This weekend, Jen Harrison and I are hosting an all women's camp north of Chicago. When we asked athletes what they wanted to learn, their responses centered on three things: how to improve form, how to develop stronger fitness and how to overcome fears. Before we set out for the weekend, I thought I would share some ideas on the importance of understanding how form, fitness or fear limit your performance - and how to work on them.
In sport, form leads to efficiency and efficiency precedes speed. If you want to go fast, you have to have good form. To some extent, most of us are limited by form. No athlete ever reaches a point where they master technique. Many athletes overlook the importance of form, finding drill-work boring or slow to show progress. Understand that performance improvement is often boring. If it was exciting or easy, we’d all be top athletes! Progress takes time and ingraining new habits can take at least 3 weeks of consistency. Not only that, but expect a period of decreased performance as you make the change. Trust, though, that the change will help deliver you to that next level of efficiency which in turn leads to more speed.
Being the most technical of all three sports, improvement in swimming requires a year-round commitment to working on your form. Drills, drills, drills. Often athletes wonder why they go the same speed when they are going easy or fast. As you increase your effort, the errors or inefficiencies in your stroke start to increase exponentially which costs you more in energy and slows you down. When you relax and focus on your form, you have time to correct those errors before they add up. To improve in swimming, look for improved efficiency from drills (which will have a ripple effect on your bike and run) rather than hammering out the yards.
How do you then work on form? Choose a reputable coach or instructor who will tape you, get in the water and work with you. It may help to meet with a coach every 4 weeks for a check-up. From there, a quick revisit with a masters coach or even a friend with a good eye can help you determine if you are progressing.
Developing the strength required to sustain good swim form is also useful. Think of the fundamentals of good swimming; powerful rotation (core), swimming over & catching the water (lats, triceps), supple kick (glutes/lower core). A simple strength program that addresses these areas should be included year-round.
Keep in mind that open water swimming has a set of its own skills and form. You can easily practice open water swim skills in a pool year-round. Turning at the end of the lane like going around a buoy, treading water starts, sighting are all skills you can practice in a pool. However, nothing replaces actual open water swimming. If you find your pool swim speed does not transfer to open water swimming, aim to practice in open water at least once a week. Ask a coach or friend to watch you swim in your wetsuit and to observe where form breaks down.
It doesn’t seem like there is much to biking other than clipping in and spinning those pedals. Like any sport, there is an art and science to it that can help you progress. Form on the bike relates to how you ride the bike and the bike itself. Practicing handling skills, proper gearing, learning to shift, a bike fit/position suitable for your body (and your goals), functional/clean equipment – these are all things that can limit your bike form and influence your speed.
Start with a professional bike fit and be sure your equipment matches your ability level, goals and race terrain. Gearing is most important as the wrong gearing on a hilly course can be a deal breaker. Remember too that your body is just as important for form. It doesn’t matter how much you practice climbing hills – if you are carrying extra weight it will impact your performance, increase inefficiency and cost you energy.
Beyond that, your cadence is the most crucial factor for cycling efficiency. Favoring big gears at a lower cadence might initially get you more power or speed but getting off the bike to run won’t be pretty. Remember, lower gears require you to apply more force with each pedal stroke. More force is more power and power is energy. Generally a cadence over 80 rpms will help you have a better run off the bike (but there are factors beyond this too). It takes quite a bit of practice to teach your body to adapt to a higher cadence. Keeping easy rides over 90 rpms or including short bursts at 100 rpms will help achieve this adaptation. At first your heart rate may go up with a higher cadence – but it should become easier over time.
Running seems like the most intuitive of all three sports; one foot in front of the other! Actually, it is one foot falling close to your body, pushing off strong with the least contact time on the ground that makes a fast runner. Run form is run economy and run economy comes before speed. When I see an athlete who can run fast for a short distance (ie., 400 – 1600m) but then significantly slows beyond that the problem is usually run economy. In this case, no amount of speedwork or high intensity training will get this athlete faster. Their form does not permit. Time is better spent working on drills, plyometrics (word of caution: this is not for larger or injury-prone athletes) and strength involved in the run stride (hip flexors, glutes, core). Keep in mind that drills will increase your heart rate and feel difficult at first. In time, they will integrate into your form and feel more natural.
Adult-onset runners often make the fundamental error of running like they walk. Walking is a heel to toe activity and translates to running as overstriding and heel striking. This is a very inefficient and slow way to run; essentially your body needs to decelerate with every step as your foot falls in front of the body and then must wait for you to bring your entire body over that point before pushing forward again. Knee or ITB problems may result. Instead, think of running as a midfoot activity with a strong push off. Like cycling, running also has an optimal cadence over 175 to 200 steps per minute. Cadence higher than that is typically a sign of low knee drive or injury protection. Another common error is too much bounce or vertical movement. Running is a movement that requires forward propulsion – moving your body forward in space and not up/down. One last error is too much float time (which also comes along with bouncing). This causes a tremendous impact when each foot lands which can lead to bone or knee injury.
You can also improve run form with the nature of your run training itself. Often I hear athletes express interest in training for a marathon to improve their running. In my experience, this causes the opposite reaction of what you are seeking. Marathon training teaches you to lock in that steady state pace. To keep your heart rate low enough to sustain the marathon at an aerobic pace, you need to go relatively slow. Long slow running leads to long slow runners. This is why athletes who complete marathons or Ironmans year after year tend to have a hard time shaking themselves from “monotone” running which lacks snap or speed. A running program with a variety of shorter distances races, fartlek training and hill work will provide you with the speed, power and intensity it takes to produce faster running. Skip that winter marathon and take on some autumn 5ks or 10ks instead.
Remember too that your body is just as important for form. If you are carrying extra weight it will impact your performance especially since running is an impact sport. With each step, your body absorbs 3.5 times your body weight. Do the math and you will see how losing one pound can lead to a one percent decrease in run times.
Fitness is efficiency. A fit athlete is one that can perform increasing demands with efficiency. In time you want to be able to go faster with less effort, expending less energy. Form is one way to achieve this. The other way is by developing your fitness.
In triathlon, we are mostly concerned with aerobic fitness or efficiency. It is so easy to develop yet so many go about it too hard and get it wrong. Many athletes either self-coach, participate in too much intense training or train inconsistently. In any case, while these athletes can do the work – they may not do it with efficiency.
How do you know if fitness is your weakness? Are you stuck at the same pace? Have you reached a plateau? Do you produce the same stale – if not worse – results with increased time in the sport? If so, you may benefit from working on your fitness. Athletes that often train at the same stale pace never go easy enough or hard enough to make any fitness changes.
The easiest way to gain fitness? Especially at the start of a training program or the early part of the season, it is using a heart rate monitor. Testing heart rate with a reliable protocol, generating suitable heart rate zones (and then retesting in a timely manner) is a good way to improve an athlete’s fitness. Essentially you need to teach their heart to behave. In other words, take that same amount of work and do it with less effort. That is efficiency. This means going easy enough on easy days which will then allow you to push harder on hard days. Often you do not need a HRM to get an athlete to run hard – you need one to get the athlete to go easy enough so they can actually go hard enough on their hard day to make a difference (or else they are too fatigued to go hard and all work defers to a moderate pace and causes them to stagnate).
An organized training plan that includes quality work, sufficient rest and a timely approach will help the athlete make gains in fitness. Most athletes know the right work to do – it’s a matter of getting them to do the right work at the right time. Timing is everything in creating fitness. Fitness also requires the right balance of work and recovery. Remember, it is in recovery that you actually make fitness gains. Too much intensity, too little rest and you will again cause the opposite reaction to what you are seeking and possible overtraining (which then leads to a period of required rest, deconditioning & fitness loss).
Fear is the what if, the unknown, the little voice in our head that says you can’t. Maybe it’s an open water fear, maybe it’s a fear of blowing up, maybe it’s a fear of descending that big hill. In any case, being honest with yourself (and your coach) about your fears is the only way to face them and create an action plan to work around them.
Fear can often be fixed through experience. The more you practice as you plan to race – in the setting you plan to race – the more you mind is able to create a reliable map of this is where I’m going and this is how to deal. Facing your fears with a friend or coach is a good way to work through them. You can also prepare yourself by writing out a plan of action, creating a mantra or using visualization. Visualizing yourself successfully getting into the water, while chanting “relax” with each stroke is one way to work through your fear of open water even when not swimming.
Fear can also come from the meanings we attach to different numbers and experiences. Every so often it is helpful to train “naked” without numbers or technology. If you know a 7-minute mile is your hard pace, you might become fearful when you see it on the GPS. You may think to yourself – I’m this close to explode! Maybe you’re just breaking through to that next level. Give yourself permission to get there! From time to time, take that GPS off or cover it up with tape until you get back home. Do a workout where you just focus on the work without evaluating the numbers. If the workout calls for running hard, leave the GPS at home so you can connect to what “hard” feels and sounds like.
Fear also faces us in the form of “what if I blow up.” Honestly ask yourself, then answer. What would be the worst that happens? You have to walk home? You end a workout early? The brain is a complex and smart organ that will – in most cases – prevent you from hurting yourself. If you are doing something that will harm you, it will stop you or shut down. Blow ups are valuable lessons where you learn your limits. It’s not a place you want to go often but when you get there, take the time to reflect on the how and why rather than beating yourself up because you feel like you've failed.
This weekend, our goal is to help our participants improve form, get a meaningful boost in their fitness and overcome fears. 13 women, 3 days, 9 workouts. By the end we hope they'll have a better understanding of what limits their performance; form, fitness or fear, and how to work on it.
You might not be at camp but you can ask yourself today - what limits you the most? Is it form, fitness, fear? Then, commit to working on it!