Monday, February 1, 2016

The Little Things - Improving Your Small Weaknesses

by Dave Latourette

Last month I discussed looking at a relatively long term planning picture at this time of year to give yourself some focus and direction with your training. While many athletes still need to focus on improving those bigger picture items first, there comes a time when smaller ones can make a difference.

A good example of this is current 2012 Hawaii Ironman Runner up Caroline Steffen. When discussing 2013 it’s clear that she is confident enough in her big picture scenario and knows what small improvements it will take to win in Kona. She says she’s now focused on:

  • Finding 90 seconds in the swim to come out with this year’s winner (that’s a little more than 2 seconds per hundred… and maybe some strategy)
  • Being stronger the last 40k of the bike
  • Improving the last 10k of her run
  • Improving nutrition strategy and tolerance to racing in the heat

Sounds like a lot of items but at the top level it’s only 1%… and the result would be a world championship (in fact, looking at this past year, 1% better would have had her win by 4 minutes!).

Now, I’m not Caroline Steffen, but this past year I wanted to solve a problem that had plagued me since I got back to doing some long distance racing in 2010. I was finding that no matter where I started at the beginning of a swim (specifically mass start Ironman races) I was getting the crap beat out of me and eventually ending up in and around groups of swimmers that weren’t to my liking.

Here’s how every race would go down for me:

  • Chaos at the start including an MMA style beating
  • Being at the mercy of where that group decides to swim
  • Eventually trying to find my way out of that group because the paced dropped off dramatically at some point
  • Once I remove myself from that group, somewhere between 1500 and 1900 meters into the swim, I seemed to be in a void and could look up and see the large pack that I’d wish was towing me along. That pack usually ended up at least a couple minutes ahead of me into T1, which then meant a mosh pit for changing tent for me.

The result was only a small amount of time lost but, for me, I would prefer a less stressful situation and a faster swim with the same amount of energy expended. I was now in a situation of figuring out if this is the way it’s always going to be (just get some MMA lessons and deal with it) or try a new training/swim start strategy to attempt solving the situation.

In my thought process I figured the way to solve it was applying some of my short course strategies by getting out stronger at the start in hopes of clearer water, cohabitating a better swim group and finding a less stressful situation at T1. My plan was to simply build some different swim sessions prior to and into the build-up period that supported my stronger start theory. These sessions would help both physically and physiologically.

Here are just a couple samples of the main sets that I used. There really is no magic to these sessions; they are just specific to the demands of the proposed strategy, but they work.

#1 This is good early in the season or preceding the race prep period
3 sets continuous as:

  • 8x25 as 12.5 fast / 12.5 relaxed with 10-15sec rest
  • 4x50 as 25 fast / 25 relaxed with 15sec rest
  • 2x100 cruise (buoy or with paddles) with 20sec rest

#2 This one is best in the race prep period used every 7-10 days

  • 250 Easy to open
  • 6x500 as follows with no more than 15-20sec rest:
    • 400 fast / 100 cruise
    • 300 fast / 200 cruise
    • 250 fast / 250 cruise
    • 200 fast / 300 cruise
    • 100 fast / 400 cruise
    • 500 at core race effort with buoy

The proof was going to be in the pudding (or the water) on race day. If it worked sweet, if not then I’m off to MMA school!

On race day at Ironman Coeur D’Alene, I started on the front line and put the strategy into play. For about 200 meters it was still pretty messy but almost like the seas had parted I found space for a while before it got a little crowded at the first turn as expected. After a lot of clean swimming my only thought was, “Oh crap, I missed that group again… but at least it was less chaotic.” Getting out of the swim I looked at my watch and thought, “Yeah, that was slow.” Then I started to quickly process the facts: very cold water, very choppy conditions, the sight of a couple guys that swim relatively well, and finally a changing tent that gave me my choice of seats. In the end the time didn’t show it, but placing and proximity of particular athletes showed that the strategy worked. While it might not be the best start strategy for a lot of people it does work for some.

Now that I have one of the small things sorted out, back to working on finding 5% total improvement!

Dave Latourette is a full time triathlon coach living in Santa Rosa, California, who works with athletes from newcomer to elite. His top athletes have won USAT Age Group National Championships and raced in World Championship events that include the ITU World Championship and the Ironman World Championship. You can learn more about Dave and follow him at:, his blog, or on twitter @dklatourette
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