Balancing the art and the science of endurance training with Susan Sotir, PhD | EP#167
Susan Sotir coaches with Breakthrough Performance Coaching, has a PhD in Sport and Exercise Psychology and is an assistant professor at Springfield College. We discuss the importance of balancing the art and science of coaching to develop better athletes, and how leaning to heavily on one side can be costly if you're after improved performance.
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In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Why and how to balance the art and science of coaching or triathlon training for the self-coached athlete.
- Individuality, and why research findings should never be generalised directly to the individual athlete without a good knowledge of the context of this particular athlete.
- How lab testing can be massively beneficial in optimising and individualising an athlete's training, when we apply both the art and science of coaching to their training.
- How to read research papers the right way, and conduct a critical analysis of the findings within.
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About Susan Sotir
- Susan coaches with Breakthrough Performance Coaching.
- She has a PhD in Sports and Exercise Psychology and is an Assistant Professor at Springfield College.
- I started racing triathlon in 1989 - I was a college swimmer and a pro at the time, Scott Tinley, was swimming with us.
He had so much passion for the sport and spoke about the community so it made me want to try it.
- At the same time, I was on the college swim team and needed to do some form of fundraising - the choices were teaching swimming lessons early Saturday, or coach Masters athletes twice a week at night.
I chose the at night option! So I started coaching swimming and racing triathlon at the same time.
- I kept coaching sport in general from that point. I graduated college with a degree in English and Classics and trained as a Latin teacher, but continued coaching - at some point I realised something had to give between the two.
The coaching had the most different things to challenge me, and had the most impact on people immediately, so I chose that!
- I started coaching a Varsity high school boys team.
- I knew the science and the physics of swimming. I'd have two guys I knew were equally prepared for the race, but one would kill it and one would fall apart.
I then realised there was a whole aspect of sports psychology that I didn't know enough about - so this led to my PhD.
- Once I was in the scientific world I realised I love it, and I was given the opportunity to stay at Springfield College and work with graduate students.
I helped them be better consumers of research so when they went into the field they were using evidence based decision making to drive their choices.
- In the last couple of years I've also been practicing my coaching.
- In my coaching for the Masters swim sessions (around 2002) I came across a lot of triathletes, and that made me want to expand my education to understand triathlon. I then expanded my coaching to cover this sport too.
Why do we need the art and the science?
- If you only have one without the other, you're not valuing the athlete in front of you.
You need the science side to be systematic, collecting data and drawing conclusions based on that. This also gives a mechanism to explain the changes you see.
- For example, if you're apply stressors to see increases in aerobic capacity, you want to be sure you're actually seeing these changes. If you're not seeing them, you want to go through problem solving in a systematic way.
- The art side of it is creative insight, and the emotional impact of what you do.
Without engagement from the athlete you are not impacting the training process in as effective and elegant a way as you could be.
- If you go into things intentionally and pull from both areas, the outcomes are better.
Art & science in the self-coached athlete
- Self-coached athlete typically pull very far into the science side, or they go too far to the other side and only go by feel.
- The two pieces have to unite in some way!
- Also there's a third piece: perspective. When we only have our experience and our way of looking at things, we sometimes forget there is a whole realm of other things to explain what is happening.
- We will always prefer either the art or science, but the challenge for a self-coaches athlete is making sure you maintain a perspective that's not influenced by those biases.
Applying research findings to individual athletes
- When you look at a published paper, you're seeing something that made it through a series of hoops.
From a human perspective we are biased to taking those results as more certain.
- Everything is based on samples, and from those data is gathered and averages are calculated.
It's a pool of people who are willing to volunteer (first level of bias) and available to the researcher (second level of bias).
We reduce this group to a single value - an average.
- When we see change that impacts that group, it's a probability based on an average.
The likelihood that an individuals response to an intervention is captured here, is less, but it's better than nothing.
- When reviewing research it's important to understand what question was asked, how the question was asked, who was involved in the answer, and how much of an effect did the intervention have.
We then have to take that information and interpret it in the context we're working in.
- A lot of exercise physiology research is done in college males who are either untrained, or recreationally trained.
This looks very different to most of the athletes competing in triathlon who have a higher average age, different experience and stress levels, and are involved in something much longer than your average research study.
Interpreting research papers
- The first place you start is the title - it tells you a lot about how the researchers were viewing a question.
- Then you check the introduction. A good introduction should be well written, and should include a number of things:
- A mechanism of action or a theoretical explanation - there should be a way to interpret any changes that occur through a known lens.
- It should show what other answers they've got in the past - what have they looked at to inform their question and what have they valued.
- In the last couple of sentences there should be a clearly stated purpose and the researchers hypothesis of what they expected to happen.
- The method should reflect the stated purpose, and it should be clear.
- There should be an explanation of the process for selecting the same - where were they from, how many of them were there and what type of experience they had? What was the inclusion criteria?
- My issue with using untrained athletes is that anything you do will likely cause a change. Additionally, what applies to elites likely doesn't apply to age-groupers.
Having a sample that you can generalise the findings from is better.
- It's difficult to say whether untrained athletes, or elites, would be closest to age-groupers - this is where the art and science comes in.
More often than not, doing what the elite athletes did can frequently hurt you because it's too much to adapt to in a real world environment.
However the untrained person may not necessarily be better than what you're doing.
You have to do a systematic trial and make yourself a sample of one, and do a bit of testing.
- It has to fit with your race goals and where you are currently, not where you want or hope to be.
- Moving onto the procedure, it should be clear what they did and it should be repeatable by anyone else reading the paper.
Things like time of day influence the findings, and influence the amount of control.
- An experiment in a lab setting should have high levels of control because you want to ensure what you measure, and any changes you identify, are the result of the intervention.
If you can't see the clear process in the paper, you need to consider what other factors had an influence.
- Next you assess the measures: were the valid, and actually measuring what they were supposed to be measuring? Also were they reliable, and able to measure that same thing over and over again?
Did they repeat the measure? One measurement at one point at time is simply a snap shot.
Comparing two groups on one measure is better for assessing difference. Similarly, a baseline or a pre-test measure, a measure during the intervention, and a measure after between the same people is great.
- If something is being measured on a cellular level, we won't be doing that out on the field. However, it could be critically meaningful, and understanding what the changes were can better inform practical decisions.
For example, looking at mitochondria is important information because we need to know what helps them improve, but also anything that might make them die.
- Additionally, performance markers like VO2max and time to exhaustion must be looked at with an eye to what it was. This may differ on various other factors so you need to understand the set up of these findings, and these become more relevant to the age-group athlete.
For example, if they did their study with an avatar on the screen that the person chased, and saw big improvement, you can follow this yourself at home.
- The highest level of the generalisability spectrum is tests that were actually taken outside the lab - did somebody go out and perform in an event.
The problem here becomes needing to understand and control the entire training programme up to that point. Without that, you can't necessarily say it's this specific intervention that had the effect.
- For example, a study measured effect of carbohydrate intake in the lead up to London marathon and found that higher carb intake led to faster performance.
However, they didn't control the training up to the race, and only measured one marathon. You therefore cannot say it was the carbohydrate that made the difference.
- Then, how did they analyse the information? The statistics section tells you what they actually compared and what they were trying to do with it - were they looking for differences or relationships?
What were the values they put in?
This is important because a mean change that isn't statistically significant may still be important to consider in everyday application.
- For example, in the first year of Ironman Chattanooga, the first and second place positions were a difference of less than 8 seconds.
There is never going to be a statistical finding that's significant enough to find 8 seconds over an 8 hour race. So practical significance is important here too.
Results & discussion
- The results and discussion sections are how people interpret the statistics.
If there was no statistically significant difference, and the conclusion section starts talking about one group being better than another, they better have some type of metric that talks about what that difference was!
- The conclusion section had better reflect the statistical findings, what was measured, and propose an explanation of change through the lens of the scientific explanation in the introduction.
- Lab testing is the gold standard, it's the most accurate way to understand the metabolic picture of the individual in front of us.
- Field testing and ongoing reading of training files, as well as talking to the athlete, gives you high level information as well though.
- If we're using averages, zones and 'most likely's', the challenge is that you're coaching to the middle of what's most likely to happen.
- When you look at what makes up a metabolic profile, some people will be much higher in aerobic capacity and some much higher in anaerobic capacity than others for the same sport.
- Laboratory measures give you the most narrow window for us to be accountable in.
- For me, the higher somebody's goals are, the more narrow the window of accountability needs to be.
- Field testing, such as a 20 minute FTP test, corresponds to lab testing of lactate pretty well for most people.
- What is different, and harder to get a picture of in field testing is how the athlete accomplished that task.
Was it a primarily aerobic task where they are drawing on their ability to sit at that level and go hard enough to challenge it?
- Typically with an FTP test you take that number, multiply it by 0.95 and you get the person's FTP.
It works, but we don't know precisely what that is made up of.
For some people their ability to sustain that type of wattage could be much higher than someone else's and it may not create as much damage or difficulty to recover from.
- I'm a good example for this: my FTP is not particularly high, but I can sustain a huge chunk of it forever. If you ask me to go over 105% of it I die like a dog.
I'm an aerobic individual and I've been doing endurance sports for a long time. So that 0.95 number is not the right value for me.
- Whereas I have other athletes that come from more stochastic sports backgrounds, and the number that that 0.95 calculates is huge. However, they can't sustain a high percentage of that for the type of racing they want to do so it's not a good number for them.
- This is where a 20 minute test is not enough, you have to do more to understand what people can do.
Look at what they do consistently out on the road, and what it costs them physiologically as a result.
- If you give someone a 2 hour ride and you want them riding 75% or lower, but you find they're completely shattered by it. This tells us something more than any field or lab test will ever do.
The next time they try this test they're either going to be really assertive, or they'll pull back a little because it hurt them last time.
- For me as a coach, or for a self-coached athlete, you need to understand why this hurt so much.
Did you go too much into the anaerobic side of things in order to achieve the target power?
- The idea of field testing cannot just be testing, it needs to be ongoing monitoring of the how the values and thresholds you set are impacting the person in front of you.
Advice for doing lab testing
- The more you can make it about that individual person, the better it will be.
- Make sure the athlete is hydrated, well-fed and prepared to have the test, this is step 1.
- Step 2 is putting them in a good psychological mindset once they get there.
Putting the athlete on their own equipment is really important. Have their own bike, bring their own heart rate monitor etc.
- What we have set up with Breakthrough Performance Coaching is a dedicated space where we keep the met cart.
In that space we have a treadmill and computrainers. This means somebody can bring in their own bike and their own stuff, and do the test in an environment we have set up specifically for that.
- The numbers you get in this kind of setting can be very different to an erg bike at 50 rpms and a steady state wattage. This is less precise to the person.
The art side of coaching and training
- Subjective information are data - people's comments are data.
- We can't see technique or efficiency in the data. We also can't see what was going on in their head at a specific time and how that influenced their performance, which is critical.
If someone is constantly holding themselves back, it doesn't matter how good their physiology is because they can't access it.
- I coach a small number of athletes and I know who they are. We talk a lot about technique and efficiency.
We look at speed and how much this costs them (through power/heart rate) over time, not just single snap shots.
We talk! I start to understand who my athlete is and what potential limiting factors are going on so we can start to work on those.
- It's interesting to see how different people approach the same type of training.
- What really fuels one person makes another person feel like they have failed or didn't accomplish the task, which can lead to a spiral away from consistency.
- I have a couple of athletes right one, one of whom has the physical capacity to do everything she wants to do - the numbers dictate this - but she didn't believe she could do it.
That process of taking a step by step approach to showing levels of success is a longer term project than changing somebody's FTP.
However, it's a far more important project because it is rarely the body that holds someone back.
It's more often than not what stress a person puts on themselves that interferes with the stress we're trying to impose on the body to make those physiological changes.
Making a change on the mental side
- Pointing out where an athlete is wrong in their conclusions can be helpful - the idea of perspective.
- Teaching patience and self-regulation also helps.
- Reinforcing these pieces when they come up!
- Having conversations regularly about the impact this has. Teaching a process mindset and reinforces it on a regular basis helps people experience success.
- For example, if an athlete was going 4 miles an hour up a hill, sitting and asking them what was going on helps you both learn from it.
You can see if they're having a self-debilitating mindset, and learn from the session so you can do it differently next time. Pick a couple of targets for the next session.
- Psychological skills develop with interventions and opportunities to practice them.
- The single best thing a self-coached athlete can workout is practicing your reflections after each training session using a 'good, better, how' approach.
The good: what went well in the session, because something always did go well, even if it's small.
The better: what could have gone better than was in your control. You can't control the weather but you can control your effort, attitude and/or fuelling.
The how: what am I going to do differently next time?
- This sets up the next next from a position of success and a position of learning.
- Beating yourself up about things out of your control can be exhausting.
It's what we do, but we want to help athletes to move through this.
How Susan prescribes workouts
- We need some type of threshold so we can have meaningful conversations that carry over.
I prefer the zones that TrainerRoad uses - tempo, sweet spot, threshold etc.
They're clear and simple, and allow a window of trainability for busy age-group athletes.
- Also because people spend so much time on the bike they're good at feeling what an endurance effort feels like compared to a sweet spot effort. I've started to capitalise on this in the run too.
- I will almost never prescribe a heart rate. I'll prescribe power, or a pace ceiling or floor.
Heart rate to me is most valuable over time, unless I know somebody is the type of person who will do an active recovery or endurance workout too hard.
For that type of person, I'll set a heart rate ceiling based on percentage of threshold.
- In the swim, because it's such a technical sport I think the conversations are a little bit different.
We need to make sure there is an opportunity to practice technique and that has its own effort level because the effort comes from the focus and the attention, rather than the work.
Being able to sustain that technique at a target pace is a different level of work as well.
- In swimming I tend to go with 'steady', 'fastest repeatable' and 'FAST'.
As we get closer to a race, that becomes more about pacing and the numbers for that target event.
- The systematic setup of the training session is the same for everybody - they all get a picture of something that is addressing a specific physiological goal.
How that is communicated to the athlete is really dependent on what resonates for them. If they're really numbers oriented and wants to hit targets, we talk about the range I want to see.
If they are a more emotionally driven athlete, I prescribe what the session is supposed to feel like.
- For everybody, I'm looking at the picture of what is the work they did, what zone did it fall into, how did they handle it, and what was their reflection on it?
- Polarised training has a place. Stephen Seiler's work demonstrates that it is efficient and effective for certain types of athletes.
- I don't think it is appropriate for everybody or every type of event.
- It's a really effective process for certain types of athletes, and some people really love it.
If you like it, you're going to do it, and if you're consistently doing something you're going to improve.
Nutrition - LCHF & Ketogenic diets
- Again it comes back to the individual, what they can sustain and what works for them.
- People have had success on every different type of diet system out there, but people have also had failures on every one.
- If you can eat regularly, well and nutritionally dense and meet your fuelling needs, that's going to work for you. You need to ensure you have enough energy, but if you do you are doing well.
- Some people are metabolically in need so they can adhere to a diet like LCHF and do well on it.
- However, for some people, they need their carbohydrates!
Personally, psychologically and physically I perform better when I have carbohydrate in my diet.
- The primary goal of fuelling has to be physical health. If you are not meeting your needs to sustain physical health in the lifestyle you're living, it's not the right lifestyle.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to endurance sports?
- Google scholar.
- What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success?
- I'm stubborn. I want to understand something and getting roadblocked isn't going to stop me, I'll keep persisting.
- What do you wish you had known or done differently at some point during your career?
- You can't train everything - sometimes there is a reason it is not training.
- I have a ton of food allergies and sensitivities so I was never successful at long course racing as I always had issues with throwing up or breathing issues. I kept thinking it was me and I just needed to train my gut. It took a long time to get to the idea it was allergies, and this is something you can't train.
- Science is not any more important than art - they are both equally important.
- Related listening: Science to Practice | EP#109
- If you are a coached athlete, the most important data your coach can get from you is your subjective feedback after sessions. This is why a long term coach-athlete relationship can be so beneficial.
- Data driven is not a good term, training should be data informed rather than solely data driven.
- If you are interested in reading scientific papers, listen back to Susan describing how to approach these.
- Get a good knowledge by reading meta-analysis, systematic reviews and textbooks before applying results from one specific paper to your training.
- My number one recommended resource is Endurance Training Science and Practice by Inigo Mujika
- Other good books include: Triathlon Science and Cycling Science.
- Another text book recommendation: Sports Nutrition by Asker Jeukendrup.
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with Susan Sotir
- Personal email: email@example.com
- If you search Susan Sotir on google scholar my research should come up there!
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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