If you're anything like 98% of all triathletes, you've probably spent hours consuming blogs (like this one, the best one out there probably), advice columns, training guides, workout programs, YouTube videos, articles, "science", anything to help you help yourself become the best triathlete you can be. And I've done that too. So much of it it make my head spin.
But in reviewing all of that material, I kept (keep) coming up against a disconnect between what I would read and what I could then go out and get my body to do. And I've realized something: That in all of the advice columns and training guides there is one huge issue, they all assume that I have baseline abilities that I simply don't have.
As a result, when I try and do what they suggest, I often struggle and end a workout thinking "WTF" to that.
The reality is that most of these training pieces are not written for a rank beginner from the perspective of a rank beginner. They are written by (hopefully) extremely accomplished professionals who have: 1. Trained for years, 2. Have incredible natural athletic ability, and 3. Really can't comprehend how bad someone can be at these sports starting off.
So here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to tell you what you can't do! More specifically, here's what I can't do that the "internets" tells me I should do. And why am I telling you this? So that you know that's it's perfectly okay to not be able to do things either! Hurray for us non-doers!!
Now hopefully one day I'll be able to do these things, but if I never get there it doesn't make me any less dedicated an athlete, nor any less worthy of pride in my accomplishments. So without further ado:
The vast majority of guides I have read encourage you to get your cadence to as close to 180 steps-per-minute as possible. I cannot do this. I mean I can for a little while, but honestly it's just exhausting.
I was perturbed, but then I came across this article: Heel Strike Uses Less Energy Than Midfoot Strike. Other than being a generally interesting article, the "science" is neat because it basically says cadence increases as speed increases (duh--thanks science). But look how fast these guys are running!! Put another way, it says my cadence can't hit 180spm without uncomfortable effort because I don't have the capability to run fast enough to actually need it to be there. At my 6:00m/km pace with 1m stride length, 180spm just doesn't work. For Brandon, on the other hand, his 4:30/km pace lends itself well to a higher cadence. So what do I do? I work on increasing my cadence anyway, but I recognize that until I can actually run fast enough, a 180spm is probably not something that is sustainable or even efficient. Instead, I focus on high cadence within my stride limits.
- Heel Lift:
Are you ever slogging your way along feeling like you're basically doing the shuffle step and then you see some jackass gallop by you looking like a majestic antelope? Chest up, head back, high heels? He (or she) looks like a runner. You (me) look like, well, a sack on legs.
Well this kept bugging me. I am very visual (gigiddy), and I learn technique mostly through visual cues. "Get your heels up" I would think. And I read articles about it. A few said to put effort into lift your heels (which sounded weird, why would I put more effort into running?), some recommend the butt-kick drill (which really is for figuring out your centre of gravity more than getting your heels high), and most said that heel lift is--surprise--also a factor is speed! As you run faster and your stride lengthens, your heels lift higher and naturally spring back through the action of your hips. So again! I can't run fast enough to make my heels lift! If I force it it's wrong, so I need to adjust and expect that as I improve my overall speed my body will naturally make me look "more like a runner" because why? Because I will actually be running!! For now, shuffle step all the way.
- Zone 2 (or Running at all):
Zone 2 is the magic endurance training zone right? We hear that all the time. Now zone 2 varies depending on who you ask, but for me it's a heart rate somewhere around 150. Brandon is a bit less.
But guess what?! When I first started "running" (well, whatever it is I did that wasn't walking, but it certainly wasn't running), there was no darn way I could run and keep my heart rate at 150. Couldn't do it. Like, at all. I was so bad that if I wanted to stay in zone 2 I actually had to start by just hopping from foot to foot, and then slowly extending those hops into forward motion while watching my heart rate. Even now, if I do a sprint set or run up a gentle sloping driveway I may spike my heart rate and not be able to get it to settle back down for the rest of my workout. "Heart rate" creep is a common term. But basically it means my aerobic system is not in good enough shape yet. So, if zone 2 continues to be the goal for the long sustained effort what I have to do is check my ego and crawl if I have to. Hop hop hop, walk walk walk, lie down and repeat.
- Soft Hands:
Cyclists are supposed to keep soft hands on the handle bars. "Floating" almost as a matter of core strength the technique. But there's this interesting phenomenon that happens when you push down hard on pedals. Your body lifts up (more science!). My Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is an embarrassing 155w. At 6'3" and 180lbs, I generate less force through my pedals than I would guess many small children. Brandon, by comparison, has an FTP into the 300s.
With an FTP as low as mine, most of my "endurance" rides are around 110w. And at 110w, I am generating so little downward force that my body basically just flops on my bike like a wet towel. At 300w, 400w or even 500w sprints it is quite easy for me to "float", because much of my body weight is effectively locked into the pedals with my legs and core. At 110w, it's hard not to fall over when I take a sip of water because most of my body weight is focused on the seat and on my hands. So if you're feeling like you are holding yourself up a lot, you probably are. Don't stress it. As your pedaling gets stronger and your core gets stronger your upper body will be able to relax.
I run a 32 gear on my rear cassette and a compact crank set. Why? So that I stand a chance of getting up a hill. Sure, with those "granny gears" I basically spin like crazy and move nowhere, but they allow me to get up the hills eventually.
Standard triathlon bikes often have their largest cassette gear at 25 (or maybe 28) with a full sized crank (see Brandon's New Bike here: Introducing Intrepid for example). I can't push those kinds of gears so, if you are a poor cyclist like me, but ride a sick bike like Brandon, you may run out of gas before the summit. Fortunately, on a bike you can adjust those gears (like I did). So buy the gear that makes you succeed, and screw the bike shop nerd who sneers at you for putting a 32 cassette on your aero optimized race weapon.
I spent a significant time in my early swim practice just learning how to breathe. Like, literally. I would breathe out of the water (you can't breathe in it) and then blow bubbles into the water. I looked super cool in the fast lane in my race briefs blowing bubbles...
Like running, I've found there's a threshold of speed you need to reach before the "air pocket" adequately forms around your head; to make breathing simple. Now I'm sure that statement will be controversial ("oh, I can breathe at any speed"). Well maybe so, but in my experience breathing technique is much easier to implement at a sprint (where your body aligns and your head wake is sufficient) than it is at a crawl (where you are focused more on body balance in the water, and generally need more face clearance to avoid getting a gulp of pool (or worse) water). So, if you struggle now, blow bubbles, work on body balance, put on some fins to get the "sensation" of speed, and practice your sprints with a focus on breath technique.
- Full Extension:
My swim coach always yells at me "full extension out the back". Well you know what? As much as swimming is about technique, there's a reason that Michael Phelps Under Armour Ad shows him throwing weights as much as swimming. That man is strong, and strong is fast. But I am not strong so guess what? As my cadence increases I have real struggle extending "out the back". That's not a technique thing so much as a strength thing (at least at this stage, it was technique limited for a long time I admit). If I want to hold the water and push I need to be strong enough to do it. You do too.
It took me a full year before my kick generated any propulsion. And more importantly, before I could kick consistently without gassing out. That was simply a practice thing, and a core strength development thing. If you can't kick and swim without your heart rate going through the roof you are not alone. Keep at it, and soon it will start to make sense.
So that's it, kids. Some of the tried a true things to "work on" that, in the beginning, you may simply can't do. Like at all. But do you know what? You'll get there and, like I said above, if you never do then it takes nothing away from what you've accomplished. Get at it!