Kevin Kirk and I met a bunch of years ago in a coffee shop in The Woodlands, Texas. We’d bump into each other occasionally in the morning before I was headed off to work and he was finishing his first practice of the day. I found out that he was a golf coach and interested in triathlon. I told him that I was a swim coach and would be starting a triathlon focused swim program on Saturday mornings. He was all in.
Over the next couple years, we continued our coaching conversations over coffee in the mornings. As I got more and more involved with triathletes and started to make note of various issues I saw in the triathlon community around training and racing, he helped me get a better understanding of what was happening. I know it seems unusual that a golf coach could understand or help a swim coach working with triathletes, but it was exactly the type of different point of view that was needed. One of the big break throughs that he helped me with was around the fatigue I was seeing in triathletes. I was continually seeing a range of issues with triathletes and a real difficulty with some in helping them get faster in the water. At the end of the warm up set I usually give a descend set. It typically is either 8×50 descend 1-4; 5-8 or 4×100 descend 1-4. As a swim coach, you want to see the athlete control the pacing through the set very precisely. The great part about swimming is that it’s easy to measure very precisely with an old fashioned pace clock. I was seeing a lot of athletes that couldn’t control pace and the pacing would vary wildly from workout to workout. For example, a typical, normal descend set would look like this for 100s: 1:30, 1:27, 1:25, 1:22 and the athlete would report feeling a perceived level of exertion of between 75-90%+. For a fatigued triathlete, I was seeing results like this for 100s: 1:30, 1:33, 1:29, 1:31. Or differences in pace by 5 seconds or more from one day to another. In the swimming world, those results are never seen. I was seeing this in a significant portion of the triathlete community. I knew it was fatigue related generated mostly from too much biking and running, but I was having a tough time convincing the coaches or the triathletes that they were over-training.
When I mentioned this to him one time, it struck a cord. He was seeing a lot of his pro golfers that were going out on tour for multiple weeks in a row that were coming back completely exhausted and performing poorly at the end of their multi-week tournaments. He investigated what was happening. He started monitoring HRV (heart rate variability) and began to document the fatigue that his athletes were experiencing. Golf like swimming allows a coach to program a large amount of training compared to other higher impact sports. I was of a similar opinion from my time in swimming. We both felt that not only were coaches programming in too much training, but that this over-training was not helping athletes achieve their full potential. This was one of the first of three important ideas that I would figure out exchanging ideas with Kevin.
Initially, when I started to coach triathletes I knew that I would need to find a more efficient way to train than a traditional swim coach approach of simply throwing volume at the athlete. I knew from speaking with Kevin and how similar the language we used to describe the swim stroke and the golf stroke that driving mechanics would be most important. Dave Salo had been writing about race pace training since the early 1980s and then Brent Russell introduced ultra short race pace training (USRPT) in the late 2000s. I looked at all of these approaches, incorporated the good pieces, developed ideas from my own experience and came up with a program that I think works best for triathletes.
I knew that I was going to have to worry less about training the “metabolics” and focus on more on driving efficiency into the stroke, but doing it at race pace. I’m still mindful of the “metabolics” but it is not the primary driver of the program. When I started looking at training more efficiently I had no idea how much all of what we were discussing would line up with where some of the emerging science is pointing. The work that Samuele Marcora is doing on what he calls the psychobiology model is impactful on training design. He argues that in endurance sports, the brain gives out before the body. It’s a way for the brain to protect itself. A lot of fatigue then comes from perception of effort. If you are training the mechanics at higher and higher velocities and all of the adaptations are driven towards improved mechanics and less perceived effort then you will be able to go longer at a faster pace.
And as it turns out the training designs to drive the mechanics (kinetic chain) most efficiently also happen to create the least amount of fatigue while giving the athlete the greatest training adaptation. When you couple that with the work that the folks at Focus Band have done around the best way to achieve a “quiet mind” and “quiet eye” through mindful mediation, which again is a very efficient way to drive improvements in mechanics and building “neuromuscular circuits.” Couple with that is mindful meditation happens to be a great way to “dump” fatigue as indicated by HRV monitoring. If you want to read more about the idea of building skill sets and how it impacts endurance sports check out the Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. It opens up a whole new avenue and way of looking at coaching endurance athletes. Endurance coaches should not solely focus on training aerobic/anerobic capacity. Coaches should be primarily focused on training the brain and building efficient “kinetic chains.” The “metabolics” will come along with that training.
I have been fortunate to count Kevin as friend and colleague and we plan on expanding our collaboration in the coming months. We both believed a lot can be gained when smart, hard working, experienced coaches from a wide range of disciplines get together to exchange ideas.
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