Jené Shaw—Athletes who aren’t in the sport for the fun of finishing—the ones who want to break time goals, make the podium, qualify for Kona or even go pro someday—are stopping at nothing to improve. For some, that means venturing outside their zip codes to gain the extra advantage or to find a solution to a problem.
“One thing in the culture of the sport is that people seem to want the best and search for the best they can get,” says San Francisco-based cycling and triathlon coach Craig Upton. “So instead of restricting their search to local people, they search on a wider scope to find the person they think will fit their needs.”
Here’s why to fly:
Reason 1: Seeking Special Skills
Very specialized advice is one of the rewards for pursuing these far-away experts. As someone who lives “a long way from anyplace” in Anchorage, Alaska, triathlete Jim Anderson knew he would need to fly a couple thousand miles away to get his bike fit issues fixed by an expert.
Anderson was experiencing hip and knee discomfort on his triathlon bike when he decided to contact Todd Carver, one of the founders of the bike fitting company Retül. “I had been fit locally, but why live with discomfort and potential of damaging my body? My situation necessitated a specialist,” Anderson says.
He had heard about Retül’s state-of-the-art dynamic fitting system and felt it worth a ticket to Boulder, Colo., to work with Carver. He also made a stop while he was in town at the renowned Boulder Center for Sports Medicine to seek treatment for his lower back pain after running. He says both visits really paid off. “Retül dialed in my fit and all knee and hip discomfort disappeared,” he says. “Tim [Hilden] at BCSM did his magic and provided guidance on a new run gait. Lower back pain solved.”
Since his first visit, Anderson has been back to Retül and BCSM about once a year. When he needs a new bike, Retül builds it up and he flies in for the fit. When he had a recent hamstring issue, the therapists at BCSM found the problem in his run gait and provided functional strength exercises that have kept him injury-free.
Nutrition and performance coach Krista Austin, Ph.D., fulfills a similarly specialized need. Having worked for the U.S. Olympic Committee as a physiologist and with big-name runners Meb Keflezighi and Kara Goucher and triathletes Matt Chrabot and Lesley Paterson, she has garnered attention from around the world for understanding the unique needs of high-performance athletes.
“I’ve had people from Switzerland and France, some very wealthy individuals that happen to get your name from somebody, they look you up and read about you, and then they say, ‘What does it take to come train with you for a weekend? How long would you suggest?’” Austin says. “The first time I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ But the athlete was so wealthy, he wanted everything from metabolic testing to sitting down and planning out how he was going to get better at his Ironman.”
She took this particular athlete through a rigor of training and analysis in her hometown of San Diego, examining his nutrition log, performing metabolic testing and looking at bike position, swim stroke and running mechanics, at the cost of $1,000 per day.
With a master’s degree and a doctorate in exercise physiology as well as a doctorate in sport nutrition, Austin is kind of a “one-stop shop” for figuring out how to improve one’s performance. For instance, Austin recently worked with an athlete who was cramping regularly in races. First she looked at his nutrition and determined it wasn’t causing the problem. Then, using metabolic testing, she realized there was a “huge block in fat oxidation” and the athlete’s ability to remove lactate, meaning he was accumulating lactate too early into the race. So she did two things: tweaked his training to improve his lactate threshold and changed his race strategy. When working with Keflezighi, Austin could determine the exact pace he could go out at in a marathon because she was familiar with his threshold and rate of lactate clearance (it’s high), but she can create that profile in anyone and use it as a base structure to design training.
She’s also big on test sets, which she uses to determine an athlete’s limitations and measure progress. “It takes about a month of test sets to identify where those areas are. Once I’ve figured it out, I’ll go design training to work on an athlete’s weakness,” Austin says. She might have 70.3 athletes do an all-out 200 meters, an all-out 400 meters and a six-mile hard effort as tests in training.
Although she has coached high-paying amateurs and several professionals, Austin spends a lot of her time working with regular athletes who are just looking to get to the next level. “Sometimes it’s just that they’ve hit a wall in their ability to improve,” she says. “Or they’re just competitive by nature and if they’re not improving, they’re not enjoying the sport.”
Reason 2: Time Efficiency
Busy athletes with full-time jobs also juggling family life may seek a top-level guru because they want to train the right way without wasting any time. “Like many amateur athletes, I balance a busy work, family and community schedule,” Anderson says. “It’s all about efficiency, and there’s nothing less efficient than being on a bike or running when it’s not optimal and even hurting you. Spending the money to seek a specialist long distance is well worth the time and money.”
It was specific expertise and word-of-mouth praise that motivated Seattle-based triathlete Shannon Day to reach out to coach Upton in San Francisco. As a Microsoft sales manager with two children under the age of 7, Day wanted to ensure he was maximizing every training minute he had. He knew Upton had success coaching pro Tyler Stewart, and as a former professional cyclist, Upton specialized in training with power and customizing plans based on wattage.
“Our first ride showed me how much time can be wasted,” Day says. “He asked me to ride three hours and to try to keep it mostly in a specified watt range and I spent 20 minutes of those three hours in the range we needed to take me to the next level. It’s this attentiveness and knowledge that I was looking for in a coach.”
Day often flew to San Francisco for work, which made it easy to stop in and see Upton for lactate testing, bike fitting or a quick progress check. Now that he’s based in San Diego, Day can receive most of his coaching through Training Peaks, email or a phone call, but he still chooses to visit Upton every six weeks for testing and progress monitoring.
Reason 3: Essential Hands-on Treatment
It’s not always a matter of just wanting to see the expert in person; it’s often a need. Healing an injury, for instance, is hard to do over the phone.
Take Eric Reid, a busy Hollywood executive and talented age grouper who battled a nagging Achilles injury for two years. In advance of his first half-Ironman, he was derailed from running for three months. As a last-ditch effort to get Reid through his race, his coach Matt Dixon advised him to see John Ball, a specialized sports chiropractor at Maximum Mobility Chiropractic in Chandler, Ariz. Dixon told him to spend two days with Ball, optimistic that he could fix the problem.
Although Reid was hesitant at first, he was also desperate, so he flew out to meet with the specialist. For eight hours a day, two days in a row, Ball did a combination of ART and soft tissue work combined with exercises and icing followed by trial runs.
“I ran the whole race two days [of therapy] later. I hadn’t run in three months,” Reid says. “I was so skeptical—I don’t believe in this stuff, but it totally worked. Ever since, if I have a problem I will fly to Phoenix just to go see him.”
Ball’s approach to treating an individual has distinguished him from other injury rehab professionals. He says his success could be attributed to the thought process.
“Take an average runner with a knee problem,” Ball says. “You send them into an M.D. and they get one treatment. You send them into a P.T. they get one treatment. All these different treatments depend on where that person went to school, what their training was, instead of what was actually going on with [the patient]. It never made sense when I started in the practice. If you have a given problem, there’s a given solution for that problem.”
Working with out-of-state patients has become common practice for Ball. He’s worked his way into the sports niche, particularly with elite-level runners—he has patient files on more than a dozen athletes on the USA Track Team—and endurance athletes of all kinds. Off the top of his head, he listed working with professional triathletes Linsey Corbin, Rachel Joyce and Chris Lieto.
When someone flies in, he or she will typically “live” at the office for at least two days, although even that is a short period. “We can still do a lot of good work, but you’re not going to fix a lot of these things in two to three days. People are leaving in much better shape or they’re running much freer or having fewer symptoms. That’s the beautiful thing about soft tissue work. When it’s done right, you should get almost immediate changes in the system.”
But in a lot of cases—high-hamstring tendinitis, for instance—Ball says it takes a long period of time with a specific loading program to repair the hamstring. “When you’re leaving to go home, you would be discharged with an exercise program, recovery and follow-up with someone in your hometown,” he says. “You can do a lot of soft tissue work and define where it’s coming from, but can you fix it all in a couple days? In most cases, no.”
Given the cost and time it takes to fly to Arizona, there can be high expectations associated with an athlete’s visit. “I guess there is [pressure] in the sense that sometimes people expect unrealistic things,” Ball says. “But I think we do a pretty good job of telling them the reality. At this point there is more pressure when people think you’re going to do something like a laying of the hands and they’re going to walk out of the clinic and be free. It’s just not the reality of the situation.”
Reason 4: Big Focus on a Weakness
Sarah Piampiano was living in New York City working a full-time, high-pressure financial job on Wall Street when she decided to go pro under the guidance of Coach Matt Dixon. But with mid-pack swim times, Piampiano was going to need a serious overhaul to keep up in the pro ranks.
“If you’re coming out six minutes back in a half-Ironman or 10–12 minutes back in an Ironman, it just puts you in a tough position if you’re trying to make it to the podium,” Piampiano says. “I knew that if I wanted to be successful as a pro, I had to change my swim.”
She found the coach she needed in open-water authority (and Dixon’s go-to specialist) Gerry Rodrigues of Tower 26. With a triathlon-specific swim program in Los Angeles including a Wednesday morning ocean session that draws hundreds, Piampiano knew she could improve under his watch.
So she quit her job and moved across the country last January. Over the winter, she dedicated nearly 70 percent of her training to swimming, sometimes twice a day, accumulating 60,000–70,000 yards a week.
“Working very closely with Gerry on developing strength, swim technique, race strategy and having the opportunity to train with a coach who’s there day in and day out was important,” Piampiano says. “Before I moved, it was a struggle every day to get motivated to be in the water. The improvements I’ve made and how much stronger I’ve gotten as an athlete … I enjoy swimming now.”
In addition to Piampiano, other upstart pros have moved to work with Rodrigues full-time, including 3:56 miler-turned-ITU triathlete Sean Jefferson. Although he could bike well and run fantastically in races, he would exit the water minutes behind the leaders, putting him at a distinct disadvantage in draft-legal racing. “I knew going forward I needed to make a bigger change,” Jefferson says. He left his home in Florida and moved to L.A. in February of 2012.
“One of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of Masters programs are geared toward Masters swimmers,” Jefferson says. “This is a Masters program catered to triathletes. Gerry has so much open-water experience that he knows what needs to be done in the pool to simulate the type of things you’ll experience at the beginning of a race.
Rodrigues will take out lane lines in the pool and plop in buoys to practice sighting, or he’ll have the athletes form pace-line trains to work on drafting skills. Whereas most Masters programs may swim 400 as a “long” interval, Rodrigues will have his swimmers do 3×1000 to simulate race efforts. And his open-water workouts are not just “go swim from that buoy to that buoy.” They are fast-paced, circuit-style swims that create the fluster and competitive feel of a race start.
So far it’s paid off for Jefferson: At the 2011 Myrtle Beach ITU Triathlon Pan American Cup, Jefferson was 3:30 down on the swim behind the lead pack and 4:30 down from the fastest swimmer. At the Los Angeles Triathlon in August 2012, he got out of the water only 30 seconds behind Olympian Hunter Kemper and 40 seconds down on the fastest swimmer (he ultimately pulled out due to a flat). In an open-water mile race in 2011, he placed 34th in 22:40; in 2012 he took eighth place in 18:50.
The coach doesn’t take his athletes’ cross-country moves lightly. “People are resting their dreams at your doorstep,” Rodrigues says. “That’s a pretty awesome responsibility to have. I grew up in Trinidad and moved to the United States at 16 to lay my dreams on some coach’s footstep, so I know what that feels like.”
Rodrigues has also played a big part in helping pro Jen Tetrick—another transplant from Washington, D.C., to L.A.—get her 70.3 swim from 34 minutes to 28, Piampiano has gone from 36 to 30 and Jesse Thomas, who has worked with Rodrigues at some capacity since 2010, has taken his 29 minutes to 24.
Although the full-time pros certainly reap the rewards of Rodrigues’ expertise, the majority of his athletes are dedicated age groupers who travel from all over the L.A. area to meet on the beach at 6 a.m., even on dark, foggy weekday mornings. There’s a range of success stories, from “I couldn’t swim a lap a year ago” to “I’m now the first out of the water in my age group.” It’s also common for out-of-towners to drop by Tower 26 workouts when they’re in L.A.: Former 70.3 world champ Terenzo Bozzone and WTC CEO Andrew Messick recently swam with the group.
Reason 5: Technique Tutorial
Mental skills and running biomechanics expert Bobby McGee is as highly regarded as they come in the triathlon community. The Boulder, Colo.-based coach travels around the world to work with elite-level athletes, including Ironman champions and Olympians Erin Densham and Sarah Groff. He is a featured presenter at about 15 USAT coaching certifications every year, and he’s an integral part of the USAT High Performance Team, a group dedicated to increasing the number of developmental triathlon programs in the U.S.
McGee’s athletes are typically sent from outside coaches, but he also has goal-oriented age groupers who will travel to see him. “They’re either CEOs or own their own businesses—very driven A-type individuals—who are more than happy to be vulnerable and expose themselves to gain another edge.”
About 70 percent of his time is spent on the mental side (mostly done remotely); the other 30 percent is focused on running. “For mechanics I insist they come into town,” McGee says. “They’ll come in once for a big hit and occasionally after that. I’ll do an assessment of their range of motion and specific stuff, and draw up a plan to take to their coaches.”
In a 90-minute biomechanical analysis, McGee will evaluate an athlete’s running style and point out form inconsistencies and limiters. He then recommends specific strength exercises and drills to improve weaknesses. A peek into his notes reveals advice such as: “Too upright. Be conscious of leaning forward”; “Emphasize rearward arm swing (use forward as counter balance only)”; “Think of power coming from inner thighs, big toe and ball of foot.” He also provides a series of analyzed photos (and optional video) with a thorough report. If you can’t travel to McGee in Boulder, he can also do reports using photographs of all angles and video footage sent via YouTube. But with destination coaches, face-to-face contact is always the best.
Not Just For the One Percent
If you take a look at triathlete demographics, it’s no surprise that age groupers are willing (and able) to shell out cash for first-class expertise (according to a 2010 study done by the Active Network, triathletes earn an average of more than $100,000 per year). But it doesn’t take a six-figure job to get elite advice. Many top coaches, such as Gordo Byrn and Cliff English, host triathlon camps that are more accessible than a private consult—Byrn’s week-long Boulder camp was priced at $975 last year; English’s six-day Tucson camp was $1,025. They often have local experts give lectures or serve as guest coaches. Both coaches have brought in Bobby McGee, and in the past Byrn has done Q&A’s with pros such as Julie Dibens, Chrissie Wellington and Craig Alexander.
Advice Without the Plane Ticket
Even if you can’t travel to work with these top experts, you can still benefit from their advice.
Bike on Sundays
Instead of the usual long bike Saturday, long run Sunday plan, coach Craig Upton suggests a Sunday longer ride. “A working person, which most of our clients are, works 9–5 Monday through Friday and has weekends off. Why would you waste Sunday doing a 90-minute run when you can do that any other day?” Instead, ride on both days, maybe four hours on Saturday, three hours on Sunday.
Swim longer intervals
Gerry Rodrigues has his athletes simulate racing in the pool with longer sets like 3×1000 descending and pace-line trains.
Test your weaknesses
Every three to four months, do a test set. For running, Krista Austin uses an all-out 200- and 400-meter run and a six-mile steady state run to chart progress.
Strengthen soft tissues
“One thing I wish endurance athletes would do more is strength training,” chiropractor John Ball says. In order to make soft tissues—including ligaments, tendons, muscles, etc.—more resilient, you need to strengthen them. Just start small and build a base with proper form first, instead of trying to power through weight you’re not ready for.
Practice mental skills
Here’s one technique Bobby McGee uses to teach athletes to be present and focused during workouts: Sit down, get relaxed and focus. Think of your typical repetition workout, say, five 800-meter repeats. Picture yourself doing the third repeat, knowing what time you’re aiming for based on previous workouts. Close your eyes and hit a stopwatch. Visualize yourself running the repeat and hit the stop button when you feel like you’ve completed the interval. “If they typically run a 3:00 repeat, they’ll do it in 1:50 if they’re really good. Otherwise it’s less than a minute,” he says. “It just shows a huge gap into what they’re present to while they’re running that half-mile, which is what happens when they’re actually running.” With practice doing this exercise, you’ll quickly be able to focus for the proper amount of time, making hard workouts even more productive. Harnessing this concentration can also translate to sustaining a finishing kick in shorter races and retaining focus during a long-distance event.