Podcast, Training

David Tilbury-Davis | EP#416

 November 13, 2023

By  Bernardo Gonçalves

LISTEN TO THE EPISODE HERE:

David Tilbury-Davis - That Triathlon Show

David Tilbury-Davis is the coach of an impressive roster of pro triathletes, including the likes of Ashleigh Gentle, Skye Moench, Amelia Watkinson (all three women ranked in the top-20 in the PTO rankings), Josh Amberger and others. He also coaches a handful of age-group triathletes. In this interview we discuss the training of professional-level triathletes, in particular at the pointy end of women's racing, and we discuss the off-season for age-group triathletes in detail.  

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • The current level of racing at the top level in professional women's long-course triathlon
  • The training required to be at that level
  • Are there any clear differences in how professional men and women train?
  • Ashleigh Gentle and Skye Moench training insights and key sessions
  • How to approach the off-season for age-group triathletes
  • Common misconceptions about the off-season
  • Tips on for age-groupers on how to improve your swim, bike and run training

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Shownotes

David's background

02:42 -

  • I've been coaching triathletes for nearly 30 years, primarily professional athletes. I'm based in Europe but previously worked in the US.
  • On the female side, I work with athletes like Ashleigh Gentle, Skye Moench, and Amelia Watkinson. On the male side, I coach athletes like Rasmus Svenningson and Andrew Horsfall-Turner. I work with around 15 to 16 athletes, including professionals and some age groupers, though most are professional athletes. 
  • Occasionally, I have new athletes like Justin Metzler join. 
  • Still, typically, it's a dynamic process where athletes work with me for several years, and when they move on or retire, a slot becomes available for someone new.

Current racing level in Female Long Distance Triathlon

04:37 -

  • In recent years, I've noticed a significant improvement in the depth and speed of racing in triathlons. There are a few key factors contributing to this shift. 
  • One major factor is the increased focus on aerodynamics and equipment choices. 
  • Both male and female athletes are now extensively exploring how to optimise their gear for maximum performance, from selecting the right helmet to tire choices, tire pressures, wheel options, and even chain maintenance. 
  • These may seem like marginal gains, but they add up. For example, the recent interest in using a water bottle camelback for aerodynamic gains has become widely known, resulting in faster times. 
  • Athletes are adopting these strategies, and while governing bodies may have varying opinions, the net effect is faster race times.
  • Another factor is the increased talent pool. More high-calibre athletes are now competing in triathlons, which has broadened the distribution of talent. 
  • More women are swimming, cycling, and running within a few minutes of the top performers. 
  • This means that to succeed, athletes must excel in all three disciplines, particularly running, as it can be a decisive factor in the race.
  • As for changes in training approaches, while there have been some small evolutions in coaching philosophies and techniques, they haven't been revolutionary. 
  • The core of coaching remains helping athletes understand their bodies, how they feel during training, and how to push their limits while maintaining consistency. 
  • In essence, it's about managing training loads and recovery effectively. Sports science plays a valuable role, but it's not a game-changer.

Bike optimisation work

09:04 -

  • I do bike fits with some of my professional athletes, whether it's in-person or done remotely. I also participate in wind tunnel testing with athletes needing assistance selecting the right equipment for optimal performance. 
  • I sometimes collaborate with companies on product development, bridging the athlete and experts in aerodynamics, bike fitting, hydration, and nutrition. 
  • I cover anything related to performance that doesn't involve clinical issues, often working alongside other experts.
  • As a coach, it's crucial to acknowledge one's limitations. Suppose an athlete expresses the need to improve their mental game beyond the positive motivation that a coach provides. 
  • In that case, I might refer them to a specialist with extensive experience in mental coaching, similar to my expertise in coaching for performance.

Performance benchmarks

10:43 -

  • In long-distance triathlon races, competitive running times are under three hours for Ironman events and under 1 hour 20 minutes for middle-distance races. These paces correspond to the first threshold or aerobic threshold.
  • For elite female triathletes in Ironman races, the ideal power output on the bike is around 3.5 to 3.7 watts per kilogram of body weight. In 70.3 races, this power output might range from 3.7 to 4 watts per kilogram, with variations based on aerodynamics.
  • Swim performance varies between pool and open water conditions. It's challenging to directly compare paces, but a sustained pace of 1 minute 20 seconds per 100 meters in long course meters is considered competitive for a world-class swim. To be solidly in the front pack, you might need to swim closer to 1 minute 15 seconds per 100 meters.
  • Future developments in triathlon performance could come from areas like thermoregulation and neuromuscular fatigue. Some companies are exploring materials like graphene to manage heat in wetsuits. Additionally, understanding the breakdown in muscle firing capacity beyond carbohydrate depletion or changes in organic phosphates during long-distance races remains an area of interest for performance improvement.
  • Long-distance triathlon, particularly among elite athletes, still has many aspects that need further study and exploration. While there's a wealth of sports science from endurance disciplines, there's still much to learn about triathlon's unique challenges and demands.

Implementing new technologies

18:20 -

  • Coaching is an art that requires flexibility. Like Picasso with his palette, a coach needs a range of tools but uses them selectively based on the athlete and context. 
  • For instance, working with a female professional athlete like Ashley involves considering certain fundamentals. 
  • However, you must gauge the athlete's buy-in when introducing advanced monitoring tools like lactate or O2 measurement masks. Professional athletes need to see the value in these methods.
  • Not every athlete responds the same way to coaching strategies. Some athletes might embrace extensive monitoring, while others may resist it. 
  • It's tempting to enforce certain practices, like measuring HRV daily, as gospel, but these tools are more like compasses than GPS coordinates. 
  • They provide direction, not precise location. Being too fixated on exact data might hinder understanding the broader momentum and adaptation in an athlete's process.
  • In essence, coaching involves navigating the complexity and chaos of human performance. 
  • Unlike Formula One cars with specific parts and measurements, humans are dynamic systems that respond differently in various situations. Embracing this complexity rather than reducing it to specific values is crucial for effective coaching, at least from my perspective, after years of experience.
  • The public perceives Long-distance racing as a regal and flawless performance, but athletes often experience internal chaos and challenges. 
  • Even dominant performances, like Lucy Charles Bartley's in Kona, may involve athletes pushing through discomfort, such as fearing an Achilles injury mid-run. 
  • Despite the impressive results, athletes acknowledge the behind-the-scenes struggles.
  • In elite triathlon, the use of measurements to predict performance is complex. While Andy Jones accurately predicted Paula Radcliffe's marathon times based on lab measurements, scaling this to amateurs introduces additional factors like muscle breakdown and psychological differences.
  •  Elite triathlons add further complexity due to drafting, varying environmental conditions, and non-steady-state dynamics, making decisions during the race crucial. 
  • Despite being one of the longest and most challenging events, the Ironman remains highly dynamic and unpredictable, requiring athletes to navigate many factors, akin to playing 4D chess for professional triathletes.

Training differences between pro-men and women

27:10 -

  • I've noticed distinct responses to training stimuli based on individuals' muscle density and mass. More muscularly dense athletes, especially those with greater muscle mass, respond differently than leaner, perhaps more mitochondrially dense athletes. 
  • This distinction is particularly evident in both male and female athletes, even if they achieve similar race times.
  • Managing run volume becomes crucial for individuals with higher muscle mass, especially males. The energetic demands of training sessions, particularly with dense athletes, require careful consideration. 
  • For instance, a male athlete engaging in a five-hour aerobic ride may burn many calories. If subsequent run sessions are under-fueled, the risk of injury doubles.
  • Denser individuals often respond well to a polarised training approach, emphasising extremes of intensity. 
  • In contrast, female athletes may benefit from more tempo work due to differences in energetic costs and load. 
  • However, psychological demands must be considered, especially related to race-specific intensity.
  • Regardless of muscle density, managing the energetic costs of training is universally challenging. Compared to Olympic swimmers, runners, and cyclists, professional Ironman athletes undergo more extensive training. 
  • This increased workload demands careful attention to nutrition, as training under-fueled can lead to adaptation issues and higher injury risks.
  • Back-to-back training sessions pose specific challenges for professional triathletes juggling full-time or part-time work. Athletes may inadvertently under-fuel during consecutive sessions, leading to a deficit that needs addressing throughout the day. 
  • This practice can affect overall health, particularly in female athletes, where maintaining a healthy menstrual cycle is a priority. 
  • It's crucial to avoid amenorrhea and ensure athletes are adequately fueled for sustained performance and well-being.

Nutrition intake

32:15 -

  • It's crucial to fuel workouts, even relatively low intensity, as they can still be demanding sessions in the broader training context. 
  • Short sessions of 30 to 60 minutes may not require fueling, but as you extend to durations like 1.5 to 2 hours or more, fueling becomes essential. 
  • Although conventional sports science suggests fueling for sessions longer than 90 minutes, for long-distance triathletes, this threshold may be closer to an hour, especially considering the need for energy for subsequent sessions throughout the day.
  • It's essential to avoid making training more challenging by not fueling correctly, whether with sports nutrition or real food. This practice prevents the need to compensate with extra calories between sessions. 
  • Regarding gender differences in training, particularly in strength training, it's more about individual variation than gender-specific protocols. 
  • However, maintaining a robust strength and conditioning program for female athletes is crucial for REDs (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport) and bone density. 
  • There's a personal perspective on the importance of strength training, differing from the belief that strength development can occur solely through the primary sports of swimming, biking, and running. 
  • This stance is critical, especially when athletes might be training underfueling, which could lead to negative consequences.

Specialising in one particular long-distance event

35:25 -

  • Theoretically, the best athlete could excel at various distances, from Ironman to PTO. It's feasible to perform well in both short course and middle distance, or middle distance and Ironman. 
  • However, bridging all three distances back and forth seems challenging. Transitioning from short to middle to long is plausible, but returning down that ladder is difficult from a physiological perspective. 
  • While this might sound critical of the Norwegians' approach, I acknowledge the complexity of achieving such transitions.
  • Pulling off a medal at the Olympics, as attempted by Kristian, would be a stunning achievement. 
  • Nevertheless, it remains a challenging task. I don't believe specialisation is necessary between Middle Distance and Ironman. 
  • Some athletes may be naturally more inclined towards longer Ironman events based on their physiology. 
  • This inclination might start with differences in swimming abilities, as mathematically, the swim becomes less critical in an Ironman, although this gap is narrowing in the current landscape.

Ashleigh Gentle training case study

37:53 -

  • Ashleigh's training plan is based on block periodisation, adapting to different phases depending on the time of the year. The emphasis initially lies on aerobic and neuromuscular work, progressing into intensity and eventually race specificity. 
  • However, as the season advances, there's a risk of athletes not getting enough training stimulus to maintain and improve overall fitness due to tapering and race recovery. 
  • To counter this, there are periods where a significant block of aerobic volume is introduced.
  • Unlike some coaches, I integrate many race-specific style workouts, focusing on scenarios that athletes can visualise rather than solely relying on physiological specificity. 
  • This approach is especially prevalent with professional athletes, aiming to prepare them for the specific dynamics of races. 
  • Training professional and age group athletes for the decision-making chaos during races is crucial.
  • Ashleigh's typical training week includes five swim sessions, four bike sessions, and four run sessions. 
  • Notably, her run volume is relatively moderate, ranging between five and five and a half hours. 
  • This differs from other athletes like Skye, who benefits from higher run volumes, typically running six to seven hours a week in addition to biking and swimming.
  • Ashleigh's training philosophy prioritises quality and recovery over significant training volumes, aligning with her body's positive response to this approach. 
  • Despite the focus on quality, it's essential to incorporate enough easy aerobic work to continually enhance her base aerobic fitness. 
  • This dynamic training strategy optimises performance while adapting to Ashleigh's needs and response patterns.
  •  The focus is on the cumulative workload across multiple sessions rather than emphasising exceptionally high volumes in a single session. While the type of sessions and the underlying principles for structuring intervals or reps may be similar for different athletes, there could be nuanced differences. 
  • These differences might involve minor adjustments, such as weight variations or intensities tailored to individual athletes.

Key workouts for Ashleigh in her preparation

42:05 -

  • Regarding key run sessions, I often design workouts with descending intervals at race pace accompanied by ascending short surges. 
  • For instance, we might start with a five-minute segment at race pace, followed by 30 seconds at a VO2 effort. 
  • This pattern continues, gradually decreasing the race pace intervals while increasing the intensity of the surges.
  • Similarly, on the bike, I tailor sessions to simulate the demands of coming out of transition and riding hard for the initial 15 to 20 minutes. 
  • Following that, we incorporate surges of intensity four to six times before settling into a steady pace. Alternatively, I might structure a longer ride with intervals just above race pace, interspersed with recovery periods. 
  • The efforts are slightly above race effort, and the recoveries are slightly below, mimicking group riding dynamics.
  • In swim training, the approach varies based on individual needs. For those aiming to make the first pack, we might include sessions with intense efforts to elevate lactate levels, followed by efforts at their goal pace. 
  • Alternatively, we might establish a specific pace benchmark, such as 1 minute 16 seconds per 100 meters, and structure a session around maintaining that pace with customised recovery intervals.
  • Concerning the training environment, it's a mix for my athlete. She and her husband, Josh Amberger, whom I also coach, reside in an area with varied terrain outside Brisbane. 
  • They leverage the outdoor setting for much of their riding, but specific sessions, especially those requiring specificity, are conducted indoors. 
  • This flexible approach ensures that training aligns with race demands and environmental conditions.
  • Concerning training volume, Ashleigh trains 20 to 22 hours before a big race, and the bigger weeks are in the 24-25 hour range. 

Skye's case study

46:47 -

  • The critical difference lies in her bias towards Ironman training. Skye averages around 28 hours per week in the lead-up to an Ironman race. This training includes strength and conditioning exercises. 
  • Training hours gradually taper down as the race approaches, reducing to the low 20s two weeks before the event.
  • In terms of an example session, a long descending run is something I favour, especially for athletes like Skye. In the weeks leading up to the race, we incorporate a long descending run involving a warmup followed by one, two, three, four, five, and six sets of three miles descending, finishing with a cooldown. 
  • This totals almost a 39K session, descending to approximately threshold pace. I find this session effective for Skye and some other athletes.
  • Another key session is the under-over session, which is longer than the Ironman race duration. Cyclists ride 15 minutes above and below Ironman effort, repeating for five to five hours. 
  • This helps build endurance and resilience.
  • Swims are highly individualised based on developmental needs. With Skye, we've focused on rebuilding her stroke for better catch awareness and force application. 
  • We've used tools like parachutes in sets of 50s, followed by fast 200s with ample aerobic recovery.
  • Over a week, Skye typically swims five to six times, bikes five times, and runs five times. Rest days vary as athletes respond differently. 
  • Some thrive with complete rest, while others need active recovery. I also consider social commitments in planning rest days.
  • Regarding the weekly or mesocycle structure, I prefer consistency over the three-week build, one-week recovery model. There's little scientific evidence supporting the latter for Ironman athletes. 
  • Consistency is vital, with a natural ebb and flow based on weekly intensity and cognitive demand. 
  • While physiological textbooks suggest specific training blocks, the reality for Ironman athletes training 25 to 30 hours weekly is more fluid. 
  • The training approach is broadly pyramidal but may shift towards polarised or more specific scenarios closer to a race. The key is adapting to the athlete's mental and physical needs.

Off-season training for age group triathletes

53:13 -

  • Athletes, especially considering the evolving race calendar in PTO, 70.3 racing, middle distance racing with Challenge, Ironman, and long-distance racing with challenge, need to recognise the importance of mental refreshment and recalibration at least once or twice a season. 
  • In the off-season, even for age group athletes, I advocate for stepping back, reducing the training structure over a few weeks, and then easing back into training with a focus on fundamentals—working on turnover, foot speed, and aerobic fitness. 
  • The training plan should be tailored to the upcoming race season, considering factors like race distances and goals.
  • Regarding strength and conditioning, my approach to periodisation isn't dramatic. I don't follow a hypertrophy phase in the off-season and something different later in the year. 
  • Instead, I emphasise continuous work on trunk and core stability and strength throughout the year. 
  • This ensures a holistic approach to athleticism, supporting performance and injury prevention across different phases of the training cycle.

Training throughout the off-season

55:52 -

  • When considering an athlete's off-season training, the approach can vary based on location and specific needs. For individuals in the Northern Hemisphere or Scandinavia, where outdoor activities might be limited in winter, cross-training or focusing on VO2 max through intense blocks could be beneficial. 
  • In places like Minnesota, outdoor activities like fat biking could still be an option. Contextualising the training plan with the athlete's location and circumstances is essential.
  • Contrary to the common belief that the off-season should solely be about base training, the approach should align with the individual's goals. 
  • It's not a strict rule that off-season equals base training and in-season equals race-specific training. Some athletes might benefit from a reverse periodisation approach, starting with intense work and transitioning into aerobic training. 
  • However, careful planning is necessary to mitigate the risk of injuries, especially in running.
  • Assessing what the athlete needs to work on is crucial. For age group athletes, this evaluation should focus on areas of development. 
  • It might be an opportune time to improve the swim, considering that most individuals can regain bike and run fitness within three months. Allocating a significant portion of the off-season to increasing swim volume can benefit many athletes. 
  • Progression in swim times often requires technical improvement and a substantial increase in swim volume. For example, going from a 35-minute to a 30-minute swim split might require basic tuition and some swim sessions, but dropping below 23 minutes could necessitate a significant increase in swim volume.
  • Maintaining motivation is crucial for consistency, and doing enjoyable activities can significantly contribute to that. If spending extended hours on the trainer becomes tedious, it's unlikely to be sustainable over the long term.
  • I endorse entirely incorporating shorter, more intense sessions that an individual finds enjoyable. 
  • Fun and variety are often underestimated aspects of training that can significantly impact long-term adherence. Even for professional athletes, finding joy in training and racing is paramount. Rediscovering that sense of fun and positive energy can be key to sustaining motivation throughout a season.
  • While structured training plans are essential for physiological development, they must also align with the individual's mental and emotional well-being. 
  • A perfectly planned spreadsheet won't be effective if it's not engaging and enjoyable. As you rightly pointed out, athletes are likelier to abandon a training plan that doesn't consider their enjoyment.
  • Encouraging athletes to participate in local events or cross-country leagues during this time of the year is a brilliant approach. It adds variety to training and introduces an element of challenge and fun. 
  • I've heard of similar strategies, like the swim coach suggesting triathletes attempt a challenging swim meet, including the notorious 200 butterfly. 
  • The focus here is not just on the physical challenge but on the mental strength gained from accomplishing something perceived as difficult.
  • In the case of Ashleigh Gentle and Josh, incorporating a local park run into their long run day adds an element of challenge and competition to their training routine. It's a fantastic way to keep the training process exciting and dynamic.
  • Integrating enjoyable and challenging activities into training contributes to physical development. It enhances the mental aspect, fostering a positive mindset crucial for sustained success in triathlon or any endurance sport.

Misconceptions about the off-season

1:02:44 -

  • Athletes often seek magic solutions like specific equipment or training techniques in the off-season. However, the key is consistent training. 
  • Athletes like Justin, Josh, Rasmus, Ashleigh, Skye, and Amelia excel because they train consistently, understand their workout goals, and avoid getting overly fixated on specific numbers. 
  • This consistency is the essence of professionalism.
  • Professionalism extends to focusing on recovery, avoiding under-fuelling, eating well, getting enough sleep, and overall taking care of the body. 
  • For aspiring professional athletes, there's a contemporary notion that being an influencer is crucial. 
  • However, until results speak for themselves, the emphasis should be on performance rather than social media influence. Young athletes often stress about posting workouts and tagging sponsors when they should prioritise fundamental aspects of daily life like eating, sleeping, and grocery shopping.
  • As a coach, I've observed that some athletes struggle with daily activities. It's essential to step back and address these issues. For instance, one athlete found relief in completing an hour of grocery shopping, emphasising the importance of balancing life's fundamental activities with athletic training.

Intensity in the off-season

1:05:47 -

  • I approach this type of work with a focus on understanding its purpose. Whether about building tolerance to lactate or enhancing central stimulus, I emphasise manipulating the rest-to-work ratio to ensure the work is done effectively. 
  • Rather than primarily aiming for a high-intensity interval training response, my concern is the quality of the work itself. 
  • I prioritise factors like force production, speed of turnover, and water pressure over general metabolic considerations. 
  • The goal is to optimise performance without compromising recovery by creating metabolic stress that accumulates over time.

Recovery management during off-season

1:07:09 -

  • Regarding recovery, especially with professional athletes, when we engage in intense training for about three to four weeks, it's crucial to consider unwinding for two to three days. 
  • However, a whole week of recovery might lead to a perceived drop in fitness among professional athletes. 
  • They often bounce back quickly, sometimes in just a few days, from a challenging training block. On the other hand, age groupers may require a longer recovery period.
  • Recovery strategies vary, and while some athletes benefit from a sports massage, it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. Weekly massages can be beneficial, but monitoring how the body responds is essential, especially after a deep massage. 
  • The value of recovery days and active recovery remains consistent, allowing the body to recuperate and adapt. 
  • Ultimately, the key is to be attuned to individual needs and responses to different recovery methods.

Tips for triathletes

1:09:48 -

  • I would advise keeping a keen eye on your areas of development during this time. It's an excellent opportunity to address those aspects that need improvement, and the focus on swimming, as previously mentioned, is one such example. 
  • Strive to align your training with the logistics of your life, considering social and family commitments. It's crucial to find a balance that complements your circumstances.
  • Remember, amidst the intensity of training, always keep sight of the joy it brings. 
  • Training should be enjoyable, and maintaining that perspective is key. 
  • Often, people perceive elite athletes as relentlessly serious and laser-focused. 
  • However, observe them closely, and you'll find a remarkable switch – during a session, they're 100% focused, but once it concludes, they transition into a relaxed and enjoyable state. It's vital not to overlook this aspect.

Training strengths and weaknesses

1:11:12 -

  • I don't aim to transform weaknesses into strengths drastically. Instead, I focus on incremental improvements to weaknesses while capitalising on an individual's strengths. People have specific physiological and biomechanical characteristics that define them, and my strategy aligns with these natural attributes.
  • For instance, take Ashley as an example. I view her as one of the most visually impressive runners in the sport, possibly even the best runner, rivalled only by Anne Haug. Given Ashleigh's biomechanical prowess, my training regimen for her is relatively straightforward. 
  • It involves small doses of speed, turnover work, and extensive aerobic training on various surfaces, gradients, and terrains.
  • I prefer keeping the training simple rather than overemphasising efforts to enhance Ashleigh's run threshold through massive workloads. The principle here is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." 

Performance topic David has been trying to optimise

1:12:51 -

Improving decision-making capacity under stress, especially in the heat of competition, is crucial for professional athletes. 

  • Create training scenarios that mimic the high-pressure situations athletes encounter during races. This could involve workouts to failure or withholding information about the number of repetitions in a session.
  • Implement cognitive training exercises that focus on decision-making skills. This could include quick problem-solving tasks, decision drills, or situational awareness exercises.
  • Encourage athletes to visualise and mentally rehearse various scenarios they might encounter during a race. This can help them develop a mental playbook and enhance their ability to make quick decisions.
  • Provide immediate feedback during training sessions. This could involve coaches giving real-time information about performance, tactics, or changes in the training environment. Learning to process information swiftly and adjust strategies on the fly is invaluable.
  • Design workouts that require athletes to handle multiple tasks simultaneously. This could involve managing physical exertion while processing complex information or adjusting strategies.

Training tips for age group triathletes

1:14:23 -

  • For improving swim training, avoid relying on pull buoys and paddles exclusively; mix up your training to enhance overall swim skills.
  • In bike training, prioritise understanding your hydration, nutrition, and electrolyte needs. Experiment with different products to find what works best for you, considering individual responses rather than following trends.
  • For run training, focus on trail running and cross country. Regular, steady, easy aerobic runs in natural terrains can significantly enhance your running ability in triathlons. 
  • Incorporate these types of runs into your weekend training routine for substantial improvements.

LINKS AND RESOURCES:


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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