Coach Brant's Pillars for Success
"There is more than one way to skin a cat!" I'm sure there are, but why the heck would you want or need to skin a cat?!
Anyway, back to the point. Coaching is an art and a science, so too then is training and being a successful athlete. There are endless approaches of how to train. My goal isn't to debate them, but rather share what I believe are the pillars to endurance success no matter who the athlete is. Only when we nail these basic concepts should more complex modalities be applied.
Rule #1: Consistency Is King!
If ever there was a "Golden Bullet" in training, this is it. It's not fancy or flashy. It doesn't get a lot of likes on social media. It's the every day, simple work. The little things. Done daily, over and over for months and years that will transform your performance and your whole being.
Everyone wants results, not everyone is willing to put in the work daily, over and over, like a broken record.
"Consistency Trumps Talent" - "Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard".
Rule #2: Zone 2 Training Determines 80% of your Fitness/Success
This rule simply can't be overstated enough. It probably should be rule #1, but it's here because it falls under the umbrella of doing the little things over and over. The things most won't do, or don't do correctly.
Endurance racing can be summed up in one pretty simple concept. The better you are at oxidizing fat for fuel, the better your performance will be. How do we get better at that? We strengthen our mitochondria. (Fun word, look it up!) How do we strengthen our mitochondria? Glad you asked!.. we do steady zone 2 training. Not a little bit here and there, not half of the workout with spikes in higher zones, steady EASY all day efforts. HR will stay low, and you should be ale to talk in full conversations the whole time. Any slipping into higher zones compromises the effectiveness of these workouts, which then compromises your race day success greatly. As the headline of rule 2 says, experts predict that 80% of your race day success comes down to getting this right. I will do my part to prescribe the right dosage and volume. You just have to simply do it correctly.
How to do it correctly: KEEP IT EASY! There is no such thing as too easy for zone 2 work, including walking.
Go slow to go fast. I'm sure most of you have heard this by now, but have probably heard things like, you have to go fast if you want to be fast, as well. While both are true, you need the zone 2 done correctly if you want to have the ability to do the fast work correctly. The amazing thing about building and strengthening your mitochondria is that it not only makes you better at keeping a steady zone 2 pace for long periods of time, it gives you a wider range of energy uptake at all speeds. You can actually store more glycogen in your body (which is what your body turns the carbs that you eat into). And what do we need for fast/hard efforts? Available glycogen to be able to be transferred into glucose! So you will have more of it, yet use less of it during longer events until you need it, like climbing hills, or ending your run strong. This, on the most basic level, is why better endurance athletes can not only go longer, but go faster while going longer. They use more fat during long events and save their glycogen, even at harder efforts like high zone 3. Yes, they replace some during the race, but don't need near as much as a less conditioned athlete. Less conditioned - meaning their mitochondrion aren't as strong/efficient.
An incredible podcast on zone 2 training is below. This gets into the weeds a little bit, but stay with it. They cover several interesting aspects. One of the most fascinating aspects is that strengthening your mitochondria is also a key to longevity, as well as finding off diseases like type 2 diabetes.
Rule #3: Sleep!!
Hydration and nutrition could easily be rules on their own, but we will stop with 3 rules. We need to get these 3 right more often than not. And this one, it goes much much deeper than training. If you learn one thing from me during the training process I want it to be this. Consistently sleeping 8-10 hours a night has to be a top priority for your life. Going to bed around the same time and getting up around the same time every morning is key. This is not only going to have profound effects on your racing successes, it is going to radically change your life for the better. You will live longer, think sharper, memorize and recall better, and be less susceptible to disease.
Get off the phone or tablet. Turn off that show: they just don't matter. They have almost zero value on a daily basis. The number one factor on getting quality sleep, which starts with actually being able to fall asleep quickly, is light intake. If you have on bright lights or screens in your face before bed, you will delay melatonin release and throw off your circadian rhythm. This will throw off every system in your body. Lights and screens should be turned down or off at least 1 hour before bed time.
If you aren't doing this, then every time you feel or perform poorly in a workout you have no one to blame other then yourself. You have full control of this. There isn't a training plan in the world that can get you to your true potential if your sleep isn't right.
Form First: This seems like a pretty straight forward one, but it gets easily missed. As soon as we start looking at splits, time, speed or any metric in that realm we can sabotage our progress. Of all the 3 sports, swimming is the most technical. Meaning that if your form isn't very solid, it doesn't matter how much fitness you try to build on top of it. You will get diminishing returns. You've probably all felt this. "I'm trying so hard, but didn't get faster or I even got slower."
Probably the biggest key to good form in swimming is balance in the water. Swimming is a "feel" exercise. We have to be able to feel how and where we are in the water. The quickest way to improve this is to get more touches in the water. This is complicated for most athletes, but I'm putting it out there for those who may really struggle in swimming. If you can get to the pool 5 days a week, even if 2 or 3 of those swims are only 15-20 minutes, you will see dramatic improvement. Most athletes simply don't have good proprioception once in the water. Why would you though? We spend 99% of our life on land connected to the ground by gravity. Fun fact: water displaces your body weight by 90%. This means only 10% of your body is not going to float on its own. We only have to learn to balance that leftover 10%. The more exposure to that feeling we get, the faster your proprioception will increase.
In my opinion, everything centers around breathing. If you put your head straight down or use a snorkel, you're probably a great swimmer. Finding balance is much easier. It's only when we have to breath that we are thrown out of balance.
The key to better breathing:
Breathe Early. This is almost always the first thing that needs fixed. If we breathe late, that is; after your lead arm has already started its catch phase and pulled past your head and/or torso, you will pause at the back of the stroke to get the breath in. Your momentum will almost completely stop, and legs will start to drop. We usually see the lead (non-pulling) arm also dropping or pushing to the outside to try and hold the body up. This is a pretty simple fix.
Breathe Early. the breath: If you breathe on your right side for example, as soon as you start to catch/pull with your right hand, your head and body should start to rotate to the right side to begin the breathing process. Your head should be looking toward the side wall of the pool by the time your right hand is passing by your head and chest. The inhale should happen shortly after this, before the hand ends the pull at your hips. Then, in one motion, your right hand, right hip, and head should all drive forward (head will drive back down, looking down at the bottom of the pool).
When breath timing is right, there is much less deceleration in the swim stroke. As a result, there is less body sinking, balance is achieved easier, as keeping forward momentum is one key to balance.
Quickly, the last few aspects of swim training that I think are overlooked or skipped by athletes is swimming in different strokes. Learning to back stroke, breast stroke, and for some fly will greatly improve your balance in the water. Again, it's about being able to feel yourself in the water. Playing with the different strokes will work wonders. It's also fun! And an added bonus is that it helps prevent overuse injuries, as it works slightly different muscles.
Most people call these toys, they are not toys. They are tools to help you get better. Personally, I believe most tools are overused or used incorrectly. There are only 2 tools that I think every triathlete must have.
Paddles: These should only be slightly bigger than your hand. I believe paddles are huge for developing strength in swimming. Swimming for triathlon is strength swimming. You're in open water: it is not smooth, perfect pool water swimming. You need strength to overcome open water.
Lava Shorts: Pull Buoys are what most athletes will have. They are good, but I believe we have a much better option now. One that allows you to still kick and keep a natural stroke, but puts your hips in the ideal position. Remember, swimming well comes down to having good form. Good form takes good balance. Good balance takes a good feel for the water. What better way to get the right feel for the water than using a tool that puts you in the right position, the position that you need to be feeling?
Follow the link below for the shorts I'm referring to. There are several different brands. All are fine. Use the discount code below if you choose to buy from Xterra. The price will drop to $88 at checkout once you apply the code.
Bike Fit: Biking is much less technical than swimming. While there are definitely aspects we can work on in the pedal stroke, like not "mashing," that is keeping the heel down and not pointing the toes during the downward pedal stroke. One of the biggest overlooked aspects of cycling is making sure you have a proper fit on the bike. This is huge for triathletes on a time trial bike. Without a proper fit, you could be losing power, while also taxing your muscles in the wrong areas that could lead to poorer running off the bike. You're also susceptible to back, shoulder and neck stiffness or pain with an incorrect fit. Get fit by a quality, referred bike fitter who works with triathletes. Not some guy who fits people at the local bike shop. Do this every year. Your fit will change with your fitness and ability.
Bike specificity: Ride the bike you plan to race on. I actually like mixing in some mountain or road bikes to mix things up in the offseason. But for the most part, you should be on your race bike for most of the year. Not a spin bike, not a gym bike. The movement pattern that you train on your bike (after you get a proper fit) is highly specific. Any training outside of this specificity is to some degree wasted, because you haven't trained the specific movement pattern you will be using on race day.
At the beginning of this article, I said these pillars would be things that apply to everyone, so when it comes to run form, we have to be very careful. Body type and size, flexibility, mobility, and run experience play huge roles in what should be worked on for each runner. That being said, if there is one thing the I've found that usually is helpful to most runners it's increasing cadence. Not only does this help increased run efficiency, it usually helps correct improper foot strike and hip angle.
Run Training Surface:
I'm a huge fan of softer surfaces for the majority of your running. Older adults tend to stay away from dirt/trail because there are more tripping hazards. I get that, but honestly, they are the group that needs the softer surface the most. Packed dirt is so much better for your joints from an impact perspective when compared to concrete or blacktop. If you're not ready for winding trails, look for flat packed dirt, or gravel roads. Not every run has to be on a soft surface, but the more the better. This is especially true for your long runs. The uneven nature of trails also provides an added training effect as it challenges your stabilizing muscles of the ankles and hips. Don't want to be doing the "ironman shuffle" at the end of an ironman? Strong stabilizers play a big role in this, as well as assisting with injury prevention.
As we talked about with biking on your race bike because of the importance of specificity, this is also true to some degree here. If your race is on the roads, you will want to do some of your training on the roads. But I find that is almost never the problem, as most athletes tend to do far too much training on the roads.
If trails or gravel roads aren't an option, I recommend grass. There is almost always a small patch of grass next to sidewalks. If you're new to this, just start adding parts of your runs to softer surfaces.
Added bonus, there is a good chance that doing this will uncover some imbalances, weaknesses or opportunities for growth!
Last Pillar: Strength Training
This one is short and sweet. You need to do it. You need to do it on average twice a week and for most of the year. Again, rule #1. What and how we do strength training will change throughout the year and based on the athlete's needs, but it needs to be seen as an integral part of your training. This cannot be an after thought.
I can predict with 100% certainty that if you follow these 3 rules, and nail these pillars, you will find tremendous success in endurance sports, as well as longevity. I will tie it all together with one last ingredient, patience. This is where the rubber really meets the road. It's easy to do these things in the short term, for a year or two, but generally that isn't enough. If you have Big Dreams, and want to have Big Dream successes, like those who have come before you, you need to be ready to put in the time.
Want to become a National Champion? It takes hard work and time.
Want to qualify for Kona through the legacy program? It takes commitment and time.
Want to lose 200 pounds and become one of the best age group triathletes in the world? It takes gradual, steady progression, consistency, patience, and yes, time.