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Coach and professional triathlete Melanie McQuaid (still going strong at 49) returns to That Triathlon Show for another interview, this time focusing on Ironman and 70.3 distance training and racing.
In this episode you'll learn about:
- Mel's overall approach to training for long-distance triathlon
- Diving into specifics on swimming, biking and running
- What training looks like early in the year (right now) far from racing
- Pacing in long-distance triathlon
- Running biomechanics
- How Mel has stayed competitive as a professional athlete while approaching her 50th birthday
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- I'm Melanie McQuade, and I won three XTERRA World Championships and two of the ITU Multisports.
- Before that, I was a mountain bike racer, racing for the Canadian national team.
- I raced with the national road team as well. (been to the UCI road world championships)
- I attempted to become an actual road racer before I embarked on a long career in XTERRA with a lot of success before I switched to Ironman 70.3 in 2012. That year, I went to Oceanside, and in 2015 I did my first Ironman.
- I proceeded to shatter my ankle and spent about four years rehabbing.
- Currently, I coach a small squad of athletes under the Melrad coaching brand (Melrad Racing Team). Still, I am gaining a little notoriety for refusing to retire as a pro.
- My Ironman racing has been continually improving into the 50s this year.
- I will continue racing as a pro this year and attempt to achieve the last few goals on my bucket list: qualify for Kona, win an Ironman, and potentially choose a fast race and go under nine hours.
Melanie's training approach to long-distance triathlon
- Coaching is a relationship between two people.
- Athletes aren't machines, so you can't only apply an algorithm to a human.
- There's so much more to that.
- If I look at my philosophy, I go through critical values because knowing these help you decide what you will do. You'll only feel good about your decision if they align with those values.
- My philosophy is growth and health.
- It explains a lot explains why I have one dog or why I want to continue being healthy for a long time. It explains why I'm like really ravenous about education.
- I have learned so much in the past five years. Every time I learn something, it opens up another door for me to learn more.
- During the pandemic, I was assessing my weaknesses and reflecting on training (strength training and triathlon programs). I got the information, mentorship and an internship on those topics.
- Growth as a coach is super significant to me.
- If I look at my coaching philosophy, my mission statement is to uncover the athlete's potential and then use my experience to be a powerful influence on the habits and decision-making of athletes to create this self-confidence in their competence.
- If you look at athletes, athletes are so unique in business, so it's essential as a coach to set athletes up to have those skills that make them become those people,
- Sometimes you have to be reverse-engineered when you get an athlete in their 40s that didn't get the long-term development of a young athlete.
- It will help if you reverse engineer what that development was to like set them up later.
Example of its application
- I give a lot of advice and empower the athlete to make the final decision.
- If that athlete is a professional athlete, I will be more stern and firm in the decisions. However, then there's still ultimately going to get the decision.
- If it's an age group athlete, I give more freedom. It is their life, so they must look at a problem and ultimately decide.
- I had an age group athlete who was older but very fast, and she got injured unrelated to sport.
- That injury was not resolving, but she had qualified for the world championships.
- If she were at her 100% potential, I do not doubt she'd be a world champion.
- During this time, this injury was persistent, and it wasn't getting better. I didn't feel good about continuing to pursue this world championship when potentially that injury would affect her ability to enjoy the sport for her whole life.
- She decided that race was worth it, but for me, it was not.
- There will be another race, and you need to be patient with getting better.
- You can't overlook injury or technical deficiencies.
- We were not on the same page, and I wasn't the right coach for her then.
- Should I quit and give up on her while she's injured?
- We shouldn't be doing this.
- If we hear the philosophy of some high-performance coaches, this bias puts you in place. A high-performance coach works with top-level athletes that are going to the Olympics. In his mind, to stay there, you will constantly be on that razor's edge, dealing with injuries.
- I feel I could still coach at that level, but I would always say I would rather have an athlete with untapped potential because we were
- Patient, and we got to the race versus this constant cycle of athletes not even being able to get to the event because you'll get athletes very compulsive and numbers oriented with no patience.
- For those athletes, I'd be the yin to their yang.
- They need to get what they want, and athletes don't do enough interviewing to understand their coach.
- You have to reverse engineer athletic development, and athletes need to have a base of athleticism and technical proficiency to achieve this potential.
- I do a Monday Mobility class, and it's not just mobility.
- Aaron Carson has all these pro athletes doing her stuff.
- What I do is like Monday's athleticism class, where I give athletes tools they can bring into their training.
- Many triathletes have a minimal range of athleticism, and that limited range limits their potential.
- All three sports have a technical aspect.
- I emphasize athletes having a good body position to start with. I encourage them to come to me for training camps to teach this because if they can't float and roll in the water, it doesn't matter what you do for training because floating, rolling and breathing set everything else up.
- That's a big part of my coaching.
- I get people to learn that because you're just wasting time, and I'm pretty firm, but some athletes don't want to do it.
- They want to sprint 25s and 50s all the time, so they want to go out the first 100 of an 1800-meter swim and then be tired on the bike.
- If it were a pro, I would be very firm, but if it's an age group athlete, this is a hobby.
- They need to learn how to swim.
- A lot of master's programs and swimming programs are designed around athletes that swim for three minutes or four minutes.
- In a triathlon, your average 40-year-old has to swim for 35 minutes.
- You need to swim 500 and 1000-meter repeats with good body position, building aerobic fitness in your arms because your arms don't get fit running or biking.
- Longer swims with good technique are good, even if they're not fast.
- That approach still makes them quite resilient to the swim so they can ride better.
- On the bike, people need to have a good bike position and a range of cadences to tolerate courses that aren't flat.
- You also need to train men differently than women.
- If you take the equivalent triathlete, female athletes have their threshold closer to their maximum.
- For them, pulling the ceiling up is essential and for males, managing some percentage of that.
- The threshold approach works well for super talents but never works for girls.
- For some people, creating that aerobic base must first be there, so if you haven't been training for a long time, doing anything will make you better.
- For beginners, you'll have this excellent phase of improving all the time.
- For running, I also have a technical bias.
- Joint angles dictate functions, so you need to set up your joints properly to tolerate running loading.
- There's a bandwidth in which you will be fine, but outside of that, it will be a problem.
- Most of the time, if I see something, that is a problem.
- You have to change what they're doing because it's outside the bandwidth.
- Each runner will be different because they set up their races very differently.
- Everybody over 30 needs to be lifting weights and particularly women. Their ceiling has to come up, and weightlifting is a big part.
- During the pandemic, I went and did an assistant coach program in Phoenix with Altis.
- They're a group that coaches sprints and hurdles primarily.
- The two coaches that I interacted with were Dan Paff and Stu McMillan. I didn't know what to expect from going down there, but I just wanted to be exposed to the best coaches worldwide and see what they are doing in their programs.
- They had the Chinese national team before the Tokyo Olympics training down there.
- There were 400 meters runners and some sprinters, and I just looked at their daily training environment.
- There's no doubt that you can extrapolate and regress the biomechanic bandwidth for a sprinter creating that amount of speed and acceleration down to an Ironman run because, no matter what, the human body exists within a bandwidth.
- Understanding that has been important in deciding to intervene with certain athletes.
- Athletes have individual problems and requirements, and you must consider how to approach those problems.
- ALTIS has been great in terms of being exposed to high-performance coaches and proceeded to do three mentorships with Dan Paff.
- Dan Paff is one of the most successful Olympic coaches of all time.
- Mentorship from experienced and successful coaches is tremendous for coaches.
- Female coaches often get the opposite approach in terms of helping me to continue to get better.
- I'm actually in "the super mentorship".
- I have to do a lot of reflection and discussion with other coaches at this mentorship level.
- I'm in a third one, where there's a lot of interaction with other sports coaches, talking about why we do things.
- Triathlon coaches need to learn from other sports, and it's been invaluable to talk to like a variety of other sports.
Examples of what has changed in the running training approach
- Your feet, ankle and calves are the springs you bounce on the ground.
- If your ankle doesn't work, it's challenging to run.
- It took me three years to run again after I shattered my ankle in 2016.
- Based on what I know now, the rehab from that fracture has changed.
- (weight room, approach the ground with your foot, range of motion and strength at your hip flexors and pelvis, differences between bike versus running)
- Someone like me with a cycling background has a short rectus femoris (big muscle on the front of your quads) to produce vertical force because you're sitting.
- Take that rectus femoris, which wants to push into the ground when standing up. It will lead to overstriding and not having any hip extension when you're running.
- Finding that balance between cycling and running is essential.
- It explains a lot when you look at the different postures when people are running.
- I learnt how to build a strong spring, which is your foot, ankle and calf.
- It would help if you had the pretension of that spring before you land.
- I coach many athletes over 35, biased by this barefoot trend that created this incorrect notion that you need to land on your midfoot.
- Most athletes point their toes at the ground to try and get their midfoot to land there. (everything about that is wrong)
Differences in men and women
- I got a cyclist with a Crossfit background.
- The anaerobic capacity of a crossfitter is high, and she was confident that she was good because all the evidence indicated that.
- However, her sprints were low, so her previous coach would tell her to work on sprinting.
- Suppose we have someone who's a crossfitter, and she has evidence of capability like competence from her racing. In that case, even if TrainingPeaks does not give you a high number, the numbers are not correlating with reality.
- Some cycling coaches at the pro tour level may disagree with me.
- Genetics plays a role in the type of capacity you're good at.
- It shows itself early, so people know when they're good at it. Then, this athlete had already done a lot of the training that would be appropriate for that capacity (gym training). Still, that coach should have considered that she didn't have a power meter on her bike.
- Therefore, all these numbers from power were from sprinting on a trainer. Sprint performance will be lower outside if you do not have all the fancy gear.
- This athlete needs to get to the sprint right, so you got to look at racing dynamics as well.
- I was very successful with it in some crits, but you need the aerobic capacity to get there these days.
- It all comes down to like building this complete athlete. There was a female athlete who had all that max power, well above her threshold but was inexperienced.
- Athletes come into cycling and triathlon with different backgrounds, and they can constantly challenge your preconceived notions.
Endurance in swimming
- In Victoria, the pinnacle coaching group does a Friday swim, which is very triathlon specific.
- It's an excellent workout for traffic.
- You don't get proper aerobic development from the 100s.
- The issue with swimming and running versus cycling is the technical bandwidth. The margin of error is the largest in swimming, so a massive amount of inefficiency can happen when swimming.
- If you're not a 100m coach and look at these sprinters, it's a narrow bandwidth. These sprint mechanics is a valuable tool to understand how you create speed running because most people don't understand running and don't know what they're doing.
- They can move faster than walking, but technique limits your max speed, so you're just leaking power.
- In cycling, you're encased in a limited bandwidth of movement.
- Your knees move in and out, your hips back and forth and your upper body rock.
- These are things that you can see where you're leaking power.
- It is easier to correct than swinging your shin when you're running.
Example training week for an age group training for Ironman
- Everybody's program is different because everybody approaches their race differently.
- For example, I have an athlete that has done nothing for four weeks, staying in Singapore, lying by the pool.
- He's like a case study for me on an athlete who exceeded everybody's expectations and has the most days off.
- He has a young family, and he invests in this family when he's off.
- He has a lot of muscle to recover and trains better when he's fresher.
- Many athletes would only tolerate doing something for a short time, but he has proven that's the best for him.
- For some, this time of year would be a lot of technical swimming, so we would only start focusing on the actual fitness base later.
- This work is about longer intervals at 80% Ironman pace swimming, where they're just getting used to a rhythm to build an aerobic base.
- For some of the group, it is good to go straight into fitness because they don't want to do it.
- They're doing a lot of body position strength work, kicking at 45 degrees and practising breathing, holding their body at 45 degrees, essentially, working on lat mobility to be more efficient and improve engagement in that position.
- Holding yourself on your side is a strength exercise, so that's primarily what most people are doing swimming.
- In the run, they want to build up running or cycling, so I like circuits in this period because everybody I coach only has a little time. I want them to do my mobility class, and I stream it on Mondays if anybody wants to try it.
- Then, they'll do a full-on strength session related to their like technical proficiency with strength. Some of them can't do a proper squad or a hinge, so they need body weight.
- I have this strength program called "1 by 20s", which is base-athleticism strength work that is mostly body weight. It strengthens your ligaments, and it is them that can't tolerate the high-resistance training, so there's only a point in going heavy once your body's ready.
- Others are lifting heavier, and I have a third strength workout (run + strength; bike + strength), where they'll do some circuits.
- They're doing something to get three strength sessions to fit in with their training week to avoid losing the sport-specific transfer session.
- The circuits are great for potentiation (recruit fibres, and then you go on the bike)
- I find that that that work is excellent in this, like general preparation, no matter your goals and training program.
- We'll vary this by doing more running, strength or biking when we don't have a lot of snow.
- There's a lot of benefit to athletes who race these linear sports to do lateral movements to create a better, more range of motion and competence in terms of strength.
- So I encourage athletes to do other stuff to prepare for the season, whether cross-country skiing, tennis or squash.
- My mobility class comes in this part, where we introduce some drills and competencies.
- Moreover, we are working on awareness of how they're running this time of year in training camps (I have a camp coming up this weekend in Victoria).
- You must train at various paces and speeds because you must consistently recruit many systems.
- General athletes are probably doing a little bit of tempo, some strides and then circuits in their hills (moderate to hard intensity along with the strength)
- It's not just easy running. Those with more time can use that extra time for easy running, but their long runs would not be long hard Ironman-type runs. (long hilly trails)
- Self-coach athletes can change the surface that they run (doing more than just run out the door on the pavement)
- Moreover, athletes want to have a reasonable pace, so running on the trails where your pace is irrelevant is challenging for these athletes.
- I ran with a strong runner locally. It took us 1h30 to do 13 km on a run because it was hilly and technical.
- That component of running is so important this time of year, and I want athletes to not worry about their Strava pace.
- They get that strength in by the challenge of the terrain versus having to like neurologically motivate themselves to run hard.
- You want to have the broadest base of competency.
- Some athletes fear running off-road, so I tell them to hike.
- If they want to make it harder, wear a weight vest, which strengthens feet, ankles, hips and back.
- If you're worried about injuries, hiking will be hugely beneficial.
- If you can't run on trails, it says your ankle and foot strength is inadequate.
- Many people just put orthotics in their shoes for the rest of their life and overlook that their feet and ankles aren't strong.
- Nobody would accept if somebody put a brace on your wrist for the rest of your life.
- Orthotics are suitable for acute intervention and athletes with a significant leg length morphological discrepancy.
- There are always people falling outside of the bandwidth that requires some intervention.
- Therefore, this time of year is good for incorporating foot strength training into the programming.
- New athletes often come to me and can't pick up the big toe.
- For example, when I was an Xterra athlete, I wasn't good at running hills, and downhill's when I was an Xterra athlete because I didn't do enough of this work.
Cycling work examples
- In cycling, you funnel towards specificity.
- Training Depends on how fast the athlete will go.
- For an athlete that's not that fast (a 70.3 takes them 6-7 hours), their training will probably be closer to their Ironman training because it is about a "long fuel-based survival".
- For faster athletes, training for a 70.3 can look much like an Olympic distance race.
- When you're training for an Olympic distance race, it is about rehearsal and training on what pace you can hold, fuel utilization and implementation.
- A solid over-under range for faster athletes at the 70.3 distance is crucial because they can optimize how fast they can go in certain sections.
- You can train for a half marathon the same way you run a 10k when you're fast.
- If it's a slower athlete, we work on economy and mechanics and then try to figure out what we need to work on the most.
- In female athletes, I'm working on maximum strength.
- Suppose they're a beginner. In that case, it could be the whole season on durability and holding an aerodynamic position in your trial bike. (fatigue resistance all year)
- We're working on that fatigue resistance early for somebody racing a shorter race. Then, you should dial-up speed closer to increase the specificity and extend the pace you want to hold for the race.
- You do shorter, faster bouts now and then, make it longer, or focus on a more prolonged duration now and speed it up later.
- I need to be appropriately certified to do bike fits myself because I would like to do that myself.
- I don't have that training, but I can see what's good and wrong.
- I know a lot about a narrow range of stuff (common injuries for
- running, cycling, swimming, promising strength approaches). Still, if somebody were a badminton player and had some strange injury, I would not understand the mechanism of bad or anything about it.
- So they need to go to a physio or a specific strength coach like Aaron, who knows much more than I do.
- What I do in the mobility Monday class is focus on the things required to access that ideal position that they're going to be able to get in later and do the work that is needed to start to optimize their position, and then encourage athletes to find somebody good to help them.
- Since 2019, I noticed everyone got way faster because it was the first year I saw the pro field starting to dial in the position.
- Everybody was getting better aerodynamically, so it didn't matter if you had lots of power. If you were not aerodynamic, you would be slower.
- Now, that's trickling into the age group field as well.
I'm not competent enough to do that, but I am aware enough to point that out.
- Rehearsal and training help you feel that pace because many measurements we use have a range.
- As the race unfolds, things will happen and knowing the feel of the right pace will help athletes during the race.
- Pacing must be subjective and proper rehearsal because I work with like time-crunched athletes primarily remotely, and you might have issues with the data quality.
- In my experience, when we had to do testing as part of the national team, some people were awesome at tests, while others were terrible.
- For example, I'd beat a mountain bike world champion in tests that got me on the national team, but then she would destroy me during the races.
- If you extrapolate that to an age group athlete, ask them to do a test on the trainer after work. You will see that getting accurate data from these athletes will be almost impossible.
- Other systems extrapolate results from field testing, but you can manipulate results. (having athletes do a bunch of fasted training for like three weeks)
- As a coach, understanding how things feel is a lost art in Zwift and training peaks built workouts.
- You have to understand how your body feels while making decisions in these long races.
- I would like to ask athletes to do that more.
- I mix up the training, and I'll give them a range for an interval in training peaks
- then, I allow them to do something outside and see how it feels.
- Athletes that understand their body and are listening to it are the ones that are going to pace better.
- Your FTP will differ from the fourth hour of a four-hour ride to the first hour. In a workout, your FTP might be invalid when you start because you're carrying too much load for it.
- Pacing becomes practice.
- For the faster athletes, you get used to understanding the limit.
- The best advice I can give athletes is that you're going to run poorly if you overdo the first half.
- You'll run faster if you can keep that delta within 10 or 15 watts between their first and the second half.
- As a pro, in the championship races, if you miss the train, your race is over. (if you lose 30 seconds of the swim, the first half is catching up)
- I'm the level of athlete that needs to optimize her best day out there.
- I'm not a championship racer, so pacing ensures I don't start too hard to run fast.
- In the past seven Ironmans I've done, I have not once done the same thing for any of them. (I changed my bike position every single race)
- You can do some Ironman practice in training, but it's still not going to replicate what that day is.
Ironman training advice
- Many say salt testing is useless, but if the guidelines of 500 to 800 milligrams per hour aren't working for you and you are continually
- having issues with your nutrition and stomach, you probably need to test that.
- I did the Levelyn test, and I am off the charts.
- It explains why I've passed out three times at XTERRA in Hawaii.
- In warmer races, I was getting hyponatremia all the time.
- If you're just having issues and are out of the range, get one of these companies to let you know your sweat sodium concentration.
- This stuff doesn't need to be tested all the time, but if you at least know where you stand, it will save you a lot of time.
- For example, in Texas, I had no idea where I was.
- Then the position is another thing you need to look at and find somebody with experience.
- It can save you some injuries. (ensure that your cleats have the right set up)
- Regularly, you should get blood testing to ensure you're fit for training.
- It would help if you got somebody who understands triathlon to teach you how to swim.
- I set up these camps for my group to come to me so that I can help give them reliable tools to go and train within their lives.
- People waste too much time going to the pool to hack it out.
- If you're going to the pool, swim for a long time.
- You need two long swims that are very hard, which is the backbone of your swim program.
- You do most of your work in those two swims because swimming is the most significant time-consuming part of any triathlete program.
- If you're going to go to the pool and swim 2000 meters, and it takes you longer to get there, that is insanity.
- Triathletes don't even know what they're doing half the time when they're in the water.
- I don't think frequency makes any sense.
- Also, triathletes should not use paddles.
- I think you do two long swims that are like the bulk of your program
- You should do a third program mimicking your open water type skills.
- You can have a fourth if you love swimming or if you're a professional because you need that little bit of extra fitness, or you're a high-end age group, or you have that time for that fourth one.
- More frequency is not better for swimming.
- Strengthen your feet because that's why you're getting injured.
Worst piece of advice for Ironman training
- Land on your midfoot and don't heel strike.
- Landing on your midfoot generally means that athletes point their toes to attempt to put their foot somewhere.
- Running is about like applying vertical force under the hips.
- You want to use your hips to drive your knee up and push into the ground.
- If you point your toes at the ground, it's going to be your ankle and knee stabilizing before you get to the point of pushing.
- Athletes trying to land on their midfoot under their bodies inadvertently land in front of them.
- It causes injuries to your ankles, Achilles, toes, and band.
- You should tense your foot and have your foot into dorsiflexion to approach the ground with your foot flat.
- Their foot might still look like the toe is pointing down, but as long as it's tensed to the point where that ankle is engaged, it will make your whole leg absorb the force rather than your foot and ankle only.
- Some athletes heel strike because they're over-flexing their ankle relative to their knee and hip joints. but as long as they aren't over-swinging from their knee (landing on the outside of their heel and rolling through their big toe, they can be biomechanically within that bandwidth)
- the problem with heel striking is when they're swinging the shin forward in front of their knee to try and create stride length rather than driving with the hip and getting their knee up.
- A lot of injuries occur because athletes are over-swinging from their shins.
Running cadence for Ironman
- His advice on posture is sound because you need to be upright while running.
- Most people misunderstand forward lean as leaning at the waist versus leaning from the ankle.
- Triathletes do not have adequate dorsiflexion to lean from their ankles.
- Dorsiflexion is pulling your toes up towards your shins.
- You want to pop back into dorsiflexion when you're towing off at the back of your stride.
- Your plantar flexion is like when you're kicking when you're swimming (your toes point as you push off the ground behind you, and then you want to bring those toes up towards your shins as soon as possible so that you're not swinging a long light lever under your body)
- To create stride length, you need to have that rectus femoris and those hip flexors with an adequate range of motion to reach that leg out behind you.
- Some athletes have their hip flexors so tight that they artificially create this extension out behind them by bending at their waist.
- This anterior pelvic tilt allows something to get their foot essentially further behind them. But you can't get your knee in front because if you bend at your waist, now try to bring your knee up.
- When that knee can't come up, athletes will try to swing their feet out in front of them instead of their knees. (overstride in the process that causes breaking force)
- You want to have a neutral pelvis when standing to create hip extension and knee drive in front.
- The problem with knee drive is that you have robust hip flexors to drive your knee with your glute and hip.
- However, people pull their knees up in front. Still, it's due to you
- pushing down into the ground and reflexively that the other leg is coming up.
- An a-skip is pushing into the ground, and you need to push into the ground in the right place to create that knee drive.
- Cadence isn't something you create.
Maintaining fitness with age
- I think your brain fools you regularly on what you perceive daily, and it completely fools you into what you're going to want in the future.
- I will still be competitive this year, and that age is not a factor in my development.
- The decisions and the execution of races will be much more impactful than my biological age.
- For like women over 40, sponsors would make me feel old at 38. In that year, I won the inaugural ITU worlds, every XTERRA, and qualified for 70.3 worlds by doing an XTERRA on Saturday and Vyneman on Sunday
- I got all new sponsors and changed to Ironman the following year because I didn't feel old.
- Believe in yourself and your ability.
What is your favourite place to train?
St. George in the fall or Victoria.
What bucket list race or event would you want to do?
I want to do some Belgian Waffles.
If you could acquire an expert level in any skill in the world in an instant, what would that be?