Dan Atkins - Head Coach of Triathlon Australia Performance Centre Gold Coast | EP#217
Dan Atkins is the Head Coach of the Triathlon Australia Performance Centre on the Gold Coast. He discusses the demands of elite draft-legal triathlon in 2020 and how to prepare for these demands. All along, he shares training advice highly applicable to any endurance athlete, elite or amateur, triathlete or single-sport.
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In this Episode you'll learn about:
- The demands of elite draft-legal triathlon in 2020.
- Training elite and developmental athletes for world class draft-legal performances.
- A typical training week of the squad of elite athletes at the Gold Coast performance center.
- How the training develops over the course of a season.
- The importance and challenges of a daily training environment with group training.
- Coaching and training lessons learnt from integrating para-triathletes with able-bodied athletes.
- Dan's number one piece of advice for any endurance athlete.
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About Dan Atkins
- I'm an Australian high performance triathlon coach.
I work with our National system, primarily focused on major competition.
At ITU draft legal level this is the Olympics, the Commonwealth games, ITU World Championships and the WTS series.
- I'm the head coach at the Performance Centre on the Gold Coast in Queensland Australia.
I've been in this role for the last 7 years.
- Our primary focus has been the development of Australian athletes - it's not a centralised programme.
I was employed to set up a programme on the Gold Coast that was part of the Australian Institute of Sport.
We collaborate with local universities with research and development of athletes.
Athletes involved in the performance centre
- Currently our roster is 10 athletes in total.
- Matt Hauser is one, he's a young 22 year old ITU athlete who won is the Junior World title in 2017.
He was also on our Commonwealth games team in 2018 competing in the mixed team relay.
- Jaz Hedgeland is another, she's a WTS level athlete and finished 7th in Edmonton and 9th in Montreal this year.
- I also have 2 under-23's that finished 5th last year Kira Hedgeland and Brandan Copeland.
- I also have some para-athletes.
My programme is different to most, I've streamlined it down as we get closer to Tokyo to 2 specific athletes:
Katie Kelly and Briana Silk who are the current para-Olympic champions from Rio in the PTVI (vision impaired categories).
Also Lauren Parker who is the current para wheelchair World Champion.
- Amongst that I have other athletes who are in either the under-23's and I have one Junior athlete as well - Charlotte Derbyshire - who was 20th at Worlds last year.
Demands of draft legal racing
- The demand is first and foremost having the athletes available.
Endurance sport is about being able to be competitive in your training and do it frequently.
We all have time to work with rather then time against.
- Being available also comes down to nutrition and recovery.
- Recovery might mean spending 20 minutes on a rolling post training or adding another physio session once a week.
- Basically being available is being able to turn up everyday and taking on what is put in front of you.
- We had a history of pushing athletes too hard too soon.
We've always had a rich history of talented athletes because we've got the environment to produce triathletes as we have lots of nice weather.
- As long as my athletes are available then they're capable of being coached.
- Draft legal racing is very intense - it's very technical and tactical.
We put a fair emphasis on the demand of competition, understanding race format and courses and knowing when to peak.
- The issue we have in Australia is that a lot of our selection races are done when the other side of the world is in their base phase/initial phase of training.
We have a lot of key events down under which have a lot of ITU points and selection up for grabs.
Our Continental Championships begin in 2 weeks time for the para event and start not long after that for our able-bodied athletes.
We have to get working reasonable early to fit this timeline - we have to be good in Feb/March but also sustain a long season through to World titles which is August/September.
- I have a lot of athletes that have been with me since young Juniors and they have now evolved, rather than dissolved.
Demands across each discipline
- I come from a swim background as a coach and I learnt that reverse periodisation suited my style of coaching and the younger athletes that I developed.
- We would start quite hard quite early with skills and drills.
I lot of the early swim phase starts in late November.
- I think we get a lot of conditioning from our swimming and we live in an environment where we can swim open water a lot - in the surf, lakes and canals.
- I like to bang in some fitness into my athletes and it's something I've always done!
- The trend of male triathlon in ITU is that the bike is starting to really improve the power outputs and the pressure that's put on in the races.
- We have now really built up our bike volume and the consistency with which we're training.
We've gone from three key rides a week to four key rides a week.
They're not necessarily intense but there's some specificity around power targets - they may be at 85% of effort.
It's getting best bang for buck - spending time in the saddle is very important.
- We're fortunate on the gold coast to have mountains and hilly gradient rides we can use regularly.
- Riding is 80% strength so with climbing and longer sustained rolling 8-15 minute turns keeps race specificity and builds strength on the bike.
- Sometimes I have a tendency to let the group dictate the running
- Technically I'm big on video feedback and try to video every run we do, while giving athletes ownership of what they're working on.
- We come up with cues so real skill acquisition style of running.
- The first four weeks of our prep phase is around body awareness and movement patterns across the ground before we can start doing the work.
- We also never run fresh.
- We're very fortunate that there are currently so many body analysis tools that we can study so many things in each athlete.
- Understanding metabolic rate is something that I've worked closely with our Institute of Sport to understand more about the athlete.
E.g if they turn up at training having had 8 hours sleep, how much have they burnt in their sleep.
- Some of our ITU athletes tend to burn more calories in their sleep than the average age group trainer will burn.
We have to educate the athlete that they need to eat more than the average person.
- I'm not a real scientific coach, I'm more the artist.
I won't tear apart TrainingPeaks or look at Strava and focus on the numbers, but I work hard at understanding how many calories you should intake during a 3-hour ride so I can get them in a hard swim session in the afternoon and then turn up tomorrow to do a 15 K run with 5 K of hills in it.
- It's all about thinking ahead of the session we're about to partake in.
- I'm trying to educate the athletes as I believe a lot of stress fractures, injuries and illness are coming from a lack of nutrition strategies rather than an overload of training.
- I'm happy to spend time investing time and money into understanding what everybody is born with.
- You can't train some of these things - you can't reconfigure someone that has a high metabolic rate.
If you're born with a high metabolism and you don't feed that, you won't be able to survive in this sport.
Training strategies at present
- I have a really strong group of development athletes.
- Matt Hauser has finished 7th at WTS and won two elite World titles but I still feel we're only 60% towards his ceiling as an aerobic endurance athlete.
- I try to be aware of each of my athletes and I try to make sure we don't hit their ceiling.
I don't want my athletes unable to get off the group if we've had a demanding session.
They need to be available to turn up to the next session.
- Our sport must be mundane, repetitive and almost mundane in the way we can give the best with what time we have available.
- Each session must have a key purpose and strategy around what we are intending to meet.
- Right now our strategy is around strength endurance and creating that platform.
- When I initially started coaching I had to coach 3 year old kids how to swim which encouraged me to dumb down the science so they'd be able to understand.
- If I talk in those terms we're building a house. If we're doing that right now we're laying a slab of concrete to support the house.
That slab of concrete needs to have a good steel structure underneath and must be solid enough to handle cyclones, tornados, typhoons etc.
For me right now we're swim, bike and running with absolute strength in mind.
- In the pool this means longer sub-threshold swimming.
However we'll always tap in to that top end speed.
- I have young fast athletes who like to go fast and I don't want them to lose touch which what brought them to the sport.
Fun is what brought them to me and I want them to enjoy what they do.
- It might meet after a hard set doing a quick relay with tumble turns halfway through the pool so they have to head up accelerate out.
This makes it fun and I'm also tapping into their top end speed post fatigue.
- We'll run some tempo running after hill reps and this might be 10 seconds a KM slower than it will be in two months time.
- In biking we're also in a strength phase which can be tough, we doing 1500-2000 m of climbing in a session.
We might do some 15 seconds full gas power surges off a track stand at a set of lights to keep them invigorated.
This is also incorporating some of the technical skills of the sport - learning how to track stand and accelerate out.
Training strategies close to racing season
- The Australian summer is going to interesting this year going in to the 2020 Olympics.
We have athletes that need to perform by April.
- I'm not someone who will put someone on the start line and say they need to perform well without some awareness of what they're capable of.
- I will sit down and highlight some key sessions within the weeks training plan.
Within that key session we will have some targeted race specific opportunities.
That could be 3-4 times a week.
- This week we are going to touch on 7 critical pieces of work in which we'll touch on race specifics.
- For example tomorrow morning is going to be 4 x 15 second pieces of sprint work that is race specific.
This may be 1000 watts for a male, 800 watts for a female.
- I keep race intensity there because a lot of athletes find it fun, particularly if you don't overdo it.
I believe that we need to touch on intensity often, but not necessarily for a long period of time as we want to keep something in the tank.
- We would only use those stretcher sessions where you need to peel the athlete off the floor only 3-4 times a year.
I don't understand how you can physically train consistently if your sessions are done to maximal effort.
- I used to coach 50 m sprinters in swimming and I coached a butterfly athlete who got to a high level.
He could do those sessions for short periods of time but not always and he was a sprinter, so I don't understand how we can get endurance athletes to do that.
- If I do use those sessions they'll be 10-16 days out from competition and we may do 2 of them.
Athletes just can't recover from them effectively I find.
- Around 8 years ago I felt harder was better and that we'd create human beings that could handle sustained track sessions week after week.
This came from being an age group club based coach that had elite athletes as well. You're trying to facilitate programmes that help 30-40 athletes compared to the 10 I coach now.
- Looking back I don't know how we were able to keep athletes sustainable when we were running them faster than they were racing all the time.
Over time I've learnt that a good solid hard run track session would take 4-5 days to get over which is no use to me now when they're training again in 10 hours.
- I've changed my view and I've had good teachers and done a lot of reading.
I now understand that endurance sport is about turning up, it's not about smashing yourself into the ground all the time.
Structure of a training week
- We are in week 8 of our reintegration for the 2020 year. Australia tend to start earlier - we have 4 reasonably high level races starting in late February.
- We are in our second period of training. Our first week was 6 weeks leading up to Christmas.
It was a steady base building, just getting out there to see how our body is moving and how it's reacted to the off-season break.
- The break is tough because tendons shorten, muscles shrink and the weight goes on.
I find I have more injuries in that first 6 weeks than in the rest of the year so it's a stressful time as a coach!
- For this second block now we're focusing on strength and doing some heat acclimation testing.
We're working with a University so I will reveal the study if it goes well!
- In the water we've gone away from top end and have begun open water swimming.
- It's very hot and humid where we are so we're constantly training in these conditions.
- Slowly but surely we'll building volume and with intensity there are certain touch points.
In the run we've begun running short, sharp 200 m hills where the athletes can still hold form.
We are very cadence and posture focused to keep athletes engaged.
- Biking is very much around strength endurance but still tapping into top end power - this may only be 10-15 seconds.
- This week we'll do 5 swims with 1 open water front end specific - focusing on the first 200 m of a race. We'll also do technical and tactical skill work.
We've done 4 other swim sessions in the water which are around aerobic conditioning.
- The bike tomorrow will be our 4th ride of the week and that's our final one. We will have done upwards of 250 km for the week.
It's not over the top but I am trying to balance out my development athletes and not hit the ceiling.
- Running we are around 6 sessions a week. 80% of that is aerobic running.
We do 1 session a week that's very focused on technique and drills. I'm always looking for athlete feedback.
Who do they want to look like when they run - this is their input.
Our distance varies from 40 km a week for a junior to 60 km for others. Not high volume but they're all looking good so we might start to load it up a bit over the next 4 weeks.
- Our total number of hours is around 25 hours a week, inclusive of gym and strength and conditioning sessions.
- We do gym and strength and condition more than most because I am very focused on functional strength patterns and posture change.
I believe posture and form is everything for the last part of the run.
- They're probably doing 6 hours a week of strength and conditioning.
Strength and conditioning exercises
- Everything we do in the gym is focused back to swim bike run.
- My favourite exercise is pull-ups and chin-ups, very slow and very controlled.
It works 2/3 of your body and is great for posture on the bike and the run, holding your glutes and your core. It's also good for the initial catch in the water in swimming.
- If you're not in the front 200 of the swim at ITU level nowadays you're pretty much done.
- We used to use training zones 1-5 but this year we're working on RPE (1-10) completely.
- I'm finding you have a better range and it correlates better with heart rate.
For example HR 160-170 might be RPE 8.
For the next person HR 160-170 might be RPE 9 so it takes work to understand each athletes RPE.
- I think it's the truest form of understanding the engine we're built with.
- I very very rarely tell my athletes they need to go faster, I'm always telling them that they need to hold back because their form is falling away or their numbers aren't producing what we're after.
- I have a group of 5 young males aged 19-23 so there's a lot of testosterone and alpha wolf pack there!
Each have a dominant factor in their training so it comes back to the art of coaching.
This is communication - maybe not in the session as it sometimes needs to run it's course - and then you need to pull them aside later on.
- You need the information to state your claim that they could be better taking it easier.
It's education and communication, not ramming it down their throat.
Group aspect of training
- I pride myself on the good culture in our group.
We're very open, possibly too open at times but I like to show people what we have!
We're a performance centre and we have a lot of young athletes around who look up to our group so I think it's important to expose our group to this.
- The training environment is something we work closely on, I was ex-rugby lead and grew up around team sport so I'm trying to create a team even though it's a team of individuals.
- We work hard to make sure the individual gets what they need which can be time consuming.
If you stand at a run session with 10 people you might have 6 different sessions going on that you have to hold in your mind.
- No two athletes are the same or at the same point.
- I love the sessions we can come together and do the same thing but they're very rare.
- Our training environment is built around a common set of values that we've all bought into.
Number 1 is respect and honesty. We have a no dickhead policy.
Individualisation in group training
- The testing we do is in the initial phase of training and it gives me baseline numbers.
We can see whether we've improved anything over the past year or helps me understand the new athletes.
- It does organically happen that training becomes individualised, particularly prescribing RPE.
- Some athletes do go beyond what they're capable of but this is a discussion we'd then have before the next session.
- I'm much more schooled in the art of coaching than the science and I'd never change or replace that.
- I understand my athletes really well and can read them - e.g. what they're wearing, how they say hello, their posture etc.
- There have been sessions where I've got an athlete out the pool and asked if what I'm saying is too hard for them today, and 99/100 times they'll feel comfortable enough to tell me something else is going on.
This might be personal, physical, anxiety, other life factors etc.
- The management of the athlete has to be individual, even if the session isn't.
Working with para-athletes alongside able-bodied athletes
- The first thing the able-bodied athletes need to understand is the para-athletes stories - how they came to have their disability (although I hate that work and believe it's something they've got and we deal with similar to athlete mood).
- Understanding their stories has been empowering in my programme.
- I put my hand up to try and coach para-athletes - it was an opportunity for me to test myself.
- We integrate and are side by side.
This morning we have Lauren Parker who is the World Champion in the wheelchair category and Katie Kelly who is the PTVI current Olympic champion swimming side by side with our able-bodied programme.
- I set different challenges so it integrates well - e.g. they may start 15 seconds ahead of the main group and we play rabbit and the hare to get the chaser mentality going.
It pushes a new level out the para squad and there is absolute respect.
- I've seen my able-bodied athletes watching the para-athletes in awe of what they can do and they are invested in them and united as one.
- We used to be the National Under-23 development para-triathlete programme.
I had a problem with that and changed it and thankfully Justin Drew agreed and renamed it to the Performance Centre Gold Coast Triathlon Australia.
- We're constantly learning from each other which is really powerful.
Lessons as a coach from para-athletes
- Every session there is something that we discuss as a team.
- I try not to over dictate to the para programme what I think they should do just because I'm a high performance able bodied coach.
- It's more we collaborate on certain aspects - I was privaledged to help Katie Kelly build her new road bike and have huge ownership of how to come up with a bike that I felt would help her to Tokyo.
Thinking outside the square with geometry, having two people on the bike, researching different tyres.
The tyres I've put on her race wheels are now the tyres I'm asking a lot of my able bodied athletes to get - they stick well to the road so they'll be helpful for everyone.
- Understanding aerodynamic differences on her hand cycle it's more like a formula 1 car, and we look for the gains we can make on this machine.
- The tech side with para is way more than in able-bodied. You have to think outside the square constantly.
Long-term planning and periodisation
- I'm not sure there's a lot of planning that goes into it - I have some smart people around me that try and get me to be more thoughtful but I fly by the seat of my pants a little!
- In Australia we try and work on 2-year cycles - whilst the Olympics is every 4 years we also have the Commonwealth games every 2 years so this keeps us focused.
- It's about trying to be the best we can be lining up with the Olympics and the Commonwealth games.
- The Commonwealth games allows us to come up with strategies that we can work on for the Olympics.
It has allowed me to continue on in the lead up to Tokyo.
- The last 4 years I've worked more with altitude as opposed to just heat and humidity.
- I'm a massive believe that heat and humidity is of equal value as altitude.
- I plan more around my altitude blocks than other things. We go to altitude once a year but do altitude blocks upwards of three times a year.
We might use altitude tents of altitude specific training sessions in a controlled environment.
- We are fortunate that we can access this in Australia, but unfortunately with the Australian fires at the moment we cannot do this.
We will adapt to that and consider using altitude tents and specific altitude sessions in that period as well.
Changes in two year training cycles
- With any major competition it's dependent on the athlete as far as how they come off the critical period.
In any high performance programme you may have athletes who have gained selection but also athletes who missed out so you have to manage that state of emotion.
- I always take time to reflect after any big competition and after the Commonwealth games I had two weeks off to gather my thoughts and recollect myself on how the programme was and how we'd rebuild.
- It comes down to the individual athlete. Last year we had the test event and two weeks later the World title.
Collectively we had a good World title but for the athletes that went to the test event and then carrying on that intensity and mindset into a big competition was nearly impossible.
It was ludicrous of me to think they could maintain that because of that state of emotion.
- Our Nation will always set out the targeted events for automatic selection and nomination to come up for selection so it's like a good game of chess.
You have all your pieces in front of you, you need to think two moves ahead and strategise for that individual.
- We have a bad habit in Australia of trying to compete against ourselves rather than chasing the race and I've tried to make sure this doesn't happen in my planning.
You need to chase selection rather then being the best Australian.
Key advise for athletes listening
- Consistency in the time you have available - if you have 10 hours a week make it the best possible 10 hours you can have with the sport.
Make sure it is achievable week in and week out.
- The frequency in which you do the training in the 10 hours also needs to be the same week in and week out.
If you commit to it, the best athletes I've always had have followed this.
- If you can get a coach that understands what you do in life and set a plan around the time you have available it'll help so much.
You then need to give absolutely everything in that time you have available.
- It doesn't matter if you're Olympic, age-group, beginner level athlete, the same rule applies.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to triathlon?
- What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success?
- My own physical health.
- Who is someone in triathlon or endurance sports that you look up to and admire?
- Darren Smith and Michael Bowl.
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with Dan Atkins
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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