Sunday, April 11, 2010
Lassen Virén prepared with one focus in mind: coming to a peak for the Olympics. He accumulated thousands of kilometres of running in his local forests and in winter training destinations, running at gradually increasing intensities over intervening years to prepare a huge foundation from which to peak with his anaerobic work. All else was considered only as preparation, even European championships.
His story is interesting. The absolute dedication to Olympic victory is note-worthy given the distractions of a multiple of racing opportunities. Perhaps his secret, if there was one, was that his coach, Rolf Haikkola, put him through a training regime that was, for the time, extraordinarily rigorous. The schedule combined straightforward miles on the clock with fartlek, the Scandinavian tradition of changing the pace. It included periods of training at high altitude in South America and Africa; before Munich, Viren had spent three months in Kenya, training three times a day at 7,000 feet above sea level. The bulk of his training, though, remained running alone in the Finnish woods, 150 miles a week.
Viren prepared for the Olympics in a way that no one had before him; he was ruthlessly disciplined. Today he is widely considered to be a founder of modern athletics, the prime exponent of peak performance. "All my focus was on the Olympics," he said. "As they approached I would plan a year ahead, with systematic practice aimed at that certain date. This wasn't simply a case of physical preparation. It is the mental side which can be the deciding factor." Sisu sums it up. "It is the ability to endure and overcome any pain and challenge through mental strength."
Viren is good motivator for anyone focusing on the IM. Being on the Ironman wheel is fun. The very capacity to train appropriately for the event is rare and competiting at it, regardless of finish time or place, is special. Yet the journey to race day and to race it is muddy waters. With an influx of recreational athletes, the business side of triathlon is out there appealing to every Tom, Dick, and Harry that they should buy this, do that workout, and ingest this product. Shifting through the sand for gold is a tedious process for BOP and FOP self-taught athletes.
The strategy for training and racing an IM has been on my mind a lot the last two years. But recently, I've been able to apply life's little lessons to increase my knowledge base. The literatue base of triathlon training is small, IM even smaller, and far behind that of running and swimming. Ernest Maglischo's monograph Swimming Fastest spoiled me. Yet, triathlon is evolving. The blogs of Alan Couzens, Chuckie V, Team TBB "doc", Gordo Bryn, and others prove helpful. In their own separate ways we learn through them as athletes and coaches.
As for triathlon books, I haven't read a lot of them mainly because they're first generation genre: teaching you how to do your first triathlon. One of my favorite books in this category is Going Long by Gordon Bryn and Joel Friel. The title reaches out to their target audience--novices going long for the first time. It does a good job at introducing us to IM training while adding in some elite level tips. And not to gripe about the book too much, but it falls short on clarifying the nuances of novice versus elite and is too short on case studies. The other day I did pick up Brad Kearns' book Breakthrough Triathlon Training and was surprised at the content. Most of his material is profound in a simple way and applicable to those of us nearly toasting ourselves training week-in and week-out. His story of 200 versus 300 or even 700 miles of biking per week points out the high level of intuition the sport demands. Different folks need different pedal strokes - touche.
The other absence I see in the triathlon literature is benchmarking of swim, bike, run. That is, to do an IM swim in 60, you must be able to swim a 100yd Free in XX:YZ or some variation of that (I see that Alan Couzens, in his blog, is in the process of pointing out the physiological factors required to either complete, win your age-group, and win the the IM.). Explict definitions and training examples could clarify the fog that many of us float in. The McMillian tables for runners are great in this regard. Furthermore, I would love to see a case study of an athlete who progressed their IM bike split from a 5:45 to 5:15 or swim from a 58 to a 52. And it not just a matter of doing it, who did matters as well. We learn more from a 5th or 6th time IM participant who has breakthrough performance rather than a 2nd or 3rd time participant. From personal experience, the gains in years 1-3 are from simply putting in another year of training. For those with ongoing weaknesses the problem is no longer "more is more." Doing more 100 mile rides or adding in another 3K swim each week isn't going to help but many of us just see the answer answer as "more." The progress from BOP to MOP to FOP to Elite/Pro is, I suspect, a 5-8 year process in IM. So what does it take and how? How this occurs is what fascinates me and a trench that more triathlon authors should stake out.
When I was first introduced to IM, I badly wanted to sign up. However, an acquitance that I greatly respected in the sport told me "respect the distance" and advised me to hold off until my fitness was better. He was right, I was in the process of coming off a five year hiatus from athletics. So I waited until I acquired more money to afford the sport and soak in bike training which was completely new to me. A few years later I attended an IM training clinic held by four FOP racers (Dave Diamond, Terry Labinski, Eric Davis, and Heather Haviland), still a few years out from doing my first IM. I was captivated by their training volume, intensity, and periodization. But I also found that there was great variation in their approaches. Frankly, it was hard to summarize the clinic, instead I left chalking up their success as genetics because of the large decrepancies in their training models. Not that I'm opposed to it since God gave me some fastness, but I wanted more experience, more science, maybe a protocol to guide me.
Where am I going with all of this... I hope some good triathlon training and biography books come out in the next decade that captures the interest of racers and fans. Because, as I see it, many of us enjoy the biographies of Bowerman, Goucher, Viren, Prefontaine, De Castella. We can resonate with their victories and struggles plus, for some of us we can follow in their footsteps. Book publishers are still a few years behind me on this thought. Depth is what I seek. It reminds me of why I loved MTV so much as a kid. Video gives the artist another medium to relay his message. It helps give context to the singer's words. Comic books are the same way. Yes, the story teller can use words to tell us what Spider Man's costume looks like, but to see the artistic rendering makes it more real. The only thing that I think comes close to telling and showing us the FOP story is the triathlon movie "What It Takes" or Mark Allen's story told by Tim Noakes in the Lore of Running.
Back to Viren, he entered his first Olympics not as a serious contender yet came away with some gold. Most of us will never be Olympians but many seek similiar paths to personal excellence in triathlon. I would be happy to hit my ceiling of IM fitness this year and have a "best I could ever do" outcome. As you may gather from this entry, learning about triathlon training--stamina and pursuing speed--is an ardous journey that rivals the training itself.