Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Iron Focus | 5 Important Tips for Success

Being an Ironman athlete requires a huge investment in time, money and emotional strength.  For many people, it takes on the commitment levels of a second job as more and more “free time” is spent swimming, cycling and running in pursuit of higher levels of endurance and speed. And the more you train, commit and invest, the higher the expectations are for success from yourself as well as from the people you know.  For some, the pressure of increasing expectations to perform is too much and has a negative impact on other areas of life, including family and career.  And ultimately, this creates a snowball affect whereby your race performance begins to suffer as well.

I call it the Ironman Black Hole and in my 20+ years of training, racing and coaching experience, have found that no one is immune to falling into it.  While participation in our sport has so many positive benefits including boosting one’s physical fitness, personal health, self-esteem and self-confidence it can also have negative consequences when taken to an extreme, including misdirected focus, failed relationships and even poor health.  If you’re a veteran of Ironman racing, I bet you know of at least a couple people in your training circles who have allowed things to spiral a little out of control.

How does one cope and find a balance while managing their personal expectations?

I’m not a mental health expert, but as a coach I’ve had the unique opportunity to observe hundreds of athletes over the years and through those observations, I’ve formed a few key opinions on how best to maintain a sense of balance in life while performing in Ironman at peak levels.

1.    Train Smart, not just Long and Hard:
Basically, this means that you need to try to achieve maximum gains in form and fitness with the least amount of training time commitment and energy expenditure.  I’m not suggesting that you don’t need to “pay the price” and log the miles. I’m suggesting that you need to log the miles strategically in the course of your annual training cycle, and focus on quality training at other times.  Every training session reaches a point of diminishing returns, and as an example, for some people a long ride of 4 hours might yield better results than a 6 hour bike ride.   Make it your goal to maximize your gains in the least amount of time, develop a training plan around that goal (or have someone do it for you) and execute the plan. 

2.    Training is only PART of the Performance Equation:
Rest and recovery is of equal importance to actual training.  I know of several dedicated athletes who burn the candle at both ends, squeezing in 20+ hour training weeks with busy professional careers and the needs of a young family.  Eventually, something has to take a back seat and that’s usually sleep and recovery time.   When this happens, performance suffers and the athlete gets lulled into the trap of training more to overcome that perceived loss in performance, when in reality the key is to train less and rest more! Balance is critical… rest more for better results.

3.    Get Over Yourself:
You may notice that Ironman training is inherently a selfish endeavor.  You spend large blocks of time focused on your training and recovery needs, not to mention large sums of money paying for your expensive hobby.  Then once you start having some success at the races, your perceived sense of self-worth can expand, as does the size of your head. 

I’ve observed that the best athletes who are in the lifestyle over the long term stay grounded and maintain a sense of gratitude and remain humble for what they are able to accomplish as athletes. Not everyone has the ability to do what we as Ironman athletes and sometimes we tend to take for it granted.

Try to give back by mentoring/coaching others, volunteering at events or racing for a charitable cause.  It’ll help keep you focused as well as help you keep things in proper perspective.

4.    Remember Why you Train and Race:
We all have different reasons for doing Ironman.  99.9% of people who participate in triathlon do it as a recreational pursuit and not to generate income to support themselves and their families.  However, if you go to a National caliber race, you’d swear that every bike on the rack is worth over $5K+ and that every athlete with their sponsored logo’d team kits, strutting their stuff, was a full-time pro racing to win and to get a paycheck to put food on the table.  We know this is not the case.

I’ve seen athletes get so worried about how they do and what people will think about them based on their results, they tighten up and get paralyzed with fear, ending up having sub-par performances and in the process, not enjoying the race experience.  

Research and experience shows that an athlete in a relaxed but focused state performs at optimal levels.  Don’t spend unnecessary emotional energy worrying about what other people think of your result, because truth be told, no one really cares as much as you do! (Except perhaps your coach!)

Remind yourself frequently, especially before your key “A” race, that the sun will shine the next day regardless of your placing in the age group.  Have fun out there on the course, keep it loose and remind yourself of why you race and your performance will reflect your attitude.

5.     Learn to Deal with Adversity:
There is one thing that is guaranteed during the course of an Ironman and that is that something “bad” or unplanned will happen.  Sounds a little bit like life, huh?  The day is long and hard and there are so many moving parts and variables, from getting goggles knocked off in the swim to having a mechanical on the bike to puking up your GU on the run.  Everyone out there racing with you wants that “perfect” day, but few, if any, will experience it.  Learn how to deal with adversity and not allow it to have a negative impact on your performance.  Plan for it (i.e. know how to change your tire quickly) and be mentally prepared to deal with it if and when it happens. Remember, having a good attitude is a key to race day success when things don't go your way. And whatever you do, never throw your bike or scream at a volunteer! 

In reviewing these five key observations, I notice that I’ve been guilty, at least to some degree, of falling to the dark side on a few of them at one point or another over my 20+ year triathlon career and have learned the hard way how to overcome.  My hope is that you can use these observations to better your training, balance your life, lift your attitude and take your Ironman performance to the next level!

Good luck and train smart!

Coach Troy

Troy Jacobson is a former pro, creator of the Spinervals Cycling video series, Head Tri-Coach for Life Time and an Official Coach of IRONMAN. Learn more at www.coachtroy.com

Learn more about developing your IRON FOCUS by downloading the 45 minute audio and complimentary workbook by clicking HERE.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Improve Your Cycling Efficiency to Ride Faster

"Efficiency and energy conservation are keys to faster cycling." 

Have you ever experienced riding behind an accomplished road cyclist or mountain biker and marveled at the smooth, effortless and fluid manner in which they pedal the bike? As with anything in life, those who excel in a particular area make it look "easy," and we tend to forget the hours and hours of time and effort that went into perfecting their craft.

To the average person, pedaling a bike might seem like an activity that requires little skill or technique development. This is far from the truth, however, for the competitive cyclist or triathlete who depend on efficiency and energy conservation in order to generate maximum velocity at the lowest possible metabolic cost.

As with any skill set, the more you practice good form and technique and ingrain those movement patterns into your neuromuscular pathways, the more you are likely to perform at a higher level on race day. There are several things to think about when the goal is to improve your cycling efficiency. I've listed a few of them below for your consideration.
  1. Bike Fit: The lightest, coolest and most expensive bike on the block doesn't mean a hill of beans if it doesn't fit you properly. Saddle height, fore and aft position, reach to the handlebar, cleat position on your shoes and even crank length will all play a factor in your pedaling efficiency.
  2. Aerodynamics vs. Power: This is an age old question that all triathletes must deal with at one time or another. Cycling fans might remember Miguel Indurain (i.e. "Big Mig") time trialing in the TDF(Tour de France) on his steel Pinarello bike almost looking as if he was sitting upright on his aero bars. On the other end of the spectrum was Hour Record Holder, Chris Boardman, the creator of the now-banned "superman" position, which stretched him out on the aerobars as if he were flying, cutting a hole in the wind while low to the ground. Big Mig chose to produce more power instead of trying to get his 6'2" frame lower to the ground in an aerodynamic tuck; whereas Boardman leveraged his smaller stature and flexibility to maximize his aerodynamics. During your bike fit, determine what's best for you in terms of power output and comfort or aerodynamics.
  3. Cadence Range: Let's face it... some athletes are "mashers" and some are "spinners." Research shows that most inexperienced cyclists tend to pedal bigger gears at lower cadences in contrast to more experienced riders who tend to pedal at higher cadences (85-95 RPM or Revolutions Per Minute). Former TDF champ and Team Telecom Rider, Jan Ullrich of Germany, was famous for mashing a huge gear-inch as he blasted to 30+ mph average speeds during Time Trials, earning him the description as a "Diesel Engine." Seven-time TDF winner, Lance Armstrong, proved that riding with an exceptionally high cadence of 100+ RPM was a good way to race a bike and win. Different athletes, different riding styles. I encourage most athletes to find a middle ground and typically, a cadence range of 80-90 RPM works best as a "sweet spot."
  4. Drill, Drill, Drill: Perfect practice makes perfect. Every time you go out for a ride, think of good form. Focus on a fluid pedaling action with a relaxed upper body and a flat back. As the road tilts up or as you ride into a head wind, think about pulling back and up a little more, using the entire pedal stroke, which serves to unweight the opposing leg. Allow for your knees to track naturally over the pedal spindle and not to splay out. Incorporate high cadence drills of 20-30 seconds at 110+ RPM into your weekly training plan. Get very comfortable riding on your aerobars for hours on end.
I encourage every serious cyclist and triathlete to invest time and energy into improving their technique and efficiency by using the ideas listed in this article. You'll be very pleased with the results come race day!

Train smart,
Coach Troy

For several excellent indoor trainer cycling workouts designed to improve skill and technique, check out www.spinervals.com and in particular, Spinervals 38.0 - Develop Technique and Power