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Mastering the Mass Start

Ultimate testThere are very few things that spike the nerves as much as the mass start of a triathlon. It’s like water aerobics meets MMA cage fight, although in the water pretty much anything goes! I actually think I may have been fish hooked by someone’s big toe before. Anyways, the mass start pits overly caffeinated, anxious, sometimes overly self confident individuals against each other to see who can make it to the first turn buoy before anyone else. All in hopes to be able to open up one’s stroke and swim at a comfortable pace. Let’s face it, not everyone can be out front, nor is that the best scenario the majority of the time (as statistics would show). However, there are several things to consider when training and racing that will help you conquer the mass hysteria start and come out of the water feeling good and in one piece. Keep in mind this only pertains to the start of the race, on to the first few hundred meters. There is obviously more to consider in order to have a great swim leg.

1. Power in Numbers – The more people there are in the race, the less room there is for everyone to be on the inside line shooting the shortest distance to the turn buoy. If you are not one of the strongest swimmers in the field, you are better served to go a little to the outside, stay out of the melee, and swim the few extra meters around the course. Getting into the bunch usually causes newer swimmers to red line their heart rate which is never good at the beginning of the race or in the water for that matter. You will be much happier going into T1 if you have not spent the majority of the swim above threshold.

2. Know the Time Until the Gun Goes Off – Although it’s important to get in a warm up before a race, if you have to start in the water, it’s probably not the best idea to tread water for 10-15 minutes before the gun goes off. If you cannot get in the water before the swim start, use an active dynamic approach to your warm up on dry land. On another note, if you are one of those people with an over active bladder (or worse) on race morning, making sure you are on empty is important. But, the last thing you want to hear while sitting in a port-o-potty is the starting gun go off.

3. The V2H Rule – This is more geared towards the Ironman start. V2H stands for Vertical to Horizontal. It is just a reminder that when everyone is packed into a small space treading water they are all vertical. However, at some point everyone will default to going horizontal. If you are right in the middle of a bunch of people there is a good chance if you put your face in the water it will meet someone’s kicking foot. Again, if you are not the strongest swimmer, you will most likely save time in the long run by waiting back a little for the large group of racers to clear.

4. Know the Starting Conditions – All this means is that you should know what you are starting from and the implications of each:

Beach Start – A beach start means there is a dash for the water when the gun goes off. Don’t red line yourself sprinting to the water and then try to high knee like “Prime Time” (I use this reference a lot to date the people I am working with). Once the water is above your knee you are better suited to start swimming or using the dolphin dive to progress forward. At the same time, if there are waves, make sure you dive under them rather than swimming through them. In order to avoid the current from an oncoming wave, you must dive under it and stay under it an average of double the time in seconds as it is tall. So a 3 foot wave would require you to stay under around 6 seconds to avoid getting pulled back to shore.

Pontoon/Boat/Dock – This means you will have to dive into the water at the start. Many times, athletes will squeeze shoulder to shoulder on the edge, leaving little room for a good freestyle stroke when you enter the water. Dive deeper (if the water is deep) if you are a middle to back of the pack swimmer, and dive far if you are an upper middle to front of the pack swimmer. Lastly, make sure your goggles are on correctly. There is nothing worse than losing your goggles in the first second of the race.

Treading Water – This has already been discussed a little above. If there is plenty of width to the course, you can even start wide to stay out of the insanity and swim a straight line to the turn buoy. If you are a strong swimmer, make sure you line up on the first row right under the starting line and shoot the inside line. Keep in mind that the fastest way anywhere is a straight line, but not when you are having to swim over the top of 2000 other people.

5. Goggles Under Cap – When putting your goggles on before the race, put your swim cap over the top of the straps. Some people also wear two caps with the goggles in between. This lessens the chance your goggles will get ripped, raked, or kicked off your face.

6. Race Specific Training – During your Peak (also known as Competition) phase of training, you should be spending the majority of your time focusing on race specific training. This means your workouts should mimic your race conditions as closely as possible. During your swim workouts, try and share a lane with a fellow triathlete or swimmer at all times. Find a training partner and go off on your intervals at the same time. Get use to making the choice to draft or lead the way. If you cannot find a training partner, pile all of the kick boards and pull buoys into the lane with you and work your way through them during your main set. Disclaimer: You should probably ask permission first, and clean up after yourself post workout.

7. Fast/Cruise Intervals – This is the most important training tip for surviving the mass start that I can give to triathletes of all levels. Why? Because it is the most sport specific swim workout one can do. You go out hard (like the start of the race), and then try to recover and settle into a steady pace. You can do 100 repeats all day long but you then you get a recovery period in which you are not moving. Even a 10 second rest is enough to let the muscles and cardiovascular system to recover. Try going hard for 100-200 yards and then cruising for 300-800 yards, focusing on recovering post hard effort and getting to a comfortable effort. Ideally, you want to be able to decrease the time of your 100 yard splits after the first 100-200 meters post hard effort. If you keep a training log, make sure you note your ability to recover from the hard to cruise interval.

8. Learn to Breath Bilaterally – I cannot stress enough on how important it is to be able to breath bilaterally. You never know what side another person will be flopping around on so it better serves you to be able to breath on either side. This does not mean you have to breath every 3rd stroke. It just means that you should have the ability to choose what side you want to breath on without getting a mouth full of water. Plus, breathing bilaterally keeps your muscles in balance and can prevent you from swimming in a zig zag pattern.

If you have any questions about these points, feel free to contact us. I know I will most likely think of some other considerations for surviving the mass start after this is posted.


A Racer’s Guide to Rouge-Roubaix

A Racer’s Guide to Rouge-Roubaix

Rouge Roubaix, an epic early season race modeled after the early season Spring Classic Paris-Roubaix, is entering its 14th running this year. Rouge is a great early season test not only of current physical condition, but also mental toughness. With a solid mix of rollers, gravel sections complete with solid climbs, a finishing road so rough you’ll wish you were back on the gravel, and 100+ miles of length, this is the toughest race 95% of the peloton will complete all year. A combination of strength, proper nutrition, positioning, and a little bit of luck typically determines the winner. Lacking any one of these at crucial times of the race will likely end any chances of overall victory.

Prelude: If you want to win, you better be in the front 10 riders entering every section of gravel. Failure to do so greatly decreases your chance at victory. Although the race may not be won on any one gravel section, the race can definitely be lost. Be in proper position at these points if you want a chance at winning. For more information on maps and mileages, visit this link from the Rouge Roubaix website – Maps

The race begins and ends in a different location – separated by a few miles. Neutral roll-out starts the race until the left turn onto Hwy 66. The first 8.8 miles are relatively tame and on a nice open road. There is a possibility for a breakaway to get away on this section since most racers know this is too far to go to the finish for a small breakaway to succeed. If this group is well represented there is always the chance it stays away.

The right turn takes you on a narrow and winding 2 lane road where the yellow line rule is very tough to enforce. This makes holding your position near the front difficult. Racers lack of regard for the rule also makes this portion of the race very dangerous when there are oncoming cars. A breakaway is likely to go at this point since visibility is limited and so is the ability for riders to move up and chase. Out of sight – out of mind. With 80+ miles to the finish, the odds are stacked against any small breakaway at this point. This road dumps back out on to 66 and continues on to 969 at the 22.5 mile mark. If you are in the back of the pack at this point you better move up. This is also a good time to get any nutrition into the system you are going to need, because the next 20-25 minutes drinking and eating is going to be nearly impossible.

Mile 25.4 is where the “fun” and the race truly begins. Racers will want to be in the top 10 riders entering this section! Racers make a fast right onto the first narrow gravel section. Splits ALWAYS happen here. If the gravel is not deep, moving up and around may be possible. If it is deep, racers will typically get into two lines (the grooves made by vehicle travel) and moving up will be very difficult. Being in the back end of a split can END YOUR RACE at mile 25. Although there is some undulation and elevation change on this first section – this is a big power section. Be ready to go into the red and stay there. Losing a wheel can mean losing the race and spending 75 miles doing a whole lot of work in a small group with no chance at glory.

At mile 33.2 (so just under 8 miles) the gravel ends and breathing normal generally resumes. There is going to be neutral water at this point, meaning anyone can grab it if they need it. The lead group may or may not continue to push depending on the size and representation of riders. 2010 saw a hard chasing pack of around 40 riders regaining contact with the front group of 30 riders who had eased off the pace. The other 50+ riders who had been dropped on the gravel never saw the lead group again.

For the next 11 miles the race is on nice rolling hills. None of these are real leg burners. Mile 44 is the first feed zone and should fall about 2 hours into the race. Be sure to take on food and drink if necessary. Nutrition is VERY important in a race of this length. Failing to stay on top of nutrition could be the difference in finishing strong and not finishing at all.

Race continues on similar rolling hills for the next 19 miles.

At mile 63.5 the second gravel section begins. Racers make a hard left off of HWY 24 onto a very poor road. Racers NEED in the front 10 people going into this section. This road is narrow, littered with dirt, rocks, and plenty of potholes. A very short distance after taking this left, riders will veer right and head over a sketchy “wooden bridge.” The bridge consists of 10 inch or so wide wooden boards run length wise over a section of gravel. These boards are placed three wide with a couple foot gap between the three board sections. There is just enough space between the individual boards for a road bike tire to fall down into. Personal recommendation is to ride in the gravel to the right or left of these running boards. Pre-riding this section (and all other gravel sections for that matter) is STRONGLY advised.

Photo by Malcolm Schuler –

The race to be at the front going into the long dirt climb begins. This climb is around a 6-11% grade. This is a small ring climb that is .75 miles in length (avg 7.2%). In 2010 there was a sandy patch about 1/3rd of the way up the climb that only a select few were able to ride through. Most had to dismount and remount through this 15 meter section. Once to the top of the hill, there are some dirt rollers that continue for another few miles. Total gravel section is 3.4 miles. Group is usually blown apart with small packs forming and working together to try and regroup with the front of the race. Exiting this section there is a neutral feed as well as a sag stop with food. If you are planning on winning – don’t stop for food. Right after the feed and before making a right back onto 969 (heading south now) racers will ride over a cattle guard. Do not be nervous about these, just keep the wheels pointing forward and everything should be fine.

Racers that have lost contact with the front will be in full chase mode on HWY 969. At mile 74.1, racers will turn right onto HWY 66 and will continue for 4.9 miles until the 3rd gravel section begins. This section is similar to the previous, rolling hills on a wide road.

At mile 75 riders take a left and enter the 3rd gravel section. There is very little time or space to move up once this left turn is made. Race speed usually picks up prior to the turn as well as racers battle to be at the front. There is a steep .25 mile hill that hits grades in the 15% plus range. See pic below –

Photo by Malcolm Schuler –

Lots of racers will be forced to dismount their bike and run up the hill – take a look in the background above. If the racer in front of you does not successfully ride up the hill, there is no way around and you will be forced to hop off and run the hill. The further back you are in the pack at the base of the climb, the greater your chance of having to run the hill. The winner of the race typically comes from the lead group that is able to ride the hill and not dismount. If you want to win, be in the front 10 hitting this hill. Even if you have to run it, you will not be stuck behind traffic.

This total gravel section is the most challenging, with short climbs and descents. Trying to chase down the front is nearly impossible if you have to fight through a big group of struggling riders. Road is narrow and a more technical that the previous two sections. There is a third and final neutral feed at the end of this gravel section.

At mile 85 the gravel ends and the horrible “paved” road begins. Racers will wish they were back on gravel. Race is typically blown apart by this point, with most racers realizing the race for the win is over and finishing the race becomes the new goal. This road is mixed with rollers that sting the legs after 85 miles of hard riding. Those with a chance of winning the race still likely number less than 20 racers – probably fewer.

The most challenging portion of the final 16 miles is the beginning. Nearing the end the road becomes better and the terrain a little less rolling. Racers will take a left once they enter town, and the sprint for the finish begins (if there is actually a group left to sprint). There is a short little kicker before the finish that will punish the racer that starts their sprint too early. Hold back longer than you would think if you are in this position. Tired legs combined with that little hill likely means the person starting the sprint is not going to win the sprint.

At mile 101.4 the pain will end and the epic stories begin!

Why You SHOULD Change Your Running Technique – Impact

There are very few topics in the sport performance world that I feel compelled to debate until they put me into the ground. However, the topic of running mechanics is one that gets me fired up. I’ve been through endless running and biomechanics related continuing education courses, and have had the pleasure to pick the brains of several great running minds including Olympic track and field coach Loren Seagrave. But even through all of this, it is funny to me that my high school and college physics classes (I almost majored in physics) are what drive a large part of my argument as to what is the “correct” way to run. I am a numbers guy, but I will spare you the endless research references and just stick to the science based facts and the laws of physics.

As a triathlon coach, I would never look at someone flopping around in the water like a dying fish and say “well we just need to work with their natural swim stroke.” Swimming is the most technically demanding endurance sport there is. Having an effective and efficient swim stroke takes lots of time and effort. Running is no different. Having an effective and efficient running gait takes a lot of time and effort. So why are there people out there still arguing that you should not try to get someone to change their “natural” running style? I put “natural” in quotes because these days, natural stems from years of doing a lot of walking and not a lot of strenuous physical activity.

Going back to the swimming example. We all know that in order to become more efficient in the water, there is a good chance that you will end up slowing down for a bit while you learn correct mechanics and body positioning. But, as you become more efficient, you eventually speed right back up to where you started or beyond, but with a lesser energy expenditure. Again, running is no different. Learning to change any motor pattern, especially in older athletes, is difficult and takes persistent consistent effort to make a permanent change.

The people I aim to call out here are the hardcore frontside heel strikers. This is when the heel is the first thing that makes contact with the ground and the foot makes full touch down out in front of the runner’s hips (Center of Mass). I won’t make a hard sales pitch to these folks on midsole running until the next installment. We will go one step at a time. Pun fully intended.

There are a number of different schools of thought on proper running mechanics. Between them all, there are three big commonalities that boast the greatest benefits to runners. In no particular order they are: Reduced Impact, Elastic Recoil, and Reduced Energy Expenditure.  These my friends, are the reasons why you (if you haven’t already) should consider ditching your antiquated running style.

So what is “correct”? Let’s take this in light of what makes the most sense. Since I quickly realized how long this blog would be if I explained all three at once, I am going to touch on these three topics one at a time. Surely leaving you on the edge of your seat, begging for the next Installment. The first item on the list is Reducing Impact.

IMPACT. Let’s face it, running is tough. Especially running long. Muscle vibrations due to ground impact forces are one of the the leading causes of muscle fatigue while running. The “wall” everyone refers to during a marathon usually comes from tiny tears in the muscles due to ground impact forces. You know when you feel like you are running on wooden stumps? Not fun. If it were a nutritional issue we would call that a “bonk.” A little endurance lingo 101.

Anyways, now for the physics lesson. During a heel strike mechanic, the foot usually contacts the ground out in front of the center of mass (hips). For any force that is at an acute angle in relation to the ground, there are always 2 components of that force. In this case, there is a force at an angle traveling a straight line from the runners hip through their ankle. Then there is a component of that force that is the result of gravity pulling us down that travels through the center of mass, and one from forward motion. So when we actually make contact with the ground a few things happen. One, due to Newton’s third law, there is an equal and opposite reaction right? Well that means that the ground opposes all of those force vectors that we just created. The opposing gravitational force pushes us up…not too bad. The opposing forward force pushes us backward….WAIT! BACKWARD! Yes, the ground is pushing you backward when you land out in front of your hips, thus robbing you of some of that forward momentum you worked so hard to create. In the speed development world, we call this front side contact and is often referred to as SPEED ENEMY #1. Moving on, the resultant angled force down the leg gets both backward and upward force, focused at the ankle, knee and hip joints. In biomechanics we call this a shearing force. This might not be so bad if we had a single bone in our leg and no joints. But we don’t, so the knee joint takes the bulk of the shearing forces. Why? Well an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. So when the ground is pushing back on our foot and tibia, the forward momentum at the femur wants to stay on its path, which is forward and down towards the ground. Just think about that for a second. Picture your femur trying to stay in forward motion as your tibia is forced backward by the ground. Now picture that every stride you take. Got knee pain? The other downside to contacting out in front of the body is that the leg lands almost fully extended, which does not dissipate much impact force at all, sending more shearing forces to the hips and more fatiguing vibrations through the muscles.

On the other hand, those that adopt a foot landing position under the hips see much different force distribution.  So instead of creating speed stealing shearing forces, we create compression forces. What are compression forces? Compression forces are basically any forces that push us straight up or down. Why is that better? Our skeletal system is made to handle plenty of compression forces. When you stand in one spot, you are being compressed by gravity. I often use the example of standing on a soda can. We have all stood on top of a soda can once in our life. You notice that the thin aluminum structure can withstand your body weight as long as no lateral force is applied to the can. If the can takes on a lateral force…CRUNCH! Our bones are similar in that they can handle FAR more compression forces than the combination of compression and lateral forces simultaneously, previously dubbed shearing forces. Another example are the columns that hold up hundreds of tons on a bridge.

Now you may also notice from the picture that bringing the foot under the hip causes the runner to land with the leg slightly bent. This does a couple of very important things. One, it delegates some of the impact from the knee joint and quads to the hips and glutes. These are stronger muscles that can take a little more beating. The other thing it does is it actually allows the muscles to store the energy from the impact and use it to propel the runner forward. More on that in Volumes 2 and 3.

Going back to the resultant vectors of ground impact, you’ll notice the difference in the direction of force applied to the ground as compared to the frontside heel striker. The Bareminchisole runner applies force backward and downward, which results in the ground causing upward and forward forces. We do want to go forward right? That’s what I thought. The angle of the shin in relation to the ground determines the amount of force that is directed forward. So the deeper the shin angle upon ground contact and take off, the more force we are directing forward. The more force we direct forward, the longer our stride gets. Thus, we go faster.

In short, it all boils down to the direction of the force and leg extension upon ground contact. If you are out in front of the center of mass with an extended leg, the ground resists your forward motion, and there is no shock absorption, thus causing lots of muscle vibrations and shearing forces to the knee and hip joints. If ground contact is made under the center of mass with a slightly bent leg, the body undergoes mostly sustainable compression forces, and the opposing forces actually aid in forward motion.

As if IMPACT wasn’t enough to get you fired up, during the next installment, we will talk about Elastic Recoil and the amount of time you can save during ground contact.  You will be amazed, surprised, and astonished all at the same time.

If you want to receive other free training articles, tips and tricks, don’t forget to sign up for our Performance Newsletter. Until next time.


Power Analysis – Tour Down Under Race Winner

Ben Swift of HTC Highroad won stage 2 of the Tour Down Under that is currently taking place in Australia. Conveniently enough, Ben rides and races with a power meter. Even more convenient is the fact that his power file was available for download here.

As a coach that utilizes power, and has clients that use power meters, I just wanted to take a second to highlight a few areas of note from the race file that might help you train and race smarter. Doing a few calculations based on the information that was given (assuming the TSS was correct) I have determined that his functional threshold power (FTP) is right around 382 watts. Looking at his bio on the HTC team website to find out his weight (65 kg) his watts/kg at threshold would be 5.88. That’s pretty dang good, especially for a guy who ends up winning in a sprint finish.

First, and for any of you triathletes that plan on doing some road racing, take a look at the cadence distribution for the race winner. It is not necessarily the person that pedals the most that wins the race:

Highest percentage of time was spent NOT pedaling

As you can see from this snapshot, almost 17% of the race he spent NOT pedaling. This worked out to be almost 37 minutes of the 3h 37 minute race that he spent saving up useful energy. Had he spent the majority of the race on the front of the peloton, this time spent not pedaling would likely have decreased significantly.

The next highest bar, coming in at around 12.5%, is the 95-100 rpm range surrounded on either side by 90-95 and 100-105. This is also a good lesson for people to look at. By increasing your cadence you are decreasing the watts per pedal stroke that you are having to put out, something that will help to “save” the legs for when you need them to be the freshest.

Race Data Breakdown

Alright, that’s enough with the cadence, let’s look at some other data.

To the right you can see a variety of general stats from the race. 2522 kJ of work equates to a lot of calories that needed to be consumed during the 3.5 hour race. Although he likely could have made it to the finishing line without fueling properly, there is not much chance he would have had the energy needed to put forth a race winning sprint effort.

His TSS (Training Stress Score) of 175.6 (originally stated in the blog as 178) provides an indication of how much “stress” this race would have on him and how long it might take to recover from that effort. The 0.712 that is in parenthesis to the right of the TSS value is an indication of the intensity of the race. To put this into context, this numbers are lower than what I see from my athletes on a faster Saturday morning group ride.

So does this mean that a pro race was easier than a Saturday group ride in Memphis, TN that is almost the same duration? No, these numbers mean that this race was less stressful on his body than a hard group ride would have been for an athlete with a lower threshold power.  Riding at 270 watts for Swift who has an FTP of around 380 puts him in his Endurance Zone, whereas riding at 270 watts if your FTP is 280 puts you very close to your threshold – huge difference in relative energy costs between those two zones.

If you watched the finishing sprint you can see that Swift jumped early and held on for the finish. Although his peak maximal power was relatively low at 1225w, he won the race due to his ability to maintain a high average wattage over a 10-15 second span (1105w over 12 seconds).

So what kind of sprinter are you? As the season approaches and you are out practicing your sprints, remember that they are not always won at the last second with a huge spike in power. Do a few maximal effort sprints and hold that power as long as you can. Then go home and take a look at the chart. How sharp is that power drop-off for you? If you see a big spike on the left side of the chart followed by a steep descending line right after it you would be best served waiting until the last possible second to uncork your sprint for victory.

If you see that initial spike from the sprint followed by a relatively shallow drop off in power then you are the type of sprinter that needs to go from a further distance out and hope to hold everyone off to the line.

Too much data available to talk about everything. Let me know if you have specific power analysis questions that you would like answered in a future blog.

10 Tips for Cycling Beginners

Wow, stopping at 10 tips was really hard, so hard I didn’t stop. Few bonus tips thrown in there. Feel free to add to the list! Soon to come – 10 Tips for First Time Group Rides and 10 Tips for First Time Road Racers.

1. Always make sure tires are properly inflated prior to riding – under-inflated tires lead to pinch flats, and fixing flats is not real fun.

2. Learn to change a flat tire PRIOR to having one out on the open road.

3. Always carry a cell phone – especially if you did not listen to tips 1 and 2. Bikes are machines and machines occasionally fail which may result in the need to call for assistance. The rider of the bike is human and humans occasionally fail (search: Bonk, Hitting the Wall, glycogen depletion, etc) which may also result in the need to call for assistance.

4. If you are buying a new bike, make sure you get one that is your size and then be sure you get fit to the bike. Correct bike fit should lead to many comfortable miles in the saddle. Incorrect bike fit can lead to you finding a different hobby.

5. Makes sure contact points are comfortable – this includes feet, hands, and the nether-region. Any of these being uncomfortable can make riding miserable and may result in you finding a different hobby. Tried to fix one of these with no success? Make sure you have followed rule #4.

6. Always carry a few bucks and some form of identification. If the human riding the bike does fail, limping to a gas station and refueling may save that dreaded call for assistance. You do not want to make the call, and odds are the person you are calling doesn’t want to spend their Saturday morning driving 20+ miles to pick you up. If the bike fails, someone may be nice enough to give you a ride and a few bucks for their effort would likely be appreciated.

7. Do not do the same ride, at the same intensity, every day. You will get bored and so will your body.

8. Find a local group ride that is “beginner” friendly. Odds are there is one or more in your area where the speed is controlled, group riding pointers are offered, and the environment is a good one. Riding with a group can be a lot more fun than riding alone.

9. Do not worry about average speed. Doing so will cause you to violate tip number 7. There is a lot that can impact your average speed, here are some things that can decrease average speed: Number of stop signs you encounter, number of people you are riding with, number of cars that caused you to slow down, whether you were riding uphill or downhill, the wind, the cold, the rain, how hydrated you are, how many dogs you had to sprint away from, how much recovery time was necessary after sprinting away from the dogs, just to name a few.

10. Just because it works for someone else does not mean it will work for you – this applies to choice of saddles, type and hours of training, choice in cycling shorts, the list goes on and on…

Bonus: Find an experienced rider and ask questions. Clean and lube your chain regularly. Learn the basics of bike maintenance. Always have some backup food in your pocket. Buy a good pair of bike shorts…