Is This Aero?

A good friend of mine (let’s call him Tony, seeing that’s his name) has recently completed his first sprint distance triathlon.

A few weeks on and he’s ready to buy his first triathlon bike, so he turned to twitter for two sources of advice on his impending purchase,  by asking me, and arguably the best triathlete in the world which bike would you recommend, without needing to re-mortgage?”.  

He has a response from both of us but rather embarrassingly, I was slower to respond!

Obviously, there are a number of considerations when selecting a triathlon bike. The first consideration perhaps, is what do you have already?

Tony borrowed a bike to race on, as he doesn’t yet own a bike at all. Utility then, for both training and racing, has to be a consideration.

I confessed to Tony in my initial twitter reply, that I’m a Trek man. So it’s too easy to just say “buy a Speed Concept.” Even though I love mine, I can’t hand on heart recommend it to someone who learned their bike handling skills by cycling on sidewalks on a Raleigh Grifter in the 1980s. Of course for the majority of triathlons (there are no expectations of draft-legal ITU races for Tony) a TT bike is certainly the weapon of choice.

What else is there to consider?

Handling? It’s a road bike all day long, unless you’re racing long distances on long straight roads, the TT won’t handle as well for the relative novice.

Race distance? I know Tony. He won’t be content with a sprint or standard distance and before long he’ll be considering a 70.3 or despite his initial denial, an Ironman. Let’s face it, taking up triathlon, as a middle-aged man is a sure sign of a sickness that just won’t leave you alone until you hear the words “You, are an Ironman”. If you have a good bike fit, riding a TT bike can be equally comfortable to a road bike but generally speaking, for overall long distance comfort in training, the road bike geometry generally has the edge. I’m going to call that aspect a score draw.

Terrain – Tony is currently living in the Middle East. Its pancake flat for the most part. Yet more evidence to support the case for a TT bike? Tony does however intend some day to return to UK, where in most parts of the country (East Anglia and Lincolnshire excluded) you can rarely get more than a mile in before meeting some degree of undulation. For climbing a road bike usually wins.

Speed – TT bikes are faster right? Yes, generally they are faster due to the aerodynamics of the frame and more particularly, the rider. All pro and top age group triathletes use a TT bike for all but the hilliest of courses. That said, some road bikes now come with aero frames that perform quite similarly to TT bikes.

Price – Both TT bikes and road bikes can come in at the price of a small family car, so distinguishing them on price isn’t really a fair comparison but certainly at an entry-level, road bikes tend to be a little cheaper and when you consider the relative versatility of a road bike, I’d have to say that the road bike offers slightly better value for money over its task-specific cousin.

Overall, we concluded that set up correctly, the best choice for Tony would be an aero-framed road bike, with clip-on TT bars.

Those of you that read my blog regularly might remember that I don’t do anything bike related without first consulting the bike guru, Mike from Bike Fit .  Mike also owns one of the best bike shops in the country, stocking Trek, Bianchi, Boardman and Look to mention but a few and here’s what he said:

Aero road bikes is definitely where it is at. We do 3 bike runs that solidly fit into this category and one semi-aero that would certainly do the job“:

Trek Madone 9 series £4.5 – £8.5K


Boardman Air £2-£8.5K


Look 795 Light or 795 Aerolight £5K upward


Bianchi Oltre £3-£8k


For readers on the other side of the pond, please don’t call the cops, we in UK are used to paying outrageously over the odds for anything we buy. Bikes are no exception!

It’s difficult to deny the appeal of any of Mike’s suggestions other than the question of affordability.

However, my drawn-out thought process and deferment to Mike’s wisdom, is only one side of the coin. Let’s remember that the first to respond and without a whole lot of fuss, was the world’s best triathlete, who suggested:

Go to a local bike shop. Don’t be afraid to spend less on a bike and more on fit. I suggest Specialized Venge with bars. Easy to ride

Specialized Venge (Ultegra) £3k


Given the all round good sense of less on the bike, more on the fit and having access to Mike at Bike Fit it seems that just like going shoe shopping, we’re going to end up buying the one we saw first, before we went all around the mall trying on every other pair!

As for who’s the best triathlete in the world? that’s perhaps a matter of opinion but what isn’t a matter of debate, is that the person I believe to be the best, gives excellent advice.

I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from Tony when he saddles up and rides the Venge!


GI Tri Coach

Weekly session plan 29 March 2016

Session Introduction

This week we refresh technical skills ahead of the open water season (in the Northern hemisphere)


150m (6 lengths of the pool) building gradually from very easy to steady

Technical set

100m (4 lengths of the pool) kick, with or without board.

100m sculling up, swim back

100m long doggy paddle up, swim back

100m 1-finger drill going up, swim back

100m head-up freestyle (lifesaver) going up, swim back

100m skating drill to halfway, swim to wall

100m stroke count – try to reduce strokes per length throughout the reps.

Main set:

200-800m (8 – 32 lengths of the pool) swim with focus on those aspects of the drills that you found most challenging or most transformational (swimmer’s choice)

Warm down:

200m Easy, down to very easy

Total distance (average) 1650m

Coaching Points:

Observe lane etiquette – if using a lane session, move to a slower lane for the technical set

Kick – compact, rhythmic, from the hip, knees and feet turned in, toes pointed.

Front end drills – keep weight on fingertips, reach to depth and width of your freestyle stroke

Alignment and balance drills – maintain core and glute engagement

Bend me, stretch me, any way you want me

When I started this blog, I threatened to be controversial and those that have read my entries since then may be left wondering where all the controversy is. Well, wait no more, here it is.

My Ironman training buddy is injured. In fact he’s been injured for a while. He can cycle and swim but his running is out of action. He has a hip issue. Having not seen him for several weeks, I’m not exactly sure what the nature of the problem is, other than its muscular.

When he first told me he wasn’t running, I shared with him a piece of advice (which as far as I can tell) he’s wholly ignored. That is convenient for my argument here because what he has been doing, certainly isn’t working but as those of you with any research experience will be quick to point out, it certainly doesn’t prove my recommendation would have been any more successful. So what’s he been doing? He’s been stretching the injured muscle.

Let’s face it, we’re told by almost every source of sporting advice to stretch, pretty much at every opportunity. Thankfully pre-exercise static stretches have finally fallen out of favor but you’ll still see the odd runner with their heel hooked over a handrail before a race. They’re normally looking around wondering why no one else is taking advantage of the street furniture. There are still lots of people that like to do some stretches after their run or cycle session to elongate the main muscles that they’ve just been working. It sounds like a good idea, to make the muscle the same length as it was before you exercised it.

Here’s the controversy I have been promising. Generally speaking, don’t do it! There, I said it. At this point, it’s ok to express your reaction verbally; the people around you will understand why you voiced a stream of expletives and utterings of doubt or disbelief.

So back to the point of stretching, my training buddy and what happens when you train regularly:

As a starting point lets think about muscle injury. I’d ask that you take a step back from the specifics of running or cycling injury and think about any material that is stressed, stretched, cracked, or torn. Would you hope to improve the condition of it by taking hold of either end and applying tension? Ok, muscle fiber isn’t an inanimate material, it changes shape can repair itself and can increase in size and mass by repeated use. I’d maintain though, that the local area of the injury can easily be understood to be either weak or inflamed and therefore painful, while it’s under repair. If you’re injured, rather than hyper extending the muscle by static stretching, I’d suggest letting the muscle stay within its normal range of movement until you can use it under a normal training load, without pain (or any other restrictive sensation).

So what about regular training? When you go out and push yourself with high intensity exercise or a big endurance session, you feel it later that day, or over the next couple of days by Delayed Onset Muscle Stiffness (DOMS). Most of us have experienced that. How many of us stretch out those muscles in order to avoid that stiffness? I’d argue that promoting early recovery from that big session by stretching (or massage) mitigates the training benefit, reduces adaptation and slows the training gains that could be made by using periodized progressive training. Stretching is holding you back!

If your muscles (often calves or hamstrings) shorten to the extent that they’re really painful, a light stretch may help and could provide immediate relief. That relief potentially comes at the expense of reduced adaptation however.

So, if you’re injured, don’t stretch, if you’ve done a big session don’t stretch (use a light active recovery session instead). In the past, I was particularly injury prone. If you’re prone to lower limb injury, try dropping the static stretches for a while and see how you feel. I hope you’ll find that the areas prone to injury will fully adapt to your training load, strengthen the tissue locally and enable you to be less prone to injury that you once were and maybe even see performance gains more quickly than you’re used to.

My personal experience of a no-stretch strategy was particularly successful. It may, or may not work for you. If you do give it a try, I’d love to hear the outcome.

If you’re still shaking your head, please leave a comment; I like to remain open to alternative thinking, both new and old.


GI Tri Coach

Weekly Session Plan 21 March 16

Session Introduction

This week we utilize your critical swim speed (CSS) from last week’s swim test session improve your aerobic capacity.  If you haven’t yet established your CSS pace, don’t worry, the coaching notes at the foot of the session plan help you set your pace.


150m (6 lengths of the pool) building gradually from very easy to threshold

2 x 50m fast, with 10 seconds rest

Main set:

6 – 10 X 200m (8 lengths of the pool) with 15 seconds rest between each rep at CSS pace

Warm down:

200m – 400m Easy, down to very easy

Total distance (average) 2100m

Coaching Points:

Observe lane etiquette

CSS pace feels fairly easy at first. Try to not better CSS, particularly in early reps.

If you don’t yet have a CSS pace, swim at an RPE equivalent to your best 1500m pace.

Observe rest periods – don’t allow your HR to drop too far!

In the Pink

The second day of last weekend’s L3 tri-coaching course was with Adam Young, co-owner of SwimSmooth.

SwimSmooth is a coaching system, app, blog, store, all round resource and authority on swimming, particularly for open water and triathlon, though most of their technique work is designed for execution in the pool. They are the official swim coaching partner of the British Triathlon Federation and have their headquarters in Perth, Western Australia.

Earlier in the week, I shared the Critical Swim Speed (CSS) test session. The CSS test itself predicts your swim threshold pace (see my earlier blog Crossing the threshold for an understanding of threshold), using timed 400m and 200m swims. The first 100m of the 400m swim is also taken as a pace marker, which is very useful to observe how average pace sometimes drops away (bad) or is sustained over the entire swim (good).

I met Adam a few years ago, on their first ever SwimSmooth coach education course. At that time, Adam measured my swim pace per 100m in a pool. I had the most consistent pace of any swimmer there and frankly, have never hesitated to  drop that into conversations with swimmers ever since. That is, until last weekend when I was re-tested.

Going into the test I knew two things. Firstly, I can’t hit the swim times I could five years ago and secondly something had gone ‘wrong’ with my technique (confirmed by some pre-test video analysis). Setting aside the technique flaws, let’s look at the test results:

The 400m time trial:

First 100m 1:28

Total 400m 6:33

Average pace / 100m 1:38

Average pace / 100m for last 300m 1:41.7

Pace drop off 13.7 seconds

Time behind ‘virtual’ self (based on first 100m pace) 41.7 seconds

SwimSmooth feedback status ‘Pacing needs some SERIOUS attention’

200m time trial:

Swim time 3:12

CSS Pace / 100m 1:40.5

So what does all that mean? Well, it’s not the end of the world. The overall time for 400m is ‘ok.’ Let’s face it there are probably more swimmers slower than that time, than there are faster than it.

On a personal note however, it’s generally ‘not good’. Its about thirty seconds per 100m slower than the ‘old’ me.  I set out in a fairly determined competitive mood, pulling strongly with a reasonable stroke rate (I was swimming second place in the wave). However, my lack of swim fitness started to tell in the third hundred and I could see other swimmers closing the gap. By the final hundred, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Anecdotally, the poolside observers could see me slowing down (and the numbers support that observation). My virtual self would have lapped my actual self by the end of the 400m time trial!

On the upside, my current technique does allow me to swim at sub 1:30/100m. I’ve spent 6 of the last 9 months out of training due to serious injury, so of course my fitness isn’t what it once was.

Adam has helped me out by suggesting some stroke corrections (that we may look at another time) as well as some pacing and endurance work to help me regain swim fitness.

For athletes training for Ironman, SwimSmooth recommend their ‘Red Mist’ set once per week. That is 10 reps of 400m that get progressively faster throughout the session.

For my current level of fitness and anyone who hasn’t yet done much work combining volume and intensity, they have the slightly diluted ‘Pink Mist’ session, based around 10 reps of 300m, again getting progressively faster through the session. I’ll be using Pink Mist in my own training plan over the next few weeks, so we’ll see how effective it is in returning an old dog to former fitness. Whether I get my fitness back or not, one thing is for certain, those SwimSmooth boys certainly know how to name a swim set!


GI Tri Coach



Crossing the threshold

This weekend was weekend 3 of my BTF Level 3 triathlon coach course. Its the UK governing body’s qualification for coaching athletes 1-1. As a certified Ironman coach, I already coach individuals 1-1 but I thought I’d share some of the practices covered this weekend that will be featuring front and center for GI Tri athlete development in future.

The weekend covered aspects of athlete testing in cycling to help make training more effective by training just under, at, or above threshold.

What is threshold? It’s a term often used and almost as often misunderstood.

In simple terms, threshold is the effort that the athlete can sustain for 1 hour. However, because the test itself is so demanding, we often use a representative test then manipulate the data in order to approximate the actual threshold effort.

It’s important then to remember from both the athlete and coach’s perspective, its an approximation and not an exact number, so when planning or performing training sessions, hitting a percentage of threshold is also just an estimate of what we expect will create  a positive effect on performance.

At GI Tri, we’ll be using an estimate of Functional Threshold Power (FTP) for athletes based on a 20 minute cycling test.

Measuring power in cycling

Power can be measured in a number of ways and with various gadgetries. Some of the most common cycling power measurement systems include pedals, cranks, chain rings, bottom brackets, rear wheel hubs and indoor trainers and static bikes. There are pros and cons to each that cover issues like price, portability (between your bikes), accuracy of measurement, or transferability between indoor sessions and racing out on the road.

I personally use a Quarq system built into the bottom bracket of my time trial bike but that’s no more a recommendation than it’s what Mike (the bike guru from told me to buy, based on the factors that were most important to me. To see a comprehensive comparison of power meters currently available see:

Power meters review

Why train with power?

The great thing about measuring power is that the response is immediate and reasonably accurate. Using alternative metrics, like Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) or heart rate can be inaccurate or subjective (RPE) or take some time to either respond, or stop responding to effort (in the case of HR). Where the athlete is following prescribed intervals of effort and recover periods, the training load of the session can be accurately estimated using the durations, power data and the athlete’s physiology. Power gives the athlete and the coach greater control over the durations and intensity of the training sessions, making progression and training gains more predictable.

The T20 test to estimate FTP

Once you have access to a power meter (and for reference, a heart-rate monitor), to test yourself, or your athlete is fairly straight forward.

Thoroughly warm up by cycling at progressively higher intensity for about 20 minutes, adding in two to three bursts of 30 seconds of very high intensity cycling.

Begin the test by capturing power data as well as heart rate data. The average power over the 20-minute test period will be the input data for estimating FTP. Capture heart rate data at each 1-minute interval.

It’s a good idea to have some assistance to do this test if you’re an athlete performing the test on yourself. As an indication, working at threshold means you may be able to give single-word responses but more complex statements, or having the presence of mind to capture heart rate data each minute, would probably indicate you’re working below threshold. Having someone to look at your heart rate monitor and capture live data means that all you need to do is focus on pedaling as hard as you can for the full duration of the test. Some indication of the athlete’s actual maximum heart rate is a useful marker, as hitting maximum heart rate too early in the test is a strong indicator that the athlete will tail off toward the end of the test.

Take a mean average of the heart rates taken each minute throughout the test. This ensures you know the test heart rate, rather than data captured electronically, that may include parts of the warm-up, or cool down.

Use 93% of the average power output for the 20-minute test, in order to estimate the athlete’s functional threshold power. The 7% decrement approximates the loss of power that might be experienced if the athlete were to have performed the test for a whole hour.

Training Zones

Training zones (Andrew Coggan) applicable to each training session can be calculated from the FTP using the following:


Minimum % of FTP

Maximum % of FTP

1 (Active recovery)


2 (Endurance)



3 (Tempo)



4 (Threshold)



5 (VO2 Max)



6 (Anaerobic power)


Using threshold efforts in training, preferably utilizing the control of an indoor trainer is an extremely effective way of improving an athlete’s fitness and periodic re-testing allows the athlete and their coach to see the athlete’s progress using objective data.

Evidence suggests that training in zones 3 and 4 increases the athlete’s ability to work at that level of effort for longer durations as the athlete adapts to training. Threshold training also benefits the athlete by facilitating greater economy in zones 2 and 3 for middle and long distance events.

Do you train to power? Leave a comment and share your experience.


GI Tri Coach

Weekly Swim Set 14 March 2016

Race season isn’t too far away and now is the time to really start to focus on key quality sessions in the pool. You may already be familiar with critical swim speed (CSS) but if not, follow the link to find out more:

CSS training with Swim Smooth

This week looks at establishing your critical swim speed (CSS) for improving performance


200m (8 lengths of the pool) building gradually from very easy to threshold
3 x 50m fast, with 10 seconds rest

Main set:
400m timed (16 lengths of the pool) (5 minutes rest / active recovery)
200m timed (8 lengths of the pool)

Warm down:
400m – 800m Easy, down to very easy, work on development aspects of your stoke during a longer cool down

Total distance 1750m

Coaching Points:

Observe lane etiquette – ideally in a dedicated lane, or agree to share left side / right side with another swimmer.

Pace the 400m evenly. Its easy to go out too hard and fade toward the end.

Observe rest periods – recover after the 400m test but don’t cool down too much, ahead of your 200m test.

Ideally share a lane with someone of a similar pace, in order to draw out the best times in friendly competition.

How I learned to swim

Right up front, I can tell you that the title of this blog is a misdirection.  This isn’t the story of how the GI Tri Coach learned to swim… after all, it was all in black and white back then….No, these are the recollections of 2014, from an athlete about to do her first Ironman in the Summer of 2016:

My initiation into swimming of any kind was inspired by a group of open water swimmers in the local lake that I cycled past, one Saturday morning, while hungover.

After a few words of encouragement from the session leader, I agreed to join them the following week. I turned up on my bike, already wearing a borrowed wetsuit. It hadn’t occurred to me that I didn’t really know how to swim. I flailed around for about 100 meters proving the point that breathing out also requires the capacity to breathe in.

I eventually got round one lap of the lake’s swim course, which involved frequent stops where I was reminded by the my kayak paddling escort, of the importance and function of breathing. I hadn’t realised that I’d need a change of clothes for after the swim and so cycled home still wearing the wetsuit. It wasn’t until the following week I found out I was swimming with a triathlon club. I filled out the form and joined the club and inevitably my entry into my first ever triathlon followed. I didn’t choose a super sprint like anyone else but chose to enter the national middle distance championships to be held in early summer that year.

Looking back, I sometimes wonder how I got round the 1.9km swim course but get round, I did. The finer skills, like swimming in a straight line, escaped me. It was evident that I really needed some coaching, especially as destiny and the inevitable consequence of hanging around with triathletes in the name of a social life, meant I’d entered my first Ironman.

I had all the standard faults of a novice swimmer like over rotation, sinking legs, a head that searched for air, like a baby bird looking for a worm and a scissor kick with a mind of its own. I also had a catalogue of other peculiar traits yet to be recognised in the swim coaching canon.

In the pool my coach watched me move up and down, without my feet touching the bottom (I considered this to be swimming) instilling drills and occasionally fighting the urge to shake his head in apparent disbelief. It wouldn’t be immediately obvious to me what his strange arm movements were from the end of the pool. I would return thinking that I had fully executed the required drill in a flawless manner only to be greeted by a coach whose facial expression seemed to ask ‘WTF are you doing?’ I would learn the strange arm gestures were a replication of my swim technique and then repetition of the required action for my hands, arms, head or body.

Both my coach and I have persevered and eventually there came the moments of clarity when something just felt right; the arm pull, the hand catch, the engaged glutes. I started by noticing that I’d got something right and then as I progressed, could sense when something was wrong. I was assured that this in itself was “good.”

More recently I have been arriving at the end of the pool, to where my coach is standing, though now he’s stopped the macabre twitching and gesticulating. His facial expression is more relaxed and he looks less like he’s going to cry. That’s a reward in its own right. Now I’m reinforcing what I have learnt and reflecting on having got this far and whether I’ll be the only Ironman athlete on the start line about to execute 3.8Km of the finger trail drill!

Do you have any learning to swim stories you’d like to share? Comments welcome.


GI Tri Coach

Weekly swim set 7 March 2016

This week roles back around to refresh body alignment and balance, after a couple of weeks looking at improving catch:

200m (8 lengths of the pool) building gradually from very easy to threshold

Technical Set:
100m as skating drill L/R to halfway swim to wall
100m as ¾ catch-up
100m as finger trail going out, swim back
100m as stroke count (try to use fewer strokes)

Main set:
400m timed (16 lengths of the pool) (60 S)
800m timed (32 lengths of the pool) (60S)
400m timed (16 lengths of the pool) (60S)
(reduce the 800m to 400m for less experienced swimmers, or switch to 2 x 400m either end for a longer session)

Warm down:
200m Easy, down to very easy

Total distance 2400m

Coaching Points:
Observe lane etiquette – let faster swimmers pass
Hold a ‘tall’ swimming posture throughout
Swim at a sustainable pace (first and final 400 rep should be within 10 seconds of each other).
Observe rest periods

Ironman – it’s all about the run!

As coaches and athletes we spend a lot of time in training, working on swim technique and tracking our speed and power on the bike. In long distance racing, chances are you’ll spend longest on the bike. Is it all about the bike then?

I’d argue not. Sure, getting round from T2 after a good swim-bike is just a matter of moving forward in some way.  Running, jogging, walking (and as Ironman likes to remind us) crawling are allowed.

As a coach, athletes come to me for a number of reasons, getting round is one of them but most often, people engage a coach in order to be the best they can be.

Think of the amount of time we spend in the pool drilling, sprinting, doing intervals, endurance swims or churning out the kilometers in open water. As a coach, I spend a lot of time analyzing swim technique, making minor tweaks to hand entry, pull pathway, body position, breathing technique.

On the bike, I encourage athletes to have a professional bike fit, taking up to three hours in the hands of an expert and prescribe many hours on the trainer, building strength and power. Do I do the same amount of analysis for the run? In short, no but honestly, I should! As an athlete, so should you.

When you watch the performance of the world’s best triathletes, they have one thing in common, they run well off the bike. Of course, some run faster than others but they all have good form and run strong to the finishing line.

We can’t all be Kona qualifiers but the run is key to being the best we can be.

Imagine the impact to your run if you spent as many hour doing run drills as you do swim drills and as many hours building strength and power for the run, as you do for the bike.

So, I’m putting it out there it’s all about the run. A good run compared to a mediocre run, to a slow plod, to a jog / walk. The difference can be hours.

If you are a coach, or have a coach, consider using video analysis of your running technique to see where you can make improvements to form. Schedule regular drill sessions, or be sure to include drills as part of your warm-up before medium or longer runs.

A little like swimming, not all run drills are created equal and some may work better for you than others. See the link below though for some good running advice from Born To Run Coach Eric Orton, author of THE COOL IMPOSSIBLE, that could improve your running, whether you’re training for Ironman, or for your first 5km running race:

Running drills and running form

If you try some of the suggestions in the video, leave a comment, let me know how it goes.


GI Tri Coach