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Tim Reed is an Australian coach and professional triathlete with an IM70.3 World Championship title from 2016 to his name, along with multiple Ironman and IM70.3 wins. In this interview we dive deep into Tim's perspectives on training and coaching, as well as how to perform the best when it matters the most, on race day.
In this episode you'll learn about:
- Tim's key principles for improving swim, bike, and run performance in the context of long-distance triathlon
- The importance of strength training
- Training for time-crunched athletes
- Race selection and periodisation
- How to get the most out of yourself on race day
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- I started triathlon as an age grouper soon after finishing school and did that for 5-6 years before turning professional.
- A sabbatical year from work to race professionally turned into 11 years as a professional, but now focused more on coaching, getting some knowledge back to other athletes, and starting a transition to everyday life after racing.
- At the end of last year, I suffered from chronic fatigue symptoms.
- I had a couple of podiums and a 2nd in the Australian championships early in the year but could not continue progressing.
- I finished the year depressed about racing, but my health returned after a long break. I missed being healthy, training and racing.
- Even if I only race a couple of times each year, it is still something that excites me, and I need it for my personality.
- I do not know how many years more I will do that, but I will do my best to honour the sponsors I got in the races I enter.
Tim's approach to triathlon training
- My approach is a mixture of science and racing experience.
- One of my strengths is understanding and getting along with people. Regardless of scientific training principles, the athlete's personality can have significant importance in what they need and how they approach to sport, recovery and what method we should do to make the most out of them.
- It has been a didactic journey, and I am still learning every day with coaching and being open-minded with my approach.
- Every few years, there is a significant change in different approaches concerning training and nutrition.
Fundamentals of each discipline
- We know the principles of aerobic and anaerobic work for endurance sports, but athletes are entering these swimming squads and doing too much anaerobic swimming.
- Besides the physiological stress, athletes practice "poor" form when swimming.
- The swimming technique is crucial for performance, so I usually take athletes out of the swim squads if they cannot control themselves or drop down a lane to bring more aerobic training into the swim.
- I would treat the swim as I would with cycling and running. Therefore, I would only have 1-2 more demanding swim sessions, and the rest focused on the more extended endurance efforts.
- The aim is to build efficiency at a cellular level and efficiency with their technique.
- Some athletes "smoke themselves" when trying to keep up with faster swimmers.
- I have seen significant improvements with third-tier pros that I start coaching by pulling them back from doing too much anaerobic work.
- The squads usually do not take a polarised approach to their training.
- You can become so tired that you cannot even do threshold training. (only that zone three grinding all the time)
- Cycling is a strength endurance sport. Some athletes have a huge aerobic history but still cannot ride fast.
- Therefore, we have to address the limitations.
- The athletes without that history do much aerobic training with higher intensity work in the middle.
- Athletes should do this for the first 5-6 years when they enter a sport.
- The athletes with that aerobic background should take a strength endurance approach with some gym work to build that "raw strength."
- There is no standard approach for every athlete because you have to look at the weaknesses of a rider and what is holding them back.
- In my athletic journey, I had the lucky coaches focused on training volume first, and then when I switched to a coach like Matt Dixon (strength endurance and intervals), the two combined to allow me to have a couple of good years on the bike.
- I try to approach cycling with an individual approach and work out their limitations.
- If athletes present some strength-endurance limitations, gym work is crucial for seeing improvements on the bike.
- There are also the classic strength endurance sessions (e.g., 5x8min hill repetitions at lower cadences or doing shorter intervals).
- The good thing about these intervals is that we do not need to do high-intensity intervals. If you are doing these intervals with poor form, it is not worth it.
- If they do it in the TT position, using their core and glutes to fire correctly.
- Most research on this topic is mixed. The studies present some limitations. In my opinion, those intervals at 50-70rpm are helpful for athletes that do not have the resilience to run off the bike.
- Much of the science brought to triathlon around training and fueling is based on performance improvements over a 40 km TT, so you must be careful when applying those strategies.
- It is challenging to do a controlled study on an 8-hour race and access the effect on triathlon performance.
- Running volume is essential. People riding 800 km per week does not mean anything because you could do it in a peloton in zone one and average 40 km/h.
- There is never junk mileage in the run because there is always stress on the body no matter the pace you are doing.
- Even if a great runner is doing an easy run at 5:30min/km, their feet must hold their body weight in every step.
- Therefore, we work the volume to a point where it does not affect cycling performance.
- Moreover, we stay away from chronic volume. We do a running block of 5-10 days and then back a bit.
- Getting to 90-100 km per week is good, but your cycling and swimming performance will drop off.
- However, this approach is individual. Some pros cannot go over 80 km per week without getting injured, while others are bullet-proof.
- These mileages are of their highest running volume weeks because the weekly average over a year will be much lower.
- If athletes are aerobically efficient, they might work on higher intensities at higher lactate levels.
- Depending on the athletes' limitations, the proportion of intensities will change.
- For athletes that need to improve their sub-threshold efficiency, the primary training is on aerobic mileage.
- Typically, athletes will get less injured but have athletes that are the exact opposite.
- The approach is, therefore, similar to cycling. We find the limitations and build training around that.
- As I test more and more athletes, it is incredible how much athletes change over time.
- Therefore, we focus on what we must do at a specific moment and then retest and go again.
Aerobic run intensities
- It is individual because someone running at low zone two or high-zone two will respond differently to training.
- I do many different sessions within that zone two range.
- We might work on the aerobic threshold, particularly for efficient athletes at lower intensities. These athletes are prone to getting more injuries.
- It will also depend on how much time they have to train. If a person has limited time to train, we might do some intervals at the top of zone two.
- It is rare if I would prescribe only a zone two-run.
- I give options based on their hrv and sleep data for athletes I do not see often.
- For example, if HRV is high, we will do the session with the last 20 minutes at the top of zone two.
- I am doing many more lactate tests. I also measure ketones for athletes that seem to be carb-dependent or that need to improve their metabolic efficiency.
- Those who are time-crunched do slightly lower carb sessions for shorter sessions if they do not have time to go out for 5-6 hours.
- We do a lot of sub-threshold testing. VO2max testing is also essential.
- However, the best tests for me are races and the analysis of the athlete's performance.
- If nutrition and hydration are reasonable, we can assess whether the training sessions were optimal or what we need to change to improve.
- In 2019, I had some of my best races, but I had three kids and a wife, so to get the conditioning to do an Ironman and reduce muscle breakdown, strength training is crucial to performance.
- Concerning strength training, consistency is king.
- To be consistent, we have to be injury-free, and strength training can prevent injuries long-term.
- It is challenging for people in the beginning because they get sore from strength training, and in the short term, they might have to take a step back on endurance training because strength training adds significant stress.
- All our athletes will do 2-3 gym sessions outside the racing phase and 2-3 exercises before or after the long runs to get the muscles to fire correctly.
- Some coaches think you can get all the strength out of the endurance work, but I can't entirely agree. For long-term development, strength training is crucial.
- Athletes get essential equipment and do it at home. Triathlon can be relatively expensive, and adding a gym subscription for only 40 min of strength training per week is pointless.
- Nevertheless, some athletes need to go to the gym to get the work done in that environment of people grinding and lifting.
- Most of our athletes have some kettlebells and a Bosu ball. Most strength training is about neuromuscular connections and activations.
- When people are overtrained, you can see a glute firing better than the other. However, with time, we can correct the activation of the muscles.
- Concerning weight and intensity, the science suggests that "high weight, low reps" is the best approach for strength training.
- However, with the core work, we still do higher reps.
- We do not do many reps with single-leg squats or Bulgarian squats. I prefer athletes to have perfect form, even if the load is not high. I think that many adaptations come from the neural connections between the muscles and the brain and getting the fibres to fire well.
- For elite athletes, we put them in the gym and do some high-load strength sessions.
- The load comes down when we get closer to races, and it becomes all about form and maintaining strength without getting soreness.
Periodisation for long-distance triathletes
- Periodisation is complex for professionals, especially Australians, because they end up racing all year.
- I use the traditional periodisation approach, especially for athletes injury-prone or that are new to the sport.
- I played a bit with reverse periodisation, and I understand how that can work with a huge aerobic base. You have all the cellular and metabolic adaptations intact from years of training, so you may not need another three months of base training.
- However, the traditional approach seems to make more sense for most athletes.
Training time-crunched athletes
- I enjoy coaching those athletes the most.
- There is no training that can replace the volume that elite athletes do.
- For athletes training 10 hours or less, it is where you can play around with different fuel sources and stimulate the same metabolic benefits from a 6-hour ride fueling as regularly.
- You can also use heat stress to maximise the benefit of shorter sessions.
- We do more work on the swim and bike around the aerobic threshold instead of that low zone two.
- The low zone two training will benefit athletes if they train for more than 90 minutes.
- Strength training becomes crucial because if they do not have time to do the run volume, we have to create those micro tears in the legs, so they have the resilience off the bike to run well.
- Therefore, we try to use "hacks" to get the same benefits of a 4-hour session, but in only a 2-hour session.
Manipulating fuel sources
- First, we do some metabolic testing, and if they are too carb dependent, I think there is benefit in doing 1h30-2h sessions where the amount of sugar in the blood is not high.
- The process of mobilising fat is a bit stronger if we do it in a fasted state. But we do not want athletes starving.
- I usually recommend athletes eat a more protein and fat breakfast.
- We will not do it in a low-carb state if we have demanding sessions.
- This topic is highly debated, and there is no consensus about the efficacy of this approach.
- If the goal of a session is burning fat as fuel or weight loss, the sessions will be more accessible, and the carb amount will be lower.
- If the session is targetting clearing or tolerating lactate, we include much more carbs and teach the body to utilise that.
Common mistakes athletes make
- All athletes compare their training to everyone else's.
- However, we cannot compare them. Everyone is interested in what the Norwegians are doing, but most athletes do not have time to recover.
- We should train more if we can recover. However, most do not finish a session and have a massage and sleep.
- Therefore, there is no point in comparing 30+h weeks.
- And this applies to life as well. If you start comparing your life to others, you will feel miserable.
- Once, I had my third child, and life was crazy. I had to stop following these pros that do not have a life like mine.
- I would always compare it with their professional existence, but that did nothing for me.
Things that Tim views differently now
- I tend to take things to the extreme, no matter what I do. I did a high carb phase, then a super-low carb, and I am now in the middle.
- I understood that the answers tend to lie in the middle.
- Even five years ago, I thought I knew one approach was better than the others, and we should apply it to athletes. However, I understand now that that approach works for the particular athlete at that moment.
- Moreover, I think coaches do not personalise training as much as they say they do.
Tips for race selection
- Some of the pros I work with can do well in the best races, so I remind them what the goals for the year are.
- With so many races on the calendar, we must accept that you will not be at your best in some races.
- Sam Appleton's goal was to do well in Kona this year, and with the PTO race in Canada, we knew he had rushed back into training after an Ironman, so he was struggling with some accumulated fatigue leading into the race.
- After the PTO race, we lost some fitness and freshened up before getting a large block of training to prepare for Kona.
- We prioritise the goal races, and we work back from there.
- Therefore, a race will be only a "payday" where you will not be at your best.
- Moreover, some athletes find racing emotional draining, and they need to be held back from racing too often because there are only a few races where they can go deep, or the stress of racing can make them lose some enjoyment.
- However, even those athletes that love to race should not race at every opportunity because they will lose the training consistency.
- Prize money and bonuses for professionals are complicated topics to manage.
- If you only chase the prize money, it gives you a short-term motivation, but if you talk about an athlete that will do top-5 in Kona, we will talk about sponsorships that could last 5-6 years.
Sponsorship changes in the future
- I love what PTO is trying to do. However, we need to find a way to make it more entertaining.
- It would be interesting to see smaller laps and athletes getting lapped.
- It is one reason why I love watching the Super League. Therefore, we must be bold and make long courses more creative.
- I would love to see a Collins Cup like the sub-7 project. (Country vs Country)
- I think it would create interest by getting national pride in the mix.
- These events would dramatically change sponsorship deals because they would draw a more vast audience.
- For the moment, Kona is the biggest triathlon event of the year, so sponsors weigh that heavily.
- The hard part of long-distance triathlon is getting more coverage without putting more motorbikes on the course.
- Therefore, drones would be appealing because they would allow us to watch a battle between 6-8º if nothing is happening at the front.
Selecting races based on the athlete's strengths
- The specificities of the course will influence how you train for a race. For example, I raced Mount Tremblant in 2015, looking at the start list and understanding I would not be in the front group.
- Therefore, I focused on training cycling to compete at another level.
- In the end, I finished the swim in the first group but was so excited that I did not put the wet suit in the tub, so I lost the group.
- I eventually caught them on the bike but then suffered the consequences on the run.
- Nevertheless, the course features influenced how I trained for the race.
- For example, in another race, I knew I would be in the first group, and the cycling split would be relatively comfortable, so I focused on the run and arrived at the race 3 kgs lighter because I knew the run would be the crucial part of the race.
- The athletes I coached for Saint George had to improve the bike substantially because it would be a crucial part of the race.
- Sometimes, you need to tell the athlete that the course will not suit them, and we will not have time to change those limitations.
Tapering for a goal event
- Tapering is a thing that perplexes me the most.
- You can tailor a taper methodology to one athlete, and they can have the best race. You try to do the same on the next race, and it does not work.
- There are many factors like travelling and internal pressure.
- It is the part of the training process that I can control athletes because if I prescribe intervals in a week when they feel tired or have jet lag, they should take it out and reduce it.
- It is a part of coaching that bothers me because I am unsure of the best approach for an athlete.
- I believe athletes do too much 1-2 weeks before the event.
- Many athletes panic about the race and do a stressful week before the goal event. And it happens with many athletes.
- If you are travelling, your recovery from that week will suffer.
- I also think some athletes will do too short 3-4 days before the event.
- They will load on carbs, but their bodies adapted to train much more.
- I usually reduce the typical training volume by 25 % 7-14 days before the event. And then do the same for the race week to freshen up.
Additional race preparation tips
- I was an anxious racer, and when I got that under control, I had my best years combined with the time I was training and resting as best as possible.
- I was meditating and visualising the last 15-20 days before a race.
- Science on visualisation and meditation is robust. Athletes anxious about race performance need to include some meditation work at the start of the taper.
- Before the race, I teach my athletes to visualise likely scenarios (good and bad) to understand the best ways to approach them mentally.
- Solving issues like flat tires and nutrition loss are issues that athletes need to think about to know how to address those issues on race day.
- Visualisation can change the race completely when it happens.
- Having a mantra is a good way of staying neutral. Athletes should not stay positive throughout the race because it takes too much energy.
- They need to think about what they are doing each moment, which is one of the most powerful things you can do on race day.
- When I could control my emotions was when I had my best races.
Pacing for age groupers
- There is not much difference between pacing strategies of age groupers and pros.
- Some athletes are fantastic at pacing. You might tell many details to some athletes, and they will not get it correctly.
- If athletes do not like to wear a watch, I tell them to breathe every three strokes in the first part of the swim.
- For those athletes that are bad at pacing, I must force them to wear a watch.
- When athletes get to 7-8 km into the effort, their pacing skills start to come into play. Before that, there is an inability to know the initial intensity level.
- Athletes pace the swim poorly. For example, if I give an athlete an 800m set at zone two without using a watch (by RPE), they will go too fast.
- Therefore, we must continue teaching athletes that they often are not at the correct intensities, which is more challenging in swimming.
- For some, we set HR or pace limiters for the initial part of the race.
- The athletes with pacing problems on the bike and running are the same who pace worse the swim. Therefore, athletes need to let go if the effort is too high because a 5-min loss in the swim might mean 20 minutes gained on the run.
- It depends on the distance and the athlete, but it is much easier to pace correctly on the bike.
- The challenging part with the bike is that everyone understands the savings that there are in the group. So, athletes must decide if they push hard for 5 km to catch a group.
- Pacing is not a complication. You have three cups and one jug of water. If you want the cups to be filled to the same height, you have to spread the water evenly.
Professional pacing strategies
- It is the most significant misunderstanding that age groupers have when analysing pro racing.
- Professional racing is a different dynamic because there are some moments in the race where sensible pacing will go out of the window.
- If there are media with motorbikes, the first three riders will have a 1-1.5 kph advantage. Tactics in the Tour de France are the best example of this.
- Moreover, athletes will try to stay within the group, which makes it more complex than doing an evenly paced swim, bike and run.
- I would argue that strategy could pay off, and some of my best triathlons were like that.
- For 70.3, I had to work the race.
- However, as you get older, the ability to surge gets lost, but your aerobic efficiency and endurance keep improving.
How athletes can improve their pacing
- First, they must understand their limits and how much they can push before backing off.
- Moreover, specificity plays a significant role. For an age group, an Ironman session could be 4x30 min at Ironman pace. For a pro, it could be 4x30 min (every 10min, 1min close to threshold) to simulate the rolling terrain and maintain in the draft.
- Contrary to common beliefs, pros must balance many things like age groupers.
- Concerning age groupers, the most crucial factor is how many races their family can tolerate.
- The goal is to keep athletes in the sport without burning out the family.
- When you are training for an Ironman, other things in life suffer slightly, so it is crucial to understand how much work drop-off can be acceptable.
- As a coach, I spend more time convincing athletes to race less. Moreover, I try to change the perception that short courses are not a challenge.
- In the long term, doing short courses will help your ironman performance.
- For pros, the financial part plays a significant role.
- It balances peaking for A-races but still having money to do other races to get to the A-races.
- Besides the top 15, money plays a crucial role in the schedule.
- For age groupers, the most impactful factors are family and work.
Things Tim is paying more attention to at the moment
- My primary goal is to get more face-to-face time with my athletes and do more lactate testing to determine what we need to work on during training. (that is the downside of online coaching)
- When you are in camps, you can look at equipment and understand limitations you would not find by only having virtual meetings.
Tips for improving triathlon performance
- Getting a coach and giving them time to work can be beneficial.
- At the beginning of a coaching process, athletes will not get results immediately.
- Concerning nutrition, there is so much conflicting advice out there.
- If it has taken much human intervention to make food eatable, it is probably not healthy.
- So, eat when you are hungry and stop when you are not.
- The third piece of advice is to learn to take time off from triathlon. We lose perspective on how much and how intense we train as triathletes.
- A taper week for me in the first few years of triathlon would be a massive week.
- We need to let the body bounce back, especially when you start to do many blood tests on athletes and evaluate the toll on the athlete.
What is your favourite book, blog or resource?
What is an important habit that benefited athletically, professionally or personally?
Outside triathlons, I am poor at planning. The better plans I have for training, racing and travelling, the better my racing went. I started enjoying planning and the process even more than racing. Having a step-by-step plan is motivating.
Who is someone you have looked up to or who has inspired you?
My wife inspires me because she does so much for the local community.
From triathlon, Craig Alexander was the pro I looked for the most when I was growing up because of the things he also did outside triathlon.