Tuesday, September 17, 2013

On Physical Fitness and its Influence on a Creative Mind

"For physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity. The relationship between the soundness of the body and the activities of the mind is subtle and complex. Much is not yet understood. But we do know what the Greeks knew: that intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong; that hardy spirits and tough minds usually inhabit sound bodies." JFK's words in "The Soft American," Sports Illustrated (1960).

You DO NOT need a healthy body to have a creative mind. This I know for sure. That said, I agree with JFK when he states that our creative abilities reach their highest capacities only when they are supported by a sound body. What is a sound body? It's not necessarily one that looks razor thin or can dead-lift 500 lbs. In fact, many of these very fit bodies are actually unhealthy. Rather, a healthy body is one that doesn't limit you from your everyday tasks. It's a body that allows you to do those things in life that you want to do.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Exploring the Affordances and Constraints of Individualized Triathlon Coaching

We are limited by the amount of time and money that we have to spend on triathlon and there are many options beyond hiring a triathlon coach that can help you improve your health, fitness and performance. Some of these options include programs put out by Crossfit, the YMCA, triathlon clubs, etc.  These programs tend to be less expensive than individualized coaching and provide some valuable benefits such as a community atmosphere, a designated time and location, and a trainer to push you through the workout. These programs are fun and help you to stay motivated to work out on a regular basis.

That said, these types of programs are generic. Perhaps the most distinct advantage of a personal triathlon coach is that your training program will be individualized. What this means is that there is more one on one, personal interaction with your coach. This provides the coach with time to observe and address your own personal challenges as an athlete. This interaction also allows the coach to see your life as a whole. Unlike a generic program that tends to neglect the other stressors in your life, a coach engages in an ongoing dialogue with you about training, racing, and life in order to design and tailor a program to you; a program that adjusts to your stressors, your goals, and your races. The idea is that when your program fits you personally, it enhances your training and racing experience. It helps you remain consistent and motivated. It helps you to not only achieve your goals but to achieve a level of health, fitness, and performance that you didn’t know existed. Of course, this relationship requires that an athlete is willing to change his or her approach and put in the time to do so. The purpose of the following is to help you understand some of the affordances and constraints of hiring a personal triathlon coach. This will hopefully help you decide whether or not this is a good option for you. 

Coach-athlete relationship

Generally, hiring a coach involves engaging in an ongoing coach-athlete relationship. The two biggest constraints of this relationship are that, like all relationships, it takes commitment and time. Unlike a generic program where you don’t need to develop a relationship with a trainer, individualized coaching requires that you are committed to developing the relationship in order for your coach to help you change and grow as an athlete. Although an opening interview will give your coach a sense of your background, education, experience, and goals, it takes time for a coach to figure out how you operate on a physical and psychological level. And it takes time for an athlete to trust in the coach’s program.     

 Conversely, you will benefit greatly from this relationship when you commit and put in the time to communicate with your coach. The more your coach knows about you and your life, the better he will be able to design a training program and the better he will be able to coach you. For instance, if you have an event coming up and are feeling run down from work, your coach can modify your training program to help you get more rest before your race.  Second, he can inform you about things that you do not know. It’s not often the things that we know, but the things that aren’t even on our conscious radar that limit us from improving. If you tell your coach that the training is too easy so you have been going out for harder rides and runs, your coach can inform you of why he has backed off of the training. Maybe he will explain to you that you are in a taper phase of your training, and although you may feel like you are getting out of shape, your body is recovering quickly and resting up for your race. Your coach can bring these things to your attention as they come up. And third, the more you talk about the process of training and racing with your coach, the more things that you will find to work on and improve. When you notice that your calfs are tight while you run, your coach can suggest ways of relaxing them. This will give you something to work on during your next run instead of continuing to run without changing anything. When you have something to focus on in every workout, you tend to be more engaged in the process and more motivated to become a better athlete.    


As I said in the introduction, we are limited by the amount of money and time that we have to spend on triathlon. A constraint of hiring a coach is that it takes time to communicate and you have to pay for the relationship. An affordance is that your coach can help you make better use of your money and time. Your coach should know triathlon equipment well and will help you understand the value of the equipment that you might purchase. For instance, he can help you understand that buying an aero set of wheels may save you more time on a bike course than buying a new bike frame. And a structured plan with quality focused workouts will help you get the most out of your time. If a coach knows your 5k PR for the season, he will be able to write specific, time based track workouts to help you get faster in a shorter amount of time.   

Goal Setting

Generic programs do not usually address your specific goals beyond, say, staying active or finishing your first triathlon. These programs are certainly helpful and are almost always a great first step to becoming a better athlete. Individualized coaching, however, takes achieving your goals to another level by asking you to be specific. Individualized coaching assumes that clearly defined goals coupled with a time frame make it easier to develop a program, monitor your progress, and actualize those goals.  

A constraint of talking to your coach about your personal goals is that you have to share something intimate about your life. This can be hard because some goals are intensely personal. Sharing a goal can make you feel vulnerable because you are asking to do something or achieve something that you’ve never done or achieved before. You might not be sure if you’ll be able to achieve it. Or maybe it’s something that you’ve tried to do but failed at multiple times before.  

That said, there are many affordances to discussing these personal goals. Namely, putting your goals into words is the first step to accomplishing them. Next, your coach can help you clarify these goals, develop a time frame, and help you understand what is required so that you can achieve them. After a coach knows your goals, he can help you understand how you might get there, design a plan to do so, monitor your progress along the way, and keep you accountable. If your goal is to run a 10k at the end of an Olympic triathlon in 42 minutes and right now you are running it in 44 minutes, he can help you understand that one way you might achieve this goal is to incorporate a weekly track workout at your desired race pace for the next 6 weeks and include a few brick workout so you can learn how to balance your bike and run. If you agree, then he can incorporate these workouts into your training. In essence, your coach can and will refocus your attention from your goal to the process that will help you achieve it.   


Once an athlete has a clear set of goals, a coach can design a program that will help an athlete achieve those goals. The constraint of a training program is that it tends to isolate athletes. Especially if the athlete doesn’t have a lot of time, the training can get very specific and you may feel as though you cannot train with others. That said, if the coach knows that training with others motivates you, he can build group workouts into your schedule and schedule training specific days on other days of the week. The structure can also act as a constraint if the training conflicts with your work or family life. This requires the athlete to spend time with the coach, figuring out a logistical schedule that can work. The structure also becomes a problem if you aren’t willing to do the workouts. You have to commit to the schedule in order to reap the most benefits from the program.  

That said, a well structured program has many affordances. Timing is a very important part of triathlon. Unlike a generalized program that focuses on only one goal and ends when that goal is achieved, a well structured training program takes your races and goals into account and ensures that you are doing the optimal type of training for specific parts of the year. The most common way of doing this is through periodization theory. This theory tends to prevent against burnout, allows time for building and overloading, has built in rest to prevent overtraining, and has benchmarks to make sure you are progressing towards your goals. Structured programs also change up the training to help athletes maintain consistency throughout the year. It takes a few weeks to get use to a program, but once you integrate it into your life, it provides you with a pathway to success.

Physical technique

There are three main limiters that prevent us from getting faster in triathlon. The first two are fitness and health which a coach addresses with a structured program. The third limiter is technique. Overall, I’d say that the general fitness classes do a great job with this. Trainers tend to have a very technique centered approach and this is one of the advantages of going to a group class. A personal coach also should have a general handle on the technical aspects of the sport, has studied how athletes move, and has the pedagogical skills to help you move more efficiently. One constraint of getting help with technique has to do with physical location. It’s best when a coach can be in the same location so that he can give you instant feedback. Of course, there are ways around this such as using video, but the feedback is not usually as fast. A second, and possibly a consequential constraint, is that your coach may require you to pay extra for his time and travel. Further, you have to find a time that works for both of you. That said, meeting with your coach to work on technique can afford him the opportunity to guide you in a productive, more efficient direction.  Although his guidance might not click right away, it will most likely help you in the future. Another affordance is that he can get to know you a little better as an athlete by watching how you move. This will give him a new perspective and will help him design your program to address technique issues in future workouts.     


Life is complicated. You never know when a challenge is going to arise like a scheduling conflict, a family emergency, or an injury. A coach is there to help you make decisions specifically about triathlon, but coaches know well that everything you do outside of triathlon will impact your physical performance. Again, the constraint of a coach helping you make decisions is that it takes time. Further, you have to be willing to tell him what is going on in your life. But if you are willing to communicate, a coach can help you see how this challenge fits into the bigger picture and open up your ability to choose.

Consider this example: I’ve been working with an athlete who’s been trying to qualify for Kona. He scheduled a half ironman three weeks prior to a full ironman.  The athlete injured himself at work a week prior to the half ironman and the injury only affected his running. The day before the half, he felt good enough to run and called me to tell me he was going to do it. It seemed to me that the pressure of racing this half plus the injury had placed blinders over his eyes. He was seeing this race as more important than his overriding goal to qualify for Kona. First, I reminded him of his overriding goal. I reminded him that we had been working towards the ironman all year and that it was his chance to qualify. Next, I explained that he had at least four options. First, he could choose to run during the halfiron and possibly have a great race, but risk an injury that might take him out of his ironman. Second, he could make a decision as he came into T2, but that the decision might not be as clear because of the high emotions that come with racing. He might feel great during the race but injure himself during the last few miles of the half marathon. Third, he could make the decision to step out of the race after the swim and bike. In addition, he could redefine his swim and bike goals to make the race a successful workout. This option would give him more time to allow his run legs to recover prior to the ironman. Last, he could choose not to race the half. I left the choice up to him. He decided to swim and bike and save his run legs for his ironman. Three weeks later, he went on to qualify for Kona.  We all need help making decisions from time to time. A coach can help remind you of your priorities and help you make decisions based on your overriding goals rather than on your emotional response in that isolated situation.   


Sometimes motivation is hard to come by. Again, the most common constraint of having a coach is that you have to reach out to your coach and be willing to come up with solutions to overcome challenges like a lack of motivation. An affordance of having a coach is that he/she can sometimes pick up on a lack of motivation and proactively discuss it before an athlete even knows he/she is unmotivated. A coach can also help you recreate motivation. This may involve just listening to you, helping you see your progress, helping you see the bigger picture, and helping you to redefine your goals.    


The athlete-coach relationship often yields success. The constraint is that you might have to change what you’re doing to become successful. The affordance is that you might just be successful. There is no coincidence that almost every Olympic athlete and most pro triathletes have coaches. The best coaches help athletes to get to a level of health, fitness, and performance that was never on their conscious radar.


Clearly, I’m biased. I am a professional triathlon coach, I am coached, and I find both roles extremely rewarding. That said, I understand that hiring a coach isn’t for everyone for a variety of reasons—namely time, commitment, and trust. This is why I’ve set out to write about the affordances and constrains of hiring a coach. It provides me with a more lucid perspective on why coach-athlete relationships work out and why they might not. It’s just as valuable for a coach to know these things as it is for perspective athletes.

Please note that I’m sure that there are many more affordances and constraints that I haven’t mentioned. Some may depend on the variety of coaching styles and some may depend on individual athlete’s lives, their needs and their wants. I hope this provides you with a sense of the value of a triathlon coach so that you can make a better, more informed decision about whether or not you should hire a personal triathlon coach.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Strengthen Your Core: Video

Looking for a new way to improve your running, swimming, and biking? Try strengthening your core. You can find some great ideas in this video! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4aNq5v695T0

Friday, September 6, 2013

Cycling Technique Video: Cornering

There's some good reminders in this video on bike technique. Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DehM8Ou-mTA  Practicing these types of skills will make you a safer and faster rider. It might even give you the edge you need over your competition.

Jon Fecik
USAT Certified Coach