The Ironman Coach
The following has been transcribed from a Skype conversation with Josh at HFE and Ray.
A natural place to start would be with your own background in fitness and sport. Can you give us a brief overview of your experiences and qualifications?
In terms of my formal qualifications, I’ve got a B.Ed. Hons in PE, History and Education and a Masters degree in Education in Organisation and Planning of Education and also have thirty-three years of teaching experience with seventeen years of being a headteacher of two primary schools. Added to that, I’ve qualified as a Level 2 and a Level 3 triathlon coach with Tri-England, which is the highest level.
That covers the formal side of things but my experience extends far back to my time in secondary school. I went to a school in Ireland where the academic and the sports side of things were viewed with almost equal importance and therefore were pursued at a high level. We did a lot of sport there, it was considered an expected thing.
After school, I got involved with wrestling and judo, and part of the training for those disciplines involved cycling and swimming. Once I got to teacher training, I was coaching the fitness elements of netball, soccer and rugby. At this time I was looking at fitness regimes within sport. You’re too young to know this Josh but in the 70s the only way you got fit for different sports was through circuit training with a one size fits all approach.
Part of my studies was to look at how to tailor-make coaching, not just for different sports but for the different positions one played in within a particular sport. For example, a forward rugby player should be doing a different fitness training programme to that of a rugby player at the back.
After teaching training, I went on to do a Masters degree as I’ve already mentioned. At this time I had thought about going to the United States to pursue coaching because at the time it looked like a better prospect than in the UK. However, I chose to pursue a career as a teacher and was fortunate enough to marry Tricia and have four wonderful boys. As my children became more independent I began to focus on doing more fell running, cycling and swimming. After this, the natural progression was triathlons.
Before we dive into your triathlon experience, I just want to explore something else. A great deal of what you’ve done post-secondary school has centred about fitness and sport, and specifically education. In terms of your motivations, where does that personal drive come from, to want to help people?
It’s been there since doing my B.Ed. Hons. Once I started coaching my peers in areas of fitness, I felt at home. To some extent, teaching is very much like coaching. You feel at home when you’re helping people, helping them achieve their best.
That’s possibly why my philosophy has always been and is now within Tri-Rivington: Always strive to be the best you can. I’m always looking to people to ask themselves, ‘are you a better person than last week, last month, last year?’. Not just in terms of fitness but the mental side of things and feeling good about yourself as well. It’s not always just about the physical, it’s about mental wellbeing as well.
I see it as my job to help enhance peoples’ lives.
That really does speak to me. It’s something I’m always thinking about when I train and run. It’s rarely ever been about beating people, it’s just about doing the best I can personally do.
You’ve always got to remember, the readers always have to remember, that we’re very fortunate that our mortgages don’t depend on winning. If you fall into that category, as many people will do, why not just focus on enhancing your life?
I know a lot of pros both in triathlons, running and other sports who deal with a lot of pressure. When your mortgage depends on winning, it’s very tough. You just have to look at the Tour de France, a lot of those guys will not be making a lot of money. Some of them will even be cut off from the team as they get slower.
We’re very fortunate. It can be quite freeing being in that position, knowing you can just go out there and have fun. The paradox is that if you’re having fun, you become a better athlete.
You’ve competed in countless events over the years including six Ironmans. How and when did you decide that combining three disciplines was the way to go? Mentally, how did you prepare yourself?
It started when my four sons were getting older, I did a bit more running, a bit more cycling, bit more swimming, combining these was a natural progression. My first triathlon was the Horwich one, it a pretty tough one in some ways because you have to climb Rivington Pike, but I did it. Like for most people, it’s very nerve-racking the first time you compete. You’re visiting the toilet ten times before you start, you’re worried about the swim, the transitions… everything matters.
The best cure for my nerves was when I did the Horwich Triathlon for the third time. I got to transition one (swimming to cycling) and all my gear had blown away. All I had were my swimming trunks, trainers and a t-shirt and I had no choice but to carry on and do the cycling.
I was a headteacher at the time and when it came to the run section, I went up Rivington Pike and met a number of parents who I had to profusely apologise to for my attire. There were no more nerves after that!
It grows on you, so just let it happen. Whatever sport you do, if you find it grows on you, keep doing it. If you’re forcing yourself, it’s perhaps not the right one for you. I’ve always said to my children and to the people I teach, find something you’re passionate about and let it grow on you.
If you want to get into triathlons, start small. Don’t do what sadly a number of people do which is buy the best bike and the best gear right out of the gate. They spend a fortune and once they’ve done one event, they give it up. Then they sell their stuff for a third or even a tenth of the price.
You watch, after an Ironman, you’ll see bikes that originally cost four, five thousand pounds on sale for four, five hundred pounds. Always watch out for those bargains after Ironman.
What brought you to the decision to set up Tri-Rivington? How have you personally ensured that it continues to succeed as a club?
When I received my Level 2 coaching award, I coached at a local club for a couple of years. It was a local running club that I was a member of and they wanted to branch out to triathlons. I thoroughly enjoyed that experience and towards the end of that second year of coaching, I began to do weekend coaching at a local sports centre. So those who were doing Ironman or triathlon would come at the weekend to do sessions there.
I did a few of those and it dawned on me that it could possibly work if I set up a club. I wasn’t sure but I wanted an outlet for my philosophy of having fun and being the best you can, as well as making sure you’re well informed about how to tackle each of the three disciplines without getting injured.
I was just getting my Level 3 triathlon coaching qualification when I set up Tri-Rivington and then I just asked if anybody would like to join me. The icing on the cake was when the manager of David Lloyd approached me and asked if I’d like to base the club there. I couldn’t believe how it just grew from there.
I was the only coach at the time but there was a structure to what was happening. I brought in another coach, Dean Ramsden, and then two others. So there are four of us coaching now. We’re trying to make sure that all the work is shared out.
The success of Tri-Rivington is not so much down to me or the other coaches but because we seem to have attracted people who don’t have egos, thankfully. We have people who are GB qualifiers, others who have just started their journey and struggling to get used to the open water, those struggling to get up to 13 mph on the bike, a range of ability levels and areas of development.
What I like about our culture, as I said earlier, is that our mortgage doesn’t depend on it. We all have friends, families and social lives outside of the club. We have to build our training around that and not become obsessive.
I always give our members an acid test and it’s this: You’re about to leave the house for training and your best friend in the world, who you’ve not seen in years turns up; do you ignore them and go training or invite them for a drink? If it’s answer A then you’ve got a problem, answer B and your head’s screwed on.
Yes, Ironman and triathlons are competitions; they’re races but you’ve still got to have fun. That’s the culture we’ve devised and it’s seemed to have attracted a lot of people.
From everything you’ve said, it’s easy to see why Tri-Rivington has been and currently is a success.
There are a lot of clubs out there, a few close to me that perhaps don’t offer the level of coaching I’m personally looking for in order to improve my running. They have great communities and people have fun at races, but I’m looking for something more.
Coaching is vital. There are a few misconceptions of all three elements. In terms of running, a big misconception is that anybody can run. You can in theory but not in a technically competent way. If you don’t run properly then you’ll have injuries, this is why physios are well employed, because runners are spending too much time with the wrong technique. We do a lot on drills. People might not realise it but the pros spend a lot of time doing drills. We look at how to actually run. It’s the same with swimming.
One of the most common injuries with runners are the legs, with swimmers it’s the shoulders and with the cyclists, it’s the back. If we don’t get that sorted, you’re going to spend a lot of money on visits to the physio.
Another thing I always bear in mind, as a coach, is you can’t be too overzealous to change things. If this person isn’t getting injured and they’re going fast and they run like Phoebe in Friends, that’s fine, there’s no need to change it.
I coach one or two people who break all the rules, but they’re fast. Having said that, if you look at someone like Richard Varga who is one of the top swimmers in the triathlon world, I could look at his technique and identify things that I thought were wrong, but you don’t change it because he’s fast.
You, Josh, as a runner will know if you look at the fast marathon runners, they all have different styles. Some of them break all the rules and some of them don’t.
It’s a bit like grammar, you need to know all the rules…
…before you can break them. Something my wife, who’s a teacher, always tells me.
With Tri-Rivington you’ve coached hundreds of athletes both for tri and Ironman events. Could you talk us through some of the core tenants of training for all three disciplines? How different is it from just training for a solo event?
In terms of training, the first place you should start is with your weaknesses. You should absolutely celebrate your strengths but too many people spend too much time focusing on them. You’ve only got a finite amount of time to train.
Another thing that’s important is consistency. Before you start, you should work out your priorities. Work, family, children, social life, these all have to be factored in. Figure out your priorities and then fit the time to train around your commitments. Training for three hours a week consistently each week is more effective than ten hours one week and then nothing for three weeks and then six the week after etc.
If your family know that you’re going out for at a particular time on a particular day, they’ll be no arguments, they’ll get used to it as well. You have to be willing to compromise.
You also need to bear in mind that you’re getting enough sleep and proper nutrition, that’s very important. So, there are a few things to consider.
Moving on, you should remember the 80/20 rule. 80% of your training should be at talking pace while 20% should be tough speed and effort work. A lot of athletes don’t do the talking pace sessions slow enough or the effort sessions hard enough.
It’s also important to remember if you break this rule, at worse you’re going to have a breakdown in training and at best you’re not going to improve once you plateau. You need the mitochondria cells to increase in number and you can only do that in zone 2 (around 5-6 on the RPE scale). This helps you become a better runner, a better cyclist, and a better swimmer.
Those are some of the key things. Outside of that, you look at your weaknesses. You get a coach, someone who is good at the discipline you want to improve, so they can help you move forward.
I’ve already mentioned nutrition but it’s worth going over again. Make sure it’s simple. There’s lots and lots of rubbish advice out there.
I know exactly what you mean. I think I could open Twitter right now and find five stories about nutrition that all contradict one another. ‘This thing’s good, this thing’s bad, this thing will kill you…’ It’s constant.
You absolutely will. The greatest advice I was given was from a former Team GB nutritionist. He said, ‘if you can’t read the label or pronounce any ingredients, don’t buy it. If you can’t cook it, don’t eat’.
So, you just need to keep it simple, make sure you’ve got your carbs, fats and protein. Also, be mindful that your nutrition matches your training. If you’re training hard you can eat a bit more.
You might notice this yourself but there are actually a lot of overweight triathletes. You’ll see this every time Ironman rolls around. They’re very fit people, but they tend to over-reward themselves.
Don’t know if you do this or not but you should learn to embrace fasted running. Getting out first thing in the morning with nothing in your stomach.
That is actually my preferred time to run. Rolling out of bed and just going…
Marathon runners have been doing this for a long, long time. What will happen is that you have a low insulin level and you’ll tap into your fat as an energy source.
So, keep it simple, a bit of fasting, and eat what you can cook. Just bear in mind that you’re not a monk either. You can still have treats maybe 10-15% of the time.
It’s inevitable that there will be runners, cyclists and swimmers reading this with one thing on their mind… where do I start if I want to compete in a multi-discipline event? What’s your best advice for beginners?
Ideally, you should find a triathlon club that suits you. It’s like when you’re hunting for a house and you find the right one, you just know. Same with a club. A good club, like ourselves, won’t charge for someone to just come and try things out.
Choose your club carefully, make sure the coaches are correctly qualified. If you can’t find a club nearby then get a friend to join you when out training, specifically with the cycling – I always advise people to do this anyway. Sadly if you have an accident or are a victim of a hit and run and no one knows where you are, there’s not much that can be done.
Find someone who has similar commitments and training goals as you. Another alternative, if you can’t join a triathlon club, is to join a club separately for each of the disciplines. It’s something the Brownlees do when they’re in Yorkshire. They have a group of friends there at a cycling club they always join.
Don’t forget, you’ve got to have core strength. So when you’re in the gym, make sure you’re doing the right strength and conditioning work.
You do often see runners, fit runners, like yourself, coming to triathlons, going onto the bike for the first time and think they can just immediately cycle very quickly. The danger is that that are certain ligaments and tendons that cyclists use that runners don’t. A good runner will jump on the bike, go really hard particularly on the hills, and tendons and ligaments in and around the knee become damaged because they’re not strong enough.
Particularly if you’re a runner, strength and conditioning for the legs is key. One-legged squats, leg press, leg curls, they will really help. It’s a strange phenomenon that we’ve noticed at the club with runners who want to also cycle.
Hopefully, that proves useful for beginners.
Many people over the years, including in the HFE office, have suggested that I make the step up and do a triathlon. I love running, I don’t mind cycling but it’s always the swimming that provides a mental stumbling block for me.
Is swimming the discipline beginners struggle with the most?
People will regularly quote swimming as their weakest area. Funnily enough, there’s a fun t-shirt I spotted that said ‘Why be bad at one sport when you can be bad at all three’.
If you feel you are rubbish at swimming, it’s actually the best one to be bad at. With Ironman the swimming is only 10% of the total distance.
As a runner, think of swimming as a cheap form of massage. The breathing in swimming also has benefits, I know this from a number of our very, very top runners. They’ve noticed that their breathing while running is much better. Also, it gives you a nice relaxed session. The paradox with swimming is that it’s all about technique. No matter how fit you are, if you don’t have the correct technique, you won’t succeed.
My advice, as before, is get a coach. Go to a swimming session for adults that are held at sports centres. This time of the year is perfect as well for getting in the open water. You can get a cheap wetsuit and just do it.
I won’t name names but I have a friend who came 5th place in the Ironman swim many, many years ago. He absolutely smashed it… but he was rubbish on the bike and he was rubbish on the run. He said to me it was the worst day of his life. Everybody passed him, including the people on their way to the supermarket for their weekly shop! He only just made the 17-hour cut off.
That’s the example I use, it’s better to come out last in the water because you’ll find your bike very quickly because it’ll be the only one there! Plus, you will spend a large part of the day passing other athletes on their bikes and those running.
I can train someone to swim very quickly, within six weeks. That’s the easy bit! The challenge is to practice it at least twice a week. This is no different to when you first take up running.
You don’t just automatically start running well, you have to put the hours in, that’s the same with swimming.
With three disciplines, you have to be careful, you need a plan. At least one recovery day a week, maybe two. No two hard sessions back-to-back, keep them spread out. Make sure what you’re doing suits the time of the year. If you’re doing Ironman next year, you don’t want to be doing anything tough until about six months before. You need that plan, so either get a coach to do one for you or sort one yourself.
My advice to all athletes is to figure out what races you want to do, put them in a diary with your significant others agreement, add them to the family calendar, print them out and put them on the fridge for everyone to see. You won’t get into trouble or have to make too many compromises.