Podcast, Training

Long distance triathlon training with Mario Schmidt Wendling | EP#316

 December 13, 2021

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Mario Schmidt-Wendling - That Triathlon Show

Mario Schmidt-Wendling is a Frankfurt-based long-distance triathlon coach with an athletic background in professional road cycling and educational background in sport science. Mario has coached more than 1000 long-distance triathlon finishes over the last 17 years across both age-group and professional athletes, and has recently published a book on training for long distance triathlon.  

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Different types of athletes, and the implications for training and preparation
  • Criticism of the traditional periodisation model and the supercompensation model
  • At what point in your triathlon career are you ready for an Ironman, and how much training volume is recommended for doing an Ironman?
  • Specific advice on swim, bike, and run training and preparation for an Ironman
  • Nutrition and hydration in training and racing
  • Heat preparation and the CORE body temperature sensor
  • Mario's new book: "Triathlon - Erfolg Auf Der Langdistanz"

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Mario's background

03:54 -

  • I am 45 years old and live in Frankfurt with my family. I have been in triathlon since the early 90s, so it is already 30 years of experience in triathlon.
  • First, I was an athlete, and I switched to coaching in 2004 after being a professional cyclist.
  • I studied sports science, and in 2004, I thought of becoming one of the first commercial coaches in Germany. Before, we only had coaches from the federation or in the clubs. So, there was no commercial online coaching, and I started in 2004.
  • I created a company (SISU Training) based in Frankfurt and focused on online coaching. I work with age groupers and professionals as well.
  • Our primary focus is on long-distance and 70.3 triathlon events. We prepared athletes for more than 1000 races to the day, and we achieved several titles and world titles.
  • I did around 30 long-distance races, so I have some experience.
  • I started as a triathlete in the early 90s until 1998. Afterwards, I switched to cycling and ended as a professional.
  • I only achieved the Continental level in cycling, so I could not earn a living.
  • At the end of 2004, I decided to stop racing professionally.
  • During the period I was a professional cyclist, I studied sports science in Frankfurt. Therefore, it was manageable to move over from the sport. If you can earn a living from it, it is good. If you cannot do it, it does not make sense.
  • I was not fast enough to win many races. Therefore, I was the one who would be there to support everyone.

Mario's current projects

07:49 -

  • I am one host of the "The Coaches Corner" podcast.
  • It is a unique podcast in Germany because it is everything concerning the work of a coach.
  • The focus of podcasts is on the athletes overall. Thus, we try to share some light on the work of coaches. I do it with Sebastian Zeller, and we have a new host responsible for Science and Knowledge at the TTU (German Triathlon Union).
  • The book I published has only a german version.
  • "Triathlon - Erfolg Auf Der Langdistanz" is the book name, which translates to: "Triathlon- Long Distance Success".
  • It is about my work as a coach, and it has 420 pages. I tried to manage science and experience.
  • My idea was to write a book that athletes could carry around all day, and if they had problems, they could look for them in the book.
  • As a coach, you have to find your way of working. We have to choose between a more scientific approach or a more empirical orientated method.
  • I tried to mix both of them into the book.

Mario's view on different types of athletes

10:58 -

  • I wrote a chapter about this topic in the book. It is not only about body types or strengths and weaknesses. (in physiologic terms)
  • I think the real difference is on the mental side (personality). I can see that even in different jobs. If someone is a banker or a lawyer, they represent an alpha-type person. (testosterone-driven)
  • On the other hand, if someone works in IT or management roles, they focus on data and believe training depends on algorithms.
  • Therefore, I can see some differences in these people. Also, we contemplate someone with insecurity and shyness.
  • It is crucial to know the personality as it changes the coaching method we should apply.
  • If someone is an alpha person, they will always push as hard as possible. For them, we may reduce the power, so they manage the right stimulus without overreaching.
  • You cannot focus only on the physiological side but perform a more holistic approach.
  • It is good to reflect on the personality type of each athlete. After that, you can pick better decisions for training maybe.
  • For self-coached athletes, I would advise them to do this type of reflection. (evaluate their personality and behaviour)

Women personality type

14:54 -

  • I have a chapter for women because we have to see them differently from men.
  • There are some alpha women, but most are more "devote". (you can put them anything in the training plan, and they will try to accomplish it)
  • If I write 60 minutes of an easy run, they will do that exact workout. An alpha person would do 70 to 75 minutes.
  • They are not testosterone-driven, so I think it is easier to train women.
  • On the other hand, you have to focus on the proper quantity of energy they should take in. The reason is I have seen some potential risk of REDs (Relative energy deficiency Syndrome).
  • Sometimes, they might have problems with their weight, so they reduce the number of calories. If you do not eat enough, you do not get the right stimulus, and the condition evolves in the wrong direction.
  • The analogy of "Training Green" is good. (meaning athletes perform every workout as desired)
  • Sometimes, I call them training soldiers and will do everything they can. But without reflecting, athletes do not know how they feel.
  • They do not think it might not be a good idea to go out and train if you do not feel well. So, this is a problem for coaching people like this.

Thoughts on current training models

18:48 -

  • I am not happy with the super-compensation model because there is no evidence in the human body. It is only on the metabolism of rats.
  • The idea is training is well-provoked stress to disturb homeostasis. The training effect is the body's answer to that disturb. (with this, it can support future stimuli better)
  • The problem is that the reactions have different time frames on distinct layers. Responses and adaptations are diverse, and you cannot compare cardiovascular neuromuscular or metabolic adaptations.
  • They all work in different time frames, so knowing when the next stimulus will be, does not work for me.
  • It is a theoretical model with a pinch of predictability.
  • The same is for periodisation. This model comes from biology, and training is part of real life.
  • The real-life is not predictable because the progression is not linear. I see it more as a roller-coaster.
  • I cannot predict weather conditions and the outcome of a race eight weeks before it happens. We do not know the athlete's health conditions in the future, and even with the external liabilities. (covid restrictions in Germany)
  • I do not know if it will be possible to swim during the winter.
  • I see training more as a flexible process that needs the athletes feedback to work well.
  • It does not make sense to create training plans monthly.
  • Yesterday's training session is responsible for today's stimulus. And today's stress will impact tomorrow's.
  • So, we can look at training in a shorter time frame.
  • On the practical side, we have to create some training plans. I do them weekly or within ten days.
  • If you use that "base, build, race preparation", it is double the work. You have to organise the year in different phases, and I have never seen an athlete accomplishing a yearly training plan.
  • The idea behind periodisation is that you have different phases with different stimuli. However, you cannot train one single aspect in a training session.
  • It is always a combination between endurance training, speed, strength etc.
  • Therefore, it does not make sense to have four-week blocks (e.g., strength endurance). I am not a fan of this model.
  • I think it is a theoretical guideline for coaches without experience.

Mario's approach to training

24:35 -

  • I focus on a linear approach to training.
  • Everyone does a general preparation period during the winter. As we approach race-day, it gets more and more specific.
  • It is not a polarised approach in the beginning (80/20), but (90/10)
  • As we get closer, my coaching is between those lines.
  • I plan how the global season will be, but it is not something fixed. (a more flexible approach)

Preparing for Ironman events

Is it ok the first triathlon event an athlete does being an Ironman?

27:19 -

  • Overall, we have to be careful. It will depend on the history of each athlete.
  • If someone has 20 years of marathon running, you could do an Ironman in one to two years.
  • However, for a beginner, I would not recommend it. The reason is we need several years to adapt to the load and avoid injuries and long term health issues.
  • The risk increases with the adaptation of the cardiovascular and metabolic systems. The athlete feels getting better, stronger and faster.
  • Therefore, he feels he can handle more load.
  • On the other hand, the bones and ligaments need more time to adapt to that stress.
  • I am more on the defence, and I try to hit the brakes and avoid health issues.
  • As a coach, you are responsible for the health of the athletes, and it should be the highest priority.
  • Therefore, I try to follow a long term approach.
  • If an athlete comes to me without a background of training hours, I am not the person to coach him.

Training volume to do an Ironman

31:47 -

  • Your health is the top priority. It means your training should be well-balanced with the life situation of the athlete.
  • If someone is a CEO, it does not make sense to train 20 hours per week. Others that might work only 30 hours per week might handle more workload.
  • The minimum training volume to do an Ironman should be within 12 to 15 hours.
  • If it is lower, it is challenging to have a solid Ironman.
  • You can finish the race. But if you have a finish time goal, you need to train more.
  • I am not a big fan of low volume training. I prefer higher workloads, but it is not only about the training hours.
  • We have to consider training and recovery. It is a crucial factor. We also have to manage the three modalities.
  • You have to consider that these disciplines have interactions between each.
  • I recommend doing more training hours to have a solid base level. The focus should be on increasing the fat metabolism. (fat oxidation)
  • And we need more time to improve that aspect.
  • I am not a fan of having three weeks of higher volume, followed by a week of recovery.
  • I would like to see the training load constant throughout the year, with a slight increase in training volume in the spring. (when the weather gets better)
  • A rest week is fewer hours, but also less intensity. If athletes are prone to injury, I will reduce the mileage on the run. (increase volume on the bike/swim)

Training volume for competitive athletes

36:12 -

  • The average volume is 17 to 21 hours per week. For world-champion contenders, this is the training volume required to be competitive.
  • The professional athletes I coach might have a different approach. Some do not need a lot of training volume, while others need less.

Recommendations for Ironman swim training

37:26 -

  • We have to separate an athlete with a background in swimming and one that comes from other sports.
  • If an athlete does not swim technically well, we should focus on freestyle. We should look at the breathing pattern, stroke rates, and good catch.
  • These non-swimmers tend to over glide. I recommend using paddles to improve your technique. (but you must choose the right paddle)
  • I do not use finger paddles because they tend to bend the wrist. If the paddle has the right size, the bend does not increase.
  • Therefore, I like using them, but we implement them slowly to avoid shoulder injuries.
  • To maintain swim level, two sessions per week is enough. Three to four swimming sessions per week leads to improvement.
  • The first 200 to 400 meters of an ironman race is where athletes are fresh. It is the only segment where speed plays a role.
  • If you can swim fast, you can catch a faster group and have a better draft from them.
  • I would try to have intensity at the beginning of a session. (to simulate what happens in a race)
  • By evaluating swim performance, I can cross some information to other disciplines. If you swim well, your diaphragm is better, and you have more flexibility. Therefore, you should improve your running as well.
  • Swimming is becoming more and more crucial. (especially on the professional side)
  • It is almost impossible to win a race without having a good swim split.
  • The group effect, the draft from motorbikes and cars help faster swimmers. It is getting crucial to swim as fast as possible.

Recommendations for cycling training

42:23 -

  • Ironman is all about energy management. Therefore, saving glycogen is crucial and the primary driver to perform well.
  • The focus should be on lowering carb combustion or increasing fat oxidation rate.
  • I recommend endurance rides or distance rides. Sometimes I recommend doing 220 or 250 km. It is not for everyone and not too early in the season. But I believe this is a fundamental factor to perform.
  • I recommend also doing climb rides, meaning doing the most altitude meters you can do on a five or six-hour ride. It is one of the sessions I value the most.
  • However, I plan most rides on the flat terrain because the primary aspect of triathlon cycling is to have a consistent pedalling rate. And you cannot do that if you ride only on hilly terrain.
  • Therefore, this could be the primary focus. We can also do sessions indoors. But I do not recommend training only indoors because cycling technique plays a role in performance.
  • For age groupers, they can push hard on the pedals, but they might not be able to ride a bike.
  • I recommend riding a bike even in the winter. If you ride in slippery conditions, you learn how to handle the bike and break at the right time.
  • If you see photos of professional triathletes, you conclude that you need to focus on aerodynamics.
  • You can work on that aspect in the gym or with a yoga mat.
  • You have to improve your core strength, flexibility and mobility.
  • We should notice strength endurance, cadence drills or even cadence technique as other pieces of the puzzle.
  • I recommend using devices like the Leomo to identify pedalling patterns.
  • You can see the dead spots and use that information to get better endurance rides. On these rides, you can focus on pedalling as effectively as possible. (improving without doing more intensity)

Run training recommendations for an Ironman

46:43 -

  • I tend to worry more about avoiding injuries and maintaining athletes' health. Therefore, I think we do not need to run a lot.
  • I have seen athletes running sub-three hours on the Ironman marathon with 40 to 45 km per week of training.
  • So, I think it is not necessary to run that much.
  • The reason is because of the interactions between cycling and running. I prefer to focus on the cycling side more because of the low impact.
  • The longest runs I prescribe are from 2 hours to 2h15. I do not see the benefits of running longer.
  • You can work your cardiovascular and metabolic system on the bike.
  • I also do not see the point of doing high intensity running workouts.
  • There is the risk to get injured, and it is not specific.
  • You also have to get more time to recover from that session. And training consistency plays a more crucial role than intensity.
  • It does not mean I do not prescribe high-intensity intervals. However, the intensity must be specific for ironman races.
  • I recommend doing 800s. Some of my athletes are doing 25 to 30 sets with 200 meters of recovery in between.
  • If we take the example of a 3h30 ironman marathon pace, the athlete should do the session at 4:40 to 4:45 min/km.
  • It is faster than the marathon running pace, so this would be a good stimulus without the risk of injury.
  • The 200 meters of rest should be around 6:30 to 7:00 min/km. Therefore, different areas of the lower limb will activate. It helps to reduce the impact on bones and ligaments.
  • I think this is better than running 25 km at a slow pace.
  • I believe there is more risk there than doing the 800 repeats.
  • During the winter, I follow a polarised approach. There are many short intervals (e.g., 100/200/400 at a faster pace - 4:00min/km for a 3h30 marathon goal)
  • On the biomechanical part, they have to learn how to run fast. These repeats focus on the movement and not on the physiological adaptations.
  • Over the winter, I try to increase the length of the sessions or the number of intervals. In the beginning, we might do 12x100m with 400m of rest in between, and over time, we decrease rest and increase the length of the interval.
  • I would like to see athletes playing with mixing things up. It is easy for a coach to prescribe 80/90/100 km per week of running.
  • However, you have to make sure athletes handle that workload. They have to be healthy at the start line.
  • I prefer seeing an athlete not on top condition when starting a race, instead of an athlete injured at the beginning of the same race.
  • I have the same approach for professionals, but they have more mileage because they can handle it. Also, the speed increases with these athletes.

The intensity in the Ironman preparation

56:07 -

  • I enjoy the German 90s training. If you look at the German-top athletes, they all trained with a polarised model.
  • It is not 80/20, but 90/10 or even 92/08.
  • You have to define high intensity. This concept has many variations from region to region. It also varies with the modality we practice.
  • You have to be careful because you cannot compare the intensities of different disciplines.
  • It is not trivial to explain what I define as zone two or three.
  • Therefore, I do not define it as a percentage of some value.
  • For me, "slow", "medium", "fast", and "very fast" are my zones.
  • You have to consider different personalities as well. An alpha person needs a different definition of zone 2 from a sky person.
  • It is not easy to define the zones in values. For example, "fast" is the pace you can hold for 45 minutes.
  • I do not think you need to have the highest Vo2max to be good at the Ironman event. We focus more on the economy and lowering the VLamax.
  • I prescribe much more long slow distance work focused on improving technique.
  • In cycling, my intensity sessions would be the classic 30/30s or 40/20s. I could also prescribe 4min intervals on the bike.
  • On the run, we focus on the 200s or 400s.
  • On the swimming, the distances are between 25 and 100m high-intensity intervals.
  • I do not prescribe rocket science but classic intervals. (methods with proven success in the past)
  • The goal of these sessions is the last interval is of the same intensity as the first.

Nutrition and Hydration for Ironman events

1:00:52 -

  • Nutrition is crucial, and the correct periodised fueling is essential to get the right stimuli.
  • There are sessions where you need carbs, and others focus more on Fatmax. (some carbohydrate restriction)
  • The athletes need to know the goal of each session, and I see many age groupers having problems with fueling strategies.
  • I have seen failed sessions because of the wrong fueling strategy. If an athlete has to work from 8 am to 5 pm and only eats at 1 pm, he will not perform at 6 pm.
  • It is fundamental to present the sessions with recommendations of the correct fueling.
  • In racing, the 90 g/h carbohydrate benchmark has scientific validation. We see some athletes not performing with low carb intake during the race.
  • I collaborate with Precision Hydration, and I have done sweat analysis for many years. (analyse sweat sodium concentration)
  • Hydration is in the same area as nutrition.
  • Athletes struggle to hydrate well, and I do not understand why I am the only person in Germany doing it.
  • It is a topic with so much potential for improvement. We can improve health and the athletes' performances.
  • We can have Ironman improvements by minutes with the proper hydration strategy.
  • There is a connection between carbs, sodium and water intake.
  • If the athlete loses too much sodium, he has problems absorbing water and carbs into the bloodstream.
  • If you sweat, you lose blood plasma, and it gets thicker. The energy and oxygen transportation to the cells decreases with this. So, it lowers the athlete's capacity to produce work.
  • When racing in hot conditions, sweating is crucial to cool down. If you do not have water for sweat, the core body temperature will increase. (it might lead to a DNF)
  • I recommend doing these tests, as I think this is the fourth modality in triathlon.
  • Athletes have to understand how much they are losing so they know how much to get in.
  • I prescribe training the gut for the competition.
  • If you do not do it, you will limit the number of carbs you can consume.

Heat preparation

1:09:02 -

  • To race in Kona, heat preparation is an aspect to consider. As the race gets hotter as it progresses, you need to adapt to that heat.
  • You can prepare yourself by doing a passive protocol. (e.g., sauna or warm water immersion)
  • On the other hand, you can do an active protocol. (e.g., riding indoors with the heater on, with no fan and closed windows)
  • If you have time and money, you can travel to a destination with those conditions.
  • Heat acclimatisation allows for increasing blood plasma. You can get a lower RPE when training and racing in the heat.
  • Before CORE, you had to evaluate temperature by taking temperature sensor pills. And these sensors cost 60 to 70 € each. Another disadvantage is we can only use it 3 to 4 days before coming out.
  • Now, with the CORE sensor, we have the chance to get instant information about the differences in core temperature.
  • If you do a heat-ramp test, you will get your critical temperature.
  • After, you can train in the heat conditions at the proper intensities to have the desired adaptations.
  • I am an early CORE user, and I have developed correlations between different parameters over the years.
  • The first step we took was on getting data without practical use.
  • There was more development in the area because of the CORE company efforts. (Gather knowledge from different coaches and users)
  • Coaches can share knowledge and experience on the results they get. It was like power meters 25 years ago. No one understood the data, and it evolved because of knowledge sharing.
  • When you do a heat ramp test, you have also heat training zones, and you work more precisely in that aspect.
  • It allows for avoiding detraining. (when you train in the heat, you need to reduce your intensity)

Changes in the approach the heat training

1:14:20 -

  • Even with the data gathered, the predictions do not always work.
  • If you run at 25 ºC, and the temperature increases by 0.8 ºC, you cannot predict the core temperature variations. It depends on the individual.
  • The critical temperature threshold differs from person to person. Therefore, the heat training zones will be individual for each athlete.

How triathlon changed in 2021

1:16:19 -

  • I was not at any race venue because of the pandemic situation.
  • I have seen differences compared to 2019. Carbon plate shoes have an impact on running performance.
  • The impact is not only on the speed. (despite differences in Marathon performance of 8min for age groupers and 4 to 6 minutes for professional athletes)
  • Shoes have more impact when you run fatigued. The elastic return from the carbon plate improves running at those periods.
  • Carbon plate shoes benefits are similar to race with a disc wheel on the bike.
  • Athletes are also doing more races in a shorter period. Athletes say: "The shoes are faster, and on the other hand, I am also recovering quicker!"
  • Athletes can walk downstairs the day after the race because the muscles feel fresh after using the carbon shoes.
  • Every athlete used lockdowns to improve aerodynamics and position on the bike. The advantage of the superbikes is getting lower because everyone is optimising their setups.
  • We see more customised cockpits and some spoilers on the bars. (in professionals and age groupers as well)
  • It is impressive that there is still innovation after 50 years of triathlon.
  • Swimming is essential for professional athletes. If you do not swim fast, you will not win races anymore.
  • With age groupers, the fields are getting more and more competitive. To win an age group category, you have to do 8h45 to 8h50, which is incredible.
  • In Florida, we have seen what athletes are capable of doing. Gustav and Kristin may be the future top athletes in Ironman. (a new era of professional triathletes)
  • The dynamics of an Ironman is becoming more and more like an Olympic distance race.
  • The athletes of short-course triathlons are stepping to Ironman distance, and we see a new step in performance.

General questions

1:23:26 -

Can you give three pieces of advice to age groupers to improve their performance?

Age groupers have to be patient. (do not rush)

There are no shortcuts. We need time to improve.

Age groupers have to be self-reflective and listen to their bodies. On the other hand, they need to work on details. But you should never lose the proper balance between life and triathlon. Sports is good, but sleep, nutrition also points to consider. They should aim to have fun and be relaxed. I have seen many athletes too focused on triathlon without having balance in life.

What is one thing within coaching or training you are now learning/curious about or fascinated by and why?

I admire the desire to innovate in triathlon. There is no other sport that is so innovative as triathlon. It is my primary driver to be a coach. My coaching slogan is: "Be the best version of yourself". It is not only for athletes but also for me as well. I try to improve year after year. I have several years with different topics I addressed. In 2019 and 2020, I focused on heat adaptation. In 2021, it is the year of nutrition. I learn a lot with professor Asker Jeukendrup in the "Mastermind Sports Nutrition" course. In 2022, I will learn about chronobiology. I coach a professor of neuroanatomy. He is a leading researcher on this topic, and we are implementing some strategies to avoid jet lag. There are always things we can improve. It is not only prescribing the training zones. For me, it is a holistic approach, combining all these aspects.

Rapid fire questions

What is your favourite book, blog or resource?

The Scientific Triathlon Podcast — That Triathlon Show

SPRINT (Sportwissenschaftliches personalisiertes Recherche- und Informationsnetzwerk Trainingswissenschaft)

What is an important habit that benefited athletically, professionally or personally?

Being patient and self-reflective are two points I believe help me a lot. And honesty is a crucial point in the relation between the coach and the athlete. On the other hand, I am critical of new products launched every day with impressive claims. I prefer thinking about the subject and analysing the results I obtain with those products.

Who is someone you have looked up to or who has inspired you?

As an athlete, I am a fan of Johan Museeuw from Belgium. He is one of the best classic riders ever. His stamina and resistance were incredible. As a coach, I admire Dan Lorang as a coach and a person.


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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