Ryan Bolton - Olympian and coach of Ben Hoffman and Caroline Rotich | EP#221
Ryan Bolton is a US Olympian from Sydney 2000, an Ironman champion, and now coaches elite runners (like Caroline Rotich, winner of Boston Marathon 2015) and triathletes (like Ben Hoffman, 4th in Kona 2019). In this episode he discusses his coaching methodology and thoughts on training strategies he employs at the elite level as exemplified by Ben Hoffman, but also how they apply to age-group athletes.
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In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Ryan's general coaching methodology
- How he periodises training
- Building a strong base
- The balance of volume and intensity
- Intuitive training
- Advice for age-group athletes
- I grew up in a relatively rural area of the United States, and fortunately this particular place was really supportive of all types of athletics.
I started swimming and running at a very early age and during my youth I was also engaged into BMX cycling racing.
In collage I decided to pursue running since this was what I was best at, at this point.
I probably just as easily could have chosen to pursue swimming, however, the massive training routines of collage swimming did not appeal to me back then.
- In the summer following my freshmen year at collage, I had my first encounter with triathlon.
As I was working as a life guard at a swimming pool in Boulder, I was encouraged by a pro triathlete to got to the US triathlon national championships, which I did and also ended up winning the junior division.
The US triathlon federation became aware of me and the following summer I actually started training for triathlon. By the end of that summer I competed in the World Championships, where I ended up second among the juniors, and I also believe I had the fastest run split of the day (including the professionals).
But as I got back to collage that fall, my run coach told me that I had to chose between triathlon and running, and I decided to continue focusing on the run for the remaining of my collage studies, in order to secure my education.
- After finishing collage, I was offered a free bike, wetsuit and a place to live in southern California, which provided great training opportunities, in order to pursue triathlon.
At the same time I also got my Pro card granted from the US triathlon federation and I started racing professionally as a triathlete.
- Back then, the US triathlon federation did not offer much logistical support around ITU races so we were forced to figure a lot out by ourselves.
The races were still very competitive at that time but as the Olympics were approaching the athletes really started to aggressively going after points in order to qualify for the games.
- I managed to qualify for the Olympics, and it went okey, I had a good swim but I crashed on the bike and then the race was more or less over after that, I ended up 25th.
- After the 2000 Olympics I decided to completely cut ITU out and pursue long distance triathlon.
I raced professionally only focusing on long course triathlon for four more years, ended up winning Ironman Lake Placid once, was on the podium in several Ironman races as well as raced Kona multiple times.
Unfortunately, I was never able to put down a good performance on Hawaii.
Getting into coaching
- I didn’t feel totally fulfilled as an athlete and I was starting to be more and more interested in the coaching side of things, for instance my undergraduate degree was in exercise physiology.
At the time I had this vague plan of going back to graduate school and study exercise physiology, metabolism or nutrition.
So straight after I had decided to end my career as a triathlete I went back to school.
- During my studies I stayed in close contact with my old coach Joe Friel, who really encouraged me to get into coaching.
My coaching really started to take off as I moved to Santa Fee, New Mexico, both with African runners as well as triathletes.
- Initially I was mostly working with age groups triathletes and I had a fairly large group of elite runners (East Africans).
- Over the years I have gradually transitioned to coach triathletes (both elite and amateurs) but I still have a few elite runners left that I coach.
- My coaching group constitutes of around 15 coaches, spread out all across the world.
- Some of my most notables athletes that I coach are Ben Hoffman, Heather Jackson, Caroline Rotich and some up and coming guys like Sam Long, who won several Ironman 70.3:s last year.
Coaching philosophy and methodology
- When describing my coaching, a few key terms come into mind, which are: Periodization, specificity (both racing and athlete dependent, different athletes respond to different training stimulus), I also believe in building a good foundation with plenty of volume.
In comparison to the general population I would guess that I believe in higher volume work balanced with relatively much of race specific work.
As race day come closer I add race specific intensity while maintaining a fairly large volume.
I also believe in a lot of strength based work, i.e. workouts that are designed to replicate the feelings you get in the later stages of an Ironman race, which is rather hard to do.
The most important part of my coaching is, however, to have an individualized perspective and address every athlete’s weaknesses.
- There are several ways to assess an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses, one way could be as simple as asking what kind of ride the athlete would prefer, a 6h endurance ride or a 1h ride including 4x5 min all out efforts, the answer provides ample information of what type of training that particular athlete probably is in need of (i.e. the opposite session of what they would prefer).
We also conduct plenty of testing (especially metabolic testing) to analyze every athlete’s needs.
Another thing that also needs to be taken into account is what type of training the athlete seems to respond to, for someone who does not respond to VO2max training should not be prescribed such sessions, even though his or hers VO2max would not be that high.
- In terms of periodization, my main focus is to build my athletes strong enough to be able to do a lot of race specific work as race day comes closer.
This I achieve by prescribing a lot of volume as the foundation is being created in the preseason.
As race day comes closer the goal is to maintain this type of volume while adding plenty of work at race intensity, hopefully the athletes have become resilient enough to tolerate and absorb this training from the solid base that was created earlier.
- For instance, in January and February most athletes that I coach (professionals) have 3 key workouts per discipline every week that comprises a fair amount of volume.
An example of a key swim session this time of the year: Long aerobic swim with plenty of pull and paddles to build strength and also focus on form.
An example of a key run session this time of the year: Long aerobic run, including plenty of hills in order to build strength.
An example of a key bike session this time of the year: Long aerobic bike with plenty of over gear work (typically in the tempo zone/zone 3).
- This time of the year I also let my athletes do actual strength work in the gym.
- If we are targeting to improve one specific disciplin, most volume will be spent on this discipline.
- I also try and keep the hard days hard (and relatively big) and the easy days easy.
- When I prescribe training intensities to my athletes, I solely (all year around) use Power zones on the bike and paces on the run rather than let HR control the intensities.
Sometimes, however, I just stick to prescribing ”aerobic”, which at least all professional athletes know exactly what that is.
As race season gets closer, I tend to prescribe more and more specific power zones and pace targets.
By doing so, I can get a good picture of where my athletes stand by looking at what power and paces they can hold for a certain amount of time, this makes both me and my athletes more comfortable in regards to making a race plan to their ability.
- Most age groupers have a tendency of going too hard on their easy days and not hard enough on their hard days, professionals tend to do this much better (especially the African runners that I coach).
- When prescribing training I don’t specifically calculate so the ratio between the easy and the high intensity sessions are going to be 80:20, but at the end of the year it mostly fall out in that way.
In general, I tend to focus slightly more on intensity for my more experienced athletes, as they normally have a firmer foundation of volume to stand on already and don’t have the need to build on this any further.
Consequently, the ratio between aerobic and high intensity sessions are somewhat higher for these (applies to most professionals).
- 12 weeks out from a high priority race we normally start getting into very specific work, that allows you to put in a few really solid blocks and get you an idea of where you are.
- In order to simulate the feeling and sensations you have at an end of an Ironman, there are two principal ways I use to achieve this, first, one can go over race pace/do higher intensity intervals early in a session and then later in the same session hit the race pace intensity at an already fatigued state, second, one can stack up sessions performed at or around race pace several days in a row to get you in such a fatigued condition that it simulates the later stages of an Ironman.
- It’s not like my athletes never go above race pace, high intensity sessions such as VO2max intervals does have its place, especially if that is a weakness for that particular athlete.
However, I use to make sure that the athlete first have the foundation to actually go the full distance.
Primarily, this type of work is performed in the final stages leading into the race.
Differences and similarities in approaching short and long course triathlon
- The largest difference between draft legal races and long course triathlon are the recurring bursts that are happening in the draft legal/short course triathlons, this aspect needs to be adressed and trained for specifically by simulating such short high intensity/anaerobic efforts for those athletes aiming to perform mainly in short course events.
For long course racing it is much more about being able to go very hard for a really long time and the training should reflect this type of demand much more.
- In terms of similarities, in my opinion, both long and short course triathletes would benefit from a large training volume, not only during pre season but also during the race season.
Differences and similarities between age groupers and professional athletes
- The training principles and physiology of age groupers and professionals are more or less exactly the same.
In general, age groupers have a tendency of not keeping it easy when it is supposed to be easy more than professionals.
Most age groupers also tend to have a rather stable level of fitness throughout the whole year, they do not allow themselves to really cut back on training and let their fitness decline in order for them to really hit those big peaks.
This professionals do to a larger extent.
I would really like to see that my age groupers dare to take a longer off season and actually let their fitness decline properly.
For instance, I recommend my athletes to take two weeks completely off (or totally without a schedule) following their biggest race of the season, during this time I use to set a ”ceiling” to my athletes, so they don’t do any swims over 2 km, any runs longer than 1h and any rides over 2h.
After that, two additional easy weeks with only aerobic work, technique skills and preparatory movements will normally follow.
If you allow yourself to take a longer season break, an additional month of only aerobic work can be even further beneficial.
Planning rest and recovery
- -For age groupers I normally work with three-four weeks cycles, two-three weeks of hard/plenty training and one easier week.
In terms of volume, the easier weeks typically are around 70 % of the total time of the ”work” weeks, however, intensity drops significantly.
- On weekly basis, I regularly use three days cycles with two days ”work” and one day of easier training.
Normally it is not completely rest, rather just easier training.
- It needs to be understated that planning the rest and recovery is also very individual, you need to pay attention to how fast the athlete normally recover and responds to training as well as how demanding the days of ”work” has been.
- I am pretty traditional in regards to nutrition, in most cases it comes down to eating nutrient rich food that are as whole and as little processed as possible.
- Eating at the right time is also very important to ensure optimal recovery.
- Avoid refined sugars on a daily basis.
However, I do not believe that one can race an Ironman on solely your fat reserves, at some higher intensities carbohydrates are completely necessary and needs to be added during a long race.
- When it comes to nutrition, one should look at the Kenyans and their diet, they eat incredible whole and non-processed food.
Being intuitive with your training
- This is probably the biggest difference between both great athletes and coaches compared to a good athlete and a good coach.
Great athletes have the ability to look at their numbers and simultaneously relate the numbers to their current sensations and how they are feeling at the same moment, it’s about really knowing your body.
Great coaches don’t only look at the numbers of their athletes, as a coach you have to be able to recognize what your athletes respond to, both physiologically and psychologically.
A really great coach intuitively see things and understand their athletes on a deeper level that goes way beyond the numbers.
A good way to start becoming better at being more intuitive in regards to your training and your body could something as simple as going back to use RPE (rate of perceived exertion) as your main determinant of the intensity on your sessions.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to triathlon or endurance sports?
Honestly I don’t have any favorite resource, I get my information from everywhere and also recognize things for what they are (somethings are for entertainment only and somethings are for coaching philosophy etc.), in many cases I get my information and inspiration from non-triathlon specific sources.
- What personal characteristics have helped you to achieve success?
Consistency, a constant believe and always wanting to learn more.
- What do you wish you had know or done differently at some point in your coaching career?
Been more patient with myself, both as an athlete and as a coach.
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with Ryan Bolton
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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