Podcast, Training

Q&A about training, coaching and science | EP#419

 December 4, 2023

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Mikael Eriksson - That Triathlon Show

Mikael answers listener questions about training, coaching and the role of science in coaching.  

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • How hard should your hard workouts be
  • Mikael's coaching philosophy and how it has evolved over the years
  • Mikael's views on science within coaching

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High-intensity sessions

04:13 -

  • Suppose we discuss whether to go all out in intense sessions. In that case, the answer depends on various factors, such as the session's goal, the risk-benefit ratio, and upcoming schedule considerations. 
  • The primary consideration is the session's purpose. Taking your example of a 20-minute tempo run, clarifying the terminology is essential. 
  • Cyclists and triathletes often use "tempo" for zone three in a five-zone system, roughly equivalent to a relatively fit amateur runner's marathon pace. However, cyclists may refer to a pace that a fit runner could sustain for 10 kilometres as "tempo."
  • Discussions around zones and terms like tempo, threshold, and sweet spot could be simplified by using more specific language, like race paces (5km, 10km, etc.) and power durations (5-minute, 20-minute, 60-minute). This would provide clearer communication.
  • Assuming the term tempo in the traditional running sense, approximately 10km to 10-mile race pace, you should align your effort with the intended workout purpose. 
  • Going all out would turn it into a VO2max session, which, while beneficial, differs significantly from the targeted sustained pace training.
  • When planning a session, it's crucial to consider the duration, interval setup, and specific intensity target. 
  • This target can be based on pace, heart rate, or perceived effort. Remember that intensity targets can be a range rather than a fixed number due to daily variations in performance. For example, if your average 10 km pace is 4 minutes per kilometer, your workout range could be 3min55s to 4min10s.
  • It's important to understand that you're not aiming to maximise performance or adaptations in a single workout. Long-term improvement comes from consistent training over time rather than a singular, intense effort.
  • Improving your performance doesn't always require epic, all-out workouts. Consistency is vital, stacking workouts over weeks, months, and years. Most sessions shouldn't be all-out; instead, follow intensity guidelines. 
  • If your goal is a 20-minute effort at a 10km race pace, you're not a 20-minute 10 km runner, so it shouldn't be an all-out effort. Design workouts strategically, like doing intervals, to challenge yourself without going all out. 
  • The exception is VO2 max efforts; here, being close to maximum intensity is crucial for desired adaptations. 
  • Examples include 12 x 400 meters at a 5km race pace with short recoveries. 
  • Summarily, understand each session's purpose, set pace, heart rate, and RPE parameters, and be flexible within those ranges based on how you feel on a given day. Adjustments ensure a good, challenging workout without going all out when it's not necessary.

Mikael's coaching philosophy

11:55 -

  • My coaching philosophy is deeply integrated with my coaching methodology. It starts with a comprehensive assessment of the athlete's current state and their desired goals. 
  • This involves aligning the coach's and athlete's objectives and understanding the athlete's current capabilities. 
  • The next step is conducting a gap analysis, which requires a detailed examination, and then formulating a plan to bridge the gap between their current state and desired performance.
  • The challenge lies not just in the analysis itself, which demands meticulous scrutiny, but in devising a strategy to progress from point A to point B. 
  • This can involve improvements in various areas, such as swimming, biking, and running. Understanding the athlete's profile and constraints is crucial. 
  • Constraints include factors like work, family commitments, and recovery time. The athlete's profile extends beyond pure physiology, encompassing psychology, motivation sources, biomechanics, and anatomy.
  • For instance, a swimmer's body differs from a runner's, and factors like height can impact performance. Technical skills, training environment, equipment, and personal beliefs about training also play significant roles. 
  • Once I have a clear grasp of the athlete's profile and constraints, I evaluate if their goals are realistic within a given time frame. If not, I suggest adjustments for more realistic objectives. 
  • Goal alignment is fundamental to my coaching philosophy, rooted in meticulously analysing the athlete's profile, constraints, and goals.
  • When it comes to training, there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. For the same goal (point B) starting from the same initial point (point A), there might be numerous paths within a general population but considerably fewer based on individual profiles and constraints—perhaps five or even fewer. 
  • Coaching is highly individualised, considering factors beyond mere fitness, such as pacing, race strategy, hydration, nutrition, and technical aspects like aerodynamics.
  • In my approach to coaching, I prioritise performance coaching over mere fitness or physiological coaching. While some athletes may already possess the necessary fitness levels, the training becomes more straightforward. 
  • However, for the majority, there's a substantial focus on the physical aspects, requiring a careful balance in determining the overall workload, intensity, training volume, and distribution across disciplines. It's not solely about physiological profiles; it involves considering the athlete's unique profile, constraints, training environment, and beliefs. 
  • My coaching philosophy adopts an engineering-inspired approach, reminiscent of my experience writing user requirement specifications for medical devices during my engineering days. This systematic approach guides my coaching methodology, applying principles akin to product specifications but tailored for coaching dynamics.

Role of science in coaching

21:58 -

  • While science plays a crucial role in addressing specific, detailed questions and challenges in coaching, its primary value is aiding areas like heat training and interval design. 
  • However, when it comes to significant decisions such as periodisation and balancing volume and intensity, I rely on coaching experience and a systematic process rooted in the scientific method on a case-by-case basis. 
  • Yet, not a strictly peer-reviewed method.
  • When making overarching decisions, it is essential for a coach to critically assess their process, questioning biases to enhance coaching effectiveness swiftly. 
  • I do not advocate a purely scientific approach of prescribing training solely based on academic papers, emphasising the importance of recognising science's limitations and its applicability to individuals. 
  • Scientists ask questions, make observations, and design experiments, providing valuable a priori information, but this doesn't guarantee straightforward answers for each athlete.
  • My perspective on the role of science in coaching hasn't changed dramatically but has evolved. While science remains crucial for a priori information, I've realised its limitations and the fewer instances where direct application from research to a training plan is feasible. 
  • In my view, science is more helpful in guiding what not to do in training, given the inherent nature of the scientific method, which aims to disprove hypotheses.
  • Practically, I find myself less inclined to turn directly to science for answers due to a deeper understanding of its limitations and an increased reliance on my coaching knowledge and experience. 
  • Although science is vital for forming and testing hypotheses, my coaching observations contribute significantly to gaining actionable insights. 
  • In reflecting on my perspective, one constant belief remains unchanged— the significance of adopting a scientific mindset rather than veering into the realm of rogue scientists prevalent in today's social media landscape. 
  • For me, a true scientist engages in observation, hypothesis formulation, experimentation, and continuous adaptation of knowledge based on new evidence. 
  • This unwavering curiosity and open-mindedness define the essence of true science. This fundamental principle has not diminished; if anything, it has become more crucial. 
  • I strive to apply a scientific mindset with even greater precision in my coaching endeavours. 
  • I recently came across an insightful post by Paulo Sousa on Instagram, emphasising the role of science in coaching. 

Is the name "Scientific Triathlon" still relevant?

27:01 -

  • Honestly, I've often contemplated the intriguing question of how "Scientific Triathlon" came to be. 
  • It wasn't a meticulously thought-out decision; the name popped into my mind for about 10 seconds, and I discovered the domain was available. 
  • Despite its spontaneous origin, the name doesn't imply that all training and coaching must be rooted in academic papers or formal knowledge. Instead, it stems from embracing a scientist's mindset and applying the scientific method in the context of training and coaching.
  • For me, Scientific Triathlon represents curiosity, open-mindedness, and systematic approaches—traits akin to a scientist. It involves keen observation, experimentation, and continually updating prior knowledge. 
  • Let me share a snippet from the Wikipedia page on the scientific method to shed more light on this. The method calls for careful observation, rigorous scepticism, hypothesis formulation based on inductive reasoning, testability, experimental testing, and statistical analysis of deductions. 
  • While not all aspects can be directly applied in coaching, the fundamental concepts align seamlessly with my philosophy.
  • Admittedly, not every element of the scientific method can be executed in coaching, especially when dealing with individual athletes as unique experiments. Nevertheless, the core principles—formulating hypotheses, conducting careful observations, applying scepticism, and refining or discarding hypotheses—are integral to how I approach coaching. Reflecting on it, I might not choose the same name if I were starting anew. 

Current topics Mikael is interested in

29:27 -

  • I hold a deep passion for psychology and communication. These realms are currently at the forefront of my exploration, and I am keen on delving even further to enhance my coaching skills. 
  • The prospect of pursuing a degree in either psychology or communication is something I seriously contemplate due to its perceived significance in my professional development. 
  • In the interim, these subjects constitute the focal point of my reading and learning endeavours.


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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