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Coach Frank Jakobsen came into triathlon coaching via an elite swimming background and later on alpinism. He quickly gained credibility through being the mentor of Ironman World Champion Craig "Crowie" Alexander, and has since coached a large number of professional long distance triathletes. In this episode, Frank discusses his views on triathlon performance, training, and mindset.
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Frank's ten-point checklist for triathlon success
- Goal-setting and motivation
- Training philosophy, and the difference between making more vs. making bigger mitochondria
- Differences and similarities between age-groupers' and professionals' approach to the sport
- Transitioning from age-group to professional racing
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- During my youth I competed in swimming, but at the time where you decide to either start aiming for the Olympics or choose another path in life, I decided to go to University and study.
I didn’t study anything sports related in University and ended up working in corporate.
- My whole life I have been enjoying sports, especially endurance sports and being in the outdoors, which has been a big part of my life.
When me and my wife moved to Copenhagen, we got involved in triathlon as it was a good sport to practice in the surroundings of Copenhagen.
We did plenty of Ironman races, mainly at a recreational level but we really enjoyed the triathlon life style and all the people we met during our travels.
- Even though I didn’t have any scientific sport background, I started coaching my wife, who gradually achieved great success, competing and performing well in Kona.
People around us started to get more and more interested in my coaching due to the success of my wife, which I was a big part of.
- One year in Kona, by coincidence I ran into Craig Alexander who stayed at the same hotel as we did and we started talking.
At that time, in my job within corporate I coached some employees (not athletically, more like life coaching/mental coaching), and shared some of my experience from this with Craig who got really interested.
Craig had already won the Ironman World Championship once then and athletically he was in no need of a coach, however, he thought that he could benefit from mental coaching and since then we have been working together.
As our collaboration continued, I gradually came to share some training related thoughts with him, which he was open to try with great results as a consequence.
Helping an Ironman World Champion improve gave me plenty of confidence that I probably have something to offer coaching wise to triathletes.
Other professional athletes that I coach
- Over the years I have worked with many, many professional athletes and currently I am coaching maybe 10 professional athletes.
- Among those who I coach at the moment are Michel Vesterby (Denmark), Jesper Svensson (Sweden, 2nd in Roth last years), Sara Svensk (Sweden, 2019 Ironman Barcelona Champion) and Hans-Christian Tungesvik (Norway, 2019 Norseman champion).
- I also coach ambitious age groupers with goals like reaching podium positions or trying to qualify for Kona.
Important points beyond physical/skills required for triathlon
- When I was working in corporate, my job was very much about getting people to perform, and I also found that when the employees were able to perform, then they also were the happiest.
- Over the years a list of 10 points have developed and I call it the DNA-method since it is highly individual (like DNA).
- 1. The first point is what your goal is and what is motivating you.
I think that it is very important that an athlete to most part is intrinsically motivated compared to extrinsically motivated, the will to succeed must come from deep inside oneself, otherwise, you want have what it takes to push those last 15 km in an Ironman.
If I would recognize that an athlete does not have enough intrinsic motivators, then one way is to try and understand what his athlete’s values as human is and try and incorporate those into his or hers profile as an athlete.
- 2. What are the unique circumstances for you right now/this season.
It is very important to understand that everything changes with time, a strength at the moment could be a weakness in a few months time.
- 3. Time - what do you want to fill up your time with and does the way you spend your time help you achieve your goals?
I mainly look at how my athletes spend their time outside of training and the most obvious ”unnecessary time spender” is your phone, many athletes spend way too much time on social media and are thinking too much about what others are doing.
Periodization and season planning also is a part of this point.
- 4. Equipment - do you have the best equipment so that you have the best chances of reaching your goal?
Under this point we go through all equipment and investigate if any gains can be made.
Some professionals, however, can be forced to make trade offs due to sponsor deals but then it is important to quantify exactly how big these trade offs are, my professional athletes always test equipment individually, so they know how good the equipment is for them specifically.
- 5. Nutrition - daily food, training nutrition and race nutrition.
This is such a huge and important subject and my wife who has studied race nutrition is the one that normally gives my athletes nutrition advice.
Over the years, we have investigated several other aspects of race nutrition and hydration, like finding out exactly how much sodium one athlete is loosing in sweat during a certain intensity level and temperature, it takes time to build up a solid base of test data so that you pretty much have all the different loses at different intensitets in different climates, but when you do it is a really powerful tool, once again, instead of guessing, you know.
Another aspect that we have looked into is the body’s pH during intense exercise, when you do an Ironman you are smashing the body and this effects the pH level, however, one can help keeping the pH level (i.e. the body’s homeostasis) stable by your choice of fluids and nutrition.
- 6. Physical training side - training physiology.
The foundation of my training philosophy is that every athlete is unique and one cannot apply the same training method for all athletes.
One type of training strategy can also be wrong during one part of the career and right in another.
When people are arguing for that one specific type of training method or strategy is ”the best”, I don’t take them seriously, because in my experience, no particular method does apply for everybody at all times.
- One example of a very renowned training strategy that often is advocated for is the 80/20 method, I have seen this method work extremely well for some individuals but in other individuals it is definitely not the right way to go.
The 80/20 method is very good for developing aerobic fitness and base but when it comes to building strength and resilience, sweet spot training is instead the way to go in my opinion.
Sweet spot training can be a very powerful tool during some part of an athlete’s career or for specific courses, for example younger athletes who needs to develop leg strength or in preparations for hillier courses where you constantly need to push closer to threshold in the uphill segments.
- When it comes to testing, I am very diligent about that the tests must be executed correctly.
One typical example of this is that for a bike test to have any kind of value, it must be done on the athlete’s bike.
In general, I am also critical against doing run tests on treadmill since people tend to run differently on treadmills than what they do outside, therefore usually I am for most of the times just getting my athletes to do a 10k run race and from the pace I know pretty well where they are.
Moreover, besides being interested in the anaerobic threshold values of my athletes, which of course also is extremely important, I am looking at other measurements of endurance that maybe reveals more of the athlete’s ability to perform in an Ironman race.
This can be how well an athlete is able to hold his or hers planned Ironman wattage during the last 1-2 hours of a 5-6h bike ride.
Most common mistakes
- The most important thing to consider as an age grouper is consistency, this is of course also important among pros but since they are doing so much more volume, their aerobic base is less fragile than for age groupers who train maybe 8-15h per week.
The main focus should be to avoid getting injured and sick.
- On the equipment side, I think many people are too depending on their gear such as watches, power meters and other parameters.
They are looking more at what their equipment say about how they ”should feel” rather than instead actually listen to what their body says.
- When it comes to the most common mistakes that professional athletes do, I think they should be more diligent about their team.
Before the season starts, pro athletes should define their team and be very open about what they expect from different people during the season.
Many professionals miss out a little too much on this point, which tend to lead to frustration and potential setbacks.
Transitioning from age grouper to professional
- The most important aspect before initiating a professional career is dedication and commitment to the sport, one must be completely ready to commit fully to an athletics career, otherwise one will never stand a chance against those who do.
- One must be ready to devote around 40h per week for the sports, i.e. the same as a ”regular” job.
- It is also very important to have a financial plan for the first 2-3 years before one can expect some results to come.
It may be possible to combine a professional career with a part time job, but preferably not.
Discrepancy between scientific research (primarily done for short course triathlon) and experience from coaching long course triathletes
- The mitochondria of the muscles are extremely important for endurance performance, mitochondria can either replicate (become more in numbers) or grow in size.
High intensity training primarily leads to a growth in size but also in replication whilst lower intensity endurance training mainly leads to increase in numbers of mitochondria and only secondary as growth in size.
For longer endurance events, the numbers of mitochondria are the most important, and therefore if I had to choose between a high or low intensity approach I would choose low intensity (higher volume).
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to endurance sports? ”From good to great” by Jim Collins, I read it as I was working in corporate and implemented some of the ideas into sports from it.
- What is your favorite piece of gear or equipment? The athletes, everything else is secondary to me.
- What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success? It is both a curse and an asset but I am always striving to reach to next level and investigate if some things could have been done better.