Road to Ironman: Training with Chris Thomas, USA Triathlon Amateur Athlete of the Year
Today we’re one month out from Ironman Louisville, one day out from a Half Ironman in Enfield, New Hampshire (more on that next time), and two months on down the road from when we kicked off this series. In hindsight, this whole goddam proposition was questionable. But we’re not the type of folks to dwell on the past.
One of my favorite books in the memoir-meets-advice genre is Pete Blaber’s The Mission, The Men, and Me: Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander. Blaber talks about “developing the situation,” a method and a mindset to build context and make decisions: “Think of developing the situation as enlightened procrastination. Instead of indecision, going off half-cocked, or doing nothing, we understand that time is an ally that allows us to actively build context and uncover the options hidden from those who create “traditional plans” based on limited information that’s frozen in the past—before most options and opportunities have availed themselves.”
Sometime in the middle of July my progress hit a plateau. I was running half marathon distances without a problem and increasing my distance on the bike, but I stopped making any headway in the water and lost my taste for General Tso’s excellent chicken. I threw my goggles at the wall in the company of my very tolerant friend and swim coach, who you’ll remember from Part 1. I needed to develop the situation.
Since I don’t know any Delta Force operators, I rode bikes and trains from Brooklyn, NY, to Southport, CT, where I met with Christopher Thomas, owner of Personal Training Professionals of Southport. Thomas has been a member of Timex Multisport Team since 2003. He’s a personal trainer with an office postered in certifications, a Lifesport coach, 6-time Ironman finisher (five in Kona, HI), 2009 USA Triathlon Amateur Athlete of the Year, top overall amateur at 15 70.3 (Half Ironman) races, and father of three young boys.
If anyone could help me get out of this rut, it was Thomas. He’s the guy former New York Giant’s wide receiver Amani Toomer looked to for coaching when he decided to run the NYC marathon in 2010. Toomer had never run more than a 5K, his knee had been surgically reconstructed three times, and his weight was up from 210 pounds to over 230. “The first thing I did is take him into the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York,” Thomas says. “We did a run gait analysis to make sure he was structually okay to do the training.”
The next steps were building a broad aerobic foundation for Toomer, which Thomas did by prescribing workouts based on heart rate. The point of the heart rate analysis is to avoid so-called grey zone training, or not training hard enough on hard days and not training easy enough on easy days. “The thing with a pro athlete is, they don’t like to go slow,” Thomas says. “What I spent a lot of time doing at the beginning was just holding him back.”
According to Thomas, the benefits accrued from aerobic training are building mitochondria that provide more oxygen to the muscles and burning fat as a percentage of the fuel source. But once an athlete goes outside aerobic zones he stops getting those benefits. “If doesn’t mean you can’t improve, but you’re not going to be as efficient,” he says.
The thing with a pro athlete is, they don’t like to go slow,” Thomas says. “What I spent a lot of time doing at the beginning was just holding him back.
Building the aerobic foundation is part of a broader training regime called periodization, which essentially means structuring workouts in a very specific flow to maximize improvement and avoid injury or burnout. In general, this might mean three weeks of workouts that build in intensity, followed by one week of recovery; within that one month cycle, there would be lots of shorter cycles and key workouts to target, say, speed (repeatable, high intensity efforts with longer recoveries) or threshold (building intensity and then maintaining at that rate for 30 to 60 minutes). “Every workout has a purpose,” Thomas says.
Well at least now I knew what I’d done wrong. I read about periodization on one of those beginner triathlete websites, but I forgot about it and never looked back. My workouts lacked a broader purpose. What I needed to do now was take the Cliff notes from Thomas’ training plan for Toomer and apply it to my race. There are two obvious problems with this approach: a marathon is only 1/3 of the Ironman and I only have one month left to train. But I can still develop the situation, which in this case means making sure I build the appropriate peaks and rest periods into my remaining workouts.
Beyond that, Thomas did a brief analysis of my biking technique, run gait, and gave offered some swimming advice based on the problems I told him I was encountering.