Friday 3 July 2020

Getting the right balance

It's not all about blood and sweat

I read countless articles and see many, many posts by coaches on social media talking about training methods, the best way to increase FTP, how to squeeze out marginal gains, the best nutrition etc etc. But one thing that I very rarely see or read about, apart from a few coaches, is stuff talking about the other side of training, the stuff that goes on away from the pool, running track or on the bike. We can talk all day about how doing certain types of training will boost your FTP or how running to the correct intensity and at the right frequency will increase your run speed, but in mine and other top coaches opinions it's the things we do in our everyday lives that will also have a big impact on our training, race results and longevity in the sport. 

On one of the High Performing Coach forums that I'm on, there was a recent discussion about sweet spot. Not sweet spot as in the narrow band of intensity when cycling or running etc, but the sweet spot of our everyday lives and how maintaining this equilibrium can have a big impact on our training and lives in general. Looking at the diagram above it's clear to see how there are certain aspects that we need to get right in order to maintain the sweet spot. Although there are only three aspects listed there you could also add enjoyment, recovery, stress reduction, etc. 

What do you do to maintain your equilibrium?

Firstly, what you're doing has to be enjoyable, it's no good having to force yourself to go out and train daily if your heart isn't in it. If you do that, sooner or later it will become a chore and you'll end up falling out with the sport altogether. So keep your targets realistic and remember it's ok to fail, as long as you learn from the mistakes, or what you could have done better. 
Away from the training however, it's important to maintain a healthy lifestyle. 
  • Eat the right foods and don't have too many binge days; maintain a healthy balanced diet and you'll not go far wrong. There's no need to throw yourself into "fad" diets. 
  • Ensure you're getting enough sleep; for a lot of athletes we work full time and so have to juggle our training around in order to get the sessions in. For many people, the first thing they'll sacrifice in order to get the sessions in, will be sleep. If you're going to get up early in the morning, go to bed earlier, never ever underestimate the importance of sleep. 
  • Limit day to day stress; almost everyone has a certain amount of stress in their daily lives, whether it's work, family or other concerns. When we're exposed to chronic stress our bodies produce a lot more cortisol and although a natural steroid hormone and essential to your body functioning properly, long term high levels of cortisol in the body can have big knock on effects to many areas of your physiology. Reducing stress is a good way of helping regulate cortisol production and ensuring you stay healthy.
  • Enjoy doing things away from the sport; go for days out with family and friends, spend time relaxing and allowing your body to recovery from the rigors of training. There are 11 systems in the body, systems like the endocrine system, the nervous system, the musculoskeletal system, the immune system etc etc and it's important to allow these systems to recover. Just because you don't feel fatigued, don't think that this means that your body is compromised in some way. 
  • Find the right balance; as I said earlier, most of us work full time and a lot of us have families as well, so finding a balance between the training, family and work times is important. Focus on what's really important and fit in your training around that. 
  • Be aware of mental health; many of us will suffer from some sort of mental health illness at some part in our lives, so it's important to recognise this and seek help. Whether that's professional help or just speaking to friends, family or a confidante it's extremely important to talk about things that are bothering you.
  • Enjoy what you're doing; although structure is a key component in getting the most out of our training and races, it's important to enjoy what you're doing and sometimes the best way of doing this is just going out and doing something you enjoy, just ride, just run or just swim. Enjoy the freedom and doing something you love. 
  • Use mindfulness and reflection techniques; in much the same way as a pressure cooker works or when a child is naughty and are sent to the "naughty step", it's important that we do things to help ourselves destress or reflect on things. This might be doing a bit of yoga, or sitting quietly and reflecting, contemplating and focusing on relaxing and letting your mind and body relax.  
If you fail to take care of yourself away from the training, things will eventually catch up with you. You might not really notice it, or may only notice it when it's too late, but in order to get the very best out of yourself, it's vital to look after yourself in many more ways than just hitting the sessions on your plan. In order to be the very best you can be, whether that's in terms of as a person or as an athlete it's vital to look at every aspect of your life and lifestyle. Care for others, care for yourself and look after the things that are important. 

Structure can be really helpful

As mentioned above, there probably aren't any of us that are full time athletes and we're all juggling work, family, training and racing to some extent. It's therefore important to strike the right balance between all these different aspects of your life. Although some people can do this without outside help, for others having an objective set of eyes to look at how your training plan is structured and how it allows you to train and recover effectively around family and work can be priceless. Whether you choose to employ a coach or not, it's essential to sit down and look at how you're going to structure your training and recovery, doing the right amount of sessions for you, at the right intensity and not doing too much hard stuff that will compromise you. 
Many of us have heard the phrase "no pain, no gain", but I think this should actually be "pain, no gain" because doing too much of the hard stuff will guarantee a slippery slope to injury or illness. By doing the correct sort of training and at the right intensity, it will help minimise the risk of becoming overtrained and injured and/or ill. 

Monday 24 February 2020

Stress, being aware of it and how it can affect you.


I've decided to write this latest blog on stress and how it can affect us, because it's something that's quite pertinent to me at the moment. 

When we, as coaches, talk to athletes about what factors they think may be affecting their fitness, or in fact their general well being, we get answers like poor diet, injury, not enough time to train etc etc. Rarely do we get responses that include high levels of chronic exposure to stress. Yet, in modern society, around 70% of adults are believed to be regularly exposed to prolonged high stress environments. Whether it's in the workplace, problems at home with just your normal day to day family life, or something more serious, the list is almost endless and the fact is that chronic stress has become a very common factor in most of our lives. 

Waaaay back in time, when humans were still living in caves, stress was very useful for hunting and survival, because when a person is stressed the body releases a hormone called cortisol which can improve memory, increase heart rate and deliver a quick burst of energy. It can also reduce sensitivity to pain, which is no bad thing in certain situations. However, in modern society, it's pretty unlikely that we're going to be fighting off a sabre tooth tiger anytime soon. So we've gone from having an acute, short exposure to stress, to a prolonged, chronic stress exposure environment. 

Chronic stress levels can be a massive influence on our health and well being, as well as being an inhibitor for fitness gains due to a prolonged overproduction of cortisol. Some of the most common side effects of stress include memory loss, a weakened immune system, weight gain, loss of muscle mass and anxiety, to name just a few. Which is why it's important to try and reduce stress as much as we can, whether through exercise, meditation or other methods. 

How cortisol affects the body

Cortisol is the "fight or flight" hormone that's produced by the body's adrenal gland when we experience a situation of high stress, but one of the ways that too much cortisol can affect the body is that it can affect protein synthesis, which in turn will negatively affect the production of new muscle growth or aid muscle recovery following a tough training session or race. Overproduction of cortisol over a period of as little as 4 days can start to have a negative impact on your physiology and you may notice that you start to feel a reduced level of energy, a higher perception of fatigue and more muscle soreness. 

Although not quite fully understood yet, the effects of cortisol on the retention of fat within the body can often be observed as a higher level of visceral fat within the body. Of the two types of fat (subcutaneous and visceral), it's the visceral fat that's the most dangerous as it generally collects around the major organs and is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease and increased anxiety. 

Cortisol is also produced during high intensity training sessions as well, so it's vitally important that we recover properly from those sessions, because this can also lead to a prolonged overproduction of cortisol, which can also have the same sort of impact on your physiology as some stressors. Things like a weakened immune system and being susceptible to constantly getting colds, or injuries can also be signs of doing too much HIIT type training and not recovering properly. 

Sleep, diet and stress

Most adults don't get enough sleep as it is, nevermind with the effects of stress affecting us as well. In fact around 30% of adults admit to getting 6 hours or less of sleep per night and with chronic stress acting as a hindrance on us getting to sleep, it can become a vicious cycle.

One of the most important aspects of recovery for an athlete is sleep, yet it's often overlooked or disregarded as not being as important as some other, more tangible forms of recovery. Yet if you don't get enough sleep your cortisol levels in the body can increase by anything between 37% - 45%. Because sleep is such an important aspect of recovery, yet stress can affect it so much, you can see why it's important to try and reduce stress levels wherever possible.

As triathletes many of us are often looking at numbers on the scales to try and achieve race weight, although I believe that body composition, not body weight, is a more important measure, but that's a discussion for another day. However, studies that I've read, podcasts that I've listened to and videos I've watched all highlight how stress can lead to emotional eating, which in turn can lead to depression and obesity. 

Something that I've experienced myself and this prompted me to specifically ask the question on a podcast last year, was around emotional eating and how it can affect us. When we're stressed, many people will often turn to something they enjoy eating, unfortunately this often involves high calorie, sugary and fatty foods. However, this can become a vicious circle, we eat because we feel stressed or depressed, then we feel better very briefly before feeling crappy again, so we eat some more and so it can continue. It can be hard to control and there are apps that we can download that will help us to track our calorie intake as well as look at the macro nutrients in the foods we're eating. Everyone's different, but it's important to find a strategy that suits you and that you can use to manage your diet and nutrition if you're trying to curb what may be a poor diet that's spiraling out of control due to stress.

Managing and controlling stress.

Triathlon, to many novices (and some more experienced athletes too), can seem almost overwhelming with all the acronyms, brands, training methods, rafts of information and general chat being thrown about, so you can see how even something like starting out in a new sport can be stressful. Yet, the very thing you're worrying about can actually affect your improvements. There are literally thousands of coaches around and using the services of a good coach, either by joining a local club, or by employing one will hopefully reduce a bit of the stress that you might feel. 

Luckily, with the amount of information and tools available these days, there are lots of different ways that you can control stress. Making sure that you get enough sleep is probably the biggest factor and then other strategies like yoga or meditation can be employed. For some, simply getting out and doing some exercise can be a good stress relief. However, be aware that exercising too hard, too regularly will increase cortisol and can affect the very thing that you're trying to control in the first place. So try just going out and doing an easy session, no watch, no hrm etc and don't worry about uploading to Strava. Simply go out, go easy and enjoy it. 

It's important that you can manage your stress levels and often doing something positive can help this, so preparing a plan of strategies that you can utilise if and when you experience stress, low mood etc is a good way of nipping it in the bud. 
It's important to recognise, also, what some of the symptoms of chronic exposure to stress can be, some of these can range from being in a depressed or overly/unusually emotional state, a compromised immune system and a general feeling of lethargy. 

If you'd like to speak to me about how I can help you with any aspects of your triathlon training and racing, including the topics that I cover in my blogs, please feel free to message me via my Facebook page;


Tuesday 17 September 2019

Anti Doping

A Brief History

I'm sure we've all heard about doping, unless you've been living on the moon for your entire life. However, anti doping is a relatively new thing, especially when considering that doping has been around for many decades. 
One of the earliest doping incidents that I'm aware of is the British cyclist Tommy Simpson, who sadly died during the 1967 Tour de France on the climb up Mont Ventoux. The autopsy revealed that as well as having alcohol in his blood stream there was also the presence of amphetamines and it's widely thought that due to the affect that these had on his mind, the diuretic effect of the drugs and alcohol as well as the heat on the climb, he pushed his body beyond its physical limits and sadly succumbed. 

More recently, many of us will have heard of or remember Ben Johnson smashing the 100m final, and world record, during the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988. In fact it was after Johnson tested positive for stanozolol and was subsequently banned and stripped of his gold medal and with mounting pressure from athletes and the IOC that WADA (World Anti Doping Organisation) was eventually set up in 1999 and has been coordinating the fight against doping in sport internationally ever since and in 2015 the WADA code was changed and is currently the regulations that everyone is adhering to.

Ben Johnson winning gold in the 100m final in Seoul 1988

Following the formation of WADA many countries set up their own anti doping bodies, over the next decade or so and in the UK in 2009 the UKAD was set up (UK Anti Doping), which works under the WADA umbrella and is bound by the rules and regulations set out by them. After UKAD was set up it meant that all of the National Governing Bodies (NGB's) in the country were bound to the UKAD practices, rules and regulations regarding doping and drug use, whether prescribed, over the counter medicines, or more "recreational" and banned substances.

Anti Doping in the UK, know what you're taking

To some athletes, especially at novice level, you might think that doping is something that only elite athletes and pro's do and anti doping, or drug testing is something that only the elites or pro's will be subjected to. As a triathlete the amount of testing in our sport is relatively small, largely due to the infrastructure needed and the cost associated with both in competition and out of competition testing. However the British Triathlon Federation (BTF) is slowly addressing this and you might have heard of numerous age group athletes testing positive for banned substances in the past few years. 

You might also be forgiven for thinking that as an athlete who isn't racing at the "pointy end" of the field, or as someone who just does small races that you'll never be subjected to anti doping regulations or to a drug test, but the testing can and does happen anywhere. As an athlete it's your sole responsibility to know what you're taking and what you're putting into your body. If you're on a prescribed medication you should think about applying to your NGB about obtaining a TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemption) from your Dr and carrying this with you in your kit bag. You might think that if you're just taking an over the counter medicine for a cough etc you'll be fine. How many of you have heard of Alain Baxter, the former skier who tested positive during the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake and lost his bronze medal? All from taking an over the counter nasal inhaler, which, unbeknown to him, contained a banned substance. 

You can check what's on the prohibited list by clicking on this link:

In addition to the general prohibited list, if you're taking medication and are unsure whether it's on the prohibited list, or if it contains ingredients that are on the list, you can check on the Global Drug Reference Online (Global DRO), to put your mind at rest and be on the safe side;

Using supplements is also an issue that you need to be aware of and there are some supplements that you can take, which are freely available and that you'd think are totally safe and exempt from the prohibited list, but they can still contain trace amounts of banned substances. If you look on the website, you'll be able to look in much greater detail what you need to be looking out for and potential pitfalls. Many of these are innocent looking supplements like protein shakes etc and are generally no problem at all, but it's something that you need to be aware of. 

Pressure to dope

There are many, many reasons why people decide to turn to doping and although it's often thought of as a black and white choice of you either dope or you're clean, I think there can be a lot more to it and it's very far from being such a definitive thing. People will decide to dope for many reasons and although I'm 100% behind athlete's being clean, I think that as a coach it's part of our role to understand why people may get their heads turned or become tempted to try it out and it's our job to help educate them and guide them in the right direction, as well as being someone to listen to them and not being the type of person that as soon as someone mentions they might be tempted to dope, not going running off to UKAD. 

When I first started playing rugby, many moons ago, I was lightning fast but had virtually no muscle mass, by rugby player standards, so although I could evade tacklers I was never going to break a tackle and I'll admit that I did have the odd thought of "well if I just use steroids briefly, it'll bulk me up and will help me". I never went down that road, but I understand that there can be pressure and that particular situation was pressure that I'd put on myself. Pressure can be a massive influence and can be both external factors as I'll mention in a moment, or can be psychological. If someone is struggling psychologically, during their training or racing, they might feel like a little "pick me up" or that doping will help them to achieve their dreams.There can also be pressure from external sources too. If you see someone making huge progress that isn't in line with the training they're doing, or how long they've been active in the sport, or if you're an athlete who's just trying to break into the top AG places but can't quite make it, you might feel pressure or feel tempted to try something to give you that edge. But this is absolutely, categorically, not the way to do it. If you find yourself thinking like this, please speak to your coach or someone who will be able to help you and guide you in the right direction. I think doping is a massive area and is one that can be debated til the cows come home, but one thing that can be said with 100% conviction is that doping is wrong and people who dope may just need educating. 

I was recently completing the UKAD Accredited Advisor course and one of the quotes that I read was excellent, it said "100% me = 100% pride, it's what's inside that counts". I think that's a great saying and although there may be athletes who are doping and possibly achieving more, you can take huge satisfaction from knowing that all your achievements are your own and aren't enhanced. 

Going back to the pressure scenario, possibly the most famous doper was Lance Armstrong. As someone who has grown up as a keen cycling fan I used to idolise Armstrong and the way he'd attack or would control races by blowing the opposition away. I didn't believe all the doping stories at first, but it just goes to show that eventually it'll all come tumbling down. It says a lot about how prevalent doping was in that era that the UCI haven't awarded the yellow jersey to anyone else in any of the years that Armstrong was stripped of it, because so many riders in the peloton were doping. In more recent years riders have even said that in order to win you HAD to dope, which is a very sad thing to have to say, but it shows the pressure that some riders were under in order to deliver results. 

If you'd like to speak to me about how I can help you with any aspects of your triathlon training and racing, including the topics that I cover in my blogs, please feel free to message me via my Facebook page;


Wednesday 4 September 2019

Helvellyn Triathlon - Race Report

Pre Race

For quite a few weeks leading up to the race people were asking me if I was looking forward to banishing some demons, after crashing out in 2017, but I always said "no" because as far as I was aware I had no demons that needed exorcising. I hadn't really thought about that aspect of my reasons to race at Helvellyn again and, as far as I was concerned, I was just doing the race because I enjoy it, or so I thought. 

From late afternoon on the Saturday before the race I started getting flashbacks, not to the actual crash itself, but to what I felt like as I came round after it, with the medics there and the air ambulance, then to the following couple of weeks or so that I was in hospital. It was really weird and was something that I have never had before and it became a bit unsettling. As the evening wore on I was getting more and more anxious and despite going to bed early, due to the early start on Sunday, I ended up only having about 3 hours broken sleep. I didn't tell Ruth or Hannah how I was feeling because I knew that they were both also feeling anxious about me returning to the race that caused all of us so much pain and anguish in 2017. 

Going into the race I was fairly happy with my bike and swim fitness, neither were anything to shout about but not too bad, all things considered. I hadn't been able to run at all for 5 months, due to injury, leading up to the race, so I was hoping to just try and blag the run and get round as fast as possible. 

Race Day

My alarm went off at 0400, which is just ridiculous and shouldn't be allowed on a Sunday morning. I didn't bother trying to eat anything because I always struggle to eat first thing in a morning anyway and, besides which, I'd got a 90 minute drive up to the Lakes anyway, so could eat in the car and I already had a cold pizza saved from the night before, nothing beats cold pizza on race morning 😊. After checking I'd got everything that I needed for the race and being confident that I hadn't forgotten anything (ha, famous last words) I loaded the car and set off, meeting Jack just before the motorway we travelled up in convoy.
Arriving in Glenridding the outside temp was reading 7 degrees and we were having fairly regular torrential showers, wtf?!?! A bit of a contrast from the 28 degree heatwave from the previous weekend!!
Off to registration and getting that sorted out, then back to the car park and getting our bikes and kit out to take to transition. Setting up in Transition it turned out that I had actually forgotten a couple of bits of kit and I really could have done with my gilet for the bike and I had no gloves (so much for being confident that I'd packed everything). Luckily Jack had a spare pair of gloves that he lent me. I ended up trying to put my wetsuit on early because I was so cold and needed to warm up because I was soaked and we were still getting the frequent heavy showers, so I ended up fighting with that for a while because it was wet from the rain, then it was just a case of hanging around, waiting for the race briefing before getting in the water (which they told us was 13 degrees!). 


I was feeling surprisingly nervous before the race and was having all sorts of negative thoughts about racing, which was something that I haven't had for quite a few years now, so it all felt a bit alien, so just tried to push them to the back of my mind and focus on what was in front of me. The swim start was a bit bizarre, the starter said that the hooter "would be going at some point in the next minute", lol. Nothing like keeping you on your toes. People were still sorting goggles etc and getting in position when the hooter went and it was the usual swim start washing machine and there was lots of leaning on legs, bumping and shoving etc but I soon settled into my rhythm and kept hopping onto swimmers feet and drafting off them for a little while as the passed me. Although it had been pretty cold when we first got in the water, the swim wasn't as bad as I'd expected and after we'd been swimming for a few minutes my mind was focused on the race and my stroke, so the cold didn't really feature. Rounding buoys I was expecting the usual dunking and jostling for position but it all seemed like quite a civilised affair. Either that or everyone else was in front of me! Although totally uneventful, the swim felt like it took ages and I was sure I'd done a poor time, but getting out of the water at the end of the swim and glancing at my watch, it was a nice surprise to see around 27 mins being displayed, which was a pb for this race swim. Off into T1, with numb feet, grass everywhere and what felt like the slowest transition I'd ever done, wrestling with my twin layer socks that I was wearing in preparation for the mountain trail run that was still to come and drawing plenty of laughs from the other athletes around me. 


Leaving T1 I didn't feel great, in fact I felt pretty crap and I felt tired and lethargic and just couldn't seem to get going on the bike. I'd put a jacket on for the bike leg because the forecast was for more strong winds, heavy showers and lower temperatures, but after 7 or 8 miles I was getting frustrated with it flapping in the wind, so I stopped and took it off. I think the Tailwind nutrition had also started kicking in by this point and the caffeine in it had certainly brought me round, so it was just a case of tapping out a rhythm on the climbs and making the most of the my extra "mass" on the descents and I'd find myself flying past people going downhill, only for them to catch me again on the next climb. This went on for about 20 miles or so, until I had really settled into my rhythm and the people who I passed on the descents were no longer coming back past me on the climbs. Going down the road towards Thirlmere we ended up in a line of traffic that was going slow and there were 3 or 4 of us who were stuck behind a line of slower moving cars which gave us chance for a breather and we even had a little chat between us for a few minutes, while we were being held up, but it soon dissipated after a couple of miles or so and we were able to start pushing on again. Going down one of the longer, straighter descents into Grasmere and I dared a glance at my Garmin bike computer and noticed I was nudging just over 47mph on the bike, but I felt really comfortable on it, with loads of confidence now in how it handled and braked. However, all through the bike leg I was keeping one eye on my power output and trying to keep it fairly consistent, with no big surges or pushes and I managed to do that reasonably well, keeping it to around 75 - 80% of my FTP. Plus, the knowledge that The Struggle was also looming ever closer as we got to Ambleside and was always in the back of my mind. 

Getting to the mini roundabout in Ambleside where we turn left and that marks the start of The Struggle I put my chain onto the small ring in preparation, but I ended up rattling through the rest of the gears on my cassette and was soon in 1st gear. 

The struggle is just bonkers, being a Cat. 2 climb and with an elevation gain of over 1400ft in less than 3 miles. The initial climb being around a mile long and at over 20% gradient is just a killer, which seems to be never ending. You round a corner expecting it to have levelled out a bit, but it's still there, the wall of tarmac. Through one reason and another and some external stresses I'd put a few lbs on in the weeks leading up to the race and as much of a benefit as it had been on the descents it was now a huge burden and all I could do is take it one pedal revolution at a time, each leg draining, lung bursting eyeball popping revolution was one closer to the top, but I took confidence in the fact that I was still catching and passing a few people though. Towards the end of The Struggle it kicks up again for the last few hundred metres and I honestly thought I was just going to stop and I'd have to push the bike up, it felt like I was pretty much doing a track stand in the middle of the road at one point because I was going so slow, but I managed a smile / grimace for the photographer at the top and then it was done, phew. 

Turning onto the Kirkstone descent and my mantra was "just tip toe round the corners", which I kept repeating to myself. I was on the brakes from the top, not letting the speed or bike get away from me and I managed to have a quick look over my shoulder and couldn't see anyone close behind me which felt great, meaning I wouldn't have anyone passing me and making me alter my line going into any of the corners. Going past the point at which I'd crashed in 2017 I made sure I hit the apex perfectly and it was as if a huge weight suddenly lifted as I went through the bend, quite a bizarre feeling really and from then on I got more and more confident in the bike and how well it braked and handled and by the time I was halfway down Kirkstone Pass I was braking later going into corners, knowing it'd slow down and handle brilliantly through the bend. I was absolutely loving it and really buzzing from the descent now. Only a couple of miles to go and I passed a couple more athletes through Patterdale before coming back in to Glenridding and turning into T2, putting any subliminal demons well and truly to rest. Ha, up yours Kirkstone!!


I had a reasonable T2 time (no need to wrestle with the socks this time), picked up my back pack and set off for a nice 9.5 mile jaunt up and over the 3rd highest (and my favourite) mountain in England. Coming out of T2 and I saw Gary, Jack's dad, so I asked him how far ahead Jack was and was surprised that it was only about 10 mins, so I set off trying to peg him back a bit, but it turned out that I was confusing ambition with ability and no sooner had I had that thought when my legs just laughed at me for trying to make them do something they hadn't done for 5 months and decided they weren't going to play. The usual pain in my back had kicked in as soon as I'd started the run so I'd taken a couple of painkillers and it was just a matter of waiting for them to kick in. 

The run route for Helvellyn Tri is a "run" in the very loosest sense of the word. You can run for the first half mile at the most, then for most of us mere mortals it's a really tough slog up towards Hole In The Wall before bearing right and being able to run a bit more down towards Red Tarn, before heading up to Swirrell Edge. My ascent was really slow and weary, such was the lack of conditioning in my legs and I was losing loads of time but just kept putting one foot in front of the other and chatting with a few people as they passed me. I'd started cramping by the time I got to the bottom of Swirrell Edge and as is typical it was in my adductors, a really difficult muscle to stretch out the cramp. So there I am, half way up a mountain, getting battered by the wind and I'm punching my leg like I'm trying to tenderise a piece of steak, just to try and release the cramp. Luckily it worked, surprisingly, so I just cracked on with the ascent, stopping every so often when the cramp returned. I love Helvellyn and some of the routes to the summit are brilliant, with Swirrell Edge being among my favourites and because of my rock climbing experience and confidence I managed to make up about half a dozen places during the final scramble to the summit, where the wind and rain was horrendous. 40 odd mph wind and horizontal rain was whipping at my body and feeling like thousands of pin pricks on any exposed flesh, so on with the windproof jacket and try to jog off the summit. 

It's a surprisingly long way from the summit to where we drop down Keppel Cove to begin the steep descent and my legs were absolutely battered by this point, so when it got to the steeper parts of the descent I could only shuffle. It became quite frustrating and I was soon haemorrhaging time and race positions, so all I could do was to just keep moving forwards as best I could. I knew well before this point that my target time for the race had gone out of the window so it just became a war of attrition and a case of getting to the finish line. I ran and shuffled as much as I could but I'm sure that valley has got longer since I last did this race! Eventually though, I was passing the old mines and YHA and knew that it was only a mile or so from there so just kept my head down and spirits up, plodding along to the finish area. Coming through Glenridding Village and into the finish chute, it was great to see Jack and Gary there, Jack having had a great race and finished in a superb time, it was good to finally cross the line.


Up until the day before the race I was feeling fine about taking on Helvellyn Triathlon again and I'd had no nerves or apprehension about doing it, so when the flashbacks and anxiety kicked in on the day before the race it was a really bizarre feeling, so maybe there was something in my subconscious that was drawing me back there, who knows. Maybe I did feel like I needed to get rid of some demons from that descent at Kirkstone. I'm so glad that I didn't shy away from this race after what happened in 2017, but I've never been one for dwelling on things like that and there's a really good phrase that I like using "don't let your worst enemy live between your own two ears". If you suffer adversity, keep looking forward, stay positive and draw strength from those around you, never be afraid of telling people how you feel or asking for help, whether it's sport related or in life in general and never let things get out of control and stop you from doing something you love. Take stock of things, reflect and evaluate things, but always, always try to remain positive and looking forward.

One thing I do know is that Helvellyn Triathlon is the toughest race of this distance that I know of, but it's a fantastic test of strength, determination and skill. I'm not totally happy with my finish time, but knowing the reasons behind that, I know that the next time I race here I'll be in better condition for the run and will hopefully achieve the result that's eluded me on the three previous attempts on this course. Lastly, it was great to race alongside Jack, a fellow team mate from Invictus Tri, who has gone through a remarkable transformation as a triathlete over the past few years and who was doing Helvellyn Triathlon for the first time, he had a great result and I'm sure he'll be back there again in the future, along with a few other amazing team mates from Invictus Tri in Wigan, who are also looking for a new challenge. 

Thursday 6 June 2019

Should I do an Ironman (or any endurance race)?

Should I sign up for an endurance event?

A very common trend that we often see, immediately following a very large race that generates a lot of focus from the triathlon and endurance community, is a sudden surge in people signing up for the same event the following year, with many of them being first timers or novice athletes.

This is great and serves to generate both more interest and revenue for the event organisers, local businesses and community and also builds the triathlon community / sport too. However, what we also see time and time again is that people sign up for an event often off the back of the "romance" of seeing athletes and club mates race in and complete such an event, but without having given considerable thought to everything that goes into completing an endurance event. Even before the first length has been swam or run is done or pedal turned on the bike, there are several questions that you should be asking yourself about signing up for such an event. Hopefully this post will help you to make an informed decision before signing up and spending hundreds of £'s on a race.

  • What motivation do I have for entering such a race?
  • How long am I giving myself in order to get fit enough to complete the race?
  • Why am I competing in the race? ie, is it a long term ambition or just a new challenge?
  • will I be able to fit in the training around my lifestyle, incl. work, family and daily routine?
  • What support do I have in place during the training? Family, coaching, team mates
And those are just some of the questions that you should ask yourself before you even start thinking about training for the event and thinking about your age, your current fitness levels, your sporting background, what you want to achieve from the race, where will I get a training plan from? etc. etc.

So, starting at the top;


Motivation can be one of the most powerful influences when choosing, signing up or training for a race. Is this a race that you've done before, or is there a specific reason why you've chosen this race? Be it fundraising, in memory of a friend or loved one, or that you simply want to get a new PB? There are many, many motivating factors for signing up for a race, above are just a few of them. Maybe you're part of a club and they often have a really good showing at this race and you've thought "I want a piece of that". 


Once you've decided that you're definitely going to enter a particular race, what sort of timescales are you allowing yourself to prepare for the event? In my experience, it's possible for pretty much any able bodied person to complete an Ironman. However, what time you do it in will be reflected by both the amount of time you spend getting fit for the event and also your pre existing athletic ability. I've known athletes complete an Ironman with as little as 8 weeks specific training, or some have built up to it over a year, 2 years and sometimes longer. Wanting to complete an Ironman is a great goal, but if it's your first triathlon and you've not exercised for a long time, expecting to get the best out of yourself with a 6 month training plan isn't going to yield the best results. So make sure that you've given due consideration to how long you expect it to take you to prepare for the race. Ideally, speak to similar athletes as yourself and, ideally, speak to an experienced coach.


A big part of deciding whether to take on an endurance event is to consider what sort of lifestyle you currently lead. What sort of job do you do and will you be able to fit in training around that? Do you have a family or children that will inevitably take up a lot of your spare time. All too often we find ourselves making plans and then having to change them due to family circumstances, often at the last minute. How much stress do you have in your life? This can be day to day things like finances or relationships, as well as work related stress or other issues. Sleep deprivation is also a cause of increased stress levels. If you still enjoy going out to pubs at weekends and drinking with your mates, then eating a kebab on the way home, or watching tv sat on the sofa, eating takeaways, then you need to make the decision of whether or not you can put all that on the back burner for a while, whilst you completely change your lifestyle and follow a training plan? All of the above, and more, can play a huge part in affecting your training plan.

Support network

When signing up for an endurance event you also need to consider your support network. This will often tie in with what's been spoken about above. By far the biggest part of the support network for most people is family and friends. If you have a partner or spouse who is fully supportive of your goals, or if you have parents who can help with childcare duties this will help massively. If you have a good boss at work, they may allow you a bit of flexibility in your hours if you need to start or finish work early some days, in order to train, this may be accommodated. Having a coach, although not essential, is a really good idea as it's someone who will offer you an expert opinion and will pick up on things that you may be missing, both training wise and lifestyle, as well as someone who will also help to motivate you and should understand the stresses that you're putting your body through as you train. Also, being part of a club with some like minded athletes is a huge advantage too. In my experience, quite often athletes who train in a triathlon club and follow a structured plan will fare better than those who tend to go it alone, especially if they go it alone and are self coached (although this is obviously doesn't apply to all of them).

Additional considerations

Once you've given thought to the above, you will then start to think about other influences on whether or not to sign up for a race. Things like age, your current fitness levels, your sporting background, what you want to achieve from the race etc. etc..

Although individual areas, the above and everything else in this post are all interlinked. For example, you may think "I'm only 25, I can easily do an Ironman". However, if you're 25 and have led a sedentary lifestyle for a number of years, you may struggle with the training load more than some one who is, for example, 50 years old but has trained regularly. This then obviously links in with the individuals current fitness levels. In my opinion, if someone can commit to a fully structured and progressive training plan that is specifically tailored to a certain distance / athlete type, then there's no reason why anyone shouldn't be able to complete an endurance race. It may take someone from a sedentary background and who is carrying a few more lb's a bit longer to prepare for an Ironman, than someone from a more energetic background, but there is absolutely no reason why each of them, or in fact anyone, can't reach their goals. All that being said, considerable thought needs to be given to whether you can actually commit to the time that's needed to train for an Ironman. Plans can consist of as little as 10 hours per week of training, but many of them peak at around 16 to 20 hours per week of training. So if you work full time and or have family commitments, it can be a real struggle to fit it all in. 

Being able to tailor your training plan to your own needs is very important and with the help of a coach or within a club environment of like minded athletes, this can be achieved much easier. Almost any training plan will work, there's no magic wand or secret formula that makes a particular plan special, but some have the benefit of being well established, or published in well known books and websites.

Being a coach with considerable experience in getting a vast diversity of athletes through Iron distance races, endurance events and all triathlon distances from sprint upwards, and with well over 10 years experience in triathlon and other sporting disciplines, I can offer tailored, fully structured and progressive session plans to anyone from complete novice to age grouper. If you'd like to chat and discuss your needs, I can be contacted by following the link below to my coaching page


Friday 8 February 2019

The importance of swimming

How important is swim training for triathletes?

In this post I want to talk about the importance of swim training. I'm not going to go into technical stuff about stroke analysis or how we break down the stroke when doing stroke correction or coaching, but I want to talk about why I think triathletes should swim a lot and the knock on effects that can have when doing a race.

When training for a triathlon, especially a long distance triathlon, it's far from uncommon to hear people say "I just want to get through the swim" or "I'll just about survive the swim". Similarly, when I talk to people who say they'd love to do a triathlon but the swim puts them off, this doesn't have to be and shouldn't be seen as a barrier, but just another element of the sport that an individual needs to train on as much as the other disciplines, and in many cases even moreso. 

The Ironman swim

When people sign up for an Ironman, it's a huge commitment to take on, with most training plans peaking at anything between 15 - 20+ hours per week. However, with up to 50% of the overall plan being dedicated to the bike training, that leaves less than 25% of the plan to be utilised for the swim and run. 

Concentrating on the swim for this post, if you look at the swim itself, it can have an absolutely profound impact on your race. You need to be absolutely confident that you can swim the distance and well within the cut offs. On race day there's going to be a fair amount of nerves, anxiety, fear and even excitement as you all get herded into the starting pens and the look of fear on some athletes faces being really noticeable. 
Then there's the swim itself, you jump off the pontoon for the rolling start and that's it, you're suddenly racing in an Iron distance event, the adrenalin kicks in and you set off like a torpedo. Kicking your legs, thrashing your arms while trying to find some clear water. Your rhythm and breathing goes out of the window and before you know it you look up expecting to be near the far buoy, but you've only gone 400m, not always in a straight line and you're gasping for air. At this point you've still got about 3.5km to swim. The affect that going anaerobic, even for a relatively short time during the swim, will catch up with you later in the race and will almost certainly slow you down as your body deals with the delayed reaction and accumulative fatigue. 

If you think about it in simple numbers, very few of us are going to become sub 1hr Ironman swimmers. However, with a dedication to training, pacing and efficiency, I'm convinced that many people are capable of around 1hr 10mins. However, if you look at the swimmers who say "I'll just aim for 1hr 45min" etc. That's an additional 35 mins swimming (of which there's a danger of trying to make it up on the bike), which is an extra 35 mins on their finish time, which at an average fuel expenditure of 100cal every 10 mins, is an additional nutritional deficit of 350cal, which you probably wont notice for the next 8, 9 or 10 hours, but it'll always be there. When you look at it in those terms, it's easy to see how important the swim is and how it can affect the rest of your race. 

Swim training

As triathletes it's no secret that we all love a gadget or something that we think is going to unlock that magic box and turn us into Lucy Charles or Harry Wiltshire overnight and whilst many of the training aids work, there's no substitute for just getting in the pool and swimming. Obviously, to make the most improvements you need to have a coach who can identify areas that are holding you back, then work on those rigorously and reap the rewards.

Swimming is unlike any of the other disciplines in triathlon, where simply doing more won't yield exponential improvements. ie, If you want to get faster at cycling you do more specific speed work and strength work along with the endurance work. Similarly with running, if you want to get faster you do more running to a structured plan and you'll make improvements. However, with swimming, if your head or body position isn't correct, or you've got "sinky legs" or a poor and inefficient kick etc, there's only so far you'll get before you stop making improvements. Swimming isn't really about strength, it's about efficiency and how effectively you slip through the water. We've got a swimmer in our club who is a very slim teenager, but she's the fastest in the club. She's not as strong as most of the adult athletes but she's thrashing us all in the pool. Swimming is about efficiency and making yourself as streamlined as possible in the water, which, when coupled together with an effective stroke can make a massive difference. 

Another great benefit of swimming is how good it is at improving aerobic fitness. Even the shortest distance triathlon is an aerobic event because you're going to be racing for at least an hour in most cases and if you're doing an Ironman it's going to be anything from 10, 11 12 hours up to 17 hours, so you need a massive aerobic engine that will get you through the race. Swimming is also non impact training, so it's not going to affect your run or bike training, in terms of fatigue or if you've got a niggling leg injury and it's a good idea to nip to the local pool as often as you can and do an ad hoc swim. It's all going to work on your fitness and your swim fitness will transfer to your running too, but not vice versa.

At the risk of going off on a tangent, I have a friend who is a pretty good runner and she did an Ironman in 2016. She knew she was a good runner, but lacked confidence in the water and on the bike, yet she concentrated on her running, which helped her achieve a sub 3.30 run on the day. However, if she'd trained for the other two disciplines in a more structured manner and knocked more time off her bike and her swim, which would have been perfectly achievable, she'd have qualified for Kona and the World Champs!

So next time you think you're just going to "get through" the swim, or you hate swimming etc, think about how much of an impact it could have on your overall race and the potential gains that can be made by embracing swim training and making improvements

If you'd like to speak more about your goals and ambitions and how I can help you on your triathlon journey, click on the link below which will take you to my coaching Facebook page, where I can be contacted through

Certa Cito Tri Coaching

Train Smart

Sunday 9 December 2018

Testing and its importance

Testing, why should we do it?

Over the years that I've been competing in triathlon and more recently as a coach, I've come to realise just how obsessed many athletes are by numbers and data. So much so that some athletes are more intent on how their Strava uploads look, compared to what the objectives of their training plans are. 

I've seen people stopping their watches during the recovery periods on an intervals run, so that when it's uploaded to Strava, it only shows how fast they've done the individual intervals. I've seen athletes deliberately push too hard in low intensity aerobic endurance sessions, just so that their min/mile numbers look better, the examples go on and on. This isn't something that I'm the only coach to notice though, I read an interesting article from an extremely highly regarded coach a few weeks ago, whereby he was stating that he thinks that many athletes are training so that their Strava uploads look good, or their training figures are the most important thing to them, rather than actually training to race. And in this era of social media, where everyone seems to scrutinise everyone else's figures etc, and there's a lot of peer pressure, it's easy to see how people can get sucked into this mindset.

All that said, however, I think there is a time and a place where numbers and data are important and that's during testing.

Why do testing?

In my opinion I think that regular testing can help yield a lot of information about a particular athlete and how their training is going. There may be areas that require some remedial attention, or it may highlight other issues, ie, anxiety, stress, fatigue, injury, illness etc. etc. as well as showing any progress that an athlete is making. At the club where I coach, I deliberately add a "test week" at the end of each training block and it's been through these regular tests that we've helped to shape an athlete's training and also it's highlighted some athletes who have needed to rest / recover better and even a couple who I have advised to take a complete break from training in order to prevent too much fatigue and a risk of developing overtraining syndrome. The tests that we do are exactly the same each time and are carried out at the same locations, with the only variables being the weather and the state of the athletes current fitness / health. 

There are many different forms of testing, each with their own aim and to a novice athlete it's understandable that it may seem like information overload, with a battery of tests and acronyms like VO2 Max test, FTP test, Lactate Threshold test, CSS Test, etc. However, with correct coaching and with someone to guide the athlete through these tests they can be extremely helpful in allowing an athlete to better gauge their intensity during sessions and, more importantly, their race pace or strategy. 

Using test data to help race strategy

When we carry out testing regularly it helps us to better "dial in" how hard we can push ourselves, how we can pace the swim, bike and run better and to help prevent us from flying off at the start and then blowing up later in the race. Personally, as an athlete and coach who is striving to gain a better knowledge and understanding of how training and racing at different intensities will affect me, I often "experiment" with things in training to help me race better. I'll often carry out a Functional Threshold Power, or FTP test, which will establish the theoretical power that I should be able to hold for 1 hour. During the last time trial bike test that I did, where we do a Time Trial on a 2.1 mile loop I was relatively new to training with power so I tried to ride the whole test at 100% of what my FTP was at the time. I managed to hold it for about 6 or 7 laps and then struggled for the last 6 miles or so. The next time I did the same test, at the end of the next training block I decided that I'd try to ride at about 75% to 85% of my FTP, which is more in line with the power output that I'd try to hold for the bike leg on an olympic distance triathlon. What I found was that I felt much stronger later into the ride and I was actually just over a minute faster than the previous test. Obviously, some of the time difference may be down to weather differences, or my improved fitness, but what it showed me is that by reducing my power output slightly, I was able to pace the test better.

Cycling isn't the only area that testing can be beneficial though. By doing regular testing for CSS, or Critical Swim Speed in the pool, or by doing regular Lactate Threshold Heart Rate testing for running we can learn from the data collected in those tests and, over time, we can learn a great deal about our pacing strategy and how hard we can push ourselves. 

Explaining Swim Smooth CSS theory
For example, when we do CSS testing, this can help to establish the theoretical pace that we can swim at for a 1500m swim. How many of you have set off in a race, especially if it's a pool based swim, and thought that you were feeling great, only to end up gasping for air after 4 or 5 lengths? We all know why this is and if you go all out at the beginning, you're going to pay for it later in the race. By doing CSS swim sessions that have been gauged following a CSS pace established through testing, we can become more accustomed to what it feels like to swim at a particular pace. It may feel really easy for the first few lengths or first half of the swim, but as you tire you'll be glad that you haven't gone off too fast and you'll often find that your overall swim time is a lot faster than you expected.

One of the tests that I think has seen more of our club members benefit from, than any other, is the lactate threshold heart rate test. I mentioned in an earlier article that heart rate training shouldn't be the be all and end all for training, because it can be affected by many variables. If you're suffering from fatigue, tiredness, stress, anxiety, injury or illness, these are all factors that will have an affect on your heart rate. However, when using heart rate in conjunction with RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) it can be a great tool for helping your training and racing. By doing regular testing we can establish heart rate training zones for athletes and the more we do these tests the more we can "iron out" any discrepancies. We'll see where an athlete is suffering from one of the ailments mentioned above and we can learn what the optimal heart rate is for a particular type of training. ie, if you're doing an aerobic run you want to be doing it at a very low intensity, alternatively, if you're doing an intervals session you want to be pushing yourself hard. In my opinion, I think that by training to heart rate it can also help to develop an athletes psychology too. By that I mean that if you regularly train to heart rate you'll know how long you can hold a particular intensity for, so when you're nearing the end of a race and your heart rate is climbing you can tell yourself that you know you can hold that intensity for a certain length of time and will be able to keep pushing. It may feel like you're on your chinstrap and can't push any harder, but a little glance at your hr and you might think "oh, I know I can push harder than this".  

Using test results to establish training zones.

Joe Friel's training zones used in triathlon

However you look at it and whatever distance you're racing, triathlon is an endurance sport so we have to train as such.There are a few different ways of doing this, but one of the most widely used is the polarised training method where you'll split your sessions between being extremely easy, low intensity sessions and then other sessions at an almost max effort. The most widely recognised split of these intensities is to do 80% of the training in zone 1 and zone 2, with the remaining 20% or so done in zone 4 upwards. The vast majority of athletes who I have coached and trained with have all said that they've noticed huge improvements when they've adopted this training method and their results have been spectacular in some cases. 
When I'm trying to explain the importance of using the polarised training method, I'll often use the following analogy; Imagine your body is like a diesel engine and when you do your training at a low intensity, ie zone 1 and 2, you're developing an incredibly efficient engine, that will go for miles and miles on very little fuel and with very little risk of damage or injury. Then, when we combine this with the shorter, really high intensity sessions, this is like bolting a big turbo charger on the side of the engine. All of a sudden you've got this incredibly efficient, powerful engine that can deliver some fantastic top end speed, but also hold it there for a period of time as well. 

I hope the above has helped and, as always feel free to contact me with any questions or queries and I'll do my best to answer them.

If you'd like to speak more about your goals and ambitions and how I can help you on your triathlon journey, click on the link below which will take you to my coaching Facebook page, where I can be contacted through

Certa Cito Tri Coaching

Train smart

Getting the right balance

It's not all about blood and sweat I read countless articles and see many, many posts by coaches on social media talking about ...