I’ve said it before. Although triathlon is ultimately a solo sport, it’s impossible to compete at a high level without having a good team behind you. A strong team gives you support and encouragement, creates accountability and gives you access to a wealth of expertise and wisdom. Those things make a huge difference to me, in training and on race day. And I’m really aware of the difference a solid team makes as I head towards Kona.
One of the key players on Team Berkel is my coach, Daniel Plews. You can read a bit more about Dr Dan’s background here. In this Q&A session, we’re going to tap into Dan’s experience and talk about a bunch of different topics relating to how you can achieve your goals, plus some specifics about the lead up to the big race in Kona.
Thanks to my manager, Shawn Smith, for asking Daniel the tough questions. I’ve highlighted a few comments in the interview, which I thought were really important.
I’ve found Dan’s input invaluable on the Road to Kona. As you head towards your own big race day, I know you’ll find his wisdom as helpful as I have. So, enjoy!
Starting with the end in mind
Shawn: You’ve taken on a coaching role with Berks – a triathlete who’s already had some measure of competitive success. What has your overall approach been? What has been your strategy?
Dan: We’ve started by working backwards from the desired result and putting a plan together that way. If Tim wants to get a podium in Kona, the first question to ask is: ‘What sort of numbers would a podium athlete be doing?’ That’s going to include things like power output on the bike at VT1 (first ventilatory threshold). Can he swim 20 x 100m on a 1:20 turnaround? What does his run speed at VT1 need to be after a hard bike, etc. If he’s going to end up on the podium, then working backwards from these numbers is where we need to start.
Once we establish those, we start doing a lot of work around these intensities, focusing in on Tim’s physiological responses, and adjusting from there as needed.
Shawn: That’s the first of Stephen Covey’s 7 Laws of Highly Effective People isn’t it – start with the end in mind. I guess if you don’t know where you’re trying to get to, or what kind of performance level that’s required, how can you know if you’re heading in the right direction? How can you take deliberate, focused action to get there?
Shawn: So, you’ve taken on coaching Berks pretty close to Kona 2015. Is it too late in the piece to really make a difference to Tim’s Kona preparation?
Dan: That really depends on the athlete. With Berks, the base was already there. Now, it’s more about fine-tuning. Once again, the key is knowing the requirements – you can’t go into anything without knowing what is required. That’s why you’ve got to ask the question – ‘What does Tim Berkel need to produce in terms of numbers to be on the podium at Kona?’ If you don’t ask that question first, then to put it bluntly, it’s just guesswork.
So that was the first question we talked about, based on how he performed last year, how he was feeling and what he was wanting to see in terms of improvement.
Shawn: Once you know where you want to go and what the numbers need to look like…?
Dan: Then you begin to work out sessions based around those numbers. Say for example, to podium he has to produce 5 watts per kg for an IM – I’m just making up that number… it’s really high and he could never do it. But let’s just say 5w/kg is the target power output. Then you have to devise sessions where he’s building up towards doing that. That might start with 4 x 30min sessions at 5w/kg. But in the end he needs to be able to put together 4 x 45min sessions at 5w/kg. So you have to build those sessions up using a plan and the basic principle of progressive overload.
Shawn: This approach isn’t just for elite athletes though. I mean the numbers are crazy, but the principle applies whatever level you’re competing or training at. Given Tim’s aerobic base, this is about fine tuning – taking what he’s learnt from last year and then focusing more specifically on particular targets.
Dan: At Tim’s elite level, I don’t think you get quicker by just doing more and more slow, long distance volume. If you don’t challenge the body to do things it’s never done before, it won’t adapt the right way. Just by doing more and more hours… well, you’re flogging a dead horse. It’s a case of looking at the session level, rather than over training blocks, at ways of achieving things that you haven’t done before.
Shawn: Looking back at the training Berks has done in the past, what are the differences between then and now?
Dan: The first thing I did with Tim was look at his entire preparation from Kona 2014. I wrote it out and looked at it. The thing is, you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I kept many things in there, because they were working. I just became more specific around key sessions, highlighted the goals for each session and then monitored those sessions and their associated load week by week, to ensure that the progression was moving and made sense.
Keeping an eye on the numbers
Shawn: The big difference Tim has mentioned to me is that now it’s all about the numbers and reflection based on analytics, rather than how his body ‘feels’.
Dan: There are a lot of very successful coaches who coach that way – monitoring how the body feels, being right there with the athlete, etc. But I don’t believe you can do it that way if you’re not actually there and present every day. I don’t see Tim on a daily basis, so the only way I can get a gauge on how he’s doing is through numbers and data. I’m not there, I’m not watching how he’s doing, checking how he’s feeling in the morning, etc. The only way I can monitor Tim’s progress is through collecting data, and a routine Skype. That’s the big difference between the past and now.
Shawn: Nowadays it’s extremely important to have power data, whatever level you’re at.
Dan: It’s not just about what’s happening during a session. The key thing is having the ability to reflect on what you did and what you’ve done previously. When things are going well, you want to be able to know why they’re going well. And when things are going bad, you want to be able to reflect on when they were going well and why they might be going bad presently. The latter situation is not necessarily a negative if you have a logical explanation for why it occurred – it can simply be part of the training process.
Regardless, it would be a tragic waste to achieve an incredible result, but then have no data to look back on. I mean – a good session and a bad session look the same on paper. You can look back on training and say ‘I did this here and that there…’ but the big question is HOW did you do that session? What were the numbers? Why did it work or not work? Ultimately, its all about the learning.
Shawn: So it’s coaching from a distance, which has its challenges.
Dan: The way to manage it is talking regularly, looking at the data and then working through it with Berks. It’s been a learning curve for him – the numbers haven’t been a big priority for him in the past.
The Road to Kona
Shawn: Berks has had a couple of great results recently. What was the thought process going into Cebu?
Dan: To be honest, we had done zero 70.3 work before Cebu. Nothing at speed. Going into the Sunshine Coast race, we started to introduce a bit more VT2 work – a bit more top-end running. VT2 is what most people would call your anaerobic threshold and a little closer to where triathletes perform at for Olympic distance races.
Shawn: So for Cebu, would you say Tim’s performance was derived from his altitude training in Boulder?
Dan: I’m sure there was a bit of a response from that. At altitude, the physiological stress is a lot higher, even though Tim would have been at lower intensity in terms of his power numbers and run speed. But at altitude, its all about the adaptation, and we know that altitude training does wonders for adaptation to both your aerobic/anaerobic threshold, and your performance economy. So maybe his performance isn’t that unexplainable, but it certainly wasn’t the target.
Shawn: Speaking of the Sunshine Coast 70.3, anything you want to highlight?
Dan: Most of Tim’s training to that point was really IM specific. We included a few VO2max intervals – 3 mins flat out then progressing into IM pace. That would have helped him with the front end of the bike leg on the Sunshine Coast where he came out of the water a bit behind and then had to really push it for the first 20 mins on the bike. That work gave him the ability to produce high power on the bike and then settle in. I think he’s a lot stronger on the bike now. Ultimately, he’s running better, because he’s a better cyclist.
Shawn: Is it really all about the numbers?
Dan: Honestly, I don’t want Berks to be too obsessed with the numbers. That’s my job – I want to be obsessed with the numbers. But I like the way Tim’s not at the moment. I want to keep it that way – you can get a little too focused on the data sometimes. Tim isn’t and that’s a good thing.
Shawn: What do the next couple of weeks look like?
Dan: Tim’s had his last big week and now it’s a 2-week taper. He’s done a Kona simulation with a long run off the bike. Now he’s counting down to the real thing.
Countdown to Kona
Thanks to Dan and Shawn for the interview and the wisdom shared. The next couple of weeks are physically more relaxed and mentally more challenging for me as I get ready to jump on the plane to Hawaii. Stay tuned though, there’s still some great stuff to come on the Road to Kona series.
Remember – go hard, enjoy the ride and if you want to reach your goals, start with the end in mind.