Training for Xterra and off-road triathlon with five-time world champion Melanie McQuaid | EP#196
Melanie McQuaid is an elite triathlete, five-time world champion (Xterra and ITU cross-triathlon), and coach. In this episode, she discusses the ins and outs of training for and racing Xterra and off-road triathlon.
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In this Episode you'll learn about:
- How Xterra/off-road triathlon demands are different from the demands of standard road triathlons.
- How these different demands impact training - how should an athlete change up their training if going from road triathlons to focusing on Xterra?
- Training on the mountain bike and running trails - technical and physiological aspects.
- Advice for racing Xterra and off-road triathlons - what are the most important things to consider?
- Gear - what gear do you need and what should you consider when selecting gear?
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About Melanie McQuaid
- I'm a professional triathlete and coach - mostly coach now - based in Victoria, British Colombia in Canada.
- I started as a World Cup mountain bike racer, and raced on this circuit for 7 years.
- I then briefly switched to road racing and raced with a variety of teams that would pick me up for a season.
I also went to the UCI Road World Championships.
This is what pushed me into Xterra racing.
- I went to road worlds and there was a huge crash in the first 800m of the race. I was pretty disillusioned with the idea of being a road cyclist where that happened.
- I went straight from that race to the Xterra World Championships that were in Maui.
I hadn't actually trained for Maui apart from cycling.
- The race director for Xterra - David Nicholas - also directed a variety of mountain bike races so I'd raced with the same crew that runs the race in Hawaii at the Hawaii Mountain Tour, and the World Cup finals when they were in Awahoo.
- David was constantly recruiting us to come to this World Championship, and a variety of racers that were on the national team with me had already gone for a couple of years.
They were doing well because they were good cyclists and at that time the Maui course favoured this.
- I swam in high school so thought I'd get through the swim.
- I did a little bit of recon work when I went to the Xterra in Whistler that year and raced there.
I didn't have a wetsuit so swam in this freezing cold lake without a wetsuit and nearly passed out from hypothermia.
I got on my bike and was really fast and then got passed by five people in the run.
- My run was not good because I didn't run! The Whistler one was straight up hill but I couldn't get down the hill - I didn't have the leg speed.
- I didn't do a lot of other training between this race and Hawaii but came second in Hawaii.
- It was an epiphany for me. I didn't feel passionate with road cycling and didn't make the Olympic team for mountain biking so I was looking for a change.
I made the decision to switch to triathlon.
- It took me three years to win my first race, and thankfully my Xterra career was really good!
Melanie's career highlights
- 2000 was the year I went to UCI Road World's, and the year I raced my first Xterra World Championships and came second.
- In 2001 I raced the Xterra series.
- I won the World's in 2003, 2005 and 2003.
- I won the first ITU World Championships in 2007.
- I won a second ITU World's in 2017 which was after my retirement from Xterra as I'd switched to Ironman.
- During that time I went undefeated in Canada - I had seven National titles in Canada.
- I wont the US pro series five times.
- I think I won 50 races.
- I won the European Championships and the US National Championships.
- I came either first or second between 2004-2007 at every race I did.
- When I switched to Xterra I had to reinvent myself as an athlete and how I train.
It was really good for me to have to take a step back and start a fresh, and has helped my analysis on how to train for a sport and how I respond to that.
- I have training logs that date back to 1995 so I can see everything I have done in my career which is really helpful.
- In 2012 I went to Ironman because I wanted to be good at any kind of triathlon, but also as a coach I wanted to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible about long distance racing.
- Not every professional athlete is going to be a good coach, but if you have the opportunity to learn from inside the sport it's a special perspective that serves you well as a teacher/coach.
It doesn't mean one is better or worse, it's just different.
- In long distance I won six half Ironman races, I was second in my first Ironman, and then I got injured.
Now I'm still in the Ironman scene trying to see what's left for me to do but I have a big squad now so do a lot of coaching.
Melanie's coaching career
- I started coaching mostly pro triathlon athletes in 2006.
- The Melrad racing team is the first age group team that ever happened - it was big in 2008/9.
I coached a lot of the athletes in the team, it was me sharing what I know about training for Xterra.
- I then started coaching a wider variety of athletes about four years ago (e.g. mountain bikes, grand fondo's, Ironman) in the new version of Melrad racing.
This was much more of a coaching programme.
Demands of Xterra racing
- The closest race distance to an Xterra race would be Olympic distance triathlon.
- In Xterra, it's rarely that far - the race directors try to make the bike take between 1:15-2 hours, and then they want it to be about 10km of running.
- You can expect that it's probably a 2 lap course that's about 1500m.
- They are rarely exact so it's not a sport for people who like to look at their splits because the terrain dictates what the race is.
- Every single race is a brand new challenge.
- I've been to races that are pancake flat riding through the sand, and others that are point to point where all you do is ride uphill all day.
- A significant amount of the Xterra tour was altitude because we did a lot of races at American ski resorts.
Up to 2010 there were a lot of races at altitude and still the US Championships at Beaver Creek are pretty high altitude.
- I've only raced a few races in Europe so can't comment so much on the European tour, but there are less at altitude.
- The run is meant to be a trail run but that doesn't mean there won't be road sections - they may connect stairs/sidewalks with little bits of trails and other terrain.
We ran through a big section of water at ITU World's in 2017 for example.
- It's basically get from point A to point B and it'll be around 10km but it'll take you forever!
There's no flat straight bits generally.
- These races require versatility and adaptability.
- Unless you're planning to do just one race, you want to come into the season with the biggest bag of tricks you could possibly have so you're ready for whatever that race is.
- You need to be strong, be able to climb and to descend, to corner, to get a rhythm in terrain running that doesn't allow you to have a rhythm.
You need to be able to run both up and downhill, and on sand.
You need to be able to swim in a wetsuit in all kinds of water (river, lake etc) and be able to exit the water well because you do it twice.
- The transitions in Xterra are not overly challenging because you can run in mountain bike shoes, but as soon as you're on the bike that's the key part.
The most amount of time in the race will be spent on the bike so it starts to skew towards long term racing in how much your bike split will affect your race, and how much your biking ability will affect your run.
- In an on-road Olympic distance you can sort of soft pedal and run really fast, so Xterra mirrors half distance racing more.
- Even for someone trying to finish, not race a time, the amount of biking training is still more important than run volume.
Differences in training
- Riding your mountain bike requires a lot of torque so you need to be really strong otherwise you can run into back problems - and lots of people do.
You need the strength you'd need for a half.
- A lot of over gear work is beneficial.
- Xterra training needs to be a lot more polarised than a half distance training would be.
- You need to be able to go really really hard for a very short period usually, but at the same time mountain biking is a big aerobic effort.
- The mistake some people make when training for mountain biking is to do too much intensity, and it's not really hard enough, and then not doing enough aerobic base.
- I think you just need to ride more in zone 2 and get a big engine.
This is what allows you to recover from going hard.
- I advocate doing a small amount of extremely hard work (anaerobic) that you need to be really fresh to do, and you let it marinate.
- When you create a range that is massive because you have a big base and the ability to reach really high numbers, you'll destroy your competition.
You can access the middle range if you have the pole range.
- An example anaerobic workout would be 2 sets of 20 seconds really hard, 40 seconds cruising but always going uphill. Do this for two sets, then go ride for four hours.
- I break the rule because I have a session that I did throughout my career and I always give to everybody called 'the hour of power'.
In that workout I send athletes to a loop course with a 5-8 minute climb that is off road, with a descent that takes 4-5 minutes. Ideally it matches the race you're coming up against.
The athletes just do loops of it for 45 minutes simulating the race. It gives athletes time to do intervals that are 5-8 minutes, straight into a descent that they have to do with a max heart rate.
They get to do the climb and descent multiple times so they work on their skill at race pace.
Indoor versus outdoor training
- The workouts I'm describing are not as good done indoors.
- In the winter when you're doing a general build into the season, and it doesn't matter how specific your training is, then it makes sense to be indoors.
- These types of intervals discussed above are more in a specific phase of training.
- When you're further away from the race workouts on the trainer can make more sense.
- What I have seen is that the onset of Zwift has created an army of terrible bike handlers.
- I coach and have worked with a lot of athletes that race Ironman and it's astonishing how little control of their bike they have.
- There are six main skills that go into mountain biking and nearly all of them are not addressed when you ride indoors:
1) Braking - you don't need to do this on a trainer.
2) Operation of controls - you also don't need to do this.
3) Position and balance - you're not going to fall off.
4) Timing and coordination - you're never coming into a corner so never need to know when to apply brakes.
5) Terrain awareness - you don't need to be aware of anything
6) Direction control & angulation - you can have your arms locked in front of you on the trainer and be fine.
- If you're going to do Xterra you need these basic skills, and they're acquired by riding a bike outdoors a lot.
- It's like swimming, this requires frequency, feel and timing. Riding a bike is the same.
- If you are really good on your trainer as a road biker you might be surprised at how terrible you feel when you ride a mountain bike.
- If you're in the last six weeks up to a race, all your intervals need to be on a mountain bike.
- I've even made this mistake when I did an Xterra race in Victoria while training for an Ironman.
I'd been riding my time trial bike all week leading up to it and then got destroyed in the race when I got on my mountain bike.
Even if you have these skills, if you don't use them they get rusty.
- I try to ride as hilly and twisty as I can to develop skills on a regular basis.
Xterra run training
- The training for Xterra for running starts in the gym before the season starts.
- The main thing that separates an Xterra runner from a good to great road runner is agility.
- You need to have really strong feet and ankles because you're constantly landing on uneven terrain and you need to move quickly laterally and up and down.
- This agility and power lends itself to good leg speed because you push on the ground quicker etc.
- If you're landing hard and staying on the ground longer when going downhill there's more chance to roll and ankle, take a bad step and fall.
- Balance and stability on one or the other leg also need to be worked on, otherwise it'll show itself when running.
- If you don't have those elements you're just never going to be a good runner, so your ability to be consistent will be hampered.
- Sometimes people think it's their hips, but often it's their articulation with the ground and it moves up the body.
- Athletes often don't have enough dorsal flection so when they land they can't land under their hips and jar themselves instead.
- If you can't hop on one leg or the other, you have to start there because that's essentially what running is.
- I put a routine on my YouTube for core activation which I often recommend to people to do at the start of each day before they workout.
They're then less likely to get injured and more likely to perform well.
- I usually do my training camps in the winter, and I generally do a little screen to see if they have adequate range of motion to access triathlon related movements.
Some people don't, and this is a problem so you start here with mobility work.
- If you're 40, you've been sitting at your desk all day and you haven't done any strength training in 15 years and you're coming back to triathlon, you're going to a flection position which is hard on your sacrum.
If this isn't strong to start with, and you don't have your stabilisers active to keep things square, you'll run into lower back issues.
- I particularly find this helpful with swim sessions that are early in the morning because it takes me such a long time to warm up.
It's better for me to do core activation and spine mobilisation and then join the end of the session.
- Maybe you don't need the thousand metres of fluff at the start of the session while you're warming up, and would be better spending time doing core beforehand.
Structuring run workouts
- Running itself is hard on your nervous system.
- Because Xterra runs are short-ish, it's better to get the base training done a little further out from the race.
- Most athletes can't work on a 12 day schedule, they need to work within their 7 day work week.
- Most of the people I coach are mid-30's and older, and so they can't do a workout every two days because they're just not going to recover - not with the sessions I advocate which are really hard.
- You only have a smattering of intensity during the week and most belongs on the bike as it affects everything else you're doing.
- With the run we need to make sure you have specific strength for running, and leg speed for running.
- You need to do some trail runs where you get some hill work, running hard up the hill and walking down, and doing some strides.
- Work on rhythm, timing and terrain awareness are also important for Xterra.
- Fartlek training - doing a little bit of work at race pace on and off where you get used to undulations and downhill intervals can be really helpful for race specificity.
- A lot of this training is just aerobic exposure to terrain.
- I often see people coming to me with training programmes chock full of workouts, but really you need to make a workout count and then rest from it.
- With run training you need enough to acquire the skills and fitness specific to the sport, but you want to make sure that it doesn't cost you on the mountain bike.
- When you're doing really hard mountain bike sessions, your whole body gets really tired because it costs you more than on your road bike because you're constantly supporting your body more.
It takes longer to recover and can impact your swimming as well as your running.
- Sometimes run training takes a complete backseat and it can just be strides and running easy.
You put a lot of energy and time to making sure your mountain biking is strong.
If you come off the bike tired, which you will, it doesn't matter how fit you are at running.
- Strides aren't too taxing but if you don't do them well it can make a difference.
Strides uphill is 20 seconds maximal run speed, which is also 20 seconds of your best ground contact time, stride length, posture, and overall speed.
I would equate a stride to your three rep max in the gym.
- Most people forget that unless you're doing something hard for your body, you're probably not making any difference except building mitochondria.
- Doing efforts that are not that hard because you're tired and can't access the speed don't make as big a difference as efforts that are actually hard.
- Zone three is basically practicing what you're already capable of doing, it's building a diesel engine.
Xterra is a sport that will suffer if you only do this - you won't get far if you don't have range.
- As we get older we don't have that jam to go really hard as easily. Kids have the attitude to go out full gas, but I can't do that! I need to practice that pace to keep me from getting slower.
- As we get older we need to create or maintain muscle mass, and speed, as these disappear fast as you get older.
You can't do these things when you're tired or have done a bunch of middle zone training.
You have to massively polarise to be good at Xterra.
- A group ride is way too hard for a three hour ride - you're reinforcing your diesel pace the whole time.
- Elite athletes are able to do big workouts because they do more volume than everybody else.
- Even with ITU athletes, it's a lot of volume but less intensity than people think.
- Easy is a feeling, it's not a pace, particularly for running.
When you're tired and your nervous system is fatigued, your interaction with the ground becomes impaired.
When you're tired your ground contact till will go up, which means your pace will slow right down.
- For my Ironman athletes we work on a pace that I call 'easy fast' which is where you have a heart rate cap and you can run as fast as you can beneath that heart rate cap.
That creates economy at a fat burning effort - and over time the pace goes up and the heart rate stays the same.
This is good for Xterra athletes way out from the season when we're building running economy.
- On the bike it depends on the individual.
Some people are really accustomed to riding in zone 3 and will be doing this whenever they go out on the ride.
For those people, you need to give them a cap on their pace (watts).
For other people they ride too easy and I need to create some deliberate effort, or give them a really hilly route.
- For mountain bike training it is basically zone 2 from the start and then a mix of things - any kind of mountain bike ride will be an endurance effort of reasonable quality.
If you ride with people faster than you it's probably going to be like a race.
- I've been around a long time - I used to train with a heart rate monitor we barely looked at, and a watch that gave me the time.
Athletes that raced in this time are just as good if not better than those who now have reams of data.
None of that stuff matters when it comes to race day and you have to ride within your limits.
- I coach athletes to have all this data and send to me so I understand what is happening on that day, but they need to train and race based on their perceived effort.
That is the best measure of what they are capable of.
- Most of the time their programme is pretty bare boned:
E.g. do an easy run for 20 minutes, then 80m strides, then come home.
- Sometimes I call them up on it when the easy wasn't so easy and their heart rate was off the charts, but otherwise it's all on RPE.
- Your training log doesn't matter, it's what you're capable of doing outside.
- Chasing faster easy speeds or powers isn't usually helpful - they may change closer to a race because your training harder and you're tired and that's okay.
- We use testing as a way to check in and they use it to draw confidence from their training.
Racing Xterra compared to on-road triathlon
- The swim in an Xterra is the same as an Olympic distance - your first 400m will set up so you need a strong start.
Part of that start is how quick you can run in the water, and you need to practice this!
- If you're going to go to Maui the waves are epic - I've seen people break their collar bones just trying to get out the water.
Surf entrance and exit are a massive part of Xterra.
- Most of the time you have to be a good climber so you need to do a lot of sustained work at low cadence on a hill.
You can do it wherever and on whichever bike, but you need a lot of it.
- You then need a little bit of really fast 20/40s.
- Then when you race you have a good idea about pacing because you can quickly tell if you're aerobic or not.
- When racing you need to use your mountain bike skills, understand your perceived effort, and look ahead at what's coming and plan for it.
You're just reacting to what's happening on the course, and think about when you are burning your matches and using the fitness you've developed.
- There isn't really pacing, but planning in advance and knowing the course well can be really helpful.
- When you come into the last five weeks of training it should reflect the challenge of the race. You should know the course and be practicing for what will happen there.
- If you practiced it in training when it comes to race day you know what you can do.
- You might have a good day on race day but you won't suddenly become another athletes.
You need to have that internal measurement of how hard you're going and use that, and ride within your own limits.
- You have to pace according to what your fitness is but that pacing is uneven which is why it's so important to not use numbers.
Nutrition & hydration
- When I switched to full Ironman the nutrition side became really important, but with Xterra it isn't quite as stressful.
- The main thing is wanting to have drink in your bottle or food in your pocket/on your bike.
- You shouldn't be getting calories from your drinks, it should be hydration from the bottles or camel back.
If you can use a camel back you should because it's out the way and your bike is them lighter, but it's personal preference.
If you don't use the camel back you need to know you can grab bottles and drink okay - practice in training.
- Otherwise it depends how long it is - the ITU race in Spain was only two hours so I think I had one gel and drank half a bottle.
- In Maui you're sweating a lot though because it's super humid, so hydration is key.
The course is unpredictable so it's hard to drink on the course, and you need to be drinking around 2 bottles an hour so it needs practice and planning.
- In day to day nutrition I think most of the advice that's complicated is crap.
- Science is proving that your body wants to eat real food.
I read a study where they compared the uptake of protein from a whey protein shake and a sandwich.
The ones that had the shake after the workout immediately started to uptake protein and were making muscles, and then an hour later the protein uptake stopped completely.
The sandwich group continued to uptake of amino acids for hours.
- You need to eat a variety of healthy natural foods that aren't processed to have access to all the microminerals etc.
- Carbohydrates are the number one thing your body needs to perform as an athlete.
- Often there is a fascination with body shape, and not everybody is going to be a certain body shape, and you can't acquire it in a short space of time.
- Elite marathon runners who have been training for 20 years are lean machines, but their body is completely adapted and so they're on the razor edge of injury.
For a high school runner, their body will not be that lean, and trying to acquire that body shape in a shorter period of time is always a recipe for disaster.
- You don't have to be super lean to be a good triathlete.
- I think it's a mistake for professional athletes to talk about eating less or training more and making sacrifices because these words are shaming to others.
- In order to perform all this exercise you have to eat food or your body isn't going to repair!
- If you can't do the training, forget about the body shape - it doesn't matter how skinny you are, you're still going to be slow.
- You have to do the training to do the training to do the training.
- Every time you do something that is impairing your body's ability to recover, you can't do the training.
- Nutrition is deceptively simple. Eat food - a lot of it because you're exercising a lot, and get a lot of rest.
- Eat as much food as you need too and you'll probably be okay.
- If you feel like you have an issue, maybe see someone about portion sizes but still eat the same food. It's not about eliminating certain foods and restricting things, it's about fuelling the body.
- I don't care what anybody weighs unless maybe they're a professional athlete going to the Olympics and we're looking at gaining a few extra seconds.
- It's the same athletes that don't have a solid grasp on what they should be eating day to day that are then doing workout what are too hard because they want to burn the food they've eaten.
- If you're still hungry, eat more salad and add nuts and feta cheese etc.
- If you're eating something that you know isn't enough or tasting good, it isn't satisfying from an emotional or physical standpoint and that's when your body will crave more and you might mindless eat bad food.
- Most athletes just need to plan out their meals where they're getting 15-22g protein every 2-3 hours.
- Your body will them be optimised for YOU.
- Appreciate your body for what you can do, and give it whatever it needs so you can do more of the training.
Gear and equipment needed for Xterra
- The biggest thing is choosing the right bike for the race - e.g. hard tail or dual suspension.
- There's so many options and most of the choices are individual, so it comes with experience and testing difference gear to decide what works for you.
It's often decided by your terrain at home.
- In Victoria, Vancouver, nobody owns a hard tail because it sucks to ride here on that as the terrain is technical, rocky, steep and uneven.
However, most courses aren't quite as bad as this.
- When I was racing I mostly took a hard tail to racers, but my skill level was high at the time too.
- If you're a beginner, a dual suspension bike will be very forgiving while you're learning skills.
- It's illegal to ride a cross bike in Xterra, it needs to be a mountain bike.
- Another decision is trail shoes or race flats.
- I always races in race flats, and some courses meant I'd hurt my feet all the time because you're landing on rocks.
People would sometimes discuss wearing Hoka's on these courses to soften it on the feet.
- Race shoe decisions also depend on what you've trained in.
- Cross country spikes can work at muddy races if you run in them, or the shoes with extra tread but not removable spikes.
You need to practice in these shoes to make sure you don't blow out your achilles.
- I ran in the Nike Pegasus trail show in Victoria - I really liked the shoe but the Victoria Xterra run course is ridiculously technical and I noticed running in that train shoe with elastic laces meant your foot wasn't held well.
With elastic laces you need to consider how technical the course is and get the stiffest type of laces you can to reduce the danger.
It might be better to have a stiff lace with a toggle.
- Camel back versus water bottle is another decision, and the camel back gives you a place to put flat repairs and things.
- Without exception you want to wear gloves on a mountain bike in Xterra.
It's really dangerous, your hands are sweaty and you want to be able to manoeuvre your bars.
- In an on-road race you put shoes on your bike because clomping along in cleats is hard, but in Xterra you often use mountain bike shoes and you can easily run in them.
- Mostly from my experience and testing, you can quickly put your shoes on in transition and run out in them, and you can run as fast in mountain bike shoes as barefoot.
This is probably the quickest most effective way because you don't start cycling on a flat road.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to triathlon?
- Roar by Stacy Simms.
- I've also been reading everything Canova has written about marathon running and it's been really interesting from a polarisation perspective and developing my coaching.
- What is your favourite piece of gear or equipment?
- Stairs! They are the number one run mechanics equipment you could use.
- What do you wish you had known or done differently at some point in your career?
- It took me until I hurt myself to learn about how to run. Once I couldn't run I really had to understand how to run and this has changed my whole philosophy on building up runners.
- I think I'd have had less injuries and been a faster runner had I known this sooner.
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
- Melrad Multisport - Melanie's website
- Xterra website
- Dirt Tri Magazine
- Keep Your Feet Strong and Health | with Gwen Jorgensen
- Melanie's YouTube channel - MelRadCoaching
- World Champions keep things simple: training masterclass with Joel Filliol | EP#172
- Should women’s triathlon training be different than men’s? with Wendy Mader | EP#170
- Run training of Kipchoge, Farah and Rudisha with Matt Fox of Sweat Elite | EP#195
Connect with Melanie McQuaid
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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