Podcast, Training

Jacob Tipper | EP#424

 January 31, 2024

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


That Triathlon Show - Jacob Tipper

Jacob Tipper is a cycling and triathlon coach working and having worked with athletes such as Ben Healy, Dan Bigham, Lucy Byram and Jonathan Brownlee, and a former elite cyclist himself. In this interview we discuss Jacob's experience in triathlon, two years into his transition from cycling to triathlon, including several important lessons learnt.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Your training doesn't have to fit into popular frameworks
  • The outsized cost of improving swimming
  • How Jacob let his strength (cycling) slip
  • How lots of "easy volume" failed to improve Jacob's run
  • Modern-day training biases: there's much more to performance than physiology
  • Advice for cyclists considering getting into triathlon
  • Advice for triathletes considering becoming cyclists

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Jacob's background

03:30 -

  • I'm a former elite cyclist with experience in lower-level UCI racing. I've secured wins in the Tour of Qinghai Lake, a prestigious pro race in China, and the Tour of Morocco stage. 
  • I was also a founding member of the Huub track team alongside Dan Bighan. My academic background includes a degree in sports science and master's level studies, which I've applied to my coaching endeavours.
  • As a coach, I've worked with notable athletes such as Dan Bighan, guiding him to hour records. I've also coached Ben Healy, celebrating victories in Giro stages and Ardennes classics. 
  • My involvement extends to pro triathletes, including Lucy Byram, who achieved an impressive fourth place at the USA Open PTO race. Additionally, I collaborate with Johnny Brownlee on his bike-specific training.
  • Beyond coaching, I contribute to Huub Design, serving as the Head of Cycling and engaging in research and development. I've developed suits for athletes like Kat Matthews, conducted aero testing for Alistair Brownlee, and contributed to Alistair's sub-seven attempt, which later transformed into a Joe Skipper sub-seven attempt. 
  • In that event, I took on the team leader role for the cyclists and served as the DS for that specific endeavour.

Jacob's journey into triathlon

05:33 -

  • Reflecting on the past couple of years, I believe I hit my peak in cycling when COVID hit. 
  • I performed exceptionally well that year, securing second place in the UK rankings and winning three races early in the season. 
  • Despite not yet incorporating high-intensity work, I significantly improved my abilities, attacking on climbs during team camp. 
  • However, things took a downturn toward the end of my time with Huub WattBike. 
  • I realised I wasn't at the elite level required for that team, especially in pursuit-specific areas. 
  • This realisation affected my confidence and mental space.
  • Nevertheless, I managed to pick myself up, returning to what I loved – road cycling. 
  • My enthusiasm was cut short by the onset of the COVID lockdowns, which disrupted the racing season. To stay active, I participated in a triathlon at the end of that year, unexpectedly finding enjoyment and success. 
  • This sparked the idea that I might want to explore triathlon further.
  • Entering the following year with optimism, I invested heavily in winter training, even spending lockdowns in Spain to ensure quality training. 
  • However, as lockdowns persisted in the UK and racing remained uncertain, frustration and disappointment set in. 
  • Two years of rigorous training seemed to yield little, and my passion for cycling waned. Despite this, the drive inherent in someone reaching an elite level in sports kept me seeking a new challenge.
  • Having started with triathlons as a kid before transitioning to cycling, I decided to revisit my roots. In October 2021, as I resumed regular winter training, I aimed to blend triathlon with one more year of road cycling as a transitional phase. 
  • However, my focus on road cycling dwindled throughout the year, leading to a shift toward age group triathlon.
  • The sport demanded a different balance, and my running capabilities were not as strong as they had been as a kid. 
  • Juggling work, relationships, and triathlon proved more challenging than anticipated. 
  • Despite thinking that a less serious approach to triathlon would require fewer hours, I learned that even semi-serious engagement demanded a significant time commitment.

Jacob's youth triathlon experience

10:03 -

  • When I was around 12 or 13 till 16, I joined the local Black Country Triathlon Club. 
  • Honestly, I wasn't great at that age. Despite being very enthusiastic about sports, I didn't excel until my early 20s. Even when I switched to cycling, I wasn't exceptional. 
  • By the time I was 16, I was doing well. My best result was seventh in the national championships, but the depth of competition wasn't as strong then. 
  • Looking back, I realise my 5K running time was probably more around 17 and a half minutes, not the 16 minutes I thought. I was a decent runner, an average swimmer with questionable swim PB legitimacy, and okay on the bike for my age. 

Jacob's goals when transitioning to triathlon

12:31 -

  • I had high expectations for myself, and I must admit, I was a bit deluded. In a somewhat overly optimistic way, I envisioned returning to running with the same speed I had in 2014 after a six or seven-year hiatus. 
  • I clocked an 18:10 or 18:15 park run and assumed I could easily pick up where I left off. 
  • I figured my base running fitness, childhood running, and strong cycling background would make me a runner who completes a 5k in 18 minutes. 
  • However, reality hit hard, and I struggled to break the 21-minute mark for a 5k. 
  • The initial months were challenging, often resulting in niggles or injuries.
  • Progression turned out to be more challenging than I anticipated, and I might have approached certain aspects of training the wrong way, not playing to my strengths. 
  • While I never aimed to turn professional, a small part of me dreamed of keeping up with borderline pros. 
  • It's arrogant to think I could professionally transition to a different sport, especially without a swimming background. Still, that didn't entirely stop that 1% of me from entertaining the thought. I envisioned being in the mix with some lower-level pros, only to realise these athletes are phenomenal, though not widely known. 
  • They put in 25 to 30 hours of training weekly and are exceptional.
  • I didn't fully appreciate the dedication and talent of these lower-tier pros. I thought I could give them a run for their money, but they're still on a different level. 
  • I'm not saying I'm bad at triathlon, but I've come to terms with the fact that I'm not at the level I initially believed I could reach, and there are various reasons for that.

Jacob's swimming level

14:57 -

  • So, looking back, it wasn't too bad. Considering my childhood struggles with swimming, it was a challenge. During the national champs, I found myself more or less at the bottom after the swim leg, but luckily, it was a non-drafting race, allowing me to catch up on the bike. 
  • In 2007, the depth of competition in youth triathlon wasn't as high as it is now, so I started approximately where I expected. 
  • Swimming wasn't my strongest suit, but I wasn't too far behind.
  • Reflecting on those early days, I've come to believe that the pool I initially trained in might have been shorter than standard. I remember being surprisingly quick there, only to feel slower at different pools. 
  • Looking back, I suspect my local pool wasn't regulation length. Despite these uncertainties, it didn't take me too long to reach the six-minute mark for a 400-meter swim. However, the real challenge came afterwards.
  • Frankly, I didn't receive much coaching support for swimming during my childhood. Despite being the second-best kid in the region for my age group, the West Midlands Academy, aside from one coach named Reese, wasn't interested in me because I struggled with swimming. 
  • They focused exclusively on swimmers, and my potential wasn't considered because I couldn't keep up in the water. No one took the time to assess how little I knew about swimming technique. I was essentially just splashing around.
  • To improve, I turned to online resources and stumbled upon a five-day pool challenge. 
  • Those videos significantly impacted my understanding of swimming technique—where to place my hands and how to grab the water and push it behind me. It didn't take long until I could swim 400 meters in under six minutes.

Learnings and mistakes Jacob got from returning to triathlon

17:29 -

  • To provide clarity, I'll be discussing the mistakes I, a 78-kilo former sprint cyclist with a solid VO2 max, made in my approach to triathlon training. 
  • Remember that what might be a mistake for me might not be one for you. While sharing my experiences in the context of my journey, I acknowledge the uniqueness of each individual's situation.
  • Starting with swimming, I was fortunate to achieve a decent critical swim speed early on, around 1min34 to 1min35 per 100 meters. While this is solid for many, I questioned the value of pushing for further improvement. 
  • Considering the time and effort required to shave off a few seconds, I questioned its significance over a full Ironman.
  • In the past, I attempted to swim three to four times a week, but I found it inefficient. 
  • The more I spent swimming, the better the improvements, but the sport demanded considerable time for significant gains. 
  • As someone with a background in lengthy mountain rides, a 45-minute swim seemed counterproductive. 
  • The inefficiency became evident in commuting, changing, and contending for lane space. 
  • Additionally, the aerobic gains were minimal, given the limited intensity I could sustain without sacrificing technique.
  • Considering my overall goals and the minimal impact of swim improvements on my triathlon performance, I decided to cut down to two weekly sessions. 
  • I chose recovery days when I had more time and aimed to make these sessions count. While I'm still committed to improvement, I no longer let swimming dominate my schedule, recognising the importance of balancing training with overall life efficiency.
  • My key takeaway was understanding the limiting factors in my triathlon performance and optimising my training accordingly.
  •  For me, obsessing over swim minutiae wasn't worth the added stress and time commitment. 
  • From a short-term or one- to two-season perspective, dedicating much time to swimming might seem less rewarding. 
  • Especially for longer distances like an Ironman, the time invested in swimming for marginal improvements can appear less valuable than cycling or running.
  • There's a nuanced aspect when considering an entire triathlon career. If an athlete envisions long-term goals, such as qualifying for Kona, and there's a possibility that their swim performance is the limiting factor, consistently working on the swim can be strategic. 
  • It's about anticipating potential limitations down the road. While it might not yield substantial returns immediately, focusing on the swim throughout the triathlon career can put an athlete in a better position to address any swim-related challenges when needed.
  • In the short and medium term, I agree that swimming often offers the least return on investment. 
  • Many athletes, including those I coach, prioritise the bike and run for similar reasons. I've had experiences where I dedicated extensive time to swimming, swimming five times a week, covering 20 kilometres weekly, and pushing myself hard in the pool. Looking back, I acknowledge those years might have been mistakes, as the intense focus on swimming drew energy away from improving my bike and running.
  • Now, with three swims a week, I find myself swimming better than ever. 
  • However, I recognise that my current proficiency wouldn't be possible without the foundational work I put into swimming earlier in my career. 
  • So, depending on individual goals and aspirations, there can be long-term value in occasional intensive swimming sessions.

Swimming technique

28:00 -

  • I once knew someone who emphasised the importance of being at the front in swimming, claiming that you lack the assistance of "motorbikes" without being in the lead. However, my perspective differs. 
  • Even if I cut three minutes off my time, those "motorbikes" will still be three minutes ahead. Personally, that's how I see it. I believe not everyone can be purposeful about it. The purpose is critical.
  • At one point, I was caught up in getting to the pool and swimming to feel busy. More volume meant progress, but I wasn't in the right headspace. I often felt a bit foggy. So, I decided to shift my approach. I focused on setting achievable weekly goals, saying, "Just get in, get it done, and be proud you've covered 10K or 12K this week." The satisfaction of ticking off my swimming goal boosted dopamine, making me feel good and accomplished.
  • However, I soon realised that this approach lacked purpose. It became clear that I needed a more intentional strategy. Even though I'm not treating swimming as a top priority, I see value in purposeful training. 
  • I've started attending a course, meeting with experts at the end of the pool once a month or every six weeks. This way, I work on specific aspects of my technique when I swim regularly.
  • Rather than just swimming for the sake of it, I'm incorporating drills with a clear purpose. For instance, I identified a flaw in my stroke – my right arm drops in the water when I breathe to the left. I focus on holding that right hand out longer and achieving an earlier catch. This targeted approach, with specific cues for improvement, has added value to my training.

Cycling mistakes

29:30 -

  • I've realised I wasn't giving my cycling the attention it needed, especially considering my background as a former semi-pro elite cyclist. 
  • Initially, I got complacent, thinking that since I was already good at cycling, it wasn't my limiting factor in triathlon. Instead, I focused more on improving my running and swimming.
  • However, I understood that muscular cycling fitness underpins the triathlon, especially for four- or nine-hour events. 
  • My aerobic system needed a boost from cycling, and I wasn't providing enough stimulus for improvement.
  • In the past, my efforts were somewhat lacklustre. I settled for LT1 work or 70.3-pace efforts, thinking they were sufficient. 
  • But they weren't challenging enough to drive significant improvement. I needed to revisit my approach.
  • I decided to go back to basics, pushing the pedals harder during efforts. I reintroduced higher wattage efforts, aiming for 330 to 350 watts, similar to what I used to do. 
  • It was about simplifying things and focusing on what worked for me – pushing myself harder.
  • I acknowledged that I had been too lenient with my training. I used to incorporate two-hour zone two rides, thinking it was adequate for a busy schedule. 
  • However, this wasn't providing the necessary stimulus for improvement. It became clear that I needed to apply more stress to induce adaptation.
  • Amidst various training models and principles like 80-20 or polarisation, the fundamental concept of applying sufficient stress for adaptation stood out. 
  • The key is providing enough stimulus, whether high intensity, threshold, or a mix.
  • I admitted I wasn't giving myself enough intensity or load on the bike. I had to let go of the acceptance of being weaker and strive for improvement. Reflecting on the basic principles of adaptation, it was evident that I needed to challenge myself more, pushing beyond what had become the norm.
  • In a recent training block in Spain, I incorporated 20-minute efforts, realising that I hadn't done such high-intensity work for almost a year.
  • I realised I hadn't pushed myself hard enough in my sessions. I was caught up in trying to fit in various workouts, thinking, "Okay, this track session is tough, the swim is challenging, and that bike ride is hard." I thought I was hitting around 80%, feeling somewhat polarised. 
  • But deep down, I knew I wasn't giving my best effort in the sessions.
  • Now, I've simplified my approach to cycling. It's either I go out and do focus efforts like I used to in the good old days – periodising it the way I always have, excluding anaerobic and Crit work since it's unnecessary for triathlon. 
  • I focus on good threshold work, higher threshold work, and aerobic efforts, like five- to eight-minute intervals. I plan these out for the next six months and execute proper sessions.
  • Alternatively, I commit to a substantial volume without worrying about rushing back for another swim or run. This approach feels much better to me. 
  • Recently, I did a straightforward 55-minute session right from my doorstep. After a quick five-minute warm-up, I tackled a challenging hill for nine minutes, rode down another way, hit another challenging hill for nine minutes, and finished with 14 minutes of 30/30s on a third hill. 
  • The entire session was right in my neighbourhood. It's a far cry from my attempts at hour-and-a-half zone two rides that didn't cut me. 
  • Sometimes, simplicity is the key, and I've found it a game-changer. It might sound uncomplicated, but people can get bogged down in unnecessary complexities.

Cycling training volume

35:53 -

  • The training approach I've shifted to is working quite well, maybe even better than before. 
  • I've made the sessions more focused and energy-intensive. It's either a solid hour of pushing hard and getting a great workout or opting for longer sessions, stretching up to four hours. 
  • Previously, my rides were shorter, hovering around twos, threes, and occasional one-and-a-half-hour sessions. 
  • The frequency was higher, but fitting them in often felt like a struggle. Honestly, I wasn't pushing myself hard enough during those shorter rides.
  • So now, it's about committing to the duration. When it's a long ride, it's a proper long one. Not the extreme German volume training of seven or eight hours because that might be too much for me now. 
  • My weekly schedule looks like efforts on Monday, a hard effort on Tuesday, a long ride on Wednesday, another hard effort on Thursday, and a mix of both on Sunday.
  • Previously, I was trying to cram too much into my rides, attempting to stay consistently busy. 
  • It felt like I was just going through the motions rather than focusing on what I needed to improve. It's worth noting that I already have years of aerobic work in my background, so this new approach, with more intense efforts each week, seems to provide the necessary overload for improvement. 
  • While doing a lot of effort weekly might be too much for some, it fits into my specific context and is proving effective where steady riding fell short.
  • I don't believe that cycling is rocket science. You don't need to obsess over this 80-20 periodised approach, as some people on Twitter suggest. 
  • For some, it works perfectly; for others, it doesn't. 
  • There's a lot of debate out there, with good sports scientists expressing disbelief in the approach while others swear by it, thinking it's the best thing ever. It all boils down to what works for you.
  • For me, too much emphasis on consistency was draining. I felt the pressure to be consistent, consistent, consistent. However, in pursuing this consistency, I sacrificed quality and nuance. 
  • I was just going through the motions without purpose or meaning, damaging me. 
  • It might have looked fantastic on training models, but it didn't feel right.
  • The critical question is whether what you're doing is working. If not, exploring other approaches that might suit you better is crucial. I've found that switching things up has helped me in the short term. 
  • Whether it's a long-term solution remains to be seen, but this is the path I've chosen, and this is how I approach the situation.
  • Sometimes, it's about finding the right balance and ensuring enough overload to bring about improvement.

Running mistakes

38:46 -

  • Running has been quite frustrating for me, given my background in cycling as a semi-pro for several years. 
  • Fortunately, I had a significant aerobic base, but transitioning to running wasn't as smooth as expected. In the initial weeks, and even up to three months, I struggled with avoiding injuries. Despite not getting fully injured, I constantly dealt with niggles in my ankles and hips.
  • I started with small 3-5 km weekly sessions, constantly feeling like I was nursing some discomfort. 
  • The pavement's slant exacerbated ankle issues due to my lack of stability. 
  • My running pace was initially super slow, partly due to the fear of getting injured.
  • The problem persisted as I ran softly, wearing comfortable, cushioned shoes like Nike Invincible and Nike Reacts. The emphasis shifted from running faster to avoiding injuries. I often found myself in a headspace where running became a task to complete rather than an empowering activity. 
  • I would go out, aiming not to exceed a specific heart rate in Zone 2, following scientific models but neglecting the importance of speed.
  • I convinced myself that speed didn't matter; sticking to the prescribed heart rate zones mattered. However, this approach led to running with poor mechanics. 
  • After analysing the pictures, I observed myself bending from the hip, knee, and ankle, with excessive contact time on the ground. 
  • Despite focusing on heart rate zones, I failed to improve my run mechanics and overall run economy, including tendon and ligament engagement, for an effective spring.
  • The most crucial factor for improvement became apparent. 
  • There's this notable study with Paul Ratcliffe that stuck with me. Although his VO2 max remained steady over several years, his economy improved consistently. 
  • This progression transformed him from a promising junior or U23 European cross country champion into arguably the greatest female marathon runner, thanks to enhanced run economy.
  • For me, the issue was the run economy. Despite having fitness, I felt like a plodder. 
  • I spent two years with a disproportionate amount of time on slower runs. 
  • It wasn't that I completely neglected other aspects, but most of my training involved plodding. Even during track sessions, I struggled to push myself sufficiently. I held back, influenced by advice on consistency and avoiding pushing too hard.
  • I aimed for precise pacing in these track sessions, believing it to be a clever approach. 
  • However, I failed to grasp the essence of improving my run mechanics. I should have targeted my run economy, but instead, I focused on being too strategic during intense sessions and subsequently spent most of my training running slowly.
  • In retrospect, I realise I may have wasted time, and this is where some perspectives, particularly those from certain Twitter gurus, seem one-dimensional. 
  • While they emphasise spending time aerobically below LT1 for metabolic health, running involves nuances beyond energy systems. It encompasses the mechanical aspect—technique, springiness, and the behaviour of tendons and ligaments during a run.
  • My mistake was running too slow relative to where I should have been in aerobics.
  • In the Kenyan model, everyone talks about it: slow runs slow. But you know what? 
  • I've been running for only six to eight weeks, nowhere near the two decades those Kenyans have put in. 
  • They've got their run mechanics down, and I don't. So, I've decided to stop following that narrative. 
  • I've categorised my runs into what I call "not plodding" or "mechanic" sessions.
  • In those steady runs, they're not that steady anymore. I'm hitting paces like a pure runner, pushing the tempo. 
  • Previously, I was doing 5:00 to 5:30 per kilometre, and now I'm pushing it to 4:20 to 4:40. 
  • It's a simple move; feeling like I'm running at 5:30 just feels like plodding. 
  • I've realised that my physiology and physique work better when running faster.
  • So, half of it is about running quicker while keeping my heart rate under control. I'm not pushing it to 190 beats per minute; it's still in the aerobic zone. 
  • The other half is about improving my run mechanics—hill sprints and fast 200 or 300-meter intervals on the track. It's all about working on speed, knee drive, engaging the glutes, minimising ground contact time, and honing that springy reaction in my running.
  • Honestly, it feels like night and day. I finally sense that I'm adapting as a runner. Before, in races, I'd be among people who didn't quite look like me. With my cycling background and high VO2 max in the seventies, I felt my physiology should perform better. But my 10K times weren't reflecting that. I did a 41.5-minute 10K last December, and while it's respectable, it didn't align with my capabilities.
  • Now, shifting my focus to quicker running and refining my mechanics, I'm seeing improvements. I did some 1K reps, moving 15 seconds per kilometre faster at the same heart rate. 
  • I'm kicking myself for not figuring this out earlier, but it's better late than never. It's exciting to finally feel like I'm moving more like a runner in my sessions. 

Worrying too much about metrics

49:00 -

  • I've come a long way in the past two years, acknowledging that my initial approach could have led to instant injuries if attempted earlier. Although the term "plodding" might sound disrespectful to some, it has built significant robustness for me, and this phase was essential for my current endeavours.
  • People often ask me about tools like lactate sensors, but I emphasise working on what truly works for each individual. Merely collecting data doesn't guarantee improved performance. Reflecting on the past 12 months, if all my runs had been to lactate and resulted in similar paces, it wouldn't have led to progress. Identifying the real issue—my run economy—was crucial.
  • I delved into studies, recognising the importance of factors like Hill sprints and run volume to enhance run economy. However, I mistakenly favoured run volume due to its alignment with triathlon requirements. 
  • This approach kept me busy but didn't provide the necessary stimulus for my body to adapt.
  • The fundamental principle I discovered is the balance between stress and recovery for endurance adaptation. The polarised training method is gaining popularity and focuses on limiting intensity to allow for more cumulative high-intensity training. 
  • However, I realised that my limited training hours (15 per week) weren't effectively utilised, leading to insufficient intensity.
  • I've been searching for the right balance of stimulus tailored to my needs. 
  • This doesn't guarantee turning pro, but it signifies a quest for improvement. 
  • My goal isn't to achieve extraordinary feats but to progress steadily. My recent adjustments seem to be clicking, emphasising the importance of an individualised approach rather than searching for shortcuts or hacks. 

Thoughts on the whole training process

53:00 -

  • There are some key points there that resonate with what we've discussed on the podcast before. 
  • The emphasis on the metabolic side of training, especially in disciplines like cycling and running, tends to overshadow crucial aspects like aerodynamics in cycling and running economy. 
  • Take the example of a 41-minute 10K; if you plug that into VDOT tables estimating VO2 max, it might suggest a mid-50s range, but the actual VO2 max is in the 70s, highlighting a significant running economy factor.
  • Each discipline has its unique demands. 
  • Cycling builds overall fitness, improves aerobic capacity, and boosts metrics like VO2 max. 
  • On the other hand, swimming predominantly focuses on technique, especially under fatigue. The drills become essential not for metabolic gains but to maintain and refine swimming technique when tired, simulating conditions seen in longer races.
  • Swimming workouts, with short and fast intervals, might seem unconventional compared to the continuous efforts seen in other sports, but they emphasise technique preservation under load and fatigue. 
  • These aren't necessarily metabolic workouts but rather sessions to improve fatigue resistance.
  • The occasional long swim is incorporated not for metabolic gains but to reinforce the ability to sustain technique over extended periods, which is crucial for the latter stages of Ironman swims. 
  • The goal is to ensure the arms can endure the swimming demands and still have enough left for the subsequent bike leg.
  • The approach varies based on individual needs, focusing on preserving technique under fatigue rather than chasing metabolic gains during specific swim sessions. 
  • It's about preparing the body for the specific demands of race scenarios rather than fixating on heart rate metrics during every training session.
  • I've been focused on cycling as my primary fitness activity. Running isn't about making me fit for me; it's a different perspective. 
  • Nutrition has been challenging; some might relate to my experience, while others might find it surprising. Eating was a pain initially, reminiscent of being a beginner. 
  • I struggled with timing my meals before running to avoid stitches. Trying to be an elite athlete and dealing with stitches after just five minutes of running made me feel like a novice.
  • I didn't improve much at eating before running. I learned the maximum amount I could eat and the timeframe before a run, but it was still a struggle. 
  • Drinking within 40 minutes and eating within 90 minutes of running felt like a delicate balance. 
  • I often went out for a run without eating, fearing a bad run due to a missed meal. 
  • Over time, I realised I needed to change my perspective. If it's a bad run, so be it. This shift allowed more freedom during sessions.
  • I no longer view running solely as a means of fitness. I approach it differently, even pushing through stitches during shorter, intense sessions. 
  • This change in mindset has allowed me to eat more normally and drink regularly during runs. The fear of stitches doesn't hold me back anymore. 
  • I can manage gels and bars before runs, a newfound freedom. Understanding the nuances of sports has made them more enjoyable.
  • Taking risks during runs, like trying gels, has become less daunting. It's a different aspect to work on, and fueling during the run is crucial for an Ironman. 
  • Previously, I'd avoid gels on long runs, fearing they'd ruin the session. Now, I'm not overly concerned about a less-than-perfect run. 
  • This shift in perspective has opened up opportunities to focus on different aspects of performance.
  • For many, improving the ability to fuel during running could make a significant difference. People often focus on traditional metrics like total volume and time in specific zones. 
  • However, overlooking these alternative approaches might hinder overall performance gains. Embracing different perspectives and recognising the intricacies of performance can lead to meaningful improvements.
  • How would I prescribe this session if I didn't understand conventional physiology? Without terms like thresholds, I might resort to more traditional markers like 5K pace or 10K pace, especially in running. 
  • We don't necessarily have the same tradition in cycling, but it got me thinking.
  • This could be a helpful experiment for people, as you can easily get tricked into prescribing sessions solely based on physiological markers. 
  • However, we don't necessarily understand how training simplicity works; things interact beyond the metabolic and physiological.
  • Sometimes, people use additional measures that can potentially make their training worse. We often get hyped about constant lactate measurement devices, expecting them to be game-changers like glucose monitors. 
  • However, it might take years to confidently say if such devices make a significant difference. People must be cautious about immediately trusting and altering their training based on new metrics.
  • For instance, the Norwegians might use specific lactate testing, but changing a session based on a random lactate number can be risky for the average person. 
  • We don't have conclusive evidence that sessions aimed at specific lactate levels, like four millimoles, are better for training than efforts at six millimoles. 
  • It's essential to rely on common sense and stick to sessions that have worked for you or others based on experience and results.
  • When tackling a session like the one I made today—six one-kilometre efforts—it's all about finding the sweet spot. You want to push hard enough to feel like you've had a good workout, enjoyed the challenge, and maybe even surpassed your previous performance. 
  • However, it's equally crucial not to push so hard that you're left drained, unable to recover for the next day or even the entire week. Striking that balance is key.
  • The prescribed numbers, whether for 10k or 5k pace or any other metric like power in cycling or swim sessions, serve as guidelines. 
  • For beginners, these numbers provide a necessary reference point, helping them gauge the intensity of their efforts. 
  • Learning about perceived exertion (RPE) and understanding how a session should feel is crucial, especially when navigating unfamiliar territory regarding pacing.
  • For a well-trained athlete, the reliance on pace diminishes. Seasoned athletes should possess the intrinsic knowledge of extracting optimal benefits from a session without fixating on pace. 
  • Pace becomes more of a gentle reminder, a subtle guide. 
  • I periodically checked my watch during today's session to ensure I wasn't starting too fast or slacking off too much. 
  • The rest of the cues came from my internal sense of effort.
  • Looking ahead, relying solely on metrics like lactate without considering perceived exertion (RPE) is a misguided approach. RPE encapsulates the entire context—am I tired, is there muscle damage, is my glycogen low, am I too hot or cold, and are even broader health considerations like flu or COVID? RPE remains the most reliable measure, as it reflects what's truly happening within my body. 
  • It's a holistic gauge that encompasses the nuanced interplay of various factors, unlike mere outputs such as power, speed, or lactate.

Continuous lactate meters

1:06:00 -

  • I'm not entirely familiar with all the details, but the potential integration of continuous lactate monitoring adds complexity. 
  • As far as I know, it measures in the interstitial fluid, similar to glucose monitoring, rather than capillary lactate, as our current meters do. This difference in measurement could mean that what we interpret as, for instance, four millimoles currently might appear differently with these new monitors, introducing the risk of significant mistakes if we attempt to equate the two. 
  • With awareness of this distinction, we might avoid making substantial assessment errors.
  • To address this, we'd need to recalibrate our understanding—redefining what we consider thresholds, both one and two, for instance. 
  • Delving into the intricacies of lactate dynamics within intracellular versus blood contexts is another layer I can't elaborate on; it is a different facet of the scientific realm. 
  • However, from a practical perspective as an applied sports scientist, the initial step would involve recalibrating and closely monitoring our training, observing the dynamics under continuous measurement. 
  • This recalibration process alone could span years, requiring patience and diligence to uncover meaningful patterns.
  • We can extract valuable information only once we've thoroughly explored and understood these dynamics. We might discover trends, such as individuals not starting their initial efforts with enough intensity or exhibiting excessive fatigue by the end of the last effort. 
  • Then, we can experiment with novel approaches, like adjusting lactate levels during specific workout segments. For instance, in a 6.1K run, we might intentionally push hard initially to elevate lactate levels and then ease off toward the end to prevent excessive spikes. 
  • However, the effectiveness of such approaches can only be validated through rigorous testing.
  • It's crucial to avoid hastily embracing this technology without comprehensively understanding its implications. Rushing into its application without extensive testing could lead to misguided assumptions about training improvements. 
  • With its nuances and multifaceted considerations, the bigger picture remains more significant than solely focusing on metabolic outputs.

Tips for cyclists wanting to transition to triathlon

1:09:30 -

  • Keep cycling for longer. Don't abruptly stop it- I accidentally cut it off too soon. Continue cycling until you can genuinely replace the fitness gained from cycling sessions with runs or swims. 
  • I don't think swim sessions can fully replace cycling unless you're an exceptional swimmer. 
  • In my case, I can't push myself to the limit in an hour of swimming without my arms giving out, losing technique, and splashing before reaching the desired metabolic state.
  • Consider the equivalent energy chunk in a four-hour ride, where I can sustain 230-240 watts in the last hour. 
  • If I translate that to swimming, my arms would fatigue before reaching that point. Not that the energy dynamics between arms and legs are the same, but you get the idea. The same applies to running. 
  • While I enjoyed a 40-45-minute running session, it doesn't replace a three-hour bike ride. While it benefited speed mechanics, it was not for overall fitness.
  • Previously, I did short runs and swims, thinking they could replace long bike rides. For instance, after a hard running session and a swim, I mistakenly consider the next day a rest day. 
  • This wasn't providing enough stimulus, especially from a solid training background. 
  • A 45-minute run and a 45-minute swim don't substitute for a three-hour bike ride. It might sound obvious, but I realised I was doing too much of that, especially when the runs were just slow plods.
  • So, my advice is not to ease off on cycling too soon. Only start replacing quality cycling when you're confident in getting good-quality runs. 
  • A 30-minute Zone 2 run might be a decent session for some, but it might not provide enough stimulus for those with a higher training background.
  • And then the other thing running and swimming were a welcome change for me. I wasn't done with cycling, but I was a bit annoyed with what COVID-19 had done to my cycling routine. I happily embraced running and swimming, thinking they could replace cycling as my aerobic stimulus. 
  • In retrospect, I should have approached them differently. Swimming should have been about technique and running about improving the economy. 
  • That should have been the focus. Instead, I was too eager, thinking they could directly substitute for cycling in terms of aerobic stimulus. I accepted less total volume, thinking, "Oh, I've swam and run today. That's enough aerobic stimulus." But it just wasn't sufficient, simple as that.
  • So, on a Tuesday, I might have swapped a ride for a run and swim. Due to time constraints, I had a shorter ride on Wednesday, and by Thursday, I needed a rest day. 
  • For me, it just wasn't enough stimulus. 
  • Running should be about mechanics and running fast; working on those aspects is crucial. 
  • Taking the ego out of the equation, I've learned not to push for significant volumes and embrace walking if needed. But the key is to avoid dropping down to a plodding pace, which hasn't proven helpful for my performance. 
  • I've compared my 10k times, and plodding didn't lead to improvement.
  • So, when running, I focus on running quicker within reason. This might sound contrary to popular advice, where every session becomes a full gas effort. 
  • It doesn't mean turning every workout into an all-out race. I'm cautious not to overemphasise the polarised model, at least not as much as possible. It depends on individual factors. If you've been sprinting in football for years, your tendons might be strong, and focusing on overall aerobic fitness could be beneficial. 
  • For me, the aerobic side was already there, so I needed to work on other aspects. It all depends on your background and what might be limiting factors.
  • And I believe incorporating biomechanical work into your running routine doesn't have to be extensive. 
  • For instance, if you're running three times a week, you could add some hill sprints, incorporate moderately fast running, include walk breaks, and even integrate general strides during your run, like doing an 8 to 10-second acceleration every five minutes, focusing on good mechanics. 
  • Combining these elements is possible, especially for individuals who may not be as injury-resistant and prefer easier running.
  • To illustrate, one of the smallest sessions I've done recently was before flying back from Spain a couple of weeks ago. 
  • I had limited time, so I ran about a kilometre for a warm-up, made around ten eight-second sprints up a nearby hill (approximately 300 meters away), and simply walked back to the house. Even these brief sessions, in my experience, have been beneficial. They emphasise the concept of the minimal effective dose—doing enough to elicit a positive response without going overboard. 
  • Starting with simple additions like strides or short hill sprints can be effective.
  • Reflecting on my journey, there were times when I had been advised to include these drills, but I didn't fully appreciate their benefits. 
  • I was content with my steady running and hesitated to disrupt it with strides, thinking it might spoil the overall experience. In hindsight, I realised that was what I needed, and sometimes it's essential to set aside ego, make your run shorter if necessary, and focus on what your training truly requires. 
  • At the same time, a run might look more appealing on Strava when it's continuous and has a nice round number; the effectiveness of your training should take precedence over aesthetics. It's about understanding what's crucial and tailoring your approach to enhance your performance model.

Common misconceptions in the world of cycling about triathlon

1:18:22 -

  • Training for triathlons has been a significant shift from focusing solely on cycling. In December, while in Spain, I reverted to what I know works for me. Instead of approaching the training as a triathlete, I embraced a cycling-centric block with a sprinkling of running and swimming. 
  • This change was prompted by a need to recover from a challenging couple of months filled with commitments and camps with athletes.
  • Returning to cycling training felt remarkably easier. The simplicity of waking up, heading out for a few hours, and enjoying a cafe stop without worrying about a second session was refreshing. 
  • The energy levels remained high, and the overall experience was less mentally and logistically demanding.
  • Reflecting on the Brownlee camps in February, attempting early morning swims alongside elite triathletes was eye-opening. 
  • Losing sleep and facing subsequent bike and run sessions took a toll on me, highlighting the intricate challenges triathletes face. 
  • Cycling, from a life management perspective, proved to be more manageable. 
  • Maintaining the bike, ensuring cleanliness, waxing the chain, and focusing on good nutrition felt less complex during this cycling-centric phase.
  • Triathletes, amidst their busy schedules, need to ensure purposeful training. Past experiences taught me that being busy doesn't necessarily equate to effective training. 
  • With family, work, and other life commitments, organisation becomes crucial. Triathlon demands a higher mental and total energy requirement than cycling for similar gains. 
  • Cyclists might find it surprising how efficiently they can manage their time and energy in comparison. The streamlined routine of getting ready for a cycling session contrasts starkly with the intricate preparation needed for triathlon training, involving multiple daily sessions.

Tips for triathletes who want to do cycling

1:22:10 -

  • The biggest challenge for triathletes transitioning to cycling is mastering technical elements, such as bunch dynamics, riding at high speed, and generating power in various situations.
  • Aerobic fitness is usually not the limiting factor, as many professional triathletes already log significant bike training hours.
  • Cycling finesse, including generating torque, riding in big gears, and navigating bunch dynamics, becomes crucial.
  • The switch in dynamics, especially the micro-accelerations at high speeds, presents a unique challenge for triathletes.
  • Triathletes' strengths in cycling, such as positioning, accelerating, and handling technical aspects, don't directly translate to triathlon.
  • Those casually getting into cycling might need fewer adjustments and may find it easier to focus solely on cycling.
  • Emphasises the importance of managing life around sport, being organised, and the ability to generate higher power as crucial aspects.
  • Cycling is a sport where pushing beyond sustainable limits is part of the challenge, and the ability to ride well above one's capacity is essential.
  • Considering neuromuscular and energy system differences, triathletes should incorporate over-unders, threshold work with spikes, and focus on accessing higher power.
  • It emphasises riding a time trial bike at speed and learning the nuances of going fast without relying solely on power output.

General questions

Strength training within triathlon

1:27:07 -

  • Honestly, it's incredibly challenging to integrate. 
  • When juggling a packed schedule, diving into strength training becomes even more crucial, particularly for ageing athletes or those who might be considered "weaker" athletes in the most respectful sense. 
  • But let me tell you, it's a real struggle to find the time. Close and have and have a sprinting background so it is not a weak point for me. However, I understand that building strength might pose a more significant challenge for smaller, older athletes. In that case, it becomes a critical area to focus on.

Bike Fit for triathlon vs cycling

  • The difference should be minimal. Achieving an aero position isn't solely dependent on your current level; you have to earn it through dedicated effort. Spending substantial time in that position is essential—it's not a matter of chance why some people can do it and others can't. 
  • I strongly disagree that getting aero is impossible and that one has to settle for a suboptimal position. That's just nonsense. 
  • While extreme positions might not work for everyone, getting close to an ideal aero position is achievable with hard work and commitment. It's about putting in the effort, investing time in the position, and genuinely understanding what it takes to embrace and perfect that aero posture.

The balance between training in a TT position and a normal position

  • It depends on your location and the resources available. If you're in Dubai, that's fantastic – I'd recommend riding your time trial bike for every ride. However, it might not be suitable elsewhere. 
  • The key is to assess what helps you maximise your training. Opting for a road bike in certain locations might be more appropriate, ensuring better training quality without concerns about traffic or unsuitable gearing. Generally, many triathletes could benefit from using their time trial bikes more than they currently do. It's a bike often underutilised, and most athletes could incorporate it more into their training routine.

Indoor bike training

  • Using a turbo trainer can be useful, depending on where you live, but I've observed that people tend to become overly reliant on it. A significant drawback is missing out on the ability to ride fast in the real world. The dynamics of outdoor riding are not just about riding powerfully; it's about riding fast and developing the skills needed for varied terrains.
  • Relying too much on indoor training with power numbers might lead to neglect of essential skills and speed development. While riding on a turbo trainer primarily targets specific areas of physiology- and while it serves its purpose- it doesn't directly translate to becoming a faster outdoor cyclist. 
  • Some individuals are too fixated on achieving optimal power numbers indoors, potentially sacrificing the opportunity to experience suboptimal conditions outdoors, where real progress in riding skills and speed can occur.

Brick runs

  • I don't want to preach things that I don't have a load of experience in. Because of where I've been, I saw that was the icing on the cake. And my cake was very, very undercooked and was not ready. So, I decided not to focus on that bit of icing on the cake. I did not do a lot of it. I don't overly prescribe it to the athletes I work with. Bits and bobs are the apparent scientific way of saying it, ensuring you can produce the mechanics when needed. But I'm not over-relying on it as a coach. From a personal perspective, I wouldn't want to offer a personal experience that I don't have or haven't worked on.

Main home messages

1:32:57 -

  • Firstly, as Jacob mentioned earlier, I want to emphasise that it's not about saying that the training I used to do was bad and that what I'm doing now is good. It's more about realising that the training I was engaged in might not have been the right fit for me at that specific time because I wasn't seeing improvements. 
  • The critical takeaway is to be actively involved in your training process. If progress is lacking, take the time analyse why and make necessary adjustments. It's as simple as that. 
  • The focus is not on labelling training as better or worse; it's about staying engaged and adaptable.
  • Secondly, Jacob's point about letting his bike training go and considering it a mistake is noteworthy. Balancing resources between strengths and weaknesses is a challenge. It's natural to shift focus onto weaknesses, but as Jacob and I have experienced, this can backfire. 
  • I've made this mistake as a coach several times. Finding the right balance is tricky. While addressing weaknesses is essential, there's a risk of neglecting strengths. Maintaining a balance and not letting go of strengths is crucial for a more long-term outlook.
  • Lastly, it's worth reiterating that being overly biased towards physiology is a pitfall. Performance is not solely about physiology; biomechanics and psychology play significant roles. 
  • Jacob's running biomechanics and the psychological impact of training intensity fluctuations were evident in the interview. It's essential to approach the sport holistically and avoid being one-dimensional. 
  • While physiology is crucial, there are many other factors at play. 


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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