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Glenn Poleunis is a triathlon coach and founder of the PTC high-performance squad based in Girona, which includes among others Marten van Riel. He is also a Belgian national federation coach with a home base in Leuven (Flanders).
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- The setup of the PTC squad, and how athletes can get the most out of themselves in a squad environment
- How Glenn manages things like individualisation and competitiveness within the squad
- Glenn's coaching philosophy
- Specific insights into Glenn's perspectives on swim, bike and run training
- Marten van Riel's 70.3 World record, and differences and similarities between training for short-course and long-course triathlon
- Top tips for age-group triathletes
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Glenn's background in sports
- I am a development coach for the Belgium Triathlon Federation. I worked with the Belgian Hammers over the past years, especially during covid years.
- I started small, building my squad as a coach. I have a background in cycling but had to quit the sport due to an injury.
- This experience helped me combine what I learned during university. After finishing cycling, I went back to university and studied physiotherapy.
- I got more and more interested in physiology again. In my coaching experience, I have never gotten data on my physiology, so I wanted to dive into that and got inspired and started reading much with good professors at the University of Leuven.
- Step by step, I started becoming more a coach than a physiotherapist and started my squat, first with a team where you find yourself always limited with budget problems, and you cannot do what you need to do with your athletes.
- I always went full to get to the highest level and always felt limited.
- The athletes started telling me to start a new squat at some point. We got funding, and that is how PTC Squad started. (Athletes would call it Peluenis's training crew)
- Slowly, this grew more and more, and it became more prominent. I worked at the University of Leuven as a coach. The athletes had a perfect environment where we had the infrastructure of the university and the social part of local athletes combined with recreational athletes.
- I got inspired by the Leeds University in the UK and how they worked.
- My experience was with young under 23 Belgian athletes with time limitations due to the combinations with studies. However, I understood that they go all-in in the sport by working with elite athletes.
- These athletes move abroad and have less stress in the daily environment. Moreover, they can train in better weather conditions in Girona.
- Therefore, I also wanted to show athletes that I would go all-in and move abroad.
- In Girona, we also have challenges because part of the squad is still in Leuven, Belgium. I have some assistant coaches with whom I work, and they do a good job there when I am not present.
- I see the squad's development in Girona, and I find happiness when I hear Belgian athletes saying they will also move to Girona and go all-in in the sport. This mindset is what I want to bring to the Belgian athletes.
- The reason is to work in a professional environment with the best athletes. Moreover, I feel it is positive for the group of experienced athletes in Girona, as it helps sharpen them and avoid getting stuck in routines. Therefore, I believe it is a win-win situation for everyone.
Glenn's squad composition
- I have a German, some Spanish, British, Irish, and Dutch athletes in the squad.
- Therefore, the language spoken is always English as well.
- We also speak Spanish to arrange things in Girona.
- It is an international squad, and I see it more and more developing like that.
- The athlete's level is also rising, and the mentality is improving. I am lucky to work with such motivated athletes.
- Sometimes, I have athletes who I coach more abroad and then join the squad for a training camp.
- Generally, we have 10-15 athletes, and we do some distance coaching with some athletes.
- We have athletes competing in the World Championship Series, while others are more focused on World and European Cups. Moreover, I have some juniors who are slightly below the level to excel at the European Cup races. However, they have some qualities in the bike, running. Therefore, I want them to give time to the swim because we believe in the long term approach. And I know that they have the values if we look at their physiology.
- The mindset is trying to go for the gold, even within the federation.
- Often, we look at junior athletes in a too short period. But, if we can develop the swim over three years with one athlete, who has the potential to be the fastest swimmer, I think we should allow him to let him grow. (even if he is not at a level right now where he can get results)
- There is a mixture of everything in the squad, making it quite difficult for me. There are many different programs, and every week, we race.
- However, I hope the squad develops, so everyone competes at the highest level and that Belgian coaches can develop young athletes to join the group and the international squad.
Talent ID problems
- Sometimes, I have some discussions with the federation and the technical directors because they are not working directly with athletes. Some athletes that cannot be eligible for the national team make significant improvements in a short period.
- Therefore, they do not get funding and fall a level behind.
- I had an athlete that impressed me much with his mindset of doing every night his exercises to improve flexibility and mobility to improve swim.
- Over the period, I saw him improve, so it is not only the 3000 m time, or 400 m swim that matters.
Glenn's PTC staff team
- We are an extended team of physiotherapists, doctors, and coaches, and I like working this way.
- I am a physiotherapist, but I do not touch the athletes, as I prefer focusing on the coaching side.
- Moreover, the physiotherapists I work with are people I can trust, as I know them from Leuven University.
- This point is essential for a coach because you might send an athlete to a physiotherapist. And they come out of the session with more questions, so I want to make sure the communication between the physios and the athletes is perfect.
- I have some doctors who do blood checkups that I reach out to when I have questions. (altitude or test results)
- I work with physiologists as well because I can't do everything.
- One of my strengths is that I understood that I could not do everything, so I surrounded myself with people I believe are the best in their fields.
- They offer me the knowledge, and I try to get the puzzle together.
- My girlfriend supports me and studies nutrition deeper than I do.
- For example, I sent her the latest That Triathlon show on hydrogels, and she was so passionate about it that she started doing her hydrogels.
- She can share that with the athletes, and I can share my view with her.
- We try to show people that we can present vulnerabilities in our squad. There is much ego sometimes when we look at the sport.
- When we show our weaknesses, we try to improve ourselves over the long term.
- It is crucial to have group and individual talks with the athletes to confront their weaknesses and insecurities.
- There are some basic things like respect and honesty, which are fundamental to me.
- Sometimes, you have to suffer to achieve gains if you want to improve. I can be brutally honest with an athlete if they are not focusing on the right things.
- We will not help the athletes by only being supportive.
- Authonomy is a value that I nourish in my squad. I am not there when they go abroad, and athletes must understand how the training process works and make the right decisions.
Relationships between athletes
- Regularly, they are good friends with each other, but of course, there are some outliers.
- However, our squad has evolved to be cheerful about another person's success.
- There is competition between athletes, but everyone makes an effort to be at their best level.
- Therefore, it is fun to go to sessions with a smile and see others smile.
- Of course, there are bad days when people are tired. (especially on training camps)
- We have to give space for people because they might spend three weeks in a small building and it can be suffocating.
- If athletes are tired, they should give each other space, and you can prevent problems.
Competition within training
- We try to control the intensity when training in a group because we want everyone to do the session at the right intensity.
- We complement each other if someone holds down in a session because you might focus on being the fastest you can.
- However, it is not always about going fast.
- Recently, I had a young athlete in Girona training with the elites and a fast runner. The other athletes were pushing harder than they should be doing, and he kept his intensity under control and let them go.
- And that is what we want to cheer in a group. An athlete felt the effort was too high and slowed down. It was also suitable for the other athletes because they knew he was one of the fastest runners, and they saw he was holding back and slowed down as well.
- These practices are how you prevent competition. We need to educate the athletes on why we do specific sessions.
- If you have data from the physiological tests, you can tell them that they are spending too much time above the threshold if they sustain that pace for such a long time.
- They get more confident and not so competitive in training.
- We race ITU, and sometimes we need to push on training. Therefore, we have these groups rides where athletes ride above their comfort zone. If they get used to those surges that are not specific to their training intensity, they can make them competitive.
Individualising training and target intensities
- We use the INSCYD protocol most time, and I try to separate tests on different days.
- Often, I integrate those tests in a session, and for example, on a threshold session, they do a block, and we measure lactate.
- On another day, we do a VO2max session where we measure pre and post lactate and VLamax with a sprint session.
- With this approach, the athlete does not feel he is always going to the lab.
- Some general principles are common for everyone. (building an aerobic base)
- However, there are more anaerobic dominant athletes, and we like to separate these athletes.
- We also evaluate load tolerance and injury-prone.
- We swim, biking, and running tests, but not for all athletes.
- If you do tests with all the athletes, it becomes a burden. Sometimes, it is better to focus on a specific point and leave the strengths out of the equation for some time.
- We do profiles of all the disciplines with young athletes to see where we can have the most significant improvements.
How to approach athletes with different physiological profiles
- It is not easy to differentiate between anaerobic and aerobic profiles.
- We start doing more tempo work or nutritional interventions when we have an anaerobic profile early in the season.
- To improve one system, we have to do consistent work to move it in the right direction.
- We assess if we can do more higher intensity and VO2max because it is essential to keep a high VO2max.
- If we have a winter program, we do a 6-8 weeks base program, where we do biomechanical corrections.
- Athletes with an anaerobic profile tend to show very high VLamax values. And then, we quickly start softening that system.
- For athletes with low VLamax and high VO2max, we integrate anaerobic capacity doing short intensity work with short rest periods.
- Most people with high VO2max can also tolerate substantial training volumes. Therefore, we do more volume with these athletes.
- Some athletes make muscle fibre tests (or even DNA profile tests).
- Then, later in the season, we introduce power work to increase the VLamax of these athletes, which tends to be low.
- When athletes do more races, VLamax tends to go down, so at the beginning of the season, we do not have the VLamax too low.
- However, that is a challenge because athletes can do 70.3 and Olympic races, and you have to understand when you will transition from one to another.
- We should not also focus too much on the numbers. We want to be in a specific range, but I will not panic if the VLamax is 0.1 or 0.2 mmol/s.
- We focus on the training and not fear seeing values we do not expect to see. We should be critical of these values because you can have completely different results from testing athletes at different points in the training block.
Glenn's year periodisation
- It is hard to say in a broad range, as the season starts at different periods for different athletes.
- I generally work with an extended base phase depending on the athlete's initial start of the season.
- Even for neuromuscular adaptations, we need several weeks to check changes in performance.
- As the season approaches, we move into a build phase to do more "low cadence" and tempo work.
- Then, we enter the race-specific phase, where we focus on the demands of the race based on the athlete's physiology.
- I repeat these phases throughout the season and avoid making the race-specific phase too long because the overall goal is to keep on improving over time. If you do too much race-specific work, you will only hold on to your level and not improve.
- Many athletes associate their performance with a specific phase. (the final workouts before the race) However, the whole process led them to achieve that fitness level and perform better.
- Without that phase, you will not hit the numbers you desire and be sharp when it matters.
- If an athlete races often, I would use some races as specific sessions and do not taper for races.
- It will depend on the athlete's physiological profile, muscle typology, genre, and especially for the run, and I do more strength work with the girls and do less volume. (to make sure they can keep progressing in volume and intensity over time)
- I believe in high volume training and tapering at the right moments.
- However, that volume is different when comparing young and master athletes.
- We are doing 30h per week of training with the elites in the base and build phases.
- Athletes do 5-6h of swimming, 15-20h of bike sessions and running around 100 km. Some athletes focus more on the swim, others more on the run.
- I do not use run or bike for weeks, and I tend to keep training consistent because of preventing injuries.
- This training allows for consistent improvements over the long term.
- Concerning intensity, we regularly do two hard runs, and the rest builds the volume around two specific sessions.
- We might do three times more specific work on the bike. In the swim, I tend to keep the intensity relatively high.
- We have two specific workouts, but we might make some sprints to keep the speed in recovery sessions. Athletes might do four workouts with some intensity.
- Our athletes have fixed days for the run, but it is determined how much intensity we do in the end.
- We might not call it "down weeks" as elite athletes will still do 20-21h of training per week.
- Young athletes might do 22-24 h consistently, so the "recovery weeks" might be 16-20h.
- I like to keep the intensity in the down weeks and do one full rest day.
- Therefore, recovery periods will vary depending on the athlete's training history.
- We do a 2:1 ratio of training vs down weeks for young athletes, but for elite athletes is more like 3:1.
- On an easy day, we still do a couple of sessions. It could be on Monday, especially for age group athletes that do more work at the weekend.
- We do low-intensity swims, and they might do a little jog and some gym work.
- It can be a swim, gym, and a two hours low-intensity bike session for others.
- It will depend on the athletes' tastes. Some like to ride their bike and get some mental recovery from doing a coffee ride with some friends.
- Some people like to spread it slightly more, and I have athletes (anaerobic dominant athletes) who need an afternoon off, where we only do a leisurely swim in the morning.
Crucial points in triathlon
- We differentiate athletes the most in swimming. For younger athletes, I focus on biomechanics. We focus on body position, the catch and these essential things.
- With the elites, we try to focus on getting the work done.
- Along with the other two disciplines, we focus on being consistent.
- I want athletes to regularly be in the water and not spend too many days without training in the pool.
- There is a misconception that a bad swimmer needs to swim a lot to improve because when the technique is not correct, you are only promoting the development of the wrong muscle patterns.
- Therefore, we focus on having shorter sessions and doing more frequent sessions with good quality.
- I made a mistake in making my athletes train too much in the pool. However, the swim would get worse and worse.
- We do much strength work for improving open water swimming with pull buoy paddles and band work.
- We can use the propeller depending on the stroke dynamics.
- We want to convert the athlete's stroke to an optimised open water stroke. For example, the frequency is low, and we focus a lot on that.
- Sometimes, we have excellent swimmers who come out of the water in a place where you would never expect them to see.
- It is not the VO2max that we need to change but the stroke dynamics we need to improve.
Tips for improving the stroke rate
- I like to do some video analysis of the coordination of their two hands. (show them their stroke problems)
- After, we can use a tempo trainer in the pool to help establish the stroke rate.
- However, you do not want always to increase it because you might not grab enough water to propel yourself forward.
- I can prescribe short builds of 50 m where you increase the frequency over the distance.
- We tend to do these intervals short initially. It might be strange for athletes because they feel their heart rate is higher and are not efficient.
- However, the body needs to adapt if they want to progress.
- We have tools like a propeller and a band that avoid mistakes, but it can also be too hard as the body position, so you need to understand when it is the right time to use these tools.
- I have a cycling background, so I believe in volume consistency.
- We do a lot of base work, then we look at the individual profile.
- We focus on peak power because, for ITU, the anaerobic speed reserve is fundamental. It can be much more demanding if you are always close to your peak power output limit after cornering.
- We do some periodisation: some periods focused on VO2max work if we see that the athlete is ready for it.
- We make more threshold efforts in the specific phase, but it will again depend on the athlete.
- The phases where we will do different training blocks will depend on the athlete's physiology.
- I also prescribe some cadence work to improve pedal efficiency.
- Short sprints can be necessary, and they are good in a base period to have some neuromuscular adaptations.
- The anaerobic speed reserve is more important on the bike than on the run because the efforts are much more variable.
- Sometimes, you might need to do a surge in the run, but it is not as constant as on the bike.
- Moreover, having a high anaerobic threshold on the bike is crucial for performance in the Olympic distance.
- The proper run technique is a factor without over analysing it.
- People might have a specific run form, and we should aim to optimise it.
- In the beginning, I was into biomechanics because I am a physiotherapist.
- Running was my weaker discipline, so I had to improve it somehow. I wanted everyone to run with the same form.
- Now, I only worry if the fundamentals are there.
- I focus much on running volume, but some people are prone to injury.
- If we can train consistently for 5-6 weeks, we can substantially improve. Athletes are so focused on the mileage that by doing slightly less and doing a proper warm-up before the run, we can keep them injury-free and get the most out of every session.
- We also do some strength and plyometrics analysis to determine how we should approach the run.
- We cannot win the race in the swim, but you can do it in the run. Therefore, it is crucial to increase your speed at the threshold.
- The path to doing it is different for everyone.
- We have a push device where we do some plyometrics tests. We perform some drop jumps, and we measure reactive speed.
- We can see if the weakness is on strength or plyometrics with this test.
- If the plyometric values are reasonable, we increase the height of the box. We also evaluate running metrics like contact time under fatigue.
- Therefore, we only put all data together and see how we adapt it to the training.
- We do plyometric work twice per week in their strength training if we see they are weak.
- We might also make some stride adaptations because some people might have a stride that is too long. So, we might focus on doing hill repeats and a good turnover. Moreover, we might do a session with a suitable activation warm-up, followed by strides with video analysis where I can show athletes data on how the values change when we do different things.
- Doing some drills in advance can help athletes have a feel in advance to get naturally in their running.
Common running technique mistakes
- The hip drop is something where you lose a lot of energy, where your pelvis is not stable and moving from side to side.
- In this way, we focus on injury prevention and efficiency.
- We want to avoid doing that under fatigue.
- Another thing is arm swing, where your core might be stable, but I only wanted athletes to be aware of the arm swing.
- Regularly, bad arm swing form results from something else in the chain, so we evaluate what is crucial or not.
Common mistakes athletes make before joining the squad
- Athletes often want to prove themselves. They come to the squad, and they want to show their qualities.
- They quickly see that the squad is all about improving.
- You see athletes backing off in some sessions, and some don't.
- Moreover, athletes have difficulty showing vulnerabilities. They hide slight niggles because they might think they are not good enough. It is tricky for them because you come to train with the group, and you feel a niggle in the warm-up.
- Athletes gain more by coming to me and addressing the problems than trying to push through and get injured.
- Moreover, young athletes want to see short term results, but that is not the case in endurance sports. (athletes need to be patient)
Tools Glenn uses to monitor training
- Lactate testing in the pool is something we use often.
- With my experience in the federation, I found that swim tests are often entirely different from reality.
- When we compare data from lactate testing and VO2max testing, we might find significant differences concerning the economy and efficiency of the athlete.
- With high-level athletes, these tests are much more reliable.
- On the bike and run, the results are not so different. However, we always are critical of the results.
- I do field testing according to the athlete's needs on the bike.
- We should test according to the specificity of race demands. (athletes should test in their race setup)
- Moreover, we use HRV, an objective metric of the athlete. They always say they can train, but we can check the data and see considerable variations in the values obtained.
- One metric that we use is one described by Stephen Seiler. At breakfast, if you see athletes with their heads down, it is because you might be pushing too far.
- Combining these observation metrics with some tools is the best approach to assessing an athlete daily.
- I am still on the fence concerning glucose monitors because, at times, I find them reliable, but it does not work with athletes in other periods.
- We still have to learn how to interpret data, and the product has to prove reliable before we start implementing them.
- However, we can use it to understand breakfast choices and avoid sugar spikes before training.
Marten van Riel's training approach to the 70.3 world record
- His primary goal is to keep performing on short distance triathlons.
- However, Marten had the motivation to do a 70.3 at the beginning of the season.
- We only decided in mid-January because he had already done the base work before when we started working.
- The first point we addressed was to improve the tt position.
- We did a bike fit, and we quickly accepted the things we could control or not. We did not go to the wind tunnel. (used common sense to obtain aero gains and maintain the position for the whole duration)
- We did some INSCYD testing and saw a slightly elevated anaerobic profile.
- We soften it out to perform on a longer course.
- The primary difference in training went from a polarised to a pyramidal training approach. (more zone 3, "low cadence" work)
- We also did some intervals after accumulating some fatigue.
- We skipped the VO2max work on the run because he has a naturally high VO2max.
- We tried to increase his anaerobic threshold with a lot of LT2 and longer tempo work approaching the race.
- We improved by controlling all the sessions with physiological data (lactate measurements to evaluate where we want to train).
- It was strange for Marten to hold back slightly in some sessions.
- However, you accept the progress when the results are reasonable and believe in the process afterwards.
- Crucial workouts included spikes at high intensity: 3x45s, followed by a short rest and then a long tempo interval with 3min at low cadence and a more extended period at a higher cadence but with the same power.
- We did longer tempo work sessions towards the end of the training block. A crucial session was 4x25min at tempo.
- We did not do fancy sessions. If you know the goals and outcomes of a training session and your physiology, it is only training at the right intensity and trying to prolong it over time.
- Moreover, measuring physiology during training allows for confidence going into the race.
- In addition, the execution of the race was as we had planned.
- On the run, a critical session was 3x2miles and 5x1mile at the anaerobic threshold pace.
- The primary goal was to prolong time at LT2.
- Towards the end, we skipped LT2 and moved to longer tempo work around race pace.
Changes Glenn has made since he started his coaching company in 2018
- When I get a talented athlete, I might be afraid of "losing him" and try to make everything work for the athlete.
- However, with covid, if you are not passionate about the sport and do not like showing up to train even without races, it will not work in the long term.
- Therefore, I focus on providing value for athletes showing up to a session and improving and not focusing on the result.
- Before, I took pride in getting results, but now I take more enjoyment in working together towards a goal and enjoying the process.
How triathlon changed in the last years
- Triathlon has changed significantly. The results improved substantially, and it is tricky for young athletes coming to race with professionals in such a stack field.
- We are losing much talent because there are not many under 23 races where athletes can show their talent.
- So, I think the triathlon world has to think about this factor.
- The more significant difference comes from the increased importance of the bike split. Therefore, athletes now cannot have any weaknesses.
- You can get away with a weaker discipline, but it is not the norm.
- Moreover, with the increased number of races and athletes wanting to do long-distance races, athletes have to be aware to improve and make the right choices.
- PTO and ITU are starting to work together to manage the calendar, but the off-season will not exist if athletes perform everything.
- So, I think we have to reflect on where the sport is heading and our decisions with each athlete.
Tips for age group triathletes wanting to improve performance
- Consistency is crucial, but do not be afraid of cancelling workouts if you feel a niggle or tired to avoid accumulating injuries.
- Work with an experienced coach to avoid making mistakes.
- Go out and do not overthink and trust your feelings. We might talk about physiological data, but linking all the data with RPE is crucial, and it is an approach I use when training with my squad.
- We might not be there with a device, and if we do a tempo interval, we should aim for 6-7 RPE and not blindly follow numbers if the external conditions vary too much throughout the session.
Rapid fire questions
What is your favourite book, blog or resource?
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas on overcoming setbacks and challenges to get better. There is an analogy to a tsunami that destroys everything. We might not know when it comes, but you can make measurements to deal with the consequences better if you prepare them in advance.
What is an important habit that benefited athletically, professionally or personally?
Sport is an essential factor in my life, but there are more things in life. If we have a terrible day in a training session, it is only a nasty training session. We should focus on having a broader view and taking some time off from the sport.
Who is someone you have looked up to or who has inspired you?
Joe Filiol is someone I got inspired in sports, and the way he manages group training and much of my practices come from him. Moreover, I have a friend who turned his hobby into something he could live and now travels the world living his dream and always happy.
LINKS AND RESOURCES:
- PTC Coaching (Glenn's squad) website and Instagram
- World Champions keep things simple: training masterclass with Joel Filliol | EP#172