by Alex Thompson
Breakthrough training is often interpreted as a sort of magic bullet. I still hope for the day when I'll wake up to find myself swimming consecutive 1:15 100s and 6-minute mile pace doesn’t take any real effort. It hasn't happened yet though.
What is more important are the breakthroughs I’ve had in my head, and those are what I’d like to share. Those moments -- like the eureka moment we all get when we solve a math problem -- really do feel as if walls have been removed in our minds, and where things that seemed so separate and incompatible suddenly become dualities, two sides of the same coin.
- Your muscles move you, not your fitness.
The biggest mental breakthrough I had was when I realized it is my arms that push me through the water, it is my legs which push down on the pedals and it is a total body effort to run quick. Fitness in general doesn’t get us anywhere; it’s our bodies that need to be built to the task.
Don’t accumulate hours of steady when you haven’t got all the leg muscle you need -- skinny legs can only do so much. The flip side is to make sure you're at a weight that can help you get stronger in the offseason but won't hold you back on race day. Before I thought of body comp as separate, now I see fitness as a biproduct of getting the right body. When you have it, every hour of steady will make you quicker without injury.
- Muscle balance and flexibility is important and key to strength and injury prevention.
A weak vastus medialis can lead to patella tendonitis, tight rotator cuffs limit swim ability, inflexible spine and hips block optimal bike position. To exercise at full range of motion you need full range of motion! Flexibity won't just let you ride in the same position as Zabriski, it is a synergist for athletic development.
- To swim fast you need both stroke length and stroke rate.
While many traditional pool swimmers often focus on length, triathletes who have difficulty getting longer in the water shift to focus exclusively on rate to offset their poor reach. The fact is, you need both length and a decent turnover. There is an ideal length for a triathlete’s swim stroke. For me at 185cm it is around 17 strokes per length in a 25m pool -- my rate then varies according to pace. A wetronome is invaluable to help build an understanding of length/rate balance.
Someone new to swimming or someone who is struggling should focus on getting the ideal length at whatever rate he or she can manage. Once the reach is ingrained, quicken the pace, remove dead spots in the stroke and make sure everything is in a straight line: hands entering in front of the shoulder and pulling back on the water, body in a straight line.
- Ironman running is strength limited.
When you run, choose trails that demand strength from you -- don’t burst your lungs on the uphill and recover on the descents. Running quickly downhill is great for building strength and will help you keep your heart rate up in the steady zone throughout the last few hours of the race. Uphill bounding is a great way to improve calf flexibility and specific functional strength.
These are some of the most important things I’ve learnt over the last few years working with Alan. It is not so much what he has taught me, but the links between different things which are where the lessons were learned.
Alex has been a triathlete since 2005 and has competed several ironman and ultra distances races. He is currently working towards making the transition from age group athlete into the pro ranks. He has been working closely with Alan Couzens for the last two years to achieve his goal. You can follow Alex's progress through his blog, TriOnTrack and on Twitter @XIronmanAlexX.