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Bike Handling Skills for Ironman Hawaii

In preparation for any triathlon, especially an athletes ‘A’ race, the opportunity exists to study, review, and train specifically for the challenges each aspect of the race will offer.

Since the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii is a target race for many triathletes, we can use it as a template of how to review a race to identify the bike handling skills an athlete requires to successfully complete the course, and the additional skills required if the goal is to be competitive.


Course Layout

The overview reveals that the start of the bike course is in town with several corners.  Although the technical difficulty is not high, the fact that this part of the course will likely be congested with athletes frantic from the chaos of T1, riding side by side while trying to get feet into shoes or hydrating suggests that one handed riding, one handed cornering and swerving are skills to master. With aide stations on the bike course, one handed riding will come in equally handy when reaching out for water bottles and when hydrating/eating out on the course.

With two 180 turnarounds, slow speed cornering should also be mastered along with efficient acceleration from sitting and standing positions.  The second turnaround in Hawi seems to be on a flat part of the course, but the terrain of the first turnaround is unclear due to the image of the cyclist overlaid on the course profile.  If the first turnaround occurs in ‘the pit’ or similar setting, then slow cornering on an incline/decline should not be overlooked.

Athletes need to allocate time specific to developing and training these skills as these are not gained by riding stationary trainers, in spinning classes, or in group rides.  No, this is not ‘hard’ training, but it is smart training.  It is training which is often overlooked as too simple, too rudimentary, but gaps in these simple skills often leads athletes to misjudge lines through corners on the bike, risking falls and injury.  Otherwise, a lack in bike handling skills can easily translate into exertion miscalculations resulting in athletes unable to race the run portion of the competition as they left too much out on the bike course.

Course Profile

Using the bike course profile athletes can anticipate what style of riding is required in order to master the course…

15konabike - profil

The bike course although televised as flat, is not dead flat.  The profile reveals an undulating landscape, add in the trade winds and those small undulations require planning.  Slight gradients like the 7 mile climb up into Hawi can be deceptive and if exertion is not paced well, then it can come back to haunt the athlete later in the bike, or in the run.

The profile of the course should also be used to decide on chain ring and cog sizes/pairings, especially if the athlete is considering a single chain ring system.  The linked article provides a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of one ring systems, and as with anything new… ensure that there is nothing new on race day.  All changes should be made well in advance of any competition with sufficient time to experiment, trouble shoot, and to assess if the changes are indeed effective towards achieving a desired outcome (i.e one month out from race day is the target to finalize equipment setup).

In reviewing prior years of the Ironman Championships, it is not uncommon for the pros to overexert themselves on the bike, either attempting to make up a deficit from the swim, or trying to create a gap ahead of the run only to misjudge their effort.  Even Ironman Champions such as Luc Van Lierde, Normann Stadler, Thomas Hellriegel and 8 time Ironman winner Paula Newby-Fraser have all miscalculated effort on the bike in one or more races.  If pros do it, then there isn’t an age group athlete that can claim to have mastered pacing and be exempt from improving this skill further.

With the advent of power meters, athletes such as Lionel Sanders approach races with wattage targets to hold exertion to trained, thus safe zones.  But competing as a pro is never that simple as Lionel shares in his blog: making up time lost to leaders on the swim, attacking to create a gap on the bike for the run, for how long and at what wattage to recover cannot be pre-planned as the actions of competitors cannot be predicted.  There is an art to competing: flexibility is required, ranges of ability are required and consistent peak performers do so by elevating their skills of introspection and emotional stability to that of an art-form, as science and power meter data have limits in usefulness.

Course Reconnaissance

Having a map is a definite plus, but taking the time to ride and drive the course repeatedly is performed by those athletes seeking to minimize the unexpected.  To maximize their chances of completing a downhill course with the fewest errors, thus to have the fastest time, alpine skiers take the time to memorize every turn, every bump, every change in terrain so later they can replay it, visualizing how they will take each turn, set up for the next.  Memorizing the bike course to know where strategic points exist carries the value of knowing where to attack so that an escape into the unknown can be made leveraging a physical effort to inflict not only a gap but doubt and confusion into the minds of competitors as to your position.  Equally, knowing strategic points provides insight into where competitors may try to pull a trick of their own.

Course Environmental Factors

Prior races of the Ironman World Championship are available on Youtube.  In reviewing the 25+ years of the event, an athlete will gain insight into the full range of conditions which they may experience, such as…

  • In 1990, the temperature on the Queen K highway hit 110+oF (45oC) for the bike and run portions of the race.
  • In 1993, it rained on the bike course around Hawi.
  • In 1998, athletes faced a 25mph head wind on the way out of Kona.
  • In 1999, cloud cover made for a cooler race and the typical head wind on the way out turned becoming a head wind on the way back as well.
  • In 2001, 60 mph – gale force – crosswinds caused 6 time Ironman Champion Dave Scott to withdraw and slowed the bike splits for the pros considerably, having a dramatic impact on race strategy as the effort required on the bike left athletes weary on the run.
  • In 2005, there was barely any wind on the bike and temperatures were cooler than average.
  • In 2006, Mark Allen stated that he never saw the conditions so cool and calm; there was virtually no wind at the start of the race, with even a little rain falling.  Then the trade winds blew onto Hawaii.  Michellie Jones knew that the ride into Hawi was going to be rough when she saw white caps develop on the ocean.  Crosswinds became so strong, that cyclists and their bikes were lifted up off the road and thrown.  If that wasn’t enough, during the marathon the temperature spiked.

Click on the image for a Youtube video on the Hawaiian Mumuku winds.

Mumuku winds1


Training Strategies for Ironman Hawaii

  1. Indoors – training on rollers where instead of using bike gears, the athlete uses their own ‘gears’ (i.e. ability to increase/decrease cadence) to ride across a variety of turnover ranges. Example: train repeats of 5 mins duration riding a 5 point cadence range (e.g. between 60-65), and then moving up to the next 5 point range, up until cadence skills are challenged, then come back down in the same pattern.  Add in a run afterwards and you have a brick variation of this session.  In fact, this one workout has unlimited potential as time spent in each range, size of ranges, jumps between ranges, starting and end points can all be varied to accomplish various objectives.
  2. Outdoors – training to ride one handed on stretches of rolling hills is important because it is required to hydrate and eat on this bike course.  Again, a head or cross wind should not be unexpected, nor should being in a pack of riders all veering with wind gusts where holding a straight line is challenging. If an athlete fails to replenish themselves on the bike because they lack the bike handling skills to do so, then they will pay the price.
  3. Drills – cone drills to practice swerving, obstacle avoidance, hard braking, and to refine line choices through corners are indispensable because counting on everyone else to stay clear out of your way is not a strategy.
  4. Finally, a specific effort should be made to train on days when the wind is howling. Head winds and cross winds are not only possible in Hawaii, but highly probable, and when the trade winds blow, they break even the pros.  Training to pace appropriately with windy conditions, training to learn how to angle and handle a bike with strong cross winds is not only a safety measure, it may prove to be the singular reason an athlete completes the bike course.


As a coach, I find that many athletes train for the distance of the each event, often at a single speed which they predict they will hold (irrespective of conditions, etc..), failing to consider, thus failing to train for any other dimension of the competition.  Inevitably, unknown factors arise. Athletes who have trained for all the known factors then have to manage only the inevitable unknowns. The fact that athletes participate in competitions without preparing for all possible known factors just doesn’t make sense.  Why invest so much time into training hard, when a bit of smart training can leverage your performance to significantly greater results (even more than a new piece of equipment).

Smart training allowed Michael Phelps to win the 200m Butterfly event in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, winning one of his 8 gold medals, and set a World Record.  His coach anticipated the possibility of his goggles falling off or filling up with water in competition, therefore he trained Michael to swim without goggles.  Without smart training, all of Michael’s hard training would likely not have resulted in this outcome.

4x Hawaii Ironman Champion, Chrissie Wellington shared that she prepares for all possible eventualities, and visualizes scenarios so that she will have not only the physical ability but the mental plan as well on how to handle challenges.  A flat tire is only a flat tire, a drafting penalty is a penalty which has to be served, but if you panic, get peeved, then what was a simple solvable issue can blow up, throwing off your entire race.

The lesson is… take the time to study that which you are training for; not just the distance, but as many dimensions of the competition as possible.  This is yet another benefit of working with a coach.  An attentive coach anticipates – as a result of experience and study – the widest range of ‘what ifs’ that can arise in competition, and adjusts training and race strategies for their athletes accordingly. This applies not only to triathlons, but to any competition whether it is a swim meet, open water swim competition, track meet, road races, or cycling events.  By anticipating, thus eliminating as many variables as possible the enjoyment, the satisfaction, and performance in competing can be far more rewarding.


It is easy to adjust training weeks, or better yet, months ahead to make a race the experience that you want it to be.  It just takes a bit of planning.

Rolling to Better Bike Handling Skills

Although many cyclists and triathletes train through the winter months using trainers, there is nothing like a set of rollers to develop bike handling skills, cadence, and top end speed.

By using trainers, cyclists can get away with horrific technique.  Not with rollers.  On rollers you need to have a smooth symmetrical pedal stroke, the ability to shift your weight only slightly to make minor adjustments to keep the bike on the rollers, as steering is not an option.  On rollers you cannot get away with anything.  Training on rollers – in time – develops a relaxed grip, loose arms, technique which has power generation beginning at the core, plus symmetry in body position. To take bike handling skills to a new level – by eliminating bad habits such as steering to correct a line, riding with a white knuckle death grip, powering only from the hips and only on the down stroke, as so on – rollers are the investment to make to becoming better.

Just watch the form of these riders as they take their cadence up to the low 200s…

Track riders train and compete on bikes which have only one gear – one chainring in the front, and a single gear on the back hub – hence the term ‘fixie‘.  The only way to accelerate, decelerate, and for that matter to come to a stop is by the rider changing the speeds at which they pedal (i.e. turnover or cadence). Instead of the bike having gears, it is the rider who must have ‘gears’ by having the ability to pedal at different speeds.

You can train on rollers with a fixe, but it isn’t mandatory.  You can train just as easily on rollers with a regular road bike, but instead of changing gears on the bike, train your own ability to change gears (i.e. pedaling cadence) to go faster and slower.

Why train turnover?  Because you simply cannot achieve your potential as a cyclist being able to ride only one cadence.  The ability to drop the hammer, attack, drop the peloton or another rider efficiently with the ability to recover while holding a new pace comes from the ability to maneuver throughout a wide rpm band, not by pounding bigger gears.  This is no different in swimming and running.  Olympic level swimmers have not only different gears, they have entirely different strokes depending on whether they are racing short course yards or long course meters; this is no different than crit cycling requiring a different setup and technique then tour riding or a TT competition.

Note how smooth the rider is in the video and how the bike remains still despite the fact that he brings his cadence up to into the low to mid 200s, and then back down.  This ability requires a tremendous amount of flexibility and a relaxed effort so that the rider can turnover at an incredible rate without vibrating right off the rollers.  Novice riders bike at low metronomic rates in the 60s or 70s. Experienced riders can manage a cadence in the 80s or maybe even the 90s. Pro riders can easily run up and down a massive range, can hold a cadence in the low 100s for a Time Trial (e.g. Bradley Wiggins during the World Hour Record), and can hold on a track a turnover of 200+ in the final lap of a race at a velodrome (watch the video in post titled “Bike Handling Skills“).

Novice riders lack the fluidity and the ability to ride relaxed.  Their rigidity is revealed in the pattern of stabilizing with their upper body while their lower body painfully grinds out each and every stroke believing that muscling the downstroke is the goal.  It feels hard to ride this way, and it is: it is an inefficient, unproductive, exhausting, and an unpleasant way to ride.

Top cyclists rotate smoothly through the length of their spine and into their lumbar-pelvic universal joint, allowing them to use every joint and muscle from their wrists to their ankles to generate power and to provide dynamic stability.  Top riders don’t grind away as they cannot afford to ride inefficiently.  Top riders need to be able to scale long gradients aerobically during mountain stages and simultaneously have the slack in their system to be able to attack not once but numerous times.  Top riders need to be able to hold high turnover rates for prolonged periods when they break away in the final kilometers of a key stage in a tour to outpace the peloton.

Same applies to triathletes as being loose and relaxed off the bike is key to being able to run efficiently and effortlessly to the final finish line of the event.  If you want to run a cadence in the 90s then wouldn’t it make sense to be able to bike at such a cadence comfortably?  If you come off the bike and have difficulty changing gears into running mode, you may want to review your cadence profile from your last triathlon… it may provide interesting insight into your ability (or inability for that matter) to run in competition.

Francois Pervis

French track cyclists Francois Pervis.  In the video in the post titled “Bike Handling Skills“, Francois is the rider who wins the sprint event against German Stefan Botticher.


Interested in becoming a better rider:

  • A set of rollers will put you on the road with skills that will allow you to weave around road furniture, hold a line, manage rolling hills with ease, the congestion around T1 and T2, and do so with less effort, with confidence, and an edge over your competitors.
  • A mountain bike and some off-road training is another option for road cyclists interested in developing agility, balance, and coordination plus higher turnover.  Climbing steep inclines, traversing exposed rock, man made obstacles, crossing fallen trees, and balancing lengthwise down a log do not forgive riders with poor skill, form, or technique.  Plus, loose, wet, and rounded surfaces do not accept gear grinding, riders need to identify the appropriate spin of their tires to maximize grip thus power transfer.
  • Sometimes the way to faster riding is not on the bike but in dryland training.  Developing flexibility, balance, and reaction speed of the bike can translate into better skills and greater efficiency in power transfer when on the bike.  Investing time with a coach who can evaluate and retrain your flexibility, balance, reaction time, and technique can provide an equally valuable payoff not only in faster splits, but by riding becoming much more relaxed and enjoyable.

Interesting side notes:

  • 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and winner of over 40 Tour de France and Giro d’Italia stages, sprinter Mark Cavendish both started out as track cyclists.
  • 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans and 2015 Tour de California winner Peter Sagan are both former mountain bike racers who switched to road racing.

How about no hands & one leg riding on rollers…

Bike Handling Skills

Timid in cornering, not confident while biking?

26 May 2015
By: Carolyn Murray
Published at triathlonmagazine.ca

“Improving your confidence starts with improving your skills.  There are several ways to work on improving cycling skill level, I would suggest approaching it in a progression of five stages.”

“Learn a skill under low pressure: this means you are either by yourself or in a clinic with your peers and the skills are practiced at low to moderate speeds.”

Read the full story here.


Phenomenal bike handling skills in action during the 2014 UCI Track World Championships:

Check out time periods of: 1:10-1:45, and from 2:10 onwards when the sprinting in the first race begins. Remember that in track cycling the bikes have one fixed gear, all adjustments to speed including braking occurs through the pedals as the rider cannot stop pedaling at any point (there is no freewheeling).

Notice how straight is the line both sprinters hold while at top speed, even in the corners. While cycling at 70+ km/h , riding shoulder to shoulder, at their absolute limit, both hold a straight line to cover the least amount of distance allowing them to hold top speed.  When peak performance comes down to thousandths of a second the importance of technique, skill, and form is clearly visible.

Nothing changes when speeds are slower and distances longer…

Cyclists and triathletes seeking improvements in race results typically train exclusively focused on riding faster, pushing more power, yet many lack the basic skill of being able to ride a straight line.  In watching televised triathlons, it appears many pros lack this basic skill as well.

The shortest – thus fastest – distance between two points is: a straight line.

What is the point of training higher and higher top end speeds, when technique falls apart leaving the rider meandering down the road covering as much distance left and right as they do forwards?  No difference in swimming: when swimmers who lack the technique to sustain body position train hard to swim faster, they end up fishtailing through the water.  Swimming harder doesn’t lead to faster swimming when you lack form, it results in wandering across the lane, covering more distance than necessary, expending more energy than necessary, ending up fatigued and without meaningful improvement.

Training technique, skill, and form may not seem like “training” to many athletes as the effort of this type of training doesn’t match that of competition… but that’s the difference between hard and smart training.  Hard training is like banging your head against the wall hoping that if you only bang hard and long enough eventually you will break through.  Smart training evaluates the wall, assesses its structure, its strong points and weak points, and then focuses in on that singular area which requires only one hit for the entire wall to come down.

All athletes have the exact same 24 hrs…it’s not what you do that matters, it’s how you do it.

Train smart: be focused, efficient, and effective in all efforts.


Another lesson from the video…

The sportsmanlike conduct demonstrated by both athletes at the conclusion of the final sprint reveals a level of character often unseen in sport (at least publicly)… humility in victory and respect for one’s opponent in victory and in defeat.  It is this conduct which should be synonymous across all sports and mirrored in life outside of sport.  Unfortunately, today’s ‘in your face’ competitive environment lacks the chivalry which these two competitors have in spades and which makes watching their duel only that more captivating.

Importance of Cycling Drills

When we are confident, experienced, and have repeatedly problem solved in real-time, then when it comes to competition we can focus on competing, not on executing simple skills. Beyond the fact that learning skills during competition is near impossible, it is distracting and diverts the energy required to deliver a peak performance.

In both triathlons and cycling competitions the list of bike handling skills is long, yet athletes and coaches often focus on deriving gains and improvement only by training harder instead of smarter.  Why?  Huge gains, sometimes even strategic gains which lead to personal bests in time, position, or both can be made simply by gaining a wider array of skills, and by mastering those skills.  No, you won’t leave the velodrome or a parking lot filled with pylons soaked in adrenalin or endorphins, but you will leave with the ability to hold speed through corners, corner within a pack of riders, perhaps even learning how to use a turnaround, an ascent or a descent to an advantage that forces your competitors to expend vast amounts of energy to either keep up or catch up.

With draft legal triathlon competitions becoming increasingly common, the need to acquire and develop cycling skills should be a top priority for both new and experienced athletes.  Perhaps your skills are good, but if you end up in a pack of riders who have poor skills, whether you end up in a crash or not will likely depend on your abilities, not anyone else’s.

One of the best places to learn cycling skills – for both youth and adults – is the National Cycling Centre Velodrome in Milton. Gaining the A & B Certifications required to ride open track sessions is an ideal way for cyclists and triathletes to develop track and road skills, especially since it can be done within a hi-performance training facility.  Some of the skills taught in certification which apply directly to road racing and triathlons are:

(a) Track starts teach slow speed riding, acceleration from a standing position, balance, coordination, sprinting posture and technique, and weight shifting:

(b) Pace line riding teaches reading traffic, speed adjustment, shoulder checking for safe lane changes, being able to ride a straight line, hold a line through a corner, pacing, using cadence to finely adjust speed, holding an aero position on the drops, as well as cycling etiquette (skills required for pack riding and drafting):

(c) Drills such as picking up and replacing cones require the skills of one handed steering, balance, flexibility, coordination, agility, spatial awareness, weight shifting, planning and speed management:

DSC01444 2

The Velodrome is currently closed for the Pan Am and Para Pan Am Games; however, once reopened cyclists and triathletes looking to improve their skills should consider the Certification Program.  In the meantime, below are links to articles with other drills that will take bike handling skills to a new level…


13 March 2015
By: Luis Varga
Published at lavamagazine.com

Four Drills to Improve Your Cycling

  1. One legged cycling
  2. Top and bottom drill
  3. High spinning
  4. Learning to use the gluteus


15 June 2015
By: Mark Sortino
Published at triathlon.competitor.com

3 Ways To Practice Bike-Handling Skills

  1. Straight line riding drills
  2. Standing and accelerating drills
  3. High speed turning drills

Running Consistent Pace Times

5 June 2015
By: Alex Hutchinson
Published at www.runnersworld.com

Earlier this year, researchers published a paper analyzing 92,000 marathon performances to determine that women are “better” at pacing themselves—that is, women slowed down by 11.7 percent on average in the second half of their races, while men slowed down by 15.6 percent.

Click here for the Abstract from the research paper on pacing.

Click here for the article from Runner’s World.


Take away from the research and the article on pacing…

There are layers upon layers of complexity in the execution of every skill within a sport, and flawless execution of any skill is the result of free interchange across all three dimensions (i.e. physical, mental, and emotional).

A point which arises from the hypotheses of the researchers is that due to the complexity and multi-dimensionality of our being, there is a time when physical training (i.e. single dimension) solutions are sufficient to improve, and there is also a time when all the pace training in the world will yield diminishing returns as training must evolve in order for the athlete to evolve (i.e. a multi-dimensional solution is required).

Using the hypotheses by Deaner and Hunter as a backdrop, lets examine pacing differences between the sexes during endurance competitions (i.e. marathon) beyond the physical dimension:

Male athletes who train repetition after repetition on a track to develop pacing can discard the strategy well before the race begins as they fall prey to a surge from pre-race energy, their taper, and the heat of the starting line. They repeat the pattern of going out too fast and blowing up.  The unseen competition for position of alpha male at the start overrides months of pace training as the bang of the starters pistol bursts an adrenalin filled bubble.

Female athletes are often able to sustain steady pacing from the outset of the race immune to the alpha competition setting themselves up for a negative split and a strong finish, but are unable to utilize reserves to finish the race with a final kick as they find themselves stuck in the mud. Female stability becomes a double-edged sword as the escape velocity required to change pace, to kick into a higher gear, to surge into the finish is overwhelming when fatigue is already at a maximum.

Competition after competition, because of deeply embedded behaviour patterns to which the athlete is blind, the planned and trained strategy is not followed and the athlete fails to achieve desired race results.  Without appreciation for our multi-dimensionality, athletes are trapped to repeat the same error(s) time after time despite hours of reviewing race results and training data, as the hope becomes that digging deeper – in the same hole – will yield the solution… next time.

Consider how a change in mindset – how mental and emotion training – could release both male and female athletes from sex based pacing error bondage, allowing them to finally take advantage of months of training which has so far failed to deliver results.


So how do you find that next level of performance, how do you solve training errors which lead to execution failures in competition?  Dig deeper, or start to dig… but in different holes.

Dig deeper into evaluating performances across all dimensions, and have your performances observed, evaluated, and reviewed by an experienced coach, so that your training is redesigned to take you with specific intent to the next level.  Being honest with ourselves is not necessarily a gift we are each in equal possession, but it is a skill which can be developed; especially with repetition, and honest feedback from a trusted knowledgeable source who has a healthy vested interest in your success.

It is for this reason that athletes work with coaches, and at times change coaches: to gain perspective on themselves from a different dimension, a different angle.

Tiger Woods has changed coaches throughout his career so that his golf game continued to evolve and to remain relevant amongst new competitors.  Recently, female triathlete and iron distance record holder Mary Beth Ellis shared her decision to leave coach Siri Lindley, returning to coach Brett Sutton as a result of being stuck: unable to translate training into competition. In his book, “The Way of The Fight“, Georges St Pierre (GSP) shares how his coaches refined him.  It was by being humbled that GSP became aware of weaknesses which would prevent him from reaching his highest potential: UFC Champion.  One coach had GSP attempt simple gymnastic moves which an age group gymnast could perform, knowing that GSP would fail, threatening his narratives, self image, and his ego.  Instead of protecting his weaknesses, defending his pride, GSP took ownership, accepted them, and used the lesson to redefine his training protocol to develop flexible power, strength, and endurance unlike any of his opponents.

Champions are champions not because they were without weaknesses, but because they sought out, chased after their weaknesses, and defeated them in training so that in the midst of competition there was nothing left that could take them down.

Champions train to be free: uninhibited and unhindered from delivering a peak performance.

Importance of Pacing – Across All Sports

In coaching age group and masters athletes, both groups reveal a consistent pattern in competition strategy: out strong at the start of an event, only to die a slow, miserable, horrible death from about the 1/2 way point all the way to the end.  Time after time, race after race, athletes attempt to set personal bests through this agonizingly painful strategy.   If we could chart it, it may look something like this:

chart - poor pacing2

Red Line = RPE               Green Line = Pace/Speed

RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) starts out feeling easy, but is in fact too hard.  The athlete only trains hard, so they only know hard, and therefore can only race hard.  Failure to train rested and at low RPEs results in the inability to accurately judge pace.  They start out too fast, often faster than they have ever trained. At a race, starting RPE may feel low because of the energy of the event, but it isn’t necessarily so, leaving little room for RPE to climb.  Already at or near max RPE the athlete is maxed out by the mid point of their event.  As their effort level climaxes, their pace starts to crater.

Click here for a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Chart

Click here for a RPE Chart with Heart Rate (HR) Zones

Click here for a RPE Chart matched to Speaking/Breathing

Mentally and emotionally this approach to competition is equally depleting and demoralizing because the athlete has to exert more and more effort only to see themselves fail to improve. At times like these, athletes often fall into negative self talk loops – only worsening their state of mind – by blaming themselves for not being mentally strong, that they are undeserving, or simply aren’t athletes, misinterpreting the true errors in their training. Prior to competitions, the anticipation of the pain to come results in performance anxiety, doubt, and in the worst of times, a return to the negative self talk loop.  These death marches in competition are marked by positive split times (i.e. second half is slower than the first half), and in some cases a DNF or a DQ.

To solve this problem, athletes and coaches conclude that their training ‘wasn’t hard enough’, so they return to even harder training, hoping that they will be able to hold their initial pace longer. Problem is that at their next race they repeat the same pattern, starting out even harder because their training was harder, resulting in even greater suffering and pain.  In time, this training and racing pattern leads to dissatisfaction and frustration, with themselves, their coach, and the sport. Inevitably, athletes quit because the disappointing results of training harder and harder are undesirable, with disappointment eventually becoming anticipated.

Personal bests are possible with this form of training for awhile, but the cost at which they come – the exponential rate of effort required to sustain momentum – leaves a trail of injured, maxed out, and burnt out athletes.


If physical activity and participation in sport is supposed to generate health and wellness benefits, then athletes and coaches should seriously reconsider whether ‘hard training’ is really all that healthy to start.


A Smart Training Solution: Race Pace Training

One solution is training at a specific pace repeatedly until the athlete can deliver that pace irrespective of how they feel: when fresh, when a bit tired, when having to work to sustain it, and when its all they’ve got left.  If your goal is to compete, to explore your potential, then learning to run one speed at all levels – from fresh to fatigued – is fundamental to consistent peak performance as these are the exertion levels that you will experience during competition.

Why do many athletes not have this capability?  Simple.  They don’t train across a range, they only train hard, all out, all the time.  They train only one or a few RPEs, believing that true competition occurs only when effort is 10/10.  Therefore it is no wonder that they have difficulty tapering, don’t taper, and when they do are unable to integrate a full recovery to delivering a personal best in competition.

Example of Smart Training

If your desired 5k personal best is 20 minutes, then your race pace for 1k repeats is 4 minutes. Not 4:01, not 3:59, but 4 minutes even.  In fact, to truly train a 4min pace, each 200 meter split during 4min/km pace should each be exactly 48 seconds.

How do runners train such a session?  Their 200m splits for a 1k repeat may look something like this: 44, 47, 48, 50, 51 seconds.  It adds up to a 4 min/km pace so they believe they are training 4k pace BUT there are a few problems. First, starting out way too fast even in this one interval teaches the athlete to do exactly what they don’t want to do in a competition: go out too fast, only to die another slow miserable death.

Training is dress rehearsal for competing, therefore train the way you intend to compete.

Second, the above 200m splits cannot be classified as training 4min/km pace because a 4 min pace was only held for 1 of the 200s (i.e. the third 200).  The first 200 at 44secs is a 3:40/km pace, the 47 is a 3:55 pace, the 50 is 4:10 pace and the 51 is 4:15 pace. If your goal is to run a 4min/km pace, then training means training your body through repetition (and loads of it) to hold 4min/km pace irrespective of how you feel.

Consistent peak performers have a portfolio of paces, a range and sub-ranges of RPE, with awareness of how much time they can spend at each speed and effort level.  They can adjust pace to meet head winds, to take advantage of tail winds, when going uphill, downhill, when in a pack, when solo.  They know what pace to use to attack, and what pace is available to recover. They have trained to develop the widest range of abilities so that they are a force to be reckoned with regardless of conditions, competitors, or their own state.

Consistent peak performers do train hard, but it is within the context of smart training. Training smart arises from evaluating race performances and dissecting errors and mistakes in strategy, and then developing and training solutions for the next event.  Training hard is simply what it sounds like: hard training.  The metric for success in hard training is whether or not you hurt at the end of a workout (which is no indicator of performance improvements, and most definitely not synonymous with health and wellness).  The metric for success in smart training is whether or not you accomplished a specific objective… can you hold a specific cadence, a pace, a cadence at a specific pace, can you hold form, execute a specific skill, routine, a strategy on cue, and so forth.

When training is appropriate for an athlete, and executed with the specific intent on learning how to deliver effort consistently, then competing can look and feel like this:

chart - good pacing1

Red Line = RPE               Green Line = Pace/Speed

What many athletes don’t realize is that if they actually worked on pacing alone – without training harder – they would see consistent improvement in race times, race after race as their consistency in holding split times improved.

If we are getting into sport to enjoy ourselves, to improve our health, then training needs to be enjoyable, a learning experience, a rewarding time spent problem solving specific issues in technique and strategy, a process of developing skills.  There is so much more to training then just training at hard, harder, and puke effort.  There is an art to sport and if athletes and coaches spent more time on the art, they will realize that the offerings of sport are much deeper then they ever imagined.


This past competitive swimming season saw several of the Burlington Masters Swim Club members achieve personal best times not because they trained harder, but because they trained smart: able to hold a consistent pace.  Two particular athletes come to mind:

One athlete who competed at  Provincials who after racing the 200m FR event reported that because they paced well, they even splitted the race, and when they came off the wall at 125m instead of being spent, they had another gear (i.e. higher RPE #), were able to kick it up a notch, and raced swimmers in other lanes into the wall.  Their excitement and exhilaration with their success displaced any fatigue that they may have felt, motivated them instantaneously, and set them up positively for their next event. Over the remainder of the swim meet, this athlete competed with renewed confidence as they felt control over their application of speed and power, able to deliver on cue.

Another athlete competed well at Provincials and wanted to improve further by Nationals.  This athlete chose an event, identified two specific technical aspects of that event – turns and breathing cycle – and trained those two aspects almost exclusively.  With 4 weeks between competitions, and only 1 week to fine tune race pace prior to tapering, the swimmer successfully applied their training to take 2 seconds off their 100m FLY time.

Importance of Running Drills

Articles in running magazines and on triathlon websites typically focus on running mileage and intensity as keys to improving, but little mention is made of running technique.  Seems that the skill of running is taken for granted… left, right, left, right.  What more is there?

Watch any international track & field competition or the leaders of a road race and you will surely see the skill of running performed as effortless.  When executed correctly, running is a skill of floating over the ground with little more than a touch of a foot to sustain forward momentum. Yet, little is written about ‘how’ to run, ‘how’ to improve running technique and efficiency.   It should come as no surprise then that many runners suffer repeated injuries, and struggle against resistance which makes consistent improvement seem impossible.  What else can be expected when mileage and intensity are believed to be the pivot points of training?

Coaches of the Oakville Legion Track & Field Club and the Burlington Track & Field Club make mileage, volume, and interval repetitions secondary to the training of technique, form, and posture.  In the book ‘Running with Kenyans‘, author Adharanand Finn interviews Brother Colm O’Connell – famed Irish priest who established the first training camp in Iten, Kenya and who has become the coach of numerous Olympic Gold medalists.  Brother Colm highlights the importance of developing technique despite the fact that Kenyans come to him already as beautiful runners.   But Brother Colm doesn’t want just good technique, he wants exquisite technique, ideal posture, impeccable form; hence his training program focuses on drills to develop good runners into excellent runners.  Olympic Decathlete and Long Jumper Jackie Joyner-Kersee reflects in her autobiography on how her coach Bob Kersee demanded perfect technique and wouldn’t allow his athletes to continue in a session until their performance errors were eliminated.

With this in mind, let’s distill running to a simple equation:

speed  =  stride length  x  turnover

Stride length is proportional to flexibility, and turnover is the outcome of both efficient technique at race pace cadence and conditioning to sustain race pace cadence.  Runners will talk endlessly about conditioning, but flexibility is typically met with a groan.  Yet flexibility is critical to stride length, and to minimizing effort and energy expenditure while running.  The role of flexibility in peak performance has been discussed in this blog here and here, and since articles on conditioning are plentiful, let’s turn the attention to technique at race pace cadence.

We don’t learn new skills at max effort or top speed.  New skills and strategies need to be introduced at an exertion level where an athlete can focus entirely on the concept without having to monitor anything else.  In running, drills teach the athlete to obtain movement from correct joints and muscle groups, developing patterns to utilize their range of motion and power with ease.  Practiced at low speeds, drills cause the brain to form new neural patterns for balance and muscle coordination.  With repetition, the speed at which these drills can be executed is slowly brought up to race pace cadence.  The outcome is that the athlete becomes capable of maintaining technique, form, and posture at competition pace maximizing efficiency. Then the athlete can use their conditioning to move towards the finish line as opposed to fighting against themselves (i.e. inflexibility) or the road (i.e. poor technique).

To help runners develop form, track drill and interval sessions are being held at Gary Allan HDSB this summer. The ‘New Programs’ link at the top of the webpage leads to registration.

The following videos demonstrate a few of the drills that will be used to learn proper technique:


These videos along with others are posted at the Track Star USA website.

Comparison of Swim Start Techniques – UWO Research Study

A study performed at the University of Western Ontario comparing the grab start to the track start concluded that as hypothesized the track start results in a faster time in the first 2 meters off the starting blocks.

research - start times

Based on the results, a track start can result in a difference greater than a tenth of a second. Considering that swim competitions are often decided by hundredths of a second, an effective start may not only yield a personal best time, but also the winning time.

US Olympian Dara Torres states that there are 3 parts to a sprint: the start, the final meters, and the touch.  If the start is one area where a sprint is either won or lost, then starting technique, reaction time and strength training is crucial for short and middle distance athletes.

Download the Research Paper:

A Comparison of Two Swimming Start Techniques from the Omega OSB11 Starting Block

To help swimmers train starts, dryland training sessions are being held at Gary Allan HDSB this summer.  The ‘New Programs’ link at the top of the webpage leads to registration.

Swim track start:

Track & field track start (Asafa Powell):

Performance Potential is Flexibility Dependent [2]

Dmitry Klokov, 2008 Beijing Olympic silver medalist and repeated medalist at World Championship events in the 105kg class.


Gif from Dmitry Klokov warmup video

What is most amazing is that the ankle plantar-flexion (the direction into which Dmitry is stretching his ankles in the image) is not a range of motion required for any lift; yet Dmitry’s ankle flexibility equals if not exceeds the ankle flexibility of many swimmers.  In fact, I have heard many cyclists argue that ‘stiff’ ankles are required, even optimal to maximize power transfer from the body into the pedals thus mechanics of the bike.  If anyone could argue ‘stiff’ ankles are optimal, lifters would be the ones as it wouldn’t be hard to agree that when lifting and holding hundreds of kilograms above the head, rigid ankles provide a stable base from which to generate power.  But rigid ankles don’t translate into optimal power transfer, and this is why an Olympic weightlifter spends time ensuring that his ankles are flexible in every direction.

If any athlete requires ankle plantar-flexion flexibility, it’s swimmers. In his book No Limits, Michael Phelps refers to the flexibility in not only his ankles but all his joints as one aspect of his physique which moved him towards success. Swimmers not only need flexibility in their ankles in order to position their feet for the kick, they need to be powerful in this position to generate propulsion with their kick. Top swimmers are capable of doing squats (unloaded) from a seated child’s pose (see images below):


Gif from The Race Club video titled Secret Tips: Propulsion

How many swimmers stretch their ankles, and then train during dryland to have this level of power from a kneeling position? This ability to generate power applies directly to a swimmers ability to generate propulsion with the freestyle, backstroke, and butterfly kicks.

For the breaststroke, the following dryland routine trains flexibility and power, and it trains the athlete to drive the whip kick posteriorly, not laterally, slicing through the water.


Gif from The Race Club video titled Secret Tips: Propulsion

Recently while watching the AT&T American Cup 2015 (US Gymnastics competition), top US gymnast Simone Biles during her floor routine started one of her tumbling runs from the kneeling position as shown by the male swimmer above, and just like him rose to her feet as if kicking the floor with a swimming dolphin or butterfly kick.

Weightlifters are training to develop such ankle flexibility, as are gymnasts yet neither of these athletes depend on this position nor power from this position to the extent that swimmers do. If weightlifters are training this flexibility, then all athletes – not just swimmers – need to seriously consider or reconsider their attitude, perspective, and the effort they make into training flexibility.

Any coach seeking peak performance from their athletes who doesn’t have flexibility as a primary aspect of their training routine is only fooling themselves that consistent peak performance is achievable.Dmitry_Klokov_200kg_Snatch

Gif from Dmitry Klokov performing 160kg, 190kg, and 200kg Snatches.