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An evening with Joe Friel & Ryan Bolton

I had the pleasure on Friday night of attending a talk given by two fairly well-known people in the endurance sports world. It was hosted by the The Bike Shop in Glen Ellyn and featured USAT/USAC Elite-level training coach Joe Friel--of Training Bible & Training Peaks fame--along with his protege, former Olympian Ryan Bolton. Ryan now coaches, among others, a small group of Kenyan distance runners in New Mexico.

Since this blog usually ends up being read by a pretty wide mix of parents, athletes, friends, family, etc., I probably should give a little background on myself before I discuss what I took away from the seminar...I spent a pretty big chunk of my life under the guidance of coaches when I was younger. Some good. Some not so good. As a 3-sport athlete I got quite a bit of experience between wrestling, as a sprinter on the track, and then cross country. When I came back to running in 2009 after a decade off, the thought never crossed my mind that I would turn to a coach for my first marathon. It was just a given in my mind that I'd be self-coached. I picked a training plan that seemed realistic, my goal was just to finish, I was fairly certain I had the level of dedication required, and I trusted my research skills to guide me through questions.

I realize it's not like this for everyone. Some people need motivation, guidance, don't have the time, or just want somebody to give them a workout. To this day, 5 marathons later and preparing for my first triathlon, I pretty much remain the type of person who can get by on my own. My goals don't revolve around competing with anybody but myself, I know myself best, and really it avoids long explanations like this one. Especially when I sort of march to the beat of my own drummer. Yes, I use a training plan, but I train by feel quite a bit and tend to go with less-is-more. My recent PR at the Chicago Marathon, for instance, was on 3-4 days per week of training...only two running because I had a bike day or two with my new love for cycling.

But, interestingly, Joe and Ryan made me feel pretty good about some of the intuitive decisions I've made.

Ryan Bolton spoke first and covered mostly periodization. Which, for you non-sports types reading, is basically the idea that your weekly, monthly, yearly cycle of buildup happens in phases. You select points throughout the year to focus and have peaks and valleys leading to performance timing. It can get (overly) complicated to the non-geek. But Ryan also had a few choice things to say about coaching some elite-level Kenyan athletes. One key takeaway from him was the idea that "your base is as wide as your peak will be tall." Translation: that your fitness level, generally, impacts your ability to specifically train for a particular distance/race. So that the majority of your training needs to have little to do with your actual task. Lifting weights looks nothing like riding a bike for 2 hours, but your muscle strength and endurance will be directly impacted by how ready they are to get task-specific. Actual race prep will occupy a small window towards the end of your build...most of your training will be general, say, aerobic health. He also had interesting things to say about the taper phase and a preference for ending the hard work and going into maintenance 3 weeks out from your race and no later. Which seems like a long time until you realize that it leads to my favorite takeway up next. And that he kinda made fun of the people you see still trying to cram in workouts in the days before a big race. You're not going to get any fitter in that last week. Plus, here's the BIG POINT: recovery. He had some amusing stories about the Kenyans and their unique ability to listen to their bodies and rest. If they aren't feeling right or tired, they don't do the workout. And, he said, they take their recovery seriously. If it's a rest day, they rest. If Ryan tells them to sit on the couch for 8 hours that's exactly where he will find them in 8 hours.

Coach Friel's talk was very focused specifically on cycling...and especially on cycling technique. So I won't go into the nuts and bolts here--he's a big fan of using computer readouts to find power output, heart rate, etc.. Which I am not. If it sounds here like I was a bigger fan of Ryan, you're right. Not because I didn't enjoy what Joe had to say. It was eye-opening. It just fit my laidback style a little less. I enjoyed what he had to say about trying to produce pedal force earlier in the pedal rotation and never pull up--instead having a neutral placement on the pedals when going up. And he talked about cadence--a bitter topic among triathletes given the debate over fast cadence or slow. His thoughts go more to a range of cadences that you're able to do depending on the situation. But it was refreshing to hear I don't "need" to be a 90 rpm spinner. You can be a lower cadence cyclist and simply try to generate more power. Reading his blog (link below) I also enjoyed what he had to say about the attempt to pedal (or not) downhill. And, perhaps most useful and enlightening to me, was an offhand comment he made about an athlete reaching the point where the athlete knew what workouts he should be doing. By suggesting a routine to the coach, it was time to lose the coach. Because, back to my situation, why have a coach if you know what you need to be doing?

Overall, I found myself less hanging on their every word and more feeling better about where I am because so much of what they were saying was clarified with "it depends" (a favorite of Joe) and listen to your body. Especially when it comes to longterm goal-planning for Ironman, knowing what skills I need to work on, what fitness level I need to achieve, I have a lot more confidence in myself after hearing them. I can do this. No doubt. If I do the work.

That's the funny thing about endurance sports that I think people "outside" don't understand. Yes, it is physically demanding and difficult and some people are just born with the ability to achieve due to genetics and personality. I'm certainly never going to win in Kona or probably ever be on the podium at a local sprint tri. HOWEVER, the beauty of the sport is that you get exactly what you put into it. It's a fine balance of nutrition and pushing yourself just far enough and easing back, etc.. But, for the most part, if you input the work, your performance comes out the far end. Follow the plan and, surprise, you're running 26.2 miles.

Of course, the difficulty is trusting the plan. Ryan talked quite a bit about the hidden world of rabbits and pacing and people not staying at goal tempo then being surprised when they, as he would say, are "cooked." If you want to run a 4 hour marathon, here's the pace you need to GO THAT PACE!

Especially as I look ahead a year to Ironman, so much of hitting your goal is not getting caught up in other people or the rush of excitement. It's a long, long day of pushing. Just settle in and get it done. I've learned that hard lesson in the marathon. My personal motto is "relaxed and relentless." Stay calm and stay at it.

You can find Joe Friel online along with links to his books, coaching, and more at: