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Joachim Willén is a triathlon coach, and former professional triathlete and Olympian from Sweden. He is the head coach of the high school triathlon program Motala Rikstriathlongymnasium, which has the objective of developing the up and coming top talents of Swedish triathlon. Previous graduates of the program also includes Vasco Vilaça (still coached by Joachim), who took second in the ITU Triathlon World Championships in Hamburg 2020 (sprint distance).
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Joachim's training and coaching principles
- Coaching young athletes and long-term athlete development
- Training in a squad environment
- A typical training week of his high school triathletes
- Tips for swim, bike, and run training
- Developing mental strength
- Advice for age-group triathletes
Background and about Motala triathlon high school
- My name is Joachim Willén and I work as a coach/teacher at Motala triathlon high school, where youths can combine their pursuits towards the world elite within triathlon (mainly focusing on the Olympic and sprint distances) with high school studies.
- Before I started as a coach/teacher at the triathlon high school, I was a triathlete myself, and my greatest success was to qualify for the 2000 Olympic games in Sidney, Australia.
As an athlete, I started out as a swimmer and transitioned to triathlon in my late teenage years.
I was always very interested in training and psychology during my years as an athlete, and hence, it became natural to me to pursue a career as coach after I ended my own elite sport ambitions.
- There are between 16-20 students in the program at the triathlon high school, and right now we have an extremely focused and good group of adolescents.
The athletes have the possibility to undertake their high school degree over four years instead of the typical high school programs in Sweden, which span over three years.
- Vasco Vilaca is probably the most recognizable athlete that I coach, this year he placed second at the world championship series in Hamburg, only beaten by Vincent Luis.
- As a coach, I focus a lot on creating an environment in which the athletes can thrive, develop and embrace their curiosity for training and getting better.
Moreover, having a close athlete-coach relationship is obviously really important.
I also pay a lot of attention on what type of training each individual athlete seems to respond to and plan things on a rather individual level (even though we do plenty of training together at the high school).
How to create a good environment for athletes to thrive in
- I think safety and curiosity are two cornerstones in a good environment for young athletes.
Additionally, trust towards the coach and the other athletes around them is also massively important.
Long term athlete development
- I try and prepare and coach the athletes at the triathlon high school for a career within triathlon and not only one year.
I think it is really important to have a gradual development within several fields (training volume, intensity etc.), to ”titrate” the training carefully according to what every individual tolerate.
It’s also very important to leave room for improvement and development in later years, not trying to ”capitalize” on every potential performance gain too early in the career.
- Typically, when an athlete start at the school they train between 8-12h per week and I see how every athlete is coping up with this on an individual basis.
This volume is then gradually increased to between 20-25h in the fourth grade.
- In terms of intensity, I am generally quite restricted with doing too much quality work and make sure to have a good progression plan in terms of the total accumulated time at moderate-high intensity work the athletes do per session.
My focus is more directed to laying a strong aerobic foundation with plenty of volume and high frequency, so that the athletes are well prepared for the hard training that awaits them as they became seniors.
Typical training weeks
- As previously mentioned, the first grader typically start at 8-12h per week of training, which means two bike and run sessions per week and 2-3 swim sessions.
Then we typically add around one session per disciplin and year.
The intensity sessions remain rather stable over the years (but the accumulated time of high intensity works follow a progression plan), with two intensity sessions per discipline and week (also applies to ”tempo” sets).
We also focus quite a bit on not going too hard on the intense work, the form and technique should never suffer due to the intensity.
- In the base training, the intervals is generally more ”allround” (could include hills etc.) and as we approach the season, we focus more on threshold training and close to and during the season, specific sessions in race pace dominate the intensity work.
- In terms of the duration of the long bike and run sessions, we start at the first grade by 45mins runs and 2h bike rides, and build towards 80-90mins runs and 4-5h rides in grade four.
Discipline specific tips
- For swimming, consistency is critical.
The total volume is also of great importance, at the high school we try and reach an average weekly swim volume of 30k fairly early (at the second year).
In terms of OW swimming, it’s probably not that important, good swimmers are developed in the pool.
On average, the swim training is slightly more intense compared to the run and bike training.
- My best tips for the bike is to do plenty of hills!
In Sweden, we are forced to do much of the bike sessions on the indoor trainer, which both has its pros and cons.
- We also implement plenty of hills in our run training (especially during the base training), otherwise, our main focus is directed towards staying injury free.
Tips to age group athletes
- I would prioritize frequency a lot, trying to squeeze in a 30mins run here and a 45mins bike there will in the end result in a stronger aerobic base.
In my opinion, many age groupers tend to do the easy sessions a bit too hard, and the hard sessions slightly too easy, it’s about the discipline of executing the intent of the session!
The affects of the corona situation
- It’s a bit of a ”double edge sword”, we have learned that there are plenty of gains to be had from being able to train regularly and without any interruptions during sustained periods of times.
Also, the lack of traveling has been something quite positive for many athletes since it has enabled them to keep up their training without interruptions.
But of course, it has been a hard year in many ways and we have all really missed racing triathlon races!
The state of triathlon in Scandinavia
- Norway with Gustav Iden, Kristian Blummenfelt and Casper Stornes is obviously leading the way among the Scandinavian countries, and Denmark has some really promising youth triathletes, while Sweden and Finland is dragging behind a little bit.
It’s hard to know exactly what has lead to this ”distribution of talent”, but it has most likely both a cultural and ”setup” related explanations.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to endurance sport? I really love books but my greatest resource is still my athletes and mentors.
- What is your favorite piece of gear or equipment? My mountainbike.
- What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success? I am good at finding commonalities among what the best do (they really love what they do!).