Laura Wheatley, coach and owner of Epic Endurance, integrates the science of exercise physiology with the art of coaching to guide athletes of all levels to their goals in triathlon. As an endurance athlete with a master’s degree in exercise physiology, Laura uses her experience and knowledge of how the human body responds and adapts to stress and recovery to craft precise, customized programs for her athletes.
Epic Endurance is bound by both scientific and practical principles, ensuring that athletes receive the most effective and enjoyable training plans.
* Realistic Goals * Managing Time & Stress * Consistency * Focus on Limiters * Metabolic Efficiency * Open Communication
Setting realistic but challenging goals
Athletes need to work with their coach on how establish, prioritize, and clearly define challenging, yet
realistic short and long-term goals. This will lay out the purpose and structure of their training season, and the success of short-term goals will maintain drive and motivation for the long-term ones.
At the beginning of each season, my athletes provide a list of their top three goals, as well as the single most important thing that we must accomplish together. We also look at their prioritized racing “wish list” and desired results. Together, we review and modify these goals and priorities as necessary. This is revisited several times throughout the season, particularly after major training blocks, races, or life events.
Managing time and limiting stress
Triathlon can be a “resource-consuming” sport; it can suck time, energy, and money away from anindividual. In order to stay happy and motivated, athletes need to effectively manage time, receive support, and limit stress across all aspects of their life: family, work, social, everyday duties (i.e. taking care of house), and other obligations/activities. Triathlon should be a positive aspect on one’s life, not a negative or destructive one. Time, scheduling, and prioritization needed for other aspects of athletes’ lives is an important factory for establishing goals (see number 1) and training schedules.
Athletes also provide me with information about their life outside of triathlon, specifically their daily schedule and obligations. I ask them to not only include work and obligations, but time with family or significant other, time needed for housework, time needed for leisure. This frequently opens their eyes and while they thought that they could easily train 15-20 hrs. per week to achieve a performance goal, they may realize that 8-12 would be more realistic. They may have to modify their goals, OR eliminate/reprioritize/ receive more support from some of these obligations.
Consistency is key
Especially with limiters. If you are a weak swimmer… do NOT skip your swim workout Athletes should train daily (more importantly, they should want to-see number 2) and stay in touch with all three sports, even during different “focus” weeks or training blocks. Muscle memory plays such an important role in swimming mechanics and cycling comfort on the saddle, while frequent running is important to keep joints, connective tissue, and muscles conditioned to the pounding. It is very frustrating for coaches and athletes when it is not cardiovascular or muscular fitness holding back training and performance, but discomfort or untrained movement patterns.
In most cases, if a workout is scheduled for 6o minutes, but the athlete can only manage 30 minutes for some reason, we would rather see that happen (and move on) than nothing at all; trying to play “catch-up” almost never works. Instead of pace/heart rate/power benchmarks, I often set sport frequency as the main goal for the week, especially during the preparation phases of the training cycle.
Focus on limiters
Especially early-midseason before race-specific prep blocks begin. Get EXCITED about your (soon-to-be-not) limiters! OWN them! This is the attitude I convey to athletes when giving them workouts addressing their limiters. You are only as good as your weakest link, and athletes are going to be stronger and faster if they are well-balanced across the three triathlon disciplines.
Train metabolic efficiency in all zones throughout the season
In other words, train at all intensities. Focus on the intensity specific to your race distance, but don’t discount the positive training effects of other zones. For an endurance athlete, I may recommend 1 workout/week in each sport ideally with very short, Z5 intervals; this will teach them muscle recruitment & form, improve lactate clearance/tolerance, and add “new gears.” However, prescribed intensity is going to vary greatly by sport, training cycle, and strengths/weaknesses.
Generally, earlier in the season with my athletes we avoid the “gray zone” (i.e. Zone 3, long-course race pace). We stay in touch with it maybe 1-2x/week, but limit it due to it’s inefficient nature- the body is mainly reliant upon carbohydrates as a fuel source at that intensity, and excessive training will produce an undesirable adaption to always rely on carbohydrates as a fuel source, even at lower intensities, even at rest!
I have seen this numerous times in the exercise physiology lab during resting and exercise metabolic testing; athletes (and non-athletes) who do the majority of their training in Zone 3, year-round, are 1) inefficient at fat metabolism, 2) are hungrier yet have a hard time losing weight (metabolizing limited stores of carbs) 3) have more GI issues during races (they require more energy intake than those who are more efficient) 4) see limited progress in performance- they train at the same pace that they race, year-round. Developing Zone 1&2 efficiency is a priority for all of my endurance athletes; if this is a limiter, then it is addressed immediately, especially earlier in the season.
Zone 3 (race-pace) has an important place in the training season though- during the race-specific prep phase. After developing movement patterns, an aerobic base, and speed (prioritized as written), we combine these fitness elements that we’ve worked on all season long to now prepare our bodies for the race. Now is the time when athletes will spend much time in Zone 3, training their minds and bodies to execute this pace like clockwork. If executed consistently, they will become more metabolically efficient in this zone, requiring fewer carbohydrates (reducing risk for GI distress).
Establishing Baselines and Measuring Progress
Test early, test often. This is the best way to determine the effectiveness of a training plan. These assessments come in many forms- laboratory testing is optional, but ideally would be done semi-annually or quarterly. Lab testing will measure metabolic efficiency; if a training plan is effective, we should see heart rate, oxygen consumption, lactate, and carbohydrate utilization decrease at a given intensity, while fat utilization would increase. If this is NOT the case, or not to the extent that we would like to see, the coach and athlete will modify their training plan.
Field testing is equally important, as it gives an indication of how actual performance has improved. C-races, time trials, and open swim or running races are a quick and easy way to assess the progress of an athlete, and to keep them motivated. However, I like using progressive workouts as a performance indicator as well. As swim sets at the same pace get longer, are they able to hold the pace? For a repeat swim workout, is their perceived effort easier? During the race prep phase, has their heart rate decreased at their planned race power on the bike? Has their run pace quickened at the same Zone 2 heart rate? Progressive workouts are sometimes “hidden” assessments to the athletes, so that they go into them as they normally would, not preparing for them specifically as they would for a race (nerves and all).
Open Communication and Subjective Feedback
Coaches and athletes may be armed with the best equipment, the “best” plan, and objective data, but ultimately, every athlete is different, and the human body (as well as life) can be unpredictable, and we need to be poised and ready to handle what comes our way. There needs to be an open line of communication between coaches and athletes to discuss not only the plans and numbers, but how the plan is fitting into the athlete’s schedule and affecting their everyday life, how they are feeling before/during/after workouts, and unexpected changes or events that will affect training (travel, illness, injury, etc.). Athletes are required to not only provide objective information to me from their training devices (GPS, HR, PM, etc.) but their subjective responses as well. I generally only write plans 1-2 weeks in advance to account for individual responses and inevitable changes. There isn’t anything wrong with this- there are many roads to a destination, and the coach/athlete has to find the right one. An open line of communication also establishes trust, which is important given the time, money, and effort that both the athlete and coach invest in the relationship.