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Reto Brändli is a Swiss triathlon and cycling coach working with professional (including e.g. Imogen Simmonds) and amateur athletes. He also runs a performance lab, so is very well versed in all sorts of testing, including classic gas exchange and lactate tests, DXA body composition measurements and more.
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Reto's perspectives on training and coaching for professional and amateur athletes, respectively
- How time-crunched amateurs should prepare for longer races like half and full distance triathlons
- Main principles and specific tips for swim, bike and run development
- What kind of lab testing to do (in an ideal world), how to apply the results in your training, and mistakes to avoid when it comes to lab testing
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- I live in Lake Zurich. I have 4-year-old twins and work for Training and Diagnostics, a performance centre in Zurich, Switzerland.
- We do performance tests for athletes from the triathlon field and other athletes. (primarily people who want to get data to do their workouts)
- As we have a Dexa scanner, many clients only want to get body composition data.
- We offer unique training methods such as blood-flow restriction.
- We also do coaching for triathletes and cyclists, and I am responsible for this service.
- I first started cycling at 13 years old, and I got to be an elite rider with one year at a professional level.
- Unfortunately, I did not have much success, so I decided to study and work. After leaving the world of sports, I was still living close to it because my sister was also a pro cyclist, but she was more successful than me.
- She won the Women's Giro d'Itália three times, a Swiss TT and road National Champion. My brother-in-law is a World Tour sports director, and my wife was a pro triathlete. She won two Ironmans and some 70.3 races and is still in the top 3 fastest Swiss female athletes in the Ironman distance.
- Then, I met Olivier Bernhard, founder of On-running shoes. He won the Duathlon World Championships three times and the Ironman Swiss Championship five times. He had finished his career and built his coaching company and asked me to join him.
- It was an excellent opportunity for me to learn from one of the best in our region. Back then, he was coaching and advising all Swiss triathlon stars.
- Olivier's work with On-Running shoes grew, and he started focusing only on the running shoe business. Therefore, I moved on and joined Training Diagnostics, which was a spin-off from the Institute of Technology in Zurich.
- I coach about ten age-group athletes, Imogen Simmonds and Anne Reischmann, from the professional triathlon team Hep Global. I also work with junior national athletes.
- Moreover, the Swedish pro triathlete Rasmus Svenningsson will join our squad here.
Reto's approach to triathlon training
- We are data-process orientated, but with the focus of developing the athlete to achieve the peak condition of his body and take control of his training. This process depends on the athlete's career status, physiology, and history. (years in triathlon and sports)
- We try to find the correct amount of training (closer to the limits of what is possible) to reach the performance requirements of the races.
- I look for the maximal adaptation possible per phase. It is not only about training as much or as hard as possible, but be specific.
- Since we work with different systems, we have to find the limiter factors for each athlete and the crucial points to address so he can improve and develop.
- I try to keep things as simple as possible and learn about the athlete's body signals. Therefore, I consider the workload from work and family life seriously.
- Moreover, we have to find an intelligent way to combine these factors.
- It is crucial to stay healthy because consistency is essential. Sometimes, I shorten sessions to ensure athletes stay consistent long term and avoid break periods.
Finding the maximal response to training
- The more time I can spend with an athlete, the better. We analyse data and think about the sessions. Then, we analyse how they respond by looking at their data and adapting it accordingly.
- However, it is not something we can plan daily.
- I work with a matrix of data from the lab, field, and the athlete's feedback. Those three things have to correlate.
- If one of that data points starts to oppose the other two, I will have to go deeper to make sure it correlates.
Finding the limiters of performance
- We find them with a mix of data that comes out from the lab, but I also have to look at the data coming from the field (power, HR, resting HR, HRV, one-to-one feedback)
- To address muscle limitations, we talk with the physiotherapists and other people involved in the team, so we surround the athlete with the best group of people we can.
- For example, with an athlete, I hired a specific coach from the UK to perform extensive assessments and point out the weak points of the athlete to understand why something on the bike or the run was not working.
- We found reasons for the performances, so we went to do specific drills, movements and strength exercises to fix them. Our concern was to add those exercises to the weekly training structure.
- Then, we would work as a team by getting the feedback of the athlete and the strength coach and summarising everything on my side.
How work-life affects the ability of amateurs to train
- I perform a bottom-up approach, meaning that age groupers send me a weekly schedule with the complete training volume they can do.
- Therefore, I know what I can prescribe. Since recovery is the limiting factor, I have to balance training carefully.
- For example, when they travel somewhere, I regularly know the flight times, where they are staying overnight, and how the hotels are.
- Of course, I am not using 100 % of their training capabilities because most age groupers overestimate how much they can do.
- Then, it is finding consistency and basing recovery periods around their family commitments. I try to be specific with the training and get the athletes focused when the goal races approach.
- Some might not track sleep if you look at the diary, so I do not know because athletes might want to hide it. Of course, there would be other information I would like to check, such as food quality and timing.
Coaching time-crunch athletes for long-distance races
- When we want to train for these races, we look at the strengths and weaknesses profile of the athlete to understand if the athlete can meet the race demands.
- Then, we divide the preparation into four phases.
- The first phase focuses on technique and building the aerobic base. The second phase would be more intense. However, as we are talking about a weekly volume of 8-10 hours to train, I would be careful in prescribing VO2max sessions because these athletes have limitations on recovery.
- The third phase focuses on the strength component, where we perform a strength-orientated approach. (high torque work and hill repeats but being specific with the cadences and the sets)
- The last phase focuses on a specific race pace with threshold and nutrition work. We are also specific about the equipment used during sessions.
- We have to be flexible, but sometimes things do not go as planned, so we have to mix everything a bit.
Getting the strength and weakness profile
- I like lab testing, but sometimes it is impossible to do it.
- Therefore, we have to find different methods to find the profile by doing outdoor or indoor tests.
- I do not use FTP tests or these types of maximal tests.
- The only problem with this approach is that we do not see the metabolic profile of the athlete.
- If we only have 8-10 hours to train, the metabolic profile is an essential part of training.
- However, we can make specific loops outdoors and see how we improve on power, HR and times.
- I would use a calculation of the HR reserve. For example, subtract your maximum HR (e.g. 170 bpm) and your resting HR.
- From there, you calculate your aerobic zones and your threshold zones.
Crucial fundaments of Reto's training approach
- Pros swim 5-6 times per week, and I force them to do short sets to learn the skills in the winter and off-season.
- I look much at technique and efficiency, even when we get close to the races. As they swim so often, we can focus some sets on technique.
- I prescribe a group session for athletes to swim with faster groups to keep athletes challenged.
- We build sets from 400m to 1km and perform this build several times depending on the season.
- It is crucial to start open water swimming as soon as possible. With it, we can learn to use a wet suit and learn how to navigate because you will not race in a pool most time.
- For age groupers, if they can do three sessions per week is good.
- Depending on the technique, we can work on it more or less. If athletes do technique work, I would prefer they do it in a group so that they can get feedback from someone watching them.
- If possible, I would add a specific set for addressing the weaknesses of the age groupers.
- Volume and oxygen consumption are essential for me. We do longer 4h30-5h rides but always looking for quality within the 5-hour sessions.
- We work on efficiency when we do long sets (cadence work, single leg drills and short sprints). The goal is to improve their power transfer and be more efficient later in the season.
- We do many sets uphill (we live in Switzerland). Then, we transfer that work to flat and hilly areas to work on race specificity.
- My athletes will work on their downhill skills. Some triathletes cannot handle a bike properly, and while you have to focus on aerodynamics, you need those basic skills on the bike.
- Therefore, I force them to do gravel and mountain biking for the age groupers.
- We do many VO2 sessions in the second phase, especially with the pros. At that phase, I train with a block approach. We do VO2 sessions combined with low-intensity training, but the overall volume is much lower because VO2 sets are demanding.
- Later in the season, we work on specific pacing and 70.3 efforts in a race position.
- For age groupers, the limiters are the volume and the recovery. Therefore, I enjoy making athletes commute to work or have longer rides during the weekend.
- For example, athletes do a morning ride to the job and then another back home, and then they can add some hours like this.
- We do VO2 sets for age groupers if they have enough time to recover, sleep and get proper nutrition.
- Of course, we will again look at their strength and weaknesses profile. Regularly, the limitation is on fat oxidation and power outputs.
Training for a flat course when you do not have flat roads to train
- I would continue to work on the climbs until a few weeks before the race.
- Switzerland does not have so many flat roads either. Nevertheless, we would focus on getting the power-up in the climbs and only 2-3 weeks of training in more rolling terrain.
- When training in the climbs, I prescribe my athletes how long and the intensities they should be riding during training. And if I know where athletes live, I tell them each climb I want them to do.
- As I have a cycling background, I know the terrain here and the best climbs to do in different training sessions.
- Training women and men are different in this type of terrain. However, this work comes down to specific strength sessions.
- All my female athletes have a strong bike split that can push significant power.
- For professional female athletes, training in the mountains is not a problem. But for age-group athletes, you have to adapt to the zones.
Can muscle mass be a limiting factor for cycling performance?
- It is essential to have a strength training program, especially for female athletes.
- Strength training builds fatigue resistance and increases muscle mass (both for women and men with a running background).
- Then, you have to improve specific strength and firing patterns.
- Here, we check their body composition progress with a DXA scan and see how the lean body mass develops over time.
- We also look at muscle imbalances. We have to check for this before talking about pedalling smoothness.
Best VO2 sessions to do on the bike
- There are many alternatives for working VO2. Therefore, I like to mix them. I regularly do first shorter intervals with higher power outputs and then go a bit longer.
- However, it depends on the goals we want to achieve.
- For example, for juniors, short and high-intensity sessions are essential. I tend to go longer for other athletes with different body compositions and muscle types. (high-intensity workouts take much time to recover from, for example, age groupers struggle to recover from them)
- The longer intervals we do are up to four minutes.
- I am careful with volume and intensity, even for professionals.
- Of course, it will depend on the running ability of the athlete.
- Quality is more important than quantity, so I work on motoric skills and the running technique to improve the running economy.
- We do many running video analyses to address cadence, vertical oscillation or stability.
- We do much uphill and trail running to reduce the impact on joints.
- Moreover, we try to build volume carefully by doing double runs before long runs.
- However, these long runs are never above two hours. And even if we do the long run, we add a few stops and make some trails to ensure proper running technique throughout the workout.
- We do not do many track sets because it increases the risk of injury.
- I like to add barefoot running on grass to strengthen the feet and have a natural ground contact feel.
- For age groupers, most injuries come from running. Therefore, we focus on minimal training volume and what is essential. We are careful with track sessions, and I prefer athletes to run uphill and then transfer that fitness to flat courses.
- Moreover, we want to develop control to run at different speeds.
- Professional athletes run between 55-66 km per week. It is not much, but if an athlete has excellent technique and economy, we can have weeks where we increase the volume.
- We do the shorter and faster VO2 intervals on the treadmill to have a safe environment to train. Then, later work on the threshold on different surfaces. However, our athletes are triathletes (not pure runners). Therefore, there are other methods to make them go faster.
Crossover effect of the different disciplines
- I believe there is a crossover effect.
- You will benefit more from the crossover if you have a body composition closer to a runner.
- If you struggle with running economy and efficiency, you will not benefit as much as the other athletes.
- We do strength training over the whole season. It will depend on the athlete's profile, but we work through different phases.
- The closer we get to the races, the lower the strength training volume is.
- However, if an athlete presents many muscle imbalances or struggles with strength, we will do prolong periods focusing primarily on strength training.
- We develop strength training programs over time. However, it is only adding more muscle mass.
- We want to ensure that the muscles can transfer extra power to the pedals. Therefore, we work on firing patterns and not so much on increasing muscle mass.
- Moreover, strength training will depend on the muscle type of each athlete. So, we need to evaluate how different athletes react to different stimuli. However, we still do not know the best stimuli for different athletes.
- We try to be specific in the exercises we do, and we also want to work with EMG in the future to evaluate nerve conduction to see how all factors fit together and how we can optimise training.
Balancing intensity and recovery in a training program
- We try to be as consistent as possible with age groupers. Therefore, we might have a more classic approach to training, where we might do three weeks of increasing training volume and then an easier week without too many training fluctuations.
- However, it all depends on their life situation, and we adapt the training plan according to the athlete's life.
- We track recovery so I can build the system around it and make an individualised approach to training.
- Professionals have easy or rest days, but we do not plan regularly.
- If the feedback I receive is not positive or the Power/HR ratio is not correct, we will do an easy or rest day.
- We do a more leisurely day every 3-4 days if we do hard training blocks. However, sometimes we stay 7-10 days on a specific volume.
- There is so much intensity during the second training phase (two times a day Vo2 sessions), and the volume is lower. Therefore, I cannot provide any general numbers because it varies significantly.
Doing two VO2 sessions in one day
- We have applied this approach in cycling, but I would not do it with an age grouper.
- We have seen good improvements by doing two Vo2 sets per day with professionals over 2-3 days and then easy sessions between them. The improvements are in the VO2 max and the breathing patterns, but we have to be careful when applying this approach. Nutrition and recovery have to be perfect so they can do that.
- We can do two VO2 sessions of the same discipline or from different disciplines. (depends on where we want to put our targets on)
- Besides talks and data analysis, we do a DXA scan for body composition and VO2 max respiratory test (ramp test for specific VO2 max or endurance ramp, where we look at the data up to threshold). We would also measure lactate, ventilatory values, and muscle oxygenation for those endurance tests. We perform this test on a cycle ergometer.
- The pros and age groupers can test on their bikes, and most have power meters. Therefore, we look at the error of the power meters.
- In reality, we see that most power meters are not accurate.
- We give training zones in HR and power numbers from the cycle ergometer, and we present them with 10% deviations of that power to account for the error of their power meters.
- Moreover, we do ECGs to ensure no irregularities and that the heart is healthy.
- If they had the funding, they could perform all testing for age groupers. However, we use the muscle oxygenation data to confirm the values obtained with other measurements.
Testing for other disciplines
- You can combine the testing results on the bike or run if the athlete does not have a specific background in one of the sports.
- In this case, you can estimate the numbers from a bike test to the run data. However, you have to be careful with it. If you want to save some money, you can do it.
- We have to look at the athlete's profile and check what modifications we have to make to account for the differences between the sports.
- Swimming is a different sport. We do the classic CSS testing. With the pros, I like to see how they improve over short distances (50 or 100 m) and on longer distances (600 or 800 m).
- To do those tests, we must prepare and be specific to the athlete.
- Testing lactate in the pool is challenging, and you must account for many variables. Therefore, you might be better off working only with HR and other data.
Common mistakes when testing in a lab
- Athletes have wrong expectations about the results of a test.
- There is so much information on the internet and social media, but you cannot look at the design and quality of that data.
- Therefore, explaining the methodology and equipment used by the athlete is crucial to understanding the differences in data and the differences in the results obtained.
- For example, we have the topic of body composition. You hear pro cyclists having 3-4 % body fat in the Tour de France. However, it is impossible as they could not survive with such a low body fat percentage.
- Therefore, having a 7-8 % body fat is extremely low. Thus, what tools do they use to obtain that data? If you do the DXA, you obtain these values. But skinfold measurements read much lower numbers if you do it in a training camp.
- People start mixing numbers from different testing methods and expect the results are always the same.
- You can see a trend using a calliper. However, you cannot compare data as this method does not allow for accurate measurements.
- We could do a ramp test in a lab, and you will have different physiological parameters by doing a standard protocol compared to what we do.
Additional comments on the application of testing in training
- First, if you are testing, you need to use the information. I believe you should not test it because of social media or because other athletes are doing it.
- Furthermore, the more inexperienced the athlete is, the more he can benefit from a proper testing protocol.
- I recommend that athletes do a test 2-4 weeks after he starts the season and then another at least 3-4 weeks before the race so that they can have more adaptations to training.
- And these tests should have a consequence on what you should do in the future. It helps you plan if what you are doing is working and explain the reasons for changing training protocols to the athlete.
- With the pros, we test at several points in the season and get information about the process and the targets we want to achieve.
- Therefore, several annual tests are helpful, but for age-groupers are not the primary thing. However, I believe age-groupers should invest more in testing than buying more equipment, especially if they are unfamiliar with training zones and not familiar with the body feeling.
- From a coaching view, it can explain why the athlete performed as he performed or show the athletes that they have unrealistic expectations.
What is a thing that Reto changed in the last few years of coaching or that Reto has a different opinion about now?
- I focus much more on execution.
- When I started coaching, I primarily cared about planning and analysing. I thought that creating a valuable plan was my job.
- However, now I understand that this is probably my job's smallest part.
- I talk regularly with other professional coaches. One told me that once you understand the difference between writing a program and training a professional, you will understand and be ready to train them.
- I also search much more about tools for measuring and enhancing performance, especially regarding reliability.
- Before, I thought that having tools was enough, but now I focus much more on the quality of those tools.
- Athletes often come to me and ask to add other devices, but I would tell them that regularly less is better.
- Understanding the devices and seeing that the data is inaccurate might be a waste of money.
Current training fallacy that Reto wants to correct
- Athletes think intensity is more important than volume when training for long-distance triathlons. (HIT is the solution)
- However, volume is the most essential for me. Of course, we need intensity, which is why we do it. Nevertheless, endurance and aerobic metabolism are the foundation of long-distance triathlon, and there are no shortcuts.
- However, for short-distance triathlon, it is different.
Three pieces of advice to help athletes improve performance
- Learn to listen to the feedback of your body.
- Then, you should work with your body and not against it. Use the recovery data samples such as HRV and resting HR. HRV calculates the time to recover, so do not underestimate the power of this information.
- You should take nutrition seriously. (before, during and after training) And start implementing race nutrition as soon as possible to learn how to consume many carbs for the races.
- Lastly, focus on efficiency whenever you can.
What is your favourite book, blog or resource?
Puissance et performance en cyclisme Frédéric Grappe (chief of Performance from Gropama-FDJ WT Cycling Team)
What is an important habit that benefited athletically, professionally or personally?
Being Patient and reliable.
Who is someone you have looked up to or who has inspired you?
I respect people who work hard in the background and do not push themselves into the spotlight. As a coach, we have to accept that the athlete's achievements are because of the athlete. The coach plays a second or third role.
LINKS AND RESOURCES:
- Training and Diagnostics (Reto's business) website and Instagram
- Blood Flow Restricted Training with Richard Ferguson, PhD | EP#270
- Puissance et performance en cyclisme - Frédéric Grappe