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Nate Wilson is the coach of triathletes Flora Duffy, Olympic Gold Medalist from the women's individual event, and Kevin McDowell, 6th in the individual event and silver medalist in the Mixed Relay with the United States. Nate has an extensive background in the world of professional cycling, and is currently also the Professional Cycling Performance Manager of the World Tour team EF Education First. In this episode, we discuss Nate's views on training and coaching, and specifics around how Flora and Kevin prepared for the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Nate's coaching and training philosophy
- Balancing blocks of intensity and blocks of aerobic training
- Tapering for the Olympic Games
- Heat preparation for the Tokyo heat and humidity
- Flora's run volume to run one of the fastest women's triathlon 10k:s in history
- The art of coaching
- Nate's top tips for amateur triathletes and endurance athletes
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- My name is Nate Wilson and I have a background in cycling. I started in 2013 when I finished a degree in physiology at the University of Colorado. Since then, I have been just working and coaching.
- In the world of triathlon, I am the personal coach of Flora Duffy and Kevin McDowell
- In cycling, I worked for 5 years for the US cycling Federation, first as an intern working with the coaches and the athletes. This allowed learning a lot about the under 23 cycling races, which gave me the basis of knowledge to work for 2 years as the youth national coach and 1 year as the high-performance director for the road and track programs, which overviews everything related to cycling performance.
- Now, I have been working for 2 years in the EF Education First Cycling World Tour team. My duties include having an overview of the whole team's training and being one of the people athletes report to, concerning how they are developing or some important information for the sports director to help them shape race plans and tactics.
- But I am also responsible for coaching a handful of athletes in the team, doing a lot of work in direct contact with the athletes in Girona, Spain. This includes motor pacing, organizing team training sessions and helping the athletes to perform each training session by, for example, driving behind them in a long endurance ride, so that they can meet the nutrition and fueling requirements from the session in an easier way.
Nate's athletes Olympic success
- With Flora, the goal was to win the race, while with Kevin, the goal was just to be selected for the Olympic Games and to get a 6º in the end was above our best expectation in the beginning of the year.
Coaching and training philosophy
- Regarding coaching philosophy, I believe consistency is key for long term success. Therefore, I am a big proponent of working in a moderate way meaning that I rarely prescribe sessions that are impressive or too challenging for the athlete, which they cannot replicate often. Instead, by working within the athlete's ability, we can over time accumulate a bigger workload.
- Another important point is the balance between aerobic base and intensity because I believe that in short course triathlon, intensity plays a big factor in the cycling and run splits. But to be able to sustain that intensity, athletes need a big aerobic base to increase the amount of intensity they can handle and hold a response from an intensity training block.
- Over the length of the season, this balance must be worked according to the race calendar, instead of the traditional approach of the base, preparation and racing phases of the season, wherein the racing phase is just about to maintain fitness.
- Therefore, for some athletes, we might be doing the same training in different periods of the season.
- Normally, the blocks of training will depend on the season calendar. During the base block, I include some short high-intensity efforts, just to maintain the ability of the athlete to perform high-intensity efforts to be easier to progress to a more focused intensity block.
- The short high-intensity efforts during a base block are not that challenging. The focus is more on shorter intervals during these blocks, and progress them over the season
- The volume during a intense block of training is not that dissimilar from a base block of training. For example, for the short course triathletes I work with the volume of training does not change that much.
- Typically, the training volume for cycling is about 10 to 12 hours per week (sometimes more depending on how the run training is going). The run volume varies a bit more, but usually around 6 hours per week and the swim training amounts to 20 to 24 km per week. In total, it amounts more or less in 25 hours per week of training.
- This does not include the gym and recovery aspects of an athlete's life, like strength sessions or massages.
- The hardest workout I prescribed for Flora ahead of the Olympic Games was to simulate a race at altitude in Boulder, where she did an open water swim of 700 meters. Then, a 20 km hard session on the bike with a group of strong athletes. In the end, she did a 4 km straight off the bike.
- The goal was to give her a bit of racing stimulus and to train the transitions, as we normally do not do brick sessions.
- The hardest workouts I usually prescribe have a mix of intensities (12 minutes at Tempo power with a 15s surge every 3 minutes; then 3x3 minutes hard with 3 minutes easy with the goal of putting the highest power possible in each set; 6x80 seconds with a 20 seconds surge, followed by 1 minute at threshold power)
- This workout I prescribe power targets for the tempo and threshold efforts. For the surges, I would say a bit by feeling. The 3 minute efforts depend on if we are at altitude, so that the athlete do not overshoot in the first interval and blow up.
Intensity Block breakdown
- In a week, I normally prescribe 2 more intense run sessions, 2 hard bike sessions and 2 or 3 intense swim sessions, depending on the swim groups they are part of.
- The intense sessions will normally focus more on a singular system in the building to race, and adding the blend of intensities as I described above as we are approach a race.
- I normally do not prescribe threshold work. I believe that by doing Vo2 Max sessions, combined with some efforts bellow threshold like tempo work are the best way to increase power at threshold.
- I only prescribe threshold, so that the athlete gets used to ride at that intensity, but I avoid those standard 3 x 10 minutes threshold sessions, meaning that I just put short bouts (e.g 8 minutes) at those intensities.
- The Vo2 max sessions I prescribe based on power targets and normally 2 sessions per week.
- One is a broken Vo2 session (e.g 30s at the Vo2 power, 30s rest or 40s at Vo2 power, 20s rest)
- The other is more focused on sustained Vo2 efforts of 2 to 4 minutes.
- In conclusion, the intensity block focus a lot more on the power above threshold to raise the maximum capacity of the athlete, with some work at Tempo to maintain that base condition.
Tapering for a major competition
- The taper period consists of 10 days to 2 weeks, where the training stress is reduced to create freshness. The week leading to the race is almost a normal week of training, with slightly lower volume.
- For such an intense race, we want to avoid resting in the race. Normally, the athletes do not feel great if they are too fresh, therefore we avoid lower the load too much before the race.
- The volume the week before the race, the bike volume will be around 8 hours and the run will stay in the athlete's normal volume, with a longer run in the weekend before the race, maintaining the intensity leading into the race.
Flora's run training case study
- Heading up to the Olympic Games, she was doing consistently around 50 km per week. There have been periods of her career where she ran more, but in mid-April, she had an injury, and so she could not run that higher mileage.
- To do run workouts in the beginning, she trained mostly indoors with the Lever to lower her body weight.
- In Leeds, she ran a really fast time below 34 minutes. From there, we realized that she accumulated a lot of volume of training during her career, that we do not need to push the volume on the run too much, and just maintain the higher intensity intervals for the biomechanical and neuromuscular adaptations.
- Preparing to Tokyo, we just maintain volume at a safety level to avoid injuries.
- In relation to heat acclimatisation, Flora did the test event in Tokyo in 2019, and we did a full heat acclimatisation protocol.
- That ended up in a good way to understand her response and we understood she was ready.
- The stress of the protocol was not high enough and therefore the focus was to building condition through more focus on training than focus too much on the heat acclimatisation.
- Instead of doing a 10-day block of heat preparation, we stretch it to 4 weeks, and with a ramp of heat exposure during the block and taper them down.
- In that way, the shock was not so high and so the training was not so affected.
- The heat training involved a run or a bike session in a room in Flora's house, increasing the temperature and humidity, without using a fan. For the swim sessions, we used wetsuits and a neoprene cap.
- We did not use a passive strategy like a sauna or hot baths, because the athlete does not get familiar with racing in those conditions. Also, adding a sauna or hot baths adds more things and another stress to the athlete's life and we believe that would not be beneficial to the athlete overall.
Flora's swim training
- The swim is an important split of a triathlon race, and for Flora, being able to be in the front group increase the probability of winning or getting a podium in the Olympics substantially.
- As I do not have a background in swimming, my goal is to try to balance the easy and hard sessions.
- Flora has a lot of knowledge about swimming from her years of training and racing and she gets a lot of good inputs from her husband.
- One thing that we focused on in the preparation for Tokyo was the focus on the recovery between sets. Many of the swim sets tend to have such a short period of rest that is hard to maintain speed and intensity.
- We were struggling with the recovery between sets, so once a week, we would focus on short high-intensity intervals with long periods of rest
- With the lockdown, she also could not go to altitude, so when she returned to Boulder, she was limited in the pool in the ability to train intensely
Flora's bike training
- We focus a lot on short efforts, sprinting ability and sprinting resistance, meaning the ability to repeat sprints, because of the demands of the ITU races to improve the ability to attack and close gaps and with that the run
- We focused on training high-intensity intervals with long recovery (20 seconds with 30minutes rest). However, we also worked on resistance to sprints with less focus on maximum power production. (e.g 3 x 5 x 10s acceleration with 50s recovery). This could be done also in longer endurance rides of 3 to 4 hours.
General triathlon training overview
- I consider that I do not know a lot about triathlon because I come from cycling.
- In the 4 years, I worked with Flora, I got to be more aware of what other people are doing.
- From what I hear, there is a lot of variation between training approaches. Some people might do double swims or do double or triple run days. Some people emphasise more one of the modalities a certain block.
- There is also a big variation, especially in run volume. On the men side, we can have athletes running 150 km per week and others running just 40 or 50 km per week.
- People can train a bit more like what we do (a more traditional approach to training, with simpler workouts with a running background). Or they can also run taking some knowledge from the cycling world (eg. 2x15 minutes at threshold pace)
- Other groups do a lot less intense than what we do, where the emphasis is more on the threshold than on the change of pace.
- So in conclusion, there is a lot of variety in training.
Kevin's and Flora's training changes after starting training with Nate
- The focus on quality on the bike was a big change in their training routine.
- Another change was the introduction of high aerobic endurance power rides (where they ride steadily in zone 2 for 2 or 3 hours) that allows for building a strong foundation of fitness. These rides would then also have some sprints in between.
- One alteration to Flora's training was working on a pattern of 2 weeks of loading and 1 week of recovering, that was something that me and her training coach believe to be the key for her success. And with the success, we applied also to Kevin's training.
- The other big change in Flora's training was a clearer picture of each period of the season´and the way we cycle base and intensity periods, comparing to her experience working with Neal Henderson.
Balancing the art and science of coaching
- For me, coaching is an art. Despite the existence of so much literature, each publication is applied to a different population and in a different context and the results of the effect of a certain aspect of training in that population.
- The art is trying to be aware of everything that is emerging so that you do not get behind the curve while figuring out how to apply that knowledge to your athlete, which will depend on the training status, injuries, mental state.
Training amateur triathletes
- When I finished college, I started coaching my college roommate just for fun. Then, there were athletes in the local community that were interested in my coaching services and my coaching.
- At one time, I was working with 40 athletes, mainly age groupers with other responsibilities, while working in a coaching company.
Top 3 training tips for amateur triathletes
- The first tip is to not overdo the intensity, just because you are limited on time. This trend has evolved more and more, because of engaging platforms like Zwift, where racing is fun and it seems productive.
- While there is some value in that, you can get quickly to a plateau you cannot overcome.
- So, I think it is really important to focus on aerobic base work and lower intensity, even if you do not have time to do a 4 or 5-hour ride or 2-hour run session.
- The second tip is to try to find a routine, where you can be consistent in training, allowing for progression to occur over time.
- The third tip is to pay attention to nutrition because people quite easily get stuck in the trap of thinking they are tired or if they are struggling after 3 hours is because of their level of fitness.
- However, even in top athletes, we see them not perform at their best, because their nutrition plan was not enough.
Going back to 2017 and emphasis on nutrition
- If I could go back to 2017, when I started coaching in triathlon, I would just try to slow down, take time to make decisions based on pieces of evidence and the future outcome.
- The thing that fascinates me a lot is nutrition. I am now paying a lot of attention to it, because of the impact it has on athlete's health and performance. Therefore, I am always trying to learn more about it, so that I can take better and more informed decisions and advice to guide athletes in their daily routine.
Fueling a short course triathlon race
- I think fueling is really important. My athletes take a gel with 150 mg of caffeine, 30 minutes before the race for the levels of caffeine to be at their peak when the race starts.
- On the bike split, they would be fine with 2 bottles of 20 g of carbohydrates, so that the main focus of drinking is hydration and not fueling. Kevin when racing takes 3 gels on the bike, while Flora would take 2.
- Each takes one more gel before the run (with or without caffeine).
- On the run, Kevin would get a gel if he felt he needed it halfway on the run, while Flora would not get any nutrition.
- In total, Kevin would have had 140 g of carbohydrates, while Flora would have had 100 g of carbohydrates.
Rapid fire questions
What is your favorite book, blog or resource?
Open by Andre Agassi
What is a personal habit that you've benefited from athletically, professionally or personally?
Planning and taking notes!
Who is somebody that you look up to or has inspired you?
Flora. She has helped me to grow as a coach, because of the pressure of working with an athlete of her caliber.