One of the ways you can detect truly elite coaches is by the emphasis in their teaching and marketing on ‘going-smarter’ rather than ‘going-harder’ (though this is required also). Mature coaches seem to echo the refrain: listen to your body.
If you are aspiring to swim, bike and/or run longer distances than you’ve ever gone before then I would like to recommend this podcast to you. This podcast reflects that maturity and truly elite understanding of ‘going smarter’.
I shared with you some of my transcript of Rich Roll’s podcast interview with Shalane Flanagan in Just Listen To My Body. Last week, I was listening to another one of his interviews, this time with Chris Houth – I was pausing so often to write some notes that I finally gave up so I could just listen through without interruption. I listened through a second time and transcribed several parts that I want to share with you now.
Here is how Rich Roll introduces his former ultra-distance coach:
A sub-9 hour Ironman, Chris (@AIMPCoach) is the current Age Group Ironman World Champion, a former Olympic Swimmer and one of the world’s most respected endurance coaches. In 2006, Chris won the Ironman Coeur D’Alene and went on to be the first American amateur & 4th overall American at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
When he’s not training and racing, Chris expertly coaches a wide spectrum of amateur and elite professional athletes across a variety of disciplines, including Ironman and Western States top finishers, Ultraman winners and myriad swimmers towards age group nationals and Olympic Trials.
And here are the transcripted parts I want to point out to you…
Get The Mind Ready Gradually
[Podcast time 19:05]
CH: It is as well as you also have to get your mind ready for that. Things moving so slowly towards the finish line. So that is the whole second aspect of ultra-endurance training is getting the mind ready for what it’s about to go through.
RR: And that happens with slow progression and volume, right? I remember training for Ultra-Man and people would say to me, “How can you go out and ride your bike for like 9 hours without going insane?” They don’t understand that you build up to that. Before that it was an 8-hour, it was a 6-hour, it was a 5-hour. And there is this weird elastic equation with time where it compresses and suddenly that 9-hour ride feels like a 2-hour ride.
Priority: Stay Healthy And Injury-Free
CH: The progression is more about keeping your body healthy and injury-free. And that’s sort of the biggest aspect of my coaching and my training philosophy that has evolved. And that is the primary, singular focus on keeping athletes injury-free and healthy. And that is a wide-spectrum.
But in order to train successfully, to build that load, to be able to do it day-after-day, we need to start with a healthy and injury-free body. So, if we can start with that first point we are set up for success in endurance training because then we can create the load, day after day, week after week.
And within that spectrum too, is that the athlete learns so much more about their body if they can stack the training, day after day, they are starting to observe things, how their body reacts to the training, and how they are recovering, and how they’re sleeping. All those things that help them become a more educated athlete. And then from that it is a cycle of success because they understand themselves better, they can stay healthy and injury-free longer, and they can stack more training.
Stay Connected To Your Body
CH: And you stay connected to your body when you are doing it day after day. You stay really in tune with it. You hear what it is saying to you. And whether that comes from how you are recovering and how you are sleeping, all the little niggles and pains you might have in big volume training you know how to interpret it. And you know how to sort of adjust for it the next day, with a better night sleep or how you are going to move a different workout that doesn’t pound the legs, instead go for a long swim, and so on.
It’s that communication with your body, and that communication with your coach, that all three of them – we work together in order for you to progress. At the end of the day, that’s the goal. Being a better athlete today than I was yesterday, being a better athlete tomorrow than I am today. And how do I progress? Well, be healthy and injury-free is the key driver, and then just your ability to listen to your body to know what’s going on.
RR: And being a better athlete tomorrow versus today doesn’t necessarily and generally does not mean running faster today than I did yesterday.
What I think a lot of people don’t quite understand – they understand that you need discipline to get up and do something when you don’t want to do it, but less understanding about discipline to ‘not do’ or to hold back or have the restraint to not go that extra mile or go over your limit when you are feeling good. Because you feel like, “Oh, I feel good! I should go harder! I should go farther!”
Progression Involves All Areas
CH: Yeah, listening to your body as well as progression… and being an athlete isn’t necessarily training harder-faster-stronger. It’s sleep. It’s nutrition. It’s how you take care of your body. What am I doing today to make me better tomorrow might mean taking today off. Might mean spending time with the family today in order to then wake up tomorrow and have a little bit extra time to have an effective workout. Knowing today what I want to do tomorrow makes you a better athlete.
There are so many ways to define progression, but all of them are part of that circle of knowledge that you create so that you can continue to progress. It’s not just training, it’s not just nutrition, it’s not just sleep, it all combines into: I know more today so that I can be a better athlete tomorrow.
Becoming More Economical
RR: Aerobic training is all about creating body efficiency. It’s learning how to utilize fat as fuel through training, and building greater mitochondrial density so that as volume and intensity increases the tax and toll on your physiology remains basically consistent.
CH: Delivery of oxygen to the working muscles is also part of it. Just becoming more economical in how your body works at those intensities, at those lower intensities. And what kind of fuel… it’s using. Cartilage, ligament, all those pieces that tie into doing the motion more efficiently, more economically, using less energy so that you can go longer.
Mat’s note: The essence of learning to swim (or bike, or run) smarter, rather than harder – this is why our kind of training is, in fact, harder than ‘go-hard’ traditional training – you’ve got to listen and respond, not just drive the body like a stupid ox. Maintaining a division and antagonism between mind and body is foolish.
Progression Takes Years, Not Months
RR: And part of that is understanding that your lungs and your heart develop more rapidly than the ligaments and tendons in your legs. So, let’s say when someone is training for their first marathon and they ramp up to a certain level of fitness and they feel good – their heart rate feels good, their lungs feel good and they feel like they can go-go-go but they haven’t put in enough time, distance, volume in their legs so that those muscle and those joints and all the connective tissue is prepared for that next step.
You’re always holding people back and putting thought into what that progression looks like. Which is basically, two steps forward one step back, take a break, let’s pause, recover and let’s build again on top of that. These are multi-year programs. Things don’t happen in a couple months or six months.
Adjust Goals To Reality
CH: Some of it, out of fairness is necessity too… if you are a time-crunched athlete – there my correction, my corrective coaching with them is maybe we need to adjust your goals. Maybe we need to adjust your event. Don’t just hit ‘Enter’ one a hundred mile run and realize four weeks in that you’re not really going to be able to train effectively for it. Setting yourself up disappointment, possible injury, other stresses ’cause you taxed your family, your career and all that. Tried to fit it in.
There is so much in this space that could go wrong.
That’s what I call the coaching aspect of all this. I can give anybody training, but coaching ties into so much more on helping the athlete be successful to the event or the goal they have signed up for.
CH: I’ve actually gotten away from coaching with too many inputs [from digital monitoring devices] these days. Not that deliberate training – intervals, and pace and all that – isn’t very necessary for specific events, but I also want a lot more feel training so that… you can connect with your body, you can feel what’s going on.
So, some athletes it is beneficial to have heart rate zones, mainly to cap their effort of going too hard, but other athletes are just that dialed and interested in knowing what’s going on and like to measure progress at all times.
RR: I think it’s sort like you need to know the rules in order to break them. By training with heart rate and power meters on the bike for so long I can basically tell you without them now where I am at because I have spent so much time doing it.
So, you just know. But without having that experience you are kinda operating in the dark. So you can go on feel once have that body-mind connection that you can only get through experience.
CH: Yeah, and the masters (adult) athlete is new to all this in many cases. They weren’t athletes in high school or didn’t have any type of formal organized training. And so working with them to start understanding their body and what’s truly happening is part of the process. And some embrace it and others fight me tooth-and-nail.
Balance Feel With Data, Data With Feel
(RR: What has changed in your coaching?)
CH: The progressing month-to-month, and the balancing of feel with deliberate [data driven] training… now it’s a lot more feel. It’s become a lot more balanced with about 40% of the time feel-training.
RR: And what was the impetus for that change?
CH: Trusting the athlete that they know their body. And that they’re able to give me the insight and input.
RR: That’s ballsy!
CH: It is, but if we’ve progressed to the point that we can do that training, that’s the athlete taking off a lot more of the responsibility on themselves, that we’re part of a team, we’re communicating and things are happening that they’re excited and familiar with too. And then therefore they can progress from that.
That’s the fun aspect of it too. That the athlete becomes more educated and the joy that they are receiving from understanding their fitness.
RR: And the more that they can take personal ownership of it, as opposed to just waiting for you to tell them what to do ultimately is going to empower them to want to continue, and enrich their emotional investment in it.
Training The Mind For Ultra-Distance
CH: And then lastly I would say the mental game has become a bigger and bigger focus in this ultra-endurance world. Coaching mental skills, coaching adversity that happens on these [events]… it’s all mental. Anything beyond 45 miles is just in your head.
RR: So how, what do you to specifically to train people for that?
CH: So a lot of that has to be on feel. One. We do want to overcome adversity in training, the days when things aren’t going well… those are exactly the days that need to be embraced. Those are our opportunities because on race day my stomach hurts, I got a double flat, my legs are sore, you know you’re tapered, you’re rested but you’re ten miles into the bike and you’re going ‘why are my legs aching and sore?’ All these sensation we’ll want to be familiar with.
And working mentally especially on what you also experienced with regards to testing it on those weekends – that absolute certainty that you will do the event. Once you’ve gotten that subconscious space of absolute certainty – because it seeps in real deep – knowing then that ‘OK, this is a moment of adversity. But I am still going to finish this race well. I have the fitness. I have the ability. So, dealing it and processing it, present and in the moment. And that’s an opportunity you get in most training sessions. Taking advantage of my fatigue right now and saying, ‘I’m the 10th interval in, how often do I get 10 intervals in? And get to train this tired, this exhausted and wanting to quit. Now is when the game starts.
RR: Right. Everything else is just prefatory to that. I think I remember you saying at times, ‘If you’re doing one of those super-long runs or rides, like let’s say you are doing an 8 hour ride, 7 hours of it is just so that you can experience that last hour.’ And there is no way around that. You can’t short-cut that.
The Training Begins Once You Are Tired
And ultra-marathons and so on, it’s get the body tired first, then the training begins. It sounds sick, but you’re 40 miles into a training run and then those last 10 miles are where you sort of learn the most about your training.