Have you ever wondered how athletes continue to set new world records, break through barriers thought to be impassable, and often achieve what was thought to be impossible? Are better athletes being born? Are we evolving genetically into a new race of super humans? Of course not, the answer is simply that we are learning to pull more speed, power, coordination, strength and agility out of athletes. The science of coaching and training is evolving, changing, becoming more precise, specific, and technologically advanced. We are learning to train better athletes, not hatching them.
For the amateur athlete, the challenge is that they do not have access to the cutting edge that science and technology has to offer. Only the very best, are afforded these resources, and usually only after they demonstrate tremendous innate talent (or it is available to those that can afford the resources and time themselves). Most athletes do one thing- they train, repeatedly, a lot, and usually too much and too often. It is easy to believe that the harder you work, the more effort you put forth, the more return you will receive. This is something that has been drummed into us and is often the case in life. But when it comes to improving your physical being, often the exact opposite is often true.
When I begin coaching a new elite athlete I run a bevy of tests; physiological, psychological, equipment, nutritional, etc.., basically collecting as many data points as possible. I recall initiating a triathlete that had missed her dream goal of qualifying for a World Championship twice- by one placement. When she arrived at our training center we reviewed her bike position as part of the process and found it to be extremely upright. This is not at all the position a professional athlete would run. The torso may account for up to 60% of the drag while on the bike- or more, and the torso angle is crucial to speed. Her saddle was also much to low for good leverage. This sapped her power with each pedal stroke; in short she was very ill fitted and even on the wrong bike.
She was extremely disappointed to learn the harsh truth- with a proper fit she would probably have achieved her dream goal years prior (happy side note she did go on to realize it). Now consider the enormous amount of time, effort, money, and resources that went into attempting a goal. Consider the hours of intense physical pain, energy, and psychological drain she went through. It is hard to fathom that it likely could have been saved with a few basic adjustments to her bicycle and equipment!
Knowledge is power and we have more access to knowledge and data than ever before. But it can come at a cost: thoughts, feelings, and opinions often cloud scientific fact, and push a person in the wrong direction. Just because it comes up on page 1 of Google does not make it factual and reliable. Even scientific facts are usually regurgitated from another source, taken out of context or misunderstood, and then applied to all athletes equally. Athletes often adopt a heard mentality, and what turns the herd is the success of a single professional athlete. I have seen this over and over over the last three decades- if a pro runs a certain type of crank, or tire size, or helmet, or shoe, or diet, and wins a race, then it is instantly validated and often sells out. The said pro may in fact be sponsored (paid) to endorse it and it has nothing to do with their success. But following the herd is appealing to athletes as the changes are simple, easy, and fast.
You must find the factual science that will get YOU faster and help you evolve as an athlete. Determining your most opportune areas should be the first step on your athletic journey- not something you discover years down the road after much trial and error. For example; if your foot is landing forward of your center of gravity as you run, creating braking forces, your potential is forever limited until this form deficiency is corrected. And If you are simply throwing progressively more volume at this bad form you will quickly hit a plateau. Continuing to charge of the increased volume hill, before getting the basic constructs in order, will only get you so far. And It will eventually leave you injured and scratching your head.
There are so many details to address that I have never believed any athlete in their prime truly and fully reaches their potential- they simply run out of ways and means to address their limiters. There is opportunity for better recovery methods, better nutrition, more accurate training, better seasonal planning, equipment changes, improved economy, pacing and execution, mental skills, and testing and re-testing to determine efficacy.
Triathletes, with the added challenge of training three sports, have a tendency to promote and train their strongest sport. But this will only get you so far. We all have a tendency to put forth the most effort towards what validates us the most when we should be looking for areas of opportunity. Start with a white board and define your most apparent weaknesses. Review your approach. Refine your methods. Find your science. Your success will lie in the details.
Matt Russ is a full time professional coach with over 20 years of experience working with athletes up to the elite level. His athletes have won numerous regional, national, and international titles. He holds the highest level of licensing by both USA Triathlon and USA Cycling, and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is Head Coach and owner of The Sport Factory