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Bex Milnes is the Lead Paratriathlon Coach at British Triathlon's performance centre in Loughborough, where she coaches Paralympic and Commonwealth Games medalists like George Peasgood and Claire Cashmore. She is also the coach of top-class long-course triathletes like her partner Nikki Bartlett and India Lee. In this interview we discuss Bex' approach to triathlon training and coaching, differences and similarities between training for short-course and long-course triathlon, insights into paratriathlon training, and more.
In this episode you'll learn about:
- Understanding the demands of the event you're training for
- Key principles for improving swim, bike, and run performance
- Differences and similarities between long-course and short-course training
- Training in a group - how to maximise the benefits and mitigate potential pitfalls
- Testing and physiology
- Insights into paratriathlon training, coaching and challenges
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Bex Milnes' background
- I am the lead triathlon coach for Great Britain.
- I base in Loughborough and currently work with a world-class program on the para-triathlon team.
- Those athletes are full-time and focus on sprint distance non-drafting racing with a focus on Paris 2024.
- I also coach a small group of athletes ranging from long-distance age.
- I focus primarily on long-distance triathlons.
- At the end of 2022, I will step away from my role as a para-triathlon coach to focus more on private coaching.
- I currently work with George Peasgood, the silver medalist in Tokyo. He also retained his title as TT World champion.
- On long-distance triathlon, I coach Nicholas Barratt, my fiance, alongside Jodie Simpson and Rosie Weston, an upcoming pro.
- I competed in triathlon as a junior/under 23 athlete and now trained alongside some athletes I coach.
- I had aspirations to go to the Olympics and focus on non-draft racing.
- I figured out that my ambition could not match my physical ability.
- I always coached alongside my sporting career. (in tri-clubs or helping university students)
- I found a natural progression from helping athletes and coaches.
Bex coaching philosophy
- It bases on three crucial determinants: I start with the demands of the sport. I coach a diversity of athletes from sprint distance to Ironman events.
- The demands of the sport are nuances within it.
- Then, I work on understanding the individual I am coaching and where they sit on the demands of the sport.
- We try to figure out the gaps to make the most significant improvements.
- The third component is the person, meaning their motivations and goals, what they want from a coach, and how that aligns with my values.
- After this, it is about planning to achieve the goals and how you will do it over a specific period.
- I tried to do everything at once in my early days as a coach, but that ended up being a mess.
Example of Bex approach to an athlete
- When you create the gap analysis, it is easy to understand the demands of the sport and how the best athletes perform. In the end, you get an extensive list of things the athlete needs to improve.
- You might get to the point where you try to simultaneously improve running mechanics, anaerobic threshold and swim technique.
- However, I learned that it takes time to develop something properly.
- Therefore, there is a limited amount of things you can focus on at one time.
- I started to focus on a longer-term view of athlete development.
- Triathlon is an endurance sport, which takes years to develop, so I focused on tackling issues in a broader spectrum.
- When you are trying to push the second threshold on the bike, your run training will impact that aspect.
- So, it would help to prioritise specific aspects over others, which might mean taking a step back in other areas.
- If you are moving forward, it will be the best way to tackle the issue.
Prioritisation of specific parameters to work for improving triathlon performance
- If you take the swim in draft-legal racing, it is critical.
- Therefore, we must understand how much time it takes to develop the ability to swim in the front pack.
- For example, you might have a woman that swims 5min/400m, and they need to be 4min20s/400m to swim in the first group.
- Therefore, it might take 3-4 years to get to that level unless they do not have much training.
- If you do not prioritise it, you know they will not achieve their goals.
- Although it takes four years, that parameter is of high priority.
- Alongside that, there could be low-hanging fruit.
- For example, if we improve tactical decisions in races by increasing their awareness, they can maximise their ability to swim on the hips or the feet.
- While the physiology of swimming is still developing, their performances could increase by their tactical awareness.
- Therefore, it is not that the athlete will not improve for four years but will get little wins along the way.
- It is challenging to quantify the improvements and show athletes how they develop.
Differences in approach for sprint and long-distance events
- In triathlon, you have to train in three disciplines, and the goal is to be as efficient as possible in all three modalities, so you can have the energy to deploy in crucial moments of a race.
- The demands of the race change according to the distance. Moreover, the regulations will also impact race dynamics.
- Therefore, we try to balance the disciplines for the races we are doing.
- In the early part of my coaching career, I worked with the draft-legal side of the sport.
- The technical and tactical awareness of race is critical. It would be best if you had the physiology, but the nuances during the race, like losing two seconds in transition, can mean losing the front group.
- As you progress to the longer distances, the sport does not demand such high-level skills, so there is more margin for error, but the physiological side is much more critical.
- For example, bike performance in long-distance triathlons shifted what reasonable means for me.
- In long-distance triathlons, you will spend the most time on the bike and running, so swimming is less of a priority.
- The sprint distance para-triathlon racing I am currently in depends on impairments and athlete training history, where the limit is not the amount of training you can do.
- Therefore, you have to be creative to find ways to improve performance. So, I developed different work methods that I transferred to other disciplines.
Efficiency in triathlon
- Efficiency is about making "your engine" better at using energy.
- How you move affects an aspect which could significantly impact efficiency.
- There is a tactical element in triathlon that will also impact it.
- The farther you are from the race, the more importance physiology takes in our focus. Whereas technical and tactical elements have more importance closer to the race.
Applying training methodologies to different triathlon modalities
- In long-distance triathlon, there is more focus on the bike.
- While there is much less focus on the bike for para-triathlon sprint athletes, there are many transferable concerning the time you would need to dedicate to develop the aerobic capacity despite the short events.
- You will still focus on working the crucial endurance determinants in short-distance, but I am applying the same aerodynamic concepts for sprint distance as I do for long distances.
- In para-triathlon, athletes have evolved from not caring about aerodynamics to having the same focus as long-distance triathletes.
Pros and cons of a group environment
- It will depend on the value the individual places on the group. However, if people are in a centre like this, they value people group and day-to-day coaching.
- First, I must understand the individual needs and then check for opportunities to put something together.
- Athletes train pretty hard every day, so days where people are more tired, are when we see the benefits of a group environment.
- The cons are managing the balance and understanding the benefits of focusing on each athlete's specificities.
- Our group has world-class athletes, but we also have developing athletes. For these athletes, being in a group like this benefits understanding how the best athletes train and live.
- There are also mundane things like people turning to train with a cold and infecting everyone.
- So, everyone has to understand their role in the group.
- In the UK, we have five training centres, which have been instrumental in our success.
- In long-distance triathlon, you have the opportunity to create a team around you, but most athletes train alone in different scenarios.
- So I think the group environment is crucial.
How different training groups operate around the world
- Typically, groups work on a hierarchical basis.
- The better and more proven you become as an athlete, the more individualisation you will have in training.
- I think you can get far with a generic training group.
- As a young aspiring athlete, you will benefit from being in an environment where you can work with the best, immerse yourself, and learn from more experienced athletes.
- If you have 20 athletes in a group, it is impossible to coach them individually. (maybe you can coach five athletes to a high level)
- However, other athletes can benefit from the group environment.
Creating a group environment in long-distance triathlon
- It would be beneficial if we could create a long-distance training environment.
- It is not challenging to create that because of the lack of funding and people's time. So, training centres focus more on the Olympic sport.
- If you want to create that training centre for long-distance, you should spend about 30k per year, without including the expenses with a team of practitioners or camp and race support crews.
- I encourage athletes that will support them. So, you see people taking care in checking where they base themselves and creating groups.
Triathlon training principles
- If I generally speak across all disciplines, I work on developing an aerobic underpinning and efficiency at the first and second thresholds.
- Each discipline will have its specificities depending on the individual.
- I believe that volume of intensity is a crucial factor to evaluate.
- In swimming, 70-80 % of training would be primarily aerobic.
- We may focus on open water skills.
- I focus on the second threshold, or VO2max, where we focus most of our intensity time.
- Early in the winter, I focus more on anaerobic capacity because it kickstarts the VO2 work well.
- The transferability to open water is a critical aspect.
- We focus on stroke rate and solid tactical awareness considering open water specificity.
Managing intensity on the swim
- It is challenging to prescribe intensity on the pool.
- Over the years, I experimented with various pieces of equipment. However, most times, the equipment is the limiting factor.
- Therefore, I focus on RPE and use that measurement as a consistent athlete training methodology.
- Suppose athletes know how they feel on a given day and their RPE. So, when I prescribe a session, I tend to focus on the time spent on that RPE.
- The first question I ask athletes is asking for RPE, and that measurement is consistent throughout the sessions.
- I think it is essential for athletes to be self-aware.
- Athletes run into trouble when they rely on data to tell them how they feel.
- The gadgets give some evidence, but you must trust how you feel.
- In a race scenario, if something fails, you must rely on yourself and be competent to understand how you feel.
- Athletes should be aware of gadgets' information, but they cannot limit themselves to that information.
Transferring swim training to the open water
- Open water swimming is challenging in the UK.
- During the Summer, we dedicate some sessions to open waters.
- The open water component is far more strength-based. The heart rate threshold in open water is slightly lower than in the pool.
- I will do a lot of paddle work and continuous swimming in the winter. (30-1h of continuous swimming)
- The goal is to develop the open water strength and technical.
- Most age groupers focus so much on technique that they do not have the "swim fitness" to hold that technique for long.
- If you constantly stop every 25-50m, you are altering the stimuli you get from a session.
- If you look at the outlook of swim sessions, there might be so many different sets to "entertain" athletes.
- The most efficient method to develop something is only to swim and not stop so often.
- Moreover, overcoming boredom is a crucial skill long-distance athletes must have to keep focused.
- If you are doing an Ironman, that race has a significant component.
- The intensity distribution sits around 80/20, meaning a significant portion of aerobic riding.
- Depending on the season period, I would prioritise how people are riding aerobically. The idea is to focus on holding an aerodynamic position and understand the demands of the race course. For example, I would prescribe anaerobic work if it is a hilly race. (getting used to over gearing)
- You must be super-efficient around the first threshold if doing half or Ironman racing.
- I would structure at least a week, focusing on developing that.
- If those sessions have proper nutrition intake, the cost of them is relatively low.
- Depending on your anaerobic capacity, we could have a second focus in cycling (second threshold or VO2max).
- I prescribe a couple of bike sessions weekly, and the rest is aerobic training.
- We also do some brick sessions after those aerobic rides.
- Therefore, we should ride according to the course's specifics and ensure you are as efficient as possible.
- The run is the most individual modality. It will depend on what riders can tolerate.
- Running is the discipline that leads to most injuries.
- The first threshold is the primary focus, and the shorter the event, the more critical the second threshold and VO2max play a role.
- It is similar concerning intensity distribution throughout the week.
- We will run primarily aerobic, and intensity will depend on the athlete's tolerability.
- In para-triathlon, there are many more asymmetries that you need to consider.
- The quicker you run, the higher the load.
- We need to consider also the total load of the week, in terms of swim, cycling and running.
- Often running the discipline occupies the least amount of time, but it is where you will have more injuries. Therefore, intensity plays a significant role in your mechanical load.
- Your running biomechanics will probably change with the type of sessions you could do before running.
- It will depend on the athlete's tolerability and the emphasis on training.
- If you focus on an intensity training block, you need to account for the recovery period because adaptations happen when you recover.
- I have had athletes that need frequent rest (rest day each week).
- The diesel engine can go for weeks without lowering training quality.
- Generally, the more diesel you are, the minor damage you can do to yourself.
- The number of years in sport also matters.
- However, different athletes have different training strategies.
- As I work in a federation, I have access to physiology support.
- The most critical thing with testing is that the protocols you develop must be relevant to what you are trying to understand and must be measured consistently.
- We have experimented with different testing protocols over the years. (submaximal or maximal tests; lactate test)
- However, we should consider what is most helpful for the individual.
- We do testing protocols in submaximal/maximal efforts across swim/bike/run and try to establish a more triathlon-specific protocol. (how bike influences running)
- My experience with critical power is good for understanding the athlete's limitations. However, I find those submaximal/maximal tests help athletes to understand how we should distribute sessions throughout the week.
- The bit where we are focusing now is transferability through different sports.
- The submaximal protocol we do is four-minute stages for cycling and running. (we experimented with lactate and Vo2)
- However, in the run, we do the max test off the back of the submaximal test.
Para-triathlon classification systems
- There are 12 categories in para-triathlon (6 male; 6 female).
- There is a PTWC (wheelchair category, H1 and H2, which is a factor within the wheelchair category - depends on the range of disabilities)
- H1 are for athletes with more disabilities, so there is a time differential to account for that.
- PTVI is for vision-impaired athletes; for the wheelchair category, there are V1 (fully blind) and V2/V3 partially sighting.
- In each category, a time correction is performed to the athlete's results to ensure the depth of the field.
- You also have the PTS (Standing athletes) with categories ranging from 2-5.
- At the beginning of their careers, athletes are national first; to race internationally, they must qualify in the racing category.
- This classification often alters, with some athletes moving every year.
Challenges para-triathletes face in their day-to-day training
- It will depend on the athlete's impairment.
- Our program does not have an athlete fully blind, so all our athletes can swim in a pool and ride on a tandem regardless.
- Athletes can run solo as well.
- In the last three years, I had to review some nuances. For example, if you refer to the pace clock, we have to focus on controlling the time because athletes cannot do that because of their impairment.
- You adjust things based on their needs.
- For wheelchair athletes, their ability to train will depend on the adaptability their community built for them to use the facilities.
- The most significant limitations come from the lack of thought in creating disability-friendly environments. (which is a frustration for athletes)
- Wheelchair athletes do not want to make a scene and accept the limiting conditions they encounter.
- One of my frustrations in sports is that they create racing in environments that limit the presence of para-triathletes (exits from swimming pools, briefings in hotels that they cannot enter)
- The event organisations could better consider the needs of the athletes.
Differences between para-triathletes and typical triathletes
- The demands of the race are different.
- Field sizes are smaller. Athletes go in groups of 9.
- Therefore, the fight in swimming does not exist as much. So, open water swimming skills are not as crucial.
- In cycling, it is non-drafting (10m separations). Therefore, you do not need to train the sudden group accelerations or learn how to ride in a group.
- However, there are similarities between para-triathlon and long-distance triathlon.
- In the running, it is close to regular racing.
- Depending on the category, the race dynamic is different.
- For wheelchair athletes, it is about pushing, so the time spent pushing is less than for runners.
- We have to be more conscious of training volume, and impairments might limit the volume of training athletes can tolerate.
- With para-triathletes, we work more around disability.
- Moreover, sport development is still in its infancy.
- You can have athletes with little sporting history achieving success.
- For example, the gold medalist in the Commonwealth Games started the sport only one year ago. Of course, this would not happen on the Olympic side because the depth and development are much higher.
- Therefore, athletes can achieve success pretty fast. For athletes and staff, it is challenging to understand this path.
Things that Bex learnt and developed with her work in Para-triathlon
- There are probably nuances that affected my work.
- However, I work with individual athletes, so every approach differs.
- The thing we do more is about focusing more time on the equipment.
- For example, I have an athlete that is a "below-elbow amputee".
- Therefore, you must understand how to adapt a bike for her to ride safely.
- These problems allowed for some creative solutions. For example, the athlete was riding a Specialize Shiv with a handlebar setup, meaning the base bar folds inwards and is removable. (making it more aerodynamic)
- George has an ankle limitation and a significant leg discrepancy. So, for example, using different shoes with different carbon plates allowed him to adapt and perform better.
Three pieces of advice to help triathletes to improve performance
- First, you should be clear on your priorities. Some people have aspirations but do not understand the priorities that will lead to that goal and make space for them.
- Some athletes want to improve a specific part but do not give space to develop it and end up overtrained or injured.
- Be patient. It is one of the hardest things to do. Athletes might not see improvements short term. Triathlon is an endurance sport, so it is about building years of experience and enjoying the process of training and getting better.
Common training mistakes athletes do
- Generally, age groups do too much "grey zone training".
- Athletes do not have much time, so they try to train moderately hard.
- For periods, it can work. But if you do it for many years, it will not improve much.
- People want to improve things but do not give them space to implement. So, they end up wanting to do more and more. (try to prioritise things)
- Another topic is that well-supported athletes do not want to support themselves without the help of federations. With that, you lose the motivation to keep training because people do things for you. Too much of that could lead the decreased time focused on athletes developing themselves.
Things that Bex changed in her methodology
- When I started coaching, I would be "on" all the time.
- If athletes were training, I would feel the need to be present to show the athlete I wanted to be present.
- I learned that being balanced is critical, where I manage time so I can be present at the most crucial parts of the year.
- I can relax a bit during periods when athletes can work more alone.
- This point is crucial because I work better when I am relaxed, but it is challenging to do that when all you want is to help people.
- Doing that would make me become a "grey zone" coach.
- Therefore, I try to periodise my time with athletes.
- This aspect is something I have been working on so that I can be more sustainable as a coach.
- Stepping down as a para-triathlon coach is a step I must take to achieve that goal and create space for myself.
What is your favourite book, blog or resource?
Black and White: The Way I See It by Richard Williams
What is an important habit that benefited athletically, professionally or personally?
Who is someone you have looked up to or who has inspired you?
Anybody committed to improving themselves.
LINKS AND RESOURCES:
- Bex' website and Instagram
- Training, tech and physiology with Mikael Eriksson and Matthew DesRoaches | EP#352
- Muscle fiber types, recovery and training adaptations, and overreaching with Phil Bellinger, PhD | EP#297
- Black and White: The Way I See It - book by Richard Williams (father of Venus and Serena Williams)