TriDot Check-In with Coach Natasha Van Der Merwe

NATASHA VAN DER MERWE is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Elite Team.  In her first full year as a pro triathlete, she qualified for 70.3 Worlds. Natasha has coached more than 200 athletes covering all aspects of the sport from functional strength training to technique on the swim, bike, and run. Her athletes have qualified for 70.3 Worlds in their first year of triathlon, qualified for USAT Nationals, finished Ironmans much faster than they expected, and PR'd at all race distances. Her full Ironman PR is 9:29. Her half Ironman PR is 4:27.

What is your background in sports and triathlon?

I was born and raised in South Africa, where I grew up playing tennis. From about age 12, I traveled for tennis, being home only a few months out of the year. After high school, I went professional. At 18, I lived in Germany for almost a year, traveled around playing tennis, then moved to the United States when I was 21.

In 2009, I ran my first triathlon. I had been coaching tennis and a friend who was a triathlete wanted me to give the sport a try. I had been a swimmer from the ages of five to nine, but hadn’t biked much except to school as a child – and it was mostly the biking aspect of triathlon that scared me! I did my first race, however, and just loved it and it went from there!

How many triathlons have you competed in and what distances were they?

A lot! I can’t even tell you the number, but I’ve completed all distances from super sprint to Ironman. I’ve completed nine Ironmans, over a dozen half Ironmans, and 30+ Olympic and sprint distance races.

Which distance is your favorite and why?

Truthfully, I like the short distances. There’s something in the sprint. You’re racing for such a short amount of time. It’s about how hard you can push yourself and how much you can allow yourself to hurt. Fueling and pacing really go out the window. I found out I can push my body above and beyond what I thought it could do. I can push my body to extreme limits, push the pain threshold. You can’t do that in a long race because your body can’t sustain that, and fueling and correct pacing becomes an issue.

What has kept you competing?

I think for most athletes, you’re never satisfied. There are always more components to put together: the perfect swim, perfect T1 and T2, the perfect bike and run. Even if you don’t feel strong, you learn how to push through mentally. You want to quit when you get that fear, “Am I not good enough?” I think we all strive to do better, to be better, and that’s what keeps us coming back. We learn so much from triathlon that applies outside of the sport, into life, about being stronger and not giving up. It’s about perseverance.

What attracted you to be a triathlon coach for TriDot?

The data is proven and effective. That makes sense to me. The ease – especially in coaching an athlete – of tracking the progress and not having to spend valuable coaching time writing plans.

Everything is written out for swim, bike, and run. It just allows me to trust the program, and provide feedback and encouragement to athletes, which as a coach is what I love to do! So many coaches spend hours producing plans of how much duration, how much frequency, how much intensity, etc. There’s no need to do that with TriDot. It works all that out for me. It enables me to focus on building relationships with my athletes, which is what I really want to do.

What are your greatest challenges in working with triathletes?

What’s crazy is that we spend most of our time trying to hold them back or slow them down. Everyone is so driven by results, and triathlon is their chance to be the athlete they always wanted to be when they were growing up. You get to embrace everything you’re doing on a new level, and everyone wants to improve performance so badly that it’s difficult to have them slow down a bit so they can have longevity and not burn out. It’s pushing them forward while finding the balance so they stay in the sport – and also balancing their personal life so that that doesn’t get thrown out the window!

How do you help athletes balance their personal lives?

When speaking with athletes about their training, we address the fact that their training has to fit within their life and family schedule and not overwhelm it. You have such specific training day after day. It’s ok if you miss a day. I just want to assure them that it is necessary to keep in place the priority of family first and keep things in perspective. Everything will work out ok even if they miss a session due to a family commitment.

When thinking about the athletes you coach, what are the greatest TriDot benefits they experience?

The best benefit of TriDot is athletes can trust their training plan. TriDot’s online system keeps track of their specific data, what they’re trying to achieve, and their target paces in swim, bike, and run. This tells them how hard, how long, and how far they need to run, and they’re able to record it every day and get their specifics. Every workout is a benchmark so it lets them know that if they just complete the workout, they are getting fitter or faster since the workout is a progression from the week before. The data also gets emailed to the coach, so it maintains the relationship between the athlete and coach and everyone is on the same page.

Is there a success story you are most proud of as a coach?

I feel like every athlete is a success story! Everyone has such a different story. It’s an accomplishment when you take someone who was never an athlete, who was maybe a smoker or never played any sport as a child, and you go with them all the way through an Ironman. Or if you take an athlete who may have been a soccer player in college, or an athlete growing up, and now they can be an even better athlete thirty years later as a triathlete and set new goals to achieve.

It’s great to see all the levels in triathlon coaching. It brings a challenge and that keeps you engaged because you’re trying to perfect three different sports. It keeps you striving for more. It’s a mental challenge and a physical challenge, seeing all levels and trying to figure it all out.

How do you keep athletes mentally motivated in such a grueling sport?

I think for the most part, people need just encouragement and to be told they can do this. There are so many people out there trying to tell you that you can’t or waiting to put you down (themselves included). Often, we get too much into comparing ourselves to other people.

I try to keep athletes focused on their own results: Are you becoming a better person? Are you better than you were that you were a month ago? Don’t get so wrapped up in what other people are doing. I feel that I bring perspective to the situation. Sometimes our perspective goes out the window when we get competitive with other people or get overly focused. My job is to bring things into perspective and give encouragement.

How do you balance your own personal competing with coaching?

I do still race while coaching. I feel it’s a benefit to me as a coach, and also to my athletes. I’m able to experience the things they’re doing, and hopefully make the mistakes for them and share with them what happens. It allows me to know exactly what they’re going through. I know when I ‘m completely exhausted and I’m pushing myself too hard, my husband says, “What would you ask your athletes to do?” I say, “Ah, rest and let my body relax!”

When I see my athletes pushing themselves to do better, to improve, it inspires and motivates me as well to do the same.

On pain: I feel like you can train the pain. TriDot has taken me to another level on this one. TriDot workouts are hard. I have found they prepare you mentally as well as physically. Their workouts are going to get you in great physical shape and great mental shape as well.

The mental game that comes from that transfers to a race. It allows you to press through the pain threshold. If you can get through the TriDot workouts, you can get through the race!

Closing remark on TriDot:

TriDot takes the guesswork out of training. I think when it comes down to it, if you work hard with the right volume, frequency, and intensity, you’re going to get better. TriDot just lays it out for you. You’re saving all the energy spent on what to do and how to put together three sports correctly, so now you’re focused on how to execute what they give you.

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