Starting from zero: triathlon age-grouper success case study with Katarina Larsson & André Campos | EP#106
Katarina Larsson is a triple European age-group champion, and André Campos is her coach. Katarina got started in triathlon as a 24-year old with no real background in the sport. In this episode, we dissect what it takes to become a successful age-group triathlete from both the athlete's and the coach's perspective.
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In this Episode you'll learn about:
- How to go from starting triathlon (and swimming) as an adult to winning triple European Age-Group Championships.
- The importance of consistency over a looong time period, patience, and enjoyment in the process.
- The coach's role and importance to athletic success.
- The team effect - how having a team around you can create the consistency and give you the edge needed to succeed.
- Balancing training and the triathlon lifestyle with a busy career.
About Katarina Larsson
- I was born and raised in Sweden and moved to Portugal at 19.
- I've been doing a lot of sports throughout my life - athletics, horseback riding, basketball.
- I've now been in Portugal for 14 years (now 33 years old), and started triathlon in 2006/07 when I was 24.
- My triathlon career didn't start that seriously from the beginning, but I was actually picked up by a triathlon club when I won a road running race.
- It was an 8K race and I was running pretty well at the time.
- I'd never been a swimmer or cyclist before but thought I'd give it a try!
- I struggled getting into the sport; there's a lot of equipment and it gets expensive. I also got injured at the start of my training.
- My triathlon career took off when I started to swim with André Campos, in 2010.
- Before that I was training wrong - either too much or too little.
- Following this I won my first Portuguese individual cup race in 2010.
- I then chose to move on with André as my coach - and I think it's been going pretty well since then!
- Career highlights include:
- 3x European champion in my age group (2014, 2x in 2016 in Sprint and Olympic, also best overall AG athlete in the Sprint).
- Being selected for the elite national team three times - competing against Olympic athletes.
- Gold medal in Portuguese national championships in cycling.
- 2 victories in long-distance triathlon: Lisbon and Cascais - competing against professionals despite being an age-grouper.
- I also work as a supply chain manager for Tetra Pak so I have to fit training in before and after work.
- I wake up at 5.30 everyday to start training at 6.30.
- Then I go to work for the day - which is usually quite stressful.
- I usually finish work around 6.30pm and then do another session.
About André Campos
- I started as a swimmer when I was 3 years old. I saw a triathlon race on TV when I was 17 and found it interesting.
- I attempted to start competing but it was quite new at the time - this was 1999 so before the first Olympic triathlon.
- I did 3-4 years of triathlon as an athlete which went pretty well - I was national champion in both overall and junior categories.
- I also did world cups, and World and European championships.
- Then I had a problem with my back so I had to stop competing, finish my studies and focus on my coaching career.
- In 2008 I started coaching a triathlon team, and coached swimming.
- I then got an opportunity to start my own team (the triathlon branch of Sporting Clube Portigal), which is what I've been doing ever since.
Being an 'adult onset' triathlete (athlete perspective)
- I hadn't been swimming before - in Sweden you learn how to swim to survive in the water so that was my level.
- I knew how to do freestyle but my level of swimming was really poor - I couldn't get through 1km of swimming.
- I had also never ridden a road bike before.
- I picked swimming up relative quickly - I got into a good group at the beginning and started to swim quite fast.
- There wasn't as much focus on technique as I would have wanted now. We did a lot of volume.
- I started off with a really poor bicycle which was much to small, which was a mistake and I developed back problems.
- Biking has been one of my strengths in the end.
- With biking I've learnt that the more years you train, it will come, but you have to be patient.
- It's important to get the specific bike skills and techniques.
- The swim has always been my biggest frustration - I manage to swim okay and I know I should be pleased with my times, but I'm always wanting more.
- My sprint swim time (depending on the course) is around 10 minutes.
- I'm doing 100m intervals in 1:20/sub-1:20 depending on the set.
- When I started I was probably swimming just below 2 minutes per 100m.
- I joined a team that had a coach after being picked up in the running race.
- This meant I had a training plan from the beginning, but it did start a bit rough for me.
- You need to consider starting slowly - your body needs to get used to the new sports and adapt to the new level of training.
- When I got my first training programme it escalated fast from 10-12 hours up to 20 hours.
- I didn't question this at the time - I'm very driven and competitive so thought it was the way forwards.
- I started to have problems because I wasn't doing any gym or strength training.
- Before I joined André Campos I went to a few different teams, and had one main coach and input from others.
- The main change was having a very structured approached, and a person who was adapting my training.
- He did a good job at taking my hectic lifestyle into account and understanding my weaknesses.
- I really liked André's approach to the swim workouts. He has a good methodology.
- André isn't a coach that just gives quantity and quantity, rather quality and building from the base.
Do you want to become faster?
A random, unstructured, or even over-engineered approach to training won't cut it. You need a clear, purposeful, progressive, and specific training plan.
Coaching an 'adult onset' triathlete (coach perspective)
- When I started to coach Katarina you could see she was quite competitive, which was one of her characteristics that pushes her forwards quickly.
- She got frustrated with the swim at the start. She had natural capacities and was swimming well, but for her it wasn't what she wanted - she wanted to go faster.
- You could also see her back problems evidently, e.g. in the rotation of the body, or the flow in the swim wasn't what we wanted.
- We adapted and changed her technique to find what would fit her better.
- On the bike she was a strong athlete physically, and she fitted well with the bike.
- She was just missing some structured workouts to take her performance higher.
- In the years after, it's not strange that it was her strongest discipline.
- On the run you could see her past in athletics being beneficial.
- We had to keep in mind the impact of her running on her back problems.
- When she started training with me, she started with 16-17 hours a week.
- Usually four 1:30 sessions of swimming, a lot of biking on the weekends, no more than 1 hour per workout for the run.
- When we start to see Katarina's improvements, we noticed that if we wanted a step up we needed to improve her swim.
- We then focused more on the bike when we noticed that she could perform in bike races too.
- We would focus on the run when we were aiming for a specific time in a running race, but not really when working towards a triathlon.
- We tried to not put too much mileage into Katarina's training programme.
- We also saw that things like plyometrics didn't work for Katarina because of the impact of the exercises.
- We tried to structure the programme with a focus on good technique in each discipline.
- For the swim, it involved swimming a bit less but focusing on the technique for 1-2 months, then building from there.
- The bike wasn't as concerning as her back wasn't hurting on the bike, so we didn't have problems increasing the workouts.
- In the run we tried to limit it to max 1 hour runs, and keeping the speed. We knew if we increased the mileage then the technique would deteriorate so we tried to avoid overtiredness.
- Both physical and psychological tiredness.
How to drive performance (athlete perspective)
- It's important for me to mention that I'm not any kind of talent. I think I have an ease getting into sports but this has been really hard work.
- Consistency has been key; there are times when it's harder, but consistency has helped. And this is consistency over 10 years, not just a few months.
- Also learning to listen to my body and understanding that sometimes you don't need to train that much or so hard.
- Results will come naturally as long as you're consistent and not training lots one week and not at all the next.
- Triathlon is a lifestyle - it's something I decided I wanted to do.
- It's not easy waking up early to train and going again in the afternoon.
- For me it's been crucial to have a great team to train with - it helps with motivation to go training.
- I have a stressful job so I try to manage my tiredness - sometimes I don't succeed, and I overdo it.
- Get good people to train with as this helps you look forward to the workout. Have similar people around you.
Challenges coaching Katarina (coaches perspective)
- As an athlete, her strongest characteristics can also be the worst for her.
- Her competitiveness and her drive to perform can put her in a high dimension, but if it's something she can't control, she hits the wall.
- This is the biggest challenge for her.
- Listening to her body is difficult for her because her drive is so high.
- This is the mentality of a champion. You go until you crack.
- This attitude isn't always healthy and can be a challenge, and we try to avoid going over limits.
Mixing triathlon with a busy lifestyle (coaching perspective)
- Someone that does triathlon is usually someone that really likes sport and sees it as more of a lifestyle.
- It's also usually a person that wants to do more, perform and achieve good results.
- Knowing this, we have to be careful and consider that the athlete needs to take pleasure from triathlon.
- If you're not getting joy from it, maybe you need to reconsider why you're doing it.
- Managing time with family, friends, work etc is important.
- Being organised and knowing how much time you have to train from the beginning can be helpful.
- Also listening to the body and understand what it can do - when we train it's not just stress on the body, but there is also the stress of life.
- E.g. psychological difficulties that people may experience.
- Do it for joy, not just to achieve a result.
- If you were to achieve a great result but the training and lead up wasn't pleasant, that result might last one week.
- However if you enjoyed the process and took pleasure from it, even if the result wasn't the best you hoped for, you will be proud and thankful for the process.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favourite book, blog or resource
- What is your favourite piece of gear or equipment?
- Katarina: My Boardman time trial bike!
- What do you wish you had known or done differently at some point in your career?
- Katarina: This is for my father: Dad, you should have put me swimming when I was 8!
- It is a long term process - even if the goal isn't to win major events, the same principles still apply.
- You need consistency over a long period of time - a few months is not enough.
- You also need focus, structure and a lot of hard work.
- You need to enjoy the process!
- You don't need to be a talent in any of the disciplines to achieve great success in triathlon.
- Genetics aren't anywhere near as important as putting in the work over time and being smart with your training.
Links, resources & contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with host Mikael Eriksson
Hi! I'm your host Mikael,
I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.
I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show.
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