World Champions keep things simple: training masterclass with Joel Filliol | EP#172
Joel Filliol is one of the most successful elite triathlon coaches in the history of the sport. In his multi-national squad he coaches athletes like Mario Mola (three-time World Champion), Katie Zaferes, Vincent Luis, and Jake Birthwhistle, and his on his CV is also coached Simon Whitfield to an Olympic silver medal and working as the Head Coach of British Triathlon. In this in-depth interview we discuss Joel's learnings from this great career of what really matters in training, and how to get these things right.
Discuss this episode!
- Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Keeping training simple and avoiding major mistakes.
- The importance of consistent total workload over time and of training frequency.
- No "main" sessions: every workout counts.
- A typical training week of athletes like Mario Mola, Vincent Luis and Katie Zaferes.
- How to do low-intensity training the right way!
- How to do high-intensity training the right way!
- Brick workouts and peaking.
About Joel Filliol
- Joel has his own multi-national squad of elite athletes that he coaches.
His squad includes Mario Mola, Katie Zaferes, Vincent Luis, Jake Birtwhistle, Martin Van Ruil and others.
- In the past Joel has coached athletes such as Simon Whitfield, who took the Olympic silver medal in Beijing in 2008.
- Joel is currently working as the Olympic performance director for the Italian Triathlon Federation.
- In the past Joel has worked as the head coach for British Triathlon, and worked with athletes such as the Brownlee brothers.
Joel has worked for various roles in Triathlon Canada as well.
Keeping things simple
- In the evolution of a young sport like triathlon we now have so much information.
Being able to filter that and understand what is important is key.
- The concept of keeping things simple has never felt as relevant as it does now.
- Focusing on what actually makes a difference, and what you can implement consistently over time.
- It's not easy as we're surrounded by new technology - the ability to measure things and collect data has never been easier, but finding the value has never been harder.
- I remind myself in my daily work: what are the essentials here.
- An example would be athlete monitoring or workload monitoring.
- It's always useful to think about the context you're working in as a coach as there are different tools you would use in different contexts.
- I always come back to paying attention to the athletes, their mood and how they are behaving every day.
I watch them walking to the pool and their joking around to give everyday context. This isn't always available if you're working remotely.
Paying attention to this is really effective.
- None of this is new! We just have more sophisticated tools now.
- What can be effective is simply asking athletes how they're doing/what they're feeling. Interacting with people is still the most effective.
- Examples of recovery monitoring would be morning heart rate, HRV or questionnaires.
- One simple way in TrainingPeaks to monitor this is the implementation of RPE which is an emoticon.
You get a smiley face or a sad face and this is useful as a data point!
- Overall, seeing an athlete and/or actually talking to them is a holistic way to see how they're doing.
- With workload, we have a lot of ways to measure it and accessibility we never used to have, but this means we generate excessive amounts of data.
- I find myself coming back to simple metrics such as hours/time spent.
It doesn't have the fine detail of type of work done, but at a glance it's still effective.
- Our technology is not terribly reliable yet! GPS is pretty consistent but the athlete still has to remember to wear/charge the devices.
- As soon as you introduce holes in your data, things like chronic training load need closer attention.
- If I look at an athletes programme and they do 30 days per week.
You can look at the amount of time they're inputting for swim sessions for example - I've seen 2 hour 5km swims, and 1hr 15 minute 5km swims.
it's easy to pad the numbers so you need to dig into context.
- I also look at how many weeks did you do X hours - this context is important.
- You learn to understand what to pay attention to.
Workload in endurance sports
- In endurance sport, because of the ability to measure things outside the lab, things have trended towards a focus on intensity.
- As we've understood the impact of intensity, and the specificity at intensity, there's been a focus on "key workouts".
However, there's really no such thing as a key workout that unlocks the programme/success.
- I think workload overtime, that chronic training load over time, is a big driver of your success and achieving your potential.
- Underpinning that, it's the volume and frequency that has the biggest impact.
- I'll take an athlete who primarily trains easy but with relatively high volume or frequency instead of the reverse of that!
- We can't escape critical volume over time as a driver of endurance sport.
- There are positive impacts of high intensity training and race pace training, but you can only do so much of that.
If it's not underpinned by frequent low intensity training over time, you won't have your fundamental aerobic base.
- The major error that we all tend towards is overdoing intensity and race pace sessions.
- In intuitively seems like these workouts and a focus on race specificity will get you to your goal faster, but it's often not the best way.
- There is a tolerance to how much high intensity you can do, and there is a toxicity when you do too much; it makes you ill and has a negative impact.
- The elites don't necessarily do more intensity or more race specificity.
- It comes back to how much volume you can do alongside this training.
- First you look at how much time you are training in each sport per week, mostly easy to build to total volume.
Then start to add work like hills, and lower intensity (lower than race pace). You don't need to do a lot over race pace.
Critical threshold of volume for elite draft legal athletes
- It's not a precise figure! There's a range even in what highly successful individuals are doing.
- There was a presentation at the Incept conference by Sergio Santos. He compared the training weeks of a number of different programmes and athletes.
Most of them were fairly similar, the low end was 25 hours and the high end was 35 hours. The sweet spot is in there depending on how much intensity you use.
- The first thing to fall away when you're fatigued is intensity.
- An interesting point for the development of athletes is should you prioritise the race pace intensity, or the volume? Young athletes tend to find they can't do both.
- Senior athletes can recover from the volume and are able to be more consistent.
- Not too many top level endurance athletes would be working less than 25 hours per week, somewhat consistently.
If you fall below this for many weeks of the year you may have issues reaching your full potential.
- We saw this discussion in athletics over the last 20 years - there has been a swing from a lot of speed work back to more volume.
- Consistency is known to be important, but the word is losing its meaning.
I think about it as the workload we can sustain, week after week, without taking recovery weeks.
- It has to be sustainable over a long period of time. I no longer follow periodisation with my athletes.
If you are desperately needing a recovery week, the workload on those previous days is too high.
- It doesn't mean athletes don't sometimes need recovery, and we can change the programme to include this.
The goal is to try to make the workload consistent over that time.
- The more intensity that we do, it is more likely that we will start to lose consistency.
- This is a constant thing that is influx, you are constantly trying to learn.
- There is not generally a problem with under-doing it - the cost of this is not a catastrophic problem, but overdoing it can be.
- We're basically just trying to avoid interruptions to training from illness or injury, including heavy short term fatigue.
These are the biggest killers of consistent training over time.
- All injuries that are not caused by an acute event such as a bike crash are training load errors.
Some people have a lower threshold of tolerance due to their biomechanics, and some much higher.
- We are constantly tweaking and adjusting, as well as monitoring and listening to our athletes so we can be willing to adapt.
- The daily decision making is what coaching is about. It's harder to tread the line between when to push on and when to back off.
The better we get at that, the more likely we are to have consistent athletes.
Considerations for age group athletes
- The more frequently you can train aerobically the better!
- There's no such thing as too slow, and 20-30 minutes is still going to add up.
- First you add frequency, then volume, then intensity.
- When you've got race goals you need to progress towards this duration and pace you're aiming for, but it doesn't have to be all specific work.
- Wherever you are now, you can probably add some frequency and that will help.
- You don't necessarily need a day off aerobic exercise.
- We apply this with out elite athletes - I prefer to spread training out over the week rather than have days off.
Approaching lower intensity sessions
- They need to be as slow as they need to be.
- There are some athletes where the errors that you see are due to their easy work being too fast.
Particularly now you can easily check your pace on your watch or Garmin, as it makes it tempting to then increase it.
- The error of too slow is not terribly significant when you are training high frequency and volume.
- Go by RPE and go as easy as the body wants to go.
- Most of our guys, even the very fast runners, are running 4:30/5 min/km (7:50/8 min/mile) for easy runs, sometimes slower depending on tiredness.
- The difference in swimming is the technical side of things.
We do still have easy swimming. If we want to swim easier we might use pulling or the pull buoy.
Our guys are capable of pulling multiple km's everyday.
- I find using pull paddles when their fatigue is high means you tend to have slightly better mechanics.
- For most of the athletes in the sport, they are low efficiency swimmers and when they are fatigued they slow down and their mechanics are worse.
This is where using tools can have a real purpose, either floatation or paddles.
- We have some athletes that do 90% of their total swimming with pull paddles.
- Ideally we want to have good quality swimming under high fatigue levels. This is tricky, so this is where the tools can be useful to help take more good strokes.
- The interesting part about triathlon is the interaction between the three sports.
- For a lot of age group and long course, the swim is not the make or break part of the race.
However for professionals and faster, short course races, the swim is very important. Then in Olympic racing it's absolutely critical.
- The balance of workload between the three sports is something to play with, observe and watch.
- Your fatigue can make such a difference on your output - both quality and technical.
The short cut is to use the pull paddle tools to swim technically better more often, even under heavy fatigue.
Practical changes to training based on discipline interaction
- The microcycle template is helpful, working out where your key runs and bike sessions are.
- We tend to not train very early in the morning as some athletes neuromuscular coordination doesn't function as well at this time.
From the circadian rhythm we know there are better periods in the day (but you can't always pick that).
- We've played around with loading the day before too.
- With some athletes we try to protect the quality of their swimming.
- At the top level, there is a general level of fatigue that just stays there. This can be tricky for improving swimming.
- Having a higher run volume seems to have the most impact on swimming quality.
If you want to see someone improve their swim by accident, watch them when they have a running injury!
This is also a function of overall training load going down, quality usually then improves.
You can manipulate this depending on what your goals are.
- Pay attention to whether your athlete swims better in the morning or afternoon, and ideally follow this.
It's likely that it will be the afternoon as they will probably feel the water better then.
- Some athletes can do a 100km ride and crank out a great 5km swim in the afternoon, and another may be destroyed after that bike ride.
It really depends on the athlete, and it varies over time.
- The big differentiator of athletes is what kind of intensity they can do under heavy fatigue, and under high chronic load.
Approaching high intensity sessions
- I see an over-emphasis on over race pace work.
- The context of my everyday is the Olympic pathway, so 5km and 10km running.
The biggest mistake I see is speeds and intensity that are far too much, particularly running far too fast.
It's disconnected from anything the athlete will ever face in a competition.
- Triathlon running is done in a fatigued state after coming off the bike, so the speeds that even the best in the world are doing are attainable by all.
We're not limited in the ability to run the speed, it's to be fit enough to run it under fatigue and be resistant to slowing down.
- Even the best men and woman in the world doing Olympic or shorter distances are attainable by athletes at a much lower level.
- Yet if you look at the infamous 'Track Tuesdays' around the world, many of those athletes will be going far faster than race pace.
- The amount of risk you take on board when you're exceeding your biomechanical limits or the stress you're putting on your system.
Training stress and response is a continuum so you don't need to go at a precise pace for a response.
- The biggest problems people will have are a breakdown of biomechanics or an injury.
- I think the problem lies both in the programming and the athlete trying to run too fast.
- I think it comes back to a misunderstanding of what triathlon running is. It's not about 'speed', it's about endurance, fitness and conditioning.
- Mostly I see a disconnection with reality - dream paces and intensities rather than reality paces and intensities.
- If you want to become a 3 min/km off the bike runner and you're currently 3:15, you don't get there by running a lot of 3 min/km because that's the wrong intensity for you and your current fitness level.
Intensity doesn't work like that. You have to train at the intensity that's right for you today and you progress from that.
- It's the easiest thing to overdo but it's also the easiest thing to correct.
- Your body is not a machine that has a precise threshold pace. Your virtual threshold changes everyday based on fatigue, stress, environmental conditions, hydration etc.
- If you get 'in the zone', you're going to get a response from the session.
- The more we can disconnect our ego, the better.
- I came across this concept of the minimal effective dose.
When I first heard it my response was 'oh well we shouldn't think about minimum, it should be maximising performance'.
However over time the concept resonated more in terms of what is the minimum dose that gets us the response we want and that we can do consistently over time.
- I like that concept because in practice you can see that - the right time to finish a session is not when you're at the limit and you're laying on the track of being sick and feeling destroyed.
These are all signs that you've exceeded the minimum dose to get the response you want.
You want to finish feeling like you could have done more.
- One of the biggest problems we encounter is athletes that get into an illness/injury cycle.
The most likely predictor of someone having an injury in the future is someone who has had one in the past. It's hard to break out of those cycles because our bodies are good at compensating but we end up with secondary issues.
Athletes can end up with deep compensation patterns, particularly if they're stubborn or unwilling to rest, which can then be hard to unpick.
This often comes from not being disciplined with pace control and management of high intensity. The impact is the biggest in running but it's also common in cycling.
- Allow yourself a pace range, and don't feel you have to always be at the top of that. If you can't reach the bottom of it, do another session.
- We were at the track the other day with an athlete who clearly wasn't adapting to the reps that the group was doing, so we changed the distant of the reps and recovery.
- It's important to recognise that it's not a failure of training, it's a necessary adaptation.
- It's not the easiest for athletes to learn how to do that, but in the right environment and reinforcement that is what you need.
- This is important for self-coached athletes: knowing what is enough and when to stop.
In that model, that way of thinking will lead you to be more consistent with time.
It's not always about sticking to the programme, hitting the exactly intensity in the key sessions. These are doses of intensity that you can do or not do, but if you do the fundamentals of frequency and volume over months you'll get results.
- Acute load can be built up over weeks and months, and you see how stable it becomes.
- Having a robust chronic workload sets you up for success and allows you to manage intensity as well.
When to place intense workouts in the microcycle
- We follow a fairly traditional model.
- On Tuesdays and Saturdays we have more intensive run sessions.
At various times during the year we do something on a Thursday - a run of the bike or some hills, or just easy depending on where we are in the year.
- For the swim and bike, we typically do two harder/higher intensity sessions.
- We often swim the same day as the track session, and the other might be on a Friday where it might be the only intensive session.
- For the bike, the rides may be Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Sunday but it depends where we are at overall in the training load.
- On the bike it depends on the terrain: if we're in a place with a lot of hills, or at altitude or somewhere very windy, we may do one or no specific sessions because we get enough natural intensity.
- It's generally often two sessions per week in each discipline.
I find more than that is hard to sustain, but less than that is okay.
- I try to spread the intensive sessions out but it's the interesting part of triathlon because there's three disciplines.
This is where it comes back to the interaction of all three.
If we do a hard track/run session, the next day may be hard to sustain swim quality.
- There are different ideas about it, some suggest stacking the hard sessions together - i.e. doing two on one day and then having a lighter middle day.
- Personally I try to spread them out.
We typically take an easier Monday, Tuesday intensive sessions, Wednesdays aerobic in all three, and Thursday depends on the phase.
- I like doing intensive sessions at the weekend as a model for going into a race. We do both intensive sessions or high workload sessions on Saturday and Sunday.
This means we don't have to change the micro-cycle as we go in or out of a race week. It keeps consistency in that way.
- More recently, shorter cycles have become trendy - e.g. 3 and 1.
Personally I have found that athletes like the predictability of a 7-day microcycle, and it takes away uncertainty.
Uncertainty and change has an energy cost, so predictability is partly how you maintain high training load. There is a flow to things.
- The practicality of a predictably routine helps when you're using venues for access (e.g. swimming pools).
- We try to create an environment where it is easier for the athletes to sustain a high workload. We partly do this by providing a framework around the work that reduces their requirement to make decisions.
Athletes know what to expect each day.
Using intensity zones across sessions
- In the swimming it's evolved over time to just be a 'solid hard effort'.
It's self-evident based on the duration of the efforts that we are doing.
We monitor the output to decide whether we need to change what they're doing (e.g. if they're slowing down).
- In the end it's all going to be very similar. Paces don't change that much, it's really just fatigue and energy that will change.
- The riding we do based on group effort, so we don't end up riding to a power output.
Power will be looked at after the fact.
Last week we did a crit session, so a circuit with lots of corners, and we just rode that at race intensity. That's all we need to say and we get what we need to.
- When we were riding hills, we did various different types of progressions.
- We almost always progress into everything we're doing, whether it's running, cycling or swimming.
- Although a progression may seem counter intuitive to short distance racing, under high workload and high fatigue allowing the body to work into it gets the best results.
- You're most likely going to hit the athletes sweet spot doing it this way, especially under high fatigue.
Doing high intensity from the start may mean they crack physically or mentally earlier and you may end up having less work done.
- We want to finish well in a race too, so it builds a good mental model for that.
- For running it's a little different as we always have pace controls, which are usually speed limits. The biggest problem we have is going too fast.
This doesn't change too much, and we know we get the right amount of work with this approach.
For the running I want the athlete to have more discipline around that because the risks of overdoing it are higher.
- We repeat a lot of the same sessions and progressions year after year.
- If you're running in a group, the difference between setting the pace and following the pace is enough to make a difference with different level athletes.
- We don't want athletes to be running with a group and over-exerting themselves relative to the others.
This is a training error we try to avoid but it's difficult because ego gets caught up in that.
Usually the way around it is to have a plan from the beginning, rather than having the athlete feel it out.
- I started with this using Daniels Running Formula, using the VDot as a mental model.
According to VDot you have pace ranges for different intensities.
- We tend to work primarily under race pace, over volume, and the majority it done at this intensity.
When we go to the track we work over pace but under volume.
We almost never do something like 10x1km at 10km race pace. This is the highest kind of workload session that you'd tend to do, but doing this in the context of 30 hours a week is really difficult.
- It's useful to be comfortable running over race pace from a biomechanical perspective, but not spending too much time here.
- Anybody can do high intensity under low chronic load, it's more what the athlete can do sustainably under high load. This is where you can see the difference.
In my experience, the best athletes in the world are not necessarily the ones doing the most impressive sessions.
- The precision of the way we set up the sessions, for running, is about speed and pace. For cycling and swimming we tend to use more subjective measures (e.. 'hard', 'solid', 'mid race effort').
In the pool, the day to day variation of speed will be more due to the impact of fatigue on mechanics, so you can have a good session holding 1:10's, or a good session holding 1:06's.
- I tend to follow progression over time in the swim and bike. We gradually increase volume of intensity slowly.
In the swim this can be as little as 400m hard swimming in the beginning, up to 2-3km main set of a variety of paces or consistent work.
We wouldn't do much more than that as a main set.
- We don't have a lot of fluff in our swim sets, we always do 800m warm up, then some kind of pre-set, then a main set between 2-4km, then a cool down.
Long main sets is the key to triathlon swimming!
For age groupers, if you've got an hour to swim, make the most of the hour. Don't spend time doing non-specific things.
- I don't think extra mileage in the pool is always of value, because you always enter fatigued from previous work so you can end up swimming technically poor as a result.
This is counter productive for triathlon swimming.
- For the cycling, it depends on whether it's a solo or a group session.
- If it's a group session and there are the dynamics there, we may do a bunch effort with 5 guys rotating through a period at a time. We just give this a label of 'mid race effort'.
These guys are very experienced. They know more or less what the power output will be, but it doesn't need to be specific in terms of output.
The output also depends on the environment, and the dynamics - some athletes may need to sit in more etc.
- A couple of weeks ago we were doing 15 minute climbs. We did three and we just said let's progress from the first to the third.
The athlete can then figure out what the best way is to do that based on their energy levels, and using the other guys to push themselves.
As long as they don't start too hard, we're going to achieve what we want and that's close enough.
This avoids making an error such as the athlete blowing up, of their confidence being knocked because they tried to do too much.
- It's all about trying to set up sessions to be perceived as successful.
If you give athletes a session, they assume you're doing this because you think they can do it.
If they can't do it, they think they've failed, but 99% of the time it's the coach that has failed because they didn't anticipate what was possible on the day.
- We as coaches get that wrong more than the athletes do.
- In the majority of coaching contexts, the athlete has self-selected themselves for this and they are already motivated - we have to assume high motivation even when they are fatigued.
We have to assume that they want to do whatever you set the objective as.
It's pat of the coaches job to anticipate what they ought to be able to do, given everything you know about the context, their chronic load, their acute load, their profile etc.
We want to set them up to be successful in the programme.
- Work should be prescribed according to what you think they can do to build their confidence.
It needs to be done in an authentic way - you don't want to falsely build their confidence - but you want them to be successful in their training.
- The workouts needn't always get harder or bigger because over time, just doing the same workload on any particular day is still a good thing.
If they can consistently do the same workload 5-6 weeks in a row under ever-increasingly chronic load, that's also a context to improvement.
Overload can be from a chronic load, such as progression in time, not always improving intensity or volume.
- The better you get at that process the more likely you will be able to predict what they're going to do and prescribe sessions they are able to complete.
Hopefully over time confidence should come from buying into the process and knowing that if they consistently do the work over time they will maximise their rate of improvement and have predictable performance.
- A different model is continuing to test athletes over time but this often breaks consistency and interrupts the chronic load.
I think this is not trusting your own process to get the outcomes you want.
Quick tips and tricks
- Brick workouts from the point of view of time efficiency for age groupers are good.
BUT brick workouts from the point of view of being necessary to run faster off the bike, not so important.
I don't think we're training anything there other than psychology, which is not insignificant.
- Regarding peaking, we overdo considering peaking from a performance point of view for any level of athlete.
Being consistently aerobically fit and a stable level of conditioning is going to get you almost everything that you could want in this sport.
- Showing up to the start line healthy, with energy, is 99% of performance.
Rather than hoping or expecting for something that you've never done before because you've typically pushed too hard.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to triathlon or endurance sports?
- What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success?
- Being as committed as the athletes. If you talk about commitment, you need to demonstrate that, which I think we do by living and training with them throughout the year.
- Who is somebody in triathlon that you look up to?
- The athletes I get the opportunity to work with. I get to learn from some top athletes, but when I think of all the different athletes such as Simon Whitfield and many of the British athletes we've got now, those are the people in triathlon that I look up to and have learned the most from.
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with Joel Filliol
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.
I sincerely want you to contact me to
- Send me feedback
- Give constructive criticism
- Request topics and guests for the podcast
- Send me your triathlon-related questions
- Tell me that you've rated and reviewed That Triathlon Show so I can give you a shout-out on the show and tell you how much it means to me!