Podcast, Training

Parker Spencer | EP#413

 October 23, 2023

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Parker Spencer - That Triathlon Show

Parker Spencer is the head coach of USA Triathlon's Project Podium, a men's elite development program based at Arizona State University. The project already has produced alumni like Chase McQueen, and Parker himself won the USAT Olympic Coach of the Year award for 2022.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Parker's role as head coach at Project Podium
  • The long-term development plan - how to take an athlete from talent to world-class
  • Using personality assessments
  • Using metabolic testing to fine-tune training prescription
  • A typical training week in the squad
  • Parker's top pieces of advice for amateur athletes, overall and within swimming, biking and running
  • Considerations for time-crunched athletes

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Parker's background

02:20 -

  • I'm the head coach for Project Podium at USA Triathlon. My role involves recruiting and developing young male triathletes in the US with the ultimate goal of winning medals at the Olympic Games. 
  • It's a multifaceted role that starts with working with these athletes at a young age. In their initial year in the program, a significant part of my job is helping them transition into adulthood, with triathlon being a secondary focus.
  • I've been with USA Triathlon since 2018, but before that, I coached professional under-23-year-old athletes, primarily from Europe. 
  • Additionally, I worked for an age group triathlon company in a coaching capacity. 

Triathlon and NCAA

03:55 -

  • NCAA, the United States' primary sports development program, has played a significant role in nurturing talent for various sports, including the Olympics. 
  • Around eight or nine years ago, the NCAA introduced triathlon as a collegiate sport. 
  • In the United States, Title IX is a crucial law that mandates a specific ratio of female to male athletes on college campuses. 
  • Some sports, like American football, have large male-only teams, so universities must establish female-only sports to meet these requirements. 
  • Triathlon was a prime candidate due to its female-focused nature, and now there are approximately 43 universities across the country offering women's triathlon with 10 to 12 athletes per team.
  • The women's triathlon program in the US has been exceptionally successful, producing multiple Olympic medals. 
  • However, the men's triathlon program lagged. To address this, Project Podium was initiated in 2018. The objective was to prevent top male triathletes from leaving the sport after high school or their junior years to pursue running or swimming in NCAA programs. 
  • The issue was that they would return to triathlon four years later as less competitive athletes. 
  • So, Project Podium aimed to retain the best young male triathletes in the sport, enabling their development from ages 18 to 23, during which they could transition to professional triathletes. As part of this initiative, these athletes also had the opportunity to study at Arizona State University for free. 
  • These athletes pursued online courses since most races were outside the United States.
  • In its fifth year, Project Podium has evolved and improved significantly, benefiting from a strong team culture, ample resources, and generous support from donors and sponsors. 
  • The program is currently gaining momentum to prepare these athletes for the 2028 Olympic Games and, hopefully, achieve Olympic medals.
  • Our High School Recruitment Program focuses on identifying promising high school athletes, whether they are NCAA-bound or not.
  • We maintain a database of high school running and swimming results, and our program monitors these results. When an athlete hits a specific threshold in swimming and running, we reach out to their high school.
  • Our goal is to introduce these young athletes to the sport of triathlon. We support their initial triathlon events, including providing equipment and helping them get to them.
  • Interestingly, many of these athletes and their families have little to no knowledge of triathlon. Some have even been surprised to learn that swimming is a part of the sport.
  • We've seen great success with this program, with athletes new to the sport excelling in domestic junior events. This program started in 2023, and we are continually improving it.
  • Our Collegiate Triathlon Program is designed for top athletes in the country. Many of these athletes have transitioned from NCAA running backgrounds and often have a swimming background.
  • We place them in this program, provide them with experienced coaches, and help them progress rapidly. These athletes typically progress quickly because they are older and more experienced.
  • This program is a fast track to reaching the top levels of triathlon. It has become one of the most successful development programs globally.
  • The overarching goal of both programs is to expose athletes to triathlon, even if they have collegiate opportunities in other sports, and to encourage them to embrace triathlon as a full-time endeavour.

Project Podium base

11:37 -

  • For eight months of the year, we're based in Tempe, Arizona, where we partner with Arizona State University. 
  • This partnership provides us access to their top-notch athletic facilities, and it's especially beneficial since Division I NCAA schools like Arizona State offer outstanding athletic resources. 
  • Being on the pool deck alongside athletes like Bob Bowman's team is incredible, sharing the training space and atmosphere with such high-calibre athletes and coaches.
  • During our stay in Tempe, we enjoy the amenities, but it's essential to note that the Arizona summers can be scorching. 
  • It's common for temperatures to exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius), making it nearly impossible for ideal triathlon training. 
  • To overcome this challenge, we relocated the program to Park City, Utah, for a four-month altitude training block.
  • Park City is an excellent location for our summer training. 
  • It houses an Olympic training centre primarily used for winter sports, but it's far less crowded during the summer, allowing us to comfortably stay in the dorms and apartments. 
  • The area offers world-class opportunities for both cycling and running. Park City sits at around 2,000 meters, providing ideal conditions for altitude training. 
  • The proximity to lower altitudes is also advantageous since we can descend about a thousand meters in just a 20-minute drive. 
  • This means athletes can "live high" for altitude training and quickly "train low" when they need to do speed work.
  • The setup in Park City is versatile, and it allows us to access tracks and pools easily when we need them. 
  • The location provides the perfect balance of altitude and lower-altitude training, allowing our athletes to optimize their performance.

The current state of the project

14:45 -

  • The program's goal is to nurture athletes until they reach 23 years of age, at this point, they graduate and move on to coaches like Ryan Bolton or Ian O'Brien to continue their triathlon careers.
  • The aim is to deliver well-developed athletes with ample experience to these coaches for final refinement.
  • The current roster includes athletes like Luke, Anthony, Reese Vannerson, Carter, Keller, Sullivan, Chris Hammer, and Owen Cravens (two para-triathletes).
  • The para-triathletes, Chris and Owen, have had a highly successful year and are set to compete in the Paralympic Games in Paris.
  • Young athletes like Reese, Carter, and Luke have gained valuable experience participating in events like the Super League, especially benefiting their biking skills.
  • Four athletes from the program competed in the Junior World Championships in Hamburg, with three of them placing in the top eight, a significant achievement.
  • Athletes are encouraged to participate in diverse formats beyond the standard triathlon format to ensure longevity in the sport and prevent burnout.
  • Keller and Sullivan have excelled in Xterra off-road triathlon, achieving notable positions in various championships.
  • Mountain biking is emphasized as it helps improve bike handling skills, which is crucial in triathlon.

Long-term development plan

20:57 -

  • One of the most important aspects of my coaching philosophy is patience. It's tempting to push athletes to their limits quickly, but this approach can lead to burnout. 
  • Many athletes I work with, especially those transitioning from high school, haven't experienced the high volume of training required for their sport. 
  • So, the initial focus is on skill development and teaching them how to be true professionals.
  • The first year or two is dedicated to improving their skills and helping them become self-sufficient. 
  • Many of these athletes are leaving home for the first time, learning to handle responsibilities like grocery shopping and self-care. 
  • It's not just about their sport; it's about preparing them for life outside the sport.
  • I make it clear that it's okay to fail. Every successful person, athlete or not, has experienced and learned from failure. 
  • We don't expect every race to result in a podium finish. There will be good and bad days in races and during training. 
  • The crucial thing is to learn from these experiences, analyze what went wrong or right, and use that knowledge to become better athletes in the long run.
  • Personality testing is another significant aspect of our program. Each athlete undergoes a personality assessment called CliftonStrengths, which helps me understand their thinking and communication styles. 
  • Instead of making athletes adapt to my coaching style, I adapt to their personalities. I can tailor my coaching approach to each individual by understanding how they think and communicate best. 
  • This approach has improved coach-athlete relationships and team dynamics, reducing conflicts and misunderstandings.

Personality assessment

25:10 -

  • Athletes have their bedrooms but share Tempe and Park City apartments. I pair roommates based on personality assessments. 
  • It's essential to ensure that athletes spending a lot of time together get along well, not just during training but also while travelling to races.
  • We have sports psychologists who work with each athlete. They are crucial in evaluating personality assessments and helping with athlete communication. 
  • It's not just about day-to-day interactions but also post-race communication. It is vital to understand how to communicate with athletes effectively based on their personalities.
  • Effective communication, both during training and after races, is crucial. Each athlete has a unique communication style and preferences. 
  • For example, some athletes prefer direct, no-nonsense feedback without sugarcoating, while others may respond better to positive reinforcement. 
  • By understanding each athlete's personality and communication style, I can tailor my approach to ensure they get the feedback and support they need to perform at their best.
  • I keep detailed feedback notes on my phone for each athlete. This includes key points for both training and post-competition discussions. 
  • This readily available information allows me to provide specific, tailored feedback after races, helping athletes identify areas for improvement and maintain their motivation.
  • By understanding each athlete's personality and communication preferences, I can provide more effective feedback, leading to better performance outcomes. 
  • It's all about helping each athlete achieve their best results by fine-tuning how we work together.


28:53 -

  • I've used a few different assessments to better understand my athletes, including the DISC and Enneagram, but I particularly favour the CliftonStrengths assessment. 
  • It provides a more comprehensive view of an individual's strengths, which can be extremely useful in coaching.
  • What I find remarkable about CliftonStrengths is its complexity. While assessments like DISC categorize individuals into four primary categories, CliftonStrengths offers around thirty strengths, making it a more nuanced tool. 
  • Gallup, a well-known research and polling organization, developed the CliftonStrengths assessment. They designed it to identify what makes successful people successful.
  • Gallup surveyed over 20,000 professional athletes, CEOs, and successful executives in their research. 
  • Surprisingly, these high achievers didn't share any common traits. They shared that they were in environments that allowed them to leverage their strengths. 
  • Instead of forcing these successful people into a particular mould, these environments permitted them to thrive uniquely.
  • I've discovered that different athletes thrive in different environments. Some need a structured, no-questions-asked approach, while others require more communication and analytical engagement. 
  • For example, I have athletes who prefer to receive their training plan, follow it without question, and provide feedback afterwards. On the other hand, some athletes are highly analytical and want to understand every detail of their training. They ask questions, which doesn't threaten me; I appreciate their curiosity.
  • Ultimately, athlete buy-in is critical. Even if an athlete follows a physiologically perfect training plan, they won't be successful if they aren't committed and don't believe in it. 
  • On the other hand, an athlete who is only at 75% of their physiological potential but is wholly committed and invested can outperform those with more "ideal" training.
  • This all comes back to creating an environment that allows athletes to leverage their strengths and be their best. The CliftonStrengths assessment helps me understand what environment and culture I need to foster for each athlete to thrive. 
  • Adapting to these individual needs can be challenging in a group environment, but we've fine-tuned our approach and learned how to do it more effectively.

Yearly training volume

34:07 -

  • In recruiting athletes, I focus on finding those with room for development, particularly young athletes around 17. I aim to avoid those already training at high volumes, as it may limit their long-term potential. 
  • I prefer athletes who swim around 25k a week, run under 20-30 miles, and bike a few times a week. This approach helps ensure there's ample room for improvement.
  • I hold a bachelor's degree in exercise science and a master's degree in coaching and exercise science, and I'm a certified exercise physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. 
  • When athletes join our program, we conduct specific physiological testing to understand their potential for development. 
  • I look for those who are winning races at the junior level but still show room for improvement from a VO2 and threshold standpoint.
  • In the early days, I had a fixed idea of what a professional triathlete should be – a strong runner with a swimming background. However, this led to a group of athletes with similar skill sets. Now, I look for athletes exceptional in one of the three sports with a background in the others. 
  • For example, Carter Stuhlmacher is an outstanding open-water swimmer with less background in swimming and cycling. This diverse mix of talents has proven highly effective, with athletes pushing each other to improve.
  • Regarding training volume and intensity it varies for each athlete. This year, we've incorporated Inscyd testing and software, which provides detailed assessments in all three sports. 
  • This allows me to tailor training plans to the specific needs of each athlete. While we train in a group environment, individual success is paramount. 
  • If that means different workouts for different athletes, so be it. We emphasize that this is an elite daily training environment, not a casual fitness club. 

Example of a training week

41:28 -

  • Athletes in my program have varying training volumes. Some may swim approximately 25 kilometres a week, cycle for 8 to 12 hours, and run between 30 to 80 miles weekly. 
  • The training volume depends on the athlete's goals, experience, and the phase of their training season.
  • Expanding aerobic capacity is a primary goal for many athletes, especially those in their late teens. This often involves gradually and safely increasing training volume. 
  • However, increasing volume too quickly can lead to overuse injuries, particularly stress fractures in the lower leg. 
  • To prevent such injuries, we focus on regular bodywork and require athletes to have a massage once a week, which we cover the cost of. This practice has significantly reduced the occurrence of overuse injuries.
  • Athletes in the program train anywhere from 20 to 30 hours per week. The specific training duration depends on the individual's goals and the type of improvement they need. 
  • The focus is optimizing the balance between volume and intensity for each athlete.
  • Inscyd testing plays a crucial role in tailoring training programs. It helps us assess athletes' aerobic capacity (VO2) and anaerobic (VLamax) capacity. The training plan is then adjusted based on the athlete's specific needs. Some athletes require more intense work, so their volume might be lower. 
  • Others may need a mix of intensity and volume, while some might primarily focus on expanding their aerobic capacity through gradual volume increases.
  • For instance, take the case of an athlete like Reese Vannersom, a successful middle-distance runner. When he entered the program, he had a background with relatively low training volumes, primarily focused on intensity. 
  • His initial training included around 30 miles of running per week, about four hours of cycling, and 15-18 kilometres of swimming. To progress, our mission was to gradually increase his training volume while ensuring his safety. 
  • Over several months, we have successfully expanded his training to around 40-45 miles of running per week, 10 hours of cycling, and 25 kilometres of swimming per week.
  • The goal in Reese's case was to improve his aerobic capacity (VO2), as his VLAmax was already where it needed to be. He has shown remarkable progress, with a strong performance at the Junior World Championships and becoming the current run leader in the Super League Championship Series.

Examples of specific sessions

47:22 -

  • The goal for track workouts to improve VO2 max typically involves doing at least two and a half minutes of high-intensity effort. 
  • In this case, it means doing 1000-meter repeats for the athlete in question. 
  • What's interesting about using Inscyd testing is that it can tailor the rest intervals for each athlete based on their unique metabolic profile. 
  • Many people misunderstand that giving all athletes the same rest isn't ideal because every individual burns lactate at a different rate. 
  • By understanding an athlete's efficiency in this process, you can prescribe rest intervals most suitable for them.
  • In the case of the athlete mentioned, the session aims to target and improve their VO2max. The challenge is to balance the intensity of the effort with rest intervals that prevent it from becoming too anaerobic. 
  • The specifics of rest intervals vary from athlete to athlete, depending on their metabolic profile. 
  • The rest period might be as short as two and a half minutes for some or as long as five minutes for others.
  • It's essential to customize the training program for each athlete based on their unique metabolic profile, and it's not something that can be memorized off the top of one's head. 
  • Each athlete's rest interval must align with their lactate combustion rate to optimize training effectiveness.

Three pieces of advice for age group triathletes

49:45 -

  • Coaching amateur athletes is often more straightforward than coaching elites because the focus is on increasing their training volume. 
  • Many amateur athletes have families and full-time jobs, so they aim to find ways to help them train more. For example, increasing training from six hours a week to ten or from eight hours to twelve can lead to noticeable improvements in performance relatively quickly.
  • One critical aspect to consider is prioritizing rest. The main difference between elite and amateur athletes is often in how they approach recovery. 
  • Many age group triathletes have demanding daily schedules, waking up early for workouts, working a full day, squeezing in another workout during lunch, and then training again in the evening. 
  • This can lead to insufficient rest, hindering recovery. Therefore, amateurs should prioritize rest to optimize their training gains.
  • Hiring a coach can also be a valuable step. While this advice might sound biased, a coach can provide structured training plans, guidance on recovery, and help amateur athletes make the most of their limited time for training.

Make the most of limited training time

53:00 -

  • Different aspects of their training become more crucial depending on the type of race an athlete is training for.
  • In long-distance races, like Ironman, where the swim is just a small portion of the overall race, it's often more strategic to allocate training time efficiently.
  • Increasing your swimming speed by 10 minutes might require an additional 5 hours of training. However, investing that same time in cycling could lead to a 30-minute improvement in your bike time.
  • Therefore, it's crucial to prioritize cycling for long-distance races, as it typically accounts for a substantial portion of the race. Running well off the bike is also essential; nutrition is critical in maintaining energy levels during these extended events.
  • A strong swim is vital in draft-legal triathlons, especially where pack dynamics are important. Athletes need to exit the water in a good position to avoid playing catch-up during the bike and run segments.
  • Limited time should be focused on improving swimming skills and speed for short course events.
  • Draft-legal racing demands an aggressive and competitive approach in the water. Therefore, swim performance can significantly impact the final standings.
  • Athletes must recognize their strengths. Focusing too much on weaknesses at the expense of strengths can lead to a decline in overall performance.
  • Even when addressing weaknesses, it's possible to leverage strengths to become a more well-rounded athlete. For example, a strong cyclist can use their bike leg to create a lead before the run.
  • Inscyd testing, which includes lactate and gas exchange measurements, provides valuable insights into an athlete's metabolic and physiological characteristics.
  • This data can be used to tailor training plans to individual needs. For instance, it can guide whether to focus on aerobic capacity (zone two training), VLAmax (high-intensity work), or swim and running economy (technique-based training).
  • Inscyd testing helps pinpoint where to concentrate training efforts, making the improvement process more effective and efficient.

Tips for each discipline

57:42 -

  • Video feedback is crucial in swimming, especially for assessing the swim economy. I recently conducted swim economy testing and noticed a significant difference between the two athletes. 
  • One could swim 100m in just a minute and 20 seconds, using half the energy compared to another athlete with a similar VO2 max. 
  • This discrepancy was due to differences in technique and swim economy. So, for age group triathletes, it's essential to use video feedback. 
  • You may believe you're swimming with correct form, but video analysis can reveal flaws in your pull, follow-through, head position, and body position. 
  • It's now more accessible than ever, especially with waterproof smartphones like the iPhone.
  • Regarding cycling, investing in a good bike fit is crucial. I've observed many athletes riding expensive bikes at events like the 70.3s and Ironman races, but they aren't in the aero position. 
  • To make the most of your investment, seek a professional bike fitter. We work with experts in Scottsdale, Arizona, for our bike fits. 
  • A proper bike fit ensures an aerodynamic position and considers the physical therapy aspect, ensuring your body can comfortably maintain the position.
  • When running, it's crucial to focus on proper form, which can significantly reduce the risk of injury. 
  • Just like in swimming and cycling, video feedback can help ensure you're running with the correct technique. This feedback will guide you in maintaining form and preventing injuries during your runs.

Additional tips

1:01:56 -

  • My philosophy revolves around the idea that a coach's effectiveness is closely tied to the quality of their support team. 
  • This includes the professionals working with both my pro and amateur triathletes. 
  • Nutrition is crucial, and I advocate for working with a skilled nutritionist. 
  • Many misconceptions about nutrition exist, especially concerning training and daily dietary habits. 
  • For instance, proper post-workout nutrition is essential for recovery and future performance.
  • Another often overlooked aspect is bike fitting. It's a critical component that directly impacts an athlete's performance. 
  • Additionally, I believe in the importance of early engagement with a mental skills coach or sports psychologist. Understanding the psychological and psychobiological elements of endurance performance is key. 
  • I highly recommend reading books like "How Bad Do You Want It" by Matt Fitzgerald or "Do Hard Things" by Steve Magnus. They delve into the mental side of sports.
  • In our training program, we collaborate with the Daphne Group, a team of mental skills coaches. Athletes, both professional and amateur, work closely with experts like Giovanni Bianco, who provides valuable insights. 
  • It's an essential puzzle piece, as mental fortitude greatly influences performance.
  • In training, athletes often focus on physical exertion levels (rate of perceived exertion or RPE). However, equally important is how an athlete feels about their level of effort. Developing a strong mental game plan prepares athletes to handle moments when the race gets tougher than expected. 
  • This can involve positive self-talk or a tactical focus on performance metrics like pace and heart rate.

Things Parker has changed his mind over time

1:08:00 -

  • I've been using INSCYD and physiological data more extensively than ever before. 
  • This more profound understanding of leveraging this data has reshaped my perspective on triathlon performance. Traditionally, people often focused on questions like VO2 max and FTP (Functional Threshold Power). 
  • However, as my understanding of physiology has grown, I've realized that FTP is not as central as it once seemed.
  • The fundamental change for me in the past year has been the increased emphasis on understanding and improving VLAmax (anaerobic capacity). 
  • This is distinct from the anaerobic threshold, and its significance in triathlon performance has become more evident. The shift towards comprehending and enhancing VLAmax has been a pivotal change in my training and performance analysis approach.
  • Group dynamics are crucial in my coaching and the dynamics I deal with. 
  • I primarily coach amateur athletes, and although much of it is done remotely, most of my day is spent working with athletes in person.
  • One of the biggest challenges I face, and I'd say this applies not just to my specific sport but coaching at an elite level in general, is finding a balance between my coaching responsibilities and the rest of my life. 
  • Coaching at an elite level often requires extensive travel and time away from home, which can be challenging, especially when it means being away from family.
  • To me, it's vital to maintain that balance and stay grounded. 
  • In sports like triathlon, there always seems to be more you can do as a coach, always more you can give to your athletes. 
  • However, my family is of utmost importance to me. I have a wife and two young daughters, and my current focus is ensuring I keep that balance and remain fully present when I'm with them. 
  • It can be a challenge because my mind is always active, but I've been working on dedicating quality time to my family, so when I'm at home with them, I can truly focus on them and switch off from the world of triathlon for a while.

Rapid-Fire Questions

1:11:13 -

What's your favourite book or resource related to endurance sports?

How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle - book by Matt Fitzgerald

Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness - book by Steve Magness

What's an important habit you've benefited from athletically, professionally or personally?

My dedication and obsession with the sport. While it can be both a strength and a weakness, my unwavering commitment has significantly impacted my progress.

Who's somebody that you look up to or that has inspired you?

It's difficult to single out just one person. I've been fortunate to have several exceptional mentors in my life. Three individuals who have particularly inspired me are:

  • Ryan Bolton
  • Ian O'Brien
  • Cliff English


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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