Podcast, Racing, Training

Craig Kirkwood | EP#421

 December 18, 2023

By  Bernardo Gonçalves

LISTEN TO THE EPISODE HERE:

Craig Kirkwood - That Triathlon Show

Craig Kirkwood is a triathlon and endurance coach from New Zealand. His introduction to endurance sports was in running where he raced at a high level (marathon PB 2:13) and got his introduction to coaching, working under Kim McDonald with numerous high-level athletes including World Championships and Olympic Games medalists. As a triathlon coach Craig is known as the long-time coach of Hayden Wilde, bronze medalist from the Tokyo Olympics, but he also coaches age-group runners and triathletes of all different levels. 

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Hayden Wilde's trajectory to the top of triathlon
  • How Hayden has improved his swimming
  • Season planning and periodisation for the Olympic year of 2024
  • A sample training week from Hayden
  • Advice for age-groupers on how to optimise race-day performance
  • Tips for age-groupers to improve their swim, bike and run
  • Considerations for time-crunched athletes

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Shownotes

Craig's background

02:22 -

  • I'm based in Tauranga, New Zealand, a quaint beach town on the northeast coast of the North Island. Initially, I hail from an even smaller town, Timaru, on the South Island's east coast. 
  • My home now includes my wife and our two teenage boys, active in their pursuits, although not necessarily in triathlons or running.
  • My journey began as a runner, eventually leading me to the U.S. on a scholarship, where I earned my sports science degree. 
  • After that chapter, I worked in athlete management in London. This experience catalysed my coaching career, working alongside Kim McDonald and his stable of world-class Kenyan runners, delving into the high-performance world.
  • One of the significant milestones in my coaching career was the 2000 Olympics. Being part of his campaign for that gold medal marked my initial foray into Olympic-level coaching, a memory that remains vivid.
  • On a personal note, I participated in a couple of world cross-countries, competed in the half marathon world championships, and represented at the Commonwealth Games as a marathoner. However, my attempt to qualify for the Beijing Marathon 2008 fell short. 
  • In response, I made a pact with my brother-in-law: if I didn't make Beijing, we would tackle Ironman New Zealand in 2009. That decision marked the beginning of my Ironman journey.
  • Formally establishing my coaching business in 2013 marked a pivotal point, and it's been an exhilarating decade since. 
  • My coaching journey with Hayden kicked off in 2016, spurred by his inspiration from watching the Rio Olympics. The rest, as they say, is history.
  • In addition to working with high-performance athletes aiming for Olympic glory, I coach a wide range of individuals in both running and triathlon, spanning various levels of expertise. 
  • The spectrum is vast, from those keen on conquering half marathons to junior athletes competing nationally in track and triathlon. Each unique journey inspires me, as my goal is to assist them in surpassing their achievements every day. 
  • My initial passion lies in athletics, and coaching runners will always hold a special place in my heart. Witnessing their journeys, reflecting on where I stood at their age, and guiding them through their growth and careers are meaningful experiences. 
  • However, the ultimate driving force for me is the satisfaction of seeing athletes, whether in running or triathlon, make consistent progress, achieve gains, and relish the joy of their endeavours.

Hayden's progression over the years

06:59 -

  • In 2016, when Hayden first entered triathlon, he focused on closing the swimming gap and building the fitness needed to be a front-runner. 
  • The goal was to consistently compete at the front of races. As we progressed towards Tokyo, the mindset shifted. With Hayden consistently racing at the front, the emphasis is on making strategic changes to secure victories.
  • One notable change has been the introduction of more specific run sessions, leveraging the partnership with Olympic 1500-meter runner Sam Tanner. 
  • These sessions aim to enhance Hayden's closing speed, especially compared to key competitors like Alex, who possesses strong track credentials. An example session involves:
  • 200-meter sprints with a 200-meter jog recovery.
  • Pushing Hayden to run as fast as possible without risking injury.
  • Typically hitting the 26-27 seconds mark.
  • Another effective session includes 400 or 500-meter progressions, with each 100-meter getting faster, culminating in an almost full sprint for the last interval. 
  • These sessions focus on refining top-end speed and teaching Hayden how to unleash that speed effectively at the end of a race.

Changes in the racing field

10:13 -

  • The dynamics of triathlon races have shown a mix of scenarios, with races often coming back together, favouring strong runners. However, strategic teamwork, mainly observed in instances involving the French team, has occasionally allowed groups to stay ahead. 
  • The last two grand finals have highlighted this pattern, emphasising the need to address and counter such team strategies.
  • The awareness of these dynamics and the effort to mitigate potential challenges are crucial aspects of our race preparation. 
  • While the overall run standard has risen across competitors, winning in Paris is anticipated to require a sub 28 minutes and 30 seconds off the bike. This target remains a focal point in our training and race strategy.

Hayden's swim training

12:01 -

  • The landscape of triathlon races has seen changes in the swim dynamics, influenced by the athletes in the swim groups. 
  • The return of Henry to the WTC's fold has notably impacted the front of these swim fields, introducing variations in race dynamics. Hayden's swim performance has been a consistent focus since 2016, with ongoing efforts to address this gap. 
  • Over the years, swim consistency and technique improvements have contributed to narrowing the gap to the front.
  • Hayden's swim training regimen typically involves six sessions per week, covering around five to six kilometres per session on average. 
  • Given his non-swim background, this volume is considered necessary for competitiveness at the elite level. The swim workouts include a balance of takeout speed and sustained threshold efforts, both deemed equally crucial. 
  • The emphasis on takeout speed is significant in navigating the challenges of WTCS racing, where a strong start is integral to avoid getting caught in the pack and subsequent difficulties around the buoys.
  • Key swim sessions designed to enhance takeout speed involve dive starts into rapid 12 to 15-meter sprints, followed by sustained threshold efforts spanning 50 to 100 meters. 
  • These sessions are instrumental in addressing specific aspects of the swim performance, contributing to the overall progress and competitiveness in the swim discipline.

Preparation for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games

15:29 -

  • The 2023 season brought both successes and challenges for Hayden. Despite facing setbacks like a flat tire in Abu Dhabi and a crash en route to the Paris test event, he demonstrated resilience and mental strength. 
  • The disappointment of being unable to compete in Paris was challenging for the team, as they believed Hayden was in contention for a win.
  • The team has decided to streamline the season to address the challenges and optimise performance for the upcoming Paris event 2024. The focus will be solely on Paris, and the race calendar will be adjusted to minimise travel and prioritise training blocks. 
  • Precautions will be taken to avoid illness and fatigue leading to the Paris event.
  • While the specific details of the race schedule adjustments are kept confidential for now, it's confirmed that Hayden won't be participating in the entire WTCS season, emphasising a strategic approach to ensure peak performance in Paris.

Training differences when preparing for Paris 2024

17:40 -

  • To optimise preparations for the Paris event, the racing program will be streamlined, allowing for a more extended base phase and targeted training blocks uninterrupted by frequent races. 
  • This approach aims to enhance specificity and performance leading up to the Paris race, minimising the challenges associated with travel and potential illness.
  • Regarding New Zealand's selection policy for the Paris event, the automatic qualifier was a podium finish in Paris, which wasn't achieved. 
  • However, Hayden has met the secondary criteria of two top-eight finishes at WTCS races, aligning with Nicole. While awaiting confirmation, it is anticipated that Hayden will be selected for Paris, considering his achievements and potential contribution to the competition. 
  • The final selection is pending, but preparations are underway with the expectation that he will represent New Zealand in Paris.

Test event importance

20:55 -

  • Securing an automatic qualifier for Paris would have confirmed Hayden's spot on the team, eliminating any uncertainties and meeting the criteria set by the New Zealand Olympic Committee. 
  • While this opportunity didn't materialise, the Committee's stringent selection process was recognised.
  • Reflecting on the Tokyo experience, attending the test event and securing a podium finish provided valuable insights and confidence. 
  • The ability to replicate success in Paris was evident despite unforeseen challenges such as the pre-race crash. 
  • Despite the setback, strong performances in the swim and bike segments affirmed the potential for a competitive showing, and Hayden's form indicated a close competition with top contenders.
  • The crash in Paris introduced an element of uncertainty into the scenario. Still, the positive takeaways from the swim and bike performances and Hayden's strong running form create a sense of anticipation for future opportunities to showcase his capabilities on the Paris course.

Hayden's current training

22:32 -

  • Hayden is currently in a base phase, focusing on foundational training. After participating in several races in Australia following the Super League, including the Nusa Tri and Melbourne 70.3, he took a week to relax in Fiji. 
  • Upon returning to New Zealand, he spent another week engaging in light activities like mountain biking and forest jogs. 

A sample training week for Hayden

23:55 -

  • In general terms, Hayden's weekly training includes 90-minute swim sessions from Monday to Friday, with occasional Saturday sessions focused on technique and recovery. 
  • Cycling comprises five to six sessions a week, emphasising long rides of four to five hours at an aerobic pace. 
  • The current running focus involves two long runs per week, one lasting around two hours and the other approximately an hour and a half. 
  • These runs fall into a general aerobic conditioning zone, maintaining a comfortable pace for Hayden. 
  • The running volume is currently around a hundred kilometres per week, with plans to gradually increase it, aiming for up to 160 kilometres in the future. 
  • The biking volume is around 500 to 600 kilometres per week, with potential adjustments based on training needs. The specifics may change as training progresses, adapting to Hayden's evolving fitness levels and goals.

2024 70.3 Ironman World Championships

28:02 -

  • Winning the world title in Taupo is significant for Hayden, given that it's his hometown. 
  • The desire to compete on home soil in New Zealand adds a special dimension to the competition. Consequently, the World 
  • Championships in Taupo will become a significant focus for Hayden, possibly superseding other events like the Grand Final and Super League in terms of priority. 
  • While he may still participate in those races, the primary emphasis will shift towards preparing and performing exceptionally well in Taupo, aiming to claim the world title in front of a home crowd.

Racing tips for amateurs

29:23 -

  • One key area is the taper, where athletes may struggle to find the right balance. I emphasise the importance of learning to rest adequately and not relying solely on generic formulas found online. Understanding one's body and developing a personalised tapering strategy is crucial to arriving at the start line both physically and mentally fresh.
  • Nutrition during the race and pre-race fueling are identified as significant factors. 
  • Athletes must ensure proper nutrition leading up to the race, avoiding starting with an empty fuel tank. Managing nutrition during the race is equally vital for sustained performance.
  • Moreover, athletes need to listen to their bodies. Relying solely on data from gadgets like a Garmin or head unit may be deceptive, especially considering variables like course conditions and competition. 
  • Instead, athletes should focus on understanding how their body feels, ensuring a more intuitive and responsive approach to racing.

Tapering

31:32 -

  • I lean towards being cautious in the taper. It's a delicate balance—you don't want to arrive at the start line feeling sluggish from a two-week break, but overdoing it can leave you equally fatigued. It might sound paradoxical, but finding the proper equilibrium is crucial.
  • When prescribing intensity, I often emphasise general aerobic and easy terms. For instance, if I suggest an easy hour run, it might be around 30 seconds slower than their general aerobic pace. 
  • This subtle adjustment can make a significant difference, helping athletes approach the start line feeling fresher. 
  • You can still incorporate some easy sessions during the two-week lead-up, but even those should have reduced intensity and extended recoveries between reps. 
  • The goal is to allow for recovery rather than digging a deep hole to climb out of right before race day. It's about finding that sweet spot to optimise readiness without risking overtraining.
  • The mental aspect is just as crucial during the taper. It's not just about the physical preparation but also mentally setting yourself up for success. 
  • If you're self-coached, designing sessions that boost your confidence is vital. There's no need to risk failure with sessions with short recoveries or overly challenging. It's better to allow for slightly longer rests, execute the reps well, and finish feeling strong.
  • Walking away from those lead-up sessions with a sense of confidence is vital. It's about building mental resilience and assurance that you've prepared adequately. 
  • Doubts and second-guessing on the start line can undermine performance, so instilling a positive mental state during the taper is a crucial aspect of the overall race preparation.

Nutrition considerations

35:01 -

  • It's a common misconception that reducing training volume should be accompanied by a decrease in food intake. This is a crucial time to fuel up and replenish glycogen stores. I often emphasise to athletes that the taper isn't just about physical rest; it's about nutritional preparation.
  • Carbohydrate loading in the days leading up to a longer race, like an Ironman, is essential. It's about maximising glycogen stores to ensure your body has the energy for the extended effort. It requires thoughtful planning and not relying on spontaneous decisions or "winging it." 
  • People may focus more on race-day nutrition, but the lead-up days significantly set the stage for success.
  • Educating athletes about the importance of strategic nutrition during the taper is influential, emphasising the need for increased carbohydrate intake, staying well-hydrated, and ensuring they have the energy stores necessary for the upcoming race.

Two tips for improving swimming performance

35:36 -

  • Planning and consistency are key when it comes to improving swim performance. Swimming is a highly technical sport; refining stroke technique before increasing volume is a wise approach. 
  • Quality over quantity is a mantra that holds in swim training.
  • Moreover, incorporating drills and focused technique work into swim sessions can enhance refining. 
  • These drills target specific aspects of the stroke, helping swimmers address weaknesses and improve overall efficiency.

Two tips for improving cycling performance

37:10 -

  • A proper bike fit is crucial for comfort, aerodynamics, and power delivery. Making sure the bike fits the individual, rather than trying to adjust oneself to the bike, is a crucial principle. 
  • This optimises and reduces the risk of discomfort or injury during long rides.
  • Understanding body proportions and seeking recommendations based on individual measurements is a wise approach, especially if a pre-bike fit consultation is not feasible. 
  • Knowing whether you have a longer torso, longer legs, or a balanced physique can guide you towards bikes that suit your body geometry.
  • The second tip about studying and simulating the race course profile in training is brilliant. Familiarising with the terrain, mimicking the course's climbs and descents, and understanding the demands of each section can provide a mental edge on race day. 
  • It helps triathletes anticipate challenges, manage their efforts, and stay mentally prepared during the race.

Two tips for improving run performance

40:16 -

  • Emphasising the significance of the long run and its consistency is crucial, and the idea that the long run can often take precedence over certain types of workouts resonates well.
  • Incorporating hills into the running routine is a great tip. Hills add variety to training and serve as a form of natural speed work. The resistance offered by uphill running can help build strength and power, contributing to overall running performance.
  • The personalised approach makes a lot of sense regarding the long run in Ironman preparation. 
  • Experienced runners or Ironman athletes confident in covering the full marathon distance may not need to go the total distance in training. In contrast, those newer to the distance might benefit from a longer run for the psychological reassurance that they can handle the race distance.
  • Limiting the longest run to around 34 to 35 kilometres, mainly to avoid excessive impact and potential overtraining, is a sensible strategy. 
  • Balancing the physiological benefits of long runs with the need for recovery and avoiding unnecessary wear and tear on the body is vital for sustainable training and optimal race-day performance.

Performing well in an Ironman and a marathon

42:40 -

  • Prioritising the Ironman allows athletes to build a substantial aerobic base through cycling and swimming, which can be leveraged for a more specific and targeted marathon preparation.
  • Running a standalone marathon before an Ironman has the potential downside of inducing greater physical stress and recovery demands. 
  • The instinct to push harder during a standalone marathon, compared to the more controlled pacing often employed in the run leg of an Ironman, could lead to increased fatigue and possibly hamper subsequent training.
  • By establishing a solid aerobic foundation through Ironman-focused training, athletes can fine-tune their marathon-specific preparation. 
  • This sequential approach enables a smoother transition from general aerobic conditioning to the specific demands of marathon running, optimising overall performance.

Key takeaways that amateurs should get from pro triathletes

45:31 -

  • Pro athletes, aiming to win races and operate at the front of the field, structure their workouts to match these high-performance objectives. 
  • The intensity and focus on specific race strategies are tailored to the demands of leading the competition.
  • The training emphasis may shift for age groupers or those with different competitive goals. The primary aim could be to complete the race, achieve a personal best, or perform well within their age group. 
  • As you rightly pointed out, the duration of the event is a critical factor. Training for a 10-hour Ironman is indeed distinct from preparing for a 7h30 Ironman or a more extended 12 to 15-hour Ironman.
  • The baseline fitness, recovery capacity, and intensity levels also vary between pro athletes and age groupers. 
  • Attempting to replicate the exact workouts or intensities of professional triathletes might not suit all athletes. 
  • The key is tailoring training to individual capabilities, goals, and the specific demands of the target race.

Tips for time-crunched athletes

47:16 -

  • Sometimes, the key is not to have the perfect or ideal training plan but to make the best use of the available time and focus on essential elements.
  • In cases where athletes have significant time constraints due to demanding professions, family responsibilities, or other factors, customisation becomes crucial. 
  • Prioritising the basics, such as incorporating a long run and ride, even if they are relatively shorter in duration, is an intelligent approach. Additionally, integrating intensity into these sessions helps maximise the training benefits within a limited timeframe.
  • Flexibility and innovation in designing workouts tailored to the individual's schedule are essential. It's about creating a realistic and sustainable training plan that aligns with the athlete's lifestyle. 
  • Focus on the basics and not let the pursuit of perfection hinder progress. 
  • Making consistent, manageable efforts over time often yields more significant results than striving for an ideal that might be impractical given the individual's circumstances.

Additional pieces of advice to age group triathletes

49:04 -

  1. Training Without Excessive Reliance on Data: Learning to train by feeling and tuning into the sensations of effort is crucial. While data can be valuable, athletes should not become overly dependent on numbers. Developing an intuitive sense of pacing and effort can enhance overall performance.
  2. Optimising Bike Fit for Aerodynamics: Investing time in achieving an optimal bike fit can provide significant benefits. Balancing aerodynamics with comfort and power delivery is key, and this can be achieved through a well-fitted bike.
  3. Choosing Soft Surfaces for Running: Opting for soft surfaces during running, such as trails or grass, can help minimise the impact on the legs. This is especially valuable in reducing the risk of injuries and promoting long-term joint health.
  4. Keeping Easy Runs Easy: Emphasising the importance of maintaining a comfortable pace during easy runs. Using a percentage of time per kilometre slower than aerobic pace can be a helpful guideline to ensure that easy runs serve their intended purpose without unnecessary strain.
  5. Controlled Efforts and Understanding Prescribed Workouts: Ensuring that any high-intensity efforts are controlled and aligned with the prescribed purpose of the workout. This highlights the significance of understanding the rationale behind each workout, especially when working with a coach.
  6. Avoiding Excessive Intensity: Cautioning against exceeding prescribed workout intensities to prevent training in the wrong zones and potentially undermining the intended training adaptations.

General Questions

50:39 -

What have you implemented, changed or evolved in your coaching in the last few years?  

Participating in the High-Performance Sport New Zealand coaching course, specifically the Coach Accelerator Program has been a transformative experience for me. Over approximately 18 months, our focus has centred on honing essential skills, particularly in navigating difficult conversations and refining the art of active listening. The structured meetings held every six weeks have provided a platform for immersive learning and practical application of these skills.

A significant aspect of this training involves cultivating the ability to approach conversations with empathy and a circular thinking mindset. By delving into the perspectives of others, I aim to better understand their viewpoints and motivations. This approach helps me avoid imposing my assumptions and preconceived notions onto athletes. Instead, I strive to align with their thought processes, fostering a collaborative and mutually beneficial coaching relationship. 

What would you say if you could visit your young athlete and give yourself some good advice? 

One of the key lessons I would impart is the importance of controlled training output. In my youth, our training lacked the oversight of a coach who could guide and regulate our efforts. Consequently, we often succumbed to the allure of ambitious, high-intensity workouts, striving to complete challenging sessions with maximum exertion. This approach, however, proved counterproductive, resulting in more harm than actual gains.

I would advise my younger self to prioritise controlled and purposeful training, steering clear of the inclination to pursue hero sessions that risked overexertion and potential injuries. However, I also acknowledge that these experiences have played a pivotal role in shaping my coaching philosophy today. The mistakes and challenges of my early athletic career have equipped me with valuable insights, allowing me to identify and rectify suboptimal training practices. 

Coaching a junior squad

54:30 -

  • Navigating training dynamics with young boys, especially in groups, presents an ongoing challenge. 
  • The inherent desire to showcase their abilities and the influence of peer interactions can lead to a tendency for them to push the boundaries during workouts. 
  • As a coach, I've learned to approach this situation strategically, consistently exercising caution in prescribing their training sessions.
  • To counteract the potential for overexertion, I intentionally dial back the recommended pace for run sessions, anticipating that their competitive spirit may drive them to surpass the prescribed intensity. 
  • This subtle adjustment serves as gentle guidance, acknowledging and working around the youthful male ego that often seeks to demonstrate prowess.
  • Furthermore, I engage in open conversations with them during training sessions, emphasising the importance of self-control and discouraging unnecessary competition among peers. 
  • Over time, the athletes mature and understand how maintaining discipline and adhering to prescribed intensities contribute to their long-term progress.

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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