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Paulo Sousa is the coach behind one of the longest-standing and most successful international squads on the short-course triathlon circuit. Seven of his athletes qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. In addition to short-course specialists like Taylor Spivey and Summer Rappaport, he also coaches middle-distance specialists Paula Findlay and Eric Lagerstrom. In this episode we discuss the squad, the short-course triathlon scene, and get to hear Paulo's thoughts on training and coaching.
In this episode you'll learn about:
- How does his squad operate, who are the current members, and where do they base themselves for training camps?
- How the athletes train and recover between races
- Differences between a private squad like Paulo's and federation-led squads
- Paulo's perspectives on training, including the importance of not putting yourself in a box
- The basis of the swim, bike and run program of the squad
- Coaching Eric Lagerstron and Paula Findlay who are not training for short-course racing and are not members of the squad
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- I am 51 years old high-performance triathlon coach focusing primarily on the Olympic Triathlon.
- I started the squad in 2010; since then, it has had many models with different athletes.
- I feel it is a different entity with different people and coaching methodologies every year.
- Leading to Tokyo, we focused deeper on the Olympic triathlon, and I have some athletes racing in the World Triathlon scene.
- I also have some renowned athletes that focus on long-distance triathlon. (e.g. Paula Finley)
- We had seven athletes in Tokyo.
Squad training camps
- Time spent doing training camps changed throughout the years.
- It will depend on where we can gather the maximum number of athletes in the same place.
- We have a camp at the start of the season (we will be there between January and April) and a camp in altitude.
- We also have a camp to prepare for the end of the season in September/October.
- The training camp schedule will depend on the race calendar.
- The training camp at the end of the season will depend on the World Triathlon Series Grand Final. If this event is in a cold place (e.g. Edmonton, Canada), the event will be earlier (end of August/September).
- This year is in Abu Dhabi so it will be in the last week of November.
- In the last few years, we have been having training camps in the south of Portugal at the beginning of the year.
- We focus on altitude camps during the summer and go to Font Romeu to do that camp. In the past, we would go to Arizona.
- The primary decision for these camps will depend on what will work concerning triathlon training. There are not many locations optimal for triathlon training camps where we work freely.
- We have a flexible way of working. At the squad, there are athletes with different levels of development, necessities and race schedules.
- The camps are there when it works for the athlete. We do training camps where athletes can train in groups to prepare racing blocks.
- As we have large groups, we will end up with many people working at the same place together.
- Even before covid, athletes would be in different locations from mine.
- There is work in the squad when I am not there, so the mixed model of online and presential coaching will always be there.
- With covid, the 2020 and 2021 seasons put everyone in that model.
- One strength of working with Paula and Erik is that I have known them for an extended period, so it ends up being easy to work with them at a distance.
- I spent a week with them in Oregon, and it was great to work with them in person and check their training environment.
Differences between different squads
- Many squads probably got some inspiration from older squads like mine. We published episodes back in 2015-2016 on how squads work and how we operate.
- I believe that was a starting point for many coaches to start their squads worldwide.
- I think most squads work similarly to ours.
- The primary difference is that some squads get support from the national federations, meaning they have more resources like a private squad.
- They end up doing things we cannot do because of their budget.
- Most coaches use the formula that we typically use.
Motivation for athletes to join a private squad instead of a federation squad
- In 2018, when I worked for the US federation, they worked more centralised, meaning I was a federation coach and had a federation squad.
- Since then, they have gone away from that model.
- The most prominent drawback with the federation squad is that decisions are not only made with the athletes in mind.
- Some decisions will fit the federation strategy and not the individual strategy.
- A private squad like mine focuses on the athlete at 100 %, meaning there are no broader considerations when we make decisions. Athletes make the decisions, and they will depend on their needs/wants.
- I believe this can liberate the athletes who can only focus on triathlon.
- Athletes do not get away from politics in a sport where federations have much power.
- However, I have experience being a private coach and can tell that when you are a federation coach, the athletes from that country feel the politics daily when they are on a federation squad.
- In private squads, they will not deal with those issues.
- Athletes can focus on performance, and once in a while, through a form of an email or phone call, federation politics will come in.
- However, athletes will not be "immersed" in it.
Differences athletes find when they enter the squad
- Experiences are individual, and they will depend on the environment they were in before.
- The most prominent strength we have is we can maintain "dramas" to a low level and can focus on the work, improvement and performance.
- In other squads, there might be a "high school" environment that we try to avoid.
- Concerning training, many training programs are intensity-focused.
- I receive many athletes who are used to doing much more and burn out from that intensity.
- Athletes lack "real endurance" to approach the races we do.
- As triathlon is not a sport as established as others, many coaches are still looking to find their system and end with programs with too much intensity.
- Athletes come to our squad, and there is a shock because we do less intensity and more volume.
- The impact those high-intensity programs have on the bodies throughout the years makes a significant difference in their performance.
Balancing the racing calendar
- We will adapt the training periodisation to the racing calendar.
- In triathlon, we still program training like running.
- You have 2-3 peaks over the season, and periodisation is essential at this point.
- The reality of triathlon is that you end up racing a lot and doing 2-3 races in a row. Therefore, periodisation comes from necessity and not from a textbook.
- We have more classic periodisation during the offseason (January-April).
- Training becomes specific when the season starts, and any periodisation goes off the window.
- Concepts like singular block periodisation are more accessible to apply to World Triathlon Racing than more traditional models.
- However, it all depends on the racing calendar.
Training in a racing block
- In between races, the constraint level is high.
- If athletes race every week, you also must consider logistic issues because athletes will lose at least a day of training.
- Athletes will not have many opportunities to train.
- Forcing training between races will not be a good idea, but you have to accept the reality that your fitness levels will not be fantastic after you race three weeks in a row.
- However, racing sharpness is high, and fitness levels stabilise because of the specific stimulus.
- It is a tricky balance to maintain training load and race performance.
- I privilege freshness on race day over trying to maintain training to keep the fitness up.
- Athletes must be fresh and as sharp as possible on race day, which might mean different things for different athletes.
- If we have a week to do some volume, that is what we will do to prepare for the next event.
Differences in training volume between racing and preparation periods
- Honestly, I am unsure how many hours some athletes do in race weeks because I am focusing on what athletes need to do daily.
- I have a concept for the week and adjust sessions to that concept and the constraints I have for the week.
- For example, we have methodologies that athletes have done, and it is like a "plug and play" training protocol that athletes execute leading to a race.
- We do it like this because we have done it many times and performed well.
- The similarity of the training program helps athletes to perform as well.
- For example, we have a protocol for weeks like the week between the Super League in Munique and Malibu. (constraints: transcontinental flight and racing in 3 days)
- Athletes know what they will do, so it is only putting that concept into practice.
- The volume and intensity will change a bit, but the processes are familiar to the athlete.
- We are not inventing something for a specific occasion.
- We want to establish our processes so athletes can focus on executing on race day.
Training intensity during race week
- You can have a training matrix concept for the week, and athletes make inputs concerning volume and intensity by feel.
- They have ranges of volume and intensity and adjust those ranges to their needs.
- My experience is that even if I send the same training plan for different athletes, the way they adjust training and ranges will vary to their characteristics.
- Athletes adjust training and volume depending on their personal preferences.
- I do not focus on finding the right formula but on finding what works for the athlete each week.
- Athlete autonomy is essential, but athlete ownership is also crucial. (the athlete making their training program individual to them)
- It allows the "formula" to work much better with athletes.
- We can accomplish this with belief: the coach gave this program, and I believe this is the best program, and also with individuality: one athlete might do five sets, but the other will do six because that is the best for that athlete.
- I aim for athletes to have as many inputs on their training as possible. For example, we might go to the track, and I will tell athletes what range we will work with (e.g. 14-18 400m repeats). Athletes can choose how much they can do on that day.
External influences in the athletes' choices
- Athletes can get influenced by what others are doing, but this will be part of their learning process.
- I empowered them to make their choices and think that athletes do an excellent job focusing on themselves and not on the squad.
- Everyone must focus on their actions in a squad with many athletes, not trying to compete with other squad members.
- Then, we use the group as a lifting environment for them in a positive way.
Paulo's training philosophy
- I do not have a "standard" approach to training.
- Athletes have a broader mind of what we do in training, and we might change things regularly.
- Moreover, athlete input will affect our process.
- Specific athletes like to train in a specific way, and my job is to provide stimuli they will embrace.
- We tend to operate more daily and less about the training content and what we do.
- We also adjust things on athlete feedback.
- I tend to "prescribe" more polarised training. However, it seems that everything is polarised training.
- However, we also have been doing much "FatMax" training on the bike and applying the "Ingerbristen" concept on the run, which is not a polarised training concept.
- Therefore, I would say I have a flexible approach to training.
- I prescribe training based on the specificities or the personal preferences athletes have.
Athlete training execution
- We work with a few weekly training templates where the athletes know what to expect.
- For example, we might do a hard swim/bike session on Tuesday, so athletes know what to expect.
- When athletes come in, many seem to do much by feeling. (if they feel great, they will smash a session and not care about "tomorrow's session")
- Better execution means athletes maintain their ability to have good days one after the other.
- We build this over weeks to have consistency in execution and a consistent process.
- The sessions are essential but achieving a level of execution is crucial for athletes.
Essential aspects in each training modality
- We do many things on the swim.
- We have had a solid swimming program for many years that allows athletes with a swimming background to perform at a high level and develop most athletes.
- Swimming programs focus on consistency. We have a swim program where we swim 28-30 km per week.
- The swim program we have is very polarised. We have two sessions per week where we do some intensity (threshold/VO2 sets)
- The bulk of the training is at "cruising intensity" (below LT1, but not super easy) - For example, 45-50 min sets.
- For this session, we started introducing some technique work, sprint and kick work in the form of pre-sets.
- So, sets for this season look more like traditional swimming sessions, which was a significant change.
- The program is also polarised in cycling—two intensity sessions, with volume at low intensity.
- The bike program looks to achieve consistency with a more polarised approach.
- Concerning running, I have used different concepts throughout the years. My latest concept is threshold running with more volume, which works well for some athletes.
- Many athletes have been training in a more traditional approach, but we have worked on having better intensity control in the last couple of seasons.
- We encourage athletes to work slower at their threshold training work and try to slow them down.
Simulating cycling races
- Most "racing-specific work", especially with women, will be more on technical work, which is not easy worldwide.
- Once you start to do race pace in a crit environment, I think the safety level is not high.
- I have some safety concerns at race intensity. So, if we are doing "group efforts", we will do those on roads that are not too technical.
- The technical aspect of riding comes from riding in a group.
- For the men, I had the luck of having excellent athletes on the bike. So, we do not do much technical riding on a course.
- We have some sessions you do not see in triathlon training books.
- I am sure triathlon coaches can access the same power files as mine (highly variable power riding).
- Of course, having a high threshold and a high fitness level is helpful.
- Having sessions that are demanding and specific to races is also crucial.
- When you are in a paceline, you will have natural accelerations and spikes in power.
- Moreover, accelerations after each corner are a crucial aspect of the triathlon, so we have sessions that will have that topic in mind.
Hill repeats on the run
- We use some hill running at the beginning of the season.
- Hill running and its maintenance are athlete driven.
- Athletes want to maintain that hill work during the season.
- They have more significant importance in California. (a hilly region)
- Monte Gordo in Portugal is not a hilly region, so you might have to drive to find hills. Moreover, this place has low traffic, and we did some sessions where a car would not pass by us.
- Historically, programs that focus on hills had locations in hilly regions.
- The advantage of hill running is that you can safely do high-intensity work concerning impact.
- I prefer hill sessions in favour of track sessions to reduce injury risk.
- My worst nightmare is when athletes have an accident, and I would hate to tell athletes to ride on those roads.
- We stayed in California and had some accidents there. Things in the US are not improving in this aspect.
- The only place in the US I see to have a training camp is in Flagstaff because the options to ride are safe.
Things Paulo has changed over the years in his coaching
- I change my mind often.
- I think changing is a sign of maturity. As the years went by, I could change my mind often when confronted with evidence.
- I do not see value in having a correct answer because I have had it for a long time.
- I see value in training for the right reasons and have a good performance in finding the correct answer.
- Athletes often come to me with the correct answer to different questions, which makes me change my mind.
- Being stubborn is not a good thing in coaching. I believe being adaptable and changing your way in the face of evidence is a positive characteristic of a coach.
- I have changed my mind about so many things.
Particular topics Paulo is currently researching to improve his coaching
- The first one is to try to converge the squad to continue working better and better.
- Over the years, characteristics in how we worked are leading us to "an ideal working methodology".
- I want to keep finding those things as part of my coaching development.
- I am looking at the primary aspects that have been working throughout the years so that we can develop more.
- This concurrent process connects to changing my mind and putting "away" things I believed were good.
- The second thing I am looking into is being flexible and developing better working environments with athletes (with my presence or not).
- For example, we had a camp in Font Romeu in France, and when I arrived, everyone was there, and it was a fantastic camp.
- At the same time, we are working towards improving the training environment, even if only three athletes are together, where I can join and work with them.
- Finding flexible coaching environments that work is part of what I do.
- Another aspect I am looking to is finding ways to get the ownership and commitment of the athletes by embracing what we do.
- This area has required me growth concerning letting go of control and being open with different ways of working with athletes so that they are in control of what they do and creating a relationship with me where we are more and more on the same page.
- These concepts are a bit abstract, but they are things I am always asking to become a better coach.
Three pieces of advice for athletes to improve their endurance performance
- Concerning the endurance training process, athletes should find a sustainable process that they can repeat and do today, tomorrow or next week.
- Athletes need to look at their surroundings, and they need to find a sustainable environment.
- I do not think it is a good motivation just to get to the finish line. You must enjoy the process and live for today; the finish line will come.
- Another thing is the concept of health. The level of injuries is incredibly high in triathlon.
- While the injury rates in our squad are lower than average, you can always do better, and we focus more on this.
- First, we have to look at the overall training load. One thing is the training load you think you can do, and the other is the training load you should do.
- In running, there is a trend to ignore warning signs, which develop into injuries because athletes do not pay attention to them.
- It does not mean we cannot prevent injuries, but focusing on health is crucial.
- The third advice is that triathlon is a prominent part of athletes' lives. If it is, embrace it.
What is your favourite book, blog or resource?
I have not read a training book in a long time. I do not listen to many podcasts. I read the show notes of "That Triathlon Show", which are excellent.
The essential resources are scientific papers focused on endurance training. I also try to find books related to coaching and personal growth that have concepts that interest me.
What is an important habit that benefited athletically, professionally or personally?
A critical habit was creating a "soft discipline" for myself and those around me, meaning on time or delivering what people expect from me. If I have "soft discipline", those around me will eventually have it. For example, things should not be to the minute in camps or training sessions. Over time, I realised that I could be a disciplined person without being "a robot".
Who is someone you have looked up to or who has inspired you?
There are many people with solid ideas that impacted the way I think. However, no one will have all the inspiration and guidance. People's ideas are the strength, not the people themselves. You can also learn by seeing what people do imperfectly. Nevertheless, the most prominent source of inspiration is my athletes' performance and seeing our daily work coming to fruition.