Talking with the Pros and the Super-Fast: What They Don’t Teach You in Triathlon Books

This year at Ironman Brazil, I was fortunate enough to meet both Hillary Biscay and Nina Kraft, two incredibly talented pros on the Ironman circuit. It’s interesting to hear their banter about how they race and how often they race.
For example, Hillary raced 11 Ironmans last year. Incredible! And as a pro and talented athlete, she consistently placed either in the top 10 or just finished plain fast. How can that be? According to literature, it takes about 4 weeks on average for the body to recover from an Ironman. Is that claim false or misunderstood?
Another example: I talked to Nina Kraft. She was ready to hit one of the 101 triathlon series 2 weeks after IM Brazil. At her skill level, she could definitely place high, if not win the race. But to race 2 weeks after IM Brazil? Unheard of.
And then there are my triathlon buddies in the Bay area, one of which came to Brazil. He is also super-fast and races all the time. I asked him how he could race so much, and he replied that most of the races he goes to, he uses as training. So for him, many of these races he races at “low intensity” but against most measures, his race times are phenomenal for “just a training day”.
After my conversations in Brazil, I thought back to snippets of conversations with other people: my super-fast triathlon friends, my coach; readings from triathlon magazines like this pro’s favorite workout or published training programs for “advanced” athletes in magazines in books.
I would hear from my coach who has the unbelievable ability to race within 4 beats of his lactate threshold the whole way and just hold it there, on the hairy edge of flameout but maxing out his race effort in the bid to win. Any book would tell you that you should always keep your heart rate in the aerobic zone. Perhaps this is true, perhaps it is not the whole story…?
And then there are the training programs which show conflicting theories on quality versus quantity. Should you constantly do 6 hour bike rides on the weekends for weeks on end or should you train at high intensity for lower time, and then pop up your ride time length for about 3-4 weeks before tapering for a race? I just read in Running magazine an article about marathon training. They gave 3 training plans. The advanced training plan started at 18 mile runs at the beginning. Wow. That’s flirting with the wall on week one of the training program!
I was missing something. In reading a lot and now researching a lot through conversations, I have found that the story is much more complex. It would be nice to just follow training advice and programs in books forever, but I think that it only can get you so far. I think that the authors have a tough time to write about triathlon and have to equalize the theories so that the general population can benefit from them. But herein lies the problem, where the levelling of the information has also meant that you can’t give a piece of advice which is applicable to everyone, as everybody’s body responds differently to training. So books tend to be great for those starting out and into intermediate levels, but I think they’re not able to deliver specialized, individualized training advice for those who want to go beyond intermediate.
As I enter into my third year of Ironman, and my fifth in triathlon, I feel that I have crossed from beginner to intermediate, and now and touching on advanced. By advanced, I don’t necessarily mean that I have the skills and talent to become pro; I do mean that I am maximizing my potential as a triathlete.
But the crossing from intermediate to advanced is proving to be a mythical ground full of theories and varying bits of knowledge, sometimes contradicting each other. I have decided to blog about my journey from intermediate to advanced in this category called “Intermediate to Advanced” and publish my thoughts and findings.
So in this post, I set the stage because I believe that my background has a huge bearing on how I apply the knowledge I pick up. Here’s where I came from:
I am a big believer that one’s background in sports from their youth has a big effect on their success as a triathlete. In high school, I never played any sports. I studied a lot but did no sports at all. No track. No running or swimming for competition. I did biking for fun but I never trained cycling. When I hit college, I started lifting weights and did some martial arts. After a string of injuries to my knees, I moved from martial art to martial art and ended up in Aikido where I didn’t need to kick at all.
Summer after my freshman year, I did try to run. I actually enjoyed it a lot. However, I stupidly ran with tennis shoes and knew nothing about running form. My knees started to hurt from the stress and pounding and I gave up.
After college, I played team volleyball for a while. But one year, I went up for a block and when I landed, I managed to herniate 3 discs in my spine. That took me out of any sport for about 9 months.
Then when I went to work for Yahoo!, I entered startup mode and basically didn’t do anything but work for many years. I lifted weights inconsistently but that’s about it.
Until 2002, when I joined Team in Training and trained for my first triathlon in Pacific Grove.
Since I did not have a strong background in sports, I did not have the muscular base that others have. I could not believe how hard it was to advance in the 3 disciplines without that base. Lots of hits and misses along the way.
I believe age is certainly a factor in my triathlon success. I started triathlon in 2002 at the age of 37. At this age, you don’t make gains or recover in the same way as when you’re younger. I’ve had to adjust my training for both factors. You always want to get somewhere faster, and you can’t because your body just can’t grow in strength as fast as when you were younger.
Entering into triathlon relatively injury-free has also had an impact. Consider those athletes who have run for years and have really banged up their joints and muscles due to poor form and heel striking. They keep running despite the pain and have caused permanent damage to their bodies. Even though I had some injuries while younger, those have all healed relatively well and allowed me to start triathlon training without pains and problems. That’s not to say I didn’t get injured along the way. But more on this in a later post.
Lastly, I had no natural technique to draw from. In swimming, I did not have a natural feel for the water like some swimmers do, or have natural body position, meaning I’m a butt dragger by nature and it’s not natural for me to lay very horizontal just by lying on the water like other swimmers. My body composition and proportions naturally cause my butt to sink in the water a bit, which slows me down unless I focus on body position while I swim.
In cycling and running, I could not believe how much technique involved both sports. But yet I had no natural ability to draw from. I had to unlearn any old bad habits and learn all new ones.
And I started my triathlon training via a very generalized program with Team In Training. I then attempted to use some generalized programs found on my triathlon club website, as well as purchased through one half ironman race. I coupled that with training programs in some books I bought. All of them got me part way there and allowed me to finish races, but finishing races in pain and suffering was not what I was after. I saw friends and others finishing races as if they were just out having fun, and they still performed much better than I did. I knew there had to be something more. I crossed into intermediate status when I signed up my coach, M2, began a consistent program of physical therapy, researched technique and trained for it, and learned how to listen to my body and adjust my training program to my body’s needs, sometimes changing what my coach prescribed.
So, I started as basically a non-athlete old guy and became one over the space of 5 years. On this topic, many of my posts will probably have the most relevance to also a non-athlete wanting to become an athlete, but I’m sure they will be interesting to more natural athletes as well as those who come with great sports backgrounds. I will concentrate on my observations on moving from intermediate to advanced.