Faris al-Sultan - Ironman World Champion as an athlete and twice as a coach (Patrick Lange) | EP#222
Faris al-Sultan is the Ironman World Champion from 2005 and multiple podium finisher. Since retiring and moving into coaching he is most well-known for coaching Patrick Lange to two World Championship titles and one third place in Kona. Currently, Faris works with the German Triathlon Federation to bring up the nation's draft-legal success closer to the successes seen on the long distance triathlon side.
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In this Episode you'll learn about:
- What has changed in triathlon and in training in 15 years since Faris won the World Championships
- Coaching Patrick Lange to two World titles
- Faris' general coaching methodology
- Working at the German Triathlon Federation and developing world class draft-legal athletes
- The differences and similarities between long and short course triathlon
- The importance of volume and movement quality
- The art and science of coaching
- Advice for age-group athletes
- I am most famous for claiming the Ironman World Champion title in 2005, the year before and after that I was third in Kona and I have several top ten finishes as well there in addition to several Ironman victories.
- I also coached Patrick Lange to both of his Kona victories.
The development of the sport over the last 20 years
- The sport has changed substantially since I did my first triathlon in 1996, mainly in regards to the amount of professionalism that is seen among the pro athletes, which is so far beyond what it was back in the days.
The level of professionalism is so much higher in several areas such as equipment, nutriton and training.
When I started out, I deliberately chose not to work with a coach because in my calculations I wouldn’t have had any benefit from it, and this has changed tremendously over the years.
- In regards to nutrition, the athletes now have the opportunity to take up much more energy during the races because of the entrance of energy gels and plenty of other options that are available.
When I was racing we experimented with several different alternatives such as potatoes and energy bars and a lot of people had very serious problems taking in the proper amount of energy and fluid.
- On the training side, very experienced people could maybe see some major trends but we did not understand the physiology behind it and parameters such as the lactate building rate (VlaMax) were not known.
The VlaMax parameter has explained plenty of my experiences that I have had as an athlete and coach.
However, instinctively we did many things right already at my time, like a basic structure of a hard day followed by a long day.
Looking back at my own training, I wish I had done more weight lifting of my lower body, I did plenty of weight lifting but almost exclusively of my upper body.
Another thing I wish I had done differently in my training is preserving my speed on the shorter distances better, as I now have realized how crucial that is for Ironman performance.
In the later stages of my career I started to focus on regaining my speed again with plenty of success as a result.
One can see that athletes switching from short to long course triathlon often have their most successful races as their first or second attempt at the new distance, this I think is attributed to the fact that they are carrying good speed from the shorter distances into the longer distances.
- In regards to the equipment, new aero suits have stand for the biggest contribution to the nowadays much faster cycling times, other factors such as better frames, tires etc. have only had a minor contribution to the faster bike splits.
The entrance of power meters on a broader scale does also represent a major change the sport has seen over the last 20 years, it allows for everybody to quantify their cycling performance in a much more accurate way.
Patricks success on Hawaii
- Patrick has never been a big volume kind of triathlete, compared to e.g. Jan Frodeno Patrick has trained much less hours.
- Usually we put a training block 5-6 weeks into Kona in addition to a two week long taper, which worked out really well for him.
Throughout the year Patrick never really tapered, so the whole year was more or less set up to provide him with the perfect freshness for the race.
- Other things that I successfully introduced to Patrick was weight lifting on a regular basis during the whole year as well as doing more transition runs.
- My role as Patrick’s coach was more of an advisor and someone who structured his training, I never commented on his swimming or running technique or.
This sort of coach-athlete relationship worked out very well between me and Patrick because he had plenty of knowledge and experience of the sport himself, it would never have worked with an 18 or 19 years old athlete.
- The way I see it, there are two major influencers on performance over the Ironman distance, the first is that since it is such a long race, it requires plenty of training volume in order to achieve success, the other factor is being as efficient as possible.
Patrick demonstrates very high efficiency in both the run and on his bike (he is very aerodynamic and does not need to push big wattage to go fast), and this has helped him ”get away” with a fairly low training volume.
Current job at the German Triathlon Federation
- It’s a bit difficult to define exactly what my role in the German Triathlon Federation is, formally I am a coach but I do not actually do any coaching.
I work with both coaches within the federation and outside of the federation, mainly as an advisor to the individual coaches.
- Example of different advice (with successful outcome) that I can give athletes are: increase the run volume, include more weight lifting, gain some weight in roder to become more healthy, do certain tests, optimize the position on the bike, reconsider the nutrition strategy, etc.
- Example of different advise that I give coaches are: recommend a certain location for a training camp, avoid another location for a training camp etc.
- In order for Germany to once again become one of the most successful nations within short course racing, the federation needs to solve several issues it has had in the last years.
One such issue is that most young triathletes in Germany aim for long course triathlon at an early age, because all German role models within triathlon are from the long course circuit and they want to become like them.
Another issue is that germans start with triathlon at an early age, making them mediocre swimmers, bikers and runners, the persons with the best abilities to exceed within triathlon typically have a more pronounced background in one of the three disciplines.
In Germany we don’t have the same possibility to recruit athletes from one of the three disciplines to enter triathlon as for instance USA has due to their extensive collage sports program.
For short course, one needs to reach a very high level in at least one of the disciplines in order to achieve success and starting with triathlon at an early age does not provide enough time to develop one of the disciplines good enough.
The federation also have had a problem with only focusing on the absolute top without ”securing” a flow of good athletes from the next generation, which is an additional reason for why Germany has found itself in the current situation.
Hopefully, some major changes in the organisation of the federation will lead to Germany once again will be one of the top nations of the short course circuit.
Similarities and differences between long and short course racing
- Both races are long endurance events and looking at the physiological demands, there aren’t that big differences.
- The major differences are that the swim and run are more important within short course. Run and swim speed is crucial in short course, and the ability to over speed in these two disciplines.
- The running in long course is all about economy, how fast you can go without putting down a massive amount of effort.
The running in short course is on the other hand all about how fast you can go when putting down a massive amount of effort.
- The technical demands for the cycling discipline in short course have also in recent years become extremely important.
- For age groupers, the similarities between short and long course races are even greater as the dynamics of the races are the same, i.e. a steady pace or power output throughout the whole race rather than recurrent bursts that frequently exist in the pro field.
The difference here more or less solely comes down to the distance.
The training of the german short course triathlete
- One of the biggest revisions that has been made during my time with the German Triathlon Federation is that we have started using a training platform, instead of excel sheets, which was the case before.
- Right now, everyone of our athletes are doing volume of some kind, how much this is can, however, vary vastly due to how injury prone the athlete is or due to other factors.
- No one of the german athletes of today are, however, doing the typical volumes of the past, 27 km of swimming, 450 km of cycling and 70-80 km of running, mainly because they are simply too young for this kind of volume.
- But it is very hard to say on a general basis how the training looks like since it is all so individualized.
- The training at this time of the year is mainly focused on base endurance work, but can vary between individuals, but in the general program, there is basically one high intensity session per discipline and week.
- In terms of what I believe is the way to train for short course racing, we know that the best athletes do a certain amount of volume and the german athletes have not reach that training volume yet.
The process of reaching that volume is currently going on, but it has to be gradually, one athlete cannot increase their training volume with 400h from one year to another.
In regards to how the training should be planned, I believe a lot in what the Norwegians are currently doing, which is very similar to what the germans used to do before back in the days when we were successful.
- For the athletes more prone to injury I tend to recommend more cycling volume for these triathletes rather than plenty of run volume as this easy can lead to injury.
- Nowadays, the demands of the cycling discipline has been much higher, to be able to cope with all the bursts and accelerations that occurs in the bike leg of a triathlon is critical.
Having a high VO2max and to be able to clear lactate efficiently are not optional favorable abilities anymore, they are requirements.
- Somewhere between 1000 and 1200h of training per year are absolute requirements to be able to compete in international top level triathlon.
- In regards on how we think about intensity, we have a very individual approach, those who have big ”aerobic power”, i.e. those who can utilize their VO2max very well may benefit from training aimed to increase VO2max and vice versa.
Another aspect that needs to be taken into account on this matter is who technical proficient an athlete is in the different disciplines, an athlete that is not very technically developed may benefit from doing threshold or sub threshold (tempo) work in order to improve his or hers technique when going fast.
In general, I am not that delighted in threshold work, but this is on a very general level, and for certain there are those who can benefit from threshold training.
When it comes to if I think that my athletes should more or less go all out and feel like they have completely ”emptied their tank” after an interval session, this completely depends on the purpose of the session, if the anaerobic system is targeted, this is probably the aim but if it is a VO2max session the main thing of importance is that you hit your target pace or power during the intervals, if this means that you have to go all out towards the end, then thats’s fine, and if it means that you have a little left but still manage to hold the pace or power, then that’s fine too.
- Too much testing can rather complicate things so it’s important to choice the tests you do wisely.
- A good and experienced coach can often tell without looking at test results what makes one athlete better than the other even though he cannot explain this in scientific terms, here, the test results can help explain in more details what the experienced coach already knows.
- In the end, the only thing I really care about is if the athlete is getting faster or not.
- All athletes of the national team do, however, conduct a large amount of lab tests twice a year, but you have to take in consideration that this requires plenty of traveling for the athletes and two complete days of testing instead of effective training.
Advice to age groupers
- One of the biggest mistakes that age groupers tend to do is that they go too hard on the easy sessions (mainly applicable to men), women on the other hand tend to do too much slow training.
- Volume is king, but quality of movement is maybe even more important, your technique needs to be at a certain level before the volume should be pumped up, OBS! This may take time!
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to triathlon or endurance sports?
Triathlon magazine (the german version).
- What is your favorite piece of gear or equipment? My bike (an old Storck TT bike).
- What do you wish you had known or done differently throughout your triathlon or coaching career? Doing more squats and less bench press.
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
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