Podcast, Training

Training Talk with Natasha van der Merwe | EP#334

 April 18, 2022

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Natasha Van Der Merwe - That Triathlon Show

Natasha van der Merwe is a triathlon coach and professional triathlete with a background in professional tennis and coaching tennis. Originally from South Africa, Natasha is now based in Texas, where she has built a successful coaching program that caters to athletes of all levels, from beginners to professionals.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Natasha's coaching methodology
  • How her background in tennis and coaching tennis has helped her in triathlon coaching
  • Advice for age-groupers on how to improve their swim, bike, and run, respectively
  • How to fit in training and maximise positive training adaptations for time-crunched athletes
  • The balance of training load and recovery
  • The art and science of coaching

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Natasha's background

03:16 -

  • I am Natasha Van der Merwe. I base in Austin, Texas, and I am the owner and head coach of NVDM coaching.
  • We work with local athletes but also online through TraininigPeaks. 
  • I am originally from South Africa. I grew up in a small and got to do many different sports. 
  • I dove into tennis at a young age, and from 12 years old, I started travelling worldwide to play tennis. It led me to be a professional tennis player after finishing high school.
  • My sister was also into coaching tennis, and through that time, I would help her. (more or less the start of my coaching career)
  • I would help her coach athletes that would come into town on the side, as I played tennis for 2-3 years.
  • I got many injuries, and I had the opportunity to coach tennis. I started my coaching career in the Bahamas, where I entered the program to help local coaches who had established the program.
  • Soon, we started creating clinics and classes for people that would come on vacation to learn how to play tennis.
  • From there, I find myself living in the US. I started working for country clubs around Texas teaching tennis. 
  • While I was coaching tennis, I got to know triathlon. I was 27 years old, and even though I swam as a kid, I did not swim from 12 to 27.
  • Since childhood, I have not ridden a bike, so that was new to me. I got into running because of the health benefits and the ability to coach others while coaching tennis.
  • After my first triathlon, I fell in love with the sport. There was a local team in Austin, and they needed help with the strength sessions and someone to lead bike sessions.
  • They knew my background when coaching tennis and tried to add me to their project.
  • I joined the program and slowly switched careers from a tennis coach to helping triathletes on a local level.
  • I got invited to enter a coaching company, where I worked with athletes virtually. I did that for multiple years, and after that, there was a facility here called Austin Aquatics and Sports Academy, and an Olympic swimmer was creating a swim program.
  • They called me to create a triathlon program. This project gave me the facilities and freedom to develop my program.
  • We were one of Texas's most prominent triathlon groups within a year. We had 120-130 athletes training together every day at the local facility.
  • I did that for a year and a half, and I moved on to other projects for some years. 
  • I became a professional triathlete, coaching and sharing the knowledge I have gained through coaches I had.
  • It all led to the present, where I created NVDM Coaching and started working with some athletes.
  • A year ago, I worked with Nick Bare (he has a massive group of followers, especially in the military).
  • I started documenting his work with me with his "Ironman Journey".
  • His massive online presence (300-500k per video posted) got many people interested in working with me. Therefore, I started working with coaching, which I have worked with in the past. I also gathered professional athletes that got success with that process.
  • At the moment, we are ten coaches.
  • My coaching success is creating pure relationships with the athletes and caring for them. I figured it out as we went along what worked and what did not.

Natasha's coaching methodology

10:19 -

  • My methodology today is different from a year ago, which is different from the method before that.
  • We proud ourselves in continuously trying to learn from others and our athletes.
  • If we talk in six months, my answer will be different.
  • For every single athlete, we need to create three things.
  • First, the athlete has to have fun. They have to show up every day and be excited about the training sessions they will do and have fun with the process of building fitness up to the race.
  • Athletes will spend most of their time training, and racing will be only a glimpse compared to the total time spent in the sport.
  • Training must be sustainable, and I do not want training plans to hinder the athletes' lives.
  • We want the athletes to sustain that training process long term (not only for 4-5 months).
  • The final thing is consistency. I am not keen on creating a massive training load that will require much recovery from one specific session or one overload week.
  • I prefer athletes to show up day after day, building towards the race. 
  • We have the same starting points for each athlete and have the same ending point leading to the race.
  • What happens in between will depend on the athlete. (level, goals)
  • The starting point is on testing athletes as best we can.
  • Many athletes cannot get into a lab, so we went through all testing to see what works and what does not for the general athletes.
  • Of course, sometimes, we might use a ramp test for a specific athlete and another test for another athlete.
  • In swimming, we worked with the CSS swim test for a while, and then we moved to a 100m and 1000m swim test to evaluate their fitness leading into the program.
  • Then, we learned that it was such a demanding task for some that we shortened it.
  • With those tests, we prescribe their training zones, knowing that as we start looking at the details of the workouts, things will change as they improve.
  • The ending point is race-specific work.
  • We want our athletes to be ready for the race regardless of the goals. Most athletes want to get to the start line knowing they can complete the race. (have a good nutrition and pacing plan or understand their equipment choices)
  • In an Ironman, 70-80% of the FTP is where athletes will race. Some athletes that cannot sustain power for extended periods might do the race at 70 %, but it will allow them to run off the bike well.
  • Another athlete might have their running as their strength to go at 80 % of FTP and still perform well in the run split.
  • The consensus is that we want to go fast before going far.
  • We stick to a USPRT swim, ultra-short swim training because we want them to swim well for a short period. And then, we address ways to extend this ability.
  • I believe this is a mistake people make because they are unaware of what they need to do to maintain speed during a race.
  • On the bike, it is the same thing. Build power over short periods and extend it.
  • On the run, it is about keeping the athlete injury-free. First, we create durability and consistency and then, we look at speed and strength depending on their goals. (we work on their training weekly)

Influence of tennis on coaching in triathlon

16:54 -

  • The biggest takeaway was communication. 
  • You have to be specific and present what you want the athlete to do.
  • If you want an athlete to do a specific thing, you need to learn 3-4 methods to describe that because it might not stick with the athlete. (work with analogies)
  • It translates well, especially when learning techniques.

Coaches that influence Natasha's coaching

18:38 -

  • I am constantly looking to see what other coaches are doing. I had the fortune of working with many good coaches, and there are some things I incorporate into my training plan.
  • I worked with people like Jerry Rodriguez, and I learned much, especially on the technical side of coaching swimming.
  • I recently worked with Tim Floyd, who got the USPRT methodology for swimming. Moreover, I took the coaching mindfulness from him. Therefore, I tell athletes what they need to think about during each training session.
  • In addition, I listened to "That Triathlon Show" for years and the coaching interviews with someone like Dan Lorang, Paulo Souza, and Joe Friel.
  • I have taken something from these coaches and started implementing it in my training. I would be like the "lab rat" in coaching myself to see if the approaches would work.

Tips for age group triathletes

Swim training and performance

20:52 -

  • First, swim with intention. 
  • Have a plan of the goals and what you will be doing in the pool. Most athletes who would come to us would enter the pool and swim. However, they would not think about how they are swimming and how it feels.
  • They have to think about what they need to do to change speed, and they end up being self-coached because of being mindful of these practices.
  • Secondly, they have to swim frequently. I would rather have an athlete swim 4-5 times per week for 20-30 min sessions than do less frequency and longer workouts. 
  • It allows athletes to think differently about swimming and help them later on the bike and the run.

Bike training tips

22:09 -

  • I would say being intentional about what you are doing. Most times, athletes are distracted by other things instead of working out.
  •  They should focus on how they pedal and their form, understand how to breathe and bring their heart rate down. 
  • Of course, frequency is fundamental, as the more interactions you have with the bike, the better.
  • Another thing is to be clear about going hard or easy. Some athletes cannot differentiate between intervals and their easy riding.

Running tips

23:21 -

  • Typically, we advise our athletes to slow down to train aerobically.
  • Secondly, you should focus on durability and frequency. I am keen on building frequency to build durability in the joints.
  • Regularly, they run too long and too fast, so they slow down.

Improvements athletes see when they start working with Natasha

24:57 -

  • They improve by making things shorter and focusing on intention in the swim. I tell my athletes to learn how to swim 25 m at a time.
  • Once they know how to do that, that can make a huge difference.
  • They swim with the correct form and see quick improvements.
  • I am a big fan of "low cadence training" on the bike. 
  • Many of our athletes come to us spinning at 90-100 rpm, lacking that strength element.
  • Many athletes have huge differences between their thresholds on the bike and the run. Athletes do not have the leg strength to work hard enough to elevate their heart rate.
  • Once we start working on that, we can see athletes training at a different level.
  • On the run, it is only building frequency and slowing them down.
  • First, athletes do not want to do it because they feel they will not improve by doing it, but we tell them to look at their pace and heart rate.
  • At the same pace, the heart rate gets lower. Moreover, we look at the cadence. Athletes need to be mindful of their cadence to understand how to accelerate.
  • After the bike split, you will not have long powerful strides to get you to the finish. For athletes to go fast, they need to have a good cadence.
  • We have not started looking at a heart rate in the pool, but there are so many areas where we are adding science to what we are doing.
  • It will be something we will look to implement in your programs.

Tips for age group athletes without much time to train

29:15 -

  • It is about finding the proper time to train daily. When working with an athlete, we look at their lives and work schedule so we can build a training plan they can follow consistently. 
  • We want to create routines, so athletes can understand how to approach training. However, at the end of the week, we reflect on if that approach was the best method to take the time we had for training.
  • We talked with athletes about if some changes in the plans could lead to better training performances and adaptations.
  • Therefore, find a schedule that works well for you and reflect on if you can do things better weekly. 
  • Many times, you have to account for work-life and training stress. So, if you know that Mondays are exhausting at work, you can think of it as a hard workout and probably doing a hard workout the next day is not for you.
  • Do your more intense sessions when you know you are ready leading up to them.
  • Typically, after a month or two of working with an athlete, we find the rhythm that works best. Typically, if we start seeing drops in consistency, we analyse if athletes have problems managing their schedules.
  • Regularly, athletes start working with minimum doses, and we increase them over time if the athletes can manage more. It might be too demanding for the time-crunch athlete if we start too high.

Balancing recovery and stress

32:48 -

  • It all starts with eating and sleeping. If you want to recover from the sessions, go back to the basics, eat well, fuel your sessions and make sure you get a lot of sleep.
  • If you can do those things and we give you the proper training dose, you will be ready for the next day.
  • We know that if we give a demanding session on a day, we cannot give you the same dose on the following day. Therefore, doing easy aerobic work the next day is what we prescribe in situations like this.
  • The cadence of how many intense workouts we should do depends on the athlete's level.
  • For some athletes, we know we can only give them one hard workout, and they will need to recover a lot after it. 
  • Sometimes, we might need two recovery days.
  • For other athletes, we might give them two hard days. (intense bike or runs in succession)
  • However, the following days are more manageable. 

Balancing the art and science of coaching

34:54 -

  • I think they have to go together. Concerning the art of coaching, I got much from my experience as an athlete. 
  • I understand how each session impacted me physically and mentally and the demands of the session. This approach will create training sessions with that in mind.
  • Concerning science, I am a planner, and I like to look at a training plan and see that week two is a build of week one. Therefore, I look for progression in the matter of training.
  • I do that sometimes and then make a bi-weekly comparison. We are doing it right now because many of our athletes will go to Texas 70.3.
  • All of the athletes had bi-weekly comparisons. For example, in week one, we did a time trial. In week three, we did the same time trial, and the goal was to do it better.
  • In week five, we extended the time trial, and in week seven, we made that same effort and did it better.
  • On the other hand, weeks two and four were the same.
  • We do not like to test often. We do some testing initially, and then we pull this data from our sessions.
  • We also do TTTs on Zwift, and we call it our video game.

Pieces of advice to beginners in triathlon

39:29 -

  • I would look to see if there was a local group they could join.
  • Meeting other athletes and coaches allows for a perfect learning environment. 
  • We have so many athletes training together that they do not learn from me only anymore but from the experiences of others.
  • People think they need to sort their training out alone when this period is the best time to get a coach.
  • Then, learn about what gear you need and the proper form to avoid injuries.
  • Most injuries happen at the beginning of the athlete's career because they do not train properly with the correct form.
  • If you can work with a coach to fix those things, then you will do things correctly by yourself.

Tips for athletes transitioning to long-distance triathlon

41:01 -

  • If you have learned and perfected the way you train for short-distance races, be aware that it will not be more demanding to train for a half or Ironman race.
  • Typically, the athlete's week will stay the same, but the weekends will have more extended sessions. At this point, fueling starts to be crucial.
  • The more you train, the more precise you need to be with your fueling strategies to train for that duration. 
  • Everything that supports your training will matter when transitioning to long-distance triathlon.

Pieces of advice for experienced athletes that want to reach higher levels

42:07 -

  • It would be best to ask them what limits them from reaching their goals.
  • Most times, the answer will not be the "swim, bike and run", but what they do around those modalities.
  • It is here that the mental aspects and the things they do to support their training let them down.
  • If someone wants to reach professional status, we need to compare them to what the pros are doing.
  • You have to consider many aspects. Even family support can be challenging because there might be arguments about athletes training too much and not devoting much time to family.

General questions

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

The mental side of training fascinates me and its impact on training and race day performance. I dive into books about staying focused and methods to enter a "flow state". Despite the intensity being much higher, your heart rate is lower because of your breathing. Moreover, my focus is on running a business because this company has grown substantially in the last few years. 

Tips on mental strength

44:40 -

  • First, you should learn how to breathe, and this comes from my work with Tim Floyd because I was too anxious about each effort I made as I did not want to suffer. He taught me how to breathe, which calmed me down and dropped my heart rate.
  • It allowed me to focus on the task ahead, significantly impacting my performance.
  • Then, having specific cues to have in different situations. It means looking back to successful sessions you had during your preparation for the race day, so you can feel on the top of your game when you need to perform.

Rapid fire questions

46:10 -

What is your favourite book, blog or resource?

The Scientific Triathlon Podcast — That Triathlon Show

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

Time management and planning every detail to get everything done

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

My athletes inspire me every day because most work and still show up to put their best effort into every session.


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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