Need coaching advice on open-water swimming, running biomechanics or your current nutrition strategy? Invest in traveling to these specialists around the country to take your racing up a notch.
This article was originally published in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.
Athletes who aren’t in the sport for the fun of finishing—the ones who want to break time goals, make the podium, qualify for Kona or even go pro someday—are stopping at nothing to improve. For some, that means venturing outside their zip codes to gain the extra advantage or to find a solution to a problem. ¶ “One thing in the culture of the sport is that people seem to want the best and search for the best they can get,” says San Francisco-based cycling and triathlon coach Craig Upton. “So instead of restricting their search to local people, they search on a wider scope to find the person they think will fit their needs.” Here’s why to fly:
Reason 1: Seeking Special Skills
Very specialized advice is one of the rewards for pursuing these far-away experts. As someone who lives “a long way from anyplace” in Anchorage, Alaska, triathlete Jim Anderson knew he would need to fly a couple thousand miles away to get his bike fit issues fixed by an expert.
Anderson was experiencing hip and knee discomfort on his triathlon bike when he decided to contact Todd Carver, one of the founders of the bike fitting company Retül. “I had been fit locally, but why live with discomfort and potential of damaging my body? My situation necessitated a specialist,” Anderson says.
He had heard about Retül’s state-of-the-art dynamic fitting system and felt it worth a ticket to Boulder, Colo., to work with Carver. He also made a stop while he was in town at the renowned Boulder Center for Sports Medicine to seek treatment for his lower back pain after running. He says both visits really paid off. “Retül dialed in my fit and all knee and hip discomfort disappeared,” he says. “Tim [Hilden] at BCSM did his magic and provided guidance on a new run gait. Lower back pain solved.”
Since his first visit, Anderson has been back to Retül and BCSM about once a year. When he needs a new bike, Retül builds it up and he flies in for the fit. When he had a recent hamstring issue, the therapists at BCSM found the problem in his run gait and provided functional strength exercises that have kept him injury-free.
Nutrition and performance coach Krista Austin, Ph.D., fulfills a similarly specialized need. Having worked for the U.S. Olympic Committee as a physiologist and with big-name runners Meb Keflezighi and Kara Goucher and triathletes Matt Chrabot and Lesley Paterson, she has garnered attention from around the world for understanding the unique needs of high-performance athletes.
“I’ve had people from Switzerland and France, some very wealthy individuals that happen to get your name from somebody, they look you up and read about you, and then they say, ‘What does it take to come train with you for a weekend? How long would you suggest?’” Austin says. “The first time I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ But the athlete was so wealthy, he wanted everything from metabolic testing to sitting down and planning out how he was going to get better at his Ironman.”
She took this particular athlete through a rigor of training and analysis in her hometown of San Diego, examining his nutrition log, performing metabolic testing and looking at bike position, swim stroke and running mechanics, at the cost of $1,000 per day.
With a master’s degree and a doctorate in exercise physiology as well as a doctorate in sport nutrition, Austin is kind of a “one-stop shop” for figuring out how to improve one’s performance. For instance, Austin recently worked with an athlete who was cramping regularly in races. First she looked at his nutrition and determined it wasn’t causing the problem. Then, using metabolic testing, she realized there was a “huge block in fat oxidation” and the athlete’s ability to remove lactate, meaning he was accumulating lactate too early into the race. So she did two things: tweaked his training to improve his lactate threshold and changed his race strategy. When working with Keflezighi, Austin could determine the exact pace he could go out at in a marathon because she was familiar with his threshold and rate of lactate clearance (it’s high), but she can create that profile in anyone and use it as a base structure to design training.
She’s also big on test sets, which she uses to determine an athlete’s limitations and measure progress. “It takes about a month of test sets to identify where those areas are. Once I’ve figured it out, I’ll go design training to work on an athlete’s weakness,” Austin says. She might have 70.3 athletes do an all-out 200 meters, an all-out 400 meters and a six-mile hard effort as tests in training.
Although she has coached high-paying amateurs and several professionals, Austin spends a lot of her time working with regular athletes who are just looking to get to the next level. “Sometimes it’s just that they’ve hit a wall in their ability to improve,” she says. “Or they’re just competitive by nature and if they’re not improving, they’re not enjoying the sport.”
Reason 2: Time Efficiency
Busy athletes with full-time jobs also juggling family life may seek a top-level guru because they want to train the right way without wasting any time. “Like many amateur athletes, I balance a busy work, family and community schedule,” Anderson says. “It’s all about efficiency, and there’s nothing less efficient than being on a bike or running when it’s not optimal and even hurting you. Spending the money to seek a specialist long distance is well worth the time and money.”
It was specific expertise and word-of-mouth praise that motivated Seattle-based triathlete Shannon Day to reach out to coach Upton in San Francisco. As a Microsoft sales manager with two children under the age of 7, Day wanted to ensure he was maximizing every training minute he had. He knew Upton had success coaching pro Tyler Stewart, and as a former professional cyclist, Upton specialized in training with power and customizing plans based on wattage.
“Our first ride showed me how much time can be wasted,” Day says. “He asked me to ride three hours and to try to keep it mostly in a specified watt range and I spent 20 minutes of those three hours in the range we needed to take me to the next level. It’s this attentiveness and knowledge that I was looking for in a coach.”
Day often flew to San Francisco for work, which made it easy to stop in and see Upton for lactate testing, bike fitting or a quick progress check. Now that he’s based in San Diego, Day can receive most of his coaching through Training Peaks, email or a phone call, but he still chooses to visit Upton every six weeks for testing and progress monitoring.