Having said that, I consider it to be the best way to implement a cross-training program into an athlete's lifestyle.  I've explained many times in the past most of my recommendations come from research, trial and error.  In my own case it usually leans more toward the side of error.  My short list of training recommendations, in macro, follow:

1. Rules.  Read, learn and follow the federation competition rules to the letter.  Know what you can and cannot take into transition and onto the course.  Train like there's an official watching you.

I've been a USAT Certified Official for four seasons now starting my fifth; I also recently completed the international governing body's technical official training course (certificates and $2.25 will get me a cup of coffee at the local Denny's).  Empirical data supports an assertion I have often suspected; U.S. athletes are the least-knowledgeable when it comes to what can and cannot be done at an event. Friends of mine occasionally call or shoot me e-mails when they have a rules question, or when they see me at an event (before the horn blows); many take the time to explain to their new training and racing companions.  Makes my job easier.

2. Transition.  Get used to using the least amount of gear possible.  The difference between new and experienced triathletes, when it comes to their set-up, is night and day.  And when you watch an international race, or the Olympics, the athletes have ALMOST NOTHING in transition...but that's international rules.  Nice thing about a nice, clean transition set-up is there's less stuff to pack in and take out, and less risk of stuff getting kicked around...especially at bigger races where space, while equal for everyone, is at a premium.

3.  Swim.  In the interest of public disclosure I am NOT a swim coach.  I have a friend or two who are really good at technique and stuff.  Unless you grew up swimming or near a body of water where swimming could be done when you felt like it (I grew up in a small town in the desert, enough said.) you're not going to make great gain in this discipline without sacrificing in the other two.  That's what makes triathlon what I like to call "golf for the high-strung."

Swim at least two training sessions a week, and if you can do both in open water that much the better. I swam a lot of masters' workouts and got spoiled by lane lines, walls and clear vision; many race venues have none of these if your race is in open water.  Use a pull buoy for pool workouts; this will teach you to swim using the arms more than the legs, and in the event you use a wetsuit it simulates the position you're going to assume.

Work up to at least the distance you'll have to swim at the race, but if you can swim more do as many yards/meters as you can.  Rather than go to breaststroke - a really slow stroke which is almost more tiring than freestyle (also drops you down into the water) - in the event of panic, learn how to roll over onto your back and's more efficient than the breaststroke, slower than freestyle but your head is still out of the water.

4. Bike.  Equipment is your life.  Get a good helmet and make certain it fits your head like a snug hat. If the helmet sits on your head like a yarmulke it's going to be of no use should you go down.  Buy one from a good bike shop and have the salesperson help you fit it before you leave.  There should only have two finger tips of space between the jawline and the chin strap; if it looks like a hockey helmet strap it's - again - going to be of no use.  Put it on BEFORE you touch anything on the bike and keep it on until the bike is sitting on the rack...during training sessions, at the race site, on the way home.  Period.  Learn how to change a flat tire.  Learn how to ride on the drop bars; these are almost as comfortable than the hoods and almost as aerodynamic as a pair of clip-on aero bars.  And if the conditions are windy you'll be more stable.

Ride twice a week; three times if you can.  There's no substitute for real road riding; turbo-trainers and spin classes are good for time-constrained riding (more efficient, though...) but bike-handling skills are a must in this discipline.  If you ride in a group learn to stay out of the draft of the bike in front of you (five-to-six bike lengths between you and the bike in front), don't ride side-by-side, and please don't wear music earphones.  Basic rules of the road apply; ride on the right, pass on the left.

5. Run.  Three times a week, for most runners this will be maintenance.  One long run (easy pace), one tempo run (around 5K race pace, or "comfortably hard"), and one speed-training day.  If you can run a little bit (up to a mile) after each bike session just to learn how UGLY that bike-to-run transition is going to be there will be fewer surprises come race day.

6. Weekend transition "bricks."  These are not required but will teach the athlete to transition from one discipline to the next.  Do the swim workout, followed immediately by the half-to-full duration bike ride.  Or bike workout with the run.  Or swim with the run.  Let your conscience be your guide. The goal here is to learn how to efficiently transition from one discipline to the next - slow is smooth; smooth is fast.

There are an abundance of good books out on the market which can guide the athlete through the specifics of each discipline, but more often than not it's a matter of common sense placed into common practice.  Go out and give it a "tri."

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Grabbing From Everywhere

I was in a little bit of a hurry; when I saw the couple with the over-filled shopping cart and an empty check lane all I could think was “for the win…”  Get in, pay for the dog food, foo-foo coffee creamer (…and yes, beer) and get back to the house just in time to enjoy Suzanne’s Sunday post-run breakfast preparation.  On weekends when she’s not working after the run, and in the mood for mimosas, we do brunch; other times we’ll hold off with a slice of toast and some coffee and do a proper lunch.  But every so often she says (when the moon is full and all the stars align), “I’ve got eggs and cheese, ‘shrooms, and stuff.  I’ll cook breakfast…”  To me, there’s little better than a quiet Sunday mid-morning struggle to eat a home-cooked omelet or scrambled egg…struggle, because the greyhound speaks little but still says much. 

I am immune to begging but Rubin still gets the remnants.  But I digress.

‘If there’s nothing being moved from cashier to cart, what is the delay?’ I wondered.  Then I looked at the cashier’s register screen “tape.”  Horrors.  The entire section of tape visible above the subtotal was filled with discounts and reward points.  Then, I heard the cashier ask the lady in front of me, “now, tell me again, how did you want to pay for this?”  I’m not certain whether she was shopping for four different persons, or didn’t have all of the funds in a single account.  Who knows, perhaps she was trying to confuse the cashier; in my (still) glycogen-depleted, caffeine-deficient and ovophilic (egg-lusting?) state I can tell you she definitely had me feeling a tad addled.  She ended up paying for the groceries with one-hundred dollars in cash and two different credit cards, as well as writing a check for 120 dollars, asking for twenty dollars in cash in return. 

Suffice it to say I informed the cashier that my transaction would be much more straightforward.
Have you ever wondered whether we complicate training by grabbing from this kind of workout, that kind of workout, this cross-training program, and so on, and so forth?  What if you could get the same increase in fitness by doing a single type of workout?  Some coaches have opined that a single type of workout, such as running at a single steady pace, can produce performance improvements comparable to a regimen which includes the typical blend of long, steady distance, short repeats at efforts equaling the athlete’s aerobic threshold, VO2max, and near-maximal race pace, and tempo runs at the aerobic threshold.

Can you improve?  Sure.  It just takes a little bit longer.

All other things being equal, there’s going to be a performance increase after three weeks of consistent work at a single intensity level – most likely that of a high aerobic effort; a big increase in the first week or so, flattening out over time.  After three or four weeks an effort (or distance, duration) that might have kicked an athlete squarely in the behind at the start has suddenly (well, not suddenly…perhaps “now”) become the new norm.  And rather than stay at that plateau, I’m going to take an educated wild guess the athlete will instinctively bump up the distance, duration or effort.  Okay, there might be folks who are happy with running, say seven miles in an hour at a 60-percent max heart rate.  But I bet those are the participants at the far ends of the bell curve.

Am I recommending it?  I don’t recommend doing steady-state running as the sole portion of an athlete’s training plan, especially when it comes to racing.  That’s like having a single gearing in the gearbox of a sports automobile; it takes forever to get from zero-to-whatever, but boy, once you get there…  The ability to work at varying intensities is necessary, if not elementary, to racing...especially when there’s terrain involved.

There are runners who are going to race as a time trial, or to push a single consistent effort for as long as possible.  With researchers revealing the paradigm (shift) for endurance racing; namely that race distances require a much higher percentage of aerobic effort (95 percent for the 5,000 meters, 99 for the marathon), it means that the ideal ratio of aerobic-to-anaerobic efforts could be a little less than we suspect.  Dr. Jack Daniels, in his Running Formula, recommends no more than ten percent of training volume be at threshold, eight percent for VO2 max work, and five percent for near-maximal effort.

The bottom line is to keep things as simple as possible.  If you have to write everything out in minute detail it's probably a sign that your training might be getting a little too complicated.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Blind Spot

Once - sometimes twice - a week I have a sit-down with a couple of guys I at an establishment a couple of miles from my home.  We drink a couple of beers, trade jokes with the bartender and observe the human condition.  My arrival, timed to hit the tail end of happy hour (after my workout and a wash), often sees the joint pretty-well filled with patrons; if Tuesday evening it's kids' night.  If Wednesday it's trivia.

However, this was a Monday, and the place was one step above a morgue.  Dead.  Winter holiday season, everyone-spending-time-at-home-with-the-family-watching-Doctor Who-special dead.  Dead enough that the front-of-house staff were in the back of the house, with the kitchen radio cranked up nice and high.  Almost high enough to be heard at the hostess station.

Which was not attended.

Steve, Bob and I marveled at the deadness of the house in between sips of beer and tapping of trivia answers.  "If a potential patron were to come in," said Steve, "they would most likely turn around and walk back out.  No staff at the front of house could come back and bite them in the backside."  I couldn't help but understand his perspective; were I the type of person who preferred to sit in the dining area.  I prefer to be up close to the beer taps, however, for me the bar is first choice.  With family members in tow, sure, it's more likely going to be a sit-down at a four-top or six-top.

But there wasn't much the staff could do short of going outside and waving traffic in, like hawkers outside of a drive-up pizza joint, or oil change establishment.  You know...the folks who flip the signs around to grab driver attention?

I could see Steve's perspective.  As long as there are factors which can be controlled, say, like the degree of welcome given to a patron when they walk through the door.  Standing in the kitchen isn't going to positively or negatively affect how Joe and Jane Local drive up the main drag.

I like to work with runners, and I enjoy the act of writing every once in a while.  When I write about training or dealing with athletes I try very hard to look at it from a balanced perspective.  Dr. Jack Daniels, in his Running Formula, described it in a four quadrant matrix, like the following:

The "non-runner" or the "special occasion, once-a-year" runner, bless them.  I'd estimate this as the population which fill up many of the large event participant fields.  They, in most cases, haven't seen running as anything more than punishment for missing a lay-up or a requirement of military training.  They're closer to the upper limit on the motivation axis and the ability axis then they think.  It might take a nudge from a friend to make them move out of that quadrant.  Sometimes they even ask me questions about running, to which I often begin with the proviso, "Well, if I were your coach..."

Great ability and lower motivation, Daniels says, are the character traits of persons who frustrate coaches.  Again, the proverbial "if I had a dollar..." athlete.  And when we talk about the spectrum of low to high motivation, this could be more of a mismatch between the athlete's motives and that of the coach.  They're going to be good to go - either on their own or with another coach - because they (often) have the answers pretty much "figured out."  Even in the presence of data to the contrary.  No need for someone else telling them what to do. 

Daniels says the motivated runner of reasonable ability are more likely going to frustrate themselves, especially if it's a biomechanical limitation to their ability.  A coach who isn't careful can, in the old parlance, demand a check that the athlete is incapable of cashing.  Bad day.  The physically-gifted runner, in this case, might only need a "consigliere" to act as a sounding board.  Pretty much the coach that Daniels said needs to say little more than, "hey, you're looking good today."

That upper right quadrant pretty much speaks for itself.  The highly motivated athlete with physical gifts; the ability to minimize deficiencies and leverage abilities, can (if the time is right) achieve their running goals...with or in spite of the help of a coach.  "Know thyself," as Socrates was quoted by Plato.

A friend of a friend took me to task last week for my lack of perspective; I carried what he perceived as a hard-line point of view about racing on certified courses, without looking at the myriad of reasons "typical runners" participate in events:
To a certain degree he was right.  I know a lot of people who could care not a whit whether the course is accurate.  Some love certain events for the post-race party, others for the great shirts.  I did not intend to put a thumb in the eye of those who support charitable causes by participating in running events, nor demean the persons who use runs as a form of "social exercise."  I'll leave the "beer thing" alone, because I've been to races (mostly outside of the southeastern U.S.) where beer is either not served after an event, or the "beer garden" is segregated, or the beer is a "value-added" (you pay extra for it) to the race.

But his perspective left him unable to see where I was coming from.  For many athletes, especially in the upper right hand quadrant, the distance thing is important.  For the athletes in the "elitist runner snob" category, and the "hobby jogger" category there are some events which are going to be as close to the Olympics as they'll ever get (I felt pretty darn good about warming up ten yards or so from 10,000 meter Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein at the Azalea Trail Run, which just happened to be the USATF 10K road national championships a few years back.  Saying hello to Bob Kennedy as he was finishing his cool-down at another race was also really cool.).  So in that case, it's an issue of quality, it's something that gets the potential (and discerning) patron through the proverbial front door.

Watch out for that blind spot.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


When, in the space of three days three contacts ask questions about the same topic...that's a message to the "ol' coach."  So, this week I'm going to take off the "coach hat" and put on the "measurer hat."  Honestly, there is a relationship between coaching and course measurement.  If I had a dollar for every person who announced their latest personal best performance (on a race course which was not certified) in social media, I could buy a few nice things.

I'm not going to dwell long on my measurement/racing philosophy:  I don't spend money participating in events which are contested on courses which are not USATF certified.  Period.

Let me answer a few "external" questions about course measurement:

Q:  The website for a race says the course is certified.  How can I tell?
A:  The easiest way to tell is if the certificate number is on the website, or the printed advertising.  A USATF course certificate number will have a series of letters and numbers; the first two are the state, next two are the year certified, next four are serial, the last two (or three) are the reviewer's initials.

If the first two digits are ten years beyond the date of the event, the course might still be accurate, but it is NOT certified.

Q:  If the information is not on the website or advertising, how can I tell a course is certified?
A:  All active certified courses - including the maps - are posted on the USATF website.  Individuals can search by course distance, course type, state, even by measurer.  Expired courses can be sought out, too.

Q:  Does anyone enforce the use of certified courses, say, in the case that a race director says their course is certified and the number is not available/found?
A:  In the case of RRCA or USATF sanctioned events (which tells the participant the event agrees to follow the organization's guidance) a certified course is required.  A record-setting performance, especially a national open record, could only be verified on a certified course. 

But there's no regulatory body at the level of USATF or RRCA who are charged with enforcing the Stephen Colbert-like "truthiness" of a particular event.  What is an individual runner to do?  If that race performance is so important to you - and in cases like the Crescent City Classic, could mean the chances of a seeded entry - then it will be important to look the information up and ask questions of the race director.  In the case of individual running clubs, it could mean ensuring that all event courses are accurate by a nationally-recognized standard.