TriDot Podcast .181
Conquering Climbs Like a Champ
Intro: This is the TriDot podcast. TriDot uses your training data and genetic profile, combined with predictive analytics and artificial intelligence to optimize your training, giving you better results in less time with fewer injuries. Our podcast is here to educate, inspire, and entertain. We’ll talk all things triathlon with expert coaches and special guests. Join the conversation and let’s improve together.
Andrew Harley: Hey folks! Welcome to the TriDot podcast! Drop your cassette into your easiest gear and get ready to climb. Today, two of our TriDot coaches will be chatting with us about handling the hills in our training and racing. Our first guest joining us today for this conversation is triathlon legend and TriDot coach, Mark Allen. Mark is the most successful triathlete of all time, having won the Ironman Triathlon World Championships six times, the Nice International Triathlon ten times, and the first recognized Olympic-distance triathlon championship. He went undefeated in 21 straight races for an astounding two‑year winning streak from late 1988 to 1990. He has been inducted into the Halls of Fame for Ironman, USA Triathlon, and the International Triathlon Union. ESPN named Mark as the Greatest Endurance Athlete of All Time. Mark, you’re a frequent guest on the TriDot podcast now. Welcome back to the show!
Mark Allen: Hey, great to be back! I’m always excited to share what little tidbits we can dig out of my archives.
Andrew: I’m trusting for today there’s going to be plenty of tidbits and stories from you, particularly that part in your bio where you’ve won the Nice Triathlon ten times, I know there’s some hills in Nice.
Mark: Yeah, and I have to say, I love training and racing on hills. There were parts that intimidated me, probably like everybody, but I can’t wait to talk about them.
Andrew: All right, perfect. Also joining us today is the Ultraman himself, TriDot Coach Jason Verbracken. Jason lives in San Diego, California where he works as a Pepsi sales rep, in addition to coaching TriDot athletes. He has been racing tris for seven years, racking up nine Ironman, one Ultraman, and six extreme triathlon finish lines in that time. He’s best known around the TriDot space as Coach Verbie. So Coach Verbie, welcome back to the show!
Jason Verbracken: Hey, great to be here, thanks a lot! I mean, my résumé can’t compare to the guy next to me, but I hope to elevate this conversation as much as I can.
Andrew: You elevated us with that pun already, so I appreciate that. I’m Andrew the Average Triathlete, Voice of the People and Captain of the Middle of the Pack. As always, we’ll roll through our warmup question, settle in for our main set conversation, and then wind things down with our cooldown.
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Warm up theme: Time to warm up! Let’s get moving.
Andrew: In triathlon events, we of course are given a bib number. It can be anything from a single-digit number all the way up to a four-digit number. Some marathons I think even go all the way up to five-digit numbers. For the most part, we have zero control over what our bib number turns out to be on race day. But what if we could control our number? What if triathlon required us as participants to wear a number on our jerseys, much like a team sport does? If that was the case, what number would you want to have on your tri kit, and why? Coach Verbie, what do you think?
Jason: For me that’s pretty easy: the number 28. My birthday is the 28th, I met my wife, our very first date was on the 28th, we got married on the 28th. Somehow the number 28 is always intertwined somewhere in my life. Maybe it’s just because I look for it now, but the number 28 is somehow always in there, so that would be my go‑to number.
Andrew: Yeah, to add that to a tri jersey would be an homage to a lot of things in your life. I like it, I get it. Do you have a favorite pro triathlete with the number 28 on their jersey by any chance?
Jason: No, I don’t, not at all. That’s just my number, me! How’s that, ME!
Andrew: I dig it, I like the confidence there. Mark Allen, back when you were racing, or if you were to hit the race course ever again, if you could pick what number was going to be on that beautiful tri kit of yours, what number would you be going with?
Mark: That is a simple one! I would just pick my pin code for all of my credit cards, debit cards, etc. Hide your biggest secrets in plain sight, and nobody will see them! No, actually, I’d have to say one of the coolest numbers I ever got was in 1989 at the IT World Championship. It was number 007.
Andrew: Oh, that’s awesome!
Mark: I figured that was pretty cool to have James Bond on my chest, as I was having to come from way behind after the swim, and still behind at the end of the bike, and pull off that victory at the first IT World Championship there at Avignon, France. That was a cool number. You know, 1 or 001, that’s fun, but I kind of liked that 007 number. That was great.
Andrew: I kind of expected to go with the 1, because obviously in the pro field you’re seeded based on your current ranking, and how you’re expected to do on the day. I did not expect a 007 from you, but that is super, super cool. I’m glad I asked this question on this podcast episode, just for that reason right there, just to find that one out. For me, this is pretty simple, I’m going with the number 13. I wore the number 13 in team sports growing up. I was pretty good at tennis, where you didn’t wear numbers, but I was mediocre at soccer, where you did have a number. So growing up playing soccer, I was always number 13. I loved and still love the Miami Dolphins in the NFL, so Dan Marino was the favorite athlete for me as a kid, the longtime quarterback for the Dolphins, who made the number 13 famous for that team. That’s the answer for me.
Guys, we’re going to throw this out to you our audience. I’m curious to see what you have to say, and what number you hold near and dear to your heart. If you could put a number on your tri jersey for race day, and you were in control of what that number was, what number would you be going with and why? Let us know!
Main set theme: On to the main set. Going in 3…2…1…
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Just like in life, most terrain has its ups and downs, and there are certainly some coaching points that can help us navigate both. Whether it’s nailing your intervals while you run up and downhill, or maximizing your wattage climbing and descending on a bike, there is a lot to consider as we talk about hills in triathlon. So let’s get into it with our coaches today. Mark, Jason, you both were hand-picked by myself for this episode, because you each have had a fair amount of success on hilly terrain. I want to give folks a glimpse of your hilly course successes so they know they can trust what you have to say as we navigate this conversation. Mark, you frequently trained in the hills of California, and some of your most famous victories, as I alluded to earlier, came in undulating terrain around Nice, France. Do you consider Nice to be the most challenging terrain you’ve had success on? Or were there some other courses along the way where hills played more of a factor for you?
Mark: Well, Nice was very hilly on the bike for sure. It had these classic European-style small road climbs through little villages, with maybe a hundred people in the village, so it was such an amazing, scenic climbing environment. The descents were very technical. They were almost so steep, with almost 180‑degree turns, that you really actually could not go super-fast. Very different from the descents that you get like in Colorado, where they’re just these long, massive sweeping things where you’ve got to have nerves of steel because you’re going 55 miles an hour. But I would say actually the most physically demanding course that I ever did was the Zofingen Duathlon in Switzerland, and that was because the bike course was three loops of a very, very hilly bike. The run was actually a 5K first run and about 32K finish for the second run. The first 5K was literally straight up, a turn, and then straight down, and you did these two loops like this. We started out and you literally thought you were in a 5K, not a race that was going to last six hours. The first time I did the event, I thought I had done the preparation for the hills, both for the bike and the run, because the second run is also not flat, but not straight up and down like the first one. I thought I had it, I thought I was ready, and I ended up in fourth place. The guy who was in third place was like 42 or something like that, which at the time I thought was geriatric, and I thought, “How can this 42‑year-old man kick my ass?” That was actually really where I honed my template of how to prepare for a hilly course, cycling and running. I can go into some of those general template details of how to choose the terrain, distance, length, that kind of stuff. But for sure, the Zofingen Duathlon was by far the most physically demanding course that I ever did in my career, much more physically demanding than Kona or even Nice.
Andrew: Yeah, you just say the word Switzerland, and already it was like, “Ah, yes, if you’ve raced in Switzerland.” My understanding is all Switzerland is, is up and down no matter where you go. I follow Daniela Ryf on Instagram, and she’s always posting these amazing pictures of these gravel rides she’s doing, these bike rides and runs where she’s just going up and down and beautiful views everywhere. We don’t have those in Dallas, Texas, I can tell you that right now, so I live vicariously through Daniela in that regard. Jason, for you, I cannot even quantify the hills that you’ve climbed as you’ve raced all over the world, doing ultra, doing extreme stuff. I’ll leave that math to Strava on how many meters you’ve ascended in your swim, bike, and running. But you’ve climbed literal mountains in Norway, Iceland, Nepal, all while racing tris. I’m curious, from all the extreme triathlons you’ve done, what one mountain gave you the biggest challenge mid‑race?
Jason: I would have to say my Nepal race. I can’t narrow it, the bike versus the run. The bike had 13,000 feet of gain on it. It didn’t have the technical descents like Mark was just talking about, but it had some sections of road that just happened to be missing, so it turned into dirt, gravel. And the driving over there, they just drive any way they want, so we had to watch out for that. But then the run had 10,000 feet of gain for the run, and some of it was like Mark’s, it was 16 miles straight up, and then you came back down. It literally was stairs, rock, and I felt like I was just climbing stairs the whole time. But you had the Annapurna Mountains in the background, with the fishtail peak at 26,000 feet as the backdrop, so every time you were suffering, you just had to take that quick look around and go, “Oh my gosh, look at the scenery, how can I complain about this?” No matter how bad it hurt, you got that view, which I’ll never forget.
Andrew: Yeah, no kidding. So I will tell you both that the most I’ve climbed in a race was 70.3 Greece. The bike course had about 4,000 feet, not meters, of gain on the bike course, and it just brutally beat me to shreds. I was not prepared for that. You would think as light as I am I would be a good climber. I am not a good climber. This is why I went out and found the two of you to come on this episode to teach us how to climb. So let’s get into it. As we turn the conversation from hills we once climbed to hills we have yet to climb, we’ll start by talking about training on hilly terrain, and a little bit later we’ll get into racing on hilly terrain. So first let me ask you guys this: I often hear athletes categorize themselves as good at climbing, or like I just did, I don’t feel like I am, I’m not good at climbing. Some people will say, “I’m okay at it, I’m okay at climbing.” In your experience working with your athletes, are some folks just naturally better-suited to handling hills than others, or is this kind of a self-induced stigma that we place upon ourselves? Mark, from your experience, what do you think here?
Mark: I think you’re just a climber that has not had that diamond shined yet or chiseled away to reveal the climber that’s inside of you.
Andrew: Okay, I like that! Yeah!
Mark: For sure, any aspect of a sport like cycling that is uniquely characterized, there’s going to be a genetic type that tends to excel easier on that than somebody else. As you know, like in the Tour de France, those who are great climbers are not always the ones who are great time trialers, and those who are sprinting at the end of the flag stages are probably not going to be the best climbers. But for sure you can optimize whatever genetic toolbox you have, whatever body type you have, whatever kind of levers you have, through proper training. One of the things that I learned from that two‑year experience at Zofingen – I forgot to mention I think that the second time I did it, I ended up winning, which was pretty cool –
Andrew: Nice! Yes!
Mark: – to think I was ready and see that I wasn’t, and then to go back and reset and regroup and change what needed to, and then come back and win. So I’ll start with those who have the option to train somewhere hilly. If you have a hill course that you’re going to be training on, there’s two elements that will get you prepared. One is to try to find climbs, if you can, that are going to be longer than the ones that you will encounter in the race, and/or find climbs that are steeper than the ones that you will find in the race. What that does is it resets your body’s measure of what you’re capable of doing. Let’s say there’s a two‑mile climb in some event you’re going to do. For you, if you can find a three- or four- or five‑mile climb, do that. That over-distance in the length of the climb will get you prepared for that climb that’s going to be shorter in the race. If it’s at some grade, 6%, 7%, it doesn’t matter, if you can find a climb that’s a lot steeper, even if it’s a lot shorter, and you do that over and over, you will develop more strength than you need to make it up that smaller incline in your race. So adding those two “over” elements, when you put those together in the race, it takes those climbs in the event and makes them so much more manageable. And you learn experience too like, “How hard can I go on a really long climb before I blow up? How hard can I go when it’s short, but I’m really pushing high power output, before I blow up?” You gain experience, you gain fitness, and it prepares you.
Andrew: I know in some podcast episodes we’ve talked with our TriDot coaches about how you don’t have to go run 26.2 miles to know you can do the marathon at the end of an Ironman. You don’t have to go ride 112 miles to feel confident you can finish that bike split of that Ironman. It just kills you in training, and you don’t need to go put that mileage on your body. But it could help you significantly to know that, if there’s one hill that’s the hardest hill on my race course, you can get out there and find a hill that’s harder, and that way you go into race day with the confidence of, “Not only have I done that hill, I’ve done a hill that’s harder.” I really like that, Mark, that’s great stuff. I have some follow-up questions I want to ask, but I’m going to save them for when we get a little deeper into the main set. Jason, for you, as you work with your athletes and you hear them talk about, “Coach Verbie, I’m not good at hills, I’m not good at climbing,” what are your thoughts here? Are some people better at this than others, or what?
Jason: I feel some people are better on it, and usually it’s because that’s all they have around them, so they’re out there every day. They have no other choice but to take off from their house, and leaving their house there may be a big hill they have to go up, or when they’re on their way back home they have to go up it, so they’re just used to always doing it. I feel you definitely can learn them. I never hear somebody coming to me and saying, “Man, I’m no good on flat concrete riding my bike!” I’ve never had somebody say that to me. I mean, I have had people flat-out tell me, “Yeah, my run sucks,” but I’ve never heard someone say, “I can’t run on flat ground.” It’s always, “Ah, the hills, running downhill hurts,” or, “I can’t do the uphills.” I really feel that the more you get to doing it, just like anything, the more it gets comfortable, and once you get comfortable doing it, you feel good at it and you enjoy it.
Andrew: Maybe I just need to come spend the summer with Coach Verbie or Coach Mark Allen and ride the hills around your house. We have some light rollers in Dallas, but it’s rolling at best, it’s certainly not anything I would categorize as a true hill or a true mountain. So the most frequently asked question that I see come up when it comes to training on hills – I see this probably once a week on the I AM TriDot Facebook group. Two days ago I saw an athlete ask a version of this question, and it applies on both the bike and the run. Athletes want to know, when a workout gives us intervals – so we’re supposed to be Zone 2 for X amount of time, and then we’ve got 7‑minute intervals, 5‑minute intervals, 14‑minute intervals where we’re dipping into Zone 4, Zone 5, so we’re supposed to be pushing a certain power or pace – how can we best stay at the proper intensity when the terrain may make it difficult to do so? Mark, what do you think?
Mark: That’s why we have gears. That sounds like an oversimplified answer, but that’s really the solution. I did a lot of aerobic training, but I would still ride hills, so to keep things aerobic during the workouts that were prescribed to be aerobic, I had to have a pretty easy gear on there so that I wasn’t pushing too hard. The one plus that I love about hills is it makes it easy to have a high power output or a high heart rate. Gravity does all the work for you. On the flat it’s much harder, for me anyway, to generate power, to elevate my heart rate. But on a hill, basically you just start going up, and everything falls in place if it’s a harder workout. So yes, the challenge is to not go too hard on the hills, but that’s something that is a really valuable skill to learn how to do, to not go too hard on the hill. Because when you are in a race, you also want to go fast without going to hard. So having the right gearing is really the only way to do it. And of course, the second piece to that is when you’re approaching a hill, whether it’s for an interval or you’re just going to do a climb that’s steady, let your heart rate drop a little bit before you get to the hill. The tendency is to plow into that climb and hold onto the pace or power that you’re doing –
Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. That’s what I do!
Mark: – until all of a sudden you’re starting to blow up and things are getting too hard. When you’re on a hill and you’ve gone too hard, it’s nearly impossible to drop it back down easy enough to really recover well. So my rule of thumb is always to go into it easier, easier than you know you’re going to be climbing at, and then slowly build into whatever your climbing pace or power or heart rate is going to be. Then if you start to go a little bit over the edge, you just drop it back a little bit, and everything stays within a steady, controlled state. But when you’re hammering up that first part, thinking, “I’m going to use this momentum to get over this ten‑mile climb!” No, you’re not. That’s when it’s harder to recover.
Andrew: Again, where I live it’s not remotely hilly enough at all to properly do this, but I imagine for a lot of athletes, if they know there’s a certain hill on their route or near that route, you can probably even time it to where the harder intervals in your workout are done going up that hill, where gravity pulling against you is going to help you increase your wattage, and then recover, turn around and go back down that downhill. On the bike that’s using your gears, on the run that’s just easing up the pace and increasing the pace doing downhill. So I’m wondering this as coaches as well, because there are all sorts of different patterns of intervals, there’s different types of workouts we have within our training week with TriDot. As coaches, do you feel like if somebody lives somewhere truly hilly where it’s difficult to navigate a certain workout in a certain terrain, are there certain sessions that you find are just best done on something like a track or a treadmill or even a bike trainer to avoid terrain? Or is it just good for us to get out there into the wild, and power through those ups and downs, even if it means that we might not get the highest TrainX score possible? Coach Verbie, what do you think?
Jason: I think the only one that really matters is your assessments. I would say find a flat place for the assessment to get a really true gauge. Again, we’re lucky that TriDot can take in all that consideration, and it reads how much elevation you had and takes it into consideration. The best thing, if my athletes don’t have any flat ground around them or anything, is to make sure for the assessments to use the same place every time for your bike, if they don’t have the trainer, or for the run. Make sure you’re always riding that same pathway or whatever you’re going to be on. Otherwise, I always say go for it. You’ve got to get out there, and that’s when you learn the best, trying a different workout on this steep terrain, or if it’s really downhill, just trying to get it figured out. That’s going to help you learn, because if you start traveling for races, you’re not going to be able to ride those courses beforehand. You might just be showing up that day of. So knowing how to use your gears and being able to adapt to that other terrain is going to help a lot.
Andrew: That’s a great thought about definitely making sure your assessments every single month are done somewhere consistent, done somewhere where you’re in control of your pace, on flat terrain if possible. I know for me, I even like taking some of those run workouts that have a lot of Zone 5 particular – like MAV shuttles where I’m sprinting, or a Zone 5 interval workout where my Zone 5 is under a 6‑minute mile – I like being on a track, just to be able to get my feet spinning at a predictable cadence at that speed. But that’s just me, and that’s just on the really speedy run stuff. Coach Mark, for you working with your athletes, are there certain sessions you like to see done in a more controlled environment, or are you like Jason where you just like to see your athletes get out there and challenge themselves with the terrain?
Mark: I think it’s good to mix it up. Triathlon is partially a speed sport, but also an endurance and strength sport, and there’s nothing like riding or running in hills to give you added strength. Even if you’re going easy, you’re really working your muscles, you’re engaging more muscle, you have more muscle recruitment because there is very little floating that goes on. If you’re on the flat, cycling or running, you can kind of float. But when you’re going up a hill, even if your heart rate is low, you’re engaging a lot more muscle groups to keep the momentum going, otherwise you stop. So I like to have people mix it up. Let’s say you do have a hilly race coming up, whether it’s cycling and/or a running course that’s going to have that. I like people to do some of the faster workouts on a very flat terrain, because that way you really do get the leg turnover, you’re generating watts in the aero position, muscle patterning going, it's really valuable to get that. Then on some other days, if you have hills or if you are on a trainer, you can put it in a bigger gear and sit upright like you’re climbing. Or if you’re on a treadmill, elevate it and do some of those faster sessions elevated as if climbing terrain. That’s what I did. I would do very controlled quarters and thousands and such on the track, but then I would do fartlek workouts on rolling or hilly terrain for both cycling and running. Great way to get this real overall balance of fitness that will serve you well. There really are very few courses that are absolutely dead flat or just climbing half of the entire race.
Andrew: Yeah, just listening to this, you guys are really encouraging me to do less of the track and do more around town in my own workouts, so thank you for that. Let’s talk a little bit about running form when it comes to hills. Mark, you touched on that just a little bit. I’ve never considered that on flat terrain and your run cadence, the ability for your legs to just float a little bit with every single stride, whereas going uphill, you don’t necessarily have that. I see some athletes around town, they just look like they glide up and down any certain grade or hill, and if I look that way, I certainly don’t feel that way when I’m running up and down a hill. Is there anything, Mark, that we need to be doing in our technique to more smoothly run up and down hills?
Mark: Well, one thing that I try to do is on the uphills, not let my cadence rate drop too much. The natural tendency is to slow down, and you get into almost a slogging feel, but I would try to really shorten my stride up and keep a relatively good cadence rate going, even when I was going up, both cycling and running. Then on downhills, cycling obviously a lot of times you’re gliding, but when you’re running, I always try to really have that sensation like I was floating as opposed to pounding. It takes practice. I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert on downhill running, there are guys who are much faster than I am on downhills, that’s just sort of you have the ability to really turn your legs over really, really fast, so you can take advantage of that downhill gravity. I don’t have that much fast twitch, so I couldn’t get my turnover fast enough to take advantage of that sort of downhill float. So those are what my tips would be for people, just focus on that cadence on the uphill.
Andrew: Great notes there on the uphill. I know for me on the downhill, I would say I’m not bad at running downhill, but I’m not great at it. I always try to have a mentality of the faster I can get my legs turning, it’s just free speed, letting gravity do the work to pull you downhill. Coach Jason, are you a pretty good downhill runner?
Jason: I’m okay. I feel like I’m pretty good, not too shabby.
Andrew: From our experience running up and down mountains, what technique do you like to see in your athletes as you coach them on running up and down hills?
Jason: For me, when I’m going uphill, a lot of times there’s a tendency to lean too far forward, and it closes off the motion for your hips, it kind of tightens that up. So for me, I try to keep my cadence going, as Mark said, and I really try to stand more tall and get my leg fully extended back and drive with my hips as I’m going up, and just keep my cadence quick up the hill. Then when I go down, sometimes we have a tendency to lean back a little bit, and we’re changing our foot strike and we’re kind of driving down with our heel, and that’s almost slowing us down. So I just try to lean forward. My thought is “lean and go”, I just try to lean and go and let that gravity help out.
Mark: That is such a good point on the downhill. It causes a lot more pounding on your legs, so you get muscle breakdown when you add that heel striking, when you’re putting on the brakes by hour heel hitting the ground first on those downhills. That’s one of the best things that Jason said, to try to keep that lean a little bit forward, so you’re not having the heel being your braking mechanism on a downhill. What did you say, “lean and go”?
Jason: Lean and go!
Andrew: Yeah, lean forward, embrace that free speed, get the cadence going, have faster twitch muscles than Mark Allen does. On the bike, there are certainly triathletes who have zero fear bombing down a descent. I for one am not one of them. I remember before the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, there was a magazine piece about Gwen Jorgensen specifically taking extra time to train her descending skills, because she knew she was a tentative descender. She knew that wasn’t a strength of hers, and the hilly course for the Olympics in Rio would require some good descending if she was going to walk away with a medal. So for triathletes like Gwen, like myself, who know that their descending skills could be better, how should we approach improving our downhills on a bike? Coach Verbie, what do you think?
Jason: Well, the biggest thing, I feel a lot of it’s mental. We’re scared to crash, right? We’re scared to overdo it coming to a corner too hot. The hard part is, most of it is getting out there and doing it. If you are racing, try to out there before the race and maybe do that downhill section a couple times, getting used to where the turns are. Or go out with somebody who is a good descender and follow their lines down the hill, watching and learning what they’re doing. That helps out tremendously, to see how are they taking that corner, when are they braking, those two things. And again, instead of, “I hate going down hills!” you have to turn it over in your head to, “I love downhills!” Like TriDot Pool School, “I love swimming!” So you know, “I love going down hills!” You start having more fun, and with more fun, you get the speed going a little bit more, taking it at your pace to start out, and trying to keep gradually getting better at it.
Andrew: We were in St. George for 70.3 Worlds maybe a year and a half ago. I wasn’t there racing, I was there supporting, and after the race we were out to eat with a lot of the TriDot athletes that raced 70.3 Worlds in St. George, just hearing their stories from the race day, chitchatting and having a good time. One of the conversation points for the evening was, “What was the fastest speed you hit going down any of the hills?” It was just fascinating hearing people’s responses to that. The fastest I have hit myself personally was like 39½ miles per hour, that was on a downhill in Greece, but it was much higher than that for most people that did St. George that day. Verbie, what’s the fastest you’ve ever hit going down a descent in one of your races?
Jason: I want to say it’s either 57 or 61.
Andrew: And how did you feel at 57 to 61?
Jason: You know, I had perfect conditions. I was on the Big Island, Hawaii, doing an extreme race. Mark probably knows the hill, where the satellites are up on top, and it was dropping down towards Kona. I had perfect conditions, where the road was perfectly blacktopped, I had a little bit of breeze, some tailwind, there were no cars, and I was in aero just bombing it. I was thinking, “I couldn’t get better conditions.” I felt perfectly at ease. I was passing the director’s car out there, and then after the race he was like, “I couldn’t believe you were passing me.” The speed limit was 55, and I was going by him. It was one of those no‑turns, it was smooth, it was perfect conditions. I could probably never hit that again, but that day, with that race, it was unbelievable.
Andrew: When I’m riding my bike, I never question my bike. I never think my bike’s going to fall apart, I never think about a mechanical happening, until I’m going over 30 miles an hour on a bike going downhill, and then all of a sudden the thought creeps in the back of your head like, “What if my front wheel just fell off right now? What if the skewer isn’t attached all the way?” All these things start running through your head that never run through your head at any other speed and any other terrain. Mark, for you, what was the fastest you ever hit in your career?
Mark: I was probably training in Colorado, and it was in the low 50’s, 50 miles an hour, and that scared the sh** right out of my body, I swear to god. I’m not a good descender, I’ll be the first to admit that. I always tell people that I have had exactly ten good descents in my life, and they were all at the Nice triathlon, every year of the ten I raced there.
Andrew: Wow, what timing!
Mark: As far as how do you get better descending, for sure it comes through practice. It’s something you gain by doing it more and more, especially if there’s an aspect of descending that intimidates you. For me, it wasn’t necessarily going around curves, it was going fast. I don’t care how straight and perfect the road was, like you said, you hit over a certain miles per hour and all of a sudden everything just feels, “Oh, this is sketchy.” But if you have friends that are really good at descending, follow their line. You’ll see how it might differ from how you would take a turn. I tended to go into the tight part of the turn too early, instead of swinging wide and then coming into the close part of the turn later through the turn. If you come in early, then all of a sudden you tend to swing out instead of pulling in. Another thing you can do is on that inside hand, if you actually put a little pressure on that inside hand on your handle bars, all of a sudden you feel like you’re in a groove that wants to make that turn go. It sort of is counter-intuitive. You think, “I put my weight on that outside hand.” You put your outside leg down and weight on that outside leg, but then if you put a little bit of pressure on that inside handlebar, it’ll actually force the bike to turn right through that curve.
Andrew: Those are interesting.
Mark: So anyway, practice, practice, practice. That’s the best way.
Andrew: When I was coaching kids, we would always tell them exactly what you said, Mark, in terms of the outside leg is down, the inside leg is up. That’s also a pedal issue, just to make sure your inside pedal doesn’t hit the ground as you’re leaning into that turn. I haven’t heard the inside hand tip before, so I’m eager to go try that out myself. We would always tell the kids, “Wherever your eyes are looking, that’s where the bike is going to go.” Wherever in the turn you’re wanting to steer, if you’re scared and you’re nervous, and your eyes are darting around, well guess what, you’re going to have a wobbly turn. If you look where you want to go, and you get the inside leg up, you get the inside hand, like Mark’s talking about, weighted towards the inside of the curve, and you look where you want to go, the bike’s going to go where you’re looking. It’s magical, it’s amazing, and the more you do it, the better and the more comfortable you get at it. I’m speaking for myself as well, I should practice these things. I remember when I first started riding, the first couple times I hit 20 miles an hour, I thought that just felt wildly fast on a bike. Now 20 feels pretty mundane, and 30‑ish feels pretty wild and fast. So I imagine I just need to ride that a little bit more often, and then maybe I’ll get more comfortable.
Let’s talk a little bit more about racing now. This is all very, very good notes for our training. I’m learning a lot, I know our folks at home are too. When I chose my very first 70.3, that was really the first time I started scouting course maps and started looking at the elevation profiles in advance. I did not want to get myself in over my head knowing that I was training in not-very-hilly Dallas, particularly with climbs on the bike. What advice do you give your athletes when it comes to considering elevation gains and losses when considering a race? Jason, what do you think?
Jason: Well, I’m the wrong person to ask that, because I look for the exact opposite of you, Andrew.
Andrew: Not for you! Your athletes, okay?
Jason: When they ask me that, I tell them the same thing too. I’m like, “I’m the wrong person to ask for that, I look specifically for the elevation.” But what I try to tell them is, “If this is something you want to do, we can get you ready for it. If you want to take a race-cation to Greece or Nepal or Nice, France, and looking at the elevation is holding you back,” I tell them, “Don’t. If this is something you want, you’ve got to go for it. You’re going to love it. We’ll get you used to it, we’ll get you strong, we’ll get the legs ready for the climb, if that’s what you really want to do.” I tell them, “Don’t’ hold back.” You can’t hold back on your dreams, or “maybe later”. You gotta go for it. That’s how I try to live it.
Andrew: Okay, so we should look at elevation, be aware of it, but not be freaked out by it. Coach Mark, what do you think here?
Mark: There’s a couple answers to that. I always try to get my athletes to hone in on what’s the purpose for going to a particular race. Is it because they are attracted to that place like, “Why wouldn’t I want to race in Greece? I don’t care what the course is like, I want to go to Greece!” Then for sure, I don’t care where you live, we’re going to get you ready. But if you’re not necessarily drawn to a particular course and you have three options, then I suggest to people, “Okay, look at the terrain profile and pick the one that is best suited to your natural abilities, and your ability to relatively easily train for it properly.” So if you live in Dallas and you just are not a good climber, and you probably know that because your body type, you’re never going to win a hilltop race, then maybe pick a race that has more rolling terrain or relatively flat course profile, so that your experience is good. Again, there’s at least two things that go into a race choice decision. One is, race the places that you’re attracted to go to, and regardless of the terrain, we’ll get you ready. The second is to go to a race where it suits your natural talents and likes. You just don’t like hills? Then why would you go to Lanzarote? That kind of a question.
Andrew: Lanzarote is a race I would love to do. I’ve seen pictures, it looks like you’re racing on Mars. That is one where the hills would probably terrify me. Maybe we should do a TriDot Ambassador Camp in Lanzarote, just all go swim and ride there and hang out with the pros that are there. I think the biggest challenge, heading uphill in a race, is managing our effort on those uphills. It’s really easy to raise that heart rate really fast when the hills start coming up. What is the best approach here on race day? When we get to a hill, should we keep it a steady, manageable effort and get up the thing in due time, or should we work a little harder and try to get that hill behind us? Coach Mark?
Mark: I always like to have people test out what effort can they sustain for that length of time without blowing up, and when you get in the race, you’ve got to stick to that. So yes, it is a race, and you can probably can go a little bit harder than you were able to sustain in training. But if you have that knowledge base – and you should have it, through the experience of the workouts you get in TriDot, and also with the help of your coach – figuring out, “Okay, I know that I can hold 160 beats a minute for twenty minutes on a climb without blowing up, but if I go up to 165, I’m going to blow.” So when you’re in the race, and you’re at the bottom of the climb and you’re already at 170, do you think that’s smart? I don’t think so! So gain that experience in your training, and if you blow up in training, that’s a low‑risk, high‑reward situation. It’s like, “Okay, I see I cannot do that, so when I’m in the race, I will not do that.” That’s what you want to know.
Andrew: I definitely want to mention, as we’re talking about race pacing here a little bit, for all of our athletes listening, if you are a TriDot athlete, within your TriDot app there obviously is RaceX, that is your race pacing guide. You plug in the exact race course you’re doing, it knows your fitness, and it’s going to tell you what wattage, what paces, what intensities you should be holding on each of those uphills or downhills. It’s really cool. It’s cool to see how far RaceX has come, because when I first came on board as a TriDot athlete, RaceX didn’t do all of that. What RaceX did at the time was it would tell you for short hills to hold this power, if it was a longer hill hold this power, if you were on a flat – Jason’s nodding his head because he remembers – so you just had to kind of go off the duration of the hill, then you had to go by certain wattages. But now RaceX will tell you down to the watt where you’re at on course, what wattage you should be holding. So definitely make sure, whatever races you have on the calendar this year, to put them in RaceX and see what RaceX thinks you should be holding on each corner of the course. If you’re not a TriDot athlete, you’re not training with us, that’s okay. We still love you, we’re glad you’re listening. You can actually hop on RaceX without being a TriDot athlete and play around with it and see what you think, see what it tells you to do for your races. It’s a really, really cool tool, myracex.com. I didn’t script this as a question, but as we’re talking hills, I’m curious to hear – Mark, for you throughout your career, and Verbie as you’re racing now – if you guys on your bike ever change your cassette, use different gear ratios for courses that maybe had steeper hills versus being flatter. Mark, did you do that at all when you were racing?
Mark: Absolutely. There was a half‑Ironman in St. Croix, and there was a climb called The Beast. I had heard that it was very, very steep and you needed a little teeny-weeny gear there, otherwise you’re going to be walking. So back then, we actually didn’t have as broad of a range of options, like when I first raced a ten‑speed it actually was a bike with only ten speeds, it wasn’t ten just on the back. Anyway the first year I did that, I put a much easier gear on the bike, and even with that I barely made it up, so the second time that I raced there, I put an even easier gear. But for sure, for the course that you’re going to be on, make sure you’ve asked around to make sure that you have enough of the right gearing for the terrain you’re going to be on. Absolutely, that’s a big key to having a great experience, especially in a hilly race on the bike.
Andrew: Definitely a great thing to consult with your coach on, or your bike fitter. I know when I did Greece, I wish I would have just had one or two easier gears. I was in my easiest gear, and it was an L‑shaped course, so it was just like, uphill one way, downhill that way, uphill another way, downhill another way. Every single time on the uphills, I was just like, “Man, if I had one more easier gear.” I was 30, 40 watts over what I was supposed to be holding for an hour at a time, just because I didn’t have one or two more easier gears. Verbie, for you, as you do these extreme challenges, are you switching your gear ratio out from race to race?
Jason: Oh definitely, yeah. It’s weird, because some people seem to take pride in, “I climbed this much and I only had 11-28 on the back of my bike!” And I’m like, “But why? They make all these gears, make it easier on yourself!”
Andrew: Yeah, exactly what you guys said in the beginning, use your gears!
Jason: Yeah, it’s not a macho thing that you climbed it in the big ring, “I stayed in the big ring up front!” Yeah, now you smoked your legs, have fun on that run! But yeah, I definitely change mine. If I think I can do it in an 11‑30 for the gearing in the back, well I’m going to go to an 11‑32 just to make sure I have those couple extra, just in case. I would rather have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.
Andrew: So what goes up on race day must come down on race day, that is just good science, good math. For both the run and the bike, on race day – we talked a little bit in training about some tips for leaning forward, letting the legs spin – but on race day, how can we optimize our speed on the downhills? Mark?
Mark: Well, that goes to the gear selection. Like in Kona, when the guys are going 55, 55 miles an hour with that tailwind. If you can take advantage of that by being able to actually keep pressure on the pedals because you have a big enough gear, you can make up huge amounts of time. It may not be that important to you to make up a lot of time, but if you can make time on your other competitors, why not? But again, that comes down to having a big enough gear on a downhill to actually not spin out. I kind of took the easy route, and if it was a hilly course with a lot of fast downhills, I didn’t worry too much about having this massive gear, because I figure if I’m going that fast, I’m just going to cruise and drink and eat something, and take advantage of that.
Andrew: That’s my philosophy, but I’m not an Ironman World Champion. It’s a cool thing, Mark, I’m actually glad that you said that. Within the RaceX settings, you can tell RaceX at what speed you plan to stop pedaling going downhill. So if you’re one of those guys or gals that wants to optimize every single watt, you’re going to bomb it on the downhill and keep pedaling, keep watts to the pedals, you can tell RaceX that. But if you’re like me and you’re a scaredy cat, and you know that once you’re going 35 miles an hour you’re going to stop pedaling and just coast, you can tell it that, and it will optimize your wattage accordingly, so a really cool tool there. Verbie for you, what are your thoughts on optimizing the downhills on race day?
Jason: I’m the same with Mark, and you too, Andrew. Once I get to a certain speed, most of the time you’re spinning out and there’s no use to it, my thought’s the same thing. Let’s just take this free speed, stop spinning the legs, let’s get something to drink, let’s really concentrate on that breathing, here’s a chance to get the heart rate down and just relax. It’s going to be a long day, if you’re racing an Ironman or a 70.3, so let’s take this little extra time to get that heart rate down a little lower and get in the nutrition, and take that little break.
Andrew: Do you try to descend in aero as much as possible? Is that something we should be mindful of, whether we’re having our hands on the base bars because we’re scaredy cats, or trying to stay in aero, is that really saving us that much time on downhills at all? Is that an important thing for us to think about?
Jason: For me, it depends on the course. If I know there’s turns, as soon as I start going a certain speed, my hands are out of aero, I’m on the hoods and I’ve got one finger on the brakes, just in case something happens. If I know it’s a long, steady hill, I’ll stay down in aero, because I’ve got the XLAB between my arms, so I’ll be sipping some nutrition and taking that little nap, that little breather. But that’s only if I know it’s a long straight shot, and hoping nothing runs in front of me or comes out.
Andrew: Most of us, myself included, on race day we’re out there doing the best that we can do for ourselves. The competition is not the primary factor. But we do have listeners out there, TriDot Podcast audience members, and the competition for them is for real. When they’re on course, they are racing. So Mark, you were very good at this – and Verbie I imagine you’ve got some stories here as well – but if it’s race day, we’re out on course racing people, how can we use the hills strategically while battling somebody on a hilly course? Mark Allen?
Mark: One thing to remember is that the hills are only part of the race. When you’re on a hilly course, the emphasis seems to be placed on, “I’m going to hammer the hills and drop everybody.” Well, you’ve got the downhills, and you probably still have a lot of flat in there also. Then you’ve got this thing called the run that’s going to come afterwards. So as much as it’s easy to focus attention on climbs on a hilly course, I think it’s very important to, as we’ve all said, stick to your race plan and not try to win the race because you gain 30 seconds on somebody on an uphill. You don’t want to burn all your matches on those uphills. Understand the watts you can hold, the heart rate that you can hold without blowing up, so that you can get off the bike fresh enough to have a really good run. Keep in mind, the differences in a good or bad swim in any triathlon are minimal. The difference between a good or bad bike starts to get a little bit larger. The difference between a good or bad run at an Ironman can be an hour. So you want to stay on it, but at the same time conserve enough energy so that when you get off that bike, you can still run.
Andrew: Very well said. Verbie, anything you want to add here from your racing experience?
Jason: No, I’m exactly what Mark said. I do have a tendency once in a while, if I’m in the hills with my friends – it’s more often during a training ride, but I have done it once on a race day – somebody’s back there and you keep seeing them back there, and you know the course, like it might be an uphill with quite a bit of curves and they’re a couple hundred yards back. I’ll get around a curve, and as soon as I know they can’t see me, I will burn a match and I will hammer, I try to get away. I want them to get around that curve, and me either be so far up they’re like, “What did he do??” or I’m around the next curve already and they can’t see me. I’m just trying to crush their soul going, “Where the heck did he go?!” I mainly only do that when I’m out with my friends and we’re in the hills, and we just mess with each other, but that can really take the wind out of your sail, if you’re thinking you’re gaining on someone else. I’ve had it done to me plenty of times myself, where they do the same thing. I’ll come around that corner and I’ll be like, “They’re gone!” And all that momentum I had, I just kind of, “Agh! Well, they’re gone now, I’m just going to drop down into a lower power zone, the bottom of the power range I’m supposed to be at.” So you can kind of use that as your advantage, just to kind of mess with their head. It does take some steam out of them.
Cool down theme: Great set everyone! Let’s cool down.
Vanessa Ronksley: Well hello there everyone! I’m Vanessa, your Average Triathlete with Elite-Level Enthusiasm! I’m excited to have Jared Kaminski join me today from Cameron, North Carolina, where he teaches Advanced Placement Environmental Science at a high school. He is also a USA Swim coach, and coaches with TAC Titans in Cary, North Carolina. Jared started training and racing triathlon in 2019, and has since become a multiple Ironman finisher. He is an All World Athlete for 2023, and a 2023 USAT Age‑Group National Qualifier. He began coaching with TriDot over a year ago, and specializes in athletes who are beginner and intermediate, as well as anyone who wants to improve their swim. One thing that most people don’t know about Jared is that he is actually a trained archeologist. So tell us Jared, what kind of archeology did you specialize in?
Jared Kaminsky: Hi Vanessa! I was trained in both what you would call classical archaeology, so that would be Greek and Roman art and architecture and identification, as well as using GIS and GPS and computer programming for modeling sites.
Vanessa: Oh cool, that’s awesome. When you said archeology, I mean the typical thing that comes to someone’s mind is dinosaurs, right? It’s neat that you think “classic” is not dinosaurs.
Jared: Right, yeah. More of “Here’s an open geode with what looks like nothing in it,” and we use different instruments like ground-penetrating radar and some other fancy toys to see underground, and if we see something that looks kind of cool, we open up a test trench and see what we can find, and try to tell the story of who used to be there beforehand.
Vanessa: That is really fascinating. So let’s hear what tip you have for us today, Jared!
Jared: Well, with a swimming background and being in the pool a lot and being around people who love swimming a lot, I think the tip I have today is learning how to do a flip turn while you are going through your swim workouts for TriDot. It is a little intimidating if you’ve never done it before, but it does help you maintain speed in and out of your walls so that you can swim more efficiently, and you can hit your zones a little easier, because you’re not coming to a full stop in between each repeat. It makes you faster, so your zones now get to become a little harder. Then during your open swim or your Masters practice, you get to be one of the cool kids who knows how to do flip turns.
Vanessa: That’s funny. So I once thought that it would be a good idea to learn how to flip turn, and I subsequently watched YouTube videos and practiced for a couple of weeks. I was feeling really proud of myself for learning a new skill, and the lifeguard came over to me in the middle of my workout and said, “Are you okay? It looks like you’re struggling in the water.”
Jared: Oh no!
Vanessa: It was the last time I did a flip turn. I was really embarrassed.
Jared: It can be complicated. I think the biggest complaint that we get with people learning how to do it is water going up your nose. The easiest solution to that is actually exhaling as you rotate, as you flip. Then some people say they feel like it’s taking them longer to do a flip turn than to touch and go. If you are able to find some videos through Speedo, they’ve got some great step-by-step videos on YouTube. The mistake some people make is they’ll flip into the wall, then they’ll rotate onto their stomach underwater, then they’ll push off. If you’re executing a flip turn correctly, you should flip into the wall, feet are going to contact towards our back, and we’re actually going to push off on our back and then rotate onto our stomach as we’re coming out of that turn underwater.
Vanessa: Right, I think that’s the part where I went totally wrong, because I was so uncomfortable being on my back and pushing off the wall that I would turn before my feet touched my wall, and then push on my front. So that’s something that I definitely need to work on. Do you have a couple little things for the best advice that you could tell someone to get started, like the first step or two that someone could do to give this a try?
Jared: Yeah, so the first thing that we always have people who are learning to do it is just float out in the middle of the pool, float on the surface, hands down at your sides, and just do a somersault. Just get comfortable doing a complete somersault all the way back up to the surface, and do that over and over. Then the second thing that we have them do is we’ll then arms at our sides, and we’ll have them kick towards the wall, and when they feel they’re close enough to the wall, they’ll flip and just stick their feet to the wall. Once you get comfortable doing that, then it’s flip, stick, and push off on your back. Then it’s push and rotate, and then you can try swimming into the wall. From there, shocking to a lot of people who aren’t really into swimming too much, is that marking on the bottom of the pool that terminates at a T at each end, is a set distance from the wall. We usually have everybody, when your eyes get directly over that T part, you’ve got about one stroke that you should be taking, and then initiating your flip turn from there.
Vanessa: Ah ha! That seems like the key to success right there!
Jared: Yeah, that marking at the bottom of the pool is there for a reason, it’s not just to keep you going straight, it’s to let you know your distance from the wall to help you with your turns.
Vanessa: Wow, you learn something new every day! Thanks so much for joining me on the cooldown, Jared, that was a great tip, and I can’t wait to start flip turning in the water!
Jared: Absolutely, good luck!
Outro: Thanks for joining us. Make sure to subscribe and share the TriDot podcast with your triathlon crew. For more great tri content and community, connect with us on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Ready to optimize your training? Head to TriDot.com and start your free trial today! TriDot – the obvious and automatic choice for triathlon training.