Podcast, Training

Triathlon training lessons with Mary Beth Ellis | EP#32

 June 15, 2017

By  Mikael Eriksson

Triathlon training lessons with Mary Beth Ellis | EP#32

Mary Beth Ellis is the fastest American woman ever over a full distance triathlon. She retired in 2016, and is now coaching full time.

Here, she shares her knowledge and pearls of wisdom on how age-groupers should manage and think about their triathlon training

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Why you should prioritize rest and recovery
  • How going really slow and really fast will help you improve
  • Why having a coach can be such a massive benefit for athletes
  • Time management for busy triathletes


About Mary Beth Ellis​

02:14 -

  • ​Raced professionally for 11 years and had the most success in long distance races.
  • Since her retirement last year, she’s been coaching under Brett Sutton with the Trisutto Group.
  • She swam and ran in college, then ran mostly marathons after college but was getting injured often. Her doctor recommended not to run that much, so she did her first triathlon when she was 29. She did three races and then turned pro right away.
  • She has 11 Ironman titles. She placed 2nd at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships twice. Her best position at the Ironman World Championships in Kona is fifth. She is the fastest American woman ever over a full-distance triathlon.

How is transitioning to coaching?

04:57 -

  • ​It’s a learning process for me and the athletes.
  • I still have close ties with Brett Sutton to ask for advice whenever I have questions.
  • With the age groupers, a lot of times it's about balancing training around their life - family, work, limited hours to train, limit stress. Keep an open communication to make sure that my age-group athletes tell me when it’s too much, not just on the objective feedback but to what they are really feeling.
  • With my pros, I can throw in more training without worrying as much as with the age groupers because they have plenty of time for recovery and rest.

What is the level of the age groupers you are coaching?

06:47 -

  • I am coaching a wide variety of age groupers.​
  • There are some who are at the top of their age group and some who are trying to do their very first 70.3 or first Ironman.

Do you find the balancing act very different depending on the individual?

07:11 -

  • In general, I find that most of the athletes are very type-A and self-motivated. Rarely do I have to really push them. Most of them are the high achievers motivated to succeed, so they don’t need me for motivation.​
  • Most often it’s me holding them back and make sure that they don’t dig themselves into a hole or try to do too much.

Sleep and recovery​

"The priority should be sleep. This is something that I stress to my athletes."
  • You will not get a quality training session if you’re skimping on sleep all the time. Sometimes I opt to skip training and make sure you get enough sleep.
  • When you’re training hard, you need more sleep than the average person.​

Is there any kind of general amount of training in terms of hours per week to aim for?

08:59 -

  • It really is so individual depending on their experience level, their commitments with work and family. So it is hard to generalize.
  • It’s easier almost to generalize with the professionals than with the age group because the age groupers are so unique in their challenges and experience level, and what they can fit into their busy lives.​

You were working full time yourself after college?

09:37 -

  • Yes, it’s challenging balancing that rest and recovery with the training.​
  • A lot of times for me what went out of the window was any kind of social life. I trained before and after work, then went straight to bed.
"I think a lot of athletes can do this for awhile to get a decent amount of volume. But definitely, you need to take some breaks and have time to be a normal person for a little bit during the year."

What are the main things that you have learned from Brett Sutton and Siri Lindley?

10:50 -

  • I worked with Siri when I started my triathlon career. She had a great group of ITU athletes. I learned a ton from her as well as from the other athletes. In that initial group I was in, I had Rene Carfrae, Lauren Groves and Sara True, who went to the olympics.
  • So, aside from Siri teaching me so much about triathlon, I was also learning a ton from the other girls by watching them. In this initial period, there’s so much to learn so quickly that I was just a sponge picking up every day how to swim, bike, and run and treat it as a profession.​
  • When I went to Brett and focused more on a long distance career, I learned a little bit more about myself and focusing on what training was right for me and not necessarily looking at the other people in the group.
  • It was about focusing a bit more on myself and having the confidence to know what I was doing was the right program for me, and it was a little more individual as far as what I can manage in training and translate into the race situation.

How did you do that? Do you have any examples?

12:03 -

  • An example with Brett is he had a bunch of different swimming sessions going on so some days you would be with the rest of the group doing a hard session, and other days he’d send you off by yourself.
  • He had the right eye as to when it was too much for one person and maybe they need to go on an easy ride by themselves or when to push.
"There would be days when you think you can’t do another hard session, he’d give another hard session, then you’d have a breakthrough. Or on other hand, there would be days when you would want to work hard and he’d tell you to go back to bed and take the day off and not leave your bed the entire day."
  • So it was just trusting in the process and in myself was really the hardest thing that he led the path with.​

What and how can self-coached age-groupers learn about themselves as athletes?

12:51 -

"I think it is hard to be self-coached because it is hard to be objective with ourselves."
  • And that’s why I could never personally coach myself. I’m not objective with myself. It’s a lot easier to coach other people than myself.
  • I can see with other people when they need the rest day whereas with myself, I’d always think I was being weak or soft if I took a rest day.
  • With self-coached athletes, I would say to have somebody that can help you recognize when you needed that day off or need to be pulled back. I think it’s hard for us to see it without somebody from the outside looking in.​

What are the other things aside from rest that people in general need to hear?

14:22 -

  • I think the other thing is varying the workout stimuli and trying to stay out of the gray zones and not doing your workouts in the moderately hard zones.
  • Instead do some really hard speedwork that's short but really fast to stimulate the anaerobic system. Even if you’re doing Ironman, this is of great use and value.
  • Integrating strength work with hills is great.​
  • Then doing an easy long ride keeping that effort really low so that you're not in that gray zone where you're just making yourself more tired and not getting anything out of it.
That's why I do think that a coach helps because pushing me on those really hard sessions and holding me back on the really easy sessions is hard to do by yourself.

What is your easy run pace or bike speed compared to your race pace?

15:30 -​

  • It is a huge range. If I was doing anything easy, I would leave the watch at home. It was just mentally I didn't want to know how slow I was going, but it was really slow. Like in a race, you're trying to ride between 35-40 km per hour, in an easy ride you're trying to keep yourself under 25 km per hour.​
  • For the run, an easy pace depends a little bit if it was a hilly run or not. If it was a hilly run, you might be going as slow as 9-10 minute miles or 6 minute kilometer pace or slower on some of the uphill sections and then maybe faster on the downhills. But just really keeping it easy and enjoying the scenery and the run rather than focusing on speed.

Key takeaway

This is one of the most important lessons of all times on That Triathlon Show

  • Mary Beth's easy training speed on the bike is 10-15 km/h slower than her race pace.
  • Her easy training pace on the run is 3 minutes per mile or 2 minutes per km slower than her Ironman race pace.

What is your fastest marathon in an Ironman?

17:34 -

  • In an Ironman I ran a 3 hour marathon so around a 4:15 km-pace or 6:20 mile-pace. ​

Any other mistakes that you see people make frequently?

17:54 -

  • I think just giving yourself a mental and physical break at the end of the season.
  • Give yourself a little break to recover from all the training from triathlon. Spend a little more time with your family, sleep a little more, eat a little more and then come back to the sport refreshed. In the short term, you might lose a little, a step or two, but in the long term you’ll gain 3 or 4 steps.​
  • A personal example from Mikael: You can step away a bit even within a season even if it’s not a complete break, by just drastically reducing your volume. This winter, in January he was training way less than he had been in October, November, December and he lost a bit of fitness.

    But in the end as his volume ramped back up, he got so much fitter than he could have without that elongated break which was not just a week but it was 3-4 easy weeks.

    He felt like that shouldn’t have been the way he should be training but he just trusted in it and in his coach Simon Brierley who had him do it. He wouldn’t have done it without his coach. But in hindsight, it greatly helped with the overall fitness for the entire season.

Listener question: What is an effective training for long distance triathlons when you might have time to put in the volume but you don’t have time to put in extremely long hours in single workouts?​

19:26 -

  • For Ironman, it a little hard if you don’t have some long bikes. They don’t need to be super long, I think 4 hours is fine.​
  • But if you don’t have time, I think with 3 hours you can get in a solid ride. I think you need to do it a little harder than somebody who has time for the 4-5 hours ride.
  • I would treat some of those rides as easy and some of them put some threshold intervals in there and make it a harder ride just so that in 3 hours you’re able to cover more distance than you would if you’re just doing an easy ride.
  • By doing 2 or 3 rides in a day, you get a great benefit from breaking up sessions like that or similarly on the run, doing a couple of runs in a day.
  • By that 3rd run you’re simulating how you’re going to feel in an Ironman towards the end of that marathon. And similarly on the bike, on the 2nd or 3rd ride you will feel like in the Ironman long distance ride.

Listener question: What are your tips about transitions and how to do it properly?

21:20 -

  • ​The long distance transitions are becoming more competitive because of the ITU athletes moving in. I think you’ll see in the future that people won’t sit down anymore to put their shoes on in Ironman transitions.
  • In short course, it was always fast and furious, if you didn’t get off your wetsuit fast enough, there goes the front pack, so if you didn’t get your shoes on quick enough, you might lose your chance on the top 10.
"I think with transitions, it’s practice. It’s something that doesn’t come naturally, you just have to constantly practice those."
  • When I was doing ITU, this is something that we practiced, practicing the mounts, practicing taking off your wetsuit, practicing putting on your shoes.
  • Once you practice in enough, then in the race you can be a little more relaxed because you’ve done it so many times and try not to rush too much, instead just try to hurry slowly is what I always try to think in those transitions.

What is your take on intensity, how to include that in your program, what kind of intensity and in what amounts for different types of athletes?

23:30 -

  • ​There is always a place for short anaerobic intensity, intervals that are under a minute to increase your efficiency whether on a track, on a run, on a hill, on the hill on a bike, on the flats. With that kind of interval, you’re not going to do any major damage or you’re not going to dig yourself into a too big hole.
  • Keep those short and snappy sessions which allow you to improve your economy, speed, and efficiency.
  • It's a little more difficult when you move into the sessions that are the longer, hard threshold sessions like 10 x 800s on the track where you can bury yourself. These are a little tricky, especially with Ironman training. With olympic distance and sprint training there might be a place for that.
  • With Ironman, we often do longer tempo sessions that are equal to or slower than the marathon pace
  • It’s figuring out the right distance for you and making sure that you're doing the short fast speed and then with any kind of threshold work, you just have to be careful that you’re not leaving your race in the training.

Rapid fire questions

24:58 -

  • Favorite book, blog or resource related to triathlon:​ Articles on Trisutto, but also all around the web. Not just from triathlon coaches but coaches across all different sports.
  • Favorite piece of gear or equipment: Eney buoy for swimming, Rotor for the bike, and running shoes for the run.
  • Personal habit that helped achieve success: Continuing to self-evaluate and improve by being objective.

Main takeaways from the interview:

30:11 -

Links and resources

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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