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Tri Talk Triathlon Podcast, Episode 66a

You can listen to the audio by clicking above, or download it here

Part 2 of understanding the USAT age group ranking system. How you can maximize your ranking through effective race scheduling and strategy. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth… about 100 spots on your age group ranking. Today, on Tri Talk.

Welcome to this supplemental edition of Tri Talk your podcast source for triathlon tips, training, news and more. To new listeners in Connecticut, I hope you did well at the New England Athletic Club Triathlon, and a special hello to long-time Connecticut Tri Talk fan and occasional critic, Norman. On the other side of the country, in Oregon you are just 2 months away from one of the best-named events in the country. The Beaver Freezer Sprint Triathlon on April 4th. My goal at Tri Talk is to help you swim, bike, and run faster, to meet your personal triathlon goals. Whether you are an elite or amateur triathlete, we cover sprint distance to Ironman distance. I’m your host, David Warden, and this is Tri Talk Episode 66a.

Today on Tri Talk part 2 of Episode 66. This will not be as heavy and long as the previous episode, and in fact if you just plain did not understand the USAT ranking system at all, that’s OK, because this is the episode that you need to know how to maximize that ranking. As in Episode 66, this will benefit USAT members, but I’ll be back in March with Tri Talk’s regular universally applicable information.

Remarkably, almost no comments from Episode 66 to report. Probably because no one understood it!

Let’s get onto the good stuff! It seems a bit ridiculous for me to claim a way for you to maximize your ranking, because the best way to maximize your ranking is to race as fast as you can! Nothing I say here will have nearly the impact as simply as effective training racing your best. But I do think that your ranking can be tweaked a bit higher by the following strategy. Let’s start with 4 suggestions around race selection.

First, and obviously, this is the easy part, do at least 3 USAT sanctioned triathlon or 2 sanctioned duathlons. Don’t assume that your event is USAT sanctioned. Some of the biggest and most popular events are not sanctioned. The second-largest triathlon in my home state of Utah with 800 participants is not a sanctioned event. Events that were sanctioned one year might change without notice and become non-sanctioned without the race director notifying the participants. Even races that ask for your USAT number might not actually be sanctioned events. It is a very frustrating situation to find out at the end of a year that you were one race short of the required number of sanctioned races and can’t get a ranking. Confirm with your race directors that you are registered for at least 3 sanctioned events.

Second, setup your taper for your USAT events. Unless you have that one non-USAT events race that is so important to you, you’ll obviously get more points if you are tapered for USAT events and schedule them for your A race. The best-case scenario would be a 3-4 week race cluster at the end of a training period doing 3-4 races in one 4-week Race period. This can obviously only be done for short course racing.

The biggest mistake I made in 2008 was that all my A races were non-USAT events. There were 3 events that held more local bragging rights that I scheduled everything else around, and it really affected my ranking.

Third, do more than 3 USAT events. There is no harm from doing poorly in an event that you might not be tapered for because USAT only takes your top 3 events. Although a taper gives you the best chance at your best race, we all know that a breakout performance could happen at any time. The two races I won last year took place at the end of 12 hour training weeks and were pleasant surprises. Also, even if you are long-course specialist, throw in a couple of short course races as part of your speed training and get enough races for a ranking.

Fourth, race your strength. If you are better at short course, do several sanctioned short course events. If you are better at long-course, try to taper for those events. Again, this ranking system really favors short-course athletes who can race more often. I really think that if you are a long-course specialist, try to taper and do your long A race, recover for a week or so, and then try to get in another mini-season of short events.

Now, let’s dig a little deeper. There are really only two factors that will influence your points for a given race. It is the relationship between the event par time and your own individual time. You want to participate in events that have a very high par time, because you are then more likely to get closer to that par time. But what causes a high par time? Remember, it is not events where the athletes are slow, that does not define a high par time. It is events where many athletes did worse than their previous year’s ranking would indicate.

I think that the best chance for you to find a race with a high par time is early season racing. In general, age-group athletes get better as they progress during the year. Their first race is, in general, is not as good as races later in the year. The ranking that they received last year is based on their entire year, and very few athletes will be able to perform in their first race of the new year as well as they did in their last race. Of course, this theory assumes that you have been training well all winter in anticipation of an early-season race. If you find an event where the par time is high, but you also are not in as good a shape because it is early in the year, then it was no benefit to do that early event as far as points go.

Next, if you want find races with a high expected par time, you don’t want to race in events with a low expected par time, at least if you want to maximize your potential points. Events with low par times are the events where everyone is coming with their A game. These are the highly popular events that it seems everyone is tapering for. Don’t get me wrong, these events are great to participate in. You should do these events. But it is in these events, where many, many athletes are performing above their previous year’s ranking where the par time will be low, and therefore it will be tough to perform at or below that par time.

I also believe that new races tend to draw athletes racing below their expected par time. I don’t know why this is, maybe some listeners can help me with this. Highly experienced athletes who are fit year round tend to shy away from brand-new events. New events rarely have a ton of experienced athletes who perform consistently year-round. It is the seasoned events that draw these athletes, usually. They want to participate in an event if they know it will be worth their time. Athletes who race for fun, and tend to train and peak unpredictably, and therefore a higher chance of performing below their ranking, are drawn to these new events. Again, I can’t really nail this down, but my gut tells me that jumping all over new events will allow you to be at an event with a high par time.

Finally, consider adding 2 duathlons to your race schedule. USAT only requires 2 sanctioned duathlons in order to get an annual ranking in that category. Duathlons also tend to start earlier in the season, because they have a higher tolerance for cold than a triathlon. Going back to my theory on early-season races, you could get in 2-3 duathlons before April as part of your training, and get a ranking in duathlon practically in your sleep. Plus, if you’re your swim is your weak link, like me, you might actually get a mich higher ranking in duthlon than triathlon.

OK, that coved race selection, and now a bit about race strategy.

First, speed counts. Sure, we know that is true, but let’s quantify that. Have you ever found yourself at the end of a race, maybe a small event, and looking over your shoulder and there is no one there? Isn’t it tempting to pull up and say, “hey, nothing is going to change my place in the race whether I kill myself or nor not, I’ll come in the same place either way.” That might work in the Australia Triathlon Series, but for USAT every second counts toward your points. Let me give you an example.

This might be the most important part of this episode. Let’s say you finish with a time of 70 minutes in a race where par as 60 minutes. Your score for that event would be 85.7143. Let’s say that another athlete finished just 30 seconds later. Their score would be 85.1064 for that same event. Based on the 2008 M30-34 rankings, that difference of 0.6 points would represent 40 spots at the end-of -year ranking. That athlete literally lost over one yearly ranking spot for each second he slowed down. Even though his place in the event did not change, his ranking did.

However, although speed counts, it is important to adjust your race day intensity based on the big picture of the season. Yes, if you slow down because you just know it is not going to be a good day, your points for that event will be poor. But remember, you goals is to get 3 outstanding times, and not 6 pretty good times. You can afford to have several bad races, as long as you have 3 really good ones. If you go into a race feeling only so-so, use it as a training session, rest up, or even skip it altogether and make your next race your best performance.

 

Second, utilize the legal draft and consider avoiding that elite division. From episode 65, I’m convinced that passing a ton of cyclists will significantly help your overall time.

If you really care about your ranking, again your placement for the day does not count, your overall speed does. To give you an example of this, you’ll recall the duathlon I participated and recorded in 2008 from Episode 60. Although I won the duathlon, I only received 80 points for the event, compared to my worst event where I came in 15th overall and got 88 points. That is the difference between top 10% in your age group and top 25% in the rankings, but the placement for 80 points was first and the placement for 88 points was 15th. Even though I came in first, it did not get me many points. So again, if you want points, race for speed and not for placement.

 

 

 

Hey, are you still there? Why are you still listening. The episode is over. Oh, I get it. You’re waiting for one of my blooper reels or waiting for me to do something funny. You just want to laugh at my mistakes or expect me to always have some humorous scenario put in the end of the episode for you entertainment. Well I can’t handle that kind of pressure. Why can’t you just accept me for who I am. A type A personality who doesn’t care about laughter or humor or joy. Whenever I’m at a party its always, hey David be funny, hey David tell a joke. It’s never, “hey David, tell us the difference between lactate threshold and anaerobic threshold. No, I’m supposed to be funny all the time…

Tri Talk Triathlon Podcast, Episode 66

You can listen to the audio by clicking above, or download it here

Part 1 of understanding the ranking systems of USAT and 3 other major triathlon federations, and how you can maximize your USAT ranking through effective race scheduling and strategy. You will be weighed, you will measured, but will you be found wanting? Let’s find out today, on Tri Talk.

Welcome to this special edition of Tri Talk your podcast source for triathlon tips, training, news and more. Welcome to the new listeners who have recently sent me e-mails from Denmark and Japan. Your stories of how you have managed to stay in shape over the northern hemisphere’s winter are inspiring. Outstanding dedication. My goal at Tri Talk is to help you swim, bike, and run faster, and in this case, to help you get ranked higher, to meet your personal triathlon goals. Whether you are an elite or amateur triathlete, we cover sprint distance to Ironman distance. I’m your host, David Warden, and this is Tri Talk Episode 66.

Thanks for joining me in this special episode of Tri Talk. I want to make a few things clear about this episode before you invest your time in listening. First, although my goal is always to help you swim bike and run faster, this episode will not necessarily make you swim bike or run faster. It will help you appear as though you are swimming, biking and running faster by influencing your ranking within your federation. Second, this episode will really only benefit members of USAT and to a much lesser extent members of British Triathlon, Australia Triathlon, with a brief nod to Triathlon Canada. Or, if your triathlon federation uses a ranking system similar to one of these federations, you may still get some benefit out of it. I primarily bring up the other federations’ ranking systems so that we can compare them to USAT. Also, this information is mainly for individuals who race for glory and ranking, and not for achievement or affiliation. So all you achievement and affiliation types can skip to the Josh Grobin tracks you’ve got on your iPod. Although I will be covering the ranking systems used by Triathlon Canada, British Triathlon, and Australian Triathlon, they will each take about 1 minute, and the USAT system will take the remainder of the podcast. This is not because I harbor over-nationalistic sentiments for my home country, it really is that the ranking systems for the other English-speaking federations are that simple, and the US ranking system is freaking complex. It makes the US college football BCS ranking system look like 2+2.I hope you’ll forgive the US focus, but with 70% of Tri Talk listeners in the US, this is relevant information for a vast majority of Tri Talk listeners, and I hope you’ll allow this brief focus on my home triathlon federation. My purpose for this episode is to help you maximize your 2009 USAT ranking through knowledge of how the system works, race selection, and a race strategy which compliments the ranking system.

 

Episode 66 will be released in 2 parts. This episode will focus on understanding the ranking systems. Episode 66a, released in another week, will give you very detailed strategies for race selection and strategy in order to maximize your USAT ranking. For those of you outside the USAT system, Episode 67, released in March, will go back to an international focus to help all of us swim, bike, and run faster.

Before we get onto the good stuff, I had some significant response to episode 65. As I suspected, Professor Jenks corrected me on a clear error. Regarding my theory on why my Zipp wheels had the same roll down time as my Mavics, my thought was that because the Mavic’s were heavier they would obviously carry me faster down the hill. However, Professor Jenks kindly reminded me that an object’s mass does not influence how fast it falls, but rather the density. Mass does matter when trying to use force to overcome gravity, but it does not matter when falling. Therefore, the weight of the wheels does not really explain the Zipp vs. Mavic times during a rolldown test. Unless I could prove that the Mavic wheels were somehow more dense. This is possible, since the wheels are very similar in size and shape, and one reason that the Mavics are heavier even with very similar dimensions could be that portions of that wheel are more dense. Kudos to my friend Paul from Southern California as well who pointed this same thing out to me. However, Paul, as one of my former clients, you have broken the sacred rule of never questioning your master. You are now dead to me.

 

Regarding my numbers around the potential benefit of the legal draft, Tri Talk listener Jay feels that the benefit from passing cyclists can only be realized if you can keep your  momentum during the pass. Clusters of cyclists, or side-by-side riders that cause you to brake or stop pedaling prior to the pass could easily neutralize your legal draft benefit. He goes on to say that even when being passed, if the lead cyclist passes you very slowly, you might have to brake in order to get back into a legal draft zone within 15 seconds.

Let’s get onto the good stuff! Starting with the ranking system of British Triathlon. Unlike USAT, the British Triathlon Ranking Series is only based on 5 events. Being somewhat smaller than the US geographically, this makes sense as you can rank everyone based on the exact same races head-2-head, and the travel burden is not as heavy if you were to do that in a physically larger country. Plus, you only have to race at 3 of the 5 events. This is true for both the triathlon and separate duathlon series.

To determine points, after each of those 5 British Triathlon (BT) events, all non-federation members are stripped out of the results. I’m not sure I agree with that, but you are essentially only using other BT members to determine points. The BT athlete who has a time closest to the 40th percentile is identified as the pacesetter time, and that individual gets 100 points. Meaning, 39% of the field was faster than them, and 59% of the field was slower.

All other BT members get points based on that pacesetter time using the formula 100 x the pacesetter time divided by their actual time. For example, if 90 minutes was the pacesetter time that came in closest to the 40th percentile, an individual with a time of 60 would get 150 points, which is 100×90/60. An individual who finished in 120 minutes would get 75 points, or 100×90/120. At the end of the year

In can summarize BT’s ranking system in 3 sentences: In each of the 5 series races, determine the pacesetter time by taking the time of the 40th percentile among BT members only. Points are then individually allocated for that race at 100 x pacesetter time / actual time. Final ranking is determined by adding up the total of the athlete’s best 3 races in the series of 5. 3 sentences. Piece of cake.

Australia is even easier. Like BT, Australia’s Triathlon Series only offers a select number of races, in past years it has been 6 events. While BT and USAT are based on time. Australia is based on placement in your age group. With up to 25 points allocated to the first 25 in each age group at those 6 specific events, it is very straightforward. First place in the age group gets 25 points, 10th place gets 15 points, 25th  place gets 1 point. Also like BT, only current members of AT are awarded the points. If a non-AT member finishes 1st in an age group, the next AT member to finish in that age group would get the 25 points.

In can also summarize AT’s ranking system in 3 sentences: In each of the 6 series races, 1-25 points are awarded inversely to the athletes’ age group finishing spot in each age group. Non-AT athletes do not receive points, and those points roll down to the next AT finisher. Final rankings are a sum of all event points.

It is interesting to note 2 more things about the ATS. First, in 2008 those points were not really used to determine a final ranking, but were used to determine a separate ITU Selection points and who would represent Australia at the World Championships in Vancouver. Second, I don’t see any literature that AT will be continuing their ATS point system in 2009, which would be a shame. Perhaps one of our fine Australian listeners can let me know the status of the ATS in 2009. For now, I’ll assume that they will.

Canada has the easiest system of all, and I can summarize theirs in one sentence, nay 4 words. They don’t have one. They used to have one, but discontinued it in 2007. Far be it for me to criticize my great neighbor to the north, but you only have a few thousand Triathlon Canada members, right? If you sent me your data, I could run your rankings system myself. For a country that pumps out an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of world-class triathletes for their population, this is a glaring inconsistency in the way Triathlon Canada is run.

OK, now for USAT. Before I go into detail on USAT’s ranking system, I’m actually going to give you the simplest explanation possible first.

After any USAT sanctioned event, identify which participants received an overall ranking in the previous season and define them as pacesetters. Convert all participants’ times into real numbers representing minutes to the fourth decimal place. Multiply each pacesetter time by their previous season’s pacesetter ranking and divide that by 100. Drop the top 20% and bottom 20% of pacesetter times. Average the remaining pacesetter times to determine the event par time. Divide the par time by each participants’ finish time and multiply that by 100. An additional 10% will be added to the female participants’ scores. Year end points are determined by averaging the inverse value of each of an athlete’s top 3 events, inverting that resulting average again and multiplying that number by 100.

I am not kidding when I say that is the shortest and simplest way to describe the USAT ranking system. If you could understand it from that brief description, you can skip the next 10 minutes. For the rest of us mortals, let’s dig in. I promise that you will impress your tri friends when you show them you actually understand the system. Here we go.

In any given USAT sanctioned event, not just specific events like BT or AT, and this applies to all triathlon and duathlon distances, the ranking first identifies which participants have a ranking from the previous year. These participants are going to be the pacesetters for that event. It is important to note that only participants who have a ranking from the previous year will be used to determine the future par time, although all participants will be able to have a point value associated with their time at the end of the event. Easy so far. Next, convert all participants’ times into real numbers representing minutes. For example, a Sprint-distance time of 1:04:37 would be converted to 64.6167 minutes.

Here is where it gets interesting. Take each pacesetter’s numerical time in minutes and multiply that by their previous year’s ranking, dividing that result by 100. For example, our same athlete who finished a Sprint in 64.6167 minutes has a 2007 USAT ranking of 89.9764. A quick reminder that your USAT ranking is a number between 1 and about 110, with higher being a faster athlete. So we take their finish time of 64.6167 and multiply it by their 2007 ranking of 89.9764 which and divide by 100, which equals 58.1398. Why is that number important? That number is called the par time.

 

Taking an athlete’s finish time and multiplying it by their previous ranking gives us an idea of how fast someone with a ranking of 100 could finish that event. That result of 58.1398 means that based on that one athlete’s race result and previous ranking, we could predict an athlete with a ranking of 100 to finish in 58.1398 minutes, which then becomes par for that event. This was the part where I stared at computer monitor for 20 minutes with a blank look on my face. If you can get this concept in the next minute, you are way ahead of me.

Let me give a better example of this. From here on our I’m going to strip out the decimals and leave the numbers as integers to make this very simple. Let’s look at two athletes, once fast and one slower. We’ll use our same athlete who was ranked 90 in 2007 and finished in 65 minutes. Another athlete was ranked 73 and finished in 81 minutes. Taking the faster athlete’s information, we take their finish time of 65 times their ranking of 90 divide by 100 and we get 59. The second athlete is ranked 73 times a finish time of 81 divided by 100 also equals 59. Because a fast athlete has a low numerical value for a finish time, but a high numerical value for a ranking, the result is almost the same as an athlete with a high numerical value finish time and a low USAT ranking. In this case a finish time of 65 times a ranking 90 is the same as a finish time of 81 times a ranking of 73. Think of the previous years ranking in this formula as the handicap. The lower the ranking value, the greater the handicap. And that is why we can reasonably predict how fast an athlete ranked at 100 could finish the race based on other athletes times and rankings. That athlete ranked at 100 essentially has a 0 handicap. That prediction becomes the par time for that event.

 

OK, we are about 2/3 of the way through. Stay with me.

That process is repeated for all ranked athletes in the event. If there were 300 athletes in a race, and 250 of them have a ranking from the previous year, we take 250 athlete’s finish times, multiply it by their ranking, and divide that by 100.

Next, we drop the top and bottom 20% of those par numbers. So, if we had 300 participants, with 250 ranked athletes, we would strip the top and bottom of those remaining 250 athletes after the par calculation and are left with 150 values. It is important to note that we do not strip out the top and bottom 20% of all times. We strip out the top and bottom 20% of the results after the time multiplied by ranking result. This means we are not dropping the best and worst overall times, we are dropping the best and worst performances which significantly over-performed or under-performed based on their previous ranking. Athletes with high rankings but very poor performances or athletes with low ranking but unusually high performances are stripped out of the calculation of par time.

So, in our example, what started out as 300 athletes, is whittled down to only 150 inputs based on ranked athletes only and dropping the top and bottom 20% of par times. The remaining average of those 150 par times becomes the official par time for that event. That whole first process was just to determine the par time for a race.

Now that we have a par time for an event, the rest is a lot easier. In our example of an athlete with a 65-minute finish, let’s say that the par time for this event was still 59 minutes after we averaged all 150 par times. We divide the par time by the finish time and multiply that by 100. 59 divided by 65 times 100 is 90.7692. We finally have a score for that athlete for that race! We repeat that process for all 300 participants. Although we stripped out non-ranked and top and bottom 20% to calculate the par time, once we have that par time everyone in the race who finished gets a score.

In order to understand this ranking system, it is very important to note that we divided the par time by the finish time and NOT the finish time by the par time. The results would be totally different. 59 minutes divided by 65 minutes gives us our USAT score of 91, but dividing the finish time by the par time would have resulted in a score of 110. Why don’t we use that higher number instead as the point total? Remember, USAT could have done this, and instituted a scoring system where the lower the number the better the ranking. But, we are talking about a goal of a higher number being a better ranking. As their times go down, their ranking goes up and the USAT ranking you get is an inverse relationship you’re your overall time. This inverse relationship means that to get a true average of an athlete’s top 3 events for a year, we have to invert their points one more time.

Let me give you another example of what I mean. If one athlete finished in 60 minutes, and another finished in 72 minutes, that second athlete was 20% slower than the first, right? 12 minutes is 20% of 60 minutes. We could give the fast athlete a ranking of 100 and the slower one a ranking of 120. But, since we want a slower time to be a lower number, we invert 1.2 with a result of 0.83, or 1 divided by 1.2. This will become important later on.

Once that athlete does at least 3 USAT sanctioned triathlons or 2 USAT sanctioned duathlons, they are eligible for a year-end ranking. Only their top 3 triathlon event points count toward their year-end ranking, and top 2 duathlon events. Could it now be as simple as taking the average of those 3 triathlon events to get a year end score? Of course not!

For example, lets say that our athlete’s top 3 triathlon event points were 91, 90, and 94. Again, USAT will round to 4 decimals, but I am going to keep it simple. We are not going to average 91, 90, and 94. We are going to invert those 3 numbers and multiply by 100 to get 1.10, 1.11, and 1.06. We average those 3 numbers and get 1.09. We then invert 1.09 to get the final year-end ranking of 92. Frankly, the process of either averaging the 3 point totals, or taking the top 3 and inverting, averaging, and inverting again is very close, but they are different numbers and USAT is right to do the calculation that way.

You may find that it will be easier to understand this if you read it rather than listen to it, and I’ll have the transcript of this podcast available on PowerTri.com.

Is anyone still there?

Sweet, now we know exactly how the ranking system works. If you had enough time, you could calculate your ranking from each event long before USAT publishes them. That would require you looking up the previous year’s ranking for each and every athlete in the race you did, so you would have to be very motivated.

I’d like to share some thoughts on the USAT system. Frankly, I went into this research not understanding the system at all, and I was determined to hate it. This started out as a planned expose on the faults of the USAT system, and by the time I was finished, I was a raving fan, and I’ll tell you why.

First, The USAT system rewards for speed, unlike a ranking system that ranks based on age-group placement. You could be 15 minutes behind 10th place in your age group, but you get the same points as someone who came in 1 second behind 10th place. I don’t like that.

Second, The USAT ranking system allows for a fairly accurate comparison. Unlike BT and AT, where the total points at the end of the year mean nothing in terms of the ability to predict one athlete’s performance to another, with USAT, I can confidently say that athlete A is 6% faster than athlete B.

Third, I perceive USAT’s system as having a smaller margin of error. For example, in a small race with 50 people, the par time for BT is based on only one individual, while the USAT system would include up to 30 athletes to determine par time.

Fourth, it is resistance, not immune, but resistant, to race topography. Because it is based on an average of the field, external factors that influence all athletes equally will not effect your points. If there is a killer wind and you end up going 3 minutes slower than you normally race, the par time of the entire event will go up as a result.

Finally, if we didn’t use this system, I’d be curious to know what system we would use instead that would be better? Of course the current system has flaws, but can you recommend to me a system that works better? Actually, I would be interested in hearing a method that you think would be better. Surely, we have some statisticians out there who have some ideas.

The one thing I would change is that I would break down the rankings into distance categories. The ranking system seriously favors short course racing. You can race 12 sprints a year, and taper for 8 of them and have a tremendous chance at getting 3 outstanding performances. Athletes who race at the IM level will do maybe 2 full and 2 70.3 in a year, which means they can only afford one bad race. This is why I would encourage long distance racers to throw in a few short events, or at least schedule some short course for after your last long event.

I should disclose that I am the Regional Vice Chair for USAT for the Rocky Mountain Region, and that could be interpreted as tainting any endorsement I give to USAT. As Vice Chair for my region, I don’t work for nor am I compensated for my USAT work. It is an elected position representing the members of my region. My endorsement of the USAT ranking system is based on it’s merits, and not on my affiliation with USAT.

That’s it! You made it through the USAT ranking system!

Episode 66a, released in another week, will give you very detailed strategies for race selection and strategy in order to maximize your USAT ranking. This episode will be much shorter than this episode, but don’t miss it.

Tri Talk Triathlon Podcast, Episode 72

You can listen to the audio by clicking above, or download it here

Alexey’s race plan for his first-ever IM with a time of 10:42 can be found here.

The staggered taper and staggered race week, a chat with original Ironmen, plus the consequences of following a race plan. Today on Tri Talk.

Welcome to Tri Talk your podcast source for triathlon tips, training, news and more. Greetings to new listeners in New Hampshire and the Czech Republic. In New Hampshire, I hope you had a good race at Timberman, and in the Czech republic, thanks to my new friends Petr and Tomas for their advice on training venues during my recent 2 week stay in that country. My goal at Tri Talk is to help you swim, bike, and run faster, to meet your personal triathlon goals. Whether you are an elite or amateur triathlete, we cover sprint distance to Ironman distance. I’m your host, David Warden, and this is Tri Talk Episode 72.

Today on Tri Talk I’ll introduce a concept that on one hand is so obvious, yet on the other can be so complex. What does it mean to stagger your taper and race week? We’ll look into that, plus review an example of the consequence of sticking to a good race plan. Just like I tell me kids, consequences are good, not bad. I’ll also be sharing some interviews with 2 of the original Ironmen from the first race in 1978.

Let’s get onto the good stuff. One of the most complex pieces of creating an annual training plan is adjusting the taper and the actual race period. How much volume? How intense? How frequent? Months of hard work can be eroded from not paying attention to these critical periods, and I find it one of the most challenging components of creating an annual plan.

Unfortunately, what I’m going to discuss will only add more complexity to taper and race period planning. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I believe taking these additional, though complex, steps when creating your plan will improve performance even further on race day.

Let’s begin with a quick review of the purpose and rules of the taper and race periods. The purpose of the taper is to both eliminate accumulated fatigue and promote the supercompensation process. The supercompensation process is possibly the most important aspect of training. Introducing measured stress to the body, forcing it to a new level of homeostasis in order to adapt to that stress, coupled with rest to allow the body to recover and build a new level of fitness. When done correctly, the taper period, which is part of the “peak” period if using classic periodization vernacular, is the period of training when the highest level of supercompensation takes place. An athletes can expect to see an approximate 2% improvement in performance after a well-planned taper, when compared to their best performance in training.

That’s the purpose of the taper period: Reduce fatigue and promote maximum supercomensation. One could argue that both of those are part of the same process, but I think of them as distinct processes.

The two general rules of tapering are 1) the longer the event, the longer the taper and 2) the more fit you are the longer the taper. A typical Ironamn taper is three weeks for a fit athlete, and maybe a Sprint could be two weeks. However, for a less-fit athlete, the taper for an Ironman could only be two weeks, and perhaps only a week for a Sprint.

Now, let’s discuss the purpose of the race period. The purpose of the race period is to maintain fitness. Yes, there may be some fitness gained during a multi-week race period, but the primary goal is simply to not lose what has been gained in training. This may only be a 1 week period for an Ironman athlete, or a 2 month period for a Sprint athlete. Regardless, the purpose of the race period is to maintain fitness. I’ve heard some people say that the purpose of the race period is to have fun. I don’t get that.

Most of the content we read about tapering and race the period makes a big mistake. It treats the taper and race period as a single sport. In our case, triathlon. It assumes that all 3 disciples should be treated the same during the taper and race periods. Obviously, when training, we don’t peanut-butter our training over all 3 sports. We spend more time on our weaknesses, and less time on our strengths. Why should this change when we reach the taper and race period? An athlete should be tapering for less time on their weak discipline, and more time on their strong discipline. Additionally, an athlete is unlikely to maintain a 6-week race period equally in all 3 disciplines. They may only be able to maintain a run peak for 3 weeks. I’ve only ever coached 1 athlete who was truly balanced in all 3 sports. We all have strengths and weaknesses between the swim, bike, and run.

Let me give you an example. One of my athletes recently completed a 2 month race period, which was preceded by 2 weeks of tuneup races before the race period began. 4 weeks into the period, I analyzed his first 4 races, so I had 6 straight weeks to review. I found a consistent pattern. His bike and run performance were better than in training, remaining high and steady for the 4 week race period.

However, his swim performance was fascinating. His best swim of most recent 6 races was his first swim at the beginning of his taper period. From that period on, his swim got progressively slower. This was measured by calculating his finishing percentile on the swim. In this case he went from top 5% in his first swim, progressively down to top 9% in the 4th race of his race cluster, or 6 weeks into my analysis. I recognize that there is a distinct margin of error when using this kind of calculation method, but it is was the best method available to me.

It became clear to me that I had made 2 mistakes in his taper and race period planning. I knew that his swim was the weakest of the 3 sports. My first mistake was tapering him for 2 weeks for all 3 disciplines, when in fact I should have tapered him for only a week on the swim. Second, his swim fitness was unlikely to hold for 8 weeks, he really needed to increase volume on the swim at about 3 weeks into his race cluster, or in other words, his swim peak only could last for 3 weeks of the 8-week cluster.

We immediately increased his swim volume for the last 4 weeks of his race cluster. We had 4 weeks left in the cluster to try and fix his swim fitness. The next 2 weeks did not see a significant difference in swim time, in fact, one of the 2 races went as low as top 12% on the swim. This was to be expected, as the volume on the swim had increased for the that period.

His final 2 weeks of the race cluster we again did a small taper and reduced swim volume slightly. For the final two weeks, the athlete was back again in the top 5% on the swim, and won 1st place overall in his final event by just 20 seconds, which he would certainly not have done without this adjustment to the swim over the final 4 weeks.

Were I to do this athlete’s training plan again, I would have done a 1 week taper instead of a 2-week taper for the swim, leaving the bike and run at a two week taper. I would have also started to introduce volume back in the swim again after 3 weeks into the race period. Yes, this does mean that the athlete would experience a temporary reduction in swim fitness, but the tradeoff is 2 weeks of reduced swim performance for 3-4 weeks of significantly improved race performance.

So, how can you make these adjustments to your race plan? Unfortunately, this is absolutely more of an art than a science. You’ll notice that all of my support for this theory is anecdotal. Yes, while this theory is consistent with the purpose and rules of tapering and racing, there is no specific triathlon study on a staggered taper and race period planning. You have to really customize it for the individual athlete.

My advice would be this. If your run fitness is 30% worse than your swim fitness, consider having your run taper and race period be 30% less than your swim taper and race period. For example, 2 weeks instead of 3 weeks. How can you measure your run fitness compared to swim fitness? That part is also tough. An experienced coach, who has seen dozens of athletes times can easily determine your level of fitness relative to each other in all 3 sports by asking you your best times for each discipline. But if you only have yourself to compare to how do you know? Obviously, you can’t go based on time alone.

I think the best way for an athlete without access to a coach is to simply use the same percentile comparison I mentioned earlier. In a tune-up race, determine your percentile placement for each sport, and that will give you an idea of how to quantify your weakest sport.

This is really over-simplifying this theory, but I’d like to give you something to go on. You must also consider that running takes much longer than swimming to recover from, and so I would never have a run taper last less than 10 days for a half or full Ironman athlete, even for an athlete who is weak on the run. Also, the race period for an Ironman or half Ironman is usually just one race, so the staggered race period really only applies to athletes doing Sprint or Olympic race clusters.

Moving on. This next section will do very little to help you swim, bike, or run faster, but I hope you’ll find it entertaining and somewhat informative. This section serves two purposes. First, to give you a taste of being at a first-time athlete’s Ironman, and second, the consequences of following a race plan. I recently traveled to Germany to support one of my TrainingBible athletes, Alexey, at his first Ironman event, which also happened to be the inaugural Ironman for Regensburg.

Regensburg is situated an hour north east of Munich by car, in the beautiful region of Bavaria, the south-east area of Germany. Accompanied by my wife Rebecca, I arrived 3 days early to review the race plan, the course, adapt the plan for weather conditions, and perform the last few workouts with Alexey.

The evening before the event, I attended the pre-race meeting, and was delighted to bump into David Orlowski and Tom Knoll, two of the original Ironmen finishers from the first Iromman in Hawaii in 1978.

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Anxiously waiting next to me is a young woman names Petra, obviously an athlete, who asks if she can have her picture taken with David and Tom.

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After the picture (and waiting in line for my turn with Tom), I’m able to ask him about the unusual trophy on the table.

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The next morning I follow a tradition of arriving way too early at T1, and I’m not even racing this morning. But it is a beautiful morning.

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A final review of the race plan, some pictures, a few hugs from his friends family, and he’s off to he starting line. My last piece of advice to Alexey: Get behind 2005 Ironman champion Faris Al Sultan and keep up with him for the first 10 meters, which it turns out he actually did.

We often hear about the athletes fighting the “washing machine” that inevitably occurs in an Ironman mass swim start, but often overlooked is the spectator during the beginning of the race, caught in their own battle for positioning before the swim start.

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The swim is Alexey’s weakness, and the entire plan could be jeopardized early with a poor swim time. Alexey and I have set a goal of under 11 hours, which for a first time Ironman is challenging enough, but on a bike course through the Bavarian foothills with over a kilometer to ascent, it’s a downright aggressive goal. To meet that goal, he’ll have to be on the bike in no less than 90 minutes, that’s a swim plus T1 in 90 minutes. 30 minutes into the swim, I’m making sure that I stay focused and professional.

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81 minutes into the swim, Alexey hits dry land. A personal best 2.4 mile swim. However, that is quickly neutralized by a poor T1 of over 6 minutes. Fortunately, the overall time onto the bike is still 88 minutes, 2 minutes ahead of the plan.

As Rebecca and I race from point to point on the bike, I forget to record audio, I’m too focused on being a coach and spectator at this point. At 90 kilometers, or 56 miles, I meet Alexey and talk for just a few moments. He shows me his power output, which is exactly where we had set it in the plan for the first half of the bike leg, plus he is exactly on schedule for the first half of the bike, literally down to the minute, maintaining 2 minutes ahead of schedule overall for the day.

By the time Alexey hits the run, he is 5 minutes ahead of schedule, having blasted a negative split by 5 minutes on the bike, a good sign of perfect pacing. However, another poor T2 ate into another couple of precious minutes. I obviously did not schedule in enough transition practices. At this point, it all comes down to the run, meticulously planned at specific kph for the first 20K. Rebecca and I find ourselves in a good viewing spot, the 4 loop run course allows us to stay in the same place and see Alexey 3 times before the finish. We’re finally able to relax for the first time all day, and reflect that this is the first time we have been to an IM event together both as spectators.

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Anyone who has done an Ironman before, knows the run is the big unknown. Very few people drop out of an Ironman before the run. Check out any Ironman results page, and you’ll see the list of DNF’s all have a swim and bike time, and then drop off the radar.

The good news is that Alexey has over 4 hours to finish the marathon to reach his 11-hour goal. The bad news is that this is only his second marathon ever, and his first marathon time was a 3:45 last year. He’ll have to be within 15 minute of his marathon PR to hit 11 hours.

On the first of 4 loops, his pace is excellent, 10.5 kilometers in 52 minutes, well ahead of schedule.

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His second loop is still solid, but shows a little bit of fade at 54 minutes. Not too bad, and still well over 2 hours to finish the last half marathon. More importantly, he was still smiling.

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Our race plan actually accounted for the fact that the last half marathon of the run would be difficult, as he was heading into unknown territory. I didn’t even give Alexey a pacing goal for the last 20K, knowing that it is unwise to set a target for the last 20K of a first Ironman. He was on his own. And it turns out, I was right, damn it. 55 minutes into the third loop, no sign of Alexey. 56 minutes, 57, 58. And then I see a figure that looks like Alexey, but with run form that clearly indicates he is in pain. He stops for a moment to say he is “cramping badly.”

Alexey experienced debilitating cramps in his legs during a previous 70.3, and we had taken steps to mitigate those cramps, and for the first 9 hours of his IM, the plan worked perfectly. But, as I said, after 9 hours we were heading into unknown territory, a new endurance mark was being set, and his body was complaining.

I raced over to the finish line, hoping that the buffer he had built would be enough to overcome the cramps and still meet the goal. It was. In pain, but smiling, Alexey ran strong thorough to the finish in 10:45, holding his beaming 10-year-old son’s hand as he crossed.

Alexey is a great example of how sticking to a race plan based on actual training data can really work. I find it quite satisfying that based on all of his training, his best times equaled what should have been an 11-hour event. As mentioned earlier in the podcast, we could have expected to see a 2% improvement with a solid taper, and 2% of 11 hours is 13 minutes, almost the precise time he cut from his 11 hour goal. Congratulations to Alexey, his hard work, and sticking to the plan.

 

That’s all for episode 72, episode 73 will be guest-hosted by Ben Greenfield, the 2008 Personal Trainer of the Year. He is a rock star of the fitness world, and makes my professional resume look pathetic. Find out more about Ben at bengreenfieldfitness.com.

Congratulations to James Lawrence and Kim Shattuck. James is 15 half-Ironman races into his goal of 22 in less than 30 weeks, which will be recognized by Guinness as a world record. Find out more about James’ charity at triandgiveadam.com. Kim just placed 5th in her division and qualified for Clearwater in her first 70.3. That’s disgusting. I’d hate her, but I coach her…I’ll see you all next time.