The Art of Coaching

Art palette and brushes with a lot of colors

   At a recent panel discussion I was asked by a member of the audience how to manage an IRONMAN training schedule for someone who didn’t have a “normal” work schedule. My initial response was to determine just what the questioner meant by “normal”. Upon finding out that he was a pilot, and his schedule changed frequently, I was able to give some advice on flexibility and finding ways to make the workouts fit his schedule. It very rarely works the other way around. We’d all like to plan our perfect training schedule and then plan our life around it, but that isn’t an option for 99% of us.  As we didn’t have time to delve very far into this, I have been thinking about it since and decided to take the discussion a bit further.

   In today’s world, the “normal” 5 day, 40 hour work week seems to be a quickly fading remnant of the last century. However, many of us, as triathlon coaches, have developed models based on the 7 day week with 5 work days and a 2 day weekend. We typically plan around this, using what is often referred to as the “basic week”. The “basic week” model usually places the long run/long bike days on Saturday and Sunday and then uses a planning session with the client to put together the rest of the week in a manner that seems to fit. Thus, we have “if it’s Tuesday it must be swim/interval run” ….every week. The sessions change. Duration and intensity changes. But the “basic week” stays the same. This can work for (maybe) half of our clients.

   That brings me back to the gentleman at the event. He doesn’t have a “basic week” that works for him. His situation, like many others, demands some creativity. This is where the Art of Coaching begins. This is where the fun begins. Now I’ll go into some detail on how to make the IRONMAN dream become reality for the client who has no time to train. Actually, he only thinks he has no time to train because he has probably looked at generic plans and “basic week” plans that make no sense in the life he lives. He really has plenty of time to train but it needs to be managed differently., creatively.

   First of all, we have to sit down and look at everything realistically. We need to devise a long term plan with goals and benchmarks along the way. Commitment to these goals must be established, because IRONMAN is all about commitment. How far out should the IRONMAN race be? This year? Next year? Longer? Current fitness level, along with prior commitments, plays big in this. Let’s say our client is reasonably fit and wants to complete his IRONMAN in late summer, giving us a little under a year to prepare. Now the planning begins.

   I like to use a linear calendar for my long term plans, rather than grids and pages. It just works better for me. Onto the timeline I put today and I put RaceDay. Okay, now there’s some space to fill in between these two points along a straight line.

   This is where targets, benchmarks, and goals fall into place. I may want to see the long bike day at 3 hours by 4 weeks and 4-5 hours by 8 weeks, for example. Based on fitness and ability I will block out my big buildup/taper in the final 9-12 weeks. FTP testing at certain intervals and a few key workouts at points along the line. Benchmarks to test the plan come into the picture. All of these are plotted on the calendar. Now, the plan is taking shape, but without any specific schedule at this point.

   With a constantly changing work schedule the creativity has to come to play. I often can’t schedule more than two weeks ahead, sometimes weekly. A conventional schedule doesn’t fit these situations, but we have already put important markers on the calendar and now I weave in the workouts that will bring it all together. Workout priorities become critical with these time constraints. What is more crucial where we are in the timeline…distance or intensity? Maybe a long workout needs to be split up through the day. That 15 mile run may become a morning 5 and a late afternoon 10. What is more important…the 10 mile tempo run or the track speed session if the week only has time for one or the other?

   These clients are the clients that need the most guidance and these challenges are what make my coaching business enjoyable. I love problem solving and thinking outside the box. With so many available pre written or computer generated plans available to the athletes, the coach’s role has to be more than sending a training schedule every month. I see myself as a mentor, consultant, time manager, and cheerleader, all in one. Finding the finish line by using many different routes to fit the varying needs of today’s clients is where the artistry lies.


“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”

– Michael Jordan



This is a repost of an article I wrote about five years ago, but still relevant.

I was talking recently to my longtime friend Bruce Wilk, owner of the Orthopedic Rehabilitation Specialists physical therapy practice and the Runner’s High running store, both in Miami, FL. The subject of our discussion was the current trend in the running community that everyone should be using a forefoot striking running style. This is being promoted by many coaches as well as shoe manufacturers. What does this mean? The idea is being promoted that the only way to run fast is running on one’s toes. Bruce asked my thoughts on this and I had to confess that I hadn’t really thought much about it. This may make some sense for a sprinter, but I feel that there are other factors of running form that are more important, especially for a distance runner.

Leg turnover when running determines the frequency, the “when”, of foot strikes. In observing other runners I notice that far too many recreational runners have a slow, loping gait that has them rocking side to side as they “fall” from foot to foot. These runners also tend to reach forward with their lead foot, causing a heel strike on their fully extended leg. This is a solid invitation to knee injury. Just like the cyclist that grinds along, slowly turning a hard gear, increasing the cycling cadence and the running leg turnover can increase efficiency and help prevent injury. As in cycling, a turnover of 80-90RPM is a good number to aim for. This would mean that the right foot will strike the ground at least 80 times per minute. Most music stores sell small electric metronomes (about the size of a small mp3 player). Some click, some have an earphone jack, some both. One of these in your pocket set at 80bpm will give you an audible signal to keep your feet moving. Adjust your speed and effort by altering your stride length, not your turnover.

Next thing to make note is “where”, in relation to your moving body, your foot is striking the ground. Ideally this point should be directly under you, not in front. I tell my athletes that if they look down while running their foot should disappear a split second before it hits the ground, as their body moves over and blocks their view. If one’s foot hits the ground ahead of the body it exerts a braking force, slowing one down with every foot strike. If one maintains proper running posture (shoulders relaxed, body upright with a bit of a forward lean, eyes focused and drawing to a spot 8-10 meters ahead),then the foot should land under the body. As the body moves over the foot the leg fires, driving the foot against the ground and accelerating the body forward. If the foot strikes the ground too far forward we have the previously mentioned braking effect plus the foot is on the ground longer as it waits for the body to catch up before it can push forward. If it strikes too far behind, the full force of he leg firing is not accessible and hamstring injury is at risk.

And this brings us to the “how” of just how the foot should strike the ground…forefoot strike? midfoot strike? heel strike? Since our discussion I have paid careful attention to my own foot strike, without trying to consciously change anything. What I have observed is:
1) At LSD (long, slow, distance) pace I tend to land on the outer edge of my foot, but basically neutral or what is referred to as “mid foot”. As I run a little duckfooted(turned out)this seems natural and when my body moves ahead, my foot rolls in and onto the ball of my foot, pushing off with my big toe.
2) Now, as I pick up the pace my foot is on the ground a shorter time, my forward lean increases, and my footstrike becomes a little more to the forefoot since my body is moving faster over the planted foot.
3) Also, when running hills I find myself using more forefoot strike uphill and neutral, sometimes even a bit of a heelstrike, when running down. I attribute this to the ground ahead of me being higher going up and lower going down. This probably affects my ankle position at the point of impact.

This indicates that for the same person(myself), the foot strike can change with speed and terrain. I have studied some video of elite runners and triathletes, and observe that almost universally they have a fast leg turnover and a foot strike directly under their bodies, yet I saw forefoot running, midfoot running, and yes, even the dreaded heelstrike. I attribute this to different degrees of flexibility and elasticity in the leg and ankle. It seems like an exercise in futility to focus on trying to run on one’s toes all of the time, especially if the run can be better improved by these other things. By paying close attention to posture, leg turnover, and keeping the foot landing and passing under one’s moving body, the rest will take care of itself based on speed, terrain, ankle flexibility, and body structure. If the “when” and “where” are in place, the “how” doesn’t really seem to matter.


 sweatIn reading through all of the online discussions concerning the recent Ironman Chattanooga, and all of the casualties due to the extreme conditions, I have decided that I’d share some of my experiences and knowledge that might help some make better choices next time around. Disclaimer: I am not a Medical Professional and make no claims to be an expert. My thoughts written here are purely anecdotal, based on my personal experiences, the experiences of others, and whatever knowledge I have acquired in over 25 years of training and racing, over 10 years of coaching other athletes, and the extensive reading and studying that I have done through these years. Thus, take whatever I say here with a grain of salt (pun intended).


As many of you know, Chattanooga was hit with extremely hot and humid weather, temperature and humidity both registering in the mid to high 90sF for the recent Ironman 140.6 and water temperatures measuring in the range of 83F. These conditions resulted in a DNF rate of over 25% of the starting field, definitely high above the average for Ironman races. Many athletes ended up in the Medical Tent, and some in local hospitals. Dehydration, nausea, and severe cramping were among the most common causes of dropping from the race, and the same symptoms were also reportedly suffered by a large number of finishers. Were there common errors made? Were athletes adequately prepared for the race and the conditions? Were corrections made to hydration/nutrition plans to account for the extreme conditions? Let’s look at these possibilities.


The first thing that comes to my attention is the water temperature. Swimming 2.4 miles in 83F water, even with a current assist, is a 1-2 hour assault on the body’s cooling system from the beginning. No doubt most athletes emerged from the river already somewhat dehydrated. My usual plan in any long course event is to drink nothing but water for at least the first 15 minutes on the bike, until I get a rhythm and feel comfortable to begin fueling. Since so many accounts have the athletes starting to cramp early on the bike would indicate that they weren’t getting their bodies rehydrated right away. Once you are running behind, it is difficult to catch up again. These conditions would probably require a full bottle of water during that 15 minutes, maybe more for some.


That said, lets move on. Many athletes take great care to plan their nutrition/hydration strategy, and have it dialed in to the ounces of fluids and number of calories per hour. What many do not do, however, is practice the plan exactly during training for long sessions at race pace. Taking in 300 calories per hour at 130watts on a 3 hour training ride is not the same as trying to ingest the same caloric load for 5-6 hours at 160watts on a crowded race course. The stomach becomes less efficient at higher efforts. Add in the extreme heat component, and we have the body really struggling to absorb those calories. It might be necessary to reduce the caloric intake slightly, and dilute the mixture more than normal. Too high of a concentration in the gut can cause everything to shut down. More fluids, especially water, are needed. I saw one athlete’s account of dropping at mile 34, suffering from extreme cramps and requiring 3 bags of IV fluid in the Medical Tent. He had consumed something like 4 bottles of his fuel mixture and 2 bottles of gatorade at this point. What happened? Assuming an hour and a half to two hours on the bike at this point, he had already consumed 800+ calories, and he was already somewhat dehydrated from the swim. Likely his gut could not process this load and shut down, cutting off the absorption of the fluid, too. Its common for athletes to drink a ton and have it all stuck in their stomach and continue to get more dehydrated. Solution? Maybe start drinking plain water to dilute his stomach contents and get things working again. That’s what I would try, anyway.


Another thing I see and hear frequently, more frequently after this past weekend, is, “I was taking a ton of salt and still kept cramping”. Somehow, the idea has taken hold that salt will relieve cramps, so athletes are gulping down salt tablets and other sodium supplements in huge quantities. First, salt does not stop cramping on its own. Salt supplementation in endurance events is to prevent the symptoms of hypomatremia. Hyponatremia is an imbalance of electrolytes in the system so severe that the body cannot absorb water through the cell walls, resulting in extreme dehydration, even though the athlete keeps drinking like the example above. This condition comes about, usually, when the athlete is sweating for a long time, losing salt and other electrolyte through the perspiration, drinking a large volume of water, and not supplementing electrolytes. Notice the one phrase, “drinking a large volume of water”. This can become very apparent if the athlete is drinking and the stomach begins to feel bloated and has a feeling of water sloshing inside. Salt, alone will not reduce cramping. Salt will help to restore proper electrolyte balance, which can help absorb water, allowing it to flow through the cell walls to the circulatory system and the muscles to maintain proper hydration and allow the body to function. THAT is what can help reduce cramping, nausea, and reduce the chances of hyponatremia. Hydration is the key, salt helps achieve that, but only if you also drink. Drinking a lot of fluid without restoring electrolytes or supplementing electrolytes without drinking enough can both lead to trouble, and extreme heat multiplies the chances of serious problems.


So, my thoughts for future consideration are:


  1. Drink plain water immediately upon exiting the swim and for the first 15 minutes of the bike ride.


  1. Don’t overload calories, especially when conditions are extreme, and supplement your caloric intake, whether liquid, solid, or gels, with plenty of water to keep the concentration diluted in your gut.


  1. If drinking large volumes of water or other fluids in an endurance event, especially in extreme conditions, use a sodium supplement and, conversely, if taking a sodium supplement, be sure you are drinking enough water to allow it to function properly.


  1. Practice your hydration/nutrition plan in long training sessions AT RACE PACE to test your ability to absorb your nutrition during the stress of the race.


  1. Pour water over your head, put ice in your cap, hold ice in your hands (extremely effective), even pour ice in your shorts, to try and reduce core temperature when the heat and humidity climb.


  1. Enjoy the day, be prepared for anything, and always have a Plan B.



“The mind is the limit. As long as the mind can envision the fact that you can do something, you can do it, as long as you really believe 100 percent.”

– Arnold Schwarzenegger



“You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy.” – Arthur Ashe