Podcast, Science and Physiology, Training

Tomasz Kowalski | EP#428

 March 18, 2024

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Tomasz Kowalski - That Triathlon Show

Tomasz (Tomek) Kowalski, is a triathlon coach and sport scientist from Poland. Tomek's coaching experience includes working with both elite and age-group triathletes, including coaching Ironman World Champions in their respective age-groups, and in his academic work his main focus is on the effect of respiratory muscle training (RMT) on endurance performance.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Tomek's coaching philosophy and methodology
  • What it takes to podium or win the Ironman World Championships as an age-grouper
  • Pacing and race execution
  • Advice for improving your swim, bike and run training and performance, respectively
  • What is Respiratory Muscle training (RMT) and is it beneficial for endurance athletes?
  • Practical recommendations for implementing RMT in a triathlon training program
  • Listener questions
  • ...and more

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Tomasz background

03:06 -

  • I'm a triathlon coach with a diverse background. In addition to coaching, I also work as a researcher and consultant in endurance preparation for various disciplines. 
  • My journey in coaching began over a decade ago, stemming from my experiences as a competitive cyclist and triathlete. While I didn't reach professional levels, I found success in winning age group categories in multiple races.
  • Early on, I had the privilege of working with talented athletes, which fueled my passion for coaching. I've been running a successful triathlon company called Trinergy for the past decade alongside my wife. 
  • We've celebrated victories with athletes at events like the Ironman World Championship, establishing Trinergy as a top club in the triathlon community.
  • In addition to coaching, I've been involved in research for nearly two years at the Institute of Sport, a national lab based in Warsaw, Poland. Here, I collaborate with Olympic national teams, contributing to advancing Polish sport.
  • In addition to my coaching and research roles, I assist Paulo Souza in managing the triathlon squad, adding another dimension to my multifaceted career in endurance sports.

Triathlon in Poland

05:11 -

  • Over the past decade, the popularity of triathlon has undeniably surged. While we haven't quite reached the status of a triathlon powerhouse, there's been a noticeable increase in interest and participation. 
  • Unfortunately, no athletes competed in the Olympic Games in Tokyo, but I'm hopeful that we'll see representation, perhaps a woman, in Paris.
  • Running a triathlon club has become more challenging compared to ten years ago. 
  • Back then, there were numerous low-hanging fruits – abundant resources available through podcasts, international online boards, and other platforms. 
  • It was relatively easy to access and implement valuable information within our environment. This gave us a competitive edge. For instance, in my early years as a full-time coach, achieving success at a national championship with one of my athletes felt like a significant accomplishment.
  • However, as time went on, the landscape became increasingly competitive. The bar was raised, both domestically and internationally. 
  • Simple strategies that once yielded results became less effective. As competition grew, so did international standards.
  • Despite the challenges, we have some promising long-distance athletes, and I'm optimistic about our potential to make a mark on the global stage. 
  • Nevertheless, it's essential to acknowledge that the competition has also intensified over the years.

Coaching methodology

07:10 -

  • My coaching philosophy may not be as elaborate or rigid as others, but it's rooted in pragmatism: I focus on doing what works and minimising what doesn't. 
  • This approach allows me to pivot and adapt without hesitation when I see opportunities for improvement. While some coaches may adhere to specific ideologies or schools of thought, I prefer to remain flexible and open to change.
  • Over time, I've refined my methods, always striving for better outcomes for my athletes. 
  • This flexibility has led me to discard certain ideas or approaches that no longer serve us. 
  • Ultimately, I believe in the importance of an individualised approach tailored to each athlete's needs and goals.
  • Consistency is key in my coaching. I prioritise creating programs athletes can use over the long term, emphasising physical health and overall well-being. 
  • While I don't subscribe to any particular coaching "school," I value recovery and holistic athlete care. 
  • I aim to curate a program that combines effective techniques to help my athletes reach their fullest potential.
  • Right now, there's a lot of buzz around training in certain zones on social media. But it wasn't too long ago that high-intensity training was all the rage online. 
  • Fitness trends come and go, and what was once considered outdated can suddenly become trendy again. However, I believe it's crucial not to get swept up in the hype and instead focus on what has been proven to work consistently.

Common mistakes athletes make

10:33 -

  • I'm happy to discuss a few things. One is that very often when you see a talented age grouper start working with a coach or join a triathlon club, everyone is super excited about their potential and their early successes. 
  • However, there's often too much pressure on them to immediately transition into high-performance triathlon, even for those who have only been training for a year or two. If they show promise, coaches are eager to push them too hard, too soon. 
  • As a result, many talented athletes burn out or lose their enjoyment of triathlons far too quickly.
  • Going too hard too soon is one of the biggest mistakes and is associated with health risks. When you're new to triathlon, you're not as attuned to listening to your body or understanding its signals, making you more prone to injuries. 
  • You're more fragile during this initial training period because you haven't yet learned how to avoid injuries or manage your body's response to training stress.
  • Another crucial aspect is considering the long game, whether your focus is on health or performance. A supportive team around you is key to effectively playing the long game. This support team could include family members, friends, physiotherapists, or coaches. 
  • It's essential to create an environment that supports your goals, whether you're a less competitive athlete enjoying the health benefits of triathlon or a more performance-oriented athlete striving for specific goals.
  • For less competitive athletes, it's important to communicate to your family the importance of feeling mentally and physically well while doing triathlons. 
  • For those aiming for performance goals, discussing your objectives and the support needed to achieve them is crucial. Building a strong support network is a massive factor in long-term success and enjoyment in triathlon.

How to reach high performance in triathlon

13:29 -

  • When we discuss age groupers qualifying for the World Championships, it's evident that each individual's journey varies greatly, especially in the wake of the pandemic. 
  • Qualifying for events like Nice may have been relatively easy, while Kona qualification could prove more challenging this year due to different locations and criteria. 
  • Some may find it relatively straightforward, while others face an uphill battle. The same principle applies to an athlete's potential, an overlooked topic. Some may need to achieve 80% of their physical potential to qualify, while others must give 100%, teetering on the edge of their capabilities.
  • I've observed numerous talented age groupers who don't adhere to gruelling training regimes yet still achieve remarkable results and secure international event qualifications relatively easily. 
  • Conversely, others must meticulously execute their training programs with minimal room for error. It can be frustrating to witness peers seemingly coasting to success with a lazy approach, but focusing on oneself and avoiding comparison is vital.
  • Training hours often take centre stage when discussing the requirements for qualification or victory. For instance, my athletes who qualified for Kona typically trained 13 to 14 hours per week on average over the last six months. While this may seem modest compared to other accounts, what sets them apart is their consistency and longevity in the sport. 
  • They've dedicated years to smart, consistent training, prioritising health, addressing weaknesses, and honing race strategies.
  • It's essential not to rush the process. Sustainable progress is built over time, not through hastily cramming in excessive training hours. While occasional weeks of intense training are necessary, maintaining a balanced lifestyle conducive to long-term triathlon training is key to sustained improvement. The goal is to cultivate a sustainable approach that allows for continual growth and development in the sport.
  • When I hear about someone logging a 20-hour training week, it's easy to focus solely on the intensity of that week. However, that number doesn't capture the entire story of the years of dedication and consistency that led up to it. 
  • Let's do some quick math. Training an average of 14 hours per week for 50 weeks in a year is 700 hours annually. Over a decade, that's 7000 hours of training.
  • The key point here is that consistency matters. Training 20 hours a week for a short period may seem like an incredible effort, particularly before a big event like Kona. 
  • However, if it's not part of a consistent, long-term training plan, the overall workload may still be lower compared to someone who trains fewer hours per week but does so consistently over many years. 
  • This concept highlights the importance of considering an athlete's "athletic age" – the cumulative years of training – when evaluating their workload and performance.

Training commonalities of high-performance age-groupers

18:59 -

  • I've noticed that the volume tends to be higher, typically ranging from 14 to 16 hours per week. This surpasses the nine to 11-hour training schedules commonly followed by many athletes. 
  • One reason for this elevated volume is the heavy reliance on indoor cycling, particularly during the winter months in regions like Poland, where outdoor riding is challenging due to early darkness and harsh weather conditions. 
  • Indoors, every minute is maximised for efficiency compared to outdoor rides, where more downtime may be reflected in cadence plots.
  • In terms of swimming, the focus is primarily on main sets to build aerobic fitness, with shorter warm-ups and pre-sets. With Ironman distances in mind, the main sets often account for a significant portion of the session, emphasising endurance and race-specific preparation. 
  • We prioritise aerobic and anaerobic thresholds on the bike, incorporating race-paced efforts to simulate real-world conditions. 
  • Our training plan follows a reverse prioritisation model, starting with more intensive work in the early preparation phase and gradually shifting towards race-specific intensities closer to key events.
  • When it comes to running, mileage is key. 
  • For Ironman athletes, average weekly mileage typically ranges from 40 to 50 kilometres. While this may seem insufficient for some, it's important to consider individual context, as some athletes may have a background in running and adjust their mileage accordingly based on their racing calendar and goals.
  • In Poland, it's a common challenge that many athletes struggle with swimming proficiency. Due to limited pool access and lack of early swim instruction, most Polish athletes are considered adult onset swimmers. 
  • It's not typical for us to produce top-tier swimmers. Instead, many individuals pick up swimming later in life, often in their 40s, and work on improving their technique.
  • When aiming to qualify for world championships, having weaknesses in certain disciplines is not uncommon. 
  • However, to secure a win, even if you excel in one sport, your weaker disciplines must still be at a high level. For instance, you might be the top runner in your age group, but you can't afford to be 20th in cycling.
  • To address these challenges, we tailor our training programs to the specific needs of each athlete. Understanding the competition's demands and the desired performance level is crucial. By aligning our training with these requirements, we maximise our chances of success on the international stage.

Race strategies for a high-performance age-grouper

23:51 -

  • In my experience, the longer the distance in triathlon, the more the "race your race" approach holds, especially in Ironman events. You can't push beyond what you've trained for; you usually know your capabilities before the race starts.
  • In Ironman races, it's often about pacing yourself and assessing how you feel as the race progresses. Sometimes, it's smarter to hold back slightly, even if it means trailing behind a pack, to conserve energy and ensure you execute your race plan effectively.
  • At the front of the race, it's a different story. You're often on your own, and encountering athletes who may excel in certain disciplines but might not match your overall race strategy can be challenging. Confidence in your abilities is crucial here, allowing you to stick to your plan and not get swept up in someone else's pace.
  • Half Ironman races can involve more race dynamics, especially in younger age categories, but the principle of racing your race remains important.
  • With my athletes, I aim to find races where they can compete alongside professionals, particularly for top age groupers. 
  • This provides valuable learning opportunities and challenges them to race at a higher level. 
  • Mass start events, where age groupers can race alongside pros, offer a chance to test their skills against faster competitors and grow as athletes.
  • To continue improving, embracing discomfort and pushing boundaries in racing is essential. 
  • Racing alongside faster athletes forces you to elevate your performance and learn from the experience, ultimately leading to better outcomes and personal growth.

Ironman pacing plan

26:30 -

  • Focusing on specific training sessions leading up to an Ironman race is crucial. These sessions help me determine what's achievable on race day and allow me to fine-tune important factors like nutrition, hydration, and pacing. 
  • What's great about these longer, specific sessions is that they allow me to test my bike position and equipment under race-like fatigue, something that's difficult to replicate in regular training sessions. 
  • Mastering these aspects during training can help me feel confident and well-prepared for race day. Incorporating a few longer, challenging race-specific sessions before an Ironman is essential for success.

Example of a preparation session

27:50 -

  • Starting with Saturday, in the morning, we start with a challenging swim session, covering a distance of around 4 kilometres. This swim serves as a solid foundation for the endurance work ahead.
  • After a brief recovery, it's time to hit the bike. Saturday's main session involves a long ride lasting four to five hours. 
  • I include two 90-minute intervals in this ride, maintaining Ironman race intensity throughout. During these intervals, I focus on staying in the aerodynamic position, mimicking race conditions as closely as possible. 
  • I also practice my race-paced nutrition strategy during these intervals, ensuring I'm accustomed to fueling properly while maintaining intensity.
  • Moving on to Sunday, it's all about building endurance. I start with a long bike ride, aiming for around three hours of steady riding. Following the bike session, I transition directly into a two-hour run. Unlike Saturday's bike intervals, this session is performed at an easier endurance pace. 
  • However, I still incorporate race-paced nutrition to simulate race-day conditions.
  • These back-to-back sessions on Saturday and Sunday provide ample time on both foot and saddle, ensuring that I'm well-prepared for the demands of race day. 
  • While the intensity and duration of the sessions may vary, the focus remains on sustainable performance and nutrition strategies. 
  • Additionally, these sessions serve as valuable opportunities to test equipment and adapt to different environmental conditions, such as temperature variations and terrain challenges. By replicating race conditions in training, I can better prepare myself for any scenario on race day.

Run race pace

29:38 -

  • On Sundays, we run and do different sessions. For most Ironman athletes gearing up for Kona, their pace isn't far off from an easy run. When they start running off the bike, they typically run slightly faster than they would without the bike, maybe 10 to 15 seconds per kilometre faster. 
  • If they can maintain that pace for two hours, it's very close to their Ironman race pace.
  • The beauty of Ironman's running pace is its adjustability. Unlike swimming, where changing tactics mid-race is challenging, it's relatively easy to adjust during the run. 
  • Athletes can slow down, pick up the pace, take walking breaks, or focus on nutrition and hydration. 
  • They have a lot of flexibility to manage their fatigue levels during the run.
  • In training sessions, we touch upon these aspects of fatigue, helping athletes become smarter about applying different strategies. 
  • Ultimately, it's up to the athletes to decide how they want to execute their race plan. While we discuss various scenarios, the athlete's instincts and experience play a significant role. If a predetermined pace isn't sustainable, they simply adjust and find a pace that works for them on race day.

Simulation swim

31:32 -

  • My target distance usually ranges between three and three and a half kilometres. I focus on endurance work that mirrors Ironman's pacing. 
  • Swim intensity varies depending on the athletes' goals and level of competitiveness. For those aiming to simply finish a race, the primary goal is often to complete the swim comfortably and efficiently. 
  • On the other hand, athletes seeking to achieve competitive results may need to push the intensity to catch a good pack of swimmers and maintain momentum throughout the race.
  • For slower athletes, maintaining good technique at slower speeds can be challenging. 
  • Incorporating short intervals with focused technique work in aerobic training sessions can help improve overall swim form. However, during a continuous 4km swim, it may be more beneficial to swim at an upper aerobic pace rather than a lower one to maintain better technique. 
  • Swimming faster increases intensity, allowing for more efficient use of muscle glycogen.
  • Considering the balance between intensity and energy expenditure is important, especially during longer swim efforts. 
  • While swimming faster may deplete muscle glycogen more rapidly, the local nature of glycogen deployment suggests that shorter, more intense efforts may not significantly impact overall energy stores.
  • Ultimately, the optimal swim intensity and duration may vary for each athlete and situation. Water temperature and individual conditioning should also be considered when determining swim strategy.
  • Race dynamics play a significant role, especially in triathlons. Getting out of the water earlier can give you an advantage on the bike course. 
  • In cycling, you can avoid getting stuck in packs or crowds, allowing you to maintain your pace and potentially catch up with other well-prepared athletes ahead of you. 
  • Having these athletes nearby can provide motivation and even opportunities for legal drafting, giving you a boost in performance.

Advise for high-performance age-groupers

37:45 -

  • Finding a good coach can address issues you may not even realise you have. I truly believe in the immense value of good coaching. So, my top advice would be to prioritise finding a quality coach. 

Advice for age-groupers

38:37 -

  • Some of my athletes, especially during the winter season, adopt a focused approach, honing in on just two sports in the early preparation phase. 
  • Typically, this means minimising swimming training between December and February. Instead, athletes concentrate on biking and running, with occasional visits to the pool for a recovery session every couple of weeks. 
  • While swimming may not be the primary focus, I believe it still holds value in aiding muscle recovery.
  • This approach may not be the most conventional, but I've witnessed its effectiveness multiple times. With limited training hours – about six to eight per week – spread across three sports, significant improvements become challenging, especially as the season progresses. 
  • Concentrating on two sports during this phase allows athletes to lay a solid foundation without spreading themselves too thin.
  • In my experience, running is one area where shortcuts are difficult. Unless an athlete possesses exceptional talent, there's no escaping the need for consistent mileage. 
  • Attempting to substitute volume with high-intensity training poses a significant risk of injury. However, on the bike, it's possible to compensate for lower volume with slightly higher-intensity sessions. While this approach can yield positive results, it's crucial to strike a balance and avoid pushing too hard for prolonged periods, especially if an athlete aims for longevity in the sport.

General Tips

41:05 -

  • First, I'd recommend finding a good coach to guide you through your swimming training. 
  • Many age groupers underestimate the importance of swimming volume. Swimming just 4K or 5K per week isn't enough to see significant improvements.
  • In cycling, get a good bike fit and train specific to the race demands.
  • In running, play the long game. Don't cut corners with high intensity, and use heels a lot.
  • I would say find a good coach or a support network, try to stay healthy, and enjoy this part as long as possible without going too deep. 

Topic Tomasz is looking at the moment

42:28 -

  • At this point in the season, typically around February and March, I focus a lot on nutrition with my athletes. As we transition into higher volume training, with longer rides and runs becoming the norm, it's crucial to emphasise the importance of fueling and hydration. 
  • I spend significant time reminding them about the significance of nutrition and encouraging good habits that will carry them through the months ahead. 

Nutrition and hydration in an Ironman

43:37 -

  • Starting with 90 grams per hour of carbohydrates for race day nutrition is a solid foundation. 
  • However, I've observed many age group athletes who can consume and utilise more effectively. 
  • One method to increase this capacity is gut training, which I prioritise with all my athletes. Essentially, this involves practising race-day nutrition strategies during longer training sessions.
  • Training your gut to handle higher energy intake and delivery to working muscles is a trainable performance aspect. 
  • While scientific understanding may evolve, valuable resources are available for gut training and long-distance nutrition. 
  • This aspect of preparation is crucial for performance and plays a significant role in recovery and adaptation. Its importance cannot be overstated.

Advice Tomasz would give to younger coaches

44:54 -

  • Regarding the pros, I've learned not to compromise on high-performance standards. There were times when it was too easy for me to overlook crucial aspects, and I realise now that focusing on the fundamentals is key rather than getting caught up in wishful thinking or lofty dreams.
  • Over time, I've become more grounded, prioritising less flashy but essential elements of training that benefit athletes at all levels. 
  • This principle also extends to coaching age groupers. 
  • Instead of getting swept up in the latest trends or high-intensity training methods, I emphasise creating the right environment for success beyond physical training.
  • I emphasise helping my age group athletes understand the commitment required for success in triathlon. 
  • It's about making conscious decisions regarding priorities and sacrifices at home or work. 
  • I invest time in ensuring they comprehend the assignment and the costs involved because achieving balance in all aspects of life can be challenging. 
  • It's more about making intentional choices about where to focus energy and understanding the trade-offs involved.

Tomasz academic research

47:50 -

  • I may not have the extensive academic credentials of a seasoned researcher with less than two years of research experience. However, my primary focus lies in respiratory muscle training and respiratory fitness, which holds potential benefits for athletes. 
  • Surprisingly, this field hasn't garnered much attention over the years. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the prevailing literature suggested that respiratory fitness didn't significantly impact VO2max, which was considered the primary indicator of athletic performance.
  • Today, we understand that athletic performance is far more nuanced than measuring VO2max. However, this historical disconnect between respiratory fitness and VO2max led many exercise physiologists to overlook the importance of the respiratory system in enhancing athletic performance.
  • Fortunately, over the past two decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in this area of research.
  • We now recognise the potential benefits of respiratory training, even for highly trained athletes. This shift in understanding reflects our evolving knowledge and underscores the potential value of respiratory training in optimising athletic performance.

Respiratory training benefits

49:08 -

  • Firstly, it's essential to understand that VO2 max isn't the sole determinant of performance in triathlon. While traditionally, VO2 max has been heavily emphasised due to its easy measurability and correlation with performance, there are other crucial factors at play.
  • One of the key benefits of respiratory muscle training lies in its ability to mitigate the respiratory metabolic reflex. This phenomenon occurs when the respiratory muscles, particularly the diaphragm, become fatigued. In response, blood flow is redirected from the working muscles, such as the legs during cycling, to the respiratory muscles to maintain their function. Consequently, leg fatigue sets in more rapidly, hindering overall performance.
  • While I don't know the exact year the respiratory metabolic reflex was discovered, it's clear that an isolated examination of respiratory muscles might not seem particularly exciting. 
  • However, the significance of respiratory muscle training becomes apparent when viewed within the context of the entire system and the impact on blood flow redistribution. 
  • Training these muscles can delay the onset of the respiratory metabolic reflex, enhancing performance in endurance sports like triathlon.
  • In traditional laboratory tests, it's challenging to detect respiratory muscle fatigue, as it typically requires sustained efforts at very high intensities or durations exceeding half an hour, far beyond what's typically assessed in VO2max testing lasting 15 to 20 minutes. 
  • However, respiratory muscle fatigue becomes a significant factor in longer endurance events like Olympic distance races, half-Ironman, and Ironman competitions.
  • While VO2max testing may not directly assess respiratory muscle function, it's just one aspect of overall respiratory health and efficiency. 
  • For many athletes, respiratory muscle training can improve ventilation and breathing mechanics, and it may also stimulate the vagal nerve, aiding in recovery depending on the training protocol.
  • Moreover, respiratory muscle training is particularly beneficial for less-trained individuals, the elderly, and patients, as it can enhance endurance. 
  • Although the effects may diminish in highly trained athletes, they benefit from attenuating metabolic stress. Thus, there's a strong rationale for incorporating respiratory muscle training in the general population and among high-level athletes.

Methods of Respiratory Muscle Training

53:00 -

  • Essentially, respiratory muscle training can be categorised into two main groups: strength-oriented and endurance-oriented. In strength-oriented training, techniques like inspiratory pressure threshold loading or tapered flow are utilised, often with devices such as the PowerBreathe or the Iron Lung.
  • These protocols typically involve fewer respiratory manoeuvres, resulting in shorter sessions lasting around two minutes. The focus here is primarily on inspiration, as it requires conscious effort to overcome the resistance provided by the trainer.
  • On the other hand, endurance-oriented training can last between 15 to 30 minutes, emphasising endurance over strength. Despite the differences in session duration and technique, strength and endurance methods produce similar effects, particularly in performance enhancement.
  • Personal preference plays a significant role when choosing the right method for oneself. Whether one gravitates towards strength or endurance training, both approaches yield comparable results. Therefore, selecting the method that resonates the most is likely to be effective.
  • In terms of respiratory measurements, they differ somewhat from performance metrics, but the overall trend aligns. Traditional spirometry doesn't typically gauge respiratory muscle strength or endurance. 
  • However, there are auxiliary tests like the maximum inspiratory pressure (MIP) test, which I find particularly useful. Another dynamic assessment I appreciate is the Strength Index (S index) test by PowerBreath. 
  • Unlike static MIP tests, the S index provides a more comprehensive view of respiratory function during the entire manoeuvre, making it suitable for sports applications.
  • It's worth noting that spirometry is a medical procedure typically performed by healthcare professionals and may be subject to regulatory restrictions in many countries. 
  • However, coaches can use the PowerBreathe S index test more freely with athletes. This test can be conducted using a PowerBreathe device, offering mobility and convenience, and is better suited for the athletic population.

Protocols to improve respiratory function

56:33 -

  • Strength training methods can produce significant results in a relatively short time frame. In just four to six weeks, improvements of 20% to 40% in metrics like the S index test are possible, which is quite substantial. The typical protocol involves two sessions a day, five days a week, each comprising 30 inspiratory manoeuvres totalling under five minutes per day. It's convenient because you can do it almost anywhere without sweat. 
  • On the other hand, endurance methods usually involve training two to four times per week for sessions lasting between 10 and 30 minutes. Athletes can choose based on preference, and I'm flexible.
  • There's a noticeable trend favouring strength training due to its shorter, less demanding protocol, making it easier to incorporate into a busy schedule. Consistency remains crucial, but the lower time commitment may make it more feasible for athletes to manage other responsibilities.
  • In US dollars, the cheapest strength-oriented mechanical devices typically cost $60 to $80. On the other hand, the more advanced electronic ones can cost between $600 and $800.
  • Endurance protocol devices like isocapnic tend to be more affordable, ranging from $50 to $100 or even less. I've found all of these equipment options to be of good quality, and I can confidently recommend many of the brands I've mentioned.

Athlete level and respiratory muscle training

59:56 -

  • Respiratory muscle training can benefit various populations. While there are individual differences, women typically stand to benefit more than men. 
  • Athletes with respiratory or lung diseases like asthma can also find it incredibly helpful. Even athletes without diagnosed respiratory issues can benefit, especially when training at altitude. 
  • The evidence suggests that respiratory muscle training can aid in adapting to altitude more efficiently.
  • Testing, such as the S index test from PowerBreathe, can help determine if respiratory muscle training is suitable. For women, a result under 100 centimetres of water volume indicates potential benefits, while for men, it's under 140. 
  • However, if someone's results are already high (around 150 for women or 200 for men), there may be little motivation or rationale for additional training. 
  • It's essential to address weaknesses but not add unnecessary workload if respiratory muscles are already well taken care of.

Impacts on Endurance Performance

1:02:17 -

  • The longer the effort in a race like an Ironman or half Ironman, the more substantial the advantage of using a wetsuit or being in a time trial position on the bike. While there isn't much research on triathlons, there's a good rationale. 
  • For instance, swimming with a wetsuit restricts the chest, causing respiratory muscles to work harder. 
  • Similarly, biking in a time trial position also restricts the chest, leading to increased respiratory muscle activation to overcome the resistance.
  • I typically focus on dedicated training blocks lasting six to eight weeks, followed by a shift to maintenance mode. 
  • During maintenance, I aim for one to three sessions per week. Achieving a high respiratory fitness level through dedicated training makes it relatively easy to maintain, even with reduced training frequency.
  • It's important to note that regular activities alone may not adequately stimulate respiratory muscles. While swimming is beneficial, it may not provide the necessary stimulus to enhance respiratory muscle function. 
  • This is where respiratory muscle training comes in. Dedicated training is required to improve respiratory muscle function, but regular activity often suffices for maintenance purposes.

Practical tips for athletes

1:05:01 -

  • Respiratory muscle training may not be the most thrilling type of workout. While others revel in cycling or running outdoors, few share the same enthusiasm for respiratory muscle training. 
  • To stay motivated, you must remind yourself of the benefits and reasons behind the training. Incorporating habit-building techniques, like marking sessions on your calendar or training app, can help maintain internal motivation.
  • However, it's essential to heed any negative symptoms. Strong headaches, dizziness, or a sudden increase in blood pressure could indicate that respiratory muscle training isn't suitable for you. 
  • Always refer to the manual provided with your device or seek guidance online if you're unsure.
  • I can relate to the lack of excitement surrounding respiratory muscle training. I attempted it myself but only managed to stick with it for a week before giving up. 
  • Perhaps implementing habit-forming strategies would have helped me maintain consistency. Although it's not the most thrilling activity, I found it slightly more enjoyable than stretching, so it's not all bad.

Research that should be done in this field

1:07:43 -

  • We've completed our research and are now focusing on writing articles and seeking publication. Our next step involves exploring endurance respiratory muscle training as a recovery tool. This training significantly engages the diaphragm, which is unique because the diaphragm is one of the few muscles in the body that acts as a net consumer of lactate. 
  • Additionally, this training stimulates the vagal nerve, suggesting its potential effectiveness in aiding recovery.
  • Our studies have primarily involved short-track speed skaters who often face multiple races with minimal breaks between them. 
  • Traditional active recovery methods like cycling or massage are not always feasible for them due to the need for muscle tension. 
  • We've been investigating the recovery effects of endurance respiratory muscle protocols with promising results.
  • In addition to respiratory muscle training, we're also exploring how breathing protocols and patterns can help athletes manage stress and anxiety related to racing. 
  • While breathing techniques have long been used for stress management in psychological contexts, applying them in a sports context is an intriguing area of research that we're delving into.

Listener Questions

Nose breathing during threshold training

1:10:38 -

  • I'm not a fan of the idea. While there are certainly advocates who swear by the benefits of nose breathing, I tend to take a more balanced approach. I encourage my athletes to practice nose breathing daily, as it can have various health benefits. 
  • However, I don't see much value in forcing nose breathing during intense training sessions like threshold workouts.
  • I believe it could potentially hinder performance rather than enhance it. My philosophy is centred around optimising training sessions to be as effective and efficient as possible. 
  • In my book, the ideal scenario is if an athlete can achieve the required intensity and workload without unnecessary strain or fatigue.
  • Ultimately, I prioritise practicality and effectiveness over adhering strictly to a specific breathing technique, especially if there's no clear evidence of performance benefits.

Tips for athletes with exercise-induced asthma

1:11:57 -

  • Respiratory muscle training can be beneficial for managing asthma. However, I strongly advise consulting with a doctor before starting any new treatment or training regimen. Just like with coaching, not all doctors are equal. 
  • Some specialise in working with athletes and have a better understanding of exercise-induced asthma. 
  • It's important to provide appropriate disclaimers and emphasise the importance of seeking professional medical advice tailored to individual needs and circumstances. 
  • Consulting with a doctor is the best course of action in such matters.

Rapid Fire Questions

1:12:40 -

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

"Endure" by Alex Hutchinson, along with various podcasts, including yours, which offer a wealth of valuable information.

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

Maintaining a strong boundary between my professional and private life, especially by disconnecting from work-related communication after a certain time in the evening.

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

I don't have a single idol, but I draw inspiration from many successful individuals, learning from their experiences and applying those lessons to my endeavours.

Mikael final takeaways

1:15:30 -

  • Firstly, the significance of training age or experience struck me as more crucial for achieving top performances in world championship-level races than simply logging big training weeks leading up to the event. 
  • It reminds us of the importance of consistency and patience over the years to reach peak performance in triathlon or endurance sports. While not groundbreaking, it serves as a valuable reinforcement of fundamental principles.
  • Secondly, the importance of one's team and environment, especially for age group triathletes, resonated with me. While professional athletes have extensive support networks, even amateurs benefit greatly from a supportive team. 
  • This team may include experts like physiotherapists, training partners, and coaches, but I've found that family plays a pivotal role. In my coaching experience, athletes with supportive families exhibit greater long-term consistency and progress. 
  • Effective communication about the sport's significance and reciprocating support in their pursuits are essential for fostering this support. 
  • Integrating family into the core team and aligning their goals with yours can significantly impact your performance and overall experience as an age-group triathlete.
  • The final personal takeaway for me is regarding respiratory muscle training. 
  • The evidence presented by Tomasz seems quite convincing in favour of its beneficial effects on endurance performance, particularly for longer durations. 
  • You can check out the first systematic review and meta-analysis linked in the show notes and episode description if you want more details.
  • From a practical standpoint, the strength type of respiratory muscle training, technically known as inspiratory pressure threshold loading (IPTL), might be easier for most people to implement because the training protocols are shorter compared to the endurance type of RMT, which involves voluntary isocapnic hyperpnea. However, either type could be effective. I've observed people using VIH alongside endurance training, such as during indoor cycling sessions or between swimming reps. 
  • This requires careful consideration to ensure it doesn't compromise training quality, but it could be a time-efficient way to incorporate RMT.
  • The evidence suggests that it seems promising, especially for athletes with a solid foundation in basic training principles like swimming, biking, running, sleep, and nutrition. 
  • Like weight training, once you've mastered the basics of triathlon training, it might be worth considering additional strategies like RMT. If you're intrigued by Tomasz's shared information, it's worth trying to see how it affects your performance. Since RMT can lead to relatively quick responses, you can transition into maintenance mode once you've established a routine.


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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