Case Study: Apolo Anton Ohno
Apolo Ohno, 8x Olympic medalist in short track speed skating trained and competed in the 2014 Hawaiian Ironman World Triathlon Championships. In order to train properly for this event, Apolo was coached by 8x Ironman World Champion Paula Newby Fraser.
Amateur athletes should note that an Olympian, in fact an 8x Olympian, Junior World Champion and World Champion had the humility to seek mentorship, wanted to be coached, despite having two+ decades of experience at the international level of training and competition.
How many amateur athletes, after reading a few online articles, a book or two from the library, after following a discussion thread or two, after training for and completing a few events arrive at the conclusion that they know how to train, know what training is, and deem themselves experts in everything from nutrition, to rehab, to hi-performance. Meanwhile, an Olympian and World Champion with the medals to be arrogant, rejects ego and pride. How is it that Apolo Ohno is unwilling to DIY, but amateur athletes who lack training fundamentals, basic technique, and base think they can DIY a 5k, a sprint triathlon, or any other event?
During the airing of the 2014 Hawaiian Ironman, Apolo receives training zone heart rate limits from Paula: Paula advises Apolo that his training would need to be “well below” a heart rate of 150 beats per minute (bpm).
Apolo was born in 1982, and when training for the 2014 Ironman was 32 years old. Although theoretical max heart rate [HR] is not an ideal physiological metric, we can estimate that Apolo’s was approximately 188 bpm (220-age). Training at a heart rate of 150 bpm represents an 80% effort of max HR, an effort level often associated with lactate threshold [LT]. When Apolo’s extensive experience is taken into consideration, its entirely likely that his LT is north of 150, meaning that Paula’s training recommendations were for an effort well well below LT.
Apolo started athletic training at the age of 12 for short track speed skating (i.e. in 1994) and won a gold medal at World Juniors in Montreal in 1999 at the age of 17. He continued to compete, winning medals at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, 2006 Turin Olympics, and 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Ahead of the 2010 Games in Vancouver, Apolo challenged himself by starring in Season 4 of Dancing with the Stars (DWTS). In addition to winning the mirror-ball trophy with partner Julianne Hough, he gained ball room dancing technique, developed agility, balance, and coordination, and cross trained for short track speed skating.
Safe to say, leading up to training for the 2014 Hawaii Ironman, Apolo had already been training for close to 20 years, with no less than a decade at the highest levels of competition. At the Ironman World Championship triathlon, he competed completing the event in a time of 9:52.
How many amateur triathletes would like to complete an iron distance event sub 10hrs? How many amateur triathletes would want Paula Newby-Fraser, 8x World Champion as their coach?
How many would actually listen, hear, and follow the recommendations made by Paula? To train well well below Lactate Threshold [LT, aka Anaerobic Threshold].
In my experience, the amateur athletes I see at the gym, in the pool, on the track, out on the road are nowhere close to being “well below” their lactate threshold. Have a look around next time at the gym, the pool, or outside on a run or ride… almost all are red faced, huffing and puffing, desperately trying to grind out a best time each and every training session as if its an indication of ability, progress, or proof of potential. In my experience, the typical amateur athlete trains almost entirely at or above their lactate threshold, session after session. Training through pain, injury and nagging colds, while complaining of low to no improvement, flat performances at meets, difficulty in achieving personal bests. In the end, they place their hope that a racing suit or carbon fiber rims will offer them a PR.
Pro triathlete Lionel Sanders wrote in his blog that he runs repeats of 5km intervals at 145bpm…
In his book titled Blink, Malcolm Gladwell references former lieutenant colonel Dave Grossman’s book On Killing that our optimal state of “arousal” occurs in the range of 115-145 beats per minute (bpm). After 145 bpm Grossman writes “bad things begin to happen. Complex motor skills start to break down. At 175, we being to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing.”
To defeat 6x Ironman WC Dave Scott, Mark Allen changed one aspect of his training leading up to the 1989 Hawaiian Ironman: he lengthened a handful of training sessions out to 8hrs in order to have the capacity to compete for the entire duration of the Ironman. Not HIIT, not CrossFit, not Tabata, not weight training… the triathlete who went undefeated for an entire season at every distance of triathlon needed a wider and deeper base to win the one event which eluded him for almost a decade: the Ironman World Championships.
Chrissie Wellington, 4x Ironman World Champion, undefeated in 13 iron distance triathlons, WR holder for the iron distance started every season when competing as a pro with a month of play: one full month of unscripted, non-triathlon specific, fun, unlogged unanalyzed training.
How is it that a champion marksman, a pro triathlete, a World Record [WR] holder, and an Olympian coached by an 8x World Champion train “well below” threshold, yet amateur athletes refuse to believe that they should train at low intensities, lower RPEs, lower heart rates [HR]?
Elite athletes train to produce power at lower and lower HRs. Their extensive base of training has helped them already achieve exceptional levels of efficiency, but higher levels of performance require even greater efficiency. Its the years and years, and thousands and thousands of kilometers of training – in isolation, or at least out of the spotlight – that developed their efficiency, technique, form, and skill, so why do amateurs equate training with HIIT? Why do age group and amateur athletes reject base training?
The attitude that success is up for sale, that there are short cuts to peak performance, that HIIT is the short cut, reveals the extent consumerism has corrupted sport. Personal athletic excellence is no longer the ‘pursuit’, nor is it the goal of being a champion; instead its competing for who looks like a pro. This attitude is summed up perfectly in the following Q&A from triathlon.competitor.com where an amateur triathlete asked pro Sara McLarty…
Q: How can I beat you out of the water in a race?
A: It’s never going to happen! I am thousands of hours ahead of you thanks to my years on a club team in Daytona Beach and at the University of Florida; however, you can improve your personal swim time.
If a child asked this question, it could be forgiven as naiveté and unbridled enthusiasm.
If an adult asked how they can improve, then recommendations could have easily been made.
The fact that an adult asked “how can I beat you” is a testament to materialism in sport, to the ignorance of what is peak performance, what it takes to be a champion, how excellence occurs in sport, and in life. It reveals how sport has changed from internal and individual measures of success in overcoming doubt, fear, disbelief, and how obstacles, roadblocks and challenges were met, to external measures defining success by equipment used, nutritional supplements consumed, of medals, podiums, finish lines, and names of defeated opponents.
That is great for advertising, marketing and corporate revenues, but it has nothing to do with the meaning, purpose, and the nature of sport, and has absolutely nothing to do with personal excellence, wellness, nor health. Why do we allow ourselves to be robbed of the richness and fullness of these experiences, of the deep and meaningful opportunities sport has to offer? We are stripping the meaning from sport, showing children that its not what you become, its all about how you look, and looking like a pro being more important that attaining the skills, the abilities, the mindset, the fitness, the attitude of a champion. Its a deplorable uninspiring example adults are setting for children and goes a long way to explaining the drop out rate amongst teens from sport and physical activity in general.
If you start the journey from the finish line, then you will be caught in other people’s definition of success, buying everything that everyone will sell you just so you look the part.
If you start the journey from the beginning, then you will be on your way, on your own unique path of discovery where there is no definition of success as the path is yours and yours alone.
Stop settling for the fitness industry’s definition of success, set your own.
NOTE: Heart Rate [HR] training zones are physiology dependent and vary with age, training experience, medical history, illness, and across sports (i.e. heart rate zones and thresholds are not identical for the same athlete across different sports). The HRs mentioned in this post are based on professional athletes in their late 20s/early 30s. All athletes are encouraged to review training goals with their health professional to ensure that training will neither create nor compound medical conditions, and to undergo physiological testing to identify appropriate training zones.